Thursday, December 1, 2011

Beauty and the Beast

Winters of 1978 to 1983, Nevada, Iowa

The first two llamas we bought were called Ozzie and Harriet, named after the famous 1950’s TV series. Harriet was pregnant, but Ozzie was not the father. Within a few months of bringing them home from the Chamberlain South Dakota Exotic Animal Auction, tragedy would strike and Ozzie would kill Harriet while she was giving birth to Andy.

My Dad was away on business at the time and I felt pretty guilty knowing Harriet was suffering on the hilltop while I was lying down with my headphones on a pillow listening to X Los Angeles or London Calling. The neighbor Bud, a sheep farmer, made the call to the Veterinarian but it was too late. Andy became our pet after that, and he often sat in the family room with us watching TV and humming, as all young llamas do.

After Harriet died, my dad wanted to recoup his $2,000 loss by finding another female and breeding her with Ozzie. If the baby were female, a one in four chance, then he would be on the right track. Meanwhile it was just Ozzie and Andy, two orphans ruling the pasture where horses had once run free.
One of my weekly chores was to feed Ozzie. During the winter, with the dirt road iced over or the long driveway blocked, it was easier to just cross over the pasture, take the bridge over the creek and climb the hill to the barn. Only problem was that Ozzie would be there waiting at the top.

I had to take a large stick with me and wave it in front of him or whack him in the face with it so he wouldn’t trample me down. He was a good 300 pound spitting machine with hooked teeth like a serpent, wielding his dragon neck at me with bulging eyes, hissing stinky fire. I usually could hit him squarely in the balls a couple times and he got the idea until I went in and closed the door to the barn.
We find out later that Ozzie had been raised by humans too, bottle fed just like we were doing with Andy. He imprinted humans as natural enemies, and his aggression came from being coddled by some unwitting children in a petting zoo. Andy got too big to come inside anymore, so we put him back in the barn with Ozzie. The Veterinarian told us he died of heartbreak.

Out of the Thick Night

Spring and Summer 1965, Saint Paul, Minnesota

My life happened by chance out of love and a car wreck. As it was told to me, my birth mom Charlane Poelsterl loved Thomas McElhone jr. and he loved her. They were not married. I was their love child.

He looked like a painting of young Yeats she had seen and she was a pretty, 23 year old St. Paul dreamer and beautiful writer.She got pregnant and shortly after he fell asleep at the wheel and had a car accident. Three people in the other car, I think one person died instantly, one later and the last person lived with the trauma. Thomas broke both arms and both legs and had to spend six months recovering in the hospital.

Charlane visited him everyday and they decided it would be best to get married in the hospital. A few months later, still lying bed-ridden in Ramsey Hospital, he nullified the marriage and relinquished any rights to his unborn child---Me.

Charlane told me that his reasoning at the time was he would not be a good husband or father because of what would be a life-long disability in his right leg. Then he disappeared for a few years before surfacing again in Charlane´s life.

Even though Charlane’s folks said they would help her with the baby, single moms in 1965 America did not have such an easy time I would guess. She also wanted a better life for her child, one with two parents with financial stability and a more certain future.

She wrote to me some years later of the day she gave me up, holding me in front of the window and looking out on the hospital lawn, putting it in a nice poem in a birthday card.

Comandante Maria

Comandante Maria
1992, Chalatenango, El Salvador

The Pastors for Peace Caravan of trucks and humanitarian aid was arriving throughout the country, and I was lucky enough to go to Chalate, the province that had been the rebel stronghold throughout the twelve-year civil war. We were met by father John, a liberation theologist from New York who had lived and worked in the province for ten years.

He wanted to show us this small village on the edge of Government territory, so we took a walk around, about six or seven of us from all over the USA and Canada. He pointed out the charred hills where napalm was used to flush out the rebels of the FMLN. We saw the remains of many houses and a small clinic which had been hit by rockets from not far away in the ARENA government territory.
A little farther up, a few people were sitting on a porch having an afternoon coffee and father John called out Maria Maria, ha llegado compa! I had seen her in the movie ‘Maria’s Story’, but in person she was truly a presence, barely five feet tall, green olive uniform, cap and heavy boots, radiant smile and gold tooth peeking out from folded up lips. Would they mind a little company from the Northwest CISPES contingent, father John asked, and a little interview for Portland KBOO independent radio, I added, flashing the microphone and tape deck hanging from my shoulder.
We went up and sat down, took pictures and through an interpreter I interviewed Comandante Maria Serrano, leader of a huge division of rebel soldiers in the hills of Chalatenango, El Salvador. One of only two or three women with such a rank in the FMLN.

I had been in El Salvador two years before, the war was raging in the hills, but now the United Nations was in full presence. The rebels were in the open now, no more rockets or death squads from the government for the time being, weapons were being dismantled and treaties were being signed with full press coverage. Big white trucks took UN men and women from air conditioned makeshift offices to hot thatched meetings to hammer out a peace plan with people like Maria who had spent twenty years or more in hiding.

One thing she said during the interview really sticks out in my mind. She told us that when she was in Seattle on her first trip to the USA, giving talks to various groups, including the Sanctuary Movement, she was in the back of a car going from one meeting to another. The driver was a young activist who was lucky enough to be her chauffeur, as well as interpreting for her all the time. They were driving along by Pike’s Market and some other car cut them off and nearly hit them. Maria’s driver hit the brakes suddenly, causing them to lurch forward quite violently, and Maria was thrown up against the back of the front seat, clunking her head a bit, but laughing in pain. The guy who cut them off shouted ‘Fuck You!! ‘ through his window, as if it had been their fault, when it clearly was not. Maria said she then asked her chauffeur what the guy had shouted, she had unbelievably never heard it, not in movies or TV, and so far none of the nice activists she was meeting had used it. The driver interpreted the phrase for her and she slapped the back of the front seat where she had hit her head, saying what a strange way to insult someone, with one of the most beautiful things in the world that humans do.

Another Convergence

Another Convergence
Easter Sunday, March 29th, 1991, Rio Lempa, El Salvador

Miguel Angel was our contact in the repopulated village, deep in rebel territory. I had my guitar and we spent a lot of time singing, especially songs from the Liberation Theology hymnal, which made Jesus out to be some kind of rebel, fighting on the side of the poor and disenfranchised.
It was my birthday, a full moon and Easter Sunday, something which doesn’t happen every year of course. Gravity must have had an especially strong pull on the village dogs, because they were all barking incessantly at one another in the pitch black night.

On this first trip to El Salvador, this one while the 12 year civil war was in full swing, we spent a lot of time listening to people’s stories, or testimonies as we called them, of how they had to flee the army. On this special Sunday, a woman explained how she had accidentally suffocated her own child to keep her quiet while they were hiding from the death squads. Others told similar stories, often in gruesome detail, knowing we would bear witness and tell the good people of the USA that this had to stop.

Miguel Angel started to give his testimony of how he had been captured, beaten and tortured for three months in an army barracks nearby. He showed the scars left on his stomach and back from the electric shocks he underwent and the cigarette burns left by young coked up American army officers, showing their Salvadoran counterparts how its done.

I was overcome with emotion, on the brink of tears and decided to save myself from the embarrassment by walking outside into the open air. There was the full moon, silent and bright, hanging above the charred out hills. I felt that I needed to do something, maybe someone needed to say a prayer. I looked up at the full moon, got down on my knees and said three or four times out loud oh mother moon please protect these people and bring peace to El Salvador. Just as I finished my short prayer, I noticed the dogs had suddenly become silent, the whole village became instantly quiet. For five minutes I kneeled, looking up at the moon through wet eyes, thinking that my prayer had been heard. A psychic friend told me later that maybe someone just needed to create that opening, punch through that hole and let the light shine in.