Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Nola's Story

      I'm moving to a new house soon and going through a lot of photos and clippings. Sorting and wrapping, packing and tossing. I ran across a news story originally printed in November of 2010 that told of a man frozen to death in his pick-up truck in Nevada. It brought to mind a story I heard decades ago, told to me by my late father, so I can bet the event is sixty, maybe seventy years old. A woman named Nola was a close family friend for many years. She was a younger sister of my dad's stepfather Roy Farmer. She'd even introduced my Uncle Edward to a pretty southern girl name Agnes. The two eventually married. 
     Well, one day Nola's husband went out to get the newspaper or mail. It was winter and they lived in the woods. He didn't come back. She waited. Come evening she called relatives and friends who searched the forest and town, and contacted people he might know. There was no sign of him. Sometimes back in those days a man would just walk out and never come back, even if his wife thought everything was going well; most times to take up with a floozy in another town. Nola figured that must have been the case and mourned the loss of her man, missing him dearly. Well, along came the spring thaw and at the end of April her dogs were out for quite some time. She called to them and they came trotting in, carrying some fairly large bones in their jaws. At first she thought the remains were from a deer, but some other people at her home figured otherwise and followed the dogs into the deep woods. Her husband was resting, his back to a large tree. The dogs had removed his leg bones. Had Nola's husband stopped to rest? Had he felt ill and fell to the cold ground? All anyone knew with some certainty was that the man just froze to death out there. (Art by Emil Grimm)


Sunday, December 23, 2018

Scotland, Christmas and a Little Red Truck

     Oh my heck, the stuff I could tell you about my family. I might have mentioned some of it before. We have a rich, documented history. My father's side of the family (Owen-Owens) lived in the highlands of North Carolina and Georgia for several generations; since before the American Revolution (with the exception of one soldier who also eventually settled in North Carolina after the Revolution). My dad, the youngest, was raised in Detroit, but his siblings lived in the hills for a great deal of their childhoods. My ancestors knew how to read and write, so please, don't think they were ignorant. My people held positions such as postmaster that required one to be literate. People in Michigan always thought that I talked differently, but I thought I sounded fine, since I spoke like my father's family. We used a lot of what I later found out was considered Shakespearean language; words like “ya’ll”, “learnt” and “amongst”, or a request such as “go fetch that hen for me, she done escaped her coop again!”  
     My Aunt Lynn, born in 1919, adhered to the belief that a Stuart must hold the throne. She used to show me illustrations in books about Bonnie Prince Charlie. Mary, Queen of Scots was Lynn’s hero. She had a deep love for Scotland’s Queen Mary. Even into the 1970s my dad and family still hated "Tories" and I heard how those scoundrels hid in Canada after the war. Just tonight I was telling my husband and children some of my Owen Family traditions and how my uncle always wanted a little red truck for Christmas when he was a boy – but he never got one. The family story went on that my grandparents didn't go in for the holiday. In fact the aforementioned Aunt Lynn did not celebrate Christmas. Her husband and children gathered at Thanksgiving and had their big dinner and present exchange at that time. Life had moved on in Scotland and Ireland, but not for my father’s Appalachian family. His people were isolated. The region’s lore was very Scots-Irish, too, as were the songs. Even my German-born mother thought my dad's relatives were a little odd. That doesn't mean that they were screwy, but up until many families moved north for work or the men marched to Europe for the World Wars, entire communities lived in isolation. You don't know just how much the Outlander book series tugs at my heart. Call me crazy if you wish, and maybe there was my aunt's influence, but much of Scottish history was not taught in public school and I felt a little less informed because of that lack of instruction. (According to the history books, suddenly the Colonists wanted freedom from King George—it was spontaneous after all, wasn't it, in our way of thinking?) I learned later that the Revolution had been simmering all the way back to Scotland, a nation that resented the English kings and their desire to control all people from their own isle and beyond to other nations, creating an empire that up until recently, stretched to continents such as Australia, North America, Europe and Asia. When I read the Outlander stories, I felt like I was living them. I had dreams long before I’d even heard of Diana Gabaldon’s novels, long before I knew there were such books—things I could not know. I truly believe, that some of those memories were passed down, cellular memories you could say.  (I will post one particular eerie story in weeks to come.)
     Back to Christmas and the Scots, the people in that country did not celebrate the holiday until it became legal in the 1950s. The church in Scotland had outlawed any Yuletide celebrations for nearly four hundred years claiming them to be influenced by the Catholic Pope. Yes, the Scots believed in the birth of Christ, but Christmas as we know it in the United States for the last 150 odd years was not celebrated across “the Pond”. We here in America gradually took on several rituals brought over from Germany and crafted our own traditions around their lore. In the meantime, the Scots and Irish who had come to the USA in the mid to late 1700s still believed that ceremonies and feasts centered around trees were pagan and somehow distasteful.
     My father, uncles and aunts were not raised to observe Christmas. My own papa taught me to remember that Jesus was most likely born during the Holy land’s lambing season in April. He, being an atheist, believed in the history of Christ the man, not His claim to deity. Add to that, I’d heard that the good Christian people in the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains would not allow a tree in their homes let alone fancy decorations. My mother on the other hand was rich with tales from Germany. She and her sister Maria got hand-crafted dolls with dresses hand-sewn by my Oma (German for grandmother). My Opa (grandfather) used to melt down metal to make soldiers for my Uncle Heinz. Decades ago I was told the sad tale of how, as a child, all my Uncle Edward wanted was a little red truck. He’d begged and begged for one since the Owen family moved to Asheville in the late 1920s. Some of the city kids actually observed Christmas. Not my grandparents or their offspring. It just was not a part of their culture—and why should they participate, just because a few fancy people wanted to sing and dance around trees and boughs? I don’t believe my father and his brother Harold, who was closest to him in age, celebrated Christmas at all until after they’d moved to Detroit in the late 1930s. Harold died having only enjoyed one, possibly two, real Christmases.  Luckily my other uncles, Edward and Eugene, both married women who embraced the holiday and all its trappings.
     As a man nearing his forties, and as the father of his first and only child, Edward finally settled into Christmas with his wife Agnes. They battled dry trees, needles and sap on the carpet, and waded into the deep waters of parenthood. They bought my cousin Gregory presents, some of which I was lucky enough to get when he outgrew them. I got gifts from my parents, as well: dolls, jumping mechanical frogs and puppets. We ate sweets sent from Germany, too! These are memories I treasure.
     Recently I ran across a tiny red, metal truck. Right now it’s tucked beneath my little Christmas tree. Come spring, I want to take a trip out to the Michigan Memorial Cemetery south of Detroit. I’m going to take the little toy and put it on my uncle’s gravestone. Merry Christmas Uncle Edward.
Merry Christmas, to all of you.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Me? Me, too? Originally Titled "Swimming with Has-beens"

(I had such a weird experience some time ago and posted it, but then quickly took it off of this blog. That was before the "Me Too" movement. I wanted to post this again, at that time, but then realized that some people would view my comments as wanting to jump on the band-wagon. I've actually had worse experiences that I won't get into. The reason that I share this story is that I've always been strong enough to say ,"No!"  In this case, the Neanderthal-perp actually tried to shame me as not being a real woman when I backed away from him. So, month after month, I've hesitated to tell my story. It's been a year, almost, since I've added anything to my blog.  I had a busy summer of editing and writing another book. In Autumn life got in the way of my creativity. Yet, my story needed to be told.  I finally decided that there is no time like the present to finally be brave and post to my blog, warts-and-all. Here is my story.)

I get into a pool in an undisclosed desert-area resort (for those of you who don’t know where I live and/or visit in the winter months, I’m not telling.) I make innocent small-talk with an elderly fellow. I noticed earlier he had a lot of chutzpah and carried himself confidently like he owns the place.  A lot of people there know him. He looks very familiar and I recognize him from somewhere, something.

Well, he swims over to me after commenting that some old geezer coming out of the hot-tub had white, see-through swim trunks. (Why, yes he did and my eyes are still in pain.) Mr. Chutzpah keeps getting closer and I realize nobody else is in the pool at that moment. He is an arm’s length away and notifies me that his wife is out of town.  I use my water weights to subtly swim away all the while keeping eye contact. I realize this guy was a well-known entity in the 1970s, a singer and actor. (I’ve seen other celebrities at this athletic club. It’s known for its discretion and privacy.) He wants me to see how big his thumbs are. I see where this situation is going and back away as courteously as I can. He asks if I’m married and I say, “Yes,” to which he replies that he just wants to be friends and that he hates the word, “Maybe”. I get major creep-factor vibes by this time and tell him that I grew up in Detroit and know how to defend myself; that I can and will hurt guys that get too close. He stops his advance and yells, “I bet you think all men have the same thoughts and want the same things, don’t you?” I say, “Yes, they all do but most know how to control themselves.” I swim to the other side of the pool close to the hot-tub where another bather is relaxing. He asks if he can use my towel because he doesn’t have one. I say, “NO!”

"What's wrong with you?" he gripes. The creep gets out muttering something about lesbians, gives me a sideways glance and grabs a towel out of his gym bag. He leaves the pool and says “Arrivederci, Bitch!” I was incredibly relieved that he left.

(Hey, Dude, I don’t care if you were a big deal in music and on the big-screen forty years ago. Now, you are a dirty, itty-bitty old man that doesn't respect personal space or your wife’s feelings. Stay away, you little nerd, because I might have looked vulnerable in the water, but I'm Hell-on-land and know how to fight. I don’t want to, but I can. I’ve been through Hades and back in my life and I will not tolerate your creepy behavior. I don’t care if someone whistles. That is a compliment. If someone holds a door open for me I say “Thank you,” to the gentleman. If someone says, “Hey, baby,” I am flattered -- but "nobody" violates my space even if he thinks he is some big-deal. Get stuffed, you old has-been.)

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Have We as a Nation Lost our Perspective?

I have a view. You have a view. We all have views. I look into the wild blue yonder and see a cloud. To me it is a castle. You see a fortress. Someone else sees the New York City skyline. I see a whale. You see a shark. Those other people see a seal, yet we are all looking at the same sky!

Matthew, Mark and John all knew Jesus. Their recollections of our Savior are the beginning of the New Testament. We also have Luke’s beautiful narrative that tells us of the Nativity, which the other Gospels do not have. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all shared the same story about the greatest man who ever lived. Each individual shares another detail, a different perspective, and they are all right.

Yes, there are things that are clearly black and white, wrong and right—that’s obvious. Yet, grey areas are all around us. Stealing is wrong, but who would begrudge a child inside of a refugee camp a crust of bread that he snatches from a kitchen? Committing a robbery and shooting the victim is wrong. However, using a gun to save your family’s life if a bad man is trying to assault your children is justifiable.

I like to give to causes. I tithe to my church. The church then distributes the money to hungry families and hurricane victims, etc. I would feel differently if a hurricane survivor forcibly demanded that I hand over what little I have when I myself am struggling. I like to give, willingly. I don’t like to be coerced and robbed. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Some of you supported the candidates that ran in last year’s elections. Many saw saviors that had the potential to put our nation back on the right path. From my point of view not one of them was truly worthy of the office of president. From my view, they had no real direction. Of those that courted the voting masses, some were well-meaning. Others were self-serving. They each had a viewpoint that in some portion was right, but to me as a whole, was wrong. With all the confusion, and fighting, I’m afraid that our voters lost their perspective of what is good for our entire country, for everyone.

Getting back to the story I mentioned a couple posts back, about the elephant, I feel I need to ask if we are all blind. Are some of us grasping a trunk and others a tail? Can we not see what is best, not for just one group but for all Americans? Can we once again have a nation that is for the people, by the people, of the people?

Sadly, from my perspective, the answer is, “No”.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Holocaust Remembrance Day

Zachor  זכור  -- Let Us Not Forget.

Recently I went to a talk by Ben Lesser, a survivor of the Nazi Death Camps. I listened to his story of beatings and hunger, the wailing of burning children, and ashes that fell like snowflakes. His speaking engagement preceded Holocaust Remembrance Day, which corresponds to the 27th day of Nisan on the Hebrew calendar—April 24, 2017 this year for many in the western world. It commemorates Shoah, an era when the Nazis displaced and murdered millions of Jews. The Nazis continued the carnage when they exterminated the disabled. They also snuffed out the lives of countless Gypsies and some sects of Christians. They permanently silenced those that disagreed with them. They invaded neighboring countries and also killed their Jews, disabled, Gypsies and those that attempted to fight them physically or ideologically.

Forty years ago when I first heard about Shoah I asked my German-born mother Ann, who was a child during World War Two, “Why did the soldiers starve the prisoners? Why did the soldiers shave their captives’ heads?” As my mother gently told me about World War Two era Germany, she dug deep into her soul, to try to give life to memories that she’d buried deep inside.

Both my mother and grandmother had what would now be called “post-traumatic stress disorder” or PTSD. My grandmother Karola disliked Adolf Hitler and despite Der Führer’s hypnotizing voice, she said, in essence, that the man was insane. Before my grandfather went off to war, he cautioned Karola to never speak out loud against Hitler—ever. It wasn’t that my grandfather was a big fan of the German Chancellor; it was that he knew speaking out could lead to death and imprisonment.  Another instance that led to my mother’s PTSD was the horrific rape and murder of her cousin by Russian soldiers.

Frequently my mother had to take cover in bomb shelters.  One time, she was visiting relatives in Mannheim. My grandparents felt that Mannheim was a safe place since it was known for its culture and arts and beautiful palace. Nonetheless, British war-planes dropped bombs, explosives, and incendiaries on the city.  My relatives sought shelter. There were people still outside the door, pounding and pleading to be let inside, and with every bomb, the structure shook as if it was inside a thundercloud. Once the “All Clear” was given, the door was opened. Some of the people were still alive. The relatives found one of my mother’s cousins outside of the shelter; the young woman’s head had been so traumatized that her eyes had hemorrhaged and the sclera surrounding her pupils were blood read. She’d also been trampled and was barely alive. There are far too many instances of air-raids and running for cover for me to remember or list. After one such night, as my mother left the shelter the next morning, she looked around in horror: people and animals hung in pieces from the shattered tree limbs.

During this era, my great uncle was arrested by SS agents after he’d gotten into an argument with them. He’d been drinking, and as he wheeled his bike shakily from the biergarten, the agents were waiting for him. They beat the poor man and put him into a concentration camp. This is just one instance of what the German government did to its own Christian citizens.  What they did to Jewish citizens was savagely cruel—but it happened.

My mother went on to tell me that during the war, there was very little to eat, sometimes no food at all for the common German citizen. Oh, most likely top Nazis fed on the best sausages and pastries, but every-day people were starving. For a time her family had rabbits. Mother and her young brother Heinz gathered weeds and grass for the little animals. Sometimes her father would cook a couple rabbits, preparing a special meal steeped in a rich cream sauce; but after a bomb fell on their apartment, there was no more fresh meat.

“None of us had food. Not even a potato. If the government couldn’t find food for its people, if markets were rubble, if there was no way for us to work and obtain food, how were the soldiers expected to feed the people in the concentration camps? I’m sure the commanders and big shots in the offices ate like kings, but do you think they would share with the Jews? NO!”

Mother continued, quietly “To answer your other question, heads were shaved because of the lice. Everyone had them back then. One time we lined up for a bath-house. It was a common practice. Many people did not have plumbing, but we were allowed to bathe sometimes in these showers; women and small children in one line and men in the other. Once, a woman in front of me let her pretty, long dark hair down. She shook it loose and I could see the nits and lice on her! Then we went through the doors to shower. After that, I had lice too, as did my brother!”  The shower could not wash off what had dropped on her body and belongings. Until the day she died, my mother could not stand the smell of hair, especially unwashed tresses.

Her stories gave me a different perspective.

Once, my mother told me of the time when she was a young adolescent. She was deathly ill from diphtheria and nearly died. In Ann’s young life, she had suffered every childhood illness known at that time, and this one was closing off her throat. Karola left the bedroom and my mother resolved to die. She closed her eyes, but opened them again. There at the edge of Ann’s bed sat “Death”. Through blurred vision she stared at him in disbelief. He was not dressed in a black robe, but wore clothes that were barely rags.  The specter gazed down upon her with pity. He looked like a skeleton. Ann could see ribs through his thin clothing. She couldn’t be sure—did the monster even have eyeballs? All she could see were black rimmed, hollow orbs where the eyes should be. Ann covered her face and peeked once more, yet there it remained, that dark angel. Death was now sitting closer to her, staring down. Ann squeezed her eyes tightly. When she looked again the apparition had disappeared. Karola was there about to spoon something into Ann’s throat. My mother tried to explain that the Angel of Death almost took her soul, but was unable to speak. Karola soothed the frightened girl and forced the medicine upon her child.

My mother told the story to only her family and closest friends. She opened up a little more in the decades following the war. In the late 1980s, Mother made one of her last trips back to Germany. She was at a party and saw a very old man she used to know and almost did not recognize him. He asked her to dance and she said, “I have not seen you since I was very little, before the war!”

The man said, “Anneliese, we saw each other afterwards, but maybe you do not remember? You were so very sick. I’d just gotten out of a concentration camp. I found your family somehow, before I even found my own. Karola asked me inside and made a special request: would I watch you while she went to get some medicine. I sat at the edge of your bed and you stared at me for a long time, then drifted off to sleep. I was not sure if you were alive until you struggled for a breath or two. When you awoke again, you couldn’t take your gaze from me. You fell asleep and soon your mother returned with the medicine.”

Ann, at that time nearing sixty herself, hugged the old man and told him her story. “I thought you were the Angel of Death! I told people that Death had come for me, but it was you!”

In her mind and from her perspective, Death was an actual creature that truly had a face. Until her eyes were truly opened to the facts, she insisted this “angel” had come to take her life.

When I was a child, I did not know that most people in Europe were starving and infested with parasites and disease–that is, until my mother told me. Again, what the Nazis did to their own citizens was unconscionable. What they did to the people of the surrounding countries was amoral. What they did to the Jewish people is truly unbelievable. Ben Lesser himself said that he and many of his fellow prisoners could not believe that a civilized, cultured people could do this to their fellow humans in the 20th Century.

I will add perspective is one thing; complete denial is another. Many people can have a shared experience and come out of it with a different story or nuance of it. Yet, there are those that deny that the Holocaust even happened. There are photographs of the dying, the dead, and the walking dead. These snapshots came from many sources: the German government, the allied soldiers that liberated the prisoners etc. There were plans and blueprints of the death camps discovered after the Allies arrived. There were the personal narratives of Nazi soldiers, American soldiers and the people that somehow survived places like Dachau, Auschwitz, Chelmno, Bergen-Belsen and others.

Yet, there are individuals and groups that state, as fact, that there was no wholesale slaughter of eleven million people. They deny that there were gas chambers, ovens, mass graves, starvation and forced labor. They do not acknowledge that there are buildings that still stand as a testament to mankind’s cruelty to man. Whatever the reason, they deny the truth. Their argument is not a “perspective” or a subjective deliberation of who actually died. These people discredit the evidence altogether. Those soldiers that liberated the victims are dying. The individuals that survived the horrors are perishing. All that is left are their stories, pictures and memorials. Please, take a moment to visit these online tributes. If you ever get the chance to see one of the many death camps that is open to the public as a standing, interactive testimony to the mass carnage and systematic execution of millions of people, I urge you to do so –
lest we forget. 

Zachor זכור . Remember.


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

A Matter of Perspective

     More than a decade ago, March 15, 2006, my two daughters and their friend Jessica accompanied me down to Yuma. Arizona. It was their Spring Break, and we left a couple days after their school let out. The night was full dark since we were still north of Yuma’s city lights. Up ahead in the distance we saw an object, an orb of some sort.  We slowed for just a moment to look, and I rolled down my car window. The object that we saw in the night sky didn’t make a sound. It was not a plane nor was in a helicopter. “That, young ladies, is a UFO,” I said to them, a growing trickle of dread slowly moving down my spine. I felt very uneasy as we stared at the unmoving contraption, which was low to the ground, yet high enough that it was obviously not a child’s toy. This was long before drones. We agreed to leave the area and made a quick dash for Yuma.

(Thirty Years Previous)

     “The moon’s upside down!” Uncle Gene insisted. “Whoever sold you that there telescope is a crook. You got taken!”
     “This is a good telescope, one of the best a man can buy,” Papa retorted. “Besides, there is no such thing as upside down in outer space!”
     “What I see standing off my porch,” my uncle gasped in exasperation.  “The way I see it, the moon has a face! With your scope, it’s upside down!”
     It was the 1970s and my family was visiting Uncle Gene and his kids. My dad tried to tell his older brother that in the vastness of space there really is no up or down, but Gene would have no part of that line of thinking. From his perspective, the moon was not smiling. Nobody was smiling by that time. Both men thought of themselves as intellectuals, and they were both right. For all my uncle’s life, the moon had never been upside down! From North Carolina, to Georgia, to Guadalcanal, to Michigan, that beautiful orb of the night had always looked the same. From the perspective of Gene’s porch in Pinkney, Michigan, United States, Earth, Miss Luna continued to look down upon him, despite her moody phases, and when full, she looked down with benevolence at Gene’s family. From outer space (and Papa’s telescope) position didn’t matter. The alignment of the planets, constellations and galaxies that stretched forth for eternity, started with a big bang. Since that great event, up and down only make sense from the standards of things living on earth: the people, animals and even the plants that dig their roots into the soil and reach out to the sky for warmth and rain.

     Big bang. That was the jolt that I first felt June 24, 2011 when the train that I was a passenger on outside of Reno, Nevada was T-boned by a semi-truck. There were other lurches in the moments after the first impact and once the train finally stopped about a mile from the intersection, my family made it off. There was smoke entering our car and eventually it was consumed by a quick-moving blaze. I mentioned that a couple days after the collision and my oldest daughter insisted our train car was not on fire. From her perspective, it was never aflame. Before being ushered into an ambulance, my eldest child was laid out flat, under a blanket, looking skyward. From where I stood, I saw the roaring flames consuming the box on wheels that had carried us west only an hour before. We were both right.

    Many of you have heard of the story of the four blind men that had to describe a large animal, using only their hands. They did not know as yet that it was an elephant. One felt the tail and said “I have a rope”.  Another felt the front legs and said he was standing before trees. The third person felt wind blowing through his hair so he reached high above his head. Touching one of the pachyderm’s ears, he claimed that someone was fanning him. Yet another man holding the animal’s trunk described a large snake! They were all correct, but still didn’t know the whole truth.

     In Sunday School recently, our teacher, Brother MacArthur, told us a story about a scope that he purchased through a hunting store. It was top of the line. He’d saved for it and looked forward to seeing wildlife in detail. He lined it up and. . . there was a smear or a cloud in the way. He carefully cleaned the surface of the lens with the recommended items that were supplied with his new scope. Once again, the occlusion was there. Figuring there was a defect inside of the lens, he took it back to the store. The saleslady agreed there might be a smudge somewhere inside, but they couldn’t replace the scope on site. His guarantee covered replacement and service only if he would send it back to the manufacturer.

     A few days later, Brother MacArthur was contacted by the manufacturer who said his scope was just fine. He asked that the head of the company take a look at it and the man on the phone insisted that the CEO himself had given it a try. In the face of claims that they had sold a defective instrument, they sent out a new scope in the name of good customer relations.

     Brother MacArthur received his new scope and could hardly wait to take it out to the mountains. He unwrapped the brand new contents of his package, wiped it clean, put it up to his eyes and was treated to a view of:  scenery with the same smudge. Normally a patient man, he angrily wrapped up the scope and went home. He’d spent thousands of dollars on worthless metal, glass and jointed parts.

     The following Monday he called the company, insisted on talking to the head-honcho himself and got ahold of the man. He explained his problem and said he’d be sending the worthless instrument back as soon as he could.

     Weeks later, Brother MacArthur was at a routine eye exam and the doctor informed him that he was developing the beginnings of a cataract.  My teacher felt terrible, recalling the words that he volleyed at the manufacturer just a month earlier.

     Brother MacArthur was right; he could see a smudge. It was obscuring his view. The CEO was right, the lens was a good product and he stood proudly by his product.

     March 19, 2006 – We were leaving Yuma. It was late morning and our brief stay was at its end. Driving north as we left the outskirts of the city, we saw it, the UFO! It was a real Unidentified Flying Object, as we still did not know what it was, exactly. Yet, this time, we had no doubt it was earthly. The thing was still in the sky, tethered to a rope and was some kind of huge, lofty advertisement. It was just as real, but not so intimidating and frightening. We continued on our way and laughed at ourselves.

     We all travel different roads and live different lives. Our parents teach us wisdom and we still see things in our own way. Even though we may not have all things in perspective, I hope we may all get along and agree to disagree.

Please, Note:  In the weeks to come I hope to discuss perspective and individual beliefs in a few more posts. Until then, try to see the world from someone else’s eyes for a couple days. You may learn something about them. . . and yourself.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Death Valley, Coyotes and Snake Oil

I like to camp about twice a year. I think I’m getting too old for this torture, but inevitably I plan another trip, pack up my little Saturn and I’m on my way again. For the past couple years my daughter and I thought that Death Valley in the winter time would be a good choice.  Let me tell you, it’s still more than 80 degrees Fahrenheit during early March – and I hate the desert. 

The stars at night more than make up for the dry, over-powering heat of the day. After the sun goes down, Death Valley is a great place to see meteor showers, comets and reckless lovers. Note to couples: in the evening, sounds and sights carry in the desert. I’d like to add, that bush you’re under carries an assortment of scorpions and flea-infested, plague carrying rodents, so please, for the sake of all that is decent, go back to your tent. NOW!

The highlight for me, during our winter excursions is the group of musicians that gather at the same time every year to play music around the campfire. Mostly, there are the usual guitarists, banjo pickers, accordion players and fiddlers. The performers say that the original troupers began the tradition in the 1950s. The ones that assemble now have been convening regularly since the 1970s. This eclectic bunch comes from all walks of life. One claims to be a physician, but since the beer and vodka are flowing amongst the majority of performers, I have my doubts. Anybody present can share their musical talents. All are invited. Someday I hope to bring my electric piano, stuffed with batteries and a prayer, since my playing is child-like at best. In the past, the musicians have hosted people like the ukulele playing students who only picked up their instruments six months before joining the melody-filled evenings. The best I could do the first time we sat around their circle is give out copies of my books and read a brief passage or two. Last year we were joined by a fire dancer. The dramatic look of firelight reflecting up through the branches of the taller mesquite and salt cedar trees was magical. During those kinds of evenings I’d like to imagine that I’m at a gypsy camp. It’s a wonderful feeling.

The musicians always wind up just before 10 pm. One evening two years ago, my daughter and I went back to our tent around nine. We listened to the music, hypnotic in a way, the guitars strumming and low voices singing. Then some guy yelled at the top of his lungs, “Shut that music down!” The melodies continued, the night wind rustled a little. During pauses, coyotes could be heard singing their own songs of loving and feasting. Then a fiddle began a lonesome Irish ballad. “Shut it down already!” I was jolted awake again. This continued until ten. I guess the old grouch didn’t realize that his barking was creating more of a disturbance than this traditional, decades old jam session (music’s version of a pick-up game). Lights out. Ten PM. The coyotes were closer and they began their nightly serenade. I waited anxiously for Mr. Grouch to yell at our howling, furry neighbors, but by then I think he’d given up hope for a good night’s rest. Do what the rest of us do:  gaze up to the sky and let the blanket of stars dazzle your senses.

In October 2015, historic flooding damaged many roads and made last year’s planned trips to a couple tourist areas, including the famous Scotty’s Castle, impossible. The rain also created optimal conditions for desert wildflowers to bloom in abundance. Mostly gold greeted us on our excursions, but there were splashes of pink and purple along the way.

Most of the other roads had been fixed since the storms had washed them away, but a few were down to one lane. That gave us passengers time to reflect and talk. The subject of health came up and I said that I was a believer in the power of vitamin-C. I take it every day for six weeks during flu season and I have not caught the flu or pneumonia like other members of my family have. At one washed out path, in the back of our vehicle, one of the campers with us took the opportunity to whip out a catalogue of the health supplements that she sells. There was a parade of cars ahead of us and a line of cars behind us at least a mile long. We were surrounded by construction vehicles, and the potential of traffic heading our way until we could take our turn on the fragile pavement. I could have tried to make a run for it, but the heat and dehydration would kill me eventually unless a rattle snake struck me first. As the young lady introduced her line of vitamins, my eyes scanned the road for a poisonous snake. “Oh, Lawd, give me patience,” I thought. The young woman knew she had a captive audience, literally. A half hour later, we were on our way again to Stovepipe Wells.  Bless her heart for trying.

Days later, I was back at work with my seniors. I had a great morning with one of my favorite ladies. I fed her some breakfast and folded her laundry while we chatted. Before long, Luzi had me cornered in her kitchen, extolling the benefits of the supplements she was taking. I was blocked in by her motorized scooter, while she held up a bottle of the same brand that the young saleslady introduced to me. I couldn’t go left, I couldn’t go right. I was backed up to a cabinet as Luzi shook the container at me insisting that it was a lifesaving libation. At that point all I could hear were the yelps of coyotes. I looked at the floor and prayed for a snake.

A Sideshow Journey by Liesa Swejkoski

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