I’m putting together a new page on my website with my fiction; as WordPress has gotten completely user-UN-friendly!
Try the Fiction category at the bottom of the page, a few more stories
In the meantime…
Some short stories are on Google:
My Little Town (memoir)
Have Buddha, Will Travel (fictional memoir):
My Little TownAugust 22, 2007
MY LITTLE TOWN
T hough some twenty-five years ago, the memories that I have of upstate New York still have such piercing intensity…
I began high school in 1968, the year of the student riots and strikes in Paris, France, yet, in my isolation, those events, and the rest of the super-mythical Sixties, were as if occurring in another universe. My hometown was a small, depressed rural town. Most of my classmates were the sons and daughters of hard-working, struggling-not-to-go-under, farming families. Many had been further reduced to “weekenders” with the Eisenhower-era “social engineering” arrival of an IBM “think tank.”; the Great Corporate Father had acquiesced to the wish to escape into some kind of pastoral fantasy of city folk like my foster-family. So not only had these new, mostly urban arrivals doubled the size of the town—greatly changing it’s cultural makeup—but too, many of the original population of a couple thousand had found work in the accompanying chipboard manufacturing plant.
The hubbub beginning of my tenth grade I decided— having shot up to 6’2”— that I was going to play basketball for our school team. I wheedled out of my folks a hoop and net from the mail-order catalog of Sears & Roebuck, my annual fall clothing lifeline as well, and, out of the various pieces of scrap lumber haven fallen about our once-functional farm, mounted the hoop on a backboard and raised it onto a wooden platform. In the middle of the hayfield that, after the summer cuttings by neighboring farmers, doubled as my archery range.
Given the fall chill the ball of course would not bounce. The act of shooting, too, was made difficult when the frosts caused moisture to glaze up the ball. My practice time was the steadily diminishing light remaining after my hour-plus ride home on the Football players “team bus”; after zig-zagging through the district’s dilapidated farms—most acrid with ammonia from chicken manure—our driver Mr. Whalen would hand crank the door open, bid me, the last one, a good night and head back to the bus garage…
When the oak’s brilliant red and gold plumage had faded into darkness for my ride home Basketball season had arrived. Our coach was the inimitable Mr. Murphy—not the drinking kind of Irish but an ex-Marine drill sergeant and here to tell you all about it.
Our first practice Mr. Murphy—failure to address him as Mister got you ten wind sprints right away—held a basketball in his hands and said, “Gentlemen, this is the ball. Take a good long look, as you men won’t be seeing another for two weeks.” No smile broke his face, no sardonic grin, just straightforward imparting of the news.
After all these years, I’m one of the few proud ones who was able to say, At least I didn’t phewck my guts…We did nothing but conditioning exercises for two-and-one-half hours, with pathetically short “wind breaks,” during which absolutely nothing but breathing hard and harsh was allowed, as the theory was that water would bloat us and make us sick.
Most of those trying out for the team dropped, as the locals had a habit of saying, like flies on manure. Primary culprit was the dreaded wind sprints, gentlemen!…toes touch the foul line, turn back to the baseline, toes touch the mid court line, turn back to the baseline, toes touch the over-and-back line, turn back to the baseline, toes touch the opposite foul line, turn back to the baseline, toes touch the three-feet line, turn back to the baseline, toes touch the far baseline, turn back and finish baseline…last one in the group runs with the next…
Or if you missed a line with your toes—or if Mr. Murphy thought you needed an attitude correction—you’re up again son…Now!
So engrained were the protocols of the drill routine into my consciousness that just three years later, when I tried out for the State University of New York at Buffalo team as a freshman (all teams together) I had a coach tell us, the first day, to run “the weave” and everybody but me, with practiced ease, lined up to run the drill…
I’d already felt a bit intimidated, as most of the kids were from New York City—a tight clique that already knew and had played against each; furthermore, my flat, neutral accent gave me away as a despised upstater (said like hinterlands).
As my turn among the 100 or so assembled approached, my brain went on standby; I asked, “Coach, how exactly do you want me to run?”
Immediate raucous laughter broke through the ranks.
Coach said, “The weave, son. You never did this drill in High School?”
“No sir,” I blurted. “Our coach was long on windsprints and conditioning.”
With a slightly incredulous look on his face, he then told me, “Pass, cut outside and around; receive inside, take a dribble, turn and hit the cutter, continue, and, if you’re in the position, take the lay-up. Got it?”
I said Yes and, managing to calm myself, ran the drill. Towards the end of the court I could see that I’d be doing the lay-up so I mentally readied for a show-off dunk (my growth had continued to 6’4”, 185 pounds with weight training).
Then, with a look in his eyes that I’ll never forget—an icy-blue spiraling of sorts—a beefy, crew-cut, football player deliberately stumbled into me with a forearm shiver. So, just as I’d begun focusing on my redeeming slam-dunk, I was instead knocked asprawl to the shiny wood…
I was used to this kind of hostility. My senior year in High School I’d gone from looking, in my yearbook picture, like the president of the Young Republican’s Club to having (perhaps) become the Fifth Beatle—stodgy, black-framed glasses replaced by cool new “wireframes,” my short “Princeton” haircut grown out as long wavy hair…Though white and straight, I was thus tagged in my rural area as Spearchucker ; when my “long-haired hip-pii freak” friends went to the few clubs playing “our music,” we were often in danger of being jumped by the greaser gangs—always nearby, mulling around the fast-food joints looking for some female hawg banging.
So, that tryout day, I picked myself up off the floor and stayed cool. Nobody said anything.
Upon arriving to the next day’s practice, my gut tightening, I checked the cut list. My name wasn’t there…
I threw myself into the workouts, recovering my poise, shining on defense when I picked clean a couple of the hotshots…At week’s end, the Coach and an assistant motioned me over after practice.
Where’d you go to High School, son? the Coach asked, telling me, too, that he’d never heard of a Coach that didn’t run the weave. I told him the school was tiny, “Class C,” but that we’d been a powerhouse in the State Sectionals. He chuckled and told me that I was the best natural defender he’d ever seen, and that’s something you just can’t teach, you either have it or you don’t…I was to report for special weight raining session to an assistant and start eating 10,000 calories a day, son…
Riding a bus, a big yellow “Blue Bird” school bus, on our way to Cincinnatus, a tiny little town the farthest distance from my little high school in our athletic conference, almost to Syracuse. Scrunched into the dark green seat, smelling of new car—bus #50, brand new, the biggest in our fleet, even equipped (the only one) with a cassette tape deck…My knees pebbling from the protuberated metal seat back directly before me as I awaited my music…(Mr. Whalen, our driver, had said he’d play the cassette I’d brought as soon as we got rolling; our new coach, Mr. Ryder, had said we could listen to music as long as we won…)
Then the plaintive flute and lamenting voices of “Simon and Garfunkel,”…I’d rather be a sparrow than a snail…Yes I would…. If I only could…I surely would…”
As I quietly sang along, lying low in the seat, a teammate popped his head over the seat in front of me. “Tom, you are singing. Is this the tape you said you were going to bring?” Joey, our good-natured off-guard, my best ally on the team.
“Yeah,” I said, made self-conscious. Joey and I usually played one-on-one to warm up before practice; he was the only teammate who’d still play me, as I always won and the others grumbled about my taking everything too seriously.
I mumbled something to him about the singing loosening me up for the game; his broad-faced easy grin only grew wider…
“La-dee-dah” crashed the sounds of the new song’s chorus, as the duo sang of a “boxer in the clearing all alone…la-dee-dah-da-dah-da-da-la-dee-da-da-dah…”
At the school we were to play awaited my old Boy Scout summer camp friend Jeff. For both of us, the month that we’d spend along the shores of Cayuga Lake as young boys was just the escape we needed. Both of our families qualified as what is now called “dysfunctional,” but in those days that wasn’t considered “the norm,” like now; most adults we encountered—never talking about one’s homefront difficulties—truly wished to see one succeed. Just as at my first winter campout, when, a mere lad of eleven, I went out with my patrol into a 13-degree-below-zero snowfall and returned after the weekend—guided by our kindly Scoutmaster Mr. Sibley in such manhood matters as building a pine branch lean-to—I’d gush Neat!
Camp was the same way—shale creek-beds, long ago cut by glaciers, to explore, the archery rang,. waterfront and sailboats. Thick green Army “surplus” tents, treated with moisture repellent that smelled strangely when warmed by the sun, that were erected on wooden platforms equipped with four metal-tubed bunks—the kind one always had to check to see if a prankster had set the ends hanging on platform edge for a bang of a surprise…All kinds of “merit badges” to earn that were actually a lot of fun…
I was one of the youngest in our state to earn the highest rank—“Eagle Scout.” I never missed a Monday night meeting; held in the basement of the large, made beautiful with stained glass windows, Presbyterian Church, it was where I attended Sunday School as well. We were in transition, from bubbling kids rushing to the nearby Italian Deli for Cream sodas and licorice to more measured young adults. “Community Service” was not only a required merit badge but too a quality now expected of us…
As such I became the “Flower Power” Patrol Leader for my local troop—despite the adult leaders’ trepidation at the choice of name—then the “Owl” Patrol Leader for the 13th World Jamboree, an international gathering in Japan, where we camped for a month, at the base of Fujijama…
At our game, on the sidelines, pre-game, I managed to talk a bit with Jeff. We mostly joked about how we almost became the first Boy Scouts “86’ed” from a World Jamboree—you see, we were both 16 and already tall, so one night we scaled the Tokyo Olympic compound’s fence—after tossing over bags with out “civilian gear”—and went exploring in the night districts; the few places we tried had no difficulty with serving us beer and soon we were wandering miles away from our compound…Some fascinated locals—down one of those very clean residential streets—ventured “Hello” to us, and, trading bits and pieces of language back and forth, we managed to talk well into the morning…Our new hosts even called a cab for us and pre-paid the driver—with a wagging admonition to him not to cheat us…
Upon our return, however, not more than fifty feet after rescaling the fence, two security guards nailed us. Our absence had been noticed during bed-checks, we were hauled off to a high-level interrogation…
Courtside, that night in Cinncinatus, the memory—as well as the flush of glee at how neither of us “cracked” in our separate interrogations—brought such laughter that each of our Coaches frowned our way, each motioning for us to rejoin the team warm-ups…
During the game I exploded into action. By halftime I had 18 points, most of our production and pretty good given the slow pace of our games—patterned offense, deliberate play.
In the locker room our Coach was upset—despite our double-digit lead—and was holding forth like a country preacher “You all think you’ve got this game won; well I’ve got news for you: only one man is playing with intensity and carrying the load for the rest of you and that’s Tom.”
His words surprised me as much as they did Joey, sitting next to me on the uncomfortably narrow wooden benches. I was known as the team rebel and shunned for my aloofness…
In fact later that season I would quit the team, allegedly over my refusal to cut my hair—in those days we had to wear suits and ties as well to away games—but in reality over what I felt was shabby treatment for the team’s best producer. My specialty was those all important “boards” or “rebounds” of missed shots; when we were allowed to open things up, my snagging and whipping out the outlet pass often meant an easy bucket on the other end…
Something that I could not help but notice lacking when I watched—from the stands, as a spectator—our team lose in the state sectionals to a team we’d beaten when I was still playing earlier in the season. Enraged, our Coach punched Joey in the locker room after the loss—yelling at him, “I don’t want to see you ever hanging out with that traitor out there again!”
And what I did not know at that time were two developments of major import. Just up the road from where we were playing was Syracuse University—with a new Head coach, Jim Boeheim, who’d been hired from a junior college close to my little town. The other matter was that my real parents—a matter unknown to me then—were sitting in the stands, right next to Coach-to-be Boeheim…
That night, all that mattered to me—what I remember still—is that sheer immediacy that just seems to go on and on… Just like the when I ran those most-difficult-to-master 120-yard High Hurdles for Varsity Track season. That following spring, after a half-dozen races in which I’d lost concentration and broken stride, I finally ran a perfect race. We were at our arch-rival Spencer Van-Etten, and, before my race, were behind. My three strides over the ten yards between hurdles had never before found such degree and order as I glided over each black-and-white striped barrier; I was bereft of time, space, distance—even sound. My time, 15.6 seconds, was a school record—still not beaten—though some grumbled that it was “Wind-aided’ and therefore didn’t count.
The first of many times since I’ve found some kind of grace, that state of just being. On the court, not only becoming beyond an opponent’s anticipation but too alive with this panoramic awareness expanding and sharpening details with astoundingly subtle clarity. No end, no beginning…
Every once in a while some guttural roar from the crowd or screech of sneakers
making a sudden halt. Other than those interruptions, one long smooth flow. Hands
arched around the ball with fingertips as points of light guiding the shot…all net…
T hose hoop drills that our Coach had us do, over and over again in practice, came to life that night. One in particular—where you had to drive to the hoop, from one sideline first, then the other, and, at about eight feet from the hoop, take off, twist to the right around one stationary teammate, then twist to the left around the other positioned teammate…finishing with a full extension of the ball hand to gently make the hoop…
Driving through the lane that game, threading the defenders, seemed effortless. As a big man I was not expected to shoot the ball—especially in our patterned offense, where the other low post man and myself would cut to the high post/ shooting guard area on either side only for the sake of making a pass to the cutter down the middle. But the other team had started out collapsing and leaving me open, so I’d taken the shot, as we’d been instructed, to draw out the defenders and free the lane. When they came out on me I spontaneously went into the drive…That sudden half-step quicker, no matter who defended…
So at half-time that night I’d been very surprised not to be criticized by Coach Ryder. He had a habit of calling “time-out” during our games for the express purpose of hitting a numbskull over the head with a clipboard for being a hot dog. Joey was his favorite target—the clipboard often breaking, causing him to reach for a courtside stack of reserves he always brought.
When we took the court again, after our warm-up shots, I readied myself to win the jump ball tap. I never lost, our Assistant Coach had taught me to start really low in a cat’s crouch before springing, then reaching to flick the ball at the last moment to one of my guards I’d sense behind me.
The crowd booed me as I entered the tap circle. I was used to this treatment, as well; for holding a rival star to just two buckets the whole game an opposing coach, quoted in our local paper, termed me, The Animal.
On offense I was confronted with a “box-and-one.” One defender was assigned to me, man-to-man, wherever I went, while the rest played a rectangular zone. I was playing “team ball,” making my passes in our set plays disguised and crisp…
Yet, at one point, my teammates not hitting, our point guard dribbled down towards the baseline corner where I was posted for the play we were supposed to run, and swung a half-pivot for screening my defender, tossed me the ball and implored me to shoot!…One of my only two buckets that half.
Years later now, I still have such perfect memory of that moment…You see, I never even got to meet Coach Boeheim—let alone my real parents—the matter tossed away by my foster father, a mean drunk who muttered to Boeheim something about the kid’s not worth your effort and forbade him from contacting me—the “rules” in those days followed very strictly…The old man had tried the same stunt with my Varsity Track coach in High School. My track Coach, a devout Catholic who believed heavily in the concept that not living up to your potential was a sin against God, had shown up at his place of work, and—not intimidated by all the suits and ties in the old man’s engineering department—had picked him up and put him against the wall, saying, Your kid’s got God-given talent and he’s going out for my team, understand?
These matters all gone in the swirl of memory…would have’s and could have’s and should have’s all signifying nothing now…
I still play hoop, even at age 43. My right leg aches a bit from the compression plate I still have from a career-ending accident my college freshman summer.
I was riding a motorcycle from my one job as a lifeguard to swing-shift at the IBM circuit-board manufacturing factory—nice humid, late summer richness of a day—when a woman in an old station wagon broadsided me, dead in her sights, at a crossing in a county road…
Back at Buffalo that fall, hobbled still by crutches, my College hoop Coach went ballistic when he saw me: What in the world were you doing on a motorcycle?
Getting a good run in these days is often difficult. The younger crowd all style themselves after the pro thug ball game—trash-talking, trying to intimidate. Though few have the talent, let alone rep with those necessary referees, to get away with it. Most wonder What are you doing on the court?, especially given how I’ve regrown my hair long, into a yogin’s ponytail.
As one ages, you learn to make up for the decrease in your kinesthetic output with an increase in court sense. Though I don’t have the time or inclination to explain the matter, I could tell the youngsta’s how I’ve beaten such pro players as Michael Cooper—who played with “Los Angeles Lakers.” When we played he’d just finished at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque. My college sweetheart and I were visiting her sister. While they caught up on old times, I’d wandered off looking for a game. Finding the University’s big athletic fieldhouse, I’d walked onto the game court and called Winners. The first looks of disbelief were dispelled when but then my three beat Cooper and his teammates, first game. Second game, him yelling at his teammates not to fuck up, they won. Rubber match, game point, I faked a drive down the lane—with which I’d been scoring, then drove left and faded away, just out of reach of Cooper’s attempted block, a fifteen footer. All net.
In the silence he’d angrily said to me, You ain’t from around here, are you, Well this is my court, so don’t dome back…
Too, I’ve bested players from the local team “Golden State Warriors” in pick-up games—some on the very same court on which we play, right next to the new “Haas Pavilion” built for our Cal team. I miss the old “Harmon Gym,” though. For a period of about ten years you could not get a better game anywhere in the Bay Area. Despite the court time being limited to lunch hour on Monday, Wednesday and Friday (sometimes an extra hour) everybody who was anybody would show. The picking of teams was so competitive that often somebody would call Winners and, instead of picking up an asking newcomer, would wait and snag ringers off the losing team on court. Thus, the joke became—when three or four players mulling around had all the next games locked up—So where’s your team, coming in on the bus from Sacramento or something?
Games were fought hard—usually the first one lasting a half-hour or more—and any “calls” hotly disputed. One time a guy, nicknamed “Crazy Dave,” who could leap for days but had absolutely no touch on his shot, walked off the court in rage after having his version challenged. After stopping at his ‘Stang illegally parked outside to pick up his “45,” he walked nonchalantly back onto the floor, right up to the guy who’d made the call on him, and put the piece upside his head, asking, Who right now?
The very surprised guy—a Cal student—blurting and raising his hands with the others in unison, You the man, Dave, you the man…
So, like everybody who’s ever played the game, I suppose instead of playing I could tell ya all about it. (Crazy Dave met his demise by the same ploy in a playground argument a few years later, by the way). Instead, I just try and get a good run in—making sure that I get the ball at the point guard position, the source of most difficulties in casual games, and demonstrate How to pass the ball. Especially in to the big man, a trick of disguise requiring dexterity and quickness; for some reason, most guards in pick-up games assume the big man is “slow” or something and telegraph the pass inside with such woeful obviousness that “my grandmother could steal it,” as the court banter goes. And, as even the supertanker pro centers like to show—especially during the All-Star games, there’s a point guard inside every big man just waiting for the chance to play…
Of course, when I return to working the paint, the big man’s turf, I still never get the ball…
But no one can take away or screw up that feeling, standing on the foul line, all alone, just like on the court that day in my High School game…My buddy Joey on one side, the point guard Bobby on the other…Two great teammates (Bob’s the High School Principal now) the likes of whom, like those days, I’ll never see again…
A couple of bounces of the ball…Shake out the looseness in the feet, set them shoulder width for stability, then, just like our Assistant Coach Hinell used to say—you gotta make yourself tough, give yourself a rock-solid foundation. Gathering the ball at your solar plexus, where your breath is centered, make your shot all one motion, ball leaving your hands and arcing from the graceful wrist snap—perfectly into the hoop, a sound never forgotten,
An Irish Tale…
(after Dick Farina)
Though we were all several generation American, our family reunions were typically Irish. My siblings and I would
commiserate about our dysfunctional family by immersing ourselves in it. Generous amounts of alcohol were imbibed, and wild
driving on the country roads and various escapades were almost always
On one such occasion my brother said he’d seen an ad for “Jim Morrison” night at our favorite
local tavern, “The Wild Turkey” As it was owned and operated by a
drug dealing Deadhead, we thought it might be fun.
Armed with glow-in-the-dark
squirt guns, full-face,dark wraparound ski goggles, military-issue ammo belts, half-laced hiking boots,we strode through the door. We looked like some wild-eyed South
American revolutionaries. I’d found this 1940’s "zoot suit," with peg legs and wore it over my "Che Guevara" t-shirt.
The “Abbie Hoffman” American flag vest I’d constructed was hidden beneath too–the matter to be flashed at the right moment. Several pitchers later, consensus was reached and I removed the grey, outer suit coat and, shouting Viva la Revolution! and squirting everyone in range, I jumped on top of the bar….
Even my buddy the bartender thought that went a wee bit too far, and we were escorted out the door. Down the street was one of the 21 watering holes in a town of 5,000–and a stone-cold redneck hangout. Nobody quite knew what to make of us when we
sauntered in and sat down at a table. We didn’t know what to make of the change in music–from Jim Morrison’s come on baby light my fire… to this inane C & W song about ya pissed me off, ya fuckin’ jerk (then something about so it’s off to the rodeo!…And maybe we were a wee bit disoriented. In any event, neither side took a liking to the other, and licketedy-split, as the locals liked to say, the barstool row of belly`d up to the bar good ole boys roused themselves, as a unit, from their squinty-eyed stupor and managed to give chase…
One night we all took magic mushrooms and walked all over the little town–finding overlooked
oddities which became objects of fascination. Passenger trains had become a thing of the past even before our family had moved there, so we walked the abandoned railroad
tracks undisturbed. The rails were rusted, but the oiled, machine-pungent wooden tees beneath were faintly luminous in the moonlight. The gravel bed crunched from our otherwise silent footsteps.
At the boarded-up station we found an old sign indicating "Owego." With the rotting wood
having blistered the paint, though, it could be Omega–with
the right lambent angle and “doors of perception.” Thus was formed our “Omega
Club.” And having properly
initiated ourselves, we giggled our way to the local kid’s park and took turns pushing the
“Zen Merry-Go-Round” till nearly dawn…
But usually in that area somebody would find a way to turn
things nasty–resentment, hard-scrabbling lives,
third-generation on welfare ignorance, whatever…
One afternoon we were coming back from an afternoon in
Ithaca–where Jim was thinking of going to Cornell after
his stint in the Navy. We were in great spirits after a day of
hiking the gorges and visiting such old staples of our youth as Camp
Barton, our Boy Scout camp along the shores of big Cayuga Lake.
We were doing the back, scenic dirt roads and encountered
an old American van in front of Jim’s new little Toyota
sedan. The driver slowed to a crawl and wouldn’t let us pass–swerving left or right to cut us off.
When we finally got by Jim laid on the horn, and, family
tradition, we all flipped him the bird. He responded by trying to ram us and run us off the
road. When we reached our house, we pulled over; the guy
tossed a beer bottle and hit the front fender (narrowly
missing me in the passenger seat). We tried to cut him off, but
heard get the guns from inside. So after a brief
confrontation, we let the clown go.
But, later that eve, Jim–he’s got a Navy buddy along, we’re all drinking beer–
and I looked at each other;
nodding in agrrement we shouted “Commando
His buddy had led a rather sheltered suburban life and was
not ready for the routine–all black Navy sweaters and
knitcaps, dark pants, burnt-cork faces and boots. We were pros from years of teenaged raids on the local farmers–who’d sit all night watching television with shotguns loaded with rock salt. You had to be slick and fast or you’d catch some very painful particles that would burn for days.
We picked the
lock on the passed-out old man’s gun cabinet. As he’s a card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association, it’s an extensive collection. I grab my favorite, a
Mossberg 12 guage with which I’d been a crack clay-skeet
shooter. Plus these special “M-80’s,” explosives loaded into shotgun
shells that could be shot and launched a good hundred and
Some recon from an old friend still local had given us a
target–Weiss Road “Hollow,” a place on this dirt
road a half-mile down the hill where several trailers had cleared spots from the
swampy land arounbd a creek and set up camp. We were advised to be careful,though, they had a rep for being nasty hillbillies.
I had the Mossberg, Jim a Smith & Wesson 357 pistol, and
his friend a lever-action 22. “Cool,” he’d gushed, “I get
to be The Rifleman“.
Clouds have pretty much bocked out the moon–just faint pink and blue swirls–but we know the land very well. The old man never used the farm for anything–he just liked the notion of being a country squire–and the roads and fences are in the state of entropic decay all too typical of the region. I tell Jim’s friend to watch his step and we head for the far southwest ridge.
Soon enough we cross a rusty old barbed wire fence marking off our land from the neighbor’s to the north. From the safety of brush on the crest
above the “hollow” we do a survey. There are three trailers on
this side, a couple on the other. They hadn’t been there when
we’d grown up, but already the backyards were cluttered with
the usual local lawn ornaments: hulks of cars in various states of disrepair,
old fashioned washing machines gone to seed, & other strange junk seldom otherwise seen.
Jim’s friend, excited, starts giggling. Down in the hollow a dog–big-looking, in the back yard–barks and growls. It makes a run towards us and the hill,a chain rattles than snaps the beast into the air at its end
I’ve got both barrels loaded with M-80’s and I launch the first towards
the trailer at far right–we were looking for the telltale
van but the dog getting wind of us changed our plans. At
it’s thunderous boom–too far wide to the right–the dog
shuts up. Next shot went too far to the left of the one at
left end–even with altitude correction. I reload and for my third I say
Fuck it and launch it straight for the back window of the
middle trailer–it hits and explodes, shattering the
After a momentary silence–as “incoming” these M-80’s are
mighty impressive–we hear, as we’re hightailing it back up the hill to the
safety of deeper cover, the grinding and spluttering to
life of pickups and the van. A few head wildly in one
direction, the rest mudslide off into the other. By the
time they reconvene–from high
atop a couple-of-hills-over vantage point we see the beams of light–its too late. No
way in the world are they going to risk coming into the thickets
after us; even the dogs had been whimpering too much to give
While we’re hiding out and moving about, we see several
Sheriff’s cars arrive at our house and try to arouse old
John. Lights are off, looks like nobody’s home, so they give up and
I think that was the night that, after a few more celebratory
beers, we shot up the family canoe. For years it had sat uselessly on its
side, with leaks in the aluminum from exposure to the elements–wintertime freezing and cracking–that had made it
unusuable for even our farm’s pond.
As we were on an “expedition,” we were talking about how
dictatorial our father John–with his Hemingway-esque white-beard, i.e., the Great Sportsman used to be on our
canoe trips to Canada’s Algonquin Park. Our first year,
before he got hip to the ways of the wild, he’d made us
carry, on portages, this very heavy wooden chest– coated
with lacquers and decorative Formica–in which were too
many backpacking taboo’s to recount (big heavy metal grill,
too big cast-iron frying pans, etc.). With nothing but
square wooden handles on each end, the thing quickly became utterly
unbearable for Jim and I as we’d hike the sometimes
several mile long portage paths carved out of the
pristine wilderness between lakes…
used to use the matter of inheritances–that mythical masculine influence over the world of material things–as a power control trip. All senex embittered he’d say
things along the lines of “I know that none of you have any
likings for me, but you better do what I tell you or you
won’t get a penny of my money when I’m gone…”
At various stages, each of us had gotten the “that’s it for you!” trip. Yet, we’d managed to counteract, all having made a solemn vow to make a four-way split no matter what the damn words on paper said at the old man’s demise…
Though at our school I was the All-American Kid, when it came to John I was very much an early-on given to be written off. The worst came while I was a student at SUNY Buffalo, for my refusing
to drop my Marxism and "free thinking" classes. I’d done
a 70 page paper on “Why Are We in Vietnam” my freshman year
that had my Poly Sci teacher a bit taken aback at my enthusiasm. I’d turned the paper in late and he’d called to make sure I picked it up from him at his home; I’d wheedled the old man into dropping by on our way home from my dorm’s moveout day. As we stood chatting my old man laid on the almost innocuous horn of our VW van (as an engineer he admired German precision), the professor had sadly smiled, shook my hand and made my promise to look him up next fall.
When I showed John the “A+” he–annoyed at the title–grabbed and almost tossed it out his window. Our brief discussion ensuing almost got me having to hitchhike home from Buffalo.
taken a “History of Consciousness” class known as a “mick,”
in which we read Aldous Huxley and Carlos Castenada. The final
had a legendary reputation, the professor would pass a joint around and, at each
student’s toke, go, “great, another A!”. ..
John’s ultimate temporal machination, however, was his refusal to allow a lawyer to represent me
after a motorcycle accident my freshman summer. Several lawyers back at Buffalo had told me that I should get compensated a bare minimum of around 50 grand, and were willing to take the case without a retainer, but the old man did his grinding teeth drunken monkey grin in my face and said, No way!.
Being under the legal age of 21 then, I could do
nothing about it–except transfer to Berkeley and California’s legal age of 18. Looking back the money didn’t matter to me–what never healed was my track and hoop careers–my track coach had plans for me to star in the pentathalon and my hoop coach called me "the best natural defender he’d ever seen, if you owrk hard you got a shot at the pros…"
So that night, perhaps remembering all these things, we jump up, grab guns again, go into our big side yard and fire all kinds of volleys into the hapless and most innocent canoe. …
Over even more congratulatory beers, Jim’s buddy is highly impressed. “Wow, do you guys do
stuff like this every time you get together?”
That sad look of Irish recognition arises between Jim and me, as we
look over the tears and gashes of the burst-marks in the canoe. It lays right
between the old rusted-out swingset and the big oak tree with a
tire swing where we’d spent many a happy summer afternoon
in our idylic youth…
Yes, I’m afraid so…
TaMo, a.k.a. Tom (not the actor) Noonan…
summer of 2001, revised 2006
The Bitter Gall of Heaven
-in homage to Homer’s Iliad
Vaulting towards Heaven, the Sun emerged from the deep, slow currents and still depths of Oceanus. In the cool of cypress trees, tented next to sleek black warships, oars at rest amidst the heating sand, lay- luxuriant with pillows- Achilleus and Briseis.
“You don’t look so fierce now,” she said, curling a finger in his chest hairs.
“Too hard to be so around one so charming as you,” he replied, easing his head deeper into the sweet valley of her breasts.
“Tell me what it’s like,” she said. “In battle. As women all we get to do is pray for our men. Even when alive you never talk about it."
His eyes rolled up, amused yet dispassionate. “You wish to hear of the threshing-floor of battle? Men winnowed like wheat? The hooves of war-horses thrashing one and all, whitening with dust, like aged bones left in the whirling to Heaven’s firmament?” His face grew tender as he gazed into her widened eyes. “Not much to say.”
Chin dropping, she looked away and said, "You are indeed as arrogant as they say. When we were captured I feared the worst." Her eyes misted, silken-lined, like the Doe-Eyes of Hera. "Our men are not like you. Simple and plain-speaking; most of the time good but sometimes coarsened, calloused, no matter how many oblations and cleansings.
Your hands are strong but gentle. Alive with tenderness.” Her chin still dropped, cheeks weighted with tears, she added, “I suppose that makes me lucky…”
The canopy’s entrance stirred and in walked Patroclus. "Are you two planning to lay about all day?;
"What do you propose we do?" Achilleus eased hands behind his head. "You wish to help old Dog-Faced One? No thanks-to you or that cowardly idiot…Last night at council Diomed spoke truly; Agememnon is jinxed-whether by scheming Saturn or not. For some reason given Jove’s honour and aegis to rule us, but how bereft of valour."
At those words Patroclus assumed a stoop, squinted his eyes and bobbed his neck.H-H-How dare you!; he stammered in a high pitch of outrage, thrusting feet at half-angles outward in waddling walk.
"Ooo-oh!" Briseis jumped upright and clapped her hands, "Yes, Agememnon the Mum-mer!"; Glee shone full in her eyes. "Do Nestor! Patroclus; or Odysseus"
At her side Achilleus raised an eyebrow. "Friend I do indeed think she favors you better than me."
"Now, now,"noble Patroclus gently chided, "Play you your lute, why even your savage heart is thus calmed; yes, do your complaining with fanciful notes."
On Achilleus the trace of a scowl broke the heightened smoothness of his cheeks. "No, I think not-though that pleasure be most pleasant and without conflict; I’ve no use today; as most hateful to me is the arrogance of Agememnon the two-faced. the grievance has soured me, too deeply.
Though Patroclus knew how poorly their council had gone, he could tell that Achilleus had not told his dear Briseis…
When he and Achilleus had captured her home city, the poor woman had been shrieking with madness upon the sight of her dead husband and three brothers returned to her; blood having barely dried upon the wounds, cooled forever now, faces fixed in the death mask of agony.
When she was brought to the presence of Achilleus and Patroclus, with fierce beauty she’d hurled insults at them, Yes, I know all about you, heartless Achaean, do you wish to slake your lust and kill me too?
Patroclus had watched as for the first time ever, he saw his good friend taken aback by a woman. It even seemed as if he were to cry-at least it looked as if his eyes had grown moist beneath the metalwork of his war helmet, which he removed and set aside. With both hands outstretched, he then reached down to the huddled Briseis, and, beckoning for her hands, helped her rise. I am most sorry, he murmered, I vow I will care for you now…
Patroclus had then said, And I will be your brother…
Now as Achilleus rose from his bed and gazed down upon Briseis, Patroclus saw the same sorrow.
"Friend, please entertain our dear lady, I will be back," Achilleus said. Bowing deeply, he backed through the curtained entrance and was gone…
Waves gently loamed upon the sands before him-the sounds as soothing as his mother’s voice.
"Oh Thetis," he murmered, "What am I to do? How is it I am to have no wife? I swear Briseis is an honourable woman and she is my choice…"
A full moon hung in all soft glory off the horizon. Across the sea-all molten, deep midnight blue. The skiffs of waves spangled as if silver.
"To be first among the foremost-this matter have I always been taught…For what, mother? To die an early death for the sake of that skulking dogface who now steals my wife after having stolen my honor? He was to be only our principal chief, how is it none of the other Acheans can see the error of his ways? Why, Mother? Why has our Heavenly Father Zeus forsaken me so?…"
His voice faded to a whisper. Before him the slow roll of waves lulled him as low, steady thunder…
"Yes, I truly see your rides, kind mother," spoke Achilleus, as he drifted off to sleep…
When the mighty chariot of Phoebus again pulled the sun’s constant globe all ablaze from the depths of Oceanus, Achilleus woke with a start. In front of him was a smoothly rounded, polished cedar chest.
He lifted the lid-stiff with finely-crafted hinges-and found inside, wrapped in silken cloth, a chalise of exquiste beauty. Silver embroidered with a ring of delicate leaves, the body inlaid with rubies…
Outside the tent now sounded footsteps through the sun-hardened earth. Standards announced Agememnon’s emissaries and waited, ill at ease, for response. "Yes, yes, come in," said Achilleus, gesturing both with eyes and hands. "We’ve been expecting you." Wary and tense, the king’s heralds advanced. "Orders from the king," clipped one, "The oracle predicts victory from Zeus upon return of the daughter of Apollo’s priest and award of Briseis to our king."
Hands neared swords as Achilleus widened eyes-flashing sparks of rage before softening like embers.
“Come, come,” he gestured, overly gracious, “Enjoy a good feast, good cohorts, before your dictum falls.”
Patroclus, made suddenly humble, laid cuts. Briseis, whom Achilleus had told, as best he could, upon his return that morning, emerged from the rear room of the tent in full fury. "Are you a coward?" she screamed at Achilleus. "Defend me if you are indeed a man!"
Achilleus averted her eyes, unable to speak. "Dear Sister," Patroclus said, gently taking her arm, "He can do nothing right now, he is powerless to go against our war council. I told you, by all and utmost sacred vow, when he is able to secure your rescue and return he will…"
Made deeply uncomfortable, out of respect for their great warrior, the standards proffered excuse to decline the feast table. Achilleus shrugged, gestured for them to gather the chests of Briseis in the rear of the tent. When he walked to Briseis, palms outstretched, beseeching forgiveness, none was granted-she strode to the standards, departed, her head held tremoringly high, not looking back.
Void of utterance, the night sky- imperturbable Heaven-radiated stars…Not a breath of air…While a thousand watch-fires gleamed down upon the plain; gesturing men gathered round each, their war-horses, cleansed of the day’s hardened blood and mud, coats spangling anew, crunching oats and corn beside the darkly gleaming war chariots…
Inside the gently rustling canopy of his tent, Achilleus, his newly found chalice in hand, sat drinking the mead of Zeus…Sipping, careful not to unman himself…
They shall seek and they shall not find.
Tom Noonan is a Bay Area (US) multimedia artist.This piece’s title comes from the wisdom of the ancients, who believed that the nourishing milk of the Heavenly Mother,Hera, would–through misuse of “the feminine principle”– turn into “the bitter gall of Heaven.” A karmic transmutation perhaps akin to the ancient Chinese saying of “may your life be interesting.”
Against a Falling Fabric
(after Shakespeare, Coriolanus)
Even the doe nuzzling the old Chinese man—seated upon a rock in the tree-lined shelter of a cool glade—was of no consolation to him.
“Ah, I am just an old man now,” he sighed, the muscles in his broad chest shaking with grief. “Nobody pays me any mind any more.”
Several squirrels who’d scampered in from the forest shook tails like plumes, then, with soft, almondine eyes, resumed watching him. The monkeys who’d swung down from the branches regarded him too—tipping heads first one way, then the other, holding feet in hands and gently rocking. The doe went back to grazing.
The chin of his big bald head nodded inwards as the large luminous eyes that used to sparkle with mirth when he was teaching softly teared.
He’d taken to coming here for respite when he could no longer handle the camp of monks and nuns. Too often he found himself distracted, unable to pay attention to his pupils—or even to the mundane matters of seeing that the supplies were properly gathered, the meals cooked. Though his eyesight was failing (his hearing, too, getting even worse) he knew that his troubles lay elsewhere.
Perhaps he no longer knew what to do…
He remembered how at one time he would lecture to 1,000 people on Vulture Peak, with people traveling from far provinces just to hear him discourse on the Dharma. How in the world had things become so different?
In front of him one of the monkeys stood, did a backflip, then reseated himself to the chattering approval of the others. Usually said tricks made his eyes grow wide with wonder, his belly shake with amusement. But not today. Another tear slowly ran down his cheek.
For too long now he’d found that, no matter which way he led the camp, they could find no monasteries remaining. Perhaps, he thought, that when Emperor Wu’s troops had arrived at their own monastery he should have done things differently. Yet he could not believe his ears when the captain had confronted him—as the senior teacher—and demanded that, according to new proclamation, they renounce Buddhism as a foreign superstition and convert the monastery to a center for studies of native Confucianism. He’d been sewing a rip in one of his robes, and, not wishing to be distracted, had simply nodded his head No.
The troops had brandished swords and lances and prodded everyone out of the buildings and courtyard. Then they had gathered all the religious statues, thangka paintings and other sacred objects forming the shrine’s alter and, denouncing it all as demonic idolatry, smashed everything into a pile of rubble.
Next, as all watched in astonishment, the buildings were torched. Flames leaping high behind them, the troops then left—coarse laughter resounding among the hoof beats…
Since that time—six years that have seemed like an eternity—they trekked to Lung Hsing Monastery, then K’ai Yuan and a dozen others outlying their region. At each one, rubble. His scouts would return—eager with news of one in an area not yet plagued by the mad Emperor and his cadres of Confucian court scribes—and each time, with high spirits, they’d set out as if seeking the promised land of Heaven.
Yet too many times now they’d crest a hill and discover, in the distance, columns of billowing black smoke. As if the troops had awaited their arrival before destroying. Still more crying refugees followed with tales of fresh destruction.
They had even had to take on groups of nuns—wandering in utter bewilderment. The older ones wide-eyed with fear, unable to speak of the savagings the younger ones had had to endure as each was bounced roughly along from one soldier to another.
Of course he knew that monks and nuns in the same camp was not a wise idea, but what choice had he had?
In the branches above him birds chirruped, startling him. The squirrels and monkeys before him still sat, regarding him.
“So, you are my pupils now. Hmmn, yes, I see,” he chuckled.
His thoughts returned to the source of their plague—Langdarma the heretic! The heretic’s brother, who’d administered the province before him, had been most favorably disposed towards Buddhism.
He himself had been invited to the capital to discourse the Dharma and had delivered one of his best and sharpest sermons. He’d told the tale of mountains and rivers: at first in practice, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers. Then one begins to notice mountains in everything. Rivers in everything. If one looks, for example, at a peak when the sun is just right, it glimmers like a river. When one gazes into a stream, seeing the cool deep rockbed beneath the spangling surface, then relaxing the eyes with mushin, no gaze, no concepts, no form, no emptiness, one sees the surface of the water as being as solid and of great form as a mountain. Then mountains become rivers and rivers become mountains…
The governor had then asked, But then what happens?
He’d flashed his famous inscrutable smile and said, The ox returns home of itself…
Out of jealousy, however, Langdarma had murdered his brother—claiming in secret it was necessary because as governor he’d gotten out of control. Shrewdly, to ensure protection, he’d then sent a scholar, Han Tse, to the Emporer Wu with this nonsense of return to native Confucianism, expel the foreign devils. The propaganda was quite elaborate: the Chinese in their innate wisdom should have known better when this tall, gaunt figure Bodhidharma, the First Patriarch of Buddhism in China, had appeared from India several generations ago. Wrong body style for the more corpulent and sensual Chinese. One too aggressive as well—this light-skinned devil Bodhidharma was possessed of unnatural abilities and unnatural quickness and strength and had taught his demonic martial arts to so many since that the very security of the nation-state was threatened! Too, this devil’s gaze—piercing with intensity—would enter the softly-focused, unsuspecting eyes of the Chinese and subtly brainwash them with sorcery! Before one knew it, one would wind up in Hell! Under the new Confucian Mandate from Heaven, one would then face a bureaucratic scribe, who’d hold a long list of sins allegedly committed… The scribe’s face would affect sadness as he’d enumerate; any help, of course, unavailable now…
Never had he heard such claptrap! Such perversion of the Dharma! Why, the monkeys when they chattered made more sense! Cannily the right idea had been stolen from holy writ and dissembled in the false piety of another!
Still that part had not been the worst. Cloaked words can always be brought to the light of Truth by the subtle use of dialectics in debate. No, this Langdharma had become the very embodiment of depravity. Palace orgies went on for days—and he was especially fond of despoiling young Buddhist women, thinking himself thus empowered of the poor woman’s good karma. Mad Emporer Wu did not seem to care—if he even noticed at all, it was said that when messengers from the Court visited Langdharma he was the very model of uprightness…
The squirrels and monkeys were chattering in alarm now. He was sobbing mightily. Ah, it was all so intolerable. And he could do nothing to stop it. Langdharma would send spies, posing as refugees, into his camp, and like a subtle poison, they’d be too difficult to detect until the damage was done. Stooped with humility around him or the senior monks and nuns, these spies would then turn licentious in private, seducing the unsuspecting with tales of how much better life was at a place nearby—of which he, whom they called the Old Fool, was oblivious. Supposedly he was being punished by Heaven for his youthful arrogance and other such alleged shortcomings—their script accompanying each one varied with the latest disasters. Tales of Heavenly Consorting that brought instant enlightenment were snake-tongued into the ears of the young females—who would disappear with the spies to face sexual slavery under Langdharma.
At least that was what his scouts loyal still reported. This dog fattens itself by feeding on our human flesh! But perhaps not. Perhaps he indeed existed in complete delusion, perhaps his dislike of Langdharma was misfounded. Maybe he was an old fool who’d failed his people. One thing he did know for certain—it would be better if the dog simply killed him off instead of having him wander in abject misery as an object lesson to all…
A branch overladen with monkeys crashed suddenly to the ground—sending them leaping and howling into space, scampering away upon landing.
Yes, he thought, Manjushri stood before Gautama with a drawn sword!
He closed his eyes and the whole plan became clear. In the nearby village a farmer sympathetic to them had a sturdy white mare. He would put Young Grasshopper in charge of the camp—telling him to move only if necessary—and go to this farmer and borrow his pony. He would gather some garments to disguise himself as a beggar and outfit a bag with fresh clothes and some black dye. His folding bow and an arrow, too. Then he would ride like the wind to Langdharma’s capital; reportedly the little fool’s arrogance had reached such heights that he strolled about without a care, as his subjects either obsequiously flattered him or hid in stark terror.
So when he crossed the last river before the capital, he would dye the mare black—upon his return the river crossing would wash her white again.
Then, with the bow and arrow in the folds of his robe, he would reach the capital, tether the mare and sit and beg alms. It would be just a matter of time before the opportunity presented itself.
Deep, deep within his mind’s eye he saw himself stealthily click the bow into place, rise to his full height and with the strength with which he once practiced hitting the target draw his great bow until the string was taut against his straining chest and stilled chin…
When he released the bowstring he could not tell if it was the arrow or him speeding to its destiny with such strength. No matter. When it hit the heart of the heretic the grief in his own heart burst. Void and emptiness…
Leaves gently rustled as a cool breeze stirred, brushing his cheeks, bringing him back into awareness. Standing, he opened his eyes, turned and set about.
Mountains would again be mountains…