1979 “Threading the Needle”
A Yellow Bike Production
In 1979, I read George Orwell’s 1984, at the impressionable age of 21, it was the beginning of my contemporary paranoia. Conspiracy theories would soon follow. Now in 2011, I start writing the tale of an epic year in my journey, 1979 stands alone in the years of my life, now nearly fifty three of them, and yet it was greatly influenced by the twenty preceding years and has largely colored all of the years since. It was the year I truly cut all ties to a former life and struck out on a foolish yet brave, uncharted path. I left my home outside Milwaukee Wisconsin and headed west in a high school friends ’72 Oldsmobile. With the help of an “agent of monetary aid”, we struck out to make our fortune in the mountain forests of the Pacific Coast. Now thirty two plus years later, I live in the Pacific Northwest, Portland Oregon to be exact. I live in a modest, custom 1918 house on the Northeast side. I call it my “goat barn”. I pass myself off as a woodworker. I dream of rebuilding an old wooden sailboat and striking out for warmer, sunnier digs.
In 1979 I read the late great author and prankster Ken Kesey’s book, “Sometimes a Great Notion”, and found the opening history of the Stamper family as amusing then as I find it prophetic now. Henry Stamper’s father, while building the infamous Stamper house, packs up and walks away from his family, his life, and the saturated, man rotting wet of the Waconda Valley, after finding his box of nails rusted beyond use. So here I am, in Portland Oregon in the year 2011. The summer of 2010 was all of about three days long, never once breaking a hundred degrees and only reaching the nineties twice. So far this year, and it is now half way through May, summer and, indeed spring, seem like a distant mirage. It is truly these times that try a persons resolve. Depression sets in, suicide rates spike, vitamin D deficiency takes its toll, bees struggle for warmth and a fleeting shot at the flowers that rot in bloom, people ponder the cost of enclosing that outdoor veranda they built three years ago, the ground oozes like a saturated sponge, the chill sets in for the long haul, and among other maladies, people talk of that thing, the “crud”. “Oh, I’m a little out of sorts today”. “Zat so, whatcha got?” “Oh, you know, the crud.”
I was told, shortly after relocating to the beautiful, ever green Willamette Valley, that Willamette is derived from a Native American word meaning “little sickness”. Not, as one might hope, the valley of little sickness, but rather, the valley of many perpetual little sicknesses, the kind of elusive bug you’re not absolutely sure you’ve got but clings to your sole like a pair of wet socks. For many it is simply allergies no doubt, and as, like myself, Portland is comprised chiefly of transplants from other climates, allergies develop over the years. The first winter I spent in the valley, living in a small cottage on the Southeast side of Portland with my girlfriend and an old pal from Wisconsin, all three of us came down with some sort of “walking Pneumonia”, had to resort to antibiotics to get rid of it. But for the most part, little sicknesses take the day. Everybody brings their dietary traditions with them, and rather than adapting to the “climate”, suffer the consequences of a poor regional diet. The indigenous people’s diet consisted of fish and roots, and before commercial fisheries opened and started selling all the fish to the rest of the world, regional seafood was abundant and affordable, and a terrific supplement for the lacking vitamin D from the ever lacking presence of sunshine. And then there is “El Nino”, “El Nina”, and the lurking omnipresence of “Climate Change.”
Rambling I am, but how the mind wanders into the great gray mists of the “Pacific Wonderland”. Well, here I am in the Willamette Valley in 2011, dreaming of other shores and exotic, half naked women combing other beaches for the treasures only “other” beaches can offer. And I pass myself off as a woodworker.
If women were in charge, if somehow we had evolved as a matriarchal society, it goes without saying that things would be different. Indeed, hints and remnants of ancient matriarchies are still evident today, veiled as they are behind the posturing of loud and powerful men. Our military strategy for one, would have little in common with today’s. That is to assume we would need a military as such, in the traditional sense of the word. Perhaps we would have no urgent need to send our children off to far away lands to impose our will on other worlds . Don’t get me wrong, I am truly honored that our men and women in uniform are out there willing to lay down their lives to protect me and those I love from whatever threats, real, imagined, or conjured, are out there. There is no greater commitment or devotion to the people of a sovereign nation. But if women were running the show, there might be a whole lot more talking things through, endless summits, meetings, and an infinite number of compromises and treaties, detentes and pacts, and a whole lot less blood. Perhaps.
But if warfare was inevitable, what would battlefield strategy look like? Lots of pointy things, implements of trajectory, devices that fire things from an orifice designed to penetrate, long cylindrical tubes arched skyward phallus like? I think not. Our weaponry would surly be more seductive and alluring, perhaps manipulative, and certainly more cunning. The Sirens would sing and the traps would spring, and the prisoners would be forced to do all of the dirty work. They would be garbage men.
And what of the uniforms? Blending camouflage is out. To be seen, in all the glory and color of a desert flower, sets the bait. What then might be the result, if apposing sides in the conflict showed up in the same outfit?
I was a social misfit as a young man, and I suppose still am. I had no “way with the ladies”, and I suppose still don’t. Not that opportunities never presented themselves, they did. Rhonda begged me to help her rob a bank in Waukesha, using the maze of train tracks and the predictable timing of the trains for our escape. I may have misread her intentions. Emily needed help with her math in the shed behind her house, I may have misread her intentions. Cathy wanted to trade ski pants in the men’s room of a chalet, I may have misread her intentions. There were more, but now at fifty something, with no prospects for romance, why torture oneself? The point is, knowingly or not, I ran from every Siren song, unwittingly avoiding every trap, teetering on the precipice of the spring, and thus managed to stay free and roam the country for an extended period of young adulthood. Being a pathetic romantic, had I fallen in love at a tender age… Well, impossible to say.
The first time I had sex, it was with a friend’s older sister in Arizona, and to tell the truth, I was hammered drunk and she took full advantage of the situation. Her ex Green Beret husband off an a business trip and returning the following day helped spice up the dish. And then, in 1979, there was Anna Mae and the week of Mellow Yellow Experiments. I’ll get into that a bit later. For now, I’d just like to say, if she hadn’t hooked up with an older photographer at the Great Northern Bluegrass Festival in Crandon Wisconsin, and left my pal Jeffery and I to stick our thumbs in the air and set our sights Westward, a good half of 1979 would have looked a lot more like 1978.
1978 wasn’t actually a bad year, or even a slow year. Much of it was spent floating around the Great Lakes region searching for myself in unlikely places. Not seeing much redeeming value in our system of “higher education”, at the end of 1976 I managed to get kicked out of The University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire after a single semester. For purely academic reasons. I didn’t do anything wrong exactly, just never went to class again after one fateful canoe trip down the Chippewa River on the second weekend of the school year. I still consider the adventure educational, just not in the traditional sense.
So on the world burned. I hung around my home town of Waukesha until spring, hooked up with Scott, a fellow ex student who happened to be on that canoe trip, packed up my ’72 Buick Skylark full of tents, camping gear, fishing poles, a bow and arrow set, cooking implements, a few good books, and this rather illegal but fanciful crossbow, and drove North toward the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and the big lake they call Superior. We planned on finding some out of the way, off the beaten path hideout and “living off the fat of the land”. We were clueless. A week and a half later we found ourselves living off the generosity of the local jail house, caught red handed hunting and fishing without a license. Perhaps needless to say, our chances of shooting or catching anything to eat were immeasurably feeble, and we were getting mighty hungry. If we had had just a little more energy I’m sure we would have been dancing all the way to three squares.
In the slammer there in Ontanogan, we met a guy who knew a guy, and after five days on the inside had ourselves a quaint little octagon shaped cabin in the woods overlooking a beaver pond, and working for this guy milling Cedar logs and splitting them into shakes. In return he brought us groceries and cases of Leinenkugels beer, from Chippewa Falls, on the banks of the good old Chippewa River. Life was good. Porcupines, whitetail, beaver, and even bear shared our little seclusion in the trees. Some evenings, about dusk, we would run down to the Little Iron River, free a rubber raft from its ties, and paddle down stream in total darkness to Lake Superior. Now it was getting on late summer and the Smelt were running. A simple net dipped into the waters at the mouth of the Little Iron and we had a feast ready for the cooking. This was simple enough as well. Build a driftwood fire, nothing burns so sweet as sun baked driftwood on the beaches of Lake Superior, drip a little oil in a cast iron skillet, cut most of the way through from the back of the head of the tiny fish, pull off the head, the guts would follow, roll the little guy or gal in a bowl of flour, and delicately plop it into the pan. Pop open a couple of Leinenkugels and kick back against a log for the light show. The opening act, the stars. The second act, meteor showers. And the final act, the grand finale, the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights, the mysterious dancing green and red ribbons of pixey dust, like clockwork, would come on stage just around midnight. Life was good. Then I called home.
It is now 4:00, May 21, 2011. According to Family Radio president, Harold Camping, we now, here on the West Coast of America, have exactly two hours before the “End OF Times”. Those on the East Coast, including my daughter, have already experienced this incredible transformation. Hallelujah! The “rapture” is upon us.
So one is led to believe, and one really does need to be talked into this kind of load of crap, that all of the true believers souls will be transported to the kingdom of heaven, while the rest of us godless infidels are left here to parish in the fires of hell. Hmmm, let’s see, an eternity with a flock of mindlessly irresponsible bliss ninnies, or a few hours with my pals in the fires of hell… I’ll take the spicy dish thank you.
Actually, if God or Jesus or whoever checks their passports to heaven, would simply come down here and remove these La La Landers, transplant them to wherever it is they want to go, get them Out Of The Way , and just leave the rest of us the “hell” alone, to try to salvage what ignorance, greed, pride, and fear has been trying to destroy since God knows when, why that’d be just fine. We need to find our “story”. See you tomorrow.
In junior high and through high school, I had a friend, actually I had a few friends and a number of acquaintances, one of them, for lack of a better term, I suppose I would have to call my best friend. His name was Istaak. He was as certifiably cracked and broken as anyone I have met since, which is to say he was one of the sanest people I have ever known. He told many stories, I imagine some of them were true. One of those stories he related to me sitting atop an electrical tower, about two hundred feet above the earth, on a scrap of plywood we managed to haul up there and tie down. The wind rocking us over the trees below.
He told me his parents came from the “old world”. From someplace called Slovania or Slovakia, I know, but I’m pretty sure he said it was Slovania. He told me his father was in the resistance movement during WWII, was captured and interred in a prisoner of war camp by the Nazis. He told me he escaped on a pair of skis he’d fashioned from a couple of barrel staves, schussing off into the Alps and fending off the blood thirsty German Shepherds the guards loosed on him by punching them in their mouth as they sprang for the kill, thrusting his fist down their throats and snapping their necks. He told me he had the scars to prove it. He told me his father used to hit him in the head with a metal rake. And the wind rocked on.
So when I called home, my parents home, from a phone booth in Ontonagon, and was told that Istaak had jumped from an electric tower the day before, and flew about two hundred feet to Earth and death, the goodness of life faded instantly. It was my first encounter with mortality as a young adult, as a person that was suddenly able to comprehend and confront its permanence. I remember the funeral. I remember hooking up with some mutual friends for a kind of wake, among them, a guy we called Duster. Duster would play a prominent role in my story in the coming years. I don’t remember the drive back to Waukesha, leaving the comfort and the goodness I’d found in the octagon cabin and Lake Superior. I don’t remember much of the entire next month, consumed as I was by guilt and grief I suppose. I remember the last time I talked to Istaak and he told me of this strange sensation he was feeling in his tongue and in his head. His brother Matt was there and laughed at him and poked fun at his older brother. I figured this was simply another odd twist in the writhing, fantastical path of my “best friend”. Perhaps it was something more. And the wind rocks on.
I would return to the great north woods of Ontonagon in the months that followed, but somehow it would never be the same. It would never hold the same spell on an innocent flat-lander from Wisconsin. The octagon cabin was gone, chilly winds had started blowing, and Scott had gone one step too far into the mysteries of Carlos Castaneda and Don Juan, the “teachings”. His “quest for knowledge” had run him up, taken him around the bend, never to entirely return. Eventually, I beat a hasty retreat, Stella Blue on my shoulder (a cat I had found on my hitch hike up there), thumb in the air, and I like to think, the wind at my back.
In 1989 I took my father to see the Grateful Dead at Alpine Valley on Father’s Day. It was a good show as Dead shows go. I helped him down over the concrete wall and right up to the stage at the feet of Jerry Garcia. We were there for a good part of Throwin’ Stones before security escorted us back to the grass. I hope to never forget that.
In 1977 I found the Grateful Dead, or perhaps they found me, or “it” found me. Anyways, I felt like I found “it”. The back door to never never land, the secret pass to the party we’re all invited to but lost the directions, the escape hatch from a world I never belonged to, a world that robs itself of meaning and replaces it with pretty little shiny things and warns you that “it’s all good fun until someone loses their soul”. And there they were, on a rainy day in Waukesha. I was driving around looking for something I was sure I’d not find there when I ran into Duster buying a six pack. The six pack we shared while he played some music on his cassette deck, I think it was “Wake of the Flood”. Huh, lookie here, look what I found. Come to find out, the Dead were going to be playing in Madison in February of ’78. And the wheels started turning.
Sometime in the late sixties, my aunt and uncle bought me two albums for Christmas. One was The Raspberries, and the other was The Grateful Dead’s American Beauty. I actually asked for the Raspberries album, don’t remember why and it’s not important. I’m thinking one of the latent hippie salespeople at the record store was either exercising their delightful sense of humor or actually trying to share something they thought was special with some poor lost kid that wanted a Raspberries album for Christmas. Neither my Aunt nor my Uncle had ever heard of the Grateful Dead and, if they had, surely wouldn’t have presented it to their nephew. I listened to the Raspberries a couple of times, I wore American Beauty down to a skipping, scratchy sheet of cellophane. Many years later I’d dig it out and learn how to play the drums to it.
Last year, March 20th, it was March 21st, the first day of spring on the west coast, my father passed away. We hadn’t been close really for many years, I guess their was a rather healthy amount of mutual disrespect between us. I had been a bit of a disappointment while he had traded his dreams for a ticket to the “money show”. We were probably both right and both wrong, both at the same time. I have been surprised by the memories that have resurfaced in the last year, good ones. The place in my life that he filled will be forever empty save for those memories, I will never have another father. I feel the loss and, at the same time, am able to celebrate the richness his being bestowed on my world. And I admire his timing in the leaving. He had Alzheimer’s, amongst other maladies related and unrelated, his appreciation for life had nowhere to go but away. Time ground over him like a glacier, burying recent memories while it churned up long forgotten chapters of a young man, full of feeling, full of life. He would get all choked up talking about his friends that never came back from World War II. The last time I visited, I could see him looking at me sideways, a wisp of a sideways smile on his face, a childish glint in his eyes, reaching into the fog for a memory, and coming back with only the emotions left by forgotten things. I was prepared for the leaving. I was not prepared for the absence.