July 29, 2008

Aftermath

I got out of the newspaper truck somewhere in southern Maine and continued hitching. A couple from Massachusetts picked me up and let me stay overnight at their place in Bar Habor. After breakfast I walked to the ferry landing and bought the ticket for a cheap ferry ride to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, an 11-hour trip in stormy water. The voyage began after dark. I'd spent many months in the Marine Corps on Navy ships, and I didn't mind rough water. You must have confidence in a ship or it's anxiety and sometimes misery. I was standing on the bow about midnight getting spray in my face, when I felt an expanding pain in my chest. I figured it was a heart attack, so I made my way back toward the Bridge and laid my back on the cold wet deck and tried to calm down. Then I reached in my shirt pocket for my cigarettes and threw them overboard, saying aloud, "God, if you let me live I'll quit smoking." The pain went away, and I didn't have another cigarette for five years. Funny how God answers prayers and even makes bargains, and we sort of forget about it, thinking it was some sort of coincidence that we got what we asked for. We almost have to hear the Cosmic Voice of God booming from the sky with a Direct Order in our own name to fully believe in Him. When I reached Yarmouth I obtained a map and struck out for Wolfville, where Jan lived. He'd gone to college there, had met George in school, and they both had moved back when the Sixties went to hell and I was just back from jail in Louisiana. I'm always looking up old friends, and hate it when I lose their addresses and phone numbers. (I keep them in triplicate now.) From Wolfville I obtained directions and made the five-mile walk to the place that Jan had purchased--77 acres on top of a small mountain called Ward's Mountain, with a two-story farmhouse-- for a mere $6,500. The deal was that Burton Ward could live there until he died. So Jan was building a small A-frame house from scrounged wood a short distance away and living upstairs with his girlfriend Christine and her daughter, Amy. Jan is an unusual guy, which is probably why I love him. I have never seen him lose his cool. You can tell him the most outrageous thing, and he might rub his chin and say, "Hmmm." He thinks about things, doesn't talk much, and back then he was into microphotography--taking very closeup pictures of small things. Once I watched him looking at the ground for about 10 minutes by the seashore. Finally, he lowered himself with his camera aimed at pebbles. He moved it around for about five minutes until he saw what he was looking for, and snapped a photo. When he printed it, I saw the most remarkable picture of rocks that I ever saw. It was a work of art. But everything God makes is a work of art, and our job is to see it. Burton, 77 years old, lived downstairs and spent most of his time in the kitchen by an old wood cook stove, which was the only heat in the house except Jan's small electric heater. He sat there in a straight-backed chair all day feeding the stove, rolling cigarettes, smoking them, stamping them out on the worn linoleum floor, then picking up the butts and rolling them into cigarettes again, and watching a small, snowy black-and-white tv with nothing on it. I spent a lot of time sitting on the dirty couch talking to Burton. He apparently had never been farther from his home than one trip to Halifax, less than a hundred miles. Whenever I told him something about the world outside, he would answer with, "You don't say." The mountain had belonged to his family since Alexander the Great, and he'd spent his whole life selling it off in pieces. Because he had been a farmer at one time, he felt he always needed a horse. He would buy one and keep it in a small shed, where it stood like the meek to inherit the earth until merciful death arrived. Then he would hire a guy with a bulldozer to drag out the body and bury it, and buy another unlucky horse. He was ignorant and harmless except to horses, and I never saw him leave the house for any reason. He had an old cat that stayed over by the stove that I studiously ignored to put it at ease. One day the cat left its bed and crawled into my lap. Burton was astonished. He said, "Well I'll be. He ain't never done that before in his whole life." That kitchen was overheated, and Jan was usually upstairs covered up in bed with his girlfriend. It was colder upstairs. Burton Ward taught me how to make a blueberry patch bear more blueberries by burning off the undergrowth in early Spring. Fire doesn't hurt the tough blueberry bush, and the ashes provide phosphate that the plants thrive on. When his own 10 acres of blueberries were ready, he let pickers take them for ten cents a quart. During that time I also met a Mic-Mac Indian, who took me to his small house and told me about the history of his tribe--they once ranged as far south as New York--and showed me pictures of his family that were so old they were yellow. I told him I didn't think much of the white men, either, and he laughed while opening me a beer. Besides talking to old Ward, I spent a lot of time trying to read "Capital," but never got very far with it. You have to be some sort of natural genius or a socialist-economist to understand that stuff. Jan drove me around Nova Scotia. I'd never seen such big ravens, and the countryside of large rolling hills fascinated me. Once we went to a party up the road given by some hippies, who had started a baked cookie business and were doing pretty well. Except for having to cut through his pasture to avoid a bull that had had broken through a fence and was standing in the road considering me, that's about all I remember of it. After a couple of weeks I became restless and decided to look for a job. I was nearly broke (amazing how far a hundred dollars went back then,) and Jan suggested a fishing boat. He and Chris took me to Lunenberg south of Halifax and waved goodbye. I had $10 left. I went to a bar and started talking to two guys. Sure they knew a fishing boat. They told me where it was, and I stayed in their house overnight and showed up at the boat about dawn. It was sailing at 8 a.m. When he saw I was an American who didn't know anything about the trade, the captain hired me on the spot. I was given the job of gutting the fish that came out of the net, bottom of the pay-scale. It was a 150-foot bottom-trawler, and the catch was mostly cod, halibut, and redfish. Everything but the redfish we gutted. Those we packed in ice. I stood at a galvanized U-shaped trough with with another guy across from me and seawater sluicing through it. The net dumped tons of fish in the hold, and men waded into the wriggling mass slicing them open with razor-sharp knives and tossing them to us. Some of the codfish were as big as me, but fishermen told me they were "babies," that all the big ones had been caught years before. We ripped out their beating hearts and everything beneath, and threw them to another guy. The guts went back to the ocean to feed the remaining fish and gulls that would have followed us to the Antarctic. It was messy, bloody, stinking and hard work. It was six hours on, six hours off. We fished the Grand Banks near Labrador, ate stuff like shark soup for breakfast, and sometimes played checkers but never chess. The North Atlantic was, to say the least, rough. It's always rough. But it didn't bother me, except once. There was an 80-year old fisherman who had been on the boats since he was nine. His hands were as broad as a badmitton racquet. We were sitting in the galley drinking coffee and talking when the boat hit the bottom of a trough with a shuddering crash, then tilted precariously into the next big wave, and, never having been out in such a small vessel, I asked, "How much can she take?" He said, "Whatever comes," and I relaxed. He ought to know. The thing I liked best about being on the boat was that twice a week I stood Watch on the Bridge. During the two years all-told that I had spent on ships in the marines, I had never been near the wheelhouse. One night the Mate let me take the helm in a heavy sea, and I was exhilarated knowing that the boat was under my control. What a feeling! I got the hang of it in no time, though I was in no way qualified to steer the ship anywhere except into the waves. Then the wind picked up and the Mate took it back. When I wasn't gutting fish (and occassionally getting a sting ray thrown at me as a joke--we caught everything down there,) I either slept or spent my off hours trying to understand Marx and scribbling notes. Nobody on the ship had ever heard of him. Fishermen couldn't care less about politics. I don't think there was another book on the boat. I was sure they couldn't understand me, so I didn't try to explain myself. I was just another American hippie, and Canada was full of them. One night the net brought up a slimy boulder as big as a Volkswagen that had been on the bottom for a billion years, and a gang of us had to untangle it and push it overboard into the threatening ocean, which was roiling over the deck. Then we had to repair the net with belaying pins, which I had done with landing nets in the marines, so it wasn't unfamiliar work to me. But it was so cold that salt water turned to ice, and impossible to do it wearing gloves; but we did it barehanded, anyway. We cracked ice from the deck with axes and kicked it overboard. But after a month of it, the six-on, six-off routine was wearing on me, so when we landed back in Lunenberg with what they said was a disappointing catch, I collected my pay (a stingy $150) and hitched back to Jan's. After another week, I headed back to the States. Joey and Jaime preyed on my mind. Karl Marx preyed on my mind. Everything preyed on my mind it seemed. Nothing was clear. I was confused but still young-enough to be determined to do something with my life. It's more than 30 years later, and I'm still determined. The Canada trip had eased my mind and helped me accept that my marriage was finished; but I wasn't happy about it. I wasn't happy about anything and would not be for 30 years. Leaving my wife and kid led me through one of the gates of hell into a living nightmare of despondency, loneliness and self-pity that lurked like Jack the Ripper at the edge of consciousness for any moment when I lowered my guard enough to remember it. My guard was never very good, and I remembered it every day. The consequences are still going on. We don't escape from anything, and we don't get anything we don't deserve. (Don't ask me to explain that.) It has something to do with those inexorable laws of the Universe that Einstein talked about, Faulkner tried to distill, and bibles simplify and romanticize. I don't understand it. But I know without being able to prove it that every action or non-action makes a wave that flows out to the end of time. It has nothing to do with religion or physics, which are only ways of explaining the unexplainable. We don't know, and we probably never will. All we can do is accept it and try to do right, often doing wrong instead. There's nothing we can do about the past. Believe it or not, I only recently learned that. I've always been a slow-learner.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

MIKE provocative stuff.. I got reminded of a Zen story. Monks find a rotting dog in the street. Think it would be interesting to see the master's reaction to such distasteful physical corruption. When they took him past it, watching eagerly for his reaction, he exclaimed "See how its teeth shine!!" Your writing shines, Mike.. BILLJA5

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