Sunday, September 13, 2015

Shiloh

I got to Shiloh after a long drive south from the interstate and deep into the swamps of southwestern Tennessee. Miles and miles of trees, a clean, no-shoulder highway, no evidence of traffic in the form of litter, here and there a sign advertising Bubba’s Catfish Shack, and then, suddenly, a national park, a huge swampy, piney, national “military” park with probably more alligators than people in it, filled with ravines, bayous, creeks, humpy ridges and a damp forest  floor raising a fog of steam. Very few people there, the Visitor Center parking lot was almost empty, perhaps because the heat is stifling. It’s only slightly less deserted there now than in 1862, except the roads that the Union army hoped to travel further south are now the paved route of the driving tour.

The driving tour: a single car travels on that narrow National Park Service pavement with the clean forest sweeping away, and what looks like a widely spaced cemetery full of monuments distributed throughout. Big ones, little ones, ornate ones, simple ones. Granite monuments marking this or that headquarters, the end of this or that line, the place where 2100 federals surrendered, the location of this or that hurriedly placed battery. The memorials of many different eras all share the space; hence you see markers made of cannonballs and old cannons marking some spots(the oldest), then rusting metal plaques marking others(the not-so-old), than fancy modern NPS signs (the newest). Monuments mark the spots where important things happened or resided-- for example, where William Wallace was mortally wounded, and where Haith had his headquarters, and where the blue and gray lines first made contact.

Most interesting to me, you have a sign--within a stone’s throw of little ramshackle Shiloh church itself-- that marks the end of Buckland’s line. I saw this from the car. Buckland was the brigade commander in which Amos Laymon’s regiment was included. Amos was the brother of my great great grandfather, and Buckland was his brigade commander, part of Sherman's division. The sign sits at the corner of a parking lot and it’s hard not to notice the wet path leading away from it into the woods. Which has to be followed. Because if Buckland’s line ended there, and the confederates were coming up from the south, than Amos’s regiment must have camped somewhere along that path.

Sure enough, I tramped into the woods and found markers/memorials marking where the three Ohio regiments camped that made up Buckland’s Brigade, including Amos’s. Getting better oriented I was able to see why those outfits often turn up in histories of the battle. They were the closest to the enemy and the furthest from safety.

The leader of the regiment just to the left of Amos’s, a man named Cockerill, tried repeatedly to make Sherman understand there was a crowd of rebels before him, without success.  All three regiments got assaulted at 7 a.m., their breakfast uneaten, and continued fighting until 10, almost surrounded, when one of the Sherman’s staff ordered them back. Buckland himself was commended in Sherman’s report.

And Amos was seriously injured, according to the roster of the 48th Ohio. I don’t know how or where. He was 39 years old and soon went back to Lynchburg, Ohio, where he had been recruited the previous October. He had boarded the steamboat Empress in Paducah, Kentucky for the trip down, and made it his home for 12 days until finally unloading at Pittsburgh Landing near Shiloh, then spread out into the woods with his regiment to loaf and invite his soul, more than two miles from the landing. It was all spring and songbirds until the morning of April 6. The Battle of Shiloh was his first and only day of war.

I traveled further south to the town of Corinth, MS, whose vital railroad junction had attracted so much union interest in the first place. There’s a great interpretive center there, with cannons on display from the battle, a research library, an allegorical fountain, a movie auditorium and a bookstore. There too, I was one of about three patrons.

The town of Corinth itself, grand as it sounds, must be one of the saddest little towns I’ve ever seen, even now. Never very big, it swelled to more than 40,000 after the battle and during the subsequent siege, most of these people wounded or dying. Every building became a hospital, the water was foul, and disease was rampant. During all this it was also the scene of two bloody battles, and upon giving it up both armies burned it. I figured it had good reason to be sad.

But the railroad junction is still there. And a lot of ghosts, I guess. You withdraw credulity when I mention ghosts, of course. But standing in the middle of the woods by the 48th Ohio encampment, miles from the nearest soul, I swore I smelled gunpowder.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Intelligent life in California


Deserts are not just for recluses anymore. Nowadays, entirely respectable people go there and rent houses and stay, and burn stuff, and watch caloric waves shimmer off the desert floor, and feel rugged and hardy and American, and drink a lot. You might have thought the desert was just for coyotes and creepy lizards, but I’m here to tell you. Much of Los Angeles is there, goes there every year, at least in the winter.

I’m talking about the constellation of towns near Joshua Tree National Park: Desert Hot Springs, Cathedral City, Twenty Nine Palms, Yucca Valley City, Palm Springs, all of them partners-in-baking when the calendar progresses past May. Bob Hope made Palm Springs famous, mostly for the golf, I think. Dinah Shore, Gene Autry, the Rat Pack—the place has celebrity credentials. I found it mostly walled golf courses interspersed with walled condos and walled strip malls.

One day I got taken out to a mystery location in the Mojave Desert. Out we went to where the roads became rougher and thinner, and the desert began to dominate again over the futile etchy-sketchy byways of humankind. We went toward a destination my friend wouldn’t reveal, for an event she wouldn’t describe, and an experience she couldn’t calculate. Eventually, I realized why, as after I had it I couldn’t say much either.


We entered a gate like one of the many along those roads, opening to a property filled with superseded furniture, the bodies of ancient automobiles, many of them bullet ridden, antique refrigerators, antique freezers, skeletal old easy chairs, middens of colored bottles, roadside signs that formerly stood before hotels, drive-in restaurants and summer camps, forgotten children’s trampolines, the occasional jumble of go-kart and minibike parts, and other sequelae of hobby enthusiasm gone amuck, all long abandoned, all radiating slowly outward from the house in an ever-expanding pool like an oil slick.

Except this property was clean and neat and kind of enchanting. The parking lot was swept, small structures of neat carpentry stood nearby. Even the ancient automobile bodies look scrubbed.

This was the surrounding ground of The Integratron, which the signs there began to instruct us.

There were neatly carpentered benches, a wall of clean chalkboard with large cylinders of chalk waiting below, and a full length mirror displaying the picture of you over the words You Are Here. There was a cluster of hammocks beneath a gauzy shade, and free standing outbuildings in warm colors.

At the far end of the property was The Integratron itself. It looks like an observatory, about 60 feet high, a big white dome colored a metallic-looking white but in fact built of plywood and other non-magnetic materials. This you learn when you see the pictures of it under construction in the check-in office beside it. 

What you also learn, reader--something I’ll wager you didn’t know but not many people do in this age of distraction and ignorance of our heritage. What you also learn is that the Integratron was one of the first places on earth we made contact with the wisdom of other planets. Since then, owing to its highly unique resonance and geological anomalies, it has served as a place of cellular rejuvenation and the first stop in anyone’s education wishing to prolong life indefinitely.

Again, reader, please don’t reproach yourself for not knowing this; it’s rather poorly known, for whatever reason.

This contact, I might as well tell you, was made between an aerospace engineer from California in 1953, and a Venusian man who was dressed in a very dapper one-piece gray body suit. The Venusian, whose name was Solganda, told the engineer, whose name was George Van Tassle, how to construct a building that would extend human life and enable time travel. It would do a lot of other things, but unfortunately Van Tassle died before getting it finished. Three sisters bought it 14 years ago and now it’s a tourist attraction and—if you can believe this—recording venue for musicians.

We entered, on the ground floor, removed our shoes, underwent ritual purification, endured a body search—actually I made the last two up. But it did have the feeling of a preparation to enter holy space, with its formal ablutions and suppression of hilarity. We went upstairs. There were sleeping mats laid on the floor, and a series of bowl-looking things at one end of the room. Signs asked us to not touch them, though we never thought of doing so until we weren’t allowed. We lay down. A man began speaking.

I have no doubt he spoke English. But what he actually said I have no idea. He talked about this location being at the intersection of three rivers beneath the earth’s surface; and about how the height of the building is a number the reverse of which is the exact coefficient of pi at sea level. He spoke of the 17 rafters in the ceiling and their cosmic meaning. He spoke of cosmic meaning of every last joint, and why it was titanically significant. The room was a superb place for the “sound bath” he was about to perpetrate upon us, and we should be prepared to experience, in sound, the exact vibrational level that was known to rejuvenate human cells. It was all very mystical and numerological and, if you ask me, more than a little psychotic. Yet it stands to reason that earthlings like myself won’t understand these things.

After he had professed this incoherent scripture for 15 minutes, he began—I think he got a signal from someone in the audience—to bow his bowls, and the meat of the experience was arrived at last. These were quartz bowls, and when rubbed with a bow, made a rich and interesting sound. We lay back and closed our eyes, and the capsule-like room that had been built with the help of Venusians resonated with warm tones. The notes were full, disarming, relaxing, sustained as long as the gusts of wind and steady as the rock that produced them. I think I dozed off for a while.

The thing wore on for about twenty minutes and I cannot say that it—the sound bath/cellular rejuvenation/electrostatic irradiation—was unpleasant. I didn’t snore and I didn’t laugh, and when the whole thing was finished we wandered out further into the desert among the scattered properties and scattered lives, and looked for somewhere to eat.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Fragment From a Voyage

We set out from San Pedro with a boatload of Boy Scouts, and things went according to plan: Up to Smugglers Cove on Santa Cruz during the day, around to Painted Cave next morning, back down the other side in the afternoon. Nearing evening, we heard a distress call coming from our intended anchorage. A boat had gone up on the beach and the skipper was frantically calling for help. His words were poorly differentiated but his tone sang through. Panic. No one, he would have acknowledged in a calmer moment, could have appeared suddenly by his side, on an island 30 miles at sea, at least an hour from the nearest tow boat, to stop his sailboat from grounding higher on the beach with every breaker. After 10 minutes of shouting to the Coast Guard, he had established that he and a crewmate were safe on the beach, but their sailboat was grinding away in the surf, hard aground.

By this time we were opening the cove in question, a 100 foot line of sand bookended by tumbled falls of boulders, with the suggestion of a widening of the beach behind this landing. It was in fact an attractive place for cruising sailboaters, who liked to anchor there close enough inshore to relish the secret, empty beach. The first mate peered through the binoculars and at last saw the boat, a big cruiser whose distant mast swayed lazily in the swell. He didn’t see the former occupants, but they saw us. The frantic voice haled us soon after we radioed the Coast Guard of our proximity and readiness to help.

“Are you the big white sailboat a couple hundred yards out?” he said. The relief was already coming into his voice. “Thank god.”

Our inflatable boat was speeding shoreward.

“Are you able to bring the others aboard from the beach?” the Coast Guard asked.

We were.

“Are you able to carry out these operations without risk to yourself or your vessel?”

We believed so.

We came to anchor.  The next half hour we spent relaying information from the beached boat to the Coast Guard as the beached captain had only a handheld radio. We gave the vital information the Coast Guard always gets in cases like this, and then stood by for further need. Though our inflatable boat had stayed near the two men on the beach, eventually we recalled him when it was clear that rescue boats were on the way.

Meantime the scouts had gone swimming off the boat. And while they swam, and leapt, and swung from the tacks, we observed while the rescue boat from Santa Barbara arrived, and discussed with the stranded owner the cost of the salvage—as it was by now a salvage operation and not a simple tow—and then labored mightily with his 400 horses to drag a 10 ton boat off the sand. It was a tricky job as the tide was now falling and the next chance would be more than 24 hours away. But at last he succeeded, a cheer went up from the deck of the Exy Johnson, and tower and towed set off for home. For a moment before they left, a group of adults met at our bow to watch the goodbye, and to bid farewell to the little train. But also to possibly fend it off as it floated close.

Exy Johnson at Santa Cruz Island
The scouts, who had encircled the boat with all manner of aquatic capers, and mounted upon unsteady kayaks to search for distant caves, now slowly returned aboard. The tacks were brought in and restored to their rightful duties, likewise the rescue rings and floating lines. The galley, already warm, heated up to business strength, and dinner loomed ever closer. The first mate took the deck, and afterwards reported that we had received a thank you from the Coast Guard.

Next morning we weighed at eight and were out of soundings before breakfast was clear, turning 2000 and steering for Isthmus Cove on Catalina. At 1330, the breeze finally stirring the ensign, the squares all came up and the main went down. Our speed dropped from six to under four, though it rose again as the day waned. We had never dropped the main while running downwind and it came off well, the agile deckhand tip-toeing forward on the boom guiding down the sail and the scouts folding it there as neatly as they rolled their neckerchiefs. 

But I fear that with so much sailing talk the sensory parts of the thing, the memorable parts--the smell of jasmine, the barking of sea lions, the white crash of breakers on rocks, the peachy creamy morning of a deserted island cove—might be left unnoticed. To show a fair picture of our lives, this will not do. So then, be it known:

On the approach to these islands, they never simply appear. Rather, at some perfunctory point, oh, they are there. They are a less vivid brightness against the horizon, a pale outline between the sea and sky, a looming, a species of cloud. Many hours pass between first awareness of them and the first meaningful assessment. After a long time in the back of consciousness, thoughts turn at last away from the stowage of deck stuff and overhauling the ground tackle, and, once again, to them, to those sudden great presences-out-of-nothingness. Now regions of color are discernible, tan fields of sun-baked island grass, brown ledges of igneous rock, and lighter brown cliffs reaching straight upward from the ocean. Withal there is now a heaviness to the view in that direction, a heavy stolidity to what before was empty as ether.

Moving closer you begin to feel the mass of the land, like an object of gravity in blank space. Now the froth and cream of surf appears as a changeable white line at the bottom. Boulders of blue-gray jut up from the surf. Seabirds wheel above the worried shores, darting in and out among the wet boulders. Browner tufts of scrub bushes and trees populate the hillsides, with here and there a scar of ripped earth where a crag or promontory fell anciently into the sea. The outline of the land describes a sudden, thrusting aspiration skyward from the ocean, and among the sea caves at water level you hear the roar of crashing currents against the rocks and the voices of seals.


Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Drumming Life


I've really suffered no lingering effects from being a drummer.
Eh?
WHAT?
You'll have to talk louder if you expect me to hear you. I was saying I've suffered no lingering effects from being a drummer most of my natural life - though it's pretty weird seeing "drummer" and "natural life" there in the same sentence like that.

The truth is, I was a drummer for many years and I'm here to tell you that all that stuff you've heard about drummers being users of major hallucinogenic drugs is pure baloney. In fact it's a GIANT CHARTREUSE BALONEY, and it's humming "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"!

Drummers are just a little offbeat, that's all. This is because the constant subdividing of time actually severs the brain fibers by which one thought is linked to another, with the result that drummers are very good at misunderstanding everything in great detail.

You folks who have some connection to drummers, such as a parent-child or other professional relationship, know what I mean.

And you know the next thing I'll say about drummers - the most salient and important thing that you could all just scream out in unison: Drummers must tap on everything! (All heads nod rapidly.)

There is no object in the world, anywhere, any time, that will not be drummed upon by a drummer, if it can be reached. There is no object, however rough, ugly, moldy or covered with insect carcasses, that will not be given at least and experimental roll in passing, if not a full-blown Carl Palmer solo
with two-minute bass drum roll and gong hammering.

And you know how this can lead to trouble, such as when your drummer goes to church, and all heads are bowed, and a persistent noise begins to fill the silence, emanating from your bench.

"What is that?"
"What is what?"
"That tapping."
"Tapping? That just happens to be 'Channel One Suite' by Buddy Rich!
"Well stop it!"
"But I'm not even to the cymbal work."

Yes, it gets annoying. But, looked at another way, it's at least excusable: Drumming is a drummer's basic mode of interaction with the world. Newton saw a world of mass and velocity, Einstein of light and energy. But drummers know the world only as rhythm and tone. Freud showed us the personality consisting of Id, Ego and Superego. In drummers there is a fourth component: walking bass.

In the long run I suppose that drummers are more than offbeat. Maybe through their constant tapping they're trying to syncopate with the Rhythm that holds us all together. Maybe, deep down, they hope we'll all get in touch with the same beat. There are worse hopes, it seems to me.

(Tappitta tap tap tap...)

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Fighting Shy Rules of Stuff


  1. The acquisition of stuff must be monitored with vigilance, and whenever possible avoided.
  2. It is perfectly acceptable, and better than acceptable, to diminish your load of stuff periodically. 
  3. You usually don’t need to buy something to solve a problem. This statement is necessary as thoughts of buying are almost a reflexive reaction to any new problem faced in daily life, whether a rusty chain (buy some oil) or a fresh new anxiety (pay a therapist).
  4. The urge to buy can usually be satisfied through circumvention, through making the thing wanted, for example, or renovating an old one, or borrowing one, or finding a lay alternative, rather than by buying new. The desire for a particular experience is often construed in the imagination as a desire to buy, probably because buying a thing, for so long associated with enjoyment of the thing by preceding it, has come to be imagined as the enjoyment itself.
  5. Yet, with very few exceptions, the enjoyment of new acquisition soon wears off, and the soul returns to the humdrum quotidian.
  6. The price of an object seldom includes—as it should when making the purchase decision--the cost of storing the item for years, the commensurate loss of living space, the psychological toll of schlepping it around, the embarrassment of seeing it sit idle, the worry of finding a big enough place to hold it, and others that should be obvious to the reader.
  7. The accumulation of many possessions diminishes the appreciation of few. One faces a choice: Many and worse or fewer and better.
  8. Love of less can be cultivated, is nobler in spirit, and cheaper.
  9. In modern life, very few tools—very few tools—are truly necessary to perform the tasks of daily living. What tools are not possessed can often be improvised.
  10. A borrowed item is a more efficient item, as because it is used by more users it is more often used.
  11. A truly needed and not-to-be-borrowed item can be purchased with others and shared in a group.
  12. The concept of private property is not considerably diminished by the loss of exclusivity. That is to say, you don’t lose possession of something because others get to use it. It is no less your possession simply because you have lost the exclusive use of it.
 Conclusion: The theory of private property is a powerful, a civilized, and a not-to-mention necessary idea. But it can be taken too far.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

More Tips for Happy Living


The Way of the Superior Man, A Spiritual Guide to Mastering the Challenges of Women, Work, and Sexual Desire 

By David Deida 

Debates will never end about what’s right behavior in love. Answers will always be contested, proposals always countered, disagreements always rise. But it always helps if when you fight you sound like a new-age troubadour. 

Here we have The Way of the Superior Man, A Spiritual Guide to Mastering the Challenges of Women, Work, and Sexual Desire, talking about What Women Want in a way that would lead to violence at cocktail parties. You know the talk: When women say this they really mean that. You want to respond to her this way but you should really respond that. Dangerously general statements, you see. But because they sound so Jungian and mytho-poetic here, they seem to work. They seem to get away with it. Thus: 

“A man shouldn't tolerate bitchy and complaining moodiness in his woman, but he should serve her and love her with every ounce of his skill and perseverance. Then, if she cannot or will not open in love, he might decide to end his relationship with her, harboring no anger or resentment.” 

Or: 

“The feminine is the force of life. The more masculine a man is, the more  his woman's feminine energy (as opposed to other qualities) will be important to him.” 

Because I am long out of school and far past concern for logical rigor I will skip the griping, and only say what I often say in cases like this: These ideas are interesting whether or not they are true. Meanwhile they might be fun to try. 




Friday, October 17, 2014

Know your facts, then distort 'em as you please


Random notes on Bill Bryson.

Bryson manages to be suspenseful and desultory at the same time, something not many thoughtful people would ever strive for. He relates the history of a certain common home feature—quite rivetting in the telling, actually--by first emphasizing the strange niche in his hallway wall, a niche clearly not part of the original house, because the object it was designed to hold did not exist in 1765. We don’t learn he’s talking about the telephone until many pages later, after the suspense has gotten heavy.

Then we turn to Alexander Graham Bell and his odd story, and then to his assistant Thomas Watson, and his even odder story, and then to the reason why Bell didn’t have his invention stolen from him by his competitors, as happened so often, and then how the telephone was designed, and then why there are letters on the dial, and so on. There is apparently no guiding principle at work, but a smoothness in segueing between nuggets of interest. In some cases there is not the faintest causal connection between his contiguities. There is danger in this, of course. One is led almost to infer a chain of causality from the the chain of events, as if the events actually unfolded in the order Bryson relates, and not the order he has chosen to enliven his story.

I have caught Bryson in some stretchers. In The Lost Continent, an account of his driving tour of America, in the section where he visited Philadelphia, he threw down scorn about the place that stood out in a book already wretched with it. He was describing the block in town that had been consecrated to the memory of Franklin—a section of Market Street, where Franklin’s old print shop still stands, and where the outline of his house, long since demolished, has been rendered in tubular steel. Almost every tourist in Philadelphia visits the place. There’s a museum devoted to Franklin there, and a Post Office that still handles mail, where Franklin’s signature forms the cancellation mark. That’s where he said he was, anyway. The problem was, he was describing Franklin Square, a rundown and derelict old square several blocks away, where the west end of the massive Benjamin Franklin Bridge comes to earth, and where weeds grow, and debris drifts, and a general air of abandonment and decay makes this the least congenial spot in Old City. Whether he knew he was in the wrong place or not is a good question. It makes the difference whether we should call him a fibber or just plain dense. In any event he did not concern himself to learn why, in a place where it was advertised he would find a museum, a print shop and a post office, he found only trash and desolation. Only very accomplished writers have this kind of privilege.