Thursday, August 17, 2017

Riding on the Storm

Having completed my volume of collected essays, 2014 to 2017, I determined I needed to re-access my original purpose in writing this blog. I first conceived it as a place where I, along with others, could post writing in progress, and contributors could offer each other constructive criticism in a friendly atmosphere. Yet it didn't evolve along those lines. Rather, it evolved into a place where I alone have posted work in progress (along with some finished work), and though I've received a lot of interest in the blog, I've received relatively little criticism, and no submissions from other writers. So on the one hand it's been successful in attracting a readership, while on the other it hasn't worked out as I first intended.

As a result I've decided to change the format to one more logical, and I hope more enjoyable for the reader. I've decided to publish my books here one chapter (or essay, or poem, respectively) at a time, and delete the old when I post the new. I'll post the new work every week, on Thursday evening whenever possible. Otherwise, I 'll post as close to that time as I can.

I'm changing the format primarily so people can read my completed works without having to buy them. I believe the novels are worthy of more exposure than they've received, and in serializing the new work of essays, when it comes out, I hope to interest people in that book as well. I believe a writer must focus on writing in order to produce work of real value, and in making that attempt I've been unable to devote significant time to promotion. Thus, the books have had only limited exposure. All I hope is that readers will enjoy the work enough to buy a copy for themselves, and/or recommend it to others.

Those who do find these works of interest can buy them from Amazon, as well as from many other online booksellers in paperback, or on Amazon Kindle, at the very reasonable price of $3.00

Thank you all for your continuing interest.


"The Broken World" Chapter Six

In the Park

It had been less than a generation since cowboys rode their horses up dirt roads into Albuquerque, and in 1967, the city retained the feeling of a backwater. Open pastureland still spread north and south of town along the Rio Grande, and flocks of cranes still sheltered in the expanse of wild growth along the river’s edge, referred to as “the bosque”. Only in isolated patches had the city reached that perfection of tasteless and lackluster sprawl, which would be its ultimate achievement. The skies still held the pristine clarity of the western desert; but on Central Avenue, along old Route 66, the city bustled with activity. The university was at the center of that activity, wedged between the downtown on the Rio Grande and the newly developing suburbs to the east, in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains. It was a new university, in a town with its future still before it. But there was also something unsettled in the air.
People talked about war profiteering, about the horrible reality of fighting in a jungle for reasons that were obscure, about the terrible psychic scars on the returning veterans. Young men talked quietly in the bookstores and the caf├ęs about resisting the draft. They talked about going to Canada or going underground, changing their identities, and moving to California, or Alaska, or hiding out in a commune. In the head shops on Central Avenue, hippies bought pipes and rolling papers for the marijuana that they smoked openly in the street, and its smell was everywhere, blended with patchouli, rose oil, and musk. Rebellion came out in spontaneous ways, sometimes serious and sometimes whimsical. There was laughter everywhere, laughter at the establishment, laughter at social conventions, laughter at life. Crowds filled Yale Park in front of the campus throughout the day, and women strolled easily among the shops, wearing sarongs with beads or bell-bottom jeans or not much at all.
There was an atmosphere of action and also languid carelessness. People often said what they really thought, instead of what they were expected to say, creating a novel effect. They gave the impression of having just come out of a long sleep and of being startled to find themselves awake and alive again.
That summer Byrd often went to the university with his mother. Occasionally he sat with her in class, but more often he just walked around the campus or played in the park. On the last day of his summer vacation, he was playing outside while Cait studied in the library. They hadn’t had breakfast, so they decided to take a break and go somewhere to eat. Because of her bad eyesight, Cait clung to Byrd fiercely as they crossed Central Avenue; she seemed afraid that a car would hit them at any moment.
They went to the Frontier Restaurant, which had a katchina doll locked helplessly in a glass case where it couldn’t flee the nearby picture of John Wayne on black velvet in a plastic frame. They ate bacon, eggs, and sweet rolls. Cait had three or four cups of coffee and tried to study while Byrd ate his sweet roll. It was as big as the plate, with enough sugar and butter that he could taste it long after he was finished.
“Mom, what was your sister Mara like? You never say anything about her,” Byrd asked.
The question caught her off guard, and she suddenly looked very sad.
“I don’t like to talk about that,” she said. “I have to use the bathroom.”
She got up and walked away.
Byrd felt sorry for his mother. She seemed nervous and depressed most of the time, or else angry. But there were moments when she could relax, and then she was a lovely person. At those times he saw what his father had seen in her—the real Cait, without the rigidity or the sadness or the self-criticism. He saw the person behind the mask that life had forced on her. It was the real Cait that he loved, but that real person seemed to be more distant all the time, to be fading away in anger and sadness.
He sat at the table staring through the window at the sky. He wanted to rise up and feel its beauty in his spirit, to float free from the heaviness and the noise of the world. When Cait came back, her eyes were swollen from crying, but otherwise she was herself again. She walked with the same dogged determination to show that she was not afraid of the world.
They sat for a while saying nothing, just staring out the window into the sunshine, and then Cait went back to reading her book. After a while she said, “Come on, let’s go. We’ve got to go to Bataan Park. There’s going to be a rally there for the War Resisters League, and I got roped into introducing the speakers. It won’t take too long. I’ll introduce them, and then we can go. We don’t have to stay until it’s over.”
“Who’s speaking?”
“Some disabled veterans from the Vietnam Veterans against the War. It’s really the last thing I want to do today, but they talked me into it. Besides, in a democracy, sometimes you have to do things that you believe in, even if you don’t want to. Democracy has a lot of problems, but it’s the best system we’ve got. Partly because if you don’t believe in something the government’s doing, you have the right to oppose it.”
Cait adopted her schoolteacher’s voice, as if she were giving a civics lesson. It was exactly the same as Amelia’s, when she tried to teach Byrd mathematics.
“That’s one of the things that distinguishes us from a totalitarian state. That’s why we fought World War II—why we fought the Revolutionary War: so we could live in a country where people can say what they think without interference from the government. Our country has a lot of problems, but at least we have the Constitution to protect our rights. Even the blacks are winning equal treatment. It’s been a long time coming, but thanks to Martin Luther King and a lot of determination, they’ve finally won at least some political equality. That may not be saying much, but it’s a lot better than they would have done under Hitler.
“The war in Vietnam is one of the biggest mistakes this country has ever made, because it’s simply morally wrong, and it can’t be won—because it’s morally wrong. You can’t legitimately say you are a democratic society and at the same time impose your will upon a people who stand in almost unanimous opposition to you. That is an insupportable contradiction. But you know all that,” she finally finished wearily.
“Yeah, I know. Did you see the Buddhist monk who lit himself on fire to protest the war?”
“That happened a few years ago,” Cait said.
“Well, they showed it again the other day.”
They sat silently again, and Byrd saw a shiver run down Cait’s back.
“No,” she said, “we can’t win this war, not without using nuclear weapons, and that would make us worse than Hitler”
It was only a five-minute drive to the park. Byrd liked to play in the grass, which was a rare commodity in New Mexico. It was great to run around barefoot, without getting stickers or cactus in your feet, and to feel its coolness in the heat of the day. When they arrived, there were only a few people milling around, playing Frisbee, or lying in the shade under the trees. There was a man playing Frisbee with his dog, a little brown Sheltie that jumped so high that Byrd was amazed. It jumped eight feet in the air and almost never failed to come down with the Frisbee, sometimes somersaulting on the way down. The dog loved the sport so much that when the man put the Frisbee down, it would push it toward him, whimpering, until he threw it again.
An ice cream truck came up the street. There was nothing Byrd loved more than an ice cream truck. He loved the tinkling music they made as they wound their way along. He loved the look of them, with the open cab, and the driver standing at the wheel. He loved the huge picture of the rainbow-striped Popsicle on the side, the kind he enjoyed the most. He loved to imagine the varieties of treats hidden away in the freezers, waiting to come out like magic. When he grew up, he would drive an ice cream truck! That was his life’s ambition, to drive an ice cream truck.
“Mom! Mom! Give me some change! Please! So I can get some ice cream!”
Like the pied piper, the truck drew children from everywhere. They materialized out of doors from across the park, from out of cars, from bicycles, from out of thin air. There was also a balloon man, who came out of the truck dressed as a clown, in baggy red white and blue clothes. He had a red nose, a big belly, and a shock of orange hair; and he twisted balloons into all manner of shapes for a dime. He stopped occasionally to juggle five rubber balls of different colors and also five pins, which he looked on the verge of dropping at any moment. When he was finished, he held the pins in his hands, and they transformed suddenly into a bright golden cloth. Next he brought out a beautiful, but sad-looking, tropical bird in a cage and also made it disappear into the golden cloth. Byrd bought two of his favorite rainbow Popsicles, a Nutty Buddy, and had money enough left over for a Jawbreaker.
He watched the balloon man while the park gradually filled with people. In the center of the park was an old antiaircraft gun, with a plaque honoring the soldiers who died on the Bataan Death March. A podium had been set up beside the gun, and Byrd’s mother went up to introduce the speakers. Around her were several dozen Vietnam War veterans, some in wheelchairs and some missing arms or legs.
“On behalf of the War Resisters League, who sponsored this rally, I would like to introduce you all to some of the members of the Vietnam Veterans against the War, who agreed to speak to us about the war in Vietnam today,” Cait said. “These men have had firsthand experience of the war; and I’m sure that any of them would be happy to talk to you individually, later on, if you’d like. Our first speaker is Nelson Thomas, a former marine sergeant, who was wounded by a mortar shell in the Mekong Delta and lost the use of his legs. Would you please welcome Nelson Thomas!”
Cait lowered the microphone so that the man could speak into it. He was a big man, even in his wheelchair, with crew cut blonde hair and black plastic glasses. He looked like a football player.
“First of all,” he said, “I want you to know that I am reluctant to be here. I don’t like to talk about my experiences in the war, and I don’t like being the center of attention. I was raised on a farm in Iowa, to be a patriot. My father was in the corps in World War II and was wounded in the battle of Iwo Jima. I wanted to continue that tradition. But I was not in Vietnam for long when I realized that Vietnam was nothing like World War II. First of all, in World War II, we were fighting to liberate people from a brutal occupation—”
The speaker was interrupted by a murmur that suddenly swept through the crowd. People looked around and saw the park being quietly surrounded by hundreds of policemen. They had parked their cars every fifty feet or so, forming a barricade with men between each car, so that there would be no way to leave the park without passing through them. They were wearing gas masks.
No sooner had the crowd understood that they were surrounded than there was a loud whistle blast and a series of jolting thumps. Canisters of tear gas streamed into the park from every direction, and the police charged into the crowd with their clubs. There was a sound like coconuts being hit with baseball bats and the heavy thud of falling bodies. People were screaming and running in every direction through the white clouds of gas, appearing and disappearing like ghosts in purgatory. Byrd’s eyes burned and streamed, and every breath seared the inside of his chest. A policeman emerged from the cloud, hitting Nelson Thomas over the head with a club and blood poured over his face and down the front of his body. A moment later, Byrd stumbled over something and fell down. It was the dog that had been playing Frisbee. Its head was crushed, and its eyes were wide open, as if in surprise. He heard Cait shouting for him, and ran wildly toward the sound. Somehow they found each other and started running through the park, with no idea where they were going because they could barely see. Byrd became aware of another sound, a shriek of terror and rage coming from his own mouth; a policeman had come through the cloud and struck Cait a blow across the head, and blood ran down her face and into her eyes, blinding her completely.
“I can’t see! I can’t see!” she screamed.
Byrd pulled desperately on her arm, dragging her along, and somehow they made it out of the park. He helped Cait down the sidewalk to a restroom at a gas station. She had to take out her contact lenses because one of them had gotten lost in her eye; and it took her so long to get it out, with the blood running into her eyes, that she was crying not only from the tear gas and fear and rage but also from frustration. When she got her head to stop bleeding with cold towels, she wrapped it with a large handkerchief and put on her glasses. Byrd washed his eyes, which helped a little, but they burned for days afterward. All the way home in the car, Cait kept wiping her eyes with her shirtsleeve and muttering furiously, “Those goddamned bastards . . . Those goddamned bastards!”
Byrd was pretty sure that having escaped the police in the park, he would end up dying in an auto accident on the way home.

Brent Hightower
Copyright 2008 Brent Hightower
Image* Zdzislaw Beksinski, Believed in public domain