Meaning of Life Inside an Audio Cassette

         Sometimes the meaning of life can be found in an old audio cassette.  Take my self-inscribed “Vet Rock,” a collection of late 1960 songs I taped off of vinyl records (The Doors, The Who, Steppenwolf, etc.), scratches and all in 1971. I had just been honorably discharged from the U.S. Army after two years of drafted service. I stood in my parent’s driveway and declared it was time for a road trip across the country I’d never seen.

            This was not a well-planned excursion, save for the music. I hooked a battery-operated cassette player to two bookcase speakers lodged in the back of an old VW bug. The passenger seat was removed so I could squeeze my 6’ 2” frame into the fetal position at night. I had $200 and a gas credit card—this was to be bare bones traveling.

            The tape kept me company while the bug crawled up mountain roads—every steep grade was a challenge. I actually reached the speed limit in flatland places like Kansas and Indiana. A month or so later I returned home and found a job. The tape was played now and then but eventually found itself stuffed in a dresser drawer. I moved a half-dozen times over the next 20 years, and each time I made sure the tape made the journey.

            The taped music that had been my closest friend inside that VW became a reminder of how I had gone “looking for adventure.” For two years I had been confined by military rules –I wanted to be in complete control of my next move when I got out. And while I did have moments on this road trip, ultimately I came back as the same person.  

            Then one summer day in 1989 the tape was discovered by my son, age 4.5, and my daughter, age 1.5. With the help of a baby sitter, they hooked up a microphone to the stereo tuner and began talking with the intention of recording their remarks for the enjoyment of others. When the babysitter heard what was on the tape, she stopped the session, but not soon enough to prevent a shortening of “Light My Fire.”  I can’t understand what my daughter is saying, other than “Mommy, Daddy and pizza” followed by Morrison’s “Girl we couldn’t get much higher.”

            This week I drove an old truck with a cassette player. In went the tape. The scratches were pronounced and the mixing done by my kids was priceless. I could buy CDs of these songs. I could eliminate the crackling. But if I did, I would have music without meaning. The past can’t be erased and sometimes that’s good, especially when the urge to be irresponsibly free rests safely inside an audio cassette.

Baseball Moon

Today’s moment is brought to you by heat exhaustion. I was 63, in full catcher’s gear in 95-degree heat late in the game—oh, and this is hardball.  I’m in the squat. The pitcher supposedly hurled for the Baltimore Orioles decades ago. His ball still moves. I start to see stars. Strike One, a fastball right down Broadway. I didn’t have to move my mitt and that’s the problem. I call for a curve and shift the mitt to the right edge of the plate. The ball is delivered like the previous one, right down the middle. I see it coming. I see the spin. I can’t move my glove even though I know I have to move it–this less than a second moment has become a stop action visual—the off-white ball, tinted with clay, about ten feet away, hangs there like a full moon over the desert.  I talk to it and ask it why am I here? And it answers: Plunk One, fastball off the catcher’s mask. More stars. I stand up and feel someone hold my arm. I’m out of the game. But the moment is still with me. Gamer!

The Polish Homer

My grandmother, who was born in Poland, came to United States when she was 13.  She lived with us briefly in New Jersey when I was about 7 and she was in her 70’s–her English was still “broken.” But she stayed long enough to introduce me to four important food groups: borscht, potato pancakes, kielbasa and pierogi.  

She also went to church constantly. On Holy Days—and there were many—she took me with her to this very old Catholic church where mass was said in 28 minutes and that compared favorably to the “regular” church where in and out time was about one hour.  The one negative is that we had to be there at 5:55 a.m.

Looking back I fondly recall sitting next to her, staring at the heavenly scenes on the ceiling while listening to the creaking of the old wooden pews and the drone of Latin phrases from the priest.  It was a perfect environment for my imagination. In fact, I hit my first Little League home run on All Saint’s Day.

Two Photos For America

IMG_0475IMG_0450Veterans, myself included, gathered in a building in San Francisco last week for a variety of reasons. News reporters roamed the halls looking for stories already written in their heads. They simply needed some veterans, preferably those who had served in Iraq or Afghanistan, to give their name and the expected comments about serving our country and the injustice of waiting too long for benefits from the Veterans Administration.

I was struck by the irony of how many times reporters passed by the real story. On the walls were photos and paintings by combat vets who had served in Iraq and Vietnam. Their work said much about who they were and what they had experienced. But their real statement was that they had someone else drop off their artistic perspectives because they, themselves, did not want to attend. It would have been too hard to be around the memories of combat emanating from the broken minds and bodies of other veterans.

The most revealing photos were two self-portraits taken by a former Army platoon sergeant who did three tours in Iraq. In one shot his face is barely discernible while in another, sunlight, pouring through window blinds, strikes the left side of his face, making that side fierce and the shadowy side, lost, even sad. At first glance I thought he was seated in a train–the photo had inner movement to it. He is going somewhere, but does he know where? And does anybody care? On closer inspection the chair is in a house. He is alone, reading, perhaps a book that will help him make decisions.

Then I went back to the other photo where he is looking down at large hand-written words on poster-sized paper.  The only words I can make out are “I” and “be.”  Maybe he is searching for his identity and that would fit with the other photo.

These are two photos our entire country needs to understand.

Less than one percent of our nation serves in the military and overall veterans are about seven percent of the population. Even through family links and friendships, the direct knowledge of a veteran’s burdens is limited. What do these photos say to you? And what could be done to ease their rawness?

Sure, most people believe payment of VA benefits helps life after combat, not only financially but also in terms of having our country acknowledge a person’s military service. Conversely, forcing a veteran to wait years for compensation is slap in the face to those who sacrificed part of their lives for all of us. But monthly government checks, no matter how deserved, don’t erase memories of death and destruction. War is not pleasant and decisions to engage in “shock and awe” have lifelong consequences for people we will never meet, save for a chance moment to view a photograph or two.

Freedom

I am lucky that most mornings I wake without the burdens accrued from the previous day, that mental list of things I didn’t do, or what I did wrong. Freedom of choice starts shortly after I complete this mandatory “upon wakening” routine: bathroom, feed cats, make coffee and let dogs out. So, about ten minutes into the day I challenge myself to make something positive of the next moment and not have it become the first burden of the day.

Now in the old days this freedom came hard. There were kids to care for and a job to commute to. I had to fight for the luxury to sit and think. But now the kids are grown and the job is down to one day per week by car. Freedom is on top of me like (insert a trite simile like “white on rice”). The past week has been filled with attempts to understand the motive behind the Boston Marathon bombings, not exactly the kind of freedom I had in mind when I dreamed from my work desk about that day in the future when I magically could trade the doldrums of employment for unbridled thoughts and actions of my own choosing. Maybe I need more time. Maybe the world needs to get a hold of itself. We have this fabulous planet, these opportunities to flourish with what we’ve been given but instead we fill it with greed, hate and self-righteousness.

Okay, the burdens are in sharp focus. Maybe I should go back to bed. Nope, it’s thankfully time to feed the dogs.

Maybe this is Part One of an ongoing perspective on the power and responsibility that I have, that you have, to do something with our freedoms so that the world is improved in some small way. And the dogs have finished eating.

(I wrote this in memory of Richie Havens who passed away yesterday and who sang better than anyone about “Freedom.”)

The Horror of Traffic Jams

I often comply with California freeway speed limits, but not with my personal limits on freeway traffic jams. For too long I’ve been asking myself why am “driving” 70 miles below the speed limit? I am about done with being entertained by bumper stickers that make me glad I don’t know the person in front of me.

 My caught in freeway traffic limit is one per week and it is a limit I routinely break. I work part-time. I can’t work anymore because I am unable to idle my life away inside a car trapped by other cars; in essence, I have a disability that is not covered by worker’s compensation.

Here is where I digress: I have fond memories of my long-ago job as a reporter for an afternoon newspaper. Most people don’t remember that some newspapers were delivered in the afternoon. It was simple back then. You read the paper after work while consuming a cocktail and if you were really interested in the world, you had a second cocktail and watched Huntley/Brinkley on NBC or Walter Cronkite on CBS.  Well, about the time TV news aired, I was hot on the job, investigating some scandal you could read about the following afternoon.  My point here is I went to work when traffic was light and I came home after midnight on roads without cars. This was a job without traffic.

My idyllic commuting life ended before the afternoon newspaper business died. I was drafted into the Army and for a time had no vehicle to drive. I marched to work.  My days in green were certainly safer than today’s freeway congestion where every 14 minutes radio traffic reports remind me why I am where I am.

Ok, the road rage has subsided for today. I think I’ll go to the ocean. By foot!

 

Boston

I couldn’t blog after the Boston Marathon explosion.  Numbed. Disillusioned, as if I expected a celebratory run on Patriot’s Day to remind me that all is right with the world when I know it isn’t. And it isn’t.

Where do we go from here? Sweeping the internet is a quote from the late Mr. Rodgers who once said: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping’.” Nice advice that doesn’t work for everybody.   

Ok. I can’t strike back at those responsible for this senseless act. For one, I’m not with the FBI, secondly, I’m like most people, helpless, arguably too far from the tragedy epicenter to help directly.

An Iraq combat vet told me the television close-up coverage of the people hurt in the blast bothered him—he’d seen enough bodies, faced enough terrorism. “Why did they have to show so much?” he asked. TV news can be a sick form of entertainment for some; i.e., you’re there and I’m here, safe. All depends on your perspective and experiences. We need to know, but not always see the pores of horror. I guess there’s always radio.

I’m searching for the right words to make a final polint, but at the moment I can’t find them. Maybe they don’t exist.

Songwriter

I am not a songwriter because I don’t write the songs down on a piece of paper. They are in my head, a half-century of lyrics wandering around in my space.

I play the guitar and put the lyrics to use. But I am a better writer than guitar player, so I prefer new lyrics to new melodies. I often forget the words, since I don’t write them down, resulting in even more new songs. And given that I’ve been playing one of maybe three tunes for over 50 years, I play with my eyes closed and this, perhaps, makes my music trance-like, at least for me.

I keep telling myself that one day–and it’s always “very soon”–I will write everything down, decide on the best arrangement and be done with it.  Yet, old habits die hard. If I become a songwriter, I’ll be giving up a part of me that must stand for something, perhaps, the practice of unfinished business? Or, is it something deeper? And I’ve got the lyrics for it: “She asked me to say something about myself/ So I took this tattered book off the shelf/Pages and pages from the Dark Ages.” Oops.

 

%d bloggers like this: