Other Writings

Plattsburgh - 1968

1968 - Plattsburgh - a university town and the home of one of the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Air Command bases - where I’ve been teaching and conducting research for the academic year and playing four-wall handball at lunchtime in the university gym - the sticks, the boonies, the antithesis of the New York City I consider home.  It has also been a surprisingly interesting and comfortable experience for me.  I meet interesting people.  I make good friends.  I think my work is almost relevant.  Yet I have no idea what I’ll do next: maybe live in the California near the Pacific where the air is warm and you can smell the salt floating in the fog, wear shorts and sandals 365 days a year, finish my PHD, maybe stay here and teach at the University a second year in this frozen northeastern outpost of a disintegrating culture.  Well that’s what I was thinking.

But then, some time after Christmas break, I decided I could not stand idly by, privately espousing my abhorrence about the immoral war in Vietnam, but not taking stronger action to confront and undermine it.  And while I contemplated a series of guerilla actions involving suicidal assaults on the Air Force base I was not courageous, desperate, or stupid enough to really want to do it and, honestly, I didn’t think it would be a particularly effective strategy anyhow.  Oh, it would make a momentary statement, like a monk immolating himself does, but I would then be arrested, jailed, and taken out of effective circulation for decades.  The tides would roll in and erase my footprint.  No masses of people would pick up my cudgel.  My actions would have served only as a temporary salve to my anguish, but not to advance the larger cause of peace and reformation.  This theme of efficacy is one I will return to and be consumed by for decades.

And it is in this mode of ruminating that I conceive the idea of mounting a visible protest that might galvanize public opinion in Plattsburgh and in the university community against the war and perhaps even lead to transformative action.  My plan was simple.  I would picket the draft board in downtown Plattsburgh each day at lunchtime - at the immense sacrifice of my four-wall handball game - walking to and fro with pictures from newspapers and magazines of maimed and dead victims of the war, both Vietnamese children and American GIs. 

I buy two very large pieces of art board, maybe two feet wide by four feet long, and paste the pictures I’ve collected onto the boards, Vietnamese casualties on one board, American casualties on the other. I draw large red octagonal highway stop signs on the boards and write in bold print “Stop Killing Our Children!”  I affix the signs to one another at the top with pieces of twine at each upper corner so that I can drape it over my neck and shoulders like sandwich board advertising.  I like the emotionality of the sign, the balance of American and Vietnamese loses, the sense that I wasn’t necessarily taking sides, that I was just declaring that the war must end.

On the first day I carried my signs to the draft board headquarters, put them on over my jacket and began walking back and forth like a solitary striker on Main Street.  Plattsburgh is a quiet town in which nothing much happens on the surface.  But having someone walking around on Main Street with a sandwich board sign saying “Stop Killing Our Children” though silent was not quiet.  So I did get a certain amount of attention in the sense that people looked, but no one said a word.  And after an hour I took my signs off, walked back to my car, and drove back to the university, an apparition. 

The next day the apparition was back, and it kept coming back every day for weeks.  And soon a dozen students had joined me, on a good day two dozen.  And a newspaper reporter came by to interview me and take pictures.  And an article appeared in the Plattsburgh Daily Gazette.  And the president of the Masonic Lodge in town called to ask me if I would be willing to be a guest speaker at their next monthly meeting and I accepted, of course.

I thought long and hard about my speech.  I decided that advocating protest per se was inappropriate, that I had to speak in a manner that captured the tension in our democracy between loyalty and dissent.  When I delivered my talk I distinguished between the state and the nation.  I argued that the nation was a body of ideals and principles around which a people organized themselves, principles to be guided by and to work together for, while the state was the organization established by the nation to help execute its ideals in a pragmatic way.  The question I posed was what happens when the actions of the government (the state), appear to be at odds with the values established by the nation.  I gave as an example the question of slavery.  I argued that the notion all persons are created equal could not conceivably be reconciled with slavery, and yet the government did just that, which then forced individual citizens to have to choose between loyalty to the government or loyalty to the higher ideals that informed and presumably guided the state.  And people of good conscience broke the slave laws precisely because their moral conscience and compass required they do so, and in that defiance they honored the nation while breaching the will of the state.  There were other examples I cited, the very birth of our nation born in rebellion, and now the war in Vietnam, which so clearly, at least in this citizen’s eyes, was the result of the decisions made by the few, who had hijacked the state, and saw the survival of the state in terms of dominoes rather than in terms of self determination and struggles for freedom of choice and liberation. 

I was brilliant.  The Masons applauded.  They gave me a certificate suitable for framing that commended my participation as an honored guest speaker.  They shook my hand.  Then they went to the president of the university and said, “Fire him.”  And the president said, “Don’t make a scene about it, boys, the academic year draws to a close.  Just trust me.  He will not be rehired.”  And he wasn’t.  And I learned something valuable from the Masons, which is that any time you want to sacrifice yourself for a principle, there will be no shortage of those ready willing and able to help you immolate yourself.  And at the end of the academic year I was in California.

 

Captive

I arrive home from Africa on Monday morning at 2 A.M., drive down to the Bay to see and smell it, to feel it blow and tingle. There is a strange light low on the night horizon glowing to the North Northwest, maybe Boston.  The house itself is shocking in it’s level of disrepair and disorganization.  I take off my Maasai watch and I get down to work, mostly on my back, in bed, in my office.  The writer is in.  Also the lawyer.  And the lover.  Once or twice the lawn and garden care guy.  And, inevitably, the guy with foot-in-mouth disease.

I don’t leave the property until late Thursday afternoon – and then reluctantly – no car rides, no stores, no yoga, no phone. Glad I got home early given imminent PreTrial appearance date and obligations thereto.  Even glad I’m here for the finals of the home renovation experience.  Do a fair amount of straightening, laundry, floor sweeping, furniture moving, pissing off the crew.  Watering houseplants.  Measure out pills for the week.  Hang out my shingle: “The writer is in.”  Write.  Play at being the housekeeper.  Even cook.  Listen to a lot of music.  Don’t criticize myself. Clean things.  Organize and put away things.  Rest.  Spend a lot of time feeding the fire.  The house smells of smoke, incense, and paint.

I make cranberry lemon biscuits, cornbread, lemon-blueberry tea, pots and pots of coffee, Kenyan roast potatoes, and Zanzabarian sage merlot bean and potato stew with shallots and fresh garden kale.

Joy works.  It’s what she does in addition to making music and spending a little time with me, even though I trust she finds me precious, even adorable.

I start to work in the yard and on the gardens.  It feels so good to have clippers and a rake in my hand.  Start to clean and organize the shed.  Prepare witness lists and pretrial memoranda. 

Some times I talk to Joy about Africa.  But it is hard … and far away … and I’ve turned into a very here and now, present centered sort of fellow.  I haven't had a watch on for 5 days.  And it is "crazy" being home, although if i don't step outside the house i seem to be able to exert adequate stimulation control to stay grounded.

Django Unchained

Written and Directed by Q. Tarantino – starring Jamie Foxx -

Django Unchained is to my mind sure to become a “standard,” a “classic” of American/Hollywood movie making.   And if Spike Lee has problems with it of a political/moral nature that’s fine, and changes nothing in my opinion about what Tarantino has accomplished in this movie about the brutality of slavery and Tarantino’s “revenge”/rescue fantasy that the plot is built upon.  As Tarantino himself said, his intention in making the movie - at least in part - was to do a movie that dealt “with America's horrible past with slavery and stuff but do them like spaghetti westerns, not like big issue movies. I want to do them like they're genre films, but they deal with everything that America has never dealt with because it's ashamed of it, and other countries don't really deal with because they don't feel they have the right to."
          And slavery is absolutely the “central character” of the movie, the subject of the movie, and the movie’s primary focus, even more so than the Django character, as mythologized and glorified as he is.  And the brutality of the slavery depicted is immensely raw, painful, embarassing, sickening, although neither over stated or over dramatized.  The characters and the plot, on the other hand, are very “stylized,” which permits a certain depiction of brutality that might not be bearable in another, more “realistic” style.  And objection to use of the word ‘nigger’ is really a red herring in a period piece set two years before the civil war.  The acting is amazing … as is the writing, the directing, and the music.  Plus it is a good western … and think how hard a good western would be to make these days.  (Witness “The Lone Ranger.”).   
          Maybe the excess bloodshed in Django is gratuitous, but the entire presentation is a self-mocking charade that goes on to rip your guts out, notwithstanding extremely violent classic gun fights showing more blood and bullet-exploded in your face flesh than anyone needs or can openly bear.  And some of the scenes of the torture and degradation of the slaves were so - i want to say "inhumane," but it is regrettably all too human - beyond any currently "civilized" human's ability to take in on a soul level - and the cruelty in ways was even worse than the violence, the rapes, the whipping, the branding, the torture ... horrible … but precisely part of the greatness of Tarantino's courage.  And to my knowledge no one has ever shown this range of slave characters in one Hollywood epic ... also awesomely courageous to depict. and, especially, of course, because white people are currently generally enjoined from depicting Black Americans in a negative way ... other than as gangsters ... or druggies ... or poor ... or uppity ... but so much has and IS in fact changing, notwithstanding how very much more still must - and will – change, particularly perceptually, corporately, and environmentally.
          The historical depiction of slave reality reminded me that the healing work is not over, even with a Black president, a fact we can genuinely be proud of as a nation - especially given where we were 50 and 150 years ago ... but the healing work is not over.  There were decades when i could not take a shower, not once, without my thinking of the Nazi holocaust of WWII, and that was "just" six million people over the course of a decade ... the African holocaust lasted over 300 years and caused over 100 million African deaths before the slave ships reached the "new world" and has impacted African American mental, political, spiritual, and economic well being in stressful ways we cannot begin to fathom, but bear witness to the consequences of, ever since. 
          And Mother Africa herself is still traumatized, brutalized, and exploited, as she has been for more than 500 years.  Indeed, for me, it is always the health and good humor of the survivors that amazes me ... how can they be as healthy as they are - look at many of our surviving indigenous native brothers and sisters, or the Palestinians, who in my experience manifest a mind blowing dignity, good will, and willingness to forgive - as seems true among our brothers and sisters in the African diaspora.
           So, while I don’t think anyone who is upset by graphic visual depictions of violence should view Django, you will miss phenomenal acting, great scenery and visual presentations, and music, all quite wonderfully over the top in a "camp" sort of way.  And besides which, there is Samuel L. Jackson.

Fighting For Enid

     Almost every person I knew in my old neighborhood spent their spare time in and about the playground at the park on Van Cortland Avenue: after school, after dinner, on weekends.  Everyone.  Mothers with newborns, parents with toddlers, preadolescents, teenagers, old ladies seated on green wooden park benches, mobile ice cream trucks.  The only people who didn't hang out at the park it seemed were my parents.  Maybe they knew that if they hung out there I'd have found another place to go.          
     My friends and I would play handball and basketball on the asphalt courts behind the benches and park railing, talk endlessly, engage in gossip and romance, tell dirty jokes.  Everyone knew who was the strongest, the fastest, the best ball player, what girls liked what boys.  The park was the town water well, the teen center, the marketplace, home plate.          
     Ours was not a tough neighborhood as Bronx neighborhoods go, but we were still arrogant, proud, egocentric New Yorkers, united in our common interests, our schools, the housing project we lived in.  We are mostly Jewish and Italian.  There was an insularity to our neighborhood created by its location abutting the old Van Cortland golf course, the Major Deegan highway, the Sedgwick Avenue Reservoir, and Mosholu Parkway to the east. We were called Amalgies, after the Amalgamated Housing Project we lived in.  Not tough, just united.          
     Other boys from adjoining neighborhoods would visit our neighborhood regularly, hang out on the rail, play ball with us.  Often the boys were tougher than we were.  They traveled from their home neighborhoods in packs.  They were intimidating in posture and demeanor.  They were Irish.  They smoked.  The draw for them were the ball games and the numerous girls who lived in the Amalgamated Houses and hung out on the rail.               We were sitting on the rail one evening in June, about two weeks before I was to graduate from eighth grade, the sun late to set, at least fifty kids talking and playing, when I noticed one of the outside toughs, a guy named James, hassling a pretty younger blond girl, a stuck up shy little seventh grader named Enid.  She was very cute, very young, and clearly uncomfortable as she tried to dodge James’ attempts to touch her, to sit with his arm around her, to get her to go off into the park with him.  I unconsciously stared at them.          
     "Why won't you go out with me?" James asked, "I want to be your boyfriend.  Don't you like me?  Come on, I won't hurt you."  It was crude, overt, a bit aggressive, not our neighborhood style.  If her father saw her she was in trouble.  If a neighbor even reported it to her parents she was in trouble.          
     The true answer to James' question was, "no, in fact I don't like you, you scare me, you're too old for me, you have pimples, you're not Jewish, and my father would kill me if he saw me with you."  Instead she said, "I can't."          
     "Why can't you?" James asked teasingly.          
     "I already have a boyfriend," she said, a pretty clever answer for a seventh grader if you'd have asked me.  Not bad at all.          
     But James, not easily dissuaded, misperceived her response as encouraging and parried,          "Oh yeah, who,” an equally snappy reply in my book.  I was easily impressed.  So the cute twelve year old with the Veronica Lake hairdo looked around at the assorted boys available to her, she didn't have any boyfriend as far as I knew, caught me staring at her, and nodding toward me said, "him."  Looked right at me as she said it.  “Him.”  Saw me looking at her, called my very name.  Said, "yeah, him."          
     I was shocked.  Maybe also flattered.  After all, she was cute, even pretty, even if I'd never talked to her because she was a grade younger than me, stuck up, and shy.  But before I had the chance to further review these events, James was walking in my direction.  Walked right up to me, was easily two or three years older than me, not bigger than me, but clearly tougher, put his face about two inches from my face and asked, "Are you her boyfriend?"          
     Now I don't know about you, but from my vantage point a certain chivalry, a certain courage not ordinarily required in one's daily dealings, was unequivocally required in this situation.  After all, less than a decade had passed since the end of World War II, a time we knew, even in our youth, when men and women were called upon to speak up for and defend the defenseless, a war in which my uncles had served, in which my father's best friend had been killed, in which those who responded to Jewish plight were honored and praised, while those who failed to respond to the call for help were roundly condemned, at least where I came from.
    "Yeah, I guess I am," I said.
    "Well, I want to go out with her," James said, "and she says she won't go out with me because you're her boyfriend.  So you're going to have to fight me for her."
    Really? I thought.  I didn't know those were the rules.
    "And if you beat me, which I doubt you will, you'll have to fight my brother.  And if you beat him, which I really doubt you will, you'll have to fight my friend Smokey, who has a gun and just got out of jail.  You understand?"  No really, that’s how boys talked there and then.
    Well, yes, of course I understood.  I nodded.  James looked at me.  He smiled a crooked happy smile.  He walked over to Enid and leaning in toward her right ear said, loud enough for me to hear, "I'm going to fight for you."  He turned his back to the rail and walked cockily down the block.
    Don't ask me how things like this happened, but that was the end of it and nothing more was said or done that evening.  Nothing.  James walked away.  Enid went back to talking to her girlfriends.  She didn't look at me or talk to me.  I didn't talk to her.  My friends didn't say anything to me about what had happened.  I didn't say anything to them.  I was not excessively concerned.  It was just a moment on the rail, until about a week later.
    We were sitting at the rail.  Where else would we be?  I noticed a black Buick coupe coming down Governor's Avenue toward the park.  I saw the car stop at the end of the block, at the stop sign across the street from the rail.  James and two older guys, I'd say they were actually men, were in the car.  They got out of the car.  One of them was James' brother, who I recognized, the other was a man who I took to be Smokey.  They got out of the Buick, and sat on the front fenders of the car, arms folded and crossed upon their chests.
    James called my name.  "Hey you, come here," he said.  And, of course, I did.  Walked the twenty yards from the rail across the street and stood in front of him, in front of the Buick, in front of the two guys leaning against the headlights and sculpted front fenders of the Buick, arms crossed, watching.
    "Now we're gonna fight," James said.
    "But I don't want to fight you, James," I said.
    "You got no choice.  What are you, chicken?"
    "No, I'm not chicken, James, I just don't want to fight you."
    "You are chicken, right.  Say you're a chicken.  Admit it.  You're afraid.  You don't want to fight me.  You're afraid.  Right?  Right?"
    "No, that's not right."
    "Are you still her boyfriend?"
    "Uh, yeah, I think so," I said.  I hadn't ever even talked with her.
    "Well, then, we have to fight.  You have to fight.  You have no choice.  You have to fight.  Understand?"
    He came even closer to me, stuck his face into my face.  I could see the bloodshot lines in his eyes, the flecks of color in his eyeballs.  I could smell the cigarette smoke on his breath.  Saw stubble on his chin.  Pimples.  Freckles.
    He pushed me with his the heel of his right hand hard in the center of my chest.  "Come on chicken, fight me."
    I said nothing.  I did nothing.  My hands hung limply at my sides.  I had the same silly smile on my face that I knew I had when caught doing what I wasn't supposed to be doing.  I tried not to look away or blink.  I was afraid James was going to punch me.  I wanted to see the punch coming, to not be surprised.  I had no interest in fighting him, and absolutely less than no interest in fighting either of the guys on the hood of the Buick.  I had no inkling how this was going to end.  And although I didn't like it, I also wasn't scared.  I just stood there, with that shit-eating grin on my face, unable to move, unable to think clearly, unable to walk away.  What I actually remember thinking about were my blue jeans with the cuffs rolled up, how I didn't want them to get dirty or torn, didn't want to be in trouble with my mother.
    I looked past James to see what the guys on the fenders were doing, but they were just standing there, feet planted, arms crossed, leaning on the Buick, staring.  I was aware the street was unusually quiet and still.  The rail was still.  I sensed no movement, not among my friends behind me, not among the guys in front of me, not among the old ladies on the benches.
    "Come on, chicken, fight me," James screamed.  He was really angry and frustrated.  Working himself up.  Trying to provoke us both.
    "You're a baby.  You're a real fucking baby.  You're afraid.  You're a chicken.  You're a fucking little chicken.  Come on, fight me you bastard."
    I don't know.  I just wasn't moved.  It's not as though I was completely frozen, but I certainly was stuck.  I didn't want to fight him.  I didn't want to get hurt.  I didn't want to get my jeans dirty.  I didn't want to turn and walk away.  It was too shameful, too cowardly, something I would regret for years to come, an embarrassment in front of my friends.  I didn't want to back down, but I also certainly didn't want to fight.  I could get hurt.
    So I stood there.  Staring.  Trying not to appear frightened, holding what ground was mine.  Not sure what I felt.  Smiling.  Not really feeling anything or knowing what was coming next.
    "You are a big fucking chicken," he said.  He pushed me again.  I thought he was going to spit on me.  He spat at my feet.  He shoved me again. This time I deflected his hand.  Then I shoved him back.
    "Come on you big baby, come on, hit me.  Fight me.  You're a chicken.  You're chicken shit.  Come on.  You're afraid to fight me."
    I still felt nothing.  I was numb.  Alert, but numb.  Thoughts raced through my head, no solution amongst them.  It was a stalemate, tense but almost safe.  I'd stand there.  He'd yell at me.  I'd stoically take it.  It would end.  He'd get back in the car and drive away believing I was a chicken and that he'd won.  I'd walk away a winner having stood him down.  A win win situation I thought.  Perfect.
    "Come on, James," one of the guys on the car grumbled, "fight the jerk.  Let's get it over with, will you, huh?"
    "You're a chicken," James said.  He was yelling.  He was frustrated.  His hands balled into fists.  The veins in his neck stood out.
    "You're a coward.  You're a fucking yellow Jew prick.  Your mother is a Jew whore.  Your mother sucks dick.  Hitler was right."  He pushed me again.
    Now those, unfortunately, were words that somehow pierced my heart and actually hurt, words with power.  Fighting words.  I stopped reflecting.  I impulsively grabbed James' shirt in my right hand and pulled down hard, ripped it half way to his belt.  I was shocked.  James was shocked.  A surprised expression was on his face as I pulled him toward me and kneed him reflexively in the groin.  He backed away.  His mouth was open.  He hit me hard in the cheek with his right fist.  It hurt.  I heard yelling from the rail behind me.  Cheering.
    "Come on, hit him."
    I was angry, acting on fear and adrenaline.  I grabbed James in a headlock.  He wiggled free and grabbed me in a headlock.  We wrestled around and fell to the ground.  Hard.  I hurt my elbow but ended up on top of James, straddling him, facing the rail with my back to his brother and Smokey.  I didn't want to be there.  Didn't want to be on top of James with my back to Smokey.  Didn't want to tear my jeans.  But this guy was a bastard, a fascist, no better than Hitler youth.  And he was in my grasp.
    I was also in real danger … and I finally knew it.  As we wrestled on the ground I consciously yielded my position leaving James on top.  It was safer.  I tried to hold him close so he couldn't swing hard.  I had no idea what would happen next, James seated on top of me in the gutter, in the middle of the street.
    As I lay there contemplating my circumstances, I noticed movement to my left and saw an adult man who lived in my building walking down the street.  He was about twenty feet from where we lay when I heard him say, "What have we here, isn't that the boy from Gale Place?"  He was totally naive, on automatic pilot.  Two kids from the neighborhood were fighting he thought and he was simply going to break it up.  He walked over toward us apparently intent on pulling James off me.  As he came forward I saw James' brother move off the car.  He reached into the front of his jeans and pulled out a long thin black handled knife.  He pulled the knife back above his shoulder and started moving quickly toward my neighbor who was about to pull James off me.
    As the man bent over James, James' brother was less than a yard from him, clearly aiming to attack, perhaps to even stab the man in the back, or at the least to pull the man off James before he could interfere in the fight.  Suddenly, out of nowhere it seemed, my friend Joey came hurtling across the street from the rail and threw himself hard into James' brother's shins, knocking his legs out from under him.  The man grabbed James, still intent on pulling him off of me.  Joey got up and grabbed the man to pull him off James.  James' brother got up from the ground and bent to find his knife.  Smokey got off the car and started moving towards us.  He reached into his pocket to pull out his handgun.  I heard police sirens coming down the block.  James got off me.  He and his brother and Smokey quickly jumped into their car.  I got off the ground ready to run.  The man touched my arm and shook his head "no."  The police car pulled up beside the Buick, stopping right in front of Joey, me, and my neighbor, all standing to the side of the street.
    "What's going on here," the cop on the passenger side of the cruiser asked?
    "These two boys were fighting, officer," said the man.
    "Oh it was nothing," said Joey.
     "Well keep it that way," the policeman said. 
    "And you guys get out of here," he said to Smokey, who was calmly seated behind the wheel.
    "Yes sir," said Smokey as he put the car into gear, accelerated smoothly, turned at the corner, and drove up the hill.
    And that was it.  No one told my parents I'd been in a fight, or that some guy had come looking for me with a gun.  At least no one in my family appeared to know.  And it seemed better that way.  Over the next week or two when I would come home from school I'd see the black Buick parked in front of the entrance to our apartment house and would go around the block to the back and come in through the basement.  Nothing more.
    Beginning in July my family rented a house for the summer in Long Beach, Long Island, outside the city, near the ocean.  I don't really know why my parents rented such a house.  It seemed impulsive and out of character.  My mother wanted to be out of the city for the summer, wanted her kids out of the Bronx I guessed, wanted another context in which to manage and entertain us.  My father was between jobs, retired as a New York City fireman on a small disability pension, not yet working a new full time job.  He loved the beach.  Maybe that was the reason.
    It was an ordinary tract home, in a suburban neighborhood, though substantially different than the tenth floor high-rise apartment we lived in in the Bronx.  Long Beach was different too.  One main street filled with stores.  An inner harbor.  A long sandy beach.  I was aware of the sun shining, could smell salt water in the air, sand filled every crack in the pavement, little dry beach plants sprang up in front of peoples' houses on the wide streets lined with parking meters.
    I got a job as a stock clerk and grocery delivery boy at the King Cohen grocery on Main Street, made friends with a group of working class kids who wore crosses, regularly petted under the boardwalk with a slightly crippled fourteen year old girl who lived next door, had a permanent limp, and everyone called "Duckie."  Sometimes I unhooked her bra and actually held her breasts.  She would touch my erection through my pants.  She wanted more.  I somehow didn’t.  I was too afraid I think.
    I was caught smoking cigarettes that summer by my father who inadvertently walked passed the open window of the recreation room in the basement of the deserted beachfront hotel where I was absenting myself from work and playing poker.  He never said a word to me.  Didn't talk to me for a week in fact.
    I saw the black Buick with James, and Smokey, and James' brother, twice in Long Beach.  I don't know how they knew I was there, but I believe they didn't see me.  And I told not a soul.  When I returned to the Bronx that fall I saw the Buick parked in front of our house once.  Then I never saw the car again.  Weeks later James came to the rail.  He talked to the girls.  He talked to me.  No one said anything about the fight.  I never ever talked to Enid.  Not once.  Ever.  I believe my parents never knew about James, the fight, Smokey, or the gun.  If they had known, I’m certain that my father and my uncle the WWII aviator and NYC narcotics detective would have been involved.  And they weren’t.

In the Beginning

I am running into my parent’s bedroom even before I know I’m awake.          
      “Why do I have to die?” I’m screaming. “Why?  Why?  I just hate it.  Why was I even born?  I’m so scared. "              

      “Shhh,” says my mother, “you’ll wake your sister."                    
      “But I’m scared, mama.  Scared.”
      “Oh, for god’s sake what’s wrong with you,” says my mother.  
      “What are you, sick or something?  What kind of little kid worries about dying?”
      “I’m sorry, mama.  I’m really sorry.  I’m not sick.  I’m just scared.”                    

      And I am scared, terrified actually, literally shaking with fear, bouncing on the balls of my feet, wanting to run I don’t know where.  Out of the burden of living a life that must end in complete annihilation.                  
      “I heard you the first time, now just stop it this instant, there is nothing to be frightened of,” my mother tells me.        “What about the giant, the knives, and the witches?”  I ask.  “What about the hunters, and the men with guns, and the bad soldiers?”                    
      “I told you, they’re not real.  And they’re really not real.  Period."                    
      “But they are real to me, mama.  I see them every night.”
      It’s been like this for weeks.          
      “Go back to bed. puuulllease,” my mother sighs.  “Just think good thoughts.  Think about the circus or ice cream.  Think about something happy.  Think about the baby.  Think about not thinking so damn much!  Please.  Just stop crying and stop worrying.”                    
      “Well put me to bed and lie with me,” I beg.                    
      “Not a chance, kiddo, not a chance.  I’ve already put you to bed once.  Don’t be a baby."      
      “The kid’s only five,” my father says.            
      “Fine, then you put him to sleep and lie with him.”          
      Father rolls out from his bed, takes my hand, and leads me back down the hallway into my bedroom.  He tucks my blankets in.  He leans down and whispers, “you’ll be okay boy, trust me on this one, you’ll be okay.”  He kisses me on the forehead.          
      “Don’t go papa,” I plead as I grab my father’s hand, but he straightens up and pulls away.          
      “Goodnight son,” he says, framed in the doorway, and walks back to his bedroom.                
      “What are we going to do about that boy,” I hear my mother ask.          
      “Don’t worry, he’ll outgrow it,” says my father.            
      Something about their talking fills me with shame nearly as unbearable as my fears.              
      I look at the foggy street light pouring in through the window.  I wonder where I go when I sleep and if I’ll be in this bed when I awake, if I awake.  I clutch a torn stuffed bear with only one eye left.           
      “Wherever I go, Teddy,” I whisper, “is where you go too. Okay?"
      And I swear that bear smiled.

Rockaway

1.
          My parents rent a small, furnished bungalow on Rockaway Beach, at the outer edges of Brooklyn, with Marion and Sidney Star, a couple who also live in our apartment building in the Bronx.  Rock-a-way, I like that word and the play on meanings it provides.  Rockaway. 
          The smell of the ocean is wonderful.  The warm sand is wonderful.  I chase sea birds along the shore and make believe I can fly.  I am two years old and there is almost no place I cannot go and not much I cannot do.  I like that.  I spend a lot of time climbing up onto my bed and climbing down out of my bed.  I bounce and jump.  I like to bounce.
          The cottage is nestled in toward the end of a long block of cottages, each cottage packed tightly in close to the next, all connected directly to the beach by a narrow sandy asphalt street.  The Stars have an infant daughter, Louise.  Sidney is a schoolteacher.  He has the summer off, and works part time at a day camp.  My father is a New York City fireman.  He is not yet twenty-eight years old.  He is on duty for twenty-four hours and then off three days in a row.  He and Sidney walk with their children on the beach.  They play competitive handball on the neighborhood courts.  I watch them from a bench, sometimes seated with my mother.
          In the cottage there is a small kitchen with a metal table and chairs, one bathroom, and two bedrooms separated by cardboard thin walls.  No one lives in the cottage year around.  At night we draw closed the window shades so that the shoreline is darkened and the coastline protected from the view of attacking enemy submarines or aircraft.
          There is always talk of war, of friends and uncles serving in the war.  There is great anger, uncertainty, and fear.  My father's brother, Uncle Sol, is in the army.  He is a raconteur with U.S. forces in Europe and North Africa, the colonel's driver, the supply man, the securer of fresh vegetables, women, and wine.  I am sent photographs of him in his jeep, in his uniform, with young women smiling at his side.   
          Uncle Al is in the navy. 
          My father's youngest brother, Bill, tells me proudly he is going to war and joins the air force when he turns eighteen.  I have photographs of Bill looking dashing, a young pilot smiling from the cockpit of his plane,   pictures of him in India with a dead tiger, pictures of him with his tee shirt sleeves rolled up leaning against a car, a Bronx tough with a thin moustache.  Uncle Bill brought home lovely clay figurines from Asia.  He became a New York City narcotics detective who married the most beautiful woman I ever met, beat his family regularly, and put the barrel of his service revolver inside his young daughter's mouth. 
          My father's best friend Sam, who was a pacifist but joined the army anyway, was killed landing with the allied forces in Italy.  My sister, born before war's end, is named after him.  I am told stories and shown pictures of airplanes diving through slate gray skies, of infantrymen with bloody bayonets rushing forward on beaches.  Beaches like Rockaway.  The irony of a world at war is not lost on a boy born on Armistice's Day.  It puzzles me how men can fight in horrific battles where thousands of lives are eradicated and destroyed.  I also don't know where I go when I am sleeping ... and worry I won't come back.

2.     
          I am bouncing on the coach in the living room of the cottage, home alone with my father, Marion, and the infant Louise.  Mother has gone off for the day, which is unusual.  Perhaps they’ve had a fight.  I am lifted playfully high into the air by my father and held at the end of his extended arms looking down into his upturned face.  My rump brushes the ceiling.  He is smiling.  I am screaming with pleasure and joy.  He swings me around and sits me down in the high chair in the kitchen.  I am secured there by a little wooden tabletop attached to the sides of the high chair with aluminum arms.  The tabletop acts as a restraint that rises up and down to let me in and out of the chair.  There is no security strap between my legs.  My lunch of apple and cheese slices is placed on this high chair table top along with a full glass of milk.
          Sidney is not at home. 
          Marion is wearing a floral bathing suit.  Her breasts are beautiful and obvious.  Her thighs are naked.  She is a very pretty athletic woman with dark hair pulled back from her face.  My father is wearing his blue bathing shorts and a pair of black ankle high sneakers.  He is very handsome and strong.  He is aware of Marion's body, as she is of his. 
          I remain seated in the high chair as Marion and my father move self-consciously about the small cottage kitchen.  They have never seen each other in bathing suits before this summer, never shared a bathroom before, and surely never slept a paper-thin wall apart from one another, nor have they ever been alone with each other half naked on a hot sunny August afternoon, on a crystal clear eye squinting day, on a day father has promised to take me to the beach.

3.
          Father and Marion are shy and self-conscious around one another.  Their tension squeezes the air out through the screen door of the cottage into the street.  They speak in words that are tight and stiff.
          "Maybe I should take Bruce to the beach before Louise wakes up," father says.
          "No, stay here with me.  I want to go with you when she awakens."
          He cannot take his eyes off of Marion or her breasts, their slope, the remarkable beauty of her shimmering flesh.  He has never seen Marion this way before, perhaps never been half naked and alone with a woman other than mother before.
          Father does not want to be caught staring.  There is nothing else he can do.  Marion looks father in the eye, as if to say, "What?  What will we do with all this feeling?"  Father rubs his hands together as if he were cold.  He cracks his knuckles.  He stares at his fingers.  He looks at the floor.  He looks at me and winks.
          "Eat something," he says and I dutifully pick up a piece of cheese but don't put it in my mouth.
          "Aren't you hungry," he asks, and I shake my head from side to side as far as I can, exaggeratedly saying "no."
          "Don't you want it," he asks me.
          He looks at Marion.  She blushes.
          "Okay then, why don't you get down and get ready for the beach.  Get your pail and shovel and we're off."

4.
          In one hand he picks up the apple and cheese pieces off the high chair table.  With his other hand he gives me the nearly full glass of milk to hold and then lifts the high chair tabletop up over the chair to let me down as he walks back across the kitchen toward the sink.

As he reaches the big kitchen table he turns toward Marion who is still standing with her back pressed against the cast iron sink.  Her hands supporting her as she rests against the sink top.  My father tries to get past her.  He is taking funny sliding side-to-side steps.  He is facing Marion leaning against the sink.  There is barely enough room for him to slide by.  I sit in the highchair watching them.  Father stops and leans back against the metal kitchen table.  He folds his arms against his chest.  His breathing raises and lowers his arms.

Marion says, "Maybe I should wake Louise."

"No, let her sleep," father says.

5.
          They are facing one another, standing and staring, leaning away with their bodies, nearly touching with their feet.  They are in that same position for what seems a long time when the tension eases out of them.  You can see it.  Their bodies soften.  Their faces break into smiles.  They say nothing to one another but clearly enjoy the opportunity to be this close.  Father drops his arms to his side.  He opens his mouth to breathe.  Marion's eyes sparkle.  They are each smiling broadly.  Marion asks, "Yes?"  There is no other sound in the room.  No sound outside the cottage.  Not a plane overhead.  Not a car passing through the city streets.  Father raises his right hand to his face.  He wipes it down across his nose and chin.  Marion's breasts swell and lower as she breathes, like the ocean on a quiet day pressing and retreating against the sand.
          "Marty," she say softly.  His name a prayer, a praise of god in heaven.  "What should we do?"

6.
          Father takes a very deep long breath and lets the air out slowly through his nose as I start to ease myself out of the high chair.  I try to turn so that I can use the arms and the rungs of the chair to let myself down backwards, as I usually do.  But I have the full glass of milk in my left hand and find myself sliding too quickly forward out of the seat.  I grab at the arm of the chair with my right hand but am pitched forward out of the chair, my legs tangled and slipping from the rungs.  Falling.
          "Marty!" Marion yells as she sees me, her mouth and eyes wide opened.  Father turns and moves toward the chair.  His arms reach out to me.  He is too far away and too slow to stop my fall.  My butt hits the edge of the seat.  I lurch forward from the high chair holding tightly to the glass of milk.  I reach out with my left arm to break my fall and land hard on the glass, which shatters into large shards, driving a large wedge of glass deeply into my left hand and wrist. 

7.
          I feel intense pain instantly and see the spurting arterial blood pulsing out of my arm turned quickly red and wet.  There is an open gash in my palm, which runs up through my wrist and arm.  I imagine I see bone through the parted flesh.  Other shards of glass skitter across the floor.  My head bounces hard onto one of them and glass is stuck into my forehead, which is also bleeding.  Blood is spurting furiously out of my hand and wrist.  I grab my left arm with my right hand below the wrist and scream.  There is only terror.

8.     
          Father lifts me up.  "Oh, shit!" he screams.  "Oh shit!  Oh God Marion Jesus help me.  Please help me.  Oh god.  Oh shit.  Get me a towel Marion.  Please, Marion get me a towel.  Oh god."
          Father's arms and hands are red with my blood.  His left shoulder is covered with blood.  There is blood on his chest.  There is blood on his sneakers.  There is blood on the floor.  I do not hear myself screaming.
          Father wraps a bath towel around my left hand and wrist.  He says, "Tourniquet."  He says, "I don't fucking know."  He says, "Marion, where's the nearest hospital?"  He says, "Oh shit."  He says ‘oh shit’ a lot.  He says, "Don't cry boy."  He says, "don't cry boy you're gonna be fine."  He says, "don't cry,” but it is he who is crying and he doesn't even know it.
          And I am decidedly not fine.  I am terrified.  I am hurt.  I am frightened and blood is pouring down my face and spurting out my wrist.  There is blood in my eye and blood in my mouth.  I am really not fine, I know.  I am, in fact, bleeding to death.  So I scream again, even louder.  I scream again and again.  I scream to blot out everything in the world but my scream.  I scream to scream … and then I grow quiet and still and cold.  And it is my father who is frightened, which is perhaps the most terrifying of all.

9.    
          "No no no," father says.  "Oh no."
          "The hospital is on One Hundred and Eighteenth Street and Rockaway Boulevard," says Marion.  She throws a shirt at my father as he runs with me in his arms out the door of the cottage into the sunlight of the August day.
          Carried in father's arms running up Rockaway Boulevard I am no longer terrified, no longer screaming, no longer in pain.  I bounce uncomfortable and dazed against my father's chest and shoulders.  I seem suspended, outside myself, watching myself and my father running, watching the towel now completely red, wondrously red.  My father is running.  Running.  And I am bouncing over his shoulder.  His breathing heavy, he paces himself.  He does not speak.  He cannot speak.  My head bounces up and down as father jogs along the Brooklyn pavement.  The blood is warm in my mouth.  It takes fifteen minutes to get to the hospital.
          Father runs with me into the emergency entrance corridor.  It is dark and cool inside the building.  I am quite cold on this hot day.  Shivering even.

10.
          "I am a fireman," father gasps.  "My son is seriously injured.  He needs a doctor.  Immediately.  Please.  Somebody help me."
          A nurse in a white uniform takes me from my fathers arm.  I am trembling.  She unwraps the towel from my arm.  Her uniform is quickly stained with blood.  “Jesus Christ!” she says.  “Get a doctor in here!” she says to the air.  “I mean it.  Immediately.”

11.
          I am placed on a cold metal table.  There are wide bright lights.  I am shaking.  I try to run away, to climb down, to bounce, but the nurses' arms hold me.  I scream again.  Scream as loudly as I can.
          “Daddy!  Please don’t leave me.  I promise I won’t cry,” I say as my father leaves the room filled with people in white uniforms moving around the room talking.  I lose track of myself.  Some little boy is being bandaged and sutured.  I lie above myself looking down at the boy on the table shivering and crying.  There is concern I will lose the use of my left hand.  I hear the whispering.  Then I am taken home.  We leave the hospital together, that boy and I.  My arm in a sling and my head bandaged.  I feel considerable pain.  My father gets a cab and we ride home.  Mother is predictably angry when we walk in the door at the cottage.  Father is angry too.  It is the emotion that comes easiest to them.
          “What happened,” mother demands to know.
          “It was just an accident,” my father says, “he was climbing out of the highchair and then it happened.”

12.   
          In the photograph taken later that week the boy is seated alone on the edge of the Rockaway cottage’s front stoop, precariously perched three or four feet above the ground.  He is smiling, but there is a faint look of anxiety on his face, a reflection of his fear he will fall because he is not securely seated.  The boy props himself up and braces himself with his good right arm.  He is wearing a small pair of the brown ankle high leather shoes that kids wore when they were two years old in the forties, a part of shorts, and a long sleeved pull over shirt with the left arm sleeve flopping down.  There is a large bandage over his left eye running halfway up his forehead.  His left arm is in a sling and his hand and wrist are extensively bandaged as he sits in harm’s way.
          Father has posed the boy on the stoop’s edge to take this picture.  He has told the boy to smile.  He is proud of his injured boy, his only child.  He has disregarded, or is devoid of awareness, of the child’s feeling of anxiety, so deeply in love with his son and his own emotions when he is aware of them, he is unable to attune to or acknowledge the boy’s vulnerability. 

13.
          Where is that boy who was with me in the hospital, that boy sitting obediently on the stoop?  Here he is, inside this scar on my wrist, inside the scar on my eye, inside the scars on his vision and his heart.  Now again on the beach.  Now bouncing and jumping.  I like to bounce.

Sophmore

    I move from the Freshman Annex of the Bronx High School of Science to the main building on 183rd street.  I ride the bus to school each morning with Fred Greenberg.  I stop by the second floor apartment of his walkup apartment house to get him each morning on the way to the bus.  I wait in the kitchen, right off the front hallway.  He is never ready.  His mother, an Old World piano teacher, is always preparing his breakfast of cereal, eggs, milk, juice, and toast.  The apartment is always silent and dark.  His mother calls to him that breakfast is ready.  He clomps into the kitchen wearing very loud loose fitting black engineers’ boots with taps on the heels.  His footsteps in the apartment are those of a giant in a dungeon.  His boots make an unbelievable loud sound on the wooden floors.  He never eats any breakfast.  He drinks as much juice or milk as he can swallow in one impatient gulp.  He grabs the toast and takes his first bite of it as he pulls on his jacket.  His mother asks if he has all his books, what he will be doing after school, and if he needs anything.  She speaks quickly.  Freddy never answers.  His mouth is stuffed with milk and toast.  His hands are full of clothes and books.  He mumbles a one word unintelligible answer to his mother’s inquiries, something like, “umrrph.”  He looks at me and jerks his head toward the front hall.  As we walk out he slams the metal door to their apartment closed.  It shakes the walls.  He clomps down the tiled corridor and the marble stairs of the walk up apartment house with the sound of his footsteps a literal racket, a jackhammer being run on very low speed, but striking hard.  It is 1956.  Our Lucky Strike cigarettes are hidden in our jackets.  We will not light up for the first time that day until right before we get off the bus.  We will go into the candy store and deli on the corner of the Grand Concourse and 182ndStreet.  A dozen of our classmates will be crowded into booths talking and smoking and eating sugary donuts.

          I cut out of school quite often, especially study halls where attendance is not taken.  I hide out in pool halls and the apartments of friends where parents are never home playing cards.  I master forging the signatures of my parents and of Mr. Rae, the high school guardian of discipline.  And although I am not the most adept forger in my H.S. there are so many forgeries of Mr. Rae floating around that no one who matters knows what his real signature looks like.  And the one time I get busted I only do five days detention.  And therein another tale..

The American Elders Meet the Hadza

The Discovery of Origins – as told to B.R.Taub by Craig Neal

A group of thirteen all white American men, all over the age of 55, travel together in East Africa on an "inventure.”  The goal of the trip is to meet with male tribal elders from three separate African traditions - a pastoral, an agricultural, and a hunting and gathering society - to ask the elder men what they "do" and what their role is in their society.  The trip grows out of travel and anthropological curiosity, as well as an explicit effort on the part of the American men to make this adventure a part of their experience of transition into elderhood, to find meaningful ritual, to acknowledge and honor the psychological, sexual, and societal transformations that mark becoming an elder male in America, the equivalent of a tribal elder. 

While visit with the Hadza, a hunting and gathering people who live in the Lake Eyasi basin area of Tanzania in Paleolithic hunting and gathering bands, as we all did 15,000 years ago, the Americans and the Hadza sit around a campfire on the second night of their gathering.  They are drumming, chanting, singing, and chatting.  The Hadza songs are spirited, rhythmic, and harmonic.  The Americans find songs they all know but are not as spirited, “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” for example, and “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”  They are aware of their limitations, how song and chant do not play the same role in their lives as it does in the lives of the Hadza.  Still, the Hadza quickly pick up and join in singing “Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.”  
            "So, what do the male elders do here," the Americans in their brash direct manner ask the Hadza.  And after huddling together to discuss how best to respond to such a question, when the Hadza do answer, it is to share their creation/origin story, how in the beginning was the Darkness.  Then the Great Elephant stepped on the serpent and the valleys were formed.  Then the elephant took a piss and the rivers were formed, that sort of stuff.  Only the story goes on for about three full hours and contains its fair share of begats.  And as they’re listening the Americans recognize that at least one function of male elders in Hadza society is that of oral historians who store, share, and perpetuate the legendary and historical origins of the Hadza people.
            "And where do you originally come from," the Hadza ask the Americans, "what are your origins?"
        So the 13 American men over 55 huddle together to discuss what story they can tell, because, truth be told, no one has ever before asked them this question in such a way.  And there are only two origin stories they know.  One is called "Genesis," where the earth was without form until the spirit of their God – the Great God - moved within His kingdom of heavenly emptiness to form on one day the darkness and the light, and on the next the firmament, and on still another day the sky and oceans, and on the fifth, or is it the sixth, all fowl, cattle, great whales, humans, and a woman, the great mother, from the rib of man.  And on the seventh day He rested, whereafter all human knowledge of death derives from the biting of an apple, brothers slay brothers, there is a great flood, first kings as children kill giants with pebbles, people wander the desert, bushes burn, commandments are handed down from mountains on tablets, and some poor kid dies on a cross to expiate everyone’s original sin, leaving us free to come to terms with God on our own.

            The American male elders decide the Genesis story is just too "unscientific," not truly representative of their beliefs, and probably a story the Hadza have heard in some form from missionaries anyway.  The only other “origin story” they know is called the "Big Bang," and they begin to tell this tale, which surprisingly also takes hours, a story where in the far, far distant past, so long ago it was before Time, there existed the great and infinite Nothingness. And from this Great Nothingness there arose a faint and unexplainable vibration that acted inside the perfect vacuum, so that a very Dense Singularity was formed, something about the size of a pebble, only extremely, extremely, extra extremely dense, so dense in fact that the pebble explodes (or implodes, a fine semantic and scientific point they don’t argue before the Hadza).  And from that first explosion of the tiny Dense Pebble the entire mass and emptiness of space, the entire universe, every star, mountain, zebra, ocean, and planet is formed. 

This, the Americans say, is much more "scientific.”  This, the Americans say, really happened.  This, the Americans say is “true,” because, although they don’t say this, they know that rivers don’t come from elephant piss, although they accept that something came from nothing to form the first pebble, made of invisible teeny, teeny little atoms that have teenier, teenier electrodes spinning around their nucleus, and from this very small pebble, came a very big bang, out of which sprang the hottest fire and the fastest moving expanding “energy” ever known, more powerful than a million suns, that then cooled over the course of billions of years so that all matter, all planets, the stars, the mountains and the oceans of earth were formed. 

And then, the American elders say -­ this part being essential to their narrative -­ some of the inert matter on at least one small planet in this vast and expanding universe of billions and billions of stars, a universe which may in fact be only one exhale to be followed by a massive redensifying inhale or contraction to form a new Dense Pebble, to be followed by another big bang, in an endless series of fourteen billion year long cycles of godly eternal inhalation and exhalation, creation and destruction - some of this inert matter on one lonely planet becomes “alive,” by which we mean it can reproduce itself.  

The Americans tell the Hadza that this is much more "scientific” than the Genesis story. They say they know it to be true because their "scientists" have proven it with things called waves, pulses, and radiation, and that over another billion years or so ­- that’s one thousand millions the Americans tell the Hadza -­ tiny one celled organism arose, organisms that could divide and reproduce themselves, which over billions of years then become multi-celled organisms that emerge onto land from the warm sweet sea.  Which brings us, the Americans say, to about a billion years ago, where organisms have gotten so complex that the ancestors of worms and shellfish, of antelope and cattle and humans arise, a time where terrible beasts ruled the earth, dinosaurs, and pterodactyls, and tyrannosaurus rex, and anyhow, rushing ahead about a billion or so years, about one million years ago on this very spot in East Africa the ancestors of humans, one of whom was an Australopithecus named Lucy, who were themselves hunting and gathering people, much as the Hadza are today, were running around making stone axes and arrowheads and becoming men and women..

        And as the Americans relate this story they realize they are indeed very near Oldivai Gorge, in the great rift valley, where the Leakeys first found Lucy, the common ancestor mother, and that these Hadza people may well be direct descendants of Lucy, as are we all, only they live here, here where Lucy lived, on this very spot, on this very planet, under these very stars.  And the Americans tell this to the Hadza, but before they can get into more evolution, into fire, and cave drawings, and the domestication of plants and animals, to the invention of airplanes, and George Washington the father of their country, and rock and roll music, and nuclear weapons which mirror the powers of the sun and the great exploding pebble, the Hadza elders begin to stir and beg the Americans stop.

        "Stop," they say.  "This is too incredible, you are saying that we Hadza are the descendants of the first people, living here, where the first people walked, hunted, gathered and reproduced, we, the Hadza.  It is all too much to take in,” they say, “too much to integrate into our origin story.  We must share this news with our people.  We will have to think about what this means, about our ancestors, about ourselves, about our obligations and the future.  You have shocked us,” they say, “and we must think about it together.”  And they leave us to do so while we Americans are left at the dimming fire, thirteen men over 55, in the immense darkness, inside the vast emptiness, under the same very stars as Lucy.

Eighth Grade Graduation- 1954

 I am one of the inmates at P.S. 95 on Governor Avenue in the northwest Bronx.  Our teachers are principally frustrated and tenured nuns who missed the chance to wear the habit.  Maybe they’re closet drunks.  Whatever they are, they are totalitarians.  But they like me.
       There are weekly school assemblies at P.S. 95 at which all of the upper grade students and the teachers gather in the school auditorium to see and hear some sort of presentation, music or art appreciation usually.  It is the high point of the school community’s week.  
       The P.S. 95 auditorium is situated on the ground floor of our school building, which is built on a hill, so that the auditorium is pitched downward toward a five-foot high raised stage and platform.  At the left front corner of the auditorium is a baby grand piano.  Above the piano, at the corner of the stage, resting in a massive stand bolted to the stage flooring is a huge American flag with a large brass eagle adorning the top of its flagpole.
       Every boy who attends P.S. 95 is required to wear a white shirt and tie on assembly day.  Every girl wears a skirt and white blouse, which every boy tries to see through.  All students uniformly look forward to assembly day as a break from classroom routine.  Every assembly begins with the pledge of allegiance to our flag “and to the republic for which it stands.”  An honor guard, comprising five boys and four girls, waits outside the auditorium as each class silently files into the auditorium to take their assigned seats in their assigned rows.  The filing into the auditorium is silent and orderly.  Boys sit on the left side of the auditorium facing the stage, girls on the right.  After every student is properly seated and the auditorium absolutely still a teacher says, “We will now all rise to honor our flag.”  The audience then stands amidst a raucous clacking of folding seats springing back to attention and the honor guard, led by the senior student who has been selected as flag bearer, accompanied by appropriate marching music from the grand piano, then marches down the center aisle of the auditorium.  The flag bearer carries over his right shoulder a small American flag that is stored in a closet outside the auditorium.  When the honor guard reaches the front of the auditorium stage it parts into two separate files, every other student in line turning either left or right.  Because the procession has alternated boy girl boy girl marching down the aisle, when the honor guard separates and marches to the sides of the stage and up the five or six steps onto the stage itself the boys in the honor guard have all lined up on the right side of the stage facing the audience, the girls have all lined up to the left of the stage facing the audience.
       After the honor guard has lined up across the front of the stage the flag bearer steps one step forward to the edge of the stage.  A teacher calls out, “Present arms.”  The flag bearer lowers the flag he has been carrying upright and vertical over his shoulder to present the colors.  The flag is held in the flag bearer’s right hand, his right arm fully extended, the flag pole at a sixty degree angle to the floor, the stars and stripes unfurled fully before the assembly, the end of the flagpole supported in a leather cup which hangs on a leather thong around the flag bearer’s neck.  The flag’s edge hangs about a foot from the floor of the center aisle of the auditorium.  The assembly recites the Pledge of Allegiance.  Ms. Bailey strikes a chord on the piano and the assembly sings the Star Spangled Banner.  The honor guard stands still and at attention.  At the end of the national anthem the flag bearer raises the flag and steps back into line with the honor guard.  He turns crisply and marches off stage, walking past the huge American flag with the large brass eagle adorning the top of the flagpole that lives on stage, down the stairs, and back up the center aisle of the auditorium.  The other honorees follow as they march out the doors at the rear of the assembly, where the flag bearer ceremoniously replaces the marching flag in the closet used for its storage and then he, with the remainder of the color guard, rejoin their classmates.
       I am the student who bears the flag at assembly in my eighth grade senior year.  I do not know how, why, or by whom I have been chosen for this duty and privilege, but I am honored and pleased by the distinction.  
Soon after the Memorial Day holiday in 1954 our class begins rehearsals for the graduation assembly to be held later in June.  In the graduation assembly we are told the flag presentation ceremony will have two alterations.  After the flag has been presented, after the Pledge of Allegiance has been said, and after the Star Spangled Banner has been sung, the graduating class will also sing “America the Beautiful,” after which the flag bearer will lift the flag, step back from the edge of the stage as usual, but will then turn to his left, and formally present the flag to the seventh grade student who will serve as the flag bearer of the honor guard next year.  The honor guard will then part into two files, march down the stairs, as is our custom, up the aisle, and then return quietly to the seats that have been left vacant for us so that we are arranged in perfect alphabetical order when called upon to receive our diplomas.
       On graduation day the energy at school is dramatically heightened.  Peeking through the doors leading into the auditorium I see my parents, and the parents of many of my friends who have filled the auditorium.  The rest of the graduating class marches silently to their seats.  Mr. Black, the science teacher, is standing outside the auditorium with the honor guard.  I see he is already holding a flag.  But it is not the regular flag I have carried at every assembly for a year, the flag I have practiced with in advance of graduation exercises, the flag I anticipated would be borne by me on graduation day for presentation to next year’s flag bearer.  Instead, without forewarning, the usual flag I carry has been replaced for graduation ceremony purposes by the huge American flag with a large brass eagle adorning the top of the flagpole that normally rests in the stand bolted to the assembly room stage above the grand piano.  I have not been alerted to this change.
       The processional music begins.  I march proudly down the aisle carrying the huge unfamiliar flag in two hands in an upright position.  I turn left at the edge of the stairs and march up the steps to center stage.  I step one step forward as prescribed.  Ms. Bailey says, “Present arms.”  I lower the flag with my right arm extended over the edge of the stage.  And as the audience begins to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, I realize that this flag with the eagle on top of it weighs at least forty pounds more than the flag I am used to holding and that there is simply no way I will be able to keep my arm extended, the flag at a sixty degree angle, and the cloth edges of the flag off the forbidden floor for the next five or six minutes.  Indeed my arm is straining well before the Pledge is completed, “with liberty and justice for all.”
       A cord is struck.  “Oh say can you see,” is intoned.  I am straining tremendously.  I really cannot see how it will be possible for me to hold this position, to keep the flag off the floor during the singing of the National Anthem and America the Beautiful.  I catch my father’s eye.  He understands what is happening.  He pokes my mother in the ribs with his elbow.  She turns to look at him and he whispers.  She returns her gaze to the stage.  I am starting to waver.  My right arm is strained and shaking, “and the home of the brave,” is sung.  My mother’s mouth is open but no words are coming out.  
       Indeed, by the first chord of “America the Beautiful” everyone in the audience knows what is happening, and although they are all singing all of their mouths are hanging open longer between the words, and even the music has slowed down.  I see the clock on the rear wall of the auditorium.  I never really knew second hands moved so slowly.  I’m wavering and shaking.  The weight of the flag and the brass eagle are threatening to literally pull me off the stage.  The tip of the flag dips dangerously low toward the floor.  I can feel the strain in my back.  My father’s mouth has now stopped moving and is seemingly permanently opened as well.  My parents are actually holding hands.  Their eyes are wide.  
       I am a statue on the edge of collapse.  The drama will end when I fall off the stage.  But I will not grab the flagpole with my second hand until the song is finished.  I don’t know why, but those are the rules.  
       America the Beautiful, clearly the longest song ever written, has had new verses added to it by the diabolic Ms. Bailey while the statue is tottering.  And though I can lean into my back from time to time and get a little more lift, I cannot bring my right arm up an iota.   I am actually afraid I will start to cry.  I can feel the tears welling up behind my eyes.  I sense the grimace at the corners of my mouth.  I try to maintain a blank and stoical gaze.  I feel my whole body shaking and hope no one else can see it.  I count five seconds.  I count another five seconds.  We are nearing the end.  The flag dips ever closer toward the floor.  I arch my back and lean against the weight of the flag.  The audience moans the last words of the song.  I reach out with my left arm and grasp the pole and pull it back high into my chest.  There is a few seconds of silence, a pause, and then the audience literally bursts into spontaneous applause.  
       I lift the flag out of its carrying holster.  I gather the cloth and fold the flag across my chest.  I turn to my left and hand the flag off to my seventh grade replacement who literally sags when he grasps the full weight of the flag.  I turn right and lead the color guard off the stage to return to the seat held vacant for me in an alphabetically defined cosmic order.

The Journal

PREFACE
A Lifetime Journal – Page One
         My gene pool, my stock, this tribe, arose in the veldt.  I began as a predator and have always known this, in every sinew of my body and every synapse of my brain.  I feel the excitement, the fear, the sharp concentration and flesh ripping success of the savannah, the pride, the sharing, my love of family and young.  The savannah holds and informs me, accompanies me in my journey from the savannah into the world beyond.  I trace my roots to the savannah.  To know me, know that I begin as nomad, as hunter and gatherer, that I fashioned hand tools, ran hard and fast, lived life in the raw, protected the communal fire; that I have brought all of that with me, as I do the fear, the watchful eye, and the stalking skinny hunger.  There is also peace on the savannah.  The sun is warm.  The water is plentiful.  The soil is soft beneath my naked feet.  My belly is full and my mind at rest.
         Odd, how every time I ever try to speak about my origins I succumb to a demand that I find the sentence that preceded it, and the sentence before that, and thus I find myself here, standing in blood, drawing on the cave wall with chewed twig ends and fingers, speaking long heartfelt sentences well before the red paint dries.  Crying.  Chanting and moaning.  Listening to the drumbeats as I draw the slayings on the wall.  The hunt.  The dead big creatures.  I am proud of our kills, frustrated by my drawings.  I want to show the smiles on the faces of my family and the full bellies of my children, but all I manage is the dead animal, its great heart, and our men with spears.
         Which brings us, if you travel with me through the veil of time, to the twenty first century as measured by modern men and women to the purchase of foods with no odor, wrapped in plastic, boxed in cardboard, in supermarkets where dull music is played, and where I pay for all of the goods and services which keep me and my family alive with little pieces of rectangular plastic.  No spears.
         Between my death on the savannah and this first newest breath of "my" life is a time inside of which was no time, no days, no light, no darkness, only time.  And then this stirring in warm and tasty seas, in a cocoon, as in the beginning, a sense of comfortable boundaries, of there being no boundaries, of all being one and one being all.  I was happy there.  Careless I think.

THE FIRST 48 HOURS
November 12, 1940 - Day One 

         My passage into this world was quite lengthy and strange.  I remember thinking the sea in which I floated was running out a dam and that I was at risk of being left on dry land.  I became quite woozy, which I've never liked.  My head was squeezed.  I felt tremendous pressure.  I was expelled into a world I had never imagined.  I was slapped and twisted.  I drew something cold inside my chest, not unpleasant, but rather cool.  I hadn't even known there were outsides and insides.  It was chilly outside my form.  The brightness bothered my eyes.
         Everything was blurred and indistinct.  My arms were pinned down.  It was extremely loud.  Temperature regulation was a hassle.  I was cold.  I was hot.  The soft thick fluid was gone.  Fish on a beach I thought.  I wish I'd stayed inside I thought.  I was very frightened.  I wanted things to be as they had been.
         Having said that, it was also tremendously interesting and different, enlivening.  I had an awareness of other forms, which I’d never had before, a sense of my separateness, my empty aloneness, and my hungry vulnerability.  All of my movements were jerky and unsmooth.  I hardly knew myself and was in control of nothing.  Trust was a big issue then … and would ever since.  Life is such an improbable challenge.  I wondered where I was before, before I was inside.  I have absolutely no memory of that time, then or now, other than the blood, which makes me feel kind of lonely.
         I felt lost.  Not in pain, but vaguely uncomfortable, physically and emotionally.  There were long periods of unconsciousness that were so familiar.  It was the awareness that startled me.  I waited.  I waited a lot.  There wasn't much I could do about anything anyway.  I had concerns and gripes, but was clearly where I was supposed to be, doing what I was supposed to be doing.  At least I thought so then.

Nov. 13, 1940 - Second Full Day
         Nothing much different than yesterday, it seems, the same mix of pleasant and unpleasant sensations.  I like being held and purred to and don't get enough of it.  There are others like me, crying separate forms.  It's not like the big forms want to hurt us, but we were left alone and unattended more than I like.
         At times I suck on something that releases a warm sweet substance into my mouth.  It is my best experience, absolutely amazing.  I hardly have words to describe it.  I like the sucking.  And the taste is fantastic.  And the sensation of that stuff going down my throat was just so wonderful and sensual, unbelievably sensual.  I loved it.

State Police Encounter

I don't think of myself as leading a particularly stressful or overburdened life these days ... but on August 6, 2014 - right around midnight - as i was driving back to the Cape from Boston where I'd been at a Hiroshima Day Memorial Rally, and then watched my beautiful son Sam play in a basketball game with all ex college players, and then he and I went out for dinner, and I’d been up since before 4AM getting some law work and contracts for Joy my partner done before driving the 2 hours into Boston - and now, driving the 2 hours back after a 20 hour day, well truthfully, I was more than half asleep at the wheel weaving between lanes on the interstate traveling at 65 mph when the state police officer with the flashing insistent lights pulled me over. 

What he found upon shining his flashlight into my car was a bearded old man with his belt loosened and pants unzipped (taking the pressure off my stomach seated in a car after a big dinner), his shoes off, driving a old station wagon filled with signs about stopping nuclear power, as well as ropes, tools, knives, matches, and tape on the seat beside me.  

"Look at you from my perspective," he said when I asked why he was further detaining/questioning me after I told him I hadn't had so much as a sip of alcohol (I hadn't), followed his finger with my eyes without moving my head, oh so competently recited the alphabet, and asked for my license and registration back. 

"Tell you what," he said, "there's a rest area up a quarter mile, I'm gonna follow you.  If you can drive there straight you're gonna pull over and sleep three or four hours and there'll be no more problems for you from me this night.  But if you weave once, or I come by on patrol in less than three hours from now and your car is not there I'm coming after you ... and you'll be spending the rest of the night in my 'house' not yours."   

I never knew I could sleep so soundly while detained in my car.  Joy thinks he saved my life … and maybe someone else's.  I am impressed by his discretion and judgment.