Saturday, March 23, 2013

It’s Just Not Right

I heard yesterday a radio story about something called the “golden visa” or the “gold visa” or some such name.

The name – whatever it may have been – was obviously ironic and not its official government name.

What that visa is is a US immigration program that lets candidates contribute half a million dollars in rural or specially designated economic zones, or a million dollars to normal urban economic zones.  That money is to be used to generate some form of net plus economic activity in the zone to which that money has been contributed.  The money is provided to American business entities to generate the net plus economic activity.  For that contribution the contributor gets for himself or herself and his or her family a two year visa to live in the US.  If after two years the activity generated by the contribution can be shown to have generated ten new jobs that can be shown to be sustainable the visa holders get to have permanent residency and can become citizens.

Not a bad idea.

Apparently the program is quite widely used by the hospitality industry.  Marriot it was said has taken in a half billion dollars of investable capital from the program.


A couple of days later I heard a local Seattle story about a guy who got here in the dark of night after risking his life crossing the southern border and paying dearly to a coyote.

He scrambled around for awhile after getting here doing work that people like him can do.

He accumulated some savings and invested it in a food truck.

He now has 3 restaurants.

And he still has his food truck.

He employs 18 people.

They are all immigrants like him.

Unlike him, they all have social security numbers.

They pay taxes.

He pays taxes.

I doubt that he paid the coyote a half million dollars.

But if the Powers ever ferret him out they will deport him.

I guess – said the republican party – that is as it ought to be.

“Why?” I heard myself muttering “can’t we let this guy become a permanent resident?’

“It’s just not right” I heard from my republican straw man.

The Great Omelet of Rue Mazarine

I once had an experience at Champion – now Carrefour Marche - involving a canvas-clad grocery cart. That event has had a profound and lasting effect on my life.

Stemming from that experience, in that super market, in Paris, I have a different interpretation of certain configurations of “things” that I may encounter in my daily life.

That cart, that day, was the property of the woman immediately ahead of me in the checkout line. That cart was a commonly seen device on the streets and in the markets of Paris.  It was a metal frame with a fabric shell wrapping it, the frame being on wheels.  The fabric shell presented a surprisingly cavernous opportunity for the owners of such devices to stow all variety of groceries, and on the day in question the woman in question in the line in question directly ahead of me had outdone herself with the stuffing of her cart. 

Another characteristic of such devices, and one which was essential to the events of that day in Champion, essential to my subsequent “different interpretation of certain configurations of ‘things’ that I may encounter in my daily life”, and essential to the terror legitimately connected to the events of today is that those devices, when chock-a-block full, can stand with their long axis perpendicular to the horizontal surface of the floor.

And that is convenient for their owners.  It allows those owners to pull their cart to some location or other – such as next ahead of me in a grocery checkout line in the Champion on Rue de Seine in Paris – and, having set it into that vertical, perpendicular-to-the-floor attitude of which it is capable, said owners can leave the device unattended while they reach for their wallets, or remove items from it and put them on the check out conveyor, or whatever other two handed activities would be precluded if it were not for that independently vertical standing capability of their carts.

But that capability can be disastrous for unwary others who are in the vicinity.

On that day that I am describing I was one such unwary other.  I caused that vertical standing pillar of what turned out to be mostly large glass jars of gravy to change attitude by 90 degrees, thus bringing a massive quantity of shatterably packaged brown goo into catastrophic contact with the floor.

Since that day I never stand in line behind or ahead of one of those things.

Moreover, any time I see, what turns out to be a kindred configuration of “things” (it is surprising how large a clan of configurations of things that particular configuration belongs to) I get really wary.

“What kind of things?” you are probably asking.

Oh, how about a five foot high hand truck loaded up to the curvature of its handle with cases – say maybe six or seven – of eggs?

A completely separate and satisfying – at least to me – post could be written about the paucity of anything resembling a sidewalk on any but the largest boulevards of Paris.  That is one of the myriad things that contribute to the charm of the place.  But it does keep one constantly analyzing the activities, configurations and sizes of the people in front of one, or behind one, on those little flanges of concrete skirting either side of the narrow streets that function as sidewalks.

Suffice that just-said to be a prologue to the point of this tale.

I was coming back from the market with my woven palm frond Paris market basket fully laden with cheese, bread and croissant, and I was on the last leg of the journey.  I was walking, dodging, going into the street – all the things one does on all those charming small Paris streets and their pretend sidewalks – when I came to a medium sized delivery van parked partially on what little sidewalk there was.  Between the truck and the wall of the building on its right side there was ample room for one person to pass through if that one person put his market bag in front of himself in order that the bag might not nearly double the width of that person. The space was about one medium person wide.

There having been a cluster of several people coming in the opposite direction, I stopped substantially back of the delivery truck. I was unable to see what might be being delivered by the truck. It was slightly forward of the franprix super marché so I assumed that it must be delivering something to franprix. I let that cluster make their way as best they could through the space between the truck and the wall.

Once they were past I moved a little closer to the truck and tried to see ahead to see if more people were coming opposite me.  There were not.  As I moved forward, about to enter the gap between the truck and the wall, I saw that there was indeed a delivery person behind the truck, in the street directly behind the part of the truck that was not on the sidewalk.  I saw that he had a good sized hand truck loaded vertically with multiple cases of something.  Except for a distant twinge – such twinges always accompany any such configuration that I encounter – I didn’t think much about it.

As a person who once aspired to make his living as a consultant to the distribution industry, any manifestation of activities associated with distribution continues to fascinate me.  Paris, it turns out, is a laboratory for someone who has interests such as mine.  To make all the little markets, stores and the like, to say nothing of the myriad restaurants work, since they are all lurking in back allies, and in dead end passages and inside buildings, many of which date to the sixteen hundreds, the French have adopted carte Blanche what food distributors in America call DSD – Direct Store Delivery.   The “Direct” in DSD is the tricky part.  It means directly from the manufacturer to the store; there is no middle stage of being held in a huge wholesale warehouse. In America DSD is confined to small specialized niches such as – sometimes – beverage, and pretty much always, snacks.  In France DSD is the way stuff gets to the retailers.

And an interesting result of this fact is that if you get out early enough, when it’s still dark, and go to a street upon which a number of markets and restaurants front – the intersection of Rue de Bucci and Rue de Seine is a great example – you will see a street turned into, for an hour or two, the floor of a food distribution warehouse, complete with all the tools, pallet jacks, etc. that would be present in a warehouse.

Anyone who has ever seen this sight, and who knows anything about anything, would be hard pressed to continue to harbor that cherished American belief that the French are lazy and not entrepreurial.

Anyway, as I began to enter the gap between the truck and the wall, and saw the man and his hand truck loaded with cases up to the top of the hand truck’s backbone, I made note of yet another example of DSD.

Then I noticed that the top case was open at its top, not as in someone had opened it, but as in it was a one layer carton that had no top to it by design.  Since it was open, I could see that the contents of that layer of the cases were cartons of les oeufs des fermiers – farm fresh eggs. 

Bear in mind, it takes much longer to tell or to read all of this than it did to live through it.

Things were moving along briskly.  I had almost entered the gap and by then everything that I have described had been discerned by me.  I was digesting the fact that the top layer of the cartons was an open topped carton with multiple smaller cartons of eggs.  I could see them; they were in individual cartons, themselves with cutouts in their lids so that the eggs could be seen; they were a pretty brown.  I still had not actually gotten into the gap between the truck and the store, but my entry was imminent.  All of this had probably occupied a second or two – let’s say two.

As second three began its lifespan I took note of the rest of the cases – the six or seven other cases upon which the top, open lidded case was stationed.  They were rather large, closed cardboard cases, each consisting of a depth that would probably have accommodated three layers of the depth of the single layer open topped one on the very top.  And all those multi layer cases were also eggs.  It said so on their sides.  As second three commenced its death throes I had entered the gap. 

I was still two or three paces from the guy. 

As second four began its life, and as I got yet that much physically and temporally closer to the vertical configuration in front of me, the twinge that always accompanies my encountering those types of configurations became an almost tangible feeling of dread.  Contributing to the developing tangibility of my dread – for dread it can only be accurately called – was the fact that the guy had left the configuration without his hand on the handle; he had left it in its conveniently stationary upright position and moved slightly away to do some other task.

That was a position exactly like the one that had been assigned to the market cart in Champion some years before. That was the one which had descended with a crash into a floor-filling mass of brown goo.

At this point there was a confluence of the past and the present of cosmic proportions. 

Second four screamed its anguished death call, second five was born and I, in my head at least, became suspended in some never-never land from which I could see impending catastrophe but from which I was shielding myself with every power at my disposal. 

I may have physically stopped moving, or I may have slowed to progress measured in microns; in any event I was as close to the stack of eggs as I was going to allow myself to be, and that was far enough away that what seemed to be obviously about to happen next could not be blamed on me in any way. 

If those desirous of ascribing guilt, if there were going to be any such, had known of my almost eerie connection with such events as that which appeared about to be going to happen, they might have been able to make a case.  But only I knew of that connection and I wasn’t telling anybody.

I don’t know whether the guy heard second five in its death wail, or whether some sixth sense in that now dawning sixth second tried to give him warning.  I think he had an inkling of what I already knew in that weird way in which déjà vu always lets one “know” things.  As second six came fully into being I had stopped in my tracks; I think the guy had reached for the handle of the hand truck; I had hope that the vu might turn out not so déjà.

But that hope was dashed.

Things for me had gone into that movie slow motion mode that always accompanies my participation in disasters.  His hand had reached out, but it was behind the now horizontally accelerating vertical configuration of eggs; second six started screaming its death throes and second seven began to make warm birthing sounds; and I, in horror watched a really large omelet come into existence.

I don’t think – and I mean this seriously – that I have ever felt more empathetically sorry for a fellow human being.

And I have never heard such an intense stream of passionate French expletives.

Friday, March 22, 2013


As the republicans flail and thrash around clarifying, re-positioning, re-considering, re-defining and refining their various deeply held, earthshakingly relevant and - yes immutable even - core beliefs, all I hear is superficial drivel that sounds suspiciously familiar, albeit less clear.

I imagine a legion of thinkers deeper than I am will spew forth a great many more words than I have just employed to draw the same conclusion.

I like the briefer form.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Saigon 1967 Chapter Three: Rolling Downhill

As I came to the end of my college career I really had no next step in mind, no responsible, hopefully profitable, move into adult life and into an adult job. The only thing I had really wanted to do was to have the RF Trio, a singing group I was a part of, to go off somewhere where we could continue to learn, improve, and, perhaps be discovered.

Portland was not that place. A comedian, who - along with a stripper named Tempest Storm - we had shared a two week engagement at the Ho Ti, Portland’s closest thing to a nightclub (it was previously Amato’s Supper Club, home of the Rhythm Room) had taken a liking to us, and thought we were pretty good. One of the two things he told us that we took as words to live by was that “the two worst weeks in show business are Christmas and Portland”. The other thing he told us was “don’t ever try to compete for an audience with dog acts or little children.”

The plan of record for our “grow and be discovered” venue had been to go to Dallas. Dave, one of the other two members of the Trio, had been in Dallas during his brief active duty tour in the National Guard. He had become grade deficient in college and was lucky to avoid the infantry by getting into the Air National Guard. He had a high opinion of Dallas as a venue for a young and striving act such as ours.

Before we were able to be on our way to Dallas, it had become November 22, 1963. We decided to let the Kennedy assassination cancel the Dallas plans. Those plans had probably never been anything but a pipe dream anyway.

The Dallas plans cancellation notwithstanding, the three of us should have been able to try to make a try at being in the entertainment business. Since I was about to graduate, as was Joe - the third member of the Trio – and since Dave was back in Portland after the Air Guard tour, it should have followed that the Trio, somewhere, Portland or not, could have become for us a full time endeavor.

That could have been true except for one fact.

The thing that had kept Joe and me in college and Dave in the National Guard hadn’t gone away. It had just changed names.

Originally it had been called Laos.

Then it had become Vietnam.

The typical young American male’s horror of being drafted and told to carry a gun for something other than hunting – although at that time I had never hunted anything except with a BB gun - had kept a lot of colleges full for several years. When I had entered college I had been sure that by the time I had graduated the crisis in South East Asia would have passed. I had assumed that I would have been able to get on with my life after college in whatever manner I might have chosen.

But the crisis had only changed names. If anything it had gotten worse. More and more young males were being drafted and told to carry guns for something other than hunting. It had been obvious as graduation from college drew nearer and nearer that some sort of evasive action was going to be required. It was also obvious that whatever that evasive action turned out to be it would preclude a lot of leeway in personal life choices.

So the Trio probably wasn’t going to happen.

The actual form of the evasive action that I ultimately took presented itself with surprising swiftness and clarity. It solved both of my problems. It would keep me out of the draft and supply me with a job for four years.

USAF was at Portland State actively recruiting candidates for OTS - Officer Training School. The test was imminent. I took the test. I was accepted. I got an induction date several months off. I graduated from college. I got married. I worked my regular summer job until I went to OTS. I graduated from OTS.

My first assignment was Headquarters Security Service at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo Texas. Due to the nature of the mission of the Security Service, the highest form of security clearance was required, so I was to be in “casual status” for a number of months. I became a part of a large group of other recent ROTC, Academy and OTS graduates at Goodfellow. We didn’t sit idle while we waited for our clearances. We played a lot of pool. We had long lunch hours at the Officers’ Club. We sat around and talked a lot. The sergeants – who actually ran things – treated us with respect as long as we didn’t get in their way.

And then after several months of this the Air Force for some reason decided to send all of us from the Security Service - from Goodfellow - off to Lowry AFB in Colorado. At Lowry we were to be trained to be Air Intelligence Officers, after which we were to be sent to various places overseas.

It would turn out that most of those various places overseas were in Vietnam.

So I spent six months at Lowry AFB. Then I graduated from Air Intelligence School. Then I got orders to Cannon AFB in Clovis New Mexico. Cannon turned out to be a holding tank for officers and enlisted men on their way to Vietnam. The F100 Tactical Fighter Wing resident at Cannon had been frequently a part of the early Vietnam War philosophy of 90 day temporary assignments. Under that implementation various stateside units were sent to fight the war for 90 days and then returned home for a period, and then sent back for another 90 day go at the enemy. That had been assumed to have been an everlasting cycle.

Just before I got assigned to Cannon somebody decided it would be better to have 12-month permanent assignments to Vietnam based units that could be continually repopulated by new 12-month blood from bases in the United States.

Vietnam had changed from a fun drive-in war to a 12-month slog of a war.

After 10 months at Cannon I got my orders to Vietnam. The good news was that before going to the war I got 30 days leave at home in Portland. So I could go duck hunting.

Then I got to go to Vietnam.

I got on the plane at Travis AFB after spending twelve hours at the bar in the Officers’ Club. It was pitch-dark. It was pitch-dark all the way across the Pacific and was pitch-dark as we landed at Clark AFB in the Philippines. Clark was a fuel stop, and we got out and went into the cafeteria. I didn’t eat anything. There were vast steam tables full of an indescribable gray-white lumpy viscous substance which I learned later was called SOS. If that was what the Air Force ate for breakfast while overseas, I knew I was really going to dislike being overseas.

It was dark when we took off from Clark and it was dark until we reached the coast of the Asian continent. There was a dark orange-coral color striping the ocean side of Vietnam as we flew down the coast to Saigon.

And then we were at Ton Son Nhut. All the passengers on the plane I had been on were gathered in a large room with one ceiling fan slowly turning. The room was engulfed in an almost otherworldly darkness and gloom. The darkness and gloom were competing for supremacy with what light was present.

It was kind of smoky.

I looked for Humphrey Bogart or Sidney Greenstreet.

There was a fairly junior enlisted man droning out a series of non-sequiturs and inanities. We all learned quickly that he was senior to all of us because he had an earlier DEROS – date of return from overseas. The specifics underpinning that fact he not very subtly imparted to us: he was going to escape before we did and that earlier escape date trumped rank.

The fact that within a few moments of being officially “in country” I had already learned from someone I didn’t know from Adam’s off ox, and who was substantially my junior in rank, that he actually outranked me because of a date on a calendar, and the fact that I absolutely, and with no questions, accepted the fact of that seniority, sums up in one vignette the whole Vietnam War.

After establishing his DEROS dominance he told us something about the obvious fact that we were going through South Vietnamese Customs Check. He asked if we had guns. He said he was sure we didn’t because he knew that we had been clearly told in our pre-departure briefings that we weren’t allowed to bring guns into Vietnam. I thought about asking him why there were so many guns in Vietnam if we weren’t allowed to bring them, but I didn’t have the energy. He said if we did have any, we needed to declare them for impoundment.

The rest was all a blur until I found myself at some sort of Air Force welcome point whose function was to officially welcome me and fellow Air Force Personnel to Vietnam and release us “in country”. We were told to go downtown and find a temporary place to stay, prior to commencing to official “in-processing” activity the next day. This was, from my point of view, the most surrealistic occurrence in a sureality already beyond any previous experience I had ever known.

“Go downtown and find a place to live” said one of the welcomers.

“Just where is downtown, and how does one get there? For that matter, where am I right now? And by the way, we still get news reports in the States; in the last couple of weeks before my departure a number of those news reports were about shootings and bombings in Saigon. Do I need to worry about any of that?”

These and more of a similar nature were thoughts that I had. None of them were turned into spoken words. I had already realized that this was a different game than I had ever played. I had no idea yet of the rules of the game, however, I was pretty sure that it was a game loser to ask questions about things like shootings and bombings. I was actually beginning to wonder if carrying a gun might have been a better career option for me.

Somehow I must have joined a small group of officers, because later I was with them “downtown” somewhere. That somewhere downtown is the first thing I remember after being welcomed. I have no memory of how I got there or what else I might have done or seen between being there and getting there.

Actually there was one memory, but it didn’t get remembered until much later. At that later time I suddenly remembered something that, when remembered, fell into place like a puzzle piece. That memory was a memory of a bunch of little kids playing in a giant mud puddle. Other than that I have no memory of anything until I found myself wherever “there” was.

But I was there.

One of the guys was an Army Caribou pilot who was being transferred to the Air Force. Someone in the Pentagon had decided that it made no sense for the world’s second largest air force to be part of the US Army, so massive numbers of people and inventory were being transferred to the first biggest air force. This guy had an unopened bottle of some kind of scotch. There were about five or six of us. We were in some common room, and we were sitting on the floor. The Army guy opened the bottle took a drink and offered it around. We all gratefully accepted in turn.

I had never drunk straight liquor without ice before.

I immediately liked it.

In that manner we passed the evening, emptying the bottle. We talked for hours. I have been never able to bring forth any other memory of that night except that it happened.

For the balance of my life I will never feel closer to a group of guys whose names I probably didn’t know at the time and who later I couldn’t remember, except for their fleeting involvement in my life.

The next morning, wherever it was that I was in the building that I was in, I awakened. I didn’t know where I was in the building. I had no idea where the building was in Saigon. In after life I have never been able to remember if I slept in my clothes, if I had clean clothes with me, or if I even knew what it was I supposed to wear “in country”. I have never been able to remember if I washed, shaved or brushed my teeth. I have never been able to remember what time it might have been. I had absolutely no idea of what day it was. I looked out the window and looked out over a disastrous jumble of roof and roof-like things. I must have been in an upper level of whatever it was that I was in.

And I always did remember thinking, “what a god-awful parody of a human city”. I have never known whether the rest of my memories of those first 24 hours in Saigon ever really happened.

By the time it had occurred to me to question those memories, so much time had passed that there wasn’t any way to answer any questions I might have had about what I thought that I remembered. Nonetheless, until it occurred to me to question it much later in life, it had lived with me as a vivid real unquestioned memory.

The little group of which I had become a part the previous evening had gathered somewhere in the place we had stayed. We started walking from wherever we were in what may have been the central part of Saigon toward Tan Son Nhut. We hadn’t walked long when we came upon a scene of carnage. An American jeep had been hit with some kind of an incendiary device because it was emitting a vertical wall of flame and its two occupants were engulfed in the flames, going through some kind of post or near death flame induced gymnastic activity. I have never been able to remember anything from that point until a time that must have been a day or two later.

Saigon 1967: Some Images


saigon 1967 one piece cover

saigon market 1967 00002saigon market 1967 00003saigon market 1967settlement on saigon slough 1967

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Saigon 1967 Chapter Two: Eluding the Draft

This story starts in my first year in college. It starts in the first week or so of that first year. That first week was crucial to my relationship with the draft. That relationship had to do with staying in college. If one could stay in college one could elude the draft for four years. But staying in college was directly affected by how one performed in one’s various classes. The one that seemed to upend the most first year students was English Composition.

I had qualified for Advanced English Composition. The very first and most obvious advantage of this appeared in the first moments of the first day that I had showed up for the first class. That was that there were substantially more young women in the class than there were young men.

There was a reason why an advanced English Composition class in 1960 would be light on male attendance.

1960 was, three years after the Sputnik crisis. In the attendant hysteria about the inadequacy of the United States’ pool of competent scientists and engineers, many of the males of my age group had put total emphasis on math and science in high school. To this emphasis they added the belief that they wouldn’t need to be able to write. The result had been a hoard of engineer candidates incapable of correct and lucid written self expression.

While I had taken all of the math and science that was offered at Central Catholic, I had never done well enough to allow myself to fall into delusions of being a scientist or an engineer. Therefore it had been necessary for me to take every subject seriously, even English. Nationwide I was in the minority.

There had been a reason why I had taken English seriously. That reason was Sister Justitia. She was so intimidating that she scared me into taking English seriously.

Sister Justitia was a nun of an order the name of which I had forgotten long before I had forgotten most other things. Sister Justitia was old. She was apparently British. It was thought that she was trained as a lawyer. And she was either mean or intense or intensely mean or intensely intense. The English language and its nineteenth century British practitioners were her life. And her mission in that life was to transfer her love of those things English to the formless lumps of human, American, sophomoric gray matter that were assigned to her annually. The class she taught was called English. In her annual attempt to transform her charges from ciphers to something more substantial she assigned a large reading list of novels by mostly nineteenth century, mostly British writers. There were a few Americans on the list but the real assignments were known to be Dickens and Trollope.

In a given quarter we were expected to read a certain number of these books and to write and submit book reports. These book reports were where things began to get dicey. All high school students had, by the time they had gotten to second year of high school, written and presented myriad book reports: “and then the hero said; and then the villain did; and then they all…”.

Sister Justitia’s book reports were not like that.

Sister Justitia’s book reports were intended to be works of literature in their own right, albeit based upon something we had been assigned to read.

Her reports required an analysis of what the writer was apparently saying and what he was really saying and what the basis for the difference might be. Her reports required a linkage of both of those factors – apparent versus actual viewpoint – to the historic milieu from which the given piece of literature had sprung. Her reports required the proffering of an opinion on the quality of the literature and the value of the message and an analysis of the effect, if any, that the work had had on the times in which it was written, on other writers from those times and on viewpoints from those times and also on later times, later writers and later viewpoints. Her reports, most demandingly, had to be in perfectly turned English sentences. (In between the reading and reports she hammered style, grammar and structure into our heads; a fragment was an automatic “F”.) “There is no such thing as great writing; there is only great rewriting, and rewriting,” she constantly reminded us. She told us tales of some of the great writers whose manuscripts were illegible to anyone but themselves once they were in finished form ready for final draft. To the end of assuring that we actually wrote, rewrote and rewrote we were required to submit our draft documents along with the finished submissions. The more illegible the drafts, the more credibility she placed on the potential value of the finished documents. And she had an uncanny ability, some of us discovered, to ferret out those who attempted draft manuscripts with synthetic writing and rewriting.

It was more or less a daily reign of terror.

Since I was so completely cowed by her intensity, her intelligence, and, to me, her dry sense of humor I just did what she told me to do. Between Sister Justitia’s lessons in style, grammar and structure and my attempted application of her dictated regimen, I not only began to produce finished documents of a quality substantially better than drivel, I discovered that I was beginning to learn how to write and how to think. And I enjoyed it.

I was to find more than enjoyment only two years later.

It was in my college English Composition class in 1960 that Sister Justitia made the positive impact on my life which resulted in an equally positive effect in Saigon nine years later. That positive effect can be summed up with the statement that, nine years after being taught to write and to think by Sister Justitia, and benefitting from that teaching in English Composition in 1960 by not flunking out of English Composition, and college, I was not in the infantry. I was in Vietnam, but I was not in the infantry.

The details of that fortuitous confluence follow.

Friday of our first week in English Composition we were assigned an in-class exercise to write a brief essay. When we were finished we could leave class for the weekend. I had written mine fairly quickly. By that time writing, rewriting and rewriting again had become such a part of my nature that I had acquired an odd disconnect between my thoughts and the words on the paper. The brain processes things at the speed of electricity. The hand processes things at a much slower pace. The gap between those two paces, I discovered, allowed me copious time for rewriting and rewriting again and again in my head before anything actually appeared on paper. That fact, coupled with the skeletal structure of English composition that had also been pounded into me by Sister Justitia, made what came out on paper the first time fairly decent prose. It wasn’t without faults, and it needed still some rewriting, but what could be a long laborious process for some people usually didn’t take me very long. So I felt pretty satisfied with that essay that I had written that Friday in English Comp. I had gotten it on paper fairly rapidly, had edited and rewritten it physically a couple of times – it had already been through the synapse lapse that provided multiple non-physical pre-paper rewrites – and had turned it in and gone off to the student union. I had gotten used to being given “Bs” by Sister Justitia and I had had no reason to expect anything different from that essay.

The weekend came and fled and Monday followed. I was in the English Composition class. Mrs. Miller was our instructor. She was an energetic woman, who talked fast, had lots of opinions which she was willing to share with anyone who was willing to listen, had a good sense of irony and humor and was just plain fun to have as a teacher. I had already come to those conclusions with only three classes from which to form them.

“I have read and graded your essays and they are just pitiful,” she had offered as an introductory remark. There were two “A minuses”, a “C” and the rest of you got “F”. “But don’t worry; you have ample time to recover, and it’s my job to see that you do.” Then she started handing them back to us.

Laos had for some time been in the process of morphing into Vietnam by the autumn of 1960, and Vietnam had appeared to be in a mid-morph state of shaping into being a massive consumer of young male conscripts.

I had been hoping, as I watched that metamorphosis macabre, that my yet to be completed years of college would turn out to be long enough in duration to keep me out of the fray. I had been hoping that whatever it was that was wrong over there that the United States seemed to feel compelled to throw money and human life at would have been taken care of by the time I graduated from college. I had not been able to conceive of the threat of the draft, and of carrying a gun through some unknown jungle, lasting for four more years. World War Two had barely lasted that long – at least for America.

But I had begun to have second thoughts by the morning of the return of the essay. Vietnam was beginning to appear to be a target at which the United States might be preparing to throw vast quantities of money and human – young male - life.

The talk was beginning to be of a long hard slog.

It was beginning to appear to me that even four years of college might not be going to provide me sufficient cover to avoid it.

Hearing, “I have read and graded your essays and they are just pitiful” had rung alarm bells about even the likelihood of my having four years to hope for Laos, newly morphed into Vietnam, to go away. If I had gotten an “F” on what I had believed to be at least an acceptable effort, it seemed to me that the likelihood of recovery would be slight. I could already see my grade report flunking me out of college; I could hear that drill sergeant; I even thought that I could hear the whistle of bullets and see and smell the nightmare of napalm.

Mrs. Miller handed me my essay. I took a moment before looking at it. Then I looked at it. Written on it was “A- Good Work!” For the moment at least I felt that I had been put back on the four year death avoidance plan.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Segue Saigon

When I started posting these chapters to the prequel to A Curious Confluence: The Story of Adrianna – that was while I was still in Paris back in January – I was working on rationalizing and blending four story threads (one is yet to appear in this blog) and was finding it extremely challenging trying to present something that resembled coherence, and something that readers might find interesting.

A great deal of the story is still in my head, being constantly conjured.  A surprising amount is already written and awaits the blender.  An equally surprising amount has already been published here.

As the brothers head out rue Faubourg St-Jacques it is time to let them attend to their mission, take a break from fiction and turn our attention to a real place and time.

I spent a lifetime one year in Vietnam.

I have written a petite memoir about that year.

I am going to post it here, chapter by chapter, prior to getting back to the Prequel.


Saigon 1967

Shadows and Memories

Copyright © 2013 by Noel McKeehan



The widow of one of my fraternity brothers recently gave me a letter. It was a letter that I wrote to Tom in 1967. I was in the military at the time. I was in the Air Force. I also was in Vietnam. I was in Saigon. Tom had saved that letter all these years. The letter is written on pages torn from spiral stenographer’s note pad. The tops of the pages are still laced with the hole-centered vestiges of paper that had once secured them to the spiral. They were written on both sides. They were print/written in a weird mix of printed capital letters, accompanied by, with no apparent rhyme or reason, cursive. I still “write” that way. There is no way to mistake them as having been written by anyone but me.

That was weird: I can no more remember anything that I wrote in that letter, or remember writing it, than I am able to remember the events of my birth. It was as if I had been allowed to travel back in time.

Once I had travelled back, however, the flood gates opened. The nucleus of things that were going on in my life that was presented in that letter suddenly gathered all the other components necessary to bring that nucleus into full blown cellular existence. It was a single celled being, but it was, nevertheless, a being.

This little book is my presentation of that being. Since that being experienced its brief lifespan in Saigon in 1967 that is the name I have given the work.

The book starts with that letter. That letter is unedited.


Since I have written this book based upon the pack of memories that the letter to Tom unleashed, and since those memories have come forth as fully formed stand alone entities with no back story, there are a few people and a few things that need to be briefly mentioned.

Ruth was my first wife. I met her late in College and we got married not long after I graduated. By the time I went to Vietnam we had two children.

Jack was a friend whom I met in my first year in high school. Over the years we became ever closer friends and shared a large number of adventures.

Several of those adventures occurred in Vietnam.

I grew up in Portland.

I went to High School at Central Catholic High School.

I went to college at Portland State College – now Portland State University.

I graduated from Portland State in the spring of 1964. Prior to graduation I had taken and passed a test for admission to Officer Training School in the United States Air Force. At graduation I had a firm induction date in September to commence OTS.

Finally in the spirit of full disclosure, this is not a “What did you do in the war, Daddy” sort of book. This is a “How I best remember getting through it” sort of book.

To that end, the tongue engages the cheek just enough to attempt to take the edge off the deadly seriousness of the whole thing.

Everything told here is true and happened in the manner described. I should point out, however, that I report events as if I were Pogo – Walt Kelly’s brilliantly conceived observer of the ebb and flow of things. Through Pogo’s eyes things always looked ridiculous.

The Author in Nha Bey in 1967


Chapter One

27 February 1967


I likewise am sorry that I haven’t written but my reasons are somewhat different. I even tore one up that I had written because it was fucked up. Also, I’m not trying to keep the correspondence on a one-for-one basis.

First, don’t tell me about not being able to leave. You, at least could if you wanted to, get in your little pink car, say screw it, flip a BA at fading Pullman and go off into the world to make your fortune. (Of course it wouldn’t be long before general Hersey came calling, but at least you have a choice.) I absolutely can’t leave. I am under official orders telling me against all human logic to stay in one of the most unsafe, unhealthy dunghills in the entire world. I can’t even catch a bus ride to Bien Hoa on my day off because I have duty and travel restrictions (an “E” prefix on my AFSC – Air Force Specialty Code – which looks like: E8054) because they think that I know too much and cannot be allowed to be put in a situation more liable to capture than Saigon. This means that I am on a treadmill which must make 365 revolutions before I can get off.

At least I’ve somehow reconciled myself to this. For awhile I didn’t think that I was going to be able to do so; I was really on the ragged edge of insanity. Now I just float through the whole situation, hoping no-one will say much to me because if he does I will lash out and try to destroy him. The only people I can tolerate are the ones who become irrational when they talk about being here. This is, truly, the only rational way to react here, which may go to show you how much of a paradox everything is. I want to destroy the ones—the vast majority unfortunately, who want to “make the best of it, and take things as they come.” This, fat, satisfied complacency can only be defined in terms of what Conrad wrote about. These are the ones who have no trouble coursing through life because they never perceive anything. They don’t really act, they merely flow along the stream. They are unruffled, but by the same token they never participate in life because they never see it or find it.

Seriously, there is a drastic need for someone to take a real stand. But no one has. No one apparently will. While Johnson mumbles of a bitter long struggle (if that is any sort of a definition) military men talk of a situation that is “bigger than all of us.” God damn it, it isn’t bigger than all of us. If someone would just have the guts to do something, we could begin to accomplish something. You will notice that there is a trend toward accepting Bob Kennedy’s thesis of talking to the NLF since they constitute “A” (possibly “THE”) legitimate voice of the Vietnamese people. This is a sign of hope, but why did we have to wait so long? Why can’t we have somebody as president who is capable—like Kennedy?

(Incidentally I’ve got to take a parenthetical time-out here to say that this whole place just shook like an earth quake. Some B-52s just dumped a hell of a load of explosives someplace near here. Now they’re doing it again—5 minutes later. I guess there will be more too—Jesus, if that doesn’t run the V.C. to the conference table I don’t know what will—that is sort of ridiculous isn’t it?)

Speaking of things that are sort of ridiculous next winter when I get back, I want you and me and Doug to find a little crummy tavern, wherever we happen to be—you may be home for Xmas by that time. I want to sit there and drink beer and eat “o-cello special super-wonderful” sandwitches [sic], and play shuffle board, or whatever the game is and get obnoxiously drunk. I hope that my repeated reference to this type of thing in my letters doesn’t sound like random ravings because they are not. One of the major things that has gotten me through this horror show so far has been knowledge of the fact that I could return to controlled absurdity when I got back. The description of the action doesn’t come anywhere near telling its value. For instance sitting on a table taking turns drinking out of a ½ gallon pitcher and making lewd observations about the young ladies present could be pretty high schoolish. But when it is something totally spontaneous, totally without thought, just like waking from a dream and finding yourself doing something, I think it takes on a real value. If you’re doing something like this merely because at that moment it was what you wanted to do, it seemed natural, then it has a sort of legitimate meaning; it isn’t for appearance. Since these things that we do spontaneously always take such a rather macabre form they are of especial value to us. They allow us momentarily to transcend general life and all the “non perceivers” that I mentioned earlier; they allow us to sit back and let this stupidity go by, for awhile at least not affecting us. When I return from here, next to seeing my wife I need this, because there is no such reprieve available here; at least I haven’t found it.

I may have asked you before, but I don’t remember for sure and you haven’t answered me in any case, about Multnomah Law School. Just how useful would a degree from there be? Would one from the University of Washington be sufficiently more useful that it would be worth the extra trouble?

I was going to pick up a beginning accounting course with the U of Maryland extension Center here, but I found out that if I accepted financial assistance from the Air Force my obligation would be extended 24 months from completion of the course. Doing a quick about face I vacated the premises screaming and foaming at the mouth. I guess I’ll have to pick it up in my first year in law school.

Ruth seems to be getting along quite well; she has gotten high grades so far in her interior decorating course and is now taking a course in antiques also. This coupled with her experience at the rug and drape company should put her in a good position to get future jobs. Along these lines, one of the biggest moral uplifts since I’ve been here was something she said in one of her recent letters. A rough quote would be “I hope you don’t change your mind about law school because I think it is best for you and also what you want. You know by now that I will help in every way I can.” Somehow this makes life in the future begin to become more real. After being told for more than 2 years about the terrors of getting out of the Air force and going on “The Outside,” I guess it has had some effect upon me. Not having ever really had to make my way on “The Outside” I have no quick answers to these merchants of doom. All I know is that I don’t like the military and I want to be a civilian, at which they laugh derisively and all-knowingly. With Ruth giving me the concrete as well as moral backing that she is there is no doubt in my mind what is right. Actually there never was, but while I was more than willing to throw myself into the black, swirling unknown, of “The Outside,” I was a little reticent to do so to Ruth and the kids. This tour has solidified what I knew all along. Further it has given me some real confidence in myself, plus a conviction that I am needed in politics. I know I can do better than many or most of those now running the show; when I see messes like this I know that people like you and me are drastically needed. Perhaps salvation is just around the corner.

A final thought, one that I touched on before but didn’t amplify, is think long and hard about how you fulfill your military obligation. In fact let’s do some real serious analysis of this subject both drunk and sober this Christmas season. I hope you don’t think that I am getting nosey, because I am truly interested, and feel that I have some reason to consider myself an authority of sorts. We’ve got to consider the political necessity of the military, and what status this necessity entails. i.e., is being a 6 months reservist as good as being some sort of officer? We also have to figure that Vietnam service probably isn’t a necessity, because as time goes by I think this is going to become an albatross—not around the neck of those who participated, but definitely of those who instigated it. Thus, since it won’t be a question of your patriotism, but of your good sense, and since being here is probably the worst thing that could ever happen to a person, I think avoiding here would be wise. Anyway, there are a bunch of things to consider, and since I just stumbled into the military I think I have learned a little bit about what to do and what not to do.

A final thought is that I have heard, I guess obviously who from—Dick—that you are not looking as healthy as you might. Seriously, you don’t serve yourself or any of your friends or our cause by destroying your health at the age of 24. Once you do ruin it, it will never be properly restored. You ought to at least eat 2 good—not pizza—meals a day, either cooked by you or at a restaurant. Possibly if you walked to and from the tavern it might help also. Remember that the day of the unattractive politician is over, and being half dead is hardly attractive.

I’ve put my nose into your business about as much as is possible, but possibly the closing will justify it to you:

A E K ∆ B Noel

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Departure

Before the sun had crested the banks of the river behind the cluster of dwellings on Place Maubert Gerard and Luc were awake and up. They made breakfast of the remains of the goat haunch and some bread gotten fresh from the Boulanger in the Place. A little cheese finished the meal. Then they went into the Place scooped water from the fountain into their gourds and from the gourds into six large waterproof cured animal bladders. This would be the water for themselves and for the horse on the trip. They hoped that four would be sufficient. If Gerard’s estimate of the time the expedition would take were accurate that should be sufficient water. There was a small lake at the foot of the hill upon which the great oak lived. They could refill from it if they needed to.

If his estimate was wrong and if the whole enterprise took longer they might be in trouble.

Then they filled six wine skins and chose not to think about the perils of their plan.

They readied their hand pushed barrow. In it they put the water, the wine skins and a round of cheese wrapped in leather from the skin of a goat. After some discussion they added a cured haunch of pork also wrapped in a leather goat skin. Finally they added two very sharp kitchen knives to the things in the barrow.

Then they departed, wheeling the barrow to the lumber yard where the horse, wagon and blade waited for the commencement of their journey to the home of the giant oak.

The sun was rising in such a way that it dazzled their eyes as they passed through Porte St Bernard.

“The river is calm this morning” said Luc.

“A good omen?”


As they entered their workplace they were greeted by dual knickers from the two horses.

The first task, before transferring the contents of the barrow to the wagon and secure the blade in its custom built mount on the wagon they cleaned two stalls and watered and fed the horses. They had arranged for a neighbor to take care of the mare in their absence.

Once the horses had been fed and watered and they began to transfer the food, water, wine and utensils in secure and out of the weather storage in the wagon, the brothers restored the blade to its specially configured cradle in the wagon.

They spent the balance of the day’s light checking and re-securing and perfecting the packing of the various components of their cargo.

At sundown they ate the last of their previous night’s food and wine, which they had brought from their dwelling in addition to the stores for the journey. After reviewing for the penultimate time the plans for the trip they fell asleep.

At daybreak, with Gerard driving, they harnessed the great horse to the wagon and turned pointed the conveyance back to Porte St Bernard.

They ate some bread and cheese as they rode.

The sun was rising in a glow of coral light from the upstream end of river as they made the jog from Quai St Bernard onto Rue de la Boucherie.

Gerard began singing a silly song he had heard sung by a minstrel in the market.

“I met a mouse his name was Jacques.

Damndest thing, the mouse could talk.

And when he talked he made no sense.

Everything he said was in past tense.”

“What does that mean?”

“I don’t know. I just heard it and can’t get it out of my mind.”

At Rue St Jacques they turned left and went on Rue St Jacques through the Porte St Jacques and out onto the Faubourg St Jacques.

They were out in the country.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Handles

“The handles had indeed been beautifully crafted. It had taken several days to select just the right pieces with just the right grain and just the right beginning shape. Once selected they had been put back into the drying kiln to drive out what tiny amount of moisture might have remained from their first time in the kiln. This time they were the sole residents of the kiln. This time they were to be treated with almost royal deference. After all, they were to be the handles of the grandest saw blade in France. The brothers thought that the blade might even be the grandest blade in the world.

Once dried to the newly applied uplifted specification the pieces were subjected to the shaping process. Luc was the brother who usually performed this task. He had the patience and finesse of a sculptor. And such patience was required for the task. For it involved removing myriad tiny sliver like layers of the wood, taken off a paper thin curl at a time by the application of a draw knife. The draw knife was one of a family of draw knives that all had the same function: the precise removal of tiny increments of wood from blanks in the process of shaping those blanks into something of utility and things of beauty. These were times when beauty and utility were still seen as kindred and the creation of useful things, needs be, entailed the process of making them also beautiful.

So it was with the handles.

The brothers, in the pursuit of utility wrapped in beauty had assembled a large collection of draw knives – the family of draw knives – with the only difference between them being their size. They ranged from tiny – perhaps three inches – to very large – two feet or so. The knife being used for the handles was one of the smaller ones.

As the shape of the two handles began to emerge from within the blanks, under constant intense scrutiny from Luc they were periodically rubbed smooth with an abrasive stone. As the process continued the shavings became fewer and farther between and the abrasive shaping became the dominant activity. And then oil of the olive was carefully, in tiny quantities added to the process as a follow on rub to each abrasion.

Ultimately two perfectly matched shining, beautiful and silky smooth handles emerged from the process.

At this point Luc turned them over to Gerard.

Gerard was the carpenter and the blacksmith of the brother team.

While Luc had been working the wood Gerard had duplicated the size, shape and thickness of the ends of the blade. Those were the ends that the handles would need to be attached to.

Once the handles were given over to hi, Gerard commence with his part in the attachment process.

First he heated the piece of metal until it was white hot. He had the right handle firmly mounted in an adjustable wooden vise that he had built for just such processes. With the handle firmly held in place, he slowly applied the white hot metal to the handle directly onto a lateral line that he had scribed in the wood for use as a sort of guide or template.

Smoke and an aromatically woody scent laced with just a trace of olive oil engulfed the work area. There also was the beginning of an indentation in the handle that, when complete would allow the blade to be inserted and attached. Gerard held the metal piece in place until the smoke diminished to the point of indication that the piece was no longer hat enough to continue to burn into the handle.

Gerard studied the progress carefully and cleaned out charred wood and some that, while not charred, had been reduced in strength sufficiently to allow its removal. He performed this task with a thing that looked like a tiny hoe.

Then he heated the metal piece again and repeated the process. Ultimately he could see by the depth to which the metal piece fit into the handle after one of the white hot insertions that the groove was of the proper depth. He knew this because he had scribed the metal piece with a horizontal line at just the right place to indicate the completion of the creation of the groove for seating the terminus of the blade.

He repeated the whole process on the other handle until it also had a groove of the necessary depth for the saw to be inserted and attached.

The day had fled while the work had proceeded. It was already beginning to be dark and lamps would need to be lit very soon. Lamplight was not conducive to the sort of work that the handles were going to require so they were set aside to be finished after full light of the following day.

A haunch of goat with beets, parsnips and carrots had been braising since midday in the iron pot suspended over the fire in the huge open fireplace in the common room of the brothers’ dwelling. As the handles had approached completion and the light had begun to wane the savory scent of the meat and vegetables had added to the brothers’ sense of urgency for bringing the work day to completion.

“It is ready for the drill. I will make the holes in the morning and then fashion and attach the rivets, and then it will be ready for use.”

“How long do you think it will take to complete the felling of the tree?” asked Luc.

“I have been thinking about that” responded Gerard.

“It will take us a half day to get the wagon prepared and loaded and a day to get the wagon to the tree. Unless we want to be on the roads at night that means that we need to wait the half day after readying the wagon before departing. As it is, I believe that it will take at least two days to fell the giant and cut it into suitable lengths and get it loaded. I would imagine that that is optimistic, so I think we should plan for four days at the site of the tree before we are ready to return. Again, to avoid being on the highways after dark we would need to plan to depart for our return at dawn of the fifth day. So that means that we need to take food wine and water to carry us for six days counting the out and back of the trip.”

“A large undertaking”

“But grand.”

“Grand is good.”

While Gerard prepared the meal for serving Luc went into the market of Place Maubert and procured bread. The bread was the ideal transport mechanism for the savory broth of the goat and vegetables to be brought from the plates to the mouths of the brothers. And red wine was the perfect beverage to chase all the meal’s components.

As the pot emptied and the pitcher of wine was refilled for the third time and the bread was in the process of absorbing the very last of the broth from the pot the two men looked at each other.

“Perhaps we have undertaken more than we can accomplish?” said Luc.


“But it’s too late now. We own the blade and it has its handles and we have a wagon and we have a horse.”

“And we owe the wizard.”

“Yes, we owe the wizard.”

“I guess we’d better got to bed.”

Luc drained his wine gourd and looked at his brother.

“But it will be a glorious day when we bring the logs back for milling.”

“Yes, glorious.”

And they retired.”

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Blade is Delivered

Gerard’s doubt switched to delightedly surprised enthusiasm when the man – the wizard, as Luc referred to him – appeared with the blade. It arrived with the wizard on an open wagon pulled by a plow horse of immense dimensions. The bed of the wagon was covered with a coarsely woven sort of fabric made of fiber of the crudest sort. But it served its purpose.

“It is covered in case of rain. Such a blade should not be allowed to rust, at least until it has been first used.”

“Let us uncover the blade” said Luc.

Yes, let us uncover the thing” said Gerard.

“I will uncover it” said the wizard. And he pulled the fabric along the axis of the bed of the wagon toward the rump of the horse. That made the horse nervous and it skittered a little. It seemed a kind of anomaly seeing an animal as big as the horse skittering like a colt. But skitter it did. Luckily the weight of the wagon and its cargo were such that the skitter had no real effect on anything except the mood of the horse. The action seemed be all the statement of unrest that it required and it settled back into docile placidity.

But the effect of the pulling back of the fabric – the unveiling of the blade – had a much more pronounced effect on the brothers. Both could be heard making startled in draughts of air as they gasped in unison at the sight before them.

“It is beautiful” said Luc.

“It is very beautiful” said Gerard.

“It is my greatest work” said the wizard.

Before them, resting on a wooden structure custom made to support it was a gleaming expanse of metal. It ran the entire length of the wagon bed. It was blunt at its ends. In the metal at each of those blunt ends there were drilled three holes spaced equidistant from one another. One of its long lateral edges was smooth. The other was arrayed along its entire surface with deeply serrated teeth. The wizard had delivered a product completely ready for the task.

And seeing that product in a delivered tangible form illuminated for the first time for Luc and Gerard the true enormity of the task they had assigned to themselves.

“How do we get it there?” said Gerard.

“Indeed, how do we get it there?” echoed Luc.

“I have thought about that” said the wizard. “I am delivering to you the blade, the cradle, the wagon - and the horse if you need it – as a package. The price includes it all. If the horse is needed it will be so on loan. I will want it back when you have completed your task. And I will take my payment when you have milled and sold the lumber.”

“The only thing that I have left to you is the attachment of the handles. That is the purpose of the holes on each end. With your skill with wood you can fashion handles that fit your hands and attach them with oak pegs driven through the handles and through the holes and through the other side of the handles.”

Luc looked at Gerard and Gerard looked at the blade. He reached tentatively out to it and stoked the metal with the fingers of his left hand. Then he looked at Luc.

“Let us create the handles.”

And he took the head of the horse and led him and his attached conveyance into the stable next to the long building that housed the milling and lumber making equipment. There was one stall that was vacant since the brothers had recently sold a yearling colt that their mare had borne them the previous year.

The dwelling they inhabited near Place Maubert was not far from their lumber yard. They had placed the yard on the bank of one of the several small tributary streams that flowed into the main river. That stream provided their equipment with the power to turn the immense blades that turned the corpses of oaks into the timbers that were required in the building of Paris. The giant oak, once reduced to manageable lengths of trunk would be the biggest set of corpses ever to go through the process, but Luc and Gerard were sure that the blades were big enough and sharp enough for the task.

The truth of that belief would however only be shown once the giant had been felled. And that gigantic undertaking was yet to occur.

At least they told themselves, they now had the blade necessary for the task. And, thanks to the analytical thinking of the wizard they even had a ready means of transporting the blade to the location where it would be used. All that remained to be done was to craft and attach the handles and get the horse, blade, cradle and wagon up the inclined slope to the base of the tree. That was all that was left to do. That was all that was left unless one considered the task of uncrating the blade and getting it into position and placed as far into the already started cut from the previous year as was possible and unless one considered the endless number of forwards and backs that the two brothers would need to apply to that blade, and unless one considered the not well understood post cutting task of extricating the tree in pieces from the cliff backed chasm into which it would fall after being cut. Unless one considered those other things the task was nearly done and the timbers were nearly on their way to the builders of Paris and the payment and the horse were on their way to the wizard.

But why would one consider those other things when the pleasant task of working some seasoned oak into two beautifully crafted handles for the blade was the next task to be performed?

Gerard removed the horse’s various attachments and led him into the stall. As he poured grain into the manger the mare in her nearby stall made a friendly nickering sound. he realized that the animal would need bed and fodder. “Perhaps”, thought Gerard, “we could breed this giant animal with our mare and thus acquire our own workhorse for the many huge timbers that we are going to fell now that we have the blade.”

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Wizard’s Woods

I was, of course, beguiled. But I was, simultaneously, annoyed: here (or there – or where, or when) I was sitting with this young woman from nowhere or somewhere or sometime and had in the last few minutes, or years, or millennia, been introduced by her to a tribe of people that I immediately adopted as my own, and then was snatched back to a time that looked like the present, except for the offset of a season – or maybe years – to yet again be bounced into somewhere else.

And once in somewhere else my companion had started telling me a story about some tree.

I have weird dreams, but if this was one of them it was the champion.

Those thoughts notwithstanding, the story continued.

“Luc shaded his eyes from the fully rising sun. The little wavelets that the early morning breeze was stirring on the river’s surface glinted like sparks flying from a blade being sharpened on a grind wheel. Immediately ahead of him was a grove of trees that almost but not completely hid the small stream that ran off of the butte to his right. The breeze was stirring the small stream as well as the river. Showers of sparks, albeit partially hidden by the trees, glinted through the shade of the little stream’s fringe of oaks. Luc pressed forward and into the grove and discovered that it was deeper than it had looked and was farther at its outer edge from the creek than it had looked at first sight. There were stumps of trees that had been cut and there were sections of trunks placed in neat triangular piles. One of the piles was less triangular, its top few layers having been removed, cut into short lengths and split into pieces that appeared to be intended for burning. A short distance from that was a huge pile of charcoal. And on the immediate bank of the stream, near its juncture with the river, was a structure unlike any Luc had ever seen.

It was round and was about the height of three men standing upon one another’s shoulders. It also must have been that size measured from wall to wall. And it was made of what appeared to be a kind of brick, although it was a brick of a cream color rather than the usual red color common to bricks. It had a small man-sized entrance. That entrance was the only apparent opening, the top of the structure appearing to be completely enclosed by a sort of roof made of the same cream colored bricks.

There was one other thing. And it was a really odd thing.

Half way up the wall on one side of the structure, apparently inserted into it through a sealed opening, was a device that looked as if it were a bellows. But such a bellows: Luc had never seen a bellows - if indeed that was what the thing was - anywhere near as big as this device.

“Maybe this man really is a wizard,” he thought to himself.

He didn’t need to wait long to find out. A very tall man with a very long beard appeared from behind the structure. He stopped, looked at Luc and said “are you lost, my friend?” And then he kept coming forward and put one hand on Luc’s shoulder. “Or are you the one I heard about last week?” His beard, Luc noticed now that the man was directly in front of him would be much longer if it weren’t for the multiple levels of singed whiskers that made up its periphery. The man was dressed in a single piece of some rough woven fabric and cinched at his waist with a thong of raw hide. He had some kind of leather hat, whitened by what must have been years of sweat welling up from beneath, with flaps that came down over the upper half of his ears. He didn’t look that different from many of the smiths that Luc had engaged in his quest for the blade, and his manner was so apparently open and jovially friendly that the idea of his being a wizard had vanished immediately.

“Who or what did you hear about last week?”

“I heard that there was a woodsman talking to the smiths in the city trying to get a great blade to cut a great tree. You look to be a woodsman. Are you that one?”

“I have certainly been trying to find a great blade, so I may be that one.”

“And why haven’t you found the blade you seek?” He removed his hand from Luc’s shoulder and used it and his other hand to make the palms up gesture of interrogation as he asked the question.

Luc thought for a moment. The reasons for not acquiring the blade had been many and varied. He sensed that a litany of all the reasons for his failure to get what he was after would not be the proper way to engage this very direct man to whom he was talking. So he pondered for a moment what would be a concise reply that would nonetheless document the problems he had encountered.

“Their metal isn’t strong enough is it?” the tall man said.

“No, their metal isn’t strong enough” Luc echoed back. “It can’t be made in one piece big enough for the job I need to do.”

“And what is that job?”

“My brother and I started to fell a great oak for our lumber business in the city. But our blade was not large enough to cut it through. So we had let leave it for the winter. We need a very long blade and none of the city’s smith’s can make one.”

“How long would that be?”

“You are tall. It would need to be two of you in length.”

“It must be in truth a great tree.”

“It is a great tree.”

“And you will make a great deal from its lumber?”

“A great deal. The buildings of Paris all need timbers such as we will make from it.”

“Is that how you would pay me – from those proceeds?”

“If you could produce the blade that is how we would pay you.”

“I can produce the blade.”

“Would it be one piece, not more than one melted together at a seam?”

“It will be one piece of a type of metal that only I know how to make. I sell it to warriors for their blades and to farmers for their ploughs. It can be made to be the blade of the great saw that you need.”

“How much would it cost?”

“I would take half of the proceeds for the lumber from the great oak.”

“That is very dear.”

“It may seem to be dear, but after you have the blade, you can cut many other such trees. And the fame of your blade and its special qualities will bring you much business. In the final cut it will be not so dear.”

“After I have the blade. Do pigs fly?”

“You doubt that I can produce such a thing?”

“Show me how it is to be done.”

The tall man said nothing, apparently pondering the situation and contemplating his reply. He took off his hat and retrieved something that had been tucked into some sort of pocket within. Luc noticed, now that his hair was fully revealed that the man’s hair was singed in many places in a manner similar to his beard.

“He must work very near flames” Luc thought to himself.

“This is the metal that only I know how to make.” And he handed Luc a small square sheet of a metal that was much brighter than iron and much lighter in weight.

“Give me the dimensions that you require and I will have it for you by month’s end. And there will be no deposit. I trust you to honor your bargain of fifty percent”

It was Luc’s turn to ponder. After all the trial and failure in getting the required tool for cutting the tree, after all the weeks and months that had passed causing the winter to quickly turn to spring, the time to return to the great oak and finish the task of bringing it down was nigh. The blade was theory, not fact, and if it became fact and if it were suitable to the task the price was high, but the time to act was rapidly approaching. What if someone else found the giant oak, and what if someone else could acquire a blade that could fell the tree? It was time to act.

“I will draw a picture. But I have a question. What is the purpose of the great bellows?”

“That is my secret. That is how I make the metal that will make your blade.”

When Luc had returned home and told his brother of the bargain with the man with the singed beard and singed hair Gerard was dubious.

“But at least there was no deposit” he said with a degree of irony.

Monday, March 4, 2013

After the Hiatus: The End of the Giant Oak

“It must have been somewhere between the years 1600 and 1700 when the giant oak came down.

A team of woodsmen had been dispatched to cut it down and hew the massive trunk into timbers that could be used as structural members in the buildings that were going up all over Paris.

But bringing it down had not been easy.

First, the very thing that made its harvesting a desirable action, that thing being its massive size had come close to being the undoing of the project.  The tree had clung to the rocky ridge of an outcropping from whence it had emerged from an acorn randomly abandoned by some ancient squirrel for so many centuries that its trunk possessed a diameter – the woodsmen soon discovered – far greater than the length of any cross cut saw known to be in existence.  This they had discovered to their chagrin when first they had dragged the massive and heavy blade that they did possess up the difficult, rocky, slippery and very steep incline that allowed them to gain access to the base of the tree.

The blade was probably ten feet in length.  It was far short of being able to do much more than enter the first few feet of the trunk.  That initial attempt had created a nasty and perhaps fatally deep gash in the ancient giant’s trunk, but it had not come close to severing it completely through.  The woodsmen had considered trying to put an equally deep cut into the opposing side of the trunk but the drop off from that side to the ravine below and the extremely narrow and precarious ledge from which they would need to make their cut made such an endeavor impossible unless one were able to invoke some form of levitation.”

She looked at me without speaking

“Are you writing a novel?”

“Not yet. This is important stuff.”

“I t all has been so far.”

“So the tree was wounded, but spared, from that initial attempt.  And with winter coming on, the tree was left to preside over another of the uncountable winters that it had endured and survived.

But that would be its last.

The woodsmen did not rest that winter.  They were hard at work on a much bigger blade.  Before they had left the giant for the winter they had measured what would be needed in size from a blade to be able to re-enter the cut already started and make it all the way through to the other side.  They assumed that the tree would come down somewhat before the saw had cut completely through, but they didn’t want to leave anything to chance.

They visited every smith that they knew. 

It was surprising how hard it turned out to be to be able to acquire a sheet of iron the size that they needed. 

A number of smiths said that they could provide the thing, but they all failed to deliver what had been promised. 

The blades were all either too short, or if long enough, they were made of two or more pieces that had been hammered to appear as a functionally single piece, but their seams told the true story: under the stress of the almost endless back and forth that would be necessary to complete the cut the seams would heat and they would fail.  The woodsmen were not smiths, but they knew the intricacies of their trade so well that they knew that a hammered seam would not stand up to the stress of their intended mission. 

Only a single continuous sheet of iron would allow them to craft the blade that they needed.

As the winter deepened and their ability to acquire the blank that they needed from which to create the great blade that would fell the great oak seemed to no nearer to happening, they began to despair of success.

It was then that Luc, the younger of the two woodsmen brothers, heard of a sort of wizard or alchemist who made a metal from iron, but once made it really wasn’t iron any more. 

He wasn’t a smith and he wasn’t inside the walls of Paris. 

He was a short distance outside of the walls in a place that had a small stream and was in a quite large grove of second growth oak. 

Luc had heard that the wizard had chosen that spot so that he had room enough to build the rather larger earthen structure in which he made the metal and the equally large fireplace or kiln where he burned the oak that he harvested from the adjacent grove. 

In that kiln he reduced the oak to charcoal. 

That charcoal was the secret to the metal that he produced. 

His metal had proven to be a superior raw material for the blades of swords and he was prospering with sales of his product to the sword makers of numerous nobles. 

It was said that perhaps even the king had blades made from this wizard’s metal.

So one day in early February Luc went outside the walls and visited the wizard or alchemist or super smith or whatever he might be. 

Luc didn’t really care.  He just wanted a one piece blank of metal from which he and his brother could craft a blade sufficient to complete the job they had started the previous winter. 

Gerard, Luc’s brother woodsman didn’t have much hope for the venture.

Luc left early. The sun was in his face as he departed his dwelling near Place Maubert. He had put some bread and cheese in a sack slung over his shoulder. He was uncertain of the exact distance to the wizard’s smith and he was sure he was going to need to eat away from home at least once. He took a stout, long and pointed shaft of seasoned oak as defense against brigands or beasts. He had a leather bag with internal waterproofing to carry some wine to complete the away from home repast of which he was sure he would need to partake. He walked to the river, turned right on the Quai Saint Bernard and headed for the gate with the sun continuing to rise directly in his path.

Once through Porte St Bernard he followed the path along the river, past his and Gerard’s mill and stable, past the woods of the Abbey of St Victor, and on until he came to a tree lined stream coming off a wooded butte and flowing into the river.

In the full light of early morning he saw what he had been seeking.’