Saturday, August 31, 2013

Closing Time: Jolson, Ruth and the Frog

Death has always been an ever-present reality to me. It has so many forms that its constant presence is not a fearful entity; it is instead a rather interesting companion.

There had been Babe Ruth and Al Jolson, for example.

I can remember the day Al Jolson died. I can’t remember a year or even, really, a place attached to this memory. What I remember is the effect the event had had on my mother. She was morose and tearful for days. I was too young to know who Al Jolson was but I was intensely aware, from my mother's reaction, how much this person must have meant to her.

And she was very important to me.

It followed that Al Jolson was important to me.

I can remember the day Babe Ruth died. That must have been 1948. I remember the event as having to do with running boards. My mother always let some of the kids in the neighborhood ride on the running boards of our pre-World War Two second hand car when she drove slowly through the neighborhood. That must have been Ballard. We moved from Ballard in 1949, so Babe Ruth must have died previously.

On that day my mother didn’t let the neighborhood kids ride on the running boards.

She was too upset.

She reacted similarly to her reaction to Al Jolson’s death.

I had no idea who Babe Ruth was, but he was important to my mother, so he was important to me.

Both of those very early incidents in my life – incidents I remember with total clarity – had only one subject: death.

Then there was the frog. The frog had been a sort of gift from my grandmother – my father’s mother. My father had been adopted, but that had been a fact, not a distinction, so she was my father’s mother, my grandmother. She had given me a tree frog in a fruit jar. The jar was half filled with water. The frog was light green, a rare color for a tree frog. I had been fascinated by the creature, and wouldn’t let it out of my sight all of the day I had received it. But night came, and my mother hadn’t wanted me to take the jar and the frog to bed with me, so she told me to put the jar on the front porch where I could retrieve it in the morning.

When morning came the flaw in that plan was grimly apparent. The sun had come up, bathing the front porch and the frog in the jar in its warmth. Unfortunately the jar had amplified the effect of the sunlight to a cooking temperature, and by the time I had gotten up and gone to see how the frog had made it through the night the frog hadn’t made it through the night.

The frog was dead.

It had been par-boiled.

I was inconsolable.

For reasons I have never able to reconstruct I poured the frog and its water out on the sidewalk in front of the house.

A little girl whose only known presence in my life related only to that place on the sidewalk came by and stepped on the frog and smashed it on the sidewalk.

I cried.

The little girl laughed uproariously.

I scraped up what I could and gave it a decent burial.

A significant residue of frog remained on the sidewalk for several days leaving a kind of greasy splotch as testimony of the frog’s grim demise.

That little girl stopped at the grease spot on the sidewalk multiple times over the next few days and laughed with the same unbridled vigor every time; and every time she appeared and indulged in her mirthful ritual she pointed at the spot on the sidewalk where she had ground the frog to oblivion. I still remember a mouth with little ugly teeth and clam colored lips emitting gales of what I would learn later to describe as obscene sounds that emulated laughter.

I have always thought in later years that the frog had been a symbol of good and the little girl had been the devil.

This event occurred early in the summer.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Closing Time Prologue: Daybreak

One spring morning when I was young, I awoke very early. It was barely light. I wasn’t accustomed to being awake at that time of day, so it took me a moment to realize what I was hearing. There was an almost deafening sound. It was the sound of myriad birds, all chirping at random, all singing their morning songs.

I had never heard anything like it.

But then, I had never been awake at that time of the day, at that time of the year before.

Closer listening revealed that there was a sort of order to the sound. My first impression of randomness and disorder was the result of its magnitude, not of its being actually random or disorderly. Concentrating intently, I could hear the call of one robin. It was the call that my grandmother always described as “calling for rain”. The minute one call was completed – there was an order to the notes – another would take it up. Then another would join the symphony and then another, and another; there seemed to be no end to the number of them.

It was a sound that I was to remember every now and then for the rest of my life.

I could re-create it in my head whenever I remembered it. And that re-creation always was accompanied by a disbelief that anything that loud could be the result of the gray and black and red-breasted residents of the neighborhood lawns, trees and roof tops; that anything that loud could have ever actually existed; that anything that loud could be anything but the exaggerated memory of a young boy awake before his wont and subject to flights of fancy.

But I could always make it happen again in my head.

I could even hear the different birds.

I made it happen on the morning that I wrote about this memory.

It was one spring morning when I was no longer young.

It was still dark.

I lay motionless hoping to go back to sleep soon. I was listening – perhaps unconsciously - but listening.

I was listening with hope that this would be that morning of all mornings when I finally heard the roar of the birds again.

I realized that I had slipped back to sleep when I was brought abruptly awake by the “pop” of some component of the house. The house liked to express itself during the early morning hours with intermittent popping noises. Sometimes they were single; sometimes they were multiple. But they never seemed to happen except at that time of the dawn when I had come awake briefly and had, just as briefly, dropped back to sleep. They seemed intended to keep me, once awake, awake for the day. The house seemed to want me to be up and about, turning on lights, making coffee and doing other house friendly things.

I always resisted, indulging instead in multiple episodes of dropping back to sleep.

Ultimately the house always tired of the game and lapsed back into silence. And I got a few more hours of sleep.

But the morning that I wrote these words the house was more tenacious than usual. We had been playing the dropping and popping game for some time when one of the pops just preceded a different sound.

Light was beginning to come through the closed blinds, casting little shafts through their downward turned slats, slightly illuminating the top of the dresser.

Those shafts told me that dawn was coming.

The different sound was the morning song of a single robin.

I waited to hear a second.

After a little time I heard it.

I waited for a third, hoping to then hear a fourth, fifth and so on up to the myriad driven roar of childhood memory.

I almost stopped breathing, waiting for the crescendo of the morning song roar to exist in fact, not just in my head.

But I never heard the third.

I listened to the back and forth of the duet and wondered what had happened to me, besides getting older, that had caused me to no longer hear in reality the sound that I could create in my head, that I could remember, that I loved and wished to hear again in reality.

And I knew it wasn’t me.

I knew it because as age had caused dawn awakenings to be the norm in my life I had listened in vain for the spring chorus on countless other early dawns.

I always had to be content with a duet or occasionally a trio.

I had to acknowledge that the flocks that had once spent the early instants of dawn shouting their joy at its arrival had passed from the earth.

They were life that had faded to death.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Closing Time



closing time coverclosing time rear cover correct size with ISBN

Closing Time

Noel McKeehan

Copyright © 2013 by Noel McKeehan

More can be found about the author at:

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, or in any eBook format without permission in writing from the author.



The first time I noticed the existence of the clock was when I was in high school.

It was near the end of my senior year when I was beginning to think about the expanded life I would soon be living.

I had a job with a company to work all summer as a surveyor – they were going to train me – and then I was going to go to college.

I was sitting in the bleachers in our gymnasium with others of my class who were similarly looking to the future. We were all participating in some sort of, now long forgotten, final activities preparatory to graduation.

What I was specifically doing I have long forgotten.

But I remember vividly what I became aware of feeling.

As I sat on the bleacher bench I realized that I was experiencing the sensation of time speeding up. That was all. But that was enough. Life had to that moment always been an interminable plodding flow of hours, days, weeks, months and years that seemed never ending in duration.

In that moment on the bleacher bench the tempo changed. And I was acutely aware of the change.

Since I didn’t know what it meant I tried to ignore it.

Since it was intense and persistent I couldn’t forget it.

So I took it in stride and filed it away as a new reality with which I would need to cope.

As it turned out I did forget it.

That was because it soon changed from a sensation to a reality. There was nothing to remember; it was all living.

I was suddenly lurching helter skelter down some path that life kept rolling out just ahead of me.

It was surveyor, college, marriage, military, war, first job all clicking along at an accelerating clip.

Then the second revelation of the clock occurred.

It was a vague realization of mortality. It was not the young person’s belief of not being likely to live to be 21 years old while at the same time believing that he was immortal. It was instead a clear and specific feeling of real finiteness.

Then there was the third: the realization that what I was likely to ever accomplish I had already accomplished. And that wasn’t much.

As time has progressed the clock has continued to reveal additional of its properties. This is a story that attempts to capture the essence and nature of those revelations

This is a story about death, about life and about the ever present cosmic clock that tells us when it’s closing time.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Frogs and Fire

This is an excerpt from Screen Saver.

As the house on Lake Champetra had begun to take form I frequently went to the site to see how Ken was progressing with the project.

I had been standing on the wall-less first floor – the ceiling of the basement – when the first space shuttle made its successful maiden voyage. I heard about it as it was occurring on Ken’s portable radio.

On another occasion I had gotten to the building site mid afternoon in an abnormally warm and steamy wet, post downpour, late autumn day. After checking the progress and talking to Ken about the likelihood of Joe and me being able to move in as planned just before Thanksgiving I had decided to walk down in the woods and look around. It was late enough in the year that the leaves were all off the trees and the forest floor that afternoon had been covered with the recently dead and more recently dropped and even more recently rain saturated foliage of the black walnuts, the hickories, the red oaks and the white oaks.

I had been savoring the smell and had been feeling the steaminess of everything when I noticed something.

There were what seemed to be thousands, and most certainly must have been at the most conservative estimate, hundreds of frogs. They were small, almost tiny frogs, perhaps half the size of the Pacific Tree Frogs that I had grown up with. They were everywhere and they were just sort of “there”; they weren’t really moving but seemed to be sort of looking around as if they were confused or stunned. My presence didn’t make them jump away or hide; they just looked at me, or at each other, or at the fallen leaves and exuded an air of disorientation, if that sort of air is possible for a small amphibian to exude. They had seemed confused to me. After some time walking around among them and picking a few up for examination I had gone back to the car and had gone back to Jefferson City. As I drove back to the apartment on the hill above the Mode O’ Day I mused about how nice it was going to be to have that kind of population of frogs joining me every fall.

I never in the three years that I lived there saw another of that type of tiny frog in the woods. I looked every fall, but they were never there.

What was there, and had remained there after construction was a huge pile of brush and cedars that had been removed to allow the dynamite people to blast the foundation for my basement out of the limestone.

Any of the hardwoods that had been removed had been sold. After building a house in Atlanta I should have remembered that gambit and should have made the proceeds from that sale be part of the house building deal in my financial favor but I had proved to be untrainable as a timber baron.

So Ken had gotten the financial benefit and I had gotten the pile of stuff nobody wanted. It was piled up on the shoreline.

When Joe and I had moved in just before Thanksgiving it had snowed and the pile had looked like a small mountain down by the lakeshore. It had remained snow covered for the balance of the winter, and other than being a topographic abnormality it had begun to fade into being an accepted part of the landscape.

But when spring had removed the snow and time and winter cold had reduced it to an ugly pile of dead brown, intensely tangled tree trunks and branches it had become an irritant and an eyesore.

As time had gone on I became more desirous by the day to get rid of it, but I couldn’t figure out how to get rid of it. Even if somebody had been willing or had been able to get some kind of trash removal vehicle up the goat trail that was passing for my driveway it would have taken several trips to remove the entire pile and the task of untangling it and dragging it up the slope to the driveway would have been monumental; I had visions of needing a second mortgage – and interest rates were at that time fourteen percent – to finance that project.

So the pile had remained and had become uglier and browner.

Occasionally I had thought that I remembered Ken muttering something about burning the pile one of the times that I had tried to engage him in the discussion of removing it as a cleanup component of the construction project.

Time had gone by.

The pile had become even uglier and even browner.

I wanted to get rid of it more with every passing day.

Joe and I talked about the idea of burning the pile.

Joe, even when he had been only ten or eleven years old had always had a mechanic’s or engineer’s sense about him; when Mysti and I had bought things requiring assembly we always had Joe put them together and he was always able to do it and do it quickly and correctly, and always with only one try. So by the time of the great brown pile on the lakeshore I had come to depend heavily upon Joe’s opinion of the practicality of the various physical or mechanical tasks that seemed to always be dogging me.

He thought that we could probably burn the pile without setting the house on fire or starting a forest fire; but he did concur that it would be an awfully large fire and one which, once underway, would go until it had run out of pile and before, hopefully it had raised anything surrounding it to kindling temperature.

In spite of the ambivalence of that opinion I had opted to do it.

One cold, recently wet, and not at all windy Saturday in late April we doused the pile with some gasoline from the chainsaw’s fuel can, threw in some matches and stood back in wonder as the thing took off.

We must have experienced a feeling similar to that experienced by the scientists who had watched the first nuclear explosion at Los Alamos.

Once it was under way there was no way to stop it and where it went other than the pile if it went anywhere other than the pile was obviously going to be completely beyond our control.

Those scientists, like Joe and me, had all the theoretic proof they had needed that the bomb wouldn’t start an unstoppable chain reaction, but they weren’t to know for sure until they had set the thing off.

I knew that feeling the day of the great Lake Champetra bonfire.

As it turned out the pile was, for a number of hours a spectacular event on our shoreline but it finally went out having reduced the pile to nothing but a little ash.

Nothing ever grew within several feet of the epicenter of the blaze.

Several years later, long after I no longer lived in Missouri I was reading the Missouri Conservationist, a monthly magazine published by the Missouri Department of Conservation that I had kept a subscription to after moving on. In the readers’ questions section at the front of the magazine one reader had said: “I have a friend who insists that it sometimes rains fish in Missouri and that he has actually seen it. I told him he’s nuts. Is there anything to this?” The answer had caught my attention. “Sometimes big dust devils or very small tornados go over farm ponds and suck up a high volume of water, and anything that happens to be in that water. When it runs out of steam over land the water and whatever was in it gets dropped on the land.”

I finally could understand why those tiny frogs had seemed rather disoriented.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Really Stupid Idea

This is an edited excerpt from Screen Saver.


One of the more memorable expeditions Jack and I had gone on almost hadn’t happened.

It had been Christmas Eve just before noon and I had been in the final stages of getting organized to get out of town and meet Jack for a several day trip back in the Wasco, Moro and Grass Valley areas.

I was on my way to the Lloyd Center to pick up some last minute item after which I was going to fill the car with gas and be on my way. I had noticed that one of the several gas stations on my way to the Lloyd Center had been closing for the day. “Christmas Eve,” I had thought.

But then I noticed that they were putting signs on the pumps: “no gas,” they said.

“How odd,” I thought.

I made the mental note that maybe it would be prudent to stop at the next station and get gas.

When I got to the next station it had signs on the pumps: “no gas”.

Every one of the five or six stations I went to next was either closing and posting “no gas” signs, or had already done so.

In a period of about fifteen minutes I had seen the gasoline supply of a major city disappear.

And it was not to return for almost a year.

One of the few really interesting things I had learned when I was at Lowery learning how to destroy things with conventional and nuclear weapons had been how to tell whether the tanks in a petroleum tank farm were full or not.

Those tanks have floating lids that rise up or down on a central column; the level of the lid in the tank is dependent upon how much petroleum product the tank has in it. In a partially or completely empty tank the lid can be seen somewhere near the bottom leaving the tank looking like a huge ferrule jutting up from the earth. If the tank is full the lid is at the top making the tank look like a large metal cylinder.

Portland had some POL tank farms, Phillips Petroleum among others, all of which could be viewed from above from the bridges that they were located close to.

During that entire period of no gas available in Portland all the tanks I saw were full.

The only thing that ultimately changed, after which there was suddenly an abundance of gasoline was the price.

It had appeared to me, as I went from out of gas station to out of gas station that the world as I had known it had begun to unravel before my eyes, with gas stations closing like a line of falling dominos.

The hunting expedition obviously needed to be canceled.

With no gas there wasn’t a way to get to the hunting grounds.

Then I had a revelation. I had an almost full tank. I had enough gas to get there; I just might not be able to return.

“What the hell,” I thought and took off down Interstate 80.

Eighty miles from Portland in The Dalles it was a completely different situation.

The gas stations were all open, the lights were all shining and people were acting as if life was proceeding normally.

When I met Jack he looked at me like I was crazy when I told him that Portland was shut down.

It wasn’t that way in Moscow or any of the places he had traversed in between on his trip to meet me.

And it remained not that way in places outside of Portland for that weekend and for the rest of the intervening period of time that passed until whatever it had been that had shut Portland down had gone away. If I had enough gas to get out of town, I was always able to get enough gas for the return.

But for months the lines queued at Portland’s gas stations became the stuff of legend.

It was as if we had been singled out for some special form of diabolical punishment. I couldn’t help but ponder the fact that we never had found out who the “they” had been who killed Kennedy. Maybe “they” were the same ones in charge of gasoline supplies.

Even in Portland I soon discovered an aberration to the out of gas situation. One weekend not long after the Christmas Eve shutdown I had decided to take the Loon to the river for a Sunday afternoon. The boat had a large tank, which had been filled prior to the advent of the great shortage and it was still fairly full. I figured I could spend a conservative afternoon of not much motoring and a lot of floating and still could be able to get back to the boat ramp. I had half a tank in the car from my most recent pre-dawn multi-hour vigil at the local Richfield station, so the trip to and from the boat ramp was covered with adequate fuel supply.

I had put in at Willamette Park and had motored conservatively upriver with the plan of letting the current do most of the work in bringing me back to the ramp.

As I passed the moorage adjacent to the Sellwood Bridge I thought I had seen activity at the gas dock. It looked as if a boat was getting gas. Curious, I nosed the Loon into the dock and hailed the attendant. “Do you have gas?”


“Can I buy some?” I asked expecting to hear that I needed to be a member of the moorage.

“As soon as I fill this guy.”

I had two empty portable Johnson tanks, which I filled in addition to the empty component of the eighteen gallon integrated tank. That gas dock was open every weekend for the entire duration of the great gas shortage of 1973 and I filled up there every weekend for that duration. Not only did it give me the mentally healthy activity of boating every weekend through that winter, it gave me two full portable six gallon gas tanks, one of which was always in the trunk of my car that winter. I also had, sitting on the trailer in the back yard of the hovel, a full eighteen gallon tank.

I had a rather large territory to cover for IBM, and for my livelihood, and I had concluded that if I ever ran out of gas in that endeavor I had a six gallon reserve in the trunk with which with which to get home. At that point, if it ever came, I had decided that I would call IBM and tell them that I enjoyed working for them and would like to continue, and would if they could figure how to get me a tank of gas.

It never came to that.

But the possibility that it might have come to that had been a weight on my mind and my psyche. It had sensitized my fact gathering apparatus to see or hear anything that might have an ameliorative effect on our energy-starved plight.

Things that I might not have ever had occasion to read I read.

Things I might never have tuned into listening to I listened to.

Things that I had heard previously and had half or totally forgotten, or to which I had assigned no context at all became remembered or got assigned context, or both.

There had been the article I had read about fleas.

The article had discussed the fact that fleas could jump distances many times their own size. If a human or a cow were able to jump in the same proportion he or she would be able to leap tall buildings at a single bound; cows might even be able to jump over the moon. The reason fleas, the article said, were able to accomplish this feat was due to the stuff of which they were primarily composed. That stuff was an amazing organic compound that was supremely compressible. A flea, it turned out, was basically a hollow container filled with this supremely compressible material. The hollow container was jointed in such a manner that a flea was able to fold itself in on its compressible interior, thus effecting massive compression of that material.

Essentially the flea was capable of cocking itself like some kind of spring bearing device. When the flea released itself from this cocked state the compressed stuff of which it was made expanded exponentially and the flea hurtled across a distance many times its own size.

I had always been interested in nature and the natural world, and it would have been highly likely that I would have read this article with interest even in the absence of the great energy crisis.

But surely I wouldn’t have come to the conclusion that the government should create massive funding to figure out exactly what the compound of which fleas were made was composed of and make massive amounts of it.

Those massive amounts, I had thought, could be put into large mechanically engineered versions of the flea’s outer shell. These could then be mounted on wheeled devices. The driver of such a device would cock the “flea” and release it making the vast energy of the compressed flea stuff available to some kind of computer controlled damping device so the energy could be delivered to the wheels in a usefully controlled manner.

That computer controlled damping device was an artifice I invented out of my, by then in life, total faith in the utility of the devices that I sold for IBM.

I had become a true believer in the possibility that computers and sub miniaturization would merge into forms of technology that would be able accomplish feats of magic such as controlling the energy output from a mechanical flea.

I had come to that belief in stages.

The feats of magic belief stemmed from experience trying to sell a much larger, not miniaturized version of the computer that I had imagined.

Not all of IBM’s computers had been business machines.

Not all had been destined for mundane uses such as printing aged trial balances or paychecks, or even reports of bridges destroyed and damaged.

Some had been intended for uses of a much less clearly understandable nature.

The IBM System/7 had been one of these. It had been an early version of a form of computer system for which IBM should have become famous, but didn’t. That lack of fame stemmed from the very aspect that should have made the products famous: they were machines with no apparent mission, but to which, therefore any mission imaginable could be assigned. It was assumed by those in positions of power in IBM that the open ended nature of that condition would cause markets to rise up from nowhere, demanding the assignment of these universally missionable devices to the needs of the markets which the existence of these devices had caused to arise.

Sadly that was never to be.

Even in those heady, pre-historic times one needed an operating system and applications to sell computers.

But during the time that the premise had been alive and well and unproven as yet to have been bogus, the System/7 had caused untold misery to the marketing force that was assumed to have been able to sell it.

As the years had passed the pressure built to find homes for what apparently were becoming legions of unsold universally missionable computer systems.

That pressure had emanated, as pressure had always been wont to emanate in IBM, from the sales plan.

The pressure had emanated also through the management system.

Performance plans had been written such that if a salesman didn’t sell some System/7s or if a Systems Engineer didn’t help sell and subsequently install some System/7s they were to be cast into the outer darkness.

So operating systems had begun to appear from the basements of Systems Engineers.

Applications had begun to be identified by desperate salesmen.

Every account had become a possible hiding place for the application that might sell a System/7.

It was possible to program them to turn on lights.

It was possible to program them to turn off lights. It was possible to program them to turn on and off lights.

It was possible to program them to do the various offs and ons strategically: if it was morning you could get them to turn on the lights at such a time that the heat generated would bring the location up to desired working temperature by the time the workers showed up for work, thus postponing the need to turn on the more expensive heat generating furnace.

Voila. Resource management was born.

It was possible to program them to put only a little more than the weight noted on the content of packages of food rather than the significantly more that manual packing methods historically required. This allowed compliance with fair labeling laws with much less product giveaway.

Voila. Net fill packaging was born.

And it went on and on.

It was possible to program them to keep track of when sewers disgorged disgusting effluent out of their pumping stations and call someone to fix the problem right away rather than waiting for the irate residents in the path of the goo to rise up in ire at the mayor or city manager.

The one thing all the applications had in common was that they had something to do with controlling, monitoring and managing processes in the physical world. Hence my willingness to think of coming up with a sub miniaturized version to usefully manage the vast energy to be released from pulling the trigger on my mechanical flea.

Over the hours, days, months and even, perhaps, years that Jack and I had wandered over the desert hills of eastern Oregon we had talked of many things.

Those things over all the time that elapsed in their saying and listening had become, over time, aggregated into classes and subjects and themes. One such theme had been developed, albeit inadvertently, by Jack. It had been that motion was energy and that it could be trapped in a variety of ways for future application. This had been, as I had understood it, a true, but more theoretic than usefully applicable, fact.

The days of autumn had blazed and had faded to winter snows.

The birds had run or stopped or had flown out ahead of us and had either fallen to our enthusiastic salutes or had continued joyfully on their way.

Blitz, and later Blitz and Brown had gamboled in the sunlight or had run joyfully snuffling in and out of and through and over the thickets of brush or the thickets of brush disguised as snow castles, glittering in the post storm sun.

The never ending discussion of the law, the laws of motion and entropy and motion and non motion and near motion had waxed, had waned, had continued and had ceased.

But those discussions had always remained as brackets for each individual skirmish or adventure.

And out of them all I had synthesized an idea.

That idea, in its desperation, in its very abandonment of any connection with that which might be considered possible or plausible, underscored the complete and utter control of my outlook and my sense of reality that the lack of ability to buy fuel in Portland had fostered.

The idea had taken form over weeks and months.

As I had sat in line for hours waiting for my time at the pump to occur, as I had sat in line for hours hoping for my time to occur before the out of gas sign appeared, as I had driven from Portland to Eastern Oregon to meet Jack for the gathering of the birds and the running of the dogs, as I had returned on Sunday from the hunting grounds to the city that had been shut down by some overwhelming and unseen power I had pondered and had developed my idea.

It had been beyond fantasy.

Finally, one day I spoke.

Jack and the dogs and I had been cresting the little basalt ridge that formed one of the two borders of the mini basalt canyon where we always found birds.

“Jack,” I said, “couldn’t we do this?”

We continued our trudge forward and the dogs paid no attention.

“Couldn’t we build a car that had a big enough battery to allow it to run for a significant time on battery power, but which had a small gasoline engine to take over when the battery got low or when the need for extra power required it to kick in? Couldn’t we capture the energy from slowing and braking and stopping and put that back in the battery? Couldn’t we lash the whole thing together with a miniaturized computer that would umpire all the processes and keep everything working in synch?

Wouldn’t that provide a vehicle with massively extended fuel efficiency?”

Silence reigned for an extended period.

Then Jack said, “Noel, that’s the stupidest idea I have ever heard. The human race has been trying to invent a perpetual motion machine for as long as there has been science, and they haven’t been able to and you can’t either.”

Sufficiently chastened, I said “I guess you don’t want to hear about flea power then?!”

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Remembrance of Things Lost

If one were to go to the “Black And White” section of my web site and if one were to click on the “A Fish” tab, one would see a picture of me, my mother and a 20 or 25 pound King Salmon. I wasn’t in the boat when the salmon was caught. That honor was reserved to my father and my mother’s father, my grandfather, Bobby. But by the time I had awakened that morning and the three of them had returned with my mother’s fish, a family legend had begun. The tale of how the fish was played and landed – the reel fell off the pole at one point among other near catastrophes – started that morning and grew in family significance over the intervening years.
I wasn’t in the boat that day, but I was in the boat the next afternoon when I caught one of my first fish, a ten or eleven inch trout shaped creature that Bobby referred to as a “salmon trout”. I have thought in years subsequent, when I had learned that it is illegal to keep salmon smoults, that “salmon trout” was a class of fish that Bobby invented on the spot to justify in his mind letting his grandson keep what was, from his grandson’s viewpoint, quite a nice fish. As we were approaching the giant rail ramp that would drag the boat back into the boat house, and I leaped up brandishing my salmon trout proudly to anyone at the boat house who wanted to see, Bobby might have momentarily had second thoughts about the wisdom of his invention, but nothing bad came of it. Only great good came from it. “It” in fact became the beginning of a gallery of memories, of smells, and sights and sounds and feelings and emotions that were incremented every time I found myself on something resembling the open ocean.
The salmon trout incident was in the San Juan Islands in the very early 1950s. The gallery of “it” is populated with additional content from the San Juans; that gallery is populated with material from the North Pacific off the coast of Oregon; it is populated with material from various bays and estuaries which indent the coast of Oregon; it is populated with material from the beaches of Oregon; it is populated with material from the Mid Atlantic off the coast of Florida near Boca Raton. The gallery is an accretion of individual incidents, occurrences and impressions. But they all add up to one unified thing. I call it “it” because I lack a word that describes it beyond that two letter reference. But keep it in mind because it plays an important role in what I am ultimately trying to say in this post.
One need not be catching fish to feel maximally fulfilled when on the ocean. There is too much going on for not catching fish to be a problem. In fact once one lapses into the intense enjoyment of all it is that is going one, one contemplates whether one wants to catch fish anyway. They might just take one’s mind off all the other things that there are to savor.
In no apparent order here are some of those things.
Some jelly fish look as if they have muscles, or something like muscles, because I have seen big semi transparent white ones seem to move rapidly off to the right or left of the vantage point of my place in the boat by seemingly undulating themselves and shooting off in whatever direction they appear to have chosen. Whatever the truth of the matter, hours can pass as minutes when the white jelly fish are swarming around the boat shooting hither and yon and yon and hither and then back again.
On the other hand, being in a vast hoard of red jelly fish, which don’t seem to manifest any ability at locomotion can be equally mesmerizing. They are usually big, the size of an adult human head and they have long, long tendrils of – I guess – stinging cells trailing along beneath and behind them as they flow by with whatever tidal current is in motion.
Kindred in form with the swarms of red jelly fish, although obviously completely different in genetics are the birds. I don’t know much about sea birds. I know a lot about their land based relatives, but not sea birds. But one doesn’t need to know what kind they are to savor a huge never ending flock of some kind of highly aerodynamic pigeon sized bullets streaking past just above the water, probably drafting on some uplift from the waves; they seem to be never ending when they are there; and then they are not there and one wonders if they ever were there; and then they, or some tribe of replacements are there again. They pass in massive liquid swirls.
Not everything that flies by on the ocean is a bird.
The first time I was in a boat on the Atlantic off the coast of Florida I asked if we were likely to see any flying fish. Absolutely I was told, lots of them. “What do they look like” I asked. “Just like a silver pencil” said one of my friends.
That was a perfect description. In fact, without that description, I doubt if I would have known what I was seeing when the first silver pencil sailed by. At times the air was filled with them. At other times there were only a few. Sometimes there were none; and there were silver pencils again. And they came in several sizes. Their size ranged from creatures actually about the size of a pencil through several larger gradations of size and culminating in fish about the size of a salmon trout.
But it need not be alive to be a contributor to the aggregate “thing” gallery of the sea.
Smells abound. There is just the sea smell itself which varies depending upon the temperature, wind, geography, proximity to land and, I suppose, myriad factors which somebody may know, but I don’t.
It is not uncommon to pass through one color of water to another color of water. That water may be quite blue, quite green or depressingly gray. It may just be foamy and white, or at the place where it touches the sand of the shore, it may be foamy brown. And in the water there are all kinds of colors from the white jelly fish through the red jelly fish to the brown kelp to the bright yellow air filled pods of seaweed whose name I have never known.
The water has texture. There are places where several tidal currents get in a fight and an area of amazingly choppy and dangerous water results. These rip tides seem to gather food at their edges and are therefore good places to fish. These rips are not good places for a small boat to fish inside of. The texture of a rip is like the teeth of a bastard file. The texture of some full-fledged waves created by the battle between the fresh water rushing out of a large river like the Columbia and the salt water of an ocean such as the Pacific can produce a texture that resembles the Rocky Mountains. Or that same stretch of water under different tidal conditions can have the texture of the frosting on a maple bar.
To avoid giving the impression that all of that which has so far been described can replace the intensity of feeling that accompanies the catching of fish, the last non-living factor that comes readily to mind from my aggregate gallery of the sea is a sight – the intense spray that a filament of fishing line throws off when being hurtled through the water by the freight train like run away from the boat of a King salmon that has been hooked. That spray is also a sound: I swear one can hear a hiss as that spray flies into the air angling madly off into the distance, but away, always away, from the boat and the fisherman.
The “catching” can be of fish such as the King after the spray has finally run out. It can be of small silvers when one is lucky enough to realize that a school of them has for some reason started chasing one’s boat. When that situation ensues, one puts the motor in neutral stops trolling the herring and starts jigging it off the stern as if fishing for fresh water crappie. A limit of eight to ten pound glittering silver rockets can be the result. Or they can disappear as quickly as they appeared having abandoned any interest in the herring dangled to entice them. Who knew why either occurred? Who even really cared? The adrenalin that got pumped on account of the brief encounter serves to keep the moment fresh for quite some time. And when the King gets finally boated the adrenalin causes the right leg to go into a spasm with the foot tap, tap tapping madly on the floor of the boat.
The “catching” can be of fish of a the species thought-to-be-lesser-than-salmon: the rock fish, the ling cod, the sea bass, or even, when hoards of them are running, of silvery herring that will strike at empty hooks as they stream by the boat. It is possible to catch several herring at a time if one deploys a multi-hooked rig. Since sea bass, cod and rock fish inhabit the depths of kelp forests it is necessary to poke one’s boat into the middle of such a forest and drop one’s herring to the bottom with the impaled bait streaming at a ninety degree angle to the drop line and its terminal pyramid of lead. In the old days hoards of willing victims fought to be the first to be hooked. In more recent times those populations have been depleted, but there are still times when the kelp will yield some kind of highly desirable multiple-pound-weighing thing that isn’t very pretty but that makes a great dinner, lunch or breakfast.
And sometimes the kelp forest harbors something else, something that I have never seen, but something with which I have done battle to unsuccessful conclusion more than once. Not ever having actually seen one, but having felt their power and force and pull more than once, the people and I who have had the privilege of trying to catch them have named them the “Great Something”. I have been told that they are probably halibut. I prefer to keep them as the “Great Something”.
“Catching” sometimes isn’t really catching at all. Sometimes it is digging. That is how one gets a bucket of butter clams. They are dug like potatoes. Razor clams, on the other hand, are different. Although a shovel is used in pursuit of them, they are not dug. A razor clam lives in the sand that is usually under the waves of the North Pacific. Only the lowest tides ever expose them to something resembling dry sand. And even then, that sand is so seldom and so briefly exposed that even when the occasional low tide does make them accessible by somewhat dry land the sand is still more of a liquid than is it a solid. And the razor clam is built in such a way that they somehow motivate through that liquid like sand at amazing speed. The act of harvesting one is like Wayne Gretzky’s approach to hockey: figure out where the puck (razor clam) is going to be and intercept it. That is why the razor clam shovel is a specialized instrument. It is short handled because the digger is going the be bending at a ninety degree angle in the initial thrust and is on his or her hands and knees in the follow through. What the shovel lacks in handle it makes up for in blade. The blade is about half the length of the handle and is narrow. It is designed to be easily thrust into the sand just ahead of the retreating clam – the clams always rush back at forty five or so downward thrusting angle to the surface back to the safety of the waves – such that, if the Gretzkyesque calculation has been successful, the clam runs headlong into the blade. Since even if that level of success is achieved it is at best only momentary, and since the only way to find out if one has, in fact been successful – because the clam is really smart and he or she will feint to the side and be gone in a moment if the digger tarries even a moment – the digger’s next move is to hurl himself or herself to the sand, rotating the handle of the shovel on the way down and thrusting his or her hand into the cavity briefly exposed feeling for, he or she hopes, the razor clam’s shell. If such a feeling ensues, the battle commences. Even if so felt, the clam is moving toward the sea at an amazing speed. At this point the digger needs to try to take advantage of the sand’s liquid state and force his or her hand through that medium down and out toward the ocean, hoping to keep pace with the clam and, ultimately grasping it. Depending upon how deep that capture occurs dictates whether the digger concludes that he or she has the clam or whether the clam has him or her.
Catching can also be more like entrapping.
Dungeness crabs live at the bottom of the near-to-the-coast Pacific Ocean and its associated bays and estuaries. There they wait for food to drop down to them.
In the olden days one deployed a crab ring to harvest Dungeness crabs (rings have in recent times been replaced by foolproof traps; my gallery is populated with events surrounding the use of rings). A crab ring was really two rings, a big one and a smaller one. They were joined as one by a net. They had a triune rope-set tied to the big ring which were, in turn, all three joined to a fourth rope whose length was dictated by the depth of the water in which the crabs were to be pursued. The end of that rope farthest away from the joint with the triune rope set had some sort of flotation device – like three empty Purex bottles – attached to it. The bottom ring – the small one – had a mesh of wire strands woven into it to act as a porous bottom for the crab ring which provided a substrate for holding the meaty fish skeleton that one wired on top of it to act as bait, and which also was of dense enough weave to keep any crab of legal size in the ring once it had been lifted from the bottom.
“Once it had been lifted from the bottom.” Therein lies the trick. Just as with razor clams, nothing involved in the process of “catching” Dungeness crabs with crab rings was ever easy.
The most common hunting ground for the Dungeness was one of Oregon’s or Washington’s bays – Tillamook Bay for example. All that was need was several crab rings, some fish skeletons a small boat with an outboard motor and two or more people to crew the boat.
It turns out that Dungeness crabs don’t just sit evenly distributed all over the bottom of the bay where they reside. They have special places that they like and lots of places that they never go to. The first order of business in being a successful crabber was to know those places. That knowledge usually occurred through trial and error. Nobody was willing to tell anybody else where the crabs resided any more than mushroom hunters are willing to tell anyone where the morels are. But once the trials and the errors had passed through the lives of the incipient crabbers the quarry could be pursued on a fairly successfully iterative basis. Except that the state of the tide also plays a major role as to where the crabs might be at any given time. So that whole process of trial and error needed to be traversed multiple times.
Once that additional process had been traversed all the crabbers needed to do was to utilize their knowledge of the migratory patterns of the crabs and propel their boat to the various locations as time and tide dictated, drop the baited rings into the water – either leaving them in place marked by their floats or tied to the gunnels of the anchored boat – and wait. After the appropriate waiting period had passed – there is a whole mythology surrounding what that length of time ought to be – if the boat has been anchored the next step was fairly easy. All the crabbers needed to do was to, one by one, and only one at a time, lift the rings up to the gunnel of the boat, having been exceptionally careful to have made the initial lift off the bottom as swift and as vertical as possible. If the ring was bumped and allowed to settle and then brought up, or if it was brought up at a very acute angle the crabs, or at least most of them, and for sure the legal ones – they needed to be of a certain size and be males (I actually know how to tell the difference) would have all escaped the ring. Assuming nothing bad had happened and assuming that the lore of where the crabs were supposed to be at the time of the retrieval of the ring had been accurate, the final act was that of measuring and classifying the catch and releasing all those that were not legal.
If the rings had been left in the bay on their own marked by their floats the retrieval process was more like a contact sport. The crabbers needed to identify their floats from all of the floats that were on the water. They needed to approach the float from down current and needed to intercept it just as it passed the very beginning of one side or the other of the craft. And once intercepted the boat needed to continue in a direction and at a speed such that the slack in the rather long rope – one virtually never was in water so deep that the float was directly over the ring – (the more common occurrence was that water was massively deeper than the length of the rope and the float was nowhere to be seen, except at the trough of any occasional waves that might have been present) can be taken up at a speed and efficiency that caused the ring to be initially lifted in a manner similar to that described for the lift of rings attached to the anchored boat. If the slack didn’t come up smoothly and rapidly there was an initial bump with an inefficient subsequent follow-through and the prey was back on the bottom by the time the lift was re-initiated.
The co-ordination required for the free floating pickup was significant. There needed to be a person in the bow directing the person in the stern at the tiller of the outboard motor. The person in the bow shouted directions – “to the right, slower, now a little faster, to the right, now left, no straight, faster, slower” – to the tiller person. Since the bow person needed to be looking forward to draw conclusions about what directions to be shouting, the bow person usually shouted directions forward, into the wind – there was a wind created by the boat’s forward motion, and it was usually augmented by the wind that inhabited the water without any help from a boat’s forward motion. The result of shouting directions forward into the wind was that the directions disappeared into the wind making the tiller person look to be a goon, always shouting “what?” or “where?” while the boat careened about with no apparent relationship to the needs of retrieving the float and its rope and crab ring. Numerous friendships were strained to the breaking point by maneuvers related to retrieving crab rings. Given the even more fragile nature of many marriages, the divorce courts of the North Pacific region teemed with refugees from what had been planned to be a happy day of togetherness and crab ring retrieval on the water.
These are a few of the screen saver-like flashes of personal memory related to fishing, catching, traversing or just being on various portions of the salt water of our planet. In aggregate they add up to that “thing” for which I have no better name. But it is profound and deep and intense and it is satisfying in a manner transcending most other satisfactions of which I am aware.
Since I am, except for the few occasions that I have spent time on the oceans, bays, estuaries and littoral immediately adjacent to the waves, a land dweller, and since my livelihood has never been achieved in any manner that wasn’t completely and exclusively land based I have no idea what the life of a fisherman, oysterman, crabber, or waterman must be like. But I have to assume that a large part of it must consist of the “thing” I have attempted to describe. A major part of the act of going out on the water every day to earn ones living must consist of savoring the reservoir of that “thing” that has been accumulated up to the beginning of each new day. It must include the savoring and the looking forward to the inevitable but, until they occur, unknown increments that will probably occur with each new day. It must be a wonderful way to exist and earn a living. In Fact it must be a great deal more than just earning a living.
And then one must consider the added dimension that many if not most of these ocean dwellers are second, third or nth generation practitioners of their activity. The fact that the current generation not only has the exhilaration of living in the constant state of that “thing”, whatever it may be, and the fact that that it is an accumulation passed from parents and grandparents and from the current generation to children, and perhaps on and on to generations as yet unknown must be a condition bordering on the mystical.
All of this must be true because the life being described is far from easy or safe or necessarily particularly financially rewarding. So making it one’s life work must have a lot to do with that accumulated mysticism.
It is this viewpoint that should provide perspective to one aspect of the monstrous scope of the catastrophe that has been unleashed by BP in the Gulf of Mexico. BP has put an end to a way of life. And that way of life will never return because filling an ocean with poison – oil and dispersant – with no apparent end in sight can have no reasonably expected outcome except extinction of every form of life that had been the carefully husbanded crop that made that way of life possible.
There is no amount of money that can repay for that level of damage. But anything less than whatever amount of money those fishermen and oystermen and all the other men and woman who have had their ways of life abruptly and permanently terminated need to try to start over is an amount that cannot be accepted by this nation, if we desire to continue to have the honor of being called a nation.

Sunday, August 18, 2013


When I left IBM I was too young and too poor to retire. I waited until later when I was older and too poor before I retired.

In the first phase of my post IBM life I didn’t get very far from IBM. That was because the only post IBM way of earning a living that I was able to find in the short time that I had available for that discovery process was to be an IBM Agent.
Being an IBM Agent was something like being an Agent for an insurance company. The similarity was that, like an insurance company, IBM was a huge international corporation that wanted to reduce or eliminate as much direct sales expense as it was possible to eliminate without losing some semblance of loyalty from that replacement sales force.

For years that had been a work in progress.

In Screen Saver I recount a number of stories about that ongoing process, including the time that I spent getting on a plane at LaGuardia or Newark every Sunday and returning from Atlanta every Friday.

The week that that traverse allowed to take place in Atlanta had been filled with work on a three person task force which was trying to figure out how to sell new business solutions (small value-added computer systems) through some channel other than card carrying IBM employees.

It was odd that the answers that the task force came up with ended up being my third-to-last IBM job and my first post IBM way of earning a living.

Those answers were two things: independent businesses to be constituted as IBM Agent Firms and a new IBM function called the Complementary Resources Manager – an IBM employee whose job it was to provide for the care, feeding and IBM interface to those Agent Firms.

I was the first CRM in Spokane and I later became the IBM New Business Agent Firm in Seattle.

As things turned out, the Seattle endeavor probably would have been successful, both for me and for IBM if IBM had not perceived itself as being in the process of going out of business. That meant that the expense of nurturing a brand new business long enough to become successfully independent was not an option and what probably needed to be a three to five year transition plan became an aborted one year. IBM tried to dress the abandonment of the Agent Program in its best go-to-meeting clothes, but I had worked for the company for too long to fall for that artifice. So after a year of being an Agent firm with four employees I went to being a loosely affiliated IBM ally with no employees who made more money from consulting and technical writing than I made from the IBM relationship.

Ultimately we migrated to being solely a consulting and technical writing firm.

But during that start up year, the full twelve months of the non-diluted IBM Agent relationship, I had a lot of support from IBM. That support included office space for me and my employees in the IBM building, a monthly non-recoverable stipend for each of my sales territories, a variable payment for just taking the responsibility of the territory and commissions for whatever IBM goods and services we sold to our customers.

All of those payments added up over a little time to a surprisingly significant monthly payment from IBM. Those payments came to me in the form of a monthly check from IBM. For whatever reason, it seemed like a good idea to have my business bank account close to the IBM office. The closest bank was a small branch of US National Bank – at that time still a Portland business, and as an almost native Portlander I had had a US National Bank account in my previous life – so it just seemed natural to do business with them.

The branch was in a quaint, old, not many storied building that had somehow evaded the all too prevalent downtown Seattle wrecking ball. After US National, for whatever reason moved from the location it became a Starbucks. It was on the corner of 6th and Seneca.

I had two contacts. One was a dithering young woman who was, she assured me, my Personal Banker. The other was the Branch Manager. I didn’t have much contact with the Branch Manager, but since I was the CEO of a member of the small business community, a new customer, and it was turning out, a fairly significant depositor, my “Personal Banker” had made sure that I had been exposed to that level of executive bank contact.

The Branch Manager was a quiet-spoken, rather slight of build African American. In my little contact with him he seemed to care about his customers, know a lot about his business and how it might be of service to people like me and was credible when he said that if I ever needed help beyond what my Personal Banker could provide that he was ready to serve. I believed it and that was a tribute to his credibility. There are a lot of glad–handers in positions such as his; I felt that he wasn’t one of them.

But that is all told to set the stage for my short, sad tale.

One late mid afternoon I needed to go over to the bank to make a deposit. I left the IBM building and crossed over to the bank, tried the door and found that it was locked. The bank was closed for the day.
The sidewalk, being in the middle of down town, was fairly busy. As I turned to go back to IBM, and as I brushed by a few bustling passers-by I became aware of a person a little farther away from me than those that were immediately around me as I turned from the bank doorway.

I didn’t really look at him, but I must have glanced in his direction. Because I formed the immediate impression that he was a he, not a she. Somehow, because it was downtown and he was coming directly toward me, I formed the immediate impression that he was begging. As the word “no” was forming for articulation, one additional random piece of data was added to my fairly amorphous grasp of the situation. The guy was African American. Without any intervention of rational thought that apparently reinforced my readiness to say a resounding “no”.

Before I could say my incipient word he spoke. “We’re closed for the day, but the branch down two blocks is open until six.”

“Hey, thanks” I must have said. I never really knew because in that split second I recognized my “Personal Banker’s” boss, the Branch Manager of the bank.

As I walked down Sixth Avenue to the other branch I was unable to stop the instant replay of the whole just-completed encounter. And it always ended the same. And before long the only thing that remained, playing over and over and over until I wanted to crawl into a hole somewhere and not come out until it stopped playing was the same thing.
The only thing that remained, the only memory, the only real and tangible image being flashed by my personal screen saver then, and even now as I write this, was his look of utter and profound sadness.

Saturday, August 17, 2013


In Screen Saver I tell a story about one of my three times in Wyoming.  That story was about the first time I was ever in Wyoming and the story doesn’t have much point to it except to set up my assertion that there didn’t seem to be much there and getting in and out of it as soon as possible had always seemed to me to be the best way to think about Wyoming.  All that had been to set up the fact that on my third time in Wyoming I had had an experience that had totally belied the accuracy of my former beliefs about the place.  But the real point of interest in that first experience, if not the story itself, had been one of my hunting companions.  His name was Glen, and I mention in that first-time-in-Wyoming story that he had grown up on Chesapeake Bay and probably should have been a waterman rather than being in the US Navy which was where he was and which was how I had met him.  We were both officers, I in the US Air Force and Glen in the Navy, at Lowery Air Force Base being trained to be Intelligence Officers so that we would have something to do when we got to Vietnam.  Glen had set the stage for events on a subsequent trip with the story he had told of the day, when hunting on Chesapeake Bay, he had shot a goose and it had gone down far out in the water.  It was dead and it was far out in the water.  Glen didn’t have a dog and the bird was too far out for him to get it, even by wading.  So, he told us (“us” not “me” because we were accompanied by another Air Force officer named Gerry) he did the obvious.  He played the dog.  He disrobed, swam out and retrieved the goose.

That had made a good story and filled some of the dead time that had hung heavy on our hands that day on my first time in Wyoming.  We had gone up there – just outside a town called Chugwater -  from Denver for the day to hunt for the, we were assured by a recent article in the Post, hoards of cottontail rabbits that were thronging around the Chugwater area.  Time had hung heavy on our hands because we never saw a rabbit.  But I had heard Glen’s story and on a subsequent hunting trip that story was to turn out to be mildly prophetic.

It was a cold overcast mid-morning somewhere north of Denver.  The three of us, Gerry, Glen and I were wading in slightly deeper than knee deep water that had impinged and surrounded a copse of some kind of deciduous trees.  But it wasn’t as easy as the description sounds.  The bottom of this forested pond was ankle deep mud.  The surface of the water was a crust of half inch thick ice.  So wading through this icy soup involved crashing a foot through the ice, letting the boot - we were wearing waders – settle into the mud until it got sucked solid and then rotating the other foot forward and backward until it could be broken loose from the sucking muck and lift it out of the water, crash it through the ice and repeat the whole process again.  In this manner we were walking through this treed slough looking for ducks.  We each carried a shotgun.

I said it was cold.  It was bitterly cold.  I had known prior to leaving home how cold it was going to be so I was well layered with warm clothing.  I was so well layered that I looked several sizes larger than I actually was.

We had been crashing and mucking for about half an hour without seeing anything to shoot at when, from behind us, the air became filled with large numbers of mallards.  They swept by to our right from back to front and skidded into some water ahead of us that was free from ice.  And more followed them; and more followed them.  It looked as if we might get some ducks.  And it was going to involve a classic form of duck hunting: jump shooting as they flushed ahead of us.

We edged closer to the outer edge of the trees where the ice was somewhat thinner; the muck on the bottom remained the same but not as much noise and effort were necessary in the thinner ice area.

As we moved into range some ducks leapt into the air and the three of us drew down and fired.  Gerry dropped one just to his left a little deeper into the trees where the ice was thicker and the duck dropped with a thud to the ice.  I had similar luck and my duck hit the ice not far from Gerry’s.  Glen’s duck hit the open water to his right and about thirty feet away.  Glen started walking toward it and was about half way there when an amazing thing happened.  Glen disappeared.  Then he re-appeared, but he was sputtering and flailing about as he assumed a swimmer’s posture and, fully winter-hunting clothed, swam back to shallow water.  It turned out – and it was something that had completely eluded all three of us – that the water where Glen's duck had gone down was open because, unlike the water in the trees, it was deep.  It was deep and it had a fairly swift current.  It had a fairly swift current because it was a small river or a big creek and it had overflowed its banks from the winter storms into the trees that in more clement times lined its banks.

Glen hadn’t gotten close enough to the duck to retrieve it, but he had dropped his gun which was now somewhere at the bottom of a deep body of moving water.

Then Glen did something that I would have thought to be irrational if he hadn’t previously told me the story about the goose on Chesapeake Bay.  He took off his clothes down to his underwear.  And he went into the water and dove, doing one of those bend at the waist and go straight down surface dives that we all used to do in the swimming pool.  But we all did it in the swimming pool in the middle of sunny days in the middle of the summer in pools filled with crystal clear tepid water.  Glen was going down in an icy coffee- colored soup of uncertain depth.  And he was going to be looking for something that probably had been moved along by the current, just as he had been moved, giving him a starting point with three unknowns: where he had been at the point of his plunge and where the gun might have been dropped in relation to that plunge, and where it might have been moved to in the interim.
I gave the endeavor no chance of success.  I was actually pretty concerned about the chances that I would ever see Glen again in living form.  But after a long time in slow motion movie terms he surfaced, with the gun and got to the shallows, handed the gun to me and swam back out and retrieved the duck.  Once the duck was safely placed in the crotch of one of the trees reality began to manifest its ugly face to Glen.  He commenced shivering with his teeth chattering at such a rate that I feared he might come apart at some heretofore non-obvious set of seams.  He was not a very tall man and what height there was of him had no excess flesh on it; there was no fat; there was no insulation.  And we were a long walk from the car.

It suddenly hit me why I had worn all those clothes.  It hadn’t been because I had been aware of the coldness of the day and had prepared for it.  It was because the great god of the Chesapeake had called out across the country and had told me to prepare to be the provider of a change of warm clothes for one of his children.

So Glen and I climbed into a tree and I peeled of a layer or two of my garments and Glen donned them, tying them in knots in many places to accommodate the fact that I was about half again as big as he, and he and Gerry and I spent the rest of the day harvesting our fair share of the duck population of the locale.  We stayed away from the open water however.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Duck Hunting Trip

This is an excerpt from Screen Saver

Since I wrote that book as if it were a strip of film – a movie – it is impossible to extract from it without having a loose end beginning and a loose end closing and a couple of loose end allusions to things that aren’t in the extraction that is being presented..

I think in this case the story is worth the loose ends.


It was somewhere in the time immediately after Don and Marty had left that I had my second life altering personal revelation. It was similar in nature and format to the revelation on the railroad tracks outside Quincy Washington the summer before I went to college. It occurred on the cusp of a major life change – in this case leaving the military and becoming a civilian. The previous change had been leaving childhood and making the transition to adulthood. Like the other time, this second revelation questioned a major assumption underpinning the imminent transition. The assumption underpinning that first transition had been that I was going to go to Portland University on the partial scholarship that I had been awarded. As the second major transition - my separation date from the Air Force - approached the assumption suddenly under scrutiny was that I was going to go immediately to law school. I had taken the LSAT and had applied to and been accepted by Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland. The revelation this time arrived in a manner similar to the time on the railroad tracks. A kind of voice was saying something. This time it was saying, “you have always believed that you were not cut out for a career in business. Remember the Cooter Preference test. But you have just survived - at times prospered even – for four years in one of the biggest corporation-like organizations in the world. Maybe you should test that assumption rather than basing everything you do on the veracity of that belief.” In later years I was never able to reconcile the fact that I had thought that the voice was saying anything resembling rationality or fact – “at times prospered even” – but at the time the concept was compelling, no matter how flimsy its relation to reality. So I contacted Portland State where I had graduated and got a list of all the businesses that were recruiting in Portland.

In later life I was amazed at the method I used for contacting those businesses, and the number of responses for interviews I got. At a much later time a resume had become a multi media based, links to pertinent personal web based material heavy, presentation, probably delivered to the human resources department of a potential employer via the World Wide Web. A simple high quality printed document had disappeared into the mists of legend. What had I sent out wasn’t even a quality printed document. It was a one page summary of my not very extensive work experience, life- to-date, which had originally been a typed document, but which had been reproduced for distribution on a Bruning machine. This device was what the Air Force used as a copier. It used rolled paper, which was cut after what was being reproduced was reproduced. The paper was rather shiny, and rather slimy, and became rather brown – hence I assumed the name Bruning – with the characters of the words being rather blurry. But it was apparently state of the art for the time, because my “resume” got responses. I even got a response from IBM. I had almost not sent a resume to IBM because, although I didn’t know much about computers, I knew I basically disapproved of whatever it was that one did with them. In all there were three companies that I had wanted to consider: AT&T Long Lines – because I had seen a recruiting add in the Air Force Times that sounded good; Aetna Insurance – because I had always heard you could make good money in Insurance; and IBM – because, since I was testing the veracity of deeply held certainties, I felt I should give computers a chance. I didn’t think much would come of the IBM thing because I had taken some kind of Data Processing test at Lowry and they had assured me that I lacked the aptitude.

Long Lines acted first. A representative from the local office contacted me and invited me to lunch downtown. We had an interview and a follow on lunch that was really an extension of the interview and the interviewer took me back to their office where they had me take a test. The Long Lines person bought lunch. The test was rather like a SAT for idiots. It was multiple choice and dealt with a wide variety of subjects. But the knowledge level required was such that I doubted if I missed any of the questions. When I was finished they sent me on my way with the assurance that they would get back to me.

Next was Aetna. They invited me to their office downtown, interviewed me, bought me lunch and took me back to the office for a test. When I was finished with the test they sent me on my way with the assurance that they would get back to me.

IBM did it differently. A guy named Dave called me from Portland and talked to me for a little while and then told me to contact a guy named Vern at the IBM office in Omaha. Dave gave me Vern’s phone number. I had expected Vern to invite me down town to the IBM office for an interview, lunch and a test, but instead he asked me to meet him for lunch at the Officers’ Club on base. It turned out that IBM did a lot of business with the Strategic Air Command.

We had a nice lunch and Vern made me pay for my own. I thought that was odd after the way the other two interviews had gone. And he didn’t really ask me much about myself, or what I thought my achievements life to date had been, or any of the things I had by that time begun to expect as part of an employment interview. Instead he droned on about a variety of things that I assumed had something to do with IBM products and services, but about which I knew nothing. Nonetheless I tried to contribute to the conversation where I could. Some time previous to this encounter I had been sent to a one-day “class” presented by Control Data Corporation, which was another big computer company. The only thing I had picked up from that day was that CDC felt that they were the obvious computer company for the Air Force to do business with because their machines were designed for scientific and numerically intensive applications. “IBM makes great business machines,” they had said, “but they can’t do science and numbers”. At the time I had no knowledge of the intense competition that existed in the computer business. If I had had any feeling for it I probably wouldn’t have cared much, however. All I had wanted at that particular slice of time – my lunch with Vern - was to not look like a complete idiot about the subject at hand. So I offered the “IBM makes great business machines, but I have heard that they can’t do science or numbers” comment as if it were my own original idea. The reaction I got was unique to that point in my life. In fact it wouldn’t be until a lifetime later when I was talking to an Anglican priest in Westminster Abbey and told him how much I admired his Church’s stand on women in the priesthood that I saw a similar reaction. If on either occasion I had still had the scorpion in my wallet and had gotten it out for discussion I suspect I would have elicited a similar reaction.

But we got through lunch, and, on balance apparently Vern decided he liked what he saw. He asked me to call his secretary and schedule a time when I could take the DPAT. I had no idea what the DPAT was, but I knew better than to ask. One monstrous violation of all that was good and holy per encounter was all that I allowed myself in job interviews. So, several afternoons later I showed up at the local IBM office. The first thing I noticed was that it was a lot nicer than either the Long Lines or the Aetna offices had been. But I didn’t have much time to contemplate that. Vern’s secretary showed me into a plush conference-room, handed me a booklet and wound up a timer. She said that she would be back when the timer rang, and good luck on the DPAT. Just before she left the room I had a moment to look at the cover of the booklet. It said Data Processing Aptitude Test. I couldn’t remember what the test I had taken at Lowery had been called, or what it had looked like, but I was sure it was kindred to this one. Since I had been told on the basis of the Lowery encounter to abandon any illusions I might harbor about a career in Data Processing - whatever Data Processing might be - I assumed that the DPAT would document a similar conclusion. Aetna and Long Lines were looking better all the time. But where tests were concerned I had always been a fatalist. “Just treat it like a game and do the best possible and get it over with.” So I took the DPAT.

“You did very well on the DPAT,” said Vern. “You’re shitting me,” thought I. “In fact, if you can’t put something together in Portland, I would like to hire you,” said Vern. I had the presence of mind not to explain to him that my greatest ambition in life was to escape Omaha as soon as possible.

The next thing I knew Vern’s secretary was making airline reservations for me and requesting a $300 travel advance for me. “Not so fast” was my first internal, unexpressed reaction. “Just because I did all right on the DPAT doesn’t suddenly make me willing to approve of computers.” But there were other factors affecting my thoughts on the subject of an interview in Portland: the time when this had occurred was an era distinctly different from the one which would emerge early in the next century. It would be possible to defend that statement with an almost unlimited number of examples such as cell phones, ATM’s, the World Wide Web and the International Space Station. But the difference that affected my life in any way important was the fact that in 1968 you could take almost anything you wanted on an airplane. As long as you could make it fit under your seat or in the overhead compartment, you could take it. That fact had a major effect on my attitude toward an interview with IBM in Portland in October of 1968.

The fact was it was duck hunting season. Jack’s father, Ed, had moved several years before from a recently overrun suburban Portland location to a new place much farther from City life. And he had built a duck lake. This was a private hunting preserve for his exclusive use and that of his friends. By virtue of the fact that I was one of his son’s friends, I was one of his friends, and could hunt there, with appropriate invitation. All I needed was my shotgun. With a free airplane ticket I had a way to get my gun and me to that duck lake early in the 1968 duck-hunting season. Duck hunting was worth an IBM interview.

Later in life it was difficult to believe that it had once been possible to get on a commercial airplane with a gun case, go to your seat and put the gun case in the overhead. But I did it in October of 1968.

The job interview turned out to be a series of interviews. At the time, those interviews were like talking to the various denizens of Wonder Land. I was an unlikely Alice. The first one was with a guy named Jim. He seemed like a decent enough sort. I had the impression, perhaps due to his young face and significant quantity of baby fat that he was somewhat younger than I. He had dark brown eyes that seemed sincere to the point of being cocker spaniel-like. He said that he was responsible for marketing to the large accounts. I knew or had a concept of what each of those words meant, but as a composite statement, I had no idea what he was talking about. The next interviewer was named Dirk. He looked rather like what I would have supposed someone named Dirk would have looked like if I had ever heard of anyone being called Dirk, which I hadn’t. But that was his name. He was an arch-typical well groomed business type, except for his face which seemed more like that of a haggard veteran of some ancient series of wars or semi-successful knife fights. I never could remember what it might have been that we talked about. I was too fascinated with trying to figure out what ancient century he might have been from. Then there was Dave. He was the one who had responded to my resume and who was therefore my sponsor for this interview trip. It turned out that he was responsible for dealing with all prospective new employees. He had bristly red hair and a crew cut. He had a New Jersey accent. He looked a little bit like Porky Pig. He told me that if things seemed a little bit disorganized that was because the “branch was having its fall kickoff meeting.” I nodded knowingly and said, “I understand. Fall kickoff meetings can be pretty disorienting.” He told me that the “branch” had a pretty good chance of “making the club”, and that they were “eighty five percent of NSR and seventy two percent of NIR”. With any luck, and some “expected relief” they would probably finish the year at “one hundred two percent of BPQ”. I nodded appreciatively. He asked me how much money I would need to go to work for IBM, and I told him what I was making at that time in the Air Force and said something like “in the best of worlds I would need to duplicate that amount.” He laughed. He asked me if I had any questions and I said that I couldn’t think of any. Then he asked me if I needed any help filling out my “green sheet” and I asked him what a “green sheet” was. At that point I think he realized that I was from a different language tree. He said “your expense account. Did you have any expenses related to the trip other than airfare?” I said that I had bought a drink on the plane. He said, “you can’t expense that.” The one thing I took away from the several hours I spent at IBM that morning was that it was obviously a culture unique to itself and one with which I had nothing, including language, in common. But the whole point to the trip had really been to go duck hunting.

The following morning was Saturday, and long before dawn I was having a cup of coffee with Ed and a friend of his over Ed’s breakfast table. One of the advantages of possessing a duck lake just down the hill from your house was that the usual rigors of hunting were unnecessary. One could have a leisurely cup of coffee in a warm kitchen and then walk a few hundred feet to the duck blind a few minutes before the appointed start of shooting time. That was what we did on that Saturday morning.

Ed’s friend was named Bill. He seemed like a decent sort, and like Ed was old enough to be my father. In fact, if my grandfather had been a young grandfather Bill was actually old enough to be my grandfather.

It was a bitterly cold morning. As the sun began to rise there were no ducks in the air. There were no sounds of ducks anywhere near enough to be heard. There were no ducks. As a result we turned to conversation: the imminent election, the state of the world, the state of the war in Vietnam, what Jack and I were likely to do with our lives once we escaped the military. Since I had either strong opinions about all of these subjects, or had direct knowledge of them I was able to be a significant contributor to the discussion. That was good. Talking in an animated manner always kept me from being aware of the fact that I was freezing to death. After some time, some conversation and all of the pre-dawn darkness had passed it had become obvious that the ducks were going to continue to be in the land of the missing. It turned out that Bill was not only a hunter, he was also a gatherer. We had just discussed for the third or fourth time the likely reasons for the absence of our prey, and what we ought to do in their absence when Bill said, “I’m going to go see about a cabbage.” Ed leased the land adjacent to his lake to one of the local farmers who grew broccoli and cabbage on it. That gave the entire area on this late fall morning a kind of vegetable scented stink to it. Since the ducks seemed to be unlikely to be joining us, I said “I’d like to go with you”. Ed said he would “stay and guard the fort in case the enemy attacked”. Bill and I left our guns because carrying cabbages wouldn’t mix with carrying guns.

We had just gotten into cabbage and broccoli country, which was up and over a small hill behind the long axis of the lake; Bill was waxing poetic about the joys of gathering vegetables directly from the farm when the air was filled with a whistling noise. We both immediately realized that “the enemy was attacking” – a flock of pintails had just swooped in from the west and were checking out the lake as a potential resting place for the day. We squatted down, spilling cabbage and broccoli liberally around us, hoping that if we got down the ducks might not see us and form an adverse opinion of the lake. Lacking guns we were out of the fight.

The ducks dropped over the hill, flashed down the length of the lake (Ed told us later – we couldn’t see this activity from our side of the hill) wheeled at its far end and headed back in the direction they had come. At that point they had obviously abandoned any intention of dropping onto the water, or circling it a second time. Either of those actions by the ducks would have given Ed a classical shot; instead they were heading back to the west. Bill and I stood back up to watch them depart. Just at that moment a shot rang out from Ed down in the blind. One of the pintails shuddered and then kept going and then crumpled and fell to the ground not more than a hundred feet from us. “You got one,” we shouted. “Pick it up,” Ed responded. “We’re on our way,” I yelled.

Downed quarry in bird hunting could be anywhere in condition from flat dead to spry as a spring chicken, with an infinite range of conditions in between. The exact condition in each case is a result of the skill, or luck of the shooter, the distance of the quarry, the type of shot load and the mood of the god of bird hunting at the moment of the shot. The bird Ed had just shot was well into the spry category. It also seemed to have a high level of intelligence since it was able to make two grown humans look like goons for about ten minutes. The deciding factor turned out to be endurance and numbers. There were two of us and one of it, and we were designed for running where the duck had been designed for flying. The one thing the shot had accomplished was to deny the duck the option of using its primary mode of mobility. Ultimately running around on the ground with two humans after it allowed the humans to corner it.

Bill scooped it up and held it in the crook of his arm. The duck looked at Bill. Bill looked at the duck. The duck made a kind of hopeless sound and tried to flap its wings. Bill made a kind of consoling sound and tried to smooth its feathers. I could see that the chances of this duck being anyone’s dinner were fast receding. By the time we got the duck, our cabbage and the broccoli back to the blind Bill had named the duck “Duke”. “What took so long?” said Ed. “We had to catch the duck,” said I. “Yeah, I was afraid I had just winged it. It was going away fast and low, and I wasn’t sure I even had a shot,” said Ed. “Well we got it,” said I. “And some vegetables,” said Ed with a slight touch of irony. At this point Bill broke in. “Do you know any vets that are good with ducks?” said Bill. “Isn’t it dead?” said Ed. “No, like you said, you just barely winged him,” said Bill. “Well let’s ring its neck and get back in the blind and see if any more come by,” said Ed. “You can’t kill Duke,” said Bill. “Who’s Duke?” said Ed. “My duck,” said Bill. “Your duck?” said Ed. “My duck,” said Bill.

Jack had more than once regaled me in the course of long evenings in various “Officers’ Clubs” in Vietnam with a variety of Ed and Bill hunting tales. They had always been amazingly entertaining. The remnants of what I had remembered after the brain cell damaging endeavors during which they were told had always seemed to me to be obviously fiction. Or if not fiction, I had always deemed them to be facts so entertainingly interpreted that they might as well be fiction. The spinal cord of the stories was the interplay of the two characters, as presented by Jack. Ed, his father was a stalwart brave, laconic type – a latter day Nattie Bumpo. Bill, a long time friend and hunting companion of Ed’s was some sort of cross between Friar Tuck and John Lennon. The hilarity of the stories was based on superimposing the rather one-dimensional nature of hunting on top of these two totally different multi dimensional personalities. I had always assumed the stories to be little more than entertaining banter. That was the nature of much of Jack’s conversation. The world as it actually existed bored him, so he spun a more interesting one.

So, when I not only had gotten the opportunity to go duck hunting at Ed’s lake, but also with Bill, I had been interested to see how far from the legend these two would actually deviate.

At the point of the question about the availability of a duck veterinarian I began to realize that Jack might not have been making much up. My first clue had been that Bill would rather gather cabbages than sit in a duck blind waiting for a shot. But by the time we got to “you can’t kill Duke,” I was sure that I was dealing with a different sort of hunter. The question quickly became how would Ed play out this drama?

“Let me wring its neck and put it out of its misery,” said Ed. “You’re not hurting Duke,” said Bill. I felt I should say something, but all that came to mind was something about Solomon, which was odd since I didn’t know anything about the bible, and what I knew about the Solomon story wouldn’t have been much to Duke’s liking. At that point the air became filled with hurtling objects from the west side of the hill where the cabbages and broccoli grew.

It was a flight of about a dozen mallards. Ed jumped into the blind where our guns were all lying neatly on the bench at the back of the structure. He shouldered his gun and drew down on one of the ducks. “You’re gonna scare Duke,” said Bill. Ed muttered something about doing more than that and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened in the flock except they flared and turned back west like bats out of hell. The blast had a greater effect on Duke. He jumped out of Bill’s grasp and flap waddled to the edge of the lake and then into the water. Bill made a leap toward the lake’s edge and went face down in the water. Duke squirted out to the middle of the lake. Ed started laughing, and Bill, righting himself from his sprawl said “to the boat”. I stood by amazed at having witnessed a tale that was at least as good as any of the Ed and Bill stories Jack had ever told me. “You rehearsed this, right? I mean this scene must have a script,” said I. And then Bill started laughing, adding to the jollity already wafting across through the air. But he kept heading toward the small boat that was used for placing and retrieving decoys. “Come on, Ed. Help me get Duke,” said Bill through his laughter.

The next hour was like a scene from Abbott and Costello meet Field and Stream. There were two men in a small boat chasing after a wounded duck which would continually, at the point of almost being captured dive below the surface, and re-appear several feet from the boat. For reasons I was never able to ascertain, the air was intermittently filled with incoming ducks, many of which actually landed at the end of the lake opposite the boat chasing duck drama. As more groups joined them and they all swam in unison opposite from the boat the air became filled with various breeds of ducks’ conversations intermingled with human curses and cries of “there he is, get him.” Ed finally called time out on the endeavor and went up to the garage and got his salmon net. In short order Duke was back in our company and we were all four in the warm kitchen having had all the fun any of us could handle for one day. The humans were having coffee with a side of scotch. Duke was given warm milk. Bill had heard that sick ducks liked warm milk. Whether the warm milk helped or not, in the next few weeks Bill nursed Duke back to health, and when he was able to fly around the enclosure where he was kept Bill released him at the duck pond at Laurelhurst Park in Portland. By that time I was back in Omaha and had accepted a job with IBM in Portland starting after I left the Air Force.

All I ever remembered about the flight back to Omaha was telling the tale of my duck hunting experience to my seat mate, and then having to repeat it to the flight attendant, and then to several other people. They all thought that I was making it up but were uproariously entertained.

Many airline flights have faded into obscurity, but others have stayed with me until the end.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Ghost Tower: A Post From 2010


How far back from events does a statement one has made need to be to be called prophesy?

I really don’t care, because the post that follows is the post that follows with or without any prescience attached.

It feels good and says things about things in a manner of telling that just feels right to me.

But the date on this entry from my web site is as follows: Page Last Updated: 06/23/10.

I don’t think that 2010 is distant enough from 2014 – when we finally quit thrashing around in Afghanistan (already having so ceased in Iraq) – to qualify for prophesy.

But it was a nice hook to start this post.

It’s from my web site, and is titled Re-Run.


I've seen this movie before. I didn't like it the first time I saw it and I don't like it any better this time. The basic plot of the movie involves the iterative increase of hoards of American military personnel who get sent to some country that nobody in America except those who are in the process of being iteratively sent in ever increasing increments can find on the map; a sub plot is that nobody except those who are being sent have any clear idea about why they are being sent. For example, a while back my brother in law, who spent a year in Iraq, told me over a friendly martini that he had spent that year in Iraq defending the American Constitution. I lacked that sort of clarity about what our purposes had been in Iraq, although I had had some memory of there being vast numbers of nuclear and biological weapons stored there for use against the United States. I suppose if those weapons had been used against us it would have been a bad thing for the American Constitution, so perhaps my brother in law was correct. I can't remember whether we actually got any of those weapons, but since we are still physically intact I guess we did.

The first time I saw the movie I was among the iteratively increasing hoards. We were all being iteratively and increasingly sent to Vietnam. When we got there (we called it "in-country") we all learned where Vietnam was. That was because we all wanted to know how to get back from it, so we needed to know where it actually was on the map. If we had stayed uniteratively increased I suspect we never would have known where it was. And that probably would have been good. Anyway, when we got there some of us got sent "up-country" and some of us stayed in Saigon.

If one was sent "up-country" (some of us were actually sent "down-country"; there were places like the Rung Sat Special Strike Zone – I never knew how to spell it - that were distinctly south of Saigon; I think John Kerry spent a lot of time "down-country") one got to get shot at quite a lot. All that shooting was one of the key contributors to the interatively increasing requirement for hoards of additional military personnel. One of the advantages of all that iteratively increasing need was that it provided employment opportunities for vast numbers of young men who might have been otherwise unemployed, and that was good.
If one stayed in Saigon one spent most of one's time saluting the vast hoards of senior officers who all had flocked to the "war effort" to further their careers. "It may not be much, but it's the only war we've got" was a commonly heard witticism. When not saluting one probably spent most of the rest of one's time dodging large Cadillacs with starred flags affixed to them as they hurtled around the city. Occasionally one had to dodge a large limousine Mercedes that hurtled around with Nguyen Van Tiu in it. Nguyen was the president of Vietnam and he needed to hurtle around the streets a lot. H e couldn't let the American generals out hurtle him.

That movie turned out really well. I just didn't like it. But that's probably because I have always been pretty hard to please. After eight or ten years of thrashing around militarily and diplomatically the United States declared victory and the iterative hoards all went home. Not long after the hoards had left the guys who had been shooting at all of us formed their own government. I had always thought that we could have achieved the same result by just cutting out the iterative increases and the thrashing about and the shooting and just let those guys set up their government. They seemed to be somewhat of an improvement over the government provided by the guy in the Mercedes limo, but I was never sure. Apparently whether it was better or not was moot; we just left after spending a lot of money and sending home a lot of coffins.

But all of this is based on memories, and memories are at best phantoms.