You remember the name of the town, don't you? [Zihuatanejo]


I met General Krulak just once, very briefly, in Vietnam. After about thirty hours ‘in the saddle,’ with mud caked up to my knees, I emptied a canteen of warm water over my face and laid down in the shade under a parked truck and went to sleep.

Soon I heard voices and opened my eyes slightly to see what was going on, only to find several sets of legs standing right next to the truck, maybe two feet from my head.

The tone and vocabulary of the conversation told me they were officers, and without thinking, I stood up, blinking madly, only to come face to face with a short guy with stars on his collar and a surprised look on his face. He was about 5’2″ with ‘command presence’ oozing out of every pore.

I had bumped him slightly when I got up and I muttered ‘sorry, sir.

He looked me up and down and said quietly, ‘Go back to sleep, Marine.’ Then he turned to the others and said, ‘let’s move over here,’ and led them away from the truck.


Not much of a story, really, more of an anecdote. I wrote it on the occasion of General Krulak’s passing.

And we’ll never be lonely anymore…

Summer of ’66, we’re in a position in the middle of nowhere, as they say, sand flat surrounded by steaming fucking jungle. One road in, potholes eighteen inches deep, full of water even in July. Mid-morning couple helicopters bounce in and drop off some civilians and some mid-level brass. WTF? We’re nobodies, less than a hundred guys, one captain, a couple of lieutenants. Couple of gunships standing a kilometer out turning a slow continuous sweep of the tree line. Word comes down we’re going to have some entertainment. Entertainment? They have us carry some ammo boxes over to a GP tent and spread them out in a kind of semi-circle. Sitting on one of these ammo boxes puts your ass about six inches off the dirt. I’m about ten feet from the side of the tent, looking up, when they lift the flap and there are these three girls in long white sequined dresses, black stilettoes and false eyelashes, swaying to the beat of recorded music, each holding a chrome microphone, young black girls, they seemed really young and not glamorous, just pretty kids, blinking in the sun, dust settling on their patent leather shoes and starting to build up on their pancake make-up, and launching into Chapel of Love…smiling at us, giggling even, rocking to the so familiar lyrics, glancing at each other, picking their way through what must have seemed to them so familiar and mundane but what was to us so unexpected, I remember actually laughing at loud at the sheer joy of it. The Dixie Cups. I’ve thought of them often over the years.

The meaning of hip

Well, late to the party here, as usual. And I’m older than most of you guys so my frame of reference is maybe a bit different. For me it was pretty much Buddy Holly, the Beach Boys and then the Beatles leading into the Marine Corps and then the Stones coming back from overseas and into the World. Not a lot of other stuff although there was always a bunch of stuff playing wherever I was. But I had no real strong affinity for any of it (beyond the Stones). It was mostly about getting laid so you had to know the names and maybe some of the lyrics. Couple of things…First, I was in a unit in RVN where some guy had managed to get a little record player from some godddam place and they had it set up in the corner of one of our bunkers (we were right at the edge of the DMZ, lotta noise) but they only had one record, a 45 (remember them?), Bobby Vee with Rubber Ball on one side and I don’t remember the other side. You guys are talking about the torture of AM radio and long upper Midwest crossings, let me tell you if I’ve heard that fucking song once, I’ve heard it a thousand times. I went through the stages of grief, kinda liked it starting out, catchy, pleasant, then it kind of started irritating me, made my skin crawl, threatened to bust up the player and then found I could ignore it, just tune it out, until finally it actually started to make me laugh, I mean actually laugh out loud. Maybe I was losing it a bit right through here. Anytime I had to pass that bunker I could hear that goddamed thing playing…I can hear it now. Second,…a few years later, living in Berkeley, big three story house, 19 roommates. Like everything else in those times you had to know a fuck of a lot just to make your bones, it was impossible to get laid if you had no opinion about music, so I had to actually pay attention. Big list of bands and composers goes here…lots of music in that house, you had to be able to name the band and the lead singer(s) on the opening chord…one guy in the house that I knew, but not well, but someone I suspected if circumstances had been different, could really be good friends with was this totally unhip guy from back east. He wore these big old heavy wingtips and Levis with a belt(!) fer chrissakes, had a bit of a gut, had never been to the beach but really fucking knew the music scene, almost savant-like. He knew the groups, the instruments, the lead singers and their managers and the studios where they recorded, and in an environment where groups were frequently breaking up and then reforming in different combinations he somehow kept up with that too. He also knew a lot of shit about other things too. Probably the best student in the house. Graduated and went to Boalt. He was a really interesting guy. So unhip. But so fucking hip. If you know what I mean. So one time we’re in the kitchen at the same time, and I’m probably eating Kraft Mac&Cheese (this is almost a sure thing) and we’re just there at the same time, not really eating ‘together’ but eating at the same time, does that make sense? And there’s music playing someplace in the house and we’re not really talking, just letting the music fill up the house and then looks over and says, ‘You know who I like?’ and I look over at him and he says, ‘Donovan…and Neil Diamond…’ And I kinda grunt ‘yeah?’ and nod my head conciliatorily because at this time and place these are not things you’d admit to unless you were really, really uncool. But he recognizes my tone and he then says, ‘No, really. I do.’ And, of course, all these years later I see he was right. Easily one of the brightest and coolest guys I’ve ever known. Last thing…my maternal grandfather, Bill Stemple, was the first guy to have seatbelts in his car that I knew, put them in himself around 1948-49. Also screwed a compass into his dashboard and mounted this big honkin’ spotlight at the side of the windshield on the driver’s side. Another guy I really admire.

Aloha Oe

Once in the days when I was young, my innocence still intact, our troop ship ghosted silently along Oahu’s south shore toward the seaward opening to Pearl Harbor. Having drawn late duty, I was below decks asleep when someone shook me awake and said, “We’re coming into the harbor.”

I swung my feet over the edge of my rack, pulled on my boots and headed up the ladder. As I clear the transom and step out onto a catwalk into the sunshine I am struck immediately with a profound sense of familiarity, de ja vu perhaps, the deep, unsettling sense of having been here before. This exact view of Diamond Head, so familiar and breathtaking in real life and floating quietly in my preconscious mind, an image so detailed and accurate that I am overwhelmed with a sense of belonging.

I turn slowly and take in Honolulu, gleaming white against a deep, green drape of mountains and an electric blue sky. The mountain pass through which the planes had come. The old Ala Moana, the Royal Hawaiian, Fort de Russy, the clock tower at Hickam Field, where my mother had lost two cousins, all move slowly by until we swing into the channel.

We climb a short ladder to the flight deck and cross to the port railing and someone says, “There’s the Arizona.”

In the windswept channel, hard by Ford Island, a stark white alabaster bridge stands astride the lurking, broken hull of the Arizona. I glance down the rail, three hundred Marines and sailors are suddenly silent. This too, we have all experienced before, have seen ourselves in this very place somehow; we all carry this image, this moment.

In the blue-green water, her outline is clearly visible, a tiny oil slick still rises from the hull and the flag stands permanently at half-staff. No one speaks a word. Behind me and to my left, I can hear the ship’s own ensign snapping in the breeze, below us and off the port bow, the flag at the monument answers with its own ruffles and cracks. Except for these two flags and the water lapping faintly against the ship, there is not a sound and no movement.

And then comes some faint music, ebbing on the wind, at first I think it’s my imagination but then louder, more persistent. We start to straggle across to the starboard side and just ahead, marching up the dock, in tight formation comes a Navy band playing a welcome for us. A short Sousa medley, all drumbeat and driving cadence, then sliding magically into the lilting, sensuous Aloha Oe, with its melancholy promise of gentle breezes, of going away and coming back again, and then the band pays its respects to the ship with a rousing Anchors Aweigh and the sailors start to smile, I turn to the guy next to me and almost laugh out loud at the incredible lightness of the moment and then they stop abruptly and there is only silence, the wind pressing against my chest, we watch but the instruments remain up, at the ready, and I realize what they’re about to play and I swallow and they strike the first notes of our quirky, magnificent hymn and every Marine is suddenly rooted to the deck.

After the Ogden is secure and most everyone is below fighting for shower time, I stroll back over and look at the Arizona monument. I try to hear the planes. I try to imagine the burning oil and the men in the water.

Behind me someone says, “It gets me every time.” I turn and find our First Sergeant quietly squinting into the sun, he turns and looks at me and says, “Yeah…every single time.”

In ten days, we will be in Southeast Asia.

My Morning with Eric Hoffer

Ha! Well, it isn’t much of a story, more like an anecdote, maybe. As I said it happened when I was living in Berkeley and taking the occasional temporary job with Manpower to make ends meet, grocery money, walking around money. One morning, they hooked me up with some guy on the waterfront up in Richmond. So I find this guy and he takes me out to a warehouse on the end of a pier, big old building with roll-ups down both sides and across the end. Totally empty. He gives me a push broom and tells me to sweep the place down. He’ll be back around 4:30 and he leaves. This fucking place is enormous. I’m not sure I can do it by 4:30. So I’m working away and about an hour later I get to talking with some old guy fishing from the pier. Nice old guy, short, stocky with a pinch-brim hat and a beat-up tackle box and I realize it’s Eric Hoffer. Shit man, this is cool. He’s kind of retired by now but he’s pretty well known around Berkeley and shows up at school sometimes to give these little talks. I keep working away and going out every half hour or so to check in with him. Ha, I keep waiting for him to say something pithy. I know, I know, I’m pretty fucking dense. Anyway by about 2, I’m seeing I may not finish this goddam job by 4:30 so I’m bearing down and he disappears. No wave, no nod, no good bye, just gone. I think how Eric Hoffer that is. Cool. Cool to be snubbed by Eric Hoffer. I’m almost happy he didn’t say good bye. Better this way. So that night back at the house (up on Oxford Street) I let slip how I spent the morning chatting with Eric Hoffer up in Richmond. At first there is some doubt, some sideways glances but I plow ahead and pretty soon they’re all thinking it’s possible and leaning in for the details which I carefully embellish. It became part of the house lore that I’d spent the morning with Eric Hoffer. Whenever it came up I played it with humility. A couple of months later some of us go down to campus one night to hear him speak. Not just him, there were three of four people speaking that night (I think Nader was there that night) but, of course, we were all looking forward to me reacquainting myself with Hoffer and if the opportunity presented itself, maybe I could introduce a couple of my buds. Well, you know where this is going. We get settled into our seats and I find Hoffer on the dais and, shit(!), it isn’t ‘Eric Hoffer’! I’m having hot flashes, blinking my eyes while my friends are all still busy getting settled. One part of my brain is still trying to decide how to handle this when I hear my voice say, ‘That isn’t Eric Hoffer, uh, I mean, I don’t know this guy’. Oh man, it was brutal. After that my friends would randomly look up, usually over my shoulder, and whisper, ‘I think Eric Hoffer just walked in.’ Fuckers. And it pissed me off when I realized some random old fart wasted part of my morning up in Richmond and didn’t even have the decency to say good bye.

Passing Through

Guy died yesterday. On the golf course. On the fucking golf course. Jesus. Phillip Seymour Hoffman died in what most us assumed was mid-career. Of course the reaper is amused by such presumption. My father saw it coming from a distance. My mother died suddenly. Where did they go? Really. Where? Roger said he was going back to where he came from. The body had ceased to be useful and now he was casting it aside and going back. David Foster Wallace, Leann, Lee Bishop. The demons we’d all suspected were in pursuit finally ran Robin Williams down. They say you can never really know a public person. Shit, you can never really know an intimate. But really what is there to know? The differences, the variations, end up meaning nothing.

‘And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?’

Heard from a guy I used to know. A thousand years ago. Out of the blue, that’s the way it always is. Just a ‘how you doing? How you been? sort of thing. Nothing special really, except the name and the freight it was carrying. The name belongs to a nineteen year old kid. Stuck in time. Can’t see the name without seeing that kid. White hair would be an outrage. Couple of things, first forty years is a long fucking time. Shit, forty? Coming up on fifty. Lotta water under the bridge. Lotta water under my bridge. Lotta water under his. Funny how we didn’t stay in touch. I think about that part of it sometimes. Not just this guy but most of the guys from those years. Funny. When you run into somebody you haven’t seen in a while, you know, someone you’ve lost track of for, say, three or four years, someone invariably says, ‘What have you been doing?’ but with this guy, and other guys who’ve looked me up, the fifty years seems to make that a silly question. The question becomes ‘Did you have a good life?’ But let’s face it, we’re in the home stretch here and any casual inquiry is going to call up some unpleasantness, death, illness, divorce, an estranged child, a bankruptcy, some goddam thing. Life’s like that, fifty years will include some cruelty. It’s almost enough to just hear from them, to know they’re still of this earth, still have their faculties, and can confirm I did, indeed, pass through that time with them.

“And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.”

Raymond Carver

Overly familiar things.

Destined to be my shortest post ever. Pet peeves. Any reference to the Atlantic Ocean being ‘The Pond’. Dated, over-used (and how!) and trite. Vast majority of people who use it are too young or too uninformed to appreciate a time when it was actually kind of an amusing allusion. ‘Deja Vu all over again’. Give it a rest. Give it a fucking rest. ‘At this point in time’. Redundant, ill-considered. ‘At this point’ suffices or, in the alternative, ‘At this time’, equally apt. Not both. (It turns out I yammered on too long for this to be my shortest post ever. Turns out ‘As though it were yesterday’ which immediately precedes this snippet, is shorter. My only excuse is that ‘As though it were yesterday’ is actually a scrap from a much longer piece that is incubating and likely to see the light of day in a week or so.)

As though it were yesterday

I remember the funeral. Black and white and grey. The drum. The horses and the caisson. The sound of the horses on the pavement. And the little kid saluting. And the drum. And the adults moving along at a good clip to keep up with the caisson. Jackie’s veil blowing. And the drum.

Not a great hand but a good one

I wish I could say I knew him well but I did not. Our nodding acquaintance could brighten an afternoon walk if we encountered one another unexpectedly and, if our paths crossed in close enough proximity, we might even call out by name. But this, it turned out, was his nature, to put the other fellow at ease, to accept an easy familiarity quite beyond the actual shape of your relationship. Of course, by the time we became acquainted, he had long since established himself as a writer and a commentator and, in fact, in a funny, circular kind of a way, it was the trouble this created for him in the city that made it possible for me to come to know him in the first place. Truth be told, I had sought him out.

This was several years ago, nearly ten now that I think of it, I knew I wanted to meet him but also knew it would be nearly impossible in the city where he was already under siege. I heard he was a private man who kept to a small circle of friends and to the same neighborhood into which he had moved after the first book came out all those years ago. I heard he rarely did book signings and besides a book signing wouldn’t really serve my purpose and even rarer would he make an appearance at a party, even those which were ostensibly being given in his honor. No, if an actual meeting were to be orchestrated, it would have to be outside the city, or at least outside this city.

Bill, my serial neighbor, he of the frequent flyer miles, said he knew him but after a brief conversation it became apparent what he really meant was that he had once been in the same room with him and had, in fact, not even worked his way through the receiving line for a casual handshake but had rather maintained his focus on the free booze and a lady from Argentina. But he did say he’d heard he had a house up on the lake, the big lake, and that he’d go there in the late summer to clear his mind and do some writing. I listened to this with an air of polite interest. My interest, fascination even, in him, didn’t need to be broadcast.

I drove up in November, before Thanksgiving and well after I imagined he would have returned to the city. This first time I planned to just drive up to get a look at the village, see the size of the place, what it looked like, perhaps stop for a meal, maybe even get a room for a day or two.

It was a three and a half hour drive and about an hour out of the city I realized I hadn’t even confirmed he had a place at the lake and if he did if he used it the way Bill had described. I decided to continue on regardless, that if it turned out Bill was wrong which the more I thought about it seemed likely, I could take a room for the week-end and plan my next move, if there was going to be a next move.

Why I wanted to meet him escapes me. It seemed an amusing thing, I guess, to meet and know someone so difficult to meet and know. Maybe that was the whole of it. I’m certainly not given to celebrity worship, have never asked for an autograph even in those instances where I’ve found myself in a position to do so with little effort, wouldn’t cross the street to get a better look at an actor or politician and except for my first wife, who I stalked shamelessly, have never gone out of my way to meet anyone, ever. But I drove up in the gloom of an overcast November conspiring to meet someone solely because they were a public person and were someone whose writing I admired.

In those days I was still driving the hand-me-down Jeep wagon, the one with the grey primer, jury-rigged tail lights and the aversion to thin air. When I stopped in Montclair for gas and found the air crisp and cold I expected the worst. She coughed dramatically when I restarted her and swooned temporarily when I tried to pull back out onto the road but then she settled down and we made the run up to the big lake without incident.

The village is on the eastern shore and from the road skirting the south shore, with the late afternoon sun slanting in, seems to float magically above the water. I could imagine generations of children coming up for vacation seeing it from here, in this way for the first time, and the sheer anticipation welling up and laughing out loud.

I had a hot roast beef sandwich at Markey’s, a place more blue collar than quaint, inquired about a room for the night and bought a hat that said, ‘I ate at Markey’s so…’ and on the back, ‘if I stumble and fall, it’s probably ptomaine’. The lady who handed me my hat, pointed across the parking lot and said I wouldn’t have any trouble getting a room this time of year, before the skiers and snow bunnies and well after the summer crowds. I said, ‘So then everybody’s pretty much gone back to the city?’ as though making idle conversation but really hoping for some glimmer of people who might still be around. ‘Yeah, I guess…pretty much,’ she said dully, making change and smiling that ‘ya’ll-come-back-real-soon’ smile.

I walked across the road and through the low grass to the boat dock and stood looking across the water, squinting into the evening sun and wondered if he had ever stood here, in this place, watching the sun go down and if he were close enough to walk back to his place or if he’d turned and gone over to Markey’s for a hot roast beef sandwich.

I took a cabin on the high side of the parking lot for thirty-five dollars. I backed the wagon into the space between me and the number four cabin so that come morning if her arthritis was acting up I could get a rolling start and pop the clutch to bring her around. The sheets, crisp and cold, smelled clean, the two wool blankets heavy in a reassuring kind of way and as I lay in the dark I could make out a tiny shaft of light coming in from under an eave and lighting the far wall and an enormous cobweb above the Formica table. I decided to stay through the week-end, to go see Eddie at the gas station in the morning and give him another seventy bucks and drive back to the city late Monday morning. At three AM, I sat up and wrote the line, ‘Under their feet lay the bones of dead men, on the horizon they could see the big cats.’ It was the first line of Mastodon. I don’t know where it came from.

In the morning, I pulled on an extra sweat shirt and my brand new baseball cap and noticed that even in the cabin I could see my breath. I knew the Jeep was going to be unhappy. I walked over to Markey’s, somewhere up to the left, in the trees, a dog was barking, the sound coming down through the trees in that unique echo reserved for pine forests, out on the lake I could hear an outboard motor and voices, fishermen, I guess, talking and then some laughter. I considered how one might go about looking for someone, a stranger, in a small village without seeming to be looking for them. It meant, among other things, I couldn’t mention his name, couldn’t ask for directions, couldn’t even intimate that I was vaguely aware of some semi-famous author living hereabouts. In fact, any inquiry whatsoever would sound an alarm, so I was left with some aimless wandering. Pleasant enough in these surroundings but again I started to calculate what would be the odds of finding him, or anyone for that matter, with aimless wandering. The waitress, Doreen her name tag said, brought me a cup of coffee. I surveyed the room. Not counting the cook, Doreen or the youngish girl at the register, six men and two women, retirees I thought, plus a handyman, a guy in mechanics overalls and a young couple wearing plaid jackets and Sorels.

Next I strolled over to the gas station. Eddie wasn’t on duty. Charles W. was apparently the morning man. I told him I wanted to extend for a couple of days and started fishing around in my pockets for money. ‘I’ll tell Eddie,’ he said as if to save me the trouble of coming up with the cash. ‘Can’t I give it to you?’ ‘Naw, Eddie handles that,’ he said looking up at the cabins. Involuntarily my eyes followed his. The Jeep wagon with the grey primer and the jury rigged tail lights sat among perhaps a dozen cabins. There were no other cars, no movement, no sign of any other cabin dwellers. ‘It’s not like we’re gonna throw you out,’ Charles W. said smiling.

I went back to the cabin and spent an hour or two jotting down some thoughts. I wondered how he might look in real life, older, taller than I expected, friendly, taciturn, distracted…would I even recognize him?

As the morning warmed up, I coaxed the Jeep awake and drove down to Exeter Mills which is about twelve miles and consists of a motel made to look like a log cabin, a gas station (two pumps) and a chicken take-out. And a boarded up sno-cone stand which probably does a brisk business during the summer months. But Exeter Mills is more about the surrounding summer camps, there are few houses. I decided to circle the lake. What does he drive? Surely he buys groceries. I wondered if he was a regular at Markey’s. Maybe he doesn’t cook, maybe he’s strictly a Markey’s regular but just as surely, he has likely gone back to the city by now.

I stopped at Privet’s Landing, a small, sandy beach where the kids can hang out and give their counselors a break but in November crowded with drift wood and a square wooden platform which, in July, would be anchored out in the lake, ‘Privet’s’ in big block letters painted on all four sides. The trees on the far side of the lake seemed to come right down to the water, I could just make out a car or truck moving along the road and then I could pick out the village, little more than a couple of white flecks in the dark of the tree line and a faint plume of smoke.

I spent the rest of the week-end getting to know Doreen and Eddie and Charles W. Saturday night, I had the spaghetti, slightly over-cooked and spicy, and talked with Berg, the cook, a refugee of the youth camps who had trouble cooking for fewer than a hundred. I decided to come back in the spring, maybe get a realtor to show me around, make some light conversation. Yeah, maybe get a realtor.

I got back to the city late Monday afternoon and went to bed. The Markey’s hat ended up on the door knob of the coat closet.