Wednesday, August 31, 2016

A CATHOLIC BOYHOOD

Not many of us, these days, are attached to memories that recall religious faith and values. On the blog today it's just three quiet, deeply respectful memories from a Catholic boyhood, evocative pictures of moments in time and place, and of the men and women who inspired a young boy with values that he holds to this day. Thanks for these to Jules Lemelle, who writes that he is active with the San Antonio Museum Association as a docent, and "continues to explore color in painting and gardening." He adds: "My education began with Irish nuns who instilled an appreciation for the sacramentals in nature, i.e. glens, flowers & songs of devotion to the central, maternal figure of Christianity.  To this day I cannot pass by a rose without cherishing its form & fragrance."


OF OAK AND HONESTY
by Jules Lemelle


He moved into the new neighborhood just as Elvis moved onto the stage.  The young boy wasn't interested much in what other kids his age were into, except baseball; but that's another story for another time.  He was really taken with the burnished bronze face of the bread-winner next door, and how day after day of hauling appliances, brush, and other things, he'd come home to his wife and young daughter near sundown with a smile as big as a center cut of watermelon.  

His name was Porter, and he carried quite a burden being black in the late 50's. The boy was impressed by the positive attitude worn on the kakhi sleeves that sheathed his tireless arms from the season's haul. An obsidian grin reflected summer's amber rays at evening; tired eyes revealed nothing but care and generosity, searching for a place to rest. The old man had lots of friends that visited on holidays; sitting around a backyard fire pit, they'd chat & joke while Porter served up hospitality &  tumblers of iced tea. The boy savored the sweet air of oak and honest men relaxed on lawn chairs 'round the fragrant pit. A jolly mocking bird from the hood joined as the celebration fanned to a close, silencing cicadas as a full moon rose.  





TONY
by Jules Lemelle


The cool morning air between the front door of our house and the canary schoolbus pulled up at the
curb was distinctly spring-like. Tony, our driver smiled a welcome to the four alighting passengers making our way past the escaping fumes that wafted out from the engine, under the massive tire well. Tony presided with a  filtered cigarette wedged between two fingers, one hand resting on the burnished ebony steering wheel, while the other sealed the door behind.  

Turning past the stairwell, the youths beheld little brunette heads bobbing in excited chatter as the
standing-room only bus journeyed on. Clutched in their steady hands were blossoms pruned from
rose gardens where the children lived, along the foothills of the city's East side among the scattered fields of leaning mesquite and towering pecans. So intoxicating was the collective aroma of the bright reds, pinks and cream bouquets that for the duration of their ride, the four youths felt as pilgrims voyaging to a heavenly feast. Through the laughter and merriment, it was; classmates bringing homage to Mother Mary, rather than an apple for the teacher, in that merry, mirthful, month of May.

Roses forever!   



FATHER MacSHANE
by Jules Lemelle

He looked like Spencer Tracy, a shock of white, neatly buzz-cropped, a full head of halo.  Father MacShane was Irish, despite the spelling.  He guided the Parish's blue winged Impala curbside in front of the green house as a young caddy dumped his breakfast bowl into the kitchen sink.  Dashing out the back door and down the drive to the awaiting vehicle, the lad jumped in, proudly wearing his plaid collar polo shirt for the first time.  Not many people drove in the Texas heat using a terrycloth towel on the wheel, but it made perfect sense if you wanted to keep your grip dry.  Beads of water rolled down his forearms and brow, but the Catholic priest refused to run the A/C for economic reasons; he wouldn't want to take advantage of the parish. Golf was his only vice.  The Father never played more than nine holes at a time, and for good reason. Stacatto sprinklers cast cool relief along the fairways as around the course went the duo, making par on nearly every hole. Except the ninth.  Losing sight of the drive as it vanished from view, the boy had searched for the ball in vain, back & forth accross the green. Lost. Ashamed, he hung his head in defeat, thinking he had failed his patron. Until he heard Father ask: "Did you check the cup?"     

I'm attaching an image of Jules below. He says he's "the chap on the far left"...

       


Monday, August 29, 2016

THE BEATING

William Luvaas is a distinguished novelist and short story writer, whose work has appeared in numerous prestigious literary magazines over the years. I reviewed his remarkable novel, Ashes Rain Down, on my earlier blog, The Buddha Diaries, back in December, 2014. "Boyhood Memories" is lucky to have his permission to publish this short story, in which he experiences an outbreak of sudden, irrational and violent terror in the rural area around his native Eugene, Oregon. In one sense, it's a "loss of innocence" story; in another, a personal memory of a moment in which a young boy is forced to confront his own vulnerability and fear, and to come out of it with the courage he suspected he might not have. It's also a story of loyalty and friendship, and of the adult's response in the form of a desire for vengeance. In short, a powerful and complex insight into the essence of boyhood experience.

Bill's new novel, Beneath the Coyote Hills, is out this fall. For Los Angeles area readers, there's a book launch and an opportunity to meet the author at Skylight Books on Sunday, September the 18th at 5:00PM.


THE BEATING

William Luvaas


            As boys growing up in Oregon, we often rode our bikes several miles to the McKenzie River or to the gravel pits, a mysterious, vaguely ominous place to thirteen year old boys, where older boys, high school hoods, staged ritualistic fist fights, forming a cheering ring around the bloodied combatants.  But Eugene was mostly benign in the late Fifties.  No danger of child abductions or sexual predators.  We roamed far and wide on back roads through orchards and blackberry patches, feeling safe, except for that once when my friend Kim and I rode into a barnyard and were surrounded by snarling hounds that pursued us, nipping at our heels.
            However, the afternoon we came upon an old Mercury in the gravel pits–hood raised and two older boys peering down at the engine–was a scene right out of In Cold Blood, an altogether alien zone for us Oregon boys.
             Kim, stopped his bike and looked into the engine with them.  “Car problems?” he asked.The boys–men, really, hair slicked back, jeans filthy–straightened up and looked him over, poker faced, then at me as if they had been expecting us.  Instinctively, I had stopped behind the car, sensing something off.
            “We could ride into town and get help,” Kim offered.
            The wiry man with a pack of cigarettes rolled into his T-shirt sleeve nodded at his buddy, who seized Kim’s arm.  Kim broke free, shouting, “We got to go,” and raced away.  The wiry man knocked him off his bike and straddled him, pummeling him with his fists, while the tall man stood over them, looking back at me.
            I was frozen in fear and disbelief.  Kim’s eyes beseeched me for help, but what could I do?  I was no brawler.  Besides, these were grown men, more malicious than those dogs.  The tall one stood, legs wide apart, aiming a pistol at my friend.  Did they plan to kill us?  Violate us?  Do things I couldn’t imagine?  I faced the first hard decision of my life: whether to flee and save myself, abandoning my friend to these psychopaths, or stay and share his fate.  My decision wasn’t a conscious one, but simple instinct.  I knew that abandoning him was out of the question.  So I rode forlornly back, begging them to stop, knowing inchoately that I was offering myself in Kim’s stead.
            They knew it, too, and turned their fury on me.  The tall one ground the gun muzzle into my temple, while the wiry man, whose face and slicked-back hair were vaguely familiar, punched me in the face, shoulders pumping, fists coming at me like missiles, sparking red flashes behind my eyes.  He sneered and goaded, “Around here we fight back.”  I stood still, arms locked at my sides, uncertain whether the tall man was more likely to shoot me if I fought back or if I didn’t.
            Finally, they grew bored with their game and let me slump to my knees, got in the Merc and drove away.  No car trouble after all.
            Bruised and bleeding, we made it back to Coburg Road, thence to Kim’s house, too ashamed to speak or even look at each other.  Ashamed of what?  Our vulnerability?  Our fear?  Our helplessness?  The loss of innocence?
            Kim’s father–I will never forget it–was enraged.  Exactly how I wanted my father to react.  He got his hunting rifle and drove around with us until dark, cursing and trolling back roads in search of them.  I believe he would have killed them.  But they were gone. 
            Kim’s parents called the police, and they questioned us accusatorially, wondering what we were doing roaming about in the gravel pits. 

            My father asked me the same thing after Kim’s dad drove me home, when I explained why my face was bruised and swollen.  He found it hard to look at me.  He seemed vaguely ashamed, even disappointed in me.  For what I couldn’t imagine, and still can’t today, more than fifty years later.

Friday, August 26, 2016

MEN'S BODIES...

... or perhaps THE MALE PHYSIQUE.

I don't know about you, but I remember being infinitely curious about my own body as a boy. I remember being infinitely curious about other boys' bodies, too, and particularly about how mine stacked up against them.

I don't think I started to be self-conscious in this regard much before reaching puberty, but in the boarding school I attended after I reached the age of 12, I remember worrying a great deal about my physical strength in comparison with others'. I remember the feeling of envy when I saw boy's bodies that I judged stronger, more muscular, more masculine than my own. I was plump as an early teenager, a little flabby. I remember comparing the growth of hair--as in the story that follows--and wanting more of it than I had. I remember great anxiety around the length and girth of my dick. Whilst immensely curious about others, I went to great pains to hide my own, and indeed the rest of my body, in the changing rooms.

For this reason, the following story spoke powerfully to me about that particular boyhood obsession, which I imagine I shared with a great number of my peers--but which I would never have spoken to them about. Knowing my own history, I do not believe that a fascination with--or a delight in--other men's bodies is restricted to gay men. I'd be interested to know if other straight men agree with me. Is it clear, or does it matter, that today's story was written by a man who grew up from boyhood to be gay? The title, somewhat arbitrary, is mine. The story comes from Bob Glover, a ceramic artist whom I have known personally since were were colleagues at (what was, then) Otis Art Insitute, and whose work I have always admired.


MEN'S BODIES
by Robert Glover


Mumps, measles, chicken pox, and now scarlet fever. Being infected with all those childhood illnesses within months of each other. Rumors started about my missing a year of grammar school. Worry.

The front door has a prominent quarantine notice taped on it and I’ve been placed in isolation.  A makeshift bed is in the dining room away from the family and I have a stack of comics and body building magazines.  My uncle brought his collection of muscle magazines to illustrate good health in anticipation that when I’m feeling better, I can visit his gym and perhaps erase the “weakling physique” of a ten year old child… can’t take the chance of growing into that young man on the beach who had sand kicked in his face by some big brute! One should become smooth and muscle bound, glowing in the sunshine!

My dad and uncle conspired to work out in the gym during the summer months.  But on weekends, the gym was full of adult males all pumping iron. I can still remember the distinct cacophony of clanking bar bells and the gymnasts doing all that grunting and groaning with a distinct exhaling of lungs, with a “p-ish” sound with each new move. Grunt, “p-ish”, groan, grunt, “pish”, groan, grunt, "p-ish". There was always the proper way to inhale and exhale.

The gym was located by train tracks and the rumble and rattle of locomotives were common sounds during the day, shaking the ground and the gym.  The sounds of steam release of those dynamic pistons reminded me of the sounds coming from the gym. Both being masculine and powerful.
I must return to the dreaded exercise program and invent ways to study the men working out and yet not stare at their bodies, in addition to not losing the count required for each set. One of the methods I developed was to develop a quick scan in order to absorb the fascinating details of their bodies. A few times I was caught lingering too long and an uncomfortable self-conscious glare would descend on me. One had to be very careful not to be obvious, as this was socially unacceptable. At least it must have been since the banter and jokes started to be about “queers”.

During a most potent quick scan, I would take mental pictures of the variations in male body hair. Some had chest hairs peeking above the T-shirt neck line, which was hinting at the prospect of a full blown hairy reward. However, some had little showing one their bare chests which did not fit into the ideal. Then there was a secondary indicator. Checking out the hair on legs and arm pits. The five o’clock shadow was another indicator of potential. But one had to be careful of eye contact and the potential fist in the face which could come unexpectedly out of the blue like the brute force of God.
I would anticipate the day of my first pubic hairs. It was always a singular desire to have a hairy chest. Lingering during bath time, or looking in the mirror.  Patiently I waited for each little sprout to appear with the hope for a decent hairy adult pelt. This was the reward for growing up and having my own hairy chest to touch and observe.

Somewhere in the genetic program this was not to happen. At least, not to the degree I had hoped for.  I would forever be the observer of other hairy men .Constantly building that ideal model. Looking at legs and arms during hot summer days. Just to imagine the natural treasures hidden from view.  Someone suggested that if you shaved those hairs, they would double their growth. What a hoax! One would be more likely to end up looking like a plucked chicken.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

CARAVAN, SLEEPING

It's always a pleasure to hear a "good father" story. We hear so many of the bad ones, the wounds inflicted knowingly or unknowingly by fathers on their sons. Here's a particularly evocative and warm story by a young English actor/producer of my acquaintance, Philip Battley, whose impressive resumé you can read here. We did a trade with Philip and his wife, Jessica Elisa Boyd, a while ago--our Laguna Beach cottage for their London flat. I'm particularly attracted to his short memory because it's so close to many of my own. My parents, too, were caravaners. We set off to some new destination every August with the caravan in tow, putting down our "legs" at many stops along the way. (Unlike Philip, it seems, I actually came to dread these annual outings as a teenager. I'll be posting one of my own stories later in this blog...) Meantime, here's Philip:



CARAVAN, SLEEPING
by Philip Battley

I have very strong memories of our family holidays in our caravan, which we towed to the west coast of Wales every summer. The memories are just as physical as they are visual: the itchy agonies of the 7 hour drive; the first foot-feel of the firm wet sand; the smell of the heather...

Sunburnt from a day of cricket on the beach. Daddy uses a cotton pad and dabs on calomine lotion, a white, cool liquid on my back and shoulders. As it dries, it tightens on the skin and turns chalky.

I climb up onto the narrow canvas bunk, and crawl into my sleeping bag.

I need to stay inside the bag, because the canvas is rough and scratchy. The canvas sags between the poles at the sides, so if I lie on my back, my shoulders hunch up on either side.

Daddy says goodnight, and closes the curtain.

It is the after-bedtime sounds of the caravan from the other side of the divide that I love. The gentle hiss of the gas burner; the creak of the caravan as a heavy adult moves around; the rhythmic squeak of the toilet pump. And the quiet conversations between my parents.

Like my brother below, I soon disappear into my Hardy Boys book, living the adventures out in the ocean, until my eyes close. The deepest of sleeps pulls me in.




Monday, August 22, 2016

COMIC BOOK


Here's a story from Joost de Jonge, a Dutch artist whose work I first came upon through his paintings. I soon discovered that, while he is clearly a fine painter, his interests range much further. His ever-widening Ekphrasis Project engages poets from throughout the world in a provocative dialogue between two media, words and paint; and more recently I have been receiving evocative images, such as the one below, of installations that juxtapose his abstract paintings with "real life" objects such as flowers, antique furniture, ceramics, and so on--some of which, as I understand it, have intimate family connection, and others, a rich tapestry of art historical reference (note the "Sunflowers"). Indeed, Joost's understanding of his role and career as an artist is very much about making connection--between media and people, past and present, reaching out with incessant creativity. You can find out more about him here

And here's his "boyhood memory":


Comic book of the forest princess
by Joost de Jonge


I recall a Saturday afternoon. It is regular grey weather with gloomy skies with a patch of blue here and there. Henry, who is in my class, lives in a long street with uniform houses for one family on either side, a long trace of terraced houses. If you are facing the river though, on the left side there is also a high-rise complex and a single villa, about every two blocks of terraced houses, separating those blocks of houses.

The school from our childhood is at the same street, near the intersection. I’m on my bike, looking at the birds and the sky, especially the clouds seem to take over my thoughts and engulf me in a strange way, with expanding bulbs of grey-bluishness.

I must have been about twelve or thirteen years old, a boy really. I have a comic book in the biggest pocket of my denim jacket. It is a crazy comic book, with explicit drawings of a forest princess. She has a giant centipede satisfying her. Her vagina is a great bush with a large clitoris, like a bell. In each sequence of images you can see her tits with hard nipples. Her mouth looks like she’s wearing lipstick, thickly applied. She is a dream of a babe; thinking about sex without an end… yes this is what we want!

I’m already aroused by the thought of what my friend Henry may say when he sees the explicit drawings. We were good boys, good friends and as good friends do at this age, we share our stash of photos of hot chicks, mainly Playboy and Penthouse, and masturbate, sometimes together. I remember that Penthouse was the best and hard to get in those days where we lived in the countryside.

Ringing the doorbell, his mother opens the door. Henry is upstairs in his room, so I walk up the two flights of stairs to his room. As I knock on his door, I notice how strongly it smells up there, of clean laundry, which they hang out to dry above the stairs. Somehow that smell still arouses me. We greet each other. Without a word I take out the magazine. The cover says it all.


He leafs through it and unbuttons his pants. “Wait,” I tell him, “It is an exchange. Where are your erotic magazines?”  From underneath his bed he grabs a roll of shiny centerfolds, covered in prints of greasy fingers, still a bit sticky. With a feeling of aversion and excitation I take the roll from him. I position myself in an opposite corner of his bedroom and take it out as well.


Joost de Jonge, “Composition 2014-2016”, acrylics & oils on panel, 48 x 48 x 2 inch, 2016

Sunday, August 21, 2016

JAKE... AND HANK

I can't remember being so excited. Maybe when I was five years old. Ridiculous, really, I suppose. But Jake's arrival in our lives has been sheer joy. Such a good lad! We were anticipating separation anxiety problems, first time away from his Mom and family, but he seemed to have none at all. We were anticipating potty training problems--none so far. He has been a perfect angel, tail wagging constantly, loving his play time and his sleep in equal measures...


Last night he slept well in his crate, with only an occasional, easily quieted complaint. No wonder I feel like a little boy all over again. I think often about...

HANK

the border collie who was our dog when I was very little--so little, that he was put to work as a baby-sitter for my sister and myself. Somewhere there are black and white photos of myself, very small, lying on a tartan blanket in the pale Northumberland sunshine, and Hank, a big dog, alongside me, alert, protective, dutiful.

I remember when Hank died. Or rather, not when he died, but when I was told he had died. I could have been no more than six or seven years old. My father had come to fetch us, my sister and me, at the Bletchley train station on our return from our boarding schools.  I was sitting in the back seat (no seat belts, in those days!) of the old Austin Ten he used to drive. He broke the news gently, I'm sure, but it was a terrible blow. We had loved Hank, and he loved us in return. He was smart. My parents would send him off, alone, to my grandmother's house at the other end of the village where we lived, and she would tie a bag of candy ("sweets") to his collar and he'd trot back through the village to bring them to the Rectory.

Another picture: a small boy, on a swing suspended from the lower limb of the pine tree that stood between the Rectory and my father's church, St. Botolph's, the big black dog sitting watchfully to one side...

So when we got home, there was a surprise awaiting us. This was Benjy, a feisty little cocker spaniel puppy, who lived with us for many years thereafter. He was a good dog, I'm sure. We probably loved him too. Still, he had a disadvantage from the start: he could never live up to Hank. Hank was the one that I remember.

Friday, August 19, 2016

I'M BACK...

... from a two-week trip to my native England, where I went to celebrate a big-number birthday with family who still live on that side of the pond: my older son, his wife, and their three children; one of my two nieces; and, with us from Los Angeles, my daughter, her boyfriend, and her young son. Only a bout with illness kept my younger son from flying over to join us from Iowa, where he lives.

All of my own stories which have appeared, or will appear in these pages are set in the country where I spent my young years; and I was reminded of many of them on this return to some of the territory of my youth. I confess I love the country still--particularly the countryside, the many beautiful villages, the farms...


the gardens...


... and the landscapes, the hedgerows, the green hillsides, the fields... (I will tell you one day my own memory of the Messerschmidt that crash-landed in a field not a quarter mile distant from our house.)

And the trees. The trees!


So many of them, everywhere. For a longtime resident of California, where trees seem by comparison dusty and sparse, the English trees are awesome, lush, magnificent, many of them ancient, huge, and green (except for the lovely copper beeches...) I still have these landscapes in my blood, and my heart sings as I travel through them.

I wish my nearly 5-year-old grandson, Luka, could write his boyhood memories now. Perhaps one day he will. He had such a great time, everywhere he went... The archetypal BOY!


So I'll be getting back to this blog in the next couple of days. Please bear in mind that readers' boyhood stories are welcome here. Writing them is a challenging exercise in self-awareness--and can be a pleasantly healing experience. You can send yours to me at the email address that's available if you click on the "complete profile" link in the top right hand column. I'll be happy to post them, with whatever attribution you desire--or none. If you come across a story, one day, that rings bells, it's only because we share so much experience in common. So... give it a thought.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

NOTE

I'll be gone for the next couple of weeks, visiting family in England. Please come back to visit "Boyhood Memories" after August 17th, when posting will resume. The date is, by chance, the birthday of our last contributor (see Gary Lloyd's "At War"). Happy birthday, Gary!

BOYHOOD'S END

Too many men have the boy ripped out of them by the experience of war. Gary Loyd is a Los Angeles-based artist whose sometimes searing, always provocative artwork is profoundly connected with the trauma of his experience as a medic in Viet Nam. Here's his memory:


AT WAR
By Gary Lloyd

December 1967, one month before the TET Offensive, Vietnam in 1968.

I was a 24-year-old art student at Art Center College of Design in midtown LA when the offensive began.  I was drafted in December of 1966 and chose the US Navy while transferring to the Otis Art Institute of LA County.  I went to core school that same year and became a Hospital Medical Corpsman.  My active duty date arrived while I was a student at Otis in 1967.  In December of 1967 I sat on the tarmac in San Diego with 320 drafted and commissioned men between the ages of 18 and 29, waiting to board a very large troop carrier.  

About 22 hours later I woke up in a sweat from a strange dream to the nightmare of reality, and the last ten minutes of a 23-hour flight from San Diego to Da Nang Naval Air base in Vietnam, with four companies of recon medical teams, SEAL teams and Intel spooks.   We were on the glide path over the South China Sea at 4 a.m. in 104 degree, 100% humidity weather, and I was astonished I could breathe this overheated wet air.

We had been prepared for this at Camp Pendleton during hot box training.  I'm claustrophobic and this killing heat had me beat immediately.  As the C 5 Galaxy landed perfectly we emerged into the waves of wet jet fuel odor and a scented light mist. I felt as though I was drinking in the chemical air, not breathing it.  All 320 of us, mostly boys or very naive young men, were now pitted against a population engaged in a civil war that we had nothing and everything to do with!

For the first time in my life I felt a sense of raw fear that kept me strangely alert and incredibly sad!  I could see the hate and mistrust in the eyes of every Vietnamese citizen I looked at!  I had no real map or blueprint to fall back on for support.  I was now responsible for the lives of 69 other soldiers who, like me, were fodder for the foreign policy choices I had no part in forming.  

I was naked in hell!  Peaceful existence was only a memory.  I learned to nap standing or sitting in a pool of sweat.  I shed 23 pounds of weight in the first month.  I couldn't hold down much food for several months due to the strange, ready-to-eat MRE's, the iodine infused drinking water and the random mess calls in Da Nang. Sleep deprivation kept me from applying reason to my triage duty.  Letters I wrote to my parents and friends were sent out, and responses to them occasionally received months later.  There was no Internet or telephone access of course.

I did have drawing to fall back on.  My only contacts with culture were other educated soldiers. There were two in my company. Both of them had lost their exempt draft status as I had. My birth date was drawn the third week after the draft was instituted.  Luck of the draw had a new meaning.  

I began to identify with Vietnamese men my age in the small villages we passed through on our way to Pleiku near the Cambodian border.  I drew their portraits in pencil and often in blood, when I had no pencils or ink.  My social idealism was a stain in my heart.  We had no business being in this terrible civil war.  There were few anti-war protests in the states in 1968.  Most of U.S. soldiers drafted during the Vietnam War were men from poor and working-class families.  As a matter of fact, American forces in Vietnam included twenty-five percent poor, fifty-five percent working-class, twenty percent middle-class men, but very few came from upper-class families. Many soldiers came from rural towns and farming communities. 

My best friend, Jimmy Jo Pennington, had four complete changes of clothes and two pairs of shoes for the first time in his life.  He was a high school drop out from Dothan, Alabama.  His daddy was a "dirt farmer".  He could hardly read but could shoot better than anyone in our company by far.  A childhood of shooting squirrels to eat had prepared him to become a sniper.  It was Jimmy who fed us in the bush.  He could forage so well that we actually ate better in the bush away from the Da Nang Naval Air base.  

In December of 1968 we were sent on into Cambodia with a SEAL team to recon a supply center near the border and suddenly were neck deep in leech-infested water, with foliage bundles floating above and around our heads allowing us to breathe until the Vietcong  passed by our nearly discovered position.  Our leech encircled necks were bleeding when we dragged ourselves into a vine forest to pry hundreds of the suckers from our necks and ankles.  

I had survived 73 Ops and hoped I'd make it through number 74, this one, so I could apply to muster out.  Twenty clicks out from Da Nang we encountered a friendly unmarked mine field and Jimmy stepped on a Claymore mine, killing him instantly and spraying 7 of our company with shrapnel, including me.  Two weeks later I woke up in Saigon on my way back to the San Diego Naval hospital.  I had 718 fragments of shrapnel removed from my back and legs during the next 18 years.

I never fully recovered from the internal scars that led to PTSD. I met other hospital corpsman with similar psychological instability. The most common experiences were nightmares with auditory and olfactory features. I woke frequently in a pool of sweat, thinking I was hearing ordinance, smelling burning flesh and hearing screams, and usually freaking out my sleeping partner.  I stopped dating after several attempts to form relationships with women.  The two most common feelings that overwhelmed me were extreme guilt and anger.

In December of 1969 and for about the next seven years I spent 8 hours a week with a group of other combat docs at the Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego, California, where the term PTSD was originally named. To recover, I used my art as a way out or back to some stability.  I began painting flesh hurtling through space in the shape of a fireman's axe, and modified pages from Jane’s Fighting Ships, reworking them with black and white photos of myself wrapped in bandages and cursive text written over the printed pages. My mustering-out duty involved removing the contents of body bags and washing the bodies for burial. Many bags had gruesome messages in them or parts of Cambodian and Vietnamese children and parts of cows and pigs. There were some twisted angry minds in the bush who wanted to make their feelings known by placing these horrors in the bags.  

These horrors entered my art work. I tried to take photographs of the body bags’ contents but I was discovered by my commanding officer and endured a captain’s mast legal hearing for my efforts! Upon arriving home I burned my uniforms and destroyed my field awards! I continued at Otis and graduated with a BFA and an MFA. The meat paintings grew in scale and I made an fireman's axe out of beef, had it photographed on a field of paint and electronic resistors and condensers, then had it freeze dried and cobalt irradiated.  It will be safe to view in 2020 when the radiation half-life burns off.

I still have occasional nightmares but they are brief because I've learned to wake up before the explosions and screaming arrive.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

WE ALL DO IT

Boys, that is. Starting at different ages and in different ways. But sooner or later we discover how much fun we can have with that thing that dangles mysteriously between our legs--the thing we have put to use,, thus far, only when we need to take a pee. At some point, without the slightest conscious effort on our part, the thing begins to play delightful and amazing tricks. It gets hard, stands up, draws attention to itself and, well, imperiously craves the touch. Sooner or later, we find out why.

A number of the boyhood memories I've received describe this peculiar magic. I'll be publishing more along the way. For now, here's a quirky and evocative one that I particularly like. It's written by the Los Angeles-based artist Bob Zoell, whose long, distinguished, and cheerfully irreverent career has been a source of delight and inspiration to those who follow it. Bob also gave me permission to show you an example of his work, below. It's as precise, in its own medium, and as quirky as this diverting piece of writing. So here we go:



Excerpts from DUCK’S A WANKER (1983)
By Bob Zoell 

Everybody was on welfare and drank cheap port by the gallon. The halls smelled of port, cabbage and poor people’s hopes. The parents had to drink to think about survival so they sat around drinking and thinking and not doing very much. I remember how slow it was and the smell of not caring. The stinky pungent halls, puke and musty odor from the rotting community showers reminded us how poor we were. Dirty little hands, bugs, buggers and scabs decorated the halls.

We snared rabbits by the river and one of them chewed off its leg. We stole chickens from the coop and wrung their necks as we ran; we plucked those chickens in the dark by the river and roasted those guys on the ends of sticks with their assholes up in the air; we laughed and farted and rolled around in the stink and the smoke of those half-plucked chickens and blood. Burnt feathers and blood is what made us sick so we just threw the damn chickens away.

Duck plops himself on an old wooden bench next to the shower stall. He unbuttoned his pants and reached in but it seemed to come out by itself like it didn’t need him. It looked like a giant caterpillar without its coat and flopped out like it needed air. It plopped and flopped against his leg and then just dangled there. We took turns touching it and squeezing it. It felt funny, mine didn’t feel like that – it wasn’t fat and squishy and when it got hard it looked like a stick or a pencil -- Duck’s looked like a fat sausage.

I pulled down my pants, spit in my hand and worked it up hard like a pencil – a little purple pencil. I start to pull it and squeeze just like Duck. It felt good, a new feeling. I kept pulling and feeling, then it was right there, it didn’t wait, it wanted out. It came like angels leading a parade, I could feel the clowns, dancing girls, acrobats, fire-eaters and space men. They wore funny hats and danced on wooden legs; they were making the sign of the cross and laughing; they did the dishes and carried flags -- American flags. It was a miracle, a wonderful fucking miracle!






Monday, August 1, 2016

FRACTIONS

Here's another one of the recurring themes in the boyhood memories I have been receiving: our problematic relationship with our fathers. Michael Provart is an artist, film production designer and teacher who is based in Los Angeles. You'll find out more about his professional life and some examples of his work on his page at Saatchi Art. His story is a beautifully written description of a moment that focuses all the complex, contradictory emotions that our fathers can inspire in us: admiration, respect, love, but also bewilderment, fear of rejection or disparagement... and a longing for more; for approval, for encouragement; for a manifestation of love which too often eludes us.


FRACTIONS
By Michael Provart

There is an empty round dinner table dressed with a cotton gold table cloth and four black chairs around it. There is a black Chinese abacus hanging on the wall to one side. I sit in one chair and my Dad brings in a whole pie and a knife and sets them in the middle of the table. He tells me, “I’m going to explain fractions.”

He says, “There is a whole pie in front of me and if I take the knife and cut the pie in the middle, I’ve cut it in half, leaving two parts of the whole pie."

He takes the knife again and cuts the pie, perpendicular this time across the first cut and says, “There are now four parts to the pie, or four quarters. These are each fractions of the whole pie. In this case, each piece represents a ¼ fraction of the whole pie.”

He continues now, taking the knife and this time splitting one of the four parts, and dragging the knife through the intersection of the previous cuts; and then repeats the maneuver with the knife, splitting the last of the two parts equally in the opposite direction. He says, “Now I’ve made eight parts of the whole pie; each piece now represents an 1/8th fraction of the whole pie."

And I say, “Yeah, but Dad the whole pie is still there.”

He shakes his head and looks at the knife. He gets up, leaves the dining room and comes back with a plate and two forks from the kitchen. He maneuvers a piece of the pie with the knife onto the plate and eats some of it and offers me the rest. We eat the pie and he says, “Now we’ve eaten an 1/8th of the pie and there are 7/8ths left.”

And I say, “There are seven pieces of pie left?”

He shakes his head again and looks down for a moment, takes the knife, wrangles another piece of pie to the plate and eats it quickly this time. He says, “Now there are 6/8ths of the pie left, or three quarters, since we’ve eaten 2/8ths.”

I say, “Three quarters?”

“Yes. Do you remember when we cut the pie in half once and then again, those four parts were each a quarter of the pie, right?  Now we’ve eaten 2/8ths of the pie, which is the same as one quarter.”

And I say, “But Dad, It’s just a pie and now we’ve eaten two pieces of it.” Not getting it.

At this point I remember my father’s impatience with me as he took the pie, plate and utensils away to the kitchen, went to the fridge, poured himself a pre-mixed Gibson Martini from a gallon plastic milk jug, and went and sat down in front of the TV, clicking it on and steaming, taking a drink.

In his prime, my father designed the parachute systems for the Apollo space program. He had little time for the small fractions of life.