With my hand on the wheel and my brain in neutral . . .

Archive for the ‘The place between my world and my fiction’ Category

A Memorable Awakening

Please watch this very short clip of the opening for the early 60’s TV show “The Rifleman”.  You’ll see Chuck Connors walking down a street rapid-firing his rifle.  I count 14 shots (Hollywood rifle.)

Why do this?  So you can fully picture what happened to . . . uh, umm, a friend of mine.  He, ya, he couldn’t sleep, so in the middle of the night he was revisiting his childhood by watching several episodes of The Rifleman.  As dawn approached, he felt he could finally sleep, so he just stepped away from his laptop and crumpled into his bed, just three feet away.  He didn’t bother turning off the computer because he knew it would soon automatically go into “sleep” mode and he’d be using it again as soon as he woke up.  He zonked out.

At some point maybe the boat rocked (ya, just like me he lives on a boat), maybe enough to slide the mouse and wake up the computer.  For some reason the next YouTube video started playing.  Yes, it was another Rifleman episode, opening with 14 rifle shots ringing out inside the smallish interior of a boat.

He woke up, oh, yes, he woke up!  Just like in the old cartoons, his entire body jumped up, still horizontal, his wavering blanket a clear foot above him, and his eyes shot a full six inches out of his skull, his teeth erupted all at once like synchronized popcorn, and he screamed like an out-of-tune Scottish bagpipe.  No coffee needed this morning!

When . . . um, he told me about this, he reminded how just a week or two ago in a dream and in reality he fought off a horde of knee-high T-rex dinosaurs, his thrashing causing him to fall out of bed and bonk his head hard enough to give him a sore neck for days.  Also, he recalled the time he was up all night battling a single wiley cricket, which nearly resulted in their mutual and explosive destruction.  Then he asked me, “How, after so many years of experience and education and thoughtful, intentional living, how has my life devolved into nothing but a string of slapstick comedy skits?”

Ya, uhm, my friend, ya, he asked me that.  I have no answer.

The Instructor and The Grizzled Men

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One autumn afternoon, I was sitting in my car parked along the border of Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, just waiting to rendezvous with someone.  Old Dominion does have ROTC classes, which I remembered when I noticed a uniformed officer walking toward me, coming from the residential neighborhood next to campus.  He was young, maybe in his early thirties; no doubt he was an instructor and on his way in to teach a class.

He was on the other side of the street from me, as was a somewhat neglected house in the early stages of refurbishment.  Outside the house, in the front yard, were three late middle-aged men, apparently employed with the dirty work of the house repair.  Beside their clothes being dirty, dusty, and splotched with paint, it was obvious that their clothes were rather worn, even for work clothes.  They all could have used a haircut or at least a trim, and they all looked a little tired, not tired from the day’s labor but tired from the labor of life.  I had the feeling that these were not the best days these men had had.  They were taking a break, sitting on the front steps with cigarettes and beers.

They also noticed the young officer approaching, coming down the sidewalk on their side of the street.  I saw the guy in the middle give a little elbow nudge to the bigger guy on his left, and then he turned his head and quietly said something to the guy on his right.  Separately, nonchalantly, they put down their beers and dropped their cigarettes on the brick porchway.  Separately, nonchalantly, they stood up.

As the officer walked on the sidewalk in front of “their” yard, the guy in the middle said, “Tennnn-hut!”  The officer ever so slightly flinched in his walking and sharply glanced at them, maybe thinking they were a bit old to be teasing passersby.  But they weren’t harassing him.  All three had snapped to attention, in perfect form.  “Haaand . . . sa-lute!”  All three struck and held textbook salutes, not John Wayne waves but perfect salutes with the bicep horizontal to the ground, wrist straight, hand flat, fingers pointing to the corner of the right eye.  Clearly, these men had been soldiers, or sailors, or Marines, or airmen.  And they probably had been good at it, judging from the way their military bearing just welled up from somewhere deep inside their shabby clothes and from behind their tired faces.

The officer must have recognized this immediately also.  He returned their salute, nodded, and I thought I heard him say a quick, “Thank you.”  He walked on his way, the man in the middle commanded, “Readdy . . . to!” and they brought down their salutes, in unison.  The men picked up their beers and cigarettes, and I continued to sit in my car, smiling to myself because I knew I had just witnessed something special.  I had done a hitch in the service, so I knew, I felt what had just happened.  Military service becomes a part of you, and even if it doesn’t cross your mind much as the years go by, it is always there.  It is a never-ending fraternity.


The Straits of Liquidity

The other night, summertime, just after dark, in a light rain, I lazily rowed my dinghy out of the marina and toward my sailboat moored out about 50 yards.   The water dripping from my oar blades blended with the sleepy raindrops on the water, and as I stealthily passed the marina owner’s 102-foot motor yacht, from inside I could hear the old man’s voice and the chit-chat of his guests, including the recognizable hearty laughter of the barrel-chested bartender, a friend of mine. Gliding past the tall, steep, white hull of the yacht, I was reminded of the opening scene of the famous classic The Oddyoullsee, the epic voyage of Miklysses.

In case you don’t immediately recall the opening scene from reading the book in its entirety in high school, I’ll summarize it here for you. I’m sure my rendition will not be nearly as poetic as the original, but here goes:

The great voyage began with Miklysses rowing a tiny boat away from a small seafaring village and in to the sun setting on the sea. On shore, all the women waved farewell, wept, and wailed; all the men – the husbands, the boyfriends, the lonely but hopeful single men – gestured disgustingly, threw curses and rocks and insults, and then shouted with joy, clapped each other soundly around the shoulders, drank heroically, and celebrated better days to come. None of this fazed Miklysses: over the years, he had become quite accustomed to this sort of farewell. At each of his departures, the satisfied women and moon-eyed girls and the frustrated men, all behaved this same way, here, there, this year, last year . . . ad nauseum – ya, I think that’s the phrase.

Anyways, Miklysses rowed away into the falling night, less concerned with the inconsolable women and the relieved men on shore than the immediate dangers of the darkening water. Near the village, still relatively close to shore, there were the Water Snakes of Death, monstrous things that could tip a boat and swallow a man whole. Only their very young, still the size of finger-thick ropes just a foot or two long, would be seen during the day; the big ones hunted exclusively at night. Some brave but foolish men would use wine to lure them in to their vision, but that usually did not end well: it was best to keep your distance (from the Water Snakes of Death, not the wine.) A little farther out, there were the dreaded, massive, menacing Ducks of Death (in other surviving texts from ancient times, these are commonly referred to as Duhhhhhcks ovvvvvvv Deaeaeath.) He couldn’t see them, but he could hear, he could feel in his vibrating bones, the low grumbling roar of their of thunderous QUAAAACK.   By sound alone he judged their changing positions, adjusting his course this way and that, undetected and undeterred, snaking and sneaking his way through the frightful flock. Then, a bit further, were the Straits of Liquidity.

The Straits of Liquidity were not dangerous waters per se, but on the south side, cutting cleanly into the water, there was a sheer white cliff that towered high overhead, and there, high above the water, was the haunt of a giant.   The problem was that if he saw you passing the cliffs, he would invite you to visit. He would reach down from above to lift you up, and then he would give you copious amounts of exquisite honeymeade to slake your thirst. All of this was not particularly perilous in itself.   The giant – tall, strong, white-haired, and clear-eyed – was not very dangerous, that is, unless someone attempted to trick him or take advantage of him. Otherwise he was considered by all to be rather jovial and generous. The real problem was that he tended to take in a variety of orphaned goblins that hung about underfoot, eating his food and drinking his prime wine, mead, and ale. Some of those smiling goblins would refill your bull’s horn or mug until you were unaware that they were magically sucking the life force from your soul, literally taking time from the span of your life, one heartbeat at a time, to add to theirs. Horrid, horrid little beasts!

In the preceding years many times Miklysses had visited the dear old giant, and he considered him a friend. In what little ways he could, he repaid, or at least attempted to repay, the old giant’s benevolence. This night, though, he did not stop, could not stop to visit. He worked his rowboat through the Straits of Liquidity and out onto Decker Flats. Not stopping, though, on this particular night, might have been a mistake.

The Straits had been calm, nary even a wavelet, only ripples echoing from the now far-away mighty Ducks of Death. The Flats, though, out in the open, with tremendous fetch to form waves, waves made steep and tall by the shallow bottom, were, this night, much more than just a bit treacherous. Miklysses’s ocean-going boat Kala Nag was heavily anchored safe on the edge of the flats. The problem? It was far, far away on the other side of the flats!

Other, more fearful sailors would have waited for less threatening conditions, but Miklysses didn’t hesitate to point the bow of his tiny rowboat toward Kala Nag, his voyaging vessel, his home. Up one side of a random wave and down the other, the tiny boat heaving and yawing every which way the waves and wind could imagine, but with his oars cycling rhythmically despite the chaos, Miklysses held his course arrow straight. He had to aim upwind to allow for leeway, of course, but when he reached the stern of his stout voyaging vessel, he had to make only a single correcting stroke. And he accomplished this in the near blackness of the night!

Sensing the surge of a wave under his rowboat, he leaped into the near blackness, timing his jump as the rowboat rose while his already famous sailboat Kala Nug plummeted down into the wave’s trough nearby. In midair he flicked his wrist and snapped the tender’s painter into a solid cleat hitch on Kala Nag’s stern, securing the rowboat before he landed on deck. With a twist and a turn he vaulted himself – he did NOT trip and fall – through the split backstay, over the coaming, around the tiller, and into the cockpit. The boat was bouncing like a ball being batted around by anthropomorphic waves, but, I’m telling you, he did NOT trip and fall. He did not. He braced himself in a three-point ready stance, the position to be made famous many centuries later by Spiderman and other incredibly athletic superheroes. He did NOT trip and fall into the cockpit like a loose bag of broken sticks. He did NOT.

Once aboard the admirable sailing vessel Kala Nag, he looked about, checking her lines and state of readiness, surveying his realm. He did not weigh anchor and slip away, though: no, because he was a sailor’s sailor, because he was Miklysses, salty, seasoned, and prudent, he went below, took a nip of whiskey to ward off any evil spirits lurking nearby, then promptly fell asleep, wisely waiting until “first light” to begin his voyage and continue his adventure.

So, there you have it, a humble re-telling of the opening of The Oddyoullsee, a mere glimpse into the life of Miklysses. Not until two millennia had passed, not until the likes of Sir Walter Mitty and Commander McBragg, would the world see the likes of such a man.

Why me, oh God?

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The other day I went sailing on Chesapeake Bay with my friend John on his boat.  We were having a great sail, a great day, and then it all fell apart.  We snapped a whisker pole, which tore a sail.  Then the perfect wind died suddenly and completely, like some cosmic wind generator had just been turned off by a toggle switch.  Then, very soon after we started motoring in, the diesel overheated.  In frustration, half-serious and half-joking, John yelled up at the sky, “WHY ALL OF THIS?  WHY ME, GOD?!  I’VE BEEN A GOOD BOY!”

The nearest boat was about a mile away, so we were quite surprised when we very clearly heard a strong voice.  It seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere, but mostly from somewhere up in the sky.  It was God.  “I don’t know, John.  It’s just that something about you really pisses me off.”

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