Thursday, February 16, 2012

Commissar Konev & the Pit

     I was at my post  early on a Friday morning, smoking a cigarette, feeling rather chipper. It was November of 1989 and I was a border guard in East Berlin, working the guard station along the Aleksanderplatz. Konev, several years my elder and three ranks my superior, had the prime watch and showed up late that morning. The news out of Moscow had been dispiriting to him. He was a hardliner. Gorbachev’s perestroika had been restructuring the country to the point that the natives were restless, and getting quite uppity. Daily patrols about our position would reveal to us many East Berliners not quite happy with our longstanding d├ętente with the West. They were itching to get at us,
you could feel it, and the daily rounds of rock-throwing by teenage hooligans were ever-increasing.
     It was in just such a climate that we saw it. It was coming from over the West side but it had obviously circled around a bit- a large transport plane about the size of a fin whale.
Inside were about 200 Ukrainian Jews on their way toward a new life. Gorbachev had bought them a new lease on things, and they were in their own way, now escaping us.
     The guard station looked out over a large expanse of the Aleksanderplatz, including a section which had been transformed into an archaeological dig. Recent investigations had
shown the exisence of extensive underground chambers and bunkers (no, not the Fuhrerbunker) which ran underneath the city out toward the Brandenburg gate. The historical societies had managed to gain permits from the city to allow them to create
a large, soccer pitch-sized hole in which they everyday would bring shovels, picks, and paintbrushes, wheelbarrows and buckets, and work at deciphering some of the conundrum which had been the legacy of the fascists on Berlin.
    To be fair, some of their finds were often quite fascinating, and would receive big writeups in the newspapers. But on this day we had reason to attend to the pit for other reasons.
     The plane taxied in on the middle of the avenue. It was certainly odd enough, and all I could do to keep Konev from discharging his weapon in its direction- after all, flying in from the West, it seemed to be perhaps aimed at the Wall like it were a missile. But it didn’t. It taxied to the end of the block, and you could tell the pilots were doing all they can to apply pressure to the brakes to keep it from skidding into the pit.
    But that was exactly what happened next.

    When the plane reached the edge of the pit it had almost acquired inertia but the final push of its wheels toppled it into the pit. My concerns were for the pilots, taking the brunt of the fall, as the plane teetered and toppled headfirst into the sixty foot deep hole. However it was not long before the passengers and pilots emerged from the vessel and milled about on the floor of the pit, gesturing to us, asking for help, a ladder, anything to bring themselves up to ground level and back to civilization. The idea of them being trapped inside a Nazi-era fortification must have been both highly ironic, as well, the idea of their being yet trapped behind our border had to have been doubly disconcerting.

    Konev looked about the edges of the pit. He did note that there was a tall ladder of about fortyfive foot height nearby, and he set about positioning it on a ledge so that the refugees might begin ascending it. The first of these was a babushka of about seventy five years of age. She retained some measure of pluck, however, and began to take the ladder one rung at a time.
    “Come on, come on up, come find your taste of freedom!” Konev assured her, and the look on his face became quite quizzical. If I could say he appeared to be the cat who ate the canary that would be a good approximation of his expression.
     Meanwhile, I was watching Konev’s hands. He was fingering the safety on his Kalishnikov, and setting the mechanism to single-shot. I barely got the words from my mouth “What are you doing, you fool!” when the old woman reached the top of the ladder, and Konev put a bullet right into her chest. She toppled headfirst back down into the pit, and was soon swallowed up by the crowd of babushkas at the bottom, wailing lamentations and defiantly shaking fists.

    I knew what I needed to do. I realized there was no other choice, that if this went on, it would become an international incident. I set my own weapon to single-shot and drilled him. His body toppled and he fell himself, down into the pit, landing face first on an archeological grid of twine and dust. I said a prayer for his soul, and indeed, one for my own. But had I not done this, he would have continued his taunting the refugees, and he would have continued firing at them, perhaps until they were all dead. I knew he had done it for in his opinion they were attempting escape. Such it was in those years.

    I looked down into the pit and called for the next woman to come on up. “Come on, taste your freedom, I swear, I shall not fire!”
    It was with much trepidation that the next babushka began to climb the ladder in my direction. When she reached the top of the ladder I set my weapon on the ground and helped her off with both hands, so that the others could see I was no longer armed.
   I cut the wires that separated the pit and the lip of the pit from the free air of the West. I helped seventy of them across before the guards from the neighboring guardpost came and assisted the rest of the refugees up and out themselves. The Wall would be coming down in the morning. We too were tasting our first breath of the new wind.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Mother Nature: Her Last Stand in Silicon Valley

     It's been a nice half year living here, but it's come time to close out, pack up the pile of fruit, and be headin' out. Since this past May I've been fortunate enough to call the second-oldest house in Mountain View my home...  The Abbott house was built in 1880, just four years after the Battle of Little Bighorn, eight years before the telephone, and ten before the close of the Indian Wars and the Massacre at Wounded Knee.
     From the attic room, you can look out on an acre and a half of a former walnut farm, the sixty or so trees standing tall as cathedrals, themselves, comprising one of the most wonderful natural settings still extant in this burgeoning suburb.
     And burgeon it will. The house, which was in the same family for over half a century in the name of the "Bakovitch house", after its former owner, the long-surviving daughter of a pioneer family which acquired it in the early 1910s, will be "relocated" on the property, angled catty-corner and set on new foundations.
    I moved here after the untimely passing of my best friend's brother's best friend. Kurt Kieffer was a guitarist making do as a carpenter for most of his life- as skilled a carpenter as he was a guitarist, and probably, himself, more attuned to his musical soul than his pragmatic woodworking. Kurt took on this house as the renovator and transformed it. After the death of Ann Bakovitch the land and the house fell into disrepair. The building had become a crack house and a haven for transients and squatters. Kurt and a couple of his friends came along and began to make interior and exterior renovations, completely transforming it. Even after he had been living there for half a year or more, he was still routing them from the walnut orchards. Two years later I was also pulling abandoned shopping carts out of the kudzu-like jungle which abutted the property.
    Originally, the Bakovitch family had possessed two to three times this acre and a half. The land which is now Landels School, directly behind the property, had been a part of their walnut farm, and they ceded that land to the city of Mountain View sometime in the early 1960s or 70's, I think. It's hard to imagine now but this entire area was once all walnuts. The Black Walnut trees which were grafted to English Walnut rootstock have now aged beyond their prime. While they still give some fruit, it's not of a commercial grade or quality. The many squirrels which call these trees their home have existed here for generations...
    And that's all about to end. Not only for the squirrels, but also a couple of raccoons, who make their home in a hollow trunk of a still-living tree, at least one possum, whose grey and black flecked body was, one recent morning, a reasonable facsimile of my roommate's cat's, and a wide variety of bird life, including at least thirty to fifty crows, numerous mourning doves, robins, woodpeckers, sparrows, finches, jays, and a pair of red-tail hawks. The crow population alone will engender fierce territorial battles amongst those of their species who have settled (in an "epidemic" fashion) the trees and the easements of the surrounding Old Mountain View neighborhood. But thoughts still will resound around the idea of all this displaced wildlife and the disrupted ecology.
     Most of these animals will be reduced to finding new habitat for themselves along the Stevens Creek corridor which abuts the Landels School property. This piece, which is, and will be up until this spring, the last large undeveloped patch of mother nature within residential zoning limits in the city of Mountain View, is scheduled to become 19 condominiums, with an underground parking garage, and the great majority of the standing trees will be cut down.
     Our friend Kurt, who played for a fusion jazz band out of Palo Alto called Expresso, put a lot of time, love, and energy into making this particular landmark house a valuable piece of real estate again. Last year, the anniversary of which is soon arriving, he passed away in his sleep of a coronary failure, leaving behind my current roommate (a lifelong friend and associate of his band- the band's official photographer- and besides his bandmates, at least a dozen other affected friends as well as a twenty year old daughter). Kurt's vibrations are still here in this house, and though it's soon to be wrenched from its foundation and placed closer to the street, it's going to be the bittersweet memory for a number of us for whom Kurt's ineffable and inimitable sense of humor and melody will be sorely missed and fondly remembered into the future. Perhaps is best he won't be here with us to witness the change... We are moving on, but he's quite beyond it all at this time. Here's a prayer for Rocky Raccoon.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Unlikely Redemption of Andrew Dempster (Part Two)

     On a crisp morning a few weeks later, Andrew sat at his kitchen table, doodling on a sketchpad. His coffee and eggs and toast had filled him, and now, with a few minutes to himself before heading out for another day at the office, he felt aimless and restive. He found his pen working almost independently of any real will on his own part. He was doodling for doodling’s sake, and seemed not to be bothered at all by the fact it was with no conscious intention the pen worked its way across the page.
     His wife entered, a little ragged about the edges. She leaned over to see what had his attention. “Oh, that’s beautiful!” she said.
     But Andrew heard: “Oh God that sucks!”
    “What did you say?” he grumbled.
     “I said really, I like it.”
     “You think that’s art, you should look what the cat dragged in last night” he heard her say following,  as plain as day. Andrew gave her a puzzled look.
     And that was only the beginning.
     That night, after he had come home and was trying to settle in to his couch and his pile of reading-to-do, the doorbell rang. He grudgingly got up and answered. It was a Girl Scout. She had long brown braids, a fresh look on her face, and a happy smile. She stood in his doorway holding the box of Girl Scout cookies like it was some official proclamation being read from a scroll.
     “Oh, I can’t, we’re fresh out of dollars,” he said, and began to shut the door.
     The Girl Scout, however, was quite determined, and wedged a toe into the door, preventing further motion. “We take checks!” (“Come on, you fat slob, buy the damn cookies!”)
  “Please, buy these cookies, they’re at a special rate today!” (“for fat-assed old pervs like you!”)
   “I certainly will not! WHAT did you just say?”
    “I said, sir, they are at a reduced rate. You get three for five for today only!”
     “Hmmm.” Andrew fished out a five from his wallet. “All the cash I’ve got. Take it.
Now, scram, you little ocean liner, before I send an iceberg to crush your pubulescent forecastle!”
      The Girl Scout gave such a look of horror and incredulity, she turned straightaway and fled down the walkway back to the street, where Andrew could see a station wagon with several more Girl Scouts waiting inside and somebody’s Mom at the wheel. The Girl Scout opened the door, said a word or two to the driver, and the station wagon lurched away in a squeal of tires.
    Andrew stared at the boxes of cookies he held in his hand. He put one into his wife’s purse, he set one on the top of his refrigerator, and he set one in his lunch bag, to maybe give to Thaddedeuce at work in the morning. He shook his head and went back to his reading of Erastothenes. The modern world could be such a pain in the ass.
     When the next morning came, instead of doodling or reading more of Erastothenes, Andrew hurried the process of showering and dressing and left before his wife even left the bed. Didn’t always happen like this but this morning, he wanted to have a chat with Thad.
      Thad was in early himself, checking book prices against a tall stack of contenders.
      “Look, we’ve got this new Henry Fuldham book in!”
     “Fuldham’s been dead for ninety-five years.”
     “Yeh, but we’ve got a new book for us. First Edition!” (“Lookup shows it’s selling for $250 minimum!”)
     “How did you know that?”
     “I don’t know, I just do. See, it says here on the flyleaf. Firsssst… Edi….tion.”

     Andrew looked at Thatdedeuce, and rather stopped Thad’s train of thought.
     “You know, some weird stuff’s been happening to me lately.” He heard Thad’s thoughts: “Yeah, that’s for sure! You’re about to lose your friggin’ mind, if you don’t pay attention!”
     Andrew gave Thad another of his puzzled looks, and continued. “I think I am becoming mental. I mean, mentat, telepathic, or something.” (“Think so, uh?” thought Thad.
     “And what of it? Don’t you realize, some  of us are able to think around corners, fly without moving an inch, and influence fair and foul balls, all on the strength of a thought…”)
   “Is that so?” Andrew found himself responding to Thad’s thought, but Thad was still standing there, as if waiting for Andrew to continue explaining. He might have a hard time, if this was the crap he had to deal with before lunchtime.
    “I mean it’s kind of creepy,” Andrew continued. "I hear what people are thinking. But I only hear them thinking after I speak. Like I need to intiate the conversation.”
     Thad still said nothing. But Andrew could tell what he had on his mind, sure enough.
     (“Do I have to spell it out for you, Andrew? The universe has bigger plans for you than you’ll allow. It does for everybody. If only you accept that it’s the boss not you.”)
    “Insubordination?” Andrew was getting a little more frazzled.  He reached into the desk drawer for an Aleve. With a swig of his half-past-cold coffee, he gulped it down.
   But Thad’s train of thought charged on, unimpeded now. “Yes. Your insubordination, Andrew. Sure you are entitled to an opinion of your own, but it is your insistence on it being the only resolution which is forcing the universe to send you these… little examples.”
     Back in “the real world” Thad spoke up. “I think, Andrew, that you should find an outlet for this. I think the cosmos picks some people for weathervanes, at times. Some people  (the mad ones) get a little overamped and their fuses blow with the possibilities they are handed. Others seem to master it, and go on to bigger things, understanding of course that destiny has chosen them for it and it’s not their decision, it’s the upstairs guy’s.”
     “The upstairs guy’s.” Andrew harrumphed, but all he could hear next was Thad shutting off his computer and shaking his head. “You’re a tough case, Andrew. I think you’re going to need a lot more than the last few attempts it’s made to bring your self awareness into the perspective it’s asking you. But hey, it’s your life, it’s your fate, it’s your karma. I think you need some time off.”
    “Hah. My employee tells ME I need time off. Listen, Thad…”
    At that moment in burst Romero. “I think I broke something!”
    “What! Either you did or you didn’t. What something? Are you going to keep on being clumsy or do I need to fire you, too?" Andrew’s glasses steamed up, and his headache began pounding and all he could see was Romero’s sheepy little face with his brillopad hair pleading with pathetic beady eyes, innocently waiting for the drop of the axe.
    “Yessir, I think I broke something. You come see, if you want.”
     “IF I want. The last thing I want to see is more crap. Nobody can explain what’s going on to me with any satisfaction, but still I have to fight fires. Christ Romero, what the hell was it this time?”
    “You come see and I show you.”
     So with a nod to Thad “I’ll talk more with you later” Andrew headed out onto the warehouse floor to see just what Romero had done, this time.
    It wasn’t too hard to figure out. The chain that pulled up the warehouse delivery door was coiled in a sad little pile at the side of the door.
     “Oh no…” Andrew wanted to blow his stack, but this time he decided he’d play it cool. The chain could be reset but not without sending up Thad (the tallest of the crew) to rehang it on the pulley. And that would require Thad to lay off whatever the needed chore was he was already engaged in. Multitasking was hardly a possibility in this type of working environment. Andrew didn’t stick around to hear any of Romero’s thoughts, because he was too pissed off for that.
     But just as though Thad could have read Andrew’s mind already, this time, he had silently gathered up a ladder and climbed the wall with the chain and was already working on the problem. Almost as if Andrew had meant to say, but voluntarily, and darn, he had it all done if a jiffy.
     “I don’t know how you do it, Thad. Thanks.”
    “Neither do I, boss. Thank You.”
      The afternoon passed without futher incident.When Andrew drove back home, he pulled out his sketchpad again. And once again, he found the pen pulling itself across the paper almost independent of any personal plan. This time, he ended up with what seemed a reasonable finished product. When the pen rested, he had drawn a picture. The sketch was of the harbor down the road, with boats and docks, and the familiar restaurant sign as well. It was a scene he saw each morning as he drove back and forth to the warehouse.
   “Not too shabby, if I say so myself”. He admired it. His wife wasn’t home yet, but when she arrived he showed it to her and aksed, what did she think of it this time.
    “Better.” -she snapped. Uh-oh. Andrew had some trouble coming on, he could hear it in her voice. But he dared not project his attention on her thoughts again, for fear of what he might be in for. However, there was nothing following which was unusual. Maybe really he wasn’t ‘in for it’ after all. But he did notice she had something reserved inside herself.
    Well if its important she’ll let me know.
    That night he went back to his Erastothenes and she read a vampire romance. They turned out the lights and headed into slumberland. In the secret space of dreamtime he experienced something new he had never realized before in dreams. He could experience his consciousness on several levels simultaneously. It was as if he could project himself anywhere. If he asked to fly to Istanbul Turkey, by damn, there he was flying over Istanbul Turkey as if on a magic carpet. He asked to see Kiev (not such a far distance if you go by magic carpet, after all) and there were the walls of the city beneath him. He projected himself acros the great plateau of Asia, on across the Pacific, took a look at Hawaii, and continued until he reached the bay area. He could see it as clearly as if he had been passing by on the space shuttle.
     With a final “poof!” he found himself propped up in bed, awake, and once more, wondering. All this stuff keeps on happening and it’s doing it without my asking. Damn that was a great dream!
     And so Andrew worked through the day, through the night, for a fortnight. At the conclusion of his pay period, he realized he had accrued enough overtime hours to be able to buy a ticket to Paris for himself and his wife, for a trip they had planned for years but somehow never budgeted for. They could take their trip that summer- if things continued on as well as they had for the past three years.
    He managed to make it through the next three weeks without any sense of “the voices” haunting him. Perhaps he had finally shucked them off, he thought. There was something about it that really bugged him. Being able to understand what others really thought of him made him a little angry, and a little edgier than he had been before “all this” had begun.
      And then it really hit him. He almost tripped and fell over a lampcord in his bedroom when he heard it, loud and clear in his head “Don’t stop, pay attention. You think you’re in charge, but we know you aren’t.’’
     “Who are you?” asked Andrew, half knowing what the answer would be.
     “We are the watchers. You don’t know it yet, but we’ve chosen you.”
     “What? Why? Why ME? Why not pick someobody… who actually believes in you!”
    “Oh you believe Andrew, you believe. It’s why you try so hard to deny us.”
    “I don’t have to try.”
    “You ‘ll have to now.”
    “Who are you talking to Andrew?” asked his wife, sleepily rubbing her eyes, lying in the bed in the midnight moonlight, wishing he’d just stop this silly arguing with the dark and crawl in beside her and maybe give her some other sort of entertainment, than to need to consider his sanity at risk.
    “I am talking to…” He stopped. Who was he talking to!
    “We will be ready for you, Andrew when you are.” And there was a buzzing sound in his head like the strings of Buddy Guy’s guitar when he’s got it pulled out fifty feet into the crowd and they can’t help butreach for a piece of it and the stage is so far away you think he’ll trip over  the plug – like Andrew just about had with his bedside lamp- and Andrew knew, whatever the heck it was speaking to him, it was as real as sin, as real as the dial on the bedside clock’s LED display, as real as his wife there with her questioning and doubting eyes. Whatever this was it was bigger than him. And he had had so little experience of anything he could not rationalize or explain through the fulcrum of his senses that he thought  he’d go nuts, right there, himself, if he couldn’t fall back asleep and dream to escape these new voices.
     Dreams were no escape, he would learn, however. Because in his early morning dream on this new day he met his parents. He even met his parent’s parents, whom he had never had the aquaintance or the pleasure of either. And they stood, not wraiths from the smoke and wrack of the airplane crash that had killed them both, but as if they were in the peak of health, and the accident had never happened- or IF it had, they had somehow been transformed into superbeings capable of transecting space and time in order to bring Andrew to… this new consciousness of love. The perfect love that holds no bounds and both needs nor has no words to speak its existence, other than I AM.
    Andrew sure was a lucky fellow. Because the trip was on, he had something else to live for than the office. Because the trip was on, he had something to look forward to which included bringing his wife along, and would contribute to years of happiness in the future. Somehow, he knew it would. Everything would be OK, once we get to Paris.
     The world will be different once we get back.
     Seeing his parents in his dream helped him to realize he had little to fear from a transAtlantic plane trip- the fear of a crash had left him in mortal fear of planes. Now he felt as if there were nothing involved in dying which could make him fear it, not the least. In fact, he almost could see himself thinking, there’s nothing in dying to be afraid of at all– if my parents can survive dying, as they just reassured me they had- then maybe I really do have a couple of things wrong about this… this whole ball of wax!
    The weeks ahead were, to say the least, both interesting and disconcerting to Andrew. The more he thought about his parents, the more they would show up in his dreams. In one of them, they sat, all three of them, in a circle, on old stadium chairs which his father had got for them from a minor league baseball stadium being torn down in the late fifties.
   His mother told him they had been working real hard “on his case” for a number of years, and that his atheism hadn’t really helped things. At that point of the conversation Andrew had wanted to beg off and get out of the dream as soon as possible, but his father cut him off.
    “Andrew, we have really tried. We wanted to make it something you chose all your own, of course, and you still can. But if you deny us this opportunity, to reach you in your dreams, then you help to kill us, in your memory, and in our relationship to you. And we love you. We would have done anything for you. It wasn’t exactly our choice, that we were in the accident, but it happened, and it happened perhaps for a greater good. You need to see that everything is connected, and that there’s no real end to anything. Unless, of course, you choose not to believe in us. But we believed in you. We believed in you so much we helped you every step of the way you made alone, although we could not be there beside you, for you to see it. We hope you will allow us to continue these discussions we have been having, because it allows us an opportunity to grow, also. You don’t realize it, maybe, but when the accident happened, we were really ready to come here and do some of the work that’s always- up here to do. Your mother and I decided we would take you on as a part of that, but you are only a part of that. There’s so much for you to wake up to! You should take the chance, you should take the risks, you should enjoy the time you get there where you are.”
    “If this all sounds too much for you, Andrew you know, you can always choose to deny it all. We know you though. We know you have your doubts, but do you doubt this?”
    In his dream, his mother stretched out her hand to take his. “Please, Andrew, choose good and choose life and choose wisely, honor your life, your wife, and honor us by allowing us to give you what we may. You will have more reasons to be grateful as the years fly past. Before you know it well all be together again over here, so please, be careful in everything you do.” They both smiled to him. It was time for him to awaken.
     The morning kitchen didn’t seem to be so sullen and abject that morning. He made the coffee, he read the paper, he did the dishes, and everything finally felt like it was in place.
     He was lucky to own a round trip ticket to Paris and that he had the perfect woman on his side to travel beside him.
     The drive to the warehouse was also a little bit happier. In his car he listened to some bebop jazz, which put him in tune, he felt, with the trees flying past on the highway.
     Even Thaddedeuce seemed to notice the change in Andrew. But if he did, he didn’t need to say a word. The payoff was the kick in his step and the new light behind Andrew’s eyes. Even the furrows of his brows seemed to be slighter than usual. It was going to be the best year of his life… he just knew it.

If you like this story, you can read it complete in As I Was Telling You While Sleeping, a collection of short stories (use this link to ) 
or you can follow Andrew and Fern as they travel to Paris in 
Bus Of Fools (