©1997 by Spider Johnson back to Essays
[Excerpt from several letters to a friend]:
January 3, 1997
...The national news paints a sorry picture of the flooding throughout the West. Hearing the sad stories from the people who have lost everything brings me to a couple of thoughts about possessions this Xmas. One, I was thrilled to come back from the Farm and Lubbock with less stuff than I took. I have finally gotten to the point where I have enough "stuff." Two, I received a call this morning from the wife of a good friend since 1967, telling me he's dying of cancer, won't live another 30 days. Just two months ago I found, while looking for something else in my attic full of old "stuff," a handful of letters he sent while managing to survive in Viet Nam, some of which were filled with poetry about his experience there. He was among the first casualties of that war, first, by having a college career and gentle life aborted by the misfortune of not being a full-time student because he had to work, and secondly, by being drafted into the infantry where the worst of that war's horrors were delivered. Here's one of them, when he was about 22-23 years old:
Ambush, Zap Boom!
the road again,
(I think that's it- But know it's
only mortars & guns & men-
(dead men scattered brains
too long; too short-too bad!
-I wonder that I'm
(the world is
for no one could be this insane
I made copies of the letters to deliver to him tomorrow, a mandatory visit to Bastrop with three other friends from that era (my "14th Street" gang), a gift he will deeply appreciate with whatever perspicacity he has left. While having the opportunity to review all the letters sequentially, I stood witness to the evolution of his madness, the rape of his innocence, this gentle soul-turned-killer, decrying at first his struggle of conscience, then, almost two years later, objectifying the "gooks" he was compelled to kill. He returned to the cloister of our protected circle, broken, given to drunken bathos, trying our patience with unwanted grandiose and tragic stories and finally, eliciting our compassion. And now he's dying, cancer everywhere, (probably Agent Orange) and I was not available to him for the last 25 years until now, and I'm not sure what to say. "See you later" is as optimistic as I can muster, as much for my sake as his.
Anyway, the unconscious safekeeping of those letters equals a treasure, a priceless connection to the halcyon days of our time together, carefree and fraught with the drama of discovery--and I get to, I must reassure him that those days meant something, because his wife tells me, among all his friends, despite all the intervening time, he calls for us, me and three others from his distant past. May I always keep my tribe close by, God help me. And I'm not any clearer about the stuff in the attic...
Sun, Jan 5, 1997, 3:28 pm
...After visiting my friend Bradley yesterday with Copper Love (her real name, big red hair, with a Mexican legend based upon her), I came away with a profound sense of gratitude for my life. His gaunt, jaundiced face, frail body, bloated feet, weak voice--it all spoke of a tragic life, a life lived without the choices that deliver one from being a victim of life's circumstances. His current wife--a loving, devoted soul--showed us recent family photos of children and grandchildren, hers and his. When Copper later asked his about his children, he said "I have none." She attributed this contradiction to his drugged condition, but I later informed her about the sad truth behind the statement.
He returned from Viet Nam in 1970, broken, as I earlier mentioned, and we had neither the skills nor the patience to listen usefully to his tragic, desperate stories. And further, nobody wanted to hear about Viet Nam at that time. The only person who comforted him and listened to him (or tuned him out) was a woman acquaintance outside our circle, another desperate soul with the body of a goddess, the face of an ogre, and the heart of a devil. "Slinky Sharon" we called her, both for her snake-like walk and her serpentine tongue that she so un-invitingly thrust down the nearest male orifice at our parties and social gatherings. After marrying him, she convinced Glenn of her domineering matriarchal philosophy, liberally interpreted from Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land , giving her complete license to bed other men while he had to remain faithful to her. Although I saw him cry at those parties while she screwed some strange man in the other room, I was too naive to understand the blow to his spirit, and somehow attributed such behavior to the tolerant era we were living in. Then, much later, I learned that the children she bore were fathered by other men, of this he was certain, and it ended their unfortunate marriage. Thus the answer to Copper's question.
Nonetheless, the three of us remembered and told old stories, laughed, told the hard truths, and shared a rare love that remained, though estranged for nearly 30 years, vital. As I was leaving and told him, "See you later," he said, cryptically, "I'll come see you at your new house," although it seemed clear to me he would never leave his own.
I am entering my second week of having fallen on my ribs while at the farm over the holidays. As is my usual custom there (and my duty as a man), when I have to piss I go outside, breathe that high plains fresh, cold air, gaze at the great canopy of stars, and marvel at my good fortune of having married into Lora's family. Since last year, however, her aunt & uncle-in-law have put in a flower garden with a short fence around it exactly in the pathway that I always take.
Night-blind, my feet tangled in one side of the fence and I fell hard on the other side, landing full force on my chest, knocking the wind out of me with more pain that I've experienced since I can remember-football, broken ribs, motorcycle wrecks included. The steel fence, incidentally, was virtually un-marred. After ten days of the pain worsening, migrating, I'm going to the doc tomorrow so I'll know how to take care to heal and not compromise my health by proceeding with the work on the house which must be done. All that said, my friend Glenn showed me that this pain is a small price (and a good reminder) to steward this body respectfully...
Tue, Jan 7, 1997, 9:33 pm
...This morning I was dreaming about driving down to the campground out at our place, and just turned into Jackie's road. Rounding the curve, I looked to the right and was suddenly horrified to see Jackie hanging by a rope from that oak tree, dangling limp, arms straight down, head awkwardly twisted, dead. The shock was so sudden that I immediately awoke and undertook the struggle towards consciousness. The haunting quality of that dream lingered.
After I fixed my coffee, the phone rang; it was my dying friend Bradley's ex-wife, the devil I spoke of, calling to inform me he would not last another two weeks, not realizing I had already been to see him. Five minutes later, the phone rang again; it was Bradley's wife, the angel, telling me he had died just moments ago, thanking me for my visit. A deep sadness came over me, along with a curious impression that, somehow, the connection between me and Bradley, perhaps between all of us, is so essential that death registers its passage upon our psyches. I am reminded of my Scottish Rite masonic motto, the Latin Virtus Junxit Non Mors Seperabit, which I inscribed upon my father's memorial cross and which translates to "What Virtue Has United, Death Shall Not Separate." Virtue in this case is that ancient type, that of true rectitude and probity of spirit and humility and sincerity of affection and courage in purpose--not the morally righteous type of those who unctuously proclaim their goodness. That Latin motto reverberates differently in my heart.
We are all that connected, Michael, we who are virtuous...