Yes, I know, I know. It’s been three months since I last posted anything here. The lack of words does not mean I’ve not been occupied with creative projects! Here’s a quick summing up.
I was distracted by baseball all the way from the All-Star break to the dismal ending of the San Francisco Giants postseason, when I wrote in my journal on October 14, 2021:
Tonight I witnessed one of the worst travesties I’ve ever seen in baseball. Once again the state of refereeing was revealed in all its ugliness. This five-game series, a tight and highly wrought matrix of struggle and courage (on the part of both teams) was tarnished on the very last out of Game 5 when Wilmer Flores was called out on strike three on a check swing. A check swing! The most subjective call in baseball. Sounds like an easy call to get right considering everyone can see it. Did the bat go past the plane of the plate? Yes? Then it’s a strike.
As I said to Charles and Julia and JS, I don’t mind being beat by a team, but being beaten by a blind joker in a blue suit is ignoble. Its long past time for balls and strikes and check swings to be monitored by the same processes that are monitoring just about everything else in the game. To have something like that be the final play in a season like this, well that’s spitting in the face of baseball, the players, and the fans. Just terrible. Especially since a check swing call cannot be reviewed.
But in this case the bat did not break the plane of the plate. Gabe Morales, the umpire at first base, who has blown many of the check swing calls I’ve seen this year (no one get it right more than 50% of the time in my view—I saw scores of them missed as I watched more baseball than I have watched in years), yes Gabe Morales blew the call. Big time. Clearly shown on TV there was not a doubt. Right now it’s circulating as a gif all over the Internet.
As my brother wisely points out, every other major sport in the country has more or less corrected their abysmal refereeing, except for baseball. It’s long past due and I’ll think twice about shelling out a monthly subscription to MLB-TV simply to have my hopes ground into the dirt by incompetence.
Needless to say I’m terribly disappointed. I know it doesn’t matter in the larger perspective, but can’t I find one thing that isn’t ruined by idiots?
My regular readers who are San Francisco Giants fans will know exactly what I meant.
At the same time my creative pursuits rolled back to photography, and I started two projects. First, to get the bitter taste of that reckless check swing call out of my mouth I created a gallery of photos that I made at AT&T/Oracle Park from 2008 to 2021. Most of these were games I attended, but some of the images were made back when I worked for Advent Software (when it was a great place to work, before it was ruined and destroyed by…wait…stop, Richard—no point in going on about that—take a deep breath) and the stadium was used for offsite meetings for the entire company. The photos were taken from many viewpoints, behind home plate, up in the corporate boxes, way up in the upper deck from left field, and a few from the bleachers. There’s even one taken from a cruise boat trolling through McCovey Cove.
The second project developed (yes the pun is intended, why do I feel I need to point it out?) as a result of my eldest daughter helping me organize hundreds of snapshot prints created during from 1985 to 2006, all of them of family and friends. Back in those days I would run rolls of Kodacolor through my Nikon FE and FM, have them processed at Long’s Pharmacy (remember them?), and shove the prints and negatives back into the envelopes after viewing them for a while. (A small selection made it into albums.) I hadn’t looked at them in many years and decided that it was long past time to scan them into my archives.
I was unimpressed with the results from the print scans, even though I have a high-quality flatbed scanner in my studio, so I switched to scanning negatives with Silverfast, and the results are outstanding. As the artistic passion (or obsession) kicked in I dropped all my writing projects (except for my journal which is a daily practice) and since early October I have scanned over 4000 images. Serendipitously, Adobe released new code in Photoshop and Lightroom that makes creating masks a painless, quick procedure and now all that film is a source for new images. It’s like having a darkroom again, without the chemicals—a hybrid process that combines both the analog experience of film with the digital experience of post processing images in ways I could only imagine thirty years ago.
You can view the color results here. The black and white images are here. The latter galleries date all the way back to 1978. These are not fine art shots. They are pictures of my life on earth, but they are renewed and recovered from my own storage vault. (Well, maybe that’s fine art after all.) They may not resonate with most of my readers, but if you were an old friend of mine way back when you’ll get a kick out of them.
During eight weeks of scanning I knew that I was not posting anything to the blog. But—there is news on that front. I’m working on a little something that was inspired by the Get Back documentary directed by Peter Jackson that began streaming on Disney Plus on Thanksgiving. Actually it may be more than a little something, I’m not sure yet. I can tell you it is in the vein of Winterland Nights, so if you read that memoir and enjoyed it you might want to check back and see what this new project is all about, once I start posting it that is.
If you sign up to receive notifications when I post on this blog you’ll be in the loop for that project. There’s a subscription link at the bottom of every page so have at it. I do appreciate the fact that you take the time to read my work. Enjoy the photos and I’ll be back very soon!
Notes on the post
Photographs of AT&T Park copyright 2021 by Richard Gylgayton
Beatles record bin photo by Mike on Pexels.com (thank you!)
Those first few months in Bollinger Canyon I lived in a buffer zone, passing from one chapter to another. I trusted the experience. Any apprehension that I felt was not because of that greater spiritual picture. It was because I had to make a living, pay the rent, take care of myself, learn how to be alone, and accept the solitude that bounded me in the canyon.
One morning just before my 23rd birthday in July I awakened early before the sun was up. I had slept deeply—but I was restless. I put on my jacket and went outside. The air was cool, but comfortable. Georgia, the petite black cat who lived in the corral came up to me and mewed. I started walking and said, “Do you want to come with me, girl?” She followed me.
As I crossed the pasture, I smelled the horses and the dry grass. I began walking up the trail behind the house and yard and sensed the incense sweetness of summer-toasted bay trees and the arid aroma of parched grass. It was a scorching summer, with more heat coming. Aside from the sound of my footsteps everything was silent. The night had not yet broken through to twilight, but there was ambient light and my eyes had adjusted so that I could see my way. As I walked the sky started to brighten. Black turned to violet. There was no fog and a few remaining stars flickered and gave way to the sun that was beginning to stir below the horizon.
The path climbed slightly and turned south as the landscape emerged in the growing light. Everything was shimmering, a trick of my eyes striving for the light. As I ambled, I felt as if there was another entity with me in addition to the petite feline familiar that shadowed me. Georgia dashed about, but always returned to the path on which I walked, checking up on me to be sure I was still on the trail.
I had no idea as to what to do that morning other than to keep mobile. I had made my way to a time when I had yet to be at peace with the concealed self that made me restless. I was scarcely aware that there were greater energies stirring within me that I would not have understood even had I been more spiritually perspicacious. I knew I was a mystic that did not fit into the mold that I had been given as a child. I had to make my own way. I was reluctant to do so.
The path led to a grove of poplar trees near the crest of the trail. I could see them ahead of me in the rapidly expanding light, their multitude of leaves shivering in the morning wind streaming in from San Francisco Bay. I loved that spot amidst those trees. There was a stump that I could sit on—a meditation chair provided by nature. It was another setting like the vortex in the redwood grove that had altered me a few years before. That summer morning, I remained the same human I was that turbulent night, still sensitive to the wildness that had compelled me when my mind was almost undone. I waited patiently as the sun ascended. Georgia jumped into my lap. The experience of immanence was calm.
Was Georgia trying to tell me something? She was a barn animal, and she lived on the edge of the wild. If everything fell apart, she could return there and make her way by foraging and hunting. She was gentle but potentially savage. As I sat on the stump, she remained on my lap, her eyes wide open, watching the light flood into the canyon as the sun inexorably climbed higher above the hills.
Color spilled from the shadows. Dull black and grey turned to iridescent green and fulsome ochre. The hills were ornamented with groves of oaks and buckeye trees. I looked up and saw the first hawk of the day darting about looking for a rising current of air that had yet to develop. Birds were awakening. I could hear them launching songs. Somewhere in the arousing geography a mockingbird began to call. At that moment it was the loudest sound in the canyon.
I heard the far-off rumble of civilization beginning its hasty rush through the spirit of the times, as I sat on the stump while my heart opened to the spirit of the depths. Like Georgia I was on the edge of my own animal nature. My own wildness and restlessness were there within me like a portion of myself that I had not yet recognized as a friend who loved me.
I do not recall how long I sat there quietly thinking that there would come a time when I also would arise each morning and go somewhere to earn my lucre—so I could make my own path through the outlandish world that humans had established. I knew also that there was something more important that needed doing. I had thought long and hard about what that might be as my time in college wound down. I had returned to the Bay Area to become a writer, but it was not my time then. The calling had called me, but I was afraid to follow. Later, when I had the mettle, I did not have the time.
As Georgia purred in my lap, a voice inside me whispered—an intimate articulation that I had heard many times before. I could not place it within the context of personhood. It had no physical face, no obvious visage. It was the voice that endowed me with images and metaphors that were replete with compelling mysteries that I could not understand. I listened while slipping in and out of its vocabulary in the same way as sensing dreams or reveries. It was the part of me that was not me. I could not tag it with a specific proper noun without it scattering into puddles of mercury. When I attempted to understand it with my small mind it obscured itself yet remained in full view at the same time.
What I heard as I waited in the poplar grove still speaks as I play the tape that presents the succession of my life on the river where the Yellow Princess navigates. I still can’t label that music, but it no longer just whispers like a tranquil ghost. I cannot see it, but it rests all about me. It wants everyone in the world to know that it loves us, even if we do not listen or are unaware of its existence. It does not hide, but it cannot be measured or seen except in its outer forms: poplars, animals, wind through trembling leaves, birds singing.
That morning, like that hawk looking for a lift, I sat and opened my heart to that voice, knowing that eventually, if I was patient, it would carry me across the sky while my feet remained firmly planted on the earth.
Now Godzilla he’s the friend of children. Didn’t start out that way at first he was a walking rage of nuclear fire and goggle eyed rubber anger eating trains and nail factories and flossing his teeth with high tension electric wires until a celibate scientist dissolved him with an oxygen gadget.
Later that all changed for some reason. Not only did he come back from the dead an easy feat for a radioactive lizard but he found some friends who were fairies that lived in a little kabuki box and a few little fat kids who cheered him on as if he was an extra-large outfielder for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp.
Reptilicus is another matter not very sophisticated that one though he made his bones in Denmark gobbling up sheep farmers and brewers and throwing up nasty green acid on the NATO tanks and artillery while the generals scowled and kept shooting because that’s all they knew how to do.
No, Godzilla would make mincemeat of that European pretender to the throne of Most Awesome Kaiju of All Time. Not only does the big guy heave atomic fire from his mouth but Reptilicus is just a hopeless puppet while inside Godzilla’s pimpled rubber suit is the hot ass soul of a human being.
August 12, 2021, late afternoon of a warm day in Oregon. I’m sitting in front of my television watching the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees play nine innings of baseball at the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa. The sun is setting there—the evening sky opulent. I visited that place nine years ago and sat in the little grandstand with my wife who, true to character, tried to remain unimpressed. My daughter and I walked leisurely around the bases with our arms around each other. As I watch the game unfold those visits seem indistinct—then the present moment merges with beloved past and my memories come into focus.
The vision: baseball at dusk—the light changing subtly, from blue, to violet, to sable, as the field lights cast astigmatic haloes above the grandstand. The wind caresses the emerald cornfields and despite the grating monochromatic voice of Joe Buck clumsily exorcising the enchantment from the scene, I am filled with the inexpressible feeling I always have in my heart at the end of the film Field of Dreams—the camera rising at twilight while Ray plays catch with his father and all the car headlights line up and extend to a forever distant horizon. My heart breaks and heals all over again. Gratitude rises. Grace descends.
The image of that major league game in the cornfields has been in my mind for three days, and it still lingers. Today is cooler in the Pacific Northwest. I can hear the horn of the Amtrak Cascades train as it crosses the intersection of Harmony Road and Railroad Avenue. A tractor orbits the infield in one of the baseball fields here, pulling a sledge and leveling the infield—tufts of dust drift behind it. A dog yaps, far off, barely audible. There are no humans around me except for the pilot of the circulating tractor, its engine whining in a wavering glissando, punctuated by the sputtering exhaust. All these myriad things are appropriate to my introspective mood.
Over the past few years I’ve watched the landscapers lavish attention on these grounds—especially on the ball fields as they are primed for autumn Little League tournaments. Field preparation is as much a part of the ritual of the pastime as the action in the baseball diamond. I always observe closely during the break between innings at a ballpark—the ground crew waltzing concentrically around the infield, dragging rectangular metal rakes behind them, smoothing out the divots and ruts created by the spiked soles of the players’ shoes, wiping away the past to create a clear view of the present.
I reread Shoeless Joe after the White Sox – Yankees game. It’s a beloved book, a classic of magical realism. I read it every few years. The style blurs the edges of reality with a hazy tinge of fantasy. The writing is a bit over the top. Yet the story is spellbinding, and the first-person narrative is impeccable, despite the extravagant prose. The literature of baseball is often full of embellished language—legends are best expressed in hyperbole after all.
Baseball transforms to folklore adroitly. Witness last evening, August 14, in Phoenix, Arizona as a young rookie threw a no-hitter in his first major league start. That hasn’t happened since the year I was born—1953—and has occurred only twice before that.
Tyler Gilbert, pitching for the Arizona Diamondbacks, who recently worked as an electrician in Santa Cruz California, joined Bobo Hollomon (1953), Bumpus Jones (1892), and Theodore Breitenstein (1891) in the record books as an unlikely champion who somehow pulled off a feat that is celebratory and triumphant even though it produced nothing of importance in the daily standings. The D-backs are mired in last place, 38 games back in the National League West, and there were very few folks in the stands at Chase Field. That the result of the game was grander in its consummation than its pragmatic result is of no importance. It adds a gentle tone of irony to the tale.
Tyler’s no-hitter was palpable magical realism in a sorry-sad-sack world. It wasn’t made up by an author and decorated with language. Magic occasionally merges into the common world of reality and reminds us that if we pay close attention to our own day to day story, we’ll discover many mystically credible moments that garnish our lives with spices of surprise and joy, though they are not as public as that no-hitter. All we have to do is be open to seeing them. Then they reveal themselves.
In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryū Suzuki quotes Dōgen Zenji: “Time goes from present to past.” Suzuki Roshi also comments, “This is absurd, but in our practice sometimes it is true. Instead of time progressing from past to present, it goes backwards from present to past.”
Time progresses in both directions. The past and future are with us here—right now. The trick is to calm the mind in order to see the past as the present rides on top of it like a palimpsest. As I watched the game unfold next to the cornfields of Dyersville under the gradually shifting light of a meditative sky, I was in the present, and my heart was in the past—walking the bases with my daughter and watching the enigmatic face of my wife as she sat in the same grandstand that Burt Lancaster, James Earl Jones, Kevin Costner and the rest of the cast of Field of Dreams had graced years before the day she rested there.
If you build it they will come—and we did. Ease his pain—and mine was cleared.
Time moves as we journey within it. Dōgen Zenji also said, “That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening.” Those myriad things are life as it is, the Big Mind that is everything—baseball, twilight, dogs barking, gardeners leveling the infield, train horns calling. It’s all divine, but the holiness is here now, not in some other place that is invisible and unattainable.
These words are not enough to encompass what I’m thinking—now in the present and before in the past, in both directions, when I came forth as a child, a husband, a father, a technical worker, and today, a widower and writer-mystic. When I pay attention, things as they are and Big Mind are God. Occasionally I am wise enough and blessed enough to see them disclosed.
We are all our own legends. In the future we will be in the past. Our times will live in that not-yet-present-future like fables. Casey Stengel said, “You could look it up.” Perhaps in fifty years someone will do so, and these words might then awaken like all the other marvels that continually arise and deliver us from sorrow.
There shall be eternal summer in the grateful heart.
I’m standing in the parking lot outside Justin Hall, my assigned dormitory at St. Mary’s College, and watching the people I love most recede in the distance. My parents and brothers are driving back down Highway 101—364 miles ahead of them. Dad will remain behind the wheel the whole way back down to Oxnard. As they enter the car another freshman student is instructed by his mother in a strident, wailing voice: “Don’t forget to brush your teeth!” I can see the poor sod cringing. The phrase becomes a sotto voce running comedy gag for my dad and mother each year I leave for college at the end of the summer.
Homesickness arises instantly, mixed with liberty—of a sort. The weather is warm, verging on hot. I’m not used to heat like this—not at all like the climate two miles from the sea in Oxnard. It’s Saturday of the Labor Day weekend 1971. It will remain hot for days, until Tuesday when I start attending classes. There are three whole days to fill up in the meantime and I don’t know anyone. I return to my room and my roommate appears with his folks. I dig into my pockets for loose change to call my Southern California friends because I’m lonely. I start a new journal. The weather cools. My college years begin.
I’m in another safe zone, for a while anyway. Love and death eventually intrude into this Catholic utopia. Meanwhile there is study and books, guitars and music, marijuana, beer, wine—and hallucinogens. Also, questions: will I be drafted? Will I find a girlfriend? What will I do with my life four years from now?
I’ve told parts of that story elsewhere. No need to repeat the plot—but here I allude to the ambiences: the weather outside me and the weather inside me, the owls resting and nesting behind the statue of the Blessed Virgin above the entrance to the chapel, the endless classroom conversations and my inability to participate in them for the first two years, the burning passions and ambitious silliness, the foundation of lifelong friendships—all of that active in the confines of a cramped campus populated by less than six hundred students, all developing into men and women simultaneously.
I move from a life as a Pacific shoreline boy with a three-speed bike that takes me to the Oxnard library once a week to an inland weekend hiker who lives for hours each weekday in the campus archive of books and reference materials. From cool air and beaches to hot, dry hills and oak trees—weeks of rain and fog in the winter leading to glorious, blossoming springs. Classes during the day, interspersed with reading and writing, then late-night parties.
It is not the place my father assumed it would be. When St. Mary’s College began admitting coeds in 1970 they went all in with the decision—not much in the way of monitoring. No sign outs and sign ins. The only separation is by dormitory floor, one of men, one of women. I have no idea what’s going on. There’s no nightstand next to my bed let alone a one-night stand in it. Hormones are seething all around me. In high school the girls wore staid uniforms. Here they sun themselves in shorts and bikini tops.
When I’m not thinking about women, sex, and love, my imagination and soul are fed with a steady stream of learning the lesson of how to learn, not only books but the bibliography of daily life—not only becoming acutely aware of my credulousness, but also my anxiety of saying anything in classroom participation. St. Mary’s is a seminar school. No lectures—instead there is reading, writing, talking. Teacher after teacher says to me “you say nothing in class and then you can’t shut up in my office—why not say something to your peers?”
I want to be brilliant, but I’m lazy and easily distracted. I want to write well, but I have no discipline, so I churn out run-of-the-mill papers about poetry and make a damn fool of myself in my creative writing class without even being aware of it. Chester Aaron, the creative writing professor, encourages me, despite my cluelessness and my inept prose. By the time I’m a senior I’m more serious—I write a science fiction novel during an independent study as he mentors me. The truth is, he has much better things to do. He’s about to go on a well-deserved sabbatical on a sheep ranch in Marin County and wants me to hurry up and finish so he can leave a few days early and get his next book started. I don’t know that for years, not until I read Garlic Is Life.
Five decades later a copy of the St. Mary’s alumni magazine arrives in my Oregon mailbox bundled with a sales flyer from Costco, the gas bill, and a book about Mary Magdalene. I flip through the color periodical and read the latest updates: a new library in the planning stages, a science professor’s reception of a grant to unlock the benefits of algae, the announcement of a fellow classmate’s induction as an honored affiliate of the brothers of the Christian Lasallian schools. All good news of note decorated by photos of the campus.
The reverse memory telescope materializes again, and the tension of memory tugs the years together, squeezing out the unimportant flotsam and jetsam of half a century as I turn the pages of the periodical and recall the essential juice of my four years as an undergraduate. I lived there, I say to myself. That was my youth.
I can’t resist the final page of obituaries—I’m at that age where I peruse the list of in memoriam announcements—some folks younger, some older than me, listed in tiny typeface. This time no one from my class, no one I know, until I spy a listing for “Chester Aaron former faculty” and the memory comes back—
—that warm spring afternoon when he speaks of his time in the 70th Armored Infantry Battalion and the liberation of Dachau—his unit is one of the first to arrive. The silence in the classroom weaves itself around his spoken words as he tells the tale. We barely breathe as he describes the shocking and inhuman sights—his personal newsreel images—piles of corpses, his description of the stench—
“The flatcars and the boxcars were filled with bodies—pieces of bodies, chunks of bodies…they were wearing pajamas and so forth. Hundreds and hundreds lying dead or dying on the floor of the barracks…a little girl…came out of the barracks looked at me and said essen, essen…I had a can of C-Rations in my backpack. And I opened it up, and I picked her up, and I sat down, and I fed her with my fingers…She took about three or four swallows and died in my arms…”
The classroom windows are open—there are birds singing. I hear the call of voices in the tennis courts, smell the lush scents of spring grass and blossoming lilac gliding in the breeze as Chester’s tenor- baritone voice emerges from his round, bald head, the border of white unruly hair around his pate like a wild tonsure, the steady gleam in his eyes hot with anger.
All that instantly. A flashback. Unexpected. Intense. Humbling. Then and now.
A few years after my wife dies I suddenly recall Chester. Something I read on the Internet about garlic brings him to mind. He has retired to a farm in Occidental, California where he grows exotic varietals of garlic: Yugoslavian Red, Brown Tempest, Spanish Roja—stinking cloves with civilized names—Creole Red, Romanian Red, Incelium Red. I think of looking him up before I migrate to Oregon but can’t find the time. I discover a YouTube video filmed at his house. I remember his voice and his countenance. I really should thank him, I say to myself. It’s only about eighty miles up 101. Go!
But I don’t. I miss my chance.
At St. Mary’s while in his fifties, Chester looks exactly like a guy named Chester—the same way my Uncle Max was a ringer for a man named Max. But Chester is not soft and fat, waving a cigar around held loosely in his stubby fingers like Uncle Max. Chester doesn’t smoke. He is substantial. He is genuine. Maybe it’s his nose that makes him larger than life—after all it’s the first thing everyone notices about him. The cowboy boots and denim work shirts add to the masculine impression. More so it’s his smile, the firm voice, and the manner in which every spoken word is like a phrase from a story he is constantly writing aloud that makes him authentic.
The words of encouragement and the laughter and his endless patience with me—even after I make a clown of myself by writing an ill-conceived satire about him as a final assignment that first year—those elements fashioned a generous teacher and storyteller. He is an outsider—the only Jew on the faculty of a Catholic liberal arts college. Chester projects the auras of a boxer, a carpenter, or a farmer. In fact, he is all of those at various times in his ninety-six-year life.
After I read the notice in the alumni magazine I look for an obituary on the web. “Chester deeply touched the lives of many through his writing, teaching and mentoring, love of garlic and animals and his friendships. He will be greatly missed.” Modest words. Simple truth.
I realize I’ve not read much of what he wrote and published after I left St. Mary’s. I spend time catching up and read his first book, About Us, long out of print and now self-published. The story of a Jewish family in Pennsylvania between the two world wars—his family. Also: Symptoms of Terminal Passion, Black and Blue Jew, and his books about garlic that mix memoir and recipes, Garlic Kisses and Tasty Hugs and Garlic is Life. None of these published by what one would consider a major publisher.
I find a short story, The Female of the Species, in which a much-loved wife dies unexpectedly from a heart attack. A pair of mated hawks also die in the story, and I think of my own wife and her love for hawks—how she collected feathers from the side of the trail when she went horseback riding. I think, Chester, how the hell did you know? How did you know?
I want to kick myself for not seeing him before I left California. That’s a phrase he used often, “you need to kick yourself in your ass and get the work done.”
In Garlic Is Life I find this passage about his St. Mary’s experience: “My colleagues, residents of the academic world since they were teenagers, considered me an interesting but somewhat eccentric mutant.”
I read elsewhere that he considered most of his students lazy, sloppy, and unimaginative—and I think that he is writing about me—one of those students who hopefully concludes I think I have a book in me—someone who assumes that urging words out of the imagination is an easy line of work—effortless validation leading to notable adulation. Wrong. Chester makes that clear. It’s all “process and craft” and “damned hard work.” Just like farming and building furniture. Or knocking the daylights out of someone with a determined left hook.
What do I know about work when I am a student? Not much. I haven’t experienced anything profound. It’s been five decades since then. After loss and a move from California, a new life, plenty of time, a hundred or so books read every year, piles of poems written and stored safely where no one will ever see them, an intermittent journal, one single self-published memoir about rock and roll—and two daughters, a 35-year marriage and subsequent widower-hood—I remember his lessons, his laughter, and now it’s too late to say thank you and know that he can hear me say it.
I find this statement in an interview with him conducted when Female of the Species is published in Symptoms of Terminal Passion:
“More and more, as I grow older and older, I have somehow gained the strength and courage to tell the literary establishment (meaning publishers, editors, agents, established and therefore powerful writers) in San Francisco and New York to kiss my ass.”
As we used to say in the Seventies: “Right on, man.” He’s in his eighties when he tells the late-stage capitalist publishing industry to worship his gluteus maximus. By that time, he’s written and published—one way or another—twenty-five or so books. With no agent.
He never told me to “write about what you know” specifically. But that’s what he did, spinning his personal experience into fiction— sincere fiction that reads like memoir. That’s the lesson. Learn how to learn and then write about it. Turn life into literature. If the established minions of the publishing industry don’t want it, tell them to kiss your ass.
I almost fail that freshman year. Not so much grade-wise—I manage B’s and C’s, though I get a D in Epic Poetry because I forget to set my alarm and sleep though the final exam, then run around the campus looking for the professor so I can set a time to retake it. That doesn’t happen because he has already left for the summer. My failure is all about my lack of confidence, my anxiety, and my existential confusion.
When I get home for the summer and my grades arrive, Dad expresses his disappointment by telling me that if I don’t get a haircut he’ll stop paying my tuition. I acquiesce unwillingly. It’s unfair. After all, I did manage to brush my teeth.
On January 10, 2013 Chester was interviewed by Celeste Brasuell for inclusion in the Veterans History Project of the U.S. Library of Congress. The entire interview is printed as the Afterword in his short story collection Wars and Peaces. The text in this post of his memories of Dachau is taken from that interview. I think Chester would have appreciated the use of poetic license. I also wanted to be sure I quoted him accurately.
An article on the St. Mary’s website entitled Professor Emeritus Chester Aaron Remembers Horrors of Holocaust states: “It was only six years ago that Saint Mary’s College Professor Emeritus Chester Aaron allowed himself to remember the day he witnessed the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp.” However, my memory of Chester speaking of his experience on that day in 1971 or 1972 is quite clear, and I have verified it with another former student who was there.
Summer of 1966, somewhere on Interstate 8 between Gila Bend and Yuma. I’m in the back seat of my father’s black Dodge 330 4-door sedan. The faithful, ugly car has carried us west across the country on the burgeoning Interstate Highway System four times, but there’s no return trip planned today. The destination is not a vacation. We are cruising to a new home, my father at the wheel, as always, piloting us to a concrete destination that he dreamed up in his imagination, with my mother’s agreement.
The air conditioning is failing. There’s a trace of frigid air emanating from the front vents, but not much. It’s 104 degrees outside. I touch the warm glass of the window. Mom wants to stop and give us water. Dad says no. Maybe he thinks the car will heat up too much and that we will all be baked alive before we get to Araz Junction and the bridge into California that crosses what’s left of the Colorado. The river is dammed six times south of Hoover. I’m cooked already and feel damned as well.
There’s water in the trunk of the car, but instead of fighting with Dad over a short halt, Mom hands out cans of unrefrigerated orange soda to us—the only liquid she has in the car at the moment. Lukewarm, sugared, vile—I drink it down like a parched sailor in a lifeboat on a salty sea. Immediately I want to throw up, but I don’t. I’d rather die. Dad would be sympathetic, but then I’d hear it as a tale told to his friends to embarrass me for years. No way will I let that happen.
As we speed down the brand-new interstate the road passes through a cattle ranch stretching to the horizon on either side of the road and into the distance ahead of us—a brownish ocean of undulating livestock. The reek of cow shit and my own fear enters my nose. I am breathing thickness and sickness. My head is spinning.
“Oh my God,” my mother says. “What a stench. Stinking old cows.” She waves her hand in front of her face as if shooing away a cloud of invisible flies. My mother never uses the name of the Lord in vain, something my father monitors in his children’s speech—something I am careful to avoid. Dad remains silent.
I am fed up with all this travel, weary of being cooped up in the back of the car—three days now. We are in a hurry and not stopping to see the sights. I already miss my Pittsburgh pals. I’ll never see them again. I hate everything.
Then my father turns around and leers. His wayward eyebrows bristle. He’s going to say something he thinks is funny, I can tell.
“This is what hell is like!” he says, and turns back to watching the road. All that’s missing is the “bwa-ha-ha.”
One Year in San Diego
Sun and Mexican food. Bicycles at last. Long road trips to watch the sun rise over the Anza Borrego desert. No more snow. Shorts in the winter. Picnics. More Catholic school—School of the Madeleine on Illion Street. Brown uniforms for the boys: short sleeves for First through Seventh grade, long sleeves and black ties for eighth graders. Plain plaid skirts for the girls. We arrive in late summer of 1966, and the local stores are all sold out of long-sleeved shirts. I receive a dispensation for my bare forearms, yet still wear the tie, which creates a rumor that I am really a Seventh grader who has advanced because of his academic qualifications. This marks me as an outsider. I am treated as such by my peers. I flunk math, but not intentionally.
The church is on the side of a mesa—a view of Mission Bay, the vista like something from the utopian science-fiction novels I love. Years later I look at it again through the reverse memory telescope—so tiny, so ordinary. But the Pacific Ocean and the edge of the continent is right there before me, and the desert and my father’s Edward Abbey dreams are not far from home. Daytime road trips on the weekend. Burgers on the grill. Family times.
A rental house on Cowley Way where I can hear the neighbors drinking and fighting at night. My closest friends are outcasts like me—now nameless, I cherish them. There are guitars in the house. My father is unhappy, beleaguered by his boss, a stupid man named Carl, whose girlfriend is English and sweet. Carl owns a yacht. On random Sundays we steam around Mission Bay in a cloud of diesel exhaust, a brief excitement. A day trip to Ensenada, Mexico, before the borders became impregnable without passports. Another to Tecate, where my guitars originate.
Our roots never take hold in that cultural soil, save for cuisine. Tacos and tostadas, not just from taquerias—a recipe from Sunset magazine that my brother still occasionally rustles up in my kitchen. Food that always leads to the redemptive chant today: “Thanks Dad and Mom…” Can they hear us on the other side? After a year we scurry north. To Oxnard.
Oxnard. A name right out of the Firesign Theatre’s “Funny Names Club of America,” christened by the town’s founder, Henry, who built a sugar beet processing plant there in 1897. Frustrated because bureaucrats couldn’t determine why Henry wanted to name the town after the Greek word for sugar, zachari, he named it after his family. Civic debates over changing the name ensue repeatedly.
Field of Beans
A brand-new tract house in the middle of lima bean fields—the local ranch family is selling off the family agricultural estate to developers. I can see over the back fence and watch the harvesting—bulky, rumbling machines running all day and night that keep me awake. Another steampunk sci-fi vision.
As months and years pass more homes are excreted onto the rich soil that have been fertilized for decades with chicken shit. Advantageous for gardening. My parents plant citrus trees, cacti, and succulents. I can still hear neighbors fighting—it seems that California is filled with unhappiness. I keep to myself. My brothers play ball in the suburban streets.
My dad never wears tennis shoes—in their place leather Oxfords tied with thin shoestrings, black socks that fall down around his thin ankles, revealing his pallid skin. Thankfully he never wears shorts. My mother, patiently silent, puts up with my father’s crazy schemes.
“If you don’t have anything good to say about someone don’t say anything,” she teaches me. It seems wise then. I know it is now.
In August 1967 there is a day when Dad registers me at the local Catholic high school, not long after we move into the new house. We sit in the principal’s office. Behind the desk a priest, Monsignor Joseph Pekarcik, ex-Marine. Wire-rimmed glasses. Stern gaze. No grin. Curled grey hair like soap-scour pads. Next to me my father, a patriarchal smirk on his face. As they engage in autocratic small talk, I sit in a chair feeling unimportant and diminutive, as if I am being reduced in size due to the power of the invisible super-vision shrink ray transmitting from the priest’s totalitarian eyes. I think that if he smiles his cheeks will crack and his face might fall off. Wisely, I keep my mouth shut, rebelling internally.
He says to my father, “Mister Gill, how do you supervise your family?”
“It’s a benevolent dictatorship.” My father responds as if they are old friends sharing a secret handshake and winking at one another. I wonder what Mom would say if she heard that—she’d laugh in his face and require that he make his own dinner.
Monsignor Pekarcik nods approvingly and scrutinizes me again. He knows he’ll have no problem with me. I spend four years avoiding him while he catches genuine miscreants, sneaking up behind them while wearing thick-soled silent shoes, curtailing their felonies—violations of the dress code. “The heels on those boots are too high, Mister, and those pants are too tight. Go home and change them. Now.”
Once again I don’t know anyone on the first day of my freshman year. Two parishes feed eighth graders into the high school. Everyone is confused—I seem to have come from some other country or planet. Yet in a few days I realize my family will remain here in this agricultural town for an extended time as it transforms to a Los Angeles bedroom community. The outlandishly named city becomes my first hometown, despite the crop dusters buzzing around the neighborhood. Here I make lifelong friends—not nameless and forgotten, still with me fifty years later: John, Tony, Marie.
I become a high school scholar, the pampered eldest Catholic boy—both my siblings are enrolled in public schools. My parents never speak to me about money. They never give me much of it either, but once again we seem flush. My dad finds a job in a camera store, builds a business selling high-end stereo gear and classical audiophile LP’s. Eventually my mother works as a secretary. I find baby-sitting jobs in the neighborhood for paperback book money.
Riding my bike to the public library is unalloyed joy. Freedom in the stacks as I search out science-fiction, dreams of future cities in my head—domed or doomed. Asimov, Clark, Bradbury—Heinlein not so much. Mystery and detective novels. World War 2 naval history. My father subscribes to Road and Track. I devour every issue, following Formula One in Europe, while helping him rebuild Alfa Romeo sports cars in the garage.
On weekends, road trips to Pine Mountain and Reyes Peak in the Los Padres National Forest. Racing down the long straightaway of Gonzales Road, my father behind the wheel. “Don’t you dare ever drive like this,” he says—while driving like that.
At the end of Gonzales Road, the Pacific Ocean and the edge of the continent. The smell of the sea. Occasional fog. On clear nights, stars. Sometimes, sporadic explosions of aborted rocket launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base 100 miles up the coast—the vapor from the blasts hanging like florescent blossoms, unfurling smoke and fire across the setting sun. C-5 Super Galaxy cargo jets rumble and roll over the house on final approach to Oxnard Air Force Base.
In 1969 men land on the moon. My father scoffs, I’m not sure why. I have nothing good to say to him about his cynicism, so I ignore him. One year earlier America burns. Martin Luther King is assassinated. In June I listen to Robert Kennedy speak after winning the California Democratic primary. Then another shot from a gun while the harvesters churn more lima beans from the ground and houses grow in the fields overnight.
In the background of all of it my transistor radio and radio station KBBY—Beatles, Beach Boys, The Who, Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin. All surreptitiously received through a small earpiece. I am in a safe zone—protected, loved, nurtured—even though the country is falling apart, and thousands of soldiers are dying in a pointless war in Southeast Asia.
My father tells me I’m going to college. Sounds good to me. Has to be a Catholic College though. I apply to Loyola in Los Angeles, Santa Clara in Santa Clara, and a small liberal arts college in Moraga—Saint Mary’s College of California. I am accepted at all three. Dad and Mom arrange for tuition, and I help out with a small scholarship from the State of California.
January 1971. Dad and I travel north to Moraga to see the campus. A rainy, foggy day. The place seems like something out of my own moist, murky, romantic dreams—redwood trees, owls, rain, and…coeds. I adore it, and it’s as far away from my dad as I can get.
The imagination should be allowed a certain freedom to browse around.
The rain pulses on the roof of the trailer in the post-midnight darkness. Occasionally the precipitation pauses, and I fall into a light sleep. Then the wind blows and the ample moisture that has gathered in the Sitka Spruce tree next to the camper falls all at once like a waterfall. I awaken—no deep sleep tonight, that’s for certain. My imagination rambles through memories rather than being adrift in dreams. I think of the times I camped with wife and children, and earlier, with my own brothers, mother, and father, before and after we migrated from Pennsylvania to California. The thought arises: now here I am in Oregon. The unforeseen events that led to a second migration of my own come to mind like scenes in a novel.
I’m in a sequel to the preceding stages of my life. The structure of the story that’s being written by my actions, thoughts, and dreams is vague, but it’s there—I can sense it as the framework of my experience in the same way that I can analyze plots, themes, and symbols when reading literature. As an undergraduate I learned how to discern the hidden, organic bones of prose and poetry. Decades later I recognize the same infrastructure supporting my lifespan. Art reveals everything if one takes the time to remain patient and pay careful attention. I can see the losses and gains, the rise and fall, the slow sections and the rushing moments that force me to keep turning the pages. The book of my life is not physical. I can’t tell how many chapters remain before I reach the end.
I know that my conclusion will not be “and they lived happily ever after.” That was supposed to have been the finale of the previous volume, but it didn’t finish that way. This follow-on will take me to a place where I have never been before.
These half-awake musings fill up the anxious wolf-hours of night before dawn. As the rain rides the wind from the Pacific along this harsh, indifferent coastline, a voice arises in my head once more: be still and know—be still. There is no end. The wanderer has no fixed abode.
The dead trees no longer refreshed by the moisture in the understory. The soil destroyed by fire and washed away. What was that neologism I came across recently? Solastalgia— a ‘form of psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change.’ Is that what I’m feeling? I try to be calm while the sky refreshes in a tinge of grey, morning light. The slow drip of moisture on the rooftop fades away. I hear Paul stirring at the other end of the trailer. The secure scent of coffee arises. The wolf-time lapses, and the gift of another day begins.
More oatmeal. More coffee. Then I walk through the campground. The rain has freshened everything. Wet forest smells mingle with the scent of the sea. Cool air aids my process of awakening and I recall that I did have a crazy dream last night: a conversation with a trio of old women whose faces were altering and merging, all of them looking at me benevolently. The Three Fates, I assume, though there was no spinning wheel or scissors. I remember something I read by Martin Shaw in his book, A Branch from the Lightning Tree: “Myth is not much to do with the past, but a kind of magical present that can flood our lives when the conditions are just so. It is not just the neurosis of us humans trying to fathom our place on the earth, but sometimes the earth actually speaking back to us.”
Myth and story. Life and death. Wandering, learning, exploring. Moments of love I still bear for those who have passed out of my life to the other side. Aches that can’t be healed that turn to gratitude. Those are the lessons of the stillness. They surface in my dreams, anxieties, and daylight actions every day because I am more aware of how they all fit into a single epic, layering on top of one another like a series of palimpsests, some partially erased but still decipherable.
I reenter the trailer. “How about we explore Carpenterville Road this morning?” says Paul.
“Why not? It’s no longer raining. Let’s go.” There is mist drifting in the constant wind. The moisture calls us out to the road and fresh sights under somber skies. No sun, but a beautiful day.
Less than a mile north of Harris Beach we make a right turn. It’s a road to nowhere, a ghost road to a ghost town, the former route of Highway 101 back when it was known as the Roosevelt Highway, now Oregon Route 255. We twist and turn and climb. There’s no traffic. The mist deepens as we gain altitude and I engage the intermittent wipers. Tree branches hang sullenly over the road, the leaves opaque green, dripping with moisture that splatters the windshield. Here and there I see a house, a farm, or a lumber operation. The views of the ocean are obstructed by clouds. I’m reminded of Ireland—the time when I traveled there with my wife to Sligo and visited the grave of William Butler Yeats at Drumcliffe Cemetery. All that’s missing here are the Celtic crosses.
In 1921 the town of Carpenterville was founded at the high point of the road. Before the highway was realigned and the town was cut off from 101, it contained a post office, public school, a lodge and restaurant. 35 people lived there in 1940. Today there is nothing I can see that marks that a town ever existed, presumably at the highest point of the road—Burnt Hill Summit. We pass a sign for Windsong Ranch and cross over Whalehead Creek. The road is paved but I have to be careful to avoid occasional potholes filled with rainwater.
It’s a forlorn place. The specters of my wolf-hours are still hanging around like voiceless loiterers. There’s no sense of menace or anxiety, only loneliness, even though Highway 101 is not far away. It’s down below us someplace, invisible. I wonder if I could hear traffic if I pulled over and opened a window. The road turns northwest and drops in altitude. The clouds lift and then we see the ocean, slate-grey and impassive. I feel as if I am enfolded between dreamscape and landscape.
Eventually we find the highway when we reach the Pistol River Loop Road. The sky is still sealed by banks of somber clouds but the view up 101 is clear. I tell Paul I want to drive all the way up to Humbug Mountain and check out the campground in the state park. He agrees—it’s always useful to scout out likely camping areas ahead of time. It’s not a long drive, through Gold Beach across the Rogue River, then Nesika and Ophir.
Humbug Mountain appears to be a suitable place for a couple of quiet nights later in the summer. There are a few campers sheltered under the trees, partially protected from the moist weather. They wave at us, smiling. We turn south again. I pull over at the same turnout as last Wednesday and get out of the car.
This time the handout of vision strikes me full in the face. I live here now. This is my geography. Rugged like the country my ancestors left behind when the potato crops failed. It’s been three years since I left California. I’ve been cooped up for months. We all have. That’s what these days are telling me.
Yet the world does not seem right. All this beauty in front of my eyes is endangered. There is something I need to do. I still don’t know what it is, but I can hear it calling. Its voice is muffled under the earth. I’m going to have to dig for it.
Those thoughts occur in an instant. I return to the car, fully awake. Back to the road. Back to camp. On the way we stop at Windy Point to see the view of Arch Rock. People are milling around in the light rain but by the time Paul and I reach the viewpoint at the end of a short trail everyone has departed. We are standing at the edge of a cliff overlooking a few rocky islands flecked with seafoam, one topped with a grove of Sitka Spruce trees. They will be there after I die, protected from fire and tree cutters—solitary sentinels protecting the edge of the continent.
My brother and I stand peacefully, gazing out at the sea once more. My parents are my ancestors now, I think to myself. My memories of them bringing us to California half a century ago are old enough to be my own legend—a story of decisions made by people who died long ago that brought me to this spot, on this day, at this time. It’s time for me to tell that story.
That Saturday night it rains hard. When I awaken I pack up my gear and start for home. Paul needs his own space. He’ll stay at Harris Beach for another week. The weather in Portland is dry, and I miss my own bed and kitchen.
The rain continues as I drive north, but it diminishes at Port Orford. By the time I reach Bandon the sky is clear and the sun is out. I drive by the Bandon Baking Company hoping that I can pick up some of those luscious cheese croissants, but the shop is closed again. I’ll try in May when we camp at Bullards Beach. I gas up Dark Star and then stop north of Coos Bay at William M. Tugman State Park and eat a cold bagel with cream cheese. I recall the time I walked Finn there as we traveled to Portland in 2018 to start a fresh life. It’s been 16 months since he passed unexpectedly. I have one of those unanticipated moments when grief surfaces and turns to grace as I think about all those I have lost.
East of Reedsport there is heavy rain on OR-38. The Umpqua River is wide there, and glows through the downpour, reflecting the muted light of the sky. I have the road to myself until the squalls descend. I stay in the right lane through the passing zones and let all the idiots go by. I generally drive right at the limit, but the conditions are not right for that now—thus tailgaters, all of whom deserve their own circle in Dante’s Hell.
I stop at the Cottage Grove rest area with the intention of taking a nap, but it’s crowded and there are folks that look untrustworthy hanging around, so I continue on without stopping. Traffic is heavy as usual between Eugene and Salem. That part of the drive is like I-5 in California. It seems to me that Oregon drivers are as unhinged as their northern neighbors in Washington these days—perhaps as a result of being quarantined for so long. I arrive home about 4:50 pm. Total trip mileage 881.5. Avg mpg just a shade over 30.
That evening while I am winding down for a deep sleep in my own bedroom I read a brochure issued by the Oregon State Parks administration advertising the Samuel H. Boardman Scenic Corridor. In a sidebar I read that the Arch Rock landmark was the root of a legend regarding Coyote for the Tolowa tribe:
“Coyote—a frequent character who teaches ingenuity and explains the inexplicable—was left to starve on Arch Rock after playing a prank on the other animals and people. Undeterred, he cleverly made his way back to land by gathering a basket of mussels and throwing them into the water. Each mussel magically grew into a small island, allowing Coyote to use them as stepping stones to shore.”
He’s a smart fellow, that Coyote. I’ll follow his lead and see where it goes.
“Something I heard an archeologist say in Oslo about deep time returns to me: Time isn’t deep, it is already all around us. The past ghosts us, lies all about us less as layers, more as drift. Here that seems right, I think. We ghost the past, we are its eerie.”
In a world where, as one poet says, “people seem to speak to each other mostly for profit,” it is exhilarating to listen to a voice that is practicing disclosure without seeking advantage. That is intimate.
The Art of Voice – Poetic Principle and Practice, Tony Hoagland
There was a time when endless days of rain made me sad—but no longer.
This is my third Oregon January. I am accustomed to the climate now. I enjoy walking in the rain—primarily because there are fewer people. I’m not a curmudgeon, but these days I find my fellow humans to be a distraction. It’s a side effect of the pandemic. How can I be fond of people and treat them with my normal friendliness when they may actually be a threat to my life because they refuse to wear a mask?
I can’t suffer fools, not gladly. I used to be forced into doing so—in professional life one has to get along with people simply to survive. But no longer. I’m free of that. Instead, I muster the patience required to move aside from the unmasked people that jog by me on the narrow forest paths of Mary S. Young Park State Park along the west shore of the Willamette River, trailing their possibly infected breath behind them invisibly. Do they actually observe anything as they run? Do they smell the clean air? Are they happy? I never see them smiling.
I suspect they are running from something.
I know I can’t outrun anything, physically or metaphorically. Sometimes when I walk in the rain, I lower the hood of my jacket and lift my face to the moisture. It seems reasonable to do that—as if I am having a conversation with another aspect of the higher power. OK, I get it, I say to myself. Rain on my soul and heart. Awaken me.Thank you.
I don’t run from those random interludes of grace. I embrace them. I can hear the rain falling, see the water running everywhere in streams and rivulets, and recall that my body and brain are mostly made of water and that electricity dashes through the tissues of my flesh and the soft matter within my skull. Nature is inside me. My soul is moist here in Oregon, swelling after dry years in California.
There is no fever within me now. Many memoirists write about trauma. Is that why they have an audience? Because the reader can say I hear you brother/sister. Been there. I have not been maltreated. My only distress is that of grief, and it has calmed through the passage of time—but I try to understand the suffering of others. Doing that is easier than bearing fools.
I wonder who my audience is, and if I had one, would they experience what I write in the same way? My story is not exciting, not filled with triumph—but is that an attraction? Does anyone really want to read a memoir by someone who came from a functional family enhanced by love, faith, and normality?
There really is no answer to that vexed and unanswerable question. I write because I write. There is only the need to get the voice up and running and let it speak—that voice that needs to be released, not for any other reason that it requires to be released.
The writer understands, at least unconsciously, that the voice needs to tell a story, and create a journey—perhaps fictive or true or both. It is an intimate act. Writing is the most private art. It’s a direct connection between the electricity in the writer brain to the reader brain, and the mystery is that neither side can experience the connection at the same time. It’s a malleable, mental illumination that can’t be measured empirically, and that can’t be denied as a mere hallucination or fantasy because it is not reducible to anything other than the closest thing that we have to mind-reading or casting thoughts into each other’s heads.
It’s an aspect of the human experience of the spiritual creatures that we really are—locked into our own ego-skulls, lonely and craving companionship. Poets, writers, playwrights, wordsmiths of every kind—perhaps even those who write shopping lists occasionally—tell a story, simply because it desires to be told and because writers live within their own metafictive worlds.
That’s the basic truth of literature. Writers have a voice. Readers search it out. No one can explain that in the same way that we can talk about calendars, longitude, latitude, chemistry, or any of the touchable sciences. The voice vaults from Imagination.
I’m mortal. Anything I write will be left behind, but who am I to think that anything I create, no matter how lucid or beautiful, is really of any great importance other than the expressions of a spiritual being who was given the gift of human experience?
I can’t deny the rain in January, or the fact that a half million Americans are dead from Covid-19, or that I can’t travel anywhere because of the pandemic—nor the fact that there are so many fools in this world requiring that I bear their existence so I can work on my own compassion and patience, hopefully compensating for my own foolishness.
I am living in my own metafiction. The rain is falling. There’s a break coming up soon. I will walk and remove my hood and await the voice, which is always there, riding on the atmospheric river, and flowing from my soul. It’s what I do, and I’ll keep at it.
Willamette River – Mary S. Young State Park – Photos by Richard Gylgayton