The Danger Zone

Freeze! Put your hands up! If you move I’ll shoot!

A policeman crouching in a bush shouted this command to me on the night of my 25th birthday.  My friend Paul and I had been helping a very old couple move out of their suburban home into a trailer park in Sunnyvale California, and we had had trouble with the loading gate of the rented moving truck, which had delayed the move in time to early evening. One of their new neighbors in the trailer park did not like the fact that we were moving them in after dark and called the police to say that a robbery and home invasion were underway in the adjacent trailer, which resulted in this unnecessary and frightening show of force, ushering in a new year of my young life with a little too much drama.

You can’t go back and you can’t stand still – If the thunder don’t get you then the lightning will.

Lightning strikes for Jesus

This Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter song (“The Wheel”) was running on an endless auto play loop in my mind as the lightning struck all around us and the thunder rolled deafeningly like God’s malevolent tympanies. We were hiking at the top of 11,500’ Taboose Pass in the Sierras on a treeless, boulder strewn tableland and were in sudden and serious jeopardy with lightning crackling all around us. I threw down my pack with its metal frame, took off my belt with its metal buckle, took the keys, change and Swiss Army knife out of my pockets and huddled flat under a boulder. Static in the air made the hairs on my head and arms stand up and I could smell metallic ozone from nearby lightning strikes.  We hunkered down for 15 minutes, each under a separate rock until the storm finally passed.

Whenever lightning strikes, it heats the air to 50,000 degrees, five times hotter than the surface of the sun. The rapid expansion of the air produces the sonic boom that we hear as thunder. Lightning is serious stuff if you are an earth bound human. My cousin’s wife’s sister was struck by lightning and killed in a farm field in Wisconsin. A 19th century barn that I helped to disassemble and move up a mountain in Massachusetts was struck by lightning and burned to the ground soon after it was reassembled as a vacation home when the carpenters did not install lightning rods. When roofers disconnected the lightning rod grounding wires in our house in Heath, Massachusetts, a ball of lightning flew through the living room during a thunderstorm and exploded with a loud bang when it grounded itself on the metal bathtub. As I was walking home to the same house in Heath in my childhood, I saw a bolt of lightning hit and explode a transformer on a telephone pole 25’ away from the house. A tree near our pond on that same property was hit by lightning and shattered into thousands of matchstick sized shards. I was at a friend’s home in the Poconos in Pennsylvania when she was cutting her husband’s hair and the power went out. There was enough continuous sheet lightning that she was able to finish the haircut with that almost constant strobe illumination. 

Lightning bolts are about the width of a human thumb and are unimaginably hot. Volcanic eruptions can produce lightning. Many of the worldwide wildfires are caused by lightning.  In the USA about 4.500 structure fires are caused by lightning every year and around the world, there are over 3,000,000 lightning flashes every day – about 44 strikes every second. Lightning’s daily message to us is “pay attention and stay grounded.”

The Storm King

My husband will kill me. He will just kill me. He washed the car this morning.

Jacqueline Bruce, the woman who ran into my VW bug on Hwy 84 in Woodside, CA said this to me after almost killing Joe Glaser, myself and Doron Golde and destroying my car as we drove back to Stanford after a day at Pinky’s Beach on the San Mateo coast at the end of our freshman year at Stanford. In the rubble and aftermath of the crash I had to run after her small child who was wandering into traffic and poison oak on the edge of the road, as she bemoaned about how angry her husband would be. The kid from Stanford who came to pick us up after the accident was drunk and I had severe PTSD driving anywhere with anyone for several years after the “accident.”

If we don’t freeze to death tonight, the first thing I will do when we finally get back to civilization will be to order a jumbo chocolate milkshake, fries and a cheeseburger.

We were laying in a tube tent next to Marie Lake, an alpine lake at 10,000 feet when a sudden unexpected snowstorm descended on our campsite at sundown, blanketing us with six inches of snow in a few very short, freezing hours. I was 19 years old and was camped in a tube tent, a pathetic orange cylindrical tube of plastic 24 inches high at the top and supported by a 25 foot long piece of clothes line that was tied between two stunted trees. It was completely open at each end which was letting the drifting snow begin to slowly freeze our heads and feet simultaneously. We tucked into fetal positions in the centers of our mummy bags and hoped that morning would come sometime soon. My tube tent mate Cary said “If we don’t freeze to death tonight, the first thing I will order when we finally get back to civilization will be a jumbo chocolate milkshake, fries and a cheeseburger.” Hours later we woke up to brilliant morning sun, had a short snowball fight, caught some trout for breakfast and walked on down the John Muir Trail towards a very distant jumbo chocolate milkshake, fries and a cheeseburger, still several days away.

Marie Lake

Lordy Lord, ain’t time a wrecker!

The English guitarist and singer Martin Simpson was describing a charity event that he had been hired to perform at in mansion in New Orleans. While he was setting up before the event a young black woman came into the banquet room to be interviewed for a domestic position by the madam of the house. The young lady looked up at a grand painting on the wall and questioned the madam if it was a younger version of herself in the image saying “Is that y’all in the painting?” When the older woman said “yes” the job seeker responded “Lordy, Lord, ain’t time a wrecker!” Simpson said he did not know if the young lady was offered the position, but suspected that she did not get the job.

Portrait before the wreckage of time

I’m gonna grab my sheep shears and cut off your God damned long hair.

Lucky Farr shouted this to me in very rural French Creek West Virginia where I was living at the time. He was giving us menfolk a tour of his barn and livestock when he reached behind a hay bale and pulled out a very full mason jar full of moonshine to pass around before we returned to the womenfolk in the house. After a couple of swigs he announced his intentions to shear me like Sampson if I didn’t get a haircut.

Time for a trim

I just show them my persuader and suddenly they change their tune.

Martha, an old black woman, was sitting in Rob’s kitchen in East Palo Alto and said this as she showed us the chrome plated .38 special pistol she kept in her purse and explained how she stopped young men from robbing her with its persuasive powers. At the time, East Palo Alto was the murder capital, per capita, of the United States.

Persuader in action

I pulled the sheet off of him as he was stabbing me so I could see who he was.

Grace, a woman in her late 60’s and Rob’s neighbor in East Palo Alto told me this, explaining how she had pulled the ghost costume sheet off of the young black kid who was stabbing her on her front porch on Halloween. She had finally called the police on him as he had repeatedly parked in front of her driveway, preventing her from being able to drive to her job at Varian Associates in Palo Alto where she worked on medical diagnostic devices. This “disrespect” was reason enough for him to try to kill her.

Put on these life jackets, beat on these pots and pans and yell as loud as you can!

We were sailing across the middle of the shipping lanes between Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate Bridge in a dense fog bank with an enormous oil tanker quickly bearing down on us, its deafening fog horns endlessly booming in our ears, when Chris, the master and commander of our small sailboat, came up from below where he had been trying to start the engine, and gave us these nautical orders. We obeyed the captain and he darted down below again and finally successfully started the engine as we donned our personal flotation devices and beat out emergency rhythms on frying pans and soup kettles as he made his hand held freon air horn moan like a banshee dirge chorus from Davey Jones’ Locker. The oil tanker narrowly missed us, almost swamping our small boat with its tsunami wake as it disappeared, suddenly ghostly gray in the afternoon gloom, heading out under the Golden Gate and into the mighty Pacific.

Sailing west under the Golden Gate Bridge • Photo by MMB

I’ve been shot at, stabbed, bit by dogs, but I’ve never been attacked by a sheep before.

A California Highway Patrol officer investigating a burglary at Rob’s house in East Palo Alto said this after being knocked to the ground from behind by Baby Bob, Rob’s viscous and unpredictable ram who lived and roamed freely in his 2 acre backyard. I always carried a 6 foot 2 x 4 or a baseball bat whenever I walked in that area to be able to subdue Baby Bob if he decided to charge me.

Baby Bob the lamb, before he grew up and turned into a dangerous ram monster • Photo by MMB

The 40 was on the floor, the weed was on the table and the pussy was in the bed.

Chuck, a black musician and a high school friend of my friend Rob said this to me, describing how he had spent his weekend furlough from San Quentin prison. The “40” was a 40 ounce stout malt liquor bottle. Chuck was in prison for attacking and robbing a young man in rural Foothill Park to supply his heroin habit. 

You no give me some Lolo I show you what I do! I show you what I do!

Uzi banana slayer

Clancey, a Napali Coast, Kauai, Zodiac boat captain shouted this just before cutting down a large banana tree with a hail of bullets from his Uzi sub machine gun in his front yard, when my friend and employer David would not give him a joint (“Lolo” in Hawaiian parlance) at 6:30 in the morning. Clancy had good reason to be agitated. He ran his own company, running eco-tourists up and down the Napali Coast and depositing them on the beach of the Kalalau Valley where many would camp and hike. Clancy had just won a new, year long extension of his Zodiac boat service. Clancy was a haole (white person), though he had lived in Hanalei for many years and spoke pidgen English most of the time and hired locals to be his boat captains.

The native Hawaiians were very angry that the Zodiac travel boat concession had been granted to a Haole, though Clancy had offered to give the state a higher percentage of his earnings than the locals had. The evening before Clancy’s machine gun, banana tree slaying event, some of his unhappy competitors for the Napali travel concession had slashed several of his rubber Zodiac boats and thrown their 75 horsepower outboard motors into the ocean. At the time, Kauai had a wild west feel, especially out there where the roads ended and the Napali cliffs rose up thousands of feet out of the Pacific. Clancy was an excitable boy by nature, but this attack on his boats and livelihood put him over the edge. 

Banana tree

I clocked him ‘cause he was talkin’ bad ‘bout my Mama!

At P.S. 125, my elementary school in the heart of Harlem with the numeric, gulag prison name, the worst thing you could do was to slander another kid’s Mother. There were weekly fights when somebody’s Mama’s honor had been tarnished and had to be defended with fists and thunderous insults and counter insults.

Belligerent humiliations were thrown down such as “Yo Mama so ugly when she took a bath, the water jumped out of the tub” or “Yo Mama so ugly, she scared the shit out of the toilet, “or “Yo Mama so stupid, she returned a donut ‘cause it had a hole in it.” 

I was once escorted to the principal’s office in second grade by my brother, who was a playground monitor, for disciplinary action after being accused by Ricky Fujikawa of  “talkin’ ‘bout his Mama,’ a charge I vigorously denied because it was a lie. If I had learned anything about street and playground culture in 1950’s Harlem, it was that you never “talked bad ‘bout nobody’s Mama, not now, not ever, not never!”

PS 125 • My 5th grade class • 1962

The hands of the dead press through the stone from the other side – meeting those of the living – palm to palm and finger to finger.

The hands of time

I had been hiking down a remote canyon next to a stream in Capitol Reef National Park in Utah, when I stopped to rest in a small bubble of a cave to seek shelter from the hot summer sun. I lay down and closed my eyes and rested in the cool shade. When I opened my eyes a few moments later I was astonished to see five red hand prints on the roof of the cave, only a few feet above where I was resting. I felt the shock of recognition and connection across centuries with these stone age artists who had made their handprints on rock using red pigments made from rocks, living a life unimaginable to me and leaving a record of their lives in the rock and waving hello to me across the millennia. As I raised my hands up to greet them it was one of the most startling and immediate experiences of art that I have ever had. 

Don’t you never kill no womens.  You might go around, and you might sometimes kill some mens, but don’t you kill no women or that liable to be the end of you.

I first heard this good advice from the folk singer and blues artist Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) in a book on the history of the blues. I heard his musical student, Josh White, when I was a child in New York, but Leadbelly was gone a couple of years before I was born. He gave this counsel in a talk at Harvard University, where graduates kill each other much more often with the somewhat more subtle tools of economic mayhem and social injustice class warfare. Leadbelly knew what he was talking about, as he had been imprisoned in Louisiana for killing one of his relatives, Will Stafford, in a fight over a woman. While in prison, he was stabbed in the neck by another inmate. After his release he was imprisoned again in New York several years later for stabbing another man in a bar fight.

When I was a child I heard Pete Seeger perform several times in New York City. He sang “Frankie and Johnny” a sad ballad about a woman shooting and killing her unfaithful man, as well as “The Streets of Laredo,” an old West song about a cowboy shot and mortally wounded by another cowboy over a card game gone wrong in a saloon. My mother often sang these songs as we drove between New York and New England on our way to our country home and on our many cross country drives from coast to coast. 

Murder ballads are staples of folk and country music, many of them originating in England, Scotland and Scandanavia and changing and morphing after they crossed the Atlantic to America to include stories of more recent crimes and killings. I have heard enough of these songs of the murderous deeds of men and women who were done wrong to fill a small jail with assassins, at Americana and Folk music festivals over the years. In spite of Leadbelly’s advice, I have no plans to kill some mens and will not kill no womens neither.