Travels, Travails and Tribulations

My friend Jay asked a gas station attendant how to get to our hotel on the shores of Moosehead Lake in northern Maine, where we were trying to find our lodgings for a friend’s wedding on a nearby island, when we received these cryptic Down East travel instructions: “Well, you just go right on over and straight up!” We immediately went right on over but were somehow unable to go straight up.

We found our hotel eventually, and I travelled to the ceremony on the island the next morning on water skis, towed by the bride’s brother behind the “Merganser,” their 1940’s mahogany speedboat named for an obscure local species of duck. It was the first and only time I have ever water skied to a wedding.

Soon after we arrived on the small island, owned by the bride’s family for generations, the preacher descended from the heavens in a seaplane, landed on the water just offshore and loudly taxied up to the dock, where he hugged the bride and groom on the dock and soon commenced the ceremony, in which the groom quoted apocalyptic Jimi Hendrix lyrics as a part of his vows.

Mount Kineo Hotel, Moosehead lake

Water skiing

When I was 11 years old I spent the summer in rural western Massachusetts, as I did every summer of my childhood, wandering around the fields and woods with my best pal, Stevie Wolf.  In those days, we had no phones or screens to distract us then, so we had to invent our own fun. Stevie’s father owned over 50 acres of farm land which had been cleared into agricultural land in the 18th and 19th centuries, but much of which was reverting back into forests by the 1950’s and 1960’s, after many of the farmers had moved further west to where there was better land and a somewhat more temperate climate.

We spent a lot of time in a young pine forest far below Stevie’s family’s house, which was called “The Maxwell Pasture,” though it was far from being a field or pasture at that point. It was covered with hundreds of young white pine trees that were from 10’ – 20’ tall. Stevie and I decided that we would bring an axe down there and build a log cabin for our new playhouse and fort. I knew that my ancestors had moved from Scotland to the Catskill mountains in upstate New York in 1820 and had cleared the virgin forest and built and lived in a log cabin, and I wanted to learn what their lives had been like. We had cut down several trees for our cabin when Stevie decided that he would like to climb to the top of one of the trees that I was chopping down and ride it to the ground as it fell. What could possibly go wrong?

He scrambled up to the crest of a 15’ tree and as I began chopping he positioned himself so that he would be on the high side of the tree when it hit the ground, cushioned from the fall by the numerous springy and supple branches on the other side of the tree. After many mighty vigorous swings of the axe I yelled “Timber!” and the tree swayed and crashed to the ground. Stevie emerged from the tangle of branches and pine needles laughing and exhilarated. I needed to try it next, and a new and dangerous game was invented that we played many times. We had a whole forest to fool with where no adults ever went.

We were also both young Robin Hood archers and spent much of our time shooting arrows into hay bales and trees for a couple of summers, and trying unsuccessfully to shoot woodchucks. We liked to draw back our bows as far as we could and send our arrows flying up into the heart of the empty sky and catch the arrows just before they hit the ground with a flourish & whoop, a game which could have easily turned our eyes, hands or faces into shish-kebabs.

Woodcutter – Ferdinand Hodler

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 in Palo Alto into a trailer park in Sunnyvale California, and we had had trouble with the jammed loading gate of the rented moving truck, which had delayed their move time to early evening. One of their new neighbors in the trailer park did not like the fact that we were moving them in just 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 on my quarter century birthday.

Don’t move or I’ll shoot!

James Claude Thomson (my grandfather) was a wonderful storyteller and told me this tale, describing his life in Nanking, China in the 1920’s after having his house burglarized, having already paid the King of Thieves protection money to keep from being robbed. After asking the King of Thieves what had happened to his household possessions, and reminding him of his pre-paid tribute, his stolen items were returned along with an apology and a deep bow, along with a promise that the thief would be reprimanded, and a solemn promise that it would never happen again.

My grandparents on their 50th wedding anniversary, dressed in Chinese silks

I was eating lunch in a small Thai restaurant in Berkeley with my aunt Nancy Waller and her childhood friend from China, the religious scholar and author Huston Smith, when he recounted the murder of his grand daughter, Serena Karlan. Huston was one of the world’s most influential figures in religious studies. He had authored thirteen books on world’s religions and philosophy, and his book “The World’s Religions” sold over three million copies and remains a popular introduction to comparative religion. He was a friend of Ram Dass and Timothy Leary in the early 1960’s and was interested in what he called ”empirical metaphysics,” using LSD, peyote and psychedelic mushrooms back when they were still a legal means towards spiritual understanding and transcendence. 

My aunt had known him in high school in China, where both of their parents were missionaries. At the time of their reunion and our lunch date, Houston was in his early 90s and was very hard of hearing. As a result, his speaking voice was like an over amplified megaphone. As we nibbled spring rolls, he loudly recounted that his granddaughter had fallen in love with a professional black American basketball player, Bison Dele, and had sailed from New Zealand to Tahiti with him and his brother Miles on Bison’s yacht. Somewhere near Tahiti, for unknown reasons, Miles killed Bison, Serena and the skipper of the boat and threw them overboard. The sailboat was abandoned and was later found with ID plates removed and several bullet holes crudely patched. The suspect suicidally overdosed on insulin while in custody and died, never divulging what had transpired on board.

Huston, in his slow, booming, stentorian voice, enthralled us and all of the diners in the tiny restaurant with his sad and tragic tale. When we dropped him off at his home he gave me a book he had written on Zen Buddhism, with the admonition to be sure to pick my friends very carefully.

Houston Smith • Religious Scholar and Empirical Metaphysician

My mother made this statement about the writer, Norman Mailer, who she had just met for the first time. We were spending a summer weekend at my uncle’s cottage nestled in the stunted pines off in the remote dunes in Truro Massachusetts, out toward the easternmost end of Cape Cod. My uncle James Thomson was head of Harvard’s Nieman Foundation and had worked in the West Wing of the White house for several years during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. His mother always thought that he would become Secretary of State, but he quit his job as an Asia foreign policy analyst over the escalation of the Vietnam war, so that never transpired.

He had taken my parents to a literary party in Provincetown where the author Norman Mailer had assaulted one of the guests. Mailer was famous (perhaps infamous) for his drunken behavior. He was arrested for stabbing his wife twice during a party in 1960 when he announced his intention to run for mayor of New York. My mother was appalled when she recounted to us at breakfast the next morning what had happened at the party that her brother had taken her to.

Anger Management Failure

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 past Alcatraz Island on a sunny day

Martha, an old black woman sitting in my friend Rob Willson’s kitchen in East Palo Alto said this to me, showing us the chrome plated .38 special pistol she kept in her purse and explaining how she stopped young men from robbing her with it’s persuasive powers. At the time in the 1980’s, East Palo Alto was the murder capital of the United States, and no one was safe on its streets.

Chrome Plated Persuader

Grace, a white woman in her late 60’s and Rob Willson’s neighbor in East Palo Alto told me this, explaining how she had pulled the ghost sheet costume off of the young black kid who was stabbing her on her front porch on Halloween night, so she could know who was trying to kill her. 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 act of ”disrespect” was reason enough for him to try to kill her. She survived and saw who was trying to kill her, and after a long recovery, sold her house and moved back to Oklahoma, where the neighbors were much more friendly.

Evil is alive and well

I was walking down a sketchy street in downtown LA in the early evening, when I heard a young black hooker ask this question to a pair of patrolling street beat cops on a busy neon lit boulevard. I was strolling with my wife and our son, who went to school at nearby USC. He was taking us to a bar that he favored that specialized in whiskey and bourbon. 

USC used to be out in the countryside when it was founded in 1880, but urban sprawl has surrounded it and it is now centered directly between the Barrio and the  ‘Hood, often creating security issues for the mostly affluent kids who go to school there. USC has sometimes been unfairly described as the “University of Spoiled Children” rather than the University of Southern California.

Los Angeles at night

Laura and I were trying to get out of Avignon, France by hitch hiking, standing on the road side a few miles from town where we had been dropped off by our previous ride, but nobody would stop to pick us up. She had the idea that if we each tried to flag down rides on opposite sides of the road, we might have better luck. We wanted to get back to downtown Avignon, centre-ville, so that we could take a train out of town, or get a ride north by hitch hiking, which ever came first. 

I stood on the south bound side of the National route and she stood on the north bound side with our thumbs both extended. She was far better looking than me at age 19, and a truck filled with coal stopped for her quickly. I ran across the road and the Spanish truck driver was extremely unhappy to see me as part of the ride package. He angrily threw my back pack high atop of his load of coal, refusing to let me keep it in the cab, and I climbed into his big rig, not knowing if I would ever see my teetering, unsecured pack with my passport and clothes inside it ever again. 

We drove on for several miles, when he suddenly turned off onto a dirt road and drove into an isolated quarry. He stopped the truck and told us to get out. I had a Boy Scout hunting knife strapped to my belt, and he suddenly grabbed me, put his arm around my neck, pulled the knife out of its sheath, and held it against my back. He asked me in Spanish why I had a knife, and I told him that I was practising to be a bull fighter, and might use it on cats. He was not impressed with my lame, improvised attempt at gallows humor, but he told us that if Laura would give him a very long kiss, he would leave us there and let us go. She acquiesced, seeing our dangerous predicament in a very isolated spot, and after the horrible kiss was over, he got back in his rig and left us choking on the dust of his coal truck.

We walked back a mile or so to the main road and flagged down a diabetic Dutchman who did not have rape or murder on his to do list, but badly needed a shot of insulin, and chided us for having the gall to “Travel on someone else’s money,” though he had voluntarily stopped to give us a ride.  After that I stuck to train transportation, as this incident was the very end of my hitch hiking travels and travails.

The Hitch Hiker

My Boy Scout hunting knife

We were on the Pennsylvania Turnpike going west, close to Beaver Falls, when our faded green 1945 Studebaker sedan, prone to mechanical failure and breakdowns, broke down once again. We had just moved to New York City from Minnesota and were in rural Pennsylvania close to Harrisville, perhaps to see the Brown Family graves – but more likely my father was off to give a sermon or perform a wedding or ordain someone. 

My mother was very concerned because there was a serial murderer ( “The Turnpike Murderer”) who was killing stranded motorists and sleeping truckers at the time. Truckers feared for their lives along the “Superhighway,” as it was then called, in the very early days of 4 lane roads in America. Drivers traveled in convoys, equipped with guns, baseball bats, jack handles and other “weapons.” They stopped and rested in groups for their mutual safety.

My brother and father walked to a nearby farmhouse to call a tow truck while my mother and I went and hid in the woods. When the tow truck finally arrived, we emerged from our hiding place in the bushes. Peter and my father were in the cab of the truck with the trucker and his son. Peter wondered years later if the young kid was future football great Joe Namath – Namath being from Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. They took us to a motel, and towed the car to their garage and we avoided being victims of “The Turnpike Murderer” who turned out to be a 26 year old psycho killer, a young man who was later captured, tried and executed for his crimes, finally caught through pawning dead trucker’s loot in far away New Mexico.

The Turnpike Killer

Clancy – A haole (white) Zodiac boat captain shouted this command just before cutting down a large banana tree in his front yard with a hail of bullets from his Uzi sub machine gun, when my friend and employer David Kuraoka would not give him a joint (“Lolo” in Hawaiian parlance) at 6:30 in the morning. 

Banana tree

Uzi sub machine gun

Clancy was trembling with rage, as the many inflatable Zodiac adventure boats that he owned and made his living with, had been slashed the previous evening, and the outboard motors that powered them had been thrown into the ocean. He had recently been granted by the state of Hawaii the lucrative concession to ferry adventurers into the remote Napali Coast and Kalalau Valley by boat, and his native Hawaiian competitors were extremely angry that a haole (white person) had gotten this contract. They had slashed his inflatable boats and thrown his outboard motors into the ocean that evening, to clearly make their displeasure known.

Napali coast and Kalalau Valley

After hearing this, it finally became clear to David why Clancy needed some Lolo to calm himself down. After his display of macho madness he got his Lolo. Some people have an overpowering need to “wake and bake” and will do whatever is necessary to start the day, especially after a very bad night.

Here’s Jakob Dylan singing about the current state of Evil:

Here’s Bruce Cockburn singing about Lovers in a Dangerous Time and kicking at the darkness until it bleeds daylight: