Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Pueblo

Christmas Morning....

The sun has broken through and, although God has decided that the deep snowy sunscape beneath should stay awhile (it's below zero out there), it is nice to have a break. And the presents are under the tree and waiting, which I am delaying going at with my bare hands until I have everything else in the house just right. A few minutes from now. I found a place to make a fifty out of two twenties and a ten, so I have the paper person's tip ready to post. Hopefully, that person will not take 'Halloween' type action against me for a few days, or so I hope.

I have placed a couple of stories inside the body of my posts over the past few days. They have related to Christmas, or the poignancy of it all, in some way or another. Here is one from the mid-nineties when I was not yet 'all that I could be.'

Christmas Pueblo

I found myself inside the confines of the Santa Fe County jail on some vague trumped-up charge. I was in the 'drunk tank,' which is what the cells they use for new prisoner intake are called there. No bars, no windows, just concrete and steel. No way to see out of the ten by twelve box and no ability to hear. Thankfully I was alone for the first few hours, as I had to come to terms with being inside an American institution for the first time (I had already been in a few abroad, so I was not exactly a 'new fish'), and this was not much fun. It was Christmas Eve. Late into the afternoon. The heartless Santa Fe 'Gestapo' had shown no mercy, in spite of the impending holiday. The way I saw it, I was a gringo and they were anything but. They probably saw it in a more 'Harry Callahan' kind of way. The tank did not remain empty for too long. The riff-raff of evening Santa Fe, New Mexico, began to flow in, dredged from a pristine city that prides itself on not having any homeless people. No, they don't, as all of the potentials get combed off the streets and into that heartless modern version of the Bastille, conveniently located five miles South of even the most outer edge of the town.

The cell became so crowded that the entry of one more body meant that there was just no floor space left. And then they opened the door and forced a huge American Indian through. They slammed it shut again, immediately. He stood there for a few seconds, then stared at the man laying next to me on the bare concrete floor. The man moved, finally settling atop the rim of the stainless steel john located in the corner. The Indian took his place, and glared over at me, inches away, when I happened to look into his eyes. This was no Little Big Man Indian of great good cheer and ancient wisdom, like Chief Dan George. No, this was an Indian from hell, more like that one who killed the girl in the Mohican's film a few years back. I showed no fear, but did look away. I was already an old hand at the predation game. You do not show fear to a predator. That is what the predator is looking and waiting for, because it identifies you as prey. No, you meet predation by impassive and emotionless presentation. The predator then takes you for a predator, as well, and there is no point in attacking another predator unless territory is an issue, or survival. You will only likely get hurt, and predators are deathly afraid of injury, as then they become prey.

There was no trouble from the Indian, as the hours passed, nor from any of the usual suspects. Just prisoners inconveniencing the poor guy who's only spot was the on top of the john. He had to move so the drunks could be sick, and worse. Some head of corrections guy must have known a modicum of mercy that night, or, more likely, there were just too many prisoner's for the place to hold, because they came for me. The guards called my name and told me that I was being 'rolled out,' which is prison slang for being released. I went with enthusiasm, but somehow kicked the foot of the snoozing Indian as I departed. "Excuse me White Eyes!" he hissed up, already into a sitting position as I turned. I held together against the pure ferocity of his expression and the penetration of his hawk-like eyes. "My apologies, I was careless," I stated, flatly. Then I moved slowly to join the corrections officer at the door. The Indian's eyes followed me out the door and remained embedded in my mind as I went through the many steps of processing out. Finally, the guards took me to the big door of intake, opened the steel slab with a key about the size of a Waring blender, and shoved me through it. Merry Christmas, the guard said with a laugh, then slammed the door. My relief was immense, until I looked about me. The sodium yellow of the parking lot lamps allowed the driving snow to appear as if I was standing adjacent to Niagra Falls. And it was cold. I wore an old Sheepskin Company coat so I knew I was not likey to freeze, the torso of my body anyway. But I did not know how I was going to make it the many miles to town, much less a few more miles to anywhere I could get a ride. I turned to see if there was a pay phone on the wall to call a cab, but there was nothing. Only the pitiless concrete.

For an instant I felt relief, as the steel door opened again and I saw the warmth that had been prevalent inside. But that was extinguished in an instant, as the big Indian was pushed through the door, before it slammed again. There we were, and I knew fear. He looked down at me with no expression on his face. I tried to look impassive once more, but I knew I was not doing well because I saw a slow cruel smile begin to form around the edges of his mouth. Then he spoke. "Where you going?"

I was surprised. Not that he would talk but that this time he did so in clear unaccented English, not like he had sounded inside. "To town," I murmured, motioning back with my right shoulder. "Never make it. Not on a night like this," he mused, more to himself than to me. He looked out at the scene I had first encountered. The snow was coming down heavier. Then he shrugged. "You can come with me to the pueblo. It's down the way," he gestured south with his own shoulder. I looked off toward the darkness, then looked to the parking lot. But it was Christmas, and i could not stay there, and I knew I could not make it to town. I shrugged with deep resignation. "Okay," I said aloud, then whispered to myself, "let it be Quick." I followed the Indian into the night. There was no trail, there was no moonlight or any other way to establish bearings. So I just followed the huge man closely. We moved downhill, through the La Bajada Canyon, finally trudging under an overpass which held up the four lanes of Interstate forty.

A yellow glow in the distance became the pueblo. The Indian wormed his way between the densely packed mud buildings. Lights glared out, to assure us that the snow had not abated in it's attack. We came around a corner to a wooden door. The upper floor of the adobe structure jutted out above, so we stood and beat the snow from our clothing and boots as best we could. The door opened without anybody knocking. An old woman stuck her head out, then motioned us both inside. I stepped into a different world. The room was filled with people of all ages. They were all sitting at the many tables, seemingly strew about without order. The big Indian motioned me to an empty seat between two young boys. He said nothing. They said nothing. I sat, more in shock and wonder than because I was willingly following rational directions. The two boys reached for bowls and started scooping stuff onto my plate. Tortillas and burritos. I did not even know what Indians ate until then. Corn things, with lots of hot sauces. Everyone went back to eating. They did not look at me, so I started eating as well. I ate the whole plate, so the boys refilled it without any request on my part. When I finished the second plate, they refilled it again. I looked over at the old woman, whom the big Indian had seated himself next to. I saw here smile very briefly. Then the big Indian smiled for the first time, and I understood without any words being necessary. The old woman liked the fact that I loved her food. And the big Indian appreciated that.

"This is my family," he said, gesturing around at all the people at all of the tables. They smiled, as if on cue. "Welcome to the Reservation and my family. I'll drive you back to town tomorrow. But its Christmas, so maybe you want to stay longer for the ceremony." I nodded, only briefly wondering if the 'ceremony' had anything to do with a White Man being cooked in a pot over a roaring fire. "Merry Christmas," I said, as I nodded with enthusiasm, a genuine smile creasing my face for the first time in months. "Merry Christmas," they all yelled back in unison, then began talking, laughing and carrying on, just as if I was an Indian returning to his home.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Nativity Scene

The Manger

It is said that St. Francis of Assisi created the first Nativity Scene in his yard. The mythology has it that he set up a manger, and the then made up other characters from whatever he had laying around. He wanted to recreate the birth of Christ, the best he could, for himself and his friends. I have one. A manger and the Nativity Scene characters. The stable I made myself out of some old wood with a hand saw and some nails. It has survived intact for twenty-nine years. In 1969 I was fresh out of the hospital from getting all shot up in Vietnam. I could not be a Marine and I could not walk, or move well enough, to get a job. So I sat around and waited. During this time I found a small apartment in San Clemente to live in. So cheap that my other dwellers in the six-plex were new immigrants from Vietnam. Strange, to circulate among them every day as I limped around with nothing to do. One day I encountered an older man, who I knew to be the head of one of the families living there. His name was Huang Nguyen. Somehow, he had found out something of my service in his former country. He approached, shook my hand, and then apologized. I didn't get it. I tried to get to the bottom of things but his English was bad. Instead he invited me in to meet his wife and three young children. They treated me very nicely, and I was surprised. In country, the Vietnamese civilians I met had all been cold and remote. Huang took me into his bedroom/office. There he showed me two pictures on his walls. One was of him walking arm in arm with Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the North Vietnamese Army. In the other, he was striding along, a huge smile on his face, with Robert McNamera. I asked Huang who he really was. He told me that he was the former Province Commander of the I Corps area. I was stunned. That was the area I fought all over and had been wounded in. I asked Huang who's side he had really been on. He said that he was on both. He had a family. He did not know who was going to win. He then asked me what I would have done in his place. I thought over that one, and then had to laugh. We shook hands again, both laughing. We would have become friends, I think, except the language barrier was just too great. And maybe, I was too soon from that awful war.

It was just before Christmas, when Huang and I met that year. On Christmas Eve, his oldest daughter, a pudgy cute little thing everyone called Hamburger, because of her proclivity for those things, knocked on my door. She handed me a bag and said Merry Christmas, then giggled and ran. I took the bat in and opened all the small packages wrapped inside. The Three Wise Men. The manger. The baby Jesus. Mary and Joseph. The dutiful cow, sheep and donkey. And a big camel. All the pieces are porcelain and gilded with gold that has not tarnished to this day. The sit this evening in my home-made stable atop a special table near the base of my tree.

I think often of Huang and Hamberger. I wonder what became of them. They were always wonderful to me and seemed to always act surprised that I was wonderful back to them. As much as I could be. I had nothing but limps, scars and painful memories back then. Why did Huang apologize? Why were they so nice? Why did they give me a Nativity Scene, of all things? Today, I don't know anymore than I knew back then, although I have had a lot of time to think and many more battles to grow more experienced. If there is a God. If there really is a Jesus. Then Huang and his family were sent to help me through. To help me understand, at that so very difficult a time, that the Vietnamese people were not to blame. That they were not much different than we are, and were. That my pain did not have to be translated into an eternal hatred. And so I have the set. And it means a lot to me. Christmas is special in so many ways to me, and I wish that the spirit evident in this season would seep through to the rest of the year for everyone.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Star Trek

What was it about that show? The many shows? Why is it so popular? Why do people, many of them anything but whacked-out science-fiction nuts, flock to the conferences? Because it is about philosophy, life and the human condition. That series of shows and movies always remained oriented around truth, justice and the dream of a better future. The dream of adventure filled with compassion and caring. Even when using such dialogue as "the need of the many outweighs the need of the few," it was written from a viewpoint of self-sacrifice, not enforced sacrifice. We are tribal in nature, we band of humans. We are not national or international, except by association. We take care of the people we know. The people we like. We admire cult, television and sports stars from afar, and it is to their advantage that most never become known by almost anyone, other than those selected to be in their close tribes.

We are living in a time when we are going to be forced to become more homogeneous, not less. We are not going to be run by some international government, or, if we are, we are not going to care. We are going to soon be forced to look within, to our family, our circle of close friends, our neighborhood. And that is where we shine. Just as the 'tribe' in Star Trek was, in reality, a small cadre of tribal members who manned the bridge of the Enterprise, or appeared on it regularly. There is even a standing joke among Trekkies with respect to crewmen who wore red uniforms. When those 'non-tribal member' crewmen appeared in a scene you knew they were going to get killed by the aliens or in some gruesome accident. And it did not matter all that much. But when a tribal member was lost to the show, as in life, then there was grief and wailing to no end.

Tribalism is good. From the close association of tribal members comes new ideas. Comes synergy of ideas and work. Comes survival cooperation. We are all in this life to survive and propagate. That is it. All that was given to us by biology and physics. But we, us homo sapiens, have taken that to a height beyond what we know to be the case in this universe. We have used tribalism to advance ourselves to the point where we can actually give ourself as one for the good of the many. And that is a tribal achievement. Our young men and women still dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, are not dying for the money, the contract they signed, or for the Marine Corps or the Army. They are not dying and being horrendously wounded for you and me. Unless that you and me has a family member or friend doing so. They are doing it for the tribe they serve with and the tribe they have back home. It is how we get through. How we survive. And it is good.

As Obama is organizing a tribe to surround him in the White House, to supplement the family one he is moving in there, we are called upon to do the same thing in our lives. Think. You have time. Who do you want in your tribe? What does it take to have that participation? What must you do to be a member? What must you require of other's for their membership? It is time to take an active role in such thoughts, and then actions. In this direction lies bliss. Joe Campbell. This is about Joe's understanding of mythology and the real world. Come in from the real world. You can only survive the real world by living in the mythical one.

My coming series, called The Mastodons, is all about this. The first book is called The Boy and will be available at soon. Come, adventure with me.