Subtract 200 from 2014, add a little steam, and you're thrown into present day Amazonia. Today I spoke during a 50-cent canoe taxi ride from Iquitos city shore to shore of Prospero Island about life on an amazon farm that is an American success story. Prospero Island is two miles in diameter – half as big six months ago – at 4 steamy degrees south of the equator. The Isle has a natural irrigation system from the dripping rainforest and an inimitable fertilization system with a seasonal 35 feet vertical drop in water level. Hence, we would land twenty minutes later on the Island when it is nearly its smallest, and richest, for the 500 farmers.
Aboard the 30' pecapeca (motorized canoe) taxi, I spoke with Señora Verde, and penetrated her chocolate eyes, because I always liked gardening. I slept as an infant in a hand-paw dug flowerbed depression with a Basset like it was a cradle, once as a tyke my mother told me if I kept digging in the potato patch I'd reach China and I tried till eight feet, as a teen weeded the neighbors' shrubbery for free, in university only Farmhouse Fraternity rushed me, and I actually ended up living now in a 10' hole in the ground (with a trailer pushed in) like a savvy mammal of the Sonora desert. I would not say I found God, nor would I admit missing him.
By the time our canoe taxi reached the outlying island, I knew enough to tell you how to become an Amazon farmer. It begins with a machete. When John Denver sang that 'Life on the farm is kinda lay back…' he was daydreaming. In the Amazon, the machete replaces the shovel; a wheelbarrow in lieu of tractor; and canoe to market in place of a truck. The overhead amounts to the cost of the seeds. When it comes time to fertilize, following three annual crops, the river rises ten vertical meters, laps over the land and covers the family's two hectares (five acres) with one meter of water. Five months later, the water blanket evaporates, leaving an inch or so of rich black deposit from the Amazon River. The food quality down here in the jungle tropics is due to the soil, and water, from days of travel and hundreds of miles upriver at the base of the Andes Range, and its snow melt. It's a fascinating balance.
Ayn Rand, who loved a good farmer in Anthem, wrote 'The fields are black and ploughed, and they lie like a great fan before us, with their furrows gathered in some hand beyond the sky, spreading forth from that hand, opening wide apart as they come toward us, like black pleats that sparkle with thin, green spangles.' This better describes the four Verde children with brushed hair, sun dried clothes, and river polished shoes, rather than the muddy shore the taxi bumped in the traditional Amazon docking to hit and stick. Señora Verde boasted rising, 'I made the children with my husband to work the farm, because that's what life is about.' The kids, three boys, a youngest sister, and all aged 4-10, beamed until the calluses on their hands and feet nearly popped.
The leading strategy of American farming, and worldwide, is crop rotation or changing plants in succession on the same land to preserve the productive capacity of the soil. For example, the rich, clay loam of the Black Hills of South Dakota resembles the banks around us on the Rio Amazon where it's slippery to hike but if you fall the mouthful of dirt tastes okay. The primary crop in the Black Hills is corn, which is especially demanding for soil nutrients, and not everything does well after an encore of corn. Although corn taxes the soil, if potatoes follow, they leave it fairly unhindered. Potatoes and squash, being both big leafy plants, back-to-back serve as cleaning crops to reduce weed pressure, in preparation for beans in the next rotation. Beans are fantastic nitrogen fixers, which prepare the earth for corn again. They are called the 'Four Brothers'; they sustain each other.
However, this earth chess isn't played down on the Amazon farms. Señora Verde plants corn, then corn, and a third crop of corn. The initial yield's the biggest (10¨ long x 2¨ diameter), the sweetest, and most plentiful. The second crop is still good, and the third poorer. Then rises the Amazon River during the five month 'fertilization season' when the soil is totally refreshed. And it's organic.
Millions of families throughout the Amazon sit in their huts like frogs throughout the five month high water, and this has made them a patient, verbal society. As the water rises from the snowmelt from December through April the island diameter shrinks 50%, which in land area is like turning a XL pizza into a small. Up comes the river slapping at the ladders to the hut platforms on 8' stilts. The kids no longer walk to school, which is also raised on 8' pilings, but canoe there. For the past two years, the water change has been 40 vertical feet and flowing into their living rooms, so they smile and paddle in the front door to the supper table, or bed, where belongings are heaped for a couple months until the ebb. Virtually everyone on the island admits to an amphibian's insight, and enjoys the dry season more.
There are two types of farms on the Isle: group owned, which is shared, and individual or family owned. She prefers their independent farm in trying to explain an individuality that when her corn is ripe today, mine may be tomorrow, but she doesn't want to labor both days for us. She teaches her children not to depend upon the debt nor gratitude of others. Sow, the family labors alone. And so, the ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.
Now, the old family farm of the Verdes is popping up the cash crop and the children have corn kernels in place of missing teeth in their smiles. They say still they enjoy the taste of it after pulling hundreds of thousands of ears in their short lifetimes. Harvest is the most joyful part of farming around the globe, but in the Amazon it's achieved differently. The corn is plucked and stuck into rice bags the size of pillow cases that, when full, weigh about 20 pounds each. These are loaded from the field into a wheelbarrow and carted a quarter-mile to the family motorized canoe, which carries the harvest two miles across the strait to the Iquitos Mercado Productores. This rambling shoreside market reminds me of the first supermarket that supposedly appeared on the American landscape in 1946. Until then, where was all the food? It was in gardens, homes, local fields, and forests, cellars and pantries, and on the tables. Now, with markets, one may specialize in something outside agriculture, while remembering the most important product is produce. Each Verde crop of approximately 1000 sacks sells for $5 each, so thrice yearly the family nets $5,000 for a royal total, almost pure profit, of $15,000 per annum.
The Señora grins that theirs is the richest, because they are the hardest working, family on the Isle. Then she admits that she toils during the hot, dry season that she may afford to make more babies during the stilted high water who will grow into workers. They spend the profit on clothes, school books, and an extended family. None of the other families work as hard as the Verdes, she claims, and right now her husband is weeding in the field with the sole farm tool, a 3' machete, while many of the rest are drinking the local aguardiente alcohol. She describes farming as a progression of hope, and with two index fingers rising in parallel points at a direct proportion between how hard one works and the standard of living. Many of the other families jump out of Aesop's Fable of the Grasshopper and Ants who sing through the planting season, and watch their ribs stick further and further out during the high water, as opposed to fewer Ant families like the Verdes who never want.
A farm is a manipulative creation. The maker is responsible, from start to finish, for the thing made. There is no such thing as finished. Work comes in a stream and has breaks, but has no end. Things must be done now and not later. The threat the farm gets on you, that keeps you running from furrow to furrow, is this: do it now.
It's time to get you a pair of overalls.
Pecking order is a hierarchical system of social organization that originally referred to the dominance in chickens, like those that run the yards at my Sand Valley neighbors. Power in chickens is asserted by various behaviors, including pecking, but in other animals by tooth and claw, while humans use lingo, gloves, shivs, and money.
The ultimate function of a pecking order, as reported from the ivory towers, is to increase the individual or inclusive fitness of the animals involved in its formation. Closer to the truth, in the wilds, fighting to acquire resources such as food, water and mates is expensive in terms of energy and the risk of injury, and by developing a pecking order animals determine which individuals get priority access to resources, particularly when they are limited.
The order isn't as neat as a deck of cards, graceful as a statistical curve, exacting as a Marine roster, or accurate as a mafia hit system, however it's seen in every walk of life.
Today, while walking the jungle trail around the Island of Iquitos on crutches, I fell upon two men sparring their roosters 'with the gloves on'. Each bird wore ping pong balls on the razor spurs, and a 6" segment of plastic tube that ran from the top to bottom beaks, thus dulling every strike. The animals fought bitterly without blood in an instinct for pecking order for three five minute rounds – the equivalent of about eight rounds of professional boxing – before being put to rest in the shade of a stilted hut. They looked like scuba chickens with regulators and floats, reminding me of when I was chicken to enter the oceanic job market that would include stints as a gardener, babysitter, construction, factory, shop, playground supervisor, cleaning kennels, veterinarian, hobo guide, landlord, author, publisher, teacher, security, professional athlete, coach, technical analyst, psych tech, old folks counselor, and swap meets.
'Money is the way we keep score at work,' told a one-lunged semi-pro quarterback and swap meet mogul. This is the attitude I've carried into each job, and that there must be more to work than money. You should consider jobs that you would do without a love for money, and let that score be secondary. This is possible in America, but less so among the masses of billions around the world. However, once you make enough money to buy the necessities and are able to focus on the luxuries, then the 'Pecking order of Finance' comes into play. This defines the capital structure of an entrepreneur or company, and how it makes financial decisions. The basic idea is that businesses will tend to take the course of least resistance in seeking their financial sources, taking first from the sources that are most readily available, and then steadily moving to sources that may be more difficult to utilize.
If you have ever watched a Peruvian crowd observe a weakened bird pecked to death in the wilds, or a dog among a pack, fish in a feeding frenzy, or cannibals around the spit in the Upper Amazon, it quickly becomes evident that they think differently than the reader. Why are they mesmerized? It's a death rehearsal for each observer, and he leaves the scene as if rising from a psychiatrist's couch and greatly relieved that the burdens of his life will end so effortlessly.
And, I clomped from the rooster fight with gloves, leaving stabs in the mud like dropped coconuts, to circle the island. I'm working out to recover from the worst case of anemia in jungle history, and yesterday was a bit dizzy in the steamy humidity and fell bruising a knee. The rental crutches should be pitched tomorrow to resume the normal mend. I hipped past the 800 lb. grandest pig of the island that grunted at the new look, and by a giant turkey that surpasses Guinness Book of Records for the biggest tom at 86 pounds that charged me like a Rottweiler with wings puffing its breast feathers and fanning its tail. But a 'Rule of Thumb' of pecking order is that if one individual sees the other is larger, faster, or more determined, he will back off. Previously, I hadn't had this problem with the animals, and believe they sensed a weakness.
Near the end of the two-mile perimeter hike the trail is trimmed to widen to enter a fifty shanty town on whose fringe a pack of about 15 dogs attacked me like buzzards after intestines. They were of innumerable breeds and varying size, barking 'Gringo!' Two wooden canines flashed unexpectedly and caught two of the curs in the chops, that sent the rest of them off yelping, as is the gang way.
The establishment of the dominance hierarchy reduces conflict and is a sort of account. I was the top chicken on the island today, and shall get the royal treatment tomorrow.
I feel like a Spanish conquistador on a small scale. My past vanquishes from seven trips to Peru include malaria, elephantitis, amoebic dysentery, hepatitis, and last year three fly larva with sprouting wings crawled beneath the skin looking for a way out. Once any disease is identified, the treatment is straightforward and efficacious, as with these. Each ailment, if one is able to study and feel it in progress, is an honor with a merit badge of antibodies or sash of resistance. I was ready for the next exotic disease.
However, I got blindsided yesterday with the diagnosis of chronic anemia from a worm infestation I had pined for since veterinary school out yonder in the Michigan countryside on call at the barnyards (our offices). There the extracurricular dogs, wasted and grown so thin they were shadows of dogs, except with hanging pot bellies, were dosed with worm medicine before we went on to the big jobs of treating the cows and horses. I grew fascinated with intestinal parasites but had no idea that the chronic anemia the suckers caused could nearly kill a person.
Anemia is a decrease in the number of red blood cells or less than the normal quantity of hemoglobin in the blood. Hemoglobin is a main part of red blood cells and binds oxygen. If you have too few red blood cells, or your hemoglobin is low, the cells in your body will not get enough oxygen. Breathing is like drawing air out of a paper bag. The name is derived from Ancient Greek ἀναιμία anaimia, meaning 'bloodlessness'. Because hemoglobin (found inside RBCs) carries oxygen from the lungs to the capillaries to every cell of the body, anemia leads to hypoxia (lack of oxygen) with varying degrees of anemia fostering a wide range of clinical consequences. Anemia is the most common blood condition in the U.S. affecting about 3.5 million Americans, while the 2014 issue of Blood magazine for medical practitioners reported that the global anemia prevalence in 2010 was 33% or 2.3 billion people.
Chronic is a condition that persists and has been present for at least three months. I'm certain my anemia was contracted nine months ago In Peru when I was unable for one month to escape the delivery boat of a demented captain far up the Rio Tigre and ate and hobnobbed with a string of villagers where hookworms are indigenous and zoonotic among their runt animals that made my earlier Michigan barnyard dogs and cats look like champions of show.
In collecting evidence on a medical subject there are three fronts: observation of the client, his history (more difficult for animal patients), and laboratory reports. My Peruvian doctor said I was as white as a ghost, and then began the history. A physician who takes a good history and a patient who gives one nearly always and quickly solve any mystery that we call illness. I learned the first rule is to take the history chronologically, and the pieces of the puzzle fall together into a diagnosis before the mercury is shaken down into the thermometer. Then he gasped as my lab reports popped up on his computer monitor. 'You'll be a very sick man if you're alive one month from now without treatment.'
My hemoglobin is 6.3 gm/dl while the adult male's normal range is 14-18 gm/dl. In the laboratory test hemoglobin (Hb) is measured as total hemoglobin and the result is expressed as the amount of hemoglobin in grams (gm) per deciliter (dl) of whole blood, a deciliter being 100 milliliters. My hematocrit by volume is 22% whereas the norm in males is 40-50%. Hematocrit is the ratio of red blood cells expressed as a percentage by volume of the blood. It can be said that I'm existing on less than half the oxygen of what the normal reader is.
The lab report supports my suspicion for the past two months that I am hypoxic; however I thought it due to a heart or lung condition and estimated the reduction of available oxygen at 30%. Unless you have been there, it is hard to explain how a desert dweller develops a skin like a coyote nose that detects water at a distance, and how an athlete who has jogged eight miles a day for twenty years owns a palpable cellular sensation for the presence, or absence, of oxygen. The three symptoms for the past two months have been dizziness, fatigue, and shortness of breath. To climb a flight of stairs has created the same oxygen debt as fifteen minutes of wind sprints with the similar inclination to keel over. Twice I've lost consciousness during uphill walks with the faint echo of the inspirational lyrics from The Impossible Dream, 'To try when your arms are too weary…to reach the unreachable star'.
I could never have imagined that a legion of vampire worms could cause such hypoxia to deprive an adequate oxygen supply and cause a near death experience. There have been a half-dozen instances when I felt I could 'will' myself to die as the old folks in homes that I used to do volunteer work at claimed was possible, and in Indian circles. It's a floating, paradoxical REM sleep. A person may die when, scientifically speaking, he ought to have lived if he is in an almost heaven. Yet, each time as consciousness drained like a liquid from lack oxygen in the brain, a spark ignited alertness perhaps due to old timers urgings such as 'This ain't a dress rehearsal, Sonny', and 'Get out and milk life dry.'
My nemesis is Uncinaria, a large family of hookworms that infects man and dogs, with frequent zoonotic transmission between them. These hookworms are present throughout the world, and especially in warmer climates. In the United States, hookworms are found everywhere and commonly along the East. Worldwide, zoonotic hookworms are found in tropical and subtropical regions where the parasite is better able to survive in the tropical conditions. Their mecca is the Amazon where they grow three times as large as anywhere else in the world to 1.5 inches.
These nematodes are slender beasts with bent heads like a hook for leverage of a hammer claw and a mouth with cutting plates and an inner single pair of teeth to bury deep in the intestinal mucosa to gnaw through the walls to the capillaries. All hookworms suck blood, and the Amazon variety are capable of removing 0.2mls of blood per worm, per 24 hour period. They are in competition with themselves for space and blood along the walls like bickering tenants in a skid row hotel, or old revolvers in newly opened mining districts so that when they do want RBCs, they want them badly. Dogs have been known to carry thousands of worms in their intestines, and I suppose given the chronic anemia that I may harbor as many.
The Uncinaria were positively identified yesterday in a microscope slide report at an Iquitos clinic that was tardy relative to the other results which had provided a clean bill of health. The lab report didn't quantify the infestation beyond 'heavy', and was supported by a greatly elevated eosinophil count of 27% (eosinophils usual account for less than 7% of circulating leukocytes) which makes it a textbook case of parasitosis, according to my Peruvian doctor who has seen several as severe.
The patient has two sleeves, one containing a diagnosis and the other a therapy. The diagnostic lab is my favorite area to place the first sleeve, and in vet school I worked six illuminating months as a budding medical Sherlock Holmes, as we all were, diagnosing diseases by a battery of tests – blood, fecal and a few others. The laboratory spun with tubes and slid with slides like a rock concert. The medical lab is the bastion of the fight against disease where the etiology of each is identified by the tests. Sometimes the lab reports weigh as much as the emaciated patients, so much the better. Reading them is exactly like perusing an Ellery Queen mystery such as The French Powder or The Dutch Shoe mystery and solving for the crime before the last page is turned. (By the way, Ellery Queen is both a fictional character and pseudonym used by two cousins from New York.) The laboratory is a palace of probability that few pathogens can sneak by undetected, and once fingered they stand little chance of survival.
'This is Good Medicine!' I cheered the doctor, on the way out the door, and he understood that modern medicine had diagnosed and would conquer another microscopic army that had tried too hard to infest a human body. If more smartly evolved, the worms would have allowed me to remain asymptomatic while sucking me dry instead of my plan to load for bear to kill them and then taking the advice of the oldsters to suck life dry.
Hippocrates advised, 'The physician must be able to tell the antecedents, know the present, and foretell the future — must mediate these things, and have two special objects in view with regard to disease, namely, to do good or to do no harm.' That is exactly what this seasoned tropical doctor did, and I walked out his office on lighter feet. He was a general physician, and It must be understood that no one can be a good physician who does not perform surgical operations. There is as great a difference between a physician and surgeon as between a mechanic who has learned from texts and one who has lifted hoods and had his hands in the muck. Never settle for a doctor or specialist who is not also a surgeon. Even in middle age he seems astonished at being paid for doing something as enjoyable as solving daily medical mysteries and curing. Wherever the art of medicine is loved, there is a love of humanity.
The doctor proposes that my severe condition, which he's seen in villagers that have a 20% incidence of hookworms, requires no blood transfusion. In the USA, in contrast, a severe anemia is defined as hemoglobin of 8.0 or less with symptoms present and is considered life threatening and prompt treatment is required. In U.S. my case would probably be met with a blood transfusion, which currently is controversial with a circulating slogan 'Anemic patients should know they have the right to speak up for a transfusion.' However, I've seen thousands of potbellied people and pups around the world looking more bedraggled than I, and don't worry a bit about the diagnosis. The anemia is a blessing, but a change, and requires a moment in the thick of the crisis to check the flow and redirect the focus.
After the diagnosis comes the treatment, as he penned two prescriptions in striking calligraphy: Albendazole and Confer. The former is a broad-spectrum anti-helminthic for roundworms, hookworms, threadworm, whipworm, pinworm, flukes, and other parasites that works by killing the worms straight out from the blood. It doesn't taste badly to me and I suspect something is added to intoxicate the toothy heisters. This really is war, with my life at stake, and theirs. Despite their sophisticated mouthparts, and a nervous system that may also deliver an almost heavenly state of consciousness, these bloodsuckers have no excretory organs and no circulatory system, that is neither a heart nor blood vessels.
I'm not a pill Frankenstein tampering with nature, but there are many bull's-eye synthetic and natural medicines that are literal miracles that I will take, and otherwise would be dead a few times over if having lived in the time of Tarzan a century ago. Albendazole is an efficacious one. It is commonly prescribed worldwide, and particularly in USA for zoonotic infections. It's on the World Health Organization's List of Essential Medicines, a tally of the most important medications needed in a basic health system. In 2013, GlaxoSmithKline, the principal international marketer of the drug, donated 763 million Albendazole tablets for the treatment and prevention of parasitic infections in developing countries such as Peru, bringing the total to over 4 billion tablets donated since 1998. Closer to home, since 2010, and for understandable reason, the U.S. price of Albendazole has increased by 4000% to over US$100 per 200-mg tablet. Disease is the biggest money maker in our economy. I paid 20 cents a tablet yesterday for my two-tab a day supply for one week totaling about $3.
In addition, I filled a prescription for an oral iron supplement called Confer. Unlike salt licks, you may not find the nearest igneous outcrop and expect to lick usable iron. Because iron is the principal component of hemoglobin, consuming a supplement and iron-rich foods will raise your hemoglobin levels. Dietary iron must be attached to either animal meat or plant tissue to be absorbed by our intestines, and the supplement probably contains both. I've also started eating iron rich seafood, red meat, and leafy green vegetables. The doctor assures that my 6.3 hematocrit will increase two units per month so that in four months I'll reach the low norm, a triumph as complete as Operation Detachment in the Battle of Iwo Jima.
But I also have my own ideas about disease recovery to cure. Walking is first rate medicine and is my first thought to accelerate the doctor's prescriptions. Healing is a biological process and there are few ailments that do not respond immediately and expansively to the increased circulation of a vigorous walk. Walk in increasing increments with escalating weight to let the clean air blow the cobwebs from your body.
In the aftermath, there's money in the bank to cover the cost of the trip to Peru and lots of salads and seafood. The medical expenses totaled $US200. In the USA it would have cost twenty times that, with additional superfluous tests and requisite specialists, and taken weeks instead of two days. One well-trained physician of the highest type will do more for a patient than ten specialists because everything medical within the body is interrelated and cannot be separated.
A Darwinian view of medicine makes disease more meaningful. Diseases arise ultimately from past natural selection. It's a continual war within one's lifetime, and over the centuries, of the forces of pathogens vs. the soldiers of the immune system. They evolve after each skirmish, and then counter-evolve like in Mad magazine's wordless black comic strip 'Spy vs. Spy'. Paradoxically, the same capacities that make us vulnerable to disease often confer benefits. The capacity for suffering in itself is a useful defense After all, nothing in medicine makes sense except in the light of evolution.
Nature didn't find the perfect place to hide the little assassins in my gut; but rather the Uncinaria developed through epochs of struggle and earned their position. Now they have revealed themselves and will die. Perhaps a few during the Albendazole fusillade – one in 10,000 - will adapt, survive, and reproduce resistant pathogens. Such is life.
Through hard traveling and having contracted and beaten a string of diseases that remain like untied knots the emotions have been, 'I love you. I hate you. I like you. I think you're a loser. I think you're wonderful. I don't want to be with you. I want to be with you. You should have believed me.' Health and disease, unlike what you may have been taught in middle school Health Science 101, are the same thing – vital actions intended to preserve, maintain and protect the body. There is no more reason for celebrating health than disease. After vet school my body became like an aquarium to me and I always carry a fishing pole to catch and squeeze every ounce of information I can out of each condition. I´ve had and recovered from nearly 33% of the ailments listed in the physician´s bible called the Merck Manual only to conclude that life is so short to learn so long a craft as disease cure.
In a subsequent medical text of alternative cures that I wrote, a certain pleasure is revealed that came from nudging the ill layman in the direction of terror, and bringing him back safely and happily and licking his wound. It´s too bad, but given the conventional medical wisdom that's the sort of paradigm shift required to accept like a Third Worlder that disease is a normal course of life. We don´t have to get as sick nor as often in the First World, but our attitude can become saner by accepting rather than fleeing in dread from the knock of unfavorable conditions at the door.
If you 'listen' to your body and intuition, they'll guide you well through sickness and into better conquering forthcoming illnesses and old age. You´ll gain wisdom about anatomy, physiology, biology and the mind. There are countless ways to develop the listening skills such as sports, dancing or drumming, but most of all by awareness through disease, while keeping a journal. Read about it in texts. It's more interesting to examine an ailment in onset, flow, and remission than it is gazing at virus Facebook.
The public bladder about medicine is that one must see a specialist and get a battery of tests when actually as much and almost instantly for free can be gleaned from recovered peers at an online chat forum for specific ailments. Such a well-chosen anthology of case histories is a complete dispensary, as well as studying the progress of one´s own conditions. Always pick a physician who is older, seasoned, a surgeon, preferable a sports medicine practitioner, and lord help you if he is busy. The profits will follow a good physician to the grave, but he is more difficult to find nowadays in USA, and all the more reason to seek professional treatment at a fraction the cost in other countries. Perhaps this is the only solution to whip the ill American health care system back to health.
As for Global Anemia, already the dead worms are evacuating, and I say, 'I tried to tell you. You said you didn't care, remember?' Today we fight. Tomorrow we fight. The day after, we fight. And this disease plans on whipping us, but if we have paid close enough attention they had better bring a sack lunch for the extra innings.
Victor Niederhoffer writes:
A rather heroic friend I have.
Marion Dreyfus writes:
One of the most useful posts I have read. I am sending it to a friend who has been battling Pneumonia contracted while she was in Paris, and had collapsed lungs and hypoxia when she was admitted to Roosevelt for a week. Thanks for troubling to write all this down, Bo. She is now completing her regimen of O2, and can begin to ambulate again like a regular person again.
Bo Keely writes:
In any respiratory distress the first line of defense is a simple technique few doctors will prescribe. One must have lived in the North where pipes freeze to think of it. It´s loosely wrapping a towel or scarf around the neck & knotting it while sleeping all the night. This heats the air going down the trachea and into all parts of resp system. It cuts healing time by half and prevention is about the same 50%. Tested and proven by Michiganers. The other thing she should do that even the best doctors may not suggest is during recovery, when able, she should be walking or bicycling to keep things moving inside the body which promotes healing.
June 27, 2014 | Leave a Comment
I went to Puerto Maldonado, Peru in the Amazon to evaluate Haitians traffic into Brazil and was stymied by a planned gas crisis.
I'm sitting in a 30' riverboat at the town's ghost port fishing information about the Haitians from the captain, a tour guide, lovely senorita in a halter top, and an observant five-month Tamarin Pocket Monkey (Saguinus fuscicollis) that resembles a squirrel with a human head and a golden mane of a lion. The keen boy is one pound of Olympic gymnast with a prehensile tail, and quickly opens my hardcover of L. Ron Hubbard's worthy The Problems of Work to chapter one and hides between the pages. I tweak its tail, and he makes a face before diving into a subsequent chapter, and so on through the book. The little wiggle is ADD from sipping the guide's soda and captain's beer, as well as eating anything sweet you hand it. Finally, he exits the book and scampers to perch on the captain's shoulder as he describes the human smuggling.
"Ha!" exclaims the skipper, as the others nod in agreement. "Don't believe what you read about the Haitians. There is zero in Puerto Maldonado, however for the past three years about fifty of the nice people go in transit daily through town and for 200km as the parrot flies to the frontier. It started when the earth shook…" In 2010, the catastrophic earthquake that crippled Haiti's economy sent a tsunami of refugees flying into Quito, Ecuador, a country known for its lax immigration policies, where daily they board buses and pass along National Geographic's Highway of Dreams up over the 15,000´ Andes, through rainforest Puerto Maldonado, and three hours more by coyote vans (to the tune of $1000 per refugee) to the border. Once in Brazil, the immigrants are welcomed to plenty of farm and town menial labor. The situation is a model of the daily flux of Latin illegals into USA. Last month the BBC said an estimated 5,600 immigrants have arrived in Brazil since 2011, however the articles I had read claimed tens of thousands have arrived with Brazil as the popular choice as Latin America's largest economy.
Human smuggling has captivated me ever since I gave water five years ago to six comatose illegal Mexicans who had collapsed in the shade of my California trailer sucking barrel cactus for moisture after being abandoned on the adjacent Chocolate Mountain Bombing Range and wandering for two days in an 110F inferno and explosions. In years to come, I would bust the wind atop Mexican freight trains with hundreds of illegal Central Americans traveling through Mexico to the Promised Land USA. Americans know what changes the illegals have wrought in the Land of Liberty, and I expect to find in Puerto Maldonado even greater ones. US media coverage has portrayed the border town as overrun with thousands of refugees and, if true, the divergent gene pool of tall, dark, gregarious Haitians would in quick generations forever alter the Peruvian body frame, mindset, and jungle instinct.
A yellow canary walks out the senorita's cleavage, and flutters to post on my foot. She grabs the bird onto her lap and raises eyebrows at me, as if it has been trained to fetch.
Just then, a five-gallon container of gas arrives, and as the captain reaches for his wallet, he explodes, "The town has gas fever!" The guide explains, as the skipper decants the jug, "Puerto Maldonado is the only town in Peru that is on gas ration. The national government has declared our pueblo of 138,000 the largest consumer of petro in Peru, and a week ago issued ration cards. Each citizen is allowed five gallons per day, and the town economics has become complex." Five gallons is enough for a dweller who owns no vehicle, generator or trade, and yet other businesses would have come to a standstill had it not been for sharping gas. When one neighbor has no use for fuel, he fills his daily quota and sells it at a profit to another. For example, Puerto Maldonado is the starting point for visiting Peru's southeastern jungles of the Tambopata Reserve, or for departing to Brazil or Bolivia. However, the agencies are short to fuel their buses and boats, and so we have conversed for two steamy hours waiting for the jug. "Next week each ration card goes down to one gallon per day," moans the guide. "So today may be my last tour until the crisis is ironed out."
"The fuel is being siphoned into Brazil," explains the senorita, petting her bird. The monkey races along the roof. The price of gas is $5 per gallon in Peru; however, across the border in Brazil's remote rainforest it demands nearly double that. "Forget the Haitians; we're in a state controlled gas war for our life and liberty," they insist. Fists slam the rail. "The common denominator of the Haitians and gas smuggling," yells the captain over the motor, "Is the corrupt National Police." They take bribes at the border to 'look the other way' as thousands of Haitians and tens of thousands of gallons of petro pour into Brazil. I tell them I want to jump ship, which is now putting along the Madre de Dios, to go to the border to see firsthand. "Don´t worry," assures the tour guide."There will be time for that after you see the 20' black caimans and 6' giant otters at the Tambopata Reserve."
Tambopata National Reserve is a wildlife sanctuary in the Peruvian Amazon that brims with 165 species of trees, 103 species of mammals, 1300 of butterflies, 90 of amphibians, and 6500 of fish. From the first step into the reserve, my San Francisco Giant baseball cap is covered with butterflies that the guide theorizes is due to my flower shirt, as they alight on no one else. However, I smell like the only member who doesn't use cologne, perfume or aftershave. A 8" black tarantula, that the guide identifies as a Chicken Tarantula with a reputation for eating birds up to the size of domestic fowl, walks the opposite direction. When I put my hand down to let it cross, as with smaller species at my desert home, instead of crossing it goes around. Further on, we hop over a drive of black army ants a footprint wide and audible in their rustle. The yellow headed soldiers laboring under huge swinging mandibles are described in a short story that in my youth was first a terror and then a curious fascination. Leiningen vs. the Ants is set in the Brazil rainforest not far from here. The story centers on a scrappy plantation owner called Leningen who stubbornly refuses to abandon his plantation in the face of a seemingly unstoppable mass of army antes. My guide drops and picks up one by the abdomen, and asks, ´Would you like a demonstration of how the natives suture wounds?' Though there is no cut, I thrust a pinky with a joint crease that he lets the angry ant bite, and, urging through my spiked pain, 'Wait - the ant would rather lose its head than let go,' he deftly twists off the body as the remaining head neatly staples the crease, and it has been worth the price of admission.
At the end of the 90 minute hike through this mysterious land lays the principal attraction named Sandoval Lake which is an oxbow lake off the Madre de Dios. It was formed by a wide meander in the stream over the course of about 500 years that cut through the curve to abandon this mile-long crescent body of water. We paddle with two other tourists the circumference within a few feet of turtles, macaws, and two tribes of Squirrel and Howler monkeys, as fish jump aside the canoe. Philodendron epiphytes crown 30' palms dropping inch-thick roots to the water. When the guide identifies a dozen Cormorant cranes that sit as tamely on giant lilies as if this is Eden, I know I could revolution the fishing industry in the Amazon basin by introducing a technique I saw on Nature TV using trained Cormorants as 'lines'.
The aquatic bird of the family Phalacrocoracidae in the Amazon has purple plumage, about two feet tall, and the usual long neck and body, with a hookbeak and throat pouch for holding fish. In China and Japan, Cormorant are famous for fishing on shallow rivers. Cormorant fishing is also an old tradition in Greece, England and France. To control the birds, the fishermen tie a cord neckerchief near the base of the bird's throat that prevents them from swallowing larger fish, which are held in their throats, while smaller fish go down the hatch. The fisherman paddles a canoe, much as we do now, except with a dozen Cormorants standing like tenpins, and when the fishing territory is reached the fisherman commands his fleet with a wave of the hand into the water where they dive and bring up fish. They are free to swim away but do not, instead returning to the canoe, the fisherman reaches down their throats and pulls out the larger fish, and rewards them with smaller ones. He may gauge the size of the day's catch by the tightness of the neckties.
The strategy is not unlike the border I plan to visit tomorrow where the Peru Immigration and National Police make the human and gas smugglers cough up big bribes. Early the next morning, I board a hired car in Puerto Maldonado for the three hour ride with six others at the exurbanite price of $15 since the chauffeur has paid through the nose for scavenged gas. The national newspaper La Republica on the car dash confirms what I saw earlier that for the last three days drivers in the capital city have lined the streets with their vehicles waving ration cards, yelling for trades as if were a commodes pit, and wait and muscle in to buy miniscule amounts of fuel. The newspaper reports that of the 32 gas stations normally operating in town, only four are open and selling fuel. Vehicle movement along the jungle fringed highway is sparse and has slowed to a crawl due to the gas shortage. The driver doesn't question that I want to see the frontier town of Inapari, flanking both countries, and return the same day. However, when we arrive at the crossing that normally allows people to mingle within the town limit for 24 hours without officially exiting one or entering the other country, a lanky Peruvian National Policeman in the regular gold on black uniform yokes me into the small wooden immigration office.
I'm ordered to a hard bench with a clear view out the door of the primitive crossing where a six-man force of National Policemen fleeces one after another Brazil bound 30' wood trucks with blue drums of gas piled in back. Brazil doesn't need the wood, of course, but requires the lower price fuel at the expense of Puerto Maldonado where garbage is piling in the streets because there is no fuel to send out the trucks for collection. The scene is as was described to me in the tour boat and by townspeople. Because the truck drivers are foreigners they are spared the ration cards and are free to buy as much fuel as desired. Each of trucks carries nearly a full tank of gas plus three 55-gallon drums for a total of about 200 gallons at a profit on the other side of $3 a gallon for a total per trip of $600. This is a fortune in the Amazon basin, enough for a man to start a family and new life. The locals say the planned gas crisis is not resolved because the National Police who are tied to the national government are taking a profit.
A quirk is that Brazil is the world's second largest producer of ethanol fuel. Together, Brazil and the United States lead in the industrial production of ethanol fuel, for nearly 90% of the world´s production. Brazil has the world´s first sustainable biofuel economy and is the leader. The reason is millions of sprawling fields of sugarcane ethanol which is the most successful alternative fuel anywhere to date. In 2010, the U.S. EPA designated Brazilian sugarcane ethanol as the most advanced biofuel due to its 61% reduction of total life cycle greenhouse gas emissions, including direct and indirect emissions. However, Brazil needs the base petro to add their ethanol to, and it´s being siphoned from Puerto Maldonado.
The leapfrog story of my pursuit of human and gas smuggling at the Peru–Brazil frontier ends surprisingly in a little bedroom off the hard bench. The National Policeman sees me staring through the window at the palmed bribes taken by his men, and utters, 'This border is like the Mexico–US border. Do you know what I mean?'
'Now I understand. I live thirty miles north of that border and have crossed hundreds of times. It is corrupt, with bribes taken for human and goods trafficking. Is that what you're saying?' It's the first time I've seen a Peruvian National Policeman shake in his boots.
'Go to the bedroom!´ he demands, and scuffs after. He motions me to sit on a bunk, one of two double-deckers jammed into the space where another corpulent National Policeman snores exhaling beer fumes. He starts awake, arises, approaches with a leer, and they strip search me, investigating every detail except for where the sun doesn´t shine. I must account for everything including where I got each coin in my pocket – in change at a café, grocery store… ´Aha!' shouts one, pulling my room key. ´Where did you get this?´ Meanwhile, through the bunkhouse window, a van of Haitians pauses at the crossing, the driver shakes hands with the National Policeman who smiles and looks away, and the load passes into Brazil where they´ll likely work the sugarcane fields.
The National Policeman flicks through my passport searching for the week old visa entry stamp at the Lima airport. He riffles more slowly a second time, and then a third in exasperation bending each of the 52 pages of my new mint US passport. I would blame him for adding one year's wear in two minutes, except the document is a travesty of the US government. Since 2007, the State department has issued only biometric passports, which include RFID chips, and each page having a historic background print in blue of Americana scenes including the Mayflower, covered wagon, steam train, the Liberty Bell, Statue of Liberty, Mt. Rushmore, and so on through the now rumpled deck that is my passport. They are beautiful engravings but to accept a normal blue ink visa stamp on a blue background is like trying to read this black ink on a gray background. Finally, the official finds the nearly invisible visa stamp, grunts, and orders me out the building and back on the road again.
June 26, 2014 | Leave a Comment
There are Silverback gorillas in Uganda that I remember well from an encounter 15 years ago with a 500 lb. male and his harem of four females. I was told by my guide, armed with only a machete and fast feet, to avoid gazing into the eyes of the gorillas. That strategy has always seemed dumb to me with bears, big cats, hoodlums, and so forth, and so from five steps away I peered without animosity at the Silverback. He stood on hind legs with no shoulders to speak of and gazed back with yellow eyes as if it were a board game and he wanted to trade his harem for mine, four English lasses. The guide behind me got nervous, and started to thump his chest to show dominance as the gorilla pounded thunder out of his, and then ran up a branchless 20-meter palm and showered coconuts down on us. The trade was never made or the gene pool or Africa might have taken a turn.
Below us stretches the Colton yard of San Bernardino. The Pepper Street Bridge shakes like a California earthquake as a mile-long Dirty Face snakes under and east from the Pacific to who knows where. That's one attraction of hoboing.
We wheel and watch the red-blinking FRED at the end of the train disappear about midnight on May 30, 2014. 'The only sure thing about freight hopping is you know where you are, and not where you're going,' I advise 22 year-old MoJo, the strapping son of two journalists who is the political writer for the Mother Jones Washington DC branch. He fancies to get that far the hobo way, but there are no promises.
'The lights seem brighter than my previous time through three years ago, and the tracks twice as busy, with three times as much graffiti, and more colorful,' I wonder aloud. Below us, on the bridge embankment under a willow tree, four tramps including one female boisterously celebrate Horace Greeley's 'Go West, Young Man' and the hobo California dream where one may pick breakfast off an orange tree and sleep under the stars at night.
Anxious to jump into a boxcar, rock-and-roll, and see what lays ahead, we trundle past the bos and into some Eucalyptus. Within fifty paces huff and puff three sets of locomotives heading up under the Pepper Street Bridge. We may choose: A mixed freight with three engines, an Intermodal container train with four locomotives, or a 'Dog' of assorted cars with two rust bucket engines that would side considerable and ditch us 'out on the farm'.
We approach, the blast and clank of the yard cloaking out steps on ballast and the smell of diesel and oil camouflaging our nervous body odor from the RR police, or Bull. The ladder of a freight reaches to three feet above uneven right-of-way and we climb aboard a silver hopper down on its springs with cement for a softer ride and having the trimmings of a front and back 5'x8' porch with a portal of shoulder width that enters a hobo 'hotel room' in the superstructure of the car. MoJo crawls in to try it for size as much as to stay out of sight, as the crunch of ballast under heavy boot drops closer and closer.
'Gentlemen!' booms a baritone, as a yard worker grins up at us. 'You'll need this wherever you're bound.' He passes up a twelve pack of RR bottled water normally reserved for the engineers that you must not lose faith in humanity anywhere.
'This train is due to leave right after we get the F—king Rear End Device fixed, so lay low, good luck, and I never talked to you.'
In minutes, the orderly process of a train departing a RR yard begins with the hiss of the Westinghouse brake line filling with air, an eerie electrical click in the same direction to test the connection, and, finally, highball! - two long blasts of the locomotive horn, with a staccato beat of couples stretching to our car, and the train leaps off the track for a second.
We clear the Pepper Bridge and in three hundred yards roll over with a clank of Americana the Colton Crossing. Located directly south of Interstate 10, this great steel frog determines the fate of every train tramp who's ever caught out San Bernardino full of juice and hope. The junction is one of the most historic and busiest in the USA where the south-north BNSF rail strikes the west-east Union Pacific. It was the 1882 scene of a bloody war between the lines, but tonight moonlight peacefully streaks the rail as our BNSF train nudges north over the clatter-clatter of the joints and into the star-spangled night.
The juxtaposition of Executives and Kings of the Road along the rails in American history is spectacular. Andrew Jackson was the first president on B&O in 1833 to ride the Iron Horse. President-elect Abraham Lincoln rode his famous Inaugural Train Journey in the winter of 1861 on NY Central trains from Springfield, Illinois in a trip that was considered full of potential dangers. Several Southern States had already withdrawn from the Union, and assassination attempts were possible. For these reasons, the train schedule was tightly controlled with stops as short as possible to coincide with service requirements of fuel and water for the steam locomotive from his hometown to the inauguration in Washington D.C. In Philadelphia Lincoln for first time learned of a plot on his life when his train was scheduled to pass through Baltimore. A hobo cloak and dagger train of events followed. Lincoln opted to smuggle aboard with the famous detective, Allan Pinkerton, through Baltimore and safely into Washington on a separate train that no one else knew about. While Pinkerton stood guard on the porch of the last train car all night Lincoln stayed just inside the last car in a lower booth, and was safely delivered disguised into Washington in the early morning for the Inauguration.
Harry Truman in Plain Speaking makes no bones about his hobo roots:
I was eighteen years old, and I'd just finished high school and knew I wasn't going to get to go to West Point. So I took this job as a timekeeper for Santa Fe RR)… There were about a hundred hoboes in each camp, and I got very well acquainted with them. My job was to keep tabs on them, to keep track of how much time they put in, and then I'd write out their paychecks for them. And they weren't bad fellows… Not in any way. Most of them had backgrounds that caused them to be hoboes. It was one of the best experiences that I ever had because that was when I began to understand who the underdog was and what he thought about the people who were the high hats. They felt just like I did about them. Some of those hoboes had better educations than the president of Ha-vud University.
Meanwhile, rolling over the California salt flats, I explain to the Mother Jones political reporter that the principal tie between Executives and Kings of the road is their grass-is-greener view of the American Dream: The Executives whom I take out want the freedom of independent travel. The tattered Kings I ride with want money and power. There should be a Prince and Pauper Company to please both.
The palm skyline of greater Barstow, California fills the horizon at sunrise. Our hopper is parcel of BNSF Railway, the second-largest railroad network in North America, second only to the great Union Pacific RR. BNSF has three transcontinental routes for high-speed links between the western and eastern United States, and we are riding the only southern link from the Pacific to the Mississippi River. It is safely said BNSF trains travel more rail miles and hobos than any other North American railroad. With a system of 24,000 miles of track, especially in the west, it hauls various commodities, most notably coal and grain, as well as intermodal (container and truck van) freight. The locomotive color is orange, black and dashes of yellow.
The BNSF Barstow employs over 1000 workers and is a traditional hobo bottleneck. An unseasoned hobo is doomed to aimlessly walk and duck about the yard until he's ticketed for misdemeanor trespassing. I expect many spottings, but not to be collared. The Barstow yard is a major hub for transportation with a 'hump' for classification. Hobos speak of going 'over the hump' in Barstow in order to reach Los Angeles and the Bay area because except for through trains all of the incoming cars are re-sorted here. MoJo nearly jumps out of his overalls at the first crash of a car that has been backed up onto the 20' crest and the couple 'cut loose' so it becomes a 'silent roller' that rolls by gravity for up to a half mile from the hump track onto any of 48 classification tacks. We call this 'shuffling the deck' and it's better to watch than be in a car crashing at 8mph into its brethren string of cars. I was once thrown 15' in such a shuffle and wish never to repeat the experience. Once the cars are sorted into destination strings, locomotives are attached and on they move across America.
Barstow is also the first crew change point on the BNSF for northeast bound trains. Crew change towns are as important to hobos as the old time water tanks where steam engines (that yielded to diesel-electric in the 50s) took on water and hobos. Now train riders board and debark at the crew change divisions that take place 'on the fly' where the crew literally steps on a slow-moving freight as the previous one steps off – and hobos must do the same – or more likely it takes five to twenty minutes to change. And yet, our locomotives a half-mile to the front 'dynamite' releasing a blast of compressed air that is heard for miles, and signifies the train has probably terminated and is going to break up. A yard worker on a quad confirms this, tells us to lie low because the yard is 'hot' with security, and advises us to take a tunnel under the bowl of sorting tracks to the north side yard and look for units heading up eastbound. I'm a cookbook of adventure knowing liberties are given, and taken at risk. Emerging from the far side of the 100-yard cool tunnel another yard worker in a pickup spots us and lifts the mike of his radio.
Hoboing is game theory and the stage is the freight yard. A game consists of freedoms, barriers and purposes. The freedom is the open road, the barriers are the strings of cars, watchful towers, deadly silent rollers, and the sweat in your eye that may lead to a misstep. However, primary among these is the necessity in a game to have an opponent or enemy. There must be a continuum of problems which there are in a freight yard, and to have sufficient individuality to cope with them which is given. Now the game begins.
The Barstow yard is three miles long and a half-mile wide with the typical configuration throughout the USA of two main lines (with traffic in opposite directions) feeding into either end, usually under a highway bridge, that quickly fan into a wide swath of some fifty tracks that are littered with strings of some 500 freight cars on hold, fueling locomotives, yard locomotives pushing segments of trains around, the yardmaster tower, outbuildings, and stacks of RR ties and miscellaneous equipment. Barstow is a hobo blockade to most because it is HOT with a high security presence. Our primary opponent is the Bull, or Cinder Dick.
Oddly, in these days of tightened security since 911, it's still as easy to jump a freight train as it is a jet plane. The railroads in the financial squeeze have farmed the Bull duties out to private security firms which send a young man in a starched uniform driving about the yard in a white truck looking for inclusion and tuned to the radio for tips from yard workers and the towers. MoJo and I had just completed climbing over the 13th string of cars to get to the other side of the yard when that white truck stops ten feet away with only a set of gondola wheels separating our legs from his. I hunker down to peer between the 3' metal wheels and gaze into the eyes of a fresh, crew-cut young man in white with a silver star staring back and grinning. I guffaw, arise to heels, walk around the wheels, and introduce myself.
'Just trying to catch an eastbound and not touching anything.'
'I've been getting reports on you guys all over the yard all day. What's up?'
'Did you ever climb over 13 strings of cars? It takes five minutes per track and it's hot so we welcome you.'
MoJo pipes, 'We know there's an Amtrak at 9:54pm, if that's any help.'
'Just follow the caged center rail for another mile to get to the Amtrak station, and there will be eastbound freights as you walk leaving on both sides of the cage.'
'Thank you,' I settle, and we quickly walk away. The truck backs along the other side of the string of cars following our progress for five minutes, and then leaves. 'What a surprise!' I suggest. 'A sympathetic security who has clued us on how to catch out.'
We hike to the unstaffed Amtrak station and guzzle icy liquids for thirty minutes in the Harvey House Railroad Museum. Fred Harvey's Harvey Houses are a household name among hobos and Amtrak passengers throughout the west. An innovative restaurateur, Fred Harvey created the first restaurant chain in the US and developed the Harvey House lunch rooms, souvenir shops, and hotels that served passengers on the western gridiron of the early otherwise 'wild' west. The Harvey family continued to run the business until 1965, and now with the closing of most of the depots, many like this one in Barstow have been converted to Amtrak stations and museums. I pop a cold soda and gaze over a collection of dated RR nails of which I have a complete hand-collected set from 1901 to present.
Then we retrace along the perimeter fence for a mile until finding a 'hole'. There is always a break in the fence behind a bush where other hobos have pried it open for yard access, and we scoot under like squirrels to secret in pines to study the busy eastside tracks. Within minutes, two trains roll up, and then a third. The only obstacle is the caged center rail, a dual 4' high chain link fence that protects the workers from the high speed passenger train, and that MoJo takes with a bound as I boost myself standing on a pack. We board a mixed freight for the shade of a lumber car, and catnap on plywood until a nightmare strikes. The train begins to move the opposite direct of our intent, so I shout, 'Your pack - Throw it w-a-y out.' He does, and, 'Now you!' The freight is rattling 5mph and a little faster than an escalator and we haven't had a chance for the lesson on how to disembark on the fly. Rather than step down the ladder, MoJo leaps from the car lip 6' above the ballast and arches as high as a basketball rim before dropping like a sandbag. He alights in an absorbing tumble albeit in the opposite direction of the train, and dusts himself off as I yell, 'Watch me!' and simply step to the bottom rung of the ladder and then another 2' down to the moving ground. 'That's one kitten toward the life of a Catman,' I tell him, and he smiles like one.
The smile drops as the container train on the adjacent rail jolts in the correct direction, and as I move for the ladder express, 'That's how fast things happen in a freight yard.' We board because it's a priority train bound for distant places. Container cars are the 30-40' metal boxes mounted on flatcars that haul merchandise intra-country or overseas. There's usually a narrow well in which to sit at the ends of the container on the flatcar, and it's advisable to take the rear one to avoid a shifting load in an emergency stop. Double-stacks are containers mounted two-high on a flatcar, and our ride taken in a hurry was sounding two long whistle blasts for imminent departure. These are called intermodal trains because the containers are shunted from rail to truck to ship. Intermodal transport is the current wave of transport with 7 of 10 ten trains that we've seen being containers and piggybacks, whereas five years ago it was a third that many.
In our rush to board we selected the front porch of a container flatcar to avoid the scorching sun. This means that if the train emergency stops (happens once every cross country trip) the riders may be thrown forward and off the car. A fast moving train with 100+ cars that emergency brakes takes about a mile-and-half to stop. I was hit in a VW van once by a 20mp freight and carried on the cowcatcher for a quarter-mile down the rail before it halted and I let go the steering wheel and fell through the window. On mean, a train emergency stops every ten hobo travel days usually due to an animal, person or car in the track, or an uncoupled brake hose. I've remained safety conscious of emergency stops, and insist that MoJo and I, with one hand each, grasp a 2" vertical bar on the container door for eight straight hours until Needles, Ca.
This is not just any container train but a pure JB Hunt 'unit' train. JB Hunt, a Fortune 500 company, since 1961 has been one of the leaders in Intermodal transportation with 12,000 company trucks as well as independent drivers, and 47,000 trailers and containers, with contracts with all the major rail carriers. Let's take a typical unit container train. It consists of 130 cars, each car is about 60 feet long, and it's pulled/pushed by four 65-foot long locomotives. The cars are 7800 feet, the locomotives add 240 feet, for a total of 8040 feet.
Loaded freight cars are designed to weigh close to the same when full, 125 to 145 tons, makes no difference if it is fuel, coal, barley, a container, or scrap iron. A typical modern train runs three units on the point and one pusher at the rear. I would say a good average for a train these days is a mile-and-half and speeding 65mph. 'Intense,' coos MoJo, and I recall my basketball coach drilling, 'You miss 100% of the shots you don't take.'
Our JB Hunt train parallels Interstate 40 for an hour and outraces every vehicle on the road. This stretch from Barstow to Needles twins the famous old west Mojave Road that is now a dirt trail that I walked in one week once, running out of water but sucking it from barrel cactus. The JB Hunt boxes surprisingly have only a thin plastic seal and easily could be broken into, unlike the heavy lock on my container home in the California Sonora that's refurbished with a loft, waterbed, office and library.
Approaching midnight, we roll with still clenched grips into Needles, California. This whistle stop oasis located 100 miles north of my Sand Valley digs often boasts on national weather reports the hottest place in the country, and in the comic strip Peanuts, whose creator Charles Schultz lived in Needles as a boy, Snoopy's brother Spike lived in the desert near where we finally release the vertical bars and heave stiffly over the side. Spike frequently heads to Needles to partake the town's nightlife, which I agree is primarily howling with the coyotes. 'I don't want to be stuck here,' I explain, 'But we must change cars.' We board a few cars aft on the rear porch of a flatcar with a double-stack just as the brakes click, the line hisses, and the freight whooshes into the night. It has taken less than five minutes to change crew. Now we stretch out and sleep while crossing the Colorado River and beyond, for there is no better siesta than on a freight that rocks like a cradle where nothing can disturb you until the next crew change.
We surf the rail out of California and into Winslow, Arizona, with the Eagles Standing on the Corner Statue that is a catchout point for hobos with a catchy line to their song Take it Easy… 'Such a fine sight to see'…' and then the crossing bells clank for the thousandth time and the train pushes on. MoJo admits to quitting coffee for the trip and is well into a full beard. He asks about my shoulder tattoo of a mouse with a smile and teardrop in one eye to which I justify that on the road when you're smiling you'll soon be crying, and when you're crying you'll soon be smiling.
This is our state on striking Belen, New Mexico. Most hobos ride the rails in confusion. They get on a train sober with a bottle of wine or whiskey, and drink it down in the first two hours of the ride so they'll be sober again to debark at the next division town. They pause in one of these junction jungles to clean up, perhaps to work a temp job, panhandle, or visit friends. As long as their stomachs are full and they remain on the move they're happy. However, the boxcar tourists I ride with travel with purpose: to see the nation, to get from one place to another, or to learn of themselves. I believe that to live fully one must have, in addition to a means of support and something to do, a higher purpose. This resolve, to be a goal at all, must have counter-purposes or purposes which prevent it from occurring. There must be individualities which oppose the purpose because if one lacks these it is nearly certain he will invent them.
We 'plastic people', as the grimy traditional hobos call us for our cards and perhaps appearance, are abetted in our travels by three tools of the trade that most conventional bos will never know about but would give the gold in their teeth to own. The first is the Rand McNally Handy Railroad Atlas of the RR 'interstates' or main rails. I also carry system maps for Amtrak and Greyhound in 'poor man's laminations' of clear sealing tape. But the trump is the Crew Change Guide. Otherwise, you'd face as a green bo entering the rail system a great many pieces of paper whirling about a room that would be confusing until you picked out the one piece of paper by which everything else is in motion. This is the Guide that has replaced the hundreds of sheets of notes and yard sketches that I made on my initial runs in the 80s.
The Guide is shrouded in mystery that I now can clear. The author was a folk hero named Train Doc whom I met at a Dunsmuir RR festival in the 80s. He is a Vietnam vet who became a New England nurse's aide while spending all his free time freight hopping and recording details about the thousands of yards: where to catch out, jungles, supply stores, where the units 'head up', fences, and bulls. Since train hopping is technically illegal, he titled the guide From Birmingham to Wendover: Alternative Travel Guide to Cool Camping Places so that if a law official discovers the text it won't incriminate the rider. The Guide lists no author but in the 80s everyone knew and Train Doc confirmed to me that he wrote it to help others in searching out the freedoms of the open road. Train Doc is an Ed 'Lilywhite' Norton look and talk alike if you remember Jackie Gleason's TV Honeymooners. I tell people the Crew Change Guide is the most laboriously researched book in English literature and the most helpful in a narrow topic range.
Now adrift in the middle of New Mexico, MoJo studies his IPhone Googlemap and Yelp (whenever near an Interstate or bridge) as I compare his data with the Crew Change Guide. My compass is deflected by the metal car and rail to point forever east and is useless. We jump down in late afternoon in Belen, a railroad community that exists because of BNSF, located on I-25 thirty miles south of Albuquerque. The omniscient Guide and IPhone concur that there are a Valero gas station and Blake's Burger a half-mile through a weed patch and west on Reinken Ave, and so we hoof it.
Hobos own their own Golden Rule in the form of an Ethical Code that was created by Tourist Union #63 at the 1889 National Hobo Convention in St. Louis, Missouri. Sandwiched between Rule #1 ('Decide your own life, don't let another person run or rule you.') and later laws on yard and jungle conduct, tenets #2-10 deal with town behavior, as follows:
2. When in town, always respect the local law and officials, and try to be a gentleman at all times.
3. Don't take advantage of someone who is in a vulnerable situation,
4. Always try to find work, even if temporary.
5. When no employment is available, make your own work by using your added talents at crafts.
6. Do not allow yourself to become a stupid drunk and set a bad example for locals.
7. When jungling in town, respect handouts, do not wear them out.
8. Always respect nature, do not leave garbage where you are jungling.
9. If in a community jungle, always pitch in and help.
10. Try to stay clean, and boil up wherever possible.
In keeping, we wash up at the Valero one at a time, and then gulp great draughts of Gatorade, milk, and juice without burping. A kind lady hands me a bottled water and newspaper, and then returns fifteen minutes later with burgers and fries for my partner and me. A young Hispanic with gang tattoos presses $2 into my hand that I pass to the Valero girl clerk for feeling bad that she overheard me quip that it is odd for someone in a railroad town to never have heard of Amtrak.
Start, charge, and stop. Wait. Start, charge and stop. A repeating cycle of action that MoJo calls 'intensity interrupted by nothingness' is the hobo way. After the long lope back into the Belen yard we face catching out. Each RR yard demands about an hour of taxing multi-tasking in finding and boarding a car, the iron steed breaks the gate, and now we will look at another eight hours of countryside roll by like National Geographic except with the elements of sun, wind, insects and odors. We have chosen a piggyback to ride from Belen. The Piggyback is a flatcar that carries semi-truck trailers. One leans against the big tires and views 270-degrees of flowing scenery from under the trailer belly albeit a few dangling brake cables. The piggyback doors are sealed flimsily like containers and so bulls frown on pig riders, causing hobos to secret between the rear wheels. I've also ridden side-saddle like an old west Indian shielded outside the tires through hot yards. I used to say, things blow around and away on 'pigs', so everything should be roped down. I no longer say that because this is my first ride on a pig with wind blinders that have come into vogue in the past couple of years. The blinders stretch from nearly the tires to the front prong to block the breeze, still allow a view around and under, and screen prying eyes from the outside. A piggyback train such as this is a priority, third only to Amtrak and container trains, that I favor all in accordance with the seagoing adage to admire a small ship, but put your freight in a large one because the larger the load, the faster the voyage and the greater the profit.
Across the Rio Grande flies the blundered pig into the night.
Ft. Worth!' announces MoJo, glancing up from his glowing IPhone, as though neither ever sleeps. This is the BNSF headquarters with spokes east, west, north and south, but we conjecture this train of truck trailers is northbound along the dense Southern Transcon. The Southern Transcon is the main line of the BNSF between Southern California and Chicago. It was completed in its current right-of-way by 1908, and now serves as a mostly double-tracked Intermodal corridor. The route is one of the most heavily trafficked in the western US with an average daily of over 100 trains with each averaging one to 1.5 miles in length, like ours.
It's a fast five minute crew change in Ft. Worth as we hold fast with beef jerky and Gatorade. The 'hobo diet' while stuck on rolling stock day after day is one of the most effective with the fewest hunger pangs because there is so much to watch. Quick in and quick out is the way I like a yard, and before the train picks up speed it glides by the tremendous WalMart distribution facility beneath the setting sun. WalMart, a few months ago, announced the opening of a new online fulfillment center that the train wheels slowly by so that I have time to study the lot. I thought WalMart was big but this nearly 1 million square-foot facility proves it's huge. With 4,100 stores within five miles of two-thirds of the US population, WalMart gains a significant advantage over Amazon.com by positioning this online distribution building in the center of its empire. I estimate 500 parked or rolling company semi-trucks in the building lot before our train whisks us out of sight. Yogi Berra said, 'When you get to a fork in the road, take it,' and we did that.
It's deliciously incongruous how one may pack for the hob life or for the WalMart life. The WalMart life is supported by millions of homes cluttered with items of want and need in a ratio of about 10:1. On the other hand, we have packed streamline to move quickly cross-county like hobo chameleons resembling, as the need arises, the yard workers in freight yards and normal citizens in stopover cities. Our ostensible school daypacks weigh about 30 pounds (sans liquids) and contain little more than earplugs, electronic handhelds including a set of walkie-talkies, credit cards, a hundred dollars in the inseams, flashlight, compass, day's supply of food (beef jerky and trail mix), toothbrush, pen and pad, paperback, 20' length of rope, tarp, and windbreaker. A compressible 40F sleeping bag is toted inside at the top, and the pack is soft to squeeze under fences and into cubby holes, without loose straps to catch on passing machinery. The key to our disguise is a pair of overalls – he has coveralls and I a pair of bib-overalls - that protect our citizen clothes beneath and walk easily into any RR yard.
We set our course on the ocean of rails to the north. I warn, freight riding in the east is far different from the west with more towns swamped on one another, single tracks, more sidings, and fenced yards with higher security, but, after all, we will see industrial America through the back door. Magnificent! Up through the Texas Panhandle, as MoJo calls out the towns from his IPhone Googlemap, 'Amarillo… Oklahoma City… Wichita!' yells MoJo as if it's a tornado. He's enthused. The metaphors of trains are many. Life is a string of beads, and a train of moods, and as we pass through them they color and enlighten if only we can see our goals.
Kansas stretches on like a mat of grass occasionally rolled into lumps and crisscrossed by a gridiron. This is the heartland of America. In east central Kansas the rail becomes single and our train goes 'in the hole' on sidetracks frequently to allow higher priority intermodals to pass from the same or opposite directions. Our rate is suddenly cut in half to an average 30mph for the next 24 hours. Hundreds of single-horn toots blare day and night at clanging crossings. BNSF serves over 1,500 grain elevators located mostly in the Midwest with Kansas among the leaders. Had we chosen a mixed freight through this grainland the chances of being 'ditched' beside one of these towering silos and having to walk the rail for hours to civilization would have risen.
Train whistles are used to communicate with other railroad workers on a train or in the yard, as well as with the savvy townspeople. Different combinations of long and short whistles – like a Morse code - each has its own meaning. They are used to pass instructions, as a safety signal, and to warn of impending movements of a train. Despite the advent of modern radio communication, we endure many of these whistle signals hourly. A succession of short sounds is used when an emergency exists, or if persons or livestock are on the track. It sounded when a Northwest train I was on once braked for a blow-up dinosaur placed in the rail by a tramp who wanted to board from his favorite fishing spot in the Rockies. The most common signal is one short as the train is approaching a public grade crossing. Highball we've identified as two long blasts, and three shorts while the train is stopped means backup – which notifies the hobo to get off or be ditched.
Kansas City!' is the morning call, to which I frown at the ambiguity until he murmurs, 'Kansas'. I stiffen to an exclamation point. KC, KC is a RR nexus that throws spaghetti tracks out N, S, E, and W. A hobo nightmare. I make lighting compilations in about seven theaters of possibilities as the train bowls past the four story bright red 'Kansas City Southern' barn sign and into the BNSF Argentine Yard. We peak under the blinders barely daring to breathe least they flap. This BNSF classification yard is the largest with 780-acres on the on the system. I see an intermodal hub center, a hump with 60 sorting tracks yonder down the rails, a car repair shop, a large diesel shop, several other outbuildings, the main tower with a cyclopean 360-degree glass, and beneath it dozens of scurrying yard workers in and out of vehicles. I'm reminded of the book 70,000 to 1.
MoJo seems daunted. 'I want out.'
'I've allotted one week away from the political swamp for this trip and this is the fifth day. I have to think about returning to Washington DC.' I see his point, but the timing is poor. The highlight of the Argentine yard is it's hemmed like a prison - has been for miles - by a 8' cyclone fence topped with razor wire.
We visually sweep each side of our flatcar and see nothing but rows and miles of hundreds of other strings of cars, buildings, and an army of workers corralled by the cyclone fence. The crew change will be on a dime here, and we choose to hang tight and look for a break in the fence while rolling. But first, there's a light jar toward the rear as half our train is cut loose, leaving us a half-mile long with four snorting engines. A lone white van stenciled Renzenberger pulls aside the lead unit, and the outgoing crew climbs in as the incoming crew exits and mans the locomotive. Operating a fleet of thousands of such vehicles thought the nation, Renzenberger is the recognized leader in providing crew transportation to and from their call motels. Hobos use them also, and I've hitched rides twice right to the waiting locomotives.
Even as I chuckle in reflection, the hoses snake with turgor, brakes click, here comes the drumbeat, and the car bolts forward with our necks jerking like Jack-in-the-boxes. Nonetheless, we survey the fenceline on both sides for breaks to escape. There are some, and the train does pause, twice in the five miles between KC, KC and KC, MO, and yet I won't let the reporter depart. Both sides of the sewn track between the two KC's are seedy industrial and residential wasteland where those colorful rail riding hobos have been replaced by the bag lady, welfare sponges, gang bangers, and stew bums. We cling to the safety of the flatcar knowing the fence prevents them from getting to us. 'That's ok,' MoJo resigns.
Trapped, I've never been on a faster freight. Four locomotives roar with a half-mile load streaking at 70mph up and down roly-poly Missouri. In a bucking wind we pull our sleeping bags up to our chins falling into an uneasy slumber on a hard crazed vibrating bed. Crack! Crash! The freight is suffused in alternating light and darkness. We've driven into a near tornado and the wind blinders flap wildly dumping buckets of water into the sleeping bags. The metal floor drops to 40F, and MoJo vows dryly though chattering teeth, 'This is the test.'
The best strategy is to fold into a G note and meditate on sunrise until passing out. There's always a morning after. It sounds like something from a Woody Guthrie song, but it's true, This land was made for you and me. One comfort of hoboing that takes some getting used to is if you don't know where you're going you can't get lost. But we've come very far. People travel to wonder at the height of mountains, the waves of the sea, at the long rivers, and the compasses of the ocean, under the circular motion of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering who am I that is often discovered on the rails. This is what I hope for MoJo. We've been riveted to the rails for 3000 miles in six straight days from LA via Texas to Chicago, a speed and distance record without a layover for me.
'Chicago!' Situated in a broad valley 17 miles southwest of Chi-town, the Willow Springs Intermodal Yard stretches two miles, yet with about 20 tracks is only one-third of a mile wide. Our flatcar sits smack between two highway bridges that we study around the blinders of the piggyback like Kilroys. Nearby, a 40' truck trailer like ours is being lifted into the air and placed squarely on a nearby railroad flatcar. Another giant crane is removing piggies from a flatcar to a road. The nearly absurd thought arises that an intermodal hobo could remain on board in a hammock lashed under the piggyback and be conveyed up and off the flatcar to the road, a semi hooks on, and he continues to hobo the Interstates sheltered by the wind blinders for as long as one could endure the tire tossed pebbles and dead skunks.
Willow Springs is BNSF's second-busiest intermodal yard, performing about a million lifts a year. Its key customer is United Parcel Service whose mid-west facility located next door handles two million packages daily. Packages bound for UPS distribution facilities less than 400 miles away are trucked. Greater than 400 miles, there's a train ride in that trailer's future… And that's where BNSF comes in. It takes 10 percent of UPS's total domestic ground volume. Like a passenger train, the trailers aren't held until they're full. They depart at assigned pull times scheduled to meet train cutoff times. The packages are read on a conveyor belt three times en route to the proper piggy trailer. It's driven next door to the Intermodal yard, add one hobo if you wish, and it's off to a dozen major destinations.
At Willow Springs, 99 percent of the units handled are trailers rather than containers, and today there are about 3,000 look-alike trailers scattered across the terminal and five loading RR tracks all go where they're supposed to go, followed by computer. It seems the only thing not tracked by computer these days, not counting the GPS in MoJo's IPhone, is the hobo.
Freight riding falls somewhere between chess and war. In chess, there are the same problems and movements but if you lose you pull the pieces out the box and start again. In hoboing, you can get hurt or caught by the big, bad Bull, and it's illegal. But in war, the enemy is trying to shoot you. There are many life lessons from each, and on this trip we have learned much of the recent changes in the rail commerce. The train industry among all has been progressive in America. As a wise man never lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him, each year I go out on the rails to see innovations. If there is a recession underway in USA the railways refute it. In the past five years, there are twice as many trains, four times as many intermodals (containers and truck vans on flatcars), yard workers use quads instead of walking the lines, RR bulls have been replaced by private young security, and, attesting for the hobos, far more and colorful boxcar art reflecting more youthful train riders. One change in technology has brought about the greatest hobo evolution in history since steam yielded to diesel-electric in the 50s. It is the addition of wind blinders to semi-truck vans like the one we rode screened in wonderful privacy from KC to Chicago. These piggybacks have always been a favorite with a wide view and shade under the belly, however no more may security pick off bos rolling through yards. The blinders have made us hotshot hobos.
The reporter has gained a universal education from the rails. Have you ever seen a retired man who pined for his desk? MoJo would rather ride the trains to Washington DC, but there's no time. We hunker under the piggyback and don our 'goin' to town' clothes for the first time in nearly a week. For me, it's a blue pinstripe shirt under bib overalls and for him a clean black windbreaker. It always seems impossible until it's done. We hop down - take a minute to relocate our landlubber legs – and shy to the east side of the yard onto a dirt track that meanders as pleasantly as an old English lane through a woods bordering the Des Plaines River to the Willow Springs Bridge. We look like train tramps to train tramps, like yard workers to yard workers, and soon will blend in with regular citizens. A brakeman bathed in sunshine waves like a windmill thinking we are exiting crew, and we greet back. Once down the bridge embankment we walk two blocks north along Willow Springs Road to a Speedway station with a Subway shop. After a meal, a taxi whisks us for twenty minutes to Chicago Midway Airport where he jets to DC and I encounter former President Carter exiting the Miami bound plane I'm about to board. The Secret Service and FBI hardly take note of this hobo or could guess how I got here in the last six days.
I've been to some strange places on earth but when I landed in the LA county jail for jaywalking I thought this is the end. First, two hundred of us were jammed into a large room with one open toilet where the feces literally overflowed onto the floor. I sat on the floor near there so people wouldn't bother me. A guy went into convulsions nearby and they just let him twitch for 20 minutes before unlocking the door and bringing in a stretcher. Then we were herded in groups into a smaller room where they gassed us through the ventilation with chloroform as they threw our cage assignments onto the floor. For the next three days we were shuttled from cage to cage every three hours not knowing if it was day or night in the underground 2000 person facility. There was a baloney sandwich every 8 hours when they made us sit crotch to crotch but on a long bench to eat. The guards warned us that if any of us acted up the others should jump him. My last cell was the size of a small bedroom where I was the only white but we all stood because there was no room to do anything else as a loudspeaker crackled our court times.
I hadn't jaywalked and stopped traffic on the 2 am streets as the ticket said, so I planned a defense. Next I was daisy chained with a line of other inmates and marched through a dark tunnel and suddenly into a huge bright courtroom. The judge looked like Groucho Marx. "Well, gentlemen, I have good and bad news," he intoned. "the bad news is the jail is overcrowded; the good is that you are all going to be released with 'time served' if everyone pleads guilty." I looked around and knew these guys would shiv (stab, knife) me if I said otherwise, and we all answered guilty. Hours later they examined the Mickey Mouse tattoo on my left shoulder to make sure it was me, and I was released onto the streets of LA on July 4th.
Tim Melvin writes:
In the misspent days of yore I was a traveling door to door book salesman for several years. One of the drawbacks of this profession was being subject to arrest in various cities and towns that had some sort of ordinance against door to door sales. As a result I got to experience many of our nation's jails and lockups for a brief period of time. LA County is second only to Albuquerque for filthy and horrid conditions. For those keeping score Boulder Colorado was the best. I was there for a weekend and took a macrame class and caught up on my reading.
I was fascinated by this amazing video showing the extreme intelligence of Honey Badgers. The video shows the badger, Stoffell, outwitting his "owner" and escaping from his enclosures in about 10 different ingenious way.
The Hobo comments:
I had no idea honey badgers beat up on cobras. I've seen one badger near where I live and another while hiking in Mexico and they just lumber along like a champion wrestlers as if they own the world. I met Jane Goodall one year at the Bitish Embassy in Nairobi where she hooted at me like a monkey. But badgers are probably more interesting to everyone.
I found this and thought of the Hobo.
Churchill on Chaplin:
Even poverty wore a different face in America. It was not the bitter, grinding destitution Charlie had encountered in the London slums and which has now, thanks to the extension of social services, largely disappeared. In many cases it was a poverty deliberately chosen, rather than imposed from without.
Every cinema goer is familiar with the Chaplin tramps, but I wonder how many of them have reflected how characteristically American are these homeless wanderers. In the dwindling ranks of the English tramps one finds all sorts of people - from the varsity graduate whose career has ended in ruin and disgrace, to he half imbecile illiterate who has been unemployable since boyhood. But they all have one thing in common - they belong to the great army of the defeated. They still maintain the pretence of looking for work - but they do not expect to find it. They are spiritless and hopeless.
The American hobo of twenty-five years ago was of an entirely different type. Often he was not so much an outcast from society as a rebel against it. He could not settle down, either in a home or a job. He hated the routine of regular employment and loved the changes and chances of the road. Behind his wanderings was something of the old adventurous urge that sent the covered wagons lumbering across the prairie towards the sunset.
There were also upon the highways of America, in the old days of prosperity, many men who were not tramps at all in the ordinary sense of the term. They were traveling craftsmen, who would work in one place for a few weeks or months, and then move on to look for another job elsewhere. Even today, when work is no longer easy to secure, the American wanderer still refuses to acknowledge defeat.
That indomitable spirit is part of the make-up of the screen Charlie Chaplin. His portrayal of the underdog is definitely American rather than British. The English workingman has courage in plenty, but those whom prolonged unemployment has forced on the road are nowadays usually broken and despairing. The Chaplin tramp has a quality of defiance and disdain.
The hobo responds:
There is a better ground than choosing poverty or riches for us. That is the Prince & the Pauper condition that's available to nearly anyone reading this. Skid row is a vast experimental laboratory and nowhere else have I discovered & set limits than in those rows across America. An American hobo is defined as a worker who wanders from job to job. The USA allows this with grand territory and a thick network of railroads to enter it. England is cramped; USA is wide open. So it is that the hobos who today in spring are hitting the flatcars and boxcars by the thousands are rebels against tight living and a diurnal job. Almost all are forced by hunger to climb aboard Dirty Face but some of us do it for the adventure, and for self-discovery.
Charlie Chaplin, though British, is convincing as an spirited American tramp because he grew up in the poor district laboratory that I pass through by choice. Charlie's childhood in London was hemmed by poverty and hardship. His father absent and mother struggling financially, he was sent to a workhouse twice before the age of nine. It puts me in mind of my friend George Meegan who climbed a ship's mast on River Thames at a similar age, saw the horizon, and sailed at it for seven years on tramp steamers at sea. Then he jumped down and found his land legs in walking from Tierra del Fuego to the arctic circle via NYC. You cannot hide the backdrop of such talent on screen or in print. When Chaplin was 14 his mother was committed to a mental asylum. I've worked those also as another laboratory of experience, and old folks homes, jails, and even sold Nut Cracker Sweets on 57th street of Manhattan outside Niederhoffer, Cross & Co. after working a day upstairs as a technical analyst. To point, Chaplin toured as a tramp comedian before attracting notice and coming to America to become the premiere tramp. In his floppy footsteps followed Weary (Emmett Kelly) Willie and Happy (Red Skelton) Hobo. Emmet was literally born into a circus while Red beginning at age 10 was part of a traveling medicine show.
They had the spirit, all right, from experience & passed it on to their audiences. For the real deal on the skid rows read anything by Nels Anderson.
And so that brings me to today's choice after paying the IRS. I can use the leftovers to go on an African safari or a walk in Baja, Mexico. Life is a series of T-mazes, if one takes it seriously, and I think I'll take a walk.
anonymous asks the hobo:
Have you spent any time on Skid Row in Los Angeles?
The hobo responds:
LA was my first skid row. I checked into the Midnight mission and sat in a pew next to a black man with 6's tattooed across his knuckles as we listened to an ass-whopping sermon. That's where I 'fell in love' with mission preaching. Then we ate a hearty meal of meat loaf, potatoes & gravy. Then we lined up for bug check. What's that? I didn't know but everyone had to do it before getting a bed. The housekeep must have spotted me as a virgin tramp for I was called first to wind down the stairs into the bowel of the mission where a man I couldn't see waited with a blue light. He told me to drop my drawers and proceeded to shine the light to fluoresce pubic lice. 'Clean! Next!' he yelled. That night i was grateful for being dead tired from catching a freight into town the previous ones. The dorm room of fifty soon filled with snores & flatulence while gunshots outside on skid row shook the broken windows. The next day I caught a freight to the next skid road. That's a hellofa education.
Virtually every Appalachian Trail hiker ditches stuff in the first two weeks of walking. At the end of the first month he's learned to tell ounces difference in his backpack, and has trimmed the pack itself as much as possible. His guidebook is whittled, he has thrown away his water filter, jackets, extra clothes, and arrives at all I ever take on a distance hike: 6-8 lbs including the guidebook (pages torn out), one extra pair of sox, matches, a 1.5 lb sleeping bag, 1 pound biv sack, quart water bottle, GPS, compass, and the clothes and hat on the body.
By the time they reached me on the APT in Vermont that's about what their packs contained. There's about a 90% attrition rate from the start at Springer Mt, Geo to the finish at the Canadian border. I just did the length of Vermont & Maine to the Canadian border & nearly got run over in the fog in the road a few minutes from the border. I was shivering so hard in the October cold that wouldn't have felt it, but carried on past the road for a few minutes to a signed border post, turned around, walked another few hours on frozen feet and in the middle of the night found some locals outside a town burning pallets & fell asleep by the fire.
One would think that one would intuitively evolve to ultralight backpacking everywhere by everyone but the opposite was true. Until the early 90s, I found on trails that every one of hundreds I encountered used the method of carry as much as you can to connect the short supply/water points. These were generally 15 miles away, and 8 miles apart in the mountains where the packs for both weighed 40-60 lbs. They looked as tall as basketball nets.
People on the Pacific Crest & Appalachian trails ridiculed me in the early 90s for carrying no more than a fanny pack or day pack for long distances of months to walk faster and further to connect to more distant supply/water points. I was ostracized from groups while hiking & denied access to the shelters because no one believed I was a thorough hiker using a base weight 10 lbs. pack plus little water and food. I was walking as if on clouds 25-30 miles a day.
Then something happened in about '95. I started seeing hikers with lighter packs and read in a hiking journal about the new 'ultralight' concept of hiking. Now I was ostracized again for carrying a pack too heavy. The technique has evolved, and is, to carry an extremely light pack of 6-8 lbs. and to walk upward of 40 miles a day. Hiking is big business these days around USA and I'm waiting for them to expand across the border into Mexico and South America where I've become an 'ex-pat hiker' and pioneered trails including a continuation of the Pacific Crest from the border for 1300 miles through Baja to Cabo san Lucas.
I've been more than pleased with my new Kindle Fire HDx for books, documentaries and in general. It's nearly everything a traveler could want.
I bought 3 collapsible keyboards to test each and two are v. good. They're the size of a tiny paperback book but unfold to nearly full size keyboard and are remote. Easy fast typing. The two are about $30 Verbatum and Basic Bluetooth. The kindle itself is as fast as most computers for net and email, much faster than latin computers.
Also I bought a couple $20 solar chargers that are half the size of a cigarette box each, and a cigarette lighter charger. The whole system weights about 2 lb. and fits in a pocket. It can theoretically go hiking and if lost write memoirs. The documents are automatically stored on the internet 'cloud' at the first wireless contact as the corpse is lowered into the ground.
It also reads stories to me, and transcribes speech pretty well into a document. There are dozens of perks including the best, nearly instant live support by email, phone or chat that I've encountered since Home Depot. I get free shipping at amazon for weeks that has saved a hundred bucks on books & stuff in the past month. I've begun watching free full length movies & documentaries at night on either the kindle or computer. The kindle has been like falling into a heaven except they don't include a user's manual with the original device. U have to think enuf to go online for a free one just to learn how to turn it on.
Hi Bo, I have a friend doing some development around the downtown train tracks who would like to know the origin of the phrase "riding the rods." Can you enlighten him? Where are you these days? Coming to Memphis any time?
Bo Keely answers:
Riding the rods comes from the name given the Brake Rods which the hobos used to ride underneath the freight cars. a board called a 'ticket' was propped spanning two brake rods that each is like 1'' rebar running the length of the undercarriage. Train tramps rode their little Ticket to avoid detection by the RR bull. That was when steam trains were in vogue prior to late 50s & went more slowly. nonetheless it was a chancy ride because you had to stay awake or roll off between the wheels. I've ridden a ladder on the side of a freight for hours, caught there & tied myself on in case I lost my grip or napped, however I've never heard of modern hobos riding the rods because there are other safer places. Also, I've observed that the old brake rods hung lower beneath the belly of the pre-50s cars to allow more room to lie or sit on the board. A particularly nasty bull would stand on top a moving freight car he thought a hobo was riding the rods beneath the carriage of and drag a chain on the ground between the rails flipping up ballast rocks in the tramp's face. U might see examples of riding the rods in the classic Emperor of the North, Woody Guthrie's Bound for Glory speaks of riding the rods.
I'm in Miami after a trip out west.
February 10, 2014 | Leave a Comment
I just published a new book on amazon. Feel free to buy and review.
George Meegan: The Longest Walk Companion by Steve "bo" Keeley
From the description on the site:
'Thirty years after The Longest Walk, a companion has come out! And where else to meet the intrepid biographer, Bo Keeley, than in the Peru, beside the Amazon, in outrageous Iquitos.' – So begins the most celebrated world walker of all time, George Meegan, in the Introduction to the Companion book to his famous The Longest Walk.
The Longest Walk Companion is as much autobiographical as biographical. It holds new tales, lists, sources, and pictures captioned by George. George Meegan holds eight Guinness World records for his walk of the entire Western Hemisphere from the southern tip of South America to the northernmost part of Alaska at Prudhoe Bay. The journey was of 19,019 miles from 1977-1983, and is documented in his book The Longest Walk. This Longest Walk Companion by George and Steve Keeley contains all new material.
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
- What kind of man leaves hearth and kin
· The Walk Itself - Highlights from the walk itself with photos
· Democracy Reaches the Kids - Original notes from the authors lifelong passion
· Letters and Papers - Dozens sent around the world on his favorite topics
· Articles & Coverage, Sources & Lists - Hundreds on Meegan courtesy of the computer age
· Records and Accolades - three pages of honors
· New Photos - Most never published and captioned by Meegan
· The only authorized biography of George Meegan - by adventurer and author Steve Keeley
GEORGE MEEGAN APPEARANCES:
· Larry King Live
· Today Show
· CBS Morning News
· Good Morning America
· 11 PM Show
· Stud's Terkal Radio
· The Joe Franklin Show
· Phil Donahue
· Hugh Downs
Victor writes to Bo:
What is your relation with the book The Longest Walk. It's very good. And the author has a nice character and adventurous spirit that reminds one of you.
See George Meegan's wikipedia. I wrote it.
George comes to NYC often and you and especially Aubrey would benefit from meeting him. However, he would need a place to stay for a couple days while visiting. His primary interest is children's education and has written Democracy Reaches the Kids that I may also self publish for him.
George and I met in Iquitos on the amazon river via a mutual friend as an introduction of 'walkers'. You're right, we're a bit like each other except he has a seafaring gait from like Ken Smith from 7 years at sea. He would be a strong speaker at Junta, and has spoken at the NYC Explorer's Club, Studs Terkle, Larry King Live, etc. and they all asked him back twice.
When I read his book & learned that it was out of print & that he wasn't making a penny on it, and that he had the copyright, we huddled & inserted some new front material, appendices, & pics. I just published a second book by him that went amazon.com yesterday The Longest Walk Companion authored by me.
After The Longest Walk trek and book, George faded from the American spotlight. He travels exactly as I do, on a shoestring, but pauses in one spot to live longer. He's been more or less on the road for an age. Read his wikipedia link above, and I'll send a note of introduction.
February 7, 2014 | 1 Comment
I hate satellite phones. For one thing, I like to be alone, for two, unreachable, and for three, untraceable. It isnt possible with a satellite phone or family. Explanation: two years ago I told my family that I was going to mexico and would return in a couple months. Two months later, I didn't get to a computer before returning directly to my desert digs. A month after, when I did finally get to a computer, I discovered I was 'dead'.
I also never knew I had so many friends. There were a dozen facebook posts, two dozen emails, a memorial was in the making, and a syndicated columnist wrote on 'the legend passing'. I notified everyone that 'the rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated' - Mark Twain. What happened?
My brother had called in a missing person report, my sister-in-law had posted 'where is Keeley' on facebook, and someone had contacted the American Embassy in Mexico to send out a search party. The day after learning of my demise, I went across into Mexico again for a prescription and when I tried to return the US immigration declared I was not whom my passport purported I was. I was missing or dead. Nonetheless, they strip searched and detained me at the mexicali border, and then sent me to the sheriff's office to identify myself. Then i carried on with life.
no satellite phone for me,
A friend of Keely's writes:
Not sure if you'll like this, but check out this Camp Tramps, Loners and Hermits site about primitive wilderness skills. There's a series of articles about becoming a 'feral woodsman'. The writer includes stories of his encounters with interesting folks living in the bush. It's somewhat like rancho costa nada describing characters living in alternative ways like you or hippie jim or other sand valley residents. I like the pahrump guy in the trailer. if kingman doesn't work out (asthma) I will investigate pahrump. It reminded me of this Detroit guy off the grid in a trailer (you've prob seen it before).
Bo Keely writes:
'Camp tramps' is a fine term. It describes the people of Sand Valley except they paid $50 a month rent (toward purchase) to keep the authorities off their necks. There's nothing quite like having a plot of land that as long as you don't do anything 'wrong' you can order anyone off. It's like ownership of mind. The Sand Valley camp tramps like JR, the Tuks & I have shifted properties multiple times to find the 'right place'. The definition of a good neighbor in Sand Valley is one who never visits until there's an emergency.
I've found I've become a drifter. Why wait for the world to come to you when you can go get the world.
The next link about the Detroit guy in his trailer retreat reminds me that hobos were the vanguard of this fleedom to a little camp in a quiet place, usually on a river. They tow in a trailer, or built a shanty, and lived contentedly. Often it was by a RR track so that when they got bored they could get away.
Loners are certainly the most interesting. They have become 'themselves', completely inner directed. A loner never finds you; you stumble on a loner in any part of the world. The last one I remember was a gent on Trinidad in a jungle concealed hut who slept under a 1' wasps nest. I think he talked to me because I kept only one eye on the nest and the other on him.
It takes all kinds.
Into a Desert Place by Graham Mackintosh (into Baja)
Rivers Ran East by Leonard Clark (into the Amazon)
The robot gently helped another robot after it had blown over in this morning's offshore wind at Homestead, Florida. The spectators around me applauded at the first Robotic Challenge Trials. Seventeen teem robots are competing for $34 million dollars to be divvied in $2 million grants to the winning college and private teams in each division set up like an Olympics.
Stooping in a ring next to the Good Samaritan robot, another performed heart massage on what I thought was a human, but turned out to be a dummy. However, another robot brought a stretcher and loaded the dummy into an ambulance, and waved at us before ambling on to the next mock emergency. I thought, it forgot to leave a silver nut, but otherwise this is close to real.
The 2013 Trials Robotic Challenge is sponsored by the Pentagon's DARPA - Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Seventeen teams are competing, mostly from U.S. universities, but also from around the world. The program listed teams from Drexal University, Texas A&M Engineering, Tohoku University, John Hopkins Research Lab, Virginia Tech, Carnegie Robotics, Polaris Industries, Team VIGIR, General Dynamics CA, Boston Dynamics, SRI International, Team Tartan Rescue, the University of Pittsburgh has a light but resilient Hazardous Operations Robot named THOR,
NASA's Jet Propulsion Labs traveled with RoboSimian, a robot that can use all four of its limbs for various tasks, and The Intelligent Pioneer Robot with Team KAIST arrived from South Korea.
An official explained to me that the reason for the DARPA trials is to establish where the science stands, as a reference point, as a way to learn the state of the art right now.
A Carnegie Mellon model called Chimp (CMU Highly Intelligent Mobile Platform) turned the doorknob in a tactical disaster scenario. It took Chimp two minutes to turn the slippery knob, and someone in the bleachers remarked that it was like watching grass grow but no one moved from his seat. However, then he turned a one-foot diameter wheel to shut a steam valve, labored at a fire hose, and deftly cleaned 2×4's and stacked them in a wagon to haul away from the disaster scene. There was every attempt to make the creatures look human, but most were slightly less handsome than Frankenstein.
Most of the working automations are fabricated for environmental and terrorist attacks, entering burning buildings, and nuclear meltdowns.
Another 4'8" robot of Team Schaft, an elite group of former Tokyo University roboticists whose company was recently acquired by Google, successfully picked up and used a cordless drill to put a hole in a wall at the Disaster Hotel replica, and then punched through the door as the spectators watched from the easy bleachers. This robot is in the lead for overall points, amassing like an Olympics decathlon, as a loudspeaker announced running Team tallies.
A robot driver that resembled a skinless man in a baseball cap with erector set bones was sat into the driver's seat of an automobile, and guided it unaided through an obstacle course of gates and turns. He used a foot on the accelerator and two hands on the steering wheel, with cameras and sensors mounted in his head.
One university team member was programming his Robby with new strategies learned by watching the competition, that would enhance its own performance in today's trials.
Farther down the line of contending machines at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, a human announcer explained, 'There are two factors to consider in robotics: Movement and computing.' Grace and thought popped into my mind.
There were times in the roving crowd when I brushed up against what felt human but wasn't. At the trials, some autonomy was on display. For example, the Atlas robot is designed by Boston Dynamics for the ability to walk on its own, as well as balance, a challenging robotics feat. The announcer sounded staccato and I got confused. But I saw on the 30' big screen a prototype humanoid named Cheetah outrun a 25mph car with long strides. It's what they don't show you that you just can imagine. Someone in the crowd contended to put a gun in his hand and send him to Afghanistan to hunt in the caves.
Nearby, a cement cutting robot raced a human construction worker in cutting through a 3' diameter reinforced pillar. The robot wore ear protection but the man didn't. The smoking blades shot sparks ten feet away.
The event was being filmed by a camera the size of a diesel engine mounted on the end of a 30' boom.
Suddenly the wide screen burst the image of a middle school student being interviewed in his robotic class while building a basketball player that could dunk. He said that he liked robots because they were unpredictable, and there was blood. He could invite his friends to participate.
Admission to the DAPAR event was free, and drew about a thousand with license plates from all over the southeast, New England and Chicago. I learned not only from the automations but the humans. The Team owners wore the colors of their robots, often reflecting their university colors.
The teams were composed of two strangely matched types: The beefy mechanical engineers who bolted the things together, and the computer ectomorphs who programmed them to think. There were mutual claps on the backs after a Team robot won a task of getting on an industrial ladder and climbing four steps to a landing zone. The school mechanic marveled, 'I know how it climbs but not how it sees the steps,' and the computer specialist rejoined, 'I know how it thinks but not how it lifts its feet.' Ironically, their aim is to build a composite of the two to replace humans in dangerous responses.
An interesting comment was made by a visiting U.S. Air Force pilot, 'Most people think that short pilots are required to fit in the cockpit or for less weight. But the truth is that a tall person has a longer distance between head and heart. He blacks out from the G's sooner. My distance is short so I can go longer before G'ing out.'
There was a 4' diameter drone helicopter designed for environmental survey, and a 6' robot raft built for search and rescue along the hurricane torn Florida coast. 'It can't drown during rescue,' commented the builder, and will not short circuit in a tsunami.
Most of the robots were moving about in serious business. However, a Frisbee thrower tossed with the unerring accuracy and speed of a champ, and a 2' taxidermy fish as a biology teaching tool that actually swims, detects depth and senses oxygen, and knows when to dive or swim closer to the surface. It would not take bait and it's clear that, by sci-fi standards, the robots may disappoint.
My favorite was the sandbox and woodchip challenge box, about 30' long and also filled with dips, hills and stairs. Robots raced end to end and never got stuck, as I have a dozen times at my Sand Valley, CA. The model size, remote control robot vehicles employed two types of locomotors: three sets of sequential tracks like tanks on both sides that pivoted independently from horizontal to vertical, and another that looked like a 4' crab with churning legs that operated independently to flit easily about the sandbox. Now and then, the controller caused it to tear the ground like a bulldog with its feet in a display of bravado.
Pretty, intelligent girls were passing out 'I love robots' stickers and most people slapping them over their hearts. I left before the finals, as the loudspeakers predicted, '2013 is the trials, and at the end of 2014 the real thing.'
When robots can move and sense as well as humans they'll be able to reproduce, and here we are.
Panama's historic Darién Gap - a 10,000-square-mile swath of jungle on the border of Central and South America - has eaten explorers alive for centuries. Today, guerrillas, American trained Panamanian soldiers, drug smugglers, their bushwhackers, poachers, and jaguars rule this vast no-man's-land. I've tried to penetrate the Darien four times, and turned back as many, but it's always been thrilling.
I've tried and tried just because it's there. My first attempt was in 1985 during a racquetball clinic tour that was seeding the sport throughout Mexico, Central and South America. The last stop in the overland route before the Darien was at the US Ft. Clayton two-court racquetball gym. (I did a recent Dec. 2012 '30th anniversary' clinic and saw some of the same old Army backhands.) After the clinic, in 1984, and in 2012, the Army set me up with Darien maps and some hard advice.
In 1985, the package included a bulky first-aid kit with three anti-snake venoms, and the counsel that the primary danger was drug carriers crossing from Colombia into Panama, and their hijackers. 'You could be mistaken for either,' a sergeant cautioned. I made it a ways into the Darien, and ended on a cow pasture air strip taking a single engine plane out.
In 2012, after the clinic, pictures and a couple of autographs, I set sail on the tiny sloop 'El Gato' that got tossed in a New Year's 20' sea troughs before the boat broke nearly into half, and after two days floundered in the Caribbean without sail, motor or rudder. Tankers in the night bore down on us until we shined them off with jumping flashlights. 'Mayday!' cried a Portuguese container ship on our radio, that received, but could not transmit. A day later, we were towed by the incredulous Colombian Coast Guard into Cartagena.
The third jab into the Darien, in the mid-90s, occurred on another personal vacation, While waiting for a canoe on a midnight riverbank at end-of-road Yaviza, Panama, a thick finger suddenly wagged under my chin that I followed up to a NY Yankees baseball cap worn by a tall Caucasian who spoke Spanish with a suspicious gringo accent.' You'll die if you go in there, and, besides, it isn't allowed.' He identified himself as Panamanian Immigration, and so I about faced for one hundred meters. I slept in a parked bus, and got lucky that at 7am the next morning it returned to Panama City.
The fourth assault into the Darien was just a few months ago, at the specific invitation of a Panamanian expat, to fly in from Florida to hook up with of a native guide who promised, for a reasonable fee, that he, and his kin who lived the length from Panama into Colombia, would get me across safely. On arrival, the guide had tics and bowed out, saying, 'Infiltrating guerrillas for two months have filled the gap, and none of my kin is willing to travel.'
The year old story goes, from one of my expat pals in Iquitos, Peru, that a Colombian General with a deformed foot went to his orthopedist for a special raised sole. The CIA had bribed the shoemaker to implant a GPS transmitter into the heel. They wisely let Achilles wander, from Colombia down into the Darien, and followed by his troops. The US government is presently putting the screws to the Colombia guerrillas via financial and high-tech support such as the GPS heel. The resulting exodus is housed under the war on drugs, and Panamanians are upset.
A Panamanian first year school teacher told me on my last attempt that she has been stationed in a one-room school house on the Darien's fringe because she has no señiority. Guerrillas materialize like hungry ghosts from the rainforest to prey on her and the students for their lunchpails, which they yield to drive them back; otherwise, they steal, or worse. It is terrorist situation.
The Pan-American highway is continuous from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego except for one 100km section through the Darien. The misnomer 'highway' is a dirt track that peters into footpaths at Yaviza, Panama. There the missing segment, that my friend George Meegan last covered in 1978, laces the beautiful, terribly occupied jungle where George was held up by his guide. He pressed on, and at that instant, part of the high academic story of human migration received its death blow that the entire Americas could not be journeyed by foot.
Even then, road construction technology had advanced along to enable a paved road that would link all the Americas. George, the teacher, the Army, racquetball players, and my chicken guide during each of my four crossing attempts have opined that that the Darien is 'closed' to a unbroken Pan America for three political reasons. A negotiable route would open three huge gates from South to the North Americas: drugs, prostitutes and illegal immigrants, including Colombian guerrillas.
A paved Darien would ruin my dream, and I probably wouldn't go there.
One reason, I was told, why this Darien was never linked in with the road system was US fear, warranted, of animal disease blasting up to US.
Veterinary school was a concentration camp. There was one suicide every other semester. It was the period of the baby boom, and as the country lunged forward it was buying more dog food that imposed an 'experimental program'. As I recall, it was a lobotomy. We were stuck into an accelerated curriculum of six years crammed into five to produce more DVMs.
The semester loads maxed at 18-20 credits which was 25% greater than the campus average. Each class was scientific, tough. Grades were on a class curve; and I was in competition with men and women having graduate degrees in anatomy, biology, physiology and so on. Classes ran Monday through Saturday, and during internship (in snow blown pastures and barns) we were called out on Sundays. Full classes ran concurrently with midterms and final exams.
I kept track, year by year, and the most I ever wasted was an accumulated one second of my life.
I won my first paddleball nationals by becoming an Intramural building supervisor to have a key to practice shots late into the night after closings.
Upon graduation in winter, 1972, I took an askew turn with my sheepskin west from Michigan to California. Pro racquetball was igniting and this was the mecca. One month after arrival, I took the veterinary state boards, and came to an instant understanding with educational bureaucracy on, walking out, the proctor said, 'You'll have the results of the board in six months.' it was a multiple choice test.
The first pro racquetball tour started just months after, and I chose pro racquetball, despite an eventual passing board grade. I kept the California and Michigan licenses current for about five years, while reading the AVMA journals, and then it seemed futile to pay the annual renewals.
The DVMs expired, but I've saved myself with my training dozens of times and, in reflection, there are zero regrets on my choices.
I've remained in contact with two of my colleagues, one my big brother at Farmhouse fraternity and #1 in our class, and the other an outstanding veterinary psychiatrist, to whom I refer cases if I cannot help.
I received these questions from a friend the other day and thought I'd share my answers. The friend asked:
In all your adventures have you ever….
1. been in the wild, where you couldn't walk to civilization before nightfall, and lost all or most of your gear?
2. needed to make fire with primitive methods (like bow drill)?
3. needed to find/hunt/gather food without a gun?
1. A dozen time in the mountains, desert and on the rails. No gear, and lost. There are two options: Walk all night to keep from freezing, and to make headway to civilization. Or, build a simple shelter by throwing some branches on yourself. These situations are almost always v. uncomfortable, nerve wracking, and difficult to follow textbook models. So I usually walk for a few hours until I'm exhausted, and then curl up in the dirt and fall asleep out of the pain, to wake up to the warming sun, which is also a compass, in the morning.
2. A half dozen times. The situation is usually wet, cold and lost. The threat is freezing before the night is done. If you can walk all night - done it often - then it's fine. If there's something blocking that - now I always carry on my person a lighter and compass. However, survival manuals cover comfort zone situations, which isn't often the case. You are fatigued, dizzy, hungry, lost, afraid, and have been circling for hours trying to save yourself. Your hands tremble so that matches, if you had them, can't be lit. If the hands are steady, there is no fuel, and anyway it's often raining or snowing that defines the scenario. I kept from freezing in a cubbyhole over the Rockies by lighting a little fire on the jiggling freight and, slowly, feeding cardboard into it. I learned flint-and-steel in Boy Scouts, and later in wilderness survival class under Peter Carrington, but you can't beat a lighter in a compromised situation.
3. I'm a poor food gatherer compared to the other survival skills. I've studied it extensively - foraging, fishing, trapping - but have used the emergency skill only in the desert a couple of times. In the desert I've gotten liquid from barrel cactus twice, and once cleaned and eaten prickly pear cactus.
The survival guides are good to study for starters, and to carry you out to the wilds. I've logged, what, a thousand trips alone into various wildernesses, with about 30 life threatening survival situations. I've extracted myself by ALWAYS looking ahead, to see the worst case scenarios before they happen. It's not fun to think hard when you're on vacation, but I'd be a dead man many times over without planning.
There's usually ONE grave danger per environment. In the jungle it's snakes; I carry a venom extractor and don't walk when the frogs start croaking at 6pm, the snakes prey. In the mountains it's getting lost; I always have two compasses, and these days a GPS. In the desert it's dehydration; I've walked the talk about barrel cactus. On the seashore it's hunger; except your bug net is a fish trap in estuaries for as far up the coast as you care to go. In the cold region it's freezing; as long as you can walk you'll wake up the next morning.
The emergency gear I carry dates back to Batman. He wore a 'utility belt' with the basic essentials of crime fighting. I've borrowed the belt in the form of ankle weights. By removing the lead sack from one of the weight baffles, I inserted the items often mentioned in standard survival packs: compass, length of twine, lighter, penknife, pen & sheet of paper. It's saved me more than once.
The episode that keeps returning to mind is when I had to tie up the penis after a bee sting in a tornado, and flinging it over my shoulder like a Continental soldier until the storm abated and I returned to normal size. Bees get angry before tornadoes hit, and this one flew out and stung the base. It sounds funny but it swelled to bursting like the Nutty Professor, until I applied a compression wrap of black electrician tape from my Batman ankle weights. The twine was the finishing touch to elevate it and let gravity do the trick.
November 19, 2013 | Leave a Comment
Thanksgiving, 2007, was a special day for me in a California hobo jungle scrapping with peers like vultures over a charity Turkey. It all began with the 'invisible principal'.
I was a happy sub with many feathers in my hat as the most requested by teachers and faculty alike at Blythe High School in Riverside County.
Besides hiring the new teachers, California had handpicked an ex-career army sergeant with two tours of Vietnam as the ramrod, whom the staff called 'the invisible principal' and the students never once saw for his policy of fierce orders from behind a closed door.
I too had heard but never saw him until two weeks into the term. On that day, in English, at last bell, the kids filed out shrieking, 'To the river, to drink!'
There was a BANG and the room slowly filled with smoke.
Advancing slowly from the door, the grey cloud headed at me kitty-corner at the teacher's desk. I squinted for the source counting 'one alligator, two alligator' until the cloud was at my nose, and then looked left at the window and right at the phone.
Like the sinking ship's captain — surely they will answer the distress — I picked up the phone and dialed the office emergency number. After eight rings, I hung up, still holding my breath, and redialed as fire alarms began to wail. A chalky dust settled on my head and clothes, as I held my breath, hoping.
The door burst open and a thick figure hung in the frame like a gorilla — the invisible principal!
He raced in to open the windows, and as the smoke escaped I exhaled holding the receiver, 'No one answered! Sir'
He cut me short, 'I had to clear the campus, teach.'
We discovered minutes later that a student had detonated the fire extinguisher.
A week went by, and there was a playground war. As usual, the school loudspeaker bellowed the secretary of the principal, "MR KEELEY, to the playground, immediately!"
It was another emergency. I dashed to the gym locker room where ten students and I were pinned down by rocks shot from outside by thirty more too disgusted in the heat to exercise more than these stones. I braved the salvo, and was smashed in the head by a soccer ball. An Aspergers student hid his head in his shirt collar like an ostrich and crashed into the canal. Fights broke out in more clouds of dust, but still no help arrived. The goalposts bent and weighted by students to the ground, screaming triumph!
They had their say that day, as I staggered wearily to the gym office and left my report on the desk. The next day I was fired, and all the feathers fell out my cap.
What does a canned sub do in his spare time? The next day I wrote a 'Letter to the Honorable Schwarzenegger'; it went unanswered. The day after the door shut in my face by a pro bono lawyer. On the third I filed for the first unemployment. On the fourth day I caught a freight out of Kolten yard San Bernardino to, as the hobos say, wherever it goes. Like an out-of-job depression tramp, I was absorbed into the system, and spent many hours reading.
It's said never to leave a complaint without a solution. Somewhere along the line I picked up a copy of Meegan's Democracy Reaches the Kids and thought that may be it, let the kids have a voice in the classrooms before they get all the teachers fired.
It's surprising how many retired execs, engineers, and doctors I know who work for Lowes, Home Depot and Rockler. The guy who invented the artificial knee as we know it works for my local Rockler store selling woodworking tools.
My friend sent this story to me, writing, "It's a great story and I've found exactly the same at WalMarts and Home Depots across america. You wouldnt believe… until you walk in there and take a quick survey of the help, and choose the graying one with a spring in the step who's intellect is superior than all the shoppers. Ayn Rand didnt get to see WalMart and Home Depot in proclaiming that the clerks and workers of america were second class. One in 20 of them is a former dignitary."
WAL-MART SENIOR GREETER
You just have to appreciate this one. Young people forget that we old people had a career before we retired…..
Charley, a new retiree-greeter at Wal-Mart, just couldn't seem to get to work on time. Every day he was 5, 10, 15 minutes late. But he was a good worker, really tidy, clean-shaven, sharp-minded and a real credit to the company and obviously demonstrating their "Older Person Friendly" policies.
One day the boss called him into the office for a talk.
"Charley, I have to tell you, I like your work ethic, you do a bang-up job when you finally get here; but your being late so often is quite bothersome."
"Yes, I know boss, and I am working on it."
"Well good, you are a team player. That's what I like to hear."
"Yes sir, I understand your concern and I will try harder."
Seeming puzzled, the manager went on to comment,
"I know you're retired from the Armed Forces. What did they say to you there if you showed up in the morning late so often?"
The old man looked down at the floor, then smiled. He chuckled quietly, then said with a grin, "They usually saluted and said, Good morning, Admiral, can I get your coffee, sir?
November 4, 2013 | Leave a Comment
A funny thing of mandatory doping goes on in psych wards. When the cops knocked on my door at the Rainbow Hotel down from the LA library, and barged in, cuffed and hauled me to the nut hatch… The reason is that I had paid a week in advance and not left the room, having returned from world travel and needed to hole up.
The manager called the police, I believe, because the hotel was full and he wanted the room to collect double rent. On skid row there are all sorts of tricks to generate income. The hatch they stuck me in was considered LA's finest, and as a former professional athlete I was labeled 'dangerous'.
The nurse gave me a thorazine pill to swallow that I used sleight of hand to stick it in an apple. Otherwise I could have been stuck in that place for a century doing the 'thorazine shuffle'. On thorazine there is no wiggle room for the mind to think through an escape. The California law is that one is observed during a '72 hour hold' and then evaluated by a psychiatrist to see if the patient should be held for a further period of observation or released. Fortunately, on this and two other occasions for similar reasons to confinement during my hoboing years, the evaluating shrink was a compassionate, intelligent guy. He knew that as in jails the gov't pays a stipend for three days an inmate is held, and after that it's his duty to shoo the client out to make room for the next. It was another double rent situation.
The evaluating psychiatrist asked me a few preliminary questions and I proved I was a veterinarian by telling him that his wife's poodle's gestation period was 63 days. Then he said, 'If you were me, would you let yourself out?' I answered by requesting a couple dollar bills from his wallet, and quickly memorized the serial numbers, returned the bills, and rattled off the 20 digits. He signed the release and instead of returning to settle the score with the Rainbow manager I moved on to the succeeding adventure.
A recent article making the rounds describes WalMart nomads proliferating nationwide. People who spend the night in the car or RV is frowned on at best, and illegal at worst, but WalMart welcomes such customers with open arms who camp as I do in their parking lots. Think what you may politically of the chain, it treats its peripatetics well. Note the distinction between nomads and the homeless. We have vehicles and credit cards and, for crying out loud, just need a quiet spot to park and shop.
The WalMart parking lot outside of Brawley, CA that is my 'home' away from home in the desert is a spacious lot of asphalt covering as many acres as many small towns. There are shade palms and 24-hour security who drive around in a white truck with a blinking yellow light and smiles at you. They are ordered to do so by the store chief because he knows that each day you will spend money in his store and raise his commission and Xmas bonuses to the employees.
The typical day at Walmart, in my case, goes like this. I arrive at 3 am from the desert and park in my favorite spot out back by the mountains of crates where morning traffic won't disturb sleep. I rise at 9 am and drop my car at the WalMart auto service for an oil change. While that's being done there's still time to catch the breakfast special inside at McDonalds. Then I shop for supplies. Sometimes this takes one or two days. Loaded to the gills, my CarV and I return two hours to the desert and not to resupply at Hotel WalMart for another month.
Unlike me, most of the nomads are snowbirds in gigantic RV's who set up in the front parking lot as if it were a trailer court, with lawn chairs, radios, picnics and pets. Many of the families are WalMart hoppers who drive from one to the next en route to certain locations throughout the southwest. There is new breed of WalMart children who are savvy from this circus travel.
Victor Niederhoffer writes:
The indirect benefits of the profit motive.
Steamtrain converted this image into a post card that he would hand out to the RR people, hobos, at the Britt convention and others he met while cruising the highways in his later years in an old Cadillac.
One time I stopped in to see him in Toledo, learnt how to foraged and eat dandelion greens, and slept in his back yard. The next day he took me in the Caddy to the train yard, talked to the crew, and got me on an eastbound to Pittsburgh with a handful of the autographed postcards.
He waved goodbye as the boxcar pulled away, shouting, "If the bull gives you any trouble, give him one of these and tell him Steamtrain sent you."
The freight arrived two days later in Pittsburgh in a driving rain.
I jumped down and was immediately soaked as the railroad bull pulled up. "I have a postcard from Steamtrain Maury Graham for you, but it's too wet to pull it out!"
He said, "Thank you for traveling Conrail!"
A presently rare, and therefore useful, service strategy is a pause near the top or during the downswing.
This hesitation serve is unlike any other and with distinct advantages. There is a pause between the start of the downswing and the ball contact. It is like a hardly perceptible stammer, or a slight hitch in a horse's gait. In that split-second, a decision is made to adjust the flight of the ball relative to the lean of the receiver. The basis of the decision is the old sport adage, 'Hit it where he ain't'.
Learning the hesitation serve is easy with a quick read of this article and practice of 1000 shots on the court. Then you will understand its success comes from the receiver. In The serve gains three smaller advantages that quickly will be discussed before getting to the fourth and heart of hesitation.
The pause in the stroke provides:
A) The body weight shifts to lower in the legs (lower center of gravity) to increase stroke power.
B) By crouching the ball becomes screened from the receiver's eyes.
C) The returner physically vacillates in his tennis shoes with uncertainty.
D) He is also caught in a quandary of building suspense throughout the match.
Looking at these individually, in the first effect the short pause in the stroke automatically lowers the body weight to the legs, in the model of a lifter hefting a barbell overhead with a Clean and Jerk. At the pause in the clean, or uplift, the knees are bent to provide better spring to the legs. In the second effect, by the weight lowering into a slight crouch the ball becomes eclipsed from the receiver's eyes by the greater 'balling' of the server's body. An analogy is trying to see the sun with the moon in the way, a solar eclipse. And the third effect is that the returner must rise and ready on his toes to quickly shift weight depending on if the ball is hit to his right or left. This is fatiguing, and becomes irritating in a three game set.
Now to address the major effect brought about by the hesitation serve… quandary. This is a psychological upset. During the short stutter, the returner falls into a trap of indecision. An internal dialogue of uncertainty occurs, don't you think. The receiver must ignore the stutter serve, which is difficult, or fall into a trap of doubt. It creates a quick freeze and a wait-and-see attitude. This will be ameliorated and wear off in a fairly short time… after the rally is over!
For all four reasons, a short delay in the server's downswing increases the receiver's relation to risk. It is said that on the hardwood plains of hesitation bleach the bones of countless losers who, at the dawn of decision, stood to wait, and waiting watched the crack ace.
In baseball pitching it's the same. When you hesitate on the throwing motion, the receiver is forced to do the same, and you become his driver. The hesitation, like a fastball, works best on low, hard serves including the drives to both side and the Z.
The game is like a dance, and one must know when to move and when not to. When you pause on the serve, the receiver is thrown out of step with the ball coming out of reach or at his face. You make one error, you pause, waiver, stumble and lose the edge on the return. Colonel Tom Parker of Elvis fame said, 'Either operate from a position of advantage, or do not operate.' This advantage repeated dozens of times per game fetches points that lead to championships. This is called a specialty champion who has one difficult-to-see ploy that is his game lever.
The first player ever in racquetball to use the hesitation serve was Dr. Bud Muehleisen, winner of the first 1969 IRA Nationals and in the ensuing three decades 70 more national and international titles. Bud was a patient dentist, and patient were his opponents focusing on the pause at the top of his backswing. Because the ball was slower then, it was more of a stutter than a stammer, but with the same effect. I had the bright idea to study it from the gallery a hundred times, and surmised two extremely important things. First, his opponent was gung ho, and it is interesting to watch a Type A go nuts in a staccato tempo in the full course of two games. Second, and more important for our upcoming match, I learned what I believe is the ONLY secret to beating the hesitation serve. You may not expect to watch the downstroke with its hitch and stay focused. Instead, during the downswing you must watch something near him- the 'E' in the Ektelon on the back of his shirt, or a spot on the wall, and then, at the contact viewing the racquet and ball again. It is like leaving one frame out of a video and not missing a thing… except the debilitating pause.
Cliff Swain has one of the best hesitation serves the sport has seen, and it's because he has a set of eyes that can focus on so much at once. He learned it in his first year at Providence State and months later captured his first big pro win. He described to me, "I think the hesitation at the top of the swing is the best, most consistent and most powerful." Swain used ESP (Early Swing Preparation) in holding the racquet high in the backswing while following the ball around the court. In the case of the serve, the only difference is that the forehand is more stationary, with a step into the ball. Where most players use a smooth, rhythmic backswing and downswing to strike the serve, Swain has a hesitation at the topswing that allows him while watching the ball to also observe the opponent's position and lean. For Swain, the first pro win due to the hesitation serve lost him the ensuing Regionals when he was disqualified for having accepted money as a professional.
Predecessor pro Jim Spittle had success in the 1980s pro tour as the ball livened to allow his big serve to come to bear hideously on his opponents. Unfortunately, Jim had no backhand to augment his ace serves and kill forehands, or he would have been seen in the winner's circle with Hogan, Mike Yellen, Dave Peck, Jerry Hilecher, Davey Bledsoe, Brett Harnett, Ruben Gonzales and Ed Andrews.
Sometimes you meet an unknown player in a remote court with a narrow specialty that makes him a virtuoso. You have just met two. Swain had the specialty hesitation on his serve (and strokes!) with a balanced game to be one of the greatest. The only difference between Cliff and Jim is that the latter couldn't hit a backhand into a dumpster from ten paces. This is all the more reason to focus on his hesitation serve that enlivened his pro career. Once he demonstrated and explained the mechanics around his attorney instead of a referee in his Memphis office.
"Your down-the-line drive serve is used in combination with a cross court serve that is effective because of a hesitation in the swing before striking. For me, this 'hitch' is on the downswing is a split second before contact. In that frame of a split second, you look at both the ball and the receiver's position. At his position and his lean in anticipation of the serve going down-the-line or cross-court. The hesitation allows me to adjust the angle and point of contact to direct it away from the returner's commitment. 'It's all about first intent,' piped the lawyer ducking a swing, and he is right. The receiver must commit and cannot recover before the server decides which of the two sides of the court to serve the ball. The decision is made during the hesitation."
For Swain, the pause and choice is made at the top of the downswing; and for Spittle it is at mid-swing just before ball contact. Which is better? I don't know, and it probably depends on the physiotype of the server. In both cases, the receiver is left holding his jock.
This is called the big game, of a booming serve for an ace or weak return. Everyone these days is familiar with the style, but few take the step of adding a hesitation for a quantum improvement.
The key component of the hesitation is it allows you multiple serve options, and often gets your opponent to commit prematurely. You look, he moves, and during the downswing from the pause near the top of the swing you serve away from the notion of his lean. If the receiver is leaning toward the cross-court serve, the pause enables you to serve down the line. But, if he is leaning toward down the line, you can hit it cross court.
When one considers how many serves are hit to game point, and that the modern quick ball makes the service the most important part of any strong player's offense (the second essential is a killshot), it makes winning sense to spend more time practicing it than any other shots. In tennis there is the parallel of practicing the 'big serve' over and over until there is enough muscle memory that the motion becomes natural, fluid, unconscious, and independent of fatigue or psyching out.
The bottom line is that if you had an exact racquetball twin with whom you played every game to a draw using identical shots and strategies, the first one to add the hesitation to his service would gain a five point spread in every game to 15.
He who hesitates is won.
Someone someday should go through all the dailyspec stories in history and put them into categories like sports and trading. A person could click on a category button and bring up a wealth of material for research or making it into a book, etc.
For boxing and climax, or in any sport, these facts emerge from my recent research: testosterone peaks about 2 weeks after the last orgasm.
Such is the design of evolution.
Because testosterone is converted to oestrogen by the aromatase enzyme in adipose tissue, a sustained high level of sexual activity causes 'testicular feminisation' of a person's body.
Testosterone causes vasodilation of blood vessels by a direct effect on the smooth muscles, which is different from estrogen because it is independent of an impact on endothelium.
As my boxing trainer, who disallows sex one month before an upcoming bout, states, "sex makes fat babies in the ring."
September 16, 2013 | 3 Comments
Elvis walloped the ball around the court like he was strumming a guitar for the fun of it. He looked like he was on stage except with the racquet, the moves in the court comparable to his moves on stage, and to work the audience with his physical performance. His guitar became more of a prop, and so did his racquet.
Elvis Presley and his Memphis Racquetball Mafia loved the sport. E's main contenders at Graceland were touring pros Davey Bledsoe (National Champion 1977), Randy Stafford (Intercollegiate Champion and touring pro), Steve Smith (Intercollegiate and Tennessee State Champion 1975), Mike Zeitman (Three-times National Doubles Champion with three different partners), David Fleetwood (National Collegiate Doubles Champion and never ranked out of the top 16), and Dr. Fred Lewerenz (Elvis' sport physician and Michigan Racquetball Hall of Fame with two years on the pro Tour). Other members of the racquetball group were the bodyguards Red and Sonny West, actor Dave Hebler, harmony singer Charlie Hodge, and road manager Joe Esposito. Linda Thompson also played.
Elvis was introduced to racquetball in 1968 by his physician, Dr. Frederick Nichopolos, who told me, 'I started playing racquetball in 1955 at the Nashville JCC by sawing off the handle of a tennis racquet. That is just five years after Joe Sobek is credited with inventing racquetball in Connecticut. I showed Paddle Rackets, as we called it, to young players with ambition and talent, and then in the mid-60s moved the game with my medical practice to Memphis, and was still looking for young talent to coach.' Dr. Nick also taught his son Dean to play, who soon teamed with a young Marty Hogan in a Junior National Doubles. Dr. Nick began treating Presley in 1967 for 'saddle pain', and a year later prescribed racquetball. That blossomed into a lifelong friendship lasting thousands of racquetball games.
Elvis wore white tennis shoes, shorts, and his safety goggles which were huge because Dr. Nick didn't want anything to happen to his eyes. His headband was white and he always wore a glove. He played daily, or nightly before heading out into the darkened Memphis streets on motorcycles with the bodyguards and the Racquetball Mafia in sidecars to movies and nightclubs. 'The week before going on music tour, E wore a tight rubber suit with tight wrists to sweat off five pounds per racquetball session to look good to the fans on tour,' describes Bledsoe. 'He thought a quick weight loss would make him look better.'
He had a strong forehand as an extension of karate, a standard club backhand, and hit the gamut of serves. The sport was a workout and a release from the pressures of being the King of Rock and Roll. 'To be honest, Elvis wasn't much of an athlete,' Bledsoe recalls. 'He was very rigid. He just wanted to move around, get him some exercise. He'd get in the court and bang the ball around. I'd try to teach him the rules or orchestrate a formal match, but he wasn't much interested in that. He did like the game though, and wound up building a $250,000 racquetball court in back of Graceland.'
David Fleetwood compares Elvis' game to his own singing voice. 'It was horrible! He was a pro singer and I was a pro player. But E loved the sport and that's what muttered.' 'He got a couple points most of the time,' hints Bledsoe, 'And once he got eight on me to 21.' Fleetwood says, 'I tried to give E the Donut (zero points), and sometimes did, but against Linda Thompson, who cares?' Steve Smith chimes, Elvis loved the game like he loved gospel, just belted it out.'
Dr. Fred Lewerenz of Michigan concurs. 'Elvis loved to play the sport. He was a club player, a C with a higher level of pleasure. We played a lot on the Graceland court. Elvis loved the game but not for the same reasons as others. He just liked to hit the ball. He was competitive and emotional. His forehand was good, and his backhand was sufficient to just hit the ball around and have a good time in a workout.' Lewerenz had become Elvis's sport physician by a quirk. 'There was a racquetball tournament in Memphis that Dr. Nick played in before we got to know each other. During a match he injured his back and the back of his leg, and the call went out, 'Is there a doctor in the courthouse?' It was the kind of injury that was difficult to self-treat. I worked on Dr. Nick's back and leg in the training room for forty-five minutes, and he seemed pleased. Two weeks later, I got a call asking if I wanted to be Elvis's sport physician.' Dr. Lewerenz won 140 tournaments overall, and played on the IPRO tour as did the rest of the pro Racquetball Mafia I from 1975 to 1976 Elvis didn't attend any tournaments outside Graceland. 'It would have been mayhem with the fans, tells Smith. 'We didn't throw any tournaments at Graceland either, just fierce competition among the entourage and visiting pros. The best player at Graceland after the pros went home was bodyguard Red West who fell just short of Open play. Dr. Lewerenz describes Red as a 'great athlete who brought those talents to the court.' Yet, if they wanted to, the pros could hold any Graceland bodyguard or musician to under five points, but didn't because the purposes were exercise, coaching and fun. 'I once challenged seven of E's bodyguards to one game to 21 for $100 per man,' relates Bledsoe. 'It was against Red, Sonny, Dave Hebler, and others. I played with an antifreeze bottle and they used their racquets. I went home that morning with $700.'
Racquetball boomed across the nation from 1975-6 as Bledsoe and the others 'ran' with Elvis at Graceland, and riding the night streets of Memphis on motorcycles with sidecars. Memphis was the second racquetball capital (after San Diego) of America. Dr. Nick knew Jerry Lee Lewis and got his DC-3 14-seat plane to fly the Racquetball Mafia to the Atlanta Southern Regional. The group included Nick and his son Dean, Stafford, Bledsoe, Zeitman, Smith, Steve's brother Stuart, Jack Fulton, Gary Stephans, Larry Lyles, IRA President Bill Tanner, and pros Sarah Green and Steve Strandemo. 'Elvis didn't go because he was mobbed wherever he went outside Graceland, and besides, the tough old geezer Colonel Parker wouldn't let him out to play in tournaments,' amends Fleetwood. Randy Stafford remembers, 'Our plane was an old DC-3 with twin engines, and the interior had captain's chairs and couches around. It sat about 14. Under the center table used for drinks was an 8-track tape player that was huge, and next to it a file of 8-track tapes. All of them were Jerry Lee Lewis tapes, and we partied to his songs all the way to Atlanta.' Zeitman agrees that it was a unique way to travel to a Regional, and that the old DC-3 could have been the same Jerry Lee Lewis 14-seat DC-3 that, in 1985, Ricky Nelson's pilot radioed again, 'Smoke in the cockpit!' Then the plane disappeared from radar. The DC-3, previously owned by notorious widow-maker, Jerry Lee Lewis, crashed, killing Nelson and the entire band.
The 'star' pro with the most access to Elvis Presley was his wardrobe manager and Tennessee State racquetball champion Steve Smith. Steve had grown up best friends and playing racquetball with Dr. Nick's son Dean. Steve had seen me pull up to a Tanner IPro Memphis stop in 1975. 'You were in an old van with a beat up bicycle strapped to the back that you rode to the tournament instead of driving like everyone else'. I recall Steve as slight and as quick as a deer, always a threat to upset me by his pure athleticism. Brumfield too had played the smooth Southern mover 'without a backhand.' Following one of their matches, Brum quickly corrected the backhand, if not by Christian charity then by rubbing salt in the wound. 'After the match,' continues Smith, 'Outside the court we made up and were surprised to find that each of us professed to be a golfer. 'I don't believe it,' we said at nearly the same time. Then Brumfield told me, 'Steve, all your backhand needs is to swing like it's a golf club. Keep your elbow close to your body, and you'll get control. When the elbow is tight to the body the forearm and wrist don't waver, and your control increases substantially.' It worked, and later in the year he took #3 Steve Serot down the wire before losing by four in a 21-point tiebreaker.
Charlie Brumfield in 1975, on the dual pro circuits, picked up multiple national titles including the NRC Pro Singles, IRA/IPRO Singles, IRA Doubles with Craig McCoy, National Outdoor Racquetball Singles, and Outdoor Doubles with Steve Serot. He toured with a dedicated contingent of shouting, drinking Brum's Bums, even as Elvis maintained the equally rowdy Memphis Mafia of bodyguards, musicians, girlfriends, and pros. The associates were there for camaraderie and also filled practical roles. Brumfield had a designer of signs and monogrammed shirts, plus a wine fetcher, and E had his bodyguards, road and stage managers, and 'floaters' like Steve Smith who produced whatever was needed on the spot. In each case, after the tournaments and music gigs ended there were enough people to party deep into the night. Brumfield, the King of Racquetball, and Elvis, the King of Rock, surrounded themselves by these supporters who truly cared for them, and the Kings cared back.
I was Brumfield's popular nemesis and complimented him that his Bums looked like the stinking winos I saw on skid rows. Colonel Parker said the members of the Memphis Mafia (excluding the pros) looked 'like a bunch of old men.' The Colonel wouldn't let the pros take pictures of Elvis, and tried to pen him up in six-star Graceland whenever there wasn't a music tour. 'Colonel Parker was sharp, shrewd, and merciless'' accuses Smith. 'No, he didn't play racquetball. If it didn't pay, he didn't play. Yet, Elvis owned Parker, not the opposite.' In one deal reported by Bledsoe, 'Dr. Nick, Elvis, his guitarist Joe Esposito and I were breaking ground on Presley Center Courts with plans to build an American chain of clubs starting in the Southeast. There were already a few clubs in Nashville and Memphis when Colonel Parker made us take E's name off of it. He had all rights to Elvis' name. Parker was a greedy old bastard!'
'Yes,' agrees Steve Smith. 'The Colonel was selfish and took half of everything Elvis had. Ultimately, I hold him responsible for E's death. My roots with Elvis run pretty deep. I grew up best friends with Dean Nichopolos who was Dr. Nick' son. Dean and I were like brothers. Dr. Nick taught all of us to play racquetball: Dean, Elvis, me, the bodyguards, and he coached many of the Memphis to-be pros. Dr. Nick became E's personal physician in 1968, and two years later Dean and I moved to Graceland and lived there full time with a group of about six others that were the core of what the press smiled when they called us the Memphis Mafia. I was a 'floater' at Graceland, helping Elvis with whatever he needed, and playing racquetball with him and the group of bodyguards, musicians and actors. I was with Elvis from 1970 until three months before his death in 1977.'
Memphis and San Diego were the two warring racquetball capitals during the Golden Decade, clear across a country of crazed Elvis, Disco, and racquetball fanatics. Racquetball was the fastest growing sport in the world. Before the Graceland court opened in 1975, the Memphis Racquetball Mafia worked out at Memphis State, the Memphis Athletic Club, and a single court facility that may have been the model, as well as the impetus, for the eventual construction of Elvis' private court at Graceland. For there was another man about town who was as moneyed as Elvis, with nearly as much clout, and adored the sport of racquetball just as much. Bill Tanner in 1975 was called 'the most prestigious man in Tennessee' by the press that he controlled. He was one of Memphis' most prominent businessmen and racquetball promoters who had a court on top of his 7th story office building on Union Avenue Extended. Elvis and his group played there often because it was private, and Tanner would open up at night. I was up there once on the outside running (18-laps to a mile) track around the outer perimeter of the top floor where the sliding glass doors of Tanner's office opened to a panoramic view of Memphis, as joggers swept by. We had climbed, each by habit, the couple hundred stairs to the top track, and then Tanner swept his hand down across the city offering, 'The key to the city is yours, Keeley, if you play ball with the Tanner team.'
William B.Tanner was the President of the International Racquetball Association (IRA), and had just started a competing IPro Tour that was taking the whack out of the National Racquetball Club (NRC) monopoly. Tanner brought me up here to play a game, and of racquetball, and then to make the proposition. I jumped out of the way of a jogger, returned to face Bill, and told him point blank that I was die-hard Leach, the opposing tour's sponsor. 'Come move to Memphis,' he cajoled. 'Play with Randy Stafford, Bledsoe, Zeitman, Fleetwood, and see the girls. There is nothing San Diego has that Memphis does not except an ocean, but San Diego doesn't have Elvis Presley.' That wasn't true; Marty Hogan was my present roommate in San Diego, and on seeing that I was squared away, Tanner went for Hogan. 'Well, tell your boy Hogan that the same offer is open to him.' So, I missed a chance to play Elvis, but between 1974-77 I visited Memphis five times to compete against members of the Memphis Racquetball Mafia in the Tanner ProAm, and to visit the Memphis media mogul Bill Tanner.
You will never, as far as I know, see another story about Elvis in racquetball, or about the Memphis Racquetball Mafia. This is because, although it was the time of glitz racquetball, when other Hollywood, rock, and political stars made the monthly covers of the only publication, National Racquetball, in the chess game for political control of the burgeoning players, the Chicago based NRC (and close tie with San Diego Leach) put an embargo on Elvis. NRC Executive Director Chuck Leve explains, 'Elvis was Memphis and Memphis was Tanner and IRA, and well, you know the story…So we chose to pretty much ignore Elvis, although I thought whoever did the 'damage control' when he died on the court was brilliant. Elvis never was covered in the NRC magazine because the time when racquetball 'went Hollywood' Elvis would have been prime material for our magazine, however the National Racquetball Club owner Bob Kendler sensed Elvis was in the Tanner Memphis camp which was opposing our NRC pro tour with a tour of their own, so while Batman, Lana Wood, and Governor Thompson of Illinois got coverage, Elvis in racquetball remains a secret.'
Tanner, as IRA President, was every bit as tough and ruthless as boss Kendler in Chicago and Charlie Drake in San Diego. 'Tanner can't be compared to either of them,' clarifies Randy Stafford. 'He was one of a kind.' Mike Zeitman worked for Tanner from 1975 to 1978 as a media placement buyer, racquetball instructor, interim executive director of the IRA, editor of the magazine, and director of the IRA's IPRO Tour. All the dozen of top players in the city came to play on the Tanner rooftop court including Elvis and his group. Under Dr. Nick's and the pros' tutelage Tanner became what was known as a strong player without a backhand that was forgivable among open players at the time, but he was no match for Intercollegiate Doubles Champion David Fleetwood. David informs, 'I played him once and it was no fun. I was fresh out of college and had no concept at that time of how huge he was. Thus I didn't really understand the significance that everybody deferred to this guy who couldn't play. His forehand was very good, and he loved to go down the line. Considering his backhand grip, his backhand was passable. He made up for it by doing whatever it took to win. He as much as any player knew how to legally cheat. I made up for it after the match by going out to the track and shooting water balloons and racquetballs with surgical tubing made into a giant slingshot at cars below. He was sort of an A player, better than Elvis but not as good as Nick. He won when racquetball was at its pinnacle when winning was war. He would win at all costs, as an expression of his business acumen. He was a master bridge player, which is the highest category in cards, and he was out for the trump regardless of the activity… That was his DNA.'
Tanner never went half-way on a project. He owned a chain of Holiday Inns and the world's largest radio and television time-buying and placement services. In 1974 he bought the newly named Tanner Building to house the broadcasting company, and it just happened to have a racquetball court on the top floor. So, Tanner determined to learn the game and to be the best he could. Full steam ahead, he hired Bledsoe, and later Zeitman, as staff members of his company to give racquetball instruction. The fruit of it would come to bear long after Fleetwood,s display of water balloons across Memphis when, in 1980, Tanner would win that year the Tennessee state racquetball titles in masters singles, the Tennessee State Doubles Championship, the Masters Singles Championship and Seniors Singles Championship in the USRA Regional Tournament, the Veterans Masters Racquetball Championship, the Masters singles title at the Fulton Open in Memphis, and was inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame.
Kicking back late one night after the matches at the Tanner Penthouse Suite, Elvis and the Racquetball Mafia sank into a circle of cushion chairs like tennis shoed capitalists in the large boardroom, and the King put his feet up on the boardroom table. Steve Smith who was there describes, 'Elvis put his legs and tennis shoes up on the ornate table, and someone in the group mentioned that Tanner would not like that, and he'd better put them down. Elvis didn't like rules, so he cursed a streak, and word got back to Tanner about this.' E hadn't been kicked out yet. 'But then,' rejoins Bledsoe, 'Elvis had this three-foot flashlight that he used to flash at everybody…which actually blinded you where you stood. A few nights after the boardroom incident, Tanner was in his private shower when E walked in and started shining his 3' light into everyone's face. When he shined it into Tanner's face, that was it. The irrepressible force of Elvis Presley met the irresistible object of William Tanner, and they glowered at each other. Bill's face turned purple, and he kicked Elvis the hell out.' Presley was banned from the building, and the Mafia loyally stayed away with him.'
Short one court, Nick persuaded Elvis to build one behind his house. Now, in 1975, when a cry went up in the middle of the night, 'Everybody up! Let's play racquetball!' everyone just walked out the back door and to the Graceland court. Dr. Fred Lewerenz describes, 'The racquetball building was posh. There was a viewing lounge behind the back wall glass, weightlifting gym on the same ground floor, and a dressing room and Jacuzzi upstairs. Elvis liked gold, and while the players' dressing room had standard stainless steel showerheads, the one in the King's private stall was with solid gold 360-degree swivel showerhead.' The only one he would allow in his private dressing area was Linda Thompson.
The pros admired that the facility cost $250,000 to build, and for the times, it was a premier court. Mike Zeitman describes, 'Behind the glass wall was a sunken area with a monster curved leather couch at the wall where you could sit back and watch the games. Also in the viewing area was the biggest, most expensive stereo outfit money could buy.
I'd never seen anything so cool.' The action inside the four-walls was like any other club, with a lounge with a bar outside where people sat and drank, watched and kibitzed, until their turn to play came up. It was simply a small club where people sat and drank, watched and kibitzed, until their turn to play came up. Some would drink beers, but the focus was on raquetball.
'When E went out in the daytime, he was touched by a thousand people,' relates Dave Fleetwood. Dr. Lewerenz started with Presley for two years at Memphis State before moving to Graceland. 'He played at Memphis State for a few years before building the court at Graceland. Most of his games were after midnight to 3am at Memphis state to avoid the mad rush of people. No one was there at night except him and whatever part of the Memphis Mafia and racquetball group that he brought. Finally, he and Dr. Nick thought it would be better to build a court on Graceland. After it was constructed he played there daily. I visited Dr. Nick often on my medical or racquetball swings through Memphis, and when the game moved to Graceland so did I on the visits. The most astounding thing about the place to me was when you walked in the front door there was an aquarium in the living room half the size of a racquetball court. It was 12' high and could have been emptied and used for squash. When we played at Graceland it still often was at night because he had become nocturnal for privacy.'
Dr. Fred Lewerenz describes, 'The racquetball building was posh. There was a viewing lounge behind the back wall glass, weightlifting gym on the same ground floor, and a dressing room and Jacuzzi upstairs. Elvis liked gold, and while the players' dressing room had standard stainless steel showerheads, the one in the King's private stall was with solid gold 360-degree swivel showerhead.' The only one he would allow in his private dressing area was Linda Thompson. The pros admired that the facility cost $250,000 to build, and for the times it was a premier court facility.
'A typical afternoon at Graceland went like this,' takes up Steve Smith. 'Everyone would be sitting around the house, and one of the group would want to motivate the rest to action, to get off our asses. Elvis or I would jump up and shout, 'Everybody out here! We're playing racquetball.' We'd play and play. We'd play for two, three hours. Elvis would laugh while he played and have a good time just blasting the ball. Then we'd shower up, and someone would yell, 'Hey, let's go to the movies. We'd get on the motorcycles and six or eight of us would ride downtown to the Memphian or two other theaters that Elvis liked. It was crazy, night after night. One evening I sat between Eric Clapton and the King who he'd come to pay his respects to. That's when the movies were still reel-to-reel.'
'The next day it was the same, but always a bit different. There would be a new rock star visiting the House. Different doubles teams. Elvis played racquetball when it struck him, which was usually a daily dose when we weren't on tour. The road trips were two weeks on, and two weeks back at Graceland. On the road, Dr. Nick sometimes found a private court for us and the bodyguards to play on, but not Elvis. Each concert was like a championship performance. Elvis the same energy into performing that he did racquetball. It was all out, and he'd come off exhausted. On tour he loved his fans and never wanted to disappoint them. You are guaranteed the last drop of sweat from Elvis Presley will be on the stage by the end of the concert, and the same when he jammed on the racquetball court. After the concert he'd go back to the hotel suite and just sit down in a cushion chair and pass out, he'd worked so hard. At Graceland, after a racquetball session it was the same thing. We'd leave the court and go to the lounge in the racquetball building, and relax. Relaxing there means that half of the group was 'old school' that didn't understand the 'new school', but we all sat together for an hour and a half, two hours… then someone would leap up and call out like a coyote to energize everyone, 'Let's go!' Usually it was dark by then, and we'd go out.
'How he played! He had a mind of his own. He had a big forehand and moved around the ball to hit with it. He liked the intensity of being in four walls for sport. He let go, and could have a blast,' observes Smith. In the early 70s, Elvis used the Ektelon Muehleisen racquet because it was the best at the time, and the connection was that Dr. Muehleisen had given Dean Nichopolos racquetball lessons. Elvis could hit with the Muehleisen model. It wasn't until about 1974 that Charlie Drake at Leach sent him a green Leach Serot and a pair of sweats with Elvis' name embroidered across the back, and from then on, he used the Serot model. He was in good shape, but got on the court in the Leach sweats or a rubber suit to sweat off about five pounds a workout for his fans on tour. Davey Bledsoe was the player rep for Leach at the time, and Drake had told him, 'Anything Elvis wants, he gets.' Elvis was playing his best racquetball from 1974-6 when the pros were stopping by, and he was enjoying the game nearly daily when we didn't leave for two week music tours.'
By 1976, physician and friend Dr. Nicholoupos had been living part-time at Graceland for over a year since the court construction. Out of the blue, Elvis suggested, 'It's time to build your 'dream house'. Construction got underway immediately at another location by Steve Smith's father who owned a construction company, and, of course, the building plan included a racquetball court in the back yard. Dave Fleetwood evokes, 'Elvis and the Memphis Mafia would drive up on motorcycles to the site while the house was being framed to make sure all the nails were straight. Once we were playing a flag or touch football game in the front yard when the King and a dozen others drove up on big Harleys. They took off the helmets, all their hair flew out, and suddenly they became recognizable as the Memphis Mafia. Steve Smith adds proudly, 'You know who played quarterback? – Elvis. You know who he threw to? – Me.' Dr. Lewerenz reminisces, Elvis helped Nick financially to build the dream house. One day Presley arrived during the laying of the racquetball court foundation with fists full of gold coins. I was there. They put a few dozens of gold coins into the foundation of the court!'
The pros, like Presley, pour out accolades for Dr. Nick as a player, doctor and friend. I personally knew when we met at a Tanner IPRO stop in Memphis that he was the Johnny Racquetball Seed of the South, and he knew my reputation from The Complete Book of Racquetball as the game's unofficial laureate. He was an A player of the time, an even better coach, and a hands-on promoter of the spot. The group called their patron the Silver Fox, due to the silver- not gray- hair, and because he hit shots like a fox. 'The Silver Fox was shifty, and you never knew where his shots would go until after they were hit,' guesses Stafford. Dave Fleetwood comes from a family of medical practitioners, and testifies, 'I thought it was cooler knowing Nick than even E. He was a great doctor for me. Everywhere he went he got attention. He signed menus, paper napkins, patient charts, everything, and even in hospitals. You ask any resident that did a six- week tour at a hospital with Dr. Nick, and every single one would stand up in court and tell you how good of a physician he was…every one.'
Nick saw subtle changes in Elvis in late 1976, and so did E's sports physician Dr. Lewerenz, but neither was particularly alarmed at the weight gain. Still E toured, hit racquetballs, played his mamma's gospel on the lounge piano, and did favors for his friends. Bledsoe describes, 'A week before a music tour was to begin E put on his rubber suit each day on the court to sweat off five pounds of water weight because he thought it made him look good for the fans.' Fleetwood chimes,' By 1976, E was still the King and I called him that but he was morbidly fat, and jiggled when he ran around the court. Hell, the Beatles recorded an album here, and from what I heard they could not wait to get an audience with the King just to meet and hang. The Led Zeppelin wanted to know what went on past the Graceland gate, and the band respectively submitted permission to enter. I was young, a wet behind the ears college pup and only saw fetching the ball. I had no freaking idea he was a superstars' superstar. All I knew he was Elvis, with the enormous hind end that was difficult to get around to shots.'
On April 24, 1976 I saw Elvis in concert at the San Diego sports arena while sitting next to Charlie Drake of Leach industries and his wife Patty. Before the final number, Charlie urged her to the stage, saying, 'Maybe Elvis will blow you a kiss!' She pshawed but Charlie prevailed, and his wife waded through the fans and, surprisingly, a way cleared for her to rest her elbows on the music platform. Elvis began to sing, 'Can't Help Falling in Love, and during a protracted instrumental, he walked over to her, removed a royal purple scarf from his shoulders, and it wafted in the hot arena air into her outstretched hands. Six months later, on October 31st, 1976, Elvis made his last recording with a vocal overdub on 'He'll have to Go' done in the Jungle Room at his home in Graceland.
On June 11, Davey Bledsoe shocked the racquetball world and especially Marty Hogan by defeating him in the final of the Leach/Seamco National Championship in San Diego by scores of 21-20, and 21-19. The day before he had edged by me in the quarters, and afterwards in the locker room, came over to console me, putting his thumb on my temple and uttering, 'My Daddy did this when I was a young man, and he spoke, 'One day you're going to be a champion.' The Bledsoe victory is recognized as one of the most unexpected results in racquetball history. Two weeks later, on June 26, 1977, Elvis gave his last concert at Market Square in Indianapolis, IN for a crowd of 18,000. Back on the Graceland racquetball court, Elvis appeared pale, weak and overweight, but there was nothing to suggest impending death. Indeed, there was nothing unusual in his verve once he took to the stage or court. 'He looked gray in 1976,' is all,' portrays Dave Fleetwood.
In May that year the three bodyguards Bledsoe had beaten with an anti-freeze bottle –Red and Sonny West, together with Dave Hebler- released Elvis: What Happened in UK serials that was later published in August, 1977. The three had been fired by Presley's father, Vernon, from their jobs as bodyguards for the singer. Bledsoe says 'Elvis was pissed!' This was the first book that focused on Elvis's addiction to prescription drugs, but E loved those boys, according to the pros, and whatever was said in the book, Elvis forgave and wanted them back. 'The book devastated Elvis,' insists Bledsoe,' but Smith is a greater authority in a parallel experience in the same month that the book was released in UK serials. Smith accused Parker of being an accomplice in making life so miserable for Elvis that it hurt his health. However, 'The public misconception is that in his last few months Elvis was off, and lethargic, not like his earlier wild self. That's the toilet paper account and it's not true. Up to the end E had good days and bad days, and on any given day we could get him excited to like play racquetball, go to the theater, or head for the open road. He still had life in him, and for many years.'
The same May as the UK book release, and three months before Elvis's untimely death on August 16, 1977, a few hours after leaving the racquetball court, Steve Smith hung up the phone and went to his boss in tears. 'Sir, I've worked for you loyally for seven years, but now my daddy is sick and there's no one to take over the construction. I don't want to leave…' 'Boy,' boomed Elvis. There's one thing you must never forget. That's the bottom line. And the bottom line is your daddy.' He hugged me by the neck. Then he said, 'Hey, why don't we bring your father out here and he'll get better.' But he was too ill for that. We hugged again, and I cried all the way to the gate. The next thing I heard, 'Elvis is dead!' But I know where my boss is, and so does anyone else who knew him. E is in heaven singin' gospel.'
This concludes the untold story of the death of Elvis Presley… and of the Racquetball Mafia. Graceland was shut down very quickly. The court wasn't used again after the Mafia left, and it was converted to a trophy room. Hundreds of thousands of tourists per year travel to stand in the last place Elvis Presley stood in the Graceland court that is now the trophy room, with the walls of the court covered with platinum and gold records, and with the Steve Serot racquet on display under glass next to an old blue ball. Elvis died in the racquetball building, not the mansion upstairs bathroom. You probably know that Elvis loved gospel music, peanut butter and banana sandwiches and karate, but did you know The King loved racquetball to death!
A month ago here in the Peruvian Amazon, I walked into a village on a lake where a one meter baby boa constrictor was being tormented by a ring of children and adults. They claimed it deserved the smacks in the head with sticks because its long neighbors at their swimming hole ate their chickens, and, if allowed to attain full length in a few years, it would eat their children. I pulled an elderly man aside to ask just how big boas, which are actually anacondas, get.
He launched into a colorful description of the species, naming the amiable yellow and aggressive black as the largest, the rosy and green as the rarest, plus a handful of others in the boxes of water around Iquitos that made me believe he knows boas.
The small snake in the ring was nearly dead and writhing now, and the children complained that if they let it grow to four meters, and about 8'' in diameter, it would start taking their puppies. And, the mothers protested, if they let such grow to seven meters they would start stealing the children when they bathed. I asked the old man how big the largest anaconda he ever saw was. He circled his hands in exasperation, looked about, and then pointed to a one-meter girth tree trunk and claimed, ´That thick! I saw it.´
Inspired by this encounter, I´ve been enquiring about boas on dozens of ensuing hikes in the environs of Iquitos, and the information matches down the line. Thirty minutes away on the outskirts of Iquitos Island, yesterday a small girl at a pond said that she has seen all colors and lengths of boas up to four meters, ´And they all have teeth!´ I asked her father if it was safe to bathe in the swampy pond, and he joked, ´For gringos!´
The largest boa he has ever seen once swam out this 300 meter swamp into the Amazon River. Like the other, his arms wouldn't make a large enough circle, so he looked around and pointed to a 40´´ thick tree trunk for the girth. Another eye-witness verified that this Loch Ness creature swam out the lake before the low water trapped it, and into the great Amazon, where it raised its head out of the water at a passenger ferry nearly its 25-meter length, and then dove underwater.
Nearby, and a five minute walk from my Belen hotel, a 12´ long boa swam the Itaya River as I crossed the other day to get to the other side. Down the road, a few years ago, I walked past a thatched house on stilts and a young man climbed the makeshift ladder down to tug my elbow, asking, ´Do you want to buy a pet snake?´ I inquired where, and he led me a few steps behind the raised hut to an outhouse. I opened the door gingerly, with a creak, and peered in.
Five feet from my nose, the 14´´-wide head of a juvenile yellow boa raised blinking its tongue at the intruding sunlight. It was so beautiful and strong with the grace of youth that I wanted to reach out and pet its head, but rather stepped back and admired its full 12´ length. ´It´s yours out the outhouse for $20,´ offered the teen, and I was tempted. The snake was young enough to train to jump hoops and fetch the newspaper, and and perhaps later in full growth could employ about the villages as a money maker to eat smaller chicken and puppy eating anacondas. However, how was I to get it back to Iquitos? I had walked a day and a half on the old Nauta trail, and the serpent was too small yet to ride. So, I left the boa to outgrow its cage.
July 21, 2013 | 1 Comment
I didn't use the Koehler dog training method of graduating negative reinforcements until after I had been the ringmaster of a menagerie, and then, oddly enough, the technique was to train hobos and survivalists.
I grew up managing my pet guinea pigs to mow the lawn, a tortoise to weed the garden, white mice on cue to exercise in their wheels to turn kibble to muscle, guppies to leave the shoal and come to a clap, one cat to sit, and Happy the border collie to jump through a hula-hoop. Later, two Dobermans, Corn and Flake, heeled and trotted to Spanish commands over a loudspeaker on either side of a Chevy van, and slowly abreast gained speed to 20 mph on county roads for their workout. Later on, a pack rat named Bandaid, an alpha among the smartest rodents on earth, was taught to fetch old coins in ghost towns. This is not to ignore Sir, a Sonora Sidewinder, who followed me around the property just for the company. All these animals performed because they enjoyed it, or, at least, I had convinced them they that liked it.
Yet, in the past decade, as an outward bound guide in boxcars, through deserts, and on jungle expeditions, I began running into problems with the traditional gentle methods of positive reinforcement. Humans, especially educated professionals and executives, were ill inclined to follow direct orders to survive. These are times of high adventure on the rails, hot spots, and the Amazon where one slip brings harm or death, I explained to them at the onset of each trip. And, I stressed, during the dire strife there isn't time to be polite, answer questions, and argue. There is a split second to digest an order, and then to act.
For example, on a hobo trip with a London Times reporter three years ago, I acquiesced to boarding the ´coffin corner´ of a grain car with just a 4¨ bouncing strut ´ticket´ to sit on for twelve hours, and lost my pack overboard in Nevada. On the next trip, the reporter went into the waterfront Belen, Peru against my advice, and came out proud. Finally, this year, he bucked the odds in his own Merry England, and got his face crushed in a bar fight.
In another illustration, on a hike through the bandito infested Copper Canyon five years ago, a group of San Francisco desert survivalists overrode my insistence to start at mid-day on day one, and we ended up exhausted, out of food, and saved ourselves by trailing a mule train of marijuana porters for a day in a streambed to civilization.
One time, a Colorado banker would not take the care to brush out his footprints to the bank of the Rio Grande, and we were nabbed in mid-stream and incarcerated by the US Border Patrol for sneaking into our own country. In another example, an elite 50-mile marathon runner wouldn't rein his love for breakneck speed in life, and a beautiful human ended up a cripple in a motorcycle accident. In each case, it was probable that each wildcat eventually would, and did, meet his demise.
I started using the Koehler method to train humans in hobo and survival situations to stop these frustrations, injuries and to save their lives.
William Koehler in 1962 published the controversial Koehler Method of Dog Training in which he mauled the ´tid-bit and treat´ training based on ´the prattle of dog psychologists´. He encouraged a more authoritarian approach after having served as the principal instructor at the War Dog Training Center in California, and later he became the chief trainer for the Orange Empire Dog Club which, at the time, was the largest dog club in the United States. Later, Koehler became a trainer for the Walt Disney Studios. My personal jungle survival trainer, Richard ´Aukcoo´ Fowler, also prescribes the Koehler method for his animal and human clients. He has wrestled alligators in Silver Springs, FL, milked rattlesnakes for Ross Allen´s Reptile Farm, led Audubon excursions, worked with the Florida Fish and Games, commanded Special Forces at Hamburger Hill and Hue, Viet Nam, and trained dozens of big cats. When Richard says ´Jump!´ in the jungle, I don't look, or ask how high; I move. To train a dog to follow, he uses the Koehler method to put him on a 20-meter rope and they go for a walk, each going his way. The dog learns to jerk himself, in his own time, to be alert to his leader.
Once an animal is taught to pay attention, insists Richard, then you may easily teach him anything he is capable of learning by using the standard progressive Koehler reprimands for insubordination. The first is a gentle verbal reproach. After that, there is no more oral communication. The second rebuke is a sharp slap to the flank, or the like. The third is harsher, for example, if a dog continues to dig under a fence, then the hole he digs is filled with water, and his head is put in it long enough for the animal to remember not to repeat the action.
Treats and affirmations are given for the proper behavior, and love for the animal nurtures the training.
As a schoolteacher, I discovered on the first bell thirteen years ago that none of the hard-nosed desert kids listened until after their first consequence. I could offer the regular positives of stories, film, or free time after their work was complete, and, while many of the other teachers bribed their classes with candy and gum as if every day was Halloween, the results for all were superior with the combination of a reward offer, followed by the punishment of homework or a trip to the principal´s office for gross misbehavior. These were not model students, but the sons and daughters of rebellious parents, and we had one heck of a Dirty Dozen football team that cheated the way to the conference championship by fogging the defending team´s sideline with the city mosquito sprayer a minute before the kickoff.
As an interesting aside, capitalism in school worked very well at this one. I started a program of monetary reward to high school students to complete their projects on time, and the result was that attendance, enthusiasm and grades rose in proportion to their wages. It was worth part of my salary to discover that kids work for money ten times better than they do for grades alone, and learn twice as much about three times as fast.
The bottom line in educating people has three threads, I've surmised. Three things only to teach, and then one may give another person his liberty. They are: 1) a positive mental attitude, 2) self-motivation, and 3) to think objectively rather than react passionately.
On the other hand, if the learning environment is novel or dangerous, as in hoboing and wilderness survival, the best method I've found as the leader of over a hundred outings is a benevolent dictatorship for the first half of the journey, followed by making the apprentices the leaders in the second half. In the latter part, let them make mistakes, and suffer the consequences, whether there is success, injury or death. This puts some pressure on the chief, but there´s no better way to make braves.
Koehler participants in his training classes used emphatic corrections including leash jerks, alpha roles, slingshots, and electric shocks. The founder attacked the nagging, tentative corrections that are cruel in that they cause emotional disturbances to the trainees. The book led to a number of court cases, and it was banned in Arizona. Despite the controversy, the basic training forms the core of many contemporary training systems that I've seen in circuses, schools, military training around the world, families, old folks homes, psych wards, and jails.
Various arenas require different leadership techniques. In general, the more harsh the environment and consequences to the trainees, the more command is needed. Leaders in a tame place may be partners with their people, but in a perilous place direct rule is the order, at first. Then, in the later part of this training system, leaders should empower others to learn from their own errors. I think the greatest leaders are the greatest simplifiers, who can cut through debate and doubt, to offer a solution to learning that everyone can understand. Then the leader should vanish.
The equatorial streets of Iquitos are a march of blowing trash and shouting demonstrators over a recent law to pass an IQ test in order to hold a government job. The scenes in other cities across Peru look like the ones here. I tried to enter a bank for money to get out of town and stumbled over a lady in polarized sunglasses strapped face up to the sun against an 8´ log crucifix, twitching as if she wanted loose, but no one would help her.
A phalanx of female National Policewomen as pretty as Playboy Bunnies in black with their ears and trembling mouths tucked under riot helmets formed to protect me from a slowly rolling campaign of protestors shouting at the police and waving 2×4 sticks of beautiful Amazon hardwood at us. I thought it better to avoid both groups and retreated to a neutral corner as a bonfire popped up in the street in front of me.
All the businesses in Peru are theoretically shut down, and before I got a chance the bank locked up. Another group of 200 marchers took the street dashing ground glass in burlap bags onto the pavement to discourage the sparse traffic, as women stabbed the bags with pointed sticks spreading the glass from gutter to gutter.
I had enough cash to hire a scab three-wheeled taxi with a surrey weaving in and out the stinking rubble and logs intended to block all four-wheel transportation, which they did. Following a walk in the neighbor river port of Nanay, I returned to Iquitos to more of the same clogged arteries, and had to walk the last mile to my room in the house of a senora in quaint upper Belen, which became the highlight of the Day One strike in Peru. Fifty buzzards sat outside my door on the largest trash heap of the day piled above my head and sidewalk to sidewalk rattling their five-foot wings and clawing for the spoils of the competency test.
The nationwide strike is planned for two days into the American July 4th, but no doubt will linger per a precedent. Five years ago, the government forced a competency test on all the country´s teachers, and here in the state of Loreto 141 out of 150 failed. No one was fired, as I doubt anyone will lose his job after today´s test. The government figured that it is better to have poor teachers than no teachers, and to have incompetent government workers rather than none.
"The great fighting men who graduated from the ranks of the army that fought the Moors will disappear. The politicians and the courtiers will take over – the gentle ones, the conniving ones! They will rook the fighters out of all they have won. Men like Cortez, Pizarro, Alvarado, and DeSoto will disappear, and in their place the weak ones, the ones grown fat on easy wealth, will come to power."
March 29, 2013 | Leave a Comment
Out of the Wild West called Belen a thug with a cap pulled low over the brow grabbed and began shaking Maria the ´purse´ of Yellow Rose of Texas. He picked on the wrong person at 8am on March 14, 2013 at the early waterfront market. Buttons popped as the two slugged and shook allowing citizens and vendors along the crime ridden waterfront to get a make on the youth´s face. The thief tore loose the purse and ran down a long stair with Maria tumbling end for end after to gain speed.
He escaped onto the plank maze of sidewalks on stilts above waterworld Belen but he had victimized the wrong girl connected to the right bunch. The Yellow Rose of Texas Rangers was born to serve the Belen and Iquitos territory and stop crime against tourists and Peruvians.
The next day I was Maria´s bodyguard. With a bruised and scraped leg having had medical attention and another sizeable purse under a fresh blouse bouncing like a heartbeat, I shadowed her like a father. The crime scene is at the foot of Palcazu Street with one hundred concrete steps descending to the Rio Itaya. Smoked fish wafts into our nostrils at the first fish table where a senora explained past a gold tooth what happened.
´Maria has been my good client for four years. Her first daily stop when the purse is full is where you are standing to get the morning catch. Would you like to try it, senor? The youth has been watching her day after day knowing her purse would be heavy with cafe money at the first stop, and he attacked as she pulled it. Maria fought, but the youth was stronger and he ran down the stairs with the purse and Maria on his heels. She slipped and slid down the stairs.´
´Do you know the robber?´ I asked. ´I do,´ she answered.
´I know him better!´ bellowed Omar the vendor at the adjacent stall. ´He has terrorized our clients and pickpocked the tourists for years. He´s been in and out of jail, but he keeps coming back for more. The police can do nothing but raise the iron bar over his head and release him because the courts are crowded.´
I offered a reward for the bad man: 10 Soles ($US4) for the name and 20 Soles for the capture- a small fortune. And I returned to the Yellow rose outdoor tables where the day before over a gordo omelet I had seen her return bleeding and empty handed.
´May I be her bodyguard?´ I asked restaurant owner Gerald Mayauex.
´You´ll need backup,´ he agreed wisely.
I put the word out on the grapevine to Richard Aku Fowler, a legendary figure in Iquitos, who ambled up with the sun at his back even as I took the last bite of the omelet.
We explained the crime, the threat to tourism, the apparent shy law enforcement to enter the lower market, and the need for a solution. He pulled a sheet of paper out his pocket, revealing handcuffs dangling on a belt loop, and other bulges under the pants.
´DON´T MOLLEST THE TOURISTS IN BELEN. THE LONE RANGER.´ the wanted poster read.
The Lone Ranger is a fictional hero, an ex-Texas Ranger who with his faithful Native American companion Tonto, fights for law and order in the American old west. The character is an enduring icon in American culture. Departing on his white stallion after righting a wrong, the stranger would shout, ´Hi Ho Silver!´ leaving behind one silver bullet, and someone always asked, ´Who was that masked man, anyway?´
We grabbed a motokaro taxi with a surrey fringe to the Belen market. Thousands of tourists from around the world visit the seamy, flea hopping market each year, and one asks, why? It is a ten block study of fascination of food and human odors, shouts by vendors, wonderful people, action around each bend, and you can get everything you want- even pickpockets- at the Belen market. About one tourist per week is shorn, hardly ever harmed, of his valuables. The young hoods also pick off Peruvians riding by on motorbikes with a fat wallet sticking out a back pocket. The sting is always the same: The ragamuffins hangs at the top of one of five stairwells, lying in wait like little lions panting in the heat with the Jones of a drug habit, until a prey comes, strike boldly, and scamper down a hundred steps to the river. I have been robbed of a camera, watch, and seen five other tourists fleeced. The thief is faster and rarely collared, leaving behind tourists with shrugs and scowling citizens. The Belen police are vigilant and somewhat brave, but haven´t figured out the scheme, overburdened with Billy clubs, tear gas and pistols, nor do they care even with that to enter the lower bowls of the waterfront.
Aku and I staked out the crime scene standing ten yards apart and ostensibly minding our own affairs, him examining cabbage, I feeling tomatoes, and waited. After thirty minutes the flies began to bite, but thirty minutes later a reticent fish vendor whispered in passing in my ear, ´The Rato is eating at a table one hundred meters away, follow me…´ and we tailed him there. A National Policeman in brown stood behind the eater watching every move of the knife and fork. Aku cooed, ´The perpetrator will be high as a kite from the money, but he´ll have just a few Soles to pay for the meal. Officer Vela ordered the man, ´Stand up, you´re under arrest!´ and Aku was on him in a flash, and snapped handcuffs on surprised wrists and shoved them into the small of his back. Another policeman joined us, and they marched as if Aku was their Captain for three blocks to the Sixth Street Belen police station.
´My job is done,´ he said at the entrance handing me the silver key to the handcuffs, and vanished into the market.
´Who was that stranger?´ asked Officer Vela.
´Why, that´s the Lone Ranger.´
Left alone on the station step. I trundled the hombre into the lobby past a beefy policeman with a shotgun and a keen eyed cop with an automatic rifle. The police chief´s face over the counter registered shock as he waved us upstairs. Around a corner and up a flight of stairs I met head detective Fernando Rios ´Sherlock Holmes ´ Zarate of the criminal investigation department of two.
Their office is one small room that catches the heat from downstairs with two desks, one modern computer, a shelf of documents, and the perp was roughly seated on a long hard bench. ´Senor Rato, Sherlock asked gruffly. ´What do you have to say for yourself?´
´I didn't do it.´
´What didn't you do?´
´Whatever the gringo says I did.´
Officer A. Vela S., twenty years old and lithe from what he calls ´eighteen months of very hard and valuable training at the National Police Academy on the Nauta highway, joined and explained what had happened and punctuated, ´And then a tall stranger took over, left a silver key, and disappeared.´
´Who was he?´ asked Sherlock.
´Why, that was the Lone Ranger´ said Vela.
He dissected my face with his eyes, and I began almost to fathom the profound intellect and memory of Sherlock Holmes, a trouper for 28 years. As the perp writhed on the bench in withdrawal, begging the cuffs be loosened, I explained the tourist and expat view of the Belen marketplace.
´Peru tourism has risen like a meteor that will peak in early May when 100 travel agencies land in Iquitos from around the world for a Peru Tourism Conference. They will arrive on Copa Air on one of the first international flights and be greeted by a new airport immigration agency. With the addition of a 5-Star hotel Iquitos will become the gem of Peru. The one sore spot in Shangri-La is Belen. Most tourists go there, about one in forty is robbed, and the strategy is usually the same.´ I explained the stairway escape hatches that the robbers use.
He leaned forward, and stared thoughtfully into my face. ´Thank you for bringing in Senor Rato. We will begin a police report now.´ The man gave his name as Elvis Gafica Reategui, 30-years old, height 5´7¨, weight 70 kg., pocked face, no document, with no particular address and nothing in his pockets. The gold tooth senora was brought in to identify him and sign an eye-witness statement, and left.
'He didn't resist arrest and was amicable,´' I piped, 'So there´s no need to hit him.' ´ Vela,´ ordered the boss without glancing up from the report. ´Take Senor Rato to his cell.´ A few minutes of paperwork later a burly cop entered and informed, ´His real name is Eliseo Baos Aneulo, age 30, domicile Penjamo, he´s been in and out our jail three or four times on the same charge, and admitted today´s crime.´
´How did you find out?´ I wondered. The head detective smiled as the officer retorted, ´I raised an iron bar over his body and he squealed.´ He did not say he hit him.
Two hours later, Sherlock put the last punishing period on the handwritten one- page report, and pushed it across the desk for my signature. I signed, with a flourish an addendum swearing, ´I do not speak Spanish,´ and shoved the document back. Then I handed the detective the poster ´Don't molest the tourists in Belen. The Lone Ranger' that he beamed over for a full minute after I snapped a photo.
There was one more thing to do before leaving the station. The silver key. I went downstairs alone to the rear building and surveyed the Sixth Street holding tank. There are two 10´x10´ block cells connected by a narrow alley where a ragtag youth slept but arose as I stepped over him. He tried to pickpocket me, but I pushed him down and asked, ´Where is your bed?´ and he curled up like a pup and slept. In one cell a misfit awaiting an interrogation or eyewitness gawked through the slats as if he was seeing a ghost. The heavy bar doors are unlocked and can be opened from the inside… but then there are the shotguns and rifles. I opened the door to view Eliseo Aneulo crashed on the bare concrete and gently prodded his shoulder. ´Ohh,´he groaned, and rolled away. I removed the cuffs, he rubbed circulation back into the wrists and hands, and indicated he was hungry. I nodded and slammed shut the door.
The sun was setting on another market day as I exited the building, when suddenly I was sided by a hefty uniform filled with self-importance and multiple stripes on the sleeves. He cordially introduced himself as the new shift ´Sherriff´, adding, ´Word is going around on the case, and I wish to thank you, and especially the Lone Ranger.´ I gave him some change to buy our thief a meal, and left.
The next morning Maria the Purse was the hero of Belen and did not need a bodyguard any more. They cheered
and showered her with spinach, bananas and greens for her own kitchen as she made the hour round of 80 kilos for the restaurant. For the first time a policeman stood watch over each Belen staircase as one patrolled the stem on a motorcycle. The case was closed and Belen is safer for a time.
Sherlock has forecast the fate of the thief in the legal procedure. He will be held for about four hours and released. Since the robbery was for 300 soles ($US120) it is a misdemeanor, far less than the 1400 soles required for a felony to send him to the Brazil Street carcel. Assault is not taken into account unless it causes a serious injury. There must be a testimony to make a police report from either the victim or, as today, the eye witness senora Gold Tooth. Since the thief has a record and address he will be sent a notice to appear in court. ´It will be ignored,´ guesses Sherlock. In another week a second notice will go out, a third, and then ´We will start looking for him. If I didn´t release the mugger today I'd lose my job. We do about five reports daily at the Belen station alone. The courts simply do not have the time or money to process cases that do not at least pay for themselves.´
Tourism is on the rise outside Iquitos too, in Lima, up at Machu Pichu, around the Amazon and throughout this national paradise. The Texas Rangers of the old American West had a saying, ´One riot, one ranger.´ Now two centuries and half way around the globe in Iquitos their aims are to help the police, update the antiquated laws, change the revolving door court system that puts Senor Ratos back on the streets in four hours, and to make Peru a safe tourist haven.
March 25, 2013 | Leave a Comment
Ayahuasca in my Blood by Peter Gorman
I first met Peter Gorman in 1999 after being stranded with Iquitos guide Carlos Grande with the Mayoruna ´Cat People´ Indians deep in the Amazon. Carlos split, and I ´rented´ at machete point a child´s hand hewn canoe and paddled like Indiana Jones to the Brazil border and was medevac´d to Iquitos for the hospital, but decided to drop into Peter Gorman´s waterfront Cold Beer Blues Bar to tip some medicine. ´They´re my friends!´ he shouted of the Mayorunias. ´Next time just tell them Peter sent you.´ I did, and would discover that Peter knows and is known throughout the Amazon as ´Ground Zero´ of Ayahuasca, the first to introduce it and other medicines from the green pharmacy to North America in the June, 1986 High Times cover story ´Mindbending drug of the Amazon´. It initiated Ayahuasca Tourism to Peru, and Peter´s friend Alan Shoemaker read the piece and followed him down to Peru and struck out alone around the globe as the Johnny Appleseed of ahahuasca.
Three years ago, I was able to repay Gorman for nursing me back to health in the Cold Beer Blues Bar by advising him to write up his ayahuasca adventures. In fact, I importuned him over the course of a year, as he had me to heal my jungle injuries, to keep churning out the colorful and educational shaman, plant medicine and jungle lore sketches and putting them into a book he finally titled Ayahuasca in my Blood: 25 Years of Medicine Dreaming. The books came off the self-publish press in 2010 two months before the annual July Iquitos International Shaman Conference where he had totted and sold the first copies to the conventioneers.
The narrative weaves wonderful, honest and horrifying anecdotes in and out an educational journey through the personal and public evolutional of ayahuasca tourism, and much more. During the last 25 years, Peter Gorman has had a torrid love affair with Peru's Amazon jungle, and has been lucky enough to score artifacts for the American Museum of Natural History in New York, medicinal plants for Shaman Pharmaceuticals, herpetological specimens for the FIDIA Research Institute of the University of Rome, and of course hundreds of tales in the book.
At Amazon.com Ayahuasca in My Blood ranks the highest Five Stars with an awesome endorsement of one of the rare books at Amazon to appreciate in value.
March 20, 2013 | 3 Comments
I´ve been hoboing cargo boats around the Amazon for three weeks, and the other morning found me on another jungle riverbank with my thumb out in a light rainstorm flagging a ride. Sunrise is the prime time to hitch rides because Peruvians, including fishermen and captains, are early risers to beat the heat of the day on everything from motorized canoes to fat old tugs and triple deck launches. This morning the rain quits after two hours, I tear off the rain jacket to greet another gorgeous sun blazed day, and a 20´ canoe swings from mid-stream on the Rio Huallaga right up to my waterproof boots.
´Ahoy!´ hails the stout captain grasping my hand in an iron fist to pull in closer.
I climb aboard with my ´house´, a 30lb backpack that I tell the captain contains a wife and dog to break the ice of seeing a white face.
He laughs, and it´s that simple… I´m bobbing downriver to destination unknown.
But this is a special ride in duration and clientele for the sole paying passenger is an architect who has contracted the captain at the expense of the Peruvian government to convey us on the Huallaga to the mouth of the Rio Nucaya, and up it to the high jungle pueblo called Progresso to put the finishing touches on a new schoolhouse. Virtually every Amazon pueblo is built on a river, as most of the early American frontier boom towns were set on railroads to transport settlers and goods.
The slim hand hewn canoe slices the water powered by a 13.5hp Mercury motor with an 8´´ blade mounted at the end of a 10´shaft on a pivot that is effortlessly lifted out the water every ten minutes above plant and log jettison of a recent storm. The river is at peak crest some ten vertical feet higher than will be seen in the coming summer months of low water.
The pecapeca putts down the Huallaga, and veers up the lesser Rio Nucaya until sunset with little river traffic except monkeys and storks on the banks, and, at dusk, alligator eyes pop out like red cigarette lights where one judges their lengths- one to six meters- by the distance between the dots. There are also unseen 250lb jaguars and 10-meter boas that won´t bother the boat at 5mph up the narrowing stream any more than a billions skeeters who can´t be bothered.
An hour before the following sunrise the canoe rams the mud bank of upriver Progresso and we wrap in tarps on the boat bottom against mosquito clouds to nap until the village wakes up. Malaria is rampant deep in the jungle but is endured- a few weak die young- and dismissed as lightly as the American common cold. Our snores are cut short by a rooster´s crow and the rasp of brushing teeth around the canoe. A smiling native explains that only the men brush before breakfast, ´To wash the fish taste out of our mouths.´
The captain and architect climb off to visit the new primary school that is color coded blue to identify the river Nucaya to lost Peruvian Air Force pilots to land on pontoons. Each of thousands of like pueblos with their government provided schoolhouses and generators is laid out in a town square that is always a soccer field with one side on the water. Games start after school and when it gets hot a good kick into the river is the excuse to swim. Every Amazon child has fins, and some of the fish have feet. At one end in Progresso the rickety stick soccer goal is incorporated into the town outdoor church platform with a few folding chairs and pulpit carved from a tree stump.
One of the villagers invites me into his thatched home on stilts that his wife sweeps clean of chickens, piglets and children for an adult conversation, and breakfast of fish and platanos. Peru is rich in four resources: gold seen in the teeth of city dwellers, yucca in the swollen stomachs of kids, fish from the rivers, and platano bananas on virtually every high jungle farm. I have been eating fish, platano and yucca for breakfast, lunch and dinner for three weeks, and can´t complain. In thirty minutes another villager knocks, and yokes me to his adjacent hut for coffee, and later another villager until I have completed the infield. They mostly like to talk mostly about Obama, Hollywood and automobiles. The town generator provides electricity four hours nightly to a TV in every hut, and the natives know more about Mickey Mouse and US politics than Americans.
The average family has ten children, and the smallest I was invited into had a young wife of six years marriage with eight children. The sex ratio is about 3:2 girls to boys, and on asking mothers why, the stock answer is; ‘Of course!´ I am convinced these children have never smelled flatulence, heard a sneeze, or seen white skin except on TV. They seem amazed in their colorful world at my pigmentless bark and approach singly or in pairs, stop just short of my shoes, stare thoughtfully into my eyes for long moments, and run off tittering to show and tell their playmates. Bold ones practice their English, ‘What are you from?’, and one tyke eyed my bloomer shorts hung on suspenders like a barrel around a cartoon hobo´s midriff, and asked, ‘What is your name, Mr. Shorts?’ Soon a small troop followed me around the soccer field like the Piper practicing their multiplication tables.
Amazonians are among the world´s most hardy people from centuries of geographic isolation, as well as the selective breeding practices of infanticide of the sickly, raiding villages for female breeding stock, killing males of the neighbor tribes except the strongest young to adopt as their own, and malaria with other jungle ravages. The genetics of self-sufficiency have evolved solidly over the centuries. As one hobos further and further away from the major waterways and up distant tributaries, the people grow wilder looking, own their own dialects, their clothes grow rattier with hand-me-down hand-me-downs from the lower reaches, the women shed tops, the kids turn naked, and the apus or shamans look like they drink blood. I always turn around at this point rather than risk verifying reports of Peruvian soldiers roasted and eaten on the spit.
The jungle children love school- I’ve asked hundreds-because they say they like to study. All can read, write and do math on a par with USA kids, but a Peruvian´s education stops after primary school to work the family field or business, for all but the rare parents who can afford to send their privileged kids days away to a city secondary school.
However their schooling begins at home. They are put through early rigors that rival a monastery with a years´ long rite of passage from the birth canal into the sticky, mosquito infested forest. While American children are dropped into cribs with all the bells and whistles to stimulate their attention, jungle babies take the opposite turn. For one year the Amazon babe is at mother’s breast; about year two he is placed on the hut platform lip over swirling piranha infested water and if he falls in the gene pool strengthens; the next year he watches it rain; and the fourth observes the rise and fall of the river. Next he watches the bananas grow and bunch for a year on the family farm, and finally about year six he is handed a sharp machete and learns the rhythmic swing left and right of the jungle. He is an automation with a physical mind pulsing low on the brain stem, and his rock body is impervious to mosquitoes, rain, cold and sun. Nothing ruptures his daily trance… except each evening at 6pm the shout, ‘Lights!’ raises the roofs and an old man somewhere cranks each town generator and millions of household TVs burst to life and are tuned to cartoons, news and American movies. The trances are destroyed like the earth pathogens did in the Martians in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. They sleep it off, and are reborn robots the next morning. The bumper stickers on their canoes and boats would cut to the chase of three jungle philosophies: There is no meaning in life except what you invent; it´s a dog-eat-dog world; and death is nothing.
Everywhere I arrive in the Amazon the first few hours my name is ´Gringo´ as Blondie in The Good, Bad and Ugly; a few hours later the more respectful ´Senor´; then the more familiar ´Mister´; and finally by the last hut in Progresso I am called ´Hobo´. Yet it´s whispered always in Latin America behind the back, ´Gringo´, the Ugly American that must be lived with.
All around the soccer field/town square a procession is taking place. This is the harvest season! From Britain to Canada and USA, China to India, the Caribbean, Russia and wherever people plant and eat crops the harvest festivals are celebrated by assorted work and rituals. In America it is called Thanksgiving. However, nowhere in the world is the land so fecund and harvest as bountiful as in the upriver pueblos of the Amazon. The organically rich black water of Rio Nucaya has promised for one year many and large fish, animals and the cash crop food staple bananas to Progresso.
Today in Progresso from the vantage of nearly every hut on town square I have witnessed a parade of men, women and youth carrying banana bunches from the jungle edge to the river bank, and stack carefully into a 20-meter canoe that sags lower into the water. At noon, it is stuffed beam to beam and six-feet high with bananas. A middle-age man who has been keeping a ledger of dozens of contributors to the load stuffs the sheet in his pocket, dons a white baseball cap, and as two sons struggle with five gallon gasoline containers, I leap off a wooden stool, out the window and jog a few meters to ask for a ride. He hands me a funnel, we fill the pecapeca tank, and as the engine kicks and warms we scale to the top of banana mountain. High on the boat center he points down a 4´ diameter hole at my berth on the floorboards. I skinny down the well with a gallon pail and became a working hobo on a banana boat.
Deep in the well I ponder bananas. There is the banana and platano, with no biological distinction between the two, both known by the botanical name Musa. The banana has yellow skin and is sweeter, a desert, while the green skinned starchier platano, a cooking banana, was today´s chips with fish. Each Progresso family owns a 100-meter banana garden that he has hacked from the jungle, a private square hemmed from others in an agricultural checkerboard by a narrow fence of uncut trees. The farm trails double as wood gathering and hunting paths, and in the summer months (July through September) a walking hobo may adventure in Jurassic Park for weeks connecting villages and rivers and relying on the natives for food, shelter and guides.
The biography or a platano patch is that a young family heads out to the jungle and judges a fertile spot by the resident fauna. The forest is cleared for a 100-meter square, seedling platano trees planted, weekly weeding trips, and nature fertilizes and waters. Each tree after one year produces one bunch of 60-100 bananas that weighs 25- 50lbs. One tree produces annually for three years before running out of steam, and then is burned to ashes to fertilize new seedlings. Unlike other world harvests, the banana season runs all year so, like staggered certificates of deposit, the bank of trees may be harvested anytime. Earlier today the three-inch stems were cut, hundreds of bunches caught, and carried to town. Each bunch sells at a big city market for about $10, so a plot of a ten trees affords a family $100. This banana canoe is a $2000 load.
The captain shouts, ´See you in a week!´ as we pull from Progresso. My head pops out the well like Kllroy at a dozen investors cheering a safe journey, the captain waves the ledger with gravity, and as if by afterthought someone tosses a cardboard box to me that I catch and feel a scratching within. The captain yells, ´If you like it, you can buy it for $40 to pay for gas.´
A minute later as the boat stalls around the first bend, I hear, ´$20…´ and open the box. A month old animal blinks in the sunlight, and crawls up my arm to sniff the platanos. ´Hello, Uncle Sam,´ I say.
The Sacha Vaca or Amazon Cow looks like a runt deer with an anteater´s long snout and the keen mind of Arnold the pig of Green Acres. It is a proper tapir and frequent household pet eating when young like the dickens, and growing to 250lbs. This baby at 15lbs. is the size of a small cat with tawny fur and yellow lightning bolts down the sides of the neck. Fantastic swimmers, Sam loves splashing in the water well and looks up quizzically when I bail it dry. Today the Amazon tapir is considered endangered.
The bottom board seams leak water around my feet at the rate of five gallons every thirty minutes, and if I fall asleep for an hour the captain knows by the sway at the keel that I’m slack and screams, ´Heave to, gringo!´
It rains, the sun shines, I urinate on my feet to keep them from freezing, and dive deep into the well to escape the equator elements. We pause once to cut giant 5´x2´ tree leaves to umbrella the roasting bananas. To kill time between bails I rub Sam´s chin and he nudges back, and as he nibbles them I estimated the number of banana bunches aboard at 200 for a total three ton cargo.
The captain receives no commission except a week´s paid vacation from his own platano farm, and is chosen because as a youth he visited and remembers the Iquitos marketplace, plus the $500 new motor is his. He will guide the load, sell at the market, and return in a week to disperse the community bank. The business is being repeated now a thousand times over with crop varieties such as yucca, corn, agave and mangos, that makes an American hobo´s life sweet in the Amazon.
The motor is another 13.5hp pecapeca mounted at the end of a 12´ shaft which on a pivot is easily lifted to swing 360-degrees to propel and steer the craft. The pilot´s view of the river is blocked by bunches, but two young sons are his eyes, one perched on the stack directly in front of him to relay hand signals from the other sitting on the bow looking out for floating vines and logs that might choke the motor. They are learning the ropes and, one day will step into Captain Bananas´ boots as the trusted town bankers.
They live in a water world. The spare five-gallon gas containers are sufficient at two downriver hours per gallon for the fifteen hour voyage, and my gallon pail enough except when it rains buckets. To this moment when the captain cursed, ´Gringo!´ I believe the motor runs out of gas rather than myself as the engine sputters out and the 5mph current carries us crashing a hundred meters into the flooded plain tugging vines and knocking over saplings until perhaps by sheer weight of a carpet of insects the bow comes to rest on in the crotch of a four-story tree. The sheepish captain stains bugs out of the gas and fills the tank, swivels the rotor into reverse, and we pull vines and push trees back onto the main stream.
The water world has special physics, and you first hear the whistle of wind at the top of the well, and like a thousand drums the patter of raindrops sweeps from behind and catches the canoe. Someone yells ´Here she blows!´ but by now everyone has stripped to his underwear to weather the storm. While the well offers protection from all but the vertical drops, Sam does an ankle deep jig and I bail around him like crazy as the rate of leak climbs to 10 gallons every thirty minutes. Three lags in this strange world occur. Behind the boat, miles away, a tsunami slowly builds as the feeders of the Nucaya hurry and raise the water five feet in an hour. If you walk in the jungle the raindrops don´t touch you for thirty minutes until the canopy begins to drip. Finally, in fifteen minutes the bananas that have caught the brunt of the rain begin to drip and the boat is in danger of capsizing with the water near the inner lip of the canoe as well as reflecting waves off the bank battering the outer rim.
The downpour lasts an hour, sunlight follows for a few hours, before a new check of cumulonimbus covers us and the pattern repeats. By some meteorological quirk it doesn’t rain much at night. The tapir being mainly nocturnal has buried its head in the palm of my hand during sunshine, and at night wades around my feet and cocks its young ears at the calls of friends and enemies of the jungle- the howl of the cougar, love croak of a dozen species of frogs, and chorus of millions of insects as deafening as Times Square at midnight. The bow mate swings a AA flashlight back and forth signaling the banana beleaguered captain of snags ahead, while the second mate sleeps. A full moon helps with glimpses of the Southern Cross through the shore canopy.
The occasional yellow kerosene lights in windows of riverbank huts vanish at once signaling a curious transition of river elevation. The entire Amazon is divided into high jungle that is dry except for storms, and low jungle that is flooded all year from winter rains and spring Andes snowmelt (except three short summer months). In traveling up a river to the Andes foothills, at a certain point the land wins over the water and finally offers a purchase for life. However, on the lower reaches of the same river there is no ground to build houses, plant gardens and hike trails to hunt because for about nine months of the year a nearly 30’ vertical river rise overruns the banks into a floodplain that extends a few hundred meters to a mile of inland swamps and lakes. Already the stream beneath our banana boat is widening to a hundred meters and the current diminishes to 3mph in approaching the river mouth.
High and low land expounds the human history of the jungle. The earliest settlers paddled up rivers until they found land to walk, build and plant on. It was fertile and attracted more pioneers for resource and company. The town grew to a point of mutual diminishing return at about twenty huts, and the more enterprising families struck out inland or upriver to start new lives at fresh sites. As the towns spread and grew across the Amazon, a communal field on the waterline became the blueprint around which the huts were constructed in a U with the river completing the fourth side of the square. Goals were thrown up when soccer arrived, but the fields still double as the market and gathering place. If, by a long shot, the pueblo grew into a city then the town square became a plaza around which lovers court and the elderly sit and think whatever Peruvians ponder.
At the mouth, the pueblo called simply Mouth, Peru has experienced growing pains because it lies in a nearly constant state of flood. A half-dozen ramshackle huts on ten feet stilts where the Nucaya slams into the Marinon glance a half-mile across the mouth at each other. If there is a soccer field it is an underwater game. We land at dawn over the flooded front yard at the front steps of the town store. I climb out the well with Sam snuggly in a pocket, and we walk into the doorless shop hailing, ´ Buenas Dias!´ The wood walled, thatched hut on a ten-meter bamboo slat platform is sectioned by palm dividers into a tiny bedroom for the owner, a wire mesh cubicle off the living room stacked with evaporated milk, biscuits, soap, funnels, pails, mosquito and fish nets, string, and a few bottles of soda, and a kitchen with a 5´-square 2´ deep sandbox with at the center a firepit, and already water a-boil for coffee. A narrow plank surrounds the island hut with a bucket on a rope that is cast five feet down to backyard water. Laundry and bathroom are performed from the same roost making the backyard coffee ´strong´.
´Buenas Dias!´ announces an ancient senora swaying out the kitchen. She pours coffee all around and exits to the perimeter plank to pull up a 4´ wide, 30´ long fishnet that is used for volleyball at land´s end. A dozen fish in various stages of dying are caught by the gills and fins in the net, and she nimbly detaches and dispatches them with a conk on the hut side, except an Amazon delicacy, the Carahama, which she releases live into a bucket of water, and removes two with the jab of a fork for the breakfast skillet. The 1´-2´ Carahama looks like a cross between a Catfish and Tyrannosaurus Rex with an exoskeleton armor and sucker mouth making it a vegetarian. It has gills but also breathes atmospheric oxygen and can walk days between water holes. When served nearly boneless, as it has three meals running a day for three weeks, it tastes and has the texture of good American beef.
It is determined during breakfast that our canoe is too small to negotiate the brimming Marinon, so I am freed to hobo another boat. I stand on the front steps under the rising sun trying to flag distant crafts. In an hour, I sit with my feet dangling in the water with the ducks and read the final chapter of Leonard Moseley´s marvelous Disney´s World. On the last page I look up over the floodplain and feel as if I know and so thank Walt for introducing me as a nine-year old to JungleLand in Anaheim, California. Who would have thought…
A senora my age paddles up for sugar and asks my country, job and marital status. Satisfied, she presents her teen daughter, asking, ‘Would you like a wife?’ The pretty bewildered girl blushes at the prospect, and a younger man could do worse in this world than marry, settle and raise a baker’s dozen Peruvians teaching them the word of the book and edge of a machete.
In a while, a 10-meter balsa raft with a full family and load of yucca and corn for the Iquitos market drifts by. It is constructed of thirty balsas laid side-by-side with a half dozen cross logs to secure them, and a bamboo slat platform with a tarp lean-to, cooking fire, family of six, barking dog and jumping monkey. At 1mph and steered by 3´-wide paddles on either side, it will reach Iquitos in about a week, but the family will return in style from the sales up the Rio Nucaya in a used pecapeca canoe which will secure their future.
Soon, a ten year old build like Lou Ferrigno who smells like chlorophyll paddles to the store for salt and asks if I am lost. I require him to name the nearest species of trees, birds and insects, and he looks around in one breath and names about twenty. So I hire him for a dollar an hour on a guided tour into the floodplain. Colored saucer butterflies flit for an hour through mangrove roots to a cocha, or lake, where a pink dolphin jumps and he avows it is safe to swim because the 6-meter crocodiles are sleeping in subsurface burrows through the heat of the day.
Back at the store, Sam is crawling beneath the bug nets and licking the toes of the giggling banana crew. Pleased at my smile, they say, ´Your ship has arrived!´ In the Peruvian mind there is now, not then or the future. Word is out via the water grapevine that a downriver launch will arrive quickly, and a celebration feast is planned with the senora already banging pots and pans.
I return to a post back on the front steps awaiting dinner or the boat, whichever comes first. The strategy of hoboing river craft is the same as the American hobo on the freights except in the Amazon you try to be seen rather than duck out of sight. The pulsing motion and flow of scenery is similar, with adventures and escape around each bend, where on rock ballast or muddy shore the only downside is waiting between rides. On shore, the standard signal is to bellow, which is heard up to a quarter-mile over a small engine. Splashing water such as jumping jacks is seen from a half-mile. The universal flapping white shirt, or in my case the light side of a reversible windbreaker, draws a boat from the far bank of a three-quarter mile river such as the Marinon, or a mile if standing in front of a dark backdrop such as a copse of bushes or dark wooden hut. As the craft closes in you may switch to wave a dollar bill. At night you waggle a flashlight.
I consider Sam, and the kittens in pockets and dogs on leashes I have known as an American hobo along the steel roads. For $20 I could have a road chum, and ride him to boats like Flipper when he gets older. But ´Supper!´ is the call. It is rare and savory, honest to god rice and a chunk of meat on a shared plate. The Banana Captain delicately puts a piece of meat on my rice, as the two lads toast, ´A rich piece of meat for the Gringo.´ The skull bone is so thin it crunches like a chip and the fat oozes between my teeth and down the chin.
I think to offer some to my pal. ´Where is Sam.´ I ask.
The captain blanches, ´He died.´
´How?´ The captain rubs his thin belly.
I gag, and rush from the table out the door to the steps, and stand for hours splitting and flagging until the fat old tug Vargas laden with yucca and mangos chugs up and bottoms out on the front yard. A gangplank nearly catches my temple. I stroll aboard taking a piece of Sam with me, grinning, and breaking wind on the bow of another riverboat wondering where I’ll land.
What do you think of the new way of serving a la Kane where they serve from the right, leaning all the way to the right side wall, and then move the left foot to the middle like a dance step and get the torque from the lateral motion as well as the hips?
Bo Keely replies:
Of course a righty does it from the left side, but the purpose I think is two: lateral movement confuses the receiver because the eyes are moving side to side and suddenly the ball comes at a straight on. And, from the server´s standpoint, when he starts the move he begins the second law that an object in motion tends to stay in motion, and moving across the service box allows a longer travel before the hit compared to stepping toward the front service line. An analogy is the high jump technique of trotting parallel to the bar for a few steps and suddenly springing 90-degrees at it to leap. These laws of motion work all the time. I just came from bodyguarding a mug victim at the waterfront. We needed backup a few minutes ago, so I called a friend. He showed up with a syringe and vial of dessicated diamondback rattlesnake venom that was "enough to kill everyone in iquitos". What´s this for, I asked. In a move quicker than my eye could follow, his hand raised vertically 6¨ and whipped around horizontally to strike my left jugular, but fortunately he didn't load the syringe. I told him, that would kill the guy– instead load it with frog sappo to paralyze him, and he´ll lay in the gutter as an example where he robbed the victim with a sign on his chest, that I just printed out from the computer, ´Do not molest the tourists!´- the lone ranger´.
1. Genetic gift without which no one gets to a competitive #1.
2. Inclination and time to practice long hours.
3. An organized, analytical chess playing mind.
4. A strong coach or role model is helpful but not necessary.
5. The patience to walk away from drugs, alcohol, romance and secondary influences.
6. A weak peer competition helps but isn't always available.
7. The secret to being #1 in a strong filed is an edge, a tiny advantage repeated over and over to make everyone else below #1.
I was born with superior but not great genes. However, three things happened to this entity thrown into the world that formed a colossal step outside the bell curve, in whatever direction. By a quirk of sleeping in the right place, with the sun on the correct side, noise in one ear, memory of school location on the other side, and mind's eye on my baby brother, with parents above the basement bed, at about age eight the body became bismyetrical and ambidextrous. Then, at age eight, I began modeling body parts and movements after animals instead of humans, taking as an example the hand of a cat, kick of a mule, and neck of a giraffe, following only the human eyes. I became a Mr. Potato boy with various parts. Finally, at age ten at a high jump sand pit that I dug in the back yard with a rising bamboo bar, I developed a technique of using the smallest muscle groups and nearest their attachments and insertions, for kinesthetics.
March 5, 2013 | Leave a Comment
People don't venture after dark onto the Iquitos waterfront because of the rats with two or four legs. So, three years ago when a shadow cast by a yellow lamplight danced over my shoulder I reflected that it belonged to someone who wanted me to know his approach.
´Excuse, mate!´ hailed a cheery tenor. I whirled to peer down on a wiry man with a crooked grin and blue eyes that sparkled in the night. ´Tourists shouldn't come here, ya know.´
I laughed, and thrust my hand; as he withdrew and hid his behind his back. With his left he grasped the outside of my fingers and shook, saying, ´Let me explain.´
´I was just robbed! Two blocks away two teen Peruvian thugs flashed a broken fluorescent light in my face. ´I'm a Brit!´ I retorted, and the next instant we were rolling on the ground. One pinned me, the other stuck the bulb in my hand, and as I swooned from pain they stole every Dollar, Pound and Sole I own.´
Slowly, he brought around the right that was bleeding with the little finger stuck out at an awkward angle.
´What are you going to do?´
´That´s the pity. I make my living playing the saxophone, and unless I get 100 Soles ($40) to fix the hand…´ he nearly shed tears.
´Look,´ I advised. I wouldn't be down here looking for a hostel if I had a lot of money. Here’s ten Soles to get you in a doctor's door, and then just plead your case.´
´Thanks!´ he gushed. ´If you see any more tourists out tonight, tell ém Byron the Brit is still searching…´
´I hope I haven't heard the end of your saxophone playing…´ and he vaporized along the wharf.
The next morning I stopped by the Yellow Rose of Texas Café for a macho omelette, and related the incident to Gerald Mayeaux, the expat owner and living record of Iquitos, whom I’ve known for thirteen years. He shook his head, and filled in a remarkable backdrop.
Byron is the most prolific con man in the history of Iquitos…´ He hunts for unsuspecting tourists along the streets of downriver Iquitos telling sob stories and tall tales for a few Soles to support his drug habit. He used to be an upstanding young man playing beautiful saxophone at La Noche and along the malecon for a few years until he gradually grew disheveled and strung out. Now hornless, he is the only gringo tough enough to live in the Belen waterfront where he crashes in crack houses, and prowls the streets at night for tourists. He has conned his way into the souls of old ladies and exclusive hotels where he smokes pasta with the air conditioning running, flicking cable channels. His face is on wanted posters around town and he’s been beaten up by robbed victims, but always rebounds as charming as ever.
´But his bleeding hand…´
´The prey was no doubt the predator,´ Gerald insisted. ´I’m truly sorry since it was a great sax hand. I listened to his music for years, and loaned him money… until my heart strings wore out. One day my wife gave him $100, and a week later he showed up desperate for more and ready to cut a deal. I wanted our money back, and so loaned him another $300 and took his hock ticket for the sax at a local pawn shop. After two years the deal wasn't closed, and I took the ticket to the pawn shop and paid $60 to get it out of hock. I didn't know its worth, except that for once I had out-con the Con Man of his saxophone.´
She was a diamond in the rough. The Selmer Mark VI is considered Henri Selmer´s finest saxophone. It is universally regarded as one of the best saxophone models ever produced by any manufacturer and was preferred by the most famous jazz musicians. The first models came out of France in 1954 with the Selmer engraving on the bell and serial numbers. It is called the most famous horn on the planet.
Gerald in the telling brought up Kaleb Whitaker, another expat businessman and musician I've known who would write an account of the sax in his blog Jungle Love. ´I offered Gerald a thousand dollars cash, on the spot, for the sax,´ says Kaleb. He never did take me up on my offer… Yes,the sax is Gerald´s now and, with a broken pinkie, will Byron be able to play like Charlie Parker?´
Charlie who? Jazz may be defined in the four words Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong. Parker was a jazz soloist and leading developer of Bebop with fast tempos, virtuosic technique and improvisation. His tone ranged from clean penetration to cherry sweet through jazz and on into Blues, Latin and Classical. He was an ideal in the hipster and later Beat Generation subcultures. He blew many saxophones over the years, and toward the end of his life on March 12, 1955 he blew the earliest Mark VI´s.
She was stolen from a display case at the Hard Rock Café in Hong Kong by Byron and his Brit sidekick whom I’ll call Noel. Noel testified to Gerald and Kaleb that one year he and Byron broke a display case at the Hard Rock Cafe which claimed it was Charlie Parker’s horn. It wasn't their first globetrotting nick. Byron simply wanted to play it.
I haven't seen Byron since the night he conned me, but he’s reported still running around the streets of Iquitos trying to kick the habit, buy his horn back, and get his life in shape. He is called by the poor under the dim lamplight the Robin Hood of Iquitos who prefers to give away everything he doesn´t need at the end of the day, and starting out fresh each morning without a dime in his pocket. So who conned whom?
He’s crushed the sax is gone but is unaware the Selmer Mark VI was just appraised and refurbished by a New Orleans virtuoso. It is a vintage 1954 Selmer Mark VI with a serial number that dates the production in Paris on April 27, 1954, one of the first Mark VI´s ever produced. A Selmer Mark VI sells at Ebay and auction houses in the $8-20,000 range. Did Charlie Parker blow on it ´Ýardbird Suite´and ´What Price Love´?
Likely, and the most a Charlie Parker saxophone has brought is $267,000.
February 13, 2013 | Leave a Comment
The bent handle racquetball racquet of the early 80’s reminds me of a one month experiment with every type of adhesive on the market, about thirty in all from Elmer’s to Superglue, using various styles of gloves and racquet grips to stop grip slippage. I recognized with the onslaught of the fast ball and tightly strung racquets of the early 80's that the primary problem of most players in their entire games was ball deflection on contact due to grip slip.
It started moments after the coin toss in tournaments when the glove, hand and handle got sweaty. Everything in the strokes and strategies of millions of advanced players across the nation was right except the angle the ball came off the strings. Given a good eye or fast camera, the handle rolled about two degrees within the strongest palm. Even power racquetball’s inventor Marty Hogan screamed at the injustice. I needed a glue to stop it. Over the course of a month in my secret 'laboratory' of a Michigan garage via tedious daily hours of applying adhesives to gloves, my palm and handle, I gripped and formed opinions of the best glues… and went to the courts to test them. The best was Barge Cement and to this day I keep a quart on my desert property for all purpose contact.
The result of the glue experiment was conclusive for cement type, but over a period of ten minutes of hard play though the grip didn't slip twixt the glove and handle, it started to rotate between the hand and glove for the same misdirection. Gluing the hand to the racquet was the logical next step which I did for a new one grip system for forehand and backhand. Yet I couldn't let go during timeouts, plus the heating glue felt unhealthy climbing my circulation from palm to armpit, so I abandoned the idea of gluing the hand to handle.
The nationwide grip slippage of the early 80's due to the advent of superballs, tight strings, Tarzans hands, and double ball speeds I believe to this day is the prime reason for the concurrent historic introduction of the one-grip system that previously was all but unknown in racquetball.
I've never met anyone with more diet experience than I, simply stating the fact. On the American skid rows I sup elbow to elbow with the bums with little indigestion, and dine among smiling peers on the back streets of Calcutta. This is a short history of why.
In the first twenty years of my life there was a full belly four times from age 10 to 14 when the family had enough money to go on mother's birthday to go to the Swedish Smorgasbord. The other 364 days of the year at the family tables in California, Idaho, Pennsylvania and Michigan we did not starve but there was never seconds, and I was active and got the same meager portions as my smaller brother and parents. To this day I don't understand why they chose to keep the family slim; perhaps a hangover from the Depression.
With little to compare hunger to I assumed it was a way of life. So the four trips to Swedish Smorgasbord began a revelation to have the stomach full and feel the food surge in the blood. Then for four years from age 12 to 16 there were annual four months during wrestling season of starving to make weight while working out heavily daily. Plus, I had became the Forrest Gump of running– not fast but steady– and the topic of ridicule for it. Besides wrestlers, other sports who know little food and much workout are boxers and horse jockeys; read Laura Hillenbrand's excellent Seabiscuit where down the backstretch appears a three page analysis of weight loss among jockeys before stepping on the feared scales. The methods include spitting for hours to reduce ounces, jogging in a sauna for 30 minutes in a rubber suit to sweat off precious ounces, laxatives for an extra boost, and a dozen other techniques we employed in high school wrestling. Then you stepped off the scale, took the first drink of water in two days, and wrestled. The feeling was extraordinary and exhilarating.
Continuing in veterinary school I became interested in the scientific end of food in nutrition class and observed animal diets, sampling dozens of feeds from dogs, cats, horses, cows, chickens and geese, and studying their teeth. There is no better way to get to know the runt of a litter than getting down on all fours with them around the communal bowl.
I began diet experiments and once ate McDonald's hamburgers for one week for breakfast, lunch and dinner when they were 15 cents and two million sold. Then I gained as much weight as I could drinking eight instant breakfasts daily plus as many meals as I could stuff, and more than once was asked the price of milk by grocery shoppers, $.25 a gallon, who assumed I was the stocker. I wrote the Carnation Company to endorse an early weight gain program but they sent gift certificates and hand claps for more instant breakfasts to climb from a fighting 175 lbs. to 200… and absolutely could put on no more weight.
After university I read James Clavell's epic Shogun and was so taken by the starvation black pits that I fasted for one week on water. In another experiment in a two month period I reduced from 175 to the goal 150 lbs on a daily fare of 1500 calories while working out six hours as a professional racquetball player and accomplished it, and then ate a single long carrot that I will never forget.
I vowed at the tip of that carrot never to go hungry again, but have, and always to treat myself to seconds and more when I like, which I do. Yesterday in Yurimaguas, Peru, I went to the ice cream parlor and bought four cones for $1 each. Then down the street another store scooped four in new flavors at $.75 each. I stepped outside to a street vendor who dished five for $.50 each. On comparison, the first store had the best ice cream and I returned for three more cones.
Today there is the ultimate satisfaction of continuing to get to know food.
Few historians of any sport endure long enough to actually see in live action the legendary competitors they write about. Having started my racquetball journey well over forty years ago, when Leach and Ektelon were California backyard industries pumping out a racquet a day, when the handfuls of players at YMCA’s strewn across the USA used wood clunkers in but two national tournaments per year that we hitchhiked to and lived on hospitality room grub and couches to try to win a T-shirt and little cup… in the sport of racquetball that is just over fifty years old, I can honestly say I have seen all the greatest players play with my own four eyes.
That doesn't mean with certainty that I can pick out the greatest of them all. The problem in making this determination is an inconvenient truth that the fifty year old game has evolved so much over the last four decades that it's next to impossible to compare one era to the next.
The racquets have grown to double head size, much lighter and better made. The strings are strung with 400% more tension than when I hit the court. The doubly faster ball moves like a hummingbird instead of a sponge, the scoring system today is different with shorter games, and many rules changes have obliterated early strategies and given rise to new ones. The sport was and is called racquetball but the greatest players throughout the four eras really played different games.
What I can objectively deliver is a comparison of the very best, and the best of the rest, of each era… and maybe you can decide who was the greatest of them all.
We can divide racquetball in to four distinct eras since the first national tournament in 1968. Each with its own version of the game, personalities, strategies, equipment, rules, and one great champion. The Pioneers competed from the first National event until the mid-seventies. The players of the Golden Era vied from the mid-seventies through the eighties. The Modern Era of the sport consisted of the nineties to the mid-two thousands. The Current Era is the last five years through the present 2013.
We will examine the champion and top ten contenders of each era of racquetball. Of course, some long-lived players crossed eras, but I have listed each in the era he most identified with, and no player is listed in more than one era for this exercise. Once we journey through racquetball history and its best competitors, you will have as much information as any authority on the sport to form an opinion on who is the Greatest of All Time. It will be an informed opinion based on decades of history, and I believe your truth is your truth and you’re entitled to it.
The Pioneer Era
The pioneers of championship racquetball were more often described as Docs than Jocks! We played sweaty chess, a slow strategic contests won by the smarter player and not the best athlete. We played with an extremely slow ball with wood frame and new-fangled medal racquets strung at less than fifteen pounds tension in two out of three games to twenty-one point marathons. The ball only moved 90mph and typical rallies went six or eight shots before a point ended. How accurate was the Doc moniker? Well, five of the top ten of the era and numerous contenders just off the list had Doctoral level degrees in medicine, dentistry, law, psychology, and in my case veterinary medicine.
The hands down Champion of the Pioneer Era was Charlie Brumfield. Bill Schmidtke's forehand was slightly better than Charlie’s, my backhand was superior, Steve Serot ran circles around the bearded wonder, and in a nutshell Brum wasn't especially graceful. However, the one thing he did as much as the rest of us combined was to win. Charlie Brumfield was the most intelligent, determined competitor in the history of our sport, and would and did do anything and everything to win. He invented the Sword and Shield method of play to protect a weak backhand, the donkey kick to clear central court, the crack ace with Carl Loveday’s, ushered in the ceiling and around the wall balls, utilized referee bullying, crowd management and sending soiled doves to upcoming finalists’ rooms at the midnight hour. Charlie was known as The Holder of All Titles which was accurate. He won multiple IRA National Singles and Doubles Championships, multiple National Invitational titles in doubles and singles, and when pro tournaments rolled around in 1973 three Pro National titles on tour, and a pair of Outdoor National singles and doubles championships. He beat all of the best in the biggest competitions of our era including a twenty consecutive tournaments streak. That’s saying something among the Docs.
Just behind him, the Top Ten Contenders of the Pioneer Era in no particular order: Bud Muleheisen, Bill Schultz, Bill Schmidtke, Craig Finger, Paul Lawrence, Steve Keeley, Steve Serot, Mike Zeitman, Steve Strandemo and Ron Rubenstein.
The Golden Era
The Golden Era was aptly named at the highest point in the history of our sport. The game was evolving in the Golden State California and burgeoning across the nation with the first pure racquetball court clubs, female tournaments, the first pro tours, and Hollywood stepped into the courts. Many of the top players sported in imitation my golden afro and mismatched colorful Chuck’s tennis shoes. The game was being played by as many as fifteen million players worldwide. A couple of top professionals made as much as a million dollars in endorsements in one year, Sports Illustrated covered tournaments, and some events were nationally televised during prime viewing hours.
The Golden Era game was played with racquets the same head size as the original sticks but much lighter, strung with more tension, and hitting a much faster ball. A plethora of new manufacturers jumped into the sport, and larger racquets were introduced toward the end of the era. The Golden Era game saw shorter rallies with balls blazing at 130mph where the Docs, having little time to think, were supplanted by the pure Jocks. An accurate term was coined that sticks to this moment- Power Racquetball! You see, the new equipment, bulldog player physiotypes and erupting mentalities spawned new strategies and rules. The 21-point games switched to 15-points, the 11-point tiebreaker added, the screen serve was invented and combat by a side wall server line, ceiling shots became vague memories, and legions of thrilled fans urged ‘Serve and shoot!’ to break the front wall bottom board.
The Champion of the Golden Era, Marty Hogan, was the best athlete of the day and in my opinion the best natural athlete to ever hold reins on the sport. A physical dynamo sporting a golden afro and using the same and sometimes inferior old equipment, he regularly smacked the ball 20mph faster than the next biggest hitter. He hit shots at such speeds as never before that two new ones evolved- the jam serve and splat kill. Marty's unprecedented pendulum power swing smashed with equal power backhands and forehands. His drive serve was the most potent and copied weapon of the day. Hogan was number one of fifteen million players and a dominant personality with the most endorsement contracts in history. He won the Leach NRC Nationals five consecutive times when it was the biggest event in racquetball, plus more total events per annum than any other player for ten consecutive years. At his peak, Hogan went over a year without losing a single match in singles, doubles and outdoors. He even took the paddleball Nationals from me, the reputed legend of wood, to prove he was the second Holder of All Titles and the best of the era.
Just short of him, the Top Ten Contenders of the Golden Era in no specific order were: Mike Yellen, Dave Peck, Jerry Hilecher, Davey Bledsoe, Bret Harnett, Rich Wagner, Craig McCoy, Gregg Peck, Ruben Gonzales and Ed Andrews.
The Modern Era
The Modern Era was played with big racquets that were both light and powerful, almost identical to the ones used today. The Tarzan players with driving type A personalities vied in three out of five games to eleven with the fast Pro Penn Green ball and a new one serve rule to elongate the serve and shoot rallies. Most of the top players of the Modern Era started in junior competitions during the Golden Era, and many were the offspring of noteworthy racquetball players. The second generation players with their super-sized racquets took the game to a new level with 170mph shots the norm in a pro contest. The swing of the era became less pendulum and flatter with extreme body torque and explosive contact. The fast furious pace demanded early swing preparation using fast twitch fibers and mesmeric alertness. The US Open replaced the Leach Pro Nationals as the gala event of the year.
The Champion of the Modern Era was Cliff Swain who to me resembled a praying mantis stalking and blowing the ball to kingdom come. Swain was a jock like Hogan with less bulk and a half-step quicker, with a fierce will like pioneer Brumfield. In addition to sharing these sports traits of the earlier champions, he was a lefty with a serve that was eclipsed by an eyeblink. Television cameras couldn’t follow the ball, much less the service returner. Cliff introduced the flat back-swing, and early swing preparation that is popular today. He won more professional titles than any other player in history, and was the number one ranked player for six years in a testy competitive era. Swain never went a single year without losing a match as Hogan had, and never won twenty in a row like Brumfield, but he was equally impressive in reigning for nearly twenty years from 1985 to 2005 at or near the top of the sport.
The Top Ten Contenders of the Modern Era again not listed in any particular order were: Sudsy Monchik, Jason Mannino, John Ellis, Mike Ray, Drew Kachtik, Andy Roberts, Jack Huczek, Mike Guidry, Tim Doyle and Tim Sweeney.
The Current Era
The Current Era is played almost exactly like the Modern with a couple of improvements. The racquets are still big and getting better every year. The ball frequently travels over 175mph, matches are still the best three of five game. The new Purple Pro ball is a tad slower than the Green of the Modern Era, and the two serves allowed in the original game have replaced the one serve rule. In addition, line judges in big matches watch the serve line and the overall officiating is improved. Jason Mannino, a champion of his own right from the Modern Era, now heads the IRT, and the pro stops have gone international including Canada, Mexico and all over South America.
The Champion of the Current Era is Kane Waselenchuck. Kane is a lefty with a power serve, flat back-swing and early swing prep, and a crushing competitiveness. At the same time he pleases the juniors with trick shots on his knees and behind the back. He seems capable of doing anything on a racquetball court except loosing. Kane has lost only once in the last five years, before recently retiring after a match injury. He is by far the most dominant champion within one era in history, and the gap between him and everyone else is vast.
The Current Top Ten Contenders in order after Kane are: Rocky Carson, Alavaro Beltran, Jose Rojas, Chris Crowther, Shane Vanderson, Ben Croft, Tony Carson, Javier Moreno and Charlie Pratt.
Four Eras and Four Champions
So, among the four eras and champs who is the best? Ask yourself: Who holds the mythical Crown of the Greatest of All Time? A simple query may give you the answer to the mystery of the GOAT. Would Kane be just as dominant and rack up undefeated seasons with a prime Cliff Swain, Marty Hogan and Charlie Brumfield? If you believe the answer is yes, then you've answered the question and Kane is clearly the greatest. If you believe the answer is no, the debate is open and your opinion is probably stronger and more informed than ever.
My trip to the ophthalmologist began ten days ago with a variety of transportations including three days on a triple-deck launch up the Rio Marion, a collective water taxi for a day, motorized canoe for another along the Rio Huallaga, a day hitchhike in a pickup truck to Tarapoto, and a final ten hours by bus from the Amazon jungle up to Piura, Peru in the Andes.
The nation is divided into four sections geographically for medical treatments. If you want kidneys go to Trujillo, for legs to Aeroquip, I travelled to Piura for eyes, and you get your heart in Lima.
Dr. Luna, after a thirty minute exam for $40, said my eyes were fine for jungle walking, and tried writing and reading in mirror image from right-to-left as an eye strengthener. He commented that ‘Vision is like any exercise that may be trained in the gymnasium of a book’,
I don’t need laser or lens surgery, but he wondered why I didn’t wait for him to make his quarterly rounds to Iquitos. All of the geographic specialists make airplane rounds about the country performing examinations in their local colleagues´ offices to ferret patients who need to travel for operations in the specialty cities.
The geographic division of Peru with swinging doctor rounds makes sense because each specialty– kidneys, orthopedic, eyes and heart- requires expensive equipment that individual doctors and hospitals can’t afford. So, for example, with eyes there is one laser machine and a dozen ophthalmologist offices huddled in the same building or block
So, I’m returning to square one in Iquitos by launch, boat, canoe, truck and bus, you see, and awaiting the quarterly arrivals of the other specialists, though it’s likely the honest doctors will find nothing to operate on.
A shout went up on the Rio Marañon bank at Sanamariza, Peru, this morning and an elderly man took off his hat and passed it among the citizens milling on the muddy bank. When the hat got to me I asked why, and it was explained as the Peruvian version of a speedboat zipped around the bend and rammed the shore in the standard docking. This was a medevac of a sick child.
I had been stranded awaiting the weekly Launch to escape this high jungle town down to the lower Amazon, and the sick boy was my ticket out. I passed the hat without dropping a coin, but approached the captain climbing out the boat and asked if he was going downriver to San Lorenzo to which he brightened at the prospect of a paying fare and told me to sit tight for thirty minutes.
He returned gingerly hoisting an IV drip of Suero fluid above the head of a teen in a white smock, the town nurse, who cradled an eight-year old boy as the fluid dripped at a drop a second through the clear IV tube and well-taped needle into a vein on the top of his wrist. They picked a way down the ten-foot bank into the waiting rapido boot, followed by the bedraggled mother and fathered, and then by me, and then a mysterious senorita with the best legs in the Amazon who forgot to put on her underpants.
The rapido is the size of a tin rowboat with a sizeable 40hp Johnson outboard motor and a white shade canopy. The nurse inserted a needle into the IV tube and slowly injected about three CC's over one minute of a drug he wouldn't identify, though he said the patient had weathered a high fever for four days and very sore throat. I could see no other symptoms and the first thought was tonsillitis, an English word that no one recognized. The youth's eyes rolled in the sockets with nearly zero consciousness.
The drug must have been a sedative to have waited until the second before departure to inject… and so slowly. It got a boost when the captain tugged the motor start cord prematurely and the last third of the medicine jerked into the child's vein. The nurse climbed out the boat instructing no one in particular to keep the IV at a drop a second, and scampered up the bank.
The patient had no jacket, no blanket to cover his feverish body. I sat in front to break the wind and looked over everyone. The strikingly handsome people of this region are Peru's former head hunters and the only tribe in the nation to remain unconquered through history. Five percent have single thumbs on one hand or the other that is an apparent genetic recessive display looking more like a big toe than a big toe looks like a big toe, while their other thumbs are normal.
The mother dropped her blouse and began to breast feed her other child who twisted the dark nipple hungrily, the long-legged senorita stared at me, likely the first Caucasian she had seen except on TV, and I took the sick boy's pulse at 80 beats a minute, but strong, and only his fevered brow was a worry.
The 20' boat accelerated to 25mph down the quarter-mile wide Rio Marañon as the white tarp bobbed up and down on the captains' hair where a foot dark halo was rubbed into the fabric. To this day I cannot explain why a few minutes later he chose to veer off the wide river into a shortcut stream. In seconds weeds grabbed the propeller, the boat scrapped stream bottom, the motor conked and we were set adrift in the 5mph current. The rowboat spun like a pinwheel, and everyone looked perplexed but stared vacantly.
'Where are the life jackets?' I hollered over the passengers to the captain, who shrugged.
'Where is the paddle?' I yelled. He stooped and ripped a slat out the boat bottom and began paddling to straighten the boat. The father did the same, and so did I, as the mother continued to breast feed her baby to keep it from crying during the dizzying spin, and the long-legged girl shut her eyes.
Thunder clapped. It began to drizzle. The boat struck a bank sharply and the IV quart bottle cap twisted open and spilled onto the patient. Mother pulled a red-and-white checkered tablecloth and covered her sick child just before nature´s storm hit hard.
We needed the motor to escape the twirl. I yanked a 5' long floorboard and a bit river wise from the past two weeks along Amazon tributaries stood on the bow as I had observed and plunged the slat repeatedly into the water on either side of the boat until it struck bottom, lifted it out and pointed the captain the deep water. The propeller needed 16'' clearance to miss the river bottom, and the plummet found it.
The boat spun for fifteen minutes, but now the captain cranked the motor and we emptied back into the greater Marañon.
In an hour the storm abated, and an hour later the boy's fever broke likely due to the rehydration and sedative. In one hour more we docked at San Lorenzo near the hospital and the mother and father sped their now conscious boy away. He smiled at me, I nodded and paid the captain $50 for my fare, and stepped into the new town.
An archaeologist looking through my house in the future would come across a purple post it stuck on p.322 of Paul Johnson's "A History of the American People". It's over the quote "all serious visitors such as Dickens, Trollope, and Thackeray who intended to write books about their travels visited one or more prisons as well as workhouses, homes for fallen women, and similar dismal but worthy places". Now who would have placed such a post-it. Ha, only one person. The Hobo. And it would lead the archaeologist to conclude that Hobo was living here in the attic in 1997 when the book was published before his trip to Thailand.
The Hobo (Bo Keely) responds:
Victor Niederhoffer replies:
One wishes it were true.
T.K Marks adds:
To your credit, let it be said that anybody who has never had a hobo living in their attic has led an unfulfilled life.
I was in Sand Valley about five years ago. It was the hottest on record in 40 years, about 135 F in the shade daily for a week. But no one keeps official records in Sand Valley. It´s 10F hotter on mean daily than Neeles and Blythe, CA that used to get the Snoopy weather reports as the hottest places in USA. 130 didn't seem that different than 120 to me and I wore 20 lbs of ankle weights and a small knapsack and walked 1.3 mi. to my nearest neighbor where the kittens and chicks were dropping like flies. We lost 20% of the Sand Valley human population that summer related to the heat. I think part of the reason I wasn't affected is I trained for eight previous summers with the windows closed and heater on full blast whenever driving, besides the walking. That was the summer the pair of 16¨ white iguanas camped under an Ironwood outside my burrow and hopped on my bare feet whenever I climbed out the burrow.
Temperature Record Is Cast Out
By THE NEW YORK TIMES
A team of meteorologists casts serious doubt on a world temperature record of 136.4 degrees recorded on Sept. 13, 1922 in El Azizia, Libya. They cite the antiquated instrument used, the likelihood that the observer was inexperienced and the wide disparity with subsequent temperatures recorded at the site. That means that officially, the "new" record surface temperature is 134 degrees, recorded on July 10, 1913 at Greenland Ranch in Death Valley, Calif. [Arizona State University]
Here´s my secret writing style after reading thousands of books and standing on the shoulders of my favorite masters: Steinback, L´Amour, Ayn Rand and Art Shay. This is for longer stories. The piece is shaped as the process of an individual walking down the street. There is a sequence of five events though not always in this order:
1. what the senses see, taste, hear
2. the thoughts
3. the feeling/emotion
5. interspersed with factual material about the stage
Generally, each of the five has a paragraph before moving to the next.
It´s pure formula writing, and a computer could almost do it.
If you think about it, this is what happens when walking down the street. The sequence of five varies with individuals, and a good story teller can train a person to react in a stronger sequence to events of his life.
I don’t know enough about finance to comment on bears and bulls without making a fool of myself, however as a mobile and keen observer and with the help of the top expat businessmen of Iquitos, Peru will describe the characteristics of a boom in a jungle town.
Iquitos is the largest city in the Peruvian rainforest with a population of 500,000 and is landlocked by jungle with only water and air entries. It is the capital of Loreto region located on the Amazon River. The level of the river varies with snowmelt from the Andes to the west by 15 or 20 vertical feet annually. This year was the highest water in forty years at 30 feet above the low mark, which cancelled my plan to write a guidebook of the local hikes and instead wait out the water fall as a bystander studying the local conditions. The high level water mark of four months ago is above the door handles a hundred yards toward the river from where I type, and the residents paddled canoes in and out their front doors and slept with their belongings on the kitchen tables. Now they can walk to town.
As you probably know, nearly all of the developed world has been printing currency at a furious pace. This has increased demand for gold, a store of value that can't be printed at will by politicians. Peru was first described by Antonio Raimondi in the 1860´s as ´A bum sitting on a bench of gold´. There it sat in the world market until the past few years. A recent shift in government rules to attract foreign investors has opened the gold pits to outside companies and on their tide the country floats with an annual 7% economic gain since I left three years ago.
Today the city's economy is based on government (civil and the military), service industries including ayahuasca and excursion tourism, oil and gas exploitation, lumber extraction and fishing. Most of the goods and services are readily available, cyber cafes abound, and ATMs are easy to access. Peru as of 2011, according to Wikipedia and other news stories, is an emerging, market oriented economy characterized by a high level of foreign trade.
One expat speculator offers a contrasting view from the textbook description of Peru´s economy. He claims and trades on the country second and third Top Three exports, two of which are illegal. In order:
2. Illicit gold.
3. Legal gold
It is also common knowledge that these are the Top Three. Another expat who was the first gringo offered the job as town mayor claims that new national laws weigh heavily to favor foreign investors, and China, Japan, Europe, USA and other companies are pouring millions into the country. It is commonly said, as ever, that the lion´s share of the investments goes into the Peru government and company officials´ pockets, and for these reasons an expat investor either must be connected or on his toes.
The cost of living in Iquitos is 1950´s America. Soda is $.16 and a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice $.35. Meals run $1.50 for breakfast or lunch and $2 for supper. While Wal-Mart USA sets nationwide prices sizzling for choice beef the Peruvian hamburger with everything goes for $.80. A 24-oz protein fruit shake costs $1 and a dozen donut holes 30cents. Restaurants are ten times busier. A family internet on every corner at $.60/hour and expats track their bank accounts online and use ATM cards to dispense dollars or Soles from a half-dozen banks. My picture post card hotel with a swimming pool, fruit trees and I could walk out the door into Jurassic Park, used to cost the same, $3.50/day, to send the card to USA. I took a path for fifteen minutes through the jungle to the only golf course in the Amazon with piranhas in the water traps that the groundskeeper feeds on weekends. Two months ago I moved to an apartment above an internet that would go for $1000 per month in LA or NYC but here is $70 including utilities. Starting a new test Life of Riley in the Amazon is a money saving endeavor few can afford to pass up.
You would bring a first world wallet to a third world economy. The minimum wage has risen to $280/months times 16, which means that additional monthly bonuses are provided by the employer at Christmas, New Years, one vacation, and in the case of services for tips. In fact, only about 70% of Iquitos full time workers receive the extra months´ benefit because it´s located so far from the Lima regulation. Actually temporary and full-time workers from street cleaners to store clerks make $8/day for their usual ten hour a day six day work week. There are far more available jobs. A mechanic will work on your car for $1/hour or an electrician wire the house for $1.25/hour. I pay a 15% self-imposed gratuity to any Peruvian who serves well because my American dollar buying power is about 10x for housing, 3x for food, and 8x for services. A 3-wheel Moto-taxi ride for ten minutes cross town costs $.70 or a bus ride thirty minutes to the edge of town for $.40. The first ever female Moto-car driver is on the road in a pony tail rubbing elbows with the competition.
The evidence of good times is everywhere. Thousands of dirt piles drift the streets that for a year are methodically being dug up for a new sewage system. About one in every twenty houses is under some sort of renovation with homeowners tacking new thatches or tin on the roofs, painting walls, and installing patricians within for a new baby boom. The hardware and lumber yards bustle, and front yard industries such as ´dollar´ stores, internets and grills prosper because there´s more money to buy things. The ability to make change for a transaction is a hint of a firm economy, however an inability to make change is always a tipoff of a poor economy. Three years ago one was obligated to pay exact change for the Moto-taxi, meals and everything else, or expect a fifteen minute delay while the receiver went door to door searching for change.
Beauty parlors and spas are cropping between fallow soccer fields as the children flock to the internets for games in a new computer rage. The kids like their American counterparts would rather give up their TV´s and dinner than part with their computers. While the number of personal computers is at least 100x, TV´s have only quadrupled. TV´s don´t add and computers show movies, play music and games. The viewing themes have altered dramatically where cartoons once played on half the TV´s watched even by adults, who now view videos and sit-coms. The four-screen theater is seating five times the audience at elevated $2.50 tickets. American movies and music deliver themes of freedom, innocence, and power that appeal to the new computer generation. The new music that has supplanted Michael Jackson and Christmas carols all year long is soothing soft rock, classical, and I am floored to hear opera in some neighborhoods.
There are surprisingly few cell phones, and virtually no one smokes. In four months I have seen one Peruvian light up a cigarette, so there are no butts to study the length to gauge the economy. However, many of the laborers, some middle class, and a few professionals, along with a strong ayahuasca tourism industry, swallow a couple ounces ayahuasca regularly as a tonic in the same way that Americans get monthly vitamin shots.
The burgeoning middle class gives rise to a number of signs of good economic times. The first streaked hair, more eyeliner, and 10x as many ladies getting their nails painted in new salons. More eye glasses and early risers stride with purpose to appointments with more calculating eyes. At churches there is greater evangelistic clap and sing, furniture and appliance stores brim with goods and buyers, the first sold home septic tanks in history, and there´s a baby boom with public breast feeding and all bouncing down the street on the family motor scooters. Toy stores are proliferate. Radio Shack opened three years ago and one year ago moved to a larger store. There are three times as many satellite dishes, little refrigerators in the kitchens, beds instead of floor mats, and a new block long high school of glass that must be the most beautiful in the world.
I have never seen a more obvious indicator of fat times than the obesity in Iquitos. Three years ago there was hardly an ounce of flab on any one of 500,000 citizens. All about the city was only one fat person, an obese attorney who paid for two seats on buses. Today 40% of the population is overweight, and another 10% obese. No one is trim. The closer to city center you go, the more gain per body. Standing in crowded buses used to mean getting banged about by cement bodies, but now it´s like bouncing off hot sponges. The girls are no longer the prettiest in the world. The waitresses have love handles and the gas pump girls who used to be Miss Peru´s are plump and seem to smell like petro. The tarp bordello at $1.25 a throw on a grassy meadow next to the Yacht Club with tripled members has been torn up for a motocross track. Down the block in the streets of Iquitos the girls have turned the other cheek and must be chased for dates, but not far since the ratio is about 3:1.
The crimeless downtown streets that for years were patrolled by armed lady officers fresh off the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine have been replaced by about 500 beefy patrolmen for every corner who twiddle their trigger fingers all day but are quick to smile. The government must store its excess wealth somewhere and apparently what better place than a standing army.
Nocturnal city sweepers brush the streets the cleanest in the world. One I asked if it was hard work raised her shirt to wipe a sweaty face and show ample breasts, dropped it and spat in the gutter, replied ´Not at all´, and swept on. A new fleet of garbage trucks cruises neighborhoods weekly as all shriek ´Garbage´ and rush theirs to the curb. The military also has new vehicles and uniforms. You may still go to the suburb where I saw an eight-foot anaconda swim down a flooded street, and later a lost black-and-red false coral snake at a bus stop slid over my boot.? A man was burning plastic bottles on the end of a stick letting the hot plastic drip onto biting red ants to embalm and seal the cracks around his house.
One of the best signals of economic flux is the traffic. There are three times as many cars for a total of maybe one hundred in the entire city. However, the number of 125cc motorcycles is x20 of the popular Asian manufacturers like Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki at a cost of $700, or for a 250cc $1100. At least six motorcycle sales lots have popped up in converted warehouses. This has slightly reduced the number of quaint 3-wheel 125cc surrey Moto-karos that are two wheel trailer frames welded to the hacked front end of a 125cc motorcycle. Thousands jiggle down the avenues. The Easy Rider dream for many teen males arriving from the outlying jungle penniless to town is to rent one for $10 per day to transport, sleep and squirrel his daily fares for years in order to buy his own Moto-karo taxi for $2000 that will ensure a marriage and family.
Traffic has the right of way, and stand on a curb and get clipped. Jaywalking is the rule even in thick traffic, but is executed opposite the US style and more like a child, old man or duck. You must cross the road trustingly with the head down, taking a steady course and without peeking up as the traffic weaves around you.
A driver´s license is required to operate a vehicle, and here´s what Peruvians and gringos alike face at the local version of Department of Motor Vehicles. Two expats went to stand in the first of two days of long lines. Then there are four parts to the test: A physical exam which requires a small bribe $3 to pass, a rote written test, and then an oral interview with the director in which my friend was required to explain the steering system of a car, how the brakes work, and finally what to do if stalled late at night on a remote highway. He made it to the fourth stage, a driving test in which he asked the examiner if he wanted to drive to a ceviche restaurant, picked up the bill and passed with flying colors. He got a license, but his American friend failed and was forced into a short cut of going directly to the director and paying $100 on the spot for the license.
Corrupt or not, one month ago in affirmation of the progress Copa Airline flew the inaugural flight into Iquitos making it an international airport. The new immigration is privately contracted by the government. A five-star hotel will transform Iquitos into a hotspot jungle resort. Of the 100+ visited countries I´ve visited around the world looking for Shangri-la this is the only town I return to regularly.
It´s all about gold in Peru and many other places. Ever since I was a child gold as a coin or flake from the family rock collection was given as a gift and we´d be told, ´Put it aside.´ In the past months in Portugal, Italy and other countries suffering from economic crisis, buying gold off desperate citizens is become a strong industry. People are being forced to sell their gold teeth in order to eat. This explains the good times in Peru, and why Iquitos in particular is smiling.
Graham Greene wrote in The Quiet American, "Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm."
For me at ten years the loss of innocence was trying to look out the Idaho living room window one evening with a light on inside and snow outside and I was surprised to see my reflection. For an instant there was confusion to who I was: the reflection or what it saw. I moved slightly to feel my body and determined thereon to be the person inside it.
A second mindful decision occurred twenty years later in a Michigan kitchen alone reading and a sentence from Carl Jung´s Memories, Dreams and Reflections. I looked up abruptly from archetypes as universal thoughts, symbols, or images having a large amount of unconscious power, and are shared… and it popped into my head from that point on to control my own thoughts. With willful effort I practiced the multiplication tables for ten minutes until the answer to 2 x 2 did not arrive until I caused it.
The third grave verdict that has shaped my life took place in a Michigan basement while reading Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass where the page turned to the hideous monster poem ´Jabberwocky´. It´s written in mirror text, and it doesn't matter that I was reading in a coffin lined with electric blankets against the icy wind whooshing through the wall cracks, or that I was reading with an Edmond Scientific top grade mirror to reverse the text so the Jabberwocky came alive from left to right. Suddenly it dawned on me that I could turn the book upside down to cause the print to flow right to left and dispense with the mirror and monster. That´s how I´ve read hundreds of book to date, and the reason is to balance the body, eyes and brain to a more perfect symmetry to think better critically.
The fourth waypoint on the road to objective thinking was learning the chessmen and their moves that is as much a model as computers for the thought process.
The fifth rest stop is quotations that has become a lifelong study, and one of the best on critical thinking (that is attributed to no one) is "Critical thinking is thinking about your thinking while you're thinking in order to make your thinking better."
So in a long march to discovery of self along the best road I know how, in the first step I determined the body manufactures the thoughts; in the second that I could control the thoughts, on the third that the body must remain healthy and symmetrical to think better; on the fourth to use models to understand how the mind functions, and at the fifth to stand on other´s shoulders and pass along their advice.
Howard Zinn said, "History can come in handy. If you were born yesterday, with no knowledge of the past, you might easily accept whatever the government tells you. But knowing a bit of history- while it would not absolutely prove the government was lying in a given instance- might make you skeptical, lead you to ask questions, make it more likely that you would find out the truth." I might add this is not only true of government but of medicine, business, sports and anything else worth thinking about. The trick is to balance being skeptical and open. If you are only skeptical then no new ideas filter through to you and nothing new is learned. On the other hand, if you are open to the stretch of gullibility without an ounce of skepticism, then you won´t be able to distinguish the useful from the worthless.
The one skill everyone on the planet needs is the ability to think with objectivity. If we are prepared to think for ourselves, and learn how to do it well, there is little danger of becoming slaves to the ideas and values of others that is taking the earth and limiting self-potential. The list of core critical thinking skills includes observation, interpretation, analysis, comparison, evaluation and explanation
There are some training workouts: math, read Sherlock Holmes, logic riddles, and conversing with other critical thinkers. The number and direction of steps up from fuzzy thinking to a height of acute awareness varies from person to person. The ultimate step a quantum leap because no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.
The adventure of critical thinking is the finding of self. You develop insights into what is and can be. I´ve found as much as possible, and the chase goes on.
August 30, 2012 | 1 Comment
Economic high times in Peru during three short years since my last visit in 1999 has put 100 times as many keyboards under the fingers of the citizens who have blossomed a fresh consciousness about town. The changes are sharp in the minds of 500,000 of this largest city in the Peruvian Rainforest. In with the computers, out with the old jungle charm that has defaulted to a new middle class efficiency.
Cheerfulness has always been endemic in Iquitos and it is the most relaxing place in the world to take a walk. The children grin and gawk- they used to gawk and grin- and the dogs run out to play. I have never been bitten and there is virtually no violence in the town history. If you smile at a person the he´ll say buenos dais every morning after.
The difference now compared to three years ago is in people´s faces registering what they see followed by a flicker of calculation. There used to be no past or future tense in the minds of the natives, and they remembered only the last thought until jolted into the next. Now it´s smooth mental sailing.
The dominos of awareness on the streets, in shops, homes, on waterways and in the people's minds are amazing. Whether they access computers or not, by speech, newspapers and non-verbal cues, critical thinking is sweeping the town. This enables inspiration in an individual by a great purpose, some extraordinary project, and all of his thoughts break their bounds. He is able to hold not one but two or three thoughts at once, and others see it. I think a new, great and wonderful world has opened in Iquitos. Dominant forces, faculties and currents have come alive in the discovery of self.
What´s more curious is that instead of adults teaching children the art of consciousness in the traditional style throughout world history, in this computer revolution the machines are teaching the kids first and they then their parents. The kids flock to fifty internet cafes- nearly all new- before and after school, at lunch, and just before bedtime. Thousands swarm the internets that in the first month I was here in June slow them from a usable USA 2010 pace to a near standstill at prime hours. One expat here was accustomed to winning six simultaneous games of computer chess at a USCF 1850 rating until last year when he started losing one in six when his clock flag falls as the computer is slow, and his rating fell so drastically that he quit. I pay a daily advance for ten hours at $.60 per hour to hold the highly prized chair through the busy times including a 7- 9pm night session for ´computer romance´ that has replaced strolling the town plaza for amour.
What do the kids do? They don't care if the systems are up or down; they´re addicted to the noise and game hunger. When the computers are up they cruise Facebook and play online games. When down they switch to canned hard drive games. It´s a musical chairs of gleefully shouting children, and often I give mine up to go hike, eat, read or nap in a private booth with a nonworking computer.
As the kids jam the cyber cafes the adjacent soccer fields that used to be busy with anaerobic games lie barren for the first time in history. In parallel the children are growing little hunchbacks with enormous hands and delicate fingers to resemble Edward Scissorhands. Romances bloom in the cafes and especially in private booths that rent for an extra dime an hour. The teens hold hands and visit their friends on Facebook or Skype double date.
The daily ratio of computer use across the city is: Facebook 45%, Games 45%, and 10% schoolwork, surfing or other. Yet it doesn't matter where their fingers walk because one way or the other computers teach users to think like them in raising their consciousnesses. Children computer schools are popping up everywhere, and a chain called CompuKids offers twelve station rooms for primary and grade school children at $.30 per hour for group lessons three times a week from an itinerant professor. In turn, the kids run the family cyber businesses outside of school and commonly a ten-year-old installs programs, fixes glitches and takes money, while the parents sweep and mop.
The children are the vanguard of a wave of critical thinking obviously due to the computers as the only strong variable, aside from boom money, introduced to Iquitos in the last three years. For every computer then there are about one hundred today, children learn them in primary school, and the more affluent university students use laptops. Many businesses have installed systems to record books, and along Putumayo Street where the established line of one dozen self-appointed notaries for decades have for set up sidewalk typewriter tables to hunt-and-peck at $.50 a page for letters or legal forms to the partially illiterate society, now two use laptops and printers.
Critical thinking has been described as reasonable reflection focused on deciding what to believe or do. It is the predecessor of self-regulatory judgment. It is the ability to chew up and spit out what you don´t believe in this story, and swallow the rest.
What of innocence in a computer revolution? Here was a place, a time, like a dream a rule of subconscious in the most remote thickly populated region on earth. Nevermore. For me this means the citizens look me directly in the eye rather than from a haze of unconsciousness and fear of the persistent Pela Cara, or face peeler. Every child for a century used to be told that one night a gringo called a Pela Cara was going to snatch him from a river bank and peel the skin off his face and body, squeeze out the oil, and… then this variation of the legend… send it back to the USA to be used as missile fuel for rockets with nuclear bombs. Many adults also feared the Pela Cara. Once I was introduced to a group of mechanics as a visiting Pela Cara who instantly vacated the shop. A few years ago a father-in-law of an expat was sent to prison for two years for aiding a gringo who was doing this to an aunt.
It is believable that computers may alter individual and world consciousness from a stronghold of centuries, but for it to happen in one place in three short years is incredible.
9. Cold Freight
Mountains loom to the icy left, snowy foothills to the right, and dead ahead an appointment with cold doom. If the conductor doesn´t let me board the caboose this may be my ´last southbound´.
´It ain't the cushions!´ he shouts thrusting a fist off the caboose back porch that instantly covers with snowflakes. ´Ye should have thought twice before boarding.´ He shakes it, yanks a timepiece from his heart watch fob, and adds more kindly, ´Get back on your car or you´ll miss the train.´
I did think three times back in Denver before boarding, you fool. My sleeping bag was stolen from under a pile of ties. I scavenged a black garbage bag, hunkered under a RR bridge, and looked two directions. The downtown lights beckoned, while the rails sliding out and up the Rockies forbade. When the first snow flies each year I inch south with the other hobo snowbirds, but unless the first storm hits Colorado tonight it should be safe enough to catch to Pueblo, warm in the morning sunshine, closer mile by mile to the sun, and pull a chair up in Dallas to Thanksgiving supper with my folks.
Yonder comes a freight, pausing in mid-train at my feet for a switchman to throw a switch frog, and I’m stuck on the spot to make a decision. "Frisking a drag", or choosing a car by walking through the train before it pulls away has a pitch of excitement as it may jump at any moment. This one does. I pat the garbage bag lovingly in my Pendleton pocket and grab iron. Three locomotives huff and the rung jerks one speculating hobo sixty cars back clinging the ladder and then ducking under the belly of a semi-van on a flatcar to the rubber tires for a wind shield.
Denver´s a memory, and an airstream whistles around the fat tires per Bernoulli´s principal. It´s a fast freeze in a 40mph rail gale on the Beaufort scale that strikes the nervous system with shivering and fuzzy thoughts. I was born in Buffalo, grew up in Idaho and northern Michigan, and know the cold. The firm upper lip icicles will melt if I exercise. So I stoop walk under the four-foot belly of the piggyback van to the rear and slap jumping jacks and run in place until the marrows warm, and then sit and lean against the tires unbuttoning the Pendleton pocket. Slit arm and neck holes in the garbage bag make a poor man´s windbreaker, but it is weather weakened, rips into tatters and blows overboard.
If the first snowstorm of the season hits the mountains tonight, I´ll deal with it. Called to bluff, the air thickens with cold and in two hours the initial big flakes float in and swirl around the tires. Small patches of snow begin to quilt the right-of-way and a blizzard engulfs the mechanical snake winding through Colorado.
I grow drowsy but to sleep is to die. The train stops perhaps to turn on the locomotive sanders to add friction to the track. I think of the caboose, rise stiffly, work down the ladder with popsicle fingers, and stagger the line of cars back to the caboose for a devil of a conversation, am refused entry, and lurch back to the flatcar just before the train pulls away.
In an indeterminate time the freight goes ´in the hole´ siding for an Amtrak of passengers with pleasantly warm brains whooshing by and rocking the stationary flatcar. I elbow crawl to the lip of the flatcar as the Amtrak clears and with nonworking hands and legs roll and drop five feet onto the ballast like a sack of potatoes. The freight jerks forward with three-foot steel wheels rolling inches from my neck, the lighted square of the conductor´s window, and the red taillight wobbles and becomes a pinpoint in the night. ´You devil! ´ I whisper into a mouthful of cinders, and the trundle reflects about the valley for five minutes.
Now there is total silence. I look up and about at a pastoral scene like the glass snow spheres shaken upside down and turned upright. A six-inch white carpet undulates along the ground onto pine boughs and up mountainsides to the stars. I kick the rail, feel nothing, and scrape with forearms along the cinders for ten yards, pause, another twenty yards, rest, and fifty more until blood surges the frozen limbs. Then a hands and knees crawl for ten minutes to bring circulation to the fingers, toes and nose. I snort fresh air, use a RR switch to stand upright, and teeter from the right-of-way toward a mountain pass.
Hours later a white manger of hay crystallizes on a snowy meadow. I´m a little surprised to awaken the next morning with straw in the mouth and sunshine on my face, and walk out the Rockies laughing at the conductor.
11. Hand from a Boxcar
Labored puffing outside the boxcar’s open door, the rasp of long, rapid footsteps on ballast. A hobo hangs from the door’s latch and can’t pull himself in, can’t let loose or will be minced by the rolling wheels. I reach down my hand and he grasps it firmly.
Washington is apple country and in season a northbound hobo is likely an apple knocker- picker. I'm on a southbound boxcar and there's a crunch, crunch, outside the moving door. It doesn't make sense and maybe I've gone soft in the head. I just chased and hopped aboard two minutes ago. Listen. A bo sleeps with his boots on and his ear near the track, can roll his bed in a minute, trot alongside his ride, toss in the roll and then raise himself. My rule of thumb after having tripped and fallen dangerously close to 3-foot cookie cutter wheels is to catch a freight on the fly only if I can run as fast as it.
Crunch!!…crunch…crunch!! The steps are further spaced as the train accelerates. A burlap sack sails through the door and bangs the far wall. Suddenly there is a scrape on the wooden floor next to me and a foot disappears out the door. Again a shoed foot enters the door, scuffs the deck and exits. A hobo is trying to catch at 20 mph.
I peek out the door and there hangs a bo on the latch. He's graying, strong and in tattered clothes, no doubt an apple knocker in trouble. The metal latch of a boxcar hangs like a 2-foot stem and bo's in days of old would grab it on steam trains and swing aboard. It required sharp timing and I've never seen the technique utilized on modern faster moving diesels freights.
A pace is reached at which it becomes perilous to let go the latch and face the ballast, and that's the fate of my peer. His strides are fifty feet long, his lungs heaving and his foot thrusts into the door shortening. In seconds he could grease the rail. He doesn't realize my presence and to pop my mug out the door might frighten him, so I make a decision.
From his perspective, a hand descends from the sky. The skin is tanned, fingers willowy and it beckons. I feel a meaty grasp as his takes mine in a death-lock. The train picks up speed.
I've traveled most the gridiron west of the Mississippi, camped the jungles. Been around the world in a boxcar, I tell folks, since that's the estimated rail mileage in some 300 rides. Though I'm just a boxcar tourist out for summer scenery and adventure, it's ironed the body.
Now a man is dangling like a scarecrow from the side of a fast freight, attached only by my hand. He's my size and I pull hard, but it's a tug-of-war as the rail joints click by. Seated, I skid along the floor toward the edge and waiting space. Then my trouser seat meets an oil spot and suddenly I slide at once.
BAM. My foot hits the door frame and braces for the final pull. Tenaciously I lift. He has blue eyes, like mine. With a heave he's in the boxcar and safe.
There are a number of unwritten rules of the steel road. First, don't steal anyone's boots. Second, look after yourself first. Third, if you're okay then give a hand to peers. Fourth, no need to speak of the obvious. Fifth, partings come easily.
The fellow crawls panting to a far corner, dragging the burlap, then sits on it in silence. We jiggle along for miles without a word. The sun sinks and still nothing, as the train passes from Washington to Oregon. Somewhere in California the freight stops and he slides out the door, shaking my hand.
I've never picked an apple, but I've picked a hobo.
12. Out of the Blue
At high noon on a clear summer day a mile above the Arizona desert a single engine Cesena drones, suddenly stalls and goes into a nose dive.
To my left my racquetball partner pilot operates the pedals and levers like a mad drummer as the G-force turns his face into a squirrel. The destination is the gamblers capital Las Vegas for a professional stop but in my heart I don’t think we´ll make the service line.
For the first time in my colorblind life I see external red, a splotch on the white desert floor. Engine out in silence except the rustle of wind over wings, and we plummet. Racquetballs, paper cups, pencils and papers fly in our faces and I am so trained that by sheer force of will the balls could fly into the cups and the pens write our fate.
My buddy´s hands and feet shake on the controls and in the flash of a tremendous exertion the flesh and steel bodies act as one. The plane flips on its back and free falls upside down toward the earth. Now the debris rains from the floor as I duck in the seatbelt to keep from hitting my head on the ceiling.
I recheck the pilot, a dentist, physician and anesthesiologist who appears unconsciousness with eyes popping out the sockets like goggles from the same G´s that pop mine. The plane free falls for twenty seconds, and then suddenly the cough of the engine, it catches, and the controls shift and the plane turns right-side up.
We fly directly forward as if nothing happened except at 1000´ lower.
The pilot glances over at me and utters, ´Everyone should face his death before it happens.´
A few years after the won tournament, the pilot in the same Cesena crashes head first at terminal velocity with propeller churning into the San Francisco bay and the cause remains a mystery to this day.
13. Bone Dry
Given last year´s last record summer daily highs of 120F or greater in the shade that dropped chickens, dogs, the great-great blind grandson of Secretariat, and killed 20% of the humans in Sand Valley, Ca., I made two little moves. Neighbor Fred had fallen out of bed with heatstroke and died of a heart attack in what California paramedics call a ´trailer wedge´ between the bed and close wall, Big Jon evaporated one day into the desert and is rumored to have buried his head unsuccessfully in the sand, and the good Reverend two months after passing to his hereafter frankly drew our noses at four miles distant. So first, I dug a cool ten-foot burrow lined with blankets and a solar panel atop to communicate with the outside world. And second, the following hot August since experiments must be conducted under the most realistic conditions I explore a pedestrian route out of Sand Valley to the nearest whistle stop Palo Verde.
I take off in reverse from Palo Verde one bright morn at 80F with a gallon jug of water in each hand, loaf of raisin bread, compass and penlight. The 30 miles overland route as the vulture flies covers animal trails, sand tracks, arroyos, and bushwhacking the Sonora. A bird mile is 1.5 walking miles in the desert. The water is rationed to the last drop on the ring of hills beneath a pink sunset where I cannot spot the trailer. I take an educated bearing toward the ring center and start downhill. Stars twinkle one-by-one into being and creatures emerge from hole homes to scamper the boulevard arroyos. My rule is that under a full moon you may see western diamondbacks and sidewinders, under a half-moon you miss the sidewinders, and under tonight´s new moon they see you first.
The night grows fascinating. A sidewinder rattles ´Hello´ on raised ‘black pavement’ above the washes where I shine the penlight only. Up and down the washes I climb for hours wishing to urinate to wet a dry tongue that threatens to clog my airway and suffocate. A stone sucked for an hour depletes the last saliva and the mouth dries like a mouse curled up and died. I collapse in oxygen debt with a wrist pulse race to 100 and little twitches take the limbs, before it occurs to me to distill water in the mouth from the air. The ambient air of about 110F is higher with more moisture than the oral cavity at 98.6F, so via a temperature gradient of fitted breathing, every fifteen minutes or so a dollop of thick saliva grows to swallow once, get up and walk for fifteen minutes, and repeat the routine. I don’t want to sleep for fear of a desert crib death.
The moon arcs and drops below the horizon, and it´s starlight reckoning until the North Star falls behind a mountain, and then the penlight batteries fail. The fear of rattlesnakes overcomes a death sleep, so I recline in a wash under an Ironwood and after distilling a swallow of saliva let myself doze. A kit fox sniffs my boot and alerts me, won´t leave for five minutes. Later a four-point buck snorts and stares down into my surprised eyes, pawing the sand. Inspired, I rise on hind legs and wander the dark in a cramped, heated shuffle for water before sunrise or I may die.
One hope centers in a rock cistern of a Louis L´Amour short story ´The Strong Shall Live´. Following an hour march up a rocky slope kit fox, deer, coyote and bird tracks circle a pothole of water from last week´s storm. I slurp a pint on all fours, pollywogs and all, and in thirty minutes feel stronger. I fill a gallon jug and descend drinking a pint every fifteen minutes until the jug empties at sunrise that reveals a familiar outcrop to point the way home. The best adventures often come from bad decisions, and the quicker we can laugh off our own folly the better we will be to face the next.
One early March I set the left boot on the Pacific Crest Trail at the Mexican border. This path runs the Sierra Nevadas for 2600 miles through California, Oregon and Washington to touch the Canadian border. The aim to hike border-to-border in one season requires starting in spring and risking snow in the Sierras. Mountain trail miles translate to bird miles at a 6:1 ratio and mid-June finds me tramping the first snowflakes outside Tahoe.
The trail has been fantastic for three months. There was a western diamondback the size of a Louisville Slugger every other day, lightning storm on a peak with a pot for a pillow, lost cowboy aboard a snow mired horse to dig out, many waterless and foodless days, and run-in with a green sheriff with an itchy trigger finger in a crossroad town who was called by a TV citizen who identified me from America´s Most Wanted as a serial killer. He saw me buy and eat Puss ´N Boots Liver and Chicken because I needed a stake, and the Sheriff ran me off with a tip to watch out for big cats, although there were only bears on trail.
I meet one hiker every other day on the PCT staggering under towering backpacks who refuse to believe I´m a through hiker lightly carrying a fanny pack. The custom waist pack is wreathed by four one-quart water bottles with a down sleeping bag slung beneath, tube tent, maps torn from an early guidebook and can opener. The gross weight sans supplies of eight pounds enables me to outdistance the classic mountain strategy of toting a 50lb pack eight mountain miles a day instead of my flying along the trail at 30 miles a day to connect extended supply and water points. My gear and the weather hold out until a June climb up Tahoe into a freak snowstorm blocks the sunset. A pine at ten paces disappears and the trail vanishes under a snow carpet. The horizon dissolves and without reference points for the compass and I am lost.
I know how To Build a Fire from Jack London´s short story, and the lost cowboy advised me of a snowstorm where he curled up like a C note with a hot cup of coffee in a blanket and waited it out. So on stumbling over a fallen tree I roll with it and make a pine bough bed and overhang. However, popsicle fingers fumble matches into the wet kindling, and as the blizzards rages the weight of snow collapses the boughs and awakens me sputtering white. The sole recourse is a prayer position in the snowstorm with sleet melting off the body and freezes into an exclamation point.
At first light I unfold into a world of white and drape the ice crisped sleeping bag over a shoulder, and aim along an easterly flank to face the sun and thread the mountains. For hours no signs protrude the fresh foot of snow, but in late afternoon a distant hum of cars draws me to a road where I hitchhike out to that hot cup of coffee.
A decade later I return to Tahoe to continue the Pacific Crest Trail and now ultra-light packing that I independently invented is the rage with trailside lodge caretakers shunning me as a weekend warrior under a 20lb knapsack, until I tell them through a crooked grin of the whiteout.
15. Mexico Scrap
A lifelong passion for hard times and scrap led me to a sunrise hunt in San Felipe Baja. A Mexican partner and I slalom a banged-up pickup past a hundred scrappers puffing behind wheelbarrows and shopping carts half-empty with knickknacks. A three-mile thick dump ring around San Felipe is picked clean by the penniless men and women except for sifted nails and bolts n fire cinders dug out on warm knees. They look up with ashen faces and would injure or steal to get what we will find.
The jalopy brims with a sunset load of two refrigerators, stove, washer, two auto gas tanks, brass fixtures, lawn chair frames, four 12v batteries, engine parts, nuts, nails and bolts, and a pail of copper wire. It waddles low on the springs through the night sifters fallen on hard times in the big dump ring, and back into town to my partner´s house. He advises me to defend the booty against thieves, waves goodnight, and goes drinking.
The spare trailer sits on an arroyo near the old cemetery where a 1972 cloudburst filled this very arroyo and floated several corpses down Main Street past the window into the ocean. I tumble into an exhausted sleep from the day´s work until… In the window, nose pressed flat, eyes ranging over my modest pad, a black face opens and shuts its mouth. I spring from bed to window, bang the glass and shout, ´Get out of here!´ The lockless trailer door creaks opens and the intruder, showing teeth, barges in rasping ´Hsst!´
I shoulder him, at once wondering at a boldness that would permit a Mexican into an alien American trailer. He either has a knife, or a cohort waiting outside. I grab his wrists to prevent reaching for the pocket, and slam him against a 2×3-foot mirror that swings open on hinges projecting dingy streetlight on his eye-popped face. He looks 25, 5'8", crew cut with black moustache, and muscled.
We struggle until he glances down at my nude body, and smiles at my lack of … shoes! I shove him out the door, and jump into Bermuda shorts. After one shoe, a thump outside and I know he is nabbing the Mag spare tire. Before the second shoe is on he vanishes into the night.
I trail the deep footsteps by penlight along the arroyo road until miraculously a police car pulls aside. ´Americano,´ I yell, ´And a moment ago a thief battled me and stole a wheel.´ ´Where is?´ asks the officer, and I point along the footprints. ´Too dark,´ asserts the officer, and leaves me to sit all night on guard the truckload with a scavenged pitchfork.
The next morning the 1200lb scrap brings a whopping $160, and my little one a few bruises.
16. King Cobra
On a deserted Sira Lanka beach a flute charmer slowly plays his 12´black king cobra out a wicker basket, its tongue flicking until it reaches my sternum. I am fatigued from the long walk in soft sand, and stroke its brow to which it nudges me affectionately like a puppy that I pet repeatedly. So, I was the first to strike and lived to walk the day.
17. Deadly Mickey
There isn´t much to this story, actually. I am slipped a Mickey or food laced with poison in a skid row room at the Los Angeles Rainbow Hotel and minutes after the person leaves descend into an abyss. It proves nothing to detail the pain and awareness. However, I am found by a housekeeper and rushed to an emergency room where a persistent fibrillator jump starts my heart 42 times before it catches and beats on its own. The doctor claims I have been brain dead for four minutes. The recovery alone makes the story warming to bystanders. There is absolute amnesia for one day, unable to remember my parents´ last name. On day two I walk into a room and cannot remember where the door is. For one month I can remember one read sentence only and gaze longingly at a book shelf. I am physically capable, and walk miles daily for three months until adding columns of numbers comes naturally. One year after the Mickey over a self-prescribed course of exercise, healthy food and good water, the recovery is complete and I adventure out again and again.
18. Six Miles of Smoke
´Railroad bulls drag hobos like you out long past lookin´ blue!’ a Grand Junction, Co. brakeman cautions gesturing grandly along the transcontinental rail toward the 6.2 mile Moffat tunnel that pierces the west flank of the Rockies. But I´m green and eager to chew up and spit out challenges, if need be, and climb aboard the only available flatcar ten stock behind six locomotives that rumble like beasts at the bit of a mile long freight.
The jiggling platform I hold down is a piggyback van mounted on a flatcar, leaning against the fat wheel, 330-degree view of life, sunshine smack in the face, thinkin´ how far, how long, and the number of ways to skin a road cat. Suddenly a mountain opens a dark mouth and swallows the piggyback at 25mph. The bore engulfs the tail of a smoke whip and reflects sparks everywhere. I yank a bandana to mask the face, choking.
Mile one into the tunnel: Smoke and noise ricochet along the shaft. Air burns. Dizzy. Mile
two: Flashbacks!- A road partner Iron Horse and I ride a boxcar into St. Louis as a white Bronco with a CB antenna keeps pace with a pistol pointing at my heart and a bull behind it yelling, ´If you have a weapon I will shoot you!´ Mile two: I slip to the rolling platform for cooler breaths but inhale only rank gas, and another memory takes hold- On a Christmas Southern Pacific from California to Texas I reach to catch a moving ladder in a rainstorm outside Yuma. The rung slips and I crash against the grain car, ricochet to the cinders and watch the cookie cutter wheels roll by my nose. Mile four: Beside myself with suffocation, I must remember or pass out. A bull tangle leads to a court date in Salt Lake City. Gizmo Kid, the founder of Linux-Care, and Colorado Casey, a gold speculator, face time in the cross-bar hotel for breaking into an automobile carrier that we didn’t enter. Gizmo, having once caught the Encyclopedia Britannica in his head, eyes the judge with his gray pate, leftover smile and a Freemason ring with a raised gavel. He flashes his honor the secret fraternal sign, and the judge pounds the gavel, ´Dismissed with Prejudice!´. Five miles: I'm a poisoned bug on a mechanical worm. Smoke balls the stomach and limbs twitch until, with the Sixth mile to go, I pass out.
The light at the end of the tunnel hold´s a sharp blast of sweet air in sunlight. I made it!
19. Lions in Camp
The Kenya Serengeti hosts the largest terrestrial mammal migration in the world that is a smorgasbord for the king of beasts. Tonight I am on the menu. The high diversity of animals relates to the diverse habitats that our 8-person safari truck has bumped about for a week ranging from grassy plains where we see hundreds of migrating zebras, thousands of antelope and tens of thousands wildebeests. Dozens of 12´ crocodiles and hulking Cape buffalo battle in shrinking puddles until the last drops. An aardvark parades as big as a Volkswagen and elephant tusks jut two-stories over the truck. Herds of wide-eyed ostriches bob heads as the English ladies break upper brows to the crush and scream of ´I got you bast…!´ in opening the meat cleaver wings of Tsetse flies on their fair skins before the clouds put them to sleep. We run into a crash of four rhinoceros who are as blind as Magoos but with strong noses for French perfume chase the girls and me to musical trees where I gallantly am the last one pushing them up on the hinnies to the lowest limb to hang like fruit. One midnight the Dutch lasses shriek ´Bo!´ on hearing Chomp at the foot of their tent, and I fling open my door to the 5´ wide smile of a grazing hippopotamus. We follow a pride of lions taking down wildebeest in a bloody lunch, and none of the others have the intellect and curiosity of the king of beasts to study our truck windows trying to figure out how to get in. This evening the unfed lions tail the fat tired, high sprung Mercedes Fire truck converted to safari vehicle up a stony hill to an open camp above the Serengeti.
It seems crazy to camp in Wild Kingdom without a shotgun, and yet we clients dutifully set the little pup tents in a neat row, mine a single as the only male. Baboons strut about as if owning the place and I open the outhouse in a malaria fit to vomit and bats flit out as a 160lb spotted Hyena laughs, ´Excuse me!´ before stepping out.
The night creatures are a worry and the malaria more so as I stagger to the tent, half zip the door and fall recumbent on the blanket. Catalepsy sets in with a muscular rigidity, fixity of posture and paralysis while remaining alert. In vet school a pharmacology instructor gave a mouse a cataleptic drug, stood him on hind legs, stuck a cigarette in his mouth and it smoked without moving as I cried.
I hear them padding and sniffing at the tent flat. Lions in Camp! A male likely longer than the 7´ pup tent rubs the canvas and roars like a freight train. Paralyzed, it is the first time in my life to faint.
If parallel universes exist, I fall into one and awaken the next morning when the guide tugs my toe and yells to rise and shine or miss the truck. Then he eyes the waxen hands, feels the fevered brow and shouts, ´Malaria!´ ordering the gaggle to dismantle the tent and heap me on the safari truck floor. It rocks a half-day to a Red Cross on a white house on a green riverbank and the women deposit me in the sole hospital bed before leaving down the track.
The graying nurse declares cerebral malaria, and adds that though out of quinine tomorrow a boat connects to a road with Nairobi bound vehicles. Overnight a leaden headache and dry heaves break blood vessels in my eyes until the following midday I squint into the sun and am piled on the boat deck. A few hours later on docking the near corpse in my clothes is loaded onto the floor of a taxi and rushed to the Nairobi General Hospital where I vaguely recall a Caucasian tropical medicine specialist diagnoses cerebral malaria and holds out a tiny white tablet saying, ´You may take this and probably live, or not and surely die.´ I nod, and after several attempts a nurse forces the pill past vomit and rubs it down my throat.
One of the greatest instant reliefs in medicine is quinine, so the next morning I feel stable, swallow another pill, and in the afternoon feel good, and by evening just want to flee the attendants´ hourly pulse probes, blood pressure cuffs, and pricks in my veins. The nurses and assistants think this is necessary for recovery but the doctors and administration know it is to cover the hospital liabilities.
In the wee hours, unable to rest, I rise and tiptoe past the other patients to the clothes chest, dress, out the room and slither a darkened hall to the cashier at the front door. I don a bright face, introduce myself as a visiting medical philanthropist and hand the sleepy clerk a $100 bill. Turning on a question mark, I escape into a quiet street to a hostel to self-treat with quinine, and after the eight count get up for the next round.
20. Hit and Run
The motorcycle is scarcely warm between my legs approaching the signal, rolls through green, into the intersection and out of the San Diego night an old Caddy accelerates along University Drive trying to make the light. It broadsides the sidecar hack and the attached Honda 450 tumbles over twice while I hover above it having jumped on the toe pegs to avoid the brunt of the 30mph blow. I bounce once on the street in the middle of circulation, see oncoming lights and leap just in time to take a glancing blow from another car that doesn´t stop either.
In a two second window I am the victim of two hit and runs!!
Minutes early I had downed a hot chocolate at 7-11 to brace for the cold night, nodded to two policemen on the way out, heard a dog bark, hopped on the bike and pulled into the intersection.
On hearing brakes squeal the cops rush out and one helps me to my elbows while the other sprints for the patrol car. ´I´m fine,´ I assure him, though I´m not but don’t want the trauma and bill of the Paramedics. He jumps in the police car that lays a patch. ´Justice will be done.´ quips a bearded homeless man and trundles a shopping cart by watching the high speed chase.
Unable to get to my feet on the road shoulder, I roll to a speed limit sign and scratch up the post to stand and think through a daze. The dispatcher has been radioed for about a five minutes response to leave the premise or face a third assault by big hearted bureaucrats. Unable to walk ahead because of the crush of the left leg between cycle and hack, I begin a backward shuffle for one minute to flush the adrenalin along the system, and to appraise myself medically. Possible internal abdominal injury, lungs okay, mild shock with a shallow rapid pulse, and a few abrasions. Now I can walk forward with a gimp and respiratory pain against the right ribs from the glancing blow.
The bike and sidecar have miraculously somersaulted upright, and except for broken windshields, a bent fork and flooded engine that won´t turn over, I can push it. Shaking in pain, I shove the crippled bike to my Hillcrest basement home and feel the better for having walked off murderous cramps. Doubtless the Paramedics and sheriff are surveying the broken glass and blood wondering what became of the ghost biker.
I shudder into unconsciousness on the cellar bed, and unable to get up on the second day the upstairs tenant comes knocking with food. On the third day I walk with the help of a 2×4 crutch to a corner payphone, and skid through an insurance claim despite California no-fault if I obtain a police report. I hang up, dial, and the SDPD voice on the other end intones there is no police report which makes sense because the victim escaped after the drivers. Recalling the helpful policeman’s chest nametag ended in ´…ski´, the voice replies, ´That could be any number of our officers.´ I describe him to no avail, and since there is no record of anything the sympathetic Sergeant loses patience and mumbles hoax warning of a trace on the line. Then I recall a peculiar muffled dog bark and guess it might be a Canine Unit. ´Bingo!´ the detective shouts. ´That´s officer ´Z…ski´ and hold on… he just verified and is writing a tardy police report, and despite not being to apprehend the two hit and runners, Officer Z wishes you well.´ An hour later I pick up the report, receive an insurance check, and no I didn’t get post-traumatic stress on this or any of the other survivals.
I refuse to capitalize it. It is an empty coin by psychologists to keep themselves in work. You walk in the path of death daily, doesn’t matter if you´re a jet pilot or an Avon lady, and if you crash, miscarriage, get robbed, chased by a bull, or hit by a car a couple times, just deal with it and get back on your feet, shake hands and come out fighting.
Flames lick the window of a skid road room in San Francisco as I try to save the date in a bucket brigade from the shower and relate as rapidly as the hands fly how the curtain rose over my sex life in veterinary school so long ago, chasing a female intern to and from the anatomy lab with a dog´s penis. She is impressed enough to ask me to the Michigan State cow barn having a newsworthy cow with a glass side, for a roll in the hay. I spoon out the plastic sleeves in anticipation of cold feet only to palpate the cow to gauge her estrus and then watch the fodder roll around through the glass. She leaves me in the barn but there are two girls left in the 50-man vet class.
Thinking rapport is the key to romance. I memorize the days of every date in the upcoming decade with a simple mnemonic, and prove it to the woman throwing water on the wall that on a Friday thirty years ago I spewed logic riddles to entice the next-to-last girl in vet school, spending a small sum on a watch that reflects on her forehead each hour, ´Time to Copulate´ so I´d know when to stop the jokes. She flees to an equine pathology text. I take the last girl in class to the Tin Lizzy bar in Lansing, Michigan with a little magic up my sleeve and as the band cranks Inagadadavida, I pull fire out of my fist that backfires up into the lovely face of the second smartest girl I've ever known and burns off her eyebrows and lashes. She screams past the bouncer, I beg the date in the burning room, at once realizing in the smoke of my past romances that they must escalate into a burning ring of fire.
I travel for two years on hard times with a small flask with a tapered neck that functions as a Genie´s lamp with a recipe of 1:4 alcohol to water that covers the bottom two-inches. On sloshing three times the surface emits a vapor that can throw a lighted match into a mini Northern Lights as the ignited vapor burns and evaporates at an equal rate rising and falling in a 3¨ thick ring up and down the inside of the flask. If the pre-shake is less than three not enough vapor generates for a show, and if too many times…
I don´t dare until I finally find the girl of my dreams and math major in her nail-biting final exams at San Francisco College and take her out for a couple extra shakes. On throwing in a match, the fire ring magically rises up and down much thicker and more rapidly than normal, until it begins thumping and jumping out the neck and above the flask. The glass bowl shatters and a ring of fire leaps out and crawls up a curtain setting it in bright flames. The old walls are flame retardant and only blacken to stop the romance as we hurry the bucket brigade of trash baskets from the shower, telling her, ´The lesson is in the heat of the moment is don´t lose your head to dangerous romance´, and after the fire´s out she loves me for it.
The Sapo green tree frog offers predator snakes, crocs and birds the most poisonous secretion in the world used by the Matses to poison darts, US special forces in Peru to enhance bullet tips, and burned into the biceps of Iquitos tourists as a death rehearsal. However tonight´s batch goes to scientists worldwide to analyze the ingredients of the most biochemically active substance known to man whose medical benefits are hardly imaginable. Last night I helped hunt and tend the 'waiting room' of thirteen Sapo frogs in a jungle operation in the Loreto state of Peruvian.
Picture captions tell the story of the Frog Hunt.
1. The Sapo Frog is plucked like green fruit from trees at night. (pic1 )
2. The frog is splayed between four sticks. (pic2 )
3. Toes are pinched all around to aggravate a flow of mucus secretion. (pic3 )
4. Venom is scraped off the back and legs. (pic4 )
5. And transferred to a stick where it crystallizes overnight. (pic5 )
6. The frog is released back into the trees. (pic6 )
Full story of the Frog Hunt is coming.
August 7, 2012 | 9 Comments
My earliest fond memory of being trapped in our Idaho basement and constructing a ladder of chairs to escape through the clothes hamper was a rebirth to adventure. I read Bomba the Jungle Boy, Tarzan and graduated to the non-fiction Kon-Tiki and Endurance before taking a Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine. This education of an adventurer and self-treatment for wounds in the jungles, mountains, deserts, skid roads and oceans of 100+ countries beneath a backpack full of dreams with a few nightmares led to multiple survivals.
The nearer to death is not always the better story, yet the survival techniques offer broadening principles for everyday life. Here are my Top 10 adventures with a death element and how I lived to tell them.
1. Lost in the Amazon
The jungle is the most inhospitable region on earth with the Amazon rainforest the largest and most remote. I had thought to make the jungle my friend by first interviewing at Aires Burger in Iquitos, Peru veteran guide Juan Maldenado who instructed not to eat before a rainstorm or you´ll get hypothermia, and if lost to follow the small tributaries to larger rivers that will flow to civilization. Then I hired Carlos Grande, a pot-bellied guide who on the eleventh day of a 21-day expedition from the headwaters of the Amazon abandoned me in the chlorophyll.
Everything is green when you´re lost in the Amazon. Carlos Grande left me in a Mayoruna Indian hut on stilts over the Rio Javari because of rumored cocaine narcoterrorist flanks on our overland trek. The Mayoruna, called Cat People for whisker tattoos sprouting from beneath the noses to ears, are a scattered population of about 2000 in the most inaccessible areas. The farther from civilization the quicker the tribesmen appear to drink blood, the naked children touch never having seen white skin, bare breasted women grin shyly, and pink dolphins with reputed ESP jump in the rivers.
As if in silent alarm the village suddenly empties to the river bank, and a fierce faced chief thrusts a paddle out one hand, an outstretched palm the other, and because of a dialect barrier nods at a 6´ child´s canoe down the muddy shore. The rest of the thirty adult villagers bob up and down behind him holding machetes overhead. Thrown into confusion I try the magic of biting off my thumb and swallowing it that draws giggles from children but the chief wiggles his whiskers shaking the oar in my face. So, I dance a jig in a circle like Richard Chamberlain in Shogan to convince him I am too silly to cast off, but he looks sternly past my ears.
Not crazy, I dig in a pocket and hand over the equivalent of $6 for the broken oar and canoe, step in and shove off… in a child´s canoe on an unknown river with no destination other than the courage of early explorer Percy Fawcett and Maldenado´s advice to follow the small rivers to larger ones to civilization.
Day one: No food, sunburnt, plate sized colorful butterflies, water sipped from the river induces fever, a green snake off the bow, more pink dolphins, mosquitoes at dusk, howler monkeys in the trees, and drifting under starlight. Day two: The canoe centerline is one foot and with the least teeter water pours over the lip. I must urinate where I sit, but defecation is out of the question from an empty bowel. Day three: Lost on an oxbow, I rudder into a stick dock and fall overboard into the helping arms of an old gent with fading tattoo whiskers who shares his yucca. Day four: A motorized pecapeca canoe sides mine and takes the child´s in trade for a half-day´s passage to the Brazil border. At the border two barefoot teen soldiers in tattered fatigues wade out bearing down with AK-47s and raised sights on my three-week beard, ripped clothes, sunburned skin hanging with leeches, and enormously swollen feet.
I don´t have the Spanish to tell them, ´My philosophy is when you think things can't get any worse, it will, so stop griping and deal with it.´ ´Venga!´ they order, ushering me up the bank to the commandant saying that only narcoterrorists look like Indiana Jones on a bad day.
´Welcome to Colonia Angamos on the Yavari River,´ greets the Colonel pumping my raw paddle palm. We hunker on wood crates in his thatch roof, dirt floor office and are joined by the non-military town chief. They politely ask me to prove that I am not hustling cocaine from Peru to Brazil, and satisfied after a ten minute explanation of the abandonment order me carted on the two barefoot soldier´s shoulders to the town hospital where a nurse injects tetracycline and morphine. I fall onto a clean sheet in a provided bed of a thatched hut with chickens and hogs rooting beneath, rats skittering the walls, cats on deck, and parrots flitting in the air. For two, three, I don't remember how many days I drift in and out this surrealism until jolted upright by a powerful thwak-thwak over the roof. A youth helps me stagger across a swinging bridge onto a grassy military airfield where a General is stepping out a chopper.
´Sir, I address him in Spanish. Do you speak English?.´
The kindly man who looks like Walter Cronkite replies, ´Yes, but Spanish is better.´
´I am sick.´
´I can see that.´
´Can you medevac me to Iquitos?´
´We shall see,´
In three hours after meetings with the commandant and officers, the General returns and helps me by the elbow into the copter. It rises into a checkerboard of sunshine and clouds and two hours later drops me at the Iquitos military airport.
´What do I owe, General?´ I ask hopping out and feeling better.
´Your good health!´ he laughs, and the chopper takes off into the sun.
2. Bear Attack!
My little encounter occurs five years ago at a New Mexico mountain streamside. Hiking along the river, suddenly a black blur bursts out the bushes and I know in an instant it can make two moves for every one of mine, that one throws everything out he has read unless he has mentally or physically rehearsed it, and that I had better hurry up and react. The 350lb black bear looks up at me as it has been tracking, sands on it hind legs eight feet away and peers into my eyes. The afternoon sun glistens beautifully on its fur like a lover. She is a foot shorter than me, so I raise my hands to the height of my earlobes. The bear raises its paws to the same. Then I raise my hands six inches higher with the elbows crooked, and the bear stretches its paws overhead as high as it can to equal mine. I shoot my hands straight up in the air to make myself appear taller or in surrender- let her decide- and the bear drops to the ground, dashes to a nearby pine, and leaps up scratching marks in the bark that I would have to stand on tiptoes to reach. Then she drops, gives me a bear grin, and scampers into the bush. A peak experience at 3500´.
The first freight I caught was in a VW van on the cowcatcher of a 25mph locomotive that scooped and carried me 300 yards down the track on the cowcatcher. The brakes scream and my life including these survivals passes before my eyes glued out the tilted window at the advancing rail. My hands grasp the bent steering wheel as the VW crushed in a V slides slowly down the catcher toward the sparking wheels as the locomotive decelerates to a stop. I escape out the window with sprained thumbs, and the vow to live life full tilt.
4. Tin Leg
I gaze down the long barrel of a .45 leveled at my chest.´You have the wrong man.´
´You may not be the guy I'm lookin' for, but you're close enough.´
The old codger on the Los Angeles sidewalk takes a step up and spews cheap wine breath, ´I was a bank robber. Red and me was the best east of the Mississippi.´.
The pistol sight hangs a yard from my heart, just out of reach. I follow it to the hand, and into the deep sorrowful eyes of the beholder. ´Did I tell you I was a bank robber? Me and red was the best west of the Mississippi.´
Passersby weave about like current around stumps, and it´s the first time I´ve been the center of attention of bystander apathy.
´Tell me more,´ urging him to get it out.
´Well?´ he demands, expecting an answer.
´I still say you have the wrong man.´
´Son, my gun is still a-pointin' at you.´
My mind races for words. The right ones can save me; the wrong ones end in a puff of smoke.
He doesn't appear drunk. We've never met. This is real. I was just a regular citizen strolling a sidewalk a minute ago. More passersby flow around us. He is too alert to sidestep.
´You handle that gun like you know how to use it, I'll make no bones about it. Nothing to fear from me, Mister. Say where did you get your gun skill? ´
´You're damn right. Where? I was squeezin´ trigger in Shy Town (Chicago) before you were at mamma's nipple. Red and me knocked 'em down from Memphis to San Francisco and a lot of spots between."
´Better believe it, sweet Jesus! It was a fine life until one caper on the getaway I didn't outrun a bullet."
´That's right, son. Slowed me down and put an end to my career. Life ain't been so good since.´
His eyes lower and mine water. Now he drops the end of the pistol, lets it fall to his side and suddenly raps smartly the barrel on his right leg. A metallic THWANG sends the foot traffic in a wide arc. As quickly the big .45 swings up to my breast.
´Tin, young man.´
´Don't doze off on me, fella. You say you ain't the one that shot me and I say you are. Why'd you come back for more?´
´You are a patient man, Mister. Anyone can tell you that. So tell me about the old days when the gun was necessary.´
´I'm ancient but I ain't no fool. Why I oughta …´
A gravel voice booms behind me. I fear to turn that it will be my last because when a man with a tin leg and long barrel orders me stay still, I listen.
´Nick! old friend. The voice roars. Put that pea-shooter away. ´You know how thick the heat is around here. Put the gun in your pocket,´ he commands. Could this be Red? Suddenly there is no chance to find out because I´m shoved between the shoulder blades past the gunman and down the sidewalk.
´Aw, all right, just for you,´ sniffs the old man behind me. ´I'm just old. Did I ever tell you about when Red and me were the best bank robbers between Mexico and Canada?"
´A dozen times if you told me once, but tell me again.´
THWANG I lose the rest of their conversation in a metallic ring that reverberates in my ears to this day.
5. Florida Trail
The Florida Trail stretches 500 miles the length of the state from the Everglades to Georgia border. It begins near Alligator Alley that traverses the everglades east-west where motorists currently pay a $3.00 toll for game wardens to remove or sheriffs to shoot up to 13´ gators from State Road 84. I crawl via a gator path under a tremendous 10´ chain link fence built to contain the reptiles, look up and down the road at a couple five-footers sunning on the asphalt, and climb the fence on the other side.My romance with the Alley began years earlier with the mysterious arrival of a package addressed to Philmore Hare, my 7´stuffed rabbit who rode shotgun next to me in a ´74 Chevy van waving down via an invisible fish line attached to its hand passersby in a search for intellectuality. The return address was Linda Smith in Orlando, and the package opened to a sprig of hand-sewn stuffed carrots and a note, ´I read about your owner in Sports Illustrated ( Nov. 19, 1979), and as the Sea World seal handler would like to train him to bark. If interested, meet me at midnight at mile marker #99 of Alligator Alley on New Year´s eve.´ I met and fell in lust with Linda and then her Everglades, and long after an owl came into her camp I returned to near the marker in a sort of memorial hike to her.
The trail proves more dangerous as the days progress to weeks and then after a month´s march north along an unmarked footpath with a sketchy guidebook on the day before reaching the George line I step into a bog that oozes like dark mashed potatoes with no plate. The conventional method to extract from a soft spot is to fall forward into a crawl and swim out, however my boots are entwined below in vines or roots and the pull of the pack straps prevents it. Next the manuals advise scream ´HEEEELP!´ but I haven´t seen anyone ever on trail, and instead while sinking to my navel scan about and think it queer to be missing the lower body half. The vicissitudes of the past month flash before my tearing eyes…
Sleeping with tarantulas in trees above snapping turtles, stepping over 5´ Cottonmouths, monkeying over log bridges, getting shot at by deer hunters, hiking a 20´ wide two-mile levee of a gauntlet of hundreds of alligators 30´away and up to 13 feet long that can sprint faster than a racehorse, hungry and lost dozens of times, and a water experiment designed after John Muir who fell ill with ´swamp fever´ in Florida on a walk down from Ohio…
Unable to afford a water filter, I tested each source with a series of pint plastic bottles from rivers to saw grass marshes by sipping mouthfuls, rolling each around my tongue, drinking a pint from any savory source, and thirty minutes later taking my body temperature with an oral thermometer and recording them in a Francis Galtonian chart. Normal temp is 98.6F, and over the course of a month the generalities proved that flowing streams and saw grass swamps were clean and without a fever; large lakes brought about a degree increase to 99.5F that I easily continue hiking; stagnant ponds or standing water raised to 101F for which I had to stop to let a gutache or headache pass, and only once at 102F did I pass out for a few hours. Fever isn't a disease but a fighting style, so by the time I sink in the bog on the last day there is probably immunity to everything in it but death.
It is inglorious that after enduring a hundred water tests that I would drown in this bayou. I kick the bottomless mire, give up, shake hands with the phantom of Philmore, sink to the chest, kiss the spirit of Linda goodbye, and open wide for the last gag.
The descent stops, and I look about. Empty water bottles strapped to the outside of the pack are acting as ballast to keep me afloat. With them I´m able to breaststroke to shore and crawl out caked with muck and Spanish moss. A swamp monster appears lost and shambling along a fence line for some hours until the crack of a whip like Rawhide and ´He Haa!´ breaks the air, with the sound of advancing hoof beats. A burly cowboy in a white hat on a black stallion waving a whip above his head gallops along the fence and hard reins the horse that rears pawing the sky like Silver missing my chin by scant inches.
´Mister, I just walked 500 miles and crawled out of a bog or I´d give you a hug.´
´Bud, grouses the cowboy, I smelt you comin´ through the heifers a half-mile back. Follow the horse´s tail to my ranch and we´ll fix you up.´ After a warm meal and bed, the next morning I leave with springs in my feet for the Georgia line thinking anything else will be anticlimactic.
The drone of autos sounds along State Road 301 that parallels Alligator Alley 500 walking miles over my shoulder. A battered Ford sways onto the shoulder and a white gloved thumb jerks me into the back seat, I slam the door, and the driver turns around to show a white beard and red stocking cap. ´Merry Christmas!´ yells the driver swinging the wheeled sleigh onto the road and I Ho Ho Ho into the next county.
6. Dollar an Inch of Skin
I draw an assignment to seed capitalism around the globe. One of the early stops is Caracas, Venezuela where an applecart salesman who is writing an English teaching manual is to be handed $2000. My capitalist benefactor will take a receipt for 15% off the annual gross, and then it´s on to the next stop like the 1950´s TV series ´The Millionaire´ appearing on peoples´ doorsteps in surprise. I pause first in Caracas for a meal."May I change twenty American dollars if I eat?" I ask in Spanish.
The dish steams in my face in three minutes. The café is elongated like a French fry with a dozen tables and a tiny bar; just a place to get a meal before the next stop. There are two occupied tables, a husband-wife pair at dessert and two males drinking tall beers with their meals. I study the drinking men with their backs to me. Clean ebony skin, cropped hair, pressed shirts, and grace in bearing the bottles to their mouth. Inexplicably, one built like a cheetah raises the beer in salute. I nod, and at first bite see his dark face blush. Francis Galton observed in Africa that this betrays shame rather than embarrassment. The waiter clears the table, I order another plate and pay with an American Jackson, and in five minutes she returns with Venezuelan Bolivars change and the piping hot plate. The waitress leaves, the two drinkers exit, the cashier disappears, the cook is unseen, the floor sweep locks herself in the bathroom, and the married couple rises for the door.
The cheetah and his partner brush in past them with raised machetes. The split to stand to either side of the chair, the table's in front, and my back to the wall.
"Tranquillo," orders the cheetah jabbing me in the ribs with the machete point just hard enough to hurt. He holds the knife low and expertly. The blade is fourteen inches long, plus another six in the wood handle. The other knifeman hold his lower and stabs my thigh.
´Su dinero!!´ (Give us your money!)
´I spent it all.´ Everything in Spanish.
Jab. Jab. They double team me with the knives, one below the left floating rib and the other on the right thigh, bruising but not breaking the skin. If I move I´ll impale myself.
I try to stay way ahead of these bad guys. The first step is to secret stashes around the body with the idea of sequentially losing only one or two. The most obvious spot to a thug is a money pouch around the waist or neck, where I now carry a thick wad of small bills to raise the saliva of a hooligan. I struggle to pull my neck pouch but a sharp blow by the knife point in the ribs knocks the wind out of me. There´s another wad in my back pocket, I beg them to let me pull it and throw over their heads to greedily claw the green shower allowing an escape, but a sharp stab below the pocket prevents it. The cheetah slashes the neck pouch, and the other slices the pocket and the monies fall into their hands. Now all that´s left is the big store, the seed capital for all of South America, sewn inside my right pant calf. Inadvertently one of the jabs hits the thick pouch of hundreds. The knife slices out the secret pocket, they take the three purses, and flee.
´Silencio!´ the cheetah barks at the front door, and then they're gone. On cue, the sweep girl emerges from the bathroom and shakes her head sympathetically, the cook starts banging pots, and the waitress asks if I want another dish on the house. I'm cleaned out but alive with a full stomach and this is no place to linger. Today I bucked odds without spilling blood, learned about myself and, at the price of a dollar a square inch of skin, walk out on lighter feet.
7. Silverback Gorilla
The 500-pound mountain Silverback Gorilla stands five paces away drumming his chest. The arms can bench press 1000lb. and bend the 2¨ tempered steel bar. Yet the thin Rwandan guide behind me whispers, ´He will charge only if you are afraid.´
The male at 5´ 11¨ is big for the largest gorillas in the world. A harem of four females half his weight gather leaves behind him for the nest. He gazes at the four European girls behind me, and then locks my eyes. It´s taboo for wild animals to stare down but he must defend his honor. There is no need as I would trade my group for his for the education. You don't have to call them. You don't have to send them flowers…
He displaces, grabbing limbs and breaking them, racing up a 15-meter palm in two seconds and raining coconuts down on everyone, and then returns to the ground and stands chin to chin with me at the same distance.
´Bo, he likes you!' giggles a French girl behind me. The gorilla´s face twists in amusement. His shaggy neck is a stump and erect penis shorter than mine.
He beat his chest, and I open my shirt and do the same lightly. The girls and guide back off in my peripheral vision. It´s a respectful stare down of one man and one beast, and today there is no winner because the gorilla glances away bored.
The brute edges forward; It´s a bluff. He climbs a tree like a ballerina and roosts in a crotch twenty meters high in the last stronghold of the remaining 1800 Silverback gorillas on earth.
8. White Mountain Crash
Clomp, clomp across the Golden Gate bridge in a Bay Area 10k race that began one week ago with a crash on White Mountain. I am bicycling 1500 miles from Canada to Mexico along highways #101 and #1 on a Peugeot PX-10. ´Bikeman!´ is relayed for two weeks up and down the Pacific coast to ward off logger trucks on narrow mountain highways. Bikeman is my CB handle, a grasshopper on wheels in bug Walkman earphones with a 5´ Radio Shack antenna stretched ahead off the handlebar.
In the shank of a golden California evening churning the cranks through the Redwoods along bike pathless Highway 101 the road climbs, zeniths in a roadside splash of wildflowers, and I coast down the other side with the wind whistling in my ears and feeler. The grips tighten, and as the speedometer dials to 35mph a rabbit in the meadow catches my eye so the fraction arch of the brow starts a wobble that on trying to correct intensifies into a violent frame shudder that the brakes amplify. The front tire catches the soft dirt shoulder, stops, and I shoot over the handlebars as if shot out a cannon. A tumble skid back and forth across the asphalt and earth leaves a bloody ten yard exclamation!
At the dot I find my feet but it is difficult to walk. Blood streams everywhere on bare skin except the tennis shoes, shorts and curly hair. The bike front wheel is bent at 30-degrees like a flapjack that made only three-quarters the flip, and the remainder is in standard post-wreck condition of gimped stem, twisted seat, luggage strewn in a line, and paint chips everywhere. I sit by the bicycle along the roadside like a faithful dog. I don't know what to do. There is little money. I am far from anyone I know. My body hurts all over. The sun is setting. A siren sounds in the distance…
A fire engine, patrol car, ambulance and sheriff arrive in a fifteen minute window from a 911 call by a good Samaritan passerby and suddenly I´m surrounded by multi-color flashing lights and concerned uniformed men. The cool sheriff takes charge and on learning that I have no wherewithal for the hospital or hotel, advises all to leave except the fire truck to which the bike is strapped to the bumper, and he allows me on a blanket into the front seat of his patrol car. We cruise down White Mountain to the nearest little burg where he pays for a room for which I´m grateful to this day.
The room offers a wall mirror in which I play doctor – patient. You feel fine, just look bad. I shine a light in the right eye of the mirror and determine there is no concussion. The pulse is stringy with shock but evens to 60. Blood covers 80% of the skin with dirt and grime stuck like flies on good flypaper. I release the patient to the shower and it must be cold to wash off the blood and seal the bleeders. On emerging there is a clearer picture. Scrapes and scratches cover 30% of the skin, so I take the first aid kit consisting of a one-ounce bottle of Methiolate and dab all the raw spots I can reach, lay a towel on the bed, and collapse.
The next morning I pick up a couple bottles of Methiolate and one large of pink Calamine lotion for poison ivy from the roadside tumble. The bike won´t be fixed for another day, however the sports page announces a marathon at the Golden Gate Bridge, so I board a bus to watch. Yet on arriving on the north side a number is pinned on my chest and the race director ushers me to the frontrunners saying it will be good publicity to have a Pink Runner in the lead for a few seconds.
We´re off and in the first minute a hundred runners breeze by shouting ´Go Bikeman!´ I am 70% pink in black tennis shoes, a running advertisement for Methiolate and Calamine in a 10k race. I lose ground on downhills where the skin is stretched and jars with each step, and gain on uphills where the bubblegum scabs don't bounce. Bikeman!´ chant hundreds of spectators four-deep along the south ramp of the Bridge as runners sprint and slap my back until the blood flows to the tape.
After the finish there is another, as I hitch a ride back to the repaired Peugeot, and another on the bike to Mexico, and then another… wherever the last one lands me.
10. My Old Man and the Sea
The Indian Ocean surf on the white sand beach of Bali is cold between my south of the equator toes after a sunrise jog, and the unpeopled shore slopes sharply to the breakers. I backward walk through the rollers, dive through higher ones, and the first blow of a powerful offshore current carries me a quarter mile out to sea. With a patience breaststroke I fight the current for a minute without making headway. I shift to a strategy of floating and am carried another 200 yards out to sea.
Swells glide over the withdrawing layer of water, springing high and cresting with foam when the lip becomes too thin. An underwater tug-of-war for my body takes place with the waves beating me beachward and the undertoad pulling me outward until I grow dazed and thrust out the water like a porpoise for a view over the rollers of swell and break, swell and break on the island Bali.
What does it mean to fight for one's life? There is a position, a goal, a plan, struggle, and the outcome. I try a modest front crawl, make headway to the beach, then stop, rest and drift back out to sea. Then it´s an all-out swim kicking hard and extending my toes in hope, stop to survey, and am swept to sea. The difficulty of rest there is that I am an Ironwood human with a body fat of 7.8% compared to the floating average of 17%. Following another adrenalin pumped leaden legged battle with the current I reckon that for lack of body fat I´ll fall to Neptune and this afternoon´s tourist attraction washed up on the shore of Kuta beach may be a bloated man with a half-smile on wrinkled lips.
The breakdown of the emotions when caught in a rip tide is: Panic with hope; hope disappears and willpower takes hold; truth replaces will, and in horror I believe I will drown. But it is countered by a flashback of water memories of my old man and the sea. At five years he took me by the hand into the Santa Cruz Pacific, and let go saying, ´Look out for the under toad´ that I thought was a rare water frog and spent several gleeful hours chasing. Red Cross swim lessons followed at the Idaho Falls YMCA pool. He built a submarine in a basement. Body surfing on vacation off Coco Beach I swam headfirst into a Portuguese Man of War narrowly escaping the 6´ dreadful tentacles, and he pacified it. One day Pa showed up like Jacques Cousteau on our front yard dock over Browns Lake, Michigan lugging a bell helmet to which an umbilicus ran to an air compressor like a fish bowl to a bike pump. He yelled at me to stop riding off the dock on my bicycle to make way for my first diving lesson. It was extraordinary looking from inside an aquarium glass at the fish and snapping turtles, and opened a life to scuba diving. A peak underwater moment was having a mouthpiece torn from my lips and breaking bubbles with my teeth to take in oxygen mixed with water, separate it in the oral cavity with a chewing motion, spit out the water and breathe the air for three minutes. The snowdrifts piled to the windows of our Charlevoix, Mi. home and father walked out the front door every Saturday in a black wet suit, the neighbors chattered, ´There goes Galloping Gil´, and he jumped off the ice into half-frozen Lake Michigan to scuba for an hour. One Spring we pulled a 19th century anchor from the bottom using a 55-gallon drum sunk, tied, water displaced by tank air from the mouthpiece, and raised the 5´ anchor and leaned it against out front yard Maple tree.The flash of incidents was like holding a dance partner for his strength and caring. Then the watery history moved swiftly full circle to a mouthful of saltwater in the Indian Ocean. I flip onto my back. Many fish take or rejects air from its swimbladder, a carrot shaped sac off the gut in the upper body, by swallowing or burping air. The amount of air inside the bladder controls buoyancy and an average fish must be occupied with about five percent air by volume to float. With a body density that approximates the specific gravity of water, I use my lungs as a swimbladder, taking in half a lungful when I desire to hoover just beneath the surface, or a full lungful when I want to float, or exhale to sink like a tombstone. I take a big gulp, rest on my back and think. Buddhists believe their dying thoughts influence their next life but that presupposes the next life which i do not believe in. I refuse to go out kicking like a berserk fish.
I remember I learned to make water my friend. In this recovery a textbook solution comes to mind to swim parallel to the shore to escape the grasp of the rip, and I turn on my right side and begin the transverse. After five minutes onto the left side for five minutes more. In twenty minutes I pivot with an energy saving breast stroke toward Bali. The distance closes until my feet touch the bottom only to bob away. Finally I stand upright in waist deep and gratefully feel the push of rollers. I stagger heaving lungs through the breakers, crawl up the beach and flop in my earlier footprints. Our home should not be called Earth but Ocean for it is seven-tenths water. One body, dynamic under the sun's heat, over the planet's rotation, beneath the lunar tides and countless breezes and currents that shape our lives. I would have met Neptune today but was buoyed by a flash of memories owed to my father. It will be nice to see him again on what others say is his deathbed, tell the story, and thank him.
The lessonfrom these ten survivals is don't believe anyone who tells you, ´You're gonna DIE!´. But I had to put myself in the coffin after the Cold Freight trip. That winter I returned to my alma matter MSU seeking two things: warmth and money. I spent my last $50 on a simple pine coffin constructed by the woodwork instructor, who introduced me to the sociology dean at Lansing Community College who hired me to teach a sociology course ´Hobo Life in America´ You bet I took the first check and lined the coffin with electric blankets to sleep like a baby through the Michigan winter in a Lansing basement. The first night in the coffin was risky because I shut the door tight in the unheated basement and mentally calculated its cubic volume, my tidal respiration, and using a factor of 80% exhaled oxygen per breath determined there was enough to last eight hours, but set an alarm clock for seven hours as a failsafe.
The coffin from which I popped the next morning like a Jack-in-Box illustrates the formula for survivals: You venture beyond where most go, there´s a jam, you calculate the risk factors, and use a store of knowledge and experience to escape. I obviously have no death wish, but purely a strong will to calculate survival.
So it was with surprise last November I read of my recent death in Mexico hopping freight trains in dozens of Emails and Facebook posts. My family on not hearing from me for three months had filed a missing person report with the El Centro, Ca. police department, and assumed the worst on not hearing back from them. They appealed online. The death spiral was finally clipped by an a post-obituary in Chicagoist ´From the Vault of Art Shay: The Legend of Bo Keeley Grows´ (12-14-11) which explained simply that I had retreated to my Sand Valley home to feed the animals and write.
The mind is the best all-purpose survival tool, and it is honed by experiences. The first test venture is the only difficult one, so head out as I am in the Amazon encountering fer de lance, tarantulas and Sapo frogs, and live to tell the stories.
The Amazon comes alive after sunset with interesting creatures.
These are from one night´s four hour hike:
I grew up running barefoot on paved Michigan county roads, graduated to marathon running in Converse Chucks tennis shoes, and had the honor of jogging with Micah True of Born to Run in Mexico´s Copper Canyon before he ran to exhaustion recently in New Mexico. RIP.
The effects of trotting barefoot as the author points out are obvious to anyone who has tried it both ways. The heel extends farther allowing the calf muscles and Achilles tendon to lengthen. Repeat this tens of thousands of times and there´s a physical change in the legs and gait. One notices the same effects in hiking long distance, say on the soft rather than hard soil of the Vermont Long Trail, or running the beach during low tide, or around that well-trodden track within Central Park. In all places, barefoot or not but better barefoot if the feet hold up, the effects all stem from widening of the unshod foot, and from a longer, more natural stride.
Here´s a story from Micah True´s lips after he threw a playful kick at me about four years ago to demonstrate his world ranking as a kick boxer. Most people knew him as a runner, then as a boxer, but he also had a stint as a full contact pugilist that has a sanguine ending. Micah had terrific reach at maybe 6´4¨ with arms and legs. He got into the boxing ring once and found that years of running barefoot provided the balance and stamina required to kept him in the ring long enough to win fights. He got a small time manager on a two-bit boxing circuit like Louis L´Amour. He also started writing a fictionalized account in the buses and skid row hotels as he traveled, that was his shadow boxer.
He went on a winning streak, as the book reflected, and because he was so tall and Caucasian his agent got him a contract with the 2nd ranked in the world full contact karate champion. The bout was three weeks away on the Pacific Rim, but True had the boxing technique, and the savvy to know that if he threw the required half-dozen or so required kicks per round he could oust the man with his longer reach punches. He won, and for a few weeks was ranked #4 in the world of full contact martial arts.
With the notoriety, he fell in love, as the novel he scribbled between bouts reflected, he told me, with a beautiful masseuse who massaged him before matches and unlimbered him after. As sometimes happens in the sordid boxing world, she ran off with another boxer, and he was so distraught that he lost a pivotal match he should have won. His world ranking fell until it was no longer economically feasible to travel overseas for full contact karate, and he reverted to the second-rate American boxing circuit, riding in buses, sleeping in flophouses…
His novel began to mix up his mind so he could no longer identify between what happened on the pages and in real life. He wrote a happy ending but didn’t know if he could reach it. So he retreated from both to the California redwoods where he built a bonfire, lit a cigarette, and one by one fed the hundreds of pages of the novel into the fire.
Unbridled now, he returned to running distances. He picked out spots 25 miles away in the Copper Canyon that fifteen Grand Canyons can drop into, and ran there, and back, and this is what he was doing when I met him on a hike. Then he died and we are talking about the length of his stride.
The two most salient features on the face of the Peru economic boom are corruption and fat.
The Transparency International is a world index of the corruption of nations you may choose to live or do business in. You may read about it, except between the lines, as Peru businessmen point out, that the index method is the perception of businessmen doing business in the countries. Among corrupt South America, Peru is rank middle-of-road but actually is the most corrupt country on the continent, if not the world. This is because nearly every businessman by default is corrupt in order to do business in Peru. Certainly they are not going to report that to TI.
A fun way to look at fat is on a calculator based on research pulled together by a research team at the London School of Hygiene. Using United Nations data on population size in the world´s nations together with estimates of global weight from WHO and mean height from International Health examinations, the calculator figures an average BMI (body mass index) for human fat. It so happens that Peru is in the midst of one of the largest economic booms due to relaxed foreign trade restrictions and increased gold price since the rubber boom bounced in early 1900s.
Today on the streets of Iquitos I see each person has gained 10 lbs. Under new polyester shirts in a rising middle class since my last visit four years ago. Where are you on the global corruption and fat scales?
Today I watched a child kiss her pregnant mother goodbye on the stomach. Children are that important in Peru.
Being a naturalist means doubling as a mid-wife in the Amazon, as Richard Fowler has found on five occasions. Probing the deepest Amazon he is legend in backwater villages as the Lone Ranger mid-wife where there is no medical facility.
A few days ago, I met the grinning 6-year old godson whom his mother, Lilla, claims has never had a sick day, compared to the siblings with a gauntlet of gripe, malaria, hepatitis and other ailments as common in Amazonia as chicken pox and measles are to American kids. Her smile was as wide as her child's as she hugged Richard with great might.
It was 3-degrees south of the equator, 100km off the tourist grid up the Ampiyacu River where few outsiders venture. Richard was tapped from a deep sleep by scared and panicky villagers of Lilla, a young widow of the chief´s son from Pucarquillo another 100km downriver. It was a surprise as the baby wasn´t expected for another month.
She was stepping off the platform of the hut when he arrived, and grabbed the edge, assuming a squatting position, as is the natural way for a bush birth. No screams, no grimaces, ´Just inhale and exhale,' he told her, and put a towel in the drop zone. He instructed the father into a quarterback position who caught the 3kg baby boy named Jason.
Fowler´s first delivery was in Vietnam as he led his 101st Airborne squad in a search and destroy foray into a tiny village where the Viet Cong couldn´t be distinguished from the natives. A stunned lady fell to the ground in labor.
´We´ve done enough bad today, Now let´s do some good, ´The point man boiled rags, the gunner found gloves, and the lady gasped in the first pang of birth. He caught the baby like Yogi Berra, and handed it to the radio man to hold. The woman started to rise, and he pressed her down gently gesturing, ´Wait for the placenta.´ It passed.
He waited for the umbilicus to turn from blue to white, and then sliced it with a one-foot hunting knife that he carries to this day for such occasions. He pressed the baby to its mother´s chest, smiles all around, and wagged his finger at her, ´Don´t name him Charlie.´
Since that first delivery the Amazon midwife has caught four others leaving behind only a white umbilicus.
The current issue of Outside magazine has an article called "Could You Survive" with 27 tips on how to survive a shark attack, a cougar attack, an avalanche, falling through ice, and a forest fire. The tips seem very relevant to how to survive in markets. But I don't know enough about survival and Hobo is far away I believe in Ecuador or Blythe and not likely to have access to this issue, so I appeal to the survivalists here to relate the good and bad tips to our field.
Jim Sogi writes:
Surviving specific threats is very specific. With a bear, one does not fight back, but plays dead after the attack. However, before the attack one must counter charge and wave hands, yell make noise because the first few charges are bluffs. With a cougar, one must fight back with all you have. Prevention, avoidance and awareness of bears and cougars before an attack are even more important.
It's important to know the context in which the threat occurs and the nature of the threat. In terms of markets, its foolish to fight back aggressively at the top of a rapidly falling market. Its a different story near lows after a big fall in a consolidating bottom. That's one of the problems with a list of general rules. While they can be good rules of thumb, they might not apply in a certain specific situation. Beginners or the inexperienced tend to rely on simple rules and get into trouble by applying the rules in the wrong context. When the "rule" doesn't work then panic sets in, multiple mistakes are made and death ensues. Experts use different and more specific sets of checklists and know the context.
Tom Printon writes:
Deep Survival by Gonzales and Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawade echo Jim's points, both make for good summer reads or re-reads.
Bo Keely writes:
I ran this by bear, gator, snake & cougar wrestler naturalist Richard Fowler and he sent us this:
THE MAIN THING IS NEVER RUN FROM A WILD ANIMAL. THEY WAIT AND WANT THAT. UNLESS YOU HAVE A SHORT SPRINT TO A PLACE OF SAFETY, CAR, HOUSE, ETC. ALWAYS CARRY BEAR GAS. HOWEVER LONG DISTANCE WASP SPRAY IS BEST. BRING A GUN THAT STARTS WITH THE NUMBER 4 OR BIGGER, AND. ALWAYS SHOOT THE SHOULDER AREA OF AN ATTACK TO UPSET THEIR BALANCE IN THE CHARGE. THEN FINISH HIM OFF.
It was a cold night in Baja a month ago when I struggled off the trail into a ghost town with an adobe house, and scraped a hole in the leaves for a nest, and thinking twice pushed them into a corner to start a fire. I fell asleep, but the fire did not, with a view of the stars through the rafters.
In minutes the flames climbed the corner reflecting heat and singing my blanket. They licked the dry rafters that sparked, and ignited the corner that threatened to leap to the next house. There was no water in my canteen, however recall from Jonathan Swift´s Gulliver´s Travels, (thinking quickly, Gulliver chooses to urinate on the fire, putting it out completely and keeping it from spreading to the rest of the palace) I swiftly leaped and dashed out the open door to climb broken bricks on the outside. Standing at the top, I extinguished the blazing rafters with a stream of urine to save the ghost town from certain death.
The 100+ citizen line winds early each morning around the block across from Yellow Rose of Texas where I eat breakfast. There arrive from every two-bit port and jungle hamlet to Iquitos to replace their identity cards, the equivalent of a U.S. driver's license, that is required of each person over the age of 18. They will say their cards were lost to save money, to beat the system. This is the way it works. In Peru each person over the age of 18 must have an identity card at a cost of about $8, or nearly a day's wage. Peruvians are required to vote in the national elections every five years, and for the city mayor, and a sticker is put on the card at each election. If a citizen misses a vote his card is invalidated, and if picked up with an invalid card he is fined $70. It is cheaper to wait in line for hours and pay $10 for a replacement.
A sporting illustration of the nature vs. nurture argument occurred a few years ago when San Diego Horizon high school visited our Blythe, California Yellowjackets on our own playing field. The visiting team was ´naturally´ genetically gifted in one of the top scholastic and beefiest schools in San Diego county, while the Blythe bunch was a ´nurtured´ dirty dozen playing in one of the harshest environment on earth. The visitors outweighed the home team by about 15 pounds per body, but our boys had practiced double-day workouts throughout August with daily highs of never below 120F in preparation for the homecoming game.
I entered on the visitors´ side to go recognized as a teacher by the students and players who had been talking the game up all week. It was a starry night, 9pm and the field thermometer dipped to 100F at the kickoff. The Horizon visitors lined up holding hands along the sideline in front of me swaying gently in silent prayer until the referee´s whistle, as across the field the Yellowjackets piled on each other like a tumbled hive as the student body screamed like banshees.
I heard a ´Putt Putt´ over my shoulder and was started to see the town mosquito fogging machine rolling 10´ behind me on the running track along the sideline. The machine spewed a deadly spray that engulfed and rose above the bleachers and line of Horizon players like a San Francesco fog. Six species of flying insects fell dead on arrival from the field lights into the hair of the visiting team parents, and mothers squealed and left for Starbucks. One cheerleader fell to the ground clicking her heels in spasms and I waved for the nearby ambulance. Two football players went to their knees and vomited piles a short run from my feet.
Nature had been equalized by the heat and haze to give nurture an even chance.
The ref blew the kickoff whistle, and the two teams faced off. Our Yellowjackets ran the kickoff return through their staggering opponents for a touchdown. An early first-quarter three-point field goal put them up 10-0 on the scoreboard. In the second half, the poison wore out of the opposing team´s systems and the heat of the night settled to a tolerable 90F. Horizon battled back to 10-7, Blythe went on the board with a field goal, a safety for Horizon and when the game siren sounded the score stood 13-9 for the nurture boys.
The brute simplification by Francis Galton of the relative influences of heredity and environment on personal, business and social advancement was illuminated on the field that night. A person´s innate qualities will carry him past the masses unless he steps into an arena of greater familiarity by the opposition. Then the contest evens out and the result is unpredictable.
Take a virtual tour of the infamous Lurigancho Lima prison before visiting Peru as a tourist. Watch 50,000 cans of beer tumble off a truck into the prison yard courtesy of the warden who takes a 25 cent commission, try your luck at the casinos, dance shirtless in the disco, pretty girls, drugs, attend church, get a haircut, 12 restaurants run by inmates, a multiple-language library, private rooms and condos, and each of the 300 foreign inmates has a laptop WiFi to run world drug operations on Skype or, as my friend Hank avows, to stay in touch back home.
´I didn't do anything!´ Hank exclaims.
Hank is a Maine, USA ex-pat who before the set-up that put him in luxurious stripes lived in Pucallpa with a Peruvian wife and bouncing baby. We spoke yesterday in a Pucallpa plaza where his ex-pat friends have been wondering where he disappeared to. They say he does no drugs, is an outstanding athlete, 40-year businessman and good father.
"Peru set me up, took some of the best years of my life, made me miss father´s funeral, and the family businesses has fallen behind!¨
Three and a half years ago, Hank was on his way to get a hair transplant in Lima before flying home to spread his father´s ashes over an Atlantic offshore island the family owns. Asking on the sidewalk for a hair salon he was surprised to be answered by a tourist guide he had known in Pucallpa. It seemed strange to run into Pedro in Lima, but since the guide always smiled and spoke perfect English Hank decided to accept his invitation to stop over at his apartment for a beer. Later in the day he knocked, the door opened, and the Peruvian let him in. They cracked a couple beers, and then the Peruvian excused himself to the bathroom, returned with a white powder up the right nostril, and they chatted for about 30 minutes. A knock on the door, and when Pedro opened it and stepped aside two uniformed policemen burst in demanding to know where he got the white powder up his nose. "The gringo gave it to me!" he shouted, pointing at Hank. The cops quickly found a kilo of coke behind the couch, and asked, "Where did you get it?" The nark repeated, pointing at Hank, "From the gringo!"
Hank told them he didn't do cocaine, never had, he had no knowledge of the kilo, and he was a businessman on the way home to his father's funeral with no time for that nonsense. It fell on deaf ears, handcuffs clicked on, he was carted to jail.
Drugs, like prostitution, are legal in Peru but both are illegal to sell. In the case of girls 18 or older, pimps are illegal.
The Peruvian accomplice vanished into the apartment to crank up the mill on Peruvian prison tourism.
A month later, facing a monocle judge between a court provided attorney and mandatory translator, the trial was a farce. The judge scanned the documents for one minute and without glancing up at the defendant, rattled, "Plead guilty and go to jail for three years, or plead not guilty and go for seven!" His attorney advised guilty, Hank agreed, the gavel hammered, and he was taken to Lurigancho.
Lurigancho is Lima´s largest and is called the country´s worst of the worst prisons in the world. Guards armed with machine guns patrolled the gray perimeter wall. Hank shook in his shoes as the front gate creaked opened, a guard shoved him in, and the door slammed. The guards rarely venture in, and inmates control what goes on- who gets food, a place to sleep, who lives, dies, and is sexually molested. The official capacity of Lurigancho is 1600, but it holds more like 6000, with so many inmates that prisoners are hired as in-house guards.
One of these guided him by the elbow through about twenty blocks to the foreign pavilion of 300 inmates, explaining that money talks in jail and if he could afford it he could buy anything except freedom. If you could buy freedom the squeeze on prison tourism inside the walls would stop. Hank quickly made friends with North Americans, Europeans and others, learning how to have his family funds sent to a go between who brought them on visiting days when a guard was paid to look the other way. Hank´s family fishing company money spoke loudly, and he started by renting a room with an Israeli, laptop with Skype, and healthy food.
A Peruvian guard collected 50cents weekly from each foreigner and disappeared outside the wall until the next payday, or till beckoned to accept bribes for nearly anything- TV´s, books, girls, steaks- and Hank found that for $10 he could have his baseball pitching machine delivered, but he kept hoping for a parole that never came.
At about $350 per head per month in the foreign block, it´s estimated that the prison, legal system and cops milk foreign visitors for $1 million a year. The average foreign prisoner stay is three years, but some have been there for seven. Most Hank figures are guilty, usually of drug crimes, but if the cops can´t catch you legitimately they entrap you when they know you have money.
Some Latin countries including Peru and Columbia have been accused of scanning arriving tourists' bank accounts via their passports to tag high rollers for possible kidnapping and prison tourism.
Many of the inmates are conducting world-wide drug deals via Skype, enhanced by connections within in the pavilion. "I watched hundreds of transaction for huge amounts of money, but basically spent ten hours a day every day surfing the web or on Skype, as the weeks turned into months into three and a half years."
"I can take you on a virtual tour via Skype inside the prison to visit a dozen friends who wander up and down the halls with cameras." However, there wasn´t time because my Iquitos boat was leaving. Hank is on probation for four years, but this month will flee across a remote Ecuador border, as others have done and was part of his prison education, and then he´ll send for his baby.
"Not that it made an iota difference, I was innocent. Now the only memory I want of Peru is my child back in USA."
Lurigancho is located in the run-down district of San Juan de Lurigancho district of Lima. There are even a couple dogs in Lurigancho doing prison time. National Geographic featured this prison as one of the worst in the world. No prisoners may leave the closely watched precincts, but once inside the walls they can do whatever they like. In this way the prison authorities do not have to bother about the prison's organization. Most of the Peruvian prisoners in Lurigancho haven't even gone to trial or been convicted of a crime, while others languish in rags for years long after their sentences are served.
That is, unless you have money to buy velvet stripes and a condo in the foreign pavilion.
If someone asked you where the most dangerous tourist resort on earth is, you might start looking behind the bars of Lurigancho.
June 20, 2012 | 6 Comments
Hormonal location is the tropical vagabond method to evaluate factors in new lands to determine his future wife and home. It is an odd twist of scientific location used by individuals and businesses to factor where to set up store. Once the factors are identified and weighed, pack the bags.
The right spot from my observations for thirteen years of ex-pats and personal experiences is Iquitos, Peru with 400,000 natives and the prettiest, most aggressive females on the planet, The average daily wage is $7 and all is nonviolent except the sinister mothers and witches who cast spells on hapless gringos driven by hormonal location.
For centuries the girls have boated up and down rivers from their five to fifty dirt floor or stilted hut towns to Iquitos for work, that puts thousands in the stores, cafes and on the streets at a ratio of three per harangued male. The imbalance leads them to seek companionship as much out of personal as financial need.
The four questions asked of every man, regardless of age, on his day of arrival in sexual Shangri-La and hourly thereafter, are: Where are you from? Do you have a wife? What is your job? And, (if employed or on social security) Where are you staying?
On alighting a month ago in Iquitos, I rode a surrey moto-taxi around to twenty hostels in the $3- 5 range to discover that rooms rent by the hour for sex at the daily rate if you pay a week in advance. So, my Coo´s Hostel fills every room with clients whom I never see in leaving at 7am and returning after midnight, and except for the open doors, rumpled sheets and pretty cleaning lady, I have the place to myself.
A handful of young to retired male tourists step off the daily flights into the chlorophyll scented air, and are swept off their feet if not by the first, then the second or third young, pretty jungle girl. They think they are in heaven swinging from a hammock with wild grapes dropped into their mouths. The girls are not prostitutes but rather predators taught by their mothers in an Iquitos tradition of prey. In other countries throughout Southeast Asia, Africa and South America the girls stop short after attaining the ultimate dream of marriage, while the Amazon girls begin to sharpen their claws.
If their mothers are correct, and statistics bear them out, the dividends begin after marriage in a hot brand of sexual tourism unique to Iquitos. Since first visiting in 1999, I´ve fraternized with a dozen ex-pats and know of another dozen who arrived, quickly married, unwillingly divorced, and now tear hair. There is only one surviving marriage in town belonging to the most successful restraunteur, and I hope it´s for love rather than money.
The mother is the guiding light in the search and seizure of the right man, as was her mother. The first lesson is to ask the four questions. The second lesson seems to be to perform well in bed. The third is to have a baby, and decry the father. The fourth is to marry, the fifth in about two years to divorce. And the sixth is to torment the lover for eighteen years to support mom´s family in the background.
The deepest claw of the jungle girl, as her bloom of beauty fades and mother´s sway comes to fist, is the baby. If the guy takes his newlywed to USA, mom and family follow, he supports them, and in six months his wife moves in with a richer man. However, most ex-pats fall into the local picture and in rapid domino succession beg to divorce, are refused for a couple years, face a stack of charges in a molasses court system, and end up financially strapped and gibbering in a dollar-a-day boarding house.
When the Spanish inquisition arrived in a city they used five steps to confession that are no more effective than the mothers of Iquitos: Step one is ask the citizen to sign a confession, step two is lead him to the door of the torture chamber, step three if there is no confession is open the door, step four he is strapped to the rack, and step five he screams.
Gone not only is the wife but the peculiar Iquitos custom due to the lopsided sex ratio that the newlywed introduces her best girlfriend as a second lover to her husband after the wedding night so that she has someone to talk to in the new neighborhood.
Normally, six months after the nuptial vows the gringo gets shocking news from his best man that he is accused of cheating on his wife. This is a mockery because he is so in love with two girls that the thought of a third never entered his mind. He runs into a wall trying to talk to his wife who insists that so-and-so chica is willing to testify to adultery. Next he is summoned to the police station to respond to a wife beating charge and pictures of her black and blue arms that the officers and court weigh more heavily than evidence that he was elsewhere on the night of the ordeal.
The final hook into the ex-pat is the birth of a baby that he fears getting blood tests for which may prove out rumors of his wife´s infidelity. She forces him out of the house and raises the kid with her girlfriend, while dad is forced by the court to pay $100 monthly child support.
A few months later, ´My mother says, gringo, that if you don´t start paying $100 monthly for mental anguish, things could sour between us.´ If he has the money, he pays on top of child support, but if not, she publishes a deuncio in the newspaper that is the kiss of death for everywhere he goes is under a rain of eye daggers and curses. After being forced to visit a psychiatrist, he returns a denuncio saying she is crazy, and she plays trump with a pin-filled effigy on his doorstep.
Nearly every gringo ends up hating his wife but loving his child and paying until she is 18-years old since his mother-in-law refuses to take a balloon payment for consent to take the child out of the country that would kill the golden goose. He should prefer to go crazy for what awaits him in the legal system as the daughter matures and a stack of charges wind through the slow Peruvian system for his sentencing.
Foreigners do not entirely discount hexes. A 6´1´´ British pilot came to me in tears saying he had just hired a defense witchdoctor to counter the spell of an effigy with pins stuck in the head that was in his mailbox. He wanted to talk, to know that it was ok to get egg yolk poured on his head to break the spell. Then he burst, ´The family has defamed me, the police tail me, everyone in the street stares, and yesterday when I picked up my four-year old daughter there was a rash on her vagina that the family has pictures of to prove that I molested her. I´ll languish in prison to old age, and the mother will continue to extort funds. Please take a look at my daughter´s vagina.´
I stepped back in hesitation as he thrust out the cradled baby. ´You´re a veterinarian, so just pretend she´s a puppy and tell me if it looks like a rash from sleeping on dirty bedding in her mother´s house, or rape.´ A quick look suggested dirty underwear or sheets. He seemed relieved, I left and lost track, but heard that he fled the country.
Once a foreigner tastes jungle romance he often thinks to get married, but when I first tasted the rainforest I sought a business marriage to obtain a residence visa. I was savvy enough to ask an ex-pat to set me up with a girl I´d never met whom he considered physically unattractive, who didn't want sex, just money to sign a few documents in the Peruvian fashion. I met the girl and jumped through the hoops of meeting her family, buying them drinks, and getting cross-examined by the mother who´s first four questions were, ´Where are you from, Are you married, What is your job, and Where are you staying?´ She hardly got the last word off her tongue when I excused myself and left.
Iquitos is the most miserable place in the world to get married and the best to have sex. Or, seeking storybook romance, take a ferry a day or more up or down river, and hike a couple miles into the jungle and through a town game of volleyball played by predominantly nubile girls who develop physically about two years earlier than their American versions. Their mothers-in-law have never seen a white man before, and you may swing happily from a hammock for the rest of your life.
In hormonal location Iquitos offers some of the prettiest, penniless, and happiest girls in the world, however one cannot study long enough before settling with the girl of his dreams.
June 17, 2012 | 2 Comments
One of my greatest regrets outside of death, sickness, of family and friends, and other great losses, is that I have always had a poor backhand in rackets sports. How in the world I won so many championships with that poor backhand I can't imagine. It wasn't quickness or natural ability or any kind or great analytical skill. That I know.
Like most things, the backhand has gone through ever changing cycles of strength and weakness. I started out switching hands the way most handball players did when playing with a paddle or tennis racket. That was very good for a while as it expanded my reach and gave me many angles that the normal backhand couldn't handle. Then I took lessons from a great backhander named John Nogrady and he assured me that I'd have the greatest backhand in two weeks. But it didn't work. And I gravitated to a slice backhand without any torque. But the left, ambidextrous forehand was good enough so I won lots of tournaments, and like an idiot, I decided I could be the best in the world in squash even before I had ever played the game, as I was the best in paddle ball. If I knew how many defects I had relative to the champions, who were so much more athletic than me, and had so much better backhand than I could ever aspire to, I never would have thought that crazy thought. In retrospect, knowing what I do know, I never would have even dared to play squash, considering all the weaknesses, which were soon to be exacerbated by the infernal short slice backhand that all the Harvard guys under Barnaby that hadn't played the game were taught.
That turned out to be bad for my tennis. I never could beat a good 6.0 player, and when we played the tough college matches, where the number 1 and 2 rotated, (I was number 2 throughout. I was ashamed to play the good number 1's on other teams because they were so much better than me, and I was granted the ignominy of playing the number two on the other team twice.) But that cycle was okay for me in squash. Somehow with the hard ball, the slice backhand wasn't that weak. Others, especially all the good Philadelphia payers had infinitely better backhands than me, but somehow I was able to prevail against all except Sharif.
I love Jack Barnaby but I am confident that if I had gone to another college and learned a decent topspin or full swing backhand I would have been able to surmount that one personage who stood in the way of my being best. The slice backhand I picked up at Harvard, was disastrous for me in racketball. I had better stuff than most when I played but I couldn't kill the backhand and other players hit the ball twice or three times as hard as I did. Marty hogan humiliated me with all the torques and backswings and follow-throughs he had on his backhand, as did Steve Keeley. But I was too foolish, and too insensitive to change.
The cycles change again. I've learned a good top backhand in both racketball and squash now, and if I could go back in time, I'm sure I would be 6 or 10 points a game better. But of course it's too late. I can hardly beat Aubrey who's 6 years old now, because I am so much immobile. Anyway, today for the first time in a year, I played tennis. I practice my new backhand playing against myself just dropping the ball. I learned 10 new things I was doing wrong on my backhand, or things I could improve.
1. Take a bigger backswing.
2. End the swing like a baseball player up high on the right side.
3. Get torque from the legs the hips, and the shoulders into the shot.
4. Keep the wrist locked and vertical never dropping it.
5. Tilt the racket into a slight slice face before hitting the ball top so that you get another torque into it
6. Bend the knees so you can get some lower body into it.
7. Extend the left hand at the end of the stroke the way Federer does on his slice.
8. Hit on the outside of the ball when you wish to hit it cross court.
9. Step into the ball like you're going to approach the net on all backhand shots.
10. Get on your toes and keep your head down on the flight of the ball.
All this seems very technical and specialized, but then I realized that the lessons I learned from the backhand today, would also apply to markets, which I'll relate in the next memo.
Bo Keely writes:
A forehand has many similar movements in life– from rattling the crib to grasping a fork and swatting flies– but not so with the backhand. By the time one begins racquet sports even at your tender age of what, five, in the deep end of a swimming pool with your father on the diving board shouting instruction, you had no muscle memories nor neurological models to hit a backhand. I, on the other hand, kept a diary from the same age and developed what others have called the best racquet backhand. Writing is placing an instrument in hand and drawing it across the page in the left to right backhand direction for the righty. By age 16 when I first took a racquet in hand as a senior trying out for the tennis team, I beat the number three and two singles players and so was kicked off by coach Kiley for not going out for the team sooner. The three best ways to develop a backhand, after a decade of teaching racquetball, and for once to fly in the face of a sport's maxim of specificity of training are: write longhand and especially print in order to accustom the fingers and eyes to stop and start, drive golf balls left handed, and throw a frisbee.
Dr. Bud Muehleisen, I called him Mule when we lived together and played countless matches, was a pivot in my racquetball career after moving from Michigan to San Diego from 1972-79. San Diego was the racquetball mecca in this golden era. I was the first racquet moth drawn to the lights of Mule. Charlie Brumfield and Carl Loveday, and hundreds followed. Sooner or later they found themselves on the PPA (Pacific Paddleball Association), Gorhams Sports Center or Browns 70th Street club to be dissected by the mild-mannered dentist. State champs and rising national champions left the court shaking their heads, some in tears, at the trouncings. They had felt so comfortable losing two out of three points. ´I never operate in pain," Dr. Bud told his patients.
Others extoll Dr. Bud´s 70+ national and international championships, however I will list five effects in my career that likely represent hundreds with other players who fell under the White Knight´s spell. The first memory on arrival in San Diego is mentioning that I was looking for a place to live, and I was instantly ushered into his home. The second is him politely suggesting that I buy hair conditioner for my unruly mop that refused a comb, before the blond afro and dual-colored converse shoes became the scream after I started winning tournaments. The third is when he got me a job as perhaps the first teaching pro in the country at the 70th Street club by elbowing me into the front door to simply ask… after he explained in our living room how to teach, step by step the strokes, and progressive lessons from serves to shots to tournaments. After I conditioned and earned pocket change, he introduced me to girls. Finally, when I fell ill with the second worst case of mononucleosis in San Diego county history, Bud carried me into his mother's house to recover for a month.
His forehand, court sense and strategies are among the best the sport has known, and hundreds of trophies still lay unseen in Dr. Bud Muehleisen´s attic after he recently retired after fifty years from dentistry, but not from racquetball.
A traveler or U.S. resident willing to take a junket to a 5-star hotel plus quality hospital care in an exotic land need not have American medical insurance and he'll get quality treatment at a fraction the cost. Third world countries charge cheap rates, the same for locals and visitors, for diagnosis, treatment, operations and hospitalization. Someone has pointed out to me that it is correctly termed medical rather than health insurance because many American doctors poorly promote your health.
In El Centro, Mexico, a month ago a physician told me after I walked cold into his office where he had learned from his father before going to medical school and returning to take over that the difference between Mexican and American doctors is that the patients trust the doctors who are not hampered by AMA protocol such as rote antibiotics, radiographs, blood tests and so forth before getting to the heart of the matter with a simple oral history and physical exam the minute you step in the office.
Then I walked around the block to an American dentist who moved to El Centro where, though his rates for fillings and crowns are a quarter his U.S. peers, no doctor's insurance is required, there are no legal suits, and he does well in dental tourism with the majority of clients from USA.
It's all in finding the right doctor… anywhere. I insist on seasoned docs and sports med physicians, or at least one who does sports. In a dearth, visit a sharp young clinic of a handful of friend docs who in synergy come through with the proper diagnosis and treatment. My luck with physicians in foreign countries has been excellent in Africa, South America and Southeast Asia. Sometimes they kick the price up 20% for ex-pats or visitors, bringing it to maybe 5% of the American rates.
Foreign hospital doctors nearly always run private practices at home, and that's where I get instant professional help. The red carpet rolls out. No appointment, his wife is the secretary, and he's linked to the top local specialists for radiology, lab tests, surgery, etc. You're in and out his doctor's door in 15 minutes, and feeling so much better that you're tempted to toss the prescription to be filled down the block instantly at about 25% USA costs. The doctors and pharmacists generally speak some English. In many countries such as Peru the pharmacists are so versed in medicines that the doctor is bypassed and he diagnoses and prescribes for simple cases.
Foreign docs, while making less than American, often own auxiliary businesses. A physician-owner of a restaurant who gave a tour of his clinic, some excellent off-the-cuff health pointers, and was willing to trade english lessons for future diagnoses. He had worked at three American hospitals for a total of eight years but prefers to practice in Peru. This country offers resident visas to foreigners willing to have their monthly social security deposited in a local bank, and comprehensive medical/hospital insurance for about $50/month.
On the other hand, in Lake Toba, Sumatra, a year ago an elderly restaurant owner tossed a salad explaining that no one in Toba gets sick, there are no dentists– what for?– and in the event of a village accident or emergency a local or foreigner is whisked in one of three town cars to a nearby city where the doctor accepts homemade pies and chickens, just like the old-time American doctors.
Medical tourism is a welcome wave set off by shock American fees, and a seeming U.S. government ploy to shunt citizens into corporate, county, state or federal jobs to be able to afford the one thing you cannot provide for yourself– medical care or health insurance.
Predictably, as medical tourism grows an American backlash should lower medical insurance and care, but until then why not take a vacation for an operation?
My friend recently wrote to my friend Art Shay asking what his secret is. This is what he wrote:
The secret is starting out with good DNA and poor immigrant parents who respected learning and believed that by working diligently, despite the handicaps of poverty, good looks and middling athletic skills, in this country you could amount to something.
In Russia at 23 my father was a political activist working with young Leon Trotsky. When he came to America, which had already suffered its Revolution, he became a tailor like all his 7 siblings who'd taken up the family trade. Although he hated uniforms, because of what they meant in Europe, my father encouraged me to become a Boy Scout and helped me win my 21 merit badges. I became a Life Scout, missing Eagle by being one bird short for the required Bird Study merit badge! (I could have used your help Josh!)
In the Depression I'd sometimes accompany my father looking for work in the needle trade, starting at one of the 8 story factory buildings, top floor, back door, and working our fruitless way down. He was out of work half the time and supported me and my 3 brothers and mom by fabricating dresses at home. He taught me to love reading and respect learning and sometimes played plangent Russian songs on the mandolin (singing the lyrics quietly– my favorite being" Nagyishcka"- the horse whip, which accented the sharp rhythms of the troika horses as they ran through the snow) to put 3 year old me to sleep.)
He took me to Central Park to watch the rich kids sail their boats. He taught me it was OK to sneak a feel of an Arctic sled on display behind "Don't Touch" sign and ropes, but make sure the guard was not looking. (In my career I would make dozens of secret pictures!).
When I enlisted in the Air Force Herman Shay wept, because military service often meant death and absence forever, but he had already taught me the meaning of America, and what a privilege it was to give back something of myself to it. I had a lucky war. I had but 9 months of college, but I educated myself. I've read hundreds and written about 60 books and countless articles. My writing idols are Nabokov, Hemingway, Algren and Chekhov.
I became a photographer when I realized I did not have the DNA spark to be a great writer. To come up to my own ideals. I compensated with the camera. Some of my pictures have been compared by tough critics, to works by Dostoevsky, Hemingway, Dickens, Melville. Algren and even Nabokov. This is flattering and great for the ego. But I don't buy it. One of my Chicago pictures, recently bought by a great university for their new library was sold to them by my gallery for an outlandish amount. My older daughter, who overcame typical teenage difficulties, was recently honored by the LA Bar Association for being a top intellectual property, trade mark and patent attorney in LA. When she was in law school she was the first student in US history to have a case in the US Supreme Court. She won her case with her professor (he had the license) reading her brief. She said, beforehand, knowing I had staked out the Mafia in a dozen cities for Time and Life: "If you come near the Supreme Court with a hidden camera the day I'm there, they'll arrest me for patricide…"
It also helps to have a brave, beautiful, intelligent rare book dealer of a wife for 67 years and counting.
August 21, 2011 | 1 Comment
One month ago in Indonesia, a guide hiked me up a jungle canyon for an hour to search and find a rare Rafflesia, the world's largest flower, in bloom. The plant though large with up to a one-meter flower and weighing forty pounds with no stem or leaves is difficult to find as it blooms for only 2-3 days before decomposing. My guide spoke no English but shrieked at each overhang or cliff en route to the flower causing to knock my head twice and sprain my wrist. We closed in on the plant in muggy jungle air by odor — it looks and smells like rotting flesh and hence the tag 'corpse flower'. The flower burst into view on a sunlit slope where I flung my cap next to the plant for scale and to relieve my swelling head. From the flower my guide led me back down to a farm that grows cat poop coffee (kopi luwak) that is processed in this strange way. The coffee beans are eaten by the civet, a jungle cat, that we tailed into the jungle to pick up the feces which contain the beans that have lost their rancidity while passing through the cat's stomach enzymes. We picked up the droppings and the farmer showed me how he washes, dries in the sun, roasts and brews. I'm not a Starbuck's drinker but might become one if they offer cat poop coffee for this is the only I've tasted without sharpness, a caffeine boost, and bitter aftertaste.
A Monitor Lizard in your home brings bad luck according to Thai superstition, however the 5' specimen that crossed my path this morning rang in a grand day. It raised an eyelid and dashed into the underbrush. A mile down the road a cloud of a hundred Flying Foxes with 5-foot wingspans, the world's largest bats, lumbered like eagles before alighting in trees and staring at me upside down. A mile later, I snapped a picture of a mural of Muslim schoolchildren in robes when a real swarm ran out to practice English. The teacher set up chairs on the lawn beside the mural so the motorbike morning traffic could watch the new sub. The one-room schoolhouse of all grade levels owned an accumulative vocabulary of about 50 words that the kids quickly doubled with the nouns of our dress and surroundings. Each had arisen at 5am for the first of five daily prayers and to my raised eyebrow, 'Why?', a ten-year-old smiled, 'Life is a struggle!' After thirty minutes of English, I continued down the path less traveled.
The Sumatra soccer field on the outskirt of Lake Toba is made of 'Indonesia astroturf' — red brick with ingrown grass and bamboo goal posts. The coliseum has more trees than spectators these days, but i was lucky today to crowd into some ivy and watch a heated match between high school youths. The Batak teams are graceful and strong, larger than Latins and cheer when the other team scores a goal. There was one white tennis shoe on ten bare feet on the brick field- shirts and skins- running, tumbling and kicking a new soccer ball out into the jungle where they exited after the game was over.
The racquetball Big Game is drive serve and shoot, which I call blitz racquetball. The first blitz player in 1974 when we were housemates betting mile runs on the outcome of his blitz vs. my conservative game- the 'year of the pivot' when Marty Hogan, ridiculed for his deep cannon stroke that tended to loosely fly all over the court- was Smokin' Hogan after he honed the powerful stroke and grew facial hair.
The reason Hogan was the Big Game firstborn is he was the first with the physical power and grace to allow it; the previous champs Bill Schmidtke, Bud Muehleisen, Charley Brumfield and I were tennis shod string beans who 'pushed' the ball around the court and a tediously effective strategy of waiting in prey for the opponent to error in 3-10 shot rallies, and then the final stroke.
Hogan was the first to force the error with booming drive serves, or his 142mph service return while the rest of use were clocked in the mid-70's at 110mph.
A cascade of factors enlivened the Big Game in the ensuing decade.
The mid-70's ball got so fast that we judged one acceptable if a ceiling shot didn't bounce over the back wall into the gallery and they started netting the upper decks. It was like substituting a hardball for a softball without moving back the outfield fence, and the result was the fans descended into the courts to imitate the pros blasting serves and shots.
The late 70's fitness craze spawned court clubs with the back racquetball courts filled with gym equipment, and bruisers strutted out the gyms and onto the racquetball courts to explode the Small Game.
In a blink, Power Racquetball of serve and shoot evolved new players and play.
The first Eketelon Contra big-head racquet in 1984 reinforced the power game, squatter players took to the courts, strokes abbreviated to rapid loops, and strong junior players started hitting the ball at 150mph.
It so happened that year the Big Game was locked in forever by a match rule change from 21-points to 15 per game, with an 11-point tiebreaker. This guaranteed national champs to eternity using a big head with serve and shoot strategy, to blitz anyone in streaks without fear of fatigue.
Racquetball as it was invented and intended by Joe Sobek in Connecticut, pioneered by Carl Loveday, Bud Muehleisen and Charley Brumfield at the Pacific Paddleball Association court, and developed at San Diego Mel Gorham's Mecca became a travesty in one season.
The sport shifted from aerobic to anaerobic.
The next alignment for the Big Game was the 1980's side glass and often front glass at tournament courts that guaranteed a seeded bltizer need only breeze through the early rounds on solid wall back courts to make the semi’s aquarium where his his Big Game had a 5-point advantage in games to 15 points.
The One-Serve Rule of 1994 tried to divert the cavalier ace… or did it? The elite players overnight ciphered and experimented in the next tournament to discover that the attacking serves when they were not fatigued was the only winning strategy.
The axe was lengthened by a 1997 USRA rule change to allow the oversized frames to extend to 22'' long.
What mutated sweaty chess to a blitz racquets? The associations and sponsors sped the sport to make it easier for youngsters, seniors and females to play the Big Game like pros. That is the racquetball evolution of ball and racquet, serve and return, forehand and backhand, player physique and psychology, and strategy in a nutshell.
How did the ousted pioneer champs react? All-night hashes at private courts across the country and shared at tournaments produced countless variations of new strokes, serves and strategies, but nothing jibed. The greatest old-timer, Brumfield, hung on for two years with warmed over gamesmanship and a new crack ace. The aging champs' bodies and personalities couldn't bear the Big Game and they curtsied off the courts to the new champs Mike Yellen, Dave Peck, Jerry Hilecher and Bret Harnet.
The first operant serve and shooter I met after Hogan was John Foust, who as a kid had multiple corrective leg surgeries and retains a gimp. His attacking strategy in a match at the Denver Sporting Club, home of early big tourneys, was such a shock that I would have lost at the peak of my career had not a patented backhand wallpaper serve eked a win. Foust wrote to me later to reciprocate for the wallpaper that he added to the arsenal, and to explain his Big Game. I realized he had sketched the perfect instruction that applies to the modern blitz of serve and shoot for all players.
I had a foot in two racquetball worlds, so to speak. One was able-bodied that you’re used to playing, and the other in a wheelchair. In the early 80’s, the wheelchair game was coming on and though I was legally handicapped from polio in youth, I never dreamed of myself as that. I managed the Denver Sporting Club and was a consistent able-bodied winner in A division, and once won the 25+ Open Regional. Luke St. Onge, the USRA executive director, asked me to play in the wheelchair division alongside my normal event, and I replied, ‘I spent time in a wheel chair when young, and may again when I’m old, but I don’t want to in-between.’ However, Luke persevered.
It was bizarre going from the regular events where I was perceived as the ‘good guy’ with the game leg who beat most the field, to the wheelchair division where I was the ‘villain’ because after the match I could rise and walk with a limp from the chair. I grimaced before each match at having to approach another player to beg his chair. I was third and fourth ranked in the world from about ‘85-87 by virtue of my able-bodied racquet skills, but always lost in the finals to one of the top two wheelchair champs (Chip Parmelly or Jim Leatherman) because of their familiarity with the chair- Understand that the chair is equipment, just like the glove, racquet and shoe.
After that, I entered only able bodies tournaments and walking into the court feeling as if I could win until proven otherwise. I practiced and taught myself how to kill the ball from everywhere. Defense wasn't my strong suit. The longer the ball was in play, the better chance I was going to lose the rally on a dope shot of which I simply could not get to. I relied on the drive serve to start the ball low into play to force the shooting game.
The blitzkrieg won the 1983 AARA regional championship in the 25+ division in going through three Open players to the finals. That was my biggest personal racquetball accomplishment- I beat three players who were very good. The closest I came after that to winning anything of substance was the Tournament of the America's in Santa Cruz, Bolivia in 1988. It was the first of five times I was part of the U.S. National Team. At that time, although not originally qualified as part of the team as a true player, I had the ability to score points for the team as a manager /photographer /low level coach. It was clear early on no one from the others teams were going to give me any credit- why should they? Not like anyone in Bolivia knew who I was, or had a resume to stand on. I completely understood. In the long run it worked to my advantage in getting to play. I made it to the semi's before getting beaten by a better player. The U.S. team was gracious enough to vote me to accept the Championship trophy.
Three parts to my game come to mind in any success I've had at racquetball. I felt I could serve with the best of them. That was my great equalizer and something I put a lot of effort into. I had the ball, I knew what I was going to do, and was a master of disguise about where. Drive serves were my forte. I used them on a first and second serve. It wasn't until later in my playing days I learned the value of a lob. I hated lobs.
In the event an opponent was able to retrieve my drive, I did the best I could to put it away quickly. If I couldn't serve 3-4 untouchable serves in a game I was toast. For the most part I did. My able-bodied style is to shoot the ball from everywhere, because the longer the rally the less chance I have to get to the opponent’s shot because of my game leg. I practiced hundreds of hours shooting from every conceivable court position, and to drive serve to earn weak returns.
In the rally anticipation was key. Unlike a Hogan I didn't have all the tools necessary to play a complete game. I was good at the bait and switch. If focused in, I knew before my opponent what he was going to do. They would say, 'You're a lot faster than I thought,' a kind compliment but not true. I was quick in a short space. It appeared I was fast- smoke and mirrors.
My forehead was strong if I had time to set up. However, with a weak left leg, it was difficult to transfer weight. Hogan, as it appeared to me the visual learner, hit a lot of forehands off his back foot. I had no choice but to do the same and was comforted by the fact that's what he did well. On the other hand, a backhand was my natural shot with a stronger than normal right leg, I could step in, transfer weight, hit, and do what needed to be done. And, because of the situation. I moved to the backhand side much more easily. My backhand was something I visualized as being a lot more like it happened in the real world as opposed to my mental world where I was moving like everyone else. I think they call that dreaming.
Based on how Hogan whipped me, Foust had lectured me, and how fresh players came on strong with the Big Game in the late 1980's, I revamped my teaching style. The traditional instruction learned from Bud Muehleisen and expanded in The Complete book of Racquetball taught to aim for the bulls-eye, and later add increments of power. Now I teach first the power killshots from any position on the court, then the drive serve, and slowly hone into the target. The learning curve of blitz is just one year given a strong young body and daily hour's practice and another hour of game time. As the errors are dropped out of the attack, and greased by confidence, by year two a dedicated athlete may become an open player, and in another a pro.
The greatest upsets throughout racquetball history have been blitz serves and shootouts beginning in 1977 with Davy Bledsoe over Hogan, in 1983 Mike Yellen using the big head Contra over Hogan with his contract autograph model, and topples by Sudsy, Cliff Swain and King Kane all owed to the Big Game school.
Today the Big Game is the only game in tournament town.— keep looking »
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