More dynamic than Water for Elephants, more picturesque than Dr. Zhivago, and more accurate than My Left Foot, Emperor of the North gets my vote for the best movie of the 20th century.
Shack in railroad terms has evolved various meanings. The RR term is for switchmen, the guys who traveled trains to throw switches at the track junctions, or more broadly applied to any RR yardmen who work out of a 'shack' that you see at either end of every yard. This is where the workers get out of the weather, smoke cigarettes, and play cards and checkers. Sitting in a shack too long without getting out for fresh air is called shack fever.
I've been invited by itchy feet shackmen into their friendly shacks dozens of times on cross country runs. Typically, they're cramped shanties from coast to coast constructed of clapboard or concrete a little larger than a phone booth with a pot belly stove and wallpaper of manifests, Playboy centerfolds, and hangman. You shoot the breeze with the men, sometimes a woman, and they help you get on the next freight.
In the movie Emperor of the North Shack is the character of Ernest Borgnine who was born for the roll. He rides the locomotive or caboose as the conductor, who in the old days doubled as the RR bull, or security. He is challenged by A#1, aka Lee Marvin, who has an historical character and I've read a dozen of his autobiographies, such as The Snare of the Road.
Emperor of the North takes place in the Great Depression of the U.S., and the country is full of people who are unemployed and homeless. Shack apparently hates the hordes that try to ride his trains, and swears that no hobo will ride his train for free. Along comes A#1, cool and tall, and smoking cigarettes like a smokestack, and puts his life at stake to ride Shack's freight.
A-#1 is locked into a cattle car and sets fire to the hay in order to burn his way through the wooden slats. He succeeds and hurls himself off the car to make his getaway, as the train pulls into the yard with smoke curling up the lip of an infuriated Shack. Shack meets A-#1 in a bloody fight with chains, 2×4 boards, and an axe. A#1 uncouples the cars from the tender, the other bo's run interference for him, he throws switches, and employs all the other tricks of the trade still used today to get through on the fast mail train to its final destination in Portland. Portland, I know, is a rustic yard with shade pines on both sides, where you can cross under and catch a city bus for a quarter downtown to the Hobo District.
Driven to desperation by the economic depression of 1930s, the hundreds of hobos who cheer A#1 on, formed an American subculture hopping freights to get from place to place in search of jobs, handouts, or even to take it easy sometimes, as is still done today. Emperor of the North depicts a microcosm of this subculture set in Oregon, and actually used the Oregon, Pacific & Eastern RR which was taken up in the mid-1990s, like so many other tracks around the country, to recycle the steel road and make walking and bicycle paths.
In the world today, a half-century after the movie's making (1973), there are still shacks where the shackmen - brakemen, switchmen, and conductors - hang out, but no cabooses since the 1990's when they were were replaced at the end of the freights by FRED, that we hobos call the F__ing Rear End Device. It's a 12''-square red-blinking box that is an essential electronic caboose. If there's no FRED, that freight isn't going anywhere.
Now the companies have cut back the bulls to a skeleton crew, if any at all, in most yards in a financial strategy that makes it easier than ever to catch fast freights along the American gridiron. You have to see the movie to know the classic encounter between the railroad hobo and bull.
February 1, 2015 | Leave a Comment
In my hoboing days, when the Los Angeles cops knocked on my door at the Rainbow hotel down from the library, and barged in, cuffed and hauled me to the nut hatch… I thought to ask them in route, 'Why?'
The reason is I had paid a week in advance at the hotel and not left the room, having returned from world travel with a need to hole up. The manager had 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 like this to generate income, and off skid row.
The hatch they stuck me in is considered LA's finest. After checking in, while refusing to sign the registry, I was labeled dangerous as a former professional athlete. 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 decade of mandatory doping doing the 'Thorazine shuffle' up and down the halls like a bear in a zoo.
The California law requires that a new patient be observed during a '72 Hour Hold', and then is evaluated by a psychiatrist to see if the patient should be held for a further period of observation, or released. Fortunately, the evaluating shrink was a compassionate, intelligent zookeeper. He knew that, as in County Jails, the government pays a stipend for the initial three days an inmate is held, and after that it's his duty to shoo the client out to make room for the next money maker.
The evaluating psychiatrist asked me to prove my wild claim that I was a veterinarian, and I told him 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 of 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 pointed me to the checkout counter.
Now it was another double rent situation, because the clerk tried to get me to pay for three days lodging, that couldn't be enforced because I hadn't signed their register.
I escaped on a technicality, and, instead of returning to settle the score with the Rainbow Hotel manager, I got out of town on a freight train and slept in the woods.
So-called psychic James Hydrick was different from your run-of-mill overnight swindlers. He was born poor in the Deep South, chained to a tree as a child, fed dog food, but a spark kept him striving to find his real self. As a teen, he was shuttled from orphanages to foster homes, only to run away again and again, chased by the hounds. He escaped to Hollywood, in search of a cinematic dream, where tryouts for parts didn't develop. He modeled, took part time jobs, and earned a black belt in karate. By his early twenties, his timing was exquisite and body like an oak when he ran afoul of the law.
He robbed a van, fenced the merchandise, got caught, and thrown in the LA county Jail that is the bowels of hell with 2000 screaming inmates. (I know because I once landed there myself on a trumped up jaywalking ticket.) He became, according to the County Jail shrink I talked to, the King of the inmates. He decked the Black Gorillas gang leader in the shower room for soliciting homosexual favors and, with a bounty on his head, was thrown into a 15' cube solitary cell on the lowest level. The LA County Jail is normally a transit facility, however he was a special protective case, and spent two years there in solitary, where he spent thousands of hours working out and learning how to move objects without touching them.
On trips to the Big House shrink he stole and stuck pins and paperclips under his skin as lock picks, that eventually were found on x-rays but not surgically removed because of the cost to the County. He developed a close relationship with the Catholic monk while in solitary who, upon Hydrick's release, understood that the ex-con needed to be sent far away, and chose Salt Lake as his new home during probation. He was quartered with a hulking retired marine officer and staunch Mormon business executive and his family to live with under control.
I met Hydrick one day in 1980 in Salt Lake where I was doing a racquetball camp. I noticed a lone figure in the gym taking five running steps, jumping, inverting in mid-air, and touching a basketball rim 10' off the floor with one foot. We adjourned to a desk where, without touching, he moved pencils, papers and other small objects from a distance of up to 5'. I smelled a story. We became apartment mates for six months, as he started a dojo and local tour of his stunts, and I wrote and photographed them. (Some of my photos would appear uncredited in martial art and online magazines.) Soon sport and psychic apprentices from around the country arrived at the dojo doorsteps to learn Hydrick's 'powers'.
From 1980-1 he appeared on That's Incredible, What's My Line, and the Danny Korem Show. Then I was in the wind, and he was reported moving pyramids in Egypt with a new host of devotees. The next thing I knew he was picked up on an outstanding warrant when a policeman recognized him on a 1989 Sally Jessy Raphael episode. He has been incarcerated to this day, except for one short respite last year, at the Coalinga State Hospital Maximum Security Hospital for the violent mentally disturbed that opened its door for the first time, as if for Hydrick, in 2005. James is not mentally disturbed, just misunderstood from the aforementioned childhood trauma. He used to take knives and swords and strike within an inch of my body, without touching the skin, when we sparred.
My family was worried about my getting taken into the Hydrick cult and sent a deprogrammer to Salt Lake to rescue. After a short discussion, I was convinced he was off his rocker, but acquiesced out of respect to my family, and ducked out of Hydrick's life.
To pick up on details, I went to LA and traded racquetball lessons with four turnkeys at the County Jail for an introduction to the psychiatric staff. They vouched that Hydrick had been the King of the LA County Jail and showed me radiographs of a half-dozen metal objects under his skin. I met and buddied with the Catholic Chaplin to a dozen monasteries throughout the Southwest.
According to Hydrick's transcript, the deputies in the County Jail were frightened of him, thought him possessed. The Chaplin taught him to read and write, and gave him a Bible. To pass time in a timeless place, Hydrick proselytized, converting up to twenty inmates a day like a prophet. He opened the Bible and commanded, 'Hold the Bible. Father, in the name of Jesus Christ make these pages move. And the pages would flutter and turn.'
Hydrick's telekinetic powers were common magician tricks mastered to a high art in solitaire, plus one that was never discussed. I believe he could blow out the tear ducts on the medial side of each eye, small openings that drain tears into the nasal passage. I found in a 1950s Ripley's Believe it or Not a reference to a 19th century Englishman who blew out candles 'through his eyes' from 6' away.
He was released from Coalinga on probation for a few months in 2014, and was reported as having taken a day-to-day room in the San Diego Gaslamp Quarter. No address was given, but there is only one, where I used to stay while doing the Sports Arena Swap Meet. I visited the Golden West hotel on 4th Avenue where they told me he had left, and is reported back in Coalinga.
The lesson is to keep your eyes open when you dabble in the esoteric.
Atlas Shrugged was the biggest, most beautiful book and for ten years has been my standard. That's how long it took to write Advanced Racquetball, the sequel to my best selling Complete Book of Racquetball that promised, forty years ago, this sequel. It's 825 pages and covers every aspect of the game from sneaker to frontal lobes for Open to Pro players.
It was a labor of love for 1000 hours in an Amazon sweat box cyber for 11 hours a day, seven days a week for the last three months, on top of a previous thousand or so hours writing earlier sections. There are over 400 photos including sequential strokes and serves. Personal interviews with 90% of the 30 most recent world champions. A full appendectomy.
I decided to scuttle the title, and shrug like Atlas, due to the incompetence of the undeserving racquetball community. They are also a verbal rather than print page readers. My goal was accomplished in writing the book and listing it at Amazon.com. One other set of Miami eyes who has read the single copy in existence said, 'It's very good, but too long for the racquetball mentality.' I'll give the single copy, like Diogenes, to the first deserving player I meet. I withhold it from the public and if you want to know why read Atlas Shrugged.
January 30, 2015 | 1 Comment
'Mr. Keeley, rush to the to the SED room! The students are throwing chairs at the teacher!'
Weekly, at Blythe, CA High School through the 2000s, a frantic version of this blast over the school intercom for all to hear summoning me to put out another fire in the Severely Emotionally Disturbed classroom at the back of the campus between the 4-H pens of pigs, goats and cows and the broad irrigation canal.
Once there, in the spartan SED room, the small group of eight edgy youngsters told how they had browbeat or attacked the sub fleeing the doorway at that second. I would answer, 'Everyone in Sand Valley where I live, and everyone throughout my travels, flies off the handle once in a while. The trick is to identify the cause and correct it. It's the same process as fixing a racquet stroke, where I was a champion.'
Fortunately, as in racquetball where I flung my cover onto the court and was ahead 3-0 before the first serve, my reputation preceded me into this classroom. Sometimes I think the students rioted to summon me, as prison inmates stage food fights to break routine. The kids brightened to reveal the bizarre reasons for their misbehavior that had caused their banishment to this awkward class.
First, I told them, 'We aren't going to use the term SED around here. Labels create identities. You guys are as normal as me and my neighbors in Sand Valley. Next, the goal is to mainstream you back into the normal classes. Third, if you're in here at your parent's order to create a portfolio of being whacky in order to get on welfare for the rest of your lives, think again. There's a long line of students wishing to replace you in this class. Fourth, my methods are unorthodox but effective. I'm not a schooled psychologist, but if you do your work, I'll reward each daily lesson with a related story from the road.'
Their excuses were miserably true. Some were rising with the roosters at 5 am without breakfast to ride a bus for an hour from an outlying farm to the school, and arrived irritated. Or, their parents drank and hit them the night before. A couple were worried about being accosted after school, and showed secreted 10" drill bits slid into their book spines. One albino had unrecognized photophobia. Another was dyslexic. Another painted his fingernails purple and talked with a lisp for attention. These were the campus hard luck cases lumped into one classroom, their last chance before expulsion, and I was their last hope.
When you have someone over a barrel like this, life is actually pretty easy. I dimmed the harsh fluorescent lights, and we did jumping jacks, sit-ups and pushups for twenty minutes. Then I turned down the thermostat to cool the room, a la public airplanes to calm the passengers. I opened the day's assignment from the permanent SED teacher, the gorgeous lady I'll call Ms. Libda, who often was away at business meetings, and so her duty fell on me. She was talented, caring, a former Navy medic, cop, and prison turnkey.
After their work was done, and the adventure story reward, I wrote up a detailed report on what had taken place and the progress of each student in mirror writing. Mirror writing reads from right to left, and early on in my subbing career the principal had called me into his office to explain why many of the students, especially the athletes, were seen reading their texts upside down. He had a boxing picture of himself on the wall from his youth, and I threw a mock left hook at his jaw, while justifying that if he had read print flowing right-to-left then his eyes would be quicker to have caught the jab, as well as the next butterfly, car or ball. My after class reports to the Ms. Libda were a hit, and one day she addressed me, 'The students like you, and so do I. I see you as a male version of myself.' We commenced dating and she, in a mothering way, often slept in late after calling the school for a sub, so I could get a call on the same phone to report for work.
The goals were met with success, the students stopped clawing wallpaper off the walls, were cordial to the visiting sheriff, no more suicide attempts, and the primary object to mainstream the students back into their ordinary classrooms.
The most valuable lesson I imparted to my xenophobic students was on Small Town, America. 'That's normal as she goes in Small Town, America'. Their explanation for everything is, 'We been here a hundred years, and we been doing things this way a hundred years.' Hence the state motto, 'Be part of a group, take and give orders, obey.' The solution, students, is to proceed with patience through your youth, and then strike out to new horizons. You can always take the beaten path back to Blythe.
Ms. Libda finally took a job elsewhere, and I was hired by Riverside County to replace her full time. There was a huge boost in salary to $40,000 with full medical. I began anonymously donating 15% of my salary back to student lunches, good books, pupil doctor bills, and chessboards for the library.
I had a great idea from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in which the patient McMurray masquerading as a psychiatrist takes the other patients on outings from the hospital. Securing permission from the principal, who was now my pal from the boxing lesson, I took the SED classes on educational outings to the city library, prison, bowling alley, and for nature walks along the irrigation ditch that blocked their graduation into the real world.
In the coming months, my classroom door was revolving like a barroom on a Saturday night with new students arriving as soon as the former were mainstreamed. Soon the backlist ran out, and the class dwindled to three students.
One day, after being the full-time SED teacher for about six months, I was called during class by the Riverside school administration. The director politely informed, 'I see you have mainstreamed nearly all of your students back into their regular classrooms. Congratulations. We are letting you go.'
I laughed, cleaning the desk. I had worked myself out of a job!
The lesson is don't be a square peg in a round hole without expecting consequence. Heed your inner calling, but be prepared to move on. I hit the trail to world adventure to have more stories to tell to a succeeding class.
January 14, 2015 | 1 Comment
You may read a guidebook, or just as well judge a people in a new land by their dogs. In rainforest Iquitos, five years ago, all the dogs were friendly, and so were all of the 700,000 citizens I encountered during multiple visits from 1999 through five years ago, 2010. As the new decade swung in computers arrived, and provided a model for thought that was non-existent 'PC'. Affluence followed the ability to think starting about four years ago, in 2011, and now the dogs, people and their wallets are fat.
I was never once barked at nor accosted in the pre-computer era, but tomorrow I return to the US as if from a war. My legs are riddled with dog bites from virtually daily attacks for seven months, and the human assaults have been bi-weekly. Why not go to the police, you ask? Before 2010, there were effectively no police in Iquitos except for a handful of pretty señoritas in white uniforms who stood like marble statues in the plazas. Now there are thousands of police on motorcycles, in the first cars to arrive in the city, and walking the beats. The police step in when someone asks, and the case is decided on the street according to which arguer bribes the highest. Law enforcement is an auction, and because I am wealthier than most it has saved many hard times and my passport once. However, a dozen other times the police have stood chuckling while snapping dogs ringed me, without stepping in because the sport is greater pleasure.
The children offer to kill them, and the going rate is $2 for a small dog or $4 for a large one. I have only put a bounty on two dogs: a rotten Rottweiler and a nasty large golden lab that attack me daily. The canines' method is to ring and wait for an opening, or to lay in wait and bite from behind. If one stands up to one or a band of two or four legged attackers, they wilt. However, this has left my one set of clothes (on a rainforest island of small, strong people like the dwarves in the Hobbit and nothing fits my American frame) in tatters after multiple repairs, and the socks have lost their toes, and the shoes are a laugh.
The faculty to think and an ability to buy nice things came too fast for the Peruvians. Nearly overnight, they became as cartoonish as a Bugs Bunny film, as indulgent as Golding's Lord of the Flies, and their seemingly rabid bands of dogs are the leading indicator.
However, there are still dogs that follow me like the Pied Piper for kibble I let drop from a hole in my knapsack, two señoritas have named their newborns after me, and I didn't even sleep with them, and kids dangle 5' rattlesnakes from 12' cane poles they have used to kill the serpents to keep my path safe.
"The Amazing, Possibly True Adventures of Catman Keeley and his Corporate Hoboes: on the road with the former veterinarian, ex raquetball champ, and freight hopping adventurer who shows adventurers how the other half lives"
Do you have any thoughts on sports streaks? The article below I ghost wrote. My feeling on streaks must be mathematical that they almost always occur in 1. a small field of players/teams, and 2. in a weak field of player/teams. A large field of talented players is stable and produces a frequent change of champions. Therefore, when one sees sports streaks it's usually in minor sports or when it's bear times for that game.
Top 10 Streaks
By Brett Elkins and Jim Spittle
They call them the Streaks!
These are the ten players with the Greatest Streaks in Racquetball History.
#10 Robert Sostre and partner Freddy Ramirez team up for 12 consecutive undefeated years in all Pro/Open 1-Wall New York tournaments from 1997-2009 which includes the events that are considered by most to be the Pro Championships of One-Wall.
#9 Lynn Adams ranks the World #1 or #2 every pro season between 1980 and 1991. With six women's Pro National Singles titles (1982, 1983, 1985-1988) and Player of the Year eight times (1982–88, 1990).
#8 Paola Longoria whose consecutive LPRT pro tour win streak ended after 142 consecutive pro singles LPRT match wins over 3 and 1/2 years. During this time, she lost only 18 games in those matches (best of five games). And her international streak still remains intact where she hasn't lost in any major world competition since the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico.
#7 Peggy Steding goes undefeated for almost two years in 1973 and 1974 winning the IRA National Singles and Doubles Championships both years, as well as every other tournament she entered. Rarely did an opponent score ten points in a twenty-one point games against this enduring Texan Racquetball Pioneer.
#6 Charlie Brumfield and Steve Serot go undefeated in doubles from 1973 to 1978. Brum and Serot won the 1973 IRA National Doubles, the 1974 National Invitational Doubles, the 1976 NRC Pro National Doubles, the 1977 IRA/IPRO National Doubles, and the 1978 IRA/IPRO National Doubles titles without dropping a match.
#5 Charlie Brumfield wins twenty consecutive tournaments in 1972 and 1973 including the 1972 IRA National Singles, the 1972 National Invitational Doubles with Dr. Bud Muehleisen, the 1973 IRA Nationals Singles, the 1973 IRA National Doubles with Steve Serot, and the 1973 National Invitational Doubles with Dr. Bud Muehleisen.
#4 Cliff Swain is at the top echelon of the pro game for twenty years … winning his first two pro stops in 1985 and his last two in 2004. In between, Swain won another seventy events and finished six seasons ranked #1 in the World, and five seasons at #2.
#3 Brian Hawkes rules the Outdoor courts winning twenty National Singles Titles over three decades in truly dominant fashion.
#2 Marty Hogan goes undefeated for over a year from October 1978 to December 1979 while playing three versions of the game. Hogan wins the Pro Nationals, The Outdoor Nationals, and The Paddleball Nationals in one year for the sports only Triple Crown during the most competitive and deepest draws in pro racquetball history.
#1 Kane goes undefeated for almost three years winning 137 consecutive matches and rarely losing a game. King Kane dominated the sport at the highest level like no other.
Richard Owen writes:
Great list and analysis from Bo. On a slightly different tack there's also people like Usain Bolt, who runs in a very deep and talented field. Same with Pete Sampras, Gary Kasparov, Lance Armstrong, etc. I guess "weak" could be defined in a relative sense, but that would makes me wonder if the only reason they have a streak is because they are the only ones good enough to have a streak. So technological advantage? Usain's height, the Finns' invention of interval training, Armstrong's doping. But wait, most of Armstrong's competitors were probably doping in that era too… How to explain? There seems to be an aspect of ever changing cycles in sport too. Everyone does endurance, so you do HIIT, you win. Everyone copies, etc.
December 24, 2014 | Leave a Comment
I was sitting this morning with my back against a vine lined wall eating rice and a hard-boiled egg, and looking around the streets of Iquitos thinking what a cartoon it has turned into in five years. Five years ago, a computer revolution created the first consciousness in this river locked rainforest port. The prior citizens had no inkling of space or time and existed in the present. The computers provided a model for thinking, which everyone quickly absorbed, so now the people can think and to a degree analyze.
Concurrently – and who's to say if the egg or chicken came first – an economic boom from gold, ayahuasca tourism, and improved conditions, has changed the city landscape. Five years ago, there were no motorcycles, and now there are tens of thousands. Now the citizens wear western clothes instead of rags. Tourists find the girls don't chase them as far for favors.
The origin of consciousness and the tide of money has come too fast and turned the town into a cartoon. The citizens have ballooned in weight, without stop signs there are continual motorbike crashes at intersections, the money has bought plastic junk for Christmas presents, and aguardiente, which is the local cane alcohol, flows in the streets like the adjacent Rio Amazon.
It's like living in a bubble, and the closest sensation is a psych ward. When i got certified as a psych tech and began working the bins, i found the psychology/psychiatry industry is the saddest, most perilous form of capitalism on earth. It's the only place where one's consciousness may be obliterated by idiots overnight. Keep those pills close to your gums and don't swallow.
A dwarfish man walked up full of aguardiente and holiday cheer. I smiled back, but he continued to stand with his large feet nearly on mine. After a minute, I waved him along with a spoon and he reached out to grab and shake my hand. This is custom: a friendly local grasps and pumps a tourist's hand…and won't let go. The grasp of a jungle born and bred Amazonian is stronger than the Olympic champion wrestlers I've known. Then this man started waving his oversize palm in my face. I replied casually, 'If you don't continue down the sidewalk, I am going to rise and push you.' He edged in, hovered his hand over my plate and the hard-boiled egg rolled down the sidewalk instead.
I grabbed his wrist rising simultaneously and twisted his arm behind his back. It requires two hands to pin it against his spine because their muscles are so strong the arm springs back. I wrapped him up like a Noel gift and marched him down the sidewalk toward a police substation. We ducked under a street vendor tarp knocking our heads on pots and pans before the man twisted his face around to mine and pleaded, 'Anything but the police!' for they would beat him. His body tautened in fear and the pinned arm popped out flinging me into the vine wall, as four swat team policemen hemmed us in.
'I was eating breakfast,' I explained, pointing to the squashed egg under my right shoe, 'and he wouldn't leave me alone. But it's Christmas, and everything is peaceful now.' They pushed him down the sidewalk, and that was his Christmas present.
As a vet, I saw many animals who appeared to be healthy and suddenly 'kicked the bucket', and could only think that they were unaware of their illnesses which abetted the immune response… until it was too late. Having put dozens of animals down by injection, and held them caringly through the last gasp, the thought in their eyes isn't death but happiness and trust. I believe animals, especially younger ones and ones that haven't witnessed the death of peers, have no inkling of death. The animals died in my arms, and in the zoo or the wilds, thinking they were going to sleep. The same with disease, as they are dying until the illness reaches a point to incapacitate them physically, they will carry themselves well with a smile on their faces. We're all animals, some smarter than others, and in my case I can acknowledge complete death but decades ago chose to turn a blind eye to the misinformed conventions of treatment of illnesses.
Most maladies are best treated by exercise rather than lounging in bed watching wide screen and texting until they pass. This approach has saved me thousands of hours in recovery from hundreds of times being down but not out, however it has worked the other way in at least three cases. I passed out once with malaria at the feet of a roaring lion. I collapsed while running on a San Diego beach with the second worst case of mononucleosis in the county history. And six months ago, I had the worst case of chronic anemia with half the normal hematocrit in the history of Iquitos, Peru.
Music blared from a deserted French cantina on the Iquitos wharf as a handful of dogs surrounded me. They were like emaciated wolves smelling the chicken-to-go in my knapsack. A big white lunged for my waist that I socked in the jaw with a left hook. He alighted on his feet yelping and the rest bolted. But this was no ordinary pack. As the mongrels fled, an opportunist thug smashed the crown of my head from behind. Amazon wood is softer and the plank glanced off a round spot, as I wheeled. The little man was dumbstruck, as I grabbed his thick wrist in a wrestling hold, and twisted. A Peruvian in pain speaks the truth. This one snapped, 'Don't molest the dogs, my friends.' His intent was to rob me because there is no free wood and his cudgel was in hand. I twisted again, tugging him along, exclaiming, 'We're going to the police; drop the club.' It hit the street with a thud and he cried, 'My mother will spank me!' I yoked him into the lamplight and saw he was only a ragged urchin. 'Do you like dogs?' I asked. 'I live like one,' he replied. It is hard to find a dog lover these days, and so I let him go, knowing the next night he would protect me.
Strategy: A Smorgasbord
The right strategy must come to mind in the worst scenario – losing, tired, hometown ref, and nowhere else to turn but inside.
1. Always change a losing game; never change a winning game.
2. Always have a plan going into a match, and a backup plan.
3. Always have a surprise to pull out all the stops.
4. Reconnoiter your opponent before the match for his strengths and weaknesses.
5. Have a general strategy against all power players, and another against all control players.
6. Analyze every match – how would you play it differently next time.
7. Keep a log of your strategies, and of the opponents.
8. Always have a customized strategy against each opponent, if possible.
9. Call a timeout whenever you skip two straight shots, or the opponent runs three straight points.
10. Keep a coach in the crowd for a second opinion.
11. Have an offensive second serve, such as the jam or Z.
12. Save your upset serve, for example a crack ace, for game winning points.
13. Have a no-fail strategy that kicks in in the worst case scenario.
14. Define your strengths and weaknesses between tournaments, and drill the latter.
15. Set a goal, and time increments to achieve it.
16. Resist the norm – The way to the top is almost always a way no one else has tried.
17. Don't share your personal original strategies during your competitive career.
18. Find one edge against an opponent, or the field, and repeat it over and over.
19. Make your backhand as strong as your forehand.
20. Know the counters to all your strategies.
21. If an opponent throws something at you during a match that you can't handle, hit the same at him next point to know how to respond.
22. Use a slow game pace against a rabbit, and a fast pace against a sloth.
23. Always volley the ball when possible.
24. Always take the most aggressive shot possible during a rally.
25. Be able to hit five perfect consecutive ceiling balls as a fallback.
26. Match your physical attributes with your strategies, for example condition, age, grace. Elephant tusks cannot grow out of a dog's mouth.
27. Pick an overall strategy that is fun to play.
28. Strategy evolves on the sweaty hardwood, not in ivory towers, so think as you play practice matches.
29. Agree with your practice partner to pause after each game to dissect each other's play.
30. Ask every instructor or pro you meet for his best secret strategy.
31. Ask better players to critique your strategies.
32. The best place to glean strategic tidbits is by watching good players, or at a pro stop.
33. Unclutter the Clutter. Stop the mechanism. Have a sure-fire mantra or method to calm down instantly.
34. Develop a 'Muehleisen's Rheostat' at will of being able to crank up or down your intensity of play by 10%.
35. Fight first and save thoughts of victory for later.
36. The highest form of generalship is to conquer the gamesman by a stratagem.
37. At the beginner level a defensive strategy wins, but at an advanced level the most offensive strategy always wins.
38. Have one strategy for a slow ball and another for a fast ball.
39. The best general strategy is serve and shoot.
40. Go to the ceiling if the rival runs a string of points.
41. Go for the jugular with aces and cracks when you have momentum.
42. The shot to practice the most is the kill, because it's the only stepping stone.
43. The serve to practice the most is the drive, as it's the most forceful in an aggressive game.
44. Save your best strategy for the ripest time - pick the flower when it is ready to be picked.
45. When you go up to the mountain often, you will eventually encounter the tiger, so be ready.
46. During a reconnoiter find a tiny edge. A tiny is the best soldier that quickly becomes an army.
47. Strategy is about setting yourself apart from the competition: it's a matter of being different at what you do.
48. Always have a backup service strategy.
49. The greatest tactic is to be able to execute at the worst times.
50. To win by strategy is no less the role of a general.
51. Practice the weakest link in the chain of each of your last performances.
52. Have a short term goal and a long term goal at all times.
53. Use glass to your advantage with serves and shot selection.
54. Shot selection is the most common trait of a win, and flaw of a lose.
55. Have pre-designed strategies for every game style.
56. The greatest strategy is to commit no mental or physical errors in a match.
57. If you're losing a match, is it because your strategy is failing or because of faulty execution of strategy?
58. Use a new strategy a hundred times in practice before taking it to a tournament.
59. When in doubt grab the bull by the horns.
60. Nothing is more beautiful in sport than a well-conceived plan that's executed flawlessly against a superior opponent for a win.
61. Study strategy over the years to achieve the spirit of the warrior.
Victor Niederhoffer writes:
Good for any activity one thinks.
1. The first rule is always practice against someone your equal or better. Try never to break it.
2. The second rule is to handicap yourself if there is no equal. Some methods are:
a) A point spot, or the opponent having to reach 15 before you get 100 points.
b) Time odds, as in chess, where you may never stop moving even between points and receiving service.
c) An implement disadvantage such as using a wood paddle against the racquet which automatically lowers the player one division.
3. For stamina, play simultaneous where one of a string of players enters the court after each point. If there are five players on the opposing 'team' you will get one-fifth their rest.
4. Play opposite handed - It's surprising what you'll learn about your correct hand game, and the handicap opens a new league of competitor until you are their champion.
5. Resistance training is the best method for any racquet, where resistance is weight. Add a few ounces of speaker wire braided around the frame, or wear ankle weights, or a weight vest with increasing increments of 5-40 pounds.
Perhaps my greater contributions to racquetball were off the court during the golden era: blonde afro, customized van, beach running, headphones, Doberman pinchers, reading paperbacks, 10-speed bikes, and scuba.
Once I started it lit a light in the Leach racquetball stable. Charlie Drake's beach garage was full of scuba gear for players to borrow. He, Steve Serot and I took scuba lessons together from a guy named Froggy. In our first lesson in the deep end of a swimming pool we were required to wear weight belts and tread water for 5 minutes, and then allow ourselves to sink to the bottom of the 12' pool where only a single tank of air was waiting.
Serot and I were buddies for this drill, and he being a land mammal was in oxygen debt. I let him take the first grab of oxygen, but he was purple even in the water, and wouldn't give up the mouthpiece. Had I surfaced for air I would have failed the test and certification. Finally, I wrestled the mouthpiece from him and got a gulp of air.
In the second lesson the next day we were required to clear a swim mask full of water. The technique is to tilt the head back and lift the mask a quarter-inch from the face and expel through the nose to displace the water. This is done underwater. Serot kept lifting the mask 6 inches from his face and trying to expel the entire swimming pool. All's well that ends well, and we all got certified and went on a diving trip to Catalina Island where I was confronted 60' underwater by a black bullet that I thought was an attacking shark, and pulled my 6'' diving knife. But when it stopped and peered in my facemask it was a sea lion that let me pet its nose. It did a summersault, wiggled its whiskers, and zoomed off.
While walking through 25' tall grass in the jungle, I was put in mind of Sisyphus. I prefer a dry definition of work such as physics offers of a change in vertical distance, however Greek mythology offers an artful description. Sisyphus was punished for deceitfulness by being compelled to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and to repeat this action.
There are four types of Sisyphus work that I am familiar with, despite never having deceived anyone.
1. Digging a hole and filling it in. This was popular in poorly planned Michigan construction. Another example is the vet school instruction to spay Toms, and after the abdominal incision finding nothing to pull out. This type of activity is characterized by your work creating more.
2. Raking leaves in autumn. This is activity with immediate replacement of what was removed. It's worthless except for the workout.
3. Weeding a garden. The replacement item returns at a constant rate over time.
4. Shoveling snow. It is difficult to forecast when the work will be available again.
As for the jungle grass, the best is coming out again into the sunshine.
One beauty of chess is that it crosses all barriers. Financier George Soros called me Hobo one sunny afternoon at his Southampton home where we split chess games, each winning with white. I discovered he had studied philosophy, and that philosophers quickly adjourn to hermetic strategies across the board.
Chess engraved on the brain doesn't seem to leave. This is especially true after one practices chess in sports during motion. The only flaw of the greatest board game in history is that the board doesn't have feet.
My jogging partner Bob Baldori and I invented aerobic chess on a Michigan track one day with a point man running a few steps ahead wearing a T-shirt magic-marked on the back with a chessboard and pieces in the starting position. This made it easier to visualize the moves as we ran four miles, and the FIDE should silkscreen these shirts for physical fitness.
However, the grandmasters might require silk screened tuxedos for befitting parties. The last one I played against in a speculator's Connecticut home was Arthur Bisguier who with white gave rook odds and gazed between speed moves out the window as if reading a comic book while telling me his life story.
He defeated a young Bobby Fischer and later served as second to Fischer at many international events. He won three US Open Chess Championships (1950, 1956, 1959), and played multiple-game blindfold exhibitions. He was taught chess at the age of four by his father, a mathematician, and kindly never practiced multiplication tables during our match. He thought it terrible, and was pleasantly merciless, that I had disgraced my father while reading funny books in beating him at chess.
After the match, Arthur dropped me off at an Appalachian trailhead near his home, and I took chess onto the trail in hiking the 500-mile Vermont trail, 500-mile Florida trail, 500-mile Colorado trail through the Rockies, the Pacific Crest trail for 1000 miles along the Sierras, the 1000-mile length of Baja, 1000 miles through the Amazon rainforest, and the length of Death Valley. I never would have survived without the lessons from chess.
I started paddleball at Michigan State University, switched to handball, and then when rumors of a professional tour and the first racquet arrived in 1970 at MSU, racquetball was the only game.
I had never hit a single anything before enrolling at Michigan State. The first time I walked into the Intramural Building a pivotal mentor swayed me. I heard the crack of ball on wood and looked down into those concrete pits and saw a purple ball– my specialty– any kind of ball, really. They had zoomed at me in the past in all sizes and shapes on house lawns, corner lots, the streets or parks.
The player down on the Challenge Court wore sunglasses under the bright ceiling lights. He carried a dozen purple balls around and around the court in a motorcycle helmet. Leaning in and watching, someone in the gallery complimented that he was Al Moradian, blinded by his own brilliance, the perennial campus champion. After watching him drop-and-hit, drop-and-hit for a few months, and with quite a bit of practice, one year later I stepped into his tennis shoes as the perennial paddleball champion.
The reason is I earned a backhand that Al didn't own. After watching him on the challenge court, I rented from the sports cage a flimsy plastic paddle that flexed like a flyswatter… and practiced. Paddleball suited me because one could sequester in a downstairs court for hours and hit balls, and the shots came back without chasing them off the four walls. Moreover, I discovered that the amount of initial practice directly related to improvement, and flattened out but was effectual. My theory of sports is to practice the weakness, not the strength, and to let the field try to secret their imperfections with various strategies.
Beside practice, the backhand arrived for two other reasons. I took class notes in longhand, as computers were nonexistent, and the flow of the pen across the page from left to right was cross-training. And, I became arm strong and ambidextrous from rectal palpations of hundreds of cows to determine their states of estrus.
I became the Intramural champion at paddleball, racquetball and handball, and in doubles in all three sports. They gave an official green MSU windbreaker for every championship, and in a couple of years I had a closetful. The year after racquetball arrived, the house I was living in burned down and the jackets melted. This was fortunate because studies in Veterinary school were getting tough, and because I never wore jackets even in winter, but bartered them for dates with the Michigan farm girls. Now with a backhand, books, and no girls, my grades and game improved.
After graduation, I took a west turn out of university for the west coast and became one of the first pro players, and the first with racquet and apparel contracts. I simultaneously entered and won satellite pro events right-handed and open division left-handed.
The primary reason was a backhand that became the Golden Era of Racquetball's best, according to the fans and magazines. It enabled me, whereas it was the flaw of nearly every player at universities and YMCA's across the country, and, because of racquetball, at private clubs in the court club boom.
From a lifetime in various sports, there have always been four stages to test any new act for the proven repertoire.
1. Does the new thing work in solo drill?
2. Does it weather practice games?
3. Does it withstand great fatigue?
4. Does it carry through tournament stress?
Thus, any new thing to be added to your sports show is not proven until it wins a tournament. At that point, you may relax and continue to use it to success.
Only about 1 in 10 of my early new tricks withstood the rigors to become a sweet spot of my game. Sweet, because any simple new thing added to a standard act usually makes a dramatic change in performance.
Most of my survival techniques are self-taught on the spot. Once while hiking at 12k' in the Sierra Nevadas with winter coming on, I had to find a way to sleep at night without a sleeping pad. The frozen ground conducted my body heat into the earth and I couldn't fall asleep. After a few hours of trying various positions, I fell into a sleeping tripod in which the knees and right elbow were the only contact points, and of course the toes. Nearly all of the body weight was on the former three, and since the knees and elbow are calloused, little heat was lost and I slept comfortably for many nights before coming out to civilization. I later learned that tripod sleeping is standard among nomad Tibetans who also use the right elbow as one may turn the head away from the heart.
I remembered that today in the hot Amazon on a vast crisp-dried floodplain carpeted with one species of dark green leafed one foot plants that absorbs heat. I was sleepy from earlier drinking river water, and there was no shade. The ground was so hot it burnt my skin through the clothes. The solution was the tripod sleeping and I awoke an hour later able to continue to shade and the river.
The photo of the ice cream salesman has a story behind it. When I took the pic I thought the universal 'hands up' gesture odd until reflection on where I had just come from. Tinga Maria, Peru, on the Amazon River far from civilization doesn't see many gringos, so when I arrived it was as though I was a king. The steamer would have a couple hour layover, so I asked a three-wheel taxi to take me to meet a girl. Any girl, for it had been a long journey. He dropped me at the entrance of a 10' concrete walled enclosure. The door was closed, but the ice cream salesman was near. He explained that since the sun was only half past noon to sundown, the bordello didn't open for a few hours, however the inner guard knew his knock. He tapped a code on the large wooden door, the guard opened, the salesman explained the situation, and I was ushered in. Few working girls had arrived, but a handful were sleeping in their individual rooms lining the inner perimeter of the compound. The salesman pounded on one door, it cracked open, and a girl strong armed me through into a small cubical lit by a single candle. There was romance and conversation as I discovered she was a good student in business at the university and was doing this to pay for her tuition. Later, I paid her $4, and before leaving reached to shake her hand. She giggled shyly and held up a stub in the candlelight amputated at the elbow. She, like many others, had been a farmer and bitten on the hand by a venomous snake, and choose to cut off the arm in the field rather than die. The ice cream salesman was waiting outside the compound, and I thanked him and paid a dollar for this photo, and hence the hands up.
I first heard it at an LAX airport strike that had thousands of asking passengers scurrying desk to desk to escape the hive. The strike was an honorable test, not the horror everyone thought. Among them, an athletic man in a tailored suit patiently glided, to avoid the long lines, from employee to employee, to inquire of the carriers to NYC. At first, I thought he was following me until he asked, 'Are you following me?' Whenever I encounter a person who of my habit steps out from the crowd, I am surely charmed.
He was a Wall Street trader with a sports car, doll wife, spoke Japanese… and was about to pivot in life. We ended up traveling together on one of the last flights from the airport and, on arrival at Kennedy, he agreed to accompany me to a friend's trading room. He bowed at the neck only on introduction to the president, and murmured, 'Charmed, I'm sure.' Then he went on to prove his capacity for trading and Japanese in conversation, and that indeed he had had a tryout as halfback for the NY Jets on the traders' field.
He had returned to his NY glory to pull the plug – quit the job, divorce the wife, sold the car, and gave up football in order to return to the west coast to write his version of the great American novel. A month later, he was caught and imprisoned for bank robbery of the San Diego Wells Fargo when the police followed a trail of witness fingers out the bank door, checked the trash bins en route, and pulled out his discarded sailor disguise and, of course, traced the DNA from the false beard to nab him. The charmer spent the next few years in prison playing football and writing.
Charmed, I'm sure is used in either formal or street introductions with nearly opposite meanings. Among the well-heeled it's a warm greeting used in ceremonial introductions. Among the down-at-the-heels by one individual to another the meaning is that they don't trust you entirely yet, and if you screw up once, there's no chance of getting anything out of the deal.
As the years rolled by, and I jumped from fashionable sidewalks to the gutter, and back again, I've tuned into occasions that deserve the term. In sparring with a karate instructor for policemen, he suddenly stopped after what I thought was a missed kick and asked, 'Would you like to see that again?' I laughed thinking the kick had missed, but on looking down his toe marks over my heart covered my white T-shirt. Charmed, I'm sure, he slapped my face while my chin was down.
My first girlfriend stopped after the first five minutes of my first sex to explain, 'No, it goes there. Charmed, I'm sure.
In racquetball at a St. Louis pro stop, I wound up to take a backhand off the back wall and hit a killshot 40' away on the front wall. As I executed the shot, my opponent Ben Colton stood hands on hips in front court without attempting to cover the ball. 'This is for the money,' I scolded, 'Play ball!' He replied that it was his only opportunity to study my famous backup up close, and that it was worth losing the point because the ball would roll off anyhow. He was better than he thought, and lost the game by one point.
Yesterday, an Australian nipper dog bit me in midstride on the shoe instep from behind. It was such an expert move that I stood for moments in awe, and then understood it had dry gulched me, and would do it again. So I squirt mace in its teeth. In the same manner, once hiking the Pacific Crest Trail I nearly picked up a 10-inch long baby green Mojave rattlesnake because it was so perfectly colored and buzzed its tail pleasantly. And then was jolted to realize I was charmed, I'm sure.
In daily encounters you will see the foam head on a glass of beer, and take that instant to ask, am I charmed, I'm sure?
I’m not a fighter or a lover but these happen to be two of the four methods used in handling at least 100 street fights over the years. 90% of them have occurred in third world countries, but the techniques are as effective on the Bombay waterfront as NY Harlem. These are the four primary reactions available to normal citizens who go about their days and are suddenly confronted.
FIGHT – The general reaction to fight requires knowing how to or, at least, facing a weaker opponent (unlikely). The first rule of street fights is to grab an equalizer, a stick, bottle or rock. Don’t bluff a fight without expecting to be called on it.
To illustrate, a month ago after a night snack a man stepped under a lamplight and began screaming obscenities at me. Normally I would walk away from this, especially since there was no robbery attempt, however there were children nearby and it would have set a poor example. So, I handed my ankle weights and backpack to the kids, and stalked the man out the light who backpedaled and stumbled into a heap. It was as if a wind blew. Two weeks later, I was assaulted with a ring-neck tackle by a stevedore and had to fight on the street of Iquitos. Luckily, he fell into a familiar wrestling move and was beaten.
FLEE – The best practice is to have the fleetest feet around the world, assuming no guns are involved. It doesn’t matter how many thugs there are, if you can sidestep or outrun them it’s usually the best practice.The other afternoon on exiting a house of soiled doves, I was then surrounded by four young men with theft on their mind. I pulled off the end of my thumb with sleight of hand, and walked out the astonished circle. A few nights ago on exiting the cinema, two dirty men popped out an alcove as if from a movie in heavy jackets with hands in their pockets on a 95F evening. I sidestepped them into the street where they didn’t follow. It’s always a good idea at night to walk away from sidewalk alcoves and into streetlights.
TALK – 80% of my confrontations end after a few words. Most solo thugs dread conversation with a grammatician.
Yesterday I was attacked by three youths brandishing sticks on the Rio Amazon beach, and simply growled at them, ‘You don’t want to do that,’ and they left. The night before, a man with a butterknife closed in as I entered my hostel, and I stuck my hand in my pocket and stood steadily at arm´s length and replied, ‘Are you ready?’ It was a gamble he didn’t risk knowing what, if anything, was in my pocket. (In this case, Mace.) A single question had prevailed.
HOPE – Most victims stand mute and shocked when accosted by a thug. This is what every mugger bets on, so if you can have mentally rehearsed and kick into one of the foregoing three methods –Fight, Flee, or Talk - your chances of escaping unscathed with your wallet are high.
I’ve acquiesced a few times when ‘outgunned and outnumbered’. In one instance in Venezuela two men thrust warning jabs with machetes in my ribs and legs, and I just asked them to leave me bus fare. Another time, in a boxcar I let two tattooed men rob me of little as they motioned toward the open boxcar door of the 40mph train that the option was to jump. After they took my billfold, I gave them cucumber & tomato sandwiches and we became more friendly. They gave back my shoes that had my bankroll under the insoles.
My personal methods in fights are the same as animal surgery, to begin with the most conservative and escalate to the most extreme. One knows in a sentence if talking is going to work, probably not. I never use hope. I flee 2 of 3 times even if I think I can overwhelm the opponent because fighting is dangerous in high numbers. However, on every third situation I hold ground and fend off or attack in order to maintain a mental and muscle memory for the struggle.
You don’t have to be Captain America to have a straight backbone. One of the best things you or your youngster can do is to take a martial art class to gain confidence. The best are wrestling and Aikido. In any case, the four fighting methods of Fight, Flee, Talk, or Hope are the same. And, as my old wrestling coach used to say, mentally rehearse the move a hundred times before you try it on the mat, and then a thousand times on the mat before you take it to a tournament. A fight is just another day at a tournament.
The Shipibo are an indigenous people of the Amazon rainforest who live in the 21st century while keeping one foot in the past millennia. Many traditions are still practiced such as ayahuasca shamanism, and the females in their colorful decorative clothing singing old songs are popular shamans at the Iquitos lodges.
Your body is a planet. So where is the ego?
90% of the cells within us are not ours but microbes. Likely in the Amazon the figure is closer to 99%. The rest of the lives in you are seen with a light microscope: the human skin is not a desert but covered with microbes, many others thrive within our mouth, dental streptococcus, the nose is a rainforest, the intestines an oases, mites nestle in the eyelashes, a few of the fleet host athlete's feet fungus, viruses loiter inside nerves, the lawn you mow on your head is enjoyed by flea or lice, and the strangest are the hoboesque pieces of DNA that infected ancient humans and still make up about 8 percent of our genome.
Even the body cells such as leucocytes, sperm, eggs, heart muscle, autonomic neurons, and photoreceptor cone cells of the eye may be classified as harmonious bugs.
Do microbes have consciousnesses? Certainly, though they are rudimentary, more like what we evolved from before stepping out of the trees onto solid earth.
The human eye without a microscope can only see objects larger than one-tenth of a millimeter long. Given the right conditions, you might be able to see a human egg. Gazing down at those tiny objects, you stand on the edge of a world of creatures invisible to the naked eye. Inside this strange land microbes live their tiny day to day lives – wake up, eat, communicate, move, and respond.
Over the billions of years on this planet these microbes have adapted to fit their environments. They are remarkably diverse organisms living in fresh and salt water, on land, in the air, and on or inside other organisms. As you read the microbes march, there are mutualisms, parasitisms, battle lines are being drawn, and help is on the way from every direction.
No wonder we have collective unconsciousness.
Living with all these microbes in people is easy if you maintain health, a positive attitude, keep busy, strive a little each day, and opt to be kind.
The last census shows about 100 trillion inside you. We are composed of multiple individuals many of whom alertly believe they are selves. This is why I could never understand conceit. It's nice to stick in the pocket the theory that each is an individual, however my definition of self includes the legions I'm made of.
Is so hard to grasp that you are the ringmaster of a circus?
The self is especially as distinct from the world and other selves. It is the conscious that most immediately controls thought and behavior, and is most in touch with external reality. However, I believe myself is composed of micro-selves that must be dealt with by logic, whip, barter and trial-and-error.
This flies in the face of the psychological definition of self, religious and political views, however if you invest in a microscope and look, it must be admitted that…
The next time you pull on your shoes realize you are a walking ecosystem.
Capitalism lessons are costing me a quarter a day.
One week ago, a little boy with a hangdog expression sat next to his father lemonade vendor wishing he had something to do. He was sorting leaves on his knees to sizes to pass time. I bought a lemonade, and asked the child the cost for a leaf. 'A quarter,' he countered brightly, as his father looked on amused.
The following day he was waiting, though the time of my walk varies by three hours. He had created a vendor's table from a 3' plank on the ground with a wider assortment of leaves. I bought another for 25 cents.
This is out on a jungle path where pigs wallow, hens with 27 chicks cluck, everyone has bare feet, sleeping dogs lie, no electric, ice or running water, a body eats on six-bits a day, fingernails and lawns are cut by machete, a piece of material has value, and there are no beggars.
The third day, three vendors with three boards offering new varieties. I bought one shaped like a maple leaf from a new kid, claiming I couldn't afford more.
The fourth day a strange thing happened. There were five venders between the age of 6-9 years, and one was a girl who was scrubbing her leaves with a brush and water. I bought a clean one.
The fifth day, the vendors had learned to balance the planks like trays on their palms and carry them aside me until I bought one. The sixth day repeated, as the market seemed saturated with kids and innovations.
Today, after I bought a freshly scrubbed mango leaf, a señora rushed up and whispered in my ear, 'You know the leaves are worthless. It's just a child's game.'
'Nonsense,' I answered. The child's game is capitalism. Who knows what tomorrow may bring? They may become the most successful vendors in the village with the capitalistic habits that work is rewarded, the best product sells, wait patiently and the customer arrives, curiosity, innovation, a healthy balance of intellectual and emotional quotient, an even-keeled mind, split-second decision making, the ability to handle uncertainty, loss and success, adaptability, and there are no prerequisites.
I find surprising things unbelievable until I can find a mechanism to explain them. In this case, my idea is that people who must be surrounded by noise to think are always above a steady state. They must run their thinking mechanism 24/7 (including dreaming at night) or lose consciousness. Hence their minds have 'forgotten' how to return to silence, and I fear this carries into death. The proof in chess is Bobby Fischer who hated to play noisy chess, while most of his opponents played better with it, as he beat them.
The metaphor in nature is the strangling fig tree that supports the host tree until the former dies and falls, leaving just the fig. Many studies also show that people, at least in the US, are unable to be alone with their thoughts. They freak out without their phones, tvs, radios, computers, etc to constantly distract themselves. So they never have the time to process what they already know about stuff and happiness. All the while being bombarded by the opposite message, that stuff does bring happiness, from the media that they can't turn off.
While the Dow climbed 16 points today, an old man pulled out a wood stool, as he has at 9am for thirty years, hoisted a handcrafted umbrella, stuck a two-foot plank on his lap, and gestured to the first customer. I stepped forward with a pair of jogging shoes to resole, and as he worked explained that in USA it's cheaper to buy a new pair than to get these underhauled. A barefoot señora holding a pair of sandals clicked her tongue, and stuck a finger in a rip in my shirt as I read today's news. The cobbler finished my repair in thirty minutes, and offered the shirt off his back – my size – which was a bargain since it saved me a trip down to crime infested Belen for a used one. The señora quickly sewed the rip in my shirt, as the man fixed her sandals. Then she conjured a shirt out her purse like a rabbit, and handed it to the cobbler for the repaired sandals. I paid $3 for the shoe repair, $2 for the shirt, and the señora offered a massage at her room across the street. It cost $4, and I walked out lightly on new shoes with a newspaper under my arm that the cobbler had thrown in to sweeten the one stop shopping.
The further from civilization the odder the adventure, and the most distant town from any civilization in the world is Iquitos, Peru. A trio of adventures, like vitamins, in the past three days include:
Three days ago, on my walk around Progresso Island on the other side of the Rio Amazon, I heard a whistle that was unlike any bird sounded in a hundred walks during the previous five years. A barefoot man in a policeman shirt waved me down along the jungle path. He ordered, 'Halt!' and I replied, 'What for?' and continued walking as he followed blowing. My rule is never stand with a policeman without a witness. I know about 400 of the 500 poor inhabitants on this Island,, and stopped in 100 meters in the shade under the thatched hut of a señora whose children I teach English. She vouched for me as an eccentric exercising tourist, as I advanced. The whistle blew in five minutes in my ear, and I ducked into the house of a family whom I buy warm sodas from on hotter days. They introduced the shoeless man as the island Mayor, who visits every few months, and so I gave him a chance to talk. 'There are some bad fellows on the Island to beware of,' he warned, to which I scoffed, 'I know all the people and none is bad, and YOU are the only person who has molested me. I may run against you in the reelection.' Without batting an eye, the Mayor smiled, pumped my hand, and raised my arm shouting, El Americano!' He just wanted the citizens to see him as important.
Yesterday, in the city of Iquitos, I flagged down a policeman wearing a white shirt and white holster from his motorcycle. 'Will you help me?' I asked, and he listened patiently in the bustling Mercado Modelo as I described how a few days earlier a señora vendor had sprinted from behind her pile of oranges and beaten me on the chest with her fists, and it was too high to reach, so she had whacked me repeatedly with a broomstick. She had shortchanged me the day before, so I had taken a pitcher with an inch of orange juice to search for a policeman. Not finding one, I was now returning the pitcher, and asked the officer to accompany me for protection. When we reached the orange juice stand minutes later, the señora started out with the broom again, caught the policeman's eye, and retreated behind the oranges. The Tourist Police are a specific body of the National Police trained to protect, serve and orient the tourists. He asked for her side of the story, but when she omitted the assault, it was her word against mine. I produced a typed Spanish copy of exactly what had occurred. She shrank behind the pile of oranges, and he asked if I wanted to make a denunciation, which is a shameful thing to happen in Peru. I declined, saying I just wanted to be able to pass safely through the market, and he gave me his calling card to ensure it.
The third thing happened late last night. I rarely dream, and have no memory of a single one in over a year. However, I've been chased by many dogs recently that must have been working on my unconscious. I woke up in the middle of the night in the act of kicking a snarling dog, and kicked hard the concrete wall next to my bed. My big toe is broken.
No big deal, and today will be another adventure.
I'm making plans to go into my own business after next year's travels. Specifically, a more turnkey business that will give me free time. Like a corner store.
If you had $100k to $300k in cash… what business would you get into? The goal is something that is stable, not subject to trends or fads and that operates itself as much as possible.
I think the approach should be to pick the location, and then the type of business. I learned this from swap meets.
Next, make it something you would do for free, or nearly so, like as a hobby.
Invest VERY little initially–get the tiniest toe wet because the rest can follow. This is another definition of business patience. If the type of business is unique and can't be copied, all the better. If it may be franchised down the line, the better still. The choice of business should be something nearly everyone wants that nearly no one else may supply. (If others might imitate, then plan to get in quick, get out quick with a profit, and a smile).
Whatever the business, it seems bright on day one; and whatever the profit, it will grow dull on day 1000. So, don't put much into inventory and be sure you can step out on a 24 hour notice.
Never take a free drink or any freebie from anyone.
90% of us get up each morning and go to work. It's the same down here in the Amazon except work is closer to the earth and water. On my morning walk I encountered a Senora laying fishnets in a lagoon, and paused to ask how long it would take for a catch. 'Return in seven hours,' she replied. I did, as she was yanking fish caught by the gills and fins from the 25 meter net line, on soda bottle floats, laid close to shore and nearly touching the muddy bottom of the lagoon. Her husband was off weeding their acre yucca garden on higher ground.
She carried only one equipment aside the net, a 10 gallon basket that the day's catch filled with fifty fish of 7-22" length from about ten species. The largest looked like a tiger with fins that she said was doomed for ceviche, a Peruvian recipe for raw fish marinated in citrus juice where the juice coagulates the fish proteins, effectively cooking it.
I wanted to follow it to the supper table. She tossed the gulping fish into the basket, saying it had been a good day, and I helped lug it a kilometer to the dime motorized canoe taxi that departs hourly for a ten minute putt to the Modelo Market of Iquitos. Then we took turns balancing the 40 lb. basket on our heads up 100 steps to the marketplace to look for a spot.
Another fish vendor invited the senora adjacent onto the sidewalk, eyeing the catch that wouldn't compete with her own while drawing more customers, and my companion threw a rice sack to claim a sidewalk square. The market bustles in late afternoon selling everything under the sun. She started cutting off the sharp dorsal fin of each fish that picks the customers' hands as they smell and fondle them for freshness, but we had been followed by anxious buyers wanting first grabs, and a couple sales were made before the rice sack and blood hit the pavement. Then sales were brisk for ten minutes, until the excitement of the new 'fish' on the block dissolved, and she happily jingled the change in her apron. The big ceviche fish went for $8, the nearly two-dimensional spineless Palmetto delicacy for $4, and the remainder at $1-2 each.
She will sell the batch over the next two days, at a lesser price tomorrow since it won't be put on ice overnight, and on the third day will sell them for peanuts to the salty fish vendor down the sidewalk who'll slice, salt and sell them for the next two weeks. Her take for the batch is about $50 which is a windfall.
I got so hungry watching the direct marketing that I went out for a fish dinner, now knowing that they're marked up 20% by the street table merchants and 200% by the finer restaurants.
The introduction of a new cultural trait may take generations in a society before it takes hold. The variables include the necessity of the trait, the size and degree of interaction of the population, geophysical barriers, and susceptibility.
As an experiment, three months ago I made the first wave of greeting on a one-mile diameter island in the Amazon River. There are four little pueblos of about 200 inhabitants each living on stilted huts that I passed by or under during my daily hikes. Apparently, it was the first time any had seen a hand wave, for all of every age to the last person stared back with puzzled looks. They included farmers, a few dirt floor businessmen, schoolchildren, and entire families at the rate of about fifty people a day.
For the first month of daily hikes, there was zero response and I was like a cloud passing by. Then I began assisting the wave with a hearty 'Buenos dais´, and the recipients all replied, 'Buenos dais´, without a wave. However, in about another month the first wave returned from some children who appeared like puppies discovering their tails for the first time, and not knowing what to make of them while they wiggled.
The waves propagated exponentially by imitation of seeing others until three months into the experiment nearly every person I waved to – without the verbal greeting – waved back. Now the island is flooded with them. Do they wave to each other? – I haven´t seen it. However, today 25 out of the 30 people I waved at responded in same, and about a third of them initiated the gesture.
The conclusion is a cultural trait has been instilled in three months. I imagine it will be passed to future generations and last for as long as the happy people do.
Today at 1pm on the Iquitos skid road a señora returned change with a bottled water, warning, 'It's Sunday and the streets are crawling with thieves who are brave from booze while the police are on holiday.'
I walked out the store and immediately a body piled onto my back with an iron arm around my throat like a noose. I rolled with the tackle and Texas necktie to keep my neck from snapping. We fell in a heap to the ground, and his face was behind my ear hyperventilating beer exhaust. In that moment I knew without seeing that he was about 5'6'', 160 lbs., a stevedore, clean, no aftershave, and stupid.
I owe my father's childhood training in judo and wrestling to react the instant I was touched. We were on the ground where I gain strength like Antaeus, and knew an escape from the headlock. It's to simultaneous tuck the chin and jam the heel of the hand up against the elbow of the lock. I know the nerve I hit well from double tennis elbow. His forearm lifted from my throat like a drawbridge.
We scrambled at once to our feet, and he fled. I couldn't follow with ankle weights and a broken toe. I cleaned the blood with bottled water and walked on into the daylight.
The Cinema of Iquitos at one minute's walk along Calle Arica from the church corner of Plaza de Armas has deep roots that reach back to the rubber boom. With the arrival of foreigners, along with the evolution of the United States cinema in Hollywood, the Cinema in Iquitos showed its first film in 1900. It was show in the famous Casa de Fierro, the House of Steel now catty-corner from the present day theater, with an Edison machine. The projector used a carbide lamp that required the constant movement of the operator.
Due to the prominence of cinema in Iquitos, pioneers of filmmaking produced here including Antonio Wong Rengifo, Werner Herzog, Armando Godoy, and Dorian Moris. They prolonged the cinematic presence in the city that built today's theater where last night I viewed the horrid 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes'. Although the movie could better have been acted by apes and chimpanzees, today's Iquitos Cinema meets American standards.
With a few flaws. The pluses in reviewing this theater begin with the four large screen theaters, with comfortable seating and effective air conditioning. You walk in with a bushel of popcorn and it could be Manhattan. The negatives are the interruption of the joy of the better films by cell calls, a continual flash of phone text screen among the audience, and the viewers – many of whose initial view of the world outside Iquitos is the silver screen (English Subtitles) - laugh, ooh & aah, or scream in terror at exactly the opposite moments that an American audience will. The string of films I've watched testing my sanity over the past fifteen years are new action thrillers and demonic massacres. Going to the Iquitos Cinema is like a trip deep into deep Amazonia with inexhaustible eye-witness quivers, except it's not a five meter anaconda but the person's legs in the seat behind that drape your shoulders if you slouch invisibly.
The staff is very friendly, and the owner diplomatic, but all are equally ineffective in enforcing their own rules about feet on chairs and use of cellphones. The food is excellent, but pricey upwards of USA fees for drinks and snacks. The place is a din from a game arcade that one must pass through to buy tickets. I've shelled out increasing prices since 1999 that started at 3 Soles (about a buck) and last night ran 10 Soles. The films are supposed to freshen each Thursday, but the likelihood is that a popular film, such as the present 'Transformers' will be held over for a month. There are about five daily showings of the normal venue of four different films, but arrive before the posted start time or the ticket seller will claim the seats are filled until you issue a bribe.
Through the Rubber Boom and its inevitable regress, on rolls the cinema. The crisis hit Iquitos hard and had its effect on the industry, but the play of Charlie Chaplin and new films did not stop. A movie theater in any city of the world is an economic indicator, and in Iquitos more so as even in depressed times it shows that a person will put a fantasy in front of his face before bread on the table.
Birds of a feather flock together includes people and dogs. Today a young Utah tourist, part of a new American wave to strike paydirt at the ayahuasca mecca of the world in Iquitos, Peru, was surrounded by four grimy youths flashing knives at his breast and throat. The scene was at Gang Corner where I've been attacked on each seven previous nights at the same hour. My assaults have not been by uprights, but by dogs dressed in the local people's clothes, with snapping canines in the yellow lamplights. The Salt Lake man had just stepped out the tenth annual International Shaman's Conference at a ritzy hotel at 11pm and walked a hundred steps to Gang Corner, on the fashionable Rio Amazon malecon, when the knives flashed. The waterfront Belen youths surrounded and demanded his knapsack, knowing it contained the tourist's valuables of camera, laptop and maybe a few dollars. They would be surprised to discover the victim's U.S. passport.
Why hadn't I been robbed at the same corner at the same time by the same two-legs gang? Perhaps the snapping circle of dogs each night dissuaded them, but more likely they knew the exact hour the Shaman's conference dismissed and lay in wait for the first unsuspecting tourist. Having a passport stolen presents a Catch-22 of needing to prove one's identity to a U.S. Consulate, and coughing up a hundred bucks without credit cards that usually accompany the theft, as well as paying for two weeks hotel in wait (unless a harsh expedite fee is paid). Since the nearest embassy is in Lima, the Salt Lake man went to the airport today in hopes of boarding without identification, and then 'throwing his feet' in Lima on the Consulate's doorstep. Fat chance.
This poor man's misfortune was my stroke of luck, and I took the tip to the police station. I must find an equalizer. This is because I must walk past Dog Corner nightly from the last day's activity here at the Cyber internet to my hotel. The sycophantic policemen urged me to take matters into my own hands by purchasing a $20 mace spray that shoots a 15' stream like a squirtgun that will 'stop a charging beast'. They instructed to aim for the chest, not into the wind much like a urination, and the spray will splatter and dispense temporarily blinding and inducing respiratory distress. The recipe is tear gas and peppermint. Then, they smiled, bring the predators turned prey to the cop shop and they'd beat them for a song. So, I got the mace.
An equalizer is required whenever a smaller person faces a larger, or armed, or group of thugs. During twenty years of world travel I have never carried a weapon for two primary reasons: it ups the blood ante of any altercation, and it cancels the mental rehearsal of the manly art of self-defense. My former equalizers have been fast shoes and quicker hands, with a swifter tongue. However, now I required something more concrete at Gang Corner. The ordinary doorstop on skidrow hotels is a baseball bat, in Manhattan the world squash champ used to jog through Central Park at midnight brandishing a squash racket, I would prefer an oversized modern racquetball racquet for the lighter swing weight, on the rails the standard is a 7" railroad spike, but now the answer was protective spray. I can take it in checked luggage to USA where it's also legal, yet in California the net weight must not exceed 2.5 ounces. A squirt reaches twice as far as an arm and knife.
The reason for my concern is that if I get stabbed it would be more hapless than the Salt Lake tourist. The protocol is that the foreigner is taken to a hospital, he is patched, but not allowed to stay if he cannot afford the bill, and on leaving is met by the immigration police to check documents and explain why a tourist can't afford a hospital stay. I couldn't pay it because of a defaulted loan before this trip to a former acquaintance. The mace is an insurance policy tonight, as I venture out to Gang Corner.
Ralph Vince writes:
Weapons & Women….
I like the idea of a mace-style spray like that. First off, regardless of whatever anyone thinks they are capable of in terms of defending themselves, one thing is for certain, when there is more than one assailant
– and absolutely when there are more than two — you need a weapon (personally, I carry at least two anywhere, depending on the local laws as well as the context. A genteel dinner party is different than a late-night, city walk. Everyone should carry at least two, non-redundant weapons).
One of the main concern with any weapon is its range. A rifle ught be good at 100 yards or longer, a handgun from 40 feet on in. A knife, only out to about arms length (but deadly in that range). Some weapons have to be swung (bats, tire irons, batons, etc.) meaning they have to be moved in a plane
– get outside that plane and you're safe, and the plane is almost always primarily vertical or horizontal, and with a very finite range. Not only is the far extent of that plane finite, in close it is of no use. So an aluminum bat might look very imposing, but sternum-to-sternum, it's quite useless as well. The sooner you can get sternum-to-sternum, or out of the plane of that thing, the sooner you can stuff them with it or be high-tailing it away (In fact, any of these swinging-style weapons are a poor choice becuse they are plane-restricted, have a finite range in both directions, have to be chambered, etc. They do not hide well, and you can usually be quite certain any loogan carrying such a weapon has only THAT weapon. When you see the guy on walk with the golf club to fend of a loose dog, you can be quite certain he is, for all intents-and-purposes, unarmed).
Spray, is like a gun the the sense that it's range is beyond the reach of your assailants arms and legs, and works sternum-to-sternum, and hides well. It's a nice weapon provided you have something else you can get to from any practically any position.(I onceu asked a postman, with sun-cragged skin from too many years of Florida delivery, if he ever had to defend himself against vicious dogs with the can of mace at his side. He mentioned how it works well against bees in the mailbox, and vicious dogs but that you "Gotta get it right in their eyes." Maybe spraying the chest works with people but I'm not so sure about dogs!)
As we get a little older, even though we may think otherwise, we ar arme a LOT slower than a young person, andwith far less wind than a young person. The best young person fighter can perhaps take on two at once — someone older, beyond more than one assailant, you absolutely must have a weapon to have a chance. In other words, when you know you are going to be accosted by more than one person, make up your mind that they are going to be needing an ambulance here. It's SO much easier when you really WANT to hurt someone in those situations.
The most important thing to remember when being confronted by more than one assailant is that nobody really wants to be harmed. You want to plant in their mind that there's a chance things may not go right. Put some doubt in their mind that they may not get away without harm. The only reason people do bad things is they think they're going to get away with it and not be harmed. So how do you do this? They are reading your body language. They are checking you out to see if you can defend yourself — specifically, to see if you're tuned in to what is happening and if there's a reasonable chance you might hurt them.
So don't look to intimidate, and don't get all huffy & puffy. Make eye contact (You are not making eye contact, per se, but rather looking at their sternum. Solid eye contact is a challenge and you are not in as good a position to "see," specifically their lead foot which will always, ALWAYS move at you when the go to grab or strike you) with your potential enemies, in a non-emotional manner.
Marion's remark is very wise. Just as I take the incandescent light for granted and the flush toilet, so too do Western women very often (because we are accustomed to) take their individual safety for granted in an historical context. We have come to assume that is how things are when in fact, this is reltively new in human existence, and hasn't yet reached many parts of the world. When you're with a woman in a bad situation, bad people are MORE likely to come after you (a woman with you is akin to your being a wounded animal in the wild — it is viewd as an impediment to your being able to effectively defend yourself). You have to be more prepared, more ready to hurt people who are a threat in those situations.
A woman who is armed has at least a chance of inflicting harm and getting away if unaccompanied. The best situation, is to be accompanied and armed as well — Bo's idea of mace is a great weapon in the battery of weapons someone ought to have.
Marion Dreyfus writes:
When I was traveling solo in Peru, I frequently chafed at having to stay in after dark if I did not have a bunch of fellows to go out with, since I never usually call it a day until it is very very late, especially when I am a-traveling. One time high in the hills, I asked a few men I vaguely knew if they would accompany me out for a late look around the town. All were tired and did not want to risk a strange place at night.
One woman thought us silly, trying to find compadres for the walk. An attractive 20-something, she took her backpack on her back and left for her own town investigation. She returned in an hour, a wreck, crying hysterically, her clothes a mess, her hair disarrayed, dirty and unconsolable: She had been accosted by 3 or 4 men, her backpack was taken, her passport and all her money was gone, and she was fortunate she kicked up enough of a fight not to be raped. She spent the next days desperately trying to get her passport replaced, not doing anything else in Peru.
I was glad that I had not ventured out alone that night. Later in the week, I rose very early and flagged a small cab, directing him to go further up the mountain. I wanted to check on a statue that someone had pointed out to me, one he said had been given by muslims to the town in gratitude for something or other in the early 1940s. We went to the statue, 6 am, as the sun was rising, and I studied the plaque at the foot of the statue, though it revealed little that was of use to me. I reboarded the same taxi and returned to the hotel/inn, before most people had even risen for breakfast.
But traveling in such places, if I am not with several men, I do not venture out. All well and good to be a tough and adventure-seeking female, but the rest of the world does not necessarily appreciate our independence: They read a female alone as an opportunity for free money, free unbidden sex, and free harassment fun. Or worse.
One of the reasons I canceled my trip alone to Yemen, where women have simply disappeared if they did not travel in a dense group.
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 | Leave a Comment
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."
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 | Leave a Comment
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.« go back — keep looking »
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