Category — From the Edge
Breakfast with Blanche
We are breakfasting with the usual trio: Blanche, Sludge and Ted. Susan is my “Significant Other”, or more practically, SO. The SO and I motored down to Key West from St. Pete, early Saturday morning, Christmas week. On Sunday, we are joined by our traditional Christmas week breakfast club, comprised of Susan and myself, and Ted, Blanche and Sludge, all three of whom are birds, and all of whom show up for the festivities every year. We are celebrating the Holidays together for the third straight year. Sludge, the newest member of our club, is back for year number two. There’s a diverse spread, with something for everyone; we have leftover yellowtail snapper from yesterday’s lunch at the Hogfish Bar and Grill on Stock Island, fresh Tangerine Juice from Yellow Bank Groves in Largo, and a perfect Comice pear, sliced at its peak of flavor and aroma, which lasts for approximately one hour before it declines. I have a croissant from the French bakery on Duvall, and Cuban coffee from Cuban Coffee Queen, down on the docks. The SO is having a slice of gluten-free bread she brought from St. Pete. Blanche, Sludge and Ted are dining on crumbs scattered on the balcony floor, as per usual. We are all merry, and enjoying the Christmas decorations on the boats below us in the marina.
I should introduce the honored guests. Ted is Canadian, in Key West for his annual vacation. He is a warbler by trade, roughly the size of a standard cosmetic cotton ball, and interprets my morning whistle toward the coconut palms in front of the balcony as his personal invitation to join the breakfast club each morning. Blanche and Sludge are local Key West pigeons of good families. Blanche has celebrated Christmas with us for at least three years, perhaps four. She’s beautifully distinctive. Of her eight toenails, three are white, as are most of her feathers, and three of her toenails are jet black. Her eyes have black pupils, surrounded by cadmium yellow irises, and ringed by a clear, bright orange. There are a few random, red/brown feathers on her lower back. She and Ted arrive a few seconds after I whistle for them, and Sludge, Blanche’s second-year SO, arrives seconds later. Sludge is unlovely by my standards, but he’s Blanche’s Prince Charming. He’s the same color as dirty, big-city sidewalk snow, beady-eyed and grimy. Ted, on the other hand is always immaculately attired, dapper, with a gray-green/yellow back, and dark bars on his thumbnail-sized, buff-colored breast. If I haven’t whistled him in, he chips from the coconut palm to remind me that he has arrived, and is awaiting invitation. As soon as I do whistle, he flits over to the railing, and looks down to verify that his breakfast has been served. Usually, he cocks his head, and regards me with baffled interest: what kind of huge, ugly and deformed bird am I?
I can whistle, at least, and I have spilled crumbs for him. He shrugs, and drops to the tiled floor with his tablemates, Blanche and Sludge. They ignore each other, and eat with speed and gusto, as is their way. Ted is always the first to excuse himself, and returns to the nearby palms to hunt for bugs, I suspect for the kids’ breakfasts.
Susan has walked to the French bakery for my morning croissant, and stopped at the Cuban Coffee Queen to bring back a café au lait for herself, and a double colada for me. I’ve set the patio table, warmed the leftover snapper fillets and poured the juice. Her brought-from-home gluten-free bread was in the toaster, ready to go down. On her return, I’d shake out the crumbs in the pastry bag onto the balcony for our three guests, all of whom arrive promptly, bringing appetites. When Ted leaves, he’s usually gone for a while, but Blanche and Sludge are fairly likely to follow us into the timeshare living room, and perch on the lampshade, like Poe’s raven. We shoo them out, but they’ll walk right back inside, unless we close the door, or seat ourselves on the balcony to keep them company. In the latter scenario, they settle down on the tile, near us, and wait for more food, very patiently.
From the balcony, we watch some of the semi-tame tarpon cruise slowly through the open water in the marina below, looking for a hand-out of left-over bait from the fishermen tied up to the dock or filleting fish at the cleaning tables nearby. The roving Key West cats, all named, snooze in the sun, or sit impatiently under the fish tables. Each of them seem to know that they will be fed their scraps in turn, and there are no arguments between them as slivers of raw fish are distributed to them by the fish cleaners, ministering to the faithful.
There is a sharp-shinned hawk perched on the mast of one of the larger boats in the marina, also looking for dining opportunities. He looks at, then ignores the breakfast club guests. Ted is too small to bother eating, and Blanche and Sludge too large to consider, when there are right-sized mourning doves in abundant supply nearby. After surveying the options in our immediate vicinity, the hawk flaps aloft, and then soars away, seeking breakfast elsewhere.
After breakfast, we close the doors to the balcony, and go for a stroll down Duvall Street. It’s sunny and mid-seventies: the people we pass on the sidewalks are cheerful, and as glad to be there as we are, but Key West offers plenty of traps for the unwary. A week there suffices for us. Two weeks is a bit too long, at least for me. There are bars on almost every corner, it seems, and plenty of folks who appear to have stayed in Key West just a little too long for their own good, hovering in the shadows. Early walks take you past ragged people sorting through the trash cans along the street, periodically extracting a half-eaten sandwich or an unemptied cup. Homeless people congregate in the out-of-the-way spots, here and there, and ask for spare change, smokes or your take-home bag. I suspect that Paradise isn’t all that far from hell, if either actually exist, and Key West might just be that spot, if it does.
About the author:
Bill Dixon is a contributing columnist to Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in About Us.
November 6, 2014 Comments Off on From the Edge/Bill Dixon
And Then They Were Gone
It recently occurred to me that over the course of my life, I’ve known a number of people who committed suicide. I guess that at some level I understand how that could happen. There are some times when there doesn’t seem to be any practical way out of a bad situation that’s getting steadily worse, and which can’t be resolved in any other way. I suppose that scenario might be a reason for someone to take their own life. In my mind, those situations are few and far between, but in my experience, I’ve seen five cases involving people who I believed I knew relatively well.
The first, and perhaps the most difficult case for me to understand at the time, was a long time ago, in the 1950s’, involving a neighbor. He was an Assistant Professor at Ohio State, and taught classical languages: Greek and Latin. I was his paperboy, and occasionally shoveled his sidewalk during the winter. During the summer, I helped him with some gardening projects in his backyard, in a rather limited capacity. He lived five doors north of my family. I didn’t do all that much actual gardening with him, but I often sat and talked with him while he worked in his flower beds during the University’s summer breaks. I was interested in just about everything, and garden plants were on the list. Besides, I planned to attend the University, when I graduated from high school, in seven years. I had questions about that, too. I was still in elementary school at that time, full of curiosity, and quite willing to ask questions of adults willing to answer them for kids like me.
We talked about lots of things, but mostly flowers and other landscape plants. He also explained what he did as a language teacher, and what sorts of students attended his classes, and for what purposes. He told me that while he spent most of his time working with his students, he also had responsibilities to his colleagues, his department chairman, and in publishing scholarly papers on his areas of expertise in professional journals. This took quite a bit of explaining, to make a ten-year-old understand all those things, but he did a splendid job in my estimation. He also told me that he worried about the future of his area of academic instruction. This was during the first era of the GI Bill, and he felt that the returning WWII veterans didn’t seem to be particularly interested in classical language studies. They wanted degrees that could get them good jobs in the bustling peacetime economy. Gaining expertise in archaic languages didn’t seem to be one of those paths. He lamented this trend on several occasions.
He was married, and although I saw his wife looking down at us from up the hill in his backyard on many occasions, I never met her in person. When I did see her, she was always wearing a house coat. I never saw her outside their house. They didn’t have any children. If we were still talking at his lunch time, she called him in to eat, but never said anything to me, or seemed to notice me at all. It was, “Bob, lunch is ready,” and that was it for our discussion. Since I had a lunch of my own to eat at the other end of our block, that usually ended our visit for the day. Our get-togethers weren’t a daily event, by any means, but we chatted several times a month, and I thought I knew him fairly well. He never seemed to be particularly happy, but neither did he seem to be especially unhappy. At any rate, I was shocked to hear at the end of the school year that he’d committed suicide.
I overheard neighborhood adults say that he’d not gotten tenure, that his wife was mentally ill, that his department had been cut back, and a lot of other things. I don’t have any real facts to go on, as I said, and it seems that now I never will. It happened sixty some years ago, but at the time, I couldn’t understand why anyone would deliberately shoot themselves in the head. He did, though, putting a .38 revolver in his mouth, and pulling the trigger.
It was twelve or fourteen years later, in the 1960s, when I was a student at OSU, that the next one occurred. This suicide was a woman, about my own age. Her name was Rosie, and she was definitely mentally ill. She almost never seemed to smile. She wasn’t very attractive, and that didn’t help her, but she also had a domineering mother, who criticized her regularly and publicly. Rosie lived off and on with several roommates. As a group, we were very social. There was some low-end drug usage, beer and wine, and lots of parties. Rosie almost never had a date for any of the parties. She would periodically swallow a bottle of pills late into the event, and hurl herself down an upstairs stairway into the party. The pills were over-the-counter stuff, but required the local emergency squad to take her to University Hospital to pump her stomach. If speed dial had existed then, we would have had their number on it. Her roommates would notify her mother, of course. Rosie would go home for two or three weeks, get anti-depression medication and some trips to a psychiatrist her mother selected. Afterward, she’d reappear, and move back in with her roomies. She’d be alright for a few weeks, then she’d repeat the ineffective attempted “suicides”.
In subsequent performances, she’d wear a long white nightgown, and perhaps take all of her prescription medications beforehand. The results were always pretty much the same. Her roommates talked to her, her friends talked to her, her psychiatrist talked to her. Nothing seemed to work. Then, she found a fellow student who cared for her, and she seemed to get better. They moved in together, into their own apartment, rented for them by her mother. The group we were all part of gradually thinned out: people graduated, got married, went to other universities to get advanced degrees, took jobs in other cities,and in general, dispersed. Two years later, a friend (and member of our group), went into the hospital for minor surgery. As they were wheeling him down the hall, Rosie went past him going the opposite direction, also on a gurney. She’d shot herself in the chest.
We found out that Rosie’s relationship, for one reason or another, had fallen apart. She’d gotten despondent, and shot herself with a .22 revolver. Those of us who were still around visited her in the hospital, and tried to cheer her up, but our efforts didn’t have much staying power. A few months later, she shot herself again, and died as a result.
It was apparent then, what had happened. It was a combination of lots of things. She obviously had major mental issues, and eventually spun out of control. There were people who blamed her mother, who could be very harsh with Rosie, some who blamed her former lover. Some blamed the system that failed her. In the end, she was dead, and establishing someone or something to blame didn’t change a thing. I never thought of anything to do for her except feel sorry for her, which wasn’t much help. I guess I was partly to blame as well.
Janet was the tenant of a member of our group, rather than a regular member, but a few of us knew her from visiting our friend, Paul, who was her landlord. Paul lived in the same building. Janet was strange, perhaps bizarre, but she didn’t seem to be mentally ill, like Rosie. She was also fairly attractive, usually dressed in a costume out of Bizet’s opera, Carmen . She told me, as we drank a couple of beers together, that she had established numerous relationships with various men by offering them non-typical sexual acts as attractions. She described some of them to me in the University-area bar we were in. I had run into her there, late one evening, in the 1970s. I had come from an evening class I needed to take, to finish grad school at OSU. I wasn’t shocked by her catalogue of available sexual alternatives, so much as fascinated by her openness. They were extensive and imaginative sexual adventures, and she reeled them off like a car salesman talking about selecting options on a new car. It seemed almost as if she were chatting with me about recipes or the like, but I supposed she wanted to see if I had any interest in sampling some delicacy from her numerous areas of expertise. There were a few options that sounded interesting to me, I admit. The problem was that it seemed fairly likely that she might also provide some medical problems along with the frolics she proposed. I was also married. I declined, with some regret, but I declined.
About a year later, Paul told me that Janet had killed herself. She had filled her car’s tank with gasoline, and sealed herself in her mother’s garage, using duct tape. She taped the edges of the garage doors, and any other openings, rolled down the car windows, and started the car in park. It was an old car, and a cluttered garage. After she was dead, debris in the garage somehow caught on fire, and burned. The medical examiner said that she was dead before the fire started.
I don’t think anyone saw that coming, but I found out later that her brother had also committed suicide, presumably due to a serious drug addiction. I didn’t know him, but he left a suicide note, then took a massive overdose of heroin. He had died before I’d met Janet, so I can’t offer any further explanation of why, or even when. I didn’t include Janet’s brother in the five suicides I’m detailing, but it may have been a family predilection, and therefore, be a partial explanation of Janet’s suicide.
I spent a lot of time in Miami in the 1980s, in a rough section of town. I was rehabbing apartments in Columbus, Ohio, then, and took weeks at a time off to get some R&R between projects. I stayed in a room in a rooming house a pal owned, and along with another local friend or two, we took short vacations to Central America, and raised a lot of hell in Third World locations there. There was a property owner on the other side of the street I periodically lived on in Miami, who’d watch over our cars and my pals’ houses while we were away somewhere. His name was Gordon, and he was a Canadian: a good guy, and a good neighbor.
I’d drifted into a property management mode in Columbus, so my trips to Miami slowed down, substantially. Also, my Miami pal got married, and had started a family, so I didn’t have a traveling buddy living in Miami any more. I still talked to my chum there, of course, and one day he called me to tell me that Gordon had killed himself. He took an overdose of sedatives, and sat in his car with the engine running, with a hose conducting exhaust gasses into the drivers’ compartment. It turned out that he’d been diagnosed with prostate cancer, in an advanced stage. They gave him a couple of months to live, and he told a friend that he wasn’t going to die in a hospital. Gordon wasn’t crazy, he just decided to choose his own way to go, and to go on his own time.
Finally, at least so far, there was one more suicide: Harry. Harry lived across the street from me in St. Pete Beach, in the 1990s. He was a real estate salesman, doing sales of foreclosed VA loans, exclusively. He was divorced, and rented a home from a Canadian neighbor of mine, for eleven months out of the year. He kept the home clean, and provided a measure of security for the largely absentee owner, who only stayed there for the month of January. During January, Harry moved out, and stayed with a lady friend. His rent was nominal, and perhaps paid the property taxes on my neighbor’s home.
Harry was a friend. We’d talk on a regular basis about things, and sit down for a beer together once in a while. His boss was a real estate broker, who was also a friend to both of us. He didn’t want to work on VA repossessions, but if Harry did that for him, his boss earned a little bit of each commissionable sale. It was a comfortable situation for both of them.
I saw Harry out in his driveway one afternoon, and he waved me over. He said,“Bill, I trust you, and I’m going to tell you something I want you to hold in confidence for me.” I agreed at once. He told me that he had cancer that had spread to his lymph glands, and that he didn’t have long to live. I asked him how I could help, and he told me that he had a plan that he was going to put in place, when the pain got to an unacceptable level. The plan was that he’d go out for a fancy lunch on that day, and have a bottle of expensive wine. He’d pay by credit card, and would never see the bill for it arrive in the mail. On that same day, he’d call his boss, and tell him that he needed to meet with him at the home he was renting from the Canadian owner. He’d set a time for that to happen, and if there was any snag in the plan, he’d call me, and ask me to call the police to report that he’d committed suicide, just before he pulled the trigger. He told me that if I wouldn’t do that, he’d do it anyway, but he wanted his body removed as soon as possible after he shot himself.
There wasn’t much other than that I thought I could do. Harry was going to “eat a .38 bullet,” he said, whether I did what he asked me to do or not. If I ratted him out, he said he’d call me a liar. What he was going to do was exactly what he said he’d do, either way. I told him I’d be his backup, and call the cops if he needed me to. The door would be unlocked and there’d be a note on the kitchen table, he said.
A month or so later, the day before I was going to leave Florida and drive to Ohio for the summer an ambulance arrived, mid-afternoon, along with the St. Pete Beach Police, at Harry’s place. His boss, Byron, who had come over to meet with Harry, was sitting on a concrete bench on the patio, with his head in his hands. The ambulance attendants were carrying Harry’s body away. The cops had taken their photographs and written up their reports. I watched out of my window. I hoped that Harry had enjoyed his deluxe lunch before he lay down on the cot he’d put out in the hall, after he’d gotten the revolver out of the bedside table.
The next morning, I drove to Ohio.
August 29, 2014 Comments Off on Bill Dixon/From the Edge
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The Life and Death
of Timothy T. Trout, Artist
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by Bill Dixon
I met Tim Trout perhaps twenty-five years ago, while walking the halls of the Fine Arts Department at The Ohio State University, looking for a young Chinese artist I had just met at a group art show in the “Short North” Arts District of Columbus, Ohio. We were in the show together; I had liked his work, and asked if I could see more of it. We’d scheduled a date and time to meet and I’d arrived early, as I almost always do. As I was walking to the rendezvous, I noticed a gaunt, tormented-looking fellow sitting on a table in the hallway. He was studying me, peering over a copy of The Lantern, the OSU student newspaper.
He asked if he could help me find what I was looking for and we fell into a conversation about art. It turned out he was attending art classes at the University on a scholarship. I later learned he worked as a janitor and, therefore, was eligible as an employee to attend some classes for free. He chose art classes. We agreed to meet later when he could show me his art. He tore off a piece of the newspaper he had been reading and scrawled his name, Tim Trout, and his phone number.
My afternoon appointment showed up and I left Tim to his newspaper. I went with the Chinese artist to see his paintings in a location farther down the same hall where I’d met Tim. We had a good chat, but after review, I decided the two paintings in the show weren’t typical of his current work. I was collecting art then, as I still do, but didn’t really care much for these efforts. The prices he had on the ones I did like, back at the Short North gallery, seemed too high, and we never did do any business.
I ran a real estate sales and management company at the time and the mid-Fall quarter was traditionally a slack time. With little to do, I found myself a few days later calling Tim to see when we could get together. He was home, and told me to come on over. He was living in a tiny efficiency apartment above a popular Greek restaurant on North High Street, in Columbus. It was in a largely student-populated area. I found his door, and knocked. The apartment looked like a bomb had just gone off. There was a grubby mattress on the floor, open boxes of food scattered around, dirty clothes, empty bottles and cans, dirty dishes, junk and bags of trash here and there. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a roach scuttling to cover behind a stack of art materials. There were paintings everywhere, too. Some were hung, but most were strewn around the walls, leaned up, or set on top of his modest furnishings, which were mostly discards he’d found over time in the alley behind his apartment.
There was one chair in the room, a dilapidated, unsteady-looking armchair, that also held several of his paintings and a partial six-pack of beer, still held together by its plastic harness. Tim was sitting tailor-style on the floor, and gestured for me to sit down on an inverted plastic milk crate. I did so. We talked for some time. It became gradually apparent that he was either under the influence of alcohol or some other family of drugs, or just plain nuts. It also became clear, after several later visits and the passage of time, that it was probably all of the above. Well, I didn’t have any problem with any of those things. As a child of the ‘sixties, a time I loved, and about which I wrote what I consider my best book, I could deal with all those things. It was old hat for me and I felt right at home in Tim’s place. Alcohol, drugs and insanity? Hey, no problem, dude.
I purchased several paintings that day. Tim was fascinated by violent weather and many of his paintings depicted storms and natural disasters. There also was a little semi-nude, crudely self-framed painting titled, “Bustle.” It was reasonably priced and was the very first piece I bought from him. Loosely composed and colorful, every brush stroke was easily visible, bold and confident. There was no reworking or blending anywhere in the piece. Tim himself was not at all a confident person, however. He was, as a person, conflicted, unfocused and random. His paintings were the exact opposite of his outward persona. You could tell at a glance that he had painted rapidly, but with a vision of the final product in every stroke of his brush and in the application of every color he selected. It was amazing to me, his artistic creations were so totally different than his own outward appearance.
Several weeks later, I watched him paint a piece. It was a much larger work. He set the canvas on a crude easel he’d made from scraps of two by four lumber, and selected the oil paints to apply to his canvas, all in a rush, squeezing them onto his palette as if his life depended on the speed at which he worked. He attacked the canvas! He slashed and lunged at it in a frenzy, and I could see that in his mind, it was already composed as a finished work. It didn’t take him long to complete that vision. He used lots of oil paint, and it would obviously take some time for it to dry enough for him to seal it with damar varnish. He finished in a flourish, and turned toward me. For a moment, he was confident, bold and triumphant. Then he receded into his usual character again, a timid, disoriented fellow, weighted down and transformed by his troubles, doubts and fears.
Over the next few years, I bought more than two hundred pieces from Tim, and still have almost all of them. They’re in a temperature- and humidity-controlled storage facility, until I decide what to do with them, and when. Tim was what current parlance refers to as “high maintenance.” He never knew what day it was, or what time it might be, and as a result, he’d call me at three o’clock in the morning to tell me that he had some pieces that he wanted me to buy so that he could pay his electric bill, or deal with some other personal crisis that had presented itself. Transportation was a major problem with Tim. He called me in the middle of the night once to tell me that someone had stolen his bicycle. He was obviously drunk , or otherwise impaired when he called. The bike was his only means of transportation and obviously very important to him. I got him a replacement and soon after, took it to him. Within a couple of weeks, although I’d also furnished him with a bicycle lock, it went missing. A friend of Tim’s told me that Tim had lost any number of bikes. He’d get drunk or stoned and park his bike somewhere and by morning, forget where it was. I bought him three bicycles before deciding it was a problem I couldn’t fix.
I started arranging art shows for Tim, too. I’d even price his pieces. He’d forget about the show dates, and I’d end up hanging his shows by myself, after transporting his work in my van to the show. When the shows closed, I would haul them back to his place. Sometimes, he’d forget where the show was, and never visit. The extra money that came from sales at these shows didn’t benefit him. He’d drink up the proceeds, or buy various drugs when he had the ability and opportunity to do so. With liver problems or psychological swings, his visits to the hospital increased. It turned out that this wasn’t a new problem, just one I didn’t know about before, and the availability of the extra cash from sales of his paintings just shortened the time between hospitalizations.
Tim eventually acquired a similarly directed girlfriend. As unstable as Tim, she was younger and somewhat healthier, physically. They had met in a bar in the University area. He tried to protect her from her destructive proclivities, but that helped destabilize Tim further. She, like Tim, was also mentally ill, and would periodically cut him with a kitchen knife if they quarreled about something. It seemed that Tim couldn’t help himself and no one else could help him, either, as trips to the hospital became more frequent.
A friend and fellow patron of Tim’s, a professor at OSU, tried his best to help Tim out of his downward spiral, but the situation was hopeless. We kept one another up to date on the situation, but that was about all we could do. Then, disaster! A local bank sent Tim a credit card. He immediately used it to buy a broken-down car. Then, using his new credit card, he took the car to a garage to get it running. He had no driver license, of course, and shouldn’t have had one. Shortly thereafter, he parked the car in a bus stop to go into a bar, and it was promptly towed away. He thought it had been stolen and called the police to complain. Since he hadn’t registered the title, a further mess was created. Then he maxed out the credit card on the purchase of a new radial arm saw and an expensive violin he didn’t know how to play but appreciated its beautiful appearance. He set up the radial arm saw on the floor of his tiny apartment. He told me that “now, he could make his own frames and stretchers, right there in his apartment.” He would fire up the saw at all hours and cut wood that he found in the alleys. Neighbors in adjacent apartments complained to the landlord, who paid Tim, generally a month or two late on rent, a visit. There he discovered not only the source of the noise but a persistent roach infestation and promptly tacked an eviction notice on the door. Hapless Tim was terrified.
Somehow, Tim got reinstated, probably because cleaning out the place to re-rent it would have cost a lot, not including the time it went empty without income and would likely take two years to recoup the losses. The landlord took the violin and and radial saw in payment. But a couple months later, Tim called in the middle of the night to say he needed money desperately. Could I come over right away. He was being evicted again, and wanted me to buy the art he had left, specifying a dollar amount he needed as his price for everything left. He said he was going to stay with his mother in Marion until things straightened out. I drove to Tim’s place the next morning, and bought the last of his art, mostly works on paper. The place was crawling again and I offered to spray, but he told me he had acquired a cat to kill the roaches and was afraid roach spray would kill the cat.
I took the last Trouts to an unheated garage, sprayed, and let everything sit for the winter. I got word a short time later that Tim was dead. He never left Columbus; I suspect he never intended to stay with his mother, that perhaps that she didn’t exist, in Marion, or anywhere else. He’d made it one last time into University Hospital, where he died in his sleep, his suffering over. The last time I saw him alive, he tearfully said he was Jesus Christ, that “he hadn’t asked for the job, but would now have to die for the sins of others.” He showed me a new signature he would use on his art: “t.T.t.,” which would symbolize the three crosses at the crucifixion, and his Christian name, timothy T trout. He also told me his Indian name was “Little Trout,” and that he might begin using that signature on some “special” pieces.
Tim was a splendid artist, but so mentally unstable that unless he was institutionalized and drugged, he would continue to suffer the indignities and torments he experienced as a free man. He was in his thirties, I believe, and had somehow served in the United States Navy, on board ship. He implied the government gave him some sort of monthly income, on which he could survive, but you could never tell fact from fiction with Tim. Neither could he, I suppose. He described the world, on canvas, as accurately as he was able. It was a world of violent storms and unending tragedies, but sometimes, with graceful nudes who emerged from gardens of blooming flowers. I lived in a far different world, and tried to understand Tim’s world to the best of my abilities, as he had tried to understand mine. Sometimes, we both missed the mark. He was a good person, gentle and generous, loyal to his friends, forgiving of those who mistreated him. He was marooned in a frightening, alien world, finding power in the paint brush he used to communicate with his demons, and the small group of fortunate people who understood and appreciated his haunting messages. Paraphrasing Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Each day, do the best you can, and tomorrow, put it behind you.” I think, no matter how things turned out, that was what timothy T. trout attempted to do.
About the author:
Bill Dixon is a contributing columnist to Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in About Us.
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July 15, 2014 Comments Off on From the Edge/Bill Dixon
by Bill Dixon
I’m a guitar guy. Frankly, my guitar playing isn’t very good, but I love the instruments themselves, and I love to sing along with other voices. I bought my first guitar when I was thirteen, with money I earned working part-time in a neighborhood used bookstore, near The Ohio State University. The guitar was a wreck, and I’m sure that the pawn broker was glad to get rid of it for twenty bucks. He offered to sell me a dilapidated case that would fit it, for another five dollars. I told him I didn’t have another five dollars. All I had left was bus fare back to my neighborhood. He looked me over for a minute, and told me the case was on him. Astonished, I thanked him, and put my guitar into the case. Two of the four latches on the case worked, and I secured my prize. Riding home on the bus, I glanced at my fellow passengers periodically, as I proudly held my new guitar on my lap. I tried to look like a musician, but I don’t think anyone actually bought that.
In those distant days, they “taught” music in elementary schools, or at least the one I attended. Music class was once a week, and outside of recess, physical education and lunch, I think it was my favorite class. I saw lunch as a class, by the way. I got to meet, sit with, and talk to kids that lived too far away from my house to easily do so otherwise, and I moved around a lot at lunch, to do just that. In music class, about all we did was sing songs that most of the kids already knew, from exposure to them outside of school, although we also had songbooks we could refer to. We didn’t learn how to read music, or anything about music theory, but we all sang songs together, as a group. I loved singing with the other kids, so that was good enough for me.
As there would be in any group, there was lots of variation in each individual’s ability to carry a tune. Some kids were pretty good at that, but others were just not cut out for singing at all. Everyone eventually learned their musical limitations, without anyone actually having to tell them what those limitations were. That was long before building a student’s self-esteem was more important than teaching them to face harsh reality. As a result, the not-so-hot-singing folks of that era, as adults, only burst into song after having had entirely too much to drink. As I got used to singing in a group, it became apparent that if your voice could handle it, there were plenty of varying ways to sing a song. I experimented a lot with harmony, mostly because it added a degree of depth to the songs we sang, and it was different from what most of the other kids were doing. I prized individuality, and I could freely experiment with options, while I was singing with fifty or so other kids. I’d start out singing at a low volume, to see how my experimental option sounded in my head. If it didn’t turn out to be a successful experiment, I’d try out something else. If that was interesting, dead-on or particularly melodic, I’d increase my volume, and test it in different parts of the song, at volume. I should also point out that I had a big advantage in my musical education over most of the other kids.
At home, we had a huge, old, free-standing, wood-cased, Philco radio, located in my mom’s sewing room. Since she was a seamstress, she spent a lot of time there. So did I, before I was old enough to go to school. After I had started school, I stayed in during spells of bad weather or high pollen counts. I’d stay in the sewing room with my mom, and sing along with the songs on the radio and with her. That was because I was asthmatic as kid, and had to avoid the things I was allergic to, like pollen, so my sing-alongs happened fairly regularly. Mom especially liked The Weavers, and we heard them frequently on our favorite morning radio show in Columbus, Ohio. Those were sing-along songs, absolutely. Many of the songs they sang were originally written and sung by Huddie Ledbetter, more commonly known as “Leadbelly”. Leadbelly died in 1949, but his music lives on today. I especially liked singing along with “Rock Island Line”, ”Good Night Irene”, “Midnight Special” and other Leadbelly songs. The Weavers had a user-friendly harmony going on in their presentation, and it invited participation, as did the Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger songs they also sang. I participated, too. The Weavers’ voices weren’t intimidatingly professional: they sang just like us, and they sang for pleasure, I suspect, more than for money. You could hear that in their singing, even if you were just a kid. Anyway, those experiences helped me enjoy my later music classes. Everyone at my elementary school got a passing grade in music, by the way. In the process, however, you also realized whether or not you could carry a tune. Those group singing experiences hooked me on folk music and sing-alongs, and I’ve never gotten over it. I don’t want to get over it, of course. I enjoy it way too much.
After I got my first guitar, the beat-to-hell old Kay from a Columbus pawn shop, I started playing guitar with a friend, who knew how to tune and play a guitar. Once I gained enough skills to play a few songs, I practiced and practiced, until I could accompany myself. Once my fingertips were calloused enough to not ache or bleed, I started to learn a few additional chord progressions, and added some more songs to my repertoire. Part of the skills advancement process involved sneaking into coffee houses and campus-area bars, to listen to folk singers who were playing there, and learning their songs. You had to be eighteen to be in a bar, and I was two or three years away from that. It was a year or more until I got confident enough, and worked up the courage to start playing and singing on open-mic stages in the two coffee houses across the street from the University. In one of the coffee houses, The Avant Guard, or was it The Sacred Mushroom? I’d made enough surreptitious visits to both, that I became a fairly familiar face to some of the people who showed up regularly. That made it a little easier, but getting up on a stage in front of people and performing for them was a fairly daunting task for me. The crowd consisted mostly of old hippies or Folkie wannabes, equipped with beards, black turtlenecks and Camel cigarettes. They were a pretty easy group to please, comparatively speaking. Maybe they were just being kind to an earnest kid.
About everyone performing there was fairly amateurish, with the exception of Phil Ochs, who was a Journalism student at Ohio State. He was very good indeed. He always seemed to be wearing a mid-length black leather jacket, grubby Levis and be badly in need of a shampoo. He looked the part. As a secret high school student, masquerading as a college boy, I was way too clean-cut looking to pass as a genuine Folkie. Phil was doing some real gigs, where he actually got paid to perform, and he was writing his own songs. It was probably my imagination, but it seemed to me he saw through my thin disguise. He wasn’t a very friendly guy, so outside of a comradely nod of my head, as we saw each other, there was no additional communication. I don’t recall him ever nodding back to me. Actually, I don’t remember him talking to anyone else at the coffee houses either, but he’d thank people as a group, for their applause after each of his beautifully-crafted songs concluded. He always came in just at his scheduled time to sing, and he always left as soon as he finished his last song. It wasn’t too long afterward until I heard that Phil had headed for New York, and I never saw him in person again.
This brings me to what inspired this article. As I said, I’m a guitar guy. I collect guitars, and in the process of buying them, sell or trade the ones I decide I don’t want to keep, to other guitar deviates. I wrote a book about that a few years ago. In a recent pursuit of a cache of stringed instruments I heard about in St Pete, Florida, where I live in the winter, Phil Ochs surfaced again, but not in the flesh. He’d committed suicide years before, sadly. The collection of stringed instruments contained all sorts of things. The former owner had died, and the person liquidating his estate sold me all the stringed instruments and associated items as a lot; guitars, mandolins, ukes, lap steels, accessories, books, and so on. In the load of stuff I ended up with, I found a single copy of “Sing Out,” a magazine devoted to folk music. It was dated March 1965. On the cover was a photo of Leadbelly, clutching his twelve-string Stella guitar, and looking menacing. The lead story in the magazine was about him. Inside, there were lyrics to “Draft Dodger Rag” one of Phil’s songs, copyrighted in 1964, and a couple mentions of Phil in one of the minor articles. In that issue, Bob Dylan quotes, stories and news seem to be widespread in the magazine. It gave me the impression that Phil’s career was already fading in 1965. Hell: he got to New York before Dylan did, and had a much better voice! I then went to U-tube, and listened to Phil sing some of his songs, but those performances were mostly duets done with other folkies. He still needed to wash his hair, in the U-tube photographs and film strips, I noticed. The whole thing made me sad, although I already knew Phil’s story. I really liked his stuff, and I played and sang lots of it, over the years. Here was Phil resurfacing again, in an old magazine, and it brought back memories from a time long gone. As I listened to the music, I closed my eyes, and drifted back to the Avant Guard, and the Sacred Mushroom until the songs were over. So long again, Phil, from the flat-topped, high school kid back in the corner, with the black turtle neck and the raggedy old Kay guitar.
I guess that my life-long association with folk music and singing along with other like-minded souls is going to stick with me for as long as I’m around. I’m still singing and playing guitar with my friends here in Florida, during the winter, and with my Maine friends in the summer, every chance I get. When my old roomie and singing partner, Bob, makes his way to my door, or I to his, in San Diego, we go right back to the stuff we did all those years ago. We always pretend to argue about whether we called ourselves Bill and Bob, (my recollection), or Bob and Bill, (his). We played in the University area bars, mostly, when we were students, but when we visited one of our other guitar pals in Michigan, we also played in a saloon there, later in life. We only had one constant fan there, a rather peculiar lady, who knitted while she sat in the front row center chair. She never gave any sign that she noticed us, just clicked away with her knitting needles, but she always showed up. She concentrated on her knitting, and never said a word. Still, a fan is a fan, and as such, should be treated as a jewel, resting on the cushion of gratitude.
When I was playing guitar and singing with other people who sang and played along, I was always completely and perfectly happy. In my estimation, singing together as a group is a very intimate experience: much more so than almost anything else. There’s a mutual sense of purpose and communion, and in my case at least, no small amount of joy. There’s no reserve. You give it all you’ve got. Still, there’s no disappointment when you can’t reach a note or flub one, miss a word or even a verse. You’re all in it together, and that’s the real harmony in music. I’m going back to U-tube now, and sing a song with Phil Ochs, again. A little later, maybe I’ll travel, by mental time machine, to the Avant Guard, or the Mushroom, and do the open mic night show. “Thanks for listening, folks”, and I’ll say to the crowd, after my first song, and when it’s my turn to do another, “Now, let’s all sing one together. I’ll bet everyone knows ‘Hard Travelin’, by Woody Guthrie.”
Everyone will know it, and we’ll all sing along…. Together.
About the author:
Bill Dixon is author of Disorderly Conduct, a book about the group he hung with in the 1960s at Ohio State, and Guitar Collecting, a niche book about building a collection with minimal investment. Besides being a writer, his varied background includes artist, bank CEO, teacher, bartender/bouncer, zoo keeper, iron worker, political campaign manager, musician, real estate manager and smuggler of Russian Icons out of Eastern Europe. He spends his time these days pretty much between Maine and Florida. You can contact him at email@example.com.
April 28, 2014 Comments Off on From the Edge/Bill Dixon
Bill Dixon drawing. Felt pen. 2014.
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Review and Revision:
A Distant Relationship Revisited
By Bill Dixon
I was lying in a sweaty hospital bed, feverish and largely out of my head: 102 point something on the thermometer. I had no idea where I was, or why, and no dividing line between delusion and reality. I couldn’t make heads or tails out of the situation, but that didn’t seem particularly important to me. Bags of liquids hung above me and below me, and taped-down needles were inserted in the veins of my arm. A catheter had been poked into me, and all of these things were busily adding or subtracting bodily fluids. There were people around me I didn’t recognize, looking at me from time to time, chatting with one another, or with someone out of my field of view. None of this seemed at all odd to me. It was like driving down an unfamiliar stretch of road, with nothing much of importance to look at through the windshield.
As it turned out, I was hospitalized in the Florida Keys, about seven hours away from home, and almost anyone that I knew. Although I’d gotten my flu shot two months earlier, I still had contracted influenza B. Somehow, I’d also simultaneously come down with pneumonia. To top it off, a wardrobe malfunction, in the form of a twenty-year-old sandal disintegrating, caused me to take a spill in a Key West street. I’d broken a toe or two, had bleeding scrapes in several places, and bent my left thumb backwards to my wrist. It’s still in a brace.
My long-suffering “significant other,” Susan, was flying in that same day from Ohio, en route to Key West, for our Christmas vacation. I went back to my timeshare, got the bleeding stopped, and kind of cleaned up. An hour later, I took a cab to the airport to meet her. Susan is an RN. She looked me over, and immediately told the cabbie to take us to the closest emergency room. I was glad that someone was able to make a rational decision, since I certainly couldn’t. The hospital was my home for the next eleven days. We celebrated Christmas there, more or less, although I have almost no recollection of most of my hospital stay. I was out of it. Way out of it.
All sorts of odd things percolated through my semi-conscious mind, both real things and imaginary things. There were distant memories and totally imaginary occurrences, in no particular order. I couldn’t tell which were which. Very little of these visions stayed with me, but one, a real or imaginary memory of my father, did, and it grew and expanded afterward. In that vision, he looked at me, and said, “Well, at least I did teach you how to play poker.”
My father and I were never very close. He was a mostly intermittent authority figure, and I was mostly raising myself, and to some degree, my younger brother. My mom was sick during most of my early childhood, in and out of the hospital. I was shuttled around between my numerous aunts and periodically, my grandmother. As a result, I had pretty much put myself in charge of my own affairs by the time I entered elementary school and I resisted all other forms of authority. No one seemed to have much interest in taking on that particular responsibility, so I handled it.
My Dad was drafted into the army in 1940, and outside of a few brief rotations back to the States, was in Europe until late Spring, 1946. I was two years old by the time he came home. When I saw him for the first time, I decided that I didn’t like him much and I was afraid of him. We managed to get along most of the time, but I was a headstrong, loose cannon of a kid. That pretty much summed up our relationship until I graduated from high school. I put myself through Ohio State, doing anything that I could to earn the money to do so. I worked at the Columbus Zoo, tended bar, bounced, made pizzas and sandwiches as a short-order cook, and worked as a bookstore clerk. I did iron work, mostly on swing-stage scaffolding, on microwave towers and way up in the air. That paid a lot of money, because people with good sense wanted no part of it. On a work/study program, I edited a social studies book for one of my professors. I sold my oil paintings in campus gift shops, carried out groceries, managed pet shops, and more. I was a self-sufficient kid. I lived at home until I graduated from high school, but I managed my own expenses and income from about tenth grade on. I bought my own car and paid all the expenses associated with it, bought all my own clothing, and put money aside for college. I moved into an apartment with two upper classmen, near the University, as soon as I graduated from high school. I was pretty much impossible to control, since I worked evenings, almost every day. “Grounding” wasn’t an option, obviously, nor was refusing to let me drive my own car. I had to get to work or I’d lose my job. My father quit trying by about eleventh grade. I played guitar in University-area coffee houses at night in my spare time, and in the process, discovered that I preferred dating college girls to the high school alternatives. My roommate and I started getting paid to play and sing folk music, although not very much and not very often, in the local bars. I thought I was “all grown up.”
While I was still at home, I learned some things from my father. I learned how to fish, hunt, and be a man. I learned how to play poker: five-card stud and draw poker, mostly and how to evaluate the hands I was dealt, both literally and figuratively. It had been drilled into me as a small child that I would get a college education. When I was about thirteen, I learned that it would also be my responsibility to pay for it. There was no money at home. These were all valuable lessons in retrospect, and I never resented any aspect of it. It was just how it was.
My father was a very bright man. He graduated from high school at age sixteen and was given a full scholarship to Notre Dame. He didn’t take it, for reasons known only to him. He told me that he had to work to help his family. Since he had five brothers and sisters, I thought that one or two of them ought to be able to do that, in his absence. In his mid-twenties, he was drafted into the US Army. That was in 1940 and he was immediately sent off to an army post in Kentucky for basic training. After his preliminary evaluation, they put him into MP school. In 1942, he was shipped off to North Africa, to fight the Germans. He was rotated back to the US in 1943, where he sired yours truly. I was born in 1944. By then, he’d gone back across the Atlantic to North Africa and up through Italy, then into France. He stayed in Europe until 1946, with a short trip or two back home. He’d been promoted to First Lieutenant, with a “field commission” of Captain and by the end of the war, he was put in charge of transporting some of the trainloads of POW’s, hauling them back from central Germany, and then to Western Europe to sort them out. He was mostly away from home for about six years, before, during and after the War’s end. Somehow, all that turned up in my fever-wracked visions in the hospital, and for the first time, I began to put myself in his shoes, a little at a time.
My Dad never talked much about the war. When he did, he spoke about it mostly in generalities. He always dodged direct questions like, “Did you ever shoot anyone?” Questions like that were promptly redirected to responses about his dislike of the food, or the arbitrary treatment of the soldiers by the Army. He was particularly unhappy about having to eat mutton (shipped into North Africa from Australia) on a regular basis.
As I grew up, I felt he didn’t seem to have ever developed much in the way of any personal ambition. He never earned much money and we were always pretty poor with him as the breadwinner. The hardest I ever saw him work was when he was fishing. He’d fish from dawn to dark, if the fish were biting. It now gradually occurred to me that what I saw as his taking the easiest course in life might have been a reaction to having had no ability to choose his own course for about six years. This was mostly worked out during my semi-delirious hospital stay. Furthermore, why was I judging him at all? Like every person, I’ve had triumphs and failures both. Perhaps I wasn’t cutting the old man any slack, as we said in the sixties. I finally started to look at how he played the cards that he was dealt. It slowly occurred to me that maybe he hadn’t done such a bad job, after all.
He was shipped off to fight in World War II in his mid-twenties. In my mid-twenties, I was teaching high school and finishing my Masters’ at Ohio State. I was never drafted, because I had been asthmatic as a kid. It had only lasted until I was about thirteen. Any way you look at it, I’d been given a pass on compulsive military service, he hadn’t. He got jerked out of civilian life and put into a stressful, dangerous assignment for six years. I didn’t much like hanging onto a scaffold swinging in the breeze four hundred feet in the air, but at least it had been my choice to do it. It was almost fifty years ago, but it paid almost ten dollars an hour. If I could work three months a summer at it, I could pay for a whole year’s tuition and books, and tend bar at night during the school year, to earn more money toward the next quarter at school. I was motivated to do things like that, and he just wasn’t. Even if he was somewhat motivated to “get ahead”, he’d gone through both the Great Depression, and the Second World War. I don’t know just what he faced during those two catastrophic events, but it couldn’t have been very pleasant. All these things occurred to me as I flopped in that sweaty hospital bed in Key West.
Prior to my hospital stay, I had kind of stuck with the familiar idea that I had developed as a high school kid of my father not being either ambitious or hard-working. My illness, and perhaps my high fever, gave me another point of view of that long-held opinion. How it came up, I have no idea, but it certainly had some value. It reminded me of an old Ukrainian neighbor’s remark that I’d heard a long time ago. He said, “Ain’t nothin’ so bad that it don’t do someone a little good.” Perhaps my illness had actually benefited me in some ways. I’ve given my father’s situation a lot of thought since I got out of the hospital. I can do that with an unclouded mind, now. My dad had never been out of Ohio before he went overseas and never away from his family and friends. He had to have been in fear for his life, crossing the Atlantic in military transport ships several times and vulnerable to German submarines. He had to have been in harm’s way any number of times in the course of his military service in Europe. It couldn’t have been any other way, even if he wouldn’t talk about it. He had to have been lonely, he had to have found military life disagreeable and he had to have suffered from PTSD. I never had to contend with any of these things, mostly as a result of my uncommonly good luck. It was time to rethink things.
As a result, and after considerable review, I’ve given the Old Man a full pardon. Here you are, First Lieutenant Paul Edward Dixon: you are hereby awarded full exoneration, this pardon and my profound apologies. I want you to know that I’ve taken your good advice numerous times, too, and never drawn to an inside straight. You were a good guy, and I misjudged you. I’m sorry, Dad.
Your son, Bill
About the author:
Bill Dixon is a contributing columnist to Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in About Us.
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March 1, 2014 Comments Off on From the Edge/Bill Dixon
Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” and I’m usually debating that idea, at one level or another, although I often act as if I’m just drinking beer, to avoid detection. I really do examine my life on a fairly regular basis. Since I’m living, am I also getting all of the “bang” out of life that I ought to be, or taking advantage of every option open to me? How much bang am I leaving on the table? As I get older, I wonder more if I’m living life to the fullest or if I have been in the past. What about the future? Is examining the past the major part of the deal, or just the easiest part of a more complicated philosophical accounting system? I don’t know.
The usual pattern is to look at the past: things I shouldn’t have done but did anyway and things I should have done and didn’t. It seems to me that this mostly sets up categories of varying degrees of regret. In my view, they can pretty much be listed under Guilt; Good Decisions; Bad Decisions; Positive Outcome- Chances Taken; or Lost Opportunities.
In the ’60s, I was going to go to California with my good friend, Jim Donaldson. We were going to drive to San Francisco, and get jobs. We’d play guitar and sing for our suppers, put flowers in our hair, and leave Columbus, Ohio, where we’d lived all of our lives. It would be an adventure! Just before we left, that plan got submarined by someone’s late period and resulting life complications. In retrospect, that could have gone either way, but at the time I regretted not giving the adventure a try. Later on, the loss seemed acceptable. I gave it a Lost Opportunity/Bad Decision rating, ultimately, so I consider the process to be dynamic. At least in some situations.
A few years later, I hopped on a plane to Bogota, Colombia, on about a week’s notice. I was going to visit a friend I’d made at Ohio State who lived there. It was my first plane trip. An auto accident had given me enough cash to buy a ride there, via Miami. I was there for a month. The day before I left Colombia to come back to Columbus, the guy I was staying with ( not the pal I went to see), was killed in a traffic accident. While I was in Bogota, I smuggled a bunch of duty-free liquor out of an international trade show with another guy that I met there. That could have been ugly, if we’d have been caught. I also stumbled into a movie set, featuring tanks and armed soldiers in the Plaza Central, while drunk. I thought that it was a genuine, armed uprising and I ran back to my new friend’s apartment. I was scared to death. The movie they were filming turned out to be “The Adventurers,” from a book by Harold Robbins. I also smuggled some emeralds back into the U.S. That could have been a bad scene too, but it wasn’t. I gave that one a Bad Decisions/Positive Outcome-Chances Taken rating.
In the ’80s, I had an invitation from some guys I’d just met in a bar in Coconut Grove, Florida, to crew on a sailboat being delivered to Costa Rica. During the planning conversation, they pointed out to me that they needed a 24-hour watch on board, to make sure that Caribbean pirates wouldn’t board our boat, cut our throats and steal the sailboat after dumping our bodies overboard. Could I use a 12-gauge shotgun and stand my watches? Yes, but I chickened out. Good Decision (?)/Lost Opportunity/Regret, I rated it.
A chap I met in Miami, in the early ’90s, had a thriving business, smuggling Russian icons out of the old Soviet Union, and back into the States. It was pretty much like the deal the dwarves made with the Hobbit: the pay would be adventure and treasure, along with good fellowship. I signed on, at once, of course. It turned out that a few uncomfortable facts and major risks had either been glossed over or omitted in the sales pitch. The sellers were Russian criminals, who’d brought the icons out of Russia at their own peril. We’d be buying the icons in Warsaw from those same Russian criminals. The Russians wanted multiple pictures of Benjamin Franklin, rather than Polish Zlotys or Russian Rubles, in payment. We had to take lots of hundred-dollar bills with us, and transact our business in Soviet-era tenement buildings. We needed a bodyguard/driver, of course, and we’d need to take the icons out of Poland by train, then across the German frontier, where the Germans would probably capture us.
All of this news came to me on the ground in Warsaw, after we’d each bought several batches of icons from heavily tattooed, scary Russian jailbirds, while our Polish bodyguard kept his hand on his Glock and his back to the tenement building wall. Adventures accumulated with every icon bought. There wasn’t too much time for sleeping in real beds. At departure time, I had assembled my disguise: a business suit and a copy of the European Wall Street Journal, and a heavy leather duffel bag full of icons, with dirty laundry on top. Our train rolled out of Warsaw around 11 p.m., heading toward Germany. There were two Polish guards on the train. I don’t know what their precise functions were, but they had guns and uniforms, and eyed us suspiciously, en route, but they didn’t do anything else. Poland had a treaty with Russia to capture and return any Russian icons bought illegally in Poland, which was exactly what our enterprise was. We drank beer provided by a progressively drunker vendor on the west-bound train, chatted quietly in English with each other, and passed the WSJ back and forth. We rode through thick fog, past barely visible farms and fields, and crossed the frontier at Frankfort Alt, into Germany, in the dark, early morning. When the train stopped at the station, we hopped off on the side opposite the boarding platform. We got about fifty feet down the dark side of the track when the German Customs guards collared us: “Vot haff vee got he-ur?” one of them sang out, making us for Americans immediately.
It really went pretty well, all things considered. The Germans didn’t consider the icons to be illegal material, unlike the Poles, but they had to be sent out of Germany by bonded shipper, after they were inventoried and boxed up, accompanied by much Germanic paperwork. One of the customs officers was pretty chummy. He had an uncle in St Louis, and asked about what kind of clothes to take for a planned visit there, in the autumn. The other officer was not very friendly. We asked the chatty officer if we could get some beer nearby and asked if he and his associate would care to have some, too. Good cop did want some beer, but bad cop declined. G.C. directed me to a nearby all-night convenience store near the station. I got two six-packs, reasonably cold, and the three of us drank beer in the customs station as we filled out paperwork. My companion arranged for Lufthansa to take his icons to a bonded warehouse in Miami. My icons went via Lufthansa to another bonded warehouse near the Columbus, Ohio, airport. After I got home again, I paid some fees, did some paperwork and got them back. While the trip was pretty scary at times, in the end it worked out very well. Positive Outcome-Chances Taken, I guess.
A year ago, I decided that I ought to climb Mt. Katahdin at the northern end of the Appalachian Trail, in Maine. I trained for it by walking the four blocks to the Boothbay Harbor Post Office and back to my cottage again, four or five times, on sunny days. Critics said that didn’t constitute “training.” Then my thirty-years-younger climbing partner cancelled on me a few days before the quest. She’d taken a summer job, out of state. The same thing had happened with a different climbing partner, a couple of years earlier and I had cancelled that climb. That was then and this was now, though. Should I go solo or dump the adventure and do some yard work? A compromise occurred to me: I called the Baxter State Park ranger station to see if anyone else was scheduled to climb the mountain that day. If there were other climbers going up at the same time, I wouldn’t really “be climbing alone.” In early June, there often aren’t that many people going to the summit, which is about fifteen feet short of a mile high. In June, the bugs are horrific, the weather iffy, and the trails in much rougher shape than in summer, when deadfalls, wash-outs and rock slides are either stabilized or posted as too dangerous to use, and bypassed. In summer, the bears are less groggy and irritable from hibernation and more wary of people. In spring, the poison ivy isn’t as lush, and the hikers are few.
It turned out that there were two carloads of people, five folks in total, that were going to be on the mountain with me. We would all start up from the Roaring Brook parking area at 6 a.m. Perfect, kind of…..We could sort of look out for one another, if someone got into trouble on the mountain. That cinched it! The adventure was on.
There’s a fairly detailed check-in system on Katahdin: first, you call ahead, and reserve a time and departure spot. Then, you check in at the ranger station. Then you detail, in writing, which trail you’re taking, where you’re going on the mountain, your departure time and your route back down. This is done both at the ranger station and in a log book at the trailhead. Since there were bear sightings, rock slides and storm-felled trees blocking various parts of various trails, my choices were pretty limited: I had to take the same trail going up and coming back. It was one of the tougher ones, but had been my chosen, planned route up. Originally, I had planned to take the most scenic (and difficult) trail up, and then, an easier trail back down. Nope.
On arrival, as we waited for 6 a.m., I met the other two cars of fellow hikers. It turned out that they were bird watchers, doing some sort of annual survey of bird populations around the base of the mountain, and weren’t going up the trail more than a short distance above the parking area. It then became either solo, or no-go. I was already coated with bug repellent for mosquitos and black flies and equipped with a belly bag, signal light (in case I got lost), some rope, a hiking stick, two granola bars, and two quarts of Gator Aid to carry up, and two quarts more in my car. I’d put on several layers of clothing, a hat, and a pair of sturdy hiking boots. Was I going to turn back? No, that would have been far too logical. Up the nearly-invisible trail I went. About a mile or two into the climb, I flushed a moose, who left a steaming pile in the middle of the rocky trail and darted into the woods. Going up and back, the only other people I saw on the whole trip were the birders down at the parking area. The bugs were almost unbelievable. I must have swallowed a tablespoon of them by the time I got back to my car, nine hours after I’d parked it. The birders were long gone.
Baxter Peak and the Knife Edge Trail on Maine’s Mount Katahdin
The views were spectacular after I got above the tree line, with unimpeded fifty-mile-plus views from the summit. I couldn’t sit down to enjoy it though. I never stopped to rest on the climb, not for a minute. Even with the wind, the insects were too numerous and too ravenous for me to stop moving. They swarmed around every uncovered area of skin, relentless, in spite of the repellents I was coated with, and in spite of the thirty-degree temperature drop going to the summit. I’d had two big glasses of water, and several cups of coffee with breakfast, and I drank both of my quarts of Gator Aid, going up. I still got dehydrated. By the time I got down, I was staggering and disoriented, and just wanted to lie down. When I got to my car, I drank another quart of Gator Aid, and sat in my car until I didn’t feel as disoriented. I must not have been thinking clearly, though, because I decided to drive back to my cottage in Boothbay Harbor, instead of flopping in the nearby motel that I’d spent the previous night in as the only tenant. I finished my fourth quart of Gator Aid on the lengthy, weary ride back to Boothbay Harbor, took a long, hot shower, and slept ten and a half hours. I think that was Bad Decision/Chances taken/Positive Outcome, same as the trip to Bogota.
In review, I probably take too many chances but have been lucky enough not to have to suffer the consequences that could have resulted. Socrates? Well, he wasn’t so lucky. On balance, I guess that not taking chances has caused me more regret than taking them but having seldom taken lumps for risk-driven adventures has made me less averse to taking chances. I don’t really know what Socrates was suggesting, except that it seems logical that you can’t really examine your life until you’ve actually done something that can be examined. That would be, do it first, then examine it afterward. I think that falls neatly into my usual “leap before you look” approach. It also probably leads to fewer “Regrets/Lost Opportunities” outcomes. Hell, I don’t know…. I’m still re-examining some of it.
But, on advice of counsel, don’t try these any of these things at home, kids. They were performed by a semi-professional, more or less, who would probably have led the unexamined life if he hadn’t taken the chances, and hadn’t had too much time on his hands, providing the option of examining the various outcomes. You may now applaud……
About the author:
Bill Dixon is author of “Disorderly Conduct,” a book about the group he hung with in the 1960s at Ohio State, and “Guitar Collecting,” a niche book about building a collection with minimal investment. Besides being a writer, his varied background includes artist, bank CEO, teacher, bartender/bouncer, zoo keeper, iron worker, political campaign manager, musician, real estate manager and smuggler of Russian Icons out of Eastern Europe. He spends his time these days pretty much between Maine and Florida. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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November 2, 2013 Comments Off on Bill Dixon/From the Edge