Thursday, December 17, 2009


I was among seventy five or so bright youngsters, many of the silver spoon, and a few older guys who seemed to be there to ogle the young and/or stay in school (which phrase has become quite fashionable). I felt a bit out of place, as if that drunken seventeen year old Cortland State adolescent had been awoken by a bad hangover to find himself at Harvard and still without a clue.

I immediately made acquaintance with Bob, an ogler who shamelessly played on the fact that I couldn't be too choosy about my friends. This was he of the, "He may be cripples, but he ain't dead" slogan. He was central to my three-year law school career and deserves more careful attention.

Bob was of medium height, about five foot eight, and of medium build, neither over nor under weight. He wore his rather thin, dark brown hair well above his shoulders. A close look at Bob's hair told a tale: he would be bald before his time.

He carried himself with an understated confidence, like an athlete sure of his talent. With good reason, he was the star of our class. His booming, deep voice and impeccable diction bespoke an orator of the highest order. His writing rendered the coveted Law Review available to him with little effort. His mind was sharp and very quick. He was the class wit. His observations and opinions were delivered in that endearing self depreciating style. His every word seemed to come forth of its own momentum, as if it were waiting to be spoken. Our sallies of wit were invariably punctuated with great good humor. I loved Bob and miss him still, twenty four years later.

His, "He may be crippled..." remark is typical of his brand of humor and our friendship. Bob would have given me a kidney while cracking wise about my inability to open a door in a snow storm. The VA hospital taught me to be serious about this injury; Bob helped show me how not to take myself, especially the wheelchair part, too seriously. Life's lightness is where you find it.

He sat near me in the auditorium-like first year classroom that had cream colored deep pile carpets, of course. Pushing my way over this was like a day at the beach, wet sand and all. The room was well-lit, harshly so, it seemed some days.

A raised, semi-circular area in front centered at the obligatory podium, behind which some professors hid and some simply taught. Most of these professors used the hated Socratic Method. One student at a time was mercilessly subjected to a series of rapid-fire questions, many of which had ambiguous answers, at best. The queries proved to be traps for the unwary, which was the point, after all. Many of these would-be Socrates', I eventually figured out, were little more than over-educated territorial egoists protecting their law school fiefdoms.

Most of these young students were bright, it is true, but not necessarily that bright. At first, I was worried that my years of ingesting STP, LSD, and mescaline and smoking plenty of pot and hash had left my brain too addled to keep up. I had, however spent years discussing and arguing over international politics, world history, and quantum mechanics with very smart and quick hippies, neurotic professors, and downright psychotic misfits to quail now.

Sill, I felt nervous, as if I were in the well known dream in which I was the only one naked in a room of fully dressed people I hardly knew. I tried to melt into the background, but Bob always had another crippled joke or observation meant to shine the spotlight on me. Every day, I feared a piss scene, tipping over, getting stuck, or spilling food on myself. If so, Bob would be in his glory, declaring so all could hear, "You know, watching you eat is excruciating, like watching the loser of a food fight he can never hope to win."

One one particular day, I was almost late for class, which was a venial sin that brought hard looks down on the malfeasant from the podium. I had barely enough time to get to the Men's Room, empty my urinary leg bag, which was full almost to overflowing, and hustle to class on time. If all went well, that is. I was wearing my beloved light blue, thin-soled cloth tennis sneakers and khaki pants.

In the men's Room, I got my chair into position sidesaddle to the commode and locked my brakes. I put the toilet seat up, lifted my right leg onto the toilet bowl, set my foot down on the rim, leaned forward and to my right, and unlocked the clamp that held the urine in the bag. That then let the quart of steamy piss pass without comment into its new environment in the plumbing system and eventually out to begin a new life somewhere else, far from me.


By what must have been an irrevocable order from Zeus himself, ordained to punish and humble me yet again, my foot slid ever so slowly along the rim and inevitably into the bowl.

[Digression: One day, I was driving to work on a cloudless and pristine early morning. The freeway was icy and trecherous in places. I was driving very slowly. In front of me at a distance of a few hundred yards, a pick-up truck skidded out of control. This truck was soon sliding across the roadway at a right angle to oncoming traffic. I watched spellbound as the car in front of me slid toward the truck in what appeared to be super slow motion. The accident occurred as expected.]

This law school piss situation was exactly like that. I watched my foot slide forward and to the right, also in slow motion. The entire event happened as if it were fated, as I say, to do just that on that day at that place at that time.

There was nothing I could do. I was alone. If I lunged or simply reached toward my foot that would only have served to hasten what could not be prevented. PLOP, SPLASH, into the bowl went my right foot, tennies, socks, khaki pants, ankle, and all.

Now what? Nothing for it but to pull my nasty, soaking wet, and formerly light blue sneaker out of the mess. I would have to go drip, drip, dripping onto that carpet and into that classroom right past Bob. 'Maybe I'll make it to my desk without being noticed', I thought. I might as well have been trying to sneak past security guarding the Mona Lisa. Sue enough, Bob sized up the situation in one quick look and announced to my seventy-some classmates what had happened and to have a look at me. Of course, every eye was on my foot instantly. Most of the males laughed unabashedly, some self consciously, some sympathetically. The majority of the women were kinder, yet definitely amused.

At that moment, I would have been fully justified under every law written, including but not limited to The Law of Hummurabi, Magna Carta, and the Geneva Accords if I had (1) killed Bob, (2) died right there and then, or (3) run away, never to be seen again.

But no. Bob's existence continues, such as it is, as does that of yours truly, and there was no place to go.

My position in the school as Bob's at-hand foil was cemented that day. If I had been wheeled into the classroom in an iron lung at Death's Door, Bob would have come up with a way to wring laughter out of the situation. He was a walking amusement park.

We had three great years together. Paraphrasing the Poet, "We longed for nothin', we were satisfied, laughin' and a-jokin'..."

Bob, old pal, this is for you:

"Law school was a very long shot,
Yet I made it there, no matter what,
With Bob as a friend,
I was mocked to the end,
whether sitting in urine or not."

Friday, December 11, 2009


We are about to digress into a section of blatant moaning, whining, complaining, and self-pity that no self-respecting quadriplegic would ever put into print. Be forewarned. Those who think we should just take our medicine like adults and get on with it (which certainly has its merit) perhaps should just move ahead. Just don't quit yet; it picks up again later, I think.

Now that we're at it, let's consider some other nightmares to which quadriplegic flesh id heir. There is, or course, the dreaded diarrhea. If one thinks about what that means to the walking public, with its frantic runs to the bathroom, occasional accidents, and accompanying embarrassment and humiliation, imagine how that is multiplied exponentially for wheelchair folks. Messy and miserable.

In a just universe, what diabolical mind would visit these conditions on the permanently seated? Who could deserve such a thing? OK, I'll give you the chronic 'I'll-go-later alcoholics with delirium tremens, the chocolate dependent, and the laxative junkies. Oh, and the fecal fetishers.

How about Red and yours truly, who has more bowel and bladder related episodes to impart hereinafter. For instance, I once met a very conscientious, model-citizen paraplegic in his mid-fifties in San Antonio who did all the right things and who had diarrhea six straight months, two to three times a day, everyday. And he worked! Over the years, I too have been a very self-responsible guy. I eat right; raw green veggies, whole grains, fresh fruit, eschew the junk, don't drink, don't smoke, exercise, and do what my doctors tell me.

All that notwithstanding. I have sat in poop in Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Texas, Ohio and California, in cars, buses, and planes, in courts federal, state, and county, at fact-finding conferences, depositions, settlement meetings, law school, and farm worker marches. Well, you get the idea.

I have done the Red thing being lifted off planes by security people, assorted helpers, and onlookers, including pilots, flight attendants, and at least twenty unknown passengers. We all gawked in embarrassment for each other. This has happened in Austin, Texas. It occurred once in first class between Houston and Harlingen. You try explaining that to a flight attendant who had treated you like Christopher Reeve, Steven Hawking, and Helen Keller. Piss? There are urine episodes to come, so I'll not steal my own thunder. Suffice it to say I couldn't count them all with an advanced algorithmic abacus.

I am laboring here to impart a sense of the enraging injustice for me and for those who know the profound humiliation, the complete loss of dignity, and the frustrations that go with this territory. What do you think and how would you feel if you, a full-fledged adult of either gender in full mental health had just publicly shit his/her drawers right in front of a room full of strangers?

You probably couldn't disappear fast enough. What could anyone possibly say? There are no words in English or any other language to explain that. Simply put, you take your medicine like than man said, move on, and hope never to have to see any of those people again. Ever.

Now, if you recall, I told you there would be a dark side to this business. There is always fear of a menace named autonomic dysreflexia ("AD"). This can result from several things: bowels a bit jammed up? Bladder not letting go? Shoelaces too tight? Body too hot? And on and on. Results: Blinding headaches, sweats, spiking blood pressure through the roof, steel trap-tight muscle spasms, eventual stroke, heart attack or seizure. I've had AD several times; the most recent put me right at Death's Door.

Pneumonia, bed sores, broken bones, phantom pain, and swollen limbs, the list is very long indeed. To be clear, my intention is not to whine about how hard it all is, beg for help or sympathy, or repulse or disgust anyone.

The dark side is pretty dark. As the Introduction said, there is a light side and lots of laughs with friends and family over many of the stories that follow. After all, I made it through, and (in hindsight) sitting in poop arguing before a federal court judge does have a humorous ring. Habitually worrying about me as my Mom did, I could only reassure her in the words the poet sang, 'It's alright Ma, I can make it'. To my reader: relax. I am OK.

Read the stories that follow with this in mind: the dark and the light side are, at heart, mostly a matter of time and geometry. What seemed so horrible at the time appeared laughable later. What from one angle seemed so serious, from another seemed hilarious. As my Dad said, 'It's all in you head anyway'.

1978 + Pittsfield, ME

It was a party of old friends in a small, rustic cabin in rural Maine not long after my return to Wellington. By this time I felt comfortable with the injury when around old friends, who treated me just as in days gone by. We didn't stand on ceremony or feel awkward about the chair. It was as if it never happened or didn't matter. On an evening awhile before this particular party, I was headed out with some of these folks for a night of marry-making. I said, "If this injury thing and hauling me around gets to be too much, let me know." My friend Michael responded, "We're friends going out together, only one of us needs a little more help than the rest of us, that's all." It was no big deal to these guys and gals. I knew I was home.

Back to the get-together. It was early evening; kerosene lamps were just being lit. Light and shadow vied for predominance, like lights turning on then off in a removed room. Sixties music played, muted in the background:
"When men on a chess board,
get up and tell you where to go,
and you just had some kind of mushroom..."

The atmosphere was a twenty year throwback to a time when we were younger and less careworn. The children were in their delight; no time had intervened between their then and their now. They were living testaments to the joy and wonder being alive offers.

There was this group of about six or seven of these rambunctious children, ages four to ten or so, who kept running by me from outside to inside and place to place. They giggled and chuckled as they ran. One little girl of about five with long, straight brown hair and an ankle length calicoesque dress, like a Little House on the Prairie child, stopped in front of me every time the other kids ran by.

One time she simply looked at me and my wheelchair, gazing from my feet to my hair, studying my chair as an object of intense interest and mystery. Another time she looked intently into my eyes, as if trying to read some message hidden there or gauge my state of being. Another time she took my hand in hers, turning it from front to back, unfolding my fingers, like a palm reader intent on deciphering something unknown there. Each time this interesting little thinker gazed curiously at me, obviously taken with me, injury, chair and all.

Yet she said nothing at all, not even "hmm", question or remark to another child as they raced by. Each time she would stay with me a minute or so, then run off to join the other children, laughing as she went as if nothing had happened. I was captivated by this inquisitive child, who looked at me and encountered me so unabashedly. I felt special, picked out, like the first kid chosen for the baseball team.

The children ran by me once again. She stopped, stood close to me, fronting me like an unassailable little force not to be denied. She stared penetratingly into my eyes. I knew something portentous was coming. Apropos of nothing that had gone before, she asked, "How do you poop?"

Monday, December 7, 2009


June, 1978 + West Roxbury, MA

Case #5; The story of Big Red is not ours, directly. It does, however, show how bad things can get.

Red was big, as you'd expect, probably 6'2", 275 lbs. Red was a biker. He was the real thing. He had a big, chopped, totally turned out Harley, lots of big, bad biker pals and biker chicks with leathers. 'Born to Lose' tattoos, patches, and long, unkempt hair. They were angels, after a fashion. He also had a diminutive lady love, Irene, who couldn't have weighed 100 lbs, decked out. Red loved her desperately, like Raskalnikov loved Sonia; she was his salvation and his sanity. They had been inseparable partners for years, mates without marriage.

As she goes, he goes. She was going. We all knew it. Their love just couldn't hold up under the crushing weight of his spinal cord injury, from which there was no reprieve or pardon. His injury was more severe than mine. I was hurt at vertebrae level C-6, Red at C-5. (The lower the number the worse the injury). He would never ride a bike again and most likely, never drive a car again. Or live alone, never dress or undress himself, never bathe alone, never write or brush his teeth by himself.

At the best of times, Red had almost no interest in dealing with his injury or doing simple exercises or learning what he could to reclaim what little independence was left him. Red could barely feed himself, and then it was usually a disaster, like a food fight in the school cafeteria. He was completely incontinent on all fronts. He was a poster boy for "Leave me the fuck alone'. Red was depressed a lot, which took its toll on Irene. All this was before his heart broke.

They had simply lost too much. Some of us tried talking to Red. You know, empty emotional platitudes such as 'Don't give up', 'Be positive', 'Keep trying'. Words don't mean much when you can't feed yourself or shit by yourself and the love of your life is walking out the door for the last time.

It would soon be over; Red was dying on the inside and out. He gave up completely on anything and everything that had any chance of improving his lot in life. He let go of what little hope he had. he talked about Irene incessantly. All that any of us could do was listen. He barely ate, hardly ever got out of bed, was surly when anyone suggested he come back to life. He was driving everyone away.

He was yet another lamp barely flickering in another quadriplegic life, soon to die out for want of fuel. This would leave darkness and unspeakable sorrow in its wake. Unprepared and emotionally unequipped loved ones bailed out time after time under the crushing weight of piss and shit scenes, irreplaceable loss, and relentless need. This left me weary and sad and sorry for all of us. Empty.

Red gathered all his interior resources for one huge final roll of the dice. He convinced Irene to to try one more time: a dressed-up, all-out date and night on the town, complete with an expensive, never-before gourmet restaurant, roses, even dancing. Red arranged everything; reservations, champagne, rented vehicle, and attendants. He was like a frisky, new-born Clydesdale, high-spirited, eager, happy. I felt all mixed up: how sweet to watch the enthusiasm and see Red feeling young and excited. How bitter, dreading that Red was headed over a cliff, for what, if I may mix metaphors, Dylan called the 'timeless explosion of fantasy's dream'. When it goes bad in the quad ward, a night out is hardly going to fix things. It's not as if it were something he said.

The night came. Red looked handsome, all scrubbed and decked out, every hair in place, dark suit, tie, and all. He even wore a white carnation. If this didn't work, it wouldn't be for want of effort.

Irene pulled up to the curb outside the hospital in a rented black Lincoln, very classy. She wore a stunningly sexy, decolletage cherry red translucent spaghetti strap dress. She looked like a teenage prom date and a sensuous water nymph, ephemeral. Irene was beaming, as if she knew full well how great she looked. Red was transfixed with joy, pride, anticipation, hope, anxiety, and fear. We all knew what was in the balance.

Red aligned his big, black, electric wheelchair for the transfer into the shotgun seat. He positioned attendants for the lift and slide onto the transfer board, across the space between chair and vehicle, and into the car's seat. They grunted, lifted, and swept Red onto and across the board. As he was finally taking his seat, his bowels completely let go. Right there, in that beautiful black Lincoln, next to that gorgeous nymph, on that night of nights, rampant diarrhea.

Red tried to hang himself that night. Even that failed, but not for want of effort.

Friday, December 4, 2009

well, that couldn't have been much harder to transcribe--and I haven't much to say, reading the whole thing and aspecially the 'Kate' part make me want to vomit, literally nauseated--just a 'what the fuck were you thinking you selfish...' kind of reaction, not that this type of thing isn't repulsively common, happenning all over the place, all the time--
-bitter, bitter, seeds planted there, closest thing I've felt to hate, still have the bile in the mouth reaction, sour vile, makes me want to spit!


Circa November, 1978 + Wellington, Maine

Case #1: After coming home from a romantic evening, which was a much needed night out for two that included dinner and a good movie, Linda and I both anticipated snuggling, and more. We were feeling close and intimate, like we felt before the fall. Our warm and cozy log home welcomed us on our return, like an old and loving friend. Linda lit a few kerosene lamps that flickered silently, throwing dancing light about our nest. All was quiet, except for natural sounds outside such as coyotes howling in the distance, a gentle wind in the trees, and dried and leathery leaves swirling about. This seclusion was one reason we had come to Maine. We were in our chosen element, except for the chair, of course.

We had our routine down by now. Linda took off my coat, stripped me to the waist, and removed my shoes. I then positioned myself alongside our double bed. Linda grabbed my pants on two sides while I prepared, with her help, to slide directly into my place place on the marital couch, as the saying goes. Nothing out of the ordinary had happened so far. Linda lifted and I heaved; the two of us strained to do what is so easy and natural to so many. I finally transferred into bed, only to discover, in dismay and disgust that I was sitting in a small boatload of poop. That's no metaphor. We knew immediately, without doubt and without a word that the romance had been killed for us, at least for that night.

Linda and I were well aware after almost a year of this misery that we were losing the romance in our marriage. Neither of us knew how to get it back. I felt small and humiliated, like I was half a man at best. I wanted to scream in frustration and anger, to vanish as if I never was, to make excuses, and to apologize, all at once. I was at a loss as to what to do, so I said and did nothing. What could I say, anyway? "The reason these things happen is because I'm crippled, it's not my fault."" I didn't want our romantic life together to end like this. We wanted a lot of things we never got.

That's my story. With my feelings came disturbing and distressing thoughts and questions about Linda. How must she have felt? What were her thoughts? How did she see our future playing out? She was most often the vocal one, more open emotionally than I was. It was no surprise Linda vented her disappointment and anger right out front: "I'm sick of this. I can't take much more. Can't anybody do anything about this? Why does this have to happen so often?" It didn't seem that often to me, but it shows our diverging perceptions of the same events.


May, 1978 + West Roxbury, MA

Case #2: It was one of the great West Roxbury hospital Sundays in early spring, sunny and warm, breezy and inviting. The entire troop of the under-forty spinal cord guys and wives, and girlfriends, and assorted others were all outside in a hideaway in VA grounds, left alone by security guards, doctors, nurses, and other authority figures. There were few questions asked about what we were doing. We were out of sight and out of mind.

Nobody really wanted to know what we were up to, which was drinking beer, smoking reefer, and swaying to rock and roll at maximum volume. We were dancing, laughing, and swapping Before-the-Fall stories. We all wildly exaggerated everything, as if we were once Nobel Sex Laureates, Lance Armstrong, and Michael Jordan, all in one. We felt loose and easy and free.

Linda and I were reliving our pre-injury hippie days. We were high, happy, together, and loving life. We loved each other in what seemed at the time to be a world without limits that had no fences facing, as the song goes. Thoughts of the ladder and its aftermath were forgotten for the time being. Linda hopped onto my lap for a spontaneous, wild chair dance. We were spinning and cavorting to the beat, one hand waving free. Not for long.

"Oh, no," she cried, knowing she was sitting on piss. It was like the Riot Squad needing somewhere to go, busting a harmless party just because they wanted to and could. It was as if my urine had a dynamic of its own, to flow freely all over me at the worst of times and places. Our fun was done. Yet again, frustration, disappointment, and anger quickly replaced our so-sweet feelings of by-gone days.

There was nothing to say that would do any good. When you're sitting in piss, words lose their value. We knew this was but one more episode in a play we hated from the first. Torn between what was necessary and what we wanted, Linda and I headed back to the ward. She and whatever nurses or aides were around rushed me into bed, got my clothes off, did a hurry-up bed bath, put on a new condom, re-dressed me, and hoisted me back up out of bed into my chair.

All was performed in super-quick time. Try as we did to resume our fun, the feeling was gone, the buzz was dead, and our party was over.


October, 1978 + Wellington, ME

Case #3: During my ten months in rehab at the VA, I would mood swing between counting my blessings and thinking I had lost everything. When I got back home, I learned a terrible lesson: you can always lose a little more.

Autumn was setting in at the Gill family homestead; we needed cords and cords of winter firewood. Friends stopped by with chainsaws to help and render what support they could. Just as no one finds their way home alone, so no one makes peace with quadriplegia without friends.

One of these friends was Kate, a woman we had known for several years. Kate was beautiful and radiant: with long, luminous hair as black as a grackle's back. She had all the qualities that seduce and subdue. She also had those two most deadly elements: ready availability and total Independence. She would work by herself cutting firewood outside and come in to talk whenever Linda was not around. This was common: my women friends dropped by a lot and responded very feelingly. When I asked why this was so, one said they were "cooing over a wounded bird."

I was about to plunge Linda, Sarah, and myself into a maelstrom and let slip the dogs of war: October 28th was my birthday; I was 34 years old. Linda and my friends threw a great party at our house, the same warm and cozy friends that had welcomed us in days gone by. I drank way too much wine and smoked way too much dope. My heart was open wide, like a beaming, delighted child of six surrounded by his closest buddies, gifts, and glorious cake topped with brilliant candles. I was a sitting duck. I was primed to seduce and be seduced, to subdue and be subdued. I should have seen it coming.

Suddenly, Kate was kneeling at my side, her brown penetrating and watery eyes looking deeply into mine. She was saying she had a terrible crush on me. "Kate'" I said "you're exquisite." The floodgates opened. It was as if Hoover Dam let go in an instant, drowning all in its destructive, unstoppable fury. Love, passion, forbidden, all-consuming, crazy, flaming, infatuation shook me to the depths of my being. I was gone, washed away, and born again. 'Out the window' says the song.

Convinced she would understand and not interfere (I was crippled, after all), I told Linda immediately. This was an obvious testament to my unperceptive self-absorption.

So began my betrayal of a sacred trust and months of pain without relief for Sarah, Linda, and me. I cast our family directly into a whirlwind, like sailors in an unsuspecting hurricane.

What rendered this defenseless betray unforgivable was this:

There did not exist a more supportive, caring, and loving wife/partner during my time in the VA hospital than Linda. She took charge, moved with Sarah to Massachusetts so they could be near me. She came to see and cheer me on a daily basis. She brought me health food; wheat meat sandwiches and soyasausage. Linda was intimately involved in my care, helped me make medical decisions, and persisted in working with me to solve out sexual and other difficulties. We were a team, inseparable and committed to each other, Sarah, and our family.

Back in Wellington, Linda, Sarah, and I found ourselves in a vortex of accusations and counter accusations, tearful, angry confusion, alienation, and increasing emotional inaccessibility. The three of us suffered alone and together. Share and share alike.

Kate and I engineered clandestine letters, phone calls, and meetings. I was doing the unthinkable: betraying my most deeply held beliefs in family and loyalty while hurting the two people I had sworn to love and protect. I was destroying our dreams and our lives together. I was acutely aware I was doing all this. I saw it and knew it, yet i felt powerless in the grip of this insane desire to love and be loved by Kate. I would resolve time and again to end it and fail to act, until my heart finally broke.

Kate and I planned to meet in Boston while I was doing an annual VA check-up. Linda and Sarah were going to Ohio to visit family. Linda knew.

Their flight had been cancelled; the Ohio trip was put on hold. Confusion as to where to go, with whom, and when plagued us and left us in a limbo of indecision. I wanted to be with Kate in Boston; Sarah wanted to be with her family, Linda did not want to be alone. We all felt lonley, like we were being abandoned by each other. We were each deeply scarred by this time. We had reached ground zero. If we didn't go back to Wellington together now, we probably never would.

Linda, Sarah, and I were alone together in my room at the sink with a large mirror behind it. They were directly behind me. I saw them reflected, as in a carnival glass; magnified, clearer and larger than life. I was looking at them as two images thrown into relief in my rear-view mirror, receding from me as I sped away. I was, as usual, self-centeredly talking about how I needed the hospital staff to take care of me. With a voice quivering with emotion and in words overflowing with heartache, Linda asked, "Who's going to take care of me?"

I looked up into their eyes, and saw Linda and Sarah as they were, totally naked in their pain and loneliness. I gazed into the abyss I had created and sustained. I saw the pain I had wrought on these my loved ones who in no way deserved what they got from me. My moment of truth had come.

My passion for Kate evaporated as my love for Linda, Sarah, and our family shook me awake at last. Their pain was my pain; their loneliness mine. I had known our hearts were breaking. At that moment I saw it written plainly in the lines of our faces. All my excuses and justifications melted away. My defenses were in ruins.

"I will take care of you", I vowed. I resolved once and for all to make amends and rebuild the ruins of what was once so precious and beautiful.

These words of the eagles, at once poetical and profound convey a message pregnant with meaning for me:
"You're walking a wire,
pain and desire,
looking for love in between..."


December, 1978 + Wellington, ME

Case #4: After a warm, sweet time with close friends over dinner, drinks, music and after an intimate, loving evening together for us, Linda and I awoke in each other's arms at 4:00 am to the sour smell of urine. We discovered an entire night's output of urine (about 2 quarts) soaked into the sheets, blankets, mattress, our pajamas, and all. Even onto and into the pine board floor, from which the odor would never fully disappear. The entire situation was such a huge mess we had to call a trusted neighbor and friend, one whose funkiness was beyond reproach, to help us out of this jamb.

When he arrived, fresh out of a warm bed on a cold night, he took the whole thing in stride. "Son of a bitch, Gill, you can't fuck in this!" There wasn't much funny about it, just another miserable injury thing. This one hung over us like a proverbial sword, forever, or so it seemed. Every morning's wake was another possible repeat of yet another impossible situation. These incidents i have described are very like the tip of the iceberg that sank the Titanic. These episodes were getting much harder to accept and harder to take. The Titanic was closing in on the iceberg at an accelerating rate. The closer we got, the faster we moved.

As out one-time union became two bewildered lovers betrayed by circumstance, closeness became frustration, intimacy wariness, spontaneity vigilance. We were adrift; the only constant was the direction. Apart.

These repeated episodes and others, such as the Kate ordeal eventually left us exhausted and washed out. Linda simply had no more to give. We were watching out love die, scene after scene, which felt to me like fishhooks pulled one by one out of my heart.

What followed seemed to have an inevitability of its won, like an out-of-control avalanche headed to the Swiss village. We didn't have the interior resources left to stop what was happening. Anger, frustration, blame, recriminations, regret and remorse led to shouting matches, border wars, uneasy truces, amnesties, negotiations, reconciliations, and a seemingly perpetual stream of scalding, bitter tears. We swung wildly from 'silhouetted anger to manufactured peace'. Our marriage and home had become a battleground.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


1977-1978 + West Roxbury, MA

We are about to radically change gears and embark on a discussion of those most delicate and forbidden of quadriplegic subjects: sex, defecation and urination. Not in that order, however. As we shall see, they are intertwined in a hideous ballet like witches around a campfire concocting unspeakable misery, a la Mac Beth. As a preemptive measure and to reduce my personal exposure, to quote a lawyer I know, allow me to warn you the following is not for the sexually squeamish, nor is it directed to the perverts among us.

Perhaps those who admit to such qualities should move on to a less offensive section, like the one in which a former client discovers her husband having sex with the family dog.

I hastened to add for my crippled kin that I speak strictly for and about myself. What follows applies to no one but your well meaning, if at times misguided, author. An advertiser I am not. Unfortunately, I will NOT discuss the mechanics of the sex business any more than is necessary, lest my dear beloved Mother role over in her grave. Even I wouldn't go that far. Those disclaimers duly noted and entered into the record, I hereby depose and state:


Circa December, 1977 + West Roxbury VA Hospital, MA

Several of the stories that follow have a decidedly R, if not X rating and may be unsuitable for some. Parental guidance is strongly advised.

[Note to reader: I am aware of the psychological implication regarding speaking of one's penis by nickname and in the third person. Lodge your complaint as you will.]

I had been injured about three months; so far, Erectiod (E for short) worked just fine. At times too fine. During bed baths and other close encounters of the intimate feminine variety, what with naughty, nubile nurses softly sponging sensitive sexual sites, blood would flow and E and I would stand at attention in a combination of embarrassment and pride. You could say I was swelling with pride, if dumb puns were your thing, that is. It seemed E could stand at attention for hours. I was elated. 'I'll be no eugenic, but a medical marvel both here and when I get home', I thought. These stories should give a sense why my optimism was like that of a man on the gallows believing the rope would break. Fat chance!

To repeat: Our ward had a very attractive, sexy, and hot-blooded late-shift nurse we called 'The Pecker Checker'. She had the habit of nightly, surreptitious, hands-on inspections. Like a conscientious lamplighter of olde, she would silently steal from bed to bed. She alone performed this task.

Oddly enough, all the guys were quite fond of her. Funny, that. Following her much-anticipated nocturnal visits, during which I'd feign sleep while being on the verge of a sexually-induced stroke, E and I would bask in the glory of our unerring ability to pitch the tent of erectile success. Consequently, being as I was one of the fortunate ones, I thought, "at least that's OK." From time to time, what one hand giveth, so to speak, the other taketh away. You can probably see where this is headed.

That was generally true of what was euphemistically misnamed the "Bowel Program', which was really no more than shit at all costs somehow, anyhow. But only at the proper time. Or else. 'Or else', was never explained at length, exactly, but we all pretty much got THAT picture. Anyway, horror stories abounded. In fact, several follow. I had very few difficulties in that quarter, no 'Blow-Outs', my regularity was regular, and I was relieved again. Yeah, Ray, good luck with that shit thing.

Ditto Urine Management. You've got to love the terminology, as if there really were a manager appointed for this purpose. No, simply put, it means get the piss flowing copiously out of your body by following the prescribed regimen: drink gallon of water daily and quarts of pure cranberry juice until you're gagging on it, swallow about a zillion milligrams of vitamin C, get plenty of exercise, don't smoke, don't booze, twenty years of schoolin'...I was one of the conscientious few; did what I was told. I was a good example of the well-adjusted quadriplegic.

All this was happening while I was struggling not to die inside. Behavior in the spinal cord ward that appears at face value to be 'well-adjusted' resembles a band aid covering a festering sore. Beneath an innocuous surface lays depths of pain and anger no one truly wants to see. So it was with me. I dutifully jumped through the necessary rehabilitative hoops and appeared to be the model of acceptance.

Meanwhile the random and arbitrary haunted me, like Banquo's ghosts. Witness: Dave was in a car crash with two friends. One escaped unhurt, one died, and one was a quadriplegic for life. A woman in a removed ward had slipped, twisted her ankle, lost her balance, and fell to the sidewalk on a clear, sunny day. No motorcycle accident, no diving mishap, no fall from any height, no reason at all. Random and arbitrary. Within a month of my fall, a friend fell almost twenty feet from scaffold to ground. He didn't have a scratch.

As I progressed week-by-week, one question plagued my effort: Why me? Why not some guy in Iowa or a drunk driver in Wyoming? Invariably, the silence was deafening in its intensity. No response, or the one below, opened out into endless anguished surmise. At any rate, blank silence was one of the two responses I got. The other was the inquiry without answer: Why not you?

Things worked. E E'd, poop pooped, and piss pissed. So, all in all, other than the horribly crippled for life thing, matters could have been a lot worse. Things got worse, much worse. And it didn't take long.

One of the villains in this patricular piece was bladder infections. We all know that bladders infect. For me, it went like this: as a consequence of incontinence, urine collected there, bacteria grew there, and infections infected there. It was serious business. One nasty little poser could bring malaria symptoms: fever, chills, nausea, extreme fatigue, kidney infections, stones, failure, and, eventually, death. So, to keep the urine from collecting, my VA doctor said he wanted to surgically cut the bladder neck (that's the narrow opening through which urine flows out), cauterize the cut (scorch it with some noxious chemical, like mercury, so the cut never closed), and the urine would run away easily, carrying the nasty little villains to freedom, like Orca to the ocean.

Linda, who had her own stake in this, was very apprehensive and suspicious about the sexual ramifications. She didn't particularly trust this Doctor, whose bedside manner was like that of Lady Mac Beth. "Oh, no," said the surgical Scot, "not to worry, there are virtually no sexual side effects". That 'virtually' hung out there like Mac Beth in Duncan's chamber, ominous indeed. The Doctor was adamant and I folded under the pressure.

Linda was very angry. She was always more sharply attuned than I. Things seemed OK at first, so I breathed easier. Initially Erectiod did what erectiods do, urine flowed freely, and the shitting was OK, happily so. Linda and I were anxiously optimistic and pessimistic in turns, fearing that, for our ages, as the sex went, so would go the marriage. I mean, after all, she didn't marry Tiny Tim. However, in a few short weeks, infections and other bladder complications followed. The nefarious, knife-happy Doctor lobbied hard for yet a second operation like the first. Like before, I consented. Linda fumed.

Rightly so. Mac Beth did to us what he he did to Duncan. E was never the same: never as responsive, never as long-lasting. In today's erstwhile sophisticated jargon, this would read, 'erectile quality was problematic'. This was long before Bob Dole discovered his little blue friend Viagra. As the sex went bad, events conspired and multiplied in suit. Paraphrasing Shakespeare's Rosencrantz: "The cease of...[sex].../Dies not alone; but, like a gulf, doth draw/What's near it with it...". The following examples, drawn from many, should prove the point.

Friday, November 20, 2009

I am honestly surprised my dad spent so little time on this epic-seeming chapter of his life. Perhaps he will come back to it? I know that there are experiences and people he became friends with, which deeply altered and informed the person he was becoming.

Also, how could he have failed to mention the rat-hole apartments and canned soup diet he lived on during those years? For a season, or an off-season (late fall, winter, and spring) he lived in an efficiency apartment (aka a large room) right off the main amusement strip in Old Orchard Beach. Dismal and bleak do not begin to describe that place. Gray skies, cold, spitting, wind flecked with dirty sand, summer's littered french fry boxes skittering along the roads, catching in the dry brittle beach grass, the ocean an angry roiling forbidding omni-presence, and his bare-walled, furniture devoid, room. I would always anticipate visiting with relish, I missed him desperately, but the visited would, almost without fail, disappoint, and I would ride home with Mom feeling empty, despondent, and irritable.

He did desert us, my Mom and I, and maybe he needed to--to cling to something, to fashion a new dream, something for himself to live for, like the proverbial drowning man at sea grasping for a life preserver--that seems right, but it did come at a cost. I knew, without being able to understand it, that my parents marriage was faltering, the ground under my feet, though not having felt solid for long time, left me emotionally nauseous, I became hypersensitive to the rifts, and hints of rifts. I was angry, but never at my dad (where the anger-proper belonged) usually at my mother. This pattern of misplaced and displaced anger took root weed-fast and deep and disturbed my relationship with my mother until I was like, Jesus--well into my twenties.

One thing my dad did do, during those years we all lived apart was to write and write. I have saved them, almost all; reams of long, lovely letters filled with his thoughts and musings and opinions and silly, sweet rhyming poems. I wrote him too, weekly, religiously.

Dad and I did reconcile, when I was in my early twenties. It went something like this:

"You promised me we would be together, that we would be friends, and you would always be there for me. You broke that promise a million times in a million small and large selfish ways. I have abandonment issues, trust issues with men, am basically all fucked-up, and it's your fault!"

"You're right. I'm so sorry. I am filled with regret. I own it all. Forgive me--can we move forward? I love you."

That's the Cliff Notes version--and we moved forward.

He became a lawyer and I have always been wildly proud of his accomplishment and position and the respectability this afforded him and me, by way of proxy.



February, 1978 + Wellington, Maine

A cadre of Wellingtonians was fighting our district school board, who insisted our small community school should be closed. This meant our children would be bussed over perilous dirt roads to a larger school twenty five miles away. During Maine's seemingly never ending winter, this was fraught with danger. We all loved our town school, and felt privileged our children could get a good, balanced education there. Our school was a beloved Wellington institution and community center.

During the course of this struggle, it became clear we needed legal assistance, which would normally be out of our price range. Several of us sought free legal services through a public interest law firm that took cases based on the odd notion of social and personal justice. While presenting our case to one of these attorneys, I watched him closely as he made phone calls, read and handled documents, and talked to and counseled clients. A bright light suddenly lit up in my mind, like a brilliant spotlight trained on an unsuspecting sleeper. "Of course, " I thought, "I can do that." From that moment, I was all about becoming a lawyer. I had discovered my second Wellington. A new, realistic dream took hold of me: I would be a lawyer for poor folks and serve the cause of justice. I would bring my idealism into a different arena, where low-income people were effectively excluded.

I applied at the University of Maine School of law, Portland. I gathered transcripts, studied assiduously for and scored well enough on he Law School Admissions Test, got together a resume and references and read cases. I dedicated my energies to this one thing, like I had done deciphering Dylan lyrics in that earlier incarnation.

Frog may have saved Private Gill, but he threw a huge roadblock in my path to lawyerhood. My initial application was denied because my Cortland grades were mediocre, at best. My avid pursuit in the guise of Frog of what we called the Gentleman's Hook (a grade of C) temporarily put law school out of reach. It was as if Prince Harry's youthful indiscretions with Falstaff barred him from becoming Henry V.

I was told to take two semesters of law-related courses at the University of Southern Maine (USM), Portland. This school was directly across the street from the Law School. I enviously watched law students coming and going from that building. I longed to be one of them. Following the USM results, I would be re-evaluated for admittance.

I performed well enough to be admitted in 1981. In 1984, if all went well, I would receive a Juries Doctor (JD) degree. Doctor Frog! Who would ever believe it? Certainly not that irate Dean who passed judgement over the Domino's piss drinking escapade! That Dean notwithstanding, I would take the Maine bar Exam and become Raymond Gill, Esquire. All went as planned.

I had made it to The University of Maine School of Law at last, after several years of preparing for, nervously taking, and passing the LSAT. I had gathered transcripts from three colleges, one in California, applied, and taken a year of classes at USM. I had to prove I could understand the most arcane of legal concepts, such as promissory estoppel, replevin, and trover.

I was put through background criminal checks by Officer Very Friendly, fingerprints and all, to show I was not a murderer or other felonious ne'er-do-well. I passed this most unwelcomed ordeal, the San Fransisco drug tank notwithstanding. I scrounged up credible, yet decidedly lukewarm references from unenthusiastic well-wishers. I demonstrated my dazzling verbal interview skills, even stopping to the transparent expedient of dropping the names of various heavy-duty literary and philosophical figures like Dostoevsky, Satre, and Kant, who mystifies me to this day. [See? Like I just did right here. I'm incorrigible]

I was in. I cynically chuckled a bit. I thought that Frog and his capacity for successfully manipulating thick smoke and carnival mirrors to get over would have exasperated that Cortland Dean. Who could have foreseen that piss-drinking incipient alcoholic was headed for law school and the profession rank of Juries Doctor? "I can go anywhere," I thought, "as long as no one clears out that smoke or correctly adjusts those mirrors."

Our family was to pay a heavy price for this. The untold story is that Linda and I were living apart, she in Wellington and I in Portland. We were then about one and a half hours from each other. As the three years of law School unfolded, we grew steadily more estranged, living as we were in two separate worlds. For this and other reasons Linda and I lost sight of each other.

What about Sarah? My law school endeavor added strength to her feelings of abandonment. With good reason, she felt I was leaving her and going my own way with little or no thought of her. There would be several other incidents of this in the following years. A painful reckoning was to come before she and I resolved these feelings and reconciled one to another. Sometimes absence does not make the heart grow fonder.

Friday, November 13, 2009

dark indeed, but not all dark

This isn't getting any easier to transcribe.
The image of my dad laying in the bed in West Roxbury with the covers pulled over his head weeping in despair--
he did that; laying back in his chair with the covers over his head; napping, sometimes just hiding, his escape and creation of a small warm safe space--he did that for as long as I can remember, and especially when he was feeling sick, tired, in pain, or depressed. I found it endearing and annoying at times. Perhaps I felt shut-out.

Wheelchair life stole from my father a kind of privacy that most of us take, I think, for granted. He was so often literally stuck in situations and his private world, his vulnerabilities, emotional and physical, exposed. I would want to cover up too.

I think of Sam and Oliver playing 'tent' under the covers, of children everywhere's delight in constructing forts made of sheets, blankets, towels, etc. The safety of those warm enclosed places, where the world shrinks to manageable dimensions, where the light is diffuse and kind.

I recall that hospital as well, very large, echoey, long halls going on into infinity, mazes of elevators, a world within a world, with a movie theater , a chapel, cafeterias, and people always smiling at me--the way the nurses always smiled at my children when I took them into the hospitals and nursing homes where my dad spent so much of the last few years of his life. Little rays of sunshine and youth, unpredictable and shining. I recall urging me dad to try, "just try", to for instance move his thumb, --not really understanding how, if he wanted to bad enough, he couldn't. I recall seeing a creature-double -feature in the movie theater one long afternoon. I don't recall the book reading and in fact I can't even conjure up my father's face, in a bed or sitting in a wheelchair, or anything. My memories are mostly of the periphery of things, the sharp inhuman details, of buttons, tubing, blinking lights, strangely welded metal contraptions.

I am lost in colliding emotions as I reflect on this last bit--Stronger than any thought is this thumping visceral urge to hold him, to hug and hug and not let go...


Early Days, Dark Days (I)

September, 1977 + West Roxbury VA Hospital, West Roxbury, Massachusetts

Immediately following my injury, I was taken to a small Skowhegan hospital. There the Emergency Squad was told I was in too serious a condition for them to handle. I was moved to Waterville, where I stayed for two or three days of medical manipulation, including some drugs with exquisite qualities. Family gathered. Eventually, a spinal cord doctor from the VA hospital in Massachusetts arrived. This doctor knew a spinal cord injured man when he saw one.

I was one, though I didn't know exactly what that entailed. Everyone was hush, hush. Family and friends moved around me on tip-toes, as if my room were a funeral parlor. Everyone gave me searching looks and spoke in whispers with hidden meanings, or so it seemed to me. It was a conspiracy of silence. They all made sure I would be the last to know. I didn't feel I was dying, but how could I be sure when no one would be straight with me? I was eventually taken by helicopter to a VA hospital, where I was, of course poked and subjected to the most undignified procedures imaginable.

I was assigned to the new injury ward, aka intensive care, and placed in an ancient Stryker Frame. This was a device right out of the Inquisition. In order to stabilize my neck and vertebrae, I was positioned on a very narrow bed face up, head held firmly in place as in a vise. Twisting or turning was not even remotely possible. This position, however, was as superior to its opposite as a nice cozy, comfortable bed is to the rack. Every few hours the bed and I were turned over, like a hamburger on a grill. I would then be left face down for several hours more. Now, this may not sound so bad in the telling. What made it horrible was the chin position. There was one roughly padded support for the forehead and one for the chin.

This meant that for two or three hours every two or three hours for weeks I was unable to move in any way. My face and especially my chin sweat without stint the entire time. I restlessly struggled to find a little relief. As I did my face and chin scraped against their restraints. I lay in excruciating pain. Tears of abject misery and self pity flowed non-stop. I was a long way from Wellington. My heart just wouldn't move on.

All that mattered, all the future held for relief was that turn from front to back. Everything else was of very little importance. I longed for that turn, like a prisoner longs to stop the steady, slow drip, drip, drip of water during the infamous Chinese water torture. Like that prisoner, I thought I would go insane.

My last Stryker day came unannounced, much like my San Fransisco City Jail release. Imagine my surprise and delight. I was at long last put into a regular bed where I could lie on my back and both sides. Never face down. To this day, over thirty years after, I cannot bear to lay face down.

Perhaps this captures the moment:

"I was put in a frame filled with pain,
and longed for my home back in Maine,
As I lay on my chin,
my tears would begin,
while I thought I would soon be insane."

Early Days, Dark days (II)

October, 1977 +West Roxbury VA Hospital, West Roxbury, Massachusetts

Following that ordeal, I was moved a couple of beds away, still in what amounted to the ICU. I would lie in relative comfort and listen to the moaning of the next miserable wretch condemned to the Stryker torture. 'Poor bastard, but at least its not me', I selfishly thought. My elation following my successful escape was short-lived.

Days in that ward were generally busy, other than weekends and holidays, which were downright funeral. I had ample time to look around. The room was large, probably thirty feet by twenty feet, with cream colored, whitish ceiling tiles that had a cork-like surface. This ceiling had a host of four inch slits, which resembled discolored tears in a close-knit sponge. Some tiles were simply missing, revealing dark, cavernous recesses of dust and hanging electrical wires. Looking up was not encouraging.

Linda and Sarah visited a lot. These visits were marked with dazed loneliness and sadness. We weren't sure how to act or what to say or what not to say. We were in a state not unlike limbo, a place foreign to us where our lives were put on hold. What we did day-by-day didn't seem to matter much. Before the injury, we were vital, hard-working young people whose efforts were rewarded with visible signs, like the lawn mowed, a compost pile started, or more logs up in out house-to-be.

Doctors, nurses, therapists, aides, technicians of all stripes, benefits counselors, clergy, and group representatives stopped by with endless questions, tests, procedures, and evaluations. Guys with more injury time dropped by, mostly for mutual support, ball busting, and hot nurse talk. One of such Florence Nightingale was Pecker Checker, whom we'll meet hereafter.

Speaking of ball busting, nobody can pull that off as well as another cripple. "Hey, Bob, look at you, you're nothing but a head", "You sorry son-of-a-bitch, you look ridiculous", and "I hate to be the one to break the news, Jack, but you're fucked." It was meant to lighten the mutual load. Every now and then anger trolling just beneath the surface would break out. Those were usually ugly episodes and hard to get over. We were all sitting on a Mount St. Helen's of suppressed rage, and those scenes made us uncomfortably aware of our own plight.

I could usually get through the day without too much emotional trauma; the quiet evenings and nights were murder. Night after night I would lie in my bed, alone in the gathering shadowy dusk and darkening late-night ward, hearing the muffled distant whisperings and footfalls. I was feeling so lonesome, so blue, so lost. On many of these sleepless, forlorn nights, I would stare blankly up at the ceiling tiles or pull the covers completely over my head and silently weep, like a ten year old orphan lamenting his homelessness, and pray in pain and anguish: "Oh, God, I don't want to be crippled, I just can't take this, I don't think I can make it, Please do something; I've let everyone down, I don't want to be a failure, I want to live."

At times my silent weeping gave way to outright crying, my body shaking and trembling. The heartache and helplessness I felt during these sessions of struggle were hardly bearable, like the powerless despair one feels over the death of a loved one. I ached for me and Linda and Sarah and our family and our wonderful homestead and our dream. Deep in my being, beyond thought, I felt the awful changes coming of their own momentum. That's what Robert E. Lee must have seen, as wave after wave of the flower of Southern youth paid the awful price in Pickett's Charge. Lee knew the Confederacy would never be the same.

When I was allowed to get out of the bed for most of the day, I would visit some of the older guys who had been injured ten years or more. I highly valued their experience, insight, and advice. One Sunday, when the hospital was as deserted and lifeless as a Siberian steppe, I felt especially depressed and sorry for myself. I gazed five, ten, and twenty years into the future. Self pity as far as my eyes could see would grind me down and rob me of the will to go on. I worried I would be deeply depressed forever.

I went up to a big, husky farm-boy looking man of fifty or so and got him talking. Most guys want to talk. Its a lifeline, however temporary, we toss to each other. Listening, without more, has untold recuperative qualities. Dylan, "If you see your neighbor carrying something, help him with his load." We who craved help, helped each other when we could. I began:
"Is this how it will always be?" I asked.
"Feeling sorry for myself and trapped in the misery of this goddamn injury, year after year?"
"No," he said "after awhile you hardly even think of it. You just get on with what you're doing. You'll be okay, give it time."

As thankful as I was for this great piece of advise, I just couldn't or wouldn't believe that would ever be me. All I saw were dark, despairing days until my end as a perpetually sad and tragic figure, a curiosity to able bodied folk. Not a pretty picture.

I did my rehab with great effort and determination. I learned how to drive, to use a fork and spoon and feed myself, to brush my teeth, to write, to type, to put on clothes, and to get around. These are collectively called Activities of Daily Living. At times it all seemed so pointless. I mean, I could do all these things before, as a matter of habit. Now it took effort. For instance, by the time I finished brushing my teeth, I could hardly lift my arms from the ache of overwork. What sort of future was that?

My two reasons for working hard and hoping for some kind of meaningful future were Linda and Sarah, who were always with me. They encouraged me and shared my pain. With their support, I even hoped for resuming a homesteading life. Fools gold. What were the odds I could live, genuinely live, the rugged back country life of building, splitting firewood, clearing overgrown areas, working honeybees, fixing cars, without even use of my fingers? I felt hopeless and hopeful, sometimes both at once, as I tried to square my reality with my dreams.

One of my few consolations, as I've said, was a visit from Linda and Sarah. During the majority of these, there was something precious I could do for us: read our beloved Narnia Chronicles. We all three couldn't get enough of these marvelous tales of boy and girl kings and queens of a magical land of talking animals, witches, water nymphs, dwarfs, courageous mice, and Aslan, the majestic Lion. As sad and forlorn as we were, these wonderful stories brought us closer, like they did before my injury. They were a lifeline to a happier time.

I was over ten months at West Roxbury. When i finally got home, it didn't take long to realize I needed something more meaningful than reading 19th Century Russian literature.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

bird charmer

Hey-Hey, Here's the part where I come in.
Very tender and proud.
The story about the chickadee, it's all true. I remember being in absolute thrall of his magic and then of holding the tiny bird on my finger. This is all so very bitter sweet, thinking of being carried on his shoulders. I have very few vivid memories of my dad on his feet, and one of the most heart-rending parts of experiencing someone you love's decline is that after they are gone, the memories of their illness are so much more clear and immediate than those of them in thier vitality. Reliving these particular memories in his lovingly pleonastic prose is luxurious, for me.

Monday, November 9, 2009

baby makes 3

October,5 1971 + Saratoga Springs, NY

Linda was definitely in labor at our Park Street apartment, Doctor Carrasavos attending. We had done La maze training together and planned a secret home delivery, so my dear Mother would not worry, or worry less. Linda was very stoic and composed through her pregnancy. She, of course, was fasting to ease delivery. I fasted too, in solidarity. I got sick, queasy, faint. Not Linda, me. What a sorry display! "Eat", she said "Eat. I need you with me." So I did, feeling like a guilty mouse nibbling cheese meant for someone who had earned it.

Sarah Dylan Gill was born at home, a little after midnight, October 5. Linda was incredible, like an ancient peasant woman: strong, resourceful and natural. I did my part, but it was all Linda. Sarah was perfectly formed, healthy, robust, and beautiful. Linda and I felt very proud and we were filled with joy. The love between Linda and I got deeper and deeper.

I was a student at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs. In the spring of 1974, I received my BA in Biology Education. At long last, after 12 years, 30,000 miles, an honorary discharge, and marriage, Frog got his vindication, of sorts. This BA turned out to be very important in years to come and helped open doors I could never have imagined in 1974.


April, 1977 + Wellington, Maine

It was a glorious early spring Maine day: sunny, crisply chilly, and cloudless. Wellington was suffering yet another interminable mud season. Where ever thick lawn or deep grass was not, mud was. Oozy, slippery, slick, and unmanageable mud in every shade from light brown to brown to dark brown to black. Mud found its way everywhere. There was mud on shoes and boots, mud tracked all over floors downstairs and upstairs and on stairs, mud in kitchens and pantries and bathrooms and bedrooms and living rooms and dining rooms, mud in barns and sheds and garages and stores and schools, mud on back seats and front seats and tires and wheel wells and windshield of cars and trucks and buses and skidders and motorcycles and four wheelers, mud in garden and orchards and greenhouses and cold frames and hot houses and ice houses and cemeteries, mud in deciduous woods and coniferous forests, mud in front yards and back yards, mud in driveways and causeways and hay fields and pastures and stables and corrals and folds, mud along rivers and lakes and streams and creeks and springs. There was a lot of mud.

Some select locations, such as each and every dirt road, including Taylor Cememtay Road had mud six to eight inches deep in placers. No vehicle could make it to our home, except maybe an Army tank. We were exactly one tank short and neither we nor Sarah's school bus driver would ever entertain the idea of trying the trek. I would hoist Sarah onto my shoulders and walk alongside our road through the mud to its end where the bus would stop for her, about a mile from our house.

I was relatively young and very fit then and Sarah was six and easy to carry. We chatted of wizards and talking animals and dwarfs and elves and the natural things we saw. We were attuned to the beautiful panorama around us as Maine began coming out of a hard winter into a gentler spring.

Our neighbor and friend Sergent Mike lived at the end of Taylor Cemetery Road. He loved all manner of untamed critters, as he would say, not including hornets, mosquitoes and the like, of course. This tough career Army man in his mid fifties and his lovely mate Caroline had retired and settled down about as far from the military as they could get, excepting the Yukon, perhaps.

Day by day, slowly and patiently, Sergeant Mike had won the trust of two chickadees that lived near his home. When they were around and about, Mike would utter a distinctive combination of a low whistle and a sharper click-click sound. One or both of the sweet gentle birds would invariably fly to him, perching on his outstretched finger for a bit of bread or other snack. This was a Normal Rockwell painting of the first order, a slice of Americana.

I was impressed, to say the least. Sergeant Mike taught me how to do the same. What a treat, to have one of these exquisite little chirpers sitting on my finger, its tiny heart beating rapidly, its head bobbing up and down, and its beak pecking at the gift I always brought.

On the day at hand, Sarah was on my shoulders as we plodded along Mudville Road on a breezy, typically chilly morning. We made our way out of the deep woods, past Taylor cemetery, past the unnamed creek that flowed under our road, past the clearing Sergent Mike had made for his one-horse logging business, up the steep incline of the hill where water flowed freely on the bedrock surface, and onto the flat about one hundred yards from the school bus pick-up site. It was always an adventurous challenge to get Sarah to our beloved community school during mud season.

When we approached Chickadee Lane, I set her down on the rocky road near Sergeant Mike's expansive one-story log house. We mysteriously stopped. I produced some corn crumbs I had hidden and mimicked Sergeant Mike's whistle-click call.

One of the darling birds flew to my outstretched finger, perched there, and nibbled away at the bread crumbs in my palm. Sarah was speechless, hardly able to believe what she was seeing. She gazed at my like i was Saint Francis the Bird tamer. I urged her to give the call a try. She did. Sue enough, the other delightful, trusting little creature landed on her six year old finger with its delicate bird feet gently clutching onto her. She was transfixed with wonder and awe.

She had become a child like Lucy of our beloved Narnia, Princess Sarah Bird Charmer. What a truly marvelous experience to share between father and daughter. The bond of love and family grew even stronger. She asked me to promise not to tell Mom.

Immediately after jumping excitedly from my shoulders onto the ground when she returned from school, she ran at top speed straight to the house. "Mom, you won't believe it!" With that, she breathlessly told the whole story to her wide-eyed Mom. Sarah's eyes shone with pure delight. Her hands moved furiously as she expressed her joy and wonderment.


April-May, 1977 + Wellington, Maine

As we've seen, 1977 brought my life's nadir. My September fall had radically changed my life, once and for all. Linda and Sarah's lives, too, would never be the same. That year also brought an epiphany and, in its way, had lifted me to the zenith of my homesteading days.

Linda, Sarah, and I had made it through the long, tough winter of 1976-77 in our small frame cabin. We considered this quite an accomplishment, being as we were, without a car, electricity, running water, telephone, and washing machine. We had passed many irritable days inside, listening to the howling wind, holed up in very close contact, too close at times.

By March most homesteader types suffer with an aptly named 'Cabin Fever', aka the 'March Crazies'. This was a period of temporary insanity, induced by months and months of being cooped up in small, drafty, and claustrophobic houses of all descriptions: sheds, shacks, tents, huts, garages, tee pees and yurts.

Otherwise solid citizens released pent-up energy by having affairs with the most improbable and incompatible neighbors, some of whom they didn't even like. Folks drank and drugged as if Armageddon were imminent, and hustled hither and yon in a frenzy of bizarre behavior. Everyone expected this, mostly of others, because raw emotion and physical constraints were common and shared among us. Generally speaking, the damage was usually not catastrophic or long lasting. The affairs didn't help much though. Linda and I made it through relatively unscathed.

In April, morning and evenings were cold and mid0days were warmer. We shook off winter lethargy and came out of hibernation. I began composting again. This meant gathering and laying manure, leaves, greens of all varieties, coffee grounds, hardwood ashes, and old hay into a compost pile, which was covered with black plastic. The pile soon heated up as our unseen, anaerobic microbe assistants went to work turning those raw materials into rich fertilized soil.

Every few days I would lift the plastic off the pile to mix, turn, and aerate the contents. Forgetting what had happened the six previous times, I would dramatically throw off the covering, like a magician unveiling his mysteriously appearing partner. On these occasions, I would suddenly encounter the same Freudian nightmare. In the stark daylight, ten or twenty writhing snakes of all hues and sizes slithered from the pile in all directions. Each time, I would scream in terror, drop the sheet of plastic, and run away. I would go about ten feet or so and catch myself up, saying, "Hey, I'm not afraid of snakes." At this point, feeling stupid and cowardly, I would cautiously steal back to the pile to be sure my non-venomous intruders were safely gone.
I'm still not afraid of snakes.

By May, winter was normally gone and mostly forgotten. Spring showers had, indeed, brought May flowers, and much, much more. Our wild neighbors, big and little, tall and short, thin and fat, flying, creeping, slithering, running, and swimming were close around us, re-energized by the warmth and abundance so readily available. It was like Dorothy falling asleep in Kansas only to awaken in the and of Oz (minus the witches).

We were very busy, composting, as I say, gardening, mowing, grafting, building, clearing, cleaning, and clipping. The days were utterly beautiful: sunny, warm, breezy, moist, and oh so promising. Green was everywhere: grass, tree, bush, stalk, flower, vegetable, weed, and vine were coming back to life after a harsh deep freeze of almost five months. Life was pulsating with rebirth. The annual jubilee was in full career. So it was with us.

A footpath wound its way about fifty feet past the outhouse, small trees and dense brush on the left side and the grove on the right. One magnificent morning, as the sun was, to quote Bard, 'firing the eastern pines', I gazed in wonder and awe around me, entranced. "I am living my life's dream", I thought. "How many people get to do that?" Joy and gratitude flooded my being. After all those years of rootless wandering, I was home at last. I now had roots and purpose. Epiphany.

Wheelchair life and an end to what had brought such gifts to our lives were but four fleeting months away. The Zen phrase, 'Life comes without warning' and the Boy Scout motto, 'Be Prepared' had been my touchstones up to that point. I was to be severely tested whether I could live up to either or both.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


February, 1969 + Berkely, CA

I was sleeping off and on in a small apartment with some Ohio folks (everyone was from somewhere else). New people appeared and disappeared daily, nightly, and weekly. Bodies covered floors night and day. 'Through put', Alvin Toffler called it, people coming into and out of our lives at an accelerated pace. That was the accepted norm for young adventureres searching for what the explosive Sixties seemed to promise: a better world where peace and justice reigned and love would be given and recieved without measure. We were mostly a restless generation, always on the move.

One day I was casually introduced, in the dusultory way social formalities were handled at that time and place, to Linda (last names came later). She was petite, about 5'2 or so, with dark brown, straight long hair, dark, and expressive, knowing eyes. She was slim and attractive in a slow-simmer way and had a subtle mid-Western twang.

I knew right away Linda was a person I could trust. She was honest and tough beneath her fun-loving exterior. She had definitely lived some and had depth and mystery. More than meets the eye. I was captivated immediately. The attraction was mutual. We paired up right away. The longer we partnered, the deeper we got. Very, very deep. I had met the love of my life. The full awareness of that came after it was too late.

We shared our disenchantment of the city and decided to head north. After several scouting trips, we landed in Rio Dell, north of San Fransisco, a small town across the Klamath River from Scotia. We has two zip-together sleeping bags and two backpacks that held all our worldly possessions. We traveled light. When we left Rio Dell, about thirteen months later, we had more stuff than a good-sized U-Haul could carry.


1969-1970 + Rio Dell, CA

We settled into a domestic life and signed up for classes at College of the Redwoods, where i worked as a Biology Lab assistant. I was awarded Associate of Arts degree, Biology major. We were thinking more and more about going back to the land. This meant homestreading on our own place, growing our food, living off the grid. We would be independant, forging our own way in a world gone wrong. In religious terms, Linda and I would seek our salvation far from commercial America. We eventually hooked up with Roger and Ann and made plans to go to British Columbia, Canada. We would buy land and settle down. There were about as many people living in all of Canada as California. That appealed to us.

Still and always the dark side and that voice in my mind, telling me in distressing tones I was lost and drifting into emptiness. The curse. From that darkness had arisen the quest for wisdom, peace, shelter from the storm. The blessing.

My brother Jerry was a Roman Catholic Trappist monk in Kentucky, living a very severe life based in prayer and hard work. Through our correspondence, Jerry knew of my dilemna. He recommended I read Thomas Meron, his former novice master, author, and fellow Trappist. Merton had sucessfully navigated the trecherous dark side waters. I assiduously read book after book. I was enthralled. I slowly came to see a way out of my spiritual nightmare: I would make my way back to serious religion, reconciling with the Almighty. I began to think I could cut a deal with God, like i thought Merton had:'I'll convert back and be a devout Christian, you'll take this dark side depression away'

I planned a 'make-or-break' getaway retreat at a Trappistine (female) monestary deep in the country and a long way from anywhere, several hours from Rio Dell. There I could read, recollect, meditiate, pray, and cut that hideous (in hindsight) deal. And decide whether to ask Linda to marry me. A lot was riding on this retreat.

I got on the road, hitchhiking south; it was a cold, dark, drizzly, miserable day. I longed to be inside, warm and dry. But I was determined. The very first ride i got was in a small, cozy, well heated, intimate two-seater sports car driven by a gorgeous, sexy young hipster on her way to Berkely to party. "Come with me," she said, "we'll have a ball." I was sorely, severly tempted. Waht a chioce! Out of foul weather, dry and cozy, getting down again and again, high and happy, with Hot Pants or doing the dark night of the soul thing in the rain and fog at a monestary with virgin monks. It was all just too obvious however. I laughed, musing "You'ver got to be a little more subtle than that." So I bid farewell to Hot pants, and trekked on in the rain, thinking, "Oh, what a good boy am I."

With tears and lamentations the deal was cut, or so I thought. I made it back home to Rio Dell. I proposed to Linda; she accepted. On January, 10, 1970 in a simple Catholic ceremony in Scotia, we were wed. We came home to a house full of close friends, and celebrated. It was a great day. We were very, very happy.

Then began Catholic masses and various Christian churches. I repeatedly experienced uncontrollable sobbing and weeping, bitter, bitter tears on contrition, guilt. I had Jesus' blood on my hands; I was the sinner, Judas. I was being purged through suffering; I was in full-throttle Christian mode and kepping my end of the deal. The dark side subsided; I was at relative peace. God was keeping up his end. Oh, how pernicious self-dialog can be.


September, 1970 + Quick, British Columbia, Canada

Linda and I, Ann and Roger were renting a small cabin a long way from anywhere; we had made it to the frontier, with our self-sufficient homestead dreams intact. Linda and i decided to immegrate to Canada and permanently settle down where we were. We had to drive back to the U.S. leaving our goats, chickens, and wordly possessions in Quick with Roger and Ann. We presented ourselves to canadian immegration officials and were told to stand by. We waited, nervously. Suspicious, questioning eyes darted our way, complete with unheard, muffled conversation. A clean-cut military man in his forties walked up to us, "We're sorry Mr and Mrs. Gill, but your petition has been denied. There is an irregularity in the paperwork, something about an arrest in California that must be cleared up. You cannot come back into Canada until that is done." The San Fransisco caper had caught up with me, and us.

There we were, stuck in Washington State, homeless. Our lives were in Quick. We had no place to go and no plans. What to do? Jimi Hendrix, janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison were dead, or presumedly so. The Sixties were gone, literally and figuratively. I was a relic of a time gone by, like I was during my post-Army days at Cortland State. Figuring there was no place else to go, we headed back to California.

There was nothing for us in Rio Dell or Berkely or San Fransisco either. We motored across the southern states to Texas, retracing in retreat the route taken by those lonesome cowpokes Sid and Frog. We finally got to a temporary safe haven at Linda's parents' home in Lewisville, Ohio, where i met my in-laws for the first time. Ever restless, Linda and i drove on to my parent's home in upstate New York, where we stayed during the winter of 1970-71 and beyond. We eventually gave up on Canada and turned our rural homestead hopes to rural Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

drug tank blues

This bit, with its missing introduction, feels like a the next part--the "Get out of Dodge' part. Here's my dad becoming more disenchanted, here's the funny story of the drug tank, here again is the thread; the driving fear and anxiety, the impetus to push on. I adore the image of him poncho-ed on a street corner playing a flute.

His story moves between 2 poles; the deep and revealing reflection on his core motivations and comedic, but ultimately shallow, cliche-driven platitudes. Which in some ways is very much a reflection of him--he could be the 'life of the party' with his wit, humor, and easy amiability. He could also be very deep, real, and present. But between the two, in the everyday 'hello and how do you do' way, he experienced perpetual discomfort. He was a very all-or-nothing guy. He found passion in the extremes. And I think that the middle, the sort of boring 'normal' just going about things felt kind of stagnant and revolting to him.

This is probably an over generalization--because really, as a direct result of being wheelchair confined, he was forced to spend a lot of time doing nothing--laying in bed thinking. I still cannot fathom how he made it through the days and nights and months at a time when he was stuck in bed healing from pressure sores. He was pretty damn intimate with boredom, and I think on some level must have had to make peace with it--or he would have gone mad. But having made peace, I'm still thinking he preferred, even reveled in, up vs. down and black vs. white, and that the middle-meshing-gray felt foreign to him.

You may disagree. I'm not even sure I completely agree with what I'm saying.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

...[Ray returns to Cortland State]...[something] was gone, as were Mona, and her class. Things had changed; my old fraternity had no use for a bad boy relic like me. My brother, Charlie, was there, but there was a distance between us. Frog existed only in memory. I was in a strange transition, almost a dead place, like The Wood Between the Worlds in Narnia. I was not about to go back home. I didn't fit anywhere.

Charlie was graduating; Mom and Dad were coming. It would have been awkward, at best, for all of us, especially me. I had a lot to answer for, like why I wasn't graduating and what I was going to do now. So, like before, I headed for California. I was alone. I had $9.50 in my pocket. I would hitchhike this time, spending days standing by 'the side of the road, rain fillin' up my shoes'.

I knew where I was going: San Fransisco and Berkely and I knew why: to join the hippies. The road had always invigorated and excited me, like when I would hitchhike to Florida on spring breaks.

I eventually got to Frisco, eating food left in rest area resterants, bumming meals, cleaning pots and pans for soup and sandwiches. I dozed under bridges, slept in semis, and nodded in diners. I was adept at warding off hungry, desperate trolls.


1968 + San Fransisco, CA

My landing in San Fransisco was auspicious; I was dropped off on Haight Street, in the then notorious Haight-Ashbury District, heartland of hippies. It was about 3:00am on a balmy humid summer night. I was here, California dreamin', in the flesh. All I lacked were the flowers in my hair. I felt I was home, among my own. I was temporarily adopted by an early-thirties, dope-dealing, hip couple, taken to their opulent, near by pad, fed, and given space to crash. Next day I was party to an STP (concentrated LSD, more or less) capping session, during which we put powder into gelatin capsules. I was invited to help myself, which I did, liberally so. I decided I'd hitch to Berkely, across the Bay.

As I waited for a ride the landscape began to shimmer and shake, undulating uncontrollably; like an earthquake. Most unusual. Things were getting curiouser and curiouser and there was no way I could go ask Alice. Before long, I was in the car of two friendly, collegian hippies and several other hitchers. I was chattering inanely away, with no control of the words coming out of my mouth; an on going stream of verbage.

I was freelancing, free bird letting the words roll without censorship. It must have been a hoot. Everyone in the car was in hysterics; the driver could hardly keep on the road. When I asked one of the other passengers later he said my rap was all about tripping, being crazy, STP, the Army, and the shimmering, all jumbled up and delivered deadpan.

"I ingested too much STP,
And very strange sights did I see,
The shimmering shake,
Was like an earthquake,
I'd arrived, but, oh, woe was me..."

Late Winter + 1968, Berkely, CA

I had been living the hippie life on Telegraph Ave, panhandeling, selling political newspapers,and crashing here and there. I was getting by. I would stand on my spot where one could see the Sixties pass by hour by hour. I wore my Clint Eastwood poncho; my hair fit the organic peacenik I emulated. I would entertain passersby, blowing my garishly painted and laquered pseudo-Japanese 59 cent bamboo flute, doing the Pied Piper routine. I felt I was just where i belonged. As for my music making, I was, after awhile, pretty good at it.

It was the late Sixties and the country was divided. Violence and free-love existed side by side; youthful idealism and repression abounded. There was tear gas during anti-war marches, free rock concerts in Golden Gate Park, wild and wilder psychedelic dancing. Fillmore West in San Fransisco throbbed to the sound of the Dead, the Airplane and Chuck Berry. We exhaulted during communal naked swimming, tribal gatherings, hiking and camping at Yosemite, hitchhiking up and down the West Coast, and partying, lots of partying. What a trip, living the life. Not quite paradise. "All the time I was alone, the past was close behind."

Ominously so.

To all my reveries there was a dark side. This was the same dark side that drove Frog into deep depression and turned his life completely around. This time feelings of terror, lonliness, and low self-esteem gripped me like a steel belt, squeezing my midsection. Thoughts of running away, joining a Zen monestary, or ending it all discolored my footloose and fancy free existence. These wretched reminders of unhappy days sucked the joy out of much of what I did. I came to believe there was something very wrong at my core, like a demon armed against me, destroying the good. I was torn. I, the fun loving, idealistic hipster was cages in Dylan's existential Desolation Row., alone and alienated. While others seemed truly free and happy, I was living in a spiritual vacuum. I felt ashamed. I dropped out of many deep conversations, lest I would be exposed as the man behind the curtain. Acid and its kin left me more wretched than ever.

Unresolved, these thoughts and feelings festered and poisoned what they touched. I knew I was in deep waters and a very hard rain would fall one day. When the rain came, I barely made it through...

There were other ominous signs. Ronald Reagan's martial law, more vicious bikers and professional druggies everywhere. Close friends were getting strung-out on herion, stealing from one another, and becoming secretive and paranoid. The city scene got very heavy, dangerous, and forbidding. Haight Street was by now a frightening mix of the very beautiful and the very ugly. Existing side-by-side were lovely, sweet, friendly people, surly dope-dealing bikers, rapists, teenage runaways, and angry cops. Dog shit, garbage and stink were hard to avoid. Flower children headed to the country, back to the land. Just away. My pal Johnny and I talked about leaving for good. He, however, was a New York City boy and shooting junk was taking him away.


December 31, 1968 + San Fransisco, CA

My Army buddy Max, his wife, his brother Tommy, my girlfriend and I had scored tickets for the all night New Year's Eve party at Winterland, a huge warehouse-like dance and concert hall in San Fransisco. Janis Joplin was performing. We were all decked out: I wore well-shined black leather, high heel Beatle boots and very tight black and gray striped pants. My ensemble was replete with India print, long sleeve Nehru shirt with black silk trim, beads, and a black felt gaucho hat. We were, of course, all smoked up and medicated; I had taken several hits of mescalin.

We all loaded into Tommy's pale purple and blue station wagon; I was riding shotgun, Tommy drove. We were in a festive mood as we motored into the city, nearing Winterland. We were very high.

A screaming police siren yanked us back to earth. We were being pulled over by the California Highway Partol. Not to worry, this would be a brief stop for license check, "back taillight out" or something like that. We would be back on our way in no time. All would be well. No. Tommy freaked out and tossed a clear plastic bag which no one knew he had onto my lap. This bag contained a huge supply of pills, capsules, and powders.

"Throw it out", he yelled. "No'" I said, "we'll get busted for sure>" The chorus began, everyone shouting, "Throw it out, throw it out." I gave in to the pressure, even though I knew we were fucked. The bag sailed ten feet, hit a guard rail and landed near our car. Two young officers approached, one hanging back a bit in case of trouble. The other checked us out, warned us and pretended to let us go. cats and mouses. As we were getting ready to leave, the second cop 'discovered' the bag.

We all landed in San Fransisco City Jail, a high-rise office building that was all hustle and bustle this New year's Eve. Mopes and humps and skells and perps were everywhere. As I was being booked, the mescaline kicked in . I felt like I had ingested way too much " Texas medicine and railroad gin."

What followed could have easily been foreseen: psychedelic light show tripping, voices in unknown languages and dialects, and shimmering circles, squares and trianlges of every color imaginable. I saw misshapen faces that reminded me of reflections in a carnival mirror. I probably would have been cackling like the Witch of the West, were it not for a very serious and pissed-off booking cop. He was consistently hostile. This nastiness seemed to be punishment for the Free Love we professed, which he let slip by. Whether it was or no I never knew. The Three Stooges were meeting Abbot and Costello in my brain while I was being fingerprinted, photographed, searched, and interrogated. During all this, people in the Jail "got uglier and I had no sense of time."

Drug tank, San Fransisco Jail, 1968 became 1969. There was no fanfare, friends, family, or fun. The lack of these was more than compensated for by junkies shooting smack in bathrooms using pins and needles, puking codeine addicts, dry-heaving meth-heads, and out of control speed freaks tearing out hair, Trustees sold the entire pharmaceutical catalogue. I was all but overcome with noise, stink, swearing, and filth. Meanwhile, in a paralell universe Janis was downing her second fifth of Southern Comfort and tearing her lungs out to, "Take another little piece of my heart..."

Everybody else got bailed, having either funds or surety or influence; Tommy and I had to stay. My lady friend and even Tommy's brother abandoned us to our fates. As the days went by, Tommy got lost. Emotionally, that is. He was manic one hour, depressed the next. I felt somehow responsible for him, like a father with his young, frightened son. I constantly tried to reassure him. Perhaps that made it easier for me, although my own future was on the line. To sooth him, I actually let him talk me into copping and taking some acid. In the drug tank! In jail!! Fortunately, we got burned on the deal and never got off.

The assistant district attorney would stop by from time to time to chat. It was as if a well scrubbed missionary were visiting a leper colony. He tried to get a confession out of me and force me to make a deal: I would take the rap because i threw out the dope and the authorities couldn't prove whose it was. I would assume the martyr role in this drama and do some hard time in a place that would make this drug tank look like elementary school.

If I did this, Tommy could go free. All very neat. I had to work like hell to keep Tommy from caving in to the pressure and telling all. "Just stay tight and hold on." I told him. I had no plan, but the option of being a shower buddy of some very bad actors didn't particularly appeal to me. Captivity day 5 passed, then days 6, 7, 8, and 9. This business was definitely getting old. I was starting to weaken. I was beginning o consider taking the deal.

Day 10, the DA paid us a visit. I was positively floored, absolutely amazed to hear the DA say:
"Gill, Tommy, you can go. We're dropping the charges." Not content to simply take him at his word and wondering whether this was a trick, I asked why. "We have too many cases; it's the New Year; we're clearing our docket."

With that, in the evening of day 10, Tommy and I were free men, back on the street and going home. I had dodged a cannon ball aimed directly between my eyes. This time it was not some irate Dean because I had pulled a fraternity prank. No. This was heavy-duty, serious stuff. I would have been a convicted felon; law school and a very limited future were on the line. This would include reporting to a parole officer, no travel, and the prospect of hard time should i fuck up in the days to come, even inadvertently. It was time to get out of Dodge, and stay out.

"I always did end up in jail,
and paid for my sins, without fail,
but the day the DA
said "go on your way"
I was saved from becoming jail tail.

well folks...

well...I am regretting to say that I've not yet been able to lay my fingers on that elusive disc (it is somewhere in my home--I'm sure of it--and I will find it!). But, Ive made the executive decision to move forward with the story, and when I do find it, I'll fill in the missing pieces. It's most ironic, really, that the story drops off just as my Dad announces 'EPIPHANY'--but I feel confident there are more of those to come. So, we will take up in the next, soon to come post, with a last shred of post-army, return to NY, head back to Cali, and a chapter (complete) titled FRISCO, STP, AND ME.

Monday, October 19, 2009


Its a strange sensation, a bit repulsive and sideways funny to hear my dad boast about gonorrhea and Mexican hookers. He does really seem to revel in the idea that he was a bit of a romantic rebel, something of a rake, jaunty, a little self-destructive and bad-ass. Flouting authority, and tellin' it like it is. He seemed to feel as though, in retrospection, it would be worthwhile? entertaining? or what? for us to watch as he rolled around in the mud, because we all know that, ultimately he rose above this, or could even then, while reading philosophy and being older-soldier-adviser appreciate a 'higher' sensibility? These stories left me uncomfortable and uninspired. Maybe they are more 'guy stories' or maybe they are just kind of banal. At any rate I'm looking forward to moving forward.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Army

December 1965-January, 1966 + Bellflower, CA

California was a lot Ike New York: loud and drunken scenes in noisy and crowded bars, vicious, pounding hangovers, and that persistent, vacuous, empty feeling. There were long, lonely days, mind-numbing, low-paying jobs, and the incessant, non-stop message that had become the unspoken mantra of my life: 'lost, going nowhere, alone, failure.'

Sid, too. We never talked about it, but it was our anthem. He was spinning way out of control, fighting nightly in bars with anyone, everyone. Any chance remark from any chance stranger, no matter how innocent, brought swift, unmerciful rage and flying fists. Even cops couldn't control him. We got a whole lot of bad press: bouncers bounced, bars barred, ops clubbed, jobs jettisoned, friends flew. Something had to change, a new chord had to be struck, one or both of us was headed for some long hard time or the morgue.

What should fall out of the sky and into this miserable rat's nest but my draft notice. I'm sure you saw that coming. I've got to say, here and now, I'm no believer in general in the military solution to life gone wrong. Training young people to be killers is worrisome, at best. That Notwithstanding, this draft notice did for me what the helicopter ladder does for the guy in the raging river. It cleanly plucked me right out of Bedlam and landed me in this man's Army, Fort Dix, New Jersey, Private Raymond L. Gill, Serial Number US515190471, "Sir, Yes, Sir; Sir, No, Sir".

April, 1966- April 1968 + NJ, CA, TX

May, 1966, NJ--Drill Sergent, 5am, screaming in my face, extreme close-up, spit and nasty cigar breath, informing me of the state of affairs concerning successful completion of Basic Training: "Gill, a word to the wise is pro-fishnet; youse is not going to grajerate, cause youse is ignorant."

June, 1966, NY--Well, Sarge, grajerate I did. Being in the Army in those days was all about your MOS-Military Occupation Specialty. If you got a bad one, say infantry gunner, you were fucked. If that happened after basic, you got sixty days of Advanced Infantry Training (AIT) crawling through mud, broken glass and barb-wire, under fire at Fort Polk, Louisiana (Little Viet Nam)), thirty days leave, then your sorry ass was off to Nam. Hell on Earth. You were told your MOS and where you were headed after Boot camp by the 5th or 6th week of the then-eight week Basic Training. If no orders came by the 7th week, you were headed to AIT and the Nam. That was the Army's fallback.

5th week nothing, 6th week nothing. I'm really sweating now. 7th week, I got called in formation: "Gill". "Sir, here, Sir." "Step forward. Gill, provisional orders are in . You are to report to Fort Polk, Louisiana for Advanced Infantry Training. Step back in formation. I was fucked; I figured by death sentence had just been read. I called home; my Mom was speechless. Her worry was palpable over the miles between us. I didn't talk to my Dad; he was a staunch 'my country right or wrong' WWII vet, so there would be little sympathy in that corner anyway. At any rate, my Dad figured the Army would make a man out of me, cure me of my penchant for piss-drinking in public, if that's what it took...

Viet Nam. Infantry. Ground pounder. Gunner. Foot soldier. The Nam. Over and over, waking, sleeping, eating. No matter where i went or what i did, one thought had me in its grip like iron: "I'm going to die a horrible death in Viet Nam, and soon." More fortunate comrades were sympathetic, in that self-centered, well-meaning young person way: "That really sucks man. I'm glad I'm headed to Virginia."

8th week. I was preparing to graduate basic Training and leave Fort Dix, more or less reconciled to the inevitable. Late morning formation on a warm, sunny day, eager GIs lined up to hear the latest. Our Company Commander marched crisply up to the front of the formation, every hair in place, spit shined to perfection, a military model of dress and decorum. "Attenhut."

We do so, standing spine-straight, hands cupped, eyes forward. We are all soldiers now, at least for the time being. I was proud of what i had done: lost 25 unnecessary pounds, made friends, taken the shit, and absorbed the abuse. I had risen to Platoon Guide. I was responsible for platoon discipline, barracks inspection, and timely fallouts. I had successfully completed Boot Camp. I had a goal and direction.

"Gill." "Sir, here, Sir." "Step forward. Gill, your orders have been changed. After thirty days leave, you are to report to Letterman General Hospital in California to begin Medical Laboratory Technician training. Step back." I was stunned, floored, my mind raced: the whirligig of time had brought, not his revenges, but his deliverance. My eleventh-hour, Death-Row pardon had arrived. But how?

Here's what i think happened: some totally unknown, anonymous angelic soldier in some Army office somewhere married up Private Raymond Gill, US Army with the Frog. He had been a Biology Major student (such as he was) and had successfully, albeit barely, made it to his senior year. Do you fully appreciate the irony?

Frog, universal misfit and barely-redeemable lost soul that he was, had been my salvation. For, you see, Medical Lab techs below grade E-5 (which I would never be), were not ordered to Viet Nam. Thanks to Frog and his capacity to pass Biology, Chemistry, and other Cortland science courses, I was saved from an immanent, gruesome death in the jungles of Southeast Asia. How sweet is that!!??

It gets even better. The Army picked six--SIX!-guys by region from across the United States for a first-time experimental lab tech course at the Presidio, San Fransisco, Army Luxury Resort/hospital. There was one guy each from Illinois, Georgia, North Dakota, Texas Southern California, and of course, yours truly. What a break. Out of the thousands or tens of thousands of qualified guys country-wide, I was one of six to get this dream assignment. I would not go to Nam, was assigned a dream MOS, and was headed to sunny California, summer of '66, the Summer of Love. All because Frog was looking out for me. Overcome with love for the dear boy, I wrote him a limerick:
"Private Gill's situation was dire,
They were lighting his funeral pyre,
Before very long,
He must fight Viet Cong,
But then Frog pulled his ass from the fire..."

Summer, 1966- April, 1968 + Presidio, CA & Fort Hood, TX

Shangri L, US Army style. No discipline, no reveille, no inspections, no lights out, no KP, no exercises, no yelling, and not even an olive drab uniform. Pampered favorite sons that we were, we awoke on our own without screaming Sergeants reminding us how and stupid and maggot-like we were. We leisurely made it to breakfast in crisply-tailored, immaculate whites. We sauntered to the hospital past beautiful manicured lawns, lush, fragrant, tropical flowers, and majestic palm trees. We then reported to class among lab tech trainers, doctors, hospital administrators, and nurses. We were professionals, or so it seemed.

It was a combination college/MASH unit/General Hospital. We had weekends off. There were free trips to Kezar Stadium to watch John Brody and the NFL 49ers. We could eat and drink at the sumptuous, high-rent Officer's Club. Woman were everywhere. I was in San Fransisco in the summer of '66--the Summer of Love! (I just had to say that again) Golden Gate Park, Flower Children, and Philosophy.

Philosophy, you say? Does that seem a little out of joint? Perhaps a digression is in order.

Digression: There were several threads that ran through and informed this life I am presenting. One was an insatiable desire to know; this had two parts. Part the first: From earliest childhood I was a reader, thanks to my Mom and Dad. I was blessed with tremendous curiosity, a great thirst to have knowledge, and an endless hunger to know the world around me. From early childhood I read and pondered with a sense of awe and wonder that infected much of what I did.

As I grew up, I felt a void. It was as if there was something I didn't know or have that I very much needed to know or have. I was missing something. My recurring dream sounds the note: I would be at a great height, very precarious, and terrified because I could not get to safety without a way down. What i needed most was what i did not have. So, growing up; and so with the insatiable desire to fill that void, get to safety, be at peace. Find an Answer. The Answer. My Answer. Perhaps that is what Frog, too, sought as he flailed and floundered about. Maybe this was what unconsciously impelled him from one sociopathic episode to another. I had been and was following in the darkest night the sounds that impelled me. There had been many dark nights. There were many more to come...

Ergo, philosophy. The Existentialists, especially Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Camus, Sartre. I even read and pondered a book on the definition of is. (Mr. Clinton, are you there?) Plus Freud, Jung, and Adler, Plato, Kant, Aquinas, and Hume. Lots of religious stuff, even the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation.

I encountered a seemingly endless torrent of words as I so seriously searched the Worthies for a route of escape from the bind i has created. What i found, in part, were contradictions, heresies, paradox, and confusion. Not much help.

Oh, yeah, and hippies. I was drawn to the hair, the dress, free love, music, the charm, friendliness, and spirit. Creating a better world. I was fascinated, and a GI in Uncle Sam's Army. The incongruity was apparent.

Shangri La and all came to an end. Uncle Sam saw to that, in a brutal fashion. Following Lab tech graduation, I was rudely and unceremoniously shipped off to the Texas Sahara: Fort Hood and 1 1/2 years of heat, dust, pointlessness, and misery. A lackluster solider at best, my promotion demotion record went: E-1, E-2, E-3, E-2, E-3, E-4, E-3, E-2. I had too much time on my hands; there were too many hard-dick GIs like me. Too much booze and too many regulations, inspections, and expectations. Just too many opportunities to rebel and fuck up.

On April eighteenth, 1968 I mustered out, as they say. I was a free man. I couldn't be redrafted. I was twenty-three. I was bulletproof.


June, 1967+ Juarez, Mexico

True to form, several Army buddies and i made the obligatory trip from Fort Hood south and slightly west to this GI's Cuidad del Corupcion (City of Corruption) for 1. tequila, 2. women, and 3. mayhem.

Real Mexican tequila was one standard of pure evil. Agua del Diablo. We were eager to test ourselves against this Satan in a bottle. Like demon rum that can set your hair on fire. This was South of the Border Style. Mexico had a mystic of lawless romance about it, like Babylon has for Christians. We talked about progressing from margaritas to shots with lime and salt to straight from the bottle to blindness and beyond. The challenge and the beyond were our siren songs beckoning us to try the limits of our manhood and sanity.

This, of course, after the women, lest we get overcome with alcoholic impotency lassitude syndrome (AILS). So, as non-Spanish Army soldiers will, we headed into the seediest joint we could find. We strangled the beautiful Spanish language and mumbled our requests for, and price of each his preference for that especially naughty Mexicana Jezebel. because i was young and bulletproof, I failed to consider the risk of hungry violent machos with knives and/or guns and scores to settle for our taking of Texas. We were sitting ducks in a land where, "the cops don't need you and man they expect the same."

The haggling done, i made my way upstairs with my hoped-for amorous (a guy can always dream) maria. Our two minute liaison accomplished (Maria and I were in a hurry, for different reasons, obviously) and our relaxed, triumphant troop was satisfied. We warily muttered out thanks (!) and goodbyes and made our way to a slightly more upscale tequila Tavern. We sauntered up to the bar like so many Clint Eastwoods and stood there, fending off more Mujered de Trabahando (working girls). After informing our pretties we had already donated to their union and were finished with that particular experience; they settled for sexual harassment and drinks.

Things were getting sloppier by the moment, until we were warned in language everyone understood that we were bordering on appropriating natural resources without adequate compensation. None of us were familiar with the peso-dollar exchange rate, so we took this large, dark, threatening hombre's word for it. I whispered 'adios' to my lovely, if a little overweight and hairy maria Consuala and settled in for some seriously antisocial alcoholic behavior.

About all I can recall were some surreptitious grinding, groping, and grabbing that drew real nasty looks from bad-ass Mexicans who may have been husbands or fathers or brothers or who-knows-what. The soberest of us told me later I was defiant, mouthy, and on the verge of the beating of a lifetime so they had whisked me the hell out of there. I had reached blindness by then anyway.

If i ever made it to the Great beyond it must have been in my sleep, such as it was. What with puking, dry heaving, and intense thirst, complete with a restless miserable dream of lying at the bottom of a fresh, cool lake with my mouth open and water running non-stop through me, it was hardly sleep. My night was more like slowly dying of thirst with my insides turned outside while shoveling white hot coals into a blast furnace. So much for the Beyond.

I woke up on the floor of a motel/shelter where the delirium tremens cases are sent to die. The threadbare carpet was rife with the smell of all the bodily secretions of those condemned to pass away in solitude in a penal colony on Forbidden Island. All that was nothing compared with the hangover. It was so bad, as the saying goes, I was afraid i wouldn't die. Short of an exhaustive amount of symptoms, that would bore even a medical student, suffice it to say my eyeballs ached, as if some fiend were driving glowing hot needles into them, slowly. The roots of my hair were on fire. Demon Rum has got nothing on cheap tequila straight from the bottle.

We gathered ourselves as best we could, comparing hang-overs and vowing never to mention peyote-based drinks. Food was out of the question. We pissed, pooped, gagged, upchucked, and stumbled around like pinballs trying not to touch anything, especially each other. When we did, it might as well have been confirmed codeine addicts irritated to the point of daggers drawn, consequences or not. [Note: Stay away from codeine freaks on a bad day. It can be fatal.]

We finally made it back to Soilderville, much the worse for wear. I was hungover and useless for two more days. Standing at attention while good old Alabama boy Sergeant Rittenberry inspected my footlocker and repeated over and over, "W'as the matter wit you Gill, you tarred?" I wrote my Sweet maria a limerick:

"I had to say 'bye' to Maria,
Soon, Love I'm hopin' to see ya',
But it soon came to pass:
Bacillin in my ass,
Dear gal gave me her gonorrhea"


February, 1968 + Fort Hood, TX

There are times when the letter of the law should be set aside to do what idealistic court watchers term 'essential justice'. That is after all, what police and courts are about, right? Maybe not:

It was February, 1968. At hat time i was 'short' or a 'short timer', a soldier getting out of the Army soon. I was due to get out in April of that year; I had sixty days to go. I could get away with anything other than Grand Theft Auto. I was as if I were invisible; the Army had little to no use for me. Short timers never did much. All I had to do was stay out of sight. One of the great things about being short was that i could escape Viet Nam, once and for all.

Many of the guys i served with were gone, mostly home, some to Nam, some to other duties elsewhere. There was a cadre of friends who were very young (18 or 19) and had a long way to go before discharge. These were reluctant soldiers, to say the least. They envied me and my shortness something awful. I was twenty-three and had almost two years in, so they came to me to talk or just hang-out. I grew very fond of these young men. My cynicism and sarcasticness fell by the roadside when we were together.

Each of them and i were well aware duty in Viet Nam loomed as a very real prospect. Since these guys were in a medical unit, they knew that if they went, they would be medics, a job with a high rate of casualties. Most of them feared duty there; horror stories of returnees abounded. Most of those who made it through just didn't want to talk about it. Sight they saw and things that they and others had done were still too painful.

You take a fun-loving eighteen year old kid off a Kansas farm, put an M-16 in his hands, tell him he's a killer, and send him a few thousand miles to a place he's never heard of called Viet Nam. You force him to kill people there, no questions asked, and see what you get. My young compatriots knew all that through and through. They had lived for three or six or nine months with Nam hanging over them, day after day. They contemplated dismemberment and death in that far off place. Orders could come any day, at any time.

Our friendships grew over the weeks and months. I liked my role as adviser, confidant, and friend. I too worried about what combat would do to them. Would Ken, who was ever the gentle one, break and fall apart, as death and the dying crowded in around him? What about Joe the Jester; would he stark reality of killing take the humor out of him? How about Bob the Ball Buster? Could his optimistic take on life survive?

Finally, after months of suspense orders came down. Four were call ed to Viet Nam. They were ken, Joe, Stuart ( dreamy California man), and Art, the tough guy. I hated the thought that each would be tested in his own way, in his own time.

Each of the guys needed to talk, to each other, to family, to friends, to me. I had a car big enough for six. We'd decided we would get together for a couple of beers and some straight talk a few days before they left. We drove to a remote spot at an abandoned airfield, a lonely place where grass and weeds poked up through the cracked runways and where rusty airplane parts lay strewn about. We were a long way from anywhere.

A big Texas half-moon cast an eerie haze over us. We wanted simply to park and talk. The drinking age at that time in Texas was twenty-one. I never thought about that. I figured if you were old enough for the Army and Viet Nam, you're old enough for a few peaceable cold ones at a remote location. I parked; we talked.

Our being together was very important to each of us. The talk was straight forward and honest. These young men were headed to combat. We did all we could to help lift the heavy burden each other carried. There were laughs as we chuckled over days gone by and tears as we contemplated the future. There was worry over life and limb, family, and girlfriends.

Just then, something hit hard against the back of the car and made a sharp metal on metal sound. This abruptly ended our conversation and rudely brought us right here, right now. I let down my window. A local cop asked me what we were doing:

--"Who are you? Show some ID. What are you doing here?"
-"We're soldiers from Fort Hood. These men are under orders to go to Viet Nam
and we're having a couple of beers and talking. We aren't bothering
anybody, are we?"
--"We'll see about that."
(Now that doesn't sound very good--thought I)
--"It says here you're twenty-three."
-"Yes, I'm twenty-three."
--"How old are you?" (he asks my buddies)
---"I'm eighteen, I'm nineteen."
-"Is there a problem? Sir."
--"Maybe, who bought that beer?"
-"I did."
--"We call that making liquor available to a minor."
-"But Sir, these men are soldiers on their way to Viet Nam."
--"Don't matter. Get out of the car."

With that, we all had to stand on that abandoned airfield until we were dragged before a local judge of some kind in some dark out-of-the-way corner. I imagined this Cop and this Judge made a decent living, ten dollars at time. Our talk of "Soldiers and Viet Nam" didn't mean much to him, either.

---(Judge)-"Mr. Gill, I find you guilty of 'Making Liquor Available to Minors'.
Fine, is ten dollars." (this was 1968) "You got the money on you?"
--"Yes, Your Honor."
---"Bring it here to me."

I wonder whether the judge ever made a record of my High Crimes and Misdemeanors. Is there a folder still in existence in some dusty, rusted old file cabinet naming me a traitor to the cause of liberty in this out beloved land?

I was ever the insubordinate wise-ass. Captain Morency: "Gill, if I get a chance, I'm shipping your ass to Viet Nam." Me: "Captain Mortency, I don't care what you do. April 18 is coming, and here's nothing you can do about that." Sure enough, it came and I rolled out of Texas an honorably discharged 23-year old free man. I was still bulletproof and now footloose.

In the meantime i had discovered the dreaded lysergic and the politics of dissent. I had revived my hippie dreams and refocused my quest for authenticity, for genuine, natural being in the world. Inner peace. I had grown up some. There were depths i had not yet encountered...


May, 1968 + Cortland, NY

I was out. Army days were not easily sloughed off, however. Bad dreams in which i had been re-drafted through a mix-up in paperwork haunted me, and did so for years. Immediately upon release I motored to Iowa; a friend in arms held up his wedding ceremony so I could be there. That done, I moved to Kentuky for a short stay...