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.