Trippin’ The Light Fantastic

The following is an excerpt from the soon-to-be-released Ch 4 of my autobiography.

 

Those hemp-cannabis days and lysergic-diethylamide nights were few and far between but friends always seemed to have connections and when they were in town, sparks would fly. One night we dropped a couple tabs of ‘blue cheer’. Bill Cobb was spread-eagled on the carpet, jabbering, squinting up at the crater-shaped overhead light attached to the ceiling in the middle of the living room. The light was bright as the sun blazing down from the heavens, and Bill’s hand was aglow with backlighting as he tried to shield his eyes.

“I can see the veins in my hand,” Cobb yelled, “and the blood pulsing through my fingers. I’m alive!”

Then he leaped up and danced ecstatically around the room, stubbing his toe and breaking it, so he said.

“What do you do to fix a broken toe?” I asked him, knowing he was a combat medic in the Reserves.

“Nothing,” he replied, yelping like a gut-shot dog.

Being naturally an introvert, tripping on acid nudged me further inward. Adrift on a time-warp tangent I became voyeur and connoisseur of my own sensuous impressions. Sitting outside on the front steps I was hypnotized by the brick façade of an adjacent apartment building. The lattice-like brick work began to pulsate and writhe, the suggestive ink-blot shapes cast by the lines and shadows and textures taking the form of people and events being projected up on the wall as if from a motion picture booth somewhere behind me. I sat entranced, in Plato’s cave, lost in a moment outside time and space. Colors, too, were striking, the whole scene bulging and popping out three-dimensionally at me.

At some point I was lifted out of my reverie by the urge to journey downtown to the 10th Street hippie district in Buckhead. Surely the sights and sounds and colors of Hot’Lanta on a raucous Saturday night would be all that much more mesmerizing on acid. I slipped into the driver’s seat of my red VW, but something didn’t feel quite right. I didn’t turn on the ignition, just disengaged the clutch and let it roll gently down the hill. I was cradled in a slight indentation at the bottom of the driveway, the car jutting out into the street, tripping to the light fantastic, trying to adjust to a whole slew of puzzling, super-intense sensations. Then suddenly I realized what was wrong: the tires were flat, all four of them! I got out, and with slow bizarre jerky movements tried to assess the situation. I kicked at the right front tire to see if it was okay or not. My foot swung helplessly in the air and I almost lost my balance. I inched closer and kicked it again, and connected. I probably only tapped the front rubber tire of a thousand-pound vehicle lightly, playfully, theatrically, with the tip of my shoe, but the whole car moved, it swayed, it ricocheted back and forth. FASCINATING! I went around back and swung my foot at a rear tire. Again, I watched mesmerized as the car shook and shuddered, gently rocked back and forth like a pendulum. I applied my will to that clumsy inanimate object again and again, wide-eyed, and marveled as it responded to my every touch. I tapped, I kicked, I swatted – and it belched back at me, big-time. INCREDIBLE! Slowly dawning on me was the ego-nullifying realization that I was not in control, something had gone delightfully wrong. I was standing there fascinated and bewildered, kicking my tires in exaggerated slow motion, contemplating the intricacies of time and space, the physics of volume and motion, when a cop drove up. He asked me what was the matter. In the middle of the street, clearly buzzed out of my gourd, I made small talk the gist of which eludes me now, and the cop drove away.

Bill Lott came out and I threw him my keys and we headed into town. I kept thrusting my head out the passenger window, reveling in the rush of wind, the whirling kaleidoscope of Saturday-night lights and sounds which took on a Whitmanesque “I sing the body electric” life of their own. A pod of Harley’s roared by, me the skinny horn-rimmed nerd leaning out the window giving them a silly thumb’s up, and they dipping their mufflers side to side in a return-gesture as one by one they throttled up and blasted around us. The road narrowed at the entrance ramp onto the Interstate. There was a small pothole in the pavement and each biker in turn, as he gunned his Harley, shifted and half-twisted in his seat, dramatically lifting his arm and pointedly thrusting a finger down at the potential danger, warning his buddy behind him. There was a sense of camaraderie displayed by those guys that walloped me that night like an ecclesiastical thunderbolt.

Once back home, still hyper frazzled, soaking up sights and sounds at warp speed, it occurred to me that physical intimacy right about now would be the mother of all epiphanies. So I went next door to rouse Cecelia, whose husband was in Vietnam but that did not deter her from jumping in bed with me at every opportunity. First, I asked her just to write down what I was saying. I was making such astute, wonderful, heavenly observations of everything going on around me, surely it needed to be recorded for posterity. As Cecelia began to lick and nibble my body, I kept up a running monologue, trying to put into poetry the exquisiteness of each touch, each tingle. I got tongue-tied and confused, my words hovering like black holes over a diamond-studded galaxy of feelings, and Cecelia started laughing. That ended that. Except later that night my acid trip went crazy on me. LSD doesn’t go quietly away just because you suddenly decide to slip into pajamas. I bolted upright, by myself, no Cecelia, surrounded by monsters. I turned the bedroom light on to chase away my fears. That didn’t work. I curled up in a fetal position in the middle of the bed and pulled the covers over my head. That didn’t work, either. I sweated and hallucinated and got more and more paranoid. Not an ounce of sleep for me that night, and to make matters worse, the next morning, early, a Sunday, I had to play golf with Tom Houtchins. My eyes looked like they had been sewn open; I was still wired to the max, sullen and jumpy.

More than thirty years later, at a college reunion, Houtchins would remember, and mention, that bizarre round of golf he played with a zombie who spent most of his time in the woods, never once hitting the fairway.

Chapter Three

St. Petersburg

(I) Into The Night

1963 FPC Student ID Photo copy (1)-Edit-1

I never liked to own more than I could cram into my Volkswagen in the middle of the night and when I add up the numbers I am astonished to note that since college I have bolted and left no forwarding address on more than thirty occasions, not counting weeks of living out of my car, while collecting entry-level paychecks from at least a dozen employers. Along the way I managed to escape the clutches of three distinct careers that normally swallow a person for a lifetime: Social Work, Human Resources, Education – more if you count Library Paraprofessional and Veterinary Assistant. In job interviews it was always a challenge to recast my instability as a “diversity of interests,” to say nothing of glossing over a handful of unemployed “beach bum” years.

In all that time I never had a place to call ‘home’ but St. Pete, in retrospect, comes close. I lived here twenty-five years off and on and have just returned after an equally long, twenty-five year absence, most recently from four years of traveling America exploring National Parks and wide-open spaces.

Perhaps what binds the two of us together is that St. Pete has nurtured me like a prodigal son through questionable personalities and competing lifestyles: from pimples to professor, from college jock to homeless alley-cat, from jailhouse trustee to avant-garde intellectual, from courier and bodyguard for a couple of shameless telephone scammers to meek librarian, from beach bum to existential “writer-person,” as Tina used to call me. If home is the other end of an umbilical cord that welcomes you back no matter how far you have strayed, then St. Pete it is.

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The Autopsy

The following is an excerpt from the soon-to-be-released Ch 3 of my autobiography.

[The summer after my freshman year in college I worked as an orderly in the Emergency Room.]

 

IT was slow one afternoon in ER so I sneaked next door to the morgue. “Uh, sir…? They said those of us who are pre-med could watch an autopsy?”

         He nodded, rolled up his sleeves and swung an overhead microphone to his lips: “Dr. Johnson, pathologist, Lakeland General Hospital, July 14th, 1962. Total macroscopic and microscopic autopsy of Brenda Moore, Case 26-LGH. Age approximately seven years. Cause of death, unknown. Patient died 10:15 on this day after being admitted by her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Moore. Parents stated at time of admission that Brenda ‘fell out of bed.’ This autopsy conducted under mandatory state laws pertaining to suspected child abuse.”

         She was stretched out naked on a sloping stainless steel table with blood troughs running down the sides. Warm and soft, her flesh not yet shriveled, Brenda was a picture of innocence, beautiful in death as only a child can be. Dr. Johnson in an act of reverence that caught me by surprise gently placed a small brown paper towel over the tiny hairless slit between her legs. Then I held my breath as he nonchalantly cut a Y-shaped incision into her abdomen, a sweeping half-moon from nipple to nipple punctuated by a perpendicular line through the belly button, and carefully pulled her slippery insides out one by one.

         “I don’t expect to find anything here, son. All this looks normal but we’ll send some bits and pieces to the lab just to be safe.” After cursory inspection the pathologist sliced off thumb-sized chunks to save in glass jars for a biopsy and then tossed severed organs into a slop-bucket on the floor. He worked methodically with a serrated knife as though he were gutting fish.

         Pale and weak-kneed, my pucker-factor already over the top, I slumped back against the cold unforgiving wall of the morgue and gratefully thought for a moment that I had passed some kind of test, some secret rite of passage, absorbed the worst that slightly less than two decades of life could throw at me.

         But no way was I prepared for what followed. The doctor suddenly kicked the bucket of Brenda’s innards under the table and reached for an electric handsaw. Teeth-shattering, bone-cracking noises filled the room. With a sudden ferocity that forever sucked the innocence out of me, he filleted Brenda’s face down over her eyes and nose and chin – and, like a fallen coconut, chiseled open her skull. Soft slippery brain matter squirmed helplessly over the stainless steel table as Dr. Johnson reached for a meat cleaver and chopped through pre-teen hopes and memories.

         The coup de grace was Dr. Johnson grabbing the bucket of innards and sloshing them back into the gaping hole in Brenda’s gut, indiscriminately spreading them even with the palm of his hand, and then asking me to toss him a spool of twine to sew her back up again. Ordinary household rope straining to hold together the lifeless vitals of a desecrated little girl is not exactly an endearing image but certainly a lasting one.

         On a cold table in the morgue a 7-year old girl with a name became a cadaver with a number and an 18-year old pre-med student changed his major to psychology.

Self-Portrait As A Series Of Reciprocal Transactions

It’s been over 30 years since I poured over any of the “isms” of literary theory but in preparation for writing my autobiography I did go back and skim a few articles.

I think the following paragraph sums up quite nicely the complexity involved in writing about yourself.

I will propose a simple analogy: an autobiography is a self-portrait. Each of those italicized words suggests a double entity, expressed as a series of reciprocal transactions. The self thinks and acts; it knows that it exists alone and with others. A portrait is space and time, illusion and reality, painter and model – each element places a demand, yields a concession. A self-portrait is even more uniquely transactional. No longer distinctly separate, the artist-model must alternately pose and paint. He composes the composition, in both senses of that verb; his costume and setting form the picture and also depict its form. In a mirror he studies reversed images, familiar to himself but not to others. A single mirror restricts him to full or three-quarter faces; he may not paint his profile, because he cannot see it. The image resists visual analysis; as he moves to paint a hand, the hand must also move. The image is also complete, and entirely superficial; yet he must begin with the invisible, with lines more raw than bone or flesh, building volume and tone, sketch and underpaint, into a finished replica of himself. So he works from memory as well as sight, in two levels of time, on two planes of space, while reaching for those other dimensions, depth and the future. The process is alternately reductive and expansive; it imparts to a single picture the force of universal implications.

Stairclimber

William L. Howarth, Some Principles of Autobiography (1974).

 

Chapter Two

LAKELAND

me as child

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IT was more than sunshine that lured Marge back to Florida. Clear skies and whispering breezes rekindled warm memories of being young and in love – picnicking on a blanket at the beach, jitterbugging and swing dancing at the Yacht Club, cruising in a new Buick Super with the top down. Her husband, before I was born, was a flyboy in the Air Force, a dashing instructor teaching Army Air Corps cadets and a contingent of newbies from England’s Royal Air Force, and Marge as the sheltered daughter of a provincial self-employed furniture maker from the dreary North was introduced to an exciting new lifestyle in 1940s Lakeland. Surely such close proximity once again to splendors of the past stifled as many midnight tears as it spawned and helped her look forward to uncertain tomorrows.

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Chapter One

NORTH MANCHESTER

Father HS Yearbook

IN the autumn of 1950 George McPherson Hayes, Jr. returned home early from a business trip to Chicago, suffering from what was thought to be a bad case of the flu. The doctor told him not to worry, to take plenty of fluids, but the next morning he fell to the floor while trying to climb out of bed and was unable to pick himself up again. Just before the ambulance attendants wheeled my father out the door I saw him for what turned out to be the last time. He didn’t say anything. And yet the look he gave me still burns eloquently in my mind.

I was only six years old. But suddenly I found myself towering above the uncharacteristically still body of my father. He was buckled and strapped into a stretcher, his arms and body stiff and shrouded by a navy blue blanket tucked tightly up to his chin. He looked up at me for a long quiet moment. Those trapped blue eyes which said nothing said more to me than a six-year old is ready to hear.

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Welcome

Plug the search term “autobiography” into Google and you will get more than 45 million results in half a second. Given such popularity it is difficult to argue that vanity is not a common denominator amongst those who write about themselves.

Oft-times a memoir is a thinly-disguised attempt to salvage a botched life, to reassemble scattered elements and make them come out right this time. The stated goal may be to recount the past but the deeper motivation is no less than a personal theodicy. The nice thing is that in the final chapter, if we so choose, we can absolve ourselves of our sins.

No doubt my memoir as much as anyone else’s is fueled by self-interest. But be it known that my intent is to skimp on mundane facts except as necessary context for revealing character. Cynicism and apologetics aside, at its best witnessing about ourselves enriches our common cultural heritage. If there is a universal memory somewhere high in the sky, the faith of the autobiographer is that the triumphs and failures of even the least of us merit being preserved, too.

Here, then, is the inaugural post to my new autobiographical project. You might wish to begin with the “Preface” and then gravitate via the drop down menu to the chapters, which will be posted as they are completed.

Comments are encouraged and in particular I would be grateful to be notified of any writing errors you may spot.

Thanks…