Dispatches
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Trouble

Justice Served

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012: Stories, Trouble.

After years of avoiding or being dismissed from jury duty, I was finally selected yesterday as a juror on a trial in which our county sheriff’s department had filed a criminal charge of assault on a peace officer, naming a 20-year-old man I will call Brady as defendent.

Brady is a convicted felon who at the time of the incident was living in a single-wide trailer in a trailer park on the outskirts of town with his mother and two 10-year-old boys, Brady’s brother and a cousin. Brady looks a bit like Justin Timberlake with the crewcut and stubble beard. We never learned the nature of his felony, since it wasn’t pertinent to the current charge. He was on probation for the felony conviction and has an admitted drinking problem, for which he was in a program called Drug Court, entailing daily monitoring and testing by county officers.

The night before the incident, Brady’s mother had left for the state capital to accompany a friend who was having a medical procedure. She had left Brady in charge of the little boys. On the day of the incident, Brady got up early, woke the boys and made sure they had what they needed, and left for his construction job at the historic downtown hotel which is being refurbished.

The boys went to school that day and returned home in the afternoon, where Brady met them after getting off work, again making sure they had what they needed for the evening. Then he went to the gym, where he regularly tried to work out the stress of his probation and all that micromanagement of his life by the county. In early evening, the sheriff’s department got a call from someone at the school, expressing concern that the boys were unsupervised at home, and a junior officer was dispatched to the trailer to make a “welfare check.” He found the boys alone and was told Brady was taking care of them. His superior, a sargeant, arrived a few minutes later.

At the gym, Brady got a call from a neighbor who said the trailer was surrounded by cops, so Brady raced home and skidded to a stop behind the junior officer’s vehicle. He saw the two officers standing outside the door of the trailer and shouted “What the fuck are you doing here?”

The junior officer, standing at the door, on a small porch at the top of three steps, said they were conducting a welfare check on the two boys, and Brady, now at the bottom of the steps and increasingly agitated, responded “Show me your warrant!” The officer mentioned the welfare check again, and Brady started up the steps.

The officer, who was larger than Brady, shoved Brady in the chest, and they both fell backward onto a small cement landing containing a large rock. The officer, on top of Brady, turned him over and cuffed his hands behind his back. The two officers pulled him to his feet, marched him to the nearest patrol car, and pushed him into the back.

While the sheriff’s officers waited “for Brady to calm down,” the junior officer went into the trailer “to make sure the boys had something to eat,” despite the fact that the primary goal of the welfare check – to ensure that the boys had supervision – had been met. When the officers returned to the patrol car, Brady apologized for his initial hostility, and they released him from the car and the cuffs. Then Brady’s mother arrived, back from her trip, and the officers explained why they were there and departed.

That night, the junior officer opened a report describing the welfare check, but omitting the incident with Brady.

Brady had bruised a rib in his fall on the rock, and the next day he and his mother filed a complaint at the sheriff’s office.

Finally, four days later, the junior officer completed his report, claiming that Brady had “charged up the stairs at him in a threatening manner” and he feared imminent physical harm, and the department filed a criminal charge of assault.

In the trial, the only witnesses to the incident were the two officers and Brady. The boys had been inside the trailer and only came to the windows after they heard the men crashing to the ground. But the officers’ testimony was vague and conflicting. Neither could remember precise dates or times, and the sargeant admitted under defense examination that when he thought Brady was “charging” the junior officer, Brady could equally likely have been trying to get into the trailer to make sure the boys were okay. During the incident, both officers had recorders on their belts which they had failed to turn on, so there was no objective evidence of the exchange between the three men.

Both the boys and their mother were brought in as witnesses for the defense. It was clear the boys idolized Brady, and they both seemed like good boys, but it also became clear that Brady’s younger brother had been coached by his elders on what to say, so their testimony didn’t do us any good. The mother was nervous, flustered and inarticulate, her voice seemingly ravaged by cigarettes, whiskey, or worse, so she couldn’t do much good either.

Brady had been serious and subdued throughout the proceedings, but when the boys were brought in, you could tell he was concerned for them. His own testimony was articulated simply and straightforwardly, with concentration and apparent sincerity. He said he wasn’t threatening the officer, he was just trying to get into the trailer to see the boys.

The judge in the case was a pleasant, mild-mannered woman who mostly just let things roll. Both the prosecuting and defense attorneys were big men with huge bellies; the defense attorney resembled 1950s TV personality Captain Kangaroo and had a distinctive rocking gait and dramatic gestures. The state prosecutor – our paid servant – repeatedly misrepresented the facts we had been shown and the testimony we had heard, in an obvious attempt to cloud our judgment. His voice and arrogant presentation reminded me of Agent Smith in The Matrix movie. The defense attorney, on the other hand, overstated his case so much that we were kept hours beyond the expected close of the trial.

After the opening testimony of the two officers, I had made up my mind that there was ample reasonable doubt about what happened at the steps of the trailer. But during the hours that remained, I agonized a bit about what the other jurors – all women, all strangers – where thinking. What if a majority believed Brady guilty? Would I have to sacrifice my convictions for a unanimous verdict?

Finally we found ourselves alone in the jury room. One of the women laid a notepad with notes on the table in front of her, looked at me and said “You’re the foreman!” The other women all chimed in “Yes!” I sighed, considered for a few minutes and agreed, always unwilling to shirk responsibility. I asked the woman across from me to share her notes. They turned out to be points of doubt that we all agreed with. I signed the Not Guilty form and we returned to the courtroom, where the judge read our verdict, Brady and his attorney rejoiced, and we jurors were quickly led out of the building into the mountain sunshine, where the cottony clouds of monsoon season were mustering around us in the sky, their bellies darkening under the weight of impending rain.

We can never know exactly what happened between Brady and the officer, but it had become clear to us jurors that the junior officer had been the aggressor in the incident, that he had exceeded his duty by entering the trailer against Brady’s wishes, as a form of intimidation, and that days later, after Brady filed a complaint, the sheriff’s department had decided to retaliate with a criminal charge, seeing Brady the convicted felon as an easy target. We, on the other hand, saw Brady as someone working hard to turn his life around and be a responsible caregiver for the boys. If the sheriff’s department had its way, Brady would have ended up in prison, and the boys would be left with a broken family and a discouraging experience of an unfair society.

And I was reminded again that the people who are paid to serve us sometimes try to harm us instead. It was only the incompetence of these officers that betrayed them in their shameful mission.

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Moments of Release

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012: Stories, Trouble.

Last night I watched Never Let Me Go for the second time. Again, I cried at the ending. I cried gloriously for fifteen minutes, in waves of convulsive sobbing that propelled me staggering through the house, blindly clutching doorways and furniture.

I never know how much pain of loss I’m bottling up inside until something like this opens the gates of grieving, and, unfortunately, my hands have more fingers than my life has moments of true release. I suppose it’s how I was raised, my midwestern reserve.

I’ll never forget that night, alone in bed, my first year in San Francisco. I was in my 20s, making good money at an easy job, and I was a creative powerhouse, turning out experimental art, music and writing every day, circulating in the vibrant creative underground, meeting new people every week. But in the near-suicidal aftermath of a 6-year relationship, I’d been single and unloved for three years, I was living alone, and that night I couldn’t get to sleep because I couldn’t find my heart. It was sinking out of sight, shrunken and black, into bottomless depths. My chest felt empty and although my mind was filled with images of loss, no tears would flow. All I felt was a terrifying numbness, and I wondered if I would ever be able to cry again.

That question was answered the following year, just after I’d moved into the Loft. I was sleeping with an art student from Brooklyn who was nearly a decade younger than me. One night after making love, sensitive to our age difference, she tried to pick away at my perceived maturity by probing for old memories of loss, rejection, injustice or cruelty. Very cleverly she trapped me in a downward spiral of memories I’d been avoiding, until I was broken, sobbing and moaning in her arms.

Grieving can assume an epic scale in the desert. Twenty years ago, I was living and working on a remote ecological preserve in the Mojave, staying in touch with my city girlfriend via an old pay phone in a lab trailer, when one night she announced that she’d been sleeping with the bass player in her band for the past couple of months.

The cabin I was sharing with co-workers was at the high end of a valley ringed with low cliffs, and from the cabin an old trail led out of the valley into an empty, isolated basin. Under the full moon I walked that trail away from the company of men, until I got to a circular clearing surrounded by Larrea clones, the stark, moonshadowed shrubs my only company, still and silent, ranks of them standing off into the distance where granite cliffs rose up white as bone.

There, I went down to the ground and howled and pounded the gravel, thrashing like a mad man, wearing myself out in a frenzy of raw pain. Night after night I had fallen asleep watching the moon moving slowly through the sky, imagining that she was my distant girlfriend. And now, like the girl who had attached herself to someone else, the moon seemed cold and pitiless, shining clinically on my suffering.

Do some of us feel things more deeply? Or is it just that we bottle up our feelings until they get out of hand? You’d think that those of us who work in the expressive arts would have plenty of outlets for grief and loss, but that probably works better for some – actors, maybe? – than for others.

All I know is that I owe a debt of gratitude to those artists who give me random moments of release – like the creators of Never Let Me Go.

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25th Anniversary

Friday, October 17th, 2014: Stories, Trouble.

Condemned

25 years ago on this day, I was at work in the Berkeley Marina. My home, across the Bay in San Francisco, was, according to a well-travelled friend, “the most beautiful loft in the world.” But since building it out 8 years earlier, I had known that the tall, crumbling concrete building couldn’t withstand a major earthquake. Only 2 months earlier, there had been a sharp tremor in the early morning that knocked over and shattered a big mirror, and I had spent a week at a friend’s house until I was calm enough to return home.

On that Tuesday afternoon in October, I was standing in a doorway in our 2nd floor office when the wood frame building suddenly turned to rubber. Walls and floors rippling and swinging me from side to side, bookcases and filing cabinets crashing down, dust rising inside and outside the plate glass windows. Then, as the rolling and tumbling subsided, people began yelling to each other, climbing over furniture, coming together and heading outside.

I knew the moment had come – I had lost my home and studio across the water, and I was in shock – but Mae, my assistant, also had a home, and a partner, in the City, and I felt responsible for her. The phones and the power were out, but I had a new mini-SUV – my previous ride had been totaled a few weeks earlier by crackheads in a hit-and-run.

The long, straight Marina road, facing the UC Berkeley campanile and the Berkeley Hills, had been split down the middle, with the lanes separated by a wide crack, one lane lower than the other. Straight ahead, somewhere near campus and downtown, a mushroom cloud rose ominously, thousands of feet into the sky.

There was nothing but noise on the radio. We were just trying to get home – we had no idea what we would find ahead. When we reached the freeway, we could see it was a solid mass of stopped traffic. We turned onto the frontage road, where traffic was moving slowly, and made it to Emeryville, where we found a chaos of vehicles backtracking and looking for a way out, since they couldn’t get to the Bay Bridge and traffic lights were off.

I suggested that we try to reach my drummer’s house in Oakland. After a while I was able to reach the warehouse district on the other side of the freeway, where the main through street was completely jammed. Putting my new vehicle to the test, I drove over a curb, up an embankment, and across the railroad tracks, and following back alleys and back streets for miles, we finally made it to Mike’s.

“The Bay Bridge is down, and San Francisco is burning!” he shouted when he saw us. His house was fine and the phone and power were on, but we couldn’t get through to the City. On his TV, the same three video clips rotated over and over. In the first one, shot from a helicopter in the north of the city, block after block of fallen buildings were burning, as if they’d been bombed. All the power was out and the helicopter kept a safe distance. What we could see looked like a war zone. Another scene showed a smaller fire that seemed to be closer to the loft, and the third, taken before dark, showed the huge section of steel and concrete that had dropped from the upper deck of the bridge, cars piled up at random angles in the gap.

Mike’s girlfriend joined us, and we all sat around silently watching and waiting. Hours later, the phone rang. It was my roommate, John, calling from the loft. The power was out, things had been thrown around a bit, and a big chunk of concrete had fallen from the wall and crushed the toilet, but the building was still standing. Mae reached her partner, who was safe at home, with the power back on. We decided to try to reach the city by way of Marin County and the Golden Gate.

In the wee hours of the morning, having dropped Mae off at her Noe Valley apartment, I was driving through a canyon of dark tenements down a wide street filled with debris and lined with burning trash cans. All power was out here in the city’s core, and ahead of me, as far as I could see, the black silhouettes of homeless people lurched back and forth between the flames.

It took days for the government to respond. In the meantime, our landlord’s first response was to replace the toilet. Our neighborhood was one of the two most devastated parts of the city – parts of buildings had collapsed, killing people. Communications had broken down across the region, and we didn’t hear about the freeway tragedy in Oakland until days later.

Everyone’s lives and routines were put on hold as the streets filled with officials, cleanup crews, and dump trucks. I didn’t want to sleep in my threatened home, and Mae and her partner offered me their guest bed. Two days before the quake, a new roommate had moved into the loft, a young artist who had had a disturbing dream her first night there. In response, she had created a big spooky drawing, of three figures wrapped in shrouds, that was hanging on the wall in her room. After the quake she had been stranded in the East Bay, so I drove the long way around to get her. That night, we joined Mike and Kele high up on the Oakland Hills, gazing soberly over the vast metropolitan area with its new patches of darkness, freeways mostly empty, the usual rumble of traffic muted.

On Friday, the fourth night after the quake, power had been restored, and Leslie and I decided to sleep at home. The first night, I dreamed I was carried, suspended upright, though a dark tunnel beneath the earth, toward a glow that was the epicenter of the quake. As I approached the center, the glow increased, and I was filled with a growing sense of well-being, a sense that a great tension had been relieved. The earth was showing me what had happened, and why, and I woke up refreshed.

After the weekend, the landlord brought an engineer to look at the structural columns and foundation – all cracked through, with rusted and broken rebar hanging out like spaghetti – and our front door was red-tagged for demolition. It was the end, the end of almost a decade of artistic drama, an ever-changing community of inspired and unstable young bohemians – the highs and the lows, the all-night sessions of drawing, painting, jamming, rehearsing plays, partying, sharing ideas and passions. Could it also be a new beginning?

After packing and moving everything into storage, Leslie and I were brought together in our search for a new home. Property owners had responded to the crisis by raising rents across the entire region – they were asking twice or three times what we had been paying, even in the East Bay. So we slept on friends’ floors and couches. She got a temporary room in a dorm at her alma mater in Oakland, where the doors were locked at sundown and I had to sneak around back and throw rocks at her upper window to get her to let me in.

John had met his new girlfriend just before the quake, and they decided to squat in the red-tagged loft until the bitter end, camping in the ruins without utilities, hauling jugs of water to drink, bathe, and flush the brand-new toilet. They stayed for a month longer, until the doors and windows were boarded up by official decree.

Weeks after the quake, after two episodes of standing in line at makeshift government offices, Leslie and I finally got a FEMA voucher that allowed us to stay in a cheap motel in a poor neighborhood. Using a food voucher, we grabbed steak dinners at Sizzler and a six-pack of beer at a corner store, and climbed the urine-soaked stairs to our room. We ate, it got dark, we drank a couple of beers. We got used to the smell until we hardly noticed it. In the darkness by the open window, with the sounds and lights of the avenue outside, it began to feel like an exotic, romantic place, like a flophouse in Bangkok. Leslie got up, went over, and stretched out on the sagging bed. “Give me a massage,” she said.

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Eve of Destruction

Monday, August 10th, 2020: Black Range, Hikes, Hillsboro, Nature, Plants, Southwest New Mexico, Stories, Trouble.

In my endless rotation of weekly hikes, it was time to return to the 10,000′ peak east of town. It was looking to be another hot day, but as usual during the monsoon, I was hoping for cloud cover and maybe even rain later in the day.

Starting from the trailhead I saw damp ground in the shade, evidence that it had rained last night or late yesterday. Vegetation was lush and humidity was high as the sun beat down on me. Since the first half of the 5-mile hike to the peak is exposed, I was racing to climb up into the shade of mixed conifer forest. And I was scanning the sky for clouds that might develop into thunderheads.

I’d gotten an early start, and I reached the peak shortly after noon. I immediately started down the backside on the continuation of the crest trail, into old growth firs and meadows deep with grass and ferns. I came across several deer and a small flock of wild turkeys, maybe the same I’d seen here a few weeks ago.

At the saddle that marked the end of the maintained trail, I decided to try fighting my way through the big blowdown that blocked the rest of the crest trail. It descends into a broad bowl that funnels into a ravine. The trail has been mostly obliterated. I climbed over log after log, found a remnant of the trail with a couple of old cairns, and continued down to the bottom of the bowl, where I faced even bigger logs. There, the trail ended in a heavily eroded gully where debris – piles of rocks – had filled in where the trail used to be. There was no clue where to go next, so I turned and fought my way back to the saddle.

On the return hike, moving slower, I noticed wildflowers I’d missed on the way in. I’m sure I’ve seen most or all of these before, but they seemed new and exciting. I heard thunder overhead, and it began to rain, but never hard enough to require my poncho.

The temperature up there dropped thirty degrees or so, and despite the sporadic rain, my sweat-soaked shirt soon dried out. I continued to make my way in and out of dark cloud shadows, rain, and brief spells of sunlight, enjoying the flowers along the way.

Finally I reached the highway and drove home.

The next morning I woke late, went to the bathroom, smelled toxic smoke – like burning plastic – and suddenly smoke billowed out of the heating vent at my feet. I ran outside in my bedclothes, yanked the basement door open, and saw my basement engulfed in flames. At that moment I knew the life I depended on was over. I ran back inside, called 911, rushed into pants and shoes, grabbed my keys and wallet.

My music studio was directly over the inferno, so I raced in there and grabbed the two instruments I’d taken out of storage – my precious vintage electric guitar and a cheap electric bass. Then I ran outside. Police were arriving, blocking off the street.

I moved both my vehicles out of the driveway. Finally after a few minutes, a fire engine arrived. Firemen ran hoses down the driveway. The police moved me out of the way, to where my neighbors were gathering. I couldn’t see what was going on at the back of my house, but smoke was coming out of my roof. I was terrified and in shock.

Much later, another fire engine arrived, and they ran another, larger hose to the back of my house. I asked for information but they couldn’t tell me anything yet. I asked why there weren’t more engines and firemen, and they said this was all that was available now.

More and more smoke poured out of my house. I literally couldn’t stand, and collapsed on the sidewalk in front of my neighbor’s place. So they brought out folding chairs. After an hour or so, getting up and peeking around the yellow police tape, I could see firemen coming in and out through my front door. They’d opened all my windows. I asked a policeman if someone could try retrieving my computer from the office, and within minutes they’d brought it out. Later, I remembered my phone was still on my desk, and a helmeted fireman got it for me. Finally, I was told the fire was under control but they had to clear the smoke. They set up a fan at my front door.

Looking down the driveway, I could see a growing pile of blackened, sodden trash. Firemen were pulling everything out of the burned basement because it was now flooded and they needed clear space to pump the water out. That pile of blackened, sodden trash was all that remained of my Archives – the history of my life since earliest childhood, all my correspondence, journals, high school yearbooks, university transcripts and degrees, reference material, the history of my bands and art projects, recent tax records. My old friend Katie’s wonderful sculptural art – dozens of pieces incinerated. My camping gear. Old clothes and shoes, surplus furniture. Nothing of great material value, lots of sentimental value.

The silver lining was that a couple months ago, unable to work on my painting project, I’d carried all my archival music tapes up to my office, planning to finish digitizing them.

Gradually, the firemen and police left. The fire marshall stayed for hours, investigating the source of the fire. In the end, he had no definite conclusions, but the water heater and old electrical wiring were possible culprits. There remains the question of insurance, which keeps me in a state of uncertainty.

My neighbors have been wonderful as usual. One fed me breakfast as I waited for the fire marshall’s investigation. I’ve moved into the guest room of their house next door. Every five minutes or so I remember something I need and return to my damaged house. The kitchen and bathroom are coated with black soot, and the burned smell makes it hard to spend more than a few minutes in the house. It looks like the floor under the kitchen and dining room/music studio will need to be replaced, plus half the central heating ducting and attic insulation.

It’s sad because my builder was just finishing his restoration of my back porch, with its floor of antique oak tongue and groove. Most of his work has been destroyed, along with one end of the floor. All the utilities to my house have been disconnected, and I will need to hire an electrician, a plumber, and a licensed contractor to get everything going again. Not to mention the cleanup. Rough estimate is 6-8 months before I have a home again.

Living from minute to minute. So lucky I woke up just as the fire was starting! So lucky the firemen were able to stop it from spreading!

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Fire, Part 1: Growing Up in Flames

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2020: Fire, Nature, Stories, Trouble.

In early August of this year, I lost my home to fire. But it wasn’t the first time. Fire has welcomed me into its mystery since early childhood, and I’ve lost homes and other treasures to a variety of natural as well as human catastrophes. In weekly hikes, I’ve been studying how natural habitats and wildlife adapt to wildfire, and for the past two decades I’ve been planning to summarize my experiences with natural disasters in a series of thematic essays. So in the wake of the latest loss, here’s the first Dispatch on my life with fire.

All images by Max unless otherwise credited.

Pyromaniac

Anthropologists who study mobile subsistence cultures – human communities that use open fires for heating and cooking – often observe that many adults have burn scars dating to their childhood, when getting burned was a routine part of living around fire and learning about its dangers.

I was born into a very different society: the suburban United States of the early 1950s. Only a few years before I was born, the U.S. had joined other imperial powers in a war that spanned the entire planet, and our victory in that war, and the industrial development that enabled it, had made us the richest and most powerful nation on earth, one of two new global superpowers.

The Good War. The Greatest Generation. Scientific discovery, technological innovation, industrialization, an orgy of violence and killing on a scale never seen before.

Almost overnight we had a worldwide military empire. And now: continuous, unending shows of force against our counterpart, in what was being called a Cold War.

Always hyper-competitive, we mobilized our scientists and engineers against the enemy in an Arms Race – stockpiling nuclear weapons – and a Space Race, rushing to conquer and dominate the skies overhead with rockets, satellites, and eventually “astronauts.”

But all our newfound wealth, power, and technological progress had a price: hanging over all of us was the threat of The Bomb, a wartime miracle product of our most advanced science – nuclear physics – that threatened to destroy all life on earth. At school, class was interrupted regularly by terrifying air raid sirens, and our teachers would hustle us out into the sterile hallways to hunch down in rows against cinderblock walls, arms crossed over our heads, eyes clamped shut, haunted by visions of a nuclear firestorm.

In contrast to our technological advances, fear made us socially conservative and conformist. My family lived outside a small college town, a center of high-tech industry, in a proto-suburb of modest, modern homes laid out in a row along one side of a road running up the narrow valley of a small creek, with forested ridges rising to each side. Each home sheltered another modern innovation, the nuclear family: our professional dads drove off to work early in the morning, then the kids got up and left for school, while the stay-at-home moms kept house, did the shopping, and cooked the meals. Smaller and more standardized consumer units, isolated from each other, resulted in needs that could be better commodified, improving efficiency and increasing profits for the shareholders.

It’s likely that I first became familiar with fire in our living room. My dad, a research scientist, wasn’t around much – he went straight to the bar after work, and came home late after I was already in bed – so he compensated each year in late autumn by conducting a little family ritual: collecting walnuts from under the trees alongside our house, building a fire in the fireplace in our small living room, and recruiting my mom and me to shell nuts in front of the fire.

Our house at the upper end of the row of houses, with the elementary school at the lower end. When I turned 7, a new family moved into the house next door, with a boy my age. We’d all been indoctrinated with the fever of space exploration, and he’d been given a working model of a multi-stage rocket ship like the ones being used to launch satellites into orbit. It looked realistic, but it stood only a couple feet tall and used water and compressed air for propulsion. It lacked much of the drama of the real thing.

All of our houses stood on terraces above the creek, with the front on the top level facing the road, and the back one story lower, with a basement opening onto a big concrete patio on the bank of the creek. Prosperity, conformity and predictability made society safe, and outside of school, kids were allowed to spend their days without adult supervision. My neighbor and I were sometimes left alone at the same time – our fathers at work, our mothers out running errands or visiting friends. On one of those days, bored with his water-powered rocket, the neighbor boy got the idea of collecting everything we could find labeled “flammable,” dumping it into an empty coffee can on his patio, and setting the mixture on fire, to simulate a real rocket launch.

We disappeared into our vacant basements and emerged a few minutes later carrying cans of gasoline, paint thinner, lighter fluid, and the like. My neighbor placed the coffee can out in the middle of the concrete slab, we poured a little of everything in, and he stirred it up with a stick. I stood back a few yards as he lit a match, tossed it in the can, and dashed back to join me. There was a subdued whoosh, a brief burst of flame, and that was it. Bad idea. Sheepishly, we returned all the ingredients to their proper places and moved on to something different.

Unfortunately for us, a lady in the next house over happened to be looking out a back window at the time. As soon as my neighbor’s mom got home, our spectator ran over to tell her. She interrogated her son, and he blamed everything on me.

My dad got the news at work, and rushed home early for a change. Our phone was ringing off the hook – all the neighbors in a state of hysteria, labeling me a pyromaniac, an arsonist, a dangerous juvenile offender.

I was undersize, and terrified of my dad’s temper. Obese, with a deep, bellowing voice, he always seemed like a giant. He interrogated me, but that only frightened me more, and I denied having anything to do with the backyard fire.

The other parents had chosen a dad from the lower end of our road as a representative, and he called my dad to announce their verdict. My dad angrily defended me, but the decision was final. Why? I’ll never know – over time, our family has lost all contact with that community.

Henceforth, I was not to be seen or heard socializing or communicating with any other kids on our road. And additionally: I was not allowed to set foot on their properties, which meant that I would have to cross the road in front of our house and walk to school on the far side, where there was no sidewalk.

Fire had made me an exile in my own neighborhood. I’d lied to my parents and felt terrible. I’m sure the neighbor kid was suffering too. I lost my playmates, and every weekday I carefully crossed the busy road and walked alone through the weeds on the other side, all the way down the valley to school, trying to avoid looking at my neighbors’ forbidden properties. It wasn’t until decades later, after our nuclear family had fragmented and dispersed across the continent, that the mother of the neighbor boy approached my paternal grandmother in a local supermarket and apologized, saying her son had finally admitted to starting that silly little fire.

Fanning the Flames

I was only an outcast for a year. In 1960, when I turned 8, my parents decided to separate, and my mom moved me and my new baby brother to her own hometown in the next state to the west.

A new decade and a different environment. The Russians hadn’t bombed us into oblivion yet, so it was possible to start ignoring the threat of those growing nuclear stockpiles. And my mom’s hometown was a small farming community in the midst of flat, sprawling cropfields, almost an hour’s drive from the nearest city. Little industry, life had a slower pace, and progress and the wider world now seemed far away. Plus, instead of the “modern, progressive” nuclear family, I was now in the bosom of my mom’s traditional extended family.

My mom’s parents – my grandparents – operated a neighborhood grocery, and initially, we moved into their house, a short walk from the center of town in a tree-shaded neighborhood of small business owners and tradespeople. It was a modest two-story, three-bedroom wood-frame house probably built between the 1930s and the 40s, but it wasn’t really designed for all of us. After a year or two of this cramped arrangement, our grandparents moved around the corner into our great-grandparents’ house, and we spread out.

Our mom slept downstairs in the small parlor-like room off the kitchen, with a tiny half bath. I took the larger upstairs bedroom and my brother the smaller, and we all shared the only full bath, which was across a tiny landing between the bedrooms at the top of the stairs.

I was still an undersize child and was being bullied regularly by my new classmates and teachers, so if anything, I was even more fearful than before. My dad’s parents, back in our previous hometown, were insurance agents, and on some birthday or holiday they gave me a big book published by an insurance company, sensationalizing famous fires from history, with garish paintings showing people jumping out of the burning windows of big-city apartment buildings, and firemen running from burning houses with babies in their arms. I had developed a habit of reading in bed at night, and this book “fired” my imagination to the point where I was afraid of going to sleep and having the house catch fire with us unconscious inside.

I had only a rudimentary notion of how house fires got started. A spark or some source of heat in contact with something flammable? The only sources I could think of were the steam-heat furnace downstairs in the back kitchen, the electrical outlets and appliances, and the radiators and steam pipes located in every room. Every night, after my mom and brother had gone to sleep, I got up and prowled the house checking for hot spots. When I was sure everything was okay, I went back to bed and eventually fell asleep.

It took me another couple of years to get over my fear of fire in the night, but I finally did. Meanwhile, real fires were a regular spectacle in our town. The fire station had a horn that was so loud it could be heard all over town, and they divided the town into sectors. Whenever a fire was called in, they blew the horn from one to four times to indicate the sector, so spectators would know where to go to watch the fire. I’ll never forget the night the big grain elevator behind the courthouse caught fire. It was almost as tall as the courthouse itself, and much of the town’s population gathered on the courthouse lawn to watch the tower of flames and sparks collapsing into the criss-crossing arcs of water from the fire engines.

Midwestern summers can get really hot and muggy, and my brother’s room only had one small window, whereas my larger room had a couple of dormer windows next to my double bed and a taller sash window in the gable at the opposite end of the room, so I had a lot more airflow. Our grandpa had installed a big window fan in the lower part of that gable window, and on really hot summer nights, my brother left his room and joined me. On one such night, we had the fan going full blast, blowing directly at the bed, and it helped us both fall asleep.

The next thing I knew, I woke up to a roaring, crackling sound, and a wall of flame facing me across the room. I grabbed my little brother and dragged him out to the landing, where I yelled that my room was on fire. He bounded down to join our mom at the bottom of the stairs, and she rushed him out the front door, then dashed to the phone and called the fire department.

I followed my brother down, but my whole life was up in that burning room. I wasn’t going to let it go without a fight. I ran back to the kitchen, grabbing a big sauce pan and filling it with water, which I lugged back up the stairs, into a growing cloud of smoke. Choking and coughing in the heavy smoke, I could now barely see the fire, but I trudged forward anyway and threw the pan of water toward where I knew the window had to be.

Of course, that added a rush of steam to the smoke, and I was driven back down the stairs, where our mom was waiting for me, and we both ran outside, across the porch into the front yard where we joined my little brother under the big maple tree. Flames were climbing out my window toward the peak of the roof, and thick smoke was pouring out of the door and all the open windows, both upstairs and down. The fire station’s horn was blowing, a siren was howling up the street, and the fire engine was just turning into our alley. They stopped short of the house, ran a ladder up to the window, and a fireman began climbing it with a hose.

It only took a short blast from the high-pressure hose to put out the flames, and meanwhile, other uniformed firemen were tramping through our house, making sure the fire was truly out and all the windows and doors were open to let out the smoke.

Our grandparents accompanied us back to their house, around the corner. Our great-grandparents had both passed away by that time, so there was now a spare bedroom where the three of us could temporarily shelter. Our first order of business: to get clean. The window fan had had a plastic housing, which had apparently been flammable, generating black smoke full of molten soot and ashes that had coated everything in the house, including us, and my brother and I had been breathing it.

We were too filthy for the upstairs bathroom, which had only an old clawfoot tub, so we took turns showering in the unfinished basement, where our grandparents had their furnace and laundry room with a shower in the low ceiling. I remember coughing up long strands of black phlegm and watching them trail away to the drain in the concrete floor, seemingly endlessly, until finally the water cleared and I felt I could breath freely again. Decades later, a chest x-ray would show a scar in my lungs which may date to that fire.

The next day, we learned that the only actual fire damage was to the wall immediately around the window. But as always happens, our house was uninhabitable, because everything inside it was covered with that black soot, and the odor, the off-gassing, was toxic. Everything exposed – all our furniture, appliances, bedding, clothing, hobbies, toys, pictures – would have to be cleaned, and much of it would be unsalvageable. All the ceilings, walls, and floors would need to be cleaned, painted or refinished.

It was only a few years after the trauma of an entire neighborhood turning against me, but what a different experience this fire was! My mom’s hometown came together generously to support us, and all the cleaning and repairs were completed quickly. In my memory it was no more than three weeks before I was back in my upstairs bedroom, where the previous greenish wallpaper had been replaced with white paint, and the tongue-and-groove hardwood floor had a shiny new finish.

My clothes, bedding, books, and model cars had been cleaned, and it was great to be back in my own room, but I couldn’t get that wall of flame out of my imagination, and my nighttime fear of fire returned with a vengeance. Once again, I waited every night for the others to fall asleep, so I could prowl the house looking for hot spots. Only when I was sure everything was safe would I return to bed, but even then it was hard to sleep. So for a little more peace of mind, I arranged to spend one night a week in the spare bedroom at our grandparents’ house. Fire was redirecting my life.

Slow-Burning Cave

To people who live close to the earth, fire and flames are a mystical embodiment of spirit itself, and even in our advanced, civilized culture, we regularly use fire as a metaphor. In Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning post-apocalyptic novel The Road, the protagonist speaks of “carrying the fire” – the seeds of civilization itself – referring to our popular stereotype of cultural evolution: “man’s discovery of fire.” That civilization went through huge changes in the decades after my bedroom fire: the civil rights and environmental movements, Vietnam and the anti-war movement, the youth culture revolution of the 1960s and the Counterculture of the 1970s. And I finally had a growth spurt and gained confidence, and a small support group of kindred spirits, through my achievements in art and academics.

Beginning in the 1960s, candles became an icon of the new hippie generation, and in my high school art class, I made a big rainbow-colored candle in the shape of a long slab, like a little stone wall, with half a dozen wicks in a row. Growing out of my early timidity, I’d begun taking on the role of an organizer and leader both in our neighborhood and at school, and at night, I’d set the big candle in the middle of my bedroom floor at night, invite friends over, and chant lines from ancient Anglo-Saxon poems – Beowolf, The Seafarer, and The Wanderer – as we sat in a circle gazing at the flames. On the eve of my departure for college, my experimental folk-rock band peformed its final concert on the open porch of a farmhouse way out in the country, surrounded by fifty flickering candles.

Our parents had split up when we moved to Indiana, but during our visits to his new home in California, our dad took my brother and me camping. His approach was incredibly stressful, planning months in advance, with multi-page checklists and tons of expensive gear that had to be kept spotless and meticulously maintained, but he always said that nature was his church, and after I eventually transcended the uptightness and inhibitions of his style of camping, the love and respect remained, along with many essential lessons, including how to safely and effectively build and manage a campfire.

When I left the small town for college in the big city, I remained dependent on my extended family in many ways – a sort of prolonged adolescence, seemingly destined for the sort of “normal” adulthood my father had hoped for, with a professional career, wife, home, and children. It wasn’t until I finally came out the other end, degrees in hand, that I began to rebel.

Attracted by the bohemian lifestyle, I became an apprentice to my best friend Mark, a fellow artist, who practiced a casual, minimalist style of camping. You always carried a sleeping bag and slept wherever you found yourself – in somebody’s living room, yard, or under a bush in a park. Anything else you needed, you scrounged or mooched from others at the last minute. We spent years making road trips together, all over the west and into Mexico, huddling around campfires, surrounded by six packs of cold beer, passing handrolled joints, dreaming up art projects, making up songs and phantasmagorical banter.

When I graduated from Mark’s teachings and created my own arts community in a loft in San Francisco, we were hit by the coldest winter on record, and I bought and installed a wood stove which became the center of our home on cold nights. We started out poor, burning castoff softwood lumber we scavenged late at night from the streets of our industrial neighborhood. But then we got better day jobs, and I found a firewood lot in a distant suburb that offered delivery, and henceforth we kept a woodpile on one side of the big front hall, fed the stove with oak and avocado, and learned how to safely and effectively heat a large, high-ceilinged urban space with wood fires, warming up unforgettable jam sessions, parties, and late-night confessions.

In the meantime, Mark had introduced me to the Mojave Desert, where he camped occasionally in a “cave” – a hollow under a granite boulder in a beautiful basin next to a remote dirt road. Through him, I eventually met Katie, who would become my partner in life and music for a while. She’d come from a family with at least as much trauma as mine – she and her siblings had been condemned by their childhood community for “setting a swamp on fire” – accidentally burning off the dried vegetation of a large wetland that provided habitat for wildlife.

But Katie was an experienced outdoorswoman who taught me how as bohemian artists, we didn’t need to stress over preparations for camping, nor did we need high technology, but with a little work and creativity, we could have all the comforts of home while deep in the wilderness.

I took Katie out to the desert, where we discovered our own, larger shelter in a pile of boulders near Mark’s cave. But it needed cleaning up. The gravel floor was covered with cholla cactus joints – the spine-covered branches that littered the ground around wide-branching buckhorn cholla and were always getting stuck to our shoes, ankles, and the occasional careless limb.

We drove the 80 miles to the nearest town and came back with a cheap garden rake, but a little raking only revealed a much bigger challenge: the ancient woodrat midden in the back. At that early stage of our desert apprenticeship we were ecologically ignorant and didn’t realize our cave had been the home of woodrats for centuries, if not millenia.

The midden was a resinous mass at the back of our cave – where our heads would lie at night – stinking of woodrat urine, thoroughly embedded with cactus spines. We tried to break it up with a shovel, but it was too dense and hard. So we came up with the bright idea of setting it on fire and burning it out. I guess my coal-mining uncle had never told me about coal seam fires, which can burn underground for thousands of years, because that’s what we ended up with.

The woodrat midden generated a massive stream of dense white smoke that poured out of the cave and spread across the basin. We used all our limited supply of bottled water on it with no effect, and there we were in the desert, a half mile from our car and 80 miles from civilization, so we had to leave it burning, deep in the cave, while we hiked to the car and drove back to Twentynine Palms. There, we bought a fire extinguisher and more jugs of drinking water, and took showers in the public park. Then we drove the 80 miles back to our cave.

After all those hours of driving and hiking back and forth from the road, the little fire extinguisher was exhausted in about 30 seconds and likewise had no effect. We were driven out of our cave by yet another cloud of smoke, coughing and weeping, heartsick and desolate, feeling like history’s biggest fools. All Katie could think of was that burning swamp from her childhood. What had we started, and what would happen next? We couldn’t just drive away and leave it to burn – this was a beautiful wilderness, on public land.

For whatever reason, the one thing we hadn’t tried yet was to bury the fire, smother it with the sand and gravel that we still had an unlimited supply of in and around our cave. We still had my little folding shovel, so working in shifts to recover from breathing smoke, we began slowly burying the midden fire, and it eventually went out, and we cleaned up our cave, which, under Katie’s direction, we finally turned into a comfortable home in the wilderness. We built a little dry-stone wall around the charred midden, and there at the back of the cave, right next to where we slept, it became a permanent reminder of that early disaster.

Tossing the Coal

Our San Francisco loft was crumbling, decrepit, and illegal – not zoned for residential, developed in violation of building codes – and we were all sure it wouldn’t survive a major earthquake. But as artists and musicians, we found beauty in ruins, and in capitalist society, we had no other options.

The building next to us on the south was a tenement whose upper floor sheltered a long series of troubled tenants, desperate people whose problems couldn’t always be confined to their apartment. Their back door opened onto a lower roof below the window of my bedroom and art studio. I was working there one afternoon when I heard kids outside. A Vietnamese family were our newest neighbors, and when I opened the window, the kids were setting fire to an old mattress on the tarred roof just below my window. I screamed at them and ran to the phone in the hall. Fortunately a fire station was just around the corner.

My roommates were together enough to talk me into getting a fire extinguisher for our kitchen, and John, whose room had a path to a side alley via another low roof outside his window, set up a rope ladder we could access from the roof, via our many skylights and roof hatches, to escape in an emergency. But our place was still a fire trap, like the Ghost Ship artist community in Oakland that became a terrible tragedy and a prolonged scandal in the 2010s. We were lucky; they weren’t.

It wasn’t fire, but an earthquake that brought my San Francisco loft community to an end in October 1989, leaving me homeless yet again. As described elsewhere, the quake caught me at work across the Bay in Berkeley, and it was hours before I could return to my damaged home. At a friend’s house in Oakland, “We watched Mike’s TV in silence as they showed the same helicopter footage over and over, of a blacked-out city lit only by raging fires in my South of Market neighborhood and in the Marina District to the north.”

Later, returning to the crippled loft, “It was about 2am when I rolled down darkened Folsom Street, driving slow and swerving to avoid trash can fires and homeless people staggering like zombies through the rubble.” It was literally post-apocalyptic, beyond any movie, and I’ll never forget those fires and the human shadows crossing in front of them.

Despite all those decades of experience and that long, diverse series of teachers, my knowledge of fire didn’t truly mature until I joined an aboriginal skills field course at Utah’s Boulder Outdoor Survival School in 1990. There, I learned to make fire the ancient way, by assembling and crafting a fire-starting kit from local, natural materials. It takes a lot of practice, but once you master it, it’s no more difficult than any of our routine domestic chores.

That course gave me something priceless I’d only dreamed about: the firsthand understanding of how indigenous people – the ancestors of all of us – thrived in harmony with nature. There in the high desert wilderness of Utah’s Colorado Plateau, I assembled a fire drill and a stash of firemaking materials, all of which were destroyed in this year’s house fire. Those things were sacred to me, and their loss adds to so many others I will always grieve.

But I didn’t just learn how to make fire from scratch. I also learned to make an effective cooking fire with sticks no thicker than my thumb, so the coals would burn down to ash that could be mixed into the soil, obliterating any record of the fire when we left the site. Leave no trace.

And at night, sitting around the campfire, after eating our dinner of hand-caught trout from a nearby stream, we learned the game of tossing the coal – something so counter-intuitive to our civilized, risk-averse lifestyle that it seems impossible. Tom, our instructor, reached into the embers, grabbed a red-hot coal, and began tossing it from hand to hand while he grinned at each of us novices in turn.

“Never tried tossing the coal?” He glanced at Cody, the apprentice at his side, and passed the coal to him. “One of the oldest games known to man. You’d never think it, but all you need is to keep it moving, bouncing around in your palm, tossing it back and forth between your hands.”

Tom looked at me. “Go ahead, grab yourself a coal!”

The universal attraction of fire is far older than our species. Early humans didn’t “discover” fire, kick-starting our cultural progress toward the conquest of outer space, any more than Columbus “discovered” the New World. Once we stop trying to “conquer” nature, it has much to teach us. Fire taught me that mice are omnivorous: alone on my desert land one cold night, I watched moths drawn to the campfire, and a deer mouse leaping into the air to catch them.

It’s ironic – white do-gooders are always trying to wean brown-skinned villagers in the Global South from their traditional wood fires – but my civilized friends and I are all happiest living in the wilderness around a primitive campfire.

Next: Discovering Wildfire

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