Saw this on the Laundry At The Center of the Universe’s bulletin board:
It’s a good organization and they’ve certainly been proactive in addressing an issue here in the lower Mojave. They’ve been operating out of a mobile unit (trailer) for quite some time, so a permanent place is great.. But this caught my eye:
Socio-political commentary aside (and excepting pets who are inheritors in the wills from a few rich heiresses like Leona Helmsley,) what animal has an income?
They showed up from time to time on Sundays here at the Laundromat at the Center of the Universe. The femme of the pair was a dark-haired, darker skinned version of a young Woody Allen, if the latter habitually wore sweats and fifty more pounds on his short frame. The other half of the couple, who we’ll call “Buck,” was the opposite, slightly taller and half the mass of his companion, with sandy hair, a skeletal face, and a loud voice. Buck dressed ‘butch’, usually in flannels and worn jeans, sometimes with a buckskin jacket. Today it was a set of coveralls, logging boots and a boonie-hat.
It was kind of cute in a saccharine way to see them come in, chattering back and forth, helping each other with the laundry. Their dog, a young shepherd-collie mix that Woody called “Biscuit” would come in with them and lay under one of the tables or at one or the others’ feet.
This morning was different.
Pablo and I watched as their little SUV backed into the last open parking slot slowly, as if it was carrying a live bomb. Woody got out of the passenger side, said something long, sharp and shrill to the driver, slammed the door and huffed around to the back of the vehicle. Biscuit, who was in the back, cringed as Woody grabbed a couple of bags and stormed off for the entrance. Buck’s expression as he got out was a mixture of confusion, concern, and boy-have-I-screwed-up. He gave Biscuit a quick scratch behind the ears before grabbing a basket full of throw-rugs and closing the hatch on the dog .
They’d had a fight. From the signs, it had been a beauty.
“Ooooh, boy.” was all Pablo said. Pablo’s been married thirty years, me about two-thirds as long.
Woody stomped through the front door of the Laundromat, closing it behind him, and stopped when he the saw two of us sitting there.
“Hi,” he said, deliberately dropping his voice about two octaves.
“Morning,” said Pablo in his usual drawl.
“Good morning!” I said with all the cheer I could muster. I don’t know why I did that. Woody just glared at me and continued down to the unused washers. It took Buck a bit longer to enter, what with the heavy basket and his aiming for the other and open entrance door. He skirted his partner, opting for the far side of the folding tables and the heavy-duty washers in the back. I noticed Woody had picked the farthest open washer from the heavy duty ones.
It wouldn’t have been a stretch to say the air in the Laundromat dropped a few degrees. Everyone either tried to look busy or decided to go get some coffee.
Woody jammed his stuff in the machine, answering Buck’s “helpless husband” questions with one or two-words, without looking at Buck. He measured his detergent and softener, punched the requisite temperature-and-cycle buttons and dropped his quarters in.
The machine didn’t start.
So Woody opened and closed the door again. He punched the requisite temperature-and-cycle buttons again. He pressed the coin-return button and then pressed it a few more times. Each time was a little harder than the last.
The machine still didn’t start.
Woody then began a pattern of beating on the coin box with a pudgy fist alternated with opening and slamming the washer door. The sequence continued and then got more animated, accompanied by the longest, most imaginative string of vituperation I’d heard since that day in the Persian Gulf back in ’88, when my Chief Hull Technician scraped the skin off his knuckles while trying to show a hapless underling “how P-250 pump-starting was supposed to be done.”
People came from the other side of the Laundromat to watch as Woody continued beating faster and faster on the machine. Pablo and I just sat there, mesmerized by the performance. The only thing missing was kicking and an accompanying drum beat.
Just when I thought Woody would lapse into complete, tearful hysteria, he stopped. He quietly pulled his laundry out and placed it in a neighboring machine, and went through the start-up litany again. The machine, thankfully, worked. Woody completed this performance with another string of muttered cursing, this time with “three-fifty wasted” added to the mix.
Buck finally decided it was safe to join in.
“Do you need more quarters?” He held out a partially-used roll of them.
“No, I’m good… thanks,” Woody said, sounding spent. Buck pointed at his machine and complained about how little water was coming into it. Though it seemed fine to me, it was enough for Woody to walk over, look at the offending washer and commiserate with his partner.
They went off in search of the “manager.” Usually the Professor handles problems like this, and quickly. But the Professor has been sick lately and his deficient-on-all-but-self-esteem son was nowhere to be found. The Laundromat crowd, relieved that the drama was over, helpfully offered suggestions and consolation to the pair. Buck kept saying to everyone that “sh** like this never happened when I ran a business.” Woody just looked exhausted and upset.
Finally a woman who looked like a gunnery-sergeant tracked down a number for them on her phone and the two stepped outside to make the call. The show over, the crowd went back to their business.
When I left a while later, they were sitting close together on one of the benches out front, talking with low voices and sharing a cigarette. Biscuit was lying at their feet, looking up at the two and cautiously wagging his tail. All was right with the pack again – for now.
Among the electives I took in college was a class in Poetry. Lord knows why. Maybe it was to meet girls or something.
The professor was somewhat of a minor celebrity in New England (or at least on Cape Cod,) having published several volumes of the schtuff. He had very high standards. Learning to write and read poetry was worse than learning statistics. After a period of initial roughness (like my repeatedly showing up to class hungover), somehow I pulled off a decent passing grade. But as we did our end-of-semester meetings, he told me: “You might want to stay with writing prose.” I wasn’t offended. We stayed in touch for a few years afterwards and I have a volume of his work signed by him put away someplace.
Nearly three decades later, I found this in a box of college papers out in the garage. I don’t think I submitted it because it’s got ‘draft’ written in one corner. Keep in mind that it was written by a 23-year old.
Life at 78 (rpm)
Sun is warm
On the porch
Smell of new-mown grass
I’m five again
Cars pull up
Car doors slam
I know those sounds.
Voices in the hall
Heels on the tiles
Nurse in front of the crowd
“There he is!”
They’re all here
Kids, mine, in-law and grand.
Where is She?
The ache-pain of loss.
“You look good.”
They tell me.
They give gifts
A new robe, a radio
Baby girl placed in my lap
One boy, teenage angst
Scared of this place.
I don’t blame you, kid.
There’s that damn song
“Happy Birthday (Grand)Dad”
They brought cupcakes
I can’t finish mine.
Eldest has a new job
Brings out a map
His brand new state
I can’t recall its name.
Each talks about their lives
They’re so grown up
And I smile.
Honey, we did okay.
All that I am
All that I was
All that I could have been
I see in every face.
I’m eighteen again
I smell fear and hot steel
I hear wedding bells
I can feel Her kiss.
I’m back on the porch
Voices have stopped.
Youngest says “Dad’s tired”
(“And the kids are bored.”)
They kiss me,
pat my hand
I get a hug
“Goodbye, (Grand)Dad. Goodbye.”
A child cries
Car doors slam
Cars drive away.
Sun is warm
On the porch
“Come, time for your nap”
Yes, I’m five again.
I figure I’ve read J.R.R. Tolkiens’ Hobbit and Lord of the Rings about forty times since I was a teen. Twice each year (usually in the Spring and Fall) on long road trips, and during every deployment I made. And each year, but more importantly, each deployment, my reading experience altered.
I was a “callow yout” of nineteen and it was the sunset of the Age of Aquarius, but still the Age of the Stoners, when the first reading happened. The books were bedraggled, late-sixties paperback editions discovered in a used bookstore in Seattle. They had a preface written by someone (whose name I’ve mercifully forgotten) that closed with the usual dreck of the era, blathering about “murderers carrying crosses” and praising the “colonisers of dreams”. I read them in the evenings during that first too-long and mildly boring seven months off Iran (interspersed with much-more-bedraggled copies of Penthouse,) reveling in the imagery of a greedy dragon, dwarves and elves, swords and horses, mountain passages filled with goblins, and pipe-smoking wizards.
The second deployment, some six years later and located a little farther north of the first one, was much shorter and certainly not boring. I’d picked up new, U.K. printed editions of the books complete with gloriously illustrated covers during a stop in Singapore. Reading them was a return to a familiar place, but with a slight dissonance. Perhaps it was because I was reading them not as a fable, but as an author’s work. During those six years in-between, I’d gone to college for an engineering degree on the Navy’s dime. I wrote a mid-term paper on the books for English class, and like the rest of my freshman year, it was not exactly a success. The professor (bless his British heart) suggested I do a little research on the author and his works and submit it again for re-grading. I did well the second time around and continued over the following years reading up on Mr. Tolkien’S body of work.
The reading during that second deployment came to an abrupt end for a while one day. Fortunately someone had been thoughtful enough to pack them in my seabag when they medevaced my broken body to Germany. I read them again while I healed, only now the stories seemed much darker. The idea of “what was back then” clashed with “what is now”. I recall reading a critic’s remarks that science fiction belong to the liberal and the progressive because it “looked forward”, while fantasy was conservative because it “looked back”. It was easy to see where the snobby bastard had placed himself on the spectrum.
The third time reading the books started out almost like the first time but with a pronounced difference. We sailed for three months around Asia, visiting ports, doing exercises and goodwill visits with foreign navies, and looking forward to one final series of port visits around Australia before heading home. That was not to be. We headed for the Gulf for months of escorting carriers and stopping merchant ships.
Then, when the shooting started, it was farther north as a “special platform”, to wear ruts into the waters off Kuwait. It was an almost surreal time, filled with boredom, standing watches and smoking too much, dodging mines (while thanking our lucky stars we weren’t one of the ships that hit them), getting shot at with a Scud that was shot down by the Royal Navy in what was their “last hurrah”, and babysitting the Free Kuwaiti Navy and Amateur Canoe Club. And reading the books off-watch, especially The Return of the King, became especially poignant.
“Do you remember the Shire, Mr. Frodo? It’ll be spring soon, and the orchards will be in blossom. And the birds will be nesting in the hazel thicket. And they’ll be sowing the summer barley in the lower fields. And they’ll be eating the first of the strawberries with cream. Do you remember the taste of strawberries?”
Sorry Sam, I couldn’t. We became inured to the sometime-sight of debris and body parts drifting down from the Bubyan channel. At night, with all our lights out, one could stand outside and see the glow and thunder of bombing over the horizon, like sitting on the back porch watching a distant summer storm . Our world compressed to a routine of watches and sleep, of overflying jets and occasional panic, in an unremarkable patch of the Gulf filled with drifting mines and corpses. There was just the glow on the horizon at night that sometimes illuminated the hulking outline of another ship. There was the strong smell of crude oil and the very faint but constant smell of death. Aside from the intermittent delivery of mail and the AFRTS news-feed, and the blurred outlines of the few other ships around us, we were cut off from the world. After a while one stopped watching the news-feeds. The mail that came might have as well have been missives from Mars.
What it came down to in the end, like Frodo, was The Duty. Reading those books, I saw that one “looks back” because that’s where the lessons are and where one’s foundations are based upon. In the Lord of the Rings, it was the lineage of the Kings, Princes and Princesses of Men that gave them their strength and warned them of their weaknesses. I had my oath and traditions. I had the three classmates I’d lost on the Stark and the Chief from the Sammy Roberts at the hospital, the one with the broken back and nightmares of drowning. I had the memories of the Kuwait refugees who’d been lucky to make it to Muscat, as they tried to explain to relay their own stories, showing the photos of the dead and ruins they’d left behind.
And like Frodo, we came back to the unreality of a world run by Sarumans with their Wormtongues and Millers’ sons. We returned to California and a new squadron, none of whom had Been There. They didn’t understand our grim demeanor and unwillingness to do skits about the war. We returned to a new leadership who had earned their medals in the Beltway wars. We returned to an all-too-sudden and a bit too eager beating of swords into plowshares and the spurning of a possibly good story in Iraq by political expediency. And like re-reading the series, we saw another war take place in the same region a bit less than a decade later after an attack by a new set of Witch Kings of Angmar.
I haven’t read the series for almost twenty years now, what with the movies and the marketing and souvenir swords and commemorative Rings and the hordes of fans that simply adore the ‘LoTR saga’, then give you a blank stare if you ask them if they’ve really read the books.
Last week, while cleaning the garage, I found the original set of books buried among some uniforms in a battered seabag. I nearly put them back and let them get hauled off to storage with the rest of the junk. But I carefully placed them in a pile going to the new place next month.
This winter, if all goes well, I’ll burrow into a chair for a few days and read them again. I don’t know what will happen. Then again, neither did Tolkien as he wrote them.