Daddy – and back to Georgia

[This is Chap. 16 in the continuing narrative on My Way-finding. Previous chapters are Pages on this site, and links can be found in the menu to the left of the main entry.]

My daddy had a powerful influence on my life.

He was one of those larger-than-life characters who made an indelible impression on everyone, and he shaped me in ways that I’ve only recently begun to understand, though I’ve now outlived him by over a year. He was a tall, handsome man with a personal warmth and a charismatic speaking style that made him the best preacher I ever heard, though he wasn’t a preacher, he was a journalist.

His father and grandfather had both been Baptist preachers, active in the Georgia Baptist Convention and Mercer University, the Baptist college, but Daddy chose a different pulpit: a small-town weekly newspaper. He was a solid Baptist his whole life, and could fill any pulpit with a wonderful sermon, and he raised all of us to be dutiful Baptists as well. I was pretty much into that role until sometime in high school, and college broke me completely out of it (as I’ve related in earlier posts), but that never really came between us at the emotional level.

For much of my young life, I wanted to be him, but Vietnam – and all of the Vietnam era radicalism that I embraced – came between us in a big way. He had been a navigator on B-24’s in World War II, flying out of England in the storied raids on Hitler’s ball-bearing factories, and I became a war resister.

Well – first I joined the Air Force and became a pilot because I knew that would make him happy. But then I encountered the reality of the petty little empire-building escapade that we called, in our ignorance and arrogance, “the Vietnam War.” I went, despite my reticence, because I thought I really didn’t know what was going on there, going on in the world, going on in the exalted realms of the U.S. political system… so I should give up my foolish notions of knowing that it was all wrong and just go, like all the other people I knew who had gone and either died or come back.

And then I got there and found out it was every bit as depraved and stupid and immoral and deceptive and wrong as I had thought… and so after about nine months of it, I bailed. At least I tried to. I told them I wasn’t that into the war and wanted to be out of the Air Force.

They said, well, yes, but… no. You haven’t really done anything bad, you’ve played by the rules, been a good boy, so there’s no reason we should let you out before your commitment is up. So then I said, okay, fine, then I won’t do anything for you anymore. By then of course, I was back in the states and supposed to be an instructor, teaching guys to go there and do what I did for a year and ten days. (I was in country an extra ten days waiting for them to decide what to do with me, since I had an “administrative action pending”.)

It’s a long story, one I’ve related in my War Journal, which is on my website hoyama.org, but the upshot is, I finally got out. In the process of this, of course, my father and I had some serious, divisive, but inconclusive, discussions. He never really understood, though my mother supported me, and even after it was all over – my discharge, the war, the social debate – we never really talked about it at the level that we should have.

And then he died.

On his 66th birthday, really in the prime of his life, while I was living in Oregon, he went into heart bypass surgery and never regained consciousness. We rushed back to Georgia when they decided he needed the surgery, but he was still on the machine when we arrived, and his heart would never resume its work on its own, so he died as I stood in the intensive care ward watching him breathe and listening to the machines beep.

….

I was totally unprepared for the loss, and it flattened me.

I was pretty much lost in grief for some time, but eventually I repressed most of it and went back to my ignorance and denial. But it dug a hole in me that began to fester. All those unsaid things began to eat away my insides, All the regret and guilt of a lifetime eventually ate away my heart and my gut and replaced them with balls of molten metal.

About a year after Daddy’s death, Giana and Luke and I moved back to Georgia to be with my mom. She had been left pretty much alone when Daddy died, and though she was a strong and independent woman in many ways, the solitary life didn’t suit her. She needed family around, so we came.

Moving back to Georgia, I figured any hope of ever finding a Buddhist group to be part of was over. It was Georgia, the heart of Baptist-land. But I brought my Buddha-rupa, my carving, and set up a low-key altar in my house. I continued to think of myself as a Buddhist and read books about Buddhism.

And those balls of hot iron continued to grow inside me. I continued to descend into depression in longer and deeper spirals. I had never figured out that I needed to meditate on a regular basis. It seemed more like an exotic delicacy to be tasted at random, when in fact it’s as necessary as daily bread. So I suffered, and I visited that suffering on all those around me.

….

And then one day, our friend Claire came home from a weekend in Atlanta and told me about this wonderful thing she had found: a Zen center.

Eugene to Florence…

No, living in the Green Hole didn’t jump start my quest for enlightenment. It was one more step on the karmic path: one more obstacle, the navigation around which defines that part of the path.

As I look back on my time in Eugene with the perspective of the years, I can see that I learned a lot there, and even made some progress in a fairly short time.  But it wasn’t at all clear to me then that I was even on the path.

I thought of myself as vaguely Buddhist, but I didn’t really know what that meant.

I was very happy to be there. At least I was reunited with my family, superficially. For a while, I lived in the big house on Broadway where my wife and son, Connie’s sister Holly, her daughter Jenny (and off and on several others) lived in a loosely communal arrangement. I worked at a few marginal jobs around Eugene, the most interesting of which was as a casual worker on an organic farm, and helped out with the kids and the housework. It was a different life. I never really considered trying to teach school there. Somehow, I thought I was done with that life.

It became clear fairly early on that we were not going to be a family again, and gradually we drifted further apart, though we continued to have a sweet, friendly relationship. I had not yet figured out how to actually be in a relationship with another person. I more or less decided to stay out of relationships altogether, though I kept narrowly avoiding getting entangled. I won’t go into those stories. Some were painful though sweet, and I learned a lot about myself through them.

I did get an actual job working at a motor home construction plant, but I left it so I could go back to Georgia for my brother’s wedding. Hitchhiking to Georgia was another adventure! I did a few other temporary gigs to help with the finances, but eventually my daddy sold our house in Georgia and I became a full-time volunteer activist.

It was a politically charged time, Ronnie Ray-gun having just been elected, and I got involved in activism at a level I’ve never been before or since.

The US was aggressively killing Indians in El Salvador and Guatemala to protect the banana plantations and other financial investments there from the effort of the local people to regain control of their countries. It didn’t seem right somehow, so after a rally, I volunteered to help the Eugene Council for Human Rights in Latin America (ECHRLA).  The name doesn’t exactly roll off your tongue – we called it “the Council”.

I began just helping out around the office, putting up posters and such, but after a while I became a full-time volunteer, sort of an assistant to Robert, the director. Nelly, an Argentine woman who pretty much ran things there, let me live in one of her houses, and the three of us ate, drank, and slept political organizing 24-7. We hosted a lot of cultural activities, speakers, workshops, conferences, as well as fund-raisers like movies and meals, serving mostly students and church groups.

I talked to people who had been in Central America on a near-daily basis. I knew what was going on by first-hand accounts. As I compared those reports to the reports in the media – part of my job was reading the daily reports – I began to realize that nothing we read in the papers comes close to telling us what’s really going on.

A few NY Times reporters were occasionally printing accurate stories on the events there, but they were reviled and attacked by the political commentators. It was an eye-opening time for me, a radicalizing experience.

But it was a bit too intense, so I didn’t hang in very long. And then too, the money ran out, so I had to find work again. I got a job – well, sort of a job – taking care of a woman’s kid and house while she went to college classes. This involved moving to Florence, a quaint little town on the coast straight across the Coast Range from Eugene. I liked it there a lot, and eventually got a job as a proofreader and typesetter at the local weekly newspaper.

The  Oregon coast – the ocean, the dunes and the forest – were all beautiful. Florence was magical… especially because it was in Florence that I met Giana.

Life was very nice, calm, and peaceful in Florence, hiding out from the world, as my friend said. Old Town Florence, a street on the north bank of the Siuslaw River, was a wonderful scene in those days, populated with an extremely interesting array of alternative business men and women, and peopled most any nice afternoon and evening with an even more diverse group of folks from the surrounding countryside.

We’d occasionally see Ken Kesey parking his old convertible in the parking lot there, and learned that the Siuslaw was the model for the river in his novel Sometimes a Great Notion.

Everyone knew everyone on the street, it seemed, and the various parties, bonfires, plays, and other events just happened without a lot of planning or publicity, yet everyone knew about them.

One of those events was the Sunday evening guitar circle at Donnie’s coffee shop, which usually drew 10 to 20 guitar-playing folk. It was at that guitar circle that I first met Giana.

I had spotted her early in the evening, a very cute brown-eyed girl behind a big Martin guitar. As the song lead went around the circle, everyone played a song they thought the rest would enjoy and maybe play along with, so when it came Giana’s turn, she ‘lit out’ on “Friend of the Devil” and I jumped right in, following her chords and singing along. She smiled at me a lot during the song, which was the hope behind my enthusiastic response, though I had always loved the song, and when the singing was over we talked a bit, and she smiled again and waved as she went out the door.

I knew I would see her again; that’s how things were there.

We in fact saw each other often over the next few weeks; the next time I saw her she was dressed as the wind, having just come from a children’s theatre event. Before long, we were friends, and then one night on the dance floor we kissed.

The rest is history, as they say.

Within a year of that meeting, we got married in the Old Town gazebo in sight of the dunes, the bridge and the street where all our Florence friends hung out. We sent no invitations, put no announcements in the paper – tho as the classified ads typesetter, I often sent her love notes and cryptic announcements via the classifieds – yet there were, by all accounts, at least 200 people at the wedding, with lots of wonderful food and drink at the mostly impromptu reception in our apartment afterward.

Eight-year-old John was the ring bearer, and Giana’s dad was there, as was Connie.

It was a wonderful day.

Over the next few years, we lived in several different, amazing places in and around Florence, – on top of a 300-ft. high cliff overlooking the Pacific, upstairs in an old general store in a huge apartment with 20-ft. ceilings, and in a little house in ten acres of forest with a sauna and three out-buildings – Giana opened an art school for kids, and I became the manager of the print shop. We had an amazing group of friends who got together frequently, naturally, and our lives were amazing.

Pretty soon, Luke was born and our lives became even more amazing and wonderful. We had an idyllic few years there, with lots of friends, one of the most beautiful natural settings on the planet, and a fairly stress-free life.

But there always seemed to be something missing for me. I read a few books with Buddhist themes, and I tried to meditate occasionally, but I wasn’t really getting it.

Our friends Mike and Monica went to a Zen retreat in Hawaii, and I wanted to ask them about getting involved, but I was hesitant. It seemed forced, artificial, inappropriate to ask. I don’t know why, but as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t.

I think I thought that somebody was gonna come up and tap me on the shoulder and say, “Wanna get enlightened? Come with me!” Sorta the Baptist model.

But it kept calling to me, and I knew it was what I wanted.

I started a sculpture that I thought of as a Buddha-rupa (image of Buddha) in a large block of Port Orford cedar. Somehow it seemed to help me feel I was doing something in the way of finding a spiritual path.

I was really just getting very complacent, hiding out, waiting for something to happen. Then life just slapped me right down.

 

Road to the green hole

[This is installment 14 in the narrative of my Way-finding. To read the first 13, go to the Pages, which are in chronological order.]

After Koinonia and Habitat, my life seemed to drop into some kind of vortex.

After a few weeks of erratic spinning, the cosmic blender spit me out, and I crawled up onto the western shores of the continent wet, hungry, and disoriented.

On a less-cosmic plane, I managed, through the long-suffering help of my parents and liquidation of the few material things of value I had accumulated, to get an old and cheap ($700) – but seemingly reliable – Datsun station wagon and head out for Oregon where Connie had gone to visit her sister. I had some vague idea that if I was sufficiently abased, apologetic and charming, we could get things back together. At least I could be in the same city with my young son.

With that vague goal and no plan for how to accomplish it, I set out.

The trip was about as successful as you might imagine.

I ran out of gas on I-20 somewhere in Alabama or Mississippi and had to walk miles to find gas. Then I began to imagine that my right front wheel bearings were going bad – there was this insistent roaring sound. After stopping at a parts store and changing out the wheel bearings in the parking lot, the roaring continued. I was consumed with anxiety until I discovered that when I put my hand on the strap holding a few random things on the top of the wagon, the roaring stopped.

The lessons – and the suffering – were coming fast and furious.

Somewhere along the long drive northwest out of Dallas, heading for Amarillo, the temperature began to drop, snow blowing across the road and through the cracks around my windows. When I noticed it piling up in the empty seat, I got worried. I turned on the radio and discovered that a major blizzard was blowing through and would be dumping feet of snow within hours.

I found the wisdom that is the better part of valor and stopped just after noon at a motel in Amarillo. This is an interesting trip, I thought, as I found a booth in the attached coffee shop and sat back to watch the storm unfold. I didn’t know how interesting it was going to get!

Sitting in the booth, I watched and listened to a number of blizzard stories – cowboys talking about cattle frozen in the fields, drivers talking about impossible road conditions, etc. But one group’s conversation caught my ear.

They were young and urban, and they talked about the destination of their interrupted journey: a relative’s funeral in the east somewhere. Their car, which we watched being towed in to the parking lot, refused to run after they pulled over to the side of the road in heavy snow and shut down the engine. Eventually we learned the car had a cracked block – apparently it had no antifreeze, the reason for which I came to understand later. The teenagers were distraught, as they had no money to pay for expensive repairs, even if it could be repaired, and had no idea how they would continue, or even where they would spend the night.

At that point I volunteered to put them up in my room. They seemed nice enough, and certainly in need. They were so grateful and we sat up late together watching TV as the snow fell. As I listened to their talk during the evening, I pieced together the situation: they were from LA, the car was stolen, and they were buying gas with a stolen credit card. The clincher to my conclusion was the presence of an ominous tool, a steel shaft about 18 inches long with little gripper fingers on one end, a stop on the other end, and a weight that slid along the shaft. One of the boys couldn’t stop playing with this instrument. It was a tool for yanking ignition switches out to facilitate hot-wiring.

I started to worry about what might happen. I had gotten into some good conversation with one of the young girls – I think there were two girls and two guys, though it’s always been a little hazy for me – which proved to be my salvation.

At some point late in the night when I was trying to sleep, I heard a heated discussion among the group. They were arguing about whether they should steal my car next. The girl I had made friends with persuaded them to spare me due to my generosity in giving them shelter, and there were plenty of other cars in the parking lot.

I didn’t sleep the rest of the night, and left early for the coffee shop. At that point, my car was covered in several feet of snow. As I sat in the coffee shop, I saw them come out into the parking lot, ignition stripper in hand, choose a large, snow-free car, jump inside and drive off. Gone in 60 seconds. I considered a police report, but I was so relieved to have them gone I wanted no further involvement.

Besides, I kinda liked them.

When the snow melted mid-afternoon, I got a jump start and was off for Arizona.

I stopped in for a visit in Winslow, with Connie’s parents, and then struck out across the Mojave. Exactly half way between Needles and Barstow, the car stopped going.

It spit and sputtered and lurched for a few miles, and then the engine just stopped, and I coasted to a stop somewhere near the 60-mile marker. It was the middle of the day, luckily in late January, so not so hot, but I had no idea what to do next.

Out of ideas, I stood next to my car with thumb up for hours. It got dark, and I began to wave my flashlight as cars zoomed by.

Just about the time I was sure that I would starve to death here in the Mojave, a pickup truck slowed, braked, and pulled to the side of the road. Inside was a young couple who lived on a boat in Monterey.

They were probably the nicest people in America that day. They took me to Barstow where I found a 6X10 room for the night and considered thanking God for saving my life.

The next day I bought every auto part and fluid I could think of that might possibly remedy my poor Datsun’s ills and went to stand on the I-40 on-ramp. My appearance – longish curly hair and beard – was not exactly out of place in California in 1981, but for some reason, no one going East that day gave me a second look. After all day and not even a slow-down, I walked over to a gas station and asked how could I get to my car 60 miles away on I-40.

Just call the Highway Patrol, they’ll come get you, the man said.

He was right. I have forever since loved the California Highway Patrol. In 10 minutes, the officer was there, cheerful, friendly, even great company, and we were at my car in less than an hour.

I installed plugs, points, condenser, inline fuel filter, gas-dry, and a few other items I’ve long forgotten. Something worked. Maybe it just needed to rest, or needed a little TLC. The Datsun started right up and off we went… for a while. In a few miles, the surging began again, so in Barstow I stopped at a repair shop, spent another night, another day, and all my money trying to fix whatever the problem was.

Two mechanics later, nothing worked, but eventually I just gave up and headed for Bakersfield.

Amazingly, I cruised along with only a momentary lurch every few minutes, never sure I would make it to the next town, all the way to Eugene.

I had to stop in Sacramento and pawn a few things, including my beloved typewriter that I’d had since going off to college, but the car just wouldn’t run without gas.

I was very happy to be reunited with my little family after this harrowing trip, and things went well for a while. We talked and we tried to resolve our issues, we tried to be a couple again, but it just wasn’t working.

I thought at the time that I was truly trying to make things work, but the perspective of the years, the experience on the cushion and in life since, have taught me the truth: I was completely consumed by, not just my passion, but by my addiction to self. I think that I must have convinced myself, – and thought I convinced others – using all the deep thinking and fancy words that I had come to rely on, that I was open and kind and compassionate and deeply concerned about deeply important things… and such bullshit on and on as I can hardly even bear to go back and read in my journal!

But the truth is, I was just very self-absorbed and ego-driven, very blind to the truths about myself, very alienated from life and other human beings, extremely ignorant about the causes of my own suffering and the degree to which I was inflicting suffering on all those around me.

In short, I was where most people are before allowing a little light in, but with an extra added dose of over-intellectualized self-righteousness!

I wish I could say that my arrival in Eugene – know locally as The Green Hole – precipitated a sea change in my attitudes and behaviors and I began a serious quest for Enlightenment.

Unfortunately, it took a while longer before light began to dawn in my life.