Saturday, March 29, 2014

Lift my soul to heaven

Go with me, my good angels, to my end;
And, as the long divorce of steel falls on me,
Make of your prayers one sweet sacrifice,
And lift my soul to heaven. 
– Shakespeare, Henry VIII

If there is any immortality to be had on this earth it is through the selfless sacrifice of a life lost in the service of others. Twenty-five years to the day that he joined the Albuquerque Police Department, Officer Richard Smith’s bullet-riddled body was laid to rest. His perdurable legacy is this: over two thousand people crowding the church, a police procession stretching for eight long miles under a cloudless New Mexican sky, and hundreds of common citizens lining the roadways for this, his last watch. 

The immediate family rode in five gleaming white limousines, but in a sense every man, woman and child there were part of the family. For the police there was the camaraderie of brothers in arms, the thin blue line which had been sundered in a muzzle flash and just as quickly reformed and solidified and strengthened by indomitable will and courage. For the family there was a deep hole that seemed bottomless and yet was already filling with remembrances and memories and the consoling realization that he was our own and he was the best and that his presence would forever be part of us, stronger than bone, deeper than blood, closer than the soul. For the strangers beside the road he was a symbol crafted of flesh and blood and his blood had been spilled to keep them safe, and their presence was an act of thanksgiving and respect. 

Around the time the motorcade cleared Tijeras Canyon and began its descent into the city, I stood bewildered in a field wet with rain. Dark storm clouds rolled off to the east, dragging rain and lightning in their wake like an unruly and tempestuous child. Overhead the sky was roiling, light and dark clouds seething and writhing and shredding apart to reveal tattered shades of blue. Not for the first time I wondered if I had done my cousin a disservice by remaining in Kansas, if the distance separating me from my family and the cordon of uniformed men and women somehow lessened my placement in their ranks. 

Nor did my surroundings diminish the sensation of disjointedness. Even as I imagined the city unfolding before the convoy, I watched four white-spotted fawns bound away in pursuit of their mothers. No sound of traffic nor any other thing than the low rumble of the grain elevator and the song of a cardinal and my own shallow breathing. Rather than vehicles and a violent cityscape and the incessant wail of sirens, I presided over nodding goldenrod and brome gone to seed and rainpools shining silver in the morning light. 

I had wandered all night through empty streets and alleys, past churches whose doors were barred and nailed shut, down broad greenbelts that faced backyards devoid of any life other than a solitary majestic elk, but what I sought was unknowable and unfound. By dawn I was exhausted, and woke and went to work as always and returned as thunder faded and light grew ascendant, and I kissed my wife as she left for work and then wandered into the field to ask the day for answers. And none were forthcoming.

The literal translation of bewilder is “to lose in pathless places, to confound for want of a plain road.” Such was my state of mind as I thought of my family accompanying Ricky to his end, and me here alone with no idea how to say goodbye without feeling inadequate. As if by my willful exclusion I had abandoned them. What rite, what ceremony, could bridge that distance and set aright this terrible emptiness? Knowing none, I stepped farther into the field. Grass soaked my pants to my knees. Sunlight tore through a rent in the clouds and sparkled on the dew, pinning me in place. 

Hundreds of miles away, as the hearse pulled away from the funeral home and began the long slow drive to the graveyard, an alert tone cleared all traffic from police radios. “All units will ten-three,” the dispatcher said, and every officer in the city paused in what they were doing except for the motorcade, and they listened and struggled with the words. 

“This is the final dispatch for Officer Richard Smith,” the dispatcher announced. “It is with a heavy heart that we say goodbye to you. In life you were a loving husband and a wonderful father. As a police officer and White Striper, you always carried yourself with such class and integrity you were often looked to for guidance. Always smiling and full of life, it’s easy to see why those who met and knew you appreciated and loved you. We will never forget that you gave the ultimate sacrifice.
“Officer Smith, respond now to your final dispatch.”

In all that vast city, on every police radio, in the hearts of all who heard, there was only silence.

And in the silence heard even here I said a short prayer for Ricky’s soul and for his wife and daughter and father and mother and all the rest who were there and not here. And even as I uttered the words I saw first one and then a dozen and then a thousand dragonflies wending their way southward, weaving and skirling through the skies and above the grasses and all about me in an intricate, untraceable pattern, and I raised my arms and cast the prayer off and they took it and made it their own. I imagined in my weariness that my prayer was borne aloft by thousands of glittering restless wings, magnified and translated into an unspoken language which knows death is only another form of migration, and that the end of the journey is home. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Cast iron cult

Cult [k«Ělt] noun: A system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object, i.e., cast iron skillets; a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange, sinister or silly.

I called it an error in judgment. My friends, or most of them, anyway—the vocal ones—called it a travesty, a betrayal, a sin. I was castigated, condemned, excoriated, pilloried, disparaged and denigrated. So heinous was my crime, so unforgivable, they said, I was unworthy to even possess the object of my mistake, or almost-mistake. It was a curious term to use considering the subject, but then some things seem to bring out the zealot in militant believers.

It reminded me of the time an elderly gentleman wearing traditional Czech clothing stopped by my booth at the Blue Rapids Czech festival to eye my green chile cheese kolaches. A nearby table held prune kolaches and peach kolaches and cherry kolaches and lemon kolaches—a veritable rainbow of fruit fillings—but his eye, and ire, was on my singularly inventive culinary fusion of East Meets Southwest. (I called it Czech-Mex.) 

“Like to try one?” I asked.


“They’re good,” I winked. He frowned.

“They’re sacrilegious,” he said, and stomped off in a huff. Heavy words for a pastry.

So here I was again, a blasphemer, a miscreant, a transgressor of the most vile stripe. My sin? Thinking of doing something. Not doing it, mind you, but admitting that I considered doing it, the old Jimmy-Carter-lust-in-my-heart admission. And we know how well it worked for him.

Much ado about nothing, I say. But here are the facts: on the morning of March 8, as I washed dishes after cooking my wife a gourmet breakfast of smothered green-chile-egg-and-potato burritos, as I, in fact, reeled from the effects of sleep deprivation and exhaustion (which, in a court of law, could justify my clouded thought processes), I considered tossing the cast iron skillet into the dishwasher to save myself some time. 

After all, what would it hurt? When the cleaning cycle was through I’d take it out, dry it off and season it with a thin film of oil. How was that any different than washing it in the sink? 

But then I had second thoughts, or guilt pangs, whichever you prefer. A quick Google for reference brought me to a plethora of offerings, the first of which stated in all caps, “OH, SWEET JESUS NO NO NO NO.” 

Other responses ran the gamut from outright incredulity that anyone would even suggest such a thing to anger, revulsion and threats of eternal damnation. 

Okay, okay, I thought, maybe I should reconsider.

Until that time, I was okay. Flying under the radar, so to speak. And then I did something really stupid, something that in retrospect was almost as idiotic as putting the cast iron skillet in the dishwasher—I posted a short update on Facebook about the previous sequence of events.

It was meant to be lighthearted, one of those can-you-believe-this kind of thing. The response was swift and dire. Several people wanted to come over and remove all items of cast iron from our house, and others provided instructions on how to properly take care of cast iron—no soap, only hot water and a scrubbing pad followed by an immediate seasoning of oil, maybe a dash of lavender and myrrh. Cast iron was the “only” way to cook, I was told, a dogmatic approach that left no room for stainless steel or, saints preserve us, non-stick aluminum. For a chunk of blackened metal, you’d think it was made of fine crystal. 

To their credit, a few admitted to running their skillets through the dishwasher. Universally, it ended up being a very bad move. Another professed her irritation at being repeatedly reprimanded by Boy Scout leaders for using soap on the “precious” metal. “The person washing the dishes and/or cooking gets to decide how clean their skillet needs to be,” she said. “The cast iron cult kind of freaks me out.”

And that was it exactly: there exists, alongside or behind or in front of the Lutherans and Methodists and Catholics and Baptists, a secret sect of cast iron cultists who largely remain invisible and discreet until called to defend their faith, at which time they attack like angry killer bees. The lesson was as painful as it was unforgettable: One should never discuss politics or religion on Facebook, and that includes the care and maintenance of cast iron skillets.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The inescapable

Sometimes the past comes back when you least expect it. It’s sneaky that way, always hooking in from the side like a punch you never see coming. One minute you’re standing there without a care in the world and the next you’re lying on the ground wondering how you got there. 

Lately I’ve been having flashbacks to my formative years, or more precisely, to those relatives who adorned them in ways I can only guess at. What disturbs me is that none of the flashbacks contain enough detail to enable me to reach across the decades and reconnect. The faces and places recede into the distance almost as rapidly as they materialize, leaving me grasping at shadows. 

It started late last year after a particularly memorable Thanksgiving dinner. My family had retired to the den to watch a slideshow of old family pictures dating back to the 1950s and 1960s, the slides grainy and speckled with lint and dated not so much for their yellowed tint but for the clothing styles in evidence. I’m pretty sure that style wasn’t in our lexicon back then other than poor white trash style, not that we considered ourselves poor or white or trash, though we were white and poor or close enough to it to have some of it rub off on us. Trash is what we took out, also the neighbors to the south. They probably weren’t poor but they were definitely trash. They taught me from an early age that the world is an inhospitable place, that no matter who you are or how polite, kind or generous, somebody is going to dislike you for no good reason. I also learned that it didn’t matter in the long run. You couldn’t let other people run, or ruin, your life. But you better watch out for them, too. With some folks it’s never a good idea to let down your guard. 

There was a lot of festive jeering and hollering going down that evening. We laughed and yelled and silently yearned our lost who couldn’t be there with us. My father was a prodigious photographer back in the day, something I don’t think we appreciated as much as we should have, or would later in life after so many of those faces were gone. The old slides of the funny-dressed people with their broad lapels and scarlet pants that barely reached their ankles and the plaid shirts and lime green shoes, could that really have been us? We couldn’t remember dressing that way, nor, if we did, would we ever admit it. The best excuse we could offer was that we were merely caught up in the times. We were products of the fifties and sixties, and then the seventies, which were worse in almost every way. 

Since then, those faces keep dancing on the periphery of my consciousness. I find myself turning to greet them while a surge of adrenaline hammers through me, but they slip away without a sound. 

Other, lesser, memories rise to the surface. Today while I was trimming my whiskers I remembered that I wanted to grow a beard when I was 20. Unfortunately, I worked as a security guard at an electrical transmission plant in northern New Mexico, which meant we were to appear groomed and professional at all times. No beards. Appearances were deceiving, however, because most of the people I worked with were sociopaths, alcoholics, druggies and losers. I wasn’t much better. We were damaged people and knew it, barely hanging on to sanity and the distant, if not fading, belief in redemption. We were second chance people. Some of us made it, and some didn’t. 

This beard-lust phase lasted about a year as I went through a belated, and unrequited, hippie phase brought on by a girl. After a while she left town and I went back to being whoever I was while I was in between everything, and I forgot about beards until 15 years later when suddenly I grew one on a lark. 

I never made the connection between then and now, or then and then, as it were. It wasn’t as if I grew it as the culmination of an unfulfilled longing. It just happened, like deciding to wear hiking boots instead of tennis shoes. And now, so many years later, the connection pops into my head and I find myself laughing in the mirror. I did it, I thought, I actually grew a beard and liked it so much that it’s not come off my face except for two short spells that ended badly, or farcically, anyway. And then I wondered what was so funny about it. Why wasn’t it funny before? What changed? 

We change, I suppose. One minute we’re living our lives, going to work each morning and coming home to the same supper at the same table with the same dishes and dinnerware, and the next we’re sitting around with remaining family members laughing at old pictures as if seeing ourselves for the first time, and the picture isn’t a pretty one. But it’s us, bad fashion styles and all, camping and partying and watching the city grow up around us, and then we’re older and the babies start arriving and we drift apart and get old and some of us die and some of us stop talking to each other, until finally we look in the mirror and pieces of our past come filtering through the murk like cars approaching through fog, and we think, wow, I really did it, I lived this long, and it would be funny if not for those stilled voices that come to us like a dwindling echo, those ghosts that haunt us when we least expect them, every precious one of them.