Ruminations on Revolution and Affirmation of the Spirit

The day after the Chinese government ordered the slaughter of untold thousands of his countrymen, the “Tank Man” did something that mesmerized the world.

Does anyone remember? Every time I see this photo, it gives me goosebumps. A friend once told me that when you feel that sensation, that tingly feeling of hairs standing up on the back of your neck and over your scalp, it is an affirmation of the Spirit.

Jeff Widener of the Associated Press took this shot on June 5, 1989, from the 5th floor of the Beijing Hotel, looking down on Chang’an Blvd. He managed to smuggle the film back to the AP office in his underpants.

The crackdown and most of the slaughter took place on June 4, the day before, so the “Tank Man” (a man whose identity still remains a mystery) must have been almost certain he would be killed when he did this. For all we know, he might well have been killed after this shot was taken.

He didn’t seem to care.


We’ve become so cynical that our first reaction is to discount acts of bravery, generosity or, God forbid, empathy, as having some selfish underlying motive. Some would argue that our acts of charity, compassion or empathy are really motivated by our own selfish interests and, in fact, serve to make matters worse by enabling those who would take advantage of our generosity. We discount stories of heroism from the distant past, assuming, perhaps rightly, that much of that heroism has been exaggerated. Those who would argue that humans are selfish by nature can open today’s newspaper and point to a thousand concrete and timely examples to support that premise, and few to counter it. To those, I would ask, What about the Tank Man?  What makes people do stuff like this?

I think there’s something inherent in us that can trump our own self-interest — something that can put the interests of humanity ahead of our own self-interest. Sometimes, when a person becomes so angry that he is blinded to self-interest and even self-preservation, his own self-sacrifice might benefit all of humanity. The Tank Man’s anger was directed toward a government that had, just a day before, slaughtered untold thousands of his countrymen — so angry that he was willing to embrace almost certain death, to stand in the path of a column of tanks, to stop that column of tanks, and then to jump atop the lead tank and bang on the hatch, provoking its occupants to look him in the face.

Yes, the revolution was crushed. The Tank Man himself may well have been killed, but no matter how hard the Chinese government tries to suppress them, to erase them from history, these images live on, and when we look at them, we feel our hair standing up.

Without this capacity for losing sight of our own self-interest, there would be no defiance or rebellion. Some would say we could do with a little less defiance, a little less anarchy, and a little more obedience to authority. Without these acts of defiance, the world would be a lot more tidy and orderly, I’ll give you that. Everyone, acting on self-interest, would fear and obey those in power.

However, because of our capacity to be angered by injustice, to be defiant, to stand in opposition to overwhelming force, because of that, we are not entirely predictable. Though we are often manipulated — by money or fear, threat or promise — there is a limit, a wild card, so to speak. And that wild card is our latent trait for acting outside our own self-interest. And, that wild card, that unpredictable trait, latent in all of us, means that we cannot always be manipulated by a simple formula of reward and punishment.

You could make a strong case that this capacity for self-sacrificial defiance has been bred into the very nature of our species, through untold generations  — that it evolved with our species over millions of years because it benefitted our survival as a group.

Then again, you might just say it is an affirmation of the Spirit.

— Either way, I believe you!


Posted in creative non-fiction | Leave a comment

Rat Trails

Something about growing up outside a boomtown. Boomtown Rats—always liked the sound of that. Something beautiful about a rat. Still remember the big old barn we had when I was a kid—how the black streaked down from the square-head nails, staining the oak siding, long worn gray and grooved along the grain from countless peltings of rain and hail and sun, how its slate roof sagged in the middle like an old swayback nobody had the heart to put down.

But it still served its purpose, and over the years it had gathered overhangs and additions, rambling beyond the original foundation, made of hand-cut sandstone some poor bastard, long dead now, hauled from the top of the hill where glacial outwash left hulks of rock big as locomotives. You could see every place the ax landed on the hand-hewn timbers that framed the barn, and all around the foundation ran a web of trails and tunnels from the Norway rats who’d followed the streams up through the hollows find home there.

They called them Norway rats, but the rats didn’t really come from Norway, not originally. They came from China, a few centuries back. At one point, nobody knows why, they swarmed up over Mongolia and the Russian Steppes in a kind of mass exodus. Scared the hell out of the natives, and they recorded it. Village by village, folks detailed their arrival so faithfully historians can pretty much trace the rats’ advance by the month. The rats left a swath of destruction in their wake—devastating grain supplies, food stocks, even standing crops—like a biblical plague.

But then, they say history is written by the winners. I don’t know about that. History is written by those who write, and I guess it depends on your perspective. I suppose if you were a rat, you might think of it less along the lines of a biblical plague and more along the lines of your divine right to manifest destiny.

Anyway, in under a century, they were all over Europe, pushing out the black rats, the ones that carried the Black Death, and in 1774, they landed in America—came over on the ships with my ancestors. Reckon that makes us damn near kin. In another fifty years, they’d colonized every part of what would become the continental United States. Now they make regular trips to outer-space. Bet a few came down with the Columbia.

In late afternoon, when darkness gathered, the rats would come out from the stones of the foundation and onto the dirt floor of the lower barn to feed from the chicken hopper. I used to watch them while collecting eggs. Neither the rats nor the chickens showed any fear. They fed side-by-side, respecting personal space but otherwise ignoring one another.

In the corner, metal drums of chicken scratch rested on two four-by-fours. The rats liked to tunnel under the drums, between the four-by-fours. If you lifted a drum, a dozen rats would run out. I noticed when a chicken was sick, near death, it always went to the same spot. The sick chicken would stick its head between the four-by-fours, under the drum. When I saw this, I’d pull the chicken out, try to get it to take food or water, but never fail, the next day I’d return to find the chicken back in the same spot, this time stiff, and when I’d pull it out from between the two four-by-fours, I’d find it had no head or neck, just a hole into the body cavity above the wishbone.

Our farm bordered both the Connoquenessing Crick and the B&O Railroad line. Connoquenessing means “A long way straight”—Onondaga, I think. Don’t know how they figured that one. The Connoquenessing weaves all through those hills. Then again, Onondaga means, “On top of the hill.” I used to find their points on the flood plain next to the Connoquenessing. Holding the tools they’d worked from stone, I’d think about the bigger span of time—not in the hundreds of years we write about, but in thousands, even tens-of-thousands of years. It made me think about being a part of the land and the land being a part of me, and what it might be like to lose that.

Some doctor from a university found a skull down there on the bottomland once. Growing up on that land, I took it for granted their ghosts still lingered, walking in the mists of the bottomland, stalking the woods, gliding along the Connoquenessing, but it didn’t bother me, not at all. I was on good terms with them. I figured we had in common a love for the land, the hills and the woods. They were good company.

I often walked the B&O line—bored mostly, wondering always what was around the next bend. Ten miles up and around a few bends lay the county seat, the City of Butler, the only real city in all of Butler County, and even then not much more than a euphemism for Armco and Pullman Standard. These companies not only manufactured the freight cars and the rails but also gave reason for their existence—steel. Some cars hauled coal for coke, others, the little red iron ore pellets that came from over the Great Lakes. The coal came by rail from Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky, the iron pellets from Michigan, by water and by rail.

Funny thing, though they hailed from entirely different regions, the men who mined the iron ore and the men who mined the coal both shared a fondness for rats. They believed the rats knew something beyond the ken of man and that miners would be wise to heed them. Mining folklore in both regions mythologized the survival instincts of the rat, claiming a miner would never find a rat drowned in a flooded mine, a rat’s whiskers would never be singed in a fire below ground, and their little bodies had never been dug out of a cave-in. Superstition held so strong a grip on the Cornish and Irish who mined the iron ore in Michigan that they refused to go into a ratless mine. Young boys in iron mining towns like Negaunee, Ishpeming and Michigamme made good money, a dime a rat, catching the little vermin from local barns and selling them to miners. The miners would then stock them in the new mines and feed them bread crust and scraps at lunch break.

Often I’d find the red iron ore pellets and chunks of bituminous coal mingled with the gravel of the railroad line. Picking up these little artifacts, I’d wonder what was outside, around the next bend. Trains fascinated us kids. They were exotic invaders that came and went, like wagon trains, and we robbed them every chance we got. Nothing better than a lame train. One time a train derailed so far back in the woods and in such deep snow, the only way to get to it was by snowmobile. When we got to the wreck, we found the carcass of a General Mills car lying on its side, ripped open. We ate Golden Grahams for a long time. Everyone around ate Golden Grahams. Cases of Golden Grahams were given to neighbors as Christmas gifts. I don’t think I could eat Golden Grahams today.

The iron pellets and coal, though, were dropped from the moving trains—tipped by the sway of the big Chessey cars—the big black cars with a Cheshire Cat stenciled in white on the side and the words “Chessey System”—big rat-eatin’ grin on that cat.

In the ‘70s, Japan saved us from all that. Foreign dumping made steel manufacture less profitable, and somewhere far away a decision was made to scale back the steel mills. Some said the region had died. I don’t know about that. I know the trains ran less often, and the rails grew red. The creosote ties, once brown as shoe polish, turned gray, and the blackberry briars crept in closer and closer to the tracks. Mud daubers built adobe tubes for their young under the lip of the rails. But railroads have come and gone many times in those hills. Buddy of mine had a tunnel running from the basement of his house to a church—another kind of railroad—long forgotten, a different cargo, different purpose, no freight cars or tracks, just a web of trails and tunnels running the ridges from Tennessee to Upstate New York and then on to Canada.

Anyway, the economy took a hit in the ‘70s, but we did okay. Fur prices were up then—a good size coon pelt could fetch a hundred bucks, so a lot of laid-off steel workers took to fur trapping to make ends meet, and I skinned what they caught. We opened a fur post, and all through high school, I skinned coon, fox, beaver, muskrat and possum. At 4am, we went out into the woods, checking the trap line, got back around 7:30am, caught the school bus, tried not get caught sleeping in school, came home and ate, then skinned till midnight. Over the holidays, the trap lines got longer, and we’d spend all day out in the snow, following game trails up into the hollows, hauling a wicker pack basket full of bait, traps, lure and hopefully a few furs.

A mile up the line, a road crossed the tracks, and a few houses gathered at the intersection. Within that cluster of houses lived a boy and two girls near my age. The boy and I would become friends. I would date both girls and marry one. The journey would have taken six miles by road, so I walked the rails through the woods in winter darkness to see them. I was on good terms with the ghosts.

In summer, we grew weed along that stretch, in the alluvium of the floodplain between the B&O tracks and the Connoquenessing Crick. Weed grows good in alluvium—alluvium and chicken shit, a little lime. Easter Sunday, every year, we’d put in, my buddy and I, at a bridge near the railroad crossing, the canoe sinking almost to the gunwale from the weight of all the sacks of chicken shit. We’d drift down to a place where the briars grew thick, hack our way in with an old machete and dig a garden in the alluvium. The garden was hidden, but it didn’t matter if anybody saw us putting in. They all knew what we were up to.

One farmer up the road used to joke about it. Ray was his name, and he talked with an oat stem dangling from the corner of his mouth, so you could see the wispy oat cluster bob up and down with each word he spoke. “When are you boys gonna give me some seed? I’m thinkin’ ’bout plantin’ the lower forty in wacky tabbaccy.” He’d pause to spit for emphasis. “Corn just ain’t profitable no more.” Corn would become less and less profitable.

That place was spectacularly beautiful, and I swore to God I’d get the hell out as soon as I was old enough. I left when I graduated high school, returning once in a while, mostly holidays, to visit my mother. The girl from the railroad crossing came with me, and we were married by a Justice of the Peace. We saw cities and attended colleges. We learned that saying what you mean is obscene. We learned that there are whole passages of your life you’d do better not to talk about, and we learned that one needn’t do anything to be offensive. We took pains to play down the white trash image. I took to wearing khakis, leather boating shoes and polo shirts, instead of bluejeans, t-shirts and sneakers. We both leaned to talk different. I noticed she even got a different laugh—kind of an overstated laugh. And she started saying things like, “wonderful” and “fabulous” when she meant, “good.” I felt lonely.

One night, at a cocktail party, I found myself staring out a window atop the Sears Tower, gazing down at Chicago, a glass of champagne in my hand. A normal person might have felt, I’ve arrived! I felt homesick. I wanted to bolt, to get out of there, to go to her, lead her to an old strip-mine pond, take our clothes off and slip into the warm water, feel the warm rank mud between our toes, listen to the bullfrogs. Mostly, I wanted the old haunts—I wanted to be among the ghosts—to be among them with someone else who could feel them there too.

I don’t know how it happened—suppose it had been happening all along, only we never noticed. Interstate 79 had been around for decades, but it seemed that while we were away, Pittsburgh crept up I-79 like gangrene walking up an artery. Housing developments sprouted almost overnight. I’d never before heard the word “cul-de-sac,” and I had no idea what it was until I saw one. Then I wondered why they didn’t call it “a dead end.” Instinct told me it was a bad thing to get into—only one way out.

For some reason, maybe what the real estate folks called “picturesque vistas,” my particular neck of the woods attracted the higher-end developments. Real estate brokers said the area had been “revitalized.” I’m still not sure what that word means, but it always puts me in mind of Handsome Lake and Wovoka. Seems to me, when the Iroquois were revitalized, they became white, and when the Lakota were revitalized, they became dead.

My mother sold the farm. The fur post was first to go. The new owners, a radiologist and a DA from Pittsburg, asked the volunteer fire department to come out and burn it down. Saw some rats that night I bet. All over the region, farmers sold out, old barns were torn down, McMansions popped up, and once-dark hollows blazed with light all through the night. At some point, my wife seemed to realize she’d lost something, left something behind, and she ran back there with all the earnestness of a little girl running into a burning building after some cherished object, already lost. I watched from a distance. It smelled like death.

I returned only once after that. Like an intruder, I came after dark and retraced the path along the railroad I’d once walked to see her. New homes filled the valley with light. I wondered if the children could ever learn not to fear the darkness—if they could ever come to terms with the ghosts.

Often, when I think back on that place, I picture a rat, pausing to rest back on her haunches, along one of those tiny rat trails next to the Connoquenessing. I imagine her little hands preening the fur in the hard-to-reach places behind her ears—her belly round and full, a dozen little pink tits bare against the white fur of her underside.

Posted in creative non-fiction | Leave a comment

Dancing on the Tongue of the Ocean

Small Hope Bay Lodge on the island of Andros had sunken beneath the horizon, without a hint of disturbance to the vast blue water and sky. The lulling motion of the waves and steady hum of the motor had seemed, almost hypnotically, to ease our tensions over the past forty minutes, but as the captain throttled back, I felt my heart edging slightly upward toward my throat. As a group, we had dived together many times, on old wrecks or coral reefs, feeding morays and groupers, exploring the cave-like structures of mushroom corals and examining whole textbooks worth of marine life. None of us, however, save the dive masters, had ever gone as deep as we were about to go. The night before and again that morning, the dive masters drilled us on safety protocol. What we were about to do could easily kill us.

The divers busied themselves with their gear, instinctively seeking comfort in the routine of checking respirators and valves, spitting in their facemasks and then smearing the spit around the glass with an index finger. This act seemed oddly vulgar next to the technology of the scuba gear. We could send humans to the moon or plumb the depths of the sea, yet, after all this, we were still no more than smartly outfitted apes. Surely, someone could invent some sort of spray-bottle solution to prevent fogging on the glass of a facemask, and probably, that person could make a fortune, but not on this crowd. They’d laugh at the lack of pragmatism. Spit works fine, and you never forget it on the kitchen counter. Some diver long ago figured out human saliva works as well as anything to keep a facemask from fogging, and so the habit stuck.

Because of its weight and sheer bulk, scuba gear isn’t something you just throw on. Getting into gear requires a little finesse. Most of the divers rested the scuba tank against the side of the boat and squatted down to sort of climb backward into the harness. Having accomplished this, each then fastened his or her own weight belt, calibrated to compensate for body composition and yield neutral buoyancy in salt water.  Then came the flippers, and each diver checked his or her buddy’s gear, making sure the valve that allowed air from the tank to the respirator was open. Then each diver placed the big rubber diaphragm of the respirator between teeth and lips and took a breath or two, just to be sure—nothing like falling into the sea and sucking on a dead hose to reinforce safety protocol. With the boat anchored, each of the divers in turn dropped over the gunwale, falling backward to avoid dislodging face mask and respirator from impact with the water.

One of the greatest dangers came from the very thing that would keep us alive—the air in our tanks. Nitrogen constitutes about 78% of the air we breathe. At atmospheric pressure, breathing nitrogen is harmless, but at 182 feet, each breath takes in the equivalent of a room full of air. At that pressure the nitrogen entering the lungs is forced into the diver’s blood in huge quantities, causing a narcotic euphoria known as nitrogen narcosis—or in diver lingo, “being narc’ed”. The group would only remain at 182 feet for about five minutes—to stay any longer would put so much nitrogen into our blood that we would need to decompress on the way back to the surface—lingering for long periods at different levels to allow the nitrogen to leave our blood and not form the tiny bubbles which can cause the bends.

Our objective was an ancient beach about three feet wide, along a cliff face that continued more than a mile down into an abyssal trench, known as The Tongue of the Ocean. The Tongue of the Ocean is one of those places where the subduction of one tectonic plate beneath another plunges the ocean floor to depths two-legged creatures cannot fathom. That’s where we were going. I was still struggling to get my head around the idea that, at the height of the last Ice Age, so much of the Earth’s water was locked up in snow and ice that sea levels were that much lower, but that tiny beach 182 feet beneath the ocean’s surface marked the sea level for a time during the Pleistocene Epoch.

Falling backward off the boat requires a little faith. It’s not natural to allow yourself to fall in a direction you cannot see. It always reminds me of one of those trust-building exercises, where the person is supposed to allow himself to fall and be caught by the group. I always imagined myself failing that exercise, unable to let go and trust the group. The sea caught me, as always, and I drifted weightless in a swarm of bubbles in the warm Bahamian water. After a few pulls on the respirator, I settled into a rhythm and nearly forgot that taking my life breath from a rubber tube was at all unnatural.

The group gathered about twenty feet beneath the surface, and here we got with our dive buddies, reaching out to touch one another’s shoulders in a safety routine we’d practiced many times before, and then we proceeded to follow the first dive master straight down. I had to swallow every few feet, pushing air into my inner ear to offset the greater and greater pressure on my eardrums. A second dive master followed the rear of the group.

About midway to the bottom, forty-five feet below the surface, the dive master directed our attention to his white plastic clipboard. On it, he had written “BARRACUDA” with his red underwater marker. This was how the dive masters communicated underwater, and his exaggerated gestures pointed out the three fish, lingering just on the edge of our vision—still, pike-like, watching. Not only did the water become cooler as we descended, but the presence of the barracuda subtracted further from my warmth. We’d been in the water with them many times, so I didn’t fear attack. Rather, it was the indifference of their being that chilled me. They were neither good nor evil, but wholly void of emotion. To look into their eyes, it was impossible to imagine they felt any fondness toward us. They reflected our affections like hollow skulls. And their they watched us, always just at the edge of our vision and always head on, pointing their narrow bodies like daggers toward us, never allowing a glimpse of a profile, just head and eyes and teeth, with fins projecting, like sentinels of a watery underworld.

The dive masters each carried two tanks, where the rest of us each had only one. On a dive to the same place a few years before, one of the divers, no doubt under the influence of nitrogen narcosis, kept on swimming down past the 182-foot level. Evidently, in his euphoric state, he was happily unaware of his fast-approaching death. Had the dive master not followed to his rescue, risking his own life, the man would have never opened his eyes to sunlight again. In fact, all any one would have been able to tell his next-of-kin would have been something on the order of, “he’s gone.” The man quickly ran out of air, but the dive master had the extra tank and was able to save the errant diver by buddy-breathing, sharing his respirator back and forth with the man. Both the dive master and the wayward diver had to decompress because they had gone too deep. This involved hours lingering underwater, with fresh air tanks shuttled down to them, as the nitrogen bubbles slowly worked their way out of the men’s bloodstreams.

At just above ninety feet, the group paused to gather again, hovering over another ancient beach of white coral sand, much like the one we’d left behind on the island of Andros. It seemed a little spooky that we were able to hover now above what had once been dry land, where air-breathing creatures like ourselves had lived and walked. The dive masters quickly counted heads as everyone reached out to touch the shoulder of his or her dive buddy, and we were moving again, this time horizontally, three meters above the sea floor.

Even in the unbelievably clear Bahamian water, visibility was such that I didn’t know we were at the edge until the sea floor fell away, and I saw nothing but an indistinguishable depth of blackness below. There’s something unnerving about the Continental Shelf. The first time I found nothing beneath my feet was in a farm pond. I panicked as my lungs gasped water, my brain seized and my limbs took over, but in the panic, I found firmness, really only a foot or two beneath where it should have been, and I launched for the sky. I coughed water for some time after, but at least I knew that the bottom was there. I would know that from then on, and so I lost my fear of swimming in deep water. But this was different. At the edge of the Continental Shelf, the black maw of the abyss gaping beneath us, I realized what I could not have realized before—that our dives to 60 or even 90 feet, although serious in their own rite and potentially dangerous, were only play. Though we could certainly die there with a careless break from protocol, we still had a continent beneath us. We could see it, and if we hovered too close, our flippers kicked it up to cloud the water and blur our vision.

There’s nothing natural about swimming upended, downward into blackness, leaving the continent behind. It’s just wrong. But we knew something awaited us, something terrifying yet intriguing.  Every instinct of my body told me to right myself and swim toward the light, but there was something compelling about the darkness, and I followed the others downward. As we dove, deeper and deeper, our objective, the ancient beach, seemed less and less significant in the realization of just what we were doing, and where.  Here we were, deeply enveloped in the volume and immensity—tiny frail creatures, never meant to be there. And why? Why did we feel compelled to go there?

When the dive master finally signaled that we’d reached our depth, my dive buddy had to point out the tiny ancient beach along the cliff face. But I wasn’t interested in that. What drew my attention was the space around me, the blackness beneath, the unimaginable volume and depth. The cliff next to which we hovered provided the only perspective, but even it disappeared into obscurity below. The light from above only a vague blue now, I knew that I was hopelessly deep. If any part of my breathing apparatus should fail, with out the help of others, it would be pointless to even attempt the surface.

There suspended in the immensity, I had to chuckle a little inside at my own vanity, my petty concerns, my trivial pursuits, my ephemeral life. Vaguely aware that I was maybe a little more than a little narc’ed, when I caught the whiteness at the edge of my view, I turned to see the dive master trying to communicate with his clip board. I might have found the jolt from my musing mildly annoying if bother had been a possible emotion, which I’m fairly sure it wasn’t, with that much nitrogen ramming into my bloodstream. I was already grinning behind my respirator when I read “CHICKEN FISH” on the white board. It sounded plausible enough—I’d heard of parrotfish, hawkfish, even goosefish—but when I followed the line of his pointing finger, what I saw was a rubber chicken tethered to a piece of black coral.

Who ever had thought to bring that rubber chicken to the abyssal trench in the Tongue of the Ocean not only had to be a connoisseur of nitrogen narcosis but also must have already experienced every thought and shade of emotion then overwhelming me. I’ve never known, before or since, anything more hilariously appropriate than that rubber chicken swaying from a piece of black corral at thirty fathoms. The regulator-muffled peels and bubble swarms told me the other divers found it fitting too.

We had gazed into the abyss, and it’s probably presumptuous to imagine that the abyss trifled to look back into us, but if it had, the one saving grace it might have found amid all the sentiments and musings of our incredibly narcissistic species would have been that rubber chicken. I could see myself at a meeting after my death, the Holy Reviewer reading down the litany of my life: “Blah, blah, blah. Self-centered, self-aggrandizing, boring Oh, wait a minute—It says here you liked that rubber chicken at thirty fathoms. I liked that too!”

I turned my back to the cliff face again, gazing out in three dimensions, savoring the volume, the blackness and depth, feeling my own insignificance in the midst of it, against the backdrop of nature’s majesty. I felt like a snowflake fallen on wetness, my whole being dissolving to mingle with the water that held me. I felt the very essence of self bleed away. The experience was at once awesome, terrifying and the happiest emotion I’d ever felt. Edmund Burke once wrote that when we contemplate the vastness and almighty power of the sublime, “…we shrink into the minuteness of our own nature, and are, in a manner, annihilated….” At that moment, I understood what Burke was talking about, but not only that, and here is the scary part—I also understood why that errant diver had kept on swimming down past the point of no return.

At that moment, I felt a hand take hold of my own, and then another grasping my other hand, and I found myself in a circle of euphorically narc’ed divers, dancing on the tips of our flippers, like giant ungainly bullfrogs, over the abyss. There we hovered for some time, hand-in-hand, laughing, suspended—between the surface and the depth, between the light and the darkness, between past and future, between birth and extinction—against all probability.

And we danced.

| Leave a comment