Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

Tag: true stories (page 1 of 4)

The Scariest Book I Ever Read

The Fellowship of the Ring is probably the scariest book I’ve ever read. Not because the book is particularly scary—it isn’t—but because the first time I tried to read it, back when I was in 7th or 8th grade, I was home sick. I’d been home from school reading it most of the day and fell asleep somewhere after the chapter “Fog on the Barrow Downs.”

That night I had terrible fever dreams in which I kept dreaming and re-dreaming the scenes in which the Hobbits are hunted by the barrow wights. These were fever dreams and so very real, immediate, and hard to wake from. When I did wake, I was scared and sweaty and when I went back to sleep, the dreams would pick up where I left off or start over, and never once did Tom Bombadil show up to rescue me as he did the Hobbits in the books.

Eventually morning came, and I was freaked out enough that I put the book aside, not to be read again until late in my freshman year of high school. When I finally did read it, I made sure that I had time to read a few chapters beyond “Barrow Downs” before going to sleep. I still do this when I reread Fellowship of the Ring, and I must admit that when the movie came out in 2001, I was a bit relieved that the scene had been cut. Still, it’s among my favorite books.

I was thinking about this the other night when I was feverish and starting to have strange dreams. I finally woke and started thinking about that night of Tolkien inspired fever dreams and that led to thinking about books and the ones that have stuck with me over the years. Not always (but mostly) favorites but important for the way they affected me or made me see or understand things differently. Or maybe just because I liked them so much.

Strangely, the next morning one of my friends tagged me on Facebook with a meme to share just such a list. So, here ’tis:

Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
The House at Pooh Corner – AA Milne
Thirty Seconds over Tokyo – Ted Lawson
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee – Dee Brown
Childhood’s End – Arthur C Clarke
Blue Highways – William Least Heat-Moon
Dark and Like a Web – NS
VALIS – Philip K Dick
Roughing It – Mark Twain
The Sibley Guide to Birds – David Allen Sibley

I’m supposed to tag nine others but I’m not. Play along if you like.

One More Saturday Night (The Dead @ RFK: 6.24.95)

Back in the early ‘90s, I always taped the Grateful Dead Hour at midnight on KGSR. Didn’t matter where I was or what I was doing, come 11:45, I was home to record it. I had never seen the Dead live, but I loved to hear their live sound. One Saturday night around April of ’95, some friends were over listening with me and while we were enjoying a particularly good “Fire on the Mountain,” I was hit with an overwhelming sense that I had to see the Dead. Now. Jerry just wasn’t going to around much longer.

Since they hadn’t played in Texas since the ’70’s, I knew we’d have to travel, and while four of us planned to go, two dropped out (“Next time,” they both said) and so it was that on June 21, 1995, R (who was not yet my wife) and I set out a little before midnight for Washington, DC where they would be playing RFK Stadium that coming Saturday. We had dry cereal, peanut butter, bread, a gas station card and a few bucks between us to get there.

We spent Thursday night in Knoxville and on Friday rolled into Washington where we planned to stay with an old high school buddy who was, incidentally, the person who introduced me to the Dead. We saw the sights and even visited the house in Springfield where I lived when I was a kid in the late ‘70s. And then, on Saturday night, we saw the Dead. Bob Dylan opened and underwhelmed as he tends to do, but when the Grateful Dead came out and opened with “Jack Straw” I had one of those I-can’t-believe-I’m-here moments. Quite simply, I had arrived at the promised land.

Longtime Deadheads pan these latter shows. Jerry was fading, and it was obvious to the band’s most dedicated followers that something was off, but for us, this first-and-only Dead show was magic. I have never been to any show before or since where I felt compelled to pay such close attention and where I was willing and able to just let the music carry me away.

The setlist included some of my favorites and some that I’ve come to love since then (h/t

Jack Straw
Little Red Rooster
Friend of the Devil
El Paso
So Many Roads
Promised Land

Iko! Iko!
Way to Go Home
Saint of Circumstance –>
New Speedway Boogie –>
That Would Be Something –>
Drums –>
Space –>
The Days Between
One More Saturday Night

Black Muddy River

I’ll never forget the energy and excitement of “Iko! Iko!” or the way Bruce Hornsby ran away with “Promised Land” or how they put the boogie back into “New Speedway Boogie.” Most of all, though, I’ll always remember the way Jerry sang “Days Between,” a real favorite of mine. It’s not on any of their official releases and was written only a year or two earlier, but it’s one of the best Dead songs ever, dark and longing, beautiful and terrifying. Jerry poured what little was left of himself into that strange, cryptic song and held the audience captive all the while.

Who knew it would be the last time they would play “Friend of the Devil” and “That Would Be Something” and “Days Between”? And what an unusual portent it was for them to close with the first “Black Muddy River” in almost 4 years. In fact, a few weeks later, it was one of the last songs Jerry would sing with the band, allegedly altering the lyric from “black muddy river” to “last muddy river,” an interesting change in a song about the realization that there are more days behind than ahead of the aging singer who now at the end must face his failures. It’s a song that aches in its beauty and that night, hearing them close with it, there was a certain finality we felt even if we didn’t quite understand.

And that was it. Just another Saturday night in Washington, DC. We hung around Sunday and drove straight through to Austin on Monday. A month and a half later, Jerry Garcia died. It was August 9, and we were at Lollapalooza. My other favorite band, Sonic Youth, was headlining and as the moon rose over South Park Meadows (before it was paved and turned into a strip mall), they closed with a new song, an epic trippy-sounding psychedelic punk jam, called “The Diamond Sea” that Thurston Moore introduced simply by saying, “This is for Garcia.” It was gorgeous, and a fitting tribute.

As the years passed, I’ve always wanted to hear our Dead show again and a few years ago, I downloaded it from the Internet Archive where a generous taper had uploaded it. I’ve been listening to it and enjoying it all over again. Perhaps not surprisingly, the things I remembered most clearly come through as powerfully as they did in person.

It was a wonderful moment in a strange and wild time. A beautiful time in which anything was possible and nothing seemed more important than racing across the country to see a band play on a Saturday night. A few months later, I quit the freelance film life and started a “regular” job to save money for grad school, and so that trip and that show seem kind of like a last hurrah for me in a lot of ways. It was an ending but a beginning too, as they usually are.

I’ll never know what I heard in that Grateful Dead Hour solo, and I’ve lost the tape anyway, but there was something there… a single note or a phrase maybe, something deep that spoke of the ephemeral nature of music and art and beauty and even life itself when you get right down to it. Life’s fleeting moments, experience and wisdom, gathered into song and then blown out on the wind like smoke in the air, flames on a mountaintop, those “headless horsemen vanishing with wild and lonely cries.” All that in one little bit of music that called us across the country to hear something glorious that was itself fading into darkness.

Because Math Said So

I heard that They say math is the language of nature and the way in which we explain everything, which is a pretty cool thing to think about. Math is probably the language of God despite the church’s old fondness for Latin. That’s part of why I like math, but it wasn’t always so. Math and I have not always been friends.

Math turned against me in second grade, which I otherwise loved. I think it was the regular timed tests. I could never get past subtraction even when the rest of the class had moved through multiplication and on to joyless division. It’s probably where my hatred of school began too. Eventually, I began to get things under control, but then those fiends threw letters into the mix so now I had to deal not just with numbers but sometimes x and even his diabolical buddy y. I always liked reading and writing, but now it seemed the whole treasonous alphabet was turning against me.

Sometimes I understood it, but it wasn’t until later that I took satisfaction in solving a problem or working a proof the way I did writing a good story. So there were ups and downs along the bumpy road to graduation: Algebra was a down, Geometry was an up—the first one in math since first grade, Algebra II was down, Trig was a giant up. This is where I started to actually enjoy it. I thought I was home free, but then came Calculus and… well, let’s just say it’s a good thing I didn’t need it to graduate. In college, I only needed to pass basic algebra, which I did, and then no more math forever, I thought. I celebrated by treating myself to a cheeseburger.

Flash forward twenty-some years, and my current teaching assignment involves helping students earn their GEDs. I had to relearn (learn, really, but the re- in front makes it sound better) all the algebra I swore I’d never need to know and that I’d never use in the “real world.” A funny thing happened, though, when I started FOIL-ing and throwing around slope-intercept and quadratic formulas. I liked it. I liked learning about it and getting a bit of a deeper glimpse at how the universe works.

To my surprise, I also found I like teaching a little math. We English teachers live in a world of ambiguity, debatable short answers and essay questions, endless discussion, and gray areas. (Or is it ‘grey’ and did I really need that comma before the ‘and’?) Part of the fun is helping students fumble their way to coherent arguments in support of their ideas and positions. But sometimes it’s nice to break up the day by teaching some math.

The road to the solution for any given problem is a journey and for those of us who find the greatest meaning in the journey (and, let’s be honest here, aren’t being graded on the problem), it can be an interesting journey to take. But I admit, a couple of times a day, it’s nice to be able to point to a number and say that this is the correct answer and there is no other choice. No debate. No argument. The answer is 42. Why? Because math said so, that’s why.

Back to School

In 2008, my colleagues picked me as teacher of the year for our campus. Upon being selected, my principal handed me a packet to complete. Seems you have to write a short essay about your path to teaching, teachers who inspired you, professional accomplishments and some biography so the board can pick the district teacher of the year. This is a slightly redacted version of what I wrote back in 2008. I found it while cleaning up my work computer and doing some start of the year organizing. Call it a summer rerun.

I became a teacher twice. In the process, I learned that sometimes you have to leave a thing to see how much you love it.

When I was in college too many people told me I would be a good teacher. Told me I should be a teacher. Yeah, right, I thought. That’s nuts. Teaching was in the family, but I was going to work on film sets and maybe even be a director. A funny thing happened on the way to the director’s chair, though.

I learned that film work in Austin is sporadic at best. Hard up for cash between gigs, I took to substitute teaching. It took a little while to admit it, but eventually I realized I liked being in the classroom more than on film sets. Though I was “just subbing,” the work felt meaningful. I was a little jealous of the teachers with whom I worked; what they were doing was important. It wasn’t long before subbing mattered more to me than working on TV shows and movies I wouldn’t even have watched had I not been involved with making them.

While subbing, I thought a lot about the teachers who impacted me most. In second grade, Mrs. G. shared her love for Hawaii with us. That summer we moved to the Philippines and had a three-day layover in Honolulu. I knew the whole island and probably could have gone into business conducting tours. There was Mr. R. of 9th grade Modern European History who shouted and raved, gloriously reliving the great battles and upheavals that molded Europe.  On day one of 12th Grade AP English, Mr. C. informed us that he only read and taught books with lots of sex or violence. We read Paradise Lost, Canterbury Tales, the King James Bible, Lord of the Flies, Heart of Darkness, Macbeth, Hamlet, and Invisible Man. I became a reader. The one thing all these teachers shared was passion. They loved their subjects, and they wanted their students to love them as much as they did. They were having fun too.

After graduate school, I found myself at a crossroads. I could restart my freelance film career, or I could try going all in on the teaching thing. Maybe my college friends weren’t so crazy. I enrolled in an alternative certification program in ‘99. That first year teaching middle school was grueling, but I survived. I taught 7th grade English for a second year and then switched to high school where I taught 10th and 11th grade English while building a winning debate program.  Each year, though, I had less fun. It grew more aggravating. The grass looked greener in the business world and in 2005, I decided I had done my part and paid my debt to society. It was time to go corporate and cash in.

That lasted almost one semester. I missed teaching. I missed the kids. I missed talking about books and analyzing poems. I missed the way autumn looks from inside a classroom and feels when you walk out at the end of the day. I missed the way spring brings everyone alive. I missed the rhythm of the school year, and most importantly, I missed doing work that I believe matters and makes the world a better place.

Only slightly annoyed by the self-applied pressure of my social conscience, I applied to be the GED instructor at a juvenile correctional facility in January 2006. I wasn’t sure how it would go there, but I learned that I really like teaching these kids. Someone has to.

The contributions and accomplishments in education of which I am the most proud are the ordinary days here at my school teaching a 100% “at-risk” population. Whether it’s helping seventeen-year-old freshmen earn their GEDs so they can start fresh in their lives or just, as my former principal said, “welcoming kids back to the community of learners,” on a daily basis, I get to help kids find their way back to the thrill of learning, the truth of a well told story, the beauty of a poem, a sense of wonder at the world around them.

That first day back in the classroom, I knew I had come home. I had become a teacher for the second and last time.

A Perfect World

For the first time in 22 years, I am not working at Camp Periwinkle this week. Between having a newborn and several days of professional development training, it just wasn’t in the cards this year. It’s strange to be away from something I’ve been involved with over half my life so while thinking about the good times those kids are having, I figured I’d dig up this old post from 2006. It was originally called “Back from Camp” but was changed to “A Perfect World” when it was re-published in the Nov/Dec 2006 issue of Journal of Pediatric Oncology Nursing. So, a rerun. Enjoy. (And please consider making a donation.)

We got back from Camp Periwinkle (a camp for childhood cancer patients and their siblings) on Saturday afternoon and have spent most of the time since recovering. I’ve been going to Camp every summer since 1990, which is possible since it’s only a week long.

The underlying philosophy of camp is selflessness. All the counselors and staff are volunteers, the kids go for free, everything there is donated. For one week, and sometimes for the last time, the kids at camp get to feel normal, and they get to have fun, and they have the time of their lives.

The smiles and the laughter at Camp Periwinkle are things that keep those of us who’ve been doing it for so long coming back year after year.

It’s typically one of the high points of any given year. It’s a chance to spend a week living in a perfect world, a world of patience, selflessness, love, compassion, understanding. It’s a chance to see kids and adults truly be their best selves. Where else can you see kids in a relay race cheering on the kid in a wheelchair who will cost them the race, yet no one cares about who wins or loses? Where else can you see adults put aside every aspect of their own comfort and convenience so that kids will feel special?

I’ve never been anywhere or done anything else that focuses what life should be about and how we should interact with one another more clearly than Camp Periwinkle. It’s a place where no expense is spared, no opportunity missed, to make kids whose lives are a daily struggle feel special, feel normal. It teaches kids that they can do what no one thinks they can. It helps them survive.

In the past seventeen years, I’ve seen kids laugh, smile, dance, and play who might never otherwise have found a place to do those things. I’ve watched kids crawl out of wheelchairs to climb a wall on the ropes course. I’ve seen kids fresh from brain surgery lean on their crutches and dance.

It’s a powerful place and it changes a person’s way of thinking. It reminds me of how special life is, how lucky I am, how important it is to work everday to make the world a better place for everyone.

It’s a chance to see what life could be like in a world ruled by love, where nobody ever wanted for anything.

Did I say it is a perfect world?

Maiden & Priest

The night before our son was born, we were flipping through channels and caught a few minutes of the Iron Maiden documentary/concert film Flight 666. I used to love Maiden back in my metallic youth; in fact, the only thing I might have liked more was Judas Priest. I remember riding the bus to school in junior high swapping tapes with friends and discussing the relative merits of Priest classics British Steel, Screaming for Vengeance and Defenders of the Faith along with Maiden’s Number of the Beast and Piece of Mind. We also liked Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and even though we agreed the Priest could totally kick Jackson’s ass, we decided that Thriller was still pretty awesome in its own spooky right.

Somewhere along the way, I forgot or perhaps outgrew this music. Maybe it was the fact that the trappings of metal grew so cheesy and convoluted and dependent on hair (thanks, Poison and Ratt) that it just became an embarrassment. I moved on to punk and hardcore and never looked back, which is kind of a shame because when I downloaded and listened to Maiden’s “Run to the Hills” and Priest’s “Freewheel Burning,” I couldn’t believe how much I still liked these tunes. My god how these guys rocked, I thought, and then immediately started downloading old favorites from those albums mentioned above.

Amazing how music transports… Suddenly I remember those junior high years and the long bus ride from our little town up the coast from Naples to the DOD high school on the base. Listening to it again, the sheer intesity and power of the playing is something to behold, especially when Judas Priest starts shredding on “Freewheel Burning” or the raw speed of “Exciter” and “Rapid Fire” or Maiden’s manic “Aces High.” Sometimes the bus ride didn’t seem long at all.

I remember the anticipation we all felt for Iron Maiden’s forthcoming Powerslave. Even after it was out, you couldn’t find it at the base PX. Which is why when we took a family trip up to the UK, the main thing I wanted was to get my hands on Powerslave. I lived inside my headphones much of the way back to Naples on the train, Europe racing along outside the windows to the power and intensity of such classics as “Aces High,” “2 Minutes to Midnight,” and my introduction to Coleridge through their epic retelling of his “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Amazing stuff, and I think I was one of the first kids at Naples American High School to have Powerslave, which certainly didn’t hurt my all-important-for-an-8th-grader cool quotient.

Maiden’s lyrics always hooked me. This was a band of readers and history buffs whose interests in science fiction and classic poetry came out in their music. They sounded like nerds who had become cool and that appealed to a kid like me. With Judas Priest, though, the lyrics were almost irrelevant. It was the ax work, the blistering solos and shredding and the operatic glory of Rob Halford’s voice. I thought about Maiden and I felt Priest.

Now, decades later, I find that I still really like this stuff. I’m downloading and relistening, rediscovering these gems from my past. I doubt I’ll venture much further back into metal than these two bands, but I’m not sure I would need to. In my spare moments, I get my rock on and that’s probably the answer to the question of new-parent exhaustion: lots of coffee, some Maiden and a little Priest. And Coltrane too, of course, because the ’61 Vanguard recordings… well that would be a whole other post.

A Minor Head Injury (or So They Tell Me)

January 1991.

After the emptiness, the biblical chaos of time before creation, movement or matter, there was a light and it was blue.  It was good.  Bright deep blue. The screen thrown up by a failing hard drive.

The blue overflowed my eyes and filled my senses like sparkling water on a Caribbean day.  The blue flickered and popped.  It sometimes disappeared and then flared back across my vision like a tin of paint tipped sideways.  Occasionally, a solid cloud—yes, clouds so we must be dealing with sky—chiseled like marble suspended by invisible tethers would appear to break up the infinite beauty of blue.  The periods of blue were short and often replaced by longer periods of black in which there was no sound, only the nauseating sweep of free-fall.

“Trailers for sale or rent,” my voice sang.


Blue: “Rooms to let, fifty cents”


Blue: “phone, nor pets; I ain’t got no…”


Blue: “cigarettes.  King of the Road.”

Treetops appeared and disappeared on the searing edges of the blue.  Snow covered pine tips stood out against the azure sky like sterile needles rushing overhead.  I wondered what the bottoms of the trees looked like.  I closed my eyes.

“Killington, Vermont,” I guessed.

“I don’t know where that is,” a voice said.

“No, wait… Colorado?”

Blue: “I don’t pay no union dues.”

I was flying now, the trees nothing but a blur.  I attempted to sit up, but a thousand hammers crashed on my sternum and I fell back, gasping for air like a landed fish.  The lights went out.

When I heard the sound of an engine rattling, I opened my eyes again and stared at a group of men and women, scraggly and bundled in flannel, who looked at me through the dim gloom.  I couldn’t make out what lay behind them.

“It’s a Willie Nelson tune,” one of them stated with authority.

Uneasy laughter, then: “No, no, it’s that guy… Roger Miller.  Y’know, ‘King of the Road’”

“I ain’t got no cigarettes,” I said as if stating my name.

A woman leaned over and I stared up at her red face as she peered into my eyes.  I didn’t like the red cross emblazoned on her cap, nor the words ‘SKI PATROL’ stenciled underneath.  Again, I tried to sit, to swim for the beckoning surface of lucidity, but I was pulled down into the muck of half-remembered country lyrics and confused notions about who I was before I could break that glassy surface.

When my eyes opened, I stared up at the florescent tubes humming their official song of cold efficiency like a nest of bees contained.  I watched the tubes and listened to the hurried voices that came from remote lands around my scattered perception.

“Get out the way!”

“Hey, I need a hand!”


It’s never a good situation when people are saying, ‘STAT’.  I waited for the word to be finished: STAT-ue, STAT-istic, STAT-ic.  But it was always just, “STAT.”

My head flopped to the side and my eyes focused on the gurney’s shiny chrome railing.  Beyond it, a familiar face.  Eric’s eyes were open and there was blood and ice in his blonde hair.  I watched him but I was afraid to speak. He stared back at me.

“What’s happening,” I asked with increasing alarm.

I waited for a flood of memories to come back, but instead I got nothing more than a shallow creek.  I came up against the black wall that curtained off the parts of memory that might give me answers.

“We’re hosed,” he whispered.  “I can’t move.”

Suddenly, I was moving.  I watched as his head disappeared, then his lift tickets attached like badges to his blue bib, then his socks… where were his shoes? My gurney rushed through the ER, confusing the sounds and blurred images of hurried people and intercom imperatives with the Doppler trails of scurrying doctors.  I felt sick. I gave up.


Blue: “Every door that ain’t locked when no one’s around.”

“You shouldn’t let yourself go out when you hit your head,” a gentle voice said, echoing through black veils.

“I can’t help it.”


I knew the voice from some hospital TV show.  It was Hawkeye.  I smiled.  I knew I would be in good hands with the best chest cutter in Korea working on me.  I would be getting a purple heart and the Army would be sending me—

“Sit up,” Hawkeye said.

I opened my eyes and found myself disappointed to be staring at an old pale-faced doctor with thinning red hair.  Not Hawkeye.  Not even Alan Alda.

“Feeling better?”

“My chest,” I mumbled.  I realized I was able to sit and stay awake at the same time.

“You and your buddy crashed into each other on a little connecter slope.”  His tone said, ‘stupid tourists.’

“Is Eric okay,” I asked.

“Concussion.  Same as you.  I’m giving you a prescription for Tylenol with codeine.  Don’t ski tomorrow, and don’t sleep more than two hours at a stretch.”  He smiled, but it wasn’t pleasant.  He obviously thought I was getting what I deserved for skiing recklessly on his slopes.

Two days later under the bright Colorado sun, I rode up the chairlift as if for the first time.  The codeine-altitude combination created a euphoric spinning sensation as we glided to the top where I put my skis down into the powder and coasted off the lift.  I turned a hard right and followed my friends down a connecting slope to a second lift, which would take us higher up the mountain.  We rounded a wide bend and skied down a ridge to a small place where a sheer rock wall rose thirty feet above us.  The other side of the trail dropped fifty feet to the snowy treetops below.

“Right here,” Jason said.

“What exactly happened,” I asked.

“You guys came flying down that ridge and nailed each other in the air.”

I shook my head and looked at Eric.  He shrugged.

I looked at the wholly unfamiliar place.  The codeine temporarily kept me from dwelling much on it.  I pushed on my poles and continued toward the chairs that would ferry me higher up that mountain that still exists in my mind as a dark crag upon the range of my otherwise clear memories as if a storm permanently dwells over that one spot.  It is a piece of my life that, like childhood, only exists in the memories and recollections of others.

More than anything else, I realize how desperately we need our stories.  Oh, we may (and will) edit them, polish and rewrite them for general consumption, but the fact remains: our stories are the truth of who we are.  Just as a writer cannot abide a blank piece of paper (or a white screen), neither can our souls bear a blank spot on the endless recorder of our memories.  We must fill those gaps with something whether it is pure invention, or fragments cobbled together into a narrative based on stories told us by trusted friends.  Without our stories we are lost.

Proof:  A medical bill and a photo of me, greenish from the low Kelvin light of the hospital tubes.  A photo of me staggering uncertainly through a Colorado ER, a frown on my face and a middle finger stuck towards the camera.

Old Photo Friday (Bataan, Philippines: 1982)

Friendship Tower of Bagac, Bataan, Philippines. 1982.

I found this while flipping through the old photo albums. It’s a picture of the Friendship Tower of Bagac in Bagac, Bataan, Philippines. It was dedicated in 1975 as a monument to peace and friendship between the Philippines and Japan.

I took the picture in spring 1982 with my old Kodak 110 Instamatic. I took three pictures of it and as soon as they came back, I taped them together to make this collage in an attempt to capture the whole thing. Not bad for an eleven-year-old.

We moved to Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippines in 1979. In that time and place World War II was still close at hand. Only thirty-four years had passed, which to an eight-year-old represented several lifetimes but now doesn’t seem like much time at all. About the same as the span of years stretching from this moment back to ’82.

Physically, World War II was everywhere: relics, monuments and blood dried into the soil. In those years after Vietnam, I’m sure it was the war people on base preferred to remember. To a child, though, it existed in a dream world between heroic fantasy and rusted reality.

The fantasy came from books and stories seasoned with a little bit of Dungeons & Dragons-inspired battle romance. We read the books, enacted our war games wearing camouflage and rank insignia we’d pinched from our dads, and fought each other with mangos, avocados and guavas plucked from trees.

Despite the games, though, there was also the undeniable reality of the whole thing lingering in the air and throughout the jungle we were all strictly forbidden to enter. I remember one day hiking with my scout troop on Grande Island, a small resort—formerly a fort—island in the mouth of Subic Bay. We found an overgrown bunker facing toward the sparkling South China Sea complete with a gun emplacement rusted orange and ruined by years left to the rainy season’s whims. Had anyone fought there? Had anyone died?

Along the trail of the Bataan Death March. 1982

These were questions that rattled through my mind when I participated in the annual reenactment of the Bataan Death March by scout troops from throughout Southeast Asia. My troop participated each year, and I was as excited as could be in 1982, when I was old enough for several grueling days of hiking.

The real Bataan Death March occurred in 1942 when Japanese forces captured over 70,000 Filipino and American soldiers after the Battle of Bataan and marched them to prison camps. Along that route, thousands were killed or died of starvation and disease.

Forty years later, we camped on the beach, played D&D in our tents and each morning after breakfast, we were bused to wherever we’d left off the previous day to trace the route of the death march. I remember it as exhausting and yet throughout, I had the awareness that this was nothing next to what those victims and survivors of the real Bataan Death March endured.

Somewhere along those dusty Philippine roads my fascination with war turned to recoiling as I realized it was one thing to reenact battles with my friends, but quite another to walk endless miles along a trail of brutality, hopelessness and murder. I think it was then that the idea of war began to move from fantasy to nightmare as we walked through Bataan imagining the sheer horror of the reality our reenactment was meant to remember.

It was quite a walk for an eleven-year-old with a vivid imagination, but I think I learned more about the cost of war than I ever did from books or school.

Along the trail of the Bataan Death March. 1982

There’s another Old Photo Friday from 2006 featuring a picture from the Bataan Death March.

Old Photo Friday

Narragansett Bay from Middletown, RI. April 1988.

This is looking west over Narragansett Bay from Middletown or Portsmouth, Rhode Island in April 1988 just months before we moved to Texas. I was in the car with a couple of friends and we pulled over so I could get a shot of the light bursting through that hole in the clouds. We called it “God light” because it reminded us of the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which God commands Arthur to seek the grail.

I had just gotten my first real camera, a Pentax K1000, the previous Christmas and so I was learning the habit of carrying it nearly everywhere I went, searching for the photographic holy grail of being in the perfect place when the light hits just right. It would be years before I began to understand that the real wonder was not so much in the picture, but in the way that being open to finding those pictures helps me better see and know the world around me.

As with all the photos on the blog, click to enlarge and view it at a higher resolution.

Old Photo Friday

Mt Etna, Sicily, Italy; Early '80's

One of the few things I’ve invented in the blog world is Old Photo Friday. Maybe I invented it, I don’t know. I’ve never seen anyone else do it, but perhaps I only discovered it in the way that Columbus discovered America.

I did Old Photo Friday fairly regularly from June 2006 to June 2007 and then stopped. I guess I got tired of it, but lately I’ve been missing those weekly explorations of old photographs.

With thoughts of Columbus and worlds old and new, I found this shot of Mt. Etna I took with my old Kodak 110 Instamatic. We lived in Italy from 1982 until 1985 and during that time, I visited Sicily twice. Once with my family and once with my Boy Scout troop (395, the best alive). This is from the Boy Scout trip, which I’m guessing was either in ’83 or ’84, in which we went camping on the lower slopes of the volcano.

We took the train down from Naples and crossed the straits to Sicily on the ferry, which was all very exciting, though being inside the train cars in the cavernous hold of the ferry wasn’t my favorite part of the trip.

Etna was erupting at the time, but it’s a big mountain so we were safe enough, though occasionally we felt a rumble and some of the guys claimed to have seen a small explosion near the summit, but even that didn’t seem like too a big a deal since our school was on the slopes of La Solfatara, a mostly-dormant volcano that frequently spewed foul-smelling clouds of sulfur into the air so the whole area would smell like rotten eggs and farts.

Mt Etna didn’t smell bad, and it was a good place to camp and hike and explore. We were especially interested in the shrines set up along the trails with their votive candles, old photographs of people taken when they were young and piles of Lira, sacrifices, we imagined, so the dead would have some change to buy Cokes in Heaven.

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