"Since flesh can't stay, we keep the breath aloft. Since flesh can't stay, we pass the words along." --Erica Jong
Thursday, June 22, 2006
When I was a child, I would curl up in bed under three blankets, covering my ears against the wind howling outside. We could tell, by wind-clouds piling up along the tops of the Sierra-Nevadas, when there would be a big blow. The wind always came from the west, blowing sand into waves of dunes in the front yard, settling a fine, thick silt on the window sills and in the corners. It made spooky howling noises in the stovepipe and the clanging of the chains on my swingset against the bars kept me awake all night. As I looked out my bedroom window, the red light from the Penny Arcade sign across the street bloodied every grain of sand, turning the whole window red. Sand blasted the paint off cars and pitted windshields, and blotted out the sun. It stung our eyes and textured our dinner and turned tumbleweeds into flying missiles.
Once, the circus came to town in the middle of a terrific windstorm. Their Big Top swayed and groaned, the ropes and posts and canvases snapped like ships in the blowing sand. The daring young men on the flying trapeze may have been daring, but they were not fools, so they stayed safely on the ground while their swings billowed and lifted without them. Still, we saw monkeys (One, wearing a little red coat with gold buttons, bit my finger, outstretched in friendship. I never tried that again!) and elephants, lion-tamers and clowns. We saw Bambi-the-Snake-Woman, and Bobo-the-Dog-Faced-Boy. The Man-Turned-to-Stone invited our hands to feel the vibrations on his leg while he spoke. A nine-foot giant mummy, leathery and brown, reclined in a wood-and-glass case. Beside him in a smaller case there was another mummy of an ancient infant that looked like a little shriveled, brown monkey. We ate pink spun-sugar cotton candy, and shiney, red candy apples-on-a-stick.
And I remember once, Gypsies camped their tents and wagons at the far end of our lot. Someone said Gypsies stole children, dyed their skins brown with the juice of berries and walnuts, and they had to be Gysies for the rest of their lives. I lived in
horror they might kidnap me, yet I secretly hoped they would, so that I could live a life traveling in tents, wearing gold earring and bracelets up to my elbows, and dancing to the music of tambourines. However, I took the long, round-about way to school for as long as they camped there. I never heard one tambourine. The closest I ever came to living like a Gypsy was years later when I travelled around the country with a theater reperatory troupe--in a tan station wagon overflowing with old show programs, candy wrappers, banana skins, etc., and we made our own peculiar music (of a sort). In school every morning, the teacher gave us mimeographed pictures to color of Farmer Brown, Farmer Brown's Wife, and Farmer Brown's Boy Bill. (Never once Gypsies!)
I remember the hills and gullies full of sage and creosote and cactus, coyotes and rattlesnakes and lizards. When more and more people began to move in, they all vanished. The shrill night howling of coyotes used to send shivers of fear up and down my back. Now most of the remaining coyotes are pacing up and down in zoos, although the sheepmen say some still attack and kill their sheep. I suffer with the sheep, but my heart is with the coyotes. I think the whole history of creation is in those sheep and the coyotes.
Tuesday, June 20, 2006
I like to think of people as Kurt Vonnegut's Tralfamadorians saw them in Slaughterhouse Five,--as continuous beings not unlike long caterpillars, with fat baby's legs at one end, and long, ancient legs at the other--beings forever all-one-piece, integrated and entire. Vonnegut's Tralfamadorians, seeing into the fourth dimension, perceive the universe in a radically different way:
"All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.
"When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition at that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is 'So it goes!'"
So it goes. I am five-years-old, and they have taken me to say "goodbye" to my grandpa, who is sleeping in flowers, but he doesn't wake no matter what is said to him.
Then I am six-years-old, having another encounter with Vulture Death. I hold a brown leather dog collar. Topper was a good dog, now he is dead, run over by a truck. The truck meant no harm. The driver was sorry, and he said so. I think of all the uncounted dogs and cats and birds that died somewhere back in my childhood: Sparky and Cue-Ball, Topper, Lucky, Penny and Bobby, blue and green parakeets, Monday the sparrow, Perry the chipmunk....a boxfull of naked pink baby mice someone found in an old trunk and brought to me. Another sparrow we named Frosty. Toots, and Queenie, the last dogs of my childhood. When Topper died, for weeks afterward the very air smelled of him. He was nowhere and everywhere. And every loss brought floods of tears. When Lucky died I wrote my first poem:
There is no more puppy
to laugh with, or play.
There is no more puppy
to care for each day.
There is no more puppy
to come when I call,
there is no more puppy,
no puppy at all.
Well, it's not Shakespeare, but what d'you expect? I was eight.
Back to Vonnegut's caterpillar. I am six again, watching snakes climb up the gray folds in the window-curtains, hearing the old photographs on the walls whisper to one another of times past in quiet, paper voices. My heart thumps monstrously loud.
Whatever happened to Baby Dumpling, and the rocking chair, and all those pop bottles full of sand? Nicodemus had no shoes, so who was it stepped in all the pies? Jesus loves me, this I know. I'll be a sunbeam for him. I love Jesus. I love cats. Cue-Ball is my cat. He rides in the little buggy and sings. A sunbeam, a sunbeam, Jesus wants me for a sunbeam. Loves. By pinching is how people who love each other very much get babies.
I was stunned when mother told me how people do get babies. "Do you remember that word I told you not to say?" Mother must have been acutely embarrassed. "That's what people do." She never said the word, but that was my sex education. I knew those bizarre activities occurred, whatever they were called. But I could not imagine why anyone would want to do such things, and certainly, if they did, it didn't concern me. We never talked about "it" again.
So it goes!
Wednesday, June 14, 2006
Diane and me, in wildflowers. Riding in a baby carriage, being angry, bawling that my friend Diane (being littler) was sitting comfortably in the shade of the hood while I was at the end, in the sun. The carriage was being pushed by someone named Virginia.
Riding on my dad's shoulders down the hill in the dark to get ice-cream, and returning home to find Santa Claus had come. He left a set of little blue plastic dishes, and my beautiful Baby Sunshine baby doll. She was also called, sometimes, Baby Dumpling--(after the real baby of a friend of my mama's--actually, Blondie and Dagwood's first baby Alexander was called 'Baby Dumpling,' so that's where it all started, in the funny papers!)
Playing with my mother's old dolls, a blue celluloid baby (which I left outside to be ruined--(all her arms and legs fell off), and another of her dolls which I loved, with a china head, real hair, and a smile with real teeth--(which I also left outside for the dog to ruin). She was my mother's, when she was a little girl. The doll's name was 'Norma,' and she still resides (her china head glued back together) in a box in my attic.
I remember playing in Bacopickle's garden, the fence, the hollyhocks. I always carried a big smooth oval rock around, pretending it was my 'baby.' John, Bacopickle's husband (but never my 'grandpa') once sent me a letter (an exciting thing!) telling me to 'be a good girl,' and to 'go sit on a tack,' or maybe it was 'don't sit on a tack.' Whichever, I was pleased and thought it was funny. John always called me "Blondie."
A watermelon 'bust' at Dry Lake. My cousin Jerry and I kick sand on the campfire to put it out. The big people heap praises upon us. We kick more sand on the fire. I am going to marry Jerry. Jerry kicks a big desert turtle on the top of its shell with the heel of his boot. How mean! I am not going to marry Jerry after all.
My brother's black dog, Sparky. My brother jumping over a fence, followed by Sparky. I remember looking for Sparky after he was poisoned, suspecting that he was buried under a red hill of dirt in the yard, digging to find him.
My old black-and-white tomcat, Cue-Ball. I dress him up in doll clothes and haul him around in my wicker doll-buggy. He is docile and loving and content. He lays on his back and purrs, wrapped in a little blanket. Sometime later, I am sitting on my Grandma Bacopickle's lap in the big rocker. Cue-Ball is on my lap, purring, his claws pushing in and out like cat's do when they're happy. One of his claws catches a big scab already on my knee and pulls it off. The knee becomes infected, and we go to see Dr. Drummond (the doctor who delivered me), where his pretty nurse, Cherry, fixes me up with a new bandage. I remember my crib, metal with white, peeling paint. Every time I walked by it I knocked the scab off my knee! I slept in the crib until I was four or five.
I remember going on vacation, a picnic of sorts. I need to go potty and I'm taken out to a private wooded place. Later on, I discover my privacy was invaded--someone took my picture! I feel betrayed and humiliated. I am enraged and embarassed seeing these two photographs, "hoarding my small dignity," as Anne Sexon wrote in a poem called THOSE TIMES.
We are in Whitney, Nevada, where my dad is thinking of buying a store with my Uncle Leffel. I find a nest of kittens, one dangling by its neck between two shelves under a counter. In Whitney, I make a 'cradle' of my hands to rock a tiny baby turtle, (a fingerplay mama taught me): Here are mother's knives and forks, here is mother's table. Here is sister's looking-glass, and here's the baby's cradle. We leave Whitney after a short time and come back to California. (My brother, who was 14 at the time, informs me that there was a big magnesium mine that opened up, and since it was wartime, there was a great demand for magnesiuim. Dad and two of our uncles, Leffel and Ray, thought a store would be a good idea. We stayed there for only six months, so it probably wasn't.)
Someone holds me up to peer over a high fence where a little girl who has no arms plays. They tell me how she can feed and dress herself, and write, anyway, with her toes. I am impressed. Someone holds me up to a window, where a sick girl named Yvonne is darkly quarentined behind a screen. Say "Hello," I am told. "Hello," I say, but I feel something dark inside my chest that I can only equate now to Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year.
The sound tin cans made when they were scraped in the sand. Filling up empty bottles with the sand, patting it down flat when they were full. The taste of sand, the wonderful smell of it. Pouring it out, and scooping it up again.
Making 'pets' out of the little white balls of fuzz that grew on the creosote bush beside the house. In the summer, they turned, like dandelions, into tiny yellow flowers. The smell of wildflowers in the spring. The hillsides were covered with wildflowers.
The tobacco-smell of my grandpa. The powder-smell of Nanny.
Outhouses. Grandpa and Nanny had a seat with a lid on theirs. Ours was just a hole in a board. My little potty chair inside, by the ice-box. My little rocking chair.
My butcher-boy outfit with flowers embroidered across the front. My coat with little buttons shaped like deer.
The 'bean' tree in our yard, a locust tree, I think. I gathered the long, thin green pods and 'cooked' them.
I remember seeing a movie cartoon where Mickey Mouse cut a loaf of bread into slices so thin they were transparent. You could see the knife passing through.
Biting the skin on my mother's elbow because it felt so good to my teeth. --Never hard enough to hurt, but it must've been really annoying to her....
Misunderstood! I am standing in the front seat of the car, between Mama (who is driving) and Mrs. Lambly, (who is all dressed up) and who has white hair and shiney dangling earrings. I admire her earrings, am about to touch them, when mama scolds me, tells me to "stop it." I realize that she thinks I will pull them through the piercings in the lady's ears. My feelings are hurt that she thinks I'd do something so stupid. I just thought they were pretty things, and I was going to tell her so.
The rusty water towers on the hill above our house. The silver milk cans in the barn. The way the cream wrinkls on top of the milk.
Rinaldi's Meat Market; It smells of the thick sawdust covering the floor, ankle-deep, and of salt. I like to come here with my mother. The earthy smells of the mine shafts daddy works in, of the burning carbide in the miners' lamps, of cool wet rocks.
All of these before I was five, before we moved away from Red Mountain.
Sunday, June 04, 2006
And Pass the Ammunition
Down went the gunner; a bullet was his fate,
Down went the gunner, and then the gunner's mate.
Up jumped the sky pilot, gave the boys a look
And manned the gun himself as he laid aside the Book,
Shouting: Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition!
Praise the Lord, and Pass the Ammunition!
Praise the Lord, and Pass the Ammunition,
And we'll all stay free!
Praise the Lord, and swing into position,
Can't afford to sit around a'wishin'.
Praise the Lord, we're all between perdition
And the deep blue sea!
Yes, the sky pilot said it. You've got to give him credit,
For a son-of-a-gun of a gunner was he, shouting:
Praise the Lord; we're on a mighty mission,
All aboard! We're not a'goin' fishin'.
Praise the Lord, and Pass the Ammunition,
And we'll all stay free!
Words and Music by FRANK LOESSER
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor Naval Base in Hawaii in a surprise attack, killing some 3,000 Americans. I actually remember people weeping, whispering those words, "Pearl Harbor!" Within days, young Americans flocked to enlist in the service, among them my dad's curley-headed brother, my Uncle Rulon. He spent most of the war years in (of all places), Iran. Daddy joined the Coast Guard. Tommy Dorsey recorded "Kiss the Boys Goodbye." The Andrew Sisters sang about the "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy." In the years that followed, clocks were turned ahead one hour as "war time," now called Daylight Savings Time, went into effect. Gasoline, sugar, and butter were rationed. People carried little packets filled with "tokens," little round brown things that could be spent as money. Mama filled plastic trays with a white margerine and poured in little packages of yellow dye to make it look like real butter. Even the movie stars went to war. Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Gene Autry, Spencer Tracy, and Douglas Fairbanks joined up, while glamorous women stars asked us to buy war bonds. "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" was number 1 on the Hit Parade. I stood on some piano bench, somewhere, and sang it to much applause. (The end of my singing in public, I might add!) Mama sang in the kitchen, while fixing dinner and doing dishes, she sang as she made the beds, and swept the floors. Ac-cent-tchu-ate The Positive, E-lim-i-nate the negative. Don't Get Around Much Anymore. I'll Never Smile Again. I'll Be Seeing You in All the Old Familiar Places. The Last Time I Saw Paris. She sang Sentimental Journey, and You'll Never Know Just How Much I Love You, You'll Never Know Just How Much I Care.... These songs became part of me, and I knew all the words. Oh How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning. I dropped little rocks on ants, playing "Bombs Over Tokyo," and I knew how to draw a swastika with my finger in the dirt. Hitler's face, and Tokyo Joe's were everywhere. They're Either Too Young or Too Old, They're Either Too Gray or Too Grassy Green! The Pickin's is Poor, and The Crop Is Lean....
Then President Roosevelt, who so often spoke to us over the radio, died. Mama cried, and stopped singing. We dropped an Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima and another on Nagasaki. We stormed the beaches at Normandy. The war was over.
They continued to perfect the Bomb. Even after we moved from the yellow house Daddy built in Red Mountain to the house with a bird's nest in the chandellier in Inyokern, they continued to test the Bomb in Nevada. We got out of our beds early in the morning on the day of the test, stood in our front yard, and watched as the red cloud rose over the east mountains. We could see it all the way in California. And we could hear, and feel, the rumble of the shock wave several moments after.
People began to worry about the "T-Zone" in their cigarettes, Taste and Throat, and they would "Walk a Mile for a Camel." There was "Never a Rough Puff in a Lucky," and the old 'ice-box' became a thing of the past when we bought a new refrigerator. Campbell's Soup was "Mmmm-Mmmm Good!"
There were "real" faces and "friendly" faces. "Real" faces belonged to Harry Truman, and Estes Kefauver, and Clement Attlee, to Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, to Dorothy Lamour and Betty Hutton. Although some of these faces were also "friendly," I paid more attention to other faces I loved: Sniffles and Mary Jane, Marmaduke Mouse, Little Henry, the Little King, and Little Lulu, with her black ringlets, her cheery smile, her red dress, and her olive-black eyes.
Now cigarettes are politically incorrect, they'll give you cancer and bad breath, and their secondhand smoke will kill you. And Sniffles and Mary Jane, along with all those other "friendly" faces have gone the way of the dinosaur and the dodo bird.
- Joyce Ellen Davis
- 1. In dreams I am often young and thin with long blond hair. 2. In real life I am no longer young, or thin, or blonde. 3. My back hurts. 4. I hate to sleep alone. (Fortunately I don't have to!) 5. My great grandfather had 2 wives at once. 6. I wish I had more self-discipline. (I was once fired from a teaching position in a private school because they said I was "too unstructured and undisciplined." --Who, me??? Naaaahhh....) 7. I do not blame my parents for this. Once, at a parent-teacher conference, the teacher told me my little boy was "spacey." We ALL are, I told her. The whole fan damily is spacey. She thought I was kidding. I wasn't. 8. I used to travel with a theater reperatory company. My parents weren't happy about this. 9. My mother was afraid that I would run off and paint flowers on my cheeks and live in a commune, and grow vegetables. I once smoked pot. ONE TIME. 10. I don't drink or smoke. (Or swear, much. Well, I drink milk, and water, and orange juice, and stuff. Cocoa. I love Pepsi.) 11. Most of my friends are invisible. 12. I am a poet and a writer. All of my writing on these pages is copyrighted. Borrowing (without acknowledgment) is a sin.