Friday, May 27, 2016


When I arrive, my friend Jim Bowsher is, I can tell, busy, focused, into something big.  We’ve been invited to a friend’s house for dinner, but when I talked to him on the phone, he asked me to meet him at his house a couple of hours before because he wanted to show me something he was doing out in the yard.
It’s well into Ohio November but it has been unseasonably warm. Now, however, in the mid-afternoon of a lead-grey day, the weather’s changing. Last night and early this morning it rained, and now there’s a wind up out of the north. It’s stirring up the dry autumn leaves on the ground and things are growing chilly all of the sudden as I get out of the car, underdressed, in shirtsleeves and a light canvas vest, in front of Jim’s now famous house in Wapakoneta, our mutual home town.
Stones, boulders, masonry, ironwork and other symbolic 
remnants of Ohio's human and natural history.
I make my way past what looks like the remnants of an archeological dig in his little dooryard, and go up the steps to rap on his storm door. No answer. So I knock again, a little harder. Still nothing. So I go around back figuring he’s probably out in his incredible backyard doing whatever he does back there, working magic with rocks and stones and boulders, and masonry, and ironwork, and a gazillion other highly symbolic segments, chunks, pieces and slivers of Ohio history (both natural and human) spanning a period ranging roughly from the Ice Age to the 1960s or so.
I know the way. I was here a year before and wrote about the fantastic world of Jim Bowsher in a series of articles I published here in The Southern Yankee

But this time it’s different. I feel right at home, as if I belonged here, partly because of the friendship that Jim and I have forged practically “overnight”, but also, I think, because that’s the climate here, the spirit in which Jim created this extraordinary, surreal, almost insane homage to tolerance, a burgeoning rock garden that has now expanded obsessively to take up the entire heart of the block. Which is another crazy thing about Jim, how he manages to have his ever-persistent way, to get people to do things without resentment, to join him, in fact, in ventures that, if you or I were to try to present them, we’d at least get the door slammed in our faces and maybe even the dogs sicked on us, to say nothing of angry city fathers burning effigies and maybe even crosses in our yards.  
What's not stone is wrought iron culled from every historic
 demolition possible.
But yes, a climate of universal tolerance and peace and brotherhood, which he created for anyone with an open heart and mind who comes to call, but more than anything else, as a place where usually wayward kids feel they belong. A place where they know somebody cares, even if Jim can sometimes be a curmudgeon or even a bit of a pill, but always for their own good.
Like the kid who went to a job interview Jim had gotten him at a hamburger chain store on the edge of town and came back to Jim’s place later complaining that he hadn’t gotten the job. In fact, they hadn’t even seemed to want to talk to him. Jim looked up from the book he was reading at the kid and said, “Well, were you wearing that t-shirt?”
The kid looked down at his t-shirt and back up at Jim and said, “Yeah, what’s wrong with it?”
“It says ‘Eat Shit’ on it,” said Jim without losing his cool. And when there was no reaction, he said, “What kind of an idiot goes to an interview for a job in a restaurant wearing a t-shirt that says ‘Eat Shit’ on it?”
“I like this shirt,” says the kid, looking hurt. “My dad gave me this shirt. He thought I looked okay.”
“Okay, couple of things,” Jim tells him. “First, that shirt’s inappropriate...for interviews, for school, for just about whatever. Second, I know your dad. If you want to know anything at all about fishing or hunting or tromping around out in the wild, he’s your man. Ask him for advice on those subjects anytime. But he’s been in prison twice, so no advice on life. In fact, you tell him that. Tell him Jim Bowsher says it’s okay to ask him about hunting and fishing but no life advice.”
“You want me to tell him you said that?” the kid asks dubiously.
“Yes, you tell him Jim says no more life advice because he’s not qualified, then tell me what he says.”
Next day the kid comes back and Jim says, “Did you tell your dad what I said?”
“And what did he say?”
“He said you were right.”
You don’t think about kids having these kinds of issues in the mostly white, mostly middle-class, highly protected environments of the small-town Midwest, but Jim knows better. In the incredible rock garden outside his backdoor, he sees it all. People, especially fellow writers, think of him as a kind of hermit, somebody without a cellphone or computer—he still writes on a manual typewriter—a guy who’s built a personal world where he can shut himself away and live and write in the relative isolation of small-town America. But nothing could be further from the truth. Jim Bowsher is one of the most socially connected and sociologically savvy people you’d ever want to meet, even if he will, yes, go to just about any length to protect his privacy. But his backyard—which he has turned into a public space for solace, healing and meditation—is a veritable magnet for kids in trouble.
Jim's amazing creation is a magnet for wayward kids. 
Like another kid he told me about the last time I was here. This was a teen he started seeing at just about any hour that he ventured into the sprawling yard and he quickly figured out that the boy was homeless. Or rather, that things had been so bad in what he had once called home that, as soon as he felt he was old enough to pull it off, he plucked up his courage and lit out on his own. He drifted from place to place until a ride he’d hitched with a trucker deposited him on the eastern edge of Wapakoneta, next to I-75. He asked around trying to find work, a place to stay, somewhere to make a little money and to get out of the elements awhile.
Long story short, somebody suggested he drop by the rock garden and see Jim. Typically, Jim went to the mat for the kid, pressing him to get his story off his chest, to talk over what was bothering him, and then began the work of trying to make a better world for him. Eventually, Jim not only found the kid a job, but a place to stay and a surrogate family all under one roof.
So everything went along fine until, one day, Jim hears from the kid’s employer cum guardian. The guy says he doesn’t know what to do. He’s reached an impasse with the kid on the subject of garbage. Garbage? Yes, the guy says, garbage. The kid flatly refuses to have anything to do with it. When he’s asked to take the garbage out, he says no, on no uncertain terms.
“How’s he doing otherwise?” Jim wants to know.
“Oh great! Don’t get me wrong. He’s a great kid, a hard worker, responsible. I have no complaints. And, personally, we’ve become friends, I think. It’s just this one thing. We can’t get past it.”
Garbage, it seems, is a sticking point, a frontier, a limit the kid refuses to cross. So Jim says, “Let me talk to him.”
In the safe haven of Jim’s backyard, he and the kid get together. “What’s going on with work?” Jim asks the kid.
“Nothing,” the kid answers. “It’s all good.” He likes the work and he really likes the boss. The guy’s solid, like a father to him, he indicates.
“So what’s this about the garbage?” Jim asks.
Suddenly, the kid’s expression turns dark. He says he doesn’t want to talk about it.
“But you’re going to have to,” Jim says. The guy doesn’t know what’s going on, Jim explains. He’s baffled.
But the kid insists he doesn’t want to talk about it. If they make him take out the garbage, he’ll leave.
“Do you think you’re above taking out the garbage?” Jim asks.
“No,” he says, “I just don’t want to do it.”
“Why don’t you tell me the real reason?” Jim says.
After a lot of back and forth in which the kid is adamant that if he has to handle garbage detail he’ll leave, he finally overcomes his embarrassment and shame and tells Jim the real problem: “If I have to take out the garbage,” he says, “I’ll end up eating it.”
There’s a pregnant pause. Even Jim, who has seen a lot—worked in the prison system, worked, indeed, on death row in intimate contact with the inmates and their horrific stories—is taken aback. But as the kid explains further, it all makes sense. The kid says it’s that he spent so much time fending for himself from a very young age that dumpster scavenging has become a habit, an obsession. In that world, one person’s waste becomes another’s fortune, nutrition on which to survive another day. It’s crazy all the perfectly good food Americans throw away, he indicates.
This, Jim realizes, is a separate reality, a world of unimaginable emotional pain, sorrow and abandonment, one far too few people in the Western World want to think about, and one that people in a small, relatively prosperous, Midwestern town like Wapakoneta can simply not fathom. But here it is, reality “live”, in Jim’s backyard, in the warm embracing shadow of the Temple of Tolerance that he has built stone by stone and story by story, in the name of anyone who has ever felt oppressed.
The stone from the swimming hole in the Auglaize.
Now, Jim and I meet up in the backyard and after a brief greeting, we take up practically where we left off when I was here a year ago. He’s preparing to inaugurate a new section of the garden, he tells me, and he’d literally been stuck between a rock and a hard place. He’d managed to haul in a huge new boulder as a kind of centerpiece for the new section, he tells me, but once they’d gotten it off the truck and onto the ground, things had been so dry that they hadn’t been able to get the thing to budge. So he had been delighted when it rained because he and his crew (usually his brother Walt and whoever else they can get to volunteer) had finally been able to get the giant stone to slide and had shimmied it, little by little, into precisely the right orientation.
What was the story on this stone—just that, in my eyes, a great round rock with a somewhat flattened top—and why was its orientation so important? This, he tells me, was the rock that used to sit on the edge of a deep swimming hole in the Auglaize River, which runs through our town. My own childhood memories of the river were written a mile or so downstream on the other side of town. But this rock was from a part of the river on the east side, before the Auglaize flows around the big bend and cuts west past the back of downtown. All the kids on his end of town used to use that rock as a kind of landing or diving board, as a place from which to swim. Jim’s aunt, who would later become a swimming instructor, had learned to swim from that rock, and so had he and Walt.
Jim excitedly shows me the initials brother Walt and his friend 
carved into the "swimming stone".
He’s suddenly excited. “Look at this, Dan,” he urges, ushering me over closer to the huge boulder. “These are my brother’s initials, and these are his friend Rick’s,” he says, showing me the letters crudely carved, probably with pocketknives, into the relatively soft surface of the sedimentary stone. Getting the heavy stone set just right in the yard was important, Jim explains, because he wanted it to be oriented exactly as it had been in the river on the edge of the swimming hole. During some recent dredging operation, it had been hauled out of the Auglaize and placed on the bank. Jim decided to grab it before somebody decided bust it up or something.
But there are lots more surprises in this new section of the garden: big blocks of Ohio sandstone culled from the demolition of the Williamson School (torn down before Jim and I, now in our mid-sixties, ever saw the inside of a kindergarten) set like benches near a wrought iron fence that once bordered a local cemetery, and an iron gate from a nearby farm that doubled as a social club during the Prohibition days. My gaze also lands on some elaborate tinwork, of the sort found on the walls and ceilings of high-quality
Jim stands by masonry from the Williamson School and a gate
from a farm that doubled as a roadhouse in Prohibition days. 
architecture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
I get out my reading glasses for a closer look and hear Jim chuckle under his breath as I try to decide what the strange gargoyle-like figure etched in relief in the middle of each tin square might be. “People think it’s a demon,” Jim says, “but it’s not. It’s a vampire! See the little fangs? They’re from Ma McGrady’s house of ill-repute,” he says with apparent pride.
Jim explains that when the oil boom came to the area in the late eighteen hundreds, Ma McGrady’s place did a booming business of its own with oilfield roughnecks. And the city fathers felt it was a good idea to turn a blind eye on the establishment, since its existence meant transient oil people weren’t hanging around town trying to pick up what townsfolk referred to as “decent local girls.” Not surprisingly, however, Jim says, many of the city fathers themselves soon began frequenting the place as did farmers from the surrounding area. And Ma’s position became even more secure thanks to the secrets she guarded. She would eventually become a bit of a local personality.
Tinwork from Ma McGrady's house of ill-repute
When Ma McGrady fell ill in her latter years, it was rumored that the person who had taken the greatest care of her had been a local Lutheran preacher. He had been, the story went, the only person to visit her regularly and to take her nourishing soups and home remedies. Later asked in a rare interview if it was true that the only person to care for her during those dark days had been the preacher, she responded, according to Jim, that “No, he wasn’t the only one...but he was the only one who didn’t ask for anything in return.”
We continue walking together through the maze of stones, pillars, slabs, gates, fences, façade ornaments and millstones—scores, hundreds, maybe thousands of them—but incredibly, each of them with a story of its own. Jim knows them all and every time he recounts them, it’s with the enthusiasm of a first telling. But now the sun’s setting and it’s getting really chilly. As we go up his back steps into the house, I glance at my watch and say, “Hey, what time were we expected for supper?”
It's a vampire!
Evading the answer, Jim says, “Yeah, don’t worry, we’re fine. We’ll go in a minute.”
But inside his incredibly jam-packed museum of a house he sees me glancing at an item on the coffee-table and asks with a grin, “Know what that is?”
Looking at the heavy glass object with a kind of basin molded in the top of it, I say, “An inkwell.”
“Not just any inkwell,” Jim says, “Trotsky’s inkwell.” And so he tells me the amazing story of how he came by this rare piece on a visit to Mexico, where exiled Russian Marxist icon and enemy of Stalin, Leon Trotsky, was murdered in 1940.
In point of fact, Jim admits that when he first got the piece, he had no real way of corroborating its authenticity. But precisely because of how he came to possess it, he was sure in his own mind that it was the real deal. Suffice it to say he didn’t barter for it in a bazaar on some backstreet in Tijuana.
Trotsky and Frida: The inkwell she gave him? 
Typical of Jim, however, he couldn’t let it alone until he was able to find hard evidence and dug through every picture of Trotsky in Mexico that he could find anywhere until he finally came across a rare image of the Marxist ideologue sitting at his desk in the studio where he would ultimately be mortally wounded by Stalinist assassin Ramón Mercader. And there, on his desk, was the inkwell. It’s an interesting piece, not your run-of-the-mill ink bottle, and, according to Jim, a perfect match with the one in the picture he came across in his research. The chances of this not being the same one, then, were slim to none. Jim is further enticed by the probability that this is the same inkwell that Trotsky is rumored to have received as a gift from Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, who, it is also rumored, took Trotsky as her lover for a time.
For Jim, there’s no such thing as an inanimate object. Objects, to his mind, absorb history, sentiments, images, DNA. They tell and keep stories. They are magnets for the business of life! Practically everything in his house bears testimony to this credo. There is almost nothing here that doesn’t have a story behind it.  
“Do you know what this means?” Jim asks me excitedly. “This inkwell was a witness to Trotsky’s assassination!”
And a particularly gruesome assassination at that: Mercader slammed an ice-axe into Trotsky’s skull while his back was turned.
“The inkwell witnessed that,” Jim says. “The killer may even have been reflected in it as he sneaked up behind Trotsky!”
And from the inkwell, we go to his late great-grandmother’s scrapbook that she keep from age eleven until well into her teens, and here Jim summons up all of his incredible storytelling power and for a moment he almost literally turns into a ninety-year-old lady, clutching the precious scrapbook to her breast and proclaiming in a weak and scratchy voice, “I want you to have this, Jim, because I know you’re the only one who will take care of it and keep it safe.” And along with him, as the scrapbook opens, I see the child and the adolescent in this elderly lady come to life again.
It’s as we’re perusing the pages of the scrapbook that our mutual friend calls my cell and says we had better be on our way to her house because if we’re late, everything is going to be a soggy mess.
In the car, on the way to her house, our non-stop dialogue continues and finally Jim says, “Gol-darn-it, Dan, there’s just never enough time.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” I say. “And it seems like there’s less all the time.”

Friday, May 13, 2016


As often happens to free-lancers, for the last couple of months I’ve been very busy. That’s a fact, not an excuse.

But then again, no excuse (or fact) is worthy when it means taking for granted the kindness and loyalty of the people who support you, and one fact that comes home to me every time I check my blog stats is that the readership I’ve gathered for this blog is loyal and kind beyond all logic. The facts speak for themselves: In the past eight years, this blog has burgeoned from a mere handful of readers to peaks of literally thousands of hits for certain particularly popular entries. But what inspires me the most—as well as shames me—is that, during long periods like my latest hiatus, when I fail to publish a single line for  weeks on end, the stats show that a faithful core readership checks in here between six hundred and seven hundred fifty times a month to see what’s new! Furthermore, many of those who find nothing new go back through the index and read pieces they might have missed in the past.
I just want you all to know that I am overwhelmed with gratitude for this, the kindest gesture any writer can ask for—that people are eager to read his/her work. That’s why I decided this week to impose a twice-monthly blog deadline on myself, and I will give those deadlines for The Southern Yankee priority over any other activity, not for the sake of self-discipline, but to reward the extraordinary persistence and loyalty of my readers. That said, as of today, The Southern Yankee will present a new entry, at the very least, on the 13th and 27th of every well as whenever else the spirit moves me to post additional pieces.
When I started this blog in 2008, I really didn’t have very high hopes for it.
For one thing, although I became a professional Internet user very early on, in the mid-nineties, it was out of necessity rather than choice, since I had decided to leave the big city (Buenos Aires), where I’d been making a living in journalism for twenty years, to take up a life that my wife and I had long dreamed of, in the relative wilds on the outskirts of a Patagonian ski resort in the Andes Mountains. Though we had actually wanted to make our new life in an even more remote area, this was as far away as we could get from civilization and still have access to at least barely adequate communications.
The Internet (in a timid dial-up version) arrived, only shortly after we did, through the local electric power cooperative and I was one of the first customers for it. Before that, I had to send work I did for a magazine, a news agency or other publishing operations via fax, first through a telephone exchange five miles away and, a little  later, from my own mountain home, after a long, uphill battle with the phone company—that convincingly reached the office of its president in Buenos Aires, a thousand miles away—until they finally agreed to put up twenty-five posts and string cable over a mile in from the highway along a twisting, climbing mountain lane to my cabin.
So it wasn’t like I was a nerdy Internet enthusiast. On the contrary, everything I learned, and continue to learn, about life on line is basically intuitive and via trial and error, since I have never been able to muster the interest or wherewithal to sit through any sort of course on computing, cybernetics, apps or the Internet per sé. For me, all of that is merely a tool—if an absolutely marvelous one—for sharing my work and my writing with my clients and with the world. And were it not a matter of necessity, I would surely still be writing this on one of several sturdy desk model manual typewriters that I’ve owned over the years.
For another thing, I had no knowledge whatsoever of the effectiveness of the social media in getting out the word about what you’re doing. The fact is that I only joined Facebook and then started a blog to placate a New York writer friend with whom I had worked in Buenos Aires, who was trying to help me find a literary agent and/or publisher for my fiction and non-fiction creative work. His point was a valid one: namely, that I would have to be a really egocentric ninny to think that anyone would remember my days as a Buenos Aires editor, columnist and foreign correspondent when I hadn’t had any serious visibility in the mainstream media for over a decade and a half. Blogging and Facebook were, he insisted, good tools for rebuilding my writing reputation after years of anonymous editing, research and translating.
So, applying a strategy called “controlled folly”, as suggested by brilliant if controversial writer Carlos Castaneda, I set out to write a blog, and the first article was on the subject of precisely the question I’d been wrestling with: Why blog?  (  My answer, sifted through Castaneda’s sieve of the ridiculous, was the same as that of John Updike, who was quoted in that first entry: Why not?
At first, it was just a matter of getting the material out there. Having a blog gave me an “excuse” to write for myself instead just for hire. It challenged me to come up not only with new topics, new angles, new creative ideas, but also to revisit old memories and issues that had haunted me for years. It further challenged me to dig long lost manuscripts out of their hiding places in drawers, closets and disused briefcases and re-read them with a judiciously self-critical eye to see whether they were truly the serious works I’d thought they were when I wrote them or if they were, in the end, no more than random doodles of little or no value.
And so I started publishing. At first, practically no one read my blog. But I was also learning the ropes of communicating through Facebook and once I figured out how to post a link to the blog, things started looking up. Having written, back in the day, for a daily paper with a readership in the tens of thousands, and having been a stringer for major mass circulation newspapers and magazines in the US and Britain, the paltry early results of blogging seemed hardly worth the effort. But like a novice writer, despite a thirty-five-year career as a wordsmith, I found myself beaming when I would check my stats and see that a piece in my blog had gotten fifty or sixty hits. And when I started getting my first comments from readers, I was ecstatic. Why? Because this was all mine—the ideas, the words, the medium, the writing and, above all, the readers.
In short, I just want to say a heartfelt “thank you” to all of you for reading me, for identifying with what I write, for telling me how you feel both here and in Facebook, for taking the trouble to register as regular Followers of this blog, and for giving me the key element every writer needs to keep turning out stories and ideas: a faithful and responsive readership.
Many thanks, and I’ll see you here every 13th and 27th from now on.

Monday, February 15, 2016


The following is an excerpt from Chapter Two of the autobiographical book I’m currently writing, entitled Voices in the Storm: A Journalist’s Memoir, about my early days in Buenos Aires.
Virginia (left) partying with exchange student friends at Bowling 
Green University. Why would she want to leave to be an 
Army wife?
By the time Virginia arrived in LA for spring break, it all seemed so clear to me that I took it for granted she would feel exactly the same as I did. I was so sure of this, that I almost figured I’d pick her up at the airport one day and marry her the next. When I drove to LA International in the Ford Bronco I’d borrowed for the occasion from my Army buddy Dave Zeiss—my car, a ’63 Chevrolet Nova 400 I’d bought the year I was at Ohio State, had remained back in Ohio with my little brother—we were, as always, overwhelmed to see each other, and so much in love that it was a feeling not unlike hunger. But as soon as I brought up the subject of marriage, she said we had to talk. She wasn’t all that sure that Door Number Two was that great of an idea right now. She had a full scholarship to the university! That wasn’t something you just threw away. And how would we live on what I was making in the Army? And what would happen to her if they sent me someplace overseas where she couldn’t go? Besides, if she left school, she’d lose her student visa. Then what?
Reception for 4 at Shakey's Pizza and a couple of 
days of sightseeing around LA. That was our 
honeymoon. But I was ecstatic.
Without having any idea what I was talking about, I told her that all of these things would work themselves out. Love would will out. Everything was going to be okay, nothing to worry about. Besides, who could know the future? If we were this much in love, shouldn’t our first priority be finding a way to be together and let everything else take care of itself?
Eventually, after much talking, she agreed. We were wed at the LA County Courthouse. An Army buddy of mine and his wife were our witnesses, and the only guests at our “reception”: lunch at Shakey’s Pizza, a place that had a great pepperoni pizza and a palatable dark draft, and that showed classic silent movies on the wall of the dining room all day long. It wasn’t much, but it was the best we could afford.
Marching in LA with the 72nd Army Band. I'm the one with 
the bass drum. 
Our all-consuming love for each other was about all we had that first year with the Army, living in LA—in the port district of San Pedro, actually—on my Spec 4's pay. I was paid a hundred and sixty dollars a month and our rent for a rundown apartment was a hundred and twenty, so that marriage and the pittance paid me for “dependent support” was almost a survival move. Still, we were together, getting to know each other more intimately, and everything we did together seemed special—the breakfast rolls we bought from the local Italian bakery, the ninety-nine-cent bottles we selected from the “wines of the world” basket at the grocery, walks together at Royal Palms on Western Avenue,  on oil-stained Cabrillo Beach at the mouth of the Port of LA, or in Averill Park on Dodson Avenue, and the occasional carry-out pizza from Nuncio’s, where when you called in an order, it was Nuncio himself who answered the phone and always ended by saying, “Sheeza ready tenna minute.”  I gave percussion lessons after work at a place called The Grey Institute of Music to help make ends meet. It was a difficult but romantic year, in which we played grown-ups and visited friends and had friends visit us as a married couple, and saved what we could, despite our poverty, for the occasional luxury. Like when we put a jar on the nightstand in our bedroom and tossed in whatever coins we had at the end of the day, until it was full. All totaled, about ten bucks in pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters, enough to dress up and go out to a little Italian place in San Pedro for spaghetti and a couple of glasses of house claret, a meal that still sticks in my mind today as an uncommon event.
On leave from the Army in Buenos Aires, here with Virginia's 
mother Teresa and sister Alicia in December of 1971.
But for making it through that first hard year with our love intact, for our second year of marriage we got a treat: The Army sent us to Europe. Before I shipped out, however, I took thirty days leave and Virginia and I went to Buenos Aires for a visit, my second to her city. After that, I was more convinced than ever that, someday, I wanted to spend a lot more time there. General Alejandro Lanusse was president and the country was breathing a new and vibrant feeling of impending freedom following the rigid dictatorship that Onganía had imposed. Lanusse was a military moderate who was in charge of planning for future elections. He was walking the jagged edge between promoting a return to constitutional democracy and finding a way to leave Perón and Peronism out of the mix. And doing it all in the face of the rising violence bred by leftwing and neo-Peronist guerrillas who were rendering Buenos Aires a dangerous place for multinational business executives and local military officers. It would be, clearly, a democracy dependent on the permission of the Armed Forces and extorted from the military through armed terrorist violence, but a sort of fledgling democracy all the same—and, with the glaring exception of a Peronism led by Perón, a highly pluralistic one, with over a score of parties participating, some of them branches of Peronism by another name.
In a palace coup, moderate General Lanusse (right) replaced
hard-line General Onganía (left) as President.
Largely ignorant of these details at that time, however, what it all meant to me was a feeling of renewed vigor and vibrancy in the city, and I basked in those thirty days of military leave, pretending I was already living in that European-style metropolis and that I was a civilian again. It felt, for all the world, like a dream come true. And the welcome I got from Virginia’s friends and family was even more heart-warming than on my first visit three years earlier. Now I was part of the family, a brother, a son, a full-fledged friend to be embraced and integrated into the fold.
The only sour note was provided by the United States Consulate. Wanting to make sure that my new bride’s legal status in the United States was taken care of before returning to California to pack and receive my orders for the trip to Germany, I took Virginia with me one morning to the consulate’s offices that were then downtown, and was almost immediately dissuaded of the old myth that if an alien marries an American, he or she is immediately given a green card. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
Virginia on the California coast. It didn't matter that she
was married to a soldier. If she wanted a green card, she had 
to leave the USA and petition to get back in.
It quickly became clear that this was a complex process that would take, not days, but months. In the meantime, if she was no longer going to the university, her student visa would automatically expire. She would, in any case, have to leave the United States and petition from abroad to be let back in, if she was to be granted a green card—subject, of course, to presentation of all pertinent documentation and to the outcome of our interviews with consular officials.
The more they talked to us—in that superior, we-have-the-pan-by-the-handle tone that consular officials are wont to take—the angrier I got and at one point a vice consul and I were arguing so loudly that a couple of Marine embassy guards came over and stood behind the vice consul staring fixedly at me as if to say that they would like nothing better than to bounce my Army ass onto the sidewalk outside, so better I lower my voice a notch.
“Look,” I said, “I’m serving in the Armed Forces, I only have thirty days leave and we have to resolve this before I go back because they’re shipping me overseas.”
The vice consul, who looked to be only a couple of years older than I was and fresh out of college, set his jaw and shrugged. “Sorry, rules are rules. She’ll have to petition for re-entry. She can do it from here, or, if it’s more convenient for you, from Mexico, some place closer to your base. But she’ll have to go through the entire process, like any other alien. There are no exceptions for the dependents of Armed Forces personnel.”
“She’s not my dependent,” I said. “She’s my wife. And she goes where I go.” Again he shrugged, as if to say, “So what are you going to do, desert? Because she’s not going anywhere without my say-so.”
Virginia on the German-Austrian border: She wasn't about to 
wait around on the US Consulate. She went to the Germans and 
a visa in a week. 
And so we began The Process—a little like death by a thousand cuts—by which foreigners must thoroughly humiliate themselves in order to (perhaps, if the shave-tail vice consul on duty so decides) eventually, almost arbitrarily, merit a green card. There was no word from the consulate by the time my leave was up, and, once again, we were separated, as I was forced to return to LA alone and leave her waiting for her visa in Buenos Aires.
A wise and resourceful big-city girl, however, Virginia wasn’t about to sit around waiting for Uncle Sam to decide her future. She simply went to the German Embassy in Buenos Aires and asked for a temporary residence visa there. And almost immediately, they gave her one. Amazed at her success, she asked a helpful German consular official why it was so easy to get a visa from them when her husband’s own consulate was making things so complicated.
“Vee don’t know,” the man said. “Vee are not Amerikan, vee are Cherman.”
In the end, I arrived in Germany in late January and Virginia was there by mid-February, minus her green card but with a shiny new German visa stamp in her passport. When did her green card finally come through? It arrived about a month or so before we were shipped back to the States, after my fourteen-month tour of duty in Germany was up.
Luckily, there’s more than one way to skin a consular geek.
On tour with the 30th Army Band in Europe.
Army bands don't do much. And I made Spec 5 (sergeant’s pay) fast, so my salary wasn't bad by the European standards of those times. We did concert tours and then got a lot of compensatory time off. As newlyweds, Virginia and I made the best of it, traveling, seeing the sites, hanging out weekends in Paris and Heidelberg, using comp time to visit Switzerland, France, Italy and Monaco, reading everything we could get our hands on and enjoying life thoroughly. Except for having to wear my hair short and dress up in my soldier suit a few times a week, I might have been just another bohemian writer and musician, on the lam in Europe. I was writing short stories and playing with a little jazz group on the side. The sort of life you get use to fast.
On the lam in Paris.
Then my tour of duty was up and it was back to Ohio. After living what could only be described as a free-wheeling lifestyle in Europe (and living it as a musician and writer), Ohio seemed less than attractive. This was especially true for Virginia, who quickly found herself being treated—in a part of the country then unaccustomed to seeing so-called Hispanics (in fact, she is of Italian descent on both sides of her family)—as an “alien”, something that had never been the case in Europe or in her days as an exchange student, when she was treated as “a guest”. And as I say, it also wasn't made better by the fact that, while I had been away “at war”, the steel and automotive belt of northern Ohio and Michigan had fast been turning into “the rust belt”. The Vietnam War was winding down after a decade of providing support to the American economy. 
Feeding the gulls in Monaco. Except for the Army, 
a generally bohemian life. Ohio was a return to 
cruel reality.
Formerly accustomed to playing four to six nights a week in house bands at posh night clubs, I came home to a cruel recession in which there were no longer any steady gigs for musicians. So, it was back to one-night stands, weddings and VFW dances on weekends, and whatever work I could get during the week—loading dock and maintenance hand, then department-store carpet salesman for Montgomery Ward, and finally, shoe clerk at K-Mart. To make matters worse, Virginia was terribly homesick and depressed, and loathed the only job she could get as an administrative clerk in the cardiac care ward of a Catholic hospital. Neither of us had the money to go back to school, not even with the help of the GI Bill.
So that was how, on a certain morning in the summer of 1973, I found myself in the midst of a panic attack, struggling for breath at the wheel of my VW, and quickly decided on my next move.
When I arrived home that evening I turned to Virginia and said: “Hey, what do you say we go to your country for a year?”
She looked at me as if I had gone completely insane and said: “What are you going to do in Buenos Aires? You can't even speak Spanish!”
“I'll learn,” I said, and within a month, we had sold our Spartan houseware items, furniture and car, and were heading south.

Sunday, January 31, 2016


The following is an excerpt from Chapter Two of the autobiographical book I’m currently writing, entitled Voices in the Storm: A Journalist’s Memoir, about my early days in Buenos Aires.
But first a little background. In 1970, the US government came up with a new method of drafting soldiers for the Vietnam War. It was a lottery system in which young men’s destiny was decided by the spin of a drum. I was in famous company that year, since the birthdays of Oliver Stone, Sylvester Stallone and Donald Trump were also in that drum, although nobody knew who they were, or whom they’d be, back then.
That year 195 out of 365 birthdays of boys who were soon to be men were drawn to receive letters from the President “inviting them” to serve their country in the Army or Marines (not a choice but an assignment, although the vast majority went to the Army). Oliver Stone’s day was drawn 113th, but by the time his number came up, young Oliver had already joined the regular Army and volunteered for combat duty in Vietnam, where he was twice wounded and earned serious credentials as a combat infantryman. Sly Stallone, who would first taste fame as a motion picture boxing hero, but who would grow even more famous by playing a highly decorated but disenfranchised Vietnam vet who takes his fight to everybody who ever disrespected an Army veteran, spent a couple of years teaching soccer in Switzerland at the height of the draft. But he wouldn’t have had to, since his number came up 327. Nor did The Donald’s daddy have to buy him out of the draft (though I have little doubt his son would have asked him to) because his birthday was drawn 356th (this, for anyone who wonders just how much luck has played a role in making the man a billionaire who had the gall to question former Vietnam War POW John McCain’s heroism).
As for me...I came up No. 43 and there was no way I wasn’t getting drafted.
I hope you enjoy this latest chapter and look forward to your comments.

I struggled through a year of music education studies at Ohio State—although I really majored more in beer-drinking, hanging out in the library and sitting around in cafés writing short stories—discovered I was a lot more interested in literature and writing than I was in being a high school band director, and dropped out “to travel for a while”. A new lottery system had just been introduced for drafting cannon fodder. There were three hundred sixty-six birth dates in a drum. Low numbers went to war. High numbers got a pass. How unlucky could I be?
How unlucky, you ask? My birthday came up forty-third out of three hundred sixty-six. There was no way I wasn't getting drafted. So I talked to a recruiting sergeant in Lima, Ohio, who made an appointment for me to try out for the Army Bands. Bright and early one morning that same week, I drove across the Ohio line into Indiana and auditioned for the warrant officer commanding the band at Fort Benjamin Harrison near Indianapolis. I was immediately accepted and went back to the recruiter in Lima to sign up for three years, with a one-year guaranteed posting to the band in Los Angeles, once I had completed Basic and Advanced Training. The better part of Year One I spent, first, in Basic Combat Training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina (home of the Eighty-Second Airborne, as we were reminded daily) and then at the Army Element of the Navy School of Music in Little Creek, Virginia. (I guess they had read their Clemenceau—or their Groucho Marx—and didn’t trust the Army to have a music school of its own).
There, I was one of a scant two hundred dog-faced soldiers on a base populated by some five thousand sailors and Marines (or squids and jarheads as we more familiarly knew them), and I ended up learning a lot more about hand to hand combat in the local watering holes than I had in Basic Training. Survival Rule Number One around a base that was a training ground for amphibious assault forces was, whenever a fight breaks out, hit whoever stands in your way with whatever you can pick up and get the hell out while you can still run. Though it seemed senseless and stupid at the time, it turned out to be great preparation for a lot of other potentially dangerous situations in my life later on.    
Meanwhile, Virginia had returned to Ohio from Buenos Aires on scholarship to Bowling Green State University. My first regular posting, as per my recruitment contract, was to be to the 72nd Army Band at Fort MacArthur in Los Angeles, four hours from Ohio by jet. But at the School of Music, I “accelerated out” of the seven-month training program by passing a couple of tests with flying colors and by knowing my left foot from my right when I marched. As a result, despite my brief time in grade as a Private First Class, I was given a meritorious promotion to Specialist 4 (same pay grade as a corporal) and, because of my former civilian day job as a musical instrument salesman, was given a posting in Instrument Issue.
It was a cushy job—in addition to playing with the school’s symphonic and marching bands and pulling occasional guard duty. The “staff” in Instrument Issue consisted of just myself and a Navy petty officer first class called Nelson. Our task was to order, repair and issue instruments for the school. We were only loosely supervised as long as we did our job and got our reports and inventories in on time, so we also managed to get in some fishing on Chesapeake Bay and to make some extra money on the side with odd (really odd) jobs Nelson came up with—like installing stage curtains in school auditoriums and theaters in the Norfolk area. We had most weekends free and regularly got three-day liberties. This meant that, in the seven months I was there, I often flew military standby back to Ohio to visit Virginia. As a result, I got to thinking this was where I wanted to stay “for the duration”, since the only places closer to home were the base in Indiana where I’d auditioned and Fort Hayes in Columbus, Ohio, where I’d been inducted. The first one, alas, didn’t have an opening for me and the second didn’t have an Army Band. I mentioned in passing to Nelson that I wouldn’t mind staying on at Little Creek. He mentioned it to his chief, who, in turn, mentioned it to Commander Adcock, the CO of the entire School of Music.
The Naval School of Music at Little Creek VA
As a result, Mr. Adcock called me into his office one day and asked me pointblank if I’d like to stay there for the rest of my enlistment. I said that I would be delighted. He said, “Too bad you didn’t enlist in the Navy, son, but, don’t worry, we’ll make a sailor of you yet. I’ll talk to the Army and get new orders cut for you. Consider yourself hired.”
A few days later, however, our top NCO, Command Sergeant Major Janenco, saw me walking past the door of his office on the way to Instrument Issue and bellowed, “Newland! Front and center!” I backed up to his office door and stuck my head in. “Yes, Top?”
“Come on in, Newland. Sit down,” he said.
“What’s up, Sergeant Major?”
“Tell me, did you have some kind of run in with the Old Man?” He was talking about Captain Lindsey, who was head of the Army Element of the School of Music and my direct commanding officer.
“No, Top,” I said. “I don’t think I’ve ever said anything more than ‘good morning, Sir’ to him and he ‘as you were’ to me.”
Janenco shook his well-cropped bull’s head, rubbed a meaty paw over his big red face, in a perplexed gesture, and said, “Well something’s sure as hell up because he’s madder than a wet hornet. Said you’ve got forty-eight hours to get the fuck off of his base or he’ll send the MPs for your ass…I’m quoting here, son.”
“Oh wait,” I said. “This must have something to do with the change of orders.”
“Come again, Newland?”
“Yes, Mr. Adcock called me in and asked if I wanted to stay here in Instrument Issue instead of going to Fort MacArthur like my recruitment contract says.”
“He what?” Janenco looked dumbfounded. “And you said?”
“I said yes, Sergeant Major. I like it here.” This last was an ironic phrase often used by non-lifer types like myself and responded to the explicit orders of top NCOs like Janenco, who were forever commanding, “You will do this and you will like it!” 
“In case you hadn’t noticed, trooper,” he said, without raising his voice, “Commander Adcock’s in the Navy, and as far as I can tell, those greens you’re wearing are still Army-fucking-issue. You’ve created a veritable cluster fuck here, son. Your answer should have been, ‘I respectfully request time to get permission of my CO.’ That would have been smart, but you obviously had your head up your rectum at the time.”
“Well, I meant no harm, Top,” I said. “Maybe I could apologize to Captain Lindsey?”
“Too late for that, son.”
“So what do I do?”
“Get the hell off the base, like the man said. I’ll take care of the captain.”
“Where do I go? I’ve got no leave or orders.”
“Go home.”
“To Ohio?”
“Well, yes, if that’s home, goddamnit. I’ll cut you some special leave orders and get you some travel money. Leave me your home address and number. We’ll send you your new orders there. Just pray they’re not for Nam or the Korean DMZ.”  
Though I worried myself silly about what the notoriously vindictive Captain Lindsey had in store for me, however, when the orders arrived, they were for my original assignment in LA and I ended up having two weeks extra leave in Ohio before going. It was around Christmas time and I spent as much of it as I could visiting Virginia. This made parting all the more intense, since, for the purposes of our relationship, Virginia might as well have been back in Buenos Aires or I in Vietnam. Ironically, Virginia was the real reason I had quit school, with the idea of saving some money and going back to South America, where, I fancied, I would write an exotic novel or two, full of suspense and intrigue, and become an instant bestselling success. Now here she was, a stone’s throw from home and the Army had me traveling all over the United States. 
Fort Mac, as it was familiarly known
I arrived in Los Angeles in early January—dressed in the scratchy wool winter greens and heavy Army-issue overcoat I’d worn against a sub-zero chill when I took my plane in Dayton, only to find that it was sunny and eighty degrees in LA—got processed in and immediately started getting re-acclimatized to barracks life. But I was miserable.
The band rehearsed in the morning when we didn’t have a gig, such as playing for naturalization ceremonies held downtown at the Civic Center or for the myriad awards ceremonies held to honor the soldiers whose bodies were being repatriated from Vietnam. But afternoons and evenings, when we didn’t have parades, awards ceremonies, military cocktails or special events to play for (General of the Army Omar Bradley’s seventy-eighth birthday celebration, a campaign shindig with Vice-President Spiro Agnew at the Beverly Hilton, a garden party at President Nixon’s private residence in San Clemente, etc.), dragged endlessly for us barracks rats who lived on base in the same World War II-issue building we worked in and didn’t have wives or families to go home to after the workday was through.
I read and wrote a lot and practiced my instruments. I even volunteered—something soldiers always warn each other not to do—for special duty, as assistant to the band librarian. He was a hilariously zany and often hysterical Spec-5, who, in the days of strict don’t-ask-don’t-tell, was the “confirmed bachelor” of the barracks and ranking NCO when the Old Man, the Top (a master sergeant of World War II vintage), our one sergeant first class and our four staff sergeants went home to their off-base housing at night. I also took over from another Spec-4 like myself as Day Clerk (basically the CO’s secretary), when my predecessor was discharged at the end of his three-year tour. That job tended to keep me off of kitchen and guard duty, which was why I took it. And then too, like all soldiers, once I made a few buddies, we found other pursuits to while away the time, most of which had to do with drinking and trying to keep down (often unsuccessfully) huge quantities of beer, while shooting pool, eating pizza, burgers and Mexican, tooling around in the car of whoever had one and generally making a nuisance of ourselves in places whose owners were always less than thrilled to see a carload of GI-looking guys walking in.  Some of us even camped in the desert together a couple of times and attended a drunken going-away bash at a beautiful house in Canyon Country, owned by the folks of a well-to-do fellow bandsman who was being re-assigned to Saigon for his last fourteen months in the Army.
But none of it could take my mind off of how much I missed Virginia. I called her when I had the money to, and when I didn’t, I wrote. My letters were melancholy and single-minded. All I could talk about was how much I missed her and loved her and how much I hated the Army for keeping me away from her. Hers, on the other hand, were full of news about school and the friends she had made and her studies. Despite being head over heels in love with her, I was vaguely irritated that she didn’t seem to be nearly as devastated and miserable as I was about our parting. But then again, it was only natural. She was having the time of her life, on her own as a college girl, while I was giving up three years to the Army because that was my only practical choice. She might have loved me, but she hadn’t been dropped on her head as a child. Door Number One: A full scholarship to study at a fun-time American university. Door Number Two: Tie your wagon to a soldier with no resources of his own and a paycheck for a hundred sixty dollars a month and move to the working class neighborhood adjacent to the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro. Which door will it be?

Still, after several months of writing her letters and wondering how things in my life could have gotten so fouled up, I finally half-talked Virginia into coming out to California for Easter Break. One night, I called her at ten o’clock California time, forgetting that, back in Ohio, it was two in the morning. I told her I’d been thinking about it a lot and that I wanted to be with her no matter what, that, stuck in the Army for another two years, I knew I had nothing to offer her, but that I couldn’t stand the separation any more. In return, she asked me if I had any idea what time it was. I apologized, but pushed for an answer: Would she come out to California on spring break and marry me? She said we’d talk later, that right now, her roommate was trying to sleep. “Just say yes and I’ll hang up,” I bargained.
“Okay, okay, I’ll think about it,” she said. And contented, I hung up. Turning to my buddy, Dave Zeiss, who was waiting for me outside the public phone booth in the company street near the barracks, I said, “Congratulate me! I’m engaged!” We were both a little drunk at the time, but he knew I was serious.
The barracks at Fort Mac were WWI and WWII vintage
I only screwed up the courage to ask Virginia to drop everything and marry me—what did I have to offer her, after all?—following yet another (literally) earth-shaking event: the February 9, 1971, San Fernando Valley earthquake. It was a Tuesday morning. Formation wouldn’t be for another two hours and we barracks rats were still fast asleep at 6 a.m. when the earth moved. In my case, I felt a rhythmic shaking of my bunk, as if someone were rocking it, rather roughly, to try and wake me up. Muttering, “What the fuck!” I sat up to see my seven-foot-tall, olive-drab, sheet metal locker “walking” side to side across my cubicle toward me. I hopped out of bed and, as soon as I stood, felt dizzy and nauseous. Gathering my footing, I groped my way out of the cubicle, hanging onto its door frame, to see the other ten or so troops who lived there with me also peering in alarm from their cubicles.
“It’s an earthquake!” cried Spec 5 Don Knot, who occupied the NCO quarters at the east end of the upstairs bay. He was standing in his Army-issue white boxers and t-shirt in the doorway to his room with a hand gripping each side of the jamb, against which his feet were planted at the bottom. As I watched, that doorway twisted side to side around him, going alternately out of and back into square, as if a giant were trying to wrest it apart. I would later reflect that we were quite possibly saved by the fact that ours was an old World War II barracks, made of wood, with open beam and rafter construction that flexed and absorbed the shock of the 6.6 intensity quake without collapsing. But right now, it sounded like it was about to fall down around our ears as it creaked and groaned and squeaked and pitched.
Like a drunk on the deck of a small ship in heavy seas, I weaved and lurched my way to the far end of the barracks to peer out of the big windows there. As I reached them, one of the panes cracked before my eyes. Our barracks was situated behind a tall, government-issue, chain-link fence less than fifty feet from a wide rectangular swath of water that formed part of the Port of Los Angeles. On the side opposite ours, I could see by the lights on the pier how a huge gray Navy cruiser anchored in its berth rocked like a baby’s crib, tugging at the thick cords of rope tethering it fast to the concrete pier. From my second-storey vantage point—our rehearsal hall and offices were on the ground floor and we barracks rats bunked upstairs—I could look down on the little wooden hut that the LA Fire Department frogmen had down below a concrete retaining wall, right on the waterfront, beneath our building. A couple of the divers were outside in their skivvies, watching how their tiny shack trembled on its foundation. At one point, I could actually see the shockwaves rolling under the blacktop in the parking lot, making the surface flex slightly under the glow of the orange sodium streetlights that were still on at that gray pre-dawn hour.
The shaking seemed to go on forever. In reality, it lasted for one full minute. Certainly long enough for panic to set in. Now, down below, I could see the rest of the barracks rats scrambling out of the building onto the parking lot tarmac to wait the quake out there. But I remained where I was, gripping the window frame, fascinated yet scared half to death. I knew that if I lived through this, it was an event I would remember forever. I turned to see if anyone else had remained behind and saw that only one other guy had: a strange young fellow called Paul Riser, a PFC who kept to himself and always seemed a little cracked. If you talked to him long enough, though, you realized that his vagueness and oddity were drug-induced, a product of the California LSD and “hash” culture of the day. Now, he was standing in the main doorway of the dormitory bay. He smiled a strange, panicky, half-sick smile at me and raised his index finger to draw an imaginary square around himself, as if to show me that, standing there in the doorway, he was in a protected zone, a magical rectangle in which he couldn’t be harmed. It was a gesture as deliberate as that of a priest bestowing a blessing with the sign of the cross. Protected or not, however, that same morning, Paul dashed up the hill to the post command building and volunteered to go to Vietnam. When we asked him why he would do something that idiotic, he said, “Man, this place is doomed. Any day now, it’s gonna break off and fall into the ocean. I’ll take my chances in Viet-fucking-Nam.”
Though PFC Riser’s reaction may have seemed a little extreme to most of us, the main quake and its five major aftershocks were enough to make us all think about how nature could simply flick you off of the face of the earth, like a fly off of a pile of cow dung. Sixty-five people died that morning as a result of the tremor. Two hospitals were destroyed—one of them a VA facility, where some of our comrades in arms were interned. A picture in the LA Times showed how the upper two floors of one of the medical centers had turned to rubble and sifted down in a pile over the ground floor. The other hospital building shifted more than a foot off of its foundation, causing the ground floor to lean over and collapse like a house of cards. Damage to the bulwark of the Lower Van Norman Dam brought a panicky order to evacuate forty thousand people living beneath it in the San Fernando Valley. Two freeway overpasses also caved in. A lot of the married guys in the band did the commute to formation each day. None of us could help thinking how many more people might have died had the quake happened an hour or two later. Anybody listening to 93 KHJ Radio at that early hour heard popular DJ Charlie Tuna say that he’d had “a shaky feeling” after a dream he’d had earlier that morning. In the middle of the side he flipped onto the turntable right after that, he proved himself clairvoyant, as the quake struck and everybody was having that shaky feeling right along with Charlie T. 
After that experience, I felt genuinely shaken up, much in the same way I had after the car accident that Virginia and I had been in two years earlier. Much too, as I had been during Basic Combat Training when the hand to hand techniques, the bayonet training, the hours of practice on the rifle and quick-kill ranges started making sense, when  it really dawned on me that this wasn’t all some game, that when my year in LA was through, Uncle Sam might well send me to a combat zone. In my head I could still hear the voice of the drill sergeant singing the cadence as we marched:

“And if I die in a combat zone,
Box me up and send me home…”

It was a typical taunting couplet filled with a drill instructor’s sardonic humor, but it was also a reality. You went where they sent you and, sometimes, shit happened. It had happened to a high school friend called Mike Oen. Killed by small arms fire on June 4, 1970. If I die in a combat zone / box me up and ship me home… Back in our home town, I had attended his funeral, in full dress uniform, when I was there on leave right out of Basic. Mike had been twenty years old.
Wait to get out of the Army? Wait to finish school afterward? Wait for Virginia to graduate? Maybe that would have been the “smart” thing to do. Maybe it was what my parents would have counseled me to do. But what if none of that ever happened? What if we never again got the chance to be together? My mother and father had faced these same questions in World War II and wouldn’t have followed their own advice either. They hadn’t chosen “smart”. They had chosen each other.