The Good Lord Willing and the Creek Don't Rise: Pentimento Memories of Mom and Me
(can be viewed online by clicking on titles)
The Many Roads to Japan
(free online version for ESL/EFL teachers and students)
(Some portions of this book are adapted from my novel Looking for the Summer)
John Banks, like all the young men of his generation, had to register for the draft when he turned 18. After John's senior year in high school the draft was carried out through a lottery system based on the individual's birthday. As it later turned out, John's was one of the first numbers picked.
John did not want to be drafted and face the prospect of ending up on the front lines of the Vietnam War. The thought of killing another human being repulsed him. A viable alternative seemed to be in joining the Air Force or Navy. He paid a visit to the local Air Force recruiter, who guaranteed John would never have to carry a weapon. John joined the Air Force in September 1969.
He knew he had made a mistake the day he arrived with a group of other enlistees for six weeks of basic training at Lackland Air Force Base outside of San Antonio, Texas. It was a lonely and arduous time, but somehow he survived the constant screaming of the drill instructors, the hours of marching, the physical conditioning in the desert heat, the training in the use of weapons, the barracks inspections, the scrubbing of toilets and floors, the tasteless food, and the classrooms where the soldiers were inculcated into obedience and conformity. For the first time in his life, John was exposed to young men from all over the nation, each with his own particular prejudices and dialect and mannerisms.
Near the end of basic training he was given his job assignment order. He would be trained as a military policeman. He had to remain at Lackland Air Base for ten more weeks of specialized training. The hand of irony had played a dirty trick. He had joined the Air Force with the idea he would not have to carry a weapon, but now he was to be trained in the art of combat and the use of deadly weapons. He passed through his training without incident, but during this period of time there grew within John an inchoate attitude of rebelliousness.
From Lackland he was transferred to Beale Air Base near Sacramento, California, where he began his job of guarding B-52 bombers that were so huge they seemed like gigantic prehistoric birds of prey. Thus began his days and nights of walking in lonely circles on the flight line in the heat and rain, thinking, changing, growing, wondering what the purpose of his life was.
John began thinking seriously about Vietnam for the first time. He had a gut feeling that the war was wrong. He began listening to the words instead of just the melodies of popular songs by Bob Dylan and the many others who were protesting the war. He also began to read the underground newspapers that were finding their way onto the base. These papers were filled with anti-war and anti-government stories about the atrocities committed in Vietnam, the Kent State shootings, the Presidio Mutiny, and the hysteria running rampant on college campuses around the country.
Eventually John's order to go to Southeast Asia came and he was given 30 days of leave before having to report to a base in Texas for a month of intensive war training. From there he would be sent to a base in northern Thailand near the Cambodian border. The war at this time had been escalated (illegally many believed) into Cambodia, where B-52 bombers were dropping tons of napalm and Agent Orange. When he left Beale Air Base for the start of his 30-day leave, John knew he would never make it to Texas.
For two weeks he did much soul searching. He had only three options: follow his order and go fight in a war he believed was wrong, run away to Canada, or go back to his air base and apply for conscientious objector status and probably go to prison. He chose the third option.
John returned to Beale Air Base. It amazed John how easy it was to check back onto the base without anyone questioning why he had returned instead of going to Texas. He was told to stay in the transient barracks until he received a work assignment. He had no idea how to apply for conscientious objector status, so he began just hanging out at the gymnasium, playing basketball, and going to movies at the base theater in the evenings.
One day about three weeks after returning to the base John ran into David Yavitz, another security policeman who asked John what he was doing back on the base. They went for a drive and John, feeling relieved to have someone finally take notice of him, confessed everything. David told John that he too was involved in the underground movement against the war and was writing for an anti-war newspaper being printed secretly off base in Yuba City by a man who had been discharged just two months before.
Over the next few days John found himself involved with a group of five other airmen stationed at the base, each of them in his last few months of military service. All were opposed to the war and were actively spreading anti-war propaganda around the base. They spent many hours together discussing pacifism, Gandhi, Thoreau, and the duty of civil disobedience. They were supportive of John's belief and encouraged him to go to the legal department to find out what his rights were and to set his conscientious objector application into motion before it was too late. It would not be long before the base clerks discovered he had not followed his order to go to Southeast Asia. John was told he should see a lawyer named Jerry Turnbull, who was said to be sympathetic to the anti-war movement.
Jerry Turnbull was very interested in John's case. Jerry told John that he had spent eight years of school studying to become a lawyer. When he was drafted he considered going to Canada, but decided he could work better from within the system rather than throw away his career and those eight years of schooling. After asking John about the details concerning when John had returned to the base and what he had said to the clerks and other security police, Jerry said he thought John had a chance to successfully receive conscientious objector status.
They worked very hard together to set into motion John's application for conscientious objector status. Jerry set up a series of meetings and interviews with a variety of officers and military chaplains who asked John many questions to determine if John's beliefs and feelings were sincere. Before each of these interviews, Jerry counseled John on how to answer the questions.
John's commanding officer found out about what John was doing. The commanding officer wanted to make an example of John to the other soldiers. He did not want any more soldiers to refuse to go to war. He called John into his office. John felt as if he were a captured enemy soldier undergoing interrogation. In front of many witnesses the commanding officer threatened John with a court martial and five years in prison. He demanded John tell why he had changed, who the people were who had influenced him, where they lived, if he was part of some organization, and if he was connected with the filthy communist newspaper spreading propaganda around the base.
John gave only vague answers to all the questions. The commanding officer, frustrated and incensed, gave up his line of questioning and formally gave John the final order to go to war. John's answer to the order was: "I don't feel I'm mentally or physically able to go."
John was charged with the military crime of willful disobedience to a direct lawful order. The maximum punishment for this crime was five years of hard labor in a military prison. It was also possible he would be given a dishonorable discharge. The court martial was scheduled for October 8, 1970.
The court martial took an entire day to complete. Many witnesses were questioned by both the prosecution and defense attorneys. John was called to the stand. There were no questions from the prosecuting attorney. Jerry asked the questions they had rehearsed many times. The words flowed from John's mouth in a mechanical stream, quotations from famous pacifists and resisters to the procession of history's wars. At the end of the questioning, John was given the chance to make a final statement.
He said, "My belief that the war in Vietnam, or any war, is wrong will not change. My conscience will never allow me to participate in any form of war. My feelings are the same as those of Eugene Debs.
"Eugene Debs said, 'I am accused of having obstructed the war, of being unpatriotic. I object to that accusation. It is not true. I believe in patriotism. I have never uttered a word against the flag. I love the flag as a symbol of freedom. I believe, however, in a wider patriotism.
"'Thomas Paine once said that his country was the world and to do good was his religion. That is the sort of patriotism I believe in. I am an Internationalist. I believe that nations have been pitted against nations long enough in hatred, in strife, in warfare. I believe there ought to be a bond of unity between all these nations. I believe the human race consists of one great family. I love the people of this country, but I don't hate a human being because he happens to be born in some other country. Why should I? Like myself, he is the image of his Creator. I would infinitely rather serve him and love him than to hate him and kill him. Thank you very much.'"
John rose from the stand feeling dizzy. A wave of emotion and relief swept over him. He had never been as nervous in his entire life. Jerry smiled at him. The court martial was over. The court recessed for the judge to come to a decision. An hour later the judge emerged from a grey and dingy room and called John before him. The judge said John was innocent of the charge of willful disobedience to a direct lawful order, but guilty of the lesser military crime of negligent disobedience to a lawful order. John was sentenced to six months of hard labor in a military prison.
This was John's first exposure to the power of language. The day's proceedings had boiled down to the one sentence he had used in response to his order to go to war. He had not said a direct "no." By saying instead that he felt he was not mentally or physically capable of going, he had been spared a possible four and a half years of prison time. It was staggering for him to think about.
A military policeman placed handcuffs around John's wrists and led him to a patrol car waiting to take him to the base prison. Jerry followed John to the patrol car.
John forced a smile and said, "It could've been worse."
Jerry shook John's hand. "You were very brave today. I
was proud of you." John got into the patrol car. The sun
was resting on the rim of horizon. A cloud of dust rose
behind the car as it headed toward the prison. John
looked back and saw Jerry grow smaller through the brown
haze until he was a tiny speck in the distance. Then
John turned around to face the future.
Review for Chapter 1
I. Comprehension Questions
John spent his first week of prison in solitary confinement. He would never forget the sound of the cell door slamming behind him after the guards shoved him into his cell. He had nothing else to do but pace the floor of the eight-foot-long, four-foot-wide concrete cubicle with its solitary bed, single blanket, toilet with no seat, and narrow, barred window looking out upon a desolate landscape.
In a few days he was given a medical checkup to make sure he had no communicable diseases. After that, he was allowed to join the other four prisoners. Their daily routine consisted of getting up at 4:30, cleaning the prison cells, going to breakfast with an armed guard, then returning to the jail to wait for their work assignments of going to various spots around the base, again with an armed guard, to perform such menial chores as scrubbing toilets, digging ditches, and waxing and buffing office floors before returning to the prison in the evenings. After dinner they had two hours of free time. Lights went out at nine o'clock.
One day John received a letter from his father, who had been a World War II hero. The letter said that John's father was ashamed of what John had done, that John would be branded an ex-con and a coward for the rest of his life, that John was throwing his life away, and that he was no longer considered a member of the Banks family. It was a painful letter to read. John cried in realizing he was being renounced by his own family, but he vowed to be strong. In his heart he knew he had done the right thing.
After a month at the Beale Air Base prison, John was sent to another military prison in Denver, Colorado. This was a special prison for non-violent military criminals, who were given a chance to be rehabilitated, serve out their prison terms, and return to the Air Force in a different career field.
The regimen at the 2230th Rehabilitation Group was somewhat similar to basic training. The prisoners were herded into open barracks rather than prison cells. There were 100 men in each building. They had to get up at four o'clock in the morning. They had exactly 15 minutes to shave, shower, have their beds made and living areas spotlessly clean, and be on the parade ground lined up in formation and ready to be marched a mile away to the chow hall for a breakfast of cold toast and runny eggs. They had to be finished eating by 5:30.
When they returned to the barracks, another hour was spent cleaning the entire building. After that, there was the daily morning inspection during which half the prisoners were forced to remake their beds, redust every corner of their tiny living spaces, then stand at attention for two hours waiting for the head guard to reinspect the premises. After the barracks had been inspected, the prisoners were sent around the base to do labor work.
There was always a high tension in the air, but rarely did any violence break out. The prisoners were kept in line because of the threat of being sent to the Fort Leavenworth prison in Kansas if they caused any trouble. Leavenworth was said to be worse than hell with its brutal guards, tortuous labor, and terrible beatings.
In the afternoons the prisoners had to attend propaganda classes designed to change the prisoners' thinking and behavior. They had to meet over and over again with military psychiatrists, chaplains, psychologists, doctors, and instructors, all of whom had one purpose: to show the prisoners that their way of thinking was wrong and bad and nonconformist. Their job was to pound repeatedly into the prisoners' heads the fact that the prisoners had committed crimes against society and had to change their very selves if they ever wanted to become worthy citizens again, reenter the military and society, and carry on with lives of dignity and worth despite the terrible stigma of shame that was theirs at the moment.
John, however, remained adamant and would not admit to having done anything to harm anyone. Unlike the other 500 prisoners, whose crimes ranged from drug abuse to theft to being absent without leave, John was a prisoner of conscience, a political prisoner. All the therapy classes, private psychiatric sessions, and lectures about morality and duty and obligation and correct thinking had no effect on him. The first step toward successful rehabilitation for any prisoner was to admit he had been wrong in committing his particular crime. John was unwilling to take that first step. He refused to be brainwashed. The authorities began to leave him alone. It took every ounce of strength he possessed to resist the brainwashing attempts, but in the end he succeeded. He managed to survive his prison sentence without getting into further trouble. The authorities gave up their attempts to rehabilitate John. They finally kicked him out of the military with an "undesirable" discharge.
John had changed a lot by the time he got out of prison. He was a confused and bitter young man, but determined to find a direction in life and to prove he could survive the scorn of society and his family. He wanted to believe that his father had not meant everything written in the letter, but John's pride would not allow him to make the first apology. He believed time would ultimately heal all the family wounds, but in the meantime he had to make his own life.
At first, he returned to his hometown of Arcata in northern California and found a job at a plywood mill. He had to hitchhike 20 miles every morning to catch the ferry that took the workers across a bay to the plywood mill. The work was boring and repetitious: pulling large sheets of wet plywood as they came rolling down a long conveyor belt and stacking them on wooden carts that were hauled away by forklifts to the dry kiln, where the sheets were dried and stacked and eventually pressed together into different sizes and lengths of plywood. It was harder labor than any he had had to do in prison, but being able to get a salary and pay his own rent helped bring back some purpose and direction to John's life.
One night a few months after starting his new job John was working overtime feeding strips of dried plywood into a machine that sprayed the sides with glue, compressed them, and cut them into wide sheets to be used as middle sections between two outside sheets of clean, high-grade plywood. He was feeding the individual strips into the compressor. One of the barbs sticking up from the links of chain rolling into the compressor caught the rubber glove he was wearing on his right hand. His arm was pulled into the compressor. With his left hand he tried to reach the button that shut the compressor down, but the button was too far away. The chains were grinding into his flesh. He gave a desperate pull against the grinding action of the chains. His arm was suddenly freed. He looked at his arm and saw that everything had been stripped down to the bone. Another worker called for the foreman, who wrapped John's arm and called an ambulance.
John's father was at the hospital when the ambulance arrived. Someone from the plywood mill had called him about the accident. It was the first time John had seen his father since returning from prison. A surgeon unwrapped the bandages.
The moment John's arm was exposed, his father turned his head away. Tears formed at the corners of his eyes. In that moment John felt a new intimacy with him. He could almost feel his father's guilt and remorse. It was as if all John's sufferings were also his father's. The surgeon examined the arm carefully and barked some orders to a nurse. John was taken into surgery.
When John awoke the next morning, there was a cast on his arm. His fingers protruded from the end. His father was seated in a chair next to the hospital bed, dark rims under his eyes.
"How are you feeling, John?" he asked.
John lifted his right arm with his left. He tried to move the fingers and found he could. He looked at his father, who was smiling.
"They had you in the operating room for about six hours. The doctor said it was a difficult operation, but you pulled through like a champ."
"Will I be able to play basketball again?"
"The doctor said if you work hard at rehabilitating the arm when the cast comes off, it should be normal in about four months."
"Thanks for coming."
For the next two months after John was released from
the hospital, he spent two hours every day at a physical
therapy center. In order to speed up the rehabilitation
process, he also spent hours at a time bouncing,
lifting, shooting, and throwing a basketball against a
wall and catching it with the injured arm. In the
beginning the pain was excruciating. The arm throbbed so
much at night he could not sleep. Gradually, the pain
subsided and flexibility returned to his arm. Within
four months his arm had recovered its full strength.
John was ready to make a stab at going to junior college
and trying out for the basketball team.
Review for Chapter 2
I. Comprehension Questions
In the fall John signed up for some general education courses and began training for the basketball season. Tryouts for the team were to be held in October. It was a strange new world he found himself in. Although he was only two years older than the other students, John felt poles apart from them. It was as if his experiences in the military and prison had aged him. The others seemed like children with their bright enthusiasm and optimism, their social cliques and parties. Most of them were fresh out of high school and, like himself two years before, had never been beyond the boundaries of the redwood country of Humboldt County.
He abandoned himself to basketball as he had once done in high school. At the practices he was like a madman racing up and down the court during the different conditioning, dribbling, defense, jumping, and shooting drills. Offensively, he was inconsistent as he had not played with the other players and did not know their moves. His passes often hit them in the head, bounced a step beyond their reach, or soared too high for them to catch. His shots were poorly selected and sometimes forced. Only his defense showed any consistency. John made the team as a second-string guard.
The team had a mediocre season. John had a few good games, but he did not feel a part of things. He was too different from the others. Study also seemed superfluous. He had no academic interests. The classes were easy enough to pass with minimal effort. After two semesters he dropped out of school to go back to work at the plywood mill. He was 21 years old with no education, a bad military record, and no prospects. His future seemed bleak and worthless.
Two months later he was offered a job as a laborer on a construction project on the north side of Lake Tahoe. It provided a chance to escape the vacuum he had fallen into. He packed his belongings, moved to Lake Tahoe, and rented a one-room cabin about 20 minutes from the work site.
John's weekdays were spent on the job carrying tools and boards for the carpenters, digging drainage ditches, nailing off roofs, sweeping up sawdust, and hauling garbage to a nearby dump. He spent most of his time alone, thinking about where his life was headed. He grew a beard and his hair reached down to his shoulders. Near the beginning of winter he had an argument with the job foreman. The foreman told John to cut his hair and shave his beard or he would be fired. John refused and quit the job.
He returned to Arcata again and spent the winter living on his savings and playing in an amateur basketball league. He was going through changes he did not understand. There remained in him a fundamental sense of not belonging, of no longer being an American. Something burned in his heart and called to him to make a move, a decision that would thrust him out of his lethargy into confronting the outside world again. He had to make a break, but he also knew that whatever he did would change his outlook forever.
One day while browsing through a bookstore John found a book titled Europe on Five Dollars a Day. The book explained how it was possible to experience the world on a small amount of money and a lot of faith in one's fellow man. All a person needed was a passport, a backpack, and an adventurous spirit. The idea hit him with the force of a hammer. The search for his self, for a direction in life, had to take on a physical manifestation.
John set about making preparations. He still had about $1,000 in savings left. He went to a travel agent and bought a round-trip ticket for a flight out of New York to Europe for $200. The return ticket was good for a year. He applied for and got a passport. For another $100 he bought a three-month railpass good for all the rail lines in western Europe. He was ready to hit the road.
Three weeks later the amateur basketball season ended. The following morning John was out on the highway, hitchhiking and waiting for his first ride.
John was filled with excitement. The lure of the unknown was out there in the vastness. He was anxious to confront it, to jump into and wallow about in the experiences that awaited him. A new life lay ahead. With him were his life belongings contained in a small, leather backpack: three changes of clothes, a down-filled sleeping bag, a nylon poncho, $500, and a bota bag for drink.
Three quick rides carried him beyond the redwood country to Highway 20, which cut across California to Lake Tahoe. An old rancher in a cattle truck picked him up and took him as far as Sacramento. He waited three hours before a Mexican in a beat-up Chevrolet pulled over. The Mexican chattered nonstop as they caught up with the Mexican's friend, who was hauling a forklift on a flatbed truck to Reno. They plodded behind the truck at 15 miles per hour. The sky was clear with many stars. They inched their way up the mountains. A full moon illuminated the snow blanketing the Sierra pines. Early in the morning they arrived in Reno and parked the car to get a couple hours of sleep. Just after dawn John caught another ride that took him into the desert and let him out when it turned off the main highway.
The Nevada desert stretched out in all directions, a mixture of auburn wasteland, rolling tumbleweeds, and splotches of unmelted snow. In the far distance were the Rockies, their snow-topped peaks barely discernable on the horizon. They looked like a jagged spine. A VW van with a woman and two children on their way to Denver, Colorado stopped.
For the rest of the day they continued through the Nevada wasteland. By nightfall they were partway into the Utah Salt Flats. They pulled to the side of the road on the outskirts of Salt Lake City to sleep.
Morning was a peaceful calm: grey clouds breaking up with traces of sunlight shimmering through them. They proceeded through the Wasatch Mountains, the road slick with snow and ice, across the Continental Divide, and on to the plateaus of Wyoming. A carpet of snow covered the land. The road seemed to continue forever. Occasionally a jackrabbit bounded across the road. Here and there a distant elk would lift its head to scan their movement. At Cheyanne the woman and her two children turned south. It had been a good ride covering two days and three states.
Sticking to hitchhiking as his main mode of travel but once in a while riding a bus when he was stuck too long in one place, John passed across the Great Plains of Nebraska, out of the snow now and through farming towns with red-brick buildings and dirty main-street sidewalks where old folks sat languorously on benches watching the movement of the world. He stopped in Omaha, where he spent two days reading in a public library and walking the streets. He slept in a cheap room one night and the bus depot the next to save a few dollars.
On and on now, another 600 miles to Peoria, Illinois. A rainy night. A three-dollar motel room with plaster walls and a rattling steam heater. A saggy mattress. A six-pack of cheap beer. A newspaper with stories about returning prisoners of war and Watergate. Morning and a bus ticket to Gary, Indiana, where he took a skid-row room for one night. Across the expanse of Indiana, where squares of long, furrowed fields, ready for seed, stretched in all directions. Another ride to Cleveland.
Thoughts of the Kent State shootings filled John's head as he passed through Ohio into Pennsylvania and on toward Buffalo, New York. He spent one night sleeping in a wooded field off the shore of Lake Erie. Early the next morning he walked along the beach, then stopped to watch the whitecaps form. The lake was an immense ocean that disappeared beyond the horizon. Grey clouds covered the sky. The sun struggled to break through. He continued another three miles through pollution, dilapidated ghetto buildings, broken glass, and abandoned cars to downtown Buffalo. He found the bus station and bought a ticket to New York City.
At last there he was: bounding through the door of the Port Authority Bus Terminal. His first impression of New York was an endless forest of skyscrapers that seemed to make the redwoods pale in comparison. He stood transfixed, overwhelmed by the sound of car horns and construction machinery, by the smell of exhaust fumes and Armenian bakeries. The scene was alive with movement. Slowly, he began to walk the sidewalks, mouth agape and mind empty. He found the William Sloane House YMCA on 34th Street and took a room.
For the next week John explored the streets: Greenwich Village, Yankee Stadium, the Empire State Building, the United Nations, Rockefeller Center, Madison Square Garden. He watched double features in afternoon movie theaters for a dollar, then ate at ethnic delicatessens. The entire world seemed to pass him by as he paced the streets--the midget paraplegics, the hipster pimps, the hollow-eyed beggars, the decrepit winos, the Central Park artists, the sophisticated men and women in their business attire.
Finally, he was on Icelandic Air Lines flight 181 on
his way to Luxembourg. He was leaving behind the country
of his birth, the country he no longer felt a part of,
venturing forth with no itinerary, just the hand of fate
to guide him. It was as if some divine source were
dragging him toward an unknown destination. It was blind
obedience to a gut feeling, not unlike his refusal to
fight in the Vietnam War.
Review for Chapter 3
I. Comprehension Questions
III. Discussion/Essay Questions
The flight took 14 hours, stopping once in Iceland to refuel. At last the plane touched down in Luxembourg. John was on foreign soil for the first time in his life. After passing through customs, he walked around the fortress city. The medieval architecture and narrow, cobble streets were pleasing to his eyes, as were the wooded hills and green landscape that surrounded the city.
He was anxious, however, to be moving, to begin the adventure, so he boarded a train to Brussells, Belgium. He found a compartment to himself where he could be alone and think. In Brussells he took a midnight train bound for Paris. The night was long with scattered periods of sleep. Early in the morning the train arrived at the Gare du Nord. A heavy mist covered the city. John searched for three hours before finding a cheap room on the Left Bank. Fatigued from jet lag and walking, he passed out on his bed and slept for nearly 18 hours.
For the next two days he walked the streets of Paris and watched the frenzied movement of tourists and natives alike. High cirrus streamlined an azure sky. Flowers were blooming. The trees in the parks were dressing themselves in green. The fragrance of spring was everywhere. Lovers walked arm in arm. Children bounded to and fro, ignoring their parents' admonitions. He was surrounded by activity and scores of people. For some reason Paris intimidated John. He was not comfortable and felt the need to retreat from all the confusion to a quiet place where he could reflect on why he was in Europe, what he should do, and where he should go. He decided to head toward Switzerland, to the Alps, where he could camp out and allow the changes he was undergoing to occur uninterrupted.
He journeyed first to the foot of the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps. For three days he dwelled in solitude. Not since his childhood in the redwoods had he felt so close to nature, to the trees and mountains and earth surrounding him, to the inestimable sadness of life and its transience. On the third day, as he sat staring at the Matterhorn, a shadow of loneliness fell upon him. The inner journey, the search for a faith, for a belief in life, manifested itself once again in physical movement. He hiked down the mountain road to the village of Visp and boarded a train to Italy.
He found himself in Florence wandering through the city, barely conscious of the history surrounding him. He passed through the Uffizi and was attracted to Botticelli's paintings. John had the feeling that surely Botticelli's had been a mystic soul possessed by the demon of intellect and condemned to a restless existence. He wondered if his own life would continue in the same restless manner, if he would always feel he should be someplace other than where he was.
At the Michelangelo Academy he discovered in the David an answer to the problem that has tortured mankind throughout the ages: the inevitablility of death. In the David John found preserved for eternity a moment of poignant thought, of tender expression, of profound emotion. What men these Botticellis, these Da Vincis, these Dantes had been! What purpose of mind they had possessed. Perhaps art was the road to salvation, John thought. Perhaps art could liberate the soul from the pain of living.
John left Florence and lived for two days on the trains, getting off only to buy bread and wine. One night he stopped in Naples and found an abandoned construction site in which to sleep. Several times during the night he awoke to the sound of rats scurrying around him. He boarded a southbound train early the next morning. The compartments were crowded, so he had to try to sleep on the floor of the narrow corridors. He rode the train ferry that crossed the strait between the mainland and Sicily. Only a few peasants rode the train from Messina. About half the distance across the northern coast of Sicily the train stopped at the fishing village of Cefalu. On an impulse John got off.
The sun was high in a cloudless sky. It was very warm. The village lay at the base of a large headland. The buildings were all old and made of adobe. The smell of salt and fish and sea filled the air. Long lines of laundry on many rooftops flapped in the breeze. Copper-skinned children ran laughing and shouting through the narrow, meandering streets. Many small skiffs were docked in the harbor, where weather-beaten men patiently mended their nets. A castle rested on a hill overlooking the village. Nearby was an old cathedral.
John walked along the long stretch of beach outside the village for about a mile until he found a comfortable, isolated spot to set up camp. The white sand shimmered under the hot sun. He washed his clothes and hung them to dry on a tree. For most of the next two days he lay on the beach and watched the fishermen in dinghies gather in their nets. It was a peaceful time and the United States seemed far away.
On the third day John packed his things and walked back into the village. He boarded the first train back to Messina, settled in an empty compartment, not knowing where to go next, and contemplated his future as the poverty-stricken contryside flashed by the window.
John headed up the western coast of Italy. In Paola he boarded a train inland to the mountains. The train chugged up a steep incline until the ocean was far below. The sun was a dazzling billiance on the water as the train rounded the final bend to wind its course toward the heel of the boot of Italy. The country was green and fresh with many beech and pine trees. In the village of Cosenza he waited a few hours before catching another train.
The next evening he was in Brindisi, a southern Italian port town, boarding a ferry to the Greek island of Corfu off the coast of Albania. The following morning the ferry approached the island. The sun was just above the calm sea. The town of Corfu was bleached in the morning light. Low mountains rose jaggedly in the distance. Once on land, John exchanged some money, then set out to explore the streets of the town before hopping a bus into the countryside.
He joined a group of travellers at a camping site a few miles north of the town. It was a peaceful place across the road from a stretch of white beach. There was plenty of shade provided by a grove of olive trees. Most of the other campers were young people: Germans, Scandinavians, Canadians, French, Dutch.
The days on the island were tranquil days of lounging around and lying nude on a ledge of rock by the sea. The outside world ceased to exist. In the evenings small groups gathered at a nearby cantina for suppers of souflaki, cucumber salad, and potatoes cooked in olive oil. Everyone drank ouzo, the potent Greek wine. The local patrons, warm and friendly people who had lived their entire lives on the island, danced to the music of a juke box. There was much laughter, handshaking, and toasting of drinks.
Afterward the travellers returned to the camping site to gather around a fire, pass bottles of ouzo, and watch the stars. The conversation was animated. It covered many topics in many languages--voyages to other lands, politics, music, art, literature, philosophy. John had never seen such a gathering before. Poets, musicians, painters, political dissidents, refugees, everyone seemed involved in something important and meaningful. Their lives seemed fulfilled and exciting. John had suddenly found himself in the midst of an international underground group with its own grapevine of information, its own life style that enabled all to travel in an inexpensive manner to many countries exchanging cultures, knowledge, and love. He envied the zest and capacity for life these people had.
When it came his turn to speak, John told of his experiences as a conscientious objector and his life in military prison. He was baffled by the response of the others. There was an admiration for what he had done, for the courage of his convictions. The others listened respectfully and offered encouragement and advice. He was flooded with names and addresses in many countries, offers to stay should he happen to visit. He was given books to read. He no longer felt the outcast, the pariah, the fugitive. He bathed luxuriously in this much-needed boost to his ego.
A woman entered his life. Her name was Kreta, a lovely Norwegian with soft, blue eyes, a radiant smile, and long, flowing blond hair. She was an artist who had just come to Corfu from Spain. Her lust for life was infectious. Her uninhibited approach to life made a great impression on John. The image she created of the world as she had experienced it was rich with romance, vibrant with life, alluring in its potential for adventure. She excited him most when she talked about Spain.
"You must visit Spain by all means if you are travelling in Europe. Your education will not be complete, my American lover, without the experience. It is so different from, yet so representative of, Europe. If you wish to understand life, then you must see Spain," she said.
"Spain is the true melting pot of culture, not your America with its machines of destruction and arrogant populace so much like spoiled children. And Spain's artists! Her Picassos, her Dalis, her Goyas, her Velazquezes, her one and only El Greco, who was really a Cretan but found refuge and a source of inspiration among the people of Spain. You, too, may find inspiration there to explore the confusion in your heart. You have an artistic soul. Perhaps there is a writer or painter hidden away in you somewhere. I implore you to go to Spain."
John spent the next week with Kreta, swimming and laughing, sunbathing and drinking, learning about the world of art. It was a time of broadening his perspectives, of dreaming and thinking and reading. But soon the wanderlust was upon him again.
He left Corfu early one morning after having spent
three weeks on the island. The sky was filled with grey
clouds, strands of dawn-light sifting down through them.
Far away on the water a freighter moved along
peacefully. Seated on the edge of the road next to the
beach, a Greek boy watched the freighter's steady
movement. John kissed Kreta goodbye, hoisted his
backpack, hitched a ride into town, and bought a bus
ticket to Athens.
Review for Chapter 4
I. Comprehension Questions
John spent three more months bumming around Europe. From Athens he hitchhiked his way through the pastoral Yugoslavian countryside, the Alpine meadows, forests, and mountain peaks of Austria, and the deep green of southern France before heading to Spain as Kreta had recommended.
He travelled about Spain for three weeks on anachronistic trains. From the train windows he could see everything with a casual air: dusty red plains, dark mountains in the distance, olive trees and chestnut woods on high hills, green country with slow-moving rivers, empty spaces, and crumbling villages.
He took up residence for a week in a room in Seville. From there it was on to Madrid to see the Prado Museum. He spent an entire day there studying the paintings of El Greco, Velazquez, and Goya. Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights held him in complete awe. He felt a kinship with Bosch's madness, with his distorted perception of the world, his hallucinogenic portrayal of life and its absurdity. In John's ignorance of the world of art, he had not dreamed the insanity of man could be portrayed with such power of sinister hallucination. He resolved that if he could ever learn to express himself in some medium, the picture of man he eventually portrayed would contain many parallels to the grotesque perception of Bosch.
His money was nearly spent. He boarded a train to Paris, where he confirmed his reservations on a Luxembourg Airlines plane back to New York. He hitchhiked to Luxembourg and spent his last night sleeping in a wooded field an hour from the airport. A day later the plane descended upon the runway of John F. Kennedy Airport. The European experiences and revelations and the entire dream-ambience of that portion of his life were gone. It was as if he had awakened from a long, undisturbed sleep to find himself groping with reality again.
After passing through customs, he took a bus from the airport to downtown Manhattan. It was the middle of summer, hot and muggy, and sweat poured off him. The harsh sounds of jackhammers, hydraulic equipment, and car horns blasted his ears. The smells of soot, garbage, and pollution burned his nose. He bought another bus ticket to New Jersey to escape the congestion. It was near sundown when he got off the bus. He found a place to camp on the outskirts of some town. Early the next morning he packed and ate a breakfast of oranges and cheese. He checked his wallet. He had $22 left. Then he walked to an onramp leading to Highway 80, the great road west.
Two rides took him into Pennsylvania. Then he hit the jackpot. A Navy man being transferred from the East Coast to the West Coast swooped him off the long stretch of highway. They breezed through the thick green of Pennsylvania. Then it was on into Ohio. Halfway across the state they stopped for a night's rest. With an early start the next morning they plowed straight through Ohio and Indiana into Illinois and Iowa, then across the Mississippi River westward to Nebraska, through dusty corn and wheat fields, then into the plains of Wyoming as far as Cheyanne. It was a long day, the summer sun spilling waves of heat on the road. A steady haze lay constantly before them until nightfall. They pulled over by a truck stop to sleep.
In the morning it was out of Wyoming into the Wasatch Mountains of Utah. In Salt Lake City they parted company, the Navy man heading south and John west. A Mormon student gave John a ride 50 miles into the desert before his car developed a radiator leak and the engine overheated. The driver disappeared to the other side of the road to hitch back to Salt Lake City. John began to walk. Soon he was in the middle of a straight stretch where he could be seen from a long way off. He set his backpack down and waited.
A white sea of salt surrounded him. The road ran straight as far as he could see until it narrowed into a cloud of heat rising into the distance. The afternoon sun beat down on his shoulders. A strong wind sent tumbleweeds rolling at great speeds. Particles of sand lashed at his body and penetrated his eyes. He stood for what seemed an eternity with only an occasional freight truck rumbling by. Finally, a family in a pickup truck stopped and gave him a ride as far as Wendover on the Utah-Nevada state line. Shortly after sunset a station wagon on its way to San Francisco stopped. John slept in the back, waking to the sight of the Oakland Bay Bridge.
By late afternoon three more rides had taken him to Arcata. He was back where he had started. He believed he had set a hitchhiking record: from the East Coast to the West Coast in four days. He had only about $15 left, but he knew he would find a job soon and make it through the initial tough month or so it would take to get his feet back on the ground.
The journey had provided the answer to what he had sought. It had all started at his court martial when the single sentence he had uttered in response to his order to fight in the Vietnam War had saved four and a half years of his life and instilled in him an awareness of the power of language. His experiences in Europe had reinforced that awareness and stimulated a need to express himself. He now had a purpose. He would become a writer. He would begin his studies and learn the craft. Through the writing he would get rid of all the confusion and derangement the world had caused in him. In return, he would give back to the world something good and meaningful, the story of a symbolic life.
John found a job as a janitor in an elementary school in Orick, a town of 800 people on the California coast about 50 miles north of Arcata. He rented a small room near the school and started training to be a writer. He was practically illiterate. He had no idea what the fundamentals of grammar were or what comprised good literature.
The job required that he work only five hours a day, five days a week. He often took strolls along the isolated stretch of beach south of Orick, along the riverbank of the Mad River, and on the logging roads that led into the redwood forest that skirted the town's eastern flank. Most of his free time, however, was spent reading all the books he could, copying down sentences and descriptions that appealed to him, and recording in a notebook his journey across the U.S. and Europe. It was a lonely time. Near the beginning of December when the winter rains started, he decided to quit his job, return to Arcata, and go back to school.
He found another job at a small redwood lath mill in Arcata. In March he was accepted into Humboldt State University and entered the journalism department. His boss at the lath mill agreed to let John work parttime in the mornings to accommodate his schedule of afternoon classes. He also began playing amateur basketball again.
The next two years were like a return to innocence. All that existed for John was basketball and study. There was even a return to normalcy in his family relationship. His father was retired and occupied with building a new house. He had converted to the Seventh Day Adventist faith and with it came a greater acceptance of John's refusal to fight in Vietnam. He even offered to give some financial help for John's schooling.
John bypassed all the required general education courses to concentrate on writing and literature classes. Two of his classes required the students to do actual field work and turn in stories to the local newspaper every week. When five of his stories were accepted and printed with his own by-line, John felt that particular joy every writer craves: seeing his name in print.
After nearly two years of study John felt it was time to get serious about writing fiction. It was time for him to once again make a break from Humboldt County and find his way in the world. He had gotten as much as he could out of his studies at the university. He packed his belongings--a few changes of clothes and two boxes of books--into his car and moved to Los Angeles. He found a small apartment and a job working as a bookkeeper in the main office of a shipping company.
In the evenings and on weekends he began spending hours at the typewriter, working on short stories that became increasingly longer as he looked ahead to being able to write a novel. He was like a marathon runner in training, starting out with short sprints and working gradually into longer and longer endurance runs. Sometimes he worked on character sketches, sometimes on place descriptions. At other times he practiced stylistic devices such as alliterative writing, stream-of-consciousness narrative, understatement in the Hemingway tradition, or metaphorical comparisons.
The truth was he had no style of his own. He was in a stage of imitating every writer he fell in love with, only to abandon him or her shortly and copy the style of the next writer who struck his fancy. Of all the writers John was frantically trying to study, Henry Miller appealed to him the most. Miller's intoxication with language, his free spirit, his exaltation of life as seen from the gutter, his unbounded ego, his faith and sense of humor and love of the cranks and artists who inhabited his world all stirred in John deep emotions concerning the life he had chosen to pursue. Miller instilled in John a belief in the divine guidance of the artist. Miller made John want to be a writer, to plunge into the depths of human experience.
Nearly a year passed. He began making preparations for
returning to Europe. Still under the influence of Henry Miller, he had decided it
would be impossible to write in the U.S. He believed if
he was to experience the true artist's life, he had to
live and work where the artist and his work were
appreciated and encouraged, not in a country like the
U.S., where the artist was repressed into a life of
conformity and commercialism at best. John would return
to Paris to play the role of the starving young artist,
to recapture the past, in particular the events of that
journey he had taken four years earlier in search of an
identity and a direction in life. He was finally ready
to begin his novel, to become a writer. On January 11,
1977 John boarded a plane to Paris, not knowing what his
future held, but filled with confidence and a faith that
there was meaning in everything he had experienced, in
everything that would come.
Review for Chapter 5
I. Comprehension Questions
Note: Teachers who would like to obtain a copy of the answer sheet for all end-of-chapter questions can contact me via e-mail at:
robert AT robertwnorris DOT com
Click here to continue to the second half of The Many Roads to Japan
Cover image by Professor Yoshio Tanaka, Saga University
B-52 photo by Aerospaceweb.org - http://www.aerospaceweb.org/aircraft/bomber/b52/pics02.shtml
Redwoods photo by 3-D Viewmax - http://www.3dviewmax.com/
Matterhorn photo copyright by Frank Carus - http://www.ski-zermatt.com/mattnet/features/matterhorn_climb/photo0.htm
The David photo by CGFA: A Virtual Art Museum - http://sunsite.dk.cgfa/michelan/p-mechela2.htm
Holy Shrine of Imam Reza photo by Silk Road Tours - http://silkroadtours.com/SilkRoadTours/Album/Iran%20photoes/Mashad/Mashad.htm
Three women in chador photo copyright by Vanderven - http:vanderven.org/pix/ym/chador.htm
Group of Afghan men photo copyright by Luke Powell - http://cweb.middlebury.edu/cr/powell/afghanistan/