Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Held at bay by barking dogs

My last couple of posts have been about my elusive memory. Some memories, even important ones, have faded, other minor memories stand out. Why? The vicissitudes of brain functions, I suppose.

For instance, I woke up the other day with a sharp memory of being held at bay by two large, barking dogs.

It was in 1976. I had just gotten the job I would hold until my retirement in 2009. As a condition of employment I was expected to get a physical. I was working for the local school district, and the physical was necessary to make sure I wasn't a walking disease factory when entering schools. In 1976 I did not have a regular family doc, and because I had a deadline of 30 days I checked around for the name of a doctor I could see quick. A family friend told me a college friend of his, Dr Steve, had a practice in downtown Salt Lake City. I made an appointment.

The day of the appointment I was allowed to take time off work. I drove into Salt Lake, but there was a problem finding parking. The medical building was close to a residential section of town, so I drove to a street lined with houses, and parked. I had a couple of blocks to walk, but that was no big deal.  Or at least when setting out I didn’t think so. A block into my walk two large dogs, a German Shepherd and a mixed breed, ran out of a back yard and confronted me. They were barking and snarling, and worse, they were blocking the sidewalk. In those days, just like today, there were restrictions on dogs running free, but those hounds were off-leash. I stood on the sidewalk, held at bay. I tried crossing the street. No good, they ran ahead of me and blocked me there. In frustration I yelled out, “Hey! Whoever owns these dogs! Call them off!” Maybe everyone was at work, or at least did not want to get involved. I saw no one in a window, no one in their yard, just those dogs. After several minutes I was frustrated, running late. I finally just walked back to my car, checking over my shoulder to make sure the dogs weren’t following. They stood like sentinels, watching me leave.

Powerful jaws and big fangs, intimidating!

I drove back to the medical building, where this time I got lucky and found a spot.

When I was led by the nurse to the examining room she walked me past Dr Steve’s office. He was sitting at his desk, reading a medical file, and smoking a cigarette. Even in 1976 it seemed odd to see a doctor smoking. It was a relief to me, since in those days I was a smoker and figured it lessened my chances of him lecturing me about quitting. As it was I quit six months later.

Why worry about smoking? Your doctor smokes!

I got through the appointment all right. The exam was quick. I answered some questions and he did his doctor thing, pronounced me in good health, wished me good luck on my new job, and I was on my way.

I didn’t think any more of it. A month later I got a note from our personnel office saying I had not completed my requirement for a physical, and I was in danger of being fired. I called Dr Steve’s office and was assured they had sent the form to the personnel director, but when I went in person to explain that to the Personnel Department, I ran into the human equivalent of the barking, snarling dogs. My memory goes blank when I try to think of her name, but she was fairly well known for being hard to get along with. She seemed constantly irritated. She was snappish, ill-humored and at times belligerent.

When I joined the school district a lot of the people working there had been there since World War II, even before. The longtime employees were part of my parents’ generation. This being Utah they were also almost universally Latter-day Saints. I knew I did not make a good impression because of my beard and shoulder-length hair (and the aforementioned smoking, which offended Mormons even more than my appearance), but I thought my natural charm (har-har) would win her over. No chance. I had a better chance with those dogs than I had with her. I asked to speak with the personnel director, but she kept me at bay. Like the dogs. All I could do was tell her what the doctor’s office had told me, and I left her office with a warning that my job was on the line.

The secretary I mention has nothing to do with Christina Hendricks’ role as office manager on Mad Men. I just like pictures of Christina Hendricks.

A week or so later it filtered down to me that the secretary had found the doctor’s note. Whew.

There is a bit more to the story. What happened was that I was not a threat to the health of schoolkids. In fact the opposite was true. Kids were always sick, and walking into a school was an invitation to pick up any germs or medical condition going around. My first five years with the organization were filled with me being ill, having a cold or sore throat every few months. I still did not have a family doctor, so I called Dr Steve’s office, only to find out he no longer practiced locally. I asked the family friend who had recommended him. He told me that Dr Steve had confessed to his wife he was gay, she divorced him and he moved with his boyfriend to Arizona.

A couple of years after that I heard from the same friend Dr Steve had died of a “strange disease” that attacked the immune system of gay men. He was the first case of AIDS I ever heard of, before there was even a name for it.

After awhile I built up my own immune system, and didn’t catch every stray bug loose in the schools. One day a kid as tall as me was walking by me in the hallway, turned his face toward me and coughed. I yelled, "Cover your mouth when you cough!" Three days later I had a cold complete with bad cough. When remembering that I also remember the barking sound he made when he coughed.

And when I tell you this story I ain’t just a'woofin'.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Honorable Discharge

Two score and seven years ago, {or 47 years for those of you who might not know that a score is 20 years}, I was released from the United States Army, and resumed my life as a civilian. I had been drafted in late 1966, and I spent one year, 11 months and 10 days as a soldier.

A series of events had caused me to be drafted, and then it became time to get on with my life.

I did, and here I am.

I have here my Honorable Discharge from the United States Army as proof that I did what I was told to do, and stuck out the whole time. (Note: I did put my pseudonym on the digital copy of the document, and redacted my service number. I don’t want someone reading this and stealing my identity, something we never thought about in those days.) You might notice that it says I was actually discharged on November 29, 1972, because that was six years, minus one day, from the time I became a soldier. In those days an enlistment was actually six years. Two years active duty, two years active Army Reserve, and two years inactive Reserve. Because of Vietnam the Army Reserves were all filled up with folks avoiding the draft, so there was no room in those Reserve units. Despite the law, it became four years inactive Reserve.

It does not matter now. It is all over.

A year or so ago I ran into one of my old Army friends. Ralph and I have known each other since the day we entered the Army. There were six guys I was with, all of us from the same hometown, who for some reason — maybe our cards got stuck together — did our entire hitch together. But Ralph is the one I have seen the most over the years. Always by accident, but when we do see each other we have watched each other grow older, grayer and fatter. On running into him in a restaurant he said, "Did you know ol' Dick M. died?” No, I did not, and told him so.

I asked him, “Did you know Wally T. died?” Wally had died at age 52, in April, 2000. “No, I didn’t know that,” Ralph said. Ralph added, “Do you know that Johnny W. has really bad diabetes, and has had several toes cut off?”

“No,” I said, “I did not know that.” Dick M., Wally T., and Johnny W. were members of our group of six. At one time in the mid-seventies Johnny had lived just a couple of blocks from me, but had moved before 1980, and I had not seen him since.

After Ralph and I shook hands and parted company I went home and checked out the obituaries online. There was no obit for Dick M., but two of his brothers were listed as having died. What I found out online was Dick M. was listed as the owner of a car repair shop, the same shop his uncle had started years before, and where Dick had worked when he got drafted.

Another couple of months later I ran into Ralph grocery shopping. I told Ralph about Dick M., saying I thought Ralph was mistaken. Dick was not dead.  Ralph seemed a bit shocked. I said what I had read online was that Dick M. had closed his auto repair business and petitioned the city council to rezone the property to a single family dwelling, so he could live there. The council thought it was fine, as long as he promised to clean all of the cars out of the yard. Ralph’s only answer to that was “Huh!” Then he said, “Did you know Johnny W. finally died from complications of diabetes?” No, I did not know that. So, remembering how Ralph sometimes got things confused I looked online and this time Ralph was correct: I found Johnny’s obituary.

In the first couple of years after we all received our Honorable Discharges when we ran into each other we passed the time talking about being married and our jobs. We also reminisced about our days in the Army together. Once, early on when I ran into Ralph we were in a store. It was December or January. I was talking to him about our nights in Germany, of being on guard duty in the middle of winter. He said, “Yeah, that was a lot of fun.” I said, “Freezing our asses off at 2:00 in morning was fun to you?” He laughed, as did some other customers in the store. My voice carries.

For some reason Ralph and I seem to occasionally be in the same place at the same time. That isn’t true of anyone else I know. I never run into old friends from high school. Once in a while I see someone I worked with at the school district, but high school, no. The fact that I graduated from high school 50 years ago (Class of '65) is probably the reason. Some of my friends have died. One high school buddy called me 20 years ago to tell me he was the boss of a printing plant in the Midwest where the Victoria’s Secret catalogs were produced. I never heard from him again, and can’t find him on Facebook (I’d like to get on the mailing list for those catalogs). Maybe he’s dead now, too. Another old friend called me up out of the blue just before I retired, and when we got through the pleasantries and how-ya-doin’s he revealed the purpose of his call was to ask if I knew where he could find a job. I gave him what information I could, but I never heard from him again, either.

The further away I get from high school the less it matters. It was such a long time ago. The same holds true for my time in the Army. There was a time a few years ago when I wrote several posts for this blog about some of my Army experiences. When I was finished I just did not do much thinking about them again.

It is almost like I never went to high school, except I have my yearbooks and my high school diploma as evidence I did. The Army is the same. On a day like today, Veterans Day, it is kind of nice to hear “Thank you for your service,” but for me, a peacetime soldier in a wartime Army, who was never in combat, or shot at by an enemy, the experience is becoming somewhat vague. I don’t think much about it except on days like today (I was released from active duty on this day, Veterans Day, November 11, 1968) or when I look on my wall and see that framed Honorable Discharge.

Oh, and when I bump into Ralph in the grocery store.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Watching The Exorcist again for the first time

The other day I sat down to watch some DVDs, old horror movies, to write up in this column before Halloween. The missus is gone in her role as professional petsitter and house-watcher for vacationers. I am alone at night this week with only the creaking and settling of my 45-year-old house to keep me company, unless I turn on the television to drown out the other ambient noises of my environment.

The Exorcist was first on my list. How many years had it been since I had seen it? I thought back, and as I watched the movie I came to a startling conclusion. I had never seen this movie before! I “remembered” some parts, but others were a total surprise.

What had confused me after four decades are false memories of actually seeing it. Having heard so much and read so much about the movie (plus reading the novel) had tricked my brain into thinking that at some point I had watched it.

When The Exorcist came out in late 1973 it was a huge hit, much like Star Wars would become a few years hence. In Salt Lake City the movie showed at one theater, the Regency, for a long time. Everyone who wanted to see it had their chance. My memory is not tricking me in remembering people who were scared before they went into the theater. A guy I worked with told me he was so terrified before the movie started that he was hyperventilating. I also got the blow-by-blow descriptions of what went on in the movie from people who wanted to share the experience. I usually stop people before they launch into lengthy descriptions of movies. First, it is boring, and second, I don’t want any spoilers. But The Exorcist was different, and it was because I had read the William Peter Blatty novel and knew the ending. When people wanted to describe it to me I did not stop them. Because the demonic dialogue was much more profane than other movies of that era the guys I worked with loved to repeat it. I knew all of the dialogue, including the famous “Your mother sucks cocks in hell!” line.

The ouija board showed up in the movie. Some people, including my mother, felt the ouija board to be demonic. Somehow we had a ouija board in our house in the early sixties, and played it like a parlor game. One day Mom threw it into the incinerator and burned it. Someone had told her by using it we were “letting Satan in.”

So, besides me being possessed by untrue memories, how true is the story of the exorcism that inspired the book and movie? A lot of myths have grown up, and there are various versions of the story. I personally like the version from Strange Magazine, “The Strange Hard Facts Behind the Story That Inspired The Exorcist, which demonstrates the author, Dean Opsasnick, did his homework.

The 1949 event involved a young boy in Maryland, who had been given exorcisms by more than one faith (Episcopal, Lutheran and Roman Catholic), and that later it was revealed it took “20 to 30 rituals of exorcism” before the devil was cast out of the boy. In the movie it took a lot less to get the demon out of Regan.

But beyond the artistic license, director William Friedkin, who apparently believes in possession, in the January 2014 issue Fangoria magazine said he thought the evil was directed at Father Karras. Friedkin explained: “When we meet [Father Karras] [he] is on the verge of retiring from the priesthood. He believes he has let his mother down. He tells the older priest, who is his mentor, that he feels he's losing his faith. It gives the demon an opening to show him that human beings are nothing but animals and worthless, and that his faith is in itself worthless.” In my opinion of course the chain of events that led to the girl’s possession and doom to the priest came about because Father Merrin unearthed the devil in Iraq.

Considering the troubles we have had in Iraq over the years, I wonder if George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and their gang of neocons weren’t possessed by demons in getting us involved. (I’m only half-joking.)

Another thing I noticed when the movie was first run in theaters was how many people were claiming they were going back to church. Other reports told of people who thought they were possessed by demons. To me those stories meant that people were giving credence to the supernatural rather than admit they might have a mental illness.

Something else were articles exploiting the actress who played Regan, young Linda Blair. The articles worried about how she would survive such a role, as if she was really possessed. I am sure to Ms Blair it was an acting job, not a lifestyle. It got her roles in movies, and then at age 18 she was busted buying cocaine and it cost her. She still acts, but has gone on to an animal rescue organization she founded.

Everyone has seen the pictures of young Linda Blair as the demon-possessed Regan. This is a lot nicer.

 ...And when she grew up! Very nice!

The Exorcist is still a good movie. I don’t believe in demonic possession, but I understand why people related to it.  In 1973-74, when it was playing theaters we Baby Boomers were still young and still looking for our way. The movie affected a lot of people, for better or worse.

And before I forget, HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Pyramid scheme

Nick Redfern’s 2012 book, The Pyramids and the Pentagon, is enormously entertaining. Redfern is a reporter who writes about subjects like UFOs and the paranormal. In this book he draws parallels between some of those subjects and the interest in them by the United States government. My natural skepticism gets in the way of actual belief, but I like all his books, anyway. I am interested in why people believe in such things.

In the “pyramids” part mentioned in the book’s title he also goes into the subject of ancient astronauts, and how, for instance, they helped the Egyptians build the pyramids. I’ve never understood why aliens from space would help in such an endeavor, but the stories have gone around for many years and there are a lot of people who believe them. Personally, stories of alien mentors and their out-of-this-world technology seem less credible than the more prosaic explanations, that the Egyptians got the job done without anyone else’s help, and did it using a their muscles and the technology available to them at the time.

(If aliens had helped them it would have been nice if they could have left a few snapshots of the work in progress lying around in the burial chambers for archeologists to find.)

Human beings are tool builders, and some rare humans have a gift for invention, especially during times of need. Our species could not have survived without brains and invention, and glory be, opposable thumbs. So why credit the hard work of building the pyramids to aliens? Why do some people look at the work and logistics involved and think there is no way those old-time Egyptians could have done the job? Evidence shows they did, whereas stories that they were helped by aliens are conjecture at best, fantasy most likely.

I remember when Chariots of the Gods? by Erich Von Däniken came out in 1968, and I thought that popular book had been the origin of such stories. But Redfern reaches further (much further) back to retell a story told 1100 years ago by Abu-al-Hasan Ali al-Mas'udi, a prolific writer of over 30 volumes of the history of the world, based on his own experiences and collection of stories during his many travels. As Redfern explains it:
“. . . al-Mas'udi noted that in very early Arabic legends there existed an intriguing story suggesting that the creation of the pyramids of Egypt had absolutely nothing to do with the conventional technologies of the era. Rather al-Mas'udi recorded, tantalizing, centuries-old lore that had come his way during his explorations strongly suggested the pyramids were created by what today we would most likely refer to as some fom of levitation.

“The incredible story that al-Mas'udi uncovered went like this: When building the pyramids, their creators carefully positioned what was described as magical papyrus underneath the edges of the mighty stones that were to be used in the construction process. Then, one by one, the stones were struck by what was curiously, and rather enigmatically, described as only a rod of metal. Lo and behold, the stones then slowly began to rise into the air, and like dutiful soldiers unquestioningly following orders, proceeded in slow, methodical, single-file fashion a number of feet above a paved pathway surrounded on both sides by similar, mysterious metal rods. For around 150 feet . . . the gigantic stones moved forward, usually with nothing more than the gentlest of prods from the keeper of the mysterious rod to ensure they stayed on track, before finally, and very softly settling back to the ground.

“At that point, the process was duly repeated. The stones were struck once more, rose up from the surface, and again traveled in the desired direction, for yet another 150 feet or so . . . until the stones finally reached their ultimate destination. Then in a distinctly far more complex feat, the stones were struck again, but htis time in a fashion that caused them to float even higher into the air. Then, when they reached the desired point, they were carefully, and with incredible ease, manipulated into place, one-by-one, by hand and nothing else, until the huge pyramid in question was finally completed.” The Pyramids and the Pentagon, pages 69-70.
Fun story! As Redfern states, “manifestly astonishing.” Indeed it is.

But it is from an old book, and is part of a history collected from those who told tales from the oral tradition going back for generations. Those folks grappled for explanations and came up with such fabulous tales, much colored by superstition of a world of the unseen and mysterious, ruled by God (or gods).

The story is too far-fetched to be believed. When a story goes into the realm of magic (via “magical papyrus” and levitation rods) I assign it to the “untrue” column, especially when the magic involves the unlikely help of aliens from another star.

It just does not give enough credit to those who labored in the service of the Pharaoh, and the thinking of the era, that his monument was of paramount importance in their religion. Architects and planners had to work all of this out using primitive tools, and they had to make it so because that was the will of Pharaoh. To me that achievement seems much nearer to supernatural than does some fantastic story of levitation tools provided by alien interlopers.