Courage & a Zest for Life
I watched a dramatized documentary and a straight documentary back-to-back this afternoon, and then I had to get out of the house.
At the coffee drive-up window I got caught behind two walk-up customers who placed an order for what turned out to be eight complex iced drinks with exotic names that took the barista twenty minutes to throw together. While they waited the walk-ups took pictures of each other with their smart phones, then looked at their handiwork and laughed like hyenas. Then the girl somehow got her smart phone to blast out some loud rap music, and the guy hunched over, snapping his fingers and wiggling his ass. I smoked two cigarettes and seriously contemplated running them down with my van.
When I finally made it up to the hill, a marching band below on the rodeo grounds was practicing a hideously out-of-tune rendition of The Star Spangled Banner. I rolled up all the windows.
The dramatized documentary was about Ludwig Guttmann, a German Jew who escaped Nazi Germany during the Second World War, a doctor/surgeon/neurologist who went to work at a convalescent hospital in England.
The straight documentary was about a fourteen-year-old Dutch girl, Laura Dekker, who sailed around the globe solo on a forty-foot sailboat.
What the two had in common was courage and a zest for life for which they were labeled arrogant, insane and dangerous.
What Guttmann did the first day he walked onto the spinal-injury ward at the hospital he was assigned to was rip down the dark drapes and throw open the windows. What he did was saw the full-body cast off a patient that was put there to protect him from harming himself; the man's body was covered with raw sores. What he did was get the men off morphine that was being administered to keep them tranquil. What he did was bring in a victrola and live entertainment, get the men out of bed and into wheelchairs, get them lifting weights and doing exercises and eventually wheeling them all down to the local pub for a few pints of stout. He got them playing basketball and hockey in their wheelchairs and eventually formed them into teams, setting the stage for the Special Olympics. He did all this in the face of fierce opposition until his success began to draw notice, and then everyone jumped on the bandwagon.
Laura Dekker was born on a boat. She'd been sailing since before she could walk. She could use a sexton and chart a course and she knew all there was to know about boats, and when she was eight she began dreaming about being the youngest person to sail around the world, solo. When she was thirteen her father, a boat man to the core, gave her the boat to do it in, and all hell broke loose. CPS stepped in, declared the father unfit, and declared Laura unbalanced, petulant and in need of psychiatric care; they made a move to put her in a foster home which her father fought all the way to the Dutch Supreme Court. And he won. He won, and at the age of fourteen, off Laura sailed. And she did it. It took her two years.
But she'd had it with the Netherlands. She'd had it with the Western World and its monetary sense of morality. She sailed off for New Zealand.
This is what my head was full of when I pulled in at the drive-up window. This is what my head was full of as the marching band butchered The Star Spangled Banner. And this is what my head is still full of, two new heroes to join the pantheon of heroes I've gathered over the years to give me the strength to never go down on my knees for anyone.
Smashing the Last Illusion
I'm finishing up like I started out some 50+ years ago, with yellow pads. I wrote my first story that had salt to it on a yellow pad, The Night of the Great Butcher, in Munich, alone in the under-the-gables room where I lived with my wife and son over four floors of blue-collar workers and prostitutes. I wrote my first novel on yellow pads, typed it up and sent it to Athenaeum, and they called me up and said the editorial board was stoked, but the higher-ups concerned with turning a profit nixed it. I kept on writing and the sugar dreams of fame and fortune melted into the gutter of time. The more I gave up on the Yellow Brick Road, the truer the writing got.
The closer you get to the unadorned truth, the more you're edged out. It happens automatically, without planning or thought, it's built into the system.
I plunged on into the turmoil, creating it, recoiling from it, sinking into despair and soaring into ecstasy, creating my own rewards and meting out punishment, landing on my feet, circling, having it drilled into me how close I was to an inexpressible truth that filled me with a volatile batter of joy and dread. Established and sanctioned forms became an imposition, a chastisement, and I began writing Shards.
All the while I grew older and was bombarded by sickness and injury, but I kept writing, I wrote thru aneurysm surgery and a stroke, my brain, it turns out, is speckled with an accumulation of mini strokes that in time will likely lead up to vascular dementia, and things will simply slip away. My body will betray my mind and my mind my spirit and I'll be vulnerable to authorities that will attempt to impose upon me via the medical profession the shabby lackluster values I have spurned my whole life.
My writing has been my armor, but this is a turning point, and it will take foresight to insure that I take action that will permit me to leave this world on my own terms.
Strong decisions on my part are called for now to ward off strong decisions of others later.
A new territory needs to be entered, and the last illusion has to be smashed.
John Bennett was for many years the driving force behind Vagabond Press which operated on the run from Munich to DC to New Orleans to San Francisco and beyond. He’s published four novels, two novellas, five short story collections and numerous books of poetry, essays and shards, a poem/story hybrid of his own invention.
He keeps slamming out the words, if anything with more ferocity than ever. As Henry Miller said so eloquently around half a century ago, “You may as well have your say, they’re going to shit on you anyway.”