Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Wind and Smoke

Well, I'm running down the road
Trying to loosen my load
I've got seven women on my mind,
Four that want to own me,
Two that want to stone me,
One says she's a friend of mine
Take it easy, take it easy
Don't let the sound of your own wheels
Drive you crazy
Lighten up while you still can
Don't even try to understand
Just find a place to make your stand
And take it easy

-"Take It Easy" by Glen Frey and Jackson Browne

Several times in my life I have done things that were courageous to the point of foolhardiness, or possibly desperation. Usually, I realize this only years later, after much reflection.

Attending RPI was one such action, a decision of existential change, necessitated by an abiding need to get far away from the land of my birth and upbringing, which is to say the mid-South of the United States, Nashville, Tennessee in particular. The transition to RPI didn't seem like such a stretch at the time. After all, my father was born in Montana, raised in Illinois, stationed in Utah and Alaska during World War II, and then settled in Nashville to marry and raise a family. But all these things were in the context of major support systems, family, the Army, his job. What I had was RPI, an unknown quantity that wound up treating me pretty well. Besides, I had the confidence of the true knurd.

So, upon graduating with my bright shiny Master's degree in Engineering Science, I decided first, that I would move somewhere that I wanted to live, then look for a job, rather than having the job search make my decisions for me. Then, because I was truly sick of snow and winter, I decided that California was the place I wanna be, to paraphrase the immortal words of the Beverly Hillbillies theme song. That I went to Northern California rather than Southern California was because I knew a guy.

And there we go. Rather than having a major support organization, I knew a guy. One. Guy. Douglas and I had been friends at RPI, and in 1974 he was a graduate student at U.C. Berkeley. He kindly agreed to let me sleep on his floor while I was looking for a job etc. So Berkeley it was. I had no idea how brave I was being.

Soon after I arrived, complications ensued. Specifically, another friend of both of ours, Henry, decided to move back to Berkeley and also look for work. I'd known Henry when he was a 'Tute student, but he'd later transferred to Berkeley and he and Douglas had been roommates for a while. Douglas could hardly turn him down, but it made Douglas' one bedroom apartment pretty small. Then there was the fact that Douglas had decided to leave the UCB Computer Science program, so he was also looking for a job.

Yep, three twenty-something guys living in a one bedroom apartment, all looking for work in the middle of the 1974 recession. What could go wrong?

Anyway, we tried to give each other space, but it was pretty tense. The gloom of looking for a job at that time was pretty thick and the apartment was kinda depressing. So I ate out pretty much every meal. Fortunately, there are a lot of cheap places to eat in Berkeley, it being a student town. Almost every day I'd have at least one meal at Salerno, an Italian restaurant, where I could get a bowl of minestrone soup and fill up on bread. Or sometimes the soup was from the aptly named Soup Kitchen, which was on the corner of Dwight and Telegraph. Henry and I would eat at Kip's pretty frequently. And so forth.

For entertainment, well, again, student town. Concerts in the park, Sproul Plaza and the like. Low cover charge clubs. And so forth. Plus libraries, used book stores, comic book shops, all geared to low disposable incomes.

On some bulletin board or another, I saw a card for a J. P. Sartre discussion group. That's how I met Steve L. (Another Steve, Steve E., was to become my roommate for the year beginning the summer of '75. Steve E. and I met through the California Mythopoeic Society, probably another contact gleaned from a card on a bulletin board). Steve L. organized the group to help him get ideas for his senior thesis in Philosophy. I admired his ingenuity on that matter. Besides, somewhere along the line I took a look around and thought to myself, "Hey, I'm discussing Sartre in a Berkeley coffee house. How cool is that?"

Steve also got me my first job on the west coast, a part-time low paying gig for a company called Contractor's License Information Service, which, as the name implies taught would be Contractors to pass the State exams. CLIS had a "no fail" policy, which meant that, once having paid the fee, the contractor wannabe could attend as long as it took to pass the Licensing exam. CLIS was very much a "teach to the test" operation, to the point of sending its employees to take the tests and having them copy as many of the questions as they could get away with. The CLIS courses then taught the answers by rote. This is, at best, marginally legal, so it was not that much of a surprise the day that the tax guys shut the place down. Cut corners in one area and you're likely to cut a few elsewhere.

In any case, I was hired to gin up a new course, for the 1st Class Radiotelephone License. The fact is that rote learning is not so much a help for the FCC exams, as they routinely change the answers just enough to mean that you need to know what you're answering. But it was fun to write questions about push-pull circuits and the like. The CLIS gig paid enough that I didn't need cash infusions from home very often, and it lasted until I got a job at Mare Island on the nuclear submarine refueling crew, and then, six weeks later and before my security clearance had come through (hence, before I'd done any real work) my air pollution gig at SAI. I'd moved out of Douglas' with my first paycheck from Mare Island, so I was now living alone in my very own one bedroom apartment, two blocks from UCB. It turns out that the dropout factor makes it easy to find such a place in January.

So, living alone, which, as you might guess, can get lonely. But the Special Interest Group is a powerful networking tool, so I began to slowly expand my circle of acquaintances. Later, other friends followed me to California, taking advantage of the beachhead I'd established.

In the summer of '75, as I mentioned earlier, I moved in with Steve E. who had been accepted to a Cornell graduate program, but for the following year, so he had a year to burn. He spent his time working for CALPIRG, one of the Ralph Nader spin-off organizations. In some other essay, I'll describe the weekly Dungeons and Dragons game we were part of (yes, I really am that geeky). But to close out this essay, I'm going to tell the tale of a party.

I'd kept in touch with Steve L. and he had a band. It was something of a pick-up group, with a decidedly fluid personnel roster. Its name was Cargo Cult. That day, they were playing at a barbecue in somebody's back yard, probably an unpaid gig for a friend, just for the practice.

Steve played bass. They also had a drummer and the usual guitarist, but they also had a pedal steel player and for a few songs were joined by a girl who did an absolutely killer cover of Linda Ronstadt's "When Will I Be Loved?" As you can probably tell from the descriptions, there was a decidedly country rock flavor to the band that afternoon, and it took me a while to realize that the country licks were mostly coming from the guitarist, whereas the pedal steel man was playing jazz.

It was not that big an insight actually, because it came in the middle of an extended instrumental break where the jazz took over. A fair amount of the ceremonial herb had been passed around, the smoke joining with the barbecue scents and afternoon haze. Behind the band was the faintest glimmer of blue from SF Bay, with the fog gathering just beyond the Golden Gate, ready to overwhelm the sky as it usually does on summer evenings in the Bay Area. The wind had picked up and the day had turned cool despite the warm sun.

It was one of those Moments. The thought crossed my mind that Cargo Cult was Really Good, and that they knew it, but they probably also knew that they'd never make it as professionals. This was as good as it would get, and they were fine with that.

As for myself, well, you take your mystical insights were and when they happen. On that day, my thoughts were that we were creatures of wind and smoke, as ephemeral as the fog, as diffusely powerful as the sunlight. We coalesce and disperse; we merge with our surroundings. We sometimes accomplish great things. At other times we merely exist, as if there is anything "mere" about it. I was happy with all of it, a happiness that had taken just under a year in California to achieve. Right then, at that that particular point in time, I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

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