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Last Notes From Home (A Paranoid’s Novel)

Book I: To Oahu with the wild geese

surfing wave, shore, Oahu, Hawaii

An ideal surfing wave rolls on to the shore on Oahu island, Hawaii. Circa 1977.

Ernst Haas/Ernst Haas/Getty

IT IS ALLEGED by a member of my family that I used to suffer from insomnia at the age of four; and that when she asked me how I managed to occupy my time at night I answered, “I lie awake and think about the past.” –RONALD KNOX

I HAVE SEEN the hippopotamus, both asleep and awake; and I can assure you that, awake or asleep, he is the ugliest of the works of God. But you must hear of my triumphs. Thackeray swears that he was eyewitness and earwitness of the proudest event of my life. Two damsels were just about to pass that doorway which we, on Monday, in vain attempted to enter, when I was pointed out to them. “Mr. Macaulay!” cried the lovely pair. “Is that Mr. Macaulay?” And having paid a shilling to see Behemoth, they left him in the very moment at which he was about to display himself–but spare my modesty. I can wish for nothing more on earth, now that Madame Tussaud, in whose Pantheon I hoped once for a place, is dead. –THOMAS BABINGTON MACAULAY to THOMAS FLOWER ELLIS


AT SEVEN IN THE MORNING I GO TO OAHU. What was going to be a few jolly days of imbibing and, hopefully, copulating with heartbreakingly beautiful Eurasian girls (I was obsessed with loin fantasies of Tahitian nymphets)has turned into a deathwatch. My older brother Bill, with whom I was one day hoping to spend these larksome days, is dying of a particularly virulent form of cancer, one that begins in the caecum–a pouch or “blind gut” lying between the large and small intestines. Because the caecum opens onto so many of the vital organs, and therefore moves into the lymph glands with alarming rapidity, the patient, mercifully, goes swiftly.

Although years ago I laid on him the cognomen of Brigadier, Bill is only a full colonel. The Brigadier is a joke we had. Just graduated from Watertown High School, he entered the military at 17 in February, 1944. He served in three wars. He was much-decorated, over the years being awarded the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star Medal, the Joint Services Commendation Medal, and two Purple Hearts. He rose steadily from the rank of private, and I used to chide him that he’d never know repose until he got his brigadier’s star. Although in response Bill invariably grumbled Shee-it, he never denied it.

Convinced at length, however, that the footwork involved in promotion above the rank of full bird was more arduous and devious than he cared to cope with, that as a high-school graduate competing with his West Point-VMI-Citadel brethren he would, for brigadier, be “passed over” for the first time (if one is twice passed over one’s retirement is, at least tacitly, demanded), he decided to take his retirement in Honolulu where he is assigned to the 500th Intelligence Group, the army’s top-secret intelligence unit for the entire Pacific.

His plans were to remain permanently on Oahu with his army-brat wife, the daughter of another colonel, and his sixteen-year-old son. The Brigadier owns a 100-thousand-dollar home in Kailua, a Honolulu suburb on the northeast shore of Oahu much-favored by the military. As nearly as I can determine, he was hiring out to a real estate firm to supplement his ample colonel’s pension. He would sell property part time, sit at the edge of his kidney-shaped pool sunning himself, drink chilled Olympia (oh-lee) beer from the can, and call back the days of sacrifice and slaughter, of cannon and carnage, of madness, cowardice and heroism. Although I ever-so-elegantly disapproved of it all–and The Brigadier damn well knew it (a lot he gave a shit!)–and there were times when I actually wondered how we could have issued from the same old lady’s loins within three years of one another, I yet had hoped that on his retirement I might spend a year with him at the patio of that blue pool and that together we might relate the story of his life. The Brigadier served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and I thought his tale might tell us something of the mid-20th Century American nightmare.

Alas. The Brigadier and I shall never–at least together–tell the story of his life.

The Brigadier was not sick. Rather, he was very sick and did not know it. The physical examination for the retiring military is very scrupulous. Should a disease or injury incurred during one’s term of service be detected, it may mean the difference between one’s being retired at full or half pay. There is an ironically eye-expanding joke, doubtless apocryphal, among career soldiers that doctors always find something “wrong” with officers above the rank of brigadier and that they are thus always retired at full pay. In my brother’s case, and though he wasn’t really a brigadier, the joke did not apply. After the quacks kept calling him back for further X-rays, they finally cut on him last November, took a peek, closed him back up, stitched him, and put him on the new cancer controlling drugs. That was when the telephone wires between my hometown, Alexandria Bay, N.Y., a St. Lawrence River village just north of Watertown where I grew up, and Honolulu began crackling.

I can hear the word cancer (my father died of lung lesions at 40) spoken sibilantly the length of a football field. Still, I did not at first grasp the details or realize the full import of what was happening. At the time I was locked up in an upstairs study of my mother’s house in Alexandria Bay, “The Bay,” absorbed in writing Pages from a Cold Island, and as November became December, then January, the calls between the old lady and my sister-in-law became alarmingly frequent and, lifting my fingers from my typewriter’s keys, my ears cocked tensely, my breathing suspended, I could hear the old lady in her downstairs bedroom talking across the continent and halfway across the Pacific. In the early days she said oh and oh and oh as if she were being made to understand the situation. Then as the days passed she said oh and oh and oh as if in thrall to the desolation of The Brigadier’s predicament. And always now I heard that demonic word cancer.

Unexpectedly we received a letter from the military surgeon attending The Brigadier at the Tripler Army Hospital in Honolulu. My twin sister is a laboratory technician at the E.J. Noble Hospital here in The Bay. The monies to build the latter were donated by the wag who started Life Savers, the candy with the hole in it, a guy much enamored of our Thousand Islands. My sister gave the letter to our friend, Dr. Bob Burtch, and asked his interpretation. Bob’s interpretation was as succinct and hair-curling as masterful poetry. The Brigadier’s case was terminal.

The old lady downstairs has had one stroke, has a bad ticker, high blood pressure, gall bladder trouble, and those various diseases attendant to aging. Thus Frances took her to Bob’s office at the hospital, had him first check her blood pressure, then let Bob explain to her the hard inalterable facts.

From that day on the old lady began to weep a great deal, to wring her hands in anguish, and to make plans to visit Hawaii and for the last time see her eldest. Knowing the old lady’s fear of flying, I did not think the plans would befall. Presently it was February and the entirely unexpected happened, something that was destined to take me from the ivory tower of my upstairs study and force my own confrontation with life’s distressing eventualities, make me leave my cold and eyeless typewriter keys. The Brigadier, momentarily released from Tripler Army Hospital, called from Kailua. He talked at length with my mother, assuring her that everything was okey-dokey and that the new “wonder” drugs were doing things just short of miraculous. Then he asked to speak to me.

The old lady called and asked me to pick up the upstairs extension. When The Brigadier heard her ring off, he demanded to know if she could hear my voice. I said no and that she did not hear well in any event. Now he spoke to me in the way he always had, with unflagging abruptness, as both Brigadier and older brother. Under no circumstances did he want the old lady, considering her health and her inordinate trepidation of flying, to come to Hawaii. He was being readmitted to the Tripler Army Hospital, he looked ghastly, man, ghastly, “like a piece of shit,” and in no way did he want the old lady to see him in that condition.

Do you know what I’m telling you, kiddo?

I paused. I said yes. I wet my lips. Yet I paused again, my breathing labored. Taciturn, bewildered, painfully obstinate, I did not know what to say. At great length, and as though my voice were discrete and issuing from some soft-spoken man I did not know, I at last said I wanted to get away from my manuscript for a few days and might come to Oahu for an R & R. Knowing my pompously articulated distaste of the military, The Brigadier–as I hoped he would–got a kick out of my employing the jargon R & R. He laughed, around, I suspect, his ever-present Antonio y Cleopatra cigar. I said I could stay with my boyhood chum Wiley Hampson, with whom I’d started kindergarten and gone all through the Watertown public schools. Wiley had been on Oahu fifteen years, and from what I’d heard from mutual friends was doing well and owned a large pool hall and commercial fishing boats. As though it were a trifling afterthought, I said I’d then be able to get together with The Brigadier to chat and to tip ever so many drinks.

“That might be a good idea.”

From the day of that circumspect conversation I, like the old lady, went on my own walkabout, sans hand-wringing and tears, in my thermal hunter’s underwear, walking for miles on the Goose Bay Road with my boxer, The Killer. Atop the hill, where the February winds coming off the St. Lawrence whip furiously across the village’s golf course, the gasping cold cut to the marrow and The Killer licked his chops uneasily, his cropped ears lay timidly on his fawn dome, and he looked bewilderedly and beseechingly at me. But still I did not weep. Walking with my tuqued head downward to the icy shoulders of the Goose Bay Road, my face burnt cerise from the cold, I was one day abruptly conscious of something hard, acrid, alien and ugly in my mouth. I removed my glove, spat into my instantly frigid palm and realized, astonishingly, that I had been gnashing my teeth so severely I’d loosened a great silver filling from an upper left molar. As if it could somehow be reused, I put the filling in my pocket. Turning swiftly on our heels, The Killer and I–in a state of a corps perdu–ran all the way home.

When we got to the house, both suffering tachycardia, I found a note from the old lady informing me she’d gone to Watertown shopping. Directly getting Honolulu information, I got a number for Wiley Hampson and presently was through to him at his home in Hawaii Kai, a suburb on the southeast shore of Oahu, not far south of Kailua. I hadn’t seen Wiley Hampson since 1959, during his mother Ethel’s wake, when he’d joined me at the Crystal Restaurant on Watertown’s Public Square and we’d tipped a few to help put Ethel’s ghost on its way, so we exchanged pleasantries for a time, then I came to the point. My brother, Colonel William R. Exley, whom Wiley had known as long as he’d known me, which is to say forever, was doubtless dying over there in the Tripler Army Hospital. I could not remember the doctor’s name. Would Wiley get through to the attending quack and find out what was going on?

“Look, Wiley, old buddy. These fucking jokers are awfully jealous of their prerogative and reluctant as hell to discuss cases with nonrelatives. I don’t give a fuck how you do it. Explain you’re a lifelong friend, say you’re our half-brother, whatever. But make the fucker tell you what’s going on. And,” I added, “the old lady’s in Watertown shopping. So get back to me as soon as you can, will yuh.”

Wiley was back to me within an hour, when I was halfway through my third can of Budweiser. The Brigadier, according to the military surgeon, was not leaving the Tripler Army Hospital alive. If I were going to see him in this life, I’d better come immediately. Would I, Wiley wanted to know, stay with him or with my sister-in-law?

“Stay with me,” he said.

“I probably will.”

Now I called my sister-in-law in Kailua and explained to her what Wiley had just told me. She authenticated it. Had she made any plans to return The Brigadier’s body to the mainland for burial? She had not. The Brigadier’s request was that he be buried among his comrades in the famous Honolulu military cemetery in the extinct volcanic crater called Punchbowl. This did not surprise me. Although on the army’s idiocy The Brigadier could be supercilious, caustic, sardonic, downright abrasive, he loved and took pride in the military. He had seen more friends than he could count fall in battle, and I found his desire to lie among them altogether in character. Telling his wife about The Brigadier’s last call in which he told me that under no circumstances did he want the old lady to come to Hawaii to see him, I said there was no way I could tell her I was going to Honolulu and get out of the house without her.

“For christ’s sake, she’ll be sitting on her packed suitcase on the front stoop!”

If I couldn’t dissuade her, my sister-in-law suggested I bring her with me, park her in the waiting room, and at an appropriate moment in the conversation explain to The Brigadier she was outside and wanted to see him. Knowing something of The Brigadier’s temper and that ours is a family in which the elder’s wishes and damn-near commands–almost Italian in character in this sense–the prospect did not seem a happy one. But having no choice, I agreed.

I go forewarned. The Brigadier has wasted away. Besides his intestines, his liver and kidneys are now gone. There is a great amount of fluid on his stomach, and due to the “wonder” drugs he drifts between sleeping and waking, between rationality and irrationality. And as a weak man, and as rude as it may seem to my sister-in-law, I know I shall have no choice but to stay with Wiley. To get through this will take me a great deal of vodka, and the thought of doing a quart to a quart and a half a day in front of her, my nephew and the old lady is–well, a dismally unnerving vision.

Ironically, and for whatever morbid or odd reason–perhaps simply because Bill was military–I have over the years, in one article or another, read about Punchbowl Cemetery. Though dedicated as the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in September 1949, the first interment or reinterment in Punchbowl actually occurred in January of that year and was the remains of an unknown serviceman killed during the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Among those reinterred in Punchbowl that first year was Ernie Pyle, the World War II correspondent whom I’ve recently reread and was distressed to discover didn’t read nearly as well as he had to a fifteen-year-old. Pyle was killed by Japanese machine gun fire at Ie Shima, a small island off the northern tip of Okinawa. It was of course the Americans’ securing of Okinawa (within weeks of Pyle’s death), a battle in which 100,000 Japanese were killed, that put our air force within easy reach of the metropolitan areas of Japan. At various times since the dedication, the remains of troops from World War II (reinterred), Korea (where The Brigadier received his wounds, the second time near fatally), and of course Vietnam have been buried there. Hence there emanates from this extinct volcanic crater a morose and ugly reminder of America’s century-long preoccupation with the South Pacific. The Hawaiian word for the cemetery is Puowaina. During the Hawaiian monarchy years ago heavy cannon were mounted on the crater’s rims to protect Honolulu Harbor. Depending on which Hawaiian is translating Puowaina, it means “reverence in the highest degree” or “consecrated hill” or “hill of sacrifice.” As much as I would later come to love Hawaii and the Hawaiians, I wonder if any of these translations is apposite to such a place.


BECAUSE THE FIRST LEG OF OUR AMERICAN AIRLINES journey from Syracuse’s Hancock International Airport to Chicago’s O’Hare International, where after a mere forty-minute layover we were to connect with that line’s nine-hour-plus direct flight to Honolulu, left at seven in the morning, my brother-in-law John drove us the hundred miles from Alexandria Bay to Syracuse in the late afternoon of the preceding day. At the airline’s counter we first checked our suitcases through on the morning flight to Hawaii, I holding out only my toilet kit, the old lady two small overnight bags. We then registered at the Airport Inn, asked that our room be rung at 5:30 a.m., and said thanks and goodbye to John who promised he’d be in daily contact with us by phone. For an in-law John has had over the years a surprisingly close and harmonious relationship with The Brigadier, in many respects a closer relationship than mine.

After a solemn and speechless dinner in the dining room of the inn, the old lady having deep-fried fantail shrimp (as with many people distress causes the old lady to eat more heartily than otherwise), and I nibbling at a dreadful charcoaled filet mignon which tasted of chemicals and an equally dreadful salad (all raw carrots and tasteless winter tomatoes), I picked up the old lady’s two overnight bags, one a rouge zippered plastic satchel, the other an open black wool carpet bag crocheted and patterned with red, orange and yellow flowers, and led the way to our room. Detecting that the bags seemed inordinately heavy, I asked the old lady what the hell was in them. Rather sheepishly she explained she’d got a 12-pound wheel of Heath’s cheddar cheese (probably the best in upstate New York) from the factory at Rodman, little more than a four corners southeast of Watertown, our county seat. It was a cheese The Brigadier much loved and was always asking to have mailed to him at the various ends of the earth where he was stationed.

Wiley had been in the islands fifteen years, and the old lady had cut the wheel in half and wrapped its separate pieces in aluminum foil as she felt it might remind Wiley of home. For the two of them she’d also brought along some Croghan (another eye-blinking village in the area) Baloney, which is shaped more like a sausage than the supermarket variety we upstate vulgarians call horsecock. Croghan Baloney is terribly rich, terribly spicy, and terribly delicious. Both of these products are superb with saltines, horseradish, hot mustard, and a case of Molson’s Canadian ale, lolling around with the guys watching the Sunday football. Touched, and though I knew Wiley would appreciate the gifts immensely, I’d heard enough about The Brigadier’s condition to know his cancer-ridden peritoneum wouldn’t be holding down any cheddar, least of all that spicy and mouthwatering Croghan Baloney.

At the dull, uniform and nondescript room of The Motel, the rooms of which invariably remind me of how far and how coarsely we have drifted from the American dream of distinction, I adjusted the color on the primordial-ooze tube, then on the pretext that the newsstand might not be open prior to our 6:30 a.m. boarding, and so that the old lady might make her toilet and get into the new nightgown I knew she’d purchased for her stay at The Brigadier’s home, I told her I was going to stroll back to the terminal and get some magazines to read on the long flight. Buying the first half-dozen publications I put my hand to, I walked to the bar, ordered a double vodka with a splash of tonic no fruit, reached into my shirt pocket, removed two .30 mg. Serax capsules, popped them into my mouth, and washed them down with the drink.

Abruptly, to my surprise and annoyance that I’d already ingested the downers which would very quickly be taking me into dreamy nether regions, I found myself talking with the Syracuse criminal lawyer John Ray, a fine, distinguished-looking, soft-spoken–no Kunstler courtroom tactics for John Ray!–and extremely considerate gentleman. Among upstate lawyers John Ray is considered the best in the area (I doubt he has ever lost a case–at least after appeals–up in our county of Jefferson). Among many attorneys John Ray is considered to be no less than among the half-dozen best criminal practitioners in the state. Many years ago, before the Appellate Division of the State of New York, he’d defended a friend of mine (alas, he’d lost this one!) in a disbarment proceeding brought by the grievance committee of the Jefferson County Bar Association, a case in which I was intricately and feloniously involved in a way that has no bearing on these pages. I had heard that John Ray had not originally wanted the case. The “rules of evidence,” at which John Ray was of course extremely learned and adept, did not apply in such a proceeding. The prosecutors for our local bar association would be allowed, for example, to introduce into “evidence” my friend’s drinking and sexual habits, and so forth–his Morality, which is of course utterly irrelevant in a criminal proceeding. Hence, and irony of ironies, attorneys don’t accord their peers the same due process that is accorded a genteel “priest” like Sweet Charlie Manson.

Thus John Ray had recommended my friend to a Syracuse University law professor who had defended a number of lawyers against disbarment, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, and who was as good an authority on the proceeding as John Ray knew. But my friend was desperately adamant and told John Ray he was in trouble, man, trouble and that he’d put his faith in no one else but John Ray. While the latter was reluctantly pondering accepting the case, the entirely unexpected–or so the story goes (I did not hear it from John Ray nor did I bother to ask him that night if it were true)–happened. It is said, apocryphally for all I know, that one or two Watertown establishment lawyers approached John Ray, said they’d heard he was considering taking the case, and told him they’d much appreciate it if he didn’t!

Every time I heard the story I smiled sadly, and I desperately wanted to ask John Ray that night if it were true. Instead, against great temptation, I squelched the urge to lure the great man into gossip. If true, such an intervention from one lawyer to another is not only unethical, it is grounds for severe rebuke from any bar association in America. More than that, though, and once again if true, it touchingly manifests the naive provincialism of my home county and shows how little our local gentry understand of a man like John Ray. Like most great criminal lawyers John Ray has always been a loner. I’ve heard his offices are as spartan as a monk’s cell–no man for fancy carpeting he! And though John Ray has been known to take more than several drinks (like most loners, I’d guess), he is totally abstemious when preparing and trying a case. An attorney friend of mine tells of the time he, John Ray and a young new lawyer were lunching across the street from a courthouse in which the young attorney was trying a case of his own. Detecting the young attorney was imbibing preprandial martinis, John Ray told him in his usual polite and gentlemanly way, but with no little severity nonetheless, that the young man was practicing The Law and had an absolute duty to his client not to do so with alcohol in him.

For whatever reason, John Ray at last agreed to accept my friend’s case. At the airport bar we now bought each other drinks, with me going down, down and down by the moment, talked about his summer home on Lake Ontario where he went to fish for bass, and then, and as was inevitable, came round to The Case. John Ray told me how much he’d liked my disbarred friend and his “lovely charming wife” and how sorry he’d been to lose that case above all. Five years later he’d petitioned the Appellate court to have my friend reinstated, the petition being denied outright. And now–oh, my!–ten years had passed and the lovely charming wife was beseeching him to re-petition the court. He now asked me what I thought about it all. Flattered that the brilliant John Ray would seek my opinion, I said I knew my friend was doing well in the construction business but that for his three sons by his first wife, all now approaching college age and doubtless having received, as they were going through their formative years, no little abuse from their Watertown schoolmates for their father’s disbarment, I suspected my friend wanted, if not vindication or exoneration, at least reinstatement as a sirely gift, humbly offered, to those sons.

“That’s the point,” John Ray said. “His wife wants me to re-petition on the premise that if he’s readmitted he’ll never practice again.”

Gloomily I pondered that for many moments, sipping pensively on my vodka. Then I spoke.

No, no, no. Under no circumstances would I ask those”–I almost said “fuckers” but knew John Ray wouldn’t brook that kind of language–”judges down in Oswego to give him back his shingle on the condition it doesn’t mean doodly-squat. I’d go in there with the idea that the guy’s paid his dues, that he’s supported and educated his children despite his disbarment, that he deserves reinstatement and that given his license back he can damn well do with it as he pleases. I know at his age he won’t attempt to start another practice anyway. He’s doing too well in the construction racket. But I certainly wouldn’t approach those judges so abject as to have them imagine it was any of their business what he does if he gets his license back.”

“I think you might be right.”

Sorry that I couldn’t get John Ray to reveal to me whether he planned to petition the court again (he was much too cautious for that), we shook hands and said goodbye. John Ray told me to give his affection to my friend and his lovely charming wife, and I dreamily, somnambulantly from the Serax and the booze, made my way across the parking lot to the Airport Inn. As I did so I was thinking how much the airport’s bar resembled every other airport bar in the world, with great picture windows opening onto macadam and concrete runways so we all could apparently go into orgies of ecstasy watching 747s land and depart. And I was thinking further that damnation might ultimately reside in having one’s past catch up with him in the bars of distant terminals, say, Timbuktu, Perth or Addis Ababa.

At the room the old lady, having taken her own pills, was asleep in her bed, her mouth open, her aging face wrinkled and drawn about the mouth and eyes. In vivid living color on the tube Matt Dillon and Festus in the persons of Jim Arness–also grown old with the times! oh, no, not you Matt!–and the shamelessly hammy Ken Curtis were in Matt’s spartan weather-beaten wood-paneled marshal’s office slurping black coffee from their tin cups. Festus had his spurs up on his desk, was cocking his head and squinting his eyes, and prefacing his every high-pitched yap with “gol dangs” and “golly gees”–this in a frontier town where the American’s love of the four-letter word was, if possible, even more pronounced than it is today!–was issuing his surprisingly acute and pertinent observations on the nature of life, while the ever-stoic and laconic Matt–all six feet seven of him from out of the Swede country of northern Minnesota–remained as wordless, stealthy and scraggly as an old grizzly. To Festus’s every remark Big Jim shook his head with a solemn, ponderous and rueful petulance which seemed to suggest that if God did in fact lay a burden on each of us–to make one pay his dues, as it were–then assuredly Festus was the marshal’s cross to bear.

That the old lady had fallen asleep spoke more eloquently to her grief than anything else could have done. “Gunsmoke” had been her and my stepfather Wally’s–dead now six years himself–favorite TV show, one they had viewed religiously. To say the old lady “watched” is not precise. Although she has TV sets all over her house–it is she to whom the suave phrasemakers direct their nonsensical spiels and render the Ultimate Consumer–she presently (left to her own devices, her widowhood)–has taken to falling asleep during a show, as well we all should. The old lady had, however, taken great pleasure from Wally’s pleasure.

Many years ago, before Henry Ford the elder rendered the horse obsolete with his assembly line and turned America into the most clockwork and wheel-spinning joke of a civilization that ever desecrated the green earth and forced Wally into the automobile spring business, Wally, like his father before him, had been a blacksmith. As an apprentice to his father he had traveled, itinerantly as it were, all over upstate New York shoeing horses. To this day the old old-timers remember him as The Blacksmith and not as the owner of the Watertown Spring Service. One of the antiquarians gave it to me as indisputable fact that once when trying to shoe a particularly churlish dobbin, Wally became so incensed that he doubled his fist, slugged the horse and knocked it down. So it is that when I now watch the leadin to ABC’s Monday Night Football, and whether or not the old man’s tale was fantasy, and see the cowboy betogged ex-Detroit Lion tackle Alex Karras swagger drunkenly out the swinging doors of a frontier saloon, saunter up to a horse, punch it and flatten it–assuredly a case of art imitating life–whereas I’m invariably watching this scene with fishing guide friends in The Bay and at this precise moment always feel crushed and walled in by peals of raucous laughter, I on the other hand am overwhelmed with nostalgic memories of Wally.

In his old age, wasting away from heart trouble and diabetes, Wally would sit in his easy chair, his feet sheathed in his red felt slippers, a stogie buried between false teeth and right cheek, the old lady studying him with amused apprehension. Wally would sit and marvel at the horses, identifying their breeds, and especially marvel at the noble and endurable stallion it took to carry the six feet seven Arness across sunbaked deserts and snow-peaked mountains. Too, at the appearance of Chester (Dennis Weaver), he of the gimpy leg and fireman’s suspenders, the precursor to Festus, he would remove the cigar from his cheek, playfully slap his thigh, roar with laughter–enlisting the still watchful old lady in that laughter–and say, “That damn Chester!” or (and time passed, time passed), “That damn Festus!” Hence it is that despite my “sophisticated” opinion of both these actors being given over to a shameless mugging and upstaging, and because whatever else laughter is, there invariably reside shocks of recognition in it, Wally’s immense joviality always made me ponder whether Chester and Festus were as awful as I imagined them and wonder further if in that long-ago time back toward the turn of the century, Wally hadn’t come into contact with just such outrageous characters. If nothing else, Chester and Festus were individuals and, looking about The Bay’s summer streets at the tourists in their red-linen jackets with mother-of-pearl buttons and alike Bermuda shorts, one likes to hope that Wally had indeed encountered such types.

Although I’d had three or four double vodkas and was still going dreamily down from the Serax capsules, I couldn’t resist–doubtless attempting to take my mind from the grave nature of the pilgrimage which lay ahead–watching the rest of the show. Removing my clothes except for my jockey shorts, and though it is ordinarily my wont to drop shirts and trousers in the middle of the floor where I stand, I now scrupulously folded them on hangers and hung them in the closet so that for the old lady I might look as spiffy as possible on the grueling flight ahead. Then I got into bed and snapped off the nightstand lamp, leaving only the vivid multicolored TV image as the only light in the room. As was also my wont, I then started, sotto voce now because of the old lady’s being asleep, yapping at the screen.


WELL, MATT, OLD PARDNER, SAYS I, like the rest of us you’ve grown old with the times. Your puss, old boy, is drawn with lines and wrinkles. There is melancholy in your blue eyes. Your jowls, Big Jim, are drooping down like cows’ udders. That girth of yours appears to be held in by a corset, either that or that furry chest is sagging over your stomach. That Colt .45 sure don’t clear its holster the way it used to. For sure, pardner. Excuse me for laughing, marshal. I was just thinking that if old Wally were still around I’m sure he’d express awesome admiration–doubtless incredulity!–for the miracle horse that could carry that lard ass over scalding parched wastes and frigid rock-cragged hills. Well, that’s okay, pardner. Shee-it, Matt, don’t get me wrong. I forgive you and most assuredly don’t mean to patronize. From the sidelines, and with the rest of us, you too have witnessed the jolly spectacles of Vietnam, the riots, the mindless and blasphemous assassinations, Haldeman, Erlichman, Colson and that whole line of Fascist pricks in their regimental neckties parading themselves before the very tube that you, Kitty, Chester–and don’t forget the wise ol’ Doc!–not only helped bring into every home in America but so institutionalized, it became as sacred to the American as his odorless and spotless snowy vitreous China toilet bowl–yes, these tailored thugs parading themselves before your tube and straightfacedly confessing (most of them educated to The Law, Matt!) to one stunning felony after another.

Yeah, old pardner, the extent of your consternation and grief at the obscene spectacle America has become I can only guess at–Big Jim Arness from Swedish immigrant stock up yonder there in Minnesota, from Ms. Edna Ferber’s So Big country! Did you, too, have to read So Big in high school. Coming from your neck of the woods, you must have! My high school class loved the book. We laughed, we wept furtively, we were in thrall, we were fucking ennobled, old pardner, fucking ennobled! Of course Ms. Ferber’s farmers weren’t precisely Swede or from Minnesota. Ms. Ferber’s farmers were Dutch and did their truck gardening in Illinois. Do you remember Selina DeJong? By our teacher she was foisted off on us as one sensitive broad. She said things like, “Cabbages are beautiful!” and into Ms. Ferber’s prose there came a lot of “felicitous” phrases like “fresh green things peeping out of the earth.”

Cabbages, Big Jim? Then there was Selina’s son Dirk DeJong–”So Big” himself! To his great misfortune the haughty Dirk didn’t find cabbages in the least pulchritudinous. Dirk went on to make a lot of bread in Chicago, rode to the foxes with that snooty North Shore crowd and, alas, ended up with a Jap (as Ms. Ferber called him) houseman and valet named Saki (I shit you not, pardner!) and lying face down on his bed among his proper Peel evening clothes. It is a pitiable, pathetic vision–Ms. Ferber’s profound notion of the price one pays for scorning cabbages. And what can one say, save that these thirty years have rendered Ms. Edna Ferber and all her works as obsolete as the American Dream. Well, no, not entirely; one might take So Big and a box of maple sugar leaves to a terminal case at Roswell Memorial.

We were lucky up yonder there in Watertown, though, marshal (as I pray you were too), for along with Ms. Ferber our teachers took Willie the Shake’s Caesar and Macbeth and Hamlet and shoved them up our asses. And do you know the only thing I consciously retain from high school English–I mean, I was a fucking jock, Matt–after, lo, these nigh onto three decades? The prettiest girl in our class was also the brightest. She was tanned and blonde and rich and wore lemon cashmere sweaters. She owned the cold silent hauteur of her brilliance, could play the cello to break your heart–for fact, Big Jim–and when she strolled by between classes, great dark blue eyes so aloofly and coldly forward, her mountain of textbooks and notebooks clutched lovingly against and erasing the outline of her tender young breasts, she had the entire football team (me included, pardner!) stepping fiercely on each other’s toes, self-consciously pummelling one another with our hands, ferociously butting heads, emitting great raucous belches, trying to score obscene “funnies” off one another, farting, spitting (yes, expelling flatus and expectorating right in the oily and hallowed halls of the old high school on Sterling Street!). We did anything that we might get her attention, anything that might crumple her stunning poise. Only once we wanted her to turn to us, if only in distaste; if only once we might get those great dark blue eyes to wince in nothing but dismay at our bestiality.

We never of course got any reaction whatever. And was it not astonishing, Mistuh Dillon? With all her distaff classmates mooning nightly by their phones for a call from one jock or another, she had at seventeen already put the thug and hooligan footballer behind her. Yes, great dark blue eyes forward and walking ever unwaveringly, that distressing pile of texts crushing her anatomy where even then a man’s loving mouth should have been placing its wet caresses, she marched and marched and marched to some grander, nobler, more significant and dignified destiny.

It must have been our senior year, marshal, for we were into Hamlet and I was one day struck nearly speechless to see her raise a beckoning arm–nearly dumb, old pardner, because this sweety pants (as we cornily called them then) did not just have smartness, the kind of smartness-smartaleckyness which like some monstrous sci-fi fungus thrives on letting itself be heard, which indeed cannot live without letting itself be heard. Au contraire, this golden maiden had brilliance and was awesome and smugly comfortable with it and had no need whatever to assure herself or us, by the sound of her own voice, of that brilliance. Indeed, since junior high I doubt I’d heard her voice but twice.

As astonished as the rest of us, I think, the teacher deferentially acknowledged the questioning hand and whispering arm sheathed in its lemon cashmere (like a tulip peduncle in summer breeze), and my sweet cellist, to the incredulity of the entire class, and in very measured, articulate and grave tones, expounded at no little length on the difficulty she’d had in absorbing Shakespeare since as sophomores we’d got into his heavier tragedies beginning with Caesar. Oh, as a freshman she’d liked Romeo and Juliet well enough, despite the unhappiness of its ending (that horny play was no play for freshmen, old pardner, but we were too dumb to know it, as was the New York State Board of Regents, never known for its wisdom), but since that first year it had been all madness, delusion, murder, vengeance, lies, assassination, betrayal, mindless killing, fury, hatred, deceit, lust for power, incest–I didn’t even know the meaning of the latter; I mean, I was a fucking jock, I’ve told you that flat out, marshal–ad infinitum. Yes, to the speechlessness of the entire class, this pristine golden cellist’s litany was endless and almost stupefying in that she seemed to admit nothing that wasn’t supposedly held most disgusting and abhorrent by man.

“It seems to me that Shakespeare,” she concluded, and I remember her precise words, old pardner, “wants nothing less than to rub our faces in the muck of life.”

But do you see what I’m driving at, Big Jim? Not only was that lovely brilliant young lady’s uncharacteristic spiel the only thing I consciously took from high school English but that catalogue of deplorable nauseous vices has turned out to be an apt description of our history of the three decades since that long-ago day. And I often wonder what my demure cellist does now. She’s probably married to the Chairman of the English Department at Northwestern, lives in twelve rooms in Winnetka, and at seven on Sunday evenings plays in a professional string quartet. Or, has she not made her adjustment to the hard facts of history, perhaps she huddles in a corner of a madhouse and weeps great scalding tears from out those stunning dark blue eyes. Whatever, I wish I had a tape recording of her modulated, precise and abrasive diatribe to send to Winnetka. No, no, Mistuh Dillon, no I don’t. In retrospect that would be such a cheap malicious shot. For didn’t we all, at seventeen, believe Willie the Shake rubbed “our faces in the muck of life”? It’s now become so clear. Let’s say goodbye, old pardner, to Ms. Edna Ferber and in apology tip our hats to Mr. Shakespeare. He may not have saved our reason, but were it not for him we wouldn’t feel as comfortable with the stench we cast.

But peace, marshal. The Serax takes me down and down and at the moment I have neither the wit, cunning nor arrogance of poise to sustain my ramblings. In any event, I forgive you your lard ass, the crow’s feet about and the melancholy in your blue eyes. More than that, Big Jim, I’m sure I’d like you as a man. What little I’ve read about you indicates that, save for the millions which have obviously accrued to your fame, you carry your worldwide notoriety lightly and ironically. You have become somewhat hermetic and made yourself inaccessible to snooping moronic Hollywood reporters. You do not don the ludicrous red cummerbund and tuxedo of the popinjay and appear at “award-winning” ceremonies and kiss people you despise on the mouth. You refuse to let Johnny Carson get off his corny one-liners at your expense.

Ah, yes, good for you, marshal, beautiful! It is true I read someplace you were divorced. But who among us in the new America has not been divorced?–I myself twice, Big Jim! Still, when we both look back, old pardner, and as Calvinistic and preposterous as it may seem coming from the likes of me, when all our one-night jejune honeymoons are over, I’m uneasily certain that wisdom will dictate that it would have taken infinitely more of what people used to call character to have hung in there with the same woman than to have walked away. I mean, I look at the great Mr Hemingway’s first posthumously published book A Moveable Feast. Above and beyond everything else, it was a valentine, a veritable valentine, to his first wife Hadley and suggested that all the women after Hadley were mere pilot fish. How that must have rankled Miss Mary! But why bother hanging in? Right? In our new affluent and mobile society it only takes about twenty minutes to pack one’s bags and go out the door. I tell you this, Mistuh Dillon, because as I jabber away it occurs to me that had I wanted to I could have made it with either of my wives.

Too, and I hesitate to bring this up, Big Jim, but I read recently that your young daughter, like Papa Hemingway, died by her own hand. What can I say, old pardner, that hasn’t been said throughout the ages? For her immortal soul I offer a prayer–I offer it at this very moment!–and for your grief and agony I extend my heartfelt sympathies. That said, I shall not grieve for her. What was it the wise Mr. Vonnegut, Jr., said? That in the world we live in “paranoia is an act of faith”? And that is the way I feel about suicide, marshal–that it too is an act of faith, negative faith though it be. For what thinking person among us has not looked about himself and seen the Fascists, apes and thugs who have inherited the earth and not at one time or another contemplated suicide? So that ultimately suicide becomes merely one’s eloquent and dramatic way of announcing one will not live in a world controlled by goons.

Abruptly I found myself fiercely smothering my mouth with the palm of my hand to repress the uproarious laughter welling up within me, a laughter I feared would waken the old lady in the adjoining bed. Suddenly I recalled something I’d read about “Gunsmoke.” Some years back Big Jim’s show had been suffering anemic audience ratings and was taken from the air for a couple seasons. Then a Madison Avenue genius suggested what the obvious problem was. “Gun-smoke” had had a 10 p.m. time slot and the suave merchandiser decided that, like Matt himself, his audience had all grown feeble with the times. We were all suffering our maladies, “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,” diabetes, piles, kidney stones, anxious bladders, cardiac trouble, prostate difficulty, discharging vaginas, ulcers, cancer, apoplexy, stroke, dementia, palsy, jail fever, eczema, prickly heat, gout, general lassitude, heartbreak, manginess, morbidness, dyspepsia, squeamishness, paranoia, droopiness, chronic bronchitis, alcoholism, constipation, indolence, gastritis, circulatory problems, diarrhea, flatulence, laryngitis, biliousness, biliary calculus, catarrh, sweating sickness, pyemia, dermatological trouble, migraine, enlarged spleen, allergy, asthma, deterioration, varicose veins, graveyard cough, the weariness of middle-age, and that therefore, having taken our medications and Libriums, we were all comfy abed by 10 p.m. The thing to do, the Madison Avenue bright boy reasoned to the network moguls, was to reschedule the show to 8 p.m. and an hour we decrepit old farts could still keep our eyes open. It was very funny, very funny indeed. Not only did the oldsters flock back to Dodge City and the Long Branch Saloon in droves but a whole new generation of youth discovered Matt, Kitty, Doc and Festus!

Try as I would, though, to keep my mind from The Brigadier, I found I could not do so. The first time I ever saw “Gunsmoke” had been in The Brigadier’s company. It was in his modest redbrick home in Baltimore, not far from Fort Hola-bird where as a captain he was teaching in that installation’s top-secret intelligence center and where he always maintained (facetiously one hopes) that West Pointers were his most intractable pupils. It must have been in 1957, for his son was yet unable to take but a few steps at a time and was crawling around the living room carpeting in a baby-blue jumper suit with those built-in stockings to keep the feet warm. At the time I was doing my drunken “on the road” ramble, was on my way to Florida, and within months I’d be committed to an insane asylum and begin my three years in and out of those quaint places. The Brigadier sat in his easy chair, his shoes and necktie off, the gold bars of his captaincy pinned to the epaulets of his khaki shirt, an Antonio y Cleopatra in his mouth, his hair shorn close to his skull in the way of the Lifer.

At ten o’clock he asked if I wanted to see “Gunsmoke.” When I said I knew nothing about the show and didn’t care one way or another, The Brigadier expressed surprise until I explained that my moving about so much prevented my knowing hardly anything about TV. We watched together, The Brigadier, his wife and me, his son crawling about the rug in his baby-blue jumper suit. At the black-and-white climax, for the world was black-and-white in those days, Marshal Dillon had three young, mean and scurvy hooligans with blotchy beards and crazy wild eyes–sort of youthful Jack Elam types–backed up against the side of a weather-beaten stable and petulantly debating whether or not to draw on him. At that moment, very evenly, in complete control, Big Jim issued his deadly menacing plea to the young thugs.

Don’t make me kill you, boys.

To this The Brigadier laughingly allowed, “They will. They’ll make Big Matt kill them!”

And sure enough, one of them went for his gun, and in less than a hotdamn Mistuh Dillon had cleared his holster and bam, bam, bam–wow! turning two of their number completely round and knocking the third back into the stable’s facade with a force suggesting he’d been struck full in the face with Babe Ruth’s outsized bat. When the smoke settled, the three miscreants lay piled up in a mound, limp and dead as mutton. Until that moment I had no idea of the violence being shown on TV and came unstrung, thinking the scene disarmingly powerful. Then I became aware of The Brigadier’s wild mocking laughter.

“What’s so funny?”

So funny. See that goddam Colt .45 cannon Big Matt is using. In those days you’d have been lucky to hit Fatty Arbuckle the length of the bar in the Long Goddam Branch Saloon. That cannon was about as accurate as a goddam B B gun. And none of that shooting from the hip bullshit. You’d better hold that baby with both hands or you’d break your mother wrist. Worse than that, for christ’s sake, Big Jim would have to be using black powder cartridges–white powder didn’t even come in until 18goddam93!–and every time you fired those goddam black powder babies you were all but overwhelmed with clouds of black soot. After the first shot you were lucky if you could see anything and even luckier if you didn’t blow off your own goddam kneecap!”

Having always known weapons, The Brigadier doubtless knew what he was talking about. It was then that the Serax took me all the way down. When the desk rang the room at 5:30 in the morning, the boob tube was still on but nothing emanated from it but a hum and a bright, bright ray of rectangular light. Laughing, I supposed this was the brightest thing that ever did emanate from the TV.

In This Article: Coverwall, memoirs


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