Masters of Musical Whistling competition is in Pasadena this August. I had to submit an audition to qualify. The song is “Movin’ On,” by Gary Moore, formerly guitarist with Thin Lizzie. I’d highly recommend the album “Still Got the Blues” (1990).

Not perhaps my best work, sort of dashed it off this afternoon. My best stuff is impromptu acapella jamming, which isn’t a good fit for this competition. Let me know what you think. Posted at

Overlooking and Overthrowing Sexist Stereotypes

I listened to a program called “Hidden Brain” on WPSU yesterday. The NPR blurb says “Shankar Vedantam uses science and storytelling to reveal the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior, shape our choices and direct our relationships.” Link:


Shankar interviewed a shrinkeloligist named Jennifer Bosson (sp?). She said she grew up in the 70s & 80s with a feminist mom who followed the conventional feminist rhetoric of the time: systemic oppression & discrimination against women by men in a patriarchal society is based in misogyny.

When she was in college, she liked a boy and thought he was cute. She asked another boy what he thought of Jim’s looks. Dave refused, or couldn’t give an answer. She wondered why.

Then there was the question of why it’s OK for women to work in “male” professions but not the other way round. In one of her studies, she had 1 group of men braid a blonde wig and tie the braids with pink ribbons. The other group did something more gender-neutral. Then she gave both groups the option to choose a second activity: shape-matching (like Tetris, I think), or working out on a punching bag. Most of the braiders chose the punching bag. She hypothesized that the braiders needed to recover or repair or reaffirm their masculinity. She said “[The image of] masculinity is difficult to earn, and easy to lose (or impugn).” In short, masculinity is fragile. Its roles are based in protection [of image], and fear of judgement by male peers.

Stereotypes (usually) exist for some reason. There is some grain of truth there somewhere. The fact is, though, that life is far more complex than any single label. When we find ourselves in that place where we run contrary to the stereotype, aka conventional wisdom, we may find that our work is to debunk it. Rather than resorting to intellectual argument to explain where stereotypes are wrong, it may be more effective to frame responses in story. This opens the possibility of changing the narrative.

Challenging the status quo can be uncomfortable in its own rite. Conventional wisdom is (often) that if a blade sticks above the lawn, it will be snipped off. Thus, to challenge may confront us with the possibility of such snippage. We may face rejection, ostracization, or worse. We may be pronounced “odd.” In the end, I will assert, it is better to carve one’s own path and be at peace than it is to conform and be oppressed or miserable.

Stuff Happens

The last time I jacked up the cab on the forwarder, the little jack-fed hydraulic cylinder that lifts the cab puked its guts, which rendered it nonfunctional. My solution that day was to use my truck’s scissor jack to lift the cab high enough to put the hydraulic bottle jack under the cab to get it high enough for me to do what it was I wanted to do (which is now lost in the mists of time). It wasn’t fast, but it worked.

The other day I went over to Gravel Point to put the tracks on. I noticed that I seemed to have a pretty good leak going on somewhere, the sort of leak that really should be fixed. It seemed to be under the floorboards, down in the belly of the machine. That meant jacking the cab up again, and the cylinder still wasn’t fixed. Not only that, it was rooted in the very bowels of the machine, in a place that could only be accessed by one person: Pretzelman (aka Dan). It appeared to me to be the sort of a place where you reached in through the inspection port with a left kink in your elbow, went about a foot and reached to the right around a bundle of prickly hydraulic lines, then back towards the rear of the machine. When your hand reached the destination, it was completely out of sight in the dusky cavern that lurks beneath the operator’s seat. The fingers had to find the nut for the anchor bolt, fondle the wrench until it fit on the nut, and turn it 1/16 of a turn. Of course they used a fine-thread bolt. I called Dan. He beat me there.

The cab needed to be tilted before anything else and of course (as I mentioned) the cylinder that was supposed to do the job was on strike. I got to thinking in that quizzical sort of way that I think sometimes, and I thought, now what if a person tied a rope to the light bar around the top of the cab, and threw the rope over the cab and hooked the come-along to it. It worked on paper. So I did that, only the light bar wasn’t going to be strong enough, so I tied the rope around the roots of the light bar where it was welded to the roof of the cab. That made it a shear load instead of a bending load, if that matters to you. Innovation in America is not dead.

Dan went to pretzeling himself around in the bottom of the machine, while still standing outside on the frozen ground. Pretty quick he looked like one of those contortionists that folds himself up in a box, pulls the lid shut and slaps the postage home on the outside (that’s the real trick, doing that from inside the box with the lid nailed shut). He had the cylinder out faster than you can say badger hound. On to the leak.

They say “follow the money” in CSI. In this case, it was more like “follow the oil,” which he did, and found the origins on the bottom of the valve bank. The leak wasn’t in the bottom of the machine at all. That’s just where gravity made it look like it was. We still need to change the tranny filter & fluid. That’s an ordeal for another day.

Before I even left home, I looked at the toolbox in the back of the truck. It’s heavier than most passengers, so it cuts down on acceleration and gas mileage. My little voice said “leave that in there.” Sometimes I listen; sometimes I don’t. I left Dan the pretzelman and took off down the highway, down to Tyrone, to look at a couple of trees for Frank.  This time I did listen. The toolbox was with me. Sort of like the Force (ref: Star Wars) Not being in a particular hurry, I stayed on the old road (which is very much the road less traveled these days since the interstate came through). I had been keeping an eye on the right front tire because it had a slow leak. The truck started getting a little squirmy and I thought “that feels like a tire going flat,” which is maybe a little like “that sounded like a snake,” but is actually quite different since my pickup doesn’t have duallies (a requisite feature to achieve the proper “that sounded like a snake” effect).

I came to a stop in front of Jensen’s junkyard. The right front tire was still happy. Apparently they had done a lateral and the flat was on the left rear. It went flatter after I came to a stop. There I sat, beside piles of cars and anything else you can imagine- -snowthrowers, bicycles, washing machines, an old milk can lurking beneath a rose bush, horse-drawn ag implements and jumbled piles of cars- -thinking “somewhere in this confusion there’s a tire that will fit my truck.

I called Frank to tell him I was going to be late and oh-by-the-way, might he be able to come and rescue me. He said no, he was up on Bald Knob doing his own confusion, trying to get a cylinder off his own machine so he could get it repacked, but where are you, he asked. I told him up here at Jensen’s, just above Ball Deagle. He said yeah, but where at Jensen’s. He said look for the gate. They live in the trailer up there in the middle of the junkyard. I was skeptical, since there weren’t any tracks (foot or otherwise) in or out, and the trailer blended in with the natural habitat, but I took his word for it and walked around the gate and up to the trailer. Frank called again. “He’ll be there in a minute. He was over at his son’s.” Presently a tattered minivan swung around the corner of the rutted road.

Watcha need?

Gotta flat on my pickup.

What fer pickup?

’02 Nissan.

Got none of them. Size are they?


Sure they’re fifteens?


Six hole?

Um. I think.

Yeah. So, down beside the trailer, there’s one. He said this like the trailer was a landmark, something I should know, in this sea of 100 acres of Detroitus. A guy was going to take it, he said, but his wife called and needed a ride to the hospital so he dropped it and there it lays.

Can you show me?

Shouldn’t. The missus told me not to go anywhere with the boy. I looked in the back of the van. There were no seats other than a single bucket occupied by a tow-headed boy of about 5. I guess Jensen saw my reservation. Aw hell. I’ll give you a ride down there. Let her squawk.

The passenger seat was occupied by man’s best friend, a 100-pound German Shepard. Jensen combination coerced, praised and muscled the shepard to get him to surrender his domain.

Is he friendly? Thinking of Jim Croce “badder than old king Kong, meaner than a junkyard dog.”

Yeah. No problem. And with a final shove he toppled the dog end for end, clearing the seat. Dog crawled up between the front seats and commenced to give me a good sniffing. I guess he doesn’t get many visitors.

We bumped down the lane, opened the gate and stopped next to my truck.

Back there, he said. Besides that trailer there’s that tire laying that the guy left when his wife called. I believe it will fit your truck. I rolled and carried it out across an archeological cross section of humanity. “I best be getting back ‘fore the missus misses me,” he smiled.

I know. One man’s junk is another man’s treasure. As he drove away I marveled at his grasp of his kingdom. A tire of a certain size in 100 acres of (seemingly) randomly stacked stuff. Just imagine how lost he’d be if someone came through in the night and “organized” it.

I stopped back at the trailer to pay for the tire. I knocked. No answer. I opened the door, and Dog let himself in to chow down on the cat’s food in the mud room. I knocked on the next door, but it wasn’t much of a knock, more like a thud, so I opened it and yelled “Helloooo! Any life-forms here?” but I got no answer. I could hear the TV. I poked my head in. Still no greeting. I followed the sound to the kitchen, which was in the far end of the trailer. Jensen was getting his ears pinned back for roaming with the boy, who was sitting on the kitchen table.

What do I owe you?

Twenty bucks. How do you know Frank?

I climb trees. I’m a squirrel. Over the years, we’ve done a good bit of work together.

How long you been doing this?

Since ’69.

Uh-huh. How old are you?


Whad you say your name was?

Martin Melville.

What’s yer phone number? Case I ever need a tree squirreled. Think I heard of you. From Joe.

Do you know how many Joes there are in the world? Ah. But context matters. Joe associated with Frank. Joe is his cutter, as we call fellers around here.

Tell you what. There’s an ash and a spruce over there at the house. I looked across the field of car roofs. The trees were a quarter mile away. If you’re not in too much of a hurry, mind giving me a price just to put them on the ground?

There are a collection of things about this whole scenario that amaze me. That Frank knows everybody in that valley. That he can call Jensen and say “see if you can help this guy out” is one. That Jensen knew where that tire and wheel were in that sea of stuff slated for recycling. That, had I taken the road more travelled, I’d have missed all of this and settled instead for a tow from the AAA guy. And not least of all, that little voice that told me to leave the toolbox in the truck. How much richer I am.



Query: Unity: what is it? Is it possible? Should we want it?

In the Quaker sense, unity occurs when a group of people share an understanding of what God is calling them to [do]. This is most commonly achieved in the context of (in our unprogrammed[1] case) silent worship as we seek to do the business of the Meeting (Meeting for worship with a concern for business). This practice of actively seeking to do God’s will can expand into other areas of our lives- -marriage and family, work (see Br. Lawrence)[2]– -ultimately anything we do can be done with the understanding that we all work in common for the “greater good.” Quakers call these divine intimations “leadings.”

In the mystical sense, unity occurs when we live fully and completely into the mind of God. Imperfect as we are, it is rare. It is also very beautiful, similar to enlightenment in Buddhism.

For a variety of reasons, we must test our leadings. Sometimes we impose our own ideas/agendas on our leadings. Sometimes the “noise” of what is popular in society overpowers the stillness of Spirit. Our ability to intercept and comprehend “God wifi” is imperfect, resulting in something like “I do not think I think what you think I think I said is what I think I thought I said.”

On a societal level, unity is much more difficult and may, or may not, be desirable. There is plenty of evidence that God created creation with the intent that it be diverse. In this sense, it is necessary to accept that unity is either a.) not desirable, or b.) that our work is to find the Truth in other points of view while gently sharing our own version. This process breaks down when we cannot agree on the basics (it’s green. No, it’s blue) or, as in the case of today’s “tribal” politics, each side views the other as monolithic anathema.

[1] Some Quaker Meetings have pastors. These are known as “programmed” Meetings. Unprogrammed Meetings depend on God/Christ/Holy Spirit to teach or inform us of what we are to do and how we are to live. We sit in apparent silence and listen for the Teacher in our hearts & from outside ourselves.

[2] Brother Lawrence. The Practice of the Presence.


The hours slipped by

Soft and thick as velvet

No lines between them

They blended together into timeless



Somewhere in the night

Maybe between Hartford and New Haven

Landmarks blended and blurred, location not sure

The sodium lights flashed by

And the baby woke



She howled her displeasure

The only words she knew

Language uncomprehended by us

So we rocked and cooed and sang and shushed

To no avail

Answering all the wrong questions

In those timeless hours of



Ah Dunbar. From our perspective, so much of life resembles a broken play in a football game, or a broken forecast for the weather man or herding cats, which is a lot like breaking the balls in the first shot of a pool game, or even riding a pig backwards across a parking lot while the Amishmen fight to remain standing because they are laughing so hard at the silly Englishman who even presumed to give them such a show. Yet if we take a moment to stand back from our foibles, perhaps possibly and just maybe we’ll realize how entertaining life can be. As Judy is fond of saying, I had the choice of laughing or crying. I picked laughter. For me, it’s the sheer absurdity. Life indeed resembles theater of the absurd[1]. See, it was like this….

Liz who was Stell and is now hyphenated, Judy who became Melville and joined my conspiracy, Sue who was Smith but is now Zahradnick, and I who am Melville and as far as I can tell, will always be so, arranged to go rafting on the Youghiogheny, commonly known as the Yough only it’s pronounced “Yock.” The whole adventure occurred back in the days when all the four-wheelers had CB radios so they could learn, and pretend, to talk like the truckers who used them for such legitimate purposes as dodging Smoky the Bear, and since Wayz hadn’t been invented yet (hell, the PC hadn’t been invented), radidios were handy for keeping tabs on traffic and beavers and other necessary things. Of course, the first order of business was for all of us to actually get to the Yough.

For whatever reason, Judy and I picked up Liz who was Stell but is now hyphenated, and headed up I-70 from suburban DC. See, we lived in Pennsylvania and Liz who was Stell but is now hyphenated lived in DC, which is really not on the way from here to there unless you choose to go that way. After all, unlike Pennsylvania where you can’t get there from here, if you go to DC first, you actually can get there from here. Consider it a glitch in God’s plan. But anyhow, it was already dark when we picked her up, and the Yough was most of four hours away. We weren’t going to be early getting to the campground in the state park.

The late evening summer air had conspired with the hollows and valleys to conjure some most excellent fog, with the effect that when the highway was on a high ground hilltop everything was peachy and you could see the twinkle of town lights 20 miles away. But when you dropped down a grade into the hollow of the valley, the fog set upon you like thieves and just as quickly. So it was that the CB radio crackled.

“I can’t see.” It was said by a twangy voice reminiscent of George Jones, the Country singer. It was either a trucker or a very well-practiced four-wheeler. The comment went unanswered. The airwaves were silent for a moment.

“I still (pronounced steel) can’t see. Apparently he found himself in a long low spot. Another period of silence. We popped out of the fog onto a highground hilltop.

“I can’t see she-it.” This was long before the first Gulf war, when the national news alerted us to the fact that the fine folk of hot ‘Lanta expressed confusion as to the proper response concerning news of Shiite Muslims, being unsure if it was OK to talk like that in polite company. The trucker, unaware of such unborn nuances, rumbled into the night. Really, the rest of the trip was uneventful except for the deer bounding over the car, the flat tire and the guy who decided an alternative view of the universe would serve him better and so chose to breakdance his car down the highway on its roof in a shower of orange sparks. Small potatoes.

The Yough is in southwest PA, and though, for tax purposes, it is indeed a part of the Keystone state, culturally it is a northern extension of the land of the Hatfields & McCoys. Sally, who used to be Smith but is now Zahradnick lived up in “da Burgh,” i.e. Pittsburgh, about an hour and a half away. In those days, we had to use folded paper maps of whatever state we were in, except unless if we had a Rand-McNally road atlas, most famously known for putting little grey roads in areas where there weren’t other travelable roads. Call it artistic license. We consulted our foldy map and discovered that we could cut half an hour off the travel time up to da Burgh if we took this little blue road, the foldy map’s equivalent of Rand McNally’s grey roads. Just go out of the campground and instead of turning left towards Ohiopyle, go straight. After some twists and wiggles and some unmarked side roads that didn’t even warrant blue status, it seemed we should pop out over on US 119, a little south of Connellsville, south of da Burgh. The roads suggested themselves. Where there was a fork that didn’t appear on the map, we took the one more traveled. Hah! Take that, Walt Whitman! We knew things were going as planned when we came into this little nub of a town just before we hit 119. The sign said Village of Dunbar in gold letters on a blue background with a Greek key squiggly pattern outlining the sign. Just a little black dot on the foldy map.

We headed north on 119, which is the direction to go if you want to get to Pittsburgh the short way. If you turn south, it’s 23,950 miles, which is a lot longer than 50, and there’s this small problem of a couple of oceans and getting across Antarctica. Besides, we wanted to go rafting the same day. As we went up the highway, we passed used equipment dealers with old, dead, non-resurrectable mining equipment: steam shovels with no bucket or tracks, old Cats, so old they used a cable and winch system instead of hydraulic cylinders to raise and lower their blades. That didn’t seem like much of a problem, because they lacked engines and other seemingly necessary bits commonly used for the operation & mobility of such dinosaurs. There were used car lots where cars were missing headlights or windows or other things the rest of the world considers essential. But, see, in West Virginia, that’s still a “good runner.” You could almost get the idea mining had left, and nothing came in to take its place. The resulting vacuum spoke of hard times. Even the used equipment dealers and the used car lots had barbed wire fences and padlocked gates. I guess they didn’t want to lose any more headlights.

We picked up Sally without incident. We took the correct left turn to whip into Dunbar, came up to a tee in the road. Turned right. Then left. Some wiggles. Another turn. We followed the road more traveled, and in a jiffy we were in Ohiopyle, ready to get swamped, drenched, chundered and all the other fun stuff that goes with whitewater rafting. The water level was nice, not too high, not too low, sort of a Goldilocks kind of level. The air was warm. Birds were claiming their stake in their annual mating rituals (singing). In the best tradition of the movie Deliverance, what could possibly go wrong?

Now if you’ve ever watched Deliverance, you’re aware that there was some, um, tension depicted between the city slicker river rats and the locals. That dynamic was real. Not only that, I fit the part of typical river rat: a lanky hippie-looking kid of 20-something who (unless you knew me) could easily be judged as one of them mara-je-wanna smokin’ liberals bent on the destruction of society as we know it. Hey Pony tail, you know you look like a girl? Hmm. Let me check. Yeah. And my sox don’t match either. I was way ahead of my time. But that’s for later. We launched the raft below the falls. The park guys got kind of pissy if you ran the falls. Maybe that was because they called it illegal. What’s a 35-foot waterfall. Schmaterfall.

We wound our way down through the first section, known as the loop. I steered. They paddled. Everything was going great. We were singing “Oh what a beautiful morning” until we took the hydraulic in Railroad rapid sideways, which is a recipe for disaster. We were only a little sideways. It didn’t care. The hydraulic grabbed the tail of the raft and, in the best tradition of guide and passenger ejection, pwanged (or is that pa-wanged?) Judy out of the raft.

They say you shouldn’t run any rapid you wouldn’t want to swim, because sometimes you wind up swimming whether you planned to or not. The guidebook warns that the hydraulic there in Railroad, which hydraulic is known as Charlie’s washing machine, is not a good one to swim. There’s something about “if you swim this hydraulic, you will know what it’s like to get flushed down a toilet.” It’s not a keeper, one of those hydraulics that recirculates you again and again. Getting recirculated really isn’t that pleasant. The river has this game: it knows you like your air. So it dunks you. Then, as you’re coming up towards the surface, it whispers “quick! Get a breath while you can” And as soon as you open your mouth for a gasp of air it invariably smacks you directly in the mouth with a smack of water and chuckles as you sputter. Needless to say Judy, who was liminally afraid of water to begin with, was not amused by the hole’s treatment of her. Sort of took the shine off her day. Of course, it’s always more fun watching someone else get trashed than it is to do it yourself.

Naming rapids is a long and colorful tradition. Cucumber… because it’s shaped like one. Railroad is called railroad because there’s a railroad bridge just downstream of it. Stunningly original. I’m going to go way out on a limb and speculate that somewhere in the distant past, a fellow named Charlie got famously abused in the hydraulic that today bears his name. River’s end… the river takes a hard left behind a gigantic rock and it really looks like there is no more river. Of course like an episode of Star Trek, you know Kirk is going to squeak out of whatever jam he’s in. The river and the show both continue. Dimples, or dimple rock, has a darker side to it. In the early days of whitewater paddling, aluminum canoes were the weapon of choice. Never mind that the soft aluminum caught on rocks in such a manner as to throw the passengers through the windshield. That was in the days before seatbelts, when you could still go through the windshield if you wanted to. Aluminum canoes were also really good for gift wrapping rocks, which was a simple enough trick for a rookie. Get sideways to the current. See the rock downstream. Lean upstream in an intuitive effort to avoid said rock. Ship water. Fill with water. Impinge on the rock you were trying to avoid. Glub. [Rock’s] mission accomplished.

Here it is important to realize that a canoe full of water weighs about 2,000 pounds (908 kg for those of you playing along at home with enquiring minds which need to know). You get it going a couple of miles per hour, just add rock, and voila! Nice shiny wrapping on a rock. Only this was even more sinister (left-handed, if you must know). Dimples rock was undercut, so that when the unfortunate paddlers capsized, the bottom of the river swallowed their boat. No one ever admitted to being the boat’s owner. It was found late in the low-water summer by some Folboters out for a hike because they didn’t want to tear the canvas on their Folbot which was a kayaky thing with a wood frame that folded up sort of compactly when you wanted to transport it, and a rubbery canvas skin that stretched over the frame. The aluminum was still shiny, to some degree. The water rippled and shimmered. The boat’s name was dimples. The name of the rapid memorializes that fact. Shoot, it would almost be worth losing your boat to get a rapid named after it. Nah.

Half a bony mile below dimples rock is swimmer’s rapid, sort of the final insult  because if you capsized at dimples, and the current played pinball bouncing you off the bony stones for that half a mile, the hydraulic at swimmers was going to give you one final nasal enema before the slack water. This is such fun. I’m sure you can see why we do it. Then came double hydraulic.

As the name implies, it was a double hydraulic, one right after the other. That very self-same guidebook that enlightens prospective victims about the toilet-flushiness of Charlie’s washing machine, drolly notes that the first one (hydraulic, also known as a hole for obvious reasons if you’ve ever spent time in one) slows the prey down. The second one captures it. There’s a nice eddy below the rapid, where we pulled out to eat lunch.

What to our wondering eyes should appear but a raft full of turkey boaters, which is a kind way of calling them inept. They either didn’t read the map the outfitter gave them, didn’t know where they were, couldn’t control their raft, or possibly all of the above. While they took dainty little paddle strokes like they were sipping tea at brunch, the current directed them directly towards the two holes. And just as the guidebook predicted, the first one slowed them down and the second one stopped them. While the hole didn’t capsize their raft (as holes are prone to do), it wasn’t about to let them go, either. They were there, as Flo used to say in her Texas accent, on the sitcom “Alice,” for the duration pronounced as two words: doo-ration. And so they were. The hole spun them around. It munched on the upstream tube, like a cat with a vole. The turbulence of the water tore the bottom out of the raft and one by one it sucked the turkey boaters out of the raft like you’d slurp a strand of linguini. Finally there was one lonesome, terrified rafter left spinning round & round when another raft committed the same error of the first hole and the second hole and bumped the lonely rafter out of the second hole. Then they were stuck. Sort of a river version of rinse & repeat. It was the best show we’d had in many a trip. It’s always good, even if there but for the grace of god go I, when turkey boaters get munched. I even think it brightened Judy who became Melville and joined my conspiracy’s spirits a little. Being flushed down a toilet was apparently pleasant (in her mind) compared to the fate of the turkey boaters. I think she enjoyed the show.

Back at the campground, we regaled each other with tales of rocks vanquished and feats of extraordinary wateriness while we burnt tofu burgers on the fire grate. The thing about days like that, though, is that dirt would taste good. Hungry and alive and relaxed and exhausted. Anything tastes good. Sadly, Sally who was Smith but became Zahradnick had to be returned to her home in Da Burgh. Sally, Judy, and I, piled back in the ’68 Corona and plied the trail back that way. This was the third trip on those roads more traveled. The horse knows the way and all that other trite stuff. Only by now it was dark. And sometimes it’s the things your brain thinks it knows but doesn’t really that get you in trouble.

We dropped Sally who used to be Smith but is now Zahradnick off at her ‘rents house a little after eleven, got out of Squirrel Hill and followed the signs for Connellsville. It had gotten late. Traffic was sparse. There was reason to believe that what traffic there was originated at either the Legion or the VFW, endowing the drivers with a certain undulant narrative. Anyone who hadn’t been to a watering hole was most likely looking for headlights.

We spotted the turn for Dunbar, a nondescript township road with no street light and no sign. As an official nub off the highway, it didn’t even rate for a borough sign. No road sign. It turned inky dark. We came to a T. Which way? Left seemed the most traveled. Left it was. Driveways branched off, left and right. A township road to the right. Another to the left. Two more to the right. The road most traveled got a little narrower. The yellow line disappeared. It had only been a single stripe, but it was a stripe nonetheless. Now it was gone. The hardtop turned to gravel, then dirt, and ended in the side yard of a ramshackle farmhouse. An old Ford pickup up on blocks presented its tailgate, verifying the end of the road, both figuratively and literally. Weeds, even small trees, were holding a vigil around it. The yard was mostly red dirt, where it wasn’t stones. The rump of a Farmall M strained to support a splay-doored shed. It was about midnight, but there was a light on in the upstairs room. There was hope for directions. Being a warm summer night, the sash was open. I beeped the horn as quietly as possible. Their hound bawled.

A woman in a nightgown pushed the shade aside. She was a lot older than us, sort of saggy in the places younger women aren’t, her hair the color of iron filings.


Um, we’re kind of lost. We’re trying to get to the state park. Bad call. It pegged us as river rats. Or maybe it was a ruse & we were going to rob them. Either way, it earned us about as much grace as someone looking for a gas station during the1974 gas shortage.

How did you get here? Twenty questions.

Pittsburgh… off 119… trying to get to the state park…wrong turn… lost… directions? Please?

Yer not one of those hippy-types, are you?

No Ma’am. Extra polite.

About that time I saw the kitchen door open. There were lights over the counters, and a pole light in the yard. A man- -without reason I assumed it was her husband- -was coming toward me. He wore boxer shorts and a muscle man shirt known colloquially as a beater – short for wife beater. He had at least a three day beard, stubbly and grey, and a stain of chewing tobacco juice at the corner of his mouth. He walked like a bulldog. He wasn’t overly large, but there was no way I was trusting him. I noticed that he held both hands cupped at his sides. His arms hung stiffly. His carriage seemed unnatural, artificial. I began to back away. There was a glint between his thumb and forefinger in the shine of the pole light. A flash of revelation. He was sloppily concealing a Derringer in the palm of his right hand. Yikes!

I held up both hands.

What’re you doin’ here? Really? Nothin’ funny. Don’t nobody come back this road this time of night lest they’re up to no good. His voice was as stubbly as his face.

Sir, you give me directions back to 119 and you’ll never see me again. Hippies and guns aren’t really such great friends. Just think of Dennis Hopper at the end of Easy Rider. He brought the gun into plain sight and put his finger on the trigger. With a barely audible grunt, he motioned toward the car. The only directions he gave were a wave of the gun and the words “that way.”

For some reason that I’ve never really been able to pin down, I was a little rattled. Maybe it was the three-day silver grubby stubble, or the beater, or the way his wife (presumptuous as that might be) acted as a diversion while he crept out the kitchen door. Or the gun. I’d never been on the receiving end of a gun before. I put as much distance as I could between me and him as I could as quickly as possible. The Corona leapt over rises in the road that weren’t even noticeable as less than light speed.

Unbeknownst to me, they organized that little nub of a town in a series of interlocking circles. Twenty minutes later, we were back at the pole light. The upstairs light wasn’t on any more. We turned around and left as quietly as we could. No shots were fired.

We got the scenic tour of that little burg. It even got to the point where we recognized certain corners, but the road over the ridge to the park refused to show itself.

It was about this time that the smoke began rolling out from under the hood of the car. I stopped and flipped it open. The rag I kept on the firewall for wiping the dipstick when I checked the oil had fallen down on the exhaust manifold and was smoldering. I reached back in the car, grabbed my coffee and poured it on the rag. That at least cooled it off enough to grab the rag and evict it from its subhoodian residence. Fortunately for me, that crisis happened in front of another house where the light still burned. Was that a smirk, or a chortle I heard from Judy who joined my conspiracy and became Melville?

This was a more prosperous residence: a ranch house with vinyl siding, wrought iron columns on the front porch. The yard was grass. Mowed grass. There was a lamp post at the end of the driveway with a cute little manicured flower bed and a couple of rug-junipers and a garden gnome. It seemed the risk factor wasn’t near as high as the first place we stopped.

The TV was on. The doorbell button glowed to the left of the door. The tones chimed inside after I pushed the button. From inside I heard

“Just a minute.” The door opened. The man was dressed. Button-down shirt in uniform blue, with “Clyde” on the left breast pocket. (It’s amazing how many people know your name when you wear that shirt. Then again, perhaps it’s more amazing how many people still don’t know your name). Perhaps he worked second shift and was just winding down at one in the morning.

My gaze wandered from his face to his shoes. In between, his hand held a nice Colt .45 with a 12 inch barrel. There it was in the open; no attempt at sneaky concealment. It was pointed at me.

Can I help you?

We’re lost. We’ve been looping around this little town for an hour. We can’t seem to find the way back over to the state park.

“Ah, well. This place is like that. Just go back this way,” he said pointing down the road with the gun. “Take your next left. That’s the road.”

I thought about telling you we got lost again and this time we found a guy who pointed a 12-gauge shotgun at us, but that didn’t happen. I wouldn’t want to be accused of making this kind of stuff up.

Next morning, Liz who used to be Stell but is now hyphenated asked us, over Cheerios, in a polite and conversational voice how our trip to Pittsburgh was. I guess she didn’t hear us roll into the campground at 2 in the morning. Somehow she didn’t cue into our blurry red eyes. I’ll never know how or why. Maybe that has something to do with why her last name isn’t Melville.


[1] Waiting for Godot is a favorite of mine.

Coffee Cup

The sun got broken today

Dislodged from its tripod pedestal

By the rap of the rump from a rambunctious Rover

It landed on the floor

And shattered.


You are my sunshine

Colorful shards

My wrath flared at the rollicking, clueless Rover

Though in my heart I knew it was

My fault


My attachment to things scolded me

It was just a mug, after all, but more than a mug. A symbol

A reminder every morning of my love for my mate

Assuaging fear of separation at the end

Of life

coffee cup