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ARCH ENEMY (What not to do in St. Louis)

Westbound, soon to cross the Mississippi River. For several minutes you’ve been watching it from whichever angle the road wants to present it to you. Should you? Go up there? You’ve seen the other stuff. Most of it, anyway: the Golden Gate, Mount Rushmore, Devil’s Tower, the giant baseball bat in downtown Louisville, the Grand Canyon, and of course the geyser thingy that ejaculates in a way you can set your watch by. The Time’s-Running-Out list still has a blank square next to Gateway Arch, though. It’s early in the day. It’s decided then. You cross the widest drainage ditch in the country, where all water between the Rockies and the Appalachians goes. Sort of. Not counting the Rio Grande.

You cruise off the interstate at a convenient-looking downtown exit. The Arch stays in sight, just to the south. After a few stoplights, you see a happy sign that says “Gateway Arch” with an arrow pointing left. At the next block, you see an Arch-arrow pointing up, or straight, you’re pretty sure. You look up anyway and there it is, the top of the Arch, so that arrow’s ambiguous. The lower parts of the Arch, however, are to your left, so you figure you will be led back around to it, possibly to bypass the road construction in progress. No different than any other downtown. And there you see it at the next light: “Gateway Arch” and an arrow pointing left. Done. A block later: Gateway Arch! And an arrow pointing again to the left. You turn and are driving from whence you came. You pass the Arch, look imploringly for that next sign. Maybe you missed it, so you make the same circuit, see the same sets of signs, end up doing the same thing, expecting a different result.

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By the fourth time around you try something new, get yourself caught in a line of vehicles going nowhere. Are they empty? Have you parked on the street without even knowing? No. Heads bob, brake lights are tapped. And then you see the sign: “Park Here.” Ok. That’s doable. You’re in line. Somehow. You wait your turn. You pay the nice lady collecting money at the entrance and proceed. The yellow “BEST NOT BE NO HIGHER THAN THIS” gate-arm seems to pass through the roof of your ¾-ton pick-up like a ghost. You’re on level one. The purple level. You drive to the end and have to make a tight turn up a ramp. The concrete ceiling—you just know—is going to scrape the hell out of your truck’s roof at this angle. The radio antenna bends ninety-degrees and makes all the noises it looks like it should. Your roof is unmolested—how, you don’t know—but it is and you continue. You continue just as soon as you back up and almost hit the guy who’s on your tail. Your corner is too tight to negotiate without drilling one of the parked cars ahead of you. It requires a second try. You are on the orange level, where there are no empty slots. At the end of the row, you make another one of those crazy-tight turns and cringe as you wait for the concrete overhead to key your paint like a psycho girlfriend. But it doesn’t and what’s more, there’s an empty slot right in front of you! But back up because now you see the sign that says “COMPACT CARS ONLY.” On the blue level, four stories up, parking spots are everywhere. Laughing.

Hobblestones

Hobblestones

Down the stairs and down the stairs, and then onto the cobblestone walk. You call them hobblestones. They deserve it, too, what with those wide gaps and uneven surfaces. A few blocks later you pass “Arch Parking.” Much closer, much cleaner, much unadvertised. Son of a…. To the west, the streets rise steeply Godward, but just for a couple of blocks. It’s Louis, not Francisco. Chilly for this far into the spring, but a pretty day to all but the unhappy. You see pretty people. A preponderance of them from across the Pacific for some couldn’t-venture-a-guess reason. Even without the Grand Draw playing tricks with light in the sky, you notice the area has a singular feel to it.
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Much silent contemplation, much encouraging the significant magnificent other to lean in and absorb body heat, to inhale scent and to smile inwardly. Not much angling for attention in a place where it is given so freely. The world’s incredible minds came together as one here, and they have not left yet. You see that so quickly it dazzles.

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Wide steps drop to the river’s edge, and a myriad of backsides warm the uppermost one. There is something about waves. Watching them. There is something about current, about paddlewheels and barges. Masterly-crafted riverboats rock like cradles and wait for passengers. A horse, carriage, and driver hold steady in their riverfront allotment for the next fare, both the horse and driver able to hear the local-history speech in their dreams by now, you suspect. A few blocks away, from a grassy knoll where the season has finally laid down its first patina of green, a cover band blends heavy, melodic metal. The rhythm rides the breeze, but not in an overdone fashion. And like the Grand Canyon and the Pyramids, this Gateway Arch is not captured by any photograph. It has to be seen in person. You ask: How? Dear God, how? You tell yourself that a person’s eyes have to be in decent shape to see the row of windows at the apex. Those tiny dots. Time to go up there.

A ramp leads underground from either one of the Arch’s bases. The line is long and scarcely moving. You wonder what the deal is. In time you notice a voice repetitively reading a speech over a PA. You move a foot and a half more. People are entering the underground facility through glass doors some dozen yards ahead. The speech, that same giddy male voice that you’re sure was behind “You’ve got mail,” begins its cycle again. It was just so much background noise until now. You start to pick out words. You hear “search,” and “contents.” What? You hear “pockets.” Why did none of this occur to you until this stage of the game? What a target for terrorists. Next to the Statue of Liberty, above you stands what has to be second on the list. You twist your way out of line and begin that longest journey with a single step. You estimate from memory about thirty minutes each way.

After you climb up to the orange level, it’s been twenty, but you didn’t tourist your way back. You look around. You looked around all the way there, but you do it again. Out of your left jacket pocket comes the OTF, one of your favorites. Out of the right, the one you can’t talk about. By gawd don’t forget the gravity-fueled butterfly contraption in your back pocket. Better sit in your truck, you decide, to unload the defenses in your shoes.

You are far enough along in line that you hear every loudspeaker word. Remove your jacket. Remove all items from your pockets, it says, including cell phones and all other electronic devices. Remove all jewelry including watches. Remove your belt. You will be ready. You will make it go smoothly for your part. You have in one hand: folding money, change, your camera, your wallet—from which you’ve removed your driver’s license and the pass you have for national monuments. You are holding your comb, sunglasses, brochures, a package of tissues, your cell phone and recharge cable. Your jacket is in your other hand. Damn. Forgot the belt. You balance stuff but stuff falls anyway. You get the belt off with one hand and commence to picking things up off the ground. Everyone in front of you is putting their items in a plastic tub to be sent on rollers through the X-ray machine. Jackets are inspected manually. Your time has come.

“I’m going to make things easy on you,” the national park version of a TSA agent says. “Put everything in your coat pockets and we’ll run it through the machine all at once.”
Wa…huh? This can’t be happening. With a long line behind you, you begin trying to stuff brochures and combs and wallets and cameras and driver’s licenses and park passes and dollars and change and sunglasses and tissues and—considering you can’t fucking talk—electronic writing boards and pens and speaking devices and extra batteries (for just in case) into the coat draped over your other unfree arm. Instead of simply dropping all that into the plastic tub like every other person in line has done all day and will do the rest of the day, you’re trying to get those items into tight little pocket openings—slits for Chrissakes—of your jacket without losing half of it. Why? No one will ever know why. After the walk through the bells-and-sirens-see-you-naked-maybe metal detector arch, you collect your stuff and set up shop where, off to the side, you unload and inventory everything, tediously finding the correct pocket where each piece of junk is to go so you won’t lose it—your pants pockets, shirt pockets, jacket pockets, wallet sleeves. You know how it is. Do it now on camera, or never find it again later.

The line to buy a ticket to the top of the Arch? Five minutes or so. You’ve made it this far, you can handle five more minutes. You ask for a ticket to the top. You are asked in return if you would like a riverboat ticket and a movie ticket. (There’s a theater in the underground area and they show a movie about Lewis and Clark, you think.) You say no, just one ticket to go to the top of the Arch. You are asked, “Today?” You nod in a way that says if you could think of something clever and biting you’d say it but you can’t so he’s lucky and let’s move on. You are told they just sold the last ticket of the day a few minutes ago.

Who's watching whom then?

Who’s watching whom then?

You pass through the glass doors and begin dragging up the ramp. You stop. You walk back down to the glass doors. You see a lady walking through the see-people-naked-maybe metal-detector gateway, and you see all kinds of colored lights flashing. Or lights of color flashing. You watch the federale–he who chose you for gratuitous torment–you watch that guy send her back through, and you whip out your camera and start snapping shots of the event because that’s why you came back. TSA guy sees you, says something to lady-of-concern, something to the effect of move and you’ll be strip-searched, and makes an upstream thrust right towards you. He comes out through the in-door. A leap over the railing separates the two of you. Ha ha. His face looks mirror-rehearsed, but it ain’t. He is angry angry. He says you can’t take pictures of that. He says more–lots–but the words melt into a liquidy, amusingly-indiscernible current of downstream rantage. You walk off, knowing he’s going to choose the lady-of-concern and the sirens and bells, choose her over you and your camera and a hop over the rail. But you, in just a small, though somehow significant, way, have gotten back some of your change. You couldn’t have seen that face from way up there.

Cop car

LARYNX-FREE LIVING ~ g. kinyon

I’m not complaining, just explaining. I’m a post-op laryngectomy. I can’t talk. A year now. You begin smoking as a child, long before your brain has fully developed, far prior to your shift into the third chakra, as those in the know understand; and then it is incumbent upon your adult, thinking, reasoning self to stop—to end your life-long nicotine habit when you have a job and a spouse and children and debts and broken things and responsibilities that could fill a list long enough to wrap around the Earth one and a half times and Mars more than that, I think. I stopped, honestly I did, but it was too not-enough and past the buzzer. Nobody can say for a fact why I contracted larynx cancer, but who am I kidding? I smoked, I got cancer. Post op ergo propter hoc. They say we humans have five senses. Still, sometimes I feel like we have six and I’m missing one.

Seems to me it requires one of our senses to say, “Hey buddy, knock it off!” Or, “What’re you lookin’ at, corksacker?” Imagine: You get in a heated argument and your opponent pauses while you scratch out a page-long note with all the emphasis marks in the right places to produce your desired effect. And then that person tells you he can’t make out a certain word. People aren’t capable of keeping their indignation ramped up through all of that. The anger subsides. It takes speech to enjoy the thrill and brinksmanship of a good verbal joust. Still, speech is not a sense. We have (or don’t have) the senses of sight and hearing. We have the gift of speech, and that’s how it is. I’m missing a gift.

This leaves me with two pertinent questions: 1) How do I handle it? 2) How does everyone around me handle it? I went to buy some clothes a few months back, because new clothes make a person feel better. I explained to the sales clerk by way of my little whiteboard that I could not talk. Bless his heart, he thought he would prove his empathy and display a solid measure of fellow feeling. This he did by not speaking himself. He desired that I squeeze between two standing racks of hanging clothes so that I might get a look at his computer screen and see the discount he was giving me. He didn’t tell me this; he gestured the whole thing. And so it went until I paid for my items and left. No verbal expressions of gratitude on his part, just visual ones: smiles, nods, and thumbs up—same as I. The guy, of course, thought I was deaf. It would’ve confused things all the worse to write that I could hear and that he could go ahead and use his voice—that doing so wouldn’t hurt my feelings any. It was easier just to let it go. Happens all the time. I’ve learned to point to an ear, nod my head, and mouth the words “I can hear.” I have an electronic speaking device like the guy on “My Name Is Earl,” but things have to be pretty quiet for people to hear it.

I was talking music with a friend of mine recently, and by way of felt-tipped erasable marker I asked if he was familiar with a certain song. “No,” he said. “How does it go?” I gave him a look and started counting down in my head until I saw the light bulb pop up over him. And BINGO! There it was: that semi-embarrassed grin that says “Oh…yeah.” I would’ve loved to hum a few bars for him. At least this way, though, we got to laugh. And I had the song in question playing on my smartphone as soon as the ancient 3G could produce it. Throw in texting and emailing, and out of all the centuries of human history to date, I picked the best era to go mute. Someone told me the other day I should go on Jeopardy, that I’d be good at it. Tick tick tick tick tick…Ding! Oh…yeah.

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I squeeze through narrow store aisles and inevitably almost bump into someone. They say, “Pardon me.” I say nothing. I want to ask for pardon, too, or say, “Not at all,” or anything to be polite, but all I can do is walk off and leave someone thinking people can be real assholes. I’m a white guy, and when I bump into a black person without speaking, I cringe at what I’m sure is being thought. I don’t bother to beg pardon from your kind. This happens way too often. Or for instance when I reach behind a lady who is standing there reading an ad flyer to grab an item, and she says, “Oh. I’m sorry,” but without looking up from her reading material. If she looks up, I can smile and visibly wave it off at least. But she doesn’t. She expects me to answer that it was no problem at all. I don’t, of course. I move on in silence, leaving her to think some people can be real assholes. None of this means I’m not in fact a real asshole, because I kind of am, but for reasons other than a shortage of common decency.

In a large and crowded pool hall, I slip off to the bar and buy my buddy and myself a beer. A mug in each hand, I serpentine through people and tables and see my friend wandering off. I’m close enough that I can call his name and make him turn around and take his beverage. Except that I can’t. Instead, I try sending mental signals, produce in him the sense that he’s being observed. But that’s wishful thinking. I follow him around for five minutes before I give up and find a safe place to stash his drink. That’s nothing, though. I order a large pizza online one night, to be delivered, in the course of which I click a wrong button and end up ordering two. If I can talk, no problem: I make a phone call and straighten it out. The pizza site gives no options to send an email and I end up eating forty-five bucks worth of pizza for three days. One night the pizza guy can’t find the right buzzer for my apartment. He rings someone else’s for a while until he gives up and calls the phone number I’ve entered into the proper field. I can’t answer. I suspect correctly who’s calling, however, and hurry to the entrance of my building before he goes away. When I add that to the fact I can’t make use of drive-through fast-food lanes, I have become a healthier eater. The signs at those places will say something to the effect of: Speech or hearing impaired customers may order at pay window. That only works when there’s no line ahead of you. When you’re in line and stop in front of the speaker, the poor order-taker has no idea why you’re not answering her May I take your order greeting. Better to just eat like you care for your health, which, finally, I do.

I haven’t been pulled over by a cop yet since this has all gone down, although it’s only a matter of time. And you can bet I’ll milk the sympathy gland with all I’ve got if there’s one to be milked. To get out of a ticket? Hell yeah. I mean, who wouldn’t? I can’t foresee, though, how that scene will play out. If he’s looking at my license and asking questions, I’ll have to get his attention somehow without spooking him into going for his sidearm. Waving my arms…nope. Taking a chance there. Clapping my hands? No. Uh uh. He or she will just have to get pissed at my snotty ain’t-talking-to-you attitude and look at me. Will I have an explanation ready on my writing board? Let’s hope so.

No one has explained it to me adequately yet why when they remove your larynx you can no longer breathe through your face. (I haven’t asked, though, since it doesn’t really matter. It’s not like the doctor will tell me I’ve made a good point and insist on fixing that.) Instead, your neck becomes the new turnstile for air to come and go. This takes some getting used to. I put off looking in the mirror three days the first time—until I had to. But many weeks went by before I had a grasp of what all that would mean to me.

For years I kept an Irish tin whistle in my vehicle. Whenever I’d hit a red light, I’d pull it out and play it to pass the time. That and my harmonica went out the window after the ectomy. (Mouth instruments aren’t something you can give away very easily.) I carry an accordion around with me now. A friend of mine brought out his blow-dart tube the other day, and I communicated fake-mournfully that I’d never be able to blow darts again. “Oh man. I’m sorry. I never thought about that.” I laughed. I never blew darts anyway. But I did blow on hot soup. Hey, I just thought of something: how would the cops handle me at a DWI check point? “Blow, blow, blow, harder, harder, harder!” Heh heh. Make me. One way or another, I’ll have fun with the cops over this someday.

Actually, I have in fact lost one of my senses—the sense of smell, although not completely. A scent or odor has to be strong enough to slap the olfactory by itself. I can’t vacuum the air with my nostrils anymore. (So much for some other bad habits.) This means the smoke detector will probably wake me before the smoke does. I have to take the kitchen trash out whether it’s full or not, just in case, every other day. Bathe at least once a day and go with a light application of aftershave or the eau de parfum. Febreeze and candles. I have no idea where I am with the scent levels so I have to settle for judgment calls on that stuff. I bought some cologne the other day and told the salesman I would just have to trust him on his recommendation.

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I’ve found ways to deal with the removal of bodies of water from my pastimes—I have other, land-based activities to occupy my canoeing, kayaking, tubing, swimming, skiing, boating, parasailing, and fishing time. I hope, though, I never find myself standing on a bank while some child—anybody, but particularly a child—is screaming for help in the middle of the lake. Once in my life I dived into a river and pulled a drowning person to safety. (I also once jumped into a lake to drag my vehicle to safety after I’d left the emergency brake and gears unapplied.) Beyond throwing someone a PFD, I am now useless in that situation, and that’s scary. And that’s not all. If I get into a wreck, the paramedics aren’t going to figure out I’m what they call a neck breather unless I’m able to pull my turtleneck down or my yank my scarf away. I need a sign around my neck, a driving sign: Neck Breather—No Breathalyzers or Soliciting.

I’m having much fun, though–on this page and in general. I can run, jump, climb, kick, exercise, hike, backpack, camp, write, read, pluck strings, pluck birds, throw knives, annoy friends, learn, drive, see, hear, taste, feel, and other things with a teenager’s energy minus his bumbling confusion. I’m glad to be alive. Sneezing is a little weird, but I’ll take it. I wanted to write about this one time, and I have done so. Maybe somebody facing the same rest-of-your-life will see this and know he isn’t alone, and that it could be a lot worse. I was feeling sorry for myself one day, sitting behind the wheel at a stoplight, when I looked over and saw a blind man, tapping his white cane, waiting for the light to change so he could cross the street. His eyes were fixed directly on mine, as if he could see me. I shivered, mentally apologized for my unmanly self-pity, and—lesson learned—carried on. He would’ve traded afflictions with me in a heartbeat.

Boston Mountains 021

LUCID DREAMS: When Conscious Meets Subconscious ~ g. kinyon

Standing on a polished wood floor, I looked across the length of a room in which I’d never been. I didn’t know what the outside of the house looked like; this room, in fact, was all I knew. It was appointed cozily enough: three standard pieces of white cloth furniture plus a shaggy white throw rug in the center, wood paneling, artistic wall hangings, light entering from a patio door to my right. Another room was beyond an arched passageway on the far side of this one. I stood behind the sofa, which was positioned width-wise and in my way. Rather than walk around it, I did what I usually do in these situations: I levitated about head-high and propelled myself forward, not a skill everyone enjoys. The next room had black walls and red leather furniture with brass stays. The table tops were glass. Along the left wall at the top extended a room-length sheetrock box where ductwork had apparently been covered. At the far side, carpeted stairs rose six steps to a landing and cut 180 degrees before ascending to the next floor from there. I wanted to see the upstairs, naturally, but another interest delayed that proposition. The ceiling of this black room was not itself black, but white with a bluish tint. I flew higher and closer. In burnt-red, images straight off of bowls and vases from ancient Greece were scattered as overhead décor. Paper trim with representations of Doric columns added to the classical effect. I studied this to my heart’s content. But before shooting to the staircase, I alighted. I announced with my arms spread wide that I was the designer of all I surveyed. I added, so there’d be no mistake, that I was fully aware of the paradox. “I don’t know what will be up those stairs, but I will have created it.” And onward I flew, the paradox blowing my mind to atoms.

For the second time in my life, I had intentionally pulled off a lucid dream. I’d had lucid dreams before—several times—I just didn’t know they had a name. Nor did I know a person could will them to happen. But like any of the things that make living a positive, lucid dreams take effort. Conjuring them requires practice, study, repetition, and determination. I am only in the apprenticeship stages of this conceit, and I fully intend to tack on a part two after I’ve got a better handle on it all.

When the human mind becomes aware that it is existing in the course of a dream, the fantastic happens. One realizes he need only imagine earthly or heavenly delights for them to appear. The senses are intact. The universe in this plane is at the dreamer’s fingertips. And at his caprice. The three things LD beginners will inevitably do once they know what’s going on are 1) Jump up and down and shout to the world that they’re dreaming and they know it. 2) Fly—if they can figure out how, anyway. 3) Have sex. Again, all the senses are intact. It’s a natural, primal impulse. To make that person materialize, though—the person you want to do it with the most—requires a few spins around the block. Early on you’ll have to settle with what shows up, which seems instructive of real life in some vague fashion. Remaining in a conscious dream long enough to get much out of it takes practice too, by the way. The initial excitement of having accomplished it on purpose, the jumping around and shouting, will often be enough to ruin it. To scare it off, if you will. You’ll either wake up or slip into a standard dream, lucky if you can remember later it happened at all.

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The dream I described above is an example of having a slight amount of experience. Rather than getting overexcited and carried away with controlling everything around me by way of conscious intent (as I did the first time), I allowed my subconscious to have its head. I explored the world of my imagination, let it come to me on its own, show me things it wanted me to see. This approach earned a reward—that of recognizing the paradox. Before I flew up the steps, I knew that in the insignificant span of time it would take me to round a corner, I would have designed and built a complete environment, with all the detail that can be imagined–but I wouldn’t know what was there until I arrived. And I was in awe of my abilities when I saw what I could do. Today’s leaders of lucid dream experimentation report employing their skills to better understand the universe. A master can go forward or backward in time and observe, shrink to explore the infinitesimal, or examine distant solar systems.

Tibetan Buddhism probably represents the oldest known culture to gain a true understanding of lucid dreaming. The Tibetan monks have apparently devised techniques of dream yoga that can send the adept to deeper levels of conscious dreaming than the typical practitioner can reach. In fact, in lucid dreaming one can find a nexus of many of the Eastern spiritual philosophies. Lucid dreaming is a goal of meditation and proper breathing. The goal of kundalini yoga is called, interestingly, the kundalini awakening. As with kundalini and the chakras, achieving lucidity may follow the course of visualization of colors and focal points of the body. Certain sounds and even chants, along with control of the breathe cycle, can help one dive into a dream with full consciousness. The same is used with qigong, practiced by Taoists to achieve the Tao, or the divine emptiness—a superior state of being. Dream lucidity can be as frivolous, as spiritual, or as empirical as one wants to make it. While there is no harm in using it to placate the id, (even kundalini and qigong are consciously libido-friendly) there seems to be a saturation point with conscious dreaming where temporal thrills lose their luster. In the material realm, we often hear of the person who has it all (Kurt Cobain comes to mind) committing suicide. Wealth, fame, and sex are no longer fulfilling. The accomplished lucid dreamer need never get bored, but simply move on to the next grand adventure. The options are limitless. As to how often the LD old-timers–the for-the-sake-of-science masters–take a dream-world break from study to get laid…that’s anybody’s guess.

You can cheat your way to…well, if not to lucid dreams, at least to some wild ones, via dream herbs and chemicals. These are easily found online. The first dream chemical I discovered was in a nicotine patch. The warnings on nicotine patches even mention disturbing dreams. I like disturbing. I’ve tried them solely for the sake of a short cut to lucidity, but to no avail. I’ll order some of the other goodies before it’s all over, I can pretty well promise. Part two.

As a point of further interest, Paul McCartney famously found the music for “Yesterday” in a dream. Srinivasa Ramanujan, the mathematical genius, claimed he received his formulae from a Hindu Goddess in his dreams. The Jekyll/Hyde story came from the dream world. So did Frankenstein. Philosopher Renee Descartes was a lucid dreamer, as were/are a host of other famous names. Like Goethe and Tesla.

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The one critical tool for becoming a lucid dreamer is maintaining a personal dream journal. This is not easy to do and it proves you’re serious. Imagine you fail to check your inbox for a few days. When you do check it, let’s say you have a hundred messages. Now imagine deleting them all without reading. Once you start keeping a dream log, you’ll know you’ve deleted a hell of a lot of unread messages over the years. Your dream journal speaks to you–it sends you messages. It shows you patterns with your dreams you never knew existed. You’ll read it and think…wow. The number of false awakenings–where you wake up in a dream, think you’re awake, and then wake up again and again–the number of those I’ve recorded is astounding. As for help in accomplishing lucidity, it’s the act of waking up in the dark and scribbling shit on paper that habituates you to moving from the dream to the temporal worlds and back. The sooner one gets comfortable manipulating things in the hypnagogic state, the sooner one masters LD.  Also, in your journal you’ll find dream signs you can learn to recognize to verify you’re dreaming. But I’ve come across something else by way of the journal, something that has validated–for me, at least–the concept of synchronicity. I’ve given Freud his due here, and now it’s Jung’s turn.

Two nights ago as I write, March 8, 2014, I went to a poetry reading in an eatery/drinkery I’d never heard of, in a town where I don’t reside: Grandview, MO. On my way out of the place, Main Street Café, I passed by this big glass pastry case, loaded with some of the finest-looking, most tempting bakery products I’d ever seen. I hesitated. I wanted one. But I knew those things were bad for me. I watch what I eat for the most part and I dragged myself out of there. The following morning, yesterday, I woke up with no dreams to record. I was disappointingly blank. Of a sudden, something triggered my memory, and I commenced to setting a dream journal record by packing four legal-size notebook pages tight with the description of a single dream. I usually wait a week or so before I go over what I’ve recently written–it’s more interesting that way: I forget what I’ve recorded just as completely as I forget what I’ve dreamt. After I transcribed my marathon dream, I decided to read over the last few entries. Here’s what I see as if for the first time: I’m in some kind of retail establishment in Grandview. Floor to ceiling glass walls. I have an item to buy, a rolled-up mattress. A salesman takes it from me and disappears. I go to look for him. I pass a big glass pastry case full of delicious-looking treats. They look wonderful, but I know they’re bad for me and I leave. Date: Friday morning, March 7, 2014.

Make of it what you will.  

Bright Idea

FIRE and BRAINS~g. kinyon

A lifetime in the confines of a city, moved to the country, something new. On the hill behind the house, to the west, the former owners, the concealers, have left a fire pile. You can burn your stuff in the country? Cool. Had not even thought about that. Visions of M80s. Freedom. Just moved in and we have boxes. Dozens of boxes, lots of trash, moving-out stuff, moving-in stuff, but I can burn it all out here. Tonight. I’ll do it tonight.

It’s December and the fire makes it feel like it’s not. Ah, damn straight. But only for a minute. Wind comes from somewhere, and it feels like December again. Wind comes from the uneven heating and cooling of the Earth, I know, but I mean it’s coming from the west. I have to move around the circle and cover my eyes with the inside of my bent arm. It keeps coming, as if it’s responding unfavorably to my fire. Flaming swirls, and then embers in my face. Whoosh. And ow, damn. It builds itself. It carries things toward the new place, burning things, like cardboard. I’m new to the country living. Glowing paper is landing on the roof. I need a do-over. Asphalt shingles, that’s good, right? I haven’t hooked up any garden hose seeing as it’s winter. I don’t know where one is anyhow. I find a broom and jump high to whack at the flickering dangers on top of the house, drag them into the gutter or swat them out. It’s like the attack of the giant lightning bugs and their spawn, too, to look skyward. Back up on the hill, I scatter the fuel with my foot and broom, all those boxes, and then back down I try to keep the roof clear. Up and back down, swinging my fire-slapper against the wind, hoping nobody sees this. I don’t know the area or who can see what from where but I do what I have to do. New guy. I exhale because the coals I couldn’t reach, way up near the asphalted apex, look like they’ve gone black. The fire is no more and the wind also goes away. The smell stays.

In the country you have your outbuildings. Time and termites really love or hate one of mine, one that I will learn now to do without as it does the gangster lean. But how to make it disappear? It’s the country, you burn it. But something that big? Not at night. Hell no. You do it on a Sunday morning when the majority of the within-eyesight locals are at church. Oops. Did I drop a lighted match? On the straw? In the barn that’s falling down? If I didn’t, somebody did. Doesn’t matter. I have my garden hose. I soak everything around the barn. And thar she blows. Dum dee dum. Ain’t nuthin’ but a thang.

Firefighter Boy

Sir? Sir? Oh shit. Why did they put the public road…why does it have to be so close? Sir? Did you call the fire department? She, the middle-aged nose, has her car door open and one foot on the blacktop. Half in, half out, uncommitted. I tell her yes ma’am, I sure did but thank you for your concern. She drives away–satisfied, I’m thinking. Smoke rolls up into the sky and does this floaty thing over my property, like a mosquito net on a Peace Corps head. And others’ property too, but they’re at church. What an excellent fire this sun-shiney Sunday morning.

Something you don’t hear much out in the country? Sirens. I’m hearing one just the same. A minimum of one. Two is the number of fire trucks screaming down the hill. The fire has maxed out and is on the downside. I make a display of unconcern, taking care of it myself. This accident. They see I have things in hand. I have my garden hose in hand. The volunteer fire guys who don’t need this crap gingerly climb down and out and pay me a visit. I tell them I have things in hand. I tell them mea culpa: I must not have got that cigarette butt extinguished. They tell me a lady panicked into the country deli-store (where the volunteer firemen hang out because, I think, one owns the place) to make sure they got my call. They hadn’t. Didn’t know a thing about it. I ask if I’ll be assessed a fine for the costs. No, he says, but listen: next time you don’t get a cigarette butt extinguished, call first and just let us know, okay?

I deserve that.

One dark night I furtively deduce that a rubber tire will burn so hot and so long that anything in its burning vicinity will be powder before the tire goes out. Sheetrock powder. Probably regular rocks as far as that goes. I should throw one in next time and see. This is the kind of alchemy esoterica that rankles and must be spoken of in colorful and misleading imagery. The dragon seethes, the Elves of Gehenna become one with Oblivion. Only to the ears of the initiated—the Paracelsi and the Ziffels—should these intimate codes be endowed with meaning.

Home alone and I have much to burn. I’ve moved the fire pile to the north long ago, not so far that I dread taking out the trash in winter, not so close as to be a danger. To the edge of our field. Our pasture, I mean. Talk like you’re one of us, son. And light that match. At night, it’ll be just a bonfire. But nobody’s invited. That blackness filling the firmament and blocking out the stars, well, it’s nothing. You’re smelling things again, take your pills.

Flame

And then the wind comes. It’s out of the west like it was during the night of my first burn. Misburn. Usually is. It also picks up. It’s springtime, though. Comfortable out, besides the smell, mea culpa. The steady and heavy breeze actually feels good to me. My thoughts are heard, leapt upon, and the steady-and-heavy goes full tilt. Orange coals take to the heights. To the house. To the roof. It’s coming out of the west and the north. Japanese blade-crafters then and now would kill for what I am running around trying to make stop. Furnace-class. Garden hose throttled up all the way and its sputum is turned into a perfume-bottle mist, dispersed with the blazing matter as if it were nothing. Heh. Sputum. But it’s not funny at all. Can’t even hear sizzles, just whooshes. Slaps. Things attached to hinges slamming. The same wind is amputating tree limbs. Detritus from the hillbilly place two miles away swirls within my crematorium, catches flame, and jets off. The grass of the yard and the alfalfa of the field–the pasture–are laid flat, ripped out by the roots. All I can do now is aim at the house, get it as wet as I can. I am analyzing, and you know what? The stars have vanished because the sky is black, true, but it has nothing to do with my illicit, bad-neighbor fuel. Shingles are flying from the roof like clay pigeons. Shrapnel. Sticks, leaves, branches, and Fire. Pull. Up, down, left, right, Fire. Spray the house. Just spray that damned house. The timing on this whole thing has been preternatural. I think Dresden, but only for a second. That’s not fair. Still….  Tornado, tornado, go away. I’ve learned this time. Ok? Ok? The security lights—mine and others—blink dark. In the country are security lights. Not now. A transformer brightens the horizon with its own lightning bugs. In the country are shingles….

Fire in the Sky

The twister (talk like you’re one of us) touches down about four miles away. It skirts me, minimal damage elsewhere, all considered. Neighbors and buildings, distances cozily between everybody and everybody’s. Like they want it. And a less-menacing path for ‘naders in the bargain. The rain brings up the rearguard and snuffs out my stupidity. Tomorrow I clean up the traces of it.

Heaps and heaps of traces.

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SO YOU’VE AWOKEN IN A CASKET UNDERGROUND

We’ve all grown up hearing the stories. Authorities disinter a coffin for whatever reason and the parties involved are treated to a scene that will haunt their individual thoughts for the rest of their lives. Fingernails are imbedded in the interior of the coffin lid, along with deep and frantic gouges. The corpse’s skeletal fingers clutch wads of hair; or maybe those fingers have been chewed away, or eroded to nubs from attacking the roof of the tomb. The limbs are drawn up in unnatural contortions while the facial expression betrays horror on a level the living are unwilling or unable to contemplate. Elbows and knees show tendons. The blood-stained shroud is shredded and half-devoured, or even large segments of the body are ripped away and missing. In some legends, an entombed woman gives birth to a child.

Plato recounts the story of a warrior named Er, who apparently died on the battlefield but had not begun to decompose like the other fallen bodies when his surviving brethren returned to dispose of them all ten days later. On the twelfth day, Er woke up just in time to escape the grave. The second-century philosopher-physicians Celsus and Galen both warned of certain situations that could result in false signs of death, including overdoses of alcohol and opium. Galen mentioned the case of a woman who lacked a detectable pulse for thirty days. Two Romans, the praetor Lucius Lamia and the consul Acilius Aviola, both woke too late on their pyres. Another Roman, name of Tubero, gained consciousness and scrambled off his own before being toasted. One might suppose that if there was a thing worse than waking in a coffin, it would be waking in a cremation oven.

Burning Hell

Even throughout the height of medical knowledge during classical times, no indisputable sign of death was known. After the fall of Rome, the cream of centuries of medical studies was lost to Europe west of Constantinople, consequently, it is fair to suspect, boosting the rate of premature burials. Plagues have swept through different parts of the world on and off since the beginning of history, and in such times, when citizens are dropping in the streets and the living are scurrying about to load the carts and get those diseased bodies underground (or into the river), it’s optimistic to think that living burials weren’t part of the horror of the times. Some whose bodies hosted Bubonic Plague or cholera ended up surviving, but often after a term of unconsciousness that mimicked death. Stories exist of voices calling out from below piles of diseased corpses in mass graves. The same can be said of battlefields, where we hear of soldiers given up for dead who show signs of life en route to their graves.

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Not every such inhumation was accidental, though. Vivisepulture (my favorite word for it, since there did have to be one) has been used as a form of capital punishment for millennia. And not only punishment, but ceremony. The Chinese are among the societies who entombed a dead master’s living slaves and concubines–and, hell, his favorite animals–along with the corpse of the dead master. The Vikings were apparently good enough to decapitate the slaves first. The most noted cases relevant to live-burial punishment involved ancient Rome’s Vestal Virgins. These young priestesses enjoyed lives of unique privilege, the population revering them as something far above the vulgar classes. Roman rulers entrusted them with the most secret and sacred of the empire’s documents, and even bestowed them with the power to halt executions if they so chose–other than their own, anyway. Should any of them ever decide to give up that label of virgin (and ten of them were found guilty of it in a thousand years), an underground space would await them, complete with a couch, a lamp, a little water and food. (The reasons for the goodies involved rationalizing ways to get around other laws.)

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After the executioner led the accused Vestal down the ladder, he lifted it and sealed the tomb. The hole that accessed the tomb was filled in. (This was technically an immurement rather than an actual live burial, but six to one.) Kingdoms all over the world incorporated premature burials into their punishments well into the Renaissance. Eye-witness accounts claim Irish Rebels buried Loyalists alive in groups during the 1798 Irish Rebellion. Russian peasants did the same to refugees straggling behind Napoleon’s army in 1812.

A wave of panic over premature burial swept across Europe beginning in the mid eighteenth century. A book or two about the subject found prolific distribution channels, which unleashed a flood of pamphlets full of horror stories, most of which were later exposed as sensationalist fabrications. Self-serving writers gave centuries-old tales new twists and folks were plenty eager to gobble them up. The fear became so widespread and engrained in the social psyche that authorities took action in much the same way they do today when a scare is thrown into the populace–right or wrong, just do something. Doctors began employing a variety of methods to verify death in patients: jamming needles under toenails, making razor slices on the soles of the feet, blowing pepper into nostrils, pouring vinegar or warm urine into mouths, running a voltage through body parts, blasting patients’ ears with trumpets, dumping hot wax on foreheads, brushing sensitive areas with stiff bristles, ramming red-hot pokers up bung-holes, or, by the same avenue, configuring tobacco-smoke enemas with bellows attached to insertion tubes on one end and tobacco-fueled hearths on the other. Some physicians sprinkled the Itching powder liberally, while others incorporated pinching. Nor was that all—and it was only the beginning. A doctor in Weimar, Germany, one Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland, drew up plans and solicited funding for the construction of a waiting-mortuary, or Leichenhaus, which was an idea that medical men of greater prominence than Hufeland were putting forth at the time. The city built Hufeland’s Vitae Dubiae Asylum (asylum for doubtful life) in 1791. The design allowed a watchman to observe eight apparent-corpses round the clock. There the bodies would stay for two or three days, or until putrefaction kicked in.

Hufeland organized the building of a second Leichenhaus in Berlin. This one, however, made use of a novel suggestion: run a system of wires from fingers and toes to bells. If a body moved, the ringing bells would alert the watchman. Yet another waiting-mortuary went up in Berlin, and soon these houses of horror were accepting guests throughout Germany—in more ways than one, actually. Some cities charged a fee to the living in exchange for a pass to snoop around the Leichenhaus. Local governments recruited the top architects of the time to make these death-halls as aesthetic as possible inside and out. They might design the buildings to separate patients by sex, or even by social standing, treating the wealthier corpses to statuary and prettier flowers. Arrangements of corpse beds permitted observation through windows in all cases. The stench, of course, was more than the typical visitor could tolerate for long, but curiosity apparently toughened up a number of guests at least for a while. Floral arrangements commonly flanked the bodies on their slabs, to alleviate both the gruesomeness of the tableau and the odors that issued forth.

Hufeland eventually put together a compendium of case histories and studies he called Der Scheintod. The Scheintod was a death trance that afflicted far more patients than experts had previously known. It rendered the victim paralyzed, the breathing and heartbeat undetectable, although the victim could be fully aware of the surroundings and nearby conversations. The scourge seemed to affect young women more than any other demographic, and could last for weeks. This information, added to the barrage of contemporary fright-inducing literature, sparked philanthropic movements and ideas for preventive measures. In Prussia, concerned citizens organized the world’s first humane society to address the problem of live entombment. Anti-premature-burial activism sprang up across Europe while inventors proffered designs for security coffins. People took to rewording their wills to ensure they’d never bump their heads against the inside of a casket lid in the dark. Some left money to family doctors in exchange for promises of everything from cutting the jugular to removing the head of the maybe-deceased when the time came. Terrified humans insisted their arms and legs be removed, or that there be at least a substantial waiting period, before burial. Requests for cremations increased. Civic-minded aristocrats initiated foundations with the purpose of awarding large sums of cash to anyone who could design a foolproof in-ground security coffin or find an indisputable sign of death. Some of those same philanthropists ordered for themselves special caskets with spring-loaded lids for placement in large burial vaults. The doors of the vaults would come with escape latches. One enterprising inventor claimed vigorous pulling of the subject’s tongue for three hours would retrieve him from the throes of the Scheintod. To this end he devised a peasant-operated machine that surely would’ve done the job had there been any validity to his calculations. No shortage of peasants lined up to give the job a shot, anyway.

Unfortunately, security coffin blueprints the public submitted all seemed anything but infallible. The pulling of ropes to ring bells required more effort than a thoughtful person could expect a weak, sick, and likely confused individual to gather for himself in the darkness. Natural movements inherent in human decomposition could trigger more delicate mechanisms, conceivably activating bells, whistles, soaring rockets, and waving flags day and night while hapless groundskeepers ran around digging up graves. Air tubes required protections against rainwater and bugs. Too, should a signaling device fail for any reason, a built-in air flow would prolong the nightmare while a subterranean tenant dehydrated and starved.

So, governments all over the Continent eventually erected Leichenhauser, though no other country’s enthusiasm equaled that of Germany’s. Napoleon Bonaparte thought the idea a waste of resources, but he did codify a 24-hour minimum waiting period before burial just in case. Leichenhaus watchmen seemed to get the worst of it. The rules of their low-wage employment were strict in most cases; whether their quarters were devoid of beds, couches, and chairs, or whether they had to crank a handle every half hour to prevent an alarm bell from ratting out unauthorized shuteye, their work was miserable. Rules certainly permitted no liquor to dull the edges. And then there was the smell…that fetid, rotting flesh. In winter, employees kept busy stoking fires day and night to keep cadavers warm. As for the customers, full pharmacies and medical apparatus were often available in the facility for when a watchman had to summon a doctor to the aid of a waking patient. Mark Twain visited one such building during his sojourn in Munich and his description of the “grisly” place left no room for any flattery or high marks.

In the latter decades of the nineteenth century, contractors began replacing mechanical alarm systems with electrical equipment. Still, the maybe-deceased lying stretched on their corpse beds had all kinds of wires attached to their bodies, which couldn’t have been too pleasant for the mourners to have to ogle. The existence of the waiting-mortuaries continued well into the twentieth century. Anyone who has read this far has one burning question for which he’s about tired of awaiting an answer. So here it is. The answer is no. Not a one, not in all those hundreds of thousands of stiffs, not in all those decades under constant survey. And to bolster the growing vocal skepticism, respected newspapers during those days of hysteria were caught printing stories of live burials while disregarding channels of verification, stories that proved to be fables. Books and pamphlets on the subject repeated ancient urban myths, recurring themes with various modern twists. The friend-of-a-friend syndrome ran rampant in the eighteenth century as it does today. Even to conduct internet checks now with the logical search words will produce, as true, bullshit warmed-over fantasy tales from days of yore about people interred before their time, although the principals might own iPads and Kindles rather than wig powder and nosegays. Modern forensics have shown that mice and rats that climb into or chew through coffins will begin with the corpse’s fingers and move on with the rest of the body, nibble nibble. They also consume linen. Limbs and faces do contort during the process of putrefaction. Some corpses, like that of William the Conqueror, will flat out explode. Gases that build up in a dead body can escape through the vocal cords, also, effecting a groan that will frighten a passerby into running for help. Or just running.

Does this all mean the fear of being buried alive—taphophobia—is irrational, as the phobia label would indicate, in these modern times of ours? Hardly. For one, we still have no infallible sign of death. The Scheintod is a real thing. Heart rates can drop so low that they can’t be discerned with the most sophisticated of technology. Suicide attempts from overdoses of barbiturates or opiates can knock out all signs of life, leaving the victim, possibly quickly-diagnosed and shoved aside in a busy ER, to awaken in a hell similar to what he’s heard described all his life. Drowning and freezing to death are tricky demises to diagnose with total certainty. The combination of narcotics and hypothermia can create a physical state even more death-like than either by itself. Head trauma, electrocution, epilepsy, and diabetic coma are all notorious for misleading the coroner or the inexperienced emergency room doctor. One might ask Angelo Hays, Nancy Vitale, or Emma Brady if people can be buried alive in modern times.

Many of the anti-premature-burial activists of the nineteenth century took their stands because of their own close calls. Count Michel de Karnice-Karnicki, chamberlain to the Tsar of Russia, is the subject of one of the more well-documented, eye-witnessed accounts of such an event. He watched the young daughter of a friend come to life as she was being interred, which prompted him to design, manufacture, and display to audiences around the world a security coffin that worked great until the one time it didn’t.

Security coffin

During one of his pitch shows, the coffin’s signaling mechanism failed although a plentiful air supply remained available, which made the whole thing too unnerving to support further mail orders. The idea of casket-installed telephones connected to the cemetery caretaker’s quarters was batted around back when telephones were a new invention, but it’s hard to say if it ever really happened.

Casket Phone

So what about now? The 21st century and all that? Wouldn’t embalming be a reasonable guarantee against a live burial? How could anybody be entombed too quickly in these high-tech times? It’s true embalming does ensure a body won’t get up again. It is also a high-profit, add-on sale, like extended warranties, undercoating, and ten-dollar Pepsi’s at the movie theater, none of which I begrudge; none of which I need. If you want a cadaver to be displayed for viewing, you’ll probably want to pay for embalming. If a corpse must be transported cross-country or overseas, yeah, embalming will be necessary. Otherwise, that’s vacation money and not everybody is embalmed. So how about cell phones? Maybe slip one in the deceased’s pocket with a couple of extra batteries. I know from my former line of work that cell-phones are worthless in underground industrial parks. I suspect a coffin covered with five feet of packed earth would smother cell phone signals as it would a breathing person. (Tests–unfortunately once on a dog–have indicated that an inhumed human has about an hour’s worth of air, possibly much more if he or she is in a death-trance, or Der Scheintod). And how thorough do you think the funeral directors are in, say, Zimbabwe when it comes to ensuring the customer gets what he pays the mortician for? Or what kind of accuracy rating for declaring a person dead would you expect in Myanmar, where heroin-zombies work themselves into physical collapse in the jade mines?

Tomb

Personally, I had decided on cremation for other, unrelated reasons long ago. But further consideration left me imagining the horror of opening my eyes in an oven. Lately I’ve decided to donate my body to scientific research or, if by some remote chance the medical staff can locate a still-useful organ, to the harvest. (I’d pity the kid who ended up with my liver.) That, though, brings up another frightening possibility. Premature dissection is also a storied event. Seems we can’t win. Sweet dreams.

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MARSHAL NEY–BAD ASS ~ by g. kinyon

December morning in Paris, 1815, a quiet corner of the Jardin du Luxembourg, out of the view of the pissed-off mob that has heard about the verdict. Michel Ney, Marshal of France, duc d’Elchingen, prince de La Moskowa, Chevalier of the Order of St. Louis—a cooper’s son—declines the blindfold that is offered him. Four soldiers in plumed shakos train their muskets on him from a knee. Four more behind them do the same from a standing position. A commanding officer directs the proceedings from the squad’s right. More than a quarter century in the service of France and this is how it will end—by the hot lead of his own countrymen. Two years in military service under the Royalty, distinguishing himself and ascending the ranks at a rare speed throughout the Revolution, the Empire, the Restoration, and the Hundred Days. That damned Hundred Days. An outstanding commander—Napoleon called him the bravest of the brave—but in equal measure a clumsy politician, which will cost him. All that remains is for him to give his final order—his choice to do so. Voltaire, in reference to the British and their treatment of a certain admiral, wrote: “Pour encourager les autres.” The words apply again.

Ney’s III Corps fought the Russians in the position of rear guard so that the rest of Napoleon’s army might escape that subarctic shithole of the Tsars. November 18, 1812. A Russian soldier under a flag of truce delivers the message to Ney that he is now cut off. The French army has deserted him, he is told. Ney and his 6,000 men are surrounded by 80,000 Russians. There is no escape. That much is established, a fait accompli, although the Marshal’s counterpart on the Russian side admires him and insists he will be treated with the respect his bravery has earned. Ney arrests the messenger. With only six guns, he mounts a frontal assault on the Russians that nearly succeeds. The enemy is expecting nothing so inspired from this meager unit, but they manage to regroup and begin raking the French ranks without mercy. Every burst of Russian cannon wipes out soldiers by the file. Regiments vanish. Ney launches a second effort that proves to be just as spirited as the first, but it is met with unceasing canister shot. One of the Marshal’s aides-de-camp is captured. The Russian commander, General Miloradovich, expresses his admiration to the prisoner. “Bravo,” he says. “Bravo men of France! You have just attacked, with astonishing vigor, an entire corps with a handful of men.”  The British attaché to the Russian army, General Sir Robert Wilson, records it as “a combat of giants.” Ney gives orders to fight until nightfall.

The Marshal succumbs to a flash of rage and doubt when he grasps the truth in what the Russians have said. He and his corps are being sacrificed. He calls Napoleon a bastard for abandoning them while making good his escape. “What will happen to us?” he says. “Everything is fucked!” But none of that lasts. To have any chance of escaping, the survivors must re-cross the Dnieper (the ancient Greeks called it the Borysthenes) that they crossed on a bridge into the ruined city of Smolensk yesterday. Many miles downstream now, on the river road, they are ignorant of the distance and what lay in between other than field and forest. No food, water, maps, or light at hand. “The presence of Marshal Ney was enough to reassure us,” an officer with the abandoned corps will later write. “The greater the danger, the stronger his determination, and once he made his decision he never doubted its successful outcome.” And at such a moment as this, “his face expressed neither indecision nor anxiety. All eyes were on him, but no one dared question him.”

Some 2,000 soldiers survive the day’s battle. An enemy Cossack is strutting around in Ney’s captured dress uniform somewhere in the Russian camp. With animals, supply wagons, and six limbered guns, the men of III Corps force a path through strange landscapes and thick timber, becoming more disoriented by the minute. Ney at length finds a ravine. He orders the snow cleared at the bottom and the ice broken. The direction of the water flow tells him the direction of the Dnieper.

They reach a village on the river’s bank, a village, at any rate, void of sustenance. Ney assumes Russian scouts are following and watching, and he orders a number of campfires to be lit and organizes outposts to bolster the deception. A peasant is co-opted to guide the main body of men to a place where the river ice is thickest. This brings them to another town, but, despite the intense cold, the ice here doesn’t look nearly sturdy enough. The Marshal decides to pass the night in this hamlet and make the crossing by the morning’s light. Military surgeons attend the injured and Ney catches some shuteye.

A messenger rousts him at midnight with news that the Russians have figured it out. They’re closing in. The crossing will have to be made now. The most severely injured, some three hundred of them, stay behind with the cannon and ammunition wagons, although not by choice. Men slide down the steep bank as gently as possible, distrustful of the ice—as well they should be. Leaders step out over the river and advance with caution, sounding the ice with their musket butts. Loud cracks answer every step. On the opposite side, twelve vertical feet of mud awaits, a pathway to the top that will grow slicker with each attempt to scale it. A few of the lighter carts get across and are pulled up the bank with much effort, but they weaken the ice en route. A wagonload of the injured is too heavy and all aboard perish. Horses and soldiers begin breaching all round; men cry out for help. Help is not possible, and the river takes its toll in lives. The fear of Russian retribution compels men unable to walk to drag themselves across on their knees. At this moment, back in Smolensk, the Russians are incinerating the hospitals and the people inside. Anyone left behind, particularly those of low rank, can expect the same. The remaining cavalry is forced to search for a stronger crossing. Hours tick away, but the cavalry at length shows up. All who’ve survived to see the opposite bank begin the 45-mile march to the city of Orsha, a depot Napoleon organized months ago. He and the rest of the army will be waiting there, the rear guard assumes.

The sun rises and the living skeleton of III Corps passes through a village. Here they surprise several sleeping Cossacks, who become their prisoners. Come noon, another berg. The denizens here have fled this time to leave behind a bounty of food and drink. The revelry is cut short, however, when the call to arms is sent up—a response to Cossack squadrons on the approach. The troops form a column and resume the march, exchanging fire with the Cossack cavalry, who now bring up guns on sledges. The French survive reasonably well keeping to the thick vegetation along the Dnieper’s bank and putting together a makeshift fortress that no Cossacks dare breach. As has become the custom, the fight goes on until nightfall. Ney declares that anybody who gets through this will prove “they have their balls hung by steel wire.”

By now the Cossacks have infiltrated the woods flanking the river. Ney orders the remnants of two line regiments under General Henin to remove them. This they do, but the forest is dense enough to scatter the column in the darkness. Enemy fire comes from several directions, and, as must be, the wounded are left to their fates. A sergeant passes his pack to a comrade who, unlike himself, will be able to use it. A wave of fear sweeps over the lost unit. Edge becomes panic. Fellow soldiers call out for help after taking shrapnel, but surely they understand there will be none. Each man imagines he will be next, or he strives for mental diversion to sustain him until the danger has passed. A few stalwarts put their wit and courage on display for the benefit of all. An officer, no less, laments aloud over what he sees as an imminent surrender; another scolds and berates him, tells him to shut his fucking mouth. Vive l’Empereur!

Ragged, depleted soldiers with boots full of swamp-water stumble into deep ravines from which a doomed few are unable to extricate themselves. Enemy cannon-trajectories follow the march, follow it across encrusted streams and stifling scrub, over knee-deep dirty-white plains and slippery berms. The night fills with bloody spray, with ghosts. Artillery splits trees…and severs limbs. These warriors, terrified as they may be, break ranks only for eternal sleep. The officers by and large have done their duty.

Relief—of the mental variety if nothing else. The long lost Dnieper comes into view. This is the path to Orsha, to Napoleon. General Henin keeps the march as close as possible to the river so the Cossacks can’t outflank. He says nothing when a Russian shell sends a casing fragment into his gut; continues, instead, to command with a full throat. Whose campfires are those in the distance, he wonders. Ney. The corps is reunited but Ney has been breaking camp. The lost regiment is not allowed to rest–not an option if they wish to live. The main body, too, has had its own troubles. A Russian officer of considerable rank rode into earshot earlier and demanded a surrender, only to hear from a French general that Frenchmen don’t know that word. And the night is a long one. The march continues with a merciless exchange of fire, men dropping along the way. The following afternoon finds the dwindling corps bankrupt of ammunition. Few muskets are left as it is, and anyway it’s so miserably cold that no one can hold a firearm in his hands. Still, Ney forms his armed men into two ranks and angles for the greatest effect by placing the unarmed men behind them. Cossacks charge, screaming “Hurrah! (meaning death),” only to reverse their impetus, as is their wont, when the French weapons are pointed in their direction, unloaded as they may be. Cossacks stick out their tongues before turning around, though, a gesture equivalent to the French middle finger or bras d’honneur if perhaps a grade less sophisticated. The march resumes while the Cossacks stay to the front at a useless distance. Marshal Ney asks another officer his thoughts. What can be said other than to point out the obvious, that their position is not brilliant and more cartridges are needed? “True, but it’s here we must know how to sell ourselves dearly,” Ney says.

At nightfall, he has campfires lit at a distance from the Russians, but orders all units to be ready to move at nine o’clock. In the meantime, another Russian flag of truce appears. The Russian general is demanding Ney’s surrender. Surprise. 100,000 troops have him circled. It’s all up with III Corps. Ney sends the messenger back with the news that a Marshal of France never surrenders. The next Russian spokesmen to show up with the same demand is arrested. Ney insists he see for himself how the French surrender. Predictably, a third messenger comes to retrieve his comrade. He too is treated to a stay in the Gallic camp. But while the Marshal is telling him so, the Russian is casting glances in all directions. Ney is plenty annoyed and has him blindfolded; makes him knock it off. The man whines and Ney orders everyone to fall in quietly, to march in close formation without speaking. They pass through the Russian camp, and the Russians fail to even notice them until it’s too late to make Ney regret his arrogance. Instead, they’re left to content themselves with the capture and slow murder of a few straggling injured.

Until daybreak. The Cossacks ride across an open field with sledge-mounted guns. Ney draws his men into square formation and pushes on under fire. A trifling number of French sharpshooters with cartridges torment the enemy as they can, but the incoming artillery is intense and the French are several times on the verge of breaking ranks and surrendering. By virtue of Ney’s unruffled presence is the square maintained until they gain high ground in front of a village. Here the Marshal harangues about dying for France before he positions his two divisions to make a stand. Again and again the Russians attack, but the French repulse them each time. Things come to a point where the Russian commander tires of this determination
that continues to embarrass him and his forces. During the resulting lull, exhausted French soldiers take refuge in the village’s houses. Ney has no choice but to set fire to the town in order to force his men to fall in and pick up the march. And once again, during the night, the Marshal leads them through Russian lines unmolested—all four or five hundred of them.

Napoleon has been awaiting any word of his missing Marshal for days. He orders various scouts on missions to find out what they can. The Emperor would relinquish all 300 million francs in the Tuilleries’ treasury to get Ney back, he declares. But the main Russian forces are closing in. At midnight tonight, he has decided, he will accept the fate of his friend and move on. He’s unaware Ney has sent an officer ahead to get word to him of the rear guard’s escape. That word flashes via couriers through the remnants of the Grande Armee until it reaches l’Empereur. Ney is so revered in this military that a sense of rapture rolls through the ranks and sets off a night of rejoicing among men who will never see home again. High-ranking officers burst into tears at the news. Corks are popped, backs are slapped.

But reality is waiting with teeth bared come morning. Marshal Ney reorganizes and commands the rear guard the rest of the murderous way through Lithuania, holding off the enemy under conditions a preponderance of us could not endure even with an escort and an order of safe passage. The soldiers and civilians who ultimately survive Napoleon’s empire-ending misadventure likely owe their lives to Marshal Ney.

“Fire!”

The duchesse d’Angeloume, daughter of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, has been the driving force behind Ney’s execution. Both her parents were beheaded, her brother left to his death in prison, by the revolutionaries some two decades ago. To her, Napoleon represents those regicides. Not that he had a thing to do with any of it, but he was the ultimate product of the Revolution and the chief impediment to the restoration of Bourbon rule. Her family is restored to the French crown in the form of her uncle, Louis XVIII, when Napoleon abdicates. Ney finds favor with this new monarch, and is given a military unit to command. But in March of 1815, the restive Napoleon returns from exile in Elba, full-on ready to make things happen one more time. Ney, calling Napoleon a “wild dog” among a number of other choice epithets, insisting he’ll bring Bonaparte back in an iron cage, is sent to arrest him. But that’s not exactly how it unfolds.

 http://youtu.be/QmzIc7-F6t8

Napoleon Bonaparte’s charisma and sense of self-worth are so off-the-charts overpowering that with a glance and a few words he can cast his spell on a man like Marshal Ney. This is incredible. Ney hated the man’s guts. (The video linked above is probably a reasonable representation of one of history’s true turning points, where  testosterone, dripping from the atmosphere like syrup from a burlap bag, decides the course of the future.) Instead of arresting the little usurper, maybe getting in some payback for that abandonment-in-Russia thing, the Marshal ceremoniously relinquishes his sword to his superior and  joins him in yet another overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy. A hundred days later, though…Waterloo. Ney’s as much as Bonaparte’s. The Bourbon king returns to the throne of France, whereupon his niece and her Royalist allies press him to punish Ney most capitally. True, Ney committed a treasonous act against the crown, but no one believes it was premeditated. He was simply incapable of resisting Napoleon’s magic—he and tens of thousands of others. Louis is in the unenviable position of having to bring a favorite of the French people—a near-mythological figure—to trial. Ney is given a passport to leave the country, but his effort to take advantage of the opportunity is feeble and unavailing. The Marshal, then, is arrested. After the King experiences a bit of trouble collecting a willing jury, a tendentious pool of arbiters is assembled and they condemn Ney to death. Effective immediately.

The Duchess later in life reads the story above, or a similar version of it, rather, and expresses her regret. Had she known, she admits, she never would’ve handled things so.

Marshal Ney

2013-12-24 16.30.01

IMPALED–A Fishing Adventure at the Lake of the Ozarks

The world stopped long enough for me to bid a friend adieu recently. Steve and I shared memories of events and things that will pass into oblivion the moment I join him. I’ve decided in favor of leaving one of those behind, though, seeing as how some events and some memories simply deserve an audience larger than two people.

It takes place on a Saturday. Warsaw, Missouri. Summer, but not bad summer. Two-ish, three-ish, where the shadows are long enough for a guy to notice the day’s wearing thin. We’re fishing one of Steve’s favorite spots off the shore of what was once the Osage River, Steve in his wheelchair plugging away at the water’s edge while I’m well behind him, fiddling with my broken line. There’s this painful tug at my scalp, and another right after. Steve has tossed his line back to cast and caught my head. I yell at him to stop trying to un-snag his f—ing line. “Oh…sorry, man.” I scramble forward to get some slack before he tries to reel me in, and I clip the line along the side of my face as quick as I can make it happen. We’re fishing with worms; but Steve isn’t using a simple single hook—hell no. He’s got on a freakin’ treble hook. He’s got that damn worm wrapped around those barbs in some sort of bizarre configuration that no catfish or Rubik’s Cube master could ever figure out.

Hook ain’t coming out. So I tell hell him as unobtrusively as possible in such a situation that I need to maybe be getting on to the hospital. He’s the one driving–that car of his with all the fancy hand-brake gear–so it’s up to him. But no. “Man, they’re hittin’ right there in that spot.” He nods at the water. “I almost had a big one. Just give me a minute.” So here I sit with blood streaming down my face and a worm in my head. And I sit. Steve fishes some more and I sit some more, fifteen, twenty minutes, my plaintive screeching falling on the deafest pair of ears this side of D.C. Finally, I complain solidly enough that he gives in with the irritated sigh of a kid being dragged out of Chuck-E-Cheese. “All right, damn.” He doesn’t say it, but I know he’s thinking: You big baby.

As we pull away, he tells me he needs gas. Figures. The nearest hospital is a good half-hour away, you should understand, and I being the one of us who can walk, I get to go into the convenience store to pay. It’s a busy place, too, and I have a long line to stand in–a long line with customers walking by and looking away much too slowly from the treble hook-impaled idiot with dangling mono-filament and a worm in his head, not to mention blood dripping down his face onto his shoulder; one of those lines where the people at the front can’t figure out what they want or they have to get lottery tickets, or: No, not the lights, the ultra-light 100s–over there…now to the left and down…no, your other down–anything but just paying for what they have in hand and leaving. When it’s finally my turn, it’s amusing in an utterly humiliating kind of way to watch the counter girl try to keep the WTF? expression cleared from her face, her eyes aiming down, but desperately wanting to aim upwards.

After showing me his surgical tools–a pair of side-cutters and needle-nose pliers—with a grin, the emergency room doctor removes my treble hook and worm, but not without being the consummate comedian about the whole thing. But gee thanks for the Tylenol 3s, Doc.

See ya round, buddy.