Monthly Archives: July 2012


The word rings sweet in our ears. Women scream for it in the delivery room. It has made previously-unthinkable surgeries routine. It keeps us from living our lives in fear. It is more indispensible than air conditioning. And it leaves us with this question: How did civilization manage for millennia without it?

Napoleon’s military surgeons had an advantage in the winter that they did not have during the warm months, and particularly in Russia: the anesthetizing effect of frigid temperatures and snow. Surgeons packed snow around doomed limbs to numb them before amputation. Women, including camp followers such as prostitutes, cantinieres, vivandieres, and actresses, plied men with brandy when it was available before surgery, but it was the cold that did the most to render amputations bearable. Surgery without anything to numb the affected areas, such as during the warm months, must have been indescribably horrific. Sometimes the patients were mere youths, too: drummer boys or civilian children caught in the crossfire. It’s not something most of us care to think about. If you ever suffer surgery without anesthesia, you will not soon forget it.

I have done many things for the sake of the experience, sometimes so that I could write about it. I have had many experiences for reasons of necessity. I wouldn’t volunteer to undergo surgery without anesthesia just to know first-hand what it was like, and not so that I could write about it. But I would do it in order to continue living.

You cannot expect doctors to be square with patients when doing so would mean inciting terror, and I wouldn’t hold that against them. I had a tracheostomy recently, and not only did the surgeons avoid telling me what I was in for, but they lied, for which I am grateful. They did let me know I would have to remain conscious during the procedure. Breathing on my own was crucial, at least until the aperture was made. If I were knocked out, I might stop breathing and suffocate. The lie came when the head surgeon told me the anesthesiologists would inject me with a cocktail that would send me to heaven, figuratively speaking. She said she’d never known a patient to remember the operation.

If that last part was true, then I ruined her streak, but I’m reasonably sure it wasn’t. My first clue that something bad was in store came when they flopped me onto the operating table and started putting my arms into restraints. I told myself this was surely just an emergency precaution. (I would hear later that surgical team members sometimes had to lie across a patient to keep the poor sap in place during a tracheostomy.) The crew fitted a strap around my head and installed a mask over my face so that I couldn’t see. The anesthesiologist announced that he was now injecting me and I would soon be happy and at one with the universe. I looked forward to that. Just the same, that Zen-like tranquility never came. The words were a placebo. The doctors told me lots of placebos. (I now notice that placebo has the same root as placate.) The doctor said that if by any chance I felt pain, to let them know and they would administer a local anesthetic.

If by “let us know” she meant scream, then we were on the same page. And if I was at one with anything, it was with a tiny buzz saw. I couldn’t see the critter, but I could hear and feel it. ZZZZ, ZZZZ, ZZZZ. Into my flesh it went. I gritted my teeth and clenched my sphincter; I didn’t want to be a baby about it. I could only make it a matter of seconds, however, before I called for that local. The anesthesiologist, or somebody, obliged me with a long needle to the sliced-up Adam’s apple. I felt fluid stream into the tissue, riding the current of pain that the needle generated. A numbing sensation—a welcome, appreciated, and wholly inadequate numbing sensation—followed. And the buzz saw followed that. ZZZZ, ZZZZ,ZZZZ went the implement. When you visit torture chamber museums, I was thinking, you see implements. I balled my hands into fists and squeezed my eyes closed. The mask, I realized, was to keep meat and blood from flying into my face. I imagined what was being flung onto the team as they stood around me.

The lead surgeon spoke to her assistant—her trainee—describing what they were seeing, what level they had reached, as she drilled. I asked as calmly as I could for another shot. Again the needle pierced my skin and plunged far too deeply into my neck tissue. Again the burn of fluid under pressure followed the pain of the needle. I felt the touch of air against the exposed nerve endings within the new crater. And then the buzzing resumed. The local gave me maybe a minute of arguably-tolerable pain before I was clenching and grinding and squeezing. The lead surgeon nudged her assistant for agreement that they were at the correct place in my throat. I couldn’t tell if the question was just part of the training, or if somebody was lost. The assistant agreed, but without the confidence in her voice that I longed for. And I asked for another shot. The routine had been established. That terrible blade whirled through me, its power-device producing resistance sounds, its RPMs slowing intermittently as it hit tougher material. I knew if I fought in any way that I’d make things worse. It burned me like a hot iron, but I had to take it. I thought of those soldiers in the tents losing their arms and legs to the stroke of a bone-saw. Again, I requested a shot, and I was lucky to have it, what good it did. I requested lots of shots before it was all over.

At long last—and I honestly don’t know how long it took, but I guessed about twenty minutes—I felt the sensation of fresh oxygen and nitrogen streaming directly into my lungs from my neck. I heard positive exclamations, reminiscent of the eurekas you might hear when gold or oil is struck. I was as relieved as a person could be under the circumstances. I’d thought for a moment I wasn’t going to make it, the pain having been so intense. But no one had secured me to the table with the weight of his body. That was something, anyway. After the surgeon asked the assistant to verify the hole had been drilled in the right place—which the assistant was pretty sure was the case—she told me I could now be drifted off to sleep.

And my trifling operation was nothing compared to a field amputation. Someone had discovered ether by the time the War Between the States came around, but I shudder to imagine life before that. The existence of anesthesia allows us to carry on without fretting over the likely event of an unbearable surgery. We, in our modern times, have no conception of what it was like to have such a thought lurking in our minds, the probability hanging over our heads. I’m surprised that that fear was not written about more often. I will forever feel a debt of gratitude for the people who worked so hard to bring anesthesia to the masses.               



For the past fifteen years I’ve been taping a certain radio show on Halloween night. People call in from all over North America to tell the world about their ghostly encounters, and I’ll generally listen to the recordings the next day. For whatever reason, the stories intrigue me. People with highly creative minds write these imaginative tales and then line up to give a stunning performance on the air waves. Except I don’t really believe that’s what’s going on. For the most part, the narrators, I am sure, are being honest. Whether the story is true or not, they at least believe what they’re saying. And now, the count of celebrities who have outed themselves on Biography Channel’s “Celebrity Ghost Stories” is around two-hundred.

At some point, an observer has to ask himself just what he believes. Could it be that all these famous faces are part of a big conspiracy to put one over on the public, in whose good graces they need to be for their careers? Anything’s possible, but I can’t see any real benefit in doing that. Money? I doubt the Biography Channel could afford to pay these people enough to get them on board of a lie and still turn a profit. These celebrities, too, are taking a risk that pouring their hearts out will come back to haunt them, so to speak. Are they all being square with us? No. I think Marilyn Manson for one was lying through his teeth about his brush with the supernatural–and I’m a fan–but I believe Alice Cooper was sincere, even though a scary story fits ever-so-conveniently with his onstage persona. Brett Michaels and Vince Neil are two more rockers I think were honest in portraying it as they saw it. I don’t see a man–Neil in this instance–stooping so low as to use the death of his little girl as part of a prank. That’d be beyond the sociopathic.

So, are there ghosts? I don’t know. I’ve never seen any kind of apparition. I’ve never seen objects move, drawers open, doors slam, or any such thing. That said, an incident happened when I was about sixteen that I can’t imagine forgetting, an event that would suggest maybe there is something to the existence of a spiritual realm. In any event, it defies reasonable explanation as far as I can lay it out.

It took place at an abandoned house off a gravel road out in the country, where my friends and I had hid before from the law while swilling beer. We would park our rides behind the two-story building and hang out for an hour or two on a weekend night, usually in early spring before the weeds grew too thick. Here we were free to crank up the car stereo as loudly as we liked; no residences were in earshot of our little night haven. The few times we had gathered outside of that house, though, we had not discussed entering it. Of course it would only be a matter of time until a lull in the conversation inspired one of us to throw out the dare.

The house had been built long before the advent of rural electrification, and the last person to live there—an old doctor, I later learned—had refused to modernize when he had the choice. On this particular night the group of us (we were five in number) crept up the porch steps, across the threshold, and into the ancient living room. The scent of decaying newspaper, plaster, and wood pounced on us immediately. The beams of our two flashlights lighted up black, cylindrical ductwork from an era when central heating almost always involved cordwood. Tattered and yellowed paper and crumbling adhesive covered the walls. The floor planks, bare and loose, creaked under our shifting weight. We found no inside toilet, and drew the collective conclusion that the outhouse must have disintegrated many years ago. The empty lower floor gave us nothing much to see, which left the upper story for exploration. That’s where we really wanted to go anyway.

The steps ascended to a hallway that accessed the T-shaped structure’s three bedrooms—east, west, and north. We split up into two groups to avoid crowding. The bedrooms, to our disappointment, were as bankrupt of interesting objects as the rooms below. More empty space, more piles of broken plaster and shreds of wallpaper. The windows were latched as they had probably been for a decade or more. After checking the bedroom closets and coming up empty, we decided to make a beer run.

The methods we used to acquire alcohol at sixteen and seventeen years of age usually involved bribing a store clerk. Suffice to say we were stocked up and back at our drinking grounds fairly quickly, no more than thirty minutes later. I suppose it was out of boredom that we decided to drink our beer sitting on the floor of one of the bedrooms. Again we entered the house and climbed the stairs single file. The lead man and the rear guard held the flashlights as I tripped along, as I recall it, in one of the middle positions. We chose the west room for our party, it having the best view out of the three. We stumbled into the hall, turned left behind the man up front, and watched the light land on a closed bedroom door. One of us had apparently shut it on the way out, and nothing about that was remarkable until the alpha of the moment turned the ivory-white knob and pushed. The knob turned freely but the door didn’t budge. “What the…hey! This thing’s been nailed shut.” As those words sank in, the speaker pushed harder and added, “From the inside.” The guy behind me reached over to the middle door and, turning the knob, could not open it. At the same time, the man in back was pushing on the east door. “They’re all like that,” he said. By then the gravity of it hit us, and we bolted. The scene reminded me of the Three Stooges trying to get through a doorway together. We pushed and shoved and squeezed down the stairs and out of the house. Without any kind of discussion, the bunch of us beat a retreat into the car just in time not to get left behind by the driver.

The atmosphere inside the vehicle was all silence and pregnant with the teenage version of “Let us never speak of this.” I can only account for myself, and I was running the incident through my mind, trying to decipher how it all could have happened. I’m sure everyone else was doing the same thing. I saw those knobs turn far enough to withdraw the latch. I saw shoulders trying to force the doors open. Whether or not the assessment that the doors had been nailed shut was accurate or not, I didn’t know. Neither did I recall if those doors had exterior keyholes; don’t think so. At the very least, someone had been watching us from one of the empty fields that surrounded the property—someone sitting in the dirt late on a chilly night with a key to the interior doors of a house that had been vacant for years. That person apparently had no key to the front door, though. Or maybe someone with a turn-of-the-century room key happened to drive by in that half-hour span and decided to run in and lock the empty upper-story rooms but not the house.

All these years have passed and I still don’t know what to think about that. Nor do I know what to think about dozens of celebrities lining up to tell their stories of other-worldly visitations. It occurs to me that of the five of us bailing from that house that night, I’m now the only one who doesn’t know what’s on the other side. I guess we learn the answers soon enough.


Anasazi canyon community in Utah

I wanted to stand where humans had stood a thousand years ago, but in a place that had not changed since then. I wanted to see what those people had seen, to hear what they had heard. I wanted to know what it felt like to traverse their territory by their same means of travel. There are locations in the lower forty-eight that meet those qualifications, where a person can experience the shade of a bluff when that shade becomes invaluable rather than being just a novelty, and the sound of a silence that provokes thought, if not profound introspection. There are places where you will hear neither planes overhead nor vehicles down below, where the hum of transmission lines is non-existent. But you have to earn your presence there. The mode of transport can only be your feet. And it must be far enough away from cars, trucks, and buses that none could be heard moving. And you must necessarily be alone, that is if you want the full effect.

The “White House,” Canyon De Chelly, Arizona

The place I found that best met my stipulations was Chaco Canyon in the northwest of New Mexico. Here was a quietude that cannot be found, I’m sure, in the East of the country. To hike through these sands with the mid-summer sun straight overhead, to position yourself miles away from help, is to gain a sense of another existence. The ancient Puebloans of Chaco Canyon hauled the building materials for their copious metroplexes across this desert, as well as their trade goods–and not only across the canyon floor, but up and down sheer cliffs hundreds of feet in height. They carved out foot and hand holds in these walls, as well as thirty-foot-wide staircases in the bluff-tops. These were part of their highway system that stretched for dozens of miles in several directions.

Chaco astronomers camped out atop this monster to figure out the heavens

The Chaco seem to be the first of the Puebloans (Anasazi) to have learned the art of stone architecture, but those techniques and others were disseminated during the 12th century, when a veritable building boom hit the Southwest of the present day U.S. Houses and communities began to be constructed in and around canyons, and even in alcoves of sheer cliffs hundreds of feet above the ground. At that same time, a building boom was happening in Western Europe. The first wave of Crusaders, particularly the Knights Templar, had returned from the Holy Land with an unprecedented knowledge in the area of architecture. They began building cathedrals–magnificent houses of worship  that even to this day stump the experts. No one knows where that ability came from, or how construction was accomplished other than the rudimentary aspects of it. Somehow, incredible methods of architecture were burgeoning simultaneously on two continents at the same time, where they had not existed only a short time before. These are the kinds of things a person thinks about while grinding through a desert.

Pictographs–my reward for six miles of humping it. Supposedly, the image at bottom left is a super nova.

Mesa Verde in Colorado

One of many Puebloan villages scattered throughout Chaco Canyon

Anasazi community with multiple kivas

In Ireland, there are three mind-boggling structures that were built by transporting hundreds of gigantic boulders for several miles, and some million quartz rocks for ninety miles. They sit near each other in the same valley, and each contains passageways that receive the sunlight for a few minutes on certain predictable days. Newgrange, the most astounding of the three, lights up internally at sunrise on the winter solstice. The sunbeams creep along a sixty-foot passage, ultimately illuminating a thirty-foot-high chamber in the structure’s center. The light soon slides back down the passage and leaves the interior in blackness for another year. On Ireland’s west coast, there sits a complex of stacked-stone buildings known as bee hive huts or ring forts. That they have existed in place for so long gives testimony to their remarkable design. They overlook the Atlantic Ocean from a sheer cliff, giving the appearance of a set of defensive works. Some archaeologists believe these buildings to be 4,000 years old. Expert speculation abounds as to the purpose of the Chaco complexes and their carefully-designed and laboriously-manufactured roads and stairways. Likewise the mound-structures and beehive huts in Ireland. It is all just a guess. We know that the Templar Knights built cathedrals for worship, but there seems to be other, more cryptic incentives underlying those massive endeavors. Nor do we know the provenance of any of the aforementioned architectural mastery. One attribute that the medieval cathedrals, Newgrange, and the buildings of Chaco Canyon have in common is that they are all in alignment with one astronomical event or another–either with the course of the sun or the cycles of the moon. If we are allowed to ask questions in the afterlife, those that my brain posed as I rested under a bluff in the New Mexican desert, or as I stood in the chamber at Newgrange, would be at the top of my list—higher even than questions about the pyramids. In one way or the other, they all pertain to the Architects.

13th century cathedral ruins in Ireland–an example of the Templar architecture

Beehive structure on West Ireland coast dated to 2000 B.C.

My daughter Randi and me in front of Newgrange, the oldest man-made structure on Earth

Irish petroglyphs, 4,000 years before the Chaco carved theirs

Newgrange was built in 3200 B.C. Nobody knows why.

Ancient Chaco petroglyphs--of what?

Chaco Petroglyph–of what? An architect, maybe?

Trail Through Chaco Canyon

No wind, no sound, no shade, no water

DON’T COME A KNOCKIN’ (Tales of My Youth Part 1)

Warning: Adult situations, language

Winnepeg signEver known a sex fiend? I don’t know how else to describe my buddy Johnson, whose name I have changed considering he, against all odds, ain’t dead yet. They say the average male thinks about sex every seven seconds. What you never learn is how many seconds that thought lasts. For Johnson, the answer was eight. Even on our thousand-mile fishing trip to Manitoba, Johnson’s urges followed us. We—Johnson, I, and a third guy named Shriver—were compelled one night to leave our campsite in the woods for the urban wilds of Winnipeg so that Johnson might be placated and shut up.

I should make clear we were just old enough to buy alcohol. We drove a pick-up truck with a camper on the bed, and from this combination Johnson called to a city cab driver to point us in the direction of the women. The cabby offered to lead us to the appropriate neighborhood, whereupon we tailed him toward the skyscrapers. Several working girls populated the street that the kindly driver brought us to, two of which were hanging on our doors before we even stopped. One was blonde, the other an Indian, or maybe she would rather have been called a Native Manitoban, but this was before political correctness and I didn’t ask. The blonde was much prettier, but Johnson said he had never had an Indian girl. Hooker girlAll I could say was that I’d once been with a Chinese girl, and that I was ready again an hour later. The ladies pointed us to an alley where, they suggested, it would be relatively safe to park our vehicle. They came after us on foot, and Johnson urgently announced his pick and disappeared with her into the camper. Shriver and I, along with the dismissed blonde and a few of her friends, the chosen girl’s brother among them, hung around in front of our truck, exchanging pleasantries by the glow of a security light. (The brother made an interesting comment: “I take care of my sister, man.” And a bang-up job he was doing.) Even with whores and sibling pimps, it’s “where you from?” and so forth. It wasn’t long, however, before someone said, “Oh shit, the cops, eh?”

I was thinking quickly that night. I grabbed a folding map from the front seat of the truck and had it spread out on the hood before either of the two cops got out of their vehicle. Of course they asked for ID, and wanted to know what we were doing back there in that alley. Well, hell, that was obvious, wasn’t it? We were lost fisherman trying to find our place on the map. With our new friends.Winnepeg Police

I think those cops honestly thought for a moment we might be lost. Why would anyone drive a thousand miles from the States to buy a Canadian hooker? Naw…they didn’t buy it for a second. At any rate, we checked out from the police perspective. Nothing illegal would be going on now. Shriver and I found our position on the map and thanked everyone for their help. But as I folded the map and the cops were a few steps into a return to their cruiser, it happened. The camper began to sway in a sickening rhythm. Back and forth. Bam, bam, bam.

Freakin’ Johnson.

Couldn’t he hear the cops’ voices? Well, we were busted. Shriver knew it, I knew it, the pimp knew it, and the gaggle knew it. Or so said all of their eyes as everyone sort of froze on that warm, Indian summer night. The cops ambled back toward us while the slap of the camper shell against the truck-bed accelerated. The shock absorbers squeaked out a crescendo and heralded a finale. The maestro was lost in a world of raw, Native Manitoban bliss, unconcerned with the goings on outside that camper door. The cops regarded us for a moment with half-grins. “Next time you get lost in this city,” one of them said, “be a little more discreet about it, eh?”