Saturday, March 30, 2013

It's hard to think of rest, Theo, it's hard to think of peace

Poster from a rock & roll safehouse,
Louisville, Kentucky, ca. 1991 (detail) by Rhonda Roberts

Anyone who has ever lived dangerously and loved deeply at the same time has friends whose death would come as no surprise. Theo was always one of those people in my life. I met her more than twenty years ago when we were both what I would now call kids, and even then I wouldn't have been surprised if she had turned up dead. I would have been horrified and disgusted, angry and profoundly sad, but not surprised. Theo was courageous, candid, often fearless, and she loved with a wild abandon many things that are very dangerous, even deadly: booze, narcotics, band guys, sex with band guys, a good dare.

Theo has died at age 44. I am horrified and disgusted, angry and profoundly sad, but not surprised. It always seemed like she could go away from us at any time. When social media threw old friends and lovers into each other's arms a few years ago, and Theo and I found one another online, I'll admit that I was pleasantly surprised to find her still alive. I probably would have been less surprised if I had found one of the other girls from the Louisville scene of the early 1990s alive instead and she had told me Theo was no longer with us.

I totally loved Theo. Theo was one of my great teachers. I ran away from graduate school in literature to play rock & roll on the road in 1991 and ran smack dab into Theo and all of her creepy and fabulous friends in Louisville, Kentucky. It's a long story that only matters, at this point, to a few hundred people. We lived the rock & roll dream, playing our music in bars, going home with strangers, waking up in the middle of house parties that turned into unexpected adventures in strange cities. We took each other on the road, from town to town. We evolved shared vocabularies with a widening circle of friends who stayed in touch through original rock & roll music traveling from town to town in battered vans. Media was much less social back then, so it was left to socially gifted people like Theo to connect people and to keep us that way.

We all did a lot of things back then that we probably aught not to have done. But we did them anyway. The problem is these things can be very fun to do when you are young and discovering yourself and have no one else to care for but yourself. Most of the people I know from those days slowed way down and, at some point, began to take care of people other than themselves who needed them to stay alive. So we have stayed alive. I am told that Theo never slowed down very much and, from what I could tell, she seemed to remain her only (considerable) caretaking problem until the end.

I want to be 25 again, and for Theo to be 23. I want to do it all over again and once again to learn from Theo about rock &roll and all those exciting and dangerous things that travel with rock & roll. Because I want to go back there so badly, despite all of the nourishing and thrilling things in my life today, I forgive Theo for never slowing down or completely growing up. If it didn't kill you, it was one hell of a way to live. The rock & roll party all night (and into the next day) journey that Theo took us on was an ecstatic experience. Everyone truly alive that I have ever known was looking for some equivalent of that ecstatic experience. Theo was an expert at creating and freely sharing ecstatic experience. It was, and is, so worth living for.

We owe you, Theodora Collins. We miss you, Theo.

Monday, March 18, 2013

War Baby and the Great American Father

Photo from Thinksquad.

War Baby and the Great American Father
A Labor & Delivery Journal

By Chris King

It was so late there was nothing on TV, except the war. So we were watching the war, and my wife Karley was having contractions, coming closer and closer together. When she was down to one contraction every five minutes, it was delivery room time, according to doctor’s orders. It was dawn in Baghdad and the cable news stations were reporting the latest rumor that Saddam Hussein had been bombed to death when we shut off the television set and got on the road.

It had snowed all day – freakishly, because it was April in New York. The day had just barely turned to April 8th as we drove through the Midtown Tunnel into Manhattan. The roads had emptied of traffic in the middle of the night, so I had less of that horrific feeling that a terrorist would detonate a bomb while my pregnant wife and I were driving under the East River. An empty tunnel on a snowy night just didn’t deliver much bang for the buck, if killing infidels was part of the plan.


As Karley writhed in pain in a hospital bed, it was beginning to look like April 8th would be the birthday of our first child. My wife does not like someone hovering over her, especially when she is in pain, so I took a seat nearby and prepared to read a book I had brought along to the hospital. It was a new, scholarly selection of The Journals of Lewis and Clark, the report commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson to document the westward expedition that explored the newly purchased Louisiana Territory in the early days of the 19th century. With April 8th on my brain, I paged through the dated journal entries, looking to see how the captains and their men had fared on April 8th, our first baby’s birthday-to-be.

I turned, by chance, to April 8th, 1805. Meriwether Lewis kept the journal that day. The scholarly selection of the journals I had brought with me made no attempt to clean up or modernize the language in the captains’ field reporting, so it reads kind of raw. Captain Lewis noted, “I walked on shore, and visited the black Cat, took leave of him after smoking a pipe as is their custom, and then proceded on slowly by land about four miles where I wated the arrival of the party, at 12 Oclock they came up and informed me that one of the small canoes was behind in distress. Capt Clark returned fou[n]d she had filled with water and all her loading wet. we lost half a bag of bisquit, and about thirty pounds of powder by this accedent; the powder we regard as a serious loss [...]”

Sounds like a pretty crummy day: a canoe full of precious, soaking-wet stuff, of spoiled food and ruined ammunition. At least, confiding his thoughts to his journal, rather than to (say) a journalist embedded with the Corps of Discovery, Captain Lewis didn’t feel compelled to add, “But we are still on pace, according to plan” – the sort of platitude appearing daily in American newspapers carrying reports of journalists embedded with U.S. forces in Iraq.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark are rightly remembered as brave explorers, hardy travelers, historic precursors of anyone who ever went overland on a major Western vacation. But they were also captains of a United States military expedition, and 19th century American history is an unbroken story of regime change in Indian country, aided by primitive biological warfare – blankets contaminated by smallpox and measles, handed out freely to tribes with no resistance to those wasting diseases. I couldn’t help but think of the U.S. military of today, openly embarked on violent regime change to oust a latter-day, more highly technological biological warrior in Saddam Hussein.

Unlike the U.S. military leaders moving through Iraq, who didn’t have much time to stop and smell the desert wildflowers, Lewis and Clark were their own embedded journalists. As part of their commission, they were field reporters of geography, plants, animals, and Indians. On April 8th, 1805, the Corps of Discovery was just breaking winter camp at Fort Mandan in what is now North Dakota. After grousing about those thirty pounds of ruined gunpowder, Lewis worked up his winter birding notes:

“The only birds I observed during the winter at Fort Mandan was the Missouri Magpie, a bird of the Corvus genus, the raven in immence numbers, the small woodpecker or sapsucker as they are sometimes called the beautifull eagle, or calumet bird, so called from the cicumstance of the natives decorating their pipestems with it’s plumage and the Prairie Hen or grouse.”

I typed these notes into my handheld gizmo as Karley slumbered, numbed and knocked out by an anesthetic. I was struck by this hasty catalog of birds, how the “beautifull” golden eagle appears wedged in between an unknown woodpecker called the sapsucker and the common grouse. Lewis recognizes the golden eagle’s beauty, he knows its native name (the “calumet bird,” named for a ceremonial pipe), and he has seen and even smoked from pipes bedecked with its “plumage,” which mark them as profoundly holy items. In fact, that was his morning business on that day, April 8th, 1805: he smoked a sacred pipe with a Mandan named Black Cat. Yet all this beauty and holiness is presented as just another logistic. It gets lost in a list between a sapsucker and a grouse.


When the hospital medical staff was hitting Karley up with the epidural anesthetic, I prayed. I was itching to be helpful, and it was the best I could do. Sinking an epidural is a harrowing procedure, involving a needle injecting into the spinal column – one false move and she could get a wicked headache, or worse. If she sat still, though, her wracking labor pains would soon go away. “Tree of life and light,” I prayed, over and over again, in the manner of a mantra, “Tree of life and light, please ease her passage.” It is a fragment of a prayer that I developed one burning hot July at a Sun Dance ceremony in Lakota country. I arrived at the reservation as a creature of logistics, a mere ride home for one of the Sun Dancers, and I left there praying, powerfully swept up in that old-time religion. I drove home from the reservation smelling of sage and tobacco smoked from a holy pipe adorned with eagle plumage.


“Plumage.” I was getting sick of that word, or one of its cognates. I didn’t have much stomach for watching war on television, but I did follow The New York Times’ coverage of the war in Iraq. Embedded journalists don’t have much more time to rework and freshen their prose than Meriwether Lewis did when keeping his field journal in uncertain Indian country, but they do have editors working in the relative safety and comfort of New York City, and I wished their editors would flip off the imagery switch on “plumes.” Iraq was on fire, bombs rained down by the hour, and every one of those damned fires and bombs seemed to be sending “plumes” of smoke into the desert sky.


With the epidural anesthetic in her system, Karley was enjoying her first peace in twenty-four hours. Before the needle, contractions had doubled her up like kicks in the gut; now, she had to ask the nurse to consult a machine to tell her when she last had one.

I hadn’t slept, and I didn't want to sleep. Coffee seemed to be the answer. I made the trek down from the 8th floor, Labor & Delivery, to the cafeteria, where I was overjoyed to find hot, strong coffee. It was labeled “French roast,” which brought to mind a new linguistic idiocy – the movement to rebrand “French fries” in the U.S. as “Freedom fries,” because the French government had not opted to join the United States in its pursuit of violent regime change in Iraq. I wondered if one day they would be serving “Freedom roast” coffee in this country too.

Tisch Hospital, operated by New York University, is a prestigious teaching hospital. The place makes you feel like you are getting the most elite health care on the planet. Our private delivery room was enormous. It was bigger than the tiny apartment Karley and I first shared in Queens, which was barely big enough for her alone when I came bumbling along, calling her on a payphone from an Indian reservation in Nebraska. I was taking a break from a brutal religious ceremony, calling everyone I hoped to see at my next stop, in New York City – including that French African woman I had met on the plane.

The elevators and hallways of the hospital were bustling with young, energetic residents and medical students. At age 36, I was having a new feeling when I saw people like them. It was the same feeling I had when I watched professional soldiers on TV. I was just old enough to legitimately feel like matters of life and death – even my own life and death, even the life and death of my wife and unborn child – were left in the hands of kids who didn’t know anything about life or death.


We had a window room for labor and delivery, facing north into the teeth of the Arctic front that had brought us snow in April. The icy wind cutting into the cracks of the windows had the faint sound of a baby’s squall.


Another cup of French roast coffee. “Could you hit ‘8’ for me?” I said in the elevator, on my way back up, and a beefy security guard smiled. “Having babies,” he said, warmly. Even hardened hospital workers brightened when they came across an anxious man bound for the 8th floor, Labor & Delivery, as I learned during the six months we lived in this hospital during the nightmare phase of Karley’s pregnancy. She went a month without eating anything, was fed paste intravenously through a tube: we were a persistent worry on one floor in the hospital reserved for life, not sickness, damage, and death.

A nurse came in who had tended to Karley in the sickbed days. Karley’s blood pressure had spiked, which put her at risk of seizure during labor, so they were adding magnesium to her I.V. to reduce that risk. The magnesium would slow her contractions, so they were starting her on pitocin to counteract that effect and keep her labor moving on schedule. Not for the first time in this pregnancy, I thought of war. I couldn’t possibly count all of the machines tracking and assisting Karley’s progress in delivering this child. Yet many people, in many places, would deliver a baby today with no help other than a pair of hands to catch the infant on the other end. Just as the American military advancing across the desert looked almost ludicrously tricked out with gear and weaponry compared to the Iraqis, who seemed to be wearing nothing but sandals and rags.


With labor on slow idle, and Karley out of pain, I had time to think about other things. Like, who was this Black Cat character? The Mandan guy Meriwether Lewis smoked a sacred pipe with on April 8th, 1805? That was the highlight of Lewis’ day on the date that will be our baby’s birthday, and I have always felt a kinship with Meriwether Lewis, the explorer with the enchanting name and the more personally touching journal entries. Meriwether Lewis always struck me as the moody soul of the expedition, with William Clark its stolid reality principle.

I paged back in the journals, looking for when Black Cat first entered the scene. The captains first encountered him in late October, 1804. He was chief of a Mandan village on the Missouri River that Clark spelled phonetically as Roop tar-hee. By mid-November, Black Cat was consulting earnestly with the captains, sharing the minutes (so to speak) of his tribe’s war councils and listening to Clark’s advice for his people “to remain at peace.” Pacifists will love many such moments in the journals, though it’s a mistake to see them as evidence of a less than hawkish approach to “the Indian problem.” The captains counseled peace because they were not trying to divide the tribes to occupy their land (that would be a later phase of westward expansion). Rather, they were business agents, trying to keep liquid the flow of goods, with the U.S. now installed as their new supplier. Here is Clark’s advice to Black Cat, with motive included: “we advised them to remain at peace & that they might depend upon Getting Supplies through the Channel of the Missouri.”

The Corps’ competitive commercial edge is laid bare later that November, when Black Cat paid another visit to the captains. After receiving “a fiew presents of Curioes Handkerchiefs arms bans & paint with a twist of Tobaco,” the chief got a frank sales pitch. (Of course, this comes from the journal kept by Clark, the square, dull suit.) Apparently, a “British Trader Mr. Le rock” had been “Giveing Meadils & Flags” to the Mandans. Black Cat was ordered by Clark “to impress it on the minds of their nations that those Simbells were not to be recved by any from them, without they wished incur the displieasure of their Great American Father.”

In February of 1805, the Corps of Discovery was still camped with the Mandans when Lewis first took note of Black Cat. True to form, Meriwether meditated on the human being – “this man possesses more integrity, firmness, inteligence and perspicuety of mind than any indian I have met with in this quarter” – before getting down to business: “and I think with a little management he may be made a usefull agent in furthering the views of our government.”

Later that month, Black Cat’s son spent the night in the captains’ camp. I like to think that this Mandan man of intelligence and perspicuity had figured out that the future, for better or for worse, lie in the hands of these Americans, and he wanted his son to study them up close, to see the future for himself.


I worked up these notes on my portable email gizmo at a small table in our Labor & Delivery room, with frequent glances at Karley’s blood pressure and the baby’s heart monitor. My medical interventions, such that they were, consisted of telling Karley to roll onto her side when the baby’s heart rate dropped, which was something I had heard the head nurse tell her to do, and it did seem to do the trick. Not that the hospital staff needed much help getting babies born today. The low pressure system that brings storms also seems to drop babies out of pregnant women, and the ward was swamped with women moving swiftly through labor.


When I found my way back to April 8th, 1805 in the journals, I learned that, browsing for the birthday of our baby, I happened to meet Black Cat just as Meriwether Lewis was saying good-bye to him. That sacred pipe they had shared was actually a going-away smoke, one for the road.

Our final glimpse of Black Cat comes during the Corps’ return journey a year and a half later, when they were high-tailing it back to St. Louis. That’s my hometown, and the ultimate secret of my fascination with Meriwether Lewis, since the Corps of Discovery set forth from St. Louis and the town is steeped in history of the expedition. When the Corps touched down again in Mandan country, briefly, in the spirit of a follow-up call to a new potential client, Black Cat was one of several chiefs who expressed interest in voyaging with them to Washington. In the end, though, he bowed to flinty realism. His people had been lost in the hell of war while the Corps of Discovery tramped its way to the west coast and back. Their primary enemy, the Sioux, “were on the river below and would Certainly kill him if he attempted to go down,” Clark noted, and though Clark promised that the captains “would not Suffer those indians to hurt any of our red Children who Should think proper to accompany us,” Black Cat wasn’t buying any of it. He stayed put. Perhaps he had his doubts about the Great American Father’s ability, or even desire, to protect “his little red children” when Great American Father was doing his own business.


Karley had so many tubes sticking out of her she took on the appearance of a machine. The nurses carefully checked her fluids and her pressures, like skilled mechanics anxious about the machine’s ability to perform in the clutch. The analogy showed its limits, however, as the head nurse bent down to admire the sharp curves of Karley’s cheekbones and the dark almonds of her eyes, and expressed hope (this American father hoping right along with her) that faithful copies of those features were inching from her womb toward the future.


Because I didn’t want to dwell morbidly on Karley’s high blood pressure, I kept thinking about that British trader in Mandan country, and how Clark had warned the Indians against doing business with him lest they anger their Great American Father. It sounded so familiar. I paged back to late November, 1804, and found a passage in Clark’s journal where he actually confronted the competition, the trader Mr. La Rock, who was in-country at the same time as the Corps of Discovery. Clark noted of La Rock that “we informed him what we had herd of his intentions of makeing Chiefs &c. and forbid him to give meadels or flags to the Indians.” Wait a minute. Making chiefs? Sure enough, paging back farther, there was Clark gathering intelligence about the various local leaders, and there he was handing out medals, bestowing his vision of rank among the Mandans. So his message to Mr. La Rock was: run along, now, we’ve already decided who are the chiefs and who are the Indians around here – and they are our captive market. That speech hasn’t changed much in 200 years. Now the Great American Father is picking himself some new chiefs to help him topple the old chief in Iraq, where he’s trying to hold an oil market captive.


April 8th didn’t mean anything to me before today. But April 7th did, and not only because that was the date our baby had been predicted to appear. It is also the date on which my father was born, though I didn’t know that until I told my mother the due date of her grandchild. And that’s because I never really knew my dad, who wasn’t such a great American father.

But I couldn’t help noticing that April 7th, my father’s birthday, was a much better day for Meriwether Lewis in 1805 than April 8th was. In fact, Lewis wrote a very famous passage on April 7th, 1805, one that shines with all the eloquence he brought to the journals:

“We were now about to penetrate a country at least two thousand miles in width, on which the foot of civilized man had never trodden; the good or evil it had in store for us was for experiment yet to determine, and these little vessells contained every article by which we were to expect to subsist or defend ourselves. entertaining as I do, the most confident hope of succeading in a voyage which had formed a da[r]ling project of mine for the last ten years, I could but esteem this moment of my departure as among the most happy of my life.”

His very next journal entry was his farewell to Black Cat on April 8th, a day of soggy biscuits and ruined gunpowder, the first day of the rest of his life, a life that ended violently, in apparent suicide: pulling the trigger on a gun aimed at his own head.


I worried about having a war baby. What would I say? “I remember the day you were born. Your countrymen were applauding the 21st century’s first colonial war. We were taking over a distant stretch of desert because there is oil buried there.” But then, I was a war baby, born in 1966 in the throes of Vietnam, and I don’t remember any of its images, though they must have flashed many times across my infant face. Karley’s home country, Togo, was torn by military coups in the years of her earliest childhood. It’s probably true that we are all war babies, thrust with agony to she who nurtured us into a world of chaos and violence.

The doctor said the baby’s head was a little lower now, a little further from warmth and comfort, a little closer to the future. Already with a plastic stick the doctor slit the baby’s bubble of fluid, its first supportive ocean now a bloody stain in a dirty hospital hamper. The opening that would let this life into the light was a little wider, now, since the last time anybody checked with rubber-gloved fingers. Karley, drugged, whistled with a tiny snore. April was weird and cold and white outside the window. A baby’s heart was knocking, knocking, knocking on our door.

Leyla Fern King at birth