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April 21, 2014

The Time Traveler

In September of 1970, I started working at an herb shop called The Herb Shop, on Chapel Street in New Haven CT. It was an offshoot of an organic food store on Whalley Ave. called ... that's right, The Food Store. I worked with John Thompkins who was a co-owner of both.

We had several enterprises working in the shop. We sold books on herbalism, spices and herbs for cooking, herbs for healing, custom blended perfumes (my particular specialty), and some kick-ass legal herbal smoking mixtures.

We didn't do a lot of business. Often the morning's profits were blown on a bagful of eggrolls from the Chinese restaurant two doors down. But there was a steady clientèle for our curry and chili powders, Mexican and Middle Eastern saffrons, and other culinary spices. The customers for medicinal herbs were more sporadic. We'd have a run on elderflower and mint during cold season, and once when there was an outbreak of VD we did a huge amount of sales of uva ursi and similar herbs.

I was usually the only person in the shop. I became fairly expert in the use of old Materia Medicas, Culpepper's Herbal, and Jethro Kloss' Back To Eden.

The sideline I started in natural fragrances became something of a style. I'd send the prospective customer to have their horoscope done and palm read, then I would do a tarot reading and blend the perfume accordingly. It wasn't entirely bullshit. I had a bit of a nose, had experimented with different skin chemistries, and seemed to have an instinct for the right combinations. I probably could have done it without all the new age folderol but people liked it.

My favorite customer was Tom. Tom was always dressed nicely with a spotless white shirt and striped tie under a grey suit. He also wore a battered old Panama hat that emphasized the mahogany of his skin. He carried himself with dignity and grace and was both charming and courtly.

When he first came into the shop, he asked if I would let him browse the labeled jars behind the counter. I assured him that he was welcome to. After about 30 minutes of study, he came back to the counter and wrote out a list. He was asking for so many ounces of hyssop, and about half that of thyme and on and on. There were about 15 different herbs on his list.

I pulled out a number of plastic bags, but he stopped me. "If you don't mind, please just put them all in the same bag. Paper if you have it."

The mixture didn't sound edible to me, nor particularly potpourri sweet (although it did include dried rosebuds), but he was the customer so I created the mix for him. He laid a few well-worn dollar bills on the counter in payment, thanked me and walked out. About a week later he was back with a different list of herbs. This became a regular event.

After a while my curiosity got the better of me and I asked him what he did with these seemingly illogical blends. He was polite but didn't answer. It took several more visits before he sighed and shook his head.

"Well son," he said, "I've lived through a lot of lives. I was a carpenter in China, a farmer in France, a soldier in Russia, an olive picker in Italy, and a stonecutter in Egypt."

I looked at him in amazement. He was certainly old enough to have done all those things but somehow it didn't seem likely. "When were you in Italy?" I asked. "I lived in Naples for a couple of years."

He chuckled, "It was long before you were born, son. As I recollect, it was back in the time of the Borgias."

Well of course I knew he was either crazy or deluded, but he was a good customer and I still wanted to know how he used the herbs that I sold him. So I asked him to tell me more.

Tom told me that he had an unusual memory. He could remember fragments of each of his previous lives. The earliest fragment was from Egypt. I may have sounded as if I was scoffing when I asked if he had worked on the pyramids, but he shooks his head and said, "Oh no, nothing so grand as that, I did some house foundations and sometimes some roadwork."

I asked how it was that he could remember all those lives. "I can't even remember the name of my third grade teacher," i said.

"About 20 years ago," he told me, "I started remembering bits and pieces. It turned out that the memories came when I smelled certain things. I started developing formulas or recipes that would make it easier to remember. After a while I could make the memories of a specific life happen."

"How do you do it?" I asked.

"The herbs in that bag you just made up for me is the recipe that will take me back to ancient Egypt. I divide it into four portions and tie it into a linen bag, then I steep it in a covered pot of boiling water for an hour. I run myself a steaming hot tub of water and pour the herb liquid in. Then I climb in and close my eyes. It takes about five minutes until I'm walking down the streets of Memphis."

I was startled for a moment, as if there was some kind of a disconnect. Then I remembered that Memphis, TN was named for the ancient Egyptian city.

Over the next few months, he told me more about his past lives. I saved the recipes and the target time and geography of each, but I was never able to get them to work for me.

Eventually we couldn't keep the store going and had to close. When Tom came in for the last time, I had packaged up as much of the remaining stock as I could into his formulas, labeled them and sent him off with a year's supply of free time travel.

April 3, 2014

One of my better moments

In 1979 I was in the Navy and based on an aircraft carrier with a homeport in Norfolk, Virginia. One night, some friends and I decided to go off base to catch a movie that had just opened. I was looking forward to it. I love Brit comedy and The Life of Brian sounded perfect.

The problem was that Norfolk was a hotbed of televangelism so when we got to the theater, it was surrounded by picketers who were apparently horrified at the sacrilege of it. My companions turned-tail and headed back to the base. I decided to press forward.

As I moved through the crowd, it became obvious that none of the protesters had seen the movie. They were taking a pastor or other third party's opinion and in many cases they didn't know if the third party had viewed the film.

I had a secret weapon for dealing with such people, a clipping that I kept in my wallet for such occasions. When I was approached belligerently by a group, I waited until I was asked the proper question. Finally it came ... "Don't you believe in the bible?"

Of course I do," I replied. "In fact I have documentary proof of its truth."

They were a bit taken aback. "What do you mean?"

"The old testament predicts the presidency of Lyndon Johnson," I said, "and the mess he made of the Vietnam war."

In spite of themselves, they were impressed. They weren't expecting biblical knowledge from someone as irreligious as they assumed me to be.

I pulled out my wallet and said, "Yep." I nodded at one of the bible toters, "Look it up right now." I pulled out my wallet and took out the clipping. "Proverbs 26:17." I held out the clipping.
"He that passeth by and meddleth with strife belonging not to him is like one who picks up a dog by the ears."

They backed slowly away and let me pass.

My short career as a film-maker

The course I took in film-making was a basic introductory one. Always needing to be different, while the other students used small, modern, hand-held, battery-powered cameras with zoom lenses and shot color super 8mm film, I chose to use a monster of a Bolex with a three-lens turret. The Bolex had to be wound up every 20 seconds, needed a shoulder rest or a tripod, and shot black and white 16mm film that needed special processing.

I cobbled together an animation stand and had film splicing and editing equipment. An old army-surplus shoulder bag held film spools and extra lenses. (Deni had kindly drawn a very Dan O'Neill style Mickey Mouse on the bag flap.

I tried. I shot long traveling shots down deserted alleys, empty stairwells, and deserted rooftops, presumably trying to translate my angst into images. Long boring minutes of minutely filmed brickwork were so tedious that I couldn't even watch it to edit it. I finally edited it into a seizure inducing short piece that I almost immediately dumped in the trash.

Realizing that Andy Warhol had naught to fear from my work, I turned briefly to journalism. This lasted a few days in May 1970 and culminated with being tear-gassed on New Haven Green as I unsuccessfully tried to get close enough to Jean Genet, Benjamin Spock, Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, or William Sloane Coffin to get a recognizable shot. (Those were the demonstrations at the Bobby Seale, Ericka Huggins trial.)

My last foray was into animation. I still have the reel. It was the only color film I shot. Denise did the artwork and I worked out an infantile shooting script. It was a psychedelic countryside with a flowing river and glittering sun. A black egg rolls into the frame, breaks into three parts to become a bird shape, and flies away. The entire film was about 45 seconds long and took us an entire long weekend to shoot.

Thus ended my illustrious film career.

Wayback Machine

Sometime in 1970, Deni and I were living in New Haven. We were poor, but happy, quasi-hippies. We were both working for Yale libraries and I was taking a course in film-making at Quinnipiac College. (Just to help in time placement, my movie camera was a Bolex that held a spool of 100 feet of film, would run for about 20 seconds per winding, and weighed about 8 pounds.)

Sometime during that period we must have found a photo booth and sat for our portraits. As you can see, I was anticipating the "grunge" movement, and Deni was just drop-dead gorgeous.

March 6, 2014

So who am I anyway?

Assuming that people other than my family might be reading these fragments, I should probably give a brief overview of my chaotic life. This will give many a chance to opt-out of reading any future meanderings and maunderings.

I was a technical writer for most of my life, but I have worked in more discrete occupations than most other people (albeit less out of desire than out of the need to keep my family fed). Many of these jobs will be subjects of posts so I won't detail them now. I write poetry (I am an occasional contributor to The Omnificent English Dictionary in Limerick Form), collect books, study colonial American history, write essays about nature, and much more. I used to be a consistent contributor to Salon Magazine's Table Talk.

I am still a fat man, although I have been a strict vegetarian for more than three years. I have had a beard of some type since I was 18 years old, and currently wear it both grey and bushy. I wear a fedora and carry a cane.

I wear bifocals. I prefer work pants or bluejeans to flannels, but usually wear Hawaiian shirts, shorts, and sandals for most of the summer months. I prefer long-sleeved shirts in colder weather but invariably roll up the sleeves.

I try to have a notebook and pen with me at all times but, because I am easily distracted, I currently have about 30 notebooks awaiting transcription into one ... oh look! a squirrel!

I am married and have four children and three grandchildren. I am wonderfully proud of every single one of them.

I drink red wine and occasionally whiskey. I used to smoke a pipe and still have a large collection tucked away in my closet. I haven't smoked tobacco in nearly five years. I go to the gym several times a week.

I am currently trying to finish writing three books.

There is a picture of Tom Baker as Dr. Who hanging over my desk.

Navy Coffee

On the carrier, the media needs of the crew were handled by the ship's PAO (Public Affairs Office). As I mentioned before, we published and broadcast in several different forms.

Some of the operations were automated. There was an easy listening radio station that played huge reels of tape that we changed every few days. A news rebroadcast station played AFRTS broadcasts or the BBC World Service. The third station used live DJs and news readers. We had volunteers to fill some of those slots and me and my crew handled the gaps in the schedule. Other than the volunteers, there were only five or so of us to staff the media complex.

I, for example, had a late night jazz show, a classic rock show, and assembled and read radio newscasts. My subordinates were all excellent guys, each with his own talent set who had similar duties and schedules.

We also ran two television stations, one for entertainment and one for training. We swapped-off as director, engineer, camera man, and newscaster to produce a nightly news show. We collaborated to write the scripts and try to find some kind of graphics to use. We all loved to direct since it meant we got to sit at the video mixer which looked like the Death Star controls in Star Wars (because that's what they used to make it seem like future tech).

You have to remember that this was before the ubiquity of the internet made everything easy to grab. We seldom, if ever, had any video of world or national events, so we maintained files of potentially useful photos and graphics, royalty free clip art, and Navy source materials to try to flesh out the newscast and incidentally to act as art for the ship's daily newspaper.

Before and after the nightly TV news, two men handled the running of the television programs and movies that were broadcast throughout the ship. The others helped edit, write, rewrite, layout, and paste-up the eight page daily newspaper. When that was done we interviewed, wrote, and edited Public Relation Release news and feature stories about members of the ship's crew and sent them to their hometown newspapers. Wrote articles and laid-out the monthly support magazine that was mailed to the sailors' families.

We also scheduled the training television channel, developed scripts, graphics, and talent for demonstrations and instruction. We set up the lighting, audio, and props, then rehearsed, produced, directed and videotaped the shows.

Did I mention that we also ran publicity tours, arranged and staffed special events, and dealt with visiting VIPs when we were in port.

So we had five men in the department and a handful of volunteers to help out with some of the radio and television duties. Our days were long and hectic. it wasn't unusual to see some of us pounding the typewriters in during a TV show or movie. Drills, formations, maintenance, and cleaning would have been like vacations if they hadn't invariably put us behind schedule.

I, as leading petty officer, also had administrative duties. Working up evaluations and keeping personnel records, recommending promotions, ordering supplies, training, working with other departments etc., etc. In my copious free time I was also the Jewish lay-leader for the ship, conducting sabbath services.

The schedule was ridiculous. We'd work twenty hour days for four days straight and then take a half day off to sleep and recuperate.

We were fueled primarily by coffee. There was a 50-cup percolator in the office I shared with the Lieutenant who acted as Public Affairs Officer. It was refilled three or four times a day so you might be able to imagine the volume consumed and our slight obsession about finding the fastest routes to available heads (toilets). This wasn't normal coffee either, our preference (when we could get it) was for the 5 pound olive green cans of "watchstander" coffee which boasted about 50% more caffeine than normal brews.

I'll post a story here some other time about how I poisoned my father by mistake with watchstander.

I became so accustomed to working with the constant buzz, that it took me a decade or so after I left the Navy to bring my consumption down to just 10 cups a day.

Winter doldrums

It has been a long and somewhat grim winter for me. I haven't written much for public consumption. Spring seems just around the corner and the creative juices are starting to rise like maple sap.

January 23, 2014

Friendly Fire

The following account is intentionally vague, even though the only person in it who might be offended is past caring.

In 1976, I re-enlisted in the USN for a second four year period. I was sent back to DINFOS (the Defense Information School) at Fort Benjamin Harrison for an advanced course in broadcast journalism prior to be assigned to an AFRTS station on an aircraft carrier.

Over the course of the next four years, I managed to get myself onto several enemies lists including, and especially the Captain's. The ship's first captain was fine, but his replacement and I did not see eye-to-eye on many issues. Foremost among the disagreements were those on censorship of the ship's newspaper. He insisted and I resisted.

The first thing that you need to understand is that, in addition to a monthly magazine, 3 24-hour radio stations, 2 television stations and the newscasts for all of them, we produced a daily 8-page newspaper. The newspaper was odd in that it wasn't really necessary. Every department on the ship got AP and UPI newsfeeds and posted them outside their admin offices for people to read.

We would take the same feeds and choose the most important stories, trim them, add photos, etc. Most people picked up a copy of the paper only for the local (shipboard) news and the feature articles. We did try to keep our integrity though, and publish a balanced selection of stories. We won Navy-wide awards for our work.

Which is why it came as something of a shock to get a memo censuring me for printing the story of Elvis Presley's death. The captain wanted me and my four men to go out and collect all the papers then republish the paper removing the story. As I remember, we eventually solved this by blacking out all references to the fact that the death was drug-related rather than republishing. It was foolishness since the same story was hanging on bulletin boards throughout the ship, including the bridge.

For the next two years we had minor skirmishes about what was and was not appropriate for the ship's newspaper. At the end of March 1979 the Three Mile Island incident occurred. The captain explained to me, in a storm of fury and froth, that it was NOT a good idea to have a story about a nuclear power plant accident on a ship that was powered by nuclear reactors.

Again, I tried to point out that the news was already out there, and suggested that the best way to handle it was by using the story and adding to it to explain why the ship's safety procedures and discipline made it unlikely, if not impossible, for something like that to happen on board. This was unacceptable to him and I ended up endearing myself to him further by going over his head and getting the okay from an admiral.

By this time, as you might guess, no one was going to mistake us for BFFs. Then came the crowning moment.

One of the things I did to try to keep our readership up was to write a column for the paper under the pen name of Charlie Noble. The subject matter was usually cool facts about maritime history or terminology. Occasionally I would have some kind of a brain-teaser or puzzle. It was one of those puzzles that put me at the top of the captain's list of people to get rid of.

The question I posed was simple. The ship anchors in the Bay of Naples and at high tide a sailor climbs down a rope ladder to a boat to get shuttled to the shore. As he climbs into the boat he notices that five rungs of the ladder are under water. He comes back to the ship at low tide. How many rungs are under water now?

About three hours after the issue was distributed, I got an envelope, addressed to Charlie Noble, containing several pages of carefully written calculations that explained why only three rungs would be under water with a cover memo saying that this solution had to appear in the next issue along with the solver's name. That solver was the captain.

I have to admit that I toyed with the idea of simply following orders but, copies of the ship's paper were distributed to other ships, in Norfolk and at the Pentagon. If I published his proof, it would have major repercussions for both the Captain and me.

This wasn't going to be pretty. I climbed the 10 flights to his office and asked for a private conversation. First he wanted to know why I was opening other people's mail. I explained the concept of "pen name". Then I told him that I wasn't going to publish his solution because it would leave him open to ridicule. He asked why.

I explained that ships float.

He hemmed and hawed then started to talk about the weight differential when people got off and on. I realized that he was trying to salvage something, but it wasn't going to work. I said that with the mass of the ship, its waterline would barely change if the entire crew left the ship.

The captain told me that I was full of it. He called for the First Lieutenant while telling me that if wrong I would be sent to the brig for disrespect. The First Lieutenant walked in the door, saw the calculations and the newspaper open to my column and winced. He knew instantly what was going on because I had run it past him and he had told me he used a similar story when he did training.

You might wonder why a ship's officer wouldn't understand basic principles, but carrier captains are usually brown shoes (aviators) rather than black shoes (ship drivers).

The problem, of course, was the embarrassment involved. The captain seemed to think that my puzzle was intended to shame him and he never seemed to get that I was just trying to keep him from losing face. To him I seemed contumacious, and disrespectful. To me he became a powerful and dangerous lackwit.

January 22, 2014

Excuses, excuses ...

I have been trying to write a longer piece, but I keep getting bogged down, so I'll try to entertain you with some random bits and pieces over the next few days.