August 26th 1954 to June 11th 2011
The Tao of Steve
first met Shawn at the Owl Cafe on 9th Avenue in San Francisco in the early
1990's. Larry Guinchard had started a poetry circle at Simple Pleasures in
1990 and moved it to the Owl a year or so later.
Shawn hung out at the Embers, a divey saloon on Irving that became Pluto's
and he would come to the cafe for coffee. He was a sensitive person who
liked to talk about books and movies and plays.
He worked for HUD in their legal office, giving advice to renters in trouble
with their landlord.
Shawn's ex-roomy Raoul also frequented the cafe with his friend Phil, who was
a fan of the buffalo in Golden Gate Park. Raoul worked in collections for
doctors and asked Shawn for some back rent. Shawn looked at me
as if to say he knew his rights but worried that I didn't know that. Raoul
could recite an opening verse of The Canterbury Tales in Middle English with the
Shawn billed himself as a mystery writer and gave me a copy of Doorgunner,
his detective story printed . He
lived in a studio apartment in a large building, Post Street maybe, in SF. I went up there once with him and drank straight vodka just to show
it could be done.
When the poetry circle went to Daily Grind on Haight and Scott, Erin Grey Eliot was
there the night when Shawn blew his character. He announced in his toughest voice a string of verbal
abuse that he had delivered to a prostitute in Nevada. It was a kind of
verse devoid of appreciation from Erin and Larry.
At the Grind, he introduced us to Marie, who lived on Minna or Natoma right
off 6th Street. He knew Linda Terranova and Debbie Payne.
I took Shawn up to Snow Mountain in yet another attempt to get to the summit. We parked at the wilderness trailhead and camped within sight of the
car. We smoked
cigars and drank whiskey and generally he did not like any of the
adventure. Back in those days, the wilderness was where you drank whiskey
and shot off your gun.
I brought my muzzle-loaders and made a big deal out of opening the handmade
box I made for it and inventorying every detail of the details by lantern
light. I forgot to latch the case and when I picked it up to put it away,
it fell open and dropped every detail onto the ground at night.
Fortunately I had just taken inventory. Shawn appreciated the coyotes
singing from up the hill.
The morning was full of yellow jackets. We set out for the top, taking
firearms and Shawn quickly took the lead, getting way ahead. I couldn't
see or hear him. A few miles up, I discovered him sitting by the trail and
soon we started back down. We held the usual discussion that I should continue
on without him. He denied my impression that
he had put vodka in his canteen.
He asked if I had heard his gunshot. On the way
back down, he fired a shot into the air from his stainless Smith and Wesson .357 Highway
Patrolman. I had the same gun in blue. A favorite movie of his at
that time was Lonely are the Brave.
I introduced Shawn to Walter Nutters and we went to Chabot Rod and
Gun for some target shooting.
When you first meet Walter he's an exceedingly charming man but will test you
later. He was hard on Shawn and I made Walter apologize to Shawn.
Nutters let it be known that he did not mean
anything by it, as in "I don't remember saying anything offensive but if I
did, Jim wants me to apologize." Shawn appeared mystified at the
whole scene, as he could not remember anything to apologize about. I felt
real successful in patching things up.
Shawn and I went to Chabot without Nutters. Shawn shot on the pistol
ranges and then on the 100-yard range with his pistol and my .303 Enfield
rifle. Probably fired off a round from my laborious .45 muzzle loader
too. Shawn bought ammunition from the store at Chabot, Talon .357.
These were anti-personnel rounds, much in the papers at that time as
wanting-to-be banned. Shawn adored the bullets.
Trudy and Shawn and I went to the range on Skyline drive with my new
Winchester cowboy rifle.
Later on the bullets were a prop in a little skit he ran before his
therapist, who informed the police, and Shawn was fired from his job at
HUD. Thereafter he lived on Social Security. He moonlighted as
a security guard at movie studio for a while. He complained about
SSA as a trap.
HUD had a reduction in force and Shawn was told to move to LA or be out of a
job so he went to Pasadena, landing in an Armenian neighborhood. Shawn picked
me up at the Burbank airport. He often had a car, often red. He was
in good cheer with so much in Pasadena to complain about. He took me to a book store
that sold nothing but mysteries and I bought a half-dozen at Shawn's
recommendation. I eventually became a fan of noir movies, was
working on a noir play featuring Sam Spade and in fact was trying to consult
with Shawn on the script when I learned that he had passed away.
Anyway, he took me to see a fine comic production of Waiting for Godot.
We visited his local bar in Pasadena, (the Blue Room) where Jimmy Madden led a
small jazz band there, playing old favorites. Having been warned of someone
from the City in Shawn's company, Madden played I left my Heart when I walked in, a tune to which
I have a serious phobia. Probably showed. I bought the CD
though. I asked Shawn to buy it for me, which he did, but worried me a lot
about getting money back.
I met his father and mother in Redwood City when Shawn was up from LA.
His father was a retired, successful, easy-going salesman, in sharp contrast to his
taciturn son. Later, Shawn told me that his father had moved to the
Sierra foothills. Shawn had a sister and a niece who lived on the
He said he would never live in San Francisco again.
I flew and Larry drove to see Shawn when he moved to Hollywood. As soon
as Larry pulled off the highway he wanted to go for a drive. We went out
to a play by and about Viet Nam vets. "I've been
short all my life!" We also went to a saloon in Hollywood and Shawn
introduced us to two of his girlfriends. He said everyone in Hollywood was
writing a screenplay. Shawn and I saw a play by Athol Fugard about two
women. Very good production values.
He met Karen Knotts and made a short movie with her. He played a robot
psychiatrist whose only function was to announce the time left to the
increasingly distraught patient played by Knotts. I sent him
videos of my stage work and he complained about the production quality and did
not seem to want to talk about my writing career. Not interested in my
He was disappointed at his own lack of literary production. He
came to our wedding in Shell Beach.
We also went to the San Clemente club and listened to fusion jazz that
completely demanded attention with its volume.
Shawn moved to Silver Lake. We talked on the phone every few
months. Sometimes we talked for an hour or so. He told me about
meeting Shannon. She left her cell phone at his place and I told him it was
because she wanted him to call her but he couldn't because he had her phone and
we went around and around that circle several times, each time me telling him
that she wanted him to go out and try to find her, where he had seen her before
and so he did and it worked. And besides, she had cut the phone off and it didn't
They rapidly burnt through his tiny
income and he was reduced to selling off his few possessions so that he could
take her out. I should have told him to sell his gun. He called me up
to get my permission to call her father and ask him for money, which he did and
the father didn't. Finally, Shawn decided that he had had too much and was
having the locks changed on his door when she stepped off the elevator. I
told him to go find her again. It's the only advice I ever gave him that
he ever listened to.
The last time I talked to him it was only for a very few minutes. He
said goodbye but I didn't know what he meant.
We exchanged some writing. He introduced me to Theodore Adorno, giving
me Prisms. Shawn wrote the critical essays Anomie in Reverse and Digressions on Social History. He also sent
me work he had done in film criticism regarding drug movies such
as the Man with the Golden Arm. He also made me promise never to let any
of his work fall into the hands of his family.
Shawn for awhile adventured in crank, telling me about the dramatic ennui of
waiting around the corner from the dealers house, wondering if the guy you gave
money to was ever coming back. He came up for Ed Severinghaus' Huckleberry
Hike looking leaner than ever. He got separated from the group and came
down the mountain near dark. He once told me he had got separated from his
group when on maneuvers with the army.
He drove up up to the City and stayed in motels. Sometimes he wrecked
cars going to Las Vegas. The picture of him at the Huckleberry makes him
look like a nature guy. He was a city person who felt uncomfortable
wherever he went.
My dear friend, I have not begun to mourn your loss.
by Shawn Riordan
What fails to kill me, according to an old saw, what falls short of destroying me, makes me stronger. Lying face down on my stomach in a confusion of sheets and spreads, I tried to recall where I'd heard that sentiment expressed. I thought I might have read it somewhere; there was a trace of heroic idealism about the maxim, a strain of tough-guy wisdom designed to equip the thoughtful pilgrim with all the requisite survival skills. A moment later, the phrase was suddenly associated in my mind with professional sports. I heard the words as they issued with gruff authority from a seasoned sports announcer, his cadences heavy with rapture and respect. Down on the field, a stunned and semi-conscious defensive guard was being carried out of the game through the End Zone, attended in his mishap by the enthusiastic cheers of thousands of spectators while a million more followed the live coverage on Monday Night football, watching the scene with loyal reverence.
Regardless of its derivation, the stirring rhetoric afforded little comfort at the moment. Wasn't it just as likely that the forces which assailed one, whatever their source, were only being held at bay temporarily, that the forbearance of the world provided no more than a temporary reprieve? I decided to improvise on the theme. What does not kill me today?, I muttered into the pillow, "will certainly settle my hash the next time around."
I turned over on my back and smiled ironically, wincing at a sharp pain under my left eye, pleased with my improvement on the conventional wisdom. From outside my window came the bright chatter of birds -- bluejays, gulls, beachcombing harbor scavengers. They were letting me know that it was morning, but not the morning of the following day, or even the day after the following day. It was impossible to say how long I had lain in this bed, in this room. It was like trying to measure the distance you have traveled in your sleep. A calculation such as that couldn't be reckoned in the ordinary way, by reference to any fixed span of days and nights. It was going on three days at the very minimum: crossing the inner lanes of space with a Trappist's steadfast humility, kept alive in the small hours by a diet of weak tea and warm broth. Even after the sweat had dried from all my clothes and bedroom linen, and the world around me grew spare and brittle as if it had been drained of its most nutrient-rich soils, the skin of my neck and arms and legs continued to glisten like the gills of a beached fish. Three days of safe passage was it then, I asked myself groggily... merrily navigating the floor of the ocean? With every breath I took, I felt as though I were being washed a little farther up the shore on a gentle tide, away from the deep-gliding undercurrents of the open sea.
I was living in Johnny Hammersmith's small rooming house in Monterey, an unremarkable two-story brick structure which stood on a sloping rise overlooking Cannery Row and the wharf. I had been living there about seven months, but in the dim lantern-ray of memory that period of my life seems insupportably long -- and I can't be sure, in fact, that it wasn't much longer. Things had started out innocently enough with a two-month lease; as I signed the standard rental form, I reminded Johnny that I expected our lease arrangement to be of the briefest and most restricted term. Johnny kept a simple-minded caretaker and gardener named Blater Miles, who lived on the premises and who volunteered to help with the relocation. While my sparse belongings were being installed in the mouldy garage unit, I explained to Blater the short-term nature of my lodging. I hear yuh man, they all say that when they first roll in here, Blater smiled with slow-witted cunning. Just flopping for a few months is all. You take Ricky Roudabush down the hall, he's been livin' in that room by the toilet goin' on three years. Three years! Hah hah hah Hah hah hah! Blater laughed and laughed. I had never heard anything like it. The mirth was expelled from his broad chest in slow-motion puffs, like the mechanical squawks of funhouse laughter which issue from the giant wax-works that guard the door to the amusement park. Yeah, workin' as a dishwasher at Bob's Big Boy, an' goin' on three years livin' with some weird bitch in the same room -- hah hah hah, hah hah hah! -- livin' with a alky bitch in a room no bigger than a closet an' always smellin' like piss, right next-door to a toilet that don't work. An' he talk just like you when he first come! HEH HEH HEH... The bursts of merriment slowly died away and Blater's heavy jaw clamped itself into a witless grimace; a shadow fell across the visor of his cap, shading his eyes from view and imparting to his plain features a sinister cast. With the signs unravelling slowly and unmistakably all around me, I grew more concerned over the accent of prophecy in Blater's words. One day melted into the next; the weeks ran together in lopsided rows and drifted into months, and the months coasted and dissolved into a fuzzy succession of seasons.
But the unsettling jibes of the caretaker were only the half of it. My continuing tenancy at the Hammersmith establishment seemed to depend upon the consumption of larger and larger quantities of alcohol, as if the rental contract might be rendered invalid by failing to keep pace with an unseen crew of competitors. Before the season was out, I was living in a state of dissipation which straddled the border between loony riot and sure-footed decline. As the great national elections came and went in the wake of an early November cold snap, and the mummified, all-American gunslinger was snugly returned to office as chief executive, I felt the clammy touch of despair moving down my spine. There was plenty of money floating around in those days, and everybody seemed confident there was plenty more to come. But as I waited in the back-draft of this merry stampede in pursuit of easy pickings and early fortunes, a sense of weariness and displacement stole over me. In the space of that one year I began to feel old.
* * * * * *
By and by my thoughts were occupied by a foreign element, something extraneous and persistent. Thin shafts of sunlight played across the iron railing of my bed in a ripple effect, coaxing me into wakefulness. I sat up and took stock of the situation: the tapping on the outer pane of my glass door resumed its steady tatoo. I pulled a light bathrobe over my stiff cotton jeans and, weaving slightly, padded over to the sliding door and unhooked the latch. Johnny Hammersmith stood before me in the front patio of his house, cleanly shaven and hard as a brick, peering curiously at me in the thin light like an early bird ready to catch himself a worm. Still blinking and fingering my beard, I stepped back and invited him inside.
The landlord sat down in an old canvass chair and looked around the room keenly, as if he'd never seen it before. I glanced over the place and saw what Johnny must have seen, a small jerry-built garage of an abnormally clean and tidy and polished aspect. A single uncorked bottle of imported Russian vodka rested on the floor next to the bedside table. Blater must have straightened up all the broken glass while I slept.
"You got some calls and I took them upstairs, 'cause Blater told me you wasn't feelin' well. So we figured you needed to sleep." He caught himself just short of saying sleep it off. Since there was no separate line installed in the ground-floor rooms, all my business calls had to be routed through the penthouse apartment where Johnny lived with his wife, Sandy. The resulting confusion never appeared to phase the landlord, who fished some wrinkled envelopes out of his pocket and slapped them onto the dresser with a good-humored smile. I knew that the messages Johnny brought down to me would contain the scrawled names and numbers of lawyers, municipal court clerks and itchy subpoena outfits, all with urgent paper to serve. I did not look at the envelopes which lay on the dresser. I never wanted to look at them again.
I glanced at Johnny instead -- in the general direction of Johnny, anyway. He seemed to have forgotten his reason for being there, and I was reluctant to joggle his memory. Then something solid and sharp and hard-edged floated into his eyes, and his brow tightened.
"By the way Marty, Blater keeps on tellin' me you're pullin' outta here soon. I just wanted to remind you I'll need two-weeks notice up-front, if you find something else that is. I gotta keep these rooms rented..."
I assured the householder he would have what he required. Almost as an afterthought, it occurred to me that I was probably late with the rent too, but the man in the canvass chair hadn't said a word. I sank down on an empty steamer trunk outfitted with a single cushion, the only seat left in the room, and rested my back against the brick wall.
"You were in Vietnam, weren't you, Marty?"
Johnny's eyes were bright and troubled and his jaw was set tensely. As he spoke his gaze maintained a fixed, steady focus, which sometimes drifted to the blind spot just above my left shoulder; but another country now loomed behind his eyes, a far-off principality which had been abandoned to the ravages of saturation bombing and indiscriminate mayhem: I followed Johnny's gaze to a terminal Drop Zone which had long been uninhabited, although the ground was still laden with the toxic ash of desire and loss. It was a country with which I wanted nothing to do.
"Sure, I put in some time there," I replied listlessly.
"Well, it all looked pretty much the same to me when I was nineteen... mostly I was stationed outside a village called Dong Tham, in the Mekong Delta."
"I hold it's not right to ask a man his business, when it's not your business to ask." Johnny's attention was still fastened on that other country, the one where nobody lived anymore. "Only we heard such a hell of a racket down here the other night that Blater was getting pretty scared. Who knows what goes on in that dummy's mind -- shit, I only gave him this job to get him off the streets. With all the partyin' going on, maybe he thought you busted into some other dimension and went out in a burst of smoke and gas, like one of those outer-space creatures he's always watching on Star Trek. And that poor idiot Blater, he never had no dealings with aliens before." Johnny gave me a shark-like grin, then smiled; the amused and casual look on his face invested his words with an air of levity in which his eyes refused to participate. (Since I'd donated my portable television to Blater, he had become a fervent disciple of the Star Trek series which had been broadcasting interminable re-runs all summer.)
"You know Johnny, I'm not exactly from outer space," I said. He looked dubious, and his eyes searched me with sober concern.
"You couldn't prove it by some of the folks in this town," he said. "You couldn't prove it by some of the folks living right here in this house."
I fetched the empty pint bottle from beside the bed, seizing it by the neck between thumb and forefinger, then held it out for the landlord's inspection. In the knife-like gleam of the bottle, with the blood roaring back into my head, I could feel all the color drain from my face like a patient undergoing radical surgery. It was Hang-over Square, the fiery mutant country of the kling-ons.
"I do my best to hang out in the same dimension as everybody else, and if I busted into anything..." -- I let the bottle drop to the floor with an audible plunk -- "it was just another time-honored, full-throttle, over-the-edge bender... and nothing more."
Johnny considered this seriously for a moment.
"We don't hold that against a guy around here, Marty. It comes with the territory. You wanna get shit-faced, that's your affair."
Hammersmith and I exchanged looks. If he didn't come down here to assess damages or collect the rent, then what was he doing here? I stole another look at my house master, whose eyes had an inward cast, clouded with pessimism and tight with pain.
"My son was killed in Vietnam, my son... his name was Chad."
His son's name was Chad. That was good. I wouldn't have endowed Johnny's boy with any other name. I didn't say anything, because I was still taking in the man in the canvass chair, whose son had bought himself a rice paddy in the tropics. He sat there without moving a muscle, a short, darkly-complected, tightly-wound specimen with the thick frame and rough-honed delivery of a proletarian hell-raiser. He looked just a shade past his prime. But he didn't seem old enough to have a son of recruitable age during the war, not at first glance. I recalled the bartender at Segovia's remarking on Johnny's custom of dying his hair with coloring agents to achieve its perennial jet-black hue.
I had seen it happen with all kinds of people: if somebody hangs around you long enough, sooner or later a time comes when they feel called upon to tell you the story of their life. Johnny's yarn showed every sign of being more than usually compelling, as though he were crossing some unspoken barrier which held his energies intact. Everything about him seemed changed, subdued. His neighbors were used to hearing the man confine himself to rapid-fire jousts and guffaws when conducting his business with the world , and it was all managed with an orneriness which nobody found less than endearing. Now he spoke with unaccountable care and modulation:
"As you may have heard already, in a one-horse town like this, I'm a bricklayer by trade. I left school after the 9th grade. Chad was my only son by my first wife, Rosie,-- my ex lives right next door to me, in a house I built myself. When I was thirty-something I had my own construction company and almost half-a-million dollars in real estate holdings. Chad went to Hartnell College for a year, but he was always on the point of dropping out. Nobody living in this town can say I didn't do right by Chad. I didn't care what he did but I didn't expect Chad to be like me, always busting his ass on penny-ante construction jobs. I suppose I knew back then that Chad wasn't at all like me though-- he was the kind that needed to play by the rules. As it turned out what he really wanted most was to fly: choppers, fixed-wing craft, anything that got the upper hand over gravity. He never told me this and I never asked him... I never asked him what he wanted. Even if I'd of known, it would have surprised me when I found out he'd enlisted in the Army. He went in for flight school in Texas, where they train new recruits to pilot helicopters. Most folks in town were out-spoken against the war by then, and I thought Chad was too..."
"So he became a chopper pilot, flying Hueys or something?" I asked. Johnny seemed to be trying to loosen himself from the grip of a hypnotic spell, a spell which the intervention of a dozen years had not managed to attenuate. He shook his head back and forth slowly and gloomily.
"-- No, no, he washed out of the Army's flight program. I never knew why exactly. They sent him to mechanics school and stuck him on a flight crew, they made him-- made him" -- his big hands gripped the arms of the canvas chair with rage and disgust -- "--they made him a door gunner.
"When he finished his training and finally came home on leave, he only had a few days left before shipping out of Oakland. That's when I found out he had orders for Vietnam. He was looking fit, smiling and sayin' as how it doesn't matter that he won't be able to fly, 'cause he's still gonna be with the First Air Cavalry as a crew chief. I took him out to dinner on his last night in town, and then and there over a plate of steak and lobster, I told him what I thought he should do. I told him he should burn his uniform and tear up his orders, and if he did that I'd send him to Europe for a couple years. I knew how to get him a passport, no sweat, no questions asked, and when he came back nobody would be looking for a G.I. who missed a plane to Saigon."
"Sounds pretty slick," I observed.
"Oh it was slick all right, you can depend on that. I had the whole thing worked out down to a tee."
"So what did, uhh, Chad have to say to all this?"
"Well, he looked at me like I was plain, stone crazy. Was I trying to get him court-martialed he wanted to know, was I trying to land him in Leavenworth for ten years! For a moment though, I believe he really did entertain my proposition seriously, because underneath all his posing I could tell he was pretty scared. That's the only time I asked Chad to do something in my life, and he turned me down flat. The next morning he was gone without even saying goodbye, and I never saw him again."
The short, barrel-chested builder and the seedy, run-down lodger regarded one another from opposite ends of the room. For a moment, the late-morning sunlight streaming through the window blinds seemed to dwindle and fail, causing the ceiling to press downward and the edges of the walls to lean in-ward at skewed angles. It was as though we were held together in space by a mist which settled on all four sides of our vision and formed a narrow tunnel, an underground channel which seemed to include a temporal dimension: perhaps fear and regret were the only mutual coordinates to which we could look to find our bearings. The regret certainly looked real enough. But from where I suddenly sat, in a closed passage-way with low visibility, there was no way of being sure what other things were taking place in Johnny's small corner of time. His emotions were spinning and whirling like the hands of a compass which had entered the devil's triangle. Had he favored his son for refusing to be like him? Or had he despised him because, because... because he ran away to war to become a rotor mechanic, an aviator's flunky, a door gunner? Was it simply the impropriety of his son's leave-taking that he objected to, the absence of goodbyes. The shutter light moved across the floor in crisscrossing waves and patterns, and Johnny's eyes moved across the years in a wide barren sweep and came to dwell on me with sharp anticipation.
"Tell me something," he snapped. "Do you think what I asked him to do was wrong?"
"How should I know," I said. "A thing like that, when there happens to be a war going on; it's the kind of decision a man has to make on his own. You can't tell somebody to do it."
"You're saying I was-- unreasonable," he demanded.
"Hey listen, nobody I ever knew boarded the transport all fired up about getting greased! Everybody had orders. What do you expect me to tell you?"
"Just one thing." Johnny was shaking his head again in that spooky way he had, like a man held fast in the power of spells and charms he couldn't fathom. "Just one little thing, Marty... on television all they ever showed were these dog-troopers jumping out of helicopters. That job they gave him -- what was it? What does a door gunner do?"
"What the hell are you talking about," I cried irritably. "I never went to flight school."
"But you are going to tell me," he intoned gravely, glaring at me and laboring audibly to keep his voice under control. "The Army told me the same thing they tell everybody. The squadron commander wrote me about how he went out in a blaze of sacrifice, and the Army sent along his Bronze Star and offered to stage-manage his funeral, complete with color guard and snappy-looking assholes shooting rifles over his coffin. But they never talked about what he did there, or you or anybody did... never a word about that."
"What do you want to know again," I repeated dully. "I've already forgotten."
"You're gonna tell me what the door gunners did," he boomed, "'cause I'm asking you as a friend, and I'm asking you straight!" His voice had a sudden harsh quality as it rose into the higher registers. Apparently this man had been waiting for me for fifteen years, waiting so he could seal me up in his garage and force me to divulge the answer to this riddle which preyed on his mind. It began to dawn on me that I might never get him out of there, let alone attain my own liberation from that cock-eyed house, until I cracked the code which held my visitor captive.
"I wonder if you'd mind getting me some aspirin, Johnny. My head's not too good.."
"Of course, of course. We keep some extra-strength Bayer up- stairs. It won't take me more than a moment to mix some up for you--"
" -- and when you come back," I promised him, "I'll tell you everything I know about it."
Johnny exited from the room by a side door and I heard his footsteps recede down the hall. The quiet which ensued allowed me an intermission in which to think, and I thought about the war. I had served my own tour with a field artillery battery, and so I never became acquainted with any air-mobile gunners. To most of our units the pilots and crews of the Air Cav were a breed apart, and it was rare that we talked about what happened in action. Occasionally they would drop down suddenly out of the trees and land inside our artillery compound, enjoying the comparative security of our fortified perimeter, trading wisecracks and laments, bad-mouthing the food, the climate, the missions they had to fly and one another. But it was only years later, and purely by accident, that I got to know the members of those flight crews on a personal level. It came about when I took a job one summer as volunteer counselor at the Veterans Outreach Center. The center specialized in trauma-ridden vets, and they were promoting a new therapy which encouraged the out-patients to recount their combat episodes openly and in detail. The regulars told me stories of comical scrapes, near-misses and freak accidents which were hair-raising indeed; there were a few borderline psychos but the majority were likable fellows, and it wasn't hard to see some of them framed in a heroic light. This was especially true of the pilots, and I thought with irony that my clinical experience at the VOC hospital had seemed peculiarly useless to me until this moment. But something had happened to the guy upstairs, something to do with this kid of his which was unbalancing his judgment. Still alone in that tunnel of mine, I wondered if I might have spied a way out. I could conjure a picture of Chad Hammersmith as the romantic hero of the air-mobile squadrons!
Johnny returned bearing a tall glass of mineral water in which he had crushed several grains of industrial-strength aspirin. I drained the glass in three quick swallows and the asperin left a bitter-sweet taste on my tongue. Then I rose and walked over to the glass door, pacing the narrow breadth of the room with my hands clasped behind me in the attitude of a visiting instructor warming up to a difficult lesson.
"The door gunner sits in the rear ramp door of an assault helicopter, which has a gun position on either side, and he mans a seven-point-six millimeter machine gun which rests on a big pylon mount. His mission may be air assault, or troop-carrier operations, or recon patrols in light-observation choppers with night-vision goggles; or he may ride shotgun on flying morgues rigged up to airlift the dead meat out of the fray and into field hospitals, hump salvage on trash-and-dump runs: any little jaunt, in fact, where the pilot is feeling nervous. The door gunner has a ringside seat, he goes on them all. A gunship can start taking fire at an altitude of one thousand feet, but you can't draw a bead on the gunner till he's flying much lower. The one complaint I kept hearing from the door triggers, was that they never had a decent field of fire, even when they were able to locate where the enemy bursts were coming from-- their ships kept turning and wobbling and pitching from side to side. But they probably didn't worry about that so much. There were pilots who prided themselves on their ability to hold their machines in a perfectly stationary hover, hung up there as still and immovable as a statue six feet from earth; but coming into a hot El Zee with the very trees screaming of contact, the only advantage that's passed along to the gunner from this sort of stoically-executed, Zen-like descent is the reward of having his door gun turned into an obligingly-balanced and wide-angle sitting duck. Elevated a few feet above ground, the troops dismount and the door station opens up with a steady barrage of automatic fire, raking the country in all directions... if they weren't good for much else, at least those boys kept the grass mowed."
I broke off for a moment to clear my throat, then looked at Johnny to see how he was taking my lecture. His manner was all attention, there was a question in his eyes. "You mean the gunner never hits anything?" he inquired wonderingly.
"Oh-hhh, no, no, no," I assured him, "he takes out scores and waves of the little bastards if he can. They sent whole platoons of bean-counters over there who did nothing but count bodies, and they told us the dink casualty numbers were consistently higher than ours -- and we believed them. On the other hand, alot of people complained we did all the killing." I shrugged amiably, as if putting aside a small point of contention. "The trouble was that you never knew where those suckers were from one minute to the next. The situation of the gunner is worse on account of he's pinned up there in that big metal bird with no effective cover, no place to hide. Sometimes I think that no door gunner ever pulled his karma together long enough to walk out of the bush in one piece, except by leave of some dink sniper in a treeline who couldn't be bothered to shoot him. And when he finally gets hit," I sighed, impatient to wind up my lesson, "they call in a dust-off team, and they flush his ass out of the fuselage of the gunship with a big rubber firehose, and then they go find them' another door gunner."
I went back to the steamer trunk and sat down, sinking into the wall at my back with the seat cushion propped against my shoulders. Johnny was staring at me. As I watched his eyes grow round with defiance and fill with a luster of recrimination, I felt suddenly done in. If what I had said already wasn't enough to spring the heavy, slow-washing rhythms which broke across his optic nerve and held his spirit in tow, I knew the situation was hopeless.
"You come off pretty cynical, Marty," he said curtly. "You make it sound like he never had a chance."
"You want to talk about odds, is that it?" I groaned. "From what I heard a door gunner's chances of being mortally wounded were two-in-three, maybe higher."
He sat there without saying anything, without moving, without even blinking.
"Average it out," I said wearily, "and he had the same chance everybody else did."
"But you just told me it was more dangerous," he thundered. "You said that --" I cut him off brusquely.
" Sure it was, sure it was. But you didn't think like that in the field, you couldn't afford to. You couldn't afford to turn your back on anybody if you wanted to stay healthy. The gunner's job is sort of like walking point. Plenty of guys on patrol wouldn't walk point -- not for anything, not for all the free pussy in Palookaville. So what they did sometimes, they let the point man go, and then they just took the next guy in line, or some squirelly short-timer trying to beat the numbers. It was a way they had of fucking with us, of lowering the boom on us dumb, big-hearted, even-handed Americans."
"And the gunners too... they let them go?"
"Yeah, the same shit happened with the gunners. I told you! I knew door triggers who slid through their tours without hardly a scratch, and it was the part that came next that always bothered me."
"What do you mean, 'the part that came next'," he asked warily. I wasn't looking at him when he said it, but the chord of suspicion and reproach was plainly audible in his voice.
"I mean that a guy could slog through a very bad tour in that shit-hole, only to find himself back here in tinsel-town, pouring cement and hanging sheetrock on Daddy Warbuck's work farm, and wondering why he came home at all."
"Hey, I never asked Chad to bust his ass on my account."
"I suppose he's better off busting it on somebody else's."
"Ask the people of this town if I wasn't square, ask my own people if I didn't do right by--"
"Listen, I'm not even asking you," I broke in sharply. "It just doesn't sound like he was any too keen on hanging around the block." There's one poor devil, I reflected wryly, whom I won't be asking. Johnny seemed to divine what I was thinking, and he glared at me with a murderous challenge in his eyes that stopped my tongue in my throat.
"If you got something to say," he began hoarsely, "then why don't you say it."
"I once met a wise man from the high slopes of the Himalayas, a sort of fortune-teller," I said evenly, "who studied the stars and foretold that I would enjoy a long and fruitful life, although he went on to warn me that it would first be necessary to master the Ancient Tibetan discipline of keeping one's mouth shut." My head was feeling better now, and the lines of the room were flattening out in smooth gliding formations. I grinned cryptically at the bricklayer.
"Which means exactly what?"
"You have asked me to be straight with you, as I recall?"
"That's right," he said swiftly. "I expect you to level with me just the same as I would level with you, if you were sitting in my place."
"Only I'm not sitting in your place, and I'm the one doing all the leveling."
"You think I had something against Chad. That's it, or isn't that right?" He lowered his voice and confided in an embarrassed stage whisper, "that's what Rosemary thought, too."
"I don't have a clue on that one." I paused for breath a moment. He had started out by throwing his idiot son at me; before I knew what was happening, the whole Vietnam experience was being flung into my face, and I figured if I didn't act fast, I was liable to be knee-deep in Johnny's fucked-up first marriage. This was a conversation I didn't want to have.
"You know what I think, Johnny? I think you may have laid some bad karma on his head when you asked him to go over the hill. I know people who bend over backwards to help folks out, and they only finish by cursing them. And that kid of yours didn't sound any too lucky to begin with..."
"That's pretty cold talk, Marty," he said. "You make the world into a cold place, so it will match your own blood temperature."
"I didn't invent this set-up," I declared, "and I didn't dream up that stunt you pulled with Chad either!"
"I don't have to justify anything to you," he said resolutely. "And if he'd taken my advice when he had the chance, he'd still be around to swim in the ocean, or to fly jet aircraft -- to make anything he wanted of his life. Who can offer a person more than that, huh?"
This was a little more than I could take. I'm not what you would call a "progressive," politically speaking that is, but I believe even the dead have some rights of their own. At length even they must grow weary of troubling the sleep of those they leave behind, and the dead are entitled to their rest just like everybody else.
"You say I make the world colder than it is," I went on quietly. "But does anybody see things the way they really are, Johnny? I wonder how you see them?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," he maintained in a scrupulous monotone. But the fierce light had drained from his eyes and left behind a liquid glaze.
"It's no bread off my table," I said, probing along softly. "I just thought you might have forgotten to mention something, that's all."
"It's nothing to do with forgetting," he admitted. "That night when I had dinner with Chad, we had words. There was a pretty terrible scene... it must have been very rough on him too, coming on his last night in town before shipping out. I told him I was aware that he thought he was better than me, but runnin' off to war to get his pecker shot off was a goddamn stupid way of proving it. Then I said I'd always known he was dumb, but I never knew how dumb until that night, too dumb, I told him, too headstrong dumb to stay out of the war like the bright people. I told him he was a self-righteous idiot, and he lashed out at me. He said I'd been playing the village anarchist so long I didn't know what was going on.... Chad never talked to me like that in his life. But it was the way he looked that froze my blood -- like he was accusing me of something. You think I've forgotten that, Marty? You think I'm liable to forget that night in a hurry?"
"I would of thought fifteen years is long enough--... well, for pretty near anything to happen." By my own lights, I wasn't so sure. It sounded like a hefty chunk of time, but after all that probably depended on which end of the spectrum you were on. Again the silence gathered in the room like the closed field of energy trapped inside a vacuum tube.
"Hey, it's over and done with, Chief."
"It's over, it's over sure -- but done with?" he asked in a small voice. "I expect we would have patched up our differences if.... --let by-gones ... -- well, that's out."
Johnny Hammersmith, looking haggard and worn but also more at ease than when he arrived, stretched himself comfortably in his canvass chair. As the chair creaked with his weight, I seemed to witness the ropes and ties of an unattainable absolution slacken their hold around his neck, falling in listless strands across the stiffened joints of his arms and shoulders. There were alot of things I would have done differently myself, I thought. While he recovered his composure the tension in the garage relaxed a degree, but something kept me going as I leaned over and said to him:
"Your timing was a little off, Johnny, if you had to wait until he was gone before you decided you liked him."
This was as far as I dared venture outside the precincts of normal caution with a man like Hammersmith, and as soon as the words were out they struck me as unconscionably reckless. And then he fooled me. He fooled me the way the confidences of an honest man will sometimes fool you.
"Yeah Marty I know. But it was a whole lot easier that way."
"Easier than what?"
"Easier than liking him while he was alive."
He quietly got up and strode across the floor and opened the blinds, snapping the latch and swinging wide the glass door. The sudden intrusion of light dazzled my eyes. The sun was high by this time, and the sea air wafted through the room. As he stood silhouetted in the glare of the doorway, I modestly confessed to Johnny Hammersmith that liking people while they were alive had often been a problem for me as well.
"Don't forget, two weeks up-front when you're ready to pull out," he reminded me. "You look like you might be ready any day now."
He flashed me a disarming smile, then shut the door behind him.
Shawn M. Riordan
Shawn Riordan has recently moved to Los Angeles after many years in the San Francisco Bay area.
He has two essays in Salvo, Anomie in Reverse and Digressions on Social History.
He is currently working on a review of the work of Edward Abbey, which he promises to Salvo.
a review by Shawn Riordan
For at least seventy years, the conventional wisdom has held that the
fastest way to lose your grip and turn into a bore, if you are concerned
with popular writing, is to become enthralled in Philosophy: in fiction the
Kiss of Death was guaranteed by the philosophical novel of ideas, and in
film the play of Wit and intellect was presumed to be foreclosed by the form
itself, and by the demands of popular culture. Movies that openly take up
philosophical speculation usually come across as freaks and aberrations: one
thinks of "Mindwalk" and of Louis Malle's two-hour dialogue movie,
Dinner with Andre." Though perhaps not so pronounced in fiction, that
prejudice against philosophy has become a firmly-entrenched dogma.
The breezy defiance of this dogma is surely the most engaging
a new movie that was just released: "THE TAO OF STEVE". Although never
departing too far from the conventions of romantic comedy, this film is
chock-full of philosophy,-- and the overarching spirit which informs the
movie is the ethical and religious meditations of Lao-tzu, poet and author
of one of the classic Taoist texts (the Tao te-Ching). In the past there may
have been Taoist movies (Renoir's "The River" and Roberto Rosellini's
"Stromboli" come to mind), but this may be the first picture where
characters actually talk ABOUT the Tao.
Most of the talking is done by the film's protagonist, who is
"Dex." Dex is the unreformed romantic non-hero, a fat, grungy
and improbable Don Juan who has worked out from strands of Kierkegaard,
Lao-tzu and Zen Buddhism his own personal philosophy of non-action and right
conduct. Although sometimes put off by his sponging manners and delinquent
lifestyle his friends nevertheless like and respect Dex, for whom the hero
serves as a natural enabler, teaching them how to get girls and then how to
win their hearts. The cornerstone of Dex's world view is a
highly-articulated "art of Seduction," a near-foolproof formula for
and courtship which asserts that the best way to make your mark on the
opposite sex is to lose all visible desire for it. "We pursue that which
retreats from us" Dex is heard telling his followers; and like all
novices caught up in the vagaries of Taoist mysticism, they never quite Get
It. The essence of Dex's method is something he calls the pursuit of "Being
Steve," only the "Steve" of the title signifies not a particular
man but a
model, an exemplar of masculine virtue: the unattached man who embodies a
code of honor and self-reliance and talent unique unto himself-- and who
thereby draws all women irresistibly into his magnetic orbit. (The actor
Steve McQueen and the notorious wrestler, Stonecold Steve Austin, are cited
as available reference-points.)
The story (what there is of one, anyway) of "The Tao of
shows how Dex is betrayed and brought up short by his all-purpose
philosophy, or else by succumbing finally to the great American mirage of
True Love. The latter is exemplified here by a lady Designer who proves more
than equal to matching wits with the hero. "The Tao of Steve" is a
if somewhat offbeat romantic entertainment, much funnier than most, but one
with a difference, and that difference is philosophy-- and the difference,
of course, is everything. Apparently a small-budget first feature by a
director named Jennifer Goodman (??), the movie is shot mostly around Santa
Fe, New Mexico and environs.
The best praise I can lay on this film is to admit that I
for not seeing it sooner. I tell myself that had I only watched the picture
before (rather than after) venturing out on my first bona-fide date in
years, I might have brought to bear all those infallible Tao-of-Steve
principles. And THEN, of course, everything would have come out all right.