The Rogue Voice


November 01, 2006

Pismo Surf Fight

A chorus of disgusted “ughs” goes up as Butch digs into the guy’s eye socket. That’ll ruin business at the Snack Shack for sure.

I see plenty of familiar faces in this circle. Surfers who go to Eternal Swell bible study, guys who surf in some of the contests, ride for Frampton, come here every morning, work at Diablo; they’re all here watching.

Pismo surf fight
Buthch keeps an eye out for a guy who gets in his way

by Darren Delmore

The grease and cigarette smoke’s in the air and Butch Maybee’s about to crush this valley guy’s skull right here in the Pismo parking lot. Even the wall rats bailed their concrete throne and Led Zeppelin rock to join the circle around the action ’cause they know, just like me and Kevin know, that Butch is the last guy you wanna fuck with out in the water. Six-foot-plus and ripped like a beach-going Conan the Barbarian (and with Conan’s mullet going too), Butch puts an equal amount of aggression into his roundhouse cutbacks as he puts into shearing hedges for cash.
He’s the last Neanderthal, his voice is beyond typical surf-speak, and his face is the poster mug for skin cancer awareness. But Butch is Butch and he doesn’t give a shit about any of that. When the weekends come around, Butch just gives a shit about getting his right-handers off the pier, fully regulating the lineup, and partying on the beach with his like-minded congregation and a few slutty older chicks from AG High.
And the guy. The Valley One. Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’s a black dude from east of here (no dunes in Bakersfield) and a pretty buff guy himself, probably just looking for a fun day at the beach. He was out on a rental sponge from Frampton’s shop, probably thinking he had the same rights as anybody out in the water on a Saturday afternoon. He probably drove into town last night, maybe solo or maybe with a chick, checked into one of the motels (shoot, maybe even my parents’ motel), crashed and woke up, snagged a cinnamon roll and his rental setup from Dale Frampton’s shop and hit it all day.

So this set was comin’ in, and Butch and Raleigh and the rest of Frampton’s team—or crew, or whatever—were lining up next to the third diamond on the south side, Butch getting the first pick, of course, like always. And then, the tourist guy was out there, a little ways in, getting sucked out toward the pier, not even wearing fins, floating sideways with his board, sinking, looking toward the shore rather than toward the outside set. You know, having a day at the beach or something, not paying attention.
I was at the next peak down, like most people are when Butch and company are out, and I watched Butch paddle into this overhead bowl sucking up off the crusty pilings, pull a late drop and right when he was coming off the bottom he noticed the valley guy, totally in the way and probably crapping his suit by then, and Butch just hooted and turned up into the barrel like nobody was even in his way, and he rode right over the guy’s back. Butch’s twin-fin sliced two lines through the back of the dude’s wetsuit, not to mention his skin, and went on to spastically make his way out of a pretty long, weird barrel.
Which brings everybody except the police up to this classic territorial moment in Central Coast surfing history on a summer afternoon. Including me. Yep. Pismo versus the Valley. All over again.
“Doh-know-ya!” Butch barks off at the guy, ruffling his dampened mullet while he’s at it. “If yer not down with the Bad Boy Club, then ya can beat it, kook!” Butch has his wetsuit halfway down, folded at the waist, and he’s as tan as any white guy can get north of Los Angeles. All his buddies are standing behind him by now, most of ’em in trunks or acid-washed jeans. These guys were absolutely zero footwear.
The parking lot’s filled with cars. Families of valley tourists walk right by this circle of commotion without a clue about what’s about to go down. The Pismo surf fight.
And the poor valley guy. Maybe he should’ve just given up and gone in when it happened. That’s what I would’ve done. That’s what most people do here when they have a run-in with Butch or the other Frampton dirtbags, but especially Butch.
But, this guy’s not from here, and unfortunately it fashionably shows. For one, he bought himself pair of black and bright-pink Hot Tuna trunks since he’s been in town, along with a TEAM FRAMPTON T-shirt, which I think’s funny ’cause not only did he rent his stuff from Frampton, he’s about to get royally fucked up by Frampton’s team riders. His mirrored shades keep going from Butch to Butch’s backup, and now he’s starting to screech.
“Gives ya no right to ride up on me like that, dude. No right. ’K brah?” It’s funny how he stresses the two main starlets of Butch’s vocabulary. “This ain’t your beach. It’s everybody’s beach!”
“Chah!” Now Butch is right up in the guy’s shades, and the two are standing in a big round oil stain on the parking spot. “All the right, barnyard! I own the ’Mo! Chah! Sendin’ ya outta here! Yer Forty-Six eastbound, insider!”
“Bro’, this guy’s done,” Kevin whispers to me.
I just nod. My heart’s pounding. I’ve seen a bit of a cholo fight in the lot before, but I’ve never seen a Butch fight. I’ve heard about one that went down like five years ago and that’s all the info I needed to avoid him for the rest of my life. It was right when he came back from being in the Marines or something for four years, and he was all drunk, surfing the south side as usual, and some guy from Santa Cruz burned him twice in a row. Some pro. Anyway, Butch sent him home in an ambulance, leaving bits of his board and earlobes to decompose in this same section of parking lot.
That’s one of the reasons Butch gets any wave he wants.
The valley guy shoves Butch, a bad, bad, BAD move—all Butch needs, really—and now it’s on.
Our circle expands with Butch’s first blow, and a mouthful of bright red-paint looking shit spews out of the left side of the guy’s mouth. He puts his hand over his mouth and I can tell he didn’t expect any of it to really come to this. His shades have survived the first blow, but the second blow cracks ’em in two and scatters pieces of the reflective glass all around their feet. The frames alone still cling to his ears. The guy’s nose is broken and some sort of valve has opened up in there.
“Fuckin’ rock ’im, Butch! Fuckin’ ROCK ’IM!” Raleigh screams—all mustached out—crouched down behind Butch, looking like a roadie for Credence Clearwater Revival wearing his purple Oakley Razors and holding a tall brown-bagged can of Budweiser in his left hand.

The valley guy could’ve been back in his motel room, or wherever, by now, having some chowder—or something. He could’ve dropped his rental stuff off and just bailed, but nah, it’s piled up right there on the curb, his shredded wetsuit heaped onto the flimsy crappy piece of foam he was riding when he got in Butch’s way, and now he’s about to pay for a lot more than some by-the-hour coastal recreation.
But wait a second. He’s coming back. Suddenly, with blood dripping off his chin and on his new T, he charges back at Butch and kicks him right in the stomach with his Vans slip-ons. A weird shot, but oh, shit, now it’s really on. He follows it up with an uppercut that cracks Butch in the jaw.
Tourist can fight.
The crowd goes silent, but no one here’s about to stop this. I catch a few facial expressions from the crowd through the blur of fluorescent trunks, sweats and T’s. The chicks in the lot act funny. They’re watching it all, scowling in disapproval, but they’re not stopping anything. Frown lines and stuff. Maybe it’s a motherly concern mixed with trying to be cool in front of the boys. Some of the older guys are just kinda watching with no expression, arms crossed, pony-tails down, shades on, leaning back against their camper shells or bumpers, knowing too well this routine, knowing it sucks, yet resigned to let it happen, because it’s always gonna happen.
I don’t see anybody running to call the police. And I’ve got the feeling nobody’s gonna cheer this guy on either, even though he deserves it. We all surf here. Better to be silently-for-Butch than against him, as lame as that is.
Someone whistles, maybe actually in favor of the valley guy, just as Butch opens his pancake-of-a-palm out and lunges it forward until he gets a firm hold on the guy’s face. The guy tries to pry Butch’s fingers off but there’s no way that’s gonna happen. When Butch handles his face like a bowling ball—fingers in holes, the guy’s eye sockets and nostrils—the guy makes a particular wail. It’s a wail that doesn’t come with eating shit on your skate. It’s a wail that comes with sheer terror. And it sings.
The guy’s falling down, slowly, paralyzed by the pain. It looks more like Butch is putting him to sleep for the night, tucking him in softly by the face.
The most high-pitched and embarrassing “aaa-hah!” whips outta Raleigh’s peeling lips. Butch’s main pal. Along with those lame shades, he’s wearing the most accidentally acid washed jeans on the face of the Earth. His long brown hair flows randomly behind him in the dying wind of another evening glass-off.
A chorus of disgusted “ughs” goes up as Butch digs into the guy’s eye socket. That’ll ruin business at the Snack Shack for sure, even though a couple people watching this eat baskets of fries like they were at the movies or something.
Right then Raleigh steps up and smiles down at Butch and goes “Fuckin’ A, bro’,” and then the high-pitched shit again, “aaa-hah!” with Butch noddin’ back up at him while he’s squatting with his fingers stuffed up HARD in there, actin’ just like things are cool. Like this is just how things go, around here in the parking lot. Then Raleigh holds his beer over the guy’s jittering, twitching face and pours the rest of the Budweiser on it.
The guy practically hisses, struggling to breathe through the warm, mouth-washed beer: “Shahh-Ugh!” I bet it stings. His arms are free but flailing. I don’t see much of a comeback coming on. He’ll be lucky if he can see anything for the next five years.
I look behind me, searching for flashing police lights and sirens or a bike cop—anyone, or anything—to stop this from getting worse. But there’s nothing, nothing but the occasional, drifting tourist mobile looking for a parking spot, and strolling, clueless families, heading out for walk on the pier and maybe a basket of clam strips. I see plenty of familiar faces in this circle. Surfers who go to Eternal Swell bible study, guys who surf in some of the contests, ride for Frampton, come here every morning, work at Diablo; they’re all here watching. Some of their kids are here too. Wetsuits are still balled up on the pavement between trucks or in plastic bins, and boards are sticking out of the passenger side windows of cars. Butch digs his fingers inside the guy’s freaking skull deeper and even deeper, shouting, “Ya see? Ya see?” with no pun intended, and all his buddies are hooting, ready to get a shot in themselves but also probably realizing that Butch is goin’ a lot further than any of them would ever go with this. Raleigh decides to do something more along his weasely lines, and he jams over to the guy’s rental stuff and pulls his lighter out.
“Yer sponge is fuckin’ history! Eet’s torched, man! Aaa-hah!” And yeah, it takes him a while—long enough to make whatever statement Raleigh was going for seem lame and immature—but he sets the nose of the bodyboard on fire. Or just melts it enough to send smoke in the air. He’d probably light the wetsuit on fire if it wasn’t wet, which is probably why the board won’t light. But just as you can almost taste a little bit of the smoldering foam in the air, big old Dale Frampton himself comes outta nowhere—maybe from dirtbag heaven—to bat the pyro away.
“Hey! That’s my rental, asshole!” With a pair of double red-striped white athletic socks pulled up way past his knees and Flojos sandals over ’em, Raleigh keels over onto the pavement in fetal position, the dark-mulleted Frampton towering over him all bloated, swatting away at him like he’s a big mosquito.
Meanwhile, on the main stage, even though the fight’s long over and his point has been made, Butch’s gonna leave with something. He’s gonna leave with a souvenir from the whimpering, shivering valley guy on his back on the concrete. Butch goes for it, digging into the right socket and, sure-freaking-‘nough, Butch rips the guy’s eyeball out. The valley dude’s eyeball! The out-of-towner in the classic wrong-place, wrong-time scenario. Now I’m watching a horror movie. Surfers don’t just pull eyes out of sockets in parking lot brawls. They might punch, kick, bite…I don’t know…chew an earlobe off here and there. But not this. Not that eyeball in that dirtbag’s bloody fist, and not those little blue veins and shit dangling outta the guy’s vacant hole. Butch’s fingers are bloody and now he wants to be praised for doing this, and I know I’m gonna remember this forever.
The crowd’s not gonna help Butch on this one. Even his buddies are backing off a bit, not so eager to help him out. And Frampton? Frampton just stops smacking Raleigh and stands all the way up, looking over at both his team rider and his marred-for-life rental customer. The look on Frampton’s face— like some aquatic father figure to Pismo—makes me suddenly feel relieved that he’s here, here with wisdom to break up the nastiness because the cop’s aren’t gonna. He’s older. He owns a local business. He’s gotta stop this, even though it’s way too freakin’ late. Way too late. He walks up to Butch.
Butch gives him a what’s up nod and then looks back down at the eyeball in his fingers—and now he acts like it’s his own portable TV camera or something. “See whatcha get, kook!” he yells into the detached eyeball. “See whatcha get?” My stomach feels like it’s been punched. You don’t just talk into dislodged eyeballs like they’re TV cameras. “See whatcha get when ya fuck with the Bad Boy Club? That’s whatcha get, fuckin’ barney!”
Then he goes the extra mile and squats down in front of the guy and points the eyeball at the lucky, intact one. “Look atcha now, fuckin’ kook. Yer not so up in my biz now, are ya? Chah!” Butch finally drops it, the point, the eyeball, everything. His victim is well out of commission.
“Butchy,” Frampton says quietly, sounding bummed and looking down at his team rider, a grown man who’s been getting free sweats and a 15 percent team discount in his shop for like 10 years or something, and riding all the reject boards that Frampton couldn’t sell in his shop. It’s like Butch is his son or something, gone astray, gone criminal, and now he’s gotta set him free. “Splitsky! Home, skillet,” he says. “Pam’s gonna getcha at the ramp. You know me, baby.” He pats Butch on the ass like they’re a couple of football players or something and finally the first wail of a police siren fires up at the back entrance to the lot. The circle rapidly disassembles, Kevin and me included. Trucks fire up. Reverse lights go on. Most blend in with tourists going to or from the pier. We head out toward the pier. Time to check the waves again, or something. I mean, I guess we’re gonna check the waves. Sure we watched a man have his eye torn out, but that can’t spoil the glass-off.
I look back as our shoes hit the splintering wood of the pier and I see a wild ball of blonde hair and Butch’s body beneath it charging toward the railing of the wall and hurdling it, free-falling the twenty feet or so from the parking lot to the sand. Damn, he really is Conan.
I look straight ahead—just like Kevin’s looking straight ahead—for that first glimpse of the lineup off the first diamond like we always do. No one’s even on that right off the end anymore. We probably won’t even go back out. But we’ve gotta go somewhere. Screw getting questioned by the cops about the modern day barbarian that’s fleeing down the beach toward Grover City right about now. §

Darren Delmore is a freelance writer who lives in San Luis Obispo.

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Washing windows across America: Welcome to Muleshoe (episode 14)

While I grab a bite in Muleshoe’s crowded McDonald’s, two high school girls run through, drunk on team spirit. They wear face paint and “Mule Mania” T-shirts that fit their pudgy, oblong bodies too tightly.

The first spoonful of chili nearly kills me. I don’t care. The sweat pours from my eyes. Goll-damned, here I am feeling Texas—feeling America!

Welcome to Muleshoe
Texas high school football, energetic cheerleaders and game night

by Ben Leroux

In the summer of 2003, I discarded all I owned and loaded a troubled 1975 Plymouth with clothes, books, a guitar, a cat named Reggie, and $17.94 worth of window-cleaning equipment. I drove across the United States, stopping in nowhere towns, pail and squeegee in hand, cleaning windows for another day’s pittance. Free of any attachments, I floated vaguely east, wandering in a private stratum without itinerary or expectation. I became a true outsider, a fugitive from the banal, suffocating cycle of madness that passes for a “normal life” today in America.

By Ben Leroux

Episode 14:

If there are “GEORGE W. BUSH” or “DON’T MESS WITH TEXAS” billboards at the border, I miss them. The only indication I’ve crossed over onto Lone Star soil comes in the form of an apologetic road sign that reads: MULESHOE. Predictably, it is followed by a nondescript flange: motel, discount store, McDonald’s.
I ask only two things from Texas: One, I want to eat a bowl of its famous authentic chili—the fiery kind brewed in kettles over open flames on cattle drives, the kind capable of afflicting the toughest of cowpokes with severe cases of the sweats and trots; two, I want to watch a great Texas high school football game. In Texas, you have to figure that where there’s one, there’s the other.
If such a slice of Americana is to occur, it will occur tonight at 7 p.m., when the Mules of Muleshoe host the Lubbock-Roosevelt Eagles. A more Texas-sounding game there has perhaps never been.
While I grab a bite in Muleshoe’s crowded McDonald’s, two high school girls run through, drunk on team spirit. They wear face paint and “Mule Mania” T-shirts that fit their pudgy, oblong bodies too tightly. They come through yelling, “Mule Mania! Mule Mania! Woo-hoo!”
People look up from their value meals with puzzled faces. I check my newspaper to make sure it’s Friday night. It is.
With a couple hours before kickoff, I make a quick twenty bucks between a loan store and a tire shop on a featureless street off the highway. I ask the tire shop owner about the game tonight and he thanks me for reminding him. Something is missing. I sniff at the Muleshoe air. On game nights, small town air is supposed to be pungent with adrenaline, teen hormones, and a cool restlessness. At least that’s the way I remember it.
I pull the Plymouth up next to a city park, and sit and think. I guess that when I left California, I pictured things differently. I guess I pictured myself spending loads of free time pulling off the highway to explore the sites—the monuments, adobe villages, ice caves, and petrified wood forests—the natural wonders of America.
Sure, there was the Buffalo Dance in Gallup. But I’d stumbled upon that accidentally, and it was free. In some ways, life on the road had turned out to be no different than life before. Either way, it was a never-ending scramble to stay afloat, working simply to work another day.
But now there was tonight’s game in Muleshoe. The high school football game was one of the remaining gems of Americana still accessible to the little guy.
As the Plymouth cools in the shade, I picture Muleshoe’s stadium tonight: the fiercely lit field, the blasts of warring pep bands, the smells from the concession stand of the perfect kettle of bubbling Texas chili. Then the mythical Friday night spectacle that Texas is known for: Helmets crack dully and grass flies in mossy clods as wholesome-faced cheerleaders rile up the normally reserved town folk into a frenzy. The first spoonful of chili nearly kills me. I don’t care. The sweat pours from my eyes. Goll-damned, here I am feeling Texas—feeling America!
Something jars me back to Muleshoe’s city park. It is an engine rumbling in my left ear. A towering Ford truck beside me has two rednecks aboard. They gawk down at me and I face them with a scowl. They rip off, revving and burning rubber. They peel around a corner and disappear.
I try to return to my vision of the game, but soon there is another mechanical humming in my ear. I look out to show the rednecks a fist or a middle finger, but this time it is an old Monte Carlo of young Mexican guys. They slow and glance over at me as they pass, their stereo thumping low.
A minute later, the rednecks are back re-marking their territory with their powerful engine. Then the low-riders, then the rednecks. It goes on.
I ignore them until I feel a third presence—a police car cruising slowly by. The officer plays it cool, waiting till he’s past me to look in his rearview. He then goes around the block and joins the circling welcome-wagon parade.
With about a half-hour till kickoff, I look up and notice the police car ahead, tucked into a cluster of little shacks. I realize I’m being staked out and decide to leave Muleshoe. I get out and check my oil, then drive away, past the nose of the police cruiser. I pull onto Highway 84, and head southeast for Lubbock.
I know hicks and hick-cops and know that there is a primate section of their brain irreversibly provoked by the sight of lone strangers. I know that if I stay, I’ll be followed into the stadium tonight. Goodbye, Muleshoe.
But Muleshoe isn’t done with me yet. The cruiser is on me the instant I pull onto 84. It keeps a distance. I want to pull over and get it over with. Then again, I don’t want to spook a Texas cop on a Friday night. I know he’s waiting for me to do something stupid. I outwait him.
When the blue-and-whites finally flash, I pull aside on to a tall grassy embankment.
“How yew doin’ today, sir?” the officer says, approaching my open window. He is Anglo-Mex—Eric Estrada with a drawl. He seems tentative, like a rookie or a volunteer.
“Fine,” I say, keeping my hands on the wheel.
“Seen you parked at the park up there,” he says.
I wait for a follow up, but there is none.
“Was I doing something wrong?” I ask.
“Well,” he says. He looks down the road as if searching. He then leans down and surveys my gutted vehicle, now laid out like the inside of a hippie van.
“Did you want to see my license?” I ask him.
“Yes, I was just going to ask you for that. Thang-kyew.”
I hand him my license and he squawks into the receiver on his shoulder. Then he leans over to me.
“Reason I pulled you over is I ain’t never seen you before. Where yew headed, mister…Leroux?”
“Lubbock, now.”
“Now?” He looks at me. “What do you mean now? And what was you doin’ up there at our park?”
“Waiting for your football game. I’m traveling across the country washing windows, and I wanted to see some Texas high school football. They say it’s something.”
“Now, you’re tellin’ me you come to Muleshoe to watch a football game?”
“And just how did you hear about our football game tonight?”
“I read about it in the Clovis paper.”
“Clovis? Clovis, New Mexico? Now what was you doin’ readin’ about Muleshoe football in a Clovis, New Mexico paper?”
“I guess they cover it. It’s pretty close.”
“I know it’s close. I know that.”
“And you say you is what, mister Leroux, a travelin’ winda-washer?”
“Yes, you can see my squeegees and buckets and rags in the back.” I hike a thumb toward the back, wondering if he will notice or care that there is no back seat, nor front seat for that matter, and that I am sitting on an old living room chair.
“And a gee-tar,” he says, gleaming at my guitar. “You play that gee-tar, mister Leroux?”
“Sort of.”
“Sort of? What songs do you play? Country and western?”
A backup car arrives and saves me from answering. It pulls in front of me. A tall, angular white cop with tinted sunglasses and a moustache comes and stands by my passenger side so that all I can see of him are his flexing hips and the hand he keeps on the butt of his pistol.
The two men talk about me over the hood of the Plymouth as the Tex-Mex cop receives word from headquarters about my status.
“Okay, mister Leroux,” he says, handing me back my license. “Like I said, you wasn’t doing nothin’ wrong. It’s just that you looked like somebody we’ve been looking for.”
“I thought it was because you’d never seen me before.”
“Well, that, and you was up at our park there, just parked.”
“Yes, I was parked. It was a park.” I want to take back the words as soon as I’ve said them.
“Yessir, you was parked at our park,” he says, agitation creeping into his voice. “Now you’re welcome to come back into town and enjoy our football game. Our team’s okay this year—not the best though.”
“I think I’ll pass.”
The officer’s chest swells. He looks at the other officer. “Now why is that?”
“I guess I don’t like so much attention,” I answer, starting the Plymouth.
He smiles.
“You’ll like Lubbock. It’s growin’. Startin’ to get a few weird people though.Don’t get me wrong, ain’t near as bad as Austin nor San Antone. Guess you’re useta weird folks though where you’re from.”
“Weird folks? In California?”
“Welcome to Texas, sir,” Ponch says as he taps the roof. He and his partner stand and watch me leave.
I sprint for Lubbock, wondering how I am going to withstand what could be months in Texas. I fear that I have made a big mistake by coming to Texas at all. You hear things about redneck ways and backwoods justice, and the country’s contempt for Californians, but you figure it has to be exaggerated. For the time being though, I give up on the football game idea. It’s okay. At least I had window washing. Window washing was one thing that the little guy would always have.
Flying past the dirt fields along 84, it grows dark, and I see some columbines plodding along, their drivers lit up like rock stars. The flat, lonely blackness makes me long for a drink or two.
But then, beckoning off in the south, I see some flickers of white light. They appear to be tiny stadium lights that, according to my atlas, are in the middle of nowhere. My crushed hopes are resurrected.
I take the next side road headed off in that direction, and I follow those stadium lights. The road seems to belong to no town. I pass no stores, no homes. I end up at a gravel parking lot to a stadium.
It’s eight dollars to get in, but I don’t mind. I stop at the concession stand for my bowl of chili. I don’t see any chili though, just stale popcorn, gooey hot dogs, and expensive candy bars. I get a can of soda for three dollars. For an additional three dollars, I purchase a program containing the names of players I do not know.
I sit on the home team side, and glance at the scoreboard. It’s early in the first quarter, and the home team is ahead 7-0.
Before I can get my soda opened, a long, swift black kid for the home team has picked up a fumbled ball, sidestepped a half-dozen small, flailing white kids and pranced into the end zone. A second black kid runs in the two-point conversion.
I wait for the rowdy Texas football-crazies around me to erupt. But only a few old-timers clap. I look across the crowd. It is mostly young, white middle-class families that could be from any American suburb. They seem distracted from the game.
In the program, I learn that I am at the stadium of Syria High School, and that their opponents across the field are from the town of Peace.
Syria versus Peace?
One of Syria’s two black kids pulls an interception out of the sky, then stays on the field to throw a sixty-yard flea-flicker to the team’s only other black kid for another touchdown. The receiver who caught the pass stays on to kick the extra point.
Syria’s band does not celebrate with deafening blasts of brass and percussion, but with the anemic beginning of a flute-heavy fight song that peters out a few bars in.
Minutes later, Syria blocks a Peace punt and one of the merciless black studs scoops it up and takes it in for six points.
I look across the taciturn crowd again, and try to trace the source of their distraction. It appears to be the cheerleading squad. I look at them. They are a hodgepodge of misfits. At one end, a gum-chomping beauty queen talks on a cell phone. Near midfield, an obese freshman with hams for thighs performs flat-footed hand gestures. There are even two preschoolers on the squad. They pick bugs out of the sideline grass. There is one more cheerleader though, and it is her I realize that the people are here to see.
She’s a petite redhead—probably a senior. She gulps from a bottle of water as she waits for the referee to signal a touchdown. There is a hush of anticipation. Even the Peace cheerleaders across the field have stopped, their eyes on the redhead. A few of Syria’s benchwarmers turn to look over their shoulder pads.
The touchdown is signaled, and the redhead presses her legs together, faces the crowd, and flaps her arms out to her sides once.
She takes two long skips, bounds two of her own body lengths, somersaults, swivels, and lands on her toes feathery light. Without gathering herself, she launches into thirty yards of cartwheels past the agape preschoolers and the chunky freshman. She then rockets vertically, tucks her legs and hangs motionless for seconds.
“Seer-yah! Whoo-hoo!” she yells, landing and pumping a fist.
The crowd grins collectively and shakes their heads.
She goes to her duffel bag and gets another sip of water and turns to watch the field. Her chest heaves as she waits for another opportunity. These are the nights she lives for—nights when Syria runs up the score.
The rout goes on and the closest I come to my Texas football experience is bitching with a local man about a roughing the kicker call. And because I can’t bear to watch the decimation those two black kids are putting on poor Peace, I too end up just watching the redhead.
Syria picks off another Peace pass with a minute left till halftime. I get up to leave. Just as I do, Syria scores on a running play. The redhead launches into a series of flips from handstands. On the last one, she taps her feet on the rubbery track, and leaps into the heavens. The preschoolers watch her rise with their mouths open. The freshman looks like she’s seen a ghost. The oblivious beauty queen though, still on her phone, waves into the stands. The redhead hangs in the air long enough to do the splits, and point one tiny white sneaker toward Dallas and one toward Muleshoe. Looking at her, you get the impression she could stay there forever, but that she probably wouldn’t stay long in Syria. §

Ben Leroux writes from a motel room in Morro Bay, and still plies his trade as a window washer. He can be reached at
Read more of his "Washing Windows Across America" series here:
  • Evicted From Wal-Mart (episode 9)
  • Santa Fe Pride (episode 10)
  • Leaving Las Vegas (episode 11)
  • Tucumcari: End of the mother road (episode 12)
  • Clovis ain't Texas (episode13)

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    Life in the Cage: Institutionalized

    I’ve had to adjust to years of eating crap food, not getting laid, dealing with misfits, having too much time on my hands.

    You don’t need women, man, to be happy. Think about it. They are a pain in the ass, drama queens. More than half the guys in the joint are in here over some woman in some way or another.”

    Conversations with a veteran convict

    By Tito David Valdez Jr.

    Off Highway 101 in Soledad, California, I reside at the Correctional Training Facility, a Level II minimum security prison, located on prime real estate on the Central Coast. A gated community surrounded with manicured lawns, 24-hour security, like the places of the rich who live on Sunset Plaza Drive in the Hollywood Hills.
    Inside the gates, the recreation yard resembles a large country club golf course with luscious green grass. There are horseshoe pits, a baseball diamond with bleachers, basketball court, volleyball court, and tournament-style tennis court, not unlike the facilities of Leisure World, where old folks retire.
    It’s a place where lifer convicts end up to get away from all the madness of harder maximum security joints, where long lockdowns are frequent. Non-lifers, with less than a year left on their sentence, reside here as well, preparing for their eventual release into society.
    I ended up here after five long hard years in the tougher joints by staying out of trouble. It was a difficult task, where a mere fistfight, or possession of porn, could land you in the hole and transfer you to a higher level security facility.
    I’ve had to adjust to years of eating crap food, not getting laid, dealing with misfits, having too much time on my hands.
    I’ve always stressed out over the mail, waiting for visits that sometimes don’t show up, and making the next phone call. I finally had to go on psychotropic medication to help me sleep, to uplift my spirits. Due to stress and worry, I developed stomach ulcers.
    Among the convicts on the yard, some who walk around burned out and defeated, with their mean mugs and pumped up chests, there was Brad, an older Caucasian convict in his mid-60s, who always had a smile on his face. I approached him one day to find out his secret to happiness. What he shared, his viewpoint of doing time, remains with and bolsters me today.

    My encounter with Brad took place while he was relaxing, reclined on the luscious green lawn, reading a novel. He looked so comfortable, able to block out conversations around him. His long blonde and white hair, which fell past his shoulders, moved slightly with the wind. His arms and shoulders were well built, much like some of the youngsters who exercise religiously. Prison had preserved him. He looked in his late 40s. Reminded me of Fabio, the romance novel character.
    “Excuse me, I’d like to speak with you for a few seconds…. My name is Dave. So, what are you reading there?”
    “Da Vinci Code,” he said with a smoker’s voice.
    “How is it so far?”
    “Ah, it’s all right. Doesn’t live up to the hype. My name is Brad,” he said, extending his hand for a handshake. “What brings you here, if you are looking for tobacco, I’m not that guy. That Brad is in the hole.”
    “Nah, I’m coming to you for some advice. I heard you have been down 30 years. I’ve been down 13 years. I’m feeling like I’m becoming institutionalized. I’m getting burned out, I see you happy all the time, I want to be happy too.”
    “Well, Dave, doing time is a state of mind,” he said, as he sat up in an Indian style position. “It's what you make of it. You got to focus only on the benefits prison has to offer you.”
    “Benefits? What benefits? This is a nasty place to live.”
    “Well…for one, you don’t have any responsibility here. No bills. Do you realize how hard people are working out there each day, just to make ends meet? Flooded with bills in their mailbox, borrowing from the banks, using credit cards, just to balance their budget. Bombarded with bills from insurance companies, electrical, gas, trash, rent, mortgage, phone, cars daycare, cable, internet service, NetFlix—you name it. Did you ever live on your own?”
    “Yes, but…”
    “Well, then you know how it feels to stress out, not knowing if you will have enough money to pay the next month’s bills. Here, everything is done for you—for free. Every week, someone does your laundry, your sheets, blankets. Every morning and evening, a hot meal awaits you at the chow hall. You don’t even have to buy the ingredients from the market nor prepare it. It’s hot and ready, just for you. The kitchen workers get up at 3:30 a.m. just to prepare you a meal. Not even a wife or girlfriend will get up that early for you.
    “That’s a good one! Speaking of old lady, I haven’t been laid in 13 years. How have you coped with the lack of female intimacy?”
    “Dolores and Rosey Palm. They don’t whine, complain, you don’t have to buy them gifts, and they are always ready when I need a little action. You don’t need women, man, to be happy. Think about it. They are a pain in the ass, drama queens. More than half the guys in the joint are in here over some woman in some way or another.”
    “Man, but it sucks living in a cell and waking up with wood, and there is another man in the cell with you. You see them shit, smell their farts, some snore and keep you up all night.”
    “You got nothing to complain about. Right now as we speak, there are fifteen Mexicans living in a modified garage in Bell Gardens or a one bedroom apartment in Van Nuys, struggling to make ends meet. Imagine the odor of 15 people farts, it’s like a gas chamber.”
    “But prison is such a dangerous place. I still walk around looking over my shoulder, always alert, even though this isn’t a hard joint.”
    “You got nothing to worry about here. People just want to do their time and go home. Guys who get hit, they deserved it, they did something wrong, they had it coming. Didn’t pay a dope debt, wrote someone’s old lady, disrespected someone. There is actually more danger out there; do you ever watch the news? Car accidents due to drunk drivers. Carjackings. Home invasion robberies. The gates around us, they protect us from the crazy people out there.”
    “You have a great outlook on life in here. I’ll let you get back to your novel. I’ll get back at you another time.”
    “Alright, Holmes. See ya.”

    The next day, after the morning meal, I walked out to the yard. It was a beautiful morning, no fog or low clouds, pure sunshine and clear blue skies. Walking towards the exercise/workout area, I could see Brad in the distance, alone, as he always was—a loner.
    He had on his walkman headphones, wearing a white wife-beater T-shirt, exposing his large triceps as he did a set of dips on the bars. After a few seconds, he walked over to do some pull-ups on another set of bars. I happened to catch him just as he finished his workout, and caught up to him as he was taking a walking lap around the track.
    “Damn, how have you been able to keep up your physique? Most guys your age, they look tore up in here.”
    “Doing time is like parking a car in a garage for a few years. If you take care of yourself, you will remain young. The guys who are tore up, they are too busy chasing tobacco, pruno, dope. You always see these usual suspects at the clinic, complaining about their health.
    “Speaking of the clinic, we got really shitty health care.”
    “Well, not really, man. Look at the benefits. How many people out there even have health care? Many can’t afford it. They can’t even afford to pay for the pills that are prescribed. Here, we sign up, see a doctor in about 3-4 weeks; and you not only see a doctor, but the pills he prescribes, you pay nothing.
    “Yeah, but most doctors are quacks, I’ve seen some get escorted out of here due to misconduct. Look, the feds even had to come in and take over.”
    “It’s the same thing out there, man. Freaky gynecologists probing their woman patients when they are sedated, psychologists doing experiments with patients. Don’t you ever watch the news, Holmes?”
    “Yeah, but I really don’t pay attention to all that. I watch Primer Impacto, the Spanish news program, and I’m usually checking out the women newscasters’ legs or cleavage. I like your point of view. I see you out here every morning, do you even have a job?”
    “I’m A1-A medically unassigned. I fooled the doctors; they think I have a back problem. I told the psychologists I’m anti-social, can’t work around people. I get all the full privileges the inmates with jobs get. I learned long ago that I won’t work for the man. This is my time. I do it the way I want to do it.”
    “How do you pass time, don’t you run out of things to do?”
    “Well, I love to read. I’ve got a handful of pen pals I write. They order me subscriptions to magazines and newspapers like ‘Men’s Health,’ the ‘L.A. Times,’ ‘Esquire,’ to name a few.”
    “Man, how can you even read in the cell? Cellmates always distracting you, talking, moving around up and down off the bunk.”
    “I haven’t had a cellmate in 10 years. I’ve got a single cell, I live in Y-wing. Fooled the psychologist, told her I get homicidal thoughts. Since there is no ‘lights out’ in California state prisons, I stay up until about 1 a.m. every night reading, listening to the radio, about the time the guard comes around for the 1:15 a.m. count.”
    “I can’t stand that, man, when the guard at night, shines his flashlight into my face. It wakes me up every time.”
    “Look at the bright side. They are making sure you are alive, OK. We are valuable assets to the state. How many people out there do you know, who have someone checking up on them 24 hours a day, to make sure they are okay?”
    “What do you mean?”
    “For instance, if someone were to attack you right here on the yard, guards from all different directions will run to the scene, to save you. You got your own bodyguards at your disposal, they are looking out for your best interests.”
    “I never looked at it that way.”
    “Look, man. Picture this place as if you are the king of a palace. Everyone here works just for you. You are retired at age…?”
    “Thirty-six. Guys your age out there are either unhappily married with brat kids, balding, trying to make another dollar to support their family. Or if they are single, some are contracting herpes or syphillis, from being too promiscuous. You will live a long life in here with a positive attitude. If you ain’t getting laid, you won’t catch anything.”
    “Great point.”
    “All right, Holmes, I’m going to take a leak. I’ll catch you another time.”
    “All right, man.”

    The next morning, after morning chow, I went looking for Brad. He had opened up my eyes to so much. I was eager to find out more. I saw him sitting at a bench, which was a neutral area. He was writing an address on a brown envelope.
    “Hey, Brad, where did you get those brown envelopes, aren’t those indigent envelopes that poor inmates use?”
    “Hey, Holmes, I’m poor. I have no money on my books. The state provides me with 20 state envelopes per month for free to write my pen pals.”
    “I heard about that. So it’s true. Wow, that is a whole book of stamps, a $7.50 value. I bet you stress out on the mail everyday, waiting for letters.”
    “Nah, man, the pen pals I write talk about the same shit. How unhappy they are out there, living in their own prison. I’m like a therapist, just here to listen. I wait for the guard to bring the mail to my cell door. I don’t even open them up right away, I wait until I got nothing to do, then I open them.”
    “Why don’t you ask your pen pals to send you money?”
    “Nah, man, I’d rather have them send me thirty-pound care packages every quarter from the food vendors. When there is slop for chow, I prepare my own meal in the cell. I’ve got a hot pot, a hot plate to fry food on. After I cook, I sit on my bunk and watch one of the first-run movies on the institutional video system.”
    “That’s one good thing about this prison, we get those first-run
    movies before the public even gets them.”
    “Yeah, man, sometimes after midnight, if you tune into Channel 12, you can get some really good stuff: Pay Per view boxing, wrestling. Our Direct TV system must have a malfunction.”
    “You know what’s weird? I noticed the other day that foreign nationals get placed in education programs here to learn English, yet, when their sentence is expired, they get deported back to their country. Does that make any sense?”
    “Makes as much sense as me having four vocational trades and I never did shit on those classes. All I did was show up and got credit and a certificate in the end.”
    “Would you believe that I spent three years in a Vocational Auto Mechanics class and got a certificate in Brake/Engine Repair, Air Conditioning, Transmissions, and never worked on a car?”
    “Ya Holmes, I believe it.”

    The next morning, I saw Brad just getting off the phone. I approached him to talk some more.
    “Dude, how often do you use the phone? MCI charges outrageous rates. Up to $20 for a 15-minute call.”
    “I don’t pay the bill, man, I only call collect. So long as they tell me to call, I call.”
    “Did you get a haircut? I can tell, looks like they cut off a good inch or two off the back.”
    “Yeah, Holmes, the inmate porter in my unit, he is assigned as a barber. I gave him a Top Ramen soup as a tip. Imagine, people out there, they pay a barber from $10 to $50 for a haircut. You get the same service here, for free!”
    “I’m really starting to see the benefits, like how we get free toilet paper, free state soap, free razors.”
    “Yeah, man, you got it. Look only at the benefits. I’ll share some game with you, man. Sign up for all the self-help groups you can got into. You know, NA, AA, even the church programs.”
    “They all have a budget each year to hold a special banquet. They bring in food from the streets: Carne Asada, real steak, Subway sandwiches…. Isn’t that awesome?”
    “I’ll do it man, how do I sign up?”

    One morning, I decided to stop talking to Brad. After listening to his advice for two weeks, I started to feel real comfortable in prison.
    I realized that he was indeed institutionalized. As a lifer, who had been denied parole in 10 separate hearings, he had given up all hope of ever getting out. Like a good therapist, he figured out creative coping strategies of how to deal with a bad situation.
    Feeling the comfort of prison, I understood why seven out of 10 inmates return to state prison within six months of being released.
    Prison officials do not offer any realistic training or plan to teach an inmate responsibility, or real life skills, or trades, that might actually help an inmate stay clean and trouble-free upon release.
    How can one expect a parolee to survive and become a productive member of society, when for years all his basic needs have been taken care of, when he is not obligated to do anything useful for him self?
    Upon release, he is kicked out into society with $200, little or no family or community supports, and barely enough money for a single night at the local run-down motel. Or, he’s given a motel voucher that places him right into a drug or crime zone, where he is tempted to go back to his old ways. Unfortunately, many do re-commit crimes and return back to prison.

    You probably think we have it easy in prison after reading this story. If some people had their way, all prisoners would be fed just bread and water and be kept locked in a cage 24 hours a day. Fortunately, the legislature, representing the people of California, feels that prisoners are human beings and should be treated with some dignity, being offered at least some minimal luxuries during their imprisonment.
    Along with many lifers, I haven’t given up the legal fight.
    We spend countless hours in the prison law library, trying to find a legal loophole, filing briefs in court, without an attorney. Due to the lack of legal experience, of course, most writs are denied by judges.
    The very few lifers who do get out, gives others hope that one day we will be together with our families again.
    Without hope, we would end up like Brad. §

    Tito David Valdez Jr. resides at and writes from the minimum security Correctional Facility in Soledad, Calif. Listen to his radio segments on prison life on the nationally syndicated program, “The Adam Carolla Show.” For times, visit Tito can be reached by email at, or by mail: Tito David Valdez Jr. J-52660, CTF Central E Wing Cell 126, P.O. Box 689, Soledad, Calif., 93960-0689. Read more of his "Life in the cage" series here:

  • Mischief in the prison chapel
  • Jailhouse pruno
  • A momentary breath of freedom
  • Breakfast Club
  • Trapped

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    Cabby's corner: Mr. Headphones

    He replaced the headphones around his ears as I drove out of the park. He smiled distantly and bobbed his head up and down and rocked it from side to side as I drove along.

    At Mother’s, he would say something, and the person he was talking to started to say something, he lifted the headphones to his ears, and when he had something to say, he lowered them, and then lifted them without waiting for a retort.

    Mr. Headphones
    Getting drunk and tuning out the world

    By Dell Franklin

    By Dell Franklin

    I pulled up to a mobile home in one of San Luis Obispo’s many mobile home parks to see this guy sitting in an easy chair on the front porch. He was drinking from a half quart of Bud. A heavyset guy around 30, he was heavily bundled and wore wrap-around shades and headphones and a ballcap. The mobile home, compared to those all around, was pretty rundown. The man in the easy chair took a while to notice me, but when he did he finished off the half quart, crushed the can, discarded it on the porch, and stood and made his way down the steps toward my cab, a pack strapped onto his back. He entered the back of the cab, settled in, and lowered his headphones to his neck.
    “Take me to a bar,” he said, and pulled the headphones back up.
    “What bar?” I asked. He ignored me, into his music. “WHAT BAR?” I turned and hollared. He lowered his headphones.
    “What bar do you want to go to?”
    “Downtown, chief. Take me downtown.”
    “What bar downtown?”
    “It don’t matter. Anywhere downtown where the bars are. You want a beer? I got one in my backpack.”
    “No thanks. I’m fine.”
    “How about a nip of Schnapps? I got peach.”
    “I’m fine.”
    He replaced the headphones around his ears as I drove out of the park. He smiled distantly and bobbed his head up and down and rocked it from side to side as I drove along, half observing him in my rear-view mirror. I was soon downtown, on Higuera, the main drag, and halted in front of Mother’s Tavern. There were four bars within a few doors of one another.
    “This where you want to go?” I asked. He was just sitting there, smiling to himself, giggling. “IS THIS WHERE YOU WANT TO GO?” I shouted.
    He lowered his headphones to his neck. “What?”
    “Is this where you wanna go?”
    “Yeah, chief. I’ll go in and have a nip. You wait for me. I’ll be right back.”
    He placed the headphones around his ears and got out of the cab before I could tell him I did not want to wait around for him, that he should pay now, and when he wanted a ride later he could call our dis-patcher. He lowered his headphones at the window of my cab and showed me his cell phone. “I’ll call you from the bar,” he explained. “What’s your cell number?”
    “I don’t have a cell phone.”
    “You don't have a cell phone?”
    “No. I hate cell phones.”
    “All the cabbies got cell phones, chief. How come you don’t have one?”
    “I just told you--I hate them. You’re gonna hafta call the dis-patcher. You’re not supposed to call cabbies.”
    But he already had his headphones around his ears and walked into the bar next door to Mother’s, the Library, a less upscale establish-ment. Since there were no rides waiting on this lazy late Sunday after-noon, which is usually a dead time, I did not stress over losing fares, though I did consult a fellow cabbie who held the dispatch phone, and he informed me there would be planes arriving at the airport in half an hour.
    Just as I got my Sunday LA Times crossword puzzle started, my fare came out. He lowered his headphones. “How’s it goin’, chief?” Before I could answer, he lifted the phones to his ears. “I’m goin’ across the street to the Frog and Peach and have a beer,” he announced and commenced weaving across the street, causing cars to either honk, swerve around him, or stop to observe him wobbling into the Frog. I did my crossword for about 10 minutes and then he was at my window, phones down. “How’s it goin’, chief?” he asked.
    “Good...” But the headphones were up as he waltzed into Mother’s. I waited a minute and got out and stood by the door to observe my fare sitting at the bar, conversing and not conversing with a few customers. He would say something, and the person he was talking to started to say something, he lifted the headphones to his ears, and when he had something to say, he lowered them, and then lifted them without waiting for a retort. Finally nobody would talk to him and he was soon back in the cab wanting to go to a neighborhood bar over by the bus station, a mile or so away. The meter was up to $12.
    “I think Mr. Z’s is closed,” I told him.
    He was into his music, smiling distantly, bobbing and rocking.
    “I THINK MISTER Z’S IS CLOSED!” I bellowed as loud as I could, turning to face him.
    He lowered his headphones. “What?”
    “Go there anyway.” He lifted the headphones. I drove there. They were closed. He got out anyway, stood at the door, knocking, peering in, came back, settled in the back seat. “Take me to the Gas Light,” he said, not bothering to lower his headphones. I drove down a residential artery and turned on Broad Street and pulled into a tiny parking lot at the Gas Light. A few sodden characters stood just off the doorway smoking. My fare got out, entered the bar. I waited a while and then went into the darkness of the Gas Light, and there he was, sitting at the bar, talking and not listening, lifting and lowering his headphones. Then he got on his cell phone. Soon our cabbie/dispatcher was consulting me on my company cell phone, wanting to know what the hell was going on with my fare.
    “I’m standing at the door of the Gas Light watching him drink at the bar,” I told him.
    “He says he wants a cab.”
    “He’s already got a goddamn cab! What do you think I’m doing? I’m waiting for this idiot to finish his drink. If he calls you back, hang up on him.”
    “Ten-four,” my dispatcher said disgustedly.
    Soon my fare was in the back seat. Wanted to go to another bar downtown, a few blocks from the bars he’d already been in, about a mile away.
    “I’m sick of driving you around,” I told him. “I’m gonna take you home.”
    But he had the headphones up. I yelled at him. He lowered them. I told him I was driving him home. He begged me to take him to just one more bar, promised a big tip, waved around a wad of twenties.
    “Come on, chief, be cool, huh, good bro’?” He lifted the headphones. I drove him to Bull’s Tavern. He staggered in, came back real soon, lowered the headphones. “The pricks won’t serve me,” he announced. “Goddamn pricks. I spend a lotta money in there. They say I’m drunk. I’m not drunk. They say I’m 86’d. I don’t remember nobody 86’ing me, chief.”
    “Get in. I’ll take you home.”
    He got in, lifted the headphones. “I don’t wanna go home. Take me to McCarthy’s.” He lowered the phones.
    “I’m not taking you to McCarthy’s,” I said. “I’m taking you home.”
    He grinned, bobbing and rocking. I took off down Higuera, in the opposite direction of McCarthy’s. He lowered his headphones. “Hey, chief. McCarthy’s the other way.” He lifted the headphones.
    “I have to go to the end of the block and turn around,” I explained, “because it’s a one-way street. Don’t you know that, you fucking moron. You’ve lived here all your life, and you don’t know what bar’s closed and what bar’s opened, and you don’t know when you’re drunk and not drunk, and you don’t know what bar you’re 86’d from and what bar you’re not 86’d from, and you don’t know the streets…you don’t know your fucking ass from a hole in the ground, you goddamn zombie…how the fuck do you survive…?”
    He rocked and bobbed and smiled distantly until he realized I was hauling ass up Higuera, a mile from downtown, almost to Madonna Road. He lowered his headphones.
    “Where you goin’, chief?”
    “Taking you home, chief.”
    “Bullshit! This is my cab. I rule.”
    “You’re going home, chief. Put your goddamn headphones back around your ears and enjoy the music.”
    “Look, can you take me to my buddy’s house, over on Laurel Lane?”
    “No. That’s across town.”
    “Fuck, man, you’re an asshole! There goes your tip.”
    I swerved into the mobile home park and zipped around, pissing off the residents, and halted at his rundown residence. He was leaf-ing through his wad. The fare was $22. He gave me a twenty, then began carefully counting singles. I snared a bunch from his hand and told him to get out.
    “You’re stealin’ my money, chief. Fuckin’ asshole, man.”
    “Get out, chief. Call your friend on your cell. OUT!”
    “You stole money from me, chief! You’re a thief!”
    I had twenty-eight dollars. I tossed him a single, which he snatched. “Get out, chief. You’re 86’d from this cab.”
    He got out. It took him a while. “I’m reporting you, chief,” he announced. “I’m callin’ the other cabbie. They take good care-a me. I tip ‘em big. You’re a real fuckin’ puke, man.”
    “I’m gonna call the other cabbies and the dispatcher and tell ‘em you’re 86’d, chief, because you’re a fuckin’ puke.”
    I pulled away, chuckling. In my rearview mirror, I saw him with his cell phone, weaving in place, squinting at it through his shades, poking at it with his stubby fingers. §

    Publisher Dell Franklin can be reached at Read more of his Cabby's Corner series here:

  • Ode to Tobias Wolff
  • Sisters from South Central
  • A soldier's story
  • First fare (hair of the dog)
  • href="">The good lawyer

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    Rogue of the month: Casimir Pulaski

    The entire coastline has changed, not just Manhattan and Hermosa. All the little surf havens up and down the coast, like Dana Point and San Clemente and Huntington Beach, anywhere in San Diego, or around Santa Barbara, clear up to San Francisco, they’ve all grown up and become places for the very wealthy and affluent. Even little places like Half Moon Bay.

    ‘I went six feet in the air and came down to see this leviathan with the end of my board in his mouth. …I still see that membrane shutter across his dead black eye.’

    Casimir Pulaski: Vintage surfer

    By Dell Franklin

    Twenty five years ago, at Point Buchon in Montana de Oro State Park, Casimir Pulaski was coming off a small swell and thought his board hit a big rock as he catapulted straight into the air. His surfer partner, Terry Schubert, now a 54-year-old lawyer in San Luis Obispo, thought he saw a whale hit the board. But it wasn’t a whale, it was a 15-foot great white shark, and Pulaski was staring into a membrane shuttering across the black eye of this terrifying man-eating beast.
    “I went six feet in the air and came down to see this leviathan with the end of my board in his mouth,” Pulaski says. “I figured my safest move was to grab and hold onto the other end for dear life, which I did, and I punched at the shark’s head.” He chuckles. “Didn’t do any good. The board finally slipped out of his mouth and I paddled in as fast as I could. My buddy, Terry, was waiting for me. I really didn’t start shaking until I saw him. He was trembling. He saw the whole thing take place. I guess he thought his surfer pal was going to get swallowed by a whale.”

    Photo by Alan Mittelstaedt accompanied the story in the Telegram-Tribune on Casimir’s encounter with a shark. No date available.

    “Cas,” as he’s known locally, learned to surf as a 12-year-old in Hawaii. He lived in Manhattan Beach until he was 19, moving to Cayucos 32 years ago. He has won numerous local surfing contests and one in Hawaii. He is looked upon in Cayucos as an institution, and on the Central Coast as one of the legitimate originals, an old pro who knows the spots, knows how to get out to the big stuff, and can handle it.
    Cas is not of the surf culture propagated by the Beach Boys band back in the 1960s. He isn’t of the stereotypical surfer apparel, the vernacular, the peripheral trappings of the sport. He is about straight surfing. If he walked into a bar, he’d say: “I’ll take my surfing straight up, no mixer, just a board and a wave.”
    Cas has his own casual house painting business and puts in his 40 hours a week, which enables him to still live in a simple but affordable beach residence and find time to surf after work and on weekends, and, if the waves are big, to take a day or a week or even a month off anywhere between Foller’s Point up in Big Sur to the pristine beaches off Baja. He has paddled on his board from the Ithmus on Catalina Island to the Manhattan Beach pier (26 miles) in 8 hours and 45 minutes. At 51, he can still swim several miles in rough seas. In 1978, he was a lifeguard in his town of choice, Cayucos.

    —Dell Franklin

    Rogue Voice: As a young guy down south, did you aspire to the surfing lifestyle as a way of life throughout your lifetime?
    Casimir Pulaski: Not intentionally. It was like a dream, though. You go along, surfinq, traveling to places down south and up north to surf, you work to support your passion, and it ends up, at 51, you’re living your dream, your lifestyle, doing what you want to do, not taking orders from anybody, and I’m still doing it, and I guess I’ll keep on doing it as long as I can.
    RV: Recently, I’ve talked to guys who’ve traveled as far as the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, and to Malaysia. They stay on boats, eat gourmet meals, surf all day, for a week or two, and come home. That was unheard of 30 years ago. How has surfing changed and grown?
    CP: It’s become a huge business and culture thing. I’m not part of it. With me, it’s always been the same, no change. I go down to Mexico and I go up north, and there’s plenty of good surf up here. Most of the small towns that were surf havens have changed. When I was down south in Hermosa/Manhattan Beach, back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, it was not upscale, it was still funky, and there were five or six surf shops along the main drag, and you could live right on the beach for very little, and not have to work that hard or that long, so you could devote most of your time to surfing. Now, nobody can live down there like you could in those times and find time to surf unless you’re extremely wealthy.
    RV: Being wealthy doesn’t go with the territory, does it?
    CP: No. But the entire coastline has changed, not just Manhattan and Hermosa. All the little surf havens up and down the coast, like Dana Point and San Clemente and Huntington Beach, anywhere in San Diego, or around Santa Barbara, clear up to San Francisco, they’ve all grown up and become places for the very wealthy and affluent. Even little places like Half Moon Bay.
    RV: Has the ocean changed? I remember going to Huntington Beach as a kid, and you’d get ready to ride a wave, and there’d be a school of tiny fish glinting in the sunlight. You could see your feet.
    CP: Everything along this coast is dirtier. You’ve got to go down to Mexico to see the really clear water again.
    RV: What’s unique about Cayucos?
    CP: It’s still hanging on. It’s the last outpost. There’s a few places like it on the north coast, above San Francisco. But from San Diego to San Francisco, I think Cayucos is isolated, though it’s changed, and it's changing fast now, but I can still find myself a little place that’s not too expensive, and I can make it on my 40-plus hours and have plenty of time to surf, to drive around to my spots, like Spooner’s Cove in Montana De Oro, or Leffingwell off of Cambria, and around here, in Cayucos.
    RV: What happens to the die-hard surfers of your generation who can’t afford to live here, or other beach cities?
    CP: A lot of those guys have gone down to Mexico. There’s good surf all the way down to the tip of Baja, and there’s guys living and surfing all up and down that coast, secluded spots, all to themselves. Living the life. But even a place like Ensenada is changing. They’re building housing tracts down there. A lot of American money. I was just down at Scorpion Bay, north of Insurgentes. I spent three weeks down there. In time, those places will grow and change, too, I suppose.
    RV: After that shark attack, do you ever get squeamish about surfing by yourself?
    CP: I still go out by myself. I’m fine with it.
    RV: Where do you find the biggest waves? Or the best?
    CP: Always the northwest facing beaches. Up above Eureka, at Patrick’s Point and Mouse Rock, I’ve climbed my leash a few times. It can get pretty rough.
    RV: Is there an element of fear when you look out there at those monster sets rolling in, and hear the thunder when they crash?
    CP: Oh yeah. That’s part of the fun, though, the rush. It’s the fear. That's when my brain gets its cocktail of drugs.
    RV: When you’re riding those big ones, what’s the best part of the deal?
    CP: The drop. (He grins).
    RV: Down south, you hear about the territorialism of surfers, fighting over waves. I’ve heard about it in Pismo Beach. Have you encountered much of that?
    CP: Not really. Everybody practiced good etiquette down south, where I grew up, and guys are pretty cool here, too.
    RV: When I was a kid, growing up down south, I was a ball player, and every time I went past a park and saw kids playing ball, I felt this enormous rush of excitement. I couldn’t wait to get in the game. My lungs literally filled with joy. Do you get that same joyous feeling when you get off work and see the good waves rolling in at the pier?
    CP: Absolutely. Nothing’s changed. You stay a little boy with that. I get the same rush. If the surf is great up, say, at Foller’s Point, the Big Sur, off Nepenthe, I’ll drive up there.
    RV: Do you expect to end up down in Mexico, surfing as an old man?
    CP: I’ll always go down there, because of the great weather, but I don’t think I’ll end up there. Quite a while back I bought a piece of land way up north, on the Humboldt/Mendocino county line, at Shelter Cove, which is just south of Petrolia, a really isolated spot. Sooner or later I’ll end up there, either building something, or living in some kind of temporary shack.
    RV: Do you ever think about that shark?
    CP: I still see that membrane shutter across his dead black eye. §

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    Hooligans on the Hill

    Freedom isn’t free, and the price you pay for freedom nowadays is more inconvenience, Personal searches and invasions of your privacy.

    I like to hold out hope that there’s at least one decent lawmaker or public servant on Capitol Hill who still abides by the spirit of the Charters of Freedom.
    (Photo illustration by Stacey Warde)

    Hooligans on the Hill
    Cops everywhere and not a crook in sight

    By Stacey Warde

    In Washington, D.C. last month I expected to see hooligans on every corner. What I saw, instead, were cops stationed at intersections, on sidewalks, on the Capitol Building steps and on the White House rooftop. In fact, cops stood on every corner.
    Aside from observing how fetching and easy these targets would be for a sniper, I reasoned that all the hooligans must be inside somewhere, protected by the heavily armed and uniformed police presence.
    Capitol Police and security guards were everywhere, and not a criminal in sight.
    Not that it made me feel any safer. While crossing an access street to the Capitol Building from Pennsylvania Avenue, for example, Amber and I were forced to dodge a jeep that swerved into the crosswalk we occupied as it attempted to pass slow-moving traffic on the right.
    A squad car with patrolman sat parked at the opposite end of the crosswalk, under some trees, right where the jeep had to turn back into the slow lane to avoid crashing into the parked squad car. We waited for the patrolman to turn on his lights and make quick pursuit. Yet, he stayed put, not moving an inch.
    Cop must have better things to do, I reasoned, like ensuring our lawmakers can safely pursue pageboys, like protecting treasonous politicians who vote to eliminate habeas corpus from the law books, or maybe he was just too busy reading a comic book.
    In any event, I learned quickly that, as far as law enforcement goes, you’re pretty much on your own in D.C.
    Getting around the Hill was easy, though, and taverns like the “Hawk and Dove,” and “Capitol Hill Lounge” were welcoming and eager to serve drinks. The best thing about them was we could walk through the doors without being molested and frisked by screeners with wands from the Department of Homeland Security.
    Every entrance to federal buildings, however, required visitors to unload their pockets, remove belts and buckles, shoes, wallets, purses, anything that might trigger the alarm at each screening station before entering the building. The security personnel, weary of hearing themselves speak, bark their orders: “Step this way! Remove your shoes! Take off your hat!”
    Going to see our government officials, I observed, is much less dignified than walking into the local tavern for a shot of whiskey and a beer, where the only thing they want to see is your money.
    Freedom isn’t free, and the price you pay for freedom nowadays is more inconvenience, personal searches and invasions of your privacy.
    Nonetheless, I felt it worthwhile to brave the undignified search of my person to visit several federal buildings like the Library of Congress and the National Archives, where you can find vestiges of the things that once made the United States a dignified nation.
    While standing in line to enter the National Archives, where the “quaint” Constitution of the United States and other documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights rest protected from hooligans and the ravages of time, I turned to see a man behind me with a four-inch tall tattoo around the front of his neck, the kind you see on ex-cons. Maybe this guy’s a hooligan, I wondered, definitely not a Washington politician.
    I didn’t want him to think I was giving him “the stare,” so I snuck a prolonged peek at the fresh tattoo, being careful not to stir the pot, or upset the guy’s sense of pride. In the same deep black stylistic Copperplate lettering used to pen the original Constitution of the United States, carefully woven from ear to ear around his throat, were the words: “We the People.”
    “I got it just for this trip,” he said smiling, his head held high. The dark letters around his throat were ringed with fiery red skin inflamed from the recent touch of a tattoo artist’s hand. His pregnant wife stood by his side, beaming; their young daughter clambered beside them, eager to get inside, past the screeners for a peek at their nation’s—and perhaps’ the world’s—greatest testaments to human freedom.
    “That’s great,” I croaked with a smile, awed by his commitment, but left wondering what kind of person would do something like that. He seemed happy, and eager to see the original, “We the People.”
    “Goddamn, that’s some balls,” I thought to myself as I turned to face the security screeners and looked down at my own lame political statement, attributed to Thomas Jefferson, printed across my T-shirt: “Dissent is the best form of patriotism.”
    After another exasperating search and security screening before viewing the “Charters of Freedom” in the rotunda, I realized the hooligans on the Hill were most likely ensconced in their offices within the protected interiors of these very same and similar federal buildings, where visitors are seldom allowed, except by appointment.
    I knew the hooligans were here in D.C. because I’d been reading about them in the newspapers. And on the street, at home and among friends, I know that crooks occupy our highest offices because the general consensus goes something like this: “We oughta horsewhip those bastards, every last one of them, and run them out of office. They’re ALL crooks.”
    I like to hold out hope that there’s at least one decent lawmaker or public servant on Capitol Hill who still abides by the spirit of the Charters of Freedom, even if they have become so faded that you can barely read them—and have, through the current administration’s malignant treatment of them, become almost “quaint,” as Attorney General Alberto Gonzales so nicely put it. I like to think there’s at least one person in our nation’s highest offices who sincerely believes that his or her job is to promote the “general Welfare,” not just the interests of the wealthy, and whose task is to help “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” not just for the privileged few.
    And I would agree that any public servant who fails to do these things ought to be horsewhipped and run out of office. We the People have had enough of hooligans on the Hill. §

    Stacey Warde is editor of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at

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    Hilarious drunks? Forgive me for not laughing

    As an emergency physician who uses humor to cope with stress, there is one subject that I cannot joke about, cannot take lightly, and find clearly and distinctly unfunny: That subject is drunks.

    Our alcohol drenched society, and our acceptance of its lethal and painful consequences, fractured my funny bone a long time ago.

    Hilarious drunks?
    Forgive me for not laughing

    By Dr. Steven Sainsbury

    Ask those people who are close to me, and they will tell you that I have a great sense of humor. I love jokes, remember them easily and tell them well. I love to laugh and smile. Having worked more than 20 years as full-time emergency physician, I have learned to use humor to cope with the stress and tragedies that surround me on a regular basis. But with all due respect to my friend Dell Franklin (publisher of the Rogue Voice), there is one subject that I cannot joke about, cannot take lightly, and find clearly and distinctly unfunny: That subject is drunks.
    San Luis Obispo County is awash in drunkenness. And I don’t mean the homeless alcoholic, living beneath the freeway overpass, scrounging every day for a daily fifth of hard liquor. Even though we have plenty of those. And I don’t mean the sad, “functional” drunks whose lives revolve around their daily descent into an alcoholic oblivion as their pitiful lives slowly but inexorably evaporate into a hepatotoxic hell.
    Instead, I think of the Cal Poly coed who binge drinks after midterms. This is the same person who hours earlier meticulously calculated her engineering problems to the tenth decimal point, but fails to consider, for even a moment, the huge cost that her drunkenness will impose on her future.
    Jane is a straight-A engineering student who went out bar hopping and binge drinking with her girlfriends on Saturday night after a grueling week of midterms. By 11 p.m. she was grossly intoxicated, and could barely walk without falling. Nonetheless, she managed to hook up with a new acquaintance at one of the downtown bars, and left with him. Her so-called friends were so drunk themselves that they allowed her to leave with a total stranger. I met Jane later the next night in the ER. She had awakened earlier that Sunday afternoon, hung over, achy, and miserable. But even worse, she woke up naked, her tampon pushed up against her cervix, and knew immediately that she had obviously had sexual intercourse with the stranger she had met the night before. Yet Jane had no idea who he was, where he lived, or how he could be found. Tearful and fearful, she came into the ER to be tested for STDs, pregnancy and AIDS.
    I also think of the SLO professional, who attended four years of college and another four years of postgraduate training. A smart, well-educated fellow, he must have slept through that day in biology class when they discussed the effect of alcohol on judgment and hand-to-eye coordination.
    John, a middle-aged, married father of two, attended a barbeque one evening, along with several of his friends. Carelessly, he drank too much and decided to drive home. Soon thereafter, he lost control of his vehicle, injuring himself and killing his front seat passenger. His blood alcohol of 0.18, coupled with his subsequent felony manslaughter conviction, landed him in prison. In addition to losing his freedom, he lost his business and professional license. He killed his friend, destroyed his family, and tossed aside his happiness as quickly as he had guzzled down the original 12-pack of Budweiser.
    I think of the young father who started drinking with friends while in college, then continued the same pattern as he developed his business in San Luis Obispo. Always limiting his drinking to social occasions, he scoffed at the notion that he had a problem with alcohol. After all, he was successful at work, had a wonderful wife and family, and was in superb physical shape. Even his golf game was steadily improving.
    Nonetheless, Ted’s golf game began to suffer as the daily toll of social drinking escalated in his life. Ten years after moving to San Luis Obispo, Ted was fired from the national company that had employed him since college for his unreliability and lack of productivity. His long-suffering wife, weary of his increasingly frequent drunken binges, filed for divorce. His children soon began to dread the court-ordered visitations, which became less and less frequent. Within just a few years, Ted had several outstanding alcohol-related warrants, a series of failed jobs, no money, no home, no driver’s license, no wife or family, and his health was failing. His life and golf game were in shambles with no hope on the horizon.
    Most readers see a drunk staggering out of the bar and laugh at his silly attempts to walk without falling. I see a drunk who will come to see me in the ER in an hour or two, because he actually will fall, whereupon I will spend an hour sewing up his face, trying to ignore his vomit-laced beer breath that permeates my clothing and breathing space. Or worse, I will see his wife for a broken jaw and blackened eye because she dared to complain about his drunkenness: Loads of laughs, those staggering drunks.
    Many of you, as you hear your friends lament about getting arrested with a DUI, console them as if they were some type of victim. Your friend’s huge fines, loss of license, and mandatory probation time invoke feelings of sympathy and compassion. Not for me. Those who drink and drive, every single one, instill in me only feelings of anger and disgust. You see, I look at your same drunk driver friend and see a potential (or actual) murderer—someone who willingly takes a multi-ton weapon and propels it at 60 or 70 miles per hour at anyone who is unfortunate enough to be in their path. Small child, pregnant mother, and frail grandparent—it makes no difference. The drunk driver will plow them all down equally, without so much as a blink of their eye. Twenty years of washing the congealed blood of maimed and dying bodies off my scrubs has removed all trace of sympathy for anyone who so recklessly endangers the lives of total strangers: Yep, real knee-slappers, those drunk drivers.
    Consider the following statistics—just try to control your laughter.
    Alcohol is a significant factor in 40 percent of all automobile accidents, and responsible for about half of all drowning, fatal falls, and house fires.
    More facts to chuckle over: Alcohol is involved in 2/3 of homicides, half of all rapes and domestic violence cases, and more than 80 percent of campus crimes. Additionally, the use of alcohol is implicated in a large percentage of divorces, suicides, and regretted sexual activity leading to sexually transmitted diseases, AIDS and unwanted pregnancies.
    So you see, our alcohol drenched society, and our acceptance of its lethal and painful consequences, fractured my funny bone a long time ago. Work with me for just one shift on a typical night in the ER and you’ll probably quit laughing also. §

    Dr. Steven Sainsbury is an emergency physician who works in San Luis Obispo County. He can be reached at

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    A bachelor's anthem

    Old bachelors buckle down in their separateness, their singleness, tuning out the relationship maelstrom. Set in our ways, we learn to savor our solitary time and forbid all intruders. We want company, sure, but only when we want it.

    My girlfriend of more than 12 years and I broke up over a year ago and I have found no one to replace her, nor have I tried, so I went and did the next best thing—I got a dog.

    A bachelor’s anthem
    One man’s view on dating after 50

    Editor’s note: Readers may recognize the following story, which first appeared as “The bachelor’s anthem” in the New Times where Stacey Warde met Dell Franklin and ran the piece on the opinion page. The essay elicted lively responses, and even got Dell a date at the local saloon.

    By Dell Franklin

    I read with interest and amusement a local woman’s report on the malaise of the 50-and-older crowd partaking in the dating game, or the act of attempting to find a new companion.
    After reading Susan Stewart’s article, “After 50, dating’s easy…right?", I had to tell the other side.
    The truth has always been that if you go out looking for somebody you’ll never find them and if you’re not looking for somebody—when single you’re always looking for somebody—and just stumbling along in a fog, you just might accidentally happen upon the right person; to me, the odds of this success after 50 years of dating age are 100 to 1 against. My best friend down south, a bookie, verified these odds.
    I am 60 in a couple of weeks and my girlfriend of more than 12 years and I broke up over a year ago and I have found no one to replace her (she has), nor have I tried, so I went and did the next best thing—I got a dog. This dog is never disappointed with my lack of consideration, my being judgmental and opinionated, my self-centered rigidity in doing only what I want to do, because he is the same way, though not as jaded, for he is still a pup and not as annealed as I am by six decades of dealing with the obstacles of life, all of which become more oppressive when they are being constantly influenced by women, or the lack of women.
    I have been a lifetime bachelor, bartender, and non-believer. I lived with three different women, all of whom, remarkably, have recovered and are better off for it. The first two left me because I was a drunk and a hopeless philanderer who seemed unwilling and incapable of mending his ways and was oblivious to a woman’s emotional needs. About this I am not the least bit proud, and for such swinish behavior I accept my comeuppance of being alone as I approach 60.
    I’ve never been happier, I peep at the dating ads in newspapers and chortle at these poor groping souls, most of whom were at one time terrible husbands and wives, or else good husbands and wives ruined by terrible husbands and wives, and I see a devastated battleground so dangerously mined by past traumas and tragedies that only a lunatic would tread upon it.
    I can understand how comparatively normal peo-ple who have divorced might feel the painful depths of loneliness and unfulfilled hunger and being stranded and helpless, because they are used to going through their paces day in and day out over a period of decades with another person beside them in bed, at the dinner table, in the car, in the movie theater, at parties with friends and relatives on birthdays and holidays, and then suddenly the are alone with a book or TV and the friends are still married, and so parties are unbearable, and movies are no fun not to share and discuss, and everything becomes so much harder; it’s too late to get used to being alone, and desperation and despair settles in and grips one like a vise.
    So one can truly sympathize with folks who answer dating ads, primp, try on clothes, fret over deteriorating visages and bodies. rehearse lines, suffer the indignity and hell of the anticipation of both disappointing and being disappointed—like giving your first speech in front of a class—before meeting the blind date, the disembodied telephone voice of a potential leper.
    It’s a wasteland out there. Emotionally, as we grow older, we become so shell-shocked and bedraggled we sometimes don’t know whether we’re coming or going. And nothing takes it out of you like a failed relationship. It hurts at 15 (but there is always tomorrow), but hurts worse at 50. I have a 64-year-old pal down south who says it hurt worse than ever at 63, so much so he considered cashing it in.
    What really helps me burrow through this morass is my unrepentant selfishness, which, over the years, has proved a blessing. Old bachelors buckle down in their separateness, their singleness, tuning out the relationship maelstrom. Set in our ways, we learn to savor our solitary time and forbid all intruders. We want company, sure, but only when we want it. We do what we want to do, when we want to do it. Our opinions are unas-sailable and our patterns and regimens seldom out of sync, and when they are threatened or broken there’s no telling how disgracefully we might react. If you see us drinking by ourselves in a bar, don’t feel bad—somebody will talk to us; usually a guy in the same boat. If you see us eating breakfast alone at the local diner, book or newspaper propped up, don’t feel sorry for us, because we like our paper more than live company, period. Fact of the matter, most guys either don’t know how to talk to women, don’t want to talk to women, or are afraid of women, and this goes on an entire lifetime. This is why we bluster and are pains in the asses and created a confused modern woman.
    My only advice to 50ish women seeking dates and male companionship is to get together with the ladies in your same predicament. Compare notes. Jeer and gossip about the frailties of man and look your best and ignore them at all costs. Go see Deepak Chopra and Dr. Wayne Dyer and seek emotional clarity through exercise bikes and admit neurosis, which can mostly be attributed to men. Amen. Time to walk the dog.
    P.S. Knowing there are eligible ladies out there of any age, I am willing to admit that although I am well-read, well-traveled, and an excellent cook who is in perfect physical condition, I am also, at this point, jobless, near broke, most likely unemployable, existing on pittance, and possess absolutely no ambition. However, if there is an exceptionally foolhardy, delu-sional woman out there with a history of poor judgment, is good looking, can laugh at failure and weakness has no religious affiliation, has the poten-tial to become an interesting saloon companion, can afford to spring for the occasional round, likes her sex in moderation—without romantic adornments, and preferably while somewhat intoxicated—I am in the phone book. §

    Rogue Voice publisher Dell Franklin can also be reached by email at

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    Publisher's note * Catch-22: Revisited

    He is an entrepreneur so ruthless he deprives his fellow soldiers of fresh food, new equipment, even parachutes to horrified pilots and crewmen preparing to jump chuteless from burning planes.

    Milo has high-ranking officers, pol-iticians and corporate giants in his pocket, seeing war solely as an opportunity to get rich, while the common soldier is expendable, mere cannon fodder.

    Catch-22: Revisited
    A story with leaders not unlike today’s vultures running the war in Iraq

    By Dell Franklin

    The course of recent events in both America and the world leads one to believe it is time to either read, or re-read the novel, “Catch--22,” a scathing mixture of satire, irony and farce that has no peer in 20th-century literature in its depiction of the follies and tragedies of humankind. No writer combined the darkest depths of chilling, Dostoevsky-like reality and the modern cinematic zaniness of the Marx brothers like its author, Joseph Heller. Published in 1961, this book was possibly more poignant to me because I did not read it as a re-bellious, impressionable college student, but as an Army PFC stationed thousands of miles from home, more or less curtained off from the goings on in America and elsewhere.
    I remember troops coming over to my bunk as I roared with belly laughter, wanting to know WHAT I was reading. A comedy? Not exactly. I had difficulty explaining that the book was a lot of things: anti--war tract, morality play, lesson on human nature, black comedy, dynamic stylistic originality, stream-of-consciousness sentences in some sections so overwhelming and at times surreal that I had to re-read them several times—for meaning, depth and general awe of such genius wordsmithing. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a more disturbing and inspiring book, nor one as entertaining.
    Almost every character (taken from WWII) has a stunning resemblance to members of today’s administration, government and military forces. Colonel Cathcart, the blustery, intimidating, incompetent leader of a bomber base on a tiny island in the Mediterranean Sea, perfectly fits the swashbuckling, gunslinger image of President Bush as he parrots the advice and decisions of his immediate subordinate, Lt. Col. Korn, a heartless, Machiavellian Dick Cheney. When pilots and bomber squadron crewmen are long past their limit of dan-gerous, deadly missions over Italy (guys go down every mission, little by little) and are slated to go home, these two men in conjunction raise the number over and over (like today’s American troops getting extended and doing multiple stints in Iraq) until they are at the breaking point—crazed, depressed, suicidal, and, like the novel’s hero and pro-tagonist, Yossarian, thinking up ways to get in the hospital and stay in the hospital, and, best of all, deserting. The overall feeling of powerlessness and fear in these men sparks irrational behavior that is the crux of the story (foreshadowing the torture at Abu Ghraib?).
    All the while, Lt. Milo Minderbinder (who reminds us of war profiteering vultures like the ones from Halliburton) goes to extremes to make money off anybody on or near base—in the Army, in the war theater and in surrounding countries. He is an entrepreneur so ruthless he deprives his fellow soldiers of fresh food, new equipment, even parachutes to horrified pilots and crewmen preparing to jump chuteless from burning planes (similar to the lack of armor plates for combat vehicles and body armor for combat troops in Iraq) to make a profit. In collusion with officers like Cathcart and Korn, he even bombs and strafes his own air base, killing his own men! Milo has high-ranking officers, pol-iticians and corporate giants in his pocket, seeing war solely as an opportunity to get rich, while the common soldier is expendable, mere cannon fodder.
    Amidst all this, Cathcart and Korn are handing out loyalty oaths to be signed by all those stationed on the base, and threatens them with more missions and even personal disaster if they don’t sign (like the calling of Americans as traitors if they protest the Iraq war.)
    Sinister CID agents keep tabs on everybody on base: Yossarian’s best line comes near the end of the book when an altruistic fellow officer, Major Danby, tries to parry his increasing, demented cynicism: “I see people cashing in…on every decent impulse and every human tragedy” (Bush using 9/11 over and over again for political gain).
    When Yossarian, who has visited the hospital previously on fake illnesses to get out of missions, comes back from an especially gory and grisly flight in which a young gunner, Snowden, disgorges his entire insides after getting shot, he refuses to fly any more and takes off all his clothes (which are saturated with Snowden’s blood and intestines) and sits naked on a tree limb, refusing to come down.
    Everybody knows Yossarian is crazy now. But being so crazy that he does not want to fly any more missions means he’s sane, according to Army psychiatrists, and this catch is Catch-22. The other catch is if you want to fly missions you’re even crazier, and more power to you. Go fly those missions, like a good soldier.
    Milo Minderbinder, who has expanded his largess into a vast conglomerate called M & M Enterprises, tries to lure Yossarian out of the tree with some chocolate covered cotton, which Yossarian spits out. He tries to bribe Yossarian (through Cathcart and Korn, who do not want to look bad to the top brass), and Yossarian finally seals a deal (after chickening out and turning tail on a mission) where they make him a hero and pin a medal on him while he remains nude. (This is reminiscent of Bush pinning medals on two abysmal failures in Iraq—George Tenant and Paul Bremer.)
    The book is rich with multiple characters, plots, intrigues, themes. Descriptions of bombing missions are hair-raising, as if the misery inflicted both savagely and traumatically on Italy and its civilian citizens. There are characters like Major Major who is made a major because the Army doesn’t know what to do with him (he’s woe-fully incompetent), and, since his name is Major Major, why not name him Major Major Major? Nobody leading this fiasco has the slightest concept of reality, or idea of what is going on. As the insanity, death, fractured morale spirals out of control, Cathcart and Korn continue their disastrous strategy as well as their barrage of intimidation and propaganda and outright lying as they torture their own men, increasing the missions.
    In the end, when Yossarian is prepared to desert, the well mean-ing Major Danby, trying to stop him, answers Yossarian’s accusation that people are “cashing in on every decent impulse and human tragedy.”
    “But you must try not to think about that,” Danby insists. “And you must try not to let it upset you.”
    “Oh, it doesn’t really upset me,” Yossarian answers. “What does upset me, though, is they think I’m a sucker. They think that they’re smart, and the rest of us are dumb. And you know, Danby, the thought occurs to me right now, for the first time., that maybe they’re right.”
    “But you must try not to think of that, too,” argued Danby. “You must think only of the welfare of your country and the dignity of man.”
    “Yeah,” Yossarian said.
    A minute later he deserts. §

    Publisher Dell Franklin can be reached at

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