Saturday, May 28, 2011

Wobbly times number 116

Choices come
We make them
We could have made others
We measure them against the Ideal of Perfection
We rue the day
we made this or that choice
because we have not encountered our mind's Paragon as yet
Must be our fault

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Wobbly times number 115

That we need to organise for ourselves, for a classwide strike against wage-slavery is NOT mentioned in this documentary. As Jim Morrison so aptly put it, "You cannot petition the Lord with prayer."

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Wobbly times number 114


It wasn’t the best of times nor the worst of times. It was 1963. History in the U.S. was being moved from the tragedy of legalized segregation to the farce of defacto segregation and in the world at large the colonialist past was being transformed into the neo-colonialist present. The challenge of the Cuban Revolution was daily being turned into another Communist threat by the dominant political ideologues. “Listening for the new told lies”, most of us just believed.

I was living in a village of about 200 people in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Harford township included an area encompassing 33 square miles and another thousand or so people, mostly family farmers. My step-father worked at Sears in the medium sized city of Binghamton, about thirty miles north. Some of the others who lived in Harford also commuted to work, some to Scranton about thirty miles to the south. Others made their living in various ways, many quarrying the locally abundant flagstone.

I was a high school student. My classmates and I had travelled to The Big Apple in our junior year and would see the nation’s capital during our senior trip to D.C. We were being educated, sometimes very intensely in matters such as: solid geometry, the dissection of frogs, Silas Mariner, memorizing the Gettysburg Address and how to play basketball.

Subjects like philosophy, the nature of political power and any critique of the political-economy we lived in were, for all intents and purposes, entirely ignored by our teachers. Once the daily ritual of reciting the “pledge-allegiance” had been droned through, we got on with life, as most of us would after we graduated. As is the case today in every nation in the world, we Americans were enlightened both in school and out of it by people who reflected each other’s values. Others, if any, had no audible voice. The school boards of America made sure of that and Harford was no exception. Philosophy was left to the impressions which Sunday School stories made on us at the First Congregational Church and to the weekly sermons by Reverend Williams as we got older. Religion was as close to understanding our relation to the world and to other human beings as we’d ever get.

Politically speaking, most folks in Harford voted Republican, although there were a few renegade Democrats, one a family of Catholics and the other composed of a family who never went to church. In sophisticated circles, it was said that Democrats were more likely to favour public ownership of the utilities, whereas Republicans weren’t so inclined. That was the highest level to which political observation got in Harford. Of course, hatred of anything smacking of the “Communist threat” was taken for granted. Americans were NOT going to become slaves of brutal bureaucrats. Life was good, as it should be in the land of the free and home of the brave. That much was obvious to us all. Episodes of “Industry on Parade” broadcast on WNBF extolled the clean, good hearted nature of our economic system. Also shown on channel 12 was “The Big Picture”, a production of the U.S. Army which graphically demonstrated how our strong military protected us from the menace posed to us by the Communist countries.

Thus, we were educated. And by the time we were ready to graduate from high school, we were ready to take our places in society. As much media and authority as possible was focussed on our President Kennedy telling us not to ask what our country could do for us, but to ask what we could do for our country. Eisenhower’s farewell address, warning of the power of the military-industrial complex was either unknown or had been dropped down the memory hole in the haze of the first five minutes after the corporate TV evening news. Details which had been brought to us by John Cameron Swayze, Huntley and Brinkley were always lost in the trail of alpha waves which led to prime time TV. After all, as Dinah Shore told us at the end of her Chevy sponsored shows, “America’s the greatest land of all.” And most of us, just took this aphorism for granted.

Harford, like so many other burgs of that day and this, was pretty much sealed (“like tuna sandwich with the wrapper glued” Frank Zappa quote) in terms of any substantial play of diverse ideas. So, when it came to deciding whether to go to college or go into the military, political and/or philosophical questions did not enter my mind, nor did they enter most any male’s mind in terms of contemplating what to do about military service. We were “babes in the woods”and the flower of American youth was essentially free for the asking from the military. The draft existed and according to the constantly conveyed common sense of that time and place, you had to go “in” sooner or later. That fact was accepted, as much as the fact that everyone was either Protestant or Catholic. The advantage to going in first was that you were able to choose which service to be in; otherwise, it was the Army, most likely becoming a foot soldier. My dad had been in France in the Army in ‘44, so it wasn’t totally out of the question. But you got “training” (if you qualified after you were in). That option was offered only to those who enlisted. Plus, there was the extra, added advantage of becoming eligible to be paid to go to college for four years after you got out–the GI Bill.

I didn’t realize how badly I had been lied to. Well, not lied to, but only told partial truths. After all, the educators had themselves not been philosophically, politically or critically educated about how the system actually worked. And, if they had been and had attempted to educate us in the same way, they’d have lost their jobs pronto. I hadn’t even been told about deferments, a ploy which would serve many of my future college mates well, until Nixon ended the draft to stop the anti-War movement. An ex-Marine and Jack Webb’s movie, “The DI” impressed me. I figured that I could escape the idiocies of rural life and complete my rite of passage to adulthood plus pay for college myself (as opposed to depending on my parents) by becoming a Marine. I joined the Marine Corps fresh out of high school in June of that year.

Mike Ballard
MOS 3516
(Military Occupational Specialty, 3516=Mechanic)

"When you came home from the World War, you marched along Fifth Avenue, great heavy masses of men, all your feet moving together, one objective, one cause, all swaying back and forth as you went along. You were a unit. All the people of America applauded. But on the second day they disbanded you and they said, 'To hell with you' because you were then individuals and politically the soldiers never amounted to anything."

Smedley Butler speech to Bonus Army, 1933

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Wobbly times number 113

Dogs and Kids & Kids and Dogs

I had lived mostly in warm states up until when we moved to Pennsylvania. The “we” were my mom, my little brother and I. We moved to Harford to be with my grandma and grandpa because my dad died. He got run over by a car when he was crossing the street in Monterey. I guess, he didn’t look both ways or something. I never really knew. It had been a rainy night, when he got run over. Maybe, it was just an accident. That’s what everybody said. It was pretty tough, getting pulled out of school and all. Then there were all those adults looking at me in strange ways and me, just wanting my dad back.

It was winter time in Pennsylvania. The snow was extra white and cold enough to freeze your brain. I don’t think that there were more than a hundred people living in Harford all together. They were mostly farmers or people who had something to do with farming. Back in those days, a lot of people in Pennsylvania made their living by milking cows, growing corn and other vegetables. But as it was winter, not many people did much growing of anything. They stayed mostly inside their homes, unless they had to go out and milk the cows or clean the cow barns. Yikes! Cow barns could be really smelly. Sometimes the farmers would go be in their wind-leaky barns trying to fix their tractors and plows and all that farm gear-- after they’d cleaned out the cow poop, of course. Lots of machinery had to be patched up because it got used so hard during growing season.

Staying inside was hard for me. I was a kid. Like most kids, I had ants in my pants. I just wanted to go outside and play. The adults were always talking about boring stuff. I sometimes wondered if they ever played or had fun.

I had just moved to Pennsylvania from a state with real sun. Pennsylvania’s sun looked like a flashlight when it was out. Most times it hid behind grey skies of thick, swirling clouds. In California and before that in Kentucky, I’d play in my

Kentucky, that was where my brother was born. He was really young by the time we got to Pennsylvania. I think maybe he was one.

I used to run around with my friends all day on the Army bases that we lived on in California and Kentucky. The last one was in Monterey, California. But in Harford, in the winter, you had to really bundle up, sometimes, you even had to wear a snowsuit to be able to go outside.

I hated being all wrapped up in a snowsuit. They were made of wool and they stank like a wet dog when they got damp. They were always so bulky. When they got wet from melting snow, they’d get heavier and heavier. Mine used to feel like I had a sheep on my back. It sure made it hard to run around and play with that thing on. As any kid knows, play is the thing.

With the snowsuit, I had to wear this funny looking cap on my head. It was wool on the outside with sheepskin or maybe it was imitation sheepskin on the inside and had these giant flaps which came down over my ears to keep them from getting frozen, ‘cause they’d fall off, if they got frozen. My gran said that. When people talked to me with my flaps down, they sounded like they were talking into pillows.

The snowsuit made me look pretty funny, if you ask me. You even had to wear mittens with it. Mittens made your hands turn into two fingered claws. You could hardly pick up anything with them on.

The last part of the snowsuit outfit were the rubber boots. I liked the rubber boots. They kept my feet from getting wet and they weren’t that heavy. The best thing was, they didn’t stink like the wool things did when they got wet.

California had a lot more cars than Pennsylvania. It was a lot warmer too. Well, usually it was warmer, at least, when it didn’t rain.

We had only gotten to Harford and as I said, it was winter. It was after January 8. I know that because that was my birthday. My mom and I had taken an airplane to Harford. It was a red and white TWA Constellation. It had propellers just like an American Eagle.

I was pretty sad what with my dad dying and all. I’m sure, you can understand. So, my mom promised to get me a dog when we got to Pennsylvania and true to her word, I got one the second week I was in Harford.

He was a medium size dog with black and white fur. I had a clock in my bedroom which I had gotten on one of my birthdays in Japan. Yes, I also had lived way up north in Hokkaido, Japan. There was plenty of snow there. But anyway, this clock had a little dog on it which looked very much like my new dog, Spot.

I called my new dog Spot because he had black spots on his white fur, just like the one on the Japanese dog clock. His ears were black terrier kind of pointy ones that flopped just a little at the tips. His nose was black as well. Spot always had a nice, wet, cold nose. If it got dry, you knew he was sick. That’s what my mom said.

Spot and I got along famously, right from the start. He always came when I called him. My grandpa was able to teach him to sit up on his hind legs too. Grandpa would sit down in a chair and hold up a dog biscuit. Then Spot would raise himself up on his butt with his tail back behind him flat on the floor to help him balance. He’d wave his two front paws towards grandpa until he got the biscuit.

Spot convinced me that he was a pretty smart dog. You could see a look of fair play when he watched you with his black dog eyes. He always really wanted you to be around to run and stuff. Spot was my first friend and one of my best friends ever in Harford or anywhere.

Icicles were hanging down from all roofs of the houses outside. I looked longingly out the frosted window, blowing the hot air of my own breath on it then, wiping it a bit with my shirt sleeve so I could see what was what outside. Spot wanted to go out too. He’d look out there with me. I’d be sitting on my knees on the couch and Spot would be standing on his hind legs with his front paws up on the back of the sofa. We’d both peep out together. Spot panted and looked at me like he was smiling. You see, he was a dog and dogs needed to go outside as much as kids. That’s where they had to do “their duty” as my mom used to say.

Besides, he liked to sniff a lot. Spot would sniff almost anything he hadn’t seen before. Spot didn’t care that it was freezing out. Even though he had short fur and might get cold–he wasn’t all fluffy like a Husky or a wolf--he’d go out at the drop of a hat. He was brave and lively.

Well, as I said, it was frozen outside. I had to wear my snowsuit. My mom said, I had to so, I did. It was better than the staying in all day. That was the choice. By the time I snapped my cap on, I was boiling hot. Spot and I scooted out the front door.
Spot and I ran really far, once we got outside. It was a relief to be away from the adults. To be free as free as the air, that was what was nice. First, we ran to the woods, which were just in back of my grandma’s house. There were a million things you could do in the woods. Exploring was as good as chocolate ice-cream. There were squirrels; chipmunks; little streams, with frozen, icy parts to them. There were trees of all sorts to climb. There were lots of evergreen trees, you could hide up in. There were maples, sometimes some oaks. They didn’t have leaves on them this time of year, so you could see all the branches as clear as day.

Spot couldn’t climb trees and when I’d get up on one of those maple limbs in front of him, he’d bark up a storm. I left tree climbing out that day, mostly for Spot’s sake; but also because I had that bulky old snowsuit on. Besides, those darn mittens made grabbing anything extra hard. Spot chased red squirrels and peed a lot on tree trunks, leaving yellow holes in the snow. He was always careful to scratch the snow and ground really hard with his four legs to kick stuff up over his “duty”.

When we were done playing in the forest, we ran back to the house to get warmed up. The hot chocolate felt warm and toasty in my belly. Spot attacked his dish and licked up some water.

After, we went back outside to search around Harford. First, it was a right turn out of grandma’s place. Then, it was down the main road past Virginia Brainard’s house. Mrs. Brainard had a dog too. He was a giant Saint Bernard. When Duke stood up, his shoulders came to about where my chest was. Spot sort of looked like a midget next to Duke.

Duke had long, mostly whitish hair with brown patches all over, all the way to his bushy tail, which was about as long as Spot himself. His nose was black too. Duke was so big and strong that he’d knock me over sometimes, just greeting me. He slobbered as well; slobbered something fierce. The wetness drooled from his mouth as his monster sized tongue would lick your face or hand.

Duke was the kind of dog that Swiss people write about. You know, the stories about dogs bringing small kegs of brandy which hang from their dog collars to lost skiers in the Swiss Alps. Yeah, Duke was a real rescue dog. He never showed as much in the way of smarts as Spot; but just the same, he was a good dog; he didn’t bite people like some dogs do. When he and Spot first met up about a week before, Spot barked and barked at him. But Duke just stood there and took it like the good old dog, he was. Eventually, Spot would get tired of challenging Duke and trying to smell his butt. You know how dogs are. They have to smell each other’s butts and the first one to get their nose in the butt of the other is the winner. It’s an old doggy game. Well, Spot couldn’t really win that one with Duke. Not only was Duke, much bigger; but Spot could hardly put his nose high enough to carry out his dog appointed task. Still, even after hours together, Spot’s nose would wiggle as he looked for his chance to sniff Duke’s butt. Duke didn’t like it though. You could tell because he growled and his tail wagged really fast, when he saw what Spot was thinking about. Sometimes, they actually ended up fighting during these rounds and I had to yell at them to stop. You didn’t want to stick your hand into the middle of a dog fight.

Anyway, we were going past Mrs. Brainard’s house on our way to the Fair Ground’s Hill side of town, when Duke popped out from behind her house and came over to greet me. Spot and Duke’s tails whirled back and forth really fast as they sniffed each other then, we three crunched along the dirty slush sides of main street. No cars were coming on it. Harford had a silent snow blanket on it. I could only tell that it was cold because the air coming through my nose froze my boogers.

The dogs heard it first. I noticed them looking back up the road. It was a wonder that I could hear anything because of those darn sheepskin flaps over my ears. Then there was a low vibration around my ears. The bus was coming!

It was a gigantic brown bus with cream colored sides. The bus passed through a lot of the small farm towns like Harford to pick up and let off passengers on the way between the big cities of Scranton and Binghamton. This happened about once a week. Well, here it was rolling through our town. I made sure that Spot was out of the road as we waited by the post office, me holding on to Spot’s collar and Duke sitting on a patch of snow. He looked like some wise old man.

As it came down the road, the engine rumble grew to a GROWL. There was a monster inside the belly of the bus. It had purple muscle legs which were furiously pumping the bus forward.. Snow was flying off to the left and right of its back wheels making a comet tale. It was coming lickety-split down the main road, which meant there would be no stop at the general store today or at Mr. Booth’s for sure.

Mr. Booth had the other store in town. It was at one end of the main road of the village (Harford was actually called “the Village of Harford”) and the general store was at the other end. Surprising that such a small town had two stores in it. Back then, there were a lot of farmers who used to come in to buy stuff either at Mr. Booth’s or the general store. The general store belonged to the Deckers; but everyone always just called it the general store.

Oh yes–the bus... Spot and I were on the sidewalk near the post office when it went by. It looked like a spaceship to me, especially because on the very back of the bus near the top, there was this hungry mouth; an air scoop gulping scads of cold wintry air. The giant brown and cream bus WHOOSHED past, leaving us in a gush of cold air and snow flakes. Down it went; down the small hill near the general store and then over the bridge which crossed the “crick” (actually, it was a creek; but in small town Pennsylvania, creeks were call cricks) which ran though Harford. Then it swooped upwards like a rocket ship, up Fair Ground Hill leaving a blast of black- brown slush and white snow in its wake. Spot barked. I looked on with amazement. Then, Harford turned back to sleep again.

Through it all Duke just sat there, calm, confident and collected. He was king of the Harford dogs and he knew it because he was the biggest. The bus didn’t challenge his rule. It might roar; but it always left town.

After that, our little gang made its way down to the bridge at the foot of Fair Ground Hill. I decided to go down the embankment and see if I could smash through some of the ice in the crick with my rubber boots. Spot and Duke followed. It was there that we happened upon another dog, a setter of some kind. The setter had longish red fur. I think that it probably was an Irish Setter. I never knew the name of this dog. It belonged to someone up the road.

The setter was a nice dog though and after the initial, tense tail wagging moments of mutual butt sniffing, the dogs settled in to play with each other, running back and forth, sometimes pretend biting, while I continued stomping through the ice which covered the crick. We were a pack now. Duke was the king, I was the leader.

After breaking crick ice, I climbed back up the side to the main road. We all made our way up the branch road past the general store and towards the Harford Volunteer Fire Department Station. It took about two minutes. Nothing was very far away in Harford.

The fire station was just a big white garage with one very large door. A fire truck drove through this door. It was on springs and would slide somehow into the roof of the station when the firemen needed to speed away to a burning house. A giant siren was on top of a roof high pole outside the station. Most often, it went off because it was noon on Mondays. That was called the “noon whistle”. It sounded like a thousand wailing ladies in a tube up there. When it wasn’t noon and it went off for a fire, then you’d see the volunteer firemen, the ones who were still at home anyway, running out of their homes, throwing their yellow raincoats on as they ran up the street towards the fire station. It was a sight. The fire truck was a red Reo Speedwagen. That was what was written on the nose of the engine hood. I sounded it out: REE OH SPEED WA GONE. It was one “grand” truck, to use my grannie’s expression. It had ladders on it and hoses and axes. It also had this shiny chrome grill on the front, so cool air could get on the engine. When the firemen drove that bright, red fire truck out of the station and turned its own siren on to go fight a fire, you felt hot blood rushing around your face.

I turned a garbage can over and stood up on its bottom in front of the station house door. I looked through one of the frosted windows, but couldn’t see a thing. I breathed on the window and used my mitten to clear a hole. I needed to be a little taller to see down at the truck properly. Being small always made you want to grow up.

I put the garbage can back near the side of the station, where I found it and then, we went up the street further where it met a dirt road.

The little dirt road ran sort of parallel with the main road in Harford, the one the bus had come down, although, it ended up arching up higher from the level where it started out. Mr. Booth’s store was about a quarter of the way along and then it ended higher where I was with the dogs. Where we were, it turned into a paved road.

There was a farm house here. The farm had a barn and a fence around this bald, snowy hill. Black and white Holstein cows grazed on the hill during the summers.

The white faced hill was like a pile of unopened Christmas packages . We wanted to trample the smooth, sparkly cover. The snow looked really deep in places.
I couldn’t resist. With my clumsy mitten clad hand, I moved the single line of barbed wire up and scooted myself under the fence. My mitten got caught in the wire. At least, the wire didn’t stick me.

If it had cut me and blood came out, I knew, I had to tell my mom and then she’d call Dr. Horton so he could give me tetanus shot. I hated shots. I’d cut myself on something rusty once before. That’s how I knew, rusty metal cuts mean tetanus shots.

So, when I got across, I had to take my other mitten off to get the stuck mitten off the barbed wire hook. I carefully held the wire up for the dogs and they passed through and we made holes in the snow crust all the way to the top of the hill.

The air was even more freezing in my nose out on the meadow, probably because there weren’t any trees to stop Old Man Winter’s gusts. Boy, did it feel good to be out there though. It was like your own place. Nothing around you but your dogs, no adults to tell you what to do.

We all loped our ways through the deep snow. Duke was in his glory. Spot was having a bit of a hard time. He mostly followed in my footsteps where it was extra deep. The setter seemed comfortable, leaping here and there. The further up towards the top of the hill we got, the more shallow the snow was. At the top, I looked around Harford: the forest, the trees, the gigantic graveyard just across the street from Mr. Booth’s store with the old war cannon at the bottom of it near the main road. Harford was sure a nice town.

I thought that I would probably take a close look at that cannon today. But first, there was playing to do. I imagined myself being shot at the top of the hill. My shoulder hit the snow and I tumbled, the dogs barking at me as I rolled head over heels down the side of the hill. Then up again to do another fall, this time, I was a log spinning on my side and then again and again, until my snowsuit was caked with white melting wetness.

After my last roll, I decided to head for the bottom to cross the little dirt road behind Mr. Booth’s store and take a look at that cannon. I had never been in this territory before. There was a small grove of mostly maple trees at the bottom of the hill. They grew along a tiny gurgling crick which flowed from an ice covered pond. The pond was new to me. I hadn’t seen it before. It wasn’t very big, maybe about the size of somebody’s backyard swimming pool. I wondered about the ice, then the setter went out on it. “Must be thick that ice.” I thought. So I went out too, fast forward on my tip-toes, baby steps, very lightly and then sliding on my feet. I’d do the same thing back and then forth across the pond’s slippery surface. I kept doing this about twenty times until the ice cracked and I splashed through.

I fell through pretty near the dry snowy edge of the pond. The bottom was almost right there. The water wasn’t deep. That was a relief. But my snowsuit had gotten really wet and heavy. My body bent forward; my head practically hit the ice when I felt my feet hit bottom.

My boots were covered with mud up to the ankles. I tried to pull them out; but they wouldn’t budge. I had nothing to hang on to but more thin, cracking ice. My mittens were wet as well, making my hands freeze. I tossed these icy claws toward the edge of the pond. I tried to force my feet out of my boots. The boot were tied though. I started to get scared. I was sinking. The mud was sucking me in! It was like quicksand. A picture from an old Tarzan movie flashed in my head. A bad guy had been dragged down in quicksand, until mud covered his mouth and nose and eyes. All you could see was his hand sticking up and then his hand went all limp. They never said he died; but everybody knew that he did. This mud was sucking me in just like that quicksand in the Tarzan movie. I really got scared then.

The dogs peered over at me with sort of puzzled looks on their faces, wondering why I was just standing there. I started to cry. Then, I had an idea!

I called the dogs, “Here Spot. Here Duke. Here Boy,” I sniffed through my tears. When Duke got close enough, I leaned forward toward him, falling into the icy water. I grabbed his tail really hard. I closed my eyes and held on for dear life. Duke growled, then pulled really hard, probably just trying to get away; but it was enough to pry me loose from the sucking mud. I got to the hardened edge of the pond and pulled the rest of myself out. Then, breathing ever so deeply and quickly, I rolled myself over. looked up at the moving, grey clouds up in the sky.

I’d never been so afraid in my life. My heart was beating faster than an airplane propeller on a TWA Constellation. Spot and the setter came over and peeped down at me. Spot licked my face. I looked around for Duke. Then I saw him about twenty feet to my left, well out of tail pulling distance. He was still his old calm, composed self, sitting there in the snow, panting a bit and slobbering as usual.

It was then and there that I decided that I’d never let any harm come to any dog. In fact, sometime later, when I started going to school again and meeting kids in Harford, I organized my group, the “Doggy Rangers”. Our motto was to always go to a dog’s rescue whenever they needed it.

Well anyway, after I laid there for a while, my snowsuit began to freeze. So, I picked myself up and snatched up my mittens. Then the dogs and I crossed the winter hardened car ruts of the dirt road behind Mr. Booth’s store. At the main road, Spot and I turned left towards my grandma’s house where it was warm and safe. It was good to be home.