“cancer in the penalty box” & other unrelated essays

hockey diaries, part IV:  CANCER IN THE PENALTY BOX

      the team dynamic was changed.

whereas previously i was a mostly-extraneous member, i became the poster-child for the “make a wish foundation” once the news spread.  (yes, i know, things will be back to normal sooner rather than later, where extraneousness and milling about in the background will again be my place on the team).

i knew “i was in trouble” when Dave, the one team member whom i count on to be rude and insensitive confronted me when i left the locker room.  he stood directly in front of me, my back to the wall.  he looked right into my eyes and asked, “are you all right?”

shit,” i thought.  he knows.

he acted concerned and continued to act that way ever since.  i think there were two games remaining until i “went under the knife” — and my very last game the team captains acquiesced to all (‘all’ being about 3) my wishes and demands.  “i want to be right wing” (not left, which i’d have to share with Lloyd, the time-hog).  “i want to be on a line with Tucker.”  and i spent about as much time as anybody else on the ice.   and, astonishingly? we won that game, against the first-place team in our league.

afterwards, the team presented me with a … going-away/get well/pain-killer-medicine gift.  a bottle of single-malt scotch whiskey.  we clicked our beer-bottles, they wished me well.

i also got to play goalie twice during the wednesday night “dave ash league” — which is a casual pick-up game.  nothing casual about it, though — it seems most the players are upper-division but not out to kill anybody.  never-the-less, i had fun and look forward to trying to continue to do THAT perhaps a couple times a month.  cheap, too! (a little more than $10/game).

one month to the day after the operation, i ‘celebrated’ by getting back on the ice.  i sent a mass-email to the team (as if they gave a poop) announcing that i’d show up, skate about during warm-up, and asked to play just one minute per period.  this was because my team was to play the one team which, the last two games, just barely outplayed/out-scored us.  i knew the team would want to utilize the ‘better’ players more than, say, team-members of my (lack of) ability.

there was a bit of the “welcome back” syndrome in the locker room, but the player who warranted more of that was Miguel, who had been injured for most the season and had just now come back for this game.  and … our bench was sort of short.  Brian, the team captain, ventured that i would probably end up playing much more than one minute per period.

although i felt a bit sluggish (as usual) when we started warming up, things were not much different than the norm.  oh, i was a little more wobbly and clumsy, but irregardless of whatever happens the rest of my life, without resorting to performance-enhancing steroids and bionic surgery, i will definitely NOT ever be considered adept enough to play in the “upper” leagues.

i played every other shift the entire game, and didn’t dwell on my condition, much.  although i was slightly apprehensive, even being knocked down towards the end of the game, bumping into a couple others a few times, i felt and skated pretty much as i normally do.  and though we lost, i felt the same afterwards as i almost always do.  it was fun.

there was a fair amount of “chippiness” during the game — contact which was not inadvertent, elbows and such a few times, words exchanged, time in the penalty box, etc.  i was, as is becoming usual, immune from that.  i can’t help but think that the other team leaves me alone, as the sentiment is that i do my team the “most damage” (and assist the opposition) by being out on the ice.  oh well.

flashback, to … gary snyder (& how i “met him”) telling the most valuable possession of the Papagos; and a song imparted (& lost) in the midst of a bad sickness

             I was a college student at CSU and read in the paper that Gary Snyder was to be part of a panel discussion that night in the Student Center.  This was the sort of thing I could not pass up, and the price was right ($0).

After dinner I shuffled off to the campus and entered the building.  At the main information desk I asked where was the “poetry panel discussion”  and the info-desk-person there did not know.  Another guy (who looked very much like the picture I had just seen in the paper) dropped by.

I knew of him mostly thanks to Jack Kerouac (‘Dharma Bums’) but was aware that he had continued to be ever-more the artist, the word-monger since then.  I didn’t know he would appear to be so … “hippy.”  Counter-culture.  Like me.

I announced to him that I was looking for the room in which Gary Snyder, among others, was to discuss some aspect of poetry.  He replied that he was looking for the room also.

I experienced a surreal twenty minutes or so, as we strode up and down the hallways and stairs, engaged in light conversation — centered mostly about how lost we were.  At least we came to THE ROOM, in which the audience and panel members were waiting.  Since we arrived together, and looked somewhat similar, I’m sure everyone thought that I was “with him.”  I kept that secret to myself as I sat among the audience.

I know I enjoyed the evening’s ‘entertainment,’ but remember little of what was specifically imparted.  Save one thing — Gary talked about a northern Mexico/south Arizona Indian tribe, the Papagoes.  They were not a ‘rich’ tribe, in the sense of possessions nor fertile crop-land nor much else.  What was the most valuable possession to an individual was a song.  I suppose “rich” Papagoes had many songs.

How they acquired a song varied, and the songs would usually come in dreams.  However, to merit/deserve/make oneself worthy of such an impartation a Papagoe would have to do something heroic.  One might hike all the way to the sea and bring back some salt.  Or go beat up on some warriors of another tribe.

When one Indian was real good friends with another, and wanted to make a gift, he’d give his friend a song.

About two years before, Deb and I were vacationing/hanging in Mexico.  We had gone on a prodigious train- and bus-tour from San Carlos to Mexico City.  On our return leg of the journey, we each were beginning to become quite ill.  The flu, probably.  A severe, head-clogging, pain-filled, tedious, foreign flu.

It was so bad that one night around midnight, as I was tossing and turning and occasionally moaning as if that would help, I did an experiment to “pass the time.”  I lay still for as long as I could, trying to sink into sleep, but trying to pass the time never-the-less.  I lay for what seemed to be a couple hours.  I looked at my watch.  Two minutes had passed.

I did sink into a pain-free sleep later that night.  I was in a cave.  I couldn’t see anything, but knew that this was right on the ocean.  I could hear the waves, smell the salt-air.  It was a large cave, and I was not alone.

They were singing — in a language I surmised to be the local indigenous aboriginal tongue.  Several layers of chanting, humming, weaving in and out.  A solo-ist would intone the next line of melody, and the others would join in, point-and-counter-point with increasing layers of background chorus.

I wish I could say that I woke up and the flu was gone.  But I did remember the song for several months.  It seemed sorta “polynesian.”

i guess everything is a “new start.”  new running ‘records’?  new job.

yeah, telemarketer, but not on commission.  well… the commission would be if i actually do acquire/round-up/conjure up some work, i “stay on.”

but still, the maya is closing in, the illusion gets thicker, polar ice caps melt as the ozone spreads; ZPG quite a way off…

The Smelter Mountain Mutants, “old (wild) west” style un-easy stand-off when encountering the Uranium Savages.

             Hallowe’en, 1986 or so, Durango.  I was part of the Dept. of Energy (DOE) radiological characterization crew — to ascertain the contaminatedness of the uranium-mill-tailings pile just outside of town.  We had been in town several days, with many more to go.  Halloween night was rumored to be a ‘big deal’ in downtown Durango.  So, after dinner, we gathered around our trucks and vans and started dressing-up.  Which was easy — we had hazardous-waste suits (Tyvek over-alls), hard hats, thick gloves, some of us wore the gas-mask-like air-filters.  And, each of us had “URANIUM SAVAGES … TRUST US !” scribbled in felt-tip on our backs.

We wandered the streets, hardly distinguishable in the over-all crazy vibe which prevailed.  We turned a corner, and, there they were.  The Smelter Mountain Mutants.  (Smelter Mountain was the place where the old uranium mill was).  They wore more-or-less matching outfits, each with a “moon-crater” mask — looking like moon-craters with the eyes peeking out among the indentations.

It was like the old west middle-of-the-street showdown.  They stood, warily, as a group assessing us; and we them.  After what seemed half-a-minute, each group slowly pulled away — eyes on the other group in case they’d try to get the drop on us, or something.

Captain Jim Fulks.  A nice guy.  He was a friend of my friend, Roy H Johnson, when Roy was still in the Marines.  Capt. Jim was a recruiter, and would make the rounds to the college campuses in the area.  Roy would stop by and visit when they recruited at CSU (I was a student there).

We had a fun afternoon with beer and pizza one day.  Roy called asking me if I would be a “Marine for the day” and run on their cross-country team.  The CSU Army ROTC was sponsoring a “military challenge race,” and Jim and Roy spearheaded the Marine team.  Although it was understood (at least by Roy) that I had no interest whatsoever in “jinin’ up” I was on the team, as well as another similarly-militarily-disinterested friend of mine.

After the race, we went to a pizza place for the requisite beer and.

I would see Capt. Jim periodically, when I was cruising through the Student Center and he’d be at his recruiting table in his dress uniform, brochures and other information, as well as a projector and screen showing jets screaming through the skies in the background.

The last time I saw Jim, I had graduated a short while before but was in the job-hunting mode.  The college arranged for recruiters to talk with prospectives on campus, and I had just ‘interviewed’ with a computer-component manufacturer.

The interview reminded me of a Monty Python sketch — the one about the cheese shop.

you know the one, don’t you?  a fellow walks into a cheese shop, is greeted by the proprietor, and asks if the shop has a specific kind of cheese (let’s just say, “jarlsberg”).

            “no,” the shop-keeper replies.  “just ran out.”

            “how about some muenster?”

            the proprietor looks up, musing.  “it’s Tuesday.  we get it shipped in on Wednesdays.  sorry.”

            “okay, lets have some roquefort then.”

            “we just sold the last bit of that to the last customer.”

            and so the exchange goes, the hungry customer asking for this, and that, and the shopkeeper comes up with some funny “no” replies.  sometimes he just  says “no” — as many as a dozen or so queries in a row.  towards the end of the skit the would-be customer asks for such things as “siberian yak cottage cheese” and other esoterica, and still there is/are none in the shop.

            “this isn’t much of a cheese shop,” the potential customer intones.

            “best in these parts.”

             I don’t remember exactly how the exchanges end, but you get the idea.

And so, the Tektronix (I think was the company name) representative asked me if I had experience in many categories of electronic component design.  After just as many incidences of answering just “no,” I would sometimes pause, consider, then say “none” or “very little,” etc.

I was made to feel like I was looking for a job as a village idiot in a series of villages each of which already had one.

And, obviously, there was extremely little chance Tektronix would arrange a follow-up interview.  I slunk out the door, and down the hall, feeling three-feet tall.  The slunk was in full feeling-worthless mode as I went past Captain Jim.  He was resplendent in his dress reds and blues, sitting ramrod straight, the projector displaying jets napalming Vietnamese villages or something.

I probably nodded “hi” to Jim as I began to walk past.  He asked me how I was.  I turned to him, as I would to a friend, and bared my soul.  I can’t remember exactly what I said, but it was along the lines of how my job search wasn’t going so well.  Now, I expect you, whoever you are, might say what did I expect next?  I did expect it, but I wasn’t worried — I had a couple aces up my sleeve.

“Hey Rosco,” Jim said.  “How about me buyin’ you a beer in the Ramskeller and tellin’ me about it?”

It was the best offer I’d had so far that day.  It would be therapeutic.  Beer, and the opportunity to discuss my situation in the Student Center beer-tavern.  Just like a friendly session with a psychologist … did I mention with beer?

Jim turned off the projector.  The Ramskeller was a short distance away and soon we were seated with a pitcher between us.  People at nearby tables initially looked askance at us — a somewhat unlikely duo; although I was wearing a suit, I hadn’t had a haircut in possibly two years.  There isn’t much variety in how a Marine officer dressed-to-impress appears.

I knew it wouldn’t be long before Jim would ask the inevitable.  Up ’til then I mentioned the types of interviews I’d had, and although I don’t remember everything, whatever I really wanted to do, work-wise, probably was not well-identified.

“Rosco, have you ever considered joining the world’s finest?”

“Jim, I can’t.”

“What’s the problem?”

“I’m too old.”

“How old are you?”

I told him that I was twenty-eight.  That age was a year or more over the maximum that the military accepted.  Or so I had recently read.

Jim gave a brief stealth glance at nearby tables.  I took this as a sign that he didn’t want to advertise that the world’s finest would compromise it’s lofty standards.  “Under our ‘older men in good shape program’ we can recruit up to age thirty-five.”

“Is that so?” I replied.  A couple small beads of sweat materialized on my brow, but still I wasn’t worried.  I still had the BIG ACE up my sleeve.

We talked a while longer and a couple minutes later he basically repeated the initial question.

“Jim I can’t.  I’m ineligible.”

“Tell me about it.”

In 1969 the draft was hot and heavy on the minds of all young men.  If you didn’t volunteer, the draft, or successful means to avoid it, was a part of the rites of passage of the era.  Everyone, and by everyone, everyone I knew had either signed up or waited for the summons to the pre-induction physical.

My three friends who were already in the military wrote to all their friends with basically the same message.  “If my going into the military has served any purpose whatsoever, let it be this:  don’t go in.”  I (and everyone remaining) took that to heart.

So, I prepared, studied, psyched myself up, read hindu texts, went without food for three days and water for a day, to get myself in the right mood for my pre-induction experience.

I’ll spare the details, but I passed, I mean flunked that exercise … well, not completely.  I went back for a “follow-up” a few weeks later during which I did even better.  I received a “1Y” deferment, which, at that time, meant “available only in the event of a national emergency.”  This was upgraded a few years later to the “4F,” which meant “totally unacceptable for military service no matter what.”  I had assumed that the 4F was written in stone.  No room for any other interpretation.

Jim casually looked around at the nearby tables, then leaned towards me a little.  “During the height of Viet Nam?  Totally understandable.  We’ll take care of it — no problem.”

More beads of sweat.  I pulled my suit coat back to reveal my wrist, upon which there was no watch.  I announced that I was late to my next appointment, got up, and left.  I haven’t seen him since.

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