Posts Tagged ‘South Carolina’

Monsieur Russell

Tuesday, January 19th, 2016

Mark & Todd  Yosemite c 1961

Todd and Mark circa 1961 photo courtesy of Mark Russell

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2016)

My friend Mark Russell recently sent me a photograph taken fifty-four years ago at a pullout on the Tioga Road halfway between Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows—a spectacular shot of the Sierras, the deep blue sky awash in billowy white and gray clouds, Lake Tenaya shining in the distance.

Mark is thirteen in the picture, I am twelve, and we are on our way with our fathers to backpack from Tuolumne Meadows to Cathedral Lake, there to fish for trout and commune with the nature spirits. In this picture, I am a few inches taller than Mark and we are both skinny boys on the cusp of becoming young men.

Two years later, Mark and his family moved away and I would not see him again for twelve years. I had gone to New York to meet my first and finest literary agent Dorothy Pittman in-person for the first time, and to lunch with the three magazine editors—Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, Gallery—Dorothy had convinced to buy one or more of my short stories. I was funding my excursion with money earned from landscaping a freeway overpass in Medford, Oregon, and on a whim, I called Mark’s parents in Connecticut, they gave me Mark’s phone number in South Carolina, and I called him to see if I might come for a visit.

I had no idea what Mark had been up to since I last saw him, but I remembered him as funny, friendly, extremely creative, and adventurous, and I wanted to see him again. In junior high school, we played baseball and football and basketball together, and he helped me live through the tedious classroom hours by passing me brief little stories he’d written about naughty children doing silly and gross things, and I would nearly bust a gut trying to contain my laughter until class ended. Thus I thought of him as a fellow writer, which was what I aspired to be.

A woman with a strong southern accent answered the phone, I told her I was an old friend of Mark’s, Todd Walton, and she went to fetch him. A moment later, Mark came on the line, his voice an octave lower than when I had last heard him speak. “Todd Walton. I was just thinking about you.”

A couple weeks later, I detrained in Camden, South Carolina late at night and was met at the station by Mark and his beautiful wife Carrie, Mark sporting a dark brown beard and towering over me. He had married into a family of folks who raised horses, and he and his wife lived with his wife’s sister and mother on two thousand acres of woods and meadows and swamps. Mark had become a maker of fine wood furniture, and I ended up staying with him and his wonderful family for a few glorious weeks in November before I headed back to California.

The climax of my visit was attending The Colonial Cup, a famous steeplechase, where I ended up betting on the winner, a spectacular horse named Grand Canyon, and I won a couple hundred dollars. I might have stayed with Mark and his family longer, but my mother called on Thanksgiving and asked me to fly to Palm Springs to take care of my grandparents who were reeling from the suicide of their son, my Uncle Howard.

Thereafter, I heard little from Mark for several years, though I did get a letter from him saying he and his wife were now members of a Buddhist community in which the renowned teacher Pema Chödrön was a leading light. When the Canadian government granted permission for Pema and members of her community to immigrate to Nova Scotia, Mark and his wife moved there.

I’m not sure if Mark and Carrie had their two daughters before they moved to Canada or shortly thereafter, but two daughters they had, and now Mark is a grandfather. He also has a successful garlic and squash and kale farm called Garlic Mountain, lives in the second home he built since moving to Nova Scotia, raises fine horses with his wife, plays the banjo, and has built a number of spectacular wooden boats.

I know these things about Mark from a handful of letters and emails and photographs he has sent me over the years, and when Mark recently sent the picture of us when we were boys becoming men in the California Sierras in 1962, I fell into musing about why he was so important to me and why I have endeavored to stay in touch with him over all these many years despite the great distance between us.

Mark liked me and I liked him. He would come over for supper and to spend the night, and we would camp out under the old olive trees behind my parent’s house, build a fire, and talk about life and the myriad unsolvable mysteries. We went on long bicycle rides together, pushing the boundaries of our known worlds. Mark got me started collecting coins: pennies, nickels, and dimes, and I became fascinated with the history of money, which led me to reading about the history of everything else.

His parents were always kind to me and honored me for being who I was, and they laughed at the funny stories I told, whereas my own parents were routinely disapproving of me and disappointed I wasn’t more studious and academically ambitious.

Mark was an avid Dodgers fan, I a diehard Giants fan, yet our passion for baseball, our interest in the details of the game, was a bond. Mark loved Sandy Koufax, I loved Juan Marichal.

But transcendent of everything, I think, was that we found each other interesting and funny and thoughtful, and when one is eleven and twelve and thirteen, such a bond is golden. I haven’t seen Mark in forty years, but I have no doubt should we ever meet in the flesh again, we will have no end of things to talk and laugh about.

My Black Heroes

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom.” Bob Dylan

The black athlete I am currently most enamored of is Michael Vick, the quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles who recently spent two years in federal prison for financing a large and illegal pit bull farm where dogs were raised and trained to fight and kill other dogs, and where dogs deemed unfit to be successful fighters were ruthlessly murdered, some by Vick himself. Several of my friends are unhappy with me for liking Michael Vick, just as they were upset with me for liking Mike Tyson, and for liking Muhammad Ali before it became politically correct to like the man who started out as Cassius Clay, and for liking Sonny Liston before I liked Cassius Clay.

I don’t like that Michael Vick treated dogs cruelly and killed them, but I understand that raising and fighting pit bulls is an integral part of southern culture. I sojourned in South Carolina in the 1970’s and attended barbecues at the homes of both white people and black people, and the climax of every such party came when the man of the house took me and a few other men to visit the kennel wherein he kept his illegal fighting dogs and the coop wherein his illegal gamecocks were caged. And as we stood in the presence of these ferocious dogs and ferocious birds, our host would proudly regale us with tales of grisly battles fought by his dogs and cocks, tales for which he expected to be greatly admired.

I don’t recount this southern lore to defend Michael Vick, but to suggest there is a cultural context for his actions. Had he come from China and been the son of a cat breeder providing cat meat to the markets of Beijing, we might wince at the thought of a child being taught by his parents how to slaughter cats, but most of us would understand that this person came from a very different culture than ours, and so be it.

“Willie Mays was the finest player I ever saw, make no mistake about it.” Willie McCovey

The greatest idol of my early childhood was Willie Mays. After Willie I added to my list of heroes Wilt Chamberlain, Cazzie Russell, Oscar Roberstson, Earl the Pearl Monroe, Julius Erving, and several other black basketball players. My current favorite among active basketball players is Rajon Rondo of the Boston Celtics.

The only white athlete I ever idolized was the Russian high jumper Valeriy Brumel. I was a lucky twelve-year old watching through binoculars at Stanford Stadium in 1962 when Valeriy jumped seven feet five inches to break his own world’s record. Inspired by Valeriy’s feat, I concocted a backyard high jump using a bamboo pole for the bar spanning the six feet between two redwood grape stakes with a pile of sawdust for my landing pad. I practiced jumping over that bar every day for several months until I cleared four feet eight inches, after which I turned my athletic attention to basketball.

“Music is the medicine of the breaking heart.” Leigh Hunt

I discovered Ray Charles when I was nine years old, and in a most roundabout way. My mother was a fan of the Mills Brothers who were black but sounded suitably white and whose pictures did not appear on their albums bought by white people. Of the big bands, my folks listened to Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey, not Count Basie or Duke Ellington. But in 1957, when the carob brown Harry Belafonte entered the American mainstream in the movie Island In the Sun, a drama exploring interracial relationships, my folks and many other relatively open-minded white people bought Harry’s album of calypso tunes featuring the title song from Island In The Sun.

I fell madly in love with Belafonte’s singing and played Island in the Sun so often that my mother would periodically hide the album from me lest she go mad. And when my grandmother sent me five dollars for my ninth birthday, I took the money to Discount Records in Menlo Park and asked the man behind the counter if he had any other Harry Belafonte albums. He found such an album, gave me two dollars change for my five, put the album in a bag, and sent me on my way.

When I got home, I discovered that only one side of the album featured Harry Belafonte. The other side belonged to a guy named Ray Charles. I was so angry that the record was not exclusively Harry, I didn’t listen to the Ray side for several weeks, until one fateful rainy afternoon my curiosity got the better of me and I lowered the needle onto the first cut on Ray’s side.

I have never taken LSD, but I have hallucinated while stoned and I have heard in excruciating detail many firsthand accounts of acid trips; and I daresay my initial experience of hearing Ray Charles accompanying himself on piano and singing CC Ryder was the equivalent of a beautiful acid trip. I felt as if the known universe had cracked wide open and I was looking and listening into an entirely other and better dimension, a place of astonishing colors and shapes and sounds and emotional possibilities heretofore never dreamed of. Indeed, so extraordinary was my experience of Ray’s performance of CC Ryder and the other songs on his side of the record, that when my mother screamed, “Turn that horrible noise off!” I was not even remotely the same person I had been before Ray sang to me, because now Ray’s voice and cadence and chords and feelings were part of me. I was no longer the child of my neurotic unhappy angry lonely confused biological parents who were forever asking me to be everything I was not; I was Ray’s child.

However, I was only nine. So I lived on with my biological parents for another eight years and suffered their vociferous contempt for most of what I loved: basketball, baseball, Ray Charles, Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, rebels, fools, outcastes, and crazy geniuses. Soul music would eventually lead me to jazz, my musical pantheon to be ruled by Cannonball Adderly, Freddie Hubbard, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, and Herbie Hancock until I fell far down into the rabbit hole of solo piano, jazz and classical, where I lived for decades without a care for any other kind of music. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

“A cool heavenly breeze took possession of him.” Nikos Kazantzakis

When I was sixteen, I saw the movie Zorba the Greek, bought the book the next day, read it twice, and then quickly read several other Kazantzakis novels, including The Last Temptation of Christ and Saint Francis. Then I read Zorba the Greek again to verify and solidify Zorba as my guide, as the mentor waiting for me on a faint trail leading into the unknown. But how was I to traverse the suburban void and elude the dominant American ethos en route to taking Zorba’s hand? And who was there to show me the way to the beginning of the way?

At the height of my Zorba worship, my best friend Rico invited me to go with him to a poetry reading in San Francisco, an event I chronicle in my novel Ruby & Spear, published by Bantam in 1996, the following passage the purest autobiography I have ever included in a work of fiction.

“…a monster poetry reading starring Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, David Meltzer, and Lew Welch. We sat down in the dark cool of a little church in the Fillmore, and Rico pointed to a pale man with curly black hair sitting two rows in front of us.

“‘It’s Robert Duncan himself,’ he whispered reverently. ‘My god, my god.’

“‘Who is he?’

“‘My favorite poet,’ said Rico, his eyes full of tears. ‘My numero uno hero.’

“‘What did he write?’

“‘The temple of the animals has fallen into disrepair.

“The lights dimmed. I took a deep breath and tried to clear my mind. Who was I? What would I become? What about college? Sex? Money?

“Michael McClure stepped into the spotlight looking like Errol Flynn dressed all in black leather. He leaned close to the microphone and crooned, ‘I been hangin’ out at the zoo talking to the lions. Rahr. Rrrahr!’

“All the women in the audience started moaning and growling, too. It was my first intimation of the sexual potential of poetry read aloud. I was psychically overwhelmed. And when the lights came up a few glorious hours later, Ginsberg and Whalen and Meltzer and Welch having set down their drums, spent from their reading and singing and dancing and howling, I knew what I wanted to be. A poet.”

“Music rots when it gets too far from the dance.  Poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music.” Ezra Pound

Before my mother vanished into the netherworld of Alzheimer’s, she would sometimes muse about why I had chosen such a chancy and impoverished road when I might have been a doctor or lawyer or, at the very least a college professor. And why was I so enamored of black people and their music? One of her theories was that because we had a black nanny, Mary Prince, when my sisters and I were babies, I had transferred my love of Mary onto black people in general. Another of my mother’s theories was that her own fascination with rebellious female artists such as Isadora Duncan and Georgia O’Keefe had somehow been transmuted in me into a love for artists who rebelled against the status quo.

“Love is the offspring of spiritual affinity.” Kahlil Gibran

I think my love of black athletes, especially those who have fallen from the heights of great success into the depths of infamy, and then climbed back into the light despite overwhelming odds against them, has everything to do with how I perceive myself. My adoration of the outcaste warrior is indivisible from my adoration of the outcaste artist. I am always moved by stories about forsaken artists or athletes or social visionaries who are strengthened and refined into greatness by the adversities they are given to transcend. I much prefer my heroes imperfect and complicated and surprising and daring, and ultimately kind and generous and humble, for they have danced cheek-to-cheek with death and lived to tell their tales.

I recently saw a highlight in which Michael Vick was brutally tackled while scoring a touchdown against the New York Giants. After his terrible collision with a man a hundred pounds heavier than he, Michael rose from the ground and carried the ball to the stands where he reached up and placed the sacred pigskin into the hands of a young man.

The first hour of Todd’s reading of Ruby & Spear can be heard gratis on the Listen page at UndertheTableBooks.com, the entire reading available from iTunes and Audible. Actual copies of Ruby & Spear can be had for mere pennies via the interweb.