Sunday, July 20, 2014

The "Inmate-Out" Experiment - A Short Story by Fred Herrman

-I originally published this story onto my blog on October 23, 2011-

Someone recently tipped me off to a fascinating account, that when I first learned about it, I could not believe it actually happened.  Yet, I’m sure in the history of the world, this would pale to some of the things that were brought upon people.  But I’d say that this is definitely one for the books.

I was on a hike with several other people as part of my friends’ work-related affair.  It was a kind of bonding on a weekend type of experience for their company, and I tagged along.  We were hiking in the Sierra foothills just outside of Big Pine for the day, and stories were swapped back and forth about places each of us had been to as well as other life experiences.  One of the guys on the hike, who happened to settle into our hiking subgroup, was an ex-military person who was well spoken and descriptive in his accounts.  I must say that I found his varied and detailed experiences in life to be fascinating at times.  His name, I’ll refer to here, as Richard. 

Richard is in his early fifties.  He served in several branches of the military, spending most of the latter part of his career in various special ops.  As he talked, I found I could tell that he was self-editing some of the details, which likely would have revealed things that the general public was not supposed to be privy to.  Richard was still in great shape; slim and athletic, military style haircut and full of the type of reserved energy one might expect in a person with years of special-forces experience.

Towards the end of the afternoon, I suppose with everyone was well oiled with stories and more comfortable with one-another, Richard told us of a project, which was really an experiment, that captivated everyone that day.  He said that, unlike some of the other stories that we would have no way of checking into, any citizen with some effort could research this one.  This was because the information about this account had been made available through the Freedom of Information Act (2002 Amendment).

It was called the “Inmate-Out Experiment” as it was referred to by the few sociologists who knew about it at the time was one of many such experiments that crossed the line into the inhumane. When Richard finished with the story, I was so arrested by the account that I pledged to myself that I would see if I could actually verify it.  I did some research, and over time, I was able to access the government files that contained the information about he project.

There has always been some question about how much criminals can be rehabilitated, and more than that, what exactly is baked into their general abilities from either genetic predispositions, or from social circumstances. It’s the aged old nature versus nurture question.  Apparently in the late 1970’s, some entity of the government took on social science experiments and wanted to test the ability of a repeat criminal, or a “lifer” as they’re sometimes called, to survive on their own.

The files don’t reveal the exact entity of the government that backed the experiment, but the information does clearly indicate that this experiment did occur, and that it was officially referred to as “Deep Drop.”  “The Inmate-Out Experiment,” which was how Richard referred to the project, was apparently the familiar name given to “Deep Drop” by people who were aware of it. It’s likely that those not directly associated with the task were never aware of the official name at the time.  I have posted the front page of the file, along with Arthur’s notes, which are a part of that same file.  To post the whole file itself would be too voluminous and possibly illegal, so I’ll spare myself the possible consequences.

The file notes state that on Wednesday, October 14th of 1981, an undisclosed amount of money was set aside to secure a “lifer” named Arturo (Arthur) Davis from Louisiana State Penitentiary, a maximum security prison in mid-eastern Louisiana.  Arthur Davis, a thirty-six year old man, was in prison on three counts of murder in the first degree from seventeen years prior.  He was a very large man of color who had behavioral problems inside the prison walls.  That is the extent of the government files’ description of him.  A lot of the file has its lines blackened for the portion of it that relates to Mr. Davis’ information.  I find this strange given that they reveal his full name in the file; a name that I was able to verify through other unrelated West Feliciana Parish records.  We will call him by his first name, Arthur, from here on.

But further checking into Fulton County records reveals that Arthur was of mixed background.  His mother was Puerto Rican, and his father was African American. He had a very big build at six feet, two inches and a weight of about 270 pounds.  The county records indicate that Arthur had been in the county system for many years dating back into childhood.  There were many interventions that took place early in his life by police and by the department of child welfare.

Arthur had lived in Atlanta as a young child.  His father was out of the picture at about age two.  Arthur’s mother, who was unemployed, got with a man who did small-time hustling on the streets of Atlanta and was in and out of prison.  Arthur stopped going to school at age eight and started getting into some trouble.  The county records don’t elaborate on this but do say that Arthur had an active juvenile record in Atlanta extending over a span of four years.  At age nine, Arthur went to Baton Rouge to live with his maternal grandmother, who was ill and mostly bedridden.

Arthur’s upbringing in Baton Rouge was dismal to say the least.  He was never enrolled back in school and, instead, found some odd jobs here and there clearing brush from people’s yards, shining shoes and what naught.  According to Parish of East Baton Rouge records, by the time Arthur was in his early teens, he had been charged with several breaking and entering incidents, three robberies, two assault and batteries, and was the center of one arson investigation that was never substantiated.

At age nineteen, Arthur was believed to be the lead in a Colonel Sanders Chicken robbery that ended with five of the store workers shot dead.  Arthur was proven to be one of the two shooters.  The other shooter was also incarcerated, but for only sixteen years.  Since Arthur was also shown to have planned the heist gone wrong, and since it was also proven that Arthur had premeditated the killing of store employees in order to facilitate the robbery, on June 4th, 1964, Arthur Davis was sentenced to three life terms in prison at the Louisiana State Penitentiary with no possibility of parole.  

The government file states that ten candidates were selected as possible experiment subjects.  However, it does not clarify how he was ultimately chosen.  Arthur was released by the Louisiana State Penitentiary into the custody of the United States Military on November 20th, 1981 at 21:03 (9:03pm).  He was transported by a military Sikorsky-MH 53 helicopter to Fort Polk, Louisiana where he was to be given a medical examination.  The file states that Arthur was confused while leaving the Penitentiary since nothing had been explained to him.  One of the briefs in the file describes him as “…seemed alleviated in spirit through about half of the transport, but became agitated when after asking where he was going several times, he was given no answer.”

Though he was handcuffed and strapped, a Second Lieutenant on board the transport ended up injecting Arthur with a sedative to calm him down.  Due to his great size, safety was a concern should he get out of control in the helicopter transport.  This was definitely not out of the question.  Arthur had attacked inmates during prison rivalries resulting in hospitalization for several of them.  He had also attacked several correctional officers during his incarceration, which led to his sporadic isolation terms. 

Arthur had tried to take on a few jobs in prison, but with less than moderate success.  He most likely had what would now be referred to as ADHD (Attention Deficit and Hyperactive Disorder) and simply found it difficult stay on task for anything.  This trait led to successive failures in the ability to follow prison rules, be socially appropriate, or to make any meaningful friendships. 

Arthur stayed at Fort Polk in lock up following his medical exam for four days.  During the medical exam, a transponder was inserted into the back of one of Arthur’s molars, the reason for which will become apparent later in this account. There is nothing in the federal files that indicates Arthur was told why this was happening to him; simply that he was being moved to a new location in the southwest, and that he needed to stay quiet and do what the military personnel say.  It brings into some question Arthur’s clear ability to reason if, as the files indicate, he did not resist anyone while being kept at Fort Polk.  One would think that any person, not understanding being brought into military custody and being transported, would go nearly out of their mind with both fear and anger of not knowing about their situation.  With the exception of the helicopter transport to Fort Polk, there is nothing that indicates that the military personnel ever had to contend with any other major outbursts from Arthur. 

Up to this point, the government files describe the events above as a sort of written prelude or explanation to what was to come.  On the next page the file has a header on the left margin that says,

“DEEP DROP - 3NP77A” 

This header brings us into the actual notes of the experiment as it proceeded. 

Initially, making the connection of “The Inmate-Out Experiment” with the project name, “Deep Drop,” was a challenge.  The acquaintance I had met on the hike wasn’t aware of its official name, but luckily in my search, I was given some information about where to look for such a project.  Once I got a hold of some government abstracts, the story and time frame matched perfectly with the bits that Richard had related to us.  So, after filling out a lot of forms as is customary for ordering items as part of the Freedom of Information Act, I was given access to a photocopy of the government documents on, “Deep Drop.”  I was told that I was exactly the fourteenth person to access these files.  The story is still not widely known. 

This account, hidden for so many years, yielded the basic information to me, for which I could go research peripheral supporting facts.  From here on out is the actual social experiment that was performed and funded by the United States government. 

At 07:00 on Thursday, November 26th, 1981, military personnel arrived at Arthur Davis’ holding cell and took him onto a Boing C-17 Globemaster III military cargo aircraft.  He was seated in a specially made jumper seat that was fitted with restraining belts.  There were five personnel on board; two pilots, and three military officers.  The explanation give to Arthur of where he was headed was not factual.  He was not going to another prison in the southwest, but, rather, was headed elsewhere. 

For a short time during the beginning of the civil war in Rwanda, the United States started to make supply drops for the local people.  They were later halted well before the genocide began three years later.  For cost purposes, the U.S. Government piggybacked Arthur’s experiment onto one of these missions.  The C-17 transport that Arthur was on flew from Louisiana to Recife, Brazil with a four-hour rest stop, then on to Rwanda.  Arthur was given sedatives in his food and slept for most of the way; not realizing how many hours had passed. 

At 7:15am on Friday, November 27th, the C-17 Cargo transport landed in Rwanda, Kigali in the great continent of Africa.  Arthur was out cold.  Supplies were dropped off for assistance to the local people, and Arthur Davis was taken off of the transport and then loaded by stretcher onto a smaller local military plane that the U.S. had pre-arranged.  The file is not clear on this point, but it looks as if only two of the military officers got onto this airplane with one pilot.  They flew about 1200 miles north-northwest to an old dirt airstrip in the Kanem region of Chad, northwest of Batha, and just south of the boarder of Borkou-Ennedi-Tibesti.  When the plane landed, a helicopter, which had also been commissioned by the U.S. military, was waiting.  Arthur, still sedated and asleep, was loaded onto the helicopter and flown about sixty miles north of a point equidistant between the towns of Koro Toro and Mao, which are themselves about a hundred miles from one another.

At 10:30am local time, Arthur was taken out of the helicopter, stripped of clothes, and left with a shoulder satchel made of burlap that contained inside it twenty beef jerky sticks, a notebook pad and several pens.  Two gallons of water, in the fashion of clear plastic milk style jugs, were also left as his side.  Arthur was laid under the shade of some low shrubs, and then the military personnel got into the helicopter and immediately took off. 

One has to assume that when Arthur woke up from his sedation in the shadow of a bush, naked and without any belongings, he must have been completely baffled as to what had happened to him.  There is obviously nothing recorded about this, but what would someone, who had served seventeen years of a life sentence in a penitentiary, who thought he was being transported somewhere, and left out literally in the middle of no-where have thought? 

Had there been some sort of accident during his transport?  Was there wreckage to be found around him?  And why was he asleep?  And probably the most important question; where was he?  He had been told that he was flying west, so perhaps there had been a mishap and he was somewhere in the Arizona or Utah deserts? 

But instead, Arthur was in the middle of a land that had a rich history dating back to 700 BC.  The Kanem region of Chad had several times over been an empire whose prosperous trading routes brought items and slaves from the fertile areas in the Southwest of Chad up through the Sahara desert through to the Mediterranean.  The Kanem Empire either was created by natives of the land, or it may have been developed by people immigrating into Kanem as the former Assyrian Empire crumbled.  It became a hot seat for territorial and religious conflicts for hundreds of years, which included the introduction of and opposition to Islamism into an area that long held traditional religious beliefs.  It was inhabited by the Sayfuwa dynasty, and then later, the site of a mass exile to Bornu. 

Seasonal temperatures range from just above freezing during cold winter nights to one hundred twenty degrees Fahrenheit in the summer.  Those few settlements in the area were third world in nature to be sure, and there were also nomadic bands of people who survived in different areas during the seasonal cycles.  There was often a dull haze to the air; the residue of thousands of small ground cooking pots from hundreds of miles away mixed into the air like drops of milk into a water bowl.  There were sounds of small animals scurrying about and exotic birds calling to one-another.  This was the kind of endless open space that makes one aware that one is in God’s realm. It was a kind of flat and wild land that one doesn’t find in the Americas. Arthur wasn’t in Arizona.

As the day progressed, it’s hard not to think that Arthur started to feel a sense of panic, mixed with an epiphany that he was free, if only temporarily.  His disorientation must have been arresting, and yet the sense that he could go look for an answer or for help in any direction he chose must have felt liberating.  He might also just sit and wait where he was.  It was up to him and no one else in those moments.  And in a philosophical sense, he was free in spirit to determine his own immediate destiny; a taste of existential freedom he had not experience in a very long time.  This must have been almost startling to a man whose world for twenty-three hours per day was a six by eight foot, metal barred cinder block cell.

And as the sedatives that he had been given during transport finally fled his system, his senses must have opened back up to him.  He was naked to the air and feeling the course desert sand on his feet.  Clean, arid air filled his lungs as never been felt before.  He could hear the calls of birds all around, chattering back and forth, and he saw a flat land in every direction.  He smelled the aromas of deciduous trees, tall grasses and marshes carried in from the southern breeze, hinting to his olfaction a lost exotic life just out of his grasp.

Arthur stayed at his drop off spot all of that day and into the second morning of November 28, 1981.  He may have thought that any decision he made, officials would ultimately intercept him, and that he’d better just stay put.  We know specifically of his movements from transcriptions of the transponder that the military hospital inserted into his mouth during his medical stopover at Fort Polk. 

This transponder, marked in the files as “KDT-7901,” was something presumably commissioned out by the government to a specialty company.  In the 1980’s, electronics and technology in general were going through a rapid acceleration in their ability to be smaller and more effective.  There were still many Aerospace firms about such as General Dynamics, Hughes Aircraft, Honeywell, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.  Many of these companies were in the satellite technology business and refined ability to track things on planet Earth.

The way this transponder worked was that it would send out a very high frequency pulse every fifteen minutes, which would be detected by satellite. The transponder’s location was then calculated by a crude form of triangulation using just one satellite at a time, and relayed to ground operations in the States where Arthur’s movements would be mapped and recorded.  The transponder’s location could be detected within one-eighth of a mile distances, or about 200 meters.  At the time, this was considered very accurate in comparison to the quality of tracking that was available just two or three year’s prior.  Now, of course, with advanced global positioning satellite triangulation, one-eighth of a mile would be considered very low accuracy. 

The government account of Arthur’s activities pieced together from three sources; Arthur’s transponder, general knowledge of western Kanem’s topography, and from Arthur’s notebook.   

The temperatures in Chad, though they can very greatly, are not so different from those in the United States in November.  There will be hot days, in the 80’s, and occasional storms will start rolling through.  There is desert to the north of Koro Toro, and there is plush greenery well to the south of Mao, around Lake Chad.

These areas may mean nothing to the average American reader, and in fact, would look like nothing but open space if one visited.  But to the bands of people living and trading in Chad, they are familiar.  Most people have heard of the northern Russians who can tell where they are in the most desolate, flat, snow covered areas of Siberia.  A local tends to know their surroundings with surprising precision. 

To the west of Chad is Niger, to the north, Libya, and to the east, continuing clock-wise, is Sudan, then current day Central African Republic, then, rounding the south east is Cameroon and Nigeria. 

That first night must have been very strange for Arthur.  As the sun sank down past the flat horizon, a dark night set upon him.  There was a new moon, so his ability to see beyond general shapes in his new surrounds was likely very limited.  What he did hear were the movement and calls of very small animals and birds.  There are many types of rodents in this part of Chad as well as a good segment of the bird population that does the majority of their hunting in the darkness.  The sand became cold and damp, and any vague sense of orientation that Arthur may have thought he had his first day was lost on him that night.

The terrain is made up of some low grasses and a mixture of flatland and very small hills; more like slight aberrations in the sand.  If one were to wander a few hundred miles south of where Arthur was left, then one would begin to find larger trees and increasingly jagged country.  And going north, one moves swiftly, and without any geographic knowledge, lethally into the Sahara Desert. 

The first indication of Arthur’s movement from his drop-off spot is at 7:15am on Saturday, November 28th, 1981.  He was tracked moving due north.  This was an interesting choice in that about two hundred miles in front of him was once a very large lake, Erg du Djourab, but is now the site of endless sand dunes with a very small lake that is only sometimes existent depending on the time of year.

With two ten-pound gallons of water that he was presumably carrying with him on top of his body weight, Arthur was carrying a good 290 pounds around the Sudan. He was tracked for two days heading north, the equivalent of 45 miles, much of which he did into the evening and in the early morning.  He must have surmised quickly that setting out on foot during the high sun hours was not particularly efficient.  But again, the question on his mind, the most predominant of them anyways, must have been, “Where am I?”  One would think that if one starts walking in any direction in the middle of Arizona or Utah or New Mexico, that at some point one would happen upon a road, railroad tracks, or some remote campground.  But alas, Arthur was destined never to see any of these things because he was in the middle of the African desert. 

On Monday, November 30th, 1981, Arthur’s direction changed.  It was first thing in the morning, at about 5:30am that his signal was detected moving to the southeast.  He had apparently given his direction a thought over night, and then made a decision in the morning to change directions.  The first thought that comes to mind is that Arthur became disoriented, or perhaps in trying to follow small prey to eat, had turned himself around.  His first movement of the morning was at a sever angle to the direction he had been leading himself up to now.  And in looking at the government file addendum, it becomes apparent that this change was deliberate. 

And this is now where the notebook that Arthur was provided starts to come into play.  Part of the government files on this project is an addendum set, labeled, “Subject Notes.”  The addendum consists of photocopied pages of Arthur’s notebook.  Arthur, after some time, found some sort of relief or self-assistance in his own mind to start making notations at this point.  And it is also clear that this is part of what the government experiment hoped that he would do.

The description in the government files says simply that the notebook was a “black hardcover bound notebook, wide ruled.”  So one assumes that the style of the notebook was chosen deliberately to last as long as possible.  A flimsy, soft-cover notebook would have likely not survived the ordeal.  It is also assumed that whatever writing was expected of Arthur, it would probably happen during the morning or daytime since he had no light source.

On the first page of the notebook is a crude line that starts from the left and moves up in a straight line, which then makes a jagged angle down to the right, forming an interior angle of about thirty degrees.  This was indeed an effort on the part of Arthur to make his first map.  It’s likely that he did so when he changed his direction that day to keep track of where he had been.  The line going up the page is straight, solid, and looks hastily drawn, rather than a continually extended effort over the last couple of days to track his whereabouts.

This makes sense in that when he first started out, he must have thought that it wouldn’t be long until he came upon some help or something recognizable.  When he make his remarkable directional change on November 30th, there must have been a realization in him that he was headed to an area that would not be of any help, and that he wasn’t about to find people going north.  He then decided he should start keeping some kind of track of where he had been with the simplest of drawing skills.

And what could Arthur have been thinking at this point?  Had he actually been on his way to another prison in the western United States?  Why was a military escort and visit to a military base necessary in his case?  Was that normal procedure when moving from prison to prison?  No other inmates who had moved had ever talked about such a transition. 

It’s hard to estimate Arthur’s reasoning skills and critical thinking ability.  He had obviously made some serious errors in judgment in his life to end up as a “lifer” in a state penitentiary.  Yet, out there in the Sudan, it would be simply up to primal instinct.  What was going through his mind at that point?  Was he happy at all to seemingly be free?  Did he think he was escaping from a mishap?  Or was he just trying to find help?  To me, the map, as simple as it is, seems to indicate to me that he had started to become concerned.  For, why would one start to track one’s steps but to avoid repeating them again for fear of running out of time? 

Arthur continued on a south-southeast direction for the next three days.  He was undoubtedly sleeping during the mid day, probably in the shade of bushes he came upon, and then traveling during the cooler parts of the day.  The next entry in his notebook, which he has started to separate by a simple horizontal line, consists of drawings, which looks like small rodents.  There are several rodents that are depicted.  He must have been keeping track of some of the prey he was surviving on.  The drawings either indicated that he was counting the rodents that he had killed and eaten, or that he was trying to differentiate them in some way.  In the past few days, Arthur must have had to make a decision he never thought he would make.  Probably on day four, about the time that he made his change in direction, he realized that he was hungry, had run out of his beef jerky sticks, and had to find food for himself.  How had he done this?  Likely with a simple stick from one of the bushes or shrubs.  He might have sharpened one end and gone after one of the rodents he had been seeing along his way. 

Arthur made his way in this same south-southeasterly direction for the next seven days and is tracked by the transponder to be averaging about 14 miles per day.  We have to keep in mind that none of his notebook journal entries are dated simply because Arthur probably had no fixed date of when he left the Louisiana State Penitentiary since it was all so unexpected to him. However, there are certain entries in his notes that indicate generally where he was at the time.

His next entry contains his first written words.  “Nothing here.  I can’t find no-one.”  It seems to have become clearer to Arthur at this point, if it hadn’t already, that he was really in a serious situation.  For him to write these words must indicate some amount of anxiety in him, and rightly so.  He was somewhere between his turnaround point, and a river to the south-southwest by about one hundred ten miles. 

His transponder indicated steady movement for the first three days, and then became more haphazard both with regard to pacing and direction.   As he headed south-southeast, he was crossing a pretty well defined change in climate and surroundings.  From his most northern point southwards took him from a very sandy and arid area, into what was becoming more green and populated with larger trees.  This meant shade and the possibility of more water.  It can only be assumed that, though he was smart enough at this point to ration his water, he must have been getting low on water by now.  Seeing more green to anyone, including someone who has spent the majority of his adult life in prison, still must have indicated that he was on the right path so to speak.  Though his pacing would indicate otherwise.  Fatigue had likely set in on him.

The next entry of Arthur’s was on about the 4th day after his turn around, so say, December 4th.  We can be pretty sure of this because of the event that occurred as written in his notebook.  His next entry says, “Hyenas attacked me when sleeping.  Fought off with walking stick.  Left side of my ribs is bloody cut.  Using bark and grass to put on it. Weren’t no wild dogs.  Hyenas!”  Then, below this entry is a crude self-drawing of Arthur indicating where his wound was inflicted during the attack. 

The area that Arthur had arrived in was slightly more fertile and had a higher population of mammals, several of which one would not want to come into contact with at anytime, let alone during one’s sleep.  Aside from hyenas, there are also wild dogs, leopards, cheetahs, and lions, to name a few of the monsters of one’s childhood dreams that actually live and feed out there.  Most often, these carnivores tend to stay closer to water sources than where it is presumed that Arthur was attacked, but they occasionally take a nomadic-like sweep out of their normal range to hunt, mark, and expand their territory.

It goes without saying how incredibly lucky Arthur was not to have been killed by the hyenas that night.  He either got himself in the right stance against the hyenas, or the may not have been more than two or three in number, or perhaps they weren’t really looking for prey but were making clear to Arthur their territory.  Another helpful factor was that by December 4th, probably around the night he was attacked, there was a new (quarter) moon out, which meant that he could see better in the nighttime than, say, just a few days before.  Having a better sense of what was around him may have helped him fight for his life.  He was lucky to be alive to be able to write notes about it.

The question would now become how seriously Arthur was injured.  He stayed put for most of this day according to the transponder data.  He was probably trying to rest his body and get a sense of how injured he was from fending off the hyenas. 

Let it also be noted that this entry was the longest so far, and to me, indicates that Arthur wanted to keep some record of what had happened to him, presumably, in case he were to die out there.  The combination of a longer entry and a drawn picture of the location of his wound seems as though he’s documenting this for an outsider to read at some point, rather than for his own review.

Surprisingly, his pacing increased after this incident.  He continued on his way on December 5th, 1981 in exactly the overall direction he had been traveling.  It may be that once he survived an attack like this, he thought that his luck out there was close to running out and that he needed to find someone as quickly as possible.

His transponder went on clocking his south-southwestward movement consistently through to December 7th, 1981, the seventh day after his turn around point, at which time, we can see on a map that he reached the Babr el Ghazal Soro River.  He had completed an over one hundred-mile trek from his most northern turnaround point, and one hundred-fifty mile trek from where he had been abandoned.  

His next entry is, “Water – river – I fill up my jugs with water.”  He is obviously relieved to have found water in this vast land.  The Babr el Ghazal Soro River is a water source that flows hundreds of miles in a north-northeast direction and has shallow banks.  If one were walking from the desert to this river, one would know that they were getting close to water because there is greenery, not plush, but green enough as compared to what Arthur had been through for the past seven days to indicate that the plants one would see were being fed by a plentiful supply of water.  Crossing the river is rather easy as well, which opened up his options in his search for prey.

Arthur made another entry, “Food supply.”  He has obviously found some more sources of food, and different from whatever he has been eating during most of his trip to indicate this in his notes.  I would assume that Arthur was also able to wash his wound in the river, and perhaps find a way to redress it given the increased types of vegetation around him.  It would seem that Arthur has found a place to thrive.  His transponder indicates that he stayed at the river for two days.

This is where this story takes a turn.  Arthur’s next entry is, “Woman washing basket at sunset.”  That’s it, nothing else about this vision that he must have witnessed in the late afternoon.  Neither is there any indication that Arthur ever made any further attempt to investigate the first person he’s seen in ten days.  One has to wonder if Arthur was somehow delusional.  Did he actually see a woman, or did he imagine it.

And I must insert my opinion here that it sure would have been more helpful for us, the readers of this account, if the subject of this experiment had been more able or willing to his about personal experiences.  His notes give us but the bare minimum of his actions with no descriptions, and for this part of the account, no insight into what he was basing his decisions on.  And so we are left with a void in understanding, and perhaps as a result, a void in greater sympathy for his situation.

Arthur’s next entry into his journal is, “Supplies filled, moving on forward.”  His transponder shows Arthur moving slightly away, but skirting the Babr el Ghazal Soro River on December 9th, 1981.  He stays near the greenery of the river for about four hours, and then turns southwestward, moving away from the river. 

And before I give you my added opinion on Arthur’s reality check, I have to let you in on some information, which Arthur was not privy to, but which most people would assume true.  As one moves in either direction along the Babr el Ghazal Soro River, one will find many, as in, hundreds, of small groups of people who live along the river.  It would be akin to how a small highway in the southwestern United States would have little town sprinkled along its route.  Now, Arthur may have happened to land at just a spot where there were none of these small bands of people, but in one’s right mind, one would tend to stay along a river for the possibility of human contact since it’s a natural resource.  Interaction with some of these bands can be dangerous as some of them are indeed not welcoming to outsiders.  Several explores have been killed over the millennia.  However, at that point, Arthur would not have had any reason to think that anyone he came across would be unfriendly.  Again, he still had no idea he was in Africa. 

So, I have to believe, that given his judgment with moving away from a natural water and people source, and in his failing to investigate the women he saw, that Arthur was just not in his right mind.  Perhaps his injuries sustained during the Hyena attack were more serious than he wanted to note in his book, or maybe just didn’t want to focus his efforts on anything but the most minimalist of writing.  Another possibility is that he thought the river ended.  There are areas where the Babr el Ghazal Soro River seems to dry up, but then recedes underground for a while, and then continues hardily on it’s way.  But the peculiar thing about Arthur’s decision is that the greenery near the river never terminates nor fades out.  So there is always some indication that there is water nearby.  We’ll never know.

Arthur continues to move in a southwesterly direction.  The notable thing about his new choice in direction is that between two hundred-fifty and three hundred miles in front of him is Lake Chad.  This is the largest lake in the area and is also populated by about four hundred thousand people.  Lake Chad is actually in the Chad region of Lac, and also boarders the region of Hadjer-Lamis, as well as the countries of Cameroon, Nigeria and Niger.  It is a very large lake.  But it is also very, very far away from where Arthur was at that moment.

By December 11th, probably two days after Arthur left the river, there is a full moon, which means that he is able to see well at night.  In fact, his transponder shows him doing more nocturnal traveling than he had before.  The terrain was not quite as flat in this southwesterly direction.  There were areas of rifts in the land with upturned rocks and canyons along his way, some of which are hidden in tall grass and are difficult to navigate.  One would have come upon no dirt roads or otherwise in western Chad during these years. 

Arthur continued in his new direction for three days.  His next entry is, “Got onto more rocks and watching where the sun goes.  It was very red colored sunset”  Under this entry, he has drawn a crude, but somewhat accurate map of where his trip has taken him thus far.  It shows his first jaunt north, then his hairpin-like change in direction to the south-southeast to the river, then his next change toward Lake Chad where he has drawn his path heading into rocks.  The only inaccuracy in this crude map is that Arthur indicates the river as being close to his latest direction, which it isn’t.  He has veered sharply away from the river and is probably thirty or forty miles away from any water source as this point.  This may have been one flaw in Arthur’s thinking; that he was still somehow skirting the river, and that it was still accessible to him.

I think that what he was writing about on this entry was that he had gotten a little unsure of his direction when he came upon the many areas of large rocks that dot the vast land, and so once he was up on one of these promenades, he tried to observe where the sun was traveling since this seemed to be his basis of self-navigation.  And while in this process, he happened to see an unexpected magnificent sunset. 

In the very early hours of December 14th, 1981, Arthur’s transponder stopped moving.  And to describe what’s likely to have occurred to halt his movement any further forward, we look back to his notes, for though sparse, they tell the story clearly.

Arthur’s next entry is, “Lots of bushes, rocks and canyons here.”  This is followed by, “Fell, trying to move at night.”  This entry is the first of which are not on the ruled lines.  This means to me that he wrote this at night when he couldn’t see, or when he was less than fully capable of writing due to an injury; probably both.  This is followed by, “Ankle broken?”  What an ordeal this must have been; trying to navigate a problematic area at night, and then to fall and break a limb.  Apparently, he had become comfortable traveling at night with the recent full moonlight.  However, Arthur failed to change his strategy as headed into increasingly jagged terrain.  The moon had moved into its last quarter reducing his visibility and making any misstep carry the potential for serious consequences.

Arthur’s next entry is “The stars are all over the sky.”  I suppose from his vantage point, being injured and having nothing better to do, he gazed up and the ink sky and took in all of that great blackness, and the dimensionality of the millions of stars sitting above him during those moments, and he felt awe. I’d like to think that, anyways. A kind of celestial gift for all that he had been through, both in his life, and during this journey.  Maybe for once he had a sense of internal peace.

His last entry is, “Lions.”  Nothing more. 

The government file concludes with some facts.  Arthur had traveled two hundred sixty-eight miles in seventeen days, averaging a bit more than 15 miles per day, in the middle of the African Sudan.  His transponder stopped moving on December 14th, 1981, and his remains were later recovered on January 11th, 1982 by a military team.  It was clear when they found what was left of him that he had been attacked and eaten by African lions just where he lay, and had probably seen his killers face to face by the dim light of the moon’s last quarter.  His satchel was partially shredded, and it’s contents strewn among the rocks and crevices within about fifty feet to the northwest of where he lay.  The map to the lower left show his starting point in green, his route in blue, and his final resting place in red.

And so what are we left with to make of this?  Why did the government set out to perform such an experiment on a human being?  And more specifically, why was Arthur, or someone like Arthur chosen?  One might naturally assume that they chose someone who had no real life left to speak of, unless one is open to calling living in a cell for the rest of his days, a life.  The reason for the experiment, and the decision of how a subject was chosen are not put forth in any of the files.  For those who become aware of this project, there will be conjecture and speculation.  Maybe we can pose our own questions both as to the purpose of the experiment, and as to what Arthur went through.

How would a lifer in a penitentiary react when dropped into the middle of Africa with nothing but a very few essentials?  I suppose that was the experiment.  It was about shocking transition, blatant abandonment, and finally, about pure survival. 

What does something like that do to the psyche?  What does it do to basic decision-making?  Did this man, who all he had to look forward to for the rest of his days being a cell block, find liberty in being in the great outdoors?  Did he find it imprisoning not to know what was going on and what lay ahead for his future?  How did he physically get along being such a large man in such arid and bleak surroundings, and with so far to go?  The most exercise Arthur got was probably playing a short game of basketball in the recreational area or lifting some weights.  But Arthur never engaged in any kind of sustained activities.

Did Arthur feel like he knew himself enough to rely on himself to survive?  Or did he feel at a loss?  Betrayed by his own psychological make up and upbringing and not able to reason his way out of his predicament; not to be able to count on his own resources to survive.

What was it like for Arthur to even begin to conceive that the animals that night could be Hyenas, let alone having to fight them for his life?  What really did he make of the vision of a beautiful African woman washing her basket by the river?  Did he in that moment start to conceive that he might be in a very different land?  Perhaps that’s why he abandoned the river the next day.  It was his way of denying the truly exotic nature of what he had just witnessed a day before, and a sense of place that he was beginning to perceive.  And what would have happened had he found a large band of people.  How would he have communicated his need to find out where he was to them?

And finally, what was on his mind the last few days?  Where did he think he was heading?  When he saw that beautiful red sunset, what did he feel like inside?  Was he glad to be lost rather than locked up?  Or did he somehow desire the familiar penitentiary life?  Had prison really become home for him? And finally, did he know he was going to die when he heard the lions?  He must have in my opinion.  Injured and disabled; there was just no other way.  I’m sure you, the reader, can think of more questions to be posed that I haven’t.

I hope that Arthur was satisfied that he successfully survived as long as he had.  He had lived a hard life as a child, and then unrespectable and even despicable life as an adult.  And yet, there must have been a moment when he realized all of that was behind him.  Maybe he was able to encapsulate this journey as a separate experience from everything else and judge his conduct and effort on their own merits.  Seventeen days is not a particularly long time to survive, but then again, Arthur had not been equipped either, physically, nor psychologically, for the journey he was to take.  Not knowing anything about where one has landed is a serious handicap, especially in the wilds of Africa. 

I want to point out once again that Arthur was one half African-American.  He was partially descended from this continent that he tried to survive in, but was a complete stranger to it and was ultimately unable to survive in it.  I find that irony something that is hard to wrap my head around.  It signifies to me that all of us, who were once part of a land weaved in our heritage, have become so removed from that aspect of ourselves that we may not even have the basic instinct to survive in such a place anymore.

As I close the government file along with the addendum of Arthur’s notes, I ask myself, somewhat self-consciously, as cruel as this government experiment that was brought upon Arthur was, in the end, and on a spiritual level, was it better for Arthur to have endured this ordeal or not?  The fact that I can’t give a certain answer gives me pause.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Wormhole to Arizona - A Place of Pain


I had a strange thing happen a long time ago when a girlfriend who I had been living with for three years, up and moved out on me literally without any warning.  It was very odd, and several of my family members, who had already seen some questionable behavior from her in their presence, reacted with words to me such as, "That's a very uncommon thing for a woman to do.  Usually women like to talk things out when they have issues. It was likely one facet of a woman who was already very impulsive and who had little sense of introspection."  I don't have too many negative feelings towards her anymore, other than that she had trashed me to her own family, and her friends, some of which we had shared, and also that she had begun to see someone while she was still with me.  She shouldn't have done any of that.  Because of her own complicated childhood, I think that she was destined to gravely mishandle the way in which she separated from her relationship with me, and that she was also destined (at that time at least) never to have taken a long, hard, look at herself and how she interacted with the world.  Hopefully, that either has, or will change for her.  But that's all water under the bridge now.

With all of this in the past, one aspect of the experience remains poignant to me.  It was that when this was all happening (about the fall of 1993), it was extremely painful for me.  This caused me to go into a really strange place in my head, which will be difficult to describe here since I haven't completely made sense of it even to this day. 

I am not and have never abused chemical substances in my life.  The most I have ever experimented with was pot when I was fifteen, and that was only because I had a couple of friends who smoked it now and then, so I gave it a try a couple of times.  Two friends and I also took mushrooms at Disneyland once during our time at university, which was pretty interesting.  We chalked it up as a perceptual experiment.  I have pride in myself about my lack of interest in chemical substances because I had a biological father who drank excessively, so one might expect that I might have had an inclination to have either experimented with or have leaned on substances.  But I never have had the desire to mute my own pain at all.  I have always felt that surviving through pain directly strengthens me.  Having been adopted by a mother who was a child development specialist may have helped in this regard, as I was mostly open to my own feelings throughout my life.  I wasn't perfect with handling them, but that expressive channel was always there in myself.   

During the weeks and possibly months after the woman that I lived with moved out, had I been a different person, this would have been the time to have abused substances.  Believe me, I was in such pain from this experience, that I was destroyed inside.  I felt as though someone had taken a baseball bat and swung it as hard as they could targeting the glass menagerie of my heart and internal organs, and they all lay shattered as hanging shards with no hope of reconstitution.  Any person who had an inclination to take a drink, smoke dope, snort blow, or insert a needle, would have done it then without passing "Go" and without collecting a hundred dollars if they had been laden with the painful feelings that were weighing on my entire body.  But I didn't, and I never would have.  I'm not someone who would put poison into my body in order to feel better, or jump off of a building, or use any other vice to end the pain.  Somewhere deep within me I have always had the sense that as long as I am alive, I will always have the possibility of making a better life for myself, and watching the sunset on a tropical beach somewhere, hearing the ocean surf hit the rafters under me as I lay in my beach house.  Anything and everything is possible.  This, I know to be inborn in me.  I came into this world with this.  And it was reinforced from having come from virtually nothing with my biological parents and knowing even at age four that I could survive by myself on the streets while my father was passed out from whiskey. 

But those weeks and months after she moved out from me were literally terrible for me.  I was working as a Production Assistant on,"Boy Meets World," at the Walt Disney Studios, and during my very long working hours, I remember going into the bathrooms of the old Animation Building on the lot, and also in the production bungalows, and sobbing inconsolably.  I had lost the woman that I loved.  I recall one day when I had delivered some lunch and noon-time production reports to our, "Boy Meets World," Stage 2 of the Walt Disney Studios lot.  I made it there without breaking down and crying.  Upon leaving the stage, I was walking back to the production bungalows, relieved that I had kept myself together for the fifteen minutes needed to do my work on the sound stage, and then as I was walking back down one of the faux Disney streets, I started balling because I thought that no one was around and I could let some of it out that I had been holding in.  

Then, to my horror I realized that the stage manager of our production had exited the double-doored sound stage doors right behind me, had caught up to me, and was walking to my right.  She sensed right away that I was crying, and had heard about what had happened to me.  She stopped me, put her arm around me, and said, "You'll make it through this, Fred."  I thanked her and we went on.  It was very kind of her to have done that just then because in her assurance, I extrapolated that she, like every one else, had experience their own heartbreaks in the past and understood what I was going through.  The stage manager's name was, Lynn M. McCracken, and she is someone who to this day played an important role as a casual observer in helping me know at the time that I would indeed make it through the pain.  It was like having someone way up the ranks give me a stamp of approval that I was a good guy and that I would be fine in the end. 

But to finally get to the gist of this story.  During times when I was alone and without much stimulation, such as when I was either alone on a bench somewhere, or walking by myself outside, or the worst, sitting in the little loft that my girlfriend and I had lived in together, but which she had since left, I would go to this very strange place in my head.  It wasn't a hallucination or a delusion; I'd be willing to go as far as to call it a dissociated state of mediation.  It was simply a place my mind would drift off to for lack of better distraction.

The place was in the middle of the Arizona desert at night, looking almost straight up at the cold stars in a clear sky.  It was a surreal place because it was as if I was actually standing on the sand and gazing up at the last possible hint of blue crescent twilight conceding to a black starry background over a barren wasteland of loneliness.

I've thought over the years of how I could describe the experience to someone.  The only thing I could think of, which still seems mild to me, was for a person who always had Christmases with their close family and friends for their whole life to be suddenly sent into the middle of a mountain range alone on Christmas Eve, and with nil warning.  

In my desert, it was as if civilization itself had dropped off of the horizon and I was there cast off as a lone human being under a vast, eternal universe.  The atmosphere was either warm with a summer evening breeze, or it was very cold, as if in the midst of winter.  I experience both of these conditions there in my head during my visits.  And the feeling I had inside was of utter desolation. 

And in the abject desert silence that I would experience with each visit, whatever warm or cold wind that might be moving across the sands would literally blow through my body without regard to my own mass as a physical being.  I was unprotected and exposed to the elements of the unbounded cosmos.  I would continue to drift off to this place for the first few months after the break up, and then my visits gradually became less frequent. 

I believe that I had a very strong reaction to my girlfriend's leaving me because I have some issues regarding my biological mother who abandoned me emotionally when I was very young.  So the experience that my girlfriend, the first woman who I had ever had a long, ongoing, intimacy with, put me through by virtue of her surprise exit from my life was magnified by this earlier experience.

And as for my mind's choice of location:  I think that I conjured it up in relation to a place my girlfriend and I had previously visited.  Maybe a year earlier, we had gone to visit her relations in a small town in Arizona.  It was a small town where her uncle worked for the government.  And somewhere either in her aunt and uncle's small town, or during our nighttime travel to or from there, I had surely glimpsed at and been impressed by the clear, starry nighttime sky there and had filed it into my memory banks, which I obviously drew upon later. 

I have to think that the place that I would go to in my mind during that period of pain was a location and a means for me to represent the loss that I felt from my former girlfriend, and also tangentially connected with harmonic shades of emotions from my early childhood, experienced and presented in a visual way for myself.  As odd and distasteful as it would seem, somehow this very stark, calm place I went to helped me cope with that pain.  But when I think of that place even now, it feels as alien to me as it did back then.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Home Drive By - Some Self Soothing

Since my parents died and their house was sold by their trustees, I've had moments where I have driven up their street as if to verify, this was my home.  It's a slight compulsion, and not one that happens all the time.  But since their death, just two and a half years apart from each other, I've done just that five or six times; maybe more.  

Just a couple of weeks ago, my girlfriend was out of town and I felt a little bit alone.  With her absence, there was a vacuum and I started thinking about my former life with my parents, which doesn't seem all that long ago, but in retrospect, was eight, ten, twelve years in the past.  My memories of my mom planting bulbs in the front yard flower beds, and of my dad sitting at the family room table, carving out a slab or grapefruit while watching a baseball or football game, are based during a time during which they were still healthy.  It was before the period when they were diagnosed with dementia and Alzheimer's disease.  And I realize that these memories I have a from further back than my emotions would lead me to believe. 

And so just recently, after getting myself some dinner, I had one of those inklings to drive over to my old neighborhood.  It was about 8:30pm when I parked my Jeep just down the street from our old house and got out to feel and smell my old street.  Most of the same houses are there from when I grew up, but many have been extended upwards, backwards or both, to increase their square footage, and many yards have had a fair amount of light-scaping added to them for evening ambiance.

I walked up the street from my car, noticing the rural type of curbing that I played on so many years; that is, no curbs.  The asphalt just ends at people's lawns, probably similar to how many streets were first laid out in the early San Fernando Valley.  Unlike other times that I have executed these visits, I asked myself to note how I would feel before, during, and after, this time. 

Beforehand, it felt like a sort of need in myself.  The idea of a drive by seemed a way that I could be closer to my parents and my earlier life because that neighborhood reeks of all of it to me.  It felt like I could satisfy the desire to be near my parents again by being on their street. I felt that I could maintain some sort of connection with the neighborhood which is, in a way, still supposed to be mine; like getting back a piece of something that I had lost. 

I walked up nearing the frontage of their house, which is segmented with a flower garden against the street separated from the asphalt by railroad ties that the owner before us had installed in 1974.  Then about five feet back on the other side of the garden, I supposed where the legal set back from what is actually city owned, is a wooden ranch fence that extends the entire width of the property, followed in back by our green lawn populated with birch trees that I didn't want them to plant.  I felt that a wide open lawn would have been better and easier to maintain rather than planting new trees.  Also, given that an old tree had once fallen onto our roof in a storm, I didn't feel the need to test the gods again.  But, my have those trees grown in this short time!  Following the lawn, more flower beds and then the front edge of our house. 

I looked at all of this in the still of the night.  The new owner had put up brighter flood lights than we had, and had also painted our brown ranch style cape cod home with a light whitewash.  I am guessing the new owners didn't ask me because I wouldn't have approved.  It's too trendy a paint job in my opinion.  Still though, as I was now directly in front of the property, everything else was still set up the way my parents had it.  The location of the trash cans, the hose, the flowers, the security company stickers on the front door window panes.  I can readily imagine pulling into the driveway, opening the front door with my key, and finding my mom in her den doing some paperwork, and my dad sitting at our round family room table with a spoon scraping out the last bit of orange Sherbet ice cream from a small bowl.  But there were two new model SUV's parked in the driveway that I've seen a few times as I have driven by.  "Someone must be visiting my parents," viscerally echoes through my head.  "Nope Fred, they belong to the owners," says the same voice in response. 

"And how do I feel now?"  I miss this house, and I miss my parents.  It's not entirely painful to stand in front of it on this pleasant summer evening.  And I'm not sure that I'd want to still be living in the house that we bought when I was ten years old, but I wish I still owned it.  It feels like it's mine, and it does tug on my heartstrings a little.  And it somehow soothes me to see it. 

Up the street by just a few houses, on either side, are two huge box type homes that have been newly built from the ground up.  They are both much too big a footprint for their respective lots and are imposing to the other, smaller, more elegant homes on the street.  Someone asked me recently after I told him about my occasional visits, "What would happen if your parents' house was razed and a new home built there?"  And I hesitated.  "I would indeed have a problem with it for a little while because of this need I sometimes have to validate my life with my parents by seeing our old house on our old street," I answered.  

I've been lucky in this respect because all of the homes that have been significant to me in my life are still there.  The places I lived in with, first, both my natural mother and father, then later with my father are still there.  The house that I was adopted into near the Mulholland Tennis Club in the Skyline development is still there.  All of the apartments I've lived in around Los Angeles (with the exception of one on Brockton Avenue in West L.A.) are still there.  So I haven't much dealt with having a house disappear and not being able to see it for myself again.  Obviously my goal is to just accept and integrate my past life with my present Fred without having to see these places, but I'm not totally there yet. 

And so after walking up past my parents' house a little, I turned around for another view of the well lit front yard.  I could just slightly see into the front entry from the street.  I was sure that the owners were on the phone or watching television as I passed by.  As I walked back to my car, I asked myself, "How do I feel now?"  I feel okay.  I feel like I got it out of my system for now, for this month.  I know it's not my last time coming by, but I don't feel ashamed of needing to see my childhood home as maybe I might have supposed before I made my visit.  I feel like I miss my parents, and I still mourn their passing because I am a human being.  And at this time in my life, this is my way to mourn and to remember them.  And now, I feel like it's time to get into my Jeep and drive home.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Dennis Wolfberg - A Legend in My Book


Sometime in about 1990, when I was still living at the Sea Castle in Santa Monica, I invited my girlfriend, and about five other friends out for the evening.  We all had dinner in West L.A., and then I didn't really have a plan after that.  We finished our food and were ready to head onto some other activity when I remembered that not far from the restaurant was a small comedy club at 11637 Tennessee Place, West Los Angeles.  It was called, IGBY's Comedy Cabaret, and was a 190 seat capacity club with small tables and chairs. 

When we arrived at the club to investigate who was on that night, Dennis Wolfberg was scheduled to perform.  I had seen him a few times on television and remembered that his observational type of comedy was very funny.  I remember thinking that it was an off night, such as maybe a Wednesday or a Thursday evening,  and that the club was a little out of the way too, being just off of Pico Boulevard near Barrington, just west of the 405 freeway.  So I was surprised that we would get to see Wolfberg so spontaneously. When we sat down, we were in about the second row of tables, and the place eventually became about three-quarters full. 

And after a warm up by Robert Lee, Dennis Wolfberg came out and did a routine about his wife's pregnancy and child's birth that made the group of us curl up fetally with laughter.  He had so finely honed his craft that when one listened to his show, one literally hung on every word that he said.  He had a way with emphasizing his speaking with a volume and clarity that reminded me of a well enunciated professor.  In addition, he would bulge his face as he accentuated his story elements.  His routines were a tapestry of brilliant writing and stage acting. 

I would later see him performing this same routine on the Tonight Show and on other television programs, so maybe our audience was part of the final testing ground for him before releasing this routine to the world.  I think that had he not passed away shortly after our encounter with him, he would have been one of the better known stand up's (make that legendary) in entertainment history.  Wolfberg was just that gifted. 

The Effect of a Fourth

The 4th of July holiday always brings back to me a memory of one 4th when I was on a bus, from Los Angeles to Phoenix, Arizona, during my search for my sister.  The reason for this specific trip was that I had just found the mother of the man and woman who had stood in as God parents for my sister at her baptism.  As I did all things in those days (around 1984), as soon as I had acquired the information about these people, I was on a Greyhound Bus as soon as possible to get over to her and meet her. 

During this outbound portion of the trip, I left on a mid day bus, so that by the time the bus got into Arizona, it was getting around 9:00pm, and being that it was the 4th of July, fireworks shows began to appear in the dimly lit skies from different parts of the city.  I recall one parking lot near a recreational field that the bus had to either drive through or near where there were a lot of youngsters tailgating with drinks and coolers and watching the fireworks.  I was sitting on the left side of the bus and I looked out of my window, separated from the activity and sound by my window, and I saw such excitement and pleasure on their faces.  I could see that there were groups of friends and families, being with each other for the spectacular show that was occurring. 

Because of the direction that my bus was going, and because the window tops were rather low on my bus, I could not see the actual fireworks, the source of which were above the roof of the Greyhound bus and about ten-o-clock above my left shoulder.  My view was of lights and colors changing and illuminating the vehicles and faces of those watching in the parking lot.  Teens and kids waved sparklers as the fireworks exploded above them while their moms and dads chatted and laughed.  This scene made an impression on me.

Though I had been to many fireworks shows with my own family and friends, somehow being separated from it all and witnessing the reverie that these folks were exuding made me feel how special these times of gatherings are; a 4th of July, a Christmas, a New Years.  When one is distanced from it all, as through a thick pane of observational glass in some scientific setting, it becomes even clearer that we as humans are so capable of intense pleasure and bonding, and that on the balance, we seek these moments for connection with ourselves.  It's nice to see so many happy people all at once.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Memorial for Marilyn

This past Friday was the memorial service for the matriarch of one of my favorite families.  She left behind three children, who I love, and three grandchildren.  Here are some words that I wrote, and which I spoke during the service:

Hello.  My name is Fred Herrman, and I was Trish’s high school boyfriend.  Trish and I met during our tenth grade year, though I had already noticed her in middle school wearing her government sash at a lunchtime assembly, but that’s another story.  Pretty soon after we got to know each other, she invited me over to her house to meet her parents, Marilyn and Dugan.  Being that this was my first-ever real girlfriend, I didn’t know what to expect from my new sweetheart’s parents.

I wondered to myself, would her parents like me?  Would they be critical of this guy who was dating their youngest daughter?  Would I know how to behave around them? 

And then I met them.  Marilyn and Dugan were very kind to me and made me feel comfortable right away.  As I remember it, pretty much as soon as I walked into the house, Marilyn, who had stationed herself in the Varna house kitchen, offered me a little snack, along with some lemonade.

As time progressed, I found out that these two people were very generous and welcoming and took a genuine interest in me, and I noticed that they were like this with all of Trish’s friends.  These were good people.  And as more time went on, I was invited to beautiful Bass Lake for summer vacations and was made to feel a part of the family.  And there were occasional Jackman family arguments that I witnessed too.  “Wow! They even feel comfortable enough to argue around me? Good!  They’re a crazy Jewish family just like mine! Now I really feel at home!” 

I will never forget this and I have carried these experiences around with me throughout my life.  The litmus test for anyone’s relations that I meet are, “Do they approach the very high bar of love and sincerity that Marilyn and Dugan showed me all of those years?”  And, as expected from being around people such as Marilyn and Dugan, I quickly fell in love with them.  How could I not?  They were real, and they were fun to be around, and they were always “there” for everyone.  I always loved Dugan’s endless cavalcade of stories, especially the one where he described how he had applied to, but was rejected from the U.S. Navy, because he was just plumb too short.  So he kept searching varying armed forces divisions until he found just the right one that didn’t care so much about a person’s height; The United States Coast Guard, where he was accepted and served for our country. What tenacity he had!

And for every story that Dugan told, there was Marilyn right along his wing, while readjusting a hallway chair, fluffing up some sofa pillows, or untangling the vacuum chord, throwing in a corrected fact here and there to Dugan, or rewinding him back a bit to cover some appropriate and necessary additional back-story.  A story session could go on for forty minutes or so.  But it was always fun because Dugan had a punch line buried in there somewhere, and it was worth the wait.  They were quite the story-telling duo!

And when Trish and I finally went our separate ways sometime towards the end of high school, I not only suffered the heartbreaking loss of Trish, but also of this great family.  Because, you see, all of it went together;  Marilyn, Dugan, Susan, Mitch and Trish, their family’s way of life, and all of their collective experiences that one could live vicariously through.  And that’s a lot to miss out on.

With Marilyn’s passing, I have to think of Stephen, who I was never fortunate enough to have met, but of whom Trish always spoke with glowing admiration and love.  She told me in high school that she would never cut her hair because Stephen always liked it long on her.  And now I think to myself that Marilyn can finally be reunited with her eldest son. 

My dear Trish, your mother loved you so much.  It was just as obvious as the summer San Fernando days were sunny.  Marilyn lived her life around you and all about you.  And that’s a really nice thing for an impressionable sixteen-year old to witness.  It reinforced in me that family is everything.  Marilyn was her family, and so you are this very minute the living part of her and always will be.  Her absolute success as a mother and as a person are reflected in each of her children and their respective stellar characters and passions for life.  

Marilyn always talked about you, Trish, Susan and Mitch; what you were all doing, the funny thing you had said just the other day, how she loved your involvement in school and life activities, and how constantly picky you were, Trish, about matching your clothes to your Espadrilles. I truly believe that Imelda Marcos was taught how to collect shoes by Trish.  In fact, I’ll submit this fact to Wikipedia tonight.

Saying goodbye is not easy. And believe me, I am right here with you.  As you know, my mother passed away just this last February, and my father just two years before that.  And it’s a hard thing; a very difficult thing. Because when someone you love so much, leaves you, it takes a while to really understand what you have lost.  It’s a mother (like Marilyn), or a father (like my dad), or a sister (like Kim’s Karen), or a brother (like Stephen) who you could always go to and bounce an idea off of, or call when you’re feeling a little down, or lonely.  They are the people who you can confide in and the people who know all of your back history, and who know your complicated baggage.  All of that counts for a lot in a people you trust.  And when they are no longer here, it’s really like an appendage has gone missing, and it takes a very long while to get somewhat used to it, if nearly at all.  That’s what I miss the most in my own life; calling my mom and dad, or dropping in on them just to talk and work out my own stuff while they listened. 

And one of the things I experienced after I lost my parents was to constantly ask myself, “Did I do enough? Was I there enough for them? Did I give enough of myself? Was I present enough throughout their struggles? Was I too selfish with my own time?”  Trish, I know that you are struggling with a bit of this, and I can tell you that ultimately, the answer for all of us is, “Yes, we did do enough, and yes, we were present enough.”  Our parents have always loved us for who we are, and we did the best that we could given our own complicated and imperfect lives.  “Yes Trish,” it was enough in Marilyn’s eyes, among other reasons, most importantly because she has always known how much you loved her, which I and everyone in this room know to be, with all of your heart. 

What I know for you three, Trish, Susan and Mitch, is just how lucky you are to have one-another, both through this very hard time, and throughout your lives.  Because it is the knowledge of one-another’s confidences, and history, and baggage, that makes you the family that you are. And as I myself learned from my time with the Jackman’s, in the end, family really is everything, and trust me, y’all came from a good one!  

I love you, Marilyn.  I will always remember the hugs you generously gave out, that told me, “You are at home here,” and I will always remember your laughter, with great love and affection, for the rest of my years.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Dixie Chicks - Hits That Will Never Be



My girlfriend and I play a game I made up one time when I was channel surfing our cable system.  Toward the high channel portion of our cable service, we have a load of strictly music channels.  They show different photos and facts from whichever band they are playing a song at that moment, and one night I told her to close her eyes as I moved from country channel to country channel and identify the songs she heard.  The channels range from current country, to pop country to 90’s country to classic country.  So, pretty much all of the artist are represented in the batch, save folk and bluegrass music. 

In short order, this became a competition between us.  We now both close our eyes and use our music recognition skills to recognize and call out the song before the other.  See, she grew up out in the country surrounded by country music, and I grew up in Studio City on ‘70’s and 80’s rock and roll.  So one would think that she would beat me at this game all the time.  But in the years since 1997, when I discovered how much I liked country music, I have brushed up on my listening repertoire, and so I win a lot of these games.  But we’re actually pretty even when all is said and done because there is some deep country stuff that she knows from her mom and her gramma’s years of listening that I just don’t have the reserve of knowledge for.

So last night, after we had watched a few of our DVR’d shows, before we turned off the T.V., I said, “Hey, let’s try a few,” and I went to those upper country music channels.  I think the first one was a Tim McGraw tune, then a Dolly Parton tune, then a Clint Black with Lisa Hartman tune.  We probably did about ten or twelve of them when I hit one of the channels that was beginning a song with a familiar arpeggio acoustic guitar.  Right away I recognized it as, “Cowboy Take Me Away,” by the Dixie Chicks and called it out before my girlfriend did.  “Ha! Won that one!” We both laughed, and yet, simultaneously my heart panged with sadness as it often does when I hear a Dixie Chicks tune.  I enjoy hearing their songs so much, but for the last ten years, I’ve always felt a mixture of enjoyment and sadness with their music. 

I first discovered the Dixie Chicks in 1998 the same year or two that probably everyone else did.  It was during the release of “ Wide Open Spaces.”  It was so clear to me when I heard this song and the album that this was an extremely talented, and original sounding group.  I loved the freshness of the acoustic instruments they used and the tight female harmonies.  And I thought that the lead singer, Natalie Maines’, voice cut through the other vocalists on the radio with a determination and spit that I hadn’t heard before.  They won the Country Music Association’s Horizon Award, an award that at the time I had hoped the Wilkinsons would take home.  I sensed that the Dixie Chicks were on their way to stardom.

I remember one night as I was driving up California Highway 14 on my way from Burbank to Ridgecrest to visit a friend, that I was in an area that was pitch black between Mojave and Red Rock Canyon.  “There’s Your Trouble” came on the radio, and as I sort of floated along the highway at seventy-five miles per hour, I felt energized by the Dixie Chicks’ song in the little cockpit space of my Mustang in the middle of the desert.  I have a lot of great memories of places and times enjoying their tunes.

As time went on I heard more of their music, and as people started knowing that I was enjoying country music, the Dixie Chicks were one of the groups with which friends and colleagues would connect to me.  There was a woman I worked with at Walt Disney with whom I had a lot of tension throughout our years there, and literally the one moment of enjoyment that I remember sharing with her was when she came into my office late one evening, again as a person who knew of my newly found appreciation of country music, and she showed me that she had bought a CD of, “Fly” because she had heard that song, “Cowboy Take Me Away” was on it.  She asked me what I thought of the album, which I felt was a nice gesture on her part, and I told her what a great choice she had made in selecting it and talked a little bit about the album with her.  It was a nice few moments for us.

I’ve thought about what the meteoric rise of the Dixie Chicks must have seemed like to Laura Lynch and Robin Macy, who had left the group before Natalie Maines joined Martie McGuire and Emily Robison.  It must have been the same for them as the fifth Beatle or the drummer that Keith Moon replaced in The Who.  They saw a band that they had previously been a part of ascend into the stratosphere.  The Dixie Chicks sold millions of records, were in music videos and constantly lived on the radio.  It was a phenomenal rise.

I recall hearing about it on the radio on March 10, 2003; that the Dixie Chicks were somewhere in Europe and had said something about the President and something having to do with war.  It was just a sliver of information, and I kind of passed it off as an entertainer getting political and the news media running with it for a night.  But as the days went on, this thing didn’t seem to go away, and I heard more about how the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, while performing in Shepherds Bush Empire Theater, England, had said that she was ashamed that the President of the U.S. was from Texas, and that she didn’t like the idea of going to war.  These celebrity hiccups still seemed somewhat commonplace in my mind.  Actress and activist Susan Sarandon had said things in very public forums, such as the Oscars, and I’d heard of other celebrities saying things here and there that turned heads or got them into temporary hot water. 

But I must admit that as I was waking up to the idea that this story might play for a while in the media, I was a bit surprised that it was one of the Dixie Chicks who had gone on some sort of political rant.  The reason is that my personal conception of the Dixie Chicks had been that they were these sweet, probably conservative daughters of the south, who had decided to go into music and had formed an astoundingly great trio.  It really never had occurred to me that they might, either as a group, or individually be more liberal than I had imagined.

And while there is nothing wrong with some of this kind of contrast, I found it surprising that she would say something out loud that would so much clash with her public persona of being with this country group.  And I know by writing this that I further ingrain the idea that all country music and musicians are conservative, or that they put out a conservative image.  I know that not to be true.  I think that musicians who struggle over many years tend to experience many sides of life and as a result could have any of a myriad of varying political ideologies.  There is, however, a very large fan base that is conservative that likes country music, and of course, Natalie knew this.  And I think when we love actors or groups, we tend to make fantasies about their lives, and maybe there are ways of not shattering those fantasies for your fans all in one night.  So overall, her straight out criticism did surprise me.  I can’t deny it.  It’s like when I found out that the female cat I had been living with for a year in Venice Canals was actually a neutered male. Whoa!

What went though my mind, and I’m being totally honest here, and of which I am not quite proud, was this.  “Oh boy, here’s yet another celebrity who has decided to use her public face to push her political agenda.”  My feeling was that it’s been the fad of the last couple of decades for celebrities to push political agendas.  And a multitude of Hollywood activists flashed through my mind.  I say that I’m a little ashamed of this reaction because who am I to judge what someone wants to say at their own concert?  But I think a lot of country fans had a similar visceral reaction.  They were surprised and put off by her remarks, and they experienced an immediate change in their perception of who comprised this great band.  It’s the old, paradigm shift causing cognitive dissonance, but in an entire fan base.  

Another thing that surprised me during one mornings was that while I was listening to my clock radio go off, trying desperately to wake me up and get me out of bed and into the shower for work, KZLA, the country station was playing as usual, and then when a song that was playing finally ended, the drive-time host, Peter Tilden, came on and stated that KZLA would not be spinning any Dixie Chicks records.  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  Really?  Is this THAT serious?  I thought it really strange that Peter Tilden of all people, a cool Philadelphia to L.A. transplant, had to make this announcement.  He often had huge Hollywood friends calling in such as Sylvester Stallone and major stars of all kinds.  I just couldn’t imagine an L.A. radio station taking this stance.  I’ve since found out that a much higher strata of music company executive was involved in this decision-making. 

And that’s when I really started to feel bad for the Dixie Chicks.  Unlike Natalie Maines, I do believe it’s a good thing to be patriotic about one’s nation, especially ours.  The United States is indeed the best nation on this planet by way of giving people the opportunities for work and life dreams, and for people to speak as they wish without fear of retribution.  But now it seemed as though the tables had been turned on the Dixie Chicks.  They had used their American right to free speech and were getting wholly shut out of the country music industry.

And you have to remember, we were about to engage Iraq in war because of the supposed Weapons of Mass Destruction.  At the time, people were really nervous about this.  All of these ingredients made for a really bad time and platform from which to make her remarks.  Whether Natalie Maines likes this fact or not, it really was bout the WORST time she could have said this.  People in mid America had sons and daughters who would soon be shipped out to Iraq, or who were already there. They could die soon.  That was exactly Natalie's point, but I feel that her comments that night sounded like someone making a criticism that had no personal investment in any of it.  And while I know she felt she was invested and didn’t want needless war deaths, I don’t think most fans took her criticism of the President, and later, or patriotism, in a productive way.  An entertainer has to remember that they are in the business of entertainment and in the business of celebrity within whatever genre they are in.  And though I know what she said was spontaneous, I think that people who have that much fame and power need to realize that their words can have permanent consequences and impressions.  It’s the same reason why if Donald Sterling either thought before he spoke, or ran his words by his attorney first, he probably wouldn’t get into so much trouble.  But Natalie Maines did say those things, and now it seemed like the whole nation was against the Dixie Chicks because of it.  But the fact that companies were now banning their music from being played; it was just too much of a reaction in my opinion. 

I personally don’t think her speech that night was worth it.  There could have been other ways for her to become active gradually in the public eye, but the way she did it was much too costly.  It basically ended the Dixie Chicks' career.  And at the same time, I don’t understand is how this rejection by the country music industry has continued.  It really doesn’t make any sense to me.

I listened to an interview on YouTube in which Natalie Maines is the guest on Howard Stern, and during the show a caller called in from Dallas, Texas and said that he had requested that songs by the Dixie Chicks be played on two different radio stations, and he was shut down with, “We don’t play the Dixie Chicks on this station.”  Both of them!  This was 2013.  You mean, people are still so angry at the Dixie Chicks even now that the stations won’t play their music?  I mean, that is just crazy, as in the definition of “crazy.”  What do they think, that the Dixie Chicks, an American country music group that was from Texas is the ENEMY???  Pardon me, but that IS stupid!  And it’s censorship.  We lived in America where we have the ideology and legal right to free speech.  You as the consumer don’t have to buy their records if you don’t want, but to say they CAN’T be played on radio stations?  I think the music industry needs to rethink what they are doing in the business then.  The documentary, "Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing" covered a lot of the ridiculousness of the radio industry's and fans' reactions.

During a video taped Time Magazine interview with Belinda Luscombe, Maines was asked by Luscombe if she is the current hold-out from being in the Dixie Chicks full time.  She asked if Martie McGuire and Emily Robison would continue to be in the Dixie Chicks if Natalie would, and she said she thought so.  For Natalie, the way they were treated by the country music industry just hurt too much, and it proved to her that, while she had come into country music already a liberal thinking that the community had accepted her, in reality they hadn’t.  In fact, most fans didn’t even know of her political beliefs.  So she feels that the country music community isn’t for her anymore.  She seems to have lost her passion and her fire, and that’s really sad for someone so talented.  And I think again of Laura Lynch and Robin Macy, the women who had previously been members of the group, and what this must have looked like to them too.  From the stratosphere to nothing in no time, like the Challenger explosion or the Hindenberg. I wonder if in a way they were ultimately grateful not to have experienced all of that. 

Now I will reveal that sad part of all of this for me; the thing that pangs my heart when I hear their music.  It’s that musicians, or anyone who has mastered something, have spent countless years honing their craft, and when you get a group that works so beautifully together like the Dixie Chicks, the chances of that are very slim to ever happen again.  If that all gets thrown away because of a poorly time comment fueled by an overreaction and hysteria from the general public, then I really think that it is truly tragic.  And to think that there is a music industry deliberately blocking a talented trio of women from making music?  Well, that makes me close to ill.  There are a few lucky human beings on this planet who have had more than one life making music such as Paul McCartney in the Beatles, then in Wings, and then as a solo artist.  He’s really part feline, isn’t he? And there are some others, but it’s an extremely rare and unlikely scenario to have that kind of longevity that survives multiple self-reinventions.  I have also often felt this sort of sadness with the performing and music-making aspect of Michael Jackson’s life given all of the legal issues that he created for himself that took his focus away from his artistic work.  We missed out on so much potentially incredible music. Martie and Emily seem like innocent casualties in all of this to me.  They stood by Natalie, but there really wasn't any other choice for them, and they had worked so hard to build the Dixie Chicks band for so many years. 

And so during all of these eleven years, though the Dixie Chicks came back in 2006 and won five Grammys for, "Taking The Long Way Home," we could have had another thirty? fifty? hundred hits from the Dixie Chicks that don’t exists because of all of the chaos that ensued.  That is heartbreaking to me.  Because when I hear really great music, it makes my soul soar.  When I listen to the Dixie Chicks’ cover of, “Landslide,” with Natalie Maines' vocal and Martie McGuire and Emily Robison's heavenly harmonies, my heart slides.  It’s music mastery at it’s perfection.  And with all of the Dixie Chicks’ experience together and with their previous iterations with Laura Lynch and Robin Macy, they have so much music playing life under their belts.  That’s irreplaceable. And so I mourn what has been lost with every pang of my heart.

I looked up the DixieChicks.com website, that seems to sit idly awaiting some kindly hand from God, and I click on the ‘Tour Dates’ tab.  “No upcoming dates.”  Damn!