Monday, December 5, 2011

External Forces


I listened a Podcast of a RadioLab piece last night that was interesting.  It had to do with getting to the bottom of things; the ultimate source of a phenomenon.  The piece was called, “Patient Zero,” and was split into several segments.  The first, having to do with the first Typhoid patent, and the second section discussing the search for the spillover of HIV to people, first from two kinds of different monkeys to make a hybrid SIV virus within the chimpanzee likely hundreds or thousands of years ago, and then a second set of spillovers from chimps to humans probably around 1908 (yes, the turn of the century).  It was a fascinating piece. 

Later, the show went into a search for the person who made the first cowboy hat.  They had an answer.  It was the son of a famous hat maker on the east coast who had gone out west.  But it didn’t end there.  The British journalist who set out on this quest then came up with two more theories.  One being that it was actual working cowboys who, through repetition and wear, influenced the popularity and style of the cowboy hat.  And then finally, he suggested that it was really the external conditions; the hot sun, the high winds, the hard elements of the Wild West that ultimately shaped the hat we all know. 

I pondered on this for a while, trying to glean some insight into how this same phenomenon of external shaping could apply to my life.  With some thought I realized that there have indeed been times in my life when the conditions were rife for shaping my own world, and then there have been other times when I’ve felt that I was in turn shaped by the conditions that were laid out around me; an ebb and flow of self-initiated destiny versus day to day reactive survival, the latter not allowing for a great sense of self-actualization.

The idea of the cowboy hat being destined to appear on the scene at some point due to the external conditions makes sense to me.  It didn’t matter who made it.  As the British journalist finally surmised, someone would have eventually come along and kept making hats until that perfect Aristotelian cowboy hat that you and I think of would come to pass.  And so, I think in our lives, we may be more a product of our time and deterministic conditions than we would naturally think.  From the moment you are born to your passing, your life could turn out a hundred different ways.  A good portion of the final result ends up being the product of what circumstances were overlaid around you during the life you lived.

Listen to the RadioLab Podcast

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Descending Whole-Tones

I never take anyone’s psychiatric disorders lightly, so when I tell this story, it’s out of a kind of relief from some of the other more serious patients I used to work with, rather than mocking this woman in any way. 

In one of the psychiatric hospitals I worked in, there was a very overweight African-American female patient in the adult step-down unit, the unit that had fewer restrictions with patients than the locked units.  I will call her, “Betty.”  She was out of her mind, but it was an entertaining way for many of us.

Poor Betty couldn't sit in any of her groups for more than a couple of minutes, thinking she was short on time and needed to get ready to go out for shopping or socializing.  We would try walking her back into her seated circle of patients along with the group leader, but alas, within a minute or so of returning to the nurse’s station, I’d hear the door open again, and out would pop Betty. 

She would walk up to someone, usually a male, and say, "Don't...you...ever!....  Don't...you…EVER!" as if someone had intruded on her chastity or offended her whole being.  It was truly strange, not only because of the fervor with which she accused the hapless person (often me), but also in that her mood just a few minutes prior and after these episodes were often moments for her of light fluttering about the ward halls with smiles and humming.

But the strangest of her behaviors by far was that Betty would go into the recreation room, which had a piano in it, and she would play a single note, and then practice whole tone scales.  Briefly, a whole tone scale is a scale made up of notes that are exactly two keys (including black and white) away from each other on the piano.  With a little experimenting, one will find that there are only two whole tone scales in music.  One can simply begin and end at different points on either of these scales.  They are used often as fillers for augmented chords in jazz music.  For Betty, what this meant that at some point in the past, she had been through some amount of musical training. 

She would start at a high note, and then cascade down an octave, landing on the note she played on the piano.  She would give this last note a lot of vocal vibrato and then would let it fade out. Her process had an unsettling quality to it, like that of an unknown voice heard far off in some vacant house in the fog.

These bouts of practice session would last all of about a minute, and then she would be on her way down the hall.  It was as if she was trying to hold onto some part of herself by connecting with the piano several times per day.  The distant, echoing tonality of her whole-tone scales still resound in my head even this many years on. 

Oh, I have so many isolated moments in my head from those days!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Water Flowing Under...Ground


I was driving down Magnolia Boulevard in Burbank the other day when a song came on the radio.  It had been a while since I heard it, and it reminded me of a writing assignment I struggled with and had since always felt I had failed at.

One of my tasks in 11th grade English class was to take a popular song and deconstruct it, explaining it’s meaning in an essay.  I chose, “Once In A Lifetime,” by the Talking Heads.  I couldn’t have chosen a more difficult song for me, personally, since at that age, the meaning totally washed over me in my seventeen year-old teen-aged bubble brain. 

One evening, I got to work on my assignment and sat in my room and playing the song over and over, appreciating the complicated rhythms and layered sounds.  However, I found myself forever stumped with it’s meaning.  “What is this?  Water flowing…holding me down, finding myself here, and then there?  I’m driving a really nice car, and then I’ve got a gorgeous girl?  This doesn’t sound all that bad to me folks.  Can I just write that in my essay?”

But some part of me knew that there was more to the song than was apparent on it’s lyrical surface.  I was just naïve.  So I called my mom into my room for help.  It was one of those last steps I never liked to take; getting help from my mother.  I liked to think that I could accomplish my studies on my own, as lacking and half-assed as they were at times.  And calling her in to listen to a pop song; well, it was crossing a universal adolescent boundary that added unpleasantness to my already bruising ego.  But I just couldn’t get past this task on my own.

My mom sat with me on the edge of my twin bed, and I played the song for her on vinyl while I held the album cover hoping she might glean some meaning out of what she was hearing.  As new and exciting at the rhythms were to me, they were very confusing and distracting to her.  My mother loved the fluidity of classical music, and this was its antithesis.  Not even the straight on rock and roll I listened to day and night had acclimated her to this new wave sound.  As the song ended, she gave me with a quizzical look and asked, “Would you play it again?”

As I put the needle onto the beginning of the track again, she took the album cover from me and inspected it as we listened through again.  The lyrics were written on the album sleeve, so when the song ended, we read over them talked about what they could mean.  I suppose that by that time, she had deciphered it’s meaning and was now helping me arrive at an answer for myself.

“Well, you hear him talking about getting all of these wonderful things, and he’s sort of questioning it all, isn’t he?”  “Yeah,” I replied.  “What could that mean?” She nudged.  “I don’t know…he’s wondering how he got them?"  God, I was just lame.  I just wasn’t getting this.  The idea of unattained dreams and misuse of one's own time sacrificed for materialism was just too far beyond my conception.  She eventually led me to understand the idea of what David Byrne and Brian Eno had written, but honestly, I might as well have picked another song because I don't think at that age, I ever fully digested it all.  I simply didn’t have the life experience nor the perspective to appreciate this artistic work.  I don't actually recall, but I'm guessing my essay was mediocre at best.

It’s ironic in a way, because as I was driving the other day I though of how much I love music, writing and thinking about the meaning of the tunes I hear.  I often ponder what the lyricist might have personally been going through when he penned a particular song.  And I thought to myself, it would have been nice to have had that same assignment a few years on down the road.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Psychiatric Smoking Wards

To this day, I still don’t really remember why I left CPC Westwood Hospital.  I know what I said was the reason.  That I wanted to get more varied experience working in varying environments, and that a lower grade hospital would be good experience.  I still had the goal of attaining an advanced degree.  I thought I would either get a PhD, or a PsyD in psychology, and of course, the more experience I had in the interim, the better for applying to graduate schools.  But something else was going on inside me.  I had one of the cushiest positions at CPC Westwood that one with my experience could have being the favored Mental Health Worker with a 9am-5pm shift with nurses and doctors who enjoyed working with me.  I think it had just gotten old after three years or so, and furthermore, I believe that there was the kernel of a thought that maybe I didn’t want to go into psychology after all.

I lived with a woman at that time that worked as an assistant at WDI (Walt Disney Imagineering).  She did internal training for employees, and her office was in a loft space of the then WDI Library in Glendale.  We lived in Venice together, and often, I would have to pick her up after work since we were sharing a car.  While waiting for her, especially during winter afternoons, I could see into the windows of some one story bricked buildings along Flower Street.  I didn’t know exactly what I was looking at, but I could see painting backgrounds left in people’s work spaces.  Some of the traditional background artists would leave their light boards on, which would illuminate towards the street and draw me to their windows like a gnat to fire.  They were fascinatingly beautiful to me, and at some point Kristin, my girlfriend, told me that most of those buildings were for the Disney animated features.  In hindsight, I think I was seeing some of the backgrounds for “Aladdin” and some of the visual development for “Lion King.”

All of this was brewing in my mind when I made the shift from CPC Westwood to the hospital in San Fernando.  Almost like it was a way for me to ensure that I could pick Kristin up and be close to this little hub of creativity in the east Valley each day.  My work at Disney, however, was still a couple years away.  It’s interesting how a seed is planted and can take a while to flourish.

My work at San Fernando Community Hospital was the most dismal of all of the jobs I’ve ever had with the exception of the cleaning of chicken racks at 5:00am working at Hughes Market in Studio City.  That will always be the bar I’ll strive to remain above (note my great aspirations).  This hospital served people with psychiatric disorders who were brought in by the LAPD from the streets and from very low socioeconomic situations.  With severe psychiatric patients, there is always the issue of hygiene for some portion of the psychiatric population.  However, with this hospital, it was an issue with almost every patient.  People, who could not care for themselves, were homeless, hooked on drugs, and just absolutely out of their minds.  I saw police bring patients into CPC Westwood only on occasion.  But with San Fernando, it was just round the clock, and more so at night.  A pair of police would deliver someone, either in handcuffs, or holding him or her, and the intake person would hit the officers with the same set of paperwork every time.  The intake nurse would also fill out her paperwork rapidly and get the person admitted within fifteen or twenty minutes. It was a constantly rolling intake door.

The patients would be delivered into a kind of new arrival wing.  I only once or twice had to work that wing.  It was the hardest because at that point in the process, no one wants to be there; not the patients, and not the workers due to the volatility.  Making a person feel at home in a room with a twin sized bed that has plastic fitted sheets, one regular sheet, one pillow with a pillow case, and one seemingly always rust red-colored blanket is almost impossible.  And a few who were out of control needed restraining here and there.  One worker actually got his finger bitten off at CPC Westwood and then subsequently committed suicide.  So I was very careful during take downs to keep clear of anything that might cause me to regret having taken the position.  There was one very strong patient who needed to be restrained in an isolation room.  It was the only time that I can remember really feeling afraid of having to go in there.  I quickly yelled to the nurses to call Howard and Dan in immediately.  They were the two largest psych techs on the premises with builds like big bowling balls.  I waited outside the isolation room for their arrival and let them go in like storm troopers, while I basically mimed helping with the assist.  I’m still content with myself that I did that!  I’d rather have felt slightly impotent rather than have lost a digit.  I suppose that can apply to more than one situation.

My job was to work as a Psych Tech on a locked unit that had some benefits for the patients. The unit was shaped like a “T,” with the nursing station being at the head of that T, and had a television recreation room, and also an outdoor patio for the patients (and staff) who liked to smoke outdoors.  I must point out here that the TV-rec room was also okay'd for smoking.  And so was, to my extreme discontent, the nursing station, where tenured overripe old nurses with raspy voices puffing their cigarettes like chimneys.  They had the practice of writing in their patient logs with one had while their free hand fed their faces an endless chain of tobacco sticks.  All three hallways, even those parts not particularly near the TV room or the nursing station, were filled with a light, constricting fog of smoke.  Had there been laser pens at the time, I would have put on an ‘80’s light show for everyone in that thick haze.  Kristin used to smell the stench on me as soon as I walked in the door of our Venice loft.  It would radiate loudly from my clothes and hair and waft along behind me as I moved from room to room.

There was a cute worker with a very attractive body at the hospital, Pam, who constantly flirted with me.  She lived with her boyfriend, as I did with Kristin.  Yet, everyday, she would say things to other workers in front of all of us such as, “I think I’ll take Fred out to my car and do him now.”  That brought some levity to my work day.  Pam would trot around the unit in tight jeans and loose tops constantly seeking my attention.  She even trapped me in the medical supply closet one day, asking me how I thought she looked in her Halloween costume, which was basically a black leotard, a skirt and some ears.  I said, “Yeah, it looks good,” the moment so full of sexual tension that I was unable to add anything else to my sentence. The hospital was lax regarding professionalism in many ways.

But one day, I’d had enough of the smoke.  I was about half way through my shift, maybe about 1:00pm, when I walked off of the locked ward and over to human resources.  The H.R. person was posted in a rickety trailer with an unbalanced, soggy carpeted ramp leading up to it’s front door, in which, guess what….the H.R. person could smoke too!

I walked up to her desk, as if I were in a scene spewing out bad dialogue from a B-movie about some disgruntled blue-collar industrial worker, put my pager down and said, “I’m quitting as of today, and as of now.”  When I explained to her that the smoke injesting was just too much for me, she said, “Well, I know it can be an issue for some people, the smoking.  But what is the real problem.  Is someone harassing you in any way?”  I flashed to Pam in my mind, thinking that maybe this could be a great opportunity put in an official request for Pam to harass me more frequently each day.  But I said, no.  It was only the smoking, and that there had been an L.A. Times article recently that pointed out how second hand smoke was just not good for people.  She seemed perplexed that someone would leave just because of the smoke.  I had no desire to educate her more on the matter or on my discomfort, so I just left and took a bus down San Fernando Boulevard to Glendale since Kristin had our car that day and waited for her to get off of work.  The hospital called me on three separate occasions after my abrupt walkout to ask me to fill in for various shifts.

When Kristin emerged from the WDI building into the parking lot, I declared to her, “I just quit my job.”  She was shocked, I could see it in her face, but to her credit, and especially during a time when neither of us had been making much money, she immediately replied, “Good for you!  I know you hated that place.  Good for you!  You’ll find the right thing.”

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Inmate Out Experiment - A Short Story by Fred Herrman

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.  And what of his writing?  He obviously wrote and drew to keep track of his route for himself.  But there is something more; something about the human condition in all of this which indicates that humans want to express their experiences and feelings, as limited as they might be by their own skills.  Arthur, not knowing if he would ever survive or be found, took it upon himself to scribe his life for the two and a half weeks in part, simply to tell other human beings about what he went through.  A simple, yet significant gesture for his species.

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.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Pizza Fly-By


During my first couple years at USC, I had found work in the summertime at a Dominos Pizza in Sherman Oaks.  The store was on Woodman Avenue and Moorpark Street in a little strip mall.  The store was actually hidden behind another building and didn’t have much street exposure.  I always found that odd that a company as large as Dominos, even at that time, would have selected such a low profile location to set up a store in one of the wealthier communities of the Southland.  It has since moved to Van Nuys Boulevard in a much higher area of exposure.

This store had a motley crew of workers.  The owner at the time was constantly doing cocaine either in the manager’s office, or just off site.  He would come in completely blitzed, full of energy and with a faux sense of camaraderie with all of his workers, including me.  I don’t recall him ever offering me any cocaine, but I’m sure that if I had ever been interested in that sort of thing, it would have been easily available.  This time was smack in the middle of the 1980's when everyone seemed to be 24-hour non-stop partying.

There was also a manager who worked there that was straight out of the movie, “Dazed and Confused.”  He wore corduroy pants at a time when no one did anymore and was always under the influence of pot at work; red eyed, lackadaisical, asking his workers if they wanted to go toke up as soon as the store’s open signs were turned off for the night.  His multitasking ability was impressive as he was able to count the receipts from pizza drop offs and tally the money at the end of the night enough to satisfy the coked-out owner.  I supposed the owner probably didn’t know the difference.

There were a few girls who rotated in and out of this Dominos as well.  Two of them in particular, who were younger than me, were “fast” as they say.  One was sleeping with the coked out manager, and a second one was brand new to the store and clearly wanted to date me.  I took her out one night to dinner, and then we drove to a street called, Del Gado Drive, which was a cul-de-sac overlook and was kind of a mini-Mulholland Drive where you could gaze at the lights of the San Fernando Valley.  It was a well known make-out spot for dates, and so we ended up kissing for a while.  But within weeks, she had dated pretty much every guy in the pizza place and then some.  She became pregnant by one of them (I always guessed it was the dazed and confused manager) and then announced the news to the store one day while kneading pizza dough by singing Madonna’s, “Papa Don’t Preach.”  She eventually become too pregnant to make pizzas efficiently and left our Dominos.  

My job was generally two-fold; the first was to answer phones and take pizza orders.  These were not difficult tasks.  There were a finite number of items any pizza could have, so with the exception of those customers calling who had not decided anything and made us workers wait on the phone an inordinate amount of time for their decision, most phone orders were completed quickly.  There was the occasional walk-in customer who somehow found our store tucked away behind the Raldo’s Hot Dog Stand, but these were far and few between.  I still remember a few things about taking orders on the telephone.  One was that “V” on the order sheet stood for black olives, not to be confused with “O” for onions.  I have no idea why this has remained in my head all of these years. 

And back then, when asked how big our various sizes were, we would answer with the diameter of the pizza, such as, “That one is ten inches,” rather than with how many slices that particular sized pizza has like they do today.  Saying how many slices a pizza has doesn’t make any sense to me because you could slice up a pizza into a million pieces and it still doesn’t tell the customer how large it is.

My other task was to deliver the “pies.”  I found that term, pies, kind of antiquated.  It seemed to me to be a hold over from the 1950’s when the neighborhood pizza place was delivering to squeaky-clean, ”Leave It To Beaver,” households.  But somehow, the wholesome term, “pies,” didn’t sit right with me in the drug and sex induced setting I was working in. 

At that time, I still owned the same dark blue 1972 Camaro that I had bought during my high school days.  It had a shark grill and hot wheel rims.  It also got very low gas mileage.  Yet, gasoline was still around $1.00 per gallon at the time, so it balanced out. As I recall, I got paid some amount per hour for my work, but mostly worked on tips from the deliveries.  A lot of customers just sort of threw me some change during a delivery, so I had a plastic tub on the rear floorboards of my car in which I would toss loose change from each delivery.  It filled up faster than I could spend the change, and I recall many friends of mine looking at the tub in amazement of how solid and heavy it was with coins.

The trick to pizza delivery was, and I’m gathering still is, to deliver as many pies as possible on each trip out.  Part of this skill involved being able to route out your drive on a huge map of Sherman Oaks on the wall of the store, then put it into action.  We all had our Thomas Guides handy in our cars as well for those hard to find addresses up among the winding hill roads.  Back then, Dominos had the "30 minutes or less" campaign still running.  I suppose not enough people had died at the hands of speeding Dominos drivers around the country trying to beat the clock to end that campaign yet.  There was incentive to speed because, although the $3.00 off of the pie was ultimately paid by the store, we as drivers were pressured to not turn in more than one or two slips per night to the manager with the late charge attached.  We had control of how many pies we took, but when the store got extra busy we were often asked to grab an extra two or three pies on top of the three we already had.

I knew the neighborhood very well. I had grown up on the boarder of Studio City and Sherman Oaks, so I had a fairly well internalized sense of where I could drive to in thirty minutes, and, as with today, I really liked to drive.  Like running, driving allowed me to see what’s going on in the neighborhood and feel a part of it, rather than staying inside one building throughout a whole work shift as I had done at previous jobs.

There were a few memorable deliveries I made.  One was to a young blonde woman.  She was a little older than me at the time, but thinking back, she was probably about 25.  Her address was in a duplex near Fulton and Ventura Blvd., and she answered the door in a sheer white, see-through nightie with nothing underneath.  It seemed like it could have been the clichéd intro to an adult film.  "Eh, you asked for the extra salami miss?  We're full service and I'm happy to oblige." But I delivered the pizza, collected the money from her, and got back into my car (that’s all I did) and proceeded to be completely unfocused on my work tasks for the remainder of the night.

Another delivery I made was to a really gnarly address off of Van Nuys Blvd.  The house was totally un-maintained and overgrown on the outside.  I knocked on the door to find a front room full of guys who were partying to the fullest on this Saturday night.  The interior was an absolute mess. The person who had ordered the pizza was very long-haired (like to his waist), thin, druggie-looking guy who by my non-professional profiling abilities must have owned a Dodge Duster or two in his life.  He was nasty to me, saying I had delivered the pizza late, though it had only been 20 minutes since he had ordered it, and insisted on a discount.  I took the pizza, drove to a nearby phone booth since there were no cell phones in those days and I called my manager.  He told me to just give the guy the discount and get out of there.  I went back to the house and did as told.  The guy took the pizza, handed me the money, berated me, calling me a woman, and then slammed the door in my face.  Wow!  Not a nice guy.  I’m guessing he’s been incarcerated a few times since then.

But my favorite story, or rather then story that has always stood out for me, but which I am not completely proud of, was one late night in which I was given two orders to deliver.  One was up Woodman just a ways from the store, and the other was a large order on the farthest point of northwest Sherman Oaks that we delivered to.  The second order, the farther order, was a large one, and so the pies took up one whole large insulated warming bag, separate from the first order.

I got my order into my Camaro and then made my way up Woodman Avenue.  As I was driving, I saw something fly by my back window, which grabbed my attention.  I looked to my back seat to make sure my warming bag was in my car and that I hadn’t been left it on my roof as I had gotten my keys out to get into my car.  Yes it was there. Well, one of them was there.  Oh God!  Where was the other warming bag?  I looked in my side view mirror to the street behind me and saw the other warming back lying in the middle of Woodman Avenue.  It was late, maybe 10:30pm, so there was almost no traffic.  I hooked a U-turn, went back looking out of my driver’s side window and confirmed it was indeed my other warming bag laying in the middle of the dark boulevard.  I flipped the car back around, drove up and grabbed it back into my car.

I opened the warming bag, pulled out the pizza box, opened it up, and found the pizza totally undisturbed.  It was a miracle.  The warming bag hot not only kept the pizza hot, but had insulated it from the fall from my roof as it frisbee'd onto the asphalt at forty some-odd miles per hour.  I closed the box, put it back into the warmer and then proceeded to deliver it to an older couple in a large apartment complex up there on Woodman.  I know....I know....food....how could I?  And no matter how undamaged it was in the middle of the boulevard, it had been IN THE MIDDLE OF THE BOULEVARD.   Just bad judgement...I know....I've tortured myself over this for years...   However, please be comforted that at least I did refuse the tip from them.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Key to Fitness

What a day!  After a full Friday’s worth of work, I decide to drive to a trail not too far from my house and do a six mile run.  I start at about 4:15pm and all goes well with the exception that I keep having to pull out my cell phone from my hip pack.  I use my cell phone as a radio player with earplugs, and since I stream radio shows from the Internet, I occasionally lose the 3G signals on the trails and have to stop, pull out the cell phone, and get it started again.  This happens quite a few times during my run.

I take a rest at my three mile out point, my turnaround spot for the day, and I happen to open my hip pack and select a new radio program when I discover that the car key that I keep in the hip pack has slipped out, and isn’t anywhere around me to be found.  It’s fallen out during one of the earlier radio adjustments.  Oh shit!  Well, I have a pretty good sense of the places where I stopped and fumbled around with the hip pack, so as I run back, I keep my eyes to the ground scanning for my key in all of those spots.  One stop after the other and nothing turns up.  Towards the end of my run I resign myself to the fact that I will be doing some walking today.

I get to my car, vainly try to open the door just in case I serendipitously left it unlocked (I have another key inside the car), but of course the car is secure.  How could it be otherwise?  I’m Fred; totally anal-retentive about making sure everything is locked.  Well, I had to try anyway, right?  So in my wet shirt and with the sun dipping down past the hills, I start walking...home.  It’s like my childhood friend, David Murray, used to say.  You get stuck somewhere and have no other way back, so you point your body in the direction of home and start walking, step by step.  It’s not the ten miles in the snow that my parents apparently had to walk to school in their childhood, I know.  And so you might ask me, “Well, Fred, you just ran six miles…why not simply keep on going and run home?”  Because I just run six miles, it’s humid, and I’m tired!  That’s why!  When I meet my exercise goal for the day, I’m not out for much more.  It’s like the timer on a stationary bike; when it goes off, do you ever keep on pedaling???  No!  And therefore, I’m done running for today!

So, one foot in front of the other, I do.  The walk is long.  From the point of my car to my front door is (I measured it afterwards) 1.97 miles.  And walking is slow when you’re supposed to be driving effortlessly in a car chugging some Gatorade and getting some tunes on.  I walk past all of the things I normally blur past; a young guy walking his dog, a woman sweeping her porch, a lady doing end of the day plant-watering.  There is one forty-something year old man, sort of an accountant looking type in pressed olive shorts and leather sandals carefully manicuring the edge of his lawn next to the street curb with a pair of sheers the size of scissors.  The site is a little odd to me, and yet, I appreciate how important this process must be to him.  Maybe it’s like his mediation after work.

I am now on the main straightaway to my house.  Maybe a quarter mile left to go.  But then I realize that the traffic signal I had been doggedly staring at is several blocks back from where I thought it was.  I haven’t been noting the street signs.  That would be like watching a pot of water boil.  Man, two miles is just a long way to walk!  Across the street, I see some kind of gathering forming at a park.  Maybe ten people setting up for something.

Finally, I make it back home, but without any keys, and my girlfriend out of town.  Thank goodness I had the sense of mind to hide a key for myself sometime in the past.  I get back in the house, and having decided I would Rollerblade back to my car to quicken the time, I dig around in my closet locating my big white Disney “Tarzan” tote-bag in which my Rollerblades and wrist guards reside.  I throw off my trail shoes and grab a pair of white socks, make sure I have my house keys, and head out side to put my Rollerblades and accessories on. 

I tend to keep my wrist guards inside my Rollerblades when storing them so I don’t lose them, so as I pull them out, I discover that in my always being prepared, I had kept an extra pair of white socks in the bottom of each Rollerblade.  So now I have two pair.  Do I want to go back inside the house and put a pair of socks back?  No!  I’ve got to get back to my car.  As I finished my run and checked to see if there was a way into my car, there had been five or six teens on bikes and on foot starting at the trailhead.  Maybe having seen me slink away from unsuccessfully trying get in my car, they might consider it abandoned and break in.  I am obviously tired and a little paranoid now; I’m aware of this.  But it’s time to get a rollin,’ and so I’ll roll up the extra pair of white socks and just hold them in one of my hands as I skate back to my car.

The light is starting to fade from the sky as I Rollerblade down the sidewalks so as not to get hit by any inebriated or straying rush-hour drivers, and as I do so, I discover that the ramps for disabled people at intersections, which are all over Burbank, are convenient in the way that they allow me to get through the street and back onto the next piece of sidewalk.  However those blue rough-dotted pads on the ramps that give wheel chairs some traction are very jarring to Rollerblades and make me almost lose my balance more than a few times. 

Almost all of my Rollerblading has been accomplished, to my detriment, on the long, slick ribbon of almost flawless cement that is the Strand of Manhattan Beach.  So I’m not used to having to negotiate uneven the asphalt to cement seams along streets as well as dodging rush-hour traffic.  I pass that group by the park again, and now they look like they are going to film something.  I hear one of them on their cell phone say something about not worrying about the Burbank Police as long as no one tells them they’re here...maybe avoiding paying for a production permit?  This crowd has also grown, and some of them are blocking the sidewalk.  “Excuse me! Comin’ up!”  They move out of my way.  I’m 6’1” plus whatever the height with Rollerblades on, so I’m a formidable object of motion that none of them wants in their lap or up their ass.

I am not half way to back to my car when I have a terrible epiphany.  Can epiphanies be terrible?  ‘Cause this one was.  It was the worst kind of epiphany I could have had in that moment.  I realize that when I was back at the house, I had forgotten to dig out the extra set of car keys.  I had been so focused on making sure I had my extra set of house keys and had therefore let that override the need for my spare car keys.  Uggh!   And, so-help-me if I am making this up, but right at this very moment…the moment of my terrible epiphany, my right Rollerblade breaks!  The top strap that kind of binds the whole skate onto my foot snaps, and whole thing comes loose and wobbly.  I am crossing a little street at this time and so I get myself to the sidewalk, find a shallow brick wall of a residence’s front yard and sat down.  I say to myself, “You’ve GOT to be kidding!!!” as if some grand game of chess was being orchestrated from above. 

So, I’ve got to now go back…walk back to my house…carrying a broken pair of Rollerblades the whole way.  Rollerblades are heavy when they’re not on your feet.  Like ten pounds each.  The weight of ski boots.  No way!  I’m not carrying them back.  I hide the two Rollerblades behind the shallow sitting wall.  So much for my anal retentive need to keep my stuff safe…I’m just not carrying them back!...well, I’ll keep my wrist guards on…at least I won’t lose those.  And I start to walk with the white pair of socks on my feet, my black wrist guards on each arm, and holding the extra rolled up pair of socks in one of my hands.  You have to understand that no matter what kind of creative residential route I might come up with to avoid being seen, I have to walk through two major intersections looking like this.  I can feel the stares and comments from within the cars waiting at the signals.  “Is he homeless?”  “What’s with the socks and no shoes, and those black things on his arms?”  “What is that, another rolled up pair of socks he’s carrying?”  “People are weird here in Burbank! I thought this was supposed to be a safe, conservative city”  I want to tell anyone looking that there’s a shaggy-dog story unfolding in progress…but what can I do?

I pass by the gathering at the park, this time I’m on the opposite side of the street.  It has grown yet again, and there are two people with white bullhorns.  But now it doesn’t like a film shoot, but rather a gathering that they happen to be videotaping.  There is a man telling some sort of ironic-style story; though the words aren’t clear, I can tell from the twist in his voice and the sporadic laughs that follow. 

I’m back in my house again, this time digging out my spare car keys, rather than my roller blades.  My dog, Susie, hasn’t been out since about 3:00pm, so I might as well take her for the walk back to my car.  Two birds…  She’s happy to go.  I check for BOTH sets of keys this time; spare house and spare car.  All are in their place in my pockets.  Leash, doggie poop bag, my worn black house sneakers, and up, up and away!

Susie and I head down the much Fred-trodden sidewalk, past the gathering; a lady is now telling some strange story with the bullhorn.  The story this time sounds like one of self-acceptance.  “So I said to him, you either take me this way, or not at all!”  Well, she sounds confident, and that can’t be bad.  It’s Friday night now; no longer afternoon to be sure.  It’s dark out, still humid and warm with just a slight illumination in the western sky.  I’m heading the other way. 

It’s about this time that I realize, as slow as each of my previous two walks have been, this one is several times slower.  Susie and I have made it about five blocks and I’ve just noticed that Susie has decided that she needs to inspect the smell of every telephone pole, every tree, every hedge, and every lawn that we’ve come upon.  “Susie, come on!  We’ve got to go!”  She follows, but then in short order reverts back to her continuous stops.  Again, time to resign myself.  It’s a nice evening, nice houses I can look at, other people walking their dogs. The wisdom of David Murray resounds through my head. This is just going to take a long time, and that’s okay, we’ll eventually get there.

About three quarters of a mile out, Susie decides to lie on the grass of a lawn we are passing.  I see how this is going now.  She’s decided that it’s just too long of trek, and she’s not aware that we’re only about a third of the way to my car.  That’s okay; she’s a small Cockapoo.  I’ll just carry her.  I pick her up and start walking briskly.  She’s also a HEAVY small Cockapoo!  It's those treats at night.  Susie always looks at me like she's going to starve if I don't give her one more treat when we're watching TV.  And now I understand the impact it's had on her mass, and on my arms. "Foof!  You are heavy, Susie!"

I make a deal with Susie.  I’ll walk about three blocks, and then she’ll walk one.  It works.  We cut across a park, which is soothing to her feet and has a little hill she can trot down.  Then, again I carry her for a few blocks.  It’s really amazing how expansive a small place like Burbank becomes when you’re walking through it….over and over.

Susie and I make it to the last and final street that will lead us to my car and luckily there’s yet another downhill in this last patch.  I put Susie down and walks this last section with me as we make it to the car.  Keys open it up, we get in, I open the cooler with my Gatorade that I needed about two hours before. We stop to grab my broken Rollerblades from behind the shallow wall of somebody's front yard, finally arriving back home at 9:51pm.

The journey, one so close to home, started out as an exercise workout.  And exercise I did.  A six mile run with a five mile walk, a one mile Rollerblade, and the carrying of a dog for a portion of it; the latter three unintended of course.  The next day, I’m sore, and Susie, I suspect is sore as well.  She’s been sleeping most of the day.