Move On

The First Night

“I’m going to have to pass on this one Brandon.”

“Whaddya mean? Gus! Baby!  (Sniff) – Its pure gold. Emmy material.”

“Maybe, but it’s not for me. I had to struggle just wading through the series treatment.”

“What’s not to like?”

“Are you kidding me? “COP ROCK 2025.” The original series was so bad that I can’t unsee it, but you’ve managed to make something so tasteless that I doubt even Fox would run it!”

“(sniff) Are you going to start whining about seeing Dennis Franz’ ass again?”

“For the record that was “NYPD Blue” – but I’d still take that image over suffering through Justin Bieber as Frank Furillo Jr.  Holy hell Brandon, that’s yet another classic you’re butchering. I can’t work – I WON’T work on crap like this.”

A very unbrandonlike pause gave me just enough time to worry about the effect this conversation was having on my already troublesome blood pressure, but then he continued at a lower volume and slower rate.

“Yes, yes you can…and you will. (sniff) May I remind you that we have a contract and you still owe us a script?”

I knew at that point there was no getting through to this broadcast wunderkind any time soon so I mumbled something about time zones and headaches, hung up and slumped at my desk disgusted. Actually at this point “disgusted” was an understatement, but I wasn’t sure who I was more disgusted with – Brandon for his patently offensive series proposal, or me for prostituting my talents by working on the aforementioned offensive material.

  • What happened to the novel I was going to write?
  • When did I become such a whore?
  • Is there a word for what I’d become? Writer-whore? Wr-hore? Whorter?”

…I longed for (much) earlier days – university days when I wrote for myself and enjoyed what I did. I doffed my glasses and pinched the bridge of my nose as I wrestled with the fact that I was getting more depressed by the minute and needed to distract myself, so after replacing the lid on the container of mixed nuts that fueled my creative efforts, I grabbed the mouse and started clicking through websites. In most situations this would be every wife’s nightmare – it’s late at night and her husband is hunched over a computer, his attention riveted to images on a flickering screen, but in my case it wasn’t pornography fueling my imagination and causing my heart to race – it was Alaska creating the fantasies. At my age porn holds far less appeal than the thrill of vicariously revisiting the mountains, forests, and paths of my youth, but unfortunately the after-effects of this type of digital dalliance are just as debilitating as any erotic addiction.  When I finally shut down my computer I was feeling so flat that Gina didn’t even notice when I crawled into bed beside her.

The Second Night

I forget the precise label to my geographic enabler – Google Earth, MapQuest, or one of several other virtually identical services providing a satellite’s-eye view of the earth’s surface so precise that instincts lingering from a previous incarnation as an intelligence officer screamed “Who the hell cleared this?” When I finally convinced myself that what I was seeing was not a breach of national security I started digitally exploring the various scenes of my youth, but then as is the case with all addictions, my gateway drug began to pale, and I graduated from the alleys of my Anchorage childhood to the “hard stuff” – close-up views of Fairbanks and the University. I don’t remember when I first found the camera aimed down Cushman Avenue but I do remember the thrill that came over me when I took in that modest skyline for the first time in five decades. The intersections had changed slightly, and captions told me that most of the buildings had changed owners and names several times, but as long as the Immaculate Conception Church was still on the east side of the road the scene was just familiar enough to make my heart skip a beat the same way it did the day Debbie helped me unpack my bags for my first year at the university.

My early childhood as a service brat meant that unlike some of my former high school classmates, moving five hundred miles away from home held no terror for me. If leaving home for college equated to some sort of symbolic death of adolescence, I’d been resurrected to an eighteen year old’s idea of heaven with plenty of beer every weekend, cool music playing all the time, a stone-cold fox for girlfriend, and no parental supervision.

The Third Night

While the task was far from easy, I was able to hammer the beginnings of a script out of Brandon’s craptacular concept. Unfortunately the task required ingestion of caffeine far in excess of any recommended levels so by the time I hit control-S I had a splitting headache bad enough to preclude any more cashew-crunching for the night…but as tired as I was I still felt drawn to the webcam aimed down that particular stretch of pavement in downtown Fairbanks. Getting a good day’s worth of word-crunching was always a mixed blessing: I was thankful I had an income, and if pressed I had to admit that what fame I did enjoy was …well, enjoyable, but I couldn’t help feeling that I could have done something better with my life. I rubbed my eyes, replaced my glasses, and looked back at the screen as the scene changed slightly – even though it’s referred to as a real-time view, it’s actually a series of still photographs that change almost imperceptivity, giving you something more like flipping through a sequence of still photos than live photography.

Half aloud I wondered, “How many times had I walked past that church?” – Which was followed immediately by the equally quasi-vocalized, “More times than I care to remember” – The long hair, boots, and tattered surplus parka made hitchhiking in subzero a hard sell no matter how innocuous the inane smiley face embroidered in yellow on the left shoulder. I’d walked down that street countless times because the university bookstore’s stock of girlfriend-getting ammunition was extremely limited, requiring frequent trinket runs into town, which in turn meant that I got to know that stretch of Cushman like the back of my hand…or mitten as the case may be. From what I could see on the screen, not much had changed over the years as there was no lack of scruffy people walking along under the gaze of the sub-arctic webcam, but I passed that off as yet another quirk of life in the Last Frontier. College kids down here in the lower 48 came surprisingly well equipped with cars, laptops and smartphones, but judging from what I saw, current Alaskan students would fit right in with us back in the day… even down to the long-haired figure in an Army surplus parka, blue jeans, and work boots that was crossing the screen as it powered down.

A cacophony of popping joints accompanied me as I slowly stood up from my chair and stepped over the now unused outdoor gear that littered the floor of my office towards the bedroom and my sleeping sweetheart. I felt the slightest twinge of guilt when I realized my memories of this patch of frost-heaved cement were substantially clearer than those of the streets around Gina’s first apartment, but driving an air-conditioned Trans-Am through Pawtucket in 1980 didn’t have nearly the same impact on my life as hitchhiking along a highway just three degrees south of the Arctic Circle ten years earlier….

The Fourth Night

The door was ajar, so I peeked in, assuming she’d been asleep for hours, but I’d figured wrong. An improbable “Hey G.I!. Me so horny love you long time!” hissed through the doorway followed by a throw pillow. I walked in, sat on the edge of the bed and whispered back: “…and here I’ve been thinking all along that it was student loans that paid your way through college!”

Gina elbowed her way up from reclining to semi-reclining, her long raven-colored hair spilling down across the pillows. She kissed me, then said “You’ve been spending a lot of time with that machine lately. Is there anything I need to be worried about?” I kissed her forehead then looked at her. In forty years I’d never done anything to cause those eyes to view me with reproach. I loved my wife more than life itself, but late-night digital forays came from a world that she never was a part of and knew nothing about.

“Naw. It’s no big deal. It’s just some barbarian warrior stuff Bernie and I have cooked up. Still trying to write our own version of Conan without Arnold Swartznegger. Bernie just wants to get my feedback on what he’s come up with so far.

“Gus!” It was long and drawn hiss out like a dying inner tube. “I don’t think any of you guys ever emotionally matured past nineteen. Still daydreaming about guys in fur jockstraps swinging swords and rescuing bimbos in metal underwear.” She planted a kiss on my cheek. “Just don’t stay up too late – you’re supposed to see the cardiologist tomorrow – remember?”

I left the room and headed towards my laptop. I thought: “Oh my God – I’ve just lied to Gina. I have never lied to Gina. Never. Ever!”

“What the hell is the matter with me? I’m acting like an addict hiding away his habit.”

Unfortunately as is the case with any drug used to excess, nostalgia can bring on unexpected damage. I can readily detect the warning signs for excessive use of alcohol or drugs, but reliving both the joy and pain of that time so long ago was doing more damage than anything I could have snorted, injected, or ingested, and by now it had brought on an elevated pulse and blood pressure that worried my doctor, but how could I explain that 2021’s heart issues had their origin fifty years earlier?

Without warning, the clock in the hall started to chime… eleven times. It was late, and the mild annoyance at meeting with my cardiologist so early in the morning wasn’t nearly as bothersome as the cold sweat brought on by just the mention of the word “stint,” but as I reached for the power button something showed up on the left side of the screen that stopped me mid-yawn. As the web cam image refreshed, a faint figure progressively became closer and clearer until it was distinct enough for me to make specific details:

  • Long hair
  • Blue jeans and work boots
  • An army surplus parka with a yellow happy face embroidered on the shoulder.

The Fifth Night

It was a favor guaranteed to put a strain on any friendship – even a friendship a half century old – but there were compelling reasons Bernie was the only person I could call for help. For starters he had the insight brought on by the (slight) difference in our ages. When my primary goal in life was to meet William Shatner he had well-mapped out plans for a career in local government. While he and his girlfriend were exploring the Kama Sutra I was still wondering if Debbie’s new retainer would make French-kissing her taste metallic. Most importantly for this situation he was the only one of us to end up back living in Fairbanks, and by default, the only person I could call on to verify what I thought I was seeing. It was a tribute to his character that he agreed to help me out by waiting at the site of the web-cam and verifying what was visible over the Internet.

I started this latest legume-fueled session just as I had the previous four nights but when his red SUV was nowhere to be seen in the foreground of the web-cam’s image my ears began to boom with the trip-hammer heartbeat that always came with blood pressure climbing.  Fortunately a panic-fueled volley of text messages established that he was in fact parked down in front of the office building, so close that upon inspection I could see that a thin red line – the front of his SUV’s hood – poked into the image area.

The rotating illuminated sign across the river first read a balmy -26o then announced that the appointed time had arrived. I tapped out a “see anything?” text on my phone which was answered almost immediately with a terse “Nope”. I screwed my eyes shut, pinched the bridge of my nose out of habit, and thought to myself “I’m going fricking crazy,” as my pulse and blood pressure went into a roller-coaster ride that couldn’t be doing me any good. A couple of key strokes gave me a slightly more distinct image …and a better view of a figure now moving past the church on the left, a hooded figure in the grey-green parka moving down the left side of the screen, passing Immaculate Conception Church in screen-refresh intervals. The harsh street light illumination and fog coming up off the river obscured details, but I definitely could see the damning yellow happy face grinning like a jaundiced maniac from his left shoulder.

Me: “Do you see him?”

Bernie: “Who?”

Me: “A young guy in an old army parka.”

Bernie: “WTF?”

Me: “The way I used to look. Me. Him. Screw it.”

Our text-message badminton was abruptly cut short by an incoming FaceTime call from Bernie showing absolutely NO ONE walking along the sidewalk next to the church, while the continually refreshing web-cam showed the figure in the parka continuing to walk down the street and past the Immaculate Conception Church, until the last image when he/me turned, looked straight into the lens and flashed the peace sign.

The Sixth Night

I’m going to die tonight. I’ve lied to my wife and now I am mixed up with something right out of Twilight Zone – no, not Twilight ZoneNight Gallery because this is a whole lot scarier than Twilight Zone at this point, but I can’t pull myself away from my laptop, and now God is going to strike me down for lying to Gina.

My phone chirped out an incessant summons. but when Bernie’s number showed up on caller I.D., I sent the call directly to voice mail and reflected on my self-made bastard status. He was genuinely concerned after last night’s fiasco and knew better than most the toll it had taken on me and my heart…but there was no way I was going to walk away without at least a few questions answered. In purest cinematic fashion He/me appeared right on time and started walking down Cushman Avenue just like he had for the previous nights. I had ceased trying to make any sense of the situation but found it impossible to look away even though I could feel my pulse thunder in my ear and there was something terribly wrong with my left arm.

“Dammit! Not now. Not when I’m so close”

He/me slowed a bit before passing off screen to the left then he abruptly stopped, looked up into the webcam camera and pulled a folded piece of paper out of his pocket. He smiled and opened the sheet up to reveal neat block printing:

IT’S OK.

IT’S BEEN A GOOD LIFE, EH?

IT’S TIME TO MOVE ON.

…then he/me tucked the paper into his pocket and the he/me image started to break into pixilated shards, but as he walked past the church and out of view I found I couldn’t breathe. My inner Cro-Magnon howled at the merciless irony of a heart attack robbing me of closure to a half-century of heartbreak…then there was a kind of “huff” sound and I could breathe again. What I’d thought of as cardiac arrest was in fact a piece of Brazil nut that had gotten temporarily lodged “in the wrong pipe,” …and it turned out that the pain in my arm was brought on when the day pack slung on the back of my chair slid down with the strap catching and eventually numbing my arm.

I took a deep breath and felt a wave of warmth spill over my shoulders while the pins and needles in my arm slowly faded. It had been too easy to let the advancing years send me mentally and emotionally fleeing to that simpler and easier time in my life – and whether it was an episode of Night Gallery I was experiencing or not, I couldn’t take up permanent residence. If I’d been able to freeze the calendar at 1971 I’d have missed so much in my life: Gina, the kids, my career, the first time we saw Full Metal Jacket in Sensurround– hell, even After The Love is Gone by Earth, Wind and Fire, which had been inexplicably playing in my internal mix-tape since I first heard it five years after I left Fairbanks.

Whatever this anomaly may have been , it made me realize something I needed to accept: as comfortable and carefree as 1971 seemed from the vantage of the 21st century I would have been a much poorer man had there really been a way to break the dial of the cosmic TV set of life and just stayed in that place forever. After putting the lid back on the mixed nuts I clicked on the Arctic-Cam URL, deleted it, and went to bed.

______________________________________________________________________

(another “fictional” break in the creative non-fiction that I usually write…)

1971: Your Move

It’s a story that’s been handied down through my mother’s family for generations – two Cornish coal-miners filing a lawsuit against the public works administration for building the sidewalks too close to their butts. It’s tempting to dismiss the tale as urban legend but when you consider how the family physique combines a long torso with stubby legs it’s easy to believe the legend as fact. It also explains why running – especially long distance running – was always such a challenge for me as I have to cover twice as much distance as my longer-limbed buddies.

It was a condition that would be the bane of my entire running life but even though I’ve never been much of a long-distance runner I never stopped trying to do better and by the time I was seventeen I could turn a decent time for a mile run. It was enough to get me through football season and as a teacher’s aide for physical education class when I was counting laps for my students more often than running them myself, but the situation jumped up and bit me in my own low-slung Cornish miner’s butt when a lapse of judgement saw me signing up for a 200 level physical fitness class during my first semester at the University of Alaska.

The class first met on one of those grey drizzly days common to Alaska but the classroom was comfortable enough and before long I was joking with my classmates and looking forward to fifteen weeks of casual activity. Then our instructor walked in and reality scratched the tone arm across the 33 1/3 LP record of my life. His name was Coach Svenningson and he was built like the Bizarro version of me:

  • His legs were as abnormally long as mine were short.
  • Where I was stocky he was rail-thin.
  • Where I was endomorphic his body fat percentage easily went into negative.

At least he didn’t have that frustrated drill instructor mindset found in some coaches and was soft-spoken and occasionally smiling as he passed out copies of the syllabus and highlighted some of the fitness activities we’d be doing. At first we’d be doing a lot of stretching and warm-up work and the last part of the term would involve a lot of handball but most of the semester would involve running.

It was definitely not what I wanted to hear.

Up until this time I had been somewhat of a dilettante when it came to athletics – or anything for that matter. Whether it was drawing, football, judo or shooting I was good for at best two months before I’d get distracted into something more interesting, which worked in quite nicely with the nine-week grading periods that broke up the school year but college was a whole new animal and I’d have to stick with this class for twice as long as usual.

Fortunately this particular set of concerns fell by the wayside as all my studies commenced in earnest and for the first few weeks the physical fitness class was just one academic blur among others as we sedately worked our way thorough Coach’s preparatory program of calisthenics and stretching.

…and then there came D-Day, or rather R-Day: the dreaded day we were to start running, which wasn’t all that dreadful because it entailed some easy laps around the gym (which I could handle) followed with laps around the Beluga1 annex which I assumed that I could learn to handle…but looking forward I could see that when we started running outside any measure of “handling” on my part was theoretical at best.

Given the university’s geographical location less than two degrees south of the Arctic Circle running outside meant dealing with conditions cooler, wetter and a bit less sunny that I was used to for autumn. I was granted a very minor respite when we were given a choice of several trails to run but the shortest was two and half miles long so I’d have to more than double my heretofore best effort. In the hyperlogical mindset of an eighteen-year old male all I could was cling to hope that the support and traction provided by my brand new blue Puma® running shoes would carry me through the course.

…then we were given a sketch map of the course and I knew I was screwed. The run would start at the Beluga but then almost immediately went straight up the slope that separated the upper and lower campuses before crossing Yukon Road and making a loop over a rolling forest track2.

Even though we were still inside I shivered. I was going to be engaged in my least favorite form of exercise while

  • Covering twice as far as my best distance
  • Negotiating one big slope followed by several smaller ones
  • Wet, sloppy weather that could turn into snow at anytime

I decided that no running shoe (no matter how cool the logo) would get me through that distance so immediately after class I went to the administration building to drop the class, but as I was picking up a drop card I ran into a friend from high school who was in the process of dropping out of all his classes and going home. It startled me – he’d been a stellar student athlete all through high school and was the last person I’d expect to quit, but as I looked at him filling out forms I had an epiphany: no matter how hard my classes were or how homesick I became there was no way I was going to spend four more years taking the easy path in life.

…which is why – despite all my doubts – I tore up the drop card and showed up at the next physical fitness class and lined up at the start point of the 2 ½ mile trail.

I started up the hill, thinking that if I could get through wind sprints in football practice I could make it up the hill, a thought my body stoutly rejected as I barfed at the top of the slope. As I crossed the road my legs wobbling and feeling more like Jell-O than flesh and bone and for a moment I considered hiding in the trees until I could fall with the pack on the return trip down the slope but all I could think of was my former classmate dropping of school so I kept going, albeit at a brisk walk rather than a run.

It was more of a barely-controlled forward fall than a brisk walk and I found myself wheeze-singing3 a song I’d heard just before I left for class that morning: “Your Move” by the British progressive rock bank Yes:

Take a straight and stronger course to the corner of your life.
Make the white queen run so fast she hasn’t got time to make you a wife.
‘Cause it’s time, it’s time in time with your time and its news is captured
For the queen to use.

 Diddit diddit diddit diddit diddit diddit diddit didda.
Diddit diddit diddit diddit diddit diddit diddit didda.


My run during the next class wasn’t much better, though I did manage to avoid throwing up and during my third time around the trail I was able to manage a slow jog for part of the course. As I’d go through the lyrics my mind would fill in the bass drum that slowly marked time along with the flawlessly blended harmony.

Don’t surround yourself with yourself,
Move on back two squares,
Send an Instant Karma to me,
and Initial it with loving care

Diddit diddit diddit diddit diddit diddit diddit didda.
Diddit diddit diddit diddit diddit diddit diddit didda.

After the third or fourth circuit around the trail I began to think about the message of the song – the game of chess as an allusion to a romantic relationship, something that was extremely interesting to me now that the Petite Blonde at church was becoming my Best Friend

‘Cause it’s time, it’s time in time with your time and its news is captured
For the queen to use.
Diddit diddit diddit diddit diddit diddit diddit didda.
Diddit diddit diddit diddit diddit diddit diddit didda.

Before long I was jogging for the entire course and then one day I found myself running for the entire two and half miles….and once I was able to painlessly4 run the trail I found myself appreciating the golden explosion that is autumn in Alaska:

  • the brilliant golden fall colors
  • the sounds of birds calling to each other
  • the slightly sour smell of unpicked cranberries after a frost

…and then it came time to switch to other fitness activities and while I thoroughly enjoyed learning to play handball I felt a vague sense of loss. Running remained my least favorite form of exercise but I’d finally been able to figure out why cross-country running was so popular among some of my friends in high school…and mulling the lyrics to Your Move helped me figure out the direction a budding romance was headed

Most importantly it was the first time I took on a very difficult/almost insurmountable task and stuck with it all the way through to a successful completion, and while my future still held instances of me “getting out while the getting was good” I’ve been able to look back at the two-and-a-half mile trail and draw strength in hard times. As a later mentor would say I’d taken the first step into adulthood by making myself do something difficult even though I didn’t want to.

 


 

Notes:

  1. The Beluga was a large white inflatable building nicknamed for the white whales that inhabited Alaskan waters and was situated just to the west of the Patty athletic complex. It housed the university’s hockey rink but during the off-season it provided shelter for tennis and jogging during inclement weather.
  2. An area now taken up by the Reichardt building, Troth Yedda Park and assorted student housing cabins.
  3. “Wheeze-singing” entails quietly singing through the gasps and wheezes of the belabored breathing brought on by heavy exercise. It was a sort of a Zen exercise I developed to focus my attention away from the pain and discomfort of running in high school long before portable stereos had been invented.
  4. …well, less painfully maybe.

 

 

This is an extended version – the one I listened/sang to lacked the more electric & energetic section that starts up after the fade-out.

 

Two And A Haldf Mile Trail (2)

The  closest I could get to finding a picture of the 2 1/2 mile trail at the time I was running on it. While this is definitely a photo taken in Alaska the trees look a little tall for Fairbanks. It was a share of a share of a share on Facebook so I don’t have a proper credit but please contact me if you know the photographer