Here's what I've learned about doing time: you can't do years. Well, in retrospect you can, easily — that is, after you've done 'em. They're a snap. Looking back they don't seem a huge deal. Two years here, four years there — after they're over they seem a lark, a blip, a hiccup, a mere trifle weighed against the infinite span of a lifetime. Stand at the front end of eight years, though, and try to come to terms with the boundless ocean of time stretching before you. The effectively infinite span between now and freedom, and the attendant ineffable despair? That'll grind the teeth right off your sprockets.
So, you do days. Days you can do, and they will accumulate and form more meaningful manageable, mountable blocks of time from which you will one day be able to glimpse those first faint fringes of freedom as the horizon resolves into landfall. Until then you get up in the morning and try not to look forward to anything more distant than mail call.
I have thus far accumulated, prior to this term, 9.5 years in the following increments: one, four, one, one, and 2.5 years, in the span from Summer 1991 to Summer 2011.
Throw in a couple of rehab and several county jail stints, that's well over half of my post-30 life spent in durance vile.
No wonder my sexual conquests dropped off so sharply. I had graphed it out and was attributing the precipitous decline to celestial phenomena or affirmative action. This actually explains a lot.
So yeah, for me the old in-out has of late referred more to my passage through jail doors and not the other, far more pleasant portal.
However, despite spending a shameful amount of time in prison, I have thus far resisted being of prison. That is, I've not acquired the gritty patina particular to the convict class. I have two small, tasteful, professionally rendered tattoos, honoring Howard the Duck (the Marvel comics version, not that filmic abomination) and my favorite band, ALL my senses of humor and irony remain intact. I attend to my manners and grammar and my sensibilities are comparatively refined. Don't get me wrong, I'm no pinky-waving aesthete, but at a time when the “Frasier” TV program had a more significant cultural presence, my prison nickname was “Niles.”
Thus, whenever those doors clang shut behind me the soul-searching begins and the questions fly fast and furious, most notably, “Who am I?”
Am I really a career criminal? I honestly don't feel like one, but my 11 felony convictions make a good case for it. A tweaker being led around by the nose by the lamest drug ever? Again, doesn't sound like me, but my many nights spent skulking around town with a backpack full of porn and electronic debris would belie that.
To me, I'm a fairly regular guy. Somewhat neurotic, definitely with tendencies some may consider weird. Not scary or dangerous or creepy. Weird, mostly. Goofy weird. No genius, but definitely above average. I am acutely attuned to, truly discerning of, and extremely sensitive to art of all kinds. I like punk rock music, speculative fiction, yoga, Quentin Tarantino movies, Cezanne paintings, Victorian literature, evolutionary biology, existentialist philosophy, and Chopin's mazurkas, to name a few things. I like to play guitar and write limericks. I'm an excellent cook and a good dancer.
That nut job who thought “planning” and executing a bank robbery in the space of 10 minutes using a bicycle as a getaway vehicle, without a disguise in a tiny town where he is on a first name basis with every lawman in the county, a bank where he had an account, would be a good idea? I don't think I'd even like to hang out with that guy. Seems a tad sketchy. And the fiend who would walk into a bookstore — the closest thing to a sacred place in my worldview — waving a gun around demanding money, upsetting and frightening people, I think I'd like to knock that guy around a little, teach him some respect for books and other people's property.
But we all contain multitudes, right? Who among us has not entertained fantasies of illegal, immoral, unacceptable, insane behavior? You think. Therein lies the rub. We here on the outside of the bars have the sense to leave those desires in the realm of fantasy. And sure, you're right, but I'm not just an id-driven hedonist obeying the dictates of my lizard brain. Nor am I an addict so single-minded that my personal ethos can be boiled down to two words: get dope. Not all the time, anyway.
I've been known to act civilized on occasion, to work for a living, to engage in recreational pursuits both productive and salubrious. I understand right and wrong (from a societal perspective, anyway) and cause and effect, though philosophically I am a pragmatist of the most fundamental sort and believe that societal constructs and human endeavor are but frippery, ornamentation, diversion, window dressing over the base fact of the biological imperative.
Not that I'm diverted and amused too. I like SpongeBob and fireworks and halos and football as much as the next jackass. But I'm painfully aware of my role on this planet which is not necessarily to engage in anything my mind (or anyone else's) can conceive, but to be a vehicle for a very determined and selfish gene concerned only with spawning copies of itself willy-nilly around the globe.
But I digress. My point is, I have no idea who I am, why I do what I do, where I'm headed or how it'll all wind up. Not only that, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't matter, even to myself.
So why initiate this exploration? Why not? At worst we will both have wasted some time. You, a matter of minutes; me, substantially more. And I can certainly afford it. I'm lousy with the stuff.
I am a child of rape. Not my mother; my father. A young airman stationed in French Morocco, he was at liberty one fine evening in the city of Rabat looking for black-market jazz records for use in his capacity as Armed Forces Radio DJ. He was directed to a dark alley in a disreputable neighborhood by a skeezy bazaar where he found not the Chet Baker disk he was promised, but a knot of angry Berber spinsters. They set upon them with weighted calabashes and cudgels of gopherwood. He had no chance. Spirited away to a remote ziggurat outside of town, he was plied with hashish and a crude fig brandy crafted by Moslem reprobates in filthy basements. One by one the bitter Berber bimbos befouled my poor papa. His screams went unheard, echoing off the empty minarets and dissipating off into the dunes. Perhaps a camel paused a moment in its rumination. We will never know for sure. What is known is that no one came to his aid and when the vile viragos were sated, they tossed him unceremoniously into a trough and skipped away, giggling and high-fiving.
My father awoke in that trough the next morning to the call of the muezzin and made his addled way back to the base, determined to forget the night's horrors.
And gradually he did, settling back into his military routine, making do with Rosemary Clooney and Bing Crosby and rarely venturing off US government property.
Until the day, right around nine months after the incident, when a burqa'd woman showed up at the barracks and tossed a wriggling bundle at my father.
“This belongs to you, airman infidel,” she snapped, and flounced out in a cloud of patchouli and variegated silk.
Since Air Force regulations forbade enlisted personnel from keeping pets or babies on base, my father took me to the bazaar and offered me up for sale. A brisk business was done in that time in babies in North Africa and my half American parentage guaranteed a quick sale and a hefty price. After a day of haggling my father secured a price of 100 dirhams for me, nearly $35 American.
Can he be blamed for feeling relief as my new adoptive parents lashed me to their camel? I think not. I was stolen from his loins and spat from those of the rapist, unasked for, unwarranted.
Perhaps in my new life I would find a place to belong, to grow and to flower. Only time will tell.
* * *
Dear reader, I sense your skepticism. You think my tale is fanciful and suspect. I sport with you, do you not? “Unhand our legs, knave,” you think, “and cease this japery. Respect this forum and give us the straight dope, you felonious jamoke. Rustic we may be, but chumps we are not.”
To which I say: I? I?
Well, okay, none of that happened. Not to me, anyway. But I warn you that as I continue this narrative this sort of thing is liable to happen from time to time.
There is a germ of truth in my whimsical tale. In 1953 my father, James Mair Washburne, was in fact an Armed Forces radio DJ in French Morocco. He caught the ear of a 15-year-old colonel's daughter (the daughter was 15, the Colonel was in his majority) whose eye had already been caught by that selfsame lass, hostess of an afternoon dance party program on Armed Forces TV. The two fledgling media types found one another and by all accounts were quite gaga from the get-go. But as we all know, the course of true love is often beset by potholes, speed traps and angry colonels.
Colonel F.C. Schnackenberg, Army Intelligence, was a rigid man with neither patience nor tolerance for (for instance) musicians, beatniks, Californians, the Air Force, Turks, or enlisted men. All of which applied to my father. He wasn't much for Democrats, women's suffrage, colors besides olive drab, communists, socialists, humanists, etc.. You get the picture.
Somehow, my father won the right to court the underage dependent. I like to imagine a showdown between he and the kernel played by Bob Denver as Maynard G. Krebs and George C. Scott as General Patton. ("You pup! I'll have you horsewhipped!” “Whoa, cool it, daddy-o!")
Over the next seven years some things happened. A discharge, a marriage, education, the birth of my sisters — stuff, you know? Not necessarily interesting stuff except insofar as it led to the introduction of your humble narrator.
Which occurred in 1960 in Erie County, New York. We weren't there long, though. As an up and coming disc jockey, my father bounced us around the country as he was hired by progressively larger markets. By early 1966 we were living in a cantilevered house on the hill in Mill Valley and dad was doing the morning show at KYA. It was at this time too that my father's love of strong liquor and sports cars ended predictably with him taking an unplanned exit off the Pacific Coast Highway and into the abyss early one morning.
It is around this time when Pops went to sleep with the fishes that I began to have a cogent, linear memory path. Prior to that it's mostly vague, spotty vignettes.
For instance, I'm pretty sure now that I wasn't abused in underwater satanic sex rituals with Anton LeVay and Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Still, you never know.
Anyhow. It's early 1966 and there we are — me, 5; sister Deidre, 8; brother Nathaniel, 2; left to the tender mercies of perhaps the most irresponsible, self-involved person ever to draw breath. My mother's approach to child rearing was utterly laissez-faire. We could expect to be clothed, fed and watered. Anything else, you're on your own, bucko. Love? Affection? Sentimentality, and therefore pointless. I imagine it was like being raised by Ayn Rand.
She wasn't completely dismissive of us, I guess, if you caught her at the right time of day she could probably tell you two or three of our birthdays.
While we children usually felt as if those endless bottles (later boxes) of wine were her real offspring, they certainly merited more attention than us — the meals were regular and our clothes were clean. Things could have been worse and before long, they were. Much.
From Space Daisy To Space Traveler
My first significant act of vandalism involved spray painting the word “fuck” across the flank of the Thunder Machine, a large sheet metal sculpture by the artist Ron Boise at The Spread, a commune/hippie enclave we occupied for a while post-dad. This barbaric yawp succinctly expressed my feelings about sheet metal sculptures, the men who create them, and the fact that they were porking my mom, hippies, their ilk, and the prevailing status quo. Plus, I was overjoyed at having finally found a use for my burgeoning literacy.
My work caused quite a stir among the normally complacent denizens of The Spread. There was much beeping and squeaking and wringing of hands, cries of “Banish him!” “Philistine!” And, “Wretched little fascist!”
They braced my mother, “Space Daisy.” (Yes, my mother's nom-de-sixties was “Space Daisy.") “You gotta control that kid, man! And why is his hair so short? He looks like a fascist, man!” My hair was short because I insisted it remain so. I didn't yet know what a fascist was, but since it appeared to be anathema to the hippies, I wore that badge proudly.
The only reaction to my work that mattered to me was the review of Grimm Babbs, an older boy and hero of mine for his cigarette smoking and wise-ass attitude. He leaned back against the fence, squinted at the defiled totem, and said, “Nice work,” and passed me the butt.
Some children thrived and even flourished in the freewheeling maelstrom of hippiedom. My siblings, for instance, adapted nicely. My sweet, simple brother toddled blissfully around, grooving on the music and playing in the mud. Those pictures you see from the period of the various “-ins” featuring beatific naked children with tousled blonde hair frolicking about? If they're not actually my brother, which they might be, they might as well be. And my bossy, methodical older sister found unlimited outlets for her organizational mania, constantly assembling people into groups, having sales, putting on shows, and generally being a huge pain in the ass. (She's currently bossing people around at Hewlett-Packard where her employees consider her a huge pain in the ass.)
To me, not so much. Not at all, really. I've never cared much for change and the shift from life with dad in Mill Valley to that circus sideshow was as complete a shift imaginable, and therefore not workable. I was my dad's boy and through him I had a firm idea of what a man should be. My dad wore sharp suits, drove a Porsche, and smelled like Canoe. These interlopers smelled like a cat box, drove clown cars, and dressed, when they were in fact dressed, like bums and crazy people.
When I was a small boy I had a stock response to the stock query directed to all little boys:
What do you want to be when you grow up?
“A man,” I'd say.
This answer always got a big laugh and ensured I'd always be trotted out for guests. (Tell them, Flynn! Tell them what you want to be when you grow up!) I would dutifully say the line and then go back to my book. But the laughter and the attention irritated me. I wasn't trying to be clever. My peers always gave the expected response to the question — fireman, policeman, cowboy, astronaut — but I didn't want to be defined by my outfit or accoutrements. I didn't care for notions of glamour or danger or adventure. Without any firm idea of what I actually wanted to do, I knew what I wanted to be — a guy who puts on a suit, grabs a briefcase, goes to work, and returns in the evening. Not a fireman or a policeman or a spaceman — just a man. Like Ward Cleaver or Ozzie Nelson. Like my dad.
Meanwhile, back at The Spread, my adornment was scoured off and painted over. In my defense, the Thunder Machine looked like a brightly painted air disaster and I honestly felt (and feel) that “fuck” looked pretty good on it. Boise died shortly after the incident of a rare blood disease, becoming the second in a long line of husbands/beaux who failed to survive my mother's love. Along about number four, I considered warning them, ala the Surgeon General, that consorting with my mother was a generally fatal undertaking. But as they were very nearly to a man (and I use the term loosely) irresponsible, children-hating drunks, I figured: Caveat emptor. My hands are clean.
Oddly enough, the one exception to the parade of losers was the single survivor, her one ex remaining extant. Lee Quarnstrom and Space Daisy were married during the Summer of Love at the Fillmore Auditorium by Bill Graham in a loud, colorful, chaotic spectacle peopled with many counterculture luminaries and whatever detritus happened in off the street. I, of course, wanted no part of it and sat in the lobby reading “The Borrowers.”
Lee, a mailman/novelist, was earnest and well-meaning in his attempts at stepfathering, ambitious in his (writing) career, and moderate in his habits, all of which explain his brief tenancy in the position. Mom had to hustle him out to make room for the parade of violent drunks to follow. Lee took it pretty bad, but it he did escape with his life, something neither his predecessors nor successors could claim.
Life was pretty good under the Quarnstrom regime. We moved to Felton, a little town in the Santa Cruz mountains, and bought a house among the redwoods on the banks of the Zayante Creek. That creek became the focus of my life for the next couple of years as I embarked on something resembling an idyll. One of the happiest times of my life and certainly the only happy time of my childhood AD (after dad).
Except, of course, for the Grandpa interludes. Several times a year I would fly down to Orange County to spend time with my paternal grandfather, noted composer and musician Country Washburne. Pop was a real old-school showbiz Orange County Republican in the Ronald Reagan vein. He and Grandma Ginny lived in a big house in Costa Mesa with a gate and a pool and were my haven and sanctuary from the hippies up north. Upon arrival I would be whisked off to the barber shop and young men's haberdashery to be de-urchanized. I reveled in the attention and my sharp new profile. My mother, naturally, was always horrified at the changes wrought by her in-laws. So much the better. Life was sweet with Pop, lunching at the club or the Balboa Pavilion, plying the waters of the Balboa Bay in his Chris-Craft and hanging around sound stages and recording studio. In my mother's world I was exposed to people like Janis Joplin, Ken Kesey, Wavy Gravy, Neal Cassady, and Tom Wolfe. Pop introduced me to Buddy Epson, Roy Rogers, Andy Griffith and Marlo Thomas. Advantage: Pop.
Directly upon returning I reverted, though: off came the saddle shoes and knee socks, and in bare feet and cut off jeans I returned to my beloved creek. I fished, I swam, I built dams, I caught crawdads, I explored every inch of that creek for miles in both directions, from its source at Loch Lomond to its outlet at the San Lorenzo River.
My captive salamander breeding program, conducted in an old clawfoot bathtub in the backyard, was a huge success and a boon to all the neighborhood cats. My bedroom was a mass of terreria housing examples of every reptile, amphibians and arachnid indigenous to the area. I suppose some parents may have expressed concern about a nine-year-old handling rattlesnakes, scorpions and black widows. But life in our house and indeed all over the greater upper Zayante region, had a liberating Lord of the Flies vibe (pre-all the pig killing and other nastiness) that allowed we kids to drive unmolested, undirected, and without adult interference in a delightfully Darwinian manner. We learned lessons the hard way and all of us (perhaps surprisingly) survived.
My older sister was the primary organizing influence on the Zayante children. Every holiday became a pageant with scripts and costumes. She wrote and published a newspaper, organized camping trips, snipe hunts, fossil gatherings, nature hikes, monster tracking — the hills around Zayante Road housed several species of child eating monsters) and dance parties. Her most significant and profound undertakings, the ones that had the most lasting effect on me, though, were our voyages into outer space.
About a mile from our house was a huge hollowed-out redwood stump about six or seven feet in diameter with several feet of wall rising up out of a soft concave bottom. I cannot explain the science of it. I don't know whether Dierdre was simply exploiting properties already inherent in the stump or if she rigged it yourself, but that stump was capable of interplanetary travel.
As it was explained to me on our first voyage, Mars had developed a civilization roughly parallel to ours and mostly indistinguishable from ours. Six of us were blindfolded, put into the stump and whisked away to Mars, a journey of perhaps ten minutes, accompanied by much whooshing and klackety-klacking, though the ride itself was quite smooth. Upon reaching the Martian landscape, Dierdre gave us a lecture on protocol before removing our blindfolds. “We have landed on the Mars equivalent of Zayante Road,” she said. “You will see things and people you think you recognize, but do not touch anything or talk to anyone. If the Martians suspect you come from Earth, you will not be allowed to leave. Does everyone understand?” I was frightened but agreed, as we all did. Deirdre and her chief engineer, Sonya, removed our blindfolds and we collectively blinked and peered out at a brand-new world.
Deirdre lead us out of the ship and out into the Martian world which did, as she had warned us, look remarkably similar to the part of the earth we had just left. But like a tour guide, she pointed out the differences only a trained eye and seasoned space traveler could detect. “See that dog right there? Looks like Paula and Hassler's dog, right? Well, that spot on its ear is in the wrong place.” Yes, we agreed. Clearly the dog was a fake. “And look over there. See that guy watering his lawn? Looks like Chick Brandt, doesn't it?” Yup, sure does, we agreed. “Look carefully, tell me what's different about him.” We chimed in with several theories — his pants are the wrong color! He's too fat! He has a tail! But as Deirdre said, his ears were placed on opposite sides of his head — left on right, right on the left. Subtle, but noticeable once she pointed it out.
We spent several Saturdays on the red planet before my a rebellious nature got the better of me and I, hanging back, dislodged myself from the group. I felt a sense of delicious terror as my friend disappeared around the corner. I was all alone on an unknown planet. I had a peanut-butter sandwich and an apple. Anything could happen.
The first Martian I encountered was the analogue of Mrs. Fisher back on Earth, an old lady who lived alone and made the neighborhood kids homemade ice cream on holidays. She was watering her flowers as I stood just outside her fence, studying her for any telltale signs of alienness. She looked up at me in expectation. “I'm from Earth,” I said, violating protocol and setting God knows what chain of events into motion. Would I be eaten? Enslaved? Put on display in a zoo? “Welcome,” Mrs. Fisher said, giving me a crinkly smile and a little wave with her hose hand.
This was heartening. Emboldened, I ambled all over the neighborhood observing the fauna, flora and foreigners. I felt like Columbus, Magellan, De Soto all rolled into one. I went down to the creek to eat my lunch and basked in the otherworldliness. I was a for-real interplanetary traveler. I was still a year or two away from discovering the most significant and beloved writer of my childhood, Ray Bradbury, but when I did get to the Martian Chronicles it took me right back to that Saturday afternoon where, as the long redwood shadows began to creep over me, I suddenly realized what it meant to be a million miles from home. I hied my young ass back to the stump-rocket module and climbed in. I was pretty sure my sister and the rest wouldn't leave without me so I settled down to wait. After what felt like hours but was probably only a few minutes, I began inspecting the stump, inside and out, for its operational implements — in vain. How the hell did this thing motivate, anyhow? On reflection, I suspect there was more magic than science involved. I laid down in the stump, closed my eyes and spread the universe out before my mind's eye. With a slightly vertiginous roller coaster-crest feeling, the velvety blanket of stars resolved into a chute made of light down which I sped, accelerating terrifyingly until suddenly I began going up, up, up… Then I became weightless. I opened my eyes and sat up, peering over the stump's walls. Earth? I couldn't be sure. I ran home to find Lee outside feeding the dogs. He looked normal. Dierdre was inside practicing piano, mom was making dinner and Nathaniel was inspecting a cat for ticks. All normal enough, nobody commented on my arrival, I didn't run into my doppelganger, so I have to presume I made it back on my own.
But to this day I wonder. I mean, I know we call the planet I'm on Earth, but maybe I never made it back that day. If so, I wonder how things worked out for me back home? Is the other me in prison, too? If not, maybe we can somehow switch back. When I parole, I'm headed back to Zayante Road and that stump.