A Fork in the Road

Schoolmate shot in the head by another — playing with a rifle…

That was my first encounter with gun deaths as a kid. Absolutely preventable. There would be more — friends or relatives of friends. We are at a fork in the road. Fifty-eight deaths at a concert. We have been here before but we always take the wrong path forward. That path only leads us to another ugly fork in the road and we always take the wrong path forward — deeper into the abyss of gun violence — fork after fork after fork. We don’t have the guts to take the right path because the wrong one is the familiar way…we don’t know what we will find on the right path and there are forces at work that keep us from going that way. We seem to be running in circles but it is a straight path downward.

Coworker’s son accidentally shot and killed by his father in a hunting accident.

That was my second encounter with gun deaths…some years later. Very sad, devastating indeed, and truly an accident. About one-third of Americans own firearms. About half of that number own only one or two guns. Many are hunters who are careful people when handling their firearms. Accidents happen but not all that often. Many are also sport shooters who are drawn to competitions or enjoy target shooting as a hobby. They are also very careful and usually shoot in a safe and controlled environment. I am technically a gun owner because I own a black-powder flintlock pistol that I once used in target shooting almost thirty-five years ago. It hasn’t been fired in over thirty years but I keep it in a safe place. Hunters and sport shooters are not the problem — but could be part of the solution to the gun problem in America.

Staff member’s young brother shot and killed by a confused and fearful security guard.

My next encounter with a gun death was absolutely preventable. He was a young black kid, a pre-teen, playing where he shouldn’t but was viewed as a threat by a startled security guard. The boy was with friends and they were doing what kids do. Somehow there was confusion in the dark and the security guard had a gun and used it. Guns are everywhere and fear is a great motivator to use them even when there is no real danger. About 3% of Americans own half the guns in this country. That’s somewhere around 180+ million guns. The average among that group is seventeen guns but some own many more. So many more that the average for all gun owners is somewhere around eight per owner. Some of those gun owners are legitimate collectors. Some might be legitimate gun vendors. Some, maybe more than some, are compelled by fear or some misguided notion of paranoia. I had a neighbor who pulled a gun on a fellow driver in a road rage incident. He was usually a calm person and not excitable but something happened that made him think he needed a gun. Then something happened that made him think he needed to use the gun. No one was hurt in the incident but a short time later it turned out he had a brain tumor. There is a lot of fear pushing people to own guns, mostly hand guns, and most of it is unwarranted.

A close friend and colleague gunned down by a white supremacist when he answered the front door.

My fourth encounter with a gun violence death was not that long ago. A good friend and colleague  was killed — they call it “assassinated” because he was a government official — by a white supremacy nut job who apparently acted on orders from an Aryan Brotherhood cell. The case is still open though the shooter was killed in a car chase. Someone put him up to it. There are crackpots and gun-crazy people and criminals and mental cases who should never have access to a gun. Kids should never have unsupervised access to a gun. The more guns we have the more they are circulated and end up where they don’t belong. About a half-million guns are stolen in this country every year, from private gun owners or from gun shops. Last December two guys stole a large Ford truck and drove it through the wall of a local gun shop and stole “several” guns…the number was not reported. They got away with the guns and have never been apprehended. About 1,600 guns are stolen in America each day. As gun advocates like the NRA pressure state legislatures to roll back gun possession and control laws the theft rate in those states increases. The guns fall into a black-market pipeline that funnels them into cities with stricter controls. A gun is stolen every minute in America.

A former coworker’s husband, a law enforcement officer, shot himself in the head on a quiet day on a quiet street for no apparent reason — a suicide.

A person bent on committing suicide will often find a way to accomplish it unless there is some intervention. Having a gun handy will speed things up — no intervention possible. It often destroys more than one life.  I live and grew up in a middle class community. I had the benefits of being educated and gainfully employed non-stop for 36 years. I mostly lived in “white” neighborhoods where one would not expect a great deal of gun violence. I know more people who died from firearms than I know who died from traffic accidents. I’m sure my experience with gun deaths is almost nothing compared to the experience of someone living in a ghetto or barrio or a gang controlled neighborhood.

Double homicide — jilted guy shoots and kills his girlfriend and her husband as they come out their door to go to work…an ambush killing.

This happened two doors away from my daughter’s house in a small town in rural Missouri. Gun violence is not just a city thing. The guy got away and was finally caught several hundred miles away. He had a gun and thought it was OK to kill people and figured he could get away. If he didn’t have the gun he wouldn’t have been waiting in the dark to squeeze off a couple rounds into his “problem” people. He wouldn’t have considered that to be a solution to his problem. There are about 310,000,000 guns in America with more added every day. We need more guns like we need a hole in the head.

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Written on the Eve of the Next Mass Shooting

Who will it be this time?
The shooter, I mean.
My guess is it will be some guy with a problem.
His girlfriend doesn’t understand him.
He was bullied in school.
He lost his job and it wasn’t fair.
Somebody got too close or too slow on the road.
He’s a self-styled vigilante who doesn’t approve of “those people”.
His God told him to do it.

Who will it be this time?
The victims, I mean.
My guess is it will be ordinary people with ordinary problems.
His girlfriend doesn’t understand him.
She lost her job and it wasn’t fair.
He was bullied in school.
She was one of “those people”.
He was at the wrong place at the wrong time.
She worshiped the wrong God.

Who will it be this time?
The person who gave him the guns, I mean.
My guess it’s someone who is clueless…and guiltless.
Was it the dad who was fascinated with fire power?
Was it the mom frightened witless for her safety?
Was it the shop owner who was just making another sale?
Was it the anonymous online gun dealer?
Was it the guy in the alley with a trunk load of weapons?
Was it the neighbor who just left it lying around unsecured?

Who will it be this time?
The ones making lame excuses and feeble explanations.
My guess it will be the same ones we always hear.
The bought-off politicians.
The 2nd Amendment Constitutional crack-pots.
The gun rights fanatics…”If only they were all armed…”
The NRA spokesmen whose cold dead brains can’t fathom what’s happening?
The goof-ball local sheriff who suddenly has a crisis.
The wannabe candidate sucking up to voters.

Who will it be next time?

 

 

The Shadowed Wall

The Shadowed Wall
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
What lives were once protected
behind these shadowed walls?
What joys were shared and hopes declared
and private pains endured?
What voices spoke to say a prayer or
comfort childhood fears?
What buttons sewed?
What wondrous weavings wove?
What feasts enjoyed? What cheerful toasts proposed?
What missing friends or long-lost parents mourned?
Like brushstrokes on canvas, these past lives
paint shadowed lines on old forgotten walls.

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A reflection on a visit to Plaza del Cerro in Chimayo, NM

 

 

Sounding

sounding whale 2

 

A whale, torn deep by the harpoon

and roped to the hunters who would bring it down,

sounds deep into the darkness. Escape is the first impulse…

deny them of their prize.

 

At four hundred feet the pain is still there. At six hundred…deeper still.

At eight hundred something gives…changes for the better.

The surface calls… The hunters wait.

Breach…. And plunge again. They are gone.

 

I plunge.  I sound the depths.

The pain is there but not like it was.

The scar persists but the wound is healed.

And yet, the memory is sharp.

 

I plunge. I sound the depths. I breach.

Humpback Whale Breaching @ Sunset Composite Se Ak

 

A Special Kind of Sorrow

Cole_Owens_crA young friend, Cole Owens, passed out of this world on Monday. He was diagnosed with a serious form of cancer at age five, just after arriving in Kindergarten. I remember him well at that stage because we were all together on that Labor Day at his grandma’s house. He was a little dynamo….a bundle of energy. He was so healthy and active that one would never guess that there was anything wrong.

His journey took nine years but was not always uphill. There were times when he was cancer-free and things looked good. But the shadow always returned. He made it through school in those early years but was often in and out of treatment. He managed to be a star of the soccer team and his friends flocked to him. He was the bright and shining face in class. It seemed like he never had a bad day.

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Maybe he knew his time was short because he had such a joy for living. He became a local celebrity and an inspiration to many. His single mom was his champion. Together they faced every dragon and won more times than they lost. He made it to through middle school but the future looked cloudy. Doctors were not seeing what they hoped for. His last year was spent away from home and his school friends but he kept in close contact. Some friends travelled halfway across the country to be with him and he was well enough to enjoy their time together. There were good times at football games and a short trip here and there when he was feeling good. His liver was the problem; that and the vicious side effects of cancer treatment.

 

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His smile and his spirit sustained his mom and gave her hope. He took a strong interest in his treatment and the doctors and nurses who were trying to save him. They sought out the best treatment they could find. Cancer treatments have a devastating effect on children. Their young bodies can’t handle such powerful medications, chemotherapy and surgeries. They can suffer as much from the cure as the affliction. Most cancer research is focused on adult cures and medications and the kids can’t handle some of that.

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After nine years the horizon closed in. You can only do so much. He got to do things and meet people most kids dream of. His visit with his hero, Jimmy Fallon, was a special time. There is a long list of people who supported and prayed for his recovery. In the end the light goes out of your heart as sadness, waiting in the shadows, envelops all who knew him.

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There is a saying that “…it’s not the years in the life but the life in the years that counts” Maybe so…but it is still so hard to say goodbye.

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See: https://www.facebook.com/colesteam

 

 

It was written that I would love you

Eight years is a long time. This week, eight years ago, things changed forever as “We” became “I”. Losing a spouse or any loved one is life changing because you live in your memories. There is a huge cavity that looms all around you and it must be filled with something so you fill it with grief.

As with most of what I encounter, I found myself looking at grief in an analytical sense. It is profound sadness but not depression. The sadness is so deep that it will change the chemistry in the brain for a while.  It can become your new partner if you let it live and take root in the cavity. It is not so much a friend as a familiar companion…”Oh, there you are again”.    Over time it blends in to the background and you don’t pay much attention to it. Sometimes it goes away but sometimes it is there, standing in the corner or looking out from a crowd.

In my case it is mostly gone except it creeps back a little  during the last week of July. Something triggers it. You notice the calendar. You see a picture. You hear a song.

I was playing some music in the car and Paul McCartney’s “Calico Skies” came on. It is a simple song — he calls it “primitive”– but in it’s simplicity lies an empowering truthfulness.  There is some joy in it. The song was written during a hurricane imposed blackout in 1991– by candlelight and guitar. Written in 1991 but not released until 1997. Linda McCartney became ill in 1995 and died of cancer in 1998.

Calico Skies — by Paul McCartney

It was written that I would love you
From the moment I opened my eyes
And the morning when I first saw you
Gave me life under calico skies

I will hold you for as long as you like
I’ll hold you for the rest of my life

Always looking for ways to love you
Never failing to fight at your side
While the angels of love protect us
From the innermost secrets we hide

I’ll hold you for as long as you like
I’ll hold you for the rest of my life

Long live all of us crazy soldiers
Who were born under calico skies
May we never be called to handle
All the weapons of war we despise

I’ll hold you for as long as you like
I’ll hold you for the rest of my life
I’ll hold you for as long as you like
I’ll love you for the rest of my
For the rest of my life

Hooks and Feathers — Chapter Five

As they say,  all good things come to an end. Such is the way with close friendships, sometimes. And also with family connections. We just buried my uncle — the one I wrote about earlier. He was the last of his generation and he had a long life — made it to 96 — and if you add up his time fishing, I suspect that those days were added on to his life.

My close relationship with Fred also came to an end.  We two were on a road trip, heading to Florida one January, and he announced that he was going to divorce his wife…one of my best friends. Awkward, no?  I knew before she did.  The remaining days of the trip were a little odd. I tried talking it out but he was in a strange place. Mid-life crisis on steroids, I thought, though he denied it. It was one of the strangest trips we ever had…including the evening spent with the gay drug smuggler/dealer from the Bahamas. He was dripping with cash. Drinking 140 year old chocolate liquor was the highlight of the evening…no drugs or gay stuff. It took us a while to resolve things but we are still friends and he has been married twice since then. I always thought Fred should have written his life story — no one would believe it. He is the only person I know who was bitten by a Komodo Dragon and lived to tell of it…he has the scar to prove it. He’s still adding to his life story…which is good.  We live too far apart these days and don’t fish or dive together but we are keeping in touch.  My wife was a harder sell and their friendship was pretty much over.

But this is about fishing, right?

I was always happy as a solo fisherman. I miss fishing with Fred but since he could never learn to tie a knot it was sometimes aggravating. He could tie his shoes, thank God. But fishing alone has always been relaxing for me. The Ozark streams are quiet and uncrowded if you stay away from the trout parks. On weekdays you could fish for hours and not see anyone else on the water. Sometimes it is a little precarious. I recall camping at the edge of Mill Creek, one of the small self-sustaining trout streams, and being awakened at 2 AM by he sound of a large cat purring outside my tent. The cat walked around the tent a couple times and I laid as still as possible…hardly breathing. It went away and I didn’t poke my head out of the tent so I can only imagine what it was — there are mountain lions in Missouri.

My fishing trips were sometimes a part of family vacations.  As long as everyone was having a good time I could sometimes sneak in a day of fishing. I spent a day on the upper reaches of the Chattahoochee River in the Georgia mountains on one trip after my daughter got to see where Cabbage Patch dolls came from. Yeah — they really do come out of a big cabbage.

Weber CanyonAnother year we went to Utah and stayed in Park City for a few days and then made a long trek down to the north rim of the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park and then back to Park City. I managed to squeeze in a day of fishing on the Weber River a short distance east of town. The Weber River — where I encountered it– was flowing through a broad valley and seemed like it was on overgrown ranch land. You had to park on a dirt road and cross a fence to reach the river. The guy at the fly shop said this was a good place to fish and was a public access spot. Okeydokey.  The river itself was not large but it looked promising…more than just a little creek. You had to climb down a bank of dirt and gravel to reach the water and wading was really the only option. I spent a few hours fishing up and down the stretch of water with minimal luck. I enjoyed being out but I wasn’t catching much. I was alone and I don’t even recall hearing a car on the dirt road while I was there. Once you were down in the stream you couldn’t see beyond the bank because of a thick growth of some sort of unidentifiable cane-like vegetation about four or five feet tall on both sides of the river. I like to see where I am but it seemed like I was in a trench because the bank and then the vegetation was way over my head. After a while I began to hear something crashing through the vegetation heading toward the river where I was fishing. I was already a little uneasy about not being able to see anything and now there was something large coming my way. I looked around for an escape route…there was none. I wasn’t going to be able to clamber up the dirt bank and make a run for it through the overgrown field in my waders. Maybe it was an elk?  Maybe it was a bear? It kept coming but seemed to be struggling to get through the thick brush. I moved to the far side of the stream to await our confrontation…expecting the worst. Finally I could see a large brown form coming through the weeds and the wall of vegetation parted and a large cow stuck it’s head out and gave me a startled look. We both seemed disappointed after the initial recognition. I continued fishing for a while longer but the cow just hung around watching me with bovine curiosity. I wasn’t used to looking up at a cow. Finally I gave up…this was too weird.

Sometime around 2004, we took a family vacation up to Glacier National Park, Montana. I took my fishing gear and looked forward to fishing one or two Montana streams. This was a long road trip with stops along the way. We saw Chimney Rock and Fort Laramie and were essentially following the old Oregon Trail all the way to Wyoming.  We made a side trip through the Big Horn Mountains and regaled our daughter with stories of our backpacking trip forty years before…almost to the day.

Chimney Rock
Big Horns

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was a good trip and I enjoyed eyeballing some of the trout streams along the way — although I didn’t get to wet my fly. We were on a schedule and I had to be content with just looking at this point. It looked pretty good but my wife and daughter aren’t into fishing so on we went. I managed to get them out of the car where the Missouri River is created by the confluence of the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin rivers. They were impressed — our little town sits on the bank of the Missouri River — but it is a big muscle-bound river compared to the headwater streams.

Headwaters – Missouri River
Glacier – Red Bus

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our visit to Glacier National Park was everything we hoped it would be. We stayed in one of the lodges and took the Red Bus tour. The glaciers are shrinking fast….go if you haven’t been there yet. As they say now, one visits the park to see evidence of glaciers…not the glaciers themselves. It wasn’t always that way. We saw a bear and a lot of mountain goats posing on the rock ledges. I bet fishing would have been pretty good in places.

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Finally…finally we made it to the Big Hole River country. I was going to have a day of fishing – all by myself – on a real Montana stream. I had been studying maps and looking up streams and access locations. I decided to fish the Wise River, a small stream that is wade-able that flows into the Big Hole River. It is in the Beaverhead National Forest and access was not an issue.

Wise River

As I drove along the forest service road I could see that it was a pretty little stream…hardly a river but that is my kind of water. There were low mountains on both sides – the Pioneer Mountains – and some open park-like areas.  I found a place to park and got my gear together — waders, vest, net, camera, rod and reel, dozens of flies…some homemade.  My first actual attempt to get to the water was thwarted by an impenetrable jungle of willows. I could hear the stream about fifteen feet away but there was no way to get there.  I needed a machete or a personal lumberjack and the forest service would not be happy if I mowed down the willow trees. So I wandered up and down the stream and finally found a way.

Much of my time was spent getting untangled from willow trees but I enjoyed it anyway. Fishing was slow….by the time I got on the water it was already well into a bright morning. The fish were small…or at least the ones I was seeing. I had some strikes and landed a few. I felt a little claustrophobic due to the willows so I after a while I decided to drive upstream to find some more open water away from the willows. The road crossed a slight rise and then came down into a broad valley with the stream meandering through. There was a parking spot where other fishermen had parked so this looked like easy access.  The stream was only a creek  but the twists and turns offered a lot of holes and hiding places for trout.  It was easier fishing without the willows but the sun was on the water and I’m sure I stood out like a giant sore thumb to any fish in the area.

Wise River

I was down to my last half hour or so and loving every minute. I wasn’t catching much and there were fewer strikes so I was thinking about packing it in. I had people sitting in a motel room, after all.  I started moving downstream toward the car…stopping here and there to try a likely spot. I tossed my fly along an undercut back near some roots and — sure enough — it got snagged. Or that’s what I thought at first until the fish made a run for it. We were only a few feet apart…the stream was fast and very narrow and the fish and I were doing a dance in the middle of it. When I finally got it in my net I was puzzled…what the hell is this?? It was an Arctic Grayling…I was stunned. I knew that there were a few Graylings holding out on the Big Hole River but I hadn’t actually anticipated seeing one — I never figured I’d catch one. I stood there and stared at it for what seemed to be an eternity but was only a few seconds. The ling dorsal fin curved over it’s back like a pennant… it was a beautiful fish. Graylings are gray…not the brighter colors of the trout but they make up for it with a fine torpedo body and that draping fin. I put it back carefully in the water…forgetting to take a picture, of course. It was a rarity and I wanted it back where it belonged.

Arctic_Grayling_main

Graylings are not endangered in the lower 48 states…they are almost extirpated and beyond endangered in most places except for a few spots like the Big Hole River. Up north, in Alaska or Canada they are more common but are quite rare anywhere else. Well, I decided to end my day on that note. My last fish was something special and worth remembering…probably my first and last Grayling. I don’t even recall what fly I was using but I like to think that it was one I tied…it makes the story better.

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 Next: New Mexico