Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Penman, a tri-county mystery!

The counties of Gates, Williams, and Haters, Minnesota of the late twenty-century bore witness to unrelenting competitive clashes of the fair-haired viking-Valhalla descendant youth. Gasp. These were no mere beauty pageant song and dance 4-H club style competitive affairs. The terror of the counties were only partially athletic or scholastic. The competition, really, the true competition was something of an artistic-communicative pursuit: namely that of the penmanship contest.

There would be cries. Howls, if children could fathom howls. No one who inhabited these now desolate counties would deign forget, though pray they could, the famed tri-county penmanship affair of '87.

Bullfrog. The unwilling, and oftentimes sickly hero of Haters was ostensibly "educated" in a no room school house of Haters County Minnesota. Birthplace of no less than 7 famed civil-war generals, and 1 impossibly brilliant Julliard-educated modern dance phenom, who from out east brought back the written word. This was the first proper teacher since the founding of the county in 1865, following the murderous and bloody Battle of Appomattox.

The school had no funding and very little in the way of supplies. Corporations from the surrounding counties donated what supplies they could not sell: one-offs of envelopes with no adhesive, crayons with no color, glitter-glue which would not sparkle. And how did little Bullfrog Jr. learn to compose his name, you may be wondering? He learned on misaligned castoff one ply paper. It is a fact: Bullfrog wrote diagonally; the school could not afford properly lined paper.

It surprised many that Haters county even chose to send any competition to the county seat in Williams. For decades, the tri-county Penmanship contest was a rout, with the youth of Williams taking home top pen year after Viking year. Spectacular, brilliant draftsman were these people of Williams. An old wives tale recorded by anthropologists of the region records that the Williams kids began writing before they could even speak. Many of the finest calligraphers from Hallmark (of the Hallmark Greeting Card outfit) hailed from Williams County, Minnesota. Those who went to work for Fodors, illustrating travel maps as cartographers literally put the tri-county region on the map.


Bullfrog's family wept on the day he reported to his first day of book learning. He was an asset on the farm. Before Bullfrog ever uttered his first words, he was shoeing cattle, moving pigs, and ferreting out pig iron. Which is to say, in a unique and unremarkable way, this young individual was essentially a child prodigy of the low country farm region, an area so isolated on all sides by expanses of rock and Mississippi river that one could not get a decent paper or book for miles and miles--this seemed to matter little--"print" was thought by many village elders to be the latest in a series of fads from New York.

She was that rare breed of dancing teacher whose aptitude, grace, and skill far surpassed her ability to teach; her Julliard Mentors seriously counseled her from pursuing teaching, she could not, under any circumstance be dissuaded, for she had made a promise to her younger sister, Abeline (or Abie, pronounced, "AB"): she would bring "the outside" back to Haters.

The outside, in their first woman-to-woman talk, was busy; colorful, it shuffled, like a scared pack of mules. The people in the cities would dance all night, and in the city, it did not get dark, for there were lighted streets. Abie was enamored with this news, and they talked late into the night, Bullfrog downwind, listening from an open window.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Last Day in Oslo, a story.

I thought of my train. And how apt of the German station to be so quintessentially German. Iron and functional form. Two fronts to fight on and a rail system in support. I don't want to remember that first night on the continent, a decade ago, but here it haunts one: there were soldiers (gendarmes, they are called in the French of my history books) apparently under special orders to hassle Norwegian sailors on sight. They know us by our fine reindeer sweaters. Which single one out for beggarly attention-- my kroner make the homeless affluent--those who have spotted me as a Norwegian cad are fortunate. For some time I seemed constantly hungry, empty, and as would please Sartre, dizzy.

I want to remember Oslo with her sun that hangs high through midnight. The park. Impossible friends. There were children. So many children!

Oslo served as a rest day between work-shifts sailing the southern fjord. Off days I first appreciated this personality quality, I've tried to since emulate; the ability (a spell perhaps) to wake those who were not visibly sleeping. She woke me, a slumbering ex-fisherman from the northwest coast of no-name villages (unfit even for cartographers). I suppose her trait cannot truly be cultivated, only admired and cataloged.

There were many stories told and retold about us. Some true. I did not like that people knew me so well, so young. I was once just a village fisherman's son, with brothers, a lifetime of fishing in front of me. A sure catch, my father had said. I would say I grew up on the sea, but maybe it was Germany when I finally aged.

At the time I believed she really did not have a working understanding of the point (or goal) of being well known. And yet, its become apparent, she really did understand. Something as ridiculous as knowing the importance of not listening to strangers tell her about her.

"Don't let others define you," she had said, "or you'll become a very poor captain." I don't think she was wearing shoes. I do remember that she often would choose to do without footwear. Remarkably, the lack of footwear usually was not a problem. But then, this is not hero worship. She sometimes would not share her coffee and I had to drink from hers when she was not looking, naturally. I can remember her voice even now. In between laughter, and merriment, her voice, amused at something the sea had thrown to us.

I can hear it. This is not something I tell the world. That I can hear her. But it must show that I carry her with me.

I was afraid. In this late moment, yes, I understand that quite well now. I was afraid but walked like I was brave. We met the same day we were assigned the Bergen line and for many hours after I thought about her. Only in fear, really, not with the intention of actually living a life with her, but being afraid to live any kind of life. What the sea does to one; never trusting a tranquil moment for its beauty, but on guard to its ferociousness.

I cannot believe it myself that such things occur. Spaniards fleeing a bank they had robbed gained passage aboard our ship. In the ensuing hostage situation, which the Norwegian Coast Guard was ill prepared to deal, she was killed. It was my fault. I was slightly maimed by the banking group, whose name I came to know as The Samurai 11. In between their violence, they inanely dubbed me the Reindeer.

Years later the Spaniards were paroled. They live in peace and prosperity as Frankfurt bankers. The irony is probably lost on them. She would not approve of the guilt and hate, but then again, she is still not here. I had planned for them a terrible and lighting quick revenge, this being the land of lightning strikes.

I discovered though that Norwegian sailors are not hard-wired for vengeance.

My family had only known sailing. My savings had gone to the homeless and I gained employment operating a commercial frigate on the Main. It was a secure wage. I thought for a time on the frigate that I was re-wiring for vengeance, to complete that task and then -- there was no after that task. I couldn't imagine it. I didn't think there was a life to live.

I hid this fact from myself--by being unsatisfied with the performance of the frigate's engine. More and more of my time was spent in conversation with company engineers, tuning and rebuilding. Designing and welding, even.

The Germans mostly appreciated the demanding engine maintenance. For three years I joined and eventually led large scale operations which rebuilt frigate engines as naturally as I would put on my boots. It surprised me to lead anything. It was exciting work. I concentrated on the work and in this way time seemed to move again. And when time again seemed to move, it moved very, very, quickly.

I wondered when I would stop, when I might return to Oslo and my village. I wondered if my parents lived. People talked of me once again. I did try, but I could not hide myself from nautical notice.

Students had found out about this engine work and came to inquire about our methods, these engine projects.

I hardly recognized my voice when I spoke. My German must have sounded soft to them. I wondered initially why they were so interested in a machine--but then again, I was as interested as they. The short ones I would call them, the short ones. I believe I learned to laugh again in their presence, which had a hopeful aura. They expected much from the future. They had high demands. If you could hear them, you would think they were running around a fountain in a sunny park surrounded by only good things--this could only make one smile.

I would say to their teachers that they knew vastly more about engines than I ever could hope for. At night, when I could not sleep I liked to think of their futures--that they would be happy as they aged, and they would build boats and trains that could not be boarded by evil.