Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Funnest Day

Some stories reveal the soul. They dig deep and bring out things that one doesn’t even know are there, these truths, these inexplicable truths.

Dan, Denise and I took such a hike today up Big Horn Pass, up along the beginning of the Gallatin River, out the north of it, back the south of it, Dan turned into a deck of cards today, fits him since he’s so funner. Actually it was the most funner hike I’ve ever been on. 16 years ago today, Jackie, Andrew and I arrived to Big Sky to live, thinking we were moving to Bozeman, but it’s Big Sky we are in. So, it was our Sweet Sixteen, but Jackie was busy with box city, a story in itself for some other time, after I hear about it all from her.

Getting out of the car at around ten am or so the sky cloudy, the sun burning behind, the wind cool, we layered up, gloves and a hat for me with 3 layers.

(In the movie, show me at the kitchen table, Coltrane on the stereo, a glass of Plonk, the view of Ramshorn Peak covered in snow out the living room window, highway 191, newly paved, the Coke truck, UPS, almost 5 pm, writing on my mac laptop)

As we begin our hike out we cross the river, definitely wide enough and very fishable, but I chose not to bring a fishing rod. Along the trail are tons of elk tracks, tons, at some point we come up to a decent sized pile of scat, coyote? Wolf? There’s a big log and 2 little logs, I ask Dan, what do you think came out first. “Oh for sure,” he says, “he layed the big one down, turned around, scuffled a bit and squeezed the other two”

“Oh yeah! I forgot I came up with another invention, this is the one, you press a button and toilet seat goes up or down, without you touching it. I am so tired of the kids pissing on the toilet seat, all they would have to do is press a button. No more wet toilet seats.” Dan and Denise pondered the idea, they liked it, it needed work, but it had potential.

Soon, we were all getting hot and needed to shed a layer. Off came the hat and gloves and the jacket. Out came the water. Standing next to Denise, I heard a low short moan. I looked at Denise. Did you hear that?

What was it? And then up on a hill about 50 – 100 yards away was a wolf, he looked at us and he sauntered through the trees. We watched him walk by us from afar and disappear into the trees. We put our backpacks back on, and continued hiking. Denise was being very quiet, Dan on the other hand was howling, moaning, not rudely, but curiously. Denise was of the belief quiet would bring him out again, Dan was of the belief that noise would make him wonder and wander out.

I felt like we were being watched. At this point I think I was leading the way, slowly, but steadily, another moan and then again above and to the right, about the same distance away from us, the wolf on a hill crossing our path and looking at us, totally unafraid. He sauntered across the meadow, across the oxbowing river, across and up the hill. Dan watched in his binoculars. At first when he was near us looking at us with a long low moan, I thought he was bigger than the other wolf we had just seen, there were more than one, there was a pack and he was a sentinel. And they were not afraid, and they were hungry.

But he wandered far away, up the hill and beyond, we could see him bed down near a tree and relax. We continued to hike along the trail. Soon in the distance was an elk, coming toward us, down in the meadow near the river. He would hear us, then stop, look around and continue towards us. He was a big bull elk, at least a six point, maybe a 7 point. Where was his harem, he seemed to give off a low moan, the wolf and the elk seemed to be communicating with each other, predator and protector. Moan, moan, howl, I think the wolf was doing most of the talking.

We walked toward the elk, and soon he turned and disappeared. We hiked down towards the river. It seemed like the wolf had to cross somewhere around here. It looked like a drinking fountain to me, water moving, a rock in the water easy to stand on, lean over, and drink. Wonder if fish ever hung out under that rock, there were lots of beaver tunnels. Denise could look down at the ground and see what was going on – beavers, otters, tunneling, eating hay grass, sending willows down river, building a mound of sticks that they live inside of, a beaver castle.

At some point we stopped on a log looking over the meadow we had just hiked through and ate some lunch. I’m not sure when it was exactly, but I do remember Dan thinking that maybe the smell of the pastrami and pickle sandwiches would sniff out the wolf.

We hiked along the path through some beautiful aspens turning burnt orange, and rocks with red and green moss, and lightning struck bark and trunks of fallen trees. We could see the devastation of the fire of 88, the dead standing trees, fire and smoke blowing through down the slope in which we stood.

Eventually the trail took us down towards the river and we followed Dan’s desire and bushwhacked through the marsh, the beaver tunneled tall grasses looking for a way across. The river was crystal clear, we could see a bone at every easy spot down to the water, a path had been made by some animal or another to drink, to eat, to check out the water, but the river channels were often cut pretty deep – at least 6 feet in some places, deep holes, clear to the bottom, and of course where the water was running faster I was wishing for my fly rod.

At one point during the hike I said, “I need a fly rod which I could just press a button.” I knew there had to be fish in there, but I never saw one, I would have had to trick one out of there. And the sign said that I could keep all rainbows and browns, they were trying to make it purely Westslope cutthroats in that river. I should go back with Jackie and a fly rod.

And so we wondered up along the river, crossed a small channel, and then wondered upstream some more. Eventually we found the spot to cross. Dan went first plowing through the water with a couple of big splashes onto the other side. Denise and I decided to take off our shoes and socks and cross barefoot. I asked her if she would hold my hand, I was a little wary of slipping and falling because of my knee, and she said she would. And so we decided on following Dan’s footprints, the water was cold, Denise was first, she held my hand, I followed slowly, I let go, she waited, but she was cold so I took hold followed her, let go and told her to go for it. She made it easily across as did I right behind her, just getting one pant leg wet. On the other side there really was an elk carcass, Dan wasn’t kidding, it was the same carcass, Denise realized, that she had seen with Jackie while crust cruising this past spring.

And then we continued to bushwhack up the hill working our way up to a ridgeline through some downed trees. We were working our way towards where the wolf might have gone. We were tree hurdling. And tree balance beaming, a tree creaked, I stood watching it, thinking, and saying, and he stood there watching the tree swaying in the wind, it creaked and creaked and then fell on his head. I was just talking out loud, writing children’s books and just chatty, and suddenly a little insecure, saying something like, my thoughts, here I am talking out loud making no sense,

Somehow I got Denise to say my thoughts were uncanny. And that made me think, better than being canny… canny?What does that mean, where does that word come from?

I was taking pictures all along the way, and I snapped this one photo of all these little red leaves and the dead fall, and I suddenly snapped into taking that picture in Warsaw on Friday, August 13th in 1982, in the government square, a small group of 30 people circled around some candles, lighting them in honor of Solidarnosc. I took 3 pictures around the circle, and joined in the prayer. At some point I wandered off, the sun was setting behind a block full of militia trucks, I took another picture. All of a sudden a truck with a couple of police officers drove across the street and arrested me. They put me in the their truck and drove me away to the local militia station. They laughed at me and kept pointing at me and saying “CIA, CIA, CIA.” They sat me down at a table and took out a receipt book, and took everything out of my backpack and wrote it down, my journal, my passport, my money, whatever was in my bag. While I was sitting there and these two zoto cops did their inventory and continued to laugh at me and say, “CIA, CIA,” the head of the local militia was dealing with a young man right next to us. He had the young man spread eagle himself against the wall right next to where I was sitting and he took his foot in his giant boot and kicked him as hard as he could twice, three times, then yelled something at him and the boy ran out of the militia station and gone. The chief said something to the cops dealing with me, they had me sign the paper, took me and put me into a 12 ft. x 12 ft. cell with a bunch of drunks and other local criminals. There was a bench. I tried to sit down, but one of the drunks kept falling on me, pushing me trying to lay down, mumbling to me in Polish. I stood up and paced with a bunch of others, back and forth, back and forth. I did multiplication tables in my head. I didn’t know what else to do. I thought about my mother, I thought about my girlfriend. I was thinking of them, I wanted them to be thinking about me. I kept doing multiplication in my head, thinking what have I done this time, what have I done. Every once in awhile someone would come to the cell and say a name, and then that person would be taken out of the cell. New people would be brought in. At one point a young man started pacing next to me, he spoke broken English and he started talking to me. “What did you do?” he asked me. I told him I took a picture. “What did you do?” I asked him and he said, “the same thing.”

I think I was in that cell for a couple of hours. Every time they came to the cell door I hoped it was for me. Eventually they did come for me. 2 men dressed in suits and ties. I remember the face of one of them as if it were yesterday. Average height, slight built, beige suit, reddish mustache, I looked at him as he stumbled over my name and I immediately assumed I was saved. “U.S. Embassy? U.S. Embassy?” I asked. They looked perplexed, I realized immediately they spoke no English and shut up and followed them. They put me in a car and took me to a big government building. They had my backpack with all my stuff, my camera, my journal, my passport, my visa. They sat me down on a bench outside someone’s office and I just sat there and waited. I assume that they developed my film and as I sat there waiting I hoped and prayed that my pictures of the panda bear in the Berlin Zoo would help prove to them I was just a stupid American student. Eventually they brought me in for questioning. They asked and scolded me about the pictures. They asked me about university. On my visa I think it had said that I went to Columbia and that I was studying economics. Thank God I didn’t say writing. At the time Zbignew Bryzinski was teaching at Columbia and he had been Carter’s Secretary of State and so they asked me questions about him and I told them, no I didn’t know him, yes he was a professor at my school. They asked me questions about my journal. They asked me about my travels. They asked me where my airplane ticket home was, where all my money was. I told them I left most of my money and my plane tickets in West Berlin where I was staying. They asked me where I was staying in Warsaw. Here I was in trouble again. I had gone to the synagogue when I first arrived in Warsaw, I was hoping to have a unique experience, my family was from Warsaw, there are old family photographs that say Warsawa on them. So I found the only synagogue in Warsaw and there was an older couple from Brooklyn there that were visiting and spoke English and Polish and they made this connection with this old man who said I could stay at his apartment for a price and I was willing to pay, I just wanted to meet the Jews. So when I told the police detectives or government officials, whoever my interrogators were they were not pleased with me. But I had to tell them the truth. I was truly just a stupid and curious American who took pictures of things I shouldn’t have taken pictures of. At the end of the discussion they told me I could stay in Warsaw, but needed to leave on the train the last night of my visa and that I needed to move out of the old man’s apartment and into the government hostel. And so they let me go. Opened the door and said leave.

By now it was pretty dark out, somehow I found the right bus and found my way to the old man’s apartment. I was probably still shaking when I got there. I knocked on his door. I had no key. I knocked on his door, again and again, louder and louder. No answer. I went outside and waited, thinking maybe he wasn’t home, but it was late at night and he had to be home. The Gestapo had come and scared him to death. There was no way he was going to answer the door. I knocked and knocked and knocked louder and louder, but still he wouldn’t answer. I started to set up a corner by his door. Figured I would just sleep by his door. I had stuff in there, my backpack, my clothes, things I needed to get out. His neighbor opened her door. She spoke a little English. I explained to her as much as I could. She invited me in for tea and called this other woman. This other woman came to the door and knocked loudly 3 times and yelled something. The door opened. He had my backpack in his hands and was pushing it at me as I pushed my way inside yelling at him. “I have more stuff here. I need to lay down and sleep. I promise I will leave first thing in the morning.” It turned out that he was a bit crazy, but I am sure he was just as scared as I was and probably got into a bunch of trouble or was probably just warned to never let someone stay there again or who knows what.

In the morning, I packed up all my stuff, demanded some of my money back – he had made me pay to stay there and for the full 5 days in advance. He didn’t want to give me any money back, but I had seen where he had hid it when I first gave it to him and at some point I got up and started walking towards the urn that he had stuffed it into and he got up and got my money and gave it back to me. And so I left and headed to the youth hostel.

I checked into the hostel. I had 2 roommates, an Austrian kid about my age and another young man who I don’t really remember at all. The way the hostel worked is you left your key at the counter when you left for the day and you asked for it when you came in for the night. And so for 3 days I hung out mostly with the Austrian man. We walked the streets of Warsaw together, went to the Warsaw Ghetto museum, a small museum with photographs, we went to the cafeteria, we basically jumped on any line when you saw one starting, ended up usually with something to eat like an Ice cream cone. It was hard to spend all the Polish money that I had to change when I arrived in the country, so I basically bought anything I wanted. Went into a mall and bought a record, at a poster shop I bought a bunch of movie? posters. At a church I bought a wooden painting of a very bloody Jesus Christ.

One evening walking the streets I saw some street artists with their paintings displayed. I looked at the paintings and I liked one, it was a small mural, mixed media on construction paper with oil paint, old newspapers, it looked so much the result of oppression. I decided to buy it, I had a $5 bill and I took it out, knowing that he would accept it. He took it and gave me the painting and then wanted to sit and talk with me, though he had no English and I had no Polish. Unfortunately his friend saw me give him the money and went crazy with excitement – he handed me another painting, one torn in half, and was going to hand me another one – he was making too much noise, bringing too much attention to me, I left in a hurry.

Back at the hostel I buried the paintings into the bottom of the pack. On Saturday I went by myself back to the temple. They were having Shabbat services. There were maybe 20 people praying. The couple from Brooklyn was there, happy to see me, they had been worried. They had found out later that the man was a little crazy. I told them everything was O.K. I had moved out of his apartment to the hostel and everything was fine.

My last day in Warsaw I spent with the young Austrian. At some point I think we did try to talk about the Nazis, he was an educated traveler, young like myself, interested in seeing the world, though he was much closer to home. I think at the time there was some sort of slow migration of Polish people to Austria. We walked the streets. After dinner I was nervous about leaving so I wanted to get to the train station way early. I think I bought my ticket earlier in the day, but it was a night train that took me back to West Berlin where my adventure to Warsaw had started. So like 3 hours before my train was to leave I went back to the hostel to get my stuff and head to the station. When I got to the counter and the Austrian and I asked for the key to our room, they said they didn’t have it. I think we went up to the room and the door was locked and no one answered. We went back down to the counter and asked again for the key. They didn’t have it. The other student must have kept it. You must have another one. No we don’t. Well I have a train to catch. Too bad. Eventually I had the poor girl at the counter in tears. I have no idea how we communicated, they must have spoken English a little bit, but there was no key to be found. After at least an hour of trying to find a key, a man that worked behind the counter, walked over and gave me the key. It was there the whole time, they just didn’t want to give it to me?

Finally on the train. The train moving, a very skinny crescent moon could be seen through my seat window. A man in a suit and tie sat across from me, he seemed to speak a little English and he seemed somewhat distinguished. At one point the train stopped, police officers came on the train, checking passports, and looking through bags, they started going through my bag and just when they got to the divider which beneath were my paintings and posters, the man in the suit and tie said something to the officers and they stopped searching and moved on to the next car.

Soon we were across the border and heading through East Germany on my way back to West Berlin.

In West Berlin I was staying with a man that I met while hitchhiking. I was leaving Salzburg, Austria, on my way to Munich, there were a ton of hitchhikers hanging out on the road entrance. I walked down to the end of the entrance away from the crowd of people and got picked up by this German man on his way home to West Berlin with his 2 young boys. I told him I was on my way to Munich and he let me in the car. We talked, his English was very good. I told him I wanted to go to Munich and visit Dachau. I told him I was Jewish. He said, why go to Dachau, its too depressing, come with me to West Berlin, it is an exciting and interesting city showing the better side of Germany. We stopped in Munich, he wanted to take his kids to the Science museum there. I went with them to the museum and decided to go to West Berlin. He said I could stay at his apartment, he had plenty of room for me.

He had given me some chocolate to bring to an old lady in Warsaw. That was the very first thing I did when I arrived there. I think the chocolate was actually for a younger woman, a professor he knew, but she was away. Somehow I had found her mother who seemed to know the man that had sent me. I left her with all of his presents, and to this day I hope and pray that she did not get in trouble with the Gestapo as her address was in my journal and I am sure they asked me about her.

The first morning I woke up in his apartment, his roommate came home and found me in his bed. His roommate was a Syrian man, dumbfounded by the Jew in his bed. So I moved into a different room. A few hours before I was leaving for Warsaw the Syrian man and I finally began a conversation. It was intense, but I needed to catch my train.

And so I told this story to Denise as we walked up through the downed trees, my heart beating faster and faster, just talking, telling a story, a story I don’t tell very often.

Denise was interested, I told the story the best I could, looking behind at snow covered mountains and below at the beautiful weaving back and forth beginning to the Gallatin River. As we hiked on I remembered one more part to the story, the punch line. But as I imagined telling it to her I realized it would be hard for me not to cry.

And so I said, “There is a punch line to this story and I will try to tell it to you without crying. So a week or so later when I fly back to New York, I arrive at the airport and call home to my parent’s store. My brothers are working the store, mom and dad are at the hospital, my grandmother had just had some sort of surgery, she was O.K., but mom and dad were in the waiting room at the hospital. A family friend was at the store and was happy to drive over to JFK and pick me up. We lived only about 15 minutes from the airport. He picked me up and took me back to the store. I saw my brothers, and I was hanging out at the store when the phone rang. I answered it. It was my mother. “Mawkie’s home,” she announced to the waiting room and then she said, “I thought you were in jail in Poland.”

And so we hiked back down to the meadow. A bird flew into the branches of a tree. And I said to Denise, I think that was a kestrel. Then it flew out and she said that was a Clark Nutcracker. And then I repeated the name of a bird I had seen earlier, “ A Red Hatched Flicker and a ?” I had already forgotten the name of the bird she had just told me. She laughed and said, “ A Red Shafted Flicker named after the red on its wings and a Clark Nutcracker, named after Lewis and Clark and because it liked to eat pine nuts. Dan laughed and said you mean a “Lewis Ballbuster” and the “a red shafted Dicker.”

And so we hiked out of the Big Horn Pass along the south side of the river, just along the bank, some scat, coyote? Wolf? And then some owl pellets as well just above the scat under this tree. Strange place for owl pellets Denise thought unless there is a nest up in that exposed tree. And then as we hiked out some more, the road almost in site, a coyote on the other side of the river up the side of a hill. Saw us and bolted away into the trees.

“It’s not easy to be a human being, It’s not easy to be a human being. It’s easy to be a cat, a cat just knows what it’s supposed to do. But a human being, a human being…”

That’s what the rabbi said at Yom Kippur services, that was the one thing that has stuck in my mind the most.

Or would that be the mostest.

The third time you do something that’s when it becomes a bad habit,

So you have to forgive (in) yourself 3 times as well to rid yourself of it.

The fall is a time for self reflection, and when things begin to die.

10 years ago my mother died,and so somehow maybe that explains why certain stories appear on a day that doesn’t really match, but there was some sort of excitement, some rapid heart beat that matched, when I snapped that photo, it triggered a memory, something that I wanted to share with my good friends.

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