Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Forty Years Later with two Old Testament Dudes

The earbuds are locked in and I've got old Neil Young cranked up loud; it's one of those weird mornings at the harbor where the fog still hangs over the docks but the hillside is bright, and for that matter, so is the fog, so white in the sun it hurts the eyes. And since that blinding fog a quarter mile or so down there still is thick, the ships are plying their horns, deep bass honks like bull moose, as I said this morning on FB. I can hear that even over Neil Young crying out "I've seen the needle and the damage done, a little part of it in everyone."

It's a strange combination of mournful opacity and troubling brilliance, suitable to my reflections on this anniversary of the Kent State killings. Just finished "Down by the River", then "Cowgirl in the Sand"; now "Cinnamon Girl". Today, can't get enough of these old songs, so lavish with elegiac doubt and love for all that surrounds us, a sense that it is all ending: "Look at Mother Nature on the run in the Nineteen-Seventies." Neil Young always seemed so morosely hip to what was happening, more than hunky Steven Stills or the prematurely avuncular David Crosby -- even when he was a kid, Neil Young was a sort of Old Testament dude, his yearnings reassuringly dark, the anger burning off in those gorgeous chords, cathartic minor melodies, poignant steel guitar and pounding rhythms that served as liturgy for me, the kid running away as fast as I could from my father and mother's religion, but with a taste for ritual rhythms imprinted irrevocably in my DNA. Even now, the swinging dirge of "Helpless" pulls at my deepest heart.

And of course, "Ohio" -- ..."four dead in Ohio..."

I'm back 40 years ago, a sunny Monday much like this bright one; then, though, I'd never yet been west of the Mississippi, much less to California, where I now ply half my life through elucidating fogs. That day as the news of the shootings hit, my father, another Old Testament dude, raced across country roads and came and got me, shouting his way through the barricades; as he saw it, he rescued me. He needed to take me home. Now, at 60, very well aware of the dangers of the world and the primal qualities of family love, I understand that, and I am crying a little bit as I remember it, and him. I admit the scared kid in me re-emerged, and briefly, I wanted to go home. In the face of all that blood, it was permissible to want his protection. It was okay to accept it. And when he and I sat at the table together after dinner that night, there was something different between us than there had been for several years. There was sweetness.

So that was it. May 4, 1970, last day of my childhood.

And the first day of a shared adulthood. My father raged against "state violence"; I was impressed; it launched the possibility of the two of us connecting as mutually skeptical and watchful citizens of the world. We still had a lot of fight ahead of us, some of it bitter, corrosive and hurtful...but that day opened a door.

That semester I was taking a black and white photography course, and when offered the chance to finish it on my own after the shootings shut the campus down, I set up a smelly darkroom in my parents' bathroom. My quality control stunk -- may I say, nothing, really, was black or white: the images I'm left with are murky and naive -- the patterns of a concrete black wall on the boring parsonage patio, my mom sitting in cloudy focus, unposed, in the kitchen -- it was clear I was trying to see her anew, but it was a condescending lens...see this poor middle-aged Ohio woman, unglamorous and doing her best, quaintly still believing in God and craving whatever little crumbs of intellectual life she could extract from The Upper Room and Guideposts. I know that's how I thought about it then. She made me sad and wildly restless.

Man, I wanted out of Ohio so badly. Kent State gave me a necessary kick: I was out of there within a year, and from then on, I only came back to walk around my father's garden, sit impatiently on the infuriatingly familiar hard pews and sometimes cry at the old hymns, relishing and chafing at the lurid words. My parents were the only reason to be there; eventually I came back to bury them.

The Kent State killings were a first wake up call about the "real world," for me, and also, importantly, a first thrilling moment of first-person witness. That has not been insignificant in my life. When I've found myself unintentionally at several other similarly epic moments -- the murder of Debbie Gardner in Tonga in 1976 where it seemed that the America I had sought to escape followed me into one of the most remote outposts in the South Pacific, and then a huge earthquake the next year, and then the melodramatic and infamous collapse of an emblematic American town -- my response has always been to simply try to describe what it is like.

Well, I've written about that day at Kent and thought about that day a lot over the years, as have so many others who were there, but today, overall, I find myself wanting simply to blanket myself in Neil Young's plaintive voice, "flying Mother Nature's silver seed to a new home in the sun."

I'm not sure what all this means, except that here I am again, writing things down.

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