S.M. Park’s continuing column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Red Rover,” Park thinks about jobs he should have taken and the ones he did.
I should have been a mailman. I’ve always had a long stride and have walked at least five miles a day for the last thirty years. I also sort things quickly and flourish working alone. It wouldn’t have changed my degree aspirations—college was too much fun to miss—but after graduation I’d have headed for the nearest big city to pack the mail. Put in my twenty years, left with a pension, retired in my early forties.
Which is pretty much what I did, anyway, unless you call pot growing a job. The point is I still could have moved around (transferring from city to city) without laboring as a factotum in the interim. I thought of this after writing a recent column (“Shades of Mescalito”), where I mentioned hooking on with the Bureau of Public Roads. There, too, I missed a golden opportunity: working seasonally for the Feds offered me advantages I barely appreciated at the time.
For openers there was the housing. I require the absolute minimum in that regard (often settling for less), so government lodging was a major step up. It meant roommates, of course, but not only was I younger and more flexible then, but in any group of four or more there was likely to be another stoner (and thus a potential drug source).
Or, better yet, a chef. If I were never to cook or make a sandwich or pour a glass of milk again I’d be a happy camper. For all that I’ve survived, in fact, the most hazardous has been my own meals.
Fortunately I require a bare minimum in the food department, too (without pot I wonder if I’d eat at all). Not only do most men have larger appetites than mine, but some of them (to my amazement) actually enjoy cooking. That’s what I was looking for in a roommate, someone who cared what came off the stove. This, in fact, was the sole drawback to my dream job: spending the summer in a wilderness fire tower. It seemed too good to be true—getting paid to be alone—except for the matter of feeding myself long-term. I was sure I’d end up eating peanut butter from a jar. With no restaurant in sight.
Dining out was an option in Molalla because we were paid a daily per diem, but I needed to make mine stretch, as another bonus of Federal work was the government holding my checks. I was twenty when the BPR hired me, and even though it was my dozenth full-time job I’d never had more than a hundred in the bank. If I stayed with that crew through December (when we’d likely be snowed out somewhere), I’d walk away with a couple grand.
So if I’d had a practical bone in my body I would have worked hard, sucked up to my superiors, cut down on the drinking and made the sort of connections that—next time they were putting a crew together—they’d think of me.
If I’d had a practical bone in my body I would have worked hard, sucked up to my superiors, cut down on the drinking and made some sort of connections.
Unfortunately the future was not my long suit (then or now), so I simply kept my head down and did what I was told. This was hard enough under the circumstances: it was my job to march up and down steep, forested hills with thirty pounds of lathe on my back. (I was basically the crew mule.) Not only was I not in shape, it could be argued that—up to that point in my life—I’d never been. (As noted before, in my high school and college basketball days I was known as “The guy who never ran.”)
My ex-teammates would have enjoyed my comeuppance. Besides being an alcoholic, three-pack-a-day smoker I was fifty pounds overweight and hadn’t done anything physical since the previous winter. After the first day I thought I’d die, after the second I wished I had. Every part of me ached and I couldn’t believe I’d flunked the draft—and thus avoided basic training—only to pay the piper in Molalla, Oregon. There was always quitting, of course, but I was a stubborn American male from a family of strivers. I knew what hard work was, even if I wasn’t much interested in it.
So like any loser in similar conditions (think the French Foreign Legion), I gagged up and down those long rain forest slopes as best I could. It was a typical Northwest Fall, so it was usually cold and wet, which meant I was slick with alkie sweat under my rain gear. There was many a time when I’d stand at the bottom of a hill, soaked inside and out, wheezing like an old woman, another lathe bundle tottering on my shoulders, and think, Suck it up, bucko, you chose this, this is why your friends are in college, sweating nothing but mid-terms.
Well, that and the draft. Which meant the guys I worked with were fellow 4-F’ers. One of them had a limp and a withered arm, so they weren’t losing their best men when they shipped he and I to the Mt. Baker National Forest in late October. I was just glad to be on the road again, even if it only took a day to get there. We stumbled off the Greyhound in Rockport, Washington and the BPR compound was as welcoming as the town, a series of small two-person cabins that must have been a motel once. My roommate was named Chuck and had a Masters in Engineering from Cornell University. He was maybe 5’2” with a rubbery face and a high-pitched voice. After we’d introduced ourselves the first thing he said to me was, “She begged me for nine inches, so I fucked her three times.”
It’s a remark I wouldn’t note otherwise, except Chuck repeated it to anyone in his vicinity (male or female) for as long as I knew him. I ignored it because he checked all the other boxes, i.e. he was a drunk, a stoner and a cook.
The surveying job was much like the one in Molalla, at least when it came to the lathe on my back. The terrain was simpler and the scenery a major improvement, particularly the deserted cabins of trappers and miners we’d discover, some of them over a hundred years old. They’d had no human habitation since, and Chuck or I would usually be first through the door. We’d paw through anything left behind, looking for a diary or a scrawl on the wall or even initials carved into a table, any reminder of the hermit who lived there.
Like him we were misfits who knew luck wasn’t enough. Even as all we ever found were cans, bottles and kangaroo rats.
We’d be off by three in the afternoon and go back to the cabin to read for a couple hours (or, in my case, do some writing), then eat dinner, have a few beers, smoke some pot and watch TV. Occasionally we’d hit Rockport and Concrete, the local towns, but it was 1967: hippies were still an anomaly that far north and not particularly welcome. (Especially, it seems, a giant who walked around with a midget named “Three Inches”.) But I had no complaints and only got in trouble when, on the weekends, Chuck and I would drink hard liquor. It was one such Saturday, as we were working through a bottle of sloe gin and watching (of all things) That Girl on TV, that my heart began palpitating and my face flushed. Before I knew it I was gasping for breath, convinced I was having the big one.
We’d been sitting in the dark, and when Chuck flipped on the lights I was bright red. All the capillaries closest to the surface were shutting down, so my face and neck had flushed first and now it was spreading to my hands and forearms. I would watch a pinprick appear beneath the skin, grow into a quarter, then merge with a neighbor, as if I were leaking blood.
It was, to say the least, horrifying. (It was ten degrees outside and I was so hot I could stand on the porch with my shirt off.) Fortunately I was (a) drunk and (b) an old hand at physical calamity. When it happened again a few days later I went to a doctor in Concrete, who explained that when your alcohol saturation reached a certain level you were supposed to pass out. If you didn’t, and kept drinking, you’d paralyze your central nervous system and the capillaries nearest the skin would open up.
Hence W.C. Field’s nose. Except I wasn’t some middle-aged rummy: I was only twenty years old. The doctor had no answer for my dilemma (other than abstinence) because little was known about the liver in 1967. It was hardly better a decade later, when I nearly died of Hepatitis A and an “expert” told me my liver was full of granulomas and I’d be lucky to live five years.
Now I know I lacked the ADH/ALDH enzymes that convert booze’s acetaldehyde molecule, so instead of eliminating it, as a normal drinker would, it stayed in my system and poisoned me. (As it often does for American Indians.) It answers so many questions I had at the time—like why my liver was heavily cirrhotic at thirty (while those Bay Area buddies who’d drank more than I had were fine), or why my withdrawal symptoms were so severe or even why, in the end, “hair of the dog” hadn’t worked—but the biggest question it raised was: what if I’d known about that enzyme deficit then? From the moment I realized I was an alkie I’d determined to make the most of it, to “Ride that booze cruise until I sobered up or died.” Whether it was a rationalization or a philosophy (or both), it was certainly a credo I embraced.
And I’ve been sober for forty-two years, so I guess it worked. Even as I was ignorant all along of my third option, that much as I wanted to drink I simply couldn’t. It’s why I quit at twenty-nine (when even a single glass of beer would leave me shaky and ill the next morning). So would I have sobered up at twenty if I’d known about the enzymes, saving myself all the time, trouble and madness that ensued?
Nah, addiction’s not that simple. That last glass of beer at twenty-nine, that may as well have been a Drano twelve ouncer? I gagged it down because I was still trying to drink.
So in the short term I cut back on the boozing in camp; my body needed a rest if I planned on returning to the Bay Area.
And sure enough, snow shut us down the second week of December. I caught a ride to the Seattle Airport and flew to San Francisco. Ordinarily I’d have boarded a Greyhound or hitchhiked, but I had two grand in my pocket … I was Big Time now. I told myself I’d put half the loot away for a rainy day, then focused my attention on some drug and alcohol makeup time.
Two weeks later I was staring out the window of a wino hotel room. It was Christmas Eve, I had ten bucks to my name and I was redder than Rudolph the Reindeer’s nose.
What am I still doing here?