Wednesday, April 30, 2008


Jove bless my government job.

Tomorrow I leave for ten days of vacation. My wife and I are planning to swim, snorkel, and canoe a number of first magnitude springs in central Florida.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Stupid, Stupid Kid!

Why don’t more male children die horribly?

I wonder this all of the damned time. Because I was a male child and, meek as I was, I did the most amazingly insane and risky crap that I marvel that I lived to the age of 30 when I began to calm down. A bit.

I think back on some of the milder stupid things that I did. Once, age of eight, a pal and I wandered very far from my Decatur GA neighborhood. We stumbled across a road cut sliced into solid Stone Mountain granite. Sheer wall. Of course walls are for climbing. So up we went. My pal chickened out, but I kept going. Up. After forty or so vertical feet I was clinging to the perpendicular and wondering what in the hell I was doing up there. I was afraid to move. It was, quite literally, almost straight down to the sidewalk, and I was hugging that granite wall for all I was worth. I was far too scared to try down climbing, so up I went. I made it to the top. How? Hell if I know.

I’ve since revisited that road cut. You can see it from a major thoroughfare in Decatur. It’s about as high as my eight-year-old mind recalled it.

I’ve almost drowned at least twice. Once while trying to swim across a pool when I was already really, really tired. One of my pals, seeing me swallowing water and screaming, jumped in and tried to help me. I savaged his stupid ass. I basically used his head to stand up on. Only the intervention of the lifeguard saved us both.

That was when I was eight. I think the age of eight was my single most dangerous year. Another friend challenged me to bike race down a huge grassy hill not far from where we lived. He went first, and I followed right behind him. On reaching the bottom of the hill, we realized that what we had thought was a bridge over a steep gully was, in fact, merely a four-inch water pipe with some grass growing over it. Somehow, we both managed to guide our speeding bikes over the top of this extremely narrow pipe and not go flying into the deep, debris-filled gully at about 25mph on our Stingray bikes. On the far side, both of us looked back, and, even dumb as we were, realized we’d dodged some kind of bullet.

Later, there I was in the next city down the line in my father’s endless quest to fuck up his life. I was older and should have known better, but I was messing around in the back yard of an abandoned house that was adjacent to our own place. There was a huge pile of wood and grass in the middle of the yard, placed there years before by someone, and left to rot, as if someone was in the middle of some major cleaning up and just said, "Screw this. I'm leaving". Looking to see what plunder might be in that trashy heap I found a rusting tin can partially filled with some fluid. I sniffed at the tiny puncture in the top of the can: paint thinner? I wasn’t sure, but it smelled flammable. Therefore, I began to squirt the fluid onto the ground, forming a thin line about ten feet long. Then I took a match out of my pocket (I’m not sure what I was doing with a box of matches…but there you are) and lit the line of what-might-have-been-paint-thinner. The flame did exactly as I’d imagined it would and followed the pencil-thin avenue right up to the rusting can of highly flammable liquid.

For just a second: nothing. And then, with a terrific WHOOSH it went up. A blue-white flame exploded from what had become, in effect, a rocket nozzle. The can slammed against the pile of wet, rotting debris, but it did not explode. Instead, it just sat in place and acted as if it were something built by Robert fucking Goddard. I thought it was the coolest goddamned thing I had ever, ever, ever seen.

It did not blow up and I did not die. In fact, the can continued to act like a stuck rocket engine until the fuel was expended. I even waited around and watched as the can cooled and suddenly imploded. What a physics experiment! I felt like a demented Werner von Braun.

I was lucky on many other occasions. Later.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Corporate Takeover


One of my favorite websites is no more! It was called From there you could type in a place name and do a search and quickly have a decent topo map of the area in question, along with latitude and longitude facts. I would go there frequently to do research for upcoming hikes and other destinations.

Alas! was bought up, in whole, by a pernicious outfit called! It's now part of a pay-only site and the features are forever lost to those of us who once used it easily when it made its money from advertising.

Oh, well and so it goes.

Fuck Corporate America.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Indie Comic book creators: Crazy Motherfuckers.

In my day I have known a few indie comic book creators. Some of these guys (all of the comic book creators I’ve ever known were male) were sometimes brilliant, sometimes talented, sometimes stupid, and in almost every case (to quote myself) as crazy as a shark in a tub of blood.

Weirdly, the worst of these creator folk were virulently racist. Some of them didn’t even realize that they were (or are) virulently racist. Ask them, and they would likely tell you that they are quite fair-minded fellows with no racial or cultural prejudices whatsoever. But I’ve witnessed quite differently.

One of these kooks I used to visit often when I’d be in his town. We would discuss World War II history and have a good time. He was amusing and fun to hang around with. However, he mistook my interest in the European Theater of WWII for a certain sympathy for the Nazi regime and let slip some of his own thoughts. I was appalled and, he seeing the shock and horror on my face, quickly changed the subject. A few weeks later, talking to another comic artist who lived in the same city, I was informed that the very funny guy was, in fact, a closet Nazi with good friends involved in various racist groups. Of course I never went back to his house.

This guy had not known that my mom was half-Jewish and that I had nothing but pure hatred in my heart for racists in general and Nazis in particular.

Some time later another comic artist with whom I’d collaborated went to work with the closet case. When my sometime collaborator returned, he was packed to the gills with various racist and Nazi philosophies that he’d picked up while working there. Again, this guy didn’t know that my grandfather had been a Jew, that I loathed racism, and that I had no time for this shit.

When I ran comic book shops and comic book conventions I would have occasion to fly in various comic book artist/writers for autograph sessions. One of these guys would really take advantage of my status as host and would intentionally search out the most expensive things on the menu when we’d take him out to eat. Not that he particularly liked the most expensive thing on the menu, but he’d order them because they were the most expensive things on the menu. He would blab constantly. And, being a good host, I’d listen. (I quickly learned that most of these fellows really enjoyed listening to themselves talk.) Over the years I had him as a guest several times, and he was sometimes amusing, always expensive, but he seemed popular with the fans. Until, of course, his book’s sales plummeted. He was, perhaps not ignorantly, pals with the closet Nazi. In later years, this dude seemed to go completely insane and vent some of the most outrageous hatred toward the most powerless portion of this planet’s population. One reason I came to loathe Libertarians and all of their fellow travelers was because of this particular specimen of human filth.

In the past two years, having some time and money to expend on computers and broadband access to the Internet, I began to read the blog of one artist who’d always intrigued me. The guy’s work—both in collaboration with others, and on his own—was always sharp. So I started reading his almost-daily column. One day, reading it, he mentioned that “the clearest thinker he knew” was the comic creator I’d come to realize was one of the worst specimens of human filth I’ve yet to encounter. This should have warned me. When I pointed out to him on a later occasion that the opinion of an old “master” was not that good on a certain subject, due to the fact that the old “master” had run a sweatshop, he became quite indignant. Alas. Another crazy motherfucker.

So I’ve decided to steer clear of these crazy motherfuckers. They run the gamut of spineless liberals to hateful Libertarian racists (one of them, oddly, penning a pro-Jewish tract—as a kind of suck-up, sleight of hand, classic misdirection I suspect). I think I’ve had quite my fill of these hateful bastards. I can only hope the world caves in on them. The fact that they're all pals and buddies no longer mystifies me at all.

Saturday, April 26, 2008



I’ve heard some terrifying shit in my life. Some of these sounds had very weird effects on perception:

Ten years old: My brother David, 19, six feet tall, 200 pounds, slams his fist into my head. I hear the initial impact. The sound is something I can only describe as pure white. I am vaguely aware of other blows, but as from a distance, the sounds muffled in a dark blanket. I awake in a pool of my own hot blood.

Twelve years old: Camping on my dad’s mountain property. 120 acres surrounded by recovering forests reclaimed from turn of the century clear cutting. I am lying in my cot in a six-person tent after being lost in the forest with my pal and my little brother. We begin to hear a far-away sound getting closer and closer. Is it a motor bike? No. A chain saw? That makes no sense. Finally, lying there, listening, I seem to be the only one aware that the sound is guttural, filled with fluid, living, not mechanical. It’s a pack of dogs, I try to warn everyone. Get inside the tent, I insist. No one listens to me. The sound suddenly stops.

The bear's roar comes from near the tent, across the creek. It is almost something that you can touch. It goes through my body. I quite literally feel it in my bones. It seems to shake the fabric of the tent. The noise is red. It is red, pure rage.

Thirty years old: My wife and son and I are sitting in my car at a gas station, getting ready to merge into the traffic on Sharon-Amity Road. I look to my left and see a dude on a motorcycle accelerating toward us and wait for him to pass. A woman wanting to make a left into the gas station lot decides that her fat ass needs to be fed and so she makes her move, cutting off the cycle rider. He, of course, having done nothing wrong, slams into her car as he is going perhaps 40 miles per hour. The screech of metal on pavement I almost ignore. The wet thud of his body against her automobile is something else, though. It’s imprinted in my mind’s eye: a wet, sound, black, final. The cycle rider dies two days later. The fat bitch eats another cookie.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

(False) Hero Worship

When I was younger and more interested in the creators who worked in the comic book medium, I was much enamored of the work of a gentleman named Will Eisner. Mr. Eisner had, among many other things, created a character called The Spirit. At one time he was part owner of what was, essentially, a kind of sweatshop outfit that produced comic book stories for various publishers. One of the publishers for whom he provided stories was Quality Comics, then one of the major players in the profitable comic book industry of the 1940s and early 1950s.

While the owners of Quality Comics could publish all of Eisner’s Spirit comics, the creator had been sharp enough to retain ownership of the title character, his name, and his image. Including all of the supporting characters. When Eisner was called away by the armed forces of the USA to serve during WWII, the publisher realized that he might lose the owner of the character and thus be unable to continue publication of the popular series.

Thus, a solution was found by having another artist on the payroll create a character that was, essentially, the same as The Spirit in all but name. And so the soon-to-be-famous Jack Cole was put to work creating Midnight who was, save for slight details, indistinguishable from The Spirit.

During my younger years, in the mid-60s, back issues of books featuring The Spirit were difficult to find. They’d been out of print for some time, and there was the old problem of so many comics from that era having either been consumed in paper drives, or hard to find because of faltering sales as children began to find their fantasies on the TV screen rather than in books and comics. I had only a couple of The Spirit comics briefly published by Harvey to witness the near-genius of Eisner’s power as an illustrator and storyteller.

Since I was just a young kid, I had no idea or interest that Eisner had once owned what was, basically, a sweat shop that churned out huge volumes of comic book pages to sell to various publishers. There were several such operations during the finest days of the comic book industry of the Golden Age of Comics, and so there’s no real shame or crime in that. I have read of complaints of low payments in these “studios”, but since I’m not able to cite them, we’ll let that ride.

Years later, Warren Publishing gave Eisner a new venue for reprinting the classic Spirit strips in magazine format with full-color covers. These, too, were fantastic and I was once again impressed with the pure brilliance of Eisner’s ability to tell a story by way of sequential art. If there was anyone better at this than Eisner, I had yet to discover him, and wouldn’t until I finally got my hands on some EC comics and found work by a man named Bernard Krigstein who was even more skilled and visionary than Eisner.

I consumed the Spirit stories over the years and my admiration for them never waned. But as the years advanced I began to take a more serious look at the series and at one of the characters:

Ebony White.

In those days, it was customary for all of the costumed heroes to have a sidekick. Eisner’s choice to serve as the sidekick of the resourceful and powerful Denny Colt/Spirit was a black kid named Ebony White. Ebony spoke in a kind of pidgin dialect that was considered the norm for African Americans in those days. The word balloons attached to Ebony were packed from top to bottom, side to side with apostrophes as the kid demolished the English language. He was a classic RACIST caricature.

However, worse than this attempted humor via Ebony’s speech patterns was that The Spirit’s sidekick was illustrated to resemble a monkey. This is, of course, the classic racist stereotype of black people instigated by the most virulently racist among our Society. It is indescribably cruel. I cannot today understand how an adult who is in full control of his faculties could have been able to illustrate such a character and not wonder about the effect such an image would have on both the people to whom it appealed, and upon the people on whom it was inflicted as a perverse form of humor.

When, in my 30s, one of my black friends who was also a comic book fan explained to me why he found The Spirit to be so monumentally offensive, I had to agree. For the first time I had to look upon the series, and its creator, under a new light. I no longer sought out the work of Eisner. I didn’t want to read any more Spirit comic books. While I hadn’t been the one who illustrated the stories (and so could feel no guilt for that), I had read them initially with no critical eye toward the obvious hateful racism portrayed by the character of Ebony White, faithful lackey to the noble Spirit. I had, in effect, either enjoyed the racism inherent in the tales, or chose to ignore them.

Some months later, I told the friend who had explained to me his offense upon seeing Ebony White that I was going to be able to see and hear Mr. Eisner speak at a convention. He requested that I ask Eisner about the character of Ebony White and to specifically ask if he felt any regret over having created Ebony to look and act and sound just so. I promised that I would, if given the chance.

And so, I did this. As it happened, I had the opportunity to ask Eisner about this both one on one in a hallway conversation, and later at a panel sponsored by the convention folk. In the personal conversation, I quickly came to understand that he’d been asked this question quite a number of times and that he was a bit weary of it. But he sighed and hemmed and hawed and finally gave me the following excuse:

“Those were different times.”

Indeed. I know those were different times. My own parents were victimized for not succumbing to such racist thoughts and images and for standing against them in their southern community. I was well aware of the “different times”, and I was also aware that not everyone took part in such moral crimes. But our conversation was at an end and he wandered off.

Later in the day, at the panel, I was determined to ask him if he was at least sorry for the way he had portrayed Ebony White. I raised my hand a number of times and there were always others doing the same and being chosen. But I kept at it. Finally, a young man—a black man—raised his hand and asked the specific question I wanted to pose.

“I find the character of Ebony White to be very offensive, Mr. Eisner. Are you sorry for the way you portrayed him?”

Eisner was quiet for a while. After a bit he muttered the same thing about those having been “different times”. The man who’d asked the question asked again.

“Yes. But are you sorry for the way you drew Ebony White? To look like a monkey?”

Eisner lowered his head, considered for just a second, and said, “No.”

Next question, please.

Below is The Spirit, created by Will Eisner:

Below is Midnight, contracted by the publisher to copy The Spirit should something unfortunate befall Eisner while in the armed forces:

Below is Ebony White, created and illustrated by Will Eisner:

Below is Gabby (at his master's leg), created to stand in for Ebony White:



Ted Rall says it better than I ever could.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Buk, Rhymes with Puke

One of my very favorite authors was Charles Bukowski. He considered himself the equal of Ernest Hemingway. I agree. His work is amazingly easy to read and impossible to duplicate effectively. I've seen others try. I know better than to attempt that.

One of the messages his work sent to me is that this life is oh-so-freaking short. All we have that is our own is our time. So don't let other people dick around with your time. Just don't. It's like allowing a tick to settle in your armpit, or a leech to attach itself to your ankle. Maybe it's worse than that.

Today, I pissed away almost an entire day doing nothing so much as allowing my time to be stolen. My life force to be siphoned off for...well, for nothing.

I'll crack open a beer this evening and raise a toast to Charles Bukowski.


Rhymes with puke.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Talented Mr. Masztal.

Mark Masztal did the following artwork as a pitch for a comic book version of THE FLOCK. Hopefully, we can someday pursue this project. The cover is a total stunner!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A Tale of Two Waterfalls

Our campsite at Hurricane Campground, Virginia

In October 2006 my wife and I took our travel trailer to Hurricane Campground, a National Forest campground in the mountains of southwestern Virginia. We love this section of Virginia. It's very mountainous (has the highest peaks in the state), heavily forested, and has lots of waterfalls and hiking trails. We'd long wanted to camp at Hurricane, having heard that it's an exceptionally pretty place. We quickly learned that the tales concerning the beauty of the location were spot on.

Before we left, I had researched the area extensively. Two things kept cropping up whenever I'd read about Hurricane. One was that there was an exceptionally pretty waterfall called Comers Creek Falls less than a two-mile hike from the campground. The other thing that there was an exceptionally pretty waterfalls called Rowlands Creek Falls less than a two-mile hike from a trailhead a short distance from the campground.

So I decided to hike them both. The first one was Comers Creek Falls, since the trailhead was actually at the campground and it intersected with the Appalachian Trail and I wanted to see what the AT was like in this area. The hike was nice enough, but when I reached the waterfall, I found a small cascade about eight feet in height. Worse, I soon realized that a few yards from the top of the "falls" was a parking lot where the locals could drive almost right to the waterfall! Talk about hype! Ah, well. Live and learn.

For this I did a three-mile hike?

The next day I drove a short distance to the trailhead for the trek to Rowlands Creek Falls. True enough, it was about 1.5 miles down a very steep trail to the waterfall. Unlike Comers Creek, this one was spectacular. Not sure of the total drop, but almost 100 feet, I'd say. The setting was in a healthy cove hardwood forest and the waterfall was down in a steep mini-gorge. I spent about an hour and a half taking photos there and did some scrambling on a cliff face across the creek from the trail. Only when the sun began to fade and I thought I might get caught in the dark getting back to my vehicle did I pry myself away and had back up the trail.

Rowlands Creek Falls

Don't believe everything you read. The descriptions I'd encountered of both of these waterfalls led me to conclude they were equally worthy of the hikes to them. In fact, I found that only one of them was actually a waterfall, while the second was rather pathetic and not really deserving of being tagged as a true waterfall.

Monday, April 14, 2008

City Done Right

I spend most of my time planning my temporary escapes from urban life. Living in a city is very stressful. I find very little within the urban landscapes to please me, and much that creates problems for me, personally. And so I'm almost always doing my best to make time to haul my travel trailer to a beautiful location, or getting my backpack provisioned so that I can go off into a National Park or wilderness area.

So it was a big surprise when I discovered that I actually like the downtown area of Greenville, South Carolina. While the streets are still geared for autos, it's relatively friendly to pedestrians with wide sidewalks and lots of shops and restaurants, and plenty of parking.

But the nicest aspect of downtown Greenville, to me, is Falls Park. This park was created when someone realized that Greenville had basically destroyed one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the Southern Piedmont by covering it with a bridge so that it was all but invisible. Guidebooks for waterfalls would list the sad instructions for viewing these falls--instructions which included having to find a place to stash your car while you scramble down an overgrown embankment for a chance to see this amazing waterfall.

The City of Greenville made things right, though. They removed the old bridge and landscaped the area around, above, and below the Reedy River Falls. An enormous and architecturally unique pedestrian bridge was built across the river that affords wonderful elevated views. Parking lots and parking decks were strategically located to allow automobiles comfortable access for people arriving at the park. Modern hotels, condominiums, restaurants, and shops were constructed around the banks of the river to give people more to do on their way to enjoying the natural beauty of the Falls Park.

It's hard to imagine the beauty and functionality of this downtown park without experiencing it. And the beauty of the place must be seen. If you're ever in this part of South Carolina you will do yourself a favor by at least visiting Greenville and its amazing Falls Park.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Jack & Amy Get Married

Carole and I were fortunate enough to be invited to the wedding of our friends Amy & Jack. A sweeter couple you will not meet. We were very happy to be able to attend their wedding and both of us had arranged to have the day off to be at the ceremony.
The wedding was held at Amy & Jack's house in Spartanburg. Well, I knew from photos posted online that their new place was very nice, but I had no idea just how nice until we got there. The home is located in an exceptionally pretty neighborhood, the likes of which most of us would love to live in, but few of us could afford. I figured Jack did okay as a metals engineer, but he must be a whiz-kid!

We met Jack's parents and Amy's parents. Amy's dad, in addition to giving away the bride, also brought in his crew to man the portable barbecue pit and cook the pork and turkey. Jack's dad was also a very cool dude--he had read and enjoyed my novel, so that puts him foremost in my estimation! The crowd was really large for the wedding, as you would assume for a ceremony involving two such sweet and gracious individuals.

After Carole and I had been at the place for a while, I asked Jack if he could give us a tour of the house. What a great place they have! It was the personal home of an architect, and I'll be damned if I could find so much as one millimeter of wasted space in that amazing structure. The house, quite simply, is huge. The kind of house that I would love to own. If Jack ever invites you there, you'll be impressed, believe me.

Another cool part of the wedding was that so much of the chores were filled by family members and friends. The officiating minister was Leland, known to some of Jack's hiking crew as Pressley. Another very sweet person. The position of photographer was filled by yet another of Jack's hiking buddies. Carole and I acted as guests, eaters of food, and drinkers of Diet Coke and beer.

We had a great time being at this very special event. I always enjoy attending the weddings of two nice folk such as Jack & Amy.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

World's Most Hideous Pocketbook?

I went to a wonderful wedding today. Two friends were married at their home and Carole and I were fortunate enough to have been invited. I took jillions of photographs and have far too many impression to relate them just now. I'm getting ready to go to sleep and need to do the wedding some justice.

However, I did encounter what I feel to be the ugliest pocketbook on the planet Earth. I took a photo of it. Here it is:

Friday, April 11, 2008

My Best Friend

My Pal


James Robert Smith

I was relatively


when I sold that first

short story

to that first

big market.

My best friend asked me

the anthology title

and said he’d buy

a copy

when it came out.

When it did come out

I asked him, smiling, proud,

“Did you buy one?”

And he said,

“Your story was what? Four pages of the book? Five?

I couldn’t justify buying

that book

for just four or five pages.”

My best friend.

What an asshole.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Ed Kills a Nazi

(Here's part of a novel about my hometown that I've been working on for years. Someday I hope to finish it. Repost.)
Portion of PORT CITY
copyright 2008 by James Robert Smith

Ed stood in the dark of the barn and ancient scents of old hay and horses and rich manure long gone floated up in the dust. The Nazi's jeep had come to a halt in the wide door and the lights were still on so that they could all see. Ed pumped the Coleman lantern and the wick began to glow with an almost supernatural incandescence. There was a slight ratcheting of steel as the jeep doors opened up and the pair of racists climbed out, their booted feet settling into the dirty sand, crunching down on the nubs of broken sandspurs and beggars lice and other weeds. Ed's right arm pistoned a time or two more, his great biceps filling with blood, coming to a pump as the muscles had been trained to do through constant, brutal exercise.

"You boys can shut them headlights off, now. We won't be needin em and I don't want nobody noticin us through the woods and comin down to see what we're doin here at night." To prove it, he lifted up the Coleman lantern, its glow dispelling the shadows to vague corners of the old barn. In obedience, the head Nazi reached through the door of the jeep and slammed the light switch down; the jeep ceased to glare at Ed.

"While you're standin over there, go ahead and shut the barn door." Again, in silence, the big Marietta Nazi grasped the old, weathered wood and pulled the heavy door to. Ed figured by then that he followed his orders right well.

The other two came on into the barn, the smaller men as if facing off against Ed. He wondered if they could feel the hate burning off of him; but he doubted it.

"This here's Ed Jones," Tow said.

"Nice to meet you, Ed." The big shot Nazi didn't offer his own name.

"Hello." Ed's face in shadow despite the blazing lantern. His eyes maybe lit from something other than the Coleman.

The Nazi looked around the barn. Most of the contents had been removed before the farm had been abandoned, and thieves and kids had long since ransacked whatever had remained. A disc plow gone almost completely to rust deteriorated at the rear. The horse stalls were stacked with graying lumber of various lengths and dimensions, and straw gone from gold to pale yellow was scattered here and there. The fine dust in the corners was everywhere pocked with the inverted cones of ant lions lying in wait for six-legged meals. Spiders moved and crawled in the joists overhead, in and out of webs.

"Well," the North Georgia racist finally said. "We got some business to conduct here, so let's get to it. My friend, Phillip here, says that you have a large amount of marijuana which you are willing to let go for a bulk price."

"At's right," Ed told him.

"Exactly how much are we talking about here? In kilos."

Ed placed the lantern on the floor of the barn where it settled in an inch or two of powdered filth. "I ain't got the slightest idea how much in kilos we're talkin about here. What I got is an entire bale of weed."

The Nazi smiled. Ed could see his chiseled face wrinkle in the weird light. "And how did someone like you come to be in possession of that much contraband?"

"You want to buy it?"

"Hell, yes, he wants to buy it!" Tow spoke up, sounding more strident than he probably had intended, trying to impress the right-winger.

"Well," Ed crossed his thick arms, the muscles accentuated and exaggerated in the glow of the lamp. "It really ain't no concern of yours how I come by it, so don't ask. I've got it and I want to sell. Never mind where it came from."

The Nazi cleared his throat, but he didn't spit. "We just want to make sure that we're not buying merchandise that might belong to someone who might take offense at our purchasing stolen property."

"You ain't got to worry about that. I got it fair and square, and ain't nobody goin around sayin it's theirs and not mine. So don't worry about it.

"And anyway, what is it that J.C. Steiner wants with a pile of marijuana?"

Marietta man wiped his mouth. Ed could hear his callused hands rasp on stubble. "Well, I'm on tell you. You want to make a profit, and we want to make a profit. You got to make a livin' and we got niggers to kill. Takes bullets to defend the white race from niggers and Jews."

The Nazi just stood there for a second, and then he asked to see some of the stuff. Ed reached into the deep right pocket of his overalls and drew out a huge five-finger bag of reefer, stems and buds and leaves the color of green-pea soup. The Nazi moved over to where Ed was, the lantern between them glowing like some magic doorway you had to know the secret word to pass through; he peeled the flap of the sandwich bag free and dipped his nose to sniff. Almost as strong as the pungent scent of weed there was.

"Diesel," he said. "You found this shit washed ashore, didn't you? How much you find, son?"


"A bale, plenty? More? You found yourself a whole bale? Do you know who tossed it overboard? You think they might want to know where it is?"

Ed stood there, blank faced, the color draining from his flesh. In the weird light, the Nazi could not see the warning sign. Ignorant, he continued to talk, now hoping to scare the yokel into giving away the contraband.

"There's suppliers who might not think this is your dope, son. There's boys out there just as soon have this back."

"They threw it overboard when the Coast Guard was chasin em," Ed droned. His voice was starting to go shaky, and the Nazi mistook the warble for fear. "It's mine, now. I found it. I dragged it across the beach. I loaded it up and hid it. Ain't nobody's but mine."

"You know, Ed. You look like a white man. You talk with a fine southern accent and Tow tells me you born and raised in this great state of Georgia. But he also tells me you a nigger lover. Why you want to be a nigger lover?"

Ed's face had gone almost completely to white, nearly no color there at all. In the white glare of the Coleman wick, though, neither the Nazi nor Tow could tell. Ed said nothing, for to speak would have been to act, and to act would have been to kill two men. He swallowed, and then the Nazi put his hand out and patted Ed's gigantic shoulder, all muscle and solid as a grizzly's neck.

"Just jokin son. No call to get choked up. Why don't you just let me see the bale and we can begin to talk some numbers. What say?"

Ed looked across the barn. Tow was still where he had been; only now he was leaning against the barn door. He looked like a guard standing there at the exit. "Wait here. I got to climb up and haul it down for you fellahs to see."

"Fine. Fine." The Nazi smiled and patted Ed once more, as if feeling to test again this inhuman flesh.

Leaving the lantern, Ed walked across the barn to a shadowed rear corner and put his hand on the dry, flaking wood that made the ladder. He climbed up, his sneakered feet making heavy scraping sounds. Old nails groaned beneath his weight but he paid them no mind. On the floor of the loft, he swatted at trailing webs and seemed not to feel at all the tickle of spiders that dashed along the flesh of his back and exposed shoulders before launching themselves off of the giant.

Below, the Marietta Nazi saw Ed's face appear from the lip of the loft, his face white, white as an avenging ghost. Two lengths of nylon rope, frayed and yellow, drifted down in slow motion. "You and Tow grab holt of these," he said, his voice quaking. "Y'all hold these and we'll ease this son of a bitch down for you to see."

He looked to see that the two did as he requested, both men standing about three feet apart, gripping the tethers. Then he vanished into the dark beyond the edge of the loft.

Beneath his flannel shirt, laid in tight to his ribs, the Nazi felt the holster of his little 9mm Beretta chafe against his cotton tank. He smiled at Tow, and Tow smiled back. Above them, they heard the small grunt that escaped through Ed's clenched teeth, and they barely noticed how the loft groaned above them, nails and old staples doing the suddenly damned difficult job to hold tight.

Up there in the shadows, the figure of pure rage lifted up the bale, hundreds of pounds, a goddamned miracle like some crazed mother levering a mass of steel off of her trapped child. Inside Ed, somewhere in his back, ligaments stretched, muscles painlessly tore, and the bale somehow like one of Hercules' tasks went over his head and he stutter-stepped to the edge of the loft and not really looking down dropped the enormous weight on the two fools who stood holding nautical rope attached to nothing save a heavy beam.

Below, he heard the bale come down with a soft thud, amidst the earthen sound a dry popping. Or two. He went to the edge and looked. A great gout of dust full of fine sand and horse shit gone to powder. As it settled, he saw legs jutting out, the yellow nylon ropes dangling down. The Nazi's fingers were splayed, his right hand, on the far side of the bale. A stream of urine was creeping out first between the Nazi's legs and then Tow's. Ed screamed. "Mother," pause, "FUCKERS!" He leaped down, his two hundred and fifty pounds landing solidly atop the bale, his knees locked even after a plunge of eight feet; he barely felt the sting of impact in his heels. Something beneath popped like a hard, unripe watermelon taken too soon from the vine.

"GotDAMNED shits!" He stomped on Tow's calf jutting out from the diesel-y bale. He did it again, the rage not gone yet, the adrenaline still pouring through his system. His mind was effectively shut down, and everything he saw he saw through a haze of red. The barn was a big red screen upon which were scrawled wooden beams and discarded lumber and old straw and dust floating lazily in the dead air. Ed gritted his teeth, grinding them, his jaw muscles bunching and clenching and he had bitten his tongue and the insides of his mouth so that blood was seeping in through little cuts leaving that coppery taste.

And then he saw what he'd done.

"Oh, god. Shit," he said.

The bale rested atop Tow and the nameless Nazi. Both were dead. A smell of spewed urine was rising up from the bodies, and in the seat of Tow's jeans Ed could see a soft round bulge of feces excreted beneath the weight of baled weed. There was also the stench of human excrement just beginning to pollute the close air of the barn. Ed smelled it through the diesel and the dope. Not far from one corner of the bale, the Coleman lantern burned on, showing the deed. "Shit."

Ed put his hand out, feeling the tight, dry burlap that held his marijuana together. Fifteen grand if he'd sold it by the pound. More if he'd been patient and let it go a quarter of a pound at a pop. Forty thou if he had set up shop somewhere and sold lids and dime bags and reefers to kids and skinflints. He looked around him. In the shadow of one of the old horse stalls he saw the edge of a croaker sack jutting up from a pile of dry-rotted two by fours. He went over and picked it up, felt to see if it retained any strength in its moth-y fibers. It was solid.

He shuffled back to the bale, reached into one deep pocket and drew out his pocketknife, the one his daddy had given him the year before he'd died. "A good pocketknife can be a lifesaver," he'd said. The bale sang a short, ripping song as he plunged the blade home, opening up the burlap skin to expose the leafy flesh beneath. Ed reached deep, jamming his monster arm in, far down where the diesel had not tainted the stuff, and he began to fill the sack. He reached in, drew out the stuff, dropped it in the sack, reached in, drew out, dropped in, reach, draw, drop.

When the sack was full, he went to the barn door, and he peeked out. Nothing moved except for the weeds in the warm breeze. He bunched the mouth of the bag together into a pucker and put it in the front seat of the Nazi's jeep. The keys were still in the ignition. "Thank you, fucker," he said.

Going back into the barn, Ed picked up his lantern and slowly turned the wick down until the light dimmed and dimmed and then was a tiny orange glow that lit nothing and then was gone. He put the lantern down, and in the pitch dark he drew out the book of matches and struck one, sulfur against rough. A tiny stink of what Hell was supposed to smell like and then a quick yellow flash. He waited while the flame ate the matchstick and grew fat. Then he bent carefully at the waist, feeling a twinge in the base of his spine, hardly noticing it, and he placed the plump little orange babe to the bale. The babe grew and made a twin of itself so Ed went to another spot on the bale and touched it again, made a triplet, then down and another sibling appeared and another and another until the family was crackling and popping having a party. Ed backed away, picking up his extinguished lantern, watching as the fire rose up and began reaching for the timbers and he could see Tow's rawhide belt steaming and the Nazi's pants catching fire and the bale was a great big gout of flame hissing out a tale of nastier things to come, arms reaching up and up sending fat yellow sparks to the loft which erupted with a low roar.

Ed went out the door and slammed it shut behind. From out there, you could see the sun inside the barn trying to get out. Thin lines of fire flickered and roared in there, saying that they were about to jump out, to cover the exterior of the barn and give off a show such as this old forgotten farm had never seen.

And when it did, when the barn went up like a ball of Hell, Ed was gone, taking the Nazi's jeep with him, taking it deep into the woods down logging roads thick with sassafras trees and post oaks and slash pines standing up like poles amidst the palmetto. There he left it, the keys hanging from the ignition, waiting for the next driver. An hour later, he was in the front of his pickup, the sack of dope stuffed behind the seat and his lantern on the floorboard.

And then he was home.

The next morning, black children, whose families had seen the orange glow of the burning barn in the night, came through their secret paths and they poked about in the cooling ashes. One of them found a little blob of silver, never knowing that it was silver, or that it had once been a twisted swastika.

Nothing else. There was nothing else except for vague, dark ashes that had ceased to smolder waiting for rain.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

First Magnitude

When I was just out of high school back in the haze of the 1970s, I discovered Ichetucknee Springs in Florida. It's what's known as a first magnitude spring. Hundreds of millions of gallons of pure, fresh water welling up from the limestone underpinnings of Florida to create whole rivers that flow clear as fine glass for dozens of miles. Spending a day or a weekend floating and swimming and exploring these places is nothing less than a pleasure at its purest.

Since my wife and I spend the Lion's share of our vacation time in the mountains, we try to vary the leisure menu with a trip to the low country. So, in a few weeks we're heading down to Blue Springs State Park not far from Orlando. We won't go to Orland0--you can keep that urban blight and the amusement parks for yourself, thanks--but will spend our days exploring Blue Springs, the St. Johns River, and various other first and second magnitude springs in the central Florida region.

It's what we do.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Into the Gorge!

I’ve heard it quoted fairly often (including by folks as the US Forest Service) that Linville Gorge is the most rugged area east of the Rocky Mountains. Having hiked the Appalachians from Katahdin (Maine) south to Wade Mountain (Alabama), I have to admit that Linville Gorge certainly is as tough as anywhere I’ve ever been. The Whites are indeed a challenge, as is Baxter State Park, as are parts of the Great Smoky Mountains, and the Black Mountains are about as tough as they come.

After those horrible fires in 2007 the Gorge looked awful in some places.

But my first foray into the Linville Gorge was a wake-up call. I’ve had hikes kick my ass in the past, but the trails down into this deep, narrow canyon were the most physically challenging and toughest in memory. The scenery is also on a par with what I’ve experienced in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the Longfellow Mountains of Maine. Again, the eye candy may even surpass those ranges. I’ve seen higher walls, but never in such abundance. I’ve seen eastern rock, but never so much of it running north to south along an extremely deep gorge.

The Linville River has sliced an astounding wound into the Earth here. In places it’s more than 2,000 feet deep. Further enhancing the experience of seeing this, it maintains that depth for miles along the course of the river from the northern end to where the canyon finally gives up to the foothills and Piedmont in the south.

For some weird reason my hiking experience in Linville Gorge has always been very brief and shallow. In years past I would spend my short visits to the area standing at overlooks and peering down into the gorge, and just a couple of half-mile hikes into the gorge itself to see the powerful Linville Falls which lie at the northern edge of the canyon. I have to admit that I was generally occupied in bagging peaks elsewhere than seeking solitude and scenery inside the most powerful canyon in the eastern USA. I was robbing myself, I now reckon.

Since I had missed a dayhike into the gorge with friends two weeks before, I figured to take advantage of a rare two days off from work to ride the short two hours to Linville Gorge.
(Again, with the place so close to where I live, I cannot really explain why I have spent so much time avoiding it!) To do anything much of a loop hike in the gorge, one needs to have some kind of shuttle set up, be prepared for a long road hike (which I loathe), or do some backtracking. As I am so far unfamiliar with the gorge, I chose to do a short in-and-out backpack that would take me quickly to the bottom of the canyon where I could set up camp, do some exploring, and a return hike to my vehicle the next day.

I’d heard that there were some spectacular views along the Pinch In Trail, along with some top-notch campsites near the intersection of that trail with the Linville Gorge Trail. So it was an easy choice for me to pick that one. I left home a bit later than I’d intended (almost always the case) and arrived at the trailhead around 11:00 am. I found the parking lot along the Kistler Memorial Highway (it’s a dirt track more suited to four-wheel drive than what one normally assumes to bear the title “highway”) to be empty. The first thing that I noticed as I prepared my backpack was that it was really cold and overcast, and that there was ice on the surfaces of limbs more than a few inches off the ground. At first, I was afraid that the ground would be iced over and that I’d have to abort the hike (since I hadn’t brought my yaktrax along). But I soon realized that the ground was wet and that the temperature was rising even as I prepared to hike down.

The Pinch In Trail has a reputation for being one of the roughest in the gorge, with possibly only the Rockjock Trail surpassing it in general ruggedness. The trail passes into the forest out of the parking lot and soon begins to descend at a not unreasonable rate. Suddenly, though, I came out of the woods and into the burned area from the severe forest fire of last year. This was an especially intense fire during a terrible drought and the fire burned not only the tree cover, but also succeeded in igniting and burning off some of the forest loam. Any worse, and the fire would have burned right down to the mineral soil. As it is, I think the forest is going to have a tough time of recovering. Time will tell.

Despite hiking through the burn (a natural event, after all), one is almost immediately struck by the fantastic scenery lying to the north and south. I kept stopping along the trail to seek out views on the exposed cliff tops, with each few yards finding views to rival or exceed the ones that had stopped me in my tracks minutes before. Soon, I found the trail descending at a more and more tremendous rate, moving down into soaring rocky canyons and passing beneath and beside towers of pale stone. The hiking is hard on your legs, but pleasing to the eye. At one point, peering down beyond a tower of rock that stands in the way of the trail, I could see the route of the Pinch In Trail following the contour of the ridgeline that dropped precipitously toward the Linville River.

At around this time, I began to be able to hear the roar of the still distant river. Even standing more than 1200 feet above it, I could feel the power of the engine that had sliced this canyon into the seemingly solid rock. I shouldered my pack and continued on, moving through the severe burn area and dropping down into the parts of the forest where the fire had finally lost its impetus. Even with a living canopy above my head, I could see the carbon black remnants of the fire that had somehow been brought to heel as the flames got down to the river. Perhaps earlier fires had used up much of the ground fuel. I don’t know. But I can say that the power of the fire was spent by the time it reached within a few hundred yards of the river, and the trees in this part of the gorge were not consumed.

The intersection of the Pinch In and Linville Gorge trails leaves you with two choices: north or south. I looked at some extremely beautiful campsites to the north (within ¼ mile of the intersection), and then went south to see what was available. I located a great, level campsite with a huge stone fire ring and a bench someone had cobbled together with a river-washed plank deposited after some storm, and supported by logs. I chose this spot, as it was not only the most pleasing to my eye, but had the great plank bench for cooking and meditating.

Normally, I would never build a campfire in a wilderness area. I have actively discouraged others from doing this, too. But for some reason I felt the need to build a campfire. Maybe because it was a good bet I was the only person in the gorge on this Sunday, late March evening, or because it was such a well-used fire ring. Or maybe because I felt like being a hypocrite. I can’t say. I will admit that this is the first campfire I’ve built while backpacking in over twenty years.

In short order I had my tent up, my stove ready for cooking later in the afternoon, and the fire going. I scouted around for firewood (the river leaves it in abundance along the rocky banks), piled it up high, and went to scout out a spring for filtering water which I found not far north of the intersection of the two trails. Later, after I’d cooked my supper, stored everything away, and hoisted my food bag high into a tree (this is bear country, in a major way), I grabbed my camera and went on a sight seeing trip north on the Linville River Trail.

What struck me first of all is that almost all of the big hemlocks are already dead from hwa infestation. I’d expected that, but it’s still shocking to see my favorite evergreen going into
extinction. Weirdly, one of the first things that happens to a big hemlock when the bugs have sucked it dry and it dies from starvation, is that the bark sloughs off and one sees the under layer of the bark red—almost like raw meat standing bloody. See what we’ve done? Alas.

I found some fantastic views along this part of the trail, but as the day was drawing to a close, I headed back to my campsite and built up the fire. Soon, I had a really tremendous blaze in the fire ring and I was tossing on logs that I would have assumed far too large to burn effectively. The fire gobbled them right up, though. I made a few more trips to the riverbank to gather more firewood for the night and returned to meditate, just gazing into the flames. Soon, though, I had to realize how tired I was and I retreated to my tent. As I was lying there, preparing to huddle in my new down bag (first time I’d used it), I peered up through the door of my tent and realized that I had set up directly beneath a hemlock tree. A few needles were hanging on, and I could see them against the fading twilight of the cloudy sky. A twin twilight for me to see: that of the day, and of all hemlock trees in the east.

The night went quietly, and I slept a good ten hours! My sleeping bag kept me warm, but I have

to admit that the cotton bag liner I’d bought went a long way toward making the sleep more comfortable. It was nice to pull the cotton liner up around my shoulders during the coldest parts of the morning and feel the extra warmth.

After breakfast (a nasty Mountain House concoction), I methodically packed up my campsite. I’d used up all of the water I’d brought with me and knew I’d need some for the steep climb back to my truck, so I stopped at the spring I’d located the day before the pump some water with my new filter (MSR Sweetwater). The pump worked great and I soon had two bottles filled for the brief, but extremely steep hike back up.

During the night the clouds that had stayed high the day before had come down much lower. While before only the highest peaks had been in the clouds, now the mists had descended to around 2500 feet or so. Thus, the tops of the gorge walls were all but invisible as I pushed on and on along the Pinch In Trail.

A winter of not much hiking had really done me no good. Fifteen pounds heavier than when the season began, and loaded with a 40-lb pack, the one and a half mile hike took me an hour and fifteen minutes to climb. And it was a very rough climb. Some people think that the Pinch In Trail should be abandoned, as it’s extremely steep and, worse, succumbing to erosion in a way that makes portions of the trail not much more than a ditch where storms can dig deeper and deeper into the ridgeline. If the wilderness aspect of the area precludes any engineering on this trail, then it should probably be abandoned to the heavy foot traffic it absorbs now.

Finally, much wetter (from perspiration, not rain), I arrived at the trailhead and my truck. By this time my thighs were screaming and it felt great to shed my pack, towel off, don a fresh

shirt, and climb into the seat of my vehicle. I wanted to get in another brief day hike before I started back, but when I arrived I found the entire area (higher on the northern end of the gorge) to be completely socked in with very thick cloud cover a slight mist. As I had wanted to do the hike for the views, I decided to postpone it for another day and I headed back home.

Where I promptly showered and fell asleep again for a five-hour nap!