Tuesday, April 14, 2015

155th anniversary of the Pony Express





I was in Indianapolis telling stories to 4th grade students.

They asked if I knew any historical stories, like the ones they were reading in school. I told them that my dad was born in 1900 and he actually saw Buffalo Bill a few years later at the Wild West Show at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

No one in the classroom knew who Buffalo Bill was, so I said: "He was a Pony Express rider."

"What's that?" a boy asked.

"The first deliverer of the U.S. Mail," I said.

"A mailman?" the same curious boy asked.

"That's right."

I explained how the Pony Express riders were kids, fifteen, sixteen years old, even younger. They had to be light on their feet and quick in the saddle and very determined to get the mail delivered, I explained.

"How far did he have to ride to deliver the mail?" (same curious kid)

"Well," I said, "He was a circuit rider. That means he had to go a certain distance, drop the mail off and then another circuit rider, a light-footed boy of the same age and height, would take off on a fresh horse and go the next distance with the mail until another rider took over and then --"

Curious said, "-- all the way to California, I know."

"Yes, that's true. The Pony Express linked up and went all across the country."

Curious made a face. "I don't really believe you," he said.

"Why not?" I asked, surprised.

He said, "Do you have any artifacts from the Pony Express?" (He actually used the word "artifacts")

"In fact, I do. Look at this book bag. My brother is a leather craftsman and he made me this replica ... this artifact,  this re-creation of a real Pony Express bag!" I was so proud of my brother and my book bag in that glorious show-and-tell moment ... plus I knew I had him.

Curious looked at the bag skeptically. "That's not REAL," he informed the class.

"No," I pointed out, "It's a replica, something designed to look like --"

"That's baloney," he said, cracking a sly smile.

"No, it's leather," I said. "Cowhide."

He stood up and faced the class like a trial lawyer. "How could such a tiny bag hold all the letters in the United States?"

I had to admit. He'd won his case. But I had one last squeak left in me. "There weren't that many people back then, and not many could write letters in the first place."

He wasn't sold on it. Neither were the others.

"Buffalo Bill was a REAL guy," I remarked.

"They'll learn about him next year," the teacher said. "Unless Core doesn't let us. They don't like things out of sequence."

I shut up then and passed the hand-tooled Pony Express bag around the room and one cute, smart girl said, "I wish I had one."

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Ross LewAllen: The Wolf and the Typewriter



This is a story of friendship. And of mutual love and reciprocity.

My friend Ross once asked me, "How do you get rid of writing doubts?"

I asked, "Where did they come from?"

He thought about that for a while and then said, "From an elementary school teacher long ago, I was told that I was no good at writing." From that point on I stuck to drawings, painting, anything but writing. But you like my poems, so maybe I can write after all."

"You could always write, Ross. But maybe you were carrying that grammar school teacher around on your shoulder."

"I think I'll carry a wolf on my shoulder from now on. Thanks, Bro."

A few days later I gave Ross the portable typewriter you see in his painting.

A few days after this, he gave me the pen you see in our photograph.

Ross is a love beyond measure, beyond friendship, beyond everything but the breath we breathe.


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Flying Chair







We all have stories where something happens to us that we cannot explain. This one came out in my collection The American Storybag. Almost immediately I received some emails and other direct responses from kids who asked, "Is this story true?"I would say to them: "All stories are true. This one happened as I said it did. But, then again, I was seven and my cousin was five."


My cousin Kyle said to me, “Do you remember the little room on the third floor of Grandad’s lodge overlooking the lake?”

“I remember it--not much bigger than a closet.  There were two pieces of furniture -- a marble table and an old rotten, horsehair chair.”

Kyle said, “When we were five we’d go into that secret room when no one was looking.”

“It was at night," I said. 

"Our parents thought we were fast asleep."  Kyle laughed, a little hysterically, I thought, but, yeah, it was kind of funny the idea that we were together in the shadow room with the big gloomy chair.

“Mmm,” Kyle purred, “the big chair was our secret sharer.  Remember?”

“It's coming to me -- something weird about that," I admitted.  "Did the chair have -- powers?” 

It was coming back in more detail.  The narrow steep stairs winding up to the third floor.  The creaky door to the secret room.  The knotty-pine closeness of the walls.  The absence of breathable air.  The dust.  The secretness.  The horsehair smell.  The moon on a thousand year old, threadbare oriental carpet. 

There was the old chair, so vast and solid, a kind of personage that beckoned children to sit on it.  Yes, it had powers, all right. 

We crept up to the chair and inched our way up onto the sprung horsehair cushion.  The chair smelled ratty and rotten.  The room so airless and close, as if whatever lived within the walls needed every bit of oxygen that was available, and none left for a couple of errant and disobedient kids. 

Suddenly it was clear to me why the chair was so special.

It transported us to places we didn’t want to go. 

Settled into its cavernous bulk, the chair somehow blasted off like a rocket, flew us out of the Lodge and skimmed us across the lake. 

Not only that, it skimmed us under the lake.  Then it soared us into the clouds, and above the clouds, took us into outer space, sent us into the Milky Way where we tailed the tails of comets. 

And then, always and forever buried in my memory, the old chair turned around and brought us home. 

We'd blink -- and there we'd be in that stuffy, small, airtight room that smelled of one hundred years of dust.


I remember that, one night, Kyle met me in the darkened hall in front of the secret room, and she whispered, “Tonight we’re going to do something different.”

“What will it be?”

“Come, I’ll show you.”  Kyle was both mysterious and mischievous and I often forgot she was my cousin, more like some magical, dreamed-up friend from a storybook.

Soon we were seated, elbow to elbow, in the chair. 

I remember how the chair was woven of twigs, millions of strands of twigs and it was, in reality, a once upon a time tree that was now a square, squat painted tree that looked like a chair and had horsehair cushions, bottom and back. 

So we sat together, Kyle and I, and the chair rocked out of the secret room and into the open night of sundry stars. 

All was well until Kyle screamed at me -- “Let go of the chair!” 

I wouldn’t -- but she did. 

And then my cousin Kyle went spiraling off into space. 

She was tumbling and rolling, while I held onto the arms of the chair until, at last, it upended me and then I was floating around  in the heavens with Kyle.  We were flying, I guess.  Not like Peter and Wendy or the Lost Boys because there was no sense of self, there was only space, emptiness, void, air, wind, volume of nothingness, white noise of moonlight, and us moving through it, invisibly and immaterially. 

We were, and we sort of weren’t. 

We were not flying so much as we were flight itself.  We were like the thought of flight.  Miraculously detached, unloosed from the world.

And always, at the end of the ride, the old trustworthy chair scooped us up and brought back to the airless attic, secret room.

“We must not tell anyone about this,” Kyle warned.  She was younger than I but so much wiser.  I wanted to tell the whole world about our discovery. But I agreed not to tell.  But – and I swear this is true – when we got out of that room,
we each forgot about the chair.  We forgot about flying.  We forgot about the thought of flight.  We even forgot about ourselves. 

Some months later, Grandad lost all of his money and the lodge was sold for petty cash.    

The old chair went with the Lodge. 

We did not think about the strangeness of this.  The place where we grew up -- gone.  Not lived in by us anymore, inhabited by someone else. 

Thus did we grow up, and forget what it meant to be transported by magic.

Sixty years passed. 

Kyle and I got older, and then, just plain old, as I'm afraid we are now.  But we still laughed a lot and from doing this, we had laugh lines and lots of wrinkles. 

Well, as it happened, one day a few months ago, we were sitting on the dock by the lake below the hilltop where the Lodge had been – it burned to the ground in the 1970s -- and a big wind came up out of nowhere. 

Kyle’s beach chair, and mine, didn’t move because we sat hard upon them, waiting for the wind to go away. 

It did, finally, but then, when we weren't expecting it, the wind returned and knocked Kyle and me into the lake.

Kyle laughed.  “Can you still hold your breath like you used to?”

“Sure," I said.

Kyle dived down.

I dived down.  The lake was as clear as the air above it. 

We swam in circles.  Lots of seaweed, beer cans, stones, bluegills, sunnies, bass, pickerel.   
"Let's find the chair!" Kyle said.

After swimming for a while, I felt chilled. “Kyle, I’m getting cold.” 

“Pssh,” she said. “Find the chair!”

I swam around some more, staring into the wondrous clarity of the lake.

Then Kyle cried out,  “There it is!”

The old horsehair chair.  Kyle and I were flying above the ancient, rotten horsehair chair. We touched the twiggy green-painted, woven arms and then the sprung matting of the cushion . . . and . . . it happened all over again. 



We were both seated upon the chair underwater.



Then we flew, raced in and out of spiral coves and caves.  The chair took us to the swamp, scattering turtles and herons, and there was that instantly familiar release that knows no bounds, that unlimited non-human form. . . flying, we flew. . . out of body, we abandoned our bones and entered that unknown, unknowable zone of pure flight, of the thought of flight, and then of nothing, nothing at all. 



When, at last, we dragged the aluminum dock chair onto the dock, I was shivering and shaking, and I started jabbering about flying but Kyle said, “Let’s not tell anyone about this.”  And I haven't -- until now.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Those With Claws, Those With Toes










The king of the night callers is the great horned owl. He comes on clear and cool, long and hollow --  Hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo-hoooo. A five beat basso singer. There is a dignity in his call, a certain restraint, as if he knows, no matter what, he's soon to dine.

I love hearing them. But I'm mindful of what they do when, soundlessly, they fall upon prey. Not even a whisper of wings to warn rabbit or
flying squirrel that an arsenal of claws is about to land.

That's a swamp rabbit's tail in the picture. And the claw marks of the great horned owl in the sand. He landed right, this particular owl, but swamp bunnies will fight for their life, and this one surely did.

I found no other evidence of his loss than this brown fluffy tail. But during the day I saw him sitting in the sun, seeking to heal his wounds with kindly sunlight. He was alive and would live but he was damaged. The fur along his spine was ripped clean. He hopped away when he saw me.

Predators don't always win. Crows kill owls during the day. They first harass them with raucous noise, and then they come in number and chop the owl, blinding him first. I've seen it happen and have written of the encounter in the broadside poem on this page.

It's all give and take, in nature.  All creatures giving and taking, different times of night and day. The whole hullabaloo of life and death, chance and change, luck and pluck. Pity the bunny? Praise the owl? If there's a moral in all of this, Great Maker forgot to tell us. But he didn't forget to give us five fingers and five toes, which to my mind is way better than claws. 


Pencil drawing by Sid Hausman
 Poem broadside originally
published by Giligia Press,
Fresno, California in 1968

Friday, November 14, 2014

The sun comes up and the moon follows

The riddle of life yields more answers as you get older. You begin to see the pattern of beautiful repetition. The sun comes up and the moon follows.

My riddle of the morning came to me with a voice I heard in my head.

The book awaits, yet waits not. The corn sleeps to make more corn. The egg is armored but easily shelled. The song sings though the singer is gone. All is well and not undone.

The tendency is to think that everything is coming undone when, in fact, it only goes out to come back in. All of life is a riddle and a cycle that can be solved. For some it comes at the end of life. For others it begins at birth. For a few it occurs when a small pebble knocks against a column of bamboo.

As to my personal riddles, here shared ... I gave many storytellings over the past twenty years where I was paid with corn. The book is coming: the love  letters of my father and mother. It has taken a few years to edit them, but we're nearing completion.

The significance of the egg is not a secret, but if you take a cold egg from the fridge and place it against your eyelid, it soothes the eye more quickly than Visine. My brother learned this from a Taoseno named Tieflo a long time ago. But I should add that Tieflo used round river stones about the same size of his eye sockets. Tieflo said if you did this quiet meditation for a few minutes every day you would never need to wear eye glasses. In my case I take them off after a long day and cool my eyes with cold eggs, in the belief that something may grow without my knowing it.

The singer and the song -- everyone has a secret song of some kind, an exalted and uplifting melody with lyrics that soothe the heart no matter how many times the song is heard.Some songs I only heard once yet I hear them over and over in my head and remember the day the words were sung.

The empty mirror needs polishing, again and again, every day. You will not see yourself in it. The mirror will only reflect emptiness. And in that emptiness the sun comes up and the moon follows.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Another Way of Looking at Jan Wiener by Joseph Koch






Once in a blue moon, if then, something in a story resonates to such a degree that it becomes a life-changing moment. As Jan Wiener changed my life, Joseph Koch was changed by a story about Jan. I wrote the story in 1994 for an anthology edited by my friend Roger Zelazny. I remember when the book came out Jan read the story and smiling said, "Well, you romanticized me but that's all right. Don't worry, I'll never tell." My turn to smile, I said, "It's fiction, no need not to tell." We both laughed.




If You See Your Past On The Road, Kill It
by J. Koch


“You don’t seem to understand,” he said, “that you are alive. Who cares about your handicap? You must turn your injury into something vital, a weapon to cancel the past.” -- Jan Volta

I have been carrying the above quote around in my head since 1995. It has been like a personal koan for me. I found it in the short story "Eye of the Falcon" by Gerald Hausman which was published in an anthology Warriors of Blood and Dream edited by Roger Zelazny  Recently Mr. Hausman told me that Jan Wiener was the real name of the character in his story. I suppose by calling his friend and teacher by the fictitious name of Jan Volta, the author got a little distance and some added poetic license when he wrote his tale about the martial arts. What attracted me to Volta though was his tough, brazen disregard for self-pity of any kind.

I understood the "who cares?" aspect of Volta's comments well enough, but I wondered for a long time how something I've put up with, worked around, accepted, fought, and wept over could possibly be any kind of weapon. How could a thing I've had since birth cancel my past? That was my conundrum. And it is why I have called it my koan. I had to solve the question.

At age 42, I think I finally have it. 

In Mr. Hausman’s story, the protagonist arrives in Jamaica after many years to run in a marathon. He encounters Jan Volta, master of an obscure, but venerated Czechoslovakian athletics and martial arts regimen called Sokol, or “Falcon”. Our main character is very fit, having welded his body back into working order after a "crippling accident". While they train, Master Volta shows absolutely no mercy at all. The protagonist tells Volta about his accident, the pain it caused, and what he suffered. Volta is unimpressed, our protagonist is offended, and tells him so.  My opening quote is Master Volta’s reply. Master Volta lived through World War II, trained men that fought the Nazis, and fought them himself.

I've had spastic cerebral palsy since birth.  I fall often. Forty years later I’m still painfully embarrassed, to the point of growling things like, “I’m fine!” when people are just trying to help me. I don’t walk well.  I have to plan my movements a piece at a time in my head. Sometimes I lurch about, knocking things over when I reach for them, stumbling, almost throwing myself into chairs when I sit. My first trip to the bathroom each day is always an adventure. Nevertheless, I’ve been drawn to martial arts practice all my life. On the days I can stand, I can throw punches and blocking combinations well enough that my teacher thought I was “pretty fast.”

My wife is a big part of why I understand Master Volta better now. A lesser being would have shriveled up in a corner and died.  Instead, my wife used the need to take care of her daughter, and her poor health to move past what came before. 

Doing daily tasks is harder for us and takes more effort that it does for a “normal” person.  Not impossible, just harder. We have a certain amount of mental, emotional, physical effort to devote to anything at any given time. Filling up too much of our mental/physical/emotional hard drives with, “Woe is me!” makes that even harder.

A disability is a weapon because you can use it, in that way, if you know how, and if you have the will to do it.

We can sit and mope about our pasts, or use our troubles walking across a room, doing laundry, and doing dishes, to cancel the past and keep going. We’re both far from perfect; what I’m telling you doesn’t work perfectly every single day.  But my wife told me something early on that always stuck with me: “Effort always counts.”

As in meditation, “You became distracted? OK, stop and start again.”

We have our weapons to cancel our past. We can always pick them up and wield them.




Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Berkshire Anthology 1972


The Bog Lady photo by William Kadell
The Berkshire Anthology published by The Bookstore Press, 1972


In the days of wine and roses -- or was it bog ladies and bees? -- there was poetry coming out of the trees. People spoke it on the streets and on the phone and you couldn't go anywhere without Poetry happening. Aram Saroyan's whole book of poems, Pages, was read aloud by Edwin Newman on the 6 O'clock News. Think of that -- a book of poems read aloud to millions!

It was 1972 and a lot of that 1960s magic was still going on. In fact, the early seventies was still the 60s, if you know what I mean. As an editor I was amazed the how poets came out of nowhere and just as fast zippered themselves back into oblivion. It was one great hallelujah rebellion. The backdrop was the Vietnam War. Stage front: the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan. And all of these guys wrote Poetry.

The Berkshire Anthology celebrated this mad spirit of reinvention -- the Gilded Age meets Godzilla. The Pre-Raphaelites crash into Middle America. It was anything you want to name that was crazy and pretty and wore bangs and shoulder length hair and loved -- here it comes again -- Poetry.

Here is a poem I will always remember:

FOR THE DEATH OF AMBROSE, MY PUMPKIN

Ambrose, you're dead.
                                  Your underbelly
covered with mold, your sides cracked,
spitting black seeds.  
                                  No wonder
I've been waking at 4 a.m., your
fumes were the center
of these tortured weeks.
                                    How could you do it to me?
Remember how we used to ride around together,
looking at the bombed out gas stations?
The kid I didn't have, whom I named you after?
The nights I stroked your bumpty sides,
thinking of another orange-hued lover?
                                                         True
I haven't paid much attention lately but
                                                          Ambrose, Ambrose
                   the pain it gives me
to abandon you to waste basket history,
                                                          your stalk
never to be caressed
by cleaning ladies.

S.P. Wonder