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Name: Loon Dog
Bio: A mental health researcher motivated by self-self-defense; has likely dedicated too much of his life trying to define lunacy. Presently travelling through the USA seeking out mental diversity activists to help trace the threads between brilliance and madness.
Photos: Mad America's photo libraries
Mad America: The Great Alternatives Conference: Intro ( 15th Jan, 2010 )
The Beat Gen, 90s Hip Hop legends and Oriental Zen Lunacy ( 17th Dec, 2009 )
Australian Shame ( 1st Dec, 2009 )
Entering the Great American Fruit and Nut Bowl: War Diaries, Inherited Madness and Other Things ( 16th Nov, 2009 )
Stuff in America you don't see on the TV ( 9th Nov, 2009 )
Sierra Nevadas: Clarity, purity, PBJ's ( 4th Nov, 2009 )
Road to Cedar Valley ( 3rd Nov, 2009 )
California Dreaming ( 3rd Nov, 2009 )
Library of Dust ( 23rd Oct, 2009 )
Consumers, Survivors and Mad-Pride: Burrito's and Bears. ( 23rd Oct, 2009 )
Begginings. ( 19th Oct, 2009 )
The following is unpolished and downright grubby. But Tom Cho reassured me that we all need to write a few stinkers so we can refer back to and see how much we've come. Here's one for the archives...
Wells Fargo, Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks, Jack in the Box, Denny’s, 76, SuperStop, Rayless Shoesource, Walmart, Panda Express, Days Hotel, GMC Truck, Taco Bell, Sunshine Biscuits, Denny’s, It takes the courage and strength of a warrior to ask for help…If you or someone you know is in an emotional crisis call 1-800-213-4556-7445 press 1 for veterans…
That day I read more light-box advertisements than words in a book. Not one single reading lamp on the Greyhound worked so I sat and stared out the window for the darker part of the seven hour ride from Tulares to Oakland. All I’d had to eat were some left over sultanas and almonds and PBJ on a week old bagel that Pat’s auntie wouldn’t let me leave without. Not that the fast food fields outside the grimey window even remotely appealed. But the high density of those grease beacons was a clear indication that we were nearing the Bay Area. The smear of muck on the outside window made it unclear exactly which bridge we sailed across into downtown San Francisco.
In December 1943my Grandpa, on my dad’s side, sailed from Sydney to San Francisco aboard the USS Mariner. He then took a train from Oakland to New York City spending Christmas and New Years there before boarding a ship to Britain. For the next two years he served the RAAF as a navigator in a five-man squad, flying Lancaster Bombers in bombing raids over German soil.
Grandpa writes poetry about bush animals and knows how to play Click Go the Shears on a gum leaf.
I recalled being a kid when Grandpa first told me about his travels. For a ten-year old boy in the 1990s his time in America was big news. America had Air Jordans, a range of deep fried chocolate marshmallow cereals, and the Ren and Stimpy Show. I remember excitedly sharing grandpa’s story with my own father who showed sullen surprise, having had no idea about Grandpa’s time in World War 2. I couldn’t understand why dad wasn’t as rapt as I was by the news.
Grandpa’s still kicking around and I caught up with him before I left. We sat in a waiting room at the Eye and Ear Hospital and his knitted brown jumper that Granny made looked as hardy but worn as he did. We chatted in a fairly mild-mannered but amicable kind of way and I told him about my trip.
I really like grandpa but as with a lot of country-bred white men of his age he tends not to leave himself very open to a hearty chat, preferring to eat dinner with the TV on, or tend to needless chores rather than sit and chin-waggle over a cuppa. Or maybe most of the rest of society, of us, tend to keep at a distance from elders like him (and the associated whiff of death) and the cultural chasm between us is too far eroded. Either way he often seems aloof and restless. Maybe he uses indifference as a defense strategy to prevent him shooting the TV with his Winchester 22 during an episode of Jackass.
The morning I left I received a letter by post. It was his handwritten diaries from the war and a scrawled note telling me I could do what I want with them. I could hear the sigh as I read his signed name.
November 1943, after nearly two weeks over the Pacific Ocean.
Thursday 9th ~ Quite heavy sea. Ship pitching and rolling. Rumour of us picking up a tug. Very heavy storms on West coast USA. Slept on deck.
Friday 10th ~ A blimp arrives & remains near boat. Sea much calmer. Go under Golden Gate Bridge at 4pm. Got off about 9pm. Took 1 case & got aboard a ferry & taken to Fort MacDowall, Angel Island. We saw ALCATRAZ, notorious prison island again. This time lit up, as is ‘Frisco. Got off ferry and went into big drill hall. Barrage taken in trucks to huts… Spoke to yank (army) who had been to Ballarat. Issued 2 army blankets (brown). Slept in double decker beds. Went to sleep after midnight.
Saturday 11th ~ Rose about 6.15 & went to breakfast, 100’s put through in 20 minutes. Collect tray, cutlery & china mug. 2 slices toast, scrambled egg, crispies & coffee. Hand in as go out & washing done. Efficient… Went down in ferry to 17 Pier ‘Frisco. Walked down street tram (street cars) 5 & 7c. Had a dinner of mince pie, salad, doughnut, fried egg & toast for 65c. Do not like coffee. ‘Frisco very hilly. Cable trams for up hills &and come down with brakes on & bells ringing. Visit Mark Hopkins hotel alleged to be the best. Went up to 19th floor. Had haircut 85c (5/-). Cocktail bars in abundance. “Digger” bought a case 19 dollars (6 v. dear). Went to Hospitality House. Had 2 glasses milk sandwiches and cake. Spoke to girl there. Met young sailor (Joe) who went round with us. This city has much show of expense. Visited Stage Door Cantina & heard a Mexican singer and dancer. Crowded so we left &visited U.S.O. for short while & had doughnuts, coffee. Met couple of boys & went down Chinatown where well lit shops displayed a large amount of Chinese curios and finely made articles. Then to International Settlement & “Gay Nineties,” where singing & ’Gay 90s’ show on. Left there about 10pm. Lost rest so “Digger” & I went to a show for a while & then got a taxi to hospitality house – 75c – where we picked up his case. We then walked around gaily-lit streets where plenty of gay life appeared to abound. About 12 o’clock we went into a restaurant and had waffle, sausages & coffee. $1.13. Went down to Pier 17 & caught ferry back to Fort MacDowell.
Sunday 12th ~ Breakfast at 7.30. Dinner 10.30 AM. Left Fort 1pm by Ferry for Oaklands. U.S. troops very friendly as leaving as were civilians we contacted in ‘Frisco. Went under bridge connecting ‘Frisco to Oaklands & passing through Treasure Island… Landed at Oakland with our cases. Lined up & boarded Pullman train. 15 carriages. Air conditioned, plush seats convertible to beds. Negro porter makes beds with sheets & pillows. Beds turned down from ceiling with suspending brackets. Very comfortable. Left about 3 o’clock. Passed through outer suburbs. Houses all white and rather poor, but GOOD CARS. Very large Harbour found as we follow round it in train & travel on the S. Pacific railroad. Given paper plates stamped in 3 divisions, cardboard cup, wooden spoon and fork, Train stopped at Sacramento & we had tea which was served to us in our seats. Went through Sierras (rockies) at night. Looked very impressive with deep valleys, mountains tipped with snow, tall fir trees & snow glittering in moonlight which gave a certain brilliance to the scenery. Train stops once and I hop out for a sec. Air very gold & clear. Prior to starting again the blast of the train whistle affected by its echoes gives the impression to ears as the cry of some wild animal. Passed through small bunch of lights on them. Very pretty. Slept 2 below in converted seats & and one above in bed opened out of ceiling.
Carrying my pack through downtown San Fran, passing through the heady stink of cigars and a smirk of suits with men tucked into them Tobacco stores and liquor signs begin a cruel repetition. I stop for a full minute to stare in the window of a dazzling kite store in Old Chinatown. Close to Broadway Street a doorman with a gold tooth sparkle beckons, “Come in from the cold where it’s warm, my man,’ with a liquid hand gesture toward the strip club door.
My bed for the night sits against a window overlooking the street. The outside red light neon heaves and flickers in my room. Four doors down a resplendent theaterette displays an antique sign that reads, “Roaring 20s”. A drunken Texan bursts in and complains there are no good women in the West and tries to get high with the crumbs of his weed. Cursing me for having no pipe he collapses on a bed with his hand wedged firmly down his pants. The circus continues when a Finnish guy stumbles in and finds the Texan on his bed so he shoves him off. A pitiful scuffle ensues before they both lose interest in being awake and pass out. “Oh to be surrounded by the worldly” and I wish I had a cigar to smoke while I read Grandpa’s diaries.
Two days later I’m driving to the North Bay with Sarah, a member of the co-op (communal sharehouse) I found a room in. We’re visiting Sausalito to sit at the dock of the bay where Otis Redding once rested his bones and wrote a great song (lame, I know). I’m spiked with national pride when the local college radio plays ‘Let there be rock’, followed by the announcements of an upcoming show by an all-female cover band called ‘Ay-She/Dee-She’. Local newsreaders share developments in the free university curriculum of Berkeley followed by an interlude of the song, ‘O Happy Days’, written 40 years ago in a church basement nearby. Slipping between highways that fold through each other, we curl through receding fog as the sun rises from the ocean west (a novel experience for an Eastern Australian).
A darker story bleeds through the radio in the national news. A military psychiatrist went on a shooting rampage in an army base in Texas, murdering12 people and wounding 31 others. The newsreader then explains that veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were completing suicide in higher numbers and percentages than since the statistic was first recorded (and that included during the Vietnam war). Following that, a community announcement for veterans in need, inviting them to call a free hotline for assistance, gently encouraged by the words, “It takes the courage and strength of a warrior to ask for help.”
Giant albatross float over highway 99 as we near the ocean and Sarah, driving, tells me her dad fought in Vietnam and she recently traveled there with her old man and a bunch of his comrades. They all had names for each other like, ‘Mad-dog,’‘JD,’ and ‘Misto’. They explained to her that more Vietnam Vets had died from suicide after the war, than had died in the war itself. In fact, one of the reasons there are so many homeless men in San Francisco isn’t just because the weather is nice and there’s a seasonal peak in skid row transients’ passing through, it’s because the Bay Area was the return port for Vietnam servicemen. When many of them returned, the Summer of Love was in full swing and a lot of Veterans inevitably tuned out but never quite tuned back in enough to survive their trauma.
Pulling the car to a stop outside a beachside Taqueria, Sarah shakes her head, “what a shitty job that must be, a military psychiatrist.”
After a week in San Fran, I marvel at Granddad’s acute observation about “gaily-lit streets where plenty of gay life abounds”. What a forward thinker to celebrate such diversity. He must’ve passed the all male revues on Nob Hill.
It’s strange to think of him adventuring through these streets as a young man, my age. It would’ve the first city he’d seen outside Melbourne and Sydney, and his own township, Sale, in the dusty lowlands of East Gippsland. By comparison, the glittering lights of ‘Frisco signalled a teeming metropolis of foxtrot fancy and intrigue, an adventurous stopover on the road to battle in a war whose reality he knew as little about, as he did the lives’ of ‘negro porters’ on the Pullman Trains.
The connections between his and my time make me wanna post him home a fine cigar; the seedy streets, the ‘Chinese curios’ and I’m sure there are plenty of Gay 90’s party in the Bay Area if I wanted to find one. I’m particularly warmed that he took a train past the Sierra Nevadas and marveled at snowcaps in the night. I’d only passed through the Sierra’s days earlier and, even then, only by chance. It was comforting that we shared this accidental propinquity – that is to say, the same physical space – even if it was 66 years through time.
The ties between grandpa and I aren’t strong, but I’m fairly certain that no other family members besides the two of us actually read poetry, let alone write it. (I conceal mine from family like stashed porn). But more worrying than our shared deformity are the less tangible shadows of Grandpa’s life that might linger on through mine.
As I write this, considering what I would and would not share on the blog, I realize that Grandpa left certain things out of the diary with the prospect that it might eventually reach his family without him. After all, this is the red light district and he was going to war. Should I read between the scribble when he writes that he ‘talked to a girl’? And who exactly was ‘Joe the young sailor’? I feel bizarre making assumptions about the old guy’s lewd romps, or even thinking the words ‘lewd’ and ‘romp’ in the same thought as ‘grandpa’, but you’ve got to wonder.
What’s even more difficult to conceive is that he was here in this city knowing there was a good chance, or perhaps better described as, a fucking awful chance, that he might die. And soon! I have absolutely no idea what kind of crippling terror (or possibly, freedom, but most likely not) that might induce, or what it could do to someone’s psyche.
Even though the diary notes are quite descriptive, I get a sense of ever-present fear and dread; the way he notes the relentless waves of the sea passage, the blimp emerging suddenly through the dark, grey fog, and the slow glide past Alcatraz (Al Capone would’ve been in there now that I think about it). Even the orderly categorizing of the days business has a weird dissociated air to it - 2 slices toast, scrambled egg, crispies & coffee. Hand in as go out & washing done. Efficient - as if listing mundane details could occupy parts of the mind drawn to darker realities.
I still remember reading Kurt Vonnegut’s depiction of the Dresden bombings in Slaughterhouse 5, where he describes melted glass mixing with blood and skin, and streaming through burning streets. Grandpa’s most horrific ordeal (that he’s shared with me at least) involved a bombing raid over German that lasted over 23 hours. Threatened for 20 of those hours with anti-aircraft gunners on German soil and fighter planes in the clouds, the plane managed, somehow, to return safely. When they landed they realised that two of the four planes that left with them, weren’t coming back. Although partly removed from the horror with his vantage point in the sky, Grandpa was in no way immune to the brutalities of war (the homes of his relatives were bombed to dust in London). Nor did he have any illusions about the violence he was helping inflict on other human beings.
I remember one time he murmured to me something about being physically floored by the blast of an ‘anti-personnel’ bomb that suddenly killed a fellow soldier. The bomb was a bizarre device disguised as a ‘handsome trinket’ that had been scattered over British barracks by German fighterplanes. Grandpa’s diary portrays his horror at seeing clumps of the man’s body spattered near him. But calling him Grandpa here seems misleading. He was a young man and his name was Geoff. His name IS Geoff.
I really wonder where all those mental scars went. And just how, and in what form, they might’ve seeped down the grimey downpipe of time and swirled through family connections to settle into my own self. I mean this was the man that raised my dad, teaching him how to behave, how to respond to stress, how to understand war, and how – in true English stead – to smile when things really should be met with an ungodly scream of rage.
Since I was a kid, I was mostly taught to think of the war (and other wars) in an aloof abstract kind of way - through grainy black and white pictures of broken buildings or exciting touched-up technicolour documentaries with grandiose classical music soundtracks. Or we’d take part in bizarre rituals where collective memories and individual stories were cast into nationalist moulds and neatened into stock-standard symbols of our abstract national ties. These ceremonies seemed more useful in re-electing politicians whose antiquated social values themselves required technicolour touch-ups to become palatable in a new age.
But then again, I’m sure plenty of people take these ceremonies as a moment to genuinely reflect on a shitty time in their life, and possibly, to help them heal and deal.
Nevertheless, the tv and textbook stories never got me in the guts; never caused me to wonder where wars left us, let alone those who survived. And as far as I understood, unless you bleated about ‘valour’ and ‘sacrifice’ as beer dribbled off your chin and onto the Aussie flag noosed around your neck, then you just retreated back to your teapot and tended your compost. Or at the opposite end of the spectrum, you dismiss the whole episode as abhorrent capitalist violence and you pity the women and men who wasted their lives in the fight, sad buggers that they are. For these reasons, and perhaps partly because of my adolescent bong habits, I led a cynical disengagement from the whole affair. I could probably count on my hand the number of elders I’ve spoken to about their experiences of war. And I wonder if those who visit Gallipoli year to year could count more than that.
Reading grandpa’s diary makes me think about how we carry the crusty baggage of these traumas through the ages. And I’m not just talking about collectively, I mean personally. Perhaps we could consider our family histories as a tool to discover the origins of our own madness. You know the poem, ‘they’ll fuck you up your mum and dad, they may not mean to but they do, they’ll give you all the flaws they had an and some extra just for you…’
I’ve personally found it quite useful in making family squabbles less personal. Like when my mum’s crazy behaviour makes me want to eat a flaming horse, I might think about the fact she was raised in a working class family by a tired grumpy woman who was the eldest of eleven children, who herself born to Irish parents who emigrated from Ireland after surviving invasion and famine on a boat that one of their children died on, to a dusty yellow land populated mostly by people they know as their traditional enemies. I mean, the connections are muddied by time for sure, but denying their impact on our lives’ today is risky. I’m serious! I know its nerdy and earnest but it might be well worth our while to pause and consider the horrible human experiences that curl through our own family tree over the last few hundred years and recognize that they didn’t just happen in books or awesome TV series.
I’ve turned this travel blog about madness into an unpolished rant. I apologise. I’ll share stories about the fellow lunatics I meet soon.
But I had to first purge my deep sadness about how rarely we really listen to our elders and veterans without casting judgment based on whatever political lens we’re peering through, or our mind being so clouded with stock-standard images of war that we can’t truly absorb their story for what it is.
It kind of makes me want to bear hug elder folks when I see them but I understand we have to be tactical about improving our connections, not creepy. So, in such a spirit, I’ll make my own ‘Gay 90s’ party here in ‘Frisco, and dance to Pet Shop Boys like mad. I’ll do it on Veteran’s day, for Grandpa, and I’ll write him a poem about the invasive eucalypts in California.