although today, when I am much older, the predicted crest from yesterday was wrong, since today the current Natchez gage now reads:
which according to all I know about mathematics, suggests it is now
than this same time, twenty-four hours ago.
There are few certainties in life, although I feel certain today I would be arrested under the current political climate were I able to transcend the scope of time and space and return to my dustier moments to carry forth any of several youthful antics. What once was “common childsplay” in my youth, given today’s cultural mores, would find me institutionalized and regarded as being, ‘. . . possessed of the nature he will at some point evolve into a serial killer’. What, you say? What indeed. Utterly benign acts these days, through the mechanism of political expediency, can now be regarded as a wholesale dismantling of society’s fabric, provided a given bureaucrat stands to gain the spotlight and the follow on accolades. By my great fortune, however, because the statute of limitations has run its course, I can now admit that at an earlier time, I did on more than one occasion point a water pistol with malicious intent at any number of close friends, associates, and in some cases complete and incomplete strangers.
These were not idle bluffs, mind you. I distinctly recall swimming sessions with a confederation of like minded youth at Connelly’s Tavern pool, high above the pedestrian class as they ambled along the cigarette and condom littered streets of Natchez, overshadowed by Ellicott Hill, while I drew down on a floating neophyte—what I choose to call a “handle-head”—encircled by a clear plastic floating ring emblazoned in the “western motif” popular at the time, made up of ten-gallon hats, badges, lariats and yes, Colt’s Peacemakers, the lot of it propelled by submerged womb busting kicks and steered from the ears of an inflatable horse’s head, rising high above the lapping, chlorine lacquered waves. I recall my “victim” was a whiney brat of a most Napoleonic condition.
I was at work, as I saw it, and he came drifting into ‘our’ corner of the pool, unsupervised and in the direct line of fire, as my cohorts and I guarded our quarter while setting upon our opposition with a merciless, withering fusillade, acting out our lust for vengeance with a limitless, steady bolt of sub-sonic aqueous aggression. Immediately, we were assailed by the yammering from a heavy hammed grandmother, swaddled in a turd-brown suit of miracle fabric, meant to reveal the curve of her once girlish figure though failing in Grandiose fashion to disguise her gathering swath of cellulite. “Here, here!” she shrieked, amid the squalls of her charge, ”have you boys lost your mind?”
We were not to be toyed with. Griffon Traxler, a bookish sort, turned the advantage to the security of our flank: “Hey lady,” he said, “it’s not our fault. You should’a kept an eye on that kid. He ain’t old enough to be out here alone anyway. Says so right there on that sign—’Children Under Age 4 Must Be Supervised’!”
“Young man,” she railed, “I will see you are punished for your insolent ways. Your parents will be hearing from me,” she beaked, as she dragged her cawing handle-head emperor from the field.
We all looked to Grif. He was an ordinary sort, not long on courage under usual circumstance. He had a coal colored crew-cut and wore black rimmed glasses when he wasn’t in a swimming pool. Without them, however, he was as a Valkyrie, traveling this world in disguise, as though he’d Jekylled into Hyde, his eyes beaded together, almost as one, his gapped teeth bared in sinister collusion with rapidly evolving retort, a butterfly’s wingspread of freckles splayed across his nose and cheeks. He shrugged his shoulders, pulling the stopper on his pistol, plunging it beneath the clear blue, reloading. “Old people,” he said, to we the brave. “What’dy’a expect?”
These days, one caught in such actions could count on being ejected from school, or the pool, for the good of mankind, on grounds he was “disturbed”. These days, such a loose cannon would be counseled, medicated, and shelved with some sort of label. “He has,” the authorities would intone, “‘ADPXQ’, you see.”
In my time there was no such thing as ADPXQ. In my time, things were different. In my time we were all mavericks. Everyone had a water pistol. Many carried them, openly, in that brazen march down the cluttered, developing urban sprawl of every American town, from Cairo to Cleveland, toward that certain independence we’d been coached to admire in the name of freedom from oppression and righteousness coupled with a bold spirit, stemming from the surrender at Yorktown, of Cornwallis to Washington, in 1781, and fostered by the likes of our elders, certain grandmothers excluded of course, about whom in recent times Tom Brokaw proclaimed their’s to be ”The Greatest Generation”.
These days, however, water pistols are the subject of heated debate. These days, those enamored of such monstrous technology are required to undergo universal background checks. The pistols themselves are now being looked upon as being inherently EVIL, and therefore must be catalogued among the state’s police forces for all wishing to possess them; lest the citizenry be made to withstand the threat of jackbooted Homeland Security Operatives storming the toyboxes of every attic, in every suburban neighborhood across this land; and particularly those in exclusive gated communities, where water pistols are really no longer needed; where the quiet streets are patrolled by well mannered, heavily armed private security mercenaries under the covert mantle of the minimum wage and an online credential which grants titular authority to their status as a “trained professional”, particularly when handling those abuses found to exist among gangs of nine-year-olds, patrolling these same dark corridors with a bucket of water in one hand and a thermoplastic plunger driven squirt pump in the shape of an Uzi in the other. For indeed, an unregistered water pistols is not to be condoned, as its mere possession, even among serious collectors, presents for it,”gateway” weaponry status for the harder stuff to follow during the approach of the ‘teen years.
But as I’ve implied, in my time, riding right alongside unspoken-of priestly pedophilia, we had law and order; and at a time when water pistols were a fact of life. There were still consequences, of course. If, back in the day, I’d found myself cornered, after firing a water pistol willy-nilly, I was subjected not to a board of inquiry, not to a dosage of ritalin, but instead to a drubbing from an older brother or from a visiting bull-dyke cousin, recently discharged from her elitist summer camp where the fundamentals of Judo were enjoined and thereafter practiced among the echelons of consanguineous underlings who by circumstance and blood relation fell obligingly in her wake. Subjugation, through humiliation, was her uppermost goal.
In the turn of the calendar, of course, I grew weary of the beatings and was soon forced to exercise a means for evading such inevitabilities. Taking a cue from the wonders of pollywogs morphing into bullfrogs, I began to spend more time in the absence of humanity and far more on the edges of ponds or in the boughs of live oaks. I did away with idle hours seated before a card table in an air conditioned den over a game of Bourré, and the likelihood after loosing all my chips that I would at some point owe my body to another Judo toss on the St. Augustine. Mind you, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. St. Augustine was far preferable to that patch of backyard where the dirt was as packed concrete, and the promise of Genesis’s thorns and stickers loafed thoughout its greened fringes; where middle-class barefoot Mississippians, common though they may have been at the time, were not quite conditioned to the degree of harsh living enjoyed by the redneck barefoot Mississippians, among whom walking across broken beer bottles and steel filings under engine blocks suspended from front yard hackberry trees was something of a rite of passage.
Thus, I became much more attuned to examining what nature had in store for me, which appeared plentiful, than I did learning to bluff an inside straight in a hand of five card stud. At least for a time.
What nature did not have in store for me, I would later conclude to my utter defeat, was the life of the scientist. For me, this passage was a Time Tunnel into which I was forever denied entry. On the Yellow Brick Road of discovery which had brought me to this point, I, as with the Scarecrow, had a head so fully stuffed with imagery there was no room left for formulae. To return to the metaphorical Bourré game of my adolescent antagonists, my older brother, a successful attorney these days, put it succinctly: “Them’s the cards yer dealt, asshole. Play ‘em or fold.”
No matter how one slices it, the life of scientific exposé is open only to those well tutored in higher Mathematics. Serious science is open only to those for whom Calculus is to the brain as cotton candy is to the tongue; sweet, simple, and easily absorbed. I found myself uncounted on this roster.
I prefer to maintain there exists a Math gene. You either have it or you do not. It comes in addition to the other standard equipment with your birth model, whatever that may be, though in which you have no say. The Math Gene is not an “add-on” for which you may exchange additional goods or services in an effort to augment your given value or enhance your place in the Universe, such as we find with breast siliconography or rhinoplasty reduction.
Some will argue against my findings, but there is no gray area for Mathlax. If you’ve got the Math gene, you’re ‘good to go’. If you’ve got Mathlax, on the other hand, you’re already gone.
I can appreciate the position of the engineer, the physicist, the lack of insight Math people have for the rest of us. I can appreciate it just as I can appreciate a parabola. If the Math people choose to disagree with the Mathlax, with or without malice, they are simply wrong. Nevertheless, I can still appreciate Math, for allowing me to appreciate Math. Such Mathematical concepts as dodecahedrons, fibonacci sequences, and parabola; all be they names and not something to which I may attach understanding, though still I appreciate them. However, mostly what I am able to appreciate about Mathematics are the names of its relative concepts and the way in which they are pronounced; and perhaps to a lesser degree how each is classically defined. In other terms, I am a disciple of the verbal kind.
As far as the rest of it goes, it has been my experience those able to calculate such Mathematical constructs often fall far short in being able to describe them to laymen, let along pronounce what they are. Jimmy Carter, though educated at the United States Navel Academy in Nuclear Engineering, cannot pronounce Noo-KYOO-ler with any more grace than can former Air Force F-102 Fighter Pilot, George W. Bush. Bipartisan ineptitude.
The tangential arcs formed by chemistry, physics, biomechanics, quantitative methods, statistics, et al, as they whip outbound from the core of Mathematics, do so, for me, with all the fascination of a callus. A callus, to keep things simple, might be defined both by Mathematicians and Morticians with equal veracity. To the mathematician, the callus is a rendition of organic matter whose exact weight, space and dimension can be exquisitely calculated and arrived at in order to describe a finite, absolute volume, around which the life support system of the greater organism is constantly at work to maintain, in an effort to uplift the entire living organism to a state of uninterrupted functional equilibrium, and from which no potential energy is being drained to continue, nor supplied to support. To the Mortician, a callus is merely additional dead tissue.
Drawing to a close here, my earthly desire at one time was to become a herpetologist. It was my objective to follow through the worlds paved by such brilliant stenographers as Roy Chapman Andrews, Theodore Roosevelt and Frank Buck, whose formalized findings made the scale of growing up in a Bourré-Judo clinic endurable. All carried pistols and rifles and whips, and a sardonic gaze for the contemptible wickets interrupting their chosen paths, in a manner which long decades later American youth would embrace in the fictional rôle of Indiana Jones, made palatable by a seasoned carpenter to the stars in desperate search of George Lucas’s American Graffiti. So much for reality, I thought, as I watched Harrison Ford become richer and richer with less and less talent. My heroes, at that age I was organizing pool posses, were men like Marlin Perkins, Bill Haast, Spencer Fullerton Baird, Raymond Ditmars, Clifford Pope, and Karl Kauffeld, though by about age 14 most of my dreams began to become abruptly upturned when, with absolute finality, my fate was sealed by the world contained within the Algebraic ‘word problem’.
There was a way around it, of course. I could become an effective liar, stow away on a cargo ship out of New Orleans heading for the Banana Republics where in time I would find my way farther south, to the International Venom Institute in Sao Paulo where they got paid to milk deadly Bushmasters and Jararacas and Cantils and Fer de Lance; the Instituto Butantan, where for the better half of a century venom had been put to the microscope, in review of other Genisisian mandates. Yet somehow this notion seemed to be lacking something in the long view, which at the time I could not quite put my finger on, though, among other fragments playing into the decision of whether to cash out of suburbia or not, the cash necessary to do so, or rather the lack of it, was, as it turned out, the deciding factor. I could fall back on Viet Nam, of course, though my voice at the time, I realized, wasn’t quite yet deep enough to persuade my local recruiter that I was the next grain of sand to drop through the choke point of the hourglass between life as a civilian and the yellow footprints of boot camp.
Plus, I wanted more than anything else in the world at this time, as did any kid of 14, to be granted that singular talisman for the approach to the remainder of life’s journey—the ‘Operator’s License’—bestowed upon me by the Great State Of Mississippi. It was for this alone, I felt at this point, for which I was truly living. I wanted in the worst way to enter that world of 3 gallons per dollar, hissing vacuum hoses, worn out windshield wipers during August thunderbursts, tires flattened by rivals with a matchstick jammed into the filler valve, double dates and panty combat, long walks following empty tanks, four guys pushing a Buick through a mud hole, broken clutch linkages at midnight, lies about broken clutch linkages after midnight curfews. Eight track tape decks, paid for by pushing 2 horsepower, oil smoking lawn mowers with fouled carburetors and worn out bearings around the yards of my casket bound elderly neighbors’ yards. For a life of tow-chains and come-a-longs and a set of jumper cables for a birthday gift, and spilled beer and the hope that formula 409 would hide its smell. Drive time was on, baby, and I had this heart throb for a part of it. Cruising with my redneck friends, stealing someone’s Dad’s beer from the garage refrigerator, and a chance at driving an Opel GT—the small man’s ‘Vette, and by far a better car in the long run . . .
I actually drove one, one night. It was exquisite I tell you. The key had been left in the ignition of a brand new, orange, Opel GT, at Rowlin— Adams Buick, on the Highway 84 By Pass, and a friend and I stole away in it, for a mile and a half—or less, one balmy night in May when the Natchez Police Department was busy directing traffic at the high school graduation at Margaret Martin Stadium, and the lanes to and from the Natchez-Vidalia bridge, which is now the Natchez-Vidalia Twin Bridges, were clear of most traffic. I say a mile and a half or less, I don’t know for sure, I know only that at the time my Dad was the District Attorney and I had an unsettling vision of having to face him for whatever charges might have been levied against us, had we been caught. So S— T— and I returned the Opel GT to its moorings, at a time well before dealership lots had to adjust their accounting and expense columns into profit margins allowing for locking gates and corridors staffed after hours with well mannered, M-1 Carbine toting armed private security mercenaries under the covert mantle of the minimum wage, credentialed with a “diploma” as a “trained security professional”, earned from the mail-away back page, newsprint ads in illustrated men’s magazines . . .
* * * * *
In all the mud I’ve tracked across four and a half-continents since then, my reptilian encounters have perhaps been minimized compared to those which have factored so routinely in my time spent among the Magnolia Blossoms. Still, I recall with great fervor their accounting. There was the olive colored colubrid of the genus Elaphe, a European Rat Snake which raced in a very determined manner across a sand track and into an actual olive grove as I transected its path on horseback, outside the Mediterranean upland of Seville, Spain. There were agitated excursions by several thick bodied cousins to our ‘cottonmouth moccasin’, the Habu, as the Japanese refer to them, churning for a meal beneath the damp leaf litter surrounding my team’s harbor site, during the crepuscular hour of a 1979 Okinawan sunset.
Cliff diving with guys from my platoon into the East China Sea, from the lava projections on the west of the Ryuku Archipelago, I counted dozens of rudder tailed banded kraits, or “sea snakes” as they are commonly known, for whom excessive dietary salt produces no apparent ill effects, despite their having only three chambered hearts.
In northwest Gokwe, on the Zambezi escarpment, while being chased down the road by a juvenile bull elephant, I thrilled at an encounter with a Ringhals cobra of about 8 feet. Once disturbed by the trundling of our passing Land Cruiser, he displayed his firmness of resolve, standing his ground and lifting a third of his body’s length above the dust of our tracks to fan his ‘hood’ in a manner consistent with every rude image ever attempted of his kind by the work of tattoo artists borrowing on his reputation.
Southern Africa is remarkably rich with such sights: A foot long puff adder, found clubbed to death beneath the hoof print of a Sable; the domed shell of a leopard tortoise, uncovered by a brushfire, as large as a “football”.
The reversed shedding of twelve feet of king cobra, on the sandstone ramparts of the Washaiya River, with a pair of knobby backed, mucous colored crocodiles bobbing in the near distance ,just below a class III whitewater rapid, their brilliantly white smears of guano, fastened to the far shore, to spell out their territorial ramblings. Monitor lizards, climbing vertical cliffs for birds’ eggs, their foreclaws rivaling those of any Ace Hardware steel rake.
Though I’ve never laid eyes upon a European Viper in its natural setting, farther to their south I have spent exquisite hours in a ‘hide’ above the jeweled reflection of a tiny waterhole, where for several mornings montane grass snakes shared the shore with brilliantly striped lizards of a rainbow’s depth as impala beat their way forward under the cooing a no fewer than a half-dozen species of doves, and warthogs trooped contentedly alongside babboons, kneeling to drink as though in prayer. There is a grand lot to discover in nature while the chain smokers invest in aces and clubs and one-eyed jacks.
Yet for all that, I’ve decided to borrow Mississippi for the moment. Although we lack Bushmasters, we also lack certain neotropical strains of impetigo, for which, in their present absence, I afford feelings of delight. For the moment, we have yet, in Mississippi, no such up-and-comer as the parasitic superstar Leischmaniesis either; an insidious disease brought with verve by the indiscriminate sand fly to darken the hour and make a mess of what at one time may have been as good a cobra tattoo as exists, though which following the bite of Phlebotomus, and transmission of the parasite, can render the skin’s surface to a palette of gross obscurity which no practitioners of the inkerdermis arts find themselves capable of adequately disguising. What’s more, there is no cure to Leishmaniesis, though there has arrived a new drug; Mitafosene, which fortunately has proven ninety-five per cent effective in arresting its advance. If you plan a trip to the Sudan, get some.
I, however, am planning no trips to the Sudan. For the moment I still have plenty of herpetological bounty within my own area code. We count fifty plus species of the sub-order Serpentes in Mississippi, ranging in size from my smallest finger, to that length from my overpriced shoes to the very tip of that same finger when held aloft, attempting to swipe the net of a regulation-height basketball goal which, thanks to fiery sermons from red-faced pulpiteers and Church parking lots, we have in abundance in Mississippi as well. And finding myself intranscendent of the time-space parabola, with or without dodecahedrons at my door, I’ve laid to the side my past victories of firefights with water pistols in waist deep chlorinated waters. The statute of limitations has run its course, as reported, and I count myself a free man these years, at least as much as the oblique constraints heaped upon us by an ever oppressive government presently allows with our well spent tax burden.Thus, in the meantime I will continue my support of movements meant for adventure of the herpetological kind, in a state which counts some of our continent’s broadest reptilian numbers right alongside its narrowest human minds, in celebration of the number of snakes we haven’t a clue about, as they continue their mission, preferably undisturbed, crawling beneath our trailer parks and abreast of our wooded avenues, encircling our mud racing tracks, our Wal-MART parking lots, and our upper class swimming clubs, where tattoos, though far more common than a half-century past, continue to evolve, and where molded thermoplastic, these days, takes on an entirely new meaning, I’ve discovered, watching as I bore witness, this past weekend, to a booted waif with a Tramp-Stamp, rising above the waistline of her “distressed” denim shorts, cut-off as high as her voice, as she went blasting away at the gumbo beneath her synthetic Ford fenders: “Snakes? Hell yes I seen snakes. This’s Miss’sippi. They everywhar. Killed ever’one of ‘em too. With my own pistol!”
All For Now—KB