The Reunion

©1996 by Bill Appledorf

I had no idea how to get along with people. I had gone to college because my parents paid and it beat having to get a job or go into the army. Well, that's not entirely true. I wanted to understand the world, but I was only able to relate to the world as something remote and entirely abstract. The idea of participating in a life that is an interactive process is something I was not able to comprehend until much later on. I was curious about how our minds make sense of things and how nature works, but the practicalities of making one's way in the world and the necessity of earning a buck escaped me entirely.

When I graduated college, after four years of sleeping in and drinking a lot of beer, I took advantage of a graduate fellowship at UCLA to move as far away as possible from my family, who happened to live near Boston. I fled my family because none of them, particularly my mother, listened to anyone but themselves. If I shouted loudly enough in what passed for a conversation in my family, I might get part of a sentence said, but rarely would I be allowed to finish without being cut off or shouted over and in fact ignored. Of course I assumed no one else in the world listens to one another either, so shouting people down and drowning people out is how I've alienated almost everyone I've known. The rest I've alienated by lecturing or telling off.

This tendency to tell people off has gotten me in a lot of trouble at every stage of my life. It's gotten me fired at least a dozen times. It's ruined numerous relationships with women, neighbors, and people where I've worked. It's gotten in the way of my ever having gotten to know just about anyone I've met, and, when I was 21 years old, it got me drafted to go to Vietnam. The one-way nature of conversation in my family when I was a kid, the assumption that there is no such thing as constructive dialog, led, I guess, not only to my not listening to what other people say but also to my tendency to tell people as baldly as possible exactly what I think of them. I have not been exactly a master of tact, and as a consequence I have paid.

Of course, certain people at various stages of my life have found me irresistibly outspoken and have enjoyed my company a lot. A shame, really, because without the encouragement, I might have figured out years sooner what I was doing wrong. One guy who liked my style became my first real friend. We met shortly after I arrived in Los Angeles to go to school. His name was Carl, and for a few years he was my partner in crime. Not that we were criminals. We never stole or materially exploited anyone. But we flaunted convention together and foolishly challenged authority whenever the opportunity arose to demonstrate how unfairly power plays.

We were not homosexuals. We were gadflies. We annoyed people by demanding that they think about big-picture social and political issues in conversation with us and disapproved mightily of their narrow and poorly-informed views. We caused people grief by behaving rudely and argumentatively, and we tried to destroy them with our questions and our ideas. We were hostile, angry, and intolerant, and we lashed out verbally at people we didn't even know. We laughed deep into the night about the details of our forays into society to converse with unwitting victims, and we gloated over having demolished them in conversation. If words were bullets, we would have left a trail of many dead. Intellectual serial killers is phrase that comes to mind.

The night Carl suggested I send my draft card back to my draft board we were pretty drunk. It never occurred to me to ask why he wasn't sending his card back as well. I was at the end of my rope about this draft card business. I presumed he was just helping me, suggesting an idea, a solution to my problem, a statement I was hankering to make. I don't think we gave much consideration to the question of sending one's draft card back as a practical matter. It came down more to how ugly that thing felt in my wallet and what was I going to do about it.

If I had kept my head down and my mouth shut, I never would have been drafted. I had a student deferment, and if I ever did get in trouble with the draft, for 300 bucks I could have bought my way out with a clever lawyer. But the reality that Vietnamese people were being killed in their own country - actually being killed - because of lies being told by self-serving American politicians, and the audacity of those sons of bitches to believe they had the right to tell me I had to be a part of that, coupled with my belief that everyone is entitled to my opinion, led me to raise my head above the bunker - actually to start jumping up and down waving my arms on top of the bunker yelling - thus giving the military's tenacious personnel procurement machine a target at which to aim the full brunt of its retaliatory guns: me, single handedly taking on the stubble-headed legions of the American military establishment to try to stop the War in Vietnam and to prove a point.

I believed I was a pacifist in those days and was outraged that a guy at my draft board had told me, when I said I wanted to apply for conscientious objector status, "You're not a conscientious objector," and ignored me until I left the room. Actually that guy was right, because I was mad as hell and I was hankering for a fight - not with people half a world away in Vietnam, but with whoever it was in this country that believed they could get away with giving themselves the authority to draft or defer me. In the letter accompanying my draft card I said, "Thank you for offering to include me in your list of persons available to fight for you in your war. Since I decline your offer, I will have no use for your registration card, enclosed."

My apartment was directly upstairs from a nurse who worked the swing shift in the jail ward at L.A. County hospital. She came to my door one afternoon high on LSD and asked me for a match. About an hour later, she returned and asked me for a match again. I knew immediately I would be having sex with her that evening. I went downstairs that night and maybe 3 or 4 nights a week for about a year. I went to visit with her body and avoided conversation with her. She didn't mind that arrangement in the least. Around 11:00 at night she would return from work and clomp around to be sure I knew she was home. When I came downstairs, she'd toke up on marijuana - I never smoked, my drug of choice was beer - and we would enjoy each other's body until we felt like going to sleep. I never spent the night with her. We didn't feel that way about each other. We used each other to take the edge off trying to get with someone we really wanted to be with.

When she or I were seeing someone, we put our relationship on hold. Like when I was seeing Joyce, a married woman whose husband was too busy during the day to spend time with her in bed. I met her when I was hitchhiking one day in Westwood, and the situation evolved to where she started coming around in the afternoon. That suited me fine, because I needed something to do in the afternoon. I never went to school except to pick up my check. Playing with her while it lasted was so enjoyable I am still able to see her in my mind. It ended when I was evicted for writing "Fuck Cops" in black paint on my door after I spent a night in jail in Santa Monica for being drunk, disorderly, and having been beat up in a fight. I left no forwarding address, and I did not have a phone.

The fight, if you can call it that, did happen, and I was beat up, but the drunk and disorderly part is nonsense. I was stupid enough to hang around after the guys who did me vanished from the scene. The cops had to arrest someone, and that someone just happened to be me. Drunk? I don't think so. I'd only had one beer. Disorderly? Well, I made the mistake of talking to someone's girlfriend at the bar. How was I to know she was someone's girlfriend? She seemed pretty encouraging to me. When I went to the bathroom, three guys in white shirts jumped me and beat me up so badly they broke my glasses. I remember thinking when they locked me up in jail that the cops could kill me in there if they wanted to. They could starve me. They could do whatever they liked.

I owned a car, but I preferred hitch hiking because I liked pretending I had to negotiate my way without advantages. I liked being vulnerable, dependent on the good nature of other people. I liked risking my life getting into cars with people I didn't know. I found it more exciting than being safe and in control. Besides, you feel important when someone puts themselves out to pull over for you, stops, and offers you a ride.

One day the cops stopped a car I had been picked up in hitch hiking. A taillight was burned out. Standard procedure for the LAPD was to search the car for drugs. The driver had a bag of weed stuffed in his glove compartment. I wound up in jail. Fortunately, a few days previously on the boardwalk at Venice Beach, someone had been handing out business cards with the telephone number of a legal aid society to call if you got busted for possessing drugs. I called the number, and in 72 hours I was free. The time in jail was scary as hell, however.

Because I was arrested on a felony possession charge, I was locked up in a two-man cell on the second floor. My cell mate was about three times as big as me and didn't like to talk. Being locked in a cell with someone who could crush me in his hands, knowing nothing of his thoughts, I could only wonder how he took to my being present in his space, whether he might be impelled to kill me, for example. The turnkeys - the cops who managed the lock-up - were particularly unfriendly, too. They were unresponsive and insulting, and they made it a point at every opportunity to remind me with cutting remarks that my life as a free man was over, that I was completely dependent on them, that what I think and feel mean nothing because I am busted scum on my way to years behind bars in a penitentiary.

The third time I was arrested was the scariest of all. I had been living on 4th and Electric for about 6 months with a 21-year-old woman by the name of Linda and her 3-year-old son. She was the love of my life at the time. To her I was potentially a decent paycheck - I had a Masters Degree from UCLA. Well, it probably wasn't all that cold. If I had been a bit more mature, more self-confident, less insecure, less needy, the relationship might have had a chance. As Carl put it, Linda already had one child and was involved with me because she wanted to be with a man. In any case, Linda, Carl, and I drove my car to the Oar House for a couple beers one night, and I parked in front of a driveway with a gate.

An instant after we got out of the car, a tow-truck drove up, the driver jumped out, and he started hooking up my car to haul it away. Linda, Carl, and I confronted the guy and offered to drive the car away ourselves. We assumed the problem was that my car was blocking the gate. The driver's position was that since he had started hooking up the car, we owed him $20 for his trouble. He asked us for a bribe in other words. I was outraged - I was outraged about most things in those days - and refused to give him the money. I demanded that he unhook my car. Naturally, he refused. I was too inexperienced to understand that once my car was in his sling, his hand was in my wallet, which is the way that game is played.

I've never argued with a tow-truck driver since and in fact look at things like having to take my car into a garage to be worked on as having landed on a pay-out square in Monopoly. Bad luck, in other words. Pay the fine. Why bother to get upset? In this particular situation, though, having never been anything but a student, having no knowledge of the ordinary reality in which working people live, believing that the most cutting words win the argument, I verbally confounded the guy to the point that he gave me his card and sent me into the bar across the street to call his boss on the pay phone.

The boss and I argued for a few minutes. Then I heard the boss say into his radio to the driver, "OK. Tow it!" I ran out into the street, and the car was gone. So were Linda and Carl. With much urgency and an air of authority, I flagged down a car pulling out of the Oar House parking lot and got a ride to the address on the tow-truck driver's card. Linda and Carl were standing in the street. They had jumped into my car as the tow-truck pulled away and had ridden screaming out the windows for help all the way to the impound yard.

I entered the boss's shed and asked what the hell was going on. The boss informed me that the bail for my car was $60. The $20 that the driver had asked me for initially no longer was enough because the car had actually been hauled to the lot and I was liable for storage now to boot.

A desk separated the tow-truck boss and me. We stood facing one another arguing. A pane of glass covered the surface of his desk. I have no idea why I lifted an edge of that pane of glass. I was thinking about breaking it to show him how mad I was, but I was also wondering why the hell I'd picked it up. The tow-truck boss karate chopped the glass out of my hands. It slid from the desk, crashing to the floor. He fumbled under his shirt and withdrew a pistol from his waistband. "Holy shit!" I thought and ran out the door. The driveway crept away behind me in slow motion. "Halt! Halt! Halt or I'll shoot!" Christ. I was running full speed down the driveway and I hadn't gotten more than 50 feet. I imagined a bullet tearing through my back and out my chest. I put my hands in the air and stopped.

The cops questioned Carl and me for at least 20 minutes. We told them the tow-truck driver didn't even have us hooked up and had demanded $20 to let us drive away. We told them that his boss now wanted $60. The cops said they would let us go if we gave the boss $20. We argued the principle of the situation, that the tow-truck driver tried to extort $20 to leave my car alone, that he had stolen it from under my nose while I was on the phone with his boss. The cops lost their patience. They handcuffed Carl and me, read us our rights, and charged us both with assault with a deadly weapon. The boss had drawn a gun on me, and we were charged with assault with a deadly weapon! They carted us off to jail.

Fortunately, I still had the number of that lawyer who had gotten the marijuana charge dismissed. He got us out on bail. My record was starting to get as long as my arm, and I hadn't even committed any crimes. I'd gotten myself beaten up in a bar and was arrested for being drunk and disorderly. I'd hitched a ride in a car that was stopped, searched, and found to have marijuana in the glove compartment. (I didn't even smoke the stuff at that time, asserting my contempt for everyone caught up in what it was hip to do.) Now I'd been arrested for a violent felony. Carl, too. Our antagonistic attitude had gotten us into trouble deep.

When you have a chip on your shoulder, things tend to escalate. You dig in your heels. Those cops were trying to let us go. All we had to do was give that thief his 20 bucks.

The lawyer, Gerry, got the charge reduced to disturbing the peace and suggested we present our case to a judge without a jury. That's probably the deal he'd cut to get the charge reduced, but he played the plan to us as if some airtight constitutional argument of his had kept the Court at bay.

When we went to trial, the impound yard boss said that Carl and I had barged in on him, picked up the pane of glass, and thrown it at him. Under cross examination he changed his story and said that only I had picked it up and thrown it . The judge leaned forward and asked him, "Now who was it that threw the glass at you? Was it both of them, or just him?" The guy said it was just me. Carl got off. I was found guilty of disturbing the peace. The fine was $100. If I hadn't had a lawyer, I would have been found guilty of assault with a deadly weapon. I could have gone to jail for 15 years.

My draft notice came in the mail about three months later. I wanted to run out into street with a machine gun - not that I had one or knew where to go to get one - and start shooting I knew not who. But I had been in jail. I had hung in the cooler like a slab of beef, my life beside the point, detained from paying my electric bill and rent, kept from doing any of the things you have to do to hold your place in the world. Your life can fall apart, and your jailers do not care. They seem to prefer it if it does. I knew that if I ran amuck I would be killed or worse.

Linda had moved out a couple of months before. I was living in an empty 2BR apartment with a mattress on the floor. The furniture was hers. She had come by one time after leaving me, wearing the shortest miniskirt imaginable - so short her panties were clearly visible all around - which was strange, I thought, for her to entice me with sex like that, her appetite for it while we were living together had been so faint. One night, lying on that mattress in my otherwise empty apartment, I heard a high-pitched whistling sound that lasted for a while. I lay there listening, waiting for the nuclear bombs to blow, imagining that whistling to be ICBM's raining from the sky.

Next morning I packed my car and left for Halifax, Nova Scotia. Carl stood in the street and said good-bye as I drove away. I was leaving ostensibly to finish a Ph.D. at Dalhousie University. The Canadians probably believed they had acquired a budding scientist as a consequence of the brain drain resulting from the War. They had no idea my fellowship in Halifax was as much a ticket for me to escape the USA as my fellowship in LA had been a ticket for me to escape my family.

That I was going to a different place the day I left didn't register with me. I didn't realize I would miss my home and friends. I assumed, I guess, that after making a long cross-country drive to Halifax, I would arrive in a place where my life would continue as it was. I took for granted the support I enjoyed in LA, didn't even notice it was there. I felt so secure in the few relationships I had, I actually had myself convinced I didn't need anyone for anything. When I arrived in Halifax, I sat at my desk with my feet on the window sill for three months. Then I dropped out of the university to give an acquaintance a ride to Montreal.

When I crossed the border into Canada at Calais, New Brunswick, I imagined that the bells were going to ring and the War was going to end. That is how exaggerated my opinion was of my significance in the scheme of things. In reality, all that changed were the circumstances of my life. I did not have the social or emotional skills to succeed on my own as an expatriate in Canada. I took myself far too seriously and was much too attached to my opinions about everything large and small. Yes, I experienced a lot of pain in Canada, but that was the only way I was ever going to learn anything. I was too proud to listen to anyone, and I blamed everyone and everything for my situation, not my attitude or my assumptions about myself.

In 1983, I was tutoring high school, college, and university students in math, chemistry, and physics in Sacramento. I had returned from Canada in 1977, driven cab for a while in San Francisco, and had been trying for a couple of years to make it as a masseur in Sacramento. When I finally quit doing massage because I couldn't make enough money doing that, a friend I'd met at the Holistic Health Institute suggested I draw upon my education in math and science to make a living tutoring. I'd done so many drugs while I was living in Canada, and it had been - what, 15 years - since I'd received my Masters degree from UCLA, I wasn't sure if I remembered anything or if my brain still worked.

It turns out I did pretty well for a year or so working as a tutor. I plastered the Sac State University campus (CSUS) with flyers saying "Ace That Course" and made a fairly decent living, at $25 per 90-minute session, teaching algebra to the high school student children of Sacramento's upper crust. My students were motivated to get a passing grade because their parents had taken their car keys away until they did. The material was pretty simple. I found it easy to explain. I also taught some university students subjects I'd never had. I borrowed their textbooks from the library and taught myself what I needed to know. I would look over all the material to get an idea where each course was headed and managed to stay a chapter ahead in each of them.

The prospect of sitting at my kitchen table year after year teaching high school kids how to factor polynomials, however, did not appeal to me, and I enrolled at CSUS to write computer aided instruction programs. I had developed some fairly effective teaching techniques, I thought, and I figured I would use the university's equipment to produce instructional materials I could sell to make some money. At that time, though, in 1983, the tools available to teach course work with computers were only good for canning a few facts and keeping track of who had studied what, but I hung around the university for a while and took some classes in Computer Science. This ultimately led to a job and an opportunity to associate again with educated, mainstream people.

While I was going to Sac State, I took a job teaching Biology at night for a while at Chapman College on Mather Air Force base in Rancho Cordova. I decided it was all right to go on base even though I am absolutely opposed to war, because my purpose was not military. My class consisted of 3 individuals, none of whom had any previous exposure to physics, chemistry, or biology. Laying the groundwork for these people to grasp the process of biology, the mechanics of evolution, with no background whatsoever in the physical or life sciences was too hard for me to do. It's painful trying to impart facts to people who have no basis upon which to appreciate their significance. The educational process becomes not a form of communication, but a mechanical exercise in which words meaning radically different things to everyone involved are said. "Is this going to be on the test?" for the students. "Life emerging as a manifestation of the materials and conditions of this place," for me.

I went through a phase in 1983 of looking up people from my past. I called Carl's parents in Santa Cruz to find out what had become of him. He'd been in Louisiana for a number of years, I learned, New York before that, and he was a doctor - a Commander - in the U.S. Coast Guard. The deal he had cut with his draft board the year I sent my draft card in was to give 4 years of active duty to the Coast Guard for being allowed to finish medical school and graduate with an M.D. That was the standard arrangement in those days. Interestingly, Carl stayed in and made a career of the Coast Guard once he had joined up. It seems he liked the military life.

Carl was living in Novato. He was surprised and pleased to hear my voice on the phone. I was glad to be talking to him, too. We'd been extremely close, had a lot of laughs together, had seen things fairly eye to eye. We agreed to meet for a camping trip two weekends in the future at Clear Lake. He would bring his 8-year-old son along and a tent. We would go camping in the Mendocino National Forest.

I drove an MGB I had bought from a girl in San Francisco a couple of months before I left the City. She was heartbroken to part with it, she loved it so, something I never understood, it broke down so much on me. Someone told me the English made a sport out of repairing your car, which is why MG's were called "sports cars". But it sure was fun to drive Highway 20 out of Williams to Clear Lake in it with the top off on a 100-degree Sacramento Valley summer afternoon. I was wearing a pair of shorts, flip-flops, and sunglasses, my standard summer attire. I arrived about 15 minutes early at the MiniMart where Carl had suggested we meet, had a Pepsi, bought some gas. My skin was handling the sun just fine.

Carl and his boy drove up in a brown Isuzu Trooper. Carl was dressed in camouflage. He wore a camouflage hat. His son was dressed in camouflage, too, but he wasn't wearing a hat. It was hard to be enthusiastic about our meeting. I felt immediately estranged. I think of murderous hillbillies, hunters that like to kill bears and shoot each other by mistake, Nazis, Aryan Supremacists, when I see camouflage. I know. I'm prejudiced and think in terms of stereotypes. What can I say? Who wears camouflage?

I got in the back seat of Carl's car with my stuff. He handed me a map. "Keep track of our position with this," Carl instructed. A map? We were going to drive on fire roads marked with signs at every intersection. We were hardly pressing into wilderness. I unfolded the map - it was big - and studied it for a couple of minutes, until I started to feel nauseous from the strain of reading jiggling print while moving.

Carl popped a tape he had apparently prepared especially for me into the player and looked at me expectantly in the rear view mirror. Bob Dylan began crooning "Visions of Johanna". That had been our favorite song in 1968. We had listened to it over and over together, drinking beer, feeling so mistreated and forlorn. I smiled politely, but without enthusiasm, and saw the energy drain out of Carl's face.

I had stopped finding comfort in songs about feeling alienated years previously. (I had stopped noticing cops, and had consequently stopped being noticed by cops, years previously, too.) I was not self-righteous anymore. I had lost interest in cataloging all the ways that I've been wronged. In the years since I had returned from Canada, I had been working with determination to become aware of my own expectations and had stopped wallowing in disappointment about what other people do. Broken promises, lies and being used, efforts to control or dominate me, had become much less interesting to me than the truth about myself. Finding a way to communicate with defensive, up-tight individuals - recognizing and getting beyond my own defensiveness - learning to care about people who don't care about anyone but themselves, had become far more important to me than complaining about being wronged. I'd stopped looking for revenge, stopped demanding disgrace for people who hurt me. I'd become far less resentful, far more aware of my own fear and anger, and had gradually understood that fear and anger lead others to behave badly, too.

Carl's son spoke at length about the appropriate application of deadly force. Steal his bike, he said, and he would beat you up. Punch him, and he'd smash and kick your face until you fell down bleeding. Pull a knife and he would kill you in self-defense. The little action figures he carried with him wore the arms to do it, and he waved them around threateningly as he expressed himself with fervor.

Carl asked me a lot of questions, the same sort of irksome questions he and I had tormented strangers with about politics and social policy in the past, only this time I had no answers. I'd stopped reading the newspaper when I got serious about peace of mind. I found that reading about violence and corruption made me feel upset, and I had concluded that I can't do anything about society as a whole. "I think I'm better off dealing with my own problems," I told Carl, "so I can communicate better with individuals I actually encounter in my life." Carl's interrogation continued, however, and he told me I am obligated, as a member of society, to solve big-picture social and political problems. "I'm actually of the opinion," I told Carl, "that if every individual were to heal themselves, the big-picture problems would disappear. I think you fix society one individual at a time," I said. "I think each individual has to do that for themselves. With a little help from their friends, of course." Carl was not impressed. He asked me about war, asked me how to handle bad guys like the Russians.

We talked about chemical and biological weapons. Carl told me they are not a threat to civilian populations. They are useful on the battlefield, he said, to immobilize enemy soldiers, but they disperse readily in the air. He liked the neutron bomb, too. Kill lots of soldiers, but leave everything else intact. When I reduced the conflict between nations to the conflict between leaders of nations, which further reduces to the inner conflict of those leaders, Carl told me the Russians would "clean my clock." He had been thoroughly indoctrinated into the military view of the world.

We set up our tent near an unimaginably beautiful field of white and purple wild flowers and went for a walk. We wound up sitting on the side of a small hill watching his boy stomp around crushing flowers chasing flying insects to destroy. I told Carl about the big changes I had been through in my life. I told him that after I arrived in Canada I had gradually realized that my thinking when I lived in the States had been entirely negative. I knew what I didn't like, what I didn't believe, what I wouldn't do. But when I arrived in Canada, where no one was pressuring me to do or be or believe anything, it dawned on me that I had no idea what I did like, what I did want to do, what I wanted out of life.

That there was no one to be angry at in Canada, however, hardly means I became an agreeable person living there, I continued. I fought with everyone I should have seen as a friend - my wife for example, whose opinions I could not listen to if they differed at all from mine, and many other people that I met. I behaved defensively, in terror, actually, of the merest hint that anyone was trying to dominate me or control me. I felt powerless and defeated when I arrived in Canada. The American military had beaten me and driven me from my home. But I wouldn't let it go. I was filled with hatred for a bunch of bastards who weren't even a part of my life anymore. I wanted satisfaction. I wanted vindication. I wouldn't accept defeat.

My dodging the draft was not just a question of avoiding an unpleasant situation, refusing to participate in something I believed was wrong. I had fought with the military in the first place, and society and everybody else, because of an emotional problem central to my personality. When I was a kid, a key feature of my experience had been to be disrespected and dominated, in particular by my mother; and on an emotional level, unconsciously, I was determined never again to allow anyone to put me in a position where my feelings have no weight.

From the political and moral perspective, in my opinion, the War in Vietnam was wrong. But my emotional involvement in that conflict derived not from dispassionate analysis of the merits of the War. I was incensed that the military assumed they could dictate to me what I am supposed to do. I refused to allow the American government, or anyone else, to tell me what to do.

When I was a kid, I was not able to get my mother to acknowledge my individuality as a human being. She wouldn't listen. She would drown me out when I tried to speak. The threat of being dominated like that again, invalidated and ignored, is the reason I could never allow anyone to win an argument with me, why I would not listen to another's views. I over-reacted to everything and saw threats where there were none, afraid of finding myself in the same position with someone in the present I had been in with my mother in the past - overruled, overridden, overrun. I was not a calm, cool person in command of myself. I felt threatened and defensive, angry someone might be doing something to me I would not allow. To keep others from controlling me, I had to be in control of them.

I said to Carl, "You only have an enemy if you need one." He looked at me with a blank expression. Incredulity - or maybe it was contempt - was visible in his eyes. "Your enemies pick you," he said.

- - -

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