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What It’s Like to Die
I died in April, 1979, a Saturday morning that I seem, now, to remember as being sunny and animated, as most sunny spring days on the Mendocino coast are, with that naive optimism unique to unspoiled or only partially spoiled places located near natural wonders like the sea.
I was walking up Main Street, Fort Bragg, California, the place where I was born and had lived for a little over 20 years. I was physically strong, a very recent high school athlete now working in an athletic occupation, pulling green lumber into neat stacks all night long, working so hard my boots had sweat-stains around the toes, my underwear permanently died blue from my Levi’s, soggy with sweat for hours at a time as I chased lumber with an eclectic crew of grimy, whiskery men.
I was headed to Fat Jack Luoma’s garage to fetch my Pinto with a rebuilt transmission, walking up the street I had been walking or driving on for one reason or another as long as I could remember. Everything about it was familiar: the cool gray weather, springtime, hard wind that cleared the sky, the ocean just out of sight beyond the mill, which was more than my job and that of everyone I knew, one way or another — it was just a place to work, but it was lumber, sweet old timber getting sized up and manufactured, feats of skill and daring, secret jargon, a closed world with a heroic past and little future.
I had a pocketful of mill dollars to pay for the Pinto repair job. About two blocks away from Fat Jack’s, I began to feel woozy. Nothing seemed familiar anymore. My vision was obscured, my eyes closed like lenses homed on a distant object, losing my purchase on the visible, seeing inward, into the void which awaits us all with each breath.
I lay down, on my back, on a concrete pedestal, part of a building without walls, a place I could walk to without knowing what I was doing. I lay down, closed my eyes, which could no longer see, pulled the round can of Copenhagen snuff out of my back pocket, set it on my breastbone, crossed my hands, and died.
A roofer, working on a nearby building, who happened to be a volunteer fireman with CPR training, saw the whole thing. He clambered down, raced across the paved ground between us, pulled my tongue out of my throat, and began beating on my chest. What happened over the next four days I don’t remember. I wasn’t there.
I was taken to the local hospital, where I was put on life-support while the doctors, puzzled, thought about my case. My dad was called, and it was he who suggested that someone sample my Copenhagen. They found PCP in it. At that time, I had never heard of PCP, also called Angel Dust, a drug meant for tranquilizing beasts.
I was tranquil, at least visibly.
They flew me out of Fort Bragg, to San Francisco’s Pacific Presbyterian Medical Center, where I lay for the next four days. It was unclear whether I would get out of bed.
I don’t know how much of what I saw then was dream and how much was a journey into the void or the dimension where ideas and souls drift around, freed of bodies and the concerns of doctors, policemen, millowners and millworkers, I saw the train that runs through tunnels in the wall, it serves broasted chicken cut into handy pieces, peppery and greasy.
In fact, lying still caused numbness and pain in my arms, a pain which ordinarily woke me as I slept, or caused me to drop beer cans if I was awake and didn’t flex my forearms and wrists every few moments. When the pain bothered me in that state, what I wanted to do was eat the meat off my forearms. It tasted just like chicken, Broasted chicken, the technique which combines frying and pressure to produce a tasty crust and tender meat, meat which falls off the bone.
So the chicken served on the train was myself.
Furthermore, I dreamed of Pudding Creek Beach, with its picturesque antique, unused rail trestle crossing from the headland north of the creek to the headland on the south, toward the mill. The sand, which typically rises up in the cold wind to form a gritty, ankle-high cloud, scouring shoetops, getting in the eyes, lies flat toward the sea and heaped against the rocks. The lagoon is usually filled with brackish water, partly fresh, coming down from the hills, blended with wave-water washed over the bar, full of kelp strands rolling like flat serpents, brimmed in a scum of salt and algae,
The lagoon may have been filled with water, but the impression I had was that it was filled with 7-Up, and a strange little man with a boat — something which never happened in real life — puttered back and forth across the lagoon, herding long snakes which bit their tails, forming themselves into giant hoops which could roll where they pleased across water and sand,
A strange little man in a boat, puttering around on a lagoon, chasing snakes,
Next was the black woman in a uniform, asking me for money. Was she a nurse that I had seen, perhaps as I was wheeled in to the San Francsisco hospital? I don’t know. There were no black women in Fort Bragg. She wanted money, and, though I had some when I died, I didn’t know where it was or how to get hold of any. She asked me for my money but I couldn’t pay,
The train kept coming through the wall. The tile wall behind the counter at the Club Fort Bragg, the all-night diner with adjoining bar and adjoining liquor store where a mill-hand could show up on a payday, cash his check, get a cheap meal, drink beer until last call, and buy some more to take home before the liquor store closed, a few minutes after the bar closed. There was a kind of tunnel in the wall, a very special tunnel, only visible when the train was about to emerge, blasting and steaming like the good old days.
There was — still is — a real tunnel just about three miles up the tracks, which allowed the real train — originally a logging train — to pass from Pudding Creek, under the hill, through to the Noyo side. Sometimes people still find little souvenirs of the days when Chinese laborers hacked and dug that tunnel through the rocks and roots and dripping groundwater. As kids, we hid between giant redwood timbers, 16 inches thick, with 16 inch gaps between, and witnessed the terrifying spectacle of the passenger train or the freight, up close. We all carved our names and dates in those timbers with our pocketknives, inspecting our work and comparing it to the carvings left by other generations. By those who had come before, been young there and wanted to carve their figures into the wood.
So it was permanent, and real. Standing in the middle of the tunnel one saw a rectangle of light at each end, very much the same but perhaps foggy at one end and sunny at the other. We stood on the wet clay between the ties, shone a flashlight up, looked at the white quartz veins crawling like hairs through dark rock, water trickling down, In some spots there were small caverns behind the timbers.Dynamite is not a precise way to dig through the roots of a hill.
The Chinese laborers completed their work in 1914 and were promptly run out of town by concerned citizens. A typical California story. Local toughs threatening to send the peculiar oriental workers to the next world until the sheriff stepped in and helped the Chinese. They ran the three miles down the tracks in the dark, in the rain, with frogs singing in the creek.
I lay in my hospital bed in San Francisco dreaming of the train that carried my cooked body to me, coming at me through the tunnel in the wall behind the counter at the Club Fort Bragg. Dreaming of the work I did in the mill at the end of the rail line. The roundhouse was part of the mill. A building of grease and steel and steaming emanations which for a few months before I was a millworker I was in charge of watching through the night to see that it did not burn down. Fire was the one constant threat around a mill.
Electrical works were buried and embedded throughout the mill; repair work by welders was done on piles of old wood, sawdust, spilled grease and pooled oil. They set up flashing amber lights when they went home for the night, crawling out of holes with their dripping torches to knock the grime off their hat-brims and head home, perhaps to stop on the way at the Club Fort Bragg to buy a cheap meal, some beer, and six-pack or two on the way. I was expected to walk through the roundhouse, through the sheds packed with drying lumber, between the hissing kilns, along the greenchain and under the Big Mill, the old one, with its bull wheels and niggerheads and portagee dance partners. Up top to the filing room which smelled of hot steel, where the filers worked until 1:30 in the morning, engraving edges on bandsaw teeth like something one would find washed out of fossil shark beds.
It stunk of hot steel and sparks. The air was still and likely poisonous. It was dark in the corners and dangerous gaps existed in the floors to help laborers hoist and lower the saws, the bandsaws which they clamped into place and circular saws five feet across which could cut a man in half without noticing.
I walked through that room when everyone, filers, millwrights and men in tin hats were gone. The living and the dead existed together. I went downstairs to the caverns where logs were drug forth from the pond and cut down to right angles and lengths. Flashing amber lights where the millwrights had welded the day before. Pools of water, of watery oil, of greasy water. It smelled of sweat and fermenting sawdust and dead bodies,
Down below, in the basement, the hog-chain accepted all that fell and drew it forward to ultimate destruction, reduction, and a path to the boilers where everything would burn,
My grandfather saw a man drown in sawdust and water, his life forfeit when a glacier of red dust calved and slid across the steel and shining wood. It was a place of dangers and memories one could not have because they were memories of the dead, which we know of but cannot place. Dead men climbing ladders and clattering over catwalks and running the shingle-splitter or sitting in the plywood shack, thinking about logs, smoking, looking at pornography or thinking, perhaps of the sea which crashed about the rocks and cliffs and reportedly dug miles deep underground, creating sieves and fissures no living person would ever see,
But the hippies, in their crude shacks 20 miles inland, lay awake at night, after wine and sex, feeling the sea as it rolled underground,
They composed their poems and let the ground rumble underneath, naked and in love and stoned, listening to their Booker T records because the silence is full of ghosts and suffering and in those days — as now — recording the battles between states. The wars where the poor stand with their rifles, shooting out the lights and hoping the tracer bullets and starbursts and mortars and IEDs are meant for others,
War veterans working in the mill and after work telling me what it is to sit in Asian mud watching the lethal fireworks and if necessary firing back at the darkness or stabbing bayonets into the chests of those who fight back. Poor people killing each other for purposes which cannot be explained or understood.
I heard later that as I lay in that hospital bed a regular vigilante army mustered spontaneously and set out to find and hopefully execute the man who had secretly added the horse tranquilizer to my Copenhagen. They would have subdued whomever with a knock on the head and motored him out to sea. He would have been tipped over the side and slid unhappily into the drink. But there was no evidence, nothing to link the crime to the perpetrator.
And once I woke up, pulled the IVs from my wrists, and looked around, there was still no evidence. I had lost all memory of the day or days before I died on Main Street in Fort Bragg.
When I went home a few days later and sat in the police station talking with my dad and sergeant Linville I could add nothing to their analysis of the singular and unexpected events of my death. Now that I was once more alive, I could only guess, though it was plain that my dad and sergeant Linville suspected I knew something. In truth I knew nothing. To this day I know nothing.
I died, went across the lagoon, through the tunnel, up the ladder, down the catwalk, into the roundhouse, across the filing room, to the bottom of the log pond, and came back. I woke up in a San Francisco hospital with no idea where I was or how I got there.
CRAWDAD NELSON now lives in Sacramento, California. This memoir appears in the Anderson Valley Advertiser.