My Friend Dave

One afternoon in late December I was standing in a swirling snowfall thinking about the afterlife. I don’t spend a lot of time contemplating the hereafter. It’s a fuzzy concept. That day, though, I was in Madera Canyon. Every year, on whatever Saturday fell closest to his birthday, my friend Dave would go to Madera Canyon to gather mistletoe. This wasn’t for Christmas kisses. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant, actually a hemi-parasite, that sinks its roots into the host’s vascular system, eventually killing it. Dave would go there with family and friends to help relieve the high desert oaks of their parasitic load.

This particular Saturday actually was Dave’s birthday. But Dave wasn’t there. Dave had died in late October from cancer, another evil growth that kills its host.

The mountains rising above Madera Canyon were in rare form that December afternoon. Old Baldy, the craggy main peak in the Santa Rita Mountains, was standing like a referee in a dual between the pale late-December sunshine and an unsettled snowstorm. Driving into Madera Canyon from the north, the duel was a spectacular display of light and weather.

But by the time Dave’s family and friends had gathered at a picnic pavilion near the open mouth of the canyon the snowstorm had cast the world in twilight and sent icy flakes to melt in our eyes. Everyone nodded knowingly. “Dave,” they said, “this is Dave’s doing.” And they may have been right. I’ve spent a lot of days on that mountain. And in some marginal weather. But I’d never seen a spectacular display of sun and snow like it put on that morning. And, being from old-school Iowa, Dave would have been quick to tell you that he had walked to school, uphill both ways, in the snow, with barbed wire wrapped around his bare feet for traction. So, sure, why not depart leaving us a little taste of the same?

So was Dave off in an afterlife somewhere? Was he in good with a cosmic weather wizard? Had he arranged this for some sardonic combination of our discomfort and delight? If so, he was safely beyond the range of human senses. What was in the range of things we could feel and know, though, was a life lived.

You can’t exactly swing a cat and hit a hillbilly philosopher. If you could find one, they might sum up that life this way: Be useful; Be reliable; Be honest; Don’t think too much of yourself. Good advice. The question is how to hang on to those ideals when you leave the enclave of the hills. And this is especially true for me. I get distracted by shiny objects. So when we left Pennsylvania for Tucson I spent time wondering what the people here would be like. Or, more to the point, how I might change.

Happily, one of the first people I ran across was Dave. Dave was practical, sensible, honest—almost to a fault, just a little sardonic, and more than a little bit stoic. You could have dropped him into any holler in the hills and he would never have made a ripple. But he was from Iowa. He was the first of many people from Iowa I would meet.

Waves of refugees have come to Arizona. It was once a spa. You came here for tuberculosis. Or anything else that dry air and sunshine might cure. Then retirees filtered in. They still come. A huge wave came escaping the oppression of housing inflation in California. Dave had come with the Rust Belt wave. Long before the leakage of manufacturing jobs was derailed into the thin air of political platitudes, Bruce Springsteen had penned the words: “These jobs are leaving, boys, and they ain’t coming back.” He was talking about the Rust Belt; about the simple jobs being done by simple people. They were happy to do the work, asking in return only to be able to feed their family, own a basic home, and fund a modest savings account. But Wall Street isn’t run by people who wanted the same for them. So the jobs drained into maquiladoras and drifted into Shenzhen. Until then, had you flipped over a tool or crawled under some farm equipment, you would have seen that it was made in places like DeMoines, Ames, Waterloo, Cedar Rapids or Davenport. The jobs left. And the people, like they had done during the Dust Bowl, followed the Mother Road west.

So Dave was the first Iowan I met, but not the last. He came to represent what I began to think of as Midwest sensibility. And it hewed closely to the ideals of: Be useful; Be reliable; Be honest; Don’t think too much of yourself. Dave—unwittingly—became a bit of a lodestar for me, helping me to see when I was drifting.

Dave introduced me to the song catalogs of John Prine and John Hartford. And for a bit of the cultural touchstones that people bond over, we both enjoyed A Prairie Home Companion.

Life is life. It is rarely constant. And, naturally, through all the changes, Dave and I often wound up on different paths. But at one point I ended up again at a company Dave had never left. So we began chewing on the intervening years. Dave summed it up with a favorite tidbit of ours from the Lake Woebegone stories. He said, “Gerry, what do you do when you were raised to be a stoic and life turns out good?” That was a heartwarming moment. And it is one I will always remember and treasure. But for you folks who didn’t tune in to A Prairie Home Companion, I’d like to quote from a longer version of Garrison Keillor’s words:

They raised him to bear up under hardship and sadness and disappointment and disaster, but what if you’re brought up to be stoic and your life turns out lucky—you’re in love with your wife, you’re lucky in your children, and life is lovely to you—what then? You’re ready to endure trouble and pain, and instead God sends you love—what do you do?

What Dave said was just a shorthand for the above. He had a wife that he loved; a child that he adored. He had steady work, and a roof over his head. He was happy.

So, no, I wasn’t standing in the swirling snow thinking a lot about the afterlife. I was huddled in a picnic pavilion with the woman he loved, the daughter he adored, the son-in-law he thought of as a son, the grandchildren that warmed his Sunday afternoons, and the friends that thought Dave was a pretty okay guy. I was huddled with the core of Dave’s good life. If that doesn’t focus you on the here and now, well, then I don’t know what to say.

I hope that Dave was playing a weather joke on us that day. More than that, though, I hope that I always remember the value of living simply. And I hope I will always value people who do the same.

So long, Dave. Thanks for the snowflakes. And thanks for reminding me that life did turn out good.

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The Pycnogenol Report

I’m not sure I trust medicine. I don’t mean the amber pill bottles lined up by the height of their childproof caps in my rusted medicine cabinet. I mean the practice of medicine. Specifically, the practice of it here in the old republic. I’m told we’re the best in world. The guidon bearers. I’m told that people swarm across the planet, like bees to a hive, for access to our doctors, or, more to the myth, our gleaming medical technology. I’m even told that they forgo socialized medicine in their particular god-forsaken hell-hole to come to ours to pay tens of thousands of dollars for treatments they cannot get elsewhere. Like any jagged little pill, be careful swallowing that whole.

In the hillbilly haven I hail from people say “the proof is in the pudding.” The truth is that our enormous per capita spending on health care doesn’t yield significantly better results than some other god-forsaken hell-holes. We’re still sickos. Worse, my prostate cancer was discovered by accident; my enlarged aorta was discovered by accident. And a recently discovered vestibular problem apparently has no fix. My wife’s first lumbar laminectomy was botched by our town’s best neurosurgeon. So she needed another. The combination of the two landed her in a world of chronic pain. The both of us now have pre-existing conditions, which, at any moment, could render us uninsured. That’s the pudding. And that’s why I am not sure I trust medicine.

If I mistrust the medical industry, I trust the supplement industry even less. After the billions we spend on medicine, with questionable results, we drop hundreds of millions more on, well, I’m not sure what to call it: the holistic, the homeopathic, the natural.

Don’t get me wrong. We would benefit greatly from a change as simple as going on a whole plant diet. The prognosticators claiming that this would stave off the coming obesity/diabetes/heart disease pandemic can’t be far wrong. I agree that it would start to empty our hospitals and waiting rooms. And I am absolutely for getting something in a natural form rather than a chemical compound. But if the supplements we take now were having any effect, we should see lots of healthy people running around. I see the opposite. It’s almost like you can draw a straight line between the amount of supplements a person takes and their tendency toward depression, neuroticism, and general affliction.

My skepticism began in the 70’s with Vitamin C. Vitamin C supplements were the cure for the common cold. No, even better, Vitamin C prevented the common cold. All you need do was take enough of it. So people were swallowing ascorbic acid in record quantities. Several grams a day in some cases. But the common cold remained common. That’s when the up-and-coming General Nutrition Center revised their newsletter. Sure you need Vitamin C, but, you need to get it from rose hips. Okay. So we switched to rose hips. For a moment it seemed like there could not be enough English gardeners in the world to meet demand. And that’s when we learned the truth. You can shove as much Vitamin C down your gullet as you want. Your body can absorb only so much of it. And without bioflavonoids along you may not absorb it readily. Oh, and in excessive amounts, it interferes with absorbing other essential vitamins and minerals.

In short, the human body is amazingly complex. Just because it benefits from something doesn’t mean you can concentrate that thing and simply take more of it. It doesn’t matter if it was compounded by a pharmacy; or if you scrounged it from a primeval forest a la Euell Gibbons, concentrated it, and pressed it into a capsule.

The common cold remained what it was: thousands of rhinoviruses waiting for an opportunity. And, yes, healthier, low stress folks provide less opportunity. But in and of itself, Vitamin C was not a preventative silver bullet. Well, for scruvy maybe; but not the cold.

So if I’ve resisted lining my medicine cabinet with plastic amber bottles from CVS, I’ve resisted even more lining it with brown glass bottles from GNC.

Then along came prostate cancer and heart disease.

As I’ve mentioned, I elected to treat my prostate cancer with the gold standard: a nerve-sparing, robotically-assisted, laparoscopic radical prostatectomy done by a highly experienced urologist. I’ve talked about the resulting impotence. And how much sex meant to me. And my curiosity about things that might reduce the effects of my impotence. Oh, sorry, ED.

One thing that kept popping up was Pycnogenol. Humans have hit on a number of aphrodisiacs over the millenniums. Most are hogwash. Some, though, actually square up with how physiologists know our bodies work. One such thing was an extract from the bark of a Mediterranean pine tree. (Pinus pinaster) Of late, an extraction process for this has been licensed by a company called Horphag Research. Its founder, Charles Haimioff, has devoted his life to the idea of healthy aging. To that end, Horphag Research has funded or promoted any number of studies to show the benefits of Pycnoenol. Almost none of these are the epitome of research: a double-blind study of a large random population with a placebo and a control group. However some had a fair basis in science. A few others were suspect.

And what were the studies to prove? That Pycnogenol, like many bioflavonoids and antioxidants, promotes the health of human endothelial cells. That is to say, it should reduce blood pressure, increase oxygen uptake, and generally improve circulation. For sufferers of ED, it should act as a PDE5 inhibitor along the lines of sildenafil, improving the ability to get and hold an erection.

Does it really? Based on my Internet research, that was hard to determine. However, while I could not say it would help, I could also say it would not hurt. No one was getting worse on Pycnogenol.

So what I found was not enough to tip me in favor of trying it. I had my trusty pump. I had generic sildenafil from my urologist—which in the quantities I needed was cheap enough. Maybe what I need more than another pill was just acceptance, and the patience to wait for my body’s natural healing process. And that’s when I found out I had a bad heart.

Before you imagine a wrinkled, grey-haired old man dragging around an oxygen bottle, I should explain. I am just fine. I run, walk or hike some 90 miles a month. I can hike gradient that weeds out hikers younger and lighter than me. I still rock climb. I am still planning river trips. I built my own storage building, single-handedly. In 100 degree heat. True, I can’t run fast. Never have. Never will. I occasionally struggle at elevations above 10,000 feet. But I am not suffering from congestive heart failure. My heart muscles are not weak. I do not have arteriosclerosis or atherosclerosis. It is a simple mechanical deficiency. I have an enlarged thoracic aorta.

Eventually this could be a problem. To enlarge, the aortal wall must thin. Too thin a wall could result in a rupture. A rupture in the thoracic would almost certainly be instantly fatal. Picture blood pouring directly from your heart. So my cardiologist will monitor the enlargement. At a certain point (50 millimeters) he will replace my aorta with a Dacron sock. Meanwhile, he recommended what is apparently recommended to all patients with heart disease: statins.

That’s right. I have no have arteriosclerosis or atherosclerosis. My cholesterol and LDL are a bit high. But nothing in my lipid panel suggests anything a lifestyle change won’t fix. More to the point, no studies indicate that statins help in any way with an enlarged thoracic aorta. (They are helpful in the case of an enlarged femoral aorta.) Nope. You should take statins because statins are for people with heart disease and you have heart disease. To me it sounded like “this may not help, but it won’t hurt.”

You know, like Pycnogenol.

So now I had two reasons to take it. But I didn’t take it. Not right away. First I got a Siberian Husky puppy. A happy Husky is an exercised Husky. A happy Husky is a fabulous dog. I wanted a fabulous dog. So I started building my mileage up to the 90 miles a month I make today. And I went back to my gym. And I started the move toward a whole plant diet. Then to seal the deal, I bought enough Pycnogenol to give me 100 milligrams a day for four months.

In that time my weight dropped from 205 to 175 pounds. My resting pulse dropped from 88 to 63 BPM. I was clearly healthier and eating better. The Husky was relaxed and happy. In my stressed out, fat and happy days my blood pressure always bordered on hypertension—about 124/82. With everything else going on, it should have been an easy thing for the Pycnogenol to slip in and drop it those few points to normal. It did not. With better general health there should have been some improvement when my wife gave me the occasional come hither look. It didn’t happen.

Would it have worked in a bigger dose? Would it have worked if I had taken it longer? Was it doing things that were beneficial but not measurable by me? It’s hard to say. I am only one data point. But in this case I am the only data point that matters.

Holistic. Homeopathic. Natural. Those are great sounding words. They seem so much better than the chemicals and machines the billion-dollar medical industry throws at us with questionable results. But you can still count me among those who question the results. The proof is in the pudding.

A Poppy For Your Thoughts

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row…
— Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, 1915

This is the 11th day of the 11th month of 2018. I might drag my lawn chair to the corner today and wait for Rick to drive by. I don’t know Rick’s real name. It might be Steve. It could be Gunther. Or Günther. The point is that Rick drives a green Jeep. Army green. Rick’s Jeep is equipped with a moron switch. If you haven’t seen these, the switch lets your vehicle spew dense black smoke for a while. ‘Cuz you know, freedom. Yes, you’re right, Rick’s Jeep is festooned with a large United States flag. Lucky guess.

Why would I sit on the curb waiting for Rick? Because I enjoy irony. Rick doesn’t know it but he is sending a mixed message. From the comfort of his hermetically sealed, air conditioned cab he doesn’t see what is happening on his ass-end. The flag is not bravely unfurled. The squared-off tail of his Jeep literally sucks. His flag hangs limp in the vacuum. And when he passes a Prius and hits his moron switch he adds another coat of oily soot to those abused colors.

And why would I expect Rick today? He would, undoubtedly, be heading out to a Veterans Day event, ready to remember all of our veterans, living and dead, who have made sacrifices for our freedom. Rick remembers. Except that he doesn’t.

Veterans Day was once called Armistice Day. In our allied countries, it is still called Remembrance Day. It commemorates the day that saw a hastily patched together armistice silence some of the most horrendous battlefields the world had ever seen. That armistice held and World War 1 ended 100 years ago today.

How long ago was 100 years? Do you remember, or know about, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy; the Tet Offensive and the Prague Spring; that Peggy Fleming spun her way to a gold medal in Grenoble and our astronaut’s first moon orbit? Those all happened in 1968, the mid-point of the past 100 years. It was fifty years from when World War 1 ended to when those things happened. And it has been fifty years since. Put another way, there were still World War 1 vets around to see those things happen.

In the long view of history we get to distill things. Well distilled, World War 1 began with a violent act of wild-eyed populism. The world was shrinking. Steam ships, the Suez Canal, the Trans-Atlantic cable, had helped bring a wave of globalism. Oligarchy and imperialism had seen to it that the lion’s share went to the already well-heeled. The crumbs went to Lazarus. Oligarchy and imperialism also saw to it that the lid remained on that pressure cooker. But the deepening socioeconomic rift, particularly in class conscious Europe, left many ready to defy convention. The shot that killed Archduke Ferdinand and Sophie, meant to be a political statement from the disenfranchised Balkans, bloodied nearly the entire world.

Of course the United States got involved. We were a rising star in globalism. But it’s hard to inspire a nation to enter a foreign conflict where commanders are marching the rank-and-file into machine gun nests, where tanks and mustard gas add to the horror. And so you tell the plebes that it is about freedom. That this is the war to end all wars. That when this is over our rising economic star can outshine all others. After all, the Panama Canal was just completed. And in case they don’t believe you, you conscript them. And so we marched into Europe to George M. Cohan tunes.

The Great War ended. The troops climbed from the trenches and went home. But the strife caused by that bullet in Sarajevo didn’t end when the clocks in Paris struck eleven. The war unleashed a global pandemic. It left the European economy in shambles. We shored it up until Black Tuesday in October 1929 and then the world collapsed into the Great Depression. Societal turmoil gave rise to crime syndicates. And, of course, the ghosts of Versailles haunted Europe until it, and nearly the entire world, boiled into war again. It’s hard to believe that a simple assassination caused millions of deaths and decades of turmoil. But it happened just that way.

Why would you want to remember all of that? You wouldn’t. Pesky Armistice Day becomes Veterans Day. Now we get to wave flags and cheer our troops just like Memorial Day, July 4th, Flag Day, and every nationally televised sport event. But we don’t have to spend a moment thinking about our past.

And maybe it’s just as well. The Great War’s dead still remain under the poppies in Flanders fields. The horrifically wounded are themselves long dead, replaced by the horrifically wounded of WWII, Korea, Vietnam. And they will soon be gone and replaced by the next wave. But nothing’s changed. Our current crop of plutocrats and oligarchs have kept the lid on this pressure cooker too long. Our mettle is stretched. Vote, they say, things will get better. And we did. In record numbers. And we woke up to Wednesday’s child. Globalism is rampant. Populism rises. It remains tamped for now because Rick believes in his man in office. But the veneer won’t hold. President Everyman is a plutocrat dressed in an emperor’s new clothes. In short, things sit now pretty much as they sat in Sarajevo in June 1914.

If you were in Britain or France today someone might hand you a poppy. In John McCrae’s home country someone surely would. No one will here. We don’t remember. We don’t want to. So I will sit in my lawn chair and wonder. Rick has a 100% American-made machine equipped with a flag and a moron switch. I wonder, does he have a gun?

A History Thicker Than Paper

I’ve been a bit of a two-fisted reader lately. The books dovetail, through no planning of my own. One is Robert Fillmore’s Geological Evolution of the Colorado Plateau in Eastern Utah and Western Colorado. A fun read. The other is Elizabeth Kolbert’s slightly less somber near-term prophecy The Sixth Extinction.

Fillmore’s book deals with a tangible reality. I’ve been to Utah and saw the entire Pennsylvanian Epoch compressed into a few hundred feet of rock. Kolbert is a bit more of a futurist. She delves into the tangible reality of the five past extinctions. Then she looks at our somber present and asks the logical question: Will we be here 100,000 years from now? Hell, will we be here 100 years from now? The answer is: that depends.

Compared to a single geological epoch, human existence is barely the hint of a whisper. Still, we will leave behind an indelible record. Our damming and dredging, our wars and nuclear blasts, our mass consumption of hydrocarbons—or, put into an energy equation, the fact that the 2500 calories we need to survive each day requires millions of more calories to produce—and our toxically clustered population centers, will tell a story. It will not be much of one since we will not be here that long. But it will be there none the less. As Kolbert put it: “…a hundred million years from now, all that we consider to be the great works of man—the sculptures and the libraries, the monuments and the museums, the cities, and the factories—will be compressed into a layer of sediment not much thicker than a cigarette paper.”

Not much thicker than a cigarette paper.

To get to at least that thickness, we need to change our template. The human mind does not readily adapt to new information. So we create templates and skew them around over ancient information to make it fit. It’s like that puzzle piece we know doesn’t quite belong there. We press it hopefully into place and move on. Then, as the problem becomes more obvious, we finally analyze things. Our current template is meant to sell us a bill of goods. It’s called Rugged Individualism. At first glance, it seems sturdy enough. Ayn Rand was able to form it into a 900-page pile of bullshit called Atlas Shrugged. But like the book, it’s nothing but paper. We need a template from deeper in our past. A template based on unity.

It’s a simple idea. And it’s one America once believed in. We liked it so much we coded it in Latin and engraved it on our currency. E Pluribus Unum. From the many, one.

The year I was born we changed that. In my lifetime our money, ironically, has been inscribed with In God We Trust. In all that trusting time I watched on TV as we turned fire hoses on, and turned police dogs on—and killed in their churches—disenfranchised people who wanted nothing more than to fully participate in the promise of democracy. And I don’t mean just this past year. Nothing much has changed since the Sixties. I watched as we sent 55,000 young men to their deaths fighting a bogeyman in southeast Asia. And then it was Nicaragua, and Kuwait, and Iraq, and Afghanistan. And Iraq again. Of course, the body count goes down, at least on our side, because we have drones now. Sure there is the euphemistic collateral damage. But what are you gonna do?

While trusting in god, I watched family farms disappear from the countryside, their inefficiencies replaced by corporate farms. After all, if we need to process sentient creatures into protein on the same scale we use for turning iron ore into lug nuts we can’t have Farmer John doing it.

And those are just from the jittery, amplified newsreel. On the quiet side, those fifty years of trust have brought a dearth of leadership, fallacious economic theories that we refuse to stop following, and a continued downward spiral of devaluing human life. Yet somehow the stench of it all has failed to reach the nose of the object of our trust.

If you are not feeling hopeful yet, stick with me.

Our place on this planet is not because we are the fastest or strongest or the most stealthy. It’s not even because we’re the smartest. Although we are pretty damn smart. And it’s not because we have superb communications skills. It’s not even because of all the technology that we trust in now even more than the god who has been absent everywhere but on our money. Nope. It is because we once cooperated.

True, the oversize brain and advanced vocalizations were great tools to have. Are great tools to have. And being able to pass technology from one person to another, from one group to another, lifted the whole. But without that core cooperation, we would never have made it off the savanna. There would not even have been a layer of rock as thick as cigarette paper to tell the story.

Cooperation, though, has become a 21st-century miasma. The mass media assigns names to cooperation, all of them bad: Communist; Socialist; Union organizer; Community organizer. Oddly, they have few bad names for capitalism. And capitalism isn’t even whispering sweet nothings in our ears while it sodomizes us. Yet the laundry soap sponsored media assures us that we don’t need to effect a breakup. That is some decidedly strange crosstalk. Maybe it’s time to strip the bad associations from words that encourage cooperation and get back to what has ensured human success for the past couple of mega-annum.

Back on the savanna, leadership came from those who led. We weren’t sophisticated enough to follow the careful triangulation of politicians or fund managers telling us what we want to hear—or worse, the lies we already believe. Maybe we need to get back to that. Back to a message that, while less palatable, is more simple, more squarely aligned with the story already recorded in layers of stone: You and I, sisters and brothers, need each other. We need to band together to keep moving on. The people who paid for the microphone don’t have our best interests at heart. Oh, yes, and as Bob Dylan said, we need to tell it and think it and speak it and breath it.

My message of hope? We get to decide the thickness of the stone that records our passage on this planet. Something a little thicker than cigarette paper would be nice. For that, we need to get back to what got us this far to begin with. Just like the past 100,000 generations, we were born with the only tools we need. We just have to add some heart.

Walking In Memphis

You cannot get through the Memphis airport without seeing a sign promoting the Big Muddy as “the distribution center of the United States.” Humph, I thought, we’ll see about that. A claim like that cannot stand uncontested. I am willing to test the assertion, but first I have to get through the wall of humidity just beyond the airport door. When I push through, the air greets me like a barber’s towel just back from vacation in a double boiler. I involuntarily draw a deep breath, sending my lungs their first moist air in a six months.

I am here to certify one of our operating room diffusers. It is a task right up my alley: easy enough for a chimpanzee, but one that looks intimidating enough to make others not want to do it. You have to certify these units in situ, which affords me an opportunity to travel. This particular assignment came together at the last minute. Friday, I was in the office minding my own business; Monday I was in Memphis peering into the polished stainless steel bowels of a Sterilflo System, newly installed at Methodist Hospital. They were in such a hurry to use the room that surgeons were scrubbing up while I finished the flow calculations. What does that have to do with the story? Ah, yes. It means that I had allowed two days to do a job that needed to be finished in four hours. That left me with a full day to cool my heels in Memphis. But what to do?

I had some time to ponder the subject while reading in my hotel room. Lately when I travel, I take Tom Robbins along. That Monday afternoon, I had half my brain following the perils of Plucky Purcell, Amanda, Ziller, Mon Cul the baboon, and the Corpse. The other half was searching deep in the dim submarine depths of my memory trying to recall just what was significant about Memphis. Yes, Martin Luther King, Jr. was slain in Memphis. But that happened in my lifetime. Therefore, visiting the spot of the assassination would seem ghoulish, unthinkable. Yes, Graceland is in Memphis. But Graceland is not a monument to Elvis Presley. Graceland is a monument to the nouveau riche decadence of rock ‘n roll. My sweaty hands would not be pushing open the wrought iron gates of the King’s estate. Still, Elvis was tied to the dim memory, which eventually came into focus. The memory was the face of a fish rising from the depths of a mossy pond. From its mouth came silent bubbles forming these words: Sun Studio. Sun Studio, 76 Union Street, Memphis, Tennessee. For fans of American music there may be no more famous an address. Rolling over, I grabbed the phone, phone book, pencil and notepad. Excitedly, I dialed the number. An enthusiastic and well-informed voice extruded through the tiny holes in the earpiece. It explained four of the five W’s and the How. Fantastic! My excitement for my visit the next day carried me through a tasty Cajun dinner at Owen Brennan’s and two pints of Guinness at the Taproom.

I rarely get excited when my shoes stir up dust in the crossroads of history. I am from Pennsylvania. The Keystone State is steeped in history like the teabags of time in the boiler of the Clemont. We routinely walked Braddock’s Road and drove past places where George Washington had slept. In fact one of the few times I can recall true excitement was while visiting West Virginia’s Carnifax Ferry Battlefield with Gawain Emanuel. A small house stood in the middle of this minor Civil War battleground. The family who lived in it was trapped inside during the firefight. Lead must have flown around it like mosquitoes around a moose’s eyeball. I was able to insert my finger into one of the bullet holes in the wood siding and feel the ball still buried within. When I did, the horror of that first mechanized war shot through me like voltage from a three-phase outlet. I have never looked at Pickett’s charge with nonchalance again.

My shoes were not going to stir up any dust at Sun Studio. Between my shoe soles and dirt were linoleum tiles. The tiles were as worn and nondescript as those in Grandma’s pantry. But to me, they shone as brightly as the gilded sidewalks of New Jerusalem. The voltage juiced me once again. I was standing in the same room that once echoed the voices of men who are now legends of American music: Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, Howlin’ Wolf, Carl Perkins, Ike Turner, B. B. King and Jerry Lee Lewis. This was the very same room where Cash, Perkins and Lewis worked out the sound now known as rock ‘a billy. These ceiling tiles heard Ike Turner pound out piano chords for “Jet 88″—the very first rock ‘n roll ever taped. This is where Howlin’ Wolf and B. B. King showed America how to play the blues. Here, using an Apex single-track tape deck, Johnny Cash recorded the hard-luck “Folsom Prison Blues”, and Jerry Lee Lewis captured the raw energy of “Great Balls of Fire.” And I saw the very microphone Elvis used to make his first recording. Looking at it, I could see the shy Southern boy in his wilted cotton suit. I could hear the question put to him by Sam Phillips: Who do you sound like? I could hear him answer in a voice as thick and warm as corn bread: I don’t sound like nobody. All of that had happened in a tiny space no bigger than my bedroom. These legends and their music were drawn to Sun Studio, like mockingbirds to a persimmon tree. From here it went out to the rest of America on vinyl disks, like mockingbirds trapped in molasses. But the sounds didn’t stop, as many tourists do, at the end of the boardwalk in Atlantic City. The sounds were distributed to Dublin.

Dublin is a musical backwater. No. Dublin is the dookie stuck to the heel of true music centers like New York, LA, London and Berlin. If you were to lay odds on which city would give birth to the next great rock band, LA would be the hands-on favorite. Dublin would be the long shot. And yet it was in Dublin that Larry Mullens, Jr. was born. It was in Dublin that he watched Elvis movies and dreamed of being a rock star. Fueled by images of Memphis’s most famous son, he advertised for some mates to form a band. Three persons responded: Bono, Adam Clayton, and The Edge. Together they called themselves U2. In a nation famous for sheep and potatoes, they would take the lead in the upper echelon of pop music while looking for its roots. In the process, their vigor and honesty and plain hard work would make them one of the greatest rock bands of all time, and my personal favorite. Growing up in a musical backwater had the opposite affect on them that living in history’s vest pocket had on me. They yearned to discover what had come before them. When money and opportunity made it possible, they traveled to America to discover the birthplace of rock. They came to Memphis. They recorded in Sun Studio. One song was about Billie Holiday. One was recorded with none other than B. B. King.

The man with the enthusiastic and well-informed voice went through his speech like a sugar metronome dancing on vinyl. While he talked and played recordings, I inched my way around the room looking at the equipment and memorabilia. In one corner was a mid-80’s style Ampeg mixing board. It beckoned me. Like someone accustomed to being summoned by electronic gear, I strolled over. The board was still marked with the masking tape used by recording engineers to note which knobs control which microphones. And there it was: “Bono vocals,” “BB King vocals,” “BB King guitar.” Another shot of electricity from time’s transformer jolted my chest cavity. This was the mixing board used by U2 in those eight recordings. This was the mixing board that captured their tribute to American music. Gingerly, I turned one of the knobs. The circle was complete.

When I was growing up, the men who had emerged from the Mississippi delta and Tennessee hills to record at Sun, were not heroes. We never lionized or canonized them. We simply liked their music. It was only later that I would come to realize that they were legends in the eyes of others. We viewed them as people like ourselves—no one important. And maybe they aren’t. But standing there in Sun Studio that steaming June day, I sensed how important it all was. I had connected with history.

After the tour, I went next door to Tilley’s Café. All of the business for Sun was conducted at Tilley’s. Tilley’s had air conditioning and soft drinks. In the delta, there may be no better criteria for office space. I had business to attend to, so I ordered a coke. My business was figuring out what else I needed to do in Memphis. The turtle of cognition crawled through the mud banks of my memory. I sipped slowly, allowing time to distance myself from the dust-laden voices of the past. After a few sips of the wet brown liquid, I realized where it was I had to go. I pushed myself from Tilley’s into the delta air, air as hot and moist as mashed potatoes. I swam west on Beale Street past the statue of Elvis Presley. It was tarnished and covered with pigeon droppings, despite being less than a year old. I brushed shoulders with the faithful, freshly returned from Graceland, and derelict old black men. I passed the Mt. Olive Baptist Church, a Piggly Wiggly, and a sign that read: Cavalier parking only. In the distance, horns bellowed. They sounded like saxophones coughing up bullfrogs. In the distance, the noon sun reflected off of water the color of old copper. There at the end of Beale Street was the Mississippi River.

There are two natural forces that bind all humans: gravity and moving water. The effects of gravity are easily grasped. The affects of moving water are less readily understood. Why we are drawn to moving water, no one knows. We do know this: Where there are beaches, people stroll along them. Where there are waterfalls, couples will make love within the sound of them. Where there are rivers, people will float them. Moving water has been exploited for commerce, healing, recreation and political boundaries. Moving water occupies our art, our poetry, our stories, and our religions. Hindus bathe in the Ganges. Eden was located at the confluence of two rivers. Christ walked the waves on the Sea of Galilee. It is a river that flows from the throne of the celestial city. The Mississippi is all of those things. And more. It is no accident that our greatest American novelist, Mark Twain, once worked on the Mississippi. Without experiencing its power and magic, he may have ended up as just another hack journalist. You cannot ignore a river like that. A river like that you must touch.

At the end of Beale Street, I turned south along the Chickasaw Bluffs. Eventually I found a place where I could push through the magnolia trees, the kudzu, the poison ivy, and make it down to the river’s muddy banks. The air smelled like it had passed through the gills of a catfish. Squatting down, I placed my palm on the water’s surface, breaking the tension as lightly as a strider in a puddle. What happened was surprising. In fact, if a giant snapping turtle had emerged from the silty depths and in a baritone voice uttered the word “Lackawanna,” I would have been no more surprised. What happened was this: When I dipped my hand into the water of the Mississippi, I felt its history. I could feel the steel clad wheels of the Conestoga wagons roll to a halt at the water’s edge. I could feel a bargeman dislodge his pole from its sucking bottom. I could hear the echoes of steam whistles. I could make out the phantom images of the Chickasaw silently walking the bluffs. I could sense a farmer’s despair riding the annual floodwater like chickens floating on a coop. There was sunburn, rope burn, boiler explosions, panicking horses, sawing, hammering, rifle shots, strolling lovers, spirituals being sung, laughter, sand sliding into canvas sacks. A barge horn broke though my reverie. I looked around. Behind me, Memphis reemerged from the haze. Above me, leaves rustled in a breeze. Insects buzzed. In front of me, wavelets danced on the water of history. The images returned to their hiding places like deer disappearing into the dusk. Standing, I push my way up the embankment, through the cotton wool heat and onto the pavement. I am a pedestrian again.

There was one last thing left to do. This idea was as clear to me as branch water. I had to eat at Corky’s. There are many things hallowed by Southerners. But a lady’s lace petticoats and a powerful sermon pale compared to the reverence afforded to barbecue. Recipes for great sauces are tucked into family Bibles and passed through the generations. A perfectly built grille is deemed worthy of contribution to the Smithsonian. The lowly pork rib is elevated to a position just slightly below Adam’s own bone. In Memphis one barbecue shack reigns supreme: Corky’s. Corky’s was voted #1 by Memphians for 14 straight years. I for one was not leaving the Big Muddy without eating there.

What happened at Corky’s I blame on the man on the Internet. The man on the Internet said I should order a large rack of wet ribs, an order of onion rings and apple pie al la mode. I did. When the waitress brought my meal, I felt defeated. For the first time in my life, I was looking at a plate of food I could not finish. And you are reading the words of someone who finished a Sweet William Spectacular. Did I say “plate of food?” I meant a platter. The rack of ribs came on a platter. The order of onion rings came on a plate. The onion rings must have used all of the three largest onions ever uprooted in the Skagit Valley. And this is not to mention the bread, beans and coleslaw. I maintained my race face and pushed bravely on. But I knew the staff was in the kitchen chiding me. Did you see the order from that skinny white boy? His eyes are bigger than his stomach. Even the onion rings seemed to disapprove. Had they left Washington for nothing? The neon face of a pig beamed at me from across the room. That offered some encouragement. I decided to finish everything but the ribs. Those would be good cold, and I could gnaw on them all evening. I chewed through everything else while muttering about the man on the Internet.

The man on the Internet must have been named Bubba. He must have looked like a refrigerator with a head. He must have been hauled to Corky’s in the bed of a pickup truck. Bubba should not have been allowed to have a computer. I declined the pie, had the remaining ribs boxed up, and sat back to digest my gut-busting feast. My eyes roved around the 50’s style dining area. Overhead on a beam was the familiar FedEx logo. I focused on it. The sign informed me that a meal from Corky’s could be sent overnight to any address in the United States.

Memphis is the main hub for FedEx. The same is true for UPS. Those things and the rail yards and the river ports are undoubtedly what the Chamber of Commerce had in mind when calling the Big Muddy “the distribution center of the United States.” But they missed the boat. Memphis is the locus of American music, American food, and the waters of the delta. The important things distributed from Memphis are not those things that can be tallied on a ledger sheet. They are things that have nothing to do with commerce, and everything to do with soul.

It’s hard to believe it has been twenty years since I was last in Memphis, Tennessee. This account was first published on my website The Flypaper Chronicle in 1998. I hope you enjoyed my reposting it here.