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Friday, February 10, 2023

Notes on the Ballooning Crisis with China


The recent political eruption over the Chinese balloon has revealed an ugly and dangerous  underside of ‘Twitter politics’. This kind of sensational ‘journalism’ is not new. Remember the Maine? If you were alive and paying attention in 1898, you would remember this slogan that drove us to an imperialist war with Spain.  A bomb went off under an American warship, (The Maine) sinking it in Havana harbor. We didn’t know  who set the bomb, and to this day have never determined it, but it led to a rush to judgment and jingo! We stole Spain’s colonial empire. 

Or how about the Incident in the Gulf of Tonkin, where McNamara exaggerated a minor naval incident into a Casus belli that led to 50K American and up to a million Vietnamese dead for essentially nothing?


  This sort of spark is not uniquely American by any means. Bismarck wanted war with France,  so he edited a telegram, (see Ems Telegram) about a minor disagreement with the French to seem as though the French had been insulted, egging them into starting the war that they would lose badly.

 One gets the feeling that we are experiencing this type of public opinion manipulation now. Everybody is jumping on the attack of the balloon, from Fox News to MSNBC. As of today, (Feb 10, 2023) we have heard from  the US State department, claiming that the balloon was capable of sophisticated data collection, hinting at possible telephone conversations being overheard, and used this as the rationale for shooting down the balloon over the Atlantic.  But at the same time they are saying that measures were taken to ensure no important intelligence was leaked. What is this really about?

We have the “China Hawks”, who are shouting about shooting it down sooner, and taking retaliatory measures, that appear to have no bounds. These China Hawks have an irrational hatred of China, and are part of a multi-generational American faction that have hated China ever since Truman stopped MacArthur from nuking Beijing (or Peking, as it was known in the West in those days.) Their motto then was “Unleash Chiang Kai Chek!” under the delusion that the losers of a 20 year Civil War could return from Taiwan and take back the Mainland from the Party that had just defeated them.     

The China Hawks grumbled when Nixon went to China, yelled when Carter let the Mainland into the UN, (and demoted Taiwan), and have silently simmered as their bank accounts fattened as more and more trade developed between the US and China.

But this trade (in part) led to the demise of many industries here, and it has hit working people the hardest. There are other factors involved in this decline that have nothing to do with China, as well, but they are glossed over. This decline in American manufacturing has led to a reorientation of US politics, flipping the economic classes and the parties that represent them. The result being the rise of Trump, who leaned heavily on racism and warlike bluster to gin up hatred of China among the Walmart shoppers who purchase Chinese made consumer goods. The Rs cravenly jumped on the Trump bandwagon and turned China into a sinister ‘Fu Manchu’ power that has a ‘Plan’ to destroy America.  


Oddly, many of those same ‘China Hawks’ have shown sympathy for Putin, and seem ready to forgive his blatant attack on Ukraine.  

We have been through this before. In the 1950s, many of the Americans who really understood the facts on the ground in China were purged from government and academia.  They had seen the futility in supporting the Guomindang, (国民党)ie. The Nationalists, who ended up fleeing to Taiwan in 1949.  This led to a loss of knowledge about China, creating a blind spot that led to disastrous mistakes.

As we subsequently learned, Mao had no love for Russia or Stalin, and we could have avoided the Korean War with a bit of diplomacy.  Mao had no love for American liberal democracy either, for sure, and he did  become  unhinged with his many mad schemes from 100 Flowers, Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, etc. But how much of that was the result of the American imposed international isolation? It is impossible to answer that, but the policies we did have at that time were a failure.  They led to to two wasting wars on the Asian mainland, and 30 years of non-contact.  Would the aging Eisenhower have allowed those policies to flourish  if he wasn’t protecting his ‘crazy right flank’(ie. Joe McCarthy)?   

Biden appears again to be  allowing us to fall into another period of China bashing, also at the behest of his Crazy right Flank, (ie. Kevin McCarthy - front man for Cotton, Marco, Cruz, et al).  He is trying to control it, with nuanced outrage, canceling the Blinken trip, and protesting the balloon. Hopefully this will die down as the Rs seem more interested in Hunter's laptop.

China is not going to be internationally adventurous. Its recent outbursts have been extremely costly and will weaken Xi’s grip on power. He has awakened Japan, the Philippines are re-signing treaties with the US, and the Indian border is warming up. They don’t need any of this after losing two years of economic growth because of COVID. It has too much to lose. It is surrounded by potential enemies that loom much larger than the US.  Xi’s (and his right wing) recent threats to Taiwan are hollow.  Stability is its prime directive. They will go to any length to maintain it, including locking up its own political dissidents, which is horrible, but this is nothing new, and we can’t totally remake a country with 5000 years of continuous history, and ways of governing itself. 

Biden’s instincts are correct, that we engage with China, adjust to the changing economic situation regarding trade, but keeping in mind what any student of economics knows - that trade is good, it lifts everyone, it adds wealth to all. But we should not fall into the ignorant cacophony of China bashing.  Having lived there and developed friendships, yes, I am biased, but I also have the benefit of understanding a little bit about how things work and how China really thinks and feels about the world and the US in particular.  They know we are a better bet long term as friends. We should not close them off again.  


For more on American blunders in Asia see review of "The China Mirage". 


The China Mirage




Monday, January 16, 2023

Land Mark



Land Mark (1976)

I was lying on my back, on top of the six cubit high stone block,
drinking wine, and was watching the stars slowly begin to appear
as the sun set. Venus glowed and twinkled in the western desert,
and a slight breeze cooled the air. Pronti, the Easterner, and boss of the raft, was telling us about his brief time working around the top-stone crew.

The Top Stoners were highly paid cutters, and almost everyone hates them. “I saw them let one slide down and crush two worker, killing one, eventually,” said Pronti. “An accident, one of them said. Another one laughed. I punched him, and the other jumped me, and I broke his arm. I was reassigned after that. Stuck here with all of you.”

Pronti is a good boss. I suppose if I insisted, I could have been boss,but, frankly I didn’t want it. This is my last run anyway.

“But they are highly skilled right,” said Andue, who had the rudder.
“Years of training.”

“No, not really. You can learn in weeks, if you pay attention.
Longer to get good of course. But it’s also about talent. Only a few get really good. It is about handling the light saws. I was in the caravan that brought them over from the Eastern edge. It takes about two, three weeks to learn the basics. But sometimes they do have to do it by hand - rather - if the grain is right, you can get a better cut with a hammer and chisel. That is skill, that is what slow things down because there are only a few guys who can do that. Grulon is a better cutter than any of them, but they don’t like Southerners, so that would be a problem. It is all fucked up. I would rather work with you guys.”

Grulon and Andue were from way down river, beyond the headwaters, from the Green Hills.

“Why’d they let you go Pronti?” Andue couldn’t get enough of Pronti’s stories. He was both different and authentic, salt of the earth, like him and Grulon. Me, I was just different, at least in their eyes. But I knew things, and I shared what I knew, so I mostly got along with everyone, as long as I played the fool.

“In Zhumud”, said Pronti, “we already have mountains - you wouldn’t be able to breathe at the top of even the smaller ones, even if you could stand the cold.”

“You ever climb those cold mountains Pronti?” Andue worshiped Pronti, a fact his countryman Grulon thought comical.

“When I was young, sure. It was expected. We all did, even the women. I lived above the clouds. We don’t need to build mountains.”

“We have mountains in the south. Plenty high. Only goats live there.”

“Goats!” Pronti laughed. “Even in the foothills of Zhumud, the birds
can’t reach the top.”

Andue looked at Grulon, who shook his head, not believing any of
it. He reached for the wineskin. I knew Pronti was right, because I had flown over the Zhumud mountains. Pronti caught my eye and smiled.

“Why did you leave Zhumud Pronti?”

“You have woman trouble,” Grulon asked.

Pronti was silent. He looked at Grulon, began to say something,
then stopped.

“Why do you bring that up?” Andue threw a small rock at Grulon.

“Is it because your wife…” Grulon leaped like a cheetah on Andue, and punched him.

“Get off him! Yes, I had ‘women trouble’. Yes! I wasn’t the only workman she sought out. But…” There was more to the story of course, but Pronti wasn’t about to tell it.

“Like Grulon’s wife!” said Andue, as he pushed away from his countryman.

“Anyway, after I was dismissed from the Emperor’s honor guard, I helped Fontu come here,” Pronti continued. “I never realized who he was or why he was coming here. I thought he was just a rich traveler.”

I had worked with Fontu when I was with the Planners.

“You knew him, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” I said. “He understood the project better than the lead builders. They were too preoccupied with their numbers and the way the stars aligned.”

The rough squaring of the stone is done on the boat. The finer the work we do, the more money we make. But if we take off too much, the block won’t fit and will be useless. This block, the one we carried was nearly perfect, except for an overhang on one side.

Grulon’s chisel work was the best I have ever seen. Sometimes, with a few well placed shots, he can finish a piece as smooth as a top stone. He sees the flow of the grain better than anyone. Andue, however, wants to cut all the time, in little bits. Chip, chip, all the way up the river. It is the safest way, he says. He wants all of us to work like that, rather than risk a bad cut. Pronti had told me he had never seen Grulon make a bad cut.

Prontus and myself aren’t great cutters, and would rather let Grulon do his magic. Grulon climbed up on the block with his hammer and chisel.

“Wait,” yelled Andue. “Why aren’t we all just chipping at it? We can gradually get it almost perfect.”

“Almost perfect.” Grulon laughed as he prepared to find his groove.

“Wait a minute!” said Pronti. He studied the stone impatiently, aware as anyone that he was probably the least expert of us in the matter of stone cutting.

“Its a question of value, Pronti,” I said. “Is our free time on the boat
worth the slight chance that we ruin the stone?”

“No,” he answered.

“Fuck you then,” said Grulon. He jumped down off the stone and took the rudder. “I ain’t helping you with that.” He took a big pull from the wine bag. “You guys can chip all you want.” He handed me the wine and I took a good pull myself. I agreed with him. Really perfect work brought a significant bonus. It was worth the risk to let Grulon do it. We both sat in the bow, and I dug the last wineskin out from the supplies. Pronti and Andue were chipping and whispering to each other.

“I thought you could do it,” I said.

Grulon smiled and lay back. It was a big wine-skin.

Grulon was soon asleep, and I was restless, so I grabbed a hammer and chisel and jumped back up on the stone. Pronti took the rudder.

“How much further?,” asked Pronti.

Andue looked at the river bank. “Tomorrow morning, maybe early

When the sun went down we stopped at a village lit up by several
large campfires and bought more wine and a side of antelope. Andue and Pronti climbed up on the stone and made a fire. I woke Grulon and he had trouble climbing the stone. We all laughed at him, and he laughed too, and the argument of earlier seemed forgotten. I went for a twilight swim before joining them.

I floated along behind the raft to avoid snags, and wondered why I
was enjoying life so much now that I had left the Council. They were moving away from the original purpose, drifting into megalomania. The so-called Pharaoh was merely their puppet now. He really thought they were building his mausoleum. I looked up and saw an Atlantian ship, heading east.

At that moment, I knew they were taking Fontu’s body back to his
home. How the river must look from up there tonight! Hundreds of
dinner fires on the floating stone blocks, all in a line as far down
river as you could see.

With Fontu gone, there were no wise ones left.

“Fontu is dead,” said Pronti. Andue was eating with carnivorous
gusto and Grulon was nibbling and drinking.

“How did you know,” I asked. Pronti shrugged. What a waste of
talent! But it was too late to harness it. I was glad for him actually,
because I knew what it meant to have your powers harnessed.

“I guess I will marry and settle in this desert,” he said. I nodded.

Andue immediately began telling Pronti about the quarter he lived
in. “It is a good place. Close to the docks. We have nice places to eat and shop. It isn’t too wild, good for children.” Pronti nodded. I saw he was thinking of his son being raised in the palace of a princess. His princess.

I had the first shift on the rudder. I woke at the first light and could
see the unloading terminal ahead. We made good time. The river
was up from yesterday. They were already pulling one up off the
raft. In this light that was dangerous. We would be second in line.
The council was growing impatient at the pace of work, it seemed.

“Perhaps in our lifetime,” I could almost hear their idle chatter. I am
leaving this land. I will go north to the forest, beyond the sea. No
more of this foolishness.

“Look at that!” Grulon was pointing. Four Atlantian ships taking
off together. Any flock of birds would launch themselves with more
style and synchronicity. I wasn’t impressed, and did not hide my

Andue and Pronti hadn’t expected to arrive so soon. “Must of rained like a motherfucker back home,” said Andue. Grulon nodded. We only had a couple of hours at most to finish cutting the stone. It was too late to let Grulon find a proper groove now. So we all chipped away furiously, including Grulon. Every pebble cut was more money.

I got off the raft, collected my pay, which was better than I had expected, and said goodbye. Although they would have no trouble replacing me, they were all silently mad that I was leaving, and soon I was a stranger to them. After a couple days, they would be on camels headed south to get the next raft. I bought a donkey and started for the coast.

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Nightmare for a Gilded Stalion (1973)


Slowly, Tom walked toward Shorty’s Cafe. It was around dusk, and

 cold. Muffled thunder rumbled in the distance and Tom was 

enveloped by a strange feeling of melancholic discombobulation.

He wandered into the dingy diner and decided not to sit at a booth. 

He only wanted coffee. He sat on the backless, round counter seat,

 two stools over from an old man, who was nodding in starts and fits.

 Tom caught a whiff of urinal cake ammonia.  A fly wobbling with a 

sputtering buzz, circled around a doughnut case. Behind him, in a 

booth, a loud teenage girl in a faded maroon blouse was ribaldly 

entertaining a couple of old hobos.

Tom felt at home here. He took out a small notebook he always kept 

in his back pocket and wrote, “The bizarre nature of this dive 

seduces my imagination to induce cerebral semen into the fertile 

and virgin regions of my intellect.” He clicked his pen and put it back 

in his front short pocket and sipped his coffee with some self-


A raven-haired woman entered Shorty’s, dragging a beat up suitcase. 

She was wearing a flowery, silken red dress, the hem of which drug 

across the dirty linoleum cafe floor.  She was looking around as if 

distracted by something.  Tom couldn’t guess her age - she looked 

18, maybe 20,  but something about her face, or the haunted look in 

her eyes told him she was older.  She sat down next to him. He 

looked at her, smiled and lifted his coffee to her.

“Is the coffee any good?”

Tom shrugged noncommittally.

She scowled, looked away and shook her head.

Tom stared at her until she turned back toward him.

“You can’t even commit to how you feel about a cup of coffee, can 


Tom’s puzzled look turned to a chuckle. “It’s - I don’t know.”  He took 

a sip and made a face. “It’s coffee.”  He kept an anodyne face, but 

inside began to feel both dread and excitement.

She looked directly at him. They held each other’s gaze for an 


“The coffee sucks,” he said.  “But that is an opinion. Not a 

commitment.”  From behind the counter Shorty looked at Tom, then 

at the woman, blinked slowly and held up the pot.

The raven haired woman smiled sadly. “Sure.” She pointed at her cup.

 “I have to stay awake so I don’t miss the next bus out of here.”

“Where you heading?”



Tom looked at her and again she looked back.  They sat in silence 

listening to the teenage girl’s laughter change to sobbing. A garbled 

argument between her companions was slowly escalating. Tom shook

his head and made a strained face and the woman in the long red 

dress and black hair seemed amused at his discomfort.  

“You need a place to crash tonight?”

“Probably.  Why?”

“You could stay at my place tonight. There will always be another 


She looked at Tom, and laughed, but continued staring at him. Tom 

didn’t look away. She shrugged and nodded.  He got up, paid for 

both of their coffees and picked up her suitcase.  They walked out 

together.  As they strolled past the shops on Main street, the lights in

the shop made Tom feel he was on stage with an unseen audience 

watching from the street.

Spring came quickly. This has all been a dream, thought Tom. Things

 are never surprising in dreams.  He was looking out his window at 

the rain, which was more than a drizzle and less than a downpour.  It 

was foggy and even though he had stared out his bedroom window 

countless times, the view seemed to flicker between the familiar and 

some other place. Tom leaned over the bed and shook Mary.

“Let’s go down to Shorty’s for breakfast. Come on, we’ll walk.” Mary 

acted annoyed, but beneath that Tom sensed her reluctance - almost

 - but not quite - fear. But he ignored it, subconsciously telling himself 

that she was just sleepy.  “Come on, it will be fun. We have not been 

back there since we met.”

She sat up, then after a bit, got up, and pulled on faded jeans over 

her well shaped legs. She slipped on a black sweater and combed 

her long dark hair straight back and then let it fall lightly on her 

shoulders. Meanwhile, Tom pulled on a tee shirt and climbed into a 

pair of mechanics overalls. They walked out into the cool spring rain, 

holding hands.

The rain matted Mary’s hair down. Tom looked at her with awe and a 

smidge of fear.  He suddenly realized he was - happy, complete, more

than content - but in love?  It might be love, he wasn’t sure - this was 

the first time he ever felt this way. He must have been, even though 

the winter had passed almost without notice. At least it must have 

passed, he thought.  As they exited Tom’s apartment, they skipped 

together for about ten yards, Yellow Brick Road style, a little ritual 

they had acquired somehow. But soon stopped and walked steadily, 

watchfully. Tom couldn’t remember the last time they had been out 


A Lincoln Continental with dark mirrored windows pulled up next to 

them and stopped, and a small man in a gray, tight fitting jacket and 

a skinny dark tie, got out of the back seat and stepped toward them.

“He wants you to come home,” he said to Mary.  She squeezed Tom’s

 hand, and looked up.  She lowered her head and stared blankly at 

Tom.  The water on her cheeks could have been rain or tears.

“Come with me?” she said.

Tom nodded once with a determined and worried look.

They got in the back of the Lincoln together.  The front seat was 

empty, and the man in the tight-fitting sport coat got in the driver’s 

seat and drove down Main a couple of blocks and parked in front of 

the bank, the biggest building in town.  He waited while Mary and 

then Tom got out. An old man in a bellhop uniform came out of the 

bank and  ushered the three of them into the main entrance.

Inside, several men respectfully said hello, but the man in the sport 

coat ignored them and led Tom and Mary behind the counter, and 

down a hallway to an elevator with a security number pad. They got 

in, but it went down. It came to a stop  and the three of them got out 

in front of spacious, clean well-lit offices. They saw a number of 

beautiful people working.  It was like there was an modern metropolis

underneath Tom’s sleepy college town. 


She gave Tom a stony look, as though to say “not here!” There was 

no fear, no remorse, no hint of what was amiss on her face. But no 

awe or surprise either.  Tom tried to wipe his mind of any thoughts. 

They turned right and walked through a glass door and stepped down

 into a vast lobby.  Across the room on an elevated platform was a 

naked man nailed to a wooden cross. The naked man lifted his head 

and opened his eyes and cried, 


“I gave him his chance in the desert.”  Tom turned around and 

looked at the man in the tight fitting sport coat who had driven them 

to the bank.  “The bastard could have used Mystery, or Caesar's 

sword, he could have fed them, awed them, and ruled them. It would 

have all been so much simpler. Instead he gave them all false hope.”

“Mother forgive me! I didn’t know what I was doing!”

With a stoic face, she turned away and said to Tom, “Let’s get the 

hell out of here.” She sneered at the thin man in the gray jacket, “We 

are closing our account,” she exclaimed. She and Tom walked back 

to the elevator.

“OK,” said Tom. “What now?”

“Get your savings out in cash. We are going to need more room.  I 

am pregnant.”



Tom looked out the window of Shorty’s all night cafe. The dark haired

 woman was lugging her heavy suitcase across the street to the bus 

station. The thunder that had seemed distant before was now closer, 

but somehow it was less ominous. 

It was starting to become light outside. Tom waited for the bus to 

leave, then walked back to his basement apartment in the drizzling 


Friday, December 23, 2022

The Spirit of America (1976)


The Spirit of America (1976)

I  figured I couldn’t  lose. Not that I am a particularly sharp guy, but I figured, if you got the vibes right, if you are in touch with the harmony of the Dao, or Tao, or whatever it is that hums in the background of the Cosmic Flow of Things, then you can’t lose. I guess I thought I was in tune with all that.

Ya see, I’ve been doing some Yoga (Yogi?)  meditations lately.  Yogi called the pitches and (if nobody was on second) one was a fastball, two a curve, and three is a knuckler if you have reached the point where you can stop the Universe from spinning. But then, I never would have been much of a catcher, being so skinny and left handed.

Anyway, me and a certain Mr. Constantine Delaney, he works down at the shop with me, we’ve been tracing down the circuits checking for shorts, trying to design on-the-fly a system superior to the present model. We figure, sure it seems kind of faddish and hokey, but at least it was, so far as we could tell, ecologically sound. And - they paid us, not very well, it’s true, still who are we to complain?  We just work here.

We got results too. We got the juice to run through all the circuits without burning anything out.   We had trouble turning off the machine sometimes, because, (we aren’t ready for any kind of demo yet) the self-sufficiency function, the perpetual motion aspect of it just would not turn off.  It worked too good, which of course was the wrong thing to say to the boss.  It’s like it would get stuck in the wires.  We are still adjusting it, and sometimes it seems like we are making progress, but what does that mean anyway?

A Talk with "Cuny" Delaney before Commencing the Mission 

“Of course the system is infallible if the operator is properly trained,” said the chief operator (or so he was called around the office).. 

“Infallible?  Trained? …  Infallible? …  Come on!”


“Control is the key,” said the controller, without looking at me.  I stared at him with studied absorption.  Could I handle it, I wondered? The housing of the system seemed solid enough, if a bit worn from age. “Have you been practicing?”

I hesitated. “Yes,” I said with forced confidence. 

“Then you should have no trouble.”


“But what?” 

I felt a welling up of power from Delaney.  I definitely felt it. There was no denying it. 

“But nothing,” I said. “I can do it.”

Remember - it’s all in your head.” I nodded. “You are on your own now. Now get the fuck out of my shop!”  I saw “Cun” Delaney no more.

A Mostly True Account of a Journey Across the Desert in Search of Riches and Freedom

She was in the bathroom, teasing out her beehive, and I was looking out the window, polishing my Seventh Cavalry belt buckle. I was confident. The only thing that bothered me was that we were leaving so late. I wanted to make the Salt Flats by sundown, and it looked like we would be lucky if we made it past the lake before it got dark.  Before I brought him over the Rockies with a heavy U-Haul hitched to his ass, my Javelin could have made it once we were out of the city. I remember once, coming across Southern Illinois at four in the morning, a jacked up Ford Mach One tried to…

“Come back,” I could hear the master’s voice in the ether. (he might have sounded like Alec Guinniss). But was he really saying it or was it just my conscience?  But wherever and whoever, it didn’t matter. Right now I should be meditating and I should have been doing that even more then. I should have been getting in tune with the Tao or Dao, or whatever, because I was going to need to flow with the tide if I was going to get anywhere. 

“There you go again,” I heard his voice again (was it Reagan this time - no, couldn’t be…)  I needed to get completely together, fitting the jigsaw puzzle of my soul into the seamless pattern of the big kahuna.   I’ll be honest with you. I’m talking about things that seem far away, things that took place too long ago. I was stupid thinking I could get away with this blasphemy. A minor poet wrote during the last days of the Roman Empire, :There is nothing to write about anymore.  Everything worth mentioning has been told before.”  

The scholarly medieval historian who pointed this out noted that this was typical of a society in decline, a society that had outlived its usefulness. I promised myself I would never succumb to this kind of attitude. I would be original regardless of where it took me, no matter what the implications. I will not be decadent. 

So I packed my cash (fifty bucks) and we headed out on I-80, toward Wendover with dreams of making piles of money, but most importantly, proving that we had mastered the Dao (or Tao) of Chance.  I have been successful in the last few weeks in my meditation exercises. I had begun to smoke a pipe too, and as I watched the smoke curl out of my mouth, I would watch it closely, and I could read signs in it. This smoke had been to the core of my being and would leave with the foretelling of my future. Cancer of course, but also what was in store more immediately. I felt I was ready. 

In the rear view mirror the Wasatch Mountains shrunk as the sun reflected in my eyes off of the Great Salt Lake. The radio said, “Lord knows I’m sinnin’ and a drinkin’, he don’t need your big mouth to tell the town.”  As I sang along, I sensed my mission was turning into a holiday, a respite from the struggles of life.  I turned off the radio.  It was sabotaging my focus.

The Sex Machine raced the sun and in middle age showed a hint of what he had been in his prime. 80,90,95 then he coughed and I let up, and we sailed on like we had just left nothing for nowhere. She slid over next to me, between the bucket seats, and the sun went down before we reached the Salt Flats, but it didn’t matter now because I knew that whatever happened didn’t matter. 

Didn't matter? Yes - that was it! That was the ticket to ride!

Wendover was brightly visible in the dark, a magnet in the wilderness, and like a spacecraft hurtling toward a planet, we picked up speed as we got closer. The gravity pulled us off the freeway and we crept up to the State Line Casino.

What Came to Pass in the Bowels of the Monster, 

How it Devoured Our Hero, 

and Spit Him up, and 

How he Returned Again, 

Only to be Vomited Again, 

and Be Driven Back Across the Desert  

Thick carpets, gaudy colors, Tension, more tension, no smiles, packed like sardines, packed with people who smell like they eat sardines while they smoke. The Black Jack tables are full, there is no room to play. Crowd around the Crap table like victims of a dysentery epidemic around an outhouse. No smiles when they win, no frowns when they lose. Surly barkeep. Hokey  entertainment. I feel like I am starting to crumble.

I came back from the cashier with quarters, and started playing the machines. “Keep pumping those quarters in,” quipped a hippie with a leather headband, long silky hair, knee-high buckskin boots, an Indian print pullover who was holding hands with a lifeless, hollow-eyed hippie fairy queen. The old lady next to me did what was commanded and kept pumping in quarters. I went looking for a drink.

Frank Sinatra had been there only last week. He cussed out the woman he came with and pushed her down. His karma still hung over the room like a bad smell, and there was an anti-matra humming in the room that was staining the souls of everyone there.  We sat in the lobby, away from the machines and watched two young children talk to one another.  It seemed profound at the time, 

“Wow, I said.

She shook her head. 

I said, “You know this isn’t like the friendly poker games we have at lunch hour at the shop.”

Again, she shook her head.

We sat there, in stunned silence wonder what we were going to do next.

The Crap Table    (a parable of green)

A forty year old woman, alone, was standing across from me at the crap table. She was drunk and getting drunker, chain smoking, betting sporadically, and needed more Poligrip. I was betting and losing irregularly,  winning just enough to keep me at the table. Every four or five passes, when I ‘won’, she would reach for my chip as if it were hers. Sometimes I wouldn’t be sure if it was mine or not.  Mostly she would just hold it down with her finger, pushing it in a circle, but once she took the chip. I just stared at her. The croupier looked away.

“That’s mine, mam.” 

She stopped and acted like a helpless flower about to be picked by a wanton little boy.  I looked to the right, and an older man,  in a cowboy hat, who had a complicated betting system said, “It’s yours.” She slowly pushed  the chip away from her pile with her forefinger. She looked at me, and then the man with the complicated voting system and laughed with a slightly hysterical tinge, then bet again.  I suddenly realized I had lost my thread, that any good vibes I had before left the building after I submitted to the judgment of an old man in a cowboy hat for a lousy five dollar chip. The magic was gone, if it was ever there at all.

This Is My Problem

I had ten dollars left out of the fifty I brought. I thought, OK, don’t go back broke, quit now.  But something still gnawed at me.  

“Forty bucks, just like that!” I said to no one in particular, even though she was walking right next to me as we searched that parking lot for The Sex Machine. I was half hoping someone would try and rob us. I wanted to fight somebody. 

But she was grinning. Her beehive was drooping over her ears. This was just a masquerade ball for her, and I think she was amused by my distress. She had shown no interest in my theory of riding the Tao to bending the laws of chance in our favor.

We had about an eighth of a tank of gas in the car, about enough to get back the Salt Lake City.  It was close though. We had decide now, because there were no gas stations out on the Salt Flats. Play it safe, buy more gas, or play for keeps and hope the camel can hump it home.

“Let’s get something to eat,” I said.  I wasn’t talking to myself when I said this, but I might as well have been. Then I saw her shake her head, almost imperceptibly, so I was pretty sure she heard me.

“Look,” I said as we walked into the diner, where the walls were covered by a multi-generational panorama of the many rocket ships on wheels that had broken succeeding land speed records on the flats  just west of here, “are you pissed off at me for losing almost all of our money? For nothing?”  

And she knew what I meant by nothing too, because the whole evening had been a drag, as if we were being dragged behind one of those rocket ships on wheels, over cold sand and cacti. Or cactus. 

“Naw!” She gave me a big kiss. Then I looked closer at the wall behind her. It was Craig Breedlove standing next to his rocket ship on wheels,  “The Spirit of America”. It was beginning to make sense to me now.  It wasn’t a drag - we were being pulled into the future.

We split an order of onion rings and a BLT, both of which tied for the title of “The Worst”. 

“Ya know,” I said, not quite between mouthfuls,”We got about six bucks left.” She nodded.  “And they have almost forty five of ours.” I paused to let that sink in. “This is a critical decision, right here honey.” She looked puzzled, but I was beginning to get my bearings. You can’t go wrong if the other person doesn’t not know what you are talking about. THey can’t second guess you then. “We have to go back to the casino. If we quit every time things don’t go our way, we will never get anywhere.”

“Let’s put some gas in the car fir…”

“No!” She shook her head and rolled her eyes, as she finished my coke. I wanted to ask her for a sip to wash down the bacon that was sticking to my teeth, but I wanted to save any moral strength to rally her for our counter attack on the casino. 

“What if we lose?”

I didn’t want to entertain that kind of question. “Don’t worry honey.”  The thought of her doing a little ‘play for pay’, passed through my head very very quickly, but I dismissed it unequivocally.  I was almost sure we had enough gas to get back. We were going uphill, and the gauge was a bit below a quarter tank, but it reads like that on an up-slope.


I looked at my watch, and drummed my fingers. How long was this going to take. I kept staring at the door, waiting for her to come out. She never takes this long. Finally, she hiked up her slacks as she walked toward me. 

“You wouldn’t believe that bathroom,” she said.

It was after one. We went back in and it was packed.  But the black jack tables were closed for some reason.  I knew it was hopeless, but we tried craps again and the band was playing, as the croupier took our last $5 chip, and she laughed as walked out to the parking lot.  Maybe I am not such a big Zen Master after all.

But we couldn’t stop laughing as the Sex Machine took us home, and that felt pretty good. "Kun" Delaney is going to have a big laugh too on Monday morning. But really it was only fifty bucks after all.