Wednesday, May 12, 2010

getting away from things

All we knew was that we had to get away. We drove down the highway towards Carmel, Calif., with the Pacific Ocean on our right, and away from Monterrey where both of us were attending what was then called the Army Language School, a place where, for six hours a day, five days a week, both Joe and I memorized more and more and more German in what felt like a pressure cooker of endless attention. But today was a Saturday, the sun was shining and we needed to get away ... anywhere that was away.

We were, I suppose, 20 or 21 and were better equipped to hate things. The language school was something we could hate volubly when we found free time to hate in. Most weeks there was neither time nor energy for any perspective -- the learning was intense and stifling and, like some Chinese water torture, drip-drip-dripped onto our foreheads and into our minds until ... until Saturday when we could flee and could stop thinking and reciting and forgetting and then learning some more. It was 1962 and we were much better quipped to hate things.

We were in Joe's red MG-B -- a small, sleek sports car that could make anyone feel good. Like Joe's love of Jack Daniels, an up-scale whiskey that privates like us could hardly afford for long, the MG was one of Joe's statements that the poverty he had grown up in in Tennessee was no longer a part of his life. He had gotten away from that and now had a sports car, a love of fine liquor and opera that could make him cry, and a longing to return to the place he had escaped ... because that was where Jinx lived. Jinx -- and I never did find out how she came by such an unfortunate name -- was more than twice his age and Joe yearned to marry her. She too was a way to escape the lock-down of a hard-scrabble life. On nights when we drank in local bars, Joe would slip away from the bar and into the nearest phone booth to call Jinx and then return to the bar with tear streaks on his face. He wanted to get away then too ... but getting away just made him more aware of where he was ... not with Jinx, not with the woman he loved.

On this particular Saturday, though, the MG's top was down, the sun was shining and the language school receded in the rear-view mirror. We were getting away and the further away we got, the better things seemed. We could not see the future, but we damned sure could see the immediate past ... the studies that even the army conceded in one of its welcome-aboard booklets might make anyone consider committing suicide.

I suppose Joe and I debated whether to go into Carmel, the wealthy community that would one day have actor Clint Eastwood for a mayor. But we had been before and rejected the notion in favor of a left turn that headed east into the scruffy mountains. We didn't know what lay down that road and not-knowing somehow compounded the feeling that we were getting away. The road went straight for some distance and then, abruptly, turned left at the base of the hills. Turned left and turned to dirt.

And shortly after that left turn and the initial ascent into the hills, there were peacocks in the road ... strolling casual and confident from one side to the other, their luxurious and brilliant feathers trailing out behind them. A farmhouse to the right identified their owners, but the bizarre nature of our discovery -- peacocks, for Christ's sake! -- was the perfect fodder for a couple of guys trying to get away from things. It was, for an instant, like entering some deliciously inexplicable dream ... peacocks and beautiful and enfolding and ... well, this was 'away' for sure.

Beyond the peacocks, the road became a pedestrian adventure in avoiding ruts and rocks. Higher and higher the road snake through the parched land. Scrub trees, sandy soil, occasional drop-offs. It was dry and hot. Up and up we went. Up 5,000 feet, I later learned. At the pinnacle of our ascent, there were signs telling us to check in with the forest ranger, an older fellow who inhabited a tower that could see far and wide and keep an eye out for forest fires. All the tourists checked in with him so that he could know who, in an emergency, was lost or had met some misfortune.

"What do you boys do?" he asked laconically. And when we told him we were in language school in Monterrey, he observed more as a statement than a question, "Gonna be spies, hunh?"

The statement caught both Joe and me flat-footed. The idea that we would become spies had never occurred to us. We could not see into the future as the forest ranger could. Joe could not see that he would serve out his army time, return to Tennessee, marry Jinx, mourn her loss in a car accident, come out of the homosexual closet, become a librarian at a college, get hooked on heroin and become the scourge of the male students on campus. I could not see that I would get out of the army, work for a book publisher, become a newspaper reporter, get involved with Zen Buddhism, get married, have three kids and find myself remembering a time when we wanted to get away while sitting at a keyboard that didn't even exist at the time. We were dumbfounded, but the ranger was serene. It all seemed so unlikely ... spies? Us? No way, Jose!

From our five thousand feet ascent, we descended three thousand -- further and further into the mountains until, at last, we came to a dead end. Tasajara Springs was a destination for people who came for the curative waters among a group of rough-hewn houses and cabins. There was a boccie court and a swimming pool and the phone number was TA-sajara 1. Nestled among all those arid hills, it was a true get-away and we had gotten away.

The first thing I did after leaving the car was to run full tilt at the swimming pool that beckoned in front of our parking spot. It was instinctive in all that dry, hot heat and it was only as I leaped over the rim of the pool and was halfway towards the cool, blue waters below, that I caught a glimpse of the watch strapped to my left wrist, a watch I had forgotten to take off in my mad dash to get away from the heat. It was worth the loss, I thought as I descended into the cool water. Gawd, it felt great, clothes and all.

People were welcoming and friendly and we stayed for dinner and then took a couple of bunks in one of the cabins. At dinner, there was an old piano player, a guy who had come to California in 1898 and had slept in San Francisco parks with newspapers tied around his shins to keep out the cold. He played old-time-y songs and when the evening wound down and it was time for bed, he called all the visiting children around him and gave each of them a penny ... a way of saying that he too had gotten away from a time in the past when he didn't have a penny.

Early the next day, I walked out of the cabin and surveyed my surroundings. Nestled as the houses were among the hills, it felt like an oasis. A small brook chortled through the grounds and, given the sere surroundings, it was like a blessing both in its life-giving potential and its smooth advance to some point beyond the populated grounds. It was like the pennies the old man had given away -- drawing the attention and delight because there was so little else that was gentle in that land. Tasajara was somehow a blessing through and through in my mind. It was quiet and inviting and sustaining. There was something careful and caring in it and I swore to myself that I would return one day ... somehow I would come back and feel enfolded again.

I never did go back, but when I heard in later years -- years in which I studied Zen Buddhism back on the east coast -- that Tasajara had become a Zen center, I knew it was the right thing. A perfect perfection that was not 'away' from anything. Studying Zen, I realized I did not have to go back to Tasajara, though I often wanted to. Tasajara came with the territory, came with the land, came with this life ... even on the east coast 3,000 miles away.

I was happy Tasajara became a Zen center, but in the back of my mind there was some niggling, nibbling thought that turning it into a Zen center was too blatant somehow, too over-the-top ... too much like saying the sky was blue when the sky was blue. The blessing of the place was too apparent, too clear, too inescapable to warrant being gussied up with something called Zen practice. The brook went about its business, the air was dry and hot and I will always associate the place with a piano player who gave pennies to the kids.

No one can get away from Tasajara.