The Archeology of a Small-town Massachusetts Life
keith harmon snow
Massachusetts, April 2005
(A declined submission to THE SUN Magazine, with Post Script October 2005)
eslie’s dead. It’s fifteen below zero. Ghost is on the porch, shivering in the excitement of stalking the squirrels under the bird feeder. Still a young cat at six months, Ghost is the only thing at Leslie’s old house that does not reek of decay or entropy. His being is still unfolding, a little white joy on four legs. He freezes, one leg in mid-air, when the squirrels look up, and then he advances, in inches. Dad and I watch him from the kitchen as he plots a massacre.
In the whiteness of the blizzard, and in the sunshine after, the white Ghost is invisible. It’s only when he looks at you that you see him – and then you see that he has one blue eye and one green, and in these eyes a look of innocent wonder. The squirrels are alert, they clutch their seeds and split them on hind legs, and one day Ghost will fly off the porch and sink his teeth into a squirrel and the blood will spurt out and freeze bright red on the white snow and on the snow white face of Ghost. The world stops for Ghost when he sees a squirrel; raw instinct overpowers his consciousness, kind of like truth and justice blinded by a flag.
Dad calls him Mouser Cats and when he hollers: “Where’s the mouser of the houser?” Ghost comes running. To me he has always been the Ghost. Equally inquisitive as frightened by my arrival -- a stranger coming out of the winter snow into the heated refuge of Leslie’s haunted house – he now climbs into my lap and drapes his body over my arm while I write. Maybe he remembers me.
“Everyone wants that cat when I leave,” dad tells me. (I had instantly decided Ghost would be mine.) Leslie died two weeks before I came and so Dad will have to leave this house in a few months. “But I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he says. “I won’t take the cat with me.”
Ghost came from me. Last summer I let a homeless man I know pitch a tent in the field where I run an organic garden. Tim was a 24 year-old nomad, and he reminded me of me at 19. He was living on the streets of Northampton, two kittens in a brown paper bag, and one day I picked him and a girl up hitchhiking, two kittens in a brown paper bag. He showed up in our field and pitched a tent, ready to change the world. The kittens adopted me while Tim was at work each day, sleeping in my teepee and hanging out with the summer interns and pooping in the ashes of the fire pit. I told Tim to take some responsibility; that coyotes will eat the kittens, that they need a home and my teepee isn’t it. He disappeared after that, on the bicycle I gave him, abandoning kittens and tent and rotting food and pornography -- and the other refuse of his alcoholism. When I left for Congo I gave the kittens to dad, and he brought them here to Leslie.
This was Leslie Mitchell’s old house. Dad moved in after Leslie’s stroke, to keep Leslie from hurting himself in exchange for a bed in the house and a workshop in the barn. Leslie’s cousin Paul didn’t know what to do with Leslie, and so he was overjoyed to have dad move in. The place was a dump. Dad cleared a path through the living room, recovered the kitchen and, in time, placated the state social welfare agents so that Leslie could return from the hospital. Coming home a confused and fragile man, Leslie shuffled about, moving junk from one pile to another, dismantling things. Dad didn’t have his own room until Leslie died. Before that he lived in his van.
I met Leslie last summer. He was soft and gentle and happy, always hovering around like someone who doesn’t know how to behave. He was a gaunt, bony man -- he was a skinny kid too – with chalk white skin and eye sockets deep and hollow but there was nothing ghostly about him. The light in his eyes at the end of his life, when I knew him, was lovely. He was like an 85 year-old baby, but one who could recite the history of every piece of rusted junk and mechanical widget on his property.
They made an interesting team, dad and Leslie, a couple of refugees dependent on each other. They had a lot in common. “Leslie had to take everything apart,” Dad says, “he couldn’t leave ANY-thing alone.” Dad often dismantles things, jumps from one reconstruction to the next, loses irreplaceable parts and abandons the project in frustration. Like father, like son.
Dad still rants about Leslie’s craziness -- another excuse to work himself into a fury. I try to just breathe through or even laugh at my dad’s anger, and I say something like: “Don’t waste your energy. Leslie’s dead. His ghost is laughing at you.” Sometimes my dad’s projections push me over the edge – whatever he’s angry at usually has nothing to do with me -- and I give his energy right back at him.
They had other things in common, like old flywheel engines and a mania for old engine shows. They lived symbiotically, inhabiting the margins of society amidst the eccentric privilege of buying and selling archaic machines and antique widgets and other cultural waste. At least, that’s what it is to me, though it might hurt dad’s feelings to say it, even if I love surfing the junk culture too. There isn’t much else they could do, exiled and discarded by the system of planned obsolescence we inhabit.
Last spring dad ordered 100 baby chicks from the Murray McMurray Chicken Hatchery in Iowa, and he and Leslie built a chicken coop and shared the fun of watching them feather out into birds of every breed and color. But the chicken project disintegrated -- death by entropy or attrition -- and the remaining birds became a burden. Butchering chickens is no picnic (my cousin and I once tried to hang a chicken instead). “We gave some chickens away, we killed a few, but wild animals got most of them,” dad tells me, on the drive home from Logan airport.
And then they had these kittens. Leslie was overjoyed, he loved animals, but cancer came into his body like winter came into this house, and he died the second of January. “You have become the nurse of a dying man,” I wrote, emailing dad from Congo. Three weeks later I am living in a dead mans’ house, sleeping in my hi-tech sleeping bag on the floor. When he gets lonely, Ghost crawls in and sidles up to my ribs to escape the frozen night, and Dad, under an electric blanket, snores like a drowning whale.
I was working in Gabon when dad emailed to say that Leslie was on his way out. I had malaria, and by the time I crossed little Congo to Congo-Kinshasa my malaria was raging, the corruption had broken my spirit, and Leslie was dead. I pulled into my shell like a refugee. I flew Kinshasa to Nairobi, and then, after six days in bed and the never-never-luxuries of western airports, I arrived here. I didn’t come home because Leslie died, but to withdraw from the suffering.
I arrived in Kinshasa in September, hopeful and excited, and the drive from the airport to the city frightened me. It’s a war zone, Kinshasa’s airport road, and it belies understanding to anyone who does not live it, and probably to those who do. It’s horrible, a waste-land, swarming with people poor and destitute, people in nice suits who own nothing but one nice suit, refugees going nowhere, or anywhere, in a “country” raped by outsiders from the moment they saw it. And then there are the soldiers.
You can’t imagine the misery or brutality that war, poverty and globalization have brought on the Congolese, and no matter what you’ve read or seen you can’t begin to understand Congo until you arrive. But the pathos is universal: you can live in the U.S. and with eyes wide open you’ll find meaningless suffering all around you. There is continuity between life there and here, all things are connected, what goes around comes around.
A faded, mustard yellow, board-and-baton house with red trim windows all around, Leslie’s old haunt is near frozen solid and winter is winning. The water comes from a natural spring behind the house and it was pouring through the open tap in the kitchen – until yesterday. It entered the house in a black plastic hose, as it has for a hundred years, and while it ran fast out of the tap it couldn’t freeze. But yesterday it stopped. We were sitting here in the kitchen. Dad was too worried to say anything.
I took a light to the cellar and skated over the pile of shiny black coal coated with ice and banged my head on a rotting beam and shook and bent the plastic hose. But the freeze moved up the pipe like a crack in the mountain, and now there is no water until spring. The toilet froze soon after (but don’t tell anyone, the health department will evict us). “You can stay with people you know,” dad says, “but I don’t have any choices.”
I love my dad. His future scares me. He isn’t healthy, here today, ghost tomorrow, and it’s a blessing to spend time with him, no matter his demons, but I’m afraid he will end up like Leslie or, worse, that he will slip on the ice and die – alone and frozen. Anyways, this house is so isolated and winter so cold in the shadow of the mountain -- and the Congo was so hot and trying on me -- that I am overjoyed to come back to this. In many ways, I love it. It’s not because of dads' cooking.
It’s an adventure, this old house -- yet another jungle -- a dilapidated sarcophagus of historical artifacts and absurd “necessities” and timeless anachronisms. It’s an archeological expedition, a time capsule revealing the unraveling of a human life, and the raveling of it. It fascinates me: it’s my little study in madness and pathos -- in a man, in a life – and a testimonial to the wonder of life and the inevitability of death. It humbles me as I piece Leslie’s life together like a puzzle from the rubble. Exploring this old house is like exploring an exotic culture, but one that I am unexpectedly living. It’s no accident I land here after reporting on war in Congo.
But the two rooms we inhabit are stifled by the roar of the oil furnace mounted next to the kitchen sink, when it blows heat, and by the icy wind that penetrates this house when it doesn’t. The fourteen rooms, cellar and attic are frozen, caked with filth, heaped with rubbish and buried treasure. Winter took the house by storm, driving Leslie and dad into these now pipe-frozen rooms, and because clean water was such a challenge in Congo I find it ironic that three days after I am “home” we have none. The people in Congo suffer through, living and dying with scarcity and disease. Leslie somehow dealt with it for years.
THE PINK GRANITE
Leslie Mitchell was born in this house in 1919 and his sister Ida in 1915, in the days when the blacksmith Dr. E.H. Alvord charged 40 cents to shoe a horse. Ida worked in a local mill, supporting Leslie after their parents died, until she died in 1993. Her clothes hang in a decrepit bedroom upstairs, in plastic zip-up sheaths, some like new, 50 years old. Leslie and Ida never married or lived anywhere else. Leslie’s father Frank was adopted, and Leslie’s grandfather John lived here too. Like Leslie, they all died in this house. I often feel like I’m being watched.
The house at 850 Chester Road sits on the old Pony Express trail from Boston to Albany, in Becket, a typical ex-mill town in Massachusetts. The stagecoach road grew into U.S. 20, a highway parallel to Walker Brook and the tracks of the Boston & Albany Railroad. Leslie’s uncle drove train for the B&A from 1905 to 1954, and the house is a few miles up U.S. 20 from the Chester depot. Walker Brook babbles under a bridge out front, and that’s where a car ran over a black cat named Zeus -- Ghost’s brother.
The Home Insurance Company of New York assessed the house at $800 in 1914 (Annual policy: $15.60). From 1921 the Mitchell family ran the Berkshire Pink Granite Company out of a hole in the backyard. Everything was mortgaged to a stranger who in October 1943 authorized Leslie’s father Frank Mitchell to clear-cut the hemlock forest out back. Seems Frank Mitchell may have been a drinker. Whiskey bottles and flasks stand in corners of the house, tucked under floorboards and behind clocks, but Leslie and Ida were religiously sober, and the flasks are full of kerosene.
ROLLY THE BULLY
In June 1954, a “shyster from the city” conned Frank Mitchell’s widow Inez into signing over control of the Berkshire Pink Granite Co. Louis J. Rolly “molested and bullied” Leslie like a slave to fill his orders for Berkshire Pink, even driving fragile old Inez to help Leslie run the quarry’s mammoth derrick, but after a few weeks of abuse Leslie’s mom retained a lawyer. Inez paid $1000 to settle with “the despicable Mr. Rolly.” She wrote a dozen pages of notes telling the story. It’s a simplistic account formatted like a Victorian novel with summary headers like: “LOUIS J. ROLLY’S AGREEMENT, AND HOW THIS CLAIMANT LURED THE MITCHELL PINK GRANITE OWNERS TO SIGN THROUGH FALSE PROCEDURE AND THE EVIL RESULTS THAT FOLLOWED.”
Pink granite sold for two bucks a ton in the ground in 1954. Quarried, it sold for 100 bucks a ton in 1965, but the quarry was abandoned before that, thanks to the Rolly debacle. The quarry is invisible now, the family’s ’41 Cadillac sunk in a bog out back and, like everything else, overgrown with hemlocks and home to wild critters.
You’ll find “Berkshire Pink” behind the white paint on Charlie’s Garage. With its red flying horse trademark, Charlie’s is a gas station where you imagine they once had busty female attendants in matching jumpsuits and toothbrite smiles – fictional heroes like Rosie the Riveter doing their part for America. Such advertising inventions fill the LOOK and LIFE magazines scattered about Leslie’s house and, for me, these are the beginnings of the big lie – color public relations adverts with gas station attendants joyfully wiping windshields and peddling petroleum to a brave new world. It’s not surprising that these old ads proliferate as collectibles -- like Norman Rockwell images – cycled and recycled into the mainstream to accentuate the hopeful side of the American dream and the illusions of “progress”.
I bought into these images. There was always some little ghost whispering confusion in my ear, but I was 35 before the ugly truth shone through the shiny veneers of propaganda. Shiny sun, shiny grass, shiny sky – shiny new car – and everyone lives happily more-ever-for. Quality, dependability, service with a smile -- from someone who knows your name and something, anything, about what it means to be you. Everyone is taken care of (by big brother oil). I wish I lived in the ‘50’s.
I live in an era where everything happens too fast, and it is the era of sophisticated and seemingly futuristic aerospace and weapons technologies and unaccountable “convenience” corporations peddling everything from plastic Barbies and Coca Cola to petroleum. My every day life is characterized by rapid technological changes, changes occurring at a rate far more accelerated than the rate of human adaptability, and beyond the capacity for any organized or thoughtful societal response. It’s overwhelming. No one knows my name, and they wouldn’t think to ask.
People talk on cellphones everywhere, connected through billion dollar geosynchronous satellites, ignoring the beings in their immediate orbit. Innocent men, women and children who have not used a telephone in their entire life – you know, the landline kind -- are slaughtered in Congo to bring me a handy cellphone.
War is not a pretty subject. Imperialism is messy. Exposing the involvement of U.S. soldiers in Congo -- or unmanned aerospace PREDATOR “drones” over Darfur, Sudan -- does not go over well. Silence is a powerful force in America, and it’s easier to uphold it than to break it. Freedom of speech is one thing, but freedom to hear is another, and Americans have a fear of hearing. It’s a problem for me, I admit: I don’t want to hear what I don’t want to hear. Neither do I know how to say what needs be said.
Like the things buried under the cultural refuse in Leslie’s house, the American past and present are taboo – Pandora’s boxes that people seal and store away in the attics of their psyches out of guilt or fear or shame. Best rent a large dumpster, or bulldoze the ugly realities into a hole, like nuclear waste or PCB’s, or bodies after a massacre. That happened in Congo: Americans helped cover it up, with bulldozers.
The Mitchell house is packed with trash and antiques, little treasures and ornate furniture and decaying refuse buried under rats-nest clothing and peeling wallpaper and the plaster of crumbling ceilings. Ghost literally flies around the house climbing the walls, and he’ll suddenly vanish into the chaos and cold silence upstairs. The light is diffuse and shadowy in the smudge of broken windows taped together or boarded over, and when Ghost appears he’s like an apparition coming out of the fog.
Leslie abandoned these rooms years ago. I imagine them slowly claimed by entropy, one-by-one, after Ida died, as loneliness and inertia crept into Leslie’s bones. There are pails of coal and open jugs of kerosene in the hallways. Doors will swing open and creek, some Ghost peeking around from behind them. Everything smells like raccoons.
Leslie had his collections. His plastic airplane and ship models remain in original boxes, parts stamped out in hard plastic templates waiting to be broken out and glued together by some little boy who will dream all the while about combat heroics. That’s the symbolism Hollywood dumps on us. It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure, and a kid sits for hours assembling the fantasy. I imagined whole wars when I was a kid.
Leslie has the P-38 Lockheed Lightning; the C-47 Skytrain; the B-240 Liberator; Boeing’s B-52 Stratofortress and B-29 Superfortress; and a B-36 Peacemaker. I had my G.I. Joe’s and little plastic army-men (grey Germans and green Americans) and as a ten-year-old I proudly spewed obscure war trivia gleaned from the standard American war mythology. Battleship was my favorite war toy, but there were never any innocent victims, and nobody’s blood was spilled.
My great uncle worked at General Electric Ordinance in Pittsfield, making bombs I guess. Like Ida Mitchell he spent half his waking life sitting at a machine, stamping out profits for The Company. After 35 years they gave him a pension and a piece of wood with a “THANK YOU” stamped in brass. Dad serviced the turbines of the B-29 as a mechanic in the Air Force, based in Bermuda, during the Korean War. I worked four years for GE Aerospace on the “Star Wars” hoax peddled by a Hollywood actor named Ronald Reagan. (Reagan’s Secretary of State, former U.S. General Alexander Haig, is on the board of directors of Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, a billion dollar enterprise that imagineered Black Hawk Down and Hotel Rwanda.)
The instruction sheets inside the boxes of Leslie’s models deify these weapons, but there’s no meaningful context and, by default, they celebrate the cult of war without explaining the political economy of military commercialism. There is no moral inquisition, or any kind of ethical exploration. I used to be furious about this. Then I was disgusted. Now I laugh at the foolishness of it all, in a Buddhist sense, and I try to write about it. All things pass… so will the United States. The question is, how soon?
“On the morning of August 6th, 1945,” the sheet for the B-29 reads, “a single B-29 dropped the world’s first nuclear weapon on the city of Hiroshima. The awesome explosion heralded the dawn of the nuclear age, and the end of the war for Japan.” But the first nuclear weapons were used against the rural folks of Utah and Nevada my history tells me. And Japan was ready to surrender before the A-bombs were dropped. I think the “A“ in A-bomb must be for ANYWAY because that’s how we bombed them. The uranium for the A-bombs was mined in the Belgian Congo and, anyway, there’s nothing to celebrate about nuclear annihilation.
The B-29 carried 20,000 pounds of ordinance (bombs) per plane in sorties against Korea the sheet says. But the B-29 “Superforts” were not used to defend democracy from communism, as we are told, but to strategically destabilize the peninsula under a hostile U.S. military and economic domination that continues today. So the “B” in B-29 must be for bifurcate, because that’s what we did to Korea and its people. Or maybe it’s a “B” for bottom line – because that’s what it’s all about, as far as I can see, no longer blinded by a $42,000 annual salary from GE Aerospace.
“There’s a B-52 Superfortress by Monogram Models on e-bay for $34.99,” dad discovers. It seems to me that these models are coveted by adults who have never grown up -- or maybe it’s the American cult of leisure time: people sitting around watching “Friends” while piecing together a plastic 1/72 scale-model of a 50 million dollar weapon-of-mass destruction… maybe that’s why there’s so much violence in America, and why violence has become our primary export. Maybe that’s why “they” hate us.
What is maturity? Is it paying the bills? Holding down a job? Is it the capacity to love? To share? To forgive? Is it the courage to feel? To let go? Somewhere I read that we may have to experience having before we can experience letting go. So why do we all hold on to things as we do? Why do Americans accumulate so much worthless junk? Why are there so many lonely Leslies and Idas living amongst us?
And why do the people of the Congo have nothing? I mean it: nothing. Imagine no possessions… Average income in parts of rural Congo is less than 54 dollars a year. People I met earn less than three dollars a nmonth working on plantations owned by American businessmen. Isolated and terrorized by war, some Congolese I spoke with believed that Mobutu Sese Seko was still the President! I’m looking at Leslie’s refuse thinking: so many people have nothing there, and we all have so much, and it seems like every Congolese I met thinks that Americans like you and me are going to save them. Since 1960 it’s only changed for the worse in Congo. Western stories about Congo often invoke the symbology of broken clocks to underscore the supposed hopelessness and the inevitable decay and the reversal of progress in the absence of the colonial benefactors. Time stands still in Congo, but for the dying.
Leslie was obsessed with time: clocks from every era of American mass production animate the old house. “Leslie could fix any clock in the world,” says the owner of Charlie’s Garage, “if you had all the time in the world to wait.”
In Leslie’s clock repair room, clocks sit on shelves like dolls waiting for someone to wind them up and love them. Everywhere are disemboweled clocks, piles of gears, springs, pendulums, and other innards, some rusting and broken, some shiny and oiled, and there are clock faces and clock face stencils. The mice inhabit this clock world: little black turds are everywhere. Ghost inspects the coils and springs with his pink nose, and he jumps backwards when they release or unwind.
The clocks in our “bedroom” chime and gong all night, and because Leslie tinkered with everything no two clocks operate in sync: midnight arrives for hours. Some clocks tick backwards. Others have no hands, no feet, no faces. They all chime and tick out of order, no common rhythm, an asynchronous chaos. The metaphor isn’t lost on me, my body still arriving “home” after four months in Africa; my soul lingering behind me; my psyche struggling to integrate the realities of war and suffering, the shifting time zones, and the desperation amidst the affluence, which is a universal constant.
In the corner of the parlor in a 1950’s photo you’ll see the Replogle 10-inch Precision Globe designed and edited by Gustav Bruechmann, Cartographer, Chicago Illinois, which I find in Leslie’s bedroom. Bruechmann’s world has an Africa run by Europeans -- and that special breed of whites in Rhodesia -- and Congo is a satellite of Belgium, a hopeful country with a bright future, with functioning infrastructure and nice cities named for the conquerors, and there is a boy there named Patrice Lumumba who will be assassinated ten years down the road.
Maps in Congo today come from NASA and USAID. The Congolese have no say in how their land is re-presented – they have never seen the computer-generated maps developed by satellite remote-sensing of their environment, and they never will -- and it is through high-tech modern day maps that the conquest of the Congo proceeds, in earnest, under the philanthropic banners of democracy and development. But we are taking the raw materials out of Congo, and using them to wage war on others, to build our houses and our cities and fill them with meaningless junk that, in our lostness, we shackle our souls with.
Leslie’s house is full of dated newspapers whose headlines chronicle the legacy of media-driven fear in the U.S. The Springfield Union, April 3, 1969: “Black Panthers Seized in N.Y. Terrorist Plot.” The Berkshire Eagle, November 4, 1967: “Soviets Testing Orbital Nuclear Bomb.” The Westfield News, November 22, 1972: “Saigon: U.S. Loses Fourth F-111 in 72 Hours.” Substitute “Al-Quida” or “Arab” for “Panther” or “Red” or “Viet Cong”, and replace J. Edgar Hoover and Joe McCarthy with Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, and you get today’s news stories.
The ‘72 Westfield News has a page one snapshot of a young Ralph Nader with the caption “Nader Nudges Press” – an unthinkable possibility today. “Consumer Advocate Ralph Nader in a speech before the National Press Club in Washington today urged the news media to stop focusing on ‘the pirouetting’ of politicians and concentrate on the real issues facing Congress. Nader urged the media to question politicians sharply in public, not simply report political punditry.”
Imagine that! Ralph Nader on page one! Imagine this: the media questioning politicians sharply! I’ve never seen anyone in the media question a politician sharply. Instead I see newspapers spilling with the symbolism that breeds fear and confusion, the language that peddles pointless junk, the ideology that shackles a misguided people to a permanent warfare economy.
Admittedly, I’m an extremist. I would have been a black panther. I’m still a Red (because I always vote for Nader) and I’m going to learn Arabic just because… Indeed, snooping in Leslie’s refuse heap I unearth what looks to me like the roots of the contemporary American xenophobia and sexual intrigue with all things Arabian. Volume 55, Number 12 of The Gentlewoman -- A Magazine of Feminine Facts and Fiction that sold for 5 cents in 1926 -- tells an Orientalist tale about a beautiful English woman and a mysterious Arab sheik; the willful but lascivious white woman who succumbs to the demands of a virile and mysterious stranger who rides out of the desert on a white steed and has her, against her will. And then she falls in love with him, of course…
This is an early American rape-fantasy, and it’s about a wild, dark-skinned Arab on a horse – sound familiar? The woman is every woman, and she is – ultimately – a whore who subliminally wants to be fucked even when she says “No”, and it’s no wonder that rape in the U.S. is out of control and the sexual violence in Congo is out of this world. Rape is a tactic that rips apart the fabric of human life, and it’s not accidental that the unprecedented sexual violence in Congo goes mostly unreported, and the ghosts in the machine will one day come to light.
If Leslie’s ghost is here, it’s hovering around his exotic butterflies and moths. Cases of pin-pithed butterflies under glass cover the walls of the old parlor, hundreds of rare and fantastic species you have never seen alive, and never will again. Stacked on shelves upstairs are 1930’s Havana cigar boxes with more butterflies suspended on pins. On huge sheets of plywood Leslie traced and painted butterflies with four-foot wingspans. He bought mail-order butterfly eggs and hatched them and collected the adults with nets and traps. In cheap Kodachromes excavated from the ruins you see Leslie and Ida standing in the flowers they grew to attract butterflies. I love that side of Leslie -- he was so gloriously enraptured by the pandemonium of these delicate winged beings. It’s a shame he had to kill them to enjoy them.
“Leslie told me he was responsible for the spread of the gypsy moth in the northeastern United States,” dad says. The gypsy moth is one of those alien invaders like water hyacinth and kudzu and genetically modified corn. “He bought all these Gypsy moth eggs by mail and hatched them and he believed the Gypsy moth invasion was all his fault.”
Old photos show Leslie collecting butterflies in the early 1940’s. Letters to Ida from her suitors – envelopes cacheted WORKING FOR VICTORY that were passed postage-free by military censors – show that while other local boys his age were off fighting the wars that enriched American businessmen, skinny Leslie Mitchell was slicing his pink granite and chasing his flying rainbows. Ida’s favored suitor, Pfc. William Dalton, wrote steady until 1944, but letters stopped suddenly, and I imagine that her “bosom Billy” married a bullet. Some letters suggest a virtuous virginity in Ida – maybe she never had a man just as Leslie never had a woman – but the bibles by the beds were hardly opened. I imagine Ida coming home from the factory every day, rocking her chair, re-reading old letters from soldiers and girlfriends bemoaning the hardships of motherhood – “no man in my bed, for the war” wrote one – while war and typhoid and the grippe took her friends and neighbors in the prime of their life. Leslie was drafted too, and maybe his skinniness kept him out of the war, and maybe the Draft Board thought butterfly chasers don’t make good soldiers.
I imagine Leslie in his teens and twenties, excited by the prospect of courting local beauties, but dad and I find only one clue to Leslie’s romantic pursuits: a confused and resentful note from a rejected suitor to a girl caught holding hands with another; pressed inside is a butterfly with blue iridescent wings flattened by the weight of time. Leslie was likely a mama’s boy pampered by Ida and the phantom females seen in old photos. “I think Leslie was very spoiled,” dad says. Ida described him as “hopelessly chivalrous,” and she told one friend that “Leslie will never find a nice girl” in rural Becket.
With his butterflies and his gardens, and some poultry and ducks he was fond of, Leslie lived out the twentieth century on the wings of increasing loneliness. I imagine that he was disappointed, and I can’t imagine never having a lover, and we don’t always miss what we never had. But the bright, shiny future and cosmopolitan society promised by the sponsors of the Ed Sullivan Show and the adverts in the popular journals that monthly arrived in the mail passed by 850 Chester Road like an express train on the B & A rail. With his family dying off around him, and in the absence of wife and children, Leslie fussed with old engines and tinkered with time machines and pressed his love affair with Lepidoptera.
Leslies’ kin want to donate the butterfly collection to a museum. I search the web looking for a home, an institution offering some hope for situating these thousands of winged wonders -- pithed for perpetuity -- in an appropriate context, one that honestly addresses the ravages of nature we are seeing, the political economy of environmentalism, the greenwashing. Museums cater to their sponsors, and their customers, the public at leisure, and controversy is off the menu. I’d like to see Leslie’s butterflies in a museum where truth predominates over interests. I can’t find one.
Leslie might have liked to see his butterflies in the Smithsonian, and the collection is surely grand enough for that. While working in Gabon recently I learned that armies of Smithsonian researchers were descending on Gabon’s National Parks and slaughtering thousands of creatures, in the name of science, through the barbaric Darwinian practice of collecting. I was horrified to see frogs and snakes and soggy little rodentia suspended forever in jars of 70% alcohol. Over 400 birds were massacred at one site alone. The Smithsonian morgue is not the perfect home for Leslie’s butterflies, I’ve decided, and Leslie – now in the spirit world – probably knows that. In the end, the family will deal with it, and, like so many things that I care about in this world, I’ll have to let the butterflies go.
Ghost is sitting on the TV peering out the kitchen window. When he sees a squirrel he rises up on his back legs like they do. Dad is cooking meatloaf, and he swears into the refrigerator now and then. The phone doesn’t work when it storms, and so we have no phone, no Internet and no e-Bay today. My cross-country skis are broken and it’s getting dark, and I’ve been sitting here with cold feet and stiff neck thinking about karma and serendipity, and wondering if the souls of all those butterflies are haunting Leslie now. When I get restless I explore this frozen house.
What a jumble my life is, but it is the tenuous thread that connects the Congo to the Mitchell mansion. It’s the beingness of me. I am learning to negotiate the groundlessness of the little patch of universe I inhabit. My genocide investigations, the interviews of rape survivors, the malaria, the corruption, the discombobulating travel from Congo to Massachusetts, the arrival here, at the house of a dead man, the isolation and loneliness of the American way… I wonder sometimes who I am, where I am going, what awaits me when I get there. This is not a physical place; it’s a spiritual one. It terrifies me that the place I arrive at may be unfamiliar and that I may be the only one there when I arrive, but it’s a journey, an exploration, maybe even a pilgrimage. If I’m the only one there, maybe others will join me. And maybe I have to be alone. And this is the most terrifying thought: maybe I’m the one that’s lost.
I no longer feel that I have a home, a sense of place, and sometimes I feel that every place is my home. My dad is brilliant, he can do anything he puts his mind to, but he’s also stuck, and I haven’t figured out how to unstick him. Or, well, it’s his choice. He chooses his realities, just like I do. It’s hard to think about him being alone, but there’s been times when he’s too hard to be around, and so I’ve had to stay away. I often remind myself that his dad died in a boating accident when he was nine, and how hard it must have been to live out that journey. Leslie had his journey, dad his, me mine…
Dad says to me from his bed tonight: “I love having you around. Leslie went so quickly. One day he’s walking around doing great and two weeks later he’s dead.” There’s a long pause, as if dad’s fallen asleep, and then he says: “It really affected me. Life is too short and mine is getting shorter. It’s all happening so fast, and I don’t know where my life went. Really, I don’t know what happened to it, you have no idea.”
It’s true, and it’s a fundamental lesson I have yet to fully embrace: I have no idea what other people have lived through, the ghosts that haunt them, how hard it is for them to be. I have my own ideas, my own stuckness, and my own unsticking to do. Again, I’m told, it’s all about choices.
Dad sits in front of his Sylvania with a web-TV keyboard and clicker, searching out deals on e-Bay, every so often pointing out the latest intelligence hoax by Donald Rumsfeld or some other agent of a machine world that throws a few measly scraps to war veterans and a monthly social security check to discarded cogs, but could care less if my dad lives or dies, or how. Like Leslie, dad is a refugee in his own culture. I can’t help but feel that I’m not far behind.
Sitting here in Leslie’s old house I’m watching Ghost on the porch but I’m rooting for the squirrels. I wonder if Leslie’s ghost is watching me -- a trespasser in the Mitchell mansion? This place was the one stable anchor in Leslie’s life, something he could always count on, and come back to, both sanctuary and escape. It was home. So many people I’ve met in Congo have no prospect of “home” – and there are children who have never known a home, just as this is all Leslie ever knew.
I’m homeless, car-less, credit-card-less, partner-less – and I’ve never felt more whole. A lot of personal suffering and hard work have taught me to dance on shaky ground, that I can hop and skip over the cracks, or fall in; that I can gaze into the unfathomable abyss of suffering with as much hope and wonder as I gaze at Leslie’s butterflies. I wish my dad could dance with the cosmos, just a little, and surrender into the frustration, and maybe let a few tears trickle out of his eyes now and then and crack the walls of control that are eating him alive. If he cried in this house his tears would freeze before they hit the ground, but there is incredible beauty in the short, sweet life of icicles.
My teachers tell me that surrender is the secret. Letting go of control and the idea that I know what to do next. I don’t. But I refuse to live like a machine. People ask me “What do you think you’re doing investigating human rights in Congo?” – really it’s more a demand than a question. Others insist that I can’t make a difference and, worse, that it’s not fair to bring hope to trauma survivors I have interviewed. But I do the best I can, and I have to believe in my self, and there’s nothing wrong with spreading a little hope. I quote Gandhi in the face of this dismissive hopelessness: “Everything you do will be meaningless, but you must do it.”
Leslie’s 1972 Westfield News also quotes Gandhi, in a tiny page one clip called “Today’s thought.” I see this newspaper as a mouthpiece for Westover Air Force Base nearby, and I’m never surprised to find a quote by Gandhi, a pillar of non-violence, adopted by the war machine: “It is my certain conviction that no man loses his freedom except through his own weakness.”
Right: the corollary is: WAR = FREEDOM.
I love my freedom, and I’m learning to love the mystery. I wonder if Leslie felt that way? How much of his life was a choice? How much circumstance? I wonder if he cried when he was alone, like I do, when it gets hard, or if he just turned his heart off, like so many Americans, and went about his business, shields up.
We don’t have to live like refugees.
It’s a symptom of my affluence that I am shedding possessions while the people I meet in Congo want everything I have. I’m a nomad. It’s my choice. It’s an existence that’s liberating when you are strong, terrifying when you are weak, and it is an unshakeable faith that makes the difference. I have my share of terror. I have no allegiance to this government or the boundaries of this nation, or any other, because they have no allegiance to me, and Leslie’s universe made that clear. This phantom called globalization destroys nomads, because nomads don’t shop at the local Wal-Mart – they barter their wares in the expedience of survival. It’s not unusual, on the other hand, to find a Coke machine in the desert, and that’s the hypocrisy of it all. Nomads have babies in sand dunes or mud, and they cook their dinners over dung fires, and there’s nothing romantic about starvation. But it’s real, a way of being, and there is some dignity in it, and it’s honorable enough. (One day I hope to settle down and build community.)
Like my freedom, my possession-less-ness is increasing, and with a little faith – in Jesus if you like, or Buddha, or Kali, or Mohammed, or the Dalai Lama -- it’s all the same in the end -- I can enjoy my nomadic beingness. Maybe I’ll survive it, this human rights work, this poverty, this devastating hydra we call the United States of America, and maybe I won’t. It is what it is. Feed my body to lions or sharks but please don’t plant me in a box like a butterfly on a pin.
Maybe one day I will anonymously pass through Becket and find that nobody anywhere remembers Leslie Mitchell or the Berkshire Pink Granite Company or the white Ghost that hunted from the porch at 850 Chester Road. The old house will be gone -- bulldozed and dumpstered and replaced by some tinfoil mansion with paved yard and plastic butterfly feeders – and Leslie’s ghost will by then have settled in wherever souls go in the afterlife. Unlike certain big-mouthed American zealots who claim to know where that is, I prefer to wonder. And my lovely white Ghost – maybe he doesn’t care where that is, as long as he ends up there with me, and there are squirrels to be had. [
Post Script, October 16, 2005.
The Sun Magazine rejected this story (the Sun is the only magazine I submitted it to). Maybe it’s too anti-American. Maybe it’s too narcissistic. Maybe it’s too angry. Maybe the writing just isn’t good enough. Maybe Sy Syfransky didn’t like the fact that I always vote for Nader, and will again. Maybe I just have to find a way to say it better. Honestly, they replied that it wasn’t cohesive enough, and they encouraged me to work on it. One day I will incorporate the photos, but it’s finished (for now).
I spent June to September 2005 working in Congo, and I have some stories to tell, and please…please don’t believe what you read about Africa in National Geographic. The photos shot in Nairobi, for example, in the September 2005 issue, were all staged. The text is full of lies, well told, but lies none the same.
My dad sliced his fingers on the table saw one day before he moved out: not the circumferential direction, but the long way -- into the nail and through the bone of two fingers. He wrapped a rag around it, but he didn’t go to the hospital. He finally moved out of the house, and into his van, where – I think – he lives now. Just last week he went off to another engine show.
The Mitchell Mansion was emptied out: someone came, bought the choice antiques, and in the deal agreed to dispose of all the (s)crap. The family held a tag sale, selling off the priceless junk that remained. The butterfly collection was divided up and sold in pieces.
Ghost, that lovely Ghost – I will surely have to get the photos of Ghost up here – my dad and I moved him to my mom’s farm along with my other cat Crow. We built them a little hay house in the barn. Ghost ran wildly and happily in the sunshine and the open fields all yellow with dandelions, and he ran up and down the trunks of big maple trees, and when he rocketed around a corner and into the two horses – well, he’d never seen ANYthing like a horse in the woods around 850 Chester Road – it was a tremendous and terrifying close encounter. He was loving it, at my mom’s, his first day.
Next morning he was gone. The coyotes hover around my mom’s farm at night (Crow saw his brother Buck trapped and torn apart by a pack of coyotes so I gues she knew better than to be out in the fields alone after dark), and all we found in the morning was a little tuft of white fur. It must have been a horrible end. My dad was heartbroken. [