By Fred Owens
Laurie and I will fly to Toronto this Thursday to attend the 50th reunion of the class of 1968 at St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto.
I wrote a memoir about my college life fifty years ago. There are a few passages that seem a bit smug, but I was simply having too much fun in college -- is that a crime? If a story needs to have suffering and angst, look elsewhere.
Anyway the memoir is 20,000 words and much too long to put in this newsletter.
St. Michael's College is part of the University of Toronto. In Canada. That's right, I went to school in a foreign country.
Canadian students had no fear of being drafted and getting killed in Vietnam. That was a concern at the time among American young men.. There was little debate in Canada about the Vietnam war because everybody high and low thought it was a bad show.
The Canadian government sent a token force over there, but there was no draft. Canadian students had hazy plans about their future after graduation -- "might spend a little time in Europe, might take a job with my father's firm"..... and so on. Meanwhile American students were sweating out choices like teaching jobs and graduate school, which got you a deferment. CO status? But you had to pretend you were a Quaker. Flee to Canada? I know a few who did just that.
You don't hear much about the draft these days, but it was serious business back then. Guys like, say, Donald Trump and Bill Clinton, devised ways to avoid military service.
My own status was 1-Y or "available in case of national emergency" which is exactly how I felt at the time. I didn't want to fight but if there was a national emergency I expect I would have showed up.
So they didn't need me in Vietnam, and why were we in that country at all? I will go to my college reunion, class of 1968, and re-hash this episode with my classmates.
Some served. My roommate of three years was drafted into the army after graduation and did his tour in Vietnam. I would use his name, but first I would need to call him at his home in Dallas and get his permission. He's a man with nothing to hide, but he's not inclined to draw attention to himself. He served in the army and did his tour in Vietnam.
We will be ancient ones, fifty years later, discussing the pruning of roses, the bragging of grandchildren and the travails of hip surgery -- so why not bring up some of the old war business?
Not everybody in Fishtown was an artist or poet. Some residents were simply odd fellows. Here is the story of Keith Brown.
Keith Brown was an idiot, a man with serious mental health issues, who lived in a shack on the North Fork of the Skagit River at a place called Fishtown.
You had to walk across Chamberlain’s field to get to Fishtown, or else, if Margaret Lee let you, you could drive out to her farm, and park your car there, and then it was a shorter walk, but either way you had to walk.
Keith lived in float shack moored to the bank. Years ago he had winched it up the bank during a spring flood, so it never floated anymore, but it was built on top of Douglas fir logs 2-feet in diameter and bolted together in a raft.
Keith’s shack was almost level. A marble, placed on the floor, would roll slowly towards the riverside of the shack, but this only made the place a bit more lovable – giving it a tilt, but not something you could see with your eyes. The shack was soundly built when Keith claimed it and moved in. He added a cupola on the roof with 3-foot windows on all four sides, for sleeping in the moonlight, or listening to the rain.
He tinkered with electricity. He made a light switch from a fork, by drilling a hole through the handle midway, so it could move back and forth, and if he pushed it one way towards the contact point, the little light would go on.
He had catalogs from electric supply houses, dog-eared, laying on the counter, next to egg shells, banana skins, diodes, transistors, and lumps of lichen, car parts, fishing tackle, and odd sorts of plastic bottles.. A research scientist in his own way, Keith transmitted the news and the song of the River, via electronics that passed through subterranean granite tunnels, which existed in his imagination. But Fred was no scoffer. He had heard the voice of the man from Venus long ago after the desert murder, so he listened to Keith’s fantastic theories without judgment.
Keith devised a small windmill on his roof that powered a 25-watt lamp.
Otherwise he used kerosene lanterns, and cooked and heated on a wood stove. He packed in his supplies, walking across the fields to Dodge Valley Road, and walking 3 more miles to LaConner unless he got a ride, carrying a canvas rucksack, with empty bottles for recycling on the way in, and beer and groceries on the way back.
His car was a 60’s model Triumph, the English sports car. He parked that at the quarry, what people called a quarry, but was really just a part of the hill that had been carved out years ago for the stone. Keith hadn’t driven the Triumph in a few years and the tires had gone flat, and the blackberry vines were starting to grow over it. He had removed the trunk lid of the Triumph, and inserted a plywood panel, a place to mount his lawnmower – that was back when he worked for people, back when he wasn’t quite so crazy. But the Triumph was getting moldy and starting to compost, as if everything was going back to the earth sooner or later, something that even the farmers approved, because they never threw away their old equipment, they just parked it out in a field and let it rust, and the same way old boats, either sunk, or half sunk, or propped up in the backyard – they all returned to the earth.
The dreamboats were gone in 1986 – the hopeless rotted hulls, the beautiful romantic lines of a wood boat that had once fished the abundant salmon of Puget Sound. The dreamers came in the 60’s and worked on them, to rebuild them, steaming oak planks in water-filled metal drums, bending new frames on the old rotted hulls. But they were dreamboats, and the hippies gave up on them, for the most part, although a few were launched, like the 32-foot Bristol Bay double ender that Singin’ Dan rebuilt and launched and lived on down the river from Fishtown at Shit Creek. Singin’ Dan came from Scandinavian fishing stock, and he knew what he was doing.
But the dreamboats were abandoned. They made picturesque hulks, and the other boats were just let out to die peacefully, slowly sinking in the mud, landmarks with histories imagined or real.
It was the law of the sea, as Fred had read in Moby Dick in the chapter about abandoned vessels. A boat, a ship, or the valuable carcass of a floating, dead sperm whale were all bound by the same law – it was either fast or loose. If it was “fast”, made fast to something, a pier or attached by a line to another boat, then it belonged to whatever entity it was made fast to. But if it was loose, if it was afloat, or adrift, or run aground, but on the sea, if it was abandoned – you couldn’t leave a marker or a note saying you were the owner and intended to come back and fetch it. If it was loose, then it belonged to whoever might claim it, and that’s how Keith got his float shack in Fishtown, because it was stuck on a sand bar just off the bank when he got there in early 70s.
He just moved in and took it over. You could still do that in Puget Sound. Nobody minded anyway, there were lots of abandoned houses and shacks around the Valley back then – that’s why the hippies moved up there – free rent.
Keith had stained teeth and he laughed with a mad cackle, because he was mad. He had brown skin, so dirty it had acquired a patina, a sheen, like an old pair of pants. “I would fuck him if he took a bath,” G* said, in her typical brazen way. B* and G* lived in a shack that B* had built up on pilings, maybe a hundred yards downstream from Keith’s place. You had to get off Keith’s shack on a gang plank over the mud, then walk through the brush, bending under salmon berry pink blossoms if it was Spring, and then cross by the haphazard fence marking Steve Herold’s garden, and then hike up a small hill. It was a small hill, but it would have been a very big egg, because the hill was shaped like an egg, and then what creature would hatch from such an egg of a quarter mile diameter, lying oblong and crosswise to the flow of the river, this hill bearing madrone trees peeling red-orange bark.
Fred would take that path, going through the madrone trees. “You always see them growing near the water. You never see them more than a half-mile from the water,” Fred noticed.
Over the hill and easing down the stone on a rope tied to a tree just for that purpose, the egg-stone of the egg hill, was a composite of small stones – like old cement of geological age, over to the shack that B* and G* had built on pilings, where G* said things like that about Keith Brown and other men.
Keith was the canary in the coal mine, a symptom of changes in the valley. Fred had often visited Keith, taking the stroll across the fields, and then the primeval path through the old woods, coming up on the shack, sometimes in winter, stepping across mottled leaves, working his way through the path, stepping around logs, sometimes in spring when the skunk cabbage thrust up through the swamp near the river.
Fred came to visit, and if Keith wasn’t home, he came in anyway and built a fire and made tea and found a few books to glance at. The porn magazines were under the mattress in the cupola. Fred was a snoop. “I think I got that from my mother. She always found my things and it always seemed accidental, but it was her third eye, and I have the third eye, too,” he thought.
But the door to the shack had no lock. He was always welcome. Or else Keith was there, tinkering with something, and they talked. Keith had a way of talking that made sense, but before you know it, it made no sense at all. “He’s half-mad,” Fred observed. “He’s got one foot in this world and another foot in a far more resplendent universe.
Afterward, after Keith got arrested for arson, Fred said, “We could see he was going off the deep end, but we had abandoned him, and he was all alone.”
Keith spent more time listening to the voices – the CIA was after him because his electronic inventions might generate enough power to over throw the monopoly of the corporations and large oil companies. The CIA was linked with the ant-Christ and Keith was the only one who knew that they had killed Lisa and buried her under the Lighthouse Inn in LaConner.
Keith began writing messages with a magic marker on his jacket and jeans – sayings from the Illuminati, and quotations from Revelations – “Beware, the beast with 600 eyes is coming.”
His cackle became louder. The problem, Fred realized, was that nobody had time anymore. Keith was the village idiot of Fishtown, but the village was itself disappearing, B* and G* moved into town, to that yellow house on the hill. Paul Hansen was building his 3-story log cabin (known as Fort Hansen) on a hillside on the reservation. He didn’t come out to Fishtown anymore. Black Dog Allen was down in Willapa Bay working on oysters.
Avocado Richard had taken over the cabin where Charlie Krafft used to live. It would have been good for new talent to move into Fishtown, but Avocado Richard, besides being a sculptor of dubious talent, was a mean, crazy drunk.
And, therefore, it became obvious, after Keith was arrested, that Keith simply had fewer people who would talk with him in his own crazy way, so he started listening to the voices all the time. And the voices told Keith that it was his duty to expose the CIA plot against him, and he could do that by setting fire to the Lighthouse Inn. “I’ll burn it down, and then they will find Lisa’s body, and then they will know the truth,” Keith said.
That fall Keith came into town with a five-gallon can of gasoline. He climbed up on the roof of the Lighthouse Inn, poured out the gasoline and lit the blaze. The cops came right away, the firemen put it out. There was no damage, but they locked Keith up in the mental hospital down in Steilacoom. He was incompetent to stand trial. “He’ll never get out,” Jim Smith said. “They won’t let him out unless he stops telling that story about Lisa and the CIA, but he won’t stop, and they’ll never let him out.”