Notes on Arizona

Last week we went to Arizona. First, we went to Sedona, about two hours north of Phoenix, in the middle of some of the most scenic country in the United States. It’s red rock country — beautiful mountainous terrain. It’s cowboy country too, or at least movie cowboy country. Dozens of western movies have been filmed in the red-rock canyons that surround Sedona, and every wannabe cowboy from John Wayne to Elvis (yes, the King filmed westerns) has shot footage here.

It’s New Age country. Maybe it’s the fabled vortexes that exert some type of convergent energy field in select locations near the town, or maybe it’s the reports of UFOs over (or under) nearby Bell Rock, but you will find, in Uptown Sedona, a most eclectic collection of citizenry. Psychics are on every corner. You will find people who can read your aura – you can energize your chakras. You can convene to a drum circle. You can get clean and sober here – for a price – big price. But most of all, Sedona is a friendly town.20150512_082812

       A very nice Sedona gift shop lady tells us that in her spare time, she paints pictures of fairies. I ask her if she’s ever exhibited her paintings in her shop, but she tells me that she once tried, but that the fairies did not like it in the shop – so now she sells them elsewhere. She did not say where. She shows me how to press my hand into a Brazilian geode and she tells me to close my eyes and to describe how I feel. Presently, I tell her that I feel a tingling in my palm…I don’t tell her, but I feel that a lot, geode or no, but she says I’ve felt something unique. I am not so sure, but maybe I did. My wife tries the same exercise and doesn’t feel anything. She’s disappointed. She buys a postcard and an ankle bracelet. The lady explains that people come to Sedona for a reason. She says we are probably seeking something. I leave with an open mind.

After lunch, we find the trail to Devil’s Bridge just outside of town, and we hike the two mile trail up to the bridge. Something about clambering over 100 million year old rocks does it to me. I feel it. That energy that they are talking about. I feel it in my bones. I feel the ancient earth. Forget the UFOs and the fairies. Something has been going on here for a long time but I can’t explain it. Maybe it’s the Mother Earth thing, but I know that I am in awe of something bigger than myself.

                                                                                       * * *

Forty miles north in Flagstaff, we stop for lunch at a brew pub on San Francisco Street. After we eat, we go into a crystal shop across the street from the train station. My wife picks out a half a dozen crystals. Two girls working the register are discussing energy fields when we walk in. My wife isn’t a believer but she’s hedging her bets. She’s buying crystals. They mean different things, the crystals. Some are good for one thing or another – prosperity – serenity – strength. Not sure if I’m buying into it.

My wife picks through the crystals, while I retreat to the book rack in the back of the store. There I find a deck of tarot cards and I consider buying them as a novelty, but I put them back. There is no need to mess with tarot cards right now. We pay for the crystals and leave town.

We take I-40 east out of Flagstaff. We drive 90 miles across the Colorado Plateau to Holbrook in the heart of Painted Desert country. We arrive in Holbrook at about four o clock in the afternoon. I like the town. No movie company cowboys in Holbrook. Real cowboys live here. Ranchers live here. They drive Silverado trucks and F-250s – everybody pulls a livestock trailer. They fuel up at the Maverik station on Navajo Boulevard on the north side of I-40. Ranchers wear dusty Stetsons and beat up boots. No star gazing astrologers or hundred dollar ‘per-reading’ psychics in Holbrook either. There are petrified wood shops, Native American crafts and Route 66 memorabilia here.

We stop at a Mexican restaurant on Hopi Drive. We order tacos and beers from a girl who my wife says looks too young to be working. I tell her that the girl is probably older than she looks. A few minutes later she returns with our tacos. Behind her, the manager follows with our beers. She’s too young to serve alcohol the manager explains.

The next day we drive through the Petrified Forest National Park. It’s unlike other parks we’ve visited, like Yellowstone, or Yosemite, or Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s empty – like the moon – in the Petrified Forest. Even the ranger in the welcome station looks petrified. Things change very slowly here, but it is a reminder that things do change. They sure as hell don’t change on our time though. Whoever is running this place has his/her own calendar. A million years is nothing. Next day it’s time to say goodbye to Holbrook and the ranchers and the desert and the petrified wood. On our way out of town we cross the Santa Fe tracks one last time. Just beyond the tracks, on the main highway out of town, a four foot rattlesnake lies dead in the road. Crushed perhaps under the weight of Silverado and F-250 trucks pulling livestock trailers. Glad I didn’t see that guy when we were climbing rocks I say to my wife…she doesn’t reply.


We head southwest, toward Payson, Arizona, then on into Phoenix. We drive across the plateau, then back down into the desert. Big cactus in that desert. My wife wants a picture, but the road doesn’t offer a pull-off. Not like Colorado my wife notes. They know how to deal with scenery in Colorado. She wants a picture of a saguaro cactus but there is no place to pull over. Here in Arizona she can’t catch a photo-break.

By the time we reach our hotel in Phoenix it’s raining. Damned rain I say. I didn’t think it ever rained in Phoenix but it does. After a while it lets up and we go out to eat.

The next day we fly out at 6am. On the flight back to Florida, my wife sits in the aisle seat. I’m in the middle and beside me is a young man of 16 or 17 years of age. He calls me sir and my wife ma’am. He tells me he’s been through a lot. When I press him for details he tells me he’s on his way home to Miami after spending the past six months in military school. Apparently not his decision – military school that is. I did not ask what incident caused him to be sent to such an institution, but he tells me he hopes not to be sent back in the fall.

Once we reach cruising altitude, I pull out my Kindle. I’m reading “Cities of the Plain”, by Cormac McCarthy. The young man asks me about my Kindle and I tell him that I have had it for several years. He says that it looks really old. Not as old as a petrified log I think to myself.

My wife falls asleep. Her crystals are carefully packed in her carry-on bag. Texas passes under the plane and I wonder if there is something to it all. The crystals, I mean.

salad days

salad days…
we used to think
we’d have them
around forever
so we’d always
love them and
keep them
for at least
the next
forty years

lots of time to
till the garden
in the spring and plant
the next crop of
radishes and snow peas
how about the Giant Pumpkin?

maybe next year…

time to drive up to the
Water Gap one more time
with the dogs and
camp out on the
worst night of autumn
when cold
rain drives you from
the dime-store

…find a buyer for that
damned kayak that’s taking up
so much room
in the shed

time to

look for a fuel pump
for the ‘64 MG Midget
you have on blocks
in the garage

time to
buy a coffee pot
finish the novel,
paint the barn
play Vivaldi
in the hayloft
at dawn
write a poem
about antiquity,
float a
rowboat on the pond
kill time
with a friend
playing gin rummy
down at the vet’s home
shoot one more
game of snooker
with that guy from
Council Bluffs
write a travelogue
shoot skeet
play hard to get…

…salad days…
you’re all in
you’re still green
aren’t you?
like The Bard says

enjoy it
because you
must, and
don’t dispair
when it’s over
just write it
all down
while you still

The man behind the keyboard

Part 1

Last night I began cleaning the 1926 Underwood typewriter that I bought at a flea market. I have never tried to restore a typewriter, so for some helpful tips in how to do it, I turned to the internet. There, I found lots of people who do know how to do it (just Google: restore vintage typewriters). One restoration expert said to start out with lots of clean cloths, cut into 6 inch by 6 inch squares. Following his advice, I cut up an old t-shirt and went to work.

Using only soap and water as the cleaning agent, I soon discovered that I was lifting a particularly nasty looking, yellowish/brown substance from the surface of the heavy metal chassis. Upon closer inspection, I soon recognized the substance: it was nicotine. Considering the age of the typewriter, it is entirely likely that much of its working life may have been spent sitting next to an ash tray into which countless cigarettes may have been extinguished. Smoking in offices was at one time not only allowed, but more often than not, the norm.

My younger co-workers at the office where I work today find it incomprehensible that smoking would be allowed in an office, but as I have often explained to them, prior to the mid-1980s, smoking was not only allowed in the work-place, it was almost in-vogue. At least it seemed to be so on the U.S. East Coast, my geographic entry point into Corporate America.

The nicotine encrusted typewriter took me immediately back to the late 1970s. It was around then that I began my first job as a technical writer, starting as an entry level writer for an engineering company in suburban Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C. The company had only one client, but it was a big one – the United States Army. My department handled technical documentation. In short we wrote Army manuals, and we wrote lots of them – tons of them as a matter of fact.

Nearly everyone in the department was retired from one branch of the US military or another. Everyone, except for a handful of junior writers (like myself) had a brass nameplate on their cubicle identifying them by name and branch of service. Each carried the abbreviation “Ret.” , or retired, as the suffix to the service branch, as in Captain J.T. Soandso, USN Ret.

The head of our department was a retired US Air Force Brigadier General (USAF Ret.). The General was rumored to have been a personal friend of famed General Curtis Lemay, but that was only a rumor…I cannot confirm or deny. In any case, unlike General Lemay who was a cigar smoker, our general was a pipe smoker. Within an hour of his arrival at work, his office was as fogged in as Thule Airbase during summer thaw. If there were any complaints as to the General’s propensity for fine pipe tobacco I never heard it. Non-smokers could just hold their breath as they passed his office.

In fact, if anyone at all ever complained about the air quality in our office, I don’t remember it. Nearly all of the writers were smokers (actually heavy smokers), and it is unfortunate that some of them eventually succumbed to smoking related disease, but that’s another story entirely. All in all, they were a fine group of individuals, and I consider myself lucky to have had the privilege to work with them. Many were decorated combat veterans and I learned a great deal on that first job of mine.

It was a hard working group too – 12 hour workdays were not uncommon. Pretty impressive for a group largely comprised of retirees. Perhaps it is no wonder that it was at this company that I met a man who I consider to be, the only true workaholic I have ever met in my life. This would be Lt. Colonel Wilson, United States Army, Ret. (rank and service branch are factual, but Wilson is a fictitious name – let’s just leave it at that).

More on Lt. Col. Wilson in my next blog, but for now I have a typewriter to finish cleaning.

In which I purchase a 1926 Underwood typewriter

I’ve always had an affinity for old machines. Old gasoline engines, old trucks, old cars, old hay balers, old clocks. You get the picture. I suppose then, it’s no wonder that a 1926 Underwood typewriter called out to me as I passed a vendor’s booth at a local flea-market on Saturday.

I asked the proprietor of the booth how much he was asking for it. I was surprised to find that it was modestly priced, and that it was in decent working condition. Perhaps sensing that he had a ‘live one’ on the line, booth vendor immediately grabbed a sheet of typing paper and scrolled it through the platen and pecked away at a few keys: AsFdFg, upper case, lower case — all in working order.

“And watch,” he said. “The carriage return works too…”

“Wow,” I said, squinting at the faded letters on the fine white paper and quite impressed with the working cartridge return. “I hope I work as well when I’m 89 years old.” We both laughed.

But I walked away. I have lived enough years to know that just because you can afford to buy something, and you might want to buy something, that you don’t need to buy something. It will just add to the rubbish in your life, and more likely than not you’re better off without it.

But I went back and bought the ’26 Underwood typewriter.20150503_101220

“I knew you’d be back,” said booth proprietor.

I wanted to ask him how he knew that I would be back, but by then I was scratching through my wallet looking for the necessary cash to complete the transaction. (You can’t use a credit card at this flea market – it’s cash only.) I was five bucks short.

“No problem,” said booth proprietor. “Catch me next time with it.”

That’s Florida Treasure Coast generosity for you. We shook hands and then just before I was ready to grab the ’26 Underwood and make tracks for my truck, he asked me where I was parked.

“Way out,” I told him, waving to a far flung lot.

“Well,” he said. “You’ll want to pull into the alley over there, and load up. That thing is heavy.”

Load up?

“I’ll just carry it,” I told him, chuckling to myself. How heavy can a typewriter be?

It wasn’t until then that I actually grabbed hold of this 1926 typewriter and lifted it. I felt like I had just pulled the transmission out of a 1952 Chrysler.

“You sure you don’t want to pull around to the alley?” I heard booth vendor say as I trudged away with my 1926 Underwood.

By the time I reached my truck my arms were aching. I put the Underwood on the passenger’s side floorboard, glad to get it out of my arms.

On the way home I called my wife to tell her that I’d bought an old typewriter.

“That’s nice,” she said. “Did it come with a case?”

I told her it did not.