Summer Of Smoke
by Bruce Patterson, September 27, 2017
It was Mardi Gras in New Orleans, 1970. My surviving holemate, Don Perkins, and I had gotten off a train from L.A. and now we were leaving on a midnight Greyhound to Georgia. Finally, after three years of active duty, we’d put an “EX” before our GI-dom, and Don was going back home to his grandma’s house in Augusta. I was continuing on to Fayetteville, North Carolina.
Don’s dad was a long-haul truck driver—an owner/operator back when that was a viable option for most any working fool with a down payment, a bit of collateral and a gift for racking up hours and miles. His dad was due in Augusta for a pit stop and Don would be greeting him. Maybe they’d join back up; maybe they wouldn’t. But Don being on the road between pick-ups and drop-offs was about the least military thing he could think to do to make some living money and so well worth a try. Just might work out with the old man the second time around—weren’t impossible. But Don sure as hell wasn’t staying put in Augusta. Last place he wanted to live was in a GI town.
I was returning to Fayetteville to continue working with my old friends in GIs United Against the War. Since Augusta and Fayetteville weren’t far apart, upon our parting we swore we’d be meeting up again here pretty quick. A few months before, and while we were still on Active Duty, we’d hitchhiked north from Fayetteville up to DC and then thumbed it northwest to Pittsburg. From there we took I-70 west to St. Louie and then Route 66 on in to within a couple miles of my dad and step-mom’s place at the foot of the mountain wall above the LA Arboretum and Santa Anita Racetrack.
But Don and I never did see each other again. With head-shot Chuck (our machinegun crew’s third man) in his grave and sitting in the back seats of our rides during our transcontinental sojourn, we knew we had to split up. So the good die young: no shit, fuck it. We just didn’t want to say “fare well” out loud was all. Couldn’t.
The previous September, a hurricane named Camille, a category 5 with maximum sustained (=60 seconds+) winds of 175 mph, had wiped from the panhandles of Mississippi, Alabama, and from the westernmost tip of Florida’s, virtually all signs of Civilization over a few feet tall. Camille had also flattened the forests, laying the trees flat-out parallel, their tops and root wads intertwined.
Looking out the window that night reminded me of traversing the path of a B-52 bombing run, and how the flattened forest looked exactly like this except with massive craters as hubs and trees as spokes. But Camille’s destruction spread like the shockwave of a thermonuclear explosion for miles and miles.
The world’s first Earth Day was held a month later, but I don’t remember it. I must have heard about it, though. I had a girl friend who was a university student up in Chapel Hill. She was with a Woman’s Group named Praxis, and they’d mimeographed the first couple issues the GI Newspaper we’d named Bragg Briefs (soon individual donors, mostly GIs, students and NC Quakers, helped us pay for an 8-page newspaper format using photo offset printing). Anyway, with its strip-mined tobacco and corn plantations, clear-cuts, mines, quarries, pulp mills, slaughterhouses, feed lots, fertilizer plants etc, sweet Carolina weren’t exactly environmentally pristine.
I’d grown up during the worst of L.A.’s infamous citrus grove smudge pots, backyard incinerators, agricultural burns, chaparral wildfires (talk about flaming rolling breezes leopard quick), forest fires and the forest of industrial smokestacks spewing god knows what. (Hands down, LA was the most important industrial city west of the Rockies, and the Port of Los Angeles was, and is, the busiest port on the West Coast of North America).
I grew up watching the mountain wall appearing and disappearing behind walls of smoke and smog. I’d felt my eyes stinging, nose running and chest burning enough times to know that something was stinking in Denmark. I’d also heard the adults discussing how we’ve got to stop poisoning ourselves while others, unwilling to acknowledge any problem in their adopted Golden State, asked what’s a few poisoned babies when there’s so much money being made?
(Between 2003 and’04, and for the first time in American History, UCSF conducted a legitimate scientific study – see the UCSF Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment – that searched the blood and tissues of 268 pregnant American women for the presence of 163 common industrial, household, garden and cosmetic chemicals. Forty-eight of the chemicals were found in virtually all the samplings, including some that had been banned before many of these expectant mothers had been born, DDT and various PCBs to name a few.)
Up in Carolina, we didn’t even notice Camille. After ripping up the panhandles, she’d torn straight north up the belly of the Bible Belt on the west side of the Appalachians before, now just a gusty cloudburst, tipping its hat at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay and then gently returning to its place of birth.
Once a car load of us drunken retired jungle bunnies drove down to Myrtle Beach. Located just over the South Carolina line, the beach at Myrtle had a trailer park, campground, Ferris Wheel, Go-Carts, dance hall, merry-go-round, saloons, Auto Lodges, a fish house, a fishing pier and, southward atop and behind a hedgerow of sand hills, a short row of oceanfront homes, them looking like the nose-up cars parked below a Drive-In movie screen.
Since back then if you lived in one of Southern California’s string of coastal towns you had to beat back the in-coming in-lander automobiles with sticks, I wondered why so few people were living out along these beautiful blond sandy beaches (the main town was up on a manmade mound). So I asked around and found out it was because of hurricanes. They don’t call them parts the Tidewaters for nothing. If a hurricane comes with a 10-foot-tall storm surge, you don’t want your bed pillow located at four feet above mean sea level. When Hurricane Hazel swamped Myrtle Beach in 1954, the isolated town had maybe 3,000 people and the storm snuffed out at least 95 of them. In 1989 Hurricane Hugo, the most economically destructive mainland US hurricane up till then (it now ranks 16th) killed “27” South Carolinians and left at least 100,000 homeless. By then Myrtle Beach was a part of a vast Metro Area encompassing 330,000 people (the Damned Yankees!).
When Camille came ashore in 1969, there were about 6,900,000 people living in the entire state of Florida. That’d be roughly the population of Greater Los Angeles back then. Nearly 17,000,000 people live in Florida today. You can thank screened windows and air-conditioning, insecticides and herbicides, habitat destruction, nationwide Sunshine State pump-priming and, of course, the US Army Corps of Engineers with its inscrutable books and bottomless pockets. And, lest we forget, our ever more generous US taxpayers, we the masters of issuing blank checks while holding our noses and looking the other way.
Eighteen months later, I was back in LA and, using the GI Bill, going to junior college. First class I took was Physical Geography and that’s where I learned that the theory (fact) of the Greenhouse Effect had been discovered by a French scientist named Joseph Fourier in 1824. It’s where I learned that Charles Dickens had written about English slum children being choked to death by coal dust, and ash, and how London’s famous fog was in fact a toxic stew.
I’d done a fair bit of low-elevation flying over Vietnam, most of it with my weapon on my lap and my feet dangling off the deck of a chopper, and I witnessed what our vast arsenal of weapons of mass destruction was doing to the earth and all living things. I knew the impacts of napalm and dum-dum bullets, 155mm white phosphorous and canister rounds, Agent Orange and supersonic micro-fishhooks and marble-sized ball bearings. Seemed we were wiping out everything over there except the thirsty fucking leeches, the mosquitoes, ticks and human-wave swarms of ravenously hungry fire ants. Seemed we were at war with all of “gook” civilization.
“We had to destroy it in order to save it,” says Patriotic TV LLC. Say what?
I can’t remember the young professor’s name, but I do remember some of what he taught me. Like him talking about bucks-up retired people flocking to beachside properties Down South in Hurricane Alley. As if building suburbs with streets, sidewalks, gutters and landscaping could armor the earth against hysterically screaming winds, roaring tornadoes and careening-freight-train floods. As if wishing for a beachcomber’s paradise is as easy as owning one. As if there will always be a fool bigger than I.
2017 was the year the residents of Portland and Seattle wished they had air conditioning. 2017 was the year Frisco hit 107 degrees, coastal British Columbia caught fire and the endlessly burning coastal forests of the Klamath Mountains smoked up northern California, eastern Oregon and western Idaho. For the Pacific Northwest, 2017 was having southwestern-style firestorms and record-breaking heatwaves; dry air, dry land, no rain in sight the whole summer long. For weeks the air above the lush Willamette Valley looked like LA’s in 1965 at the outbound rush hour during a heat wave and temperature inversion. No mention anywhere of the human costs; no counting the bodies of those choked on particulates. No pity for asthmatic children fighting to breathe.
Suffering builds character, the mythology goes. Ask any pick-and-shovel coal miner with advanced Black Lung. Ask a broke down and busted sharecropper. Ask the chain gang swinging scythes for Mr. Charlie. Like warfare, suffering builds character. We are surrounded by enemies; we must unite under Old Glory, the Stars and Bars and the Bible according to Moses the Avenger.
God is angry, mercy is for sissies. War is big box office; a chance for old men to pretend they’re young and, this time, filled with courage. Great chance for the impressionable young to see how they can get old and wise at the snap of a Drill Sergeant’s fingers; how to become a beloved national hero in 12 easy steps. Step right up to begin your magical mystery tour.
Hurricane Harvey puts all of East Texas underwater and nationwide the immense human tragedy gets played and replayed on TV as soap opera for nursing home inmates. Except, here in the media’s New Reality, there are no bad guys or even bad intentions. Total destruction is seen as another act of an all-loving God. Heroes are coming to the rescue, everybody, don’t you worry. All is assumed with no questions asked. Then, once Hurricanes Irma and Maria lifted her heads and assumed their places as Harvey’s wicked stepsisters, the destitute people of East Texas disappeared into the mists of history.
The lack of curiosity shown by these interchangeable “correspondents” standing in knee-deep slack water, or bending into the softly fluttering wind, in some mystery spot while laboriously explaining to his or her camera and microphone what they’re seeing reveals today’s totalitarian mind: the religious recital of inspirational scripts entirely divorced from context, relevance and meaning. No story here, people, keep moving, keep moving, nothing to see here…
Since East Texas is America’s land of the leaking oil drum and home of Conglomerated Petrochemicals, I was curious about all of the megatons of lethal toxicity got washed into the region’s lakes, ponds, creeks and aquifers. How many megatons poured into the already getting murdered Gulf of Mexico? A dozen extremely toxic mothballed East Texas Superfund Sites were flooded by the hurricane. How’s that not a story? How long till the toxic stew reaches the Florida Keys and the Atlantic Gulf Stream? How long before it reaches Ireland? How many Texans and Floridians, Cubans, Puerto Ricans and other Caribbean islanders will never be made whole? How long can nations sleepwalk?