Monday, March 21, 2011

Brown Acid

The warning came repeatedly from the stage, “Do not take the brown acid!”
I should have listened but I didn’t. It was raining. I was hungry. I was wet. I was cold. My bladder was full. There were people everywhere. I mean everywhere. You scarcely could take a step in any direction without stepping on someone’s hand, foot, or leg. Mud and blankets and coolers and garbage filled the small spaces between flesh. It was best to use your hands as additional feet. The result made it look as though a giant game of Twister was being played on the entire farm.
The music was great but it wasn’t great enough to take my mind off my discomfort. The only times I was mellow were when I was high or making love. The two often went together because my old lady wouldn’t get it on in front of everybody unless she was stoned. A freak, whose wild red hair made me think of Bozo the Clown, offered us some LSD. My girl Vicky snatched at it, and you know that if she was doing something I was too. So, yeah, I took the brown acid.
Most people who took it didn’t notice anything wrong with it. A few got a little sick or got paranoid for a while. Not me. The stuff really did a number on me. I wish I never heard of Woodstock.
I’d dropped acid before plenty of times. I started when I was 16. It is embarrassing to be such a cliché for my generation, but I had gone to hear Timothy Leary speak at a nearby college in Madison, NJ. The man spoke of higher consciousness through chemistry. He said there was more to life and to awareness than the petty materialistic concerns which so obsessed our parents.
Right after the lecture he went back to the mansion in New York where he lived with an heiress. I thought about what he said all that evening while floating in the pool in back of my folks’ house. I remember the stars were crispy bright that night. Ursa Major was the only constellation I could name for sure. It occurred to me that it might be fun to learn more about stars.
Two days later was Saturday. I took a train to NYC with a buddy and bought some caps in Washington Square. The dealer was an NYU student earning cash for college tuition. We were stupid teenagers. We dared each other to drop the acid on the train ride back home. We knew we were being stupid, but neither of us wanted to cop out. I put the cap on my tongue and let it dissolve. At first we both thought the dealer had ripped us off; 20 minutes went by and neither of us felt a thing. Then I handed the conductor my ticket and saw the afterimage of my hand hang in space across the entire sweep from my shirt pocket to the aisle. The view outside the window became a swirl in a pattern like cream makes when you pour it into coffee.
“Oh wow!” Ron said. “This is pretty cool, Aardvark!”
I guess I should explain the name. Critics ask me about it all the time and I make a point of not answering. Mystery makes mystique. The truth is simple enough. My first day of high school a varsity linebacker I accidentally brushed grabbed me by the back of the neck and ground my nose in the dirt. From then on I was Aardvark. I couldn’t shake the name so I just went with it. Professionally it has been an asset. Folks remember me.
Anyway, it was plain from that first use that LSD affected me differently. My friend described seeing sharp crystalline edges and vivid colors, but he by no means lost his grip on reality. The world I saw belonged in another galaxy. Maybe another universe.
I’m not sure how we made it to my house from the train station. I have a vague recollection of being led by the arm. The people we passed on the street transmogrified into every one of the major Warner Brothers cartoon characters. We somehow avoided attracting the notice of the police even though I remember shouting at Porky Pig something about wearing pants in public. The effects wore off by the next morning. My parents said nothing to me about my behavior. To this day I don’t know whether they didn’t notice or shrugged it off.
Just to save themselves embarrassment, my friends soon learned to keep me out of public view whenever we got high. They enjoyed my company because I was entertaining. I once repeatedly played “White Room” by Cream for an hour and expostulated loudly at the profundity of the lyrics. I have no idea what I said. I would laugh uproariously at Ed Sullivan, seeing comic genius in his deadpan face. One time I dismembered an orange in fascination and then cried all night in horror at what I had done. The laughter of my friends on that occasion boomed like cannon fire.
At least my sex life improved. To be more accurate, it started. Freud was looking too deep when he asked what women want. Most times, as Cindy Lauper revealed much later, girls just want to have fun. As soon as I became known in school as a boy with acid to spare, I had girlfriends to spare.
Generally, LSD is a major distraction away from sex, but if you can keep your mind on the act when high it is an experience all its own. My first time I was convinced I was making it with a giant ripe plum. I never told that to any shrink for fear he would tell me what it meant. It can’t be anything good.
Already I was a pretty good painter in a pop art sort of way and I sometimes thought about drawing for some comic book company. You can see elements of my later style in what I did then. I lacked originality though. My sketches and splashes were nothing special.
In 1969 I was one of the fools who bought tickets to Woodstock. More foolish still, I didn’t keep them as collectors’ items. I paid $18 each which by the standards of the day was an outrageously high price. Now they are worth thousands.
Vicky, who was a year older than I was, drove us upstate in her VW Bug. We ran out of gas in a huge traffic jam several miles from the concert site. Somehow everyone seemed to know the way to the concert even though it had been relocated at the last minute to some town named Bethel that I had a hard time finding on a map. It was 50 miles from Woodstock. We pushed the car off the road onto the lawn of a small ranch house. I talked to the owner. He wanted $50 to let us leave it there. I had to sell my stash of acid to the freaks still caught in traffic in order to raise the cash. I should have kept a few.
Vicky and I hiked the rest of the way. We approached the site over a field nowhere near an official gate. There was no one to take our tickets. We were not alone. About a dozen other kids were there and more were approaching. A few of the rowdier ones pushed over the makeshift fence to the applause of the rest of us. We all entered the grounds. The MCs on stage yelled about that that sort of thing for a while. Eventually they gave up and declared Woodstock a free concert as though they had a choice in the matter. I wanted to keep some distance from the stage where we could have some elbow room but Vicky wanted to be as close as we could get. So, we staked out a blanket space pretty near the front.
I went around bumming for extra drugs. Back then people were pretty generous with what they had. Then Bozo showed up with the brown acid.
I never was on a trip like that. The world didn’t merely go surreal. Instead, my perspective became all crazy. When I looked at the stage it was like I was on the stage. I was Melanie singing “Beautiful People.” I could see the audience out there including me and Vicky. I could see me. I could feel through the clouds and through space to the surface of the moon. I could feel the mountain ranges, the craters, the plains and the valleys on the surface. I swam through the Atlantic with tuna and was entangled in a net. I returned to the stage and for a while became Arlo Guthrie singing “Coming Into Los Angeles.” I located myself the crowd and willed myself to return to me. I succeeded, but it didn’t last. I grabbed a handful of dirt and saw microscopic creatures living inside. I became an amoeba and stretched out my membrane to absorb a piece decayed matter for food. I became a biology teacher in some California classroom I never had seen before writing the word “phagocytosis” on a blackboard.
I don’t remember much of the concert after that until Joe Cocker took the stage. I remember rain. I remember becoming rain droplets in the clouds which fell on me and then slid down my own face. I remember exploring the solar system. On the third day I was mostly back to myself. I was pretty sick. That might have helped restrain my mind from traveling. My first totally sane view was of Vicky making it with a dude on the next blanket.
I lost it again for a while during Hendrix. It’s a shame. I hear he was good. Vicky, like most of the audience, was gone by then. She was kind enough to pin a note to me that said “I’m splitting.” After the concert, I hitchhiked back to Chatham, NJ.
My mind never was right after that, but the experience gave my artwork a special edge. It made my career. While it was very much inspired by the prevailing psychedelic scene of the time, my work was nevertheless distinctive. I made my first sales to a poster company before I graduated high school.
In order to avoid being sent to the jungles of Southeast Asia, I enrolled at Syracuse in order to get a 2S deferment. While still enrolled as a Fine Arts student my work became highly commercial. My warped “inside out” perspective appealed to many in the counterculture, and more importantly, to wealthy folk who liked to seem to be “with it.” I socked away a good little nest egg. I never was as big as Peter Maxx or as significant as Warhol, but my stuff sold. It was a rare head shop or boutique in the early 70s that didn’t have Aardvark T-shirts, Aardvark paper airplane books, and Aardvark posters.
My success didn’t help my grades. I wonder to this day if my professors resented me for my success or if they really thought my work was trash. At least they didn’t fail me. I never did get an A in my field of study though.
You may be surprised to learn that I never dropped acid again. Certainly everyone assumed I was a total head. I didn’t need to be. The brown acid had wreaked some permanent change in my brain so I could go on a trip just by meditating. It was harder to stop tripping than to start. It was especially hard to stop if I had any THC in me, so I cut out weed too. I was worried I would go over the edge for good if I took more LSD.
The first inkling that I might be in for trouble even if I stayed straight came in the Spring of 1971. The South Vietnamese launched an offensive into Laos. President Nixon at the same time renewed the air campaign against North Vietnam. Anti-war protesters planned a big demonstration in Washington, DC, on April 30. The demonstration was intended by the organizers to be peaceful. It was an open secret that more radical activists would follow up the peaceful demonstration with an attempt to shut down the government in the first few days of May. Their plan was simple enough. They would block DC traffic to prevent federal workers from reaching their jobs. The Metro subway was not yet open, so nearly all government workers drove or rode buses.
On April 29, myself and five other Syracuse students, four guys and two girls in all, crammed into a Chevy Nova and drove to DC. Parking in DC was impossible. It was not a very big a city, though it has grown a lot since, and the private garages were overwhelmed. We found a parking lot in Virginia and ended up walking along the George Washington Expressway and across Arlington Memorial Bridge to get to the city.
The demonstration was exhilarating. 200,000 people, mostly young, crowded onto Constitution Avenue. They spilled over into the Mall and onto the Ellipse and all the way to Capitol Hill in a human sea of protest. No one knew it would be the counterculture’s last big political outing.
I camped out on the Washington Monument grounds that night. The scene was familiar. A near solid blanket of human beings covered the ground between Constitution and Independence Avenues. A haze of marijuana smoke filled the air. Loud live rock music blared from the stage backing up to Independence.
Police were on hand but they were not obtrusive. They made no effort to interfere with open drug use. I entertained myself for a time by watching a thoroughly stoned young blonde help a cop on Constitution Avenue direct traffic. She waved directions to a bus that, if followed, would have directed it into the wall of a Roman style federal building. He shooed her away.
“OK. You’re a good cop!” she shouted in his face before complying.
“Yeah I know,” he said.
I walked toward Independence where a rock band I didn’t recognize was playing. It was about then that I began to lose it. Maybe it was the similarity to Woodstock that triggered the trip. Maybe it was a contact high from the pot haze. I became the sound waves radiating from the band’s giant speakers and collided with the eardrums of 50,000 people. I became the Washington Monument and felt the break across my midsection where construction had been halted for many years a century before. I sunk beneath the grass and became underground electric cables stretching out to a nationwide grid and pulsating my electro-magnetic fields at 60Hz.
I collapsed on my back. No one bothered me. They probably assumed I was tripping. They were right.
I returned to a more normal state of consciousness thanks to the stink of tear gas. It was just before daybreak. The Metro Police, the National Guard and federal troops had surrounded the Monument grounds. Gas canisters exploded in the air as Guard units began a sweep.
Literally thousands of people were herded into trucks and hauled off to RFK Stadium. The Stadium was one of the few structures able to hold that many people so it had been appropriated for use as a temporary jail. I ran with a clump of 20 young people. We avoided the Guardsmen but collided with a holding line of helmeted police. More than half of us pushed through. One cop grabbed my shirt and tore it but I kept running and got away.
As I ran my perspective wandered. I was a demonstrator face down on asphalt with cuffs behind my back. I was a cop wrestling with a bearded freak while shouting at him to give up. I was a Metro bus driver stopped at an intersection blocked by hippies. I was the engine of the bus and I could feel a demonstrator feel about for sparkplugs and then curse when he realized I was a diesel. I was the Eyewitness News cameraman in a helicopter filming the events from overhead.
The pain in my lungs from overexertion and the tear gas helped me to keep enough sense of my own self to navigate. I turned right on 19th Street NW and headed north. I looked for someplace where I could go inside. On the sidewalk in front of me near F Street was a college-age woman in a T-shirt and bell bottomed jeans. She was holding a handkerchief over her face. She ran up the steps of a Georgian high rise, which I recognized as a college dorm, and opened the door. I followed her into the building. Through the window in the door I saw a convoy of 7 squad cars rolled by in a show of force that I found convincing.
Even inside the building the smell of tear gas was sharp. I would be better off on a higher floor. I hurried to a bank of elevators and stepped inside an open one. I pushed the top button for the 8th Floor.
The air definitely was better up there, though still a bit tangy. The hallways were crowded out-of-town demonstrators, most of them still sleeping. They were sprawled everywhere with backpacks and bags of food. I stepped over them all the way to the window at the end of the hall. Two intersections were clearly visible below. Five or six demonstrators would block one or the other until police showed. Then they quickly ran off, only to return when the police were gone. Presumably, scenes such as this were being repeated all over town.
I found an open spot on the floor of the hall and settled down with my back against the wall. I became the wall. I became the building and all the people inside. I was the three couples who at that moment were making love in the building. I was the sewage flowing through pipes to treatment and to the Potomac. I was the rats who lived in the pipes. My fur itched. It was afternoon before I largely came back to myself. A tripping student in the hall apparently was no novelty, so everyone had left me alone. I found the hall lavatory and decided to spend another night in the dormitory. Nearly all the other hallway squatters left, leaving mostly just the regular residents of the dorm, which I learned was Mitchell Hall, ironically named after military hero Billy Mitchell, at George Washington University. It was the evening I met my future wife.
I stood for a moment outside an open door. Inside the room a half dozen students were arguing about reality and the meaning of life. Each spoke full of passion as though he or she really knew the answer and the others were being obtuse. A woman with stringy light brown hair waved me in when she saw me sitting in the hall.
“Come on in! Don’t just stare at us.”
I stood up and walked over. “Hi, guys, what’s up?”
“Well, I’m trying to explain to these assholes that reality is like universal. You know, the whole Buddhist Nirvana thing where you become a drop of water returning to the ocean. Individuality is just an illusion where we cut ourselves off from seeing the truth.”
“Bullshit, Carolyn!” a conservatively trimmed young man objected. “We whom cutting off whomselves? Your very statement presupposes individuality!”
“Now you are being seduced by pronouns!” she responded. “Grammar is just a construct.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” objected a thin young man in torn jeans and green striped shirt.
“I want to know what this guy thinks,” said Carolyn.
“I don’t know,” I answered. “I haven’t thought about it much.”
“Think about it!” she demanded.
“Well, there is something to both points of view. You are not the whole universe, but you are an inseparable part of it.”
“Cop out!” they all shouted in unison.
“What’s your name?” Carolyn asked.
“Oh, like the artist?”
“That’s me.”
Carolyn was impressed in a way that my co-students in Syracuse never were. I was too familiar up there to be taken too seriously.
“You must be rich.”
“I do OK.”
“I hope you give it to the poor.”
I shrugged. In truth that was something else I hadn’t thought much about. I didn’t even spend money on me.
Carolyn spent that night with me. She insisted I get a room at the Roger Smith Hotel up on Pennsylvania Avenue for us. “Doing it in the dorm is tacky,” she explained. “Besides, you can afford it.”
Carolyn grounded me better than anyone has before or since. Despite her willingness to give away my earnings to charity, she was the most self-centered person I ever met. Whenever I felt my consciousness bleeding away into my surroundings I would concentrate on her. There was a black hole of need inside of her that sucked up all of my wandering attention. The furthest I could get away from myself in her presence was Carolyn herself.
Carolyn wanted a horse farm in Maryland. She wanted highly trained horses that could take her to the Palm Beach Wellington show and bring her back blue ribbons. She wanted a mansion and a swimming pool. She wanted emeralds because she liked them better than diamonds. She wanted 24 carat gold because anything less than 18 carat gave her a rash. She wanted a Porsche. She wanted a goose neck horse trailer and a truck with dual rear axles to pull it. She wanted to travel. She wanted a condominium in the Virgin Islands. All the while she listed her wants to me she simultaneously railed against the unconscionable inequalities of capitalism. She was perfect for me.
My traveling companions from Syracuse all had been arrested, but they were released the next day. The police had been so overwhelmed by the numbers of arrests that they had failed to fill out individual arrest forms. Therefore, charges had to be dropped against almost all of the demonstrators. They had no idea where I was, however, so they had driven back north on their own. I took a flight out of National. Carolyn and I called each other regularly after I returned to Syracuse. Carolyn always reversed the charges.
          My draft lottery number was 183. At the time it was picked it was low enough to make me a potential draftee if I lost my student deferment, but in June it was announced on the news that few young men would be called up over 160. My 2S deferment was no longer necessary. I dropped out of college, bought a Porsche, and drove to Silver Spring, MD, where Carolyn lived with her parents. I asked Carolyn to marry me. She agreed subject to certain conditions that were, in her words, "fair to myself." These included the purchase of a "suitable" Maryland residence and support for her equestrian ambitions.
          Carolyn often was fun. An example was in 1973 when I hand-painted the backs of two jackets, one for each of us. The artwork was so stylized that the messages were not immediately recognizable. If you looked closely you could see that mine read “Impeach” and hers read “Nixon.” We wore them on the White House tour. We got as far as the Ballroom before a White House guard stopped us.
“You can’t wear those jackets in here!”
“Why not?” Carolyn objected. “They’re our jackets.”
“Could you at least cover them up?”
“You’re pretty good at that around here, aren’t you?”
We were thrown out, of course, but we enjoyed the ejection. The incident made the news and that gave my art sales another boost. I licensed production of those jackets for a tidy sum.
Carolyn’s incessant demands kept me sane. We bought a 900-acre estate on the Eastern Shore with a 10,000 square foot Greek Revival home, a 24-stall horse barn, and an indoor riding ring measuring 200 x 100 feet. Carolyn was disappointed because she had her heart set on something larger and closer to the city, but I simply couldn’t afford it. It came as a shock to her that my net worth scarcely came to more than $11,000,000 in the dollars of the day. However, as long as my art continued to sell, she could hope to trade up one day to a more respectable residence. Meanwhile, she bought a condominium in Watergate, more fashionable than ever since the scandal, and signed a long-term lease on an apartment in the East 70s in Manhattan.
Sex used to be a big risk for me. I could lose myself in a consciousness of mutual biology. I would feel and be blood coursing in veins, sugars absorbing through cell membranes, gametes struggling to make another human. I would sense amino acid molecules assembling into proteins on an RNA matrix within an individual cell. I was the proteins. I was the RNA. It is strange and somewhat disturbing that none of my partners ever called an ambulance for me, because my “normal” consciousness didn’t always return for as much as an hour after the act was over. A few left me alone and went home. One of those was kind enough to call back to see if I was all right. “I must have done an exceptionally good job,” she giggled.
Carolyn and I didn’t have sex very often because she didn’t much like it. She probably would have forgone lovemaking if abstinence weren’t contrary to her self-image as “a liver of life.” The woman was not a conscious hypocrite, mind you. Her most outrageous contradictions were sincerely mutually held. When we did have sex her self-absorption with all the discomforts involved in the act kept me focused superficially on her and prevented my mind from wandering. It worked out for both of us.
She was ambitious in her own way.
“It is my dream to ride in the Olympics!” she often told me with an edge to her voice that implied I was the major obstruction to her goal.
My art productivity suffered during this time but the prices I received continued to rise, so we kept our head above water although just barely.
If this existence sounds less than idyllic, one must remember that my situation was not normal. This life was ideal for focusing my attention on my immediate surroundings. There was not much opportunity for my senses to wander beyond Carolyn’s needs. I understood her nature when I married her and in large measure I got what I wanted.
Trouble started in 1975 when the counterculture was drowned by disco music. My work suddenly became passé. Prices for my art plummeted when it sold at all. My income fell off a cliff. Meanwhile one of the Smythes from the pharmaceutical company Smythe and Smythe bought a 2000-acre estate several miles from us. Jane Symthe owned Olympic show horses. Jane drove a Ferrari. Carolyn was livid.
“I think it’s disgusting that people can live like that when there is so much poverty and suffering in the world!” she groused. “It shouldn’t be allowed. That car of hers just sucks gas. Doesn’t she know there is an energy shortage?”
I made a rare objection. “But you can’t survive on less than a million per year. Your truck is worse on gas than that sports car.”
“I’m pursuing a dream!” she responded as though that answered everything.
For all her disgust, Carolyn made a point of befriending the Symthes, including their 23-year-old son Kevin, who was a well regarded rider on the show circuit. He and Carolyn often rode in the same shows. Her acquaintance with the Symthes sharply increased our expenses just at the time when my annual income fell to near zero. She began to travel with them to international horse shows with her own horses. She attended celebrity fund-raisers with Jane for left wing causes. Mr. Smythe, who apparently had different views, never accompanied Jane to these. Carolyn spent ever longer amounts of time in the District and New York. My increasingly alarmed expositions of our financial situation only brought back derision and anger from Carolyn.
“That is your job! When we got married you clearly said you could support us and let me keep horses!”
“Yes, but not on this scale.”
“We’re talking about my dream!”
In June 1979 I filed for bankruptcy. In the same month Carolyn filed for divorce. I did not answer her complaint charging me with extreme cruelty, so a default judgment for divorce was granted in the autumn. Carolyn took whatever the creditors didn’t. In December of 1979 she married Kevin Smythe. They defied President Carter’s ban on the 1980 Moscow Olympics and entered the equestrian events there. Their performances were unremarkable.
I was nearly destitute. I lived in a one-room apartment in Baltimore. I didn’t trip out much. Poverty proved almost as effective as a demanding spouse for focusing the mind.
One day, I received a call from a campaign worker at the Republican National Committee. An amazing collection of people endorsed Ronald Reagan for President that year. They included such unlikely folks as civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy and the former Democratic peace candidate Eugene McCarthy. The RNC worker told me he had several of my posters on his wall during his college years. On his own initiative, he looked me up. He wanted to know if I would speak at the Convention. I accepted.
When my upcoming appearance at the Convention was mentioned on the news, I got a call from the ex.
“Are you entirely out of your mind? Now you’re a freak-o fascist? Do you know how humiliating this is for me?”
“I hadn’t thought about that…”
“No, you wouldn’t, you selfish bastard!”
“…but that is not a disincentive for me to go. I’m not a fascist, by the way. I’m just tired of America being pushed around. I’d like to keep more of the money I earn too instead of it all being taken in taxes. You realize there is currently a maximum marginal rate of 70%.”
“You don’t make any money! You don’t pay any taxes. You are broke! Look what a fix you left me in after all your promises to support me! You’re a loser!”
“Goodbye, Carolyn.”
The RNC sent me a plane ticket and paid for my hotel. The events leading up to the Convention were so diverting that I had no trouble with my sense of self. I began to think I was cured.
I’m not surprised if you didn’t hear my speech. It was after midnight in three time zones. If you did hear me, you may have noticed that after a strong start I seemed to lose my place and then rush to finish. I used only four minutes of my allotted ten. The truth is I was beginning to trip. You wouldn’t think that Republicans would remind me of Woodstock, but they did and I started to lose a grip on myself.
My political conversion faltered that night in large part because of my consciousness wandering around the Convention Hall. I became a right-to-life housewife from Kentucky. I became a manager of a strip mine in Montana. I became an anti-busing activist from Georgia. I became a survivalist from New Hampshire wearing a shirt with the legend “Happiness is a warm AK47.” I may have become these people, but they weren’t me.
In November I neglected to vote. My ex and her friends had turned me off leftish politics. The Republicans themselves turned me off rightish politics. The Anderson campaign that year simply combined things that bothered me about both Carter and Reagan.
My appearance at the Convention had one salutary effect for me personally. It reminded a large audience that I was still alive. It seems that there were widespread misconceptions that I either had overdosed fatally or “bought it in Nam.” My phone started to ring. Enough of a niche market returned for my work that I at least was able to pay my bills.
One of the numerous post-hippie neo-yuppie Reaganites who had come into government with the new Administration even offered me a chance to do some large scale temporary art in Yellowstone. It would have involved Day-Glo paint, lasers and Old Faithful. In the end, Secretary of the Interior James Watt nixed it the same week he canceled the Beach Boys for the July 4 celebration. My notoriety from this cancellation beefed up my sales even more, so I was able to come to terms with my creditors and put a down payment on a modest townhouse in Baltimore. To my amazement, American Express approved me for a card.
The return of financial security had a down side. It eased my mind enough to cause it to slip again. I found a chemical that could help: alcohol. My caution with mind-altering substances had dissuaded me from trying this earlier to any great degree, but one night while I was tripping anyway, I drank six shots of Southern Comfort. The stuff brought me back to planet earth. I spent the next morning leaning over the toilet bowl, but it was an earthly toilet bowl.
I became a serious alcoholic for the next decade. I don’t recommend this for most people but it kept me sane. Booze took the place of Carolyn at a tiny fraction of her cost. I don’t remember much else about the 80s.
My next clear memory was getting a phone call for “Mr. Aardvark” from someone named Dick Cheney in 1990. A major US build-up was in progress in the Middle East in an operation called Desert Shield. It was news to me. I hadn’t kept up. Mr. Cheney remembered my appearance at the 1980 Republican Convention. He asked if I wanted to do some nose art for US aircraft stationed in the Gulf. Many of the pilots were veterans of Vietnam and were familiar with the Aardvark name. He thought they might appreciate it. It would be good for morale.
I agreed, but not out of politics. I knew nothing about the crisis at the time. I simply liked the notion of being appreciated by old fans.
I arrived in Saudi Arabia in November 1990 aboard a C5 cargo plane loaded with high-tech munitions. Somebody should have told me Saudi was a dry country. My next few days of detoxification were terrible, but my illness kept my mind on the work in front of me.
You may have seen photographs of A10s with purple pterosaurs on their noses, others with multi-color representations of the Milky Way spiral, and still others with zoot-suited wolves. Those were mine. The pilots seemed to like them.
I settled into a routine of working in the morning, hanging out in the mess, napping in the afternoon, working some more in the evening, chatting with the soldiers, and getting a good night’s sleep. I rather enjoyed it. I felt almost normal. Once again I had cause to hope I was cured. Perhaps, I thought, years of alcohol abuse had destroyed enough brain cells to stop my unscheduled trips.
I had such a good time I began to wonder if I would have liked being in the military. On January 17, 1991, I decided the answer was no. The first waves of F117s, F16s, F15s and cruise missiles assaulted Iraq’s air defenses. As dawn broke I walked out to the runway. The sky was cloudless. The sun was peeking above the eastern horizon. A hot wind blew sand in my face. Some grit irritated my right eye. I watched a wing of A10s with my nose designs take off. The planes were armed with anti-tank missiles, HARM missiles, guided bombs, and 30mm cannon.
My mind left me. I felt myself soar with the aircraft. I was an A10. I felt my jets suck in air as though they were lungs. Fuel fed into them, mixed with compressed air, and exploded creating a rush of raw power. I felt out to the surface below where hundreds of pieces of artillery and heavy equipment were dug into the sand. I locked onto infrared signature of a tank. The airflow around my wings disrupted as I swooped to the right and began an attack descent. I reached out to the signature with a Maverick missile.
I was the Russian built T72 struck by the missile that was myself. I was the Iraqi tank crew who lived just long enough to understand what was happening to us. My consciousness spread out. I was hundreds of tanks APCs and crews. I was hundreds of aircraft. I was thousands of 30mm shells. I was what and whom I struck.
I woke up in a hospital in Riyadh. A doctor with a heavy accent told me I had passed out at the airfield, probably from heat exhaustion. I would be sent home on the next available flight. Within an hour of reaching Baltimore I was drunk.
My health deteriorated over the next several years. I was diagnosed with Gulf War Syndrome. I didn’t argue but I knew my case was special. In one respect it was not so special. I was a drunk and suffering the usual effects.
My finances, at least, improved. The 60s had something of a revival in the 90s. As the Boomers occupied positions of power, they could afford to indulge their nostalgia. They bought Grateful Dead concert jackets and attended movies about The Doors. My work became popular and valuable again. I even got contracts for TV commercials. That neo-psychedelic animated Fresh Flowers Butter commercial that ran all during the latter half of the 90s was mine.
Much of my restored income went to lawyers because my ex-wife sued me as soon as she realized I was commercial again. She had divorced Smythe years before and had spent her way through her multi-million dollar settlement. She argued my current success was entirely due to her assistance earlier in my career. She demanded half of everything plus a 15% agent’s fee. We settled out of court. Even afterwards I had enough money to be comfortable provided I steered clear of another Carolyn.
I bought a nice but unimpressive home in Columbia, Maryland. There was a detached garage that I converted to a studio. Despite my health problems and my drinking I was reasonably content. After the stock market crash in 2000 the demand for my work diminished. This was partly a wealth effect but it also marked another generational shift. Generations X and Y grew increasingly dominant culturally, and they had little interest in the 60s, except, oddly, in The Beatles whom I never liked very much. It didn’t matter. I could get by.
The Defense Department called me again in 2003 with the onset of the Second Gulf War, but this time I declined.
Later in the Aughts, I reacquired a romantic life. Jeri drove locally for Federal Express. She turned up at my door now and to pick up the occasional special order. She was in her late 30s, divorced, attractive in a tomboyish sort of way, and had a daughter just entering college. One day we struck up a conversation. She returned after her last delivery to finish it. She stayed over.
This time sex did not cause me mental disturbance. Unlike Carolyn who had focused my mind with the strength of her own ego, Jeri achieved the same result with kindness. Our relationship thereafter was more than casual but less than consuming. She was a stress-free lover. I loved her in an easygoing 1960s sense. It was my favorite form of nostalgia.
For her sake I cut down on my drinking. Also for her sake I did not quit entirely. I drank just enough to keep a grip on myself. She was concerned but tolerant.
Jeri moved in with me in the year 2006. At her urging, for the first time in 20 years I tried to pay some attention to political matters. The economic collapse of 2008 might have drawn my attention in any case. I voted for Obama, she voted for McCain. We probably were the only mixed party couple in America who thoroughly enjoyed the election that year. We agreed on election eve that we would make love whatever the outcome, but if Obama won I would be on top and if McCain won she would be. I don’t think either of us was too worried about losing the bet.
In January 2010 Jeri was diagnosed with lung and liver cancer. She had never smoked and always had been health minded. By May she was gone.
          Last evening I walked along my quiet street. A warm breeze refreshed my face. I smelled freshly cut grass. My consciousness leapt to the setting sun. I became hydrogen nuclei fusing into helium. I became plasma forming enormous arcs shaped by magnetic fields which also were myself. I followed light from distant stars and became them as well. Below me I was earth's nickel iron core churning in a magma sea. With a mighty effort I pulled myself back into my own shell. I walked home.
          I read somewhere that human beings are the universe becoming aware of itself. Are my flights of consciousness real at all? Are they a connection to a greater whole or are they simply insanity? I have no answers but I know where to look for them. I have no reason to stay here. Tonight I will be a drop of water returning to the ocean.


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