Monday, May 9, 2016

Help comes from the strangest places

                                        10. Corn Killer to the Rescue
                         (From The Far Side of Eden)

      Sometimes he thought about the distance the country had come since his great-grandfather invented a corn remover in a Newark basement, at the end of another century. Then America was, in relative terms, unspoiled. At least large parts of it were. Then, millions of acres in the West retained sufficient beauty and wildness to be included by Theodore Roosevelt in new national parks and national forests; this stretch of California still had remnants of Great Basin Indians in the early twentieth century, including a handful of Wappos of Napa Valley whose forebears had once enlivened the coastal ranges with myriad languages and customs. Redwoods stood tall and thick the entire length of the Mayacamas and other ranges then, and the California dream had been very much alive.
     Mennen’s Sure Corn Killer had led to other inventions for the temporary melioration of the natural human condition, like perspiration and the growth of facial hair. Deodorants, after-shave lotion, and the like eventually produced a significant fortune, and the great-grandson grew up in its glow, not in Newark but in a mansion in exclusive New Jersey suburbia, vaguely aware from an early age that his world lacked something. Concepts “that Peter Mennen later came to understand as privilege, exclusion, loneliness, and guilt attached to an existence over which he had no control and could only oppose obliquely, first through withdrawal, later through rebellion.
     Conformity and exclusivity were among the things being rejected in the 1960s, and Peter joined in. “I know what you’re against,” his father would say, “but what are you for?” And Peter couldn’t answer. He didn’t yet know that natural beauty was something you could be for, like God and country.
     He was accepted by Brown University despite mediocre grades—he was, after all, a Mennen—but failed all but one subject his sophomore year. Young men his age who were not in school or married were being drafted into the army, involved in a military campaign in Southeast Asia becoming a full-fledged war, “Vietnam” a synonym for everything supposedly wrong with America. So Peter bought a motorcycle—a Honda Dream, barely capable of reaching sixty miles an hour on the open road—and took off for Mexico.
     He had heard of a cheap university in Mexico City that catered to veterans on the GI Bill and offered a haven for the academically and “professionally challenged, as well as those enjoying the honeymoon of a marriage between illicit drugs and industrial democracy. This was inspired by the ready availability of mind-altering substances not so readily available in suburban New Jersey. Peter enrolled. The school was called—ironically, he thought—the University of the Americas, while many of its students had rejected American culture and had no allegiance to the one below the border, either.
     Personally, he was on a search but didn’t know for what. He still could not answer his father, but felt he was getting closer even as he slipped farther down the slope toward disinheritance, the fate he had been led to believe was his. One night, having inhaled the essence of a green substance he considered essential in those days, he took the Honda Dream over the mountain between Mexico City and the sea, an ancient volcano of great spiritual significance in pre-Columbian times.
     Descending at speed, his relaxation and coordination chemically enhanced, he went through a seemingly endless series of curves, courting the precipice, dipping first to one side and then the other, so low that the motorcycle’s footrests scraped the pavement and re-leased showers of sparks that blended with stars hanging out in the immense, unmarred Mexican sky. He sensed a coming together of self and surroundings, totally new, even as mind and body separated and the feeling expanded to include the universe. It was sustained ecstasy—no other word for it—and it lasted until he gained the flatland and got off the Dream and stood looking back. He knew he could never again be the person who had made that descent in that way.
     “Once you ram through that window,” Peter would later say, “you can’t go back, even though life’s new possibilities might mean extreme loneliness. You can’t even want to go back.”
     Later, he wrote a poem about the experience:

               I lie, an open wound, ‘neath my devouring lover night

               and bleed to mingle freely with the darkness,
               spread fine as mist ‘round the earth’s curve;
               and I die in ecstasy, kindling a million stars.

     He returned to the United States, unable to shake the memory of that night, and was told he had been disinherited. In search of an other window, he took a civil service exam, and to his surprise did well, and went to work in “a post office in San Francisco. It was the late sixties, the beatniks gone, the hippies going, love coming in, high boogie time in North Beach and psychedelia in the Haight. Peter collected some experience as a bureaucrat and began to look around for a more peaceful slot.

     There was an opening for a postmaster in a town north of San Francisco called St. Helena. It was the next-to-northernmost branch in the region ruled from Oakland, and so unlikely to be hassled by supervisors. He looked it up on a map and found that St. Helena was in the middle of nowhere, just where Peter wanted to be. He applied and got the job on merit.
     The lovely little building on Main Street, he discovered, had wood paneling, old metal post boxes, and a vibrant mural from the Depression era showing Anglo-Saxons picking grapes. His office in the southeast corner, directly off the reception area, had two big windows and another door leading into the sorting room. It would be home for a long time.
     In 1981, the first year of the Napa Valley Wine Auction, Peter Mennen got into a dispute with the woman organizing that event over the amount of postage required for a mailing. She sent her assistant, a good-looking, dark-haired younger woman named Carlene, to deal with the postmaster. She and Peter hit it off, and although the postage price was not reduced, they began to see each other outside the little building on Main Street.
     Carlene seemed to be Peter’s polar opposite. She had grown up on a big ranch in Texas, about as far as you could get from the New Jersey gold coast, but both Peter and Carlene had broken off relations with their families. She took this tall, blond, boyish former scion on hikes in the woods, fossil hunting in eastern California and New Mexico, and into canyons and wild lands. He was Ivy League, she seat-of-the-pants, but she taught him something about nature. Together they worked for the eradication of Scotch broom in California, gathering and distributing the seeds of native plants.
     At first, Peter had said, “This is so boring.” But gradually he came round to an appreciation of the land, something intuitive in Carlene, having been raised on the Red River, where she spent hours watch ing soft-shell turtles, coyotes, and panthers. She abhorred the land rush there and the practice of wearing out a piece of property before moving on to do the same “thing someplace else. She considered that part of Texas “Bible-belted” and hadn’t bought into that brand of spirituality. It was just another version, they agreed, of conformity and exclusivity.
     Peter was impressed with Carlene’s “wildness.” Her mother was French, but there were Cherokee and Comanche genes aplenty, and he liked her knowledge and persistence. Over the years Peter would say repeatedly, “Carlene’s like water. It always finds its way to where it wants to go.”
    In 1987 they went up to Mount Shasta, and Carlene read aloud Gary Snyder’s “Prayer for the Great Family,” after a Mohawk prayer; she asked for guidance to support biological integrity and the wherewithal to do it. This sentimental act had implications more profound than either of them suspected  for after they were married and living in a trailer, having bought the house on Sylvaner that still had to be renovated before they could move in, Peter received a letter at his office from a bank in the Midwest. He opened and read it. The manager of his trust fund, the letter informed him, was requesting a million-dollar raise in her annual fee.
     He thought, “What trust fund?”


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