Proof of life

At the fold of the sky and infinite sea,
Stooped and beholden in search of the key,
Hunting out clues to a purposeful puzzle,
The Scribner intently refuses the muzzle,

Dead eager to act and driven past reason,
Fueled by passionate opposite seasons,
No job truly done or ultimate truth,
Bent to the run of misspending of youth,

Why take the risk in leading the pack,
Making brisk haste and breaking at back?
Why choose the path less tattered and worn,
Tempting her wrath while earning her scorn?

She offers no point or trophy or wealth,
No Saints to anoint or promise of health,
But only one way to scratch at her itch,
Proof in the end that “Ain’t life a bitch.”

Walking the road; saying goodbye to the VW bus

According to the radio, the VW bus – or mini-van or Vanagon, depending on one’s era – will no longer be built anywhere in the world. Brazil, the last manufacturing hold out, recently announced that they were ceasing production of their version, the “kombi.” Along with a host of others mourners worldwide, I feel a unique association with this oddly functional vehicle that came to define special chapters in my life.

My “lost but not forgotten” VW era spanned the entire 1970s, but it was the first several years of that turbulent decade in particular that hold vivid and powerful memories for me.

Disco had not really taken off yet and brandished its confusing mélange of Disco Duck (Billboard’s #1 hit single October 16, 1976), the Brothers Gibb (“Bee Gees”), and Barry White, all singing together in radio dis-harmony.

The Cold War was in full swing with clearly identifiable lines of alliance, if not transparent actual battle fields between proxy wars and elaborate espionage rings. There were no personal computers or Internet, and 8-track tapes, records, and phones constrained by monstrously long cords were status quo.

My parents didn’t have much money (Dad was a social studies teacher and Mom had just finished a degree as a Librarian), but they felt unfulfilled by the “Leave it to Beaver” attempts at community and connection on Long Island. They packed up the family in 1970 and we moved to Athens where my father could teach at the American Community School (ACS).

After just two years and not ready to leave, the tenure system recalled my father to New York. Two years satisfied the requirements for another leave of absence and in 1974, when I was 12, the family moved back to Greece for a second overseas stint, this time for four years.

A VW bus would be waiting for us, a required piece of equipment for a family of six with the travel “bug” (bad VW joke aside). The rotted-out floor boards by the sliding door and under the accelerator gave character to the bus, and I never ceased to be amazed at how a bad clutch could be easily bypassed with the starter engaged in first gear and some aggressive shifting (learned by watching my father).

I changed my first flat on the VW (and my second, and third, etc…) and also developed a shrewd imagination when loading the thing with far more than it should have been able to carry. I suspect that my spatial orientation skills were first learned packing the VW, an ability to fit shape to hole that served me well in my flying career.

We had acquired the car in a swap with a teaching friend in a similar tenure rotation situation, but on an opposite cycle from us. We had left our VW half of the bargain in Long Island for his family’s use.

We had done things differently on our first move to Athens in 1970. During that ordeal we had shipped over our VW, one of the two involved in the 1974 swap, which was an expensive and difficult process. We had made the best of it by camping from Athens to Scotland on our return to the States before sending the bus on its uncertain way by ship.

Our bus was a stock model and did not have any of the camper options such as a pop up top. My parents spent time and money modifying it so that in the event it rained and we were unable to pitch our tent, all six of us could theoretically sleep in crammed splendor inside the amazing vehicle.

It started raining in Salzburg, Austria and didn’t stop until after crossing the English Channel when the hovercraft came to rest in Dover.

Those first two years in Athens, living under the rule of a military Junta unhesitating in its use of force for coercion, were lively and we all learned a lot. And we went everywhere in that bus; and I mean everywhere.

During the weekends we would explore the countryside or coast, looking for long forgotten ruins of antiquity and a place to relax. During longer breaks from school and the summer, we would drive the VW through the mountains, her four straining, air-cooled cylinders struggling valiantly and always successfully to make the next ridge. Those were my favorite trips.

As mid-day approached, we would look for a stand of olive trees to make a shady picnic area. The bus would be parked on a narrow shoulder with right tires trampling the wildly fragrant sage and thyme growing free. With the famous “emergency brake” set, lunch was served: fresh bread, bought at the last village passed, still warm from the bakery and slathered in butter and whatever fresh produce had been on sale at the market.

I didn’t have much patience with sitting still once done eating. The scorching sun broke open the natural fragrance of the surrounding fields’ spices, including oregano, and the cicada proffered a steady background percussion that quickly put the rest of the family to sleep. As for me, adventure beckoned.

The moment my food was gone, I would ask for permission to walk ahead, to scout out what lay around the next bend and beyond. At ten years old, it was just me walking for perhaps an hour to ninety minutes as my parents took siestas and my sisters and brothers joined them or played by the bus.

Each turn and twist triggered my imagination, and with good reason. Occasionally I would run across a small hunk of hand-finished, but time-worn marble, hidden in the overgrown weeds on the side of the road. I would try to envision what sort of people had put it there and why, one thousand – almost two thousand, maybe – years ago. The winding, steep dirt roads usually running a sheer cliff’s edge had been broadened and graded, but were often essentially the same paths used by travelers for millennia.

Very rarely a vehicle would pass during that time, usually a bus full of local villagers going to or from a market or on a visit to relatives. I would step far back into the brush to avoid being run over by the bus bursting with silent men and yakking “Ya-Yas” – grandmothers inevitably wearing mourning black from head to toe – turned the hairpins with axle springs squealing and dirt and dust flying in the sun’s dry heat.

With imagination fired by hard-back comic book stories of Tin-Tin published in Scandinavia, but written in English, I would sally forth onto the roadway encountering pirates, wild animals, you name it.

I relished the freedom and the sheer excitement of what lay around the next corners of road and imagination. Those walks instilled in me a trust in the future and an adolescent lust for adventure still with me today.

It seems at times that I spend my life trying to replicate that feeling, walking ahead and forging the trail until that VW would finally turn the corner and come into view behind me, my parents letting out long sighs of relief at catching site of me. As worried as they would get, they never said no to my walks, and I am incredibly thankful to this day for that trust.

It was a different world in every respect: my age, the state of international affairs, my family, even my definitions of responsibility, freedom, and adventure. They were wonderful and wondrous times, a pastel of life framed by the old familiar metallic rattle of our VW bus.

Breathe life

Life’s simple gift unexpected,
Age’s reward overdue,
No fanfare of Angels’ direction,
Package bequeathed with a clue.

No need to be hidden in secret,
Transparent of motive or strife,
A baby’s first lesson from daddy,
Look up; raise head; breathe life.

Learned over and over and over,
First ball sails over the fence,
A lesson repeated with patience,
Obscured by nothing but sense.

Daughter is nature’s fine teacher,
Her message clouded in fear,
A trust reserved only for daddy,
A tender wiping of tear.

“Tread to avoid going under,”
“Stroke to have fun and rejoice,”
Belief buoys her flounder,
With eyes raised upward and moist.

Two children so full of good purpose,
Carefully minding the path,
Bookends to daddy’s confusion,
Proof of original wrath.

Time brings stooped retribution,
Dark eyes cast slim on the ground,
Guilty of living and dying,
Guilty of making no sound.

Meaning eludes with persistence,
Neck is pulled lower and down,
Nature’s silent reprisal,
A curse of perpetual frown.

Ordained by fate’s ugly minions,
Or life would seem to appear,
Brow draws lower and lower,
An old man’s purchase of fear.

Two children who never surrender,
Kinder in thought and in act,
Taller in spirit and caring,
Two children recalling a pact.

Two children pull eyes to the heavens,
Cut tie to the ground like a knife,
Two children teaching their daddy,
Look up; raise head; breathe life.

Effortless proficiency

Increasingly effective use of cognition is essentially proportional to effort until thought travels to the hidden back side of reasoning’s circle where effort mysteriously vanishes. What seconds earlier took tremendous concentration and effort suddenly flows with unimpeded focus even while the complexity of the task increases significantly.

Or, does this phenomenon occur exactly because the task’s level of difficulty increases significantly?

Few of us are fortunate enough to have experienced this remarkable transition point where ultra-performance becomes second nature and automatic. Fewer still are able to call upon this extreme level of alert acuity and skill at will.

The central control for this nirvana of effectiveness is no doubt buried deep in the psyche as some sort of evolved survival response.

For most of us living in the confusion of post-modern society (well, I never left, at any rate), this apex of proficiency is usually arrived at through a sharply defined medium that allows for a quick and predictable break through. Incredibly intense meditation might get one there, or a dangerous task, hobby, or job where the operator in question is both well experienced and under extreme pressure to perform at the highest possible level.

Professional athletes are often ultra-performers, but—in my opinion—serve as simplistic, one-dimensional cartoons of the greater meaning and potential that this learned skill has to offer. Playing a game for money, fame, and/or a superficial sense of glory offers little or no lasting reward, again, in my opinion.

It’s not enough to just perform at the level of effortless proficiency to truly understand and leverage the power of this state. Other parameters must be satisfied:
• the activity must require extraordinary personal risk;
• the challenge must be an individual’s choice; and
• the endeavor must be accomplished for a greater good.

I’ve been both fortunate and cursed with catching brief glimpses of this higher state, and these few instances have left me floundering for a way to replicate the experience’s essence. Each of my personal incidents have occurred flying in the Navy, largely due to the third requirement that the endeavor be accomplished for a greater good.

While I’ve had very close calls diving, the ensuing heightened awareness was strictly due to a desire for self-preservation; only my life was at stake. Performance was raised, but not nearly to the same level for me as when flying off the aircraft carrier.

In Naval Aviation, “mission” is everything, not letting down your buddies is a close second, and somewhere in distant third is one’s life. Put the three together and it’s amazing what the body and mind can do making high “G” turns at 480 knots, 200 feet above the ground in the fog, with several thousand folks trying to kill you with bullets and missiles.

To be able to transfer this “in the zone” flight perfection to an on demand talent that transcends any task might just be our next evolutionary leap forward. Or it might just be the outline of a bad war story. I would love to know the reflections, thoughts, and experiences of others on this subject.

Cheers,

Pete

A quick note regarding Peter Hunt’s professional credentials:

I am not a formally trained scientist or philosopher. I do, however, visit a neurologist every three months, and I did stay at a Holiday Inn Select after drinking too much one evening in the not too distant past.