Of Saucers and Corpuscles

 

          Twenty-two students at Sydney University yesterday morning saw “flying saucers,” similar to those which have been reported in the United State and Canada, where army planes are standing by to pursue them.

            One summer, when I was thirteen or fourteen, I found myself lying back on the concrete steps in our backyard, just enjoying the shade and gazing at the sky.  I’m not sure why I thought this was comfortable.  Nevertheless, the sky was a clear, dark shade of blue, easy to look at, not at all like the bright white-blue skies that make one squint.  There, as I gazed at nothing in particular, and meditated on the great philosophical questions of the day (yeah, right), I became aware of a peculiar phenomenon playing out right before my eyes.  I began to see spots moving across the sky.

Addressing a class of 450 students, Professor Cotton drew attention to cable messages reporting that hundreds of persons in many parts of the United States had reported having seen “flying saucers.”

These were not the spots of dizziness (I was lying down, after all), nor the “floaters” that tend to drift and then return with each new blink.  When you are young,  floaters are not permanent.  They usually mean that there really is something stuck in the mucous of the eye—something you can wipe away, if you try.  They can look like a wad of string, or a misshapen speck, but if you tear up and cry, or else rinse and wipe your eyes, they will usually go away.  Then, again, sometimes they just move about from side to side, and change orientation, depending on how well you can manipulate them with eye muscles, and head turns, while lying on concrete steps, and watching a clear blue sky.

He suggested that the students co-operate with him in experiments.  At his suggestion they left the lecture room, and before returning to the main building, carried out observations of the sky.  Professor Cotton suggested that they look at the sky about a mile away, and concentrate their gaze on a fixed point while standing perfectly still.  He asked them that if they saw any objects corresponding to those set out in the cable reports they should see him in the main medical school.  Within 10 minutes 22 students reported that they had seen the objects described. …

Perhaps not the most riveting of pastimes, but I was enjoying the show, nonetheless, magnified and sharply defined, as if under a well-focused microscope.  But then, I began to see something completely different, and quite unexpected.  Little white dots began to cross before me in random, meandering routes.  I tried to focus in on them, and I lost them.  They only appeared when I focused on nothing.  The more I focused on nothing, the clearer they stood out.  I could see then, that they were not dots, at all, but little ovals.  They crossed in many directions.  If I unfocused long enough, and didn’t blink, I could watch a single oval travel a long, twisted, narrow trail.  It would zig and zag along the way, but never linger, like a floater.  Always they passed in one side, and out the other. I noticed, soon after, that one oval would be followed by another oval following the exact same path.  Then another.  And another.  Like a string of pearls.  This was happening all over—my field of vision was crisscrossed with trails.

Professor Cotton said…that the students had seen what he expected them to see…

            I had always paid attention in Science class, and it dawned on me that I was witnessing blood cells coursing through the capillaries of my eyes.  I was fascinated.  I watched for a long time, mesmerized by the moment, and wondering whether this was a fluke of nature.  Would I ever be able to repeat this extraordinary phenomenon of seeing into my own eyes? 

(He) declared later that the “objects” seen by the students were caused by the movement of red corpuscles of the blood passing in front of the retina of the eye.             —The Sydney Morning Herald (Tuesday, July 8, 1947)

As it turns out, it is repeatable, and just as enthralling.  All it takes is just the right shade of easy blue, a little bit of patience, and the magic of convergence—the art of slow and deliberate observation that enables us to see what was there all along.

 —memories of an Iowa summer’s eve, 1967

Grandpa Never Did Like Priests

(September 3, 2012, marks the 100th anniversary of my grandfather’s arrival in America, from Poland.  Though he seldom talked about the old country (he was sixteen when he emigrated), he would often tell tales about his life in Chicago, and in Michigan (or Mi-shi′-gan, as he called it). Sometimes, he would tell the same stories, but I guess that’s what helps us remember.  Some of what follows is from a tape recording I uncovered recently.  I seldom changed his mind about anything (particularly about religion), but I learned a great deal about seeing the world through a different set of eyes.)

When I was in the hospital, some priest come up.  First, he send somebody else, kinda feel me out.  Then he come down, second time already.  Well, I think of him what he thinks of me.  I thought (well, he kind of, uh, put a finger in here), I thought to myself, I would like to tell him exactly what I think of him.  What do you think I am?  I would like to tell him that.  What do you think I am?  So he tried telling me different, uh, different, uh, some highlights.

Fact, he says, uh, “Keep up the good work.”  Yeah, and he tried to coax me in so I should, uh, taking communion.

I said, “What do you think this is here—a trick?”  They think that you’re taking communion, ah, you already, you, you their sheep.  See?  I said, “I know the communion is.”  I say, “I used to make a communion myself!”  Ha, ha.

I was living onBlackhawk Street,Chicago, with the nuns, and the Sister Superior, with the six nuns in there, and uh, they had a divided basement.  I seen they, she, was doing something by their gassstove.  She make up what you call angel food-cake flour.  It was just warmed up, you know, and she put it on a pan, like a tart, hot little bit, but it’s white, not just burnt, see?  It’s just stiff, you know?  And they have it, uh, put your, uh, round, and she made it like a pancake, and she’s punching out there the communion.  Yeah.  I looked at first.  No, it’s the communion for sometimes they have at mass, and the, from altar there too, you know.  Priest come down, some habit, you know, when he’s learning how to be priest.  Though some people bring it to a house, here and there, and they have a mass.  And they have a communion.

          You know, I talk to her, Sister Superior, and she know that I’m not that stupid, either, see?  She understood.  She said, “Mr. Kabala, I don’t think the way they say.  Different.  I know you right.  It’s different than Jesus,” she told me, “and that ever-body is a human.”  I know what she meant by that.

          I had a coal shaft underneath the sidewalk (the streets were higher), and they have like a cover and you drop the coal in there for the winter for storage.  Sometimes I had to go get some coal for my stove.  They had a oil heater, in the first place, throughout the building.  I had a stove.  Hard coal and soft coal.  There was, sometimes they had some young ones, you know, they just joined in, and this and that, you know.  Young girls, you know.  And what they do, they join the convent.  And they not allowed to go by themselves.  They always had to go in pairs.  And so that didn’t bother me.

Florencewas only maybe little girl, maybe three or four years old at that time.  Chuck  was maybe year or year and a half.  And, uh, I, we lived there.  We had three rooms and a bathroom.  And I didn’t have to pay.  I done some work for them.  They want to, some painting, some this, and that, all around they house, you know.  Some construction work sometimes.  And for that I got rent, you know?  I didn’t have to pay rent.  I stayed there for ten years, I think.  Course, those days the rent was maybe fifteen, twelve dollars.  That’s all it was.  Yeah. 

And I had all kinds of experience with those nuns, you know.  The young girls that go for coal, before long they’re running after me.  But, the others, they’re running too.  It was, oh, she was so eager for the man, you know, she grab and shakes.  Oh, I had my ideas.  I didn’t touch them or anything like that, but so…

          There was a couple of them that was, they got married even, you know.  They, the men, they brought their kids to the, what you call, the  żłobka, the day nurse, and, uh, their wives passed away or something.  They got acquainted ,and they got married.  They went.  Su-ure.  I know all about.

The nuns, the priests, they take care of you, this, that, to see if you want to keep you barred to them, alright.  They, they know you, you their sheep.  ‘Cause heaven is not enough.  You can, ten towers upside down, and it don’t mean nothing.  I know.  I read a lot of books about those, you know, about the Popes, and this, and how they used to, what you call a Inquisition, thirteenth, fourteenth century.  If you said something against the Church, somebody heard you said something, you’d tell priest.  You know, they come pick you up, and throw you on a goddamn stack of fire!  That’s what they used to do.  I read how they poisoned each other Popes even.  You know, they get Pope, and then they poison each other.

Oh, I figure if there would have been such a thing as one religion all over the world, then you would be, well it would be something to start.  But, you go through the world, and you see so many different religions, so many different people twisting their Bibles and all this.  Well who the heck…it doesn’t match up at all!  You look on the educational viewpoint, and you have a, well, I pick up a rock, any kind of piece of rock.  And you see what they preach you, that the earth was created and all that.

So, I take a piece of rock, and I say, “Well, you so smart, tell me when that rock was created.  How old is it?  How old is it?  How?”  Tell me about it.  You say you preach to me.  I say I’ll give you a piece of rock.  Now, tell me.  When?  When was it created?  Thousand years?  Two thousand years?  Grow up, or what?  Doesn’t match up at all.

You know what they say, one part of the world has the black, coal kind of colors, people.  They don’t know even, if I say to stop, to, why, some people they want you Catholic, you this, you that. Some other people never heard of us even.  See?  And you tell them already, or you tell some Catholic, like you take your friends, and like they have an island, you know.  See?  They don’t care.  Kill the childrens, womans anyway.  Why?  What reason?  Where reason?  What kind of reason is that?  Why?  They teach them that way.  It’s the poison in their mind.  Some people say, well, there’s only this kind or that kind of way, you’re Buddhist, and all this, and they never heard of anything like that which we got.  They won’t do that, but some other people say, “Oh yeah, sure, if you’re Catholic,” and they some other one.  They used to kill each other.  Why?  ‘Cause that religion!

They say they use the psychology to confuse the people.  Say you outsmart somebody.  By what?  By psychology.  You use psychology to tell, oh, somebody’s looking at you, but you don’t know it, see?  But, you only trickster.  Sure.  You know, I told the priest, I said, I, uh, he said I should go to confession.

I said, “What for?  I ain’t got nothing to confess.”  Say, “If I had something, I go to police station to confess.”  If I commit some kind of sin.  What I want to confess?  They only testing you, how stupid you are!






Short Accounts

She was just a cat.  Eleven years old.  Not as fast as she used to be, perhaps.

When the kids were young, they had visited Aunt Angie’s farm for a week, and had played in the barn daily with frisky, scampering, cuddly, six-week old kittens from Oreo’s latest litter. When they returned home, they marched through the door with a shoebox, and an announcement.

“Guess what, Daddy?”

Two kittens, named Zoe and Chloe, and as different as night and day.  Zoe, the black kitten, with puffs of white, was a meanderer—slow and aimless, a lap sitter, affectionate, quite content with domestic life, and the security of the food dish.

Chloe, in tiger-striped gray, retained the free spirit of her barnyard heritage.  She could cuddle for thirty seconds, maybe.  She was a darter— under the dresser, under the bed, out from the dresser, out from the bed, behind the sofa, out the door.

“Clever, clever, kitty, kitty, kitty,” someone would coo.  “Danger, danger, no, no, no.”

“Gonna be a miracle she don’t get run over,” I’d say.  “Stupid cat.”

“Dad!”

“Okay, okay, she’s not a stupid cat,” I’d retract. “My mistake.”  Then, I’d mutter, “She’s a kitten.”

“Dad!”

Over the years, from time to time, one or both cats would go through those special times of heat (the serenade of the tortured meow), but while Zoe would remain a life-long spinster, Chloe would have three litters of her own before we had her spayed. Not all of the kittens survived.  But one that did, Poof, became a great favorite of the two youngest boys, and was allowed to join the family.  The boys were ten and twelve when we bought a little acreage, forty miles away, near Lost Nation.

Poof’s dappled, marble-cake, polka dot-esque markings gave him a clownish appearance. He became their best friend, and constant companion, acting more like a dog than a cat.  I had given strict instructions that no cats were allowed upstairs in the bedroom areas.  It was to be a Dander-Free Zone.  But I knew Poof was being allowed into the boys’ room.  The move had been hard on them.  They missed their old neighborhood friends, and Poof filled a void.  They told me later that Poof would sit for hours on their beds, just “keeping company” while they did their schoolwork.  All the while, he would purr.  Poof had a motor.

Poof used to irritate me a lot.  If he were left alone for any length of time, we would come home and discover entire rolls of paper towels, or toilet paper shredded and scattered across the floor.  In my mind, I used to call him a “son of a Chloe”, but I wisely kept these words to myself.  Instead, I came to accept his antics because the boys loved him so.  It even got to where Poof would (occasionally) venture to sit on my lap.  Not too often, but enough that it mattered.

One day Poof died.  It was a strangulation-type accident, when his collar caught in some bushes near the house.  I had worked a long night shift, and was sleeping.  It was mid-morning.  I was awakened to the sound of anguished sobbing.  I was needed downstairs quickly!

Both boys were crying, and looking lost, and bewildered.  One shook his head, and slammed a hand on the kitchen counter.  The other held Poof’s lifeless body.  They looked to me, with hope in their eyes, that their father, who could fix anything, would somehow be able to adjust this too.

But they knew.  His body was warm from the sun.  But, he was stiff.

We comforted them in their grief, and they spent the afternoon saying goodbye, with dignity.  They picked a place under the apple tree Poof loved to climb.  They wrote notes of farewell, and placed them alongside their friend, in a shoebox, along with a few cat toys, and kitty treats, and a small roll of toilet paper.

I was never more thankful that I had already made peace with Poof, than I was that day.  It would have done no good for the boys to suspect me of harboring secret glee over the death of their beloved.  It was a good reminder to keep short accounts.

Never go to bed angry.

Don’t fight over money.

Always say, “I love you,” when leaving home.

Communicate.

Respect.

Trust.

Laugh.

In the country, there are two kinds of barn cats.  Some roam from farm to farm, looking for handouts.  They are friendly, and would love to come inside and be adopted.  Many have been fed from our back porch, but we did not bring them inside, not even in winter.

But, there are also feral cats.  Feral cats are seldom seen.  They chase, fight for territory, and do not come near humans. One of these feral cats was known to us simply as “the yellow cat”.  Poof, had he lived, would have been an alpha-male competitor of the yellow cat.  Chloe was aware of the yellow cat, but relied on her own stealth and quickness.  She never came home bloodied.

At first, when we moved to Lost Nation, we no longer worried about her being outside.  Then, her last litter arrived.  It would fall to Zoe, once again, to care for the kittens, and cuddle them as if they were her own.  Chloe was not a good mother.  Aunt Zoe never minded.

Then, one late fall day, I went to bed angry.

I was stone-walling—not ready to apologize, not ready to listen.  I had been wronged, and it didn’t matter what wrongs I had also committed.  I was not ready to talk.  I was going to make my wife endure my silence for an entire night and day, while I went to bed, then went to work, and “processed” things.  In my cave.  Alone.

As usual, I figured out that I was the most guilty, and would need to do some serious apologizing for judgement errors and hurtful words.  I would need (again) to do a better job of seeing and sensing her needs.  It would not be easy.  Pride is a bitter pill.  It can seem easier to throw in the towel, and shout, “Me! Me! Me!” “I was wronged, too!”  “I will if you will.”  And on and on.   I certainly did not relish going home that night.  Mending can be wearying.  But, I knew it was best to move beyond the hurts, and remember the vows.  Remember the vows.

It had been nearly twenty-four hours since voicing any terms of endearment.  I drove mechanically home, down the same familiar highway.  Rounding a curve, I watched a car approaching an intersection up ahead.  It slowed, but then did not stop.  The driver pulled directly in front of my car, leaving no room for braking.  I swerved violently, left heavy skid marks on the road, fishtailed through the shoulder gravel, and spun out in the median grass.  My heart was racing, and I sat stunned.  But, I had avoided a very high speed collision, and I was still alive.

I started to get angry.  Very angry.

“Fatal!” I thought, “That could have been fatal!”

Spinning wheels, I had every intention of chasing down the idiot in the other car.  It had just kept going down the road.  But then I remembered that I had already been angry.

I yielded.

“Short accounts,” I said out loud.

I let the other car go.  I turned off the radio.  For the remainder of the journey, I didn’t think about justice, or rights.  I considered consequences.  Would my death in a fiery crash have “served her right” or would it have left, instead, an ocean of regret for the survivor?  Or, what if I got home to find a suicide note?  It had been known to happen.

Let not the sun go down upon your wrath.

“Okay, Lord, I get it.  I get it.”

I did not know what I would say when I got home.  I did not know if she would want to talk.  Sometimes talking wasn’t enough.

I turned the last gravel corner before the house, and approached the drive.

Things changed.

There in the road, illuminated into long shadows by the headlights, was a very flat, very still Chloe.  I closed my eyes.  I sighed.  I turned into the drive.

Inside the house, my wife sat in semi-darkness in the living room.  She had had a hard day of thinking as well.  I could sense deep depression in her demeanor (funny how I couldn’t sense what she needed the day before).  Neither of the boys was home from athletic practice.

I sat down on the coffee table.  She looked away.  Wonder what he’ll say this time?  Words.  More words.

“I’m sorry,” I began softly, “but I have some bad news to share.”

Chloe had been a good mouser.  She had loved to hunt.  She would catch-and-release, catch again, eventually kill, but never eat.  We had had her de-clawed, but she was not deterred.  She had eventually moved on to birds.  That had been a problem because we wanted to attract birds to a porch feeder.  Chloe would stalk, hide, and wait…and wait.  Claws, or no claws, she got her bird.  We moved the feeder.

She had always been quick.  She had learned how to time her movements, like a base runner timing a pitcher before stealing second base.  The housecat moniker suited Sister Zoe fine, but Chloe’s passion had always been escape.  We had all learned to master (what surely looked like a strange dance to our neighbors) the fine art of entering the house by first swift-kicking through  a narrow door opening, before opening a portal wide enough for human entrance.

I remember opening a window in the bedroom, once, when the screen fell out.  Having seen Chloe escape through that route before, and sensing that she was in the room at that moment, I instinctively reached my hand towards the opening and closed my grasp just as a furry blur brushed past, and I caught her by the tail, while the rest of her body was already tasting freedom.  It was a magically unrepeatable moment.  I’ve since wondered how it felt from her end.

At first, when she escaped, it would cause a family crisis.  With six children under ten, a “Chloe Alert!”  was the family way of signaling “All hands on deck!” and “Man your battle stations!”  Everyone had to fan out across the yard, or the neighborhood, until she was cornered and secured.  I never captured her.  She would not come my way.  Cats just kind of know, I guess.  We started using that to our advantage.  I would stand in whatever gap was the biggest escape route, ensuring that she would not sprint in that direction.  After each episode, there would be a lot of cooing, and loving, and cuddling of the Great Houdini by the rest of the family, while I just rolled my eyes.  Eventually, she became more daring, and went further from the yard.  She would stay out all night.  Litters happened.

Whenever she was out, there was anguish in the home.  In pursuing her own indomitable way, Chloe taught me a lot about how words can come back to haunt.  The lesson was never easy.  I would often find myself in the strange position of having to say nice things about a cat I didn’t even like, because everyone knew I didn’t like her, and it was now my duty to convince everyone that I hadn’t plotted to run her off, and I did not hope that she would be run over by a car.

She always came back.  Always.  But, it was on her terms.  A soft meow at the door, and joyous hearts, no longer despairing, would fling open the door, and Queen Chloe would strut on in—a hero’s welcome every time.  Of course, coming home on her terms meant she was not coming home on my terms, and I always found that rather annoying.  From the security of someone’s welcome home embrace, she would glance my way, with a look that seemed to be saying, “Take that, evil cat-hater man!”

On the night Chloe died, it was dark, and cold.  It was beginning to drizzle.  The forecast was for heavy rain overnight.  So, with flashlights in hand, we went together down the long drive to retrieve our pet one final time.  It was apparent that she had been run over by a large tractor, as the tire marks continued down the gravel.  From the shoulder grass, about twenty yards down the road, we could see the reflection of two eyes.  The yellow cat.  Had Chloe been fleeing?  Did she not see the tractor?  Was she simply not as nimble as she once was?  The yellow cat would know.  It sat there silently.  Watching.  Like it was sorry.

We picked up Chloe, the hunter, and laid her to rest.

The wounds of our contentions were still fresh.

We didn’t speak.

We buried.

We stood.

We pondered.

We held hands.