Sunday, July 22, 2012


Thailand’s Highlands? No… neither the rugged hill vantages of the Hmong or the Karen, nor the borders-encompassing danger zone known as the Golden Triangle. But listen, my children, and you shall hear instead of the midnight ride of… well, maybe I should set the scene a bit first:

In May of 1986, early on the around-the-world journey that took me to Fiji and Burma and back to Turkey and Europe, I was traveling through parts of Thailand, riding on one of the remarkable long-distance “night buses” that carry folks up, down, and across the Kingdom, from Koh Samui in the far South, to Bangkok mid-country, to Chiang Mai in the North.
Packed with cheap tourists and restive Thais, sleepy children and surprising good cheer, these express buses hurtle down the black-as-pitch two-lane roads--head-lit juggernauts scattering produce and pedestrians, leaving small cars and big distances in their wake, stopping only when the driver needs to relieve himself--or a serious roadblock interferes...

So we're barreling along, blasting down the night, when suddenly the driver stomps
on the brakes, and we rock and shudder to a stop, some ways short of a makeshift barrier. (Later I realize that he was leaving room to maneuver--meaning: attempt to escape.)

And then we wait... nervously... because the roadblock may be manned by bandits, or rebels--or the Thai Army looking to capture bandits or rebels. Though the driver tells us later that there were bandits on this same stretch of road just the night before, we’ve come upon a patrol of soldiers, and in the low-power lights aboard the bus we see they are mostly nervous young conscripts carrying rifles and machine guns. A few Thai men must show their papers, and a couple of hippie tourists have their carry bags inspected.

This was right in the time frame when pot smokers caught on the nearby Malay Peninsula were subject to quick execution. But no illegal substances or suspicious citizens are found in this search, and after some threats and flashlights shown into sleepy eyes, we are told to get on down the road. Our driver knows an exit line when he hears it. He maneuvers around the slight barricade, and on we roll.

Soon he is talking--a Thai man near me translates--mocking the kid soldiers and making us travelers feel less threatened; and about then he reaches up above his view mirror to a small-screen TV set I hadn’t really noticed, turns it on, and shoves in a
VHS or Beta cartridge. (I don’t remember having encountered such an electronic distraction before; I don’t think most airlines--or travel buses--had made the move to multiple or even single viewing screens yet… or maybe, more likely, I was just blithely ignorant.)

Murky darkness on the set and a narrator speaking Thai cause my attention to wander, but loud stadium rock draws me back. “Hunh… sounds a bit like Queen,” I mumble. Then: “What the…?”--we’re witnessing swords brandished in a vast parking garage, and a fight to the (very weird) death--and suddenly it's Scotland
centuries ago: braw laddies, bricht kilties, draid claymores an’ a’. But all this time the characters have been yammering in Thai, with no subtitles in English, French, Scots Gaelic, or otherwise to help make sense of the film’s skittery action.

“Now what… gee, that guy in the fancy clothes looks like… wait, it is, it’s Sean Connery! What in the world is he doing in this sword-totin', time-hoppin' obscurity?”
But enough of the blow-by-blow description. Many moviegoers will know by now that our driver was small-screening a duplicate videotape print (very likely bootlegged) of Highlander, the genre-mixing adventure film fated to become a cult favorite, a “franchise” picture generating four or five sequels. But back then when I quizzed other travelers or native residents from Thailand to Denmark, no one had a clue as to the mystery movie I'd become obsessed with: Ed’s Fantastical Swordfight Feature.

After a while I was starting to believe I’d dreamed it, fitfully asleep after the roadblock. But late that fall, when my future wife and her kids had come over to
spend the winter in Portugal’s English-touristy Algarve region, I noticed a newspaper ad for a movie called Highlander, starring Sean Connery and Christopher Lambert (who?), playing at a nearby theatre--in English, without Portuguese subtitles even.

Whoa back, Buck! The weird night came roaring back: this sounded too similar not to be possible, and too possible not to be viewed, so off we went, driving 20 miles east to Albufeira, stocking up on hot popcorn, and settling into the plush seats. And there it was at last,
Scotland and savagery, Manhattan and MacLeod, the Kurgan and the Quickening--making more sense this time, albeit still the sort of violent flick that guys flock to and gals scoff at (as happened with our foursome that day).

I didn’t care. I was vindicated. If the film later turned out somehow to be more significant than the sum of its crazy parts, well, so be it. Here’s what I mean… some of what I’ve learned since:

Highlander was released in March 1986 in the U.S.--after I’d left the country--and then not until August in Europe; I don’t know the Asian release date but there couldn’t have been legal videocassettes by April. Director Russell
Mulcahy probably wouldn't have cared; he was happy just to move up from MTV vids to a career-making Hollywood feature. Ditto Christopher Lambert who went from brooding unknown to brooding star (for a time and a shot at Tarzan/Lord Greystoke). And Connery? He simply clicked his Spanish bootheels together and jetted, laughing, all the way to the bank and then straight on to his semi-retirement property on Spain’s posh Southeast coast.

A quarter century later, the sequels and TV versions and cult-film write-ups and long-threatened remake of the original... none of them
matter really. I inadvertently saw a stranger version--had it quickened into me, as it were--during an odd, discomfiting night in Thailand, going nowhere fast. And remember…

There can be only one.
* * * * *
(...except when there are four--Spivey Bros. Barbecue Sauce; next time!)

Monday, July 16, 2012

Reconstruction in Glass

Here's the conclusion of the Civil War-related tale introduced last week (in the blog post just below this one):

IV. Contrabands

Now in the scorching late summer, he works among wraiths. When he moves, the humid air clings to his flesh; and when he is still, his spent breath and rivulets of sweat condense on the burned glass plates overhead. He sees coils of shadows drifting within
grays of shifting shades… hears always the clamor of guns and terrible cries of the wounded, the proud insistent voices of freed slaves calling out: “Freedom! Freedom will reign, come heaven or come hell!”

And Jefferson finally shouts, “Let be! Yanks nor Rebs got no truck with me!
‘Federacy make me out a monkey man, say I belong to whoever pay to run me… but the Union come down on Spivey land like Pharoah’s army. Trample my garden! Strip out the smokehouse. Torch the Big House jes’ to hab themselves a cook-up… till nothin’ lef’ but columns an’ the chim’ly.

“I was true free then, me an’ thousands other black folks, could tag on after Sherman man-army. Call us Contrabands ‘cause we could join on in, burn an’ loot some ourselves, tie those Yankee rails into ribbon-bows.

“But I ain’t that--I quit an’ I walk to here. What I want with some dam’ war now?”

V. Dreams

The shadowed, sullen plants rest, listless in the heat. And one night he dreams…

A younger, taller Jefferson walks, alone, through swathes of lobelia and loosestrife and feverfew. He breathes honeysuckle and sweet magnolia. Massive white columns stand blocking the sun, and in their shade the sightless bodies from the glass move as easy as Jacob’s ladder in a breeze--swaying, talking among themselves, their bodies full of light now, wounds radiant, bright as noontime; only their dark-streak faces resist…

The many voices blend one into another, a chorus puzzled, angry, mourning: Where is this? Who am I now? What did we die for? No one remembers. Our graves lie ill-tended. Our only memorials are glass. Discarded.
Forgotten. Sold as scrap. Where we wait now, the sun bleaches out blue, and black, and gray, rain washes our stories away, the years erase all detail, from the imperfect surface of our lives, the fading record of our deaths… in heart’s ease we disappear…

And he wakes to a crisp fall morning.

VI. Clear Glass

Ghosts and memories gone silent, he cuts away dead blossoms, prunes sagging stems, tends the mulch of summer’s end--chopping old beds, turning the composted heap. As he labors row on row, he speaks softly to the stilled growths: “Crop field or
battlefield, garden or grave, what I do here is what you are. Whatsoever get lef’ behind as waste still turn to chalk and good humus.”

He takes a deep breath. Autumn’s rich, ripened smells rise fresh in his nostrils, and he imagines the final breath of every soldier fallen in the War, collecting in drifts of cloud, changed to air again by the Lord’s own greenery. Squinting up at the blurred glass, he lets black loam slip from his fingers. Saying:

“This the light too, the darkes’ part. See, life be only what the light make of it, and every kind of pain melt in the sun. Jefferson Spivey, free man--that’s me. And when I pass, this earth here remember you, your scars and hurt come to clear at last.”

He re-turns the soil.

Fans of Ken Burns' Civil War series may recall a brief sequence near the end when the Narrator mentions glass negatives showing battlefield scenes that were sold as scrap, many of them ending their days as replacement panels in greenhouses—where the sun would burn away the negative images. The story haunted me until I wrote this… fragment of a short story, or prose poem, or historical remembrance. (Next time: an Asian Adventure becomes... Haute Culture?)

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Panels Toward a Reconstruction of Glass

In honor of July 4th and “The Colonel,” my father, USAF officer E.G. Leimbacher—who would have turned 95 yesterday—and another USAF Colonel, our younger son Christopher Michael Wilcox, I offer this fragmentary short story, or prose poem, or historical remembrance, occasioned by a brief passage near the end of Ken Burns’ magnificent work The Civil War. This is the first part of two, and I’ll say more about the source next time.

* * * * *

I. 1872

Late that summer he became aware of shadows, ghostly figures flickering, blotches of black and gray stippling the lilies and hothouse blooms.

The glazier’s man had come, knocked out the cracked greenhouse panels, and replaced them with panes of glass so strangely patterned that Jefferson finally scaled the garden ladder to learn their secrets. The streaks muddling the glass, the marks and
shapes that ruled the humid air below, up close proved translucent: soldiers in uniform, all grays and silvers, their faces the burnt-cork black of minstrelsy. A few stood in formal poses, frozen in a dark time, but more lay sprawled and torn, limbs mangled, the unknown dead on bloody ground, their hollow-eyed skulls staring a thousand years.

It was the War again.

II. Baltimore

A man free and whole, he had walked all the way north from Georgia, shedding each clot of red clay as it dried, clear on to Baltimore… where he just stopped. Saying right out loud to no one: “This’d be far ‘nough.” Thinking: Lord hab mercy, some Union towns look close-on South.

Plain “Jefferson” he’d been until the day in ’64 that Bluebelly sergeant said he’d need a second name to gain a share of forage. So he added “Spivey,” reclaiming the ground that held his people fast for a hundred years.

Thinking: But I was actual born that first day, January 1863, when Mist’ Abraham reckon every one of us, house or field the same, free forever. An’ I know it right then. I could read some an’ shape my slave name letters too. But be free? I dassn’t yet. Bossman dogs speak louder.

III. Seasons

“Our conservatory is rich with promise,” said Mr. Caldwell, “and my wife’s gardens annually blessed with God’s bounty. We cultivate order, Mr. Spivey; we ask that you
help maintain it… A beautiful setting, is it not?”

“Yessuh, it surely is.” But thinking, surprised: It don’t come up to home.

He buried that notion in moist loam, to toil among beech trees and roses, attending each summer’s inclinations and, within the glittering hothouse, shaping off-season riots of color from roiling orchids and flowering japonica. He made each early morning his green-up time—hard at work before the heat inside turned all hellish, and while the light (“my Southun light,” he’d insist with a grin) was all a glory. The glass magnifying yet attenuating, he’d chase that changing light day by day, packing dark soil down to the roots, snipping bits of green shoots and buds, grafting plant upon plant in unusual pairings, growing bulbs and exotics… and older, seven years almost, his life as ordered as the gardens in their cycles.

IV. Contraband

Now in the late, scorching summer, he works among wraiths…

(To be continued)