Burning My Father’s Flag
This chapter represents the catharsis that can explosively ignite after years of poverty, frustration, and anger. Armed with a loaded shotgun, an American flag, and volumes of potent moonshine; I celebrated my 40th birthday on an isolated Wyoming ranch. Feeding the flames of an arson-induced fire, and wondering if I should add my American flag, I attempt to understand what responsibilities an indigent homeless man still owes to greater US society.
On this ranch no money exchanges hands. I work in trade for permission to live in a trailer. Meanwhile, I teach myself better habits for dealing with my poverty. My work on the ranch includes building with stone. I stack boulders and small rocks together; transforming them into walls, fire pits, garden beds, and support platforms. Soon I will experiment with splitting stones with hammer and chisel because flat stones are easier to stack. I learn because I am motivated to develop a new skill and polish my work ethic. This education is an apprenticeship with teachers that are dead.
My educators are Swedish tie hacks who constructed a log flume across this ranch to transport wood to timber mills in Poverty Flat. These Scandinavian migrants were predecessors to modern-day lumber jacks, but they were rendered obsolete after the 1930s. Their labor was in less demand once mechanization and portable sawmills accomplished the same work at a cheaper rate. The log flumes were no longer needed to transport timber because the development of trucks and road construction rendered the system slow and inefficient. Most of the Swedish tie hacks migrated once their services were no longer needed in Wyoming. The log flume has since been disassembled or fallen in disrepair. I can still study the piles of stone and wood that remain. Handmade metal nails rest scattered around. The local Swedes seldom used mortar because they skillfully fitting stones together like a puzzle. In a few places you can ascertain how the stones were wedged together by gracing the remnants with your fingers, as if you were using Braille. It is like reading bones to learn the shape of an extinct animal.
My first experience with stone work was during late winter. Heavy snow blanketed the ground and I was bound inside. I had to escape my 1955 Biltmore Statesman trailer before cabin fever set in. The air was dead quiet. The river was partially frozen, the nearest road was closed to most traffic, and snow muffled the tiny noises that remained. When I pulled a stone from its earthy womb of grass, it was so silent I could hear a roar. I was delivering naked stone to the human world. In a mad dash I created a blanket of stones to stand on while showering outside. It was a primitive patio of sorts. A type of ethic developed from the process: I never pulled a stone from its earth if it wasn’t already loose, I didn’t touch rocks that prevented erosion since I lived near a cliff, and I allowed insects a full ten minutes to escape if their homes were uncovered. I always started construction on the southwest side – in private defiance of the craft’s practice. I listened to the energy of the stone if that makes sense. Some stones seemed willing to be moved. Some stones fit better when accompanied next to rocks gathered from the same area. Large boulders had to be rolled by hand to reduce damage. Each stone is an individual with its unique grain, color, and shape. I tied to read its figure like a book on geometry. By the time I finished the task of building a patio shower from stone my index finger was painfully injured. I smashed it blue between two stones. Blood dripped onto the soil. My blood merged with the Swedish tie hacks in kinship. There was no use in treating the injury because the nearest doctor was miles away. I had to concentrate beyond the ache. In the throbbing swell of pain I was reminded that I accomplished something. I had new work to do.
I occupied a small living space. In the trailer I existed off the grid. I was an isolated and invisible man. No bus, plane, or train came anywhere near to where I lived. The trailer had no telephone, television, or Internet connection. I shut myself off from newspapers and radio news. The only time that I ever plopped in front of a television was when George W. Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” while dressed in a full military-issued flight suit. Student loan companies could not contact me, and I left no record of credit card or bank transactions. I desecrated my credit cards five years earlier by burning them like a draft card, and my savings account had less than $50 in it. I vanished from the common world like Ted Kazinski. It was easy to disappear. Few people see what exists on the margins of society. The United States, above all things, is a capitalist country; and I was insolvent, unemployed, and in economic ruin. I owned no collateral. Everything that is mine can fit into two suitcases, or none at all. What I understand is month to month survival. I am an untouchable. I am the white trash that is feared by minorities and mocked by my own race. Middle class society resents paying taxes for my welfare, and privately worry that they will be next in line. I am a financial leper with debts that I can’t pay. I am an outcast. What was severed from me was possibility, and in its absence I’ll invent my own choices: 1) My Father’s Flag – should I burn it, bury it, or let it fly in the wind; and 2) The Bullet – what is the best target for a 99% pacifist to aim his only bullet? These final choices are keystones to confronting my continual poverty. Meanwhile, I’ll wait here patiently, learning to work stone. My kindred Swedish ghosts give me company while the recession runs its course. As I roll boulders, I hope for United States to crack and collapse like crumbling rocks.
The United States is at a peak of a recession. Nearly three million Americans have lost their job (the greatest rate since the Great Depression) and the unemployment rate averages at 6%. I approach my 40th birthday with less than $100 in my pocket and no solid job on the horizon. Still, the federal government produces little talk of a national employment program. There are no more discussions about New Deals and Great Societies. Those days are over. Only wars are on their agenda. Congress is spending tax dollars recklessly in record budgets, and holds a public debt of nearly $7 trillion. In 1963, when I was born, shortly after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the entire U.S. debt was a manageable $309 billion. It now increases this much in a single year.
The United States highest priority is the Iraq War. President Bush demanded a $87 billion war budget and received it, and this was only the starter. The cost of the Iraq War is placed at over four billion dollars per month, and there is no telling how many years America will be involved. There is no exit strategy nor clear accounting on how this money is spent. The non-provoked military intervention could go on for decades. Meanwhile, U.S. soldiers are killed daily. The corpses of American soldiers are human sacrifices, butchered by American war priests who divine human entrails for signs of money. War profiteers are salivating. Vice president Dick Cheney collected $7 billion dollars for his former employer, Haliburton, in a no bid war time contract – at the same time in which Cheney still received over $100,000 annual income from the company. Halliburton promptly overcharged the government for its services and few questions were asked. The Iraq War, in itself, was based on faulty premises. Power alchemists rattled sabers that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and biological weapons, but they failed to provide any valid proof. To provoke war they promoted decade old data from a graduate student in California and cited forged documents that Iraq sought uranium in Niger. The United States holds prisoners indefinitely in its Cuban military base, under the likelihood of torture, without access to a lawyer, and there is no talk of legal repercussions. The Patriots Act has stripped away the Constitution, as if it replaced the Bill of Rights, and nobody in Congress seems willing to stop it. The Great Architect of war is building The New Empire at great cost to freedom, while millions of Americans remain unemployed. The best opportunity I could find in this new America that I returned to was stacking stones in an isolated ghost town of Wyoming.
I can’t surrender to collective amnesia so easily. An America flag nestles in a nook of my trailer and a single bullet rolls across a table nearby ready for loading. I have some serious decisions to make. What will I do with these items on my 40th birthday? The flag cues me to war like a string tied to my wounded finger. It’s my father’s flag. The flag was placed on his funeral casket and as the oldest son it is tradition that I keep it. It has never been unfolded or flown. I can see the stars on a blue background, like a peaceful night sky, but the red and white strips are concealed. For me, red symbolizes the blood spilt in violence and white stands for the trash that I have become. I am reluctant to unravel my father’s flag. The horror it has become is an insult to him. Politicians wave it to advocate needless war, corporations paint it on advertisements to associate patriotism with their brand name, and plebeians flaunt it out of nationalism. I see foolish violence done in its name. As my father taught me: people who haven’t taken a life should never celebrate the loss of it. As long as U.S. soldiers are still dying the flag should only be raised to half mast. The U.S. flag is stained with the blood of imperialism and secret agendas, as much as it is from noble battles for democracy. My father’s flag has been carried with me since his death. It has traveled with me across the United States. It has migrated with me to Europe and Asia. The flag is a heavy weight to carry for an itinerant tramp who owns less than two suitcases of material possessions. If I must continue to migrate then I need to create more space. On my 40th birthday I will finally splay the flag open. This will be my present to myself. The kindling is ready and the matches dry.
One lonely evening, during the fourth of July weekend, George Beard and I were busy pondering on how much to refill our glasses with a bit of Thomas Bullock’s old Scotch. Coming from the direction of the sunset were distinct sounds from a herd of sheep. They had finally arrived. I spent all week fixing the fence so that they could graze on George’s property without escaping. Sheep sounded like an appetizing form of entertainment to us. They were something to watch at a time without television. We stumbled toward the sheep to count how many were grazing. Since I came from a family that included sheepherders I wanted to learn more about my roots. It is an old mystery whether my grandfather was Mexican, Spanish, or Basque. He insisted that he was European, and not Mexican or South American, in prejudicial belief that his type of Hispanic was better. He was not from the “wetback” stock who swam the border of snuck into the country illegally, but his family were workers who migrated with sheep. However, he was always considered a Mexican by whites. I decided to ask the sheep herders for an explanation. As far as I could trace, my maternal grandfather’s family herded sheep in Rio Arriba County of New Mexico and southern Colorado. I reasoned that if I could supply the sheep herders with this information than they might tell me about my roots. Well, we already had a few scotches and it sounded like a reasonable thing to do.
In a field of a thousand sheep lurked a modernized sheep wagon. It was designed around a bed of a truck and contained some type of internal cooking stove. In winter it could be used for warmth. The vehicle would have been the envy of a modern day hippie or rubber tramp. At least two migrant sheepherders slept inside. When we approached five dogs darted out from the dark to encircle us. One sheepherder stepped out from the motorized wagon to greet us with “Hola”. Immediately, we all realized a language barrier prevented our conversing. The sheepherder could not speak English. My grandfather refused to allow his children to learn Spanish, so I could not converse in this language either. I am not sure if his stubbornness was due to actually being Basque or if he was just trying the fit into the melting pot. Regardless, his native tongue was lost on future generations and I lacked the skills to speak with these modern day sheep herders. It only took two generations for that cultural connection to be lost. Sheep herding was now as far from my culture as Mongolian throat singing. The United States claim that it represents equality above all other nations, is betrayed when it pressures migrants to conform and assimilate. Old traditions die quick in quest for the holy American grail of wealth. However, deep in the soul a primal reflex survives a bit longer. The threads of poverty and migration connected me with the sheepherder despite linguistic barriers. Each of survived in similar ways. I lived in a trailer while he lived in a sheep wagon, and both of us migrated in search of work.
That same week I met an oil company wildcatter. He drove from Pinedale, Wyoming, to George Beard’s place. His wife accompanied him on the back of his motorcycle. The open American road was the ultimate freedom for him. He rode his motorcycle like he lived his life: hard and fast. Oil workers are a tough bunch. It is dangerous work that can result in many casualties. Wildcatters work long shifts at odd hours, drink heavily in free time, and migrate often from one oil well to the next. Some of them even live short term on site in tent cities or makeshift housing. A large proportion of them have done jail time or served in the military. This labor bears resemblance to the railroad graders or tie hacks of the old wild west. They work hard and play hard. Money is often spent in a boom and bust lifestyle, in which life is lived for the moment. This motorcycle driver worked a series of 15-18 hour shifts, including graveyards, and traveled with built up vacation hours. This latest vacation was a race to Wendover, Nevada, to gamble on slot machines, and the trip included a pit stop at the horse races in Evanston, Wyoming. He owned a converted bus for longer vacations or when he needed a place to stay on the job site. Although he was well paid for his work, his labor demanded a migrant lifestyle. He had to keep moving from one oil well to the next as each one capped out.
My time with the oil worker was spent drinking – from day break to midnight. He was amused to report that Jackson, Wyoming, where I first began to travel for work, was now so full of billionaires that all the millionaires were moving to Pinedale. The cost of land in the latter city was increasing so quickly that he was thinking of selling his property and migrating elsewhere. I initiated discussion about the oil fields of Iraq to gauge his opinion about the U.S. invasion of the country. Surprisingly, he agreed that the United States overstepped its boundaries in quest for oil. Oil workers have been kidnapped and killed in South America, so it wasn’t a shock for U.S. soldiers to get killed while in occupation of Iraq. He noted that Americans would also use guerilla tactics if a country invaded us. However, he disagreed with my politics. “America is the greatest country in the world,” he explained, “we are lucky to be born here. We have the freedom to criticize our government. It belongs to the people”. He did not like my idea of flag burning, but supported my raw expression of rage and frustration. It was all a part of a freedom that he wouldn’t compromise. As he climbed on his motorcycle, I knew that he loved the same America as me – the open road.
On July 4th an unemployed veteran came to visit George Beard. Like many soldiers who return from hardships overseas Ole Olson had difficulty readjusting back home. He experienced bitter poverty and the loss of property. He had been homeless before. Once he tasted the streets he continued to travel for an extended period of time. He shot out the barrel of poverty and ricocheted around the United States until he was finally embedded in Wyoming soil. He sprouted roots and settled. We lingered around a jungle campfire one night drinking Ouzo. After a few shots I solicited his opinion about flag burning. I figured that out of respect I should ask someone who experienced both extreme poverty and warfare. Our conversation went something like this:
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Ole: “Why the hell do you need to burn a flag for a 40th birthday ritual. When I turned 40 I bought a six pack. It was no big deal.”
Me: “I am pissed off at our government. I am totally in debt without a chance of employment, and we are investing in war at a time of severe recession.”
“The flag doesn’t stand for the federal government, God damn it, the flag represents the people – including you and me.”
Me: “I am burning the flag because my life is meaningless. I have no job, no wife, and no children. I got shit. Everything I earn in the future will only be used to pay interest on student loans. I am a debt slave. Flag burning is a self-made ritual to give my life meaning.”
Ole: “But, the flag is not yours to sacrifice. You haven’t earned the right. Think of those soldiers in Iraq. They are standing there guarding turf while Iraqi citizens shout out them, shoot at them, and despise them. They don’t want to be there. They only want to protect the soldiers fighting aside them. They know Iraqis want them to leave, but they are stuck because the government commands them to stay. It is their job. Burning the flag is an insult to them. ”
Me: “It is my flag, too. It is my birthright. It was given to me after my father’s funeral. My father killed a man. He changed his life afterward by becoming a pacifist. He also sacrificed drinking and smoking for redemption. I need to transform my own life because I am tired of where it keeps going.”
Ole: “If you want to alter your life than why use the flag as a symbol? It’s not a true sacrifice for you to burn it. It’s only an emotional release. What are you going to do? You will miss it for a few days at most. Part of you wants to burn it. If you need to sacrifice something it has to cause you real pain.”
Me: “Alright, Ole, name something that I can burn instead of the flag with a more powerful meaning.”
Ole: “(Thinking a long time about it) Burn your right shoe!”.
Me: “What? I only own one pair. I need them to work on the ranch”.
The conversation was sidetracked by George Beard, a former butcher, who served us meat on a plywood table. Wood was thrown on the fire and the bottle of Ouzo was passed around. We drank the Ouzo, ate the meat, and threw the table into the fire. I was getting too serious and we were trying to celebrate the July 4th weekend. In honor of the occasion we raised the Wyoming flag which has symbolized freedom for me since I was a teenager in Utah. I brooded about my 40th birthday. I had to admit that Ole had a good point. Some people hung up their traveling boots, but I could burn one of mine instead. The healing would be my transformation process. I would learn to take care of myself better and buy new shoes one step at a time. Maybe it was a healing process that I needed rather than a emotional catharsis. I still had over two weeks to decide, but after two more shots of Ouzo I promised Ole that I would also burn my right shoe if I torched the U.S. flag. Both activities would make a good cathexis to confront my poverty.
The day before my birthday I traveled to Evanston, Wyoming to donate clothing. Some things have more meaning when you give them away. There were people in worse financial condition than myself, people with families, so I gathered up 75% of my clothing and donated it to Evanston’s Presbyterian church – one that hired a Black man as the town’s first clergy. I made a specific point to rid myself of any clothing with advertisements or corporate logos printed on them. Why should I volunteer to become a walking billboard? In addition, I destroyed any socks and underwear with holes in them. I didn’t want to dress in rags anymore because I was trying to break the self-image of me in poverty. Someday I would buy new clothing instead of used. Dress codes are one way to transform yourself.
I visited the Evanston graveyard next to seek out Chinese headstones. On the way to the burial ground I walked past many trailer homes, dilapidated garages, and yards with dead cars gathering rust. I also visited Evanston’s prolific Chinatown, which had since been burned to the ground. The early Chinese often had their bones dug up after one or two years to have them returned to China. It probably shocked locals to watch Chinese scrapping bones clean of flesh – and been the topic of many jokes about Chinese food. However, a few of the later Chinese remained buried in Wyoming. I wished to pay them my respects by leaving offerings, lighting joss sticks, and burning “spirit” money. I had no idea where the Chinese were buried, so I just wandered around the graveyard. There was much history to stumble across. I saw tombstones of Welsh and British minors who were killed in explosions in the Almy mines. I passed by headstones of veterans killed in wars fought by United States. I discovered the graves of people that could be traced to Poverty Flats. This small American town, that few college students could find on a map, had a rich history that could only be deciphered from its graveyard. This burial ground could be used as a classroom. Headstones were my teacher. Since I could not find the Chinese burial markers by stumbling by them randomly I decided to recruit a grave digger to help out. The caretaker worked in the cemetery for twenty years. He memorized the locations of most graves and volunteered to walk with me. On the way he told me stories about the Chinese that were buried in the cemetery. I was impressed by the wealth of knowledge that comes from simply living in one place for so long. This grave digger doubled as a informal historian.
I finally sat down next to a Chinese headstone to honor the migrants that never left. Then I went to a second one to leave similar offerings. The cemetery was full of migrants. There were many foreign names carved in stone and several epitaphs were so old that no names appeared legibly at all anymore. It struck me that this is the real United States. How did they end up dying in a small rural town? What fate brought them here? Many migrated in search of a better life only to find a new set of problems. A great deal of them struggled for the American dream only to fail, or followed the path of opportunity only to get lost in Wyoming. The cemetery was full of small, insignificant, and obscure people that have carved out untold histories. They all had missing stories worth seeking. Their epitaphs tell a story about a palimpsest of migrating souls. These are my people. It doesn’t matter which race they belong to because we are connected by travel, economic mistakes, and poverty. I claim them as part of my own history. They weren’t white trash, and maybe I wasn’t either, but we all braved our trial of poverty.
On the morning of my 40th birthday morning, this poor mother’s son thought about what to do with his father’s flag. I piled a large pyramid of wood together and placed a photograph of myself in the top center. I looked at myself at eye level. I then went to the garden for something to harvest. I saved the first cultivation for my birthday present to myself. I plunged my fingers into the rich soil and brought forth a radish. The first one I ate after wiping its dirt on my shirt. The red radish had a hot spicy taste. I then picked a clump of collard, chard, and beet greens. The harvest was a minor success. I built it from trash in my yard and learned to take care of it. I nursed it to recovery after six inches of snow mounded on top of it. I taught myself to irrigate and built an entry way with stone. I created something from nothing. It didn’t cost a single penny to produce. Now I could share, donate, or imbibe in the fruits of my labor.
The next thing I did was work. I had projects to finish. I buried water pipes so that they would survive the next winter frost. I wanted to insure the return of water even after I am gone. I then finished my work with stone. I completed a manifold for my tank of water. The water valves needed protection from the sun and snow. Therefore, I added a steel awning made from rusty swimming pool lining. After the metal had been bent and attached to a frame, I rolled a few last stones into place to hold it all together. I then rewarded myself with a cup of tea. My projects on the ranch were officially completed and my work finished. I honored my commitment to George Beard. Like the Swedish tie hacks of past I created something that would last for decades. One day somebody will read the bones of my amateur labor and learn from it.
To celebrate I opened a bottle of Kemmerer moonshine – via compliments of Thomas Bullock. After a healthy swig from the jug I bathed in the river. The cool water was soothing. The river was frozen when I first arrived and I remembered training myself to bathe in ice cold water. Now the brisk temperature was soothing in the hot sun. Afterward I shaved and cleaned, so that I would be presentable when I unraveled the flag for the first time. A few more shots of moonshine and I was ready to go. I unzipped the flag from its plastic cover and spread it out over the 1950s sofa. It was much larger than I thought. It covered the entire couch. The last time I seen the entire flag was at my father’s funeral. It had acquired a different meaning since then. I next loaded a gun. It took me one week to figure out how to take it apart and clean it. I figured that if I couldn’t understand a gun then I had no right to load one. I ejected a single shiny bullet from its container and fed it into the mouth of the gun. I placed the gun on my father’s flag and made a toast with another shot of Kemmerer moonshine. Afterward, I left both items there, took off my right shoe, and hiked back to the river. Rain started to drizzle down from the gray sky.
I saved one more journey for my birthday. A Swedish tie hack named Dorsey once drowned during a lumber drive on the ranch. His body was placed on a large boulder until a wagon arrived to pick it up. He died while looking up at the night sky. The river was too high for me to visit until mid-July. I could finally cross the river and reach the rock during my birthday celebration. For my entire life I believed that I was genetically Greek and Swedish. For this reason I always identified with these ethnic groups. I watched Viking movies as a child and even suffered eating lutefisk. I was drawn to Sweden because of its liberal views and pacifism. This belief helped shape who I have become. But, shortly before my 40th birthday, I learned the truth. A friend delivered a stack of papers from my mother. Inside was an old doctor record relating to my biological parents. I was adopted at six months, so there is mystery about what existed beforehand. The doctor wrote some information about my health conditions. However, in a small corner of the document he also scribbled notes about my ethnicity: Greek and Swiss. I was never actually Swedish, funny that. What difference does this make for my American identity? Are there any Swiss traits that I have inherited? Who am I, now? Whatever the case, I planned on paying homage to Swedish tie hacks who taught me to build with stone.
The water was at kneecap level so it was possible to cross the river. The water still had tremendous power, so I had to splash against the current. I could not get traction with one bare foot on a mossy rock. The slippery rocks fooled me and I fell into the river face first in an accidental baptism of flurry. I instinctively fought for my life, scurrying around Dorsy’s rock before the current could bash my skull against jagged boulders. With a swift motion I lifted myself onto Dorsey’s rock. I stared up at the sky. The river took Dorsey’s life, but I was spared. Euphoric I made a toast and intentionally poured an entire beer in the river in honor of the tie hack. I snagged the brew from George Beard’s private supply. I let out an exhilarated shout of “Yee-haw” in typical cowboy fashion.
Directly across the river, about five yards away, a large deer watched me motionlessly. The buck stood proud in its raw masculine energy. My shout did not frighten it away. I stood dripping on the wet boulder while the deer made direct eye contact. After five minutes it gently meandered back into the forest, but slowly and without fear. I am convinced that at this moment, and I will argue this to my grave, I came the closest that I will ever come to seeing God.
I returned to my trailer humbled and graceful. After a few more drags of moonshine I was ready for a ritual. I brought my father’s flag out to the fire and took another hit of moonshine. I placed my right shoe next to the flag, gazed at both objects, and deeply thought about my life. I have made many poor decisions and paid for the mistakes. My debt is ultimately harder than my poverty. I don’t mind being poor. I can easily adapt to a low income, but debt breaks the spirit of hope. My needs are so little, I can find happiness even at the smallest of wage. My family and ancestors have experienced poverty throughout their lives. They also suffered their share of debt. There is a continuity to it. If I had children they would likely resort to welfare, credit cards, and student loans. I certainly couldn’t help them. I can’t even afford to visit a doctor or buy health insurance. There is no nest egg or retirement fund. I have less than $100 in my pocket and no funds incoming. On my 40th birthday I have become the playful grasshopper that starves in winter because I was too busy living life. The middle class works busily like ants and survive. But, without people like me, they forfeit passionate songs which help them escape mundane and routine lives. My poverty makes them thankful for the things they have. I blame myself mostly for poverty, but I also attach responsibility to the U.S. government, which continually seeks war and global domination rather than to listen to the weaker elements of its own society. It is a superpower that can’t even provide shelter or basic health care for its on citizens. I also recognized an oppressive banking system that greatly profits form exorbitant interest rates and punitive fees – even at the expense of creating lifetime debtors. If I survive long enough I can help teach the middle class about poverty when they eventually fall. We grasshoppers are willing to befriend former ants. We can save them a place in the food line one day.
It was time for a fire. The pyramid of wood was ready. A torch was soaking in gasoline. I held a match in my hand, thought about a life full of debt and menial labor, then the indentured arsonist strikes once again. Flames slithered up the torch as a thin whisk of black smoke curled around my hand. I did not own this fire. I was stealing it. I wanted illumination. I desired knowledge and warmth. Is that a greater evil than an endless string of wars? My greatest burden was student loans, but what have I actually taken if I refuse to repay them? Would it be a theft of services? I have already given service back as a VISTA volunteer. I represented the United States with four years of English teaching abroad. Is this not also diplomatic service for my country? My services were rejected by the U.S. Peace Corp volunteer program. I could not return to VISTA/Americorp either since a hiring freeze had been placed on the number of recruits – Congress worried about paying the promised educational stipends. Even farming was no longer an option, since I could not sell enough produce on the ranch to make ends meet in modern society. I could feed myself over the summer, but not grow enough crops for heat in the winter.
What could I have accomplished if the government was only willing to invest in me (and not at a 6% interest rate)? How would my life be different if Congress created a job program before a slid into homelessness and a debt lasting for the past decade? Why can’t I repay student loans with work? Why can’t I pay them off by teaching overseas? What crime would it be to chose a passionate life instead of a hallowed existence of infinite debt repayment? I may have difficulties with my country, but I will never pledge allegiance to a bank. Fuck it! I am shoplifting this fire from Zeus. Let him howl with rage. I can endure his wrath. I have grown apathetic. I will no longer beg for his welfare and charity. Burn baby burn!
I sprint like a marathon runner toward the fire pit. The torch hits and it explodes – ekpyrosis. As the fire lifts to the heavens an amazing sense of peace overwhelms me. Zeus was tricked by Prometheus once. Greed is his weakness. Prometheus offered a bait and switch. Zeus predictably clutched at a wealth of fatty meat, only to gnaw on the trash that fooled him. I’ll give unto him what is his. But, I’ll remove the hide and bones left behind to reclaim the precious soul that is rightfully mine. The New Zeus will never own my freedom, honor, or integrity. I can tear the tooth out of the mouth of Zeus and escape while he staggers blind. I’ll survive by stealing the flame. Let him accept his share of the blame. What a shame. I am thankful for my mortality and my hunger. I am in bliss from the winter cold, my suffering, and my pain. For these conditions make me more human. Let the fire lift to the heavens to remind the Gods that I am still alive. The pyramid was engulfed in flames and at its tip I could see the photograph of my former self melting. The emulsion dripped from the eye of the pyramid like a teardrop. E. Pluribus Unum.
The blazing pyre of heat warms my face and dries the blood on my right foot. This reminds me of my shoe. The soul of my right traveling shoe is worn down. Its heel is falling off, the color scraped away, the shoelace frazzled, and the leather toe gashed by barbed wire. However, I need my worthless shoe more than any other possession. I couldn’t sell enough crops to replace my shoe. My foot is blistered, cut, and bleeding. Without this shoe I couldn’t move. The shoe is my verb that will carry me out of Poverty Flat. As I teased the fire with my father’s flag I realized that the banner is like my old shoe: worn, frazzled, discolored, and scarred. It has survived the test of battle and confrontation. The flag could be made useful again. I placed my hand above the fire until the skin hurt from the heat. I allowed it to blister with pain. So what will my first decision be: the flag or the shoe? One more shot of moonshine and I decided neither.
I burned all my writing instead. I gathered together journals that I wrote as a student of Women Studies. I assembled my diverse collection of university research papers: interviews with U.S. fraternity members about male bonding, experiences with White Indians called the Red Cedar Circle, records of anti-government militia groups in rural America, documents of activities by Muslims in United States, and notebooks about drug trafficking by western tourists. I burned them all. To feed the flame I added all the diaries that I wrote while homeless (seven of them), university transcripts, short stories, and my first published book. I burned copies of my university degrees. I incinerated my birth certificate and the medical record of my biological roots. Either invest in me or lose what I have to offer. The fire raged in orange and blue flame. The whiteness of the paper rapidly turned to ash; black like me. With a stroke of a match I converted my academic labor to trash. The paperwork of my life sizzled away. If the pursuit of knowledge is the source of my debt, then I returned this wisdom back to the fire. We are even. Yee-Haw !!!!
Now, my life fits into a single suitcase. It is small enough to carry. The flag will be saved for my younger brother. He deserves the honor. My right shoe was placed back on my foot where it belonged. It had more value than all my writing, any academic theory, and the cultural symbolism of the flag. My next footprints led to a loaded gun. I had to make my next important decision. Where do I aim the bullet? Should I point it at myself? That would be one method to end poverty. Suicide was the final political act that Sleeps-On-Streets claimed was available to poor white men – and I had already exhausted voting, bankruptcy, and rioting. As an added bonus suicide would make the banks eat my student loan debt. Should I point the gun at a typical corrupt politician? Maybe they will start listening if they learn to fear. I can become a disgruntled employee that directs the bullet at a lower paid co-worker or kills a boss to prevent future outsourcing. Perhaps I should adhere to new youthful trends and bring the gun to high school to get even with a bully in a volley of bullets. Is that what it takes to get authorities to listen? Should I aim the bullet at an African-American or a Chinese immigrant? Should I just blame women and weld my rifle at them? Maybe I could just fire at an innocent Iraq civilian or some other foreigner. For that matter, why don’t I just return to Dorsey’s rock and kill the deer. This way I would at least have meat to eat with my wine in wintertime. My political actions and protests led to stagnation, but this single bullet had potential to change lives. Yee-Haw !!!!!!
I drank a few more shots of moonshine, staggering, clumsily waving my gun at several targets. When something flashed it caught my eye and I instinctively fired. The bullet darted toward a tin can – but missed. My one bullet fell short of its target. Damn! How anti-climatic. It felt like a orgasm in reverse. Doesn’t closure require that I kill something? A strange thing happened once I crossed the line and fired a bullet. I felt the need to keep shooting. I continued to load the rifle to murder objects. I shot glass at point blank range. I wounded debris at long distance. I pondered killing a hummingbird, but I wasn’t that good of a shot. Therefore, I ventured back to the trailer for equipment of a higher caliber. After firing one round of buckshot I realized that I lost my showdown at Poverty Flat. I took ten paces and raged at an imagined enemy. I was defeated in the shootout. At the end of my session I had one more bullet left. The one that I acquired in Lao. I decided to let fate decide if I live or die. I threw my last bullet into the fire. If there is a compassionate God, then he will decide the final target. I stood firmly at the edge of the fire. I raised my arms and stood without flinching. I could hear a sizzle as the final bullet melted. It could hit me or another object. This was the final exam of my 40th birthday. It was the single bullet of a 99% pacifist. I closed my eyes instinctively in full knowledge that the bullet would soon explode. BANG!!!!
The bullet ricocheted around the fire pit that I made of stone. A spark flew out of the fire burning me on the wrist next to a scar I got at a window factory in Utah. I heard maybe three repercussions, the sound of a rock tipping into the fire, then the bullet came to a halt. I can’t shoot worth shit, but I am damn good at wedging stone. The Swedish tie hacks, who were not my ancestors, made good teachers. My one last bullet deflated into silence. The stone puzzle of a fire pit reigned strong and mighty. It proved more sturdy and lasting than my white rage. It was the victor in a silent duel in Poverty Flat. Defeated, I would have to get out of Dodge before tomorrow’s sundown. I took my father’s flag when I retreated. I folded it respectively as Hark Lay once taught me. It was time to pack my bags and move to the next town. One last shot of Kemmerer moonshine for the road. Yee-Haw !!!!!!!!