Wednesday, August 23, 2006


(The continuing Saga of a homeless man and his dog)
by Jack Rafter

Today's Episode: "A Letter From The Past"

This morning I woke up in my tent in the woods thinking about scrambled eggs, a stack of pancakes with melted butter, maple syrup and thick slab bacon. So I took Vincent and headed down to the freight yards to look for something I might give Johnny Blair in exchange for breakfast. Johnny runs the Bizzy Bee Cafe over on Mort Street. Bartering is our little arrangement.

You see, Johnny's kind of an artist. He not only cooks, but he builds shadowboxes in his spare time. He uses nice woods, like poplar and cherry, to make the small square pigeon holes, into which he puts little found treasures. Each shadowbox has a theme, so the objects he puts in are related to each other in some way.


Well, we were walking along the edge of the woods on a little rise overlooking the yard, when Vincent stopped in his tracks and gave out a strange crying bark. I didn't see what he was looking at at first, but then, as I crept forward a few feet, I saw the object of his concern lying in the tall weeds—a dead body. I recognized him, too: a homeless guy named Steve. He'd been staying in the woods for a couple of weeks. Came in on a freight from somewhere out in the east. I think he was headed for Tucson or Yuma. He'd been sick the last few days. He drank too much and I doubt he ate enough to compensate. Probably didn't get enough water, either. I had a feeling he died of heat stroke.

He wasn't in his right mind. He would converse with people who weren't there, although I found that he would talk to me, if I could get his attention. He laughed quite a bit, a kind of manic laughter, as if he thought everything in his tragic life was funny. And maybe it was. He told me he was a veteran, but he couldn't remember which war he fought in. “I guess it doesn't matter which one,” he said, and he laughed and laughed, as if the joke were on him. Then, he said something kind of odd. He said, “I fought in all of them. I fought in all the wars.” The words of a crazy man, of course. But he wasn't laughing, now. In fact, he looked pretty sad lying there. He wasn't that old, maybe fifty or so. His ratty blue suit looked like it came from Goodwill. He was on his back, his head turned to the side, eyes open, so I guess the last things he saw were the trains going by in the yard, perhaps headed somewhere he would have much preferred to be than where he ended up.

One thing caught my eye--his hands, resting on his stomach, small, childlike, caked with grime. They were perfectly relaxed, as if he'd seen death coming and made no effort to fend it off.

Vincent circled around him, whimpering a little, crept up to him, smelled him, then backed off again and sat down, looking. I squatted beside Steve and went through his pockets. Luckily, he hadn't been dead too long or I couldn't have done it. Right off, I discovered he died rich—had a fiver on him and some loose change, a key to something, I don't know what. He carried no wallet, no identification. In one coat pocket, he had a collection of perfectly smooth, brightly colored little stones he might have found in a creek or riverbed somewhere. I thought about Johnny Blair's shadowboxes, so I took a few of the stones and put the rest back. I didn't think he'd mind—they amounted to a good handful. Johnny would appreciate the story.


Then, from the inside coat pocket, the one over his breast, I retrieved a folded piece of paper. It was old, almost falling apart. Carefully, I opened it up and glanced at it. It was a letter—handwritten—signed “Millie” at the bottom, a wife or a girlfriend, I supposed. No envelope, so I had no idea where it came from or where it was mailed to. I looked around. I didn't want to sit there, exposed to the trains and everything, so I backed up a few feet in the the woods and read the letter. It was dated January—something; the year was smudged out. Parts of it were smudged or almost faded out, but I took my time and managed to piece it together.

When I finished, I thought it should stay with Steve. But I really wanted a copy of it, so I borrowed it, went back to my tent in the woods, found a pencil and paper, and copied it. As I wrote, I started thinking about how somebody would come along and haul Steve down to the morgue. They might do an autopsy. They would probably take his clothes, his handful of colored stones, and the letter, throw them away, then bury him in a pauper's grave. So I decided maybe I should bury him myself. I went and found a couple of guys, one named Charles, the other one calling himself Smitty, both living in the woods, to help me with him. They were sitting in their camps hot and bored, more than willing to go look at a dead body, and maybe even help me bury him.

But we got there too late. Through the trees, as we approached, we saw the Union Pacific men--four of them--standing around in their bright yellow hardhats. One was on a walkie-talkie. We could hear him telling someone what they'd found lying in the weeds by the yard. I knew an ambulance would be along any minute to haul him off somewhere.

Smitty wiped his mouth, then said, “Well, I don't want nothin' to do with no railroad people.” “Me neither,” said Charles. They turned and walked off.

I stood there, debating for a minute. The men were down on the roadbed a little below where Steve lay. I wondered which one of them found him, and how he was able to see him from down there. Maybe he just caught a glimpse of the pasty white of Steve's face. Or maybe it was the blue of his coat sifting through the sunburnt grass. Of course, an engineer could have spotted him from up in the cab, or a switchman, hanging from the side of a boxcar.


I decided to risk it and came out of the woods and showed myself. They didn't notice me at first. Then, the guy with the walkie-talkie looked up and saw me. He was older than the other three, streaks of gray at his temples. He wore a tie and carried a clipboard. Already there were sweat stains on his clean, white shirt, even though it wasn't yet ten o'clock. I was a little surprised when he nodded and spoke to me. “Howdy,” he said. I said, “Hi” and came on up to where Steve lay. He looked the same as before, still lying on his back, staring vacantly at the yards, but with all the people hovering around him now, he seemed even more lost and out of place. And these strangers were about to decide where he should go next.

“You know anything about this fella?” said the white shirted man. The name tape on his hardhat said, “Grimes.”

“I know his name was Steve,” I replied. “I don't know his last name. I found him this morning.”

“You found him?”

“Yeah, I did.”

“How come you didn't report it?” said one of the others, much younger than Grimes.

“Who says I didn't?” I replied.

Grimes took a handkerchief from his back pocket, dabbed his brow. “Well, we didn't find any i.d. on him, so we don't even know for sure his name was Steve.”

“He told me that was his name. He's been around here for a couple of weeks. He also had this letter on him.” I held the folded letter up.

Grimes, looking squint-eyed at the letter, said, “Can I see that?”

“On one condition,” I said.

“What's that?”

“Promise me you'll make sure it gets buried with him. It's from his wife. You read it, you'll see his name was Steve. Her name was Millie.”

“Was there an envelope with that? Was there an address for Millie?”

“No,” I said. “No address for him, none for her. Just their names, that's all. He was a veteran. You'll see, it's in the letter. He deserves a decent burial somewhere, and this letter should be buried with him. It's all he had in the world. Promise me you'll do it.”

Grimes sighed deeply and said he would see to it. I handed him the letter. He opened it up. The other men moved in a little. Grimes frowned and bit his lower lip as he looked at it. Then, abruptly, he held it out to me. He spoke quietly, “You want to read it?”

“Okay,” I said. I raised the letter and started to read. Grimes removed his hardhat. The others did the same. This is what I read:
January. . .

My Darling Steve,

We had some rain last night and it was bitter cold. But this morning was bright and beautiful, and even though the air was still nippy, I got out and walked a little. And I thought about the last time you were here on leave, back in the summer. I went down to the sandbar below the house where we spent our last night together, and I remembered how warm it was, and how the moon was starting to come full and shown down on the sand and the water. You said it made the river look like diamonds. Remember?

I still have the shirt—that old army t-shirt—you wore that night. I haven't washed it. I put it up to my face last night to smell you and some sand fell out of it. I started laughing, and then, I was crying. I felt so stupid. But I didn't care.

My darling husband, I love you so. I love you more than life. I dream so often of you and me holding hands down on the sandbar in the moonlight. Isn't it funny? It's such a vivid dream. I want you to come home and put on that t-shirt and make love to me! I will never wash that shirt until you return, safe and sound.

Come back to me, my dearest dearest love. Let no harm come to you is my prayer every morning and night to the angels of mercy. Never forget how much I love you and what you mean to me.

Yours, forever,
We stood around and waited till the ambulance showed up. Grimes called one of the railroad doctors out to officially pronounce the death so no autopsy would need to be done. When the doctor asked for a name to write on the form, the railroad man leaned forward and quietly replied, “Steve Grimes.”

After they left, Grimes assured me that Steve would get a proper burial. He said he intended to take up a collection from the railroad worker's union and buy Steve a plot in a nice cemetery and provide him with a headstone. And he would seal the letter in an envelope and put it back in Steve's coat.


By the time I got to Johnny's cafe, the lunch crowd had come and gone. Johnny fired up the grill, cooked up half-a-dozen eggs, pancakes and bacon, then sat down and had breakfast with me. And as we ate, I told him about finding Steve, and about Millie's letter, and what Grimes had done, and then I dropped the smooth colored stones on the table by his plate. Johnny didn't say much, mostly just looked and listened. He started to read my copy of the letter to himself, but like the good trainman, he handed it back to me and said, “Why don't you read it, Jack?

After I finished, he just shook his head. “Lord, Lord,” he said. “How strange life is, huh, Jack? How strange.”

“Yeah, it is,” I nodded. “Sure is.”

Sunday, August 20, 2006


Maria Hampton, writing in the Sept/Oct 2006 issue of Adbusters, comments on a new invasive frontier of television. People are fleeing into whole new worlds of solitude within their I-pods, a kind of self-prescribed refuge from TV's inescapable advertising. Clear Channel, the radio playground for the right-wing in the US, is now pioneering one-second ads--not quite brief enough to be subliminal--but sufficient to enter the arc of consciousness and quickly disappear. These ads are all over you, before you can escape, or even decide to escape.

These psychological gambits are increasingly being used to embed consumerist and manipulative structures into the human mind; and there are now indications that the minds being targeted are at ever more formative stages of development. One of the possible cultural repercussions that Hampton raises, as a red flag, is the rising trend of American doctors treating "psychosis" in children as young as eight years, with anti-psychotic drugs that were previously reserved for adults.

New frontiers of Pavlovian conditioning include the "ultimate electronic babysitter", invented by the Nestle company, which is scheduled for marketing this fall. As Hampton describes it: "a videogame that doles out candy". She quotes a marketing expert, James Belcher, as saying , "Games give a more intimate [brand] relationship and every time you play them, the candy's there”.

The battle for the mind is beginning long before the child has imprinted language, before parenting is thoroughly underway, and well before the literate process and critical thinking are introduced. Believe it or not, there is now such a thing as BabyFirstTV.

One of the sinister developments Hampton describes is this new baby TV. "Flouting warnings by pediatricians and psychiatrists, corporations are cashing in on TV programs targeted specifically for infants and toddlers"..."Childcare experts such as Dmitri A. Christakis from the University of Washington, however, caution that television for infants "rewires the brain" during a period of irreversible development."

So how long will it be before there's Uterine TV?--and tiny adjustable visors for the developing fetus? Perhaps it's possible to go back further for baby's first brainwashing. Surely the voice of consumer compulsion must have another antecedent, in those deep-frozen cryogenic vats that hold human embryos.

Friday, August 18, 2006


"There are no hereditary kings in America and no powers not created in the Constitution."
--U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor, writing in her 43-page decision yesterday, ruling that the Bush Administration's warrantless wiretapping surveillance program violates freedom of speech, protections against unreasonable searches, and a Constitutional check on the power of the President.

At this moment, there is legislation pending in Congress, which Arlen Specter has spearheaded, and which probably would have passed (with the help of spineless Democrats), that would remove many of the limits to the President's ability to do things the Constitution prohibits. In other words, the Congress of the United States is attempting to rewrite the laws of the land in order to make it okay for the President to break the laws of the land. Judge Taylor's ruling, at least for the time being, would render that legislation dead on arrival.

Three cheers for the ACLU! The only people who seem ready to fight tooth and claw for this crumbling democracy.

The Bushites are, of course, planning to appeal the case to the Federal Court of Appeals, and if they fail there, it could go on to the Supreme Court.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


My friend, Ben, just received a little gift from Kathleen Rumpf. Ms. Rumpf is a member of the Catholic Worker's Movement. For the last couple of weeks, she's been sitting outside Carswell's Women's Prison protesting the corruption and cruelty which she experienced first-hand while in the custody of the hospital there. A peace activist all her life, she's been arrested more than a hundred times. Her latest arrest was for protesting at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia.

Ben and I drove out there and talked to her. It was over a hundred degrees that day, as it had been just about every day she was there. At night, she slept on a mattress thrown on the ground. A picture of the Virgin Mary decorated a lone tree providing the only shade to her little encampment. She had nothing, but she seemed to be about the happiest person alive.

While we were there, she handed Ben a 4 x 6-inch card. Ben stood there looking at it, smiling. Then, he handed it to me. On the face of the card was a reproduction of an icon painting of Father Philip Berrigan, who died in 2002. Does anyone remember him, I wonder? He was a Josephite priest, and one of our country's most revered peace activists. He and his brother, Daniel, a Jesuit priest, kicked up a lot of trouble during the Vietnam era. Daniel's still alive and kicking.

Ms. Rumpf said she has patterned her life after Philip's example. She and the Berrigans, and others, like Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr., are reminders that being religious can mean something altogether different from the right-wing Christian view that somehow God is on our side in Iraq and it's perfectly okay to bomb people into submission to our way of life.

At the same time, it can also mean far more than just sitting around making a lot of "spiritual" talk with like-minded people, yet never venturing beyond the cozy comfort of church walls, to do something as unsafe as standing with others to protest war or poverty or other injustices.

Philip Berrigan fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Later, he became involved in the Civil Rights Movement. He marched for desegregation, took part in sit-ins and bus boycotts. He and his brother, Daniel, and the famed theologian, Thomas Merton, founded an interfaith coalition against the Vietnam War.

On October 27, 1967, the "Baltimore Four," consisting of Philip, the artist Tom Lewis, and poet, teacher and writer, David Eberhardt and United Church of Christ missionary and pastor, the Rev. James L. Mengel, poured blood (including Berrigan's) on selective service records in the Baltimore Customs House.

Waiting for police to arrest them, they passed out Bibles. Berrigan said:
"This sacrificial and constructive act is meant to protest the pitiful waste of American and Vietnamese blood in Indochina."
He was sentenced to 6 years in prison, the first American priest to be arrested for an act of civil disobedience.

In 1969, following his release on bail, Phil Berrigan repeated the protest in a somewhat modified form. Using homemade napalm, nine activists, who later became known as the "Catonsville Nine," walked into the Catonsville, Maryland draft board and burned 378 draft files. On that day, Berrigan said:
"We confront the Catholic Church, other Christian bodies, and the synagogues of America with their silence and cowardice in the face of our country's crimes. We are convinced that the religious bureaucracy in this country is racist, is an accomplice in this war, and is hostile to the poor."
At their trial, the "Catonsville Nine" offered no formal defense, other than to make statements to explain themselves and their actions. Philip's brother, Daniel, read this statement from his Catonsville meditations:
"Our apologies, dear friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of papers instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise."

On the reverse side of the card Kathleen Rumpf gave to Ben is this prayer--the final writing of Philip Berrigan.
"The following occur to me as worthwhile subjects of prayer:
*that we disarm our hearts and our society
*that the Holy Spirit subvert, stalemate, and expose preparation for the invasion of Iraq
*that God intervene in the ecological crisis as Lord of Creation, because we refuse to change our
abuse of the earth
*that Americans begin to understand and resist the three-pronged aims for the Bush Administration: the trashing of civil liberties, perpetual war, and world domination
*that the swindle of "foreknowledge" by the Bushites of 9/11 be fully disclosed
*that the "crime" of 57 years of nuclearism, and its consequent wasting of our lives, and planet be revealed
*that Americans grasp that war is our #1 business; that we are a violent, killer people, and that we know virtually little of the nonviolence of Jesus and the Gospel
*that the scourges of abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty be ended
*that the U.S. withdraw all economic and military aid to Israel
*that the global war against children be lifted
*that the rich West contribute medication and food to the global victims of HIV-AIDS
*that each of us become people of fidelity, nonviolence, and justice


Tuesday, August 08, 2006


Is there anything we can do to stop the madness of war? Or are we on the road to our own destruction? I feel I have to do something, even if it is to write a pathetic letter to someone who either will never lay eyes on it, or if he happens to glance at it, will, in all liklihood, shrug and go on with his program of death.

I have watched mortified as our own architects of war--Bush, Condoleeza Rice, John Bolton, and practically the entire U.S. Congress, continually discouraged a ceasefire and cheered on the complete destruction of Lebanon by Israel, which has featured the targeting of civilians, over a third of whom are children under the age of thirteen.

It seems once the lizard mind contracts into itself, there's not much room left for human concerns, only the worship of weapons and war; no time, no place for idle thoughts, of families driven from their homes by the thousands, of children lying in the rubble of this disease.

So, I begin to write letters. What for? Who knows? Perhaps simply to assuage my own impotence.
June 29, 2006

Ehud Olmert
Prime Minister

Dear Mr. Olmert,

Sir, I am heartsick at the war in your homeland. I write to you with no political agenda, other than the belief in my heart that wars will never cease until we begin to change our innermost feelings and minds about war—until it becomes unacceptable.

I am an artist in America. I don't care about your politics or theirs. I care about people. Human lives. Women, children, uncles, cousins, grandmothers. It is beyond me why we are so intent on destroying each other. Are we not better than this, Mr. Olmert? When children get into fisticuffs on the playground, what is the first thing we do as adults? Do we tell them to “just keep fighting” till one kid is the winner and the other left maimed or dead? No. We pull them apart, do we not? We separate them, make them sit down and talk. Yet, we are incapable of doing this thing for ourselves! What a lesson for our children!

Mr. Olmert, I know you are tired of talking. I know you feel it is pointless. Please, my friend, allow me to suggest that it is anything but pointless. Let me, in fact, suggest that even if it seems to lead nowhere, it is still a success. Why? Because at the end of it, everyone is still alive! Still looking each other in the eye, still able to shake hands, perhaps to forgive, to find some core of hope and humanity in the other. Still able to go home to our wives and children. And still able to come back the next day, to sit down, hold hands around the table and pray together for peace. And then. . .talk some more!

And because the alternative. . .well, we all know what that is, don't we?—bombing and killing—only leads to more death, to the end of all hope, and nothing ever resolved. Only more innocent children lying in the rubble of our adult lunacy, pettiness, and closed hearts.

This is what I know, Mr. Olmert. I know that we are none of us perfect. I know we are all broken. And so often I think, if only we could see this, maybe it would be easier to come together to heal our brokenness, in respect of our mutual humanity. We cannot fight for peace by fighting. I'm certain this is what we would tell our children. What do we tell ourselves?

I close with a prayer—a fervent prayer. . .for you, for your people, for theirs, for us. . .everywhere. Everywhere. God. Give. . .Us. . .Peace!

In friendship,

Grayson Harper.

copeland morris ENTWINED SONNET

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