A Trek through Costa Rica: Part IIIB: Turbulence in Turrialba, Continued

Turbulence in Turrialba, Continued…

bajo pacuare 23 8 08 (18)Down we go backward, the entire raft bucking and twisting, the left rear side ( my side) crunching vertically into the hole. Muddy spray washes over us, ripping my breath away. We struggle to stay upright, to keep our paddles out of the hole to prevent our arms being yanked from their sockets by the undertow, to lean in toward the middle of the raft to center our weight.

But for me, ill-prepared and half in the water already, it is no use. The river sandals I borrowed are too loose on my feet and the left one yanks completely free. Nothing now remains to stop that whole leg slipping out from under the seat beside me. I cling precariously to the side, muscles straining, to keep my leg in the boat. The stern of the boat and the rest of my companions are high up above me, huddled like frightened rats on the bucking on the lip of a massive, wicked-looking whirpool.

This stasis endure for several seconds, but it can’t last. The raft isn’t stable enough. It bucks up again, violently. Everyone else manages to cling to their sides. But my side is currently disappearing into the river. My head flies back and straight into the churn.


Now imagine a body bent backward over the side with his head stuck in the whitewater (photo: Wikipedia)

The roaring stops: the world becomes a totality of white and green and muffled sound. I hear my brother to my left, yelling, and feel his grip on my arm and leg. He’s trying to pull my upper body back up and in – something the guide had warned us not to do in a hole this huge, as it would simply cause everyone else to fall in.

With the raft at a 45 degree angle I don’t have the strength to pull my head back up out of the sucking whirpool. And I’m not about to drown here, bent backward over the edge of a raft, one leg straight up, one still stuck uselessly under the seat. That’s just not a dignified way to die.

I also don’t feel like being the cause of everyone else going over into the undertow with me. So I yank my right leg as hard as I can. The sandal rips free. My legs fly up. I somersault backward into the churning hole.

Chaos. Somehow I manage to right myself and thrust my head slightly out of the water, struggle to gasp a few breaths. Immediately I’m sucked downward into the whirpool, outward toward the rock ledge lining the bank of the river – spinning in a pressurized void of green and white. I try to swim against the undertow to no avail. How deep is this hole anyway?

My eyes fly open. The rock ledge. Getting pinned by the current under submerged rock ledges are how people drown, and the ledge is close. In only a few seconds the undertow will drag me under it. And I may not have the breath to fight back.

In a surge of pure adrenaline I heave my feet out from under my body and position them in front of me. I plant them firmly, flat against the edge of the rock wall and push mightily away from the ledge with all my remaining strength.

I shoot out back into the main current, out of the hole. Finally I surface, gasping raggedly, taking in as much spray as oxygen. But I’m not dead.

Safe out of the hole at least, now I just need to survive the remainder of this stretch of Class IV rapids without knocking myself out on a boulder. I struggle to get breath, get turned around with my feet in front of me like the guides have demonstrated so that none of my tender bits are smashed by the rocks and slabs.

My lungs cannot seem to get enough air. Endless moments pass during which I have no idea when I will take my next breath. As soon as I surface, I slide over a rock or plunge down another hole and am pulled down again. I drink a good portion of the previous night’s rainfall.

I could probably tell you to this day, if you served me up a glass of pure Pacuare river water, exactly which rapid it came from within a couple of river miles. (“Ah yes,” I would say, swilling the glass and smacking my lips. “The Mangler rapids. A fine vintage, I would know it anywhere…”)

Things are getting desperate. At the edges of my vision – eyes fixed wildly open in the rushing water, a churn of green and white foam and bubbles – dull black tendrils begin to creep.

I launch my head savagely toward the open air, gasp a long breath. Only now am I aware that my calves and bare feet are absorbing impact after impact from the stones and boulders I’m navigating.

A rock cracks against my tailbone. I careen down a mini-waterfall, my legs jolting as my feet hit the river bottom.


Sort of like me in the rapid, but with more rocks and less drowning. (photo: c. Wayne Hacker, warrenimages.com)

Suddenly, the blessed red safety kayak is there. I feel it gliding smoothly up against my right side. I grasp blindly out for the edge and cling to the front. “Hang on, amigo!”, the kayaker shouts.

As if I would do anything else. Um, no, amigo, that’s ok, I’m really enjoying my blind morning hurtle through this concealed boulder field, thanks anyway.

Rocks and branches fly past as my body is swiftly transported to the far end of the rapids. I’m deposited, dazed and heaving for breath, on a wide sandy shore fringed with reeds and stumpy banana trees. The kayaker sticks a goofy thumbs-up sign toward me, shoots downstream to look for more “swimmers”.

End of Part IIIA: To Be Continued…


A Trek through Costa Rica: Part IIIA: Turbulence in Turrialba


The slopes around Turrialba, Costa Rica (photo: bidstrup.com)

Our SUV has become stuck in mud on a narrow jungle road for the second time this morning.

A few hours before dawn – before we’ve trekked across the mountain village of Turrialba to the office of our rafting outfitter – a brief thunderstorm had sent sheets of heavy rain pouring onto the slopes of the mountains, reducing much of the earth to dribbling brown liquid.

As the guides work to free the back tires, we struggle groggily out of the truck to stretch our legs on a dry part of the road, snacking on Clif Bars and surveying the scene below.

To the south down the road lay the low shacks and bridges of Turrialba. To the west and about a thousand feet straight down from the ridge, the two main rivers tumbling out of Costa Rica’s central mountain ranges – the Rio Pacuare and the Rio Reventazon – crookedly intersect, wriggling like a couple of long lazy earthworms washed out of their burrows.

From these heights the rivers look motionless and two-dimensional as photos, shimmering through a haze of evaporating fog and mist, shot through with mottles of bright sunrise. It’s breathtaking. And slightly intimidating. After all, in a few minutes we are scheduled to be on one of those rivers – the Rio Pacuare, one of the top rafting rivers in the world –  and headed into our first major Class IV rapid.

Finally the back tires spin free and we’re on our way again, bumping and roaring up and down steep jungle hills scattered with deciduous and banana and palm and the occasional wild coffee bush.

It doesn’t look like we’ll make our put-in time.


The Rio Pacuare. (photo: livingincostaricatoday.com)

Finally at the put in, we unpack our gear as our main guide, a short and friendly Tico who looks no older than 18, explains the situation.

Normally, he explains, they would do a test-run in calm water so that inexperienced rafters can practice pulling others back into the boat, and the ones being pulled in can get used to being in the water. Also in normal circumstances we’d all practice floating a small section of rapids in only our life jackets.

But it’s late – we’re behind, there are several other groups behind us, so the guide skips all this. Instead they just show us how to stay in the boat (by jamming our river sandals under the seat in the center), tell us to paddle like hell and “avoid the big holes”, and throw us in.

You can probably guess this is a bad idea. With the exception of my then-girlfriend, we’ve all rafted before. But our experience has been limited to predictable rapids in high desert rivers of no more than Class II or at most Class III, with few swells and no huge holes or obstacles in our way. This river….well, let’s just say this river is an entirely different beast. An angry, homicidal beast.

There’s a period of calm as we launch out in the shallows from the pebbled banks. The guide, perched at the rear with the steering paddle, goes over our upcoming route. We’ll be covering 18 miles of the Pacuare, with one break in between for lunch. Safety kayakers will be stationed to the aft and to the rear of us as we go.

This all sounds reasonable, reassuring. Less so when, seconds later, we’re shooting down the river toward our first Class III (made a Class IV by the rainstorm and the rise in river level), and I’m barely able to remain seated atop the side. It feels like I’ll be launched into the river at any moment.

We bang on easily through the first Class III even while straining to discern the guide’s shouted commands from the rear.  After catching our breaths, we look around at each other. Jungle birds shriek and chitter above us, invisible in the dense foliage drooping down from the canyon walls.

Is it supposed to feel this precarious? Why can’t I get a solid perch on this side? Should it be necessary to correct my balance every two seconds to stay upright even in calm water? Should I have bought rafting sandals in my own size, rather than borrowing my stepdad’s, which are much too large and already slipping off my feet? Am I just being a paranoid noob?

Then – BAM! A giant wave rears up bronco-like directly in front of us, towering over the stern of the boat, and the time for thinking is over. We plow directly into it.

We are aloft for a split, terrifying second, disconnected from the river, from the raft even  – I see the bodies of my companions beginning to float helplessly up from their sides as if gravity had become unbolted – and then we slam back down into the water at an indescribable angle, so violently that the whole front of the raft folds like a check mark. My neck pops and the teeth of my upper jaw crush against my mandible.

The rear of the raft pops out backward as it straightens itself out, flinging the guide’s body aftward. How his back is not broken after this little flight I still don’t know.


This is like us, but with way more time IN the boat (photo: Wikipedia)

We have no time to catch our breaths or even to feel elated. A giant hole looms ahead. I blink, can’t quite believe what the visual information indicates, blink again. The river level drops at least 10 feet in directly in front of us. A long, flat ledge of rock marks the edge of the hole, and we’re only a few seconds away. Too close to do anything but hold on and plunge into it.

All higher thought disappears from my mind. Cold terror consumes me as I paddle. The guide screams behind us, jamming his steering oar as deep behind him as he can without losing grip on it – “Paddle! Paddle! Left side! Left side!”

Abstractly I think – dude, aren’t you the one who is supposed to be calm and keeping us together? He is clearly losing it.

We paddle as instructed. The edge draws nearer like an executioner’s blade. It’s like fighting a bear, pulling against this current. But we slowly coax the raft to our right. We’re clearing it! We’re clearing it! I think wildly.

But relief is short-lived. In our haste, we’ve over-corrected and don’t have time to get straight. The back end sweeps around almost 180 degrees. The stern catches the flat edge of the rock.


A Trek through Costa Rica: Part II: A Day and a Night at Rudolfo’s (1)

Costa Rica: Part II:  A Night at Rudolfo’s.

We four travelers stumble through the departure gate and into the ramshackle customs area of the Juan Santamaria International Airport. This airport is located in the San Jose suburb of Alajuela, a likewise ramshackle collection of low white houses and white stone streets that snake up into the green hills.


Alajuela (Image courtesy of ds-lands.com)

Chaos reigns in the customs queue, which stretches back almost to the gates and which random people weave through as if it were a chorus line. The world blurs by in flashes. I realize I left my consciousness back in the plane cabin.

Wearily we take out our declarations for the inspectors to view. How long will this take so that we can sleep? Will they mind if I nap while they rifle through our underwear? That conveyer belt looks comfortable enough. And so on.

Suddenly over the cacophony I hear a voice clear as a bell: “Christofer!” Which is my little brother’s name.

A burly middle-aged man past customs waves a sign and gestures for us to come right through. It turns out, this is our man on the inside. He is Rudolfo, a friend of a friend of my mother’s church group – shadowy Catholic connections best not investigated too thoroughly – who works as a customs inspector at this airport.  He’s arranged to whisk us through customs and provide us a place to sleep that night at his house in Alajuela. I’ve never met him before and have no idea who he or his family are. But in travel you have to roll with things.

We hurry our ridiculous big-ass bags past the people in line, shaking our heads slightly toward them – the poor saps! Guess they don’t have an “inside man”. And then we burst out the big glass double doors and into the bright humidity of the pickup area, where Rudolfo’s best friend, Wile, is idling in a beat-up work van to pick us all up.  \


Juan Santamaria International Airport (image courtesy of anywherecostarica.com)

Wile is a man of few words and a fast driver. Still, in my paltry Spanish I secure a few pieces of information. He and Rudolfo live right next door to each other on the same block and have raised their respective families essentially together.  When we pull up in front of Rudolfo’s small bungalow, Wile jumps out and then opens his friend’s door with his own key.

We haul our packs into the dim house and dump everything on the floor. The couches beckon. Wile, correctly reasoning that the time zone shift will kill us unless we stay up and adjust to Costa Rica daylight, has other ideas. He’s gotten a wild hair to try on a role as a tour guide and drive us around his neighborhood, show us the sights.

These sights include an elementary school (“Escuela?” I ask as he points.  “Escuela.” he confirms),  a statue of some female saint in a park (captured by the sculptor in a degree of apparent torment) and a store. Compounding the scarcity of interesting features is our lack of serviceable Spanish with which to comprehend Wile’s thoughts about them.


Alajuela and suburban San Jose (image courtesy of Mario Valerio via Wikimedia Commons (c 2011)

Wile drives us back after he notices my brothers snoring away in the back seat. Finally, we’ll get some shut-eye.

This fantasy is soon snatched away. Rudolfo’s just gotten home. He’s gone through a lot of trouble, missed work, effort to host us here. It wouldn’t exactly be a grateful gesture to collapse on his couch for 12 hours, wake up at 3am starving and lumber around raiding his cupboards like a bunch of bears while his family tries to sleep.

He and his wife insist on making us some food – after all, here in their plane of existence, it is mid-afternoon. The fact that I and my companions currently occupy a separate, funhouse existence of hellish delirium escapes them. But I know they are just trying to be hospitable to their guests and ease us into the time change. So we sit at the table and try to make conversation while Rudolfo’s wife cooks a dish of rice and beans and some sort of meat.

The next thing I know we are fully immersed in what might be just a serious back and forth, but feels a hell of a lot like an argument. about where we are headed next.

Of course, when you’re exhausted and can’t understand 80% of what someone is trying to tell you, and you just need to go to the bathroom and sleep for 15 hours, it’s hard to distinguish between a disagreement and a spirited exchange.

I tell him of our plans to head East and visit Turrialba (for rafting), Limon (a West Indian seaport town) and Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast, he shakes his head adamantly. We should correct our course to the east coast , he says, and head south and west, as it is much nicer than Limon and there are plenty of places that turistas like to go.

Limon and much of the Caribbean side, he explains, is crawling with “negras” – black people of West Indian descent – who will beat us up, steal what we carry, and leave us for dead.

I am dismayed but not surprised at this argument, because I have heard that the mestizo Spanish class, which comprises most of the population, harbors much prejudice against the poorer islanders (the West Indians the Spanish themselves, of course, imported to work the banana plantations – a task they imagined themselves too high and mighty to stoop to.) Also, having grown up in a small agricultural town in rural Oregon with a 30% former Mexican migrant population, I’m used to hearing these generalizations.Still Rudolfo is our host and so I let the matter rest. Definitely, I tell him, we’ll go south and west.

Satisfied, Rudolfo steers the topic of our half-conversation to the glories of Costa Rican bananas – so much better than U.S. bananas, so ripe and sweet. I devour the one that he proffers to me, and damn if he isn’t right.

The foods that taste vastly superior in Costa Rica don’t stop at bananas, I will discover. The chicken here is crazy good – it has flavor and nuance you will never get from a U.S. store bird, because it’s mostly cooked still fresh from plucking, from birds that were strutting around in the restaurant’s back yard just hours before. The Coca Cola is more mellow and flavorful because Costa Rican bottlers use real sugar (not shitty corn syrup) delivered fresh from sugar plantations. And the black beans here – don’t even get me started on the wonders of Costa Rican frijoles negras. Hot damn.

And most importantly for a caffeine addict like myself, a cup of coffee that starts its week as dried beans on a table on an organic finca forty miles away – and has just been roasted yesterday –  tastes vastly superior than coffee made from beans that spend months piled green on ocean freighters before being roasted in some factory 3000 miles away.

The rest of our couple of days with Rudolfo flies by. Wile’s high-school aged daughter regales us with tales of her friend’s rafting misadventures – a choice of anecdote that eerily foreshadows what is to come for us. Rudolfo’s nephew, an EMT in San Jose, stops by to offer us fresh goat cheese from his grandmother’s farm, which I try – and try immediately not to spit out. It’s warm and quivering, much like it just dropped out of the goat and into my mouth. But it’s a nice gesture.

And when it’s time to part, the whole family drives us into San Jose to drop us off at the hostel, the Dunn Inn,

masthead_locationDunnInnDRBARHotel Dunn Inn, San Jose. Images courtesy of allcostaricatravel.com

and they are genuinely sad to see us go, even though we did little more than scarf their food and drool snoring on their couch.

With the possible exception of Portugal, I’ve never experienced the level of hospitality displayed by our hosts in Costa Rica, wherever we go in the country. They are truly proud of their country and like to show it off to their guests. Lucky for us, because our adventures are just starting.


A Trek Through Costa Rica: Part I: The Flight



Perry Farrell is on our plane from Portland to L.A.

In fact, we walk right alongside him and his two children and his very petite Asian wife all the way through the PDX International gate, and also the boarding tunnel (through which he carries his young, excitable child upon his shoulders while his wife carries a stroller) and into the plane, after which he and his brood settle into the first-class cabin and we are shuffled back to coach.

And then after we depart the plane in Los Angeles to await our connecting flight to Guatemala City, we can’t escape him. There he is in baggage claim next to us, horsing around and embracing his wife and chasing his kids and laughing the way one almost never does after an uneventful and surely routine flight. At which point my little brother Keifer (pretending he is taking a picture of my girlfriend) catches him on film, blurry in the background of his shot.

936full-perry-farrellMr. Farrell (image courtesy of listal.com

This is very cool of course. He is a celebrity. And personally vindicating to poor Keifer, as right off the bat, this event almost justifies the added trouble of the extra forty or so pounds of lenses, tripods and film that he has lugged along on this ostensibly stripped-down, month-long trek of Costa Rica. But it doesn’t stop the rest of his travelling companions (myself, my girlfriend Stacky, and my brother Chris) from  cruelly ribbing him about it.
Sometime during the following, interminable overnight flight from L.A. to Guatemala City and then to San Jose, a movie flickers into life on the monitors hanging above our seats. This movie is titled “Down with Love”, starring Ewan McGregor and Renee Zellweger.

Now, I cannot sleep on planes. Never have been able to. Maybe it’s just me, but something about having no control of whether I live or die – entrusting my life to a strange, exhausted pilot who is somehow maintaining 75 tons of airliner at an altitude of 35,000 feet above dark and jagged mountains – prevents me from drifting off into careless, baby-like slumber.

So, because it is the only activity to engage me in this dark tube of hurtling steel filled with lucky sleeping bastards, and because we have entered that peculiar suspension of time that occurs on long overnight flights and I need something with a definite running time to reassure me that this flight is progressing somehow,  I watch Messr. McGregor’s “Down with Love”.
The Best of Ewan McGregor - http://www.bestofewan.com/No. Down with THIS MOVIE. (image courtesy of fanpop.com)

After the credits roll, I mentally recite a short list of activities available to me that would have been preferable to sitting through “Down With Love”.  An abbreviated list follows:

1. Suffocating on the collected noxious emissions of the gastrically distressed fellow in front of me.
2. Punching a hole in the fuselage and being sucked out to free-fall gently into the Pacific.
3. You get the idea.

And I still cannot sleep.

Compared to the chaotic behemoth of L.A.X., the Guatemala City airport terminal, hunching low and blocky in the dim wilderness of 3 a.m Central America,  looks like a poorly lit gas station that we’ve pulled up to on an overnight bus trip.

We’ve landed in Guatemala City in the dead of night to pick up a few passengers and to let a sick and feverish man off the plane. The man slumped to the floor around halfway through the flight and the crew have been propping him up ever since. Through the dark filter of my sleepless delirium, the ordeal of the two flight attendants assigned to escort the poor man off the plane seems grim. They strain epically to drag the bulky fellow out of the side exit and finally manage to stumble down the stairs to the tarmac below.

With that bit of unpleasantness done, the crew passes around immigration and customs forms for everyone to sign as if nothing has happened. Then we sit in the dark on the tarmac for what feels like hours before taking off again. All I can do is stare out the window at the gas station lights.


Sleep has not come by the time dawn sees us flying over the Nicoya Peninsula. We immediately begin our descent. We have finally crossed the massive Lake Nicaragua (which is more like a sea) and passed rather dramatically into Costa Rica.

Now, intensely green forested mountains rise to the left of us, rolling down to deep shadowed valleys and impenetrable tree cover, while to the right, the Pacific glistens vast and green blue with white misty shores. It is breathtaking.view-costa-ricaI’m immediately cheered. Soon, I will sleep a long and needed sleep (I cast my red eyes upon my brothers and my girlfriend slumbering just next to and behind me – lucky bastards!) and then, my rest taken, it will be off to romp around this giant playground.


Pleiades, The Bear

Pleiades. The Bear.


Photo: (c) astronomer Hakon Dahle. Oslo, Norway

we lay
on our backs
in the night fields
in the sweet grass
And spied on the Pleiades. The Bear.

And of course broad Orion
in the Southernmost sky

Arm straight,
Leg back, tense.
Pulling taut the sprawling starry fabric of the Almost-dawn
With the steady draw of his single bowstring

Once also there was a shower of stars
that fell silently
over the mint fields
And the grass seed fields
Far Across,
the purple streaked beginnings of our Dawn.

But summer rolled suddenly to her side
Pulling the comforter with her

And in the haste of her departing
kicked up a Deadening

hiding Me from You

And so you would travel
Alone your long hidden way
to the northern cities

And I would wander the midnight country
After a kind of a Ghost

of what

The Seal

words (c) 2012  Benjamin J Spencer

photos (c) 2007 Benjamin J Spencer

The Seal

He tries to stop doing this thing.
Reinventing himself.

But he is in the tide now floating out

They say you pick one life and stay within its borders
Its mannerisms and memories
Its committed parameters
Its field of options.

In this way you can find

He floats facedown now past the breakers,
staring into his future
Toward bottom.

He supposes he must learn to breathe in what is down there
In that cool expanse below
And let it calcify him
He will stick with the scuttling crayfish
And let their curling tails drag across his face
And watch his sides slicken with algaes
And let the gravel nibble his surface to chalk

In time he will be a smooth, wise head
They would call him teacher…
Master, maybe

But who to revel?
His sainted mother GodRestHerSoul? No.
Better to float.

How many have offered him poles? Ropes and Preservers?
His preferred state is submersion,
They couldn’t have known.

Long ago at the shore
a riptide tugged at him
and his feet dragged free from flat sand
He saw them rise in front
His toes surmounting the rolling swells
Which made of his body a mere bauble rising and falling on the sea

He expelled from his lungs all of the oxygen
Every last bit.
and sank under.
In the second before blackness
Fear and attachment
kicked his nearly-dead weight up to the air

Why he tested his mortality in this way he could not say.
Only he believed that part of him
still tied to the land and the air
To be already dead

And it distressed him to need them so.
All of them
All of those scrabbling people
Fucking and killing and fucking and killing upon little scraps of

While he
A Seal

Sealed in self-nourishing layers
of Fat
and skin

Snout and whiskers to navigate

Now abreast in cold wild waters,
Now hovering off of golden shorelines

A myth that the world only half-believes in.

For Benji

THE WRONG CHOICE – Tales of a Third-Grade Nothing, Part Two


OR, Tales of a Third Grade Nothing, Part Two:

* * * * * * * * * *

My friends and I all had our favorite classroom locations and attitudes.

For example, on this particular morning, Eric sat by the large windows, staring out into the green courtyard dividing the two low cement buildings comprising our elementary school. The grass in the courtyard sprouted long and fat and wild and choked with overgrown yellow dandelions. It had rained and the colors bled silently into the grey sky.

I had assumed my favorite position as well: head down, arms folded, staring at my desktop. My own plan for  massing a rebellion among the third-grade students against the evil tyranny of one Ms. G. Smith had not gone so well, mainly because I hadn’t acted on it.

But I did credit myself with helping to craft an anti-establishment mood. Indeed, in the first signs of non-violent struggle several students had abstained from doing the short homework lab on ice crystals assigned by Ms. G. Smith, although in retrospect I’m not sure if these students would have completed the lab either way.

Normally quite a conscientious student, I myself had done little assigned work since I decided I was at war with my teacher, and the work I completed was shoddy. My mother was mystified when informed of this at a parent-teacher conference. Perhaps she hoped my self-destructive rebellion would go away on its own, because she never confronted me about it.

I was staring down at my desk because I  had just returned to Ms. G. Smith’s fourth grade classroom after a one-day vacation away for a youth writing conference held at Linfield College in the nearby town of McMinnville, Oregon, and I had not fared so well at this conference.

Now, I wasn’t sure which of my former teachers had picked me to be the representative from my elementary school, but I had been glad for the day off. Unfortunately I had not mentally prepared for the amount of work I would be expected to do, and I was thrown off by the rigor of the workshops and the lectures.

The worst part had turned out to be the public reading of our original works. For the conference I had been required to assemble a portfolio of my work and prepare an original short piece, be it a poem or a story. I had never written a poem before, so the night before the conference I came up with an off-the-cuff one about a priest – or maybe a wizard? – riding a horse through a medieval town in the middle of the night, delivering medicine or milk or something.

I hastily finished this literary gem in the shuttle van from my school to Linfield College that morning, and I thought it wasn’t half bad for the amount of time I had invested in it. Besides, it was part of my new nonchalance about school. I might do it, I might not. Either way I wouldn’t stress out.

At that time, of course,  I was unaware I would have to publicly present it, having failed to read the information packet that the conference organizers had sent me.

Only when I stood up to deliver the poem to a packed room of professors, teachers and other students at the conference did I discover that the little poem I had hastily scribbled off was not, in fact, pretty good under any theoretical reading you subjected it to, but instead, probably the worst thing ever committed to paper. E.E. Cummings would have shat all over this  poem.

Even more ominously for me and my literary reputation, other students had evidently worked for days, possibly weeks, agonizing over every word and phrase, conducting research in their public libraries, taking oratory classes, directing their mothers to buy them little grey suits with bowties, and generally producing poems and stories that bounced and sang and, as a bonus, were about something. Furthermore, they had practiced.

I, on the other hand,  had to rifle frantically through my backpack right before the presentation just to find the pathetic crumpled little half-page I had written, and when I reached the microphone my voice quavered as if I were going to burst into tears and my hands shook so badly I was soon forced to put the paper down on the lectern.

Then, sadly, I couldn’t read the words anymore, because I had written them in my usual tiny scrunched handwriting and they just sort of ran down the page into a trickle of unintelligible ink until finally disappearing into a smeary blur, just beyond the focusing range of the human eye. So I tried to remember the rest of it off the top of my head.

I never looked at the crowd once. To them it must have appeared as if a disheveled little mentally ill kid had wandered onto the stage and, head down, muttered to himself for two minutes.

When I finally finished to a sort of baffled and sporadic clapping from the audience (ludicrously generous, considering what had just transpired in front of them), I stalked out the doors, the crowd a fuzzy gaggle to the side of me.

I tramped all over the pleasantly wooded campus, seriously considering trying to walk back home or at least hitch a ride, neither of which I was confident I could do at nine years of age. So Instead I sat under a fat leafy tree in the warm sun, rubbing two quarters together in my pocket.

I debated over whether I would still go to the workshop scheduled for me across the campus. Could I simply blow it off? Why not? After all, I had never wanted to come to this thing in the first place. Somebody, I surmised (probably my old first grade and third grade teachers who loved me) had simply picked me as the student to go, and I knew that whatever my abilities, it was a bad choice.

Somewhere back in the pre-dawn of my life, I supposed, God had struck lightning into a tablet and decreed that I would be a writer, and the adults in my life did their best to help execute that decree. The only cog in the plan was that part of me that felt corralled, stifled. I did not want to feel obliged to participate anymore in someone else’s enthusiasm about my abilities, and I felt somehow resentful at being set apart from my classmates for the “honor” of attending this conference. Though my conscience whispered vaguely that I should feel grateful, I did not in the slightest. I felt pushed and pulled by others, encouraged and helped to the point of exhaustion. I wanted to be completely independent of their expectations, however well-meaning.

At the same time, though, it felt dangerously lonely to be out here in the quiet on the practically empty campus. I watched from my tree, an outsider, as the other kids dutifully shuffled back and forth from building to building.

Why couldn’t I be happy with my choice? After all, all these other kids were trying painfully to free-write and listen to lecturers tell them that it wasn’t too early to plan for college. I was free, out in nature. Why couldn’t I just live with my choice, be strong and decided about it?

I left the lawn with its huge trees and began pacing the path around the building – my building, the one I was supposed to be in at that moment. Moments later, I found myself at the entrance, and then inside the darkened lobby.

Still I could not bring myself to abandon my dream of independence quite yet. I stopped in front of a glowing red soda vending machine and stood there staring at it. The machine hummed warmly. The Cokes only cost a quarter! A barely glimpsed new world opened up before me; I thought about how fine it would be to buy one of those Cokes right then and there, with my own quarters that lay in my pocket.It was only a quarter, but it was mine. And so would the soda.

I bought two Cokes right there. Rejuvenated, I strode into the workshop Cokes in hand, gloriously late, and sat as far in the back as possible, trying to make the whole thing look as if I had planned it.

Of course, nobody cared or noticed. But I did. I felt as though a burden of responsibility had been lifted from my shoulders. I had failed! Henceforth, I would be utterly free to fail whenever and wherever I liked if it suited me. Still basking, I bought two more Cokes before the ride home.

But now, in a few moments, while I waited with my head down, I knew that I was meant to deliver a report about what I had learned.

The little Formica-slab desktop was heavily traumatized, scarred, and chipped into. Out of the dim I discerned words, etched deep in the white plastic during some other class, years before, while some other teacher besides mine, perhaps wearing bell-bottoms and earnest round John Lennon spectacles, attempted to seize the attention of 21 nine-year-olds. When particularly bored in class I read all of the words over and over again: F-U-C-K, one said, in jagged, evil death-metal letters dug right down through the laminate and into the wood.

I raised my head a little off the desk, lowered it again, slowly. The jagged letters swam out of focus.

I wonder a lot about the kid who carved that word there. Mostly I wonder about his motives: what could have been the all-consuming importance of this F-U-C-K to the one who labored to produce it under threat of expulsion? What unthinkable rebellions fomented in his brain? And: under what demonic influence had he dared to pass his innermost blasphemy on to future generations, and for what purpose? Was it simply for the joy of rebelling against some unwritten standard?

Suddenly I was standing in front of the class. I hadn’t anticipated that I would be required to speak about my experience, and bitterly I sensed it as a personal attack from Ms. G. Smith.

The lowness of it! So I stood there for a moment, struggling against the urge to say something nasty to the teacher, to all of them staring at me. The truth was that I had all but checked out of the writer’s conference after the poem presentation debacle, but I didn’t want to go into all that. So I produced one of the few experiences I could remember that was untainted by discomfort.

“It was really cool.” I told the class. “There were these Coke machines and they had Cokes for a quarter. I drank four of ‘em.”

The students all laughed. After a second, I joined in. We were nine years old, after all.

But Ms. G. Smith did not laugh.

“Is that all you can tell us about it, Mr. Spencer?”

A small part of my conscience recoiled as if slapped. No, of course not. There were workshops and speakers (and humiliations) I could go on all day about. But instead I just shrugged – a gesture fast becoming my favorite response to any question from a teacher.

Ms. G. Smith’s eyes hardened, but did not blaze. She only appeared thoughtful.

“Perhaps, then, I should have picked some other student to go to the conference.”

Now, I didn’t like Ms. G. Smith. I think that is well established by now. But still, her disappointment stabbed into me.

I shrugged nonchalantly again, but my face flushed. As quickly as the shame had come, anger – anger at myself for being ashamed, anger at the world that would place kids into such situations- replaced it.

What did I care?  I didn’t choose to go, and I hadn’t chosen to stand up and tell the class! And anyway, I hated Ms. G. Smith! Why should I ever care about her opinion?

For some reason I did care, though, and my shame had proved it. Suddenly I found I had no more heart for defiance.

I returned to my seat and brooded over my unfinished ice crystal lab. I imagined that I would barely pass the third grade.

* * * * * * * * * *