Sunday, April 12, 2009
The Blow Gun and The Sky Light
I'm a motherless child who's had at least half a dozen pretty good mothers and old Alan Pike was one of my best mothers of all. When I limped up onto the Arts quad, he took me under his brawny wing and saw to it that I was fed , then put me up in the junior faculty attic office he shared with my brother Davey, and did his best to administer an emergency Ivy League education.
Before he invited me to camp under the spare desk in their office, Pike had known me mostly from Davey's exaggerated accounts of how I used to climb with the raccoons, and sleep up in the pines, or float the whole night long out on Lake Bonaparte. Pike had something of the feral romantic in his own nature, and also I think that as a fairly short man, he felt especially comfortable with me - a really short one..... though with my legs on, I would be taller than him.
You might not notice that he was a small man. He didn't wear lifts or talk really low, or really loud, or punch you in the nose, or use any of those cheap little-man tricks. What you noticed was a figure like a tensed railroad spike which seemed like at any moment it might suddenly flip end over end through the air and thunk six inches deep into the wall, just to make a point.
He was a genius, knew that he was, and acted the part to distract, entertain, impress, and to teach . On top of that he was extremely self critical, and generous with others to the point that he suffered fools.... and he was a lot more delighted than Davey was to have me living in their office.
When he brought me a doggy bag of Chinese carry-out for the second time that first week, he also left me a bottle of Chianti.
And when he discovered during his office hours the next week, that I hadn't half finished the wine, he stayed around after hours until I wandered in, and then he helped me drink it.
I had never been a very good drinker : if I didn't guzzle, puke, and pass out, I just became a stump, not able to do anything but listen. So I listened, and Alan told me a lot about wine, and then he told me about technical climbing, and he told me the little story about his awakening as a genius.
He had taught himself to read at age three, but he was not all that extraordinary as a kid until he took the I.Q. test at school and his parents told him that he had scored at the high genius level.
With that knowledge, and from that moment on, he became the expert on everything, the leader of every activity, the president of his class and of everything else.
If he had decided to, he could have been the first Jewish President of the American Baptist Convention. He was a competition High Diver in high school, a Yale scollarshp Wiffenpoof with perfet pitch, then a Navy Seal, underwater demolition expert.
His tastes were wide and his and appetite for literature , music, food and wine was huge and contagious: He liked the cheap Italian wines, but he talked a fine line of French Vinifera too.
So after a very few evenings with him, I was aware of a whole lot more distinctions than I could taste.
As with wine, I didn't have much taste in poetry, and at that point, I had never even been drunk on it. I remember telling Pike I liked stories and useful information, not stuff like apple blossoms falling softly on cow dung, and he said that wasn't bad at all..apple blossoms falling on cow dung....that I should sit in on one of his writing classes, that there was all kinds of poetry - even informative poetry.
For an instance of that, he brought out the poem where James Dicky describes how he'd made a blow gun using a length of aluminum electrical conduit, and made darts from straight sections of coat hanger wire he sharpened by dragging the points over the asphalt of his driveway .
Well I wasn't about to attend poetry classes but I thought that was a pretty good poem and I said so.
So the next time Pike came in, he had a piece of conduit, a box of cotton balls, a few coat hangers, wire cutters, wrapping thread, and a brick for sharpening the darts on.....and we did it up as in the poem.
We hung a doggy blanket between some chairs and we set foam coffee cups on top of the inverted waste basket, then shot at them for probably a couple hours.
Pike had those Whiffenpoof Seal lungs, and I have a good pair myself, but mainly good blow-gunning is in the technique. It's is like woods-=whooping, or attacking a hill on a bike, or blowing a trumpet: a fast intake which radically expands the lungs, the diaphragm, the chest cavity and the cheeks, as if you had been blown into..... and then the quick bounce back.......
Fwhack ! Very satisfying.
Sometimes the dart would go right through the blanket, clatter against the wall, and leave the cotton ball to fall on the floor.
We filled a lot of plaster chips with tooth paste in the next week...... and eventually we got a dart board.
Davey had told Pike about how we had once used a bow and arrow to get a climbing line over the house at Edgewood Place, so that gave Pike the idea how we could use the blow gun to to get up through the sky light of the office.
He bent the end of a dart into a loop, tied monofillament to it, then pushed the dart about a foot up the tube packed several yards of nylon monofillament behind it, letting it trail out to loops on the floor. The floor end of the mono was joined to twenty five yards of heavy cord, which ran to one hook of a treble boat anchor with tennis balls on the points. He had tied a hundred feet of climbing rope to the anchor eye.
About one A.M. on a cloudy , but not so cold night in November, when there was likely to be nobody around to see us, or frolicking dogs to get hit with the dart, we pulled my desk under the sky light, Pike stood on the desk, stuck the blow pipe out and whooped the dart over the ridge of the building.
He went out to locate the dart, and I stayed in to manage the ropes, but he came back in after twenty minutes saying he hadn't been able to find the dart. . So we went out together and after a few minutes of sweeping the air with our hands we still hadn't found the mono, nor stumbled on the dart.
I picked up a doggy stick and went around waving waving it to extend my reach, then up the steps to the statue of the seated Goldwyn Smith himself.... and there was the dart, right at the feet of Goldwyn Smith, with the mono draped over his shoulder.
So, I went back to the office , got up on the desk and, when I jerked the line to signal him, Pike proceeded to hauled on the monofilament . I made sure the knot and the cord tied to it flowed through it, then with a broom, helped ease out grappling hook...... the climbing rope followed easily..
Fifteen minutes later we were up on the ridge toking on Pike's corn cob pipe, and he talked l about K2 and the Hindu Kush .
I still have the blow gun. I keep an old fly rod tip section shoved down into it, so that I can roam around using the tube as a walking stick, or a rooster whacker, until such time as I want to whip out the rod, and fly fish or blow darts.
The skylights are gone now, and Pike never made it to K2, or wrote his impossible thesis on the impossible Pynchon, or finished the story he was always mulling, which changed as he mulled it, and was as last I know about a recluse who lived in an abandoned bus with a dog pack.
but there were enough adventures ahead that there were some to look back on, only one of which was with both Davey and me too: a canoe trip, which was mostly carrying the canoe, and mostly the two of them doing it, along the old Alpine road to Indian Lake,
I'm no help carrying a canoe: too short without my legs, too bouncy with them. It was June, which means mosquitoes, black flies, and vicious punkies.
We smoked weed continuously to keep the bugs off, got bloodied anyway, and deeply stoned in the bargain. We caught half a dozen bass, which we ate half-raw, and with great pleasure. Stoned or not, I remember it all well.
We talked in the cooking smudge and into the night; we recalled the climbing of Goldwyn Smith and Pike pretended to argue that the dart had landed exactly where he aimed for, but given the complications and the distance and his frank newness to the blowgun then, the place he had aimed for logically would be the last place one ought look for it.... or otherwise he would have found it himself.
He explained that for the same reason, if you are going to celebrate by shooting a gun up into the air, you should try to aim it exactly straight up, because the last place it is going to come down, is into the top of your head.
He said, If a drunk Albanian gypsy shoots off like that , every one in the encampment who has managed to keep his head so far, runs to stand as close to the gunman as possible.
Matter of fact, said pike, when I had found the dart, he had been just about to look for it in Goldwyn Smith's Lap .....he had actually aimed for the lap not the feet, but it probably hit there and clattered down to his feet where I located it.
Near the place we camped on narrow Lake, Alan did find - lying a few feet from one another close to the shore , a pair of muskrat jaws bones, but with no skull or other bones near.
One day late that summer, after I had been out behind his place picking blueberries, he gave me f the muskrat jaws, which he had wrapped together at the hinge ends with the teeth pointing at each other, and strung on a raw hide boot lace.
I still have it right here. A minor work of genius.