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An alien life

Call him Rick.  He carried a large knife and claimed to be able to see through boulders.  His body was covered with scars and tattoos in a day when such art was usually reserved for drunken sailors.  If you told him someone had “shredded” a guitar, he would have smiled quizzically at the image of strings and splinters strewn across the landscape.

We met on a boat from Barcelona to Santa Cruz de Tenerife.  I had been staying in a fifth floor walk up pension around the corner from the Plaza de Cataluña, up the Rambla from the windy industrial port.  In those days Barcelona was leading a dangerous double life as a haven for hippies and a provincial capital and headquarters for the Guardia Civil.  It had been the last city to fall in the civil war, and bore the scars, both physical and social, to show for it.  The war had also begun there, in typical Spanish fashion, with neither side wanting to be the first to fire upon fellow Spaniards.  The Guardia somehow brought themselves to do it, and three years of hellish romanticism ensued.

This was years before the Great Dictator Die-Off between Franco and Marshal Tito, but the Generalissimo was getting on in years, and things were stirring.  The Guardia were not amused.  I had myself witnessed what can only be considered an early flash mob:  On the busy shopping street below, several young men began running with unfurled banners and shouting “Libertad!”  In seconds, the street was empty.  Utterly.  By the time the police had arrived and sealed off either end of the street, it looked like no one had ever been there.  The overall effect of this seemed to have been to make the already ill-humored Guardia Civil even touchier.  An acquaintance made a disparaging remark about their characteristic (and, let’s face it, ridiculous) hats, stupidly, within earshot.  He was taken into custody and not seen again.  Rumors were circulating that a crackdown on undesirables was imminent.  Then, I happened past a ticket agency, where I saw that passage to Tenerife could be had for the equivalent of about $25 US.  A one week passage on a cargo vessel, all meals included, ending up in the Canary Islands.  That was cheaper than staying put!

The first full day aboard, I learned, among other things, that turning “green” with sea-sickness was not metaphorical.  I’m still trying to figure out the biological logistics of raising that color on a normally reddish caucasian face.  That day I spent shuttling between the rack and the head; by morning, though, I was inexplicably much better, and ravenous to boot, and made my way to the dining room for breakfast.  I found myself sitting next to a wild-mannered, thoroughly engaging presence of a man of indiscriminate age.

He had a full beard and hair that looked as if it had been chewed off rather than cut, skin the color and texture of fine undyed leather, and a few scattered tattoos.  One of them consisted of a much scarred logo with the words “Barons” and “Earth” above and below.  He wore an old but well washed t-shirt of undefinable color, ancient jeans and a coarse belt upon which hung a sheathed hunting knife.  A waiter arrived with bread, and my companion drew his knife and stuck it into the wooden table, turned to face me and said, “Rick.”

In precisely the same way as one reflexively bows in response to a newly introduced Japanese person, I pulled out my own knife, stuck it next to his, and said, “Mike.”  Rick nodded, and we ate breakfast.  That no one on the ship’s crew seemed to find this odd boded well, I thought, for the journey.

I still have that knife, it’s edge still chipped where Rick and I settled an argument about whose knife was made of the harder steel.  I have rarely met a man of such imminent power who nevertheless had the charisma to evoke trust rather than fear.  I have no doubt that he was capable of brutal violence, but there always seemed clear parameters bounding that capability, and he seemed an excellent judge of exactly where those parameters were with regard to any situation.

Once, another passenger, a young, undisciplined toff of a lad had been caught stealing.  The crew had cornered him on the deck, and he had pulled a knife to fend them off.  At a certain point, Rick tired of the melodrama, and simply went up and took the knife away, shaking his head at the amateurism of it all.

As near as I could ascertain, he was originally in Europe on some dubious enterprise which fell through.  He had shrugged it off, and embarked on a purposely undefinable quest for fortune and sustenance. I imagined men and women like him piercing the uncharted wilderness down through the mangled trails of history.  We no doubt owe their kind much that is both joyous and horrific in our culture.

We parted ways somewhere near a goat cave we were using for shelter on Tenerife.  I like to think he still plies the waves of fate, somewhere in that great trackless frontier that is his personal adventure.  But I have a feeling he died long ago, blown away like the great gust of wind that was his life.

Me, in those gloriously sullen days

Me, in those gloriously sullen days

5 thoughts on “An alien life

  1. You found a photo! You look great. The sullenness, yes, that was an important survival feature. Your depiction of the tensions in Spain in those days is particularly well drawn. I loved meeting characters like “Rick”; I wanted to tag along, do what they were doing, but if they’d let me, of course, they would cease to be them. Anyway, my only talent at that point was blonde-ness, which worked well with the Guardia Civil. I remember the hat jokes too.

    • Thanks. Actually, I cheated a bit. That picture is from my Air Force days, a few weeks before my discharge and all the ensuing adventures. I was, however, already practicing the correct demeanor. I think your blonde-ness (doesn’t that sound like a title?) was a tremendously useful skill!

  2. Thanks. I picked it up in Mexico, along with the marimba. 😉 And yes, knowing the timing of the photo, I can understand that look in your eyes. It was not an easy time to be a young American male.

  3. Got me to thinking about my own highly strung late adolescence as an Australian in Europe some 20 years. A much quieter time in Spain, and I think my own knife was more metaphorical! Many thanks for writing.

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