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Carbon tissue print of the Christiansen house.

December 21, 2019

Today started with my feeling good enough to take Gunther half-way around the block on his daily bombing mission in my bathrobe.  He dropped his poops harmlessly in the alley on some snow, where I dutifully grabbed them up with a plastic bag. 

This, despite a lot of dog shit (I think from my neighbor across the alley).  He lets his two labs into the alley to defile my favorite part of the block.  I’ve had excellent experiences in alleys since childhood.  My friend Mike and I used to smoke our parents’ cigarettes in the alley.  We started fires.  We walked on chamomile when it carpeted the alley in the summer.  We taunted our enemies and threw rocks.  We picked flowers and gave them to our moms.  The alley was our domain.

In recent years I’ve met my neighbors in the alley and we’ve talked about science experiments with sulfur.  Mr. Don Christiansen used to be a high school science teacher in the little town of Stanford, on the way to Great Falls.  He told me a story about a couple of boys who—get this—made nitroglycerine!  Don advised the pair to use an eye dropper to mix the sulfuric and nitric acids and glycerine.  They did, and sure enough, they got a violent explosion that did them no serious harm, but made them cry. 

I always enjoy walking our alley, even with dog shit laying around.

You know, I’ve thought about strategies.  I could post ugly signs on utility poles.  I could shovel up the turds and fling them over his fence.  I used to move the excrement from the margins of the alley into the wheel trackways, but I’ve also scooped them and dropped them into a dumpster.  

Usually I work around the ugliness: when walking in the winter or weed-whacking in the summer.  I’m still undecided, but I believe I’ll do the kindest thing—to myself.  I’ll let it go, but I’ll continue to let Gunther harass the dogs through their fence.  He fiercely growls and barks, eliciting a like response from the labs.  When he tires of that, he poops in front of them.  Then I pick it up with the little plastic bag, the one I bought in quantity at PetSmart.

Mission done this morning, I laid down for a nap.

My beautiful daughter Clara called me.  I reminded her that she is bringing her family to visit tomorrow!  “No,” she replied.  “Monday.”  Then she checked her ticket.  “Oh em gee,” she said.  “It is tomorrow.”  She phoned later to inform me that everyone is organized to travel tomorrow.  “We’ll get in about midnight,” she said.  “You and mom will have to drink lots of coffee.”

I reminded her that my internist has, among other difficult orders, forbidden alcohol or caffeine.  “You will be lots of fun, then!” Clara said.

The past couple of weeks I’ve not taken any alcohol or caffeine and I have had more fun.  Example:  last evening we had a few people over, including two children.  While the adults all drank abundant wine, I sat at a card table with the kids and we drank lemonade.  My granddaughter shared my glass, much to my joy.  She is in junior high and ultra cool.  She’s always been fashion-forward, and careful with her affection.  The children talked about movies I’ve never seen, about music I’ve never heard, but at least I got to be with them.  Actually, it wasn’t that much fun for me.

When it was time to clean up the kitchen I was in the best shape to do it.  (The wine drinkers were talking large.)  I filled he dishwasher quickly.

Unfortunately, being sober the whole night did not help me to play Password.  I went to bed at 10:30.

I left P. and her friend Patty Anne to sit by the fire sipping port and talking about quilts.

Yingle Yingle!

The famous Gunther sits on my neck.

December 20, 2019

This morning P. and I went to the “church of the fervently religious” and set up twenty beds (cots and air mattresses) for the Family Promise guests and hosts that will move in Sunday.  Family Promise is a city-wide alliance of churches that take turns hosting up to four homeless families for a week at a time. 

Our church hosts about four times a year.  The families will spend Christmas at our church this year.  Each will get a tree to decorate, although two of the families have five members, and the church’s Sunday school rooms are smallish, so the trees will barely fit amongst their five beds.

Afterward we wolfed a Rocket Burrito/dish of clam chowder.  

Then we went to the State Liquor store for a bottle of port.  Then to Lucky’s for a bunch of red and white wine, jalapeño peppers, beer, apples, and bananas.  Then to Big Al’s for stuff for making chili, eggs, and ice cream (two flavors), cereal, milk, egg nog, lemonade, sausage, tomato juice, V-8 juice, bleach, dog treats, and pie crusts.  Pillsbury employs union workers, so I buy their brand.  Also a can of packed pumpkin and 5# sugar. And heavy cream. And potatoes.  Lots of potatoes.

I am still not allowed to drink alcohol or anything with caffeine. Or sing.  I plan to sit with the children at supper and have lemonade.

Christmas letter for 2019

Bitter, depressed old man, wishing you Merry Christmas.

Dec. 16, 2019

Christmas letter from Dan and Penny Struckman

Do you like getting Christmas letters?  I don’t. Well, I might, depending on how well I know the sender.  They mostly seem impersonal.  I’m often jealous of their great good fortune. I get bitter. Depressed. Shit.

If I had any real world interactions with the sender during the previous year I always scan the letter to see if I made the cut and was mentioned.  Was our adventure with the sender letter-worthy?  No?  Then I read with a certain dysphoria.  (Not the word I want, but if I write a second draft I’ll change it and delete this sentence.) No.  Dysphoria will have to do.

Anyway, Penny and I are about the same as we were last Christmas, just older.  So is our dog, I should say trusty dog, Gunther.  He is three, almost four years old!  As I write this he is sitting on my neck.  Penny is sorting Christmas gifts at the dining room table.  Do we have a gift for this dog or that dog?  Penny thinks little treat bags would be appropriate for Clara’s dog Kirby and Gunther.  Olivia’s dog Velma has a great bag of cow hooves in store for her chewing pleasure.

I am still undecided whether to have Gunther wear his Christmas sweater from last year.  He looked cross when I last put it on him.  Come to think of it, he always looks cross because of his facial hair arrangement and his underbite.  Reminds me of Sergeant Moser when I was in USMC basic 50 years ago. Exactly 50 years ago!

Last August I followed Bob Struckman and Josiah Corson up the 32 turn zigzag trail to the Froze-to-Death Plateau in the Beartooth Mountains.  My black toenails are finally falling off these last few weeks.  Josiah said he will carry me to the top next summer. (Joke.)

Penny and I are both jobless but we have been volunteering.  She helps 5th graders at Broadwater School and, at Family Promise, helps families who are temporarily homeless. 

I help build stage sets at NOVA theater and ask businesses for donations.  I also help the families and individuals who are without a warm safe place to sleep.  I used to sing a lot with the church choir and the symphony chorale before my internist ordered me not to sing because he said my throat has some kind of trouble.  He also ordered me not to drink alcohol or caffeinated drinks.  I’m looking forward to Christmas, but without the usual fun experiences. Instead I plan to eat lefse and cookies.

P. and I see lots more of each other because neither has a job.  At first we had trouble getting along, but we’re learning.  

I hope you all have a good winter.  If Christmas is good for you, that would be so much the better. I enjoy snow and all that. Do I have a choice?

Do you have New Years Resolutions?  I do.  I hope to increase my physical and mental stamina.  I want to hike to Granite Peak next summer.  I hope to do a lot more writing.  Seems I have more to say.  Politics?  Don’t start with me!  Antiwar sentiment?  You betcha!  Singing?  If I can get out from under Dr. Malters’ prohibition.  Alcohol and caffeine?  Surely!  Just not yet.  I’ve always enjoyed my share of substance use.  Seems like more and more I don’t get to indulge. I re-read the same old books: Catch-22, Diaries of Adrian Mole, The Great North Trail, Slaughterhouse Five.

Depression?  Currently under control.  I keep my psychiatrist appointments.  Sleep apnea?  I have a harder time complying with Dr. Kohler’s orders to wear various contraptions to bed.  Penny laughed aloud night before last when she saw me with the light on. 

I’m inured to it, and I’m not kidding.  I was wearing the four-inch wide strap that goes under my chin and around the top of my head to keep my mouth closed.  Also the hose that goes up against my nose to blow air to keep my glottis (?) open with 8 inches of water air pressure.

75 Years Ago in Belgium

Buddy and his sergeant posed for this photo in New York prior to embarking to England on the USS George Washington. Although most thought the war with Germany was practically over both of these soldiers would soon die, their bodies never to be recovered.

Dec. 14, 2019

Today is the 75th anniversary of Hitler’s aggression in the Ardennes region of Belgium in 1944.  My uncle and his fellow American soldiers were a few hundred miles away in Southern England, quartered at Camp Piddlehinton.  They lived in long red brick barracks, each with kitchen facilities.

Hitler’s reckless decision to attack set in motion the circumstances leading to my uncle’s death ten days later and my grandma’s lifelong grief.

I was familiar with my grandma’s grief, her loneliness, her inability to explain her feelings.  December 12, 1944, two days before Hitler attacked Belgium, she posted a letter from Kalispell, Montana, to her son, Carl “Buddy” Ralph Bonde, Jr.  She told him she was mailing him a package.  She told him about his sisters and his dad, how they were getting ready to celebrate Christmas. No doubt one of his sisters, home from college, would sleep in his room.

His mother asked him to be kind to the other young men in his company who were likely to be homesick.  Her letter was returned undelivered.  And January 25, 1945, she received a telegram saying he had gone missing in action.  Eventually he was declared killed in action.  She only had her imagination to tell her what all that meant.

The story of Buddy’s fate, according to a West Point graduate I spoke with on the phone, was famous.  Text book material to the cadets, because hundreds of troops died because of a myriad of poor decisions and miscommunications.

That Christmas Eve morning in 1944 about a thousand soldiers boarded the SS Leopoldville, a Belgian luxury liner that had been converted to a troopship.  They were to steam from Southampton with the tide the 60-plus miles across the English Channel to Cherbourg, France.  They were part of a diamond-formation convoy that zig zagged to avoid submarine attack.

About six o’clock that evening a German U boat, U-486, under the command of Gerhard Meyer, fired a torpedo at the Leo.  It missed.  He fired again and the missile struck the Leo below the water line near the compartment where Buddy was berthed.  Some of his buddies were above, watching for the lights of Cherbourg to appear on the horizon. I eventually met some of these guys. Three were on the Leo, three others were on another troopship, the HMS Cheshire.

The Leo had water tight compartments.  It had lifeboats, it was only five or six miles from port.  It had plenty of life preservers.  Many problems: the life preservers were barely adequate, hard to use. They consisted of two flotation bags attached with several ribbons. Soldiers called them “teabags.” The lifeboats and life rafts were welded to the deck or too complicated for the soldiers to deploy with no training.

Many other problems, but one in particular was challenging:

It was Christmas Eve.  You can imagine.  The junior officers were on duty, of course, and they could tell through a binocular something was wrong with the troopship because it stopped dead.  Companion ships went in a sub-hunting mode, something the observers in Cherbourg were familiar with. 

Radio silence.  The Leopoldville could radio the base in England, but not Cherbourg because the frequencies were different.  The Leo used its signal light to tell Cherbourg they were in trouble.  Cherbourg signaled back to ask what kind of trouble, but never got an answer.

General grade officers in Cherbourg partied. They could not be persuaded to take action to aid the troopship stopped out on the Channel, at least not right away.  Aboard the Leo the American troops assembled on deck and awaited instructions that never came.

The crew of the Leo, all civilians, launched lifeboats and rowed to safety while the soldiers watched. Some soldiers said they heard messages of reassurance on the ship’s loudspeakers that the ship wouldn’t sink.

The captain of the Leo spoke only Flemish and kept to himself, listening to classical music.  None of the American officers could approach him.

A British warship, the HMS Brilliant, pulled alongside the Leo and took several hundred soldiers, those lucky and brave enough to risk the 10-20 foot drop to the deck below, and the potential to be crushed as the two ships crashed together with the stormy sea. A few others descended a rope net to the Brilliant.

One survivor, Bill Moomey, told me jumping from 20 feet was terrifying.  Both he and Hank Anderson, another survivor from Buddy’s Company E, 262nd Regiment, 66th Division, said they credited God with their survival.  Both remembered my uncle Carl.  They said he was a jokester and smart.  And they liked him. Bill broke down when he told me about him.

In the end, 764 soldiers died Christmas Eve when the Leo was struck or when it sunk the 150 feet to the bottom of the Channel.  Witnesses said many bodies washed ashore near Cherbourg during the next few days.  They stacked bodies on the pier like cordwood, they said, then trucked to St. Lo for burial.  Other remains were not recovered, including that of my uncle Buddy.  Many went down with the ship, including the reclusive captain.

The Great North Trail, revisited

December 2, 2019

Thanks to my friend T.j. Gilles who reads carefully, I realized I need to correct an earlier blog post, the one about The Great North Trail, scholarly book by Dan Cushman, edited by A.B. Guthrie, Jr. 

I said Mr. Guthrie helped start the Montana Newspaper Guild in Great Falls.  Well, he probably was a supporter, but I don’t know if he could be called a founder. Perhaps I confused him with another person whose last name was also Guthrie, Charles M. Guthrie. I don’t know if the two were related.

Turns out Dan Cushman helped start the Guild.

Here is a quotation from the University of Montana archivist who cataloged the records from the Guild:

The Great Falls Newspaper Guild held its first recorded meeting on March 22, 1936. Fred Martin and Joseph Kinsey Howard were among those who organized the editorial employees of the Great Falls Leader and the Great Falls Tribune as the Great Falls Press Club. The existence of the Guild was initially secret. Like the American Newspaper Guild, which was founded in 1933, they organized in response to the working conditions common for newspaper reporters: long and irregular work hours with no paid holiday or vacation, poor benefits, and dismissal without cause. The Guild affiliated with the Cascade County American Federation of Labor (AFL) and was officially named the Great Falls Newspaper Guild (Local 81 of the American Newspaper Guild). On November 29, 1936, the guild negotiated its initial contract with the Great Falls Tribune-Leader owners, O.S. Warden and Alex Warden. Other early members were Dan Cushman and Charles M. Guthrie. One of the issues the Guild took on in early negotiations with the Wardens was the gender-segregated wage scale that paid women considerably less than men for the same work; the Guild felt strongly that there should be a single wage scale for all reporters regardless of gender.

Nicotine, addictive alkaloid

Been in recovery for years.

November 28, 2019

Forty years ago if I wanted to feed the fire of literary creativity I’d light up a hand-rolled cigarette.  “Top” tobacco was my favorite brand, in the big yellow can.  Such a smoke seemed to help me concentrate.  Sharpened my focus.  My journalism reporting professor, Jerry Holloron, smoked Tarytons then.  He looked like an intellectual, and I wanted to be like him. Turns out his bar was unreachable, but that’s another story.

In my career as a Public Health Officer I’ve seen first hand what can happen to people who spend years smoking tobacco.  (For a while there, you know, we smoked marijuana, but we didn’t — or at least I didn’t — smoke it long enough to observe its effects over the course of, say, 50 years.)  

I liked the public service ads that noted that smoking doesn’t always cause lung cancer; sometimes they snip off your tongue.  Both my parents smoked and neither lived to be 65, and neither died of lung cancer.  My dad died of brain cancer when I was four years old, my mother died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma when I was 27.  Like that.  

In 2005 Mary Stroble hired me as a pharmacist for a home infusion service, “At Home Solutions” here in Billings. I’d visit sick people in their homes to help them self-administer intravenous medications, such as chemotherapy and intravenous feeding solutions.  Nasogastric feeding suspensions too.  Sometimes liquid feeds through a percutaneous gastric tube.  Often the technical aspects would be the realm of nurses we worked with, but we pharmacists got good at helping patients with their electric pumps.

A sick man who lived about a block from my house had cancer of the tongue, so a surgeon snipped it out.  He was on our service, so I visited.

He was perhaps a week post-op.  His mother said he was bashful.  Something about having his tongue cut off, I guessed.  

He needed cans of feeding suspension pumped from a bag into his stomach because his mouth was in lousy shape from the surgery.  He was self-conscious, so I met him in his backyard with the pump and bags and food in 250 ml cans.  Obviously he couldn’t talk, but he could still smoke.  He had nothing to lose, really, by smoking.  He could have been a great spokesperson for the Surgeon General.  Fortunately he had a friend back there to smoke with him. We got along great. I taught him to feed himself.

I don’t hate tobacco, for all the losses I’ve had.  I always thought it afforded an avenue to the spiritual.  It is also powerfully addicting.

These days I can’t smoke because I love my children and grandchildren.  My grandfather smoked and he died of emphysema at age 72. I would hate to see my children or grandchildren get addicted.

More than a few people I’ve met have had their tongues cut out because of mouth cancer.  I think they often felt surprised that the cure was to have someone snip off their tongue.  One particularly wonderful man wrote me a note that, because his tongue had been cut off, he thought he could get a job in an airport as an announcer.  Somehow I don’t think his cancer was caused by tobacco.  He did have a superb sense of humor.

However, there’s chewing tobacco.  I smoked from 1968, when my brother told me it was a bad idea, to 1972 when I was a Jesus freak.  

In 1972, I became an obnoxiously fundamental Christian in Southern California, one of those who answers the altar call and “gets saved.”  I quit smoking abruptly for more than a year.  Then I got orders to go, unaccompanied by family, overseas.  Vietnam was still ongoing.

I was in the Marines in Japan, First Air Wing.  I was still an obnoxious Christian, the butt of many a joke from my fellow Marines in supply.  Most of the guys in my squadron were blacks.  Junior to me.  There was Lance Corporal Thigpen and Corporal Ragsdale.  They didn’t cotton to my brand of Christianity, but even as they kept me at a distance, they told me that my taking up smoking again was ill-advised.  PFC Humphreys was white, but he didn’t offer his opinion.  Staff Sergeant Ortega drank way too much to engage with us.  He said he thought my Christian ways were over the top.

My brand of Christianity kept me insulated from the tailor shops, restaurants, whores and bars of Iwakuni, Japan.  I had a year to serve there before I could return to my family in Southern California.  Oh yes, I also ran 7 or 8 miles every day, even on Christmas.  I got hollered at on Christmas for running.  I missed my family.  Several dogs, P. and Bob and Todd.  I stayed occupied.

I was a smoker when I returned to California, and because of a mix-up that involved hats, I ended up working at the Third Marine Air Wing headquarters at El Toro Marine Air Base.  I could type.  Thanks to Evelyn Stauffer, my Dillon, Montana, high school typing teacher, I could type more than 80 words a minute on a manual typewriter.  Even faster on an electric.  Like 100+.  

Third MAW Headquarters was a smokers haven.  We smoked cigars.  All the time. And drank lots of coffee.

My little family lived in Tustin, California.  That’s where our daughter Clara was born. We lived in a duplex at the end of C Street.  The other duplex denizens were old people, Mr. and Mrs. Denny,  He was on oxygen because of intense cigar smoking.  We moved before the poor old dude died.

In 1976, I managed to get out of the Marines to return to Missoula to the University of Montana.  My aim was to finish my bachelors in journalism, which I did.  I remember Nathan Blumberg telling me he was disappointed that I smoked.  My problem was I couldn’t find a job as a reporter.

By some miracle I landed a Forest Service job in Northern Idaho on a Fire Lookout in the summer of 1978.  Obviously smoking is incompatiblewith forestry, so I quit smoking and learned to chew Copenhagen tobacco.

I couldn’t write well enough to make a living.  I entered pharmacy school and learned to do the things a pharmacist does.  Solve problems, mostly.

I chewed Copenhagen until 1982, when I got a job as a pharmacy apprentice at Billings Deaconess Hospital.  I quit chewing tobacco abruptly, but for three days I became a screaming bitch before the nicotine addiction lost its pull.

The next phase of nicotine usage didn’t kick in until 1995, the year of the Oklahoma bomber.  I had worked about five years at the Indian Health Service Hospital at Crow Agency and returned to the IHS clinic in Lame Deer.  My boss, Tim Dodson, chewed tobacco.  So did Frank Ridgebear, pharmacy technician.  So did retired smoke jumper-turned pharmacist Bill Neumeister.  I tried dipping again.

Dipping Copenhagen after so many years made me queasy.  Therefore, I used nicotine patches in a step up fashion to habituate myself so that I could chew again.  Bill said it was a bad idea to chew tobacco.

Why do all of the addicted people say it is a bad idea to use nicotine products?

Lastly, I used nicotine gum and nicotine patches to wean myself off nicotine. I don’t know how long I’ve been “clean,” and it doesn’t matter much to me.

I’m mad at the Gazette

Mad dude. With dog.

I’m mad at the owner(s) of the Billings Gazette:

  • For the most expensive paper I’ve ever seen, with what used to be the largest circulation in the region, it’s now got hardly any pages and fewer news articles.  In fact the Gazette has been shriveling for years but the goddamn subscription price keeps going up.  The latest cuts are outrageous, in view of our growing city.
  • The goddamn Gazette subscription schedule is a bewildering system of silver, gold, and platinum (the last listed includes home delivery and unfettered on-line offerings that start at $64/month).  This exorbitant price is for a skinny paper that keeps shrinking its already-shrunken editorial staff.  
  • Someone from the goddamn Gazette circulation department goes around our neighborhood throwing samples in front of houses up and down our public sidewalk.  I walk my dog around the block every day and every few weeks I’ve kicked three or four of the goddamn Gazettes out of the walkway.  We hates them!  Stop it!
  • The goddamn Gazette keeps reducing its number of editors and reporters including two more laid off this time.  Hire them back!  Hire additional reporters!  Say you’re sorry!
  • The owner(s) of the goddamn Gazette act like a tyrant with no competitor, no sense of mission to publish news.
  • Remember?  Reporters and editors are the important “fourth estate,” our eyes and ears, independent professionals to keep us informed.  Television and radio stations don’t report the activities of the cops and courts like the newspaper does.  We need the newspaper!
  • The goddamn Gazette  is derelict in its duty, despite the valiant efforts of fewer and fewer reporters and editors.