Mission San Miguel

(Unpublished essay, early 90’s, updated later…though it’s strange reading stuff from maybe two decades ago….guess I’ve written maybe a million words since then and this stuff seems like it was written by somebody else. Somebody with better manners and terribly serious about being a writer.)

About midway between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area lies Mission San Miguel. Only yards away traffic speeds between the two metropolises; only a few cars pull off the highway and stop at the old mission.  The parking area is dirt, the grounds old and a handful of chickens strut about. There is a well with a busted pump, indeed lots of machinery, piles of it back in the plaza and the surrounding storerooms, where the evidence of the factory nature of the place lies about in broken abundance. A dusty diorama recreates the extent of the mission and surrounding acreage of vines and orchards and grain and pastures. The local Salinan indians were impressed as laborers. They lived in barrack conditions; so too did the clergy and garrison. Little San Miguel, just a speck on the highway, had once been an outpost on the frontier of the Spanish empire. A garrison town, it brought together soldiers and the no less military Jesuit order [though I think San Miguel was a Franciscan mission] to hold sway over the native population, convert them to into loyal and productive subjects of the Bourbon kings. Crops were raised to support the mission and its populace, as well as to trade with the other portions of the empire. The authority of Spain was represented here in the Church, whose building is quite a spectacle. Much, much larger than one would expect from the term “chapel”, it is a building designed to hold a couple of hundred worshippers within its imposing walls. It is a living church, serving the local Roman Catholics, and votive candles flicker in the dim light and missals lay scattered about the pews. But the presence of powers past is strongly present in the extraordinary paintings gracing every surface in the most vivid hues. The artist had come from Spain, though materials were scarce and he used Indian apprentices and local materials to make the paints. Thus many of the images are through the eyes of a Spaniard, the hues the choice of an Indian; whiles others are by the hand of an Indian directed by a Spaniard. It’s an extraordinary mixture. In the little museum in the gift shop (for that’s what San Miguel is, a small diocese with a gift shop) stands an imposing statue of Saint Michael himself, in Spanish armor, holding an immense sword to the throat of a prostrate Lucifer. Where they saw this Lucifer we can only imagine, but Lilies of the Field the Mission San Miguel was not.

Spanish power ebbed away with the 18th century, Madrid ceased to care about its outer works in far flung territories and San Miguel languished in obscurity. That’s what the mission is now. An abandoned outpost of a long gone civilization. The outer edges of empires always end like this, sometimes dead, sometimes alive but barely. The change here was brutal….California became a U.S. state, a protestant land, English speaking. The Indians disappeared, nearly wiped out in the decades after the Gold Rush. The descendants of the Spanish Empire were reduced to peasants. The mission itself became a whorehouse for drunken white men. That was shut down, eventually, and the place sat empty. Then a century ago the chapel sprang to life again, a small parish, for the local peasants and sundry Catholics. The terrifying sword wielding San Miguel of the conquistadores was long gone, though, just a statue in the museum. This was the home of Jesus and Maria and a simpler, more forgiving San Miguel. A saint of the underclass. The new occupants refurbished the place, cleaned it up, touched up the walls, held services. We showed up during mass. I watched from outside the door. The candles glowed red, the people murmured their prayers, the priest went through the timeless motions, some in English, some Spanish, some Latin. He blessed them, sprinkled holy water, and mass ended. When the parishioners had filed out and the padre disappeared into his chambers we slipped in to look around. The walls and ceiling were beautiful, the still vibrant colors, European imagery rendered by an Indian hand. I went up into the balcony where the choir sat for big events, Christmas and Easter. It was dusty and a sparrow lay on the window sill, limp, dead, its neck broken, fooled by all that blue sky beyond the glass.

Mission San Miguel

Mission San Miguel

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Chicken Hawk

twigs and seedsJust reading the Wikipedia entry on Selective Service, the draft. I never had to register for the draft, as they stopped registration on March 29, 1975, just days before my 18th birthday. That was about the same day that the back of the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) was broken by a massive North Vietnamese offensive. Saigon fell a month later, on April 30. Maybe you recall the helicopters jammed with panicky refugees taking off from the ceiling of the US embassy. I distinctly recall a man losing his grip and falling hundreds of feet. The camera didn’t catch the impact.

We watched the helicopters land on the decks of US aircraft carriers. Once emptied of people, the machines were dumped over the side. Their rotors thwacked the sea with huge crazy splashes and then the machines disintegrated and sank. Gone. They dumped who knows how many helicopters over the side. We had way more helicopters than we needed in Viet Nam by then. Actually we didn’t need any helicopters in Viet Nam by then. We had lost. We didn’t need any new soldiers either. Hence I never had to register for the draft.

That felt good, not being registered. Felt a little spoiled, even. No draft card burning for me. No need to plan a sudden trip to Canada. California was so warm and sunny and full of beautiful women. Canada was cold and gloomy and full of Jesse Winchesters. If he’d been my age Jesse could have moved into Topanga Canyon with Neil and Joni and never been down to twigs and seeds. But there he was up in Montreal, and it was cold, and everyone was speaking French.

By 1979 the Pentagon decided they might need new soldiers again. The Russians were getting all wacky, invading Afghanistan, freaking out everybody, so Jimmy Carter figured we ought to try and act like a superpower again. That meant, a generation ago, not only being able to blow up the world but having the ability to raise a big army. You couldn’t raise a big army without a draft, and you couldn’t draft anyone unless you had a list of names. Not that they were going to draft anybody–that was the last thing the generals wanted, they’d had enough of stoned hippie conscripts fragging officers–but it looked good on paper. And it would impress the Russians who, after all, still had a gigantic army. So beginning January 1, 1980, eighteen year olds had to register for the draft. But there are only so many eighteen years olds in one year. You add 19 year olds and you can double the pool of potential draftees, include twenty year olds, and you triple it. So they made registration retroactive for every American male who was born between January 1, 1960 and January 1, 1962, inclusive.

Which meant that those of us born between March 29, 1957 and December 31, 1959 (inclusive) never had to tell the Pentagon we were ready whenever they needed us. In fact we were the only 18 years old since September 16, 1940–when the Selective Service Act became law–that didn’t have to tell the Pentagon we were ready when they needed us. We didn’t have to tell them nothing. We were special. The Pentagon played no part in our lives whatsoever. We never even thought about it. In the Pentagon they wore uniforms and thought about guns, I played drums in punk rock bands and thought about girls. Perfect. No worry about boot camp or the next Viet Nam. No worry about nothing.

Think about it…somehow two years and nine months worth of Eisenhower’s bouncing baby boys were beyond the reach of the draft board. Generations of young American men loathed their draft boards. Not us. We didn’t have a draft board. Couldn’t. We weren’t on any list, nor could we be threatened with jail for not being on a list. There would be no war for us. No army or navy or air force. No drill sergeants. No scary commie tracer bullets. I mean ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country? Who, moi? I’m one of those special kids. We never had to lift a finger to help our country. Who said freedom isn’t free?

I’d make a great chicken hawk. The best.

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twigs and seeds

Ku Klux Klan

Back before World War Two the KKK burned a cross on my mother’s lawn. It was the budget variety–the shape of a big cross splashed in gasoline on the lawn and set alight. It certainly caught everyone’s attention. Apparently the nice neighborhood my grandparents had moved into was restricted–Protestants only. No Catholics and certainly no Irish. The Irish back then were only white in color anyway, they weren’t really white, not like WASP white. Everybody knew that. They drank too much, bred like rabbits, were loud, obnoxious, always fighting and voting Democrat and were, well, thugs. Nice people didn’t want Irish people in their neighborhoods. But my grandfather had done real good for a shanty Irish, got himself a real job, an executive job, making good money working for a government contractor, getting bombers built for the war to come. So he moved uptown and even got the family a maid. An Irish family with a maid. There’s an irony for you. It apparently wasn’t lost on the neighbors. The local branch of the KKK–they were everywhere, back then, the KKK, saving America from negroes and papists and jews and intellectuals–well the local branch got together and decided that if one Irishman moved in there went the whole neighborhood. So some brave souls stole onto the lawn in the middle of the night and poured a few gallons of gasoline into the shape of the Holy Cross and set it ablaze. The light filled my mother’s bedroom and she looked out her window and screamed in terror. My grandmother collected her and rest of the children in a safe spot away from the windows and my grandfather waited for the fire truck. The firemen–all Irish–doused the flames. The police officers–all Irish–took down the information. Things were whispered between my grandfather and the police and firemen. They probably warned him there’d be more to come. They’d seen it before. Said it was a dangerous part of town for an Irishman and his children. We all know our place, they said, and it’s not on this end of town.

No one ever took responsibility for the act. No one was arrested. Not long afterward my grandfather took the family back across the river to New Jersey, where the local bars rang late into the night with Irish song, people voted early and often, and Mass was full all Sunday long. Those were his people, and he stayed with them and sang with them and drank with them till he died.

The KKK won that battle.