Chesapeake Creoles: The creation of folk culture in Colonial Virginia

A somewhat more complete scholarly version of this essay was originally published in The Archaeology of 17th-Century Virginia, Theodore R. Reinhart and Dennis J. Pogue, editors, pp. 107-123. The Archaeological Society of Virginia Special Publication, No. 30. Courtland.VA.

In 1749, Moravian missionaries travelling in the Virginia backcountry found English, Scots-Irish and German settlers living in wigwams made of saplings covered with bark. They wrote about their stay in one such house.

We came to a house where we had to lie on bear skins around the fire like the rest. The manner of living is rather poor in this district. The clothes of the people consist of deer skins. Their food is Johnny cakes, deer and bear is their meat. A kind of white people are found here, who live like savages. Hunting is their chief occupation (quoted in Robinson 1979:148).

Other traveller’s accounts and memoirs of the frontier settlements in the backcountry describe German and Scots-Irish communities in which women went “naked”, anointed with bear’s oil, with their hair tonsured in the Indian fashion, while men wore breechclouts and moccasins. Men put on warpaint and deerskins as they joined their Indian friends in wars against their Indian enemies (Kercheval 1986). Charles Woodmason (1953) described the frontier people as living “like Indians, whom they much resemble.” Christopher Gist tells us that George Washington, who spent much time in the backcountry, put on his “Indian clothes” when he left the “civilized” precincts of Tidewater and Rhys Isaac (1982) describes how, on the eve of the Revolution, even many of the great planters of Virginia eschewed their traditional costume in favor of the deerskin tunics and moccasins that had come to symbolize the American creole as distinct from the European.

In the year 1712, missionary Giles Rainsford (Rights 1957: 35-36) wrote:

I had several conferences with one Thomas Hoyle King of the Chowan Indians who seem very inclinable to embrace Christianity and proposes to send his son to school….I found he had some notions of Noahs flood…

Two years later, Thomas Hoyle,  living with the Chowans in the vicinity of Portsmouth, petitioned the council for a survey of his peoples’ reservation. The Chowans had spent the past two years fighting for Virginia and Carolina in their war against the Tuscaroras and on that account had suffered (and here I quote Hoyle) “considerable loss in their plantations and stocks, losing seventy five head of hogs, a mare & colt, their corn destroyed by all of which and the wearing out of their clothes, they are reduced to great poverty.”

Thomas Hoyle and his people wore English clothes and, at least in interactions with colonists, they used the English language and English names. They raised swine, kept horses, and expressed a belief in Noah’s Flood. What’s more, they fought and suffered on behalf of the English colonies against enemy Indians. Belief in the flood probably originated in the stories of Englishmen, but it had become incorporated as a natural feature of Thomas Hoyle’s worldview.  Hoyle, in fact, had learned the story from his father, and had, in turn, taught it to his own son. Does this mean that Hoyle – whose name was borrowed from the English – was an Englishman? Certainly not. Did Hoyle’s ability to speak English and to show that his education had equipped him to negotiate between his own world and that of the Virginia Colony have something to do with his position of leadership among the Chowans? Probably so.

Were Thomas Hoyle and the Chowans really English in disguise? Or what Nancy Lurie (1959) called “spin-offs”?  Or perhaps they were on their way to becoming what Helen Rountree (1990) has called “ethnic fringe people”?  Were the backcountry settlers living in wigwams and anointing their bodies with bear’s oil really confused Indians? Or another sort of ethnic fringe people?

Throughout Virginia’s history, there has been constant interaction among peoples of differing cultural backgrounds, including a great variety of Native Americans, Africans, and Europeans. And yet, our popular, and scholarly, conceptions of ourselves are as displaced English. Historians have frequently explained the uniqueness of American culture and character as somehow the product of English seeds planted in a mystical American soil. A nebulous frontier geist is often raised as the agent of an American love for independence. The particular geography of the Chesapeake and its navigable rivers is forwarded to explain divergences between Virginia’s and England’s settlement and social systems in the 17th and 18th centuries.

In a recent bold, but flawed, attempt to chart the cultural history of Colonial America, David Hackett Fischer (1989) draws a picture of Virginia’s early culture as one dominated and defined by the so-called Cavaliers who arrived here in moderate numbers following the English Civil War. This is not a new image, nor is it one that has remained unchallenged over the years. Fischer’s arguments and evidence are fresh, however, and demand a new critique. I would like to offer an alternative, if equally unoriginal, interpretation: American culture is the product of the interactions of Old and New World peoples. The 18th-century frontiersmen, described above, did not arrive on these shores, trade in their linen tow and milch cows for buckskins and a log cabin kit in Williamsburg or Philadelphia, and beat a trail for the backcountry where, on the way, they developed a taste for bear’s meat and Johnny cakes.  The mid-18th century brought a new round of settlement in the Piedmont and western Virginia which led to interactions among Germans, Northern British, Tidewater Virginians, Shawnees, Cherokees, Catawbas, Africans, and African-Caribbean creoles of diverse origins. These frontier experiences would create new ways of life that would come to dominate the American experience into the present century. But these patterns were based in part on a series of mature cultures that had developed in the Tidewater and Fall Line precincts in the 17th century: a diverse group of lifeways, beliefs, and technologies that, for lack of a better term, we may call Chesapeake Creoles.

I would like to suggest a series of contexts in which creolization emerged in 17th-century Virginia. These include, but are not limited to, sexual relations, trade relations, military alliances, frontier situations, and the particular constitution of early plantation household.  Second, I would like to suggest that there were certain groups and individuals who served as interpreters of culture in the process of creolization. From the earliest days of settlement, there had been colonists who were sent to live with Indians, to learn their languages and customs. Many of these became Indians or took Indian wives. Likewise, there were always those Indians who came among the English, learned their language and customs. Pocahontas was, of course, the most famous of these. Africans arrived in small numbers from the earliest decades of the Colonial enterprise in Virginia. By the end of the 17th century there were people who had been born in Africa, or among African-Caribbean creole cultures, who had learned, and helped create, the language and lifeways of Virginia.  Some of these had become freemen, and some remained enslaved or indentured. Some had run away to the Indian world, or, I suspect, had begun to form Maroon societies at the fringes of the colony. Some, like Anthony Johnson of Northampton County, had become successful planters in their own right – what some may call “black Englishmen” –  but they remained aware nonetheless of their distinctive identities. All these people served as interpreters and creators of cultures that were pieced together through the interactions of very diverse populations. Creole cultures are variable. Their complexions tend to reflect the varying influences of their parent cultures. Creolization tends to reflect patterns of accommodation. Out of myriads of possible ways for decorating pipes, constructing pots, or cooking dinner, creoles tend to use methods and materials that reflect common ground or behaviors shared among the cultural “parents”.

***

Captain John Smith noted that the Virginia Indians generally welcomed the newcomers with offers of food, land and women. Unlike the French and Spanish, the English seemed ill-disposed to take the Indians up on the latter offer in any formalized, legally sanctioned way. An exception, of course, was the marriage of Rolfe and Pocahontas, which brought such beneficial results to the colony. Some historians feel there was a reluctance among the settlers to form marital alliances with the Indians and they have sometimes interpreted this as a repulsion to Indian women – a conclusion not borne out by numerous descriptions of the country’s “comely wenches”.  John Lawson certainly argued that Indian women were among the great attractions of Virginia and Carolina.

Evidence for widespread encounters between English men and Indian is difficult – though not impossible – to ferret out of the historical record. Throughout the 17th century, the sex ratio of male to female colonists in Virginia varied from 4:1 to as high as 6:1. Are we then to assume that, for  seven or eight decades, Virginia was home primarily to celibates?  I suspect, instead, that the records are missing something important, and on purpose.  British policy, especially after 1646, was to minimize and control as much as possible the interactions between colonists and Indians. This policy largely evolved because it was the daily contact – the easy familiarity – between colonists and Indians that had led to the high death tolls of 1622 and 1644. It was all those Indians coming into the plantations and sitting down to dinner who managed to kill so many Virginians with their own picks and shovels. Thus, official policy was exclusion of such easy familiarity, including sexual relations. The official records of the colony seem to imply that such official policy was observed. Less official accounts, such as the chronicles of John Lawson and the secret diaries of William Byrd, suggest otherwise. By the end of the 17th century, some Indian groups in Virginia and Carolina had adapted to English interest in their women by creating a class of prostitutes, who, we are told, were identifiable by special hair-do’s.

The benefits to frontier adaptation and the Indian trade were well noted. To quote a later, rather inelegant, American Indian trader, “About the only way you could learn … most Indian talk is from a sleeping dictionary.” The traders who dealt with the Saponis and Occaneechees at Fort Christanna in Brunswick County must have sought some lessons from “sleeping dictionaries.” Among the words and phases recorded by John Fontaine, most of which were trading terms, are several which clearly connote the negotiation sexual transactions.

***

Between 1607 and 1640 or so, it is probably fair to say that the Virginia colony was dependent on Native Americans. That is not to say that English immigrants met all their needs through the Indians, but that, without Indian help and indulgence, the colony would have surely failed. At Jordan’s Journey, occupied between ca. 1620 and 1635, colonial trash deposits indicate that colonists used, broke and discarded pottery vessels of Gaston and Roanoke Simple Stamped pottery and, more rarely, of a shell-tempered, highly smoothed prototype of Colono-Indian pottery. Indian pottery was also used by the early colonists living on former Pasbehegh land near Jamestown. The pots were probably brought into the settlements filled with corn, beans, and other products of Indian fields and foraging. The Jordan’s Journey site included one building, built outside the fort, which almost certainly served as a trading post and as a barracks for Indians working on the plantation.

By the end of the 17th century, Virginia’s Indians were making pottery specifically for trade or sale to their black and white neighbors. This Colono-Indian Ware, as it is called, has been found on nearly every plantation and town site of Colonial Virginia. Traditional Native American pottery techniques were used to make vessels both in traditional shapes, and in forms designed as copies of European vessels. Indeed it seems some African slaves also made pottery, although only a few excamples have been clearly identified so far in Virginia. This pot ** for instance was discovered in the earliest slave quarter yet excavated, at Jordan’s Point. The pot was discarded sometime around 1625-1630. It can be easily distinguished from European and Indian pottery by its shape, and by the techniques used to make it. In fact it strongly resembles pottery in the African tradition still being made in jamaica, like this example ** which I purchased in Kingston just last year.  Over time, however, some of the African techniques of building and finishing pottery were adopted by Native American makers of Colono-Indian ware. By the 18th century we find numerous vessels which combine Indian and African technology with European vessel forms. These pots and pans are examples in earthenware of the sort of creolization which occurred in every aspect of life in Colonial Virginia.

Which of the 55 English persons at Jordan’s Journey in 1625 had learned, as a youth growing up in the streets of London or Bristol, to hunt the numerous deer whose bones line the early 17th-century trash deposits? Deer, in England, was a prerogative aristocracy. And Virginia deer of the period were not like the controlled herds of today; they had been hunted year-round, persistently. And yet in one deposit, we have found remains of several individuals, apparently killed, butchered, and dumped all at about the same time. The deer were apparently killed in the fall or winter, the time of the great Indian communal hunts at the fall line. Deer and other wild foods played an important part in the early diets of the colonists. I have little doubt that these deer were, for the most part, brought into the colonial settlements by Indians.

In 1624, Captain John Smith wrote

…I have much admired to heare of the incredible pleasure, profit and plenty the Plantation doth abound in, and yet it hath oft amazed me to understand how strangely the Salvages hath been taught the use of our arms, and imploied in hunting and fowling with our fowling peeces; and our men rooting in the ground about tobacco like swine.

… I understand, the Indians have become [such good shots], they are employed for Fowlers and Huntsmen by the English.

By mid-century, Virginians were ready to tackle the frontier. Early explorers and traders like Abraham Wood and Thomas Stegge began deep probes into the interior from their trading stations and frontier posts south of James River and at the Fall Line. Following initial probes were the first tentative attempts to settle the Falls and Southside areas. Here again there developed that “easy familiarity” that had bred earlier troubles. But the trade proved profitable to all concerned. Guns, iron and brass kettles, cloth and rum flowed out of Tidewater into the Piedmont country of Virginia and North Carolina. Trader Thomas Hicks moved into the Nottoway country. William Byrd I of Falls Plantation, Nathaniel Bacon of Curles, and Robert Bolling of Kippax were amiong the principal traders who allied themselves with Weyanoke, Appomattox, and Occaneechee middlemen and began sending huge pack trains into the lands of the Catawbas and Cherokees. Byrd called the workers in the Indian trade “woodsmen”; he quartered the woodsmen in his fall line garrison, and he provided a home for the Appomattox Indians in his pasture. To round out his work force, Byrd imported numerous African slaves.

The woodsmen of the 17th century frontier knew Native American lifeways, as well as the trails through the land far from the settled Tidewater region. Some took Indian wives, and some were sons of mixed marriages and more informal liaisons. These creole peoples were not as numerous as the French-Indian coureurs du bois, but they played a very significant role in transmitting English-Virginian culture to Indian peoples. Some of these people who dwelled between worlds were of African, African-English, or African-Indian parentage. The woodsmen procured the principal products of the Virginia Indian trade: deerskins and Indian slaves, both of which carried the tide of Indian culture back to the Virginia heartland. We cannot call these peoples of the frontier English, African nor Indian;  red, white nor black; because no matter what their biological heritage, their culture bore the mark of the mingling of peoples from many backgrounds.

Indian slaves, servants and tenants are far more frequent in the historic record than our history books suggest. This is particularly true in the frontier counties such as Henrico, Lower Norfolk, Surry, New Kent, and Charles City. The vast majority of Virginians of the 17th century were servants or tenants, but the living and working conditions of the period mingled persons of all ranks, races, and genders into a type of cultural cauldron unique to the 17th c. Chesapeake. They lived together in small households, generally consisting of single males only. African, English, German and Indian settlers, slaves and servants were quartered together on the scattered tobacco farms of the Chesapeake. In the second half of the century there were increasingly higher numbers of Indians and, especially, Africans sharing the quarters and lifestyles of early Virginia. Many of the earlier generations of servants, now freed, took up new lands and new batches of servants. The colonists worked the ground planting primarily Indian crops in the Indian manner, although they also kept European livestock. The servants and yeomen of Virginia shed their former cultures and assumed creolized identities as Virginians.

***

I began my own exploration of creolization with an attempt to identify Native American “contributions” to Colonial Virginia’s foodways. When we think about what we know of the more recent immigrant experience in America, there is some truth to the notion that behaviors in the privacy of the kitchen and at the home table tend to reflect more durable dimensions of “ethnicity” than many more public behaviors. Food culture does have a distinctive public dimension, however, and here we may especially view the creation of new cultural features in the interactions among diverse peoples.

Feasting was a very important aspect of Powhatan Indian culture. Frequent feasts, usually sponsored by local chiefs, may have functioned as informal redistribution and prestige-creating occasions, somewhat like the potlatches of northwest coast peoples. Much was written of the hospitality of the Indians. Wherever the English visited, they came to expect to be lavishly feasted by their hosts. Parties of Indians could expect the same treatment.  John Smith relates that huge amounts of food were brought to him and his lieutenants in each village they visited. What they could not eat was then distributed among the remainder of his party and “commoner” Indians who gathered around the feast site.  Some foods and preparation methods were apparently reserved for feasting, and sumptuary rules limited consumption of other foods to the nobility. England in the 17th century had the remnants of feudal patronage and an extensive market system to provide security from periodic shortages. Virginia’s English had neither. Instead they developed a system much like that of eastern Virginia’s Powhatan Indians, and probably modelled upon it. They institutionalized a culture of hospitality and reciprocity. A man soon learned he could expect to be well fed by appearing at any gentleman’s door. Food was traded for prestige. Generosity was the hallmark of a great man, among the Powhatan and Virginia English alike

One can readily point to the traditional cuisine of eastern Virginia and see the influence of Native American foodstuffs. The adoption of the Indian staples – maize, beans and squash – was easily accomplished. These foods had spread throughout the world by the middle of the 16th century, although they had not been widely adopted in England. Maize was viewed by the settlers as an alternative grain, clearly related to the common field grains of wheat, rye, barley and oats. Beans were easily assimilated because other varieties had been domesticated in the Old World. Indian methods of preparing many foods did not differ significantly from English counterparts. Boiled stews based on grain and meat were typical of both cuisines, as well as to many African food systems. The denizens of Brunswick County, Virginia like to claim credit for the stew that bears their homeland’s name, but early accounts of Native Virginian foods include descriptions of slow-cooked stews of game meats, corn, and beans that most of us would recognize if we were to taste them at a volunteer fire department fair or church supper.

The slow roasting of fresh meat over an open fire is a cooking technique as old as any known, but it was a method which was not commonly used in Postmedieval England, however, again except perhaps by upper classes in preparing feast foods. This cooking method was so common in the New World that the Spanish – who relearned the technique from Caribbean Indians – graced the method with their name for the cooking rack: barbacoa  or “barbecue”. The English introduction of swine to Virginia was highly successful. Foraging on the mast of the forests, the swine increased remarkably and, in their semi-feral state, they could be easily hunted or trapped. Using the Indian method of cooking bear or venison, barbecued pork became as typical of Virginia’s cuisine as any preparation. By the end of the 17th century, most Indians relied heavily on pork as well.

Drying and smoking were methods of meat and fish preservation used widely by the Indians, while the English were more used to pickling their meat.  Salt was not easily had in Virginia, so the English adapted to Virginia conditions using Virginia methods. Salt obtained from hickory ash could be rubbed into a ham which was then allowed to smoke and dry hanging in an airy cabin. The cured ham was buried in hickory ashes to further preserve it. Today Virginia is world famous for this amalgam of Indian technology and English swine. Even more characteristic is the product of the Indian method for leavening pone (cornbread) with ashes while substituting English wheat flour for the corn meal. In a wheat dough or batter the alkali leavening, particularly in the presence of an acid like sour milk or buttermilk, creates the dramatically risen bread we call biscuits.

During the last quarter of the 17th century many of Virginia’s cooks were women who had been raised in Africa. This pattern of African-American women being primarily responsible for the preparation of food became the norm which continued throughout the 18th and 19th centuries in many parts of Virginia, as elsewhere in the South. African women brought gumbo, eggplant, black-eyed peas, sesame, yams, sorghum, watermelon, bananas, rice, and, possibly, tomatoes to the tables of Virginia (Hess 1984: xxix-xxxi). In addition, they introduced manners of preparing these, and other, dishes using cooking techniques, spices, and tastes developed in Africa, or learned among creole communities in the Caribbean or deep South. The process of creolization of Virginia’s foodways by African-American cooks has been very well described by noted food historian, Karen Hess:

These [African-Caribbean] creole cuisines were to color Virginia cookery to an extent which has not been fully appreciated, I think, because in addition to actual borrowings, there is the thumb print that each cook leaves on a recipe, even within the same culture, no matter how skilled she may be or how faithfully she follows the recipe… And so it was that even when thoroughly English dishes were cooked by hands that had known other products, other cuisines, the result would never be quite English… And that warmth of traditional Virginia cookery constitutes its charm.

Yams and sweet potatoes are, biologically, completely different things, yet in common folk usage the terms – and the vegetables themselves – are used interchangeably. Yams are African staples, while sweet potatoes were collected wild by Indians and grown as domesticates in Native American (including Virginian) gardens. African American cooks learned to use sweet potatoes as they had used yams, and the methods of preparing and spicing these roots were identical. We confuse the two roots because their cultural treatment has been thoroughly creolized. Another group of Native American staples is the squash family, including the winter squashes and pumpkins. Our folk terminologies – as well as those of Colonial Virginia – distinguish clearly between the yellow or orange starchy roots (Yams and sweet potatoes) and the yellow or orange starchy fruits (winter squashes), but the latter are frequently prepared in the same manner as the former. If we spice the boiled or baked meat of an Indian sweet potato, or an African yam, or an Indian pumpkin with Jamaican allspice and brown sugar, and then wrap it in an English paste, and bake it in an Indian-made pan of Old-World shape, we can call it sweet potato pie or pumpkin pie. And we can argue all day whether the result is Native American, English, or African, but, I contend, it is something which is a consummate American creole creation, and we would do better to stop arguing and start eating.

***

The challenge to archaeology is to determine ways to identify those “nearly indefinable qualities” in the material residues of foodways and other elements of culture. We are less likely to succeed by counting bones or sorting potsherds than by conscientiously seeking out plastic materials that preserve, in some way, the expressive acts of individuals and communities. Of course, clay is a most plastic medium, and one which is frequently used for expression. When fired to ceramic, it provides durable artifacts amenable to archaeological scrutiny. Among the material objects commonly excavated from 17th-century sites the locally produced tobacco pipes we call Chesapeake pipes. One pressing question archaeologists have pondered for years is “Who made these pipes?”  J. C. “Pinky” Harrington, one of the early excavators of jamestown, asked this question as early as 1951:

One of the most intriguing problems [of Jamestown archaeology] is that of the hand-molded pipes…Many are obviously of Indian manufacture, but some may have been made by the settlers following Indian styles and techniques. To further complicate the problem, some of these pipes which are most Indianlike in character, have well-formed English initials incorporated in the bowl decoration. Is this a case of the Indian copying a European idea; was the maker an “educated” Indian; or did a white man make an “Indian” pipe and put his initials on it?

A recently renewed focus on these fascinating artifacts has resulted in a greater appreciation of the multicultural social conditions of early Virginia. Now rather than asking “who made these pipes?” we are more likely to ask, “What do these pipes mean?” Tobacco was a common thread which bound together all of the peoples of 17th-century Virginia. Virtually every life was touched by tobacco. Everyone participated in the making of tobacco. Indian peoples supplicated and placated their gods with tobacco. They sealed their treaties and structured their public discourse with smoke from a shared pipe. Colonists came to Virginia to make tobacco, and they brought slaves and servants to help with its making. Tobacco smoking had spread throughout the Old World in the 16th century, and many immigrants, men and women, whether from Europe, Africa, or the Caribbean, were smokers.  Archaeological collections from 17th-century sites are rife with the evidence. Most of the pipes we recover are mass-manufactured ball clay varieties from England, Holland and France, but thousands of locally-made pipes have also been excavated.

Trade in decorated tobacco pipes among Indians reaches back well into the prehistoric period. Decorated pipes, many made in Virginia, including those with the familiar “star” and “deer” motifs, have been excavated in prehistoric Indian village sites in Pennsylvania, the Shenandoah Valley, and throughout much of the Carolina Piedmont.  By the mid-17th century, these pipes had become ubiquitous on Chesapeake colonial sites and Indian settlements. Traditional Indian decorative motifs were augmented by new decorations, many of which were copied from English and Dutch pipes, signet rings, and seals. Many of the pipes were stamped with decorative devices identical to those used to stamp furniture, silver, leather and other European goods, but these stamps appear along with traditional Indian designs and some designs that have parallels in African folk arts, as well. Most common of all are designs, like these rouletted triangles, which were commonly used by everyone. Nearly identical designs can be found on English furniture, Native American pottery and decorated Nigerian calabashes.

Chesapeake pipes are notable because they are craft items, meticulously made, and beautifully decorated. They are the most intriguing surviving examples of folk art of the early Chesapeake. The care and effort which attended the creation of these artifacts attests to their symbolic importance for those who used them. The designs on these pipes have things to tell us about life in a distant past.  Chesapeake pipes provide a nearly perfect medium for interpreting the creolization of cultures in the 17th century. They were ubiquitous. They were plastic expressive media. They were objects of personal identity and public display. They were fragile and relatively inexpensive to produce or procure. And they remain in the archaeological record. That many of them are beautiful and unique objects of art is a bonus that makes their study all the more enjoyable and compelling.

One of the most common designs on Chesapeake pipes is called the “running deer”, although some of the deer seem to be “standing” rather than “running”, and some of the figures appear to be dogs, bears, pigs, or other animals.  Deer pipes offer an excellent point of entry into the process of creolization and its expression in Chesapeake pipes.  Deer pipes typically have little decoration other than the deer figure, executed on the front and back of the bowl, in rouletting infilled with white lime, or other material. Deer were very important to Virginia’s native peoples, and deer symbolism was used in a variety of ways. Beverley , writing in 1705, described the Native Virginians’ use of “a sort of heiroglyphick, or representation of birds, beasts, or other things, showing their different meaning by the various forms describ’d and by the different positions of the figures”. Likewise, Hugh Jones noted, “they have certain heiroglyphical methods of characterizing things; an instance whereof I have seen upon the side of a tree where the bark was taken off. There was drawn something like a deer and a river, with certain strokes and dashes; the deer looking down the river…”. Much earlier, John Lederer (1671) had described the Indian’s picture writing making special note that swiftness was denoted by the symbol of a stag.

The basic Indian deer motif proved sufficiently plastic to permit other “ethnic” interpretations. The deer was not only important to Native Americans. The “running stag”, the “standing stag” and other animal symbols are also common motifs of English heraldry as well.  One Englishman of the mid-17th century observed the symbols on Chesapeake Native American shields and noted their similarities to English heraldic designs, prompting him to write a book on the universality of heraldry and its symbolism. Likewise, animals are often depicted in African folk arts.  Archaeological excavations show that colonists often relied on deer, especially early in the century.  In the later 1600s, the deer skin trade, like the beaver skin trade further north, was a major nexus of colonial and Native American interaction.

One of the Chesapeake pipe bowls recovered from Nathaniel Bacon’s Curles Plantation in Henrico County, in particular, seems to exemplify the process and the problems involved in its interpretation. Stamped around the middle of the bowl is a repeated oval cartouche containing a stamped impression of a deer. This is not the traditional Indian stick-figure “running deer”, however. Instead, it is an impression of an English stag. The cartouche is almost certainly the imprint from an English-made signet ring. An excavation of burials at the Burr’s Hill site, a ca. 1670 Wampanoag Indian cemetery in Rhode Island included a group of cast brass rings, “the designs cast in intaglio”. Among the various designs were classic English heraldry motifs identified as “Horn’d Animal, Stag Running, Stag Standing…” etc. The description and measurements of one of the rings with “stag standing on oval plaque” perfectly describes the stamped motif on the Curles Plantation pipe. The author of the Burr’s Hill study concludes that the rings were generic signets produced for the Indian trade. William Byrd included “brass rings” among his list of items traded along the Occaneechee trail in the late 17th century.

Nathaniel Bacon was an Indian trader living on the frontier, and his probate inventory included large quantities of “Indian truck”, as well as five African, one “Dutch”, one mulatto and six Indian servants. Who made the Curles stag pipe? An Englishman with a signet ring? An Indian with a trade ring and a fascination for heraldry? An African who remembered from his youth calabashes decorated with rouletted triangles? This question is difficult to answer. What does this pipe mean? Perhaps this is more clear: a creolized culture, highly influenced by Native American beliefs, values, and practices, arose in the 17th century Chesapeake. At the heart of this culture was tobacco, the use of which was adopted from Native American ritual practice to English and African societies. This pipe illustrates well both the difficulty of seeking specific ethnic identities in artifacts, and the potential rewards of interpreting Chesapeake pipes as records of the construction of creole cultures.

While Indians were adopting European pottery forms, cattle and swine keeping, frame houses, woolen cloaks, and other imported lifeways; the colonial Virginians were adopting Indian pipes, along with fringed buckskin tunics, moccasins, dugout canoes, Indian-built fish dams and wiers, African-Caribbean pepper pot and yam casseroles, African-influenced religious practices, and Indian-derived Brunswick stew. In the early 1970s, three scholarly works on Southern history were published, each of which used the theme “Red, White and Black” in its title.  Each of these books was an attempt to bring peoples whose histories had not been adequately considered into the mainstream examination of the American experience. And yet these works compartmentalized ethnic groups into red, white, and black boxes which may have well described the ethnicity issues of the 1970s, but they certainly were not suitable for understanding America of the 1670s. Our colonial history was neither comprised of separate segregated cultures each with its own heritage, nor was it a “melting pot” type blending into a homogenous unity. It was, instead, a congeries of creoles reacting to and interacting with other in mutual dependence. Not so much red, white, and black, as it was pink, beige, and shades of grey.

The Pisspot in the Museum or What are you looking for? What have you found? What will you do with it now?

This is a mid-late 1990s update of a 1985 presentation.

I have written much about interpretation and critical narrative largely as they apply to method or epistemology. The word “interpretation” has another common meaning in our profession, however: one tied inextricably to story-telling. I am speaking of interpretation as the translation of archaeological findings to the public through museum exhibits, living-history programs, films, magazine articles and popular books. In 1985 Bill Kelso asked me to address colleagues at the Jamestown Archaeology Conference on the subject of “Public Interpretation in Historical Archaeology.” I looked around and found a gaping void. Oh, there were some programs, but, by and large, they were few and far between. My lecture was critical of our profession for failing to understand our broader purpose in society. That lecture, called “The Pisspot in the Museum and Related Tales,” stirred immediate controversy. On the one hand, some colleagues chastised me for advocating that we could dispense with site reports and move straight to producing coffee-table books (which I didn’t do), while others praised me for revealing archaeologists as the blind, incompetent, self-serving dolts we truly are (which I also didn’t do). The lecture was published in the Quarterly Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of Virginia, and, after publication, I received even more telephone calls and letters both condemning and applauding my views. I didn’t know then, and do not know now, what all the ruckus was about, but I had obviously touched a nerve.

Today (late 1990s), things have changed quite a bit.. In Virginia and Maryland many—perhaps most—historical archaeologists take considerable pains to tell their stories to the public. Many have made considerable study of the very process of public interpretation, its ethics, styles, and political dimensions. Today, there are many more archaeologists working in domains which lead directly to public interpretation. Our views of history have had some profound effects: particularly, I think, our democratic, inclusive, perspectives have helped illuminate the contributions of a vast diversity of real people to our cultural and national heritage. Perhaps this is one reason why archaeology has managed to survive, and even thrive, in an era of continually decreasing public funding for such “non-essential” pursuits.

Nonetheless, my appraisal remains largely unchanged. We, as a profession, are so caught up in our own concerns and language that, with some prominent exceptions, we don’t know how to talk to the public. It is something we try often to avoid, or to squeeze into our busy schedules and limited budgets. We still don’t understand our purpose in life. We are not contributors of factual knowledge so much as we are collaborators in public discourse. We are not actually solving problems about how human life actually works so much as we are contributing observations about how it can work. We still, for the most part, think that site reports are more important than news releases. We still appear in documentary films dressed in lab coats sitting in front of computers, rather than whooping it up on a site because we found something nifty. We still tend to talk to the public about how we are trying to figure out what life was really like rather than telling fascinating stories about our sites and their occupants which reveal in meaningful ways what life was really like.

People don’t travel hundreds of miles and spend thousands of dollars visiting Williamsburg or Shirley Plantation so they can improve their test scores or predict their neighbor’s behavior. They do it to have fun, to be enriched, to collect memories, to take pictures, to touch something old, to feel rooted. They don’t go to history museums to gather facts. They go to have a good time, to learn something, to reflect, to feel their own humanity, warts and all. We still think of our profession as a social science while the rest of the world looks towards us as part of the entertainment industry. Worse yet, by ignoring or denying the magic we sense in archaeology and stressing instead the fact-finding, calculating, truth-seeking image, we are opting out of our chance—our responsibility—to tell stories that challenge us all to change, that critique our own world’s shortcomings. Nearly any artifact we find on nearly any site could be used, creatively and intelligently, as a nexus drawing our fractured communities together in the bonds of our common experience.

What follows is excerpted and adapted from that old lecture. We’ve come a long way, but we still can use some prodding.

***

As a professor of archaeology I find myself each semester droning liturgically as I repeat the clever aphorisms of modern archaeological truth over and again to students. You’ve heard them before. “It’s not what you find; it’s what you find out.” Or, “archaeologists seek facts, not artifacts.” Of course, we repeat such profundities not only to students, but also to the seemingly endless hordes of fascinated masses who embarrass us with unsophisticated questions about our work, such as, “What are you looking for?” “What have you found?,” and “What will do with it now?.”

Whether our backgrounds and orientations come from history, anthropology, architectural history, art history, or cultural resource management, we archaeologists project our role to be one of lofty scholarly purpose and we often feel, somehow, that we are misunderstood high priests and priestesses trained in an arcane discipline to be keepers of knowledge which cannot fully be appreciated by mere mortals. We work desperately hard at convincing ourselves and others that we float in an ethereal plane far removed from base concerns with artifacts as artifacts. Rather, we insist, it is culture that interests us, that artifacts are only an avenue into comprehension of the complexities of socio-cultural systems, their feedback loops, evolutionary leaps, and normative patterns. We dissociate ourselves as best we can from the stigma of the treasure hunter and relic collector, and it rankles deeply that those who freely indulge themselves in such activities often call themselves archaeologists.

Real archaeologists perform rituals called “digs” in which they unearth relics of the society’s ancestors. These relics, even the most humble of them, are fawned over through a series of dances, incantations, and gestures imbued with great symbolic value. Nearly every scrap of brick and bone and broken dish is thoroughly cleansed. These magically charged objects are then written on in a language understood only by the practitioners themselves— a practice probably derived from Shang Dynasty Oracles or Mesopotamian Scribes. The relics are sorted into special reliquaries which a laymen would, in his ignorance, mistake for Dixie Cups, cigar boxes, and plastic zipper bags. Some are singled out for exceptional treatment by a specialist practitioner known as the Conservator. These objects are electrolyzed, vacuum impregnated, coated, and stabilized. The ritual relics always have the inscrutable black ink inscriptions. Each of these inscriptions is recorded in a catalog which is either a large book understandable only to the initiated or it is a string of electronic digits fed to a nearly ubiquitous idol called The Computer.

Another specialist practitioner is known as the Drafter and he or she spends endless hours making large numbers of mandalas known to the profession as section profiles, site plans, renderings and distribution maps. Archaeologists reproduce these mandalas and write pages of mystical wisdoms about them to be circulated among initiates in secret, limited-circulation journals, or they project them on screens while reciting jargon-laden incantations to gatherings of other archaeological practitioners.

The public knows little or nothing about these goings on, although they readily admit that archaeologists do magical things with relics that no one else really understands. However, the typical lay person believes that archaeologists recover relics because relics have intrinsic magical value. These relics, they suppose, are cleaned and reassembled as necessary, so that they can be placed in public display spaces known as museums. The lay public then goes to these museums on sunny Sunday afternoons, looks at displays of relics, and believes that the arcane knowledge of the archaeologist is transferred to them through a variety of insights gained by a mystical process called interpretation.

It is quite clear that the main reason archaeologists are supported by the public is because of the high value placed on the entertainment, insights and information received from interpretations of displays of artifacts in museums, schools, books and other such places. Since the public loves artifacts, they continue to pay large tithes of the first fruits of their annual harvests to the archaeological priesthood. Despite this, a great many archaeologists are not primarily concerned with public interpretation, especially that which involves the display of artifacts. They maintain that their function is strictly scientific and that they seek facts rather than artifacts.

That this is nonsense can be witnessed on any dig or at any gathering of practitioners. When unusual artifacts are uncovered at sites, there is a great ooing and ahhing. At conferences there are artifacts on display, slides of artifacts prolifically illustrate the delivery of professional papers. Journal articles are liberally peppered with photographs of artifacts. When archaeologists want to be recognized for their work they call press conferences and lead the photographers and video camera operators directly to tables lined with bottles, plates, swords, arrowheads, locks, keys and other relics. If archaeologists were not interested in artifacts why in the world would they spend so much time and effort dealing with them, talking about them, and showing them off to colleagues?

You might well ask why the public does not demand that more popular books be written and more displays prepared and more museums built so that they, too, may participate in the joy of artifacts through the rituals of interpretation. Some members of the lay public have come to learn a sufficient amount of arcane knowledge so that they can go out and conduct “digs” which are not authorized or supervised by the professional priesthood. They spend sunny Sundays at the digs with their friends in the bottle collecting club, the local historical society, the relic collectors’ fraternity, or the archaeological society chapter. Because these individuals are not “properly” initiated, they are sometimes condemned by professional archaeologists as treasure hunters and looters.

These folks, however, boldly display their artifacts. They place them on mantles. They take them to club meetings. Their children take them to schools and practice a laymen’s version of the interpretation ritual called “show and tell” right in their classrooms. They donate them to the local courthouse or library. Sometimes, they give their entire collections to the state, or to a museum or the local university in the mistaken belief that these objects will somehow be magically transformed and appear in interpreted displays for all to see. They are heartbroken to find that their precious artifacts are stuck in cardboard boxes and unceremoniously stashed with thousands of other artifacts in the basements of public buildings.

Due to the relatively small numbers of public interpretation programs, more and more archaeology is viewed as bad medicine and archaeologists are viewed as menaces to the construction of new shopping malls and highways. Even more important may be the growing tendency towards apathy or indifference towards concerns about the past. The public has even taken to electing officials who have a proven record of cutting through the archaeological red tape and bulldozing away sites which are viewed with increasing frequency as mere impediments to progress or threats to private property rights. To counter this trend archaeologists cry out saying we need to “educate” the public about the importance of our profession when, in fact, what we need to do is to simply provide more, and better, interpretation, for that is what the public pays us to do.

Archaeologists are, for the most part, supported by public institutions and/or public funds in order to dig up sites and their artifacts and to interpret these to the public in entertaining and enlightening ways. This proposition is easily tested. Clearly, the most successful archaeological programs in the Chesapeake region, for example, are those which have from the outset defined their purpose largely as one of public interpretation: e.g., Colonial Williamsburg, Historic St. Mary’s City, Alexandria Archaeology, Mt. Vernon, and Monticello. Even Jamestown, for a long time relatively quiescent as a focus of archaeological activity, continues to flourish as an institution of public interpretation spawned by earlier excavations, and is founding a future of re-interpretation based on new excavations.

Many archaeologists have done an exceptional job of public interpretation and, strangely, these are often singled out for quiet ridicule or skepticism by more “purist” practitioners. Colonial Williamsburg’s excavations at Martin’s Hundred are known and highly considered by millions the world over. Ivor Noel Hume’s book about the site is far more important than any technical site report. He is a brilliant interpreter of archaeology and, as such, he enjoys a tremendous popularity. I suggest that he also has been the object of a certain amount of skepticism and jealousy in the profession. I believe that Noel Hume’s dramatic presentations, masterful story-telling and opinionated style are frequently suspected of being a little too unscientific for a proper scholar. By and large we archaeologists do not seem to have the skills, personalities, budgets or proclivities to tell really good stories of our findings to the public, and we mistrust those who do. We truly believe that we are supposed to provide public interpretation, but we find a million excuses not to.

I propose that there are a number of reasons why we often fall short of what I have claimed to be our primary mission in society. As archaeologists we are trained in a wide variety of skills that help us recover artifacts, interpret stratigraphy, analyze data and draw conclusions. We are not, generally, taught how to present our understandings to the public. That is, we are not trained as writers, film-makers, media manipulators, orators, or museologists. If we, ourselves, do not have the skills or personalities to carry out these roles then it seems that we should certainly have such people on our staffs. But, we argue, we do not have enough staff just for the basics. We may not have budget enough to hire excavators, artifact processors, computer programmers, map-makers, managers, surveyors, conservators, drafters, etc. In fact, archaeologists are often used to working on shoe-string budgets and often pride themselves at being the consummate do-it-yourselfers. In addition to a myriad of technical skills, we expect ourselves to be experts in history, anthropology, geology, geography, soils, seeds, bones, architecture, ceramics, carpentry, joinery, coopery, iron-smelting, data-base management, etc.

In fact, we seem to be willing to gain professional or semi-professional expertise in dozens of technical fields while most of us continue to ignore or underplay the skills, time and costs of site and artifact interpretation. We believe that because we can take adequate slides and black-and-white photos of profiles and features that we don’t really need the tools and expertise of a professional photographer who can wield multi-kilo-watt-second studio flash lighting and a 4×5 camera to convert a lowly wine bottle seal or broken teapot into an image of wonder, a mirror for the imagination. (Use comparative pix here of 19t-c pipes photographed by Henry and 19th-c pipes from a tech report)We feel that we can get by with the basic drafting skills to draw our site maps and don’t reach further for the talents and training of an artist to transcend the sites and objects and breathe life into our data. Because we have mastered the jargon and literature of the profession and can write a paper acceptable to a national or international journal, we feel it is of secondary importance to put our knowledge into the clear, engaging prose of the professional writer and to produce books, magazine articles and teaching materials for the lay public.

Most archaeologists are overworked. We often feel we haven’t the time or resources to produce the site reports and professional papers demanded by our academic or professional positions, let alone to engage in “peripheral” work like public interpretation. I would like to suggest that we have our priorities backwards. We labor under feelings of great obligation and responsibility to turn out survey and excavation reports that will be circulated to few, read by fewer, and comprehended by fewer yet. But we feel these reports and papers are needed in order to receive the professional acclaim we require to keep our positions, be awarded tenure, get a raise, or qualify for the next big grant or contract. We justify this enormous amount of time spent producing arcanity as the necessary guarantee that our site’s “data” will be preserved, as if these reports were, themselves, true reflections of reality rather than our own interpretations. If the public read our reports they would be wise to us in an instant. They might well suspect such efforts as a bunch of in-group, self-serving, boundary-maintaining, career-enhancing, authority-establishing nonsense of no special interest to anyone but a handful of other archaeologists belonging to the same citation circle. We are not only cheating the public that supports our work, we are cheating ourselves of a great opportunity to communicate the joy, the love we have for our work.

Interpretation, make no mistake, is creative work. The messages we convey in an interpretive exhibit or well-written, accessible book are messages that will be carried to thousands, or millions. As with all such creative endeavors, we have great latitude in what we communicate. In case there are any doubts about this, I offer a case study which I often assign to my students.

The site is Curles Plantation, home of a succession of Randolphs between 1699 and 1799. By the time of the Revolution there stood here a mansion nearly 100 feet long, with a fine colonnade, a brick kitchen larger than most peoples’ houses, an ice house, a dairy and loft, a laundry, quarters, a storehouse, stables and dozens of other buildings. In the excavations of the 18th-century Curles mansion we encountered a posthole-and-mold feature beneath the former location of the mansion’s central passage. The post, which had been repaired at least once, appeared to have provided a mid-wall support for a massive sill beam, a stain from which could be seen clearly in aerial photos. Beside the beam stain ran a robbed brick foundation. We believe the brick foundation post-dates the post and signals the expansion of the house from a good-size (ca. 40 feet x 26 feet) hall-parlor plan house to that of a massive central-hall plan house more than twice the original length. Within the later of two post molds was stuffed the remains of fine Rhenish chamber pot with incised, painted, and sprig-molded decoration dating from the 1730s or 40s.

The problem I place before my students is this: how can we interpret the chamber pot to the public? I can report with mixed feelings that students don’t generally suggest preparing a large artist’s reconstruction of the pot showing it in actual use in Colonial times (although, perhaps Mr. Noel Hume could suggest an appropriately tasteful work of a Flemish master that would do the trick). Of course, interpreting the “technomic” function—if you will— of the pot could be useful in conveying to a lay audience something of the nature of life without flush toilets.

Communicating a sense of the everyday to foreign cultural situations is one approach, but we may prefer instead to make a political statement. Given the relatively meager material inventories of an average Virginian of the period, we can produce tangible evidence that, in comparison, the masters of Curles Plantation did indeed have very fine pots to piss in. We may even stretch the evidence to suggest the demeaning barbarity of slavery by illustrating servants emptying a master’s pot. Such an image emblazoned itself on my mind when, at the age of 12 or so, I first visited Monticello and its famous tunnel said to have been used for just such a purpose.

Perhaps your approach might be a technical one, showing the archaeological reasoning behind the reconstruction of the house-building sequence by using the pot to provide a terminus post quem to the filling of the post-mold. Such an approach may involve illustrating very similar dated pots from other sites or museum collections. Another archaeologist may choose to use this pot as a fine example of decorative arts and may illustrate the methods used in its potting and firing. Another may feel that here is tangible evidence of the socio-political and economic relationships between the mother country, the colonies and the Rhineland: the world-system at work. The pot may be augmented by a “scratch blue” copy from later in the 18th century to show the rise of British industry and to illustrate the effects of Colonial trade restrictions which helped lead directly to the Revolution. This same line of reasoning could be expanded to include stoneware pots of local manufacture that are abundant at Curles and other sites in the area in the years immediately following Independence. The Curles property also contains the remains of numerous salt-glazed stoneware kilns and tons of kiln furniture and wasters: potentially excellent illustrations of the rise of post-Revolutionary American industrial independence and the victory of entrepreneurship and capitalism. Of course, we could choose not to use the pot in an interpretive exhibit at all. That, we may decide, would place a vulgar emphasis on artifacts.

However we interpret the “meaning” of that pot, we are communicating directly our experience, our fascination, our own communion with the ancestors. We are completing the responsibilities of our positions and, if we are successful, we are providing incentives to the public to continue to maintain the support of archaeology—or even to increase that support. We might even find that, through exhibits, pamphlets, films, and popular books we are consummating our own desires of archaeology by doing what we love to do, sharing the experience with others, and receiving a certain satisfying modicum of congratulations and glory that it is not possible to achieve by simply publishing another journal article.

We must not continue to excavate sites without providing for public interpretation. We must not continue to look down on those of our colleagues who bring their findings to the public through the press or other means as somehow being unscientific publicity hounds. At the heart of the word “publicity” is the word “public,” and we are not so much shamans and priests as we are entertainers and educators, stewards of the public’s relics and interpreters of the public heritage. The more we appreciate that fact and exercise the responsibilities of interpretation, the more we will continue to witness a true public appreciation of archaeology and archaeologists: an appreciation that will pay real benefits of job security, increased budgets and well-deserved pats on the back.

The War is Never Over. The Revolution is Never Won

I am an unreconstructed Flower Child, matured and mellowed a bit, but I have never surrendered to what seems to be any version of “normal” USA culture. Back in the 60s and 70s we “freaks” felt that we were instigating tremendous change, and we were, but these battles have to be fought again and again, generation after generation. Of course, there is such a thing as progress, and nobody can deny that there has been much positive change in our culture’s way of treating women, minorities, the poor, LGBT folks, immigrants, and other “others.” Nonetheless, the battles rage on, sometimes hotter and sometimes cooler, but they never are over and done with.
Mass murders in a Southern church are a reminder. The never-ending flood of black-on-black violence and police-on-black violence is a reminder. The rude, disgusting misogynistic comments in mass media and social media about Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton are a reminder, as are the equally ugly and hateful blathering of Donald Trump and the Brown Shirt/Hitler Youth-type behavior of many of his supporters. North Carolina’s HB2 and similar legislative actions in other states, whether passed, proposed, or pending, are a harsh reminder.
I was a witness to the so-called Stonewall Riots and the birth of the Gay Liberation movement in New York in 1969 (see my Facebook Note from 2010 titled “The Queens are Bashing the Cops”). While I am thrilled that our country has finally granted the fundamental human right of marriage to same-sex couples, it is clear that there is still an abundance of potentially violent hatred against anyone queer, and this current rash of anti-queer legislation and litigation are simply the more civil expressions of that hatred. Beneath the veneer, violence is on the prowl, and whether it is fully expressed or not, it is hurtful.
No sooner had North Carolina’s HB2 been announced I found myself awakened by my transgender spouse one morning, as he told me of a terrible nightmare he had just experienced. In the dream he was traveling to see friends in North Carolina and, as a result, a woman was murdered in a woman’s room simply for being Rob’s friend. This past weekend we were, in fact, traveling in North Carolina to visit friends. On three occasions we were out in public places when Robin experienced nature’s call. Two of these occasions occurred in fairly hip restaurants in a college-town urban setting. In one of these cases, there was an available gender-neutral loo available for folks with physical disabilities, so he chose that one.
The third occasion was a very different situation. We were on farm in a very rural area. Many farms rely these days on various forms of agri-tourism to supplement income, and that was the case here. A large dairy farm has opened a popular ice cream parlor to promote their rich Jersey milk products. It was a sunny, warm Sunday, and the place was crammed with families bringing children for a treat. There were lines for ice cream, a crowd of kids waiting a chance to pet the cute Jersey calf, and, of course, there was predictable demand and use of the two gendered restrooms. I’ve been married to Rob for over 34 years, so even if he hadn’t felt the need to talk about it today, now that we are back in Virginia, I would have known that this situation had rattled him.
It seems that an awful lot of people still seem to feel it is quite okay to rape women, to roll queers, to beat up folks who support a different politician, and to assault a person whose looks don’t conform to someone’s notion of what is properly gendered appearance or behavior. In just the past week the news has reported on two different women being roughed up in public simply for looking a bit butch. This shit is real. If you are a friend or relative of a GLBT person, please understand that the rabid hatred being floated in the news, the social media, and in the state capitols of this country has real-life effects on people you love. Be sensitive to this and be ready to be supportive if you can. Offer to go into public places with a gender-non-conforming person. Speak up loudly when you hear bigotry spoken. Offer hugs, even if they don’t seem immediately necessary.
There is a strong effort in the land by millions of people to revitalize a romanticized golden-age vision of the 1950s. There was nothing golden about it that dark era of coat-hanger abortions, repressed sexuality, racist lynchings, patriarchal dictatorships in the home and the office, and queer-baiting gang-rapes. I was there, and there was nothing there that I would ever want to return to (except, perhaps, for a Republican Party led by the wisdom of Dwight D. Eisenhower). I hope that we are simply witnessing the death-throes of a tired old order, but we must be vigilant. Revitalization movements often die away quietly, but they can–as in the case of the Third Reich–light a spark that turns into a conflagration. It’s not just about politics–not by a long shot. No matter who you vote for, the cultural wars must be fought every day, again and again and again.

Pink or Blue? A War Veteran Learns to Knit

This essay was first published, in an earlier form, in “Genderwonky” on Blogger.

My mother taught me to knit. Mind you, I didn’t learn how to knit from my mother, but she taught me nonetheless. She also taught me to sew. I don’t know why. My brothers weren’t taught these things, as far as I know. I don’t even think my sisters were. Maybe I was the only one who seemed interested. Maybe I just tended to hang around Mother too much.
I think I was probably 9 or 10 when she taught me to knit, but I didn’t actually begin learning how to knit until I was 58. I enrolled in knitting classes at a local knitting shop. Richmond, my hometown, has at least five knitting shops. For reasons I can’t fathom, I chose to take lessons at the oldest, best established store in town: the “West End” shop, whose habitués are mothers of children enrolled in the city’s exclusive local private academies. They are the wives of lawyers and doctors and politicians—no that’s not quite right. They are the wives of judges, chief surgeons, and governors of the Commonwealth. I drive to my lessons in my ratty little ‘72 Beetle. They drive in humongous Lincoln Town Cars, 700-series Beamers, and Range Rovers.
There are other places to learn knitting and to buy yarn. There’s the store with all the high-fashioned glitzy yarns and the workshops taught by international knitting stars. There’s the newer shop full of hip, high-end luxury fibers, all natural of course, down in what passes for Richmond’s version of Greenwich Village. Then there’s that newer shop with the laid-back, crazy, funny women who smoke too much and, I wager, keep bottles of whiskey or brandy tucked away with their stashes. They are fun-loving yarn-addicts, pure and simple. But, for reasons still unclear to me, I wound up in the high-brow shop with the tennis-club and equestrienne set. Go figure.
Let’s make one thing very clear. I am the only man taking these lessons. I continually hear rumors of other men who knit, but, so far, they are just rumors. “Lots of men knit these days,” says one of the shop’s owners. “But Dan’s the only straight guy, isn’t he?” Straight guy? But I knit! Some would say I can’t be straight by definition.
I point out to all who will listen that men do the knitting in Peru, that men were traditionally knitters at various times in “The Old World,” and that male soldiers in World War I routinely knitted their own socks! I get quiet, knowing smiles. No sense trying to tell anybody anywhere anything about gender. It is, after all, completely “natural,” and everyone knows all about it practically from the day they’re born.
I am working a cable row in the front on my alpaca sweater. I hope to complete it by the time it’s cold enough to wear an alpaca sweater. The ladies of the shop love to talk about the multi-colored socks I knit myself last year. “He even wears them,” one hastens to add. While I quietly knit away, my teacher, the shop ladies, and the other students all talk about babies. Always. Someone at the table is always knitting a baby sweater, or baby booties, or baby blanket, or a baby hat. Sometimes these items are being knit from a pure-white soft cotton or washable wool. More often, they are either pink or blue.
The talk invariably turns to when “the baby” is due, and whether the mother or grandmother in question yet knows “what it is.” That means, in case you didn’t get it, whether the fetus in question is on its way to becoming male or female. Even in this day of sonograms, lots of people don’t know. The parents-to-be all know, but they’re not saying. So even the expectant mothers are not revealing the big secret: they knit in white, or they make one item blue and one pink… “just in case.”
“Why don’t you make something green? Or purple?” I ask, playing the devil’s role, of course. Nobody bothers to answer. It can’t possibly be a serious question. I don’t follow up, because I’ve tried dozens of times. That conversation just doesn’t go anywhere, and, anyway, I’ve just dropped two stitches in the middle of a “cable back,” and that demands all my attention.
When the conversation isn’t about babies, which is rare, it’s about the older children: the boys in St. Benedict’s and the girls in St. Catherine’s. They don’t talk about the students’ grades or their sports accomplishments. Instead they discuss their summer art programs in Florence, and their intensive language programs in Moscow, and their pending appointments as congressional pages. But the real concern is not for this ascending generation, but for the babies, for what is being knit for them, and “what they are.”
Doing It In Public
My cousin recently needed someone to accompany her to the hospital for a surgical procedure. I knew I’d be stuck in the waiting room for three or four hours, so, naturally, I took my knitting. As time passed, other patients and their drivers/helpers/loved ones arrived. And every so often one would have a bag of knitting. Each of these knitters gravitated to my side of the room, made friendly inquiries about what I was making, gave their compliments, then took up an adjacent seat. After a couple hours, we had a phalanx of knitters, all sitting along one wall of the waiting room, chatting away merrily.
Knitters don’t just knit when they get together. We shared knitting stories. We shared knitting tools. We commented on color combinations and yarn choices. All the other knitters were women, of course. One of them noted my wedding ring and asked me if my wife were also a knitter. Of course I (and all the other women) took her question to really mean, “So, are you married or available?”
And so I comfortably lounged away a few hours, surrounded by women of all ages, knitting, knitting, knitting. Were I to suddenly find myself single, it would never dawn on me to go seeking company in a bar, when I could find myself a corner in any public space—say, a Starbucks Café—open my knitting bag, and soon have plenty of company.
Of course, not everyone is happy to see a man knitting in public. There is clearly something odd, suspicious, maybe even frightening about such a scene. I remember one time taking my knitting to the clinic at the VA hospital. It always takes my doctor way more time than seems reasonable to see me on appointment day. No sense complaining, though. I might as well just plan on getting some knitting done. And so I do.
On the day in question, I noted that my knitting had just the opposite effect as what I had experienced the day of my cousin’s surgery. I soon found I was sitting surrounded by empty chairs. Other patients were giving me a rather wide berth. But then, none of the other patients was also knitting. You see, most of the other patients were men: men my age or older. Men wearing their veteran’s hats, their combat colors, their manly accomplishments on their proverbial sleeves. These guys don’t knit. Or, if they do, they damn sure don’t do it in public! I’m the odd man out. I’m also a war veteran, and I’m wearing my colors, too. My combat engineer’s hat is set off nicely by the colorful stripes in my latest silky-soft scarf.
Finally, into the waiting room came a couple. They were much younger than I. Both were wearing some indications that they were in or had served in the military. I later learned they had both served in Iraq. She carried a knitting bag. After registering at the desk, she walked directly over to me, asked about my project, asked if she could join me, plopped down beside me and pulled out her work. Her partner—her husband, I soon learned—stood across the room glaring at me. He stood! He couldn’t even bring himself to sit. My knitting companion kept gesturing to her hubby to come join us, but he insistently stood and glowered.
After a few minutes, a nurse appeared and called the wife’s name, then took her back into the clinic to test her vital signs, etc. The man slowly approached me. I stopped knitting, met his eyes, and held my hands with the #3 needles angled just enough to suggest that they could serve as defensive weapons if need be. (For some reason, I tend to knit a lot of things with sporting weight yarns and small needles. For once I wished I had been working on a bulky Icelandic sweater. I would have been holding # 13s instead of # 3s!)
He stared into my soul and, I suppose, something he found there told him I was not really a threat to his marriage or his masculinity or anything else. Or perhaps he decided I was too dangerous, or too deranged, to tangle with. He grabbed a hot rod magazine off the rack nearby and walked back across the room to sit by himself.
What would happen to our planet if, all of a sudden, infant girls were swaddled in baby blue blankets? And what disastrous consequences could ensue if baby boys came bedecked with little pink pom-pom hats? What in the world can the world possibly find frightening about a 6’2” 200-pound man with a bag full of wool and knitting needles? What in Heaven’s name leads some people to a murderous rage at the very thought of a man in a dress and panty hose?
A former high school friend is a highly accomplished and respected poet. He’s 60 years old and holds a professorship at an major New England university. He has published numerous books and won many awards. Lately he has been writing to some of us, his former classmates, online, pouring out his heart full of hurt and his still-hot fury about how he was treated by the bullies in high school nearly a half-century ago. I, myself, harbored a fantasy of taking a baseball bat to one punk’s head for more than 30 years for beating me up and calling me a sissy. A recent study suggested that the rash of violent school shootings we have experienced in this country over the past few years were almost all perpetrated by boys who had been bullied and hounded and terrorized for not meeting some arbitrary norms of masculinity. In our culture we seem to think that violation of gender codes is an egregious offense upon society, punishable by torture and death.
It starts, innocently enough, by choosing to knit pink or blue. It proceeds from there by making girls who would rather have a Jedi’s light saber play with Barbie dolls. And if the gender variance hasn’t been shamed out of our children by the time they reach high school, we find it acceptable to let society’s goons try to beat it out of them. Besides schoolyard bullies, we have skinheads, good ol’ boys, queer-rollers, tranny-bashers, and many other sorts of “concerned citizens” waiting to finish the job. Call me Pollyanna, but I think we could end this sort of violence by knitting the rainbow for babies without first stopping to inspect their plumbing.

Just Like a War Zone

First published in my memoirs volume, Warbaby, Talking About My Generation.  This was written in 1998 at a time that I was in the process of confronting the realities of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  This blog post is being published 18 years later. I can scarcely remember how I felt back then, and for that I am eternally thankful.

 

June 2, 1998. Two days ago the little town of Spencer, South Dakota, was reduced to rubble by a tornado. Today I listened to someone on the news who flew over Spencer remarking that the remains of the town looked “just like a war zone.” It’s a common phrase used to describe disaster areas. When we want to convey the utter devastation of a place, whether Spencer or the South Bronx, or Detroit after the ‘67 riots, we say it looks just like a war zone.

In my profession I have had many occasions to study hundreds of Union and Confederate photographs of Richmond, Petersburg, Fredricksburg, Mechanicsville, Hopewell, Cold Harbor, and other towns and countryside locations of Virginia taken during, or immediately following, the Civil War. Most of these photos depict landscapes so strange as to be surreal. Looking at familiar hillsides and roadways where I drive and walk routinely, I am disconnected from them by the depth of their devastation. Scarcely a tree stands. Grass doesn’t grow. Fields lay wasted and roads rutted. It all has a trampled, abused appearance. In many of the pictures there are people—haunted, defeated, exhausted people. Often bodies lie about the landscape, twisted in forms that no living shape could take. My home, Virginia, appears in ghostly form in prints from Mathew Brady’s glass plates. It looks just like a war zone.

This laying waste to a country shocked me as much as anything else in Vietnam. When I arrived in An Khe, the place looked like something out of National Geographic. Within a matter of weeks, a few months at most, it looked like some burned, tortured, brimstone-poisoned, post-volcanic landscape. I no longer noticed anyone in the fields with their buffalo. Bicycles were rapidly replaced by motor scooters driven by slicked-up pimps with decked-out baby-sans on back. Tea houses gave way to opium dens and whore bars and black-market stalls.  Trees and bamboo thickets were cleared by the thousands of acres with defoliants, bulldozers, rome plows, even napalm.

Villages became prisons for pawns needing not to be pacified, but, rather, to pacify both Uncle Sam and the VC in order to prevent their being laid waste. The economy was trashed. The culture was deeply wounded. The fields were flooded when the rains came because nobody was tending to the canals and sluices of the paddies. Roads became impassible because they were so deeply rutted by convoys of military vehicles day in and day out. Where we kept the roads paved, they became nearly useless for a passer-by who could be caught in the crossfire of those who fought to control the roads. Market days with their trips to neighboring towns disappeared. Holy days with their pilgrimages and temple visits vanished. The towns and temples themselves were often lost, or appropriated for other purposes.

As the trees were removed the thin topsoil that sustained the fields washed away in monsoon rains leaving behind the gullies, eroded, blood-red laterite of sterile tropical subsoil. When the rains stopped, any useful soil quickly baked to iron rust or blew away in the wind, depositing itself in the eyes, mouths, and hearts of anyone trying to live in that newly barren country. Families, communities, congregations, parishes, neighborhoods, and nations were swept aside by politics and war. Even the social, cultural, and spiritual landscape looked just like a war zone.

I have enjoyed hearing the stories of those who have traveled back to Vietnam, and to see their photo albums and slide shows. Many say that it is great to walk the vaguely familiar streets of Vietnam with a thriving and proud culture growing new in what was once a wasteland. But there remain many booby traps and mines. The forests and soil are saturated with poisons. Whole regions, populations, language groups, and ethnic groups have disappeared, been removed and shifted, resettled, and reprogrammed. Children have grown up scarred, physically and psychically mangled by war and its ongoing, inter-generational effects. I have not been back, but I need only think about my scant memories of Vietnam to know that, despite the changes of thirty-one years that have passed since I was there, many more lives will pass into the earth before that place is healed.

I was not so stupid or innocent as to think that my tour of duty in Vietnam would be a picnic. I was scared to go. I didn’t want any part of killing; even less of being killed. But, I thought, we are there to do some good. Maybe it is wrong-headed. Maybe, I thought, if elections were held, Ho Chi Minh might win. Who knows? But we would do what we could. We would purify the water, improve the agriculture, cure diseases, teach democracy, and point the way to prosperity. Okay, maybe I was naïve, but I don’t think I was alone.

So what is it that has taken the place of naïveté? I am not sure. Basically I am a sane, healthy, functioning human being with a life I am thankful for. But when I look into certain recesses of my mind all I can see are child prostitutes, hungry people, dead or crazed comrades, and ravaged countryside. When I try to make sense of it, to write it all off as an aberration, of politics gone awry, of a flaw of the human spirit that sometimes manifests itself on earth, I am brought up short. I think: This is me. This is my doing. This is the way we “helped” Vietnam. There is no arrangement or reason or meaning to it. It’s just death and disorder and boundless havoc. When I try to view my own past, it is as ghostly strange, lifeless, and unfamiliar as a Mathew Brady photograph. It looks just like a war zone.

The Lotus Is a Flower

 

The Lotus (Sanskrit and Tibetan padma) is one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols and one of the most poignant representations of Buddhist teaching. The roots of a lotus are in the mud, the stem grows up through the water, and the heavily scented flower lies pristinely above the water, basking in the sunlight. This pattern of growth signifies the progress of the soul from the primeval mud of materialism, through the waters of experience, and into the bright sunshine of enlightenment. 

Nitin Kumar in “Exotic India Arts” 

Brothel-Hopping

It was April 1967. I had been in-country for eight months, and I had had only a single day pass into An Khe, and no other free time or R and R leave. But my turn had come, and before I knew it I was on a C-130 transport bound for Cam Ranh Bay where I checked into a brand new barracks and spent my first night in Vietnam sleeping inside a real building.  The following morning I was on an airplane bound for Singapore.

Like most guys heading out to an exotic Asian port-of-call for R and R, I had planned meticulously how I would satisfy my deepest cravings as soon as I hit Singapore. These were not what you might think. I was tired by the time I finally checked into my hotel, so I called and asked if there were 24-hour room service. Assured that there was, I placed an order and requested a wake-up call—for 3:00 a.m.  At 3 in the morning I was awakened by front desk. Within minutes there was a knock at my door. I tipped the waiter generously and, after he left, I sat in bed and nearly cried with joy as I ate my steak, drank a tall glass of fresh milk, and, for dessert, sipped a double Chivas Regal on the rocks. I was in the lap of luxury. All my needs were fulfilled. Well, maybe not all.

The following evening I took up with a rowdy crew of Royal Australian Air Force fellows who invited me to join them in their favorite Singapore sport: brothel-hopping! The idea of this game, or so they told me, was to have fun, drink and eat well, get some attention from some pretty women, and do it all for no more than the cost of a few shared cab fares. Well, I was very low on funds, so a night of cheap entertainment sounded like just the right thing to do.

We met at our arranged rendezvous—there were four of us—and began by hailing a cab. One of the RAAF guys—our self-designated “fearless leader”—asked the driver to take us to the “best brothel in town,” and off we went. Now, in Singapore in 1967 (as in 1867 and, no doubt, 1767 as well), a cabby hauling a load of foreign soldiers or sailors to a brothel was simply all in a day’s work. I was feeling kind of nervous, however. This was not something I was experienced at, and I really didn’t know what to expect. My newfound friends had not told me precisely what it was we were about to do.

We arrived at our destination, disembarking in the circular driveway of an elaborate Colonial mansion. At the door we were met by two Chinese “gentlemen.” They were well-dressed, well-mannered, and very, well, large.  Our fearless leader asked our cabby to wait and gave him a large tip to encourage him to do so.

We were ushered inside by a middle-aged woman dressed in exquisite Chinese high-fashion silk brocade. We were led to a lavish Victorian parlor room with dimmed lighting and plush furnishings. As we each took up a place on the overstuffed chair or settee of our choice, a beautiful young woman appeared and asked us if we would care for some refreshment. In minutes we each clutched a cocktail or a large glass of fine whiskey as a couple more beautiful young women arrived bearing plates of delicious Chinese appetizers: dumplings and shrimps and things I could not identify. All delicious.

And then it was time for the “main course.” One by one the working women appeared. Scantily dressed, mostly in negligees and harem gowns and filmy lingerie. They circulated around us like gentle sharks around fidgety prey. They would touch each of us as they passed and then, relying on whatever radar their professional experience had instilled in them, they zeroed in on us and took up places alongside us. More beverages were delivered, along with plates of fine sweets and pastries, both Asian and European types.

The sex workers were clearly experts at their trade. They were mostly Chinese women but there were also exotic racial blends. Singapore was famous as a world crossroads of cultures with beautiful women carrying mixed heritages of beauty from the Asian, African, and European continents. Being neither intimidating nor shy they knew how and where to touch, stroke, glance, nudge, and smile. They could not be, and would not be, ignored. After all, they were the reason we were there, weren’t they?

Apparently not. As one very appealing young lady’s fingers began to dance precariously close to my vulnerabilities—did I mention I had been in the jungle for the last 8 months?—Fearless Leader stood up abruptly and announced, “These women are too old and ugly. Let’s go find a better brothel!” On cue the other RAAF chaps jumped to their feet. It took me a minute to realize I was about to be abandoned, then I, too, leapt up, and quickly followed the crowd out the front door. Our cabby was waiting. Thank Heaven for that, because the “doormen” who had so politely greeted us were looking quite unfriendly as we jumped into the taxi and drove off.

Once in the cab, Fearless Leader told the cabby that the women were below our standards, and hoped that he could recommend a higher-class place for us to try out. Now I was beginning to understand the essence of “brothel-hopping.” As promised, we were doing this to get free drinks, free food, lots of attention from some beautiful women, and to spend nothing more than cab fare. The “main course” was not on the menu. We were in it for the appetizers! Well, I thought, that’s a neat game. But I couldn’t get the ugly looks of the guards from that last brothel out of my mind. This was also about danger and adventure, and I had plenty of that back where I was coming from. I was beginning to have some doubts about “brothel-hopping!”

Our next stop was a much less fancy building on the exterior—almost a retail establishment by the looks of it. At the door, once again, there stood two large gents. Our cabby greeted them as old friends or relatives. And, once again, a madam arrived at the door to escort us to the inner sanctum. The arrangements here were a bit different. The large room we entered was laid out like an old British men’s club. There were several other customers already present. Large tables were scattered around, each surrounded by big chairs and a scantily clad lady or two. There was a stairway ascending to a second-floor balcony, and there were working ladies standing along the entire length of the stairs, each showing her best selling points.

We were escorted to a table near the stairway. Our table was already set with trays of food, glasses, pitchers of water, and fine linens. Within minutes beverages began to appear. Once again we ate, we drank, and we enjoyed the focused attention of the establishment’s employees. And, once again I was caught offguard—perhaps because I was working on my fourth glass of scotch—when Fearless Leader announced loudly that this was a “second-class whorehouse” and that he’d “be damned to spend even ten cents for one of these skags.” The RAAF chaps were instantly on their feet and heading toward the door.

I did my best to catch up with them, and as I came out the front door, it was evident that our cabby and the door guards had enlisted some friends There were four mean looking gents standing between us and the cab. The largest one stepped right up to Fearless Leader and said, “Perhaps you need a little more time to select one of our ladies. Surely at least one of you has found a companion for this evening?”

“Yes,” I shouted quickly, “I have!” The RAAF guys stood frozen in their spot beside the taxi. They were very quiet and very nervous. At that moment the “madam” took my arm in hers and tugged me gently back toward the club. The cabby opened the door and my “friends” climbed in and drove away. I never saw them again. Back inside I was led back to the table where we had been sitting. In a few minutes, I was again accompanied by the woman who had been gaining my full attention just at the time we were interrupted by Fearless Leader’s signal to abandon ship. And with her came Madame Madam! Now it was all about negotiations and business terms. My new friend—her name was Mei—would accompany me to my motel and stay the night. The madam would provide us with a private taxi for the ride home. The driver was another very large Chinese gentlemen.

This was all new to me. “Mei” is a very common name and nickname for young Chinese girls. It means “Flower.” But my escort for the evening was not a young girl. I suspected she was at least ten years my senior. She was attractive in a worldly way, but mostly, fortunately for me, she was a consummate professional. She knew what we were going to do with the rest of our night. I had no idea.

Just Sit!

When we arrived at my motel room, Mei began immediately to undress. It was no strip-tease, just an economy of motions needed to transform from dressed to undressed—totally undressed—in about a minute. I was completely mesmerized by the mature, post-child-bearing, but taut fit body of this woman. She stood there a moment and let me just look. She was completely naked but for a simple necklace chain with a small carved stone figurine around her neck. She then turned her attention to me. Somebody had to. I was standing there like a dummy not knowing where to begin. She began by unbuttoning my top shirt buttons, but I told her I could do the rest. Soon I was stripped to my skivvies, but she quickly indicated I would have no need for those, and off they came.

Mei took my hand and led me straight to the bathroom where she turned on the shower, adjusted the temperature, and ushered me in. She proceeded to lather up a wash cloth with a bar of soap and then to wash me thoroughly from head to foot. Now don’t go imagining that this was some sort of sensuous foreplay meant to get me ready for what was to come. Not at all. It was simply washing. She then washed herself equally thoroughly. We dried ourselves off and proceeded to the bed.

Mei did not speak much English, and I didn’t then speak any of the Chinese languages. Nonetheless we found we could communicate easily enough with gestures and a few shared words. Still, it took me quite a while to figure out just what she was getting at as she instructed me as well as she could to assume a certain position. It was not a position I had ever been in before, though I did seem to recall seeing something similar in an illustrated edition of the infamous Kama Sutra.

Once I managed to find my place, we, well, we had sex. Sounds kind of clinical, I suppose, but it wasn’t. Nor was it any of those earthy, passionate, grunty-steamy, monosyllabic euphemisms we often use for sex. And it certainly wasn’t “making love.” What it was was competent, appropriate, enjoyable, relaxing, and—I think I mentioned that Mei was a consummate professional. Clearly, she knew her business.

As I felt myself beginning to drift off, still entwined with this stranger’s body, Mei expertly disengaged herself and popped to her feet. She extended her hand, motioned me out of bed, and, once more, led us off together to the shower for another thorough cleansing. After we had dried ourselves again, Mei walked back out to the bed, removed two pillows, and plopped them side-by side on the floor. She then walked back to the bathroom and re-emerged with two small face towels. She walked over to one of the pillows, and in an amazingly fluid motion, dropped down into a seated position on one of the pillows, folding her legs into a sort of pretzel that I knew was often called “the full lotus.”

She gestured to the pillow beside her and said “You sit here.” With much less grace I took a seat, awkwardly crossing my legs, knees pointing skyward. She chuckled at me and helped me rearrange my legs into what I many years later learned is called “the adepts pose.”  This wasn’t completely novel to me. I had some familiarity with Asian religions partly through my youthful fascination with the “Beatniks.” I had read Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, and much of Ginsberg’s poetry. I had become somewhat fascinated with Asian arts and culture, and, in preparing for coming to Vietnam, one of the books I had read was Buddhism by Christmas Humphries. I had already pegged the little female figurine on Mei’s necklace as a Buddhist icon. Apparently Mei wanted to practice her meditation, much as American Christians might pray before going to sleep. I was willing to learn something new, and I figured I would only be in my uncomfortable position for a matter of minutes.

Mei instructed me to place the tip of my tongue against the back of my upper incisors and to relax my mouth in an opened position. She then placed the small face towels on each of our laps. At first I thought this was to cover up our private parts as a gesture of modest respect for the meditation, but that wasn’t it. The tongue-on-the-teeth thing meant that once engaged in meditation, there was a pronounced tendency to drool! The little towels caught the flow. She placed my hands, palms up, on my knees, fingers gently curled, and said, “Just sit!” Within minutes I was fidgeting. “Just sit,” she reminded me.

After a while I felt my body begin to relax. I felt more relaxed than I had since arriving in Vietnam. But my mind was full of thoughts and questions. I was thinking about my wife and baby, wondering if I should feel guilty sitting here naked on the floor next to a prostitute. I decided I shouldn’t. I was pretty sure Holly would have understood. I turned to take a better look at Mei. She seemed to be totally lost in her own mind, or soul, or wherever it was someone goes when they do whatever it was she was doing.

“Just sit!” Her eyes were half closed and she did not move, but she was well aware that I was not simply “sitting.” I tried, once again, to return to that relaxed state. And then it was morning.

“What the heck?” I thought, and might have muttered. Suddenly I was aware that daylight was streaming through the windows and Mei and I were still sitting on pillows on the floor. We had been there all night. I had slept that way, but Mei appeared just as she had so many hours ago. Her eyes were half open, attentive. She knew I was awake and, without comment she stood straight up and reached her hand to me. I tried to stand, but my legs were nearly frozen in place. Mei was laughing at me. Eventually I got my legs moving and she pulled me up to my feet.

Without another word or gesture, this new acquaintance and mentor led me straight to the bed, arranged me into another interesting position, and, once again, we had sex. This time was even better. Still not love-making, but, perhaps, friend-making. And when we were finished we, once again, immediately trotted off to the shower.

We dressed and Mei gathered up the small bag she had brought along. I paid her the remainder of what we had agreed on and a decent tip, and then asked her if she would allow me to buy her breakfast. She simply shook her head to say “No.”

Then she astonished me. She leaned forward and kissed me warmly on my cheek and swiftly and without comment placed her necklace with the small stone figure around my neck. As I was gazing at it and wondering what the heck this was all about, Mei simply said “Bye-bye,” and walked out the door and out of my life.

I wore Mei’s necklace for the next couple months around my neck along with my dog tags.  When I came back home from Vietnam I continued to wear that necklace. I discovered eventually that the figure was Kuan-Yin, the Buddhist bodhisattva that symbolized compassion. Kuan-Yin is a feminized avatar of the  Indian Buddhist saint Avalokiteshvara. In China and Southeast Asia Kuan-Yin plays a role much like that of the Mother Mary in Catholicism, and I can remember one temple in Vietnam with idols of Mary and Kuan-yin flanking the entrance door. Kuan-Yin is a protecting spirit, and I felt protected by Mei’s kind act for the rest of my tour of duty.

In fact, when I returned to my company from Singapore, I had to report to the Sergeant Major who informed me that I was being transferred. No longer would I be serving with a combat engineer platoon. Instead, I was to be acting company clerk for two or three weeks, and then I was to move up to 70th Engineer battalion headquarters. There I would serve out the last three months of my Vietnam year as a combat matériel supply clerk for the S4 officer.

Somewhere along the line I lost the prized necklace Mei had given me. I believe that the chain simply broke and it slipped away somewhere, perhaps to be found by a passer-by.

Postscript: I came home from Vietnam in the late summer of 1967. Within two years I began having problems with anxiety and panic attacks. I soon began trying to control my problems by finding that very relaxed state I had experienced sitting cross-legged on the floor next to Mei. By 1970 I had begun to consider myself a sort of Buddhist, and for the next six years I studied books on the subject and learned a variety of techniques to help my meditation. On several occasions, after returning to college to complete my education, two of my professors routinely took me with them on trips to visit various Buddhist temples and monasteries in Virginia, D.C. and Maryland. I toyed with the idea of joining a monastery, but was determined to finish my college education in Asian Studies. I did spend several evenings in two different Buddhist temples—one of the Therevada school and one of the Mahayana school—sitting with monks in meditation. I remember the first time I joined the monks at the Mahayana temple. The Japanese monk in charge of the evening’s meditation session pointed me to a place on a bench with others already seated. He was unsure as to what my experience might have been in doing meditation. He told me to just sit as relaxed as I could, with my eyes half closed, and my mind clear and tranquil. He finished his quick lesson by repeating, “Just sit!”