Philosophers are not made. They are born. I am a philosopher. I am a philologist to boot. It is not my fault nor is it the fault of my mother. Before you go any further, I would like to define these two terms as I use them here. The first is a person in love with Sophia or wisdom, that is. The second term I use in the sense of a lover of learning in and of itself.
My mother is of the same heritage as me. German, Welsh, Swedish and Cherokee. I have the addition of Irish and that is why you are reading these thoughts. Women in general cannot stand philosophers, regardless of what they may say. Philosophers cannot comprehend women regardless of what they may say.
The stage is set. The child is born and school is open. I crawled, I walked and I ran. My elder half-sister taught me how to fight due to an admixture of different Irish blood via her father. I likely hadn't survived beyond six years old without the martial spirit of Cu Chullain she possesses in abundance.
I remember staying at my grandfather's cabin on the Gulf of Mexico one hurricane season. It was just my sister, me and my grandpa. We were at the beach swimming while the old man fished. Being an old salt with decades at sea under his belt, he told us to keep “a weather eye” on some inky flat clouds that were forming up a few miles out in the gulf.
I did as directed and was the first to spot it. An angry ragged piece of black swirling vapor twisting itself into a tornado. I started to sound the alarm and suggested vociferously that we jump in the car and burn rubber all the way to the house in Beaumont. I shouted to no avail. My grandfather took in his fishing line and stood still. He quietly told me not to worry.
I was beyond worry. I turned to my sister to get a majority in favor of immediate departure. The funnel had now dropped from the horizontal to vertical and made contact with the sea. There was a silvery splash and an incredible churning. The sea is shallow where we were and this intensified the effect as mud, gravel, shells, seaweed and fish were vacuumed up into the negative maw.
My little blond blue-eyed Irish Viking sister was knee deep in the water staring the ugly beast in the eye. As I approached I could see not a trace of concern in her countenance. I saw awe and respect. The fact that she wore a grin and not a smile on her face, unnerved me further. I stood beside her in the surf and called her and my grandfather both crazy until the roar drowned out my puny voice.
We watched it together. Like a living being it plowed an erratic course toward land with lightning cracking on all sides. It made landfall a hundred yards or so toward the east and this disrupted the cyclonic action enough that a few hundred feet more inland it collapsed. There was a huge splat as tons of salt water, mud and fish were deposited unceremoniously onto the coastal highway which ran toward Louisiana.
My grandfather laughed, “ See, I told you not to vorry. Chust a lilla vater spout.”
My sister said, “Wow!” and continued playing.
I went to investigate the nautical leavings on the highway with two new lines of investigation forming in my five year old philosopher's head. One was the wisdom of old men and the other was the bravery of little girls. Damn!
Another time at the cabin, the same sister and I were with our grandmother. We managed to get caught in a flotilla of Portuguese Man'O'Wars. These are a type of jelly-fish that has a pink float on the surface and long tentacles dangling underneath, sometimes several feet long. The sting is like boiling water spilled on the skin.
We were diving and body surfing and hadn't noticed the armada blowing in with the wind. The creatures cannot swim and they drift where ever the wind pushes their sails. Once one of us got stung and started hollering, we both saw we were surrounded.
Our grandmother was on the beach nearby and heard the alarm. She stood and saw the forest of pink floats. Now my sister and I were thrashing around and completely entangled in the stinging tentacles and caterwauling in earnest. Our bodies were already crimson and starting to swell.
My Cherokee grandma strode straight into the miasma of pain. I watched in horror as she reached the flotilla and her legs became wrapped in the accursed slimy strands of poison. I figured she would be overcome by the pain and be unable to reach us in time. My sister and I would sleep with the fish. Then it happened.
My grandma started to laugh! She laughed a warm belly laugh that carried over the water and infected everything in earshot. The more she got stung, the more she laughed. She reached us and scooped one in each arm and strode back to the safety of the sand. We were all laughing through the tears. We were all blotchy and looked like acid had been poured on us.
The ruckus had attracted attention and a small crowd had formed. A wise man in the crowd gave the formula for our relief. He was an old salt and my grandmother knew to listen to him. There was only one thing for it. We had to get pee on our legs immediately. I contributed as much as I could and probably the lion's share as I recall. It worked. Something about the ammonia in the urine changes the poison.
A year or so later at the cabin, my sister and I were swimming as usual. We had a game where the object was to wait for an incoming wave and at the last second, jump straight up and over it into the deep water behind the crest. If done right one had a satisfying dive and if wrongly timed, it was a handstand on oyster shells.
I timed a jump badly and did the handstand onto the back of a channel catfish. The fish has two pectoral and one dorsal fin that are specially adapted for life in Texas. They are rigid hypodermic bones filled with venom. My aim was true, my weight was right and the fin pierced my middle finger of my right hand, scraped along the bone and came out the top-side of that finger.
The shaft was slightly barbed and the fish was stuck good. The venom started to swell the flesh immediately and I ran to shore with the evil bewhiskered turd-wrassler dangling from my hand like a voodoo ornament. This time there was no grandma or grandpa. We had come alone. I laughed! I thought of my grandma and I laughed while I yanked the bastard out of my hand. I remembered the old man from the previous incident and I peed all over the wound. I was already a coffee and a root-beer drinker by this time so it healed in a short time with no infection. I was starting to accumulate wisdom by learning from all those around me.
My mother taught me three things that stand clear now from my vantage at fifty-five years old. She taught me to not judge anyone by their race, creed or religion. She taught me not to mistreat women. Finally, she taught me to cut and thread gas-pipe. She tried to teach me to dance but it didn't take. That is not her fault. She began her role as a mother at a very young age after a very difficult and short childhood. She always did her best.
We were never very close and the main obstruction was my father. I do not blame her and I no longer blame myself. What is, simply is. We have always had each others backs, though. These bonds become clearly visible when life blows all the other rubbish away and they are standing alone.
My mother saved my ass with a phone call once when I had wandered off into dealing with thieves in a misguided real estate scheme. Prior to the phone call, she braved the stormy waters of being accused of meddling in my affairs by grabbing my ears and telling me I was barking up the wrong tree. I detected wisdom and I followed her advice. I didn't get a pair of broken legs that would have been in the near future.
I have also told her the truth on several occasions when there was a real risk of being very misunderstood. She took me into her house as a grown man with a small child during a transitional time in my life without a hint of hesitation. This ain't the stuff Hallmark cards are about.
My baby sister was supposed to be a boy according to my wishes as a six year old. I prayed continually through my mother's pregnancy and had my first religious crisis when my Mom brought home a little girl. After one look at the new sibling, I learned that Great Spirit gives us what we need free of charge. A different principal gives us what we want and sticks us with the interest-bearing bill.
My baby sister taught me responsibility and gentleness. When somebody looks up to you it calls forth the best in you and my sister looked up to me. I have had her always in mind through my life. So these four women added to my pool of knowledge but as I got older I wanted more.
I sought wisdom wherever I could and I realized early on that the best substitute for it is the ability to discern it in others. When detected it must be heeded. I already knew not to judge books by their covers, so my sources ranged from winos in the gutter to PhD s.
In studying families, I realized that mine was a very limited model to base my future on, so I spent many hours in the company of other families. One of these was an Ecuadorean family I met through a lady I knew. If you have ever heard the song “Maggie May” by Rod Stuart, I need say no more about her.
The family I speak of knew rudimentary English and I knew present tense Spanish so we communicated in Spanglish. I was a drinker in those days and the father of that family loved to drink beer with me and when his three sons grew old enough they joined us. I spent a couple of years with these guys.
I lived on my own but took supper several times a week and every weekend saw me at their house from Friday night to the wee hours of Monday morning. I was a gas-fitter at the time and working at the trade my mother had guided me into. I treated this family as my own and I was treated the same by them.
The mother of the family taught me many things. She also tried to teach me to dance but it didn't take. She and her husband taught me that any amount of guests can and should be accommodated at ones table. This is done by simply adding more water to the soup and taking turns with the bowls. A lesson I have never abandoned. Learned through observation that the sons bonded strongly with the mother because there was no interference from the Papa.
Due to the fact that with me on board there were four males in the casa and only one woman, there was an abundance of testosterone. Usually we took it down to the basement and soothed it with beer and cumbia music. Once in a while the Mama and some female cousins would come down to sip Cokes and try to show me how to dance.
In time the lady of the house chose a good woman for her eldest son. They are still happily married today and have children of their own. The young lady was Chilena from a farm background. One night we all sat talking and Mama was the last to get home. She had a bag in her hand and something was struggling inside.
She pulled out a large chicken she had just purchased in Chinatown. We all sat in amazement. She grabbed it by the feet, approached her husband and asked him to kill it for supper. He declined with a beautiful speech worthy of Cicero. She clucked her lips and went by turns to each son in declining order of age.
The eldest son gave a philosophical rendering of his inability to do the deed that would have made you cry if you understood Spanish. The middle son only gestured with a negative nod of his head. The youngest son protested vehemently at the barbarity of the entire exercise. It was my turn.
I wanted to say yes out of respect for the woman who had been so kind to me. I couldn't bring myself to though, so the eldest son's new bride took the bird out back and returned four minutes later with the meat. Part of the lesson was the about the practical skills of farmers but another component was the unmasking of the underlying bravery of women and the underlying tenderness of men.
Tenderness not weakness and bravery not bravado. The lesson wasn't lost on me and jived with everything else I had observed everywhere on the planet that I had traveled. It was this Ecuadorian Mama who disentangled me from the clutches of my Maggie May after my own mother had tried and failed due to my stubbornness.
There came another to this house on the weekends for the food and the drinking. He was a huge man, an Ecuadorian and could have served as a model for the character Caliban in Shakespeare's play, The Tempest. He was well over six-feet tall. Most tall Ecuadorians I met were nearly five-feet tall. They had delicate hands and tiny feet.
This fellow was ham-handed, barrel-chested, hairy as an ape, loud as auctioneer and crude in his speech both in English and Spanish. He had been found in the travels of the youngest son who took much delight in his company. I would say the man was near his mid-thirties at the time. I was in my early twenties.
His name was Avila. Just Avila. He wore thick glasses pulled tight to his head by rubber straps. In winter he wore a massive shaggy black beard. His feet were huge, his nails were bitten to the quick and he had an unsettling way of poking his tongue out the left side of his mouth, closing his eyes and raising his head up when making a point in conversation.
He snorted when he laughed and one wondered, seriously, dude, is he human or demon spawn? He was however, a guy and so he loved to talk philosophy as long as it got vulgar enough quickly enough. His appetite was so prodigious as to beggar description and the Mama had to kill a lot of chickens and add a lot of water to the pot when Avila was around. He sprayed when he talked and stabbed the air with his finger like a gun-barrel for emphasis. He was as polite as a choir-boy in the presence of the Mama and an uncouth sasquatch in her absence.
I spoke to him on many occasions and I took to inviting the boys and their father over to my house for dinner as a way to give relief to my friend's larder. I would make a five to seven pound garlic clove stuffed, black pepper and bacon covered pot-roast. Mashed potatoes, rice and green beans would round out the meal along with Calabrian bread loaves sliced, buttered and oven warmed.
Avila would accompany the guys every time. He sat in the captain's chair, stabbed the roast with his fork, cut off half and then began to shovel on the garnishes. An entire loaf of bread would go to him alone and he drank every beverage dry including but not limited to alcoholic beverages, milk, juice and coffee. He was a bull. He grew to like me in time and with feeding. He hated gringos with an uncontrollable rage, but tolerated me for the Cherokee in my blood. He called me Cheroki Sueco.
Gas-fitting petered out and I found myself employed at a local shipyard one day. My interview had been short. I told the English engineer that I only knew domestic piping and he asked if I could read a blueprint and follow orders. I replied that I had taken drafting in high school and that my father had taught me the latter.
I began next day. I was shown to a shack on a huge compound. It was the pipe-fitters shack. The fellows were predominantly from the river Clyde in Scotland and there were a few Germans and a sprinkling of Caribbeans. All the bosses were English.
There were bicycles everywhere and they were to be ridden upon to go to tool shacks where you would use tags to exchange for the larger size tools outside the personal tools each man had in his red box. Next you would ride to your hull and commence the days chores as outlined by your foreman.
I was given the task of connecting the freshwater system and the air-conditioning on a Venezuelan oil-rig supply vessel that was overdue for delivery. It was still in dry-dock. I rode to the hull with my collection of giant Stilson wrenches and a blueprint.
I mounted the ladder and strode onto the steel deck through a shower of welding sparks and a miasma of acetylene smoke. While looking for the hatchway I needed to access the lower decks I pulled out a smoke and started to light it with my Bic lighter.
A short stocky man about twenty years my senior flung out his arm and caught me across the chest. I went down on the slippery deck and sprawled on some grating. I stood and retrieved my lighter and asked him why he did that. He told me that a spark from the welding could settle in my pocket and ignite my plastic lighter and subsequently blow my chest in two.
He was a father and knew that boys my age didn't listen well to words but really paid attention to actions. He was right on both accounts. I went down the dark acrid hole and set about learning how to be a marine pipe-fitter. It was slow going but I was solo and glad of it.
After a few hours it started to come easier and to make sense. If I needed a flange welded on to take a valve or a threaded pipe, I simply went up top and tapped any welder available for the small job. I had no glasses and had welders flash within an hour. I would suffer later that night from that lesson.
The shipyard was a union workplace and I had been inducted into said union with no prior experience of what that meant. To me it meant more dollars per hour than I had ever dreamed of. It was roughly six times more than I had ever earned to that date.
There was a steam whistle that signaled two fifteen minute breaks and a half hour lunch. These breaks were taken in the shack. I made friends with the Caribbeans by lending them my Tabasco sauce to liven up their baloney sandwiches. We worked exactly eight hours I was told. No one explained that the wash-up began ten minutes prior to knocking off work.
I simply fitted pipe until the appointed quitting time when I heard the whistle. I gathered my tools and had a smoke while admiring my tiny beginnings. I mounted the ladder and came up top. The whole compound in every direction was deserted. I went down to the bike and rode over to the tool shed. There was no one there so I took them to the pipe-fitters shed and left them on the bench and grabbed my jacket.
There was a double high-security fence that had to be passed through coming and going. It was manned by an armed guard and the hundreds of men were let out and in one by one after showing a special ID. It was constructed so there was a passageway big enough for one man at a time before reaching the other side. It had barbed razor-wire on top and looked very much like a prison fence.
I saw the throng at the gate and hurried up to join them. I could hear nasty sounding grumbles circulating among the men before I reached them. In a variety of accents the sentiments were the same. The new guy had broken a cardinal rule and had worked past the wash-up time. The work in a shipyard is over when the ship is launched except for a small contingent of workers who accompany the vessel for its sea trials.
If it gets built a day early, it is a days less wages for hundreds of men. I was in trouble and I quickly knew it. There was many men between me and the fence and the view was blocked to the outside. I saw a few faces in the crowd that were familiar from the pipe-fitter's shed but the mentality of a mob is equal to the lowest IQ present. I had read about that, now I was looking at it.
I made way slowly trying to get to the gate. Guys bumped and elbowed me as they worked up to the trigger point for an ancient dance of madness. I was called names I had never heard before and that is saying a lot. I didn't speak. I figured anything I said could pull the crazy switch. I was thinking about grandmas, sisters, tornadoes and schools of jelly-fish. I was getting ready to laugh. I was getting ready to pee. I hoped I would make at least one Scottish and one German bastard look worse than I was going to look.
I realized that the individual men weren't really bad nor was it personal. It was a chance to vent all the frustration, anger and shortcomings of their own childhoods and lives in a safe environment with the strength and anonymity of numbers. It was simple to understand. It was male cowardice at its finest. They saw me as the likeliest drum on which to beat this old song. I inched along the gauntlet and heard a jangle of keys and a latch being thrown.
I got to a place where I could just see through the crowd to the other side of the big fence. I laughed out loud. It was a real belly laugh and easy to do. This startled the guys immediately in front of me and they parted slightly. I had a better view now.
“Oye, Davila! Que paso tu hijo de puta?” I said.
Avila was in a black security guard uniform that must have been specially tailored for his inhuman bulk. His pistol hung like a child 's water gun on his belt. Had a man taken it and shot him twice, they would have merely angered the bear. Avila searched the crowd for my face, found it and laughed like St. Nicholas as he slid back the gate.
“Cheroki, yo no se que tu trabajas aqui, tu pendejo loco.”
“I didn't know you work here either, tu Caliban.”
Avila started letting the men out and bellowed, “Hey you fucking gringos: This guy, he's my friend.”
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.