The Dustmobile Diaries: Day Two

Sometimes the meaning of a journey is unknown to the traveller.

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer

October 10, 2013

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A bit of peace and quiet, showing that setbacks, if ignored, often prove to be opportunities in disguise…

1:11 PM, Mountain TIme. Another roadside picnic area, this time just shy of Sitting Bull Falls. Tourist season is over for the year, and the recreation area is closed for refurbishment, which means this is as close as I’m going to get. At first, the little orange sign announcing this unexpected fact got under my skin: I seem to have a knack for showing up at just such inopportune moments. However, I allowed my curiosity to get the better of me (it’s always the way to go, trust me) and took off down the road anyway, just to see what I might see. As it turns out, my timing was quite opportune.

Silence–a precious commodity in this 21st-century world we live in. You know the question, right: “Can you hear me now?” I always want to yell at the television when I hear this: “Yes, dammit! Now please go away and leave me alone!”

I have been sitting at this picnic table for almost an hour and a half, and have neither seen nor heard a single sign of human life, save the beating of my tell-tale heart. (Sorry, Eddie…) I have not experienced silence like this, I think, in my life. Complete and utter solitude. I’ve come close, wandering the dunes of Lindisfarne in the northeast of England, but even then, I could see the homes and shops of Holy Island in the distance. Other than the table I’m sitting at, and the shelter overhead, there isn’t another man-made structure in sight; I’m seven miles from the entrance to this road, off of yet another back road, so there aren’t even any traffic noises to disturb my reverie. It’s just me, the breeze, and the beauty of a desert mountain-scape.

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Be here now? Closest I’ve ever come…

That pesky little park closure turned out to be the best setback ever, the purest, most genuine moment of my day. As I always say, when one door closes, break a window…

* * * * *

Rewind.

The Carlsbad Inn sits on Canal Street. It’s not a bad little place for the price, which is going to be slightly elevated due to the fairly impressive hole in the ground a few miles down the road. Not a bad little place at all. Except for the AC unit. Carlsbad’s in the Chihuahan Desert, making the days very warm and the nights pretty cold, and thermostats ridiculously hard to regulate. The room was nice and close when I first entered, so I switched on the air. Which proceeded to turn itself off and on at ten minute intervals throughout the night. Like a bike chain slipping, accompanied by a shotgun blast. With a jolt. A jolt so pronounced that it shook the whole room, each minor earthquake threatening to dislodge me from the bed and deposit me on the floor. I woke up. A lot. What is more, since I was in the desert, the temperature outside dropped like a rock as soon as the sun went down, so I woke up this morning with Jack Frost nipping at my pretty-much-everything, not to mention what may very well over the next few days turn into a beauty of a head cold. We shall see…

They say that the first step toward recovery is admitting you have a problem. I am a coffee addict. No, that’s not my problem. I didn’t have any. That was my problem. Having admitted as much, I decided to hit the bricks and see if I could track some down. A Chevron sign in the distance, peeking over the roof of the motel next door, seemed a promising target, so I headed off to find it.

Canal Street is a busy place at 7:30 on a Thursday morning: people off to work, kids off to school. The pedestrian proceeds at his own risk, dodging schoolbuses and tardy employees at every street corner.

Sign-reading is a favorite pastime of mine. You never know what pearls of wisdom you’ll discover. Like my favorite of all time, outside a fast food joint in Marietta, Oklahoma: “It’s time to eat y’all!” Demonstrating the importance of punctuation. Canal Street did not disappoint. A couple of doors down to the south, a Chinese buffet heaps upon its fare the highest praise it can muster: “Costs less than a trip to China.” The Best Western, two blocks north: “Welcome Lt. Governor John A. Sanchez, DJ tonight.” One wonders if they’ve told the LT exactly what’s expected of him. And the No Whiner Diner, outside the Stagecoach Inn, warns the ladies to watch their hair, because “it’s fly fan season again.”

I finally reached the Chevron station, which was strewn with fake cobwebs and laminated Jack-o-Lanterns in honor of approaching Halloween. As I stood at the counter waiting to pay for my cup of slightly watered-down lifeblood, I noticed a box of Peeps (if you don’t know what these are, you have my sympathies…and probably a lower cholesterol count than me) shaped like ghosts. It occurred to me that it’s possible to find these things in almost any shape these days. They ain’t just baby chickens anymore. And then the lightbulb really went off: custom-made Peeps, little family portraits in sugary marshmallow fluff. What greater gift could one give? “Here you go, Grandma–eat yourself for Christmas!” “Happy anniversary, dear–at least it’s not another power tool…”

* * * * *

On my way out of Carlsbad, I made a stop at the Living Desert State Park. Don’t let the name fool you; it’s really something of a glorified zoo. Although “glorified” may not be the right word. Or “wildlife,” for that matter. What they’ve got, to my mind, barely qualifies as “life.” I’ve had the great privilege of seeing some of these creatures–elk, black bear, bison–in the actual wild, in their natural habitats, and after that sort of experience, the caged versions only leave a bad taste in my mouth. I couldn’t even bring myself to approach the bison enclosure. The phrase itself–“bison enclosure”–feels oxymoronic somehow. There are few more majestic sights than a herd of buffalo roaming free across the prairie (or staring down a Winnebago in a national park; that was an interesting half hour); conversely, there are few more depressing sights than that same herd trapped behind chain-link, forced to walk the same circular path, day in and day out, around a tiny, dusty corral…

I did, however, capture a couple of little guys who deserve a place in this post:

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“Leave me alone! Can’t you see I’m busy…?

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FROGGIE!!!

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The Bolson tortoise, the largest native to North America, and on the Endangered Species list.

Before long, I’m overtaken by a family of four–mom, dad, and two teenage daughters–who took the idea of “outdoor voices” a tad too literally. These blabbermouths epitomize my dislike of people in nature. Why is it that we are incapable of quiet? Why is our interaction with the natural world around us so rarely reverent and so often downright raucous? Is it that we feel the need to prove the right of ownership? Is it that being reminded of our own insignificance vis-à-vis our ecosystem scares us a little bit? Do we realize in these situations just how unnecessary we as a species really are to the functioning of this planet? Up ahead, at the bear pit, the mother bellows, “I sure wish we could see him!” That’s odd. I wonder why he’s hiding…

The Living Desert’s less than impressive attempts with fauna were more than made up for by its spectacular array of flora. There is something about desert plant-life that speaks to the wonders of evolution: a more bizarre assortment of organisms would be difficult for the most prolific of artists to imagine, poking their spiny extremities hither and yon, self-designed pictures of perfection. Some seem simply to have erupted from the sandy soil with no particular thought beyond survival, and aesthetics be damned. And it is precisely this disregard for symmetry that makes them such beautiful specimens of natural selection. So, you’ll forgive me if I take a moment to indulge in what I like to call “Cactus-Fest 2013.”

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Later, as I entered the gift shop in search of the mandatory refrigerator magnet, I asked the woman behind the counter how her day was going. She looked at me for a moment, and responded, “Are you sure you want to know?” Hmmm. “Well,” I replied, “I asked.” As it turned out, her mother had just undergone knee surgery in Lubbock, Texas, and was at that point waiting to be discharged and sent home, a long, cramped trip for someone whose leg had just been cut open. Sometimes, that one little question–“How are you today?”–sincerely asked, is all it takes to create a sense of camaraderie, of fellow feeling, between two people. And it is too rarely sincerely asked. By the time I left the shop ten minutes later, I knew where she was from (Alaska) and why she came to New Mexico (her parents retired); she knew where I was from and why I’m on this little trip of mine. It was a short-lived connection, but a real one. This is the goal, my friends: coming together, however momentarily, as real people. Stranger danger, indeed!

* * * * *

About ten miles outside of Carlsbad, I veered off the highway to the west and struck off down the Guadalupe Back Country Byway (otherwise known as NM-137). “Veered,” indeed–the intersection snuck up on me, and my left turn maneuver would have made the Andrettis themselves green with envy. Mind you, I did not know I was striking off down the Guadalupe Back Country Byway; I didn’t know there was such a thing until I was ten miles into it. Here’s what really happened (and I offer you here a window into my approach to life): when I got up this morning, I opened my atlas–the paper kind, you know, the Google-free kind–and picked a random line on the map, one that looked good and promising, which in my case means good and nowhere. And that, my friends, is what led both to the byway and to the moment of true solitude I described above. Try it sometime; you’ll be glad you did.

The GBCB is a beautiful stretch of glorious two-lane highway, some thirty miles of it. The only thing that detracts from the experience is the fact that, not unlike US-67 yesterday, it’s lined with pumpjacks and processing plants. I even passed a sign warning of the potential for poisonous gases “when flashing.” Abandon all breath, ye who enter here. Ah, nature…

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The view from the Guadalupe Back Country Byway.

At one point, a tarantula (a big one, big enough that I could make it out from inside a car moving at 55 miles an hour) ran across the road in front of me, and I swerved to miss it. And thought to myself, “Wouldn’t that make an entertaining bumper sticker…”

* * * * *

6:30 PM, Cloudcroft, NM. I left my picnic table paradise only five hours ago, but they have been an interesting five hours. I headed north to Artesia to catch US-82 west to Alamogordo. Like yesterday, I had a vague notion of spending the night in Alamogordo, and like yesterday, it was not to be.

As I sat at the intersection of 285 and 82, waiting for the light to turn, a sixteen-wheeler hauling a monster generator (a big generator, that is to say, not a machine that generates monsters) discovered, a little too late, that his cargo was too tall for the stoplight. Sounds of twisting metal against stubborn payload filled the air as the hapless driver fought to salvage the situation, to no avail. He was well and truly snagged. But he could not back up, so he gritted his teeth and struggled forward, dragging the mangled utility pole with him as he went. At last, he broke free, leaving the city of Artesia a little out of pocket and the poor traffic signal hanging lifeless and limp, dangling from a few slowly swinging wires, the rope to its gallows. Alas! he was too young to die.

Heading west, a strange feeling overtook me, filling me with a sense of dislocation, of timelessness, of total emptiness. In the distance, the shadowy outline of the Sacramento Mountains loomed, ghost-like, through a gathering mist, a token of impending rain. A heavy crosswind buffeted the car as I drove, catching up and casting prairie grass plumes across the asphalt, covering it in a silken carpet of forest green. The whole of nature, bent double before the rising wind, seemed to be running for its life, whipping violently this way and that, desperately seeking shelter against the coming storm.

The ethereal scene unfolding around me put me in a pensive mood, and I lost myself in thought as I advanced. Suddenly, the unexpected happened: a great feeling of homesickness washed over me in waves, the mirror image of the morning’s solitude. I realized I was lonely. And I very nearly turned the car around to head for home. In fact, I had to force myself to drive on. In that moment, a paradigm shifted; I learned something about myself that sent me reeling, a revelation that landed like a thunderbolt and blew my self-image to smithereens.

I missed my wife. Don’t get me wrong; I always miss my wife when I’m away from home. But this was different: I didn’t just miss her, I felt her absence like a shortness of breath. I missed my home, not because of the comfy bed or the easy access to food and entertainment, but simply because it was home. You might think it odd that this surprised me so much, but it did. See, my whole life I have been an inveterate loner. I have prided myself on my independence since I was in high school. I had friends, but I only needed Me. When everyone else congregated, I was the guy off by himself somewhere, thinking, reading, reflecting. And there I was on that New Mexico highway, alone in a way I don’t think I’ve ever been before.

The walkabout just got real, folks. I’m beginning to see through the pretensions of my life to the reality underneath. In the back of my mind, I’ve always embraced the romance of disappearing, of fading away into the hills and never being seen again, an unsolved mystery for the ages. A day and a half into this thing, and I realize this particular fantasy has lost its appeal. I’m not meant to be alone. Behind me, my other half waits, and that’s not just a metaphor anymore. Out there, somewhere, you beckon, friends, family, the promise of connection the fruition of which is no one’s responsibility but my own. Life is calling; I cannot but answer.

But I can’t turn back. Like the trucker back in Artesia, I’ve snagged on life but cannot stop. The only way out is forward, even if that means dragging all my signposts down with me. So, amidst sounds of twisting mettle, I drive on. I’ve met myself. Now for that long talk…

* * * * *

Fifty miles shy of Alamogordo, and still no rain. I am at a dead stop: one-lane road ahead, and we await the arrival of the lead vehicle guiding oncoming traffic along ten miles of unpaved mountain highway. My windows are down again, allowing the crisp fall air to flow in gusts through the inside of the car. On any other day, I’d be climbing the walls about now; I am not a patient man, and I have places to be. But that’s the beauty of this journey–I have no place to be but right where I am. In any case, it could be worse; I could be the guy standing for hours on a mountainside holding a stop sign up to people who aren’t generally thrilled to see him. So I shut off the engine and sit, enjoying the scenery and embracing the moment.

Finally the lead car arrived and we took off after it, moving at around fifteen miles an hour (do the math–ten miles at fifteen miles an hour). We snaked our gravel-laden way through mountain passes encompassed by steep ravines, a 21st-century wagon train blazing a trail through semi-civilization. What probably should have been an onerous bit of work felt more like an adventure of pioneer proportions. A coon-skin cap, and I could have channeled Daniel Boone.

After some forty-five minutes of sinuous progress, we cleared the road work and I realized just how hungry I was. So, a quick stop at a cute little roadside cafe in a one-horse town called Mayhill, for the requisite green chile cheeseburger (I think it’s against the law to visit New Mexico without eating one of these). I realized two things after my meal: 1) It was getting on toward evening, and I was still a good forty miles outside Alamogordo, and 2) that rain I’d been anticipating for the past three hours was just ahead. Downpour driving is not my thing, especially on a mountain road I’m not familiar with, in the dark.

So, when I wove my way into Cloudcroft (how cool is that name, by the way?) and saw this place, I tossed my former plans out the window, slammed on the brakes, and ordered up a room.

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The Aspen Motel, Cloudcroft, NM. That’s my room, last door on the far right. Also recommended.

As I write these words, it’s 33 degrees outside and a steady drizzle is falling. I’ve wandered into winterland. The crazed October heat of Central Texas seems a world away, and forgotten. And now, to sleep once more…

* * * * *

Final thought for the day:

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The essence of my life, in pictures…

I live for the bend in the road, under the assumption that the greatest of treasures lies just around the corner, and if I turn back too soon, I’ll miss it. I must press on; I must see what comes next; I cannot stop, because life is motion, and the meaning of life is always out there, somewhere, ahead. He who stops short, he who assumes he has found what he is looking for and need not continue, will never truly understand, never truly know himself. Never truly live.

I am a seeker. Finding is beside the point…

In the Orchard

They say the lowest-hanging fruit
Is the easiest to pick; but
I say
With a ladder and a broomstick
I will reach the topmost branch and
That burnished, ruddy apple–
An example of perfection–
Shining in the sunlight, echoing
Reflection sight to sight, and take
A bite, eyes closed, and feel the juices
Running down my chin; and
Then

I will reach back up and
Pull one down for you.

Autobiography of a Toad

(An epiphany of me)

Born to roam, never
Always quite at home;
Half a toad, half a turtle–
Life’s a joy; life’s a hurdle
To be cleared and caught
Mid-leap.

Talk is cheap, thought’s
Expensive. Circle wide; view extensive.
Present tense, future perfect and
Imperfect: never not anticipating.
Reborn; restructured;

Celebrating.

To say, not much; to
Do, much more: broken window defeats
Closed door. And on and on, and further
Still, bridges to cross, milk to spill.
Words to spell and rearrange;
Clothes to wear and, then, to change.
Danger is but fear embraced–
What’s a life that is not chased by
Angry ghosts and fleeting sands?

The tortoise, only,
Understands the need for speed as
All goes by, so slow, so fast…

Never stop; it
Cannot last.

Walkabout

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Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
 
– Dylan Thomas
 

Okay, enough with the “wise old Indian,” Grasshopper bullshit…

This Saturday, I will “celebrate” my 36th birthday. (If one more 50-year-old jackass tells me it’s “not a big deal,” I’m throwing down.) And here I am, to paraphrase a rather asinine song, stuck in the middle with me. I have no earthly idea where to go or what to do. I spout inane philosophical drivel again and again–generally the same drivel again and again–like I have a clue what the hell I’m talking about. As it turns out, this is not a Shaolin temple, and I am not Kwai Chang Caine. So, this is me being real: I’m completely clueless about most of everything, and I use great big words and half-baked, grandiose ideas to comfort myself in my hour of ignorance.

There was a time when I thought I knew what was going on, when I thought I knew what my calling was, where my life was headed. I had a mission, for cryin’ out loud! I was set to save the world (and its soul) or die trying. So I left my theater program (which I was quite enjoying, by the way) and jumped into ministry school–because what else does a good little former missionary kid do, right? In other words, I set aside any actual chance at a marketable resume to chase ghosts and fairy tales. By the time I realized what I was chasing, it was too late: I had eight years of ministry under my belt, and absolutely no practical skill-set at all. Imagine spending your whole life preparing to hunt the elusive Jabberwocky, only to discover the damn thing never existed in the first place. Then imagine yourself at a job interview or filling out a job application: “Well, no, I have no experience in customer service or management, but I can hunt mythical creatures like a son of a bitch!”

Here I am, at the midpoint of my life, at a mother of a crossroads, without an inkling. I have become so enmeshed in the “daily grind” that I seem to exist in an endless cycle of work, eat, sleep. And that doesn’t cut it for me, see. Before, when I believed that my time here on Earth was simply a prelude to the “real life” up there in the sky somewhere, just getting through the day didn’t bother me so much. I mean, this world’s not my home, right? Wrong! It most certainly is, and my mortgage is running out (as is everyone’s, day by day by day). There has to be something more to this life than clock-watching. There HAS to be! If not, then why the hell bother?

Having invested so much time in a hollow pursuit, and now that that pursuit has been revealed as hollow, I am adrift, caught up in the undertow known as anomie. As Adrian Monk would say, it’s a gift and a curse. The death of the nomos, the governing worldview, the meta-legitimation, can be a liberating experience, allowing you to see the world again as if for the first time. But it is also a traumatic one, forcing you to face that world for the first time alone, on no pre-structured terms, with no one to blame but yourself. It is exhilarating; it is devastating. It is wondrous; it is loneliness redefined.

I have no doubt that there is a bigger picture out there somewhere. I just don’t know how I fit into it, what part I’m meant to play on the somewhat poorly-lit stage of human life. Until I’ve found an answer to this question (an answer; the answer may be beyond me, beyond all of us), the uncertainty and perpetual lack of equilibrium will continue to wear me down until I eat myself alive from the inside out. I’ve said in former posts–like the self-deluded ass that I am–that I’m content to be none other than who I am. Which is all well and good, except for one teensy, little problem: I haven’t the foggiest idea what that means. I don’t know who I am anymore. And not knowing is killing me, slowly. I’m edging my way toward the day I wake up and just don’t care anymore. And I refuse to let that happen…

So, I’m going walkabout. For those of you who don’t know, the walkabout is a commonly referenced though unconfirmed ritual in Australian aboriginal culture, in which a man removes himself from the regular routine of life and sets out across the wilderness to experience himself in solitude, a process similar to the Native American vision quest. On the sci-fi television show Babylon 5, Dr. Stephen Franklin, an adherent of the fictional religion of Foundationalism, adds an intriguing detail: the man on walkabout is actually in search of himself, having lost his own identity in the midst of the hectic demands of everyday living. He walks until he meets himself, and when he finally does, he sits down and has a long talk with himself, in an attempt to rediscover the identity he has lost.

All the gobbledygook I’ve been posting on this blog over the last couple of years has been written for the sole purpose of figuring out who I am, here in the ashes of Grand Design. Along the way I have encountered many wonderful people, and some of them I now number among my friends. I have enjoyed trading thoughts and commentary, and it has been a pleasure to share a little bit of me with them. With you. But at the end of the day, I write for me. Please understand that I mean no offense by this; you have no idea how much your support and forbearance have meant to me; if I told you how much, it would probably just scare you all off. At the end of the day, though, I write for an audience of one: myself. This blog has been something of an escape valve for me, the place I go to let off the steam that builds up throughout days of meaningless monotony–here’s a book to catalog; oh, here’s another; yes, and for the sake of variety, here’s another one! I write to dump the inner boiler, to give the inner voices something to do besides scream inside my head.

But the farther down the road I get, the less I get out of good old Toad. Or rather, the less time Toad has to figure out what the hell he’s after. Don’t get me wrong–I’m not leaving the Toad behind–but he needs something to add a little flesh to his bones, a little fiber to bolster his diet, if you will. So, I’m going walkabout. Well, drive-about, really. As much as I’d like to do the whole Michael Landon, Highway to Heaven thing–grab a rucksack and an army jacket and hit the shoulder–it’s really not practical. So, drive-about, then.

I have always identified with the back roads, the roads less traveled. I am convinced that somewhere out there, down some two-lane to nowhere (and everywhere) my self is lurking, lying in wait to spring itself on me when I least expect it. That moment of recognition is what I’m out to find.

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In a few days, I’ll be climbing into the trusty Dustmobile II (every good road trip car deserves a name) and heading off to who knows where. Beyond that, the plan is fluid, and simple: Just drive. Move. If there’s a byway, I’ll take it. If something intrigues me, I’ll stop and take a closer look. And I’ll be back when I’m back. With any luck, I’ll get just lost enough to find myself again.

Until then, this is my last post. I’m turning the cell phone off (except for when I call to let my wife, who is understanding enough to sponsor this bit of lunacy, know that I’m still alive), and I’m going off the grid. I’m headed…somewhere. North, south, east, west–yep, one of those, almost certainly. Or perhaps, all four.

I leave you with an old Irish blessing that I just made up: May the face you see in the mirror every morning be a face that makes your heart smile…

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Love Letter

I’m pulling the plug; I’m
Yanking the rug from under my feet.
A honey so sweet it goes down like a
Poison–
I’ll drink it complete; just give me a reason
To think, beyond thought; to dream up a plot and,
Spurred to inaction,
Sit here and rot in diseased satisfaction.

(Draft of retraction; intended redaction)

I’d believe in friendly ghosts if it weren’t for evil spirits;
I know enough of fear by now to know I ought to fear it.
Life’s a dragon rears its head whenever I go near it.
I’d declare my love for you if you were here to hear it…

(Rewrite…)

If I could fight for anything, I would fight for you. It’s
True, I am a weakling: few who have an inkling
Of their own lack of potential spout words as torrentially
As I. This fly’s a butterfly.

And now its wings are in my eye
And I can’t see.

Would someone set me free from all this
Flapping? The sound of one hand clapping is the sound
Of one man grappling with inconsequence
Bordering on incontinence. I’d walk the seven continents–

(Or are there only six?)

Hit the bricks and
Let me be.

Sincerely,
Me

The Coming of the Bees

On a lighter note…

THE KILLER BEES ARE COMING!!!!!!

It is the spring of 1990 in Huerta Grande (which, in Argentina, means it’s somewhere between August and December). I’m sitting in my 7th-grade classroom, wearing my guardapolvo, one be-smocked hooligan among many, awaiting the teacher’s return from the main office and, if that day was like any other, paying more attention to my friends across the room than to the book in front of me. Just another school day at Escuela Bernardino Rivadavia.

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The sleepy little town of Huerta Grande, in Valle de Punilla. The school is indicated by the red arrow; my classroom was at the far end of the building, across from the Catholic church. (Sidenote: I got into my first fistfight ever in the little plaza across from the church,,,)

By way of introduction, it’s important that I let you in on a little secret about Argentine public school classrooms. For the most part, they’re human zoos waiting to happen. I know that classrooms here in the United States are also prone to outbreaks of jinks comprising various altitudes–high, low, and in between–but chaos tended to be the rule rather than the exception in our school, at least when I was there in the late ’80s. (If that tendency dropped after I left, I can only say it must have been a complete coincidence.)

An illustration: My aunt and uncle visited us in Argentina during my 6th-grade year, and in the course of their stay they decided to come and see what a day in the life of a public schooler was like. Our teacher had a way of disappearing to the principal’s office or elsewhere and leaving the room unattended for ten, maybe twenty minutes at a stretch, and–being the mature young adults that we were–her exit from the room generally signalled our exits from our seats. On the day my relatives stopped by, she had left, and in the interim we had spotted a spider on the ceiling of the room, some fifteen feet up. My poor aunt and uncle chose that exact moment to enter and encountered a scene more akin to a monkey habitat than a schoolroom: fifteen or so boys in white smocks jumping from chair to chair, leering like idiots, hurling their little pink erasers into the air in an attempt to dislodge the unfortunate arachnid, who was beginning to have a very bad day indeed. Meanwhile, the rest of the class clapped their hands and cheered us on. (Did I say “us”? Of course I meant “them.”) The look of sheer bewilderment on my aunt’s face was beyond comical–she, a special-ed teacher herself, had clearly never seen anything like it in her life.

Anyway, the parameters having been established, back to our story: a spring day in 1990, twenty-odd not-so-studious sardines stuffed into a less-than-scholastic, whitewashed can. Everything normal, everything as it should be. No reason to suspect that, just two or three miles away, the hammer was about to fall.

Two blocks from my house, the main highway between Huerta Grande and the neighboring town of La Falda forked, one branch remaining a highway (a very steep, wind-ey highway–great for bike-riding) while the other branch took off through the center of town. As we students went calmly about our business, a truck hauling a load of very vigorous honey bees missed the split, overturned, and dumped its cargo all over the pavement. Elated at their unexpected freedom, the bees (some of which ended–literally–by taking up residence in our storage shed) promptly converged upon an innocent passerby and stung him mercilessly. The poor man, who happened to be allergic, of course became deathly ill and collapsed. Ambulances were called, the cops stopped by, crowds thronged–all in all, it was a fairly decent commotion, perhaps even a hullabaloo.

News of the unfolding drama spread quickly, making its way toward the schoolhouse, inexorably, like a twisted game of Gossip. As it went, curiosity became concern, concern morphed into fear, and fear turned into outright hysteria. By the time the tidings reached us, the convergence of trepidation, speculation, and imagination had conjured up a story to chill the heart: A swarm of killer bees was on the loose, and they were headed straight for us.

As you may recall, it was the spring of the year, and the outside world quite pleasant. Cool breezes abounded, and the nascent aroma of flowers was in the air. And our classroom was lined with three pairs of six-foot double windows, every one of which stood opened wide, welcoming the mild weather.

Señorita Sarita, one of our two teachers and vice-principal of the school, who had stepped out momentarily, reappeared dramatically in the doorway of the classroom, her expression and bearing a cross between Jessica Rabbit and Cruella DeVille. In Shakespearian tones, she exclaimed: “Killer bees are coming! Shut the windows!” Or something to that effect. All we heard was “You are all going to DIE!!!”

As she rushed to swing to and seal the first pair, a lone bumblebee floated lazily through the opening and into our midst. And all hell broke loose.

Suddenly that 7th-grade classroom presented an unfavorable comparison to a crowd of metalheads at a Megadeth concert or a department store parking lot on Black Friday. Girls screamed, boys screamed at a slightly lower octave, and everyone headed for the opposite wall. Quickly. We must have looked like a stampede of newly-sentient windmills rampaging through the countryside. The din was deafening; the bumblebee must have been scared half to death; the teacher tried desperately to retake the reins and arrest our terror before we did ourselves an injury. And in the midst of weeping and wailing and smashing of classmates, the poor beast, black hairs now decidedly gray, fled quietly back out the way it had come. I suppose. No one really knows. Perhaps it cowers still in a dark corner of the classroom, now a distinctly antisocial insect, telling other wayward creatures in hushed tones of that dark day it took a wrong turn and wandered into pandemonium.

I’ve often been told in the years since that I’m an unfeeling wretch, because in the face of impending disaster I just don’t seem to care. But it’s not that I don’t care. It’s that, every time someone screams about the sky falling, there’s this mental image that I cannot shake. Y2K, the bird flu, SARS, Valentine’s Day 2003 when the terrorism threat level went up and newscasters told me to Saran-Wrap my home and hold my breath–each time this happens, I find myself back in that 7th-grade classroom, and Señorita Sarita stands once again in the doorway, eyes wide, proclaiming our coming demise…

…and then I think of that poor bumblebee, shaking violently and mumbling to itself, oh so quietly, “What the hell was that?!?”