Count Saint Germain
The last time I had any semblance of companionship was in 1948. I’d come from Europe to California after the war with a group of soldiers, a bunch of guys who couldn’t re-adapt to society. Some had seen too much, haunted by the deaths of their friends, by the killing they’d done. They would wake in the middle of the night in pools of sweat gasping for air and stare listlessly in their waking hours at the shades and phantoms only they could see, their own personal hells only others who had witnessed so much death could relate to; a manic numbness, a shivering of the grey matter at high frequency, an immersion into the gory underpinnings of reality. Others were addicted to excitement; the war had turned them into adrenaline junkies, and when their lives weren’t somehow threatened or in danger, they grew morose and depressed. It was how they all came to ride motorcycles; they were either running from the memories or chasing the thrill that lingers close to death. It’s an acquired taste, but once they were hooked, nothing else came close. It was the autumn of ‘48, and they were roaring down out of the mountains, and I with them, toward San Bernardino. They didn’t care what the world had to offer: the new houses, shiny cars, and steady jobs. They were still at war, only the enemy had changed, an enemy they hadn’t yet identified.
A monument to mankind, the city stretched out in the valley below like a futuristic shimmering mirage, a harbinger of things to come. It was home to McDonald’s Famous Barbecue, which that year changed its name to McDonald’s Famous Hamburger, which later became McDonald’s. San Bernardino was a new name used by new people. For eight thousand years prior to the arrival of an amalgam of outcasts and unwanteds it was called Wa’aach in the language of the Tongva, The Valley of the Cupped Hand of God. There weren’t supposed to be any fluent speakers left, but I knew of a few up in the hills, holdouts from another world, another place and time that was gasping its last breaths, engaged in a fight it never asked for or wanted. Like my friends, they were ghosts of a world that had abruptly vanished, caught in a holding pattern until the last one either died off or converted to the ways of the men in the valley below; join or die, join or become a barely visible blip on the radar of history, an insignificant blemish that had gone against the grain of so-called progress and had to be ground down and disposed of in the dust heap of obscurity with others who were foolish enough to stand in the way of Manifest Destiny or God and Empire. It was Tyranny in the name of Freedom, a Freedom my friends had fought and died for, in reality nothing more than the freedom for the men in charge to shape the world in their own image and for their own benefit. The result of an escalation of imperial pissing contests that could leave only one victor, which could leave room for only one truth, one version of reality.
Together, we’d take off for days, weeks, or months at a stretch, riding up the coast to Eureka, out Route 66, down the Baja Peninsula. Once we even rode all the way out to New York City.
The where didn’t matter much to them, it was always the same, they were searching for something they didn’t quite know how to find. They made a lot of friends along the way. They were still heroes then, just good guys taking some time off to see the America they’d saved, an America that wasn’t ready to deal with what they’d become or what the war did to them, the ones who refused to suffer in silence, the guys with hair-trigger tempers. The guys who picked up a lust for violence and even killing. It’s not a switch that can be easily shut off; one moment it was their job to kill, to violently snuff out the life of another human, medals were awarded—praise lavished on those who did the best—to the ones with the most blood on their hands, the most ruthless. Unlike most that had come before them in history, they weren’t professional soldiers, and violence wasn’t part of everyday life. The world had changed but the job of the soldier remained the same; tens of thousands of killers set free, told the rules had changed, there was to be no more violence, no more killing. How could it have been alright to kill a moment ago but not now? Many amateur warriors were harangued by sickening guilt, and the ones who weren’t justified their killings in some fashion or another.
I knew these men without being told, it was something I’d seen thousands of times before, a subtle confidence in their gaze, a gleam in the eye that says they’ve understood this world is not as it seems, that there is a gruesome end waiting for us all, regardless. I passed them on the street, giving and receiving a nod or a wink in tacit understanding, two warriors recognizing one another.
We’d taken off down the Baja peninsula trying to scratch the itch of restlessness and dissatisfaction. It was one of our typical testosterone-fueled jaunts until we reached La Paz. Even in fall it was hot, and the dirt roads, full of dust and sand, made for slow and treacherous travel. We rode during the day and set up camp on a beach in late afternoon. Dinner was whatever we pulled out of the water and cooked over the fire.
I had heard of the town before the trip and understood why the Conquistadors named it La Paz; it was beyond peaceful, a preternatural silence and stillness hung in the air which seemed to radiate from the Sea of Cortez. I’d experienced such atmospheric gravitas before in similar latitudes. In the stretch of the languid afternoons, I’d forget myself while watching the heat dance off the sand in front of the Sea of Cortez. I would forget what time and place I was in, my mind spinning backwards over the years to my children and the worlds that had come and gone since I’d seen them last. One such afternoon, Peter called my name. My mind was operating in German, and it took me a few seconds to snap back, to realize I was in Mexico in 1948.
“Marcus, Marcus, I think we have a problem. The locals have Phillip. I can’t understand why, but it doesn’t look good.”
I turned away from the Sea of Cortez and looked at Peter. I hadn’t always been called Marcus, and the name still caught me off guard at times.
“Ok, let’s go.”
The scene I encountered stood in sharp contrast to the peaceful beach; a group of drunken local men had Phillip surrounded and were shouting.
“Usted es un ladrón, nos dan nuestras perlas! Estamos muy lejos de América del Norte. Es fácil que algo malo suceda, fácil y nadie sabría siquiera…”
I translated for Peter. “They said ‘you are a thief, give us our pearls! We are a long way from America, Northerner. It is easy for something bad to happen, easy and no one would even know…’”
The men were pearl divers and had been drinking with Phillip and a few others since late morning. They didn’t take kindly to Phillip gathering a small sackful of pearls out of the ocean. The edge of their anger dulled when he returned them. It seemed the situation had been resolved, when a belligerent member of the Mexican pearl-diving posse rushed at me and sank a rusty knife into my shoulder. Before the blood started to trickle, the man and two of his friends lay dead on the dusty floor of the wooden shack they used as a cantina. A fourth man reached for a revolver, and Peter put a bullet through his ear and said to me in a calm, even tone, “Do we back out slowly and leave post haste, or do we kill the rest of them and leave at our leisure?” Peter would think nothing of killing the four others, not because he was cruel, but because up until recently, killing had been his life; killing had become his instinct in such situations, a knee-jerk reaction.
I answered, “No, Peter, put your gun back in its place; if you use it again, I don’t think you’ll make it out of this town alive.”
The pearl divers were shouting, and a small crowd began to gather in front of the cantina. I pulled the knife from my shoulder, and for a few moments blood spurted out in thick geysers. I reached down to the floor of the Cantina, picked up a handful of dust and dirt, and pushed it into the wound. I breathed deeply and spoke in an even tone.
“Sus amigos están en un lugar mejor, te lo aseguro. Siento que tenía que llegar a esto, pero no queremos más derramamiento de sangre. Mi amigo y yo nos iremos tranquilamente ahora. Si usted está parado en el camino lo que puedo decir por ninguno de caer la noche estarás vivo, usted se sentirá la ira del diablo, la ira de lo que sus ancestros llamado Yaotzin, porque yo soy él y él es yo.“
Peter and I walked past the men, jumped on our motorcycles, and roared out of town. We drove almost nonstop back to San Bernardino and hid out up in the hills for three weeks. There wasn’t really any danger; La Paz was a poor isolated town in another country that didn’t even have a telephone, but Peter and the others liked hiding up in the hills waiting for the cops or a gang of mercenaries or banditos to come sniffing for revenge. More than that, it kept the questions at bay. It allowed them to escape the inevitable for a little longer, to put a little more distance between themselves and reality. They didn’t have to face the end of life as they knew it and figure how to adapt.