Tuesday, February 25, 2020

The Bali School Teacher


by Arlo Hennings 



After two and a half years of trying to reinvent myself on Bali, I faced the prospect of ending up as a 60-year-old vagrant on my stepmother’s doorstep. The lengthy building process on my Ubud, Bali villa had depleted my financial resources and much of my resilience. I had bookings for the villa, but not enough savings to get me through days or weeks of vacancy. I couldn’t bear the thought of losing the place, having to leave Tuti, and heading out, yet again, on that unmarked highway.

In preparing the villa for an upcoming guest, I reflected upon how far I had come, and how much my Indonesian wife, Tuti and I had accomplished together. The hard work of establishing the guest house was past us. The land had been blessed, and the house had been blessed. Surely, blood, sweat, and blessings would usher in better days. I noticed a hoop, left by my last retreat promoter — cat woman and began to ponder the circular nature of things.

I congratulated myself for adapting to life on the equator, the center ribbon of the planet. In short, I felt no centrifugal force where I sat. The further away from the center, the more my head would spin.

With no one looking, I slipped the hoop over my head and tried several times to circle it around my neck, arms, and waist. Inevitably, I could not sustain the momentum and the hoop fell to the ground. I soon stopped trying to force it — and my body — into doing something that it did not want to do. By simply holding it up to the sky, the hoop revealed itself as a portal. I saw a serpent eating its own tail, symbolizing birth and rebirth, the cyclical nature of life. And I saw myself evolving through the center of the lens, the telescope now reversed.

I understood the metaphor of the reversed telescope but had not previously experienced it. In childhood, looking ahead at life is like looking through the small end of the telescope. The view is expansive; life’s end, a distant vanishing point. In advanced “senior” years, one’s perspective on life is like looking through the opposite end of the telescope. When I looked through the portal at age 60, the vanishing point appeared to be parked right under my nose.

Losing the villa would dump me, full circle, back to my beginning on Bali. And I would have no money to rebuild my life there. I still had time to make this work for Tuti and me. For the moment, I could see far beyond a clearing in the jungle, and admire the garden that Tuti was tending, just beyond the villa’s doorstep.

I felt fortunate to get a long-term booking and looked forward to receiving my next guest — Catherine Amrit (not her real name). Months earlier, Catherine had contacted me through Facebook, inquiring about renting the villa. We agreed to meet a few days later at the opening to the Monkey Forest in Ubud. When we first met, I learned that she was originally from England, was single and had no children. She described herself as a seasoned traveler and a teacher on a pilgrimage.

“I’ve been traveling in Asia for the past year,” she told me. “I’ve been a teacher in Vietnam. I’ve traveled the back roads of Cambodia, and lived in Nepal.”

I gave her a ride through the dark jungle of the Monkey Forest, back to her room in Nyuh Kuning. She gave me a rental deposit — and a hug — and said that she’d be back in two months.

In the short time I spent with Catherine, she struck me as the type of role-model teacher who could have helped me as a struggling youth. She seemed like the kind of teacher who could change your life, the teacher you never forgot; the one for whom you spent the day polishing the biggest, brightest, red apple to place on her desk. I sensed that she could bring out the best in her students. If she asked for a volunteer to stay after class, every student would raise a hand.

I met Catherine on her second trip to Bali. When she returned on her third visit, she was physically ill. Previously, in Nepal, she had been hospitalized for more than two weeks with dysentery. She had black rings under her eyes — part of the lingering, visible effects of dehydration and exhaustion.

I showed her around the villa. To the best of her ability, she tried to follow. After a few minutes, she stretched out on the couch and propped her head up on a pillow. Her voice was zapped from even that little bit of exertion. She pulled back a strand of blonde hair, which fell halfway down her neck and continued to talk.

She asked if she could smoke inside the villa. I told her that she could smoke outside. Then she asked how she could get some food. Since she was so sick, I went to a local warung and brought a meal back for her. When I returned with her food, we resumed our conversation.

She said she started to “feel bad” again a few days earlier. I gave her the number of the local clinic and suggested she go there if she still felt ill in the next few days. Then I asked her about her plans for this stay in Bali.

“I have ideas for new art in the education business in Bali,” she told me. “I’m also interested in creating a foundation in Nepal that will help disadvantaged youth through film and drama.” She added, “Also, I really want to work on my book. It’s about my parents. I have some serious issues I want to work out.” She asked whether I knew any therapists.

I admired her gumption. I told her that I was working on a book, too, and offered to help with her writing. I also shared that I had my own issues to resolve with my parents that I was working on.

During the next two days, I often checked in on her. Most of the time she slept through the day, too weak to get up and around. Then she sent me a text message, asking me to come by. I ended up arranging a ride for her to the hospital. She was diagnosed with a viral form of dysentery, as well as a bladder infection. She received antibiotics for the infection and was told that no medicine could treat dysentery, but it should clear on its own within a week.

Several more days passed. While Catherine recovered, Tuti and I continued to stop by, clean the villa, and change her linen. I also found a maid to cook and run errands for her until she felt better. The antibiotics must have helped, because she began to perk up, and planned to soon renew her visa in Bangkok.

The next 36 hours changed everything.

First, Catherine told me about two unusual occurrences at the villa.

On May 19, at 7 p.m., she called to tell me that she saw a “cross-eyed man with a flashlight” sitting on the villa’s fence. When she told him to leave, he exposed himself, then ran away. When I asked neighbors about this person, I learned that there is a local man considered to be a mentally disabled, “harmless nuisance” who frequents the area. I told them that in the Western world, this behavior is considered an illegal act called “indecent exposure.” Obviously, Catherine felt shaken by the encounter. I told her that the next day we could take a look at the construction workers next door.

On the morning of May 20, Catherine, Tuti, and I stood before a crew of seven workers from Maduran, Java. Catherine determined that “the flasher” was not among them. I asked her if she wanted to file a police report on the cross-eyed man. She responded with compassion, “No, not if it means he’ll go to jail.” Before we walked away, one of the workers, who called himself “Samsul,” said, “Don’t worry, boss. I will watch over your house.”

At noon, Catherine called me again. She said that two local girls came to the door, asking for work. She had no jobs for them, and they left without further incident. Perhaps they knew that she had a maid, and were hoping to make a little money themselves. While unusual, the visit by the young girls wasn’t troubling. Still, I reminded her to latch the gate and lock the doors. That night, Catherine did not return my calls, nor was she online. I often found her sleeping in a bed during the day, and I thought it best to let her rest.

The next day, May 21, was the Balinese holiday of Galungan. The maid went to the villa to make the traditional ceremony for the victory of dharma over adharma. This marks the time when the ancestral spirits visit the Earth. Because Catherine’s motorbike was gone, the maid assumed she was out. She noticed that the door was open, but did not suspect anything amiss. The work crew from next door had left for the holiday.

On May 22, at 4 p.m., I began to worry when Catherine did not answer my second phone call to her. I went over to check in on her and bring fresh towels. When I arrived, her motorbike was still gone. The doors were wide open, and I noticed that one of the sliding glass doors had been knocked out of its track. I shouted from the steps.

“Hello, Catherine. Are you home?” There was no answer.

Out of concern, I decided to step in and look around. I entered the living room, then past the open bedroom door. I looked closer, then froze in terror. Catherine’s lifeless body lay on the bedroom floor, her face covered with a black cloth.

My adrenalin kicked in, my heart pounded, and my fists clenched in sweat-drenched fear. Every part of my body started to shake. I fumbled for my cell and realized I hadn’t brought it. The landline worked, but I thought it quicker to steer straight for help in person.

I met the owner of a nearby resort, where I managed to get out a few stutter-gasped details. He called the local village security. I returned to my other home to tell Tuti about a possible murder. Tuti left immediately to go to the police station. I was in shock. After the police inspected her body they said, “This is the first foreigner murdered in Ubud.”

That night, the police placed Tuti and me in separate rooms and questioned us until 5 a.m. We cooperated and offered as much information as we could. I sat next to a young Balinese detective who took my statement down on his manual typewriter.

The non-English speaking detective struggled politely to get my facts straight. Emotions ran high. I could see a tear in an officer’s eyes over this terrible tragedy, and the worry on their faces. Occasional break-ins and purse-snatchings are troubling enough. I sensed that they felt as though their reputation was on the line; perhaps the safety of Ubud itself.

“Is this a witness statement or a confession of guilt?” I asked. “Do I need a lawyer?”

The detective pointed to a word at the top of the document, Saki (witness) statement. I must have repeated my story a dozen times before the police finally brought Tuti back into the room. She looked petrified.

With Tuti at my side, the officers took both of our statements and cross-examined our accounts. Satisfied that our information and accounts matched, they then allowed us to order some food, and get some fresh air. We sat outside on the curb, in front of the station. Tuti, who had quit smoking cigarettes, started chain-smoking.

How effectively could the police department function in developing Ubud? The station lights flickered, the toilets had no water, and the Internet was dead. At least, using manual typewriters was faster than writing down statements by hand.

Around 2 a.m., I thought to check Catherine’s cell phone. To my utter disbelief, her phone was active. I heard ringing, but no answer. Then, five minutes later, came the return call. I jumped up and handed the detective my phone. Why the police didn’t check her phone first, I had no idea. I gave the Balinese police a lot of credit, though. With little more than bare fists and cell phones, they would not rest until the case was solved. I hoped that they had GPS tracking capability. I didn’t know after the confirmation of her cell working what the police plan was.

Sometime in the night, when police obtained a copy of Catherine’s I.D., they officially confirmed that the dead woman was Catherine Amrit. Evidence, they said, indicated that she had been beaten, raped, and strangled. Tuti was already crying, and I joined her. The trouble for me was Catherine failed to register her passport with the police when took up residence in my villa. So, they blamed me and the $20,000 USD fine that came with it.

A few years earlier, Tuti had worked as an informant for the East Java police. During that time she befriended a police officer who became the number two commander in the Bali police department in Gianyar. Because of that chance relationship, I believe that Tuti was able to save us from additional scrutiny and the huge fine. The police let us return home, and placed us under “soft, house arrest.” We were not under suspicion, we were free to move about as we pleased, but they did not want us to leave Bali.

We were also sworn to silence regarding the case. Anything we said that conflicted with police statements could be perceived as interfering with police business. That could subject us both to jail time, and, in my case, deportation.

The first break in the case came when the Balinese construction boss admitted to lying about one of the workers he hired. The worker came from Java. His real name was Hambali. He often worked under assumed names, because he had a criminal record for theft. The next break came when police traced Catherine’s phone and motorbike to the Java city of Surabaya. Through further investigation, police caught the suspect and arrested him in his new apartment in Jakarta. Under later questioning, he confessed that he had broken away from the crew and returned to the building site alone on Monday, May 21, committed the crime on Tuesday, May 22, then left Bali that night at 10 p.m. on Catherine’s motorbike.

Police also arrested the construction boss, confiscated the workers’ tools, and halted construction due to the lack of permits. Neither the cross-eyed man nor the two girls were investigated.

Meanwhile, news of the crime reached the local Indonesian (except Bali) and international press.

On June 9, 20 days later, police escorted Hambali to the villa to reenact the crime. He arrived in handcuffs, head down, and avoided eye contact. Chills ran through me when I immediately recognized him in his orange prison suit. He was the same worker who promised, “Don’t worry, boss. I will watch over your house.” His name was not Samsul, as he had said; it was Hambali.

The 32-year-old criminal looked more like a street beggar than a person capable of murder. Hambali was short and paper-thin; less than five feet tall. 120 pounds. His bony face bore the nondescript mask of ignorance and poverty. His home was the area called Tangerang, part of greater Jakarta but in West Java.

He began by saying that he had crept in through the front door. If his account is to be believed, he did not a break-in. At this point, how and when the door went off track is unclear. Perhaps, on his way out. But there did not appear to be signs of forced entry.

In brief, he said that Catherine was sleeping. He raped and strangled her, which ended in a pool of blood on the floor. Satisfied that she was dead, he quickly got a knife, picked a cabinet lock, stole her money, grabbed her laptop, phone, camera, and sped away on her motorbike. In 15 minutes, the life of a caring, loving, 49-year-old teacher was destroyed.

In June 2013, Catherine attended Awesomeness Fest, and in February of 2014, she attended iLAB Accelerator (Entrepreneurs Institute) in Ubud. She wrote that both programs helped her focus on a new path “aligned with passion and purpose.” She looked forward to her projects in Bali and Nepal and working on her book. I looked forward to working with her on the memoir.

“I seem to be looking and feeling younger by the day,” she wrote of her experiences. “Freaky events of synchronicity seem to be coming at me on an almost daily basis, and I go to bed every night now with a huge grin on my face, as opposed to floods of tears as in the previous years.”

In the days before her death, Catherine had slowly begun to rebuild her energy, ready to once again embrace “a whole new world opening up in front of me.” In this life, she would never again have that chance.

The village of Ubud held a public, candlelight vigil in her honor, and authorities allowed me to hold a private memorial ceremony in the villa. I invited the other construction workers. We lit candles and prayed. We prayed for Catherine, of course, but also for Hambali. Perhaps if he had a teacher like Catherine, who aimed to empower disadvantaged youth, he would have appreciated the value of his own life and that of others.

Despite what happened, and aside from burglary, I do believe that Ubud is still one of the safest places in the world. It is a pearl of peace in an ocean of violence.

On June 30, the sacred Balinese cleansing ceremony of mecaru resi gana took place at the villa. In the Balinese Hindu tradition, the ceremony is required to help transition and bring closure for the soul of one who’s passed, and to heal the soul of the land and community. A special blessing from the Brahman would bring the world back into balance.

By village law, all ceremonial expenses are the responsibility of the house or landowner. In order to pay the $2,000 USD fee, I sold my motorbike and electric guitar. I let the guitar go for much less than it was worth. I sold it to a 20-something Russian who never imagined he’d be able to own a guitar like mine. He was ecstatic. I took some small comfort in knowing that in the midst of these tragic events, one young life was changed for the better.

Three months after the day Catherine died, Hambali was sentenced to just 18 years in prison. In the United States, a conviction for first-degree, premeditated murder can carry a death sentence or life imprisonment without the possibility for parole. In Indonesia, depending on the circumstances, a conviction for illegal drug possession or dealing can mean heavy fines, many years in prison, or death. The light sentence sent her family, back in England, into a rage of protest. I didn’t blame them.

Catherine was a seeker, fueled by change through education. As others noted on the Awesomeness Fest website, she was “a beautiful, kind, generous, fascinating woman . . . living her dream in Bali.”

May we always remember Catherine Amrit and be inspired by her life, her teachings, and her dreams.

By late June, the time had run out on my villa project. I could no longer make the land payments, and the ordeal had left Tuti and me traumatized. The empty shell of our future together on Bali sat abandoned by the untended garden.

I went to the villa and sat down where I had shortly before Catherine arrived.

There was no hoop, no portal, no telescope that could reveal the road ahead. Trying to retrace each step or misstep, and figure out the “why” of it all was like trying to lift coconut water with a fork. The experience on Bali roughed me up and spun me 360, but spared my life. I could see and hear, I could feel. I could fill my lungs with the sweetness of the thriving jungle. I faced a new beginning, not the end.

Throughout my life, music has been my passion, my comfort, and my way to transcend boundaries. No note, no chord, no song, no sound could undo the series of events and bring back Catherine. But I still had a voice in this world, and if healing were to begin, it had to begin with me. I reached for my acoustic guitar and slowly began to sing “a song in every step.” The words did not come easily.

Hennings is the author of “Guitarlo” an award-nominated memoir that includes his experiences living in Minnesota and Indonesia.

Guitarlo - available where ever books are sold

This disclaimer informs readers that the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, web site ISP, search engines, committee or other group or individual.

© Arlo Hennings 2020

Monday, February 17, 2020

The Tin Pan Alley of Minneapolis

The Tin Pan Alley of Minneapolis

by Arlo Hennings

Thump Studios upper right window

The year was 1988 and I lived in Minneapolis the same apartment on west 25th Street for the past 10 years. The neighborhood was called the Wedge because of its shape. I was a block away from the corner of the Oarfolkjokeopus record store and the CC Tap. On the northern end of my neighborhood was the watering hole and my employer, Lyles Liquor Bar and Grill.

On a Friday or Saturday night, you could see any number of the rock underground famous as well as other artistic inclined tribes from the Guthrie Theater to local newspapers. While Peter Jesperson shot pool in one room, Leonard Nimoy and Tim Carr drank in the other. While Paul Westerberg. Chris Osgood and Bob Mould ordered burgers, I was hauling buckets of cold chicken wings through the crowd. Along with my Lyle’s waitress wife, we serviced Minneapolis’s bohemia for years. On my time off from Lyles, I built a small 8 track recording studio in the kitchen area of my one-bedroom apartment. The idea was to create a songwriting/demo lab versus a full-blown studio capable of recording a whole band at once.

Lyles Bar and Grill
My rent was $350 per month, which I was always months past due. My neighbor was a young blonde woman, Sue Mclean who worked as a booking agent. Luckily, my landlord was usually too drunk to care about the rent and I was living in the center of a music movement. Meanwhile, my wife helped the Minnesota Music Academy and went to school. I had been in the local music scene since 1967 in many roles from performer to music distributor and those details can be found in my biography. I never made it to Carnegie Hall but, I was proud of my achievements, and I wanted to do more. My new inspiration was to discover songwriters.

It took me the better part of a year to come up with the $3,000 from my short-order cook job to buy a used eight-track reel to reel, three signal processors, reverb, echo, 16-band parametric EQ, cords, and a patch bay. The 16 channel mixer cost $15,000 and that took getting a lease to pay for it.

Since my ratty apartment was not a recording studio, I began transforming it into one the best I could. I converted every inch into usable studio space, like hanging patch bay cords from the knobs of kitchen cupboards. To the dismay of my landlord, I punched several large holes through the kitchen wall into a sunroom, so two people could work at the same time. I did leave the bathroom intact, given that the tiled walls provided a ready-built reverb chamber. “Hand me that electrical tape,” I remember saying to a recording client who assisted with the setup. With one hand holding a microphone, I taped it to a broomstick handle. “That takes care of needing a mic stand.” Wiring the equipment together was like patching together a thousand stereos. In my sleep, I connected the outputs to the inputs and back again. Back again, because I did it backward by mistake. I spent three days trying to stop the buzz. The finishing touch was to equalize the room for maximum audio representation. I accomplished this by hanging a sleeping bag over the window, which helped absorb the bass. I then hung bed blankets to filter out unwanted high frequencies. I threaded a half-inch-sized reel of recording tape over the tape recorder heads to an empty take-up reel. Next, I assigned where I wanted the audio signal to go: the destination tracks. Set the record levels, stop and rewind, reassign the playback channels. The recording process, the manual instructed, is a matter of taste, not an exact science. I’ll never forget the first glorious sound my studio made. Over a microphone, through the mixer, with a pinch of reverb and echo, the essence of acoustic gold fell from the speaker’s cone. It was radioactive. On waves of sonic tapestry, I began to explore the universe of recorded music. Over the next two weeks, I learned to “overdub” myself, which meant adding a guitar part or a vocal harmony to my base track. With the magic of overdub, I could play all the parts myself—bass, drums, keyboards, guitar, even orchestra sounds—and sounded like an entire band. My mission was to lend a hand to artists; to provide opportunities for other artists to carve their own musical niche; to preserve fine expressions of the spirit calling unto itself.

Thump Studios

Networking was strong back in those days and it didn’t take long before the little studio called “Thump” buzzed with songwriters. I and friends produced hundreds of demo recordings and I came to believe that six artists had national potential. I selected their best songs and decided to try selling them. They were pop songs. However, I hadn’t a clue about how to do that. By magic, it seemed, an artist would get a music executive to listen to their recording or come to their show. The exec would be impressed and make an offer on the spot? The Wedge was a cool place to be a musician but it wasn’t Tin Pan Alley.

To begin my mission, I purchased a directory of Los Angeles record company talent scouts.

I rang my dad to see if his offer was still good to stay with him. Dad answered, “Tally ho!” over the phone. So I organized my artist’s cassettes by genre and packed up for the next stage in my music career. Kissing my wife and Minneapolis goodbye, I headed for the heart of the Hollywood Hills, where the names of stars are engraved on the sidewalks and the fast-food authentic Mexican.

On my first visit to Hollywood, courtesy of my dad’s car and home, I found myself lost on the L.A. freeways. I was a solitary, unknown voice in the slot machine of the entertainment industry. More happened in a single Hollywood hour than 10 years in Minneapolis. Looking out across the L.A. basin from the Hollywood sign at night, I saw a Milky Way of lights and an endless stream of cherry-colored brake lights, glowing like a tube of melted lipstick between the glass canyons.

What would I say to the record labels? I devised a script and rebuttals just as I had learned in sales school. My first hurdle was selling myself past the executive’s assistant’s desk. Then, the music had to sell itself.

The drive from my dad’s house in West Covina to the heart of Sunset Boulevard took four hours round trip. I timed my appointments between 10 am and 3 pm to avoid the worst of traffic. By the time I rolled back into my dad’s driveway, exhaust fumes filled my eyes—my days were often 15 hours long.

Similar to my work with Combined Insurance—I spent most of my day's cold calling, knocking on doors, waiting in reception areas, and chilling in a trendy coffee shop on Rodeo Drive. I took note of the clothes shops. When I made it big I’d buy my wife a really nice dress, I thought as I sipped my coffee, while gazing out the window in my daydream. Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills is considered by many to be the world’s number one designer shopping destination.

On weekends during the winter months, I passed my days in joy, simply sitting in my dad’s backyard in shorts and a t-shirt, staring at a real palm tree, feeling grateful to be out of the Minnesota blizzards. However, even though we spoke on the telephone often, I missed my wife very much—we had been apart for far too long. I now recall the most memorable phone conversation we had during that time.

“How are you?” I asked her one day, as usual.

“I think I’m pregnant,” she joyfully replied.

I could see her smile through the phone.

“Are you sure?” I gulped, awaiting the good news.

“Well, okay...” she hesitated, “I’m not sure, yet.”

“So, I am not a father yet? I said, disappointed.

“Officially, no,” she lowered her voice.

“Another two weeks and I’ll be back. We can try again,” I assured her.

“Any luck with business?” she asked.

“My horoscope read that Saturn would align with Venus, and that means good for business,” I answered.

“I’ll keep the candle lighted,” she said.

“Love you,” I said and hung up.

On Monday mornings, I returned to the game of Hollywood Squares.

“Capitol Records, Mr. Big’s office,” said a sweet female secretary voice at the end of the phone line.

I took a deep breath.

“My name is Arlo, as in Arlo Guthrie. I am here from out of town and I have an artist Mr. Big needs to hear. Is he available at 3 pm today?” I alleged with an acquired silver tongue and a big grin through the phone. I did aim to manipulate my way in the door by using a twist on the truth as I’d learned through the training I had as an insurance salesman.

“Does he know who you are?” she snapped.

“Not exactly... and never mind that. I have another appointment with Mr. Deep Pockets at RCA at 5 pm, but I wanted Mr. Big to hear this music first,” I pushed. “He’d be very happy you made this appointment.”

“I’m sorry...” she replied in her Valley Girl accent, “we don’t accept unsolicited materials,” and hung up.

Being unknown had one distinct advantage—I hadn’t acquired a bad reputation. Through trial and error—after numerous rejections, I learned how to drop names, sometimes managing to get an appointment.

One day I found my way to the Island Records building on the Beverly Hills edge of West Hollywood. It was comparatively small in the shadow of the giant Capitol Records tower. I approached a security door and pressed the “open sesame” button.

“I have a 2 pm appointment with Benny,” I said into the intercom. Benny had the distinction of being a vice president as opposed to a general low-end talent scout. The latter usually came with no budget and a propensity for the Hollyweird shuffle—the longer you don’t make a decision, the longer you keep your job.

The greeting secretary was young and gorgeous, typical of all the women who worked at these record companies. The office was full of scantily clad females who dressed like lingerie models. As a reminder of what happens to unsolicited materials, a not-so-pretty bucket displayed discarded dreams that would never be heard.

I sat on a waiting room couch and admired the vast gallery of record awards that covered the hallway. As I was reading a table copy of Billboard Magazine, Chris Blackwell walked by. He was the owner of Island Records, which broke the careers of top artists, including U2, and Bob Marley. He glanced at me in my red suit and nodded. I would have given anything for five minutes of his time.

“Benny’s office is this way,” said a young woman, who looked like she’d just stepped off the set of Baywatch to guide me down the hallway.

When I sat down at Benny’s desk he was on the phone, feet propped up on his desk. One never knew how these people got their jobs. Sometimes, they worked their way up from the mailroom, slept with a rock star or the boss, or had a relative in the camp. Benny couldn’t have been older than 21. He had straggly, shoulder-length hair, and looked as though he’d just rolled out of bed in his t-shirt and sneakers. He had all of the pizzazz of another opinionated butt kisser in the music business.

“Hello, I’m Benny, A and R director, Island Records,” he said, putting down the phone, “What brings you to the Island, dude?”

“My name is Arlo,” I replied, “and I’m the A and R manager for the Arlo Hennings Publishing Company, Minneapolis division.”

“Minneapolis?” he snickered. “How many people live there... about one million people?”

After many of these appointments, I learned how to take the demeaning Hollywood jokes and jabs in stride. I’d become immune to rejection and learned how to stay focused under their pressure.

“Technically, two million people live there,” I responded, matter-of-factly, “but I didn’t come here to sell you lake-front property.”

I unfolded the Billboard magazine and placed it on his desk.

“Have you looked at the pop charts lately? Notice that half of the Top 10 have been produced in or are from Minneapolis. The Minneapolis Sound is the rage.” I was aware that the label had already signed a Minneapolis artist, named Peter Himmelman. I didn’t want to wind up fighting. However, these people were rude and they expected me to be rude, too. If I wasn’t pushy they’d blow me off.

“Benny, it says here on your business card that you’re a talent scout,” I queried. “I have highly talented artists to share with you... so how about you scout them?”

“Well then, do you have some of their music to play for me?” he inquired sleepily, as he yawned and rubbed his wooden puppet face. I opened my briefcase and began with Gina. He set up the tape on his macho sound system.

“Oh, I can’t stand her voice,” he said after two of Gina’s songs. Benny continued to play several songs by each artist, sometimes nodding his head, and other times sitting expressionless. The audition lasted about 30 minutes.

“I can tell you this music is personally not my bag. However, Kevin next door to me does house music and might like it. We’re pretty booked up all the way around and I don’t know if anyone has the budget right now,” he told me, shaking his head.

I never believed in taking no for an answer.

“I’m in no rush. These things take time. I just wanted to meet you. I heard you’re the best A and R in town,” I said, giving him the BS line.

“Sure Arlo, whatever,” Benny chuckled, kicking his feet up onto his desk, and did not get up to see me out.

His secretary was just outside his door and heard everything. As I was packing up to leave she butted in, “That music by Dan Presley is really good,” she said, shaking her head at Benny. “You haven’t signed anyone in a year.” She closed his door and escorted me back to the entryway, and looking at me with sorrowful eyes, she consoled, “Don’t give up.”

Calling upon my positive mental attitude power, cold-call, door-to-door skills—I was finally able to get my foot in the door with Dean Kay, who was a major music company president. Did I mention name dropping? I told him a little white lie that I knew Prince. I didn’t know Prince, exactly. However, Janice’s cousin was in his band and that was close enough.

Dean’s office was the largest I had seen. It could have passed for a condominium. The most prominent fixture on his desk was not his own pair of feet, but a photo of his wife and daughter. I estimated him to be in his late 50s. He had a genuine persona about him that came across in his wide smile, handshake, professional causal dress, short, white hair, and basketball-star height. He didn’t waste any time and started to play my cassettes. The more cassettes Dean popped into his stereo, the more his mood shifted from hurried to tell his secretary to hold his calls.

“Your songs sound like finished records,” Dean said, impressed, “Where are you from again?”

“Minneapolis,” I answered. “It’s the hometown of Prince and 10,000 other bands. The reason they're so many great songwriters there is because it’s so cold you can’t go outside most of the year, so people get creative and write a lot of songs.”

He stopped the cassette player.

“You don’t say?” Dean remarked, with a big shiny white smile reflecting off his positively glowing California tanned features.

“In the winter, I have to light a pan of charcoal and place it beneath the car’s engine block or it won’t start. When I turn the ignition the motor often grumbles ‘not today,’” I said, talking Minnesotan.

“Is it cold there now?” Dean looked worried.

“No, because it’s June,” I replied, “and the beginning of the summer season, but there are only a couple months left before it’s time to break out the parkas.”

“What are you looking for?” Dean examined a cassette.

“I would like to sign my songwriters to your company so I can share their music with the world,” I explained.

“How many songwriters do you represent?” Dean probed.

“I am currently working with six songwriters,” I told him with growing confidence in my tone.

Dean nodded his head and picked up his phone, “Change my next flight to New York for a stopover in Minneapolis.” Standing with respect to shake my hand again, he added with reassurance in his tone, “We’ll see what happens, okay?”

Dean co-wrote the song “That’s Life,” with Kelly Gordon, which was first recorded by Marion Montgomery. The most famous recorded version sang by Frank Sinatra, was released on his 1966 album of the same name. Both album and song confirmed profitable triumph for Sinatra. This same song became Aretha Franklin’s very first recording with Atlantic Records in 1967.

Fortunately for me, Dean Kay was a songwriter, performer, and recording artist, as well as a suit. Throughout his career, he nurtured the careers of many other songwriters, recording artists, and music industry executives. He purchased more than 100 music-publishing catalogs involving more than 100,000 copyrights.

As noted on Dean Kay’s website: he has been the chief caretaker of the creative treasures of many songwriters including Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Cole Porter, Elton John, Bernie Taupin, Johnny Horton, Don Williams, Bob McDill, Wayland Holyfield, Ricky Skaggs, and Rick Springfield to name a few. Kay was a living legacy of the great American songwriter tradition. Getting to work with him was an amazing breakthrough, and better than I could have ever imagined.

In 1989, after several months of negotiations and expensive lawyers, PolyGram Music International signed my company and the songwriters to one of the largest music production contracts in the history of the Minneapolis music scene. I had finally “arrived” in the world of music executives, and now I got to ride around, for a while, in style.

Feature story in the St. Paul Pioneer Press - touted as one of the largest music production contracts in the history of the Minneapolis music scene.

Dean lived next door to Bob Hope’s home in Burbank, and we were going to see how the remodeling on his 16-bedroom mansion was doing. An earthquake destroyed it and he had to start over. I stepped into Dean’s customized Jaguar and closed the door.

“Dean scolded me, “Gently, please. Close the door with one finger. Try it again. There, the doors are as light as a feather. Everyone wants to treat my car like a truck.”

I couldn’t believe I was riding with the millionaire president of one of the largest music publishers in the world. I hid my wide eyes behind a pair of sunglasses as we drove past the TV and movie production companies that lined Olive Street in Burbank. Limousines cluttered the lanes of traffic. Paramount was filming the next blockbuster.

“They all need good songs,” Dean said, as he waved his hand across the sleek dashboard. “I really like that project you’re doing with Laura,” he continued. “I would like to hear more. I think you got a winner there.”

I imagined a camera following me, recording my one minute of fame. I didn’t know if I’d get another 14 minutes, as Andy Warhol had predicted for everyone. I was ready for my close-up. I was ready for anything.

Fifteen years earlier, I had run away from home with my sister’s “toy” guitar and a passion for music. Now, I returned to my Dad’s place with a contract from a major music company in one hand and a six-figure check in the other. Dad was stunned, my mother and brother scoffed at the news, my sisters didn’t know what to make of it, but my wife was very proud of me.

Minneapolis tried to welcome me back to the usual unforgiving pimply concrete, the walk from the CC Tap bar to my recording studio apartment. The feelings of my achievement changed all that. The sidewalk had turned into a surreal marshmallow-like texture. I was walking on spongy air. My steps sparkled like a shiny beacon into the night. Adrenaline rushed through my veins and filled me with a false sense of long-term success. So intense the blaring horns, I became emboldened to do crazy things—like buy a house in the suburb.

“You’re part of the Polydent family now,” Dean exclaimed, with his big white smile. Why he compared PolyGram to a dentures cleaner was an inside joke, yet for me to understand. More like PolyGlam, because the music contract honeymoon myth was true. I was being wined and dined by top music biz shakers in ivory towers decorated by gold and platinum record awards. How deluded I was to think that my name might someday hang on the wall of moguls? Not everyone cared, however. Hollyweird had a meat-wagon element: either on your way up or on your way out in this trendy, back-stabbing, flavor-of-the-month club. Despite the headaches of trying to win in this game, I had finally realized my dream of working in the music business. I was—for the first time—truly in harmony with what I loved to do.

I rented an office suite in Minneapolis that belonged to Owen Husney, the former manager for Prince. During my time as co-publisher and A&R rep (Artist and Repertoire aka arguments and recriminations), I placed several artists on major labels and saved the independent label Twin Tone Records from bankruptcy—the Jayhawks, Replacements, Suburbs, Soul Asylum, and Ween—by finding a new national distribution deal on Restless Records. In addition, the local Minnesota Music Awards asked me to present the Artist of the Year Award to Red House Records winner Ann Reed. I was feeling so much like part of the PolyDent family now that I expected we’d all share a dysfunctional Thanksgiving dinner. Then I got a call from the Dean’s office.

“I have had enough of your partner’s shenanigans,” Dean told me, sounding very irritated, “Telling the president of Island Records that he’s an idiot is the last straw. I’m sorry, but I have no choice other than to terminate your contract.”

My contract ended in 1992.

The songwriters looked more like a reality TV show drama than tomorrow’s hitmakers. They all so badly wanted a break took off in default of their contracts. One headed to L.A., to follow her own Hollywood dream to be a piano teacher? One got into drugs and joined a motorbike club. Another, whose demo tape I gave to a record company, snagged a recording contract, forgot who I was. A guitarist who joined Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson, and became Cher’s music director made sure his number was lost. Another one who also signed to a major label legally owed his music publishing to me. My partner confessed that he robbed me. And so it went. I wanted to see “my” artists succeed, but had hoped they’d at least acknowledge the guy who helped launch their musical careers and dreams. Flabbergasted to realize many could not seem to find the space to credit me in their liner notes.

Dean Kay, President, PolyGram, Dave Barry, Laura Schlieske, Marty Weintraub, Marko Dardanis,
Arlo Hennings, Gina Felicetta, Bob Kirsch, VP PolyGram, Nashville (left to right)
What happened to me I learned was par for the course in the crazy, upside down, unpredictable music business. "Making it" was more 2/3 luck and 1/3 hard work. Prince's Paisley Park operation was called by those who worked there a "plantation" for its slavery under the whip master Prince but I can understand what he had to do to keep people in line.

Dean Kay later lost his job, as well, due to a merger among PolyGram, Island, A&M Records, and Motown. He maintained his position as being on the Board of Directors for ASAP and kept his own publishing company.

The lyrics to "That's Life" would fit the ending of this story better than anything but I didn't want to pay the license fee to use the words.

Hennings is the author of “Guitarlo” an award-nominated memoir that includes his experiences living in Minnesota and Indonesia.

Dean Kay with Arlo Hennings holding "Guitarlo"

This disclaimer informs readers that the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, web site ISP, search engines, committee or other group or individual.

© Arlo Hennings 2020

Friday, February 14, 2020

Growing Up Absurd


by Arlo Hennings 


Excerpt from the book "Guitarlo."


My earliest memory is of riding a train that caught fire. I was four years old, and my brother, Randy, was six. It was Christmas Eve, and our mother was taking us to her hometown in Philipsburg, Pennsylvania, across the Allegheny Mountains from Pittsburgh. Coming down the mountain, the brakes on the train burned out. Thick smoke quickly filled our car, people began coughing, and my mom looked panicked.

A man in a soldier’s uniform said, “Can I help you, ma’am?”

My mom blushed, behind her bright red lipstick. She smiled and straightened her 1957 sheath dress — the kind with the big white-collar and empire-waist pleat in the back. “Thank you, young man,” she replied.

The man, in his impressive, pressed uniform, covered my nose and mouth with a handkerchief, and Mom covered my brother’s mouth with her hand.

“My honor, ma’am,” he said, tilting his military cap.

Tears blurred my vision, as a thickening smoke burned my eyes, and I heard shouting about the brakes. I felt terrified, having thought that the train would fly off its tracks into the dark of night. The next morning I woke up to find my gifts under the tree. Randy and I were dressed as cowboys. The train and Santa’s reindeer had all stayed on track.

I was a Hoosier, born with a plastic spoon in my mouth; a bouncing Boomer boy who arrived one late snowy December evening in 1953.

Mom and Dad named me “Gary,” a short, comfortable name that traveled easily with me as we hop-scotched across Middle America. My friends and neighborhoods changed often in those suitcase-filled days. Dad, absent much of the time, moved us back to Indianapolis when I turned six.

That’s where the next big event of my life occurred, with the birth of my sister Cindi — the only blonde in our family. One day, a few years later, she asked me to get her some Kool-Aid. With cup in hand, I somehow walked directly into the burning end of my mother’s cigarette. My right eye swelled shut with hot ash. I collapsed to the floor, writhing in pain, while mom chatted undisturbed with a neighbor. I saw the neighbor with my one good eye pretend as nothing happened.

With a few exceptions, most of my memories from early childhood are a strange mix of mice running over my feet, and S&H Green Stamps. The mice were the unwelcome guests in the ratty dive that my dad had rented. We received the bonus stamps with our purchases at local stores. Mom licked them one by one and stuck them into her collection. Books of stamps could then be traded for items at the Green Stamps redemption center. One September, after months of stamp collecting, Mom traded in her green boon for a pair of black dress shoes and blue trousers. Those were my first school clothes.

Late one night during an Indianapolis winter, I was asleep in an apartment or hotel (I didn’t know) and my dad woke me up. I hadn’t seen him for a very long time.

“Here’s 10 cents. Go down to the street and get me a newspaper,” Dad said.

I got as far as the lobby door and froze. I was too scared to go out and ask for a newspaper. My dad was behind me, and he took me out to the street.

We didn’t have jackets and I started to shiver in the late November temperature.

“John F. Kennedy elected president,” the newsvendor announced, “read all about it.” His voice was hoarse from shouting.

“Hand him the 10 cents, son,” Dad encouraged.

I gave him the dime and the man handed me a newspaper.

“Say thank you,” Dad urged.

“Thank you, mister,” I said.

The next memory of my dad came a year later. My parents were watching black and white TV. I came into the room and complained that my groin hurt. My dad pulled my pants down and stared in shock and said, "His gonads are purple! What happened to you?”

“I fell on the bike,” I answered.

“It would appear so,” he said.

“Get a bag of ice,” he told Mom.

She gave me the ice, and told me to place the bag between my legs, then go and lie down. That was the last memory I had of my dad for the next several years.

Later, to my amazement, a new baby arrived one winter day in late December. My parents told me that she was my newest sister, Sue. We were now a family of four kids — two boys and two girls, the perfect nuclear family. I didn’t know where Sue came from because I didn’t remember my mom being pregnant, or anyone bringing Sue home from the hospital. Suspicious of her identity, I mercilessly destroyed her comfort blankets.

Even though my dad was a traveling salesman, and I thought she could be from anywhere, it dawned on me she had a striking resemblance to Dad. Satisfied that Sue had survived my interrogation, I declared a truce. We shared breakfast cereal and popcorn while watching Walt Disney. However, for the rest of my life, she would never forgive me for burning her blankets.

Dad never seemed to make his sales quota, so every few years he uprooted the family in search of new territory. Finally, when I was in the middle of fourth grade, we settled down in the Minneapolis suburb of Burnsville, while Dad enjoyed a long, winning sales streak until that very sad night that, once again, would uproot us all.

One evening the police found my dad face down in a country road ditch — nowhere near his car, which was found running at a deserted intersection. He had a large, grease-covered lump on the back of his head. After the accident, a red linoleum chair became part of his body, while Dad passed his days chain-smoking Lucky Strike cigarettes, and watching Lawrence Welk’s “champagne music” reruns on TV. My dad’s hospital bills and his inability to work landed the family in bankruptcy — like the game of Chutes and Ladders that we kids played, wherewith the roll of the dice we went down the slide to climb back up.

The fighting between my parents intensified with the growing bills. We needed books and clothes for school. Utility bills piled up and mortgage payments lagged behind.

“What did you spend the $25 on?” my dad shouted, as he tried to balance the checkbook while scrutinizing every entry.

“I bought school supplies,” my mom cried.

The fighting lasted until the wee hours of the morning.

“I’m going to punch Dad in the face if he doesn’t leave Mom alone,” Randy said, as he lay in bed next to me.

“Do you think money grows on trees?” Dad screamed. “You spent too much. This is your fault.”

A lamp crashed against the wall. Furniture tumbled. A body made a loud thump as it landed on the floor. Gasping for words, my mother screamed, “Stop it! You’re hurting me. I will get a job.” Scratching my dad’s arm, she hollered, “Get off of me.”

Every word from my parents flowed through the floor like it was made of paper. My brother was on the swimming team, and he’d started a cool rock band. A whole lot was riding on his future. I didn’t know what to think. Instead, I dreamed of going on an adventure, or running away — so, I figured out how to do both.

The next day was Sunday.

In an effort to show we were a normal family, mom tried her best to impress the neighbors that we were a good, God-abiding, Christian family. Before my memory could recall, Mom had us baptized under the Lutheran seal of approval. The four of us dressed in our best clothes, and she drove us to the only church in the area. If I refused to participate, I would be locked in my room for the day. Given the option, within my juvenile perspective — the Holy Bible was better than solitary confinement. During that summer we attended church, Randy became an altar boy, and my sisters colored religious comic books. I was placed into Sunday school.

“Why do these people from Jesus’ home village have nice haircuts and clean clothes? I thought they were poor shepherds,” I inquired of the middle-aged, suburban, white lady Bible teacher.

“I don’t know,” she shrugged.

“People didn’t look like that 2,000 years ago,” I protested, “Is there proof any of this really happened?”

My remark was ignored, and more storybooks full of detailed drawings of bearded men with canes and sheep were placed into my hands for homework. I thought I had enough homework to do from regular school, and didn’t like the idea of getting more.

“What is all this for?” I objected.

“After Sunday school you will be confirmed so you won’t go to hell,” the teacher explained.

Watching my parents duke it out was, by any description, living in hell. No point in trying to say I wasn’t going there. The summer ended with one less confirmed soul, and I never attended a church again.

One morning, Mom and Dad stepped out. My brother and sisters sat at the dinner table together eating cereal.

“I’m not going to move,” Randy protested, splashing the Wheaties out of his bowl with a spoon.

“If you’re not going,” I chimed in, “then, neither am I.”

“Where are we going?” Cindi asked.

“Not true,” was all Sue could say.

We vacated the newly built, two-level, 5-bedroom house with its finished basement and a big yard with a nice green lawn. The golden new bowling alley — would become those parts in my game board of my life’s memory bank. Once again, my brother and sisters and I would be hauled away like used furniture and return to the struggling, low-income, blue-collar world of the inner city.

Elementary School

The day before my first-grade day of school, the chain on a swing had snapped, and I fell on my back. The nerves pinched and my legs wouldn’t move.

“You’re not staying home to play,” Mom hollered, as she walloped my hind end with a stick.

“I can’t walk,” I pleaded.

I was supposed to walk to school with my brother but he left without me. Mom got a neighbor to pick me up and drop me off. I stood in the hallway, unable to move as the other kids ran past me at the sound of the bell. Slowly, throughout the day, I began to retrieve control of my legs. By the next day, I was still sore but I could walk normally again.

The first-grade teacher was older than Whistler’s Mother. A white knob on the wall behind her desk had a pair of dangling wires.

“Rules are simple at School 66,” the teacher warned. “Follow them and you won’t get switched.” She used the word “switched” to mean “electrocuted.”

The girl next to me started to cry.

After school, I wandered into the house of a schoolmate and discovered a piano. My fingers danced upon the white and black keys while serenading magical melodies through my ears into my soul, suddenly turning me on to an amazing musical discovery from within me; an epiphany moment in my musical history that would cause me to be forever changed — my first sudden breakthrough and ah-ha moment — and I would continue to emulate and describe these most eternal musical truths within my being the only way that I could within my musical compositions and contributions which would become throughout and for the rest of my entire lifetime.

“Do you like music?” the boy’s mother interrupted my improvisational concert.

Without lifting my hands off the keyboard, I answered, “Yes, I like it a lot.”

The high notes sounded like the tiniest droplets of rain. The lower notes sounded like dark, heavy thunder under my bed during the darkness of night. The middle keys were a balance between the two sonic clouds. My small arms could span the width of several octaves, and it was on those keys where I grabbed the sunlight.

In fifth grade, I was sentenced to sit in the hallway for disciplinary reasons. My behavior had been deemed “disruptive.”

In the hallway, I channeled my creative energies into drawings on paper; furious, fantastic, intricate sketches of undersea worlds. The drawings were ripped from my hands and smashed into a ball by the principal.

“Where do you think drawing cartoons will get you?” he roared, “Your hair is over your ears and you’re growing a ducktail.” The principal pulled my shirt collar. “I’m issuing you a citation,” he continued, “If you get three citations, it equals one misdemeanor. The penalty is expulsion from school.”

Perhaps the problem wasn’t me. Maybe it was Mr. Francis, my teacher. I entered Sioux Trail elementary school in 1964, the first year the school opened. Everything smelled new from the chalkboard to the urinals. The electrical switcher was gone. My class was evenly divided between boys and girls. I sat in the front row, on the far left aisle. My teacher was new, as well, that being his first year teaching.

Mr. Francis was of average height, sporting short brown hair with one Brylcreem-sculpted wave above his forehead that was large enough for surfing. He wore a purple dickey bow tie with a black flannel business suit, and men’s cologne — none of which enhanced his appearance or body odor. His square chin jerked forward like a pecking rooster, as he limped on his artificial right leg. Every step on his bad leg made a fart-like noise that was a never-ending source of class jokes.

I can’t pinpoint exactly where the breakdown occurred between Mr. Francis and the class. I think he was simply too slow and conservative for modern, middle-class students who found his military-tactics teaching style to be quite awkward, and something I decided to deem impossible for myself and fellow student-body to adapt into our school’s already-established way that we were used-to, which he did not fit into. His was oriented around discipline, versus our usual system of accountability-based pranks.

Although, I didn’t start the rebellion — I played a leading role.

The class grew increasingly unmanageable when Mr. Francis refused to let us visit the gym during our gym period. We needed to run around, play marbles, kick a ball, and burn off excess energy. Instead, Mr. Francis had us hide beneath our desks, and play an atomic bomb drill. The girls in skirts refused. I thought we needed to respond with a shot across the bow; i.e., a ballistic missile launch.

I chewed off the largest piece of paper I could soak in my jaw. When it was soggy enough, I rounded it like a cannonball and hurled it at the blackboard. The spitball made a loud whack as it struck the chalkboard next to our drill sergeant. The class broke out in a roar of laughter.

Mr. Francis spun around abruptly on his bad leg. “Who threw that?” he screamed. I was ready for retaliation. The tips of my chair legs were reversed so one self-propelled kick ejected me across the floor like a pilot from a cockpit. Mr. Francis tried to slam my desk into my chest. Unfortunately, the classmate behind me took the full brunt of the impact while I went sailing. So, Mr. Francis sent me off to the hallway. After ripping up my drawings, the principal stepped in to finish the class, and we never saw Mr. Francis again.

After revolving-door visits to the school counselor, there was a consensus: whatever my problem, I would eventually grow out of it.

“If not, perhaps “medication” could temper him,” I overheard the counselor tell my parents. He also mentioned re-ha-bi-li-ta-tion, which was a big word I didn’t understand.


By the time I was 10 years old, I grew adventurous. One afternoon I got 50 cents from my brother to go see a movie. I walked by myself for several blocks to the local cinema. It was the bravest thing I had ever done. My brother said the movie was scary and dared me to go. I looked up and read the marquee — Alfred Hitchcock’s, The Birds. I couldn’t imagine what would be so scary about some birds. I paid my two quarters to the woman inside the glass booth, and she slipped me back a ticket through a hole in the glass.

The cinema was empty, which made the gigantic screen seem even larger. Halfway through the the black-and-white movie, I was so petrified — I began to believe that what I was watching was real. I was too scared to get up and leave. The idea that nature could have its own consciousness and a revengeful one at that rattled my imagination.

On the way home, I carefully eyed the telephone wires, rooftops, and trees for any sign that a flock of birds might be gathering. My expression must have given me away.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Mom surmised. “You went and saw that scary movie, didn’t you?” she prodded.

I shook my head no, while immediately becoming suspicious of our pet parakeet. The bird was named “Max” and I thought he couldn’t be trusted.

Before my father’s accident, a bug bit me one Christmas when I opened a box and found a telescope inside. It was bigger than a common pirate spyglass, sporting a two-inch-diameter lens, complete with tripod. The magnification couldn’t read the surface of Mars but it could take me to the moon. I’d climb out of my window and up onto the roof to scan the heavens for life.

Many a night, I laid there on my rooftop zooming-in on the moon, looking for any secrets that only I could be entrusted to know. The moon’s face opened up to me and revealed all of her wounds. I noted the size of every crater and the length of their shadows across the lunar soil, aka “moon dust.”

After the wonderment of the night sky turned me into an insomniac, my interest turned from outer space to inner space. For my 11th birthday, I received a 48-piece microscope set. I could now, for the first time, peer into the laboratory of life at super magnified levels of blood, dead skin, and the body of an ant. The set came complete with glass slides, Petri dish, sample vials, and tweezers. Wearing my mother’s white church gloves and a lab coat fashioned from a bedsheet, I turned my microscope loose upon nature.

“Is anybody in there?” I queried while examining a piece of human hair.

My first travel machine was handmade from one of the many moving boxes left behind by my mom, who followed dad on his endless pursuit of a job. Using a flashlight, I crawled into a packing box and began to design the controls of my ship.

First, I drew a screen with a black crayon. Below the screen, I inserted sewing spindles for control knobs. With a butter knife jabbed through the box, I made a good sturdy throttle. Since my machine could travel much faster than the speed of light — just raising the knife slightly upwards shot me across the Milky Way in a blink of an eye, and in a slightly lowered position I slowed down enough to observe life on other worlds. The last component missing was a steering wheel. I extracted the part from a broken riding lawnmower I found in my parent’s garage and mounted it into the cardboard wall below the screen. My control panel was similar to the design of the dashboard in my dad’s 1966 Thunderbird.

A simple blast of a Cracker Jack whistle announced my departure. Inside the box, I traveled to the gates of Asgard and to the center of the subatomic universe. Time was irrelevant as my machine could also travel back through time to the lower Jurassic or forward to the homeland of ancient aliens. When the fighting between my parents got to be too much, all I had to do was enter the coordinates for another dimension and I was carried away until I could no longer hear the violence.

When I outgrew the inside of a Mayflower mover’s box, I became fascinated with railroad tracks. There were tracks not far from the house and I would walk the rails, balance myself on one rail, or place a penny on a rail to watch a train smash it to twice its size. I studied the graffiti on the passing train cars. Names in strange languages in colorful red, white and blue designs like Zapata Lives! were spray-painted over the doors. Who were the people who wrote their names on the train and where they came from? The rails seemed to go on forever, and there was great delight in the feeling of looking down the tracks and imagining them to be the throat of eternity.

The tracks beckoned me to take long bike trips.

Each day, I peddled further down the road on my sky blue Schwinn Country Roamer. My wonderful bicycle, complete with its muscle handlebars and fabulous silver-ribbed stingray fastback seat, carried me into the next neighborhood, past the woods, and beyond.

My walks in the woods became longer, too — more like scouting missions to find a lost civilization. Even in the winter, I trekked out into the woods, taking note of wind direction, sunlight, cloud movement, and peculiar prints in the snow — until my feet froze and I was in dire need of shelter.

Fort building started one winter when I made an igloo out of the snow. I sat within my shiny icy dome, illuminated by my camping lamp, dreaming of polar bears snorting, whales surfacing, and the call of a snowy owl. Next, I built a year-round retreat in the rafters of our garage. From that vantage point, I could spy on my dad. I remember seeing him leave and return at all odd times of the night.

My next engineering feat took me up into the trees. High above the ground, my lofty tree shack provided a magnificent view of the Minnesota River valley and an artificial lake called, Black Dog, where I speared for carp. I was also high up enough to see further across the valley and out to the edges of the city.

One afternoon, I noticed that the city was on fire as a great cloud of smoke engulfed the buildings below. Later, over dinner, my dad talked about something called nigger, and how people were rioting, destroying buildings, and should be shot.

Finally, seeking to be invisible, I went underground during the spring season, after digging an elaborate self-sustaining Earth pod and furnishing it with a sleeping bag and supplies; including Snickers bars and soda pop. The explorations became more elaborate and complex, as I added a canteen, Boy Scout compass, and a bow; whereby I fearlessly shot arrows at the sun.

By 1967, when I was 13, Mom started to pack the house for the big move and I swapped enough bottle-refund pennies, Kool-Aid stand nickels and lawn-mowing dollars for the one-way Greyhound bus ticket from Minneapolis to St. Louis. I didn’t put much thought into the planning of this runaway scheme. A friend of mine had moved there and offered to house and feed me. He thought for sure his parents would learn to like and adopt me. There was no way to confirm any of his promises, nor how long it would last. It was sort of like against the rules of the adventure to ask very many questions.

As I rode the bus en route to St. Louis, I watched as my old stomping grounds disappeared behind me, along with my translucent wide-eyed expression reflecting back through a great big wide window, from high above it all in my fat cushy comfy tilt-back chair.

Riding these massive planes of sensational visual existence, I was experiencing an unfolding and refolding right before my eyes, through my translucent image in the window to a greater escape within my ever-changing reality.

Meanwhile, my riding companions and I embarked upon many spans of farmlands, rivers, and bridges like patchwork tapestry quilts alive and weaving their own stories appearing and vanishing right before my eyes. I dreamt... “ever-evolving doors.”

Travelers treating me like a grown-up, talking in their strange accents asked, “Where you headed, son?” Enthusiastically, I answered them with a hearty “St. Louis!” noting the southern drawl I imagined Huck Finn used while shouting for Jim after their raft was smashed apart in the fog. My fellow travelers and I were all bonded together on an adventure to paradise. In a bus or on a river raft — no matter — it was my movement toward freedom, and my freedom was where I saw fit.

When I arrived with my Huck Finn bag of clothes, the story was spun quickly by Tom Sawyer.

“He’s a friend from school and we’re doing a sleepover,” my friend Tom explained to his frowning parents.

Two nights later, Tom Sawyer asked me to pull my pants down. I saw he had already done so, and I followed.

We laid there outside in the back yard, side by side, butt naked beneath the moon.

“Let’s rub ourselves,” he suggested.

The next thing I knew Tom was down there bobber hopper on my fishing tackle. He asked me to return the pleasure, and with hesitation, I complied. Having never done anything like that before, I didn’t know what to expect.

“Tom, don’t take this the wrong way. I like you and everything. I mean consider me your wingman for life… but I feel very confused by what we’re doing,” I explained, “and why are we touching each other like this?”

Tom hugged me while encouraging, “It’s no big deal, really. Forget it. We’re friends, forever, and when I run for president vote for me okay?”

“Yeah, sure, let’s keep this our little secret,” I whispered.

Tom’s parents caught on when the sleepover lasted a week and they asked where I lived. The adventure ended the next day after that — when the police car pulled into the driveway and I found myself being shuffled into the back seat.

On my long ride back to Minneapolis, I felt a new sense of growth, as well as dread.

I was fingerprinted, photographed, and pushed before a judge. In an amazing miscarriage of justice, they connected me to a rash of crimes — pinball machine hacker, Christmas bulb snatcher, skateboard bandit, cigarette smuggler, Playboy magazine peddler, Halloween pumpkin smasher, and babysitter stalker. They also accused me of punching Roundhouse Rodney (a TV kid-show celebrity) in the stomach on an ice skating rink. The judge found me guilty on all charges. My syndicate was so vast they dubbed me the “kingpin” notorious gang leader for the River Hills raiders.

“Let the trial of nobody’s son begin,” the Judge commenced as he hit his gavel on a sound block.

My parents stood before the judge with me for a moment and then stepped away.

“The State versus the hoodlum,” the judge read from a paper. “Do you understand the charges brought before you?”

“No.” I shook my head.

“How do you wish to plead, guilty or not guilty?” The judge asked.

“Not guilty, your Honor,” I spoke up.

The probation officer grabbed me by the seat of the pants and gave a hard yank. The idea was I stand straight like a soldier to accept my verdict with respect.

There was whispering back and forth between the probation officer and the judge. I overheard the word, “Boy’s Town” and a shockwave shot up my spine. I felt my skin grow scales. Nothing could penetrate me. I was invincible.

My parents remained silent and offered no defense or any possible explanation of why I might have run away.

The judge whacked his gavel again against the sound block and it was over.

By law, I had no rights as a minor and consequently any testimony in my own defense was useless. I now had a criminal record. As an official Juvenile Delinquent, I was considered a potential menace to society. I was a person 10 times more likely to have a career behind bars. For being a “runner” I received several years on probation.

The court assigned Mr. Booty to monitor my activities. He was a tall, ancient man, who wore skinny black ties, and pin-striped suits, similar to a G-man. He looked down at me in disgust through his wire-rimmed bifocals and scribbled things about me in his notebook. This was part of my weekly interrogation.

I remember the time he questioned me about my whereabouts between 3 and 4 p.m. on a particular Thursday.

“I was riding my bike around the neighborhood,” I told him.

He held a pen to his lips while probing me for answers to his inquiries, “Are there any witnesses?” he asked.

“Mrs. Johnson was outside watering her flowers, and she saw me,” I answered.

Whether he followed up with Mrs. Johnson to corroborate my account, I do not know — but thanks to Mrs. Johnson’s faithful gardening, I had a tight alibi.

Hennings is the author of “Guitarlo” an award-nominated memoir that includes his experiences living in Minnesota and Indonesia.

Guitarlo - available where ever books are sold

This disclaimer informs readers that the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, web site ISP, search engines, committee or other group or individual.

© Arlo Hennings 2020

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

LSD: 50th year anniversary

LSD: 50th Anniversary Remembrance

by Arlo Hennings 

 LSD, or lysergic acid diethylamide, is a hallucinogenic drug that was first synthesized by a Swiss scientist in the 1930s. During the Cold War, the CIA conducted clandestine experiments with LSD (and other drugs) for mind control, information gathering and other purposes. Over time, the drug became a symbol of the 1960s counterculture.

Authors, such as Ken Kesey, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest,” Tom Robbins, “Tibetan Peach Pie,” Tom Wolfe, “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” Aldous Huxley, “Doors of Perception,” Timothy Leary, (Evangelist), musicians and other artists too many to name used LSD. In the mix were cults like Charles Manson too. Many have attempted to varying degrees of success to describe what effect LSD had. But, one thing is for certain the drug had a profound and life-altering effect on them.

Somewhere along with the great pop culture highway pure LSD, like many counter-culture trends, fell to the wayside and the enlightenment tribe morphed into other things. This essay is not a history lesson but as a practitioner, between the ages of 15-16, I dropped large amounts of LSD.

After taking LSD, I became a voracious reader, which inspired me to be a writer and a musician, which inspired me to write and promote music. However, on the downside, it alienated me from the mainstream and promoted the idea of dropping out. In addition, my visions prompted me to believe that I knew something beyond the mortal. Maybe I had gone where no man had gone before but there wasn't a place for acid heads in my hardscrabble life.

I had tried many variations of LSD to fewer results namely purple haze, microdot, windowpane, orange sunshine, and 3-way wedge, which I place in the hallucinogenic class, not the DIY Shaman kit. I tripped so many times, in fact, that I grew weary of the predictable quest arc. How many times could I witness my mind leaving my body and my ego dissolve like Alka-Seltzer until I admitted, I'm not the Buddha and never will unravel the great mystery of my navel? LSD proved to be too much for my young, fragile eggshell mind. A strong psychotropic drug that no one knew little about. Therefore, I didn't need to drop it anymore.

I still wonder what kind of person I might have become if I never experimented with LSD? It changed who I was but to what degree and to put a finger on that I’ve never been able to ascertain. Only that I never looked at things the same way again.

This is my experience through the heavy soil mode of an interstellar washing machine.

The blue square wrapped in Paisley colored tin foil offered me a gateway dream to another dimension of my being — a sort of parallel world as much a part of our reality as the Earth to which we’re temporarily bound — a domain of spirit where the cumbersome physical body cannot function, and where encounters with rabbit holes and other such entities of the imagination are commonplace. It is in that place — where time and distance melt away, and the consciousness of all beings\living or dead, seem to connect where I am in a state of awareness, where I am making sense of the otherwise inexplicable. It is in this realm where the soul maps are hidden away, waiting for a timely moment to reveal their secrets and unveil the path to transformation.

Only LSD was powerful enough to propel me beyond the ego’s gravitational pull and into the inky black nothingness of the dream mind. Like a rocket ship, after the first booster had exhausted its fuel, I’d enter Stage 1, feeling the drift, then into Stage 2, where my vision tapped through the dark illusion of time... and finally, onto Stage 3, where for me, a kind of white-out happened, and I experienced my conscious and unconscious minds merging into a state of blissful surrender in order to go beyond the matrix, and travel to other galaxies, uninhibited by any mortal means.

Interview with a teenage acid head.

“Do you have anything else you’d like to say?” Dr. Elle, the Psychiatrist asked.

“I consider myself a soul traveler. I spend many days hanging out at lakes, woods, and libraries,” I said.

She noted, “Soul traveler?”

“To be a soul traveler means to be a Universal Man. Universal Man is Universal Mind; it’s awareness, not a person. Universal Mind is about integrating nature, body, mind, soul, and spirit into a spectrum of consciousness.”

“Go on,” she said.

“I take acid to bring me closer to what I believe to be my true nature, which is a hyper-accelerated state of awareness. I called this state of animated consciousness Universal Mind.”

She was not familiar with the LSD culture, nicknamed acid. Most of the facts on the drug were folklore. Illegal since the early 1960s, the popularity of LSD waned during the first half of the 1970s. Research on the long-term effects of the drug remained unknown. She recalled reading an article in Psychology Today magazine about a diagnosed phenomenon, "Post Hallucinogenic Sensory Distortion." The theory concluded that due to an overly excited pituitary gland the patient’s senses absorbed reality like a flash flood as opposed to an eye drop. Resulting in permanent neuron overload, the brain no longer had the ability to absorb external stimuli on a controllable one at a time basis. The mind protected itself by creating a mental condom.

She listened quietly as I told her my body was a translucent, revealing complex of anatomical systems, which was interwoven with glowing energies visible to clairvoyants.

The case took a new turn.

“What is your greatest fear?” She asked.

“To have my head shaved.”

“Your first souvenir?”

“I believe it was a guitar.”

“The most erogenic part of your body?”

“The bottom of my feet.”

“If I say ‘a man’, what is the first image that comes to your mind?”

“A hairy creature at the bottom of a pool.”

Dr. Elle sat back in her chair and rolled her hair gently into a knot. Three black onyx rings set on sliver covered her long, brown fingers. “Why do you want to be a Universal Man?”

“When your mind left your body, you enter what’s called the Universal Mind to be one with the spirit world,” I answered.

She examined me closely. “Do you believe that you have a Universal Mind?”

“I have a mind-traveling club.” I really acted like it was a confession. “The concept,” I went on, “my friends and I leave our bodies and travel around the cosmos. The ceremony happens around a dinner table with no legs. In the center of the table is a Day-Glo-painted bucket—the large metal trash-burning type. On the wall is a window curtain. But there wasn’t any window. It’s all very symbolic.”

Dr. Elle’s black-plucked eyebrows quivered, and she said in French, then repeated in English. “This is why your bedroom has no furniture? Why you paint poetry on the walls––and according to your records attempted suicide?”

“No…not exactly. I’m on a vision quest.”

“How often do you leave your body?”

“Oh, maybe once a week, sometimes twice,” I answered. “It depends on whether or not I can get the good stuff­­––.”

“Please explain,” she said.

I got down on the floor, looked up at the light on the ceiling, and barked like a dog. “My blindness was cured. The bandages had come off and I had seen the real me for the first time. Like that first light at birth, I had reached Universal Mind.”

Dr. Elle looked at me with curiosity at first and realized I was being humorous. My sense of humor she noted was characteristically Midwestern. “What did you find when you reached the Universal Mind?”

I returned to my seat, looking lost. “The vision gained was like trying to hold water in your hands.” I stopped at this point to smell my fingers. “The taste of the journey remains on your fingertips. It’s hard to explain.”

“Who is in your club? And what’s the purpose of the club?” Dr. Elle reluctantly had to move on the hour was nearly over.

“The club consists of the guys from the pad. We’re Universal Men. We’ve transcended purpose. A Universal Man guided us between the melons––our rite of passage.”

While my experience was exceptional, perhaps it can help inform the resurgence of research into the use of psychedelic substances for the treatment of conditions such as addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety, the researchers believe.

Hennings is the author of “Guitarlo” an award-nominated memoir that includes his experiences living in Minnesota and Indonesia.

Guitarlo - available where ever books are sold

This disclaimer informs readers that the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, web site ISP, search engines, committee or other group or individual.

© Arlo Hennings 2020

Saturday, February 8, 2020

The Schrooms of Bali


by Arlo Hennings

Balinese Bima Puppet

I stood along the side of the road, having just finished up my village canal cleaning ritual for the week when a tall, strange foreigner approached me. He had long blonde hair tied up into a bun on top of his head, arms decorated with serpent tattoos, and his neck and wrists were wrapped with multicolored beads. He wore a blue tank top and parachute pants with a floral Bhakti print that went just past the kneecaps, where I noticed that his right leg appeared to have recently been savagely mangled. A pair of worn-out sandals covered his dirty feet.

“Transcend it,” he mumbled from within a buzzing ball of flies. “Inhale naturally; be one with nature.” He wandered up to a coconut tree and wrapped his arms around it. The stubble of his chin rubbed against the trunk.

The jungle canopy quavered in the wind and a soft shower of white flower petals drifted earthward. He pretended to chase a flower floating on the air, even though it was easily within his reach. “Try to touch it; you can’t. It’s like time; all you can do is open your mind to it.”

I guessed he was being friendly and that he was making an effort to give me some insight into his world. He gazed up through the shafts of light that penetrated the coconut trees.

“You’re like that flower floating on the wind. Go with the flow, brother,” he said.

What he lacked in self-restraint he made up for in bold self-confidence. One artery pulsated on his temple and a single bead of sweat cut a path along his brow and off the tip of his nose. This was the first time he had faced the trees continuously. There was no pain in his face; just a thirst. He stood among his trees. It seemed that he could smell time on the branches; that he could hear it through the rustling palm leaves. His left eye went ghostly white. His right eye was wild; pleading. He shrugged distractedly and waved at the trees.

“This is my place,” he declared.

He handed me his business card: 52 Goodfingers, Life Coach and Ubud Community magazine editor. He pointed to a compound across the road, apparently indicating that he was my neighbor. I was only beginning to discover who my neighbors were. Across from me lived the son of rich Austrians, who was charged with managing his father’s hotel; the sort that included a private helicopter pad to accommodate those who were wealthy or famous enough to require such an extravagance. At the opposite end of my carport was a deluxe villa belonging to a couple from Austin, Texas, who only stayed there when they visited the island twice a year, and rented it out the rest of the time. Occupying the backlot was an intensely private, middle-aged, single Canadian woman. She never returned a smile or wave when greeted on the Jalan. However, once a year on Christmas Eve she invited me to a cup of Rum flavored egg nog.

“Feel the vibration?” 52 said, enthusiastically. “More cosmic vibes flow through this area than anywhere else on the island,” he continued. “Take a deep breath. Just taste nature’s amusement park. It’s a holy taste, brother. I don’t know about you, but it makes me want to join a drum chant.”

He invited me into his quarters, which consisted of a single room located inside a traditional Balinese family compound. It was not uncommon for the locals to rent out a room in their compounds. These rooms were the cheapest accommodations to be found anywhere on the island. I followed him along a dirt path, retracing footprints that appeared to be his, likely made earlier in the day. We passed by many sets of broken-off doors, belonging to dwellings in various states of disrepair, and continued our descent down the narrowing trail that ended at the entrance to his lair. The modest living space was furnished with little more than a raggedy mattress on the floor, a small refrigerator that was at least a decade old, and a rusty gas cooker. He shared a bathroom with three other families, as was typical of these compounds. A basic bathroom consists of a tub of cold water and a ceramic urinal dug into the floor. You pour water on your body with a bucket to bathe, and squat on the floor to relieve yourself.

As we sat down on the dirty, concrete floor, I observed that his room was cluttered with moldy newspapers, piles of empty water bottles, beer and soda cans, chunks of plaster, blankets, three pairs of soiled couch cushions, a few paintbrushes, and a blank canvas; all accented with leftover rice that was crawling with ants and covered with a heavy layer of dust to complete the effect. The filth of his dharma crash pad made my nose wrinkle and the hair on the back of my neck curl up into tight coils. I hadn’t seen anyone live in such unsanitary conditions since my hippie days.

Although I was already considered by some to be something of a “neat freak” by local standards, this certainly didn’t look like anything I could identify with as “home” by any stretch of the imagination. It was more like a place where an old, burnt out, war refugee might hide when the scars of the past had become too heavy to carry.

52 lit up a cigarette; there were swirls of blue in the smoke that left his lungs in long, slow exhales. His face was gaunt and his body appeared to be nothing more than a shrinking skeleton loosely draped with skin. His gaze betrayed a life complicated by many troubles. The whites of his sunken eyes surrounded oily pupils set in a viscous liquid that replaced once-clear pools of crystal blue.

For whatever trials he had faced, his spirit did not appear dampened. He managed to maintain a happy-go-lucky smile that lit up his face, undeterred by yellow teeth, stained from years of smoking. It didn’t seem to bother him that his clothes fit so poorly that they seemed to belong to someone else, nor did he seem disturbed by the fetid aroma that formed a nearly visible aura around him.

He reached into his worn backpack and pulled out an unmarked bottle filled with a lemon-colored liquid. With shaking hands, he filled two small glasses and handed one to me. In one gulp he emptied his glass, while I was still cautiously examining the brew that smelled like a cross between gasoline and turpentine and wondering if it might be combustible. It turned out to be a local variety of Balinese moonshine called arak. It had been offered to me before by locals who worked at a resort where I sometimes went swimming. It’s pure alcohol typically made from coconut palm sap; however, when the primary ingredient is not available, old tires are used in the fermentation process. It is highly addictive and many people die from drinking it. I sat my full glass back down on the floor.

“Is this our last dance as warriors?” he asked, wiping off his mouth with the back of his hand. He abruptly picked up a paintbrush and stared at his easel.

I asked how long he’d been here. He related how he and his wife had first come to Ubud from Holland over 25 years ago and had been among the first foreign shop owners on Monkey Forest Road. What had happened to his wife, since clearly, it had been quite some time since his current dwelling had been graced with a woman’s touch? He mentioned that she had left him, but then became very vague about details of his personal life. I thought it best not to ask.

He described the Ubud of long ago as a quaint little village with no hotels or restaurants and no traffic; a beautiful and unspoiled paradise of mountains, rice fields, and natural beauty. Everybody knew everyone and the villagers would come together to bathe in the river, wash their clothes, and exchange the latest news and gossip. Although artists and celebrities had been visiting the area since the 1930s, it remained a virtually virgin territory until modern high-tech communication and transportation gave greedy consumerism pimps easy access to Bali’s overwhelmed inhabitants, seducing them into prostituting their island paradise for the promise of material gain. Wasn’t this what I had tried to escape? Now, in addition to the booming tourist industry, Bali had become home to a growing expat community from around the globe and from all walks of life. Like moths to a flame they came; renowned and unsung, scholars, humanitarians, affluent hedonists, seeking peace, tranquility, and harmony.

“Hold still; stop fidgeting,” 52 said. Then he stuck another paintbrush in his mouth and smudged the canvas with his right thumb. I held my pose: right hand on knee, left hand draped to the floor, upright, head slightly cocked, slight shit-ass grin.

“How long do you plan to stay here?” he asked. I stared at a spot just above his head, avoiding eye contact. I couldn’t look into his eyes dead-on without feeling like I was falling into a well. I couldn’t help wondering what had happened to this man; what had his life been like; what trials had he faced and what had happened to his leg. I found it hard to talk to him, so I didn’t dare question him about it. Suddenly, as if just shaken from a dream, I realized that I really had no particular plan. I’d been in this situation before, just living from day to day, but had never dreamed I would ever find myself thrust back into a vagabond lifestyle, particularly at this point in my life and in a foreign land besides.
“I don’t really know,” I finally responded. “I suppose it will depend on what I find.”

I was grateful that he didn’t question me further.

52 studied the canvas like a boxer facing a heavyweight opponent. His first brush stroke turned into an awkward dance made up of head jerks, backbends, and flailing arms. It looked like a mismatched fight. He took another drink and exhaled forcibly across his knuckles in an effort to loosen his stiff hands. The hand was then tested for dexterity on scratch paper before making its triumphant return to the canvas.

Up and down; back and forth; I listened to the soothing, rhythmic sound made by the stiff bristles of the brush scratching against the old canvas. While he painted, the late afternoon sun broke through the gray mass of clouds filling the room with narrow, dust-filled fingers of light. It felt at that moment that we were touched by the gods. I wanted him to go on, never finish, keep this moment frozen in time. As he continued painting, my curiosity grew. I was dying to see what vision had inspired the artist. Had he discovered my secrets? I could contain myself no longer; I had to see the image that my new companion had been so compelled to create.

“What’s with the big furry feet?” I inquired.

“A traveler needs nimble, well-protected feet that can move quietly in the jungle,” he replied.

“You can never tell what creatures dwell in the shadows. You are set upon a great adventure, no?”

Without waiting for an answer, he added a touch of gray to the eyebrows in the portrait.

The face was mine; however, my flat, square face and growing beard had been transformed into a simple, but an oddly beautiful creature, small in stature, with a smooth, hairless face and the innocent countenance of a child. The eyes sparkled like a prism when struck by a sunbeam. It had ears that nearly resembled wings, barely peeking through a mop of shaggy reddish curls and sporting a traveling jacket, backpack, and a long, delicately carved walking stick, as if prepared for a long journey. And those feet; they almost appeared to belong on another creature. Still, it stirred something deep inside of me, like a vision long forgotten, like rediscovering my purpose, like recalling an act of courage I thought I’d long since lost. Suddenly, I felt empowered and a sense of imminent victory replaced that of impending doom.

My face gave way to a smile.

“I like it,” I told him.

The muscles in his face tightened and a tear seemed ready to spill from the corner of his eye. I gathered that he was searching as if to recover something he’d lost, some idea of himself perhaps. His eyes scanned my body, inspecting every detail, each wrinkle in my shirt, every subtle shadow on my face, each visible fold of skin. Finally, he nodded and shot me an understanding smile.

I resumed my pose.

“Turn your head slightly and face me,” he said.

I stared at the painting. Then he began talking to the image in the painting as if there were no difference between the world of his dreams and visions and the conscious world of physical reality where we sat amid the garbage and clutter.

“I’m sorry for not listening to you,” he said to the image he had created. “Do you forgive me?”

He stopped painting for a moment and appeared to be studying something inside his mind. “Have you ever dreamed that you died?” he said, with one eye half-closed. “I think of a mirror when I look at you: a reflection filled with a myriad of colors, crafted by the winds, blowing across the great canvas of life, all mysterious and unknowing.”

He made no further comment and continued painting.

I paused as if observing a lifetime of history filling the vision behind his eyes. I didn’t know where to begin. Somehow I knew that he knew that he would die from drinking. I closed my eyes and thought how too many of my other friends had ended their lives that way. A bottle can kill you in paradise as quickly as anywhere else.

As I returned to my villa that evening, I tried to understand what had just happened. I pondered the events of that strange afternoon well into the night, as I tossed and turned before finally falling into troubled dreams.

Suddenly, I wanted my guitar. I wanted to pluck her strings and feel her resonance, wanted to embrace her and feel the familiar coolness of her body against mine. I needed to hear the purity in her tone that could make me laugh or make me cry. I felt like laughing just then...at the irony of fate. Besides, what better than a song to begin an adventure?

The next night, I left my villa to go for a walk. I felt as though the walls were closing in around me. Had nine months really passed since I’d arrived on Bali? Despite all the trials along the way, time seemed to pass in the blink of my third eye. Had I made any significant progress toward my reinvention goal?

Before I knew it, my villa had faded from view, and I had walked along a path until the jungle swallowed up the moonlight. The muffled beating of drums, in celebration of the full moon, penetrated the darkness. Suddenly, I realized that I was alone in the jungle on an unfamiliar path, and unsure if I would be able to find my way back. I hadn’t planned to wander so far, so I didn’t think I’d need my flashlight or phone. (What could possibly go wrong?) Now the walls of the jungle were closing in on me. I began to panic.

Dawn was hours away. I had to keep my head, but I also had a gut feeling that this could not end well. I took a deep breath, sucking the dense, humid air into my lungs, and imagining that each breath brought me more closely into harmony with the surrounding jungle. If I could align myself with the energy of the jungle, it might help me find my way. With another long, deep breath, I began to assess my situation. I was uncertain of just how far I’d actually walked, having lost track of both time and distance.

Heavy drops of rain began falling onto thirsty leaves above. Insects, frogs, and other creatures of the night began warming up their voices to the drumbeat. Since I could not see any visual clues, or feel any change of topography that would lead me back to the road, I decided to walk toward the drumming. As I worked my way through the jungle, the rain picked up and the rumbling of thunder began to compete with the sound of the drums. I closed my eyes for a moment to concentrate and listen. When I opened my eyes, I noticed a faint glow in the distance. My adrenaline, and a sense of relief, kicked in as I headed with unsteady steps toward the light. But almost as quickly as I noticed it, the light vanished, and the drumming stopped. If a hapless foreigner falls in the jungle and nobody is around to hear him, does he start to scream anyway?

I sensed something brush by me. I could not outrun or outwit a threatening creature that I could not see. I froze in silence, one soon broken.

“I’ve been looking for you,” someone whispered.

I’d recognize that voice anywhere, even as a whisper in a jungle rainstorm. It was 52 Goodfingers. I was shocked and incredibly relieved to see him. I told him how I ended up getting lost, and how grateful I was that he had somehow tracked me down to guide me home. I followed him into a clearing, where a hint of moonlight began to emerge from behind the clouds. I could see him now, as he turned around to explain that he had not come to escort me out of the jungle. Rather, he was about to guide me on a different journey.

“It’s the night of the full moon,” he began, “and I’m here to conduct the magic bone ceremony. I want to foretell your future and help you unlock the hidden powers of your soul.”

I’d had enough excitement for one terrifying night in the jungle and desperately wanted to return to my villa. And I had already predicted my immediate future: this could not end well.

Still, I figured that 52 was my only way out, so I agreed to participate.

52 explained what he called the “Oracle of Bones.” He places sacred pig bones into a fire, then later searches the ashes for four unbroken bones. Upon finding them, he cleans them, then carves sacred symbols onto one side only. These become the oracle bones. They may be used for many kinds of divination in much the same way as people consult the I Ching. The bones can detect stirring, every shadow, and my every fear became magnified a hundredfold in my imagination.

52 told me that we were heading to a place of power. In another half hour or so, we ended up at the entrance to a cave, which, 52 informed me, housed “the temple of Yama.” I hesitated.

“I sense that you do not trust me,” 52 said. “Is this not so?”

I did trust him, up to a point. After all, I barely knew him. I tempered myself, but I had to ask . . . “With all due respect, 52, have you been sniffing arak?”

He bowed in a dignified manner.

“Like the yogi,” he claimed, “I am an uplifter of the people. One who has a foot in the yonder realm and can serve as a conduit for spiritual realities. I involve neither sorcery nor the wielding of parlor tricks. I am accountable, however, to both the natural and the supernatural realms, and ultimately to the entire pattern of the universe.

“When I was born, my father called me ‘One Goodfinger.’ At my birth, a crop of rice sprung forth during a drought. The following year I touched a sick cow and it came back to health. That was when my parents called me ‘Two Goodfingers.’

“Five years later, I became deathly ill. No one knew what was wrong with me, so my father summoned a healer. The healer recognized that I was not ill from any Earthly cause. He consulted spirits, who revealed that I suffered from the ‘vision sickness.’ I could see into the future as well as see into the body. It was a sign that I was born with the power to heal. I would take on others’ illnesses but did not know how to rid myself of such sickness. The healer restored my health, and I became his apprentice. Every year since my apprenticeship began, I have tried to make something especially good happen. That is why I am now known as 52 Goodfingers. Legend has it that with this full moon I will have a new finger.”

“I thought you were from Holland?” I said.

“I come from up north,” he answered, pointing toward the mountains as if he was going to say more but decided not to.

As we entered the cave, 52 told me that it is one of the largest holes in a catacomb that runs beneath an ancient complex of temples. He lit an oil lamp, which illuminated inscriptions, moss-covered statues, and the remains of previous ceremonies.

“I love this place,” said 52.

Perhaps his brand of spirituality had a method that only the spirits could understand.

“We have guests,” 52 announced. “There are warriors camped out within these walls.”

I looked around me as 52 pulled out a plastic bag, filled with “soul-cleansing” mushrooms. These plants are subjectively legal on the island, even served in smoothies at restaurants. I just did not expect them to be part of this process. I could have refused them but decided to place my trust in 52’s trip. My soul could probably benefit from a good cleansing. As instructed, I chewed up a small handful of the dried shrooms.

52 drew a circle in the dirt. Next, he emptied his pocket, which held the bones, and told me to place the bones “in the fire.” That was all fine except there wasn’t a real fire. I was instructed to close my eyes, sit quietly, and meditate. Since I was so tired, I suspected that I’d simply drift off to sleep. I did not.

At some point, I began to transition from this world to the next. I began to cross the divide as though I was walking on a footbridge over a mile-deep gorge. Pieces of my thoughts began to break off like rotten planks. The sensation of falling was overwhelming. I felt the warrior paint break through my skin, come alive, and crawl over my face.

52 recognized my anxiety and held my face firmly between his hands. “Let go, don’t hold on. If you do, you’ll get paranoid.” He looked hard into my eyes. “Look at me, that’s the spirit.”

“Does it hurt the oracle if I ask a question,” I said, tugging on my hair.

“All are welcome,” 52 said, in a peaceful voice.

“How does it work? The bones, I mean.”

He closed his eyes as if he were answering me with telepathy. “The sacred cow bones can be beads of ivory, shell, bone, and other things, which are thrown by the guide to learn the future. When they fall, they describe certain mystic patterns. What those patterns mean would take far too long for me to explain here. For an accurate reading, the bones must be thrown in three different places: on a mountain, in the open country, and also inside a cave. If the message you receive from these places remains identical, then that is the message that you must accept.”

“Have you thrown the bones in the other places?” I asked 52.

“I have thrown ‘the old man,’ ‘the old woman,’ ‘the young man,’ and ‘the young woman.’ If the bone lands face upward, it is said to be smiling. If it lands face downward, it is said to be crying,” he explained.

“What have the bones said so far?” I asked.

“All aspects of the bones’ arrangements are considered carefully. These include which way the image is facing, the distance between the bones, and any unusual configurations in the pattern. In the end, I may not know what the future holds for you — if there is any hope in the situation in which you exist, not only here but in the context of the whole future world.”

52 slapped his hands together. “Tonight, the final reading shall be known.”

“Is there any reason to feel insecure about this?”

“Memory has monsters in its raw form. The past can only hurt us if we summon it unprepared.”

52 began to play a small wooden flute.

I forgot about where I was, who I was, where I’d been, or where I was going. In a happy way, nothing seemed to matter. My fear lifted. The flute music carried me away.

“If you can hear your ally in the valley of tears, then you are ready to understand the bones.” 52 echoed.

His words came out of his mouth like sparks as he used a stick to fish the hot bones out of the ashes of time. Four unbroken bones smoked on the ground. He inhaled the smoke and appeared to bless them. Then stirring the bones with the stick, he flipped them like dice.

I remained rock still; I was transfixed and transported.

“Can you feel the vision coming?” I said from the shadows.

The four bones rolled up to my bare feet. Two-faced up and two were face down. The ones facing down had lines carved on them.

52 knelt down for a closer look. His left eye looked relieved. His right eye seemed to swell shut in disbelief. “It is a strange reading. Never have I received one like this.”

The cave was moving.

“Fear not,” 52 announced. “We go for honor… and we go for the truth.”

The cave became cold. The ceiling and the walls disappeared, opening a great expanse of space. Beyond the imaginary campfire, glowing animals circled. The idea that I was going to die crossed my mind. “Where am I going?”

“Into chaos…” 52 smiled reassuringly.

I nodded as if I understood.

Like a stage curtain had been lifted from my eyes I saw thousands of lifeless shacks scattered across the land. Some clung for life to the roots of leafless trees, with bony branches that shook, as if casting an evil in the hot wind.

“What is this place?”

“You’re seeing the homelessness of your soul,” 52 said.

It began to rain.

52 instructed me to put a blanket over my head and follow him into the camp. Litter guided our steps down potholed paths with numbers painted on them.

I stared at the carnage. “What does it all have to do with me?”

“Think hard. Try to remember. That’s why you’re here… to learn.” 52 suddenly stopped. On the cave floor between us was the corpse of a dead dog, its guts chewed out.

I placed my hand over my heart. It was beating so hard I thought it was going to break my ribs.

Farther along the muddy path, a light came through the shack windows from glowing braziers. As we passed by the shacks, I kept hearing what sounded like an old car backfiring.

“They’re coughing.” 52 said. “The spirits are all sick.”

“Let’s turn around. Why should they talk to us, anyway?”

“We’ll wait here, ” 52 decided.

A young woman arrived with a child wrapped in rags. She was about to set the child down when she saw me. Her reaction was disbelief. She stood back, grasping the child in fear.

I smiled gingerly at her from inside my rain-soaked blanket. The child’s mother looked at my face and froze in terror. Cautiously, she clutched her child and backed up.

The woman flapped her arm at a shack, a gesture of trouble. 52 put his arm around me and took me to the woman. He removed the blanket from my head and wrapped the child in it.

We followed her and the child across a piece of ground named Yard Twenty-nine, stopping at a doghouse-style flap door. We crouched down because the door was too low for a person of average height to pass through without bending over double.

Inside the shack, a small brazier lit a room the size of a large garden shed. The walls were made out of adobe, tin, brick, and scrap wood. Much of the wall lay in flakes upon the floor. I thought the shack might fall over because it was leaning on the edge of a gully. The occupants were an elderly woman in a potato-bag dress, a middle-aged man and woman, three children, and the woman holding a strange child with white skin. The child’s face was made of diamonds. Each jewel reflected upon the other in endless interweaving patterns. I looked into the top, flat portion of one diamond called the table.

“Follow the child into the center of the reflections. What do you see?” 52 waved his hand.

“I see my brother, parents, my daughter, magic loon — everything that happened to me,” I answered.

“You are only seeing the first layer. Past this immediate life is the reflection of your previous lives. Your soul is caught somewhere between what had to be and refusing to let go because you forgot your celestial origin.”

“I feel cheated, betrayed and wronged.”

“You forgot that these experiences taught you how to love. You’ve already lived this life one thousand times before and each time you forget the last note of the song. By forgetting to learn from your karmic memories they have decayed and become bad spirits that dwell in the bottom of your feet. Only the truth can lift the weight of the lie. Only by remembering what you learned from the experiences can you remember everything.” He claimed. “It is only then that you can unlock the door; go beyond the dragons, and name your demon.”

Sprinkling leaves on my toes and taking laxatives had its merits, I speculated.

“The baby made of diamonds is awaiting your soul. This life will end soon. Do you wish to finish the song this time?”

The family sat on pieces of cardboard, dressed in patched khaki clothes, and stared at nothing. The woman with the diamond child held out her empty hands and motioned at the floor.

“She wants you to sit and be dry,” 52 interpreted.

A bowl with a mouse-sized ration of brown-colored things appeared in my hand. We were served cups filled with rainwater. Suddenly, I could feel the reflection of my lips held against the mother’s bare breasts. She put her free arm around a tall man with skin as dark brown as river mud.

“The woman is holding your father,” 52 recognized.

The mother directed our attention to the suckling child. She tearfully rocked the baby.

“The baby is sick. It needs healing,” 52 concluded.

The mother carefully rolled a piece of manure into a ball. The ball was then placed into the dwindling fire for fuel. It burned like coal. A burlap bag was given to us for our bedding. 52 sat cross-legged on his mat and meditated. I tried to sleep on the cold ground.

Raindrops fell on the shack like stones hitting an empty can. The noise brought out empty bowls and cans. Below a dripping ceiling, the precious water was collected. Then, one by one, the family stripped. The door doubled as an entrance to a free bath. Out of the windows, in the freezing water from heaven, clothes, urine-soaked blankets, and cooking utensils got their bath next. A half-dollar-sized circle of water landed on my head. The roof, made from old car parts and scrap wood, leaked everywhere. I sank into the dirt floor, into the food chain, to where the floor was filled with biting red ants.

“Did I choose this life?”

52’s eyes remained closed. “Listen to your heart.”

I sat up, closed my eyes, and rubbed my ears until they were hot. To my left, I heard a rat drinking out of the night soil bucket. On my right, I heard the whimpers of a sick child.

“What do you hear?” asked 52.

“I believe it’s the sound of adversity.”

52 knelt before me.

I didn’t know how much time had passed. My stomach was tied in knots. A metal taste remained in my mouth, and my brain felt like a healing scab. The cave became a cave again; but now the bottoms of my feet were covered in a green, phosphorescent hue. 52 asked me how I felt.

“I can’t really find the words to describe how I feel,” I told him. “I had an amazing experience, but I think I’ve had enough magic mushrooms to last me for quite a while.”

52 smiled and said, “I’m not sure what you mean by ‘magic mushrooms.’ I told you that I don’t wield any magic.”

“Well, call it what you will,” I said. “Your little pouch of shrooms sent me flying off into crazy town.”

“Those shrooms didn’t send you off to anywhere that you weren’t already headed,” said 52. “You walked into the jungle all on your own. I just joined you along the way.” He could see that I didn’t get it.

“For the spiritual record,” 52 continued, “the shrooms you ate were a mix of dried shiitake and portabella, seasoned with a pinch of herbs — I thought you could use a snack. Any magical powers they possess are the powers you attribute to them. You are the source of that power.” I didn’t entirely dismiss the power of the mushrooms, but it always does come down to my own power.

I felt as though I was appearing in a bad mash-up of Don Juan meets Harry Potter. After a night of turbo scrubbing my soul, not only did I end up next to a pile of bones, I ended up covered in clichés.

“Nicely, played,” I said. “But, seriously, couldn’t you have just recommended a few books, or reminded me of a few movies to make your point?”

Before 52 could respond, I answered my own question. “I know, I had to experience it for myself.”

“More important,” added 52, “it’s how you experience it from now on.”

Dawn had already broken. 52 suggested I take some time alone to process it all, while he headed out.

“I suppose I have the power now, like Dorothy, to click my heels together and find my own way home.”

“I told you,” said 52, “I don’t really wield magic. Talk about crazy; you’d never make it out on your own. That’s why I left you a map.”

Ten minutes later, he was across the clearing and was about to disappear into the jungle when I shouted out.

“Thanks, 52.”

He turned and shouted back, “53!”

When I arrived the following week, the Balinese villagers were outside his room, sitting, staring motionless, frightened, and wondering what to do. Not knowing what happened, I parked my motorbike and walked into his room. 52 Goodfingers was lying on the floor, next to his mattress, and appeared unconscious. I got help from Ketut, the property owner, and we lifted him onto the mattress.

“52 suffered a bad motorbike injury a few days ago,” Ketut explained in English. “I think he hit his head.”

I put my ear to his chest and I heard a faint tom-tom drum beneath the ribs. “Call Sapar, the healer,” I said. Sapar quickly arrived and worked for hours, massaging 52’s stiff body. Slowly, 52 opened his eyes, and I lifted his head for a sip of water.

“Do you want to go to the hospital?” I asked.

“No, I don’t have the money,” he groaned. 52 had gone without food or water for two days and was in other deeper pain. Money wasn’t really the issue; he did not want to go to the hospital for treatment.

“Where does it hurt?” I paid Sapar and he left me with his oils and blessing material.

“It hurts all over,” he yelled. “Help me up,” he said, as his body shook.

Ketut and I got him up, and 52 crawled to the door, sat outside, and leaned his back to the wall.

“All right, everyone,” he spoke in Balinese, “The show is over. I am not dead,” he slurred, lighting a cigarette. “In my backpack are a couple of pain killers. Can you get them for me?”

When I returned, he was pulling on a Coke bottle full of the lemon-colored Balinese moonshine arak. He washed the pills down with a big gulp.

“52, maybe you should try to eat something?” I nudged.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said. “Did you bring the magic bones?”

“Yes, I have them,” I answered.

“Throw them here at my feet,” he instructed.

I shook the bones in my hands and knuckles down tossed at his bare feet, two of the bones bounced and stuck between his toes. 52 assembled the four bones on the ground. “Aha, I’ve been waiting for that reading!”

“What reading is that 52?”

“Did I ever tell you the bima puppet story?” he said.

“No, you did not,” I answered.

“There were these two ancient Balinese shadow puppets that danced behind a thin white cloth. The bima puppet painted in black, wearing bright red ornaments and with an over-sized pointed wooden nose fought back the serpent creature that was trying to swallow him. The bima puppet’s ferocious claw-like hands flinging wildly failed to stop the beast. The battle ensued without either side claiming victory. The puppeteer dimmed the oil lamp behind the screen until there was only darkness. The ageless story about the conflict between this world and the other had no conclusion.”

52 suddenly dropped his bottle of arak, and his eyes and mouth were frozen open. I thought it was his way of expressing what a puppet looks like when their strings are cut. I looked at him for a few minutes until I noticed that his body had stopped moving.

“52, wake up,” I shouted. “Wake up!” I shook him hard, again and again. There was no response. 52 was dead.

I felt his semi-warm flesh as I closed his eyelids and mouth. I took his hands and folded them on his lap. 52 looked peaceful. He had no possessions to speak of other than an old PC rigged to play music. I found his favorite song “Confusion Will Be My Epitaph” (by King Crimson) and turned it up. The song played its melancholy chorus. 52 was on his final mushroom cloud; back to his home, up north. I wept for his safe return. 52 was a heavy drinker, but I did not expect him to deliberately end his life with self-inflicted shots of arak.

The police hauled away 52’s body to a morgue in south Bali.

52’s family arrived several days later from Holland. In accordance with his wishes, they would scatter 52’s ashes over the ocean on Bali at Sanur beach.

His family and I stood in a circle and held hands on the beach. They opened the container that held 52 Goodfinger's remains. One of his sisters began to weep. His family sent him a few dollars here and there was quite aware of his chronic drinking problem and looked for any words to comfort the pain of their loss.

“Every seed contains everything required to become whatever it is supposed to be," I said. "Watered by the rain, warmed by the sun, and nourished by the earth, it is transformed into something more without ever losing its seedness. Over time, something so tiny and seemingly insignificant as a fragile drop of water changes the very structure and design of the Earth. Likewise, something so seemingly insignificant as a seed contains all the knowledge necessary to become a rose, an oak, a worm, a cat, a man.” I broke the circle and scooped up a handful of sand.

“Like the seed that seems so insignificant as to be incapable of anything of consequence until it is exposed to water, sunlight, and nourishment, so, in those moments of being, the eternal now, is profound clarity wherein the boundaries of consciousness are stretched that we may continue becoming something more and grow into the potential of our design,” I said dropping the sand.

“Amen,” his family responded.

His sister then scattered 52’s ashes over the water. The ocean accepted them with graciousness; a welcome wave of forgiveness. Out of nowhere, a flock of white, endangered starlings appeared overhead. They chirped while circling 12 times, picked up 52’s spirit, then flew away.

I sprouted imaginary wings and followed.

I flew to where all things in nature go — to activate the built-in, auto-reconstruct program. To the place that only the whale, starlings, and Bima puppets understand.

Hennings is the author of “Guitarlo” an award-nominated memoir that includes his experiences living in Minnesota and Indonesia.

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© Arlo Hennings 2020