All Over the Map

03 May 2006

"All it means is the abstract man against the masses. The red star symbolizes any collectivist mentality."
~ Neil Peart

Well, we're back from our holiday in Northeastern PA. Followers of the Budman stories may be interested to know that he's now started up his own junk yard. Nothing's for sale, though. It's all priced out in beer. Need a starter for that old Ford? That's a case. Need a fender for your Buick? That's a case, too. Pretty much anything you want can be had for a case of Budweiser. If it's major, it might cost you two cases, though. So, ask before you start cutting shit off the cars with a blow torch.

We had a nice visit there, though. Did a little Geocaching, ate a lot of junk food. Budman has ramped up his nocturnal hobby of ransacking abandoned houses. As a result, he had quite an impressive haul of various "newly acquired" furniture, appliances, and architectural details spread all around the property.

"See that armoire?" he said, pointing out a piece in the driveway. "I carried that down three flights by myself." An impressive feat, to be sure. But, it can also be dangerous. One time, the house was in such bad shape, he fell through a couple of floors. He added about the armoire, "Usually, I don't go back for more than one load, but I really wanted that piece, so I went back anyway. I guess I'd was pretty lit up on the Budweiser that night."

Budman explained his physiology to me that day. All drugs affect him in the exact opposite way from what you'd expect. Budweiser is roughly equivalent to coffee for him. Speed, for example, would put him to sleep. While that sounds like just an urban legend, I do recall some psych classes in which this phenomenon is documented. Many hyperactive kids, for example, are often treated with stimulants, which seems counter-intuitive. Budweiser, of course, is a depressant. So, naturally, it wakes him up and gets his wheels spinning. Lately, for example, he's got a line on the true whereabouts of a long-forgotten cache of civil war gold (although, I'm sworn to secrecy about those details, so we'll leave it at that for now).

There's a new litter of pit bulls on the way, too. I had quite a lot of fun playing tug-o-war with two of them. In case you're wondering, there's no winning at tug-o-war when you're playing with a pit bull. The things have mouths like great white sharks; once they clench those god-awful jaws together, there's no letting go. Budman's dogs will bite almost anything you throw at them. I got them a bit too excited with ordinary sticks out of the woods, though. We had a small fire burning in the driveway, and the dogs kept running up to the fire and grabbing the burning wood in their mouths, then excitedly dragging the pieces back into the woods. This caused several small fires, which we put out quickly. Budman got them to forget the sticks by throwing a large chunk of an 8"x8" post at them. They then grabbed that and dragged it off into the woods.

We didn't stay at Budman's place this time, though. Instead, we stayed a good half-hour away, which caused me to approach the area in an unusual way, passing by Wilkes-Barre, PA, where I went to college. There's a stretch of highway from roughly just south of Hazleton, PA to just past Scranton, PA, that is probably largely unremarkable for most people. However, having spent four years of my life haunting these hilly coal towns, I've built up quite an extensive cache of memories, most of which are long buried like Budman's civil war gold. Still, I can't help but snicker to myself every now and then upon seeing a road sign or something.

Seeing Hazleton again reminded me of my freshman year of college. As with any college, you get a fair amount of three-day weekends and breaks. Sometimes I'd stay with The Donald (see previous posts under the Tales of the Midwest section); other times, my friends' families would invite me to stay with them on such breaks (as they knew I was too far from home to return to the Midwest). I was actually pretty surprised at how often this happened, and got to see a lot of Pennsylvania and New Jersey because of this phenomenon.

On my very first long break, though, I was invited to RushFan's house. I have to refer to this guy as RushFan, because he fits the profile of every Rush fanatic I've ever known. I'm not talking about people who "like" Rush, love Rush, or even have a Rush tattoo on their ass. I'm talking about the True Rush Fanatics -- the ones who think of Neil, Geddy, and Alex as living Gods. Maybe it's all a coincidence but, as cool as Rush is, their Truest Obsessive Fans always seemed to share the following commonalities: (1) obviously, they adored Neil Peart (the drummer) -- in a sort of unhealthy way, if you ask me; (2) they were exceptional mathematicians; (3) they had overbearing father figures; (4) they were social outcasts on some level or other; and (5) they were eventually proven mentally unstable. A few quick comments on that stuff:

1. The Neil Peart thing ... I've had many drummer friends who, naturally, idolized Peart on some level. However, they weren't fanatical about him. Take my friend Elijah Wood, for example ( whom I've blogged about earlier ). He was (and still is, I'm sure) a remarkably talented, committed, drummer. But, I never saw him drool over Peart, really. Why? Well, according to my roughed-out chart, above, I'd have to say that Elijah must have sucked at math. [Just kidding, Elijah. You still reading my blog? If so, feel free to drop me an email explaining why you weren't in love with Neil Peart.]

2. Exceptional mathematicians. This is true of all the RushFan-types I've known. One was "DumbAss" (blogged about earlier ), the other was RushFan. If you're a musician, you'll appreciate right away the mathematical qualities inherent in music -- theory, timing, rhythm, etc. There's a lot in the music world for a math nut to appreciate. Why they always seem to focus on the percussion, I'm not sure. If you ask me, which you haven't, I'd have to say that Alex Lifeson's contributions to Rush were just as impressive.

As for the overbearing fathers, the social outcast qualities, and the mental instability, I'll get to those in a minute. Now, don't get me wrong about this and start flaming me with hateful emails. I agree that Rush was great, okay? For a trio of Canadians, they really kicked some ass and, yeah, I went to see them a few times -- bought the t-shirt, endured the 10-minute slightly pretentious drum solo, watched the loyalists by the thousands sing along en masse and wave their lighters in the air during Closer to the Heart. Great laser shows at those concerts, by the way.

Anyway, while RushFan was mentally unstable, he was also a bit of a visionary. For example, the guy started buying all of his music on CD as soon as they became readily available in the 80s. I thought he was nuts at the time, as he didn't even own a CD player. But he said, "I may not own one now, but I will in the future, and then I'll be happy I own all of my favorite stuff on CD."

I have to admit, he had a point. (Although, I'm not sure I'd care to listen to some of the absolute dreck I owned back in the day. For example, I actually owned this band's cassette tape back in '84, although I'm unsure how it was exactly that I ever identified with hardcore German metal at 15. But, I'm big enough to fess up now. I guess I thought that Udo Dirkschneider was kind of cool in a totally creepy sort of way. I'm amazed at how I was able to listen to that stuff and not get kicked out of school or something. Honestly, check out the lyrics to that tune sometime: " ...Come on man, let's stand up all over the world / Let's plug a bomb in everyone's arse." With lyrics like that informing my young mind, you can tell why I eventually became an English major, right? Eliot, Pound, Frost, Dirkschneider.)

So, as I was starting to mention about six paragraphs ago, I went to RushFan's house outside of Hazleton, PA, for my first long break. He put together a decent weekend for me, actually, starting with a tour of the town. They had a diner called "The Comet," and I saw it and said, "Hey, let's eat at The Vomit."

"How'd you know we called it that?" he asked, surprised.

"Because that nickname's too easy," I said, confirming my suspicion that every small town in the world has such a place.

Later that night, we grabbed a six-pack and drove out to a large strip mine. We sat atop an enormous cliff and looked down into the pit where they were doing the mining. Every few minutes, a crane would drop a large metal bucket from pretty high up and then they'd scoop up whatever the bucket dug up and empty the ore into a dump truck there. The perspective was deceptively funny, though. You didn't realize the scale of things until you saw a guy climb out of the dump truck every now and then to attend to something. At that point, you'd realize just how large all of that machinery really was. The tires alone were about twice as high as the man. (Here's a sample pic of such a dump truck with people standing near it.)

RushFan liked to do meditative things like this -- sitting for hours watching a strip mining operation, sitting on a railroad trestle looking out over the river, cross-country running. He always seemed to be working out some issues he had and gravitated toward leisure time activities that facilitated his inner need to ruminate. Recall the quote: "The abstract man against the masses." What could troubling him?

The next day, RushFan's father was around, and I got to meet him for the first time over dinner. This was my first lesson in life relating to the discussion of politics with others when you're a guest in their home. If you know me, you'll know that I'm a weird mixture of disparate political tendencies. On the one hand, I can easily relate to many conservatives because, for example, I've had so much exposure to guns. I also think taxes are too high, and don't cringe too much when rapists fry in the electric chair. On the other hand, I can't stand religion, and come in fairly liberal on most social issues. So, that places me where on the political spectrum? Just next to people like Jesse Ventura, I suppose.

In any case, the issue of the military arose over dinner. I was very used to being able to speak frankly to my college pals about these things, and didn't know enough to sift my running commentary through some kind of diplomatic filter. So, when he asked me if I'd registered for the draft, I said yes (because, I had), but followed that with a long tirade about how I'd never allow the government to send me off into some crappy place I'd never even heard of to kill people with whom I had no personal problem. I didn't even get to the part where I say something like, "Don't get me wrong; if the Russians ever pulled a Red Dawn on our asses, I'd be the first one out there defending this place." Nope, it never got that far ... I vaguely remember starting my response to him, though.

I stumbled over the first few words because, as soon as I showed any anti-military sentiment, other family members started leaning back in their chairs and giving me that hand-across-the-throat signal -- meaning, of course, cut it out now! But, I was too far into it, and unable to stop my little speech. So, by the time I got to the part about refusing to fly off ("like Claude Hooper Bukowski," I think I said) to some godforsaken corner of the earth to kill people I didn't know for no good reason, I noticed the rest of the family had braced themselves. RushFan himself had buried his face in his hands and was partially covering his ears.

Before I even got to the Red Dawn part of my speech, I stopped, interrupted by the terribly loud clanking of a heavy fork onto a china plate. RushFan's dad had stopped in mid-bite to listen to my opinion. He purposely dropped his fork, still attached to a large hunk of chicken marsala, from his mouth and let it freefall to his plate. The sound echoed throughout the house, like a strip-mine bucket crashing to the earth, as everyone stared at the two of us awaiting the lecture. With the hand that once held the fork, he pointed at me and rose up from the table, his voice thundering: "It's people like YOU, Mister Hillman, who want to enjoy all of the privileges of being an American but who refuse to accept any of the RESPONSIBILITY involved." I "disgusted" him. I "made him sick." I caused him to "lose his appetite." Et cetera. The entire lecture took perhaps four or five minutes, though it seemed an eternity.

I wish I could report that it got better with RushFan's dad. But, he never really spoke with me after that. Getting the cold treatment made for a tough couple of days after that, as I had no car to offer me a way out. I never figured out how that family could co-exist with the generally liberal attitudes displayed by everyone else and such vehemently opposite views held by the father. After all, our college was a small liberal arts university -- not exactly West Point. But, RushFan was an Electrical Engineering major at the time -- probably a career associated with a degree of respectability to his father. I began to imagine years of RushFan growing up under threats of being beaten unless he excelled in the sciences, and all of that math finally pushing the kid over the edge, manifesting itself in this unusually obsessive love of Rush (perhaps RushFan's sole creative outlet in life).

Electrical Engineering was no walk in the park, though -- even for someone rather gifted in mathematics. I knew a number of those guys, and they studied about ten times more than anyone else in school. As I recall, there was one particularly difficult course sometime around the sophomore year. It was one of those weeding-out courses -- circuit theory or something like that. If you could get past it, you would almost certainly become an electrical engineer; if you couldn't, you'd probably switch majors, or downshift into the easier management track.

That course pushed RushFan over the edge. He drank a fifth of Thunderbird one night before a test, went completely mental and bit my roommate (actually drawing blood and leaving a toothy scar in the shape of his mouth), and then crouched under the resident assistant's desk half-catatonic, mumbling random mathematical theories for several hours. RushFan was removed from school the following day, and he took a semester off for mental health reasons. He returned later and became a math major.

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