Instructions for the Maid
by Christopher McCabe

The refrigerator is not worth cleaning
but help yourself to anything there
or in the freezer.  There's some ice
cream and a couple of frozen dinners.

The curtains can stay open
but later in the afternoon
you'll probably want to close them
because it gets hot this side
of the house.

You can leave the dogs in the
backyard.  If you get lonely
or want a break
or if they start to cry,
go ahead, invite them in.

No ironing today.
We just leave the board up.
It's a good place to put
a week's worth of mail.

Leave the bed sheets as they
are.  No need to change them.
They look clean enough.  And
we'll just mess them later.

On the couch between the cushions
you'll find the remote.  If you 
don't like the soap operas, just stretch
out and take a nap.  There are extra
blankets in the closet.

When you wake up 
you might want something
cold. That's what my mother
often said and she was right.  
Dig around in the back of the
freezer for an ice cream bar.

Before you leave
step out to the garden.
Pick some tomatoes
for your family.

And when you go make 
sure to leave the door
unlocked.  I often
forget my keys.


by Christopher McCabe

Deauville, 1919 (all photographs by Jacques Henri Lartigue) 

I first saw Jacques Henri Lartigue's photographs when Janet and I were visiting Paris in August 1986.  We passed a museum showing his work, went in, and saw what some people call Lartigue's greatest work--his stereo photographs.  Janet and I looked through viewfinders at stations where doubles of each image were mounted.  Adjusting our eyes and viewfinders, the photographic landscapes and portraits merged into three-dimensional worlds. 

Zissou as a Ghost, Chatleguyon, July 1905

Lartigue (June 13, 1894--September 12, 1986), a French photographer and painter, grew up in a family of wealth.  It permitted him and his siblings to make the world a playhouse of games, and for Lartigue it was a game of photography that he mastered young.  He was 11 when he took the picture of the "ghost," above, the same age when he took his surprising photograph of Bichonnade, at the bottom of the page.  Critics wonder how a boy so young could capture a woman in mid-flight so perfectly with the earliest of camera equipment. 

Suzanne Langlen, Nice, 1915

Lartigue's world is spontaneous, many have said, and we found it vivid, as well, and the stereoscopes made it even more so.  A dirigible lumbers above a crowd, we see at the top of this post.  A tennis player charges at us, above.  And we take another look at Bichonnade, suspended above the stairs.  Over the the next years I would see Lartigue's photographs, mostly single images, in hardback books and on museum walls, and I would do my own kind of stereoscope, a double-take, going back to a page I had just turned, returning to a gallery I had just left.

Rabbit 'Looping the Loop,' Rouzat or Paris (?), 1910 

There was the rabbit rocketing in a homemade racer; the terrier soaring over a stream, launched by its master, a moustached man in a bowler hat; the car with the big fat tires speeding--was it going over 35 miles per hour?--while standing viewers appear blown away by the excitement.  Recuperating from all this activity is the man in the floating device.  We see him now at the very top of Custom Fit Freeway.  It is Zissou, the nickname for Lartigue's older brother Maurice, in his tire boat, looking at ease.  The photograph was taken at the family home at Rouzat, in 1911, and the Lartigue brothers make us wonder: shouldn't we all have our own tire-boat? It is, come to think of it, the perfect accessory to a suit and vest.

Grand Prix de l'A.C.F., Automobile Delage, 1912

When I looked at Lartigue's photographs for the first time, I did not know that he had taken many of them before he had reached his teens, or that he was limited by a cumbersome plate glass camera.  I only knew that his photographs were seductive and asked, "Why not?" and did not wait for an answer.  I had the same feeling when walking in Paris in its light rain earlier in that August day with Janet.  It didn't matter where we went; we were there, in Paris.  We saw an old museum, its gray stone walls and grand steps.  In New York these same steps might seem daunting and its walls forboding, causing hesitiation; in Paris before such a building there was nothing to decide.  We said, let's do it.  Let's go.

Jeanine Lhemann, Royan, September 1926

We folded our shared umbrella.  It was not about getting out of the weather, but getting into something that must be done right then and there.  That's all we knew.  We entered a great hall, then found the exhibition, in a much smaller room, and we were alone, and our optimism was encouraged, really, by that little fact that our company would not be shared with anyone else.  We didn't know what we were getting into, but why should we?  The room--a better word than gallery, in this instance--was intimate, and it was quiet, as it should be.  Then we met Lartigue, by way of his photographs.  They were set, two by two, with wood and brass supports working together to hold them in honor.

Girls at Auteuil, Paris, July 1912

He only took a picture, Lartigue said, and this appears to be true, if it made him happy.  We had been happy in the Paris rain and happier to go back into it after seeing Lartigue's men and women leaping, flying, diving, running, swimming.  The family pets had joined in too.  And there were more children.  Jumping.  Twirling.  Dancing.  We had done all of these same things once, twice, three times and more, before we stopped counting years ago.  Now it was our turn to walk back through those museum doors and out to the Paris streets, and this time we would be floating with no need for our umbrella.  We did not care if we got wet.    

Boy in Pool, date and location unknown

A Floating World
Photogaphs by Jacques Henri Lartigue (1894-1986)
5 May - 3 October 2010
CaixaForum Barcelona
Av. de Ferrer i Guardia, 6-8
08038 Barcelona

Chorus Line, date and location unknown

More information about Jacques Henri Lartigue can be found at  Donation Jacques Henri Lartigue, and there is a video of the BBC documentary on Lartigue on Google and YouTube.

My cousin Bichonade, Paris, 1905 (caption by Lartigue)


by Christopher McCabe

As you join author Christopher McCabe at Custom Fit Freeway, pay no mind to the missing dates and times of these journal entries.  No chronology, as might be found in other blogs, is intended. Because of a dispute between the author and various  publishing and legal authorities he cannot comment further at this time.

UPDATE: Time and date order? None.  Repeat: There is none. No chronological, legal, epistemological, heretical,  or a combination of each.


by Christopher McCabe

There were four beds in the room. Two beds side-by-side, and across the room two more stacked as bunk beds, five and a half feet high. Between these beds ran a narrow “T,” not room enough for young brothers to pass without bumping shoulders, or a quick poke to the ribs.

On a weekday after school, our mother would tell us to go outside if we were going to fight. We did enjoy the outdoors if we were carrying a ball, but going outside to fight was an exhausting concept for us. She knew this, so the fighting stopped. Until it started again.

If it was a weekend our father would cross through the doorway to tell us to break it up or he’d break it up for us. It was not a minor threat. He had followed through on it before, most recently leaning over one of our beds to swat us. He missed. I didn’t want to get smacked this time, nor did I want to see him miss again. Both came with terror.

When my brothers were gone from the house, and my father was at work, far away in an office I had never seen, the room was mine. I’d leave it to go to the hall closet where our stereo was kept, part of an elaborate sound system the previous home owner had rigged, with speakers in several rooms wired back to a boxy amplifier and turntable. Without having to ask permission I’d pick a record and play it through the one small speaker in my bedroom, sometimes playing the same song over and over.

Maybe it was Roger Miller’s “King of the Road,” or The Beatles’ “Taxman.” At 12 I had yet, unlike Miller, pushed a broom for the pleasure of staying in a cheap hotel, nor did I dream of taunting, like George Harrison, the Queen's revenue producing agent. Whereas Roger was carefree and George the serious Beatle, I was neither. I lived in that huge, confused state of the in-between.

More often my choice was one particular song from Ella Fitzgerald’s Gershwin Songbook: “They All Laughed,” and I would join Ella, and then she would step back, let me solo. As I sang I gained confidence and volume, the only voice I heard while declaring how they had laughed at Christopher Columbus and his round planet theory, at Thomas Edison for his wacky recording device, and then at Rockefeller Center—a very classy real estate project in the center of the universe, New York City. They laughed. Imagine that. What hicks!

And their biggest laugh was saved for me and my expectation that a young lady, a schoolmate, with the glorious name that I will not reveal, whose parents I think were born in France, would fall for me. It was believable that in these circumstances they would have a good laugh. I had been laughed at regularly, some good-natured, but there was the unexpected teasing, and I was never in on the fun. But who didn’t dodge such repeated darts through middle school? Or who, like me, needed to grow oblivious to the mockery because he or she spoke with a stutter?

Yet out of this world I was armed with a phalanx of Hollywood studio musicians. With the coolest string and horn sections at my side, I became the equal of a great explorer, a wily inventor, and a big money family of bankers, politicians, and real estate developers. Each and everyone a success story, and I was about to join them, another stanza in Ella's song with Nelson Riddle conducting.

The folks doing the laughing, however, still held on to the notion that I was a goof, overreaching when it came to love, too dumb to realize that my one, true desire would never pause to squint at me, the kid who had succumbed to his Catholic school's fashion edict, the white shirt and the salt and pepper cords.

Yet it was time for the laughers and the teasers to hear something far worse than any stutter. It would be the repeated chuckles and chortles and giggles, directed from me (and my gal) to them. They were the losers for having failed to believe that the young lady with the glorious name that sounded French, which was more proof that her parents were from France, or some really great place like that, had, in fact, fallen for me. My lunch recess plans were now her lunch recess plans. And vice versa. The angry young man was angry no more. I was happy. I was feeling good. On three, studio musicians, on three: a one, a two, a . . . Ha! Ha! Ha!

This was a good thing for me to learn at that age, or for any kid; it was a dream that I could have the last laugh someday; it didn’t matter what I did or where I was going. There was trouble now, but trouble would not reign forever. All of this was made believable by the easy confidence that this woman expressed with her joyful voice; her face and figure might be flawed, but so what? She could sing and laugh better than anyone. This was Ella Fitzgerald.

I just saw her in the Abbott and Costello movie “Ride ‘Em Cowboy” from 1942. In one scene she is on a tour bus with a bunch of swinging ranch hands, each dressed for a Sunday morning meeting at the Church of Big Hat, No Cattle, with the honorable cowpolks Bud Abbott and Lou Costello presiding. Up and down the bus aisle she twisted and turned, singing about a brown and yellow basket that she had lost; she pouted, she worried, she felt terrible that it was gone, but we knew she didn’t, not really. How could she? It was an Abbott and Costello movie, not Stanislavsky State U. alums doing Bertolt B. It wasn’t the blues, baby, sadness or grief; it was, at best, faux chagrin and very entertaining.

This was the kiss of anti-cool: she was not serious; she was not, and this could be damning for some listeners, like Billie Holiday. But not for Ella and me. Ella had the heart and the smile, and they could be ours too. Billie had the pain and the voice, each so perfect that both could only belong to her. For a middle school kid, perfection was something that did not seem possible, and if it was, it was something that was a long way off, like after you picked a major in college. Just good enough would be good enough for now.

That girl of French parents wasn’t perfect, and neither was I. My dream girl had crooked teeth, but I had never noticed them. Some cynical classmate had to point them out to me; she needed braces, he said, dismissively. I wasn’t all that confident that I would ever be fluent, but all that drifted away when Ella encouraged me to sing. There were better things to think about than our imperfections.

She had that great voice, but she’d tell you that she didn’t look all that hot. Nobody ever said that about Billie; she was gorgeous, so dancers, actresses and singers yearn to play her. And some eventually do. But no one ever gets cast as Ella. Not really, because she'll stand back and let you sing your own song, in your own perfect voice, as loud as you can.

"They All Laughed"

by George and Ira Gershwin

Odds were a hundred to one against me
The world thought the heights were too high to climb
But people from Missouri never incensed me
Oh, I wasn’t a bit concerned
For from history I had learned
How many, many times the worm had turned
They all laughed at Christopher Columbus
When he said the world was round
They all laughed when Edison recorded sound
They all laughed at Wilbur and his brother
When they said that man could fly

They told Marconi
Wireless was a phony
It’s the same old cry
They laughed at me wanting you
Said I was reaching for the moon
But oh, you came through
Now they’ll have to change their tune

They all said we never could be happy
They laughed at us and how!
But ho, ho, ho!
Who’s got the last laugh now?

They all laughed at Rockefeller Center
Now they’re fighting to get in
They all laughed at Whitney and his cotton gin
They all laughed at Fulton and his steamboat
Hershey and his chocolate bar

Ford and his Lizzie
Kept the laughers busy
That’s how people are
They laughed at me wanting you
Said it would be, "hello, goodbye."
But oh, you came through
Now they’re eating humble pie

They all said we’d never get together
Darling, let’s take a bow
For ho, ho, ho!
Who’s got the last laugh?
He, hee, hee!
Let’s at the past laugh
Ha, ha, ha!
Who’s got the last laugh now? "

Click on links for Ella Fitzgerald performances:

"A Tisket A Tasket (. . . Yellow Basket)" from Ride 'Em Cowboy:

live in '57 and '63:

"They All Laughed" (with Louis Armstrong; Ella solo version not available)


by Christopher McCabe

Not to draw swords, but the author of Custom Fit Freeway would like to kindly assert that letterhead design has traveled far and wide since the days of Johannes Gutenberg.

True, Herr Gutenberg knew his Helvetica from his Verdana Bold, and when the bishop needed a redo on the Book of Genesis, Johannes remained first on the holiness call sheet.

However, art and craft in the competitive world of letterhead design continues to evolve, as the author of Custom Fit Freeway saw once again upon finding his way to Shaun Usher’s splendid  The author was determined to return with a few letterhead bon bons for his loyal subscribers, and as they can see they are presented here today.

Mr. Usher informs us that letterheady is an adjective, describing the state of mind when one is “overcome by a strong emotion due to a letterhead design.”  Fair enough.

If, however, the piercing of a business envelope and the unfolding of  its communique leads to the discovery of the next Leonardo or Picasso of the stationery set, an unsteadiness may be induced, and accidental self-harm may follow.  At such moment we must gently put down our sharp-pronged letter openers, or risk a final edit to our lifeline, just this way of our thumb.

But life worth living is a life full of risk and a journey to the home of letterheady, as demonstrated by these fine examples, is one that we should all take, risk be dashed.

While planning such an itinerary, Custom Fit Freeway’s author wishes to make a friendly suggestion: Why not speak to a favorite travel agent about a complementary side trip to the Gutenberg Museum?

This impressive museum is set in lovely Mainz, Germany, a big-shouldered town of great history, awe inspiring wines, and sunny citizens—all on the River Rhine!

The museum in Mainz dedicated to Herr Gutenberg is 203 kilometers south of Dusseldorf's Benrath Palace. Via the A3, a BMW can easily gallop its length in 1 hour and 58 minutes, depending on pesky traffic.

Be sure to pause for a spa treatment, to castle hop, and devour a delectable Rhineland Sauerbraten along the way.

Until then, take a trip to and delight in nuanced color print and font size.  It is a trip that would make Johannes Gutenberg proud.


by Christopher McCabe


This article appeared in a slightly different version under the title "Listening to Iraq Veterans" in i.e., Inside English, the Journal of the English Council of California Two-Year Colleges, Spring 2009. 

I encourage readers to watch . Chang Wong,  pictured above and one of the student veterans that I spoke with for my article, is profiled in this important video produced by the L.A. Veterans Project. 

In addition to all of the veterans who generously spoke with me about their time at war and at home, I would like to thank my colleagues Patricia Rose and Roger Marheine of Pasadena City College, and Tom Patchell of Cuesta College for their help on this article.


by Christopher McCabe

He directs me to the Internet.  Just search Sgt. Chang Wong on Google, he says, to learn more about his Iraq deployment and his wartime injury.

Before I went to the web, Wong gave me the date  he was wounded—May 23, 2005—and told me that his tank had run over an improvised explosive device (I.E.D.) When it detonated, he and his fellow soldiers suffered injuries; he “probably”—his modest word—suffered the most.

Among the four soldiers in Wong's unit, two suffered non-threatening shrapnel wounds while one suffered a torn shoulder ligament. Wong was in a coma for a month, his lungs filled with fluid, and he lost both his legs below the knee. He now wears prosthetics to help him walk.

"I am lucky to be alive,” he says.  Wong is 25 and a Pasadena City College (PCC) student when we talk in June 2008.

But he hadn’t told me about his medals: a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, an Army Achievement Medal, and four others. An article on the web told me that.

Wong’s reluctance to provide all the details of his wartime experience is common among many veterans.  They are polite as they speak with me, never impersonal but they understandably limit what they have to say. They have no interest in sounding like heroes; they do not tell me of their commendations unless asked;  with Wong I had to ask again when I needed clarification.

Instead, they will more readily describe the awful days of Basic Training at Fort Benning, Georgia, the 120 degree temperature in the Iraqi desert, the deep loyalty of their buddies in uniform, and their amazement at being in the land of the Old Testament. The little kids who greet them. That's heartbreaking.

But they are unsure how much more they want to say or see in an article about themselves. A few words will not explain Iraq to non-combatants; only fellow soldiers know what it is like. You had to have been there, and I have not, and neither am I a military veteran. 

As Wong’s friend Jack Kim, also a PCC student and Iraq Veteran, says, telling civilians about what happened in Iraq is nearly pointless. “The more I try,” Kim, 35, says, “the less they understand.” Wong smiles and nods in agreement.  We are sitting in a coffee shop across the street from PCC and their voices can barely be heard while espresso makers and blenders grind ingredients for  drinks, and jazz and pop music play.

At our corner table Kim fills in some details about Wong's service and injury that Wong has yet to tell me.  Kim tells me  something that Wong would never say about himself.  Kim says Wong is a hero.  Wong demurs.   As they sit and sip their drinks both men could pass as the typical community college. student.  Who they are and where they have been would only be known to their classmates and teachers if they told them.  What they had seen is something they would only tell the rarest of individuals. 

As I listen to Wong and Kim and other veterans who are attending PCC in June 2008, they say they prefer not to call attention to themselves as veterans during classroom discussions, especially if the subject touches upon military affairs.  It can only cause trouble for them, they believe. 

Louie Guan, 25, becomes irreverent when he explains that their reluctance to speak up in class has its roots in the army’s rule “to keep your mouth shut.”  He laughs and I do, too. 

Raymond Mok, 23, says more seriously that he remains quiet for fear of antagonizing an instructor who might not share his point of view. Mok is  by nature polite, kind, and incapable of provocation.  His build, rather slight, would not draw a lot of attention in a crowd.  He had been enrolled in my class once, until he received his deployment order to Iraq and had to withdraw mid-semester.  More than a year and a half  later he returned to the U.S. and PCC, and gave my class another try. 

When he shows me several pictures of his room in an Iraq barracks he apologizes for its disarray.  All was a mess, he says, because he had just returned from work.  His job working on computers didn't take him to the front lines much, but he saw and heard enough that he preferred to keep his distance from it whenever he could. 

His photos, one appears below, show bunk beds covered with so many clothes that the mattresses are nearly hidden. In one there is a TV, a microwave and a boom box.  Others show a can of Pepsi on a table, a calendar featuring a young lady, an American flag covering most of a wall, and a poster of New York City at night, the Twin Towers still standing behind a lit Brooklyn Bridge.  There is a stuffed animal on the top bunk. 

It is not much different than a college dorm room except for the shelf with the box of Cheez-Its at rest on a folded camouflage combat uniform, the dented cake box that claims it was "Freshly baked and decorated just for you!" on top of a storage container marked SPC (Army Specialist), and on the bottom bunk sticking out from under all that disheveled clothing is a rifle butt, that of an M16, its shoulder strap falling off the mattress.

Looking at the photos I remember seeing Mok in my classroom, but never thinking that this was the world he would soon be in, or when he returned to my class the world where he had once been. I knew him as  the good student in the second desk from the front, who looked intently at his book and his notes and would periodically nod when someone offered  his or her interpretation of a short story or poem.  Sometimes he would join the discussion with his considerate, individual voice.

On a day when the class was at the library doing online research, I found  Mok, who was now back from Iraq and had reenrolled in my class, completing his task quickly while some of his classmates  remained disinterested, more attuned to their Facebook page or clicking from one celebrity fan site to another.

Mok did not appear to be distressed by the students lack of devotion to the morning's assignment.  He helped them when they asked questions, offering assistance even when their eyes drifted back to their screens with an urge to play another game of Internet poker. He was more patient than me.  He was a good teacher, doing what he could do, and doing it quietly.

Veterans might also remain quiet because they want to observe what others do and what others have to say.  They have been stationed in Korea and the Philippines, seen military camps in Europe and Kuwait, and spent too  much of their lives at war in Iraq.  Having been apart from school and civilian life for so long, they now wonder who their classmates or teachers might be. 

Jin Chong, 26, who served as a medic in Iraq, clearing the airways of the wounded and cleaning and suturing the bloodied, sounds a note of acceptance for those offering their opinions in class.

“It doesn’t bother me if the war or anything like it is discussed in class or what position the teacher or anyone takes,” he says deliberately. “That’s freedom of speech. I know what I know. Others know what they know.”

As they take in the verbal etiquette of class discussions for the first time in years, combat veterans tell me of  horrific memories  that feed  their fear of a worst case scenario: violence might break out again, this time in a peaceful campus setting.

So these veterans remain quiet as they scan the classroom for a safe exit, noting doors and the placement of their hinges. When they read of the latest school shooting, they might come to campus and spot the student who is wearing bright colors, and know that he or she in the sunrise t-shirt and  the lemon-colored shorts are, unknowingly, an easy target for a sniper.

They’ll sometimes smile when they recount these  things,  acknowledging how extreme this would seem to a civilian.  They’ll even laugh when they recall walking out of the college library, feeling under-dressed now that they are in street clothes, no longer in uniform, and carrying a backpack, not a gun. 

Cruz Bethurem, 26, understands these reactions, and they are unavoidable; he called it “the muscle memory” at work.   Competing with these images from the past are the responsibilities of the present, like a veteran’s ongoing military service.

Such obligations were not a significant concern for Mok when he enlisted at 17½. Because of a recruiter’s advice, he did not think that he would be deployed to Iraq; however, his unexpected deployment forced him to leave PCC and suddenly this unassuming young man was gone from my classroom. Now, back in school, ongoing training threatens Mok's ability to succeed academically. He knows, too, that he could be deployed again, at anytime.

“I am trying," he says, "to please both the army and myself. At school I have to keep a good GPA in order to transfer. I am competing with other students. But at the same time I must attend AT (Annual Training) because my unit wants everyone to experience the field and do practical exercises together.” 

Mok is describing what many veterans feel.  They are home, but they feel lost between two worlds—military and civilian.  Neither is providing the acknowledgment of service or welcome home that they expected.

Veterans admitted to me that they were depressed and showed impatience, or even a temper, upon their return. They were having trouble sleeping and focusing.  They might drink too much and isolate themselves from others, having trouble making friends.  Their aggravation would spike when they saw that their fellow citizens were not well-informed about the soldiers, nor do they seem to know much about the war. 

Too many times a veteran's alienation is compounded when  someone tells them that "'they are puppets of the government' or ask, 'Did you kill anyone?'" "Americans don’t really understand [our service in Iraq],” Bethurem says during our first conversation, which we do by phone.  I can see, however,  that he is always a step ahead of his listener, whether he delivers a sharp joke or employs irony.  Eventually he is very direct.

“They ask stupid questions," he says. "People want to hear about it, but not what is really happening there. I’m not glorifying it. There’s no theme music. No credits. Some people say they care, and they put the little gold ribbons on, but what good does that do?”

For the record, Bethurem says he “loved the service, but not the war.” It is where he made “some of the best friends in my life.”  He and other veterans usually call these friends their buddies, indicating a unique relationship, a solid brotherhood, that exists between them.

This friendship was on Kim’s mind when he took Wong to Forest Lawn cemetery on Memorial Day to visit the grave of a buddy, a Navy Seal. On his way there Kim, who was in uniform, was stopped by a California Highway Patrol officer for a license plate violation; it had fallen off the front bumper.

The highway patrolman had, Kim says, an unprofessional attitude.  He was looking for an infraction and found two, giving Kim a ticket for the missing license plate and another for altering his vehicle’s trunk, a modification that he did not know was illegal.

“It’s Memorial Day weekend, and I’m wearing my uniform,” Kim says, recalling the day.  “I told the CHP Officer that I’m visiting my buddy’s grave.  He then asks me why did I have a disability placard hanging in my car. I told him that it’s my buddy’s, Chang’s. He asks, ‘Why does he have one?’ I told him that he had lost his legs in Iraq. And then he said he had to give me a ticket for two violations. I was pretty upset.”

A moment like this is not forgotten, of course.  Patricia Rose, a colleague of mine at PCC and a mother of an Iraq veteran, said that this is the kind of thing that makes veterans feel like they are invisible.  She has heard veterans tell stories of not feeling recognized and acknowledged as she has collected their writings about their military experience for an archive at PCC. 

"Their writing," she says, "gives them an opportunity to reflect on their experiences as they struggle to return to civilian life.  Their voices will give readers, as well, some insight into what these veterans have seen, what's been required of them.

"Writing about their time at war is often the first step veterans take in describing what they have witnessed.  Talking comes later, if at all.  Chong says he did not want to talk about his war experiences, but that eventually changed, and he found, he says, writing about the war to be "great therapy."

Chong was enrolled in two of my classes at PCC, and I saw him become more comfortable, easier to smile as each semester went on.   From the start, however, I realized that he was one of the most graceful student writers--whatever the topic he was asked to address--that  I had ever had.  In recent weeks Chong has spoken to high school classes about his veteran experience, something he says he would not have considered doing when he first returned to civilian life.

Guan, pictured above, is telling his story too. Having been deployed twice, he has served more than two years in some of Iraq’s most hostile combat zones. He is a big man, well over six feet, with broad shoulders, a sturdiness that would appear to take him safely onto a football field or into the world's more terrifying battles.

However, Guan is driven to look inward to reconsider his memories of war and the nearly irresistible option of returning to Iraq.  No matter how bad it might seem to others, he sometimes believes that a return to Iraq would solve some of his biggest problems.

To be in Iraq again, he would be in a world where people understood him.  His bills would get paid.  His current security job at Sears does not pay enough to meet his rent and school tuition and fees.  With his military experience a private operation like Blackwater would pay him nearly $150,000 to provide armed security on the ground in Iraq.  Financial worries are coupled with his concerns for friends that he left behind in Iraq or who are falling behind and forgotten at home.  He does not want the same to happen to him.

Though he is torn between two worlds, there are days when he is adjusting to being at home.  Guan has been writing and getting encouragement from his family, teachers, and Manny Martinez, his counselor at the East Los Angeles Veterans Center.  He wants to tell civilians about the lives of soldiers in Iraq and as veterans at home, but more often he wants someone like his congresswoman to read his words:

"As I came home from my first deployment," Guan writes, "I felt that I left part of me in Iraq that I could never find again. I repressed my feelings and thoughts by soaking myself in alcohol. I wanted to forget about Iraq, but I knew that my days in Iraq were not over. I felt hopeless and depressed. I didn’t know who to turn to . . . .

"All that I thought about were the horrible things that happened in Iraq. I thought about Sergeant Jenkins who made the ultimate sacrifice. . . . He jumped and threw his body without any regard for his own life on a doll with an explosive device that a five year old Iraqi girl handed to one of his own soldiers. I thought about how heroic he was and what he did to save his fellow soldiers."

After Guan served part of his second 12 month deployment, he then got orders extending his assignment another six weeks, an all too common practice. This second deployment turned out to be as terrifying as his first; this time one of his buddies was killed by a sniper.

Later, when he returned home, he began to have nightmares and became addicted to alcohol. He writes, “I was angry, depressed, and isolated. I had no friends that I felt would understand me because they weren’t there in Iraq with me.” 

Talking with other veterans Guan learned that they were as equally troubled as he. One close friend told him “that he was doing horribly” and considering reenlistment. Guan’s squad leader was getting a divorce, and Guan’s roommate, who had completed a second tour like him, committed suicide. Another friend who could not readjust to life at home joined Blackwater and returned to Iraq where half of his face was so badly injured that he now speaks with a microphone attached to his throat.

Guan sees his writing as a way of providing another service to his country. He titles it a “testimony” to what he has seen.  He also calls for a stronger G.I. Bill, with sufficient funding for veterans’ education, housing, food, and health benefits.

More veterans, he says, should attend college to ease their transition back to civilian life, to keep “them from being socially isolated. . . and [help] them find employment outside the military or military contractors who offer them high salaries to return to Iraq or Afghanistan.” 

In addition, news media should have greater access to military operations and the right to report all events, from the mundane to the heroic. The press must be able to write of the dead and their flag-draped coffins. Every story needs to be told for those who can’t tell their own, he argues.

Yet as many veterans struggle, others progress. Chong will continue his studies, most likely at Charles Drew Medical School; Wong and Kim will prepare for careers in business at the University of California, Berkeley; Bethurem will also attend Berkeley on his way to teaching ESL overseas; Mok likes to work with computers and will continue to do so; and Guan will forever be a veteran’s advocate, one of their storytellers.

Some say that these new veterans are unlike those who served in Vietnam.  They are enrolling in college sooner after leaving the combat zone, and they are younger than their earlier service counterparts. By spring 2008, five years into the war, 1.6 million soldiers had been deployed, over 4,000 killed, and 30,000 wounded; nearly 20% of the veterans suffer from stress, depression or Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). 

Many of these veterans will enroll in community colleges to advance their education and prepare for a new career. Even with their difficult experiences, or because of them, these veterans tend to be among the better students, and they will continue to need good teachers.

"It’s all about being a good listener,” Tom Patchell, a veteran and English instructor at Cuesta College in central Californa, says about teaching veterans.  He, himself, has written about his own and his father's military experiences.  “We need to see them for who they are," he adds.  "Be ready to listen to them and accept them and not judge them.” And then Patchell asks: “Isn’t that what we all want? Someone to listen?”


by Christopher McCabe


There is a dog sitting at attention.  This dog appears to be brown and white, and a good-sized animal, at least 80 pounds, maybe 100, and muscled. Since we can't tell if this dog is a male or female, we will just note its broad chest, wide enough for Scout--so named by us--to pin a birthday cake to the floor. This baked good is just an after dinner mint to follow the big dog’s main course, a dinner plate of Texas ribs and beans.

Will this dog share with the family terrier? Depends on how hungry Scout is. Scout may want the terrier as a dinner partner, or a side dish.  Scout might eyeball the family SUV if it rolled up the driveway.  Scout could take its silver rimmed wheels in one bite.

Hold on. This dog's name will reveal personality. Maybe it isn't Scout. Instead, this dog is named for a bakery product. People say, "Come here, Cupcake." Or a news anchor. Kim at 11. Or the unambiguous Killer. Or a killer named Sweetie. There is no way to know because we are looking at a photograph and the dog’s name does not appear in a caption, nor on a dog tag dangling from a collar. The owner can offer no help since the owner is no longer with us, we believe. 

We have not met the dog on a walk around our block. Never will. We just know the photo was scanned to a website by T. Milo Burns of Indiana, the man who found the picture.  We now learn that Mr. Burns calls it a vintage photo, implying that the dog and its owner have both passed on. 

This unknown dog is of unknown breed. A mix of, what? St. Bernard? Shepherd? Labrador? A beagle with an overactive pituitary gland? One moment this dog has a steady gaze, possibly at peace, possibly at wonder. Or is this dog just a sad sack, a senior citizen with a winter sweater wrapped around a canine heart, often self-questioning: should I trust this person before me? Will he rip my canine heart out? 

The next moment—a double exposure? can you see it?—the dog has made a decision and takes a gamble on love, offering his paw. That’s a dog you can take home from the pound, give a bath to, name Lovey, and then serve the highest quality of to this animal next to you on the couch. Yes, let’s watch Animal Planet together. So what if this new border sheds.

Then look closer at the photo. And look again. In that double exposure the dog is not offering a paw to shake. The dog is lying down.  That is not a paw raised up, but a hind leg on the floor.  This dog,x a true lazybones. Maybe self-absorbed. Or, quite possibly, though not likely, this dog is the Buddha we are all looking for. 

What came first, the steady gaze or the vulnerable gesture to shake or—our mistake, must correct ourselves—to lie down? Who knows? It may not be wise to try to answer that one. Better, for you, as a committed dog lover, to turn away and decide; after all, you and you alone would rather make a lifetime commitment to cats, until you remember that cats have nine lives. A dog in double exposure is probably easier to deal with, even if temporarily confusing.

That double exposure appears to some as a failed image, not a photographic technique. But what would the dog prefer as representative of who he or she--back to gender confusion, again--is? One clean image that has passed through the digital antiseptic of Photoshop, or the accident that yielded the double exposure? The dog's preference: take the latter. Keep them guessing. And eat a biscuit. That’s my guess, for now.


Thanks to Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music I've had the chance to listen to "East Virginia" as sung by Buell Kazee (1900-76).  Kazee, who spent his life in Kentucky, started playing the banjo in public at age five, and later attended Georgetown College, where he studied Greek, Latin, and English.  After giving up playing in public for decades (except for church revivals), he spent many years as a Baptist preacher in Morehead, Kentucky. "East Virginia," an old folk ballad, has been sung by many performers, often with varied lyrics. It is a haunting tale in the way Kazee sings it, more so for what he adds and leaves out.  I offer my own variation. 

by Christopher McCabe

No music keeps time, not
even a banjo, even if it makes
our foot tap. And when I hear
the firm speed of the banjo
when played by Buell Kazee—
yes, that’s his name--time moves
somewhere behind my head.

Just like the rest of us, Buell
Kazee can't help but go back. His
voice is about something: could be
a murder; could be a baptism. A minister
from Burton's Fork, Kentucky—yes,
there is such a place; I went
back and looked it up—he’s singing
about a boy, OK, a young man, a boy/man,
pushed by that hasty combination
of sex with love. The boy/man is
from East Virginia, a place dark

as a whip. Then this boy/man went
to a place where most of the tribe
once fell, to North Carolina
for a girl "whose name he did not
know." But he did know some
things: her hair was brown,
curly, and she wore a red ribbon
over her breast, and she smiled
when she saw him. Sometimes,
I believe, that's all you want

to know. And Buell Kazee was a
scholar, and he knew that boy/man
now turned old man had more to
tell, leaving Buell Kazee to tell
it—some left unsaid, some
misunderstood, that’s true—yet
the old man wishes he were
now dead, and Buell Kazee
sings: the girl's father said, OK,
get maried; the mother said,

No, it will never happen. Then what are
the rules a boy/man must follow?  He
whispers to the girl/woman in that
place right above her collar:
this is my plan.  Let us take off
on a dark night and leave this god
damn world--my words, I know--
where the sun will never
reach the marrow of our

bones.  And that's it; end of
lyric, just Buell Kazee playing his
banjo. He doesn't tell us
more; maybe they did run
off, maybe they didn't; maybe
the girl/woman was stolen by another
man or trapped by her mother inside
the holler's trap of trees. Or maybe

she died at the hand of god or the hand
of man, one that belonged to her
father on a night of no moon. And then
there is nothing we can do but go
forward, spinning forward, with Buell
Kazee and his banjo, and I keep
my side of the bargain, and
tap my foot of vanity.

 Follow these links if you wish to listen to Buell Kazee . . .

. . . sing "East Virginia":
. . . give a banjo lesson: