Back in the 1970s, I bought a copy of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. This had been issued on the budget Seraphim label (a spin-off from Angel), and had been conducted by Furtwangler in the 40s or 50s. Opera scholars will probably correct me and say that the first opera in the Ring Cycle, Das Rheingold, does not have an overture per se. But in all of Wagner’s works, this is the one piece of music that I find soaringly beautiful. In this movement, which is just a few minutes long, Wagner depicts the rolling and roiling waters of the Rhein river. He does this using muted French horns that play and incredibly beautiful chord progression, I think it’s called the Shepard Tone, with the violins running up and down the scale in the background. The orchestra repeats this, getting louder and louder until it climaxes and one of the Rhein-maidens launches off into her aria.
I listened to a lot of classical music to keep me sane in the the summer of 1974, which saw me working back at the factory Dodge manufacturing, where I was hired as temporary help along with a number of other college students. My reputation from the preceding year must have proceeded me, because I was given the most highly skilled job in the factory–sweeping floors in a warehouse. This warehouse stored parts, some of which I might have packed the summer before, that sat waiting in bins and on palettes for shipment to our customers. The place resembled the modern “warehouse” shopping marts that are about as big as a football field and contain floor to ceiling shelves, but without the nuisance of people. From time to time a forklift would whiz in, pick up a bin of parts, and then skittle away.
Now this warehouse was not a particularly dirty place, and the forklifts didn’t come too frequently. For that reason, it was very easy to keep clean. And that was the problem. How do you fill up an eight hour day? It only took about half an hour to make the rounds with my broom, which I had to do about two or three times a day. Now, sweeping is not really what I’d call “mind-taxing”, less still was sitting idle for the remaining six and a half hours a day. So I started bringing in books. My routine was to make a round, find an empty bin, crawl in and pull out a book.
It was still my goal to read voraciously to make up for lost time. I believe I read James’ Daisy Miller and about one third of Joyce’s Ulysses before finding it so abstruse that I abandoned it. I started off liking it, for it seemed to continue in the vein of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, full of a young intellectual’s struggle to throw off his traditional upbringing and establish his own sense of self. But when Leopold Bloom became the focus of the book, I just got lost amid all the references to Irish politics, allusions to the Odyssey and details of turn of the century life in Dublin. These are especially hard for a 19 year-old to make heads of tail of.
Sometimes life in the factory became strange. Some of my acquaintances from high school hired the previous summer had stayed on and not gone to college. That made sense for a number of kids who clearly weren’t college bound, but there was one guy, whom I had grown up with whose case puzzled me. I’d known Mike S. since about first or second grade. My father and his were friends and outside of school, we saw a lot of each other because we were in the same boy scout troop.
In school, Mike was one of the better students in math and science, and also excelled in sports. But something odd happened to him in about fifth or sixth grade. That is about the time that boys start waking up to their own sexuality and begin to work out their pecking order. Some kids had parents who told them the facts of life, and they became the more popular students in the locker room, because they would answer questions. All of a sudden, new words and expressions started creeping into our vocabulary, which made me uncomfortable. Some of these expressions, like “Bite Me!” show up nowadays rather routinely on TV shows. They still sound dirty to me. And back in fifth grade, they were very highly charged.
Since Mike S. was one of the better athletes and got good grades, he enjoyed a kind of celebrity. When that happens, it makes you the target of attacks by others, who are also vying for position of alpha male. One day between periods, a buzz went through the halls among the boys. Mike S. and some other kid had gotten into a challenge match. The word went round that the showdown would take place in the boys bathroom. “What’s going to happen?” I asked. Someone told me that the other kid had challenged Mike to “whip it out,” and he was going to do it.
A group of us followed Mike and the other kid in to the bathroom. There the shouting match began. “You’re afraid to whip it out!” the one kid yelled. “No, I’m not,” Mike said defensively. “OK. Then whip it out.” “I’m not afraid to whip it out!” Mike yelled back. “Then do it!” There was a tense moment. Everyone was silent. Mike unbuckled his trousers, dropped his pants, and instantly the laughter started. He looked down and realized he was wearing his cowboy and Indian underwear. That did it. The other kids filed out laughing, leaving Mike there with quivering lip.
From that point on, Mike became a “problem” student. He was always getting into little tiffs with other kids. In middle school he started hanging out with the rougher kids. He fought with his father, who was really broken up by Mike’s downward spiral. By high school, he was taking Vocational Ed classes, went out at lunch to the smoker’s area, and was hanging out with the “dopers.”
At Dodge Manufacturing where I worked, the foundry was one of the least salubrious places to work. In the room next to the furnaces, they made the molds for the gear casings. They would take powdered carbon and pack it into a mold under high pressure. This filled the air with carbon dust. All you had to do was walk through that room and you’d be blowing black dust out of your nose for the rest of the day.
On top of that, the foundry was hot. At lunch, the guys who worked there would rush to the neighborhood bar, buy a burger and each down a pitcher of beer. Of course they came back tipsy, and I remember seeing Mike come back once from lunch, hop on a forklift and race a friend of his through the warehouse. After high school, Mike moved into a mobile home park and was known for throwing drunken parties. I never went, but friends told me there was a lot of beer and pot and Mike would always do daring stunts.
I’m not trying to paint myself as a goody-two shoes. On weekends, I usually tried to obliterate as many brain cells by crossing the state line into Michigan where the drinking age was 18. But I was always trying to find someone smarter than me to hang out with. What I enjoyed most of all was drinking a few beers and then discuss “life, the universe, and everything.” Sure I was a geek, and my hangovers were just as bad as any other drunk’s. But somehow doing so kept me sane.
That and classical music, of course.
I cannot think of a clever way to tie Wagner’s Das Rheingold back to my story of working in the factory and what happened to Mike S. The truth is, after hearing that he had gotten married, divorced and become an alcoholic over the next couple of years, I never ran into him again. The only lesson in this for me is that our culture has developed completely inefficient ways to bring young boys into manhood. In the Ireland of James Joyce whom I so admired, there was a healthy respect for language and intellectual pursuits to temper alcohol and pub life. Here in the states, we despise intellectuals and value feats of strength, daring and chest-thumping. Who knows how differently Mike S. would have turned out under different circumstances? It seems criminal to me that in a society and an age where really no one should go hungry, we still have a culture based on male pecking order. Isn’t it about time for a paradigm shift? Of course, given that a pro-wrestler was once elected governor of Minnesota, the likelihood of change seems far off. Perhaps, the point of today’s entry is that “there but for the grace of Das Rheingold go I.”