Sunday, July 24, 2005

Reich's Basement

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Dad’s laboratory, like all good laboratories with the exception, perhaps, of Dr. Frankenstein’s, was in the basement.

More precisely, it was in our basement, which annoyed Mother to no end, particularly when he was still allowed to smoke his cigars in the house.

“You are going to blow yourself up, and all of us with you, if you don’t stop smoking cigars around those chemicals.”

Mother was referring to the solvents he used to determine whether or not the rock samples from the wells he was drilling contained oil. At first, he used carbon tet, but when that was deemed a controlled substance due to its extreme efficacy as a carcinogen, he changed to toluene, and then to xylene, after toluene was also found to be carcinogenic. Toluene was flammable, and, according to the Manufactures’ Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) that came with every purchase, xylene was flammable in both liquid and vapor.

“I’m afraid she’s right, Dad,” I said. I regaled him with tales of my summer job in Tulsa at the Amoco Research Center. My job was to measure porosity and permeability in the tight gas sands cored while drilling wells. We had to clean out the hydrocarbons before we could take measurements, and to do so, we, in essence, boiled the cores in xylene.

Jimmy, one of the petroleum engineers in charge of the project, liked to come in and check out the progress. This was at a time when one could still smoke inside an office building, and he availed himself of the privilege. In fact, you rarely saw him without a lit cigarette between his lips, even when he leaned over beakers filled with boiling toluene and xylene.

Jimmy was amazingly diligent in checking the cleaning of the cores. In fact, he personally inspected every single core cleaning operation we ever did, which was at least one batch every two or three days, depending on the number of cores that had arrived from Wyoming and Colorado. He would smile apologetically at the door of the lab, then rapidly scurry in, his oversized white lab coat sailing up behind him, the tip of the cigarette in his mouth glowing red as he inhaled sharply. We had the cleaning operation under the ventilation hood: ten gas burners heating up large beakers of xylene, upon which we had placed a wire mesh screen and rows of cores. The xylene vapor would penetrate the cores and the hydrocarbons would drip down into the xylene-containing beaker.

The other lab assistants and myself theorized that he was getting a cheap high, somewhat akin to huffing glue.

He would lean his entire head under the hood and fuss with each rack of cores. We would stand transfixed, staring in horror at the lit cigarette.

“Excuse me, sir. Are you worried about the flammability?” I asked tentatively.

His head hit the hood as he jerked up in response to my question. “Whaddya think the hood’s for, little missy?” he said, his eye bloodshot and bleary.

One day, Jimmy was observed by a safety officer who immediately fined him and put him on two weeks administrative leave.

We wondered if he would take up building model airplanes or start cooking with anti-stick spray.

“Technically, it’s called inhalant abuse,” pronounced Butch, the lab supervisor. We were sorry to see Jimmy suffer, but we were desperately relieved to have such a menace removed from our daily lives in the lab.

After hearing my stories from the summer job trenches, Mother bought Dad the best chemical lab ventilation booth she could get her hands on. It had closed glass doors, a huge fan, and a warning system for fire and gases.

Dad was touched. “You care this much about my well-being?” he asked.

“I just don’t want you blowing up the neighborhood. Jill and Wendy just finished their landscaping project and their rose bushes are finally blooming. I think they’re pretty and I’m enjoying the view from the back patio. And, I want you to remember one thing: if you blow up this house, it will destroy theirs, too,” Mother said in her soft yet feisty Southern Belle accent.

“And furthermore, there will be no more smoking in this house. I’m tired of that cigar smoke giving me a sinus headache,” she continued.

Even on the sultriest day, Dad’s basement laboratory was always cool. Although most of his work was fairly pedestrian from a geoscientist’s point of view, it was mysterious and magical to me.

One half of the large laboratory was filled with standard laboratory equipment. Petrographic microscopes, microscopes, black-lights, high-intensity lamps for illuminating samples, gas flames, the famed ventilation system, glassware, equipment for cutting cores lined one wall of the lab. Another lab contained sample, and a locked glass cabinet with chemicals and samples. A bookshelf filled with reference books and lab notebooks filled the space next to the corner. There was nothing there I had not seen in my geology lab courses at the university. In fact, his microscopes were much better than the ones we used in optical mineralogy class.

A large worktable filled the middle of the room. The other half of the lab was filled with experimental devices one would never find in a standard laboratory in a university or a company.

I was not quite sure what they were, and when I asked Dad to explain them, he would often become a bit evasive. He preferred to talk about the results of his experiments rather than the actual provenance of the technologies. A few times, the words “chakra energy” made me realize he was far beyond the pale of the traditional science. The priceless collection of crystals of all the minerals I had studied at school were utterly breathtaking.

Crystals amply chakra energy,” he said.

“So what do you do with chakra energy once you’ve detected it?” I asked. Dad looked pensive. I knew he was wrestling with how much to tell me.

“That’s a difficult question to answer. There are many uses. The most obvious is healing,” he said. “But I’m more interested in the possibility that our chakra energies are affected by the energy of substances, waves, and forces.”

“Oh. Like being around a microwave station, or living under cross-country power lines?” I asked.

“It’s not like that. I’m interested in how one’s body can be attuned to the frequencies of certain substances – usually pure elements – so your body can be a detecting device,” he said cryptically.

“Like a magnet?” I asked. Whenever Dad talked like this, all I could think of were the New Age shops I had visited in Ojai, California and Sedona, Arizona– both reputed to be cosmic energy centers. In my opinion, the stores promised a lot but always failed to deliver. I had my astrological charts drawn up, my Toltec animal energy guide detected, and had even contemplated having a past life regression developed, but at the last minute decided that 50 bucks was too much to pay for something that would inevitably make me feel yoked to some sort of rancid pre-destiny. I preferred to feel free. I knew, of course, that freedom was an illusion. Even as I spoke with my dad, my future was being subtly altered by the conditioning I was receiving by listening to this crazy stuff.

“Can you reanimate dead cells?” I asked. “You can make a wet battery, like Luigi Galvani. I was just reading about how he studied the effects of electricity on animal nerves and muscles. He got a bad reputation later because Mary Shelley and others used his findings to go off the deep end.”

Dad looked at me curiously.

“The Frankenstein approach doesn’t work. Once the cell is really dead, electricity only seals its fate,” he said.

“I’m not interested in that anyway. I think it just creates a lot of problems to revive the dead. When your time is up, it’s up. If you think about it, eventually people are better off dead,” he said.

“What the heck do you mean by that?” I asked.

“Just that they’ve totally messed up their lives with negative thinking,” Dad said. “No. I’m interested in being able to detect elements with one’s body. I’m also interested in tuning the body so that it is as receptive as possible. I’ve been experimenting with Orgone Energy.”

“What??? Does Mother know?” I asked. I was truly shocked. I was used to Dad’s devices – the divining rods, the gold and platinum coils, the magnetometers, and infra-red devices. This was truly different. Apparently, he was following the teachings of Wilhelm Reich, who had tried to find a way to measure the energy expended when men became sexually aroused, and to find a measure for sexual energy. Reich believed in sexual healing, and he thought it could cure everything from depression to cancer.

So. Dad had no need of the electrical energy that so violently charged the air each spring and summer during tornado season. He was going to

“I think that the preventative removal of the prostate is a conspiracy to rob mature men of their orgone energy,” said Dad. “It’s criminal.”

Here is something I bought from Russ. It’s called the Orgone Energy Accumulator. It takes the wasted orgone energy from the atmosphere and keeps it in the coils. Then, when you plug it into your room, it releases the accumulated energy and charges you up.

“That’s a lava lamp, Dad,” I said. The lamp was a cone-shaped light fixture with the gooey purple-red substance that bubbled up in a way that resembled hot “pahoehoe” lava. It looked exactly like the “lava lamps” that were popular in the 1960s among hippies experimenting with LSD.

“Been doing any acid trips?” I asked, under my breath. Luckily, Dad did not hear me.

“Russ sent me this one. He charged it up with orgone energy.”

“How did he do that?” I asked, in spite of myself. I didn’t know if I really wanted to know.

“He has a friend who works at a sperm donor place in Las Vegas,” said Dad, rather placidly I thought. I felt my face blush.

“I was afraid you were going to say that he had a deal with brothels. He lives in Las Vegas, after all,” I said.

Dad looked at me. “That’s not a bad idea. But, I think that there might be too much negative energy in that. That’s not a very nice business.”

I sighed. It was interesting, but I was more interested in things on the other side of the lab. I wanted to find more gold and oil. In particular, I wanted to find a low-cost way to process “invisible gold” – the micro particles of gold found in gold deposits near Elko, Nevada, in the Carlin Trend.

“Well, you know what happened to Reich,” I said, darkly. I looked at Dad, who was adjusting the lava lamp Orgone Accumulator. He looked all the world like Wilhelm Reich in the famous photo of him with the “Cloudbuster” he kept in his back yard in Forest Hills, New York. Reich claimed to be able to channel orgone energy into the skies to create rain and to communicate with UFOs.

“Reich died in prison for practicing medicine without a license,” I said.

Dad wasn’t listening. He was staring into the depths of the lava lamp, lost in thought. Then, startling back to conversation he cleared his throat.

“It’s interesting, but I would not go as far as Russ does with this. I’m just interested to see if either the principles or the practice have any bearing on what I’m doing,” he said. “I’m about ready for a break. How about McDonald’s and coffee?”

“Sounds good to me,” I said. I wanted to ask him about my ideas about gold in Nevada.

Yahweh Springs

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“This was a really dumb idea,” I said weakly. The abandoned pavilion at the center of the town square cast eerie shadows in the light of the moon. Vines had overgrown the bottom half of the wooden structure, and the elaborate wooden filigree, the “gingerbread” was missing chunks.

“Why do you say that?” asked Stanton, mischievously. In the years since his mom had moved away from Yahweh Springs, the once quaint Victorian spa had turned creepy. Although Yahweh Springs boasted artesian springs that bubbled sulfurous waters as boldly as their sisters to the east, in Eureka Springs and Hot Springs, Arkansas, and to the west, in Sulphur, Oklahoma and the Arbuckle Mountains, the developers who had hoped for a comeback in the early 1980s were sadly disappointed. Vacationers were loath to invest in yet unbuilt timeshares, and when a fringe religious cult calling itself the Yahweh Brethren purchased a couple of sections on the outskirts of town, real estate transactions slowed to a crawl.

“Okay. It didn’t seem like a dumb idea this afternoon,” I admitted. “I mean, your mom lived here while your dad was deployed. This was the last place you guys lived before your mom divorced your dad. The idea that some of his stuff might still be hidden around the place where they lived made sense to me.”

The warm breeze rustled the leaves of the cottonwood, sycamore, and redbud trees that cast rippling shadows in the moonlight. The sweet scent of mimosa blossoms floated like the perfume of a ghostly debutante, and I shivered lightly.

“Now it seems really ludicrous. You don’t even remember where you lived – only that it was somewhere near the center square,” I said.

My voice was thin and tense, as we walked toward the steps of the octagonal pavilion. I could imagine brass bands playing Sousa marches in the early 1900s, and women wearing white dresses, big hats, drinking lemonade and singing about bicycles built for two. I could imagine FDR patronizing this locale as well as Medicine Springs in the Wichita Mountains. Yahweh Springs was established at a time when polio victims would go to hot springs for cures.

All attempts to bottle and sell the spring water had been wildly unsuccessful. The high sulfur content was repellant to most people.

“I thought your theory about ‘kinaesthetic memory’ made a lot of sense,” said Stanton encouragingly. “The conscious mind can’t recall events, but if your body replicates certain motions and feelings, memories will come back. It sounded like the same sort of theory of scent-triggered memories.”

“Thanks,” I said grimly. I leaned on the first step gingerly. As I shifted my weight forward, the step groaned. I jumped back, falling through a spiderweb stretched across the space between to weathered board. I batted imaginary spiders climbing up my neck and arms.

Stanton laughed. “Spider! It’s in your hair!”

“Yick!! Ick! I shook my hair frantically. Stanton laughed even louder. He grabbed me by the waist, pulled me to him and kissed me.

“Do you see the spider?” I asked.

“No. But I think I’ve been bitten by a vampire bat. I must bite you.” He was enjoying this. I was not. My intent was to come here and hope that the environment would trigger kinaesthetic memories, and that he would remember where his family had lived before his mother had divorced her husband and had abandoned the house and any possessions that her husband happened to have there.

It was a desperate gamble, but we hoped it would pay off. If it did, we would finally have answer’s to Stanton’s dad’s ramblings about “God’s Hostage,” and cryptic references to Laotian stupa, temple carvings, and mandala messages.

As far as anyone knew, Col. Harville’s ramblings and behaviors were simply the tragic consequence of 6 years of sorties and rendezvous in Indochina during the height of the Vietnam War.

I had a different theory. No one quite believed me, though. I had done some research, and had found that “God’s Hostage” was a loose translation of the name of a poorly known Buddhist temple located somewhere deep in the Laotian jungles near the Mekong River. Had Col. Harville been systematically smuggling artifacts and antiquities? I was willing to wager he had.

I felt Stanton’s thick, broad hand on the small of my back as he guided me to him, pushing me close against his hard, flat stomach. My hand reached down reflexively to his hips where I held on, just as I did when riding behind him on the Kawasaki motorcycle he drove too fast on the nights when his own war dreams intruded his sleep and he could only purge the images with adrenaline and the turbulent flow of air on his arms and chest.

In the light of the full moon, Stanton’s broad shoulders and thick, muscled arms could have seemed menacing. I wondered if I seemed absurdly gothic at his side, clad in unrelieved black, my black knit long-sleeve shirt, black pants, black short boots, punctuated only by a strand of fresh water pearls culled from clams in the Caspian Sea, and my makeup that was always a shade or two too light, my lipstick always a shade or two too dark.

An owl could be heard, as well as the quiet rustle of grass badly in need of mowing. He moved my unruly hair from my face and kissed my cheek.

“Don’t worry. In theory it was a good idea. Maybe it will work,” he said.

“Are you remembering anything yet?” I asked.

“Well, I do remember this pavilion. Maybe if we stand on it, I’ll have an idea of which direction we should go.”

We stepped onto the pavilion and I felt the wood give way.

“Be careful, Stanton. Termite damage, I suspect. My exterminator told me that termite “queens” are as big as poodles in this part of the country,” I said.

He froze. A cloud passed across the face of the moon, and we were plunged in shadow. When the light returned, Stanton breathed deeply, loudly.

“Crazy as it seems, your theory is working. I remember this place. I remember it. We lived over there.” He pointed across the plaza to a tangling dark shadow next to what appeared to be a small row of brick businesses.

We walked quickly across the square and followed the cracked sidewalk. Small bushes pushed up through the cracks of the sidewalk, and the uncut grass smelled like fresh alfalfa. It was almost cloyingly sweet. Stanton stopped in his tracks.

“It’s gone,” said Stanton. His face was dark, harsh.

“What? What do you mean?” I asked.

“Look. Fire. Or something. Burned to the ground.” His voice was hushed. He was right. There was nothing there – just a bare concrete pad, and small piles of bricks.

I was transfixed. It was such an expected outcome that I did not know how to react.

The sound of distant singing carried itself in on the night winds.

“Do you hear that, Stanton?” I asked. “Am I going insane? Do you hear it? Do you recognize the song?”

He turned toward and gestured toward a small rock building down the street. Lights blazed in the windows. “I think it’s coming from there. In fact, I can almost make out the words.”

The Yahweh Brethren had a small chapel on the corner, and they were having some sort of ceremony, and were singing a hymn.

“Oh my God, Stanton. We’ve mixed up ourselves with a cult that believes in human sacrifice. Just listen.”

We could make out the words: There is power, power, power in the blood …

Stanton laughed. “Come on. That’s a standard hymn. We used to sing it all the time at the Assembly of God church I used to go to.”

“This is really making me nervous. Let’s go, Stanton,” I said, trying not to sound too desperate. He looked at me and put his arm around me. His eye were dark and unreadable.

“I love you dearly, Ophelia,” he said.

We made our way back to the truck quickly and without incident. The simple, spartan Budgetel where we had rented a room for night seemed, upon approach, to be an oasis of light and well-scrubbed, disinfected cheer. I knew I would sleep like the dead tonight.

Tomorrow would be another day. The light would reveal the narrative that had been left unspoken for so many years.