Monday, March 17, 2014

A Very Sad Week: My Good Friend Joe McGinniss Died.



This past week was so sad. I learned that my good friend Joe McGinniss had passed away on Monday, March 10. It was not unexpected - he had been battling an aggressive form of prostate cancer and died from complications from it. Even though we knew it was inevitable, it was still very, very sad.

Joe was one of the last of the truly honest journalists. He wrote from the heart but he also wrote the truth. And those truths made him a target of many critics. His very first book was The Selling of the President 1968, published when he was 26 years old and it was an instant best seller. It was a revealing look into the behind-the-scenes tactics used in Richard Nixon’s campaign which won him the presidency. In full disclosure, I hadn’t read the book until I met Joe many years later. The Selling of the President foretold what was to become the future pattern of all later political campaigns. It is still an appropriate look at the PR packaging of candidates.

I met Joe and his wife Nancy in 1976 when I was working on my first Alaska book, Alaska: Wilderness Frontier. Along with two national park service planners Joe and I made a 13 day backpacking across the remote and beautiful Brooks Range in northern Alaska. The area
Joe in the upper Itkillik River Valley
would become Gates of the Arctic National Park a few years afterward. We also spent time in
Approaching Oolah Pass
the soon-to-become Wrangell-St. Elias National Park as well. Joe was just finishing a two-year
Joe In McCarthy, Wrangell Mountains
stint in Alaska working on his book, Going to Extremes, published in 1980. This book is one of the finest ever written about the culture and politics of Alaska. There are parts of it that are laugh-out-loud funny and parts that are serious and insightful about the raw beauty of places like the Brooks Range.

Joe’s most famous and most controversial book was Fatal Vision, about Jeffrey MacDonald, a Green Beret doctor accused of murdering his pregnant wife and two children. The book, published six years after MacDonald was found guilty by a jury, was a huge success and received critical acclaim for its handling of the very complex body of evidence. Fatal Vision became an NBC miniseries which also received acclaim.

I was privy to some of what went into the book. In the summer of 1977 I invited Joe and Nancy to join me at a ranch in Wyoming where I was running one of my week-long photography workshops. Joe brought with him one of MacDonald’s lawyers. Jeff MacDonald was also supposed to attend, as a participant in my workshop (he wanted to learn more about photography), but he had just been convicted by the jury and was in prison. Somewhere I still have the check MacDonald sent for the workshop fee.

There were some private conversations that week about the case. Originally Joe had been convinced that MacDonald was wrongly accused. At the ranch he was having doubts. A year or so later I was in New York and Joe and Nancy invited me to visit and stay at their home in Flemington, New Jersey. There were a couple of evenings over a bottle of Bombay gin with Joe discussing much of the evidence in the case. He was clearly agonizing over the fact that the man he originally thought was innocent was guilty as hell. There were photos and statements that Joe read to see if I agreed with his conclusions. It was so complex that I could not see how he could possibly make all this clear in his writing. But he did. And there was no doubt that MacDonald was guilty.

I suppose it was inevitable that some journalists, perhaps hoping to ride on the tide of the book’s success, came to the defense of MacDonald. Some claimed that Joe had conned the doctor, keeping him convinced that he (Joe) believed in his innocence in order to get more information from him. But Joe later wrote that he himself had been conned by this very charismatic man into believing him innocent. Fatal Vision still remains the best and most complete evidence that Jeffrey MacDonald was guilty of the murders. The book was published in early 1983.

Near the end of 1983 I received a phone call from Joe. Excitedly he described a new book he had just received an advance to do. Entitled Forbidden City, it would be about the life and times of Los Alamos during the years of the Manhattan Project. Joe knew that I had spent nine years as a nuclear physicist studying reactor safety for the Atomic Energy Commission at the National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho. Would I help him as a consultant on the project? I told him I’d be delighted to do just that. And so in early 1984 we traveled to Los Alamos and later to Berkeley to interview many of the key figures in the Manhattan Project who were still living. I don’t know how many notebooks Joe filled, but it was a chance to see him in action as a thorough journalist. Even though he did not have a technical background, his preliminary research was so good that he knew the right questions to ask. And he analyzed carefully the answers. Joe was always cordial and the breadth of his knowledge convinced the interviewees that he was not some hack journalist trying for a sensational story. His interest in the subject was deep and sincere.

I guess it was sometime in 1985 that Joe learned of a new book coming out within a year. It was entitled The Making of the Atomic Bomb. The author, Richard Rhodes, was a fine, well-respected writer and a good researcher. Joe realized that by the time Forbidden City would come out in a year or two the subject would have been thoroughly covered by Rhodes. The project was dropped. I was disappointed, of course. But in 1986 when it was published, and I read The Making of the Atomic Bomb, I realized it had been a good decision. Rhodes’ book is still the finest and most complete work on the Manhattan Project.

Joe published two more books on murder cases, Blind Faith (1989) and Cruel Doubt (1991). In the early 1990s I was traveling extensively into the boondocks of the world - to Borneo, Siberia, South America, and Africa - documenting threatened wildlife and places. We did not communicate much in that period. Then, in 1995 Joe told me a publisher had given a huge advance to have him do a book on the O.J. Simpson trial. He got the only permanent journalists’ seat at the trial and day after day sat through it all. At the end, when O.J. was acquitted, he paid the $1 million dollar advance back to the publisher because he was so disgusted at the outcome of the trial. He could not write the book, he said, because the man was obviously guilty and what more could he say? I wonder how many other writers would have done the same.

I think it was sometime in the mid 1990s when I got another excited call from Joe. He had been looking around for a new project and Nancy suggested me! As Joe explained on the phone, I was the only person to have blown up a nuclear reactor deliberately, as a test, and gone on to save wilderness and wildlife as a photographer and writer. I was flattered, of course. But I was fearful. Joe could be brutally honest in his writings and who of us does not have something in our background that could be embarrassing if revealed? His second book, Heroes, was brutally honest about himself. It covered, in sometimes painful-to-read detail, the breakup of his first marriage after meeting Nancy. And there were other things about his private life that I could not have written about myself. And so I suggested to him that his doing a book about me might strain our good friendship. And besides, I argued, I’m not that interesting a subject.

After that I lost track of Joe. I was still traveling a lot. I learned later, via some long and detailed emails, that he went through a very bad bout of depression. But he also produced another book, The Miracle of Castel de Sangro, about an Italian soccer team from a small town that went from the very bottom of rankings to the top of the highest rankings and beat some of those superior teams. The book was mishandled in this country by his publisher and agent. But one European reviewer called it one of the finest books written on the sport. It gained popularity in many European countries.

I learned of Joe’s cancer last year when he emailed me. At first there seemed to be hope when he met an amazing doctor at the Mayo Clinic who had had success in treating a number of cases. But Joe wasn’t so lucky. The cancer won out.

 We will miss you my friend. There are not many good, honest writers/journalists left. You were one of the best.




Friday, March 7, 2014

Come join us in Vail, CO March 11

I'm giving a multi-media presentation March 11 in Vail at the Walking Mountains Science Center. The program is on the Serengeti ecosystem and our battle to save it. Come join us: http://tinyurl.com/lec5yhm

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Our Photo Workshops for 2014 and 2015

We have a very exciting workshop schedule for this year and the beginning of next. Check them out at:
http://boydnorton.com/. We are returning once again to the Absaroka Ranch in the Yellowstone/Grand Teton region of Wyoming, with one 7 day workshop in July and another in September. Raves reviews from last years' workshop in September. And by the way, we can offer this at an incredible price - $1845 for 7 days, 6 nights including EVERYTHING: lodging, great meals with wine and beer, horseback riding, and workshop tuition. These are filling fast! Click on the photo for more information.
http://boydnorton.com/wyoming/

Also, after a hiatus of a few years we are once again returning to Peru with a very exciting program that features the Amazon Basin rain forest as well as the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu.Click on the photo below for more information.
http://boydnorton.com/peru/

Also, we will returning to Serengeti next February. This year's photo trip was, as usual, filled with incredible photo opportunities.It just seems to get better and better each year. However, we are still actively involved in saving the Serengeti ecosystem from some proposed destructive developments.

Check out all our information at: www.boydnorton.com


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Tribute to a Great Person - Pete Seeger

In 1972 I was privileged to take Pete on a whitewater raft trip for several days on the Snake River in Hells Canyon on the Idaho/Oregon border. We were still fighting to preserve the canyon and river from a major dam proposal. Pete was supporting us and, while there, wrote a song about Hells Canyon. I'm saddened by his death. He was one of the great humanitarians of this century and last. And a great conservationist as well. Rest well, Pete.

 Pete 'n me in a calm section of the Snake River
 Serenading the Snake River
 A duet.
 Evening songs for our gang.
With Jimmy Collier
With Jimmy Collier
 Pete at the oars in white water.
The lettering on Pete's banjo read: This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces it to Surrender."

Saturday, November 16, 2013

10th World Wilderness Congress in Spain

 The 10th World Wilderness Congress was held in Salamanca, Spain October 4-10. Attended by about 1000 activists from 60 different countries, it was a pretty high energy gathering. I gave a presentation on our battle to save Serengeti.

Great networking and contacts. It is always encouraging to see some of the great conservation work being done by others.

Salamanca is a beautiful city, rich in history. The university here was chartered in 1208. In 1492 old Chris Columbus lobbied the scholars here to convince the king and queen of Spain to fund his crazy scheme to sail across the ocean. We all know what happened after that.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Travels in Siberia - The Ministry of A&I

© Boyd Norton
Travels in Siberia



The Ministry of A & I
            From my first visit in 1986, and through many subsequent trips in the 1990s, I became acutely aware that this vast country, under the Soviet system, was run by a labyrinth of ministries in Moscow. No matter where you lived, all these ministries controlled commerce and lives completely. There were some 37 of them, ranging from the Ministry of Agriculture and Food, the Ministry of Coal Industry, the Ministry of Culture to the Ministry of Fisheries, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and more. There were ministries for Defense, Defense Industry, Geology, Information and Press, Shipbuilding, Oil and Gas, Metallurgy - well, it was an impressive list. And then, of course, there were agencies under these ministries, called Committees, the most noted of which was the Committee for State Security, Комитет государственной безопасности, better known by its Russian initials, KGB.
            I discovered in my travels that the most important and powerful of all these ministries was a well kept state secret for decades. It was called the Ministry of Aggravation and Irritation. Even today few people know that this agency held sway over every other ministry. Nothing could be built and no policy implemented until the Ministry of A&I had applied its rules.
            Here are some examples of the secret influence of the Ministry of A&I:
            Until the late 1990s, all Aeroflot planes were required to have carpeting that was not anchored firmly to the planes’ floors. The result? When stewardesses rolled the food service carts down the aisle, the carpeting would bunch up in front of the wheels. The resulting bumpiness caused food trays to bounce off the carts and into passengers’ laps or on the floor. Considering the quality of the food served, this actually wasn’t as bad as it sounds.
            It was decreed that no doorway entrance to any hotel or public building be larger than three feet wide. This made it impossible to enter a hotel while carrying a suitcase in each hand. (In fact, you could not enter even carrying one suitcase.) You had to stop, put the suitcases down, push one then the other through the doorway - and hope that no one was trying to exit at the same time. Regarding that last, it was also decreed that all entrances would be exits as well and that there was to be only one entrance/exit per building. On entering or leaving a hotel at busy times of day, you gained enormous respect for those NFL running backs who attempt to blast through a wall of massive defensive linemen.
            No restroom in any public building was allowed to have toilet seats. You either had to bring your own or do without or wait (if possible). And it was definitely forbidden to have any toilet paper in these public restrooms. For an extensive stay in the Soviet Union you had to bring one suitcase loaded with nothing but toilet paper. The shortage of bum wad all across the country was so great that you could often use a roll or two of TP as a bribe for certain services or goods. As a gift, a roll of toilet paper was on a par with a pack of Marlboros.
            All hotel elevators were required to hold no more than three small people - and with no luggage. If you had luggage, it was impossible to fit in with your bags. You then had to wait for an empty elevator, load the bags in it, push the floor button, escape before the doors closed, and then race up the stairs to your floor in order to rescue your bags when, and if, the elevator arrived. If your room happened to be on the 5th floor or above, you would be a prime candidate for cardio-pulmonary resuscitation. If the elevator made a stop at some intermediate floor, your suitcases might be off loaded so that someone could enter. This, then, necessitated a floor by floor search for your bags. Checking into a hotel and getting to your room sometimes took the better part of a day. It would not have been so bad, but after the ordeal you needed a drink badly and the bar was always on the first floor. You had to use the stairs because the elevator was loaded with someone’s luggage.
            There were numerous other things that were a tribute to the success of this ministry in inflicting aggravation and irritation. For example, it was absolutely forbidden to have smooth sidewalks, especially those in the vicinity of airports, train stations or hotels. If you had a suitcase with roller wheels the irregular surface of the sidewalks made it impossible to tow it very far without it falling over.
            It wasn’t until the late 1990s that the Ministry of A&I began to lose its influence. Before that all Aeroflot planes had to have open overhead bins (the ministry did not allow overheads with closed and latched doors). Any turbulence during a flight resulted in some interesting items bouncing out of the overheads and landing in your lap or on your head - chickens, paper bags full of eggs, someone’s dirty laundry, a birthday cake, and - no lie, it actually happened to me - a box of live crayfish. In full disclosure, the owner of that box, perhaps fearful that it would fall, had taken it out of the overhead bin and set it in the aisle next to his seat. The vibration of the plane panicked the crayfish and, before the owner noticed it, a number of them escaped and dispersed under the seats - causing a mild panic among the passengers before most were rescued and returned to the box. I never learned why he had a box of live crayfish - perhaps some Siberian Étouffée recipe? Today in Russia the equivalent of our TSA now has crayfish detectors at each airport.
            Finally, the Ministry of A&I came up with a brilliant scheme to announce its existence and importance to anyone arriving in the Soviet Union: speed bumps the full length of all airport runways. On an Alaska Airlines flight in the early 1990s, we touched down on the brand new runway at Magadan and immediately the plane bounced and rattled so violently that passengers appeared to be on an amusement park ride. Heads bobbed up and down, eyes bulged wide with panic and knuckles whitened. The shaking and rattling continued until the plane had slowed considerably, at which time the pilot came on and, in a vibrating voice rich in sarcasm, said “Welcome to Russia.” The Ministry of A&I had notched yet another grand achievement.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Khabarovsk 1992



 © Boyd Norton
Khabarovsk 1992.
                I sat in the car, waiting for my companions who had gone into the train station to purchase tickets for the next leg of our journey. I had decided not to go in with them because, with my limited command of Russian, I would be of no help in the complex negotiations that it took to purchase train tickets. So I remained behind.
Trans-Siberian Railroad
Rain was coming down steadily, streaking the windshield and side windows. Occasionally I had to wipe the condensation from the interior of the glass so that I could watch the people coming and going. People watching in Russia, particularly Siberia, can be fascinating. We were parked near a covered stairway that led downward into the tunnels that went under the tracks and led to the various train platforms – and there were many. This is a major terminal for the Trans-Siberian Railroad. I had arrived here myself from Ulan Ude a few days earlier and nearly got lost getting from the train platform in the maze of tunnels.
People were streaming in and out, most with umbrellas. It was then that I noticed the young couple standing huddled out of the rain in the opening of this portal. They had no umbrella and seemed to be waiting for a bus or a vehicle to pick them up.
            They were both in their late teens, perhaps early twenties - university students, I guessed. She was slight of build, very delicate and thin and I imagined that she might be a student of the ballet. He was taller, also slender, but I didn’t picture him as a ballet or dance student. A musician, perhaps. Or maybe a mathematics major. He held his arm around her shoulders and they looked at each other often, speaking a few words. Then they looked expectantly out into the expanse of the asphalt covered parking lot. There were few vehicles. In typical Soviet fashion, the parking lot was not a smooth surface of asphalt but was dimpled with numerous irregularities so that rainwater quickly formed puddles all around. I watched as some people picked their way across this minefield of puddled water. Obviously this parking lot had been designed by that most powerful of all Soviet bureaucracies, The Ministry of A and I (see next essay).
            Many minutes passed. I was fascinated with the couple before me. At one point he said something that made her laugh. She covered her mouth and lowered her eyes as she giggled. Then they both seriously surveyed the parking lot again. I wondered if they had arrived by train and from where? Ulan Ude? Or Irkutsk? Maybe Moscow, some five or six days distant by train from here? Or maybe from one of the many small towns and villages along the Trans-Siberian. But it struck me that they didn’t seem to be from one of those little Siberian villages. Their clothing was more urban. Maybe Vladivostok in the other direction. Or maybe they were from Khabarovsk and were just seeing a friend off and got caught in this rain. The fact that they didn’t appear to have any luggage seemed to confirm my last theory.
            Mesmerized in my voyeurism I suddenly became aware of a large vehicle approaching from behind. It slowed as it came past the car, but then continued on across the watery parking lot sending spray into the air as it hit each puddle. It was one of those Soviet era buses, rather grimy and painted a dull yellow color. It came to a stop at the far end of the parking lot – about one hundred yards away. I turned and now saw the couple moving quickly. She slipped off her shoes and he reached down and clutched them to his chest. They paused, as though to map a route across the watery course. Then he nodded and they began to run in the direction of the far bus. She ran with delicate, mincing steps almost on tiptoe. It was like watching a ballet. And apparently she preferred to run barefoot rather than to spoil what looked like new shoes. I wondered if they had assessed the risk of stepping on one of those broken vodka bottles so prevalent all over Russia. They ran hand in hand, dodging, when they could, the puddles. It took a few moments for them to traverse the space to the parked bus. But as they neared the vehicle it suddenly started moving, picking up speed as they drew closer. And when they arrived at the spot where the bus had been it was well out of the parking lot and onto the boulevard heading toward the city center. The young man waved, but it passed unnoticed by the driver – if he ever cared.
            The couple stood in the rain, shoulders slumped in defeat. He reached and embraced her. They stood a moment, then slowly started walking back in my direction to the portal where they had stood for so long waiting. The rain had eased to a slight drizzle, but it was obvious that they were both soaking wet. As I watched them huddle in the portal once more, looking anxiously for another bus, I felt profoundly sad. Though young, they were old enough to have lived most of their lives in the old Soviet system. The year was 1992 and though the Soviet Union was no more, the new Russia was only a year old and little had changed in the old infrastructure. What had saddened me most about the plight of this young couple was their stoicism and resignation to their fate. I was reminded of a slogan related to me by an older Russian friend, a saying that everyone used, sardonically, about life during Soviet times: “Nothing works, everything breaks, nobody cares.” Everyone, he said, resigned themselves to a miserable life of one frustration after another. If you didn’t accept the way things were you would either drink yourself to death or end up in prison. Many Soviet citizens did both.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Ulan Ude and an Eastern Medicine Clinic

This is the first in a series of essays entitled Travels in Siberia. These are various journeys I made here, starting in 1986. © Boyd Norton




Ulan Ude and an Eastern Medicine Clinic
            The journey on the Trans-Siberian Railroad between Khabarovsk and Ulan Ude is a trip backward in time. It takes two days, more or less, to travel between those two cities. For me it has the feeling of journeying back decades to the 1940s and 1950s of my childhood in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
I’m not suggesting that Rhode Island has the climate of Siberia. Nor does it, today, resemble this part of Siberia at all. However, during and immediately after World War II there was a certain look and feeling to my childhood surroundings that are nearly replicated today in many Siberian towns and cities. I still remember in Pawtucket those abandoned textile mills with broken windows, woodlots, grassy meadows, dirt streets (the street I lived on was not paved until the early ‘50s), weedy vacant lots, old but charming houses in need of painting, rundown wooden fences, and victory gardens in everyone’s backyard. Horse drawn wagons were not at all unusual then. Once a week the Ragman used to drive his horse and wagon down our street yelling in a sing-song voice, “Raaaaags.” He bought old clothing from people. I never understood how anyone could make a living doing that. There were others that delivered ice for iceboxes, also with horse and wagon. We got our ice from a nearby icehouse, probably because it was cheaper. Refrigerator? What’s that?
The factories around Pawtucket that remained open were two or three story buildings made of brick darkened by age and pollution and with windows consisting of rectangular mosaics of many small panes whose glass was forever dirty and grimy and, occasionally, broken. Not at all unlike the Soviet era buildings found in Siberia. There were no shopping malls. There were no Safeways or Wal-Marts. Most people walked two or three blocks or more to small neighborhood groceries. Sidewalks, what few there were, had shaggy weeds growing up through the cracks. There were streetcars and electric buses that had spring loaded poles on the back to ride along the electrical wires overhead. There were trolleys that ran on rails imbedded in many of the main thoroughfares. Traffic jams were unheard of because very few people owned a car. Those that did kept and maintained them for many years. A brand new car was cause for gaping.
It was a simple time. And not unpleasant, though for adults I’m sure it was a worrisome period after a major economic depression and a world war. Today American towns have become too slick and neat. No weed is allowed to spring up in a vacant lot. In fact, there are no vacant lots – they’ve long since been developed and turned into condos. (In my Pawtucket of old, certain parts of the city had many streets lined with tenements. Condos today are just a modern day equivalent of tenements.) No sidewalks today have cracks for weeds to sprout up through. No street remains unpaved and no lawn remains uncut. There are no more vegetable gardens in the backyard. The trolley cars have been replaced by multitudes of shiny new cars jammed bumper to bumper on streets lined with sterile shopping malls. No one walks. There are no horse drawn wagons.
Street in Irkutsk
Except in Siberia. There’s a nostalgic simplicity here. I think it’s part of the reason that I’m drawn to this strange and wonderful land. In Khabarovsk and Ulan Ude and Irkutsk there are still trolleys running on rails set in the streets. There are electric buses with poles reaching up to draw power from overhead wires. There are weedy lots and sidewalks with grass poking up through cracks. Old buildings in these cities are reminiscent of those rundown textile mills of Pawtucket. (Like the designers of those American mills, Soviet architects had no sense of aesthetics.)
Gardens in Villages from the Trans-Siberian
In the countryside life is even simpler. Standing in the narrow hallway of the compartment car of the Trans-Siberian train, I stare out the open window for hours as we pass through lovely countryside. The train slows for small villages and towns. There I see old log homes and yards filled with lovingly tended gardens of potato plants and tomatoes and cabbages and carrots and beets. These are like our Victory Gardens of World War II years. For most people here those vegetables are vital for survival in long and bitter winters. There are rundown fences, houses in need of paint, dirt streets, and weedy lots. And yes, horse drawn wagons and carts.
I feel at home here.

            Ulan Ude is a city of 380,000 people lying more than 5000 kilometers (and five time zones) east of Moscow on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. It was founded as a Cossack outpost in 1666. The city sits astride the Selenga River whose origins are in Mongolia 200 kilometers to the south. The Selenga empties into Baikal about 100 kilometers west of the city.
Were they to return today, I’m afraid the Cossacks would be in for a bit of a shock. Strategically located on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, Ulan Ude was transformed into one of those ugly Soviet industrial cities that sprang up in the Stalin era, from the 1930s through the 50s. With its belching factories and rows of sterile high rise apartments, the city could serve as poster child for the Ministry of Really Ugly Architecture in Moscow.
            Many of my trips to Lake Baikal have been through Ulan Ude because it gives easy access to some fascinating parts of the lake along the east shore.  On some of those excursions I’ve stayed at an Eastern medicine clinic in Ulan Ude. It’s kind of a combination hospital and hostel, run by a wonderful Buryat gentleman named Baer Balzhirov. The clinic is located in a forest, typical Siberian taiga, on the eastern outskirts of the city. It’s a place to relax, away from the noise and traffic of Ulan Ude.
Buryat Singers at Eastern Medicine Clinic
            On one of my first visits Baer made arrangements for some of us to have a medical diagnosis made by one of the Eastern medicine practioners. I must admit that I’m something of a skeptic about certain alternative forms of medicine and some modern day folk remedies. Perhaps it’s my scientific background, but when I read wild claims made for certain herbs and treatments I’m suspicious. Good scientific testing of the effectiveness of these medicines seems to be lacking. I’m equally suspicious of various alternative medical treatments.
On the other hand, I realize that in the natural world there are still some amazing substances awaiting discovery, complex derivatives from flora and fauna that may yield cures for many human maladies. On my many trips to Peru I discovered that the tea made from coca leaves actually does help acclimatization to high altitudes. So when Baer asked me, I agreed. What the hell, I thought. I’m game to give it a try and see if he diagnoses something interesting.
            The practitioner looked the part of a Buddhist monk, with shaven head and maroon robe. Rather than sandals he wore an ordinary pair of street shoes. The wingtips seemed to clash with the rest of his outfit, but I suppose this footware made more sense in the climate of Ulan Ude. His dark eyes had a piercing quality, giving the impression he could use his vision to penetrate skin and bone to root out sickness. He was introduced and we shook hands. He bowed slightly and I awkwardly bowed to him. With a sweep of his hand he asked me to be seated. I sat in a straight-backed chair and he seated himself opposite me on a sofa.
            I had been briefed on the procedure. The practitioner had been trained over many years to detect slight variations in the human pulse on each wrist and at different specific positions. According to the Eastern medicine theory there are something like twenty eight different pulse variations that can be detected by skilled practitioners. By understanding the meaning of changes in these pulses one can make diagnoses of certain illnesses or afflictions. I tried not to let my skepticism show.
            He leaned forward, grasped my forearms and rotated them so that my palms were facing upward. He placed his fingertips on my wrists in much the same way a doctor or nurse might when checking a pulse. However, rather than a fixed position, he moved his fingers to different spots and applied varying pressure. Also, he used both hands, one on each of my wrists. Sometimes his fingertips barely touched my skin, giving a tickling sensation. At other times the pressure was firm and hard. He spent several minutes doing this, moving his fingers from place to place on my wrists and forearms. All the time there was a look of intense concentration on his face and he cocked his head in such a way that it appeared he was listening for something as well.
            Suddenly he looked up at me and asked if I had any particular medical problems. The question took me by surprise – Hey, I thought, he was supposed to root out my problems on his own. I mulled over his question for a moment. I’m in pretty good health and, aside from an occasional cold or bout of the flu, I’ve had almost no medical – Oh, wait a minute. Yes, I explained to him, I do have one problem. You see, I went on, I’m a photographer and often I carry a lot of camera equipment, up to 15 kilos (over 30 pounds) - sometimes more. On days when I do a lot of walking while carrying that camera gear, well, at the end of the day my hip joints ache. Sometimes I cannot sleep well at night because of that pain.
            He nodded in understanding and once more grasped my wrists. Again he used his fingertips to probe my pulses. His brow was furrowed in concentration. Then he looked up at me about to speak.
            I must admit I got excited. Even though I was skeptical about this procedure, I recalled articles I had read about various new medicines derived from old, traditional herbs and remedies from ancient cultures worldwide. Maybe there is something to this. Siberia is noted for its ginseng and other herbal medicines. Surely he is about to prescribe some ointment or salve or tea made from the extract of leaves or bark or roots of a hitherto unknown but magical Siberian plant. And this would cure my aching joints. He cleared his throat and then spoke.
            “You’re getting old,” he said.
He didn’t even crack a smile.

 

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Another Excerpt from my Novel, "Perfect Money", Chapter 4


Sorry gang, but this is the last post until the novel is published. It gets better!
Wait 'til you see what the Secret Service, FBI, CIA, IRS, the Mafia and the KGB have in store for them.
 © 2012 Boyd Norton
Four
            Before we could launch our scheme we had some work to do. First, Sam had to print more bills. We wanted to have a good supply on hand. But we also had to make sure that we could find a secure hiding place for all that money. In case we got caught and had our houses searched. You know, just to play it safe.
            For the latter problem we decided on safe deposit boxes. Not in the local bank, but in a bank in the Denver metro area. Sam opened one in a particular bank, and I did the same in another different bank. We figured that safe deposit boxes wouldn’t be traced easily, not like a bank account, and hiding a key to the boxes would be a lot easier than hiding bags of twenties.
            The printing went well and we spent an evening cutting the separate bills from the sheets. I had one of those rotary paper cutters I used for cutting photo prints. It was fast and precise. The only problem was, we ran out of paper. There were only 25 sheets in the box and we used two of those to get test prints. So with 23 sheets, at 18 bills to a sheet, we had a little over $8000 in twenties. Sam went online and ordered three more boxes of the paper. When he came back from the computer I was just finishing the cutting of the last few bills from a sheet.
            “Holy shit,” he said.
            “What? What’s wrong?
            “Do you know how much that paper costs? Thirty fucking dollars a sheet. A box of it goes for $750 bucks. I just spent $2100 bucks on my credit card, which is nearly maxed out, by the way. Fine art paper, it’s called. Christ, no wonder Epson does so well. They can give away their printers and make a ton of money on paper and ink. And, oh yeah, I just checked on it and a set of 12 ink cartridges, which is what this printer takes, is another six hundred bucks.”
            “That’s outrageous. Isn’t there anything cheaper?”
            He laughed. “Yeah, there is, but it’s not the quality of paper we need for this. This is one thing we can’t cut corners on, unfortunately.”
            I grabbed a pencil and paper and made some quick calculation. “Jeezuz, at that price each bill is costing us about a buck seventy for the paper alone.”
            “Don’t forget the ink. It’s probably close to two bucks it’s costing us to print a twenty dollar bill.”
            There went ten percent of our profit right there.
            “Maybe we ought to go for a bigger denomination. How about fifties?”
            “Are you outta your mind? Bigger bills get more scrutiny. Remember what Cat said. It would just increase the risk of getting caught. No, we gotta stay with twenties.”
            “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” This was not a good start and I began to have that awful feeling again about the whole scheme. Sam must have picked up on that.
            “Jake, we can still make this work. It’ll take a little more work on our part - maybe hitting a few extra stores.”
            I nodded but I still had a knot in my stomach.

            The next part of our preparation required some creative thinking. We needed to give the bills the look and feeling of having been in circulation. A crisp new bill attracts attention. I’ve noticed that whenever I’ve gotten one of those new bills. Even real ones cause you to think it’s gotta be phony so you look at it more closely.
            At first we tried just crumpling several of them repeatedly but that didn’t work. Most people don’t crumple their money. New bills eventually get folded and handled and passed around a multitude of times and eventually that newness is lost. But how do we duplicate that? Folding and refolding those bills was just too time consuming. Then I hit on an idea.
            “Hey Sam, you got any quarters? Like about twenty or so?”
            “Yeah, I’ve got a change jar where I toss odd coins from my pocket each night at bedtime. Why?”
             “I’ve got a way to age our money. We go to the laundromat and put a bunch of our bills in with some clothes and let them bounce around for a while. That should take away that crispness and make them look like they’ve been in circulation for a while. It’ll save us a lot of time and effort.”
            “You don’t mean washing them, do you?”
            “No no. Just put ‘em in a dryer and let them tumble around for a while.”
            “Well, okay. We can give it a try.”
            The only laundromat in Sprucehaven could, at certain times of day and certain days of the week, be a busy place. Weekends were especially crowded. Two guys stuffing money into a dryer might attract attention. So we chose a weeknight and very late in the evening. The place was supposed to close at midnight. We got there at eleven thirty.
            There was one older lady in there when we arrived. She seemed to be just finishing up, folding her clothing on one of the counters. We waited a little. She kept looking up at us, eyeing us with some suspicion. We had two garbage bags. One of them had half of our twenty dollar bills in it - about two hundred of them. We didn’t want to put all four hundred through this test until we were sure it would work. The other bag had some T shirts and underwear and a pair of Levis. I hadn’t intended to do a wash - I didn’t think there would be time and I usually do mine at home. All I wanted was some clothing to put in the dryer to cushion the bills and maybe help in the aging process by putting them in contact with clothing. I mean, a lot of paper money gets stuffed into and pulled out of pockets.
            To make it look like we were doing laundry, I went to one of the washers and opened the lid. It was full of clothes.
            “Those are mine.” The old lady came scurrying over and rescued her laundry from the presumed laundry robbers.
            “Sorry. I didn’t …”
            “This machine over here is empty,” she said pointing to another.
            Now I had to go through with it so I began piling some T shirts and underwear into the maw of the machine. She went back to folding. It was taking her forever. I was about to suggest to Sam, quietly, that we bail out and come back another evening, when the lady put all her clothing into a big basket and headed for the door. When she was gone, I turned to Sam.
            “Quick, let’s get this stuff into a dryer.”
            Three of the four dryers had “Out of Order” signs on them. I tossed the Levis into the working one and Sam began emptying the bills into it as well. A few went fluttering to the floor and I quickly rescued them and tossed them in with the pants.
            It took a few minutes before we closed the door, then we had to pull out enough quarters.
            “Let’s see. I think twenty minutes oughtta be enough. No, better yet, let’s try forty minutes. Let me have eight quarters.”
            “Uh Jake, we’ve only got about fifteen minutes.”
            “Oh yeah. Well let’s see. If we do it for that short a time, I’d better turn up the heat on this.”
            I turned a dial on the heat selection then dropped the coins into the slot one by one and pressed the start button. The pants and the twenties began whirling around inside. Through the glass door it looked bizarre, a storm of money and a pair of Levis in some kind of ballet. We went over and sat in one of the plastic chairs and grabbed some magazines.
            Just then the door opened and a cop walked in! He was one of the local sheriffs and he had a basket of damp laundry in his hands. He looked at us, then at the dryer.
            “Damn. They still haven’t fixed those other dryers.” Then he looked up at the clock. Quarter to twelve.
            “Guess you guys have got the only working dryer. Any chance you’re almost done?” He looked like he was going to walk over and look into that whirling dryer.
            “Uh, well, I think ours will run right up ‘til closing time.” My voice had suddenly gotten an octave higher in my fright.
            He shot me a quick glance and then headed for the door. “Guess I’ll have to try tomorrow night.” And he was gone.
            Talk about an adrenaline rush! As casually as I could I looked out the window and watched as he backed out and drove away.
            “Sam, I may need a pair of that underwear in the bag. The ones I’m wearing need changing.”
            Just then Sam looked up and said, “Hey, what’s that smell?”
            I laughed. “It’s not me, man. I was only kidding about shitting my pants.” And then I smelled it too. Something was burning!
            We both got to the dryer at the same time. I opened the door and we were hit by the smell of charred paper. The bills had turned a sickening brown color.
            “What the fuck.” And just then the front door opened and the little old lady returned.
            “Say, don’t you boys know how to run a dryer,” she said, sniffing the air. “You must have set the heat too high. What’s burning anyway?” She came closer. By now both Sam and I were scooping handfuls of crispy brown twenty dollar bills into the garbage bag.
            “Well no wonder. Didn’t you think to remove any money from your pockets before putting your pants in there? Say, you must carry around a lot of money.” That last was spoken when she stood in front of us, jaw agape as we piled those bills into the bag.
            “Uh, well, ma’am, we just got here from my store in Denver and the bank was closed so I couldn’t make a deposit before coming here to do laundry. When we put our clothes in the dryer I guess the bag with today’s take got tossed in accidentally. Sure is a mess. Hate to lose this money.” As Sam spoke he kept stuffing money into the black garbage bag.
            “Well, don’t you worry about it. My son works for the bank here. He’ll help you out. They can exchange that money for you. They do it all the time for folks when money gets burned or torn. Just so long as most of the bills are intact.” She turned and walked over to the countertop where she had left a batch of her folded laundry. She put it in her basket and then headed for the door. Just before leaving, she said, “You ask for my son at the bank. His name is Jason. I’ll tell him about your accident. I’m sure he can help you.”
            Then she was gone.

            Back at Sam’s house we were commiserating over a large bottle of Bombay gin. We sat at the bar in the rec room of his basement. I was on my third martini. My hands and clothes smelled of burnt paper. And my only pair of Levis had big scorches all over them.
            “Well, aside from burning up four thousand dollars and my best pair of Levis, I’d say things went pretty well today. On the bight side, we weren’t dumb enough to put the whole batch of money into that goddamned furnace.” I took another sip of martini.
            Sam sat with his chin cupped in his hands, elbows on the bar. When he spoke his head bobbed up and down. “Jake, I’ve been through a lot of ups and downs in my former business, but I gotta tell ya, today takes the prize for all time downers.” He actually smiled when he said it. “Someday we’ll look back on this and laugh.” He took another sip of his own martini. “But not today.”
            By my fourth martini I was not in any shape to drive. I called Cat. I knew she was a night owl, often staying up to read. She agreed to pick me up and was there in twenty minutes.
            “Whew, you been burning garbage or something?” she said when I got in the car.
            “I don’t wanna talk about it.”
            Later, at her place, and after I scrubbed for an hour in the shower to rid myself of the eau d’ burnt twenty dollar bills, I told her everything after I climbed into bed with her. She laughed. And, eventually, so did I.