Essays & Memoir

John Moncure Wetterau

Signal Fire

On a deserted beach at dusk, a man rolled a note into a cylinder and stuffed it into one shoe. He patted the wallet, keys, and knife in his pockets, took off his clothes, and walked into the water. The current carried him to a wooded point where he came ashore, found his bag, dressed, and walked fifteen miles in the dark to the next town, crossing the main highway, keeping to back roads. In the morning, he caught a bus to D.C. and another bus to New York.

A tall kid put his field jacket on a table in front of the processing sergeant and signed a form. Four years, twenty-five days, and they take your field jacket. He walked off base past the main gate and stuck out his thumb.

In a large room, heated by a woodstove, lit by an Aladdin lamp, central table partially cluttered with books, chisels, honing oil, bread, a piece of cheddar, guitar strings, and beer glasses, Gred Montgomery and I watched the rain gather and move up the mountain.

Soft grays and blacks, sheen of birch, October maples, hemlock green. Shadowed room corners, sharp lines of table and window. Two men sitting, half turned to the window—one  rounded, red hair and beard; the other dark, angular, intense. In the air, a color that smells of woodsmoke.

A troubled society hemorrhages artists. Waves of painters, writers, and musicians came through Woodstock in the 60's. They drove VW bugs and microbuses, old pickups, and Daddy's lesser Mercedes. Some just stepped off the Trailways bus.

I was twenty-five, back in town, painting houses. At the end of each day, we milled around in the Depresso, Deanie's, and Buckman's. There were people who knew how to do things and people willing to learn. Bob Dylan was there. The Band. You never knew who would show up—Norman Mailer, Van Morrison, Joan Baez. The locals scratched their heads and kept on with their lives, staying apart mostly. A few of us lived in both worlds.

Gred got off the bus. He bought a hammer and a Stanley tape and went to work. He was cheerful and made an effort to fit in. Women were attracted to his easy laugh, his willingness to share frustrations and enthusiasms. His red hair and beard grew longer. He began to be accepted as others came and went.

He lived high on the mountain, cabin-sitting, doing occasional odd jobs for the owner. One afternoon he invited me up to try his home brew. It was a gloomy day—lowering clouds, chilly. You couldn't smell winter yet, but it was coming.

The main room was filled with tools, books, and cases of beer. Sweatshirts hung on the backs of chairs. A guitar waited in a corner. A large window overlooked the valley, a northern fall view of woods, a few fields, a church steeple.

When you are young, you tend to define yourself by others. It is easier to say, I'm not like him, or, she's crazy, or, he's a good worker, than it is to announce yourself as Delft the Deft or Igor Intelligent. Each new and interesting person challenges your sense of yourself. Perhaps, in other cultures, people are quicker to know who they are. We were in the richest period of the richest country in history; we were taking our time.

Gred played his guitar and talked about a bluegrass group he was promoting. I told him that my writing hadn't gotten far, just poems and scraps. Trying to figure things out, I said.

The rain moved over us. Gred lit the lamp. I told him how I'd decided midway through my hitch in the Air Force that war was wrong and that it was my duty to get out. Damned lucky I didn't get a year in Fort Leavenworth. The judge gave me a choice, and I had a last moment epiphany. A voice in my head said, “You asshole! People kill each other. They have always killed each other. What do you think you're doing?” Thirty days.

“They add it to your hitch,” I said. “I got five days off for good behavior.”

“I was in the Marines,” Gred said. “Went AWOL.”

“No shit! They didn't shoot you?”

“They might.” He was smiling. “If they find me.” He opened two more bottles.

He had faked suicide on a beach. I thought he was telling the truth, but I may have looked doubtful. He produced a battered drivers license. It was from a southern state. Tennessee, I think. The name on it was Fred Shoegarth or something close to it. He underlined it with one finger. “I like Gred better.”

We ate bread and cheese, leaned back in the chairs, talked, and listened to the rain. I felt self-contained, free around my feet and elbows. I don't remember the details, but Gred had been bounced around as a kid. He'd heard about Woodstock while he was with a woman in New York-Anna? She was coming that evening to see what was happening, to stay a few days, maybe more. When it was time for him to meet her bus, I drove down the mountain behind him, envious.

She didn't stay long. A few months later, Gred was living with Kitty, a singer with fiery dark red hair and a healthy bank account. They married and bought the old ice house on Glasco Turnpike. Gred incorporated the three foot thick stone walls into a new house, a project that involved successions of carpenters and mavericks. Kitty had a baby whose hair was red and curly.

The house was closed in when Gred was arrested. He had rented tools for a few days and hadn't bothered to tell the rental company that he was still using them and would bring them back when he damn well got around to it. He was fingerprinted. Gerry, the town's liberal lawyer, advised Gred to turn himself in before the prints were matched and the Marines came for him.

It was good advice. Gred got off with only six months in Portsmouth. Not that the Portsmouth brig is easy time. But still, we were at war in Vietnam. He was likeable. Probably, he did a great job apologizing. Maybe the judge took the wife and baby into account. Gred kept his mouth shut and survived, came back to town, and split up with Kitty.

The last time I saw him was a year or so later at a party. Large sails were drying on a lawn. He was involved with Lon's ex-wife, Mara, who'd inherited a small amount of money. Gred used some of the money to go to Maine and to buy an old wooden boat which he managed to sail down the coast and up the Hudson. He had a close call in Brooklyn Harbor, he told me, but a tugboat bailed him out. He and Mara were heading for Florida or the Bahamas. Mara was quiet, self-effacing, but that afternoon she was drinking gin. “So, you're with Mara now,” I said.

“The way she's going, I'm not sure who she's with.” He was his usual amiable-to-merry self, but there was an edge in his voice, a masked alertness in his eyes. Nearly forty years ago.

Gred had guts. He held to the jester's truth: you don't amount to much in the universe; you might as well enjoy life, take chances and challenges. Perhaps he's down in the Keys right now, heavier, a Hemingway beard, laughing, a glass of something near his elbow.

I clung to the writer's truth: words, if honest, matter; they lead to understanding, acceptance, joy even.

Why do we remember one thing and forget others? The process seems subconscious and continuous, winnowing and compacting, preserving, packaging for the future what might be useful. The memory of that evening on the mountain flickers like a signal fire on a distant headland. When I look across, I am shocked and encouraged. I got this far. I can go farther.

We thought we were experienced, that rainy night, but we were like springs yet to be released. If Gred were here, I imagine him asking, one eyebrow raised sardonically, “How's it been, all that writing?”

“Harder than whistling, easier than digging coal,” I'd say.

Bach's Prelude No. 1

I floated through sixth grade in a sea of lust as pure and intense as a cloudless sky. Hannah Barth, Ann Russell, Sharon Townsend, and Libby Lee had blossomed over the summer. They flirted with the older guys---seventh and eighth graders. I had no chance. I joined the Drum and Bugle Corps.

The band teacher, in a burst of optimism, made me the bass drummer. I was big enough, and even I, with practice, could march and go boom, boom, boom, boom. There was a small tear in the drum. The tape that covered it lifted with every boom.

On the day of the parade, we strutted down the avenue, playing patriotic marches, stopping for the baton twirlers to do daring spangly catches. As we approached the judges, we went smartly into the march from Aida. We won. A great day. I hung up my sticks, feeling lucky to have gotten through. I didn't have a date, but I hadn't made an ass of myself. It had been an honorable music career.

At sunrise on my sixtieth birthday, I pulled a box from beneath the bed where Eleanor had hidden it, forbidding me to look before the appointed moment. Inside the wrapping was a portable Yamaha keyboard! Pablo Casals began each morning by playing a Bach cello suite. What a way to wake up … I'd said once to Eleanor. She gave me a two page score: Bach's Prelude No. 1 from The Well-Tempered Clavier.

Put your fingers here, she said. When I pressed a key, a tiny screen displayed the note. I could compare it to the score and see if it was the right one. I began to learn the Prelude.

There are 549 notes in the piece, including the five note chord which ends it. The music is in the key of C, a plus for beginners as there are fewer black keys to play. More importantly (for me), the left and right hands alternate; they do not play at the same time until the final chord.

The notes are divided into 35 measures.

Each measure sounds a different chord, moving up the scale at first and then around and down. The last three measures contain 37 notes which serve as embellishment, conclusion, and introduction to melody, a hint of what is to come in the pieces after the Prelude.

Like short poems, spaghetti sauce, and Japanese tea cups, the Prelude is simple in design but difficult to do well. Each note is by itself. Each note is its own rhythm section. The slightest variation in strength and tempo is heard. Eleanor nods. There's no free ride in Bach, she says.

It is difficult (and probably not desirable) to play each note at exactly the same pace. The music breathes, slowing a little, speeding up, finding a mean. But the breathing is audible and mustn't interfere. The second triplet in each chord can come a tiny fraction late, sounding an underscore, or it can come quickly, a rolling continuation. Glenn Gould plays it the first way. Eleanor plays it both ways at different moments with a jubilance that puts a smile on Bach's face.

The piece can take less than two minutes or as long as three. The Glen Gould performance that I timed took 2 minutes, 28 seconds. It varies each time you play it. The tempo defines itself in the first measures and then settles around an average. You stop for a moment at the end and play it again, trying for a certain tempo, but it is always slightly faster or slower, a new version, defining itself as you play.

Each chord has a different feel and each note in the eight note sequence contributes differently. The second note, say, played more strongly, sounds better in one chord than another. What is better to one ear is not necessarily better to another. You get my drift. There is no Bach secret (keep a perfectly even tempo and play the second note more strongly). The instant that you lose focus, stop listening, as you play, you screw up. There's no other (polite) way to put it. You are giving the music life; when you leave, it dies. Playing becomes an exercise in paying attention.

I have been practicing the Prelude for five months now. I play it three or four times each morning before I do anything else. The steady round of notes evokes an orderly cosmos—the moon revolves around the earth which spins as it circles the sun in a slowly wheeling galaxy. The minor chords throw shadow and give depth. The music builds to the 30th measure where a sunny perfect chord is heard twice and then left behind, reluctantly, justly. And at the end, oh yes, melody. Detail. A single voice sings in this musical universe. The balance of these elements is life as Bach understood it. To play the Prelude is to feel the way Bach felt, to add your voice to his. What a way to wake up!

The Voyager Spacecraft was launched in 1977. In 1990, it passed Pluto heading toward another planetary system. In about 40,000 years, if it isn't struck by something, the Voyager will be in the neighborhood, bearing a gold plated record which has on it—along with Javanese gamelan music, a Pygmy bridal song, Chuck Berry's Johnny B. Goode, and other pieces—the Prelude. A very long chance, sending Bach's Prelude No. 1 in C Major into space, but it is heartening that we made the effort. It is as though we are trying to give the universe back to itself in praise, or, at least, to ask our neighbors, Do you hear it, too—this beauty?

Letter from Hawi

In 1958, geology at Hamilton College was taught by a hard rock man and a soft rock man. One morning, the soft rock man turned to a hanging map of the world. He rested the end of his pointer in the Atlantic between the matching curves of Africa and South America.

"A few nuts have a theory that these continents were once attached. Continental drift, they call it.” Appreciative chuckles arose from the class.

The nuts hung in there and proved their theory. Beneath Hawaii, the Pacific Plate travels four inches a year northwestward, a pace that makes a snail seem like Seabiscuit but moves the Hawaiian Islands sixty miles every million years.

Each island is born as the plate passes over a "hot spot" in the earth's crust. Molten magma flows through the crust, layer after layer, building mountains that rise thirty thousand feet from the ocean floor. Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa on the Big Island are the highest points in the Pacific, more than thirteen thousand feet above sea level. Twenty miles south of the Big Island, Lo'ihi is growing—another three thousand feet and it will be the youngest Hawaiian island.

The weight of a new island depresses the crust beneath it until floating equilibrium is reached. The town of Hilo is sinking one to two tenths of an inch each year. The Kohala Mountains, at the north end of the island, the oldest part of the island, reach to five thousand feet but were once much higher. Coral reefs that were created at sea level are now four thousand feet underwater.

After an island reaches equilibrium, erosion gradually reduces it to sea level. The Pacific Plate, at its northern edge, dives below the Alaskan Plate, dragging the island deeper. A chain of drowned islands stretches from Hawaii toward northern Japan and the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Geology here is inescapable—lava still flows from Kilauea; the Big Island quivers subtly. Knowing, feeling, that this island, the size of Connecticut, will someday join its siblings underwater changes your relationship to it, to land in general. Land is transient. And if the land is transient, what (on earth) are we?


A red apapane on an ohi'a branch feeds on a red lehua blossom—similar reds, dark and smokey. The bird lifts its curved beak, calls twice.


Finn recommended Hilo, said it was like Darwin, Australia. "Anonymous. You could be anybody. You'd like it there, Dad." He was right. I love the faces, Asian, Polynesian, haole (Caucasian), the palms silhouetted against sea and sky, the soft percussion of doves. Low houses sprawl around a wide bay. Behind and above the town, green fields and forest disappear into clouds that clear from time to time, revealing the summits of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa.

Hilo is the southernmost city in the U.S. and has a south of the border quality. Tsunamis have smashed the waterfront twice in living memory. The sugar plantations have closed, severely affecting the economy; the plantations were central for a hundred years.

Honolulu, on Oahu, feels complete. If more hotel rooms are built in Waikiki, visitors will have to sign up for the beach. Highways are clogged during rush hour. Every bit of land has been used for condominiums and single family housing. Perhaps Honolulu will Manhattanize with higher buildings and more public transportation; perhaps growth will shift elsewhere. Hilo seems to be reawakening.

We bought a car and looked for a place to rent. On the first weekend, the car wouldn't start. Got a jump and took it to Sears.

"Sorry, the battery cable is shot. It has a computer sensor on it. We cannot replace it, can only get that part from the Ford dealer.” She cleaned the corroded cable and eased it back on the terminal. "Maybe it last until Monday," she said.

Monday, I left the car at the dealership and walked down the highway toward Ken's House of Pancakes. A guy in a battered white pickup waved at me from a stop sign. I ran around and jumped in as he pulled into traffic.

"Seat belt!"

"Oh, yeah," I said. "New law, huh. Giving tickets." I buckled up. There was an edge in his voice. He had wide powerful shoulders, a short neck, and a large jaw, unshaven.

"Got gas money?"

"Ummm, not much. I just going down to Ken's." I reached for my wallet. "How about a buck?"

"Can't buy nothing with that."

This was true. But I don't like getting hustled. What to do? He pointed at his gas gauge. "See—that's why." The needle was riding on empty. I put two dollars by the radio.

"You got three?"

"I've got enough for breakfast, is what I have. I just left my car at the dealers. Riding on empty, too." He considered.

"Better ask than steal," he said.

"Yeah," I said. "Money is a pain in the ass. Let me out anywhere it's easy." He stopped, and I got out across from Ken's. Neither of us thanked the other. He drove away, surprised I think, as I was, at having reached an understanding of sorts, both of us at an age where we think twice before violence, condescension.

The dealership wanted $700 to replace the cable, a month's rent! Eleanor found a cable for $75 in Grant's Pass, Oregon at a junkyard run by a couple of island boys. The Sears patch job lasted three weeks until we rented an apartment in Kohala and met Glenn, a mechanic who worked for himself in a small garage by his house. He replaced the cable and rebuilt the front brakes for $300. Quiet, good humored, competent. See Glenn.

The apartment overlooks cane fields turned to pasture, macadamia nut orchards, and rugged overgrown gulches. I like sky in a view, not so much as on the plains on the mainland where it comes down to your knees, but enough to fill most of a canvas—a Rembrandt, say—enough to see the sweep of clouds, to watch them change shape and color. This view has that. Across a channel to the northwest, Haleakala rises ten thousand feet. North and east, the Pacific stretches blue and gray to the horizon; the higher you climb, the more ocean you see.

I began to wonder: how much more? This is the sort of question that pops up when I'm supposed to be working on a novel. The apartment is at 1200 feet. From here, you need high powered binoculars or a telescope to see much of anything where the earth drops away.

I could calculate the distance if I knew how much drop, how much curvature I was seeing. The earth is roughly 24,000 miles around. We arbitrarily divide circles into 360 equal parts—degrees. Dividing 24,000 miles by 360 degrees gives 66.6 miles per degree, 67 to the nearest mile. Walking (sailing) over a degree of curve would take one roughly 67 miles.

If I knew the angle between two straight lines from the center of the earth, one to my feet, the other to the horizon, I could multiply the degrees by 67 to get the distance. But that angle is impossible to measure.

It seemed, though, that the angle should be the same as the one between a level line of sight and the line of sight to the horizon—call it the “drop off” angle. The drop off angle should be measurable; I could see it, after all.

angle between level line of sight and horizon

I went inside for a drink and stared at the water pitcher. It was rectangular, made of clear plastic. Water settles to a level surface. Aha! I took the pitcher outside and placed it on top of a cooler, aimed at the horizon. When the water stopped sloshing, I looked through the plastic, lining up the tops of the water on each side of the pitcher so that I was looking through it in a straight line. Sky! Moving sideways, I could look through the pitcher and along it at the same time. The horizon was indeed lower. Not much—but measurable.

I stacked books and paper next to the pitcher until the stack reached the line of sight to the horizon. I marked both lines of sight on the pitcher. The difference between the marks was one tenth of an inch. The pitcher was 6.15 inches across, measured on the level line.

tangent of drop off angle = opposite / adjacent

I remembered from trigonometry that “opposite over adjacent equals the tangent,” and divided .10 by 6.15, giving .02 to the nearest hundredth. A trig table listed the tangent of one degree as .017, two degrees as .034. So, the angle between the level line of sight and the line of sight to the horizon measured a bit more than a degree. The distance was somewhere around seventy miles.

I interrupted Eleanor with a news bulletin describing this triumph. She pointed out that we could easily see Maui and that the channel was 25 miles across. I looked out the window. Sure enough, Maui appeared a little less than halfway to the horizon. Hmmm.

I thought I was done with math for the day. But no. Why could I assume that the angle I measured was the same as the angle at the earth’s center? It was clear that the day was shot. I walked down the hill, bought coffee, and began remembering geometry. I’m happy to report (never mind how long it took) that the two angles can be proven equal.

Knowing the distance to the horizon contributed little to the view. But, looking through the pitcher was exciting. Idea and reality did a little dance. A real distance across a deep ocean might be measured using a water pitcher, a ruler, and the abstract models of geometry and trigonometry.

Reality is too big for us. We make models to help cope. Math, science, religion, history, language itself—pretty much anything we learn is a model. Maps are models. Von Clausewitz, a Prussian military leader, cautioned his generals on the eve of battle, Remember: the map is not the territory.

We get into trouble when we confuse models with reality. The model may be wrong. Or less accurate than we assume. Even very good models are only as good as the measurements used in them. I had a hard time understanding this when I first took science courses. It turns out that a calculation can be no more precise than its roughest measurement. If the roughest measurement is to the nearest hundredth, it doesn't matter that all the other measurements are accurate to millionths; the calculation is only accurate to the nearest hundredth. This is referred to as “the principle of significant digits,” a variation on the saying that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

There are lots of formulas that allow you to figure things out if you know other things, usually measured things. Formulas are abstract. Measurements are real. The observations, the data, are where abstract and real worlds touch.

I had such trouble getting this through my head that, when I was in the Air Force learning weather observation and I found a calculation that broke this principle, I objected loudly. I was sent to the head of the school, a Colonel. He listened patiently to my explanation of significant digits.

“I believe you're right, Airman,” he said. “But we're not going to change the form. We've done it this way for years. It doesn't make any difference. Dismissed.” Realities within realities.

So much for my adventure with the water pitcher, although perhaps it isn't over. Looking through the pitcher I had another glimpse—one that has grown warmer and more distinct, hovering above the horizon—one of ourselves: limited, lonely, full of fault, but able to think, to reach into the universe using tools that we have made over centuries, searching for truth.

Hawi, 2004

Essays & Memoir
John Moncure Wetterau

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