‘Wheels on the Bus’ honored at New York Book Festival

A Greyhound bus trip nearly 40 years ago was the inspiration for a Gaston author’s first novel, which won honorable mention this week at the New York Book Festival.

“Wheels on the Bus” is based on Ken Bilderback’s tumultuous 1974 solo coming-of-age journey through the era’s rapidly changing culture of sex, gender, drugs and racism.

Although based on a true story, Bilderback says “Many of the names and events have been changed to protect the innocent … and also because creeping senility prevents a precise retelling of these stories. The book really is about what we choose to remember from our youth and how we interpret those memories filtered through time.”

Bilderback and his wife, Kris, live in the Laurelwood area. Retired after 30 years as a newspaper reporter and editor, Bilderback spends his time volunteering for local organizations and raising a small flock of chickens.

His next book, “A Creek With No Name and other True Tales of Gaston, Oregon,” is due out later this summer.

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I’ll show you my Mardi Gras story if you show me yours …

I have been to Mardi Gras only once, as a skinny, scared 18-year-old. Here’s some of what I saw. I bet some of you have better Mardi Gras memories, so please share.

Wheels on the Bus

Wheels on the Bus

One group of scantily clad women with three-foot-high feather headdresses caught my attention, much as they would most 18-year-old boys. They were doing an impromptu snake dance along the street in broad daylight. Crowds on the street and balcony were yelling for them to “Show us your tits!”

I could not imagine anyone would do such a thing, yet I found myself watching, waiting for one of the dancers to oblige. None did, but I was so busy watching them that I failed at first to notice that several women in the gathering crowd were more than happy to. I was most amazed when a heavy-set middle-aged woman who looked like she could be on her way to the Presbyterian Church my mother went to lifted her blouse and shook her torso as her husband cheered her on.

Nothing in my life before me had prepared me for what I was seeing. Life in lower middle class Detroit just wasn’t like this.

– Excerpt from ‘Wheels on the Bus,’ available now digitally or in paperback. Copyright 2010 Ken Bilderback. All rights reserved.

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I got beat up at a Tracy Chapman concert

Tracy Chapman’s concert audiences are approximately 96 percent female, 3 percent gay men and 1 percent hetero men. About 10 years ago, I was part of that 1 percent for a concert in Portland. In fact, I think I might have been the biggest, baddest guy in the entire audience that night. But before the night was over, I was knocked unconscious in a fight.

This was back in the day when I was hobnobbing with local radio executives. This was back in the day when people used words like “hobnobbing.” When one of those radio execs offered me fourth-row center seats for a Tracy Chapman concert, I jumped. Both Kris and I love her music.

Portland’s vegan restaurants emptied as the expectant crowd arrived at the concert hall, early enough to buy a cup of chai in the lobby before the show began. Kris and I settled into our seats and I realized I was the only man in the first four rows. It was then that the whole “biggest, baddest guy” image emerged in my brain. I had not felt that way since I was invited to a preschool class a few years earlier, and that time the feeling was shattered when I learned one of the kids was quite adept at karate (mauve belt, I think).

Everyone sat politely in their seats, waiting for the concert to begin. The place was packed, except for the two seats directly in front of us in the third row. Those seats remained empty until the last minute, when they were occupied by two very suburban-looking young women. They were loud and crude as they made their way to their seats. One told the person next to her that they had won the seats in a radio-station contest and didn’t know who Tracy Chapman was. “She any good?” she asked. “She’s awesome,” the fan replied.

The minute Tracy hit the stage it was clear the two lucky ticket winners didn’t share the fan’s assessment. They fidgeted in their seats and said things like “What is this shit?” By the second song they were yelling “rock ‘n’ roll!” and “Let’s par-TAY!”

The two ticket winners in the row directly in front of us had poofy hair and lots of makeup and wore tight little dresses. The two women directly behind us in the fifth row were nothing like the ticket winners. They were dressed in loose flannel, wore no makeup and, I think, had not paid for a haircut in years. Whereas the pair in the third row didn’t know who Tracy Chapman was, the pair in the fifth row knew every word of every one of her songs. They were not happy when their gentle swaying to the music was interrupted by the crass outbursts from the row in front of me.

By the third song, the fifth-row pair was yelling at the third-row pair to sit down and shut up. In the fourth row, Kris and I sunk down in our seats and tried to listen to the music.

By the fourth song, the third-row pair, who had something other than chai to drink before the concert, were taunting the fifth-row pair behind me. The war of words escalated until the two in front of me mooned the two in back of me. The mooning didn’t seem to bother the couple behind me, at least any more than the incessant heckling did.

By the fifth song we could tell that Tracy Chapman was aware of the commotion in the audience. She didn’t say anything, but her furrowed brow while singing about peace, love and understanding belied her calm demeanor when she looked in our direction. It might have been during one of these glances that the inebriated pair in the third row stood up and, facing the avid fans in the fifth row, pulled down the tops of their little sundresses to expose their breasts, while simultaneously sticking out their tongues.

For some reason, the synchronized mooning the song before didn’t bother the women behind me, but this tandem display of mammaries was too much to bear. I must have been too busy watching either the concert or the boobs in the third row to notice the reaction of the ladies in the fifth row. But suddenly I felt a knee hit me in the back of the head as the two women behind me lunged forward. Next thing I knew, security guards were pulling bodies off of me and Kris was asking me if I was OK.

I was OK, and wanted to stay to see the rest of the show. The women in the third row had been escorted out of the theater, so we watched the remainder of the concert without any more boobs, butts or barbs thrown in our direction.

Tracy Chapman sang of love. In the audience women and gay men swayed, hand in hand, singing along with her. Meanwhile, the biggest, baddest dude in the audience sat in the fourth row, rubbing the back of his head.

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Plastic chairs in a muddy field

It’s raining today. The fields are mud. Yet there they sit, separated by barbed wire and surrounded by their sleeping dogs.

Life in the country has certain rhythms and patterns that are reassuring. They provide a sense of place and a sense of belonging. After all, unless you belong to this particular place you don’t even recognize when an event is part of the ordinary rhythm and not just a random observation.

Take, for example, two men sitting on plastic chairs in the driving rain in the middle of a muddy field. They sit on identical white plastic chairs, but on opposite sides of a barbed wire fence. At their feet are several large, slumbering herding dogs. From the road you can tell that one is wearing a rain slicker and broad-brimmed rain hat. He’s holding a commuter mug of coffee. The other doesn’t have coffee. He doesn’t have a hat, either, even in the chilly January rain. From the road it doesn’t look like they’re talking, though I imagine they are.

To the casual reader, the scene might be remarkable. To those of us who drive Bald Peak Road on a regular basis, it’s just another day.

I live on the opposite side of Bald Peak from these two gentlemen. While my home is no more than a couple of miles from the barbed wire fence, we live in different valleys, which means we’re not really neighbors. I don’t know their names. I don’t know their stories, other than they both have dogs and they both have sheep. I surmise that one (the one who is not wearing a rain hat today) trains Australian Shepherds because I see him out in the field sometimes with varying numbers of dogs, all practicing herding one hapless, confused little sheep. I know the two men sit and talk, or at least sit, on these flimsy white plastic chairs so often that I’m disappointed, sometimes even worried, when the chairs are empty.

Sometimes I see one man, the one wearing the rain hat today, sitting out there by himself. I wonder if this ritual is so much a pattern of their lives that he just assumes the other will show up soon, or is the other guy missing an appointment and if so, why? I don’t even know this guy’s name, yet when there’s one empty chair I find myself thinking “I hope he’s OK.”

I always look to see if they’re sitting there in the field. Looking has become as much a ritual for me as sitting on those white plastic chairs is for them. Every time I see them I smile, regardless of how my day is going. If they are there I know things are right in at least one small speck of the universe.

Not much seemed right about the universe today. I was coming home from the ophthalmologist’s office with news that my eye is not healing from a retinal tear as quickly as the doctor had hoped. A friend, the mother of two young children, lay in a hospital with a traumatic brain injury and an uncertain prognosis. On the radio news a report about how conservative politicians and pundits have no intention of lightening up on violent rhetoric is followed by a report that healthcare-reform opponents have no intention of dropping their absurd cries that Obamacare will kill both your job and your grandma. That report is followed by an update on the continuing quagmire in Afghanistan.

It seems like every other house has a “For Sale” sign as I drive home, many of which say “Bank Owned.” Other houses don’t have signs in the yard, but they stand vacant, which makes them even more haunting. Leaving the city, the “For Sale” signs become more infrequent, or at least farther apart. I flip off the radio on the highway heading home. I would rather watch the great blue heron fly than listen to more bad news, most of which is created by people in faraway cities whose business it is to create fear in the minds of people who just want to live their lives in peace. Fear, for people on K Street and Madison Avenue, is just a marketing gimmick. It’s hard to sell American taxpayers on the idea of giving billions of dollars in subsidies to Dubai-based Halliburton using just conventional motivators, especially when you consider most people are like the folks I pass in the country on the way to my peaceful home.

Take, for example, the woman feeding her alpacas, all of whom crowd around her except for one, who is standing on his hind legs, his back to the feeding frenzy and his front paws on the wooden fence as he watches cars go by on Highway 219. Down the road another fence needs mending and the man doing the mending looks perplexed as he holds a wooden crossbar that seems to be too short for the spacing of the posts.

At Farmington View Elementary School, kids are running on the playground, oblivious both to the rain and to the strife their parent are hearing on the news. No one I pass seems angry, even the old guy standing on the shoulder, looking at his trailer full of firewood. The trailer once was the back end of a 1960s Chevy pickup, but now it looks like it has a broken axle. As I pass I wonder why he didn’t just put the firewood in the bed of the pickup he’s using to pull the trailer, which also happens to be a 1960s Chevy. The look on his face as he glances back and forth between the pickup and the trailer makes me think he’s wondering the same thing now.

The closer I get to our home in the country, the more serene life becomes. As I approach my turn onto Bald Peak Road, I think about the vistas the drive offers on a sunny day: Five mountains – Rainier, St. Helens, Adams, Hood and Jefferson – are in the distance. After all these years, I still feel awe at the sight. But as I make the turn I know I won’t see any mountains in my rearview mirror on this trip over the hill. It’s raining today.

The fields are mud. Yet there they sit, separated by barbed wire and surrounded by their sleeping dogs.

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Coors Light and dragon tattoos

“It’s complicated,” she said. They had decided to move to Portland while she was pregnant because they had heard it was beautiful and that jobs were plentiful. They ran out of money in Eastern Oregon and made up a story about being robbed. The local paper ran a story and people brought money to the paper, enough for them to make it the rest of the way to Portland and put a deposit on an apartment. Neither one found a job when they got here.

Now she could go on as many dates as she wanted to, but she couldn’t date anyone. “Know what I mean?” she asked. My quizzical look must have once again betrayed me, because she proceeded to explain. “He doesn’t have a job. This is how we pay the rent,” she said, thrusting her chest toward me. I understood now. “He knows I’m here, but he’d slice me open if he knew I was telling you this; I’m not kidding. Still, you can buy me a beer if you want. What’s that you’re drinking?” I told her it was stout. “Nah,” she said as she wrinkled her nose, “I’m a Coors Light kind of gal.”

— excerpt from “Wheels on the Bus.” All rights reserved.

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Stay out of the bully’s closet

Bullies always are mean, but sometimes even they don’t what they mean:

As a child, I would flip through any book I could find, even a decades old physical therapy text. So it was that I found a chapter about human sexuality, complete with explicit drawings. I had seen pictures of breasts in National Geographic, so I wasn’t interested in scientific cutaway drawings of them. Ditto with penises. I had one of those, even if I had no idea what to do with it. At least not until I carefully studied a particular diagram of a part of the female anatomy I had never seen before. The diagram had to do with conception, and it featured what appeared to be an erect penis inside the unfamiliar female body part. I stared in disbelief at the diagram. The diagram was a close-up illustration, omitting any context of how such a situation had developed (in fact the penis was the only part of the male anatomy shown so it appeared to have become detached from the rest of the body). Still, now I had a general idea what heterosexual sex looked like. Unfortunately the textbook didn’t include any diagrams of detached penises engaged in homosexual sex, so as I rode the bus back in 1974 I remained blissfully ignorant of any physical component to the chants of “homo.” I didn’t know that my blissful ignorance about homosexual sex, like my ignorance about so many other things, would be rectified in the next few weeks on a Greyhound bus.

Now, these many more years later, I still think the guy in Lakeland was creepy, but not because he was gay. In fact, looking back I don’t think he was gay at all. I imagine he wanted a sexual favor, but I think he really just wanted to bully me into giving it to him. I imagine him as a bully in his earlier days, beating up kids like me with taunts of “homo!” or whatever the 1950s equivalent of that epithet was.

— excerpt from Wheels on the Bus. All rights reserved.

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There’s music in friendship

Growing up in Detroit in the early 1970s I absorbed music by osmosis. Motown was king, but Iggy Stooge, Bob Seger, Alice Cooper, Grand Funk Railroad, Canned Heat and a lot of funky white boys held their own.

WABX and WRIF ruled the FM airways with rebellious DJs who played album sides, and even the AM stations such as CKLW out of Canada would be considered hip by today’s sorry corporate radio status. Throw in concerts that often included two, three or four big acts plus a couple of up-and-comers, and music was everywhere and meant everything.

I listened to almost anything and loved music of all types. Like everyone, I associate many songs and artists with sensory memories of where I was when I first heard them. In many cases I remember the person who first introduced me to a song, or remember people when I introduced a song to them. For example, I remember mentioning to a young art teacher when I was in high school that I had a very early copy of a Simon and Garfunkel album. She asked me to bring it to school and she cried as she listened to “Bridge Over Troubled Water” for the first time. The image is seared into my memory. By today’s standards it might have been inappropriate teacher-student contact but it didn’t feel like to me then, and it still doesn’t. It helped me understand that “adults” (she was about five years older than me, but still an adult by my standards) felt the same emotions that foolish kids did and that music is a powerful but still somehow safe way to share them.

The music industry is different today. Corporate radio executives don’t much care for new acts because their risk managers tell them not to. Those who do mix in some new music nearly always do so by genre. You typically don’t hear new hip-hop, country and rock acts on the same station. Concerts? Two acts at most and ticket prices that preclude young ears and minds (or “frugal” old ears and minds) from experiencing new voices.

That leaves friends as the only remaining source of new musical experiences. I recently have been blessed with two such experiences that remind me of my youth. One, in fact, involves a friend from my days in Michigan while the other is a new friend.

LuAnn and I went to high school together. She was smart and pretty. I had a pretty smart mouth. Still, she suffered my presence with style and grace. We went our separate ways for decades until Facebook brought us together again. Turns out LuAnn spent those decades raising some amazingly talented sons and she told me about the band one of those sons is in, Jessica Hernandez and the Deltas. As it turns out, Jessica and the boys play an amalgam of rock, soul, punk and country … just the kind of music I loved as a kid, but which I have no business liking today as a mature adult. Except I do like it. A lot. I’m sure part of the reason I like is because an old friend shared it with me. I think that’s a pretty good reason. So as a friend I’ll share it with you.

The second introduction comes via a new friend. “Friend,” in fact, is too strong a word. I have never met Tim Keller. Never even spoken to him on the phone. Tim and I have absolutely nothing in common except for the odd coincidence that way back in the 1970s we each spent a month on a Greyhound bus and that here in the 21st Century we each have written about those adventures with a certain degree on introspection.

In his memoir, Tim speaks of his music. I figured that since I read his memoir I might as well listen to his songs. His music is not like Jessica’s to my ear. It just doesn’t have the same in-your-face defiance. What it does have is the sort of angst mixed with ecstasy of many of my other favorite performers, such as John Prine, Steve Goodman, Kris Kristofferson and Hoyt Axton, all of whom could sound happy about experiences that ripped their hearts out at the time. I always have felt that since we all endure such experiences, we might as well celebrate them. Tim does. You can listen to it here.

So LuAnn and I have shared many conversations since we renewed our friendship. Tim and I have shared just a couple of emails since I made his acquaintance. Yet from each I have found new music that touches my soul.

The magic of 1970s Detroit is long gone. Corporations long ago crushed radio and concert tours. There’s really just one way left to learn about new music, and that’s through friends, new and old.

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Have you heard the one about a kid with an Ameripass?

I experienced a sort of metamorphosis while writing about a solo Greyhound bus trip I took nearly 40 years ago. The simple act of recalling long-suppressed dreams and ambitions helped me realize that, quite accidently, I have transformed into the kind of person I wanted to become while daydreaming on long trips through places like West Texas and Nebraska.

For decades I buried artistic dreams under suits and ties while chasing the corporate brass ring. Every now and then a poem might slip out, and I would be embarrassed by (maybe even a little contemptuous of) my flashes of creativity. But now as I turn 55, I find myself vaguely embarrassed by my decades of corporate pursuits. I have transformed into the creative rebel whose birth was aborted way back when by college and career. Suddenly I’m proud to say that I am a writer.

If I were a really good writer, I could speak of this transformation a little more poetically, a little more metaphorically. Maybe I would weave a lyrical narrative involving a Greyhound bus trip with beautiful dancing butterflies to help you feel the joy of the metamorphosis.

Alas, my journalism roots are still showing and my prose reads more like a newspaper story than literature. Turns out I’m off the hook, however, because a truly good writer did that whole butterfly thing for me. That good writer is named Tim Keller, and he lives in rural New Mexico.

Those of you who have read my book might find that somewhat coincidental, because many of the events that sparked my creativity back in 1974 happened in rural New Mexico. Tim ended up living there, while I ended up in a similar setting in rural Oregon. Reading his beautiful memoir, it seems we took equally twisted paths to get to where we are today, each at times living lives of orthodoxy while seeking a voice that could share some of our more unorthodox thinking.

Tim tells his story in “Ameripass: Aimless in America.” By the time he set out on his journey he was an accomplished musician and was able to view his adventures in an artistic context. He also is much braver than I am, because he took his creative plunge much earlier in life than I did, taking a break from a white-collar career to record three albums and publish a book of poetry.

I don’t want to give away any more of Tim’s story. You should read it for yourself. I will say, however, that his poetic and lyrical qualities are apparent in his prose. Even in the funny parts he conveys the same sort of aching and searching that comes through in most great country songs.

I don’t know Tim, though his writing is so vivid I feel like I do. I haven’t heard his songs, but I intend to track them down. I know he speaks in a voice very different from mine, but in some ways we tell the same stories, and some of those stories involve a metamorphosis that began during a month of searching aboard Greyhound buses armed with little but an Ameripass and a longing for something meaningful.

Tim emerged to contemplate butterflies and turn his thoughts into poetry. I emerged to contemplate cats, chickens, deer and gophers and turn my thoughts into silly YouTube videos. Fortunately it sounds like we both ended up where we wanted to be. I met a lot of other searchers on the bus in 1974 and lost track of all of them. Tim’s story gives me hope that some of them have found happiness, too.

Here’s to you, Tim. Next time you buy an Ameripass, come through Oregon …

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Bill Clinton, Tonya Harding, gray hair and the Clackamas Claw

I found myself in Washington D.C. often in the 1990s, and usually managed to take home a story.

Sometimes the stories involved drama, such as the time I was on the Capitol grounds when a gunman entered the building and started shooting police. My most vivid memory of that was hearing a loudspeaker in the sky and looking up to see a military helicopter hovering very low to the ground with its sliding door open. I couldn’t make out what the person on the loudspeaker was saying but it didn’t really matter because there was a soldier hanging out the slider with a very large-caliber machine gun pointed in my direction. That was my cue to move along.

More often the stories tended more toward humor, although they sometimes also involved helicopters, like the one in front of the White House.

I had spent much of the hot summer day in the cool, dark National Archives and various Smithsonian museums. Emerging into the bright sunlight of the Mall, two strange things happened. First, a woman asked me where the Mall was. “This is it,” I said, gesturing at the park-like grounds. She looked slightly befuddled and even slightly more annoyed. “But where are the stores?” she asked.

Having failed at being helpful, I set off toward the next museum when I heard a large helicopter approaching. Maybe “felt” is a better way to put it. It was big and surprisingly quiet, but its rotors still sent powerful energy waves through the air. It was Marine One, headed to a landing zone at the White House. Like a couple hundred other tourists, I hustled over to watch.

We had a long wait. Security personnel took their time putting up tent-like barriers, probably intended to prevent would-be assassins from getting a clear shot. While all of us were in favor of thwarting any lunatics with guns, we all were a little frustrated that the white curtains also were preventing us from getting a view of President Clinton.

While I waited, a nice middle-aged couple struck up a conversation with me. They told me they were from Ireland, although after about three words in the wife’s brogue I had already solved that mystery. They were visiting with their son, who appeared to be about 22 and very bored. They had landed at Dulles that morning for their first visit to America, and the thought of seeing the President made the woman fan herself as though she might faint.

The man and woman peppered me with questions about America while their son looked bored and occasionally rolled his eyes. Finally the father asked if I see the President very often. “Oh, no,” I said. “I live in Oregon.” Suddenly the son jerked to attention and looked at me as his parents began to ask me what Oregon is like.

I didn’t have time to answer because their heretofore somnolent son suddenly blurted out “Oregon then!”

“Yes,” I responded, “Oregon.”

He sized me up and asked hopefully, “Portland then?”

“Yes,” I responded, “Portland.”

At that bit of good news he said “Ahh …,” then smiled, clasped his hands and began to nod his head. “Ahh …” he repeated, “Tonya Harding then!”

“Yes,” I responded, “Tonya Harding.”

At that his father began to tell me how it had been his lifelong dream to visit America even though unlike so many other Irishmen he didn’t have relatives here but …

“Have you met her then?” the son interrupted, oblivious to his father’s banter. “Tonya Harding? Do you know Tonya Harding then?”

I contemplated my answer. In point of fact I had met Tonya Harding once, very fleetingly. If I tell him this, I wondered, will that satisfy his curiosity or unleash a barrage of questions I can’t answer?

While I pondered, he asked his parents if they could detour to Portland while in America. I still hadn’t decided how to respond when some people in the crowd yelled “There he is!” “There’s President Clinton!” Others in the crowd were skeptical. “That’s not Clinton, you dumbass!” one young man told his friend. “You wanna bet?” his friend retorted, “He had gray hair!”

Lost as I was in figuring out my new young friend’s fascination with Tony Harding, I missed the President, or at least someone with gray hair. But now there was a sudden burst of activity as about six more people scurried onto the helicopter. At least one had gray hair. “That’s him!” some yelled. “No way, ” someone else said, “He’s too short.”

Regardless, the helicopter began to roar to life and suddenly took off across the Mall. I read later that Clinton was on his way out of town to dedicate a new aircraft carrier, which confirmed that I had just seen Bill Clinton or some other guy with gray hair.

I don’t know if the first woman I met ever found the stores in the mall, but I hope she at least found a Spencer Gifts or something.

I also don’t know if the young man ever made it to Oregon. If he did I hope he made it to Clackamas County. Back in the 1990s there was a good chance he would have seen her there … or at least a young woman with blond hair curled into the “Clackamas Claw.”

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Me and Oliver North

Sometimes looks can be deceiving. Take me and Oliver North, for example.

Here’s how our paths crossed: Oliver North was in Washington, DC, to stand trial for his role in selling arms to our sworn enemies in Iran to benefit terrorists in the Middle East and to raise funds for terrorists in Nicaragua. I was in DC for some kind of journalism seminar.

And the similarities don’t end there.

Anyway, it was late winter in our nation’s capital. The skies were sunny and bitterly cold. My seminar had ended and I tacked on a few days to visit the Smithsonian, sit in on Congress, and catch Col. North’s trial at the Elijah Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse.

I handle cold weather well, but I figured I might have to stand out in the cold to get into the Capitol or into the “Trial of the Century” over at the Prettyman, so I bundled up in a navy-blue sport coat and beige trench coat. I didn’t need a hat in those days because I had hair, but I did need my sunglasses.

I went to some of the Smithsonian stuff I hadn’t seen before and then went over to the Capitol to listen to some congressman drone on about something to do with Nebraska. There were just three or four of us in the gallery, but I think we outnumbered the representatives on the floor that day. The few of us in the gallery came to witness the legislative process. The handful of representatives apparently had come for the hot coffee.

I grew weary of the plight of the future farmers of Nebraska, so I wandered over to the Prettyman Courthouse to stand in line for a seat at the “Trial of the Decade.” When I got there I was surprised to find there was no line. I was escorted in through some level of what today would seem like laughable security and was guided to a seat in the courtroom directly behind a table with three chairs.

Almost immediately we were told to rise and a bunch of people entered the courtroom, including someone in a black robe and a very mild-mannered looking guy who strongly resembled Oliver North and who sat at one of the chairs at the table directly in front of me.

I expected the infamous Colonel North to look like a pillar of steel with a laser-like stare. That was not my impression of the man I saw that day. He seemed rather small and didn’t exude the kind of confidence (or even arrogance) I expected. Don’t get me wrong: He obviously could have killed me with a couple of flicks of his wrist, but he sure didn’t look like he any desire to do so. He turned briefly to look at the people sitting in the row I had been placed in. His eyes looked a little sad and I wonder if he hoped to see someone he knew, such as a family member or an old Marine buddy. Instead he saw me and some other strangers and he nodded his head slightly, as if in greeting. I reciprocated the awkward gesture so as not to appear rude. He seemed very human. I admit that surprised me a little.

I came into the courthouse with preconceived biases. I agreed with many of the Reagan administration’s goals, but I strongly objected to its use of terrorists and drug traffickers to topple regimes it viewed unfavorably. I also objected philosophically to learning that behind all his tough condemnation of the Carter administration’s “weakness” lay his plot to ransom hostages. I assumed that the people behind such a brazen plot would be hardened criminals, and that Oliver North would be Exhibit A.

Instead he seemed … well, not scared, but not arrogant, either. The testimony against him was esoteric but damning and he sat relatively motionless until a bailiff approached the judge, and then the defense and prosecution tables. Colonel North was briskly escorted from the courthroom and we were told we had to leave as well, calmly but quickly. As we left I asked a guard what was wrong and he mumbled something like “Bomb threat, but don’t say anything …”

Although the courtroom exchanges were dry, I had listened intently. But I also kept an eye on Oliver North, trying to get a measure of the man. I’m not making apologies for him, but by now I had come to consider him something of a pawn in this whole thing, even a fall guy. I walked into the courtroom thinking he might be some kind of evil mastermind, but I was having doubts. I wondered if he had even considered the philosophical arguments about what he was doing or if he was just proud to be a colonel in the United States Marines, personally serving the Commander in Chief. Perhaps, I thought, he might even know that what he was doing wasn’t the right thing, but it WAS something that saved the lives of some fellow Americans. I had never done anything to save lives, so I cut him some slack.

I stood on the steps of the Prettyman Courthouse on that sunny winter day, contemplating patriotism, heroism and stuff like that. I stared vacantly at the National Mall through my dark sunglasses, thinking deep thoughts. “What if I have Ollie North all wrong,” I thought. “What if he’s really …”

“Excuse me …” I suddenly heard a female voice say. I was startled back to reality to see two middle-aged women standing next to me, trying to appear nonchalant. “Excuse me,” the one repeated, “But that man over there is making threats about Colonel North.”

“Threats?” I responded, pondering this odd course of events. “Well maybe not threats,” she said, “but pretty terrible things …”

I stared down at these women through my sunglasses, trying to think of some advice to give them. I just nodded while contemplating an answer.

“Well,” the one said, “Aren’t you going to do something? You guys said this was a bomb threat; maybe he’s the guy who called it in!”

Suddenly I saw myself as they probably saw me: A big guy in a sport coat and trench coat, silently surveying the National Mall through dark sunglasses from the top of the staircase of the federal courthouse where the “Trial of the Week” was taking place. “Shit,” I thought. “They think I’m Secret Service or something!” I found myself suddenly at a loss for words.

“Uh, no,” I stammered, “Umm, I don’t work here …”

That’s the best I could do. These two women thought they were doing their patriotic duty by reporting a potential assassin to a big, strong-looking enforcer of the law … who turned out to be just some guy in town for a journalism seminar.

Soon we went back in for some more of the Oliver North trial. I was back a few rows now, but I still observed him, wondering who he really was …

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