Loan of a Lantern

Scientists tell us by far the most complex thing in this universe is our human brain. Increasingly studied, still far from understood. They tell us join together 100 billion neurons with 100 trillion synaptic connections in a distributed neural network and you see prodigious amounts of information processed and exchanged.

Too bad it doesn’t come with an owner’s manual.

(Researchers say a piece of brain tissue the size of a grain of sand contains 100,000 neurons and 1 billion synapses, all communicating with one another. So not really out of nowhere. From some infinitesimal chip of organic matter resonating when a synapse “snaps.”)

Like this: I wake up slowly yesterday morning as usual. This time, in that liminal borderline, I see as on a movie screen a brief incident play out.

It’s night. A dark light-less bulk looms before me on the long narrow two-lane bridge I am about to drive onto. Sudden weak moving beam of light, a herky-jerky motion in my headlights between the bulk and me. I step on the brake. A man in a T-shirt with a dim flashlight, running frantically around the bridge railing, plunging out of sight down the slope toward an unseen creek.

Now I am standing in front of my Barracuda using my big electric hunting lantern to illuminate the bulk on the bridge. It’s a house trailer. Not an RV, an old-fashioned house trailer people still could tow themselves before they grew into enormous “mobile homes.” The man in the T shirt struggles into view from the creek,water sloshing all over him from — I now see — a bulging rubber knee boot. He runs down the side of the trailer as an older man bangs out the door, grabs the flashlight, and passes him with another boot held by the heel. He blinks owlishly in the beam of my lantern but ignores me as he hurries around the bridge rail and down.

First thing resembling a conscious thought all these years later: that’s where my duck-hunting lantern went. I loaned it to him…

Finally all the way awake I wondered why my brain produced that specific flash of memory from all the way back in 1968. Just wondering about it probably activated who knows how many synaptic leads to other organic chips, and the rest of the story unfolded. There was no sound or smell in the fragment, but now I remembered running footsteps and labored breathing, and smelled bitter smoke.

Their house trailer had caught fire somewhere inside while towed along old narrow macadam highways of South Georgia through wide swamps necessitating the bridge where they were stuck. I never knew how they spotted smoke in the pitch dark but they said it was already going good when they got inside. Trailer wiring was burned out, so no taillights. They ran out of trailer water with it still burning and had nothing but the old barn boots to carry creek water. Mine was the first car behind them. I learned all this in panted words as they ran back and forth. I had no fire extinguisher, and nothing better to lug water in.

The fire was almost out. All I could do was put up my brights to illuminate the trailer, and sit my lantern with its red emergency beacon flashing on the roof of my car. I have no memory why they wouldn’t or couldn’t drive off the bridge with the fire out. They were bone-tired from the workout, not very articulate, and had that flinty Cracker independence about not asking for help. I have a vague memory of shadowed forms in the big old station-wagon tow car as I drove past a few minutes later. Women and children maybe. Last thing I saw was the red flasher of my lantern sitting at the left rear corner of the trailer, hopefully enough to warn any other midnight drivers. The old guy had almost grudgingly accepted my lantern.

That’s it, the rest of memories directly linked to a flash-vision from 53 years ago. I thought about it off and on all day, but the why never surfaced. Even as 1968 memories spread and multiplied. I was on that dark highway towing a U Haul home to a Florida beach town where I grew up, and I was very depressed. It was the year I got fired for the first time, establishing a lifelong fear of being fired that led to more than one bad decision. Couldn’t even get unemployment because my erstwhile boss said I was fired “for cause.” The kiss of death in Georgia those days.

As it turned out my mother, experienced in years of seasonal unemployment between Florida tourist seasons, had me file again at home. Florida made an interstate claim and I was granted pay back to the time of termination. But that was later and didn’t alleviate my shame at having to bring my brand-new wife “home to mama” when we ran out of rent and grocery money. The six months before I found a new job seemed interminable. I was further humiliated when my wife found work first, but she tut-tutted me. Things leveled out before Christmas with us both employed. We had our own place again, and I even managed part of a Florida hunting season.

Without my big lantern.

The memories spread from there. My grandmother bought me that lantern in my teen years, when my brother and I insisted on exploring distant hunting areas on my little Cushman motor scooter. The EverReady Battery was a heavy rectangular brick of a thing. The spotlight, handle, and red flasher were mounted on a metal plate that went on top, secured by caps on the battery leads.

Once after a November predawn run of 40 miles I was so cold I thought I was frozen. My brother, protected from the icy wind of passage by my shivering carcass, had to physically pry my numb fingers off the handlebar grips when I stopped on a remote rural highway. We turned on the red flasher for safety, as my grandmother instructed, while I warmed my hands around a Thermos cup of coffee. I remember a milk-truck driver stopping to make sure we were okay, and saying we sure were dedicated to come that far from the Beaches looking for a good squirrel woods. (Which we failed to find.) It was our last hurrah before I got a car.

The lantern was a good piece of equipment. With a new battery a couple years later, the spotlight would reach clear across the lake where we taught ourselves duck-hunting. We never needed the red flasher again. When I took the job in Georgia after my Army tour, the lantern went with me though my decoys stayed home. And back and forth, work to home and back, numerous weekends. Until its final run, 1968. I never have consciously wondered what became of it. Just an isolated incident in a year full of incidents for me, from being fired to getting married and all the rest.

About the only outside 1968 incident that stayed bright in memory was coming out of our honeymoon cucoon three days after marriage to learn of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. with ensuing rioting. Cities were already on fire across the nation.

History says a lot else happened that year. Early on, North Korean patrol boats captured the USS Pueblo and the ensuing crisis lasted the whole year. Then there was the Tet offensive: nearly 70,000 North Vietnamese troops swarming for weeks in jungles and cities in the South. Reading this now, I recall an AP photo of a South Vietnamese general executing a Viet Cong prisoner with a pistol shot to the head. A S&W Bodyguard .38, looked like. The image really stirred up the anti-war crowd. Not too long later, “Uncle” Walter Cronkite of CBS called Tet a “draw” and advised peace negotiations.

Also, in no particular order: the Robert Kennedy assassination in San Francisco after Democratic Primary victories. George Wallace ran an independent campaign for President, gaining “significant” support in the South and Midwest. Not enough to top Richard Nixon, who beat both Wallace and Hubert Humphrey in November. Apollo 8 was launched for an orbital flight around the moon.

Abroad, the USSR invaded Czechoslovakia with over 200,000 troops, ending what was called the “Prague Spring.” A Russian playbook shredded this year in Ukraine. Mexican police and military in Mexico City killed or injured hundreds of demonstrators in Tlatelolco Square, while at the Summer Olympics there two American medalists made headlines by raising fists in the then-new “black power” salute when the Star-Spangled Banner played. In the Mediteranian, JFK’s widow married a rich Greek.

Skimming all those and more, I remember them all. It is impossible to know what non-newsworthy incidents made 1968 memorable for millions of other highly complex human brains alive that year.

Just as hard to comprehend is my 79-year old brain abruptly slipping my long-ago lost lantern into conscious memory. (From wherever it was lodged in my asserted 100 billion neurons with 100 trillion synaptic connections.)

I don’t think I will ever get how this brain of mine works.

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Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.

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Bill Burkett

Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.