“The Home Field” by Garry Cooper

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Photo provided by the author

For Lynn

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I once envied people like Evel Knieval who roared toward the precipice twisting the throttle wide open to either soar over the abyss or crash in a blaze of adrenaline and glory. I still sometimes think about going after adventure and danger and refusing to adapt or concede to slower reflexes and fears about fragility and incomplete healing.

But in the last decade, I’ve been having a series of Sunrise dreams. I first met Sunrise, an amazing cat, close to 50 years ago, on a cold, drizzling spring morning when I was in my mid-20’s. I heard this abandoned kitten mewling under some bushes. A lot of strays roamed my neighborhood that year, and I had just broken up under horrible circumstances with the only woman I’d ever lived with, so I carried dry cat food in my pocket. I offered the kitten some food, and he followed me home. In case he wanted to find his way back to wherever he’d come from, I kept my back door open. He left that night but returned in the morning, and for the next 16 years, in almost a dozen apartments and houses, he spent most of his life outside, an unusual life span for an outdoor Chicago cat. I named him Sunrise partly because of his yellow gold color and partly because I felt he marked a turning point for me, a way to help me feel a little better about my life. In those days, I had no idea why love kept going wrong for me; aside from some terrific peaks—pretty much unavoidable in your 20’s—it never lasted. I knew only that it had to be something about me.

Our relationship became founded on Sunrise’s commitment to freedom coupled with my affection and, as we learned about each other, our mutual trust. Whenever I moved to another apartment, I’d park outside the new building, let him jump out of the car, and I’d walk slowly into the building so he could see where I disappeared. Then later in the day or evening, I’d come outside and call him, and he always showed himself, walking diffidently toward me. He always knew he had a home, which left him freer to roam.  He knew if he came back inside he wouldn’t be trapped. I didn’t get him neutered until he reached his prime, so he learned to fight but stopped looking for trouble. Based upon a small litter of kittens down the block who looked like him, I suspect his lineage continued.

PHOTO - CHICAGO - 1215 W LUNT AVE - COURTYARD APARTMENTS - ROGERS PARK - EDITED FROM A REAL ESTATE IMAGE
Courtyard building
provided by Chuckman’s Photos: Chicago Nostalgia and Memorabilia

Each time I moved I tried to find an apartment that could offer him as much freedom as possible. One place had an enclosed back stairway, and I decided to saw a kitty door into the downstairs wood door, which required a key to unlock. That way I could leave my second floor apartment open 24/7 so he could walk in whenever he wanted.  Because the absentee landlord was trying to sell the building, I saw no sense asking his permission and risking a no. My friend Mike came over with a handsaw, a rubber flap and some hardware and had just sawed a small doorway when the downstairs neighbor heard the noise and asked what we were doing. Worried that if I told him the truth he might phone the landlord, I babbled, “This will make the stairway warmer in the winter.” Buttressing my explanation with physics, I windmilled my arms and said, “Cold air, warm air.” He didn’t know whether we’d initiated the project ourselves, but he knew a warmer back stairway was a good thing, so he never snitched to the landlord.

The next apartment–a third floor unit in a courtyard building—impacted Sunrise’s freedom in a different way. The front yard of the building had trees and grass, but I couldn’t always walk him down the front stairs and then keep checking to see when he wanted back into the building, so I’d let him out the back door onto the porch, where he’d go down into a labyrinth of stairways and dirty gangways that all led to an alley. I consulted with Mike about constructing a cat-sized winch elevator off my tiny front balcony, but after giving the idea more consideration than it merited, Mike explained that to keep the ascent and descent of the crude elevator from banging into the building or snagging on a lower balcony, the arm holding the pulley would have to be several yards long, and that didn’t even take into account jerry-rigging some kind of buzzer system with a pressure sensitive switch on the floor of the cage so I’d know when to haul Sunrise up.

One freezing winter night I heard him calling plaintively in the back. He was on the roof of the building next door: workers had left a ladder on my porch which led up to the roof of the building across the gangway, and somehow he’d crawled up there. It was a treacherous climb, not just for Sunrise but, even worse, for me. The rungs were coated and bearded with ice, and between my porch and the roof the ladder stretched about twenty feet over a three-story drop. I was also drunk.

Muttering miserably, I took off one glove—I would need a bare hand to grab Sunrise when I got within range—and I clutched the first icy rung, trying to take a few deep breaths in the ten below zero air. He stood on the edge of the roof, patiently waiting.  My desperate plan entailed getting within range of Sunrise, then acting calm so as to not alarm him and shooting my hand out, grabbing him by the nape of his neck, and holding him away from my face over the abyss because he’d start clawing frantically the minute I grabbed him, all the while wrapping my free arm tightly around the ladder, clutching for dear life, and making my way back down as fast as I safely could until I was close enough to my porch to fling him backwards. It seemed too much to successfully handle, but there was nothing else to do.

When I got close enough to the edge of the roof, I muttered soothing words to Sunrise that I didn’t believe—this was years before I became a parent and perfected this act—then shot my hand out, grabbed him and made my way back down. When I rejoined Sunrise on the porch, I opened the back door so he could run inside and warm up.  Instead of immediately following him, I sank to my knees on the freezing porch muttering, “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

SouthDakota-1176487_1280About ten minutes later, Sunrise wanted out again and of course I let him go.  Soon I heard him crying, went out on the porch, and there he was again, up on the roof. It was the only time in our years together that I questioned his intelligence. “You got up there,” I muttered, “you can get back down,” and I went back inside. Sure enough, he eventually showed up at our back door.

Another apartment, an illegally converted attic, had a terminally neglected backyard of waist-high weeds in which Sunrise spent his days prowling like a lion in the jungle and ambushing mice, birds and other intruders. There were no stairs to my rickety back porch, so I could leave my back door wedged open all day and night and Sunrise, whenever he wanted food or warmth or company, could climb the drainpipe and come inside to eat, sleep with me, or hunt cockroaches. The miserable apartment was good enough for me and an ideal arrangement for Sunrise, reasons enough for me to live there.

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From my mid-20’s until early into my 40’s, I hitchhiked around the country and did solitary backpacking trips into the mountains. I might run into occasional rattlesnakes, nasty people, lightning strikes, or other bad breaks, but I always figured I had a good chance of bluffing or otherwise working my way out of trouble. Like Sunrise, I was a kind of warrior, though of a lesser ilk. My own journeys were fundamentally fueled by anxiety. Before each hitchhiking or backpacking trip, anxiety would overwhelm my excitement to the point where I would consider not going, and then a new fear would rescue me: I didn’t want to bear the shame of knowing I’d backed out from an adventure.

Every February or early March, I’d hitchhike to Mardi Gras, catching a 5 AM Greyhound bus from Chicago to 60 miles south, just outside of Kankakee, where the obliging driver would let me off on the shoulder of the Interstate. The idea was to start traveling south as the day began to heat up, getting far enough so I could escape any nighttime hard freezes.

Each time when I got off the bus and walked down the entrance ramp to the Interstate, watching the Greyhound’s taillights pull away, I felt I was entering the gateway of adventure, anxious, lonely, excited. Everything now depended upon the first ride—how long I’d stand on the highway before the cold started seeping into my feet and hands, how far south the first ride was heading, and whether the driver was boring, interesting or frightening. Coming of age in the 60’s, I fervently believed that everyone should be free to do their own thing, though I never realized until I got on the road what I’d really believed: that everyone should think like my cohort and I did, and anyone who believed differently–who cut their hair short, dressed well, or worked a straight job–was fucked up. But riding and visiting with farmers, salesmen, conservatives, suburbanites, ranchers, rednecks, New Englanders, small town boosters, people without college degrees, and others whom I’d never otherwise have talked with, I came to realize that every life is interesting, everyone has known some kind of drama, heartbreak, love, loss and exhilaration, and that if I couldn’t find any of that in each of my rides, the fault was often mine, not theirs. Years later, my hitchhiking days led me to become a psychotherapist, a profession which itself is a kind of social hitchhiking.

Each ride was a spin of the roulette wheel, a lottery of the pleasures and disagreeableness of strangers, of intimate 3 AM conversations, offers of dope, beer, meals, cigarettes, chew, or dip, detours when someone had a home town they wanted to show me. Once on a Chicago to Seattle trip, between rides in South Dakota, where treeless plains of yellow prairie grass rolled to the horizon and the sky was the deepest blue I had seen since childhood, I walked away from the highway and into a field, just to experience standing in the middle of it all. I wandered until I couldn’t hear any traffic and stood still, feeling and sniffing the breeze and listening to the silence. Suddenly a shadow swooped across the land heading straight at me, and I froze in terror like a prairie dog under an eagle’s shadow. Then I realized it was just a cloud racing across the sun. A city boy, I had lost the experience of knowing what every shadow belonged to.

Sometimes, the dangers were more real. Just past midnight on a deserted highway in rural western Montana, the road died. I could see over a mile in either direction. There was no traffic except for an occasional pair of headlights that took five minutes to reach me.  I stood in a silent vacuum, ghostly, with only the crickets’ creeching grounding me. Finally, a beat-up car stopped, two guys in the front seat, so I climbed in back. They were headed only about 40 miles up the road, they said, their breath and the car reeking of alcohol. A long miners’ strike had just ended that afternoon, and so they’d decided to stay up all night drinking before reporting to work at dawn. They asked me if I wanted to smoke some dope, and I said sure. Then they surprised me by pulling off the highway onto a dirt road and driving about a half mile to a deserted field. People often asked me if I wanted to get high but no one had ever pulled off the road before. The field was silent, even darker than the highway. I’d been hijacked to a place where they could do anything they wanted with me. It would take months for someone to stumble across my body, if ever. All my friends and relatives would know only that I disappeared somewhere between Seattle and Chicago. I was beyond the knowledge and protection of everyone who knew me. If I hadn’t been so scared, this would have felt the loneliest moment of my life.

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Nighttime dune
Photo by Ben Klea on Unsplash

“We can make a pipe out of this here beer can,” one of them said. “You got a knife?”

For bluff and some sense of security I always carried a Bowie knife on a belt sheath when I hitchhiked; I thought maybe they’d spotted it when I’d climbed in and wanted to disarm me first.

“Nope,” I said, holding my knife open and hidden in the shadows of my lap, wondering, Can I actually use this? How far will I go to save my life? If they turned around and made a grab for me, I knew my only chance was to slash at the throat of whoever grabbed first and then slash quickly at the second guy before he realized what was happening. Would I have enough adrenalized terror to do it? In the long silence, I couldn’t see their faces. Were they deciding silently on a cue to swing around and attack?

““Well, fuck it,” the driver said. “Guess we’re not gonna be able to smoke,” and he started the car again, drove me back to the highway, and left me at the first exit, well short of the 40 miles they said they’d take me.

That’s the way the road goes. Ten minutes later, a semi picked me up and took me on the longest ride of my hitchhiking years. We drove a few hours that night to a truck stop, where I slept poorly on the concrete under his trailer, and early the next evening he let me out on the outskirts of Fargo, North Dakota. Semis don’t ride smoothly; in those days only the driver’s seat was on pneumatic springs, and a day and a half of my back rubbing up and down against the seat had scraped my shoulders raw. Sore and exhausted, I walked into the middle of a large grass field, unrolled my sleeping bag and slept. I woke at dawn, walked to the highway, stuck out my thumb, and someone immediately picked me up who was going a few hundred miles more, another good ride. I told him I’d spent the night in the field.

“No one around here walks in that field,” he said. “It’s full of rattlers.”

 

When I was approaching 40 and about to propose to someone, I went to New Orleans on what became my last hitchhiking trip. It felt important to keep hitchhiking, a way to prove to myself that love and marriage didn’t mean embracing a more stale kind of hitch.  Just after twilight in central Illinois, a beat-up car stopped ahead of me. I trotted to meet him and as I neared I saw four guys sitting in it. Before I got in, they asked me if I had money for gas, and I gave my standard heading off trouble line: “Hell, if I had any money I wouldn’t be hitching.” They drove off without letting me in, and suddenly I thought, “They could have stolen whatever I had and shot me while I stood by their car. You can die that easy, that quick.”

I made it into New Orleans late the next night–my twelfth Mardi Gras. With a woman I loved waiting for me back home, I felt freed from the hunt for love or sex that could sometimes turn Mardi Gras into lonely work, and I wandered content through the revelry, shadowed only occasionally by the thought of the long hitchhike home into the winter. On the hitch back toward Chicago, south of Memphis, it began to rain and it didn’t let up. Two hours later, I was stuck in a noisy, ugly spaghetti junction on the outskirts of Memphis, the temperature had dropped to 35 degrees, and the rain had changed to sleet. I walked off the highway, took a cab to the airport and bought a ticket home.

A year later, after my marriage and shortly before my first and only child was born, something went terribly wrong with Sunrise. In his final week, he went out only twice and crawled immediately under the bushes against the house. Fresh air and freedom didn’t give him any pleasure; he went outside only out of habit, compulsion. When I was certain that he would never recover, and I believed that his suffering overwhelmed any excitement, peace or pleasure he could ever again find, I phoned the vet and asked him to come to our house with his bag. I held Sunrise as he relaxed into death, and I thought with surprising relief, “Going to sleep’s not just a euphemism.”

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In my dreams about Sunrise, I’m always looking for him; he’s been missing for some time, but I always find him. In my most recent dream, something new happened. I’m climbing along the side of a huge sand dune, and Lynn, my current and likely last lover, her voice muffled by the distance, calls to me saying she’s located him. I make my way back, and when I get there I see Sunrise sleeping soundly on a porch, snuggled against another cat. The building is some kind of institution, and he looks great—clean, well fed, relaxed, so comfortable, so well-taken care of that I feel both relieved and sad. I can’t decide what to do, what’s best, what’s right. If I wake him, call to him, I know he’ll recognize me and come back home with me to a less comfortable but more extemporaneous life. Or I can silently walk away for good, without him knowing I’d been there, leaving him to live out the rest of his days in safety and comfort.

Pinyon_pine_Pinus_monophylla-58e943c53df78c5162fe7bccIn the particular way that dreams roll together events and themes of your life, the dreamscape sand dunes resonated with the first time I saw Lawrence of Arabia and was swept away by the beautiful, harsh landscape and by Lawrence, that solitary man who couldn’t abide the conventions of the life he’d been born into, walking alone through the immensity of the dunes, compulsively seeking adventure. I felt thrilled, even though I knew that his glorious trek would become a slog toward tragedy. And something else about that dreamscape hill. Six years after Sunrise had died, in my fifth year of my marriage that would not last beyond six, I got injured on a solitary backpacking trip into the Pecos Wilderness, separated from my tent and equipment and hopelessly lost. At some point, desperate, I staggered halfway up a rugged hill, the hill of my dream, and tried to walk along it, hoping that I might see the way out or that someone might miraculously spot me. Instead I wandered deeper into the wilderness, past the point of no return. Two days later, with evening and dropping temperatures coming on, suffering from exposure and no food and drifting in and out of hallucinations, I sat under a pinion tree, ready to give up and let myself slip into a coma. Some small ember sparked, though: in that hallucinatory state in which dream and reality merge, I vividly hallucinated my five-and-a-half year old daughter’s face floating in the thin mountain air, looking scared and sad, and I realized for the first time in my life that love was not about the fear of losing someone; it was about the obligation and desire to stick around because someone loved me. Over the next several hours I dug a trench with my knife, then climbed in, lay on my back, rested the back of my head against the tree, and buried myself up to my shoulders so I could stay warm enough to make it through the night. What I remember most vividly about that night was looking up at the stars and feeling a deep peace. Whatever happened tomorrow, I was safe tonight. The next afternoon a rescue team stumbled across me.

Twice in the next few years, I tried backpacking again, but my aging Midwestern body could no longer function well enough in the mountain air to carry a backpack into the high solitude. For several years I wondered whether my body had really begun acclimating more poorly to the thinner air or whether it was a somatic effect of trauma. When I was in my 60’s, living safely in the city, I slipped on some black ice, then had my smashed ankle rebuilt with screws and a plate—a long, slow, incomplete rehab. Now in winter when I see anything on the sidewalk that even looks like it might be icy, I literally feel my foot slide on it. Sometimes as a reality check, I’ll stop, stand firmly, re-step on the spot with one foot, and discover that it’s not icy at all. Some questions never have clean answers.

I still occasionally miss the days of hitchhiking and backpacking, but the fact that I did them has gradually come to matter more than the loss of them. As for the former hormonal hurricanes of love, I’ve found that love works best when it’s savored rather than devoured, when it’s held easily rather than clutched. Love’s not about trying to transcend or obliterate loneliness but about choosing to love someone the best we can in the shadows of mortality. Loving well in my 70’s, I’ve learned, results from years of luck, good and bad, and from having acquired enough skills at this sort of thing to keep it going. When we first leave the breast and start crawling, we have to believe that we will come back whenever we need to perfect love. Later, as we go further into the world, maybe we start trying to compensate for the loss of it with adventure, excitement, the edge. But now I think that primeval garden always lies somewhere back in the mists.

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garry cooper
As both a writer and a psychotherapist, Garry Cooper is interested in asking questions and undermining the too-easy “truths” all of us—including lovers, writers, and psychotherapists—are often prone to. He likes to explore the often subtle differences between hope and denial. “Home Field” is part of The Little Guidebook of Love and Mortality, a collection in progress of essays looking at love and mortality during the denouement of the Anthroprogenic Era. His essays have been published in TriQuarterly, Perigee, Bloodroot, Psychotherapy Networker and Rockhurst Review. An essay, “Hope Against the Edge,” was shortlisted in the international Notting Hill Editions 2016 Essay Contest and was published in Notting Hill’s anthology, A Eulogy for Nigger and Other Essays (2016).