Billions and Billions by Brian Delano

You are one of roughly seven billion human shaped nodes crusted on the surface of a living rock, suspended in a vast ocean of stygian nothingness. Every flail of your flagella, whether it be to comfort a newborn node, embrace a lover node, or slam against a podium and rouse a nation of nodes to war against another nation of nodes, is ultimately pointless. The pebble you reside on will one day be consumed by the tiny spark of a sun it circles around, before the spark itself blinks out and our universe’s sovereign blackness reigns over this stellar neighborhood once again. What a glorious picture our current scientific understanding and ‘highly educated’ mindset paints of our reality… As far as a cultural myth goes, it doesn’t get much bleaker.

            Scale can be such a deceptive teaching mechanism. For instance, you know that there is so much more to this experience of being one of those tiny human nodes than just floating through space and living pointlessly. The fact that human beings have the capacity to contemplate the reason behind their existence is evidence enough that pushing forward, towards a grander future- one where our scientific reality incorporates the epic qualities of our historic mythos- is well worth any risk to our rock or our concept of self.

            We’ve already installed the cultural mechanisms to do such a thing. We’ve already moved forward towards this seemingly unattainable goal of a full species transformation into a godlike civilization of world builders. NASA has been making men and women into myths since its inception. We even named a few of the rockets that elevated these individuals to the status of legends after our favorite Greek deities.

            The body of human shaped nodes collectively known as The United States of America has put men on the moon. The United States gathered money from every taxable individual in its collective, turned that money into research, rocket fuel, training, etc., then grabbed a few rocks from the lunar surface and planted a flag before leaving. Every US citizen watching the moon landings had the honor of knowing a few of their tax dollars helped put men there. We had achieved a previously icarian goal through the pooling of our resources towards the realization of a long shot idea- accomplished at a fraction of the cost of our military spending during those years.

            We still have NASA. That measly pittance of our tax money that had accomplished so much in the past has shrunk even smaller in the face of our other expenditures over the years, but a little bit is still there. NASA researchers are still dreaming with all the imagination bred of that 60s moon race madness as well. Some ideas they currently have shelved, due to a lack of adequate funding, make the moon landing look like a boring stroll to our neighbor’s barren back yard. If the United States government, and the citizens that vote the members of government into office, could get their act together and recognize the potential of these shelved and stunted programs, maybe they would be willing to allot more tax money for NASA usage and save us all from a slow, withering death in the face of our current, less than optimistic, view of existence. Maybe we could even benefit along the way from a few ‘consumer transferrable’ discoveries and innovations that would come out of the process, as we’ve done in the past.

            What do home water filters, cordless vacuums, artificial limbs, memory foam mattress pads, and the computer microchip all have in common?  The concept for every one of these items was either birthed in the mind of, or expanded upon by, a NASA scientist or engineer ("26 NASA Inventions"). If you use any one of these items on a daily basis, then you should never object to ponying up a few tax dollars for NASA.

Did you see that last one on the list? Microchips… where would our lives be without them today? Without critical research into the miniaturization of components necessary for the Apollo mission guidance computers, humanity may have never developed the modern microchip. Pair this innovation with long distance telecommunications (another NASA development), and you have a government employee to thank for that smart phone in your pocket. That’s right, that electronic third lobe of most people’s brains which most modern commerce, communication, and self-education relies on has its family tree’s roots firmly planted in NASA soil ("26 NASA Inventions").

            While all of these innovations are impressive, and well worth the price tag to most people, maybe you are a person that needs something more noble, more earth preserving, presented as proof of the value returned by NASA funding. What could benefit our planet more than clean, easily extracted energy? NASA was hot on the trail of a technology that could provide this back in the early 90s when they formed the ERAST program ("26 NASA Inventions"). Their original stated goal of building a plane that could stay aloft for days at a time in very high altitude led to the development of some of the world’s first modern solar panels. Models very similar to ERAST’s original can be seen in rows on many modern commercial buildings and a growing number of home residences. By using energy harvested from the light produced by the sun; energy that would otherwise dissipate pointlessly against whatever it hit, the species as a whole takes a large step towards leaving a smaller footprint on our environment. The less we mess with spaceship Earth, the more stable our ecology will be. A stable ecology equates to our race not having to worry as much about super storms, rising seas, melting permafrost, rising levels of harmful chemicals in our air and water, and any number of other nightmare scenarios created by the chain of events known as ‘global climate change’.  It’s hard to deny that NASA has a knack for harvesting game changing technologies from odd looking plots of ‘what if?’.

            At first glance, and without the privilege of retrospection, projects like sending a man to the moon, or flying a plane powered by nothing but sunlight for days straight may seem a bit ‘kooky’, perhaps even a bit insane. One lacking knowledge as to what these lofty ambitions yielded of use (beyond their immediate awesomeness and “Go Team Human!” appeal) might be inclined to label them as frivolous at any price tag. It is of the utmost importance, however, to understand what a drop in the bucket the billions of dollars in tax money being funneled to NASA every year constitutes compared to some of our other, less fruitful expenditures.

NASA had a budget of $19 billion in 2010. While that amount of money may sound astronomical to the average wage worker, we must consider that the US military had a $20 billion air conditioning bill that same year (Praetorius). Given the comparison of each institution’s contribution to the betterment of humanity that year, how can anyone deny that this inequality is just not cool? I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun.

NASA is working with a budget that is consistently dwarfed by military spending. In 2015, NASA worked with an $18 billion budget, while the taxpayers of the United States footed a $618 billion bill to the armed services (“2015 United States”). In other words, for every dollar you spent in taxes during 2015, 16 cents of that dollar went to military expenditures; NASA was given less than half of a cent (“Budget of NASA”).

There are plenty of folks among the U.S. citizenry that feel any additional expenditure is not worth the cost, that government is already too large to begin with (Boccia). There are groups that feel the United States has reached the pinnacle of its power and influence and the only logical course of action for our government is to stake the largest possible claim of the resources available on this planet, flex our military muscle whenever this claim is challenged, and continue plodding along as the ruling nation of the Earthlings. For the modern, military-minded citizen, threats come in the form of unknowns and any cut to what they see as an already shrinking budget puts the nation at risk. If our intelligence is off, if our assessment of the new “norm” in warfare- asymmetric conflicts- happens to yield false information and leads to a loss of even a single American life, they feel that a lack of prioritization of military spending is the culprit and the citizenry has been done an injustice (Keller). If you count yourself among those with this supremely cautious mindset, it is understandable that you may be hesitant to redistribute funding for the Department of Defense to an entity of ‘mad scientists’ such as NASA. Whether they have learned the historical significance of their own viewpoint or not, in the minds of ‘big military’ supporters, the U.S. is analogous to Rome at the beginning of its decline.

Space, for people with this mindset, is the greatest unknown threat- a wilderness without boundaries that may harbor existential challenges the likes of which no budget could even begin to defend against. Space, in their minds, is a realm best left to science fiction authors and pipe dreamers. For them, no good can come of any meddling with the mother of all asymmetric threat generators.

If the U.S.A. is to be viewed in such a hegemonic manner, a cure for this mindset of fear could easily be achieved with a look back at NASA’s shelved projects. If we are indeed an empire at their peak, consuming resources at a drastically disproportionate rate to the rest of the world’s nations, then what would be best for the nation? We’ve nearly run out of exploitable habitats. There is no modern analogue to the New World looming on the horizon… or is there? We’re about to pluralize our prospects. NASA and their colleagues are already gazing upon the New Worlds.

An exoplanet is a world circling a star other than our own. NASA and their associated researchers have confirmed over 1,700 of these worlds drifting right in our cosmic neighborhood, data which, if found to be homogeneous, means there are likely billions of planets in our galaxy alone (Dunbar). Millions of these planets may be Earth-like enough to sustain human life. Those are our worlds, if we are brave enough to pursue them. If we can put aside frugality and fear, we may one day be a multi-starred species.

New Worlds without a foreseeable end would mean a cessation of scarcity of any kind. The warring tribes and ideologies of the Earthlings would no longer be confined to this one bedroom/one bathroom rock out in the boonies of the Milky Way. Our species has outgrown its home planet and found itself in a position where franchising the human experience out amongst the stars may be our only path to salvation. The only hurdles keeping us from a Star Trek reality are distance and ‘speed’. Where is our moving van to the stars? What form will the sails of our cosmic vessel take? How will we ever go ‘faster’ than the speed of light?

In 1994, a man named Miguel Alcubierre developed a plan to break the misconception that matter must obey a cosmic speed limit (White). Until that point in time, any serious dream of mankind being a galactic traveler had been quashed by the astoundingly large amount of time and energy it would take anyone to get anywhere within the vastness of space. Light travels at just under 3 million meters per second. That’s damn fast. However, even at this speed, it takes light generated by our own star eight and a half minutes to reach the earth. If we were to somehow develop a ship that could go even a noticeable fraction of the speed of light, not only would it take amounts of energy the likes and types of which we have never produced to go this fast by conventional means, it would also take decades (or longer) to reach anywhere worthy of the trip. The Alcubierre Drive, an infamously (in the right circles) shelved NASA project, could likely make all of our species’ anxieties about the speed of light laughable by future generations of humans (White).

It is common knowledge among the scientifically curious that space and time can be viewed as two sides to the same coin. Space-time, as this conglomeration is ingeniously referred to, can be warped. Planets and stars imagined sitting ‘on the surface’ of space-time can also be imagined, to some degree of accuracy, to be forming ripples while they bob along in their path. Now, picture space-time as a runner rug atop a slick floor, the Alcubierre drive as an overeager puppy sitting on the rug, and any cosmic destination our species deems worthy of our attention as a carelessly discarded morsel of steak at the opposite end of the rug from the puppy. That puppy’s going to haul ass towards that piece of meat, but not really ‘go’ anywhere. How does the puppy go nowhere, yet still scarf that meat on the other end of the rug down like it held the key to immortality? In his motions, the puppy kicks the rug up underneath himself- creating a high density of rug behind him while the rug gathers, and a low density in front of him as the rug is pulled and stretched towards him. By creating a drive engine that densifies space-time behind it and thins out space-time in front of it, we will outfit vessels that will pull space-time around themselves, as opposed to our current method of pushing vessels through space-time. Using this form of travel will get us to other star systems within a few weeks or months, instead of the previously hypothesized decades, centuries, or eons (White). Given our current understanding of the physics of the universe, this method of ‘propulsion’ is theoretically viable. All we lack in the development process that would make the Alcubierre Drive a reality is the power source- large amounts of antimatter (White).

Antimatter is a term used for any form of matter consisting of antiparticles (Antimatter). These antiparticles are mirrored forms of the particles we know and love (and are made of). These bizarro-particles have been around since the big bang and act as a necessary yin to the yang of our relatively friendly table of elements. If a single atom is seen as a condensed, encapsulated, and slowed down quantity of energy (see Hiroshima/Nagasaki circa August 1945 for an understanding of the amount of energy contained in an atom), then an atom of antimatter is a negative expression of that same amount of energy. When a molecule of antimatter comes into contact with a molecule of ‘normal’ matter, the resulting reaction releases all of the stored energy in both particles(Antimatter).

So far, producing antimatter has proven to be incredibly difficult. Large particle colliders produce antiparticles all of the time when performing their experiments, but a method for containing these strange bits of energy before they whimper out of existence is still alluding our best scientists (Antimatter). Given a whiff of even a fraction of our current military budget, we may start to see some interesting (and promising) proposals for ways to make our own dark matter. If our species suddenly finds itself with a surplus of dark matter as a result of the effort to produce a viable Alcubierre drive, we’ll likely either blast ourselves out of existence or have a limitless source of energy. Dark matter derived energy could very well make NASA’s previous public gift of solar technology look antiquated, possibly even primitive, by comparison. Given the quickening pace of our consumption of natural resources and our ever more apparent lack of elbow room on Earth, this gamble seems worth the risk.

So how do we move forward? What light could shine through to the bottom of this philosophical pitfall we find our species trapped within during the modern age? How do we conquer the cosmos and spread our little human shaped nodes to every rock we reach? One of the great cosmic poet/philosopher/scientists of recent times, Carl Sagan, put our current predicament beautifully into perspective when he described mankind as being “at the shores of the cosmic ocean” (Sagan). He went on to gauge humanity as being “ankle deep” in that ocean, given our recent lunar excursions (Sagan). We are now at a point in time where potentially fruitful land has been sighted on the other side of the ocean.

The United States, seen as a tribe, has been given a choice. Do we keep funding the warriors, so they can maintain our tribe’s dominance over the other little tribes on this tiny, pale blue dot of a planet? Do we let the wealthy and powerful among us continue defining the boundaries of our dreams by allowing them to draft economic scenarios in which they are the only ones who stand to profit?  Or, just maybe, do we start listening to the ship builders; maybe throw them some extra funds and see what they dream up? How much are the stars worth? There are billions and billions of them, so let’s start with a few bucks each.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

"26 NASA Inventions That We Take For Granted Everyday..." Design-Junky. Laorosa, 26 Nov.

2012. Web. 21 Mar. 2016.

“2015 United States federal budget” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation,  05 Mar. 2016. Web. 21

            Mar. 2016.

“Antimatter” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 26 Feb. 2016. Web. 21 Mar. 2016.

Boccia, Romina. "Federal Spending by the Numbers, 2014: Government Spending Trends in

Graphics, Tables, and Key Points (Including 51 Examples of Government

Waste)." Heritage.org. The Heritage Foundation, 8 Dec. 2014. Web. 09 Mar. 2016.

"Budget of NASA" Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 8 Mar. 2016. Web. 09 Mar. 2016.

Dunbar, Brian. "Finding Life Beyond Earth Is Within Reach." NASA. NASA, 30 July 2015. Web. 09

Mar. 2016.

Keller, John. “A sobering assessment on U.S. military’s future.” Military & Aerospace Electronics.

PennWell Corporation. 08 Sept. 2014. Web. 21 Mar. 2016.

Praetorius, Dean. "Air Conditioning The Military Costs More Than NASA's Entire Budget." The

Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 22 June 2011. Web. 09 Mar. 2016.

Sagan, Carl. Cosmos. New York: Random House, 1980. Print.

White, Harold Sonny. "Warp Field Mechanics 101." NASA Technical Reports Server. NASA

Scientific and Technical Information Program, 30 Sept. 2011. Web. 09 Mar. 2016.

 

 

 

           

            

Cast In Chocolate, They Will Rise by Brian Delano

“Mommy… someone at school said Santa wasn’t real.” My little brother stares up at my mother with big green eyes- eyes full of unspoken pleas for some other answer than what he knows to be true deep in his seven-year old gut. “She said that mommies and daddies are Santa.”

            I halt on my path around my brother and mother and set down my bowl of Cheez-Its. I’m all of ten years old at this point, but I already have a pretty keen sense for what’s going to make an interesting story. Little did I know how formative the conversation about to occur around my old kitchen table would prove to be.

            Mom stares sadly at Jeff for a moment before responding. “Well sweetie… she was right. We are Santa Claus.”

            Jeff looks as if he’s been struck in the back of his head with the full weight of adulthood. “But then… what about the Easter Bunny?!” He whimpers.

            Mom sees where this is going and sighs. “That’s us too, honey.”

            “…And the Tooth Fairy?”

            “Us too…” Mom’s face had grown somber with the loss of so many of Jeff’s pantheon. However, he wasn’t done killing deities.

            Jeff took a deep breath, lowered his gaze to the floor, then through the floor, seconds later resting his eyes on Mom again. “What about God?”

            I dropped the handful of crackers I had brought to my mouth. Mom stared in horror and shock at her little boy. She stammered out a few partially coherent attempts at an explanation. She had no words of comfort to give Jeff- no good answer. The pillars of his understanding of metaphysics had crumbled and toppled the almighty Himself along with them.

            Over the years, I have associated with many interesting minds, the majority of whom happen to be either atheistic or agnostic in their belief in metaphysical elements at play in the formation and maintenance of reality. Whenever these friends’ lack of faith is brought up in conversation, I enjoy recalling the story of Jeff’s Santa Claus discovery. It amazes me how often my tale sparks a mirrored memory in the minds of my companions. A giant rabbit and a jolly old man seem to be killing the Christian God in so many children’s minds. What is going on? How have such seemingly innocent traditions gained such faith altering powers? What the hell did chocolate eggs have to do with crucifixion? My theory is simple- the elder gods are angry.

In the early days of the Catholic church, conversion rates dipped when certain tribes were encountered. In order to ease the process of shifting deities, certain Bishops and men of power within the organization enacted alterations to the stories and traditions of the Christian people (Christianity). The meme amoeba of Christendom survived and grew by morphing the worldview of the ranks of its recently converted followers. In the process, the movement itself was mutated in several different directions at once. Where the tearing proved strongest amongst the tribes, different sects of Christianity formed. Lutherans, Protestants, Eastern Orthodox members- all formed as the result of great schisms within a hitherto uniform story (Schism). The story itself would prove to be flexible enough to allow for a great deal of embellishment in certain parts prior to schisming, thus temporarily avoiding widespread die-offs within its ranks of followers.

            Let’s be honest, even to a devout Christian, certain specific (and crucial) elements of any one of the many distinct cultures found on Earth cannot be found fully expressed through Catholic scripture. The closest thing to a fertility goddess the Bible presents is a teenage virgin mother figure... now I have the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon theme stuck in my head. Distractions aside, it stands to reason that any Pagan tribesman would have extreme difficulty accepting a faith lacking a fertility goddess figure. After all, he would have grown up his entire life believing Eostre had allowed for his existence through her continued efforts to keep his world having sex with itself (Eostre). This would be a concrete reality in his mind. His Pagan grandparents would have been worshipping her as she was an ancient concept brought north to what would one day become Europe by travelers from ancient Babylonia, where they proudly worshipped Ishtar- the sacred prostitute-goddess of love, war, fertility and sexuality (Ishtar).

            Ishtar, Eostre- these names are nearly familiar, right? Any Easter reveler pays these goddesses a sidelong tribute whenever they eat a marshmallow chick or read tales of a giant bunny hiding candy-filled eggs in their backyards. After all, Easter itself is just a seasonal junction on a solar calendar marked by festivals. Easter designates the beginning of the season of fertility- when everything is green, screwing, or both.

            What about Santa? Current theories place the jolly old elf’s original form as Odin Allfather, the head of the Norse pantheon. In the darkest nights of northern hemisphere winters, Odin leaves gifts in order to spread Yuletide merriment and remind his faithful that the winter equinox was upon them and long, warm days were indeed on their way (Christmas).

            When I was a child, my parents read stories to me and my little brother every night before bed. Some nights we’d hear stories from our Precious Moments Bible about Jesus turning water into wine, or Noah gathering two of every animal into a really big boat. Some nights we heard tales of giants atop beanstalks or little girls outsmarting anthropomorphic wolves. Two conflicting narratives were fed to us during the holiday seasons. In one, a nice old man with a workshop full of elves gave us presents to comfort us during the coldest of times and remind us that a giant rabbit was going to give us candy soon, whenever the weather turned a bit more pleasant. In the other story, a mean old god realizes he’s being too mean so he knocks up a virgin and she gives birth in a barn. That little boy grows up to be nailed to a board because we’ve all been bad. Which story is a better candidate for a Caldecott children’s literature award? For me and my brother, faith in the better story held up faith in the other.

I propose that our modern cultural meme generator has done something amazing. The old traditions, when absorbed into the Judeo-Christian mythos, did not wither and die, as was the original intent of our priestly ancestors. Instead, these metaphor-rich concepts lay dormant until the time was right for them to rise again and topple their persecutor, through the mind of one clever child at a time. Odin is Santa. The Easter Bunny is Ishtar. When they die in the mind of an observant kid, they drag Jesus’ dad with them.

 

 

"Christianity and Paganism." Wikipedia . Wikimedia Foundation, 18 Feb. 2016. Web. 06 Apr.

2016.

”Christmas gift-bringer.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 01 Feb. 2016. Web. 06 Apr.

2016.          

"Eostre." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 29 Mar. 2016. Web. 06 Apr. 2016.

"Ishtar." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 29 Mar. 2016. Web. 06 Apr. 2016.

 "Schism." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 24 Mar. 2016. Web. 06 Apr. 2016.

The Gods Will Grade Us
by Brian Delano

 

     Betty the band van traipsed her way down an open stretch of highway somewhere near the middle of her route between Austin and San Angelo. She was born in Detroit in the early eighties and on this bright Central Texas afternoon in early 2010, she was turning middle aged. At least that would be the case if she were human. As it stood, she was an American model passenger van and by that metric she was an old hag of a machine and very ready to be put out to pasture in front of a trailer park somewhere. Her deep copper skin, once the height of fashionability and the standard of a time, was now a mark of her years and peeling at the seams. She stood out in stark contrast to the newer model, bright white cargo trailer she towed.

     The bomb strapped on top of her (a dummy, donated by a former band member and ex-drill sergeant), creaked against its tie downs and against the roof as the eastbound breeze met the northwestern wake Betty cut through the wind; the result was turbulence. The band the van currently bore clearly chose aesthetics over aerodynamics 75 percent of the time.

     Within the bowels of Betty sat a motley crew. Manning the helm was Shannon, the bassist; A late 20s, bisexual punk pixie princess with more than her fair share of scars (physical and otherwise) born of a life lived on the searing edge of adrenaline. She was most alive in situations that would stop my heart cold. Betty was technically Shannon’s, but the man in the passenger seat, Paul Tylar- Lead Singer/songwriter, lorded over that vehicle and the direction of all in it like a leather clad Loki, Norse god of chaos. Paul was an interesting head case. His legal last name was much more Jewish; it, along with most other aspects of Paul’s personality, changed drastically when Paul discovered he could wail and scream his way to social acceptance and out of a cocoon of awkward nerdiness sometime at the end of his high school career (roughly 10 years earlier). Mr. Tylar was Paul from The Wonder Years, given an impressive cocaine habit, dropped at a Sex Pistols concert, forced for months to travel with the band and learn their ways, then whisked away by the gods of Rock to the current era (there was more than likely a brief stop in the late 80s; Paul loved his makeup and insisted we doll ourselves up hours before any show). Behind Paul sat Sterling Ridings, professional chef and rhythm guitarist. Other than having a name that should have landed him a legitimate career in pornography, Sterling was an explorer of the furthest reaches of human emotion as fueled by his powerful love of whiskey. I once watched Sterling punch himself to sleep and wake up refreshed. Behind Sterling was Staci Grimm, our drummer. Staci had just developed an interesting Robitussin addiction (I would soon coin his condition as “Riding the Badger”) that prioritized him on the list of factors which could turn any band outing into a police chase. Staci, slight of build and generally elven in appearance, was once referred to as the prettiest girl in the band, he didn’t take offense. Next to Sterling and in front of Staci sat I, our lead guitarist, the youngest band member and a voyeuristic polyanna in the face of the wondrous debauchery that was Trashy and The Kid, our band. Oh, and Lindsay the merch girl was curled up on the floorboards all the way in the back, but she doesn’t really bare mentioning. She wasn’t even in the band. She didn’t even have a seat.

            There had been silence in the van for the last quarter hour. Every passenger had given in to staring out the dirty windows at the flowing emerald of Central Texas in early Spring. Somewhere in the middle distance, the green corridor of trees and bushes was beginning to give way to the sepia toned grasslands that marked the start of a transition to West Texas desert. Shannon, at the wheel, had been nervously eyeing the gas gauge for the last 10 minutes.

“Uh… hey… anyone need a restroom break?”

“What, why?” Paul whipped his attention away from daydreaming and aimed his overly concerned gaze straight at the side of her face.

“Well, we need gas.”

     Paul looked annoyed. “Didn’t you say we wouldn’t have to stop? That we’d be fine until San Angelo? We’re on a tight schedule here. We’ve gotta check in at The Dead Horse in less than 2 hours. No time for bullshit.”

     Shannon took her eyes off the road long enough to give Paul a hard glare. “We’ve been over this, man. I’m longtime friends with the owners. Rex and Lonni aren’t gonna freak out if we’re a little late.”

     Sterling’s eyes narrowed. He’d been moonlighting a physical relationship with Shannon for the past few weeks, much to Paul’s disapproval, and he knew the nature of this ‘friendship’ with the owners meant an evening’s departure from what they’d started. He stirred in his seat and leaned forward between the two. “Paul, chill the fuck out. I’ve gotta piss anyways.”

     The water tower we’d recently passed had announced our arrival in Melvin, Texas. Shannon steered Betty into the first gas station we approached. Melvin appeared to be a fairly small Texas town. Going by the gas station unit of measurement, it was recently demoted to a one pump town. The Chevron stood in dusty triumph before the gutted corpse of its only apparent former challenger, a dumpy looking Texaco. Shannon brought the van and trailer around to a clean landing in front of the pump. We all stretched and mustered ourselves for the challenge at hand.

     There are certain rules any seasoned band plays by to stay out of unsought trouble. Way up near the top of the list is recognition of the fact that small towns hate you and want you dead or gone as quickly as humanly possible. As far as the concerned, conservative tenants and patrons of the Melvin Chevron convenience store knew, the black clad, eyeliner smeared punks that had just pulled up were there to tarnish their women, pillage their valuables, and rape their livestock. We were obliged to play it cool and show unprecedented amounts of gratitude and friendliness to any and all townsfolk encountered during our stop, else be chased out at gunpoint or lynched.

     I had gritted my teeth and throttled my Mexican Coke as I stood in line behind Sterling. He hadn’t liked the condescending manner in which the uni-browed, ‘rubenesque’ cashier had drawled her way through their transaction. This was apparent in the sass he threw on his parting “You have a fine day, ma’am.” Damn! He’d riled the bull and jumped aside; now there I was in her sights.

     “Hello,” I said as meekly and non-threateningly as dignity would allow. “This will be all, thanks.” I was met with a curled lip and icy stare. She grunted something in response, below the threshold my music weathered hearing allowed for.

“Uh.. I’m sorry?”

“Buck fifty, you deaf’r somethin?”

“Um yes, of course. Here you go.”

     I paid and caught Staci out of the corner of my eye as I made my way to the door. He was perusing the cough syrup selection.

     Shannon had finished fueling up and moved our rig further back in the parking lot, closer to the abandoned Texaco. I practiced strutting as I passed over the dusty terrain, feeling the weight and power of my black leather cowboy boots like I was an extra in Tombstone. Lindsay was still using the no-doubt horrifying ladies room, so I had some time to practice looking extra cool while nurturing my newfound addiction to clove cigarettes. My evil ex-fiance of 6 years had dumped me the previous New Years Day and lighting those beautiful black tubes of tobacco and aromatic herbs had been my coping mechanism as well as my rebellion against her anti-smoking policy. Unfortunately, I still choked and gagged too often while inhaling to be convincingly badass.

     Staci was halfway to the van when he yelled out “What a mongoloid bitch!” The smirk on his face had us all concerned. “She didn’t want to sell me Robitussin!” He pulled a bottle out from his waistband and threw it through Betty’s open sliding door.

     Paul frowned. “Well then where’d that come from, Staci?”

     “The convenience store, I pulled the old ‘bait and switch’.”

     Paul’s frown deepened. “I don’t think that’s what that m…. never mind. No more trouble ok? Lets get out of here in one pi….”

     Staci, wild eyed, cut Paul off by darting in the direction of the abandoned Texaco. “Oh man, I need that!” He hollered, while scurrying through a gap in the chain link fence.

     We all stared at each other. Sterling broke the silence. “What the fuck, Staci?”

     Staci, approaching the fence again from the other side, cradled the giant red C like it was an awkward, boxy toddler. “Look at this, man. What a score!”

     I spoke. “Staci, if they were giving away chunks of signage, wouldn’t they be on the other side of this fence?”

     “They’re just gonna throw it in some landfill! We’re just taking trash off their hands, man!”

     “Ok, fair enough, but it might be a principle thing with these people. Fence laws are serious shit in Texas. You can still legally be executed by hanging for being caught trespassing while in possession of fence cutters in certain parts of this crazy ass state.” I was usually the bearer of weird, pseudo-factual knowledge in band conversations.

“Whatever man, help me strap this baby in!”

     I was staring at the three foot tall, bird crap spackled, fire engine red C that now sat between me and Sterling, contemplating the deeper metaphorical implications of coming into partial ownership of such a bizarre object, when Lindsay hopped through the sliding door.

“Hey guys! ….What’s with the C?”

     Paul looked back and rolled his eyes. “Don’t ask.” We all grinned and Shannon started Betty.

     We had been back on the road for about five minutes, clear out of Melvin proper, when the red and blue flashing lights appeared behind us. The whoop whoop of the sheriff’s cruiser cleared any disbelief from our collective minds and dropped the bottom out of every gut in the van. Trashy and The Kid was now in store for what could only prove to be an interesting conversation with the local law enforcement. Shannon obediently pulled to the side of the highway.

     “License and registration… er, ma’am?” The sheriff loomed in the driver side window, looking every bit the part. The pleated, pressed amalgamation of the drill instructor from Full Metal Jacket and the antagonist in Smokey and The Bandit stared sternly at Shannon. I assume he was staring at her, no one could tell through those mirrored aviators and I’m sure that’s the way he liked it. Stepping out of my horror for a moment, I was attempting to sum up just how ‘routine’ this stop was by the expression on his face. What a poker face; I had been bested.

     Shannon handed him the appropriate paperwork and he walked back to his cruiser. As he faded from earshot, we collectively lost our shit in whispered tones. No problems were solved in those words, but I imagine it had a certain musicality to it; punctuated and given rhythm by Staci’s thrumming “oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck… ”.

     The sheriff reappeared in the driver side window, accompanied on the passenger side of Betty by an equally wooden faced deputy. They were multiplying…

“Ma’am, is that device on top a this… vehicle, active?”

     “Uh, oh… no officer. It’s a dummy.” Shannon seemed a little shaken, this was cause to worry. Paul saw an opportunity to save the day.

     “It was gifted to us by a former member. He’s a drill sergeant up at Fort Hood.” It came out a little pandering, a little pitchy, but Paul was above neither shortcoming during a performance.

     There was more silence and presumed staring through aviators, now mirrored on both sides of the van. The sheriff let his mask fall a smidge, his grin sent a chill through me.

     “We’re gonna hafta ask you folks out of yer vehicle. Routine warrant check n’ all.” Visions of the most disturbing portions of Deliverance now danced through my mind like pig squealing demons. All settings had been changed from river banks to small town jail cells and my heart was beating so violently it was about to clear my throat and occupy my sinuses.

     Of course there was a third officer standing in the grass outside Betty’s sliding door. This one seemed taller, with an even more pronounced cocksuredness about him. A quick inspection of his uniform revealed why; his badge read “Texas Ranger”. Still, only one squad car. This was most curious and unravelling the mystery was a welcome preoccupation as the sheriff ran our information to see if we warranted further torment.

     By listening very carefully to the conversation between the deputy and the ranger, I managed to gather that he was a guest of the sheriff for the day. Together they had been touring the county roads around Melvin and talking shop. I felt a little relieved. I’d been struck by a revelation on the true nature of law enforcement. They were a group, bound together by an act, given obscene amounts of power during critical moments, and just as rehearsed in their roles as any one of us hooligans were. In short, they were a type of band, too. Their costumes were a little less cool, their haircuts weren’t anywhere near those of our scene, and the only instruments they carried were the large caliber rhythm section strapped to their hips, but still- they were a band!HHh

            The sheriff handed back our licenses, wrote Shannon a fix-it ticket for a broken turn signal (later revealed to be absolutely not-broken), and handed Lindsay a ticket for not wearing a seat belt.  Was our roadside horror show really about to end with no deeper repercussions? Was that another smirk on the sheriff’s face?

            “Oh, one more thing. Did ya’ll folks happen to pick up anything at that there gas station back the road a bit?” Until that moment I had never had cause to be aware that anxiety could buckle a man’s soul. We were a band of deer in the headlight of a freight train, and that cow catcher grinned wider as it drew nearer.

            Sterling, proving himself most unshaken in the turbulent storm of self-awareness and adrenaline, managed to croak out “Yeah, a big red C from that shut down Texaco. It was outside the fence, so we figured it was trash.”

            The sheriff’s smirk inverted. What Sterling had said was a master stroke. There was no way to prove our C had been inside the fence, and there was now absolutely no way any of us would claim otherwise. Sterling had rewritten reality and saved us all.

            I stared out Betty’s smoked back window as the deputy struggled to fit the C in the trunk of the cruiser. In the end, he resigned himself to strapping it next to him in the back seat. There was something very Sesame Street about the scene as the sheriff maneuvered the squad car across the freeway and back towards Melvin. C is for cops, children, don’t you dare forget.

            The show went off without a hitch. We hit the stage, the lights hit us, the sound hit the audience, then we hit the road. The post show routine then followed: whiskey, Waffle House, whiskey, motel.

            That night, lying awake in bed at the San Angelo HoJo, surrounded by my snoring compatriots, I tried to wrestle some meaning out of our lost alphabetical brother. What had the C meant? Did it have to mean anything? I came to the conclusion that it was a manifestation of my current reality. I would turn 25 two weeks later; on tour in Manhattan. I would be broke, due to a horrible craigslist roommate (another product of the recent breakup) stiffing me on two months’ rent, but my band would have my back. They would buy my booze, and hold my shoulders as I screamed insults towards the buildings on the corner of Wall and Nassau Streets.  Everyone needs a band at some point in their life; the instruments are optional.

     The infamous ethnobotanist, Terrence McKenna, once pseudo-famously said that in his envisioning of reality, the universe dispensed every being two goods for every bad. According to him, the ratio applied to everything. Days, years, girls, gigs; everyone was supposed to get two goods per bad. During those days, in that band, I felt my percentage was riding a bit higher. I was sitting pretty; somewhere near a solid C. The gods had tested me. I felt at peace with, and grateful for, the grade they had given.