joe smith

THE DAY BEFORE Thanksgiving some year during the Sixties, that decade of rainbow bell-bottoms, LSD and body counts you're not supposed to be able to remember if you were really there, Pogo finally displayed a flair for something other than algebra and annoying his roommates.

It was a glum day, low clouds scudding in off the ocean and rolling over San Francisco's hills, licking at the kitchen windows. The table was loaded with goodies for the re-enactment of the pilgrim feast, but the roommates, most of us draft-dodgers, weren't in a festive mood--the turkey was still missing, everyone broke, and Pogo, dressed in the gray sweat suit which comprised his entire wardrobe, strumming his guitar.

If there'd been a turkey on the table, the red plastic timer stuck in its breast would've popped out a day early. Tuning a guitar with a tin ear was a musical trick Pogo had never mastered. His voice was a perfect match for his atonal strumming. Jagged as a broken mirror, it brought whatever melody it reflected seven years' bad luck. Besides, Pogo didn't really sing songs, he only played with them, cruelly, like a skinny cat toying with a mouse already half-dead from fright.

"Enough," grunted Big Sally. "Listen up now, or I'll make toothpicks out of that guitar."

Pogo usually met the pleas and threats of his roommates with mumbled nonsense about genius going unrecognized in its own time. According to him, music was the sister of mathematics, the secrets of composition as difficult to appreciate as the niceties of calculus. Mathematics was, in fact, something Pogo understood. A diploma in the subject granted by a university was scotch-taped to his bedroom window to cover a crack. Had it been real sheepskin, it might've kept out the rain.

But this particular morning he set down his guitar without a word of protest. Even Pogo could sense that his roommates were annoyed by more than his non-Euclidean ditties. And it was Big Sally speaking.

Big Sally wasn't big, he was a Mack truck disguised as a man. Madly in love with the sea, and the brave hearties who sailed her, his room was filled with ships in bottles and reproductions of nautical themes. Big Sally, wearing a baseball cap embroidered with anchors and the name "S.S. Good Ship Lollipop," was a fixture in disreputable bars down on the docks. Though his ultimate goal in life was to seduce the entire Pacific Fleet, he wasn't averse to a bit of rough-house along the way. If he'd had a bumper sticker glued to his butt, it would've read "Make Love Or War." Legends whirled around him like seagulls round the taffrail of a homecoming ship. In many of these tales, Big Sally flipped sailors in the air during waterfront brawls as though they were buckwheat flapjacks on a hot chuckwagon griddle.

"Everybody but you, Pogo, has made shift to come up with something. Cranberries, yams, corn, pickles, beer and some of that Beaujolais, everything but the bird. Get it?"

Pogo toyed with his prominent Adam's apple as he thought about this for a moment, gazing at the ceiling to avoid the unwavering, hostile stares of his roommates.

"Can I borrow your trenchcoat?" he said at last.

A couple years later, when I see Pogo being interviewed by a comely news hound on television, I remember him as he was that morning, wandering down the street in Big Sally's trenchcoat like the tent pole of a flapping pup-tent in search of pegs. When he returned to the flat, he seemed much heftier. Hidden under the folds of the coat were two frozen gobblers liberated from a supermarket.

It's hard at times to follow what he's telling the reporter. A herd of bleating sheep mill about him, and low-flying jets occasionally zoom over the carcasses of tanks a mile or so away on the stony plain of the Sinai. Pogo says something about hurrying to get his girls out of harm's way, up on the hill among the rocks. He looks pretty good, actually, almost dashing in his black gaucho's outfit studded with silver.

"And how did you end up here, Mr. Pogo?"

"Not Pogo. Pogo's a first name. A nickname, actually. My mother was kind of a comic book nut and gave it to me as a baby. She used to say I looked like I just crawled up out of the Okeefenokee when I was born."

The reporter's smile is out of place among the barren rocks where a bush might well have caught fire once and spoken to a man with a long white beard. The tablets he brought back to his people after the conversation with the bush were no smiling matter. The incinerated wreckage of expensive military hardware strewn across the desert below offers mute but eloquent proof.

Lice is part of the answer to the reporter's question, and those two turkeys Pogo triumphantly banged down onto the kitchen table. It was so easy, boosting those birds from the supermarket, Pogo decided to join the ranks of the upwardly mobile and turn pro. The week after our Thanksgiving feast, when the rent was due, he hoisted himself up a wrought iron, art nouveau trellis dripping with bougainvillea in full bloom and crawled through the bathroom window of a darkened apartment with swank carpets and a spectacular view of the traffic streaming over the Golden Gate Bridge.

The duffel bag he'd borrowed from Big Sally was soon stuffed with silverware, jewelry, a camera and tape deck and such. Pogo glanced at the Rolex he' just strapped to his wrist. The residents of the apartment had only been gone for about thirty minutes. He'd seen them leave, dressed in the fancy duds people wear to operas, or the symphony. It would be hours before the fat lady finally sang. And it was time for "Star Trek."

I've encountered many nerds with a gift for math and computers who were addicted to "Star Trek," but none as hooked as Pogo. He never missed an episode. After flipping on the television, he stretched out on the comfy velour couch in the burgled living room to watch his space heroes do battle with evil out on the chancy, lonely fringes of a cosmos lit by white dwarfs, red giants and supernovas, a dicey, dangerous cosmos where voracious black holes suck down entire ill-starred galaxies.

It was an exciting episode, but the show that followed put Pogo to sleep. That's how the burgled found him when they returned home from "Tosca" or whatever. He was still snoring when the cops they called from a neighbor's apartment arrived.

At his trial, Pogo claimed it was all a silly mistake, that he'd promised to help a friend move and simply gotten the address wrong. When the friend wasn't there, he'd stuffed the duffel bag to get a head start, while waiting for the truck and dollies. What kind of cat burglar, he wanted to know, would take his shoes off and curl up on the couch for a snooze in the middle of a job?

"The kind that gets six months," said the judge, banging his gavel to silence the titters in the courtroom.

Big Sally, who never did get his duffel bag back, rented out Pogo's room to a pizza delivery boy who collected Elvis memorabilia and could recite by heart General Douglas Macarthur's farewell speech to the West Point cadets. I can still recall how his eyes would go all teary when he reached the part about "the shadows are lengthening for me" and "the long, gray line" and how "old generals never die, they just fade away."

With his good time, some of it earned by straightening out a glitch in the jail's new computer system, Pogo was out in three months. The day he showed up on our doorstep, asking if it was okay to crash in a corner somewhere till he got his act together, a hearse was side-swiped at the busy intersection down the block. The body, knocked loose from the casket, tumbled into the street, where it was smothered with lavish funeral bouquets. Perhaps it was that unusual sight, reminding us all of our mortality, which induced us to say yes. Perhaps it was the dynamite weed he'd bought with his gate money and passed around at the meeting of roommates.

Within a week, the dope was gone and we were all scratching our crotches. There was no doubt in anyone's mind about the culprit, about who'd been using any towel which happened to be handy after his showers, who'd been noticed scratching first--the very day the hearse got creamed, as a matter of fact. The roommates, gathered round the kitchen table for a pow-wow, were ticked. Pogo definitely had to go. He was at the laundromat at the moment, trying to redeem himself for giving us all crab lice by washing every last article which might contain nits. Big Sally and I went there together to retrieve the laundry and give him the bad news.

"So where you going to go, man?"

"Tierra del Fuego," said Pogo without hesitation, tormenting a tango on a guitar with three strings snapped and three untuned.

And then Pogo got up to fish a piece of cardboard out of the trash can. He scrawled his destination on it with an indelible laundry marker borrowed from the attendant, slung the guitar over his back and headed out the door, stopping before he stepped into the sunshine to turn and tell us it was always handy to have a sign while hitch-hiking.

"That's incredible," says the television reporter, giving the camera the benefit of her best profile shot as she pats down her hair-do, mussed by the stiff wind blowing off one of the battlegrounds of the recent Six Day War.

Pogo shrugs. The banditos were all right guys, once you got to know them, singing those haunting ballads about sweet muchachas around the campfire at night. The banana boat was only a few hundred yards off-shore when it capsized, so it really wasn't that much of a swim. The burro the coca growers loaned him had jungle smarts, a good nose for mamba snakes, and the headhunters on the Amazon were fascinated by the geometry problems he illustrated in the sand along the banks. They wanted him to stay and teach them trigonometry. Pogo had to admit he was sort of sore his first few days riding half-broken mares around on that big ranch he stumbled into on the pampas, but then he got the hang of it. Same with using the bolo. And when this Israeli secret agent in search of war criminals he met in the cantina told him about the shepherd shortage in the Sinai, and the kind of money you could make if you kept your nose clean and your canteen full, it was a no-brainer. Really, the hardest part was waiting in the hot sun for hours, trying to flag down that first ride at the Broadway entrance to the freeway in San Francisco, wondering if anybody was every going to stop.

"No, ma'am, what's truly incredible is what you see down there," says Pogo, nodding towards the desert's flatlands, where vultures shriek and wheel through wisps of smoke rising from the turrets of a few tanks still smoldering in the watery mirage of a lake.

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