Saturday, March 3, 2018


Darkness is closing in on the periphery of things;
The life-giving sun itself descends - not westward,
But outward, into the distance, towards oblivion.

We are on the brink of some great departure;
It can be felt in the restlessness of our feet,
In the unseasonable declination of the light.

Behold! Over the water a blood moon is rising;
From afar may be heard the long clarion blast,
And the wind is consumed in charcoal and ash.

Somewhere awakens an all-consuming Nemesis,
It's breath stale with the reek of blood,
Its eyes alight with the fever of the hunt.

You, who read the bloody portent of the runes,
Who hear the banshee keening in the night,
You, who know surging rivers, and the tidal flood,

Onward, through the impenetrable darkness!
Through the shriek and howl of the Moirai!
You, torch bearers, the path lies before you!

You, who with eyes open see the shadow,
Who have the courage to face the darkness,
You who bear the lamp alone, may find Elysium

Brent Hightower
Copyright 2018 Brent Hightower
* Image source unknown

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Seventy Years War

There's been much talk in America over the years about war. Aside from the unjustified, and unforgivable, wars the American right has instigated against so many essentially innocent foreign nations since World War II, we've also had a war on drugs, a war on crime, etc. Even in the use of such terminology we see the inherently aggressive thrust of American policy in our era. It seems we're willing to declare war on anything, real or imaginary, living or dead! But one war that's been going on throughout my lifetime, and even long before, that's never been declared or acknowledged, is the war on education - and on the educated.

This war was spawned, in it's most modern incarnation, by The House Un-American Activities Committee (the creator of which was shortly thereafter imprisoned for corruption) leaving the field open for those men who went so far to destroy America as a nation respected and respectable - Joseph McCarthy, and Richard Nixon. The purging of liberally educated people from government, and from so many prominent areas of public life during the Mccarthy era, in the guise of expelling communists, left a dearth of qualified people in important positions. And this in turn led to the incalculable waste of excess military spending on the cold war, the grievously mistaken foray into Vietnam, and a hundred other horrible decisions made by the the stupid, and the corrupt, who were left in place once so many of the idealistic and intelligent were purged from prominent positions in American life.

It's a little, if ever, acknowledged fact, that though the McCarthy purges were not as murderous as Mao's cultural revolution, the purging of the most educated from positions of leadership and influence produced similar results as it did in Mao's China. America was set back generations; judging from the perspective of Donald Trump's America, one feels it not an exaggeration to say centuries! America's long long slide over the last seventy years from a great nation, to a mediocre nation, and finally to the butt of jokes and international derision, has been a sickening spectacle, and that fall lies squarely at the door of the McCarthy followers, and those who elected so many of his fellow travelers.

One feature of the modern war on education, and on the educated, is that so many of the original perpetrators of that war (such as Henry Ford, and Prescott Bush: George W. Bush's Grandfather) had active ties to Hitler's Nazi Party. This is readily verifiable fact - a simple google search will find innumerable valid sources of documentation - but though amply documented, it somehow remains an open secret. Even today the vast majority of Americans either don't know, or don't want to know, that many of our most prominent industrialists supported Nazi Germany. *1

The driving motive for the ultra-right's war on education should be obvious, but if the point needs elucidation, it is that education, ideally at least, leads to critical thinking, and thus to an understanding of the true nature of the state, and whether the state is run with the interests of the individual at heart. Since the ultra-right is inherently dictatorial in goals and outlook, it is not interested in the welfare of the individual, but only of the few, and therefore inherently opposed a quality education for the majority of citizens.

The latest among these seemingly limitless efforts to undermine people's ability to reason is the much trumpeted (by Donald Trump) notion of "fake news." Yes, fake news exists, in the guise of Fox News, and many other spurious sources. But these false media sources were mostly created by the wealthy vested interests who seek to undermine democracy by undermining people's ability to reason. Now, in order to muddy the waters further, and hopefully render their already deluded followers even more so, they use the existence of the false media they created to discredit what remains of genuine news media, by referring to it as "fake news!" Though the end is to destroy critical thought, the means are often very clever indeed!

Those who believe that public education is failing because it is in itself deficient, need only look back at America in the 1950s, when our public education was the best system of education in the world. It can't be said that human beings themselves have changed so essentially in the intervening years that what was possible in the 1950's is no longer possible today. No... It is precisely because our system of education was so good that the amalgamated forces of plutocracy and of aspiring oligarchy set about undermining it.

The end result is that our democracy has succumbed to oligarchy, and we are scarcely a skeleton of what we were 70 years ago. The great corporate leaders who instigated all this believed (and apparently still believe) that they were acting in their own interests. It is as if they believed they were living in some kind of vacuum, completely insulated from the destruction they've wrought on society, like some kind of mad doctor who believes he can destroy the body to improve the mind, forgetting that the mind and the body are mere aspects of the same organism. That is what Socrates meant when he said that we can't blindly follow the interests of the strong, because they may not be intelligent enough, wise enough, or good enough, even to know what's in their own best interests, much less in the interests of anyone else!

In all of this it's the triumph of private interest over public representation that's the essential mechanism, and so a referendum to end private financing of elections must be the single, overriding, goal of all reformers until it's achieved. For until that is achieved nothing can be achieved of lasting value or significance. Beyond this, we need to again set the goal of achieving the world's highest quality public education and to acquire a strong liberal arts education for ourselves. It's not just students and technocrats who need an education, and education is not just a pre-requisite for a job. It's a matter of survival. It is the only way to prevent the stupid from instituting policies, the far-reaching ramifications of which they themselves are not smart enough to understand, a situation that will, ultimately, result in our destruction.

Democracy has proven itself to be an enduring, even a great system of government, but it can only save us if we are willing to recommit to it. We must disregard the ubiquitous slogan, the false assertion, that government is bad and that all things provided by government (such as education, or healthcare) are bad, when the facts bear out just the opposite. Social security, medicare and medicaid are excellent systems, far better than the for-profit monstrosities some swindler created to get rich insinuating themselves between you and the services you need, while adding nothing of real and tangible value themselves.

Democratic government is not bad. The corruption of democratic government is bad. It is the corruption of our democracy, if left unabated, that will destroy us. So let us look again to the figures of that past who came forward when democracy was threatened with extinction - those figures like Franklin Roosevelt, whom we have to thank for that excellent government program, social security, and like Winston Churchill, who for a brief period stood almost literally alone against the Nazi terror. Let us finally rise in righteous anger against the dark forces ensnaring us.

Brent Hightower
Copyright 2018, Brent Hightower

1. I intend shortly to write an essay on this subject, including the most monumentally covered-up story of the 20th century, the attempted military coup against Franklin Roosevelt's administration by American industrialists, one foiled by an unsung and now almost forgotten American hero, the most decorated Marine in U.S. history, Major Gen. Smedly Butler, U.S. Marine Corps.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Understanding the Game

A central thing we do as human beings, in our interaction with one another, is learn to block out psychic pain; and the degree to which we're able to, or even want to do so, constitutes a great distinction among us. Some people block out such pain quite well, while others feel more acutely emotions like empathy, and love, that so often go in tandem with pain. This distinction affects a great deal in our lives, and I'd like to touch upon a few of those things in this essay, but because writing is of particular interest to me, let me start with its effect on our ability to write creatively.

I'll take poetry here to represent creative writing, and creativity in general, because it's the most intensely creative form of writing. Clearly, in order to write poetry, one must apprehend and experience life as it is, free from the blinders most of us develop to insulate us from the more painful aspects of life. I'll talk more about these blinders shortly, but my first point is that all artists need to apprehend life, notwithstanding its coldness and indifference to the individual, to derive any meaningful insight to communicate.

(Once, in a failed attempt to learn to draw, I studied a book entitled Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. In essence, what it imparted was that when we begin to draw, most of us don't draw what we really see. Instead, we draw a representation of what we see - a representation created by our mind - a sort of symbol for what we see. When children first draw, for example, a tree, they don't draw what they really see before them, but a symbol of what they see. Not a tree, but the symbol of a tree. And most of us, when we attempt to draw, unless trained otherwise, continue to do this to a greater or lesser degree throughout our lives. A similar phenomenon takes place with writing; yet it's even more involved, and thus harder to overcome, because we are dealing with symbols that have deeper psychic roots than the symbols we create merely to understand the physical world.)

We create these symbols (or more accurately in this case, thought patterns) to hide ourselves from the painful aspects of reality. If, for example, a child realizes that his or her mother doesn't really love them, they create fictions to account for that behavior on her part. "She's just so busy. . ." or, "she can't express her true feelings," etc. Over time, these fictions and justifications become established facts in the child's mind, and often, encouraged by the withholder, established facts in the minds of others affected by the situation as well.

Thus, when a person writes about what they know best, or think they know best, their own life experience, they don't write the unvarnished truth, but, unwittingly, the sanitized version of the truth that exists in their mind - a symbol of reality like that of the neophyte artist. In order to shield ourselves we create comfortable illusions, but these illusions lack the fire of unadulterated vision. To write, especially to write poetry, is to suffer. A prime example of this truism would be the French poet, Baudelaire, whose sensitivity to the world was so acute it bordered on masochism. But with poetry (as with so much in this world of duality and paradox), we find a great contradiction regarding this question of sensitivity: one that partly accounts for there being so few great poets in any language.

John Keats (who was himself the most sensitive of human beings) said of his evolution as a poet, essentially, that the poet must gain detachment to be great; and, contrary to the above assertion that it's necessary for poets to retain their sensitivity, what Keats said was also true, and seems true of the creative process as a whole. One must gain detachment to present their vision in a manner that others (and not just they themselves) can appreciate, and yet one must retain their openness to be a poet - retain their capacity for passion, and compassion. They must not kill those things in themselves in exchange for the numbness that shields them from pain, but is also akin to death.

For that is the great price we pay for blocking out pain. With it we block out sensation, and sensation, in its broadest sense, is not just the meat of the writer, it is the essence of life. Our most meaningful communion with other living things is inextricably woven with sensation, and such communion is, finally, the only thing that really matters. No degree of luxury can make for a pleasant solitary confinement. On our deathbeds few of us will find ourselves wishing that we'd had a better car. It's relationships alone, with people and other beings, that have ultimate meaning. So just as the artist cannot allow themselves to be too sheltered, so people in general should seek to avoid the devil's bargain in order to remain, as fully as possible, alive. For, again, to completely block out the feelings that leave us most vulnerable to pain, is to effectively kill genuine communion, and thus in the process to gradually kill one's own spirit.

So, contrarily, the poet must be like a surgeon and stand aloof from their individual view of the world in order to reach the highest plane of communication, and through these two antipodes, the intensely personal and the universal, potentially reach those moments of transcendence that all artists should aspire to. And if the difficulties of embodying these contrary aspects of human nature at the same time, that of intense sensitivity and universal objectivity, seem insurmountable, that's because they virtually are, and that's why this level of artistry's so rare.

Shakespeare embodied these contrary aspects of the poet perhaps more clearly than anyone. Though he perceived the human condition all too clearly, in all its attendant injustice and tragedy, he was yet able to present that vision with unparalleled objectivity, as if he himself didn't exist. We see Shakespeare the man almost nowhere in his work - part of the reason, I think, that people seem eternally puzzled about who wrote his works. We know who wrote them. William Shakespeare wrote them. Yet having read them we still know nothing about Shakespeare the man, and so we remain curious.

This question of our respective abilities to block out pain has implications, however, much more fundamental, and urgent, than those of its affect upon the creative process. In our world today there are many advantages for those unable, or unwilling, to feel - and particularly for those who don't allow themselves to feel empathy. They can move through life relatively free of the pain of betrayal, rejection, and the other thousand shocks that flesh is heir to. Further, those who block their feelings have the potential to exert great power over those who retain more of their spiritual totality, through the exercise of various means of cruelty and manipulation. The reason for this is, at least partly, that others simply don't want to perceive the yawning depth of lovelessness in those who exhibit this characteristic in its acute forms.

This phenomenon of emotional deadening is complex, and something virtually all of us do to one degree or another. In some people it may arise from intense feelings of insecurity, from being too sensitive to absorb the assault on the self-esteem that everyone living encounters, in one form or another. In some it is innate. Those with personality disorders, such as narcissistic or anti-social personality disorder (conditions unfortunately more prevalent than most of us know)) lack something in their genetic makeup enabling them to bond with others. In my experience, to many such people, the realization follows that such a state of being has great advantages.

Those who deaden their emotions often find it brings them power, and power is addictive. There is something deeper here than readily meets the eye, something of universal importance. In this process some people become addicted to the thrill of power and substitute it for the finer aspects of themselves that have been deadened, or don't exist. This dichotomy, in many cases this choice, of whether to be or not to be, also seems connected to the conflict of the higher and lower forces that interact in the world, defining our reality.

The most subtle, and yet perhaps greatest, power of this deadened emotional receptiveness, may be achieved through simply withholding love and approval. Parents, for example, can exert a cleverly concealed tyranny over their children, simply by universally withholding love and approval, until their victims bow to their will. Such people may also resort to more egregious forms of subterfuge and intimidation, for the hollow, egotistical, thrill they find in getting their own way. Against people whose spectrum of emotional responses are intact, such withholding can prove to be an especially ruthless weapon. It has driven many people to suicide, and rarely does anyone confront the perpetrator. It can be a kind of hidden murder.

Such people seek to assert their will ruthlessly, though it may be arbitrary, irrational, or even perverted. Destroying their own spirits, they come to thrive on hollow substitutes, such as the thrill of self-righteousness, cruelty, and manipulation. It is this deadening of the higher sensibilities. such as love, associated with spiritual transcendence, that, left unchanged, will present humanity with its inevitable downfall. It is a mindset akin to that of a pack of hyenas fighting over a carcass, and a mindset that has become celebrated in our culture. Many people now, unabashedly even, see this mindset as the defining credo of America. This is much of the explanation for America's startlingly rapid decline since 1945.

Many who read this may be saying to themselves - he exaggerates! But a mere glance at the state of human society today should be enough to demonstrate that I do not. At this juncture anyone can see something is deeply wrong with society, and that it's hidden. Clearly it is there! We know it is! But what is it, where is it?

Here is where it is.

These qualities of sensitivity, or deadness to sensation, exist on a spectrum. We rarely find a single person who embodies one or the other entirely. We all must live in a world governed, at least partially, by Darwinian survival of the fittest, and we must all somehow adapt to the nature of that cold reality. Yet it is also true that the lack of sensitivity can and does become a recognized pathology, and that the key significance of these pathologies has just lately been fully recognized.

At any rate, such coercion through negation often goes completely unnoticed, and so it is a chief weapon of those who want to impose their will on others. It isn't socially acceptable (again, for example) for parents to openly demand that their daughter stay home and take care of them until they die. So instead they may withhold love and approval, and shame her for having a normal sexual interest. Thus a person who has emotionally detached acquires the power to dominate others, exerting a malevolent influence over those who have retained their capacity for love and the higher aspects of being.

This is true in society as well as in family. How can the abused point to nothing, to negation, as the source of their abuse? When in fact, negation itself is often the most significant aspect of how we are abused? How can we say that it's what our parents don't ever say that wounds us most? How can we say it's how our employers never respond, no matter how hard we work, that wounds us most? How can we say it's how we're never rewarded for our actions, no matter how loyal or altruistic they are, that wounds us most? It may very well be (and often is in an era in which evasion of responsibility has become elevated to a Dark Art), that no matter how abused we are, we can't ever point a finger at our abusers because the method used to abuse us is hidden.

In this, it seems to me, lies the consummate evil of the corporate structure, which seeks to codify the deadening of all feeling, of all impulses of love, and compassion, toward all people, and all living things, into an unassailable and all-powerful institution. This is, from my perspective, evil incarnate, and it is destroying the world. Yet the point is, and we all need to understand this: it is not the corporation itself that is evil. it is that aspect of ourselves described above, that has created the corporation in its own image, that is evil. It is the capacity in us to deaden all human feeling in order to achieve power that is evil.

From the corporate boardroom, to the halls of Congress, to the dysfunctional family, to the bully in the schoolyard, the world is filled with those who've traded their spiritual wholeness for a deadness in life that brings earthly power, and people need to recognize this clearly if they choose to oppose evil in our families and institutions.

It's very understandable that people want to shield themselves from pain, but it's well to see that in this seemingly understandable and forgivable tendency lies the root of evil itself. The world can bring us misfortunes, but only human beings can bring us evil. In my experience, those who block their feelings utterly, often come to see themselves as superior to those who cannot, or will not, do so. And this feeling of superiority in turn justifies ever higher degrees of selfishness and callousness over time. They see others who don't want to deaden themselves to the higher sensations and experiences in life, as weak, or stupid, and as being "an easy mark."

Thus the higher human feelings, such as love, compassion, and artistic creativity, often become a liability in the Darwinian jungle such people reduce us to, to suit their own lower natures, and the very higher aspects of ourselves that might enable us to advance as a species become liabilities, and chains, that tie us to evil masters. Such de-humanized people have an advantage because it's always easier to tear down and destroy than to build and create. So the first priority of civilized society is to see that those who have retained their higher human attributes remain those who direct the course of that society and shape the future. In the world today humanity is failing this test. Thus the world is made topsy turvy, and all too commonly, in too many walks of life, the worst of us come to dominate the best.

Brent Hightower
Copyright 2018 Brent Hightower
*Image from University of Worcester

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

A Personal Note On Publishing Inner Demons

Eighteen years after deciding to pursue serious writing - that is, writing not just intended to entertain, but also to express some ideas of deeper importance - I find myself in a quandary, the nature of which is somewhat surprising to me. When I first set out to write, I wasn't at all sure I was capable of doing it. It was an act of faith. So, surprisingly to me, it isn't failure at that rather audacious ambition that poses me with the quandary, as I thought it might.

With the publication of my third book, Inner Demons and other essays, I can fairly say that I haven't failed myself as a writer. Inner Demons, for all its faults, lives up to my expectations, at least in content if not in polish. If successful, I think I can write more on the subjects involved, and more that I think is worthwhile. Where I've failed however - miserably - has been in finding an audience for those ideas.

I frankly don't understand the age we live in now. It's common knowledge the world's in desperate need of regeneration. Yet when people attempt to present new ideas it seems there's often very little interest in them. And yet...

One thing I know. If humanity is to emerge from the next century it will do so with practically every moral and intellectual value we currently hold upon the conduct of modern life discredited. The world is not veering toward the precipice of its own inertia, it's doing so because of us, and the essential failure of our fundamental outlook on life, and its meaning.

Inner Demons attempts to open a serious debate on the validity of those views, and to point toward possible new directions. Yet I know that to spend a great deal of life developing some of these ideas, and then to have them largely ignored, would be enough to make almost anyone just succumb to the strange current of torpor that seems to grip America today. Have we run out of ideas, or just the courage to confront our own inner demons?

Brent Hightower
Copyright 2008 Brent Hightower

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Riding on the Storm

Having completed my volume of collected essays, 2014 to 2017, I determined I needed to re-access my original purpose in writing this blog. I first conceived it as a place where I, along with others, could post writing in progress, and contributors could offer each other constructive criticism in a friendly atmosphere. Yet it didn't evolve along those lines. Rather, it evolved into a place where I alone have posted work in progress (along with some finished work), and though I've received a lot of interest in the blog, I've received relatively little criticism, and no submissions from other writers. So on the one hand it's been successful in attracting a readership, while on the other it hasn't worked out as I first intended.

As a result I've decided to change the format to one more logical, and I hope more enjoyable for the reader. I've decided to publish my books here one chapter (or essay, or poem, respectively) at a time, and delete the old when I post the new. I'll post the new work every week, on Thursday evening whenever possible. Otherwise, I 'll post as close to that time as I can.

I'm changing the format primarily so people can read my completed works without having to buy them. I believe the novels are worthy of more exposure than they've received, and in serializing the new work of essays, when it comes out, I hope to interest people in that book as well. I believe a writer must focus on writing in order to produce work of real value, and in making that attempt I've been unable to devote significant time to promotion. Thus, the books have had only limited exposure. All I hope is that readers will enjoy the work enough to buy a copy for themselves, and/or recommend it to others.

Those who do find these works of interest can buy them from Amazon, as well as from many other online booksellers in paperback, or on Amazon Kindle, at the very reasonable price of $3.00

Thank you all for your continuing interest,


"The Broken World," Prologue

In order for the reader to understand this story, a few words must be said about a family and the patriarch of this family who died nearly fifty years ago. In many ways he was a typical American man. He was extremely frustrated, and I have rarely known an American man who wasn’t deeply frustrated in one way or another.
Although he died a material success, after a long marriage and fathering five children, in the end he was bitterly unhappy. And the truth is that to his last days, he didn’t really know why he felt that way. Of course, in this he also wasn’t particularly unusual. Vast numbers of men go to their graves bitterly unhappy, without ever really understanding the reasons. If Michael O’Connor was unusual at all, it was only in the extent of his potential and in the corresponding violence of his disillusionment.
He was born in 1903 on a Wyoming sheep ranch owned by his father, Patrick O’Connor, an Irish immigrant. The place was twenty thousand of the most desolate and windswept acres in all creation, along the Outlaw Trail, near the Hole in the Wall.
Of the three sons in the family, the eldest, Patrick Jr., was the father’s favorite. He had earned that honor by becoming a champion bull rider, something his father admired, and by repressing his own identity and mimicking his father in everything he did. This was the best way of winning approval, because there was no one the old man admired as much as himself.
Patrick Sr. had arrived from Ireland in the 1880s already a hostile man. His true occupation in life was cursing fate, the weather, God, his misfortune at having the two younger sons who didn’t remind him of himself, and his inability to keep a water pipe from freezing or to shave out of a frozen bucket.
He had fled Skibbereen, Ireland after murdering a tax collector during mass evictions, and this was why he was willing to resign himself to a life of obscurity on the Wyoming plains and why he was inwardly always back in Ireland, reliving old vendettas. The death of his wife after the birth of their youngest son, James, was his final proof of God’s indifference.

When the three brothers weren’t digging sheep out of snowdrifts in fifty-below-zero weather, they were enduring their father’s endless diatribes; and in the few moments he wasn’t in a violent rage, he was incessantly praising Patrick and belittling Michael and James, essentially for being someone other than himself. And yet beneath all of his colossal egotism, he secretly considered himself a failure.
Especially during the endless winters, their house was a prison, a tyranny in a tempest of blinding snow; and Michael realized when he was young that in order to survive, he had to escape. So he stayed up long hours studying, only to roll over in the morning to the sound of his father pounding a pot and shouting, “Get up, my lovely scholar, or I’ll pour the hot oatmeal over your precious head!”
It turned out that Michael had a photographic memory; and by the time he was sixteen, he could recite much of Shakespeare and other, classical works, including the Iliad and Odyssey. He dreamed of being a professional actor, but he realized it would be more practical to study medicine, and with tenacity so ferocious it was almost self-destructive, he eventually achieved, at the age of twenty-six, the nearly unheard of for an immigrant rancher’s son, a scholarship to Cornell University.
When his father heard the news, he grunted indifferently and said, “Don’t worry, you’ll find some way to make a failure out of it.”
And sure enough, as though his father had cursed him with those words, it came to naught. It was 1929, the stock market crashed, and the bank that held his scholarship fund failed.
This was Michael’s proof of God’s indifference, and it became his lifelong justification for vindictiveness, a violent temper and self-absorption that bordered on outright narcissism. In short, although he detested his father, through some sort of twisted alchemy, he eventually became a carbon copy of him.
When his father finally died of his own spleen and got his chance to have a few choice words with God, Patrick Jr. inherited the ranch.
This new lord of the manor, of course, accepted their father’s judgment that he himself was the only success in the family, but he was threatened by Michael’s potential, so he played the tyrant even more than his father had.
God, the bitter memories Michael had of those days! The endless struggle to drag sheep out of snowdrifts in the dead of night in arctic temperatures! The wind that stabbed so brutally that he cursed and begged God just to let him die and get it over with!
And maybe some of his inner demons came to him out of those snow-blind nights, but the truth was more straightforward than that, although, again, Michael never understood it himself.
I was told that as an old man, he broke down crying once when he heard a father say a few words in praise of his son. Michael pretended that his eyes were irritated, but everyone could see that he was crying. All he felt was a profound isolation that came up in him suddenly, and he saw those empty expanses of snow and nothing more, because he couldn’t make the connection, couldn’t consciously comprehend the source of his pain. It would have been too much for him, and so he kept it buried.
Finally, when he couldn’t take another moment of his elder brother’s hostility, he took the one hundred and thirty-five dollars he had managed to save, said goodbye to his brother James, and simply walked away.
That was in 1932, the start of the Depression, and the only work he could find was as an itinerant sheep rancher. When he occasionally got to town, in Cheyenne or Denver or Tucson, he acted in amateur theater; but that was the extent to which he fulfilled the promise of his life that had once been so high. He wandered from place to place, working until he couldn’t stand it anymore and then moving on again.
In a theater in Santa Fe, Michael met his future wife. She was attracted by his intelligence and his classic Irish wit and charm, but he felt they were too poor to marry. At last he realized that he wasn’t getting any younger and his chances for making money weren’t getting any better, so he gave in, and they were married in 1935.
Her name was Amelia, and the ceremony was in a white adobe church near the Arizona border with Mexico, under a blistering sun, and they spent their honeymoon in a shack without running water. Michael worked for a while in a machine shop in Tucson, under a tin roof, where he almost died of sunstroke. Then they moved to Gallup, New Mexico, and lived for several years in a converted chicken coop. In Gallup, Amelia taught English to Navaho children; and Michael worked for a despotic old rancher named Gallagher, whom he referred to as “a man of truly low caliber.”
Amelia was from a family of ranchers and miners in South Dakota. Her people had arrived in a covered wagon and built the first wooden frame house in the state. Her grandfather had known Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane and had once seen Crazy Horse riding with a group of braves not far from Deadwood.
A practical, religious woman, with strict moral principles and a strong work ethic, she might have been at home in Grant Wood’s painting American Gothic, but that was only one side of her personality, for she also loved literature, foreign cultures, history, and Pueblo Indian art and was in general quite educated for a “frontier” woman of her generation. There was a quality in her that was innately refined. She didn’t seem to be the daughter of an isolated miner, a young woman who had lived in remote and difficult circumstances. Instead, she gave the impression of having grown up in a cultured family.
It was this side of her, the creative, intellectual side, that was attracted to Michael and that set her apart from her stolid, unimaginative parents. Although she had been the one to pursue him, Michael had gotten the better end of the deal. She loved him unconditionally, while his feelings toward her were more ambivalent. By the time they met, he already had the air of a man settling for things in life, a man whose dreams were prematurely behind him. And yet in his own way, he did love her, as much as a man who is terrified of his feelings can love anyone.
When World War II came, Michael took the civil service examination and scored so highly that he was immediately hired by the Park Service and made much better money than he had sheep ranching. But he had to travel all over the Southwest, and sometimes he was away for many weeks at a time, performing resource surveys on public land.
In 1943, to his own tremendous surprise, he was hired as the director of personnel at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Essentially, this meant that he did background checks on new employees, verified academic credentials and otherwise kept track of records, and so forth. His hiring had been largely due to his remarkable memory; he could recall precisely every name, face, and resume he ever examined. Also, his personal security clearance came up perfectly clean. There was no information about him at all except for the record of his admission to Cornell, and mostly because of office politics, this turned out to be a great advantage, and he became the only person in a senior position at the laboratory without a college degree.
And so in late 1945, he found himself standing amid the pyroclastic glass at the Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb had been detonated. He had the highest-level security pass and out of curiosity decided to visit the site. Until then, he hadn’t faced the implications of the work he had come to almost haphazardly in life, and he became deeply depressed. He had wanted to be a doctor or an actor. Now he was not sure what he had become. It was a time of soul-searching that was nearly intolerable for a man with an already unbearable amount of disappointment and pain. For months afterward it was difficult for him to sleep, and he had the first of a long series of strokes that would eventually end his life.
During the 1950s, he moved from Los Alamos to Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, and he became increasingly disillusioned. Although he loathed Stalin, he was not as anti-Communist as he had been anti-Nazi, and the McCarthy hearings left him fearing the loss of American civil liberties. As an Irishman, he was adamantly opposed to all forms of empire, what he was afraid the United States was becoming, but by then he felt too old to alter his course in life. He had five children, a son and four daughters to bring up, and he kept his misgivings largely to himself.
In later years he could still be witty, even charming at times in public, but at home he had taken to drunken tirades and black depressions. The darker side of his nature increasingly took possession of him. With four teenagers at home, sex was a subject so forbidden that the merest allusion to it drove him to fury, and he made it clear that all of his children were a disappointment to him. As far as he was concerned, none of them had inherited his intellect or reflected his former potential. He was especially cruel to his son Ryan, whom he called “a failure in waiting,” and to his daughter Mara, who was a rebel.
In spite of his assertions to the contrary, she rivaled him, both in passion and brilliance; and she was the most infuriated by his tyrannical self-absorption. A vicious struggle ensued between them, which, along with her rejection of both scientific progress and spiritual faith, culminated in her taking cyanide at the age of nineteen.
Her death was a fatal blow to Michael, who really did love her but didn’t know how to deal with his own complex emotions of frustration and fear.
He took to sitting up late at night drinking whiskey, reciting lines from the tragedies and having long, bitter arguments with his dead daughter. At those times no one dared to get near him, not even Amelia, who had done everything she could to bring him out of his despair.
On the day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, he had his final stroke. And for all his intelligence, on the day he died, he didn’t understand himself any better than when he had walked away from his father’s ranch, almost thirty years earlier.
One night shortly before his death, his daughter Cait heard him reciting Dylan Thomas in the darkness, in a trembling voice.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And rage he did. Rage, despair, and self-hatred were his father’s gifts to him and the gifts that he handed down to his own children; and in spite of anything else a father does, no legacy is so enduring.

Brent Hightower
Copyright 2008 Brent Hightower
Cover Image, Zdzislaw Beksinski


Note after serialization of entire novel:

This is the final chapter of my novel, The Broken World. I want to thank all of you for taking the time to read it. I've had about 7,000 hits on the blog while serializing it, enough to make me feel it was worth the while. I'll begin serializing my second novel, Ode to Belladonna, sometime in March. Meanwhile, I'm compiling my first collection of poems, which may take another year of more, and I'll publish some of those poems here as well, along with those new essays I feel are of any value. Again, thanks for all of the up-votes, and the appreciative comments regarding my novel. It makes it All a pleasure for me!