Down East 2013 ©
Bo Washington is without a doubt the luckiest guy alive.
Bo is an enormous mountain of a man. A dark-skinned, black-bearded bear who looks like he couldn’t run more than twenty yards without gasping for breath but who could throw an oak tree halfway across the bay. His beard is kinky and oily, and he grows it long but keeps it cut straight across the bottom, like he once got his chin stuck in a jet-black cereal box and decided he liked the look. His voice is deep and booming, the kind that you secretly suspect could make the tide run backward if he shouted loud enough.
Bo is an artist. A welder. He spends his days, winter and summer, down on the rocky beach by The Village, his funky-dark goggles covering his eyes and his welding torch blazing, turning scrap metal into twisted works of art that get sold at a gallery in Portland. He wears a Hawaiian shirt over shredded and pathetic canvas shorts that are pockmarked with burn holes from welding sparks and cigarettes that Bo extinguished against the fabric. On his feet are sandals made out of worn-out tires, and coming from the tape player, every single day, are the lilting and ethereal sounds of African drum music. Bo finds it inspirational.
I spent some time with him one afternoon just a little while ago. Eliza — the main reason Bo is the luckiest guy on the planet — was sculpting farther down the beach, so I was able to sit on the rocks in just the right place and stare at her while talking with Bo. So I kicked back, drank some beers, and watched Bo convert cold steel into hot art while Eliza sculpted in gorgeous fashion behind him.
Bo was in the Army once, during the first stages of the Iraq War. “About three lifetimes ago,” he said. He was in some kind of medic corps, driving an ambulance between IEDs and under bullets and through shrapnel like a wild man. He said that his philosophy was simple: If he was meant to die in the war, then nothing he could do was likely to prevent it. If he was meant to survive the war, then nothing he could do was likely to be fatal. So he drove his truck — the ambulances weren’t exactly the shiny white, sterile, surgical operating theaters on wheels that we’ve come to appreciate in the civilian world — like he was qualifying for the Indy 500. Every few seconds he got a premonition, like the puffing spout of a mental whale, that suggested the location of an IED in his path. He would swerve to the left or the right — “I preferred the left, but that might have been a political statement” — stomp on the accelerator, and squeal around the supposed explosive in a curtain of swirling dust. He kept a large supply of marijuana on the passenger’s seat next to him (the seat being empty because no one dared to ride with him, even though doing so would likely be rewarded with both a Purple Heart and a Section 8), and he perfected the art of rolling a joint with one hand while steering and shifting with the other. His buddies called him “Loco Bo.”
War destroys subtlety. When Bo came back from the Gulf, his blood thickened by cannabis and thinned by mysterious Coalition toxins, he found his mind filled with images. They weren’t happy images — no butterflies flitting through gaily colored meadows. They were images of collision. Train wrecks. Collapsing buildings. Cave-ins. He read once about a time when Tower Bridge in London raised its drawbridge to let a large ship pass beneath. Somehow, a bus missed the signal and careened toward the ever-widening gap between the halves of the road. The gap had expanded to five feet by the time the bus arrived and the bus, lofted by speed and prayer and the particular angle of the bridge pavement, cleared the gap and landed with a gentle crash on the other side. Bo thought about that one a lot: a fragile, crumpled tin can filled with wide-eyed and breathing people who no longer needed to go to the bathroom.
So he took to working through these images the way he saw them, in metal and with a galaxy of moods and interpretations imbedded in the steel. He was working on five different pieces when I sat with him that afternoon, the hot sun and the cool breeze making a perfect day for welding-watching. One was a giant torpedo with a human face at one end and a human ass at the other. Another was a ten-foot-tall skyscraper that was rather open about its phallicness. The third: a liferaft sinking stern-first while a whole bunch of people rowed a steamship off into the distance. The fourth: a twisted, crumpled heap of angular body parts imprisoning a small and frightened-looking piece of scrap metal inside. And the fifth was a rose. An absolutely perfect solid-steel rose, with delicate petals and dewdrops and thorns.
“I call that last one Man’s Inhumanity to Man,” Bo said, pointing to the rose. “I just like to mess people up.”
On this particular afternoon, while Eliza was creating another Clay Person, Bo was putting the finishing touches on the torpedo. He gave the face a sneering grin and a single teardrop falling from the corner of one eye. The gallery will expect him to deliver the piece soon; the anticipated buyer will stop by for tea and sandwiches and chamber music and the unveiling of his new garden trophy. Bo will paddle across the strait with the sculpture balanced carefully in the middle of the outrigger canoe that everyone in The Village seems to use at some time or another.
“Damned if I’m going to pay for the stupid ferry,” Bo said. “Capitalism is nothing but the surrender of society to the forces of greed. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em? That’s capitalist horseshit. I say if you can’t beat ’em, get them to join you. Besides, I’m a good rower.”
During one break in the welding — after the sneering grin and before the teardrop — Bo lowered his hulking form onto a rock next to me and poured a cold beer down his throat like he was trying to extinguish an acetylene torch. The lukewarm liquid fizzed angrily in his oiled black beard. He belched loudly, and then he talked about Eliza. I hadn’t mentioned her.
“Eliza’s great,” he said, wiping his mouth on his bare forearm and looking down the beach at his girlfriend. She was out of earshot and wholly absorbed in her clay creation. “She’s pretty, and she’s a lot of fun. There are probably a thousand women I could live with. I don’t believe in any of that ‘soul mate’ crap, because our souls have been trapped and compressed in these pitiful carbon bodies that distract us every thirty minutes or so with needs and desires and vague pains that we can’t quite describe to people. On this ethereal plane, it’s all we can do to get a body-mate. And Eliza is a great body-mate.”
I had already figured out that she would be, but it was nice — and agonizing — to have it confirmed. I nodded and stared at the distant goddess.
Bo went on to tell me, in the same, rumbling tone of voice that he used to describe Eliza, about the work of art he planned to tackle next. It will be an enormous steel pinwheel, with four blades each about three feet long. It will stand on a shaft that looks like a shotgun barrel, and each of the pinwheel blades will have a pistol welded to it. But these pistols won’t be some representation of pistolness that Bo will confect out of lumps of steel. They will be real pistols that Bo will purchase himself, apparently during a lull in his anti-capitalist sentiments. He will aim the pistols just at the right angle before he attaches them to the pinwheel blades — and then he will load them. With fishing line tied to the four triggers, he will invite his audience to stand back (he doesn’t know who they will be yet, but the Chief of the Maine State Police comes to mind), and then he will yank on the fishing line. The four pistols will fire at once, and the entire mechanism will spin around, powered by the recoil of the guns. The pistols will be six-shooters, so he will be able to repeat the triumphant moment six times before reloading.
“I’ll call it Gunmetal Daisy,” he said.
—Donovan Graham, “The Shadowless Writer”
Comment—FreedomFirst: It’s not the war that messed him up, Graham. It’s pretty obvious it’s the pot. It’s the same old story. People can’t take personal responsibility for their actions, so they try to blame it on the government.
Comment—Amber4295: Does anyone know where I can get a pair of those sandals? They sound really cool.
Comment—PolSci206: Actually, Freedom, the true costs of war are rarely calculated. We tally the people killed and the buildings blown up, but we don’t usually take into account the number of people whose minds were destroyed by having to live in terror and kill on command. The psychological cost is the biggest missing factor in the assessments of war damage.
Comment—FreedomFirst: Did you ever stop to think about the cost of NOT going to war? What damage would be done if we let everything stay the same? We go to war for a reason—because the cure is better than the disease.
Comment—SunTanDude: Bo’s the man.
Read previous blog entries in the Island Wars story by clicking here .