THE GREEN FLASH
The Green Flash is an optical phenomena that occurs only at the instant of sunset as the very last rays of the Sun's light disappear below the horizon of the western ocean, or at the instant of sunrise as the Sun's first morning ray peek up over the eastern horizon of the water. In the morning, on the east coast, the flash precedes the appearance of the Sun; in the western evening it follows its disappearance.
Furthermore there must be absolutely no clouds on the horizon--even those too small to be seen by the naked eye--as their presence will prevent the flash from occurring. And finally, you must be looking at the exact spot on the horizon as the Sun slowly sets, because the phenomena itself is so tiny. As the Sun's last bit of light gets smaller and smaller, and you can't believe it hasn't yet disappeared it will suddenly vanish to be replaced by a fan shaped flash of green light, lasting a bare millisecond, but unmistakable. And each time you see it, the fan is always different. A different design; a different pattern; but always a green fan.
I spent half my life looking for the green flash to no avail. I finally despaired of ever seeing it and I finally gave up looking. It seriously affected my experience of sunsets, concentrating on one little point instead of enjoying the grand panorama.
I first read of the Green Flash as a child in
Brooklyn. My main obsession, aside from some of the girls in my classes, was Astronomy. The stars, the heavens, the planets, how they affected each other, how they moved. The local public library had only three or four books on Astronomy, all of which I read many times. The one I remember most is THE MYSTERIOUS UNIVERSE by Sir James Jeans. I went to the Hayden Planetarium in Central Parkfaithfully every month. I understood very little of what I saw and read, but my fascination continued to grow as my understanding slowly deepened.
I would regale anyone who would listen and many who didn't about the movements of the heavenly bodies and Einstein's Theory of Relativity which I thought I understood. Naturally everyone in my large family of aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents thought I was cute and I was frequently the butt of their ridicule. One time, after a Passover dinner, I had cornered my grandfather and was letting him have it, both barrels. It was rare for him to have any conversations with his grandsons; all his affection seemed to be reserved for the granddaughters, so I was making the most of it.
Grandmother, who we called the Bubba, was standing across the room, arms folded across her ample bosom, a beaming look of delight on her face as she watched her little Velvil (my Yiddish nickname. It means little wolf.) actually having a conversation with her husband. But she spoke no English, only Yiddish and Polish, so she could have not understood a word of what I was saying.
One by one, everyone in the room, seven uncles and aunts with their spouses and about two kids apiece--my first cousins--and a bunch of friends and neighbors slowly became aware of the unusual tableaux occurring with my grandparents and me.
I was totally oblivious to all but my lecture. But Grandpa was in tune with the entire room and he kept me talking, pretending understanding, as the room quieted down. When everyone's attention was fixed on me, him, and the Bubba, he suddenly stopped me and asked,
"Velvil, do you vant to make a dollah?"
"Sure!" I cried. He pointed at Grandma and said,"Explain this to the Bubba."
As I write this I suddenly become aware of the similarity between two incidents in my life that were always loosely connected because they both concerned my trying to share my enthusiasm with nature with others. One was the family gathering related above which I recall with fondness and love for the people involved even though I was the butt of Grandpa's humor. The second, however, remained a painful memory. I just realized that they both involved being ridiculed for my attempt at sharing, which is more important than what is being shared. It was this second incident that caused me to quit trying to turn people on to the wonders of the Universe.
I was spending a summer with my Aunt Mae and cousins Paul and Sondra, somewhere in the Borsht Circuit. Next door was another summer 'cockalane', a boarding house where each family has their own two burner gas stove so they can 'cook alone' and a place in the large refrigerator. This place was owned by the Rosenbergs. The son, Stanley Rosenberg, was about fifteen; four years older than me. A real arrogant asshole! He never lost an opportunity to criticize or ridicule.
Stanley, me, and one or two other kids were in a canoe on a small neighborhood lake. There were water lilies growing all around in full bloom and fragrance. Being on the water, I naturally thought about the Green Flash and, still unenlightened about the rigorous conditions necessary for its appearance, foolishly sought to impress them with my knowledge of what might occur when the Sun set.
But, of course, when the sun set there was no green flash. And as it slowly disappeared behind the pines across the small lake, Stanley began to intone in a mock serious voice,
"THE SUN TURNS GREEN! THE SUN TURNS GREEN!" It was quickly taken up by the other two kids and now the three of them were chanting and laughing at me. At the same moment I became aware of the intensity of the fragrance from the surrounding water lilies. I became sick to my stomach.
Later my Aunt Mae told me I looked awful. Was anything wrong?
"The water lilies made me nauseous." I told her.
I probably would have forgotten
Stanleyand his inhumanity except for another small incident that occurred that summer. Stanley had gotten his first drivers license and was taking a few kids for a ride. We were all singing WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN as we rode. It was traditional and acceptable among us to make up verses about each other. We sang: Rosenberg
Stanley learns how to drive,
Stanley learns how to drive,learns to drive."
I don't want to be in that car
Years later, of course, I became a folksinger and THE SAINTS was always a favorite among us. Whenever we would sing that song I would remember the verse about Stanley, and while I never actually sang it, it always put me in mind of his insulting rudeness. I had long since decided that he was the worst person I have ever known. Thank God I would never have to see him again.
But, as I hope we all know by now, life--as dull and boring as it can be--does have its weird twists and turns.
Life was good for me in the mid sixties. I was in the height of my musical career and living in my own house I built myself in the woods near Woodstock, New York. I stopped to get my mail on my way home one day. Marge Shultis the postmistress, said to me,
"Billy, you know an old friend of yours bought the Morse place. They just moved in."
"What's their name, Marge?"
"Stanley and Laurie Rosenberg". (A brief pause as the Universe shudders and readjusts.)
This could not possibly be happening. I furiously wracked my brains to remember another
Stanley Rosenberg. It's a common name. Surely there must be another in my past. No luck! I was stuck. What the fuck. I was becoming conversant with Buddhism and Karma so I actually spent a few moments trying to recall what I might have done in the past to deserve this. No help there! I walked home trying to cope with my new reality. And there it was standing at the bottom of our mutual driveway; arms outspread to welcome me, an obscene shit-eating grin on its face.
Barely glancing at him I walked by saying, "Hello, Stanley." And I kept going. Our relationship deteriorated completely after that promising beginning. He immediately became the neighbor from hell and remained so until I sold my place about forty years later. I had to put up with him for forty years. In that time I made a few attempts to be a good neighbor with some kind of bearable vibe for both our sakes. But nothing could satisfy him except complete surrender and agreement to his way of thinking. That and his tendency to involve himself in my affairs with my property adjoining his made him insufferable.
I sold my place for a good price because I couldn't afford to live there myself, the taxes were too high. Getting rid of him as a neighbor was a tremendous bonus.
And, thank God, before I sold my place, I was able to encapsulate my experience with
Stanley so that it had little effect, if any, on the other parts of my life.
The twenty years from '65 to '85 were incredible. I was in the prime of life, musically, intellectually, and sexually. In 1968 I opened an art gallery in Woodstock, the Light Box, where I sold my light sculptures and other people's crafts. It was the heyday of Woodstock's musical history when most of the rock stars and folksingers hung out there. Dylan, Baez, Van Morrison, the Band, Paul Butterfield, the list is endless. This attracted music fans in thousands every weekend and most of them checked out my gallery. A river of women went by constantly and I pretty much had my pick of which of them I would pluck. This is not meant to be a tribute to any prowess I may have had; it is simply the way it was in
A painter will spend a few minutes, maybe an hour, stretching a canvas on a frame and then as much as a year painting the picture on it. My 'canvas' was a six inch deep wooden box in which the image was created, using mainly aluminum roofing.
I spent ten times more time building the wooden frames then I did the image they contained. My entire house, except for the kitchen and a tiny upstairs bedroom, was a woodworking shop. It was fun at the gallery, but I was never going to get rich at this unless I was willing to run a real factory to make the wooden frames. I had fallen into light boxes almost by accident and it was really fun in the beginning. My first sale was at Bob Rutman's gallery, A BIRD CAN FLY BUT A FLY CAN'T BIRD, in Greenwich Village. That was a real thrill.
But there was no way I was going to be a factory owner. My standards are too high. I would be horrible to work for. And, anyway, I was--am--a musician. So in 1971 I went on a five month trip around the country thinking that when I returned I would immediately know if I wanted to continue being a Woodstock street merchant. When I returned at the end of May the problem was solved. I would stay open until my lease expired at the end of October.
That summer I, went on a second cross country trip, this time to Vancouver , with Bernard Paturel who owned the Cafť Espresso in Woodstock when Dylan lived there. I had been nominated to run for Supervisor of Woodstock Township by the newly formed Woodstock Independent Party; WIP. We arrived home four days before Election Day. We got eighteen percent of the vote, a record for a new party the first time out. I met Cosmo.
With Cosmo with me, and the gallery and light boxes behind me, life took on a new color it had lacked for years. We gave up the
Woodstock community for the river running community of the west. Three years later we were living in Mendocino, Californiasharing a small house with Christy. Both Cosmo and Christy were into a super healthy life style. They went out of their way to prepare the tastiest and healthiest food imaginable. They kept themselves looking beautiful for the world, adorning their jewel-like selves with taste and devotion to principle. They--each in their own way--were the epitome of the beautiful hippie woman. They were a delight to live with especially since they seemed to go out of their way to please me.
I was pursuing my on-again off-again career as a folksinger, singing and playing in the coffee houses and folk clubs, and on Telegraph Avenue in
Berkeley, California. Driving home from the East Bay one day I stopped for a hitchhiker, a nice looking young man in his early twenties. I will never forget our conversation.
"Hop in. I'm Billy."
"Steve," he said as we shook hands.
"Where you headed?" I asked. He shook his head, thought for a minute, and then said,
"I don't really know."
As a big believer in hitchhiking as a simple solution to the gas problem I have picked up hundreds of hitchers and gotten at least that many rides myself when hitchhiking. His answer set off a warning bell. On a couple of occasions I have picked up people who turned out to be crazy. And both times I found out they were nuts when driving at sixty miles an hour, a very vulnerable situation. With that in mind I asked him the most innocuous, non-threatening question I could think of.
"Where you from?"
"I'm from the
Midwest. I've never been here before." Thatís all he had to say.
"What are you looking for?" I was driving but I think he blushed. I could tell he was taking my question seriously and was struggling for the answer. Finally,
"I want to experience the hippie-love generation."
"You mean you want to get laid?" He looked shocked for a moment. He obviously thought his desires were on a much higher plane. But then, thank God, he broke into laughter and the ice was broken between us.
"I guess so. Thatís certainly part of it. I have heard about the hippies for years. They fascinate me. I want to learn about them. The papers are so full of shit. They are always painting them as crazy freaks and I KNOW there must be more to the story." I really liked this guy. An idea began to form in my mind.
"Steve, you say you've never been here before. Do you know any hippies?"
"There were some wannabe hippies in high school. Nothing real."
"Steve, what makes a real hippie?"
"I don't know. Thatís what I've come to find out."
"Steve, you've never seen a Redwood tree, have you?"
"Or seen the
His eyes lit up as he shook his head. I had just turned on to route 101, the fast way home. I decided to turn back and take route #1 up the coast so that I could show him his first Redwood Tree and the other glories of the coast road. I have learned that showing something old and familiar to an appreciative person who has never seen it is a way of seeing it again for the first time. As we drove out of the cities he spoke of his life in the Midwest, constantly longing for something new, something different, something he could really believe in. He was a natural born anarchist, like me. I remembered my first hitchhiking trip, to Los Angeles, when I was seventeen, looking for that something that we know is there, if we could only find it. What a gift it would have been to have been given a ride with someone like me, someone who could sense my inner feelings and know exactly what to do to bring those desires alive. I decided to give him that gift, if I could. We were driving north on route 1 rounding the steep hillsides bearing the highway about to come around to the first spectacular view of the ocean. I kept my mouth shut. I hate when people show you around and keep up a constant stream of chatter about what they are showing you. All new things are best appreciated in silence. When we passed the first small to middle size Redwood Trees Steve's mouth fell open in amazement. I said nothing about the twice-as-tall trees we would see later because I wanted him to have that experience without the foreknowledge which would taint the surprise.
We drove in silence for a long time. Finally, after he let loose a gasp of amazement at some incredible ocean view, I asked him.
"What do you think?" His answer caused me to reflect awhile. He said,
"All I can think is that I don't deserve to be here. It's so beautiful. It's like I have no right to enjoy it. I'm not worthy of it." I gave this a great deal of thought. I couldn't think of a way to respond. All I had in my mind was a memory of an old childhood fantasy or theory I used to have about God looking down through a trapdoor at the Earth and talking to St. Peter about what he saw. So I said to Steve,
"Steve, I can see God in his heaven right now talking to St. Pete about you. You know what he says?"
"Pete,' he says, 'I move heaven and Earth to get that schmuck to the coast and he thinks he doesn't deserve it.'" Steve cracked up at that and we both laughed our heads off.
We pulled into Mendocino a couple of hours later. He was looking for a good place to get out when I asked him.
"Steve, why don't you come have dinner with me and the girls?" It was the first I had mentioned the girls to him. Earlier he had been describing what his fantasy hippie woman would be like. Cosmo and Christy fit his image to a T. He immediately agreed. I knew he was going to have a good time. When we got home the girls greeted him like a friend-as they assumed he was-of mine. They were waiting dinner for me and we sat down to a marvelous healthy meal of hot carrot soup, Cosmo's specialty, an incredible salad, and other delicious attributes of the new age dinner table. Steve said very little. I knew he was in ecstasy at his luck, finding the very best that hippiedom had to offer right off. It would be downhill from here on, but he didn't know that yet. I also know that he was having a hard time not coming on to the ladies. My presence kept him in line. So I decided to give him an uninhibited chance at them. Make the gift complete. I arose saying,
"Well, Steve, I'm going out for my usual evening walk. You are welcome to join me or stay and play with the girls while I'm gone. And you're welcome to crash on the couch tonight. I'm sure the girls won't mind." They both immediately agreed. He surprised us all by getting up and saying he would come with me. Since he was staying the night he could play with them later. Lots of laughter and jesting over this. We walked to my favorite spot on a cliff above the beach where I loved to sit and study the wave patterns as the little surf raced up and spent itself going uphill.
"Why didn't you stay with the girls? I would have. Were you worried about my feelings? It was my suggestion."
"I didn't know what to say to them."
"You wouldn't have had to say anything. They would have taken over and, I don't know what would have happened, but I know you would have had a good time. Their whole trip is being loving, kind, and understanding."
"They are so beautiful. You are so lucky to be living with them."
As we spoke we were watching the Sun setting. It wasn't much of a sunset. No clouds. Just a clear blue sky right down to the horizon. I was debating to myself whether to invite him to stay and live with us for a while or not. There was no doubt in my mind that he would be sleeping with one, or perhaps both, of them if he stayed. If he moved on right away things would settle down to the quiet routine the women and I had established. Comfortable for me, but no assurance how long it would last. If he stayed things would definitely get more interesting and who knows what might happen. I was about to invite him to stay when the last remaining ray of sunlight which I had been looking at out of long habit as it slowly shrunk, suddenly became a green fan of light spreading from the point of vanishing sunlight.
I had finally, and unexpectedly, seen the Green Flash. It was real! I felt as if I had found a million dollars. I also felt that it was my reward for taking the time to turn my hitch-hiking guest on to his desire to experience the 'hippie-love generation.'
An explosion of exultation rose within my breast. But then I heard Stanley Rosenberg's voice intoning, 'THE SUN TURNS GREEN! THE SUN TURNS GREEN!' The sound of Stanley's voice completely shattered my reverie and delight at seeing the Green Flash at last. But the sound was so real. I was sure I actually heard the words I had imagined. Then I heard them again. It was Steve who had also seen the flash and spontaneously cried out THE SUN TURNS GREEN!
That should be the end of this story. But I cannot resist telling one more incident. I have seen the green flash about six times now. I was living upstairs at the Caspar Inn in
Caspar, California. There were eight rooms upstairs one of which I lived in.
Downstairs was the bar. One evening at sunset both the upstairs and downstairs porches were full of folks watching the sunset. I overheard a discussion from below concerning the green flash. Some dude was describing it but he had his facts all wrong. He was positive there could not be one tonight because conditions were not right. I checked the conditions and I couldn't see anything to keep it from happening. The western horizon below the setting Sun was free of clouds. That is the only condition. I started speaking to the whole assemblage of people telling them that there would definitely be a green flash tonight and that if they wanted to see it they had to follow my direction to the letter. They all laughingly agreed. So as the sun fell below the horizon I cautioned them all to be prepared to keep their eyes on the shrinking bit of sunlight; not to look away from it until it was really all gone. Most of them were able to follow my advice and a beautiful satisfying cry went up as they all saw the Green Flash for the first time in their lives.
Reading this over on Dec. 11, 2010 I must add that back in October, while visiting the friends who had bought my house I learned that Stanley Rosenberg had died. His wife Laurie had left. The house was up for sale.
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