In the Time of COVID. Day 42
April 29, 2020
The New Dawn Vehicle
Due to COVID the earth is taking a breather. The natural world is coming in from the margins. While humans suffer, nature is getting a respite. Will it be enough, or is our species so Gung-ho for convenience and comfort that we will learn nothing from this global experiment at pause and patience.
The current situation is causing us to observe and reflect. While some troubled souls, at the encouragement of charlatan preachers or presidents, are drinking bleach to purify themselves, not all of us are so whacked out. There are clear minds at work.
There have been visionaries in the past who saw a path forward that was harmonious with natural elements. Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond, The Rodale’s who were organic gardening pioneers, Buckminster Fuller and his vision of Spaceship Earth, “Mother” Anne Lee, the founder of the Shaker Movement. These and others created manifestos by which to get right with the world. That brings to mind an unusual and misunderstood visionary that was my best pal as a young man. Steve Roberts.
I met Steve when we were 14. The Spokane Public Library was a magnet for certain young people. The city was spread out and there were several large high schools but the library was a good place to do homework , do research, find like minded friends who were liberal and in favor of the Civil Rights Movement, who dug Folk Music, and were eventually interested in the anti-Vietnam War Movement, as The US got itself into that flaming fiasco. Our group grew to 5 or 6 of us, and we at times joined together at a place called the VIs a Vis Coffee House where teach-in’s were being conducted. Exciting guest speakers like Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling spoke there and we were able to ask questions and if we felt the need, be argumentative in search of truth. We earnestly tried to educate ourselves about what was going on. Steve had a keen interest in all of that and we came natural friends. He was an articulate speaker who made sure his facts were in order so that he could be convincing. He was artist, a writer, and an inventor of complex strategic board games.
It was wonderful to have a pal with such passions. He joined his high school’s debate team and I joined mine. We occasionally jousted in competition and by our senior year, I transferred to his school and we became debate partners.
He was raised by a pacifist father who was a great role model. They introduced me the Unitarians and to classical music and I spent as much time at his house as I did at home. Steve was a liberal optimist. He believed we had arrived at a time of profound social change and he wanted to be part of that change. The world seemed so ripe with promise. That is until the assassination of John Kennedy and Then Martin Luther King and Then Robert Kennedy. What had seemed promising was turning into a nightmare. Steve especially latched on to the JFK event, became engrossed in the topic and as the years progressed it became an obsession.
When he received a draft notice, he filed Conscientious Objection status. But he had thrown an egg at General Westmoreland at a parade in 1965. We were demonstrating against the US Invasion of the Dominican Republic that year. Steve had been arrested. That was used to deny his CO status later. They called him up. He refused. They arrested him. He was put on trial. At the trial he attempted to make an impassioned political statement , but the judge shut him up. “This is NOT your soap box, young man!” He received 18 months at McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary. By the time he returned it was obvious that something was off in his mind. He still believed in the liberal promise but he was hearing voices. He had audio hallucinations and became what others thought was delusional. Again he was institutionalized, this time in a Washington State Mental Hospital. When released he was given a living stipend by The State and also SSI. Just enough to survive. He had to check in with a caseworker and he understood that he must control his behavior when around the caseworker or cops. My pal fell victim to early adult onset schizophrenia.
Being brilliant was part of the package. Being a pacifist kept society safe from is delusions and voices. He believed that the financial support he received was from “Internal Security and The FBI School of Lost Arts, The FBI Division that protects programs and projects of the United States Flag”.
Steve spent the remainder of his life as an inventor. He understood that humans were polluting the planet so he was on a life-long quest to solve the unsolvable ‘perpetual motion machine’. He envisioned “A New Dawn Vehicle” powered by perpetual motion. I know for a fact that he worked on various gear/axle assemblages and frame designs that included a hammock, for at least 15 years. The Logo was a crowing rooster as dawn broke.
His other duties for the FBI included sweeping up glass and planting moss and wild flowers around pathways, wheelbarrowing water to keep the plantings alive, either painting cryptic slogans on cement bulkheads or later, when he was bothered by the meaningless scribble of graffiti tags, he spent his days removing graffiti.
He found a cleft in a large basalt outcropping in Riverside State Park and built himself a cave using found objects. It gets damn cold in Spokane in the winter, He heated with Kerosene lamps and contracted COPD.
He spent 48 years doing what he could to help the environment. He published meticulously hand written broadsides. He invented a form of silkscreen printing using block out and used window screens and used auto windshield wipers.
Street punks beat him badly several times, he retreated into himself, did best in nature, went to ground, lived alone. Occasionally surfaced to send a letter or visit his brother. His whole life he tried to make the world a better place. He used his creativity and genius to stay engaged in life.
I am proud to say he was my friend. I loved the cryptic letters I received. I could decode the unusual images he shared. For years one of his favorites was “Michigan is Porky”. When looking at images he saw other things like Porky Pig in the outline of Michigan. Some people send letters that tell how the kids are and what they have been reading and stuff like that. I never got that kind of letter from him.
Steve was found dead at 68, along the path to his cave. COPD finally did him in. I saw his genius and feel the loss the world had because of his schizophrenia. Others just saw a homeless guy. I miss you buddy. You were loved.