THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. . .by Rip Rense
(2002, "The Rense Retort" Internet column.)
"The wheel is turning, and you can't slow down
You can't let go, and you can't hold on
You can't go back, and you can't stand still
If the thunder don't get you, then the lightning will ..."
Once upon a time, there was fellow named Ken Russell. He had three tragic flaws: he couldn't play poker, couldn't sell used cars, and had a habit of declaring the emperor "bare-ass naked" (as he's fond of saying.) It was perhaps the last flaw, a crippling inability to embrace illusion, that is at the heart of this tale.
Ken lived an exciting and fulfilling life, by most measures. He resided in the insular Southern California suburb of Quartz Hill, inside a four-bedroom, three-bath, three-car-garage, 2,500 square-foot "executive" home. A domicile more grand and accommodating than those occupied by, oh, 95 percent of all people who have ever lived. He was blessed with a lovely and supportive wife, Vicky, and two swell sons.
Ken's job, well, it was a lot like one big thrill-ride -- except the odds weren't as good that you'd come back to buy another ticket.
He flew H-60 helicopters for the Naval Reserves. These are science-fiction machines that skim at high speed, at night, about 50 feet up -- hugging the terrain as it shifts from hill to canyon to flatland. Ken would disappear from time to time, two weekends a month, several weeks a year, on tricky assignments around the world. Rescue missions in places where U.S. citizens aren't particularly liked, and such.
"The thing I did really enjoy was the flying," he said. "You can't imagine the fun of doing that, but there's a point, where you're thinking, I've got two kids back home, it's 1:30 in the morning, I'm flying around canyons using night vision. What in the hell am I doing this for?"
Still, this was a hard question. Ken had devoted his life to the military, and to flight. "Flying," he declares, "was the second greatest thrill of my life -- you can guest the first." It was while a midshipman at the Naval Academy in the early '70s that he first got hooked, cruising around with an instructor in props, jets, and choppers. Graduating with a commission into the Marine Corps in '79, Ken went to flight school, got his wings, and flew CH-46 "heloes" on active duty. In 1985, traded it all for family, the Marine Reserves, and civilian life in Quartz Hill. Wings clipped.
Clipped, that is, but always mad to flap again. Russell went to work for Rockwell as a test director for the B-1 bomber -- a "glorified babysitter," he groused, as any pilot probably would in that landlubbing position. After a couple of years, he moved down the street to Northrup and worked on the B-2. Then "peace broke out all over, and we went from 140 aircraft to two." Ken wasn't laid off, but was relegated to something perhaps worse for a "type A personality" -- getting paid for doing essentially nothing. It was enough to drive a man to. . . the Navy Reserves---which he joined in 1990, essentially so he could fly again. The sporadic night H-60 missions filled that void.
But there was another void. Something about life in Quartz Hill was nagging at him.
"Everybody kept telling me, 'You'll get used to it,'" he said. "But I never did."
The salary was princely, the kids were healthy, Vicky had a fine career as a registered nurse, and Ken was a major in the reserves. The puzzle parts were all in place ... yet he was still puzzled.
It was then that a fairy godmother tapped him on the head with a wand -- or rather, as he put it, his wife walloped him with a baseball bat (figuratively).
"One day, when Vicky and I were blasting away at our careers and not paying attention to what was going on around us, other than where-can-we-go-next, how-much-can-I-make -- never seeing each other much -- she sat down, poured me a cup of coffee, said, 'So how ya been?'" That was, says Ken, the "baseball bat."
"I didn't have to ask her what she was saying. I knew what she meant. I don't know how to describe it other than it's like when you have a hippopotamus at the dinner table, and everybody's ignoring it."
The hippopotamus was named Futility. Or Alienation. Or Deadly Routine. Or "Morning, hon' -- bye hon'." Yes, it sat at the dinner table -- and snored on the couch, smoked cigars, belched. ...
And Ken Russell walked away from his life. It took two and a half years to do it physically, but in his mind, he was already gone. The emperor was naked, and the emperor was in the mirror.
He plotted a new wardrobe.
First step: write business plans for a life in Colorado Springs, or in Utah, New Hampshire, Virginia -- anywhere that seemed a tenable alternative. Second step: sell the "executive" house---but there were no takers. The couple fretted. A move anywhere with two kids, leaving behind terrific salaries in the safe suburbs, was no more frightening than, oh, night-flying through canyons at near-zero altitude on a rescue mission in hostile territory.
In the end, it was the earth that saved this lover of the sky.
You see, all the years he was in the military, you might say Ken was potted. The guy made vases, and jars, and mugs, and anything he could -- out of clay.
"I met my wife in high-school pottery class," he said. "(A few years later), she got me a potters' wheel. At one point, I fluked into an on-again, off-again two-year apprenticeship at Annapolis Pottery. I did it on the side during the time I was on active duty in the Marine Corps."
What's this? A Marine throwing pots? Firing them in a kiln? Gasp -- glazing them? They let Marines do that? That's like finding Babe Ruth at High Tea. John Wayne biting off a thread. King Kong purring. But then again, Gen. MacArthur loved to paint. . .
"I tried to keep that a secret. No, I don't do that stuff!" he laughed.
The business plans he had drawn up were for a life as a potter. An earth sculptor. A job that was as much like working on the B-2 bomber as football is like chasing butterflies with a net. A job that a lot of people equate with chasing butterflies with a net.
The earth saved Ken, all right, and two times over. It rose up and shook him right out of Southern California malaise and into Arlington, S.D.---literally, in the form of the Northridge Earthquake.
What happened was this: An insurance salesman, a banker, a phone company worker, and a farmer were all sitting around an Arlington coffee shop -- the Arlington coffee shop -- watching the quake coverage on TV. One of them abruptly declared, "Hey, we ought to put an ad in the L.A. Times, saying if you want to escape the nuttiness and earthquakes of L.A., come back here!" So they did. In nutty, aftershock-ridden L.A., local TV news turned their ad into a story.
"I was in the bedroom, dorking around with a business plan," remembered Ken, "and Vicky started screaming 'turn on channel two!'"
Entire towns in South Dakota, like much of the Midwest, were just packing it in, the TV news report said. Agriculture was in sad shape. Farm kids weren't following in their fathers' dispirited footsteps. Population was withering like crop prices. The guys in that coffee shop in Arlington were gamely trying to lure fresh blood to their town, before it bled out.
Watching that report, Ken grabbed a map and noticed that, well, the Midwest was in the ... middle ... of the country. Good location for shipping heavy boxes of finished pottery. Same cost, whether east or west. ...
The following Friday, at the age of 39, he walked into his boss's office at Northrup and announced that Monday would be his last day. He dumped the post-quake "executive" house in Quartz Hill for $140,000 -- a staggering loss. Felt lucky just to transfer the title. Decided to finish his 20 years toward reserve retirement with a two-year correspondence course. There was no income from the military, and no retirement pay until age 62. With a savings of $4,000, two credit cards, and a fair amount of gumption, Ken and Vicky Russell headed for the Black Hills.
"Those guys who placed the ad just wanted some customers," said Ken, chuckling. "I'm sure they thought, look what we lured. A potter! He's going to have naked kids running round, a microbus, and he's going to be on welfare! Who thought of this?"
Today, the kids are happy, Vicky is delighted with being Mom and a part-time nurse, and yes, Ken is making a go at making pots. The hours are long, the work is endless, but it didn't turn out according to his wife's worst fear -- that this would be "like making ice in the Caribbean." The one-time pilot has learned more, he'll tell you, in the last five years than in the preceding 20.
"Before we left California," he said, speaking from his home studio, "our combined income was $114,000. We made nine grand in our first year here. Now we're living as comfortably as we did in California, and I'm selling to galleries, gift shops, potters' studios, and a few theme parks all over the Midwest and East Coast. I'm having a blast. When I am at the wheel, making pots, it's better than flying. When I've got clay in my hands, forming things, I can think. It's just incredible."
He paused a moment, looking at the hills rolling softly away from his window.
"I'm proud of these accomplishments," said Ken Russell, "and even more grateful that we really do have a terrific country where a guy can escape to something that makes more sense for him and his family."
And thus did the Wheel of Fate turn for the Russells, pivoting on the little wheel
inside Ken's pottery studio, and the even smaller ones that turned in his head. From big
wheel to little wheel. Or perhaps the other way around.
© 2002-08 Rip Rense. All rights reserved.