by Robert Anton Wilson
from Green Egg, Vol. 27, No. 107
[Editor’s Note: This Winter marks the one year anniversary of Robert Shea’s Crossing. In fond memory of his entertaining and heretical writings, we bring you the following article:]
In a procedure that had grown habitual in the last year, I made my coffee as soon as I woke up (grinding my own gourmet beans: a ritual in honor of Epicurus) and then carried it to the phone alcove. I dialed Bob Shea’s hospital number and recited a bawdy limerick to make him laugh. But his voice sounded weaker than ever, and I had that terrible feeling again, the feeling that I just didn’t know how to do enough to really help.
We talked about NYPD Blue, a new TV show we both liked.
“I’m feeling better,” he finally said in a near-whisper. “A lot better, but I’m tired now.” In retrospect, I don’t know if he wanted to sell some optimism to his own suffering body – to rebuild its immunological defenses with the potent neurochemistry of hope – or if he only said it to spare me further worry and pain, to relieve my anxiety.
The next time I called the Bob Shea Information Line on Voicemail, the message told me he had gone into coma and no more phone calls should be made to the hospital. Even then, I didn’t believe, didn’twant to believe, the truth. When the voicemail message finally changed, after about three more days, and said simply that Bob Shea had died, I went into shock. I should have expected the news, but I didn’t. I had tried to instill hope into Shea and, by contagion, had instilled so much into myself that I had come to expect a miracle.
I sat at the table like a cartoon cat who just got hit with a hammer but doesn’t know it yet and doesn’t know he should fall over. I slowly put down the phone, still unable to believe the truth, still in shock. Shea had seemingly beaten the Big Casino (no new tumors in six months); how could he go and die of the side effects? I looked out the widow. The sun had barely appeared – I rise early, with only cinnamon and tangerine streaks coloring the east – but already the breakfast crowd, as I call them, had arrived in my patio. House finches, blackbirds and sparrows hopped and flapped about, pecking at my bird feeder. A mourning dove made its usual grieving sound in a tree, as if it didn’t believe things would ever become less depressing, and a car drove past, invisible behind the patio wall. I still could not make the concepts “Bob Shea” and “death” fit together in my head.
I thought of a grave in Sligo, the wild west of Ireland:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by.
Another car rumbled in my street, and the mourning dove complained about life’s injustice again. I became abnormally conscious of Nature outside my glass patio door. Then another damned noisy car went by, racing: some guy late for work maybe.
Bob Shea and I had never seen birds and flowers and trees in the first years when we knew each other, but we had heard a hell of a lot of noisy cars. Our friendship grew in Chicago, amid the rattle and scuttle of industry, the blood-and-shit smell of the stockyards: I remember it as Dali’s (or Daly’s) asphalt purgatory. The friendship became closer when Bob and I inhaled the haze of tear-gas and Mace during the 1968 Democratic Convention, the one they held behind barbed wire because Mayor Richard P. Daly (emphatically not Dali, although the idea sounds surrealist) decided to prevent Americans from meddling in their own government.
The protesters chanted, “ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR, We don’t want your fucking war! Five, six, seven, EIGHT: Organize to smash the State!” Another canister of tear gas exploded nearby and, eyes streaming, Shea and I ran down Michigan, cut into a side street, and evaded the clubbing administered to those who couldn’t run as fast as we did. If you want to know what happened to those less fleet of foot than us, you don’t need to call some archive to dig out the 1968 footage; just look at the Rodney King tape again. Cops have simple ideas of fun, which do not change much over the generations.
I counted back, sipping my coffee, and decided Shea and I had known each other for just a few months less than thirty years. A human can grow up in thirty years, from diaper to the first tricycle, to the first orgasm and even to a Ph.D. A human can learn to work at a regular job or learn how to beg on the streets, or court and marry and become a parent, or join the army and get a leg blown off. Most humans in history, before 1900, did not live longer than 30 years. A friendship that long becomes more than friendship. Shea meant as much as any member of my family.
Way back in ’65, when Shea and I both started working for The Playboy Forum/Foundation, we drifted into the habit of lunching together. Soon, we developed the tradition of going to a nearby bar every second Friday (read: payday), and drinking a half-dozen Bloody Marys after work while discussing books, movies and every major issue in civil and criminal law, logic, philosophy, politics, religion, and fringescience – insofar as one can distinguish between those two topics or any of the others, which explains why each of us found the other’s ideas so stimulating, and why, in our years, the Playboy Forum discussed more far-out notions than it has before or since.
I remember our WHO OWNS ERIK WHITETHORN? series, in which we publicized a woman, Mrs. Whitethorn, who had sued the government for trying to draft her son, Erik, 18. She claimed she owned Erik until he reached 21, and that the government could not take him from her. Shea and I gave that case all the coverage we could, since we wanted people to really think about whether an 18-year-old belongs to himself, to his mother, or to the President (Richard Nixon, in that case.)
Alas, Erik, like many young people, didn’t want to become a tool of his mother’s idealism, and finally ended the debate by willingly enlisting in the Army. (Madalyn Murrary’s son also rebelled against becoming a battering ram in her assault on Organized Religion.) We had to drop the debate after Erik donned his uniform and went off to napalm little brown people. I like to hope that some Playboy readers of those years still occasionally wonder whether humans belong to themselves, to their parents, or to the State.
Mostly, in the Playboy Forum, we followed the ACLU’s positions, which Shea and I passionately share (as does Hefner, or he wouldn’t have started the Forum and the Foundation) but often, as in the Whitethorn case, we pushed a bit further and sneaked in some anarcho-pacifist propaganda-never in Playboy’s voice, of course, but as the voice of a reader. Some of those “readers” later became more renowned as characters in three novels we wrote…
Among my sins, I turned Shea on to Weed. I turned a lot of people on to Weed in those days. I had a Missionary Zeal about it, but now that I think back, so did a lot of others at Playboy in those days. Maybe I should say that I helped turn Bob on to the Herb.
On one gloriously idiotic occasion we got our hands on some super pot from Thailand and had the dumbest conversation of our lives.
“What did you say?” Shea would ask. I’d grapple with that, but amid millions of new sensations and a rush of Cosmic Insights, I’d lose it before I could find an answer. “What did you say?” I would ask slowly, trying to deal with the problem reasonably.
“I asked… uh… what did you just ask?”
And so on, for what seemed like Hindu yugas or maybe even kalpas. That night inspired the “Islands of Micro-Amnesia” in Illuminatus. Maybe a similar night inspired the Lotus Eaters in the Odyssey?
One payday Friday, when Bob and I sat in our favorite bar consuming our usual Bloody Marys and gobbling our usual peanuts, a priest at a near-by table struck up a conversation. Soon he had joined us and I quickly became convinced that I understood why the conversation persistently veered toward the Platonic ideal of true love between (male) philosophers. I then pulled one of my nastier pranks. I said I had to get home early, and left Bob to navigate for himself. A half-hour after I arrived home and got out of my shoes, the phone rang. Shea had called and asked me, with awe-as if somebody had killed a goat in the sacristy – “Do you think that priest was a homosexual?”
I admitted the suspicion had crossed my mind.
“My God,” Shea said. “You really think it’s possible?”
He became much less naive in only a few months after that, since a lot of our Forum/ Foundation work involved consultations with the Kinsey Institute. I regard this incident as atypical, and hope it doesn’t make Shea seem obtuse, even for a time almost thirty years ago (when the Church brazenly denied all priestly shenanigans and bullied the media into not even printing the cases that got to court). But this adventure had something strangely typical of Bob Shea also, in showing a kind of innocence that, in some respects, he never lost.
Shea probably, at that time – still young, remember – would not have believed that Roy Cohn, who made a career of driving Gay men out of government, himself led an active Gay life. Shea took a long time to learn how much deception exists in this world, because he himself always acted honestly. He accordingly thought clergymen who preach celibacy will practice celibacy, and even that politicians who call themselves liberals will act and think liberally.
Anyway, that cruising priest caused enough Deep Thought, for Shea and then for me, that he finally became transformed and immortalized as Padre Pederastia in Illuminatus.
Around the time we met the priest, Shea told me that he had remained Catholic until the age of 28 (if I remember correctly after all these years. Maybe he said 27 or 29?) Aside from his shock at the thought of gay clerics, he did not seem like somebody newly escaped from Papist thought-control and I never did understand how he had stayed in that church so long.
(Having quit Rome at 14, like James Joyce, I had assumed all intelligent people go out at around that age…) Shea never did explain why he stayed in so long, but he once told me, in bitter detail, why he finally bailed out.
His first wife, it appears, went totally mad shortly after the wedding. After a lot of agony and psychiatric consultation, Bob finally accepted the verdict that he had married an incurable schizophrenic. He found it more than he could handle, and sought an annulment, which led to a meeting with a monsignor.
To Shea’s horror, neither psychiatric evidence nor any other evidence nor church law itself had anything to do with the monsignor’s conversation. The monsignor only wanted to know how much cash money Bob could pay for an annulment. Shea offered as much as he could afford, as a young man beginning at the bottom of the magazine industry, in a cheesy imitation of Playboy. The monsignor told him to go home and think hard about how to raise more money. End of interview.
Shea got a civil divorce and never went into a Catholic church again. Still, when I first knew him (only five or six years after he quit the Church) he considered abortion a criminal act – and didn’t know that gay priests existed. He learned a lot, in those wild last years of the ’60s, and he learned it fast. His Kennedy liberalism got gassed to death by Daly’s storm troopers and he became another fucking wild anarchist, like me.
I remember one night when we got stoned together (Bob and his wife, Yvonne, and Arlen and me) and looked at Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man on TV. They still had cigarette commercials in those days and one of them, that night, showed a guy and a gal walking in a woodland and passing a lovely waterfall etc. As they lit up their ciggies, the slogan said, “You can take Salem out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of Salem.” I guess they wanted us to get the association “Smoking Salems = breathing good fresh country air.” As soon as the commercial ended, Lon Chaney Jr. came back on screen and started suffering acutely (remember his expressive eyes?) as he turned into a wolf. “You can take the man out of the jungle,” I said with stoned solemnity, “but you can’t take the jungle out of the man.” Like most of my marijuana whimsies, that went down my Memory Hole and I forgot it immediately.
Imagine my astonishment when the complex Darwin/Wolf Man, Salems and all, showed up in Illuminatus. Shea hadn’t forgotten.
In 1971, after we finished Illuminatus, I quit Playboy in the midst of some midlife hormone re-adjustment. I didn’t understand it that way at the time; I just decided that I could not live out the second half of my life as an editor (read wage slave) who only wrote occasionally; I had to become a full-time-free-lance writer, or bust.
Instead, I became a full-time writer and busted. It took 5 years to get the Shea-Wilson opus into print and meanwhile Arlen and I and our children damned near starved: but that’s another story. While we wandered about, looking for the least horrible place to live in poverty, Shea and I started writing to each other almost every week. Later, as we both became more “commercial” and hence busier, the letters dropped to two a month or fewer, sometimes; but for 23 years we wrote about every important idea in the world and filled enough paper for several volumes. I hope some of that will get published some day.
When Playboy fired him, Shea endured terrible anxiety about keeping his house, and dashed off a few novel outlines while looking for another job. He sold his first novel before finding a job and never stopped writing again. I still treasure his comment on why the Bunny Warren cast him out. “I worked hard and was loyal to the company for ten years.” he wrote. “I guess that deserves some punishment.”
Whenever I had a lecture gig in or near Chicago, Shea invited me to stay at his house. Yvonne always went to bed early and Shea and I talked and talked and talked for hours, just the way we did in the early days of our friendship. I always felt that Yvonne didn’t like Shea’s literary friends, but I never took it personally.
And then, suddenly, Yvonne left him for a much younger man, and I don’t know (or really want to know) about the details. I worried for a while that Bob would die of depression, and I shared in empathy the vast waste-land he must have felt around him, 60 years old, alone in a big house, and dumped by a wife who ran off with a young stud who might call him “Gramps.” Maybe I project too much here. At 62 myself, I perhaps see in Bob’s desolation the deepest anxieties of all aging males.
Oh, well, Yvonne just split the scene. She didn’t Bobbitize the poor bastard on her way out.
Then, at a Pagan festival where we both had lecture gigs, Shea met Patricia Monaghan. I saw what happened: a kind of magic, real love at first sight. Pat gave Shea’s last two years a transfinite boost of TLC and almost youthful joy. The day before he lapsed into coma, he arranged to marry her. I think of the wedding ceremony as the last thing he could do for Pat, and the last thing she could do for him.
For years and years, in many places – in Ireland, in Germany, in Cornwall, in Switzerland, on the central coast of California – I often found myself wishing Shea could visit me and see the panoramic views that I found so wonderful. I still feel that at times, and find it hard to understand that he will never visit me now. Never.
Shakespeare made the most powerful iambic pentameter line in English out of that one word, repeated five times: “Never, never, never, never, never.” I first realized how much pain that line contains when my daughter died. Now I realize it again.
The birds have all flown away and the patio stands empty. Empty? Could an oldtime acid-head like me believe that? I looked again and realized anew that every plant and vine pulsed with passionate life in it, millions of cells joyously copulating. I started to remember a line from Dylan Thomas but couldn’t quite get it: “The force that through the green shoot drives the flower, drives my something something.” I grinned, remembering Shea’s wit. Once I had written, in one of our disputes, “I find your position amusingly rigid.”
“I’m glad you find me amusingly rigid,” he wrote back. “Many women have paid me the same compliment.”