The first time I saw Niels, he was staggering down the road from the parking lot, having hitched a ride in with some hippies who were headed into the woods to go camping. Lanky, loud, and funny. He'd left an all-night party in Big Sur drunk and then gotten stoned with the hippies and went along for the ride. Said he'd never been stoned before. Took him to the baths for a sobering soak. Baker was there showing some guests around. He came back in a while and joined us. Saw right through Niels' whacked-out condition to the solid core, found out he had skills we needed, and suggested he stay and even at one point suggested he might want to become a priest. That was not a normal thing for him to say to people who'd just arrived or actually to say at all.
It was early fall of 1967. The first practice period was over and the second part of a divided guest season was winding up. The next practice period was to be in the spring. Until then there were some ambitious plans and a lot of work to do. A massive septic tank between the road and the zendo had been dug and plumbed and was being filled in. Cabins were being fixed up and the foundation for a new kitchen was coming along. Perfect time for a Danish carpenter to walk in.
Tassajara fit Niels quite well. Right off he was working with our master builder, Paul Discoe. Niels would do the joinery for the kitchen roof support. They yelled at each other a lot but agreement and good work came out of it. And Niels slid right into the zazen schedule. Sat bolt upright legs in lotus from the first. Told me he'd done a lot of that in India.
He'd been a merchant marine sailor for years. His choice of words bore that out - much profanity. Had jumped ship in India. Gave all his money away – everything including clothes, threw his passport away. Spent nine months walking from place to place in a loin cloth, sitting under trees meditating. That was back in the early sixties when there was a shortage of food in India, but Niels said his main problem was people giving him too much. Another problem was that sometimes the food was too spicy hot. He’d arrived at a village one day starving and thirsty and was enthusiastically invited to join in on the festivities of a local wedding. Many little dishes were spread out on tables. He tried one but it was too hot to eat. Every subsequent attempt he said was the same. His mouth was on fire so he accepted a glass of water which was also too hot to drink. Somehow though he survived.
I was in front of the shop just starting to tie a load down on a six ton truck. Had a twelve foot bed full of scrap metal to sell in Monterey - stacked up over the top of the two by six slat sides. Decades of accumulated junk - a bed frame, an old water tank, corrugated roofing, pipes, barbed wire, old tools, car parts including from the body, a lot of rust.
Niels caught sight of the truck and me from down by the big old oak tree at Tassajara central. He walked up, looked at the rope in my hands. "God damn man, what the fuck way is this?”
“It’s a trucker’s hitch.” A guest had shown me how to do it back in the spring.
“Here,” he said, taking the end of the rope from my hands, “I'll show you a better way."
He undid what I’d done and looked the rope over. “Oh oh – look at this!” He held up a frayed section. I said I wasn’t worried about it. He shook his head, walked into the shop, came back with a hatchet, put the rope down on a tree stump. I protested but he shushed me and commanded me to watch. He cut the rope in two with a whack! Then he cut the offending end off with another whack, peeled back the strands on both ends and braided them together three times overlapping. I asked if it shouldn’t be braided more and he shook his head no with a scowl and said that it is now at maximum strength – as good as the rest of the rope.
“OK,” I said, “well help me get this truck tied down so we can get to the bathes on time.”
He berated me for being in a hurry and said we’d get it tied down soon enough, but first he wanted to show how strong his splice was. “You see,” he said, “This trucker’s hitch you call it - is a pulley. You can move that truck with it – anything that doesn’t break the rope.”
“It would break before it pulled that truck. It’s just half inch. That truck must be a few tons now. No way.”
“Can we do that later?”
I obeyed. We didn’t exactly follow Japanese monastic seniority authority protocol. He got in the truck and repositioned it facing out of the shop so that it was sideways to the road which had a downward grade toward the creek. Took off the emergency brake. Left it in neutral. Fastened the rope to the frame of the truck under the front bumper and ran the rope around the smooth, thick trunk of a sycamore tree nearby.
“You’re going to break the rope.”
“David Chadowick, you don’t know anything!” he called out loud enough for E. L. in the shop to turn his head. Niels ran another hitch off of that and then another going around a second small tree. With a mighty tug on the end of his three pulley system he dug his feet in and strained and screamed for me to help so I pulled too and the truck then did move forward maybe a foot and then another and then another.
“You did it! I know you could do more but that’s good. I thought for sure the rope was going to break.”
After panting for a moment it was back to securing the load on the truck. He tied it all down with me assisting. He'd yell at me strongly and impatiently. "No, god damn! Over here. David! You don't know how to do anything!" and so forth. Sounds angry but there was play in every utterance.
When the last hitch was tight, he walked around and checked each again, nodding with a grave look of approval. He said that stuff can shift and settle, to check to make sure it’s all tight at the top at Chew’s Ridge and then back down at Jamesburg where the paved road starts. “If it’s loose, just tug the hitches this way to tighten. And when you are ready to untie, just do this,” and he pulled on the hitch another way so that it was instantly undone. Then he walked around the truck giving each hitch a swift tug so that all hung loose.
“Niels! Why’d you do that?!”
“Now, you show me!” he called out. At least he didn’t walk off laughing.