You Can Never Go Home Again, Part II

“My father built these swings,” I said to the little audience that was following along as I reminisced.”He was in the Navy and was a machinist.  That means he was really good at building things.” And Dad was good at building things. The swings that we were sitting on were the first major improvement that I remember him making to the property that we bought in 1952. Dad had acquired a quantity of three inch diameter steel pipe and used it to build the first swing in 1958, and after building a frame with those sturdy steel pipes he anchored it in a slab of concrete. Later he would add the second swing, in which I was seated at that moment, and still later a small table between the two swings, with their metal feet encased in concrete.

“My initials and footprints are in the corner of the slab, over there.” I pointed to a place in the concrete slab where there were two squares which had been etched into the surface when it was wet, which contained tiny footprints and a few other scratchings as well. We got up out of the swings and walked over to the corner to which I had pointed. Both squares indeed contained the footprints that I had spoken of earlier, and in my square it also said G D + L L. My brother Brad’s box had a ‘+’ too, but I don’t remember what initials were attached to it. I had no trouble remembering the person behind the initials in my box however: LaDonna Lanning.

LaDonna was, as far as I was concerned, the most beautiful girl at Alexander Hamilton Elementary School, and I was head over heals in love with her and thought about her all of the time. Well, at least as head over heals in love as a ten year old boy could be, and only when I wasn’t climbing trees or swimming at the beach or one of the pools around the city or catching crawdads in the misnamed San Diego River (‘Creek’ would have been more like it) or playing ‘chicken’ on my bicycle with Wes and Brad and Craig and, well, you get the picture. I was thinking about the lovely LaDonna when I wasn’t diverted by all of that other stuff.

LaDonna, of course, knew nothing about this. Every morning she would glide onto the schoolyard a few inches off of the ground on a cloud supported by angels. There is no way, I thought, that a creature so perfect as LaDonna could be polluted by contact with the corruption that was the earth which we mere mortals existed upon. LaDonna was beautiful. LaDonna was smart. LaDonna was kind. After all, she would respond with a ‘hello’ on those rare occasions when I would forget that mortals had no business invading the divine spaces of the gods and would croak out an awkward and confused ‘good morning’ every now and then.

Best of all, LaDonna did not have a boyfriend. Of course, neither did any other girl in this class have a boyfriend. We were ten and eleven years old and in the fifth grade, for crying out loud! None of that mattered however. In the space of an instant I went from ‘girls are yuckie’ to ‘there’s the girl of my dreams.’ For the first time in my life, and not the last by any stretch, I was infatuated with a girl but hobbled by the uncertainty of what a person actually did with anything like that, and shackled by the fear that any professions of my feelings would be met with rejection at best and laughter at worst.

It was during this time that I scratched LaDonna’s initials into the concrete next to mine in the hope that there would be mystic power in impressing such a sentiment into something as solid and permanent as concrete. My brother’s box expressed a similar sentiment, but being four years my senior and considerably more self assured than I was it is very likely that there was at least a modicum of reciprocity in their relationship.  Mine was entirely wish without a hint of promise.

I did however muster the courage to ask LaDonna out on a date of sorts a few years later. Her family had moved into our neighborhood no more than a block away from our house, and I actually began to go to her home and talk with her on her porch. I was never invited into the apartment and she was almost never allowed off of her porch. One day however I asked if she would like to go to the Navy swimming pool with a group of other kids and I. My father would sometimes take a carload of us to the big pool on the Navy base where we would swim for hours. To my shock and delight LaDonna obtained permission, and in no time we were all together at the pool.

I was a fair diver and was no stranger to the high board, so when we arrived at the pool I quickly changed into my swimming trunks and positioned myself close to the high board so that I could make an impression when LaDonna emerged from the women’s locker room. The wait seemed eternal, but at last I saw the blue swimming suit which enfolded the heavenly frame of LaDonna emerge, and at that moment I launched myself into what I imagined would be a perfect one-and-a-half flip.

The idea was that I would come out of my flip and make a splashless entry into the pool, impressing LaDonna with the fact that I was talented beyond belief and utterly devoid of fear. What ensued however was indisputable proof that I was a complete stranger to talent and utterly devoid of common sense. My one-and-a-half pièce de résistance ended up being a one-and-a-quarter mother of all belly flops.

“WHOP!” I made contact with every square ventral inch of my fully extended body hitting the water at the same instant. “WHOP!” “Whop!” “whop.” The echoes of my debacle rang across the pool, bouncing off of walls, roof and the surface of the water. My universe at that moment was one of pain; the physical pain of half of my surface area on fire and the mental pain of LaDonna witnessing my total failure. I stayed under water as long as my lungs would hold breath, wishing that I had gills and could stay at the bottom of the pool until, well, whenever. Eventually the threat of drowning forced me to the surface, where I drew a huge breath and looked for the fingers which I knew would be pointing at me in front of laughing faces. To my amazement there was nothing of the sort.

In fact, LaDonna had not even noticed the belly flop, and nobody else in the pool seemed to care either. I reveled in this good fortune, but it had no lasting effect. I never asked LaDonna to go anywhere again, I do not remember just why that should be, and her family moved shortly afterward. Later, in high school, I heard that LaDonna had married a college student. Really, I have no idea if that was true or not. LaDonna simply faded into memory.

As I reflect back on LaDonna I believe that she was lonely.  I don’t know why and I could be miles away from the truth, but some sense, some memory that cannot quite make it to the surface of my mind, inclines me to the possibility that, for whatever reason and by whatever infliction, internal or external, LaDonna was sad and lonely. I wonder if she really had a childhood. I never saw LaDonna after the sixth grade however, so I really know absolutely nothing about how her life really was or how it turned out. Standing on that concrete pad, however, I could remember the unrequited longing that I had felt for a girl who was unaware of it and who would never return it. It was a feeling that I would learn to get used to.

“Are those really your footprints?” the young girl asked. “They most certainly are” I responded. The three current residents of my old home were just beginning to travel with me down memory lane, and they were clearly excited by my living history lesson of their home. I told them a story about the old garage which we had torn down: “I felt like Santa Claus got all of the goodies so I bought a bale of hay with my allowance one Christmas and put in on the roof of that garage for the reindeer.” “And did they eat it?” asked the little boy with eyes the size of saucepans.”They sure did” I responded, the lie sticking in my teeth.

The truth is that it was on that Christmas morning, when I ascended the garage roof to find the bale of hay completely unmolested, that I finally confirmed the suspicion, or perhaps it was more like the fear, that had lately been growing in me that it all was a fraud. I threw the hay bale down to the ground in disgust and then jumped off of the roof and landed on it, and never believed in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy (I always had trouble with that one anyway), or the Easter Bunny or any other feckless sugar daddy pipe dream again. I sometimes wonder if I have been damaged by that experience. I hope I didn’t damage that little guy by participating in the scam.

“And I’ll bet that you can still see some scars in the bark of that Torrey Pine” I said, pointing at a tree growing by the fence with the neighbors to the south. We had a lower but nevertheless substantial Torrey pine growing in our back yard, and I was as likely to be climbing in it as I was to be climbing the higher tree in the front. We had built a treehouse among the thick branches of the Torrey and would play in it for hours upon end all year long. I had nailed short lengths of 2X4″ boards into the tree to make a ladder that we did not need at all, and while the boards had been removed long ago the scars from the hammering and climbing remained.  I showed those scars to the kids and told them about the games that we played in the tree and on the bare ground underneath it. One thing that I did not tell them about is the spiders. Some things a person needs to learn for themselves, I think.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, I climbed both trees a lot, usually for recreation, sometimes finding refuge when I was afraid and other times separation from the troubles that formed parts of my life down on ground level. I cannot count how many hours I spent in those two trees. In my teen years, when I climbed them less anyway, I obtained a hammock which I strung between a large branch of the Torrey pine and a steel pipe support of one of the swings, and there I idled away many an hour and slept on many a hot summer night. I had been ignoring my hammock for a while when, one day, I decided to stretch out in it once again. I could see a single spider web extending from a tree branch to the hammock but there was no sign of its owner, and so without a thought I climbed into the hammock and began to gently swing from side to side.

I was lost in a daydream, perhaps thinking about whoever currently occupied the place in my heart once owned by LaDonna, when all of a sudden I felt a thud on my chest. Looking down I saw the orange and brown spider that was at least the size of a half dollar, legs extended, that had been connected to the web. Upon being dislodged from its home in the tree the scabrous abomination had fallen down to make my acquaintance.

I damn near suffered a cardiac arrest. I am not overly fond of spiders. In fact, I have a theory about the origin of spiders. Lucifer was once Yahweh’s favorite angel, and he came to Yahweh in the beginning and said “Please, please let me create something! Oh, come on. Please!  I’m your favorite angel. You know me!  What could go wrong? Please, please let me create something!  Huh? Huh? Will You? Will You?” Yahweh didn’t feel good about the idea, but Lucifer WAS his favorite angel. “All right, Lu, but don’t do anything stupid.” The moment that Lucifer could feel that he had the power BAM! He created ticks. BAM! He created mosquitos. BAM! He created spiders.  “That’s it!” cried Yahweh. “You’re grounded big time!” And down went Lucifer to a place where he languishes to this day, not yet having atoned for the creation of those infernal critters.

At any rate, I flew out of the hammock with a sound like the screech of a strangling banshee and brushed the startled spider several yards away.  Once my cardiac rhythm stabilized and I determined that I had not messed my underwear I inspected the scrabbling horror and found that it had recovered its own balance and was already beginning to crawl back to the safety of its arboreal home. The spider, as I have already said, was orange and brown; perfect camouflage  for a creature living in a pine tree. It didn’t take but a moment for me to deduce that if this nasty little son or daughter of Shelob was calling my Torrey pine its home, there that there were no doubt several of its friends doing the same. Later observation confirmed this knowledge, and in fact there were many, many more spiders just like this guy up in my tree. With this observation, the days of my tree climbing came to an abrupt end. I pondered briefly whether or not to share my story of the spider with the kids, but I decided that they should find out about these things the same way that I did. Why, I asked myself, should I ruin many good years of tree climbing on this day?

I led the little party around the back yard, pointing to where the fig tree had once stood. That tree produced delicious fruit that my parents would pick and then process into fig preserves that would be spread on our peanut butter and fig sandwiches and other delicacies for the rest of the year. I told them about making the circular frames into which my father and I poured cement to make the rings which still surrounded two nectarine trees. I spoke of the neighbors on both sides, who were pains in the tush then and apparently continued to be pains in the tush to that day. I also showed them how the old picket fence which was still standing could be pushed in just a certain way so that it would move and give an enterprising kid access to Mr. Robertson’s boysenberry bushes. Mom put the stink eye on her daughter, but the girl’s eyes were sparkling with the promise of ill-gotten berries.

At last I felt that I had spent enough time in the old childhood home, and would be able to put that bothersome itch to rest. “I had better go now” I said. “I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your kindness in letting me visit back here.” “Oh, but you have not come into your house” said the mother. “Yes! Yes!” cried the two children. “You haven’t been in your house!” “But I never thought about coming into your house” I protested. “You have already been too kind to me.”

Mom and the kids wouldn’t hear of it. “No, but you must come in and see your house!” I noticed that they kept saying “your house”, and it occurred to me that they may have had a better grip on the idea of bonds not easily broken than did I. After a few feeble attempts to decline the invitation I yielded to the temptation to go inside and look at the place which for decades I had called ‘home’.  “Come inside, please” said the woman, holding open the back door and clearly not intending to take ‘no’ for an answer.  With feelings I can’t even begin to describe, I stepped up and into the back porch of what was once, and perhaps in some strange way still might be, my home.

You Can’t Go Home Again, Part I

“You can’t go home again,” or so Thomas Wolfe told us in his novel bearing that title which was published posthumously in 1940. “I can never go home again” the musical group We Five melodiously assured us in 1965. I have no doubt that Mr. Wolfe was a very smart fellow, and heaven knows that I listened to and loved We Five’s album ‘You Were On My Mind’ album over and over again.  It was therefore with some trepidation that I pulled over to the curb and parked one day in 1987 right in front of the house in which I had lived in or been connected to for most of twenty four years. I had been thinking about this house for the entire morning, when I should have been paying attention at the conference in San Diego that my employer in Portland Oregon had sent me too. This was the first day of the conference but all I could think about was being back in the city where I grew up. Before long it became obvious to me that I would never be able to pay attention to speakers presenting on topics like “The Advance of Venous Duplex over Maximum Venous Outflow” or “Predicted Restenosis of Carotid Endarterectomy” until I put the distraction of being in my hometown behind me. The topics of the afternoon schedule did not apply to my practice, and so I checked out after the complimentary lunch and drove over highways and streets, some changed and some familiar, and soon found myself parked in front of the house in which I had grown up and wondering what to do next.

I could see at a glance that a good deal had changed in the ten years since I had seen the place. The postage stamp-sized lawn in front of the boxy stucco house was still there, but you could tell at a glance that it was not nearly the priority that it had been when I lived there. My father gave me the duty of watering and mowing the lawn every Saturday, complete with edging and raking and periodically spreading composted steer manure over the lush, green Saint Augustine grass. That grass, at least once the manure had been absorbed into it, made a soft surface upon which my brother Brad and I, and other kids in the neighborhood, would roughhouse. What I saw on that day would not be much fun to wrestle on. The ground appeared to be hard, the grass yellow more than green, and thin. Getting thrown on your backside in a game of ‘lawn football’ (invented by my friend Pat and I) on this grass would more likely earn one a trip to the chiropractor than the fit of laughter that more normally accompanied our games.

And the tree was gone too. We enjoyed a tall evergreen tree that grew on the property line between our property and our neighbor’s, or at least very close to it. I remember it to have been a pine of some sort, and we would spend a good many hours on any day of the year climbing to the top, or out as far as we dared to go on the big, spreading branches.  I would sometimes flee there to hide, such as the time that my brother Brad attempted to chop the head off of one of our chickens and only got the job mostly done.  We had purchased a dozen chicks and hoped to secure eggs from the hens.  Somehow we ended up with a dozen roosters (to this day I believe that we were scammed!).  Dad was determined that we should receive some benefit for our expense and efforts and decided, one day, that one of the birds would go into the stew pot.

The doomed chicken was selected an the neck laid against a big, rectangular block of wood that we had in the back yard. Brad raised the hatchet and down it came with a dull “Thwock.”  I have read that in some societies in the Middle Ages when a condemned prisoner was led to the block that he would give the axeman a small sum of money to ensure that the executioner would exercise diligence in completing his work with one clean stroke.  The chicken, unfortunately, had no small purse to offer and the stroke succeeded in only MOSTLY severing the head.

What followed was predictable.  The thoroughly dead chicken began to run around the yard ‘like a chicken with it’s head cut off’. Only it wasn’t entirely cut off.  Chicken blood was splattering hither and yon while the head flopped around madly, dangling from its tread of skin, until the bird ended its macabre gavotte and lay down in the dust, dead as a door-nail.  At least, that is how I am told that it ended.  I wouldn’t know.  Before the bird could lie down twitching its last twitch I has hiking my horrified ass up into the tree and climbing to the highest tip that would support my weight. I knew as a fact that the chicken was waiting around some corner of the house or behind a bush, and that as soon as I set foot upon terra firma it would be there to run at me, sling its head around on its bloody tether and peck me in the leg with its lifeless beak.  I stayed in that tree for hours, and Brad made himself scarce somewhere as well. Mom dutifully plucked and cooked the chicken, but Dad enjoyed a solitary meal that afternoon.  The next weekend the remaining eleven birds were packed up and given to a less squeamish family friend who lived in the country, where they no doubt came to a similar end, but one that I did not have to witness.

Now only a low, aging stump remained where that noble pine once stood. Our neighbor always feared that a good wind would one day put it down, turning her small replica of our house into a duplex. Dad didn’t care for the old harridan, but after we boys had grown out of climbing trees he slowly lost his determination to keep the tree, and finally caved in. I would have rather it had fallen on her, but then I would not have been the one to pay for the legal expenses, so I guess that I had no legitimate say in the affair. I had shortly become completely finished with the tree anyway, a story to which I will return later.

I stood on the sidewalk looking at the house, and debated what to do. I had seen it well enough that I should be able to declare that the itch had been sufficiently scratched and gone my way, but that stinking itch just wouldn’t go away. It became increasingly clear that I would have to go to the front door, knock, and if anyone should be home I would introduce myself and ask if it would be permissible for me to take a look in my old back yard. My mind made up, I strode up the concrete walkway that Dad and I had poured twenty years or more earlier, mounted the two steps onto the tiny porch, and knocked on the door.

The door had once been finely finished, well sanded and with many coats of varnish brushed it to protect it from the dry air of southern California. Now it was laced with myriad cracks, and the varnish was flaking and peeling.  I stood there looking at that door, remembering the pride that Dad placed in anything that he did and also thinking of all the times that I had burst through that door, ten thousand times at least, when at last I heard a locking mechanism turning and heard the hinges squeak slightly as the door swung slowly, partially open.

A small face appeared at the door, peered at me for an instant, and then turned back into the interior of the house and said “Mama, no sé quién es.” The door closed, and after a moment or two a larger version of the first face stared out at me from the small crack that the barely opened door afforded.  “Hello” she said tentatively.

“Hello” I replied. “My name is Glenn, and I grew up in this house. I’m sorry to be a bother to you, but I am only in town for a few more days and I would like very much to just take a look at the back yard. I have a lot of memories of growing up here and I would love to see what has changed and what hasn’t. I would completely understand if you are not comfortable with this, and if so I will not bother you again.” The woman said “wait a minute” and closed the door. No more than a minute or two passed but I was becoming convinced that this was a bad idea.  I raised my hand to knock on the door again, this time to tell the lady that I was sorry to have been a bother, when the door opened once again and the older, larger face reappeared. “Come around to the back, and we will meet you” she said.

Surprised and pleased, I stepped to the right of the door, through a small arched aperture which led from the porch down to ground level, a space of about a foot and a half, and on to the dining room corner of the house.  At that corner there began a low, gated chain link fence which stretched across the driveway; a fence that my father had put in after I had returned from Vietnam.  My eyes drifted over to a newer, whiter patch of concrete that stood out against the half-century old concrete of the rest of the driveway.  I chuckled as I saw that patch.

Dad had used a sledge hammer to pound out the three holes in the old existing driveway where he intended to set the poles which would anchor the two ends and the gate. I had just ridden my bike about twelve or thirteen miles from where I lived with several other people and smoked a joint along the way.  I enjoyed smoking marijuana in the most obvious of places because that is where people least expected one to do so, so after nearly exploding my heart by crawling up an almost vertical secondary hillside road out of El Cajon Valley into Fletcher Hills, I lit my cigar-sized joint and smoked it while I glided easily down the mostly downhill seven or eight miles that remained between me and my family home. I was going for dinner, which was certain to be a far tastier event than anything that I could whip up at the kitchen in our rented house.

When I arrived at my childhood home I asked Dad what he was doing. He explained his mission and then disappeared into the garage at the far corner of the lot to get something that he needed. With my well-addled senses I analyzed the holes in the concrete and somehow concluded that one more hole was needed. Perhaps because the two holes intended to hold the gate posts were clustered to one side of the proposed fence, far from the third  posthole which lay solitary and lonely at the other end, offended my seriously skewed sense of feng shui, or perhaps because there was some more elemental, bizarro caricature of common sense lurking in my Id that grasped at its opportunity to bask momentarily in the light of day, it seemed obvious to me that one more hole was desperately needed for balance, and I determined that I would step up to the plate and help Dad with his project.

The sledge was leaning against the house, and I picked it up and began whaling away at a spot I had somehow calculated to be the place where Dad needed one more hole in his driveway. In spite of my sketchy lifestyle I was twenty two years old and in pretty good physical shape. Therefore, by the time Dad returned I had a pretty good divot banged out of his driveway. “What the hell are you doing?” Dad asked me, more in amazement than annoyance. “Well”, I answered, “I thought you needed one more hole for balance, so I busted it out for you.”

If I would have done this before enlisting in the army Dad would probably have knuckled my head and given me a half-dozen nasty and annoying tasks to perform to atone for my sins. On this day he just laughed and told me to put down the sledge before I did any more damage. Dad explained the concept of gates needing posts but that the middle of a nine foot stretch of chain link fence did not need them so much.  In an instant I realized the idiocy of my act and apologized, but Dad said not to worry. “I’m mixing up concrete to pour around the posts, and I have plenty to patch that hole as well.” We retreated to the back yard and opened a couple of beers while the rented mixer turned Dad’s cement and sand and gravel and water round and round, until the slushy mess was ready to pour around the three poles, as well as patch the one hole that could not boast a good reason for being there. I thought of that day as I opened the gate of the fence that my Dad had set the poles for  sixteen years earlier.

The mistress of the house and two of her children met me at the back door and we walked together to the end of the concrete driveway which extended a few feet past the corner of the house. “We used to have a garage there” I said, pointing to an area of grass, dirt and weeds which proceeded fifteen feet or so from the end of the driveway. “My father wanted a bigger garage to hold the car and all of his tools, so he built that garage over there” – I pointed to the structure in the far corner of the back yard that opened onto the alley – “and we tore down the old garage which once stood here.”

That new garage was actually a source of angst for me.  My father had the foundation poured, but then he did every bit of the carpentry and wiring and roofing and siding, and everything else that one needed to do to build a functioning garage.  Dad had also done a lot of wiring and plumbing and other maintenance and remodel work on the house.  I had no natural ability for such things, and this was made worse by the fact that both Dad and my brother were very accomplished automobile mechanics.  I had neither the talent nor inclination to do these things but I certainly felt like less of a person because of that.  Dad didn’t help things when he told me one day “Son, when you grow up you had better learn how to make a living with your head, because if you have to depend on your hands you’ll starve.”  The really sad thing is that I spent seven of my adult years working in construction only to prove ultimately that my father was right.

“That was my bedroom window” I said, pointing to the window in the corner of the house that we had just walked around. “That’s my window” exclaimed the young girl who had initially answered at the front door.  “When I lived here we had a plant called a ‘night blooming jasmine’ that grew right there” – I pointed to a spot near the window – “and every night the flowers would open up and my whole room would smell like jasmine”.  “Oooh, I want a jasmine” the girl, who might have been twelve years old, squealed as she clapped her hands and bounced a little on her toes. Mom just smiled and mumbled “Maybe.” What I didn’t tell her was that the fragrance of that bush could actually be overpowering, and that I didn’t always like it so much.  It was nevertheless fun connecting over it with this new little resident of what I felt, just a little bit, was still my room.

I then walked over to a bench-style swing and set down on it. The swing faced west, towards the alley, and another swing much like the first faced back toward the house across a square wooden table top. The girl sat next to me, with us now being best buddies and all, while Mom and the younger boy sat on the swing facing us. “Let me tell you about these swings,” I began—.”

We’re Going to Chama, Momma, Part III

The moment that we had been waiting for had arrived at last.  The locomotive engine was belching smoke and steam, the conductor had announced that boarding could begin, and we all found our place, whether on a seat inside of one of the three enclosed cars or on the open car in the middle of the train  Brad and Patricia started the ride outside while I sat with Mom inside.  It was still a little bit cool and Mom was more comfortable indoors.  Also, there was no place for Mom to sit in the open car.  The wait was not a long one before the conductor came through each car to announce the wisdom of bracing ourselves and then, with a lurch and a gradual increase of speed, we exited first the train yard and then left the city of Chama behind us;  we were on our way.

This ride was for me a dream come true.  For as long as I can remember I have been in love with trains.  Growing up in San Diego, which had one spur line coming south from Los Angeles, I did not have a lot of home-grown opportunity to witness trains or the people who made them work.  On our many trips across the country however I often saw trains chugging on tracks which paralleled the roads, or sometimes stood in a restaurant parking lot pumping my arm up and down in an attempt to prompt the engineer to give me a whistle.  This exercise was always futile, which annoyed me because it usually worked with the men who drove big trucks.  I later learned that train whistles are part of a complex communication system and are not there for the entertainment of small boys.  Ultimately I don’t suppose that knowledge of this would have mattered much.  I would try it again in a heartbeat.

There is also a melancholy side to the train which somehow appeals to my soul.  On many occasions I would lie in a motel bed and hear the wail of the train whistle as it crawled through town, alerting drivers and anyone else who might be inclined to be dawdling on the tracks at a crossing, that a very big train that is very difficult to stop on short notice was on its way.  There is something haunting about that sound to me.  I seem to see a lonely person standing at a station at night with no reason to stay in one place and no real prospect for anything better to be found in the next, with the lonely train being the last, desperate hope that somewhere along that line something better will be found before the train the train gets to the end of the line, and before the passenger gets to the end of the line as well.

It is just such thoughts as these that a train can bring about in me, but all is not gloom.  The train is big; powerful, and it goes where it will.  Those great strings of passenger and freight cars carry people to exotic places and cargoes from hither to yon.  Railroad tracks snake across deserts and over mountain passes, through forests and across the seemingly limitless expanse of the Great Plains, giving economic life where they go and sometimes denying same where they choose to not go, or choose to leave.  Frank Norris wrote about the bad side of trains and Wilbert and Christopher Awry wrote about the good, with a lot of writers and other artists filling in all of the spaces in between.  Yes, as I wrote earlier, for as long as I can remember I have been in love with trains.

As we chugged out across the valley floor, crossed over wooden trestles and past water tanks and ranch buildings, the docent told us of some of the area’s history, which included many movies being filmed there.  You might remember some:  “Wyatt Earp”, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, “Missouri Breaks” and a host of television movies and series.  The man was a wealth of information but I quickly tuned him out as the magic of that ride began to exert its hold over me.

Mom was going somewhere else as well.  Way back in the early 1930’s she had boarded a train somewhere in eastern Kentucky, probably Hazard where she grew up, that promised to take her away from the depression-era coal mines there to the home of Ernst and Gretchen Blauer, who lived in and owned a drugstore/restaurant in Newport News, Virginia, and needed help.  How Mom and the Blauers became aware of each other is a mystery that Mom never clarified for me, but they were good landlords and employers and Mom continued to visit them from time to time until they died in the 1970’s.  While Mom worked there she met a dashing young sailor, the “handsomest man in the entire fleet” as he styled himself (I saw the yellow, fading note with my own eyes some 70 years after it’s writing), and I saw a photo of Dad from that time.  I believe that he may have been right.  Soon they were married and once again my mother was on a train, this time heading west towards San Diego where my father had been reassigned.  Once again, a train carried a lonely person toward the sunset and hope for a better life at the end of the ride.

Mom and I talked of these things as the train began to climb, and out path quickly transitioned from a gentle rise to a series of switchbacks which seemed to literally hang by a single spike to the sheer face of the mountain as it crawled upwards towards Cumbres Pass, which lies at 10,015 feet above sea level.  That portion of the ride is the shortest but by far the most white-knuckle-producing.  How the weight of the train does not send the whole shooting match crashing into Toltec Gorge is anybody’s guess.  The fact that the railway endures year after year is a testimony to the brilliance of the railway architects and engineers who hacked this rail bed out of the sides of those mountains.

At last we reached the pass and I could no longer remain inside.  Wearing the sweatshirt which Patricia in her wisdom recommended that I buy the day before, I traded places with Brad and Patricia, who retreated into the enclosed car to keep Mom company.  The air outside was cool but not really uncomfortable, and the sun was brilliant and shone warmly on my body.  The thick black smoke from the coal fire occasionally wafted over us and a slight but continuous shower of ashes reminded us that this train was steaming right out of a much earlier time.

I have never been able to stand or sit next to people for very long without striking up a conversation, and this occasion was no exception.  A man standing next to me turned out to be a train enthusiast from the United Kingdom who had ridden such trains all over the world.  He was staring out across a long, deep and magnificent valley, along the rim of which we were chugging at a steady pace.  Far down in the valley we could see dots which represented cattle, and very happy cattle I suspected they were, standing in the deep, lush grass of the valley floor.  A blue-green ribbon of water meandered along the length of the valley and made me wonder if there was a fish or two that might be there to be caught.

“We don’t have anything like this in the U.K.” said my companion.  “We love trains and there are many beautiful rides to be had there, but you just can’t get a sense of being this high.”  I knew what he meant; you really did feel like you were two miles above sea level, and the sky did feel like it was bigger than elsewhere, and you could reach up and touch it if you were just a little bit higher.  We talked about trains and America and the U.K. for a while, speaking slowly and never taking our eyes off of the scenery.  Eventually the train began to slow, and we looked forward and saw that we were approaching a collection of buildings which occupied space by the side of the tracks.

This was where we would have lunch.  There were two trains which ran each day; one which began in Chama and one in Antonito, Colorado.  If you were taking the all-day trip you just grabbed a bite and continued on.  We had the half-day trip so we debarked, enjoyed a leisurely meal and combed the gift store for treasures for ourselves or for junk to take back home for friends.  As usual, there was a preponderance of junk, but I found an item or two to bring back to friends.  I like to bring physical evidence of my travels, lest my friends suspect that I was really just sitting home eating bonbons and watching television.  At length the train that would return us to Chama announced its arrival and we all began to herd toward the platform.

The return train was exactly like that which brought us out in the morning, and once again I found my place inside with Mom.  Something interesting had happened to Mom however.  The age of the railroad, the era to which it belonged and of which it spoke, and the memories that came up in Mom’s mind, all mingled and coalesced into a sort of reverie in which Mom did not need company.  She stared out the window or studied the people around her and seemed to need my presence less and less.  Eventually I left her and returned to the platform and stood with Brad and Patricia, my English friend having proceeded on to Antonito.  “Is Mom OK?” Brad asked me.  “She’s fine” I replied.  “She’s in her own thoughts and doesn’t seem to need any company, so I figured that I would hang out with you guys.”  Brad and Patricia knew that Mom would sometimes retreat into some inner rooms of her mind, and what I said did not surprise them at all.  “I’ll go in and check on her every now and then” said Patricia, and that was what she did.

The docent had set up shop in the open car by now, where the people who most wanted to hear what he had to say had gathered.  This man had more knowledge about trains in general and this train in particular than anyone in the world, I think, and when he found a receptive audience he began to speak in volumes and was doing so until we pulled into the station in Chama.  He was a volunteer and it was as clear as the air in Cumbres Pass that he gave his time for this out of his love for the topic.  I know that this guy listened to Gogi Grant sing “The Wayward Wind” in his childhood, exactly as I had done (“In a lonely shack by a railroad track, he spent his younger days…”), and I know that he was a kindred spirit.

One last bit of excitement waited for us at the end of the ride.  The train was not at the platform – why not I have no idea –  and the passengers had to step down a short ladder-like ramp and make a final step to the ground which I seem to remember as being at least one and a half feet, maybe more.  Brad and Patricia debarked and assumed that I had the Mom duty under control, but in fact I was behind her.  Mom has always been extremely self-reliant, to the point of being foolhardy in my opinion, and she opted to take on this step by her ninety-year-old self.  I saw disaster looming in that sort of slow motion mode in which you see something bad happening and there just isn’t one damned thing that you can do about it.  Brad saw this too and began what would have been a futile rush to reach Mom before she splattered herself all over the coarse gravel surface of the train yard.  At the last possible moment a male passenger in front of Mom turned, recognized the situation, and offered Mom a hand, maybe saving her life for nearly four more years.

We regrouped at the station and then returned to our car.  We were not hungry but knew that there was a long drive stretching out between us and dinner at Gabriel’s restaurant in Pojoaque, a Native American Pueblo a little north of Santa Fe.  We dropped south past the Buck Snort Lodge, through the beautiful countryside of northern New Mexico, past the town of Tierra Amarillo where Reis Tijerina had led an armed assault on the country courthouse to free prisoners who had already been released (the last armed insurrection in the U.S. to date), past Abiquiu, where a Benedictine monastery exists and welcomes weary visitors, Catholic or not, and finally to Pojoaque and a fine dinner of carne adovada.

Another New Mexico adventure was over, and one of the last of any kind with Mom.  The next year she would have a small stroke, a herald of worse things to come, and we would never ride a train or walk a wildlife reserve or eat a meal in a mountaintop cafe again.  For that reason alone this trip would have been special, but there was plenty of special about this trip which allowed it to stand on its own merits.  I hope that Mom is somewhere thinking fondly about that trip, just as I am fondly thinking and writing about it right now.

We’re Going To Chama, Momma, Part II

Brad pulled into the parking lot in front of the motel office, rolled to a stop, and then shut the motor off.  We all sat quietly, taking in the view while we listened to the “Ting, Ting, Ting” of the engine cooling off.  Patricia finally looked sideways at Brad, in a manner which we called the ‘chicken eye’ when we were young and received that look from our mother, and asked “Are you sure about this?”  Unspoken but in the minds of all four of us was the obvious answer to that question:  “No, I’m not sure about this at all.”

The Elk Horn Lodge was a collection of one story, wooden buildings, some longer ones comprised of several units and some functioning as single cabins.  These buildings were scattered almost haphazardly across the property in such a way that no porch or window seemed to face directly at the porches or windows of any other unit.  Whether or not this was intentional or just good luck is anybody’s guess.  The general appearance of the place, from first glance to last, was of a motel compound that was long past its prime, if it ever had a prime.  It was hunting season however and every other room in Chama was already booked, so Brad and I tried to put the best face on what looked like a bad deal.

“The place looks OK to me” said Brad, and I chimed in with “I’ve stayed in a lot worse than this,” which was true but didn’t seem to help much.  Patricia, who is a trooper, said “OK then.  Let’s get the key and see what we’ve got.”  Mom, who couldn’t hear half of what was going on, just sat in her seat and put the stink eye on the place.  She knew a turd when she saw one.  Brad paid up and we drove over to park in front of the cabin which was to be our shelter for the night.

The low wooden porch was sagging and the roof, which was supported by poles resting on that porch, was sagging with it.  We mounted the porch and Brad unlocked the door, and then pushed it open.  The hinges, which probably hadn’t been lubricated since the place was built, squealed their protest at being subjected to such treatment.  We entered and stood in the tiny ‘living room’ space of our cabin.  The place was not what one would call filthy; there was no old food lying on the table or dirt piled up in a corner.  It was clear from the outset however that the definition of ‘clean’ would have to be stretched considerably in order to apply it in any way to our digs.  Brad began to poke at appliances in the tiny kitchenette and found, to his surprise, that the stove and refrigerator worked.  When he turned the knob of the faucet however it was an annoyed spider which exited the spout rather than water.  Brad shut the knob off at that point, knowing that nobody was going to drink that water anyway.

We unloaded the car, bringing in our small suitcases and overnight bags and such things that we had brought along.  It was obvious that we would have to stop at a store to stock up on drinking water and perhaps some other snacks.  Then, after dividing up the sleeping quarters, we decided to take a walk and see what the countryside held for us.

As we walked through the lodge grounds the true nature of the Elk Horn became clear to us.  This was a lodge for hunters.  The vehicles parked in front of the other units sported license plates from many states that surround New Mexico.  As we walked west towards the Chama River we passed a cabin with the freshly-removed head of an elk or a deer or some such animal resting on its severed neck, the eyes staring sightlessly at the New Mexico sky and a swarm of flied forming a dark halo around it.  We all just looked at each other and then looked away and kept walking.  For my part however I just couldn’t put out of my mind the sense that somewhere in the distance I could hear a banjo playing.

After picking our way along the river bank for a little while we decided that the effort was a bit much for Mom, who was 90 years old at this time, so we decided to return to our cabin and rest a bit.  We knew that the road lay to the east and would present a much easier walking surface for Mom, so we turned in that direction and soon found ourselves in the parking lot of a new motel which was in the final stages of being built.  I don’t know what the others were thinking but I was cursing our luck that they had not started building this motel a little bit sooner.  A solitary worker emerged from the building and hailed us in Spanish:  “Hola amigos, como estan?”  Some of the folk in Northern New Mexico will put up with the Gringos who now run the state and who come to pour money into the local economy, but their language is Spanish and if you can’t speak Spanish, well, that’s just tough frijoles for you.  As it turns out I do speak a little Spanish and replied “Bien gracias, y Usted?”  My answer surprised the man and he smiled when he shouted back “Se habla Espanol!  Bueno!  Bueno!”  “Si” I returned, “Un poco.  Todo el tiempo estoy tratando de apender mas”, and so on.  It was small talk and lasted but for a moment, but the man seemed well pleased to have run across a Gringo who had bothered to learn his language.  We waved good-byes and resumed our stroll back to the dreary cabin, my stock having generally risen in the eyes of my family.

Later in the evening, after a pretty good dinner in Chama, we settled down to play cards at the kitchen table.  Hearts is our favorite game and we played for quite a while, mostly trying to pass the time and touch as few places in the cabin as we could.  At one point I heard nature call in a voice which demanded that it be heard, and retired to the tiny bathroom in the middle of the cabin against the back wall.  Having settled upon the facility I was startled by an insistent scratching sound coming from the outside of the cabin, which was no more than an inch or two from my uncovered and unprotected backside.  Some things are best not hurried and I tried to ignore the sound but it would not go away.  At last the vision popped into my mind of some infernal creature managing to penetrate the plumbing and come up through the bottom of the toilet.  That possibility was remote, but the vision of the damage that could be done was overpowering.  I declared my business to be satisfactorily concluded and evacuated that bathroom with more attention to haste than decorum, and never set foot in that room again.

At last the time had come to turn in for the night.  Mom and I each got a twin bed in the single bedroom while Brad and Patricia set up camp on the hide-a-bed in the living room.  I settled in for the night  fully clothed, wrapped loosely in one musty blanket and using my backpack as a pillow.  Mom wanted to try a conversation from across the room; an endeavor that was difficult enough to be attempted with success from simply across a table, much less a room.  I feigned sleep hoping that Mom would desist in her conversational efforts, and that plan worked.  I also hoped that I would in reality fall quickly to sleep, but that plan was not crowned with nearly so much success.  Every noise that I thought I had heard was turned by my fevered imagination into a mouse or a cockroach or whatever that damned thing was that was scratching behind my behind in the bathroom, crawling along the floor and up onto my bed.  And every sensation on my skin; a moving hair, a faint breeze blowing through the poorly sealed windows or a slight itch on an arm, was a spider, a tick, a bedbug, or a demon straight out of hell.  Or maybe the antler on the ghost of that poor slaughtered creature who’s head probably still lay outside of the cabin down the way.

While I lay there my mind went back to a post card that I saw in a restaurant in Ozona Texas sometime in the 1950’s.  We always stopped at the same motel there on our trips between San Diego California and Tifton Georgia where my father had grown up, and always ate at the same restaurant.  The menu at that restaurant on this occasion offered, among other things, “Two Stuffed, Deviled Crabs”.  Brad and I were very young then and never needed much input to raise our natural goofiness to the next level.  I instantly drew a mental picture of two obese crabs, perhaps stuffed with a Thanksgiving dinner, wobbling about in their portliness while being jabbed with the pitchforks of tiny, red-suited devils.  I shared this vision with Brad and soon we were both brought to a state of giggling tears.  Dad, who had just driven virtually non-stop more than one thousand miles on two lane roads that slowed down to 25 miles per hour through every poedunk town that we passed through, had by this time had only one nerve left, and we were unintentionally stomping upon it with cleats.  Threats of worse than death ensued and Brad and I read the tea leaves, and opted to tighten up our act.

It was then that I saw the post card.  On it was a picture of an outhouse with a rifle, presumably belonging to the person who was inside, leaning up against the outside wall.  Also outside were two other hunters and one was saying to the other “Shush!  I thought I heard a buck snort!”  Brad and I began to laugh all over again but Dad could appreciate this one as well as we did and it became a family joke.  As I lay on the musty, suspect twin bed in the Elk Horn Lodge I mentally renamed that miserable caravanserai the “Buck Snort Lodge”.  I laughed out loud in the bed, but fortunately Mom was already asleep, or couldn’t hear me anyway.  The effect of the humor was that it relaxed me sufficiently so that I could drift effortlessly off to sleep, and in that blissful condition I spent my last few hours of enjoying the hospitality of the Buck Snort Lodge.

Brad was up early the next morning, and the rest of us weren’t far behind him.  I don’t believe that it took more than twenty total minutes from the opening of the first eye  for the four of us to be in the car with the Buck Snort in our rear-view mirror.  Coffee was the first need to be addressed, and the first little squat-and-gobble restaurant that we came to was the Happy Griddle.  I turned out to be a fairly decent if predictable little greasy spoon, and a pile of eggs, gristly sausages and hash brown potatoes went down the hatch.  An lots of hot black coffee.  My potatoes looked a little more like hash whites, so I ordered a bowl of country gravy to slather over them.  I’m not sure if the gravy was forty weight or sixty but I can testify with certainty that it was more liquid than gear grease, and it’s salty and oily deliciousness enhanced my dining experience and removed from me the necessity to chew; most of my bites sliding down the hatch with little need for masticatory effort.

With breakfast eaten and a roll of antacid tablets in my pocket for the inevitable heartburn which Mom would soon be experiencing (and perhaps me too, with justification) we exited the restaurant and drove straight to the train station.  We still had nearly an hour and a half to kill before the ride started, so we returned to the gift store to once again paw over the gewgaws that we had not chosen to buy the day before.  We were equally disinclined to buy them today and soon wandered out into the train yard where our engine and cars had been rolled out of their sheds to be made ready for their run that day.

The great, black narrow-gauge steam locomotive sat motionless on the rails which, if they were any more narrow than standard rails, I couldn’t tell.  The feeling of mass and solidity emanating from the steel beast was palpable, and I felt a sense of my smallness as I stood beside the thing.  I could not hear any sound coming from the engine, but I knew that a fire must already be raging in its metal innards, because in a very short while the steam produced in the huge boiler would push pistons that would then turn wheels and drag four cars of happy tourists up a couple thousand feet over a pass and then many, many miles into the high valleys and ridges of the Rocky Mountains.  A little of my sense of smallness standing next to this ferrous goliath was dissipated by thinking of how this magnificent creation would simply sit on the tracks right where it then was and slowly rust until it returned to the dust of the ground unless frail men (or women) just like myself greased and oiled and painted and flung coal into the firebox and turned valves and pulled chains and levers, and generally made the monster dance to the engineer’s tune.  I felt my pulse race just a little knowing that very soon I would enjoy one of the very best rides of my life because the engineer would conduct a symphony in steel by flawlessly managing all of those factors.