Tag Archives: Family

The Garden, Chapter XXIV

“This is really weird” Charlie said softly as he and Rachael took their seats at Beth Shalom church in Vancouver, Washington.  “It looks like I’m in Israel.”

“I can’t imagine why that should be” Rachael replied with a chuckle.  “After all, we’re a bunch of Jews here who just happen to believe that Yeshua is the Messiah.”

Charlie took in the menorahs, the stars of David, the men wearing the little hats that Jewish men wear, and especially the wall on the right side of the room that was painted to look like the Western Wall in Jerusalem.  He even had to walk up to that wall to convince himself that the grass growing in the racks wasn’t real.  “So you learned how to be so nice by going to church here?” he asked.

Rachael sighed.  “Not really” she answered.  “If I really am all that nice, I learned if from my parents.  They really are two of the most wonderful people that I ever have known in my life.”

Rachael’s tone grew more somber after she told him that.  Charlie remembered her story from the first day that they had met, and began to connect the dots.  “But you don’t see them anymore, do you?”

Rachael heaved another sigh and sat silently next to him.  After a minute he spoke again.  “I’m sorry Rachael.  I shouldn’t have brought that up.  I guess I forgot that my pain wasn’t the only pain in the world.  Let’s just drop the subject, OK?”

“No” she replied.  “It’s not good to ‘just drop’ things.  Things don’t usually stay dropped.  It’s alright Charlie.  My parents consider me to be dead in their eyes.  They feel that I have left the faith that has sustained my people for thousands of years.  In their opinion, that places me outside of the community.  I know that they will always love me, but I am as dead to them as your daughter is dead to you.  I will be married within the year and, God willing, will begin a family, but my parents, my aunts and uncles, and all of the family except for two black sheep cousins won’t be a part of it.”

“I really am sorry Rachael.  I don’t know how to say it better than that.”

“It’s OK Charlie.  Really, it is.  I feel your sympathy more than hear it, and it’s appreciated.  The Holy Spirit interprets our prayers to the Father when our words fall short.  I think that the Spirit works like that between humans sometimes too.”

“Oh boy, have I got a lot to learn about this stuff.  I really don’t know anything about this Father and Holy Spirit business.  I thought it was all about Jesus; er, I mean Yeshua.”

“Yes, it is a lot to learn, and we Jews are very dedicated to learning.  ‘We learn so that we can teach’ is a guiding principle with us.  But don’t get tangled up in the details.  Love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.  Do that and you’re way ahead of the game.”

“Well, that’s not too – – -.”

“Ahhh-Ooohhhh!” A horn wailed.  A man emerged from a side door with a long, curled horn raised to his lips.  “Ahhh-Ooohhh!” A second man entered the room from a different door, blowing on a similar horn with a higher pitch.  The service had officially begun.

Three hours later Charlie and Rachael were walking toward the parking lot.  Two hours of service, nearly half of which had been spent singing in Hebrew, had been followed by a meal in a large room downstairs.  “Schmooze. Dance. Nosh” said the bulletin that had been handed out at the door, and that is exactly what went on downstairs.

“These people are my family now” Rachael said as they walked toward her car.  “They’ll never really take the place of Mom and Dad, but they’re not supposed to.  They’re my community.  We worship together, pray together, celebrate together, grieve together.  We complete each other.  I’m not close to everyone that you saw today.  In fact, there’s a few with whom I spend as little time as I can.  But I would do anything for all of them because they were made in God’s image and Yeshua loves his creation.  I will try as best I can to love them too.”

“That explains a lot” Charlie said.  “I suppose you believe that the kid that hit you is made in God’s image.”

“Exactly.  Yeshua loves him and died to redeem him just as he did to redeem me.  So how could I hate him?  Hate is the devil’s work, and I’ll let him keep that to himself, as best I can.”

“Rachael, can I just say this?” Charlie asked as they reached her car.  “You are one of the sweetest, most kind human beings that I have ever met.  I don’t know whether to thank your parents or your God for you, but I feel like a very lucky man to be able to call you my friend.”

Rachael blushed deeply, which lent an extra radiance to her usual beauty.  “Thank you Charlie.  I really don’t think that I deserve all of that, but a girl loves to hear a compliment.”

“That fact that you don’t think you deserve it makes it all the more applicable” Charlie replied.  “Thank you so much for sharing all of this with me.  “I don’t know where I’ll go with it, but you’ve given me a lot to think about.”

“I’m glad for that, Charlie” she replied.  “OK, I’ll see you soon at the garden.”  Rachael climbed into her car, backed out of the parking slot, and disappeared into the traffic on 49th Street.  Charlie watched until she drew out of sight.

He had no set plans for the rest of the day.  Carolyn was helping her sister to move a niece to Cheney, Washington, where she was beginning college at Eastern Washington University, and would be out of touch for a couple of days.  Charlie had been given a lead by his friend Manny Baca on a house that a speculator intended to have built for immediate sale, and Carolyn had been agreeable to letting Charlie put his crew on the job while all of the proper hoops were being jumped through on the strip mall project, which increasingly looked like it was going to happen.  Lester and the crew were good men.  They appreciated Charlie’s efforts to keep them busy, and repaid him by being diligent in their work.

Charlie drove by the project and saw that footings had been dug and forms were being set for the foundation.  Nobody was working that day and there was nothing there to inspect, but Charlie got out of his truck and walked among the trenches and forms and rough plumbing anyway.

The idea slowly formed in Charlie’s mind that for most of his life places like this had been his church.  Building codes, tax codes, balance sheets and labor laws had been his Bible, or maybe his Torah, the rolled up scroll or whatever it’s called that was carried around the room at the Jewish/Christian church he had been at that morning.

Those building codes and laws had outlined how he should live, what rules to follow, how to succeed, and what gave his life meaning.  But when the hammer of Stevie’s death came down on his head those codes didn’t have any answers for him.  Despair could not be countered with the hope offered by a balance sheet.  A family could not be held together by five nails in the field, on sixteen inch centers.

Charlie felt an unexpected moment of hatred toward the trades; this false god.  It promised him that it would be sufficient for him but it was a damned lie.  The trades had stabbed him in the back and then thrown him under the bus when he needed it the most.  Then he remembered Rachael’s words:  “Hate is the devil’s work.”  With an effort he switched gears and, maybe for the first time, looked at the trenches and pipes and forms around him and saw what they really are, which is trenches and pipes and forms, and nothing more or less than that.

Charlie inspected those artifacts one more time, but as a construction project this time, and not as a sacrament.  Satisfied with what he saw, he climbed into his truck and debated where to go next.  Billy was at home, studying hard in order to get a good start on his program at the community college.  Charlie could go there and do a little work on the main house where Billy’s parents lived, but he didn’t feel like it at the moment.  Finally, he simply turned on the engine, put the truck into gear and began to drive.

It seemed as if the truck drove itself, and soon Charlie saw that he was near the Blake Meadows neighborhood where he and Maureen had lived.  Charlie had not been in this neighborhood since the separation and felt an aversion to going into it now that he realized his proximity.

Another feeling overwhelmed that aversion.  Was it curiosity?  A desire for self-punishment?  A hope for, what?  Hope itself?  Charlie didn’t know, but whatever it’s provenance, that feeling gave him the steel to turn left onto Winston Street.  After a few turns he pulled up in front of 14513 NE Brownfield.

He parked across the street but allowed the motor to continue to idle.  The house looked a little the worse for wear.  It had been only two and a half years since he had lived there, but more like three and a half since he had cared about the place.  Now the roof shingles were sporting a coat of moss, thanks to the shade provided by the Enyerts’ maple tree next door.

The paint on the trim around the garage door was cracking at the bottom, where the splash from years of rain had weakened it  The lawn needed mowing and was sprinkled with a crop of dandelions.  Charlie felt a sadness, and an impulse to make an offer to buy the place back and restore it to health.  He quickly laid that aside however.  “You’ve moved on” he reminded himself.  “Maureen and Jack are moving on.  There’s nothing to be gained here, so it’s time to leave this place alone to be somebody else’s problem.”

Charlie put the truck into gear and drove through the neighborhood, remembering people, places and events in the same manner as when he had  walked through his old neighborhood in San Diego.  “That was yesterday” he thought.  “I’m more interested in today and tomorrow.”  At last he turned out of the neighborhood and after more aimless wandering found himself on the edge of downtown.  Having nothing better to do, he drove on into the area, found an empty spot along Main Street, pulled into it and shut down his motor.

Charlie simply sat in the cab of his truck, listening to the ‘ping,ping’ of the engine cooling.  “Why am I so melancholy?” he asked himself.  “Things are as good for me now as they have ever been, and yet I feel empty and aimless.  What the heck is this all about?”  After a few minutes he emerged from the truck and began to walk.  Leroy’s was not too far away, but LuAnn wouldn’t be working there that day.  He had no intention of eating but he decided to walk past the restaurant anyway.  It was almost ready to close.  He looked through the front window and saw Peggy cleaning up the last tables.  He waved to her and she waved back.

Charlie walked south, down Main.  “Funny” he thought.  “I enjoyed seeing Peggy and waving to her, and she’s not one of my favorite people.”  He passed by the pawn shops, past the homeless people congregating outside of a kitchen that soon would be passing out soup and sandwiches, and finally under the railroad bridge to where the path across the I-5 bridge began.  “I haven’t been here since that night last spring” he thought, and then he began walking up the approach and then onto the bridge itself.  The noise was awful, but he tuned it out and focused on a spot perhaps a seventy five yards in front of him.

When he reached that spot Charlie stopped.  The pedestrian path widened here at the middle of the river.  He looked over the railing at the water and watched it gurgle, ripple, and flow around the concrete pier and on down river towards the sea.  Today there were no faces imploring him to jump over the railing into those waters, and no voices coming out of the white noise produced by the traffic.

He stared into that water and thought of the Maureen who had visited him that night, and of the Jack who screamed at him to jump.  Now he had new faces to occupy his memory; Jack eating tacos and talking excitedly about music and history, and a forgiving Maureen offering her hand in friendship and mutual concern for their son’s welfare before driving away to meet Carl.  “Those are a good deal more welcome than the last faces were” he thought.  He continued to stare at the corner of the pier, where Stevie’s body had once appeared to be bumping up against it in the waves.  Today there was nothing but water, with the light of the sun sparkling on the tiny waves.  Stevie had elected to stay dead and buried today.

Charlie stayed there for perhaps twenty minutes, looking at where ghosts once played and beckoned.  Several pedestrians and bicyclists walked and rode past him.  He was aware that some looked at him strangely.  “Probably think I’m going to jump” he thought.  He assumed that the ones he didn’t pay attention to were looking at him in the same way.  Finally he grew tired of staring at the water, or to be more accurate he found no further reason to stay there.  He turned his back on that place and walked back across the bridge and into Vancouver.

Charlie’s restlessness was tempered but not cured.  He kept walking, and soon was walking past the apartment building where he had once lived.  “Existed would be more like it” he said to himself.  He walked past the window that he had nearly always kept open.  Today it was open too, probably in order to let a breath of cool air penetrate to allay the stuffiness of the warm summer day.  When he had lived there it was open in order to make the path easier for anyone who wanted to enter the apartment and kill the occupant in the process.

He didn’t linger near the apartment.  There were no good memories there and no good reason to linger, so he began his walk back to where the truck was parked.  That last few blocks led him past the big cathedral that he had entered a couple of times before, and he decided that he may as well go inside and pay it one more visit if it was open.

The building was in fact open, and Charlie stepped through the heavy wooden doors, into the cool interior of the cathedral.  There was nobody in the sanctuary at that time of the day.  Charlie was not sure why he had come in to this place.  He thought of the times the he had been there before; of how odd it felt and how he had been afraid that somebody would talk to him.  It now occurred to him that that was exactly what was causing his restlessness that day.  He wanted somebody to talk to.

Billy was busy, Carolyn was out of town, and his crew was off work today.  Rachael was relaxing at home on this sabbath day.  The only person with whom he could possibly connect at this time of the day was Walt, who was probably harvesting vegetables to take to the food bank.  Walt was a friend, it was true, but he was not what Charlie needed at this time.

On an impulse, he pulled out his phone and punched in Jack’s number.  Perhaps his son would spend a few minutes chatting with his lonely father.  After five rings the sound of a dog barking came over the phone, followed by a message:  “Hi!  This is Spunky the Dog.  My boy Jack is not available.  For the price of a bone I’ll pass on any message that you leave after the beep.  Woof.  Woof.”  Charlie thought about hanging up but rejected that idea out of hand.  He had already hung up on his son enough for one lifetime.  “Hi Jack.  This is your Dad.  I was just listening to a work by Haydn and it made me think of you.  I’ll try to touch bases with you later.  Bye.”

Charlie hung up and put his phone away.  “It’s probably bad form speaking on a phone in church anyway” he thought.  “Even if nobody’s here.”  He sat on the hard wooden pew for a while longer, thinking that he should go somewhere, but unable to think of anywhere to go that was any better than were he already was.

At last he arose and began to look at the art work, in the same manner as he had when he came here the previous spring.  The same statues; the same saints with their fingers raised in a silent blessing, the same sad Madonnas, the same bleeding Jesus.  Yeshua.  Charlie looked closely at the statue of the crucified Yeshua.  There was blood running down his forehead and into his beard, from the nails in his hands and feet, and from his side.  “I wonder what made that wound” Charlie thought.

Once again Charlie walked around looking at the pictures that hung on the walls and depicted Yeshua’s very bad day.  The art was beautiful, but Charlie looked more deeply into the story this time.  Yeshua condemned by a Roman governor, Yeshua, already bloodied, receiving his cross.  Yeshua stumbles.  “Man, that guy got a really bad deal” he thought.  “How could he carry that cross even if he hadn’t been beat to a pulp.  I know how heavy that much wood would be.”

     Now some guy gets to carry the cross for Yeshua.  A woman wipes his bloodied face.  He falls again. “The Rabbi didn’t talk about that today.  Why did Jesus/Yeshua have to do all of that?”  Yeshua is stripped, he’s nailed to the cross.  Charlie looked over at the statue of the crucified Yeshua and thought “That statue isn’t an isolated moment frozen in time.  That was part of a bigger, horrible deal.”  Yeshua finally dies, is removed from the cross and is buried.

“So, Rachael believes that this Yeshua went through all of this and is still alive.  I don’t know how you can believe such a thing, but she does and it guides her to be one of the most decent people I know.”  Charlie’s internal debate continued.  “But Carolyn’s a wonderful person too, and I’ve never heard her mention anything about religion, or if she has, I’ve forgotten it.  So why do I feel drawn to this?  Why did I go to church – she called it a synagogue – with Rachael this morning?  Was it just to be with Rachael?  No.  She’s a lovely woman, but that’s not why I went.

     And why am I here now?  This place with its saints and candles and bleeding god/hero is just as foreign to my life as is the Hebrew and the horns and all of the other trappings were this morning.  Why did I come here, and more important, why do I want to stay?”

     Charlie failed to find a good answer to that question and abruptly turned to leave the cathedral, and promptly walked right into a man in dark clothing and a white collar, exploding a box of papers that he was carrying and spraying hot coffee over both of them.

“Shit!” Charlie barked.  “I’m so sorry!  Let me help you with these.”  He bent down and began to gather up the papers and was quickly joined by his victim in that task.  After a moment though the man in black began to chuckle, then to laugh, and finally sat down on the floor with his back against the wall, right underneath where Yeshua was being laid to rest by some guy accompanied by a couple of grieving women, and laughed until tears ran down his face.

This was confusing to Charlie.  He finished collecting the papers and tried to give them to the man, who could hardly compose himself enough to receive them.  His laughter was as infectious as a benevolent bubonic plague, and soon a confused Charlie began to chuckle too.  He, too, sat down and leaned against the wooden pew opposite where the man in black rested.

“You’re a pastor, aren’t you?” Charlie asked.  “Or a priest?  I don’t know much about these things, but I’m pretty sure that you’re not a rabbi.”

“Father Krempke, but you can call me anything that you like, except late for dinner.  And you are – – -?”

“Uh, Charlie.  Charlie Hamer.”

“Pleased to meet you, Charlie Hamer.  I take it you’re not Catholic.” Father Krempke said as he began to get his laughter under control.  “A good Catholic boy would never steamroll a priest carrying his coffee.  His pathetic scribblings perhaps” and he pointed toward the papers.  “But never his coffee.”

“I really am sorry about that” Charlie said.  “And I’m sorry about my profanity too.”

“Oh, you mean shit?  It seemed perfectly suitable for the occasion to me.  I’m just glad that you couldn’t hear what I was thinking.  You can call me a priest if that is more comfortable to you, but I wouldn’t mind if you called me John.  That’s what my friends call me.”  The priest then looked at his empty cup of coffee and the brown liquid on the stone floor.  “I suppose I should get that up and get myself another cup.  Would you like to join me?”

Charlie felt at ease with this affable young man – what was he, in his thirties? – and offered to clean up the mess while Father Krempke poured two cups of coffee.  Soon they were seated in the pew near where the collision had occurred beneath the fourteenth station of the cross, sipping their coffee and becoming acquainted.  Father Krempke asked him about his life; not in an inquisitorial manner but as if he was genuinely interested.  Charlie responded to this young man’s kindness and interest and spoke of his going to the synagogue with Rachael that morning as his first real exposure to the religious experience, and of the questions that now bothered him.

“I’ve had a rough time the last few years, and I’m only now beginning to get a handle on things.  I’ve run into a few people who go to church and they seem to be onto something that I’m not.  But I know other people who don’t go to church and they’re doing OK too.  I feel sort of drawn to this” – Charlie waved at the interior of the church, – “but I don’t really know why.  I look up at those paintings and I can see that Yeshua – I mean Jesus – had a bad time of it, and I wonder, if he was a god or something, why did he take it in the shorts like that?  And if he was a god, why do all of the really crappy things that happen in the world still happen?  I can say crappy around here, can’t I?”

“Yes.  You can say ‘shitty’ if you want to” Father Krempke replied.  “You just asked enough good questions to produce a couple dozen books with good answers, and some of them I don’t have a good answer to.  Let me try to give you a thumbnail, even a drive-by, answer to some of them if you will.

You pointed out that you know good and decent people who are believers and others who are not.  How can that be?  I mean, if you’re not one of God’s flock you must be a total jerk, right?  Well, it’s not all that easy, and it’s not easy to explain either.  Let me put it this way.  God has created all of us.  All of this” – Father Krempke’s arm swept from his right to his left – “and he created it to be good.  We have a problem, though, that God calls sin, and that problem separates us from him but it doesn’t change who made us and how we were made to be.  That goodness can still shine out, regardless of a person’s religious belief or lack thereof.  Some of the nastiest people I know are religious while some atheists put a lot of effort and love into their community.  Remember, the people who killed Jesus were the religious leaders of his time.

“I don’t really know much about all of that, but I’ll take your word for it.”

“You really are new to this!  Well, anyway, God has said to us that he was interested in your heart, not in your credentials, and he preferred a helping hand offered to a neighbor more than the sacrifice of a thousand bulls.  Don’t get too tangled up in that sacrifice thing; that comes in Theology 1.02.  If you have unbelieving friends who are extending love to you, just know that their love is coming from God Himself, and he’s crediting that love from your friends to them as righteousness.”

“So” Charlie said, picking up on that thread.  “You’re saying that the God you’re talking about cares about us, even if we don’t know anything about him?”

“No, I didn’t say that at all, but I’m sure that I would have gotten around to it eventually.  What I was saying is that Jesus – God With Us – died for all of us.  He didn’t go through all of that” – Father Krempke again swept his arm, this time at the paintings of the stations of the cross – “just because it was the next step in the Big Plan.  He did it because he loves all of his creation.  There’s a verse in Romans, a book that a very smart Jew wrote to Jewish and non-Jewish believers in Rome.  ‘God demonstrated his love for us in this: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.’  So God loves us all, and all of us, to one degree or another, reflect that love back into the world.  God pays attention to that.”

“But then why does he let all of this awful stuff happen in the world?” Charlie asked.  “Why did my friends get so badly damaged in their wars?  Why did my boss’ husband die of cancer?  Why – – -,”  Charlie choked back a surge of emotion that was tinged with anger.  “Why did my daughter die?”

Father Krempke sat silent for a moment.  At last he said “Charlie, in the first place I’m sorry for your loss.  I truly am.  We priests don’t get to have daughters, so I won’t pretend to know how that hurt feels.  But I’ve buried enough sons and daughters to know that the hurt is deep and the anger is natural.  Again, I’m sorry.

As to why those things happened, I won’t try to give you a facile argument, because I frankly don’t know why they happened.  Humans just seem to love wars and they love to send their young men to fight in them.  The world is bent, if not fully broken.  I can assure you that God does not like the idea of war.  And disease was not God’s plan either.  He made the world perfect.  It got bent, as I said, and I won’t go into the ‘how’ about it right now.  It just did and now God’s working on straightening it out.  That’s why he did what he did” – the priest pointed at the paintings of Jesus on his journey to the cross and then to the grave.  “That was the only way that God could sort this mess out.

Finally, I don’t know why your daughter died, but it was not because God wanted it.  Like I said, he is straightening this mess out but it isn’t finished getting fixed just yet.  Until it does get fixed, these sad things will continue to happen.  But he IS working on it and paid a pretty high price to get things in motion.  When he gets this all sorted out it will make sense in the end.  Until that happens, we just have to live by faith.  But know this; God loved – no loves – your daughter, and wants the very best for her.  Her death was not because God was angry with her, that I can assure you.”

“So you think that Stevie might be in heaven?”

“Hmm.  That’s above my pay grade.  Let me try to wriggle off of that hook by saying that it is very possible that she is.  I told you earlier that I believe that people who show God’s love, whether they know that he is the source of it or not, have that credited to them as righteousness.  How that plays out in the end, I don’t know.  The Bible is an operator’s manual, not an exhaustive schematic.  But I do know that God doesn’t want anyone to die an eternal death.  Not one person.  He’s not some sort of cosmic spoil sport who creates people just so that he can cook them.  There’s other scripture that says God wants all people to live, but I don’t want to overwhelm you with that.”

“But you ARE saying that Stevie MIGHT be in heaven” Charlie persisted.

Father Krempke sighed and said “Yes, I guess that is what I am saying, but it’s so much more complicated than that; so much nuance.  But I will say to you again that the answer is ‘yes’, I believe that she might be in heaven.”

“The sheep and the goats thing, right?” Charlie asked.

“Yes, exactly.  So you do know something about all this.”

“Very little.  A Jewish Christian told me about that, but I don’t really know the context or anything.”

“Well, bless his or her heart.  Look, God is gracious and loving.  God made a lot of people who couldn’t possibly know anything about Abraham or Moses or Jesus and his ministry.  Native Americans who fished for salmon in the Columbia River right here three or four thousand years ago, for instance.  How could they know how to pray the sinner’s prayer and punch their ticket into heaven?  Unless you believe that God created those people, people that the Word of God clearly says that he loves, specifically to go from birth to barbecue, and I emphatically DON’T believe that, then you have to believe that there’s more to the story than what we generally know.  That smart Jew that I mentioned earlier?  He wrote about that issue too.”

“Well, if we can get into heaven just by being good, why do all of this?” and it was Charlie’s turn to sweep his arm from right to left through the sanctuary.  “Why worry about all the rules and restrictions?”

“I never said anything about rules and restrictions, and I don’t believe God said much about them either.  He said ‘Love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself.’  It was actually a little more poetic than that, but that’s what he said.  Love God because God is good and deserves to be loved, and love your neighbor in the same way that God loves you, or as near to that as you can get.  That’s about it.  We men have laid a lot of other stuff on top of that, but that’s really what God said.  He gave us a lot of suggestions about how we can make a better life, but that one commandment was the one that he said he really wanted from us.

And faith means a lot to God. Doing good things is certainly valuable to him, to your neighbor and even to you, but trying to run up a score as if you have the power to work your way into heaven isn’t the whole trick.  Doing this because you have faith in God is really what he wants, but this is a lot to pack into a first conversation.”

Charlie was beginning to think the same thing.  That morning with Rachael he had been introduced to the awe and mystery that a people had felt for thousands of years for a God who they had never seen, but who’s presence they had felt through their few victories and their long and murderous list of persecutions.  Now he was listening to this priest tell him of a God who knows him and loves him personally, and who loves Stevie and Walt and Jack, and everyone else that he knew and cared about on a personal level.  It was a lot to think about, and Charlie felt like it was time to go and do that.”

Charlie rose from the pew and asked Father Krempke if they could talk again.  “Of course” the Father had replied.  “I live here.  I look forward to seeing you any time that you like, as long as I’m not baptizing a baby or something.”  Charlie smiled at that and then walked out into the sunlight of the Vancouver afternoon.

His truck was only a couple of blocks away and soon he was in it and driving east.  At first he didn’t know where he was going but it soon became clear as he drove closer to the cemetery where Stevie lay resting.  He entered the lot in front of the cemetery office and parked the truck.  A lot of bodies had been added to this place in the last two and a half years, but Charlie walked straight to a spot that he knew he could never forget.

There it stood, the granite marker that announced the final resting place of Stephanie Allison Hamer, August 7, 1995 – June 12, 2015.  Charlie walked slowly up to the marker and knelt down in front of it.  He stayed there silently for a long time, he had no idea how long.  At last he began to speak.

“Hi Stevie” he said.  “It’s been a long time.  I guess I would normally ask somebody how they’ve been doing, but it seems a little misplaced here, with you being dead and all.  But on second thought, maybe you aren’t really dead.  That’s a new thought, and it’s taking some getting used to.  I think that I like it though.  I could sort of get used to it.  I’ll let you know how it works out.

I’m doing fine, I think.  I’m back in the saddle as far as work goes, but it’s not the most important thing in my life any more.  I think it was people, and not work that saved my life.  Well, actually, some really cool people are telling me that it was God sending those people into my life that have saved my life.  I never really thought about God much before.  Well, to be more truthful, I never thought about God at all.  I’m thinking about him now though.  I think that maybe you’ve even met him.  Funny, talking about God as a him.  God would have to be pretty big to be creating all of this stuff and keeping it going.  Like, does he – it – have a body?  I dunno.  You might know, but I don’t.

Anyway, your mother seems to be doing OK.  I saw her last week and she looks good.  She’s still a beautiful woman, really.  She’s where you got your beauty from, in case you didn’t know.  She’s got a boyfriend.  You know, that sounds really weird.  Unless the guy’s like seventeen or something, why would I call him a boyfriend?  Anyway, she does, and she says that he’s a good man.  We’re talking again and I hope that we can always be friends.  I think we can.

I’m seeing a woman too.  I guess I have to call her a girlfriend.  I suppose it’s only fair.  But she really is a woman, and a beautiful one.  I know that you would like her.

Stevie – – -.  Stevie, some people that I know have suggested that you aren’t really dead, that you are alive and in a place called heaven.  I don’’t know about that but I feel the greatest possible comfort knowing that it is at least a possibility.  I mean, a year ago I didn’t even believe that heaven exists.  Now, I believe that it is possible.  How?  I don’t know.  A very nice guy just told me today that some knowledge was above his pay grade.  I guess that knowledge is above mine.  I mean, it’s possible that this is all a bunch of crap and I’m kneeling here talking to a piece of rock in the middle of a big lawn.

But maybe not.  Maybe you are alive and can hear me and are the happiest that you could possibly be, and maybe I’ll be with you someday, just as happy as you are and never to be without you again.  Maybe you had to have that accident and die so that I could figure that out.  I like that thought.  For now, I think that I’ll hang onto it and see how far I can go with it.

“Say ‘Hi’ to Yeshua for me.  That’s what a Jewish friend of mine calls Jesus, but I guess you might already know about that.  I’ll be seeing you when my time rolls around.

The Garden Chapter XXIII

Charlie was sitting in the fourth row in the auditorium, two rows in front of Maureen and Jack and five seats to their left.  He had arrived early and waited impatiently in front of Loolooska High School in Gresham, on the Oregon side of the river, watching as proud mothers and fathers and bored siblings accompanied a herd of boys and girls who were wearing suits and dresses.  No doubt, those children would provide the afternoon’s entertainment.  Charlie had continually scanned the incoming crowd, wondering how he would react when he saw his ex wife and son, and how they would react when they saw him.  At last, as teachers began to lead a number of the younger students backstage, and parents and other family members began to file into the building in order to find their seats, the familiar faces of Jack and Maureen appeared at the side of the auditorium, walking toward him.

Charlie’s heart skipped a beat or two when he saw them.  Jack was taller than his mother, and probably almost as tall as Charlie.  He walked with a confident air, almost a swagger, and his face projected a nonchalance that suggested that this was a day just like any other.  Maureen walked by his side and, once she saw Charlie, locked her face into an expressionless mask.  Jack, once he made eye contact, allowed something that looked like a smirk to play across his face.

“Oh, God in heaven” Charlie thought.  “This is the biggest fucking mistake of my life.”  He felt an urge to turn around and run, not walk, away from this place, but he thought of D’Andra, LuAnn, Billy and Rachael, who had all supported his decision to proceed with the project.

And also about Carolyn.   “You don’t seem to be yourself tonight” She had told him after he met with her at four o’clock the previous Wednesday.  “Is everything alright?”

They had retired to an Indian restaurant after concluding their business, which consisted of a medium-sized and somewhat decrepit strip mall that was for sale at a very good price.  Carolyn had made an offer which, if accepted, would give her the equity necessary to secure a loan that would allow for the old and worn half of of the mall to be torn down and replaced and the rest renovated, with the whole of it potentially turning into a very comfortable income property.

Carolyn’s instincts were acute, as usual, and Charlie’s experience filled in the gaps here and there and allowed Carolyn the comfort of confidently making what she could consider a very good deal.  They were now celebrating the potential acquisition that could make her very well off, if all things went according to plan, and provide a project which, along with the apartment remodel, could keep Charlie’s new crew busy for the rest of summer and fall.

“Well, not really” Charlie answered.  “It’s beginning to sink in that I’m going to be seeing my son and ex wife in five days.  The prospect of that stirs up memories and poses ‘what if’s’ that I sort of wish I didn’t have to think about.”

Carolyn thought about that, shifting gears from her business and it’s potential triumph and focusing her attention on Charlie.  “Oh, I forgot about that.  I imagine it’s a very hard thing to prepare for.  There’s nothing that I know of that I can say to give you comfort about this, so I’ll just say that I am in your corner.  I hope that this turns out well for you.”

“Thank you” Charlie replied.  “That means a lot.  I’m more nervous and confused than I thought I’d be.  I really don’t know what in the world is about to happen, or how it will affect my life.”

“Well, I hope that it results in you getting close to your son.  That’s the point, isn’t it?”

“Yes” Charlie agreed.  “That’s the point.  That’s the ‘main thing’ as one friend described it.  But it’s become more complicated, maybe.”

“More complicated?” Carolyn asked.  “What do you mean?”

“What I mean is that this process, which was intended to put me back into a relationship with Jack, will by necessity put me into some sort of contact with my ex wife.”

Carolyn waited for Charlie to elaborate, which he did not do.  She pushed a piece of eggplant around in a pile of savory rice until she decided that he wasn’t going to complete his thought.  “So, Charlie, what’s the matter with being in contact with your ex wife?”

It was Charlie’s turn to push a piece of chicken around in the few vegetables that remained on his plate.  “Maybe I should just lay it out for her to see the whole picture” he thought, but then he thought “No, are you crazy?  You might trash a very productive partnership!  But what about your heart, fool?  You’ve bullshit yourself your entire life.  Why don’t you be real for a change?  Because ‘real’ can blow shit up like an atomic bomb!  Can’t you ever leave well enough frikkin’ alone?”

     The battle raged in Charlie’s mind and the effort of it played on his face.  Carolyn put down her fork and sat silently, waiting for whatever was to come from the struggle going on in Charlie’s agitated mind.  At last he put down his own fork, drained the Vietnamese Tiger Beer, and looked directly into Carolyn’s eyes.

“I’m dealing with the possibility that Maureen might want to return into marriage with me, for Jack’s sake, of course.”

Carolyn’s face didn’t change; not one iota.  Or did it?  If anything, it set a little more rigidly, but that could just be his imagination.  After a moment she spoke.

“That would be good, wouldn’t it Charlie?  I mean, putting a family back together is usually thought to be good.”

“Yeah, that’s what they say” he replied.  “And that’s what I would do, if it came to that.  For Jack’s sake, at least.”

Silence fell again.  Charlie fidgeted with his empty beer bottle and Carolyn caught the waiter’s eye.  With hand signals she called for refills of their drinks.

“For Jack’s sake” she echoed.  “Yes, Jack is the point of all of this, isn’t he?”

“Yes” Charlie replied.  “He is, and that’s what makes this wonderful and what makes it hard, too.”

“I don’t follow you.”

“I mean, it’s wonderful because I set out to do this thing and, against a whole lot of odds, it looks like it’s about to happen; about to start, anyway.  Of course, I have no idea how it will progress beyond this Sunday, or if it will progress at all, for that matter, but I’ve learned that I’ll just have to cross that bridge when I come to it.”

Charlie stopped talking when the waiter brought their drinks, and then began to fidget with the new full bottle of beer rather than continue his train of thought.  After a short period of silence Carolyn took the initiative to get the conversation rolling again.  “And what about the hard part?” she asked.  “As if any of it hasn’t been hard.”

Charlie stopped picking at the label and put the bottle down on the table.  He drew a little cleansing breath and the looked again directly at Carolyn.

“I was given some good advice when I began this project” he said to her.  “‘What’ll I say to him, or to Maureen, if I even get in touch with them?’ I asked some people.  I believe that you were one of those people.  ‘Tell them the truth’ was the good advice that those people gave me.  I have tried to take that advice so far and will continue to do so.  Now, I’m going to continue that policy with you.  I hope that this doesn’t damage our relationship, but telling any less than the truth wouldn’t enhance it, so here goes.

I would be wise to renew my marriage with Maureen if that extremely unlikely opportunity should ever present, for all of the obvious reasons.  It would be very painful for me to do that however for the single reason that I feel myself becoming more and more attracted to you.”

Charlie felt his face turning red at this point, but he pressed on.  “I feel sort of like a seventeen year old kid just now.  Forgive me if I’m stumbling a little about this, but it’s hard for me to feel like I’m saying it correctly.  I don’t want to let ambiguity be the guiding principle however.  I don’t know how you feel about this, or me for that matter, but I can’t pretend that what I feel isn’t real and I won’t lie about it.  I hope that our relationship can grow to more than it is now, but at the same time I also hope that if that’s not possible, then it won’t change to become something less.

But a renewal of my marriage to Maureen, which I repeat is highly unlikely under any circumstance but which I would nevertheless do, and do with a whole heart for the sake of my son, would end even the possibility that I might further develop a relationship with you, if such a thing is possible, and that thought is very hard for me to deal with.

So there it is; the plain truth.  I know, it’s not very romantic.  I’ve daydreamed about telling you this in a manner something more like Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, but I’m afraid that’s just about the best that I can do.”

Charlie sat back in the booth, picked up his beer and took a long drink, trying to lubricate his throat which had suddenly become as parched as sand.  Carolyn said nothing.  Charlie felt like fidgeting with his beer bottle again but fought the urge.  Carolyn raised her glass to her own lips and took a sip of her drink.  At last Charlie couldn’t restrain himself any longer and began to pick at the label of his beer.  Carolyn reached over the table and gently removed the bottle from his hands and set it down.  Charlie looked up over the bottle at Carolyn as she began to speak.

“Charlie, that’s the most romantic thing that I’ve ever heard.”  He looked confused, and she then continued.  “You just told me that you care about me and want to have a relationship with me, but your love for your son and sense of duty to him could force you to possibly give up a chance for that to happen.  Oh, my God!  You’ve told me that you have feelings for me, and only the power of a man’s love for his son can prevent you from hoping to see what those feelings for me could grow into; that you would give up your hope of happiness with me only for the love of your son.  Charlie, a girl could live a couple of lifetimes and never hear such an expression from such a good man as you are!  Cary Grant never said anything like that to Grace Kelly, and I know this for a fact.  I’ve seen every movie that either one of them made and I never heard anything like that.

Charlie, I have been developing feelings for you as well, and that is something that surprises me very much.  I could not imagine somebody taking the place of my husband.  In fact, the thought is still difficult to comprehend.  But I will put those feelings that I have for you on hold indefinitely, and I don’t foresee any change in our current relationship – business or friendly – as this situation develops.  Your faithfulness to your son is the most important thing here, and I will support that with a whole heart.”

Disappointment, desire, relief, and hope all danced an intricate minuet on Charlie’s face as he tried to digest what Carolyn had just told him, but while his face was busy, his mind struggled to put two coherent thoughts together.  Carolyn, at last, took pity on him.  She reached back across the table, took Charlie’s hand, and gently wrapped his fingers around the bottle of beer.  “Here” she said.  “Drink this before it gets warm, and let’s talk more about a schedule for the project in Orchards.

Charlie sat in his auditorium seat, thinking alternately of Carolyn’s comments and what he might say to Jack after the recital.  That event had progressed from young children playing pieces barely more advanced than ‘Chopsticks’ to a very simple version of Für Elise.  Jack, being one of the two or three most advanced students, would be performing at or near the end of the recital, which gave Charlie time to let his thoughts drift from Carolyn to other things.

He reflected that Maureen had not exuded one bit of warmth when she and Jack walked up to Charlie in front of the auditorium.  “Hello, Maureen” he had said to her.  “It’s good to see you again.”  And then he turned to Jack and observed “You’re as tall as your mother!  It’s really good to see you again, too.”

Jack had said nothing in reply.  Maureen merely said “It will start soon.  We have seats already.  You had probably better get one before the good ones are gone.”

She and Jack then turned and walked into the building, and Charlie was left standing under the sun to decide if he would follow them in or simply walk back to his truck.  The truck lost that debate, but only by the barest of margins, and now he was in his seat close to the stage.  He had no idea where Maureen and Jack were sitting at the time and did not immediately look around to find out.  Almost by accident he had noticed that they were not far away.

Charlie eventually found that he was enjoying the music as it got more advanced, and he began to think more about that than of his tangled and tentative relations with Jack and Maureen and, well, life in general.  Billy had introduced him to Chopin, and now he was listening to music at night that had been composed by a variety of people.  Chopin, Mozart, and Beethoven he had heard of before, but Borodin, Lizst, Enesco and others had created music that was healing to Charlie’s soul.  The music that he was beginning to hear this day was progressing in complexity, and Charlie gave it more and more of his attention.

At a point half way through the recital an intermission was scheduled.  After it was announced from the stage, people began to rise and head towards restrooms and a concession area in the lobby of the auditorium.  Charlie looked towards Jack and Maureen’s seats and found them to be empty.  Feeling like he could use a cup of coffee, he left his seat and joined the throng.  “I could use a shot of Billy’s whisky more” Charlie thought, “but coffee will have to do for now.”

The line for coffee was not long and soon Charlie had a cup in his hand.  The coffee was free, with only a donation requested.  He sipped the coffee and decided quickly that the cost was an accurate reflection of the quality, and he stepped outside in order to find someplace where he could discreetly dump it on the ground.  To his surprise, he came face to face with Maureen.

They both stopped dead in their tracks, neither one speaking a word.  Seconds passed, and Charlie decided that this whole affair was not going well, and that it would have to change or he would withdraw from it altogether.  “This coffee is awful” he finally said lamely.  “There’s not much that I can’t drink, but this fits right into the middle of that category.”

He turned to empty his cup on the ground by some bushes.  “If she’s gone when I turn back around, I’m walking to the truck and getting the hell out of here” he thought.  He took longer to pour out his coffee than was necessary, and then he turned back around.  Maureen was still standing there.  Charlie drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, and then stepped back in front of his ex wife.

“Maureen” he said.  “I’ll not pretend that this isn’t awkward, well, actually more than awkward, for all of us.  I admit, I thought about saying how nice it was to see you, how good you look, or ask how you’ve been doing, blah blah blah.  You know, all of that small talk stuff.  I guess I did that a little when I mentioned how tall Jack has become.  You probably already knew that Jack is growing and didn’t need my observations to confirm that fact, so that was a little bit stupid and predictable.

Well, what I really want to say, to you at least, is that my intentions are exactly what I said they are.  I am not here to pry into your life; of either of your lives, for that matter.  I just want to find out if there’s some way that I can still be a father to Jack.  If this is going to cause pain or problems to you – either of you – just tell me and I will drive away right now.”

Maureen was silent as she digested what Charlie had said to her.  At last her face softened, or so it seemed to Charlie, and she replied.  “Charlie, I’m sorry that you didn’t get a better reception from me.  I can’t speak for Jack, but it hurt more seeing you than I thought it would.  I don’t know how he felt; he’s been a little bit of a closed door to me for some time now.  I think that it’s hard for him too however.  We cried a lot together before he began to draw away from me, so I think it must have been hard for him today too.”

Charlie thought about Billy’s metaphor of putting fingers into bleeding arteries.  Here was one standing in front of him, and he wondered what to do.  How could he put pressure over the wound?  It occurred to him suddenly that he was not there as a medic; the metaphor only went so far.  He couldn’t fix everything, so he just had to plow ahead and do the best that he could.

“We’ve all been through hell” Charlie began, “and I wish that I had a magic wand that I could use to fix things up.  I’m all out of magic wands though.  I’ve just barely held myself together until last spring, when things started to get turned around for me.  I don’t really know what I’m doing or even how I’ll do it.  IF I get a chance to do it.  But I feel strongly that I have a duty to fulfill towards Jack, and that by doing that duty I might generate some health for both of us.  Maybe for all of us, actually.”

“Maybe so” Maureen replied.  “I came to believe something like that might be possible, or I wouldn’t have agreed to this.  But I’m being cautions,  I don’t know you anymore.  Not really.  We’ve been apart for two years, and more than two years if we want to be honest.  Perhaps you are a different person now.  It seems to me like you might be, but even so, who is that different person?  The last one messed me up pretty good, so I’ll not be too quick to get entangled with the new version.”

“That makes sense” Charlie said.  “It hurts like hell, but it makes sense.  You are wise to approach this in such a way.  I’ll do my best to be as open and honest about who I am as I can, but for now we probably had better return to the recital.  I don’t want to be stepping on some proud parent’s toes when their Johnny or Susie is playing ‘Moon River.’”  Maureen smiled at that and agreed.”

“Where is Jack, anyway?” Charlie asked as they reentered the building.

“He went backstage” she replied.  “He calls it ‘putting his game face on.’  He’s serious about his music and gets into some kind of a zone when he plays.  I think it’s the place where he goes to get away from things.”

“Oh, I never even picked up a program!” Charlie said.  “Is he playing last?”

“Next to last” Maureen answered.  “There’s a girl who he competes with who’s last today.  They battle for last place – which is first place really – at every recital that they both attend, and it’s about a fifty-fifty proposition.  She’s really good, and gives him a run for his money.”

‘What’s he playing today?”

“It’s called a nocturne.”

“Nocturne?” Charlie asked.  “By Chopin?”

“Yes” Maureen answered.  “I’m surprised that you know of him.”

“Yeah, I’ve been listening to some music lately.  My roommate is quite a fan.  Do you know which Nocturne?”

“Not really.  I’ve got a program here though.”  Maureen unfolded a single sheet of paper that she had stowed in her purse and looked on the back.  “It’s Number 2”

“Opus 9” Charlie added.

“Yes” Maureen replied, clearly astonished by Charlie’s familiarity with the music.  “How did you know – – -, well, we had better get back to our seats” she said.

Charlie returned to his seat feeling much better about the way that things were progressing.  Maureen had opened up and allowed civil conversation.  That was probably enough for one visit by itself.  Now it was a matter of waiting for the recital to be finished and then beginning the process with Jack.  Charlie sat back in his chair and let the music play through his head, simply enjoying the increasingly advanced pieces, mistakes and all.  “I wonder what that girl will play” Charlie thought.

That girl played ‘Malagueña,’ a piece of music composed by a Cuban pianist, and it was of sufficient complexity that it deserved to be played last.  The young woman performed flawlessly and everyone, including Jack, rose to their feet to give her a standing ovation when she struck the concluding chords with authority.  Charlie made contact with Maureen’s eyes and signaled that he would meet them outside.  He then shuffled along at the speed of the herd of parents, performers and their siblings, and finally found Jack and Maureen waiting outside.

“That was amazing, Jack”  Charlie said as he walked up to them.  “I haven’t heard that piece played better.  You really nailed it.”

“Oh, really?” Jack replied.  “So you’ve been listening to a lot of Chopin lately?”

“Yeah, I’ve been listening to a little” he replied, overlooking the snark in Jack’s voice.  “Hey, let’s go and get some food.  Did you say The Iguana Feliz?” Charlie asked Maureen.

“Yes, it’s just down Grandison, about seven or eight blocks and on the right.”

“I know where it is.  I’ll see you all there in a few minutes, OK?”

They agreed to that and Charlie walked to his truck.  He fired it up and drove it slowly out of the parking lot, inching it along in order to avoid running over any of the little people who were prone to dash about once released from the agony of having to listen to brothers or sisters and others play the piano on a perfectly beautiful Northwest day.  He waited for a break in the traffic and bolted into a left turn onto Grandison, through a gap that was smaller than safety would normally allow.  He was anxious to get to the restaurant and let the process begin.  Soon he was parked and walking into the front door of the restaurant.  The place was crowded but, to his surprise, Jack and Maureen already had a booth.

“I can’t believe that you beat me here” Charlie said as he walked up to them.  “You must have let Jack drive.”

The quip fell flat.  “I’m fourteen, Charlie.  I don’t drive yet.”

Charlie was set back by Jack’s remark.  He had meant it as a harmless joke, and he didn’t particularly like being called by his first name by his son.  “Pick the battles that count” he told himself, “if you have to pick any battles at all.”

“I know, son.  It’s just a joke.”  He slid onto the bench seat next to Maureen.  He was here to connect with Jack, if that was ppossible, so he wanted to face him.  “So, what’s good here?”

Jack was silent, and Maureen spoke to fill the awkward silence.  “Jack likes the carnitas tacos.”

“What do you like?   Charlie asked of Maureen.

“I’m fond of the fish tacos” she replied.

“So, can I order those things for you two?” Charlie asked, looking first at Jack, then at Maureen.  Jack shrugged his shoulders, which Charlie took to be at least a ‘why not,’ and Maureen nodded her assent.

The waitress came to take their orders and Charlie said “Tres tacos de carnitas para el joven, dos de pescado para la señora, y para mi chili verde.”  The waitress was obviously pleased to hear the Anglo ordering their meal in her native tongue.  Charlie ordered the drinks and she swished away through to crowd to place their order.

“I didn’t know that you spoke Spanish” Maureen said.

“Yeah, a little.  I worked with a lot of Hispanic construction teams and learned enough to get by.

“That was pretty awesome” Jack said.  I’d like to learn some Spanish.  Maybe next year.

“I find it to be useful, even a little bit fun”  Charlie replied.  “And getting back to what we were talking about at the recital, that was a very good job on that nocturne.  I’ve listened to most of them; Chopin’s Nocturnes, I mean.  I downloaded a set performed by Brigitte Engerer.  You heard of her?”  Jack shock his head.  “She was a Tunisian born French pianist, and I love the touch that she has with Chopin.  You know, that girl rocked Malagueña, but the touch that you displayed in Number 2 was every bit as deft as the passion that she expressed through her piece.  I’m really impressed.”

“Wow!” Jack said, and this time without a bit of snark in his voice.  “When DID you start liking music?”

“I’ve always liked music” Charlie lied, and then he remembered his friends’ advice that he be nothing but truthful with Jack and Maureen.  “But I’ve come to appreciate it a lot more lately, since I moved in with my roommate.  I was always the big shot contractor, but now I have time to cultivate a taste for other things.  Billy turned me on to classical music and I’m really enjoying it.  Did you know that Chopin was Polish, but that he didn’t have a country?”

Jack was beginning to warm up to the thread of the conversation, while Maureen sat in her corner of the booth with surprise all over her face.

“What do you mean he didn’t have a country?  He was Polish.

“Yes, there were Polish people but there wasn’t a Poland then.  It had been divided up between Russia, Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  A lot of Poles fought for Napoleon, hoping that he would restore Poland, but he didn’t do it.  While the Poles were out in their own wilderness, their musicians, writers and poets spoke, played and sang to the heart of the people.  Chopin was one of the greatest of these.”

“That’s awesome, Dad!” Jack said, and then continued the conversation.  “Napoleon screwed a lot of people over.  Beethoven wrote his Third Symphony in honor of him, but changed his mind about it before it was finished.  I don’t know why.”

“Me neither, but maybe it was because Beethoven was German, and the Germans were one of the people who were sticking it to the Poles.”

“Naw” Jack replied.  “There wasn’t really a Germany yet, and Beethoven was from one of the western German states while Prussia was in the east, although he did die in Vienna, so maybe it was an Austrian thing.”

“You know, you may be right about that.  The Austrians turned on Napoleon first chance that they got.”

“So, Jack asked.  “How come you know all of this stuff?  This doesn’t have much to do with building houses and collecting rents.”

“You’re right.  Music is not at all like building houses and collecting rents.  But I don’t do as much of that as I used to, although I still am busy in the trades.  I’ve just found that there’s value in slowing down and enjoying some of the other things of life.  Besides, my roommate is pretty smart and knows a lot about this stuff.”

“Who’s your roommate?” Jack asked.  “Is she pretty?”

Charlie could see Maureen’s face redden at that moment, but he spoke quickly to defuse any possible reaction from her.  “HE’s really not pretty at all.  Well, I guess he’s kind of cute, in a G.I. Joe sort of way.  I guess you’d have to ask a woman about that.  He’s a veteran that I met through another friend.  He was wounded in Iraq and is getting ready to go back to school.  He’s one of the smartest guys I know.”

“He was in Iraq?  Cool!  I bet he has some crazy stories to tell.  I think maybe I want to join the Army when I’m eighteen.  Or maybe the Marines.”

Charlie thought for a moment about Walt and Billy, and about the bombs and machine guns and prisoners with most of their heads eaten away.  He thought about their trip to the forest to try and see some elk that nearly turned into a gun battle between a game warden and two damaged soldiers.  Charlie wanted to shout “Are you crazy?”  Instead, he said “He has stories to tell, but he is not very quick to tell them.  Maybe it would be good for you to hear some of them sometimes, so that you have a more clear picture of what the military can be about.  Military service is honorable, but there’s a cost.  Maybe some time, if your mother approves of course,” he nodded at Maureen, “I can introduce you to Billy.  Whether he tells you any stories or not, I can’t predict.”

“That would be awesome, Dad” Jack said.  “So, do you have a girlfriend?”

The question caught Charlie almost flat-footed.  “Who taught you to be so direct?” he asked his son with a laugh.

“You did” Jack replied.  “You never know when everything’s going to go to pot, so I don’t have time for B.S.”

“Touché” Charlie said.  “And ‘NO,’ I don’t have a girlfriend.”

“A boyfriend?”

Maureen turned bright red this time, but Charlie laughed out loud.  “No, pipsqueak” he said with a big grin.  This was like talking with the guys at the Smelly Socks.  “I don’t have a boyfriend.  Do you?”

“Do I what?”

“Do you have a girlfriend?  Or a boyfriend, for that matter.  I’m not judging.”

“No to both, but I’ve got the serious hots for Maria.”

“Maria?”

“The girl who played the last piece” Maureen interjected, trying to become a part of the conversation.

“Ah, I’ll bet that she knows that.  It explains the passion in her playing.  She was showing off and telling you how she feels.  Well, you’re going to fall flat as a pancake if you try to woo her with your morose Nocturne.”

“Opposites attract” Jack replied.  “And besides, I have a little ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ in me.”

The food arrived at this time and banter and serious talk about music and girlfriends and wounded veterans was spaced around bites of the quite delicious food.  After they were finished eating Jack announced that he was going to walk home, as they lived not far from the restaurant.  Jack rose out of his seat and Charlie got up too.

“Jack” Charlie began. “It’s been really good to see you.  If you are OK with it, I would like to stay in touch with you and your mother.  I’ll be going fishing with Blly when his schooling permits, and if you’d like to speak with him I’m sure that he could tell you a lot about being in the Army, although once again, he may not share too many stories about his actual service.”

“Yeah, that would be cool, Dad.  You know, you’re all right.  I didn’t think you would be, but you are.”

Charlie nearly choked on that.  He could feel his eyes beginning to fill and had to take a moment to make sure that his voice didn’t waver on him.  “I’ve been learning how to hug people and I would like to give you one.  If that’s too weird for you, a handshake would be fine.”

Jack extended his hand.  Charlie grasped it and, to his surprise, Jack pulled him into an embrace.  “It’s cool, Dad.  People do hug.”  After a long embrace, Jack stepped back, said “See ya,” and walked out the door.  Charlie watched him leave and then turned to Maureen.  He sat in Jack’s seat so that he could face her.

“Well, I didn’t believe that it would work out that well” he said.

“Nor I” Maureen agreed.  “He’s not been that open for a while.  I know the music thing really spoke to him.”

“I hoped that it would.  I learned a lot from my roommate, about music and a lot of other things.  He really is a pretty smart guy.”

“Well, I hope that you discourage this Army thing that he brought up.  I don’t need to see my son march off to a war.”

“Don’t worry.  That’s the last thing that I want.  Believe me, Billy will say nothing to make it look glamorous.  He got torn up pretty badly, and in some ways he still is.”

“Well, that’s good.  I mean that he won’t encourage Jack, not about him being torn up.  We can talk about future contact later.  I have to get going now myself.  Oh, but there’s something else that I want to bring up before I go.”

“Yes?” he asked.  “What is that?”

“Uh, well, I am fine with you and Jack getting connected.  I really am.  And I can see that you are changed.  You seem to be in a better place than I’ve seen you in a long time.”  She laughed at that.  “Not that I’ve seen you in a long time.”  Then she became serious again.

“Charlie, I want you to know up front that I am not interested in resuming much of a relationship with you.  I’m just beginning to get my own head together and I am in a relationship with another person.  That was hard to do, because I could only see you for a long time.  I finally began to see Carl for who he is, and I think I am on my way back to happy.  So, if you had any such ideas, I want you to know clearly that I am not interested in that.  I can see that you are a good person but I’ve moved on, and I intend to keep it that way.”

Charlie was so happy to hear that that he could have reached across the table and kissed Maureen.  “I’m really glad for you, Maureen” he said.  “I admit that the thought of you with somebody else gives me a flutter or two in my gut, although I have no right to feel that.  I assure you that there’ll be no interference from me.  I’m real busy trying to rebuild my own life, and I’m happy to hear that you’re doing so too.  Between us, I hope that we can still provide a family for Jack, even if it’s a separated one.”

“So do I, Charlie, and I want you to know that I’ll always have a warm spot in my heart for you, even if it didn’t look very much like it when we saw you earlier.”

“Don’t worry about that” Charlie replied.  “It was hard for all of us, but it was worth it.”  Charlie looked at his watch and said “I guess I should be going too.  I have some things to attend to on the other side of the river.  Maureen, it has been really good to see you again, and that’s not just some lame social convention.  I wish – – -, no.  I’ll not go there.  It’s just good to see you again.  Let’s stay in touch.  Does Jack have a phone?  If he wants, we can exchange numbers.

Maureen and Charlie rose from the booth and he walked with her to her car.  When she unlocked the door Charlie extended his hand to her.  “I think a handshake is the best goodbye for now.  Holding you, even for a moment, might be too painful, for me at least.”

“I believe that you’re right” Maureen replied.  She took Charlie’s hand and shook it.  “Goodbye for now, Charlie Hamer.  It has been a pleasure to see you again.  Until the next time, as circumstances permit.”

Charlie said “I would like that,” and let go of her hand.  He watched Maureen drive out of the lot, and an old ache welled up in his heart.  He really had loved that woman, even if he did a lousy job of showing it, and failed miserably when the bad times came.  The thought of her with another man was hard to take, but that triggered thoughts of his own incipient relationship with Carolyn.  Maureen had obviously progressed in her new life further than Charlie had.  That was a shortcoming that he intended to address immediately.

Charlie climbed into the cab of his truck and pulled out his phone.  He found Carolyn’s number and punched it.  “Hello” came her voice after three rings.

“Hello, Carolyn” Charlie answered.

“Oh, Hi Charlie.  Well, how did it go?” she asked.  Clearly, she had been thinking about his meeting with Jack and Maureen.

“Pretty good” Charlie replied.  “I’d love to discuss it with you.  How about dinner tonight at Rory’s?”

“Rory’s?  It must have gone really well.  Or really badly!”

“No, it was good.  I can’t wait to tell you about it, and there’s a lot more that I want to tell you, too.”

“Ummm, interesting.  Six o’clock?”

“If you must, but I was thinking about five.”

“He’s anxious!  This just keeps getting better.  I’ll call and make a reservation for five o’clock.  Oh, I forgot, my Rory’s dress is at the cleaner’s.”

“I’d be proud to go there with you wearing sweats.  Carolyn, I – – -, well, I’ll tell you at Rory’s.

“I can hardly wait.”

“Me too.”

Reflections On Lent, Day 16

There’s not much reflecting that I have done on Lent today.  I awoke at the usual time (5:30 AM), made breakfast and drove off to work.  After work I walked three miles as part of my cardiac program and then went to buy tonight’s dinner.  Chili and hot dogs it was.  Upon returning home I had to call my brother in Idaho.  “Had to” does not really say it right however.  I wanted to call my brother.  Some of my best times are when I’m hanging out with my brother, whether in person or on the phone.  So let’s put it this way: it was a priority that I call my brother.

That call completed, now it’s time to eat and after that I must dive into “The Skeletons In God’s Closet” in order to prepare myself to help lead a book study next Monday night.  I love the book and love leading the study, and tonight I must pour a few hours’ into preparation for this project.  Of course, I still have Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday to go, but he who hesitates is lost, or so they say.  So tonight, preparing for my book project and talking to my brother take precedence over writing a reflection.

And that is completely biblical.  Ecclesiastes 3:2 says “There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal—.”  You probably know the rest of that scripture, especially if you were a teenager in the 1960’s and listened to The Byrds singing “Turn Turn Turn”, a song written by American musical genius Pete Seeger.  I have no idea what the spiritual orientation of The Byrds or Mr. Seeger was but the lyrics, as far as anybody knows, are credited to Solomon, who knew a thing or two about God.

So tonight I prioritize.  That which I have considered and decided is truly important I will do.  That which is less important will take a back seat tonight.  To everything a season.

God Has A Special Providence—

I have already written stories about the sumer and fall of 1976.  That was the year that my first marriage disintegrated, beginning in February and extending to the end of the year.  That year was one of considerable transformation for me in some ways, and a bit of regression in others.  I had only just left the wild party-animal phase of my life in the summer of 1973 and had slowly, painfully, been settling down into a slightly more stable role of construction worker, student and then construction worker again, all the while assuming the role of husband and provider, establishing a home and living as a married, working, home owning middle class sort of guy.  I had not approached anything like becoming some sort of rock of the community by any stretch of the imagination, but neither was I spending very much time sitting with a bunch of stoned college students by a swimming pool using the bottom of a saucepan as a bongo drum while croaking out my best version of any given rock tune.

All of that began to unravel in February of ’76’ when my wife announced that she wanted to separate.  We agreed to do so in June, but in May when I learned that she was already involved in a relationship with someone else I left the next morning and then spent the next six months floundering in a sea of pain and self pity, trying to regain my balance but stumbling more than standing and rarely taking two steps forward without taking one or two or three steps back.

My first step in dealing with my situation was to avoid dealing with it.  I moved with four others into an old residence which was upstairs from what had once been a neighborhood grocery store.  Here the party went on day and night.  Once a friend from work came over to our place with a friend of her own.  After a little while her friend apologized for showing up at our place with neither food nor beer nor marijuana.  “If I would have known that you were having a party I would have brought something” he said with a guilty and embarrassed look.  My friend Evelyn laughed.  “They aren’t having a party,” she explained.  “It’s like this here all the time.”

And so it was.  I couldn’t stay loaded all of the time however, and sometimes even when I was the pain and loneliness became oppressive and on those occasions there was nothing better to bring me up than family.  I called my father and spoke with him every day for a month after the split with my wife, and that helped me to survive those awful first days.  Dad went to his grave not knowing the role that he played in keeping me out of my own, or at least if he did know it wasn’t because of my telling him.  He might have known now that I think of it.  Dad always had a way of knowing more than I thought he did.  I wonder if my kids feel that way about me?  Both of them are a good deal more bright than I was, so I doubt it.  And then there was my brother.

Brad is four years my senior and we have always been close.  We spoke on the phone often even before the end of my marriage and continued to do so afterward.  But these were desperate times, and Brad felt that I was in need of a little more assistance than frequent telephone conversation could provide.  Therefore, upon completion of the spring semester at the University of New Mexico where he was both teaching and taking classes, Brad packed some clothes and pointed his Ford pick up north and west and rode into town to help me keep my head above water.

Whenever Brad and I got together however it was frequently a question as to who was going to keep both of our heads above water.  Brad and I had always enjoyed being together and after I returned from the Army and turned twenty one years of age we had great fun, frequently with our father as well, trying to drink all of the beer in California.  All of the Budweiser, at least.  Brad has a very fast wit and Dad was no slouch either.  The three of us might sit around discussing philosophical or literary issues, sending Mom to the kitchen to escape the hot air, or after dinner (and a large number of cans of Bud) Brad and I might go to the soft, green front lawn, roar at each other like developmentally delayed orangutans, and bang into each other in what we called a ‘belly contest’.  I had never had a belly during my childhood but in the year after I exited the Army, after stuffing myself nonstop with pizza and beer and hot dogs from Der Wienerschnitzel, which we called Der Tumorschnitzel due to the dubious quality of it’s product, I had developed my first significant gut.  We would roar and bang into each other belly to belly, back up, and then roar and crash into each other again, all the while laughing maniacally.  At these times Mom would retreat to the deeper recesses of our tiny Southern California cubical of a house to avoid being seen in her humiliation by any of the neighbors whom she knew were peeking at the idiot Durden boys from behind curtains or between blinds.  So when Brad arrived to cheer me up it didn’t take long before we were back at our old tricks with only the faintest evidence of any maturity having occurred in the interim.

One evening when Brad was doing an outstanding job of cheering me up and the party that was my routine existence was in full throat I received a phone call.  The call was from my friend Walt, with whom I had roomed when I first moved to Sonoma County to attend the University there.  We had remained friends ever since.  On this particular evening Walt was calling because his Land Rover was resting comfortably on the side of Highway 12 just west of Santa Rosa.  Walt loved that vehicle, although I could not for the life of me tell you why.  It looked like it could easily carry an intrepid explorer safely from one end of Africa or the Australian Outback to the other, while in fact it frequently had trouble carrying Walt from one end of Sonoma County to the other.  I have previously written of Walt getting his ride stuck in the mud near a house that he was renting.  That was not an infrequent occurrence, four wheel drive and all.  Still, Walt was committed to his vehicle and so he was calling me from a bar at the end of the nearest off ramp, asking me to come and drag the carcass of his Land Rover that was at that moment achieving ambient temperature on the shoulder of Highway 12.

Walt said that it would take him twenty minutes to walk back to his car, so Brad and I downed the rest of our open beers, took a few more hits off of a joint that was circulating through the crowd at my residence, and left to go and retrieve Walt and his dead Land Rover.  In order to give Walt time to return to his car Brad and I stopped at a corner grocery store to pick up another six pack of beer.  It’s not like we needed any more, but that had little to do with anything.  After exchanging pleasantries with the grocer we climbed back into Brad’s truck and roared off down the road to where we could get on the highway and get to Walt.

Along the way we did what we had been doing all night; drinking beer, discussing anything and everything that came to mind, and viewing the world through filters that were uniquely our own.  We might have told stories that we had told a hundred times before and still laughed at as if it was their first hearing.  We still do that, to the considerable amazement of those around us who are not wired in the same way that are we.  We were engaged in this manner when we came upon Walt and his disabled vehicle.  About a half mile further west we found a place to make a U-turn and came back to link the Land Rover to Brad’s truck with a chain.  That being accomplished to everybody’s satisfaction we all regained our mounts and slowly started rolling down the highway towards town.

Along the way, Brad and I began to slip back into the place where we had been only a few minutes before.  New beers were popped open, new (old) stories and jokes were dredged up, and new takes upon the affairs of our lives and the world in general were passed through our fuzzy and thoroughly unique lenses, and soon we were flying down the road without a serious thought in our heads or a care in the world.

In short order we arrived at our turnoff, made a quick left turn and sped through it to avoid being T-boned by a car that was speeding toward us from the opposite direction, and finally came to a halt in front of the building which housed my residence.  Laughing and wobbling a little we exited Brad’s truck and only then remembered that Walt and his Land Rover were still attached.

Walt was as white as a sheet.  He had been riding his brakes and hanging onto the wheel for dear life all the way to our house.  He got out of his car and was visibly shaken.  You could smell the smoking-hot brakes and i thought it looked like they might be glowing a little bit from the heat.  I asked Walt if he would like a ride home but he quickly declined the invitation.  Walt wanted nothing more than to get away from us and Brad’s truck as quickly as decorum permitted.  I offered Walt the keys to my own truck, which he gratefully accepted.  He climbed into the cab and fired the Ford up, waved weakly to us, and rolled off into the dark Santa Rosa night.  Brad and I returned his wave, and then went upstairs to rejoin the party which hadn’t missed a beat since we had left.

There are not enough words to describe how poorly thought out our actions on that night were.  On any of a number of occasions we could have been pulled over by the police or gotten ourselves, Walt, and perhaps others killed.  It is ascribed to the German Prince Otto von Bismarck the quote that “God has a special providence for fools, drunks and the United States of America.”  I’m not entirely sure about the United States part of that quote, but I can testify with complete certainty that on this particular night God was most generous with two drunks and fools.

What’s In A Name?

For most of my life I never really cared all that much about where my family came from. Oh, I knew that my mother grew up in Kentucky and my father in Georgia, but beyond that I neither knew nor cared from whence descended the family line. Maybe one branch on my family tree contained an English duke, who rode with Henry V at the battle of Agincourt and singlehandedly struck down the flower of French chivalry.  Or maybe there was a German philosopher, a Spanish explorer or an Italian theologian hiding in our family woodpile. I would probably have found such knowledge interesting when I was younger, but not interesting enough to tempt me to do the heavy digging that would have been required to uncover those long-mouldering bones.

My extended family, you see, was not big on harmony. My father joined the Navy in 1936 to escape from his father’s farm during the Great Depression. He met my mother near his first duty station in Virginia and after they were married the Navy decided that my Dad’s presence would best serve the Navy’s interests on the West Coast and in the Pacific Ocean area. That is how I came to be born and grow up in San Diego, California, about 2,000 miles from either of my parents’ families. San Diego in the 1950’s and 60’s was as close to being heaven for a kid as it was possible to be, and any trips back to Mom and Dad’s homes and families tore me away from the friends, beaches, and perfect weather, and placed me in the presence of gnats, ticks, chiggers, water moccasins and a few dozen other noisome creatures, and threw me into the company of relatives whom I did not know and could not care less about getting to know. Returning home after a summer month spent between Georgia and Kentucky with parents who constantly bickered about each others’ families was a lot like getting released from prison.

So family origins meant little to me in the early 1980’s when one evening after returning home from work I opened the newspaper (that was one of the primary ways that people got news in those days) and read that a young man bearing my last name had bicycled from Maryland to San Diego. The article stated that this young man had found work at a nursery in Lemon Grove, a suburb of San Diego, not far from where I lived, and I resolved that I would try to make contact with him the next morning.

Accordingly, the next morning I arose and after breakfast and getting the children settled into diversionary activities I searched the Yellow Pages (that was how people found business phone numbers in those days) and located five nurseries in Lemon Grove. On try number four I hit paydirt and spent the next several minutes talking with a young relative whom to this day I still have never laid eyes upon. We compared notes and confirmed that we were indeed related. My last name is very uncommon outside of the South so it would have been  extraordinary if we had not been related. In the course of our conversation this young man, Todd was his name, asked if I knew the story of the origin of my father’s family’s name. I told him that I did not, and Todd proceeded to tell me what he knew.

Durden, he said, was a French name, or began that way at any rate. The original Durden was a product of a relationship between a very minor aristocrat, a man who probably owned a couple of acres of land outside of town, and a young lady who lived with her parents in that town. A boy was produced from that union and immediately became something of a problem, since the details of that relationship did not include marriage.  The boy’s father had no intention of letting little Jacques into the line of inheritance of his postage stamp domain, and would not confer upon his offspring the blessing of his name. The girl’s parents were similarly disinclined, as to the name at least since they had nothing in particular for anyone to inherit, and refused to give him their name as well. The young lady gave up the baby to the local church, which accepted our little cherub and then gave him back to the mother to raise for them. The parents were in no position to argue with the church and so little Jacques had a home, if not a name.

The town in which this drama transpired was in the northeast of France, near the Ardennes Forest on the border with Germany. Jacques began to look for a name as soon as he realized that, unlike everyone around him, he didn’t have one. He considered using his mother’s name anyway, whether her family liked it or not. Grandpa was a very large and very stern man however, and so there appeared to be little to be gained by using that name except for a beating every time he tried it. Next he considered the name of the town itself, but he had never received very much kindness in that town and did not wish to confer dignity upon it by adopting its name.

Finally it occurred to Jacques to adopt the name of the great forest to the east. The forest was a frightening and mysterious place, dark in many thickly wooded areas even in the height of the daytime. It was filled with wild animals which would not hesitate to make a meal of an incautious woodsman alone in its fastness, and bandits and gypsies were rumored to make their camps in there away from the prying eyes of the officials of church and crown. Yes, the forest would do very nicely for a name, and somewhere around his twelfth or thirteenth birthday Jacques D’Ardennes announced his existence to the world.

What the world’s reaction was to that announcement is not known. What is known however is that Jacques had no intention to fulfill any obligations to the church which had assumed a sort of official parent authority over him from birth. In fact, Jacques felt no sense of obligation toward his mother’s family or that town or anyone in it. A short lifetime of putting up with the taunts of the other village children and the blows of an unhappy grandfather, plus the eventual marriage of his mother to the town blacksmith, a hard man many years older than she who was willing to overlook her past for a pretty young woman to cook and clean and keep a warm bed for him, convinced Jacques that it was time to take his leave of everything he had known and try his luck in the world.

It’s at this point where Jacques’ history gets a little fuzzy. Nobody knows where Jacques spent his next five or so years. Some thought that he decided to take his chances in the forest which had provided him with a name. Once there he fell in with a band of gypsies or perhaps bandits; nobody really knows. All that is truly known is that at the stated age of nineteen Jacque D’Ardennes showed up in England, one step ahead of the police in France.

It seems as if Jacques learned the skills of petty thievery wherever he passed those lost years. A pickpocket, a thief of small items which could be sold in the next town down a dusty road, and other acts which would get you thrown into prison for a very long time in France apparently occupied Jacques’ time far more than did gainful employment, but he must have learned somewhere how to be useful on a farm because once in England he drifted from farm to farm, working mostly for room and board but occasionally being paid in hard money, because a couple of times his name appeared on the lists of one local constabulary or another, charged with ‘drunk and disorderly’.

Jacques’ inability or unwillingness to find steady work led to periodic arrests for vagrancy. Petty theft such as he had allegedly engaged in back in France would have gotten him hung in England, so I must assume that he either resisted the urge to fall back on old habits or was successful on such occasions when he plied his craft. There was also written the word “rogue” on some of his court documents, and one gets the sense from the the manner in which that word was employed that Jacques was not afraid to shower attention upon young English ladies, and one also gets the sense that his attentions were not entirely unappreciated by the objects of his interest.

Apparently Jacques finally succeeded in pushing enough of the wrong buttons because in 1731 his name appears on a list of inmates in a debtor’s prison a few miles south of the City of London. Two years later James Oglethorpe was given permission by the Crown to take as many English debtors as wished to go and found a colony between South Carolina and the Spanish territory of Florida. Always a brown noser, Oglethorpe named his new colony ‘Georgia’ after the king, George II. Jacques D’Ardennes, his name now anglicized to ‘Jack Durden’, was among the first to sign up, and later lists and documents show that by 1736 he was the owner of a farm a few miles outside of Savannah. Jack ran a blacksmith operation in one of the rough outbuildings on his property which served the needs of the many surrounding farms.

Jack Durden married a Creek Indian woman and fathered several children by her. Five girls and three boys grew up and the family farm and blacksmith business prospered. Three of the girls married well and began families of their own, one died of a fever at the age of fourteen, and one remained single and was the de facto head of the family business whenever Jack was absent. The eldest boy was the titular head of the business but was essentially useless and drank himself to death before reaching the age of twenty five. The other two boys began farms of their own with generous help from the sister who was soon to be the matriarch of the growing clan.

Of Jack nothing is known after 1753. He and his wife simply disappear.  There is speculation that they decided to return to the tribe from which she had come, but there is no real evidence of that. Others believed that they had been waylaid by bandits, robbed and killed, and their bodies fed to the gators. My thought is that Jack had learned enough in his old wild days to not be caught in that trap.

Ultimately, I don’t know if any of this is true or not. I only know that this is the story that Todd told me in a conversation over the telephone. I’ve seen no documents or had any other opportunity to verify this tale. And why should I bother? A story like that is a thing to be retold and left alone.  Sometimes a too-critical historical bent is definitely not a virtue.

Road Trip, Part II

I awoke the next morning shortly after the sun began to eat away at the darkness on the eastern horizon.  Some mornings are like that; your eyes snap open and no matter how much your body wants to return to the regenerative oblivion of slumber your mind says “Enough!  Get out of bed and do something”.  So I arose from my cot and looked around to see what I could do.  The answer was “darned near nothing”.  I had slept in my jeans and so it was a small matter to get dressed.  After banging the heals of my athletic shoes a few times on the hard packed dirt surface of the turnout to dislodge any scorpions or centipedes which might have taken up residence there overnight I put them on and then pulled on the shirt which I had worn yesterday.  Once we finished breakfast I would heat a large pan of water and Brad and I would scrub our armpits in an attempt to get the worst of the stink off of us.  We would then take a leisurely stroll, possibly in search of the celebrated potash mine, while Ginny took her turn.  That was an hour or two in the future however, and just now I was wide awake at around five in the morning with nothing to do.  My solution to a problem like this was to take a walk.

I have always enjoyed walking.  It is good exercise and it gives me an opportunity to daydream.  Whenever I take a long walk I always defeat my enemies, win the girl, outsmart the smart alek genius, and, oh, did I say ‘get the girl’?  Six or seven miles was a mere saunter for me when I was a young man and I can knock out six or seven miles to this day, albeit with sore legs and blistered feet for my efforts.  On that day however I only went a mile or so down the road and then came back.  I was hoping that Brad and Ginny would be up so that I could tell them that I found the dirt road which led to the potash mine.  They weren’t up however so I found one of my books, “The Teachings of Don Juan” I think it was, and began to read.  I had not finished the first page before the camper door creaked open and a bleary-eyed Brad poked his head outside to see if I was up.  I made a snide remark about slackers and Brad chuckled at the irony.  He was always the early bird and I the sluggard of the family.  Brad crawled out of the camper, moving carefully so as to not awaken Ginny, and with him came the wire contraption and the necessary equipment to brew a pot of coffee.  We had a box of wood in my trunk but I took a short walk into the roadside vegetation to see if I could find any dried brush or other wood which we could use instead.  Best to keep our emergency supply intact.  I did find enough large, dry branches and stumps to builld a fire under the inverted ‘U’ shaped structure and get some coffee boiling.  In fifteen minutes’ time we were sitting on my cot with steaming mugs of coffee, two of the happiest people on earth.

Brad and I were always close.  As very young kids we had the usual ruckuses and rows that any brothers have but Brad, who was several years older than me, never gave me the licking that he could have and that I frequently deserved.  Later, we tended to cover for each other in a home where our father could be a mercurial and frightening man.  Brad got himself kicked out of high school so that he could go to the continuation school, or “hard guy high” as we called it, where he could apply himself and amass sufficient credits for graduation much faster than he could at a conventional school, so he could then join the Army in order to get out of our home.

When Brad returned home three years later he was a man while I was still a boy, but we grew closer still.  Shortly after Brad returned we took a walk one day and a few blocks from our house we stopped in at a tiny burger restaurant on El Cajon Boulevard, where he offered to buy me a cup of coffee.  I had never drank a cup of coffee before but the romance of the idea seemed wonderful to me and I accepted the offer.  Coffee is an acquired taste and I did not like the bitter drink one bit, but walking down Chamoune Avenue with my very grown up brother and drinking coffee as we walked made me feel different than I had felt only thirty minutes before; not grown up really, but not a kid anymore either.

So we sat in the cool of the morning and talked of the three years that I had been gone and what I had done and what he had done while I was gone.  We compared Army experiences and Brad spoke of college.  I had tried to take a college English class at my base camp in Vietnam but a little thing called the Tet Offensive broke out and I didn’t think of college again.  Brad and I drained the first pot of coffee and he suggested that he brew another.  I countered with a proposal that if he would bring out the stove and cooler I would cook breakfast while he got Ginny up and moving.  The sun was bulging up over the eastern horizon and I was getting a little bit anxious to see some more country.  The plan sounded good to Brad and soon I had sausage and eggs sizzling in the pans and a fresh pot of Joe ready for action.  Ginny was already stirring when we got started so before much time had passed we were well fed, sort of cleaned up, and churning down the highway, past the road towards the potash mines, and heading toward Clovis New Mexico.

In Clovis we stopped at a small grocery store and gas station to fill up our tanks and resupply our cooler.  We went into the store first to see what was to be had.  Bacon, sausage, eggs, bread, deli meats, various snacks, all could be found in abundance.  What was not there was beer.  Brad and I could drink great volumes of the stuff and we had already done that on this trip.  We were not what one would call role models and more than a few beers were consumed as we rolled down the road.  The sad thing is that this was not at all uncommon and the police frequently let the offenders off with a lecture and confiscation of their liquor when they were caught in the act.  Even as late as 1977 I was able to purchase a six pack at a drive-through window in New Mexico.

“Where do you keep your beer” I asked the clerk.  “Ixyp jzzipf cmhrzuss wkob” I might as well have said.  The girl stared at me like I was a Martian speaking Klingon.  Come to think of it, Roswell is not so far from Clovis; maybe she had seen and heard a Martian or two before.  Anyway, she replied “we don’t sell beer here on Sunday” and looked at me as if any idiot should know that fact.  “Really” I exclaimed.  I’d never heard of such a thing.  “Can I buy some over in Texas?”  “Maybe, but I doubt it.  I don’t know much about Texas.”  “I do” I said.  “I volunteered for Vietnam to get out of Texas.”  New Mexicans do not care much for Texas, so she smiled at that.

“Where are y’all from” she asked.  “San Diego” Brad replied.  “Oh, I have a cousin who went out to Los Angeles a few years ago.  It was awful.  There was crime everywhere and nobody was friendly and she never felt safe until she came back here”.  “That’s funny” I replied.  “We grew up there and have never been mugged, never been robbed, never been threatened, and have loads of friends and go just about anywhere we want and feel as safe there as anywhere else”.  That was just the tiniest bit of an exaggeration but I didn’t feel like letting that trashing of my home state slide.  The girl looked taken aback and we paid our bill and wished her our hardiest “have a groovy day”as we walked out the door.

Stashing our purchases we pulled into the service station to gas up.  They called those places ‘service stations’ in those days because you actually did get service there.  In addition to your gas you got your windshield cleaned of all of its bug splatters, tire pressure checked, oil, radiator water and other fluids checked.  We had just serviced our vehicles before pulling out of San Diego so I was a little surprised to be told that the transmission fluid level was a bit low.  The attendant showed me the dip stick and there was no doubt about it, so I had him top it off and afterward we paid for our gas and etc., used the bathrooms there, and soon after that we were rolling east, woefully short of beer, and plunging across the state line into Texas.

Returning to Texas put a shiver down my spine, for I was not lying when I told the store clerk that I volunteered for Vietnam to get out of Texas.  It was the only transfer request that was guaranteed to be approved.  In retrospect I don’t suppose that Texas is much better or worse than any other state, but being a kid coming from the beaches of Southern California I couldn’t imagine being anyplace worse at that time.  Fort Hood was an armpit, as most Army forts are, and when one set foot off of the fort one became an instant target for punk Texas kids who delighted in jumping on and beating up soldiers.  Not at all unlike punk San Diego kids ganging up on sailors, but I did not at that point have the advantage of perspective.  As a result of my aversion to fighting for my life just to experience something other than Army life, I tended to stay on the post for the protection that it offered, even if it greatly limited my opportunities for any kind of entertainment.

My unit at Fort Hood was technically a supply company, but in fact we didn’t really supply anything other than bodies for nasty work details all over the fort.  “The Second Armor needs to have latrines hauled in from the field”, or “You, you and you, go to the Post Commander’s house and mow and trim his yard (and don’t you dare look at his daughter who will do her best to get your attention)”, and so on.  We would awaken, dress, fall into formation to be counted and inspected, dismissed to have breakfast and then to return to our barracks to await our detail for the day.  Unless, of course, they couldn’t find you.

We were not actually ordered to sit in our barracks and wait for orders to go on these details, an Army failing which I cannot explain to this day, so many guys would go to the day room to smoke cigarettes and shoot pool.  Others would hang out at a nearby snack bar eating burgers, drinking cokes, thumbing nickles and quarters into the juke box and getting nabbed by Sergeant Smalley.  I was not to be so easily snared.  No more than two blocks further away from our barracks than the snack bar was the small branch of the post library system.  This little building was air conditioned and had a nice collection of books, and the enlisted man running that branch could order in anything that was in their system and it would arrive within a day or two of my asking for it.  Sort of like a weird prototype of Amazon.com.   There were nice easy chairs with ottomans to put my feet up on and a water cooler and a bathroom.  I virtually moved in.

Sergeant Smalley prided himself on being able to find every soldier under his authority and nabbing him for some crummy little detail somewhere on the post, but only got me once when I got careless.  This gave me a good deal of pride and status with my friends, who began to call me “Weasel”.  Sergeant Smalley would give me hell during inspection, try to follow me from the mess hall and in many other ways try to crack my code.  But Sergeant Smalley was not a great reader; heck, I don’t even know if Sergeant Smalley could read at all.  In any case, it never occurred to Sergeant Smalley to look in the library, and that’s where I spent the majority of my time in the summer of 1967.  I am divulging this information now partly for the love of telling the story, but just a little in the hope that Sergeant Smalley has learned to read and will stumble across this tale.  I suppose he deserves to know at last where I was hiding.

So into Texas we went, and stopped for a snack just outside of Hereford.  The area is as flat as a tabletop and everywhere there were pastures with cows in them or pastures being watered and allowed to grow the lush grass that the cows would be feeding on soon.  We lingered for a little while but the monotony impelled us to fly north Dalhart, in the Texas panhandle.  “In Dalhart” the Clovis store clerk told us “you might be able to buy some beer,” so to Dalhart we fled, but our quest was in vain.  Discouraged, we continued north until we crossed into Colorado.

The southwest corner of Colorado is like the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma; flat as a board, and we drove through the featureless flatlands for a while until we determined that one pace to stop for lunch was as good as another.  The little Datsun puled off the road and parked on the shoulder as far from the almost non-existent traffic as it could get, with me right behind.  Ginny pulled out a small, low, collapsable table to make sandwiches on while Brad got the stove burning so that we could heat up some soup.  We opened a couple of beers and passed the time of day while Ginny put the finishing touches on our lunch.  The company was good, the lawn chairs fit our fannies just fine and the prospect of a good lunch completely distracted our attention from the clouds that were gathering and boiling up to the highest heavens right over our heads.  Our first clue that something might be desperately wrong arrived in the form of a flash of lightening which seemed like it landed just on the other side of the car from us.  The thunderclap which almost bowled us out of our chairs was virtually simultaneous with the flash, and the smell of ozone was sharp in the air.  Then came the first great, fat drop of rain that splashed against my head, then the second, the third…and then the heavens opened up.

We grabbed our sandwiches and dived into the camper, wet shoes and all.  Ginny was not impressed with the muddy streaks on her blankets and sheets but there was nothing that we could do about that.  We ate our sandwiches while the thunder and lightening boomed and flashed and the rain came down with a violence that I can hardly describe.  Brad looked out the window at the soggy groceries left sitting on the table which was in danger of floating away in the water which was rising along the roadside where we parked.  The Coleman stove was filling up with water, with some of the water leaking out through small holes in the sides.  We knew that the stove would need to be broken down completely and cleaned and dried before it would work again, which we had hoped would be that evening  After no more than fifteen or twenty minutes of this soaking the storm cell floated off to the west to bestow its watery blessing on other more grateful recipients, and we emerged to clean up the mess, asses the damage, and return to our journey north to a formal campsite on the Platte River near Ogallala, Nebraska, where we planned to stay.

The fabled flatness of the Great Plains in the middle of the United States is in some places extremely accurate.  Much of the Plains is not uniformly flat however, and I found myself actually drawn to the tree lined streams in low valleys and the gently rolling hills that pop up as you leave one county and drive into another.  The terrain became more broken and irregular as we headed north and it was late afternoon when we arrived at the campground near Ogallala.  Ginny had hoped we would arrive early enough to put her soiled blankets and sheets into a washing machine at a laundromat, but we were too late for that.  Instead, we found a space close to the river and started to pull our camping gear out of ur vehicles.  We didn’t even have time to unfold my cot however before we realized that the mosquito population here was a hundred times worse that it was at Martinez Lake.

The little pests moved in clouds, and it was impossible to swat one biting devil on your leg without having two devils biting you somewhere else.  I quickly had several bloody patches on my exposed skin where I had slapped the miserable bugs and I wondered if it was my blood or somebody else’.  Other campers seemed oblivious to the attack and I suppose they had some kind of nuclear waste-based repellant on their bodies.  We had no such protection and without a moment’s debate we threw our gear back into the truck and car and headled north.

Ash hollow was the next place that we could find on the map where we could camp for the night.  It was a stopping point on the old Oregon Trail because the water and trees offered a respite from the arid and shadeless miles between St. Joe, Missouri, and the Rocky Mountains.  Of course, the presence of water also guaranteed the presence of mosquitos as well, and this fear was borne out although not to the extent of what we now called “Skeeter Davis Park” in honor of a country and pop singer of that name who had a song out at that time.  We could tell that Ash Hollow was a beautiful place with rocky hills and trees and a nice little stream which moved too quickly to allow the kind of mosquito swarms that infested the slow moving Platte, but we got in too late to see it very well.  We were at the end of a very long day and just wanted to eat and unwind.

Brad had completely disassembled the Coleman stove and cleaned and dried it, and our first order of business was to see if we would be cooking with gas or wood.  Gas it was, as the Coleman lit off with the first match.  Ginny cooked up some burgers and green beans from supplies we picked up on our way out of Ogallala and soon we were well fed, enjoying the last of our beers, and passing a doobie or two between the three of us.

The mosquitos, as I mentioned earlier, were less of a menace than at Skeeter Davis but still very much present.  To address that problem we placed green branches on our campfire and sat in the smoke.  Additionally I wrapped a towel around my head and face so that I looked like a Taureg nomad from the western Sahara.  The plan worked pretty good.  While we were enjoying the evening we heard gunshots far away to the west.  Hunters, we suspected, and thought nothing more about it.  We were experiencing a good, mellow buzz underneath the Nebraska stars, finishing the last of our beers and passing another doobie, and talking about the route we would take on the morrow to reach our ultimate destination; Wind Cave National Park in the southern Black Hills of South Dakota.  That’s when John Wayne walked into our camp.

We were vaguely aware of a car pulling up just outside of our view in the very dark night but thought it belonged to other campers.  It was, in fact, a law enforcement officer of some kind.  We thought possibly a game warden, but all possibilities were on the table. All we knew for certain was that he had a uniform, a badge, and a very large sidearm on his hip.  Brad put the joint under his shoe and pressed his foot as firmly against the ground as he could without looking suspicious, although how a guy sitting next to a guy who looked like a Taureg in western Nebraska could look anything but suspicious is awfully hard to imagine.

This man exuded complete confidence in his capability to deal with whatever challenges might come his way.  His six foot one or two height and what I would guess to be two hundred or two hundred and ten pounds were well proportioned and there was not a visible ounce of fat on him.  More impressive was his demeanor; absolute control and confidence.  As he approached three stoned travelers with beers in their hands, one of who’s head was wrapped up in a towel, he said “Good evening folks.  How are y’all doing this evening?”  We recovered quickly and my recent military experience had left me prepared to deal with authority reflexively.  “We’re doing fine tonight sir.  Can we offer you a cup of coffee or a bite to eat?”  There was a little coffee in the pot left over from our dinner which we hadn’t touched in the last hour, which was close enough to the fire to have kept warm.  “No thank you.  Have you heard any gunshots this evening?”  Rooster Cogburn couldn’t have cared less about the joint which he almost certainly knew was resting under Brad’s right foot.  He was attending to other business.  “Yes sir” I answered.  “About twenty or thirty minutes ago.  They seemed to be coming from up that way.”  I pointed west, where we thought we had heard the gunshots.  J.B. Book hitched up his belt a little and said “Thank you.  You folks have a good evening” and returned to his car.  Lights on, he proceeded to drive slowly up the dirt road – more like a path, really – leading west to where the suspected poachers were just about to be paid a visit by Big Jake. Please forgive this writer for all of the John Wayne character allusions, but they seemed appropriate at the time and we certainly indulged each one of them as we resurrected the stomped-on joint and finished it up.  Brad, Ginny and I agreed that we did not want to be in the probable poachers’ shoes.

The time quickly came to put out the fire and settle in for a good night’s rest.  We would arrive at our destination early the next day and looked forward to getting a campsite and a shower, and then going to town to wash clothes, buy food, and of course acquire more beer.  We planned to stay there for a few days before moving on to who knew where.  That was the plan, anyway.

Road Trip, Part I

My family has always liked to travel, and every road trip was always viewed as an adventure.  Even the ‘vacations’ back to where my parents grew up in the South were at least in part an adventure, even if on the whole I would have preferred to have never gone on those adventures at all.  Being on the road and headed ‘somewhere’ always held the allure of a romance for me, and each city and town, desert and forrest, mountain and river and cow and cornfield all looked new to me, even if they looked like every one that I had seen before.  It was therefore with great eagerness that I agreed to accompany my brother and his wife on a road trip in June of 1969.

I had only just returned home from the Army; May 29 was my day of liberation to be exact, and after two years in Vietnam a trip across a thousand miles of open and friendly country sounded like heaven to me.  I was nearly scalped by the Army barbers who were intent on getting their last pound of flesh, thin as a stick because I ate only enough Army food to stay alive, and at twenty years and three hundred and thirty seven days old I was twenty eight days too young to have a beer in public.  Packing my bags and leaving everything behind me for a couple of weeks seemed like a dream come true.  Brad, my brother, would finish his spring semester in a week and a half and then we would all be away.

I chafed at the delay.  Being a Vietnam veteran in California, even a military-friendly town like San Diego, was not a sure road to popularity.  My old friends accepted me of course, but the experiences of my last three years, the things that I had seen and done, made it impossible to just pick up and move on as if none of us had changed.  I enjoyed going to the homes of friends and having a few beers, smoking a few bowels of weed and talking and laughing, but there were things that I did not feel able to talk about, that my friends did not want or, for that matter, need to hear.  These things were what I wanted to sort out, to see what I should hold onto and what I should let go of, and that sort of business could be better done alone in a 1963 Mercury rolling across the Southwest desert.  So the days crawled by until the eve of our journey

I would be driving my mother’s car.  Dad had a truck and Mom could live a week or two without wheels.  She didn’t tend to do much shopping or make social calls anyway, so it was of little inconvenience to her.  Brad and Ginny would be in their tiny Datsun pickup with an equally tiny camper on the back.  We loaded our vehicles the night before and planned to set out when we usually did on such trips, about two in the morning.  I loaded a cot and some blankets, food and minimal toiletries (I had little hair to brush), clothes and a few books that I knew I would not read.  I made sure that I had a cooler to hold the sandwiches that I would eat as we rolled down the highway and the beer that I was still too young to drink.  Brad and Ginny packed whatever it was they packed and a couple of cases of beer.  I knew that wouldn’t get us very far down the road, but it was at least a start.

We did not leave at two in the morning.  In fact, it was well after sunup and a good home cooked breakfast before we fired our vehicles up and nosed them into the traffic on Fairmont Avenue, which led to the onramp of Interstate 8.  Once we gained the Interstate we followed it for the five or six miles of it that had been completed, and which then fed us into the two lanes that comprised U.S. Highway 80, which we had always used before.  President Eisenhauer’s dream of a great, broad network of straight highways connecting all parts of the country was still in its early stages of development, and great stretches of the United States were still served only by the winding two lane roads which arose with the early age of the automobile.

U.S. 80 snaked across the El Cajon Valley, up and over the Laguna Mountains, and finally across the Imperial Valley towards the Colorado River and the border with Arizona.  El Cajon was warm and the mountains were cool and fresh, but the Imperial Valley was as hot as the very hinges of hell, and I loved every minute of it.  The mountains are beautiful, with live oak growing in the valleys and the slopes covered by chaparral and huge exposed boulders until one gets high enough to reach the pines.  The road only briefly gets that high and then returns to boulders and chaparral and then the descent into the desert.

The desert; how I love it.  There was little to look at but sand and rock, greasewood and sagebrush, cholla and ocotillo cacti, and a few other hardy plants struggling to earn an existence in such a forbidding environment.  Shallow, dry washes would appear and run through culverts under the highway to divert the rare rains which would come to this thirsty place.  Parallel to some stretches of the highway ran the tacks for the Yuma and San Diego Railroad which sometimes ran and sometimes did not, and at other places in the sand dunes one could still see segments of the old plank road which once connected Arizona with the port of San Diego.  I am certain that those old segments are completely gone now, but what do I know?  The desert is dry and does not give up its possessions lightly.

For many the desert holds no attraction.  When my grandfather traveled west from Georgia to stay with us for a while he crossed the desert in a Greyhound Bus.  Inside the bus was air conditioned comfort, while outside was a furnace which usually topped 110 degrees with a sun that would begin to redden unprepared flesh within a few minutes.  Accustomed to trees and streams and lakes, Grandfather was revolted by the empty, tortured wastes which stretched for seemingly endless miles in any direction.  The inhabitants of the desert unsettled Grandfather most of all.  People of indeterminate age, skin wrinkled and turned to leather by the sun and wind, doing what was necessary but only just what was necessary to survive one more burning day, and yet without any idea of leaving to live anywhere else.  Grandfather shared those thoughts with me and I told him that in some small way I understood those old coyotes of the desert; there was something of them in me as well.

It was therefore with a sense of freedom and rest that I rolled along the concrete and asphalt ribbon behind the Datsun pickup, thinking of times that I had passed this way before and the lives going about their business that very day in the late spring heat of the valley.  We passed fields of lettuce and other crops, aqueducts, rows of eucalyptus and cottonwood providing shade and a windbreak, and finally we arrived at Yuma on the border of California and Arizona.  We were not stopping there but instead turned north and drove a few more miles intending to stop for the night at Martinez Lake, one of many reservoirs on the lower Colorado River.  Brad and Ginny and my parents had camped here a time or two before and sent pictures when I was in Vietnam.  I could hardly wait to see the place.

We pulled into the camping area and noticed right away that the temperature had not dropped one little bit; in fact the humidity was uncomfortably high due to the proximity of the lake.  Nevertheless Brad and I rigged up an awning on the east facing side of the camper which protected us from the sun until it descended below the western horizon.  At that point we intended to cook a meal and relax before resuming our journey the next day.  The sun went obligingly down, but there was to be no cooking that night.  With the fading of the sun and cooling of the evening breeze came the mosquitos.  First a few and then hordes of them.  We slapped at our tormentors until we sounded like Spanish dancers with castanets.  I don’t remember who spoke up first, but we quickly agreed that we didn’t sign up for this and stowed our gear back in our vehicles.  Soon we were pounding back down the road and heading east, unsure of where we would stop for the night but dead certain that it would be nowhere near Martinez Lake.

Nightfall overtook us as we travelled east across the farmlands of southern Arizona.  That was a time before cell phones, and as I followed the two red taillights of my brother’s truck I had only the AM radio and my own thoughts to keep me company.  Listening alternately to country and western, rock and roll, and the ubiquitous Wolfman Jack I thought again about the times I had travelled this road on the way to Georgia and Kentucky, and how I use to count the minutes until we would load up the car and point ourselves west again.  I also thought about the neighborhood kids who also went into the military, and about Frankie Mendoza and Marty Dempster who came home in boxes.  Why them and not me?  I think most veterans wonder about that every now and then.

I also thought about Carmen, Cathy and Greg.  I had known Cathy since elementary school and considered her a friend.  She was just a plain, ordinary kid in the first grade but grew up to be a beautiful young woman and our homecoming queen in my senior year.  Lovely as she was she never acted as if she was better than anyone else; in fact, it was almost as if she didn’t really know how stunningly beautiful she was.  Greg was on the high school diving team with me and we mostly played on the diving boards rather than honed our skills and truly competed.  Our coaches knew a little about swimming and nothing about diving, so we just did the best we could and considered it a great thing that we could play on the boards for high school credit.  Carmen I met while on leave between my two tours of duty in Vietnam.  By the time I returned home once again a civilian all three were dead.  Cathy died from some damned cancer, Greg was stabbed at a drug deal which went bad, and Carmen was at a stock car race with her husband when a car went out of control, flipped, and landed where she was sitting in the stands.  “Two in Vietnam but three here in San Diego” I thought as the mile markers slid past my windshield.  “I was safer in Vietnam!”

I remember that the Blood, Sweat and Tears cover of “God Bless the Child” was playing when I saw the red taillights pull to the right and into a roadside rest area.  Ginny must have had enough.  Several other cars and a row of long haul semis were already parked there and we found a space to set up at a little distance from the nearest other traveller.  We were in saguaro cactus country which boasts a plethora of its own bothersome bugs but was thankfully mosquito free.  We didn’t bother with cooking; sandwiches would do.  A couple of beers and a shared joint later, Brad and Ginny crawled into their camper and I onto my old military cot and slept the sleep which is reserved for the innocent and the forgiven.

I slept so well that next morning I did not even stir when the truckers fired up their diesels and the families loaded up their children to continue on their journeys.  My slumber was not impervious the the smell of Ginny cooking sausage and eggs on the camp stove we had brought along however, nor the aroma of the coffee which Brad was percolating over a small fire that he had made underneath a wire contraption which my dad had rigged for just this sort of occasion.  I lounged in the cot for as long as I felt it was safe and then emerged to get my fair share of the breakfast.  Although we were in no great hurry the breakfast was quickly consumed and I performed the clean-up  while Brad and Ginny straightened up their camper and stowed the coolers and the clean utensils once I was finished.  I merely had to fold my blankets and cot and replenish my small cooler with snacks and a few beers, and we were once again on our way.

The air was still cool from the night and the sunlight seemed to make everything sparkle.  The sun can have as many faces to the desert dweller as ice has to an Eskimo.  Sometimes it will beat down on you with what feels like physical force, and at other times it will tease you as it rises over a frigid winter scape, offering the hope of some warmth for your numb fingers or aching bones but then snatching that promise back when the next chill blast of Siberian air rolls over a land without any barrier to protect you from its malice.  On this morning it made the sand and rock seem warm and comfortable; as comfortable as rock and sand can be anyway, and the giant saguaro cacti and their lesser co-inhabitants of this dry land seem stately and not threatening, if not exactly friendly.

A short distance up the highway we deviated to the south and followed a long local road, sometimes paved and sometimes gravel, into the Dragoon Mountains and up into Cochise Stronghold.  What is now a campground and recreational area was once the last refuge of a band of Native Americans who yet held out hope that they might retain their lands and way of life in the face of a White tsunami which had roared in from the east, crushing all in its path.  Eventually they, too, were overwhelmed and were removed from their beloved homeland in the mountains and high valleys of Arizona and removed first to Florida, then Oklahoma, and finally allowed to return to the less inspiring hills of their cousins the Mescalero Apaches in south central New Mexico.

And what a home the Apaches lost.  Up in the mountains at about the 5,000 foot level the evergreen forest begins and there is grass and softer brush than found among the more prickly growth closer to the desert floor.  We could walk among the trees without having to navigate the sort of dense undergrowth common in the South and the Pacific Northwest.  Sandy washes, called arroyos, spoke of mountain rains ancient and recent, all of which are greedily swallowed up by the soil to be preserved underground, safe from the evaporative power of the strong sun in the thin, dry mountain air.  Water is too precious a treasure to allow it to be snatched back into the sky from which it fell without imparting life at several levels along the way.

It was early but we made a snack and cleaned up, poked around for a short while longer, and then resumed our journey down the gravel road on the east side of the mountains.  We shortly passed into New Mexico and found paved road.  We had decided to make for Carlsbad Caverns and so we stopped only for gas and restroom breaks as we pushed the speed limit along the way through Lordsburg, Deming, las Cruces, and then across the Llano Estacado (a God-forsaken wasteland of desert, but beautiful in its own way) and finally arrived at our destination.  It was early afternoon and we wasted little time in purchasing our admission and entering the elevator which would take us 750 feet down to where our tour would begin.

There are many things which stand out about that tour, and the first one was that it was 750 feet underground.  I have never been claustrophobic, and even used to crawl into the large sewer pipes which once emptied into the canyons in San Diego to divert the infrequent rains.  Later on, being as I mentioned earlier skinny as a stick, I was considered for duty as a tunnel rat in Vietnam, tasked to enter the tunnels of the enemy to flush him out or kill him if possible and check for useful intelligence left behind.  Being underground would not have been a problem; the whole rest of the package would, and so I was gratefully relieved that my six feet of height made that duty for me mercifully impractical.  Even so, the thought of being 750 feet beneath solid rock was at least a little bit disconcerting.  I reasoned that it was hardly likely that I survived two years in Vietnam as well as being friends with Carmen, Cathy and Greg only to be smashed into a greasy stain by a cave-in at Carlsbad Caverns, and so pressed on with the tour.

The guide, a civilian working for the Park Service, gave us a vast amount of data about limestone, groundwater, erosion rates and so on.  I remember little of that, but I remember strongly the difficulty I had believing that what I was seeing was real.  I had been to Disneyland, Knotts Berry Farm and other such places and seen re-creations of balancing rocks and stalagmites and stalactites, but they were all man made.  At those places stones would teeter back and forth as if ready to topple, all controlled by motors and gears and cogs and axels to mimic the real thing.  Here WAS the real thing.  I wanted desperately to touch it and reinforce its reality with tactile input but was admonished not to do so.  “The oils from your fingers, multiplied by all the fingers which pass through this place, would eventually change it, and change it for the worse” said the guide, and so I refrained.

When we emerged back into the daylight we saw that the sun was sinking rapidly towards where we had slept last night, off to the west.  The guide informed us that the bats which nested in the caverns would emerge at dusk to begin to feed on insects in and around the fields of New and Old Mexico.  We debated if a bunch of bats was worth seeing and decided, since the coming and going of the bats is how the caverns were discovered in the first place, we would take in the sight.  We grabbed dinner at the tourist center and then went with the guide and a few other fellow travelers to seat ourselves in a small stone bowl with a ragged gash in the earth opening up in the center.  We were seated on stone seats on the west side of the bowl and chatted together as the shadows crept down the seats, across the hole in the earth, and then up the rocky bank on the far side, away from us.

The sky began to shade into gray when we heard the first rustle, the first whirr, the first fluttering of thousands, no millions, of tiny leathery wings.  The first scouts emerged and flew a circular arc around the bowl in which we were seated.  Right on their heels were the rest of the colony.  Millions of bats followed the same spiral of the leader, creating what looked like a black coiled spring which rose up into the sky, bent southward, and then dispersed into the evening to begin their nightly gorge on the insects which would devastate the crops if they were not contained by the bats.  “They’ll be back at sunup” said the guide.  “Pretty much all of them at the same time.  They’ll get back to their same perch and after a while of bumping and jostling and perhaps making little bats they’ll go to sleep and rest so that they can do it all again tomorrow.”

We thought that sounded like a good plan for us too, so we took our leave of the Caverns and drove out onto the very flat plains of eastern New Mexico.  A few miles down the road we found a convenient turnout and pulled into it to make our evening camp.  Across the road was a sign that declared the presence of a potash mine somewhere in the distance.  Brad and I enjoyed making ‘momma jokes’ and found great amusement in finding occasions that evening to declare that “your momma is a potash miner.”  it was irrelevant that we enjoyed the same momma.  The entertainment was to be had in artfully crafting the joke, not about who’s momma was referenced or if, in fact, said momma had ever mined potash or even knew what potash was.  And if the subtleties of this form of entertainment is too complex for you, dear reader, It is highly likely to be because YOUR momma was a potash miner.

We did not stay up late that evening.  A beer and potato chips or some other snack and we went to our separate lodgings.  My cot at the edge of the turnout was soon swallowed up by the night but still faintly illumined by the billions of stars which poured their light down on this tiny patch of earth.  I thought about the bats, feeding in the fields to the south, and how there were a million stars for every bat I saw curl up and out of that crack in the ground.  My mind drifted back to a time when I was about 10, sitting in a bath tub and thinking about the universe.  It’s infinite, you know, which means that when you get to the end of it there’s more to go.  Always.  How does a 10 year old wrap his mind around infinity?  How does anyone wrap their mind around infinity?  The concept was overwhelming then and all I could do was cry.  As I lay on my cot I thought about the stars and universe and infinity, and concluded that it was not for me to wrap my mind around anyway.  It just was and it was beautiful to look at on this night in southeastern New Mexico, and that would have to be enough for me, at least for now.