Sunday, December 2, 2012

My Family Story # 9: When Mother Slapped Allison

Allison Giles McIlhenny
“She slapped me in front of Junior,” Allison said, when I brought up our hired hands on the farm.  It was a blustery Saturday back in May, and I had driven the six hours to Gettysburg the day before.  It was now mid-morning, and I was in the Blue Parrot Bistro, Allison and Holly’s restaurant, watching Allison in the kitchen doing her prep work, getting ready for a Saturday night full of reservations. 

The Blue Parrot kitchen had very little room for standing and conversing, yet any number of people could be found back there watching Allison and her staff – friends, family, salesmen, employees during their off hours, waitresses waiting for customers in the dining room, all talking about the events at hand, the issues in their lives.  I was standing with my back to a large metal sink in front of the main window half way down the room.  What seemed like hundreds of pots and pans had been thrown into the sink, ostensibly to soak, but, perhaps, simply to be avoided.  A long stainless steel table used for prep work was immediately in front of me and my standing there was blocking that side of the aisle.  Allison was standing on the other side of the table slicing hundreds of red peppers with a large, steel carving knife and cupping the slivers into a well-used metal bowl.  Behind her were the warming tables for picking up completed dishes and behind that a steam table, with lids and sauces and thin strands of steam rising into the air.  Beyond the steam table was the industrial heart of Allison’s kitchen – two ovens and a huge black iron stove with odd shaped pots haphazardly arrayed across the many burners.

With Allison firmly in place at her cutting board, it was clear I had to move quickly every time a waiter or cook came into the area, sliding over to the back door near the sink, or movng back to the shelves along the far wall.  Even at the door or against the wall, you had to remain nimble to stay out of the way.  It was like a fluid dance of movement, with the kitchen's many characters spiraling in different directions, yet, with incredible grace throughout, and by entering the room you automatically agreed to participate in the ballet continuously unfolding throughout the day.    
“Mother slapped you?” I asked leaning lightly against the sink, aware of everyone in the room.  This was a heck of a place to have this conversation.  Allison’s hands were holding the tiny peppers while slicing them with the sharp knife. I noticed her fingers, moving quickly with assured dexterity, so much thinner than mine, more wrinkled, and covered with small scars and burns from forty years of cooking in the restaurant. 
“Yep,” Allison responded, barely looking up, wired blonde hair exploding in all directions across her head, wearing faded blue jeans and a light sweater with an old white apron.  “Don’t you remember, our first two hired hands were Harvey and Junior.  They lived in the mobile home near the barn.  Junior was hired after Harvey – don’t you remember?”  When she looked up at me, I nodded like I did, but I was too young at the time; I didn’t remember any of this. 
“Junior was much younger and better looking than Harvey, and Mother acted sweeter around him than with old Harvey,” she said, laughing, getting into her story.  “For some reason Mother took me with her down to the barn to talk to Junior.  After a while, I wanted to tell her something – I don’t remember what – but she wouldn’t let me interrupt.  She told me to be quiet.  I said something like, ‘But he’s only a hired hand!’ – and just like that,” Allison paused, waving her knife in a pirouette across the peppers, “Mother slapped me!”  Allison's eyes were on fire.  “She told me to apologize, but I was in a state of shock.  I was a little girl, and she hit me across my face, right in front of Junior!”
“What did you do?”
“What do you think?  I burst into tears as much from embarrassment as from the sting.  Can you believe it?” Allison flashed her knife, pointing it at me like I had something to do with it.  “Mother never apologized to me either.  She finished talking to Junior, and we went back up to the house.”

Saturday, November 17, 2012

She's downstairs looking for your gun

He decided she was crazy.  He was brushing his teeth, and it dawned on him the stress she was going through finally had taken her over the edge.  Last week he pushed the idea that she should see a psychiatrist, ostensibly as a way to get her mind off of flying, which they both knew she would have to do if she wanted to go to Seattle to be with her daughter, her husband, and their new baby.  It wasn't so much as flying as being on a small plane that she minded.  She would have to travel from their regional airport to Philadelphia or New York to catch one of the larger planes, and those little 20-seaters that operated out of their city would take her over the top.  The claustrophobia would have her peeling the walls by the time the plane landed if she already hadn't caused an accident at 30,000 feet trying to break through the tiny windows for air or freedom. 

She was always on edge.  This was her personality and he had accepted it many years ago, that and the crazy stories of her earlier marriages, the secrets concerning her family, and that god-awful farm.  What occurred there that she couldn't talk about it? 

Jeez, he spit bloody toothpaste into the sink, his gums were bleeding. 

It was clear she had had a rough life; he felt that if he remained calm and didn't ask too many questions, she would work it out internally – that's what she said she wanted to do, wasn't it?  But, after all these years, he was starting to think this required something like a miracle, say, like self-healing from cancer.  She said she could do this and he had been willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, but without knowing what it was and now seeing what it was doing to her, he had to wonder.  Maybe the psychiatrist could tell him if he could get her to go. 

He once tried to bring up those years when she was a kid, but she wouldn’t have it, and visiting the farm to see her dad still alive out there was out of the question.  The only thing she told him: when she was sixteen she went to the barn to milk the cows, met up with a boy – a local kid she barely knew who had joined the army six months earlier – and never returned.  Three marriages later, forty years later, she was here with him.  He heard more about the rotten things the other men did to her than what it was like growing up with her older siblings.  She told him once, when they signed their marriage certificate, Ethel came from her mother who died when she was a baby.  They called her Sissy and she never mentioned it again.     

He put his tooth brush in the holder and gargled, spitting a stream of watery-red toothpaste into the sink.  It was all too much he decided.  He looked at himself in the mirror and wondered if his eyes had always been this sore and when was the last time he had gone out and gotten a haircut?  He was a mess; she was taking him down with her. 

He looked beyond his image; he could see her typing away on his computer on their bed.  Now who was she writing to? – He hoped it wasn't the sheriff, once again.  She had destroyed her own computer in a moment of anger, and before that, her Kindle, and, most recently, she swore her camera was on the fritz, but was she at fault for that too?  He just didn't trust her alone and found reasons to stay around the house, at least until she calmed down.  And at night he slept lightly, if he slept at all, waiting for her to fall sleep, then worried half the time if she would wake up without his knowing. 

But lately, her storming off in a rage for no reason – at nonsense as far as he was concerned – suddenly showing up with groceries at 3 AM and not putting anything away – hadn't he come downstairs in the morning to melted ice cream that had seeped all over the counter and onto the floor – the drugs, the doctors, the stories, the walks, the conversations he could hear her having with herself, the endless calls – who was she talking to anyway?  The calls, in particular, had him mystified.  He asked her a couple of weeks ago and she said her daughter, but when he saw the bill the calls were to the farm.  Something was happening and his sitting back and letting her work through it wasn't working.  He needed to talk to her daughter before she arrived in Seattle.  Maybe she could get through to her. 

He sighed and turned from the sink, "Honey, I am going to make some breakfast.  You want something?" 

She looked up at him. "Toast," she said, pausing, "and Sissy can join us." 

His eyes squinted; he wanted to say, "What?"  Instead, he asked instinctively, "Who am I talking to?"

"Jane," she replied matter-of-factly, returning to her typing. 

"Oh," he responded, now that's a first.  "And where's Sissy?" he asked. 

She giggled in spite of herself, afraid to look at him, like she had burning secret she was dying to share… 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Reading like a Writer

Over the past week I read a book entitled "Reading like a Writer" by Francine Prose.  I bought this paperback at our local bookstore because it offered to help me do exactly what I needed to do from now on.  Not only that, but, as a bonus feature, it promised me a list of all of the “Books that Must be Read Immediately.”  Exactly!  That’s exactly what I needed! 

What led up to this epiphany is very clear in my mind.  I was sitting at my desk, reading my blog, when I experienced a brief but profound moment of enlightenment.  I suddenly realized if I wanted to maintain this blog for the rest of my life, while posting pieces on a frequent basis, I needed help.  Other blogs focus on specific topics, like politics, or crochet, or making Julia Child’s recipes, or roaming around on a motorcycle, or even discussing the local sports scene, all of which seem well-intentioned, well-written, and, well, let’s be frank, quite do-able on a continuous basis.  However, my blog, I realized, went everywhere and nowhere at once.  In my illumination, I realized I lacked two essential ingredients that the other blogs seemed to have: quality writing and continuous inspiration. 

Deciding to tackle that “continuous inspiration” thing next month, I resolved instead to work on the quality of my writing. This was something I could manage, couldn’t I?  After all, it’s about mechanics, and, anyhow, didn’t that one blog say I could crochet better by actually crocheting, and didn’t the other blog say with proper training and a rod and tackle, I could learn to fish, and how hard is it anyway to cook from a recipe, even if it is Julia Child’s?  I decided right then and there, if others can improve on their passion, I can too.  In fact, that very day, I decided I would enhance my writing skills by becoming a better writer (eureka, what an idea!).  Rather than read a grammar book, I would learn by osmosis – that is, by reading more to see how others have achieved their “quality-writing” success.  

This, of course, brought me to the bookstore late that afternoon.  I needed a good book by a good writer that was not too difficult to read and didn’t have too many pages.  Clearly, with monthly installments on my blog, I didn’t have time to get bogged down.  Oh, and I needed a book with a font size that was not too tiny either.  (I hate it when it takes forever to turn the page, and if there are too many pages to turn, the truth is, I’m doomed!)   Most importantly, as a blogger with more than a year under my belt, I needed this to work.  I was alone and desperate, but, in my favor, I had total access to all the books in the store.  Two hours later, my new dedication began with four good-but-different books tucked under my arm: “Reading like a Writer” (not exactly what I came for, but, clearly, this could save me a lot of time), “Unforgettable Journeys: Great Writers on Great Places” (A theme of mine, you have to admit, given my “Notes from the Field” over the past year), “Blogging for Dummies” (Yes, I agree, what the hell am I doing?), and the curve ball of the day, “Chi Marathon” by Danny Dreyer (Did I mention I like to run?  After a year of semi-serious training, I am desperate for some improvements in this area too.  In fact, everything I do seems symptomatic of this problem – oh, never mind, let’s save that thought for a later essay…).    

At my desk back home with my four new books by my side, I picked up “Reading like a Writer.”  Skimming the back cover, I noted that the author, a Ms. Prose, was an avid, life-long reader and just as critically, especially for the authority she was projecting in taking on this idea, an author of several works of fiction.  Wasn’t this proof positive she was exactly who I needed to improve my blog?  Most importantly, I read, she was also a creative writing teacher of many years. This, then, was a book letting me in on what she had gleaned from her readings, writings, and teachings.  I had hit the Holy Trinity!  Already I could feel my blog improving!  

That night, I began my quest.  After all, aren’t I a writer of a year-long blog?  Aren’t I more than a klutzy, knock-kneed runner, or a traveler to distant shores (but usually just our own shore), or a dup that buys books for Dummies (especially when it comes to blogs, Spanish, Excel spreadsheets, auto mechanics…)?  I simply needed a path, and with my new book, my strategy came together:  I would to learn how to “read like writer,” skip the actual reading of any other books, and go directly to improving my blog.  (What a plan!)

In point of fact, I soon discovered Francine (I call her Francine now because of our one-on-one relationship) employed snippets from literary classics to convey the importance of “writer reading.”  This was perfect, I realized, with Francine’s guidance I could cover quickly the world’s great literature, killing two birds with one stone!  Forget the easy books or the picture books with lots of white spaces.  “Writer-reading” was exactly what I needed to be well-read!  Oh, and don’t forget that list in the appendix that Francine lovelingly hands out to her oblivious students, that list she’s willing to share privately with me now that we are so intimately acquainted, that list of classics to be a great writer.  The secret was finally MINE, and I figured, given the limited time I was operating under (what with my monthly deadline) and given I only wanted to be a great blogger anyway, simply skimming the list would be sufficient.  Smelling it, even, and I could be well on my way! 

This past week, night after night, chapter by chapter, I read the book slowly but surely (and ignored the lack of pictures) and learned to focus my writing on the importance of “words” (good idea!), “sentences” (that’s cool!), “paragraphs” (yes, I know, I need them!), “narration” (hmmmm, really?), “characters” (these too?), “dialogue” (“What?” he asked.), “details” (ugh, not details!), and “gesture” (like a “high-five?”– okay, got it!)  All of these important mechanics employed in good writing, I realized, could go directly into my blog, and, someday even, somebody might annotate my writings and discover all the centuries’ old works that led to my pithy dialogue, spine-chilling characters, descriptive – yet tight – narration, and colorful, scintillating details.  Could I be someone’s dissertation?

Finally, I finished the book and, as my last act that final night, I turned to the appendix.  There it was: the list – all of the books to be read immediately if I wanted to be a great writer – a list, perhaps, of one hundred to two hundred incredible books.  It included titles of every major writer from most of the continents of the world going back centuries: the Russians, the British, the French, the Americans, the South Americans, the Africans, and the Asians.  (Fortunately, not one of them had a blog!) 

It turns out, I actually had read three of the books!  (Yeaaaa!  No wonder I started my blog!) 

In studying the list, however, soon I felt a knot of anxiety in the pit of my stomach.  The truth was, not only had I not read most of the books, but I hadn’t even heard of many of the authors!  I realized Francine was, in reality, my old, white-haired, heavy-set, literature professor in disguise calling me out just like a dog, just like back in college – I was totally inadequate as a writer, as a person, as a human being.  I was a charlatan slinking around in blogger’s clothing!  “You will never be a great writer if you don’t know the literature,” he would grumble at me in his stuffy old office of dead and dying books and wilted stacks of papers, handing me back my paper, bleeding red from his pen with another “C” emblazed across the top corner. Ugh!  But, wasn’t it too late to know the literature?  I would have to start reading -- like now (!) – and then, even then, wouldn’t they be dumping unread books into my grave to take with me to the hereafter?

Worse yet, to my dismay, I discovered a typed sheet of paper that was lodged in the back of the book.  (Where did this come from?)   Francine or someone like her had included a second appendix for me to ponder.  It was another list, but this one was titled, "Horrible Books Never to be Read by Anyone with Half-a-Brain."  Wait a minute.  I recognized these titles.  Most consisted of books on my bookshelf!  I had read them from cover to cover at one time or another and some several times over.  Oh no!  At the bottom of the list it even warned syphilis, early dementia, and death was inevitable if you read them all.  (Whew!  There was still one or two I was missing.) 

Looking up, I realized in another epiphany (or was it the same epiphany from a week earlier? – No wonder I have a headache), not only did I need to lift my reading to new level, but I had to stop reading junk!  All of these horrible books, magazines, articles that filled my time and were on the list of “no brainers” had to go.  I decided, right then and there, enhancing the quality of my reading would be my primary goal from now on, or, at least, starting next year, along with losing twenty pounds, as a key part of my New Year's resolutions.  In the meanwhile, this whole inquiry I had embarked upon this past month, this journey, in fact, ending with “Reading like a Writer” epitomizing how far I had gone, was depressing me thoroughly!  Forget improving my writing – blog or no blog!  Forget Francine and my old prof, merging together and separating apart, forget being a great writer.  I decided, rather, this year with the limited time remaining, I would focus, instead, on being a world-class runner!  Yeaaaa!    

Friday, October 19, 2012

Reflections on a Friend's Headstone

I saw the picture of M’s headstone posted on Facebook.  A friend had been walking around the cemetery, saw her grave, and took the photograph.  It was the first time I had seen her headstone in all these years, and it brought back many memories of that period more than twenty-five years ago. 

One incident, in particular, had a tremendous impact on me.  A couple of years after M’s death, her mother sent me a book of M’s short stories.  She said M wanted me to have it.  I was honored, of course, and surprised her mother would send them to me (literally out of the blue), but I wasn't sure I was ready emotionally to delve into M’s stories.  I guess I was sad enough about her passing; if there was a reason M wanted her mother to send the book to me, I didn’t think I was prepared to understand and accept what she had to say, especially about dying at the young age of 34, with a young husband who likely would remarry, and two little girls who would never remember their natural mother. 

I knew M from high school (we were all in the same theatre clique and hung out together), and we maintained a close friendship throughout our college years and beyond.  With M, this was easy to do and, when I started a small theatre company after college, M was one of the first persons I called.  I often saw M and her husband at the restaurant I was managing and frequently talked with M’s parents when they too came in for dinner.  Unfortunately, I had been gone from the area for several years and working for an avant-garde artist in New York City when M died.  I learned of M’s passing when I returned home for the holidays; my oldest sister mentioned her funeral over dinner.  When she realized I didn't know about M, she said she was sorry to be the one to tell me and added, almost as an after thought, that it had been a really sad funeral.  I remember thinking, I wish someone would have called me; I guess there’s a certain loss of connections with friends by not remaining in the area. 

The last time I saw M, I was with my wife, and we were going into the local movie theatre at the same time she and her husband were coming out of the doors.  She was wearing a scarf over her head and seemed heavily bundled.  I focused the conversation on my leaving the area and how excited I was to be pursuing a life of theatre and writing.  It was a short interaction with people trying to get around us, but she was thrilled for me and wished me the best of luck. 

Several years later M’s book arrived on my doorstep.  In a letter, M’s mother said she had heard I was out of the theatre business, but didn't know how to find me.  One night, by chance, she ran into my oldest sister at a social gathering; my sister told her I was now, in fact, a fundraiser.  M's mother wished me the best of luck, hoped I was still writing, and gave me M's book as one of the remaining requests from her daughter.  

I was overwhelmed by the gift, and, I must admit, the book sat on my desk for an awful long while, hidden in the manila envelope in which it had arrived and, in time, lost under other books and papers.  Though I had opened the packet and knew the significance of what was inside, I felt like I needed to keep the whole thing at arm's length, sheathed and buried.  However, finally, I realized I wanted – no desired – to know what M had to say; I resolved I would read it when I was alone and had the time to reflect on what was written there. 

Presently, my work required that I travel to California.  On an overnight flight to San Francisco, in the darkness of the plane, with the overhead light beaming on M's pages, I read the book from cover to cover.  Most of the stories were written when M was in college and shortly thereafter, before she was diagnosed with cancer, though several were written more recently when she was a elementary school teacher, and one or two dealt with her realization of what was about to occur, given the prognosis.  Most significantly, the stories were funny, and poignant, and full of life, and so sad at the same time, and, looking out the plane's window down at the sparkling nightscape below, I finally mourned M, our youth, our dreams of being artists, and all that was lost to her and her family in her passing.  

The gift of M’s stories was the reminder of who M was and how she viewed life, even in the acceptance of her imminent death.  On the plane and, later, on the flight home, I wrote to M’s mother a long letter about each and every one of M’s stories and how insightful I thought they were, her happiness with her family, her love of her husband and her two daughters, and her strength in living with cancer.  With the mailing of the letter several days later, my unhappiness (and anger) over M's death, much of which I didn't even know I harbored, came to a close.  M’s mother wrote back several weeks later to thank me and to say she would save my letter for M's daughters, as a testimonial to the author they never knew. 

I heard from my oldest sister that M’s father died a few years later, M's husband never remarried, and my sister still sees M’s mother from time to time with her two granddaughters, both of whom are fully grown with husbands and children of their own. 

Funny, how the picture of M’s headstone brought back these memories.  I haven't thought of M and her short stories in years.  M’s book is still in my possession; I have kept it in my trunk for safe keeping, along with my own stories of our lives back then.

When I am Alone

When I am at home, alone inside, why am I so discreet?  Closing the bathroom door, even on the second floor, where no one could peek if they tried; or coughing with a hand covering my mouth, who cares if the germs, like butterflies, seem to fly about; or if I eat the last of the ice cream, good grief, who’s to see and admonish me for being a frozen dairy thief; or say to me – don’t drink all the wine, save it for your wife or someone else who stops by the house next time; Or stop me from playing with my knife –it's my life, who cares if the wrist is too close to the wish to make sense of this?

Friday, October 12, 2012

My Family Story # 8: My Sister Allison and Brother Jerry

Allison Giles
For Allison and me, it was also a time of great mystery, and we knew that on the farm magical creatures lived amongst us.  Allison, a year and a half older than me, was only six when we moved to the farm and seven that December.  She and I were the best of friends and spent endless hours playing or doing our chores together.  We had no doubt that monsters were in the barn.  Even the small woods on the back side of our house were not to be trifled with in our play.  Though, to be honest, the small woods near the house were nothing like the big woods a large field away with its deep, impenetrable forest of trees and large piles of rock-mounds that we were positive were Indian graves – graves that were, in fact, for the ancestors of the very same Indians who were watching and stalking us every time we went in there alone together. 
Allison was not like Holly, though she too had a strong will that often would be at odds with what I wanted to do.  Whereas Holly had dark hair and more of an athletic build, Allison was blonde, more fragile, and more like Mother in complexion.   She was more of a “girl” and loved to play dress up, or with her dolls, or “house” together with me.  For many years, if I wanted to be with Allison, this was the parameters in which I had to operate.  She didn’t tolerate soldiers entering our play, or Indians attacking from the woods, or Viking appearing out of nowhere, all of which I thought were quite natural.  Being a boy, I was required, therefore, to take a few minutes of serious fighting every so often to protect her, her dolls, or restore order to our “house.”  I think she thought I was an idiot.
At one point we decided to build a tree-house in the small woods behind our house.  Of course, Allison and I didn’t know what we were doing and couldn’t find a tree that satisfied her requirements (large trunk to nail slats for a ladder, thick, low-level branches in which we could build a small platform, and, most importantly, located on the edge of the forest so we could run to the house anytime we heard something we couldn’t comprehend, saw something that made absolutely no sense, or smelled impending danger, such as a large wolf or worse, a witch).  Soon she grew frustrated with the effort.  Allison was no Charley – Charley and I built a raft on our creek and was ready to float it to the Mississippi if only the raft hadn’t sunk a few feet into the mud with us on it.  Allison, on the other hand, looked at the daunting task of building a tree house in an “actual” tree and decided that a “tree house” located on the ground near the edge of the woods right next to the lawn would serve perfectly for our needs.  Accordingly, for many an afternoon in the small woods the two of us created a beautiful home together, cooked cold water with grass and wild onions, and raised a family of babies, while, of course, always vigilant in waiting for the unfathomable that might be coming our way.
Jeremiah Blackmore Giles
Jerry was born on the farm approximately one year after we made the move from Pittsburgh.  He was conceived on New Year’s Eve, and, in fact, was the gift for the ultimate, modern farm family.  The night Jerry was born, the story goes, Daddy was down in the barn helping a huge sow deliver a large liter of piglets.  The fear was that the sow would roll over onto her babies or worse, eat them. The hired hand heard the phone and came running.  “Mr. Giles, Mr. Giles, get back to the house – your own sow’s delivering!” 
I remember, the next morning, discovering the sheets pulled off my parent’s bed and lying bunched up on the floor, which I thought was so strange, especially on a weekday.  Holly was there, of course, and got us all off to school.  Later, though, when Mother came home, Jerry was the tiny baby in her arms.  Jerry was her fifth child, more than six years younger than me.  No Korean War baby, but a new era baby, a soon to be “what you can do for your country” baby.  Unfortunately, like a kid who was always too young, Jerry suffered the consequences of too much going on with our family and never being old enough to participate or, even, understand.  Even as a kid, when we took a cross-country trip in our station wagon to see the Grand Canyon, Disneyland, and the Seattle World Fair back in the summer of 1962, Jerry was the one left behind with the older couple who lived on the farm across the road.  The story is told that they kept him in an empty corn bin until we returned six weeks later.
Even Jerry‘s name was different.  Holly was born on December 24 and named “Holliday” in honor of the occasion, Charley was a “junior” after our father; Allison was our mother’s maiden name, and I was named after Jonathan in the Bible and my paternal grandmother’s maiden name.   However, Jeremiah Blackmore was a name totally derived from the farm.  Jeremiah Black, a Pennsylvania statesman who served in President Buchanan’s cabinet, was born on our farm and was buried near the highway next to our lane in a private, fenced-in cemetery.  Recognizing this, in combination with “the Mores,’ the owners who had so thoroughly updated the property, my mother came up with “Jeremiah Blackmore”… Jerry, then, was a true testament to our farm and our beautiful spot in the Alleghenies.  Perhaps too, an indication of the happiness my mother and father felt that first year.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Woodstock and the Wild Bunch

Friday nights are a great time to write as the work-week is over.  I like drinking on Friday nights, so do indulge me.  Luckily, I turned on the television and bumped into “Woodstock."  I have been enjoying the film immensely – while drinking several beers and contemplating dinner.  Jimi Hendrix just performed the “Star Spangled Banner” as a solo tour-de-force, and it is amazing how good he is, how young, and how long and nimble his fingers are.  Janis, Sly and the Family Stone, Ten Years After, Santana, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe....  Amazing! 
My friend, Ron and I drove up to New York City that weekend of Woodstock back in 1969; we were in Ron’s Ford Mustang picking up our close friend, Lynn, who had been working in New Jersey at a Salvation Army camp for underprivileged girls just outside of New York City.  We were sixteen and on our own.  Our plan was to sleep at the camp, then, drive into New York City and hang out in Greenwich Village before returning to the horrors of "farmbelt" Pennsylvania that night.  When we arrived in the Village that Saturday morning, we were shocked to see no one was there.  It was like a mysterious wind had emptied the sidewalks and stores and removed all the cars and taxis! 
Ron, Lynn, and I would be entering tenth grade that fall; we were from "the dead-of-no-where" Pennsylvania, and we didn't have a clue as to what was going on until we read the New York Daily News that morning.  Ugh!  Talking about being in the wrong place at the wrong time!  I can remember sitting in a diner trying to decide what to do – should we take off for Woodstock or stick with our plan to hang out in Greenwich Village?  Subsequently, we read the freeway was closed, with cars stranded everywhere, and decided ditching new Ron's Mustang wasn’t worth it either. 
Two good things, though, came out of that trip: in a record store in the Village I heard Al Cooper's album “Blood, Sweat and Tears” and realized I was listening to a great album.  I bought it immediately, and it still holds a place near to my heart.  The second thing was seeing “The Wild Bunch.”  God!  What a fabulous movie!  To this day, I remember endless details!  We were in a movie house in mid-town, and, I remember, we were allowed to smoke cigarettes while watching the film.  Three sixteen-year-old boys smoking up a storm – we were immersed totally in the experience.  And the movie was incredible!  On that screen, William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, and us – we were all one, and, in the end, we died together in the central plaza fighting the Mexican Army!  This was even more unbelievable than the Magnificent Seven or John Wayne and the Alamo.  This was four guys armed to the teeth, in the Mexican Army’s encampment, slugging it out to the death and in slow motion too!  Simply incredible! 

Still, several months later, watching the movie “Woodstock,” when it played in our local movie theatre, we realized, then, how much we missed not hiking up the New York Freeway! 
Now, sitting in my easy chair, drinking a few beers after a long week, watching a sliced-up, commercial-filled version of “Woodstock,” I can’t help but wonder about our decision – what if we had made it up to Max Yasgur’s Farm, would our lives have played out differently?  Yet, how much of an impact could it have had on three young, farm boys who still had three years of high school remaining in our "lost-in-a-dead-zone" world?  Of course, maybe things would have changed for Ron.  At the time, Lynn and I embraced what “Woodstock” meant to kids, like us, looking for a future, but Ron shied away from us that year, and our friendship, as a result, was never as close. 
Essentially, Ron joined the wrestling team that year and began hanging out with the athletes in our high school.  While Lynn and I explored pot and other drugs popular at the time, Ron embraced the binge-drinking lifestyle of the jocks in our school, and, ultimately, never was as comfortable being around us again.  Later, in college, at the beginning of our junior year, Ron crashed his Ford Mustang late one night dead-drunk from a long night of underage drinking in a bar just past the state line.  He died driving back to school; he wasn't wearing a seatbelt and, in the accident, was thrown into the oncoming lane.  I have thought about Ron many times – why he went the route he took back in tenth grade, and, again, years later – but mostly, I think about what it must have been like recognizing the bright lights of death speeding directly at you at sixty miles-an-hour.   
I remember, at the time, I was in college moving off campus.  My friends and I were living in various apartments before we could get the keys to our house.  When, finally, we unlocked the front door to our rental, a three-day-old telegram from my mother was lying on the floor waiting for me.  I recall vividly standing in the hallway stunned.  According to the text, Ron’s funeral, in fact, was being held the next morning.  Looking back, I regret letting my college friends talk me out of taking a bus back home. They kept saying I would never make it in time, there was too much to do with the house, and it was just a friend from junior high, after all.   
Today, I think of Ron and me drinking bottles of vodka together back in eighth and ninth grade in my basement or smoking cigarettes on the side streets between our houses, and, later, in high school, Lynn and I showing up stoned at parties and seeing Ron happily drunk with his new friends.  Mostly, I remember, how close we were in junior high: we were boys from screwed-up families who banded together, who spent hours listening to music, who thought nothing on a Friday night of walking the railroad tracks for miles to get to Ron’s father’s farmhouse where we could drink the booze in his father’s liquor cabinet, or, later, after his dad gave Ron the Ford Mustang, speeding over a hundred miles-an-hour to see if we had the guts to do it.  We were the Wild Bunch back then, yet, through blood, sweat, and tears, Lynn and I went on – but Ron, Ron, in my mind, remained behind, back in the plaza, fighting demons as overwhelming as the Mexican Army.       

Sunday, September 23, 2012

My Family Story # 7: Hired Hands and Mother

Helen Allison Giles
With my father commuting back and forth, it was clear by that first spring our parents needed a full-time hired hand to work the farm, keep a handle on what was happening in the barn, feed the livestock, and till the land.  Unfortunately, they never seem to settle on the right person and constantly found themselves with new hires in the position, many of whom had drinking problems or problems with their wives, or friends, or the law.  Each of our hired hands lived in an old mobile home just off the highway turn-in to the barn and, with our house a quarter-of-a-mile up the small lane through the fields, it made going down to the barn to check in on the hired hands slightly disconcerting.  I don’t think my mother liked being around the barn at all, and for us kids it was always a struggle to walk down there to do our chores.  I remember on one occasion when Allison and I, in our Hans and Gretel best, walked hand-in-hand to the barn to feed the chickens, we discovered our hired hand had killed a deer out of season and had skinned it in one of the cattle stalls, thinking my mother and us kids would never know.  I remember the carcass draining from the first floor roof and blood everywhere mixing with the beat up, white-washed wood from the stall and the thickly matted straw.  I swear we didn't think it was a deer at all, we thought it was one of the three Billy Goats Gruff, or a fabled monster of some sort, and the blood, the blood of the unimaginable, or, at least, of children who went into that god-awful barn uninvited or without a parent to protect them!  The hired hand threatened to skin us alive if we told anyone and, of course, looking at the skinned deer, we knew he could do it too!  We promised we never, never, never would tell, and, after quickly doing our chores while appearing to be quite sympathetic to his situation, we immediately ran up the lane and told our mother who had our father fire him that night.
On another occasion a group of field hands arrived at our farm early one summer morning to harvest peas that had been planted earlier that spring.  These were a rough bunch of men working as pickers for extra money.  It was a hot day in the dead of summer and, as luck would have it, my birthday.  My mother had arranged for a number of my school friends to come to our house from their farms around the area, and I was very excited about everything going on that morning, the pickers up in the field and mother getting ready in the kitchen for the party that afternoon.  I rode my bike to the field where the workers were picking and watched them for awhile pulling the ripe pea pods from the rows and rows of plants.  Soon I became aware of several men chewing tobacco near the edge of the field where I was standing with my bike.  I don’t think I ever watched anyone chewing tobacco before, and I marveled at the large plugs they put in their mouths.  Before too long one of the older guys standing in some shade on the side of the field offered me a “chew” by handing me his pouch of tobacco.  “Hey, boy, would you like some?” he asked innocently enough through a toothless mouth, spitting a stream of brown juice into the field full of peas.  Thinking it was much like bubble gum, and realizing that the bunch of pickers were looking over to see what I’d do, I reached into his bag and took out a handful of the dark and stringy substance.  It was sticky to the touch and smelled really bad, musky and not at all inviting like gum.  “Go on, boy, try it.”  With his encouragement and the nodding of the other men, I put the plug in my mouth and chewed.  I realized immediately I absolutely hated the bitter taste and horrible juice filling my mouth.  I looked at them aghast as they burst out laughing.  Rather than spit it out in front of them, I immediately swallowed it to get it out of my mouth.  With the realization of what I had done, even more of the men joined in the laughter as I became ghostly white, turned, and ran with my bike back to the house. 
Seeing me running down the yard and bursting into the kitchen, Mother looked at me concerned from the kitchen sink and followed me as I rushed into the bathroom and immediately threw up in the toilet.  “Jonathan, what is going on!” but I was too sick to tell her.  The rest of the day was spent hugging the toilet or lying on my bed completely dizzy and disoriented and totally sick to my stomach.  Soon though, Mother learned between heaves what I had done and was furious with the pickers; she had had so much planned for that day, and I could barely crawl out of bed.  She stormed up to the pea field, a small tornado of anger, to where the callused pickers were enjoying their fun, and, yelling loud enough to be heard across the field, she demanded to know, “Who gave my son the tobacco!”  The picking stopped and all the men stood and stared at her.  When no one spoke, she screamed at them all, “Why would you do that to my son!”  Furious, she yelled, “Get these peas picked now and the hell off our farm.”  Not satisfied, she demanded, “Where’s our foreman?  I’m not paying anyone if I have to take my boy to the hospital!”  Whatever laughter the pickers had had in their respite quickly fell away, and their effort in picking the remaining peas immediately intensified.  My mother stood there eyeing each and every one of them as they got to work in earnest; then she turned and stormed back to the house.  That was the one thing about my mother, she was not a person to be trifled with, especially when she was angry, and that morning, the morning of my eighth birthday, she was furious.
Still at Mother’s urging, that first summer on the farm Charley and I helped the hired hand and guys he paid to bale hay.  We learned first-hand how hard it was to pull those large bales off the baling machine and carry them to the back of the wagon or stack them with the help of a conveyer into the upper reaches of the barn.  Once haying was finish and, especially, with our father not around and our mother letting us to our own devices in the barn, the kids from Brotherton would come over, and, together, we, Holly, Charley, Allison and I, would build tremendous forts with the fresh bales high in the stacks of hay.  Secret passageways and hidden dens provided an endless maze just for us kids.  With tied flashlights hanging down from bales overhead, we would crawl all over the stacks and pop up and throw rotten apples and eggs at each other.  Someone, I remember, tied a thick rope to one of the rafters, and we would swing out into the center of the barn and back into the stacks, letting go just in time to land in a pile of hay.  With Mother and Daddy being so new to the farm, these were the days of childhood fun, beautiful sunsets, and endless spasms of laughter.

Friday, September 21, 2012

When It's Time

There’s sadness in your hello.
As much as we love you,
We won't let it show.

You’re not trapped living a past,
Or being someone
You no longer know.

I can see it in your smile.
You can stay awhile, but –
We’ll let you go.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Tootsie Rolls

It is late Sunday night and I am standing in the kitchen with a mouthful of tootsie rolls.  I have jammed eight, bite-size tootsie rolls into my mouth and now am having problems breathing.  I should have blown my nose first – it never dawned on me that I would need my nasal passages to suck air into my lungs.  Literally, I can't open my mouth without tootsie roll juice spilling out everywhere, and I'll be damned if I am losing any of the chocolaty saliva now that I have gone this far – even if I can't move my teeth or get air past all the goo lodged on the top of my tongue.

Indeed, it is clear, I have decided to choke on tootsie rolls rather than let go or, for that matter, pack for an early Monday morning flight to Los Angeles.  Prior to my ongoing tootsie roll debacle, I calculated how early I would have to get up if I put off packing altogether, especially if I waited to iron the shirts in the washing machine needed for the trip.  It would mean waking up at the crack of dawn, and, even then, I might not have time to iron the shirts, yet alone get everything else accomplished, including picking up documents left in my office by mistake.  Still, under the enticing onslaught of bite-size tootsie rolls crammed into my mouth all at once, packing doesn’t stand a chance.

Earlier today, I was so good.  My wife Karen and I spent a three-day weekend in Pennsylvania and before we drove home, Karen bought the tootsie rolls for the road; she purchased a huge brown bag of "midgies" just for the two of us, even though I told her this was a mistake and the last thing I needed.  However, once we were driving, I stayed strong and ate only three: one because it was a tootsie roll, after all, the second because you can never eat just one, and the third when Karen announced she was closing the bag.  Given the circumstances – a six-hour drive with forty minutes stopped in traffic due to an accident – I was proud of my will-power and restraint.  At any point it would have been easy to say, "Hey, Hon, this is killing me, toss me a midgy!"  But, I didn't.  I kept my mouth shut and my mind off of her tootsies.

That is until tonight.  Tonight, when I was in the laundry room with the washing machine banging away and the dryer beeping incessantly, it was, then, that I saw the tootsie roll bag with the wide opening gap sticking out of my wife's purse on a nearby table.  I remembered how good I had been earlier, and the thought occurred to me that I should reward myself now that I was alone and had unlimited access to the hundreds of individually-wrapped midgies.  Still, that wasn't simply it.  It wasn't until needing to iron my shirts, jump on the computer to pay some bills, stop by the office for those critical documents, leave instructions for the staff, do my wife a favor by running past the post office and the grocery store, race to an ATM and get gas, and give the Red Cross all of my blood before being totally sucked dry – that my cravings grew past the point of sanity – it wasn't until I thought of the plane waiting, engines smoking, no where to park at the airport, the all-call system moaning my name over and over, the door closing at the last gate of the long terminal, stewardesses standing in a huff  on the plane, all the seats but the one in the very middle filled with angry travelers and crying babies, no room overhead for my luggage, and no room under the seat for my cumbersome laptop and my sweaty legs and hot feet – it wasn’t until then that the inspiration was fully and completely formed on undertaking a quick-as-a-whistle tootsie stuffing into my pants pockets.          

Now I wonder what Karen will say when she hears me suffocating on the tootsie rolls – and when she rushes into the kitchen to give me mouth-to-mouth resuscitation – what will her reaction be when my mouth tastes like burped-up, barely-chewed, tootsie-roll-chocolate?  What if Karen finds me lying already on the floor with our clean clothes crunched around me, and she realizes she has to reach down my slimy throat and grab that glob of chocolate lodged in there to save my life?  But what if I die with the chocolate goop all over her hands, chocolate snoot running out of my nose, and chocolate drool oozing out of my mouth?  And, later, in the funeral procession, when Karen is riding alone in the black limo following my white hearse, what if she discovers all the midgies gone from the brown plastic bag in her purse? What if, at the grave-site, while the minister drones on and on about what a good man I am, she puts it all together – that the big bag of midgies she purchased back in Pennsylvania was actually what did me in?  (“Everyone!  STOP!  I know what killed him, and it wasn’t me!”)

After everything I tried in life, after those years as a kid competing with my brother on who could stuff the most sandwiches into our mouths, or as a teenager pumping fistfuls of popcorn into my mouth from one movie to another, or as an adult dishing hundreds of dinners into my mouth like I was the Thanksgiving turkey – no, it was eight, individually-wrapped, bite-sized tootsies eaten together at midnight on a Sunday night when I was nearly sixty and supposedly ready like any normal adult my age for a business trip the following morning that totally and completely did it.  What would the staff, my friends, everyone think then?  

Oh… wait… never mind…

It turns out, I CAN swallow them all! 

Should I pack? 

Hmmmm, I think, I'll try ten.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Rocky Mountain Ticks

Rocky Mountain Ticks
Roaming around -
On top of my head.
(Now that’s alarming!)

My wife won’t stop long enough
To touch them.
(She thinks ticks are

Listen, mister, she says.
I’m not touching any ticks 
(Without surgical gloves,
A mask, and tweezers).

Just find them, I say,
How tough is it to spot a tick?
(Especially when I feel them
Twitching around up there.)

Hold still, there's nothing in your hair –
No ticks, no fleas, no lice.
Just dead skin (and tiny droppings
From something else.)

Then, Dear, look in my ears!
Don't you see them?  (I know
They’re there, distorting what I hear,
Hundreds of them.)

You're feverish, she says, or
You've lost your mind instead.
(From what I can see, I'd say  –
You're crazy.)

Fuck! I respond, but what 
The hell's going on, why can't you find them?
This is all very fishy... ( – Hey, why's my
Bottom so itchy?)

Monday, August 13, 2012

Notes from the Field: McCall, ID

July 25, 2012:  It is six a.m. Tuesday morning, and I am lying in an exquisitely comfortable bed looking out a second-floor cabin window beside a lake in McCall, Idaho.  The sun has just come over the mountains and cast a brilliant surge of sunlight across the lake – an electric stroke of glitter suddenly reflecting off the shimmering water in the early morning light.  My view is of parallel formations: the blue lake, the thin brown shore across the way, a thick blanket of dark evergreen trees extending along the horizon, another darker green swath further in the distance, and, finally, craggy, white granite mountains miles beyond.  The sky itself is light blue, large, and cloudless.  I am listening to water slap the shore below the cabin and birds singing in the trees above a small dock extending onto the lake.  A large pot of bright yellow tulips, orange-yellow marigolds, and red and blue pansies, centered at the edge of the dock invites anyone, everyone to go for a swim or row the small tethered boat bobbing gently in the clear water. 
Yesterday I flew to Boise, Idaho, where one of my most important clients lives with his wife for a two-day visit.  I am a fundraiser, and when I travel, it is to ask for money.  My hosts know this, and at some point during this trip we will have ‘the conversation’ about their gift giving in the year ahead.  There’s a certain dichotomy to this: pride in my coming, angst in the amount I will request.  It is like playing with the Devil.  Everyone knows my position, and why I have come to see them.  Yet people are always surprised when the subject comes up, when ‘the ask’ is made.  Why I feel it’s a deceitful business, I don’t know, but no matter how pleasant the trip, I always end up lowering the goodwill of the visit by asking for money and lots of it. 
My hosts pick me up at the Boise Airport and are glad to see me.  We really are friends after all, especially after all the years I have been visiting them.  My hosts are an older couple: he has lived in Boise all of his life, and she is formerly from Texas and shares his life-long interest in botany and horticulture.  Through his inherited wealth, they have explored the flora of the world and, as a result, have thousands of pictures of plants from everywhere reflecting their endless travels.  In fact, I have come precisely because they are currently between trips. 
After treating me to a light lunch and tour of the large and beautiful garden next to their house in Boise, they decide, given the heat of July, that the family cabin in McCall would be the perfect spot for my visit.  McCall is approximately two-and-a-half hours away up in the mountains, and I too would love to visit their summer house and explore this aspect of their lives. 
It isn’t long before we leave behind the high-desert foothills of Ada County outside of Boise and are climbing in elevation, driving beside the Payette River with its frothy white water churning down the mountainside; up we drive through canyon lands and into the Payette National Forest with thin evergreens of ash and pine.  An hour or so later, we pull out of a mountainous passage and into a large valley with hundreds and hundreds of dark brown cattle grazing in the afternoon sun.  I am told, these herds will be taken down to a lower elevation before winter, but summer has just arrived and the cattle are fully-engaged, eating the high-meadow grass.  It is another hour or so before we cross over a small hill at the far end of the long valley and enter, quite abruptly, the resort town of McCall, located at the near end of Payette Lake.  Dinner of buffalo steaks, a bottle of red wine and light champagne at McCall’s Lake Shore Lodge is our only stop before completing our journey at my hosts’ lake-front cabin.
The cabin is small and has been in their family for generations, but it is nicely accommodated.  The night goes by with more wine and lots of talk about how things are going but without ‘the ask’ being made and, I know, they are relieved the subject didn’t come up, and, to be truthful, I am too.   I get to pretend I am a distant relative or an old friend from their past, and I like ‘the role play’ that this presents.  Though, as I go to bed that night, I can feel the pressure push against my temples – or is it too much wine and being up too long to fly out here from the East Coast?  I’ve stopped everything to be here – at the office, at home; I’ve incurred the cost of flying across America, and yet, if I don’t do this right, choose the correct moment, for all intents and purposes my visit will be over, my hosts will want me gone, and, even more critically, they won’t pledge the gift that I need from them.
Now, in the early morning light, I don’t know why, but I am wide awake.  I actually feel good within the warmth of the white, down-filled quilt in the quiet of the cabin with my hosts still asleep.  The cool, fresh air coming from the open window against my face, my arms, provides a refreshing contrast.  In fact, the tranquility of this moment is spellbinding: gazing across the lake at the conifer forest on the distant shore, breathing slowly, steady, head on the pillow, hands on the soft quilt, smelling the fresh sheets, the cool mountain air.  I realize I am quite satisfied, and I am looking forward to the day ahead.  This is, indeed, a good spot for my visit.                                                                                                                                           
July 26, 2012:  Payette Lake.  I am told the distant shore is a peninsula of forested land jutting out like a long, thin finger from the town of McCall.  The peninsula runs the length of the lake, almost separating it in half; it is a state park protecting a long backbone of a coniferous forest that, like a blanket, covers the land right down to the lake.  There are no houses along the shore except for a tiny ranger station further down the way toward McCall; the structure’s dark brown wooden walls and green slate roof appears to be in danger of being pushed off the peninsula by the very trees themselves.  
I woke up early, once again, and find myself focusing on the conifers across the lake; I am told they are Douglas furs, Ponderosa pine, and several varieties of spruce.  From what I can see, they appear to be tall, with straight brown trunks and short, scruffy branches curling upward to the heavens.  The trees at this distance remind me of rubber teeth in a woman’s thick hairbrush; there are no gaps in the dark green brush, just the ranger station clutching the shoreline.   
The lake, I am told, was created by a glacier and is fed from the North Payette River at the opposite end from McCall.  However, the peninsula is the result of an earlier, volcanic geological formation.  The glacier could not push the peninsula away and in time simply encompassed it.  When the glacier melted, the lake was formed. 
Lying in bed, I am sorry we did not go out to the peninsula yesterday.  I am heading back to Boise later today and will be on a plane flying home by mid-afternoon.  This is my life, quick trips to distant spots and endless turn-a-rounds.  My hosts and I have yet to have the conversation we need to have for me to complete my visit, and now there is only half a day remaining.  The night before was spent at the cabin enjoying a wonderful dinner of London broil and, once again, drinking too much wine and champagne.  Now, in the early morning light, I am sorry I didn’t make ‘the ask’ when we were all feeling so good last night.  It will be difficult finding the right moment today before they drop me off at the airport. 
Lying in the cool sheets under the warm quilt, I can feel an attraction to the distant shore, a desire to walk amongst the trees and climb the slope, an urge to be on the ridge line, alone, centered on the backbone of the mythical black bear sleeping in the middle of the lake.
Yesterday my hosts were resolved to take advantage of my stay in McCall.  After an extensive tour of their summer garden located on the hillside behind the cabin – a garden with beautiful, large polished stones carved from a quarry in China, shipped to McCall, and put into place by a crane from Boise – a garden complete with white granite walkways and large, stone fountains arranged with sweat and love within their forest of pines and furs – a garden showcasing countless colorful beds of mountain flowers lively in the summer breeze, we walk up to a reservoir on the other side of the road behind their property, eating Huckleberries and studying the wild flowers along the way.  
It’s a beautiful walk, climbing to a natural reservoir that easily could have been a swampy marsh in a mountain meadow until the winter snows and rain filled the bottom-lands.  Years ago the meadow was dammed near the forest slope and a small runoff from the reservoir now forms a rushing stream that feeds my hosts’ garden with fresh water and runs alongside their cabin before emptying into the lake.  Later, after walking along the reservoir, we follow an old dirt road down the hillside, stopping frequently, once again, to inspect the flowers along the way. 
It’s an easy morning ending back at the cabin with a lunch of meatloaf sandwiches, salad, and beer on the sun-lit patio overlooking the lapping lake and the distant forest across the way. 
“You know, you never see anyone over there,” I comment, pointing to the peninsula. 
My host looks over, focusing on the distant shore as if for the first time in days.  “There was a born-again, Christian colony over there at one time,” he says matter-of-factly, “but the forest service didn’t like them there and didn’t renew their lease.  The only thing that remains today is the dock house which is now the ranger station.”  He shrugs, “I am not even sure they use it all that often.”  My eyes run along the distant shore to the small structure down the way.  There no boat docked there from what I can see; it’s just quiet, peaceful, and serene.    
I must admit, I love being here.  I decide I really should be a distant relative and not the cold, calculating fundraiser flying in for a quick ask.  Clearly, I am having problems with my identity.  My hosts know me from their past, don’t they?  I fit so well.  I must be the old friend who has come to visit and has nothing but good feelings for them.  To be truthful, that’s true.   That true.  I do.  I find it easy to laugh with them and can engage in wonderful conversations with them about plants and family and friends.  They need this.  This is what they want from me, and this, in turn, is easily given.  My gift. 
The afternoon is a different treat altogether.  We get into their Subaru and drive away from McCall and further from Boise, the airport, and my life back East.  Quickly we leave the lake behind and are following the North Payette River into the interior of the state, heading higher and higher into the mountains.  We pass the Upper Payette Lake and spot a few campers in tents fishing in the Payette River.  There are no houses here, no roads except the road we are on, so seeing anyone encamped along the river is like passing a rare pilgrim on a religious retreat.  They look up when we drive by but don’t wave.  These are serious people, I decide, survivalists living off the land with their old trucks and cabs on the back.   
We continue to climb and suddenly the slopes change from a rich conifer forest into an open expanse of mountainous terrain with hundreds of dead Lodge Pole Pine trees up and down one slope after another.  These bleached, white trees are everywhere, standing with their trunks jutting straight up into the wispy sky, devoid of bark and branches, with nothing but scrub grass growing at their base.  The thought occurs to me, staring at the trees extending up the slopes all around us, this must be what Calvary looked like: the Lodge Poles providing endless crosses for thousands of sinners and thieves to be hammered high onto their dead trunks. 
My host speaks up.  “This is the aftermath of the great fire of 2007,” he says as we continue to climb.  “At one time, that summer, it was the largest fire in the history of the United States – thousands and thousands of acres were burned.”  We drive on, but the point is duly noted.  This is not an ancient moonscape or volcanic badlands, but the stark reality of thousands of acres burned in a wind-driven inferno.  There is no life, no birds, no animals, except for a smattering of individual trees here and there, except for a large vulture circling in the sky.   This is bleak, sad, and spectacular too.  I have never been in the aftermath of a mammoth forest fire.  Five years from now – it could be thirty years later – it will look like this still.  The fire was too intense; it incinerated everything.  “No one tried to stop it,” my host says, “even if they wanted to; there is no one up here and no reason to expend the energy.”  We stare out the windows of the Subaru: he and his wife and me.  “It will always be like this,” he says finally.  “The growing season is too short.  There is nothing to be done.”  We drive on in silence, and, then, over a ridge and down into healthy trees that survived on the other side.
When you are up this far, most people go to Warren, population of twenty – give or take ‘in sickness and in health.’  We, though, are going to Bergdorf, a small gathering of buildings about ten miles from Warren with a permanent population of four or five.  We have driven down a dirt road about five miles off the main highway to this special spot in the middle of nowhere that my hosts thought I would love, and indeed I am very excited to be here.  They know me too well.  Bergdorf has about ten cabins more-or-less in the vicinity of each other, three or four of which are falling to pieces, literally.  My hosts say they can tell the passage of time by how demolished the structures are each time they visit.  Given the cabins are totally caved in and appear to be like hot plastic, unglued, and bent completely in on themselves, the years must be accumulating.  However, it is hard to say, the winters are tough here and unforgiving.  With the extensive amount of snow that falls, the deep cold that settles in and cracks this land, and the interminable length of winter itself, nothing lasts long.  Most of the year, I am told, the only way into Bergdorf is by cross-country skiing, snow shoeing, or snow mobiles.  When I ask what you would do if your snow mobile ran out of gas by the time you get here, my host laughs and says, “That’s easy, that’s what the cabins are for.”  He winks.  “Why else would you stay here?”
In fact, from what I can tell, there’s only one reason to be in Bergdorf, unless, of course, you robbed a bank or stole a man’s horse.  Bergdorf has a locally-famous hot springs that feeds into an old, cement pool located next to the central, most accessible cabin.  We park the Subaru near this structure and go into the cabin; it is a large room with a counter that separates us from the permanent staff.  I notice a sign offering coffee and soup from the small gas stove on the far wall.  The walls near us are covered in elevation maps, indicating other dirt roads and hiking trails.  An older man with wavy white hair, wearing a faded work shirt, looks up from the table behind the counter where he is rolling cigarettes; coarse fingers maneuvering tobacco from a pouch into a small rolling machine.  He asks no questions – just stares at us; when we ask if we can bath in the springs, he says it costs five dollars each – in cash – we can leave it on the counter – and gestures to the door that leads out to the pool.
The hot springs, I am told, is 114 degrees, but the pool is cooler, closer to 103 degrees.  It looks like it has been here awhile, cement sides, steps at the far end.  I peek into the steaming water and wonder what germs might be incubating in there.  I guess we’ll find out.  We change in a room to the side and slowly work our way down the steps into the water.  An older couple sitting at a roughly-made picnic table nearby tells us, as we ease ourselves into the hot water, to watch out for the horse flies as they are biting today.  The floor of the pool is crunchy, covered in small pebbles, and I am relieved it is not a slick cement bottom of grimy ooze.  I don’t smell sulfur and am surprised; in fact, I don’t see any signs at all about the medicinal value of the springs.  I thought all hot springs have medicinal value.  I ask my host, who is floating in the pool, water up to his neck.  “They don’t claim this spring does anything, except boil you alive if you stay in too long,” he says, then laughs.  “These guys up here don’t claim anything.  Back in the 1800s someone said there was gold in the surrounding hills, and a bunch of people moved up here, but it’s only this spring that has survived.”  He looks around, treading with his hands in the hot water, his face red and perspiration starting to bead on his forehead, “I can remember coming here as a boy back with my dad, and, I swear, nothing has changed, nothing at all, except maybe one or two of the cabins were in better shape.”
I too am treading in the water, keeping my feet off the bottom and my head clear of the water. There is no shade here, just the intense water and the harsh afternoon sun shining down on us in the open pool.  The old geezers, watching us from afar, are right; the horse flies are huge and black and are attacking us as we float in the water, aiming, in particular, for me, like black, thimble-size bombers on a kamikaze mission, like they know I am an outsider, not tough and sinewy, like the people from this area.  For me, the dip in the hot springs is becoming an endurance test, a baptism by fire, as time and time again, I am forced to dunk my head under the surface of the hot water to avoid the piercing bites of the horse flies.  Damn horse flies.  Damn this water with no medicinal value what-so-ever.   
“Let’s go jump in the lake back in McCall,” my host’s wife says, swatting away flies.  “It will be more refreshing than this.  Besides, I’m being eaten alive.”  We quickly agree and are soon dressed.  One quarter of the population of Bergdorf looks up from the table as we walk by, the man’s hands still at work, rolling a large pile of cigarettes; he doesn’t say a word, simply stares at us as we walk through the cabin, nodding our goodbyes, and go out the door.  Driving away from Bergdorf along a long mountain meadow heading back to the main road, creating a cloud of dust behind us, my host says, “Sometimes you see elk or moose, but today it’s too hot; they’ll wait until tonight to come down and graze.”  He looks over at me in the front passenger seat.  “Good reason to camp here.”  He smiles sympathetically, “but you’ve got a plane to catch tomorrow.”  He’s right, I have a plane in the afternoon, a wife back home, a child in college, and a boss who’s waiting to hear if I made ‘the ask’ and, even more importantly, my host’s response.
I am asleep and am dreaming of dead Lodge Pole Pine everywhere and no matter where I hike, what ridge I cross, the stark, white trunks are endless.  I am struggling at this altitude.  A stream runs through the devastated area, and it is too hot to cross.  When I look down into the steamy water, I can see rocks at the bottom that appear to glitter in gold.  If only I can reach in and grab one of the rocks without getting burned.  I am afraid and keep going back and forth, giving up, then running back to the stream, or hiking along the bank looking for a shallow spot or a nugget that might be sticking out of the water.  But there are never nuggets poking out of the water, I know this in my heart of hearts, and the only way to get the rocks is to burn.
“We’re home,” my host says.  I have slept most of the way back to their cabin outside of McCall.  I see the lush forest all around us, the lake on the other side of the cabin, and the peninsula in the distance – tranquil, shimmering, inviting.  “Get your swim suit,” he says, “it’s time to jump in the lake.”  That’s what we do.  The water is freezing.