Sunday, September 28, 2008
Traditions in Pink and Blackberry
The brandy splattered the ashes a bit when it hit, but the liquid was absorbed quickly by the dry flakes. How utterly appropriate, I thought, as I gazed through tears at the dark wet stain on the white dust. A long-held tradition had just been followed, this time with a component that few of us hope for, but most of us want.
Tradition. Perhaps, for emphasis, that word should be written “tra-di-TION” with the accent on the last syllable, the way Topal sang it in “Fiddler on the Roof,” as he espoused the customs that bound his people together while he feared the loss of more traditions to modernization and a changing world.
Even in a moose hunting camp there are traditions. I could remember only one before I left in late August to visit the camp on Boulder Creek where my husband used to hunt with his friends. That one decreed: thou shalt not sit on another’s log stump. Each regular had his customary place around the campfire, and it was verboten to sit there if that person was in camp. Today the stumps have given way to those ubiquitous folding chairs and the stumps are now side tables.
With that in mind, I went shopping for a folding chair to take to Boulder Creek. It had to have a recessed pocket in the arm rest to hold my beverage of choice, and it had to be distinctive enough that it would be recognized as mine. I found it at Sportsman’s Warehouse.
Not only did it have the requisite beverage holder, but its distinctiveness assured me of always having a seat at the fire, even when the number in camp grew to 15, plus visitors from other camps. I would never, ever, have to kick some well-armed hunter out of my chair. It was, you see, bright pink. And, to make it even more special, an attached tag promised that a dollar of its $9.99 purchase price would be sent to the breast cancer research foundation.
Now, bright pink is not the color one should take on a camping trip, but I figured the chair with all its advantages would serve me well, so I wrapped it in two heavy duty garbage bags and sealed the package with duct tape for the muddy trip into Boulder Creek.
At the last minute I recalled that everybody had his own cup so I packed my thick, heavy black
My chair in all its pink exclusivity.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park souvenir cup. After I unpacked it in camp, I headed to the kitchen to hang it with the others, and asked if we all had our own nail on which to suspend it. No, those were first come, first hung.
I was right. My chair was always vacant and waiting for me, even as various hunters in camouflage stood to drink their coffee and swap hunting tales. After a couple days, Matt, who sat across the fire from me, remarked that the pink remembrance ribbon on the backrest of the chair looked like a stylized “J”, the initial of my first name. I laughed and agreed, and said that the white band that flowed somewhat diagonally from top to seat also looked like the internationally recognized “no-no” slash.
Now that Matt is directing the camp, it has become customary to have rib eye steaks the night before moose season opens. He cooked up a large pot of his special beans and Suzanne assembled a big bowl of green salad to accompany the meat. Steaks were grilled over charcoal for all of us, as well as the many visitors from nearby camps who stopped by for this traditional pre-hunt meal.
The following evening, in another tradition, Matt’s son Adam fired up an old restaurant grill and covered it several times with pork chops to feed our group of 15. We ate corn on the cob and put a massive dent in the coleslaw made by Dee.
On the way into camp that first day, I was reintroduced to one of the abiding traditions of this group. At a certain spot the trail climbs to a knoll that affords a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains and valleys. On top of this knoll is a large rock, big enough for a couple or three four wheelers to park. It’s called Blackberry Knob.
The tradition at this knob, started by Tom Smith, the founding father of the Boulder Creek tent camp, is that one must stop for a rest break and take a sip of blackberry brandy.
It isn’t for the brandy that this tradition has been carried on for more than 20 years. It’s for the enduring comradeship, the recognition of how like interests can bring together people from varied walks of life, of how one man with a heart that encompassed all of Alaska could influence so many others, and could be a friend so loved and cherished that his habit became an enduring tradition.
When Tom died several years ago, his friends from camp spread his ashes all over the Boulder Creek valley, and some at Blackberry Knob. That is why, on my journey out from camp, we stopped at Blackberry Knob not only for the mandatory sip of brandy, but also to add some of my husband’s ashes to the site.
We all said “hello” to Tom and “goodbye” to Ken as I sprinkled a small portion of cremains alongside the trail at the very top of the knob. A few particles wafted onto Matt’s four wheeler, but I didn’t mention it to him, somehow secretly pleased that a part of Ken would once again be astride one of his favorite machines. A few words were spoken and someone (I couldn’t see through the tears to identify him) poured a shot of brandy onto the ashes, and I was amused at how quickly the dry ashes absorbed the sweet brandy.
I stepped off the knob to take a picture of our small group, picked a bit of litter off the tundra while I was there, and gathered a handful of sweet blueberries.
Matt, Suzanne and G.B. at Blackberry Knob
Once back atop the knob, I added the blueberries to the white ashes and dark brandy, and thought of Tom and Ken together again, enjoying the libation and catching up on dozens of jokes and stories.
I hope they know that their friends, and their friends’ children, and their children’s friends will be carrying on this tradition. Few of us, as I hinted at the beginning, hope for death, but all of us want to be remembered by our friends when that time comes. A little splash of blackberry brandy wouldn’t hurt either.
Traditions. They bind us together while they set us apart.
© Sept. 2007, Gullible
Saturday, September 27, 2008
To those of you who recently received an e-mailed photograph and an announcement closing my flight plan from Boulder Creek moose camp to Moose Pass, and who responded with such pithy comments on my fashion statement, I have this to say: you were supposed to be looking at the scenery.
Actually, I have a lot more to say, but I’ll deal with the fashionistas first. Putting everything in context, I was appropriately attired. Not for Fourth Avenue in Anchorage or even the main drag in Wasilla, but for moose season at Boulder Creek, I was spot on (Whatever that means. I heard a Brit say it and rather liked the sound of it, if I do say.). Now that I reconsider though, I doubt I would have raised any eyebrows in Wasilla and certainly only a couple in Anchorage. This is Alaska, after all.
Gullible makes a fashion statement at Boulder Creek.
Thus, for my walk on the fashion runway, I selected a light aqua stone-washed tee shirt, designed by artists at Parker Ranch on the Big Island of Hawaii. Embroidered across the breast of this well-made XL tee were four exquisitely rendered horses in full stride, three bays and a sorrel. This out-of-print color used to be available at the Parker Ranch Store in Waimea at the over-priced cost of $28.00.
In a succinctly stated endorsement of the layered* look now so fashionable, I wore over that a medium-sized long-sleeved four button Henley thermal knit shirt by Outdoor Life, its color determined by the lighting, but varying between moss green and glacial grit gray. This garment is of the “grow with you” variety of clothing so popular with parents whose children outgrow their new school clothes before Hallowe’en. Every day I wore it the hem and sleeves got longer. Available at select Sam’s Clubs for $13.47.
Rider’s stretch jeans in indigo blue, in a size not to be revealed and at the everyday low cost of $19.99 at Wal Mart, were worn under the most important part of the ensemble: Hodgman hip boots. Unfortunately, the only available model (me) was vertically challenged and unable to show the Oxford brown rubber leggings to their utmost. You can see that they seem to be doubled and tripled over at knee height, despite the fact that the straps attached to the belt loops of the jeans were shortened to the max. This is because the boots come to my waist when held beside me. Accented with ecru soles and a cute little Hodgman label with stylized trees in a coordinating color, vulcanized on the front below the knee, these boots are available at Fred Meyers’ stores everywhere. Except maybe Phoenix.
Accessorizing the ensemble was a moss green and black fleece jacket by Izod, currently available at Sam’s Club for $21.26. The generously cut front zipper jacket affords the wearer plenty of room to allow for layering* of a multitude of shirts and vests beneath its soft fleece comfort. Especially appreciated are the two zippered hand-warmer pockets as well as the all-important zippered breast pocket, in which one is supposed to carry one’s digital camera, rather than in the Rubbermaid black plastic with gray lid and snazzy red handles Action Packer that was covered with a blue tarp and strapped to the trailer being pulled by Matt’s four wheeler. (Editor’s Note: Action Packers come in a variety of sizes for matched luggage.)
And now you know the reason for the serendipitous stop at this place with its scenic background. Well, there were also its proximity to a girl bush and the meeting of two hunters headed to their camp.
When meeting other hunters, trail courtesy calls for long stops to engage in bull. Bull as in bull moose. Who got what and who saw what and who has the best story so far. There were a spike and a fork and a beautiful 57 inch rack. There was the horse carrying two large racks, one on each side, and a very tired pack horse trudging behind, laden with moose meat.
Suzanne stretches her legs while the hunters shoot the bull.
But the hands down winner by far belonged to “the other Matt” whose daughter, it is commonly rumored, reminded her daddy to take his rifle with him when he went to the outhouse. You got it. With his pants down, sitting in the outhouse, a legal bull stood up and Matt got his moose meat. He also has a very happy daughter.
Now, back to the scenery. In the valley behind the fashion model, who (again) is appropriately dressed for the context, lies the alluvial plain of Boulder Creek. If you follow the mountain ridge on the right down to the valley floor, that will point to where our camp sits. It’s called “Tent City” for reasons that might be apparent simply by its name, but would be perfectly understandable if I sent along a picture. Alas, I will not do that as my dialup service creeps along like a snail on Prozac, which is my new favorite saying and which I stole outright from Eva Shaw.
As to exactly where Boulder Creek is located, I’m of the species IGMNLTD, an acronym that stands for “I’ve Got Mine, Now Lock the Door.” I will tell you that Chickaloon figures into its locale, and I tell you that only because I’ve always liked the sound of the word “Chickaloon” and couldn’t resist sticking it in this journal. I even know someone who lives in Chickaloon.
Other than that, I’m counting on the fact that the Alaska Atlas lists 24 Boulder Creeks in the index, along with a variety of Boulder hills, islands, lakes, points and ridges. It’s out-done by Moose Creek, with 41 entries, and probably by a number of others such as Bear, Caribou, Camp and Cottonwood.
Anyway, the picture was taken on a ridge overlooking Boulder Creek valley. We were on our way out of camp, back to where we’d left our vehicles parked. Suzanne and I were being escorted by Matt and G.B., and for the journey out we were taken along the Rush Lake trail, rather than the several miles shorter route through spots affectionately named The Rock Garden and The Bog. These two spots are the nemesis of all riders on the entire rough, rutted, rocky, muddy trail. I never knew four wheelers could climb over boulders as big as the ones in The Rock Garden. Too bad our GIs didn’t have four wheelers when they landed at Normandy and faced the steel barricades known as Belgian Gates on the beaches. Nor did I know that ATVs were amphibious, as proven in The Bog. Hence the need for the Hodgman hip boots.
In closing this chapter, I have two messages.
To those of you who had some snippy remarks about my attire: get a life.
To those of you who said my attire made me look taller, but did not adequately reflect the new and thinner me: I love you.
lay-er-ing: (la-er-ing) 1. manual thermoregulating method for controlling body warmth and comfort; acquired by donning a multitude of various types of bulky insulating clothing, especially eider down, polypropylene, and polyester fleece; (Note: theory is unknown and unrecognized in the American Southwest, esp. Phoenix.)
© Sept., 2007, Gullible
Hmmmm. Maybe that isn't quite what I meant to say. Hang on while I think about this a bit. (Man, this is gonna hurt...)
Okay, how's this:
I almost worked myself to death today. Yeah, that's it. What happened was I went after firewood today, just a couple hundred yards from my house, and right alongside the highway. That meant I could drive up and park on the shoulder. The downed trees were between fifteen and twenty feet off the road. They'd been cut down two years ago when the highway crew was clearing its right of way so the sun would hit the highway during the winter and help get rid of the ice build-up.
The only problem with that is this valley loses direct sunlight from mid-November until mid-February, then slowly gains a few minutes a day. Ain't no sun gonna shine on that road!
Anyway, I've had my eye on a birch tree that no one else had seen. Now, birch is the a-number-one-primo firewood in these parts. It's a hardwood, and that means it has a higher BTU rating, which means it produces more heat. It also lasts longer in the woodstove, so most folks burn spruce during the daytime, then pack the stove full of birch at night. If we're real lucky, it'll hold a fire overnight, so all we have to do is add spruce in the morning and voila! more fire.
I put a new chain on my Stihl chainsaw and went to work. Stumbling around in the brush, shoulder-high fireweed stalks, and slippery vegetation, I found my coveted birch tree.....and more. There were several birches in that area, as well as some spruce.
Well, I fired up the saw and started cutting the tree trunks into lengths I thought would be easy enough to carry up to the truck. In logging terms, I bucked up the trees. Cut off branches, cut the trunks into lengths, etc. Then I set the saw aside and began hauling to rounds up onto the shoulder to load into the truck.
Holy snarlin' snakesh-t, as old Ed used to say! That stuff hasn't dried out at all. It may as well be green wood! I reckon laying out there in the rain and snow for two years didn't do it any good for drying out. I won't be burning this stuff this year.
By the time I got two skimpy short-bed pickup loads home, I was ready to pack it in for the day. I hurt. My back and legs are fine, because of all the litter-picking I do, but the shoulders? Oh, man. Two Aleve haven't helped at all.
And here comes the hard-to-believe part: This wood has road sand all over it. I'm going to have to get the hose out and wash this stuff off before I cut it into woodstove lengths. Yes, I have to wet it down some more. Either that, or I'm going to ruin my new chain.
While I was out there working, I realized that many of my neighbors are taking advantage of our second day without rain. Our neighborhood's spread out over a mile of highway, but I know of two building projects and five firewood projects going on today.
All of which brings me to what I wanted to write about. This month, September, is an anniversary of sorts. When my husband and I made out our living wills, he told me he wanted to be cremated, but never had an answer for where he wanted his ashes. I thought for a long time about it, and came up with three locations. Part of his ashes were sprinkled on the small plane airstrip he built behind our property, and part were taken into the Kenai mountains and spread near a hunting cabin where his friend Jack also lies.
The other third went with me last year to Boulder Creek in the Talkeetna mountains, to be spread where his friend Tom lies. Because this was done a year ago this month, and you haven't read about it, I'm going to post the six stories I wrote about that trip into the Talkeetna mountains.
So, coming up, The Boulder Creek Journals.
PS: No pictures to post about today's activities. I started out the door with my camera today, and that was the last I've seen of it.... Typical.
Friday, September 26, 2008
I will confess I got absolutely nothing done on The Book today, and this is why:
This is where I live, my neighborhood. With a rare day of no rain, and scenery like this, it was a day for outdoor chores. The forecast is for more sun tomorrow, so I'll be out as much as possible.
Thursday, September 25, 2008
Had to make a trip to Anchorage yesterday to get some needed supplies, the most important of which was RV anti-freeze for my travel trailer. I also picked up some USB flash drives so I could keep all the forth-coming chapters on them.
Plus, the weekly writing prompt at my Yahoo writer-wannabee site is to describe a character in a position of challenge, such as a woman with a broken foot finding the elevator is broken, or a man arrives at his beach house and has the wrong keys. Then we're supposed to throw in another character who screws up the situation even more, rather than assists in solving the dillemma. I thought about it all the way to Anchorage and back, which is almost a 200 mile round trip.
My story ties in nicely with The Book, so in a roundabout way, I am actually making some progress. With the writing prompt, I am experimenting with how to tell a certain part of the journey with Alzheimer's. Thus, I'm not totally blowing off The Book, but I recognize the feeling in my stomach--that sense of anxiety that tells me I don't want to revisit parts of that journey. That's the tricky part--I have to "go there" to write about it, and sometimes I am not that strong.
Plus, I keep getting distracted:
These tundra swans are only a mile from my home, at Tern Lake.
There is one important thing I have to do before I can get back into The Book. I have to clean up Katrina's Home Page, as I call my desk:
The biggest pile is the INBOX, and I know there are things in there somewhere that I have to take care of, and soon! In the background you can see the unfinished slide project. I did make a lot of progress on that, though. At least I got apples with apples and oranges with oranges, so to speak, in rearranging 2400 slides into carousels. Now I only have to put some sense of order into each carousel.
The white binders contain printed lessons from two online courses I am taking: Introduction to Vista and Introduction to Word 2007, both of which are necessary in order for me to use that snazzy little two and a half pound laptop I treated myself to last Chirstmas. I'm tired of being mad at it, so I may as well learn to use it.
This picture reminds me of one my friend Beth posted at her blog "Switched at Birth." She posted a photo showing her office, with a few books stacked on her desk. Otherwise the whole room looked nice and orderly. Her purpose in posting the photo was to show how "messy" her office was because she had to empty the bookcases behind her desk for some much needed home repair....like water leaking from the walls. Wait'll she sees what a really messy writing space looks like!
Enough of this fooling around. I have to find my desk....
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
I'm only here because yesterday I said I'd do this. I promised I'd keep a journal of my attempts to write a book about a journey I took. That journey probably is not what you'd expect. I didn't travel to exotic lands; I didn't climb K-2 or raft the Amazon.
The journey I made was with my husband, and his Alzheimer's disease. That is the subject matter. I think my relating the journey will help others who find themselves caring for a spouse or other loved one who disappears as they watch. I have a format in mind for the manuscript, and have the data collected and organized. I even have some draft chapters written. What I think I need to do first is to separate the data and drafts chronologically, in order to see what I have and what I need.
For some reason, I seem to be dragging my feet. I've already fought an internal, ethical battle of whether or not to do this. His family needs to be considered, as does his legacy. I have received objections in no uncertaian terms from family members who ask that I not do this, that I not abuse their memory of him by portraying him as incapacitated.
I set the work aside for almost two years, mostly because of this objection, but also because I required frequent mental health breaks when memories of traumatic events began to drown me. In the meantime, I practiced writing other stuff, learning the craft. All the while, I thought of others who are stumbling in my footsteps, not knowing the things of which I was ignorant, not understanding the things that were beyond my comprehension.
I thought of how overwhelmed I was, to the point where I had no energy to research problems and situations that begged for research.
I came to the conclusion that pseudonyms will protect the family, and that I owe it to those who helped me to try to help others who are following this dreadful pathway.
Tonight, I'm too tired. I think that's the problem. The data file remains in the closet. The flash drive hangs from the hook on the wall. I haven't opened a single file in Word. I'm too tired, I tell myself, thinking of my nice king-sized bed where I now sleep alone.
Today I finished my filling-the-pot-holes project, and drove to Turnagain Pass to begin collecting litter on the way back. Darkness put an end to that project yesterday. Today I collected four more bags of trash and made it back ten miles to the Hope cutoff. By then I was too tired to continue, and the light sprinkle that had been falling became a little more persistant. After dropping off the bags of litter at the state yard, I pulled over picked a few young mushrooms growing by the side of the road.
So, if I should die before I wake, blame it on the shaggy mane mushrooms I ate.
This is not a shaggy mane mushroom. I thought it was a bucket lid when I first spotted it and stopped to pick it up and add it to the litter in the big yellow bag. It also has nothing to do with the journal entry above, but at more than ten inches across, I just thought it was an awesome mushroom.
Monday, September 22, 2008
For my first chore, I hooked the snowmachine trailer to my pickup and drove a mile down the road to the gravel pit. Backing up to the face of the pit, I mindlessly shoveled on the rocky gravel. Soon, thinking I had enough, I drove home and started filling in the potholes in my driveway. Then I went back and got another load. Again, thinking I had enough, I drove home and filled in more potholes.
Then I drove back for.... No, I didn't. By that time my left shoulder said "Enough shoveling for the day. I don't care how much Aleve you feed me, I'm not shoveling any more gravel today. Tomorrow, yes. Today, no. Find something else to do."
In the meantime, I kept getting distracted by the scenery:
So, taking my shoulder's advice, I unhooked the trailer and put on my hiking boots and fluorescent orange safety vest, and hit the road. Whenever I saw new litter in the roadside ditches, I stopped, put the litter in a bright yellow bag, then drove on to the next litter, all the while pondering what was on my mind.
Which, as I said, kept getting distracted:
On and on I drove, past Summit Lake, along Lower Summit Lake, then dropping down towards the Hope cutoff, driving on the shoulder where I could, flashers blinking merrily, looking for the tell tale glint of a beer can or the stark white of a coffee cup. Meanwhile, things seemed to be coming together in my head, except when it was otherwise occupied by things like this:
These are tundra swans, biding their while at Tern Lake as they begin their annual migration to points south. You probably can't see them in this picture, but circling all around these beauties are dark ducks, opportunistic feeders on the vegetation the swans scrape up from the floor of the lake. The swans don't seem to mind at all. The two on the right have their long necks extended down into the clear water, giving new meaning to the expression "bottoms up."
By the time I reached Turnagain Pass, I'd pretty much decided what to do. I'd covered thirty miles in four hours, picking up litter where I saw it, and filling five large bags, plus a pile of hub caps, roofing, cooler lids, corrugated plastic, and a broken guitar, along with the guitar case. To keep things in perspective here, I do this a couple times a week, and it's the ideal time to have a conversation with myself.
At Turnagain, my usual turning around point, darkness welled up from the tundra and put an end to my litter-picking for the evening. I turned off the flashers and drove to the Hope cutoff, where I left the pile of trash in my usual spot outside the locked gates of the highway maintenance yard. With the five bags today, that brings my season total to 140 bags of trash.
Here, in this picture, the sun is settling below the mountains behind me, its rays reaching only the uppermost slopes with their dusting of new snow. Today is officially the first day of fall, but autumn is well in progress here. The turning colors of the vegetation make these mountains resemble Persian carpets. Well, when the sun shines on them, they do. We've had little sunshine this past "summer," the third coldest on record in this part of the country. Perhaps that's why I go bonkers with the camera every time the pewter sky parts enough to let it through.
Well, distractions or no, I reached a decision. I'm going to get back to writing the book-in-sporadic progress that I've been tinkering with for more than two years. The data's mostly organized, and more and more often I've been able to read it without having to take many mental health breaks. It's subject matter is a journey I took, one that lasted more than seven years. Near the end of that journey, some astounding things occured that still have me marveling at the way things come full circle in life.
I also decided that I'll keep an online journal of the progress, or lack of, that I make while writing the manuscript. In doing so, I'll be abiding by the advice all writing instructors emphasize: write, write, write. The act of putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, sets in motion the process for words to flow. You might write garbage in the beginning of that exercise, but eventually the words will come. This advice is why you might see people sitting in coffee shops or train stations or on park benches, writing frantically in their journals or notebooks, or on their laptops. They're waking up their right brains, hoping that some of their words will be worth reading, or publishing.
I think of it another way. If I write garbage long enough, my muse will take over as she doesn't want to be held accountable for the garbage. So, my online journal, if I actually follow through with it, will be to accomplish just that--embarass my muse into cooperating.
Saturday, September 20, 2008
Early Winter, 2008
Sandra Putman handed the bouquet of roses to Ellie Riddles and leaned in to give the elderly woman a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Quietly, so only the two of them could hear, the governor of Alaska murmured, “You’re my role model, Ellie. I’ve always admired you.”
The governor watched as Ellie stepped toward the microphone, and shook her head in wonder at the old woman’s mobility and strength. Almost eighty, thought Putman. I’m hope I’m that active when I’m that age.
She barely listened as Ellie thanked the crowd for the Alaskan Volunteer of the Year award. She’d helped Ellie practice the acceptance speech and could have recited it herself. Ellie wasn’t much for public speaking. She preferred anonymity and marched to her own internal music as she volunteered for numerous projects around the state.
She drove herself here from Moose Pass, thought Putman. And those blue eyes of hers can cut right through you if you dare to suggest she shouldn’t live by herself anymore. More than one reporter has felt the daggers in that gaze when interviewing the old woman.
Ellie finished her acceptance speech, and the crowd rose to applaud her. Governor Putman put her arm around Ellie’s shoulders and said, “Ellie, my husband will take you to the airport any time you’re ready to leave.”
“And my car?”
“Travis has the keys and will park it at our house until you return. It’ll be safe there.”
The Next Day
Trooper Rick Reilly sat in a chair next to Sgt. Mark Chapman’s desk and prepared himself for an “I told you so” lecture. He fiddled with his uniform hat while he waited for Chapman to finish his phone call.
Chapman put the phone receiver back on the hook and looked at the young trooper fidgeting in the chair. Stupid hats, thought Chapman. Make us look like Smokey the Bear. Chapman messed with a few papers on his desk, letting the kid stew a bit longer, and trying to keep his mouth from revealing the laughter that was inside. Finally, he looked at Reilly.
“Sergeant, you were right…..” Reilly began.
“Mark. Call me Mark when it’s just us in the office. Use my rank when we’re in public. Now, just how do you mean I was right?”
“Well, I talked with the county sheriff down in Oklahoma. Like you said, he’s the son of the former sheriff who knew a little about the Wells family. The sheriff said they’d checked around after you began your inquiries ten years ago, and they haven’t discovered anything new. He also said there was no way the Oklahoma courts would allow anyone to drain the Chickasaw marsh to look for an old cellar that may or may not be there.
“Further, the contractor who did the dirt work died a long time ago, and according to the sanctuary people, he was supposed to have removed every bit of the farmhouse. The sheriff said no one remembers exactly where the farmhouse stood, and since they flooded it for waterfowl habitat and new trees have grown up around it, no one recognizes the site anymore.”
“Did you talk about the woman who used to own the farm?
“Yes, he said she inherited the farm after her parents were killed in an auto accident. She was only sixteen at the time, but she continued to home school herself and got her high school diploma. As far as the sheriff knew, she had a Swiss farmhand around for several years, but he took off to work the oil patch in Texas sometime around 1953 or ’54. After he left, Ms. Wells sold about a hundred acres of her grassland to a big cattle conglomerate, then donated the remaining sixty acres to the Migratory Bird Sanctuary people.”
“Yeah, we found out,” said Chapman, “that our Ellie married Kyle Riddles in 1975, then moved with him to Alaska. I was there, you know, the night Kyle died.”
“Didn’t know that, Mark. I mean, I knew he was dead, but what happened?”
“It was in 1999, about a year after she first came in my office to ‘confess.’ I was on patrol, and there was a nasty snowstorm blowing through with white-out conditions. Dispatch radioed that Ellie had called nine-one-one, saying Kyle had collapsed. I got to her driveway the same time as the EMS people from Moose Pass arrived. The wind had filled the drive with three feet of snow, and we had to wade all the way back to their cabin. When we got there, Kyle was dead in Ellie’s arms. And she was… Well, she was pretty emotional.”
“What’d he die of?”
“Ruptured aortic aneurysm. They knew he had it, that it could burst at any time, but….well, that time came sooner than anyone imagined. Pretty sad scene, I’ll tell you. Kyle was the love of her life. Everyone should be so lucky…” Chapman paused to blink his eyes and clear his throat. “Wish we could all have a relationship like theirs.”
“Mark, I’m sorry I wasted so much time just retracing your steps,” said Reilly.
“It’s okay, Rick. I know it was your first big case. But, Ellie’s been coming in here every couple years, trying to confess to a murder that no one can substantiate. There’s nothing, absolutely nothing to back up her story of locking some guy in a storm cellar. Some guy who beat her terribly. Seems she runs across a key every so often, and that triggers these memories. No way to tell if they’re true, or just her mind playing tricks on her.”
“I guess I had to learn this one the hard way. Thanks for letting me try. I appreciate the experience. You know, Ellie’s the last one I’d expect to make up stories and she didn’t even do a good job with this one.”
“Well, she didn’t even get the name right. Ellie says her name then was Eleanor Wells, but the girl who lived on the farm was Nora—Nora Wells.”
“Did you say ‘Nora?’” came a voice from across the room.
Chapman and Reilly turned to look at Connie Conners, their part-time clerk.
“Yeah, ‘Nora’. Why?” asked Reilly.
“Because Nora is another nickname for Eleanor,” said Connie. “Just like Ellie.”
Reilly looked at his supervisor, and began to smile. He reached for the case file on Chapman’s desk.
“Leave it,” said Chapman.
“Just leave it. The Eleanor Riddles file is closed. Mark it ‘unsubstantiated.’ And let Ellie… No, never mind. I’ll let her know myself.”
“You don’t want me to…”
“No, I don’t. Ellie’s almost eighty. She probably has some dementia going on, and she’s suffered a lot in her early life. Whatever she did, IF she did anything, I think she’s made up for it since. You see her on TV last night? That award?”
Reilly nodded. “I did. What a gal. She’s done a lot of good around this state, for sure.”
“I’ll tell you something, Rick, something we could all take a lesson from. Ellie told me she figured out at an early age that the key to life isn’t about just weathering the storms. She discovered it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”
Early Winter, 2008
The taxi pulled into the parking lot at the Chickasaw Migratory Waterfowl Refuge and drew up next to a bronze sign. I read the plaque for the first time: “This refuge was made possible by the gift of sixty acres of land donated by Nora Wells
“Tom, would you mind staying in the car? I’ll only be a few minutes,” I said to the cab driver. For some reason, he was treating me like I was his mother, hovering about, taking my arm, not letting me lift my own suitcase. Really. He must think I’m some old woman.
He nodded, though I could tell he didn’t like it.
“It’s a mite chilly out there, Miss Ellie, when the wind blows like this.”
“I’m fine, Tom. Really. I live in Alaska, after all. But I’ll stay in sight, if that will reassure you.”
Tom smiled, and I got out of the cab.
I didn’t recognize anything It had changed so much. Even the small hill where I used to play as a child was gone. But the marsh—the marsh was beautiful with its green grasses bowing before the breeze. Wild water birds of every kind were splashing and paddling and puttering about. Then, I finally saw them—the great gray Sandhill cranes with their red heads. They weren’t even supposed to be in this part of the country, and when a pair took up residence in the small pond by the farm house, I fell in love with them.
I’m glad I gave the land to the sanctuary people. I walked slowly down to the shoreline, taking care not to startle any birds that were there. I stood for a few minutes, drinking in the view, and then I said what I’d come to say.
“You wanted the farm for yourself, Gunter. I knew that all along. When you couldn’t talk me into marrying you, you decided to beat me into it, and when you were drunk, you didn’t know how badly you were hurting me.
“I knew you’d kill me when you found out I’d poured out your whiskey and filled the bottle with vinegar. I don’t know why I did it. I guess I was afraid. But after I did it, I realized you’d beat me even worse.
“That’s why I locked you in the storm cellar. I knew you’d kill me.
“”I found a good man in Kyle, but I could never have children because of how badly you’d beaten me.
“You always wanted the farm for yourself, and you’ve had it to yourself for fifty-five years.”
I reached into my pocket and closed my hand around a small object. Withdrawing it, I looked again at the brass key, its intricate scrolls and the word “Best” on it. I smiled, drew my hand back as far as an arthritic shoulder would allow and threw the key into the water.
“Here’s the key, Gunter. Let yourself out if you want.”
Friday, September 19, 2008
Trooper Mark Chapman pounded the backspace key several times, deleting the misspelled word on the report he was struggling to finish. It was the tenth DUI arrest he’d made in four days, and already he was sick of the constant paperwork. He was new to this assignment, having graduated from the Trooper Academy in Sitka a couple months before.
He looked up from the report as an elderly woman opened the door and stepped into the office. She looks baffled, he thought. Maybe she’s lost.
“Can I help you, ma’am?” He rose from his chair as she walked towards him.
“Yes. Yes, I think you can.”
The gray-haired woman took a chair next to his desk and looked at him intently with clear blue eyes. Not drunk, thought Chapman. Something’s going on, though. He sat back down in his chair.
“Well, what can I do for you then?”
There was a long pause as the woman held Chapman’s gaze. It went on so long that Chapman began to think she’d forgotten why she was there.
“Are you looking for the Social Security office, ma’am?”
“Oh, no. No, I’m in the right place. You’re a State Trooper, aren’t you?”
“Well, I’m in the right place. I’ve come to… I’m here to… “
“Would you like some coffee or water, ma’am? You look kind of peaked.” Inwardly Chapman hoped she’d refuse. By this time he was sure she was there to report a neighbor’s barking dog or some other nonsense.
“Water would be nice, young man,” she answered. Stifling a groan, Chapman filled a cup with water from the cooler and set it on the corner of his desk where she could reach it. He noticed her hand trembling when she picked it up. Parkinson’s he thought. Just like mom. Bet she’s got dementia to go along with it.
He waited as she sipped the water, never taking her eyes off him. The skin under the collar of his blue uniform shirt began to itch. He glanced at the clock on the wall. He had two hours to get to Soldotna. I’ll be pushing it to be on time, he thought. Fishing traffic’s pretty high in Cooper Landing and Sterling.
Minutes passed as the woman sipped her water without speaking.
“Ma’am, I’m sorry. I have to be at detachment headquarters in Soldotna at two o’clock for a meeting. If there’s anything I can help you with, please tell me. I have to leave soon.”
“Oh. Oh, I’m so sorry. I can come back another time, though I’d rather not.”
“No, no ma’am. I’m not trying to brush you off. If you have a problem, please tell me and I’ll do everything I can to help. It’s just that I can’t miss that meeting. So, please, tell me why you’re here.”
“Well, it’s about the key,” she said.
“You lost your key? What? Your car key? House key? Did you lock your key in your car?”
“No, no. Not that. It’s about the key to the padlock. I found the key again and I remember what it’s for. Sometimes I can’t remember. You know, those senior moments they laugh about? This time I remember and I came to tell you.”
“Okay, good. I’m glad you didn’t lock your keys in your car. So what about this padlock? What’s the padlock on?”
“It’s on the bomb shelter. Well, actually it’s a storm cellar, but Gunter always liked to call it a bomb shelter. A place to hide when the Russians bombed us.”
“Uh, huh. Where is this bomb shelter, ma’am? At your home?”
“Oh, no. No, not in Moose Pass. In Oklahoma. Southern Oklahoma. There’s no town for a hundred miles around, but I can point to it on the map if you want.”
“Ma’am, Oklahoma is way out of my jurisdiction. This is Alaska.”
“Well, I KNOW this is Alaska. I’m not stupid.”
“Ma’am, I didn’t mean to imply that you were. I’m sorry. It’s just that I can’t do anything about something in Oklahoma. I really have to be heading for Soldotna. Why don’t you walk downstairs with me and you can tell me about this key on the way?” Chapman stood, put on his trooper hat, and walked to the office door.
“Well, it’s a long story, Mr. Chapman. And I really want to tell it while I can remember. I can’t always remember it, like I said.” Chapman took the old woman by the arm and guided her towards the elevator. Normally he would have taken the stairs, but he didn’t want to chance her falling. That would be a ream of paperwork right there, he thought miserably.
“So, tell me about this lock,” he said as they waited for the elevator.
“Yes. The lock. It was my granddaddy’s. He gave it to me just before he died. Beautiful old brass lock. It had ornate scrollwork on it. You just can’t find those kind of locks any more. Nowadays it’s just stamp, stamp, stamp out those plain old locks. No craftsmanship to them. No craftsmanship to anything anymore.”
The elevator doors opened and Chapman let the old woman enter first. Then he jabbed the button for the first floor, and waited as the slow hydraulic mechanisms gently lowered the car. As the doors slid open and they stepped out, Chapman turned to the woman and said, “Ma’am, why don’t you come in and see me the next time you’re in town. And bring that padlock with you. I’d like to see it.”
“Oh, I can’t do that,” she said. “I don’t know if anyone can find it. See I gave the land to the Migratory Bird Sanctuaries Organization and they flooded it. Made a nice place for migrating Sandhill cranes to winter.”
“Ah. Well, then. Umm… Okay, well, you drive home carefully. These roads are slick when it’s raining. If there’s anything I can do for you in the future, you just let me know, all right?”
“There is something, young man You can listen to my confession.”
“Your confession? Well, there are several churches in town. Maybe a pastor would be the best one to hear your confession.”
“I’m not talking about coveting or idolatry or thinking lewd thoughts. I’m talking about murder. I locked Gunter in that cellar with my grandaddy’s padlock back in 1953 and I never let him out.”
Chapman spun on his heel and looked at the woman. He reached over her shoulder and punched the button to summon the elevator again.
“Let’s go back up to my office, ma’am,” he said. “What did you say your name was?”
“I didn’t say. You never asked. It’s Ellie. Ellie Riddles. But, what about your meeting?”
“Never did like those old stuffed-shirt meetings, anyway,” said Chapman, ushering Ellie into the elevator car once more.
A remote farmstead in southern Oklahoma
Charlie Diggs released the handle on the chain binder, relieving tension on the last chain that bound his Caterpillar D-8 tractor to the lowboy trailer. Removing the hooks from the trailer, he pulled the chain loose and dropped it alongside the trailer. He fired up the gas pony motor, engaged the diesel and watched the dark smoke as the diesel engine sputtered and popped and came to life.
Charlie climbed up on the track and swung himself onto the padded seat. He rested both feet near the brake pedals, shoved the throttle forward until he liked the rhythm of the engine, then pulled the gear shift bar into reverse. The tractor rattled into action, the huge steel tracks pulling the yellow dozer up and over the rear wheels of the trailer, then onto a sloped mound of hard-packed dirt.
Once at the bottom of the loading ramp, Charlie pulled the right steering clutch lever back and held it against his belly while pushing hard on the right brake pedal. He shoved the gear bar forward and felt the left track grousers bite and claw at the dirt as the tractor turned right. The tractor clankety-clanked across the ground until it was next to the excavator, where Charlie shut down the engine.
Well, Charlie said to himself. I got everything here. May as well get started.
He climbed into the cab of the excavator, walked it over to the weather-ravaged farmhouse, and lifted the bucket high in the air. Then he let it drop quickly onto the roof of the old house, watched with a grin on his whiskered face as the bucket smashed through the dry wood. In less than an hour the house was a pile of shattered sticks.
Charlie backed his ten-yard dump truck near the mess and began loading debris into the dump bed with the excavator.
“Wish they’d let me burn the damn thing,” he muttered. “Save me a hell of a lotta time. But, no. Them duck people don’t want no contamination, they sez. “Haul it off the site,” they sez. What the hell. I make more money this way. Reckon I’ll do it their way.”
By noon the temperature had soared into the high nineties and Charlie, working near the heat radiating from the heavy equipment, felt like he had sweated out his last ounce of moisture. He’d already drunk two of his three jugs of water.
Least I got most of it moved out, he thought. Just the far corner of the cellar left. The huge bucket slammed into the pile of debris, dragged it forward as the bucket curled inward. Crunching the wood against the cellar wall, the bucket filled with broken wood and chunks of concrete. Charlie handled the controls gently, and the bucket rose, moved over the top of the dump bed and released its load. Again and again, Charlie deftly emptied the old cellar. He was reaching for another load when a hint of gold caught his eye. He leaned forward over the controls and looked closer. He lowered the bucket to the ground beside the excavated cellar, and climbed down from the rig.
“What the hell?” said Charlie as he walked closer to inspect the unusual color. That looks like a….. Well, I’ll be…. It is. It’s a damn padlock. Charlie climbed down into the cellar and picked his way across the remaining debris.
“Dang tough ol’ thing, too, it is,” said Charlie. “Don’t reckon I ever seen anything like this.” Charlie wondered what was behind the door that looked to be made of oak planks. Old storm cellar, he mused. Maybe one of them bomb shelters.
“Dang! I’ll waste the rest of the afternoon goin’ home to get my bolt cutters, and even then I don’t reckon they can cut anything this thick. Maybe I can get at it with the bucket.”
He climbed back onto the excavator and maneuvered the huge tracked rig closer to the locked door. He tried several times to break the hasp and padlock, but couldn’t get the right angle. He did manage to knock a chunk of oak board off one corner, but when he saw the sheet steel sandwiched behind it, he quit trying. Charlie shut down the excavator engine and climbed down.
He pulled a red handkerchief from his rear pocket and wiped the sweat off his face and neck. He stood there thinking for a few minutes, then, looking around the site, he walked towards the dozer.
“Prob’ly jest to keep the kids outa the cellar. Ain’t no one lookin’, and oncet I cover this up, ain’t nobody ever gonna know.”
So Charlie did exactly that. Rather than lose a few hours going back to his shop for tools to break open the padlocked door, Charlie fired up the bulldozer and did what he’d been paid a lump sum to do. He covered over the old farmhouse site with dirt from a nearby hillock. Then he began shaping and smoothing the land into a shallow bowl about five acres in size.
Two days later Charlie loaded up the last of his heavy equipment and drove off the site.
“Hope them damn ducks, or whatever they’s building this swamp for, like it.” He yanked a King Edward cigar from his shirt pocket, bit off the end, and stuck the unlit stogie in his mouth. With a huge grin on his face, he began thinking about the 12 gauge shotgun he was planning on buying for duck hunting in the fall.
Late Autumn, 1953
A remote farmstead in southern Oklahoma
“Sheiße!” The curse exploded from Gunter Buchmann’s mouth when his head banged into a beam in the low storm cellar ceiling. Rubbing yet another sore spot that was quickly swelling into a lump, he used his other hand to push aside sealed bags of dehydrated potatoes and vegetables on the shelf. Several bags dropped to the concrete floor. Gunter ignored them.
“I know it’s here,” he said. “I know der vas one left.” He moved the cartons of oatmeal and powdered milk, then the first aid supplies and extra bedding. He grabbed a pillow and threw it onto the top bunk bed. Ducking under the next ceiling beam, Gunter stuck his hand behind the canned fruits and vegetables. Nothing.
He walked the few feet over to the bunks, and sat on the bottom one. Pulling a pack of Pall Malls from his shirt pocket, he fumbled an unfiltered cigarette out of the foil and put it in his mouth, then felt in his trouser pocket for the small Ronson lighter. Still staring at the shelves laden with emergency foodstuffs, Gunter flicked the lighter, waiting for the orange sparks to ignite the lighter fluid in the wick. He cradled his free hand around the lighter to shield it from drafts and drew the lighter to the end of the cigarette.
He inhaled deeply, then looked at the dead lighter and the dead cigarette. He flicked the lighter a few more times, watching the sparks. Must be out of fluid, he thought. “Vell, dat figgers,” he spat. He spotted the matches on the shelf next to the candles, and got his cigarette lighted. Again he sat and stared at the shelves, trying to remember where he’d left the last bottle of Jim Beam. His eyes strayed to the four fifty gallon containers of water in the corner.
“Nein. Too easy for Nora to see ven ve changed da vater” he muttered. He thought back to the previous Sunday when they’d emptied the water containers, then refilled them with fresh water, adding a bit of bleach to each container to purify the water and keep the containers sanitized. The first Sunday of each month they performed this ritual. They also inspected each can, box, bag and container of food, looking for evidence of spoilage, dampness, or rodent damage. Rarely did they have to discard anything.
Sometimes they rotated the food with their own daily supplies, making sure the emergency supplies were ready in case of tornados or war.
“Ve never know vat them verdammt Russkies vill do” Gunter had said to Nora many times, who kept her eyes downcast while nodding in agreement.
Then Gunter spotted the boxes of cold cereals stacked neatly next to jars of Sunny Jim peanut butter and various homemade jams and bottles of Brer Rabbit blackstrap molasses.
“Ach!” he exclaimed as he withdrew the bottle of amber liquid from behind the Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. Almost dropping the bottle in his haste to unscrew the cap, Gunter raised the precious liquid and let it gurgle freely into his mouth. His nose told him something was wrong before his taste buds sent their own message to the brain.
“Pppttaaahhhh!” he sputtered, spitting the vile tasting liquid from his mouth. “Gott im Himmel! Vas ist das?” He lifted the bottle to his nose and tried to identify the odor. He knew good bourbon wouldn’t spoil, but something definitely was wrong. He recognized the smell, and searched for a word that would put a name to it.
While Gunter was spitting the faux bourbon all over the floor of the storm/bomb shelter, a soft thud behind him went unheard. As he swore at the noxious taste in his mouth and wiped his tongue on the sleeve of his wool shirt, a barely discernable sound of metal against metal also went unheeded. A final click almost penetrated his mind, but Gunter was far more concerned with what had happened to his last bottle of whiskey than with any noises.
Eyeing another bottle on a nearby shelf, Gunter unscrewed the cap and took a whiff. He thought it smelled the same, but his nose was overwhelmed from the first smell and he couldn’t be sure. He read the label on the new jar: Heinz Apple Cider Vinegar. He smelled the Jim Beam bottle again, then the vinegar. Slowly, understanding crept into his eyes, which narrowed as the veins in his forehead and neck began to swell with rage.
“I vill kill her!” He threw both bottles to the floor and spun towards the door.
Gunter noticed that the heavy steel bar used to hold the oak door closed against the might of whirling maelstroms and atomic mushrooms had somehow slid into place. He was pretty sure he hadn’t done it, but maybe he had. He certainly didn’t want her to know he kept whiskey down here. He grabbed the handle and yanked. It didn’t move. He tried again. And again. Then he kicked the door with a steel-toed work boot. It didn’t budge.
“Vat da Hell!” he exploded, and started to pound and kick at the door.
Nora Wells limped quietly across the cellar floor, her bare feet making no noise as she headed for the wooden stairs. She started up the steps, making sure to avoid number four—the squeaky one—trying to keep most of the weight off her right knee. It was still purple and swollen, and hurt to bend, even though it had been two weeks since she’d been sent crashing into the magazine rack in the living room. She knew something serious was wrong, had begged Gunter to let her see a doctor. He had refused, his eyes taking in the red and green splotches on her arms, and the swollen eye with its dark accusation ringing it.
At the top, she closed the door to the cellar and pushed in the small center button to engage the lock. She made her slow, painful way to the stove, and set the tea kettle over a burner. She stood still, almost as if paralyzed, listening intently for any noise from below. She concentrated so hard on any sound that she was startled when the kettle began to sputter and make wet, sporadic whistle noises.
Carefully Nora poured herself a cup of hot water and inserted a Lipton tea bag. She carried the cup and saucer to the dining room and set it on the table. She pulled out one of the straight-back wooden chairs and seated herself. There she sat, unmoving.
Eventually, Nora took a deep breath and reached into her apron pocket, her hand curling around the hard object held there. Straightening her back and standing, she picked up her cup and went into the living room. Slowly she approached the stuffed chair where Gunter always sat—the most comfortable chair in the house, the one with the best view of the low marshlands out the living room window, where a few Sandhill cranes came to spend the winter..
Quickly, without considering any more, she set her cup down on the end table and sat in the chair. At first, she kept her back ramrod straight. She stared straight ahead, her back not touching the chair.
He can’t get out, she thought. It’s impossible. He built that door himself, welded the nuts on the bolts that go clear through the five inches of oak planks with quarter-inch sheet steel sandwiched between them. He’d made the hinges, made them heavy and strong, not like the imported junk we get from Japan these days. He’d even made the hasp out of heavy steel plate, and so large that only an over-sized padlock would fit on it.
Grandaddy was always there to help me, she thought. And now, when I need him the most, he’s here again. She reached into her apron pocket and withdrew the key. Only a strong padlock, she repeated to herself. Like grandaddy’s beautiful padlock, with its ornate scrolling and “Best” stamped into the brass.
Slowly a smile crept onto her lips and she leaned back into the luxurious softness of the best chair in the house.
Thursday, September 18, 2008
I began at the end of the countertop next to the refrigerator, moving the cutting board, knife block, toaster and a small plant. Dipped in hot water bubbly with Dawn dish detergent, the rag I used picked up stray crumbs from bagels and caraway seeds that had fallen from rye bread as it toasted.
Back and forth the rag moved across the light green Formica, and I noticed again how the veins of gold and copper in the pattern accentuated the colors in the knotty pine on the walls. I used a towel to dry the surface and placed all the items back where they lived. Setting the plant next to the stainless steel sink, I reminded myself to give it a good rinsing when I was done with my other chores.
The stainless steel microwave-convection oven sits diagonally across the corner of the counter, and beneath it was a fine sifting of dust that had accumulated since I’d last cleaned here. Then came the food processor and the carousel of kitchen tools.
I rinsed the cleaning rag in hot water, and turned back to the counter. There, in the corner where the carousel had been, was the key with “Best” stamped into the brass. I remembered finding it weeks before, and leaving it on the counter while I pondered what it unlocked. Somehow, it had slipped beneath the carousel, and as they say, “out of sight, out of mind.”
This time was different. I picked up the sturdy, slender key and held it in the palm of my hand, while in my other hand a hot rag cooled rapidly, its intended chore undone. The key seemed to glow, its burnished surface almost radiating heat. I left the kitchen, key in hand, and went into the living room to sit in my favorite spot next to the large picture windows that frame the mountains less than a quarter mile away. Today, instead of scanning the peaks to count mountain goats, my eyes were on the key and the secrets it held vouchsafed.
(Thirty years prior)
“What’s this for?” asked my husband as he came in the kitchen door.
I turned towards Kyle. He was holding a brass key, his eyebrows continuing to the ask the question he had just spoken. He crossed the kitchen, gave me a quick hug and a kiss, and set the key on the counter next to where I was forming dinner rolls.
I felt my heart trip on a beat as I stared at the key. I searched for an easy, casual answer, all the while knowing there wasn’t one. The longer the silence continued, the more empty my mind became. How do I explain this to Kyle, I thought. Could he ever understand?
“I… I don’t know. Where’d you find it?” A lie to buy time. Quick, quick. Think of something.
“It was in your car. I dropped my cell phone on the way home and while I was feeling around the floorboard, I found the key. I don’t remember having a key like that around the house. It says ‘Best’ on it. Ever seen it before? Oh, well, you must have. It was in your car. Ring any bells?”
Bells? Bells!!! I had a five alarm fire exploding into a conflagration, and my mind was blank.
“That reminds me,” I said. “I’ll need my car on Friday. Any news on when yours will be ready?”
“Yeah, I called the garage today and Ed said the part should be in tomorrow. If it is, he’ll have it done by five. I’ll give you a call as soon as I know for sure. What’s going on Friday? And what’s for dinner? Smells good.”
Kyle leaned over my shoulder to peer into the bubbling pot on the stove. My addled brain lunged at the chance to change the subject again.
“Moose stew,” I said, “and fresh Sourdough dinner rolls.”
“Oh, Lordy, woman, I am falling in love with you all over again.” Kyle leaned down and kissed my neck just above the collarbone. At any other time, my knees would have turned to water. This time, all I could think of was the key.
“”I’ll go down to the Book and Bottle and get a nice bottle of Gamay Boujolais to go with dinner,” said Kyle. “Okay?” With that he was out the door.
On the counter, the key almost glowed. It seemed to be calling attention to itself, shrieking out its secret, daring me to try to hide it.
I did just that, opening the drawer beneath it and sweeping it into the mess of rubber bands, pens and pencils, twist ties and recipes I’ve never organized or tried. Half of me said I should throw the darned thing away; the other half knew I never would.
On this day, looking into my husband’s brown eyes, I uttered my first lie of commission. Its weight was no more or no less than the many lies of omission.
The key had slipped down between the side of the drawer and the plastic two-tier junk organizer, so it was all too easy to overlook. How many years it had been there, I couldn’t tell. I can only tell you about the day I found it and began to wonder about its provenance.
I knew right away it wasn’t a key that belonged to the house. It had “Best” stamped in ornate lettering on its brass surface. All the keys to the house are Schlage. It most definitely was not an automotive key, either. Not Toyota, or Dodge, which are the current residents of Muskeg Manor. Their predecessors, the Chevies and Fords and Audis and VWs, all had distinctive keys. No, it wasn’t an automotive key.
It didn’t go to the snowmachine, or the lawn tractor, not the forklift nor the various pieces of heavy equipment my husband once owned. Not the safe deposit box at the bank in the nearest town, nor the post office box six miles down the road. Any padlocks we use around here were Masters, and this wasn’t a Master key.
Long, slender, and softly glowing, the brass key sat on my counter for weeks while I considered whether or not to throw it in the trash. A niggling little voice told me that shortly after I disposed of the key, I would discover what it was for and I would rue discarding it. So it remained, its jagged edge now protecting a secret, an edge that once turned tumblers and exposed secrets.
The earth turned, the seasons changed, and the key was pushed farther and farther into the shadowy depths of the countertop, and even farther from my mind. Eventually it slipped unnoticed beneath the carousel that holds my kitchen tools—the wooden spoons, cheese slicers, ladles, spatulas, and vegetable peelers. There it remained, unseen and again forgotten, until the day I set out to polish the Formica countertops and dust the oak backsplash that rises four inches up the knotty pine walls.
That day—the day the key emerged again to taunt me—that day will live in infamy.
Monday, September 15, 2008
We arrived just as the sun was setting. Folding seats were withdrawn from the belly of the coach. Caterers set up platters of crudites, fruit, cheese and crackers while other poured champagne and/or orange juice. The Autralian magpies came out to beg for cheese, and dozens of cameras were trained on the monolith before us.
"Take a picture every few minutes," recommended our tour director Simon. "You eyes won't register the changes, but your camera will." He was right. The cameras showed the color of Uluru, as it is more commonly known in country, changing from rusty orange through the spectrum to maroon.
With that lesson in mind, on Sept. 5 I began photographing the tundra from my loft window. Every few days, I took a photo of autumn colors flushing the blueberry and Labrador tea bushes, the birches and cottonwoods. This year the sun has failed to appear to heighten the colors in the photography, and all the pictures were taken on gray overcast days.
This one, the first hints of fall, was taken Sept. 5.
Five days later, Sept. 10, the colors were spreading and deepening.
Saturday, the 13th, this is what the view was like:
Across the airstrip from me, there's a sassy little birch tree that always dons her brightest golden gown this time of year. She is quite the standout amongst her retinue of dark green spruce.
As with Uluru, the sight from a distance is spectacular, but it was not until we drew closer the next day that the breath-taking drama became visible. So it is with my country....
Yes, it really is lavender:
No doubting the color of this one:
Like my tee shirt from New Zealand says, "The earth has music for those who listen."
Friday, September 12, 2008
Almost eighteen, almost a man, lean and hungry as a teenager can be. He is framed in the window of the old barn, arms crossed with one elbow on the sill, the other extending out and over the edge. Good humor and curiosity glow in his dark eyes.
He is looking into the future with the innocence of the young. That elbow hooked over the sill shows his yearning to take wing in that direction. The other elbow, however, keeps him firmly rooted to home. He leans against the window frame, his shoulder holding him back, still needing the protective cocoon of family. His long, square chin is too big for his face now, indicating the boy has a lot of growing to do in the years ahead of him. That chin will never be tucked in fear. Instead it is characteristic of fortitude and stalwartness.
He has chosen a black Stetson with a light-colored band and edge piping. His ears seem to be all that keep the Stetson from descending over his face. He has been raised in the tradition of hard work on a family ranch, and his choice of the classic Stetson shows his grounding in that tradition. Perhaps in a few years, when he has grown into being his own man, he’ll make a different choice, a statement of his own individuality.
His father stands beside him, somewhat behind. Unseen, but certainly inferred, is the older man’s hand on his son’s back. Gently easing the boy into adulthood, while at the same time, holding onto his boy. The father’s features are heavier with the truths of a harsh world. Sunglasses shield his eyes below his white Stetson—a working man’s hat with weaving for cooling ventilation.
His smile is a bit crooked, a bit unsure, partially hidden by a drooping mustachio. Is he a shy cowboy in front of a revealing lens? Or, unlike his young son, a man who is worldly-wise and knows he must hold back a bit, cover up some of his emotions. Is that the reason for the dark sunglasses? Does a tear lurk there? Perhaps a tear of disquiet for the impending flight of his son, or a tear of pride in the lanky youth who’s ready to spread his wings?
Thursday, September 11, 2008
…the telephone call.
...the numbing horror.
…the telecasts from New York City and Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania.
…watching a jetliner go where jetliners shouldn’t go.
…thousands of pieces of paper fluttering on air currents, like souls taking wing.
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
This is NOT a political diatribe, so it’s safe to read further.
I’ve heard about dental fillings picking up radio signals, so I Googled it to learn if it’s true. I found a lot of information, but the answers I liked best came from Google Answers. Wouldn’t you know, the very first was an article written by Alaskan Ned Rozell. How auspicious. I’m hearing voices saying an Alaskan’s name, and the first answer I find is one written by an Alaskan. Ned is with the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. When he isn’t walking up and down the Pipeline haul road with his dog Jane, he writes fascinating articles about various scientific subjects.
After interviewing a professor emeritus at the institute, Ned wrote that in extremely rare cases “a person’s mouth acts as a receiver. The electrical conductivity of the human body can act as an antenna. A metallic filling in a tooth, reacting just so with saliva, can act as a semiconductor to detect the audio signal. The speaker in this case would be anything that vibrates within the mouth enough to produce noise, such as bridgework or maybe a loose filling.”
Deeper into the Google Answers I found a long article from Urban Legends-Snopes.com. This one was about Lucille Ball. Lucy claimed that in 1942, after having some temporary lead fillings installed, she was able to hear the radio while driving home from the MGM studios to her ranch in the San Fernando valley. She reported that her mouth was “humming and thumping with the drumbeat.” At the time, she thought she was as crazy as the ditzy redhead she played.
A week later, she drove home by a different route and her mouth started to react again. This time, she recounted, what she heard were Morse code signals. The next day she mentioned it to security personnel at MGM, and eventually the feds were contacted. This was wartime, remember, and Californians were terrified of a Japanese attack, especially after a Japanese submarine was spotted off the coast of Santa Barbara.
According to the story, an undercover Japanese gardener-spy was transmitting by a secret radio. So goes the legend, and Snopes rates the story as “undetermined,” mainly because it can’t find any written back-up.
Now, I don’t think I’m channeling Lucy, but every once in a while I definitely hear “Sarah Palin” in my head. It seems to be the right side of my head, just above the ear. I will admit that I’ve been listening to a lot of television news programs lately, much, much more than usual, and they are awash in Sarah Palin reports.
But, I hear these voices when the TV is off. I can’t be hearing sounds from my neighbors because all the lots around here are a minimum of two and a quarter acres, and most of us have two lots. No, I’m definitely not hearing “Sarah Palin” from the neighbor’s TVs or radios. Or their dogs.
I know that dental fillings have changed over the years, but I suspect that my mouth still contains fillings from the late 1940s and 1950s. As I recall, I spent half my childhood in a dentist’s chair—the other half climbing trees.
There’s always the possibility that I’m hearing echoes in my head. Like, I turn off the TV and “Sarah Palin” just keeps bouncing around in an empty skull until it bounces near the hammer and stirrup, and I “hear” it. The problem with this theory is that my skull isn’t empty. It’s crammed to overflowing with useless trivia.
These voices aren’t at all like when a song gets stuck in your head and you can’t get rid of it. Danny Kaye did that to me one day with “Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen.” I didn’t mind the song so much, but I really hate it when I can’t remember any more words than the title. That really drives me crazy.
Which segues very nicely into the remaining possibility.
These are HUGE shaggy mane mushrooms I found while picking up roadside litter. Part of that litter was the Bud can I used for size comparison. This picture has absolutely nothing to do with the preceding. I just thought it was a cool picture.
Sunday, September 7, 2008
(WARNING: You are about to enter the Gullible Zone. The following contains echoes of “Gee, Officer Krupke” from the socially-conscious “West Side Story.” )
Sen. John McHero:
She wasn’t my first choice, or even my se-cond.
And so I went looking far out and beyond.
I fin-a-lly found her, a gun-totin’ mom,
When I introduced her, she was The Bomb!
She’s the Bomb, she’s the Bomb,
She’s the Last Frontier Bomb!
It’s moose hunting season, and I’ve got my gun,
But this time I’m aiming at Obama’s run.
Here is my fam-i-ly on stage, so you see,
I’m just like you, I’m no bourgeoisie!
I’m like you, I’m like you,
I’m like Last Frontier you!
Who is this now, come to stop history?
If I don’t win office, it’s ca-tas-tro-phe!
She’s only the mayor, of wee Wa-sill-y.
That’s not enough of a re-sum-a-ie.
They’re too right, they’re too right…
(Wait! Let me rephrase that… get these Greek columns outa my way.)
Dangerous Dan McFagan:
She a-bused her powers, leaned on Walt Monegan.
No matter that Wooten had Tasered his son.
She needs to learn that she must minister
to only my views, ‘cause I’m on Dennis Miller!
She’s too left, she’s too left,
She’s too Last Frontier left!
Oh, Dangerous Dan, you don’t like what she’s done
She’s given “free money” to everyone.
But you’re keeping yours in spite of your pain.
I’m sorry, my friend, your excuses are lame!
You’re so lame, you’re so lame,
You’re so Last Frontier lame!
Dear liberal media, we’ve been ignored far too long,
We do love your spotlights when you interview us.
Forget about bridges and earmarks and pork.
It wasn’t our fault we elected those crooks.
Talk to me, talk to me!
Talk to Last Frontier me!
He won’t talk to me, though I’ve asked him for weeks.
Now he flip-flopped on that so his mind he could speak.
He insisted that Fox run our long interview
while McHero was speaking! What a hullabaloo!
I say boo, I say boo,
I say hullabaloo!
How dare they play tribute to September Eleven!
It was too long ago… When was it again?
I’m keeping my job ‘cause I know the rules.
I started in sports—see, I said I’m no fool!
I’m no fool, I’m no fool,
I’m no MCBNS....er, NBSMC…er, MNCSB.. (off mike: psst! Cue the station ID!)…
I meant to send it to my sister-in-law,
Not ev’ry John, Dick, and Harry and Paul.
I said things about her, I swear they’re all true,
When I clicked “send,” well, I hadn’t a clue.
Give it back, give it back,
(Did you read the third ‘graph?)
With fuel prices soaring, and winter in sight,
McSarah is acting to save us in our plight.
She’s giving us money, tho’ McDan says it’s “free.”
But, have YOUseen the prices of HDTV?
They’re not free, they’re not free,
They’re not Last Frontier free!
Gee, Governor Palin, do you know what you’ve done?
You’ve gone off and left us and now we’re overrun.
All these reporters with their cameras and mikes
Are lookin’ at us like we’re some kinda mice!
It’s a mess, it’s a mess,
It’s a Last Frontier mess!
First I lean to the left, then I lean to the right,
after I hear ev-er-y blatherskite.
The fun to be had in these politics, evaded me long a-go in my youth.
If I had known all the fodder they feed, I’d have paid more attention and written more spoofs!
It’s a spoof, it’s a spoof.
It’s a Gullible spoof!
(and it isn’t the end either)
attributed to Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the U.S. (1809-1865)
Works for me, those words quoted above. When I'm out picking up roadside litter, I really feel good, no matter how disgusting the refuse or how often I've picked up along the same stretch of highway. For those of us who enjoy a litter-free countryside, it's worth the effort.
Works in other ways, too. But, what about shamrocks? Do they count? Thirty years ago when my folks were leaving on a two-year motorhome trip to celebrate their retirement, I became the caretaker of a nice green shamrock plant. It grew constantly, and frequently festooned itself with delicate white flowers. It also needed a haircut regularly as various stems with their four triangular-shaped leaves died off and new ones took their places.
The shamrock has lived in my walk-in closet, on the window ledge where it doesn't receive much direct sunlight. It seems to like it there, much like the African Violet adores the kitchen counter spot right by the stove-top range. I think the violet likes my cooking because it threatens to grow into a bush large enough to use for a hedge.
But, a couple months ago I noticed the shamrock wasn't happy at all. A multitude of shriveled, dry dead stems hung forlornly over the edge of the pot. Only one stem seemed still alive, but the leaves were a chartreuse color rather than the deep green they were supposed to be. I should re-pot that, I said to myself, and then promptly forgot about it. That's pretty much in keeping with my philosphy about indoor plant care: long periods of dehydration followed by inundation.
Finally I got around to re-potting the shamrock, but only because the Christmas cactus in the entryway--and its similar yellowish coloration--was far more visible as a reminder. I had to use a long knife to cut the shamrock's soil loose from the plastic pot it which it has lived for more than thirty years. I broke away as much of the old soil as I could, and trimmed off all the dead stems. Then I placed the shamrock in its new home--a larger pot filled with Miracle-Gro potting soil.
Three weeks later, this is what I have:
Yep. Works for shamrocks too.....
According to her bio, she writes a best-selling series of books about a cocktail waitress named Sookie Stackhouse, who has the ability to read minds. Sookie falls hard for a vampire named Bill. (Hey, stick with me here—you’ll be glad you did.) The wonderful invention of artificial blood has led to the general population allowing vampires to come out of the closet, so to speak, and live in the real world as long as they mind their fangs and don’t partake of the general population.
At the conference one day, I went downstairs to the book bizarre and bought the first in the Sookie Stackhouse series. I read it that night, went back and bought every book available in that series. After I got home, I ordered the rest of them off Amazon. They are hilarious. Not as crazy and impossible as Janet Evanovich. More believable, more true to life, but funny nonetheless. Okay, once in a while you have to remind yourself we’re talking vampires and waitresses who can read minds, here. Sookie and Bill team up to solve little and big mysteries. And, like Stephanie Plum, Sookie is always in trouble and needing a long-toothed version of Ranger to save her.
Then! I read a review of new TV programs in a Time magazine article. Today HBO is premiering the series based on the Sookie Stackhouse character. It’s called “True Blood.”
I hope they do it justice. Check it out. If you don’t have HBO, try one of Mrs. Harris’ books if you’re in the mood for some light reading that will leave you smiling.
Friday, September 5, 2008
The next morning I discovered that Mugsy and Bashful had raided the supplies for the trip and had eaten most of five pounds of fat chunks that were meant to be dog snacks for the entire week-long trip. I had two very hung-over huskies. They would much rather have spent the day retching and sleeping than harnessed and running, but their reprieve lasted only eleven miles down the McCarthy road before we came to a place to park where there was enough snow on the road to run dogs. It was our bad luck that the road had been plowed recently in preparation for the spring mining mobilization.
Ramona and Nancy with the team of Mack trucks didn’t travel too fast either, but were ahead of us by a good distance most of the time. They would stop and wait for us to catch up, occasionally letting us go on ahead and then running past us.
Rest break for both teams along the McCarthy road, which actually is the old roadbed of the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad. Mugsy and Bashful, full of fat chunks, aren't feeling very well. The other dogs just want to run.
Mugsy seemed to feel better that day and we trotted into McCarthy in mid-afternoon. We found places to stake the dogs close to Nancy’s cabin, but far enough away to not bother any residents of the town. We built a fire in the woodstove in the cabin, fed the teams, fed ourselves, and settled in by lantern light for the evening.
About a half hour later there was a knock at the door. It was my husband Ken, who’d flown in to join us. The next day we hooked up the dog teams and mushed the five miles uphill in new snow to the Kennecott Mine ruins. Ken didn’t have much to say about my team’s performance and it’s just as well because most of what he did say wasn’t complimentary.
The day Ken flew out was sunny and crisp and we had another side trip planned with the dogs. This time we were headed to the Nizina River, about eleven miles away, and an area of even more remote mining operations. I thought about bowing out, thinking I’d need to rest these useless dogs for a month before we could make it back to the trucks parked more than fifty miles away.
The trip to the Nizina was a little better, with my dogs trotting along. We climbed the switchback trail out of the glacial valley where McCarthy lay, then along a mountain flank until we began a steep descent towards the Nizina River. Sometimes we led, sometimes we followed. We arrived at the Nizina in early afternoon, and spent a sun drenched hour eating lunch and basking in the warmth. It was almost break-up on the river, with open channels cutting away at what had been solid trails across the river ice. All too soon it was time to head back, if we wanted to reach town before dark.
Gullible (in red jacket) basking in the sun at the Nizina River. The lead and swing dogs (the second pair) are resting on a log and branch bridge over an open section of the river.
I suggested to Nancy and Ramona that they go on ahead and maybe my dogs would move a little faster if they knew another team was ahead of them. We had a mile long, steep climb out of the river bed, and I wasn’t looking forward to it. Ramona roused her team and took off. Nancy started up the hill on foot. My dogs complained loudly, but I held them back for about fifteen minutes before I let them go. When I did, they shot out of there, whip-lashing my neck with their sudden start.
A quarter of the way up the long climb I spotted Nancy and yelled at her to jump on the sled as I went by. I could barely slow the dogs as Nancy grabbed the handlebar and swung onto one runner. The dogs never noticed the extra weight.
They’ll slow down after we reach Ramona’s team, I thought, and then it’ll be five miles an hour or less back to town.
Not a chance. We passed Ramona’s team in a blur and shot up the hill. There was no way these dogs were going to slow down. Ramona’s team gave it everything, but those huge heavy dogs were no match for these Siberians that were less than half their weight. We crested the hill and raced down the trail, quickly loosing sight of Ramona and her team. Several miles down the road I stopped the dogs and made them wait for Ramona to catch up. Nancy and I gawked at each other in complete disbelief.
The dogs barked and yipped, lunging at their traces, anxious to go. I tried making them run behind Ramona’s team, tried riding the brake. Nothing would slow them. They were on a mission and they were going to get there as quickly as possible.
I was mighty impressed. This is a fine team, I marveled. Wonder what they’ll do tomorrow on the way out of McCarthy?
Less than an hour and a half after leaving McCarthy we were twenty miles down the road at our friends’ house, who once again were expecting us to stay. We opted to push on as it was only noon, and the dogs were complaining loudly about having to stop even for a few minutes.
We zoomed out of our friends’ yard and flew up the road. The weather had not been kind to the road. The warmth and sun had melted even more snow and large patches of gravel faced us, especially on the south-facing hills. My dogs didn’t even slow, sprinting up hills, racing each other on the flats.
It was as if they were running free, unfettered, the wind in their faces. They moved with the grace of finely conditioned athletes, their muscles and tendons and ligaments stretching and contracting, rippling their glistening black and silver and white coats. Their eyes—blue or brown or, in Wolf’s case, a luminous unfathomable amber—sparkled with joy. There were huge grins on their faces and their pink tongues flapped from the sides of their mouths.
I can still see them loping up the road, forging ahead with little effort as if the heavily loaded sled wasn’t even attached to their harnesses and gangline. They ran as freely as their lupine forebears.
I pulled them to a stop once each hour, forcing a five to ten minute rest break on them. They responded by leaping crazily into the air, yipping and begging to run. They had no use for rest breaks, but I felt it only polite to give Ramona and her team a chance to catch up. Eventually, shaking her head in wonder, she told me to go on ahead—she would meet us at the trucks.
We flew up that road, splashing through melting snow, across glaciated patches, up bare gravels hills. Riding the brake did no good as they weren’t about to slow.
Soon I spotted the trucks and thought the dogs would pull up at ours as they usually did.
They did not. After more than fifty miles of running, they tore past it, with me yelling to Mugsy and Bashful to “gee”, or turn right, and “truck,” a word they knew. On past the truck we went about a quarter mile before I finally got some purchase with the sled brake and was able to turn them around and head back.
Only after I got them loaded into the truck did they settle down and accept the fact that their running was over for the day.
***And that’s my story of how my coddled bunch of pets started running with the big dogs one day, how they disgraced themselves initially. And then, by some incredible fortune or strength of will, those seven Siberians excelled.
Here on the banks of the famed Copper River that whole journey has come back to me. Mugsy and Bashful and all the others are long gone now, all having lived well into their teens, but just for today they are alive in my heart and memory. I recall their faces, the color of their eyes, their personalities. I remember how much I loved them. I have to take a deep breath when I think of Mugsy and Bashful, how special they were and the mysterious connection we had. It seemed Mugsy could read my mind, and Bashful would read his and follow his lead.
I think of that little salmon in my refrigerator, caught before its time and destined for the dinner table. When that day comes I’ll remember that fish that took an unplanned turn and swam with the big guys for a while—and brought a beloved dog team alive for me again, the finest dog team I was ever privileged to be part of.
Blue-eyed Mugsy (L) and Bashful at nine weeks. I miss you, guys....