Home > Short Stories > Going Back to Big Tree – Part IV

Going Back to Big Tree – Part IV

A man can divide his life into four parts.  Part four: When his father is a memory.

You can put a thousand miles on your boots but some things stay with you for the rest of your life.  People you’ve known, things you’ve seen, places you’ve been to, like Big Tree.  When I left home I took Big Tree with me.  That place was forever locked in my heart like a first love.  My father’s secret place in the Rocky Mountains was as much a part my life as our own backyard or the fireplace in our living room.

As Joshua grew I tried to take him fishing with me as much as possible, but a career in the Air Force didn’t make it easy.  We had no such place like Big Tree we could call our own.  As he approached the age where he was beginning to doubt my intelligence, I picked up the phone one day and called my father.  He answered, “Hello?” in his customary gruff voice.  When I was a kid, my friends were terrified of him.  He always sounded like he was ready to bite your head off, but it was his way.  I said, “Hello, dad?”

“Yea, it’s me.  Who’s this?”

I said, “Its Ed, dad.”

“Oh, Ed.  Well how’re ya doin’?”

“I’m doing just fine dad.  Just fine.  How are you and mom?”

“We’re gettin’ along okay.  Ya wanna talk to your mother?” he asked.  My father never liked to talk on the telephone.  He spent as little time on the phone as possible.  If you called and he answered, you could expect to be dumped like a bad habit.

“No.  I called to talk to you dad.”

“Me?  What the hell ya want with me?”

“I just called to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ dad.”

“Sorry?  For what?” he huffed.

“Everything, dad.  I’m sorry for everything.”

My father had World War II, the last good war.  My war was the Gulf War.  When I deployed forward, I left Janet behind with Josh.  I didn’t like leaving her behind with a teenager, but there was no choice in the matter.  Josh took it well, all things considered.  He always was a pretty responsible kid, not the pain in the ass I was to my father.  I am grateful for that although I’m not sure I deserve it.  According to the Law of Karma, I should have been institutionalized years ago.

On the endless flight to Riyadh, I wrote a letter to Janet and Joshua – separate letters for each.  The letter to Josh was lengthy and included retellings of my adventures at Big Tree.  It also included the story of his fall and the letter my own father sent me.  I tried to put a lifetime into that letter – the lifetime I might miss with him.  I hoped I’d never have to send those letters.  They were only if I failed to come home.

When I arrived in Riyadh, I was assigned to a secure communications facility.  It was an underground bunker.  Once we went in, we wouldn’t come out for weeks at a time.  After I’d been there for a couple of days, I asked a guy if he would hold the letters for me and see that they got home in case I didn’t.  It was a time-honored tradition.  He just smiled and said, “Could ya hold mine too?”

Life in the underground bunker was life in an alternate reality.  With no sunlight, there was no way to tell what time it was unless you looked at the clock.  Time was marked by periods of frantic focus on every critical second, and waiting for the next emergency.  There was no in-between.  During one of the unusually long quiet moments, one of the young airmen piped up and asked, “Hey, anybody thought about what you’re gonna eat first when you get back to the world?”  Well of course we’d thought about it.  Young airmen always think they’re the first ones to think of things.  What we thought about was: sleep, sex, and food in that order.

One guy was all for pepperoni pizza, another guy swore by some barbeque ribs at a place he knew of, a third guy from Brooklyn talked on and on about a pastrami and cheese he was willing to trade his grandmother for.  The first thought that came to my mind was a cheeseburger and beer.  But then I thought that was too easy.  I needed to go for something a bit more elusive, a bit more personal.  So when it came to me I said, “A Payday and an orange Nehi.”

Silence.

“Who are you, Radar O’Rielly?”

Uproarious laughter.

“Yea.  Yea, I guess I am.”

Whenever we would hear the sirens, we would don our gas masks as fast as possible.  Between the first siren and the “All Clear” signal time stood still.  Looking out through the insect-like lenses of our black rubber gas masks, we would look at each other.  And we would wait.  And we would listen.  And we would try not to breathe.  The facility was case-hardened concrete and could withstand a direct blast from a conventional bomb, but it had no air filtration system.  The air outside was the same as the air inside.  The thing we worried about the most was a chemical or biological attack.  Inside our gas masks we would listen to our heartbeat pounding in our ears.  We would beg it to slow down.  Please, for the love of God, slow down.

I could take a direct hit.  That never scared me.  But chemical or biological weapons were a different matter altogether.  They terrified me like nothing I’d ever known.  They terrified me more than the bear at Big Tree.  One microscopic chemical compound or bio-organism was all it would take to cook a man from the inside out, turn his lungs into fiberglass, or cover his skin with oozing boils that would fester and turn gangrenous.  And you couldn’t see it coming.  It could make its way through the tiniest crack in your mask, or get onto your skin.  It was the angel of death, invisible and silent and it could sit quietly next to you in the dark and you would never know it until it reached out and touched you with its cold, bony hand.

During each missile attack, I would sit in my mask and close my eyes and tried to think about things that took me away from that place and time.  I would think about my first girlfriend, my first car, my son and my wife.  I would think about my father in his rubber hip waders folded down below the knee like a pirate.  I would think about all the times my friends and me played Army with toy pistols and how that child’s game had now become some weird reality for me.

But mostly I would think of a place where I had no worries, no responsibilities, where I was at peace.  I would think about Big Tree and the beaver pond in the misty mornings with my father standing on the bank.

Whenever we think of the people in our lives we always think of them in a certain place, locked in a certain time.  Whenever I think of my father I see him there, at Big Tree, on the banks of the beaver pond with a fly rod in his hands.  The father I remember is the father who fell asleep in church, the father who built things with his hands, who folded paper airplanes, who smelled a certain way and who carried me on his shoulders into the brush to the edge of the pond.  I never remember the father I tormented as a teen, or the old man who would sit for hours in his chair, staring out at a world that no longer wanted him.

In Riyadh, while I sat waiting for the All Clear and thinking about my father, I realized that even though he was still with us, I had already entered part four of my life and my father was becoming just a memory for me.

After the war, I came home to a hero’s welcome.  I didn’t feel like much of a hero.  More Americans died from friendly fire or accidents than enemy assault and for my part, I spent the war in a subterranean concrete bunker babysitting a computer.  Nevertheless, there were people at the airport with flags and banners and it was nice to be appreciated.  I had come home from other trips many times and never experienced a crowd of people waiting.

Janet and Josh were there of course and that’s who I wanted to see the most.  Josh had made a big sign that said: Welcome Home Dad!  We stood, holding each other the entire time we waited for my baggage and on the way home from the airport we stopped at a restaurant to eat.  I ended up having that cheeseburger and beer after all.  I was still in my desert BDUs and people in the restaurant kept coming up to us and thanking us, as a family, for everything.  It was nice for Janet and Josh to get some recognition too.

We tried to put some order and regularity back into our lives as much as we could.  I was so focused on my own life and family that the years rolled by one after the other with nary a thought of my parents in their tiny, little house in Idaho Falls, Idaho.  Then, we heard that dad wasn’t doing so well.  The cancer that had started out as a small patch on his shoulder had moved through his chest.  He didn’t have that much time left and I had just received an assignment to South Korea.  It was a one year tour, alone, without the family.

When he died at the age of eighty, that’s where I was.  I flew home to California, picked up Janet and Josh and we drove to Idaho for the funeral.  Upon arriving I wasn’t sure I wanted to see him lying in a casket.  It was an image of my father I didn’t want welded to my memory.  I wanted to keep the memory of the strong, vital man who cared for me as a child and taught me how to fish.  But I went to the viewing anyway at the behest of my sisters who insisted that our father looked very peaceful.

There in the funeral home, he lay in his casket with his eyes closed, sleeping eternally.  His body, ravaged by the cancer that took his life, was sunk and frail.  His curly hair, still piled high on his head, was snow white like the morning mist on the pond.  His hands – his enormous hands – were folded calmly across his chest.  I looked at his hands.  I stared at them.  I studied them.  I wanted to burn their image into my memory like a brand, never to be removed.  They were tough and leathery as always and extraordinarily large in comparison to the rest of his features.  His fingers were still gnarled and scarred from a life of hard labor.

His hands told the story of his life from the dust bowl of the Great Depression to the Good War, from the one-room grocery store he’d built on the corner to the concrete business that ultimately consumed his life.  They told the story of the houses he’d built by himself, the machines he’d designed and constructed from blueprints in his mind, the family he’d protected and served.  His hands told the story of Big Tree and the secret beaver pond high in the Rockies.  They told the story of the little boy who sat on his shoulders and faced the great bear.

Following the funeral, with extra leave time to kill, I decided to take Joshua to this place I had always told him about.  I would take him to Big Tree to the beaver pond where I spent my youth.  I hoped I could remember how to get there.

I called an old friend and arranged to borrow his four-wheel drive pickup.  Without any camping gear, we would have to make the trip in one day, up and back.  It was possible.  We left at dawn’s first light and drove north-northeast toward the Idaho-Montana border and the Continental Divide.  Along the way I regaled my son with an endless string of tales from my adventures in these mountains.  Some stories were true and others were, well, not so true.  But they were all sincere.

We made the turn off from the highway and began the long trek across the open plain to the Kilgore Store.  Even after all the years, the dilapidated wooden structures still dotted the landscape.  And Camas Creek, from its headwaters high on the mountain, still ran across this plain leaving a streak of green winding snake-like through the blue sage prairie.

We stopped at the Kilgore Store, or rather, what was left of it.  The business was gone, the building empty and ravaged by wind and time, the gas pump dry and rusted.  There it sat an empty carcass on the landscape, a whisper on the wind.  This gutted skeleton left behind by the march of time stood alone in the dust as a stark example of what neglect will do to history.  Like the other structures sagging and empty on the plain, the store had been left to decompose and fade from all memory.

Josh picked and kicked around inside while I just stood there, staring.  I felt like I’d come from the other side of the world to see an old friend, only to find out that he’d died and no one told me.  All I had left of my friend was a grave site that no one ever visited.

With no Payday or orange Nehi, we continued on up the road toward the mountains.  The road went from gravel to hard-packed dirt and rocks but the spongy beds of evergreen needles never appeared beneath the truck.  The ancient trees that once made a canopy over the old road were gone, replaced by new growth.  It was a forest of tiny Christmas trees and tall grass.

The old logging road had been scraped and leveled at some time in the near past and was clearly defined as it wound its way up through the pass.  We continued to drive until we came to the black mountain standing against the sky.  This was the place.  This was Big Tree.  But it was not the place of my youth.  The landscape was stark and thin.  Big Tree itself, was nowhere in sight and the beaver pond was a dry, scrubby meadow with a trickle of what used to be the headwaters of Camas Creek.

The forest had been scraped from the earth, ripped out by its roots while the black mountain looked on and wept.  The beaver pond had been destroyed and the beaver were all gone.  Without the pond, the glen died a slow and agonizing death by starvation.  It was if a great cancer had ravaged this land as it had my father who once walked here.

The ancient trees were now simply stumps in the earth.  The creek was a mere trickle of tears falling from the face of the great mountain.  This place, this magical place, had been gutted like the Kilgore Store and left to decompose.  My childhood had been cut down by the logging companies and hauled away on the back of a truck.

Not even a decent burial had been given this land.  No eulogy to honor its place in history.  No acknowledgment of its contribution to the soul of humanity.  No recognition of what it had meant to a man and his family.  No one would ever rest here again, in the arms of the ancient forest, below the black mountain on the edge of the beaver pond.

And as I looked out upon the parched meadow beneath the black mountain where the pond had once sustained the life of this glen and greeted Big Tree and the boulder on cool misty mornings, I watched as the spirit of my father knelt…and wept.

Copyright, Mitchell H. Elder, 2010

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