Archive for the ‘Short Stories’ Category

The Trek

August 11, 2012 2 comments

The Trek

    On the morning of August 7, I began my yearly trek to the holy place where I meet my maker. Having overloaded my Ford Taurus with the necessary equipment and supplies, I hit the road, breathing a sigh of relief as I passed the sign indicating I was leaving city limits and the trappings of civilization. I was on my way at last, headed for “God’s Country” (or Goddess), and my eagerly awaited communion with the Creator.

    Proceeding east along highway 126, I began the process of de-stressing. By the time I reached the tiny community of Vida, I found that I could actually breathe through my nose again, which rarely happens for me in town. I knew I was on the right track and better things were in store during the coming week. This might not seem like much to some, but for the person who feels like he tries to breathe with cotton balls shoved up his nose most of the time, it is huge.

    As I turned from 126 on to Aufderheid Forest Drive, my sense of exhilaration grew stronger. Dead ahead and just a mere twenty miles up the road was my destination, Frissell Crossing Campground. I have driven this stretch of road so many times over the years that I think I could probably do it while I sleep. But for the sake of expediency, I chose to keep my eyes open and take in some of its beauty as I drove. As an aside, it seems that the place got its name from the fact that over a century ago an old sheep herder by the name of Frissell, forded the South Fork of the McKenzie at this very spot.

    I soon struck camp. All was in order and it was time to let my hair down and my beard grow. I sat with my back to an enormous fir tree, letting the rushing whitewater stream take with it all the worries and cares and stress of my everyday existence, feeling them wash away with the flow of the pristine waters. I pictured these burdens flowing downstream, eventually to end up where the river meets the sea. The purification process had begun, and with it the much needed healing of body, mind and spirit.

    By late evening the other members of the expedition had all arrived and made camp. So here I was, in the midst of such natural beauty, among family and friends. By this time some of the “curmudgeon’ I have been blessed with had gone downstream as well and I was ready to welcome all with open arms. No man is an island, not even Mr. Curmudgeon with a capital K. Part of the magic of this wonderful place lies in the fact that I have around me those that I care for the most; my 82 year old father, my grown children and their children.

    The time had come to undertake a ritual that needed to be done without the distractions of others. I began my yearly solo hike on the Ollallie Trail into the Three Sisters Wilderness to a small stream known as Bull Creek. Here I sat on a moss covered boulder and opened my spirit to those of the trees, the water, the sky and the rocks. I heard their voices and let them hear mine. I felt my connection to the Earth Mother and my responsibility to live in harmony with the spirits of all things. I don’t know how long I sat there in silence, absorbing the truths of my own lifestyle and its impact on Mother Earth. I was one the universe..

    I spent a wonderful four days in paradise, but all good things must end. Begrudgingly, I made the return trip to reality, or the Twilight Zone, as I prefer to call it. Even now, the experience is just a memory; one among many such memories accumulated over the years. And true to form, some of the curmudgeon wafted out of the river somewhere around Leaburg, attaching itself firmly to my psyche. I shall endeavor to keep it under control. But even now I look forward to another visit to my favorite haunt before summers end and a refresher course from the earth. Unless I completely miss my guess, those around me will be thankful for a second retreat, even if they are unable to accompany me.


Casualties of War

It’s been a while since I last posted to The Donut Shop Conversations and being Memorial Day, I dug through some old files and found this analysis of Tim O’Brien’s short story The Things They Carried.  If you’ve never read it, I suggest you do so.

An elegantly simple story, The Things They Carried is deceptively profound.  Beginning with a simple premise, author Tim O’Brien elevates the theme of a list to sociopolitical commentary and psychoanalysis.  What’s more, he slips it in through the backdoor.  By detailing what his fellow soldiers carried on their person in to battle, he creates a deeper, more meaningful inventory of what is lost from, or replaced in, their souls.  O’Brien’s title may be The Things They Carried, but his message is the things they lost.

Vietnam defined a generation and profoundly transformed the nation.  To say that the young men and women who fought in the jungles of Southeast Asia lost their innocence would be trite.  They sacrificed their youth upon the altars of corporate colonialism.  And after giving so much for King and Country, many returned to a world that no longer existed.  If the Vietnam War can be defined in a single word, that word would have to be: loss.

In this poignant narrative, written in first person from a point of view that can only come from having been there, Tim O’Brien strips away the Hollywood and video game facade of war to reveal the truth: there are no winners.  Everybody loses something.

Those who fought in the jungles of Vietnam lost many things along the way, but one of the first casualties of war was their patriotism and sense of purpose.  With no measurable improvement or results, death and destruction became routine – just part of the job – like the daily commute:

They plodded along slowly, dumbly, leaning forward against the heat, unthinking, all blood and bone, simple grunts, soldiering with their legs, toiling up the hills and down into the paddies and across the rivers and up again and down, just humping, one step and then the next and then another, but no volition, no will, because it was automatic, it was anatomy, and the war was entirely a matter of posture and carriage, the hump was everything, a kind of inertia, a kind of emptiness, a dullness of desire and intellect and conscience and hope and human sensibility.  Their principles were in their feet.  Their calculations were biological.  They had no sense of strategy or mission.

In a war with no clear objectives save the daily body quotas, the men are forced to concern themselves with only their survival.  The daily marches, the nightly watches, are all for one end: stay alive long enough to get home.

What they didn’t know then, but soon learned, was that they had also lost the home they knew and dreamed of returning to.

First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey…In the late afternoon, after a day’s march, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of light pretending.  He would imagine romantic camping trips into the White Mountains in New Hampshire.

At the end of their tour, the freedom bird would fly them out of Vietnam, but it would never take them to the Promised Land.  Once you’ve spent your days killing other human beings, things are never the same again.

They lost a right the rest of us take for granted: the right to live till morning.

Lee Strunk made a funny ghost sound, a kind of moaning, yet very happy, and right then, when Strunk made that high happy moaning sound, when he went Ahhooooo, right then Ted Lavender was shot in the head on his way back from peeing. 

In a world where you can die on your way back from taking a piss behind a bush, every breath becomes the elixir of life.

With every step, every thought, every heartbeat threatening to be their last, some abandoned all pretenses of decorum – dropped along the trail like yesterday’s C-rats.

Sanders wrapped the thumb in toilet paper and handed it across to Norman Bowker.  There was no blood.  Smiling, he kicked the boy’s head, watched the flies scatter, and said. It’s like that old TV show – Paladin.  Have gun, will travel.

The loss of perspective is clear: Paladin never roamed the countryside leaving human road kill in his wake.

Some, like Kiowa, a half-blooded American Indian and son of a Southern Baptist Minister, lost their faith.

Shrugging, Kiowa pulled off his boots. …He tried not to think about Ted Lavender, but then he was thinking how fast it was, no drama, down and dead, and how it was hard to feel anything except surprise.  It seemed un-Christian.  He wished he could find some great sadness, or even anger, but the emotion wasn’t there and he couldn’t make it happen.  Mostly he felt pleased to be alive.  He liked the smell of the New Testament under his cheek, the leather and ink and paper and glue, whatever the chemicals were.

Can the comfort of a familiar object bring solace in a vacuum of faithlessness?  For some, yes.  Some cast off any faith they may have had in favor of superstition.  “Dave Jensen carried a rabbit’s foot.”  Faith is a major casualty in war.  Ultimately, our faith is in humankind, others like us.  We hold out hope that others will perform honorably and with “good faith.”  When lives are taken in an instant, at the whim of these others, our faith is lost – sometimes forever.

They discarded their humanity while they tried to hold on to their compassion:

After the chopper took Lavender away, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross led his men into the village of Than Khe.  They burned everything.  They shot chickens and dogs, they trashed the village well, they called in artillery and watched the wreckage, then they marched for several hours through the hot afternoon, and then at dusk, while Kiowa explained how Lavender died, Lieutenant Cross found himself trembling.  He tried not to cry.

Contempt for the enemy must always be generated in order to justify all the death and destruction and in the end, compassion for human life becomes elusive.  In the case of Kiowa and others in the platoon, compassion moves beyond their grasp.

And some things that they wanted to lose, some things they wanted desperately to rid themselves of, they couldn’t shake.  The war had become a cancer in their lives and each village represented a new tumor to be excised and cauterized.  They embraced their contempt and roamed the countryside, Gods of Death, burning and destroying everything in their path.  But every day brought a new tumor, a new lesion, and a new excuse to destroy:

They searched the villages without knowing what to look for, not caring, kicking over jars of rice, frisking children and old men, blowing tunnels, sometimes setting fires and sometimes not, then forming up and moving on to the next village, then other villages, where it would always be the same.

Like feral dogs, they had lost their rational mind but gained a close relationship with their reptilian brain.  Such is the nature of war.  In the end, those who fight it are reduced to animals in the wild.

They are trained to kill and loosed upon the world.  But someday the freedom bird comes to take them and once home again, these feral dogs, these trained killers, these children who have gained a view of themselves that no one should ever see, are asked to simply return to their average lives as if nothing ever happened.  And in the end, we all lose.  O’Brien tells us that once lost, innocence cannot be regained:

He [Lieutenant Cross] was realistic about it.  There was that new hardness in his stomach.  No more fantasies, he told himself.

Like war itself, the theme of O’Brien’s tale is straightforward: it’s not what you carry that counts, but what you lose.  No matter what you take into battle, you leave behind something precious.  O’Brien’s semi-autobiographical tale of men in the grisly business of killing shows us that there are no locks strong enough to guard against the losses that war creates.  And more than any other conflict in American history, Vietnam shaped the nation and the US military – because of what we lost.

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.”


“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

Going Back to Big Tree – Part III

A man can divide his life into four parts.  Part three: When his father becomes a genius.

After High School, I worked a few jobs here and there and then took my savings and went to college.  It was there I met Janet.  If there is such a thing as love at first sight, I can honestly say I’ve experienced it.  I’m not sure I believe in predestination, reincarnation, past lives or anything like that, but I do know that when I first met her I could have sworn we were old friends.  Looking into her eyes was like looking into another life once lived a long time ago.  Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we’ll find someone we’re supposed to find and that will happen.  We will look into their eyes and see an ancient soul smiling back at us as if to say, “Welcome home, I’ve been waiting for you.”  Suddenly, my life was all about Janet.  I wanted to hold her, to rub her feet when her toes were cold, stroke her hair as she fell asleep, wipe away the tears when she got hurt.  But mostly, more than anything in the world, I wanted to just fall into her endless eyes and lose myself forever.

The year in college went quick and then I was all out of money.  Me and Janet had decided to get married and I needed to start looking for a job – a real job.  After discussing our options at great length, I decided to join the Air Force.  The economy stank, I had no prospects, and we both wanted out of Idaho so bad our teeth hurt.  It seemed to be the answer to all our problems.

My first assignment was to Madrid, Spain.  When we arrived in Madrid following a sixteen hour flight from Salt Lake City, I arrived at my new unit the lowest rank you could possibly be and Janet was so pregnant the baby had already bought film for the trip.  Janet almost wasn’t allowed to make the flight and in fact, had we waited another week, she would have had to stay behind and follow later.

We took an apartment on the fifth floor of a building near the base and with no furniture except a rocking chair, an old steamer trunk and an ironing board for a table, we called the place home.  But it was more like an asylum.  Josh was born two weeks after we arrived in country.  He came a little early, but other than that, everything went well.  It was after the birth things went down hill.

Josh had colic and would scream day and night non stop.  It was a living hell.  Some people wonder how it is that a person can take their own life, but I don’t.  I know.  I know how easy it is to be pushed over the edge.  And I was the lucky one.  Every morning I got to leave the asylum and go to work for the day.  At night I would come home and we would fight until bed time.

Our fighting was vicious, complete with slamming doors, flying china, the whole side show.  If Josh wasn’t crying we were yelling at each other.  Between the post-partum depression and the cabin fever from being cooped up in the apartment all day with a crying baby, Janet was ready to kill herself, or me, or both.  It was ugly.

At night, Josh would start crying and the neighbors next door on the other side of the block wall would pound on the wall as if that would make the baby stop crying.  I hated them.  I wasn’t sure who I wanted to beat the living hell out of more, the neighbors, the kid, or myself.  There were times I would stand on the balcony, looking down at the concrete below, and wonder if the fall would be enough to kill me or if it would just leave me paralyzed.  And then I’d wonder if Janet stood there during the day thinking the same thing.  Oh good God it was absolute agony.

My father used to say to me, “Wait ‘till you have kids of your own.”  It looked as though he’d exacted his revenge.  We couldn’t manage phone calls home more than once every couple of months.  But we had some friends much older and wiser than us, who lived two floors above and they had a video camera we could borrow.  We could exchange tapes with parents back home and they could watch their grandchild growing up.  We would make tapes to send home, making sure we put on a good show for the grandparents.  As odd as it sounds, we found humor in the fact that we were able to be nice to each other for an hour or so.

It was still the deep chill of the cold war and we stood nose to nose with the old Soviet Union, ready to see to our mutual destruction should either side flinch.  It was like staring down a dog.  Whoever blinked first, lost.  There was plenty to do at work and at home with a young family, with little money, and living off-base in a country that didn’t speak your language.  But of all the things that he could have been concerned with, my father always ended each video tape with, “Make sure you’re changing the oil in that car of yours.”  Above all, he was a man of machines.

I’m not sure how we managed to keep it together for three years.  We came back a family but Janet and me had decided to call it quits.  It was just a matter of getting settled in and then it was off to see a lawyer.  We couldn’t stand the sight of each other.

I had been reassigned to Tucson, Arizona.  We rented an apartment on the second floor of a building near the base.  Janet wanted a second floor apartment.  She said it made her feel safer.  I wasn’t so sure it wasn’t just a cheap jab at me, but she got her way.  The next day, the movers came.

Of all the things that can happen to a family, tragedy will either tear them apart, or pull them together.  You never know which way it will go until it happens.

Toddlers are curious little buggers and if you blink, they’re gone.  The movers had arrived at the apartment late in the day and we were tired.  We hadn’t had anything to eat and we just wanted to get our stuff in the door, eat something, and go to bed.  Janet was in the kitchen unloading a box of china so we could eat and I was in the bedroom setting up the waterbed so we would have a place to sleep.  The house was a flurry of activity.  Everyone was in a hurry.  And no one was watching Joshua.

His curiosity over the movers and our inattentiveness became his downfall, literally.  Neither of us is quite sure exactly what happened, but I heard something in the kitchen crash to the floor and Janet scream.  I thought for sure she’d dropped her grandmother’s antique crystal.  What really happened was, one of the movers ran up the stairs and into the kitchen and asked Janet, “Don’t you folks have a little boy?”

By the time I got out there, he was at the bottom of the concrete stairs, face down on the sidewalk, and wasn’t moving.  I thought he was dead.  Janet was going absolutely bananas.  I just froze for what seemed like an hour and then ran down those stairs so fast I don’t even remember doing it.  One second I was at the top and the next, I was kneeling over Josh’s little body trying to feel a pulse.

With my own heart in overdrive, I couldn’t find any pulse on his tiny little body and was sure he was dead but I dared not say it aloud.  You can’t bring yourself to say it.  You can’t bring yourself to believe it.  All I remember thinking at the time was, “Why not me?  Why did it have to be the boy?”

Janet and me were both so wrapped up in our own pain and frustration and panic, one of the movers ran upstairs and called 911.  Or maybe one of us did it.  I don’t recall.  It’s a blur, like a bad, bad dream.  When the paramedics arrived they found his pulse but it was faint.  I wasn’t sure if I should feel relief at that or not.  A cornucopia of emotions fills you up and it’s a chore just to sort them all out.  I felt rage, fear, sorrow, guilt and pain.  Mostly pain.  A lot of pain.

We wanted to blame each other but in the end, we each blamed ourselves.  We got Josh to the hospital where he was stabilized but in a coma.  He’d taken quite a few knocks to the head and the doctors didn’t know how long the coma would last.  They said it could be hours, days, or forever.  I wanted to rip my guts out with my bare hands.

I hadn’t prayed since I was a kid and wasn’t sure it would do any good but I was sure it wouldn’t hurt.  So I accepted my hypocrisy and got down on my knees.  Some people say that God is up above with the Angels and the Saints.  I’m not so sure.  If God exists, He’s down here with the beggars and the thieves.  Because when you’ve hit rock bottom and you’re lying face down in the dirt, that’s where you’ll find Him.  At least, that’s where you always start looking.

We didn’t sleep for three days and never left his side except to go to the bathroom.  We didn’t eat much because we weren’t hungry and neither of us wanted to be out of the room when he woke up.  It was during those three days that Janet and me found each other again.  I got down on my knees to pray and I got down on my knees for her too.  I looked up into her eyes and saw that beautiful girl I had seen those years earlier.  She was still in there and she still wanted me.  I still wanted her.

After three days of agony and waiting, Josh woke up.  It was his mother’s face he saw first.  I was glad.  She deserved it more than me.  He was left with some minor paralysis in his right arm.  The doctors were baffled as to why it was only his arm and not the entire right side of his body.  But that was for them to worry about.  We didn’t give a damn why.  We were just glad to get him home.

His disability, if you can even call it that, hasn’t slowed him down a bit.  He’s grown into a smart, tough, ambitious and athletic young man.  He can run like an antelope and he’s the star of his college soccer team.  His coach tells me he’s good enough to go pro.  But I’m not telling him that.  Not yet, anyway.  College comes first.

He’s never held anything against his mother and me.  Hell, he can barely remember it.  But Josh doesn’t have to play the guilt card on me.  I’m perfectly capable of doing that all by myself.  I’ve carried that card in my shirt pocket over my heart every day of my life since.  As I get older, it gets a bit easier but that’s only because of something my father said to me all those many years ago when it happened.

He must have known what I was feeling because about a week after we brought Josh home from the hospital, I got a letter in the mail.  It read:

Dear Son,

I wanted to write and tell you how proud I am of you and what you’ve done in your life.  Many lesser men would have failed where you have already succeeded.  Being a father isn’t easy.  We all make mistakes with our kids.  They don’t come with instructions.  But we do the best we can.  And when we stumble and fall with them in our arms, we blame ourselves.  We blame our self because we think it’s somehow nobler to do so.  We blame our self because we think it means we’re taking responsibility.  We blame our self because we don’t want to hurt the others in our life any more than we already have.  But in the end, we hurt them anyway by making them watch us self-destruct and kill our self with guilt.  One of the most important lessons you can learn in life is how to forgive yourself for being human.

You’re a good man, a good husband, a good father and a good soldier.  I’m proud of you.

Love, Dad

It was official: my father was a genius.

Copyright, Mitchell H. Elder, 2010

Going Back to Big Tree – Part II

April 29, 2012 Leave a comment

A man can divide his life into four parts. Part two: When his father is an idiot.

Every summer we went to Big Tree until my sisters, considerably older than me, had both left home. I was left, for all practical purposes, an only child. Having grown a little older, going up to Big Tree was no longer a priority. Eventually, we stopped going altogether. Young boys have no interest in camping out with their parents.

I still went fishing with my father occasionally, but never at Big Tree. It was simply too far for a day trip and my interests had turned from fishing with my father to my own feckless teenaged life. My father became a person to be avoided while I engaged in mischief.

I wasn’t sure when he had been cut from the glacier and thawed out but he certainly didn’t understand the world as it really was. For example, he simply couldn’t understand the importance of long hair. Nor could he appreciate good music, bell bottom jeans, black light posters, incense, wearing sunglasses indoors or component stereo systems.

When I was sixteen, my father bought a brand new pickup truck. It was a Chevy, fully loaded and fire engine red – his favorite color. If there was a bell or whistle to be had, this truck had it. This truck was pure muscle and flash to boot – 350 V8, Positrac rear end, built-in 8 track, tilt wheel, tinted windows – everything a man, or boy, could want.

When I was sixteen, there was only one thing – just one – that I wanted to get my hands on more than a brand new pickup, and she didn’t move on wheels. And as the logic of the day went, without the brand new pickup you could forget about the girl. So getting behind the wheel of this brand new pickup was pretty high on my list of priorities. Immediately, I started in on my father to let me drive it school.

Monday morning, the answer was no. Tuesday morning, the answer was no. Wednesday morning I said, “Dad, you don’t understand, I really need…”

“I understand everything. Not no, but Hell no.”

How could he possibly understand? How could this old man understand the sophisticated life of a sixteen-year old in the modern age? Didn’t he have a self-portrait on the wall of a cave somewhere? Wasn’t he cutting papyrus when he was sixteen? Did he really expect me to believe he had once begged his father to let him hitch up the buckskin to the buggy and blow past the dry goods store?

Frustrated and angry, I walked to the corner and hopped the bus to school. But this fight wasn’t over – not by a long shot.

By Friday of the following week, my persistence finally paid off and now here I was about to get the keys. But first, the lecture.

“Now you drive that truck straight to school and straight home, understand me Ed?”


“You park it in the back of the parking lot away from the other cars. I don’t want some damn fool kid to scratch up my new truck, understand?”

“Yea, dad.”

“After school, you come straight home. I don’t want you cruising around in that truck, you hear me? Ed, are you listening?”

“Yea. I hear you.

My father had spoken and his word was…a recommendation, a suggestion, a guideline.

Behind the wheel of that truck was the most glorious place on earth. Every nuance of the road could be felt in the steering wheel. The interior still held that magical “new car” smell. The stereo was fantastic. Life was grand.

At the end of the school day I headed for the doors to the parking lot. I had parked the truck at the rear of the parking lot as I had told my father I would so it wouldn’t get scratched. The end of the day hadn’t come nearly soon enough. All day that new pickup had sat in the parking lot, calling me like a siren in the fog, and I had fallen under her spell.

As I reached out my arm for the crash bar on the door, here they came out of nowhere from my left, a vision of beauty. The most exotic and shapely legs in the world covered only by short a skirt and ankle socks; alabaster skin, smooth as butter; dark sapphire eyes behind long lashes; golden hair – angel’s hair – long and silky and spun by the Gods. They were the Peterson twins: the only thing more important to me than that brand new pickup and here she was – in stereo.

“Eddie, could you give us a ride home?” they asked, their lashes flashing. Then they looked at each other and giggled. Who knows? Twins.

Well of course I could give them a ride home. If I had been on top of the world driving that new truck to school that morning, I was now headed for the outer solar system – and look out, I’m bringing passengers. “I’d be happy to,” I replied nonchalantly, “you haven’t seen my new truck, have you?”

“You have a new truck?” Then in unison, “I love new trucks.” And more giggling. They were too cute for words, but I’ll try my best.

We headed out to the parking lot to the new red pickup truck and with a twin on either side of me I was about to burst, in more ways than one.

“Are you guys going to play the victory dance this Saturday night?” they asked, referring to my band.

I was the lead singer in a rock band that a few of us had formed with the help of the school’s band director. We played our own victory dances and those of other High Schools in the surrounding area. High School is a popularity game and I didn’t play team sports, so the rock band was a major vehicle for my ride up the social ladder. It was a great gig. My biggest problem was my father. He wouldn’t let me grow my hair past my collar. He was a Neanderthal.

“Oh yea, we’ll be there.” I replied as we reached the pickup. “We’ve got some new material and Rick is gonna do a killer solo. Well, here we are ladies. This is the new truck, you approve?”

“Oh yeeeaaa.” They said in stereo. They never seemed to speak independently.

I opened the passenger door for them and helped them both in, taking great care not to be obvious about the fact that I was focused clearly on their legs and not their faces. It was truly hard to do. When you’re sixteen and faced with the options of long legs under short skirts, or beautiful faces with big blue eyes and long blond hair, choices become mind bending. I couldn’t even get my head wrapped around it. So instead, I tried my best to alternate equally between the two.

With the twins safely in my truck and me behind the wheel, I was ready to show the world just how cool I was. We would have to take the long way around campus. People needed to see this.

The twins lived on the other side of town and with traffic I figured it would take at least half an hour. Fortunately, my dad wouldn’t be expecting me home with the truck for another hour at least, so this was going to work out just fine. Just fine indeed.

Cruising down Riverside Drive along the banks of the Snake River in a brand new red pickup with two gorgeous blondes next to me was one of the most ego pumping experiences I had ever had in my life. It was a beautiful, spring day in Southern Idaho. Everything was in bloom and the trees along Riverside Drive were bursting with flowering buds. The smell of lilac filled the air and the roar of the river falls underscored every delightful note of sweet, sweet music that came from either of the twin’s soft, pouty lips. It was a delicious lullaby of…

…”OH MY GAWD!!!” I screamed as we rolled through the intersection at forty when suddenly, from my left, a Jeep ran the light and appeared directly in front us. I hit the brakes and swerved to the right but it was too late. I T-boned this guy in the middle of the intersection and tossed his jeep about ten feet across the asphalt.

In a second it was over, but it felt like it lasted a full thirty minutes. The jeep appeared, and I threw my right arm across the girls and pulled the wheel to the right, hoping I could avoid him. By the time it was over, we were both a mangled mess of steel and glass. The front grill of the pickup was pushed up against the firewall. The Jeep was wrung like a wet rag. Fortunately, no one was hurt even though none of us were wearing seatbelts.

There in the intersection, surrounded by twisted metal and shattered plastic, I calculated my odds of explaining this to my father and escaping with my life. It wasn’t looking good for Team Ed. When I called home, my mother answered the phone, thank God. I just told her where I was and what had happened. She said, “I’ll tell your father.” It sounded more like, “I sentence you to three consecutive terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole.”

Within twenty minutes, my father came pulling up in the family car. I braced myself. He got out and slammed the door behind him. He marched with purpose through the intersection of broken dreams, through the pond of brake fluid and broken glass, oblivious to the traffic swirling around him. He was focused on me like a laser beam. His eyes reminded me of that bear at Big Tree. They were glazed with rage. There didn’t seem to be a person behind them. Beyond the anger, everything was a blank. I was dealing with my father at his worst.

He started in on me with a string of expletives that would have made a hardened sailor blush. Colorful as they were, I was visibly shaking. My father had never raised a hand to me in his life, but on this day amongst the tangled wreckage, I was sure he was going to kill me. Believe it or not, there are things that can make a sixteen-year old boy forget all about pretty girls with long legs. As my father hammered in my ear, my mind went numb. He might as well have been talking to a sponge.

“Ed, what the hell were you doing all the way down in this part of town, anyway?!!! Ed?!!! Are you listening to me?!!!”

“Uh, well, uh, I was, I was, I was taking the girls home and…”

“Why the hell were you giving them a ride home?!!!”

What a silly question. He obviously hadn’t taken a good look at the twins. I felt I should point that out to him, but with just a teaspoon of better judgment remaining, I kept my mouth shut. Instead, I said, “Dad, it wasn’t my fault. That guy ran a red light.” Yea, that should do it. The other guy ran the light. Any fool could see that it was entirely his fault. He ran the light. I was just a victim of circumstance.

But my father still didn’t get it. He said to me, “Ed, I don’t give a damn if that guy ran a red light or not. This was your fault. You should never have been here in the first damn place.”

I was stunned. What was that supposed to mean? Was my father brain damaged? It was official: my father was a complete moron.

It wouldn’t be until many years later that I finally understood what he was trying to tell me about choices and consequences and how we each design our own failures. But a few days later after he’d had a chance to calm down, he did say something I thought was pretty funny even though I dared not laugh at the time. Pacing around his broken truck and kicking the dirt, he asked, “Why couldn’t you have done this to your mother’s car?”

Copyright, Mitchell H. Elder, 2010

Going Back to Big Tree – Part I

April 24, 2012 Leave a comment

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

My father was a great many things but above all he was this: He was a man of stone and steel. He was a man of fire and salt.

In the summer time he would take us fishing, up on the Continental Divide along the Idaho-Montana border; on the edge of a beaver pond at a place we called Big Tree. Sitting atop his broad shoulders, I would watch as he used his huge leathery hands to wrap the worm around the hook. He had enormous hands, disproportionately large, like bear paws; great gnarled machines of bone and grit. He was missing pieces of fingers callously robbed of him by cold steel. And everything he ever knew; everything he ever did; all that he was – could be read of in that venous text of his ruddy hands. They were a living testament to a life of hard labor.

Summer flies buzzed in the warm, moist air. The thick reeds and brushes along the edge of the pond disguised the deep, black mud they were rooted in. My father’s green rubber hip waders would sink to the ankles and every step he took would suck wetly as he pulled them up out of the muck. Each step he took left a hole in the earth that would slowly cave in on itself. Tiny green frogs, singing harmony with the dragonflies, skipped along the surface of the mud through the tall grass. It was a primordial place forgotten by time and ignored by all men except my father. This was his secret fishing hole. To know of this place was to know that my father guarded your life. Your sacred soul was in his care.

Tucked away in this lost valley where Camas Creek rolled down from the high Rockies, the beaver had built a work of art. Mother Nature’s engineers, working only with their teeth, tails and tenacity, had deftly diverted the rage of water that the mountain had thrown at them. With sticks and mud they tamed the creek and the tiny glen was transformed into a life-sustaining pond. Trapped in the deep, the trout bred and grew and lurked and waited in the cold for my father.

He’d carried me on his shoulders down through the heavy brush to the edge of the pond. Now, with a flick of his pole the bait flew across the open water, plopping down through its glassy surface with an audible “Bluup!” and the gossamer line trailing lightly behind faded invisibly into the water. Except for the gurgling of the headwaters and the buzz of the insects, this was the only sound on the planet. The entire universe was otherwise silent. My father had taught me well: fish can hear you coming so you must stalk them. Surely, fish must have the finest hearing of any animal on earth if they could hear us coming from that far away.

My father’s word was law. Even the sunshine settled into a whisper.

With his own line cast and the bait placed strategically along the edge of the reeds growing up through the water, he carefully rested his fishing pole against a bush and began preparing my line. My stubby little fishing pole, made especially for a child, like all things of mine was dwarfed by my father’s giant hands. With my fishing pole tucked under his left arm, I held his ears while he carefully wound a worm onto the hook and positioned a red and white bobber on the line above the string of lead sinkers.

Proper positioning of the bobber above the sinkers and bait was something magical that only my father knew how to do. Among all men, he was the final authority on bobber placement. I knew this because neither of my two sisters could ever position the bobber in just the right location. My father always had to reposition it – sometimes only a hair’s width distance one direction or the other. My father’s word had been given: if the bobber isn’t in the right place, the fish won’t find the bait.

He cast my line into the murky water, rolled the handle of the reel one-half revolution, and handed the pole up to me. Then he picked up his own pole, holding it firmly in his right hand, and began to delicately tease the line with his left hand. The diaphanous filament played across his thick fingers like a spider line. His index finger was ever so slightly crooked toward him with the line running lightly across the tip. He could sense the giant lurkers in the deep swimming around the bait on the end of his line. They circled it with suspicion, calculating their odds. Fish were smart, but hungry. He tugged on the line with his left hand and reeled in the slack, luring the fish toward him.

Golden sunshine danced across my father’s curly hair. He had a full head of wavy hair and bushy sideburns. Sometimes, as he carried me on his shoulders, I would comb my tiny fingers through his sideburns just for fun. They were thick like the whiskers of a cat, but as thickly spaced as the under brush that surrounded the beaver pond. They felt like the fishing line, tough and wiry. He didn’t like it when I tickled his sideburns with my fingers and my teasing would be met with a sharp rebuke. “Hey, cut that out boy!” But I knew his bark was worse than his bite so I did it anyway.

His cheeks felt like the sandpaper he kept in his workshop but were pliable like rubber. They were sandrubber. Sometimes in the evenings at home, after he had read to me for the umpteenth time The Shoemaker and the Elves, or, Gwendolyn the Miracle Hen, I would sit on his lap facing him and pull on his face. He was like a real-life Mr. Potato Head with a face I could rearrange by pulling it this way or that. My sisters would giggle uncontrollably at this and even my mother would start laughing too. My father growled a lot, but you could pull on his tail all you wanted. In the end, he would simply give in and say something like, “Yea, you’re all real damn funny.” My father never polished up well. He was as out of place in a tuxedo as a fish out of water. And at this moment, on the edge of the beaver pond at Big Tree, getting a fish out of the water was just exactly what he was preparing to do.

The spidery line running across his finger tips tugged gently but quickly. There was a fish on the other end tentatively nibbling at the worm. My father used a fly rod with a casting reel. An unusual set up but it worked well for him. The long fly rod was super sensitive at the tip and its length allowed him to place his casts far and with surgical precision. He wore a pair of green rubber hip waders over his pants, and connected the tops of the waders to his belt with snap straps. When he wasn’t trudging through the marsh and muck, he would unbuckle the waders from his belt and roll them down so they were folded over below the knee. It gave them a swashbuckling character and with my father’s pencil thin mustache, he was the very model of a dreaded pirate captain. Indeed, the beaver pond was my father’s secret treasure, stowed away high in the Rocky Mountains.

The beaver pond was known only to us and just getting to it was always a grand adventure in itself. At the time, the family car was a passenger van. We called it “The Bus.” It was creamed coffee in color and could hold the entire family and all of our camping gear. Myself, my two sisters, both older than me in the back seat with my mother riding shotgun and my father’s great hands wrapped around the wheel. With all of us loaded into The Bus, we would leave for Big Tree before dawn’s light. Big Tree was hours away beyond the tiny village of Kilgore, Idaho.

Sometime along the way I would awake on the seat never remembering how I got there. As we got closer to the mountains, the road turned from asphalt to gravel and meandered through a vast, open range of sage and cedar: a great ocean of musky smelling brush and bramble. Far off in the dusty distance, the blue-gray mountains yearned for the endless sky. Herds of domestic cattle, safely contained behind barbed wire fences, shared this land with buffalo, antelope and deer. Far off across the open range, a long abandoned barn would stand arthritic and sagging precariously to one side, its weathered exterior blackened with time.

Along the gravel road at the base of the mountains was the Kilgore Store: a one-room concrete block structure with a single gas pump out front, a pool table inside along with a few post office boxes, and coolers full of soda pop and beer. The Kilgore Store stood alone in this vast wilderness, sequestered away from civilization by dust and distance. It was cubicle, with equal dimensions on all four sides, and had a four-point roof of green asphalt shingles. Above the door the hand-painted sign, long forgotten and flaking, read: Kilgore Store. Out here on the open plain, the store could have gone without a sign altogether. It was the only thing around for miles.

We would always stop at the Kilgore Store. My father would top off the tank, all the while complaining about the outrageous price of gas. Stopping at the Kilgore Store was always one of my favorite things to do. It always meant a Payday candy bar and a Nehi orange soda pop.

From there we had to drive further across the open range and on into the mountains. As the road made its way higher up, its gravel surface gave way to packed dirt and rocks and sometimes a spongy bed of evergreen needles. Inside the tree line, the world changed. The air cooled and the musky odor of sagebrush and cedar was replaced by the pungent smell of Douglas Fir and Lodge Pole Pine. Inside the ancient forest, the world smelled like Christmas.

The road turned from clearly defined to imperceptible. We drove atop the carcass of a nineteenth century logging road left abandoned to the forest. Over time, the mountain had reclaimed what was hers. We now used it by permission on the condition that the location of the beaver pond never be revealed. Carefully, my father would negotiate The Bus along the road at a snail’s pace. I would stick my head out and watch the squirrels race up the trunks of trees as we passed.

Deep in the forest the road ended and there on the banks of the headwaters of Camas Creek, at the top of the beaver pond below the mountain, there grew a tree so old that only the mountain knew its name. This was Big Tree. At the base of the tree, a boulder of white granite rested in the earth. The boulder and the tree were one – a partnership formed in the deep of geologic time. Here, the mountain marked the passing of seasons as only a mountain can: with the patience of stone and stars. Big Tree leaned slightly out over the pond as if sheltering it from the mountain’s rocky gaze. Across the glen, downstream from Big Tree, just before the creek left the valley and cascaded down the rocky slopes to the great plain below, the beavers had built their dam and changed the face of this meadow for all time.

In the pond, a lunker toyed with the bait on my father’s hook. The line tugged again on his meaty finger and suddenly, “Whaap!!” he snapped the pole backward and slightly to the side. The line pulled tight and the tip of the pole bent down toward the water in convulsions. The stillness of the pond was broken by the frantic thrashing of a great trout on the end of my father’s line. The long fly rod he held in his hands threatened to escape his grasp as the trout broke the surface of the water and danced on its tail before plunging down again, pulling the tip of the fly rod with it.

“Ooh, he’s a big one.” He said cautiously so as not to jinx the moment. I had learned from atop my father’s brawny shoulders that fish can hear what you say and the wrong words will set them free.

On the edge of the beaver pond with a trout on the end of his line, my father was at his best. Nowhere else on the planet could you find a happier man. He and the mountain were one.

We never considered ourselves poor, but we were. An overnighter to Big Tree was the closest we ever came to a grand vacation, but it was enough. We had an Army surplus tent that my father would pitch in the clearing by the headwaters and that became our home. We were too poor to own sleeping bags, so the floor of the tent was covered with a great canvas tarp and my mother would lay out handmade quilts for us to sleep in. We seemed to have an endless supply of quilts. At the end of the day, I could wrestle on the quilt covered floor of the tent with my sisters in the flickering light of the campfire.

As soon as we would arrive at Big Tree, my mother would place a watermelon in the creek to chill. Other perishables were similarly stored in the cold headwaters above the pond. No one was allowed to wash their hands upstream from where she had placed the provisions. And under no circumstances was I allowed to bring any frogs into the tent.

The marshy muck, like black fudge, around the beaver pond was alive with frogs and I was more captivated by them than the fish. I could catch frogs. Fish, on the other hand, were always elusive. When my father would tire of me on his shoulders, I would chase around the brushes after the frogs. With nowhere else to store them, they went into my pockets. With my pockets bulging with croaking, squirming frogs, and covered from head to toe in black, tarry mud, I would then go on the hunt for my sisters. I had discovered sometime earlier that frogs, mud and sisters mix with rather humorous results. A frog-wielding mud monster struck terror in their souls.

But that was for later in the day. For now, I watched as my father skillfully reeled in the trout. Again, it erupted from the surface of the water and climbed toward the sky, only to plunge back down into the deep dark water of the pond. It was closer to the edge of the pond now and the critical moment was coming up: that split second between the water and the grassy bank when crafty old fish like this one always got away. My father had said it, and it was law. The distance between the water’s edge and the bank was so thin that you couldn’t even see it, but wedged inside that hairline plane of existence was a world that favored fish and once there they could escape the hook and be gone forever. And they would know if you ever came back to the pond because they had long memories.

Somewhere in the deep dark, nestled against the willow bank, was a monster fish that had thumbed its cold nose at my father for years. Summer after summer they had matched wits and the fish had always won. Only one time had my father ever managed to hook that great beast of all fishes, and when he got it up to the edge of the pond into that netherworld where fish cannot be captured, it got away. And my father had been hunting it ever since. That fish was the oldest fish in the pond, because this had happened back in the olden days before I was born.

Maybe the fish he had hooked now was that great fish of lore. We would soon see.

My father took great care to keep the line tight, pulling back on the rod and reeling in the slack, pulling on the rod and reeling in the slack. Again and again he did this, carefully coaxing the fish toward the shoreline. It was a delicate operation; any wrong move could spell disaster. This trout was huge. Surely, this was the great fish of legend. As he got the fish close enough to the shore so he could clutch the line with his left hand and pull it up, I held my breath. This was the critical moment. The fish was about to cross that line of no return. It would either end up in the pan that night, or it would escape back into the murky water to fight another day.

My father grabbed at the line and quickly twisted his wrist so as to loop the line securely through his fingers. He lifted it up swiftly and pulled the fish toward him. The trout was going wild on the hook, twisting this way and that, making my father’s arm shake. Through the netherworld it came, emerging on our side still hooked securely on the line. Now it flipped and flopped in the grass at my father’s feet, its glazed eyes staring blankly out on a world where it could not survive, its mouth clutching in vain at the warm mountain air.

My father held his fly rod under his right arm to free both hands and grasping the trout with his left, he pried the hook from the fish’s mouth with his right. His fingers were so thick I wondered how he managed to reach into the trout’s mouth and work the hook from its flesh. But he did it with such speed and confidence that within seconds the fish was off the hook and in his wicker creel.

As the fish continued to occasionally rustle inside his creel, he pulled another night crawler from the pouch on his belt and began knitting it on the hook. And with another flick of the rod, the bait was sent flying through the air across the pond. The great dance between man and fish began anew.

My father could stand on the edge of this pond all day until he dropped dead. Other things made him tired, but not this. On Sundays, we would go to church. My mother would make sure I took a bath on Saturday night, and Sunday morning she would dress me in my black pants with a red blazer and a clip on bowtie. She always combed my hair over and flipped it back at the bangs. I always hated that. My father combed his hair straight back across his head. His hair was so luxurious and wavy, it rested naturally thick on his head, not slicked back against the scalp. I would stand in the doorway of my parent’s bedroom and watch as my father tied his tie. I had no idea it was called a Double Windsor, all I knew was that my father knew many, many knots. He was a careful craftsman even with his tie.

At church, my father would always fall asleep with his head buried in one of his huge hands. My mother would nudge him for the passing of the sacrament. This happened so often that my sisters would play a trick on him by waking him before the sacrament just to see him instinctively reach out and grab at empty air as he awoke. When he wasn’t asleep in church, I would make him draw pictures for me or fold paper airplanes with the program we got at the door. Sometimes I would just tug on his huge, sausage-like fingers. They filled my fist like a pistol grip. When I got bored or tired, I would curl up under his arm and sleep. His smell made me feel protected.

In the summertime, the doors of the church were left open so the breezes could waft through the chapel. The sweet smell of honeysuckle and lilac would fill the church, and the organ would be heard for blocks around. Off of the entrance there was a room just for coats. And there was a multi-purpose room next to a kitchen where all the mothers would cook for special events. We had special events often and there was always a lot of food. Someone would always bring a salad made of green, lime Jell-O with shredded carrots in it. I never liked that, and I didn’t know anyone who did, but someone would always bring it anyway.

Whenever we came here to Big Tree my mother would always bring a lot of food but never any green Jell-O with carrots. Instead she would pack potato salad, bread and soda pop, a watermelon and breakfast fixings like pancake mix and bacon and eggs. In the mornings we would all awake to a world that seemed to be blooming from the earth for the first time. Stepping out of the tent first thing in the morning was like walking into a world that was brand new. The mountain air had a fresh, crisp quality to it. The smells of the forest were richly textured and woven into a tapestry of cool dampness. Morning sunlight would dance through the canopy of ancient trees in golden streams that exploded to life in a riot of delicate colors as they fell upon the forest floor. Above us, the crystal blue sky shrouded in a veil of green and gold, sparkled like jewels through the tree tops. The ancient forest was waking up from a long sleep and discovering itself again – older than time itself yet new as the sunrise that morning.

In the mornings my mother would cook breakfast over an open fire. The smell of wood smoke and frying bacon would fill the forest. It mixed in your nostrils with the sharp sting of the pine sap and the clear rush of the headwaters to create a palette of smells unique in all the world. It was as if the forest came to our house for breakfast. In the mornings the beaver pond was covered over with a blanket of white mist. It hung from the tops of the reeds and bushes like angel hair and the dragonflies disappeared and reappeared in and out of it. In the mornings, Big Tree and the boulder met the scowl of the black mountain looming over them. The mountain rose up from the glen and scraped the sky with its jagged, rocky tip. Wedged between the crags high up on the mountain face, perpetual snow clung for its life in streaks and wisps in places where it could hide from the summer sun.

From my vantage point upon my father’s shoulders I could look up at the mountain and wonder what it would be like up there, perched on an outcropping of black rock miles above the world. The eagle could do it with ease and grace.

I watched it soar from high upon the mountain; from a place only eagles can go, swooping down through the black crags wrapped in wispy white, its wings stretched out on the wind. Effortlessly it glided across the sky like a messenger from heaven, defying gravity as if the laws of nature didn’t apply to it. It circled above the tree tops, searching for a place to land, its keen eye surveying the forest below with piercing clarity and surgical precision. It dipped its wing and circled, carving a hole in the sky before diving through it like a fighter jet intent on dealing death. Then, it disappeared behind a curtain of trees.

My father wasn’t watching the eagle. He was still focused on the pond and the crafty lunkers within. The pond was patient and loath to give up her treasures. She acquiesced only grudgingly to my father’s insistence. But he had the patience of the mountain and nothing escaped the iron grip of his will.

Suddenly the silence of my mind was broken by the shrill screeching of sheer terror. My very breath was sucked away and all I could do was drop my fishing pole and pound my fists on my father’s head. My mouth opened, but not a sound came out. I was speechless.

Across the pond, from out of nowhere, there rose above the tops of the brush a great brown head with evil eyes and deadly teeth and it was looking right at me. It was the biggest bear to ever live in the history of the world. The bear’s snout wiggled this way and that, searching the air for signs of food. I was sure we were the food it wanted.

I grabbed at my father’s hair with my right hand and with my left I pointed at the bear across the pond. My mouth finally released the only words it was capable of at the moment: “Daddy, daddy, daddy…!”

My father looked up and, seeing the bear, raised both arms high above his head and yelled at the top of his lungs, “YHAAAAHHH GET OUTTA HERE BEAR YHAAAAHHH!!!” And to my total amazement, at that very moment, the great bear looked at my father with me on his shoulders and his arms raised and dropped back down to all four legs and went lumbering up the mountain from where it had come. We watched it carve a pattern of disrupted underbrush as it made its way up the hill and disappeared into the trees.

It was official: my father was the strongest, bravest man on earth. Without question.

As a child, I never feared my father but I always stood in awe of him. He never struck me or even raised a hand to me. All that was ever needed was that galvanizing stare and a gruff bark – if he was willing to take on a bear, he had nothing to fear from me.

“I wanna go daddy. I wanna go now.” I said, pulling on his ears as if to steer him like a horse. “Okay, okay just a damn minute.” He huffed.

Back at the camp I breathlessly told my mother and sisters of our encounter with the bear. By my reckoning, the bear had come within an arm’s reach of both of us and my father had out growled him. My father’s version was that I screamed and scared all the damn fish away.

Somewhere in between was the truth.

Copyright, Mitchell H. Elder, 2010

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