Monday, December 28, 2009

The Lusk: Champaign 1994

One good thing about the return to Illinois in the nineties was that I discovered the Shawnee National Forest. The forest is in the southern part of the state, in and around Carbondale and Harrisburg, Illinois. And it's pretty.
The first time I went was with Chicago Mike and Chuck (who was also from Chicago). Mike was back in Chicago by then (from L.A.) and they drove down and picked me up in Champaign. I had my daughter by then and it was a nice break from child-rearing to be able to go camping for a weekend. We headed for the Garden of the Gods (not the one in Colorado Springs, CO) part of the park, where big sandstone formations and cliffs were scattered among the trees and hills. It's a surprising area for the midwest and not a lot of people outside of the area know about it. Yes, we had a nice time. But there was a lot more to the forest, so I wanted to return sometime.
And I did.
The next time I went to the Shawnee, I went alone. This started my habit of camping alone--and preferring it alone--which I still do to this day (when I can). This time I went to the Giant City area of the park. Giant City is an area where huge stones are cast about in the forest, with pathways and cliffs and trickling waters (it looks like a giant city, see?) and I had a great time hiking about. My campground wasn't among the boulders, but I was there in the early spring and there were dogwoods abloom and russian olive trees abloom and their scent and beauty permeated my camping spot. I was also alone in the spot--had the whole tent-camping area to myself to wander and sniff and see. I came back to that spot the next year, but later, and missed both the dogwood and olive blooms and also had much company--college kids getting done with finals at Southern Illinois in Carbondale--who partied into the night.
That second experience around Giant City led me to find more primitive and less-traveled accommodations the next time I went (and the last, before we moved to Florida).
I knew the forest better and chose to visit the Lusk Creek Wilderness my last time in the Shawnee. I'd drive from Champaign to Highland, Il (near St. Louis), taking Fru and our two baby girls to visit Fru's grandmother--Mormor--and then I'd hop on down to the southern part of the state to do some lonely camping. (We went to Highland often, to visit Mormor or Fru's aunt and uncle and their daughters; sometimes I'd stay there, sometimes I'd go to Belleville, Il to visit Mike and Denise [who I knew from my FL panhandle days] or sometime I'd come back to Champaign to work on my novel or, go camping.) This time in the Shawnee I camped at a small campground tucked in among the hollows where a rocky stream ran and there was a big pond with lily pads. It was not in an area of sandstone formations or big boulder rocks, so there was no one else there but me--it was rainy and cool also, which helped. And from there I hiked into the Lusk, which was a true wilderness site among the protected woods of the Shawnee (semi-protected: there was a lot of logging still going on in those Federal woods).
In the Lusk there were pines and hardwoods, there were white birch trees and cliffs and a river that ran slowly through it all. There was a place called the Indian Kitchen which was high on a bluff trail, a half-cave whose walls were blackened from long-ago Indian fires. It was all very peaceful, all very nice. I had a great lonely time, better than the other places. And like I said, this set off my solo camping career (though I did do dome solo camping back in Montana, at least once along Lake Como [yes, named for Italy's Lake Como] in the Bitterroots). (Maybe this trip was in 95, not 94'.)
I'd like to get back to the Lusk. To the Shawnee. Every midwestern state (every state, really) has some hidden landscape gems among them. Most people don't think of a forest with hills and swamps and cliffs and boulders when they think of Illinois. They think of Chicago. Maybe of corn and soybean fields. I'm not crazy about Illinois, but then again, I know and like Illinois. I know and like the Shawnee National Forest.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Muchos Gringos: Mexico 1990

Just a quick memory. This was when I'd gone into Mexico by myself about a year after Fru and I were married. We were still living in Missoula, MT and she went back home to Champaign, IL while I went down to L.A. (saw and stayed with Mike--Chicago Mike) before going into Mexico by myself.
I'd been in the country for a little over a week, from Tijuana to La Paz, to Mazatlan to San Blas. Then I'd left San Blas on a bus on a weekend to head home. It was a crowded bus and I had no place to sit for the first day or so, then I had a stool to sit on in the aisle, then I'd finally gotten a seat as the bus crawled north towards the border with Arizona. I'd made a small cadre of friends on the long bus ride, particularly this old man and this young kid. The old man sat next to me and he'd worked in the States and spoke a little English, but I mainly spoke my lousy Spanish with him. The kid--maybe eighteen or less--spoke mainly Spanish and he sat in front of me on the bus. They both knew I was headed for Nogales and then into the U.S. and back to Montana.
Anyway, I was exhausted the whole ride. Had left early early in the morn in the little Pacific seaside town of San Blas and so by the time I got a seat I mainly slept. And when we got to Nogales the old man woke me up, nudging me, saying the name of the town.
"Es Nogales?" I asked in my broken Espanol.
"Si, si," they told me.
I opened my eyes and stretched my neck to look out the window. We were in the main part of town. I could tell it was a border town as there were many shops and that tourist-bustle along the sidewalks. There were a lot of U.S Americans. The boy and the man watched me look out the window.
"Hay (aye)," I said, "muchos Gringos!"
The old man cackled. The boy, turned around in the seat in front of me, looking at me, gave me the most quizzical face, as in, how could I refer to my own countrymen as gringos? This made the old man laugh even more and I just smiled at the boy. Yes, U.S. Americans had a sense of humor and irony, I guess.
It was but a funny moment, a last moment. Because it wasn't long after that that I crossed back into the U.S of A. and took a bus to Tucson and then all the way back to Missoula. That little happening was my farewell to my Mexican trip.
I've been back to Mexico since then--in the 2000's--but only along the border. In fact, it was in Nogales. I wandered the streets with a friend, very much the Gringo.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Walking My Daughter to School: Fort Lauderdale 1996

You know, you have a child and you don't realize how many things there will be to do for and with that child or how it brings many thing into a new perspective . . . By the fall of 1996, Fru and I were in South Florida and had two children: First Daughter and Second Daughter, five and three years old. By then we'd moved out of the hotel and rented a house on SE 10th Ave in Victoria Park. One of the reasons we chose the Victoria Park neighborhood was because of the school there: VSY (Virginia Schuman Young--a public Montessori school). That's one of those things you don't think about much as you hold your new baby: what school will I send her to? What neighborhood will I choose so that she can go to a certain school? But, as we settled in, we were very happy with our decision.
Though we didn't end up buying a house there, Victoria Park is a cool little neighborhood very close to downtown, it has cute houses and small, palm-lined streets. It was down one of these palm-lined streets that I would walk each weekday with my two daughters to take First Daughter to school. Right on our street there were three other families that had kids about the same age and they too would walk to VSY, so we got to know them well and they are--to this day--still friends. So, it was a group of us walking 10th Avenue back and forth down to the school and back. A daily ritual that helped us feel connected and at home in a place like South Florida (none of us in the group were native Floridians--except some of the kids). This daily walk was especially fun for Second Daughter and her friends who also did not go to school yet--they'd goof around and find small things of great interest as we walked. They had no pressure--it was only a walk--and had a year to see and accept the routine, the idea of going to school. This, however, was not true for First Daughter.
First Daughter--like me when I was a child--would have much preferred to stay home. She was brave and did well in school, but was never comfortable in doing it. I knew this. I also knew what it was like, because I'd always seen school as a chore, as duty rather than choice (until about my last year of high school, maybe). So everyday as I walked her, I knew she didn't really want to go, was reluctant to leave the sanctity of home and family and our close relationship, to leave her in this imposing building full of other kids (mostly older) and then, hours and hours later, come get her and walk back to where she'd rather be. First Daughter had been to a pre-school of sorts in Champaign, IL: Busy Bees. That class met for a short period--four hours?--maybe three days a week. So, when we got to Ft. Lauderdale and she had to start real school, maybe she wasn't quite prepared for the commitment. (Second Daughter started Pre-K at VSY the next year--same hours as regular school--and she loved it for the most part.)
But this is another thing you really don't think of when you have a child: the reliving of aspects of your own childhood. Whether it be toys or old cartoons, the memories of games or experiences (like having to go off to school, like walking to school), these are things that crop up if you're close to your child and worry about your child (and who doesn't do that?). Perhaps some of it is transference, my own memories and worries, but I think it was more just good old recognition. But you feel that same low-grade pain, worry, sadness; but you also get over it and do what's right, just like your child does.
Ah, but these were long years ago, the 1990's, though it doesn't seem like it to me. My kids are still kids, even though one's in college now and the other is close behind. To them, memories like walking to school in the streets of Fort Lauderdale (and we only did this for one school year, I drove them after that) are but building blocks of larger memory, are a very distant episode. The 90's are ancient times . . . To me, they are but yesterday.
And then my daughters will have their own daughters--or sons--and then they themselves will discover all these ancillary details and concerns that come with having a child. Back and forth we go. Back and forth.
Just like walking to school.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Special Edition #6: Cars

I was never a big car person. Sure, I liked cars, fantasized about owning certain vehicles, desired different fast or big or silly or exotic cars over my many years, but I also was practical about them: cars required money and maintenance. I've had enough trouble with vehicles to enjoy not having them as much as having them--which is a bit odd, since I always loved to drive long distances, loved the road and that form of travel.
My first car was an old car. It was a 1966 Ford Falcon wagon. Dark metallic green, so dark people mistook it for black. It had been our family car--bought new in 1966 by my father in Vancouver, Washington and I still recall the day he drove it home, all of us kids and my mother standing out in the street to see the new car--and the Falcon had been used and used for many years. It was in the Falcon that we went all over the west on camping trips and to visit relatives back in the midwest, it was the main car--our only car--while in Tennessee. It was our car when it was common to only have a single car per family. And it was the family car when we moved to Des Moines, Iowa. It was the car I learned to drive, pretty much--though now that I think of it, I learned to drive in that '72 Chevy Impala, a big blue-gray beast. But the Falcon, over the years, became my car. I didn't buy it outright from my parents, but they gave it to me right after high school and I used it to tool around Urbandale and Des Moines, to go to work at Younkers, etc. I took it to Lake Okoboji (in NW IA) with Bobby--where his parents had a trailer--and on the way back the brakes went out and I had to coast downhill through a busy intersection, then backwards a bit before I figured to use the handbrake. But it was a cool car, it became old enough and was still in good enough shape to be different, almost classic. Of course, it eventually got too old. It still ran, but in the late seventies or early eighties, Father got rid of it, he actually drove it to the junk yard where the guy told him most cars there can't be driven anymore. My father did this by himself and I think it was an emotional moment for him--it had been his brand new car, THE family car, and life and time had moved on beyond all of those days. (Ah, I remember now: he drove it to the junk yard, with my mom following in the Impala, then my father had to go back to look at it again because, "I think I left the lights on.")
My next car was a van. It was a Ford Econoline with fuzzy carpeting, a cooler and other strange stuff. I'd bought it from a friend of my brother's who lived up in Nevada, Iowa (a small town) and I paid too much for it and it was a crazy vehicle. It was a 1960's/70's van, not quite a hippy VW Bus van, but close. It was when I had this idea that I'd live in my van and drive around the country with a dog at my side. So, I did get the van, I did get the dog--then I gave up the dog (too much work) and went to college at the U. of Iowa (no traveling and living in the van) and that vehicle sat at my parents' house, an eyesore more or less, until a neighbor finally found someone who would buy it. Good bye. I was glad to be rid of it.
I didn't own a car for quite a while after that, though I traveled to Alaska and New Mexico and L.A. and north FL and on and on. But then I bought the old powder blue Ford Maverick from my parents after grad school at the Iowa Writers Workshop fell apart. I needed a car and it was a cheap choice. But a strange choice, because I hated that car more than any vehicle I'd known. Yet, the Maverick became a reliable beast. It served me well. It took me back down to Walton County and a beach life in Florida, then across country to L.A. and then up to Seattle. It took me up to Bellingham and out to the Olympic coast, it took me back to Des Moines and back down to Florida's panhandle once again and it took me to Illinois twice and stayed in Champaign, IL with me. That old stupid car got around some. And I eventually traded it in for a friend's--Kurt!--red pickup when I (we, Fru and I) moved out to Montana.
And so in Montana I had a red Chevy Custom Deluxe full-sized pickup. I liked that truck. It had been Kurt's work truck--concrete construction--so it was a little beat up, but I liked that. It fit in well with Missoula. And it was a good truck, didn't give me much trouble. Fru had a little brown Honda Civic, which we used for long trips and to buzz around town, but I used my truck quite a bit. And when we left Missoula, I hauled it behind the U-Haul when we moved back to Champaign. I kept it in Champaign for a couple of years, then sold it. We got by with one car for a while.
By the early 90's it wasn't me anymore, it was Fru and I and then Fru and I and our first baby. That's when the truck went goodbye, that's when we traded in the Honda for a little Suburu (a nice car but it didn't last long), then, before we moved to Ft. Lauderdale, FL, Fru's grandmother--Mormor!--gave us some money and we bought a brand new Volvo 850 wagon. Nice. That's what we used to move down to Florida with. Then my parents gave me their old car, a Chevy Cavalier, as a second car.
We still have the Volvo. I sold the Cavalier to Bill (MA, MN, MT Bill) a long time ago and it caught on fire and burnt up--after good years of use by him. But the Volvo still runs, has its issues and we don't really need it (my girls refuse to drive it most of the time). We have a new Volvo XC 90 and a new little Nissan. We had a Saab (S-something) Turbo convertible for quite a few years: loved that car, fun to drive, top-down-in-Florida fun, but it had its problems and I was glad to sell it off. We had a Nissan Pathfinder as our primary family car for years, but got rid of it--Cash for Clunkers (though it wasn't quite a "clunker" yet)--and got the little Sentra for my daughter. But I've been thinking about getting a pickup truck once again.
Yet, what to do with the old bluegreen/tealish colored Volvo 850 wagon? No one seems to want it besides me (and now I want a truck). Kids don't drive old beaters like they used to--and be glad they had one--especially here in South Florida. So, do I sell it? Do I simply drive it to the junk yard and have the guy tell me most cars they get can't be driven? Will I feel sentimental about this and think of the family life that was lived through this car, this old Volvo? Will I go back for one last look because "I left the lights on"?
Of course I will.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Myopic And Self Indulgent History #6

Childhood friends, that's what I was thinking of. Though I've been mainly writing about the 90's now--and with it being November, December, January 1st rolling up, I haven't been writing that much (plus I'm working on a novel)--I was thinking of the neighborhood kids who used to make up my universe.
In Sioux Falls, in the Hilltop house, there were the Bosslers across the street. There was Myron down the street--a kid my age who I used to wrestle--and there were other kids whose names I no longer know, whose faces I can't even recall. And then in the 2nd House in Sioux Falls there was the girl who lived next door--the one who always cut her toe in our sprinkler--and, again, there were other children whose names and faces elude me yet I can recall them hanging around and playing around the house. But when I was five we moved out West to Vancouver, Washington.
In Vancouver we moved into a new house on a small street--Enid Avenue (though it was not a true avenue, just a little street--not far from George C. Marshall Elementary School). Already living there at the time were the Alvicks, next door to us, with Bobby and Cathy and Mark--their ages roughly the same as us (Oldest Brother, Second Oldest Brother and me, then Sister and Youngest Brother--Bobby was my age, Cathy older, Mark younger). They became our best friends. Across the street were three brothers--the youngest as old as me--but they rarely played our games. Those boys were a little rough, a little serious when it came to games, though I used to "fight" them (fighting consisting of wrestling and shows of strength), but they were okay kids. Then to our left a new family moved in with two older boys and a younger girl. I think her name was Liz and she joined our group. The boy--whose name I can't recall--was Second Oldest Brother's age and he goofed around with us some. Really, Second Oldest Brother didn't play with the rest of us as much either--he often did his own thing, had his own set of pals. One of those pals was Mike Gust, who did not live in the neighborhood, and Mike would come over quite often. We went to his house as well. Mother was not all that fond of the boy--"THAT Mike Gust" was how she referred to him--but we did many things with him and sometimes his older brother, Lynn. Then Joey Hanes moved down the street (Joey was from Albuquerque--which sounded exotic to me) and he was in my same grade (the Alvicks went to the private, Catholic school) and class at George C. Marshall and we became best friends (though that friendship was tested when we both liked Kathy McKay in 2nd grade and she liked me in return). There were others--some boy who moved into a house behind us, it was a big house with an intercom system. There was a kid--Robert, I think--who lived around the block, a friend of Oldest Brother, whose last name was different than his mother's: she was divorced and had remarried or some such. And there were others, school friends (Dale didn't live too far away, he had white hair--White Hair!--at the age of six), but the main neighborhood gang was who we spent the most time with, them and That Mike Gust.
Then we moved to Tennessee.
At first we lived in, or just outside of, Jonesborough. There was a small boy next door who had a cat named Mr. Whiskers and who called poor behavior "ugly": "You're acting so ugly." He had a thick accent when he said it, too. There were a couple of kids next door that we played with some. This was all out in the country, really, though there were plenty of houses, along a rural road/highway. There was a kid named Judge down the road a ways--nice kid. There were some bad kids who tried to steal our bicycles. My best friend (for a while) lived a few houses down, but I can't recall his name. He and I tried to walk home from school once--maybe about ten miles, or longer, and my mother had to search for us. Then there was Rocky and his brother Stoney (I'm serious, these were their names). Rocky was in my grade, Stoney younger. They were shy kids, small, Rocky was picked on at school and I came to his defense, which was how we became friends. He was a good, sensitive kid and he lived a few houses down from us--I think they had an orchard. This wasn't a defined neighborhood like in the midwest or most cities or suburbs and people had ersatz houses and big lots of land--a few acres. We even had a an acre or so of woods on our rented property. Then we moved into a brand new house closer to Johnson City where my father worked at the V.A.. Here, in this new, small development, were new kids. Probably my best friend at first was Kent, who lived up the hill. But there was Maryellen and her sister down the hill and across the street, there was this little kid named Foy (FOY!) who would lick spit up in the street and was deathly afraid of masks. There was Kurt up the hill who was a liar and a delinquent, there was another boy up the street who could kick the heck out of a football (except once he missed, fell down and had the wind knocked out of him) and there was the mysterious girl who lived up, past our street, in a trailer on the land where there was a cave. And down the hill and across Antioch Avenue, a few people moved in to the otherwise empty development: Greg and his sisters Lisa and Joy, the boy Bobby who had a glass eye and his sister. I was always in love with either Lisa or Joy or Maryellen. There were a handful of others and, of course, friends from school. Two boys moved in next to us who I hung out with--but can't recall their names (Joey and his older brother?). But between ourselves and the neighbor kids, that made up our core group, our everyday group, wherever we lived.
Then we moved to Iowa and it was 1970 and things were different. My older brothers--and I--weren't such little kids anymore. We were still kids, but adolescence was taking its hold. So, that's different, friendships were different, family life shifted as well.
In Iowa--Des Moines/Urbandale--childhood (at least my definition of it) came to a close.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Watching the Bulls Win Another Championship: Fort Lauderdale 1996

Ah, the Chicago Bulls. Fru was originally from Chicago (the South Side) and I'd lived in Illinois long enough to feel connected to the city (and had had a girlfriend, Cin, who was from there and had spent a lot of time there). So during the Michael Jordan era of the Bulls, Fru and I--not really big NBA or basketball fans in general (I'm a football guy, baseball and basketball an even distant second)--she and I always watched the Bulls in the playoffs. (I saw Jordan play twice in Chicago, at the old stadium.)
One thing I recall is that the playoffs and championship were always on NBC. And in Missoula and in Champaign, NBC was always a station that came in horribly . . . We had no cable TV--by choice--back then, so we relied on rabbit ears and signal strength. And for whatever reason, NBC was always weak. I recall I'd have to fidget with the antennae, try the TV out in different spots and still put up with snow or static while watching the games. Well. But it was fun. It connected us to each other and to Chicago. But then we moved to Fort Lauderdale, in May of 1996.
We stayed--lived--at the Riverside Hotel those first few months. Fru and I and our five and three year old daughters in one double queen bed room. And the Bulls were in the playoffs once again, this time in the finals against the Seattle Supersonics (another team I liked, along with Portland and Miami) (but I was for the Bulls). I'm sure the Riverside had cable TV, but I seem to recall that it was the same story: bad reception. Maybe I'm wrong about this, but I do know that when we got into a house and we watched TV (we were not big TV watchers--hence, why pay for cable?) we found--AGAIN--that NBC was fuzzy and static-y! So, we struggled to watch--but that ended up being part of the fun--like tuning in a game that is far distant from some remote corner of the world, or finding a distant game on your radio while driving through empty landscapes on a long distance trip--it added to the excitement and pleasure and specialness of watching the Bulls win once again.
I can't place it all exactly--what years and where we watched the Bulls, but because the won so many championships and because they were Chicago, it was a yearly event for us for a long time.
No matter where we lived.
No matter the poor reception.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Second Banana: Seattle 1987

This is but a tiny memory. It's from when I was working at Brock's father's print shop in Seattle. Brock, Matt and I lived in the house next door to the print shop, on First Avenue West in Queen Anne--the house belonging to Brock's father--and so Brock's father--a good guy--was nice enough to give us some work at the shop. So, I worked there for a while and it was a noisy place. This was before the computer revolution and desktop publishing, so there were big machines clacking and clanking away all day long, there was ink and paper and box sets, dust and dirt. It was sad and interesting.
So, Brock's dad was the owner, he ran the shop and made the big decisions, but beneath him was his right-hand man--and I can't recall his name right now, but we'll call him Herman--the shop foreman. This guy, Herman, was middle-aged, balding, had a family. He had worked for Brock's father for many years and was in line to buy the shop and business when Brock's father retired (a retirement which was, in my impression, always imminent but never quite there year after year). Herman probably had a high school education. I'm not trying to say he was stupid, because he wasn't. He was a quiet guy, really, soft spoken, a nice guy, but he also had an edge about him, a side that you could tell was hidden--he had more to him than he revealed at first. Anyway, I had no problem with Herman. I recall a story Brock told me about him: Herman was driving out across the west, moving from somewhere--this was in the 1950's or 60's or something--driving across the vast western states and in Montana his car broke down; I think he had his wife with him, possibly a child; a man stops to help him with the car and, seeing how Herman handled the situation, right then and there offers him a job to work his ranch, to be the foreman for the ranch--Herman didn't take the job, but I found that a strange thing, to be offered a job because your own car broke down.
Anyway, the shop would always take a coffee break at 10am. The whole business would stop and we'd all gather together in the small front break room for free coffee, maybe a snack. It was that kind of business--friendly, family-like. What I remember was that, after the break, I went back to my machine, got it going and watched it make its canned salmon labels or Seattle Opera pamphlets or whatever it was making at the time and Herman was standing near me finishing a soda and suddenly he balls up the can and violently throws it into the small trash can near the door. I see this out of the corner of my eye, but more than that I hear the balled metal can crash into the metal trash can and it made me jump. I mean, the printer machine is clacking along, loud and in rhythm (it always made the song Cecelia by Simon and Garfunkle get stuck in my head) but the can smashing in the trash is big enough to startle me. And so I jump and look over at Herman and he looks at me and he's got this very stern and angry look on his face, anger and despair, and I just shrug and go back to attending my machine, but that's when and where and how I had a different opinion on Herman's character. I could tell that he'd been thinking of something other than just tossing away a can.
A small thing, but I saw and heard how he line-drived that can into the wastebasket.
What I found out later was--this was the start of Seattle's housing/real estate boom--Herman had put his house up for sale, on his own, I think, as a lark maybe, and it had been snatched up in one day. He had sold his house without thinking it through, had probably asked too little on the price, and now he had to find a new place to live (and prices were rising). Ah. Herman had screwed up. But to me, it was more than that. He had mistakenly sold his house, but he was also tied to a print shop that wasn't his--a small business where he was always promised something that seemingly wouldn't come--and he had to work day in and out in this noisy little place as the second banana. Like that ranch job he'd been offered, where he would have been the second banana--the ranch owner saw this in him, that he'd make a great second-in-command, the bridesmaid but never the bride--he was or had been a second banana all his life. (This is my pop-psychology analysis anyway.) So, there was a lot of anger and despair built up in Herman and it came out as he so violently--and out of the blue--threw that can into the trash.
He finally did get to buy the business--many years later--just in time for the advent of computerized and electronic printing.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Hotel Life: Fort Lauderdale 1996

In 1995 I'd been accepted at Florida International University for graduate school. I'd started my MFA at Iowa back in 1986--but dropped out. I'd gone to the University of Montana in 1988--but quit after they wouldn't give me a teaching assistantship. So, now I was ready to do it and finish it. But . . . though we'd come to Ft. lauderdale and Fru had been offered a job, when we got back to Champaign her bank offered her a great financial deal to stay for one more year, so, I deferred my enrollment at FIU for one year and we finally moved to South Florida in May of 1996.
As good luck would have it, by that time Fru had been offered a better job at Sun Trust Bank in downtown Fort Lauderdale--so our move and our first lodging was paid for by that company. And they put us up at the Riverside Hotel.
Ah. Hotel life.
We'd stayed at the Riverside before, by blind choice, when we first came as a family to visit the city. And we'd loved it. It was an old hotel right on Las Olas Boulevard right in the heart of downtown. Sun Trust Bank was almost across the street from the hotel, so when they put us up there we were very pleased.
And we lived there for over a month, in a single room with two queen beds, on the third floor. I watched the girls, who were five and three years old, respectively, and prepared for grad school at FIU (where I would teach as well). But that late spring into summer, Fru would get up and get ready for work and walk across the street and I would get the girls up and, usually, take them to the pool. And the Riverside had a fantastic pool. It was big and heated, it was across the small back street and along the river so that you'd see big boats go by as you swam. The girls would bring their toys and other stuff and we'd swim and play and lounge. Yes, a tough life, I know . . . Of course we did other things, but it's the pool I remember the most.
We had a small fridge in the room and there was a Hyde Park Market next door, so I'd go there to buy drinks and snacks and deli meat and cheeses for sandwiches. We ate out now and then, had room service once in a while, but mainly it was just the four of us ensconced in the Riverside. And it was fun. Sure, it got old, it was crowded, the girls became bored. There was one other family living there at the time who we became friends with, they had two daughters about the same age as ours, so the girls swan with them, etc. That family was prepping their sailboat to get ready to live on it (a typical Ft. lauderdale thing, as we discovered over the years).
There was a small Lebanese sandwich shop on Las Olas near the hotel which we frequented. The guy who ran it and owned it was a nice guy, his wife was Swedish and he was Lebanese. Fru and I thought we'd have to buy a house out in the west of Broward County because of schools and prices and such, but I talked to this guy one day and he said, nah, there were good schools right in town, one in a neighborhood just blocks from Las Olas. Hmmm. Fru and I had looked at some homes and condos out west, the realtor taking us into the nether-reaches of Broward to new home construction sites, but we didn't like them. We wanted to live in town. So, one day I took a walk over to the neighborhood the sandwich shop owner had told me about and I was delighted: small homes, small streets, heavenly vegetation and a cool public magnet school--Montessori--named Virginia Shuman Young.
The neighborhood was Victoria Park.
So, it ended up that we rented a house in Victoria Park, that First Daughter started kindergarten there. We loved it. And though we ended up buying a house south of downtown a year later, both daughters went to VSY and it was a great school, and we still have good friends in Victoria Park . . . but our first taste of living in South Florida was the Riverside Hotel in Fort Lauderdale.
The hotel has changed quite a bit--it's grown, things have been redone and moved around. But it still looks pretty much the same from the front, it still has the Mexican tiled floors, the same garden and the same old-south subtropic vibe. And the pool is still there. We go to the hotel now and then, have even stayed there again and swam there agin.
You can still watch the boats motor by as you swim.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

How I Met a Good Friend from Canada, Excuse Me, from Quebec: Mexico 1990

I had already been to Tijuana, had already taken a Tres Estrellas bus from that border town to La Paz in Baja Sur where I spent a few days, I'd taken the ferry across the Sea of Cortez to Mazatlan where I immediately took a cab to the bus station in that resort town--I did not want to stay in Mazatlan--and after some confusion, got on a bus headed south to Tepic. I was traveling alone in Mexico, doing it on the cheap without solid plans. My Spanish was less than so-so. I'd never been to Mexico before, had never really been out of the country except to drive through British Columbia and the Yukon to get to Alaska. So, in Tepic I was at this little bustling and discombobulating bus station (all Mexican bus stations seemed to be this way to me) trying to figure out how to get to the small Pacific-seaside town of San Blas.
The station was narrow and crowded and though I'd been in Mexico for a while by then, I felt lost. I wasn't real sure how I could get a bus from Tepic to the little town, but then I saw someone in the station that was not Mexican. I figured he was an American (a United States-ian?--really, we of the north and south continents are all Americans if you think about it), so I approached him and asked him if he knew how to get to San Blas.
He was a guy about my age, medium build (I'm tall, more or less) and almost bald. He smiled, was receptive, but English was not his first language. French was, because he was from Montreal. Okay. But of course, he understood and spoke English, so it wasn't much of a problem.
"I am going there, too," he said.
His name was Francis. We introduced ourselves and we bought tickets. San Blas was not far from Tepic and Francis had been there before, a few years ago. he was also traveling alone and--seeing as how we got along well enough--we decided to get a room together once we got to San Blas. He said he knew this great seaside hotel there.
Francis' English was good, though a little thick. He taught me some French (which I had taken one semester of at Iowa before switching back to Spanish) and he was a good, intelligent and pleasant fellow. So, we took the short ride into San Blas--a groovy little town with business' and a square, a beach--and got our luggage and began to walk. He knew where we were going, he knew of this hotel.
I was married but Fru had gone to visit family in Illinois while I went on my solo trip, and we had been living in Missoula, Montana for a few years, so walking down the street of the town, then down a sandy-dirt road lined by palms and pastures with longhorn cattle in them, was very interesting to me. It was sunny and hot. It was good to talk with someone after being alone for days. And finally we came to this hotel along the beach--forget the exact name of it but it translated as the Brothers Hotel or Three Brothers Hotel: Hermosas or Tres Hermosas Hotel. But this place didn't look so grand, not like he had described it. In fact, it looked dilapidated, it looked abandoned. Francis was a bit confused. The landscaping was all overgrown, there were no cars or anyone to greet us, fountains were still and weed-choked. In the lobby, which was large and open, everything was dirty, dusty, empty. We went to the counter and rang a bell--then up popped this guy, a slovenly guy but funny looking. He surprised us both and we laughed a bit. He said his name was Antonio.
Antonio was drunk.
But, Antonio checked us in--sort of--and took us to a room.
Francis and I made many jokes about Antonio after that, through the rest of the week and even years (I still know Francis and now and then we still make references to Antonio, to the trip in San Blas). The room was horrible. Door did not lock. Water did not really run. The two beds were so ugly I did not even pull back the covers that night, but slept on top of them. Francis was apologetic--a few years ago this had been a wonderful cheap hotel on the beach. Now it was a run-down piece of crap, but still on the beach and cheap. We met a few other Americans there--hipster-like Californians--but they were all stoned out of their gourds.
We spent only the one night there and the next day we took a place in town, Maria's, which was like a family place, like a hostel in a way, full of fellow foreigners. It was fine. It was fun.
So Francis and I became good friends. We walked around the town, ate at the cafes, drank in the bas, met other people in the town.
I left before Francis did--by a day or so. I think maybe he was taking the train to Guadalajara then flying home. I took the bus all the way from San Blas to Nogales--man that was a long trip (and then the bus from Nogales to Missoula).
But Francis and I stayed in touch. I was surprised. And after we moved back to Champaign, he came and visited. This was after our first child--First Daughter--was born and we drove up to Chicago to get him at the airport. We stayed at Don's, who lived in Chicago by then. And Francis came to Champaign and stayed with us, learning about my new family. . .But, who wants to come to Champaign, Illinois for a vacation and spend it mainly sitting around the house watching a one year old? Francis did, I guess. he came and visited a number of time in Champaign. And then later in Fort Lauderdale (which makes more sense). And we went, unfortunately only once so far, to Montreal to visit him.
But in that bus station in Tepic in Mexico, when I thought I was asking a question of a fellow American, I had no idea that I'd meet one of my best friends, some guy from Canada--excuse me, from Quebec, as Francis is a separatist and we talked much about this in Mexico--who I still know to this day and who still comes to visit.
Strange how some things happen.

Monday, November 16, 2009

I Was a Human Mule: Champaign 1994

I wasn't a mule like a drug-runner mule, what I'm remembering was when my kids were babies/toddlers. What I'm thinking of was when whenever we traveled somewhere--on vacation or weekend trips or what-have-you--we had to take a multitude of baby/toddler
accoutrements with us and I'd have to lug them into the car, out of the car, back into the car and back into the house.
In particular I'm thinking of one family reunion (Fru's family) in Wisconsin where I became acutely aware of how things had changed with babydom.
Every year, Fru's extended family has a reunion in the midwest on the weekend of Father's Day, in June. It's from her mother's side of the family and someone plans it and they all get together for food and conversation, swimming and golf and poker. It's a great time and I'm glad to have become part of it. And it's almost always in the midwest because that's where almost all of them live: Wisconsin and Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota, Indiana and such. So it'll often be in these small to smallish towns which I enjoy visiting.
So, this year it was in Wisconsin, in Oconomowoc, at this very nice resort and we had a room on the second floor. So, we check in and get to our room and Fru needs to stay with the girls, maybe take them to the hospitality room to see all the relatives, and I need to go back down to the car to start hauling up our luggage. But the thing is, it's not just simply luggage. Yes, I go down the stairs and out into the heat and unlock the car and lift the trunk and pull out the suitcases and toiletries bag and lock the car and go up the stairs and take them down the hall and unlock the room door and take them into the room, but then I go back--repeating all the unlocking and locking--and take out the bag of toys and the bag of extra pillows and more luggage, and then there's the trip with the diaper bag and the bag of extra kid's clothes and then there's the stroller and there's the playpen and maybe the bed rail we brought just in case and the car seats maybe or the "bouncy chair" and maybe a high chair to feed them in--who knows what the heck we brought. I just recall going up and down and locking and unlocking, carrying big and heavy and unwieldy tons of luggage to the room. It was then I realized I was a human mule and would be one for quite a few years.
Ah. All that stuff. From cans of formula (the girls did not nurse--a long story there) to more and larger toys, over the years I got used to the routine. It was like a caravan where I was the only pack animal, a safari where I was the only porter, an ascent of Mt. Everest with me--yes, me--as the only sherpa. Hmm. But, it wasn't so terrible either. But all that stuff we'd have to have to go anywhere--from "spit-up rags" to extra diapers and diaper rash creams and . . . Oh I can't even remember it all. But then it does come to an end, doesn't it?
Eventually the little babies sit and talk and then walk and feed themselves. Eventually they can be alone in a room while you take a shower, alone at the house while you go shopping, they can run around a hotel or park with an older cousin or with friends, can sleep over at a house, take a weekend trip with a trusted family. Eventually they can go out the door and just tell you where they are going. They can go out the door and not tell you. They can, eventually, go out that door and not ever come back--figuratively at least (and you don't even want to think of it literally).
So, those early years with kids are so shocking and enveloping, they seem long and intense, but then they're gone.
Those years go away and are part of the past and you wonder how in the world it could happen so fast.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Small Memory in Idaho #4

This was when I was coming back from Mexico. I'd taken the Greyhound Bus up from Nogales, AZ and had told Fru--who was back in Missoula--that'd I'd be home, that the bus would pull in at about nine that night. I'd called her from somewhere on a pay phone, in Tucson, I think. The problem was that I'd been wrong. As the bus traveled northward, I realized the mistake in my calculations, which was off by about, oh, twelve hours. It was nine in THE MORNING when I'd be getting back to Missoula.
It was night time, dark, snow had been falling (this was March in 1990) and finally the bus pulls into this little town of Blackfoot, Idaho. Like a lot of small western towns, the place hadn't changed since maybe the 1950s or 60's: things were old, retro-looking, even the people, even the very air and aura had an antique back-in-time feel to it. So, we had but a short stop in this strange bus station in Blackfoot and I rushed to the pay phone to try and get a hold of Fru to let her know I was wrong (once again in many once agains). There was no Internet emails or cell phone calls or texts in those days--had to use pay phones and maybe a phone card at that phone, but think I used coins (it was even tougher to try and call her when I was in Mexico, where you'd go to theses shops where you paid someone to connect you through--interesting, though)--so I got into this old-fashioned phone booth which were, even in '90, becoming obsolete and called our home number in Missoula.
No answer.
I left a message saying I was sorry, that I'd miscalculated. And that was all I could do.
Turned out she'd gone to the bus station and had waited for me, all dressed up to look nice for me, and the derelicts at the station all ogled her, made her feel uncomfortable (sorry, Fru!), and didn't know why I wasn't on the bus until she got home and listened to my message . . . But I still recall that old station, that rush to the booth inside that crazy place. And outside the night was dark, the mountains stood tall and snow-capped, trees black columns against the black night with the snow falling. It was cold compared to Mexico (as you might expect). It was a sad feeling but also, almost, an Xmasy feeling, like I was coming home for the holiday to my loved one, my beautiful wife, after a long journey away from her (though it was only two weeks or less). There was also some talk that the route would be delayed or canceled because of the snow. And when I got on the bus--we changed buses there in Blackfoot--it wasn't the Greyhound anymore but a local one, Inter-Mountain, I think--but the driver was a good guy, reassured everyone that the roads weren't that bad and we'd be going up into Montana. And there was this old lady sitting across from me and she kept looking at me and the bus driver asked if there was a problem. The lady said she was a afraid of me. And no doubt I looked kind of scary--I'm a big guy and I hadn't shaved, was unwashed and sad about Fru and depressed knowing how much more time I had on the bus (and I'd been on one since mid-Mexico along the Pacific coast for the past two days or so) and I'd just come up from Mexico. And the bus driver looked at me and asked if I was a bad guy and I said, "No. I'm just trying to get home" and he laughed and reassured the women--like reassuring us about the weather--that all was okay.
I don't know.
It was just one of those sad/beautiful moments that we all have, many of which for me seem to happen in Idaho.

Where's The Baby?: Champaign 1992

This was at the Lincoln Square Mall in Urbana. Urbana is the cooler town of the twin cities of Champaign and--you guessed it--Urbana. Anyway, we were at the mall because they had an exhibit of animatronic dinosaurs, that is, electric giant-sized robotic-moving dinosaur statues. And First Daughter, my darling little daughter, was crazy for dinosaurs. (Dinosaurs are always a big thing with kids, but in the 90's they were especially huge.) This possibly could have been in 1991, as Fru was not pregnant with Second Daughter yet and First Daughter didn't talk that well at the time, though I'm sure she was walking--so it must have been '92 . . . Anyway, her favorite toys were smallish plastic animals and of those she loved her dinosaurs (she loved the movie Land Before Time--but also had this thing for The Brave Little Toaster, ahem) and we used to travel with what we called the Cup-O-Toys, which was simply a big plastic drinking cup filled with her favorite plastic animals. So, Fru and I saw they were having this exhibit at the mall in Urbana and took First Daughter there, who was just barely a toddler.
But what I remember was, after we saw the dinosaurs with their noises and their stiff repetitive electronic movements, which was inside an empty "store" space, we went back out to the mall and sat along one of the fountains there.
I don't know where Fru went--shopping, no doubt; at Art Mart no doubt--but First Daughter and I sat there, quietly, doing not much of anything. Then she looks at me--she was the most beautiful little girl with yellow-blond hair and big blue eyes, and she was the sweetest, had the most calm and happy disposition--and she goes: "Where's the baby?"
Now, she didn't say it like that, more like, "Whey de bebe" or some version of such because she couldn't quite pronounce her words yet, but it was cute (believe me, it was). At first I didn't know what she was saying, but she repeated herself a few times and then I understood.
"Where's the baby?"
And what she wanted was to play a game. See, Where's The Baby? was a game we played at home where I'd hold her and we'd look in the big round wall mirror and I'd go, "Where's the baby?" and pretend I couldn't find her--my baby--even though she was right there in my arms and in front of the mirror (yes, I built up a sense of absurd irony in her at a very young age). I'd keep saying "Where's the baby?" and look everywhere but at her or in my arms and she would find this very funny and then I'd finally see her in the mirror and say, "Ohhh, there's the baby!"
So, this was what she wanted, to play this game.
But we were at the mall. People were walking around. This was a private game, played at home when it was only the two of us. I was a new father, I was--essentially--a stay-at-home father and was sometimes embarrassed to be so. So. So, I tried to talk her out of it. I said something like, "Oh, you don't want to play that here." But I was smiling. I was laughing a bit because she wanted to play that game and because of the way she went about asking me. But, she kept saying: "Whey de bebe?"
She was such a sweet girl. I loved her more than I knew I could love someone or something. And she was so funny in asking. What was I going to do: deny her because I was embarrassed to play the game in public, or go ahead and look foolish to please my little girl?
Of course I opted for foolishness.
And so we played Where's The Baby? at the Lincoln Square Mall in Urbana while Fru was at Art Mart, just First Daughter and me. And, it was fun. I maybe didn't do all of my exaggerated voice and facial expressions, but we went through the routine of me looking for her and asking where the baby was and then, finally, discovering that she was right there, next to me and how delighted I was to find her. And, she was happy, laughed.
Ah. There is no such thing as foolishness when it comes to making your children happy. Or when it comes to just caring for or teaching your children. And I would prove that to be a fact many many times from that moment on.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Starting a New Life While Illegally Parked on Las Olas Boulevard: Fort Lauderdale 1995

We had driven down from Champaign, IL to south Florida. To Fort Lauderdale. I had decided that we'd be moving there. In the car was my wife, Fru, First Daughter (4 yrs old) and Second Daughter (2 yrs old). We had made reservations at the Riverside Hotel on Las Olas Boulevard in downtown Fort Lauderdale. It was one of the oldest hotels in the city. It was about the only hotel located downtown. I had picked it out because of those two things but otherwise knew nothing about it.
So, we--my family of four--pulled off Interstate 95, found our way into downtown, found our way to Las Olas and found the hotel. But, I didn't know where to park. Sure, we saw the hotel's entrance, but there was no way to pull up and get in there--unless you were a pedestrian. Huh. So, not knowing what else to do, I simply pulled over to the curb in the only place there was space--across the divided boulevard, in front of the bus stop and at the corner of a light. Okay, it was essentially an illegal parking job but I and the kids remained in the car while Fru got out, crossed the street and disappeared into the hotel to check in and see where the heck we were supposed to park our car.
Sitting there, exhausted and a bit discombobulated from the long drive, from being in a place foreign to me, with my girls being good in the back seat, I expected trouble. I figured people would start honking at me, or a cop would come and tell me to move along. But, no one did. I mean, we had lived in the midwest for the last six years or so, where rules were rules. But, people didn't even look at us, they just went around us and about their business.
And as I sat there, windows open, the sounds and smells of south Florida coming in my window, I looked around and realized that this was it, this was where we were going to live. I looked at the buildings--though Fort Lauderdale was not a big city, especially in 1995--those buildings were much bigger and denser than old Champaign/Urbana. I looked at the trees: many trees with drooping foliage, palms and their fronds, flowering and creeping stuff everywhere; the sun streamed down and down and the shadows of the plants were heavy. And the smells. Sure, there was the smell of traffic and concrete and dust, but the whole texture of the air was different, thick and redolent of plantlife and decay, of water and salt and musky mustiness. Hard to explain, but everything was thick and heavy and sweet--slow--which was both pleasant and unpleasant. And I thought, this is it, this is where we will indeed be, what we will get used to, what my little girls will grow up with for the next two, three, five, ten years--I had no idea how long we would live in Florida.
I had lived in north Florida for a number of years, knew it quite well. I'd spent a lot of time in the Keys and Key West. But, I'd never really stopped in Miami or in Ft. Lauderdale or Palm Beach. I knew little about it or what it held--knew little of the urban Florida environment.
So, there we sat, illegally parked on Las Olas, me contemplating a new life, my girls happy and basically unaware of the changes coming . . . and then Fru came out of the Riverside Hotel, back to the car. She had our room keys. She said we had to pull in back, that's where the check-in entrance was.
Okay. I pulled in back.
Now I at least knew that much about Fort Lauderdale.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

ABC's: Champaign 1993

What the heck was I doing? I was in my mid-thirties, Fru and I had returned to the midwest--to Champaign--and we'd started a family. By spring of 1993 we had two children--two daughters. All of that was fine. But what the heck was I doing being the one to stay home and take care of them?
That's right. I was a stay-at-home father. It mainly came down to who--Fru being in banking and me being an unpublished novelist--who could make more money? And guess what, a controller at a bank makes more money than an unpublished novelist! Who would have thought it . . . So, by the time Second Daughter was born in March of '93, I'd quit my part time job at Agriseed in Savoy (just south of Champaign) and was a full time caregiver of a two little little kids. And I knew so little about it.
Really, that wasn't true. By '93 I knew a lot about raising babies, because First Daughter had taught me. I was the main caregiver for her and now I only had to do some of the same things for the next baby. Man. I did a lot of feeding and cleaning, of playing and laughing, rocking and going crazy.
It's hard for me to recall it all, those baby days in the early to mid-nineties. Some of it because it all blends together, my girls' childhoods and my place within it. Some of it because I was miserable and have no doubt blocked it out. Now, it wasn't a misery because of my girls. No. I loved them dearly, triumphantly. I'd honestly give my life for them--then and now. No, my misery was probably more to do with my not writing (like I thought I'd be able to) and with the fact that I was a man trapped at home with little kids while my wife made the money. Yes. If it wasn't for the love and enjoyment of my two girls, I would have been completely insane . . . of course, as anyone who has ever stayed home to raise kids knows, that time with kids can also drive you insane.
But, let's look at a couple of things. Let's look at the sudden influx of toys and games, some twenty years after you yourself had given these things up. It's quite fascinating to see your own children with toys, how important they are to them, what things they make up with them. I know on Saturday mornings, as Fru slept in, I'd get up with my girls, put on cartoons, feed them, change them, etc etc, then we'd often get out their waffle blocks and their box of plastic animals. then we'd play Captain Rhino. Yes, First Daughter had a big black plastic rhino and I'd build a boat out of the plastic waffle blocks (they were flat "blocks" that interconnected so that you could build boxes or other structures with them, they were bright red and yellow and blue). Then the black rhino was the captain and the other animals--the crew, I guess--traveled with him over the ocean of carpet . . . We also had a game of Roly-Poly Pudding, from a video of theirs. This involved laying out blankets and comforters and they'd lay down in them and I'd wrap them up and they'd roll back and forth while saying, "Roly-poly pudding." Sure, it doesn't sound like much, but they'd laugh and laugh and were--I swear this is true--the cutest little kids in the world.
And, of course, there was the ABC's song. I'd gather them up--two blond-haired little girls--in my arms, one in each, and we'd stand in front of the big wall round wall mirror (which had been Fru's grandmother's) and we'd sing ABC. I'd turn back and forth with them in my arms as we did so, until at the end, we'd go in full circles, then fall into a bed. Ah. They laughed and laughed at this, also.
Man. I don't know if I'll be any good at this: writing about my daughters' childhoods, about my many many days with them, the hours upon hours spent, just the three of us, doing all the inside-the-house childhood games and things--good and bad and wonderful and miserable. All those things that go into raising a child and raising yourself up so that you are good enough for your child. Well, I'll give it a try and hopefully do better than I have right here. Will try to make as simple as ABC.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Return to Key West: 1995

It was like this: Fru and I had been living back in Champaign, Illinois since August of 1990. I was trying to get out of Champaign and get back into graduate school. Our two daughters were around, what?, two and four years old by then. I'd turned down the top spot at the University of Oregon the year before, had reapplied and did not even get in. But, I had been accepted at Colorado State--in Ft. Collins--and Florida International University in Miami. Hmm.
So, I'd been out to Fort Collins to talk to the people there and now I was in Fort Lauderdale to talk to the people in Miami. I'd chosen Ft. lauderdale because I was a little leery of Miami as a place to raise little kids, but Broward County seemed good enough. But anyway--this is about how I went back to Key West.
I hadn't been in Key West since 1983. Twelve years prior. And you've got to understand, Key West was a big thing to me. I'd gone there first in 1977--fresh out of Urbandale High School (Des Moines, IA)--and was blown away that such a place existed. An island city? With flat tropical waters that came right up to the highway? Warm all year? What wasn't to be amazed about? I'd never really been to Florida, let alone the Keys, so I was duly impressed--and influenced. And I went back, stayed for a spell, then came back every year--sometimes twice a year--from '77 to '83. But then I didn't come back. I went out west, I went to the deep south, the midwest. It's not like I forgot about Key West--I was just busy.
So, I was staying by myself at a Days Inn on the beach in Ft. Lauderdale. Fru and my little girls were back in Champaign. I'd rented a car, had driven to Miami, to FIU, and met the director of the program there (the director of the program at Colorado State wouldn't meet with me, passed me off to a student--this was all the MFA Creative Writing program) and now I had a little time on my hands. And a car. And I was in South Florida. So, I decided to take a little drive.
I wasn't going to go to Key West, just dip down into the Keys for a bit and return to Ft. Lauderdale. And so--sunny day in the spring--I took off down 95 to U.S. 1, through southern Miami and into the swampy/Everglades land of mangroves and hidden lakes and then into Key Largo.
The Keys! Key Largo!
Ah, it felt good. Good enough that I kept going to the next Key. And then the next.
I made it to Marathon--about half way down the string of islands--and stopped. In Marathon I went to Sombrero Beach and hung out. Swam a bit. This was all pretty much impromptu, an unplanned drive. In Marathon I called Fru, talked to her to let her know everything looked good, that there was the best chance we'd be moving to South Florida (which she had misgivings about, but was willing to go if that's where I wanted to go) and I told her I was in the Keys but was headed back. She said to do what I wanted. (Money was tight back in those days--so we didn't just have a room one place then take off and do other frivolous things.) So, I got back in the rental, hit the main road and started back north, towards Miami.
But something got into me. After a few blocks in Marathon, I said to myself--what the heck, I'm down here, I haven't been to Key West in twelve years, why not?--and I made a U-turn.
Headed south (and west).
I got to Key West by evening time.
And it was strange to be there. Like I said, Key West represented a magical place to me, a place that defined my independence, my adulthood in many ways, it was the exotic realm I'd dreamt about while in the lousy years of high school and living in the suburbs of Des Moines. It was my escape, my fantasy island--as much based in reality and in the power of my own imagination. So, I was back. And--though it had changed, much busier and gaudier (gone were the old-stooped houses on eastern Duvall Street)--it was still Key West. The same silky atmosphere, the same easy-going slow-time feel, the vacation-world vibe. The night with music spilling out of bars, the palms and smell of saltwater, the city itself loose and immoral and live and let live. That feeling was there. I hit a few bars, ate dinner at an outdoor spot, walked old streets and just reveled in an inner revelry. Fun. Internal excitement. A sense that I was where I should be . . . but of course, we weren't moving to the Keys, but to Ft. Lauderdale (if we even did that--had no housing or jobs lined up, no real decision of the move yet), just the same, we--Fru, First daughter and Second Daughter, me--we'd be close, but a long drive.
I hung for a while. Played with the idea of getting a room. But decided--few beers or no--I should head on back. It was pretty late--close to midnight--but the good thing about that was that the highway would be clear and easy for a return drive. I mean, Key West is only about 170m miles or so from Miami/Ft. Laud but once you hit Key Largo, it's a slow drive (a nice drive) with other cars. It takes about four hours to do that 170 miles. But, at night--late at night--you can cut that drive time in half almost.
So, that's what I did. Put all my windows down and threaded my way back through the Keys with the warm dark night enveloping me. A sweet drive with barely another car. And I made it back to my dingy beach room at the Days Inn, happy to have been back in Key West, even if just for a few hours.
Who knows. Maybe that drive to KW helped me to make up my mind to move back to Florida--to SoFla instead of the panhandle where I'd lived before. I think Fru would have preferred Colorado, but a lot of things made more sense to come to Miami.
It all ended up good.
My family knows Key West quite well now.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Married In The Morning: Seattle 1989

Really, it should be Missoula, Montana because Fru and I were living in Missoula when we decided to get married. I'd proposed to her when we lived in the cabin in the Bitterroot--just west of Stevensville--but we didn't make plans until the winter of 1989 after we'd moved to Missoula. But, really, it goes back farther than that, with a semi-chance encounter when, coming from Seattle (after a few months in Des Moines) while on my way to Florida, I stopped in Champaign, Illinois to see Margaret (who I knew from Iowa City) and Margaret introduced me to Fru and then she and Fru came to visit me in Seagrove Beach, Florida and we went to New Orleans and then I visited Champaign at Xmas, then moved there by February, then went to NYC, then came back, then Fru and I moved out to Montana, just us and her cat, M.R. . . . But, we were married in Seattle.
We were both in school at the University of Montana and so we chose Spring Break as the time to get married and have our honeymoon. I chose Seattle because I'd lived there in '87 and had lived in Washington as a kid, plus, I knew Fru liked cities and we both loved Seattle, and, in my mind that's where we would move to once we were done with the university. So, we got our marriage license in Missoula but made a cold call to a Lutheran Church in downtown Seattle to inquire about a wedding. Sure enough, they said they'd do it. (I'm trying to remember if we had to get a license or certificate in Washington--maybe we did.) So, come March, off we went on our spring break to get married.
(It wasn't quite as simple as that--there were rings, there was Fru's dress to purchase, hotel to book--relatives to tell.)
We didn't--or, I didn't--want a big wedding. Brock still lived in Seattle, so I told him and asked him to be the best man. Fru had a friend from Champaign days--Marilyn--who was living in Seattle, so she (and her young daughter) were invited. Margaret--our friend, and who was romantically interested in Brock--flew out for the event. Fru's sister and her daughter came. Fru's father came (Fru's mother had died that winter, a month or so earlier--after we were engaged but before we married--from breast cancer, so there was a measure of sadness with the happiness). So, though I essentially wanted a controlled elopement, it turned out for the better to have friends and family with us. There was enough ceremony, enough church, for Fru (I think/hope) and enough smallness, intimacy for me. (We had a huge and elegant reception in Champaign that spring/summer--thanks to Fru's dad--with everyone imaginable coming.)
Fru and I stayed at Brock's apartment in Ballard when we first got there, sleeping on the floor. We had to go see the church and meet the pastor--neither of which we had seen before. The church was downtown. It was a humble place across the street from the Greyhound Bus Station. Yes! But it was pretty in its own way and had a nice little blue stained glass chapel. The pastor was a woman, younger than us, and we were her first wedding. The first! She was kind of a punk rock-looking pastor with a monkish haircut but she was pleasant and nice and we knew more about relationships and life than her (I think). We liked her. So, we did that (did a quick rehearsal at the chapel a day or two later when everyone was in town) and took care of any last paperwork, made reservations at Hiram's at the Locks for the after wedding meal, had made reservations at Inn at the Market--downtown at Pikes Place--for our wedding night. A water view!
Margaret came, Fru's father, sister and niece came.
It was Seattle in March. A little rain, some blustery clouds, gray skies with splashes of blue. We went out and about. Then came the eve of the wedding day and Fru went to stay with her dad at their hotel and I stayed with Brock and Margaret at Brock's. I'd lived in Seattle (with Brock and Matt) in Queen Anne, so Brock, Margaret and I went back to some old haunts in Queen Anne. I tried to get a little drunk, but wasn't all that successful. We went to the Sea Otter, the Irish Pub, went to the Ginza, the Mecca and ended up at Sorry Charlie's which was a restaurant and lounge, kind of an old school place.
At Sorry Charlie's I sat at the bar and started singing I'm Getting Married in the Morning. I sang it without true gusto, more in an ironic joking way. (I can't sing, really.) Some patrons were taken aback, until I explained that I really was getting married in the morning. After that, everything was cool.
We went back to Brock's place in Ballard and I slept on the floor by myself.
I'd rented a tux the day before and so, next morning at Brock's, I was getting dressed to go to the church, to go get married. Then Holly stopped in. I'd known Holly since Iowa City and in Grayton Beach. She was Matt's girlfriend for a long time, off and on, and was now living in Seattle (I should have invited her to the wedding, but I hadn't been in contact with her for a few years). It was nice to see her and she congratulated me on getting married. Then, after a bit, off we went to the church. I must have driven, but I don't recall.
I never really had cold feet. I thought about it a little, but never really wondered if I was doing the wrong thing. I did worry a bit that Fru was having second thoughts and that she wouldn't show up at the Church by the Greyhound Terminal in downtown Seattle. And, when we got there, sure enough she wasn't there. But Fru was always late--notoriously so--in those days. Then, finally, in she came with her family.
She looked illustrious.
She had on her white gown, her hair up, everything done beautifully. I was happy to see her. I knew that I was doing the right thing.
And, we got married.

We had a great post-ceremony meal along the locks, at Hiram's, everyone happy. Then we went to our room at the Inn at the Market. Then, later, we all met at an Irish restaurant downtown for dinner, then Brock, Margaret, Marilyn, Fru's sister and Fru and I went out, drinking and dancing in the small bars of Seattle.
Fru and I spent a few nights at the Inn at the Market, then drove out to the Olympic Peninsula where we stayed at a fisherman's cabin in La Push as the giant Pacific waves smashed in and the fog horns blew. We went to the rainforest and the mountains--I caught a horrendous cold--and then came back for a night at a different boutique hotel in Seattle. Then a final night on the floor at Brock's.
Then the drive back to Missoula. To school and work.
To a married life.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Myopic And Self Indulgent History #5

I find it strange to meet people who grew up in one place, who lived most of their lives in one town or state. I grew up in four states, in five or six towns. Six or seven houses. I became used to making friends. Used to leaving friends. I think there's good and bad in all of it, but lately I've been wondering if it wasn't detrimental. Oh, sure, many people--military brats especially--moved more than I and my siblings did. People have moved from much greater places--Asia or Europe or South America, around the world and back again. Maybe it all depends on genetics, of what your chromosomes have in store for you, and your environment only shapes that pre-planned disposition depending on how good or average or bad your surroundings are.
I don't know.
But when I was younger--as I grew into a young adult--I always had a propensity to abandon places, to quit jobs (and sometimes people), to move on when things got to my disliking. I always thought things would be greener, that I could reinvent myself through moving. Now, this isn't an unusual idea. In fact, it's an especially American idea to pick up and move, to reinvent your life by going elsewhere. Still--is that a good thing? Does it make you give up too soon or not make you face a particular, maybe ugly or wanting, reality about yourself?
I don't know.
All I can say--self-indulgently--is that that's what I did. Even as an adult I moved from place to place, my existence nomadic except for the last fifteen years or less. And, I still dream of moving on and may very well do so in time. But there's also the factor that I see myself as a writer, first and foremost, so I was out gathering in the world, making a list of places and people and feelings, a file of human stories that others told me or I overheard or lived for myself. Good or bad, being a writer (successful or not) gave me an excuse not to settle down or commit myself to career or even to people. But, as far as people go, I've managed to always have solid friendships, close ones, most of whom I'm still in touch with; I've had loves and lovers and now I've been married for over twenty years. That's something. But, did I become a writer and therefore jumped around? Or did my jumping around make me a writer?
I don't know.

Driving to Arlington: Sioux Falls 1961

I can't really recall how many trips we took to Arlington. I was just a little kid. But, in my mind, I remember the trips, at least in a montage fashion.
Arlington is a small, mainly farming community north of Sioux Falls in eastern South Dakota. It was a neat little town, as best as I can recall it. I have no idea what it's like today, as I have not been there since the mid 70's. But it is my mother's hometown, a place where she grew up. My grandmother lived there her whole life. My mother's older sister--her only sibling--Aunt Nancy also lived there her whole life (except for a bit in Arizona before she died), married and with five kids of her own (my cousins, of course). For most all of that time, they had a farm. I liked visiting the farm. I liked Nancy and my uncle and my cousins. I'm sorry I've lost touch with them. (We have always been a scattered family.)
But I remember the drives up to Arlington.
Sure, it was a short drive really, maybe an hour or two, on small rural roads. I mean, this was South Dakota in the late 50's and early 60's: how many people could have been living there at the time, even in eastern S. Dakota? (You want desolate? Visit western S. Dakota.) But there were two main highlights to the drive, things that became family rites.
One was The Hill. The drive up there on little two-lanes had some hills to them. One hill in particular was tall and had quite the gradient downslope. So, we kids would all look forward to The Hill and as we got to it Father would speed up and off we'd shoot at the apex and down we'd swoop and we'd all get that roller coaster tickle feeling in our stomachs (and testicles, to be honest). That was always fun.
The other rite was we'd always stop in the town of Brookings for a hamburger. This was at some little downtown cafe (I don't recall its name), but my parents insisted they were the best hamburgers anywhere. Homemade tasting, they said. So, we always got them. Most times we got them to go--burgers in a bag--a few times I can recall actually going into the cafe, but only have a vague recollection of what the place looked like: small, open kitchen/grill, lunch counter kind of place. Old school. But they were good burgers . . . I wonder if the place still exists?
Not all that long ago I had a very vivid dream about Arlington, about the farm country of eastern South Dakota. In the dream I was an adult and I was driving around the empty windswept roads and it was actually very pretty in an austere, rural way. I can't recall exactly what happened in the dream, but it involved searching for my grown cousins, maybe my grandmother. My mother was with me in the car as we drove around--something was wrong in the plot of the dream--but I remember being impressed with the countryside. And, in real life, there is a beauty to that country. I know there is. In my mind and in my dreams I see it as golden country: fall fields the color of fresh cut pine, lone but leafy trees offering deep shade, shallow and slow rivers, everything windy and peaceful and empty empty empty except a few farm houses and grain silos . . . I wonder if that's true.
Hmm. I guess I need to get back up there.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Hunting the Sun River: Missoula 1989

As long as I'm thinking of that pheasant hunting trip with Bill in Montana, I might as well write about it. This was in the fall--in season--and Bill and I decided to drive from Missoula and head out towards Great Falls to hunt. We took his shotgun and his Brittany Spaniel, Gem, in my truck. We didn't know exactly where we were headed, and certainly didn't know anyone in the area, but it was a good day for a drive if nothing much else happened.
We left pretty early, taking Highway 12 along the Blackfoot River. Ate breakfast at cafe in Lincoln, then went further east until we got to Sun River, where we stopped at another cafe. At this cafe we had coffee, maybe ate a little more, but mainly we listened, listened to the people around us who were ranchers and such. I forget exactly how we struck up a conversation, but we talked to a small table of men and said we were looking for some land to hunt on. One guy was amiable enough. Turned out he had been stationed in Rantoul, Illinois many years ago (I had come with Fru from Champaign, had briefly worked in Rantoul) and he talked about how, in the winter, "...the wind would just cut right through you." (And I was thinking: Here's a guy who lives in the plains of Montana talking about a cutting cold wind?) But, he liked us enough to say we could hunt on his land. He had a small ranch just east of Sun River. Bill and I followed him there and he showed us the areas we could hunt--some coulees with brush, some fallow fields and old corn fields.
We were satisfied and thanked him. Told him we'd give him a bird.
Now, as I've said, I'm not a big hunter. I didn't have a gun or a license to hunt pheasant. Bill did. So, I was along for the experience, for the trip and day and views. And that land around Sun River is stunning. It's open plains with big monolithic-like buttes, buttes jutting up sudden and eroded, much like a mini version of Monument Valley (only not as orange). It's pretty land, man. So I was happy just to drive and walk through that scenery. But, we had hunting to do.
Gem, the dog, was probably the happiest. A hunting dog loves to hunt, no? So, he was out there sniffing everything. But there were no birds. I was walking along behind Gem and, all of a sudden, I flush a bird. It was a cock and it flew fast with that whirring sound they make. Bill took a shot, hit it, and it fell into tall corn stubble. But neither Gem or I could find it. Bill figured it was wounded, said they often will run away, undercover, when they land on the ground. We searched and searched, but the bird was gone.
We kept hunting.
Now, I don't really like to kill things, but I like the hunt. I can see why people like it. Anyway, we decided to try the coulees. I came out of a blind of dry willows and down into a coulee ditch and there, but maybe five feet away, is a big buck. I mean, this was a powerful beast with a huge rack of horns. I couldn't believe it. I stopped and stared at the thing. It stared back at me. It could have killed me, easily, but it took off. Like that! It was gone, up the coulee and across the pasture. I scrambled up and Bill was there and we watched that animal charge across the open land, cross the road, jump a fence and off off off it went. Man it was fast. Powerful fast. I'd never realized just how big and strong, how fast, they really were.
That was exciting.
By then we'd figured there weren't many birds around and we just wandered, letting Gem do his thing. But what happened was, Gem holed some animal beneath a fallen dead tree and that animal turned out to be a porcupine. Porcupine! Gem got a face full of it. Bill and I had to hold him down while we pulled big quills out of his mouth and nose. That had to hurt. There was whimpering and blood. After that, we'd had enough and headed on back.
Montana was good for a lot of things. There were times when I didn't care for life in Missoula--winter especially when the air-inversions happened and the pollution stayed in the valley and you'd have constant post nasal drip for weeks on end or when you wanted some complexity, a little sophistication, in your life and could hardly find it and Seattle was 12 hours away and the job market in Montana was no good, few decent jobs available, Fru and I were pretty poor in Montana--but there were great times too. Fun in Missoula, the cabin, fishing and camping and trips all over the state; good people. Fru and I missed it very much when we left. We still miss it, I think. We even went back three years later, with Fru applying for banking jobs, but it wasn't to be. Not to be.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Nine Mile Creek: Missoula 1989

One of the great things about living in Missoula in the late eighties was that you could drive in any direction, for about five to ten minutes, and find yourself completely alone in the woods or along a river or up in the mountains. It was Bill (MA/MN/MT/IN/FL Bill--we'll just call him MT Bill from now on--though not to be confused with a Missoula friend Bill Van Sickle [love that name] who was a native Montanan) it was Bill who took me out to the Nine Mile Creek area, west of town.
As I recall, Bill had this Czech handgun that he wanted to try out, so we jumped into my red Chevy Custom Deluxe pickup and drove westward. I think he knew of the area, which was nothing special as far as Montana woods go, which was nice enough: dirt roads, treed hills and woods, a small creek flowing through. We got out and walked a bit. There were cattle in the woods and we'd see them wander through the trees as we walked. Then we found an open spot, set up some cans and such and tried out his Czech pistol. It was fine. I'm not much of a guns man. But we had more fun exploring the little creek. That water had small eddies and pools, enough that Bill thought there'd be trout in it. We decided to come back and check some time.
(We also found a lean-to with blankets and such--an encampment--thinking it was maybe some Vietnam Vet living in the woods.)
(Maybe the land was part of a National Forest, maybe Nine Mile was a bigger creek in a watershed and the creek we walked was some unnamed one.)
So, Bill and I did come back and did a little fishing. We caught a few very small cutthroat trout that we couldn't keep. While doing that, we heard the Wood Grouse. These were pretty thick woods for western Montana, but you could hear them--it must have been mating season--doing there thumping wing call. It's a steady drumbeat that gets louder and louder--thump thump thumpthumpthumpthumpthump--and doesn't sound like a bird at all. It's loud. It's cool. So Bill--a bird hunter who had a bird dog (Brittany Spaniel named Gem--we took him pheasant hunting near Great Falls once; Sun River, MT: I'll have to write about that trip)--wanted to come back during the bird season and give it a try.
And so we did. We got nothing (which was fine with me) but had another nice outing in the woods along little Nine Mile Creek.
And one morning, early and all by myself, I made the drive out just for the heck of it. I parked my truck, walked a ways to a stand of jack pines and up in those pines were owls. They were maybe Tawny owls or Barred owls (I don't think they were Horned owls) and they were big. I love owls. Have always loved owls. It was very exciting for me to discover these big owls up in branches maybe only ten to twelve feet high. I stood under them and watched them. They looked down at me but otherwise seemed unconcerned. Cool once again.
Nine Mile Creek. Yes. I liked that spot. Woods water and animals.
A good spot for an owl-watching breakfast.

Rainwater Oceans: Vancouver 1964

Only have time for a quick post, but I was thinking of how, as a kid, I loved to play in puddles. And, as a kid, we lived in Vancouver, Washington where there was more rain than a kid knew what to do with, so we often had great puddles in our street on Enid Avenue.
Right after a rain--or even during it--I'd go outside. Our street always had vast puddles in it, usually three or four. I don't know why--was the drainage bad? Was the rain too much? But I liked it. Sure, I'd jump in them, get all wet and squishy, but my favorite activity was simply to float sticks. In my mind, the rain puddles were seas or oceans, exotic bodies of water with depths and currents and creatures. And my sticks were ocean liners or battleships or sailboats--vessels on long journeys across treacherous waters, often lost at sea or encountering rogue waves (I threw rocks or dirt clods into the puddles). Ah.
Sometimes I forget about the power of imagination. When I think back about childhood entertainment, I rarely think of specific toys or TV shows or movies. Almost all of my attachments were to games of the imagination: floating sticks in puddles, pretending to be at war or traveling through time, play-acting through self-invented paper or cardboard worlds, running with magical sticks through woods. I spent time outdoors, some of it in nature, some of it in--essentially--suburb.
But, back to puddles. I always loved puddles--dirty or clean, in the street or in mud--and could rarely resist them. I was a messy kid. I got dirty and scraped and bruised a lot. But not hurt. I was not a clumsy kid.
I recall I'd seen this cartoon movie called Alex Kazzam or something--about a monkey king (in fact, it was based on the Monkey story famous in Asia about the Buddhist teachings being brought to India or China)--and in the movie, the monkey falls into the water where--under the slim surface--a new world exists. And I recall in Vancouver how--being inspired by this movie--I'd slip my hand into cool puddles, trying to see if they were hollow, if the water only existed like a skin on the top and a new world actually existed below it.
Anyway, my imagination was always alive and well. Maybe it still is.