Too many stars in the Interlochen winter sky, too bright, the sky so heavy with them, many were bound to fall.
Just small-town Northwesterners in someone else’s town, we ate deep-fried mushrooms in a log-cabin bar, watched the multitude of animated beer signs, chatted with the outlaw snowmobilers in leather and denim, who laughed at a friend’s latest drunken escapade, racing a snowmobile off the bank into the lake. An off-duty sheriff harrumphed, complained about having to go out in the cold all the time for fools.
“It’s just what happens here,” one guy shrugs, and breaks a rack at the pool table.
The next day on the road home, the ’42 Plymouth goes into multiple 360-degree spins on the icy highway.
“Sit on the floor,” you say, calm as we silently spin down the roadside.
We careen into a ploughed snow bank. It doesn’t look so bad, but you shake your head. “She’s got a broken paw.”
I don’t remember a freezing wait for a tow. I don’t remember how we got home. So much snow and cold in Michigan and Bowling Green. That ’42 Plymouth never rode in its former glory again.
Two seasons earlier, I was invited on the Plymouth’s first ride to Ohio. We dressed up for it, looking forties elegant. Outside a Sutherlin café, I waited in the car for a long time – half a book’s length – while you said goodbye to your family. You appear in the rear mirror, shirt irreparably stained, hair flying like corn silk in the breeze, drenched, jeans stained charcoal black. In the middle of goodbyes to all those brothers and sisters, the barn caught fire. You’d been rescuing animals, manning a bucket brigade. While I read peacefully in a parking lot.
“I can’t get the sound of those shrieking pigs out of my head.”
We drove as fast as the twisting road along the Umpqua allowed, escaping the porcine cries, what was left behind in a former life that couldn’t be saved or fixed. You were driving toward your future, which couldn’t be delayed.
Later on that road across the West to graduate school, we chatted in truckstop cafes—the ’42 Plymouth always made immediate friends. We slept in forties’ style drive-up motels, using tequila for both road balm and deodorant. “Why buy two compounds when one will do?”
That was only one highway to graduate school that the whole lot of us had mapped out. The fall before, eager to leave undergraduate school behind, a muddled heap of us moved up country and painted our mailboxes blue, escaping to Coos Bay, where it rained 20 inches the first 15 days after I arrived. We huddled around Chip’s wood burner with Gawk, Ann, Cabe and the others who came and went. We found marginal jobs like driving school bus. We told stories. We found marginal everything. Before spring raised her golden head, we each had secretly applied to graduate schools. I went to spend a weekend in Ashland, in the middle of their flood, and never floated back to Coos Bay, abandoning a whole alternate future of poverty and rain.
Then after graduate school—the ’42 Plymouth never returned west—there was a make-do summer in Ashland again. You and I picked up a roadkill owl around a bend on Antelope Road. Of course, we decided to learn taxidermy, sitting in the backyard of that over-filled ex-student house up Pine Street above Lithia Park, where we earnestly rubbed that hide down with salts. I invented an exquisite dish for dinner, which we dubbed owl stew: creamed chicken with dumplings, with avocado rings floating on top. No one else in the house would eat a bite of it, convinced we were eating roadkill. Not the nursing student who used to be a magician’s assistant, not the overnight DJ from the college station, not Dan, who’d come back with you from Bowling Green. Just you and me, licking our lips with delight before more work in the backyard, salting that carcass. I could easily believe you saved the wretched thing.
Farther back, when we were all earnest undergraduates, there are those pictures of you in the SOC 1972 yearbook, poker faced, appearing on every eighth or ninth page in some locale that seemed loaded with meaning or memory. The whole lot of us believed ourselves as ironic as hell when we dreamed up that escapade, Steve pursuing you with a camera through every crevice of campus life. We were all invincible. We didn’t bear scars or carry burdens that would build up over time. But now I see in those photos your first year of pain—you’d torn your knee in a fall while working on a tree-falling crew over summer. “It’s just a knee,” you said. A knee that changed your walk, changed your profile, haunted you for too long.
That year, though, you and I sewed our first handmade books, your Celtic poems, my calligraphy, and performed other acts of creativity and subversion.
Once I was old and you were young,
Oak trees, squirrels ears, and corn
meant something all at once,
And salamanders lived in fire,
Somewhere in time,
before or after something,
In the darkness of the oak tree’s shadow…
People moved. Some people married. Chip and I moved north, but later I thought to give up Seattle and return to a mythical golden age of creativity in Ashland. So there you and I sat again in the front apartment at 40 Granite Street, only now it was Ann’s to live in, on an empty Thanksgiving afternoon, sharing Oreos for our supper. The next day I put on a blazer, pinned on my Sunday school attendance pin, and rented a house on Oak Street. Like most of our individual and mutual adventures then, that choice didn’t last too much longer than Coos Bay. Ashland in a deep depression, with 25 percent employment, wasn’t anywhere for any of us who’d now seen more than small-town Northwest. I went back to Seattle, again abandoning a marginal future, and you drifted north not long after.
And then, gradually, we all stopped drifting. We found places to be, to perform our real selves, to find our real companions. On a physical plane, we stopped hand-sewing books with leather spines. Yet there we always are with dreams, poetry, oak trees, and buckbrush. Invincible.
Pity the poor pagan
whose untutored mind
leads him to see god in the clouds
and hear him on the wind.
Forgive him for the ignorance
that allows him to see spirits in all things…
live or green or growing.
Forgive his greasy hands
his lust for living,
and his contempt for death…
An ancient relative said to me, just after her aunt died who had been raised as a sister, “Now no one else remembers what I know.” She repeated it often, a quiet, haunting, lonely thought. And now I know that haunt. No one else remembers what we knew.
Vale, David. Travel well.
Poetry excerpts from “When Stonehenge Was Young,” by David Lloyd Whited, Copyright 1973.