I drove up and over Snoqualmie Pass yesterday, up and over Blewett Pass, and down into a valley at once familiar and foreign. I have made the trip many, many times but there is a fading quality to it now; where once I belonged I am now again a stranger. But there is something that inexorably draws me and even though I have twinges of doubt, thinking maybe I’ll cut and run, I move resolutely down to that river valley that runs through me still.
We were born sixty-eight years ago in the War. That was how we grew to know it. It saturated everything. Before the War seemed to belong to our grandparents but the War was ours. I remember my father holding me up and pointing out the planes in the sky that were returning from the Pacific to Geiger Field in Spokane to be sent to a desert retirement. They are something out of an Orwell fiction to me now but they were fantastically real then. I knew the shapes but my imagination could not upwardly fathom the number.
I came to Wenatchee as a child in 1949. It was late summer and the boom was on because of work on Grand Coulee Dam. The only place to rent we could find was a garage that had previously been used to house fowl but now was more valuable as a people coop. We didn’t think of it as humble. We just moved in and got on with it. We all had work to do.
For me it was working up the ranks of childhood to find that person for whom I knew I was searching. I still only get glimpses but now I’m more satisfied with less. As soon as we could, we moved. We moved six or seven times before we finally settled on a house of our own on Gary Street. By that time I had a familiarity with many of my peers so when I finally became a Big Boy and enrolled in H.B. Ellison Jr. High School it was like we all were beginning to gather ourselves together. We were being compressed by the process to prepare ourselves for the hurtle that would occur in six years as we fledged and opened our wings into the winds of the world. But for now we were collecting ourselves, together. We jostled and thumped and surprisingly from time to time caressed in our touching as we begin to put nuance together, together, and began to find the rhythm of the Dance. Practice, practice, practice. There are many costumes to drape one’s self in before there is a shaped appreciation of the source of the role. The hormone soup begins to simmer and roils a bit now and then or suddenly, often to our chagrin both in the moment and the moments passed. Sometimes it seems as simple as a kiss or a fist.
I am coming back to Wenatchee as a child, or if not quite as a child at least covered in the stains of my teenage years. Nostalgia never was what it used to be. Coming off of Blewett Pass and making the right hand turn the twenty degree shift upward in temperature is now apparent. I can feel the moisture sucking out of me but it’s a fundament for the feeling that’s been growing. I know what Thomas Wolfe said but I am coming to see if I can find something: A touchstone. I understand the illusory nature of that for which I search but I also have an idea that it may still be there.
I drive along Wenatchee Avenue. I turn on to Orondo imagining the Earle Hotel on the left and the bars that were on the right. There are ghosts all over this town but that’s not why I’m here. I’m in search of the living. The living, many of whom I have not seen in fifty-two years.
My father had been dying for a long time and sick, off and on, for as long as I could remember. In the summer of Nineteen-Fifty-Nine the world was beginning to shift under my feet. The stress had imploded to a point of intolerance and was beginning to reverse force. We were broke and we would have to go to the place where when you have to go there they have to take you in. It wasn’t home exactly but we all know there’s no place like home. It was my grandmother’s, Nana’s, a small cattleman’s hotel (read “truckers”) in that charnel sphere that was South Saint Paul, Minnesota. The stockyards and three or four major slaughter houses and meat packing plants were behind the façade of buildings on one side of Concord Street. The King’s Hotel was on the other side.
I was to go back on the train in August to prepare to enter a new school, a boys ROTC military school administered by the Christian Brothers. It was named Cretin, fortunately for a man who was not one. When the house sold and when the last sinews were ready to snap I returned to drive my parents back. My mother’s hands had swollen and cracked in reaction to my father’s illness and she no longer could hold the syringes of Demerol he needed like clockwork nor the wheel of our Fifty-Five Ford. The moments in the trip are sceneries I summon when I am willing to let the feeling well and provide me with some substance for my tales. I think that pain and sorrow are energies that we need to tap from time to time in order to deepen the creativity and meaning of our lives.
But I’ve gotten ahead of myself and I’m actually trying to get a ways behind. I was fragging into a mosaic of feelings as I was preparing to leave a world, the inner shell of which I was pecking at ferociously, for one which I would have to recompress into the deepest of foci in order to save myself in the gauntlet of the ongoing ordeal of my father’s life, which was his death. My father had a vision of me but in the attempted painting of my own canvas I obscured that image born out of the Nineteen-Twenties into one I was beginning to recognize. It would change with place and purpose but at its core there would always be Wenatchee.
Here were cars to ride around in with others, girls to be emboldened by and to feel one’s self feeling them, physicality to explore and grow into. The becoming of youth is often unbecoming as limits sensed are to be pushed for a deeper understanding of the reasoning behind them. And there are cigarettes to be smoked and alcohol to be pursued when possible. There are the “Hi’s” in the hallways, the practice after school, the dances, the unreasonableness of parents not appreciating need to the same degree.
I didn’t really let everything catch up to me until I was getting off the train in Saint Paul and meeting my grandmother. All that was dear was slipping away into the distance. What I would find here would be very important and very different but it would never hold the same familiar qualities and expectations I hoped for that summer of my seventeenth year.
I have a little time, to not kill but to leisurely examine the possibilities of memory. There’s a house in East Wenatchee that we lived in at a time when my Hallicrafter radio became my world and the neighborhood of orchards and irrigation canals were the wilds I roamed. I go up Grant Road and turn on Highline expecting the road to “Y” where I’ll turn left and see the house. The road sign says Pace Road but now it’s just a field of double-wides. I recall the Pace boys castrating pigs. The sound they made, the pigs, was one of stark terror. I might have been eight, or nine, or even ten but I had never heard that kind of sound before. At closer observance I could see the Pace Boys were using the equivalent of pocket knifes to accomplish their tasks. It seemed profoundly wrong. I was used to taking life, primarily in the form of fish and on a couple of occasions, deer, but this was a maiming that went to the core and the understanding for which I had not been prepared. There were calls and summonses and the Pace Boys were given the strong suggestion to be more covert and perhaps more scientific in their ministrations. In any case, I learned the point of not having testicles.
That house has vanished as has much of memory that might serve here. There is very little of Wenatchee (either East or west) left for me to find. I drive all the way up Grant Road in a loop to see what has happened in my years absent. Beyond, and even up to, Pangborn Field hadn’t been thought of as quite habitable then. It was desert, more or less, and more fitting for rattlesnakes and mule deer than anything else. Now it is houses and orchards. The orchard was, is, and will be the place where Wenatchee resides. ‘Che Wana makes that possible, the Columbia rolls on, now more lake than river, as it turns everyone’s money green.
Eventually I have seen enough and time is judiciously correct for an entrance. I am heading to a public golf club for a Fiftieth Reunion. It is really my Fifty-Second as I didn’t get to graduate with this group of 1961 Wenatchee Panthers but they have allowed that I am one of them and for that I am grateful to be folded into the pride.
There is a familiarity about high school friends that is never quite lost. They knew you when and it doesn’t really matter what you’ve turned into in your own imagination. In their’s you will always be that person and they may grant you a little more respect, or a little less, but they will deal with you essentially as they did then.
As I jockey to find a parking space the car along side me attempting the same is one of my favorite people from then. He still has the same easy qualities that made him a friend to so many. We park and he gives me an embrace. I will savor it later after learning he isn’t well. We have all entered the Age of Attrition and are fully feeling the irrefutability of gravity.
I go in gingerly, almost covertly, as I am both excited and uncomfortable in a shyness I have never lost but have learned to use. I begin to see familiar faces and they wonder back at mine. I get my name tag to be fairer in the game of recognition but soon I am finding people I know or remember, some seen not so long ago, and some whose former selves I have to pull out of deep memory. As much of us remains the same, much of us has changed.
There are girls that were the first I kissed as we began the Grand Experiment. They are matrons now but the girls they were are still resident within.
There is a man for whom I worried as a boy and as a young man had feared he may have been psychologically damaged as some of his exploits were upsetting. When we were boys of six or seven we played together in a grassless field into which we had dug a large hole, a fort. I remember the ferocity of his terrifying mother who was beyond harridan into banshee and would shriek at him. His response was to dull around her but there was a rage that could be observed in the casual sideways glance. We are digging into this hole and I have my back to him when I feel something sharp and dull all at once crash into my head and shatter whatever self-absorption I had been lost in the moment before. I am six and I must go home. Now. As I’m going hurriedly down the alley, but not running, I reach to the back of my head to find the core of the pain and come back with my wet hand full of blood. Now I am running, and howling. I have had a hoe planted in the back of my head by this boy who seemingly is containing the winds of motherly madness but who secretly needs to strike back.
Now I am re-introduced to him by his wife but he doesn’t recall me or the incident, though I still sense that now quieter beast that lurks at his core. He seems to have made his peace with it, largely due, I believe, to the love and friendship of a young woman, now grown older, who found something in him that she wouldn’t let go and when it let go she brought it back to her.
More and more I fall back into this room full of people. We are friends in spite of ourselves and because. We have been out in the world and returned to tell our story, most of us. Some cannot return and some will not. There is a board full of name tags of those we wish would magically show and the occasional mention of someone who hasn’t but could have. There are drinks and stories; food and stories; a master of ceremonies with stories and the urging of more stories to share. There is laughter in the remembering and that sub-space that lies beneath and beyond, understood, occasionally referred to, but not dwelled upon. We have used our collective paddles to settle for while into an eddy of this great river which is not the Columbia, ‘Che Wana to the people who used to live here, but Time. It will soon pull us back into its swift currents but for now we can be a flock of geese at our leisure on a warm night in the place we all hold somewhere in our core together: Wenatchee.