Anyway, if the collection begins to come together in form worth sharing, I'll post stories here from time to time. Some will be personal or family memories, distant enough that I can't claim anything to be truly factual. I expect that some will come only from imagination and some may start as memories but get drawn into fiction without much basis in fact.
I'm currently toying with a little project of stories and memories of life along US12. It came to me one day that most of my 69 years have been lived in proximity to this highway that stretches across the northern USA from Detroit to Aberdeen, Washington. Highway 12 could be a theme, I thought. I looked at maps and measured distances. All but about four or five of my years have been lived within 100 miles of that highway, if we count a piece that only became Route 12 later, and maybe a spot or two that were on 12 then, but aren't now. As I dug into the project idea, I've discovered US12 locations that go back a couple generations in family history, too. Before there were numbered roads or automobiles ancestors settled where 12 would come. It gets better and better for me. Sooo, if I can write it the way i feel it...
Anyway, if the collection begins to come together in form worth sharing, I'll post stories here from time to time. Some will be personal or family memories, distant enough that I can't claim anything to be truly factual. I expect that some will come only from imagination and some may start as memories but get drawn into fiction without much basis in fact.
There is no coherent reality to my memory of Wrightsville Beach in 1969. Oh, the place is there alright. I looked at the map. It’s still where it was, after all these years, just over to the coast from Wilmington, North Carolina. Yup, there it is. Hampstead and Topsail Beach are farther up the coast. Same as they were in 1969. And yet, there is no coherent reality to Wrightsville Beach.
When was it? Was it the same day we tied the kite to the rail at the end of the pier. We did that because we were too lazy to pull in a thousand feet of kite string when the little dot of colored paper was still flying so gracefully out over the ocean. We walked the length of the fishing pier back to the beach in time to see it dive into the sea.
Speaking of the pier, though, it was not the day we watched a guy fishing from that very railing at the end where it extended into the sea. It wasn’t that we were much into sitting and watching people stand on a pier smoking and cursing with their heavy ocean fishing rods, but this guy was pulling in a big one. It soon revealed itself as a hammerhead shark—18 feet someone said.
With the East Carolina setting and all, you might expect a Nicholas Sparks novel to enter our scene now. Not yet. Maybe not at all. There is no coherent reality here.
The shark was too much for the man to land, so it was catch and release by cutting the line that day. When we’d recovered from the shock of the gruesome creature, Steve B was still chuckling under his breath and shaking his head, “Some monster, huh.”
I replied, pointing up the beach at the swimmers, “We were just swimming in there, fer cryin’ out loud.”
Steve reminded me that he had been using Uncle John’s snorkel. “A fish that big won’t come close to shore where we were. The biggest shark I spotted in between the shore and that shelf where it gets shallow again was two feet at most.”
“That’s comforting,” I muttered in reply, “with teeth just two inches. At most.”
But this story isn’t about my fond memories of swimming with sharks. Well, maybe it is but not quite that literally. Sharks are merely one part of the incoherent unreality of Wrightsville Beach in 1969.
By the way, I mentioned Uncle John. None of us were related to him, or each other. We called him uncle because he was a little bit older and a whole bunch wiser. Older and wiser enough to give us reason to trust his judgment, but young and foolish enough to be one of us. Does that make any sense? Doesn’t matter, there’s no coherent reality (or plot) in these reminiscences.
If it wasn’t the day of the shark or the kite, it was yet another outing to the beach of unreality. Steve B, Uncle John, the other Steve, Roger, Carol and others were there. I had just returned from a few days AWOL. Have you ever gone AWOL? Mine wouldn’t face the serious consequences of a military absence without leave, but it was not approved and I had been warned. I had told Larry, our VISTA supervisor at the Rose Hill Community Action Council, of my plan to be away for a few days around the Fourth of July. He responded with the warning. “The new volunteers are arriving. We need everyone on hand to bring them on board so they’re ready to replace you guys now that your year is nearly over.”
I got back from Billings and my sister’s wedding just in time for another outing to Wrightsville Beach. Did we really spend that much time shirking our work and running off to the beach that July? I don’t think so, but with no coherent reality to check it against, I don’t know. Because this outing was, as I said, after the Fourth of July AWOL. It was also before July twentieth, another day at the beach. I know that date for real, if incoherently, because Uncle John looked at the time and realized we were running late. We left the beach in a hectic rush. He had that VW Bug up to 90 mph at times as we raced to his place in Currie where eight or ten of us managed to gather in that little three room house in time to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. All of us crowded around a nine inch TV screen, yelling at each other to get out of the way.
OK, I warned you about incoherence, right? So, don’t blame me. We were about to talk about my lucky day, after AWOL and before the moon, and how I ruined it for myself.
If you’ve ever been AWOL in some circumstance, were there repercussions? Did you face some kind of discipline? I got off easy—another lucky day. Nothing was said after I returned. Of course, the assignment to teach one of the new recruits how to drive may have been the sentence imposed. Martha was a nice person and I was glad to help. We drove up and down the narrow lanes of a cemetery at less than five miles per. She remained too nervous behind the wheel to drive real streets. We couldn’t break through that anxiety. And driving the farm to market roads of our rural project was needed to do the job.
Oh my, we had a little coherent reality digression there, sorry about that. I had to sneak that in here to note that I got to know Martha well enough to remember her name but there were no sparks, just brief friendship, attempting to drive, and real world coherence.
There was no coherent reality at Wrightsville Beach. Driving the highway from Hampstead to Wilmington in 1969 was proof enough that Martha was absolutely correct. The reality is too frightening.
Let’s get back to the beach and the day I intended to tell about a thousand words ago. It was a glorious summer day with a few wispy clouds drifting overhead on the ocean breeze. It was comfortably warm but not hot enough to bring the big crowds to the shore. That afternoon there were sparks and I don’t mean that Carolina author Nicholas whom I mentioned earlier. He wasn’t a thing yet, anyway. There were sparks, potential for something unknown drifting around on the summer breeze. Oh yes, but there was no coherent reality at Wrightsville Beach in 1969. I would be leaving for another real world in a few weeks. The girl in the fantastic purple two-piece bathing suit—or was it the fantastic girl in the purple two-piece. No coherent… You get my drift—anyway, she had arrived while I was away without leave. It’s possible that she had not departed coherent reality that day. It is possible she hoped to learn about the work of volunteers with Rose Hill Community Action. Perhaps she saw me as an experienced person who knew things. I only know what I saw. And what I saw prompted a desire to learn if there were more to her than the wonders that the purple bikini showed off so well. As if that weren’t enough, I wanted to learn about her, what made her tick, so to speak; make her feel good about being there. Except that we were at Wrightsville Beach and no coherent reality.
We walked on the beach. We talked about ourselves and VISTA. We watched the waves breaking over the submerged sandbar shelf a hundred yards off shore. I lusted. We walked and came to a little platform. We climbed on top, no more than six feet above the sand, and stretched out in the sun. We were talking about this and that when suddenly she said, “Let’s get down. I don’t like heights.” We got down and I avoided uttering my thought that the platform was not high at all. A phobia just is, so we walked along in the wet sand where waves take their last lap.
You may have noticed that I have not mentioned a name, which I quickly did with Martha the nice non-driver. I’d say the name if only I could remember. But hey, I remember the swimsuit. I remember that she came from New Jersey or Pennsylvania; might’ve been New York. OK, never mind. I remember she’d been working as a secretary when she felt the call to enlist in the War on Poverty. And, I recall bits and blurry pieces of that evening.
As the sunny day faded into starlit night, we all, the whole bunch of us, gathered on the upper deck at the Upper Deck Beach Club. Out on the deck, not inside the bar of that name. There we had a bite and a beer and several more beers. There was no coherent reality to that night. All I know is that I was drunk at the time I noticed she was gone. We’d been talking and joking around not long before then. I was still trying to figure out how to make a first move that wouldn’t be rejected. Even where there was neither coherent reality nor sobriety I was reticent with fear of rejection.
When I noticed that she’d been gone from the deck a long time and heard someone say she left, I believe I may have had yet another beer. Now, I must say in my defense that I have not been seriously intoxicated very many times in my life. That was one of those times.
Steve B was at least as plastered as I. Uncle John, older and wiser, took us to Currie, where we had left my project provided car. We were in no shape to drive on to Clinton, so Uncle John fed us Alka-Seltzer to ease the anticipated hangovers and we crashed on his floor.
The next day was still incoherent, but reality intruded. I recalled the previous night, how I got stinking drunk and she went away. Boy howdy, did I ever make a mess of that possibility. I was thinking that if I had kept my act together I might have convinced Larry to send me out to check in on her at her final training location. But, no.
I never saw her again. That made me feel even worse about it and not only because the sparks had died away. I was left with a nagging question. Did our groups’ drunken stupidity cause her to give up and go back home? Was I responsible for the loss of a good VISTA volunteer? An incident in the place for escape from reality’s demands may in reality have consequences as it coheres. Then again, there still is no coherent reality about my Wrightsville Beach of 1969.
When I read this story to the writers’ group at our Christmas party I used names of some real people. Afterward, someone asked, “Is it true?” At that moment I realized that the names needed to be fictional, too. Whatever tidbits may have happened, they did not necessarily take place the same year, in the same town or even in the same family. I hereby offer a little short story that I had fun making up the other day:
A HOLEY CHRISTMAS
Where did all the pasta shavings go? Where are the doughnut holes? It seemed as if Dad was always going down to the basement those December evenings.
Pam and I knew something was up. There was a ‘Christmas is coming’ feel about the whole thing. When I started to follow Dad to the stairs, he said, “Sorry, Son. It’s too dangerous. I don’t want you getting hurt.”
Dangerous? What could he be doing that’s too dangerous? I mean, really. My Dad? He didn’t even own a gun or anything like that. I mean to tell you, my friend Tony’s dad reloaded bullets. Sure, it was dangerous so we weren’t allowed to touch anything on his workbench. But he was always happy to give us a show-and-tell about his hobby. But, my Dad? No way. He’s not doing anything like that. Why can’t I watch?
“What are you doing really, Dad? I bet you’re building a dollhouse for my baby sister’s present, aren’t you.”
Dad put a finger to his lips. “Shh,” he said, “No. That’s not it. I’m drilling out elbow macaroni so it has holes through it. Sometimes one gets loose when I don’t get the bend just right, and it goes off like a shot. Too dangerous for little boys…” He looked over my head as Pam joined us in the back room. He added, “and girls.” Dad closed the door behind him as he went down the stairs.
“Did you find out what he’s up to this time?” Pam asked.
“Nah. He claimed he’s drilling the holes in macaroni noodles.”
“Well. We did have Kraft Dinner twice this week. Maybe…” Pam said it with that smirking voice she often used.
I gave her a glaring look that conveyed, “Keep it up and I’ll punch you, even if you are bigger than me. And a girl.”
We listened at the basement door. We didn’t hear the electric drill, but we did hear an “ouch” and a “drat” and “oh, my.” That was as close to swearing as we had ever heard from our Dad.
“I think he’s building a doll house for Edith, like he made for you.”
“Edith’s pretty little for that. It was only last year when I got mine. You remember what he told us then?
“I was forgetting about that. We couldn’t go in the basement then, either.”
“That time he said he was gizmodeling sprockets and grinding doohickeys until they fit together. And that’s why Uncle Ted had to come and help.
“I remember now. Uncle Ted knows how to build stuff real well.”
“I saw the drawings Dad made for the real fancy dollhouse. Uncle Ted made him change it so they could finish it before Christmas.”
“Yeah, well. He’s keeping it simple this time, just drilling out the noodles.”
“It’s gotta be something for Edie. I think you’re right about that. Or else he’d wait until after our bedtimes, too. Wouldn’t he?”
A few days later there was a warning about a big wind and storm coming. We were sent home from school at afternoon recess time that day. So Pam and I were unexpectedly home early and Edith was still napping. Grandma met us on our way through the kitchen. She was rolling out dough on the big wooden board. Grandma was always baking something and in December there was more sugar in the recipes she chose.
“Where’s Mom?” I headed for the odd little room in our big old house, the place where the sewing machine sat eternally ready and often in use. Its place was smack dab in the middle of the room. That’s where Mom worked on her projects. The door was closed. “Don’t go in there, Earl. Your mother is busy and can’t be disturbed.”
“What’s she doing?”
“She’s helping me. I’m about to make doughnuts and she’s getting the holes just right.”
“You never made doughnuts before.”
“Oh, little do you know. There were many things done before you were born, young man. Yes, it has been a long time. I quit making them because I could never get the holes right and your Mother is so precise. She’ll get them just right… if we don’t interrupt.”
“Doughnut holes. Macar…” Pam was shushed by my hand on her mouth.
Before she could finish, I said, “A ring on my notebook got all bent. I’m gonna go down and get some pliers so I can fix it, okay?”
Grandma got stern. “No you are not. You know better. Besides there are pliers in the drawer.”
“The kitchen drawer, of course.”
There were sixteen drawers in our kitchen, not counting the one built into the table. But I did know the junk drawer held a few odd tools. I found pliers and went up to my room to fix what wasn’t truly broken.
After another week that lasted at least a year, it was Christmas Eve. Edith had fallen asleep on the way home from candlelight church. Mom put her to bed, which woke her up. Dad started to read her a story and she fell asleep before he got halfway, he told me. How did she do that? I could never sleep so easily on Christmas Eve. And I would be the first one up on Christmas morning if I had to stay awake all night to do it.
“Before you go up to bed, Earl, I can use your help with something,” Dad said. Pam started to turn around on her way up the stairs. “That’s okay, Pam,” he said, “Earl and I will get this.”
She stomped on up the stairs. I started toward the back of the house and the basement stairway. “It’s something for Pam, isn’t it.”
“Hold up, Son. It’s not back there.” Dad pulled a large cardboard carton out of the closet under the front stairs. The box was tall, deep, and only a few inches wide. Then he brought out another just like it. “You can help me put these together for Edith.”
“For Edie? How come you made Pam go?”
Dad just shrugged and cut the cartons open. The boxes were filled with more cardboard, printed to look like bricks, sort of. We put together the large cardboard blocks. We assembled and put the reinforcing honeycombs inside them. Dad showed me how they were strong enough for him to stand on and we stacked them into a curved wall around the Christmas tree.
It must have been from doing all that work at bedtime. I put my head on the pillow and fell right to sleep.
I was the first one up, though. I tiptoed down the stairs, carefully avoiding the squeaky end of the ninth tread. And what to my wondering eyes should appear? Beside the block wall, there it was. A brand new maroon boy’s Schwinn bicycle. Wow!
Soon the family gathered. There were other presents to hand out and unwrap. Edith moved her blocks around. I was so busy admiring my bike that I don’t even remember what special gift Pam got. Proof that while greed is not good, I had it.
Pam and Edith tried on the dresses sewn from doughnut holes. They went together but were not exactly matching. Pam complained, “Why didn’t you make matching dresses, Mom?”
“Oh, Pam,” Mom actually laughed about it. “Last year you refused to wear your matching outfit at the same time as your sister, that’s why.”
“That was last year.”
Edith complained, too. “It’s scratchy, Mommy.”
With doughnut holes explained, I still wondered about the macaroni drilling in the basement. Could it be that it was only a hiding place for the bike? But what about all those times Dad went down there, the words like ‘drat’ and ‘oh my’, the band-aids on hands and fingers?
I soon learned that the new bicycle wasn’t so new, but Santa’s helper had made it look and feel brand new with a careful application of pasta sawdust in the dangerous basement.
Cross posted to a Daily Kos diary by Kent E Storyteller
Who remembers Maximum Feasible Participation (MFP)?
MFP was a big part of the War on Poverty, declared by President Lyndon Johnson a half-century ago, before he wandered astray into escalation of that other war in SE Asia. A guiding principle in the community action program, which itself was the central organizing tool at the local level for all the anti-poverty programs.
Community Action (CAP) agencies were funded to develop local programs even as they oversaw some specific activities enacted by Congress in the Economic Opportunity Act. Like Head Start, for instance.
CAP agencies got funding with the proviso that the poor people would have a say in the work of the program, that there would be maximum feasible participation of residents of the area and members of the groups served. That was a big risk for the power brokers in Washington. A giant threat to the money and power controllers everywhere. The power brokers don’t like to share and Johnson’s program said they have to.
And, guess what? It was working. Working like the engine on your old pickup, two quarts low on oil. Running, but with enough heat causing friction for Tom Wolfe to write Mau Mauing the Flak Catcher in 1970 (I’m not remembering his long article very well at all, but it had something to do with the bureaucracy of urban social programs with MFP at their core). But it was working. People who had always been outside the systems, always on the receiving (or not) end, always scrambling just to have enough for the day, were becoming organized to change their circumstances. And that’s still a threat to those who have the money and power, who don’t like to share. That’s why the name Saul Alinsky still inspires fear among the haves and hope among the few have-nots who have ever heard about him.
The radical notion that people experiencing long term poverty should have a say in the solutions along with help to improve their lot was making a positive difference. The myth of failure is a propaganda from the powers who were threatened by its success.
It was doing a bit of good, and needed more years to become an established pattern. That did not happen, of course. We elected Richard Nixon in 1968. He named a young Congresscritter from Chicago’s affluent North Shore suburbs to head the Office of Economic Opportunity. A guy named Donald Rumsfeld. You heard that right, young folks. The very same known unknowns, unknown knowns creep. His idea of economic opportunity was to have us call collect, let folks in Washington refuse and leave a call back number. That would save the government money.
Community organizing then became suspect. MFP soon returned to scorn for welfare recipients. Start a myth of failed programs to hasten their death.
I tell all this history simply to say. Now is the time. It is time to try again. The new gilded age of widening disparity between the ultra-rich and everyone else calls us to try something different, something old that can be new again.
Let’s push for a new anti-poverty program to improve the life situations for the already impoverished and to stem the tide of middle class families falling into a new kind of impoverishment.
The War on Poverty didn’t fail, it was discarded by the naysayers who came into power in 1969. It was killed because of its growing success. The powers-that-be will never yield their privileged position willingly.
We don’t need another war. Period. No more wars on ideas. We do need a dramatic and emphatic end to the current war on the poor. We need to replace that sad notion with inclusion into the mainstream of marginalized Americans.
Today, October 5, 2014, First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Walla Walla, Washington is celebrating a sesquicentennial, their 150th anniversary. I spent much of my growing up living in the parsonage there. Some members of parsonage families from long ago were asked to convey a memory or word of hope for the celebration. This is the memory story that came to me: about learning in Sunday School what love for neighbor and enemy can mean.
“But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you…” – Matthew 5:44 (Common English Bible)
When Jimmy (we’ll call him Jimmy) was ushered in to our fourth grade class in the newly remodeled parish hall, I cringed. Don’t ask me what our lesson was that day, or any other for that matter. I remember that my friend Eric’s folks, Carl and Margaret Johnson, were our teachers, as usual.
I cringed. I’m pretty sure it showed on my face and Jimmy could see it. I really disliked Jimmy. I was kind of scared of him, too. It started way back in first grade. We arrived in Walla Walla in the middle of my first grade year. On our first day of walking to Green Park School, Jimmy and his brother pelted Lynn and me with horse chestnuts as we walked past their house. I saw Jimmy as a bully. I feared him as an enemy, from that day on, until fourth grade.
I knew that Jimmy’s mother had been ill for a long time. I overheard a teacher ask him and sympathize with him one day on the school playground.
So, when he came to Sunday School I was sure I didn’t want him to be there, and tried to figure out a way to make him so uncomfortable he’d never return. But something else happened. I think maybe Mrs. Johnson had something to do with it.
I knew that Jimmy’s mother had recently died of cancer, but I still didn’t like him. That day in Sunday School I became aware that the church had reached out to the grieving family. So here was Jimmy. Oh, no.
I wish I could remember more details. What actually happened that let Jesus’ command penetrate my grade school brain? I don’t know. What I do know is that over the next few weeks, Jimmy and I could often be found in Jimmy’s kitchen after school making milk shakes and a mess. And a memory, with the realization that the bully was just a little first grader whose mom was becoming less available to her children and a dad in a busy profession was trying to deal with these changes, too. A memory that the church reached out where there was need, and I’m sure it wasn’t only my dad.
I also know that it has happened hundreds of times in their 150 years and will happen hundreds of times more. It happens in all times and places, wherever neighbors are loved just because, and whenever we look beneath the moment to the circumstances and enemies become neighbors.
Amazon.com finally has the print and Kindle editions of The Shallows of Jabbok showing together in the catalog. And they've already discounted a full 10% to $14.85. Both books are available with a Matchbook deal on Amazon -- buy the paperback edition and add the Kindle e-book for $0.99. I have it up at Goodreads, too. Is there a reader somewhere who's ready to post a review at either of those sites?
I'll be among the authors at the Boulder Music and Arts Festival on Saturday September 6, but probably not on Sunday (although I may be down for the music, and books are always in the car. I'm also considering Octoberfest at the Copper Village in Anaconda on Sept. 27. If there's still time to register, that is.
Is is noon on July 25 and I see that my second novel is now available at Amazon. The Kindle version ($4.99) should appear in their catalog soon - like later today. I've listed the real book with a retail price of $16.50 and that nasty mega-corp that I promote against my better judgment is already listing for a little less. I have ordered copies to sell that should be available by Aug. 7. Amazon does this other thing called Matchbook - you can add a Kindle to the softcover purchase for 99 cents. Read a description of the book on the homepage at booksbykent.weebly.com
Thanks for supporting your local author.
I think I see what the hardest part is now. I’m working on the second novel again this week. People ask and I tell them it is written. It is, except for the re-write—now that it’s back from my friend and copy editor, and the small fixes are done. This week I take on the big fixes.
Authors, real authors, authors with agents and publishers and all that, tell us the re-write is hard slogging. They also tell us it has to be done. After all those words, so lovingly committed to ‘paper’, become a novel, pruning is still necessary.
There’s a perspective I discover today as I chop. In some cases whole chapters are on the cutting room floor, to be replaced by a couple paragraphs. I find that in much of the first quarter of my new novel (The Shallows of Jabbok) I wrote what I needed to write in order to bring myself into a story that I really want to tell. (I hope the novel doesn’t still have too many sentences as convoluted as that one.)
Now I have to trim to lead you into the main story—you who will read (hint, hint) the book. I have to get it down to a lead-in that will keep you reading and still understand how these people got themselves into this story.
In a nutshell – I had to write all I did in order to write the rest. It wasn’t wasted time, I remind myself. Now I have to concentrate on somebody else, someone who picks up the book. What will keep her/him engaged beginning to end?
When we get to that finished point, we’ll publish. Not before then, but pretty soon, I think.
The room was dark. The only light came from the monitor that I could see through the observation window. Without sentiment or hesitation the monitor sent its message. Dad was there, in the only critical care bed (ccu) at the small Red Lodge Hospital. Mom and I had been called in the middle of the night. They told us that they were preparing for an emergency helicopter flight to Billings.
Now it was closer to three in the morning. The flight plan had been canceled. Mom and I were ushered into the nursing station next to the ccu. Mom was given a seat with her back to the window between the two rooms. I kept glancing over to the monitor as the doctor recited all the efforts that had been made that night, leading carefully, ponderously to the obvious news. I looked again at the flat line on the monitor, thinking “You might as well just say it, Doctor.”
Finally he did. Dad had died from a massive MI. Heart attack. Just a few weeks after the coronary by-pass surgery. Of course, the doctor did it wrong. Breaking the news, that is. I’m convinced that this news has never been told the correct way in all the history of humanity. News broken, we went in, held the hands that used to be Dad’s, and tried to face what we could not yet accept, or, as Dad would have said it, “come to terms with.”
Just a few hours earlier I had arrived to find that Dad was not at home, but was in this special room at the hospital. Mom had been waiting for me, so we immediately drove the short distance up the hill to check in with Dad. The worst of that visit stands out in my memory. Dad was unable to control some body functions, but quite aware and very embarrassed about it. Very weak and in much pain, he still had his standards. Especially that standard that held the essential Frank Elliott. In pain, in weakness, his first concern was for the rest of us. His compassion for Mom and me, and for the staff who had to deal with the mess his weakness left.
If my memory is of the worst of it in that moment, all I have to do is back up a little. I had come to Red Lodge because of Dad’s call a couple days earlier. I cannot recall many times, even in childhood, when Dad told me what I must do. That day he did. I must come. The care he needed was too much for Mom. Still, it took another day to put things in order in Miles City, to be absent from family and work on short notice. Too much for Mom, too much for skilled medical professionals by the time I arrived.
I have to back up a little more. A few weeks earlier, Dad had been admitted to Deaconess Hospital in Billings to await his turn in open chest heart surgery. His arteries were so blocked they kept him where they could keep an eye on him. I visited with him there one afternoon. There he was, confined to a hospital bed, doing what he always did. He told of all his new friends among the staff, and demonstrated the truth of it as various care-givers came in and out to do their particular tasks. The tasks were done while mutual relationships of understanding were established by Dad’s unique, natural way as counselor. While I sat with him, a nurse came in, on her day off, just to report her progress on a personal struggle she was facing. The dietician came in, settled menu plans for the day. I watched this, a routine task, in and out, except that spirits were being fed along the way, too.
We waited through surgery day. It started late because the surgeon had to do an emergency procedure just about the time Dad expected to be rolled down the hall. Then, it ended up as two surgeries on Dad. Internal bleeding meant they had to re-open to complete what had been missed. He was sent home after the usual recovery period, but he never recovered, except through release from the pain and weakness by leaving this life entirely.
Except – again, except – his presence hasn’t really gone from us. This all happened in 1986. Now it is 2014. I still miss him. I still try to live by his standard of caring for others just as we find them. It works differently, since I am introvert and he was an extravert. Another true thing I must admit: I still pack the trunk of the car just as compulsively as packed the station wagon.
A Reminiscence by Kent Elliott ©2014
“Why isn’t our pool heated like the Natatorium?” we asked our swim coach one day. He was also manager at Walla Walla’s Memorial Pool that summer.
He answered, “If you want warm water, take a bath. This is a swimming pool.”
OK, so the title is a little misleading, even when we consider where my cold water swimming began. It didn’t start at any headwaters either. But, hey, the last time was in river headwaters (almost). So there!
It began in Ontario, at Lake of the Woods. I must have been four or five, so technically I wasn’t yet a swimmer. I was a wader, but I neither drowned nor got help, so I did use some sort of swimming effort.
The man who ran the resort told my dad that it had been just two weeks since the ice went out. “Too cold for swimming,” he said, “and if you don’t believe me, at least stay away from that end of the beach.” He pointed to the place he meant.
The lake was still close to freezing. But it was our summer vacation and the sun was warm. Mommy got us into swimsuits to play on the beach while Daddy went fishing. Dad was no better at fishing than I am, so the Northern Pike were pretty safe. I ran and then waded into the big lake with its cold waves. Then I waded a little deeper and wandered in the squishy lake bottom off to the right side of the beach. Mommy must have been looking away for a moment. My sister was playing on the shore a little away from me.
All of a sudden I found out what the resort man meant when he said ‘undertow’. I had been walking on the lake bottom, no problem. Then it wasn’t there. A giant had hold of my leg and was pulling me under the water and deeper into the lake. I remember the absolute fear I was feeling, yet somehow I managed to paddle and pull and found footing again. I scurried back up onto the beach and stayed away from the place that the man said to stay away from. No one saw what happened. And I didn’t tell, because I HAD been warned.
If I had told, they might have started me in swimming lessons before the second time I failed to drown. That wasn’t in a headwater or even in cold water, so never mind. I have never managed to take part in a polar bear club, so let’s get to those mountain streams.
My favorite swimming hole when I was a kid, other than Memorial Pool, was in upper Mill Creek, in the Blue Mountains. It was a spot on the creek where a cliff on the other side and a large boulder made a narrow deep cut, with a gentle back wash and small rocky beach area on our side. Our side being the point accessible from the cabin where we sometimes stayed. The cabin belonged to some friends of my folks. When they decided Dad was working too hard, they’d hand him the keys and tell him to get out of town for a few days. The swimming hole was just below the steep mountainside that we called Indian Ridge—I don’t know why. That’s just what we called the hill. The swimming hole was no more than a mile below the snowmelt that fed Mill Creek. At the times I swam there the current was just enough to be challenging. The cold was the greater challenge—and I loved it. Dad would remind me with the line, “two weeks after the ice went out. That kid’ll swim as soon as it’s liquid.” And I loved it. Jump off the boulder, swim up, float down, swim up, until I felt as cold as the water. And the water was as cold as Mrs. Blake’s glare when she caught us horsing around in the Pioneer Junior High Library. I’d ride the river until I shivered too much, then warm up in the sun and do it all again. And I loved it.
Maybe my fun times in the headwaters of Mill Creek of the Blue Mountains happened after Dad accidentally rode the rapids in the Walla Walla River for a hundred yards without a canoe. That was a scary scene, watching him bouncing off the rocky creek bottom, trying to steer himself to the side, out of the main current. Anyway, if my fun came later, then I must have ignored his fearful warnings and just swam until cold, rested until warm, swam until cold and... until Mom or Dad said it’s time to go. So maybe this all took place before his wild ride.
OK, that’s just kid stuff. Kids will endure some pain if fun and risk go with it. What about thirty or more years later? The scene was quite similar, but this time I’m supposed to be the responsible adult. I’m supposed to re-play Dad’s warnings (once ignored) to another generation of risk-enchanted kids.
It was picnic day with the campers. We hiked up river to a place on the Boulder River with a hole like my favorite spot on Mill Creek, only bigger.
Now, I have to take a moment to explain something. The river I’m telling about flows northward out of the Beartooth Mountains just north of Yellowstone Park. It joins the Yellowstone River at Big Timber, Montana. That’s the real Boulder River. The river I live near today is the other Boulder River, unless you ask my wife Barb. She’ll claim that the Yellowstone tributary is the other and our Jefferson tributary is the real one.
So, we’re at the hole, a few miles down from the high country snow sources of our ‘real’ cascading icy mountain stream. The river is down enough that we can really have a good time. Deep water in the long hole; swift enough to give a good workout; slow enough to let us survive. And colder than… Well, you know.
So, I’m in a reverie of remembering my youth. Over forty years old now, but hey, what the h.. Oh, I’m a counsellor at church camp and a minister, so let’s say “what the heck, then.” I step into the water, boy is it cold, brrr. But then again, cold never stopped me when I was young. So I swim up through the hole, about fifteen yards, float down, swim up again a couple more times. Then I hear the kids standing on the big boulder yelling something. “What?”
They yell again as I float back down. Finally, I catch the words, “Hey, Papa Smurf!”
I get out and dry off. And that's the last of my headwaters swimming.
I retired from active ministry in the United Methodist Church in 2012. Then I sat at my computer and wrote down the novel that had been churning in my head for many years, and published "I've Seen Dry" through my Wheatgrass Publishing imprint. Now writing had become a nice habit, so I do it every day. I completed my second novel in the spring and published in July 2014.