“Dream House on Golan Drive,” New from Signature Books

Announcing my first book: Dream House on Golan Drive, forthcoming from Signature Books (Salt Lake City) August 2015.

It is the year 1972, and Riley Hartley finds that he, his family, community, and his faith are entirely indistinguishable from each other. He is eleven. A young woman named Lucy claims God has revealed to her that she is to live with Riley’s family. Her quirks are strangely disarming, her relentless questioning of their life incendiary and sometimes comical. Her way of taking religious practice to its logical conclusion leaves a strong impact on her hosts and propels Riley outside his observable universe and toward a trajectory of self discovery.

Set in Provo and New York City during the seventies and eighties, the story encapsulates the normal expectations of a Mormon experience and turns them on their head. The style, too, is innovative in how it employs “Zed,” one of the apocryphal Three Nephites who with another immortal figure, the Wandering Jew of post-biblical legend, engage regularly in light-hearted banter and running commentary, animating the story and leavening the heartache with humor and tenderness.

Paperback | Fiction
300 pp. |  $24.95
978-1-56085-241-4
Signature Books

Please support your local bookstores where you can pre-order the book.

Kings English

Wellers Bk Works

BENCHMARK BOOKS

Ken Sanders

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue. (Part 1)

We leave Boston’s Logan determined to be self-directed, free. I’ll be damned if I am going to sit there for up to four days, we were told by surprisingly kind customer service representative at the other end of the airline’s “Need Help?” red phone. Cheryl had done all the talking while the man-boy and I sat, he plugged into his I-pod, me stewing moodily in my thoughts while trying not to be drawn in by the elevated screen flashing the inevitably bizarre landscape of American “news.”

“Did you tell her we wanted to buy tickets? On any airline?” I say when Cheryl comes back to our territory marked with coats and bags, an empty sandwich box, my beer on the floor next to my seat, just waiting to get kicked over. “I think this is a good time to use that emergency credit card, you think?” Cheryl is smiling her way over through the crowds. She can manage her wan smile even under duress while I feel that at a certain point of aggravation with things, I deserve the luxury of a frown. After all, I’m now retired from the airline. I don’t have to sport the molded plastic smile anymore.

“There are no flights,” says Cheryl and sits. She is rummaging in her tote bag for something, her thumb still in the book she’s reading—a fictional meditation on cholera… “No,” I say with impatience as well as a flourish. “We’ll just fucking buy full fare. We’re never getting out of here as non-revs.” I glance at the man-boy who is still plugged in. He gets upset sometimes when I punch up my language. Something that happened in his past. But he’s still plugged in, oblivious.

“You don’t understand,” says Cheryl. “They aren’t selling anything for today, or tomorrow. We’re looking at Jan. 1, the earliest.” Three days away.

“What about American? United? If we’re going to go full fare…”

“None of them are selling tickets, Dave” she interrupts emphatically and then looks at me, waiting for it to sink in. Our situation. The man-boy is trying to read our conversation through the clamoring noise of classic rock and roll. Led Zeppelin? Pink Floyd? Or his favorite, the Beatles? Classic or not, the three have virtually nothing in common with each, I think. But the man-boy is far ranging these days. Perhaps he’s turned down the volume…or turned off the I-pod which he can do discretely with his hand gripping it in the pocket of the coat he never seems to take off.

Cheryl looks at me and gives me her smile. This is the critical moment when a decision must be made, and despite my forceful language, I am going to wait for her. Being the older of us, she is the decider. What do they call it? The one who is pro-active. That way if it goes badly I can complain as the put-upon-one. And if it goes well…well, I’ll always be able to find something to harp on. Either way I won’t be the reason we’re going back into debt. Plus, I have a back up. Even if we don’t rent a car or buy three, full-fare tickets back to Salt Lake City, we’re paying a dog sitter $50 a day at, already, 15 days. Cheryl’s insistence.

“Let’s just rent a car and drive,” she says with what I’ve come to think of as Yankee, non-Western determination. “Let’s just get in a car and get the hell out of here.”

This is what I wanted her to say. The thought of sitting in this chrome and carpeted concourse—eating $15 lobster roll sandwiches—and counting my beers is more than I can handle. We’ve already had to drive from Portland at the recommendation of the gate agent there who told us our chances of flying non-rev, short-hand for free passes for airline and retired-airline employees, are better out of Boston. The agent, with carefully arranged hair to look non-arranged and bust that her otherwise tidy uniform could not hide, was standing with me in the Portland, Maine baggage claim room, the smell of plastic and sweat in the piles of tagged, tipped over and sometimes mutilated luggage—some with dust on them–the buzz of a fluorescent light above us. She was being inordinately helpful, as fellow airline employees are to each other—giving the inside scoop, the way around the problem that only those of our tribe can access.

The three of us leave the airport, gathering up our stuff that has spread out over six seats in some kind of effort to stake a claim on airport real estate while we wait. And we are at a distinct handicap. Our level of technology is woefully inadequate. I have only an old LG flip phone. No access to the internet where we can roam the standby lists, make new listings, look up passenger loads. Strategize. (Thus Cheryl’s earlier phone call to reservations.) Half of my desire to get out of the airport is based on the embarrassment of not having at least a laptop I can tool around on. But this punching of numbers on a phone whose tones I haven’t learned how to silence for my fellow, more tech-savvy Americans, is too much for me to bear.

We leave. Cheryl and I rolling our carry-ons, the man-boy carrying his for the same reason I carried mine everywhere for the first five years as a flight attendant: to distinguish myself as somehow tough, not gay like the rest of the guys in my class at Western Airlines. And we head down the escalator, through the corridor that splits off between arriving and leaving passengers and towards the heavy metal doors, complete with sentinel standing guard, through which once we traverse there will be no returning. Check Point Charlie.

We move to the door. It whisks open. The sentinel follows us with his eyes, unsmiling or just bored, one leg up on the chrome bar of his black-cushioned bar stool. What are we supposed to give him? Some kind of secret handshake to pass through?

Whatever.

In Baggage Claim I am frantically calling from the car rental booth lighted by every garish and stylish car rental logo available—which is to say all of them in this great country of ours. Frantic, because I’m convinced that the hoards of stranded passengers will be doing the same thing and that cars will disappear quickly. Cheryl and the man-boy have gone to see if we can claim our luggage (we won’t be able to; all three of them have left for Utah without us) while I stand guard over our meager belongings while trying to figure out whether Hertz, Avis or Thrifty will be our rental of choice.

Armed with a plan but with little or no accountability for making the plan, I am driven to make that plan happen, and am driven to walk out of the airport and into the rain that is about to begin to freeze, into the New England night and into the shuttle, my little family with our modest belongings slung over our shoulders, hats pulled down, I-pod glowing. We will motor over to the Mass Pike with a figurative flipping of the bird to the massively disappointing airline industry, the inconvenience of East Coast life. Yes, we will flip a collective middle finger over our shoulder without looking back. The Great American gesture of defiance and entitlement, like the glass John Hancock Tower standing on the back bay of Shawmut Peninsula and flipping off Mother England. But this time we will be shouting the equivalent of Screw Fucking You! to someone infinitely closer than Europe, or the Middle East—our touted enemies–or that great, brooding non-touted enemy, China. Someone infinitely closer, indeed. But first we have to get out of the rental car parking lot.

The attendant looks at me blankly when I ask her how best to get to I-80. For some reason, I thought 80 ran all the way from Boston across the fruited plains all the way to the West Coast. She hands me a map of greater Boston with an inset of Logan International, and keeps typing up the details of our Toyota Corolla with an $800 drop fee. She is a large girl, with an almost practiced, put-upon frown that doesn’t put up with any shit. I am more than familiar with that frown, having walked the aisles of many a Boeing and McDonnell Douglas contraption, the frown gripping my face, the beacon of a full body composition that says you are a professional but only skin deep. Don’t fuck with me, a variation of “Don’t Tread on Me,” from colonial times, but contemporized.)

I pull out my old LG, the flip phone from another age as thick with its faux-leather sheath as a bean and cheese burrito but not so tasty. We call our daughter (and the man-boy’s mother) Julianne who lives in Salt Lake with her boyfriend Travis. For the moment we are on speaking terms with her.

“Julie?”

“Where are you?”

“Boston. We’re driving home.”

“To Salt Lake?”

“Look. I need you to do us a favor.” There is little that suggests that which is life-affirming in a parking lot at night. Even less in an east coast parking lot at an airport. Something about plopping down behind the wheel of a car while vibrating to the sound of jet engines.

“Can’t you just buy a ticket?” she says. “You guys are going to be a week…”

“I need you to look up the northern route to Utah. I-80.”

Outside, the night converges as I remember dark, dirty Boston nights did when I lived here 24 years ago. Cheryl looks at me with patience. She is in trooper mode. Gonna get out of here in one piece.

I can hear Julie talking to Travis who is clicking away on his keyboard. The two of them in protracted, internally-heard cyber-speak…coaxing, thinking out loud with all the markers of our shared, webbed world.

“It’s I-90,” she says finally. You need the Mass Pike, I-90.

“Then where, where is I-80?”

“You sure you don’t want to go south to DC and across through Tennessee? The weather, you know. Freezing rain, snow…”

I persist. “I thought I-80 was a straight shot west to the Rockies, north of Denver.” Really what this is all about is that I don’t won’t to have to think beyond the nose of the car about what direction to go. Plus—and this is something I don’t really want to admit—I need the comfort of something familiar. “I wish I had a road that I could skate away on” to quote the warbling Joni Mitchell, and that road has to be I-80.

Julie gives me the directions. Cheryl scribbles them down, her glasses perched precariously on her nose, and I snap my phone shut.

There was a time when I was completely charmed by this, the colonial town of bean-ness. So charmed I didn’t want to return home after my two-year stint going door-to-door and canvassing in Harvard Square and Boston Common. But now there is only one way through my mental fix. One way out. And it is west.

The Mass Pike is broad and steely cold, be-lining in a concrete trough below the street level of the city. There are billboards flat against the cement walls on either side, one, I see out of the corner of my eye, touting the Goddamned-given rights to own a gun–a too-tidy reaction to the election of Obama over two years ago, if you ask me. Even so, in the yellow city crime light and dingy concrete canyon, there is a moment where it actually seems to make sense, this owning a gun out of some inchoate fear.

The man boy is in the back seat, legs folded sideways in the best Japanese-made car made in the U.S.A. (sort of) for our money (and good mileage to boot). It’s too dark to read his book on Lennon so he is just sitting in the alternating bands of light and shadow. He’s watching as Cheryl and I are, the world opening out in a thin ribbon of road. I am not above projecting what he might be thinking, and I am there—the man in charge—with a quick judgment of him. He can’t possibly know what lies ahead of him. For this, my live-in grandson, he can only be thinking that this is a drive a little further than Evanston, Wyoming where we have taken him to buy illegal fireworks; or Arizona where we visit Cheryl’s sister when the Maine winters get to be too much for her.

We take a pit stop at Gulf Mart, in West Framingham (or so the sign says). One of the infamous private/public partnerships: exclusive rights to road-weary interstate travelers in need of gas, or a hot dog on a limp white bun. The Pike reverberates behind us, and as the three of us cross the damp parking lot and into the brittle light of the shop, I am still in charge, having just spent more money than we have. We walk towards the chrome and glass bay of refrigerators. I can tell the man-boy is waiting for permission of some sort. “Whatever you want,” I say as off-handedly as I can. I am performing a kind of swagger motivated by a sense that I am the wagon leader here.

Cheryl is humming along in survival mode. She’s picking up huge bottles of water, one for each of us. Trail mix. Dried fruit, as if we’re in need of pioneer stores to load into our covered wagon. The next thing, I think, will be matches and a poncho. I head to the wiener department, snagging a road atlas on the way. We haven’t had anything since the $15 lobster roll sandwich at Logan, and the man-boy won’t figure out he’s hungry for something other than a candy bar until we get back on the road. I load up two hot dogs for him. One for me. Ketchup on his, but no mustard—the way he likes them. The dogs are my rough, inarticulate caring gesture for the one now taller than I am.

We get in line. The clerk is not much older than the man-boy and he is intolerably cheerful to the flannel jacket amassed in front of us, blue jeans and scuffed work boots with the metal showing through on the big toe of each. The clerk is smiling. Red vest in place. (“Can I help you find anything else.”) Eyes aglow. The man in front of us—in his late 30s—at least ten years my junior, is grizzled. Leaving work late. Probably drives a truck. The kind of Bay Stater you forget populates Massachusetts even three miles outside of the capitol. While the man-boy and I wait for “Nana” still eyeing the lip balm, I look at him and give him a tight smile. He pulses his eyebrows up, once. It is our short hand for acknowledging one another without giving away where each of us is. Our aerial handshake that, like a gangsta—knuckle bumps and fancy grips—speaks somehow as much of our distrust and suspicion of each other as it does any kind of familial intimacy. Nana arrives with everything, it seems, but a bathtub quickly filled with water.

“What?” She says sheepishly. The man-boy and I exchange another look, consummately sexist. But it is as good as it will get tonight, between him and me. A conspiracy of ridicule to elevate ourselves. The kind of vaulting brotherhood, hard-wired, even for me, a recently retired flight attendant for a major carrier who walked proudly the line between the sexes for twenty-five years without seeming condescension to the other half.

Back on the Pike, just before it starts looking like the Berkshires, we pay the exit toll and then angle south on I-84 towards Hartford. If we can just get beyond there, we can look for a place to overnight—maybe even get as far as PA. Compared to the Pike, our way now seems to be through the wilds, the Mass.-to-Connecticut countryside forbiddingly dark, towering pines on either side. Is this the real start of our journey? I tilt my head back into the narrow headrest. A sigh is in order. The way is now calmer.

I reach out to grasp Cheryl’s hand, still tight as a nut around her other hand, a fist. She isn’t ready to take my hand in return. Not yet. She pats me and says something about the number of miles we will need to log (490) if we are to make it home before we both have to go back to work on the 3rd. She is very much in charge here. What she says, we will do. I know that, and it is both a relief as well as an irritant. A contradiction that you would think I would work around, transcend, resolve here in my 49th year of life. It often means that I have to be on guard whenever we are in real, decision-making time: where to buy a house, how to think, and when to change lanes. On guard because I have to appear as though I have my own opinions, and more important, compelling reasons for them that sing with clarity.

But we are set in our ways. “Wicked” set, as her nephews back in Rhode Island would say. And so I do not, or cannot at this point, realign the dynamic. What drew me to her nineteen years ago was her certainty. Something that I was desperate to flee from after the end of my first marriage. All the certainty that had collared me into a bad marriage, a bad life and an impossible view of the world. But what is strong enough to wrest one from a certainty, of one’s youth, and of one’s family and of…everything, than another, equally certain certainty?

But all of that seems irrelevant now as we follow our headlights through the New England countryside because I am not only ordering the sigh after our harried jettison from airline land, I am inured by my beloved. It is the countryside, I confess. The land from whence she came coupled with the time that has passed—oh, I’ll just say it, nostalgia. I’m adrift in it, remembering how freeing she had made me feel and therefore how everything that spawned her settled sweetly in me. The hoary pilgrim homes, myriad hardwood trees and pine that grew without anyone having to plant them. The abrupt conversational style. Her father’s working-class-turned-upper-middle-class penchant for doing all things for himself, risking life and limb re-roofing that hoary pilgrim house with the 20 percent slope.

Cheryl, who is eleven years my senior, sometimes says that perhaps I would have been better off left alone after my divorce. That what she brought into my life has made me older before my time. But for me there is daylight in her smile even here in the dark. Even though her worried state leaning forward in the car and peering into a past life has yet to bend into a smile. And I remember that this is the place that she left by choice. This is her desert, just as Utah is mine—the place I entertain for the express purpose of someday leaving. And what has ostensibly made me older—the man-boy in the backseat, his head jacked back and to the left against the window, his mouth wide open—is, I’m sure something more than just an agent of age. But what I’m still not sure.

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue (Part 5)

Part 5

Robert Bly

The man-boy not only knows all the lyrics of classic Rock and Roll songs, but the names of the musicians, the dates of most songs and the cultural milieu.  It’s a walk through American history.  How that is possible, I don’t know.  This musical terrain is only vaguely familiar to me; was only ever vaguely familiar to me when I was his age.  Snatches of lyrics, the steady stream of groups’ names—Kiss, Boston, Def Leppard, Mettalica, Megadeth—at which point I changed the proverbial channel for the next two decades.  It was a stream that went underground and then re-surfaced when Joe’s mother came to live with us in 1991 and she had a CD by a group called Nirvana.

             It is a terrain which has been documented, for better and for worse, in Cleveland at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.  Having the excellent catalogue in my acculturated head that I do, I am reminded of this and mention it to get points with the boy.
“Maybe we should stop in.  See what it’s like.”
“Awesome!” he says.  Since I’m riding shot gun at the moment, I return to the atlas, madly calculating the triangle route from I-80 northwest and back while subtracting the hypotenuse.
I, the 49-year old, too-young-to-be-a-grandfather –to-a-seventeen-year-old can win points in a way that no one else can.  My above-it-all perspective from flight attending resulted in a kind of guerilla-styled touring across the nation during two decades, and it yields this:  we can make the man-boy exceedingly happy as we barrel down I-80 to home by first announcing that the hall of fame of his dreams is within a short detour of where we we’re going and that I am game enough to make it happen.  That’s what I do. It’s what we used to call “gumption”:  I’m the one who makes it happen.
“Awesome!”
The light is fading, exquisite shadings on the vast PA hardwoods.  We will not make it to Ohio this evening, so we start looking for a place to stay.  This is the beauty of America.  Drive anywhere and virtually within the time it takes to start needing to take a wazz, or feel the next pang in three squares a day, and there’s a truck stop, a convenience store and–if you’re lucky–a bona fide mom-and-pop diner.  Emlenton, Pennsylvania is one of these, but better.  The Plaza is both a truck stop and a restaurant/diner famous, we are about to learn, in these here parts.
By the time we pass the famous Emlenton Bridge which I get the impression was built first followed by the town itself, it is dark.  We pull off onto Clintonville Road then parallel I-80 West, turn left into the Plaza, move around to the south, pull into a parking place and our little Corolla quiets itself.  We are far enough from the yellow brick road so that it emits the pensive, Doppler sound that elicits reflection, and for a moment none of us move, the engine ticking, a collective sigh rising in us. None of us is particularly hungry, I realize.  It’s just that it’s that time of the day, and if we don’t find sustenance now we’ll be raiding the candy machines at the next Econo Lodge.
While Cheryl and the man-boy head in, I head out, around the edge of the sprawling complex baked in what seems like acres of asphalt where trucks the size of small  buildings feel right at home as they turn around in an arc that seems as wide as Arkansas.  I need to stretch my legs, get my lungs pumping something other than the stale air of fatigue.  Around the back of the place there’s a dumpster, old restaurant fixtures a stack of badly upholstered chairs.  The place is bigger than I think, and when I round to the north side the pavement seems to expand through the gas pump lanes and to that idling place that trucks go by default off the interstate.  The night is quiet but the darkness at the edges of the massive lot is like a wall, the trees beyond claiming a kind of prerogative for the space we have yet to claim for progress.
One more corner to round and I’m in front of the convenience store, attached to the restaurant, this not-so-clean, well-lighted place that both draws as it repels the weary traveler by its utter predictability:  the usual display of cellophane-ed bread-like artifacts that claim to be pastries, the waning end-of-day coffee against the back wall next to the bank of coolers featuring plastic bottles in a riot of thirst-quenching colors.  Seven kinds of beef jerky.
I ditch into the men’s room, and a stall worn-down with a recent coat of off-white paint.  Public bathrooms, I submit, are where American males first feel the charge of their collective manhood—like what I imagine prisons and maybe military bunkhouses elicit in young recruits.  Since Title 9, the public bathroom is one of the few (and continually receding) places where the lure to merge with what makes one hormonally male and the inchoate shame that accompanies that impulse is still obvious.  That is why the man-boy and others when they are eight or nine, often won’t go to the urinals, but hide away in the stalls.  They sense that in a public lavatory, mankind—and I mean that term “genderly”—enters a liminal space that is charged because it is unstable.
The forlorn men’s movement of the 80s tried to address that.  Poor Robert Bly.  Both were shot down by women and, most importantly, other men, who operate out of a rarified and now moribund feminism.  The men’s room has become a cross between a sports bar and a locker room, strutting and straining.  Elimination and critical comparisons made with side-long glances over porcelain.  It’s a place that has become feminized in that literal hand-washing is done in the men’s room by men first because other men are there policing and then because of the internalized thing that happens in reality-producing culture of the new century.  Real men don’t wash their hands because they’ve held their dick to piss.
I’ll take Camille Paglia any day over Gloria Steinem.  I’m not sure if this is news to me, but that I am reminded of it in rural Pennsylvania and with Lysol stinging my noise should be peculiar.  Maybe it’s just the exhaustion showing.
In the stall, behind the metal box housing the rolls of toilet paper is scrawled “BJ Tap Foot.”  But not being a senator from Idaho, I resist.  It’s nice to know that some things have never changed since junior high.
Someone enters the bathroom, and I’m brought out of this reverie.  (Don’t knock me.  The notoriously constipated father of the Reformation, Martin Luther, is said to have done a lot of thinking about things while sitting on the crapper for hours at a time.)  There is stillness in the tiled room which is strange.  I peer through a space between stall door and wall.  On the opposite, mirrored wall is the man-boy.  These days he spends a good time in bathrooms both at home and when we’re out.  It’s a rite of passage I suppose, and it buttresses my theory of bathrooms, especially public ones, as an unstable, exploratory space.  He is arranging his increasingly long bangs that spill out from under the bill of his baseball hat.  The hat is the only thing that now keeps his hair out of his eyes.  When his hat is off, in fact, the dented hair falls with some grace across his face which appeals to me.  But the hat is part of the ensemble.  At least for now, and I watch as he almost tenderly pulls at the strands, pushing them up under the bill and band while his mouth drops open slightly in concentration.  Often he ditches the hat entirely, bends over the sink and splashes water into his face and hair.  When he comes up for air, dripping everywhere, he is a different boy indeed, the oblong shape of his head in clear outline, the bones of his cheeks higher, it seems, and suddenly shiny.
Actually, Cheryl and I are often annoyed by the time it takes him to go to the bathroom as we wait with menus at hand. Sometimes as long as ten minutes.  But here, as I watch him lost in his own world, I recall my own long hours in front of the mirror, locked behind the bathroom door in my parents’ home, my shirt off, my chin tilted so that the light would reveal that new whisker coming in.  The necessary longing for myself to emerge through my body.
Suddenly I am a voyeur.  And I turn my gaze away.  I will wait for him to leave so that he doesn’t know I was here.  So that there is no risk of any kind of shame.

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue (Part 6)

Back through the convenience store, I enter the Restaurant.  The place is a abuzz with locals sitting at the counter, at tables and at perimeter booths one of which, apparently, is ours, dwarfing Cheryl who is sitting with a plastic menu the size of a motorcycle windshield.  This is definitely an “experience” as we are fond of saying in the United States.  Not for the locals out on a Thursday night for a pie and company, but for the tired travelers who have stumbled in.  Over my own windshield, I notice the angled wooden beams holding up the vaulted ceiling.  On each is stenciled a different quote—from Socrates to Will Rogers.  They look like quotes that have been pulled out of a quote book.  Fair enough.  At least they aren’t scriptures from the New Testament.
            The waitress arrives.  A woman whose plastic name tag announces “Dot.”  I feel the need to imbibe.  I ask if they have a wine list.  She looks at me wryly.  Then smiles and says, a little too loudly, “Wine?  If there was wine do I think I’d be standing here?”  Because of her smile, I am inclined to think she is saying that if there were wine here at the Emlenton Plaza Restaurant, she’d be in the back drinking herself into a stupor instead of waiting on dog-tired feet for customers to decide between baked or mashed potatoes.  I smile with understanding about over liquor laws.  After all, I live in Utah.  But then, after we’ve ordered, it occurs to me as I look deeper into this place now glowing against the PA darkness outside, that perhaps she meant it literally.  “If we served wine, I wouldn’t be working here because I don’t drink and I don’t think anyone else should.”  That is a certainly a sentiment I am not stupid to.
Redux:  I grew up in Utah.
            But there are other tells that this is a place that I should not feel comfortable in.  Perhaps it is the all-white crowd of jeaned and booted men and bouffant-haired women who eye everyone, including each other, with a kind of sterility.  Perhaps it is the glass-paneled lamps on shelves next to the cashiers, each panel featuring the etched or painted image of a U.S. Marine in full-dress, sword upraised.  Perhaps it is the T-shirts for sale emblazed with “Wise Men Still Seek Him” in a biblical font at 200 point.
            The man-boy looks miserable sitting across from us, his hair still damp…but in place.  But I have come to learn that he is also the kind of boy who believes he doesn’t deserve any better than what he gets, whatever he is getting.  So he suffers silently and drifts away in his head to a place where I’m not allowed to go.  We’ve talked about it before, this place he goes.  And the longer he lives with us the more he is able to recall some of those occasions—exhibit A through Z—that aggregated for me, congealing into this modus operandi.
            When he gets like this I feel compelled to rush in.  I know I probably shouldn’t, but I do anyway, determined that he articulate something for me.  Probably so that I feel less afraid of what’s going on for him.
“How do you like this place?”  I ask.  He looks around.
“It’s okay I guess.”
“You going to order the usual?”
“What?”
“You know.  The usual–bacon cheeseburger?”  He looks vacantly at the menu.
“She’s coming back in a minute for our order.  Are you ready?”  His Nana lowers her menu, looks at me.  The man-boy flips the menu over to see what’s on the back.  He’s already taken his sweet time in the john looking in the mirror, and he’s not going to be ready to order when Dot returns, which she does at that moment.
“Had a chance to look things over?” she says clicking her pen and taking an inventory of what’s on the table:  salt, pepper, ketchup and a wire holder with sugar and sweetner packets.
“Are you ready?  I ask him.
“I’ll have the Caesar salad, with shrimp,” says Cheryl.  She is asked about sides and salad dressings, the latter of which she declines, preferring wedges of lemon.  She looks at me.
            I say, “Go ahead, Joe” for that is the man-boy’s name.  Short for Josiah.
            He doesn’t say anything.  He is stuck somewhere in one of the lower levels of his hell and isn’t having much success clawing his way up for air.
            “Do you need a little more time,” she says.  She could be here all night.
            “Is that all right?” he says, and looks at me.
            “Sure,” I say, good-naturedly.  For Dot’s sake. Don’t want her to think I’m one of these red-necks in the place.  Someone who disrespects kids to hide their own insecurity.  But, in fact, it’s not okay.  This happens all the time.  He takes off for the bathroom for ten minutes while we wait, then he can’t decide what he wants to eat. Nana gives me a warning look, which I resent.  What does she know about raising a boy?  Never mind that I’ve never raised a child—boy or girl–and that this child is not one I’ve raised, even though I, not his father, was the one who made it to the ultrasound of his mother, to see the two-dimensional wedge of protoplasm that was to become our Joe.  Our man-boy.
            But I defer to her.  I am now fuming at the menu that announces boldly that the Plaza is the winner of the regional pie contest, five years running.
I recommend the pot roast, and stab at it on his menu.  He looks at me annoyed.  Even though it is I who seek to take his emotional temperature, to understand where he is, the man-boy figures me out before I do him.  He knows I’m on a train.  It’s one of the compensations, I suppose, of his traumatic past.  He can sense what’s going on in others.  It’s a survival technique.  But what it means to me in this moment is that he’s winning the game.
When Dot returns with “Ready?” a.k.a. “Get your shit together guys, I got things to do,” I order pot roast.  “What kind of lettuce is in your dinner salad?”  She looks at me like she’s about to say something like “green lettuce, you moron” in and around the chewing of her gum.  “Good old iceberg style.  That okay?  You want Thousand Island with that, or ranch?”  I order oil and vinegar which she writes down on her pad without saying anything.
“How about you young man?” There is a pause.  The man-boy is pushing it, I think.  Seeing how far he can go.  “I’ll have the double bacon cheeseburger,” he says, and hands Dot his menu.  He orders a root beer, and we’re off.  I sigh.
On the television hanging from the ceiling over the counter, Glenn Beck is holding court.  I have only one thing to say about Brother Beck, the demagogue of our convulsing age:  fuck him.  Okay, maybe that’s two things. In fact, I have never watched a single segment of his on television, nor listened to an entire program on the radio.  All I know is that my parents in Provo, Utah watch him religiously, and that their anxiety levels over the state of humanity, the earth and the horsemen of the apocalypse are off the fucking charts.  Visit after visit, I am regaled by the latest racism of the nation’s first black president, the latest attack on the family and the latest conspiracy involving socialists.
            But. I am not going to say anything more about Brother Beck, a man who converted to the religion of my childhood because, he said at one point, he wanted to have sex with the girl he was dating, and she insisted on it.  (Of course, the first time I got married was because as a 25 year-old sort-of-virgin, I wanted to have sex too and couldn’t, without tipping over a very large apple cart, without first getting married…but that was entirely different.)
            Fortunately, Brother Beck’s show is captioned, and we can ignore him over our dinner with no wine by simply averting our eyes.
            The meal is passable and passed over by the three of us with little conversation.  After he eats half of his hamburger, the man-boy excuses himself to go back to the bathroom.  I wait for Cheryl to say something to me.  Something about not picking on him.  About, “why are you so angry?  You look like you’re about to jump out of your skin.”  Instead, she decides to excuse herself to go browse the consumable and totchkes—key chains, shot glasses and posters of American Eagles wrapped in Old Glory.  I am left to collect the bill.  And in that split second of Cheryl’s leaving and my signaling Dot, I am struck with a foreboding sensibility.  In my determination to counter what I feel is the lunatic fears of civilization’s collapse—of apocalypse—I think perhaps that I have also discounted the reality and realities of the losses to be experienced as the country and to some extent the world transforms itself into an, as yet, unknown place.
            I think this first began to take shape—from feeling to abstraction–three nights earlier, Christmas night after all the gifts had been opened, the girls gone to bed and my brother-in-law Pete and I have retired to watching the John Wayne version of “True Grit” on cable in the middle of the Maine woods.  But we’re not really watching it.  We’re drinking whiskey and, speaking of trains, Pete gets on his, his strong Rhode Island accent feathering his words.  His voice getting louder as the booze sets in him.
            Pete who retired after 30+ years as a teacher in the Massachusetts public school system, has a perspective nevertheless drawn from the trenches of the working class bloke.  Though now turned so-called middle class, he and his wife, Cheryl’s sister, are teetering on the brink of a slap-down by the powers that be—the super rich, the government, the banks and other financial institutions and corrupt politicians.
            “They don’t get it,” he says.  “They don’t understand that you can’t fuck the American middle class without starting a revolution.”  Pete is more than rankled.  He’s built more houses than I can count, including his second home in Arizona with his own hands.  Clambered through as a shop teacher for the boys who can’t manage to pass in that academic way; served his country in the army reserve.  Raised three of his own boys; managed a rest home—knocking the wind out of at least three consecutive jobs all the while smoking like a chimney.  When we took him and his wife Diane to Paris one year and Barcelona another, the wiry guy with the full shock of black hair that’s just recently gone gray, walked the streets with that kind of sprung athletic look, almost like he was walking on his toes.
I envy his full head of hair the most.
            But now he’s pissed.  Worked hard to retire early and, among other things, has been told that the money he put into his Social Security is being “off-set” because at times during his frenetic work life, he worked double duty for the Bay State.  His conclusions on the state of the American state are not rooted in the popular, ever alternating demonizing/lionizing rhetoric of the day, but are surprising to me in that they are freshly informed by careful analysis and scorching pragmatism.  He never cared that he was going to have to work like a dog.  He only cares that the government in cahoots with big business way-laid people like him and somehow convinced half of the nation that the super-rich deserve to be treated by another standard.
            “This trickle down shit never worked.  Ever since Reagan they’ve been selling us this shit and hoodwinked the lot of us.  It’s nuts.  It’s fucking nuts.  And if they don’t think that there won’t be riots in the streets before this is over, they’re dreaming.  America isn’t going to escape revolution just because it’s America.”  He finishes his drink, his thick glasses making his doe-like eyes bulge in the dim light of the candles and tree lights that Diane has so carefully arranged—but that her husband made happen.  The can-do guy from Warren, Rhode Island turned resident of Riverside to retiree in backwoods Maine and Arizona.  A guy who likes to hit the casinos now and play black jack after felling fifty trees on his thirty acres outside Farmington, Maine.
            “And you want to know something else?” he continues.  Usually when I hear rants about the government and the country it’s red-state-styled bullshit about how the constitution is a static document that the “liberals” have incrementally disassembled and that the proofs of all of this are the moral corruption of welfare moms and abortionists. But Pete is different.  “You know what else?” he repeats.  You can’t tell me that the opposition to Obama isn’t just based out of good old fashioned racism.  They hate that guy because he’s black first and everything else follows.”
            Here, Here.
            The staggering part of all of this train wreck is that the Republicanists have abandoned honest-to-god conservative paradigm—much needed, I might add, in a two-party system such as ours–for the knuckleheads of the tea partiers.  They abandoned the party of William S. Buckley and Dwight Eisenhower and convinced the lot of us on a steady diet of lunatic consumerism and reality shows that it is un-American to hold the super-rich in this country to the same standard as people like Pete.

People like me, I might add.  Okay.  Maybe not people like me.  After all, I had it good.  For twenty years I flew around the world, literally.  Three days on/Four days off before the towers came down and the industry “reorganized.”  And now?  Now, God willing, I’ll collect a pension in a few years.  And right now I have the privilege of at least having a fighting chance of getting on a B-757 for free and flying over 2,000 miles for one week of vacation over Christmas.  Not bad for an English major.

            A fighting chance most of the time.  With 10,000 flights cancelled, we didn’t have a prayer getting out of Boston.  And now we are in Pennsylvania in a rented Corolla, with three to four days ahead of us still.

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue, Part 22

Part 22

Ames Monument, WY

We are on the way to Laramie, and C. wants to stop for the night, even though it’s not even the dinner hour. There is something about driving through Sherman, the highest point on I-80 at 8,262 feet above sea level that has triggered her anxiety. Maybe it is Evan’s Pass, named for the same Union Pacific surveyor who has a Cheyenne street named after him and who was killed by Indians. It doesn’t look like a pass, a canyon or a gorge—that will come later as we descend. Instead this backbone of the Laramie Mountains looks like more prairie, but starker, more arid, reached by an ascent that is hardly noticeable. The Continental Divide is still 200 miles to the west, but this summit marks the apex, literally, of the Union Pacific effort to link the country by rail. Nearby the sixty-foot Ames Monument, a stone pyramid celebrating two railroad-industry brothers that carried the name, sits dolefully, quasi-vandalized, a reminder, along with a lone cemetery, of the town’s death knell in 1918 when the railroad made the decision to relocate its tracks further south. C. wants out while I was thinking we might make it as far as Rock Springs tonight. The descent into Laramie through walls of crumbling rock and the wending of the freeway so that C. alternately grips the dashboard and the bottom of her seat, marks the way we often make decisions, she and I.

“We’ve only gone 350 miles,” I say. “Laramie to Salt Lake is a long ways to go in one day. It’s almost 400 miles, and we have to drop the car off by noon.”

“We’ll just pay for an extra day,” she says, not budging. “I need to get off the road. I need to sit in a hot tub.” What is it about hot tubs? I push her on this, aware that Derek is listening to his grandfather, a man who must appear perpetually swayed by the woman to his right. A man without balls?

I offer silence as we shoot down the canyon. My conversational weapon of choice more often that not, these days. Fact is Wyoming reminds C. of when she had cashed in all of her savings and made the decision to move out west. It was along I-80 twenty years ago that it hit her that she had made a decision that she could not reverse. She had left the East and her daughter and the family of her birth to move in with a fucked-up divorcee eleven years her junior.

“Besides,” continues C., “what’s the point in getting home early if it rattles us to death?” I wish she wouldn’t talk about herself in the plural like this. I’m going to cave to her. I can feel it. Maybe it’s her turn to malfunction. I had my meltdown last night—the storm she says she can feel moving in, brewing for miles, or hours up through the earth and into the soles of my feet, rising to my solar plexus, to me head—a storm that all she can do is wait out. Now it’s her turn to have a temper tantrum. Who will strong arm the other through attrition, grind down the other as the wind and rain continue to grind down this canyon from Cheyenne to Laramie? Or who will employ revenge—violent, sudden but hidden until the devastation can be made, well, most devastating? I am winning this one through my signature Dave Silence even while she points at the sign for the first exit at our last overnight stop on I-80 before our arrival home.

When traveling West on Interstate 80, Wyoming can seem the most dispensable of states. Something about the rock and the worn down hills pummeled non-stop by wind. The barbed wire fences. The sky that looks perpetually unkempt. The oil drills dip-dipping like crazed wood peckers. In the patchwork that is the Mountain West, Wyoming—“Forever West” as its state tagline goes–is forever vast and thus forever unarticulated. Yes, there’s Yellowstone. And the picturesque town of Jackson at the feet of the mighty Tetons. Like Colorado this state appears like the perfect square, but it’s a square that doesn’t know it’s a square. It’s never embraced it—doesn’t have a secured marketing plan. It’s the sort of place where Neil Diamond can be born, but doesn’t seem to have become an identifying mark on him. While Idaho gave us Frank Church, Wyoming gave us Dick Cheney.

Wyoming is also the place where young men can get the best education in auto mechanics, and when C. and I sit our tired bones into the hot tub that night, we get talking with a young man, fresh in from neighboring Colorado, and headed to school. What started out as an expression of interest in cars on Derek’s part, led his over-active grandparents to set him on a track: auto mechanic, the perfect relatively high-paying job for a boy who never cottoned to academics. He would go to a school like WyoTech here in Laramie—preferably for motorcycles which can pay easily an $80,000 annum. The man-boy would train for that and have a life, a good life. Right?

In the hot-tub the future WyoTech student, wiry, tattoo-ed, is only two years Derek’s senior, but he already has a girlfriend who is pregnant. Her parents have driven the two of them up from Grand Junction and will leave him here for his first term. He’s pumped about the whole thing—the narrative of his exciting, terrifying life with a kid on the way falling trippingly off his tongue. “One of the best auto tech places in world!” “Always liked engines, and cars.” “This will provide for me and my family!” He says this last part while looking at his girlfriend, lowering herself and her belly into the hot tub, her ill-fitting, faded bikini from her high school days not exactly fitting, if there is such a thing as a swimming suit that fits the pregnant. But more than looking at her when he says this, he is looking at her parents, in particular her father—a man younger than I am, but still thick with middle age—already planted in the tub next to me, his toes periodically peeking out of the surface foam. He hasn’t said a word to me. Only listened to the story that is being told. The story in which he has so much at stake. He abruptly stands to help his daughter into the suds two beats before it occurs to his future son-in-law that he should be more husbandly. Mid-sentence about the first term diesel track and the boy is leaping to his feet, but there’s really not much for him to do. Dad’s already got the girl’s arm and the boy can only stand there, his arms out like he’s spotting her, moving to her right to make sure she doesn’t fall against the side. A dragon shimmers up his left shoulder blade, mouth agape, breathing red below his neck, the skin smooth, aglow in this dim light and the acrid fumes of chlorine.

I am hoping Derek will join us here in the hot tub. I want him to witness how nesting occurs, and what his role is in all of it: education or training, work, provision for the mate that fate will choose for him… how to tell the story to keep the father-in-law at bay. But my boy is not coming over. He’s standing chest-high in the much cooler pool, hat-less finally, the fine, thick, twisted hair of his head falling forward over half of his face. Compared to the volcanic whirlpool of the tub, where he stands is like glass. And he is looking at himself in it, his head cocked down, the fair flesh of his upper arms and back exposed like marble. Having to report later to him what I heard about this “Great opportunity at WyoTech. Remember when we were talking about that? This guy seemed so excited…” will not be the same as if he were here, with me, listening and watching. Instead, he is listening and watching somewhere else, alone. And when he emerges, all the shining, troubled length of him, his hair will still be dry.

He is pining for his parents or, more likely, the concept of parents. To Derek, C. and I are only replacements for them. We are willing and ready for this. Have been now for years, despite our failing him at times. WyoTech is the answer, just like his moving in with us four years ago was the answer then. Like everything we’ve managed to throw his way—taking him on vacations, giving him kick-boxing lessons, wrangling LPs, watching Johnny Depp’s Jack Savage wobble through Pirates of the Caribbean for the 15th time; talking long and late into the night about why he sleeps with a baseball bat, and why in the middle of class he erases himself and returns only at the sound of the snapping pencil in his hands under his desk.

Next morning the light has moved in toto to the sky and it is windy. Everything earthbound feels small, unlike when we arrived last night and Laramie was a pool of light, the interstate shooting out of the canyon and sweeping around this university town in a giant parabolic arc. At the last exit before we head toward over Elk Mountain to Rock Springs, the truck stop envelopes us. I gas up the Toyota while Derek and C. head for the store for provisions. Not that we really need much, if anything. But the Pilot Plaza is one of many truck stops along the way, important touchstones, dots we are connecting as we inch our way back home. Inside, everyone’s a-buzz but in that reserved way strangers are as they edge toward each other through their tasks—some critical, others more for comfort–and the inchoate need that none of us can quite admit to or even determine. This is as good as community will get today for us—ad hoc, searching and mostly filled with a good will. A microcosm not of America but, again, of the world of how humans relate, fill the void temporarily then move on. And I am grateful for it.

Those traveling east explain the warp and woof of the way over Elk Mountain to those of us headed west. This ostensibly to the cashier but really to all in line waiting to buy their coffee and their bag of Cheetos, their latest CD of Country Western, a pack of cigarettes. At the sugar station where coffee is being mixed, someone discloses trouble at the exit near Wagonhound Road where a trailer was blown off the road last night. The Wyoming wind is out and, even though the sky is clear, drifts across Interstate 80 are making visibility virtually zero. C. listens carefully to a trucker young enough to be her son and whose flannel shirt with corduroy cuffs and collar are scuffed with grease. We’ve already headed out of town once this morning before realizing that we had forgotten to fill the tank and that one hundred miles lie between Laramie and the next sizeable settlement of Rawlins. But even in that brief interlude on the road we realize what we’re up against.

C., approachable and solicitous at the same time, is listening intently. We’ve already had the shit scared out of us as we realized that the asphalt is nothing more than a shifting dream of drifting snow. Not only is there no way to see the road but what covers it is in constant motion. We are accustomed after exactly 1,769 miles to register the road in front of us as if it were a rope we are pulling ourselves along, the rope whose constitution and even direction we would never dream of questioning. The road that will take us home. Just follow it. That is our task. But at times now we aren’t even sure that it’s even there, that we’re not driving off into the high prairie grass and the rock. And who’s to say that the truck or car ahead of us isn’t itself veering off? You can’t even follow the tail lights ahead, not if you want to be sure you’re on the yellow brick road.

The guy in flannel and the baseball cap is the size of a wall. He’s been talking about all the chains that loop underneath these rigs like clanging genitalia and how he lent half of them out, used the other half on his own eighteen wheels but is now needing more. “Two of ‘em broke and I had to pull ‘em off the wheel. Fishtailed all the way down the damn mountain. Scared the bejesus out of me. Still don’t know where some of them chains went. Sitting in the snow somewhere on the summit, I guess.”

“How do you stay on track?” asks C.. I move in so I can hear better. So do three other guys, one with an expensive hair cut and in a Gore-Tex jacket and leather gloves. “You can’t see the road. It moves,” she says with a nervous chuckle, her smile perpetually warm.

“Ma’am, you don’t look at the road. For all intents and purposes, it ain’t there. You gotta look at the road markers. They’re your life line.”

C. is persistent, tiny as she is in this coterie of fellow travelers looking for advice, or tips, for “best practices.” “But you can’t even see them sometimes,” she says. Even though we’re under florescent lighting and awash in the persistent twang of Dwight Yoakum rendering “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” ala camp, we’re like 19th Century pioneers who must have stopped and listened to every sentient being coming the other way through mountain passes and churning rivers. “It’s like they’re not there,” C. repeats for emphasis.

The young driver is thoughtful, even philosophical for a moment. “Well, ma’am, I guess you just always keep your eyes peeled for those posts and imagine you’ll see one in time, because they’re most likely there. The government put ‘em there for a good reason. Just don’t get mesmerized by the snow on the road or you’ll end up in Canada.”

Everyone in the group nods, except for C.. She doesn’t like this answer. But she trusts the messenger. I know this because she touches his sleeve before moving on.

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue: Part 21

Part 21



There is a frontiersman of sorts by the name of Wayne Baker who actually lives not far from where we are now, speeding towards Laramie. He’s one of the “Greatest Generation,” we’re told. In fact he’s happy to tell you that in so many words in a 275-page, self-published paperback book with so many color photos (160) that it probably cost him forty bucks to print each one. Above the Clouds: The Story of an American Entrepreneur is a first-person account of a guy who flew bombing missions over Germany during World War II, got wealthy scrapping metal out of abandoned mines and bush piloted for decades, ferrying his customers and large family back and forth over the prairies and mountains of the expansive West. In his current home in Star Valley, Wyoming he has built eleven bridges alone across the Salt River, usually, he explains, with just himself and an unnamed assistant.

But of late, Baker is most famous for founding Freedom Arms and the 454 Casull revolver, considered for many years the most powerful handgun in the world. The gun is indeed a work of art with an optional ivory micarta grip and specialty, limited editions with medallions and engraved octagonal barrels. The guns come in a walnut case along with a Freedom Arms gold-and-silver plated belt buckle. Baker’s jingoistic concept of freedom which permeates his self-talk, stems from a unique blend of American individualism, Western defiance and fringe Mormon ideology that animates much of the tea party movement in the intermountain West. Reading through his book, or watching him at age eighty-four hold court which I had to endure one afternoon in 2008 as a co-guest in the house of my just-older sister, one is struck with Baker’s self-serving notion of freedom. The word seems defined by him as doing whatever the hell he wants. “Freedom” is little more than a buzz word to justify his calcified way of life…and to sell guns in the process.

Despite this self-promotion, it is hard not to take pleasure in following the adventures of Wayne Baker set out in his autobiographical narrative with about as much self-reflection as a hero in a Louis L’Amour novel. There is the hardscrabble “Great American Childhood” (title of Chapter 2) growing up in wind-swept Wyoming with a father who lost everything in the Depression. There is his time in the military during World War II over Munich when he and his team accidently dropped a bomb prematurely and ended up, by chance, destroying a hidden Nazi munitions center. This propelled them into hero-dom. His time in the military is obviously the apex of his admittedly raucous adventures because it is the opening salvo in his book which sports his baby-faced, uniformed portrait on the cover backed by an American flag. Yes, freedom all around.

This is a man who at about 5” 6” is sent back from the war on the GI Bill, marries a softball-playing beauty of Swiss descent and swaggers about the West facing down Union “thugs” in his coal mining business, mavericking around the dry, nascent airfields of the Mountain West, routinely landing on highways, heroically fixing stuck landing gear mid-flight in his Cessna 210 and generally making friends with other Freedom-loving Americans like Slim Pickins, Roy Rogers and Art Linkletter, the latter of whom has a cameo in the book, and blurbs it on the back cover as the story of “one of the most exciting adventures in my personal life.”

And so it came to pass that shortly after the 2008 presidential election which ended the nightmare of the conjoined Cowboy Bush/Cheney, that C. and I were invited down to my sister Karolla’s place two days after Christmas. We didn’t know that Thom, her husband, had a cousin, Wayne, who with his wife Mariam would be trailing in after us, to join us for a post-holiday lunch. But there they were, blowing in sideways from Tin Cup, Wyoming, Wayne rather pumped up with the “publication” of his autobiography, the latest catalogue of guns from Freedom Arms, and a huge chip on his shoulder that had to do with our nation’s first black president.

There we were, sitting in Spanish Fork, Utah, knee-to-knee with Wayne and the second sentence out of his mouth to two people he’d never before met (us) was something about the collapse of all things decent in our Country what with that “nigger President in the White House.” This was shocking, unprovoked, or so I thought at the time, and I had a visceral reaction to the “N” word.

“Hey there! Whoa! You can’t use that word!” I declaimed. But Wayne—one must hand it to the little squirt—was a worthy opponent that day to my objections. He said “Nigger President” again while his wife, in desperate need of a little make up, nodded in firm-lipped agreement. C. grabbed my knee. “You don’t know anything about me,” I said. “You can’t say that to me.” Then I rose and walked to the kitchen where my sister’s mouth remained open in equal surprise.

My heart was pounding. Where did this hostility come from? On election night I had watched on television in abject wonder and relief when Barack and Michelle walked out on the platform in Lincoln Park, Chicago for his acceptance speech, Oprah herself on the front row of the masses, looking up, beaming, and I thought to myself, “Oh my God. Someone’s going to shoot him.” That was the real America—black or bi-racial men with sudden power—perceived or real—get lynched—shot through the heart. How soon I’d forgotten, believing that now that Obama was ensconced in the White House, my fellow Americans from sea-to-shining-sea, would, if not breathe a sigh of relief, would perhaps grumble, yes, but they would accept it, and the great ship that is America would go steaming forward through the night, righted. Secured. Onward! I was very, very wrong.

Wayne finally quieted down, his Freedom Arms belt buckle tucked under his belly like a pie tin. For the sake of my sister and her husband and everyone else in the room—not to mention the memory of C.’s firm grip to my knee—I conversationally moved on. The only way out of this was through it, I realized. That was when Wayne handed me a copy of his book which I pretended to look at, and he continued promoting himself with his secret weapon—Mariam, the smiling softball player-turned-Wyoming-wife to a megalomaniac—nodding obliquely and in agreement with everything her husband said. I learned in that painful moment waiting for lunch to be served that he was a self-taught mining and bridge engineer. That he was a pilot, flying by the seat of his pants. That he was still pissed off with the home of the brave “sticking its nose into another country’s business” (e.g., Apartheid South Africa) and that he purposefully moved his business out of Idaho where he lived for much of his adult life and across the border into Freedom, Wyoming because of “the socialist, if not communistic” climate of the potato state, represented in the U.S. Senate by Frank Church. Egad. Was this guy for real?

Baker was real, in the flesh, sitting across from me all aglow in the backwash of the Greatest Generation, and C. and I were stuck, Derek fortunately lost downstairs with my nephew Chris and playing the guitar. Later, I remembered that Baker’s relocation hissy fit from Idaho to Wyoming was the way many of our mutual ancestors handled things when they felt that their “freedom” was being impinged on. Brother Baker’s and my own polygamous grandparents commonly “Lied for the Lord” by disavowing the practice of celestial marriage–a.k.a. polygamy–especially to the Feds. One way to keep ahead of the enemy was to run across state lines. Freedom, Wyoming was one of those polygamous settlements established in the 18th Century to keep law enforcement scrambling. When agents showed up in Freedom, Idaho our persecuted ancestors walked across the street to Freedom, Wyoming—and vice versa. This little maneuver lived on, apparently, for Baker and his Freedom Arms. The fact that Wyoming is considered by the State Business Tax Climate Index as “the most business-friendly tax system of any state,” with plenty of corporate welfare, was probably also a lure for our entrepreneurial Wayne Baker.

After the blessing on the food we lunched together. Baker now seemed a bit chastened by his earlier bombastic behavior. I actually found myself listening to him, with a kind of perverse curiosity if not sympathy. But ego of this kind seems to know no bounds, and as soon as the table was cleared he was presenting me with the latest catalogue of his…guns. Everyone knows that after Obama’s election to the Presidency, firearm sales and concealed weapons permits exploded throughout the country (no pun intended). It seems that Obama is the anti-2nd Amendment President, even though more restrictive gun laws were never high on his platform.

Let’s see. We have a newly-elected African-American president. Gun sales are booming. And Wayne Baker, founder of a company that created and markets a finely-turned handgun more powerful than the 44 Magnum, has just referred to Obama as a “Nigger President.” Oh, and now this pipsqueak is hawking his guns to anyone who will listen.

Oh my.

C., Derek and I leave. We kiss my sister goodbye. We civilly nod at Wayne and his Secret Weapon. I am carrying his glossy catalogue of guns along with a few late-delivered Christmas gifts from the family. Out we go and into the driveway. It’s bad enough, I suppose, that the car we are driving, and which now sits side-by-side with Baker’s gas guzzler is a hybrid, but it also sports, I’m reminded…an Obama/Biden bumper sticker.

I had forgotten about that. It seems that Mr. Baker in his shit-kickers and with his wife had rolled up, turned off their eight cylinders, only to be stared down by evidence of Dave and C.’s political proclivities.

On the way home, I am pissing and moaning which may surprise you, dear reader. Finally, C., her Yankee practicality finally emerging, says impatiently, “You want to get even with a jerk like that? You hit him in his wallet.”

“What do you mean?”

“Make sure his gun sales suffer.”

“Yeah, but he’s retired. He’s not the CEO or president anymore. That doesn’t seem fair.” Yet again, piss-and-vinegar Dave, stung by his powerlessness has gone to his wife to get her to fix it. No. Not just fix it, but make a decision about what to do so that I don’t have to take responsibility for it if it goes south.

“Fair?” she says with some mockery. Already my feelings are starting to get hurt. This is a game with which we are infinitely familiar. Her late father’s sensibility roars forth. Frank Daley, the man who always said, follow the money trail if you want to make things happen.

“Write his son,” she says. “Tell him what happened today with his father. Tell him you’re a writer. Tell him you’ll go to the press.”

Hmmm. This gets me thinking all the way back to Salt Lake, limping along in our Obama-imprinted Hybrid, the liberal media of NPR playing as background. The glory days of Obama’s win of the White House ends here. The enemy of our hope is the face of Wayne Baker, the cowboy constitutionalist of Star Valley, Wyoming.

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue, Part 23

Part 23

Wayne Baker (right)


And so it came to pass that while Derek hums “Come Together…right now…over me….” and C. does rear-view detail for vehicles coming up too fast from behind, I take the wheel and we set out across the mountain. I am Odysseus guiding our little Japanese-inspired car with the New York plates through the Charbydis of going too slow and the Scylla of going too fast, while averting my eyes from the writhing, snake-like ribbons of snow across the interstate that seem now, in the last leg of our journey, to have betrayed us.

Near the town itself of Elk Mountain, population 192, on the banks of the Medicine Bow River, we are surprised to see a tiny gas station, open for business. Up here the drifting seems to have abated some, the sky still a vault of winter blue above, the mountains—including the town’s namesake off to the Southwest—blanketed in snow but appearing, somehow in this de-oxygenated terrain, dry. The station sits wind-blown to the north of the Interstate, and is preternaturally run-down with old water heaters outside, fading, stripped-down chip board siding and a dark retail space with a bearded, elderly man sitting behind the counter, reading a paperback western. He’s on oxygen, himself, the tube winding its way back down to a green tank and the other end climbing itself up his neck, around his ears and two-pronging into his nose above a shaggy gray beard. There is a picked-over shelf of candy bars, some T-shirts touting the world-famous trout fishing in the area, an empty freezer chest un-plugged and a cash register. I wait for the bathroom. There is one other car outside gassing up. Oddly, it smells like lavender in here. The man, slumped over in a sweater of wide cables doesn’t acknowledge me, his breathing steady but slightly wheezy. The stuffed head of a deer—or is it a small elk?—stairs down through marble eyes. I try to read the title of his mass market book until he looks at me over his glasses and I look away, finishing the lyrics of Joe’s humming, like a baton has been passed, “One thing I can tell you is you got to be free….”

Back outside, we’ve topped off the tank and we’re ready to roll. Derek has elected to stay in the car. While I am alive with adrenaline from wading through miles of shifting road, and antsy to get out and see the terrain however stark in this high elevation light, he is categorically uninterested in any of it. Suddenly, I’m quite sure he will not be going to WyoTech in motorcycle mechanics, or any kind of mechanics. And this recognition leaves me baffled. How is it that I am supposed to care for this young man when I don’t understand him? For every solicitous turn I take in his direction, he seems to turn away, and those moments where we sit downstairs in front of the computer and he pulls up one You-Tube music video after another, those moments seem now to be pointless exercises in distraction. Could I possibly have been this drifty at his age? Without purpose?

C. would say I had too much purpose in my life at seventeen. Hell, by then I had been made a priest in church, a sort of automatic ecclesiastical advancement in which all boys that age were told after ordination that they now housed in their bodies and souls the power to act in God’s name. “The same power given to the prophet!” it was announced with amazement over the pulpit. Three decades later and I’m wondering if it was just religious delusion that injured me the most, or just the fact that I was burdened with something that neither I, nor my cohorts, were ready for at that tender age. What disservice we do to our youth to give them power when they likely don’t even have the power yet to act in their own name, let alone deity’s? But Derek is in just the opposite predicament as I was at his age. There’s not enough direction in his life. There seem to be no demands. Just suggestions. And he is left wandering through the walls of East High and the video library of You Tube. And yet I see and hear and feel Derek’s potential for something akin to greatness. Yes, something bigger than he that shouts down the frenetic, mindless world with authenticity. Neither my church nor my father could have ever told me at seventeen what or where my own greatness was, though Lord knows both the institution and the man tried, inflected with a kind of programmatic faith that felt industrial. Perhaps what Derek needs, what I needed back then, was to have someone who could tell me, in the right way, to just go out and find it. Whatever it was, whatever it is—just go out and find it. At an elevation of 7,264 feet, this is what I’m thinking of as I climb back into the car and head down the mountain for home.

The closer we get to the cartographic point where Wyoming and Utah conjoin, the more I am reminded of my nemesis, Wayne Baker. In Evanston, on the state line, U.S. Highway 89 shoots north to Star Valley and the unincorporated community of Freedom, and I remember the letter I wrote to his son after his father’s Nigger President comment. The letter went something like this:

“Dear Mr. Baker, You’re father was an asshole recently and you better get him to apologize to me for his bad behavior or, as a journalist, I’ll be publishing something that talks about how the founder of Freedom Arms is calling the current president of the United States a ‘nigger’ and then hawking guns. Very Sincerely Yours…”

Actually, I was much more professional than that, carefully drafting a letter in which I mentioned that I had very little if any issue with the broad interpretation of the 2nd Amendment (largely true) and that the Model 83, 454 Casull revolver is highly regarded by my close friend Mark (very true) who nevertheless was quite shocked (not so true–just rolled his eyes) by my report at how wonderful it was that Wayne, one of America’s “Greatest Generation” had sacrificed (said grudgingly) so much for the freedoms that our country enjoys, blah, blah, blah…. But really, I wanted to stick it to the old guy with the ditto-head wife. This was in January, a few weeks after my unfortunate encounter with Wayne and, being the ninny that I am when it comes to firearms, unlike my friend Mark, I actually returned-addressed the letter to my work, sans the Company name, because I was quite sure that in the middle of the night Captain Wayne and his 40 Thugs 40 were going to creep down to my house in Salt Lake and put a 454 Casull up my ass.

Apparently, Bob Baker, second son of Wayne and Mariam, is a practical man who is concerned about taking care of his wife and kids and actually having a retirement after his old man kicks the bucket, because one rainy morning that following March I got a phone call on my cell phone at 7:30. It was Wayne, the entrepreneur, “Founder of Freedom Arts, Inc. and Many Other Ventures” as the subtitle to his autobiography shouts. In retrospect, I’m sure he was hoping for voice mail. Otherwise, why call so early? As it turned out, he had to talk to a live, bleeding-heart, nigger-loving liberal journalist from–horrors!–the big, homosexual-friendly city of Salt Lake.

“Is this David Pace?”

“Yes?”

“This is Wayne Baker calling.” (Pause) “I’m sorry for what happened. I just get so angry some times, and I speak my mind and that’s why I’m calling…(muffle, muffle…click).

So that was his apology? Though modesty forbids my articulating the visual I had just then between father and son, it really did sound on my end as though the barrel of a 454 Casull was at minimum being held by Bob to his father’s temple.

And so it came to pass, dear reader, that I got my revenge on the Entrepreneur of Wyoming, Wayne Baker. A man who, like me, was descended from pioneers who settled the West by dint of their vision, their faith and their stubbornness. A man born into poverty, eating a concoction called “Lumpy Dick”–flour, milk and salt and pepper–and who flew bombers over France and Germany and came home to found Mountain States Machinery and Supply. An uneducated but fiercely self-taught man who built with pretty much his own hands nearly a score of bridges over the Salt River on the Wyoming/Idaho border and taught himself to fly. A pilot and gun maven who fathered seven kids and a passel of grandkids. Newly minted as the owner of a coal mine, he is also a man who found an enemy in Democrats and the federal government, the latter being the very entity that had spent thousands training him in the military, honored him for his service, educated his children, bailed out Depression-era families (although not Wayne’s father who would never declare bankruptcy), and built the roads and infrastructure that made it possible for Wayne to build all those bridges in the rangeland of Idaho and Wyoming. For Wayne socialist “if not communistic” schools and politicians during the Civil Rights and Vietnam eras essentially destroyed the country, the fabulist idea of which he carried like a warmed-over nut under his left pec through adulthood and into old age. With money in hand (and savings backed exclusively in gold and silver, of course!) from his mining and mine-scrapping, he not only built Freedom Arms but funded the John Bircher W. Cleon Skousen—a pseudo-intellect in the vein of Newt Gingrich—animated by the obscure, 19th Century prophesy that Mormons would be the ones who would in the “last days” rescue the U.S. Constitution which would “hang by a thread.”

This is not only Wayne Baker’s legacy, but mine. And perhaps that is why my encounter with him in Spanish Fork, the very town that my triple-great grandfather John Lowe Butler ended up in and is now buried, really stuck in my craw. I read all of Skousen’s books which re-cast Bible stories into Mormonese, a grand, purplish story that placed a quaint religious tradition indigenous to America at the center of the universe . I went to Skousen’s lectures at BYU where he told us the exact year of the great, universal flood in the days of Noah and, later, at his Freeman Institute lectures, how the Founding Fathers were chosen—descendants of the lost tribes of Israel via the British Isles—and just how pleading a personified Europe was with their grand-nephew America who was experimenting with socialism the way my friends were experimenting with pot in the mid-70s. “Go back! Go back!” Skousen would intone in this lectures, quoting a personified Germany, France and England. “Go back to capitalism!”

As a senior at religion-soaked Provo High School, I volunteered for Skousen’s “Institute” to build my 17-year old resume to get college scholarships. A descendent of Danish pioneers, he was in fact at the time my hero. After a particularly busy day stuffing three-ringed binders with constitutional study materials, I would walk by his office in a giant warehouse off of State Street in South Provo and find the bald fellow sitting behind a desk with the authority of a jolly Ben Franklin. As with his protégé, Glenn Beck, Dr. Skousen, along with advocating to “Get us out of the United Nations,” had learned that detailing the “murky truths of the known world,” as Steve Almond has said in the online magazine Salon, would never capture the conservative American’s heart over “the ecstatic possibilities of the imagined.” Skousen’s misbegotten American narrative would end up engineering Frank Church’s ouster from the U.S. Senate (after a 24-year career) and, in Utah, vault Orrin Hatch to Washington on the coattails of Ronald Reagan. This is who Wayne Baker became and who I could have become. He helped seed the tea party movement and the likes of Glenn Beck, and the whole thing just pisses me off.

And yet…somehow, hearing Baker’s plaintive voice on the phone on that rainy morning singing his ditty of a song of repentance, made me feel sick to my stomach. There really was no joy in humiliating a man old enough to be my father. Revenge may be sweet, but it is saccharine sweet. And all I can think of now as we fly by the exit that would take us North to Freedom, is how Baker’s oldest boy Alan used to fly “above the clouds” with his bush pilot father all around the west.

The story goes this way. One day in 1964 the two of them made a trip in their Cessna to visit business customers in Ely, Nevada, the airport to which had become snowed in. When Baker radioed in, he told the tower that he was going to land on the highway eighteen miles east of the city to wait out the storm. Shortly after landing at an intersection of the highway and a dirt road, the storm hit. Thirty minutes later two police cars arrived to tell them that the weather was likely to clear up sooner close to town than out where they had landed. With a police escort, and visibility under one hundred feet, Baker drove the Cessna into town. They ended up at the main intersection stop light. Police had stopped traffic everywhere so that they could continue over the railroad overpass and on out to the airport to wait out the storm.

Alan was sixteen, and it must have been the most surreal adventure of his life creeping

through the snowy, blinded streets of Ely with his dad who must in fact have seemed like a kind of god to him in command of the entire place, the lights of the cruisers flashing. Three years later, Alan would be killed coming home from a hunting trip. A mile from the family home, he would fall asleep and run into an abutment of a bridge, perhaps not so unlike the one that Wayne Baker would become famous for building with his own hands in Star Valley, Wyoming. Alan Baker, a dark-haired, quiet boy with the full Swiss face of his mother, was the oldest child of Wayne and Mariam.

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue, Part 24


Part 24

John and Sean Lennon

North of Evanston, not far from Freedom Arms, my Grandfather Butler would have descended, as we now are, towards the last long stretch of the trail. Today, the road west—actually southwest—is calm, the drifts seemingly stilled by the persistence of the late-morning sun. This is the segment of the great American migration west where my ancestors on both sides made a departure from the Oregon and California Trails to the Great Basin anchored by a salt lake. It was the less desirable location to settle—dry, desert-like and isolated. But it was the place that the leadership wanted, a place this “peculiar people,” still in the early grip of polygamy, could call their own and be left undisturbed. And that is how the last day of our journey across the country began to end at the start of the second decade of the new millennium. The sky is big, the way is clear and the wagons in my mind roll along a path that is hardly a hewn trail, but more of a rock-strewn mirage of a path worn down by trappers, Indians and deer. The Donnor Party which became entrapped in the early snows of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to a devastating end were the only settlers to come this way before the Mormons. And the way was filled with mountain fever, dying cattle and the ennui of wagon travel.

Derek is headed back to school in a couple of days. And C. and I are back to work tomorrow. With the end in sight, am I feeling relief or nostalgia? The very things I have been internally railing at for the past five days—my country, my people, my family—is suddenly in my mind at rest even as we speed down Echo Canyon towards Coalville. At one’s home one must find sanctuary, no matter the cost. And so it is here for me. “This is the day thou gavest,” goes the old hymn, and this is the place we call the terminus of our travels though we may dream of California gold as another pioneer grand father of mine did before leaving his clan and heading further west. But it’s not just evening, the close of this “day” that “thou gavest.” The hymn says to me that you get what God gives you, whatever it is. And you can either be resentful of it and stymied or somehow grateful and move on.

Grateful as was my prodigal ancestor who reportedly returned penniless two years after he left the city of saints for the gold fields. He had in fact struck it rich in California, but on the way home he had been robbed of everything except a pony so small his feet dragged the ground, and his hat, it was said, was crownless. They took him back in, this grandfather of mine, twenty-something at the time, home being the place you go and they have to take you in.

Currently, home for us is a neighborhood in Salt Lake City near the cross streets of 9th East and 9th South and the sort of place that, after seven years in Brooklyn, seemed like the only possible home C. and I could endure as we returned to the reddest-of-the reds, what the Denver Post once tagged with the enduring moniker, “The Church State.” Our heavily-treed enclave sports urban Liberty Park, walkable streets and a left-leaning, mixed student, family, gay-friendly population. It is home to the art film house, The Tower, where the Sundance Film Festival takes up residency every January. It is also home to the tres gay Cahoots’ Gift Shop, along with the swankiest bicycle shop in the city (bicycles being very big) and The Children’s Hour—definitely harking back to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, not Lillian Hellman—with its insanely high-priced cutesy clothes for kids.

Since our return from New York to Utah in 2003 gentrification at 9th and 9th has spiked, and even during the current economic down-turn, home prices have stayed relatively high. But we are lagging, C. and I. We can hardly keep up with the taxes on the little house we dance in. The salad days of the airline have receded through a Doppler blue in our minds. Even with the flight benefits I maintain on furlough, we don’t have the means to do anything once we arrive somewhere. Then there are the complications of Derek. Traveling “non-rev” with three is a challenge, and he can’t be left at home alone. The trip East for Christmas has proven all of that—splitting up to get on separate flights to Maine—two of us through Detroit, one of us through Atlanta and LaGuardia. An extra night stay in Bangor. And now this. A five-night/six-day road trip west that has turned our first extended vacation with our live-in grandson into our financial undoing.

Maybe I can go back to teaching a class or two, to make ends meet. Return to the infamous Trail—that bone-crunching stream of immigrant grunts behind yoked oxen–as Grandpa Butler did five years after he settled in Utah with his multiple wives. It seems the crops didn’t come in sufficiently those first few years in Spanish Fork. Grasshoppers ate everything one too many times. So he left his first wife Caroline and oldest son in charge and dusted off the blacksmithing tools of his original trade that back east had made him so valuable to the people he called his own. Two summers in a row John Lowe Butler returned to The Trail that was both his escape and his terror, his hope and his sorrow to repair wagons before ferrying them across the Green River so they could continue on to the Continental Divide and South Pass. He did it. Why shouldn’t I have to scramble as well for a living in the promised land? Return to the trade. Go back East, temporarily?

Back in New York, it is 1975. The Beatles have long ago broken up. John and Yoko are ensconced in the seven-story Dakota on the upper-west side. And after two miscarriages, Yoko has delivered Sean. Lennon has moved from being just a rock star to presumptive leader of world enlightenment. But characteristically, Lennon is clueless as to what any of it means and it’s all reflected in his song “Imagine” which Elton John once parodied in a concert with,

Imagine six apartments

It isn’t hard to do

One is full of fur coats

The other’s full of shoes

Despite being, arguably, an insipid string of bromides, over one hundred artists have recorded “Imagine,” including David Archuleta as part of his American Idol outing two years ago. I guess you can’t really argue with success.

So it is after Lennon’s primal scream therapy songs and the global Rorschach test release of “Imagine,” that Lennon’s paean to his five-year-old son Sean, “Beautiful Boy” appears. And it seems to cut through the songwriter’s fog of heroin, the residuals of his tortured try at open marriage (“Whoopee!…But it was god-awful,”) and, though well-meaning in that now-that-we-have-a-platform-let’s-show-‘em-we-care way of faux activism often shouldered by celebrities, fundraisers. The song actually seems real, heartfelt. Something I can relate to as we descend out of the high Wyoming plain and into the Great Basin. In 1980, the year Lennon left us he said

The joy is still there when I see Sean. He didn’t come out of my belly but, by God, I made his bones, because I’ve attended to every meal, and to how he sleeps, and to the fact that he swims like a fish. That’s because I took him to the ‘Y’. I took him to the ocean. I’m so proud of those things. He is my biggest pride, you see.

And in the music video of the song, Sean, with his Dutch boy haircut is orbiting in and out of a cluster of adults, which include his parents. Then, in juxtaposition, the video melds to the final, pensive iteration of the scene, emptied of human life, the garden chairs and table sitting like sculpture.

I don’t know why Derek loves John Lennon, why he wants to read about every aspect of his life in an 800-page biography that he isn’t likely to ever finish. But I know why Lennon matters to me now. It’s because he loved a child in that hankering, drifty way that makes one exult in the repetition of

Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful

Beautiful boy…

And if, as the songwriter sings, “life is what happens to you/While you’re busy making other plans” then I am in trouble as a father to Derek. While I have been taking out whole life insurance policies for him, tracking him through the Salt Lake Arts Academy and East High, running after him down the sidewalk behind his tottering bicycle…all with some giant planning wheel spinning in the sky of my mind, Excel spreadsheets numbered and pulsing with what needs to happen to raise this boy to manhood–while all of this has been going on, Derek’s life has been taking place largely unbeknownst to me. Both C. and I have attempted to manufacture memorable experiences, including this trip back East for Christmas, to off-set the horrors and traumas before he came to live with us. And we have gone into debt, the consequence of which I am holding at bay somewhere south of my sternum. But quality time, in the parlance of family scientists (a contradiction in terms), isn’t something you can schedule. Because as with life in general, both on the micro and macro level—at the hearth and in the White House—plans are what we make to keep us from the realization that the world is an arbitrary and terrifying place. Beyond our control.

My brother-in-law Pete is right. America is not beyond a revolution—rocks being thrown in the street. Guns a-blazing. Dirty bombs. Some of our population already knows this. They live with some version of it virtually every day. But white middle class folk like me living in the Mountain West? Not a chance. We still feel as though we are immune from what the gears of a world that grinds on without knowing that it is grinding at all. It’s a regional expression of the poet’s “View with a Grain of Sand,” the grain that “calls itself neither grain nor sand/It does just fine without a name….” The world being outside from what we call it:

Time has passed like a courier with urgent news

but that’s just our simile.

The character is invented, his haste is make believe,

His news inhuman.

As with Lennon’s joy over his son, “the joy is still there” when I see Derek, even now in the rear-view mirror, the three of us hurtling home. And that joy is there only because I understand more today than ever before, here at the start of the second decade of the new millennium, just how aimless we are in a place that has never obeyed our naming of it.

Lennon frequently asked his Aunt Mimi, the woman who had raised him in Mendips, Liverpool, to come to New York for a visit. “I’m not going to a land where there’s guns, John” she said. On December 8, 1980, Lennon was shot dead by a deranged fan outside the Dakota in New York and “Imagine” and “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)” both took on new resonance to a population on both sides of the Atlantic that could not seem to get over it for days, weeks…decades. The terminus for Lennon was outside his apartment on a winter day not so unlike today.

Manhattan and the Salt River Valley of Wyoming couldn’t be more different from each other, especially in terms of the goddamned, God-given right to bear arms. Pot-smoking John Lennon with the wire rims next to crew-cut, fierce “constitutionalist” Wayne Baker, armed and ready—it’s hard to think how both of them could have found a home in America without destroying each other. Maybe they did destroy each other. Maybe they still are–destroying each other and the country they both claim(ed) to love at the same time. “Give Peace a Chance” and “Guns, God and Guts”—two mantras that one could argue have always animated, however circuitously, the experiment that is America.

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue, Part 20



[Dear Blog Followers:  As I get closer to sending this project off to an agent for possible publication, I have changed my wife’s name to “C.” and my grandson’s name to “Derek.”  Thanks for reading…]

Part 20

On to Wyoming. In truth this is not the first time C. and I have driven this stretch. It’s not even the first cross-country trip we’ve taken together. In November 1991, after six months of dating, we decided to relocate her to the City of Saints next to the Great Salt Lake where I was based with the airline. I had made numerous trips to Satellite Beach, Florida where she had been forcibly relocated from Maine—and separated from her pre-Derek daughter. First in April when, this being the second and final separation from my wife, she took me under her wing. Three days later, my petulance even starting to wear on myself, I returned to Salt Lake. But the visits continued. I would fly in for a layover to Orlando or Melbourne and she would drive in for visits, and I would whisk away on a Boeing 757 or the MD88 (“Mad Dog”) back to my other life. In June she came out to Utah for my birthday, where the bombshell of our conjugal visits was dropped with my at first disbelieving (very religious) parents. And…the rest is cross-country history. In November I found myself driving a truck half the size of our first New York apartment and towing a little Toyota she called “Chuck.”

All of this to say that this is our second time traversing Wyoming in the winter.

Skirting the corner of Colorado, I-80 takes us through Chappell then Sidney, and we cross the state line at Pine Bluffs at 2 pm, several miles south of where the Mormon Trail still follows the North Platte. There are no pines in sight in Pine Bluffs where, again, I-80 and its predecessor, the Lincoln Highway, converge, running parallel all the way to the state capitol and onto Laramie where the Lincoln heads due north. Cheyenne is of course named after the Native American nation, but as with most big western cities there is little evidence of Indians there except as a memorial. We head down into the historic district, across the tracks, crunching over snow pack and to the Capitol Building, cast in a strange bluing light here in the mid-afternoon. At 6,000 feet elevation this is one of the windiest cities in the country with the Chinook driving down from the Eastern flank of the Rockies. And today, New Year’s Day, the place is positively dead. It has been said that the most enduring relics of those who have gone before will be found in names. It is thus in Cheyenne. In the streets of the downtown area are found the names of the early engineers and officials the Union Pacific railroad: Evans Ave. (James A. Evans, Division Engineer), Seymour Ave. (Silas Seymour, Consulting Engineer), Maxwell Ave. (James Riddle Maxwell, civil engineer). Despite the names, and the memory of the natives who existed long before the trappers, pioneers or the railroad, Cheyenne is an empty city today, unbearably lonely. On airline layovers in Milan or Paris, the streets in August were similarly bereft of denizens, much as they are in American cities on a holiday like Christmas and New Year’s. Here, I suppose we’re all holed up with family watching television and picking over the carcass of a turkey which, I might add, can be an equally distressing scenario. The close-knit blood lines of Western Families ala The Ponderosa outside TV’s Virginia City are as big a myth as what we’ve come to believe of the Cowboy. In fact, in 1982, Cheyenne was the site of a notorious dysfunctional family that ended in patricide, a prequel to the much more notorious Menendez Brothers’ murders in 1989 and the trials that followed.

The Cheyenne incident happened right after I returned from my Mormon mission to New England and involved a 16-year old boy shooting his father with a shotgun while his sister sat in the living room with a rifle in case he missed. An IRS agent, Richard Janke was, by all reports, a monster, abusing his two children and wife Maria while isolating them from any neighbors near their house on Cowpoke Road and, with his first love—guns—praying for a prowler to enter his house so that he could “blow his brains out.” Cheyenne seemed like a distant world to me in 1982, and yet it was just up the interstate—a straight shot—from where I lived in Utah.

Even before the trial of her boy Richie, convicted of manslaughter and sent to prison, Maria had found a new life. In an article she talked to a reporter of the kindness of her neighbors. “I remember leaning down over his body when suddenly I felt a hand touch mine,” Maria reported to People Magazine from her home. “I looked up and saw George Hain, who lives across the street and came running over. He said, ‘I’m here if you need me.’ My whole life I was so isolated; I knew nobody. George called the police station and when they were finished questioning me, the police said, ‘Your neighbors, the Hains, want you to spend the night with them.’ I couldn’t believe it. …Oh, I’m going to live. I’m going to live to the hilt. My son has freed me. He has freed all of us.” (People, March 7, 1983, Vol.19, No. 9)

This is what I think of as we head back out to I-80, the plasma that forms under virtually any human circumstance. How this stream of motorized cells, of semis and sedans, SUVs and little rental Toyotas with New York plates like ours have become a longitudinal site of belonging– by necessity and by proximity, by one’s mere direction, the vector West. That we would watch one another’s backs out here—and not just one another’s back fenders. That we would leap out of our vehicle on a frozen Iowa stretch to see if there was anyone in the overturned car, encrusted in ice. That we would greet one another with good will, even share our stories in the truck shops next to the coffee bar, with the cash registrar—our surrogate mum. And that that she would give us a little something, a nod, a sort of blessing with the bump back of the cash drawer sounding as we gather our wares and turn back to the road, a critical American artery that carries a current of our lifeblood, our history and our future.

The 16-year old Richie may have saved his mom and his sister, but he couldn’t save himself, sentenced for a prison term of five-to-fifteen years. The Governor eventually commuted the sentence and the boy spent his remaining months as a minor in a reform school.

The radio plays Led Zeppelin, and Derek talks about Jimmy Page, the great guitarist who still can jam with the best of them.

“Is he the greatest guitarist?” I ask, the high plain moving toward the mountain pass that will drive us up, up and then down, down into another windswept Wyoming city, the second largest. “We’ve already talked about that,” he says annoyed. He reaches through the two of us up front, a long arm with the hair and musculature that seems teeming with life, and turns up the volume.”

Hey, hey, mama, said the way you move, gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove.

Okay, so this is where he is. I can hardly blame him. He’s been stuck in the back of the car going on five days. It could be worse. He could be so sullen that he doesn’t even acknowledge us.

Oh, oh, child, way you shake that thing, gonna make you burn, gonna make you sting.

Hey, hey baby, when you walk that way, watch your honey drip, can’t keep away.

At least this group, at least in the relatively early album that included “Stairway to Heaven” wasn’t trying to reinvent popular music through a disco beat. No. It’s more of what we’ve all known and loved: barely legal lyrics smothered in a penetrating beat and waling guitars. Honey drip?

Ah yeah, ah yeah, ah, ah, ah. Ah yeah, ah yeah, ah, ah, ah.

When the song ends, I turn down the volume.

“I remember when my sister brought that album home in the 70s.” I’ve said the right word: Seventies. Derek’s obsession with The Simpsons led us, for a time, to buy him his trove of 70s-style junk—not just the turntables which are making a comeback, but a portable 8-track player and even mounted phones with rotary dials in powder blue and bright red. Fully operational and hanging on the walls of our little Salt Lake cottage even as we streak home.

“Really?” he says with renewed interest. “Wasn’t that scandalous?” He’s mocking me now. But playfully. I use the term “scandalous” all the time, mostly because we seem to be living in an age where nothing’s not been tried, printed or broadcasted or internet-ized, from porn to politics. Truth is, nothing’s a scandal anymore, not Super Pacs, not a pre-emptive war in Iraq, not students at East High School in Salt Lake City who live in cars.

“My parents didn’t know what was in those lyrics. The beat drove them away before they could comprehend it. Hell, we didn’t even know was in those lyrics. Still don’t.

And as we wind on down the road

Our shadows taller than our soul.

There walks a lady we all know

Who shines white light and wants to show

How everything still turns to gold.

And if you listen very hard

The tune will come to you at last.

When all are one and one is all

Huh? But a song like “Stairway,” a group like Led Zeppelin, a guitarist like Jimmy Page, it all served to delineate us from the generations before us. That and the album art which my sister Karolla—my grandmother’s name, not the name of the Toyota we are driving– prominently displayed whenever the album was on the family console stereo upstairs while she did her Saturday chores. It was a stairway to somewhere, and we were on it.

Not sure if Derek is on that stairway too. But then…I wouldn’t know, right? I’m on my parents’—my grandparents’ even—he’s the one “buying the Stairway to Heaven.”

Derek looks thoughtful in the back seat, thinking, perhaps about all of this as I am. Or just bored out of his gourd, lost in Derekland which can terrify me and C. as much as it disables him. There is a territory Derek’s generation regularly goes to—it’s more than a kind of built-in cyber space; it’s too much talk of end times, a stark hopelessness that the older generations have fallen to in this so-called Great Recession. It’s a landscape that Derek and his age group travel to, sometimes live for a terrifying amount of their day. And it’s a place that can’t be gotten to. So as parents, we just have to wait. Wait out not the storm but the lull and absence of our children who seem to have accepted that this time around America isn’t going to be found in forging ahead. The actionable deliverables of your historical frontiersman, Students for a Democratic Society. Unions. A conjoined cowboy president like Bush/Cheney. “How fragile we are,” to quote Sting, the one rock star that seems to have at least tried to grow up, move on. So fragile that all that had to happen to tip us over as a people was not being able to buy at Walmart anymore all the collective shit we demand.

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue, Part 19

Charlie Rose and Guest
Part 19

These days I have kept my hands to myself, except on occasion when Joe is headed out the door to school and I give him an impromptu “priesthood blessing”—hand to the head and a few muttered Mormon words—or to pat him, as he pats me and Cheryl when he’s trying to reassure us. The pat to the back, to the shoulder is our signature gesture, a heterogeneous remark—somewhere between I love you and, to quote author Lois McMaster Bujold, don’t worry, “home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

In fact, I return to room 223 at the Rodeway Inn on New Year’s Eve in the year of our Lord 2010, and they have to take me in. I apologize for my snarky remarks about boots on the bed, and—this is another thing that I’m put to shame by my grandson—he readily forgives me. “That’s okay, Poppa. I know you didn’t mean it.” Nana is less sure she wants me back. I pat her on the shoulder. “I’m sorry,” I say. But I don’t tell her why I’m sorry, or what’s weighing on me. Because truthfully? My own confession might sting me enough that I will break down and cry. Right here in Kearny, Nebraska. The fact is both the distance we’ve traveled across this vast country, and the distance we have yet to in this godawful winter terrifies me. That, coupled with the hemorrhaging out the Toyota Corolla door of our credit and the general malaise of My Country ‘Tis of Thee, and I’m ready to try circling the rim of the bathtub until I disappear.

Later, under the covers, Cheryl’s right toe turned into my bare calf, Joe still lying on top of his bedspread and fully clothed, I listen for the engine brakes of the trucks on Interstate 80, the throbbing of deceleration that for the past three nights has clustered in our heads before sleep. But the interstate is miles away tonight. There is only the sound of the idiot box and the periodic slamming of hotel doors here on the second floor as the alarm clock between our beds digitally morphs to its turning point of midnight. 11:33. 11:47. 11:59…more weather warnings trail in speedy red across the bottom of the television screen. We’ve gone through our savings. Pulled every rabbit out of the hat we can think of . Re-financed our mortgage not once but twice. A country still menacingly entrenched in a recession that everyone keeps saying has bottomed out, and, therefore, is on the mend. (Right?) One party trying to move the country too rapidly while the other, on principle, obstructing everything in a waiting game. National road rage that has migrated off the interstates and into our towns, our homes and stores, our schools and motel rooms. And now this. How will we get through?

That night I dream of the airline. I am wending my way through a nondescript airport, dim, cluttered—with strange 70s shopping mall décor of sorts, a carnival of high school students shouldering back packs. And I am pulling along my suitcase when I realize I don’t have all of my uniform pieces. Am I missing my vest? Belt? Tie? Is my shirt white instead of the newly-issued French Blue? I don’t know, but I find myself pulling over to the concourse side, opening my suitcase. Rummaging. I still have to go through security, and I’m two minutes to sign in. Everyone seems to be going the opposite direction as I am. Me, I’m going against the flow–the stream of passengers, their luggage in tow, waiting for a Starbucks.

And then I’m on the 737 high up in the air. Great blinding light distinctively Western outside the windows and flooding the cabin. We are flying over the Great Plains, over the north Platte River, towards the high desert, windswept crust of Wyoming, over the Sweetwater and South Pass where the pioneers made their way to Oregon and California or south, as my ancestors did, to the Great Basin. In the distance there is snow in the mountains, the Sawtooth, the Tetons, the scalloped sides and frozen tarns in pockets of the Wasatch.

It’s been exactly five years since my furlough, and I’m missing terribly this daily vantage point eight miles above the earth. A working life series of great parabolic arcs connecting the dots of America in a way that, though it was a simulated life—at least made a kind of sense. Thank God. From point A to point B. From Jetway to hotel van. From one sports bar and grill to another on layovers. From one hotel concierge to next, it all bespoke civility, an intellectual engagement of life underscored by the heady surrender to “circumstances beyond one’s control”: mechanicals, weather…the poverty and starvation of the more authentic world behind the frenetic screens of our hotel televisions. Authentically chaotic and senseless.

Still the safest way to travel, the airline is. Safe from the real world.

Here on the first day of the year of our Lord 2011, we leave Kearny crunching over just under six inches of snow, and freezing our asses off. The two miles back to I-80 is deathly quiet, but sunny. This is not Rock and Roll America we’re in. This isn’t Jay Leno land, or even the ethos of Johnny Carson, a Nebraskan by birth. This is ag economics territory where industrial beef, corn and soy bean farmers watch the detailed local weather report with fear and trembling each night. Even the internet and reality TV shows seem to lose their undertow here in mid-plains Nebraska. It’s there for sure, but, it doesn’t seem to be an end in itself like it is for the rest of us. Yet. We will not be stopping in to visit my former brother-in-law, although I can’t help but wonder how he and his family are doing. Did he stay with the military? Is he overseas? The unemployment rate in Nebraska is only 4.7%, about half the national average. These corn-fed, thick-necked folk descended from Polish and Scandinavian immigrants got it in the teeth in the 80s during the farm crisis, and there’s a been-there-done-that kind of jut to the chin here as they watch the country deflate again because Wall Street hadn’t learned its lesson then about loaning money on asset values instead of cash flow. Looking forward now it’s about getting agricultural products to port across roads and rail that are woefully behind, say, Brazil. In Kearney it has always been about the quality of the road east and west, a regular reminder of this being the old Lincoln Highway currently running parallel with I-80, here, under the guise of US 30.

I point out the remnants of the old Lincoln Highway to Joe, now and then, when a marker comes up or, in a town like Ogallala, population 4,737, we can actually see the route on the north side of the river when we stop to gas up. Before the old highway, the site was a stop on the Pony Express and then, beginning in 1867, the terminus of the Union Pacific, absorbing cattle drives up from Texas. But today, as we climb up the hill from the river in search of something touristy, the town is effectively dead, streets branching out from plain-looking homes and tin warehouse-styled businesses, and ending, it seems, under cottonwoods just a few yards beyond.

Joe is restless, as I am. Cheryl, when she’s not gripping the dashboard or more to its design the convenient hand hold above her head, as an impulse against my jagged driving, is more than ready to be home. We’ve come from wooded New England, across the Eastern Seaboard Megalopolis, skirting the Great Lakes and muscular Chicago for this view over the Platte River Basin, 130 miles east of the Wyoming state line, and it’s got to betting old. We turn off the car. We sit for a minute. A dog barks. Someone drives by in a jacked up four-by-four spewing white clouds in the frigid air. Do they wonder what the hell a car with New York plates is doing on New Years Day in Ogallala?

“I think I like this place,” says Joe in the back seat. And then before I have the chance to ask him why, he says, “It’s quiet. Not much going on.” To the South is streaming I-80, and beyond that the prairie empties and empties and empties itself into the blue sky tingeing brown and steamy as it lowers to the earth.

“Could you live in a place like this?” Cheryl asks, herself suddenly lost in the scene of winter trees lining the river, trees with black branches upturned like reverse brachia. A low-slung house with a brown shed out back, smoke pressing out of a silver metal chimney. Joe thinks for a minute.

“Maybe.” The perfect non-committal response. When he says this about anything, it means no.

“Do you want to go to the art museum with us?”

“Do you want to try this new salad dressing?”

“Do you want to go to college?” It’s the first time I wonder why it is that whenever the man-boy says something unsolicited like “I think I like it here” we parentally rush in with “So what does that mean?” “So what are you saying?” “What is your ultimate evaluation of this pensive thought put forth to your grandparents both terrified that you will not ‘turn out,’ that you’ll grow up to be a serial killer or worse, a Republican?” So…on second thought, “maybe” from Joe doesn’t necessarily mean “no.” It might mean, can I just make an observation without evaluating it from the ground up as to what it might fucking “mean”?

What a concept. Living in the moment. Just living. I practice my breathing.

Experiencing the full breath body I breathe in…

Experiencing the full breath body I breathe out…

A chill has set in, starting in our extremities and moving inward. I ask Cheryl if she’s tired of riding shotgun. She answers by opening the door. Air blasts in. “You okay?” I say to Joe, turning in my seat. He smiles and then lays his hand on my shoulder.

Back on the freeway, as co-pilot, I have the luxury of drinking in the Sandhills, one of the largest dunes in the Western Hemisphere and constituting one forth of Nebraska’s landmass. This is cow grazing country, no farming here, and also the historical lands of buffalo that supported the Cheyenne and Arapahoe. Now bison, as they are also called, can only be found on preserves, where Japanese and German tourists scout out the beasts through digital lenses. In the warmer seasons this area, floating on an aquifer no less than one billion acre-feet large, is spotted with lakes and grass and wild blasts of color flowering in sub-irrigated meadows. Only the cumulous clouds re-configuring ahead over I-80 as the miles drone on seem to punctuate any visuals, but today there aren’t even any of those. The Sandhills are not one of what Walt Whitman called America’s “natural shows” –Yosemite, Niagara Falls and the upper Yellowstone. “[B]ut the Prairies and Plains last longer, fill the aesthetic sense fuller, precede all the rest and make North America’s characteristic landscape.”

Not sure how to read that. Characteristic landscape? To me it seems like this whole area is the horizontal axis from which everything interesting either descends or rises. And of course from my subjective hiding place, the plains are Nebraska from which a now ex-wife of mine was spawned. At minimum this “characteristic landscape” is inflected by a stinging ambivalence toward marriage, the institution as much as the object of. My Ex was the great hope of marriage. The outlier—Catholic-turned-Mormon who tested the religious premise purported by my parents that faith in the restored Christianity, and not a pioneer pedigree, was the most important criteria for marriage. To me, she was Mormon but not. An eager convert but not hard-wired in the way I am. She was the most daring deviation from my oh-so-programmed life that I was willing to entertain. The smiling Polish brunette, smart as a whip—she was my ticket out of orthodoxy without announcing it as such. Or so I thought. In fact my first wife, the first woman I would tumble into bed with, was angling for the collective’s center as much as I was vectoring for its perimeter. It was like I was headed east and she west on a line as straight as I-80 in western Nebraska.

And if that marriage was a collision of sorts, my second, at least at first, was a reaction to it all. Second time around not only would I marry a bona fide “gentile,” but someone twice divorced, someone eleven years my senior, someone from the east coast. (Confession: Not being clear in the wake of divorce as to which of the above three would be the most offensive to the home fires, I thought I’d triple up.) Nineteen years later and the woman who was the object of my reaction is still sitting next to me, in the drivers seat, both literally (as in today) and spiritually. And it is somehow working for us, “still crazy after all these years,” to quote Paul Simon.

So here in the Nebraska outback not only has the world last night put to bed the first decade of the chaotic new millennium, so have my beloved and I arrived at a point of equilibrium. Is this an accomplishment to announce here in the back wash of a world whose systems seem to be falling apart? A respite from it? It doesn’t feel like that, except now as we speed along on what is probably the last leg of our journey home. Here with Joe in the back seat, alternatively bemused by his fuddy-duddy grandparents and lost in his inner-Joe life, our couple-hood is in repose.

“What, if I may be so bold to ask,” asks my inner Charlie Rose, “is the secret to your marital success?” I sit at the iconic round, wooden table, Rose leaning in, his chin sharply forward, Cheryl at my side, both of us worn-looking in our week-long travel clothes but nevertheless attractively pensive in that PBS way. “Most,” he continues, using the adjective as the indistinguishable collective-at-large, “most would consider the chasms between the two of you too great to cross—religion, age, culture….” Great word, Chuck: chasms. It materializes the bluing maw of The Grand Canyon in my mind. Maybe we really have done something remarkable.

Then again, maybe we were just too embarrassed to admit defeat which, if we had thrown in the towel, would count as four divorces between the two of us. (Or is that five?) Fortunately, now the inner Oprah Winfrey takes over and the proverbial expert guest on the show fills the vacuum of inarticulate specimens on display. “It’s interesting to note,” says the expert, leaning in, taking up all the oxygen, “that statistically men who marry older women get divorced far less than those who marry women younger or the same age.” The studio audience, most of them women, nods approvingly in time for Oprah to do her quipping thing dead on into the camera, “Ladies, get out there and start robbing the cradle. Had I known…!” Laughter all around. I am blushing. Perceiving that I am the center of many adoring females.

But that’s not fair. None of this is how it seems in the studio with the upholstered chairs and an audience who will go anywhere the show’s attractive host will take them. The fact is, over the course of more than ten years, the couple that is now awash in our fifteen minutes of fame brutalized one another. Whether it was revenge or spite, ignorance or neglect, dishonesty or bald cruelty, our competitive malfunction created a horror that to this day, neither of us can recall without re-living it. And yet we stayed on. With each other, in our tiny New York apartments, and before that in a tiny Salt Lake apartment and now in the little house we dance in. We know the worst things about each other, the horror and inhumanity we are each capable of. But somehow there is this grace. It’s only because we know of each other’s worst selves that staying on with each other has inexplicably opened up a space in which each of us is able to mend. Still, what we know of each other shocks us still. And yet we stay on.

This is not the sort of thing that segues well on the second half of the Oprah Winfrey show as we go to commercial. So it will all be left unsaid. We collect our check from Harpo Productions for services rendered and return to O’Hare for the flight home, and in our first class seats winging west over the “characteristic landscape” of America, the irony of it catches up with us. The reason we will each be okay is because the other is there still to hold our worse selves in front of us so that we can move on, heal ourselves.

As the flight passes over Ogallala, she and I release our seat belts from our first class seats, run through the galley to the 1R door, rotate the door handle to the left (in the direction of the arrow), and fling ourselves into the sun-dappled sky. We hold hands as we descend, float really, to the ground and to the Toyota Corolla, parked on a hill overlooking the North Platte, Joe folded into the back seat dreaming, perhaps, of what it would be like to live in this quiet town of Ogallala, Nebraska.

As Cheryl and I pass each other in front of the car’s hood, I reach for her, pull her into me. “What?” she says, startled. “I love you,” I say. “I’m glad you’re here.” She breathes in the cold, looks through the windshield that is all a-glare. Is the man-boy watching? She kisses me lightly, and we disentangle from each other. What I don’t tell her there on that frozen rise of hill above one of the largest aquifers in the world and beneath the contrails of the plane jetting west is this: She is the only one that I would choose to be with on this journey across the country. And she is the only one that despite it all—the brutality of it all—I would choose again to companion me into the unknown. The unknown of myself. I like to think she feels the same, and that this is the answer to Charlie Rose’s question.

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