Where do you suppose this youngster was headed fifty years ago? I’d say it was a mercy he had no idea where his little car would carry him just a year later…
It was the summer of ’72. That was a very intense summer. It was a summer of exciting and fleeting relationships. It was a summer of deep thoughts and tall mountains and hard work, strenuous physical labor. It was a summer long anticipated that took me completely by surprise. It ambushed me out of nowhere, yet not entirely without warning. The artist Roger Feldman warned me in no uncertain terms as he pointed out what a sheltered suburban life I’d been leading. Of course he was never specific and he needn’t be a prophet to see that life would soon be offering me new challenges. Most likely he’d used much the same language with any number of young men that summer as he led long strings of young people up and down the Canadian Rockies above the fjords of British Columbia. At the time I took the warning as seriously as any teenage kid would, but as it turned out, this warning was just specific enough to be at least a little spooky. Neither of us could’ve known what I would soon be facing.
It was a long hike down that mountain followed by an eight hour voyage back to Vancouver and then followed by an all night drive on to Seattle with my buddy the late Dave Jones at the wheel of Randy Couter’s old beater (that needed another quart of oil every few hundred miles). In the morning I sat at the kitchen table with Mom, Dad, sisters and brothers, all coming and going just as they had my whole life. I was fresh from a hot shower and sat going through my mail, feeling my tired, yet young, strong, hardened body radiating irrational confidence. The black rotary dial phone on the kitchen wall went off. Whoever it was that had been filling in for me while I was off on my mountain adventure had left a van full of newspaper bundles sitting out behind the office of the Eastside Journal. Those newspapers still needed to find all the eyeballs around town who waited impatiently to consume them. The next day was more of the same. Each day as full as the last with some physically demanding something or another, seemingly from dawn to dusk. And the next day and the next and the next more of the same. As each new challenge arose, for a whole long month, Roger’s warning would pop back into my sprawling adolescent mind promising bigger challenges yet to come as some force of the universe continued to toughen me up, mind and body.
Then one bright sunny August day I awoke to find the entire day sprawling out before me containing absolutely no obligations whatsoever. For that one whole day I could be the carefree kid once again. I hopped into my little red car and bounced off up the hill to the high school to engage that tough young mind and body in some of the vigorous touch football that had been going on up there all summer without me. An hour or so later I was crossing the field with the warm afternoon sun on my back and the sweet scent of cut grass in my nostrils. I tossed the ball in the air, snagging it again lightly as it fell. It was that easy motion of the kid at heart that had engaged males of any age or tongue, probably since we had learned that most anything might be flung into the air to some impressive, if not particularly useful, effect.
As the ball dropped lazily, once again, into my grip I spotted my sister Leanne walking hurriedly toward me from the parking lot. Even yet, after all these years, I’m always glad to see my sister, but that afternoon my smile quickly melted into something, I’m still not quite sure what, when I saw that she was crying. Once we came close enough she simply blurted out to me, as best she could, that Dad was dead.
My young soul was suddenly draped in an adult face as I dropped the ball and wrapped an arm around Leanne as we made our way back to the parking lot. All I could think was, “This is it!” But of course I could hardly know what I was talking about. That carefree kid is still in there somewhere, though perhaps, in a decades old body, pretending at life somewhat more carefully since those days. I still had so much growing up yet to do, but those are stories for another day. Maybe these decades later I can at least begin to shed a tear, for myself, for my dad, maybe for a thousand of our tough Norwegian forbears.
I do have a strange little postscript, however. Reaching out to Roger this week I found out that he too had lost his father when Roger was about the age I was when we had that short conversation there on the mountainside in the summer of ’72. Maybe I’ll get to hear that story.