July 28, 2015
An old proverb states that "A person’s wealth is their health, their family, and their friends."
I truly believe that.
Joni and I just returned from Montana after visiting a small town church that was the gathering place for our farming community. After the service, we were invited back to my Grandmother’s old place for dinner and got to walk the same ground we traveled as children. Every time we stopped and listened, we could hear voices in the wind, echoes of those no longer here but forever with us in memory.
This wasn’t the first time it happened to me. Below is the closing story from my first book (now out of print). Even though the context is different, the feelings were the same. I hope you can find something personal in it.
© By Jack Bogut
Excerpted from his book:
“Big Sky Café, and Other Schools I Have Attended.”
The headlights probed the darkness and found only gravel road and fences. Nothing looked familiar in the dark; he'd have to wait until morning to see his old world blossom in the light. He needed these visits to renew his memories, to recharge his mental batteries. It had been too long.
He pulled off on the narrow shoulder of the road, stopped the car and got out. He looked up and down the road; not a sign of another car so he reached inside and turned off the headlights and the engine. It took a few seconds for his eyes to get used to the dark enough to make out the horizon. His eyes were drawn up into the mass of stars overhead and the magic of this place flooded over him again like gentle spring rain. His family was asleep in the car and never stirred all the time he stood there...and it was just as well. Only he could hear the faint strains of the music of all his years, the eloquence of the silence all around them. Only the metallic sounds of the engine cooling in the soft breeze broke the quiet.
He looked up and willed the sky lower until he felt it touch his head. He wore it like a crown. He pulled it down over his ears and pushed his arms up into it. He never felt as close to the essence of his life as in this place. And he was still miles from the farm.
"Why are we stopped? Is there something wrong?" His sleepy wife asked, and then thought better of it.
"Are you here with us?” she asked. “Or are you out there in the past somewhere?"
He reached blindly inside with one hand and she took it. She slid across the seat, put her arm around his waist and stood up beside him.
“This is really important to you, isn’t it?”
“Yeah it is.”
"I wish I could understand about this place and what it means."
"It's really hard to explain," he said wrapping his arm around her shoulder. They stood there a few minutes until he said,
"We'd better go. They'll start to worry about us if we don't show up on time.
The lights from the windows in the old farm house got bigger and brighter as they got closer. When they turned down the lane and the headlights hit the kitchen window the porch and yard lights suddenly came on and the only door in the house opened. Then it was yawns and hello's, suitcases and greetings, gentle laughter, the smell of coffee, the slam of the screen door, the rustle of sheets and blankets, distant overheard pillow talk about what to fix for breakfast and the night laid peacefully on them all.
The morning was pancakes and stiff bacon and more coffee and getting reacquainted with the dog and the cat. Then it was a game of horseshoes out near the garden and a discussion of crops and grain prices and arthritis and the price of land and how young people don't want to farm anymore.
He watched his kids run until they got small in the distance and run back again, short of breath, full of noise, wild eyed, unaccustomed to not having limits to the yard. Finally she stood alongside him and said,
He just nodded his head.
“Were you surprised?” She asked.
“No, not surprised exactly. I knew it was gonna’ happen someday.”
“I haven’t seen it yet.”
"Well, you might as well get it over with then, huh?"
"I guess you're right," he answered softly and strode abruptly away by himself toward the top of the small rise that hid most of the farm from view.
It had been a long time since he’d visited the old homestead and each step took him farther and farther back in his memory. By the time he passed the barn and neared the top of the hill he was nine years old again, tall and gangly, with hair that always looked like a blond explosion. He closed his eyes, walked the last few steps to the crest and stood there. His pulse quickened.
The land dropped gently down and away into green grass and sagebrush. Small mounds of cactus poked their way into the scheme of things and seemed to fit. He could still remember how the cactus would bloom after a rain, big yellow blossoms catching and holding the sun.
Buff colored mounds of earth marked gopher holes that not only hid snakes and gophers but, when he stood on them, made him taller than he really was...when it was important to be taller.
Animal paths from all parts of the pasture were carved into the earth like veins in the land, meandering, but all leading to and from the barn. So many times he'd gone to the farthest corner of the pasture to get the cows and brought them home, swinging a stick, whistling and hollering at the top of his lungs, straining at his boundaries, testing his welcome on earth, growing everyday.
He remembered how the cows used to ignore his whistles and shouts unless he ran up alongside and looked them right in the eye; then they’d take off like the devil himself was after them and run like the wind, bellies and bags full, swinging and swaying back and forth like a pendulum, their hooves clicking like castanets. It was a crazy sight. He had to smile
The dam was still almost full of water, reflecting blue and white as the day passed overhead. Ducks were swimming, making v-trails and ripples, pushing the reflections to shore. And just beyond the dam lay the old dump with all those discarded treasures: medicine bottles turned purple by age and weather, old catalogs and magazines hidden under buckets and tubs and earth and weeds - unreadable, damp and musty but with pictures he’d never seen before, discarded tools that could make and build marvelous things for which there was no earthly use were buried just below the surface of the dump, if only one had the time to dig for them.
He'd lain on his belly in the grass in this pasture with a long string looped around the top of one of the gopher holes waiting for one of the little rodents to stick his head up so he could tighten the noose and lead his prize home. He didn't learn until years later that the gophers had undoubtedly watched him from the other entrances to their holes and couldn't believe how stupid humans really were.
He remembered lying on his back in the soft grass below the hill and watched clouds graze their way across the blue meadow overhead like fleecy, white sheep.
He'd run in the rain in this place.
He'd played in the mud.
He'd waited out his anger at the world in this place.
He'd shed tears he was afraid to show in this place.
Most importantly, he'd brought his family to this place and let his kids run and get dirty and tired in this place.
And he'd tried to explain what being here meant.
They didn't understand.
The air was so sweet in this place with the scents of the animals and the grass and the water and the sage all mixing together. There was never any place like this.
He hadn't heard her come up behind him so he twitched just a little as she touched his hand. She took a deep breath and said,
"I'm sorry...I had no idea they did everything. It’s all gone isn’t it?"
His voice caught in his throat as he opened his eyes. He couldn't answer. She understood.
They stood there together for what seemed a long time before she broke the silence again.
"When did they plow it up?"
“Last spring. They've been talking about it for years.”
“Do you know why?”
“Yeah. Dad said they needed to farm everything, every bit of land, to turn a profit."
"But it's all gone. They plowed everything under...all those things you’ve told us about: the dam, the sagebrush, the cactus, the road, the gopher holes...."
He nodded his head.
She waited a long time in silence before she asked, quietly, "Will we ever come back here again?"
“Oh sure, as long as the folks are around.
“But not to this hilltop.” She said
"What would be the point? Everything’s gone." He said, looking off into row after row of green grain.
"Wait a minute. Think about it. It's not gone!" She said
"What do you mean?" He shot back.
"Well, first of all, maybe this place was NEVER here...for anyone but you. This old farm has always been mystical to you. But have you ever thought that you were the magic in this place, that you saw it with different eyes. You remember this place in a special way because...because you grew up here. Your personality, your values, your work ethic and your character were all formed here...all that stuff!” She said as she playfully dug him in the ribs.
“And second, as long as YOU remember, even though it’s plowed under and gone, it’ll still be here.”
“How do you know?” He asked, looking at her.
“Because everybody has someplace that is special only to them, a place they can’t explain to anyone else. But, as long as they remember, it’ll never be gone,” she said softly.
“You’re sure about that?” He asked.
“I’m sure.” She answered. “Never gone.”
"I just wanted you and the kids; the kids especially, to feel the magic here," he said.
She looked up at him. “Even if everything was still here and we looked at it, I’m not sure we could see anything special. But you could show us!”
“Show you. How?”
“You could write about it."
She was so wise.