Thursday, June 1, 2006


Night Train
I have been pondering the individuals that we are for some time now. What are those things that make us who we are? I have run down the list of things that are obvious, like genetics, and social background, peer interaction and societal pressure. In recent years I have blamed the media for a lot of the bizarre personality traits in folks under 40.

But the more I pondered what made me the person I am today, some little things kept coming to mind that were hard to categorize. Since I know I am not as much of an individual as I like to think I am (we all have shared experience, things don't' just happen to us) I wonder what the other 'intangible' events are that others have known that has helped mold them into who they are.

We easily forget these things, unless you really sit down and try to think about them. They get covered by cobwebs in the back of our minds, but they are still there. I believe that they are the foundation of a lot of the things we have become.

I wonder if there are so many screwed up people in this world because they didn't experience these things, or were never told to take the time to appreciate them. Some cases in point;

As a small child I took a train trip from the Midwest to the West Coast with my mother. Trains are the coolest thing in the universe when you are 5 years old. You can run all over the place and the scenery always changes. We had a sleeper car and the clickity-click of the rails lulled me to sleep at night. I had a small bunk that folded down by the window. In the middle of the night, as I was half asleep, I felt the train come to a stop. I rolled over and parted the curtains to look out. Outside there was snow falling and a station platform was illuminated by a single overhead light. Someone from the train walked down the platform, hugged a waiting relative and they both exited into the darkness. As the snow continued to whirl around in the night breeze, the train slowly pulled away into the inky blackness. I went back to sleep and the next day I wondered if it was all a dream. I still do.

In my school age years, we would take trips back to the Midwest to visit my maternal grandparents and spend a week on the farm while my parents were off pretending to be childless again, if only for a short time. Before puddle jumpers and airline deregulation, the only way to get there was by car down the back roads of America. The trips were so long that my father devised a way of making two bunk beds in the back of our Ford Fairlane, so that I could sleep on the floor (over the drive tunnel) and my brother slept on the back seat. There was a sense of security and warmth on the floor of that car as is it rumbled down state highways with my parents at the controls. In the early morning twilight I would wake up and peer out the side window to see the flashing yellow stop lights in some nameless little farm town as we drove through. Long before anyone had awoken, I went back to sleep, knowing that the back of that Ford Fairlane was the best place to be.

I spent the summers of my youth in Fort Dodge, Iowa with my grandmother. There was a park at the end of the street that had a miniature steam train. You could ride it for 10 cents and to a small boy it was the coolest toy in the world. One summer, when I returned to the park, the train was gone, only the indentation in the ground where the track had been remained. For the next 10 years, I would return to that park to see if the train had returned, but it never did. But the path in the ground that it had taken was still there. The last time I visited the park as a young man, I wondered if anyone remembered that the train had ever existed.

My grandmother in Fort Dodge used to save up the heels of bread in a special drawer in the kitchen. When we came to visit, she would give us the hard stale bread to take to the park so we could feed the tame deer that were in an enclosure there. It was a traditional thing. She didn't need to save old bread, but she knew that it made us happy. I would rather go back and feed those deer the stale bread for 10 minutes than spend hours on a Game Boy or watching television. (In my mid-thirties, I was told that some drunken teenagers had jumped the fence and killed most of the deer. I wonder if they know how many memories they erased that day.)

Growing up in the Dakotas during the 1960s, there was some cold weather. I mean really cold. Blizzards that would knock the power out for several days and make the roads impassable. I recall playing games with my parents by candle light, reading stories out loud and bundling up under 4 heavy blankets at night to fend off the sub-zero temperatures outside the window. Those were some of the warmest nights of my life.

My maternal grandmother had a farmhouse in the middle of Iowa where the only luxury was the water that you had to pump out of the well in the front yard. During the hot and humid summer nights I would sleep upstairs with the windows open hoping for a breeze in the 90 degree, 90% humidity heat. There were no screens on the windows and the bugs would fly everywhere. The only escape from the incects was to hide under the covers, where it was even hotter. Then in the distance, I would hear the clap of thunder and pray that the storm would come my way. If I was lucky, 30 minutes later there would be a downpour outside the window, the temperature would drop 20 degrees, the breeze would come up and the bugs would disappear.....if only for a little while.

During Christmas as a little kid, my parents always made me leave a glass of milk, some cookies and some carrots out on Christmas Eve for Santa and his reindeer before I went to bed. When I awoke the next day, giddy with the suspense of what Santa might have left for me, I always noticed the milk glass was empty, the cookies where gone and only the stub of the carrots remained. I suppose the key to making a small child believe in the impossible is to not leave out the little details.

I came home from college one year to visit my parents for Christmas. They lived in the desert southwest and before I returned to Oregon State University, they gave me a little Saguaro cactus that they had found in the desert. It was in a small pot, all wrapped up to survive the trip back to Oregon on the plane. I put it on my back porch in college and it lasted about a year. It seems that desert plants don't crave the moist and rainy weather like most plants do. But still, it was the thought that mattered. They wanted me to take a little part of home back with me.

During my honeymoon, my wife and I were visiting all the places in the midwest where we had grown up as children and visiting all the cemeteries where our ancestors lay. While walking through a cemetery with my video camera I spied my new wife lost in thought and focused the camera on her. As she stood in the Midwestern sun, bathed in light and surrounded by trees, the breeze blew through her hair and made it appear to float around her face and shoulders. I thought to myself, "Damn, what a beautiful woman."

These seem to be the small fragments of memory that hold together the families and the culture and the peer groups that make us who we are. I wonder if these sorts of memories and recollections haunt everyone, or are they just held by a select few. I certainly hope not.

1 comment:

  1. BRUCE!!!! This is genious!!!

    see now, this is what you should be writing about.

    not fucking bitchin about your work!!

    this is awesome!!!

    the bugs, the cold, the power out. All of it. It is by far the best post I have read of yours. This is my favorite because you are writing from the heart. Talking in visceral details. Knock me over with a feather!

    So awesome, so awesome!