the Overland Limited

 

pullmanportermkgbednyc.jpg a porter making up the berths on a Pullman car

In June of 1945 my two brothers and  I, my mother and my great Aunt Blanche came across the country on a train filled with soldiers bound for the war in the Pacific.  I have written about that event before. This morning I realized that my brother Paul and I are perhaps the only ones who remember that trip.  Some of those soldiers were not much older than my brother Ronald, and it’s possible that a few of them, now in their nineties, can still recall those swaying Pullman cars, the narrow men’s toilet at the end of the car, smoking in the vestibules while the floor plates shifted with the movement of the cars, the clacking of the wheels, loud, as if the train were coming apart.

I can conjure up moments on that train: the young men stripped to the waist shaving or washing themselves, the black porter sitting in his little cubicle with piles of shoes around him, polishing, shining, bringing those shoes to a bright lustre, the sound of the sing-song gong as a porter went through the cars signaling that the dining car was open,  the dark green tunnel of the aisle when the curtains were drawn over the made-up berths.  Lying in our lower berth, the two of us saw the  flash of passing trains while were on a side track, waiting, a blur of light and color going past the windows, the noise a rush of air that came and went like a sudden wind.

And when Paul and I are gone and those ninety year olds are gone, that train will be gone, too, all of those young men will have disappeared, like leaves in the fall, collecting in the gutter until the wind and rain wash them away. My older brother, my mother and Aunt Blanche are vague images that are hard to bring to the surface.   I cannot remember Ronald on that train.  Nor can I remember Aunt Blanche.  She must have been in her fifties, although to a ten-year-old she was an old woman.  I can remember her in her nineties, sitting in a chair in her farmhouse in Illinois, deaf, watching her children and grandchildren and great grandchildren gathered around her. I cannot remember any of those soldiers. They are all simply young men, polite, jostling each other, headed off to a war that was, for me, only the talk of older people.  Cousin Richard, eighteen years old, would die in the surf off Guam within a year.

The train remains, the shifting plates between the cars, the lights of farm houses in Nebraska sliding by us at night, the steam coming from under the Pullman in Green River when we stopped to change engines, Paul standing in the door of the car as the conductor waited below, metal step in hand.

My faher had contracted tuberculosis, had gone off to the magic mountain in New Mexico and we were bound for exotic California, to live with my great aunt and great uncle. There were no lengthy goodbyes, no embraces that I remember. It was a move of necessity, an uprooting that did not have a discernible outcome. We would go to California, that much was certain. Whatever happened next was like a number in the lottery, a chapter picked at random, a story with no beginning and no end. But the train lingers: locomotive, long green cars, soldiers and the black porter.

 

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dominoes

PAPER-AND-PENCIL

In the last ten postings I have done on Woodpress, I have wandered through a summer in the Santa Cruz mountains as a child, the poetry of  W. S Merwin, the house in Berkeley where we lived on Regent Street, and two pieces that deal with trains.   They are bits and pieces of the file somewhere in my brain that stores memories, each one nudged into life again by some sudden flash, a word, or a paragraph somewhere, or perhaps something as simple as a potato. I mention my friend Tom Wittenberg who has remained for almost fifty years, a careful reader of whatever I have written, from novels to short stories to post cards.

I have posted over five hundred of these short essays, some of them worth keeping, others only of passing interest, a car that goes by that has an interesting hood ornament or is making a noise that could mean a wheel coming loose. And then the car pauses at the stop sign, goes on, and is forgotten.  Some of these are like that. Others have a lasting quality, the yellow square of a farmhouse window as a train passes at night, and the reflection of who might live in such a remote place, how their lives are shaped by their isolation.  I have no idea what the next ten pieces will be like.  I have no idea what the next one will be.

That potato was like a domino that was pushed, knocking down the next one, and the next one.  Peeling potatoes behind the dining hall became potato salad and the big walk-in box and a day-off trout fishing, and Johnnie, the head cook, a large black woman who grew up in Louisiana, and she became Charlie Way, taking me frog gigging in Frank Galleppi’s pasture and suddenly we were in the dining car of a train crossing the country.

And I have written what is the next posting on WordPress.

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night train

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Sometimes the light came in a burst, the train shooting through a station, the lights bright against the train windows, thrusting inside, lighting the sides and seats and the table so briefly that it was like a flash. At other times the lights appeared in the distance, a farmhouse, the square of yellow distinct, or the lights around a barn, a glow that slowly went past the window as if it were part of a circle that we were intersecting.  Who were those people, sitting at their kitchen table, miles from any other light or any sign of other people. If I pressed my face against the window and looked forward toward the locomotive, when we rounded a curve I could see the revolving headlight sweeping the fields on the side of the tracks.

I remembered other trains, the Overland Limited that brought us to California, the trains in the Feather River canyon laboring up the grade, the long call of the horn in the  canyon opposite Layman’s Resort, the shuddering of the house in Wyanet when the Burlington freight trains lumbered past.

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3029 Regent St.

 

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The house on Regent Street was a big house, two stories high, stucco on the outside, flat roofed. Built in1920, it was close to the sidewalk, a low concrete wall with a tiny grass patch in front of the house.  It must have been a house for a big family, 2,417 square feet, four bedrooms. Wide steps rose to a porch and the imposing door had glass panels on both sides.  A short driveway along the north side led to a small garage attached to the house, and behind that was a basement with the water heater, the washing machine and a small workbench.

Regent Street was a quiet street, little travel, families and apartment dwellers, a quiet hospital zone. Nothing much happened on that street.

Inside the front door was a hallway. To the left of the hallway, stairs rose to the second floor, making a sharp turn halfway up.. Next to the stairs was a large coat closet and buried in an alcove was the door to the room that was the bedroom of our parents.  If Paul or I came home late we were expected to go to that door and say that we were home, although I’m sure they heard the front door open and close.  Sometimes it was hard to do, voice slurred from too much beer. Their room also opened into the dining room. To the right of the hallway were glass doors that opened into the living room, a formal room with windows onto the street, and facing the doors was the south wall, with a brick fireplace that dominated the room, and on ether side of the fireplace were glass-fronted bookshelves.

To the left was the dining room, reached through a wide opening that had pocket doors that were always open. There was the big dining table where Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners were served,, and on the far east wall was a built-in set of china cabinets, a cut-out shelf in the middle where food might be set and a mirror above the shelf.  An antique clock hung on the wall and once Paul and I set the alarm on that clock.  It went off during the night, a hammer slamming into a bell, causing a racket that would have rivaled the arrival of a fire truck.  Our father was not amused.

Off to the left was the kitchen, high ceilinged like the rest of the downstairs.

Next to the door was a small alcove with a table and benches, the spot where breakfast, lunch and occasionally dinner was eaten.  Our father was the weekday cook, and he became expert at spaghetti, casseroles with tuna and mushroon soup and chicken cooked in the pressure cooker. I can still see his slender figure in his starched white shirt, creased gabardine trousers, standing at that old stove. I can see my slender, dignified mother setting dishes on the dining room table.  Ronald lived his own life, and I rarely remember seeing him in that house.

There was a refrigerator, a stove, a sink on the far wall of the kitchen and just off the room was a tiny hallway to the back door. Next to that hallway was a half bathroom with a toilet and a small sink. It was small enough so that knees had to be drawn up when on the toilet. There were no-longer-used gas jet spigots on the floors, and in the bedrooms upstairs there were green enameled heaters, little fireplaces with ceramic inserts that glowed white-hot when the heater warmed up.  Eventually we took them out and suddenly the headaches that Paul and I woke with in the winter disappeared. Those fireplaces ate the oxygen in the room.

Upstairs there were four bedrooms. The largest one on the back of the house had been converted into Aunt Laura’s apartment and had a small alcove with a sink and an old refrigerator that had a coil on top that wheezed when the refrigerator was on. If I stood on tiptoe I could look out the tiny window above that refrigerator and see a narrow slice of the bay.  An outside door from her apartment led to a set of stairs that descended to the back garden and an ancient ivy vine snaked up the railing.  Paul and I had the corner room next to her apartment, a plywood table that our father had sanded and lacquered to a polish in the corner where our beds butted against it. The windows ran along both outside walls, looking east toward May Anderson’s house on narrow Bateman Street and her garage where Paul built his roadster. Sometimes we opened those windows and used a BB gun to shoot cats that dared to climb the fence.  Ronald had the small bedroom that was over the front entrance. It was off limits, and the door was always shut. When he got drafted into the army I was not concerned with his well-being.  I was excited that, for the first time in my life, I would have a room of my own. Next to that was a large guest room. The only time I ever remember anyone sleeping in it was when our father’s brother, Howard, was home on leave from his job in Saudi Arabia.  I still remember the loud snores from that room when he was there. He was a big man with a commanding presence and he towered over his brother. The upstairs hallway was carpeted, and the bathroom was tiled. A laundry chute with metal walls dropped dirty towels to the floor of the basement; there was an ancient freestanding sink.

In that upstairs hallway was a walk-in closet where Aunt Laura kept her clothes.  I remember her standing in the open doorway selecting what she would wear to her job at Breuners Department Store. She had a fur coat, one of those coats that had the heads of stone foxes or minks with their jaws still intact and their glass eyes ominously alert, and at night when I passed that closet I shuddered.

Nearly across the street was Alta Bates maternity hospital, a three story building that dominated the block.  It was a long walk on Regent Street to the University campus, but it was a straight path, six or eight long blocks.

Paul and I played catch with a baseball on the sidewalk in front of the house, and I parked my 1949 Ford coupe in the small driveway where I sanded it by hand and painted it with gray primer.  Paul and I re-plastered the ceiling in the front hallway, tearing off the old plaster to reveal the lath, mixing plaster, slopping it into the lathwork, smoothing it out as best we could.  It was a half-assed job, but it was the ceiling and the plaster was rough so it did the trick. Nobody noticed the amateurish effort.

We were in the Elmwood district, where the tiny Elmwood Theater stood, Botts ice cream store, and a shop with oriental rugs. When Uncle Howard brought a rug back from Saudi Arabia, the owner said it was full of sand.  Why?  he said. The sand could ruin it. Because, my father told him, it was bought from a man in the desert. My father shopped at a grocery store on College Avenue, made friends with the butcher and designed a house for him, built on a difficult lot in east Oakland. I took the bus to Berkeley High School from that house. Paul walked to Willard Junior High.  I went to University at the end of Regent Street and lived in that house during my first year of teaching in San Lorenzo.

Eventually only my mother lived there, accompanied by a Danish couple, Inge and Dan Nielson who lived in Aunt Laura’s apartment, until she finally moved into Ronald’s house in Piedmont and the house was sold. The street has changed, Alta Bates growing to become a huge hospital, and Regent Street became one-way. But the house remains, a solid piece of Berkeley, as it passes its hundredth birthday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Merwin and Spruce

Picture 015 Amazon explorer Richard Spruce

Quinine, used to treat malaria, comes from the red bark of the Cinchona tree, otherwise known as the Chin-chin, named after the Countes of Chinchon who was struck with the disease in Peru and was given the powder of the red bark  dissolved in wine, ensuring her recovery. It was discovered by a native who suffered from a high fever, collapsed into water and swallowed some. The taste was bitter, and he thought he had been poisoned, but his fever disappeared.  Thus, the dissolved red bark of the tree that the man swallowed became the antidote for malaria, a disease carried by the clouds of Anopheles mosquitoes.

Richard Spruce, one of the three most well-known of the naturalists who explored the Amazon rain forest, took cuttings, rooted them, and packed the seedlings in cases to take to India where the English hoped to subdue the effect of widespread malaria.  W. S. Merwin in his book of poems,Travels, tell of that journey in a long poem titled “Cinchona,” describing the frightening journey:  “then into  cases on the raft rigged up for the trip down the rough river which under heavy rains turned savage a narrow sluice between snatching thickets the current at bends smashing them three times into the bank with such force that the cabin collapsed and their pilot once was swung by a branch over the roaring water and they could not reconstruct afterward what they had done stunned in the sound of the river to work themselves onto a quiet passage.”

Merwin’ poems in that book read like stories. Spruce explored the Amazon and the Rio Negro, occasionally met with Alfred Russel Wallace in his search for new flora.

He sent back to England more than 7,000 never-before-seen plants and his health was broken by his explorations.

In another poem, “The Real World of Manuel Cordova,” Merwin tells a story almost as enthralling as Conrad’s  Heart of Darkness.  “He saw them standing around him more silent than tree shadows from which they had come each holding the aim of a spear for some moments before they came without a word and from him took knife bucket the freedom of his hands binding them behind him and hauling him for days through the green spinning dome to bring him at last half dead home into their own dream.”   

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an old photo

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I came across an old photograph taken by Michaela when she was almost six years old, taken in the back garden at 17 Oak Road in May.  Laurel and Dave had gone to Hawaii and Michaela was with us for the weekend. The camera was a Spartus, made in Chicago in 1951 and I bought it from the Camera Center for ten dollars.  I taught Michaela how to use it and she learned quickly, took some good photos.

So there I am, 66 years of age. sitting in a white Adirondack chair, looking pretty good.

I made those chairs in Eureka and they wee later painted green. There’s still a pair of them in the back garden  and one that I gave to the Strempeks that sits at the top of their garden.  Michaela is now twenty-four years old, the house in Eureka is long gone, sold, and what little we made on it went into houses for Graham and Laurel.  We restored that house!  Eleanor’s direction brought it to its former Victorian splendor and when we left it, the house was a beauty.  If it had been anywhere else we would probably be living in it now.  But the neighborhood disintegrated, Graham lived in the house for a while, had his truck stolen from in front, and burglaries began to occur.  So we sold out after spending countless weekends and vacations hanging sheetrock, sanding floors, hanging crown molding, bolstering the foundation, tearing out the fake celotex ceilings, installing skylights and painting inside and out  It was a labor of love and it was good to see that old house rise again.

We brought the Suffield’s to it and Wolfgang and Anita Gabbert. Wolfgang planted a tree in the front yard.  We hosted Graham’s first wedding reception there, a marvelous event that Paul and Bev Hill shared with us. Paul and I produced a fine spread of food and Eleanor and Bev decorated the house to the delight of all.  I sailed my little Montgomery Ten sailboat in Eureka harbor and we ate crab fresh off the boat.  Dave Lubiszwski, Geoffrey and Graham poured a new concrete floor in the basement and I had my one and only workshop in that basement.  That was where I made those Adirondack chairs.

Seven years later, Michaela took that photograph of me sitting in one of those chairs in our back yard.

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Jackass Creek

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Jackass Creek flows into the North Fork of the Feather River opposite Tobin, a cluster of cabins and the remains of what was once the longest, busiest bar in the canyon.  The creek tumbles down over boulders and you can park your truck in a flat spot right next to the junction of the two streams.  A four-wheel-drive road leads up alongside the creek to where the railroad crosses.  It’s about thirty feet down to where the two streams meet.  Nathaniel was the only one to scramble down to that last pool. The creek poured over a lip of rock, a ledge that left a waterfall dropping into the pool.  Nathaniel found a place to stand thigh deep in the water and cast across the pool to the white water. The fly bobbed in the foam and a trout took it, bending his rod.

He brought the trout to him, released it, shook the fly dry, made a couple of false casts and lay the fly again in the white water. Another trout rose to take the fly. Geoffrey and I stood above him, watching Geoffrey’s son take several more trout,  He knew what he was doing, he did it well, and it was the kind of moment that was special: the water, the young man intent , the line snaking out, the wait, the sudden explosion of the trout,

I could remember the first time Nathaniel fished, a perch on the end of his line, the excitement as he landed it, Twenty years earlier I had watched Geoffrey casting on Nelson Creek and I waited in the dark for him to come downstream so we could climb the steep trail to the truck. And now, a generation later, Geoffrey and I were watching his son do the same.

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