opening an old cardboard box harboring letters from tina h., reading her words and thoughts penned nearly 40 years ago, evokes events that are so fresh as to have happened yesterday.
they did not.
the immediacy of those events is heightened, as i watch a sudden spring hail storm of cloudburst intensity banish students from an athletic commons where moments before kids played soccer, lacrosse and tennis on the nearby courts, the same college athletic commons where tina h. and john scott and i strolled on weekends that summer.
i shared a lovely romance with tina that summer, which i did not understand at the time but came to appreciate and savor in the years following, and a fools’ escapade one drunken evening with john that i have been robbed of the pleasure of recounting with him over beers at gathering in years since, because he drowned in a fishing accident in alaska a summer or two latter.
john and tina, and a whole mess of kids including a granddaughter of alf landon, the kansas republican presidential candidate (no, not of that year, laughing) shared an old farm house in dixie, washington just north of walla walla, washinton where he and i attended whitman college: john had graduated, but he hung around town having no idea of what he wanted to do, but it sure as hell did not involve routine and responsibility. we were fraternity brothers, and though we hadn’t been really close before, we took up drinking beer together after work, and i believe that he introduced me to tina.
she was tall and slender and recently divorced, and we seemed to spark at our first meeting, and before long we were impassioned. it went on for perhaps a month and a half, and then she would have nothing to do with me, would barely speak to me or even acknowledge me, as a matter of fact. but, i saw her often, and though we did not so much as hold hands the rest of the summer, our activities were common because our friends were common, and we played many a spirited game of softball at a local school yard in dixie. she was cordial during the games, but when the games were over, she took refuge from me with the rest of the women who were our friends, and i was most assuredly not welcome in the group.
beer drinking with john took on an increased frequency, and we had many a conversation with regard to the peculiar turn my relationship with tina had taken, at least given my limited understanding of the female psyche. john was of little help in conferring any additional insight over my own as to what was going on in tina’s mind, or with her emotions, or whether she cared for or detested me, for whatever reason alike, but we did manage to consume a lot of beer kicking this topic around.
so it was a beautiful summer early evening that i sat waiting for john at the green lantern tavern on isaac’s street, freshly bathed and shaved and carrying a fresh schooner of lager in my belly, and getting a buzz from ingesting a single beer that only drinking a carbonated beverage after working a 10 hour shift in 105 degree weather as a “shovel” on an asphalt paving crew will give one. it strikes me now, that this was the summer i graduated college, and i had taken a job on the asphalt crew after the green pea harvest was over: not work particularly suited to a fresh graduate in political science, but there seemed a sudden glut on the market for freshly graduated “philosopher kings” to run the country, and besides, i have always liked physical labor. in addition, i viewed routine with about as much favor as john. i am, quite frankly, a little diffident about work until i start it, but then i work very hard: it is just hard getting started.
but, at any rate, i was well into my cups by the time john pulled up before the front windows of the tavern and within arms reach of the booth I was sitting in, in a green m.g. with the top down, with a shitty grin on his face from ear to ear: all summer he had schemed over that car, and his grin as our eyes met confirmed that he had just bought it. he parked it there, for all to see, though he shouldn’t have, and only the fact that alex heimbigner, the tavern owner, had a real soft spot for john kept him from receiving a real ass chewing. the bar tender started, but alex jumped in and said something to the effect of, we’ll all look at the damn thing tonight, john, but not tomorrow night, o.k., and john grinned.
soon others gathered, and we drank beer, and because we were young and spirited, and because it is quite likely that our friends jack riehl and alex mccloud probably were there to join in, we got really good and toasted.
john and i stayed until well after mid-night drinking, and so it only made sense at the time when john asked if i would like to take the car on a spin up the north fork road, a wending little paved road along the north fork of the walla walla river, just out of milton freewater, oregon the road starting about 10 miles from where we were drinking.
friends, i do not know if you have ever spent much time tooling around in a convertible, or a sports car, at a goodly speed, with the top down, on full moon summer night with the temperature running in the 80’s, … , but, if you have not done so, it is a real treat. it is almost as much fun as making love on a blanket behind the grass berm on the ocean beach in the middle of the night, and not very much behind at that, which fact i bemoaned with john as we toddled along between walla walla and milton.
pussy, was john’s only comment.
precisely, was my only rejoinder, with the added fillip, and you ain’t.
it is quite amazing what just a little riposte is necessary to generate laughter between friends who are well lubricated with drink, but we laughed into the night breeze the whole way through milton, warm and languid and yet gently cooled by just a hint of moisture in the early morning.
traveling across the little bridge over the walla walla and onto the north forth road brought an end to the banter, as john turned to the serious business of hustling the little car along at a quick pace in the darkness relieved only by headlights and moon and apprehended by a thoroughly drunk driver, pastimes which has been known to get people thoroughly killed. i did nothing to divert john’s attention to the tasks at hand, and kept my mouth shut, as drunk as we were, we both knew he had to pay attention.
and the little m.g., powered by the most advanced fork lift and tractor motor english industry could divine, delivered the fun, and in spades. the little car just delivered up thrill after thrill, the low throb of the little motor pulling the car through the corners and onto the straights in thoroughly manageable and balanced torque, and a gentle satisfying shove against the seats on the up shifts as the car wiggled its way into the straights, and a gentle push on the seat belts on the downshifts as the car gathered and tidied itself for the entry into the corner.
if you do not think a car is a sensuous thing to drive at a brisk pace on a curvy road, than you are probably a soulless government bureaucrat, and you wouldn’t feel rhythm in the company of aretha franklin’s chorus, but the “swing” of entry into a corner on a downshift and exit from the corner on the upshift, letting the car seek its own middle, and the modulating the throttle for the transition into the entry for the next corner in a different direction as the road switches camber, … , well, you are a dullard, just plain and simple, if you do not take physical joy from that.
i worked another summer with another friend, just out of the marines, who had bought the car of his dreams, an old corvette convertible with i believe a 265 c.i. chevy short block, dual quads and a muncie transmission with all the sophistication of a cement truck, and towards the end of harvest when we would get off night shift with a hour or so of darkness before dawn, we would blast up and down the canyon roads out of milton freewater as the sun came up. there is a chill in the air, even in the hottest summer nights, just at false dawn, and the feeling of that chill on the sweat running down the small of your back as you come out of a curve just a little too fast but not fast enough to kill your sorry fool ass, is priceless. when you get away with prancing on the edge like that, and the only price you pay is a loss of speed from disturbing the rhythm of good driving, why, it is a spicy thing. a glorious thing, especially when the cure is to stomp the throttle of those dual four barrels on a full rpm upshift, and roar off to the next corner.
this friend was killed in a grain elevator, two summers later. i found out from his uncle, who lived behind my dad’s black smith shop. he was in the elevator when the last of the wheat was being taken from the tank, and nobody was watching the auger controls when his leg was at first caught up in the auger, and then consumed by the auger, and he bled to death his leg mangled and he all alone.
i guess it doesn’t pay to ride around on summer evenings in convertibles with me. john died when he was fishing his nets off a beach in high and rough water, and the engine on his boat quite. rather than chop his nets free and loose them and loose his boat, he tried to restart the motor as he was drug toward the beach, failed, and drowned in the surf when the boat foundered. folks, life is dangerous doing certain kinds of physical labor, it always has been and it always will be: wear your privilege well, if you don’t do work like this. people take serious chances every day, keeping you fed and clothed and warm. you should remember this.
none of this, none of this, none of this, was foretold to anyone as we toodled upon the north fork. and had it, … , what, we should have stopped living, and hid in closets. no, one lives.
nor was it foretold as we slowed on the downshift and john maneuvered the car into the entry of a long and sweeping, nicely cambered right hand turn, bordered on the right by the burbling walla walla river at a distance and to the near bar pit by a bramble of bushes that in the light of the head lights a body should be lying legs and arms akimbo giving every indicia of death entirely across our lane of travel, face hidden from our view.
only the fact that the m.g. gave the illusion of great speed instead of its actual fact as in a more powerful car kept us from running over the body, as john wrenched the little car first to the left and into the entire oncoming lane and then right again to complete the turn: the proof of our lack of real speed is simply in the relation of the above, for had we been going at any decent rate such a maneuver would have precipitated us immediately off the road and into the pasture on the left of the road, low against the bank of the road.
john pulled the little car to a stop.
jesus, john, he said, did you see that?
no shit, I said, giving only very subtle hint indeed of my skill at plying the language. no shit.
john turned the car, and we drove back to the corner, fully expecting to find a corpse, who could have anticipated the gruesome nature of the remains.
as we eased into the corner, the lights on bright, we were greeted by an empty roadway. I suppose that in any sensible and sentient degree of sobriety, we might have speed on down the road, but we were not sober, and we were not sensible, and barely sentient.
from behind the wheel, john yelled, hey, buddy, you are right.
from somewhere in the depths of the impassible bramble, a voice answered implausibly back, yeah, i am o.k.
what are you doing, john yelled, knowing full well that in all likelihood he had just been lying completely across one lane of a roadway, in the middle of the night. i cannot remember, but john must have been sociology major, or something along that line.
i am trying to get to portland, oregon, the voice from the brambles said.
john said in reply, quite rightly as a matter of fact, because the road went in the wrong direction from portland, oregon and also went up into the mountains where it ended, you cannot get there from here. do you want a ride into milton freewater?
that exchange should have been our first hint.
with those words, our misadventure officially started. for stepped from the brambles the disheveled, torn and scratched and very hungry and dirty looking fellow that i remember as al. he was wearing a jacket that was several sizes too small for him, and a pair of pants likewise too small, which pants did little to hide his belly nor his scrotum where the pants were rent, for i could see the entirety of the same even though he tried to hide his exposure with a clever placement of a grime encrusted hand, his other hand tucked under his jacket lapel near his left armpit.
hop in the back, buddy, said john.
i was beginning to experience some disquiet about this whole affair, but al quickly dispelled that and simply stepped into the back of the m.g. over the window sill, and clumped down into the space behind john in the driver’s seat.
it began to occur to me that perhaps i had information in my befuddled and drunken noggin somehow relevant to this whole situation, as for the past several days i had been reading in the local newspapers that a fellow convicted of armed robbery has recently escaped from the washington state penitentiary, just on the outskirts of walla walla. it was thought, said the paper that the man might be hiding in cabins up the north fork of the walla walla river to escape capture, as there had been several reported break-ins in the local cabins.
i could hardly tell john of these forebodings, and he seemed oblivious to any similar misgivings, engaging al in an amiable exchange about this and that. john just liked to talk to people; anyone was a good person to talk to. john got to a natural point in the conversations, and asked al, what do you do?
to which al quite openly responded, armed robberies, but i never hurt nobody, much.
john never skipped a beat, you the guy that just escaped the pen?
to which al replied, right hand never coming out from beneath his jacket lapel, yeah, that was me, or, i guess, that’s me.
well, so much for forebodings.
but, such is the nature of youth in the face of reality, aided generously by drunkenness that I never really got scared, youth being impervious to the logical process of inference to be drawn from predicate fact. i was just a little curious about several things, however, so i asked al, what would he do in portland if he couldn’t get a job, got a little short of cash? al responded, again with a forthrightness that was a bit alarming but which we came to view as natural in him, well, i guess i will just rob a couple of places, that is what i do.
john said, and here, drunk as i was, i thought that john had slipped into serious error, but i could only assume that he had worked some of the clinical labs where whitties went with one of the sociology professors out to the pen and did stuff with the inmates, though god himself could only understand why, … , john said, well, what will happen if we take you back to the pen? what will become of you?
and, I thought i saw al stiffen a little bit, but he answered back, i will just learn how to be a better criminal, and will break the law when i get out. i thought that I noted a bit of an inconsistency there, because al had just said he would rob again even if he didn’t go back to prison, but i kept my mouth shut: i just bowed to the popular academic wisdom of the day, to my shame to this day. i should have objected to this obvious artifice, but i did not: maybe it was the hand under the lapel.
i must admit, that i became complicit at that point. entirely complicit.
john said, well, we probably should not turn you in then. we’ll take you to our friend jack riehls’ house, and feed you some breakfast, and figure out what to do. and, so we did.
we drove al through milton freewater, oregon and past the police station, which al seemed to get a kick out of. we drove back to walla walla, and past the police and the sheriff and the local f.b.i. detachment, which al really got a kick out of. he was not unappreciative of our efforts on his behalf.
we took al to jack riehl’s, and woke jack up, and told jack, jack, this is al, he just escaped from the pen, and we think he could use a shower and some clothes and something to eat. sure, said jack, and invited us in.
now, i can prove that al held the upper hand at this point, though barely, because he had enough sense to be just a little worried at the sight of jack. jack was, even at a relatively young age, a great bear of a man, very large, with a very large head and belly, and a wild head of hair, and he had a beard which would have given rasputin a little pause. i believe that it flashed into al’s mind that instead of being handed three credulous guppies such as people in the criminal trades only can dream about, that he had fallen into a pack of ravenous wolves who intended to do unspeakable things to him and then slaughter him and cut him into tiny pieces. at the entry into jack’s lair, I believe that al begin to feel a bit nervous.
he was way ahead of john and i as to the permutations of things, far more aware.
such of his nerves were dispelled with a large batch of scrambled eggs and some beer, shared by all. he relaxed even more, when jack gave him some fresh underwear and clothes after a hot shower, surely a treat after sleeping outdoors for a week or so. al was so emboldened that he took out a little pill bottle, some sort of narcotic or near narcotic which he had burgled from a cabin, and tossed down a couple of them, decorously asking us if we would like to share, much relieved when we declined. i learned later from the sheriffs involved just what the little pills were, but the pharmaceutical properties of same went a long way in explaining why al had no anxieties in telling us very early on who he was, what he was, and how he might act is pressed as a “civilian” escapee from the pen.
jack lay down on a couch, and promptly went back to sleep, … , or, if you prefer, passed out, the previous evening’s consumption of beer being rather healthily supplemented by the additional beers with breakfast. jack’s last words were, before passing out, he had better be gone when i wake up. it was a hint of my sobriety, that the passing thought, if you wake up, entered my pea head.
john said, well, i am not driving you to portland, having enough sense to be irritated at the thought of the potential imposition: he was, after all, getting tired after having been up all night.
my car is at the bar parking lot, i added, casting a negative pall over al’s face.
tell you what, said john, we’ll haul you out of town and drop you off, and you can hitchhike. we’ll drop you off out by the whitman mission. o.k., said al. well, this is really stupid, i thought, and i should have commented on it, but the whitman mission was not the way to portland, oregon, where al said he should like to go. but, i clammed up, for some odd reason.
to make a long story short, john scott, al and i clambered into john’s 1948 studebaker, a really nice car, drove al outside of town, and dropped him off at an intersection with the main road to the tri-cities, a bit short of the whitman mission. when john pulled off of the road, al protested a bit, but john was getting tired, it being daylight and we having stayed up all night, and said, this is as far as i go.
al got out, and that is the last we saw him. no, the story is not over.
we drove back to jack riehl’s. john started to undress to go to sleep, or do a dignified job of passing out, take your pick.
i said john, i think we may have made a mistake or two this night, and we could get into trouble.
right, said john.
john, do you remember he said he would do other armed robberies, he could hurt someone, and we could get into trouble.
right, said john, you handle it, i am going to sleep. and, he did.
so, there i was, about 7.30 or 8.00 a.m., and a moral dilemma on my drunken hands.
i will tell you right now, that driving up to the local police station with the intention of revealing that you have been hauling around an escaped convict is enough to sober one up considerably, and even to the point of instilling enough cognitive power in an addled mind to realize that some risk was inherent in the endeavor: it was entirely possible, at that juncture, that i might not walk out of the building, police people being the suspicious & humorless types i thought them to be. but, i had seen my path, and my duty was clear, regardless of cost.
the true aspects of one’s character will out, even if one is in the deep throes, very deep throes, of beer induced stupidity.
so, i marched right up to the desk of the night/day sergeant, and said to the officer on duty, i think i know where your escaped convict from the pen is.
oh, and why is that, sonny, the patronizing bastard said. why, the insulting overbearing asshole, i could hear myself say, although i was careful not to let the cop hear me say it.
well, because my friend and I have been hauling him around most of this morning i said, and we dropped him off at the “y” this side of the whitman mission.
yeah, right, he said.
he looked me over again, as only someone can be looked over by a smart assed cop glancing up from his paperwork, and said, dismissively, go tell the sheriff.
and, so it went at the sheriff’s. uh huh, said the sheriff’s dispatch.
and, so it went at the state patrol office.
i had enough sense of self preservation not to go to the f.b.i., for fear that they believe me.
i went back to jack riehl’s, and roused jack and john from morning beer induced coma’s, and told them of my efforts to report the whole deal to the cops, of various stripes and agencies. jack and john went back to sleep, feigning indifference pretty well, i thought. i called work, told them i would not be coming into work that day because i was “ill,” not technically a lie because the effects of the evening, night and morning were beginning to take pretty firm hold in my gut, an odd expression because nothing firm was in it, judging by various natural occurrences and the fact that a little anxiety was beginning to twist them, over the whole thing.
i went “potty” again, to put the matter decorously, and with my guts in some semblance of order passed out on a couch.
now, it was hot, and i had a very stiff headache, and i was still not at my best, so my memories are a bit sketchy as to what happened next, but it seems that at about noon a heavy banging began to commence on jack’s front door, and persons announced themselves as “cops,” and said things like “open up.” jack emerged from his bedroom, great and large and looming and not altogether an aesthetic experience clad only in a very huge and baggy set of penny’s shorts, scratching his gonads and whatever else he kept in the damn things, none of my business, i can assure you, and ambled to the front door, opened it up, and scowling with the bravery that only being half awake and entirely hung over can give one, and with a scowl fixed on his face that near blindness produced when not wearing his glances, he said to the cops, what the hell do you want.
at this point, from my vantage on the couch underneath a blanket, i began to have very serious misgivings about the whole evening’s venture.
we found al out by the mission, passed out by the bar pit, the cop said, just about where one of you idiots said we would find him. looking at me, he said, you look like the idiot all the dispatchers in the valley described, would you in fact happen to be the idiot?
what could i say, besides “yes.” yes, yes, i would be he idiot, and to this day, i have always wished that i had added, “so described,” as it would have lent me a sense of panache i surely did not possess, at the time. it was a disappointing moment, to say the least, answering that question, then and now. i can only laugh at the missed opportunity.
al said there would be some clothes and empty pill bottles here, can we come in and get them.
jack said sure, come in. i am tired, i am not feeling too well …
no doubt, said one of the cops.
… and, jack, fixing him with that blind glare said, and i am going back to bed and back to sleep, if nobody gives a shit.
i thought we would be shot, or at least seriously beaten for that effrontery, but all the cop said was o.k., with a little inexplicable grin, and at that moment i knew, somehow, that we would live. the cops came in, searched around, found the clothes al had been wearing, some other stuff, and left. and, left, with us still in the house and not hauled out in manacles. john scott never woke up while the cops were there. about 4 o’clock that afternoon, we all stared waking up, in one state of sobriety or another. we were a sorry looking group.
i drove back into milton freewater, to go home and take a bath and change clothes, and to think a bit about what had transpired. along the way i saw greg busch, and greg said to me, you’ll never guess what happened? you know that guy who escaped from the pen, and before i could answer, well, yes, quite well actually, greg went on to say, he stole a dump truck off my dad’s sand and gravel lot, and drove it up the south fork of the walla walla and drove it into the ditch, didn’t hurt it though.
probably thought he was going to portland, i said, but greg didn’t say anything and just gave me a strange look.
i saw my older brother nathan, since deceased, that evening, and when he saw me he was laughing so hard he just about peed himself. he knew some guys on the sheriff’s office in walla walla, and he said that all the cops in town were telling this story, and that they all thought it was so funny that they were on their hand and knees laughing, especially the part about me telling the story to all of the police desk officers and dispatchers, and they thought it hilarious that i had actually driving all over walla walla trying to tell the cops where this guy was, and that none of the cops would believe me, my story was so preposterous: not one cop thought that two people could be as stupid as john scott and i. well, i guess as they say, we showed them. as i remember the whole thing, it seems that finally a washington state patrol dispatcher thought the better of it, and asked a patrolman to stop by where we dropped al off and look for him.
and, so they found him.
people stopped asking me about it, merciful heavens, some years later, after john had drowned and after my other friend had died in the grain elevator auger, and after tina h. went back to colorado to go back to school, and become a student and get her degree. the last letter from her in my cardboard box indicated that she had gotten her post graduate degrees in public administration of public schools special education, and that she had taken a job with north dakota as a deputy director state wide, of public schools special education. she wrote beautiful letters on paper salvaged from magazines, with light backgrounds and with a flowing hand and a fountain ink pen: in essence, a modern version of a quill pen.
she was about the only person i knew that summer that didn’t ask me to relate the story of al, as it seems to me proper now to call it.
the last time I saw her, she appeared on the steps of my mom’s house one morning, in milton freewater, and said to me, john, john, john, i am going home to colorado with my daddy, referring to a big, very kind, very gentle looking man standing in my mom’s front yard. i cannot remember that she said anything as to why she stopped seeing me, and she never told me why she came to say goodbye and she never would explain over the next 2 and ½ years that we wrote why she did not want me to come see her in colorado.
i would have gone in a heartbeat, told my mom, sell everything, i am gone.
but, i never went and she never assented.
she went to the car. her dad lagged behind. he looked at me, laughed, and said, that is some story about al. and, his face softened.
quite some girl, my tina.
yes, sir, she is, is all i could muster.
a small cardboard box, with some of her letters, and memories. only occasionally did I wake with her smell in my nostrils, her tastes upon my lips. just every now and again, just every now and again.
i have never had any personal or intellectual failures in not comprehending human frailties. or, regret. i know people, people to who i am close, who profess not to feel regret at things missed or opportunities passed. i envy them the quiet of their mornings.
i never saw john scott after that summer, either. i am very glad that cardboard box brought him back, these past few days and hours, that, and the view of my blue mountains once again.
those mountains hold my friends, my memories, and my essence. i will never give them up to anyone, lots of reasons why, john scott and tina h. not the least of them.