Archive for July, 2010

Several kinds of quiet

Things have been quiet in our lives lately as far as news and activity goes. Of course it’s been noisy, but I remember how small and focused and intense our world became when Mara was born, like that [caution: age-based simile ahead] little white spot of light that used to linger at the center of the television screen when you turned it off. All our attention and energy went into the immediate things, the feeding, the burping, the changing, the laundry, the dishes, then feeding ourselves and trying to get some sleep amid these ministrations, and if time permitted watering thirsty plants outside. Remembering to take the recycling out. That’s about it for a long while. It’s like that again now since Emilia was born.

Emilia. E-M-I-L-I-A. My hands are not used to typing that name yet, my lips still finding newness in the shape of the sound.

Happy memories being formed. Photo by Angela.

We have been sustained these past five weeks by our friends and family, who have brought us dinner every other day or so. We have feasted on chicken enchiladas, pulled pork sandwiches, chili and cornbread, refreshing salads, Pakistani keema, manicotti, macaroni and cheese and other pasta dishes, tater-tot casserole, turkey pot pie, and even — incredibly — Joe’s famous steaks, for which the men of my church wait with watering mouths all year. Nor have we been deprived of ice cream of late, and there have been cookies and fudge brownies and pies. Anyone who has benefited from the meal-train tradition will know the feeling of gratitude and utter relief we are experiencing. It is a strange thing; for the first week or two especially, we were exhausted beyond anything we had ever known in our lives, and yet eating like kings and queens. An extreme low and an extreme high. There we are hunched over and practically falling into the best food that has ever been brought through our front door.

I’m back at work now, which means that Angela’s days are long and she gets little rest. The most wearing part of my own day is after I get off the bus and arrive home; Mara needs interaction with me, and then there’s her bedtime routine — a lengthy affair including clean-up, sometimes a bath, and always teeth-brushing, jammies, filling the nighttime water sippy, arguments and stalling, potty break, finding all the things that go in her bed, a prayer, and bookreading — and then I do dishes or take over with baby-care if Angela has to work that night.

Mara is growing up very fast during this time. Since she is no longer “the baby” of the house, she is bolting in the other direction. She has been displaying an irrepressable desire to do helpful things, and this often involves things we have not asked her to do and would rather she didn’t, but we’re learning to let her have these leaps toward self agency. They are important for her. Lately we’ve also been letting her have her bedside lamp on when we go out of her room at night. She loves this. Her little round face glows with what I would actually call “appreciation” for this concession, which she uses either to “read” or to play with her dolls atop the bed until, after a time, we find that she has somehow wound up under the covers and has fallen to sleep.

The D string broke on my old Trump classical guitar when I wound it up too tight to avoid having to use the capo for a song I was trying to learn. It sat for a few weeks unplay’d and silent, but my fingers were jonesin’ so one day a week or two ago Mara and I took the old axe down to Dusty Strings in Fremont to get a new set of strings for it. When you open the door of this folksy little shop, a pick mounted to the top of the door strums across a dulcimer mounted above it, announcing your entry similar to the way the little bell tinkled when you walked into your neighborhood hardware store with your dad.

A scene full of beautiful things: Mara, my old guitar, and Fremont's 1921 mission-style library.

Mara and I wandered among walls lined with guitars — the Martins, the Guilds, the others — and banjos and dulcimers and hammered dulcimers and harpsichords and ouds and ukeleles and lutes and mandolins. People who were good at playing these instruments played them, tried them out, spoke with the staff about the particular character of the tone of this or that instrument. We found the children’s corner, where we banged on some djembes, shook some shakers, and tickled some plastic ivories. Then we bought a set of d’Addario strings. The staffperson pronounced the name “dee-addario”. On the way back to the car, which was parked across the street from Daniel R. Huntington’s delicious mission-revival style Fremont branch of the Seattle Public Library, we wandered up through a little garden park with a tiny amphitheater and winding path.

The string that broke, it may strain your imagination to believe, had been wound tight on that guitar for four decades, as had the other five. They were the original strings from my childhood and I loved their sound. They were bright and expressive. I regret now the teenage discontent with this guitar that compelled me to go buy the accoustic, which I long ago parted with. The string had bead ends on them but such strings are not supposed to be used for classical guitars, apparently. I imagine this was a cheap and easy method of mounting the strings on the guitar to start with, since this was an inexpensive beginner’s guitar. So I would have to tie them off myself. The folks at the store told me how to do it, and it proved pretty easy to do.

A typical hobbyist who washes his or her hands before practice and plays an hour a day can expect a month of decent tone out of standard strings. Of course, you can leave them on for months if you don’t mind lifeless tone.”

— Peter Kun Frary, Professor of Music,University of Hawaii

These strings are not as pretty sounding as the old ones, and I’m a little disappointed. They are rich, but their richness seems to be all in the middle, if that makes sense. They don’t have the piercing high and the thumping low that the old strings had, impossible as that fact seems to reconcile with the expert quote above. I didn’t do a lot of research on string tone before buying, so maybe this type of string simply doesn’t have that quality of sound. They still haven’t finished stretching, so I have to retune the guitar every time I pick it up to play, which is often. Mara likes me to pull a stool into the bathroom and play The Frost is on the Punkin’ while she’s taking a bath after dinner, and she’ll sing along with me on Moon River.

La vita e bella.


The Savoyad: a story of stories

“Twelve Stories of Solid Comfort”
Savoy Hotel, Seattle, 2d ave., near Seneca St.; 12 stories, fire proof, concrete, steel and marble, In the most fashionable shopping district. Special large sample rooms for display, English grill; 210 rooms, 135 baths; barber shop; library. Most refined modern hostelry in Seattle. Busses meet all trains and boats. RATES $1.oo UP

— Advertisement in March 10, 1908 Victoria Daily Colonist

When I was younger one of the few stops I made regularly in the local Sunday Seattle Times newspaper was Paul Dorpat’s “Seattle Now and Then” photos. In this weekly feature of the Pacific Magazine supplement, the Earl of the Emerald City’s visual past would provide two photos of some Seattle prospect, one an historic photo and another that he would take “now” so you could orient yourself and appreciate how things in that view had changed over the decades. I was always fascinated by the effects of time on my home city.  

The Brooklyn at lower left on the corner of Second and University, Third Avenue's Plymouth Congregational in the left-side background, and a mystery building dead center, supposedly around 1905. This image belongs to the University of Washington collection and is used without permission.

While looking for an old photo to support my recent post about the Brooklyn Hotel and WaMu Tower, I encountered a photo dated 1905 showing the Brooklyn and its neighbors at the time. The building next to it seemed to have only seven or eight floors, which sent alarms through my mind. I happened to know that the only other commercial building to occupy that spot before the WaMu Tower took over the block in 1984 was the Savoy Hotel, which was famous (around here, at least) for its advertising slogan: “Twelve Stories of Solid Comfort”. So how could there be a seven- or eight-story building there?

A moment of scratching around on the Internet ensued, whereupon I realized that the Savoy was built in 1906, so this building was there BEFORE the Savoy. An eight-story building. With the same window pattern. And the same footprint with regard to wings and courts. On the same spot. Hmmmm. I got to thinking: at a time when there were plenty of empty lots around or real estate with old rickety houses that needed to be razed in the name of progress, why would someone knock down an eight-story building just to put up a twelve-story one that was almost identical? It didn’t make sense.

This vintage postcard was sold on Note the slogan beneath the image and the red-ink one across the top. What does it suggest to you? Image copyright

The date of 1905 I was able to dismiss. Photos in the University’s collection (and others’) are often incorrectly labeled, often as a result of careless cataloguing that occured decades after the photos were taken, but just as often at the hands of the photographers themselves, who came to Seattle from other parts of the country and took lots of photographs without knowing which street corner they were standing on. I myself have caught and sent in corrections for a number of errors, such as in this entry on King County Snapshots, where the famed Webster and Stevens — or someone later cataloguing their work — noted the shot as being taken from Seneca, when in fact anyone who takes the time to go and look at these buildings — all the near ones are still standing — could tell you it is taken from Spring. (The error is forever preserved in the “Handwritten on sleeve” note, though all the corrected “Caption” info was supplied by yours truly.)

So I could imagine that this photo was really the Savoy, built in 1906, but then what to do with the too-few floors? I wondered, naturally, if the hotel had originally been built with eight and then added four later? I knew of other buildings — the Telephone Building and the County Courthouse (both on Third) to name two — which had been added to, so it seemed like a distinct possibility. Still, I’d seen slogans on vintage postcards that implied that the Savoy had always had twelve stories, or at least it was easy to interpret them that way.

I emailed the alleged 1905 photo to Paul Dorpat, who first helped me out with my post about the reemergence of the old Standard Furniture Co. legend (one of the many, actually), and asked if he knew anything about this. Like Commissioner Gordon hoisting the bat-shaped beacon into the sky above Gotham City, I raised the photohistorian’s distress flag.

One of several buildings I know of that grew over the years. The Telephone Bldg circa 1921 at its original stature.

Pardon our dust. The only photo I know of showing construction (1926) of the Telephone Building's additional floors.

Circa 1928. Notice the slightly lighter bricks in the upper courses and the redesigned top windows. Photo property of Museum of History and Industry.

Paul had never heard of an eight-story Savoy, but was game for the adventure, and before I knew it he was emailing me every few hours with old images from his extensive collection, images that showed the twelve-story Savoy from a number of angles and in various kinds of light and at different times. It appeared, Paul thought, that the bricks were lighter above the eighth floor, which would suggest an addition at some point. He said he would keep searching in hopes of finding evidence that the old inn once topped out at eight stories.

Throughout that day and the next, photos poured in. I have never met Paul nor seen his stash, but I imagined him in a happy frenzy of a chase, riffling and rifling through old magazines and boxes full of postcards and dead people’s bequeathed photo albums, and searching his hard-drive for images he’s scanned on earlier occasions. He seemed determined to find proof that the Savoy had originally been an eight-story building, and he would not rest until he did so.

King County Courthouse in 1916. Evidently not imposing enough.

Circa 1930. The courthouse reaches is present height.

I must here pause to disclose that I’m only telling you this story because it strokes my ego no end to have been involved in the sleuthing out of a historical mystery with (None Other Than) Paul Dorpat. I would like to make much of the fact that I’m tight with the League of Extraordinary Photohistorians’ de facto leader, but the truth is that Paul is the most accessible and amicable person you could ever hope to encounter online, and he’s always game for a good romp through history. He is also unselfish: he suggested I write about this on my blog using the photos “we” found in his collection. I counter-suggested that I had really done nothing but raise the question — that in fact he had done all the legwork, and that this kind of article was really his sovereign territory and that I wouldn’t presume…and he double-dog-counter-counter-suggested that I get busy, and to let him know if I needed any of the photos in higher resolution.

He was zeroing in on it, I could tell. One email he sent included a photo that he had photocopied, then marked up with a red pen, and then scanned. It showed a certain arrangement of windows on the shorter building that we’d seen in a later photo of the twelve-story Savoy. Paul’s eye for detail is amazing. There was also a strange piece of brickwork at the level of the eighth floor where the original (lower) cornice would have been if the roof had really been raised. I verified that there was a similar anomaly on the other side of the front of the building from a photo that I happened to have found myself (okay, so I really did help).

In this 1906 view looking north on Second Avenue, Paul has indicated not only the cornice and a giveaway window arrangement on the "lower" Savoy (center), but also the Burke Bldg at left, the short-lived Washington Hotel (in mid-tear-down) up on the hill that is no more, and Plymouth Congregational Church on Third (right). Click for larger.

We both became convinced, from the forensic evidence alone, that the Savoy had originally had only eight floors but that history had forgotten that fact.

History never was very kind to the Savoy, it turns out. Paul says that the hotel was unusual in that it was “so little covered, caught between the upbuilding around Pine and that at Madison and south of Madison.” He also notes that “the Savoy…was neglected throughout its life, it seems to me.  It was just a bit smaller than other structures put up then, held no corner, and was rather skinny.” It became a seedy dive even before midcentury. The beautiful decorative capitals on the interior pillars were hidden behind a false ceiling for decades (see the Brooklyn/WaMu post for a photo). Still, at one time its owners thought its future seemed bright enough to warrant enlarging it by a third.

I was willing to call it good. I didn’t think we’d get any closer than that, but here I underestimated Mr. Dorpat’s tenacity, or his ability to defer the benefit of sleep, or his vast collection of photos, or all of the above.

On the morning of the third day (is that ominous or what?) I found another email from Paul:

Look what I found, a copy neg from an advert in Prosperous Washington published by the Post-Intelligencer in 1906!

Attached was the following photo.

Payday! This advert names the Savoy and clearly depicts the eight-story building. Photo thanks to Paul Dorpat. Click for larger.

There you had it. Eight floors. Not long afterward, I found this on, though strangely it doesn’t show up on obvious Google image searches.

Here again, the shorter manifestation of the building is named as the Savoy. Image copyright Click for larger.

But it gets better. Last week, Paul finally found and forwarded the following shots of the business actually occurring.

Caught red-handed. The Savoy adds some rooms with a better view. Photo thanks to Paul Dorpat. Click for larger.

Scaffolding atop the Savoy, and some early Seattlites, April 20, 1907. Note the steeple of Plymouth Congregational poking up in the "skyline" right of center. Photo thanks to Paul Dorpat. Click for larger.

At last, we’d caught this history mystery in flagrante delicto! I felt like half of the Hardy Boys, and I wanted to go buzz the town in Chet’s jalopy.


NOTE: This is one of a series of posts that I am writing about my experiences at the Ranch, not in any particular order. So far they include “Shooting Emma“, “High, wide and handsome“, “A family I knew“, and “Old as cut nails (the education of a wrangler)“.

There was a white horse, and there was a man who loved the white horse with a quiet, durable love that felt a lot like trust. No one was sure how old the horse was, though he was strong enough to walk the trails all through the long hot summer days and through the deeply penetrating cold of winter days, and so seemed to be neither very old nor very young. The man was both old and young. He had missed or wasted a lot of opportunities and had had enough time on the planet that he should have been wiser and certainly more prosperous than he was, but he also had never really grown up, had never faced his anger or his fear, and these were to master him for a good many years yet.

Not too big, not too fast, not too pretty, just a good friend on the trail. Montana in his winter coat, January 1992.

The man came to the Ranch to escape the city and its demands, to escape the circular and clanging responsibilities of modern urban life, and to learn how to ride horses. At first he rode many different horses as they were assigned to him, and learned how each one behaved under him, whether they were spooky and likely to balk or rear or jump sideways, or whether they were lazy and slow and barn sour, or whether they were “goey”, which last was rare, since most of them had been bought cheap from other horse camps, where for years they had had their heads pulled around and their sides kicked by the public until they were numb. Most of them knew that if they simply followed the horse in front of them, they’d end up back at the stable and could rest for a few minutes. If they got a chance to nip at some tall grass or if their rider was not alert and they could bend to some low green grass, they would always attempt it.

Montana — for that was the horse’s name — was such a horse. He had been bought as part of a group of half a dozen or so horses being sold by another outfit and was unflappable, a little lazy, and had sides of iron. Montana loved Gypsy, an Appaloosa whom he stood next to at the rail. His nose was always as close to Gypsy’s nose as he could get it. They stood like that for hours, breathing each other’s breath.

One day the man was assigned to this white horse named Montana. “Matthew,” said Arden quietly, after having assigned horses to all the assembled riders. “You’ll lead this trail. Take Montana.”

Matthew — for you know it was I — looked where Arden pointed. I hadn’t even noticed Montana much before then, a not-tall white horse with a mane and tail the color of New England clam chowder. I ran a comb over him, threw a blanket and saddle over him, cinched it up, mounted and led the trail out.

I found immediately that Montana had a good rhythm for leading trails, at least the way I led them. He just went. I requested him the next time Arden sent me out.

“That mule?”

“I like him.”

“Alright. I’m not gonna argue with you. He’s yours.”

Montana became my go-to mount. He tried to sneak some grass early on but I kept him out of it most times, and he learned that if he stayed on the job then I’d let him have a nibble now and again when we had to wait for stragglers. It was an unspoken bargain. We had to wait a lot because he had a fast walk and would get too far ahead of the second horse in the trail. After we got to know each other I would stop him with a little gentle drawing in of the reins and he’d just stand still looking forward, his ears flipping back and forth waiting for me to relax my grip and give the word. Then he would move again, for all I know never wondering or caring why we’d stopped. Sometimes it was just because the light came through the locust and cherry trees in just a certain way, and I had to fill up my soul with the look of it. 

*  *  *  *

I started keeping Montana in the paddock overnight for morning round-up and found that while he was neither fast nor particularly agile, he was willing. He would go anywhere I asked him to without complaining or balking. Often on Saturday cattle roundup several momma cows would break off with their calves and sklathe into a thicket guarded by inch-long thorns or “jaggers”. You couldn’t flush them out by wishing or threatening. I had a red cotton twill shirt whose weave was particularly resistent to puncture, and I wore it on all cattle round-ups. Wearing that shirt and riding that horse, I simply closed my eyes, lowered my head and plowed into ten-foot-high thickets, the jaggers instantly zorro-ing across my wrists and neck and drawing blood. Montana wouldn’t hesistate, and more than once I picked thorns out of his hide when we got back to the stables and he had put his nose up to Gypsy’s nose again.

An indestructable shirt and an indestructable horse. What more do you need?

Those campers who attended the Ranch frequently came to know that Montana was my horse, which I think they found charming, because other than the sponsorship of the stablemaster he had nothing going for him. But my widely-known (and perhaps oft-ridiculed) love for that mutt changed the way some campers regarded him. During lessons in the ring, campers who knew me felt lucky if they got to ride Montana.

One day Uncle Bill arranged for several of our horses to be loaded into a trailer and taken to a church somewhere among the nearby towns, where children would be given rides. I was in the stable and Arden was up at the driveway putting the horses in the trailer.

“Matthew!” I heard Arden calling. When I walked up I saw him standing at the foot of the long ramp into the trailer, holding Montana by his lead rope. Horses often balk at bridges or at barn doors, or other places where they are unsure of what they are walking on. Montana wasn’t having any of it and had planted his feet. Arden was in a hurry to get the horses loaded. “You wanna come here and talk to your boy?”

I took the lead rope, patted Montana’s muscular neck up under his stained-ivory mane, and put my mouth up to his ear and muttered a phrase in Spanish that I said often to him as an expression of my affection for him. Then I clucked once and turned away and walked up the ramp without looking back at him. He immediately followed, his hooves sounding on metal ramp and the trailer floor. I knew that Arden could have prevailed, but my heart filled up and brimmed over at the fact that Montana had instantly crossed his picket line and clocked in for me, just because I asked.

*  *  *  *

My most thrilling moments were not on Montana. I think I was riding Ice, another white horse — one who had no tail for the entire year I was at the Ranch because he had stood with his butt to the fence where a goat ate it clean up to the dock — when I first experienced a canter. It was my first week and we were rounding up the horses out of Lake and bringing them to the gate at Ring on a cool sunny March morning, when Ice broke the fast trot that I had become comfortable with (bouncy, but safe) and broke into a half-hearted run. I managed to hold on, even though my heels came up and I nearly went over the hood when he stopped.

There was a horse named Champ who was something of a superhorse. I hadn’t ridden him but once or twice, if at all, but one morning after bringing in the horses for the campers Arden pointed out that Josh and Velvet — the little skivers — had pulled their frequent trick of sheering off into the ravine at the last minute and were not in the stable. “Take Champ,” said Arden. “They’ll be hiding out at the bottom of the ravine.”

Champ was Arden’s secret weapon. I can’t remember if I learned this before that morning or after, but I learned it one morning when Arden, fed up with Josh and Velvet’s constant shenanigans, headed out on Champ muttering how he was going to “lay those two among the roses.” In the stable we continued putting kids on ponies, and I assigned riders to Josh and Velvet even though they were not yet present and their riders stood unhappily next to their places at the rail. There was a commotion of hooves off east, and when we all looked we saw Arden, this very little old man, riding this dark and mighty steed hard toward us across the meadow in Upper Barn, cracking a long round-up whip, with Joshua and Velvet running in terror before them. Champ was big, fast and relentless. I saw Arden for the first time as a rider I would not want on a posse chasing me across the badlands. Especially on Champ.

That morning one of the staff unhitched Champ and walked him over to me and I mounted up and lit out for the ravine. I found Joshua and Velvet there grazing by the creek at the bottom, sure enough, and circled around behind them, then spurred Champ forward to crash their reverie. They bolted for the stable and as we pursued them and came up out of the woods Champ became like an animal possessed of some ancient steedly fury. I could barely hold him, but just crouched low as he thundered after the truants across the green green grass in a full gallop.

Penny and Montana, some years after I left. Not sure where Gypsy was at this moment, but her nose would normally be right where Penny's is here. Photo courtesy of George P., used with permission.

That was a heady moment. The only one more potent in my memory was when we moved the majority of the herd to Winter pasture. This was an annual drive, only a few minutes in length, in which we loosed all the horses from the rail, then opened the south east gate of the stable and let them surge out across Upper Barn pasture. It required a little skill, and Arden organized it. Younger campers lined the fence by the driveway to watch. We wanted Pippy, the herd’s leader, to run ahead. If she did, the rest would follow. The trick was to get her running over the hill and down to the bottom of Upper Barn, then across the highway and into Winter. Volunteers would be waiting to open the gates at the bottom and stop traffic on the highway. George and several others were in the saddle waiting like sentries at strategic points along the way, where Pippy might get a wild hair and break off in other directions. These outriders would also keep the herd together. I was instructed to ride at the front, driving Pippy but staying behind her. I was on Penny for this job.

A dark and beautiful bay horse, Penny was beloved of many campers and staff because she had absolutely the most silky gaits. Trotting on most horses wears your butt-bones out fast, but Penny was creamy even at a trot. At a gallop she was dream-smooth like a carousel horse.    

When the gate opened and the horses began moving I was completely taken by surprise at the feeling of it. I had until then experienced nothing like the united motion of a herd of horses in a free run. Round-up was a little different: you felt the flow, but you were directing it, too. This day I was like a man on an innertube at the top of the sluices of a huge dam being opened. Very quickly any control I had over Penny vanished. She ran right behind Pippy and the rest of the herd thundered around on all sides and behind us. We shot over the hill and when we got to the corner of the ridge all the horses had to channel into a narrow place where the trail plummeted steeply downward toward the creek. I will never forget that moment because I was genuinely afraid for my life. Penny was behind Pippy near the point of the wedge as we plunged over the edge. If I came off now there would be little chance of my escaping untrampled. The ground was a holocaust of hooves. Small rocks and big clods of soil rose up around us into the late afternoon sun. I leaned back as far as I could on Penny as she rocketed down the steep hill. Then we were suddenly through the pinch and racing across the flat meadow toward the road. We slowed only when we came clopping out across the pavement of the highway.  

*  *  *  *

There were other exhilarating moments, but most of my memories are of the slow and rhythmic plodding of Montana, his sure gait. The way waves of crickets would lift into the air as his strong legs brushed forward in tall grass. His white rump, which I saw a lot of while turning backward in the saddle to chat with visiting riders behind me or bark at campers to keep their horses’ noses out of the grass. His sweet breath, the warmth of his triangular neck against my hand on cold mornings. The way dust would come off his neck when I patted him after a long day.

The only known photographic evidence that I ever rode a horse. Note which horse, and note which shirt. Must have been a Saturday morning.

I was glad I was on Montana the day George and I were leading a trail of campers out for an overnight pack trip. The whole idea of such an adventure made me nervous, and to make matters worse we had the teenage boys on this outing. One of them, Ryan, was an inveterate trouble-maker. I was extremely grateful that George was dragging the trail. We put Ryan at the back of the line where George could keep an eye on him. I rode Montana at the lead and led our pack horse, probably Judson or Skippy, holding Montana’s reins in my right hand and the pack horse’s extra long lead rope in my left, looped around the pommel. The campers all had their sleeping bags and other gear tied on behind their saddles.

Unbeknownst to us, and to all of the horses, Ryan had stashed some contraband in one of his pillowcases. As we journeyed far out beyond the regular trails toward our campsite, Ryan started lipping off to George and pulling little stunts to disrupt the nice tidy progress we were making, and George started getting fed up with trying to keep him in line. Eventually Ryan’s pillow started slipping to one side, and at a moment when our trail was descending a steep hill which met the highway at the bottom, Ryan reached back and roughly (because he was feeling surly) yanked on his pillow to straighten it. The open bag of M&Ms hidden inside loosed a sudden, clackety shower of the delightfully bright colored candies onto the unsuspecting nose of George’s horse, just as I, down below at the front, had pulled us up to stop so we could all cross the highway in safety.

This part of the highway was on a curve and a hill, and coal trucks frequently whooshed along it at frightening speeds. It crossed my mind that we had no business leading trails of children on horseback across the highway at this particular spot. George would have to float up from the back and ride out into the road and stop any traffic for us. I turned to look up the hill for George and what I saw will give me chills until my dying day when I think of it. George was at that instant popping off his bucking horse like a lanky rag doll, disappearing into the brush, Ryan’s horse had charged ahead into the horse in front of it, and that horse had likewise spooked and bolted, and so on in an avalanche of horror, a chaotic wave that surged under the boys behind me as their horses all ran forward toward me and they tried to hold on. 

The pack horse finally jumped forward, and I could feel Montana’s muscles tensing under me — he was frightened, didn’t know what was happening behind him. I tried to hold him but was being pulled by the pack horse, which in the moment I didn’t have a clear enough head to let go of. We all surged out into the highway like the splash of a tidal wave, and there it all ended. Only George was off, but that was okay. George was always coming off. Many was the time I’d seen a horse that George had ridden out on trot back into the stable with its saddle hanging off to one side. It was George’s style. He’d be okay. But I immediately starting yelling at the boys to move across and get those ponies out of the road. If a coal truck came around the bend right now we’d all be roadkill. Montana behaved pretty admirably in that moment, I thought.

*  *  *  *

One cold evening in Winter when snow lay on the land. I asked Uncle Bill if I could ride Montana home. I lived with George and Geo in an old brick house several valleys away up a long gravel road from the Ranch house. It would be inefficient, since it would take me longer to get in to work the next morning, but Bill said okay. At day’s end I mounted up in the dark and we headed north in the blue stillness, Montana and I. The stars were bright. It was pitch dark out in rural Appalachian Ohio, but Montana was a white horse and he reflected starlight. We went at an easy walk, and I soon became terribly cold. I was glad for the contact of his body from my ankles up the inside of my legs to my groin. Still, my toes were nearly numb in my boots and my hands ached in the yellow fuzzy work gloves I always wore. Glad too for the silly F– Ranch neckerchief I’d been wearing all day. I pulled it up over my nose, my nostrils stung so badly from the cold.

We passed a large, littered paper bag and Montana startled a little, jerked sideways, then stared at it. I nudged him over to the other side of the road where it lay, and he stuck his nose in it, then moved on, satisfied that there were only some empty Pabst Blue Ribbon beer cans inside. After an hour and a half we came over the ridge into the starlit valley where the brick house was the only sign of life. The boys were home and warm yellow squares of light pushed from the windows into the cold blue night and yellowed the snow. I remember the feeling, that sweet unhurried feeling of peace, a man cresting the hill on his best horse after an honest day’s work, coming home to his house in the valley.

Roach taking care of my boy after I left the Ranch. I wonder if he ever missed me.

I heard Montana nickering in the barn that night, confused about what he was doing there, but happy for the good alfalfa hay I had thrown him before turning in.

I loved that horse. I like to remember him the way I see him in a photo George sent me, taken after I had left the Ranch. It feels like a sad-happy goodbye. Camper Rachel, whom we called Roach, is riding away on him, away from me, and looking happily over her shoulder at us. Montana is of course looking where he’s going, happy to be on the move, and his flanks and mane absolutely gleam in the crisp sun, as though he has been somehow transfigured into something magnificent, something he can’t even dream of. Something he always was to me.

Earth and old stone: failures and successes in collective memory

Of what significance are the things you can forget?”

— Thoreau

…I realized my grandfather knew things that other people did not…And as I came to know him…As I came to know him…Oh I could hardly believe my good fortune. I swore then I’d cleave to that old man like a bride. I swore he’d take nothing to his grave.”

— Ben Telfair in Cormac McCarthy’s The Stonemason

Your great grandfather built one of the coolest things in this county.”

— Kathy Freundel

There was a mill — there still is — on the old road from Westminster to Taneytown in that region of northern Maryland called the Piedmont. It was both a grist mill and sawmill and its name among locals is Roop’s Mill, though you will see it on some maps identified as Roop Mill. It was originally built in 1794 and it lies on the south side of what is now Maryland Route 140, which on this particular stretch is called Taneytown Pike, though my family has always called it Taneytown Road (the first two syllables are pronounced like the word “tawny”).

Roop's Mill in Carroll County, Maryland. Image courtesy of Steve Spring (see his other mill photos at, used by permission.

The Roop’s Mill complex, which includes the mill, a barn, the 1825 homestead of David Roop and the ruins of a four-span iron footbridge, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2008. The Maryland Historic Trust claims that Roop’s Mill is significant for its association with Carroll County’s grist milling industry, and notes in particular that “the remains of the sash saw and the hydroelectric system are especially rare” and “the variety of extant machinery is particularly significant”. The trust also asserts that the pedestrian suspension bridge, which it calls “innovative”, is the only example of its type in the region.  The bridge links the house with the barn over the wide bottom through which meanders Meadow Branch Creek, a branch of Big Pipe Creek.

One section of the suspension bridge at Roop's Mill has been restored. Photo copyright Kathy Freundel (, used by permission. Click to enlarge.

Folks, my great grandfather Benjamin built that bridge. Or at least, it is common knowledge in my family that he did.

The story has come down to me and my siblings through my father, who remembers sitting in the back seat of the car on trips out along Taneytown Road for family events in Mayberry, a village near Taneytown, and hearing his father James say as they passed the old bridge at Roop’s Mill, “Kids, you know your grandfather built that bridge!” Of course they knew. He reminded them of this fact every time they passed the bridge.

Below is a photo taken when the foliage was off, in which you can see what’s left of the bridge spans in the distance running out from behind the right side of the mill building.

The mill building with the footbridge in the background. Image by Robert T. Kinsey found on Jim Miller's, used by permission. Click to enlarge.

This is an example of collective memory working perfectly right up until now and hopefully beyond now, because when I drive past Roop’s Mill I’m going to say the same thing to my daughters in the back seat, only I’m going to prepend two additional greats.

On my dad’s side, starting with him, I know the names of my forebears back six generations (I’m a seventh son) to Johann, the German farmer who immigrated from the Palatinate (Pfalz) region near the Rhine in 1738 aboard the Davy and settled in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, then later moved south into Maryland. In 1992 I visited my relatives “back East”, and my dad’s sister Miriam and I buzzed around the countryside looking for our forefathers in various churchyards.  No one knows where Johann’s bones repose, but his son John, my great great great grandfather, is buried below a stone at Baust Church that is illegible and would be unidentifiable except that at some time in the last century the Daughters of the American Revolution put a metal plaque on the back of it, because of his services in that dust-up with King George.  

As far as something to touch with our fingers, my family's collective memory begins here. If I recall correctly, John's grave is the one a-tilt and the next to the right is Margaret's. Click to enlarge.

Miriam, or Mim or Mimmy as we call her, took me to see this grave, the oldest in the family that we have knowledge of. Like a loose tooth the marker leans out of the row it shares with its neighbors, one of which marks the grave of his wife, Margaret, my great great great grandmother. The spelling of our last name on Margaret’s stone captures our surname in transition. We also found Benjamin II, the farmer and stonemason who built the bridge at Roop’s Mill, in a Mayberry cemetery. But we didn’t know for sure where to find Elder Benjamin, whom we also call Benjamin I, and his grave was the great historical treasure we were looking for that day. From written family records, we suspected he was buried in Uniontown or Copperville.

On our adventure that day we passed Roop’s Mill, and Mim confirmed the story my father had told me. She said that every time they passed that place my grandfather would say — and here she interjected that they would always look at each other and mime him and giggle as he said it — “you know, kids, your grandfather Benjamin built that bridge!”

Irises bloom at the grave of the younger Benjamin. He's buried next to the church his father founded. His father is not.

We got to Uniontown late in that warm spring day and quickly found the town’s cemetery across from the United Methodist Church on the main drag (there is no other drag; it’s a town along a rural highway) and searched it thoroughly but could not find Benjamin or his wife Catherine. We were hailed by a clergyman who saw us groping around and took us inside the rectory and showed us a detailed map of the cemetery. Our kinsman was not there. It was then that the question of my great great grandfather’s religious denomination was raised, and we were told a moment later that we must be at the wrong Uniontown cemetery. There was another? Yes, St. Lucas Cemetery, on the edge of town where another road branched off to the north.

The sun was already down. My aunt and I disappeared in that cartoon way that left behind a bullety sound and a couple of curled whoosh lines where we had sat a moment before. Gravel spat out from behind Mim’s tires as she gunned the engine and spun her old Buick out onto Uniontown Road again. We had nor flashlight, flint nor tinder, but we figured there might still just be time before dark to find the old man’s grave.

Matt: "Hey kids, your great great grandfather Benjamin built that bridge." I think the barn, in visibly sad shape when I visited, has since been repaired. Click for more of the scene.

I want to pause here and return to the West Coast to pose a question. How does the hull of a ship that wrecked on the beach less than ninety years ago emerge from an eroding wall of sand without anyone in the nearby town being able to remember what ship it was or even the fact that it was buried there? Historians are pretty much in agreement that the bulky wooden keel and ribs that last winter’s storms uncovered at Washaway Beach on the Washington coast are those of the Canadian Exporter, which missed the entrance to Wilapa Bay in a fog in 1921 and broke in two, but no one personally remembers this. No one has come forward and said, “oh yeah, my grandfather used to talk about this big wreck on the beach. It was visible for decades before the sands covered it up,” or “I have a memory of my dad taking me out to see this old wooden hull.” The emergence of this maritime skeleton from its sandy closet has caught everyone by surprise.

How does that happen? How does an entire community forget individual components of its history? How does a family lose the graves of its forebears? 

Three of the stone piers for the footbridge at Roop's Mill. Click to enlarge.

The question of how collective memory fails is one that my friend Michael and I ponder in conversation ever and anon. He has a lithograph, one of only a handful made, of a painting of Lincoln signing the Declaration of Emancipation. It belonged to his mother while she was alive and he has had it restored. It is worth some not insignificant coin. His mother could not remember who — her uncle, her father — had given it to her, but the story in Michael’s family is that somebody or other was refurbishing a county courthouse or some other such government office and discovered the thing, for all he could tell abandoned, and salvaged it. Michael similarly asks, how does a body of humans collectively forget something like that, like the fact that among the courthouse’s assets is this lithograph, which is a rare item and should be kept track of?

The gamesome Aunt Mim talking with cousin Stoner, a farmer still, who took us to visit the patch of land where Benjamin II's farm used to be. The stonemason raised crops -- and my grandfather -- on this soil. Click for more of the scene.

There are lots of stories of diaries or letters being found in someone’s dusty garret that belonged to someone famous, writings that change our understanding of history. In 1997, a workman crawled into a dirty attic in Washington, D.C., and discovered signage that indicated one of the apartments in the building had been used by Clara Barton — before she became famous as founder of the American Red Cross — in her efforts to locate missing Civil War soldiers. With the door sign were letters from and to the Missing Soldiers Office and heaps of Civil War photos. How does something like that lose itself? How can an event or an item that is so uncommon or so inherently interesting drop off the radar of the collective memory of a society or a community or a family? Does someone forget to say before they die, “Oh, by the way, kids, I’m getting old, and I think you should know that there’s a handwritten libretto penned by Puccini in the basement in that chest next to my old toboggan”?  

Or is it that the young are not listening or not interested? Do those who know assume that everyone else knows, too? Or is it sometimes a case of unharvested data resources? Are descriptions of personal encounters with the shipwreck at Wilapa Bay languishing on microfilm in some local library whose repository of newspapers has not been queried since the age of the Internet dawned?   

How do we collectively forget? All of us? The failure of an entire community to remember a shipwreck, or what’s left in an attic or broom closet in a public building, or a piece of family lore, is alarming to me, but also mysterious. At some point in time, there is one person left who knows something no one else knows, but they may not know that they are the only one who knows this.

To me, all of this suggests that we are moving too quickly, that we are losing even what little grip on our tumbling through time that we may ever have had. We seldom make things that will last into a time after our own, and of things that we encounter that were made in a time before ours and have endured into our own we can often say very little. The fact that some physical works have outlasted our collective memory about their creators does credit to those forgotten artisans, but it does not flatter us as rememberers. 

Will anything I make or do in my life outlast the collective memory?

The only bright side I can see in this is that the failure of collective memory provides opportunities for the thrill of discovery. Someone opens a trunk in the attic, or someone opens a long-locked closet in a courthouse, or goes upstairs in an old hotel. Or a storm uncovers lost secrets on a sandy beach.

Mim overshot the weedy little driveway of the old graveyard just oustide of Uniontown on Trevanion Road, but backed up and turned around with more dust and dirt flying. We surely woke the dead arriving. I ran up and down the rows, checking out the graves under the boughs of trees first because that’s where the dark was taking hold. Nothing. I called to Mim, who was bent over perusing stones in another corner. She was having no luck. We reconvened at the center of the graveyard, about to give up.

The light was dim and blue, and the shapes of crosses and obelisks were receding into night. I remember standing with my back to a group of stones that I had quickly glanced at before, but I had a funny feeling about them. I turned around and peered, and saw ever so faintly the name Catherine, and some dates. The stone was the tallest of several in a row, and aside from her first name the inscription was worn to mere shadows of indentation. I bent low in front of the low rounded stone to its left, my eyes straining. I reached my fingers in front of my eyes to trace in the bone-white marker what I could barely see, could sense more than actually see: the name Benjamin, and my last name after it. 

“It’s here,” I said.

An instant later the day was all gone.

Later that year my father visited and stood next to the stones of his great grandparents, and someone (I think Mim) took his picture. Even with my family’s strong collective memory, we almost lost another two names to the non-place of forgotten ancestry.

Generation Six visiting Generation Three, two hundred fifty-four years after Generation One came to America.


The Time of Four

One day earlier this week — maybe Wednesday but I don’t know — I took Mara downtown on the #26 bus to run a few errands with me. We went to my office  in the National Building on Western, where she could see the new cubicle I moved into last January, stopped for lunch at Okinawa Teriyaki around the corner, then walked up to the aforeblogged WaMu Tower to do some banking. We took back alleys and “magical super-secret stairways” up to the bank, then zimbered along Third Avenue to Union Street, where we stopped for a treat at Gelatiamo in the Vance Building, and finally to Aaron Brothers Art and Framing between Pike and Pine, where we picked up a couple of 8×10 frames before catching the #26 back home.

Back in the saddle. A father-daughter adventure.

When it became clear last week that Emilia’s birthmother was going to have labor induced on Friday, we took Mara over to our friends’ house to stay for a few nights so that Angela and I could both be at the hospital while Emilia was being born. Just before we gathered up Mara’s things to go — some dolls, a few changes of clothes, a tiny blanket named Freddie that she has slept with since she was an infant, her toothbrush and rinse cup — we circled up in a family hug, which is one of Mara’s favorite things, and we said goodbye to the Time of Three and hello to the Time of Four. Mara understood the meaning, but perhaps not the significance, of the change.

It has been a sweet little triangle that we have had, and the time of that time has now ended. When Mara came along we were able to focus all of our attention on her without any reservation, without having to think of anyone else. It is always this way with the first child. The parents are experiencing a deep shift in their identities, separately and as a couple. Each of them is now not just a person, and a person committed to a marriage, but now also a human being responsible — totally and dangerously responsible — for another human life, a helpless human life. A journey away from self-centeredness that began, at least for me, on my wedding day takes a new, steeper turn, as the idea of what I want and need for myself becomes even more than before a matter for negotiation rather than demand. There is a new Demander, and there is no negotiating a child’s needs. They must be met. And as a couple, the parents are no longer simply in love with each other, but united as the twin object of the child’s dependency.

Lunch at the Teriyaki. That is not the new baby, by the way.

When the second child arrives, none of these first experiences happens for the parents. Their work and their joy merely increase (more than double, interestingly enough). The deepest shift in identity this time occurs in the first child, who was previously alone in her role as dependent and as recipient of parental attentions and whose kidly fiefdom is suddenly halved. She is now a sister, a member of a little sub-society within the family. And most of the sacrifices that she is able to perceive being made are hers to make (she sleeps right through the two-ay-em feedings and changings and so is not aware of parental sleep deprivation). We can’t to this or that because the baby needs this or that. Often we can’t even give an immediate response to her questions or to her demands for us to look at what she has drawn.

Chillin' at Gelatiamo. Ice cream -- or gelato in this case -- makes Mara kinda glossy-eyed.

Like most parents these days, we have anticipated Mara’s psychological and emotional transition and the needs attendant to that journey. Kevin Henkes’ beautifully honest children’s book Julius, the Baby of the World, was a good starting place when we first started thinking that a new adoptee might join the family several years ago. In it, the protagonist — a female child mouse named Lilly — finds that having a little brother isn’t the bowl of cherries she thought it would be. It’s funny and sweet, but it also adequately captures the frustration of the older sibling. A similar book is Katharine Holabird’s Angelina’s Baby Sister, also about a girl mouse dealing with a new baby sibling. These books are just several props in our program to help Mara understand and process her feelings about the big change in family structure. Mara has made the first stages of this transition very successfully.

She and I have always been pretty amiable pards out on the trail, and I reckon we’ll be spending a little extra time in the saddle for a spell.


The Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt