Archive for the 'Really long posts' Category


All you need is a strong back and a weak mind.”

— A stonemasons’ saying

As Interstate 90 heads east out of Issaquah and winds up among the flanks of the ancient Issaquah Alps, plateauing just before it plunges down into the Raging River Valley, it passes the little town of Preston and offers motorists an exit there. Off to the left, on the outskirts of the town, there is what I can only call a rockyard. It’s not a quarry, but almost for as long as I can remember I have remarked the presence there of massive boulders and huge pallets of stone. This is the Marenakos Rock Center.

Back in September I spent a wonderful day at this rock yard and on that day I lifted, by my conservative calculation, a ton and a half of stone, mostly Colorado sandstone, with my bare hands. I’m about to tell you how such a thing came about, so settle in.

The green stones are fuchsite, the lady said. The first stone wall we found.

Ever since I wrote that post about my great-grandfather’s stonemasonry I haven’t been able to get stone walls off my mind. I reread Cormac McCarthy’s play The Stonemason, a book that has occupied a treasured spot on my shelf for years. In it the old character of the title passes down such pearls as “The keystone that locks the arch is pressed in place by the thumb of God” and “Stone ain’t so heavy as the wrath of a fool”, and “Nothing is ever finally arrived at. The journeyman becomes a master when he masters the journeyman’s trade.”

I kept thinking how stonework is so opposite to my own work as a technical writer and marketing copywriter, and how liberating it would be to be engaged in work that justifies itself, without any argument or explanation. In writing on behalf of a software company I mostly write things that we hope are true or that we wish were true or we want people to believe are true or at least to understand in a certain way. Not lies, certainly, but there is very little in what I do that has a truth unto itself, external to me or the company, and my work is riddled with the shame of the asterisk. Good stonework seems to be all about the truth, because it’s all about gravity and gravity is a hard truth. All stones in a well-built wall are always falling straight down, each falling on the ones directly beneath it, forever. The desire of each stone to fall toward the center of the earth that hatched it is what makes it possible to build stone walls. Listen to this wonderful passage from McCarthy’s play:

The reason the stonemason’s trade remains esoteric above all others is that the foundation and the hearth are the soul of human society and it is that soul that the false mason threatens.


It’s not the mortar that holds the work together. What holds the stone trues the wall as well and I’ve seen him check his fourfoot wooden level with a plumb bob and then break the level over the wall and call for a new one. Not in anger, but only to safeguard the true. To safeguard it everywhere. He says that to a man who’s never laid a stone that there’s nothing you can tell him. Even the truth would be wrong.”

One day shortly after Emilia was born when Mara needed to be outside and get some of her wiggles out, I asked her if she’d accompany me on a search for a wall I thought I’d seen up near Meridian Park. If she would indulge me long enough to sniff out the stonework I wanted to look at, then we could spend some time at the playground before heading back to the house for dinner.

A garden wall in Wallingford built by Michael Knapp.

I’m not sure we found the wall I remembered seeing several years ago, which I had thought faced west, but we found a south-facing house with a beautiful stone wall retaining the yard at the sidewalk. It was a mortared wall with artistically placed stones, some of them sticking out or recessed to form ledges or nooks for a gardener’s coffee cup or a candle, some even forming comfy little benches near the stairs. Some of the stones in the wall were a light pastel green. We ascended to the porch, Mara and I, and we knocked. Over the barking of what turned out to be a friendly dog, the lady who answered the door told me that yes, she knew who had built the wall. His name was Michael Knapp, he was a great guy, he was a third-generation stonemason, and he had died last year.

A bolt of disappointment shot through me. In the back of my mind, I’d been fantasizing about approaching such a person and asking them to let me hang out and help, learn something of the trade. Not in a true apprenticeship — how could I afford to do that? —  but just informally, maybe on weekends sometimes. The woman said Mr. Knapp was a character, that he would sometimes come to work in a Cat-in-the-Hat hat. She said he had helpers, but she didn’t know if he had trained anyone. She was under the impression, and I didn’t disabuse her of it, that I was looking for someone to build a wall for me. She remembered that Mr. Knapp’s wife was very friendly but didn’t have their contact info any more. While we talked, Mara petted the barking dog, whose name was Rusty, and a quieter, older one who had lived most of her life with only three legs. The woman was very happy about the greenish-blue stones in the wall, which she said were an uncommon stone called fuchsite. The woman told me where in the neighborhood I could find other walls built by Mr. Knapp, and in the next week Mara and I visited several of them. Each was a little different from the last and all were beautiful.

In search of Michael Knapp. This one we found at the south end of Green Lake. There be gargoyles (if you click for the larger image).

I still hoped to find a real — and living — stonemason, not just someone slopping stones or bricks together but someone who appreciated the work for the same reasons I did, even if they were not particularly articulate about it. I wanted to learn from a master, some hardbitten and grouchy old guy who would speak little and purposefully, and teach me how to lay up stone. I did a little scratching around online trying to discover other stonemasons in this area and eventually connected with a drystone apprentice up north in Bellingham who told me that if I really wanted to meet people working in stone I should not miss Stonefest 2010. Stonefest is an annual week-long gathering of people mad about stone. Building with it, shaping it, writing in it. It is as though the dwarves of Moria come together to the Marenakos Rock Center from all around the U.S. and even across the oceans to share their knowledge about methods and tools, their ideas for projects, and their passion for rock. Every year there is a large construction project that all attendees can participate in, overseen by experts.

I was not able to take a whole week off, but it was possible to register for just a day, so I signed up and paid $150 for the privelege of joining the effort of some forty or fifty other people in constructing a traditional Irish clochán. A clochán, accent on the second syllable, is a beehive structure built without mortar in what is called the drystone or drystack method, with barely enough space inside for one person to turn around in and three or four tiny slits to admit some light, and a door as small as an igloo’s. Ascetic monks built them on isolated islands off the coast of Ireland in order to sit in them and contemplate the nature of God and subsist on berries, sips of rainwanter and the occasional lentil. The originals have stood for centuries because, as I said before, every stone is placed so that it is perpetually falling onto the stone directly below it, and if something is built of stone in this way, it will be there several thousand years later. Patrick McAfee and his son Brian, stonemasons from Ireland and authorities in ancient drystack methods, were to manage the project, which would be built onsite — by us — in the Marenakos yard.

My man Dan is inside the structure, in the gray t-shirt, pointing. Our leader, Patrick McAfee, is behind the trammel end in a broad-brimmed hat. If you click to enlarge, you’ll see me in here wrasslin’ a big ol’ block of sandstone. Photo by Allison Wilhelm, used by permission.

The design for the clochán we would build was adapted for construction in five days by a mob of people who are more inclined to do stuff than to listen closely to instructions about how to do stuff, in other words, construction workers, landscapers, and stonemasons. There were one or two like me, people who were interested in stone as nonprofessionals, or who were branching out from construction or landscaping into masonry, and there were artists acquainting themselves with the engraver’s craft and sculptors learning stone sculpture. But I thnk I was the only desk pilot, the only spanking tyro, the only person from another world who knew absolutely nothing about any of these lithic arts.

Wednesday morning when I arrived with my protective eyewear and my heavy gloves, the clochán was more than waist high. I had seen it Monday when I had dashed out to Preston after work to participate in the opening day orientation and slideshow. That evening it was not even supposed to be started, but the attendees couldn’t help themselves; they had laid the first course of large granite (I think) stones in a circle, with an interruption for a doorway made of three large blocks — two on edge and one spanning their tops, like a dolmen — and now the courses of smaller, flat sandstone blocks were starting to slope inward in accordance with markings on a trammel, a central swinging wooden gauge used to make sure the structure had the correct shape and curve to it.

Pretty instantly I felt small and alone and out of place. Many of these men and women have known each other for years, it was clear. They knew stone — seemed, all, instinctively to know what to do. They scrambled purposefully around the beehive structure like the occupants of its namesake, buzzing with congenial conversation, “off-color” jokes, and periodic consultation about the next course of stones. The feelings I had were shockingly similar to those I felt on any given day of high school.

It’s starting to take shape, and I’m starting to feel like part of the crew. Here you can see me just left of the trammel pole, kibbitzing on placement of a window. Photo by Allison Wilhelm, used by permission.

But I had been expecting those feelings. As the event approached I had begun to feel dread, like maybe I shouldn’t attend. I wouldn’t know anyone. I would be ignorant (again, so often in my life, a learner). I might get injured. I pushed through the feelings, reminding myself that this was something that I was really interested in and an opportunity I was paying for. It was immediately evident that the event was not going to be organized in a way that would ensure everyone’s inclusion. The nature of the type of person chiefly drawn to this event prohibited any such coddling social structure. I could see that if I was going to get anything out of the day, I would have to take a swan dive into the midst of the action. And this became my strategy: start doing something; if it’s wrong, someone will surely tell me, and then I will have learned a thing. And this is exactly what happened.

Every endeavor on earth that involves more than one person has what is usually referred to as a “shit-job”, pardon my Gaelic; a job no one really wants to do, a job for beginners. I am as familiar with this role as anyone under the sun, I think, because of the number of times in my life I have started from scratch. In the case of drystack wallbuilding, the job that constantly needs doing is adding “hearting” — small stones or fragments of stones — to the spaces between the inner and outer courses as the wall goes up. Without hearting, the walls would be hollow and the longer stones would be unsupported, and the wall would eventually shift and the structure would fall. The hearting is really and truly the heart of the wall, and while everyone acknowledges this, most people would rather lay the courses, choose and set the stones, than scrape around the perimeter of the jobsite like squirrels, collecting shards of rock in a bucket to be used for hearting.

As you submit to the realities inherent in the work, the work begins to draw you in and educate you. Click for larger view. Photo by Patrick McAfee, used by permission.

I gladly started on hearting duty. It got me busy right away, it reminded me to be humble, and in fact there was something satisfying about it. The chips and chunks that fall from the stones that the mason dresses with his hammer become the hearting that fills the wall, so that there is this elegant economy and waste is avoided. Ideally, rather than having a site littered with stone fragments at the end of the job, the area around the work is spotless. The wall has made a home in its heart for its own waste products.

A big guy named Dan, who has his own construction and landscape business in Centralia, seemed to have taken charge of one section of the wall and started asking me to hand him this or that stone to try fitting, or asking me in particular if I could find one that was about four fingers thick and somewhat triangular. I left off collecting and fitting the hearting — which itself has a better way and a sloppy way of being done if you care to learn — and began hunting stones for Dan, and pretty soon he had shifted half his energy to helping the McAfees lift the window blocks into place, which left me in charge of Dan’s section of wall. I asked a gregarious fellow named Chad how to read the trammel, and he was happy to explain it to me. Then at some point, I realized I had become part of the hive mind. I knew what to do. When the next window blocks were being laid, I was there to help shim them. I could foresee what stone was going to help the course and which stone might seem to answer a certain spot but would cause trouble later. I paid attention when Patrick or Brian came around and coached about the exterior angle of the stones, and I pulled down work I had done, or that others near me had done, and did it better. I called for hearting, or fetched a bucketful and fitted it myself. I made the comment that shouldn’t there be another step here (a stone sticking out from the wall so that we could later stand on the steps and continue working on the higher parts of the structure), and darned if I wasn’t right.

Checking my progress with the trammel. Seven hours earlier I hadn’t even known what a trammel was. Click for larger view. Photo by Patrick McAfee, used by permission.

I was covered with a fine orange sandstone dust. At lunch, I sat next to Dan and it happened that Patrick and Brian McAfee both joined us across the table, so I was able to benefit from their conversation. Patrick was naturally quiet, reflective, and worried that with so many people working on the clochán it was impossible to keep it going the way it should. He feared that at the rate we were going we wouldn’t finish by the time he had to fly back to Ireland on Sunday. If we finished, the quality would be low. He was okay with that, but you could tell that he had a deep love of doing things the right way.

Patrick was the kind of stonemason I would want to learn from. I gleaned what I could whenever he circled the structure to inspect and give tips, and I considered the day a personal success. I had worked right through an afternoon rainstorm that sent many scampering for their rain gear but which Dan and I and the others in our corner regarded as refreshing relief from the punishing sun that had beat on us at midday. We had raised the wall about three feet and installed four sets of windows. A few of us were still at it when someone came out from the store and said “It’s beer o’clock guys. Call it a day.”

The clochán nears completion. I wasn’t here for this part. This photo shows the front door and the front window (yes, that tiny three-inch slit is a window). Note that people are standing on steps protruding from the wall. Photo by Allison Wilhelm, used by permission.

I felt a deeply satisfying exhaustion in my bones as I went around shaking hands with and saying goodbyes to the people I’d worked with, thanking many for little tips they’d given me. I told Patrick that I would not be back the next day but that I’d enjoyed learning from him. It meant the world to me when he said in his lyrical accent, “Tanks for your efforts. You were quick on the uptake, I noticed.”

Remember in the Roop’s Mill post, when I wondered if anything I’ve ever done will outlast the collective memory? Well, there’s a beehive-shaped structure up in the Issaquah Alps that I expect will still be there a couple thousand years from now, and I had a hand in that. Two hands, in fact. My own two hands.

Photo by Allison Wilhem, cropped without permission.



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.

I love what you’ve done with the place

The signature edifice of the lately lamented Washington Mutual Bank (known hereabouts as WaMu) occupies the entire block of downtown Seattle bounded by Second Avenue, Third Avenue, Seneca Street and University Street. I promised twice in past posts that we would return to this neighborhood for a closer look at what’s been done right, and lo, here we are. As always, click to enlarge the photos. 

Big money's gift to the home turf, and birds of prey.

I wasn’t paying attention when this doughty structure, née the Washington Mutual Tower and now called simply the 1201 Third Avenue Tower, was piled up against the sky in my home city, nor could I at the time have told you what kinds of buildings and businesses occupied the block before 1986, when construction began. But I know now. These days I can walk down the streets of historic Seattle in my mind, layering the epochs on top of each other like sediment in each block. 

For instance, when I walk past the hideous parking garage at the corner of University and Third, I can see not only the somber and Gothic Plymouth Congregational Church that stood there in the early 1900s, but also Pantages’ bone-white, cake-like and urbane Palomar Theatre, which replaced it there — its very opposite idea — in the last century’s teens. Where the triangular “sunken ship” garage splits Yesler and James between First and Second, I see not only the venerable and well-appointed Hotel Seattle that was torn down the year before I entered the world, but also the Occidental Hotel that had previously occupied the same site until it burned in the Seattle Fire of 1889, and even the “Old West-style” wood-sided hotel with a deep porch that was there in President Garfield’s time. Sometimes I see things wrong, but I seldom just see one thing. The history is there like good hardwood under bad tile and worse carpet.  

I hold myself more like James Mason than James Dean when I pass through here.

I have to admit I like the WaMu Tower. Not the upper floors I’ve never seen (for what have I to do with the lofty offices of commerce?), but the part I have to trip over on my way around the village. But let’s start at the top anyway. I like the pyramid roof (click the link a couple paragraphs up). It’s distinctive. And the graduated setback is nice, it recalls a sort of chubby Chrysler, Empire State or Woolworth’s (though I can see how the nickname “the Spark Plug” got traction). The arches below the top are festive, and the curved sides lower down break the monotony of the many flat sides on Third. I wasn’t crazy about what I call the “garden block” theme that runs down each side of the building and reappears in the accessories here and there — I thought it looked silly — but I’ve grown accustomed to the little Xs and now they cheer me, like kisses. Or hugs, whichever. WaMu’s love for me writ large. 

But it’s the courtyard or “plaza”, along with the lower lobby, that really makes this more than just another tall building and gives a little bit back to the community. For this is what we must do with tall buildings, we must find what’s good and celebrate it. Otherwise we focus only on the fact that people generally sit in them and dream up ways to separate us from our money and ruin our culture and community. If we can lounge around among the shady roots of these concrete sequoias and find some peace and serenity, then that is much, I say. Often, corporations don’t give us even that, but cities occasionally demand some give for the take, and too, I believe WaMu started out with a (relatively) less rapacious attitude than the one it ended with. 

Smart and fun, but yeah, I remember postmodernism. What else ya got?

In support of that outrageous statement I give you Exhibit A, the two photos above of the courtyard. This is a nice place to walk through. I actually bank here, depositing my paycheck with whomever “owns” whomever (“whatever”), and I love walking among the deciduous trees and up the stone stairs outside and the marble stairs inside. It feels Mediterranean to ascend and descend these stairs, and I always feel a little better about myself as a human being as I walk through — the self-doubt ebbs away and I walk with my shoulders back a little. That’s what’s called “ennobling” and it’s what architecture and other arts used to be about. There is a courtyard at the bottom of the stairway and there is another above it which is at all hours of the business day filled with smokers from the tower taking a break from the stress of living and working in a world created by their very selves and envisioned by those in the offices a few floors higher. (It is illegal to smoke in public buildings in this state, or within 25 feet of an external doorway to such a place.) So much for serenity. I am unable to linger there.

The only thing I don’t really dig is the art installation, the fallen pillar, which actually blocks one’s way through the courtyard and thus peeves one (good art evokes an emotional response, right?). I like this piece of art a little, but only because I “get” it. I see that it is a Baroque moment (a second pillar opposite is out of alignment but is not yet falling). But it’s such a stale and overdone moment, or worse, a slap in the public’s face. The old values come tumbling down and lie in ruins. Yay, commerce is king. I’d prefer something I didn’t understand but that felt positive and uplifting.   

Relax a spell. It's private property, sure, but it looks like they want you to enjoy yourself here.

The lower lobby is bright, airy and large, and has a grand piano in it if you feel like tinkling. There’s almost always someone in here reading Sue Grafton or that thriller guy. It’s not technically a public place; it’s privately owned by J. P. Morgan Chase Bank, but it’s still a civic space, unless I’m using the word improperly. This space is part of what makes the building a success, in my view. It doesn’t shut you out, it invites you in. 

Many years ago, a family of peregrine falcons took up residence under the high outside arches on the east side of the building. A camera was installed and you could walk into the lobby of the bank portion of the main floor and stand there and look at a television showing, often, the parents standing watch over the eggs in their dizzy, windblown nest. It was big news, and good PR for the bank. You can hardly feel but that the nesting of raptors amounts to some sort of blessing on the building. Or maybe not, maybe just a sad reminder that there used to be trees here (but let us paint a hopeful picture, and press on).  

Finally, there is the Hotel Brooklyn. The Brooklyn Building was built in 1890 and it’s still there as an office building, the only thing on the block that was not razed when the tower was built. Here are some pictures to show you where it is: 

The Brooklyn is the low, narrow building on the left side of the photo. This image harvested not quite legally from Microsoft's Bing map tool.

Just a little below and right of center is the same block in 1933. The Brooklyn is on its corner. The tall building a few doors south (down- and right-ward in this photo) is the Savoy Hotel. Image copyright Museum of Natural History and Industry (MOHAI), used without permission.

The old inn and oysterhouse was spared and incorporated into the design, more or less, probably because it’s a landmark. I’m not going to examine corporate motives too closely when the result is historic preservation. Maybe the developer had no choice and the tiny remnant of yesteryear was a thorn in their side while designing the project, much the way the nearby Oakland Hotel refused to be sold when Martin Selig wanted to tear THAT block down to build his Columbia Center (after he built his tower, which looms over the ancient brick hotel-cum-offices, the owners of the Oakland sold it to him, and with a little tape and scissors he incorporated it into his vast multi-level lobby). Sometimes, developers are given a tax or other break if they preserve the facade of an old building they are replacing. That has happened a lot in this city (and would make a good post in itself), but there are those who believe that this only encourages civilians to accept the gutting and basically the destruction of our historical buildings. I can see their point. I have mixed feelings about it, and the main one is that I don’t have enough money myself to buy up the buildings I’d like to save, so I am grateful for whatever preservation happens.  

The Brooklyn today, at 120 years one of the oldest pieces of this part of downtown.

Sometime in the late '70s or early '80s, before the Savoy came down. Image kyped from the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods website, used without permission.

No one knows who designed or built the Brooklyn Building. A plaque on it dates it and describes it as having been among those many hotels that popped up in the wake of the great fire to house the throngs who came to help rebuild the city that burned, and being one of the oldest of such buildings to survive. Its neighbor a few doors south, the Savoy, started out as one of the city’s early luxury hotels, but fell on hard times midcentury and was eventually demolished, I believe as part of the clearing of the block for the WaMu Tower. All that remain of the Savoy are aluminum castings of the capitals that topped the pillars of the first floor’s interior. The plaster originals were hidden behind a false ceiling for decades, forgotten during the hotel’s seedy twilight, then rediscovered upon demolition. Two of the castings are now affixed to the outside wall of the tower at street level.

Beautiful and homeless. One of the Savoy castings reflects upon her new life outside on the street.

Below is a shot Paul Dorpat sent me from early in the last century, before the Brooklyn’s taller, grander neighbor the Savoy was built. This is looking down University, westward, at the back of the hotel. The street is still mud, that’s how old this image is. After it, in the manner of Paul’s famous Now and Then paradigm, is my “now” version, shot during my lunch walk this very day, to snap us back to the present.  

University Street, at latest 1905. Very small dogs could play in the street then. Hey...single family homes where the Benaroya now stands! Image courtesy of Paul Dorpat, who can't remember if this image came from his collection or that of Lawton Gowey, who bequeathed Paul his own when he died a quarter century ago.

June 2010, from just a few paces right of the original viewpoint, lest Harley run me down. The Brooklyn is directly above the lime green taxi coming up the hill. The aluminum castings are visible on the wall just left of the white taxi.

I understand that most of these old buildings had to go. Old brick and stone buildings become hard to maintain, often neglected, some ultimately unsafe and all of them insufficient to the purposes of those who now own the property they sit on. I get it. We can’t save them all. Still I love them (or their memory in many cases, since I never saw them).  Even the broken down and sooty ones. They represent a time when human scale and ennobling art still had a place in the architecture of commerce. But if they have to go, I’m glad when those ideals are preserved in some small part of the colossi that replace them.

The old hotel still serves oysters. The bank has been bought by out-of-towners.

Like Mr. Perlman said…

When I was a kid my parents gave me a little guitar one year for Christmas. It was a Trump classical guitar, made in Japan. Not an expensive one, but solid enough and…well…real. I didn’t learn to play it. As with most endeavors, when I couldn’t master it at once I lost interest. The same thing had happened with the accordion. I had accordion lessons until it came time to learn the black dots. Musical notation frightened me. I seemed to have a mental block against it. When the teacher, a gentleman in the neighborhood called Mr. Demerrit, told me that if I learned the notes by the next week I would receive a bag of chocolate, I stiffened up and my mind completely rebelled. I did want the chocolate, but the pressure caused me to blow a fuse. The day he was to return I told my parents I did not want to take lessons anymore. I was told that the chocolates would be forfeited. I felt the pinch, certainly, but I decided to pay that price to avoid failing at the notes. 

I played trumpet for a while in fourth or fifth grade. Everyone played something that year at Enatai Elementary — maybe it was mandatory — and an awful lof of us played trumpet. Mine was rented. I don’t recall how I got by without learning the notes. I only remember playing one song: “España Waltzes”. We played it on stage in front of our classmates and their parents and our teachers and we nailed it. Perhaps I simply lexically mapped each note to the instrument without really learning what notes they were in the larger scheme of things. In any case, I didn’t continue any longer with trumpet than I had to.

Feeling the squeeze.

My sister, who had played piano since she was three or four, picked up the old guitar as a teen and taught herself to play it so she could accompany church-group sing-alongs in places where the tonnage of an upright piano would prohibit its inclusion, such as parks, or other people’s living rooms, or just about anywhere. She taught herself pretty quickly, so I thought I might have some luck, too. I remember watching her practicing out by the fence in the front yard, and feeling an absurd jealousy that music was being made on my guitar and I was not the one making it. Soon after, I signed up for lessons in downtown Bellevue from a man who asked me to bring examples of what I wanted to play. I showed up with my vinyl copy of Emerson Lake and Palmer’s Trilogy album so he could hear “From the Beginning”. It’s been a long time and the man’s actual visage over time has slowly morphed in my memory into that of Alan Rickman, whom I see rolling his eyes and grousing that every punk kid came into his studio wanting to be a rock star. He started me out very slowly picking a series of repetitive notes and kept telling me to slow down, so that I would learn to alternate my index and middle fingers. While I did this, he sat three feet away and called his wife on the phone. I only went twice, I think.

I did eventually teach myself to play guitar. It happened over those long hours, those interminable hours, that I remember having to fill when I was in high school, say between getting out of school and dinner, or between dinner and bedtime. There was nothing but time, it seemed. I was not involved in any groups or activities. By high school I already thought of myself — and behaved — as a loner and nonjoiner. I had only a few friends. If they were busy with choir practice (Kip) or off smoking weed with the burnouts (another whose name shall remain nameless), I played my guitar. I came to regard the little classical guitar as a toy, so I saved up $100 and bought a Mateo from a store in Kirkland. It was not a good guitar, but it was acoustic and it sounded really cool.

But something was amiss here. I didn’t learn Beatles tunes or Joni Mitchell tunes or folk songs or any number of other popular kinds of music that would facilitate my joining in musically with groups of revelers. At that time I was not interested in anything that anyone else liked, and in particular I thought the music of the Beatles, minus the Magical Mystery Tour, was boring. I had also not yet discovered Joni’s soulful and brilliant lyrics, in which she sacrificed herself over and over again that others might know true and lasting love. I didn’t know from folk music. I was into progressive rock (“prog”), which included at its more accessible end Yes and ELP and the Alan Parsons Project and Pink Floyd, and at its more rarified end the indomitable Genesis (though they were starting to arc into the mainstream), Gentle Giant, Renaissance, Triumvirat and a number of really exquisite Italian bands led by Premiata Forneria Marconi and Banco del Mutuo Succorso.  It was the classical guitar strains of this genre that I tried to emulate, and I actually created quite a few really far-reaching epic original works that were both romantic in tone and convoluted in structure. Some music theory might have helped, but I found that just hammering away at stuff for days usually gave me something interesting at least. Some of these I could never play, because they existed only as symphonies in my head, and no one else could play them because I could not write them down. Some of them I can play still, on the old classical guitar, which is leaning up against the wall a few feet away from me right now. See, I finally realized I was never going to be really good at playing guitar, and it seemed silly to have two bad guitars around. I gave the Mateo away and kept the little classical. Over the years I had come to realize that the classical guitar, and this little one of mine in particular, has a sweet, honest, earthy sound that I just love. I can’t do much with it. But I picked out “Moon River” on it to sing to Mara when she was a baby and once in a while we all sing “When the Frost is on the Punkin'”, Ted Jacobs’ arrangement of James Whitcomb Riley’s poem. I can also play the beginning of a beautiful classical-style piece by Steve Hackett. 

Pushing 40 with original strings.

In college I became interested in Celtic music, what I called “diddly music”. It started when I began helping a guy named Eric work on and sail his sailboat — a 37-foot Tayana cutter — on Lake Union on Saturdays. Eric used to come into the Arco Mini-Mart where I worked and chuff about how much fun sailing on his boat was, and I would always say it sure sounded fun, and he would say you should come out sometime, I’m always looking for good crew. And I’d always say, yeah, I’ll do that sometime. And one day he told me to show up Saturday at such and such slip at such and such marina on Westlake. I did, and he and two other volunteers my age showed me the ropes (the “sheets” as ropes are called on a sailing vessel), and we would tack back and forth on Lake Union and sometimes even Lake Washington. He always had Fiona Ritchie’s “Thistle and Shamrock” playing belowdecks on the radio, and so I came to associate the jigs and reels with good times under sail. I rented a fiddle and took a single lesson from a very quiet, nervous woman in Wedgewood, and even though my interest in Celtic music cointinued to grow, and even though I came into possession of my grandfather’s violin for a time afterward, I never went back for more instruction from her. I don’t recall what excuse I made that time, but I’m sure that it just was too much work for the caterwauling and scraping that emanated from my efforts. At the time, I probably blamed her for being boring and failing to sufficiently inspire me.

There is a story of a middle-aged man who ran up to Itzhak Perlman after a performance and with a heart heavy with regret said that he had always wanted to play violin but that he had studied piano instead, and that hearing Mr. Perlman play that night had made that old desire rise in him again, but that at his age he feared it was now too late for him to start playing violin. Mr. Perlman said to him these words: “It’s never too late. But…there’s no time to lose.” I love that saying. It expresses both the assurance that however old you are, you can start now, today, and the urgency of not losing any more time to procrastination. I don’t know whether or not this really happened, but I am grateful to those who kept this anecdote in circulation long enough for me to hear it. It is something I could stand to say to myself every day, not just about learning to play musical instruments, but about many aspects of life. 

With this thought lodged in my cerebrum like shrapnel, the fantasy I have always had of myself as an old gent playing in a local contra dance band, or sitting in on a circle of bluegrass musicians at folk festivals, or contributing here and there in gatherings of family and friends when the music is up has been impossible to indulge in as a fantasy alone. The thought kept nagging at me that it was not too late to make that dream a reality. Itzhak said so.

But what should my instrument be? My long history of half-assed guitar playing made me uneager to begin formal guitar lessons again. I have so many bad habits there, and my old identity as a non-joiner is so wrapped up in the very feel of holding a guitar. And besides, everybody plays guitar. If the point is to find a pathway for me to abandon my aloofness and learn to join in with others through music, I reasoned, I would want to play an instrument that there was not already a surplus of. Too, I thought, the thing should be small and portable. Tuba and pipe-organ, not for me. I’ve always loved the sound of the clarinet, but unless I started hanging out with Klezmer musicians I couldn’t really see myself whipping it out at parties. I thought of retrying the violin, but I’m already getting creaky in middle age, and the affront to one’s neck in playing the fiddle seems completely untenable going into the muscularly problematic half of life.

At some point my ear picked up on the concertina, a.k.a. squeeze box. It’s a little thing with bellows for drawing and pressing air through internal reeds, and whose notes are regulated with buttons on either end. Ironically, it is very much like an accordion, only smaller and without the keyboard. I don’t know when it began, but I started noticing how sweet its reedy little sound was, and I began to love it. When I think of how I have always cherished the soulful clarinet, and even the little wail of the oboe, it occurs to me that I might just be, genetically speaking, a reed man.

No time to lose. My Italian-made 20-button C/G concertina.

Well, it was decided. For years now, I have known that the concertina would be the instrument of my dotage. Small and portable, relatively few people play it so few bands or circles have one, it’s designed particularly for contras, squares and other folkdancing forms, and you can play it without contortions of the spinal column. A couple years ago, my friend Ed Z., who plays and teaches guitar professionally, found a 20-button Anglo concertina (C and G scale) in an antique shop and bought it on a whim. What he didn’t know, and I didn’t either, was that the concertina is not really intuitive to learn, especially an Anglo. Each button on an Anglo renders a different note when you pull (draw) than it does when you push (press), like a harmonica, so that you have to keep track of two sounds for each button and you have to know whether you’re coming or going. An English concertina (yes, the words “Anglo” and “English” both mean the same thing etymologically, but those are the words that have congealed around the two different types) plays the same note on draw and press. My friend Ed fiddled with it but could make no immediate headway and had more important things to do, so I bought it off him for what he paid for it, which was too much. 

As soon as it came into my ownership one of the reeds became dislodged, which left its corresponding button wheezingly mute while the reed itself, a small piece of metal with a slot in it partially covered with a spring of paper, rattled around inside the bellows. The only thing for it was to loosen the screws holding one of the wooden ends on and fish it out. Borrowing some advice and piano glue from my dad, I reaffixed the reed and put the box back together, but in the process of removing and replacing the end I compromised the leather seal, which causes it to leak air.

The next problem was finding a teacher. I learn best from humans, in person. There are no people advertising in Seattle that they will teach you how to play the concertina. I think this is because it would be madness to claim such a thing. I got a book right away, which in four pages explained everything and then gave a number of songs you could play with a 20-button Anglo. But without being able to read music, this was almost useless. What I needed was for someone to give me a lesson, show me how to play one tune — an interesting one, not “Good Night Ladies” — to get me started. It took years. Angela had a friend named Chris who plays concertina for contra dances, who declined to become my teacher but whom Angela pursuaded, as a birthday present to me, to come over to our house for an hour and “show me what she knows” over a cup of tea. Chris brought her concertina over, showed me how she holds the thing, taught me a practical way to play a G scale, played a few tunes, and gave me some pointers. Lastly she gave me two names I might call. It took me another year to get my courage up, but I finally called a man named Kevin whose number Chris had given me.

He didn’t want to teach me at first. For one thing, he doesn’t play a 20-button, he plays a 30-button. The 20-button concertina is very limited. Most Irish music, the kind Kevin plays and the kind I am likely to want to play along with, makes use of keys that require more notes than can be achieved with just the C and G scales. But he was sympathetic to my desire to learn. I sensed that there was an ethos at work here (as among smokers, who will never decline a request for a fag if a fellow smoker asks, unless it is their last), whereby Kevin felt obliged to advance the cause of concertina playing. He kept not hanging up, until he had agreed to meet with me and get me started with a couple of tunes that would be playable in C or G. For payment for an hour of instruction he joked that a sixer of beer would suffice, but when I pressed him he said “twenty bucks…a dollar a button”.

Obviously not Togy's "old favourite".

So last December I took my concertina to his house, where he had set up a couple chairs and a music stand. Kevin had taken the trouble to create written notes which he charmingly titled “Lesson 1” and printed out for me, along with the musical notation for two tunes, “The Old Favourite” and “Sally Garden”. We hammered out “The Old Favourite”, I watching him play a measure on his box and then trying to copy him on my box. It was alarmingly difficult, and I felt a lot of stress, because he seemed to expect that I could just up and do this. But this actually brought my meager abilities into full and sharp focus, and even though I made many wrong notes, drawing when I should press and pressing when I should draw, or hitting the wrong button altogether, I actually stumbled through it with him. It felt to me like a disaster, but Kevin showed no exaspiration at all. It felt good to be a student again, to be completely over my head, asea in that foamy mix of ignorance and determination. Kevin did not show any doubt that I could succeed. Therefore I did not doubt myself. It was like being a very young kid again, learning to read. The thrill was intoxicating.

I had brought a small interview tape recorder and recorded Kevin playing the tune both slowly and at full speed, and left his house with my head spinning. I was so mentally exhausted that I left behind the clef illustration he had made me (he insisted that I would eventually have to read music). He emailed it to me.

Within two days, strange to tell, the tune began to feel itself in my fingers, and I was actually playing it all the way through. My concertina is not a good one. It is sturdy enough and its sound is sweet, but it’s difficult to play — you have to really manhandle it to get any smoke out of it — and mine is leaky to boot. Concertinas are expensive. There is not a surplus of cheap, good quality used boxes out there for sale. What you find available is either low quality or high cost, with little in between. My original promise to myself was that if I learned ten tunes reasonably well, I could go ahead and lay out for a decent beginner model, but Kevin is encouraging me to move up as soon as I can, decrying the maxim that “if you learn on a lousy instrument first you’ll be able to play anything” in favor of the practical truth that “if you have a better instrument you’ll be more likely to play it”. So I’m on the very cusp of buying a Rochelle 30-button Anglo, which was designed especially for spanking tyros like myself by a concertina maker who otherwise builds and repairs top-of-the-line boxes. To get into any kind of truly high-quality concertina, you’re looking at at least a thousand dollars. The Rochelle sells for several hundred, handy carrying case and tutorial included. My history with musical instruments gives me pause, but I feel committed to it this time.

I took a second lesson from Kevin last week and I’m now working on “Sally Garden”. It’s going well. I’m frankly astounded at what my brain and fingers have managed to accustom themselves to in a couple of months. And for the first time in my life, I’m reading the music. You know…those little black dots with the sticks and flags.

High, wide and handsome

Note: Might as well put the kettle on. I reckon you’ll be settin’ a while with this one.

“Lord my shepherd help me pray
Though I left my heart to stray
Though I left my heart untrue
I can follow
I do
I do”

— Hem

There are two young men named George whom I will never forget. I say young men because that is the way I remember them — youthful and energetic and with the whole world open before them, as they are pictured here — though they are now both much older than I was when I knew them, and I felt very old at the time. When I was turning twenty-nine and came to F– Ranch, they were both just nineteen. George P., whom I recently tracked down and heard from by email, says he is “a middle-aged dad” now. I have completely lost the other one, George T., whom we called Geo.

The end of a good day. Wranger George P. and Kernal. Click for larger.

I’m pretty sure I would not be alive today if it were not for George and Geo. In the cheerless middle of a cold winter night in the last century, these two friends practically carried me out of the dilapidated house we lived in and sped me to the ER of the nearest hospital. Turns out it was a good thing they did that, but I love them for other reasons.

George was from up north in the state and had spent his childhood summers as a camper at the ranch. When I arrived in March of 1991, he had already been at the ranch a few weeks working full time. There wasn’t much going on in the winter, but there were cows and sheep to be cared for in addition to all the horses, and there were repairs to make around the ranch’s 4200 acres — gates and fences, for instance. George was helping Arden, who had retired from dairy farming to work as the ranch’s farm manager. Come spring and summer we would be very busy putting kids on horses, taking out trails, and leading horsemanship classes, and in late summer and fall we’d also be making hay (really making hay, like mowing it, “bining” it, and stacking it in barns).

Always ready with a smile. George trudging back from chores on a winter morning. Click for larger.

Arden relied on George because George was reliable in that showing-up-no-matter-the-hour-or-the-weather kind of way, and in that tell-him-once-and-he’ll-get-it-done kind of way, the kind of reliability that an old dairyman found hard to come by in young men in the twilight of the twentieth century. But I relied on George every day in another way; I relied on his phlegmatic calm, his kind and generous nature, his willingness to share every good and bad experience and then laugh about it at the end of the day while we rubbed neatsfoot oil into our boots to keep them from cracking and drying out. He was quick to laugh, but there was a kind of sadness to him, I thought right away; it seemed as though George was hunkered down on the ranch because he didn’t know quite what else to do in life. His work history had been in restaurant kitchens, and in addition to all the other work he did he was sharing cooking duties in the ranchhouse at the time I arrived. He was a good cook, a natural, and he liked making and serving food. However, he was too valuable as a horseman to be in the kitchen during the summer onslaught, and there were others who would take up the culinary tasks during that time.

Looking back from the present, I see I had so much unidentified anger deep inside me then, and even though I willingly did the hard work and obeyed the rules as best I could, I remember always feeling that I was about to burst. Uncle Bill seemed to embody everything I felt it important to rebel against, and yet I also felt it was my duty not to spread bad attitude. George was the one who heard me grumble under my breath, or read the particular shape of the steam coming out of my ears after Bill would pass by barking some complaint, and he would find a way to make me laugh, or he’d just say “Come on, let’s run the horses out.” Playing guitars with George on the dangerously collapsing front porch of “the men’s house” at the end of the day — well, I think that might have saved my soul.

George T. ("Geo") on a rare break in the bustle. Click for larger.

Geo arrived a few weeks after I did. Geo was from Cardwell, Montana. At that time in his life he was experiencing a difficulty relating to authority. His relationship with his father he described as hostile. I seem to recall talk of punches having been thrown. I’m pretty sure Geo had done a couple years in the military (is that possible at so young an age?), which had done him wonders, but he did not want to go back to Montana. A pastor he knew who occasionally volunteered at the ranch and whom we called Pastor Willie had suggested he give the ranch a whirl.

That was a happy day for us, because the Ranch needed a personality like Geo’s. Geo was comic in bearing and buoyant in spirit. Despite being from a small town in Montana, he had urban hip-hop tastes. He had a habit of striking up what he called “beatbox” or “bebox” by using his mouth to imitate a heavy, sputtering rap beat. Very quickly, every member of the ranch began asking him to stop doing this, but he would only grin the big friendly grin you see on his face here and shout, as a d.j. would, “Hit it! Hit it! Hit it!” He had an infectious laugh — hell, just looking at him smiling makes me laugh even now. He was indomitable. You couldn’t squelch his life-loving energy.

Geo, Rebecca and Joanna vaulting on horseback, another ranch visitor handing up the kitten for the finale. I think I was gone by this time. Photo used by permission of Chris Alcott. Click for larger.

One thing I especially valued about Geo was that no matter how much he thought something “sucked”, and there were many things about the way the ranch was managed that quickly found themselves on this list for Geo, he seemed determined to make the best of it. I remember seeing him frown — the frown was always temporary, he just couldn’t be like that for long, and while he frowned you could see him struggling with what he considered unfair or outrageous. His heart was good. And he didn’t want to use his fists. Pretty soon, he’d be laughing again.

And he did amazingly well with the parts of the ranch that did not suck, like being with the campers. I escaped counselor duty all but one week of that summer because I was needed as stablemaster, and George was often assisting Arden with farm chores. But Geo served as a counselor for the most difficult age-group of boys, the back-talking, limit-testing preteens; you’d see them pile out of their parents’ cars on Sunday afternoon all full of beans, ready to cut loose and raise hell, but in less than a day they’d be marching in step behind Geo like ducklings, loudly repeating the boot-camp cadences he had taught them. And when they stepped out of line, he sat on them, but he laughed with them too and it was all a great time. They knew he liked them, and they loved being around him. By the end of the week, their lives were different.

Built at the beginning of the War Between the States, a.k.a. the Civil War. We called it "the Mill". Click for larger, but watch your step on the porch.

We worked side by side every day. During the busy summer season, the day started before sunup with the drive in to the ranch house. We saddled up the few horses we’d kept in the night before for this purpose and rode them out to look for the rest of the herd in whichever pasture we’d run them out into the previous evening. Bringing the herd in was exhilarating. A herd on the move is a terrifying, beautiful thing. Being part of that motion is like riding some great raging river. We broke fast after round up, then we taught lessons in the ring and rode trails all day. I was the least experienced rider, so was not often needed as an instructor. Some days I stood in the stables, talking to the horses and making lead ropes out of old hay twines.

At the end of the day, a few of us would mount up, call for the dogs, and run the horses back out to pasture for the night, what we called “round-out”, chasing them through Ring pasture so they wouldn’t stop and eat the good grass there, and on into Lake or Thoroughbred pasture. We cracked little whips and shouted to keep them going, and the collies nipped at their heels and barked. When we’d herded the last pony through the gate, there was the pleasure of the five minutes or so riding back in the evening sun toward the stable, and toward dinner and maybe a shower. It was the best time of day. We never rushed back. The round-out crew was different every day, but very often it was George or Geo and myself and one or two of the older campers. In my memory I see us all riding back through Ring at a walk, with the evening sun turning the green grass gold.

One of the campers in the stable with Decapa, or maybe that's Julie. The ranch house is visible in the background. Photo courtesy of Amber MacPherson. Click for larger.

As stable master, I also recruited a few souls to scoop the stables with me before they could go in to dinner. I’d hook the spreader up to the PTO (power-take-off) of one of the tractors and drive it into the stable, and after we’d loaded it up with poop I’d drive it out into one of the pastures, usually Lower Barn, and spread it. The spreader was a wagon with a kind of conveyor belt that pulled the manure back into a spinning mechanism that flung it out into the fields to serve as fertilizer. You controlled the flinger with a lever, and if you let it spin too fast you’d have horseshit all over your back in no time. Manure was greenest and wettest in the spring, when the horses were eating the new grass. Because of the proteins in the grass, this was also the time when the horses shed their ragged winter coats and their flanks started to shine and they fattened up. I enjoyed flinging the manure. The noise of the tractor meant I didn’t have to listen to anybody, and at the end of the day that was nice. I just drove around, looking back every once in a while to see the clumps of dung arcing beautifully against the setting sun.

Teaching classes in the ring. Photo used by permission of Mary McDowell Heidorn, standing center. Click for larger.

After spreading manure, there were flakes of hay to toss to the round-up/round-out horses in the paddock and whatever sheep or cattle might be in the barn that night. Most nights there were also hayrides, barn-dances, or worship services, depending on the day of the week. We returned exhausted to the Mill, as we called our house, played a little guitar or treated our boots before collapsing into bed in rooms where ornate wallpaper put up a century before was pealing, and got up before sunrise to do it all again. On Saturday mornings we had cattle round-up and a chuckwagon breakfast, which meant we had to get up even earlier. Through the fall and winter, the workdays were shorter but the work itself — fixing fence in the biting cold wind and snow — was more demanding. More often we worked alone then. In late summer Arden taught me to drive the tractor along steep hills so we could stay ahead of the haying while the weather was good. Or I’d hook up the brush hog to the PTO and spend days chopping back blackberries that were encroaching on pastures and hayfields. George and Geo were often using other tractors to set out those big round rolls of hay, especially in winter when there was no more grass for the animals. Arden did all the other things we younger men had no clue about, like taking the spring rams and calves to market. He came and went like a ghost, always smiling and crooning hymns. I liked those days, too, but I was always glad to get back to the ranchhouse, where a cup of coffee and some quiet conversation awaited, and maybe some cake, too. 

It wasnt’ that the work was hard and physical. That was the best part. We ate like hogs and slept like unmined diamonds. What was difficult to endure was the endless speechifying by the owner about how this wasn’t good enough and how that had been the wrong thing to do. And every complaint and edict was backed by a scripture reference — some parable ingeniously interpreted — so there was no arguing. There was a constant wearing down of one’s spirit, of one’s good intentions. The staff, in response to this subtle but constant abuse from above, closed ranks to support one another, which was the true miracle of that place.

Weekend visitors to the ranch heading out on a trail. Photo used by permission of Chris Alcott, who is in the foreground at left riding what looks to be Sundae. Click for larger.

Geo left the ranch late in the year; just couldn’t take the insanity of being carped at incessantly by a man who was never satisfied, never gave praise and always criticized, pressured and wheedled. We all missed him terribly, even perhaps Bill, who was not happy about how Geo departed and expressed “disappointment” in the young man. Bill needed to keep a stock of people to villify and use as examples, and Geo’s hotheaded departure was convenient that way. The young women of the ranch, especially Rebecca and Joanna, the two who had grown up there and were homeschooled and more intelligent and better educated than any people under eighteen I had ever met, were constantly rolling their eyes when Geo first arrived; his beatbox noisiness and puppy-dog energy offended some sense of culture they had imagined for themselves by reading Austen and the Brontës. But when he left, the place had a hole in it. I think he went back to Montana for a few months, but it didn’t work out, and we soon heard that if Bill would allow it, Geo wanted to return after Christmas. After a speech in which he gloated about Geo having learned a lesson, Bill told us he was allowing Geo to return at the New Year. We rejoiced.

Though older, I was like both Georges. Like George P., I struggled with an inner restlessness, and like Geo, I had inside me a truculent resister against authority. I had almost quit and gone home after two weeks, having seen how things were there, but even in that short time I had developed a loyalty to the hardworking folks who would be left with even more to do if I left. Perhaps — no, certainly, I ascribed more importance to my own presence there than was due. The ranch was constantly attracting more volunteers who wanted to have a part of that beautiful life on the land with horses. But I stayed and I began, for the first time in my life, dealing with the contradictions, working out my salvation with fear and trembling. Like George. Like Geo. And my body began to come awake to the fact that I was a creature of earth, an awareness that has not ceased to tug at me for a single day since then.

A moment to unwind. Geo, George and Jonathan, the youngest member of the family that was living on the ranch at the time. Click for larger.

Meanwhile my heart began to implode, literally. I contracted acute pericarditis, no one every found out how. Bill discouraged doctor visits because they were an outlay of money that to him expressed the opposite of faith in God. (Yes, I know, these are the machinations that go on in a cult. And in some very real respects that’s what the ranch was. But I must be as charitable to Bill as truthful memory will allow. He was not amassing money and driving around in Porches and having ten wives. He was earnestly trying to communicate the gospel of Jesus, and give children a safe place to develop a sense of belonging and achievement in the process.) Insanely, I went along with the “have faith and it will go away” policy, as I was not fond of hospitals myself and at that time still had that young man’s sense of indestructability. But the sac around my heart had filled with fluid over the preceding weeks and I was approaching the point where I could not breathe without pain — it felt like someone was harpooning me from behind every time I inhaled.

As my internal organs began to be increasingly restricted by the accumulation of water around my heart and lungs, I failed to see that I was in what the Germans quaintly call Lebensgefahr — “life-danger”. And Ohio’s deep bitter winter cold, to which I was unaccustomed, seemed to increase the pain. Hearing of the trouble, my parents begged me to get me to a doctor. I did, once, and got some Erithromyacin for the swelling, and assumed it would take care of itself. But it got worse, and the breath I was able to draw became shorter and shorter and more painful with each day, even as I convinced myself that it would be okay, until I woke up one night when the cold was bone-breaking and the heat had gone out in the house and found myself rasping and shivering in my sleeping bag. I suddenly realized that something was dangerously wrong. I called out for George, noting even in my delirium how nifty it was that I only had to shout one name, and both of my housemates came running into my room.

The hospital was thirty miles away by twisty country roads. The boys helped me dress and loaded me gingerly, like a live torpedo, into the back of the Subaru, where I lay in fetal position feeling every bump and dip on the way. I believe George was driving. Calm. Assured. Fast. Since I did not die, Bill was able to claim later that this trip had been unnecessary, though I know and they knew that I might have stepped out with His Grimness (the Reaper) that very night had they dawdled. But I did not die. That was not the Plan. I still believed very much in a Plan back then. Nowadays I struggle with the idea of a Plan. Here’s what I remember, though: it never occurred to me at the time that I would not live, not even a month later when the symptoms returned and the cardiologist I was visiting took one look at me and called an ambulance and I was again hospitalized with acute pericarditis. I still remember lying in the ICU, knowing that everything would be alright. I knew that I was loved. For some reason, that made me feel invincible.

The bad ones always survive. I know this photo was taken after my hospitalization because I had never been able to grow a beard until after being on prednizone. I don't recall the name of the woman in the picture, but we could not have survived the days without the help of our weekend volunteers. Click for larger.

Like I said, I love George and Geo for reasons other than saving my life. It was because we were all there together during one of the most bizarre chapters in any of our lives, when we were young, strong and optimistic. It is difficult to talk about my ranch experience with people who were not there, because in many ways it doesn’t make any sense. People do what they have to do, and everyone’s journey has its own dark turns that seem inexplicable to others. The entire time I was at the ranch I wondered if I was staying because I was too afraid to leave, and through all the years since then I’ve wondered if I left because I was too afraid to stay.

Maybe we all wonder that, because the ranch had such great potential and to have been a part of it for any time at all was to breathe in that vision of an outdoor life with good people close by. Geo appears in pictures that were taken at the ranch the next year, but no one knows what became of him after that. I’ve just located George again after all these years, and this very day he wrote me that he left the ranch about six months after I did, but went back years later with a wife and young family and was helping to run the place as program manager for several years. He says he left only after Bill decided to quit paying the staff, (“After all, it’s more of a ministry than a job,” Bill reasoned), because he had a family to feed. George returned to the hospitality industry, where his efforts were appreciated, and is now managing a Bob Evans restaurant. Like me, he has gone where his journey has led him. But I know he wakes up from dreams in which he’s bringing the herd in, standing in the stirrups at a full gallop. I know he wakes up remembering the smell of spearment stems just broken by the hooves of running horses. 

Ready to serve.

 NOTE: This is one of a series — or rather a cluster — of posts that I am writing about my experiences at the ranch, not in any particular order. The first one was Shooting Emma.

“A straight little car” Part II

[Part I is here]

My parents did not say “I told you so”. That was not their way. My dad having done his best to discourage me from buying a Volkswagen, and my mom having put the frown on, and I having done what I would do, they moved on. They must have figured that being a quarter of a century old I was entitled to make my own blunders. The news that my new purchase was overheating and the engine had to be pulled just to find out whether or not anything could be done about it, and at what astronomical cost, came as no shock to them.

But my parents are not cynics, and they are generous people in all ways, and where family is concerned there is never a question of not helping. And too, Little Nemo was a car everyone loved. It was impossible to not love Little Nemo. My parents loved Little Nemo already, not yet even a full season in the family. My dad appreciated the simplicity of the thing, and the fact that you could reach everything on the engine without dental mirrors and a ten-foot wrench. My mom loved it because it was mine, and because it made a crickety sound when I came up the steep hill of SE 18th Street after my late shift at the Mini Mart, a sound that was both reassuring and unmistakeably Nemo’s.

Lee J. Cobb argues his point.

I was cloistered in a small room with eleven angry men who were cloistered in a small room with Henry Fonda. Lee J. Cobb argues his point.

My parents parked their cars in the street and lower driveway that week so that I could get Nemo into the driveway’s only flat spot, up next to the house. The plan was, I would jack up the car high enough to drop the engine and pull it out from underneath, then wrestle it into my dad’s shop around the back of the house to work on it. I would put the screws and nuts from every piece of shroud in a plastic baggie and label the baggie with a black Sharpie, and put the baggies in a large cardboard box. I would clean all the engine parts by hand and hopefully find something to replace that was broken.

Really, now that I think about it, it was a fool’s errand. I think my dad sensed disaster; he had to work days so he would not be able to offer much real-time help, but he cleared his piano workings from the center table in the shop so that I would have maximum space to spread out and gave me leave to use all of his tools. Mom let me take an extra black-and-white TV they had out there, because I was going to be holed up for a long time. I don’t recall why it was thought this would be a help, but I remember watching old classic movies every day on channel 13 while I carefully keyed out and executed, step by step, the engine disassembly procedures for my particular year in the book.

Muir’s guide, colloquially known as the Idiot Book, walked you through every preparation and every detail, even reminding long-haired readers to put their hair in a pony tail before addressing a running engine or it was liable to “yank you hankless”. Here is how one blogger, eulogizing the illustrator of Muir’s book, Peter Aschwanden, summarized what the Idiot Book meant to Volkswagen owners:

“I was living on Canyon Road in Santa Fe in 1970, sharing a house with 3 women and another guy. One day he decided to rebuild the engine of his VW bus. He was sort of a small guy, maybe weighed 120 pounds…but this didn’t stop him from taking the engine out of his bus by himself. The bus was backed up against a wall. He got in there behind the bus, undid 4 bolts, grabbed the engine with both hands, and pushed the bus away from the wall with his foot. He was left holding the engine, which he carried into the house and set on the kitchen table. He opened up his Muir book and rebuilt the engine right there.”

I would think this description unbelievable except that my own experience was similar. I removed the nuts (only three on the Bug) and lowered the engine onto a little hydraulic jack on wheels, then wrestled it onto a handtruck and pulled it around to the back yard. It was about as cumbersome to dolly along in this way, I imagine, as if it had been an Aldabra tortoise. I manoeuvered the thing through the door of the shop and then wiggled it off the handtruck and onto the bottom of a makeshift ramp — a plank of 2×10 that my dad had lying around — and then pushed it up the board and onto the table, where I began the slow process of taking it apart piece by interconnected piece.

Peter Aschwanden's illustration of the VW engine was worth the price of the book.

Peter Aschwanden's illustration of the VW engine was worth the price of the book. Image lifted from Amazon's website and used without permission.

The trip into the heart of a VW engine is a marvelous journey, and you begin to see how the engineers were thinking. These were German engineers from the early 1930s, the Chancellor’s people. You know who. The design had not changed significantly since then, and I could begin to see how everything had been thought out. It was so simple, so sensible and efficient. So Deutsch. And yet at the same time there was give. The VW engine is designed to leak a tiny bit of oil. When it’s cold, the seams are a little sloppy; when it gets up to running speed, the heat expands the case and other parts to an optimal tightness. I had never studied anything like this before, never cared. But the logic and beauty of it gripped me now as I peeled back each layer and finally got to the center. It made me wonder what advances might have been if these minds had been engaged by Roosevelt’s WPA instead of the quest for Lebensraum.

The camshaft had extra holes in it. A mechanic took one look at it when I brought it in and said “Yeah, somebody tried to make a race car out of it and bored these extra holes. Also, that’s a ’66 camshaft, not a ’67.” I don’t recall where I found this mechanic, but he also rebored the whatchamacallits for the camshaft bearings — the places in the crankcase where the bearings sit. I’ve forgotten the word now. They were worn to an odd shape. But the real problem — finally! — was that someone had put the wrong oil pump in it. The thing couldn’t keep oil moving through the engine at a sufficient rate.

None of these things was a horribly expensive problem now that I had the engine out and disassembled. I took the rebored crankcase and new camshaft bearings and new oil pump and new camshaft and went back to my dad’s shop, and after scrubbing the char off of the pistons, reversed the disassembly process according to Muir’s book.

It is a well-known and commented-on phenomenon of Bugdom that each time you R&R the engine, you end up with parts left over, no matter how carefully you work. There will be extra bolts, shroud screws, nuts and washers, maybe even a cotter pin. It’s a mystery no one has ever satisfactorily explained. You keep them forever because you know they came off the car and belong with the car, but you’ll never use them, and there will be more the next time. These parts are like the basketfuls of fish and bread that Jesus and his desciples gathered up after feeding the throngs.

Once I had put the last shroud on and boxed up my extra parts, I put the engine back in the car. It was Sunday evening, the day before school started. Dad helped me slide the engine down the 2×10 and onto the handtruck, steadied it with me as we pushed it back out to the front of the house, lowered it onto the jack, and slid the jack underneath the car, which had been sitting with its back wheels absurdly cambered three feet in the air for seven days. I lowered the car and raised the engine until the three studs in the chassis met the three holes in the engine case, nutted them down, and started hooking up the accelerator cable and electrical wiring, which I had taken care to code with tape. Oil had to be put in. It was almost dark.

Little Nemo back when the road was wide open.

The trip to Umatilla. Little did we know that disaster was less than a micrometer of aging rubber away.

Mom was calling us in to dinner, and dark had descended, but Dad stayed outside while I grunted underneath the car, fir needles imprinting themselves against the skin of my arms. Dad did not ask if he could go now, bless his large and forgiving heart. He was curious. I was too. The moment of truth came when I sat on the front seat, half in and half out, and put the key in the ignition. Dad stood near the open engine compartment, a few feet out of the way of potential harm.

I paused. It dawned on me suddenly what a fool I was to expect anything to happen when I turned the key. What was I thinking? A million things could have gone wrong. All those procedures, all those tight fits, all those parts. All those leftover parts! Most of Nemo’s cardio-pulmonary system had been reduced to a cardboard box full of plastic bags. But I had done all that I could do. I had done what the book said. I pressed the gas pedal once, then let it up and turned the key.

The engined turned over and fired up immediately. Vigorously. Happily, even. Its cheerful chatter sounded as though it had merely been interrupted in the middle of a convivial conversation. My dad and I whooped and hollared.

I’m not sure that what it says about my life is flattering, but this was one of its proudest days. There have not been many times when I have gone into something with only willingness and wits and what leverage I could generate with my own limbs and emerged utterly triumphant. The experience was a validating high that stayed with me for years. And Nemo responded well to my ministrations. It became de rigeur, when changing Nemo’s oil, for me to slide under and give the valves a tweek, and during the nine years I owned the car I pulled the engine at least four or five times — to replace the clutch, the transmission boots, even once a tiny, 50-cent clip. I replaced one of the rear axles after it sheared off while I was driving up the parking donut at SeaTac Airport (an airport my grandfather was convinced was “designed by an idiot and built by a committee”, though that’s neither here nor there), a terrifying event that stopped my forward motion immediately and forced me to back down the spiralled ramp with cars blindly hurling upwards behind me. 

I took care of Nemo, and it must be said, Nemo took care of me. Once my buddy Jeff and I decided to drive to the other corner of the state to see what the Umatilla National Forest was all about. We camped on Misery Mountain (no lie, and my half of the tent flooded so I ended up sleeping in Little Nemo most of that miserable night) and the next day, after we had driven back over the Cascades and I had pulled up in the driveway and stopped, a popping hiss issued from underneath the car and the brake pedal oozed to the floor; a sharp cotter pin had slowly, over the years, been scraping away at the rubber casing of the brake line, but Nemo had managed to hold his arteries together long enough to get us safely back home in the driveway before succombing to the most dangerous malfunction a car can have. 

The winter we spent in Ohio, Nemo turned 25, but in Bug years, that's middle age. I had to send to Seattle's Bow Wow Auto Parts for a few gaskets.

The winter we spent in Ohio, Nemo turned 25, but in Bug years, that's middle age. I had to send to Seattle's Bow Wow Auto Parts for a few gaskets.

In 1989 or so I gave Little Nemo a new paint job. “Medium Cabernet Solid”. I once said those three words to a police officer who was writing me a ticket during what by nightfall had already come to be called the Inauguration Day Storm of 1993. Nemo’s windshield wiper motor had chosen that auspicious, rainy and windy day — the day of President Clinton’s swearing in — to give up the ghost as I drove from my mountain redoubt in Snoqualmie to Seattle to interview the owner of Beall’s Roses. The officer paused in his scritching, stepped a pace back, wrinkled his nose up and looked from side to side to assess the Color of the Vehicle. “What is this, maroon?” he said, and continued writing. It was not really a question, but I answered, “Actually, it’s Medium Cabernet Solid.” I suppose I was lucky that he did not even seem to hear this correction.

Nemo and I spent most of our time together knocking around Washington State. This was back when Regular was regular and regular was cheap. In 1991 we braved several mountain ranges and Wyoming’s High Plains in the snowy dead of winter to travel to a children’s ranch camp in Ohio, where I volunteered as a farmhand and wrangler for a year. Little Nemo immediately won the affection of many of the campers and several of the counselors, one of whom regularly occupied her campers during the summer by setting them to work making daisy chains and festooning the car with them from front to back. It was fitting livery for a car hatched during the Summer of Love. A hoof pick that I used at the ranch and once tossed on the floor of the car remained there on the passenger side for years after I had returned from Ohio.

It may have been there when I eventually sold the car to a kid named Corey. He needed a car badly and loved Nemo at first sight, even though the aging Bug had nearly bald tires, suffered from chronic electrical issues, no longer jumped out of the gate when you stepped on the gas, and was rusting in many places. I had replaced almost every working part on the car, and I just didn’t have it in me anymore. I couldn’t keep up.

My dad had been right. I was always underneath that car. So had my mom. I didn’t know anything about fixing cars. But I proved myself able to learn, and one of the best things about my whole adventure with Little Nemo was hearing my dad, more than once, say in conversations where the subject happened to touch upon Volkswagen Bugs, “Those are neat little cars. You know my son has one. Does all the work on it himself.”  

“A straight little car” Part I

The 1967 Volkswagen Sedan represented, for many fans of the “Beetle Bug”, the meeting point of the best of the old and the best of the new. Among other things, it was the first year that the Bug had a 12-volt battery and the last year that it had a metal dashboard. Up until 1966 the car had had to get by with just 6-volts, and in 1968 the metal dash was replaced with vinyl, which faded and cracked with a few years in the sun (and didn’t hold magnets). The ’67 was the pinnacle of that car’s engineering and design.

My first car was a 1967 Bug that I christened Little Nemo after Winsor McCay‘s cartoon character. After classes during my college years, Nemo and I often went out and beat up the old highways that ran through the little Snoqualmie Valley towns of Fall City, Stillwater, Carnation, Duvall and Monroe, turning off to explore little backroads where whim dictated. I had not yet grown up, and as many young men do I thought of my car as an animate object. Since my human friends had all moved away to colleges elsewhere, Nemo became the buddy that went everywhere with me. In fact, I was like the the cartoon boy Nemo and my car was like his bed, which was the vehicle that carried him on most of his adventures.

Bound for adventure. Image used according to Wikipedia Commons.


I was 24 and living at home again, working my way through my second sprint of college years, when I announced at the dinner table that I wanted to buy a VW Bug. Both of my parents had the same reflex.

“Those things are always breaking down,” said my dad, upon hearing of my plan. “You’ll always be underneath it.”

“You don’t know anything about fixing cars,” worried my mom, her face darkened by a frown.

To my knowledge, my dad did not hold any particular loyalty to Ford over Chevrolet, or vice versa, but he was decidedly unfond of things made offshore; distrusted them and preferred to buy American, especially if we were talking about cars. (I see an irony in the fact that I now make a point of buying “local” whenever possible.) Dad’s older brothers had fought in World War II to help beat back the Hun and Emperor Hirohito, and we had been magnanimous enough as a world power to help the defeated nations get their economies started again, which was the right thing to do perhaps, but we didn’t have to buy their cars. And besides, they were bound to be inferior. Growing up, I had ridden in the back seats of a 1957 Chevy Station Wagon, a 1964 Chevy Impala, a Ford van of some species, a 1968 Ford Galaxy 500, and a 1976 Chrysler Volare station wagon, all (excepting of the last, which had been bought expressly for my mother to use) with my dad behind the wheel as the proud beneficiary of American automotive engineering superiority. All, too, were periodically pulled up close to the house with their hoods open and my dad bent over their engines.

Memories of standing in the rain holding a wrench for my dad while wishing I was over at my friend’s house were as painful for me as I imagine the disappointment at not having been able to instill in me a sense of responsibility about cars was for my dad. I didn’t understand that he got real satisfaction out of repairing and maintaining these marvelous machines, and in saving money that way; that it gave him a sense of agency that I now recognize as a hunger in my own present life, a sense of engaging the physical, tangible world and altering it, mastering it. I was a daydreaming teenager as yet unoppressed by the routine of a workaday world and saw nothing compelling about that activity. I also didn’t recognize an opportunity to bond with my father in silent (or at least non-verbal — there was plenty of grunting) side-by-side combat against the absurdities of Detroit. Standing next to the driveway twiddling the needlenose pliars while my dad slew unseen dragons under the hood felt like a chore, just like taking out the garbage and cleaning the cat box. I’m sure my feelings on the matter were patent to all (“Dad, can I go now?”). After a time, he only asked me to come out for specific momentary needs, to step on the break or the gas, or to help him lift something heavy.

There is a mystery here. I took this photo myself while standing in the road, but I am curiously absent in the reflection on the back bumper, which displays nearly a 180-degree view. Was my soul missing?

Little Nemo in the Snoqualmie Valley, the year after I fixed the engine. There is a mystery here. I took this photo myself, but even at high-res I cannot find myself in the reflection on the back bumper, which displays nearly a 180-degree view. Was my soul missing?

The double vote of no confidence felt terrible, but it was not like my folks were vowing to disown me if I bought a VW. In fact, despite their reservations they cosigned my first loan from a bank. I don’t remember exactly what the loan was, maybe two thou, but I believe the car was $1450.00. My parents thought it would be a good idea for me to establish credit. At 24, I had never bought anything more expensive than a Bell and Howell Super 8 sound movie projector, which was the matter of not more than three hundred dollars. I took out a loan, which I paid on monthly for the next three years.

I responded to an ad for a car for sale by a young man named Eric S–. I remember loving its curves immediately as I pulled up in my folks’ Volare and saw Little Nemo sitting against the curb in the street outside Eric’s parents’ house. The exterior had four different colors: basically tan with a blue hood, a primer-colored front apron, and one rust-colored fender. The sleek back fenders looked like the haunches of a cat. It had running boards. (Running boards!) Eric and I drove it around and he told me a little about the car. I remember nothing of what he said. He then let me drive it away to have a mechanic look at it before I made up my mind.

The mechanic I took it to ran a small garage on the Eastside called Motorworks. I forget his name. He looked the car over approvingly, poked around and under it, measured and inspected.

“Straight little car,” he said. Then I gave him the keys and we got in. He brodied around through back alleys along Bel-Red Road, putting the transmission through its paces and listening to the engine.

“Yup,” he repeated. “Straight little car.”

I was to hear this exact phrase many more times over the years. It was the kind of statement said among people who could appreciate, under the rough exterior, a reliable machine that had been designed well and well cared for. It signified that in choosing this car, I had showed good sense. I probably overpaid for a 19-year-old box of tin, but everybody who knew Bugs who ever looked at it said it was “a straight little car.” It wasn’t pretty, but the interior had been redone with plush, fur-like seats. And really, what mattered to me was that I’d be able to drive across the lake to my classes at the University of Washington instead of catching two buses with a long wait between, or walking a mile and catch one bus) and I would not have to borrow the Volare to go to work at the Mini Mart, also in the University District. The car meant independence. It was a bonus that when you stepped on the gas, the whole car lifted up and WENT. It looked like an old dog, but it acted like a young horse.

The first month I drove it that hot summer of 1986, I kept seeing the little orange oil light on the dashboard flickering on. That couldn’t be good. I added oil, but that didn’t help. Something was wrong. Initial probes by a mechanic suggested I would have to submit the car to an R&R (it stood for “remove and replace” or “remove and repair” — mechanic’s lingo for “in order to find out what’s wrong we’ll have to take the engine completely out of the car, and even if we don’t find anything wrong we’ll have to put the engine back into the car”), a round trip for the engine that would cost an estimated thousand dollars by the time all was said and done. I was stricken. School started in a week. If I ignored this problem, my engine could blow up on the Evergreen Floating Bridge, and I’d be that guy.

Would it really be this easy? Image lifted from Amazon's website and used without permission.

Would it really be this easy? Illustration from Muir's book lifted from Amazon and used without permission.

I didn’t have a thousand dollars. I had a copy of John Muir’s How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot. I had fearlessness, being young, and a notion that taking apart a meticulously designed and precisely manufactured piece of mid-20th-century machinery should not present insurmountable obstacles for a person who was willing to get his hands dirty. I had parents who would let me park my disabled car in their driveway.

And I had one week…



The Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt