Thursday, December 27, 2007

The end of Santa as we knew him

When your father is Santa Claus, your future career options are somewhat limited. Such was the case with my friend Dennis Ball, who when only a teenager had to fill those boots and spread Christmas cheer to good little boys and girls. And to a few bad little boys and girls, too.

I knew him first only as the guy at the end of the block who practiced archery. He’d be out in his front yard with his bow and arrows, dressed in camo no matter the season, a squat, burly man with a chubby baby face and a half-smile playing on his lips, as if he knew something about you that might come in handy sometime. I’d wave, he’d wave, each acknowledging the essence of the other. Such is the cornerstone of rural friendships.

“I hear you’re interested in birds,” he said when we finally met. His voice was gravelly and possessive of an almost-Southern drawl. When I admitted I was, he asked if I’d noticed various species of mammals and birds lying dead on the roads. I had. Growing serious, he lowered his voice and leaned closer.

“You never see a dead crow,” he whispered. “Know why?”

I shook my head.

“Because one always keeps watch,” he said. “And when a car comes along, it yells ‘Kawr, Kawr, Kawr!’”

After that, I was always “Bird Man” to him.

Dennis was famous for his jokes. Nearly all of them were corny, and if the unfortunate recipient couldn’t summon a laugh, Dennis would gladly provide it. Even as his lungs failed, he greeted me with a mindless jest that made me groan, and him cackle.

He was an unlikely source to teach a budding reporter the importance of anonymity. I was a first-year journalist covering the local Christmas parade and felt duty-bound to identify each person in the photographs I took. When it came to Santa, upon whose knees many a child had posed, wariness greeted my request.

“Oh, no,” he said slowly. “You can’t say who Santa is. Santa is Santa.”

After watching him interact with both children and adults, I understood this was no ordinary red-suited imposter. If such a thing as a real Santa Claus exists on this earth, Dennis was his embodiment. Later, when he told me his story, I realized why.

His father, Eugene Ball, had been Santa before him. One Christmas Eve Eugene woke with the flu. He was expected that evening at several houses but knew he couldn’t make it. “You’re going to play Santa Claus tonight,” he told Dennis.

“I’m not big enough to play Santa Claus,” Dennis replied.

“Santa Claus is an elf, you know. He’s little, and tubby.”

Decades later, Dennis remembers wondering if he was little and tubby in his father’s opinion. But no matter: the show must go on. With ample padding Dennis was sent into the night. He was thirteen.

He was a natural. Working fast, getting in and out, was the key. “You come in loud, boisterous, you startle them,” Dennis said. “Don’t let them ask too many questions. Fire one back, give them a moment, fire another. If not, they’ll study everything on you. They’ll sit back before they get in your lap and they’ll study you and study you.”

His most important piece of advice to faux-Santas was this: “You got to know your reindeer.”

His secret identity was closely guarded, even to his own children. It was another lesson he had learned when a niece identified his father from his neatly-trimmed fingernails—which she had manicured the night before.

“They just naturally thought dad had the worst luck because when Santa Claus came, dad was out running an errand,” he said. “When I came home, they’d say, ‘Dad, you missed him again!’ And then one day I was getting dressed and one of them came into the bedroom. I’m telling you, we had to have cardiac, CPR, the whole bit. I just told them, you can’t say nothing. And they’ve all been real good.”

He had the gift of making children and adults feel special—and maybe, in the case of women, a little wicked. One Christmas he made a special trip to the nursing home. One woman who knew Santa’s real identity had promised to make him blush. “She gave Santa Claus a French kiss,” Dennis said. “Santa Claus was very shocked. I was beet red, only nobody could tell.”

He always wanted to show me where he found a woodcock across the levee in a tangle of downed timber, spongy soil and deep grass curling around a wet slough. I’d never found a woodcock and looked forward to going out with him. We’d make plans and then I’d break them, always too busy to go.

Dennis was laid to rest last week. He was 55 years old, one year older than me.
I’m beginning to realize that growing older leads to an accrual of regrets. Our sins of omissions pile up like cars in a California fog and leave as much wreckage. If I had another chance to sit on Santa’s knee, I’d ask for the one thing that keeps eluding me: the wisdom to know when to work and when to share what little time we are allotted.

He told me once that kids kept him young. Unfortunately, they could do nothing for his lungs. But if there is a fitting epitaph for Santa as we knew him, it would be this—that when we were in his presence we were all little kids, and the wonder of the season was the truest thing of all.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The old willow didn't make it

Stem and leaf

This chicken ain't crowing

World on ice, world on fire

White world, black world, world of glass. World of strange nocturnal sounds never before fallen on these ears: The dull hollow boom of boots breaking through hardpanned ice into softer snow below, the brittle patter of freezing rain pelting a world already armored and glazed, already bent and bowed, already dripping with icicles and dripping yet more. That selfsame frozen rain unstoppable and shudderingly constant, unrelenting in its wintry assault.

I had walked outside to check conditions before committing to the workday. Inside, coffee was brewing and lights warmed the windows, but outside lay an icy wasteland, though how wasted it would become was lost on me at that moment. The car was heavily sheathed and the road as well, and in the light of streetlamps trees stooped glittering in tormented shapes.

As I stood there entranced at the terrible beauty of the scene, watching the play of light on the gathering ice and my jacket steadily encrusting into a crystalline carapace, there came a dull crack and a muffled whoosh, sharply truncated, like a rifle shot fired into a pillow. Another followed, nearer, with a spray of ice shards jagged as broken glass scattering at my feet. On all sides in the darkness trees imploded and cascaded down, each report a bell-note of escalating hopelessness and panic.

Time was short but I used what I had. I kicked the thermostat to high, turned on all space heaters, made extra coffee and, finally, woke Lori. “You have to hear this,” I said.

We went outside to a changed world. The rain still fell and trees dropped with frightening regularity, as if it were their destiny and none other. The thought came that if this continued nothing would be left by daybreak. Adding to the din was a new sound—the flash and sizzle of arcing transformers.

While Lori cooked breakfast, I gathered candles and flashlights and installed batteries in my headlamp. By its cold bluish light I went back outside and stomped to the shed, where I’d stored four gallons of kerosene. A tree blew apart and fell across the shed and other branches hung precariously above, but I took my chances and entered. Outside sounds seemed louder, sharper, accented by falling ice and branches scraping the roof, as if I stood in a sort of echo chamber. But I did not linger.

The kerosene heater, stored downstairs, hadn’t been used in years. I dusted off the spider webs and carried it upstairs, where I checked the condition of the batteries. Unbelievably, they worked. So we would at least have heat when the power went, which I expected at any moment.

Lori served the last pancake when the lights snuffed out. We ate by candlelight, which would have been romantic under other circumstances but now only served to increase the dread awareness of what was happening outside.

After that, all we could do is sit in the dark and listen to trees falling in the front yard, some exploding against the house. We stayed away from windows. And still the freezing rain drummed on the roof.

There was no dawn, only a minor paling. It served merely to illustrate the extent of the damage. Trees were shattered and broken, leaning crazily, or bowed like white-robed monks in prayer. Fences and power lines hung heavy with ropes of ice. Other than falling branches and toppling trees nothing moved in that icescape, not mammal nor bird nor vehicle. It seemed the end of civilization.

The day passed slowly. Freezing rain continued unabated; the house slowly cooled. We rifled the camper for matches, sleeping bags, an extra thermos and a coffee pot. By mid-afternoon the rain relented and I went outside to inspect the house. There was no damage though several huge limbs had fallen perilously close and several more sagged over the porch. What we now feared was wind, and even as the thought came so too did a shifting in the air, a whisper and a creak, a brittle groan. Trees suddenly twisted like arthritic geezers needing hip replacements. The old willow across the street keeled over in a roar and others followed in its wake. It was the cruelest blow of all.

More freezing rain in the afternoon and light snow at dusk. I grilled pork chops outside while Lori cooked on the kerosene heater. After that we read by flashlight and turned in early. What else was there to do? Without electricity we relived the days of our forefathers, and yet the comparison was inapt. We at least had indoor plumbing, and hot water, insulated walls, high-tech winter clothing and a pantry full of food. But darkness has a way of superseding all other things, and cold, too, and the energy drained is not merely physical.

Gray and bleak and long was the second day. Survival mode reminded me of a propane lantern downstairs, which I resurrected. Simple hot meals were provided by the kerosene heater. Lori left for work in the afternoon and I napped and woke to a darkening house and felt the darkness in my bones.

Night was longer still, and another cold dark morning, alone this time. I started the heater and set a pot of coffee on top and ransacked thermoses for warm dregs. Sheba shied away from my dancing headlamp until I lit the lantern, and then she shyly came to me. The both of us desperate in the pre-dawn.

And what would the day bring? More grayness, I feared. The absence of power is a soul-sucking void. As I jotted notes, I searched for paling on the horizon. At first a faint glow, a saffron and peach slash impaled on ice-honed splinters, the slash blossoming into a sky mercifully clear, blossoming into blue, blossoming into something like hope. The red rising sun ignited the ice into a million bonfires burning bright. I went outside—I could do no less—to step lightly through the ruins.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Eye of the fox

Before me the open road and behind the pavement burning golden under a westering sun. Fields stark and shorn of color, gray skeletoned trees, barns weathered and peeling, each pass in an endless procession impossible to dull the senses of one city-born. Isolate houses sagging under the weight of years. Dirt roads leading nowhere. The unpeopled landscape of the county borderlands unfolding in an early-winter setting and me its solitary witness.

Something nags at me, a thought, a feeling, a memory. It’s been growing for some time now, growing stronger and deeper, closer to the bone, and yet it remains just outside the edges of my consciousness.

As the sun welters into a cloudbank a solitary ray escapes to ignite a red fox perched sphinx-like atop a rounded hay bale, behind whose flame the somber woods melt away into gray obscurity. When the fox swivels its fine-furred head to study my passage light glints off its obsidian eye, and for a brief moment we two sentient beings join in wordless communion. The fox wears a Mona Lisa smile, and me hurtling past in my cocoon of steel and glass recognize within that fathomless expression, that tenebrous orb, the talismanic attributes of all that other place was not.

After that, everything is so much clearer. I enter the small town of Barnes and exit within seconds, its span a half-mile at best, and one more town to go before my own rises from the horizon, huddled around its tall grain elevator.

The irony is not lost on me that what I’m doing is the exact thing I refused to do in my other life. Indeed, it’s what brought us here, though pushed might be a better term. And yet any comparison is dubious at best, more mathematical formula than actual substance, for what the fox saw from its hayrick throne was the vision I craved for myself.

I never did like traffic or populated areas. Shortly after moving to Las Vegas, New Mexico, I picked up two female hitchhikers who needed a lift to Boulder. Having nothing better to do, I drove them there. That night I slept on the floor of what can only be described as a mini-commune, a canvas-sided jungle boot as rough pillow, my conservative mores at odds with the free-love, dope-smoking, long-haired cahoots I was suddenly cast among. Driving home I encountered Denver at its worst rush-hour hell, and I swore I would never live in a place that congested.

So much for oaths. For twenty-six years Lori and I lived there, the last ten on the northwest side with a splendid view of the Front Range, at least when it wasn’t veiled with smog.

It was fourteen miles to my job just east of downtown Denver. It doesn’t sound like much now—the distance, say, between Blue Rapids and Frankfort. But getting there in the morning, and leaving there in late afternoon, required a commute of at least an hour. Some days were much worse, as when it snowed or rained or threatened rain or snow or when stupid drivers decided to crash into other stupid drivers and really jack things up. I was thankful we didn’t live on the south side of the metro area, where traffic was generally much worse.

And then the news came that my company would be moving to the extreme southern edge of town—which meant a one-way commute of thirty-five miles. It didn’t take long to do the math and decide it was time to find something else to do and somewhere else to do it in. So we packed up and moved to Kansas.

And here I am with a morning commute of thirty-five miles. No wonder the fox was smiling.

Sure it’s only two days a week, but still. What I refused to do in Denver I willingly agreed to here in the hinterlands of Kansas, and if that sounds hypocritical then one needs to study the various routes within both commutes and decide which one best suits my persona. That other was endless traffic, often at a complete standstill, and this is wide open where few other vehicles are ever encountered. A splendid swap for one so chary of humanity.

Most of the time I stick to the old White Way from Blue Rapids to the intersection of K-15, passing Fawn Creek and Coon Creek, where a red-tailed hawk or bald eagle is usually sentinel on top of the dead tree near the road, and north across Mill Creek into Washington. Some mornings I take K-148 north and cross the Little Blue River, always slowing down to take a gander—an act that in Denver would likely prove fatal. Once or twice I took the Greenleaf road, a narrow blacktop wending through farmland and wooded thickets. Someday I want to make the trip on dirt roads just to see if it’s possible.

This, then, is my morning commute—an equivalent distance to that which I balked at in Denver. And yet it remains incomparable.

This is not to say we don’t have traffic snarls or collisions. The other morning on the way to work I ran into a sort of rural traffic jam. It was the middle of our local rush-minute and I was forced to wait for four trucks, two cars and a school bus to go by. I tried not to be too impatient. What the fox held in its liquid black eye was mine now.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Reflections on Mill Creek

It’s very difficult to look at the World
And into your heart at the same time. – Jim Harrison

Mill Creek is low now, embroidered with a ragged fringe of thin ice sharp as razors. The colorless sky above reflects through a wild tangle of twigs and branches, irregularly splintered by the upthrust arms of trees long drowned. The beauty of water is in its many moods, only a few of which are controlled by that vast arc above. A few days ago I was driving home from work in the half-gloom of dusk when out the window I saw a roadside pond still holding a bright blue heaven though all around was gray and light bleeding away. It seemed an inconformable reflector, or a sapphiric window into a distant world beneath our own.

Today Mill Creek has none of that. Its sinuous track is a quicksilver snake weaving through winterwoods, mirror to a polar sun banking into nothingness. I could shatter that sky with a stone but there seems no reason to so I remain still. Overhead a skein of snow geese soundlessly wings southward. The north wind rises. A storm is coming.

Not far from here a man took his life. Years past a fellow employee at Burns Security put a shotgun in his mouth and yanked the trigger. Before that but not long before I would sometimes place a loaded .357 Magnum against my temple and pull the trigger as far as I dared. I could be accused of not being entirely serious or else I would have applied a little more pressure but that misses the point.

Sometimes I’m amazed to still be standing as I wasn’t always sure I’d reach this age. Now that I have I’m finding it addictive. The hammering of a woodpecker against a hollow trunk or the skirl of leaves drifting onto the still surface of the creek have enough loveliness within them to smother even the most intractable mood, though getting to the point of being able to see such beauty is often impossible. Clinical depression has been likened to being at the bottom of a dark cavern, which paints a merely adequate picture for the unafflicted. Toss in nightmarish creatures closing in and the inability to reason and the image is more comprehendible.

What I’m trying to say is I wish I could have met Robert Glenn Bennett on his way to the tree where he ended his life. Being here is an uncomfortable intrusion into a stranger’s most intimate affair and I question my motives even as I wonder if my intent, hopeless as it sounds, was to intercept him. But I am too late and know it. And still I’m drawn to this place.

Whatever drove him was apprehensible, acceptable and remediable. Let’s get that out of the way first. Let’s also ditch any half-baked theory about his being weaker than the rest of us, as those stonecasting moral stalwarts among us would have us believe. I didn’t know Bennett so I can’t sit in judgment but I suspect that something hounded him into those woods, something he had no defense against. Even the most undaunted creature wearies of retreat.

Being here carries another burden, that of survivor. Perhaps it’s a stigma burned into my forehead, my own scarlet letter, but it seems that those closest and dearest to me questioned my motives the most. Beneath it was an accusation that I was dancing too close to the edge, that my own peculiar madness would swallow me whole in those barren woods and like Bennett I would enter and never return. One morning before work I slipped a .380 into my pocket and saw a look of shock and mistrust on Lori’s face. I assured her it was because of the remoteness of the place and it was mostly true, though I left out the part about feeling exposed and somehow watched when I was there earlier in the week. I wanted to say, “It’s not for that,” a term which required no accounting. And I didn’t. Nevertheless it hung in the air like a guilty thought, and I hurried to leave.

I was looking for the tree. Armed with a crude pencil sketch, I headed uphill from the road and immediately realized the futility of it. Trees look more or less alike and yet the one I sought was singular in form. I pushed through thickets of red-berried buckbrush and tripped over half-hidden branches and reached the top of the hill and turned back, knowing I’d gone too far. The tree when I found it stood out from the others. I placed my hand on it and felt an immense emptiness that might have been sorrow or something greater. Unbidden, the pistol slid into my hand, a cold, icy comfort. I held it in a blank state of mind until a chickadee scolding from an adjacent tree pulled me back, and I tucked it back in my belt and walked away.

I don’t begrudge Bennett for doing what he felt he had to. Our lives are controlled by so many outside forces but in this alone we have the final say. It might indeed be that this is all the control we possess, our single godlike power unless we consider love.

The rising wind whets its knives on my exposed flesh. I’m reminded of once coming indoors with ears so cold they burned, and Lori cupping her hands around them laughing and the warmth in her hands and eyes exploding through me like heat lightning. I pick up a dead leaf and drop it into the creek. It alights soundlessly but fractures the sky’s pallid reflection with tiny ripples that spread and weaken and slowly become still. I say a prayer for Robert Glenn Bennett, wishing him peace and fortune on his journey. While I’m at it I say one for me.