Monday, December 16, 2013

Thankless birds

Later, as the house fell silent except for the hum of the furnace, Lori turned to me and said, “Too bad about the chickens, I was hoping your family would be talking about them for years to come,” and I said, “Oh, they will. Those chickens will never be forgotten.”

After a long pause, she laughed. “I guess you’re right,” she said. “But they might never ask you to cook again.”

I’ve always said that the things we remember most are those that go spectacularly wrong. Adventures, I call them, and not in the usual sense of an exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity calling for enterprise and enthusiasm. (U-Haul’s unfortunate use of the word in their motto, “Adventures in moving,” certainly applies.) Cooking the Thanksgiving chickens called for enterprise and enthusiasm aplenty, though minus the hazardous part as the potential threat of banishment from the kitchen wasn’t an overt concern. After all, the most effective way of never being asked to do something again is to do it so poorly that nobody in their right mind would ever ask again.

Still, the pressure to perform added an edge to the proceedings. It was our first family Thanksgiving in 40 years and I’d volunteered to cook the turkey. The others had heard me bragging of being able to cook a turkey in 45 minutes and demanded proof. It was only after we settled on the size of the bird that we all agreed that turkey wasn’t our favorite fowl, so we settled on a pair of large chickens, which were.

My first clue that the chickens might be an adventure came when I stripped off their wrappers. The larger chicken tipped the scape at eight-plus pounds, a behemoth of such gargantuan bulk that wondered if it might be radioactive. “Free-range from Chernobyl,” my brother quipped. The second was smaller but no less voluminous. Rather than something to roast in the oven, they seemed more applicable to firing from a catapult.

Nevertheless, I crowded them into a roasting pan, dusted them with Himalayan salt and Tellicherry rainbow peppercorns, and slid them into the oven. Every 20 minutes I basted them with butter and spices. After an hour I added a pound of white mushrooms to the pan. When the skin began to crisp, I basted more frequently. The kitchen was a blizzard of activity. My mother whipped up her famous cornbread stuffing, my sister-in-law creamed the peas, Lori mashed the potatoes and made giblet gravy, my dad put on another pot of coffee. My younger brother anchored the table. 

Forty years is a long time not to spend Thanksgiving together. Somewhere along the line we’d all grown older. My parents were frailer than I’d ever seen them, and my brother’s red hair was graying. There was both more and less of me than before. But for a few blessed hours on a warm New Mexico afternoon it was like old times again, and maybe even better because after all we’d been through in the past year we recognized the fragility of existence and the waning of our days. Life as we knew it shortened with each heartbeat. As my father said, this might well be our last Thanksgiving together.

Two hours into the cooking, I slid the crisp, browned birds from the oven and wiggled the legs for doneness. They wouldn’t budge. I tugged and twisted and pried but the chickens remained impervious to my exhortations. 

Uh-oh, my wife said.

Undaunted, I stuck a meat thermometer into the breast. This involved positioning the sharp tip of the instrument against the skin and pounding the base until the tip broke through. The underlying white meat proved equally resistant. Enthusiastic hammering managed to sink the probe about an inch until the thermometer became intractably lodged. Nor would any amount of enterprise free it.

“Are they done?” my father asked.

According to the thermometer, they were 40 degrees shy of that mark. 
Suddenly, the number took on an ominous symbolism. 

“Almost,” I said, and slid the chickens back into the oven.

As the gravy congealed and the creamed peas gelled into a greenish viscous glob, we made small talk. Not a word was whispered about my culinary skills though I sensed an unspoken questioning in their glances. When nobody was looking I rooted through the trash can until I found the wrappers. Roasting hens, they said. 

What the heck is a roasting hen? I asked myself. 

To my family’s credit, they gave me another 30 minutes. Another 30 fruitless, wasted minutes. If anything, the meat was tougher. After hacking at it for several minutes with a sharp butcher knife, I asked my father if I could borrow his chain saw. 

As I said, 40 years is a long time not to spend Thanksgiving together. We laughed and joked and dredged memories from the archives of our lives, and the green chile wine whetted our appetites for my mother’s cornbread stuffing, my wife’s gravy, my sister-in-law’s pumpkin and apple pies, and we stuffed ourselves until we could hold no more. Off to the side, the two roasting hens solidified into an inedible rubbery concretion that would eventually be dumped into the trash. And it didn’t matter because we had each other, and for that we gave thanks.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Relics of the road

So little remains, so little is known. Or has irrevocably changed, so that what we now see is either a reflection, an alteration, an overlay or something entirely different. Determining which is which depends on historical research, guesswork, luck and lots of miles along the road. We were lucky, sometimes. And sometimes we weren’t.

And, too, sometimes the relics we discovered were just that, relics, so disconnected from their context that their stories had forever faded to silence. The sign in the window at Henry Brothers Station in Goff was such a relic, long and narrow with a point facing to the right, wooden, its grain stark and sharply etched, the black blocky letters faded but still legible. Goff 18 MI.

“Where’d the sign come from?” I asked the proprietor.

She shrugged. Didn’t know, only that it was donated to the service station. Nor did she know where it would have been located, other, of course, than 18 miles from town.

It was old and weatherworn and like other relics it didn’t so much explain as merely add to the growing list of questions. How prevalent were wooden road signs? What was their average lifespan? During what decades were they used? I jotted the questions down in a pocket notebook for further research.

All we knew for certain was that we were on the original Kansas White Way, or Highway 9. Across the street stood an abandoned building that was once the White Way Chevrolet, and beyond that a remodeled Harvey House. Much of the original road has been modified and straightened for modern vehicular traffic, but towns like Goff or Netawaka or Whiting had been stops along the route so that their streets were the nearest thing to the one true path. 

In between was another matter. Roads had deviated so much in past century that in places it was anyone’s guess where the original route had been laid. The highway leading west from Goff, a wide gentle curve traversing the ridgeline, had been built in the 1930s, we were told. Rumors had it that several bridges remained of the original route, and that if anyone knew where they were, it would be Gerald Swart.

Swart is the owner of Skeezix’s Toy Museum, located a mile or so west of Goff. The museum, housed in an unassuming steel building behind his house, contains hundreds of model cars, tractors, trucks, campers, construction equipment, airplanes, vintage penny banks, and historic relics from the area. Its name derives from a character in Gasoline Alley, a comic strip from the early 20th century.  Near the front door, encased in glass, is an oilcoth Skeezix doll, about 18 inches tall. 

We met Swart on a blustery, bitterly cold morning. After giving us a tour of the museum, he stood on the front porch and pointed into the valley below. Immediately to the south where a shallow creek snaked through the pasture was a concrete bridge, and with a little imagination one could figure out where the other two were. Even though we could see the town from our vantage, it was impossible to reconstruct the original route without adding a 90-degree bend in it somewhere. We could guesstimate, and, when I got home and pored over satellite images, could risk a guess, but in the end it was merely that—a guess—and nothing more.

Still, we followed his truck across the pasture, dropping down a hundred feet in elevation to the floor of the valley, and climbed from the warmth of the car into a teeth-numbing gale. Other than the bridges, all still showing little signs of decay or disrepair, nothing remained of the road itself other than a slight indentation in the grass. I hazarded a guess that it kept to its westward course to the northeastern edge of Corning where it then turned north. If so, it followed what is now a section line.

Subsequent research using satellite imagery and Google Earth revealed something else—a single reference that instead of heading north from Corning about five miles to branch off to Centralia, “Old Highway 9” followed what is now 52nd Rd. 

It wasn’t much to go on, and it also meant that we’d have to return for further exploration. And I’m not sure that it even matters anymore, except in the context of peering through a veil to another time and era where visionaries came together to chart an organized, 365-day highway across an often-impassable, indecipherable and, for all practical purposes, uncharted wilderness known as northeast Kansas. But I think, or like to think, that as benefactors of their vision we owe them something, a nod or recognition of some sort, and what better way than to retrace their route (as much as possible)  on that day in May of 1914 when they joined together to organize the Kansas White Way. So little remains except for the skeletal outline of the story, but as we all know, stories are meant to be told and retold. And if in the telling we discover something about this place where we call home, or even, if we’re fortunate, something about ourselves, then the story comes alive, part of our own mythos, our own homeground.