Peak Life

google images:Colorado Mountains

google images:Colorado Mountains

I wake with a start, anxious, then remember: all it takes to be a success, according to Mrs. Shenks, my third grade teacher, is learn the steps and practice deep breathing. Anyone would see you have what it takes and you’ll go far. I try to remember that whenever I wake up in a cold sweat and find the front door pigeon flap on the tent moving and Tommy no longer snoring next to Mrs. K. That I’m the one who wakes up is par for the course. At least I know how to breathe deeply at 14,000 feet, so I slide on flip flops and grab the night vision goggles and head out. A flashlight would be helpful, but the light could let anyone watching know I was outside the tent. Why that bothers me, since we’re alone, I don’t know, but the thought that someone could be watching makes me leave the flashlight behind. Still, the night vision goggles keep my eyes from fogging up, so that’s something.

Mrs. K is up gargling by the time Tommy and I get back to the tent.

“Did my baby wander away again?” Mrs. K buries her nose in Tommy’s breast feathers and talks baby talk. He squawks and flaps his wings, but I know he loves her, too, regardless.

Four years on the Peak and counting. Not a word from the Capsize Foundation in all that time. You’d think since they sponsored and financed the hiking experiment that sent Mrs. K, Tommy and me up this mountain that they might like to know how we’re doing. You know, that the two women and the bird they abandoned on this 14,000 foot Peak are still alive and all that.

Mrs. K and I had been sporadic traveling companions after we’d met on a week’s tour of historic ghost towns of the Southwest. Seemed natural we’d team up since Mr. K was a workaholic who never traveled and I wasn’t going to let being single keep me from traveling. Still, I almost didn’t come on this one when the Capsize Foundation announced that Tommy, a pet bird in a cage, would be our traveling companion. Hike up a mountain with a pet bird in tow? Didn’t make sense to me, but what could I do? Mrs. K was keen to come. Probably because she was distraught over Mr. K’s unexpected fatal heart attack, but she wouldn’t make the trip alone with just Tommy, so I gave in and agreed and here we are.

The plan was, we’d hike up, Tommy riding in style in a floating, feather-light cage attached by tether to the pack mule. We followed the GPS to the camping spot and the tent they’d set up for us. The tent was a big part of the experiment, probably more important than Tommy or Mrs. K or me. It’s one of those specially formatted movable dwellings that are transparent in the sunshine and opaque in the dark, even with a fire burning inside. It’s impressive how they designed a tent that has a working loo, particularly on a rocky peak.

After we spent seven to ten days on the mountain, The Capsize Foundation extraction team would arrive in the high meadow and air-lift us out. So they said. The three of us were in ok shape when this trip began but we weren’t the outdoorsy type who love to camp and scale mountains or rub two sticks together to make fire. Still, the money was good and it would be a short term lark, right? I’ve always thought most people can stand most things if they know it’s for just a few minutes. Famous last words.

We’re long past the decision to stay on the mountain, but there are times when those early days play over and over in my mind like the repeat button on a You Tube video.

“Here’s what I think,” I’d said on about day seventeen, “let’s just leave the tent where it is and hike down.”

“Through that?” Mrs. K turned a slow circle in the center of camp, her arm outstretched, her index finger pointing to the dusty, foggy clouds that billowed 360 degrees around the peak, “That is not normal and I’m not setting a foot into it.”

The clouds or whatever it was had been there since we got up on day four. On the edge of the horizon but never coming in close to us; while above us, brilliant sunshine or rain or clouds or dark of night, but always those clouds on the horizon. It was weird.

“And anyway, we were promised a helicopter ride down,” Mrs. K turned back to the tent door, “not another hike.”

Just as I suspected. Mrs. K was mostly rejecting the idea of more exercise.

I had other concerns. We were down to the last of the provisions. What would we eat if we stayed? Were any predators lurking in the forest ready to make us their dinner? None of those concerns would be lessened if we started hiking down. Did it make sense to start down and miss the helicopter? I could go on my own and send help back, but what if I didn’t make it? Mrs. K and Tommy would be left up here by themselves. So it was decided. We’d wait on the helicopter. As well as news about what had happened down below that had made the never-ending-fog-clouds.

We held out as long as we could before eating the pack mule, but sacrifices had to be made.

~

google images: Colorado Mountains

google images: Colorado Mountains

“It’s one year today, Tommy,” we’d followed a fox and caught two rabbits, “good job on spotting our dinner.” I bagged the rabbits and headed back to camp in the warm afternoon sun.

“We’d be in big trouble if you weren’t so good at finding us edible wildlife, Tommy,” a hawk cried somewhere far off and Tommy flited from my shoulder and darted ahead, “you’ve have to admit my knife skills are well-honed. Had to be, to keep up with your instincts.”
We’d done ok in the last year. I’d slowly let go my big-predator-anxiety since we never saw or heard any big animals. Tommy and I were out exploring most of every day while Mrs. K puttered about the tent like happy homemaker. The one thing that never changed was the billowing-dusty-foggy clouds.

“I’ve never seen such clouds, Tommy” I stood on a hill just up from camp, a gentle breeze riffling my hair and Tommy’s feathers, the sun warming the tops of our heads. “Did you see the clouds of ash when Mount St. Helens blew?” I shaded my eyes and looked west, “Gray ash everywhere.” I turned back north, “But if it’s ash or smoke why does it stay around us but never get here?” We turned and headed south to Camp. “Something strange has happened down there, Tommy.”

~

We made it through the days and nights and those few minutes experiment for good money stretched into years and here I am, mountain climber extraordinaire, my shape firmed down to Senior Prom size, while Mrs. K, who rarely moves outside Camp, is bulking up to major predator size. Tommy, well, Tommy just keeps going, alert and strong.

“I guess I should have paid more attention to Nova or Nature on PBS, Tommy, ‘cause I sure thought there’d be coyote and bears and deer on this mountain; maybe elk or caribou,” I stooped and picked up the butcher knife and gutted pheasant we’d caught, “but none that we’ve seen.”

Tommy landed on my shoulder and we wandered along the creek, “I agree, Tommy, we’ve done fine. Lots of rabbits, squirrels, fox, fish, badgers, beavers. Just nothing BIG.”

“You’re right, Tommy, best to stay positive.” Tommy saw something move and darted off toward the brush at the edge of the tree line.

He may not be concerned, but I am. Lately we seem to be running out of small, foraging animals and Mrs. K is getting some warped conscience at this late date about eating meat. And why do most of the animals Tommy and I hunt down these days look like a skewed image of how they should look? Plus, the flavor is off, whether we steam or roast our kill. Weird. Just like those fog-dust-clouds.

This winter went like they all have. Not too bad in the climate controlled tent. It’s mostly a matter of positive thinking through the cabin-fevered weeks. Tommy and Mrs. K are happy enough to sing duets, which do nothing for my clogged sinuses, believe me. Food’s an issue by the time we get to late spring as the trench I dig in the snow, just outside the tent door and use as a snow-pack food locker, starts to run on empty. On snowy or foggy or overcast days, the tent stays opaque which really stretches out the irritation since the three of us can’t see outside, so we end up staring at each other, hours on end.

I’d had all I could take this week so I spent yesterday sitting on a boulder on the edge of the snow covered high meadow bundled up with a blanket over my jacket of beaver pelts. It’s cold enough my eyes are starting to dry out and I’m feeling numb but I don’t move. I stare into the sky for some sign of life. I figured out long ago we were not in any airline flight path though I held out hope that maybe Google Earth knows something is going on up here. Or perhaps the astronauts on the ISS since it orbits the planet about every ninety minutes. But it’s too high up, apparently. Ironic. We’re so high up no one knows we’re here.

Still, I’m hopeful that some life, somewhere, still exists. The recent storm seemed to clear off the last of that foggy, dusty, acrid cloud that has obscured the scenic overlooks for years. Those clouds were with us so long that it seems surreal they’ve finally floated away. Whatever it was, surely just North American was affected, or maybe just Colorado. Wouldn’t our Peak have crumbled away if Armageddon had decimated all of Earth?

God and I have regular conversations about this. And about all the eternal issues. Usually when I’m out and away from Camp. God isn’t someone Mrs. K is used to talking to. Tommy and God are genial friends, which is fine, but sometimes a girl just needs a one on one with the Creator, if you know what I mean.

“So, anyway, God, as I was saying yesterday,” I make my way alongside the creek, checking for signs of fish underneath the ice, “if life is going to continue and humankind is supposed to go on, it’s going to take more than just the two sets of ovaries and the bird living on this mountaintop,” I find a good spot and carve a hole in the ice. Then dig in my rabbit skin pouch for one of the worms I found burrowed into the ground under a layer of leaves and pine needles in the forest and hook the worm on my hand-carved pole, “it’d be an immaculate conception. Which is totally doable in my book.

“I’m fit. I could parent.” Not that I was all that interested in parenting in the “Valley Days” as I refer to our previous lives, but life moves on and one adjusts. “I’m up for being the new mother of mankind, God.”

Back at the tent, I casually bring up the subject while I clean up my hunting knife.

“No thanks,” Mrs. K says, “Tommy’s enough for me.”

He just squawks and hops away through the pigeon flap.

“Now you’ve upset him,” Mrs. K fusses, “all this talk of kids.”

I doubt Tommy is upset in the way she thinks. He tells me he always wanted little cheepers to bring home the worm to and he’s been denied the natural order of things as well. I don’t tell Mrs. K this. She has a jealous streak.

“Not just to have a kid,” I say, “Mankind. Human beings. Those creatures God made in his image.”

“Humph,” Mrs. K huffs, “can’t see what good that would do since it was human beings that left us here,” she uses a paring knife to sharpen a twig into an eyebrow pencil. I found a bush with branches that have a black, soft inner core that does quite well as eye make-up. The day I made that discovery was a big one in terms of keeping Mrs. K on an even keel. Putting her best face forward is important to her.

“But then,” she critically examines her eyebrows in the small mirror, “I suppose you can’t really blame God for what people do.”

I pull on the moccasins I made from grey pelts from fox kills in years one and two, grab my bow and arrow and head toward the High Meadow. Tommy likes to float on the air currents there.

“See anything moving, Tommy?” He lands softly on my shoulder and I trudge north through knee-high snow drifts ‘til he darts ahead and starts circling.

It’s good hunting with Tommy going into a long discourse on the differences between marmots, prairie dogs and squirrels. I gut the squirrels and stick to my position on the subject. We’ve never found a marmot on the Peak.

Mrs. K is watching for us as we return to camp. Tommy and I get quiet. I try to stay out of the relationship between Mrs. K and Tommy. She says she isn’t interested in raising any children but boy does she fuss over “my little sweetie” or “my baby” as she refers to him.

Tommy and I are more of an equal partnership working together to make this life doable. I don’t think Mrs. K would have survived in the wild on her own. Well, to be fair, I was clueless when all this began, but hunger and cold can make one inventive.

“There’d better be some berries or herbs or grasses to go with whatever you two killed out there,” Mrs. K tosses plates on the table and slams the skillet on the stove.

She’s looking wild-eyed. Tommy flies to her shoulder and bobs and peeps. Mrs. K doesn’t calm.

“Juice. We need juice,” she throws the melamine bowl into the sink. It bounces twice, quivers on the counter and falls face down on the floor with a clunk. “Red juice,” she digs in the silverware drawer for the butcher knife and draws it across her palm, leaving red dots. “Juice,” she licks her palm. Tommy squawks and flies to the back of the sofa.

~

“Tommy and I agree, God. Mrs. K is losing it. Big time.” I pull feathers from what looks like a cross between a pheasant and a grouse. “What we need is thunder and lightning or a deluge that threatens to invade the tent. Anything. Something that will distract her.” Some event that will stop her thinking about the never-ending-sameness in Camp.

“Which was part of my point, God, in talking about continuing humankind,” I bag the bird and the feathers separately and head downhill toward Camp. “Immaculate Conception would certainly change the subject and make us think about something other than just the three of us. Plus, I kind of like the idea of being part of something big.”

I didn’t see it then, but before we came to the Peak, I just went with whatever came along. And now that I’ve had to make the choices needed to survive, well, living a safe and easy life just seems dull and meaningless.

“Back to Mrs. K, God; any change of subject would be a good thing about now.” Tommy and I had to get tough to survive, but Mrs. K lives in Camp as if she was in town. With a grocery down on the corner. Pretending we’re not out in the wild. Every now and then she starts to crack under the strain. Mostly she holds it together, but this time it’s not looking good and I have no clue about a solution.

“Not that the three of us are the best plan for continuing the human race, but if we’re all you’ve got, God, then Mrs. K needs a little help here, don’t you think? Ok, that’s all I’ve got to say.”

There are days when God’s a better conversationalist than Tommy, but this isn’t one of them.

~

Mrs. K was first out of the tent this morning. A rarity and rarely a good thing. The sound of her leaving breaks through my sleep and kicks off my adrenalin. Something else is different, but I’m not sure what. I try to figure it out while I get sleep out of my eyes and get muscles and brain synapses moving. I sniff and listen and it comes to me. It’s warmed up some because there’s the sound of water running. The snow pack is melting and beginning to flow. The solemn quiet of snow is always hard on Mrs. K and noise usually gets her thinking differently. Ok, God, so you were paying attention yesterday. Thanks.

Well, it’s a different day all right. Now Mrs. K’s wild-eyed in her negligee, outside the tent, her arms straight out like a totem pole. Come to think of it, she’s about a thick around the waist as a good sized totem pole. Tommy’s fluttering around her, peeping and squawking.

“Take me, Oh Great God Of The Peak,” she tilts her head back, eyes closed, “give me wings to soar these heights to another plane of existence.”

“Tommy’s the one with wings, Mrs. K,” I inch carefully towards her, “besides, I’d be lost without you.”

Her ranting and my cajoling goes on for some time and then, without warning, she puts her arms down, straightens her nightgown and marches into the tent, singing “Morning Has Broken,” in her Cat Stevens voice. Tommy and I both take a deep breath and give each other the “thank God” look.

Spring moves on which means berries and wild grasses and we get closer to warm summer days with more fish in the river and bright sunshine that brings out my freckles and turns Tommy a lighter shade of pale. How long do birds of his kind live? I don’t like to think about it. Mrs. K really dotes on him.

~

There’s something red floating in the top of the pines. Could be just a sun flash across my eyes from staring at the sky too long, but Tommy squawks and darts around. He sees something, too.

“What do you think, Tommy?” I move through the summer grasses toward the tree line. Then stop. I’m totally exposed here in High Meadow. For the first time since the early months on the Peak, I’m frightened. There might be another person around. The hair on my neck stands up and my arm pits get wet. Tommy’s yakking at me to hurry up, but I change my direction to an angle that will put me at the tree line sooner rather than directly under the tree with the red and white flapping top.

I going to have to climb I decide, as I make my way through the pines. Whatever it is seems caught near the top of a 40 foot pine and Tommy’s not horse enough to get it lose so that it can fall to the ground.

“I can’t just leave it there without knowing what it is, Tommy. And where did it come from since we’ve never been in a flight path before?
“Did you hear a stray plane?” I move through the undergrowth with one eye on the tree and one on the ground, “I didn’t hear anything out of the ordinary.” There’s no sign someone walked away from this.

“You’re right, Tommy,” I stop at the foot of the tree with the red top, “I have to ascend.” He thinks it’s safe to climb the tree next to the flapping object. I breathe deep and start climbing (thank you, Mrs. Shenks). I can tell it’s some type of cloth. A parachute?

Definitely a parachute. I yank but it’s stuck, so I keep climbing and try to pull it up as I go so I can see what it’s caught on. Other than tree branches.
It’s caught on the best looking dead man I’ve ever seen. Well, the only dead man I’ve ever seen. “Wow. He’s a beauty.” Could be it’s just been too long since I’ve seen a man, but boy, do my ovaries react. Muscled, trim, tanned, slight dusting of five o’clock shadow; this guy could be a movie star. Wait. That’s what they said in the thirties and forties. Now they’d say, this guy could be a model. For Ralph Lauren’s Men’s Wear. Or People Magazine’s Sexiest Man of the Year.

“From the funny angle of his neck, I’d say it’s broken, Tommy.” Now that’s a shame. We could have really used a man up here. Tommy tells me to get it together and keep moving.

“Sorry, Tommy. Got distracted there.”

I work the parachute up and back so that I can get the stuck part exposed, then wrap the cloth around the guy to give him some protection from the fall. Can’t hurt him but why abuse his loveliness? Using my knife, I cut the part of the parachute that’s hooked on the tree and down he slides, a butterfly in a silky cocoon.

Tommy inspects the silky package while I climb down. Neither one of us has ever seen the logo on the parachute. It’s similar but not quite the same as the logos on the camp items we have from The Capsize Foundation. It has been years, though. Things could have changed. Assuming this is still America and assuming The Capsize Foundation still exists. At least we now know mankind still exists. That’s kind of a thrilling thought, all on its own.

He has no ID but there’s what must be a cell phone. Technology has sure advanced since we’ve been gone. It’s light-weight and probably does all sorts of things. “Too bad I can’t get this thing to work. The face on the front lights up and keeps asking for a password.

“I’ll bet there’s some sort of tracker in this gadget,” I search the pockets and zipper pouches on Mr. Beautiful’s pants and jacket. He traveled light: a foil pouch of dried food, a water bottle and a Swiss Army knife. I could have used that over the years.

Tommy’s confident someone will be looking for Mr. Beautiful.

“Agreed, Tommy,” I straighten up and look around at the sunshine, wavy grass, birds twittering, pine branches swaying in the breeze, “tracker or not, someone will come.”

google images: summer in the meadow

google images: summer in the meadow

~

Mrs. K is adamant the gravesite should be near High Meadow, not near Camp.

“My hair needs washing,” Mrs. K announces as I get Mr. Beautiful situated on the litter I made ages ago from two birch poles and covered with braided water reeds, “I just can’t attend a funeral today.”

“That’s ok,” I stoop down, my back to the litter and pick up the poles to start dragging it to the graveside, “Tommy and I will give Mr. Beautiful a good send-off.”

I know if the grave is away from the tent, Mrs. K will never go there. She never leaves Camp and she isn’t fond of funerals. Must remind her of Mr. K. Tommy and I and the nearly nude Mr. Beautiful head up the hill. I wouldn’t normally think of burying a guy in just his boxer shorts, but we can’t afford to bury anything that might be useful. And anyway, dust to dust. What does it matter if the dust is clothed?

We get Mr. Beautiful in the ground and covered up. I roll a big rock over as grave marker and Tommy perches on top of it to sing a final farewell. He does a really good “Danny Boy.” Knows all the verses.

~

The whop-whop-whop racket of the helicopter as it lands in High Meadow startles all of us. We’re just kind of frozen for a minute and then we start moving fast. So fast that Mrs. K is right with us a couple of yards beyond Camp as Tommy and I head for High Meadow.

She realizes where she is and doesn’t come any further, “Can you see anyone?” Mrs. K yells, “good thing I washed my hair Tuesday.”

Tommy flits ahead but comes back to say the logo on the helicopter is the same as the parachute.

“Yeah. I got that.” I’m prepared. I hope. Swiss knife in one pocket and gutting knife in the other. Just in case.

The pilot stands by the helicopter as two men in business suits head our way. I stop and let them come to us.

My ovaries aren’t jumping at these guys. Got it out of my system, I guess. Or just not attracted to any and everything in pants. Tommy agrees that’s probably a good thing.

The guy apparently in charge does his best to show they aren’t a threat. He’s all smiles and knows our names and says he’s so glad to see us.

This is suspicious.

“Mrs. K, I presume?” he holds out his hand as we reach Camp where she has retreated to the tent doorway, “So nice to meet you.”

“Come in, come in,” Mrs. K flutters and smiles and pats her hair, tries to smooth down her dress, which is hard to do. That dress fit three sizes ago.

Tommy and I are quiet as Mrs. K gets everyone settled with something to drink and finally perches on the edge of the kitchen chair, all perky looking as if this is the week’s excitement.

“So you see, after the accident in Dr. Wilson’s lab, and his death and all, well, the project just got shut down. Lack of funds and interest, you know.” Mr. In-Charge stops to take a drink of berry juice and tries to smile. That juice is tart.

“Wait a minute,” I say. I try to unclench my hands. Stay calm. Breathe deep. Mrs. Shenks would approve. “You’re saying we’re in some project? Under a dome?”

Mrs. K and Tommy both look blank.

“Like the Truman Show?” Now I’m yelling and that sets Tommy off. He zips around the room, squawking.

Mr. In-Charge is nervous, “No, no.” He sets the glass of juice down on the floor and wipes his hands on his trousers, “Well…yes. Except no cameras!” He leans further back on the sofa as Tommy buzzes his right ear.

“We hiked up here,” I haven’t yelled in years and it feels good, “THERE WAS NO DOME!”

“Ah, well,” he looks pretty sheepish, “you weren’t to know about the dome so it was activated once you had climbed onto the part of the mountain that The Capsize Foundation owns. Obviously, we regret you were forgotten.”

I sag back against my chair. Tommy and I are speechless. He flutters to the countertop and squats.

Mr. Along for the Ride, who turns out to be Mr. Attorney, finally speaks up, “You’ll be well compensated, of course. “ He goes on about liability waivers and transportation back to civilization and the great contribution we’ve made to research, yada, yada, yada.

Tommy and I just stare at each other. We’ve been in a protective bubble. My great survival in the wild outdoors was all a sham.

~

Civilization is far more irritating than I remembered. Noisy and dirty and crowded. And that’s just at The Capsize Foundation compound. We’re debriefed and poked and prodded. They run tests and more tests and are careful to make sure we have any and everything we might want.

We check out medically and psychologically, surprise, surprise. Turns out Mrs. K needs a “little medication” which will help with her weight and her coping abilities.

Tommy is quite elderly, they tell us. They think he’s lived longer than other birds of his type. They’ve given him a large, new cage and a friend and he seems content. I’d like to discuss the whole experience with him but he’s busy. Chirping to the female in his cage.

And me? Well I’m healthier and more fit than I’ve ever been, considering. Hooray for me.

Tomorrow’s the final ceremony in our honor and then they’re springing us loose. That is if we want to go. They keep saying that. I see the light in the researchers’ eyes at the thought of more poking and prodding. I’m torn. I feel like everything was a sham, yet I have this urge to go conquer mountains. Flee civilization. And something keeps nagging at me to not just walk away without getting a big settlement. Just in case. Of course the settlement would be even bigger if I’d stay, which in my book is more reason to get out of Dodge. When they want to pay you stay, something’s weird.

Mrs. K is more centered than I’ve ever known her. Other than the fact she’s preening like a male peacock around that little pea hen, Dr. Foster, who’s been handling our re-entry into the real-life world. He seems quite taken with her as well. He blushes every time she calls him Dr. F.

~

It wakes me in the night. This knowledge that I did accomplish more on the Peak than I ever thought possible. That I’m no longer captive to the Peak. Unless…I want to be. And there it is. I want to be. Not the same Peak, necessarily. And not under a protective dome. But out there. Somewhere on a mountaintop in the true, wild world. Using the skills I learned. Carrying forth Mrs. Shenks teaching: breathe deep and learn the steps. You’ll do fine.

“Thanks, God,” I turn over to go back to sleep, “I needed that.”

Except I can’t go back to sleep. I keep thinking of unsaid explanations and innuendoes. Like when they said I was fit, “considering.” And the slipped phrases when the researchers and technicians forget we’re within hearing distance. Finally I get up and head down the semi-dark halls toward the lab where Tommy is living it up in a big fancy cage with his new feathered friend.

Voices come to me around the corner of the long hall, “…cloned wildlife…..food source…..species of bird ….living long…..unusual pheromones…..Mrs. K…..manipulated weather.…. the human psyche……aging process…”

The voices trail further away as I reach the lab. I’m pretty sure I’d just as soon not know all the details of why we were there and what they were doing to us. If those years taught me anything, it’s that you make life what you want it. No point in negative thinking.

I’m careful as I push open the door. No people inside. Still, I try to be as quiet as possible as I make my way over to Tommy’s cage. He’s snoring. I’ve missed that sound.

“Tommy,” I whisper and rattle the side of the cage, “Tommy.”

He fluffs himself awake, yawns and stretches.

“I’m leaving tomorrow. Headed for another mountain, somewhere. I don’t know where, but I’ll get you out of here if you want to go with me.”

He looks me straight in the eye and tilts his head like he always does when he’s about to give me his opinion. But then he squawks half-heartedly, shivers his feathers back in place, snuggles closer to his new companion and drops his head on his breast. He’s snoring pretty quickly.

I stand and watch for a bit. He’s my fellow survivor. My co-hort. My only bird friend. Maybe he wants to retire and enjoy the good life. He was always able to ignore both Mrs. K and me when he wanted to.

“Goodnight, Tommy.”

~

“Look here, Tommy, a postcard!” Mrs. F reads the address, peers at the postmark and turns the card over to study the photo, “She’s sent us a photo! She looks so capable in those animal skins.”

She adjusts her glasses and looks closer, “I believe that’s a hawk on her shoulder,” she says as she turns from the open door, “and of course there’s a knife dripping with blood. She’s just killed something.

Wonder who took the photo? She’s smiling so she must be happy whoever she’s with.”

Mrs. F pushes against the big wooden door to close it, “Just wait ‘til Dr. F gets home and sees this.” And somewhere deep in the huge, comfortable, beautifully appointed house, Tommy squawks and flaps his wings against the safety of his cage.

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Family Moves

I am twelve years old when Daddy calls a family meeting. We come together in the living room, the doors, windows and curtains closed against the deepening dusk. Outside it’s rapidly cooling down after a seventy degree, sunny, Southern California, winter day. I’m in the middle of family. Safe in the familiar routines. Cozy. We six against the world.

Little island of light and warmth
hold me tight, keep me safe,
here no dark dreams creep.

I sit in the middle of the sofa, excited and a little anxious to know what’s coming. Changes are not rare. Family meetings are rare.

Quiet, fervored wish.
Calm, budding hope.
Past anticipation’s dashed dreams.
Restraint. Restrain.
Be quiet, good little girl.

Mother looks relieved to settle back on the threadbare sofa after her day washing, cleaning and cooking, her stamina as faded as the design on her worn housedress.  Winzona, nine, dirty and grass stained from sliding across the front yard in a game of dodge ball, sucks her thumb and leans up against Daddy’s left side at the opposite end of the sofa from Mother.  Daddy, white T-shirt tucked into heavy cotton work pants, sort of perches on the edge of the sofa with his in-charge-alertness that he has on Sundays at church when he’s praying or at the front, speaking to the people.  Larry, thirteen, sits on the floor, Indian style, knees bent, legs crossed with bare feet pulled behind his knees; his white T-shirt neatly tucked into jeans, one knee poking through loose jean threads; his hands busy coaxing the purrs out of Buddy The Cat, whose contented hum deepens as he settles into the deep cavern between Larry’s crossed legs.  Trevie, fifteen, blond, wavy hair Brylcreemed into place, pulls over one of the metal, Formica kitchen chairs and sits. He’s alert.  Trevie always has a plan; is always on the move.

“How would you like to learn about our new home?”  Daddy opens the World Encyclopedia, Volume M-N, to the section on Nevada, “I’m being transferred to the Nevada desert where I’ll be testing rocket fuels.”

It’s 1962. The space race is heating up.

Caution fades, joy leaks.
Adventure! Off to new places.
No worries. This safe world is just
moving house, right?

Over the next weeks, as Mother packs up everything we own, we read and reread everything the World Encyclopedia, Volume M-N, has to say about the topography, the weather statistics and the historical information of Reno and Sparks, Nevada.

I know the decision to move was made between Daddy and Mother before we kids even knew a thing about it.  And before that, it was made by Daddy’s bosses at North American Rockwell, or Rocketdyne as we know it.  But this one somehow feels like a family decision where we all have a part. All the moves in the past just happened as a normal course of everyday life.  This one holds the portent of great adventure.

~

google images:Sears, 1960s

google images:Sears, 1960s

And we’re off!  We’re shopping at Sears for coats on our way out of California to Nevada.  We’re headed to serious cold weather, where winter means freezing nights and possibility for snow!  Some man is taking random pictures, trying to get shoppers to commit to visiting the Sears Photography Studio.

My picture shows me shy, barely smiling for the camera, arms crossed over my flat chest; my short sleeved, white blouse with Peter Pan collar, buttoned down the front and tucked into a pleated, plaid skirt.  The photo is in black and white, the colors in that plaid skirt lost with the past.  My chin length, dark brown hair has Shirley Temple rows of curls across the top; the sides sort of fluffy, like tight curls brushed out.  I’m standing in front of a stack of jeans in the boys department.  This is so rare.  Shopping together as a family.  Shopping at a store for something ready-made instead of watching clothing take shape on Mother’s sewing machine.  Having our pictures taken.  How did Daddy afford to pay for these pictures?  I feel the newness, the strangeness, the adventure.  Just don’t look for it on my face.

All reserve and shyness.
Eyes betray no excitement.
I’m long practiced.  Hold it all in.
But don’t pinch me to test for life.
I can strike back.  Ask my sister.

~

I did just fine at six different grades schools from kindergarten through sixth grade and starting a new school is just one of the things that happens. No big deal.  So, why does starting seventh grade at Dilworth Junior High in Sparks, Nevada, make my stomach hurt?

There’re the six different classrooms a day with six different teachers.  That’s new.  There’re the over one hundred kids in the seventh grade.  That’s different.  That’s more kids than I’ve ever been with in one grade.  There’s the fact that the seventh grade class all seem to know each other.  They started kindergarten together.

Expand little island of safety,
carry me through the halls.
Resilience take hold in the lunchroom.
At least don’t embarrass me in the locker room.

For the moment I can forget school.  The Truckee River is at flood stage in Reno, so school is let out early and Larry and I walk the mile or so of blocks at the edge of downtown Sparks from the school to our motel room.

“You’re off early, too?” Mother says as Daddy sweeps into our motel room, grinning and pulling off his heavy work jacket.  She’s wiping down the tiny counter space of the kitchenette portion of the large room where we’ve lived for a few weeks.  The room holds two double beds, a sofa, a roll away bed, a small bathroom and an even smaller closet.  Close to the kitchenette wall there’s a kitchen table, metal legged and Formica topped with six unmatched chairs crowded around it.

Winzona doesn’t have to go to school yet.  Until we know what part of town we will live in, Mother and Daddy have decided she could wait.  Hardly seems fair, but then, it feels like the baby usually gets special treatment.  If I were nine again, my stomach might not hurt.

“Get your coats, we’re going to watch the flood,” Daddy bounds across the room to the closet to get a change of clothes, then shuts himself in the bathroom.

“What?” Mother fusses, “watch the flood? That’s dangerous.”

Trevie, just arrived from his walk from Sparks High School, tosses his school books on the sofa, “What’s dangerous? Where are we going?”

Mother’s looking frazzled.  I wonder if living in one large room in a motel makes her stomach hurt?  Or, if it’s Daddy’s fearlessness?

The six of us pack the car tightly, warming up the interior and fogging up the windows.  Safe.  Together in a small space.  The motel is miles from the flooding river.  School may be new, but family is still family.

~

The wind whips up the collar on my coat and keeps flipping my hair in my eyes.  It stings my cheeks with each lash of my hair against my face.  The rain has stopped for the moment.  We’re standing on a bridge in downtown Reno, looking at the rising water.  Torrential rains for days have dumped so much water, there’s no place for it to go.  It just keeps getting higher, reaching its fingers up.  Reaching for the heavy, gray and black sky.

google images - Truckee River Flood stage, Reno, Nevada

google images – Truckee River Flood stage, Reno, Nevada

Rush, water rush.
Blow, wind, blow.
Crash, mighty power,
overwhelm petty fears, small
jealousies, school hall woes.
Eternity, huge
versus
 puny, momentary upset.

“Let’s go, honey,” Mother looks anxiously at the river and then back towards the car parked on the street.

I’ve never seen a flood.  Not in sunny, Southern California.  I’ve never seen so much out of control water.  It’s like the world is alive.  It’s like the leaden, heavy skies are breathing life into the high desert.  I like it.  I like the purple peaks that tower over the valley, their tips covered in white.  I like the cold nights and the thunder and lightning.  It’s the flip-side of never ending sun.  I feel exhilarated and free.  I breathe deeply and tight muscles relax.  The only thing my stomach tells me now is that its dinner time.

“Will the water come up over the bridge, Daddy?” Winzona tucks herself under his arm.

Embrace the storm.
Fly on the rain,
breathe in the wind,
relax in its grip,
float above the clouds;
up where blue skies and sun live on,
undaunted.

“Yes, it probably will, sweetheart,” Daddy hugs Winzona, then turns towards Mother, “Ok everyone, back to the car.”