Archive for the Boyhood Category

“Goodbye God, We Are Going to Bodie.”

Posted in Boyhood, History on June 13, 2011 by Thomas N. Schenden

One way to add depth to your travels is to mix in some history, and the ghost towns of the Old West are ideal destinations for motorists and armchair adventurers.

Bodie, one of California’s best preserved and most authentic ghost towns, sits on the edge of the Nevada border, just an hour north of Mammoth. This abandoned 1880s mining town was declared a California State Historic Park in 1962 and since then has been maintained in what is famously called a state of “arrested decay.” You won’t see any painting or renovating going on in Bodie. In this remote mining town the buildings are kept safe and standing, but that’s about it.

As you walk the dirt streets, it’s easy to imagine the town’s better days. Peer into the wavy glass windows of once well-cared for homes, and you’ll feel as though you are looking back in time. But this time machine does not have rose colored lenses. Wallpaper is stained and peeling. Furniture is covered in a deep, deep coat of dust. Household utensils and clothing are strewn about as though the family went out for an evening walk after dinner and never, ever came back. It’s creepy, because it’s the real deal.

In its heyday, Bodie boasted a population of over 7,000. The boom years of 1877-1880 brought miners from all over the West, and most of them were men. Mile-long Main Street was home to 65 saloons. There were opium dens and numerous brothels. Murders, shootouts, barroom brawls and stagecoach holdups were ordinary occurrences. Local lore has it that when one little girl learned that her family was moving to the mining town, she prayed, “Goodbye God! We are going to Bodie.”

Things have quieted down since. Today, only 170 buildings remain of the 2,000 buildings that once stood. While Bodie is open to visitors year round, the access road is covered in snow through most of the winter. The park is host to over 200,000 visitors every year, so, while you may not see any ghosts, chances are good that you’ll see other visitors. And that’s a good thing, because Bodie is so remote and so lonely, you’ll really appreciate the company.

A Giant Tangent, Chapter 2: The Balancing Point

Posted in Boyhood, Healthcare, Life After 50 on January 19, 2011 by Thomas N. Schenden

I checked my watch. It had only been thirty minutes since we jumped on board this northbound freight, but I could feel several hours’ travel in my bones already. The romance of hitching rides on trains was already fading, and in its place was a growing longing for a real chair.

“If you have any change in your pockets, you don’t want to sit there.”

“I’ll be fine, Jack,” I said, annoyed, as I bumped and rattled and literally flew up off the floor of the train car.

“Any false teeth?”

What’s your problem? What’s it matter if I have change or false teeth or what?

“Brother, you’re sittin’ right over the wheels, and box car wheels don’t like company — they’ll shake ya down so hard your change will be in your shoes and your teeth will be in your pockets. You’d best move over here where the ride’s smoother. And have a drink of this, it’ll settle your stomach down quick-like.”

Jack was right about the wheels, and he was right about his wine, too. We sat side by side over what had to be some kind of balancing point on the freight car floor and hardly felt a bump. As we passed his pint of port back and forth, watching the sun come up over the Tehachapis, my thoughts turned back to the week before.

It had been a bad year, and it was only February. In fact, it had been a bad couple of years, and that was about as honest as I was going to allow myself to be at the moment. I felt like I was caught in some kind of sequence that was running its course and not yet complete. There had been a divorce, a car crash, a bout with cancer, and the death of my dear old pops. When my department was informed last week that the company had been sold to an equity management firm, it wasn’t hard to imagine what was next.

Still, there was some comfort available in the news. Even if the new ownership, aptly named “Blackstake” decided to turn us all out onto the streets, I’d already experienced far worse. In fact, at 52, middle age was bearing down on me, and I felt like I was bearing up under it pretty well.

And all the while, Jack was observing me closely, another one of his endearing and annoying habits. Really, Jack was an observer of people in general, and was very skilled at summing up situations before others even noticed anything worthy of analysis.

“Brother, you’re not sober enough to be this quiet. What’s eatin’ at ya?”

Jack, you’ve probably got a better idea than I do. I don’t do analysis well, but I know when something isn’t right, and I’m feeling that now.

The loud, jostling clack of the car as it bumped over the tracks punctuated my thoughts and brought them forward at an increasing speed.

“I mean, it’s been a fucked up couple of years, hasn’t it? And all of it comes after years that I just seemed to sleep through. Really, what happened in my forties? While you were out seeing the world, I was driving a mouse in a cubicle. My big accomplishment? I’m an expert at Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint. And now, these people are poised to dump us all and do I care? I don’t know! But something about it is sickening.”

Jack pulled his Luckys out of his pocket, gave the pack a shake and held it out to me.

“Thanks Jack, but you know I don’t –

“Brother, just take the goddamn cigarette. I know your problem and it’s not new to me or you or anyone else who’s had a lungful of responsibility. But remember who you are now, you’re a giant, and pardon the pun but that’s no small thing. In three steps we’ll be halfway up this state and there’s no looking back for you. Now take a look at that.”

Jack motioned at the scenery out the large door on the right side of the car. I’d simply describe it as stunning, but Jack never let a strong impression go without a full blown soliloquy.

“That sun has been doing that same thing for millions of years, coming up over those mountains just like that, shining through those pines just like that, blazing through that morning haze just like that, and where have you been? You’ve been worrying about schedules and budgets and memos; you’ve been using up your precious life on someone else’s cares.

He had a point, at least at that particular moment, and by changing the subject he was doing it again, gently bumping me in another direction, maybe not the right direction but the direction he knew best. And I don’t even think he thought it was best for me, but it worked for him and he was loaning it to me. There was comfort in that, anyway.

“Brother, you know what I see?”

The train had been slowing for several minutes and as the rhythm slackened, the car grew quieter. We bumped along, and I took my time before answering.

“What’s that Jack?”

“I see a scroll, an untold tale that’s just unfolding across the sky like a kind of road or a path, and our names are written on it and there’s all kinds of untold adventure written on it, written ages ago. This train is destiny, man, it’s pure steel power chargin’ down the track and it knows – we don’t but it does – it knows where it’s goin’ and when it’s arrivin’. I’m real sorry about this state you’re in brother, it’s real mixed up but it’s not in front of us, it’s not on this train, and it’s not on the scroll.”

A Giant Tangent, Chapter 1: Bakersfield

Posted in Boyhood, History, Uncategorized on August 27, 2010 by Thomas N. Schenden

“I tell ’em like I write ’em, in one long continuous paper streaming across the sky, man, that’s my map, that’s what I’m doing, that’s where I’m going. You coming too?” — Jack

Jack’s not my friend, he’s an acquaintance. At least, that’s the published version. But Jack is a pretty engaging guy, and a good guy too. That’s who this story is about.

Have you ever met someone who only felt comfortable when he was hearing the sound of his own voice? I’m talking about stream-of-consciousness talking. I’m talking about all day, one-way monologues. If you were to hear Jack, you’d notice a certain rhythm to his voice, something you can’t quite put your finger on, but recognize. I’d call it nerve-wracking and downright annoying, if it wasn’t for the fact that Jack is just so dang fascinating.

One foggy evening, as we were walking, and Jack was talking, we fell onto the subject of travel. Jack boasted that he knew California like no one else. “I’m not talkin’ maps, man. . . I’m talking real knowledge – stuff that takes feet-on-the-ground research, not like what you’d see in a dusty old encyclopedia, but brought to life and speaking to you, propelling you, shining on you like the sun, man.”

I rolled my eyes. Jack was on another bender, ‘getting tangential,’ as he called it.

“Yeah, really man, I can show ya, I can show you how to be a giant in California, bigger than the redwoods. You’ll be so big, you can take one step and be standing in the parched bean fields of Bakersfield and take another step and be cool in Salinas. After you wipe that rich dark earth off your shoe, you’re in Mendocino, man, stepping over the old logging chutes that pitched that redwood booty out into the waiting ships way back when. What do you say, man, you in, you wanna be a giant?”

“What are you talking about? Gimme a clue, Jack,” I half pleaded.

What I’m talking about is an emancipation proclamation, man, I’m talking walking papers, carte blanche, an e-ticket that you can’t buy, because you’ll be a giant!”

Oh, brother!

“Oh Brother yeah! If you’re up for it we’re giants tomorrow, swear! But we have to shake on the deal first.”

Jack extended his fist and began his elaborate knuckle bumping, thumb hooking, pinky wiggle with the elbow extension and the wink. Yeah, the wink. Jack had a special wink that was his way of saying that this was an important deal, more important than anything else. So we performed the ceremony that told Jack that, in essence, I had placed myself in his custody.

“Meet me at this crossing tomorrow morning. Bring a coat and a change of clothes and a toothbrush and maybe a sliver of soap, but that’s it because that’s giant gear and if you bring anything else it won’t work. Swear?”
“Swear.” I said, with a little quiver in my voice. “What time?”

“Four-thirty, Amplitude Modulation, my friend. Oh-dark-thirty. Be there with your giant gear and I’ll show you. . .”
“Show me. . .?”

As Jack walked away, he seemed to blend into the fog and the dark, and vanish.

The next morning, as I approached our meeting place, Jack reappeared out of the fog, but now sitting on his backpack, sipping on a cup of coffee in the dark. It was one of those short plastic cups that unscrews off the red plaid thermos, which was sitting in front of him. He held his filterless cigarette with typical Jack-like affectation, between his thumb and forefinger.

“We gotta go,” he said, as he took one last drag, flicked his smoke, gulped his coffee and screwed the cup back on the thermos, all in one smooth motion. “If we’re gonna be giants today, we’d better move like it.”

Now I knew that there was only one thing happening on this corner at 4:30 in the morning, and it was just beginning to dawn on me what Jack was up to when he stopped me and turned his head sideways slightly. Jack heard something, and in the next moment he was running up the gravel covered hill, toward the railroad right of way. I had to run hard to keep up with him.

“That’s it! C’mon, lets move!”

Jack disappeared behind a pepper tree that had grown over the edge of the gravel rail bed.
“In here!” Jack whispered as he ducked down into the foliage. “Now if you do this right, and follow my every move, this is where you’ll take your last step as a little man! Got it?”

That sound that Jack had heard, it was getting louder and closer. It was the 4:47, northbound out of the Santa Fe depot, and just now slowly moving our way. I felt a pit in my stomach as I realized what was next.

Jack was wound up like a top, and unwound his explanation: “OK, brother, this is how it goes. First, you jog along beside her, just like you’ve always known her, but making sure that she’s not moving faster than you. When she’s not looking and you’re sure she’s sweet on you and you’re moving together, you grab her –

“And that next giant step puts you in the bean fields of Bakersfield, California!”

I Dream in Orange

Posted in Boyhood on February 28, 2010 by Thomas N. Schenden

In the spring of 1965 my mom and dad transplanted our family to the outskirts of a burgeoning young city where housing developments were springing up and orange groves were falling down. Our sparkling new neighborhood stood at the edge of town on the front lines of the advancing new world. The homes were huge, hulking two-story monoliths, every one painted white, and under contract by the new homeowners to remain just so preserved for the next ten white years.

At the time, I was under the naive illusion that my house did not, itself, supplant an orange grove. That, I think, is why I was always alarmed and offended when the next grove fell to became another construction site. We were newcomers to this agrarian world – outsiders, even – living on the west side of a boulevard that delineated our new world from the the old. While my neighborhood was named Meredith Acres by the marketing group that sold my folks our home, across the street my friends lived on real acres, with real roosters and chickens and cows and horses.

But at school, all boys were equal, and I, the newcomer, was invited to spend an afternoon on the property of the legendary Guzman family. We called the place Fernando’s – my buddy’s name – as if he owned it. Fernando’s was a string of orange groves a half a mile wide and five miles deep. His dad tended the groves, and that, to me, was as good as ownership, because it entitled us to adventures that simply weren’t available to kids on my block.

Fernando’s family lived in a small clapboard home built around the turn of the century. The house was positioned at the end of the paved city road and stood as a kind of sentry, guarding from intruders the countless acres of fruit-laden trees, bee hives and meticulously assembled irrigation systems. As one approached the house, much could be understood from the dirt road. The lawn, littered with small children’s toys, indicated that a large family, maybe too large for the house, lived there happily. The days’ laundry fluttered in the breeze. Around back, chickens and roosters wandered freely, pecking at the ground. A sweet smell of Mexican food hung in the quiet stillness, mixed with the somewhat unfamiliar odor of a septic system that needed some attention.

A typical excursion at Fernando’s started slow and ended even slower. Since we were still too young for motorcycles, we traveled by sneakers, starting out along the southernmost service road that pointed directly east toward the back of the property. Bordered by eucalyptus trees planted as windbreaks, the dirt roads served only as a means to work the groves. This was an unpaved, unpopulated and positively magical place for an afternoon adventure.

When I showed up at Fernando’s, Casey and Fernie were chasing chickens around back. Well, Fernando made it look like he was chasing them, but it was little Casey who was doing all the catching. Fernando was a well-fed kid, to say the least, and at twice Casey’s size, was simply out of the running. Not that it mattered to anyone – it was just a matter of fact. Fernando seemed to be comfortable in his roll as the biggest kid in the entire 8th grade. Heck, if my mom cooked like Fernie’s, I’d be that big too.

I’ll have to admit to being surprised to see Casey and Fernando both pick up their 22s, which they had left leaning up against the side of the house. I shot a gun once at Y camp with my dad, but that was on a shooting range with adults all over the place and rules for every move. Out here in the country, even kids had guns. I marveled.

What happened next was insubstantial, but to me, otherworldly. We started out on the southern road, bordered by a chicken farm on our right and endless orange groves on our left. The palette out there was simple and tidy – light blue, cloudless sky above our heads, deep, rich brown earth under our bare feet, and surrounding us everywhere, dark green foliage punctuated by thousands – maybe millions – of bright orange fruit. The smells of the eucalyptus and citrus mixed and mingled, and even the slightly putrid odor of the chicken farm was a delight to the senses, because it meant freedom. It was a kind of abstract, personal freedom, but all the more important to a 12-year old. It was the smell of the country.

So what were the guns for, I wondered. They were for plinking — not hunting, plinking. Plinking cans. Plinking bottles. Plinking lizards. As soon as Casey took his first shot, I got it. I heard the plink, and saw immediately that in the right hands there was nothing to fear from a 22 rifle. Casey and Fernando knew their guns. They had obviously been well taught and had taken their lessons seriously. As we walked they cradled their rifles in the crooks of their forearms with the barrels pointing downward. If either of them wanted to shoot, we stopped, the shooter advanced forward a few steps and when all was in order, the shot was fired. It was as though they had both read the same gun safety book, a book unknown to me.

But of course I was reading their unwritten book as we walked, and soon it was my turn to take a crack at it. Fernando handed me his rifle in a way that told me that he took gun safety seriously, but at the same time proved his trust in me. The gun felt heavy and solid in my hands. Casey and Fernando stood behind me and coached as I took aim at a can next to a eucalyptus tree. Plink! I felt a surge of pride as I saw the can jump – I hit it on my first try! Casey and Fernando burst out in excited approval at my marksmanship. I couldn’t hide my smile, and didn’t want to.

The mystery of gun play melted away as I realized that it was no big deal to draw a bead on an unsuspecting beer can and then to take it out in one smooth action. It would be hours before we made it back to Fernando’s house, and along the way there would be orange fights, a minor skirmish with a lizard and an abortive dove hunt. Any one of those activities would have been entertainment enough to keep a kid occupied for an afternoon. I felt energized and renewed in a way that seemed to propel me ahead as we ambled down the sun-dappled dirt roads. I was far from my neat, upscale, bleach-white suburban neighborhood, but I was accepted here. I had learned to shoot and tote guns around as if it were nothing at all. Out there in the orange trees, in the kingdom of the boy, we were all equals.