The Fading Hills Across The Water

March 18, 2001

The last two evenings Paula and I have watched two VCRs that have little boys as part of their stories. The first, which we watched Friday evening, was Tender Mercies, starring Robert Duvall, from 1983. Duvall plays a down and out country-western singer,  Mac Sledge , who quietly rebuilds his life, marrying the mother of a young boy named Sonny. Sonny slowly but steadily comes to love and respect Mac as a new father to replace the father that he never knew that died in Vietnam. In the final scene, which takes place shortly after Mac's daugher from his first, failed marriage has died in a car crash, shows Sonny and Mac playing catch with a football. No dramatic words or gestures, just a little boy and a man playing catch and laughing as the screen fades to credits.

It is a movie of quiet human dignity, respect, and emotional depth, without violence or sensation. The kind of movie I love.

During the day on Saturday I fulfilled a long overdue promise to Paula. I had come up with an idea for creating a website for creating and maintaining family histories (thought up, as so many creative things for me are, in the very early morning hours as I lay sleepless in bed), and that lead me to search out and find some old family pictures to show her. There aren't many pictures of me from my youth, but I found one that I had forgotten about: a picture of my sixth grade special education class, which I'll talk more about in a minute. By the afternoon I was scanning pictures and old family documents which I will in time place on this website.

In extra time slices as I waited for the scanner to process I was downloading Ry Cooder guitar music from Napster, grabbing an album of hybrid West African/blues-like music called Talking Timbuktu. When I grab stuff from Napster, I like to get entire albums. I visit and use their internal search engine to find their page describing the recording, which will display a track list which I will use to find and download each track in Napster. With a high-speed internet connection it works like a charm: free music in just a few minutes (at least until Napster gets shut down completely!)  I started, as I often do, poking around and following links in Amazon to find other albums, which led me to Ry Cooder's soundtrack to the movie Paris, Texas, which I downloaded as well. I had seen and enjoyed the film may years ago (it was made in 1984) but Paula had never seen it, so we rented and viewed it last night.

And it has a little boy as well. Hunter is the son of Travis, a man who has lost his way in life and at the beginning of the film is literally walking in the desert. Travis is rescued by his brother, who has, with his wife, been caring for Hunter since Travis disappeared four years before. Travis slowly recovers from a wild-eyed, frightened man unable to even speak to a sensitive, caring man that is able to reestablish a bond with his son. As I watched, I realized that I was focusing on and was intrigued by Hunter, as I had focused on Sonny while watching Tender Mercies the night before. Each of them had faced a horror in their life in the loss of a father, yet somehow remained curious and engaged with the people and the world surrounding them.

And very early this morning in my common sleepless time in bed, I found myself focusing on and intrigued by myself as a little boy, 11 years old in the sixth grade picture from 1961.

And here it is. We are decorating the class Christmas tree, and that is me in front with the glasses and the red, purple and white plaid shirt. I have a very poor memory for names and have forgotten everyone in that class except for Ted Tollefson , who is the boy in the black and white plaid shirt and glasses (you  can click on the image for zoom-ins of each of us). I remember Ted as the wise-cracking class comic, but he had become something quite different the only other time he briefly passed though my life. In 1987, when I married my first wife Diane, Ted had become a Unitarian minister and conducted our wedding ceremony. I remember him then (and I have not seen him since) as a serious, intent man deeply into his own spiritual quest.

But my most vivid memory of Ted comes from a few months before the picture was taken, in the fall of 1961. We were in a special education class of about 20 fifth and sixth graders, selected as the best and the brightest from the entire city of Duluth, Minnesota. We met half days in the morning in a classroom at the Board of Education in downtown Duluth, studying reading and humanities-type subjects, and returned in the afternoon to our neighborhood schools for the remaining subjects in math and science.

It was two and a half years after the suicide death of my father at age 53. My mother had returned to teaching at a state college across the bridge in Superior, Wisconsin. This morning, like every day, she dropped me off at the Board of Education on her way to work. Ted was arriving as well, said hello, and waited for me to walk up the stairs to the classroom together. I told him no, that I wanted to wait outside a minute, and I can still picture him giving me a strange look, saying OK and shrugging his shoulders as he walked away.

He had foiled my plans. I was going to walk away before anyone saw me. I was going to run away.

I had a plan, and even though he had seen me I began it anyway. We lived in the eastern part of Duluth, on a little street called Princeton Place high in the hills above Lake Superior. I took a city bus home and gathered up by coin collection which I was going to sell to get money. I began riding my bicycle downtown, where I would sell the coins, buy a bus ticket, and go to Minneapolis, which was as far as the plan went. I rode down the hills, down Princeton Place to Vermillion Road, down Snively Boulevard which becomes Glenwood Road and sweeps around a curve and opens up to a wide vista of the lake.

Lake Superior forms the profile of the head of a wolf, with Duluth at its western end at the tip of its nose. At that curve on Glenwood Road, to the west the lake slowly narrows to its tip at the Aerial Lift Bridge, but to the east the lake slowly spreads out to a wide expanse, like an ocean, that cannot been seen across. The other side of the lake is Wisconsin, rows of crescent hills diminishing and fading away, smaller and smaller crescents disappearing into the vastness of the lake to the east.

And that is where I stopped on my bicycle, feeling the vastness of the lake, the vastness of the world I was running away to, the vastness of the unknown itself, in the pit of my stomach.

I often think of that moment. I think of it as my first deep encounter with the edge of the unknown, and I see much of my life as a slow, incremental process of coming to terms with that precipice: knowing when to jump, knowing when to turn and walk away, or, perhaps most importantly, knowing when to simply wait and feel the pit in your stomach. My role model, at age 11, was a man who either jumped or ran away (who can say which, or perhaps most accurately, both) by shooting humself. I spent years of my life trying to answer why, finally accepting that there is no why, only the fact that he did it and whatever reasons he had, whatever terrors he felt at the edge of the unknown, died with him. My role models now, at age 50, are little boys, like Sonny and Hunter, and men, like Mac, Travis, and, on good days, myself, that can wander along the edge of the abyss for however long is necessary, turn and smile, and live out lives of simple joys and satisfactions shared with the persons that they love.