I’ll never forget the last conversation I had with my father. It lasted about two years.
It started when he was in his early 80’s. Still active and still sharp, he was nevertheless, I think, turning inward, deep in his memories. He began repeating his life stories of near-misses, ridiculous foibles, triumphs, and defeats each time we spoke. Every successive conversation was, in essence, a continuation of the last.
A few of his stories:
In his first year as a law student at Boalt Hall in Berkeley, he shared a sparsely furnished room with a red-headed young colleague named Harry, who had a heavy Austrian German accent (I’m sure I have that wrong) and a fun-loving disposition. During warm sunny days, they’d pull down the dark institutional window shade, into which they had previously poked a pinhole, and then lie on their cots and watch the upside-down images of pretty women walking by that the pinhole and the sunshine, acting together as a camera lens, projected onto the opposite wall.
When he was 12, he and a couple of friends decided one day to go for a hike somewhere in the hills north of Los Angeles (again, I probably have that wrong, but that’s how I remember it). Being 12-year-old boys, they had not thought to bring one thing to insure survival in case of an emergency – a compass, water, extra clothing, a knife, bandages. They hiked well into the area, and then lost their bearings. They tried to backtrack, but could not find the way that they came. They hiked to the top of a hill to get a view of their surroundings, but could see no roads or buildings or structures of any sort. They tried to figure a direction that would lead them to civilization. But the wild hills just went on and on, no matter which way they turned. As the afternoon waned, they became frantic, sure that they were never going to find their way out. I think on that day, my father literally thought he was going to die. This story has given me some perspective on the maddeningly over-the-top safety precautions that he always took during my childhood – his insistence on shirts to protect us from the sun; first aid kits; extra water and maps for the simplest trip to have a picnic; running a tedious checklist of tests – brake lights, signal lights, tire pressure, water in the radiator – before every family vacation.
On my first visit to my parents’ new home in Phoenix, I admired the small pottery pot that my mother had placed on the center island in the kitchen. The next morning, I came into the kitchen and greeted my father, poured a cup of coffee, and then, having recently switched my preference from black coffee to sweet, lifted the lid of the little jar and scooped a spoonful of sugar into my cup. I was vaguely aware of my father’s strange and sudden stillness as he watched me. “I like my coffee with sugar now,” I announced a bit defensively as I stirred, and then I took a sip, choked and gagged, and lurched to the sink to spit it out. Turned out that the little jar contained salt, not sugar, and of course he knew this all along. My father adored this story of my deliciously self-inflicted practical joke.
He still got a laugh at his own expense too, telling the story of the time he gave a friend a ride in his new pale silver-blue Lotus Elan, speeding up Vista Montana, a long steep climb along the face of a hill overlooking a panoramic view of the South Bay. As he zipped past a line of parked cars, driving with perfect race-car-driver precision, his friend let fly some expletives and exclaimed, “You’re gonna hit one of these cars!” With a patronizing laugh, my father yelled over the roar of the engine, “I drive this every day and I haven’t hit one yet,” whereupon he promptly clipped a side view mirror with his own, snapping off both and sending them flying into the air. So much for the macho.
He recounted our shared story when in the summer after my 8th grade year, he and I took a hike from Idyllwild up to the San Jacinto Peak – a 10-mile climb and a rise of 5,000 feet to 10,800. He had promised that at the top, he would reward me with a chocolate milkshake at the restaurant which sat up there at the landing point of the Palm Springs tram. Along the way, we stopped at the 3-mile mark in the “Saddle,” a shallow valley filled with waist-high ferns, and he allowed me, for the first – and probably last – time in my life, to refill my canteen with cool, clear water straight from the mountain stream. When we later found a place to perch against the jagged rocks alongside the trail to snack on beef stick, cheese, and crackers, I saw the most beautiful, expansive vista of our planet that I had ever seen. According to Wikipedia, naturalist John Muir wrote of San Jacinto Peak, “The view from San Jacinto is the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this earth!” I have to agree. By the time we reached the top of the peak, the sky was starting to darken with ominous storm clouds. Depleted and more than ready for our anticipated milkshakes, we hurried toward the restaurant – and were greeted with a big Closed sign on the door. Worst. Reward. Ever. To add a glorious insult to the whole event, the sky suddenly darkened above us and cracked with a stupendous thunderbolt, and it started to pour – an avalanche of water pounding straight down. Lightning electrified the sky, even darker clouds unfurled above, and thunder literally shook the ground.
We decided that getting off the mountain was better than trying to hunker down at the peak overnight, especially when we had no way of letting my mother and sister, waiting at the cabin below, know that we were OK. So we high-tailed it down the trail, taking care not to slip on the rocks or step into washed-out holes, boring our eyes onto the trail ahead to watch out for stones and sticks obscured by the running water and the growing darkness. Mind you, the trip up had been especially arduous thanks to the plethora of safety equipment we were hauling in our big metal-framed backpacks: rain ponchos, extra food, extra water, first aid kit, rope, whistles, matches, compasses, knives, a small survival “tent” (lean-to style), heat-reflecting survival blankets – you name it. But we had nothing, of course, to stop the lightning from cracking or the rain from falling – nothing that could transport us more quickly to the bottom of the trail and out of danger.
I learned something on that trip down. I learned that hiking downhill in a hurry is much harder than hiking up. I learned that your thigh muscles alone take most of the brunt of keeping your legs from buckling when you step downward. I learned that there can be a time when you have to go on because there is no other choice. I learned that the mind has an irrational ability to clamp down on what must be done – step forward, keep upright, watch for rocks, keep your head down – and muffle the discomfort of being soaked from your hair down to the insides of your boots, or the fear of lightning striking the top of your head. I learned that for an exhilarating moment when you must act, you can believe that the worst will not happen, and you can keep going until what you need to do is done.
My favorite story of my father’s was from the time when he was in the service during World War II, when he was reassigned from his post in Wisconsin (where he had been living with a family in their attic because the Air Force had run out of housing for the officers) to a base in, I think, Albuquerque. There was no military transportation; he was expected to get himself down there on his own in the dead of winter. He owned an old Model T, I think – and it had a hole in the floorboard through which the icy wind streamed onto his legs. He had a blanket on his lap and a little dog who rode with him, and he set out to drive all day and all night and all day again until he reached the southwest. At some point the little dog got sick, throwing up on the floor – and there the vomit stayed, because it was pitch black night, there was snow covering the landscape, and my father had nowhere to pull over and no means to clean it up.
Late in the night, as he drove down a long, straight, two-lane road in the middle of nowhere, headlights appeared in the distance. As they loomed closer, the headlights began to wobble, and then they started to swerve from left to right. As they grew closer they made a graceful sweep all the way to the side, and disappeared, and red tail lights swung into view and continued the swing around the circle. The tail lights disappeared and were replaced by headlights, which again swung out of view, and then the tail lights appeared again. My father could make out the other car at this point as it righted its path and continued in a straight line, traveling backward. He took his foot off the gas but did not brake, knowing that if he did, he would spin out too. In helpless terror he gripped the steering wheel as the other car approached – and then that car simply floated past him, still traveling backward. As the two cars passed, my dad looked over at the other driver, who was facing in the same direction as he was, and the other man looked over at him, and the two exchanged a moment of wordless primitive mental fusion. The other car continued on behind, now a pair of headlights receding into the night. And then as my father watched in the rear view mirror, the headlights started to swerve again, and they again swung in a slow arc out of view, and were replaced by the red tail lights, which wobbled and then stayed in place as the car diminished into the dark distance.
This momentous coincidence of time and space, improbable and frightening and wonderful in all respects, was shared by two utter strangers who would remember it for the rest of their lives. It was entirely possible that as my father was again recounting this story to me, this other man was telling his version again to his own son or daughter. Such is the nature of life, at more times and places that can ever be explained.
I listened to these stories, and many more, one after another in repeating succession for two years during my father’s visits and phone calls, and then as he lay in a hospital bed for the last two months of his life after he fell and broke his neck, his head immobilized in a medieval contraption the medical profession refers to as a “halo.”
My dad had left my house in search of bear claws for breakfast, and he’d stumbled when he exited the bakery. I rushed down to the shop when the paramedics called, and found him still lying on the pavement, blood pooled around his head. The rescue team already had his medical and contact information in hand, neatly organized on a set of cards my father kept in his wallet – just in case. His walker was lying on the sidewalk; his little white bag of pastries lay smashed flat beside him. The paramedics asked me which hospital I wanted. A bakery employee came out the door, sheepishly carrying a bucket. As the paramedics lifted the gurney into the ambulance, the young man dumped the bucket of water onto my father’s blood, washing it into the street.
While my father was lying in pain in the emergency room waiting for the doctors to come and stitch up his head and tell him the results of the x-rays, he swore under his breath in a continuous mantra. Then he stopped for a moment, rolled his eyes toward me, and asked, “Did you get the pastries?”
A story for my own collection.