Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Song of the Humpback

Before heading west the journeyman printer
closed his hands in prayer and breathed Amen.
It was a craft once, you know, to shepherd words
to paper, arranging shards of lead in
precise rows, letters backwards, sentences
read right to left in a silver language that might
be all that gods and men have in common.

They packed the house into a moving truck and
the family into a 1967 Dodge Coronet
and drove ten thousand feet upward where even
trees begin to struggle for air. The boy was
promised a cowboy hat and boots (grounded),
the girl (why hadn’t he thought of this?) a horse

called General on which she later corralled clouds.
This was their playground then: A cold river filled
with rainbow trout, two dozen mountain peaks in
every direction, a landscape measured
vertically and lacking any definable horizon.
A lake so frigid that, even warmed by
August sun, would kill you if you fell in.

That lake. In 1956 the Army Corps built the dam
that trapped the lake, drowning the clapboard town
residents had left, finally, only days
before. The boy wondered at the buildings
beneath and if anyone had been stubborn
enough to stay behind in protest.

It took a certain stubbornness to live at
altitude. Stoicism when drifts piled up
to twelve feet in December, courage when
wind blew to thirty-odd below in February,
patience for the black flies in August, some kind
of common sense to make a living and a home.

That lake. Was where he learned the secrets of life,
the buzz and flutter. Once, fishing for Kokanee,
this pregnant question from his father: “So,
what do you know?” About what? “Sex.” Not much.
A pause. “Best to keep it that way.” Advice

both fatally flawed and eternally sound.

It was not all harsh. Stars liberally salted
the clear night sky. Snow perfect for toboggans
and skis. Mountains meant summits and places
beyond. So every day was filled with dreams.
People could be unbearably kind. One
memory: The family dog gone missing
drew a county-wide search party.

The house the printer built was practical
and stout, but not without heart. It took shape
in a valley so deep the sun struggled
to crest the ridges by 8 a.m., then set
early, exhausted. The house the printer built
by hand, eleven hundred nails in one room’s

hardwood floor alone. From this the boy learned
to shape headers and walls from two-by-fours,
to drive nails in four blows (the father did in one),
to use a framing square and to calculate
the pitch and rise of stairways. “It’s more
complicated than you might think to build
stairs,” the father said. “Things that bring you

closer to heaven are never simple.”
The boy learned patience and perseverance,
qualities that life erodes and then returns.
He read to his father’s distraction. Books
were both escape and revelation; there was
just one TV station and radio waves

didn’t fare well, either. One phone line for
four houses meant everything was shared.
There were no secrets. Gossip in a small town
is both candy and lifeblood. Perspectives of
neighbors and strangers alike shift weekly
so it is not who you know that matters

but what you know about them. We blithely
forget to ponder what they know about us.
The house sat at the back of two acres, small
by local standards but a yard anyway.
Or maybe yard was a kind word to describe
the tumble of sagebrush that filled the space. Yard
is a word for suburbs, which crave definition.
Yard is a fence and grass, a swing, a garden;

order. Yet in this disorder, beauty: Columbine
sprouted beside a plant they learned to call
Indian paintbrush. You could pluck the long red
flower and suck dew-sweet nectar from the tip.
A fenced-in corral in the back held the horse;
not ten yards east lay a grave for one of
the family dogs that hadn’t held up to winter.
He’d been loved, which is as much as you can ask.

* * *

They called nearby Montezuma a ghost town
but there weren’t enough buildings to qualify
as a town in the boy’s mind. Or maybe the
buildings themselves had turned to ghosts. Structures
must have a kind of soul if you could draw a blueprint
of the house you lived in twenty years past.
The rooms and all the memories in them. Ghosts.

Someone had made a home in one of the old cabins
there. One day it burned in a blaze quick as that.
They called the printer who also volunteered as
a paramedic. He brought the boy. When they carried
the body out it looked like a blackened log.
He wouldn’t have known it for a body

but for the fact that it was on a stretcher.
Jerry Peterson, Dick Scheafer, Jackie Pierce,
each volunteered as EMTs, too. That’s how
it works in a small town, everyone pulls
a share. Dentist, rancher, nurse, in that order,
it’s hard to say how their friendships with the
printer took shape, but not why. They all shared

the view that one can ask nothing of life.
The summer of the fire was the summer
death began. First the grandfather passed on the
printer’s birthday. Grandma followed on
her own a year later. An uncle, a cousin.
Unknown bodies piled up, too. A stranger

drowned in the river. No one could say why.
A trucker lost his brakes on the mountain,
almost always fatal. It all could have been
dark, but youth has a way of shielding pain.
For the most part he only felt sad that
others were sad. And he wasn’t sure why

preachers insisted God needed all those folks
as angels. There had to be a limit.
Just so. Life and death are just ways to
measure time. If you were immortal, he
reasoned, there would be no reason to hurry.
He read Jules Verne and Asimov and read

until one day his parents discovered
The Summer of ’42 in his room and
removed it without discussion.
Irony prevailed when years later, the
family watched the movie on TV,
his parents having no recollection
of their single act of censorship.

There were dreams in those years: In one he
stood with rows of strangers at the rim of a vast
void. It was understood they could reach in and
remove anything they desired. I desire
nothing, he said with an inexplicable
sense of guilt, and at the same moment a

woman beside him reached for something,
grasped it, and screamed as her young son was swept
into the void. Awake he was left with a
sense of the profound, though at a loss to
explain why it might apply to him. That
dreams might be omens was assumed. In those
days it was said that if you die in a dream,

you really die, and being a dreamer he
lived in some fear of the associated
risks. So it was with a sense of terror
that he once dreamed he was dead; a sort of
walking death in which he and others of
his ilk were forced to sleep in morgues and played

without fear of consequence in the
icy waters of the Blue River. The next
morning he woke up unnaturally
early and, before the doorbell rang – at that
hour itself an augur of bad news – knew
the girl had died. Jenny’s dead, he spoke aloud,

not understanding the full import, as if
it could have been understood. At the front door
the father sagged against the wall, the three friends
arranged outside in the structure of grief.
“We have to tell mother,” father said, and they
climbed the stairs they had built together, each
step heavy, so that at the top they stood
breathless at an altitude previously

unmeasured. It’s a fact, more people have
died in this world than live upon it.
Years later he would recall of that morning
standing outside the front door, inhaling the
day that was, he thought, inappropriately
lovely. He spoke, unbidden and surprising,
The sky is still blue, the earth is still solid,
the world is still turning. Things that prior

to that moment had been in question.
He marked this as the moment he learned of
irony. The girl had been an EMT,
following in the footsteps of her father.
That night she had taken a late call – a
violent car wreck. She and another
took the victim to a hospital in

Vail. On the way back, the ambulance wrecked,
no one ever knew exactly why, both
paramedics killed instantly, bodies
no longer recognizable as such.
They buried her in the local graveyard,
too poor at the time for anything more
than a common marker. The whole town grieved.

* * *

“Death either tears a family apart or
brings it closer together,” these the sage
words of a cousin who had survived her own
losses. From that day on, geography
stretched between the son and his parents, but
the heart has no measure of distance.
It would be too easy to say of love

that it transcends all things except itself;
we love with this persistent naiveté
that insists despite all evidence to
the contrary that life is not fragile.
And in time it’s not the body that
wears out so much as confidence; the thin

wall that shields us in the darkest hours.
If death marked his first rite of passage, then
one might easily identify other
mileposts: lovers, travel, passions,
and the banal crumbs of daily existence
that add up to a life, until one takes
the sum of who he has become, and sighs.

Just so. Now he stands on the deck
of a modified lobster boat, July in the
Bay of Fundy, salt-licked skin, frayed hair, a
wife, a daughter. The sun is warm and the
smell of the air is pure freedom. In elegant
succession three humpback whales surface, then
dive, a graceful punctuation mark to their

journey from the Caribbean. And back.
They travel purposefully but without intent.
Maps will show you the route but not the journey.
It could have been this way or that. Decisions
made, and not, add up to something. This is
the damn truth: No one gets the final
satisfaction of deeming it all worthwhile.

—Martin A. Bartels


  1. This is the closest thing to an autobiography that I've ever written. Probably the longest, too, not counting drafts of novels.

  2. Marty, this is fablulous. I read it 3 times just to ponder over the years in Summit county. thanks for sharing.
    Laurie Anderson Groth

  3. Marty, your words are an echo of my heart.