A Western Memoir of Fatherhood
By Craig Lesley
Picador Copyright © 2005 Craig Lesley
All rights reserved.
When we held my father Rudell's funeral service in the Monument cemetery, raging forest fires surrounded the town, and we could hear the burning wood crackle. Smoke filled the air, and through stinging eyes, I could see only about a hundred feet. Ormand, my half brother, set the box containing my father's ashes next to the headstone. He kept looking around, but neither of Rudell's former wives had made the effort to attend. My half sisters didn't show, either. Just us boys.
As Ormand read the Bible parable of the workers in the vineyard, I stood off a ways, since it was Ormand who grew up with my dad, not me. As far as I was concerned, this was Ormand's show. Anyway, he was an apprentice preacher, and this was his first funeral. Besides, I didn't want to stand too close because one of the Lesley bad-luck demons might crawl into my bones.
Ponderosa, lodgepole, red pine, juniper, sagebrush — all burning. The wind carried the smell like a campfire, but bigger and more ominous. The Forest Service had sent 450 firefighters into Monument and they had taken over the whole town, except the cemetery. Mexicans, Indians, Alaskans, prisoners with crew cuts and jug ears — guys who hadn't seen anything outside but brick walls and razor wire in years. None of them could do a thing with the fire because of the wind. They sat around, dirty and defeated, complaining about the wind shifts and lightning strikes.
Nobody could handle that fire. The wind gusts topped thirty miles an hour and the blazing embers touched off spot fires everywhere — in the canyons, on the scablands, the far hillsides. Johnnycake Mountain was burning, and the Boneyard, Sunflower Flat, even Cupper Creek, where my dad claimed he saw Bigfoot back in 1980, when Mount St. Helens blew. He said old Bigfoot knew the blast was coming so the creature hightailed it four hundred miles away, into the Umatilla Forest near my father's fence-building camp. How it crossed the Columbia, he couldn't figure. Maybe it swam, or paid a bridge toll like everyone else. Ormand swears my father didn't meddle with the truth, but I've always been skeptical. The old man ran off and left my mom before I grew teeth, so I didn't owe him anything, not even the benefit of believing his wild stories.
Right then, Ormand kept droning on about the vineyard workers who never started until an hour before quitting time. Even so, they got paid for a full day's wage, and the other workers complained that the latecomers got the same pay for less work.
Nothing's fair, I thought.
My feet were wet because some yahoo had turned the sprinklers on in the wrong part of the cemetery and flooded the section where we held the service. They could have used that water on the fire lines, I figured, but I was wet-footed instead. Maybe it would soak into the wooden box that held my father's ashes and make a soggy mess for us to scatter.
And I thought Ormand made an okay preacher, the way his voice kept getting low and serious when he was making a point about how my father had come to believe late in his life — at the eleventh hour — but he was still saved, paid the same wages as those who had started laboring in the vineyards early in the morning. My half brother was thinking about studying preaching at a little Bible-thumping school over near Boise. And I smiled just a hint, wondering if Ormand would give up poaching deer and elk when he starting preaching for serious full-time, and small-town people criticized his every move.
But I was thinking hardest about something else: all the range fences my father had built in his lifetime. Each post split and fashioned from ornery juniper was burning now, and as the posts burned and the barbed wire sagged, frantic horses and cows ran helter-skelter all over the mountainside and up the canyons, ran until they tangled in wire and dropped, rolling their panicked eyes and frothing at the mouths as the fire blazed toward them.
And then I thought about Ormand helping my father build most of those fences, flunking out of school while my father used him like a horse, packing posts and wire spools, sledges and post-hole diggers. My brother was all crippled up from that wretched work and being smacked by a car when he was eleven while walking out of the Irrigon hardware store. He should have been in school, but he was a huge, rawboned boy capable of a man's work, and my father took advantage.
"Long-suffering," my uncle Oscar called my father and his brood. And it was true. Opal didn't make the funeral because we couldn't find her. Yuba-Jean was slaving as a motel maid down in Weed. None of us was young anymore. All of us had snuck past fifty when the devil wasn't looking.
So I was thinking about all this, mostly those miles of burning fence line, when Ormand banged his Bible shut.
Everyone stared at me. Ormand nodded, and I knew that come hell or high water, I had to say something about my father. But I couldn't speak, so I read John 14:2:
In my Father's house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.
Everyone seemed satisfied, except for me. I know that Ormand said God had forgiven Rudell, but I hadn't.
* * *
My mother seldom mentioned my father — coyote trapper, fence builder, backslider. She believed in keeping quiet if she couldn't find anything good to say. "Weak as water," or "That loser," she let slip a couple of times when I was growing up. Then she hastened to add, "But there wasn't a mean bone in his body." Of course, that was wrong.
"Shell-shocked," "not good in his mind," "no-count," other relatives suggested over the years, and they were on his side of the family. When I first workshopped with Raymond Carver and showed him stories with a character similar to Rudell, Ray called him "shiftless." Then he crinkled a smile. "Or still working up to it."
If anybody asked, I told them my father was in the fur business. My mother claimed he worked as a security guard at the Umatilla Army Depot, where the army stored thousands of tons of chemical weapons. This suggested that he served an important role keeping the U.S. safe from the evildoers of the world. True, he did work a spell as a security guard, but long after she was married to him, when he tried to maintain a second family. Eventually, his other wife took my four half siblings and ran off to California with a long-haul trucker.
After that blow, my father claimed his nerves were shot, and he collected a small government disability check. Moving back to Monument, he tacked a lean-to shed onto a banged-up trailer and started trapping coyotes and poaching deer. "Oregon Appalachia," my mother called it.
* * *
My birth certificate is the only official document I have that holds Rudell's scrawled signature and birth date: March 18, 1914. Ormand has my father's discharge papers from the service. Rudell served with distinction in France and faced severe fighting in the Battle of the Bulge and the Ruhr Pocket. He received several medals and an honorable discharge after fighting the Germans all the way to Berlin. I was born on July 5, 1945, and my father left eight months after that with what my mother called "shell shock."
My mother raised me, providing groceries, shelter, discount shoes, and most important, unconditional love. She believed in my success and encouraged me to attend college. So why write about my father at all when she's the hero? Even though I had only eight meetings with my father until I was well past forty, his influence on me was enormous. Since my mother had criticized him for being "weak," I vowed to be strong. Fear of backsliding motivated me to become high school and college student body presidents, to keep moving ahead at all costs. This also fueled my obsession with becoming a writer and chronicling the lives of Westerners similar to my father.
Rudell's neglect motivated me to raise an alcohol-damaged Indian boy just to show the old man I could succeed as a father where he had fallen down. To be truthful, it was harder than I thought. I stood trapped middle ground between a man who wouldn't communicate and a boy who couldn't.
Tricky business, fathers and sons. In my case, a lot needed settling.
Lifting me high above his head, my father placed me in the crotch of the Bing cherry tree growing beside my mother's parents' house in The Dalles. A little frightened at that dizzying height, I pressed my palms into the tree's rough, peeling bark. My father stood close, reassuring. I could see his olive skin, dazzling smile, and sharp-creased army uniform.
"Rudell, don't let him fall." My mother watched, her arms held out halfway, as if to catch me.
"Look at that big boy. He's taller than me." My grandfather Lange spoke around his crook-stemmed pipe filled with Prince Albert tobacco. Wearing her kitchen apron, my grandmother stood close by, ready to serve a pitcher of lemonade.
The cherries were ripe and robins flittered through the dark green leaves, pecking at the Bings. Tipping my head back, I could see blue sky beyond the extended branches.
"That's enough. Bring him down now." My mother's arms reached out farther.
Laughing, my father grabbed me under the arms, twirled me around, and plunked me onto the grass. I wobbled a little. Imprinted on my palms was the pattern of the tree bark, and I brushed off the little bark pieces on my dungarees.
In a moment, my grandmother gave me a small glass of lemonade. When I drank, it tasted tart and sweet at the same time.
This first childhood memory of my father remains etched in my mind.
Other memories followed. Every morning, Grandmother Lange lifted me onto a kitchen chair so I could see the Columbia River and the Klickitat Hills. In summer, the two of us planted crocuses in the back yard; in winter, we watched their yellow and purple flowers spring from the snow. Two days a week, I helped her clean the roomers' quarters, and as I emptied the waste baskets and ashtrays, I smelled aftershave and old cigarettes.
Every lunch hour, my grandfather walked home from the newspaper to give me cod liver oil, because I had rickets. I refused to take the fishy liquid from anyone but him. Brandishing a bottle and spoon, he chased me from room to room while I laughed. After I swallowed, I became the pursuer, and he lumbered away shouting, "Don't give me any of those lutefisk kisses!" When I caught and kissed him, my grandfather wiped his mouth and made terrible faces. My cheeks burned from his heavy whiskers and the delight of the chase.
Each afternoon, I waited for him to come home and read me my favorite book Peppy the Puppy. Relaxing in his easy chair, he filled his crook-stemmed pipe and smoked while he read. To this day, the smell of pipe smoke conjures those wonderful times.
When I grew older, I realized that my father had never lifted me into the cherry tree. After Rudell left, I never saw him until I was fifteen. My grandfather had put me in the tree. Still, the memory of my father lifting me into the tree persists. Even today, I remain half-convinced by the details: the press of bark against my palms, the taste of lemonade, the texture of my father's serge uniform. Apparently, my mind has cross-wired the photographs of my handsome father in his army uniform with the logical reality that my grandfather set me in the crotch of the tree.
Why can I remember the event so vividly? I guess because I wanted so much for my father to be there. I have no easy answers.
* * *
At eight-seven, my mother, Hazel, has a perfectly clear mind, but she refuses to talk about Rudell.
"How did you two meet?"
"I can't remember."
I decide to prompt her out of her stubbornness. "You were in Vancouver, right? Working at the county courthouse? Rudell was in the army, stationed at the Barnes Veteran's Hospital. Did you meet at a dance for servicemen? A bar? Church?"
"I just can't remember."
"But it was in Vancouver?"
A long pause. "It must have been."
"Before he came to Vancouver, he worked on the Alcan Highway. He said the mosquitoes were as big as horses. So you met him after he worked on the highway and before he went overseas."
"When was the highway built?"
"Nineteen forty-three was when he worked on it. Aunt Sally and Ormand told me. She said you and Rudell came to visit her in Portland when you were going together."
"Well then, I guess maybe we did."
"It would help if you said a little more about him."
"I don't have anything more to say about him. He just didn't give a damn."
"You always told me he had shell shock after the war."
"Listen. All I want you to put in that book is that I'm your mother, and I was a single working parent. When your father ran off, I tried to raise you, and after I was married to Vern ... well, you know what he was like. Then I had Ronna and tried to raise you both."
"Well, do you want to talk about Vern a little?"
"He was a stinker. But you're a good person, and Ronna is a good person, and I'm a good person."
Of course, I remember my stepfather all too well, but I want her to say a little more. "What are some of the things you remember about him?"
"I did the best I could, under the circumstances. That's all anybody can do."
"I know. I've always admired you for that. Ronna has, too."
"I want to read what you write. Before it goes to publication, or whatever that's called. I want to read it."
Maybe it was a request, but the edge in her voice made it sound more like a threat.
* * *
I remain amazed at how little I know about my father from my mother's side of the family. My grandmother said nothing. Twice, my grandfather told me that he was a good hunter with keen eyes. My aunt Mac said she thought he was an Indian. My mother told me he suffered shell shock following the Battle of the Bulge and left us because of his illness. Then she added, "But there wasn't a mean bone in your father's body."
Much later, she told me, "After the war was over, he just hung around the house [my grandparents' home in The Dalles]. Your grandfather finally got him a job with my uncle out at the cement works, and he wouldn't do what he was told."
When I was in my fifties, she added that he left the cement works job to go deer hunting. "And when he came back, he remembered that he'd left a flashlight with his cousin down in Molalla. He left to get it and never returned."
Most details about my father have come from my grandmother Anna Lesley, his eleven brothers and sisters, my half brother Ormand, and the few meetings I had with the old man himself. In 1946, shortly before he sent divorce papers to my mother, Rudell sat on a park bench outside the Pendleton courthouse, waiting for my aunt Sally to get off work. They were close to each other because my grandfather Newton Lesley had been cruel to both of them, forcing them to become allies. Later, Sally offered Rudell help in going to college, but he felt college was a waste of time.
"I saw your father out the window, just sitting on that bench," Sally told me. "It was about three o'clock in the afternoon. I could tell he had something heavy on his mind and I'm sure it was about your mother."
"So what did he say?"
"I wanted to go outside and talk with him, but I couldn't right then. I had all this work to do for the judge and I didn't want to get in trouble."
Sally looked down at her folded hands. I could tell she felt that she had made the wrong decision.
"About four, Rudell left the bench for a while and came back with a cup of coffee. I figured that would hold him."
When 5:30 came, Sally hurried out of her office and across the street to the bench. My father was gone, the half-drunk cup of coffee left behind.
"I hoped he'd be up at the house. DeAnna was just a baby then, and I thought he might stop by to see her. I called Jim at work, but he hadn't seen him. Later, we found out he'd gone back to Monument."
Maybe my aunt Sally could have persuaded Rudell not to leave. How much convincing would it have taken? I'd like to believe that somehow he would have stayed, that he cared for me more than he wanted that flashlight.
Grandma Lesley made the world's best cinnamon rolls. Everyone raved about them. Old-timers in Monument today, people who knew her as children, still speak wistfully of those rolls. On the farm, she baked rolls, bread, pies, and cookies every day, so her children had treats when they walked home from school.
She sold the farm in 1947 because the children had grown and moved away. Tired of farm work, none of them wanted to run the place. She traveled from one relative's home to another by bus, always baking her famous rolls, helping with new babies, applying her homemade tonics and remedies to upsets and aches.
I loved her visits to my mother's parents' home, where we had moved after the divorce. I listened eagerly for Grandma Lesley bustling around the kitchen, the clanking of bowls and pans. Cinnamon rolls! Soon the house filled with their wonderful aroma. All the ingredients seemed ordinary enough, except for her insisting on sweet creamery butter and brown farm eggs. But she had magic in her recipe. Her rolls melted like soft sunlight in my mouth. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Burning Fence by Craig Lesley. Copyright © 2005 Craig Lesley. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.