We Have All Gone Away
By CURTIS HARNACK
UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS
Copyright © 1973 Curtis Harnack
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Return
In a cab bound for the East Side Airlines Terminal, where I was to check in for my flight to Iowa, a long traffic light on Forty-second Street gave me a chance to look up at the skies to see what the weather was like, for now that I was about to leave the city, I'd be encountering it again. I happened to notice a sign on a structure behind Times Square: THIS BUILDING TO BE DEMOLISHED IDEAL BUSINESS SITE WILL BUILD TO SUIT. I studied the nineteenth-century stone and brick edifice for whatever architectural interest it might have—to take one last look along with my first. The gray, beaten-metal cornice eight stories up suddenly took shape. I saw a caryatid mounted on each corner, then another and another, spaced every twenty feet or so: enormous barn owls in fluted copper, their faces keen to the beak, with magnificent ruffs and blind eyes; their widespread wings seemed to hold up the roof.
The taxi pulled away fast, as if the driver felt he knew better than I how very late it was. The building would be gone in a week or a month, the owls destroyed, and I wondered if I'd been the last person to recognize what they were. It was a familiar city feeling. I tried to accept the imminent departure of those metal barn owls roosting over Times Square as an inevitable fact of urban life, a consequence of the passage of time. I was almost used to the ravage of the bulldozer, the iron ball, the jackhammer, and paralyzed into accepting their necessity. It was growth, economic life—it was change.
Even the Sioux City airport showed signs of this feverish urge for difference usually called progress: it had Hertz car service, a curved glass observatory with a restaurant attached, and the old Floyd Monument, an obelisk of stone on the banks of the Missouri, had a fiercely blinking light on top of it now for safety's sake. And was that ramshackly Ford into which I hastily flung my suitcase really my uncle's new car of four years ago? Had I changed so much that his slightly quizzical and guarded expression meant could this be you? Had he in turn not gotten considerably grayer? In a minute—or a day—it would not seem so, but I caught the turned-under moment for what it was, before we presented ourselves to each other, right side up.
We drive the forty miles through flat farmland and tiny railroad towns to reach home. "Want to see the new post office?" he says, slowing down as we arrive.
"Other one torn down?" I ask, remembering with a pang the funny clapboard building, slim metal pillars at the entrance, and the immense storefront window for those outside to see easily who was inside, and vice-versa.
"Sure—it's a medical center now."
"A what?" The town has only one thousand two hundred people.
"The medical center. See?"
A one-story yellow brick building, doctor in one wing, dentist in the other, with, I suppose, a waiting room in the middle which made it a "center." I turn to him: "Very nice, but where's the post office?"
"I'll show you." We're there, two blocks away, in a minute. "Government built that—didn't cost the town anything."
It appears alien in this setting: another lean, narrow-brick affair with tropical-looking louvered windows high under the cropped eaves. Fluorescent lights glare with a white, operating-room intensity, and I am told that the formica counters are blue, the floor red. Thousands of these red, white, and blue post offices across the country, all exactly alike. "We're keeping up with the times here in a few ways, you might say." He sets the Ford in motion again. "We've even got a supermarket, where the old Grand Theatre used to be. I'll let you take a look."
The cinema where I'd seen my first movie had originally been a Catholic church, a fact which in childhood always intrigued me. I wondered if the ticket taker's booth had been the confessional. Now the frame building had been razed and a cinderblock grocery stood on the spot. Apparently it had been impossible to shift from a celluloid film business to one concerned with plastic-wrapped food; or, in the old days, did these adaptations take place because nobody had the money or knowledge to do it differently—and so a church was converted into a theater? I tell my uncle that the supermarket looks as modern as anything I've seen in Westchester or Long Island.
And that parking lot, what used to be there? "Wasn't some blacksmith's shop right about here?"
He glances at me sharply: "You-how do you remember that? Was that thing still standing when you were a kid?"
"I used to watch the sparks fly when the blacksmith pounded a red-hot shoe into shape, on the anvil. And the wonderful sssssst it made when he threw it into a tub of water. I even held the horse, once. Of course I remember."
"No!" he murmurs, smiling, but he doesn't want to take the memory farther. Up ahead on the corner is a brand-new pink house, beautifully landscaped. "They put that house up in three days, shrubs and all. I saw 'em do it. All prefab."
Still, when we reached the farmhouse it was much the same, only shabbier and badly in need of paint, inside and out. He lived alone and rented out most of the land: in one fashion or another his seven children had gone, by way of learning, wars, and marriage—the American way. He would by now have torn out the old, partially modernized kitchen and put in a Youngstown stainless steel one, if he'd had the money to do it, or the inclination; but there was no woman to cook or care for him, and no reason therefore not to continue with the wooden kitchen cabinet with its slatted roll-door compartment, no excuse to put down vinyl tiles in spangled purple over the pine floor that had been laid by his father nearly a hundred years ago. Except for a new television set on a tubular brass, plastic-wheeled cart, the old furniture was still around, arranged as it had been for four decades. Here time had stopped, but it was not to be recognized or commented upon. We were not going to be sad about anything. Yes, there were cobwebs across the windows and plaster had fallen from some upstairs ceilings—part of the house had been closed off and not swept or waxed for years—but no matter. My uncle told me he had plans for tearing off the front porch in order to make a carport. Handier, it would be, getting from car to house, especially in winter. He was not a man ever to complain about the ravages of change. He went it one better: he did the changing.
That was the way he always was, even in my earliest recollections. Such disasters as the death of my father—his brother—were never mulled over or discussed because the thing was past and over and what point would there be in it? We were all taught to lean enthusiastically into tomorrow, when we would be tall enough for basketball, strong enough to run the tractor and plant corn, old enough to travel to distant cities such as Chicago and see what was new in the world. That was how we burned up the years: but in my uncle's view, how could it ever be otherwise—and who'd want it to be?
I mark the moment I first knew this when I became old enough to accompany the rest of the family on an overnight fishing trip to "the lakes," a cluster of ponds and sizable spring-fed lakes just south of the Minnesota border. The excursion was to be a surprise for me and my younger cousin; we were encouraged to hope for sudden, exquisite moments of joy. At Christmas time Santa Ciaus left miraculously appropriate gifts under the tree, and in spring the Easter Rabbit put chocolate eggs in our carefully contrived nests. On birthday mornings there were presents hanging from one's chair at the table, or under the breakfast plate. And on summer evenings we'd take spontaneous automobile rides which ended in an ice-cream parlor in a nearby town. Awakened in the middle of the night by a glow coming through the transom from a parent's bed light, one might easily mistake a visit to the bathroom for predawn stirrings in preparation for a journey to visit cousins who lived in eastern Iowa. We children were urged to believe in the arbitrary appearance of unspeakable pleasures—and sometimes it led us to dream of the impossible.
On my first fishing trip the whole house was illuminated at 2:30 A.M. and the shouts of the children echoed my uncle's first rousing call up the stairs: "Let's go fishing!" Never in other years had it been possible for the doors to be flung open so noisily, the talk to be out loud—for usually the fishing party had managed to sneak out without waking me or my young cousin, and we'd arise hours later keenly disappointed to discover the deception, left with a judgment, clear and awful: too young.
In the kitchen my mother and aunt were stuffing hampers with sandwiches, potato salad, and other provisions; there were field jugs of lemonade and two thermos bottles of coffee. Under the glow of the yard light at the foot of the sidewalk my uncle strapped the cylindrical ice chest to the rear bumper of the '34 Ford. The fishing poles, bait, and other gear were stashed in the small rectangular trunk, the canvas tent on top, folded as tightly as a foot soldier's pack. I always thought the tent had somehow come from those days of the World War my uncle so often talked about, as did his boots and leggings he still occasionally wore, and the cartridge belt he buckled on during pheasant-hunting season.
We piled into the car, stacked ourselves on laps, and felt the first thrill of direction, for what had formerly been only a road gate was now the beginning of a northerly route. We were going to Trumbull Lake, about which my uncle had heard good fishing reports, though not many people knew of the place. In these days of state-stocked lakes and overfished waters, a little craftiness was necessary. My uncle enjoyed the confidences of the best local fishermen, plus the game warden, and so we expected to bring home a couple dozen bullheads. The usual angler's hope of tying into an enormous fish was not part of our dreams, since there were only small perch, sunfish, bluegills, and bullheads in these waters. We were after meat—the bullheads on the bottom.
On the eighty-mile journey, I remember the serious faces of the older boys, their fisherman concerns of whether they had enough hooks and bobbers along, or had dug enough worms yesterday. Plunging pitchforks into the earth behind the barn, they had beat upon the long handles until the ground vibration sent the worms to the surface. Now that the August sun was rising, diminishing by each minute the prime fishing time, they squirmed in eagerness. They were not interested in playing the usual car game of seeing who could first spot a mule or a white horse—the announcement to be made by touching forefinger to lips, then to the palm of the hand, followed by a clap of the hand and a cry: "One white horse!" or "There's an old mule!"
The approach to a viaduct which lifted the pavement above a railroad track was hailed with great excitement. I had never really experienced a hill before; the highest I'd been was in the sparrow-infested cupola of the barn. The ascent was purposefully slow, my uncle turning around to witness my reaction—and that of his daughter, also a novice, at the other window—while my aunt said nervously, "Watch the road!" Since there were no cars behind, we paused at the very top and looked down on the ribbon of track which penciled itself out and disappeared at the horizon, in a line as straight as it must have been on the engineer's map.
"No train in sight—too bad," said my uncle, for the supreme pleasure would be to have a smoke-belching steam engine pass right under the car; but only my uncle had ever enjoyed that wonderful sensation. Slowly, as the car began its descent, the vista closed in again in the old way, and something I had long anticipated was over. Memory of it would be sealed in time, forever tantalizing but uncapturable. Even then my uncle and I were different in our views of the meaning of occurrences, for on the return trip he expected my excitement to be much the same as it had been before. Since we approached from the opposite direction, the scenery was different, and we did not pause on top at all but plunged right over—giving me a strange, sinking sensation in the pit of my stomach, as the fall began. It was fun, but I remembered what the first time over the viaduct had been like—better than this—but more important, quite surely different.
As we approached the lake country the air began to smell of water. I saw a sharp-beaked blue bird with dangling legs and a wing flap like a shaken rag. Red-winged blackbirds honkereed in the marshy hollows, and there were sloughs of tall, waving grass, acres of scrub brush and weeds: land that looked as if it had no useful purpose at all. I'd never seen uncultivated, abandoned stretches like this, and it was as much a sign of the freedom of our holiday as fishing itself—it was a field on holiday, gone wild with vegetation and bemused by blackbirds.
In the front seat, the oldest boy helped my uncle look for the Trumbull Lake turnoff, which was not even a real road, merely a lane. "There's the sign in the fence!" he shouted at last. Unlike the official highway markers, black lettering on white, this was a raw board wedged into the top wires of the fence, with "Trumbull Lake" written in blood-colored paint, as if done by a pirate. The name of the lake, the "Trum" part, had a faintly thunderous quality, but the "bull" merely suggested the bullheads on the bottom waiting for us.
"The water's high," said my uncle approvingly, as we topped a hill and saw the two-mile-long body of water lying there, so incredibly blue and strange—as if the sky had been tom down and was resting among the hills. The lake moved and flashed in the sunlight, alive and self-contained, superior to creatures of the earth such as me—and I was afraid of it. The rest of my family could scarcely refrain from leaping out of the moving car in their eagerness to run to the shore and wade in. They longed to be surrounded by water, submerged in it, cooled and slaked at last; water to their minds was one of the absolutely good things of life. Indeed, the minister in church prayed for rain almost every Sunday of the summer, for there seldom was quite enough to ensure good crops. And at the baptismal font we all had water poured over our week-old brows. On Saturday nights we were careful to bathe in each other's water, for it was too precious to be wasted on a single dirty child. At the well pump in the front yard we never threw away water if we couldn't gulp down a whole dipperful—it was carefully tossed on the Canterbury bells or rosebushes. Even when we "made water" in summer we ran into the grove, to avoid a wasteful toilet-flushing in the house.
Now in contrast to all that penurious thinking about water was a sprawling immense quantity of the stuff which couldn't be thought of in dipper terms, or even buckets and bathtubs; it was an element equal to the land and maybe mightier, since it could pull you under and drown you. I had learned to walk; now I must learn to swim; then fly—and then what? I looked at Trumbull Lake and knew I must stretch myself, leaving former certainties behind—with the earth that had appeared so immutable, but that had an adversary, too.
Quick! Out with the fishing poles, lines into the water! We had to have bullheads for lunch. Casting was like throwing a ball, said my uncle. Let the sinker fly out and don't clamp your thumb on the reel or there'll be a backlash. He strung a worm on his hook and in one powerful movement sent it singing in a high, looping arc, plop, fifty yards away. Then he rested his rod on a Y-branch and moved on. The other boys had rolled up their overalls and were standing in water as far from shore as they could manage, poles like whips in front of them—they were motionless. I held the rod with immense expectation, my finger alertly on the pulse of the line, waiting for that throb from the other end. Twice I reeled in frantically, triumphantly proclaiming a fish, until my uncle began to frown and warn me that I ought to be more sure of what I was doing. It was my own pounding bloodstream I felt in the pressure of my fingers.
Other interesting things half caught my attention. A farmer from the house a quarter-mile away came and talked with my uncle, who, I learned years later, paid a dollar for the camping and fishing privileges. Hose-necked water birds flew over with loud cries. The water sucked and slapped the shore, and a herd of Holsteins walked to the bank to look at us. They snorted in the water like horses at a tank until my uncle shooed them away. I thought of our cows at home and that the hired man was to do all the milking this morning. But home no longer existed; the tent was our house, and this our permanent way of life. I would always be here on the edge of the lake, looking across its cool surface toward the spotty brown pastures and the farmhouse in the west. The wind came up, riffling the water and turning it gray; I was hypnotized by the subtle movement. I don't know how long I stood there, barefoot in the comfortable ooze of the bottom, three feet from shore, but suddenly my uncle said: "Reel in your line, once. Let's see your bait."
Excerpted from We Have All Gone Away by CURTIS HARNACK Copyright © 1973 by Curtis Harnack. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS. 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.