Saturday, March 17, 2007

Remembrance of Things Past

The geography here confuses this Midwesterner, who is used to her wide-open spaces, her linear roads that occasionally curve softly around a creek or gorge. Today, we drove to Bremerton to see my cousin and his family, and I had a hard time with the notion that if Puget Sound had been frozen over, we could have driven straight there in less than 30 minutes, but since it wasn’t and since we didn’t want to fork out the money for the ferry ride, we drove down to Tacoma and up the other side of the Sound.

My youth was spent with Cousin #3, playing Frankenstein on my grandparents’ farm and attending weekly UMYF meetings together. But we grew up and he joined the navy and had a family and I went to college and misplaced my religion. We haven’t kept in touch, so I was nervous about the visit. I didn’t know what I’d find, what I might be inflicting on Z, or how long it might take the two of us to remember that we used to eat Fudgecicles together.

I worried needlessly. He looked the same, though older and a bit more like my grandfather. His wife was friendly, and though his three year old was cranky and his daughters looked at us with detachment (If you were that important we would have met you by now seemed to be the sentiment), it was an easy afternoon, catching up on family and former classmates, and hearing about his life in the Pacific Northwest. When we were kids he had been a serious, bright kid who was tormented a little by his older brothers, so I was happy to see him grown up and not harboring any grudges for the summer they called him “Waffle Pants” because of an unfortunate incident with a too-hot register.

He’s a practical guy and this is his life out here where the roads are not straight, but I got a hint from him of what it would be like to leave the Midwest for a different geography. He’s obsessed with Hoosier basketball and any team for any sport that is from Indiana. He longs for the quieter pace of what he remembers of Midwestern life. He laments that airfare from here to “home” is steep for a family of five, so visits with relatives are few and far between. In fact, other than his mother and brother, I am the only other family member who has made the visit and witnessed where he lives his life.

I wonder how long it would take me, if I lived where he does, to realize that the closest distance between two points is not the direction you point your car when you are ready to make a journey. Do you get used to circuitous routes or do you always hanker for an open road and a clear horizon?

He took us to the naval base where he works, and we had to show ID before we were allowed access. Z’s ID gave the guard pause, and I had a sudden vision of all of us being stripped searched. To my mind, Z is not a shifty looking character, but in a world where old women get flagged at airports for security checks, it wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility. Luckily, we were given the nod and so got to see the base where Cousin #3 was stationed when he first joined the navy, see a hint of the work he is doing there, the PX, the base McDonald’s, the bowling alley, and then, for some reason the part that fascinated me most, the area where the tired, old ships are “mothballed.” To me, it looked like something out of a horror movie: the amusement park after hours, the empty school gymnasium, the meat-packing plant after the last shift has gone home for the weekend. The ships look like ghosts of themselves, their names and identifying numbers have been painted over and some of their parts have been salvaged. I kept asking what would happen to the ships because I couldn’t imagine that they’d just have to sit there for the rest of forever, like they are in some sort of boat nursing home. But that’s the plan. I stared at them and felt like if we were very quiet we could have heard the voices and sounds of the life that used to be on them. Should we should bring them flowers, bake them cookies, set up televisions so they can at least watch “The Price is Right” as they wile away the days in familiar geography but with no place to go and no one who would recognize them anyhow?

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