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Night Flight

July 24, 2010 by · No comments

Shae Davidson

Photo: Joi

“There was a river in Ohio that caught fire,” Gordon said as he poured sugar into his coffee. “Near Cleveland, I think. So many chemicals dumped in year after year—one day it just went.”
Gordon was a reliable source for obscure information whether useful, disturbing, or just puzzling. His family had moved here from Chicago when he was in middle school. On his first day in pre-algebra, Gordon told the class about the guy who’d found a rat tail in the fries at a fast food restaurant. He had been very knowledgeable for a seventh-grader.

I quietly ate my chocolate doughnut and tried to visualize not just burning water but a whole sheet of it stretching for miles—the flames reflected in the bewildered faces of the townspeople who had gathered to watch the industrial miracle. Gordon aimlessly stirred his coffee and looked at the pictures behind the counter of the doughnut shop: the mayor and the governor with a twenty-three-pound cat who woke up its family when their house caught fire, the high school choir, and the proprietor trying to feed a doughnut to a donkey at the Grand Canyon.

A family at the counter dined on pepperoni rolls after pulling off the highway on their way from one set of relatives to another. The kids stared through the glass partition separating the kitchen from the dining area. Sometimes the night shift workers would let people come back and look around to break the usual routine of fighting wasps away from the fryers and figuring out how to get rid of the food that is too old to sell legally. They used to just toss it in the garbage cans out back but that attracted raccoons and on one occasion Rich Daniels.

Rich gathered a bag of old doughnuts that he carefully placed on the softball field at the city park before plopping down in the bleachers to watch the game. After he went to the state hospital, the police found a ball of tinfoil five feet across and a bunch of children’s books in his trailer. The employees started dumping the assorted aged pastries in an abandoned quarry outside of town.

We finished eating but continued to talk. Every few months since high school graduation we would get together to discuss our lives and the big issues of the day. Now we were looking at life from the perspective of grad school. I’d already started a medieval studies program; Gordon was going to enter a seminary in the fall. We were both somewhat apprehensive, but the decisions reflected longstanding interests. I’d always loved literature and been fascinated by the past’s role as a foundation for thought and feeling. Gordon had always been obsessed with mimes and firecrackers—both of which he hoped to incorporate into his ministry.

“This might be the last time we get together like this,” I said. “After we finish classes I’ll be writing my dissertation and you will be working as a student minister.”
“We’ll keep in touch—phone, internet. We aren’t peasants. This is the twenty-first century,” Gordon responded.
I knew it wouldn’t be the same, though. We would be able to communicate but wouldn’t have a table with a napkin holder or Paul waiting behind the counter to take our orders or the overheard snippets of other conversations that reduced us to silence and made us wonder. Gordon wouldn’t be able to flourish his hands in a dramatic alien way to emphasize a point. Phone calls seemed clinical by comparison.
Gordon added, “I already miss Clarke County, though. This place taught me everything that I value, but I spend less and less time here.”

I felt the same way. Reading local folklore had been the first step on a road leading to Anglo-Saxon grammar and books on church architecture. Ironically, my love for home had led me to choose medieval history. I feared that I couldn’t maintain my objectivity if I studied something personally important. I worried that the systematic study of the area and an effort to break things down into neat theoretical categories would make Clarke County lose some of its magic.

Over the course of the evening we drifted onto other topics, including the fates of friends from high school (and the inflammability of water in Ohio). Ours was the notorious “cursed” class of the Clarke County, West Virginia, school system. Elementary school teachers had complained that we were worse than any other kids they had seen. This continued through high school and beyond graduation. Members of our class tended to have unfortunate problems with the law, various substances, and/or mental health. A local funeral home had always made a large composite image of all the senior portraits, which local businesses proudly displayed to congratulate the students for their accomplishments. At the end of the summer following our graduation, a reporter discovered that the sheriff’s office had taken down its photo and used a permanent marker to cross out the faces of students who entered correctional facilities of one sort or another.

The conversation wound down as I doodled on a napkin and Gordon tapped out odd rhythms on the table. “Do you remember when that drum circle on top of Morgan’s Hill?” I asked as I watched his fingers. The hill was the site of a skirmish during the War of 1812 between an extremely lost Canadian unit and an extremely intoxicated local militia. No one was seriously injured, although a goodly number of our defenders wet themselves and someone (possibly Lieutenant Morgan) vomited on the Canadian commander. The Americans laughed uncontrollably as detritus dripped from the indignant enemy officer, which gave the Canadians time to withdraw into the woods. However tenuous, the hill gave our county a link to the grand narrative of American history.

Gordon had organized the drum circle as the final project in his music composition class. The hill was a wonderful location. We each spent many evenings and nights there, reading or just looking out over the forest trying to see the dome of the courthouse in the distance. Gordon suddenly stopped drumming his fingers and stood to leave. “Let’s go.”
Paul topped off our coffees and we hopped into my car. “Places change, I guess,” Gordon said, lapsing back to an earlier part of the conversation. “Memories and the meaning you find in your experiences are what really matter. This place shaped me, but I won’t be completely crippled when I leave.”
“Sort of a Buddhist thing?” I asked. “Everything changes and you’re the sum total of your experiences?” I usually avoided classifying Gordon’s thoughts in such a facile manner. He had tried to explain his fundamental philosophy once, but to me it looked like he was impersonating a man falling off of a bicycle. I still have no idea what the sparklers were supposed to mean.

We pulled into the night. For the first few miles of our trip, streetlights hovered above the empty lanes. After we passed the Mexican restaurant at the edge of town, the lights ended and businesses became more sporadic. We zipped by houses and barns until we turned onto the old stone bridge leading deeper into the hills of Clarke County. The road narrowed down to about a lane and a half. In the daytime, trees leaning over the road from both sides provided a natural gloom broken by occasional clusters of day lilies. At night it was like a tunnel. Every few hundred feet we spotted the reflective numbers on the side of a mailbox, but for the most part the route was somber.

“Do you think you’ll every move back?”
“I’d like to come back,” I said, “but I don’t think I could handle teaching at the community college in Lewiston. Maybe I’ll get a little vacation house or cabin.”
Gordon shook his head. “I thought about it, but I don’t want to be like the hunters and mountain bikers who tear things up for a week or two each year and then disappear.”
“At least they disappear.”
“You know what I mean. It would be too detached. I’d just be here without giving anything back.”
“You grew up here. You wouldn’t be a stranger or some moron trying to prove himself with a gun. The people around here would love to see you come back. Your family’s moved back to Illinois, but your girlfriend’s folks are still around.”

He shrugged without responding, using my reference to his girlfriend as an excuse to change the topic as he settled back to watch the trees pass. “I’m glad you dumped Mona,” he said. “She was a disaster.”
“I didn’t dump her. We just realized that we had pushed things too far.” Most of my friends and family shared Gordon’s assessment of Mona, especially after the infamous Thanksgiving dinner. As soon as she sat down at the table, Mona had launched into a long account of her previous Thanksgiving. In order to gain a better understanding of nature she had set a snare in a park near her apartment. An unlucky pigeon got caught, its life ending when Mona triumphantly ran down from her apartment and broke its neck with her bare hands. After a crude but thorough plucking, she cooked it on a small grill and then ate her victim without utensils. As she described having her stomach pumped afterwards, my grandmother quietly moved her hand. Mona immediately snarled out, “What? Do I challenge your bourgeois sensibilities?” Grandma had only wanted someone to pass the green beans.

The road widened and the underbrush thinned as we approached the old church at the base of the hill. Our headlights caught a possum. An evolutionary joke, possums were the only marsupials in North America. Their unwholesomely thin frames, reputation for scavenging, and mangy fur made them the crackwhores of the animal kingdom. This one bared its needle teeth, the light flaring off of its nocturnal eyes. It turned and waddled away as I slowed down.
There was a roundabout in front of the white clapboard church at the foot of the hill. In the center, an engraved column held the names of some of the county’s war dead. Area families had erected it after the Civil War to honor the people who died during a Confederate raid in the summer of 1863; new names appeared after each new conflict.

After World War II, the county commission added the name of Biff Stevens. When Biff’s unit had landed at Normandy on D-Day he disappeared in the chaos of German mines and mortars. His friends and family mourned his passing until Christmas Eve,1951, when Biff staggered into the big Methodist church downtown. A hushed crowd listened as he described slogging onto the beach only to be knocked into a roll of barbed wire by an exploding shell. Caught in the open in a coil of jagged metal, Biff closed his eyes and waited for death. The sounds of battle seemed to fade as he felt hands gently pulling him free. He slowly opened his eyes and saw . . . gnomes. Until this point, the churchgoers had listened in awed silence. They now stirred uneasily. Parents hissed and beckoned to children dressed as angels near the altar. A week later the county commission paid John Johnson to obliterate Biff Stevenson’s name and add “All Who Have Fallen” to the monument. It hasn’t changed since.

I swung the car around and parked opposite the building. An old gate, more decorative than functional, stood at the bottom of the trail leading to the top of Morgan’s Hill. The church had used the area immediately beyond as a cemetery in the late nineteenth century. By the beginning of the twentieth, families started having picnics on the relatively level area in and around the little graveyard. In winter kids rode sleds down the hill, dodging through gravestones when they hit the flat ground at the bottom.
Gordon opened the gate and we moved onto the path between the stones. We made our way through the cemetery, past the cedar trees and trimmed boxwoods, leaving the grave markers behind as we made our way up the side of the hill. Gordon and I sprawled out on the grass at the top. For the first time in months, I could see the stars.
“I heard that Abraham Lincoln was double-jointed,” Gordon said, “could lick himself clean like a cat.”
It’s good to be home.

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