Remember the Child
The dark heavens hung low, pondering when to unload their sagging cache of snow. My connecting flight had been canceled, and I was stranded in a town I hadn't visited for many years. Despite the grumbling about the weather from the other passengers, I was delighted. Living in California made me yearn for snowy winters, but that's not why I was smiling. I was watching childhood memories dance in my head. Of all places to get stuck, I was in my own hometown.
I found the car rental agent with the shortest line and patiently waited my turn. The couple in front of me was talking about a still larger storm that was threatening, a warmer storm, one that was sure to leave at least two feet of heavy, wet snow. I grinned broadly dreaming about the magical snow that ponderous sky was about to drop. Dream-snow is not like normal-snow. It clings when molded and it is perfect for building snowmen to guard snow castles, filled with enchanted crystal tunnels. Others may call moist snow like this "nightmare-snow" because of the backbreaking challenge it is to shovel. Personally, I always loved shoveling this kind of snow because I knew about its magic. As a child, I knew that the only way to create an enchanted kingdom was to organize the appropriate resources. In my case it meant shoveling a driveway 35' x 20' all into one huge pile. A two-foot snowfall meant that I had 1400 cubic feet of white magic with which to work. I used to struggle for hours building the highest mountain possible, driven by the images of crystal caves and daring adventures.
"Sir!" The young woman behind the rental counter brought me out of my fantasy. She told me that there were only specialty cars left and held up a set of keys in each hand. She said, “You can choose between a Lincoln Town Car and a Saab 9000.” Images jumped into my mind of the previous winter while on business in Stockholm and I promptly relieved her of the Swedish key.
Seven inches of light powder from the previous night's storm lay in drifts. The bone chilling cold penetrated my thin California blood as I slipped and slid my way through the icy parking lot to the car. The Saab's engine rumbled instantly to life. I was comforted by its throaty purr as it crept stealthily through the snow. The Saab's heated seat was already removing the frigid effects of the dry Rocky Mountain air.
I didn't think much about where I was heading, but soon found myself near the base of the Wasatch Mountains. From Salt Lake City I could have been up at 10,000 feet in 45 minutes, but a plan was formulating in my excited brain. Though now obliterated by the charcoal clouds, my mind's eye remembered an incredible view of Twin Peaks rising thousands of feet into the sky. The best view of these majestic mountains was always from the quaint and comfortable home of my Uncle Fritz.
Fritz came to the United States from Interlaken, where two large, crystal clear lakes nearly touch, high in the Swiss Alps. Though he had no monetary wealth, Fritz was destined to live his life surrounded by beauty. His alpine home was replaced by the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains where Fritz became the caretaker of a magnificent estate.
The skeletons of huge trees rising on both sides of Walker's Lane formed an intricately webbed arch high above. Huge hunks of snow dropped from the branches and thumped onto the Saab's windshield exploding into white dust. Although the thick canopy of green summer leaves now lay under several inches of snow, my memory filled the car with the smell of cottonwoods. How that special scent had thrilled me on a warm summer day, riding in the back of my Dad's 1949 blue Buick. My nose was always the first to detect the whiff of wonder that laid behind the thick greenery that secluded Fritz's kingdom from the rest of the world. Even now, the profusion of brown twigs obscured the estate that lay behind them.
I grew up in an old neighborhood in, what seemed to me, a comfortable home for which my parents had paid a whopping price of $1,800. Visiting the grand estate of a multimillionaire, however, was nothing short of fantastic. Of course, Fritz did not live in a mansion, but he and his family were given the use of a warm and comfortable two-story Spanish-style home nearby. This house fascinated me because a tunnel ran straight through it. This mysterious tunnel was the main entrance to the enchanted estate. The living quarters were on one end of the house and a long six-car garage stretched to the other, filled with a variety of Jaguars, Mercedes and Fritz's Ford station wagon. The two sections were joined on the second floor by the bedrooms, leaving a tunnel below, through which the grinding echo of tires on gravel announced all visitors.
As the Saab nosed into the narrow break in the hedge, I sounded my horn as my Dad had always done. "Watch for children" read the same old sign, now faded and rusty, partially obscured by snow. Winter suddenly burst in on all sides as my windows hummed down. I wanted to hear the tunnel’s echo again. And then, like every dark passage, the light grew at the end of the tunnel and revealed a giant crystal cavern, domed by the ever-darkening sky. As large as a football stadium, the pure white field of virgin snow was surrounded on four sides by the leafless arms of frozen giants. The Saab’s tires crunched to a halt, and I turned off the engine. I sat silently, allowing my memories to merge with the moment.
One hundred yards ahead, a huge hole in the white blanket triggered memories of screaming children playing keep away in the swimming pool. The wading pool to its right was barely visible. The pool house, where we used to change into our suits, seemed smaller, dwarfed by the encroaching woods. Fritz's wife, Hedi, was a great champion of children, always doing her best to coerce Fritz into permitting us to swim. Her strong Swiss accent never failed to remind us of the one unbendable rule, "Don't pee in the pool."
I stepped to the edge of the parking area, along which Fritz had always planted a ten-foot wide border of bright orange zinnias. The flowers were so thick that no leaves were visible, except where they merged with the velvet green grass. This brilliant stripe of orange ran all the way from the woods thirty yards to the right and another 40 yards to the left, where it turned right, obscuring the road that lead to the stables, and disappearing into the woods 150 yards in the distance. Underlining the woods at the far end of the lushly manicured lawn was a border 40 feet deep of delphiniums, foxgloves, daisies, and an array of other flowers specially selected to grow near the shady woods. This informal burst of color ran from the distant left to the tennis courts on the far right and resumed again from the pool house back up to the zinnia border to the right. Thus, it was nearly impossible to turn in any direction without being confronted by nature's paintbrush.Fritz always grew nasturtiums along the chain link fence of the tennis court. The large round leaves were perfect for popping. Now the fence looked like a massive screen filled with white lint.
Beyond it I imagined Twin Peaks and felt the first large flakes of snow gently settle on my nose. I turned around and faced the house in which Fritz and Hedi and Tanya and Judy and Janet and Sonya had once lived. The geraniums that had hung from their window planters were gone. A new caretaker now had the privilege of living there.
I could see movement behind the steamy kitchen window, just like so many years ago. I stood in the middle of the parking area and looked at the little wooden gate through which my mother had run with a frantic look of horror on her face. I was down at the stables with my cousin Tanya and the millionaire's granddaughter, Gloria. What a feisty girl she was! Somehow she convinced me to get on Uinta, a seemingly gentle brown mare. "There's no saddle," I said. "Oh, she's a gentle old horse. Just take a little ride." How could I rebuff my hostess' request? So there I sat, feeling like a very poor imitation of John Wayne. "Shouldn't I have something to hold on to like some reins?" I asked, trying to figure out how I was going to make the horse turn right or left or, better yet, stop. She said, "Oh, she's a smart horse. She'll take care of all of that. You just hold onto the mane." And with that, she bent over, picked up a handful of gravel and threw it at the horse. I did exactly as I was told and grabbed Uinta's mane as she bolted full throttle. She rounded the corner out of the barn area and headed up the road toward Fritz's house. I had never been on a galloping horse before and to this day don't know how I stayed on this one. It all happened so fast that I don't even remember taking the next corner into the main parking area. I just remember my mother charging toward me yelling, "Jimmy, what are you doing on that horse!!!" She stepped into the path of the horse and Uinta hopped twice, reared up on its hind legs, whinnied, and came to a dead stop two feet from my mother. "Riding bareback," I said.
I stepped through the gate, climbed the icy steps and knocked on the kitchen door. The caretaker and his wife were initially cautious, but, after hearing my story, seemed more than willing to let me walk around the property. "Anybody crazy enough to want to go out in this storm deserves the opportunity," said the man. Indeed, the pool house and tennis courts had disappeared behind millions of great white flakes. I pulled my collar up and trudged down the road, toward the barn. Everything looked the same as when I was twelve years old. Fritz and I walked down the same snowy path to finish his chores before settling in for one of Hedi's grand feasts. I was surprised that he had to work on a holiday. "Da horses have to eat, too," he said in his Bernese Oberlaendishe accent. "Und dis day, vee gunna give dem sumting special." He quickly snapped open his coat, like a shady watch salesman. I spied a bunch of carrots, greens and all. He continued, "Hedi alvays buys too much food." There was no doubt that Fritz looked well fed.
There were no horses in the frozen pasture that dropped into a small valley behind the barn. "Where are the horses, Uncle Fritz?" I asked. "Vee put dem in da barn ven it shnows."
Though gruff in his interaction with people, Fritz's special gift in communicating with plants and animals opened the doors of opportunity to him. His wealthy employer quickly recognized his honest work ethic and, like a non-commissioned officer, Fritz often wielded more "real" power on the estate than those whose commissions were inherited.
I stood at the snow-covered fence, looking at the field opposite the barn, imagining the golden ears of corn, so sweet that they would burst in my mouth. Tall straight branches held up vines filled with thin green beans that we would string up to dry for the winter. Cucumbers hid under the rough leaves, tiny cucumbers that Hedi would miraculously transform into the world's greatest dill pickles. Even now, the barren furrows seemed to hum under a blanket of snow, recharging for the spring to come.
My adrenaline raced as I turned into the clearing in front of the stables. My heart thumped and my breath came in spurts. My best friend, Dave, and I had ridden our bicycles ten miles from our low land homes to the high lands to see my cousin Tanya, who was our same age. I secretly hoped that the millionaire's granddaughter would also be there, though I never, in my wildest fantasies, imagined that she would have any interest in a poor fellow like me. On the other hand, being with her was always exciting. Her fearless spunk inevitably resulted in a wildly memorable adventure.
On this day, she had been warned of my visit and was ready with her crowning achievement. We met at the barn where she was already strapping the long wooden arms of a small, two-wheeled carriage, to a massive black horse. This horse made Uinta look like a gentle little pony. I stared deep into one of his eyes. Was that a dark red flicker that I saw there? "His name is King," said Tanya. "Is he a stallion?" I asked. Gloria said, "He used to be, but now he's a gelding." My sex education had been somewhat limited, and I could not understand how a stallion could stop being a stallion. I decided not to expose my ignorance. I dropped the subject.
Fritz came out of the barn and double-checked Gloria's handiwork for safety. He nodded in approval. I walked around the carriage noticing the fine grain of the smooth wooden spokes. The rich wood spread out from the hub to the beautifully varnished rim. A thin band of rubber served as a tire. The wheels' diameter spanned well over three feet. A large wicker basket sat between the two wheels and held a narrow bench seat on either side providing just enough room for four people. Gloria climbed into the carriage and grabbed the reins. King snorted. A faint wisp of smoke escaped from his snout. "Gloriah," counseled Fritz, "now be careful. Don't get King oll excited! He's too big for dis carriage ven he's excited." "I know, I know," she said dismissingly.
The basket crackled and moaned under the weight of 4 teenagers. Tanya sat on the right front next to Dave. I sat on the left. Gloria remained standing like a Roman charioteer. She took the reins and deftly turned the carriage around behind King's snorting and prancing. "Gloriah," said Fritz, "if you come down dis road past the shtables, remember dat King is gunna vant to come back to da barn."
King's huge black haunches glistened in the sunlight. He not only seemed to have excessive energy, waiting to be released, but also a fair degree of anger, perhaps because of his reclassification from stallion to gelding. At any rate, he definitely did not like the idea of being used as a beast of burden, pulling a bunch of noisy teenagers.
We passed the clearing and turned left down the continuation of the gravel road that came from Fritz's house. I was amazed at how Gloria controlled the mighty King. Soon, he was trotting along and I complimented Gloria on her command of the situation. I should have kept my mouth shut though because my comments bolstered her confidence like a sudden charge from the afterburners of a rocket. The wind whipped our hair and we laughed as our charioteer slapped the reins against King's muscular haunches. He kicked and danced as Gloria miraculously maintained control of the situation. We raced past the pear and apple orchards. The scene could have been a hundred years earlier, the carriage spokes a blur in time. And then we found ourselves heading up a dirt road toward the barn. Whether Gloria remembered Fritz's words and took them as a challenge, or whether she simply wanted to extend our fun, I do not know, but suddenly she smacked the reins against King's back and yelled, "Faster, faster." Our white knuckles held tightly to the edges of the basket, but Gloria stood tall, like the Goddess Athena, charging into battle.
The springs of the carriage moaned under our weight as the delicate wheels flew over the bumpy road. The white picket fence that enclosed Fritz's vegetable garden appeared on our right. Two hundred feet ahead, the fence ended, marking the entrance path to the barn. The tension increased as King galloped uncontrollably, smoke spewing from his flaring nostrils. Gloria was determined to show King who was in charge, commanding him to continue straight down the road toward Fritz's house. I thought that Gloria had won this battle of wills as King passed the end of the fence, but then, as if he were Hades' own steed, his eyes flamed brightly, and he mustered supernatural strength from deep in the underworld. Like a slow-motion nightmare, King turned toward the barn, and I felt the wheel on my side of the carriage disintegrate. Gloria fell into my lap as the hub of the missing wheel slammed into the ground, but she instantly bounced back to her feet, valiantly trying to bring King under control. Dirt and gravel flew up behind me as the carriage axle cut a deep furrow in the road. "Whoa," she yelled. "Whoa, King!" Yet King charged on, passing the barn, heading straight toward the fence on the far end of the path. "Don't even think about it!" she yelled to King. And about ten feet before the fence Gloria screamed and flexed every muscle in her tight little body as she pulled back on the reins. King's front legs left the ground, but Gloria held strong as she fell back into my lap. King whinnied wildly and then stopped with a long snort one foot from the fence. Gloria looked up into my eyes to see if I was okay. My adrenaline was running so high that my eyes were like giant white platters. I nodded dumbly and said, " Wow!"
I stood at the fence where King had almost taken flight, snowflakes melting on my eyelashes. I smiled at the thought of four frightened teenagers trying to figure out how to tell Fritz what happened to his beautiful vintage carriage.
As I started back down the road, I became mesmerized by the purity of the blanketed white field, so I trudged out into the middle, the snowflakes falling heavily and building some depth on my shoulders and head. I turned slowly, viewing the totality of this extraordinary kingdom from the center of the field. And then, through pure whimsy I stood tall and ridged, arms out straight and fell backwards without bending. The deep snow cushioned my fall. I flapped my arms and legs, making a snow angel, carefully rising so as not to disturb my creation. I strategically positioned myself at an angle to the last angel and repeated the process four more times until I had formed a symmetrical five-point star. I grinned at my fanciful artwork and headed toward the pool.
Echoes of "over here" and "don't let her get it" rose from the sunken hole. As I walked past the barren tennis courts, I could hear the hollow pop of the tennis ball, a ghostly game in winter. The pool house was frozen shut for the season. I dragged my feet, making long furrows in the snow. The child in me had returned, and I realized that I had been living life so intensely that I had forgotten the simple joys associated with falling in the snow or changing the way I walk. In fact, my life had become so frantic that I rarely even thought about what was under my feet as I walked. I was jolted by the thought that being an adult and being oblivious had become synonymous. How could I respect nature, if I didn't commune with it? How could I respect people, if I didn't commune with them? Had I lost touch with my real purpose in life? Had ego taken charge of my life, making the acquisition of things and professional image more important than happiness? Had I really lost my zest for adventure, my appreciation of simple joys, the ability to commune with the world around me? A cold trickle of melting snow ran down my back as if to answer, "YES."
I stepped past the foggy kitchen window and pushed open the gate to the caretaker's home. The slats of the gate made deep grooves in the snow. I noticed, in the left rear corner of the back yard, the eight-foot Matterhorn that Fritz had made as the model for the larger version that the Swiss people built in the International Peace Gardens. Just like the real mountain in Switzerland, Fritz's model stood tall, a symbol of strength under a pure white cloak of snow. The covered swing that used to stand next to the Matterhorn was gone, no longer providing a place for a young man to sing love songs under the stars. In the muffled silence of the morning, I could almost hear the crickets that accompanied my guitar on those warm summer nights.
I was about to climb the stairs to the kitchen, when I remembered the stairway below. There in the dark cellar, the Silver Beaver would bring eagles and elk back to life, frozen in time. I'd heard about Eagle Scouts, but Fritz was a Silver Beaver, who used his vacations to take scouts into the wilderness, and let them experience the dangers and wonders of nature. He was also a taxidermist. His dirt-walled cellar was always full of animals at varying stages of restoration, which I found spookily fascinating.
The hearty smell of homemade soup warmed my nostrils when the caretaker's wife opened the kitchen door. I must have looked like the abominable snowman because she looked so shocked as she burst into laughter. Her husband's curiosity soon got the best of him, and he poked his head around the corner. The warm air quickly melted the snow on my eyebrows and eyelashes, blurring my vision. Soon we were all laughing deeply and heartily. They invited me in for a bowl of soup.
The kitchen had been updated and the furnishings were different. In the dining room I envisioned Fritz's handmade table, covered with platters of Thanksgiving turkey and all the luscious trimmings. My mother's family was filled with great cooks, and Hedi was often said to be the best of them all. We sat on beautifully contoured chairs that Fritz had made. He must have spent months carving the backs with Edelweiss, bears, mountains and the shields of Swiss Cantons. Fritz ate three helpings of everything, and then eyeballed the last bit of mashed potatoes. He picked up the bowl, but then hesitated and turned to me, or whoever was close, and always said, "Here, finish dis. It'll look a lot bedder on you dan it vill on me!." And everyone laughed. The chairs and table were gone now, but the hand carved cabinets remained, built into the wall, another lasting symbol of a man whose life was a constant reflection of his appreciation of nature.
After a renewing lunch, my hosts kindly let me explore their home. The corner where Fritz's bass fiddle had stood seemed empty. There was no sign of the beautifully carved, 10 foot long Alpine Horn with its deep, rich tone, designed to echo through the mountains and valleys of Switzerland. Hedi's intricately designed gingerbread houses were missing, as was the easy chair that Fritz would always sit in after Hedi's marvelous meals. Fritz was not one for small talk, and he seemed especially uncomfortable with a room full of silent people, everyone too stuffed to talk. My male cousins and I sat expectantly, waiting for Fritz to either fall asleep and start snoring or to get so uncomfortable with the silence that he would "do his thing." Like kids trying not to giggle in church we would brace ourselves as Fritz took a very deep breath. This attracted everyone's attention. Then he would pause, which caused everyone to lean forward to hear his pearls of wisdom, and then he very slowly vocalized the word "Yuhp," but before he would say the "p," his tongue would block the output of air through his throat, cutting the word short. Then, after a very brief pause, he would exhale. My cousin Larry did the best imitation, but we had all given it some practice. As a result, when the master himself broke the tension with his "Yuh...hhhhh" we were always forced to get up and leave the room in uncontrollable laughter. Our parents closed their eyes is silence and shook their heads in tolerant embarrassment. Then someone else broke the tension by saying, "Fritz, Alfie, how about some music." And within three minutes Fritz was squeezing a jolly tune out of his beautifully crafted Orgeli while his brother Alfred accompanied him on a standard accordion.
I found my foot tapping to one of Fritz's tunes as I waved good-bye to my newfound friends and drove into the tunnel. I thought about where Fritz was now, probably the caretaker of some glorious celestial garden. But as I pictured his new estate, I emerged from the tunnel realizing that I live in such a garden every day. I may fail to smell the flowers or listen to the birds or feel the sun's warmth on a winter's day, but Fritz's garden is nature itself. My mind opened, allowing me to see glimpses of Fritz's handiwork everywhere. His garden was no longer a place, but a state-of-mind. As the Saab crept through the ever-deepening snow, my world seemed different. My world is different because I remembered the child.