Busted!

Busted!

I’m calling this my “By Popular Demand” post because I’ve gotten repeated requests for a few specific items. First, people who read my last blog are wondering about the brushes with the law that I mentioned briefly. Second, friends who are not on Facebook are asking me to repeat my weekly diary entries so that they can see them as well. Finally, the non-Facebook people also continually ask me when my band will be playing. So I’ll cover all three requests in this week’s post.

***

PART ONE

My first scrape involving law enforcement involved, as usual, my friend Jeanne who had wire-rimmed glasses and the intense disapproval of my parents. (I’m beginning to see why!) I was visiting Jeanne in August 1975 and we’d just come back to North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, after a trip up to Maine to meet her new husband Steve’s family (see “Return to Triangle Acres”).

For whatever idiotic notion, we decided to head over to a nearby private beach on Steve’s decrepit motorcycle. And this was, according to my diary, after I’d already donned my nightgown and “put on my curlers and retainers.” So I threw off the curlers and retainers, we grabbed a bottle of rum (never a good idea) and packed a knapsack, and we took off. Along the way we purchased some Cokes and napkins, and my diary says that “we had to use the napkins to sop up some of the gas which kept spilling out of the tank.” Again, never a good thing.

Leaving the motorcycle up off the road, we walked down to the beach in the balmy moonlight. The white sandy dunes were, of course, beautiful, and we proceeded to alternately drink rum and Cokes and then take plunges into the warm Atlantic waters (we had bathing suits on under our regular clothes). Once again, not a good idea. Luckily, neither of us drowned, and we spent hours making ill-informed forays into philosophy, all the while slamming down liquor as if there were no tomorrow.

Eventually we passed out on the beach, and a few hours later we awoke, shivering, both of us heavily encrusted with wet sand. It was time to go home, we thought, and off we trundled towards the poor excuse of a motorcycle that was waiting for us. A hideous idea. Anyway, as we approached we saw, squinting through drunken eyelids, that the bike was surrounded by police cars and a group of clean-cut men, many of whom were in uniform. Someone asked Jeanne for her license and registration, which she cheerfully handed over, but we knew that the bike itself was an illegal mess. It had no brake light, no license plate, and lots of duct tape everywhere. Oy. One of the local police officers said that the infractions amounted to a $66 ticket and he began to write it up.

Another of the officers – with a rather rough bedside manner – asked me for my license, but I wasn’t carrying one and explained to him that, since I wasn’t driving, I didn’t have it with me. “Well, show it to me anyway!” he barked nonsensically.

Then for some reason the police cars both drove off and we were never issued the ticket.

Still, a group of men remained, and one of them – not in any kind of uniform – sort of took us under his wing as we stood there perplexed, still reeking, I’m sure, of spirits. He explained that the local officers could not ticket or arrest us because we and the motorcycle were on private property. But he pointed out that they were parked just across the beach line on the public road and would surely nab us, if we dared to start the bike and venture home, for not only the vehicle infractions but also for trespassing, sleeping on a beach, and of course driving while intoxicated.

Then he asked us if we were “holding.” I had no idea what that meant. But Jeanne said yes, she had a lid (an ounce of marijuana, for any of you under 55). This was news to me.

Then the man pulled out his badge and flashlight and identified himself as a state SLED (South Carolina Law Enforcement Division) officer.

I just about died.

As luck would have it, though, he had much, much bigger fish to fry. He explained that we had actually stumbled into the middle of an enormous statewide drug stakeout whose mission was to break up a network of heroin dealers. To prove it, he shined his flashlight up into the hills surrounding the beach, and about 50 flashlights blinked back.

“I’ll tell you what,” he said, sympathetically. “Let me take you up into the trailer park across the road, and you can sleep off your intoxication in the lounge chairs by the side of the pool. By the time you sober up, those cops will be gone. They’re not going to sit there all night waiting to nab you.” I could tell that there was some tension between the city and state officers, and he was happy to thwart the efforts of what he thought were clumsy local goons. I myself was happy to take advantage of that, so I thanked him until the cows came home.

Jeanne and I climbed into his Volkswagen – really, another stupid move because he could have been an axe murderer – and sure enough he took us to the trailer park and helped us find lounge chairs. And he watched over us all night.

At sunrise he woke us up and told us we had to get moving because the residents were starting to rise. So we dragged our sand-encrusted carcasses to the bike, started it up, and got home safely.

Then, of course, we went out to breakfast and, according to my diary, “had a beer to settle our stomachs.”

Youth: Reckless, dumb, and lucky.

***

On Friday, November 22, 1985, I had just turned 30 a few days earlier and was driving over to my friend Ellen’s house on 21st Avenue in San Francisco’s Richmond District, ostensibly to pick her up to go to dinner at Speckmann’s, a German restaurant that I’d heard served great spaetzle. Sampling that spaetzle was my one and only fervent birthday wish. When I got to Ellen’s, though, I found myself ushered into a surprise party. All of us had a great time, and I remember that at one point we all donned streamers to mimic Bruce Springsteen’s then-ubiquitous headband as we danced much of the night away to Springsteen tapes. After most of the guests said their goodnights, the few of us remaining were still full of residual energy. So at 3:00 in the morning we came up with the brilliant idea of playing “knee football” on the hardwood floors (ouch!), using a birthday balloon as the football. Three guys and three gals. As we were scuffling around on our knees, laughing loudly and hysterically, we looked up and saw flashlight beams coming through the slatted doors that we had closed to shut off the living room. Two police officers were out in the hallway; we’d never heard their robust knocking at the front door. Uh oh. They admonished us to be quiet, and after they left, still wanting to play, we came up with the idea of “silent knee football.” The idea was that we would no utter no sounds at all, so as not to disturb any neighbors. As my diary says, that “made the whole game even more fun. I must say that I was the star of the game, making most of our touchdowns. Boy did we all have bruised knees the next day.”

By the time she was 30, my mother had three kids. I, on the other hand, was single and playing Silent Knee Football.

** *

I’ve been pulled over three times while driving. The first two instances happened with Julie behind the wheel. In 2001 we were in my new T-Bird on Route 66 – or should I say, accidentally well off of Route 66 – going a tad over the limit as we sped past an Oklahoma police officer who just happened to be sitting by the side of the highway with a radar gun. When he asked us where we were headed, we told him the truth, that we were dreadfully lost going north trying to go west, and we admitted that we had absolutely no excuse for flying along as fast as we were (except gosh, in that car it really feels like you’re just CRAWLING if you’re going 80). We were so polite and deferential and confused that he pointed us in the right direction and let us go.

Much more recently, we had just left Safeway and were driving TWO BLOCKS to our local meat market, Guerra’s. I reminded Julie, who was driving, that she needed to put on her seatbelt, but she insisted that there was no need for that as we were going to be in the car only 90 seconds, and I retorted back that people had been known to die in low-speed collisions not far from home. Of course she refused, and of course we then saw the flashing lights. I was almost smug about it. The female officer told Julie that she was in violation of the seatbelt law and that “people have been known to die in low-speed collisions not far from home,” at which point I smacked Julie on the shoulder and said, “See?! What did I just say?” and thanked the officer. She let us off.

The only time in my life I’ve been personally pulled over was in the late 1980s when some of my workmates and I piled into my Corolla to attend a wedding in Chinatown. I was driving all of us down Oak Street, and it was one of those situations in which I had to keep flying through yellow lights in order to beat the red. As a side note, for reasons I cannot recall, my girlfriend Adair’s wisdom teeth, which she had just had removed, were in one of the front seat cupholders. I swear to this day that I was already in the intersections when the lights turned yellow, but we were driving at a fast enough clip that my friend Leon Acord – possibly the funniest human being who ever lived – began screaming dramatically and then grabbed the teeth and hurled them into the air as though all the passengers were losing their teeth from the ultrasonic speed.

Of course, then came the flashing light.

The officer pulled me over and asked me for my license and registration. The license was in my purse, which was in the trunk of the Toyota, so I got out and wobbled to the back of the car in my dress and high heels (yes, I know that I’m not normally associated with purses, dresses, and heels, but I was going to a wedding, for crying out loud). I cannot possibly replicate in words how my hands were shaking, but let’s just say that it took me about four hours to get my license out of its little plastic holder. I think the officer was starting to feel sorry for me. I pleaded with him that the lights had all been yellow, and he said he wasn’t so sure about that. “Besides,” he continued, “what on earth were those things flying through the air?” “Teeth,” I answered.

By the time I got through explaining why the wisdom teeth were in the car in the first place, he was probably weary. So he let me go.

***

One experience with the law, though, caused me great mortification twice – 10 years apart. Yes, the same offense.

Rusty Hamer
Rusty Hamer

In 1975 I was living in the dorms at San Jose State and working towards my (first) degree in law enforcement. One Saturday night in December, a friend of my brother’s called me up and wanted to know if I wanted to go see a movie. I don’t think either of us thought it was a date, but we were both feeling kind of gloomy and thought it would be nice to get together. I will call him “Rusty,” after my childhood crush Rusty Hamer from the “Make Room for Daddy” TV show. (Truth be told, there was some resemblance between the two lads.)

Warning: This anecdote carries a PG rating, so please tear your small children away from this blog immediately.

Anyway, after the movie Rusty and I decided to drive to Santa Cruz. This was what young people always did in those days if we were feeling shiftless and wanted to seek out some form of adventure. No matter what we were doing, or what time of day, “Hey, let’s go over the hill!” was always cause for excitement.

Long story short, the two us ended up on a deserted dirt road in Scotts Valley and let’s just say that Rusty ended up on one of the bases. I don’t know all of the distinctions between the bases, but I can say with certainty that he did not get a home run or even a triple. I think he ended up only on second base, and nothing below the waist was involved. So it was fairly innocent. But we had a lovely time, and he was just cute as a button. A lovable, freckle-faced cad.

As luck would have it, though, just as we were about to leave the scene of the crime we saw the telltale flashing red light in the rearview mirror. I frantically threw my shirt on backwards.

It was a patrol officer, and he admonished us for parking on private property. We were trespassing, technically. After sitting in his police car and taking what seemed like forever to make sure we weren’t wanted anywhere, he jotted down our names and addresses and employer’s addresses and said that we were now going to be put on the Scotts Valley “list” of offenders, that we’d now be “on file,” and that if we were ever caught again we’d be in a heap of trouble.

I was mortified.

Now, at the time I was working part-time as a teacher’s aide in San Jose at James Lick High School, which is part of the same school district for which my father was working as principal of Piedmont Hills High School.

On Monday, I was at work when I was summoned to the office of Lick’s vice-principal, Russ Phillips, who was a giant of a man, an ex-football coach with a huge square head and heavy, oversized rings on his fingers. I was absolutely sure that the Scotts Valley Police Department had called Mr. Phillips to tell him that he had an immoral employee working for him. I was also sure that he was going to fire me and then call Dad. I was about to bring shame down on my entire extended Italian family and on all devotees of the Catholic faith.

“Principal’s Daughter Caught Canoodling in Scotts Valley,” the San Jose Mercury-News headline would read the next day. Or so I imagined.

I panicked and started to sniffle as I headed to Mr. Phillips’ office.

Luckily, he wanted only to ask me something about my payroll form.

And my father, bless his soul, never knew about Rusty and me. On top of everything, he never really liked Rusty much, either.

***

A decade or so later, this incident actually was a factor in influencing the course of my career. I was a freelance editor at the time, after having gotten a second degree in English. I’d all but given up on a career in law enforcement because police departments were requiring perfect vision among their recruits and I wore contacts, but times started changing and two local departments had no such requirement: Fairfax in Marin County and Fremont in Alameda County. So I applied to both and began working to build up my legendary herculean strength.

Fairfax, like most departments, had a physical skills requirement, and the one possible impediment to my getting past that test was The Wall. We had to perform other tasks like dragging a heavy mannequin or stepping rapidly through tires while wearing a heavy weight belt, and I was able to do those easily. The Wall, though, was a different story. It was taller than we were and we had to leap up, grab the top of the wall, and hoist ourselves over it using sheer upper-body strength. In general, men are taller and their upper-body strength is much greater than women’s. All of the other women at the test site failed; they just weren’t able to pull themselves over that thing. I was the last hope for my gender. I went flying towards that wall, leaped up with every ounce of momentum I had, grabbed the wall, and flung myself over. It was all adrenaline, I think.

I was secretly happy, I have to admit, because all of the other women had been effectively eliminated, which greatly increased my chances of getting the one open position. Or so I thought. Then they allowed the women to all try again, with some help, and a couple of them made it. I was furious. Damned liberal Fairfax!!

I didn’t get the job, but it’s interesting that a couple of years after that, my parents in Clearlake met their new police chief, who just happened to have arrived there from Fairfax. Upon hearing their last name, he remembered me and apologized to them for my not having been picked. He said the department brass had been impressed with me (it must have been my domination of the wall!), but they already had had someone picked out before testing had even started – a guy who was a police cadet serving in that department. I guess that made me feel a little better.

Then came Fremont. It was a much larger and seemingly more professional department. There was no physical agility test, for some reason, but there was a written test and a grueling oral exam. After both of those, I was #1 on the recruitment list. All that was left was the lie detector test.

So I found myself sitting in a little room, wired up to the polygraph, with a kindly young officer. It was the last question, and it was an odd one: “Have you ever committed rape, child molestation, or indecent exposure?”

I said no, and the polygraph needle started jumping all over the place.

“That’s odd,” he said. “Let me try again.”

Same result. That needle was flying.

He turned off the machine. “Okay,” he said, “I’m quite sure that you have not committed rape or child molestation. Tell me what’s going on with the indecent exposure thing.”

I was – of course! – mortified. I knew I was thinking about Rusty and that night in Scotts Valley with my shirt off! But I didn’t want to tell the officer. My heart started hammering and I completely lost focus, to the extent that I neglected to mention that Rusty and I had been out in public, which was of course what triggered the “indecent exposure” fear in my head.

Instead, all I said to the officer was, “Well, one time I was with a guy and we had our shirts off.”

There was a pause. He looked at me with a puzzled expression.

Then very gently he said, “Really, dear, that’s okaaaaaaay.”

***

I didn’t get the Fremont job. My status as #1 on their list must have plummeted after that polygraph test. They probably thought I was just too weird for words.

Of course, in retrospect it was good not only for me but for the safety of all the citizens of the Bay Area that I did not become a police officer. Things, as they say, happen for a reason.

There are countless people in our lives who say or do something, however insignificant it seems at the time, that we will remember all of our lives. I wish I could thank all of them. When I think back on that sweet little evening in Scotts Valley, I can’t help but smile. It really did me a world of good, in so many ways. Thanks, Rusty.

***

PART TWO

Due to popular demand, for those of you who are NOT on Facebook, I am including for you, here, the random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1971 and 1987, and they’re all inadvertently hilarious. From now on, my most recent entries will be at the top.

3/26/71:

“We went to Clear Lake today. Big deal. It was miserably cold, miserably rainy, and miserable. Dad took us out to dinner and I became ill. There’s a lot of flu going around. It’s weird — you get very depressed and feel very blecchy. And another weird thing is you feel like crying. So I ate only 2 pieces of chicken, 1 helping of beans, 1/2 baked potato, 2 pieces of bread, and a chocolate sundae. Since I hardly ate anything, they KNEW I was sick.”

2/27/71:

“I wanted to see what sport I’ll be in in P.E. It’ll probably be tennis, basketball, or flag football. All of those choices are good, but I like basketball best. I just adore the feel of that big orange ball.”

1/3/71:

“Today I took my ‘big bath.’ There I 1) wash face with special soap, 2) pluck eyebrows, 3) clean ears, 4) blow nose, 5) brush teeth, 6) shave, 7) take the bath, and 8) clean my nostrils, etc.”

12/22/70, one of many displaying my teenage eating prowess:

“While there I ate an egg sandwich, macaroni salad, toast, popcorn, and Tab. Then I came home and ate dinner.”

12/21/70:

“Today [my cousin] and I stayed at [my aunt’s] house while they all went shopping. We played with [the baby] a lot, and we looked at all their dirty books. One that was really a crackup was A Guide to Sex in Marriage, and man, it told the whole procedure!”

11/11/70 (and it MUST be the winner of the “Unclear on the Concept” award):

“We went to the Veterans Day parade on 1st Street today. We were going to march in the ‘Silent Majority’ section but there wasn’t one.”

11/1/70:

“[My brother] Marc beat me 17 games to 0 in Hex today. It’s a game like Twix but on paper. It was the first time I played, and quite possibly the last. How humiliating!”

9/17/70:

“Mark, the president of our class, is in my History class with Mr. Ferguson and he is the most good-looking boy I’ve ever seen. He says hello all the time and WOW!”

4/24/71:

“Barb and Denise came up later and we just talked in my room for hours. I showed them my big Glen Campbell poster and we tied all our shoes together and other such mature stuff.”

1970:

“On another one of our numerous high school surveys, I had to put down 3 careers I want to enter. I was tempted to put down prostitution but I’m sure Dad would find out.”

***

PART THREE:

Again, this is just for people NOT on Facebook:

Our band, “Hotter Than Helga,” will be playing in Fairfax at 19 Broadway on Thursday night, September 14. (I play drums.) If you like alt/country/rock/Americana music, come out and have a listen!!

Helga_Sept14_web (002)

 

Return to Triangle Acres

Return to Triangle Acres

 

It was really right out of a movie script, and a saccharine one at that. A couple of years ago I drove all the way to a small town in Maine in search of a farm, a house, and a family that I had loved and lost four decades earlier. Against all reason, I wondered if I could find the glorious place where, on the verge of adulthood, I had once spent three idyllic summers. But when I finally arrived, I saw that all of it had vanished. And then I turned . . . .

***

The people in Maine say that there are only two seasons in the state: August, and winter.

I saw Maine for the first time in August of 1975. My high school friend Jeanne – she of the wire-rimmed glasses whom my parents mistrusted – had married a man named Steve Harrington (I’m changing his last name, out of respect for his family’s privacy). How Jeanne – a paragon of narcissism – had landed Steve is something I’ll probably never understand, because he was the gentlest, sweetest man I’ve ever met. The two of them lived in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, but he was a native Maine-iac and was up visiting his family at the time. The plan was that I would fly out to meet Jeanne in South Carolina and the two of us would drive up the East Coast together to Maine, where she would reunite with Steve and meet her new in-laws for the first time.

It was a crazy vacation because we were young (19) and somewhat reckless, and our adventures were abundant. We spent some time in New York City, seeing off-color shows at the Village Gate and closing down the bars. (It was a Village bartender who first introduced me to the wonders of Sambuca Romana, the clear licorice-flavored liqueur that’s as strong as whisky and absolutely must be drunk with three coffee beans floating in the glass. The drink is called “Sambuca con la Mosca,” which in Italian means “Sambuca with a Fly.” And there must be three beans, representing health, prosperity, and happiness. But, as usual, I digress.)

We also got stuck in the middle of a statewide drug bust in South Carolina – a bizarre story that will be told at some later date when I discuss my brushes with the law.  😉

Anyway, eventually Jeanne and I made it, pulling up at the Harringtons’ farmhouse at 5:00 one morning after an 18-hour drive through some dangerously misty backroads in New Hampshire. I remember the instrumental “Tubular Bells” coming eerily through the radio, white birches glowing like spectres in the blackness, and wisps of fog skulking low along the road. We’d been through so much that day. We’d driven 60 miles out of our way to the town of Woodstock so that we could stand on the farm where half a million kids had spent three days of love and rock ‘n’ roll, and it turned out to be the wrong site. We’d gotten stuck with a flat tire and no tools on the New York Thruway, and had had to sit miserable and shivering in a downpour until relief came. And after I accidentally loosened my grip on our trusty map and let it fly out through the open sunroof, we’d meandered lost down every side route, dirt road, and ghostly trail along the way.

Anyway, long after our edge of exhaustion, the mountains became level and the darkness became dawn. Jeanne and I pulled up to the farmhouse and were instantly met with the strongest, longest hugs imaginable from an extended family that had come in from far and wide to meet Steve’s new wife. And that was my warm orientation to rural Maine – a stone’s throw from the capital, Augusta, but a world away.

1976_Maine_Chris, Paula, Steve Purington
Steve

“Triangle Acres” read the sign on the roadside that marked the entrance to the farm. I don’t know how many acres the family had, but the land was enough to provide lodging for horses, cattle, a rooster, hens, sheep, a ram, and four dogs, all running around neighing, mooing, crowing, clucking, bleating, and barking at once. The land also provided sustenance for the Harrington garden, a veritable Eden of beans, squash, potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, peas, and oh-so-sweet butter-and-cream Maine corn. Off to the left stood a huge weatherbeaten barn, complete with cats and barn swallows and a hayloft. Behind the barn were woods and fields. And down by the road stood the family’s vegetable stand, which was never manned; a sign merely instructed customers to “Pick out your vegetables and put money in the jug,” which they did, on the honor system, with nary a hint of thievery.

The Harringtons lived in a century-old, two-story white clapboard farmhouse. I don’t remember much about the house except that it was well-worn but tidy, and it had many of the “appointments” common to old farmhouses, like pantries and built-in corner cupboards and a wood-burning stove. At night it was a little crazy – people on couches, cots, or on the floor, or outside in tents, trailers, or the hayloft in the barn. I suppose out of deference to my being a guest and a girl, though, I got to sleep upstairs in a tiny bedroom full of Charlie’s dusty Zane Gray paperbacks about the American frontier.

Charlie – to this day one of my favorite human beings of all time – was the patriarch of the family, a beanpole of a man, with a bald, sunburned head, a smattering of whiskers, a cigarette or pipe constantly hanging out of his mouth, and pants rolled up about six inches on the bottom (“darn these things,” he’d say, “they’re too blasted stiff”). He was born around 1909, which would have made him about 66 when we met. After the eighth grade he’d left school and gone to work on the railroads and then on construction sites.

1980_07_Gardiner, Maine_Charlie Purington, Paula
Charlie

I loved his stories and recorded some of them. “I been up to the top of Maine and back down again with this construction company, used to work seven days a week, holidays, 12-14 hours a day; we’d be so weary we’d walk along and trip over a little pebble in the road,” he told me. “Once it rained and stormed and we all decided to go home. The boss got mad but we said hell, we been workin’ every day since spring, we got a right to come home, but my little daughter Cherie, she was but 8 or 9 months at the time, if I saw her and came to pick her up in my arms, why, she’d scream ’cause she didn’t know me, her own fatha. Three years I lived in a tent. It had a hahdwood floor and a gas stove and heata and a sink, a bed . . . why, it’d be 20 degrees outside but so warm and comftable in my tent, maybe 70, 75 degrees, you know, yes, it was comftable. I took a bulldozah and plowed a hole in the woods so the wind’d go right over the top, see, and took a tarpaulin and put it over a pole, makin’ whatcha call a ‘fly,’ and covered everything with snow and leaves. I tell you it was comftable. But lonely, oh, it was so lonely.”

Charlie was sinewy but strong, hard-working but playful, and he had a keen sense of honor. The only time I ever saw him mad was when we all sat around the table one night and drank up all his whisky. For this I could be forgiven, because I was simply following his children’s lead. But that whisky was precious to him, and he laid into his kids the next morning when he discovered the empty bottle. We all sat there sheepishly and full of shame and of course replaced the booze the next day. Other than that, he was a jokester and a prankster and perennially of good cheer. I’ll never forget his favorite line about his philosophy of life and death: “I’ll know when I get t’heaven, because I’ll get t’live my dream of walkin’ barefoot across a field of naked women’s breasts.” He always said it with a twinkly grin and would leave us all laughing as he strolled off to the barn.

“Not everyone can get as much out of their land as you do, Papa Charlie. You must be awfully proud of this farm,” I once told him as he took some tobacco and rolled a cigarette. (I’d gotten that line from Easy Rider, but I meant it nonetheless. I thought he was everything a great man ought to be.)

“Dahlin’,” he said, “I’ve got everything heah with me. I’m retired now, but I do desehve t’be after so many yehs of wehk, and I’ve got my gahden and my woodchoppin.’ It’s so good, so good for a man t’be able to make a little money from his own hands, and I love my house so much that whenevah I leave, even just for a minute, I look back and akchally cry.”

In front of the house sat an ancient truck (the “Tonka Toy,” as it was affectionately named), an old beat-up ’52 pickup with wires and rusty bolts and levers hanging out, windows blistered or broken, seats torn out to reveal just bare springs. But it did its job, however haltingly. When Charlie finished talking to me about his house, he went screaming off with it into the woods, over the stumps and the rocks and the trees, choking to a stop every couple of minutes.

1976_Maine_Gert Purington, Chris
Gert and cousin Chris, my flyfishing teacher

Gert, his wife, was four years younger. She was shaped like a barrel and had a raspy voice and wiry gray curls, and her teeth were either missing or askew. But she was loud and jolly, and she loved every second of managing this insane houseful of Maine-iacs. She’d been a looker in her younger years; I saw a photo of her once and nearly gasped with the recognition of what the aging process does to us. “Why do you insist on looking at those old scrapbooks?” she asked me. “I hate lookin’ at myself.” I remember that she said it with sadness, and it was the first time I realized the melancholy that can catch us when we’re not looking, when we are reminded what the years have wrought.

Jeanne’s husband Steve, with his soft southern drawl and his kind eyes, was one of five kids in the Harrington family. One sister, Judy, lived in California but was out visiting with her two young children. Brother George, who lived in Connecticut, sported an impeccable haircut and seemed a bit more upscale than the rest of the family. Cheryl, the youngest, was a good-humored young woman who always seemed to be rubbing cake in someone’s face. I didn’t know it then, but the next year she would catch leukemia and it would take her very quickly. After Cheryl died, they told me that Charlie would cry almost every night, thinking that no one heard him.

1976_Maine_Paula, Ronnie Purington
Ron, always the scamp

Then there was brother Ron, the oldest, who reminded me of Jack Kerouac – my favorite author at the time. Ron had been all over the country from east coast to west, bumming and fighting and riding the rails and doing odd jobs, and he was still a perennial vagabond. He was coarse and had an annoying giggle, but because he was a rambler and even physically resembled Kerouac, I romanticized him for a long time until I learned what a scalawag he was. He had a darling son we all called “Little Ronnie” who was only about 6 years old and whose mom hung around a lot but was no longer in any kind of relationship with his father. There was simply an understanding.

1980_07_Gardiner, Maine_Ronnie Purington, Jr, Paula
Little Ronnie

***

I was a child of the suburbs, and although I ran free in the San Jose orchards and knew my way around a fishing pole or a county fair, this was the first time I was introduced to rural living. And to say it was heavenly would be an understatement. The family and all of its cousins and extensions loved each other fiercely, and I was now a part of it.

I got to swim in the ice-cold, crystal-clear, cobalt blue waters of the local quarry.

I spent $4.50 on tickets to the drag races.

I dug my own worms, caught a few bass, and took flyfishing lessons from one of the cousins.

Out in the barn, I spent hours talking about life in the earthy-smelling hayloft. Sometimes a joint may have been involved.

We chased escaped piglets up and down the road until we were exhausted from laughing and running, and, by the way, we never caught the pigs.

I once accidentally left a gate open and a steer got loose, resulting in lots of hollering until he was recaptured.

1976_Maine_Jeanne Andrishok and Bucky
“Bucky”

I was also violently slammed in the butt by “Bucky” the ram. I’d been standing around in the pasture, minding my own business, when without warning I found myself hurtling through the air and landing squarely on my back. Luckily I was young and no body parts were damaged. And true to their code of integrity around woman and guests, the boys who witnessed it did not laugh. Not even a smirk.

We took the coon dogs out into the misty Maine woods at 1:00 in the morning, seeing no raccoons but inhaling deeply the fresh odor of loamy soil.

I went bareback horse riding down empty streets at midnight.

I shot high-caliber pistols at targets up near the waterfall.

I picked my own vegetables and shelled my own peas.

I saw Tom Petty in concert in Augusta, with a crowd about 1,000 times rowdier than any I’d ever experienced in the Bay Area. Beer, brawls, and beards in abundance.

In the evening, we sat outside and had huge family feasts. Once or twice we picked out lobsters and clams from a nearby distributor and cooked them up, but they were luxuries. So usually dinner was something like venison, thick homemade potato bread with fresh raspberry jam, abundant ears of garden corn, mustard pickles, fiddleheads, fresh peas, new potatoes, and strawberries. I mean, delicious.

At night we played spoons and drank whisky and made up stories and laughed until long past midnight.

Never once did we want for anything to do or anyone to hug.

***

So it was that shortly after Memorial Day in 2014, I pulled into that small town in Maine in search of a memory. All I wanted was to see that white clapboard house again, if it was still standing.

I couldn’t remember the address, so I’d done an Internet search, finding only the business address of a roofing company operated by a Harrington I didn’t know. Still, as soon as I saw the street name I knew it was the one. I thought that maybe one of the descendants was operating a business out of the old house.

When Julie and I pulled up, however, we saw that there was no more open land on the old spot – just some small, nondescript homes. I hadn’t had high expectations about seeing the old place again, so I just sat in the car and sighed and submitted wistfully to the inevitable shifts of time.

As we started to pull away, though, I glanced towards the opposite side of the street and thought for a moment that I saw a flash of white hanging from the bottom of a tree. It was a familiar-shaped sign with worn black lettering, and since it was hanging perpendicular to the street I had to get out and walk up to it to make out the words.

“Triangle Acres,” it read.

***

248_Gardiner, Maine_Purington residence

I looked up and saw the old house. The front of the bottom story was stripped down to bare wood. Wires and antennae and satellite dishes were now attached to the roof.  But it was the same place, all right. A couple of boats were in the backyard, looking as if they had been marooned there for quite some time. There were a few sheds and a woodpile and a rusted-out garbage can.

I decided to take a picture of the sign, for old times’ sake, and I was standing in the road adjusting the focus when a woman strolled purposefully out of the house and directly towards me. “Can I help you?” she asked, in a way that was neither friendly nor antagonistic, just direct. She wanted to know who the hell I was, this stranger with a camera and a rental car with New York license plates.

“Well, I know this is kind of weird, but I’m from California and I came all the way up here just to see if I could find the house where I spent many summers – maybe before you were even born – with a wonderful family called the Harringtons,” I explained, taking out my old photo album so I could show her that I wasn’t a loon.

“Well, you’ve found it,” she said. “I live here with Ronnie Harrington and his father. I’m Ronnie’s girlfriend.”

***

Her name was Jamie, and she texted Little Ronnie (as he was apparently still called!), who was away as he often was, for weeks at a time, working seasonal construction jobs and trying to make ends meet. I figured he’d have forgotten me, but I was wrong. “Damn,” he texted back to her. “Paula was supposed to wait for me so I could marry her.”

His dad, Ron, had driven into town, and Jamie called him and asked him to come back right away, saying he had an old friend waiting for him.

There was no garden anymore, no barn, no animals. Jamie invited us in for a drink of water, and when I looked around I saw that the house was in some disrepair. I remember thinking that someone could easily fall through the floorboards. I doubt that Little Ronnie’s hard but sporadic work in construction was able to provide enough for upkeep and repairs on an old, creaky home. I started to feel embarrassed to be breezing in with my fancy camera and my L.L. Bean sweater.

250_Gardiner, Maine_Purington residence_Ronnie, Paula
Ron

Ron drove up about half an hour later. I figure he was about 80, still robust and not all that aged despite the 40 years, and he held my hand and was sweet as can be and wanted us to stay for dinner. We weren’t able to stay, but we spent a few hours talking about the family, especially old man Charlie, and much to their amusement I repeated Charlie’s notion of heaven and the naked breasts, and they laughed knowingly.

Gert had died of cancer in 1985, and Charlie had passed in 1990. Steve and Jeanne had long since divorced – such a shock! – and Steve was still living in the Carolinas, although he was struggling with health problems.

I don’t know exactly why Ron and his son hadn’t kept up the farm. I don’t know whether the younger Ronnie made a choice to work seasonally, or whether that was the only job he could find in an unsteady economy, or whether it was the only one for which he was suited. I don’t know how many strikes he may or may not have had against him, especially considering his father’s propensity for a nomadic, adventurous, but somewhat shiftless life.

But does the cause – which was probably a mix of many factors – really matter? I’m just plain lucky that I’ve been able to retire before the age of 60 and carry a fancy camera and hail from the land of artisanal toast and hand-massaged beef. So many of us live in a ridiculous bubble of comfort and security, and we take for granted how fortunate we are. Out here most of us think alike and vote the same way and share the same outrage at things we believe to be uncouth or boorish. We forget that many people live differently and suffer pain and hardships that we could never imagine having while we hunch over our computer screens or sit around with our glass of chardonnay and exclaim over mango foam.

***

This weekend I finished reading a little book called The Rangity Tango Kids by Lorraine Rominger. I would not recommend it to anyone looking for exceptional prose, nor would I recommend it to anyone under 50 who hails from an urban or suburban environment. It’s a folksy memoir written by a local woman from Winters, in northern California, about her childhood on a farm in Sonoma County, and what it was like growing up with a passel of brothers and sisters in a time whose traces are disappearing so fast that there are very few remnants left for us to savor. Although I didn’t spend my childhood on a farm, the memories and the values evoked in Ms. Rominger’s book brought me back to my youth.

“There were things I took for granted growing up that are gone now,” Rominger writes, “things my nieces and nephews will not have the opportunity to experience, like the simplicity of a farm family whose lives revolved around a place where we lived and worked, so our family and farm would prosper. Dad’s attachment to the land, and his father’s, is like none any of us will ever know. My grandparents have passed, but Dad and Grandpa Rominger have collectively been on the farm for nearly a century and have witnessed the wild, open country taken away over time. I prefer the world I grew up in, not the world I am growing old in.”

To our detriment, I believe, so many simple pleasures have vanished. If I could go back in time for a moment, I would. I would walk back onto that farm in Maine and remember the joys of physical exertion, the tastes of food right out of the earth, and the prolonged laughter that comes from family and friends actually interacting with each other, without judgment. I would let Bucky ram me from behind just so I could sail through the air again, free, without a care in the world. I would ride a horse bareback down an empty street at midnight.

So don’t let it be forgot that once there was a spot

For one brief, shining moment . . . .