Wheat and Wildflowers
Caleb Mannan, 2009
One day we will meet
on the other side of the twilight of the gods,
or the gods we thought we were.
We will sit under an ancient pine,
looking out on the wheat and wildflowers
where once was a bloody plane strewn with our brother's bodies.
We will speak in quiet tones in the smoke of our fire,
and never our hearts will tremble.
We will then be mild men in the manner of our father,
our arms unscarred, our minds untroubled.
We will have forgotten the battles and blood,
only a whisper in the wheat.
The sons of god will lay down their threshing tools
to hail us in a greeting:
'It is finished!’
And the beauty of it will bring tears to our eyes.
Sometimes when I lay down to sleep and close my eyes, I feel myself floating down the streets of Colville, in Stevens County, Washington, sometimes past Yep Kanum park or by the community college that was the old highschool back in my day, sometimes up Main where I delivered the local paper The Statesman Examiner every Tuesday for years, I drift the back road past the historic log lodge to Wal Mart, I walk up to the cemetery or past the Goodwill, I walk and walk and never stop the streets with names so familiar I don’t remember any of them by name.
These street visions tattooed on the back of my eyelids and my subconscious remind me of the vision my uncle said he had before he and my aunt and cousins moved up here in the 80s, a vision in which he flew over the whole of a burning United States until he came to a cool green oasis, this oasis being Stevens County. I don’t know about all that, because my uncle ended up leaving my aunt and cousins and Stevens County altogether, but maybe there is something to this place in a cosmic sense, greater than all of us, nothing so grand that you cannot fathom it, but nothing so prosaic that you can get it out of your blood.
I am a symbolic writer - sometimes to a fault - and this place, Stevens County, has become my Elysium, my Fields of Peace or Valhalla, my symbol for cosmic rest after the war, where all the peoples gather of like and not like mind, and quietly love one another no matter the toil.
Sometimes when I lay down to sleep I dream this living symbol, a Cosmic Stevens County, a place where I sit with a lost brother now found under a pine before a fire, looking out on the wheat and wildflowers, all suffering swallowed up whole in the blue line of the mountains and the edge of the forest and the roll of the river, swallowed up whole in the living earth.
I was born in Portland Oregon a bicentennial baby, a Heinz 57 all American mutt, my mom a second generation Oklahoma Texas migrant, her mom and daddy blown West during the Dust Bowl Depression to settle in the fertile crescent of the Willamette Valley like the rich silt cast there from the Flood.
My dad’s family was as much Oregon natives as they could be, meaning they were there before the Okies came drifting in. I think. In truth, I don't know much about my dad's family.
My dad was The American Son, a tenderhearted kid in tennis shoes and combed over hair, sitting politely quietly with his sisters at the lace covered table of roast, jello and milk, later a Vietnam vet with the dark cloak of the war still heavy on his shoulders much like the weight of standard from his WWII Navy 50s Pharisee of a father, Grandpa Mannan, he a friendly church deacon salesman for the family lumber yard, unfortunately a man I never really understood or got to know, maybe because of my dad’s relationship with him, maybe my own rebellion (When I was a teenager about to graduate highschool, I received a neatly typed letter from grandpa Mannan encouraging me to follow in his footsteps in sales - from what he heard of me, he thought I had the right demeanor and temperament. In my anger at a man I didn't know very well giving me career advice, I crumpled the letter up and threw it away. Now, as a salesman, I would kill to sit with my dad's dad and hash out losses and the fine points of sales. Ah, the Ides of youth...).
Betwixt these two disparate familial identities, I preferred my momma’s family, the poor Southern migrants who lived in a tiny yellow house on the dead end street in Portland, the whole family crammed into the kitchen arguing with my grandpa, JE Jones, ‘Daddy’, a dry alcoholic chain smoking son of an Indian chanting moonshiner who never knew when to keep his mouth shut whether it was good for him or not, and it was always good for him because he didn’t care if it was or not.
I loved my wild Okie grandpa and my Texas grandma, I loved the color and the volume of their personalities, my grandpa’s stories, they brightened the gray days of my childhood Oregon.
Though I was born in Oregon, I never loved it as a boy, never felt like I belonged, you know, unless it was the Ocean (and this another mystic conversation for another mystic day), I never cared for the dull gray endless days with dad pulling green chain at the Weyerhaeuser mill, night shift day shift any shift, my brothers and I laying on our backs with heads to the radio speakers listening to depressing albums in that tiny box house in Eugene Oregon, digging holes in the back yard, for there were no trees to climb nor mountains to crest, fenced in like prisoners in the Great Escape.
My parents must have felt the same. I won't presume to tell their truth, but the truth of theirs as seen through a boy's eyes:
The wild heart of my mom the migrants’ daughter, Patsy, she with eyes seeking adventure and a separation from her daddy and his powerful accent a spiritual chant, leave your father and mother and cleave to your husband, she did and she yearned for her own life her own adventure her own migration.
My dad, still displaced from Vietnam when I was born (what do you do with a Navy Corpsman when he stops being a Navy Corpsman, not a hero like his dad, no fanfare for his return), working long shifts at the mill then sitting in an arm chair staring off into space, I remember it as a boy, maybe once, maybe twice, maybe a million times, but my dad he sat and he stared into space, he couldn’t move his elbows in this goddamn city, he always longed to be a mountain man, he needed the solace and silence from the screams of the city, the screams of the war, the god of war and the god of peace wrestling within him every day so that he just wanted peace and silence and a beard and the smell of the good big earth.
As these dreams and echoes and screams and chants grew to a din in my parent’s ears, they realized they wanted, needed, desperately needed a change.
So when I was 8, in 1984, my family moved to Stevens County, 9 hours 500 plus miles and another dimension away.
How they came to this destination is a roundabout story of another day, but divine and providential in its making, and maybe one of the reasons I view the place with such import. We’d been there just once before, on a tour of sorts with other families pulling John Denvers, throwing away the TV, eating lots of peaches, moving to the country, so we were in good company with friends and family to follow. Come to think of it, I first met my wife when we came here at first, she 4, I 8 (This serendipitous prescience another reason for the cosmic dreams, I guess), a little girl on the big River.
When we arrived, this was God’s Country, mountains rising up on all sides, the place you could see herds of deer in the meadows and roads, endless forest among lake and river, fields of wheat, wildflowers, small towns scattered about. The place where your nearest neighbor was miles away, and to let a place meant to have 40 acres come with the house easy.
It was vast and wild and eerie quiet at night, the stars brighter and bigger than anything you’d ever seen, us kids played all day and into the night, forging creeks, building forts, climbing mountains, truly wild and free and disbelieving of it all. There were chickens and dogs and goddamn goats and fresh cow’s milk and salted venison with potatoes and all the apples you could eat in the Fall from local Columbia soil orchards.
It was a boy’s Heaven.
But then life here was hard as well, 30 miles to town and 3 miles to the next neighbor, my dad scrapping to make money, working manual labor and Aladdin Steel back in the day, just buck hard work in boots and a flannel shirt coming home sore to the silence of the evergreen state.
Life was hard living here, but as a boy, I didn’t know much about it, I just knew that I could fashion a spear of my own devising and run naked through the forests with our dog, hours upon hours. The entire forest was mine, all mine, could you believe it! I could not, and I marveled in it, built forts in it, chased animals and explored creeks and mines and old houses.
This place, this plane, this Cosmic County taught me to be strong of back and still of mind, even as a boy I knew these things from the earth, the wind shifting a tree gently, or is that the sound of the hoof of deer, or a bear? It is the crow that will tell you – listen for him to warn the others of your coming (or is he warning you of the others?).
Here my brothers and I explored Meadow Creek in only our swimming shorts with a machete, we explored abandoned mines up near Deep Lake, and the old haunted home on the hillside that my mom forbade us to enter, though we, as any good boys searching the supernatural, disobeyed.
Here I became a man, growing my hair long, my back strong, my clothes wild, my written words endless.
Here I saw the cycle of life as a boy - a car hit deer put out of misery with an iron rod, a sow pig with a broken back with a bullet between the eyes, I learned my dad had a gun put to his head in Vietnam by a US Marine, I kissed my first girl, I met my wife, I wrote my first novel that was crap at 15, I wrote songs and poems and drew and painted and learned to sing here, I lost my religion but gained spirituality, I made friends of the stoic and the wild, I learned the diversity that can only come from the blue collar wild and free counter culturist escape such as this place.
This was the first place I heard the word goddamn, or was made to hear it, at age 9, I still remember it as plain as day, that boy sitting in the apple tree looking down and he said to his sister
and she chided him for it.
“What does it mean?” I asked, and she said
‘It means you want God to send someone to hell.’
and I had to agree that this was the worst swear I had ever heard, though now I use it as a profane prayer of sorts.
That little boy suspended forever up in the apple tree of my mind who was reared here in Stevens County went onto become a murderer who took his own life in prison, and I sometimes wonder if back then I was too rough wrestling him to the ground easily and telling him not to be a sissy. He was always kind to me, he showed me how to fish right out of the creek and gut the fish and cook it on an open fire. God forgive me and forgive you and be with those you snuffed out early, I never said that this cosmic plane this God’s country wasn’t full of some bad uns, hell I met them, I was boy with them.
Once I wrestled another bad un to the ground until our knees and elbows were ground to a bloody pulp, me saying ‘give’ and hurting him bad but he wouldn’t give he was strong and wiry as hell and his older brother who was refereeing wouldn’t give me the match so we called it and shook hands.
These two brothers had a Vietnam vet for a dad like me, but unlike my dad, their dad made them do military drills in the forest, paranoid and isolationist, they got on the wrong side of the law as young men, ending them in prison.
So yes, there are bad uns in the cosmic county, but there are good uns, gentle spirits and poets painters musicians pot heads teachers preachers farmers and the like, loggers and mommas and the wealthy and poor and those like children working buck hard then drinking beer on the porch every single night until the big sun in the sky finally disappears, I admire these children.
Sometimes when I close my eyes I see the ghost of Barmans on the other side of the window on Main Street like I did that one night on my way home from my job as a cook at Woody’s restaurant, that ghost so vivid in a bowler hat leaning on the bar that as a grown ass man I turned and ran the rest of the way to apartment #8 on 330 East Astor Street and turned all the lights on.
If you lived here back then, you remember my brothers and friends and me walking around town, long haired, dressed wild, hackeysacking in Heritage Square downtown at all times of the day, for hours on end, shirtless, chatting, laughing, playing music, doing nothing going nowhere. We’d drink coffee for hours and chat with the locals at Steve Lecture’s Talk N Coffee, getting the local color. We knew most people and most people knew us, even the cops who once said "They look weird but they're good kids."
I worked for farms here, for farmers, hauling rocks out of endless fields, bucking bales building buildings tearing down barns cleaning out pig sties, I herded and dehorned cattle, I shoveled snow with friends and brothers off of Hewescraft during the big storm, I worked as a cook at Woodys Restaurant which is no more though I’ve no idea why, I became a barista at the coffee grind in the Wal Mart foyer, if you were here then, I probably made you coffee and we probably spoke about Jack Kerouac and you might have given me an old poetry book of the beat poets which I still have on my shelf, God bless you.
Oh and Cookie’s café, buddy Kev used to work there, Mitch the cook used to make the biggest cinnamon rolls and challenge us to eat them, his booming laugh coming from the kitchen when the waitress would bring us a cinnamon roll bigger than our head. Now Cookie is gone and so is the penny candy store and T Shirt Towne, Cookie killed in a tragic accident after I left town, taking her café with her.
If you were here back then, you saw my brothers and friends and me sitting on the couches of the Goodwill in Colville watching soap operas every afternoon, me with my long hair and polyester suits, Slim with his wild werewolf pompadour and 70s pants and shirts, Kev with his beard and housecoat, brother Jake 'The Kid' as cool as a skater. We’d even help you move the couch to the truck when you bought it out from under us.
Here I wandered the Colville library for hours almost every day, you probably saw me sitting there honing the craft of writing my non poetry that I came to call verse, because you really can’t call it poetry in the traditional sense, can you, but this is how I like it and how the momma land raised me, you might have seen me reading the poetry of Stephen Crane or the History of Comics or Whitman or Poe or Bradbury, Burroughs, Baum, Ovid, Kafka, Dickinson, Dickens, Shakespeare, Descarte, Socrates, Plato – I checked out every poetry book on the shelves available at the time. Thank you Colville library for being my tutor, thank you Stevens County for being my compendium and lexicon upon which I built my mythology.
This is the place I learned to work hard and speak to farmers, speak to Jim the barber (he still kind to me after I stopped coming to see him and my hair grew wild and free), wild children, church folk regardless of denomination, hippies and old beatniks, and I would never replace it.
Here I went to school for a couple of years, the rest of my learning being at home and my own curiosity as aforementioned. I went to Johnson Christian school in Junior High with some good people I still consider my friends to this very day, where I met English Teacher Mrs. Bauer as a young man, she gave me a vision to be a writer, she told us boys we could write all the blood and gore and action in our stories that we wanted as long as it served a purpose to the story, she was not afraid of little Hemingways, she encouraged them, and I hold her dear to me to this day for this.
If you were here back in my heyday, you probably saw me at the Kettle Falls Woodlands Theater, where I learned my ‘theater background’ that I still rely on, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, The Musical Comedy Murders, Man of La Mancha.
Though I am not here anymore, just a couple of hours South, I still love this place, I love the wild dark sky bigger than God and the mountains and forests and main street, I love the fields of wheat, the wildflowers, the mountains walks and Lake Roosevelt, The River, the logging trucks, the mills, the nothingness, the people, people harsh and menial, people gentle and kind, hardworking and hardplaying, the cowboys and the hippies, where else does this culture collide at the bend in the river?
Nowhere I have been or dreamt.
This is why when I close my eyes I float over the streets of this cosmic corporeal plane, my past, my mythology, my humanity, my memory, my raising, my unblood kin, where I sit with a lost brother under a great Stevens County pine, looking out on wheat and wildflowers, all suffering swallowed up whole in the blue line of the mountains and the edge of the forest and the roll of the river, swallowed up whole in the living earth.
And the beauty of it brings tears to my eyes.