I have been out of town. I seem to be back.
(Our story so far: Yesterday was the 100th Anniversary of the premiere of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps [The Rite of Spring] in Paris on May 29, 1913, which infamously caused a riot, and Stravinsky, fearing for his life, escaped through a window in the bathroom. Attempting to make some sort of tortuous metaphorical connection between that musical masterwork and his fortieth high school reunion at a small town in central Kansas, the author lamely soldiers on in part 2. Oh, and today is precisely the day that I graduated from Santa Fe High School, in Santa Fe, New Mexico in Sweeney Gymnasium in 1973. It is also the original Memorial Day, originally Decoration Day.)
Design of stage backdrop for Stravinsky’s ballet
Le Sacre du Printemps, prepared for Diaghilev’s
production, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées,
Paris, 1913, by Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947).
2. The Ritual of Abduction
I was flying into Hays, Kansas on a Frontier (operated by Great Lakes Airlines) flight. The nearly full moon was orange as we pulled out of the upside-down egg carton that is Denver International Airport in the sunset. We had been shoehorned into a Beechcraft 1900D, 19 Seat Turbo Prop, which, I swear, consisted of two WWII surplus P-51 Mustang prop engines attached to a toothpaste tube.
Great Lakes Beechcraft 1900D on the tarmac in Denver
The view from inside a Beechcraft 1900D
There WAS no screen between the cockpit (or, as I’d learn on the return leg, two elongated “saloon” doors that didn’t exactly close) and the passengers, and I managed to sit through the bucking watching the flight from takeoff to landing at Hays.
If anyone knows what a “Jesus Bar” is (that handle on the passenger’s side, that you grab and shout “JESUS!” when the driver puts too much G-force on you, etc.) the Puddle Jumper had two: one for the pilot and one for the co-pilot. It gave me no sense of security that pilot kept grabbing his like a San Francisco trolley passenger in an earthquake….
1900D cockpit Jesus bars
My MP3 player had been playing “god tracking” ever since we approached Denver, playing John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” as we flew over the snow-dabbed high Rockies, and then, after takeoff, Kansas’ “Song for America.”
As the moon rose in the night sky to 30 degrees above the horizon, it STAYED an intense orange, shading towards red. I don’t know how much particulate matter you need at 30,000 feet for the moon to remain orange, but at 400 ppm of CO2, maybe that’s the new normal.
And, as we pulled into Hays Regional Airport in a suddenly clear night, the Police begin, with utter spooky appropriateness, playing “Mother” from Synchronicity:
Well, the telephone is ringing
Is that my mother on the phone?
Telephone is ringing
Is that my mother on the phone?
The telephone is screaming
Won’t she leave me alone
The telephone is ringing
Is that my mother on the phone?
Oh, oh, Mother
Oh, Mother, dear, please listen
And don’t devour me ….
Goya – “The sleep of reason breeds monsters”
And I remember (as though I could ever forget) the last time I was at Hays Regional Airport, when the Hays Police were looking for me …
Prelude to The Night I Never Spent In Hays, Kansas, 1970
Hays Regional Airport in daylight
I am in my 58th year, and when I look back at the arc of my life, there is a clear, neon line in the stream: before that night in Hays and after that night in Hays. It is the boundary between two entirely different existences, the night that changed my life.
The 7th edition of the Boy Scout Handbook had a
“Laramie, Wyoming” patch on the archetypal
“scout having fun” which I wore in real life.
It all began in the summer of 1968, that Annus horribilis for the USA, but even more so for me. My dad had left the Forest Service, so that we wouldn’t have to leave Laramie, having been given a mandatory transfer to Glenwood Springs, Colorado. In hindsight, that was probably a huge mistake. Or not. Either way, he was working for a local engineering firm, overseeing the replacement of water and sewer mains near Washington Park, which our house was two houses from on Sheridan.
Laramie-Washington park bandshell, built by
FDR’s Works Progress Administration during the
Great Depression, very close to where Dad gave
me the bad news in the cab of a backhoe
We had just moved to our “dream” house, after starting out in an old rental, and then the “fuchsia” house on 913 Fetterman Drive on the other side of Spring Creek, and, finally, the two-story, five bedroom, fireplace, two-car garage with pool table, at 2107 Sheridan in a more upscale part of town. My parents had scraped through the University of Wyoming, and, starting in 1965, the changes came fast and furious. Everything started coming up roses, seemingly.
Me@ 6 months and mom, Lela M. Williams née Cornelius,
soon to be Lela Claussen (1961) at Vedauwoo, Wyo in 1956
Mom graduated from the University of Wyoming in Laramie in 1965 with a degree in Nursing, then taught at the Nursing School in 1966. My sister, after years of striving, was born in 1966 and then my second brother in 1967. Mom became head of Nursing at Ivinson Memorial Hospital, and then, avoiding the transfer, Dad went to work supervising road construction in town, as he’d done for the Forest Service OUT of town. We bought our “dream” house and moved in 1968.
for just a minute, things were looking up for us in 1968
And, sitting in the cab of a backhoe in the summer of 1968, having a brown bag lunch, Dad broke the news to me: “We’re getting a divorce.” And “your mother is having an affair.” Did I know what that was? Well, I was about to find out.
I won’t go into detail here. For the next two years, I never knew who was going to be at our house from day to day and night to night. Dad. Mom. Dr. James White, the owlish, bespectacled, (overly large, thinning-haired) head of surgery at Ivinson Memorial; my cousin Bob, who was imported to take care of the four kids (two tweens and two in diapers) while the three adults were showing just how infantile adults can behave.
To top it off, a neighborhood bully, Dennis T. decided to take umbrage on the flimsiest of pretexts, and he and his pals would “lay” for me as I biked the 14 blocks to Laramie Junior High, ironically right across the street from where I’d started out in Laramie at 709 Garfield, just before kindergarten.
Laramie Junior High (Formerly just High) School 1969
Junior High School was the normal horror, except that there was only one place I was safe that year — not at home, not at school, and not in transit (I took a different route to and from school every day, and was only caught once all year, to the eternal regret of my math and English text books). The only peace I knew in 67-68 was in my home bathroom with the door closed. (And no: since I hadn’t hit puberty, my only real hobby was lighting Old Spice® weakly on fire in a cup in the sink.)
ALL parties involved were heavily into corporal punishment, so I got “swats” at school (for reasons that I still consider wrong and unjustified), beaten by bullies when caught in the halls or in transit, smacked around by Mom, Dad AND Dr. White, who was zealously showing what a “great” new dad he would be. And by cousin Bob, who had been imported along with his terminal acne and emoluments, neuroses and his finish-high-school-by-correspondence-courses from a famous matchbook cover of the day.
Famous Surrealists Art School
I will not elaborate on the living hell of that nightmare, nor the time Mom vanished, and Dr. White literally kidnapped me off the street to call my Aunt Mary in Omaha to find out that she was in Santa Fe, New Mexico with the two diapered kids and Cousin Bob. Or the kicking in of the doors at midnight, the choking incidents, the beatings, etc. etc. etc.
But I will mention the “Chinese water torture” routine of Dr. White, because it has direct bearing on Hays.
Dr. James White had a less-than-
modern notion of “discipline”
All of which brings us nearly to Hays, Kansas.
Except for one thing that needs to be understood in all of this: I had SOLEMNLY promised my mom and my dad, together and separately, that I would NOT take sides. And I did not.
You may well wonder how I managed this feat: I sometimes wonder myself, but I was a Boy Scout, and took this ridiculous pledge with great seriousness. My moral compass was spinning like a deranged weathercock in a tornado, but somehow I stuck to my oath. Suddenly that world which had seemed so promising in 1967 turned into sheer hellfire, brimstone and chaos in 1968. America was having its troubles, too, but I was rather too caught up in my own personal hell to do much other than register them: the assassination of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the riots, the Pueblo, the rise of Nixon (and Roger Ailes), etc. etc. etc.
Nixon in 1968
And then we landed on the moon in 1969. At the end of my 68-69 Junior High School year, I played “pony league” baseball and impressed my teammates, among whom were the “cool” kids of Laramie Junior High, and LJHS for 9th grade was looking like it might actually be OK to pretty cool. The endless affair had kind of cooled a little, as mom got her divorce, but Dr. White DIDN’T get his (although he encouraged me to get to know his son, who seemed, the few times I met him, well on the way to becoming an arsonist: he liked to burn things. A LOT.).
Now, you may wonder why I have not mentioned my brother John, two years younger than me, and, seemingly, experiencing the same hell I was going through — at home, that is.
John was beloved by his classmates and the only bullying he ever spoke of happened in his first three grades, where the grade school girls would “surround him” and “tear his papers.” I cannot vouch for the Amazon Grade School Girls of Laramie, but mention it for the illumination that it might provide.
John was finally able to fend off the grade school girls
Little Brother John and I took ENTIRELY different moral paths in the affair/divorce/vanishing/hellish chaos that followed that moment in a Laramie backhoe over bologna sandwiches and ding-dongs.
I turned to my native stubbornness and an absolute refusal to take sides (except, perhaps, to silently wish Mercutio’s dying curse on them: a plague on your houses). And though I shudder to report on myself (being too close to accurately or fairly assess myself, even over time) I was, already legendarily stubborn in the family: you know, the Brad Pitt character in “A River Runs Through It” stubborn.
When I finally contacted my biological father, J. Hart Williams Mark III — but only a decade after MY father, Dwayne Nolan Claussen passed away — he remembered how stubborn I was — even at 80 years old he remembered when they painted my fingernails with horrible commercial preparations to get me to stop biting my fingernails (which my mother did and STILL DOES, duh!) I would calmly lick the stuff off and continue biting my nails. “You were one stubborn little kid” quoth HW III*. (* I am Hart Williams IV).
I know, too involved, but you have to understand just how that native stubbornness saved my life then and ever since. I had made a promise not to take sides and I stubbornly held to it.
My brother, on the other hand, took exactly the opposite approach (and, to be very fair, took a lot fewer licks for it as a result) and became Mister GoAlong To GetAlong. Which used to seem very sad to me, believe it or not: even though he often escaped mutual beatings for our collaborative “crimes” for the simple reason that my parents were literally worn out from beating me, and would actually say “you see what that’s gonna get you” I still always thought that at least I STOOD for something.
A little light reading
He stood for whatever avoided the beating or won the prize. Once, when a spelling bee was announced, he came to me, very serious, very focused on WINNING, and asked, how do you know so many words? (He meant that I spelled a lot of words correctly, not that he cared that I knew what they meant like I said: he was focused.)
Easy, I said, I read a lot of books.
This was instantly dismissed, as you could see from a sudden furrowing of his brow. Then, like the last cloud departing after a thunderstorm, his face became beatific. The notion of “reading” was quickly dismissed as utterly unworkable. Thanks, he said, and left in search of easier solutions.
Later that day, he announced that he had hit on the solution to “winning” the spelling bee: he would read the dictionary.
He was very serious. I laughed my ass off. To this day, I STILL laugh my ass off.
For the next week, I, the older brother, delighted in asking “What letter are you up to now?”
He would uncomfortably announce that he was still working on “A.”
Well, you keep at it!” I would admonish seriously and then go outside and laugh myself silly.
There was something about his utterly mercenary approach to a spelling bee — discarding the English language and the notion of reading so he could win a spelling bee; considering what words might MEAN as utterly irrelevant — that seemed and seems utterly and hilariously incomprehensible to me, but then, I have never worried about “winning” and “losing,” as much as “right” and “wrong.”
Again, he may have taken the smarter path.
I always used to think of him as a “Good German,” who would happily do monstrous things and proclaim with a perfectly clear conscience “I was only following orders. I didn’t know!”
A ‘Good German’
But then I ran into Mark Twain, who reminded me:
“It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.”
And I do not judge him for that. Twain was right, the vast majority of humanity take my brother’s stance, and my small measure of moral courage has caused me nothing but unending vexation and trouble. But, like I said, I’m stubborn, and I can take the pain if I think that standing for something is more important than standing for nothing.
Most of the most successful politicians I have ever met stand for nothing, and while I salute their success, I can no more understand their mindset than the mindset of someone who would win the spelling bee by reading the dictionary.
He never quite got to “C” by the by. Didn’t win the spelling bee, either. Later, he would apply the same approach to the Laramie Carnegie Public Library summer reading program by isolating the thinnest books in the children’s section, so that he could move his butterfly as rapidly across the butcher-paper mural that showed the ongoing “race.” He may not have been the only kid in Laramie reading books strictly in order of how thin they were.
He didn’t win and I didn’t participate because I had an adult library card by third grade because I’d already read all the “children’s” books that interested me, all the way to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in the very back “high school” row, which the librarian had admonished me to tell no one about. I took that to include my brother who was perplexed that I wasn’t entering the great competition.
You read all the time, he said. And then his brow furrowed and unfurrowed and untroubled as a happy kitten it passed and he ran off to find all the thinnest books in the Carnegie Library.
The basement of the Carnegie Public Library
in Laramie had a large Edgar Wilson “Bill” Nye
collection in the basement. Nye founded the
Laramie paper and was a noted American humorist.
The Laramie Daily Boomerang was named after his mule.
For two hellish years, he went along and I refused to budge. We suffered anyway, no matter what we did. But after the Moon Landing, there was a sort of détente, and after a week of reconciliation, Mom and Day announced, “pack your bags.”
And then, as we had done since I could remember, we went on “vacation.” Which, for my parents, residents of the mountains and forests of Wyoming that people saved ALL YEAR to visit for vacation, consisted invariably of going back to parents’ respective hometowns (Kearney, Nebraska for her, Lucas, Kansas for him) in AUGUST!
Farm country in August
At the beginning, I remember how hot it was, and how blessed fans were. Later, as air conditioning came in, I was always amazed at how DESERTED those city streets were in AUGUST. (102 F. in the shade and 85% humidity was nothing unusual.
But every damned year, we would travel to Kansas and Nebraska in August for “vacation.” Sometimes we’d change it up and switch, or add Omaha and/or Kansas City to the itinerary for other relations. But it was our routine. When you live in heaven you vacation in hell. When you live in the Emerald City, you go back to Kansas for reunions. Go figure.
‘Kansas in Summer’ by Hieronymous Bosch
We went to Kearney. Usual. We went to Lucas. Ditto. The eerie, eternal droning of cicadas, and the unaccustomed chirping of crickets, which do not live in Laramie.
As usual we had bought (for the umpteenth year in a row) all our back-to-school clothes thinking of Laramie in Kansas and Nebraska “back to school” sales, which meant that I nearly always faced the ADDITIONAL vacation torture of wearing brand-new, board-stiff blue jeans, cuffed (since they wouldn’t be hemmed until we got back) in 100 degree heat and 80% plus humidity, and my legs were dyed blue for the first week of school every year. There is virtually no worse feeling than new blue jeans in a Kansas August.
For the last time: WILL YOU put on these new blue jeans?!??
And, on that final day, we were informed that we were not returning to Laramie. We would attend school in Lucas, my father’s home town, with Grandma there (it was thought) to keep an eye on my mother.
Dad would have to return to Laramie to keep winning bread for the family.
I would not see Laramie, Wyoming again — where I had gone to school since Kindergarten — until 1987.
Me and daughter Dionna 6-months-old
@ Vedauwoo in Wyoming 1987
And that brings us to the night that the Hays Kansas Police chased me through the dark while I tried to get to the Hays Regional Airport Beacon on a cold late winter night.
But I think I had better give you a moment to digest this stew.