Saturday, September 17, 2005

Unforgettable

If you ever need a vacation from reality, please visit the handmade time warp that is my paternal grandfather's legacy. Take the virtual tour of the dance floor; admire my mother's ancient player piano and the wood floor that was Grandpa's pride and joy, and check out the red velvet settee I used to lounge on when I still wore a platinum pageboy and knee socks. The History page is kind of a neat little watered-down synopsis of Grandpa's life. My tall, dark step-grandmother Rose is still the 84-year-old mayor of Pinedale, and is just beginning to enjoy her new titanium knee. Out of six, she is my last surviving grandparent. We had Grandpa's funeral on the little island out back at Fort William, where a bit of Fall Creek dodges off around a grassy knoll, on a beautiful July day last summer. Rose survived the fallout of her grief, but after fifty years of marriage, she will likely never be whole until she's with him again. When she goes, we'll scatter both their ashes together, over the land they loved.

Fort William was (and the memory of it still is) my favorite place in the whole world (beside Bear Lake, Utah, the Pier Plaza in Imperial Beach, California, and the public library in Coronado). My sister and I grew up wandering the woods, jumping boulders in Fall Creek, and having severe allergic reactions to the horse Grandpa bought for Morgan. The halfbreed pony was a feisty little tramp named Ice Bucket, and I got to ride him most of the time, bareback, with Morgan leading him around and Grandpa's psychotic Labrador Brandy jumping along making Icee nervous. Grandpa had a tame black bull named Licorice and he'd catch him for us and put us on his back. We have pictures of Lora Lee Skinner, Grandpa's mother, waving her hat while riding Licorice when she was somewhere around ninety, and my sister and I up there in tights and mary janes, looking worried but thrilled.

My sister and I loved everything about Fort William the way it was then: rustic and whimsical, perfect for two children with intense imaginations. We stayed in the summer, sleeping in a soft bed in the double-wide trailer Grandpa theatrically disguised with wooden siding, sidewalk and awning, and a sod roof. One window in the back was curtained on the outside with strings of heavy amber Mardis Gras beads; I never knew the story behind them but Morgan and I would stand and braid them, run our small hands through them, causing them to click and rattle. There was a decaying sheepherder's wagon in the yard, with old steel utensils in the rotting drawers and tatters of the canvas cover hanging on the ribs. The basement of the three-story hotel was the heavenly-scented laundry room, where Rose washed all the linens and quilts, and the heavy wooden doors had a hole about five square inches cut out of it so the barncats could go in and out. There was an old chicken coop where Mom planted a vegetable garden and a dusty, oat-smelling tackroom with a dirt floor and hornet's nest. The balcony above the bar, outside the living quarters upstairs on the main building, had a porch swing with a dummy Indian sitting on it, with lifelike hands and face and stuffed flannel shirt, jeans and worn boots. I was always afraid he would come to life and grab me. Much more agreeable was the big wooden cigar Indian guarding the porch downstairs. Dad found him somewhere in his travels and brought him to Fort William to stand and greet.

There was a trap door from the upstairs apartment to the bar downstairs, and a ladder so that in the winter a person could go down and add logs to the fire in the stove without having to go outside in freezing temperatures. There was no way in and out of Fort William in the winter, when snow made the road impassable. Bartley and Rose spent just one winter alone out there, and when spring came she owed him some $4,000.00 in bridge winnings. They never attempted it again, but took a house in town to wait out the heavy snows.

I've heard quite a collection of stories about Fort William, the building of it, and the wild days when it was the hangout of half the county and even a few celebrities. I think some of Dad's happiest days may have been spent there, and Mom's too, judging by her rosy cheeks and white teeth in the photos. Fort William belongs to someone else now, lovely, friendly people who always welcome us warmly when we round the corner on that long, twisting dirt road that goes over the rickety Pole Creek bridge, across cattle guards and through a rusty gate.

When I was little I assumed Fort William would someday belong to my sister and I, but, like Grandpa, I've learned that everybody has to build their own paradise, log by log.

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