Words

I used to write letters to a woman I was dating.

No, let me go back further.

The first time I was in love, I wrote love letters almost daily to a girl and she wrote me back. I still have a box of her letters. A collection I compiled in two years of correspondence. In some of my darker moments, those letters have held me together. They brought back the moment that I went to the town post office and opened up the mailbox. The scent of paper and wood, brass keys, and vanillin, which the post office still smells of today. To read those letters takes me back to being 17, 18, and just past 19, almost like a negative space of a memory, since what I can read is usually in response to what I had said.

A moment when someone was giddy to see me. Someone who valued me as only young lovers do.

Among the things spoken of in those letters were typical teenaged worries. Getting into college. Trying out for the basketball team, pondering what the future held. Expressions of affection and brief flirtations with passionate moments between two kids on the verge of adulthood. In those times, phone calls were expensive and the distance we had to travel to see each other in person was prohibitive. You could send a ten page letter for $0.29 and keep that conversation forever. Well, half of the conversation anyway. A summer romance turned into a nearly four year relationship, which eventually ran its course. The letters stopped long before that, especially since we lived only about an hour apart for the last few years. Somehow that three week romance in person set the groundwork and we continued to grow together through our letters.

I never wrote my ex-wife letters. We met in college. We saw each other all the time. And as it goes with bad marriages, I don’t think we ever really communicated well. I can attest that we lacked the intimacy that those letters provided in my past. Maybe one of us had a set impression on who they wanted the other to be. We didn’t grow together. We could only grow apart. Funny how that happens between two people. Actually it isn’t funny at all. It’s tragic. Telling.

So, after my divorce, I dusted off that romantic part of my heart that had either been unappreciated or unused. It’s hard to tell which. I dated a woman for a few years. But she stopped reading my letters, saying they were “too personal” as though she were reading my diary or something. The idea of something so personal made her cringe. And when things fell apart, which they sometimes do between people, I saw that my letters were not the same as that first love. Oftentimes, they were discussions on what was going wrong, which were never answered.

As you continue to grow, people come and go from your life. You meet, sometimes fall in love, and sometimes realize that you weren’t as compatible as you thought. The next relationship was better than the one before it, but a red flag was that the few letters I wrote to her, she only finished reading one or two. Over the years my handwriting has gotten bad. Arthritis and took much typing have turned an already difficult work of penmanship into something arcane and almost illegible. In the end, she couldn’t be bothered to finish reading them. And not to be one to keep track of affection–which I dislike–but I never got one back either.

Talk about throwing your heart to the wind.

I like writing letters because the words come together as a permanent stain of ink on paper. There is no deleting what was said at the moment. A hard drive can’t be dumped. You can carry it around with you all the time until the paper loses its scent and every word is etched into your memory, or you can keep it in a box that never needs updating or a subscription to keep. You have those words forever. Maybe your children or grandchildren have those words. The double edged sword is that a letter you write when you are sad also stays on the page forever, unlike a text which will just scroll away into obscurity. On those pages are heartache and tear stains.

I’ve had those too.

I used to work with an old rancher who corresponded with the likes of JFK and Johnny Unitas and many others. He told me the key to writing a letter was to just put the words down like you were having a conversation with someone sitting across the table from you. He wrote a letter of recommendation for me when I got my Eagle Scout award. He held true to his word. It was like he was just saying what he thought. The meaning was clear and concise. Sparse and ommitting anything unnecessary to weigh it down. I lost that letter in my divorce, but I can still see the way his words had found themselves on the page in my memory. He had such hopes for seventeen year old me, just starting out in life.

I don’t read the old letters anymore, because I have outgrown them like an old favorite sweatshirt or pair of boots. I’m in my forties now and ready to make new memories and have new adventures. Reading those letters to my old self feels a little too much like intruding on someone else’s life. I wish him the best, since he eventually grows up to be me. I’ll give him his privacy now.

Maybe I just keep too much old junk around the house.

But unlike typing something out or thumbing it through as a text in messenger, when you take the time to find a pen and paper and put words down, trying to write them as carefully as you can so that the person receiving them can read what you said, and doing it in such a way that your thoughts have to be linear enough to convey meaning–because there’s no cut and paste function in a spiral notebook–that carries weight. It has meaning. It’s about as close to a magic spell as any of us will get.

Or maybe I’m just an anachronism. I’d rather begin my message to someone I care about with “Dear…” than “Hey, you up?” And just maybe you’ll find that out of all the methods of expression that have fallen out of favor over the years in preference to instant gratification, there are just a few romantic souls out there who cannot wait to rip open that envelope and see what is waiting for them inside. And sometimes the scariest thing about getting a letter back is the anticipation of what the other person will say. Good or bad. There’s powerful magic in that too.

Writing tonight

Today I beat the hell out of myself in regards to the writing. I’ve been a little rusty, what with my mom coming up to visit for a few days. Instead of working on the book, I succumbed to the temptation of hanging out with my mom and my son. We explored Ikea, went on a few walks, and made the most of our time visiting. I didn’t do as much writing as I had hoped.

The week began with me taking Monday to do a 18.5 mile bike hike around Lake Dillon. Tuesday was spent being sore and sleeping. Today, I slept a lot too, but mostly from depression. Isolation crept in and maybe I was feeling a little hungover from having company all week.

Tonight though, I rallied and excluding this blog post, I wrote 4,000 words on the novel. Tonight’s chapter was very personal and I was glad I dug deep and got the words down. That story will fade eventually, and even though the scene I wrote is based on one dear to my heart, in time, it will be gone. It was such a wonderful memory that I couldn’t help but put it to the page.

It was about a night in June that could never be repeated. A night that taught me that there was still such a thing as magic and my romatic side throws it in my face all the time and says “See!”

It felt good to write, however sad it turned out. But the words are down and I can share that moment with anyone who cares to join me in my wanderings through memory. At least I have that. I can still hear the music. I can still hear the voices. The chill of the air. The magic of new beginnings. I get to keep it.

And I will.

Pocket Knife

When I was 16 years old, I worked on a summer hay crew. Where I grew up, this was practically a rite of passage. Most kids my age had been working on crews since they were probably nine or ten, if not earlier. The youngest kids usually got stuck on a windrake and later graduated to baler or balewagon. Since this was my first summer, I was given the job of running a windrake. The purpose of this is to rake the hay that has been cut by a mower (a pretty advanced job on a haycrew) who has been cutting a few days ahead of the rest of us. The cut hay has to dry out or cure in the sun for a few days before it gets raked up into neat rows, which a baler comes by and turns into bales which are stacked up and either sold or used for feed during the winter.

Being on a hay crew is hard work. It is mostly monotonous. You sit in the sun, rattling around on a tractor, making long, snaking rows of dead grass that someone else turns into blocks. Sometimes something breaks and you have to fix it. On my first day, a fuel line got plugged up and the old guy who ran the ranch was trying to fix it. He asked me to listen to the fuel tank to see if I could hear any air he was about to shoot up through the fuel line with an air compressor. I did this, and received a dousing of about five gallons of gasoline. I was covered in the stuff. Old Frank tossed his lit Newport into a ditch and went to help me, apologizing for what had happened as he washed out my eyes with water. I reeked of gasoline for the rest of the day. My eyes stung from my flammable sweat, even though we rinsed off as much as we could with the Igloo cooler of water we carried on the utility truck.

Every day for the next 30 days in August, I learned some kind of lesson. This was my first one.

The next one wasn’t so bad, but it was by no means less important than getting a gasoline shower. Frank asked me to cut the string off a bale of hay and when I couldn’t produce a pocket knife to do this, he implemented a demerit system, probably leftover from his years in Catholic school. He said for every ten demerits, he would dock my pay one day. I got paid $25 per day to sit on a tractor and roll hay into windrows for 12 hours. The first offense has earned me three demerits. He didn’t want to see me in the fields without a pocket knife from then on out.

He often spot checked me to see if I had a knife on me or not. It was a lot of incentive to not be without one, that’s for sure. Something as simple and basic as a pocket knife is invaluable in a hay field. As a Boy Scout at the time, we were less into pocket knives and more into these big fixed blade knives. We used to drive our Scoutmaster nuts with who could bring the biggest knife to a Scouting event. I brought a shortsword to one once. And though it impressed the other Scouts, I have to say, it was completely useless. Out in those fields, I discovered the value of an actual knife you carry with you all the time. I carried a switchblade my dad had gotten in Mexico in the mid-1970s. It had a cheaply inlaid scene of a matador fighting a bull in acrylic resin for the scales. It had a shitty spring which stopped deploying the blade all the way, but the blade was never really flush with the handle either, so you always ran the risk of poking yourself with it. What a stupid knife.

Over that summer, I got used to carrying a knife. And in those days, I kept this one or any number of knives on my person at any given time. I often carried a long, thin-bladed knife that used to be my grandpa’s. I was better suited to being in a flyfisherman’s pocket than mine for everyday use as it had a scaler and an inlaid silver fish on the handle, reminding people it was for gutting fish. Whatever blade I carried, at least I was never looking for a sharp rock if it came time to cut something. Even in Scouts, I found a pocket knife was infinitely more useful than whatever Rambo bullshit I would sneak in.

Over the years, I carried other knives, from Swiss Army multitools to a Gerber thing with built in pliers. Almost none of these were really what I wanted or needed. The must useful part of a Swiss Army Hunter is the set of tweezers in the scales. Maybe the corkscrew. I carried a knockoff brass handled Navaja my dad gave me for Christmas one year. The Indian steel was nearly as soft as the brass handle. It also wore holes in the pockets of my jeans and forget about carrying it in a pair of khakis.

Working at an office at a university also made it problematic to carry a knife. Jeez, the first time I pulled out a pocket knife to cut some string I thought everyone’s eyes were going to pop out of their heads. So, I stopped carrying them. Old Frank would have given me demerits for sure. Most of my knives came to me as gifts anyway, or handmedowns. They weren’t always in the best shape or I didn’t want to risk losing them. Or they were just not right.

My girlfriend carries a knife all the time, and considering the lessons I learned out in the hayfields, I have to say, anytime she pulls that knife out to cut something or peel something when I’m not carrying one myself, I give myself a few demerits. So, with the stimulus checks, I decided it was time to get myself a knife for everyday carry use. With the office job ending, I don’t have to worry about the delicate sensibilities of people I work with, or offending the uber-liberal people who have decided pocket knives killed John Lenon, caused 9-11, and are assuming their genders.

I bought a Benchmade North Fork, and I can’t wait to try the sucker out. This will be the first pocket knife I’ve bought in years. It was a long time past due too. Sure, it doesn’t have a bottle opener or a leather awl (because that is a necessary tool to use every day), but it does have a sharp blade and it fits well in your pocket. I also bought a Zippo, because we didn’t evolve this far to not be able to create fire anymore. I used to own a few of these and I don’t even smoke. They were just useful whenever you needed to light something on fire. And a “woobie.” Because it sounded like a good thing to have around. Especially as crazy as things are these days.

One of the things I’ve learned the older I get is that many of the lessons I learned in my youth are coming back into relevance again. Important things to have are a sharp knife, a way to make fire, and a way to stay warm and dry. The basic essentials. Some people might throw their smartphone on there or something. Though useful, I think other essentials are things to have like a good leather belt or a passport wallet. A decent hat or shoes that don’t hurt your feet to walk in all day long. Simple things like that.

Anyway, I decided on the Benchmade because they are made in the USA. Just like Zippo, and recently, the only thing to come out of China that has been built to last has shut down our economy, filled up hospitals, and made everyone decide they are going to walk around looking like Old West stagecoach robbers. I think we’ve given enough to China. We’ve sold ourselves short and forgotten the lessons from older generations.

Maybe if we survive this, we can consider having earned some demerits. Hopefully we don’t set ourselves on fire in the process.