This Old House

Good morning deviants. This post is going to be a short one. I’m having house problems.

Last week I noticed that my porch roof looked rather….soft. A slight gap here, a small twist there and all of it leading to a sense of unease. I decide to take a day off from work, tear down a few boards and look to see what the problem was. In an old house like ours, that’s how this stuff starts. You pick at a crack in the wall and suddenly, so it seems, there is a gaping hole and a pile of plaster at your feet. There are no small jobs in old houses.

You always hear the lament that things aren’t built the way they used to be. That’s true. There is no horse hair embedded in the plaster, over the rough coat, over the wooden lath, past the uninsulated gap to the brick. But once I removed the porch ceiling I could see that this house was built before building codes or basic common sense. There is a general sense of know how with a strong sense of “Git ‘er done!”

My 90% deaf friend Vinnie was doing some work in his old house. He was shouting the details of his discovery at me even though I was standing right next to him. He was redoing some plumbing and found that there were no pipes in the walls. All the water was being moved around the house through garden hoses. I think the sense that craftsmanship has slipped away is mostly based on a reduced amount of building ornamentation. Buildings just don’t look so grand anymore. Houses are startlingly efficient but not visually impressive. And unless your wealthy, I guess that’s always going to be the trade off. Me? Two weeks into it and I’m just trying to finish this damn thing.

Now, I could describe the problems that I found when I took down the ceiling and I could lay out my plan of action because, after all, I am a man of action. I could do a “This Old House” point by point reconstruction complete with product endorsements but no. First off, there are people better equipped to do that than I. Lots and lots of people. And, in fact, they already do. And while I may bring a certain slant to the writing end of this project I don’t bring any actual skill on the construction end. Yes, I am a Dockbuilder. A tradesmen in heavy timber, concrete form work, pile driving and all the other gentlemanly arts. But house carpentry? No. Dockbuilders refer to carpenters as “termites”.

There is no “wood” where I work. Where I work, there is only timber. No 2″ x 4″s. No plywood. The smallest piece of wood I work with is a 4″ x 12″ and, except for tying a patch into the middle of a repair, we use the timber full length; 20 feet is our shortest. The larger stuff, the backbone of our work, is 12″ x 12″ x 24′. All our timber is Greenheart (clorocardium rodiei) an extremely dense, strong, weather and pest resistant hardwood from the rainforests of Guyana.  All the timber is handled with the crane.

At my job, there are no nails or screws or adhesives. No paint. No table saw. No chop saw. No dinky claw hammers.

At my job, timber is cut with a chainsaw, pounded in place with a sledge hammer, drilled with a pneumatic drill, and bolted together. The shorter bolts weigh about 8 pounds each.

I have a mind that can wrap itself around the problems of large projects, because large projects are fundamentally about tearing out bad and bolting in good, in a pattern that will resist the piloting errors of ship’s captains. But there is something small and precious about house carpentry that kind of eludes me. For instance “fit” seems to be important. I’m going to have to pay attention to that. In Dockbuilding fit is less important than overall mass.

And all these little tools and screws and plastic widgets and batteries. Everywhere I look I have rechargers winking their lights at me accusatorially. And every year there are hundreds of improved products. It’s like being a doctor. You have to keep up with every development.

Or not. That’s what I’ve decided to do. Well, not decided. I’m doing it the only way I know how.

Git ‘er done!

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Man Child

llustration: Clayton Mednick

Hey Drew,

I don’t remember much about my puberty and I don’t recall a thing about yours, which is probably just as well, but maybe you can give me a hand here. A little advice to your little cousin to help me through this trying time.

We had a week of extreme and changeable weather around here. Very dramatic. The Weather Channel was an orgy of predictions. The meteorologist, April Shauer, was so excited she had a fine mist of sweat on her upper lip. It was like the atmospheric turbulence had moved into her panties.

Then, just when things seemed to have settled down, our middle guy Miles sprouted almost a foot overnight. None of his clothes fit in the morning. I had to take a day off from work so the wife could take him to the doctor. We thought it was gonna be a bigger deal than it was. Clothing wise he actually fits nicely into Clayton’s clothes even though Clay is 5 years older. I hope Clay doesn’t mind sharing with Miles for a few months until we see what happens but you know a whole wardrobe is a lot of money, particularly if he’s gonna outgrow it all in 36 hours. What do you think, is that unfair?

The doctor said it was the most extreme case of Precocious Puberty he’d seen in quite a while but apparently not so rare as one would imagine. Something to do with the Pituitary yadda yadda. Who can understand doctors anyway? I swear, I think they just make it up as they go. I know that’s what the rest of us do, so it’s a pretty fair assumption, right? Even so, it’s probably just as well I’m not a doctor.

My mother used to say that she could have been a doctor but she hates sick people. Know thyself, right? Well I’ll tell you something else I know; kids can make you feel old in a hurry. Especially this kid!

I mean the height is kind of shocking but not nearly so much as his change of voice. He went right down into the lower registers and is able to hit a low C on the piano. That probably doesn’t mean much to you but when he’s humming it actually moves a glass of water across the table by vibration. Weird, I know.

The other disconcerting thing is the beard and chest hair. Way more than me, which I know isn’t saying much, but for an 8 year old it’s pretty startling. And boy is he strong. Every time Butch, the neighbor’s Pit Bull, looks at him Miles snarls and Butch runs away in terror. I’m actually enjoying that but don’t tell anyone. I think Miles put a beating on him when no one was looking. Only room for one alpha male on this block, Buuutch!

Now don’t get me wrong, he’s still the same sweet kid he’s always been but he’s a little more insistent about things like cookies and bedtime. We’re trying to act as if it’s nothing out of the ordinary but you can tell he knows that a rule change may be coming his way. For the moment he’s still susceptible to the old bait and switch but that’s only gonna last for so long. The upshot is that either we can address it now, before he makes demands, kind of get the upper hand or we can take a wait and see approach, deal with it as an evolving situation. Proactive or reactive, that’s the question.

Ok, so I started this letter yesterday and never mind about the question of sharing Clay’s clothes. He must have had a hell of a night because this morning he’s looking pretty comfortable in my clothes. And he wants to borrow the car and get a job. I mean, I admire his drive but still, I’m a little conflicted. I wish you were here to help me on this. I know you could talk some sense into him. A parent’s authority is so greatly diminished as a child reaches the parent’s height, but there is something about a stranger that always commands a kid’s respect. I mean, the job thing might be ok but I don’t know. What do you think? Should he finish second grade first? What a dilemma!!

Where do I draw the line? Where would you? Anything taboo just becomes more desirable, right? For instance the Scotch. I had to hold the line there didn’t I?  I’m still the parent, right? But still there’s the need for flexibility. So the single malt is forbidden but I bent on the blended. Compromise, right? But with an eye towards the future. Right?

I don’t know, it’s so disorienting. I mean, it seems like only yesterday he was just a little kid. Or maybe it was the day before yesterday.

Anyway, I guess it’s true what everyone says. They really do grow up so fast.

Your Number Is Up


 Sculpture by Jack Gregory / Photo Credit: Seymour Mednick

Hey Drew,

Well you died last night. Time of death, 10:55 pm, which is to say, 22:55 hours. A nice balance of numbers. For a final act, it was very thoughtful. A pair of evens, a pair of odds, both multiplied by a prime number, itself a pair of ones. Very thoughtful indeed.

This comes 10 months and 4 days (10-4, message received) after you entered the hospital and fell into a coma on July 4th, 2011, which is to say 07/04/2011. Add the 7 to the 4, split the 2011 and the whole thing looks like this; 11 20 11. Nice.

You died 129 days into the year, on May 8th, 2012, which is to say 05/08/2012, but only because it’s a leap year. Any other year and it would have been the 9th. When my time comes I hope to die early in a leap year too. Avoid the whole election cycle. Campaigning, primaries, debates; the whole thing. A wise choice and I’m glad you brought it to my attention. Also, I like that adding the individual numbers of your last day, 0+5, 0+8, 2+0+1+2, gives us 5 8 5. So much symmetry.

I’m pretty sure if I start tampering with the numbers surrounding your death I’ll be able to squeeze out a winning lottery number. I won’t know which one to play until after the drawing so it will be meaningless but that never stopped anyone from assigning significance to coincidence.

I guess you would have been able to see where I’m headed with this.

Numerology. Astrology. Phrenology. All the bed wetting pseudosciences.

Numerology is the belief that numbers have occult significance. That there is a divine and arcane relationship between numbers, counting and life.

Numerology touches on the infinite and that, I suppose, is it’s appeal. The assumption is that numerical coincidence is more than just coincidence and that somewhere in that infinity of possibilities there must be an explanation for everything. It’s pure bullshit of course. Anything can be proven if you start with a false premise because it closes the system around your answer. You can’t ask a question from inside this bubble and expect to get anything but your own foregone conclusions. You might just as well ask, “Why do birds suddenly appear, every time you are near?” The only possible answer is that “Just like me, they long to be close to you.”

Let’s take a line. Our line may stretch out to infinity in both directions but that doesn’t mean it encapsulates, or even touches on, anything at all. Infinity is not everything. So understanding the infinite is not really that helpful in determining what to do in the here and now. It just goes to show you the desperate measures people will go to, in order to avoid the obvious. Some things, like death for instance, are not explainable beyond the fact of being so.

Many people believe that you can know the mind of god if you can tease out the numerology supposedly imbedded in the testaments, the stars or the roulette tables. This belief presumes that god has absolutely nothing better to do with eternity. It also suggests that god has a special love of puzzles because, you know, god just loves to fuck with us. All of it amounts to one more instance in which people think that the answers to life’s riddles are obscured and require someone else, an “expert” (with powers far beyond those of mortal men) to do the interpreting. Enter the prophets and charlatans. A core of self doubt will have you believing that a traveling salesman has insights that are not available to you directly, through observation and a little common sense.

It seems probable that this belief in obscurity is, itself, the problem.

But people always seem to need an expert to tell them how to live and what it all means. They say the definition of an expert is:

Someone From Out of Town

The assumption here is that not only are the people we know uninformed but so are we. Well Drew, at this point, no one is further out of town than you. The shame of it is that you and all your neighbors at Montefiore Cemetery have all the answers; the whole meaning of life. Ordinarily the problem of communication has stood in the way of insights from beyond the grave but that may be our shortcoming and not yours. Maybe we aren’t attentive enough.

I live a few blocks from historic Green-Wood Cemetery and let me tell you, there’s a lot going on over there. Eight generations of inscriptions speak to us. The husbands and wives who die within months of each other. The graves of children; small in the past when infant mortality was high but large now. There is wisdom out here among the marbles.

I was thinking about all these things as we got you to the cemetery. Why we think there is sense to be made. The cause and effect of life suggests that there should be something learned here about death but again we are misled by our own assumptions. Life and death are not math. You don’t tally the days and come up with a cumulative answer based on a system of checks and balances. 2+2 do not equal 4 when tallying a life or probing for the meaning of death. The complexity of an individual resists that kind of reductive reasoning. But seen from just a few steps away, there may be something else; something unexpected, something overlooked. So often the answers appear to be obscured because they lie directly in front of us; cloaked in a veil of simplicity.

At graveside, I was reading the stones around you and I have to say that good fortune has put you in good company. Right behind you, a few stones away, is a dark granite headstone belonging to Seymour “Sy” Kamens. You cant miss it, it’s the only dark stone there. Sy’s epitaph reads:

“He Lived While He Lived”

Sy died a few months shy of his fiftieth birthday but his inscription takes us out of the box (so to speak) of evaluating a life and looking for meaning, and reminds us that the meaning is intrinsic and needs no further explanation.

Que Sera Sera

Hey Drew,

My wife had to work last Saturday and so did Charlotte, the neighbor across the street. Her husband Chris was left with their two girls Miranda, 5, and Kendal, 7. They are a mixed race couple, same as us. Chris had six tickets for a members only event at the Brooklyn Zoo that included free rides on the restored Brooklyn Carousel as well as snacks and events at The Lefferts Homestead, an 18th century farmhouse. Chris called with the invite for me and my little guys Cole, 7 and Miles, 8.

I guess you can see where I’m headed with this.

Two middle aged white guys with four kids of color in tow. Two boys, two girls, two men. Gay! Pretty much guarantees that you’ll be ignored by the single mom’s and all the dads. Couples are occupied so you become a magnet for married moms, alone with their kids, looking for a gay guy to girl talk with. I let Chris field the heifers while I kept a laissez faire eye on the chilluns and watched the neurotics. It’s always fun to watch today’s parents molding tomorrow’s psychopaths. I try to keep a positive spin on it.

There isn’t really much to tell about the event. The zoo had animals; the big hit was the baboon’s ass. Bright red for reasons that only another baboon could fully appreciate though the kids came in a highly vocal second. The homestead had old fashioned handmade toys for kids to try, like 6 inch wooden stilts. I mean, what is the point of stilts that don’t make you appreciably taller? I guess when you’re under 4 feet tall, 6 inches is a big deal.

“Look at me dad, look at me! I’m a giant!”

The boys had them pretty well mastered in a few minutes, the girls wouldn’t go near them without crying. The kids are too old for the storytelling circle and too young to appreciate the house, built either in 1777 or 1783 depending on your source. It has a sloping concave roof with wooden shingles. There is a photo of it being moved across Flatbush avenue into the park about 100 years ago. In the photo there is a slowly cresting wave of brick houses and low rise apartment buildings creeping up the blocks on all sides. Blocks that didn’t exist when the house was built. Blocks that aren’t even squared to the lot the house sits on. The house seems dropped into the scene like Dorothy’s house into Munchkin Land.

The photo was taken at that moment when it wasn’t clear who the intruder was in the situation. Were the buildings overwhelming the pastoral scene or was the farmhouse getting in the way of progress? I guess the answer depended on whether you were standing on a porch or a stoop. Oddly enough the loser in that battle is the last one standing. Many of the new buildings in the photograph are gone now, replaced by apartment blocks only a generation later. The remaining ones have been stripped of what little dignity they originally possessed; glassed over and turned into cell phone stores, roti shops and cheap clothing outlets. Down the street, a few steps into Prospect Park, under the maples and sycamores, the homestead has its dignity and its porch intact.

And then there was the carousel. It’s an old beauty and as it is a device that goes round and round it’s purpose is to make you want to puke. Coleman was a little intimidated by it and wanted to sit on a bench instead of on the back of one of the horsies. As luck would have it the benches were few and taken so while the others rode, Cole and I sat out and watched. As luck would also have it the other kids wanted to ride again and Chris was looking a little green so we slipped into the cool vinyl couch of the beast, with brave faces and a nervous belly.

I never used to have this problem. When I was a lad I used to go on a ride called The Zipper. To my mind the reasons for calling it The Zipper aren’t entirely clear. I think it probably should have been called Vomit Now. This would have been the very early 70’s and the carnival was on the lower fields of Grey Nuns on Old York Road. The carnival was designed to take the small change from the kids and keep them busy while the adults played illegal slot machines up in the school. The slots were arranged in an oval with their backs open to the center where the operator could keep an eye on the innards. Whenever a machine was about to make a colossal payout a nun would come over to the machine, graciously ask to jump the line, take the handle away from the player and start jacking coins down the slot. Within a pull or two she would hit the jackpot, scoop up her winnings and walk away from the adoring parishioner she had just ripped off. And the adoring idiot would just marvel at the sister’s good luck. I swear it’s true. First hand knowledge. I was sitting cross legged under the table watching with my friend Richard as we were digging dropped quarters out from between the machines.

The Zipper was basically a dozen tipsy cages spinning on a pair of drive chains that were rotating around a parallel pair of 40 foot propellers that where spinning. Rated number 1 on any carnival ride shortlist, every description of it is priceless. I have only just now learned from Wikipedia that I was riding the pre safety improved model. Improvements came in ’77 after a hefty number of gruesome and litigable accidents. It is, in fact, hard to think of any description of this ride that would even remotely suggest that those injurious outcomes were anything but deliberate. I urge you to have a look at the Youtube clips of it and then consider this little gem of a fact. The stripped down model I rode turned about 40% faster.

Ordinarily I am loathe to use anyone else’s writing beyond the length of a short quote but this entry from another web site is just too precious to pass up.

# 1 Ride – The Zipper

Truly the most metal of all the amusements – the Zipper is King of Kings amongst carnival rides. No matter where you are, in any state, in any town, the Zipper ALWAYS guarantees you the following three things:

1) The most insane, scary, drunk and high ride operator in the entire fair

2) The largest line, consisting of more middle schoolers smoking cigarettes per capita than anywhere else in the nation

3) The ONLY ride that gives you both a 10 in Fun and a 10 in Likelihood of a Fatal Accident.

The Zipper rules all that comes before it – a 48 foot tall beast, where the only thing preventing you from meeting an untimely demise is a two inch long pin, that’s half an inch in diameter. The ultimate deathtrap, the Zipper rewards those brave enough to look past the squeaking, creaking, and falling of integral pieces with an incredibly intense riding experience that changes every time you go on. What’s that clicking noise? No time to think about it – you’re being hurled head first toward the pavement. Is that a screw that just hit me? Doesn’t matter, because we’re going BACKWARDS, baby.

Nice right? Not anymore. A 99 year old carousel is now an alarming prospect. I’m sure it’s partly mental but still, after I turned 40, everything that could make me dizzy did. After I turned 50 even the mirror became disorienting. Then again that may be another story.

So there I was, facing down the hellish, nauseating threat of the carousel. The platform spinning round and round. The horses going up and down. And only two padded benches for the cowards. The merry old gentleman operator, a clever disguise for the roaring soul eater. He whose name must not be spoken. For a reckless torpedo of a kid, Coleman can have extraordinary moments of fear over the most mundane events. In retrospect, it was less like fear and more like shyness. As if a formal introduction to the wooden horsies might be all it would have taken to dissipate his anxiety. “Coleman, this is Sea Biscuit. Sea Biscuit, this is Coleman. You two are gonna be great buddies”.

I know his anxiety must have been on my mind because as the carousel started turning and I began testing myself, successfully, as to whether I could make myself dizzy I started to look for stable points for us to focus on. I started by pointing out the music maker. A one man band, minus the man, called a Wurlitzer Band Organ, it sits on the blacktop, unmoving, in the central area along with the drive motor and operator, the carousel spinning around them. Opposite the Wurlitzer there is a bare breasted caryatid, her arms draped languidly over her softly quaffed hair. Her breasts are high and her nipples suggest that she was carved on a cold day. A surprising addition really to a ride that dates back to 1912, and yet it doesn’t look at all out of place. Personally I  think they should have one like her on every street corner in America.

Now we’re picking up speed; pushing I would guess 6 rpm maybe even 7. I need a strategy, a game-plan to get us through this. Or maybe just to get me through this. When you look towards the center of a spinning object, as we did with the fulsome caryatid, you are looking at the slowest moving part of that object. If you are seated on that spinning object it’s a pretty good tactic nausea avoidance-wise. Better yet is to look at something else on that object that is spinning with you. As a matter of relativity you are now standing still, centrifugal forces aside. But staring at my hands is only going to alarm Coleman so I look up and I see the very slowly turning crank. The horsies that go up and down are not pushed up from below they are pulled up from above by a driveshaft with offsets like a hand cranked drill laying on its side. As the shaft turns these offsets describe a small circle. The crank passes through a sleeve at the top of the pole that carries the horse up and down and the pole slips up and down in a guide mounted to the floor of the carousel. Cole is either very interested in how this simple mechanism works or he is too petrified to resist my guided tour. Either way the ride is soon over and as the last strains of Que Sera Sera played by organ, xylophone and drums fade away I can see he’s ready to ride again.

A Man Out of Time

I used to know a guy named Jack VanSickle; Mr. Van we used to call him. The chatter around Blue Water Lake is he died a lonely and miserable drunk. So naturally, I’m looking for the punchline.

I met Mr. Van in 1971. He was my group leader at a backpacking camp in New Mexico called Cottonwood Gulch a.k.a. the Prairie Trek Expedition. We traveled around the four corners area, so called because of the the right angle joinery of the four states of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. We were in search of good, off the beaten track backpacking and adventure. Mr Van was a bachelor science teacher from Rushville, Indiana and this was his summer gig.

I spent three summers with Mr.Van; my last two as his quartermaster. This promotion came with the perks of lower tuition, greater responsibility and while not exactly a councilor I was not exactly a camper either. An early step, if you will, in my long ascent to world domination. My job was to pack, unpack and generally keep organized, Mother. Mother was a motorized Conestoga wagon. A large, rumbling, slat sided truck with arched hoop roof covered in old fashioned oil canvas. She held our gear and food and water. Often times, while exploring the dessert, the water from her side tanks was the only water we would have for weeks. Strictly rationed. No washing. Her petcock was our nipple of life.

There were 16 campers as well as three other counselors including Kurt Vonnegut’s nephew, Ricky Vonnegut. We called Ricky, Choo Choo, because he was obsessed with taking pictures of freight trains as we drove in our van from one spot to another. Nobody would have noticed this, we were self obsessed teens after all, but Ricky had figured the best way to get a clear shot was to match the train’s speed, lean out the window, face glued to the viewfinder and ever so carefully focus and then wait for the engines to align with the mountainous background to form the perfect composition. The problem was that we were doing 70 miles an hour in an effort to overtake the train’s engines and get everything just so. Ricky was the only adult in the van and consequently the driver. Take it from me, regardless of claims to the contrary, teenage boys do scream like little girls.

There was a cook named Tom Hyde. Tom’s secret to perfected eating habits, which was no secret at all, was that whatever didn’t get eaten at dinner, was included in the next morning’s breakfast. This was before nouvelle cuisine so Beef Stew Pancakes and Barbecue Chicken Oatmeal were not considered delicacies.

The peculiarities of memory allow me to remember Ricky’s name because of his famous Uncle Kurt. I remember Tom’s name because of a single piece of junk mail. I was the quartermaster and therefore I called out the weekly mail from stops that were arranged before the beginning of the summer. Tom was a botanist and this was in the early days of automated mass mailings for credit card applications. One day Tom received a letter from a credit card company. Showing off their intelligence network capabilities of combing data for worthy credit card recipients the letter started out as follows.

T. Hyde Botany

We know who you are and We know what you do.

From then on he was known as T. Hyde Botany.

There was a third counselor but I don’t remember his name. No stories attached themselves to him therefore no memory cues. All I do remember is that he left at the end of camp and went directly to Amsterdam. At 13 that didn’t have any meaning for me. Now I understand that he was off on an adventure of his own.

We picked up mail along our travel route at these one room post offices; sometimes nothing more than a desk in a store or the front room of somebodies house, in towns that probably no longer exist. The southwest was full of ghost towns but there were an equal number of fringe communities. Clusters of old houses and shuttered businesses; wooden mausoleums that were waiting for their elderly inhabitants to die, so that the buildings too might finally rest in peace.

Most of these towns had grown up in the 1870’s and 80’s around mines and mills producing silver. Silver and gold, the so-called bi-metal standard, had been used in US coinage from the beginning. The use of gold and silver allowed for large and small denominations of coins, before the introduction of paper money in 1862, without resorting to gigantic and minuscule coins minted from a single metal. That sounds good. Exchange rates between the two metals were set by law. That sounds bad.  Laws are the kind of thing that markets are notorious for ignoring.

Then along comes the California gold rush of 1849. So much gold gets introduced into the market that not only does it damp the value of gold it undermines the value of silver. The good news is that with more metal you can mint more coins. Instant prosperity. Simple! Silver mining remains profitable enough and towns here grow. That was good news.

However, as I understand it, which is just another way of saying that I don’t really understand it, the constant recalculation of value between the two metals by speculators  was becoming unmanageable. That was bad news. Hoarding and dumping were a constant strain on economies and in 1873 the US Congress, along with most of Europe, followed England’s half century lead and tipped towards a gold standard. If you were big into silver, a so-called Silverite, you would have called this The Crime of ’73.

Silver was still used in coinage (that was good news) and it would be, in ever more dilute amounts, until 1965 but a one to one correspondence between the metal value and coin denomination was on the wane. The demonetization of silver, along with the great silver strikes here in Colorado that flooded the market in the last quarter of the 19th century, further eroded prices. That was bad news.

The good news was that help was on the way in the form of The Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890, whereby the government promised to buy silver. Lots and lots of it. 4.5 million ounces a month more than it was already buying for the purpose of coinage. That’s over 280,000 pounds! A Month! The miners took a moment to wet their pants, jack up the price and then dig like mad.

Of course for every profitable action there is an unprofitable reaction. All this government support for silver caused a flood of silver in the market that eventually undermined its value relative to gold. As they say, or more accurately as Gresham’s Law states, “Bad money drives out good” which means that overvalued money drives undervalued money out of circulation into hoards. Everyone ran to the bank to trade silver for gold. That was bad.

At the same time, all this unexpected federal support for silver undermined confidence in the promised gold standard and the Silver Purchase Act was repealed in 1893. The market was flooded with cheap silver and everyone holding Treasury Notes, which were redeemable in silver or gold, ran to the banks to get the gold. That was bad too. The resulting run on gold brought the United States to the brink of bankruptcy before the jolly joker himself, J.P. Morgan, and a syndicate of his pals stepped in with a loan of gold, on attractive terms naturally, that saved the nation from insolvency. Not a great guy to owe money and favors to. Nope, not a good situation to find yourself in and one I personally have tried my best to avoid by consolidating all my gold holdings into a single low karat ring on my left ring finger.

In 1900 the Gold Standard Act made the gold standard official but in these parts the steep decline had already taken hold. Mines and mills, banks and railroads throughout the region were shutting down. When the money left, the people left. Silver camps shut down all over and real estate values simply dissolved. Other metals of value, Lead, Zinc, Molybdenum for high strength steel, saved some towns and slowed the demise of others for awhile. But by the time of the Great Depression, when metals demand all but disappeared, many towns throughout the region had been abandoned. The days of mine camps and remote mountain towns was over.

But there are always those few souls who root easily and deeply; those who never leave, preferring to tend the graves of their loved ones while waiting to join them. Enter Mr. Van. It seemed to us that Mr. Van knew everyone in the southwest worth knowing. Tribal elders, shop owners, nomadic prospectors still panning for gold. He knew everybody that was nobody. Old old people; the children of boom and bust. These ancients had stories to tell about the mines, the ore crushing mills, the tribes, the rustic living homesteads, the tragic deaths of loved ones.

And then there was the backpacking. Caves and canyons, lava beds, rock formations, mesas and mountains; we covered them all. Mr. Van was our Wagonmaster; we were his pioneers; Mother and the two Ford Econoliners were our wagon train. For us, every road was a back road, every town, every pueblo, was in a state of ruin and every ruin was open for exploration. Hiking in the San Juan’s? Mr. Van knew people at the San Juan County Historical Society. Of course he did! So we went following the trail of a doomed 19th century expedition. Of course we did! We were looking for the remains of the definitely lost and probably cannibalized Fremont Expedition of 1848-49. It was all directly under foot; a finger touch away.

Mr. Van had nothing but contempt for what he called GAT’s; Great American Tourists, enveloped as they were, in the fatness of their luxury. He hated their crass ignorance of this holy land; a land they ignored in favor of cheesy roadside attractions offering cheap imitation mementos of the vanished and vanishing cultures he held in such high regard. For Mr. Van, and therefore us, authenticity was the law. He was right but he was also a man out of his time.

After setting up a base camp in a new location we, the boys, would break out the topographical maps, plan a trip and pass it by the counselors. The counselors would point out that we had the map upside down and were planning a trip over a cliff. After a brief lesson in topo map reading we would plan again, get approval and the following morning set out with tents, sleeping bags, food, water, stove and toilet paper. Everything but a counselor. We were on our own, unsupervised for a few days. We’d walk through deep waterless canyons, along high desert cliffs and over windswept mountaintops thousands of feet above tree line. Not for a moment did this strike anyone as unwise or unusual. Up until this moment I never gave it a second thought at all. But I will say this; Every bit of self confidence I have springs directly from those formative times, the responsibility that Mr. Van put on us and the prize of winning his trust.

And it’s not like we didn’t get lost once in awhile. But when we did, we figured it out. Poured over the maps, checked compasses and backtracked or set out on a new route. It was a thinking man’s game entrusted to a bunch of 13 year olds. Genius really, when you think about it.

Mr. Van would stay back and drink scotch while the other counselors did the same or borrowed the Ford van and went in search of a town with a bar and a girl or set out with a group of the boys who hadn’t proven themselves. The name of the game was Wingin’ it and nobody did it better than us.

One afternoon, after I was done setting up camp and supervising the digging of the pit toilet, Mr. Van called me over. “Art, do me a favor. Go get me some snow for my drink.” We were camped beyond Mayday, a ghost town in the San Juan Mountains of south western Colorado. Our base camp was at about 9,000 feet. The snow pack was directly up the almost vertical mountainside at about 10,000 feet. I never would have thought to question Mr. Van. I was happy to do it for him. Things are different now aren’t they; the expectations of children and grown ups. But I’ll tell you what; if he asked me to do it again tomorrow, I wouldn’t hesitate.

The second to last time I saw Mr Van was 1973. It was my third year; my second year as quartermaster. I was already being groomed as a counselor although I never did become one. We did the desert loop. Keet Seel ruin in Navajo National Monument, the Gila Wilderness, Canyonlands, Chaco Canyon, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced Shay), El Malpais Lava Flows, Arches and more. We saw ancient Native American cave paintings deep underground in a cavern on a reservation ranch that nobody saw but us because these were Mr. Van’s people. He was like a white medicine man who held respect wherever he went because he valued that which every other human had passed by. He was not so much the story teller but he knew where every story was hidden.

He took us to see very old people, sitting in dusty yards or on the rough porches of their tiny desiccated towns. Our job was to listen. The land, the houses, these shuffling relics were all equally dry. The people and their stories would soon disappear but not the towns. The buildings, in this arid environment, will last for another century at least. I have stood, at a steep angle, in a miners boardinghouse, half slid down a talus slope, that had not slept a soul in any living persons memory. And of course the land. The land would remain; little different than when these people’s grandparents had arrived a century ago.

Dust devils, cholla cactus, dead grass, tumbleweeds, open sky and light. So much light that an Easterner’s eyes become thirsty for color. Touching down in Philadelphia at summers end, the lushness was an ocular plunge into cool waters.

It would be 20 years before I saw Mr. Van again; it was also the last time I would see him. I took my wife to visit the camp when we were backpacking in the area. I was in my mid-thirties. We pulled up and he was sitting on the porch of the log cabin mess hall. Camp had ended for the summer. Hummingbirds were whizzing around; all else was quiet. We got out of the car and approached him. “Hello Mr. Van. It’s Arthur Mednick. I was your quartermaster back in the early seventies.”

“I know Art. I’ve been expecting you.”