This story is by Kurt Buss and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
I stood in the middle of my family’s garage and traveled back in time, to the moment of my first recollection. I was three years old, playing with sandbox toys stored for winter. They were stowed in a big closet with sliding wooden doors that were too heavy for me to open by myself. But I could handle the smaller door next to it, which didn’t slide but pulled open easily – even if I couldn’t reach the handle. Inside this closet was a treasure trove of precious objects. Tools of all kinds – smelling like machine oil and rust. Coleman camp-stoves and lanterns; coffee cans and baby food jars full of hardware; my dad’s old army fatigue pants; a well-worn canvas tarp; and the flag we flew on holidays.
But it wasn’t a holiday that brought me back to this garage forty-seven years later. I had a decision to make. And it wasn’t a holiday that I recollected as a three-year-old playing in my parents’ garage.
“Come here,” my mother was saying. Her hand was outreached, pointing at me; her palm faced upward. She flexed her fingers to wave me toward her. “Come here. You should see this. You may remember it for the rest of your life.”
I followed her into the house, through the entry hall to the kitchen. She picked me up so I could see the portable television perched on top of the refrigerator. It was a black and white tv with a miniature screen. I remember my dad was proud of it because it had transistors, evidently something new in television sets. My mom watched soap operas on it while working in the kitchen, and she could hear it from the laundry room when she was ironing clothes.
On the screen were horses pulling something down a street lined with people. Lots of people. A man was talking about what we were seeing and he sounded very sad. My mom was crying, quietly. All I remember from that moment was a little boy about my size in a strange looking coat and bare legs, holding his hand to his head in a military salute. He looked uncomfortable; but he held that pose. Next to him was a woman with a black cloth covering her head. I remember that I could see her face through the cloth. She stood very still. There were others around her. They were all very well dressed. Then pictures of people standing along the street popped up on the little black and white tv screen, and soon everyone was crying. Me too. I don’t remember anything else until I was in kindergarten.
In later years, I would hear the question, “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” Evidently it was an event that would weld you to a moment in time, and you would remember exactly where you were and what you were doing for the rest of your life. I don’t remember where I was when JFK was shot, but I remember the funeral procession. And that little boy.
The only other event that fused me to a moment happened when I was driving to work and heard the news report on the radio that one of the World Trade Center buildings had been hit by a passenger jet. When I got to work, everyone was huddled around a portable black and white tv. They looked stunned. Then another passenger jet flew into the other tower. We looked at one another with our mouths open. No one could talk.
That silence traveled to my family’s garage as I returned from my reverie. I was alone. I had just come from my dad’s funeral in the small farm-town in central Wisconsin where I grew up. My father had grown up in this town as well, had even been born there, in a house, with the birth being performed by a midwife, the doctor stopping by to check on things when he could. I had at least been born in a hospital. My father came to life in the depths of the Great Depression. I came to being in the inaugural year of the 1960s. Camelot had come to the White House. The Dawning of Aquarius was forming in the heavens. My father and I may have grown up in the same small town, but we came from different worlds. The decision I was wrestling with was which world would I occupy when I was no longer to be.
A few hours earlier at the cemetery, as family and friends were gathering for the burial ceremony, my uncle approached me and asked if I had a few minutes. He was my dad’s only sibling and they had been tight-knit throughout their life, as only a blood bond could afford. They had worked together at the family cheese factory since they were twelve years old along with their cousins, as my brother and I had with our cousins. It was expected. That was our world.
But that world was changing as generations passed, which came into focus as my uncle removed a neatly folded piece of paper from the breast pocket of his suit coat. “I’ve got to ask you a question,” he said, spreading the paper on the hood of his car. It was hand drawn in pencil with various rectangles placed side by side and end to end. “These are our family’s burial plots,” pointing out where his parents – my grandparents – were interred, and showing me the location where my father was to be laid. There was a spot next to my father’s, where my mother would someday be placed, and three rectangles side by side in front. “These are available for you, Judy and Derick,” naming my sister and brother. I hadn’t anticipated having to deal with this and my expression must have conveyed as much. “You don’t have to give me an answer right now, but this place is filling up. If you want one of these spots you should let me know as soon as you can. Alright?”
I didn’t know what to say. I just nodded. “Alright.” There was still time before the ceremony, so I wandered about the cemetery. I had been here many times before. The elementary school I attended was across the street. We would walk to the cemetery for Memorial Day services. The school had closed the year after I finished because of a dwindling student population. There were ten students in my first-grade class, but by the time I reached sixth-grade we were about half that. People were moving out of small towns for better opportunities and jobs in larger towns and cities. The school sat empty for several years but became a VFW post named in honor of three young men who were killed in Vietnam. A Patton tank was now part of the playground, and one of the three classrooms had been converted to the club-room, complete with a full bar, pool tables and deer mounts on the walls.
I didn’t realize how many of my ancestors were in this cemetery until I started reading the headstones near my father’s open grave. I’d heard the stories of hardship for the immigrants who left northern Europe in the second half of the 1800s, fleeing the nationalist wars of countries born from falling monarchies. My father’s people came from Prussia, but decided to leave when Germany started its war of unification. They cleared the land of old-growth trees for small farms and homesteads. They left their homeland and came to a new world, risking what they knew for what they hoped – a chance to be something better, with unknown opportunities and hazards. I felt the same way when I graduated high school and left for college.
That was all in the past, but I was in the present, wondering about the future – in the garage of my youth. When the funeral ceremony was concluded, and the VFW rifle guard had finished it’s 21-gun salute, the aged veterans raised their hands to their brow for a final salutation as my father’s coffin was lowered into soil rich with his forefathers. I thought of them. I thought of that little boy in the strange coat and bare legs.
I drove out of town past my grandparents’ house, where I’d spent magical times as a child. Just beyond that was the house where my father was born. At the edge of town was the old cemetery, long filled up and losing its battle with time. As I left the town limits I glanced in my side-view mirror to see the sign I’d seen so many times growing up: Peaceful Valley. Unincorporated.
I nodded at the image in my mirror, and as I turned to look through the windshield I knew that I couldn’t come back. I’d call my uncle from the motel with my answer.