Out of the PastbyCAP811©
I am an old man whose eyes have seen much. As with many of us who reach their sixty-fifth year, I live in the past, in ways that perhaps you cannot imagine. This is my story.
If ever there was a man who went through life nostalgic for a place that he has never called home, it was I. Having grown up in California, I eventually become an executive at Bio-Rad, a company that markets research equipment. But my heart lay elsewhere.
My grandmother Vera, who lived in Merced, was the one who set me on my path. As a child and young man, I loved the old woman and the tales she told. Of Oklahoma and the prairie; of dust storms and blue northers and loneliness, but also of pie suppers and county fairs. Of a robust spirited people and an era now gone. Gone, quite literally, with the wind.
Vera had grown up near Stillwater in central Oklahoma. In 1935, at the height of the drought and windstorms now called the Dust Bowl, she and husband Henry had loaded their belongings and three children, including my father Carl, into Henry's 1929 Dodge truck. They joined the tide of refugees leaving the parched heartland and drove to California, impelled by despair and hope in equal measure. They were Okies, and remained so to the end.
Buried deep in the truck was their most precious possession, a photo album. With a Box Brownie camera Grandfather Henry had recorded their life in Oklahoma: the house in which they lived, their neighbors, and Stillwater town. He captured a world that no longer exists save in the silver halide crystals that make up those irreplaceable photographs.
I alone among Vera's offspring became fascinated by those pictures and her stories of life on the plains. I alone realized that part of Vera, the best part maybe, had never really left Oklahoma. Some measure of her spirit had stayed behind, and called out to her to her dying day.
In the spring of 1976, at age 34, I took my wife Elizabeth and children Mark and Connie on my first odyssey to Oklahoma. I was disappointed by what I found. The monotonous prairie; the constant wind; a sky whose sheer size made one feel uneasy. Where was the world of which Vera spoke so fondly? I searched but could not find it.
But the seed was planted. We returned to the plains every few years. Each time I began to feel more and more that I belonged there. I did not understand it myself; my family was even more mystified.
And so the years passed. When I was 50 I had the first of several episodes of arrhythmia, soon diagnosed as coronary artery disease. I began medication. You will have this for the rest of your life, my doctor said. You must eventually change your lifestyle; reduce your stress level. Yes, I thought, I know where to do that: the plains of Oklahoma.
Elizabeth and I divorced in 2004, an amicable parting. My children, Californians to the core, settled in the Bay Area and could not imagine living anywhere else. But I could.
On a trip to Oklahoma just after my divorce, I came across Redbud Valley in Osage County. Down a lonely stretch of highway near Pawhuska I found the house. As soon as I saw it, I knew that it was what I had been searching for. It was Home.
Built around 1910, the house had lain abandoned for several years. Along the front and side were a wide porch that gave shade from the Oklahoma sun. The house itself was made of red sandstone, with a wide fireplace and chimney. With only two bedrooms, it was small for a family but perfect for a retired man.
With my pension and savings I bought the house and 30 acres around it. I removed the invasive junipers and cleansed the land with fire each spring; soon it was what it wanted to be, tallgrass prairie. After a few years my home was surrounded by prairie wildflowers and grasses that stood as tall as a man by late summer. In autumn my grassland took on colors ranging from bronze to dull red.
Bitter Creek ran across the land near my house; along its banks I planted my garden. From the red clay soil I managed to coax crops of tomatoes, okra, squash and corn. I became a regular at the Pawhuska Farmers' Market.
I joined the Antioch Christian Fellowship. My fellow worshipers, at first unsure of this man with his strange accent, soon accepted me. They realized that I was at heart an Oklahoman.
In restoring the house I had planned to make it as modern as possible. But soon I found myself drawn more to the old. In the end the wallpaper and furniture, from Persian rugs to wing chairs to my roll top desk, would not have looked out of place a century ago. Somehow it felt right.
I passed many hours on my shaded porch in a rocking chair, savoring the tranquility and my grassland vista. Meadowlarks would serenade me as I watched harrier hawks glide over the prairie. They provided all the companionship I needed.
Early November was my favorite time of year: the air dry and crisp like a fine wine; the sun still warm, the prairie rich with color. During one such day I had spent the afternoon on my porch. Perhaps I dozed off, perhaps not. But I was awake when I heard the sound of a wagon moving along the road.
I watched as it passed: an unpainted buckboard wagon carrying a load of corn. The driver was a man in his 30s, lean and with a thick moustache, clad in overalls and a worn felt hat. Beside him sat a young girl in a calico dress and straw hat with wide brim. Sitting on the corn was another youngster. Like his father he wore faded overalls and a rough cotton shirt.
I was charmed by this bucolic scene, to the point where I raised a hand and waved to the children. Each smiled and waved in return.
It is important to be clear on this. So close was I to the wagon, and so keenly did I observe the passengers, that I saw every feature plainly. I could hear the creaking of the axles and wagon wheels; I even caught the scent of the draft horse as it pulled its load.
A plume of dust was raised as the wagon passed by. It remained in the air for a moment even as the wagon and its passengers faded in the distance.
Still smiling, I got up to go fetch a glass of iced tea. Only when I had entered the house did it hit me. What I had seen was not possible. The road past my house is paved. I could not have seen a wagon stirring the dust.
I ran out onto the porch, then to the roadside. Down the asphalt highway I could see half a mile in either direction. There was no wagon, no dust. Just a peaceful afternoon, the sun working its way through thin clouds to another prairie sunset.
A shudder went through me. Only those who have brushed against the bizarre and the inexplicable can appreciate how I felt at that moment.
For days my mind was plagued. That wagon and its passengers had seemed as real as anything I had ever seen in my life. And mundane, not in the least frightful. Merely impossible. What could it mean?
The days turned cold. Just after Thanksgiving I was awakened one morning at dawn. Above the keening wind I could hear a familiar unmistakable sound from my backyard: an axe being used to chop firewood. Crack! came the sharp report every few seconds, as another oak piece was split.
Be nice to have wood for the fireplace, I thought. But then I shuddered again. Because the rick of firewood I had recently bought was already cut and stacked. And my own axe was in the cab of my locked pickup truck. Filled with trepidation, I put on my robe and slippers and went to the back door.
The backyard was silent and empty. My well-tended lawn was covered by a heavy frost. When I meticulously examined it, I found no trace of shoes that had trod there, even though my own shoes left clear prints. There were no wood chips or evidence of woodcutting.
Now I was certain that for the second time I had had an encounter with the fantastic. The fact that each incident was so ordinary made it no less disturbing. We expect our experiences in life to be possible and rational. These two were neither.
Any doubt that I was facing the mystical were erased several weeks later. Some part of me, I think, now waited with dread for the next incident. And when I heard a knock on my front door one evening just as I had gone to bed, intuition told me to steel myself.
I got up and walked down the short hall. There in the living room, in the glow of a kerosene lamp, were two women sobbing and embracing. Both were wearing floor-length dresses. One, clad in a heavy wool cape and an ornate hat with egret plumes in it, had apparently just arrived at my home.
"Oh Lydia, my dear," she said to the other woman, "I'm so, so sorry. We came as soon as we heard. How is she taking it?"
"As well as could be expected, I reckon," the other woman replied between sobs. Her reddish hair flowed over her shoulders. "We knowed it could happen, but prayed he'd come out alive."
"Poor Helen! And her carrying his baby! What an awful thing this is!" The two now held hands, gazing at each other with heartfelt sorrow.
And just like that the women vanished, as in a movie when there is a quick cut to another scene. In the blink of an eye my living room was dark and deserted. But there was no chill, nothing to indicate that the otherworldly had once again visited me.
Trembling again, I went to the kitchen for a glass of brandy. Did the women appeared semi-transparent, I thought, or was there a glow about them? No. They were as tangible, as ordinary as any two people could look. What I had witnessed, I decided, were two real people and an event that had taken place in this house. Just not in my lifetime.
People of the heartland live a long life and they remember everything. This thought crossed my mind as I regarded the woman before me.
She was Clara Heinrich, age 89, a long-time member of Antioch Christian Fellowship. She seemed at once timeless and as old as dirt. Her thinning white hair was tied back in a bun; deep lines and wrinkles covered her still-ruddy face. I was sitting in her living room in Pawhuska, having tea and discussing the past. The distant past.
"I remember, Mrs. Heinrich," I said, "that you told me you had once lived in my house. The old Reinart place out on Highway 11?"
"Why, yes," the woman replied in her quavering voice, "'twas back in the early 30s. I was just a young girl, but always had fond memories o' that place. Hated to move to Tulsa, but when the crops all failed we had to."
"I'm interested in tracing the history of the house, it being so old and all. Did you know the Reinart family that built it?"
"Oh, yes, everbody knew everbody in those days."
"Was there ever any tragedy that befell the Reinarts? To a woman named Helen?"
The old dame eyed me suspiciously. "Why do you want to know?"
"Just curious. I'd like to know who lived there before me. To know what joy and heartbreak my little house has seen."
As if she were recalling something that happened last week, the woman spoke. "Well, of course. Helen Reinert's husband got killed in World War I. Right afore it ended. What was his name, Frank, I believe. Just broke that poor girl's heart. She was carryin' his baby at the time, 'n livin' with her Mam and Pap in the house there. Frank never got to see his baby."
"Was Helen's mother named Lydia? Did she have red hair?"
The woman stared past me, deep in thought. "Why, I believe that was her name! And she did have reddish kinda hair. How in the world did you know that?"
"It's hard to explain in words."
The room chilled a bit as the old dowager gazed at me, then rose and stood, looking out the window. In a quiet voice she said, "I've heard stories around Redbud Valley, but I've lived here most of my life 'n never seen nothin' peculiar. So I don't want to hear nothin' about it."
A week later came the church Christmas party. Buoyed by an evening of good cheer, I returned home and stood outside, reveling in the silence and the countless stars splashed across the cold sky. And just like that an epiphany swept over me.
I had come in search of Oklahoma. But what had drawn me here was not only the land but its past history as well. And in some inexplicable way I was being given glimpses of just that. It was a gift to cherish, not something to fear.
A weight was lifted from my shoulders. And when a few nights later, as I was reading in my den, I heard a man's low voice and a woman's throaty laugh coming from my bedroom, I knew. Yes, I smiled to myself, my house has known joy, pleasures of the carnal nature, as well as suffering.
That winter, with time on my hands, I restored a broken-down buggy, the kind usually referred to as a doctor's buggy. When I was finished it gleamed, with white spokes, tan upholstery, and a retractable vinyl hood over the driver's seat.
I put in a small metal barn and purchased Dolly, a black mare. Like her owner, she was past her prime. But she was perfect for hauling a gentleman around in his buggy.
My heart was still acting up; chest pains came and went. For relaxation I began to take my horse-drawn buggy down the red dirt roads that bisected Osage County. My appearance at first startled the ranchers that I met in their pickups. I took some ribbing but was soon a familiar sight.
I discovered that one misses a lot as one speeds along, cooped up in an automobile. With my buggy the pace was slow, giving me a chance to savor the prairie and its wildlife, the wind in my face. I felt connected to the land in a way that I had never felt in a motor car.
But I suppose some part of me now expected to encounter something more than the prairie landscape. Who or what would it be?
Out for a drive on a cool afternoon in early March, I stopped to watch a flock of turkeys feeding near a copse of oaks. Glancing back to the road, I saw in the far distance another buggy, not unlike mine, approaching me.
The country here is in places gently rolling hills. The other buggy disappeared down into a low section of the road, then reappeared on the next low hill, moving at a steady pace. With a sense of foreboding I used the reins to tap Dolly, and began to advance in that direction.
We drew near. The driver had a full dark beard and appeared to be about 50. He was clad mostly in black, similar to the outfit Gary Cooper wore in the movie High Noon. The woman beside him was somewhat younger. A dark green bonnet with white trim covered her long curls. Women have not worn that hair style or that type of hat for almost a century.
Struggling to keep my voice calm, I greeted them as we met. "Howdy, neighbors!" I managed with composure that I was not feeling in the least.
"Good afternoon to you, sir," came the genial reply. The woman offered me a friendly smile, and just like that they were past. Still moving slowly, I turned and watched their buggy proceed down the road, appearing and disappearing as the road rose and fell. About a quarter of a mile away, the buggy dropped out of sight at a low part of the road. I waited for five minutes, but it never emerged onto the next hill. It should have, but it did not.
A cold sweat, as cold as death itself, now covered my brow. Can a sane man ever become used to such encounters? The gulf between me and my spectral neighbors seemed too immense to comprehend.
It is strange how life, so strong and vibrant within us, can suddenly slip out of our grasp like an unruly child. No one knows this better than a man with heart trouble.
Late March brought an Alberta Clipper: a fast-moving cold front that rushes headlong down from Canada across the plains. With the wind howling outside, I decided to build a warm fire. I was just putting a few pieces of oak in the fireplace. But then without warning came an invisible sledgehammer blow to my chest and a burning sensation down my left arm.
I staggered, gasping for perhaps my last breath. The feeling of suffocation, the pain in my chest was indescribable. But even then I was lucid. Oh no, I thought. Not now, not yet. Please God, I'm happier, more content than I've ever been in my life! Please not yet!
The floor abruptly rose up to me, and I lay semi-conscious. But it seemed only a few seconds before I heard knocking at the door, footsteps, and then voices that sounded close yet far away at the same time.
Consciousness came and went. At one point I could hear the steady hum of an automobile and above that a loud siren. Then came more footsteps on a hard floor; muted voices again far away. At last, blessed silence.
I awoke next morning in the Intensive Care Unit at Osage County Hospital. I remained there for the day as the nurses and my cardiologist, Dr. Prescott, monitored my heart. Then they moved me to a private room.
I had just finished breakfast there on my second day when Paul Matlock, a deputy sheriff in Osage County, rapped on the door and peeked into my room.
"Morning, Mr. Schaefer. How are ya feeling?"
I was acquainted with the man, who often bought tomatoes from me at the Farmers' Market. "I'm fine, Paul, as well as can be expected. Come in."
Paul was in his late 30s, a member of the Osage tribe. He was just as astute as he was easygoing. He took a seat and looked around for a few seconds, then spoke. "I wanted to ask a few questions about your heart attack."
"Why? Is it against the law to have a heart attack?"
"No," he chuckled, "folks can have one anytime they feel like it. But I'm curious. Why didn't you call 9-1-1? That's what it's there for."
"I didn't have time. It just hit me like a sledgehammer, Paul."
"Then how come you sent that boy on a bicycle to fetch the ambulance? Must be ten miles from your house to Pawhuska, and that boy had to peddle it. We don't understand why you or him didn't phone it in to save time. You might have died."
"Boy? What boy are you talking about?"
Paul eyed me, letting the silence draw out. "I was at the fire station when it happened. Kid, maybe 14 or so, comes up on a bicycle, one of those old timey fat tire models. And he's got on a newsboy cap like nobody's worn in maybe 60 years. Even wearin' those, what d' ya call it, knickerbocker pants and long stockings. We figured he was in a school play or something."
"Tells us that Dennis Schaefer is having a bad heart attack. Says where you live, how to get there. Real adamant about how we need to hurry. The paramedics were in the ambulance and out in the streets in just a minute or two. But funny thing is, the kid was gone by then. He must have left when our backs were turned. I thought I knew most folks around the county, but I'd never seen that boy before. I asked the other fellows, and none of them knew him either."
Paul went on, "So, does he live nearby to you? Was he there when it happened?"
"No, there was no one around. No one I remember." I gazed at Paul evenly, struggling to keep from trembling again.
"Hmm." Now Paul leaned forward and spoke in a lower tone. "What's really got us scratchin' our heads is this. The ambulance left the station at 6:03, got to your house at 6:15. I checked the report sheet. And the paramedics say that when they got there, you were just then having the attack. You had fallen, hadn't even passed out. Now, the kid showed up here, say 6:00 or so. It's as if he told us something that was going to happen fifteen minutes before it actually did."
I swallowed. "That's not possible," I murmured. Just like seeing Lydia Reinart in my living room. Not possible.
"Yeah, I know. Damndest thing. You swear you didn't feel it coming on, 'n send the kid running for us?"
"No, of course not. I'd have called 9-1-1 like you said."
Now I could sense tension in the room. Paul slowly took out a toothpick and put it in his mouth. Finally he said, "Mr. Schaefer, if I was to look for this boy, where would I find him?"
I waited long seconds before replying in a quiet voice, "I don't know. I'm not sure you can. You'd be wasting your time."
The man looked at me. Did he understand? Without a word he got up and left the room.