Many times our memories of people are deeply related to the experiences we have with those people at particular places.
Then later in life when we do those same activities (as we had previously done in our memories), we are somehow transported back to a place where we no longer are, to a group which is no longer together, to an event or environment we can no longer experience.
The last week (and day) of June in Eugene, Oregon is perhaps the beginning of jelly making and jamming season. The strawberries have already finished. The blueberries are in their last week of production. The blackberries are just about to arrive. The plums on the plumb trees are beginning to come in. This is an event that reminds me of people and places in my past. Particularly it reminds me of the Larsons.
Many years ago my dad was in the U. S. Air Force. For a stent he worked at Rein Main Air Base in Frankfurt, Germany. In fact Frankfurt was where I was born. As I remember the story being told to me, my dad worked with Karl Larson at the base clinic. The two were soon good friends. My parents were newly married while Karl and his wife Karen had three young children at the time. The children were all older than me. I was less than two years when Karl and Karen moved to Marlinton, West Virginia (actually a small hamlet just outside Marlinton on 92 called Huntersville). In the following years my parents would move from Germany to Dayton, Ohio and then to College Park, Maryland and then again to Bowling Air Force Base, Washington D.C. We moved from Washington D. C. back to Germany when I was nine years old. So most of this story happens between when I was five and nine years old.
My dad and mom stayed in contact with the Larsons for a long time. When we lived in the D. C. Metro area we would often drive out for the weekend to Marlinton and visit with the Larsons. It was a five hour drive. If we left early in the morning we could make it by lunch. We made the trip most frequently on three day weekends and holidays - Holidays where my dad's family from New York were not scheduled to come down to visit, but even then sometime my dad's sisters would go with us to visit the Larsons.
I remember being able to recall every turn in the long winding road across the Appalachian Mountains. I remember knowing every highway name and the order of turns and railroad bridges I can see the windy roads and the rock faces in my mind as I write. Even as a young boy, knew the route on the map and I knew the alternate route. I remember asking my dad once how much longer. He said to count backwards to one hundred. - Backwards from what?!? Was my reply. I remember sitting in that orange Westfalia camper, counting and being interrupted periodically by my dad so as to slow me down.
To me, perhaps because the only place I had been in West Virginia was to the Larsons, West Virginia became synonymous with the Larsons. To say that we were going to West Virginia was to say that we were going to visit the Larsons. After all visiting them was my whole "West Virginia experience".
They lived in an old 5 bedroom farm house. It was a civil war era white clapboard house with a large wrap-around deck on the front. The house was on well water. Sometimes during long dry summers the water in the well would dry up. There was also a large degree of iron in the water. Rings of orange iron deposits were on all the drains. Iron stains eventually discolored laundry, especially the towels. Outside, to the far side of the porch, there was a lilac bush. Elsewhere there was a grapevine and a plum tree. There was a long gravel drive with deep, wide ruts that created little "ponds" when it rained. There were two huge trees in the front yard inside the white fence. Their trunks were at least 8 foot in diameter. They had huge boughs that were at least 3 foot in diameter. We, several of us at a time, used to climb up on them and play in the tree. It was sort of a rite of passage to be able to ascend the tree by ones self. Beyond the trees there was a white cattle fence that surrounded the property.
The fence served several purposes, it marked the edge of the lawn from the field. It also served to keep any grazing animals out of the yard (not that I particularly remember any incident with these animals, but there were no dried cow pies in the lawn area). However, for me the most memorable use of the fence was to mark the firing line.
With Karl and dad we used to shoot targets from the fence to the barn below. I say "we", because I felt like I was a part but I actually never shot anything - I was told I was too young (and I have now waited 27 years to be old enough to fire Karl's guns and pass through the rite of passage). I did however collect the shell casings of spent rounds. I loved the smell. Fresh .22 shells were the best. Once I had a brown paper bag with over 122 .22 casings, a few 3-10 casings, and a few 12 gage, and a few other casings. I used to hold them up to my lips and blow into the casing and make them whistle. I took the casing with me back to Washington D.C. They lived in the footlocker my dad gave me - my treasurer chest.
The Larson's was a magical place. Cold in the mornings from the mountain air and hot in the afternoon sun. One quickly learned to dress in layers- longjohns under jeans, sweaters over long-sleeve shirts. Late at night the cold air and lack of city lights made for awesome star gazing. I remember sitting out after dinner watching the sky get darker. Sitting on lawn chairs and blankets. Fighting the mosquitos, the cold, and the falling dew. Waiting and watching the constellations come out. Shooting stars or Meteors were not to be missed. I think I saw my first one there in the night sky.
In the winter, it was also cold because the house was old and was heated by several wood burning pot belly stoves. When moving through the house it was required to close the room doors to keep the heat from escaping. The doors had old round metal knobs and big square latches, with long since missing metal keys. That living room with the pot belly stove and the old brown and white couch was where I learned to play the game Battleship. That cold house required some of the windows (and even a bedroom) to be sealed off with plastic in the winter, to keep the heat in. I remember one cold winter sitting in the living room. My dad had brought a VCR and a VHS tape. We hooked it up to a small TV. Huddled in a corner with the stove fully radiating. We watched Treasures of the Snow. I decided while watching that movie that I wanted to do woodworking, something I do to this day.
The Larsons was a place of adventure. Across the cow pasture lie a small creek. A 2x4 board would be enough to cross the brook. Or if one knew where the rocks were then one could keep their feet dry. There was enough fallen branches, reeds, and tall grass to create forts and hideouts, though one had to be mindful lest one encounter a rattle snake. Over the years the brook would take on different shapes as rains and snows would cause the real creek a few hundred yards down stream to rise and swell. Minnow traps and fishing rods were often part of these trips to the creek. The larger creek was the place for fishing. There were rainbow trout in it! The ultimate form of responsibility was to have one's own fishing rod and be able to catch a keeper. But alas I was not from WV. I was merely visiting. I didn't have my own fishing pole. So sometimes Karl would take me down and we would cast a few lines in (at least in the summer).
One summer day I was out playing in the brook area, and needed to return to the house to use the toilet. I was about 7 years old. I went to the front door but it was locked. So I walked around to the side door, which was off of the kitchen and across from the bathroom. To get to the side door one had to walk through a screened-in area. To get back outside, the screen door had a latch of some sort, but to reach the latch one had to brave past the yellow-jackets. I don't remember ever getting stung by yellow-jackets, but I was stung once by a honey bee, in Ohio. I vowed never to get stung again. On this day there were several yellow-jackets caught inside the screened in area, they seemed aggressive. I was trapped and I had to go to the toilet. I was meeting on the door but no answer, well not right away. Eventually there was one. But Karen couldn't understand why I was in such a panic. I tried telling her about the "yellow-coats". But she couldn't imagine what "yellow-coats" were. For me, having newly learned the distinction between bees and "yellow-jackets" I had substituted the "jacket" for "coat". If I had a super-power, it might be in making substations or drawing analogies.
Adventures may be thrilling like running to the creek, or terrifying like yellow-coats, but they are often just filled with new things. There were plenty of new things at the Larsons. I remember, going for a picnic once. There was an underground next of yellow-jackets. Anthony found it. Karl poured some gasoline, or lighter fluid down the hole and killed the hive. I had never seen a hive exterminated before, and I had never seen a hive in the ground before. Another new event for me was going to an auction. I remember the long barn that the auction was held in, the air was warm, and stuffy. Karl ended up getting a couple bags of spicy pork rinds. Both a first for me (not that I cared for either very much at the time). I remember sitting in the back of the car. Going around the curves we would lean onto each other in the back seat. Some of us kids appreciated this more than others.
I remember a time when 5¢ would buy a pice of candy. I remember walking down to the bait store in Huntersville to buy candy with the Larson kids. It was something like Nerds, and something else like taffy sticks, maybe they were cow tails, or Sugar Daddys.
The Larsons was a place of intrigue. It was where I learned that there were fewer pegs than holes in the game of Battleship. I felt that there was something really wrong with the game designer to create the environment where there were not enough pegs for all the holes in the whole game. It was also at the Larsons where I first considered that the width of a porch needs to be larger than the width of the porch swing. I remember having to walk around the swing on the outside of the columns when someone was swinging. - Though this memory might have been enhanced by me internally walking into the swing while someone was swinging not it. Crazy who would make a porch that small! Perhaps this was my first consideration of user experience design.
The Larsons was a moral place. Some kids, like me, are born to explore and to test, to discover boundaries, to find defined limits, and push for new boundaries. I remember that Karen was firm but beautifully polite and caring. My parents left me with the Larsons for a week once. Karen cured me of my habit of sticking out my tongue at authorities. I think that having these boundaries makes me appreciate the home environment more. It made it feel like their house was a safe place, where respect was required. I am now happy to report, that I rarely stick my tongue out at adults.
Over the years, I rarely remember my dad singing. He liked music, and song. But singing, especially by himself was not his thing. However, singing was a social venture for him. In 1987 my dad had just bought his first Mac. I remember that he typed the words to about 50 songs (hymns, Psalty songs, and his favorite christian songs of the time). We took several copies of these printouts with us to the Larsons. At the time they were hosting a small house church or Bible study. I remember singing together at the bible study, but I also remember practicing the round in HA LA LA LAby Ernie Rettino.
Now, when I think about West Virginia, I don't like to think about the diverse nature of the state, or a history of a depressed culture. I like to think of my treasured memories. Call me selfish, call me coward, call me looking for that home away from home. Call me looking for that place of peace, that is so far away, I may never find it. That place with so few amenities, yet a place of inclusion. A place where people and their character shine, where fun was made, where the outdoors grew large, and the laughter was deep.