pages fly away 35

My classmate from Saint Olaf, Jaimey Gustafson, had agreed to put me up for a few days.  She lived with her husband and two kids near Lake Calhoun.  It had been a while since I’d seen any of the old college crew.  Most of my friends would be working that day, so I still had time to kill once I left Duluth.

I drove over to Wisconsin and followed the Saint Croix River through Stillwater, eventually getting on the 94 east and taking it to the Twin Cities.  I’d become totally dependent on Google Maps by now, simply punching in directions and going where Karen led me.  If she started to nag, I just tried to ignore her, in the same way that I’d handle a backseat driver.

When I got to Jaimey’s house, she came out to greet me.  She looked about the same, maybe a little grayer.  Kirstin Johnson came over.  Lindy Sorenson stopped by.  It was like the good old days, Charlie’s Angels and their dear friend, Bosley.  We were all older but had reached the point where you’re just happy anyone still cares that you’re alive.  Although everyone was coming from different situations and our circumstances had changed, one thing I became aware of that night is that we all carry the same cup of sorrow, never knowing what can fill it to capacity, different triggers for different people.

That night I slept on a hide-a-bed in the basement.  Although I’d lived almost half of my life in the Midwest it had been a long time since I’d been back there, sleeping in a basement.  We don’t do basements much in California, not a good place to caught in an earthquake.  When I came up in the morning, Jaimey’s husband, Devon, had taken their daughter to school.  Her son was off at college.  We drank coffee and caught up.

My goal for the day was to run down to Saint Olaf, about forty miles south of the Twin Cities, in the town of Northfield.  I’d gone to Saint Olaf because my family had only recently moved from North Dakota to California, and I was used to dealing with Midwest types.  Things had worked out pretty well.  It had been a small enough school that I was able to make friends and get encouragement for my writing.  Due to their study abroad program, I got to spend a semester in Oxford and learn all about the traveling lifestyle.  My four years in college made me what I’d be for the rest of my life, messed up, but still looking for meaning.

Northfield was a straight shot down the 35 south.  I got gas halfway there and continued on, turning left onto highway 19.  Before arriving in town, I reached the campus and drove up the long driveway to get to it.  Wow.  There it was.  Still intact.  I parked and set out on foot, past the International Dorm I’d lived in my sophomore year, then over to my freshman dorm, Kildahl, then to what used to be the cafeteria.  It was now an art building.  There was a new building, Hoyme Hall, that housed the new cafeteria and student store.  I walked past Ytterboe, then over to Old Main, the first building when Saint Olaf was founded in 1874.

Behind Old Main, I found a chair, at the top of The Hill.  When I’d shown up for college, I’d had no idea who I was or could be, just a depressed preacher’s kid, getting as far away from his family as he possibly could.  Now what was I, beyond just a leaf in the wind.  It was a good place to be a leaf in the wind.  I had a lot of company that morning.  Yellow leaves and memories were swirling all around me, like butterflies descending on a flower. 

We used to take trays from the cafeteria and use them to sled down the hill.  That’s probably the most innocent activity we ever engaged in.  Before going off to college, I’d never known that artists could be heroes.  I’d discovered a whole slew of dangerous new role models, stopped believing in God for a while, started taking new drugs, and plotting new adventures.  It was there I’d constructed my vision, an almost laughably impossible one, that I’d stuck with all these years.  Sometimes I would grow quiet for a season, do whatever job I needed to raise funds, but never let go of the vision.  Life, without it, would’ve been unbearable.

Leaving the college, I drove towards downtown on St. Olaf Avenue, detouring to visit the Arboretum at rival college, Carleton, a site of many spring concerts and parties.  Parking beside the Cannon River, I discovered that the Archer House Inn, built in 1877, had nearly burnt to the ground.  Walking a little further, I reached the Northfield Historical Society.  In the front window was a picture of the legendary outlaw, Jessie James.

The lawless Wild West was in many ways a byproduct of the American Civil War, fought from 1861-65.  After a peace was surrendered from the South many disaffected soldiers and militia men went on to become Indian fighters or roving gangs of outlaws.  This was the background of Jessie James and his brother, Frank, who’d both fought as guerrilla Confederate bushwhackers under Bloody Bill Anderson.  The James-Younger Gang became famous for robbing banks, trains, and stagecoaches, and Jessie went on to develop a reputation as a modern Robin Hood, even though there is no evidence he ever shared any of his loot with the poor, and the worst of his crimes were beyond cold-blooded.

One of Northfield’s top claims is thwarting the gang from robbing the First National Bank in 1876 and killing three of the robbers in the shoot-out that ensued.  Both Jessie and Frank got away.  Jessie went on to live six more years, until he was shot by Robert Ford in the back of the head while straightening a painting on a wall.  Ford had earned his confidence and killed him for the reward money.  He then got his in 1892, when a man walked into a saloon he was working at and shot him in the throat with a double-barrel shotgun.

Pieces of the past were scattered all over on this trip, like the falling leaves that had engulfed me sitting on The Hill.  I knew nothing of the future, but still feared death.  When it came for me, my hope was to go out like Jessie James, all of my focus on a beautiful scene in front of my eyes, never knowing what hit me from behind.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s