by Bert Rock
Pike’s Peak stands like a mountain king crowned with snow. At its feet, lies Colorado Springs, the prostrate subject, cowering servant or perhaps some vanquished foe. I have family there, and I love them, but to me it’s a graveyard of haunted memory.
Mountains have a magic to them, a mystery I have felt all my life. I remember staring at the tall peaks of the range that dominated my young horizon and wondering what kind of adventures waited there. Mountains are the elders of the earth, the stoic witnesses to eternity.
The Pike’s Peak range has a scar where one mountain is gone. It was stolen by strip miners who scarred the whole range when they took it. Growing up it looked like a big, red wound. The range’s beauty forever marred. Before I knew anything of permanence, I wondered where the mountain went. Did it just up and leave one day? Was it ever coming back? Did the other mountains miss it? Now, thirty some years later it has been sodded and there is a little green, so the scar is not as noticeable. Still, it is there, like a mountain family photo with someone missing.
My mother’s father was the first man I remember. Grandpa Johnny was a cheerful old Viking. He would take me fishing and to walk in the world of the woods. There he told me about the wisdom of the river, tree, and rock. My childhood memory is like a thick fog over a cemetery, but I can still see some of the sunlit days we spent together.
One summer day when I was four or five, we stood out by the lake watching our lines in the water, waiting to see the tug that signaled a catch. I kept my eyes on that red and white bob, hoping, waiting. The weather in Colorado is moody and it started to get cloudy. We had caught three rainbow trout. I remember admiring the myriad of color on their scales, a real rainbow, when I heard a distant rumble.
“The thunder god is at it again,” Grandpa Johnny said.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“You know where thunder and lightning come from?”
“Thor. He battles giants up there in the clouds. When you hear thunder, it means he’s knocked them down with his great hammer.”
Thunder shook the sky, and I imagined an enormous man standing in the clouds fighting great, big ugly giants. It is the first thing I remember imagining. It was as if Grandpa Johnny pried the lid to my young mind that day and poured in wonder. I watched the sky the whole way home, hoping to catch a glimpse of a giant or the thunder god through the clouds.
We brought our catch home to Grandma who would clean them before putting them in the frying pan. I can still see the trout’s scales clinging to her fingers like little diamonds. Grandpa Johnny and I shared a jar of green olives. A salty treat, I delighted in putting them on my small fingers and plucking them off one by one.
He had a power unlike any man I’ve ever known. My father did not have it, nor did his father, nor any of my mother’s boyfriends who followed years later. Grandpa Johnny’s power came in every pat on the back, every smile, or look in the eye. He made me feel big and counted, as if I could do anything.
My grandfather was at Pearl Harbor and as I was told years later, he was given a battlefield commission for his bravery. He would then go on to Europe to help defeat the Nazis. He once told me that the hardest thing he’d done, was to court an Englishwoman and bring her home to America.
Grandpa Johnny was a man carved from the roots of an old tree. He had the blood of Vikings flowing in his veins, but when I knew him, the war cries in his chest had softened into words of encouragement for me. I was his buddy, his pal and as Grandma said, “The apple of his eye.”
Grandma was cut from the cliffs of Dover by a sea god, who sculpted her alabaster beauty from the stone. She was a Sergeant in the British Army during the war and drove supplies to the troops. Once, she told me that to keep the Germans from seeing them, they had to paint the headlights black except for a narrow strip where the light would shine through.
I was born at the Air Force Academy, and according to my mother, I was as quiet as the mountains around me. It was as if I was one of them, like I had always been there. A reserved child, I often stared out the window at the snowy peaks.
My brother was born two years later, in Montana. He came into the world like a river, loud and roaring. He was like a salmon, forever fighting upstream, an angry river god. He still rages through life, never yielding.
My sister was born in Texas where a river separates the hill country and prairie. She arrived like a calm breeze promising rain. She is the only one of us to bring new life to this world. She did so three times. They are beautiful and brave and are carving their own myths into the bark of time.
My brother and I fought endlessly–the mountain and the river always at odds. We’d had many epic battles, ones where thumbs and eyes were nearly lost. We fought so much as children that one Christmas our parents bought us boxing gloves, so that we would fight, perhaps, more safely. Within minutes of opening the gifts, we were at it. We went outside to test the gloves, both pairs colored a chocolate brown. After landing several blows each, we reached a rare agreement: the gloves muted our fists too much and as such, the fight lost something of its meaning. We fought bare knuckled, as was tradition.
My father was in the Air Force then, and I had already lived in Colorado, Louisiana, Montana, and Texas. We moved back to Colorado Springs after my sister was born. We left a family of three and returned a family of five. Then, it was still something of a family, it would later become some thing.
Cancer is a blood dragon. It flew into my mother’s father on wings made of tobacco leaves. It made a lair of his lungs and ate him alive.
I remember seeing Grandpa Johnny on his deathbed. He wore his red flannel shirt from home. The color a stark contrast to the sterile Air Force hospital room. Through the window, I saw the white steeples, always a landmark of the Air Force Academy tucked away amongst the trees at the base of a mountain. I remember others being there, but to me the world was in that bed, and they were just soft voices and sniffles around me. Grandma wept silently at the side of the bed.
“Come here,” Grandpa Johnny waved me to get closer.
He was thinner than the last time I’d seen him. His hair grayer and the light in his eyes was not the same. I stepped closer to him. He patted the bed for me to sit next to him. He sat up with considerable effort and helped me up so that I was next to him.
“Look out that window there,” he said. “Tell me what you see.”
“I don’t know,” I mumbled. “Steeples.”
“That’s right. You know where we are?”
“The Air Force Academy,” I said.
“And do you know what makes this place special?”
“You,” he said. “This is where you came into the world.”
He squeezed my arm. I wasn’t sure what was happening exactly, but I had the sense that it was not good. I could feel the sadness in his touch.
“What would you like to do?” he asked.
I wanted us to leave that room right then, grab his tackle box, and go drop a line into the lake. I wanted to hear more of his stories and feel his presence, as bright as the sun to me. He was the center of my orbit, though I didn’t know it, or that it was the other way around.
“Have some olives,” I managed to say, though my throat was choked.
Grandpa Johnny smiled. A few minutes later, a nurse with dark curls came with a can of black olives. She was sorry, but that was all they had on hand. I remember the salt and bitter brine. The flavor of olives spoiled for me forever in that moment.
“Lift up your shirt,” Grandpa Johnny said.
I thought nothing of it and did as he asked. With his shaky index finger, my grandfather drew a series of invisible shapes on my five-year-old chest. His finger was cold, but I knew the warmth behind it.
“This will protect you from giants, witches, and trolls.”
My father would say that Grandpa Johnny’s tall tales of how things like thunder and lightning came were not real. They were just stories.
“Those aren’t real,” I said.
“Oh, no? How old are you now?” he asked me, squinting one eye as if he did not know.
“Five?” he feigned surprise. “Well, I guess you know everything, don’t you?”
He started coughing uncontrollably and the box of lights behind him made a whining sound. The nurses came in with a doctor.
My brother and I were given ice cream and a television to watch in a room down the long, blank hall. Sesame Street was on. We sat there for a while and ate the ice cream, colored in coloring books, and listened to Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch in the background.
We waited for a while, and I went to the window. Clouds loomed over the mountains, dark and heavy. The sharp, white steeples of the base chapel always made me think of heaven, of what Grandpa Johnny called, “Valhalla,” the home for heroes. I heard a sound down the long hospital hall. It was my mother crying. I went cold and turned back to the window.
As I gazed out, there was a flash of rainbow light. The sun glinted off something, and for a second, I thought I saw a misty figure fly into the blue. He was escorted by four women with shining shields, and wings on their helmets.
Moments later, the world was real again. Grandpa Johnny was gone. The sky was blue, the clouds were white, and I was in a hospital. My father called for my brother and me. I took one more look at the mountains where I could see giants moving in the distance.
I’ve had many bouts of pneumonia in my life and been hospitalized with it four times. The first time was when I was very young. My fever was so high they had to put me in an ice bath. I vaguely recall my mother speeding to the hospital in my father’s Corvette. I remember her carrying me into the emergency room. I can still see the tub of ice where they placed me. My fever, she told me, was 105. To this day, I do not know if that is true or even possible, but I nearly died.
For me, when Grandpa Johnny left this world, he took the earth’s axis with him. I had a dream about him once, back then, a dream that he’d visited me. We were outside in the mountains together just the two of us.
“Grandpa Johnny! Are you in Heaven?”
He just smiled at me.
“What’s it like?” I asked.
He thought for a moment. “Not what I expected.” He took my hand. “Come with me. We don’t have much time.”
Suddenly, were at the top of Pikes Peak, the sun shining down. There he asked me for his old pocketknife, the one my mom gave me after he died. I cherished that knife. It was small with a wooden handle that I always thought looked like a raisin. I took it out of my pocket and gave it to him. He opened it and the blade shone bright. He stood on a rock and reached up and carved off a piece of the sun. It was a small piece, the size of a lemon. It was perfectly reasonable that he could do it. He was everything to me.
Grandpa Johnny took the lemon of sun and cut it in half and told me to look up at the sky.
“Hold still,” he said and squeezed several drops of sunlight into my eyes. “With this, your eyes will find light, even when it is dark.”
We walked for a while and day turned quickly to night. We listened to birds chirping in the trees. I saw a squirrel and it reminded me of Petey, the squirrel that would eat out of Grandma’s hand in her backyard.
“Can we go fishing?” I asked.
He squeezed my hand. “I would love to fish with you,” he said. “But we can’t.”
I wanted the dream to last forever, so I didn’t complain.
We walked under the moonlight and down the mountain toward a lake hidden by trees. The moon was full and bright. Grandpa Johnny crouched down by the water and motioned for me to do the same. The lake was like a mirror.
He gently put his hands into the water, then lifted them, cupped, and holding water with the moon’s reflection. It was as if he were holding the moon itself, full and shimmering.
“Drink,” Grandpa Johnny whispered.
I drank the moon from his hands, and it tasted sweet.
“That’s for when it is darkest, and your soul needs a light to walk by.”
We walked for a while through a meadow made silver by the moon. We said nothing, just held hands. The dream was ending.
I felt myself start to waken, and he said, “You will always have the sun, the moon, and my love.”
The gateway to Hell is not a gate at all. It is not a door. It is not guarded by some three-headed dog or a man with cloven hooves. There are no bat-winged demons or men with goat horns wielding pitchforks or scythes. The way there is a dirty stairway to a dark basement.
Hell is being alone in your pain. Because there are giants, witches, and trolls in this world. They chew up children, twisting them into misshapen things.
My family did not go to church. I recall going with friends to their churches but not with my family. When I was in grade school, I had an enormous fear of the Devil. I remember one day, when I was eight, I asked my mother about God.
“God helps those who help themselves,” she said.
I wondered then what happened to those who could not help themselves.
“Go see what your father says,” my mother prodded me to go upstairs.
My father called me from the bathroom to bring the Sunday newspaper. I had many jobs back then. I was responsible for: loading the dishwasher, folding the laundry, mowing the yard, chopping the wood, bringing him Pepsi, popsicles, coffee (two saccharin) and the newspaper while he sat on the toilet that he called the “throne.”
My father sat upon the toilet in a wine-colored robe with slippers and a cigarette. He took the paper and bade me close the door and standby, as was the practice. This was the Sunday routine. I would hold my breath to avoid the smell, and he would read the paper while asking me questions like, “What girls do you like in school?”
The smell curled my nose hairs. I’d become adept at holding my breath for long periods and answering certain questions with a simple nod or shake of my head. On this day however, I decided to ask my question.
“Is the Devil real?”
My father looked up from his paper. His cigarette had a long ash on it that dared gravity.
“There is no God,” he said. “There is no Devil. So, don’t worry about it.”
I was sure he was wrong. How could I believe that there was no God when I’d seen a funnel cloud form as tornado warnings wailed. I remember all of us piling into the basement bedroom and my father holding the mattress over us as the twister roared outside.
The walk home from school every day was a gauntlet of angels and demons. I had gotten it in my head that red was the color of Satan and that even on the red gravel of the playground, I was tormented by fear. I would tell myself that I loved God, and that He loved me but always, another voice would whisper, “No you don’t. You love the Devil, and he loves you.” Back and forth this went, every day throughout grade school. I wished for Grandpa Johnny to save me, for some god, any god to smash the Devil, his voice, and the memories.
Once, at the zoo gift shop, I found what I thought was the most beautiful cross. It was made of ornately wrought pewter and round turquoise stones. I begged my mom to get it and after much effort, she relented. This would surely protect me, I thought. When I got home, I decided to test the cross’ strength and cried when it snapped in two in my little hands.
Grandpa Johnny died when I was five. He could not protect me from the giant, or the witch and her trolls, but his loving touch on my life saved me.
I know that there were good times, happier times, but they are harder to recall. When I was seven, I had to make a choice–it was me, or my little brother and sister. We were dropped off at a house that was not our own. A monster, a giant lived in the basement, he was a child-eater, and he was hungry. At first, I ran, the fear too much. I hid in a field across the street, my heart pounding into the earth. It was still and quiet outside, so stark to the chaos in that house. I can still remember the grass poking through my T-shirt. The night sky was dark as if the moon had closed her eyes and turned away.
Through the tall grass, I looked at the open screen door. My brother was five, my sister three. They were still inside. I don’t know how I did it, but I went back in. I walked through that door, and the giant was fed.
I’ve felt all alone ever since.
I remember the day I told my brother I’d enlisted in the Marines. A tear came down his red, freckled cheek. I never expected him to cry. His hair was long and blonde like our mother’s. He asked me why I was going when Iraq had just invaded Kuwait. I told him, I wanted to do something to make this family name a proud one or die trying. He saw through my words to the truth. I wanted a way out, and what I considered then to be a good death.
Colorado Springs was a graveyard dotted with memories heavy as headstones. I had no life there I could live. So, I left. Of all of us, me, my brother, and my sister, I was the only one who ever did.
I am the mountain who got up and walked away.