Watching for Falling Rock

Bell Rock in Sedona, Arizona, USA
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Watching for Falling Rock

When I was eight years old, my grandfather moved from Southern California to Sedona, Arizona.  My dad did not completely understand his father’s decision to exile himself from civilization and his immediate family. The move was cause for consternation and subtle tension.

Yet, my grandfather had wanted a new start.  Suffering from chronic arthritis and the emptiness of having lost his wife of 30 years to breast cancer, he had remarried to a woman that neither son really accepted as their true mother.  With a private resolve, he longed to renew his life among the great red rock mesas and cliffs of the mythic West.  He did not view this retreat from humanity or family as a resignation from life but in fact, a beginning born out of the ashes of tragedy. My grandfather’s renaissance rose like the phoenix and over the next fifteen years, he transformed into a quirky artist, high desert outdoorsman and amateur Native American historian.

His letters were rich narratives describing the desert as a vast and ever changing ocean of life. He came to understand the hidden power and the healing presence of the natural wonders of the world. He was reborn at the sight of the Grand Canyon and cured of his gray flannel color blindness after gazing across the Painted Desert.  He marveled at the swirling, polished ravines of Canyon De Chelly. He often wrote to us of the ancients that had lived in these sacred places — the Navajo and Hopi who had walked as one with the land prospering in cliff dwellings under great overhangs of red rock and limestone.

We would travel over hundreds of miles of broken, lonely space to visit him in a mobile home outpost whose floor was a carpet of rocks, red soil and saguaro cactus reaching up to a great blue house of sky. We preferred taking the overnight Southern Chief Amtrak that followed intermittent stretches of Route 66 from Los Angeles to Chicago.  My grandfather would navigate his car up the serpentine roads of magnificent Oak Creek canyon to pick us up in Flagstaff on the 7AM train.  It was our first taste of freedom and he would begin to feed our restless imaginations from the moment we stepped on to the cool dry morning air.  He would faithfully retrace his route down the canyon’s nauseating switchbacks descending into warmer air and the backwater pueblo that rested like a homestead in some John Ford movie.

During our visits, he would take us hiking and point out the more hidden aspects of the desert and the natural world that seemed so foreign to suburban children.  At night, he would tell stories of the West and always regale us with the timeless classic of an Indian brave named Falling Rock who had disappeared trying to warn his people against the gathering threat of soldiers and the encroaching tide of pioneers.  The story always concluded with Rising Star, the Navajo chief and father of Falling Rock, consenting to the Army to peacefully lead his people to a life on the reservation in exchange for help finding his lost beloved son.  “That is why you will always see signs that say, ‘ Watch for Falling Rock’, he would conclude – allowing the weight of the night and the unsolved mystery of a boy swallowed up by history to settle on our narrow shoulders.

Over the years, the LA train deposited fewer boys on that summer green platform.  Finally, there came a day when no boy wanted to spend a “boring” week in the hot desert with an old man and his dog.  When he died, it seemed like some ancient tie had been severed.

As the years carved lines onto our faces, my three brothers and I went the way of men and built our own lives, allowing obligations and temporal commitments to eclipse the sage scented memories of four squinting, crew-cut boys standing next to a man with a hiking stick and a white and brown dog.

My brothers and I intuitively understand that we are bonded by a thousand invisible sinews forged during those summers of diving into an ice cold canyon creek, dodging cholla and cactus across a blazing hot broken field of rocks looking for arrowheads or sitting silent bathed in the glow of a twilight fire. Those strands stretch across a thousand miles of ribboned interstate and time. We remain mirrors of one another but we are each painted with a slightly different mix of colors from a palette of sunshine yellow 60’s, brown and orange shag 70’s, chrome and silver 80’s and black and blue 90’s.

We are a genetic collision of German resoluteness, Irish mischievousness, English hooliganism and French elan. We were pounded in the same blacksmith’s forge, alloys created out of a firebrand conservative and a new age free spirit. Over time, the boys that had once scoured the mountainsides for Falling Rock and marveled at the mysteries of great lightening storms and ancient tribes – lost their sense of wonder. As Kurt Vonnegut once lamented,” We do, diddly do, what we must, middly must, until we bust, bodily bust.”

We now only see one another when life crushes one of us with an unforeseen landslide. We gather at odd, unpredictable times, rarely achieving a quorum for a dinner or lunch –separated by miles and our own dreams. To find ourselves together unobscured by the shadow of a funeral, crisis or life milestone is a rare and fragrant moment as fleeting as a night blooming cirrus.

Observing the silent march of our independent lives, I was determined to bring us together for the simple purpose of celebrating our connection to one another.  The storms of the previous two years had not left us untouched and had formed new fissures of uncertainty across our paths.  Fear is a funny thing.  It seems when you need people the most, you often choose to isolate yourself – choosing to follow your own best thinking which often excludes those that know you best. While your partner or spouse may be there for you, no one knows you like your brother.

I became obsessed with getting my brothers together.  What better place for us to gather than among the red rocks of Sedona?  Perhaps this special place that was so symbolic of our childhood and spiritual rebirth could reconnect us to the powerful mythology of our past.  It had been over 30 years since we had communed in that sleepy community of hippies, artists and restless souls in search of some great intangible.

I sent out an earnest invitation reminding each brother that hospital beds and church pews were not appropriate locales for reunions. I challenged everyone to retrace one last time those same ribbons of highway to the crimson rock sanctuary of our grandfather. I was nervous that the memories of those few summers had been swept by life’s flash floods leaving only rock strewn gulches of empty space in their wake.  Gratefully, everyone accepted.

As the long gray line of boys arrived, I was pleased to find us falling comfortably into old stories, gently dredging the sediment of our past and current lives. Our birth order remained forever established but had clearly molded from a line to a circle. With the addition of our own children and partners, the group had swelled to thirteen.  Those outside the inner sanctum of boys could only watch in amusement as our sarcasm, hyperbole and humor rekindled a thousand stories. To their chagrin, neither my father nor our mother were able to attend to defend themselves from our relentless revisionist barrage of warm hearted lampoons.

Our time together dissolved too quickly under warm, wind swept days and cool mountain evenings.  On the last night, a sunset burned tangerine pink illuminating the great citadels of iron and limestone to the east. We paused and said nothing as if we all understood how brief our time together would be. We were ten years old again – laughing and recklessly hurtling through life like dust devils whipped up by a sudden burst of canyon wind.  The energy from forty summers past returned to radiate from somewhere among those great iron, lime and sandstone monuments.

On my final day, I looked back one last time across the great canyon lands and was warmed by a new memory and by the thought of our own shadows that would now forever dance among the mysterious Kachina who dart unseen across this mythic landscape. I turned, not wanting to say goodbye, rolling on to stretch of canyon highway that would lift me over a mountain pass and gently descend into suburban Phoenix.  As we narrowed between two monoliths called Cathedral and Bell Rock, I noticed a warning sign, “Watch for Falling Rock.”

At that same moment, perhaps on a dusty blood red road, the silhouette of an old man and dog can almost be seen disappearing into the adjacent National forest.  He comes here every day to walk his dog at twilight – and on this night, he is pleased because his grandsons have returned one last time to honor him – – simply by the act of never forgetting.

Writers of the Lost Art

STC_6901July 14, 1861

My very dear Sarah:

The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days — perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more…..I cannot describe to you my feelings on this calm summer night, when two thousand men are sleeping around me, many of them enjoying the last, perhaps, before that of death — and I, suspicious that Death is creeping behind me with his fatal dart, am communing with God, my country, and thee.

Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield…..My dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name…. If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the garish day and in the darkest night — amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours — always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.

Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.  – Excerpts from the last letter sent from Major Sullivan Ballou of the Second Regiment, Rhode Island Volunteers, to his wife Sarah on the eve of his death at the Battle of Bull Run, 1861

I remember distinctly the sadness I felt the first time I heard Sullivan Ballou’s haunting letter to his wife at the conclusion of the first night of Ken Burn’s Civil War documentary.  I recall being stunned by its prophetic eloquence and its resigned acceptance of the inevitable price a young family must pay to the cause of the Union.  It was a love letter and an epitaph.

John Donne once said to a critic, “Sir, more than kisses, letters mingle souls “.  In our age of instant messaging, acronyms, emails and social shortcuts, the handwritten letter has become an anachronism.   I find myself lamenting the passage of a time where people put pen to paper and developed their abilities to paint a picture of feelings, experiences and beliefs.

I think about the grueling ritual my parents subjected me to writing thank you letters as a young man.  I can recall the gift of stationary with my initials on birthdays and holidays and using those cards to write letters to my grandparents and friends.  There was nothing like the feeling of your heart skipping when you looked into the mailbox and saw a letter addressed to you.

My grandfather kept boxes of letters he had written and sent to my grandmother during the early 20th century.  Each note was a stitch in our family’s personal patchwork quilt.  His feelings, experiences and thoughts offered us a wonderfully rich picture of a second generation German immigrant runaway who lied about his age to join the navy at 16, only to meet and fall in love while on leave with a quiet Irish girl working in her grandmother’s boarding house in San Francisco.

Not everyone is meant to handwrite a letter.  My younger brother, Patrick, has the handwriting of an emergency room doctor.  I could probably take any of his cryptic notes scribblings down to CVS and get an antibiotic prescription filled.

Gramps, on the other hand, was an avid writer and would forward rambling, animated letters chronicling his adventures living among the red rocks and desert wilderness of Sedona, Arizona.  Each letter was devoured by lamp light and served as my transport from Southern California’s suburbs to the ancient, blood red sunsets of the Grand Canyon and the collage of autumn colors in Oak Creek canyon.  My love for the outdoors was shaped and molded with each envelope and every mental picture of silent sidewinders, deadly Gila monsters, elusive roadrunners, towering saguaro cactus, sudden snow storms, and brilliant sunrises in the wispy shape of a rising Phoenix.

The lost art of letter writing seems to me a symptom of greater erosion in our society – – of intellect, imagination and generosity.  In a generation that is fueled by caffeine, immediate gratification and instantaneous communication, there does not seem to be much patience or interest anymore in the handwritten letter.  When time is in fact our most precious commodity, it seems to me that the act of writing a letter is the ultimate gesture of a person willing to eschew modern conveniences for the sake of the intimacy and personal significance that a letter often symbolizes.

Earlier last year, I interviewed two candidates for a senior position.  After meeting with each person, the first interviewee sent me an immediate email – – thanking me for my time and assuring me that if he were selected, he would exceed my expectations.  Not bad.  He was quick, focused and contemporary.  The other candidate?  She sent me a handwritten note on personal stationary.  It arrived three days later.  It was equally well written and reiterated the key reasons why she could serve my firm well.   The two prospective employees were equal on every level except one.

I chose the lady who took the time to handwrite me a thank you note and as Robert Frost once wrote, “That (has) made all the difference.