Saturday, June 30, 2007

GRANITE STATE I - Point of Origin

   I drove up to New Hampshire again -­ late November, 1986 -­ in this fine old  aqua Mustang I had bought on the spur of the moment in Vermont =­ which I had been investigating because it seemed so different from the New Hampshire of my youth - the big summer houses in the White Mountains (which were white now and can be cold gray-blue in summer) - ­ the brick buildings of my boarding school down in the lake country.  And in contrast Vermont's green  mountains, so gentle they might be part of a man-made landscape =­ the way in Tuscany or Umbria what might have been craggy, dangerous countryside was made into art -  Vermont where people had always lived  by farming -­ dairy cows -­ so wildly picturesque to outsiders -­ and gentle meadows and those green mountains =­ and New Hampshire where the soil was so rocky it had been a mistake to try to farm it, and people had lived instead by being tricky ­- lived by their wits. The Vermont license plates said simply "Green Mountains" at the time I made this trip in the Mustang, and across the river in New Hampshire the plates, not surprisingly all made in prisons, said "Live free or die!" -­ and everything not rich seemed to be crumbling in New Hampshire, the roads falling apart -­ rotting barns of long ago failed farms =­ backdrop to the occasional cluster of rich people's summer places ­= and all the billboards that were forbidden in Vermont were in New Hampshire -­ and the new condos that were landscaped out of sight in Vermont ­- the landscaping hiding something ugly - which  did not to fit my New Hampshire-bad-Vermont-good thesis -­  though in New Hampshire the new condominiums hardly had lawns and were right on the pot-holed, icy highways, and the state was so cheap it had no kindergartens =­ and Vermont had a governor who was an environmentalist and anti-Reagan and sympathetic to the poor, while New Hampshire had a governor whose main platform was the death penalty.

I had once seen New Hampshire as the most nurturing and beautiful of all possible places, and now in my psyche -­ as I traveled back into my past -­ New Hampshire was going just as far the other way. So I had high hopes that Vermont would be all I had once thought New Hampshire was, though there were these signs it was not perfect. In Middlebury one day I heard people coming out of an antique store, summer people, trying to sound British - ­ the same precious fakery around which I grew up, sometimes to my horror, sometimes to my amusement.

And now I am driving up again in my happy aqua car. I bought it on the spur of the moment largely because it had a working tape deck and this was one of those times I realized I had been away from music too long. I am playing Carly Simon and Willie Nelson and Judy Collins and even Roger Whittaker as I drive ­- and on the front of my car is what the people of my past would say was an extremely bad taste horse figure = and it is 1986, not 1946 ­= late November, which had felt almost like late summer in the city, and as I go through Franconia Notch, between, the high granite mountains, there is a sudden snow storm = with whirling winds -­ and visibility is suddenly zero, a complete white-out. I stop the car only guessing where I've stopped -­ whether on the edge of a shoulder which might be at a sheer drop without guard rails =­ or in the center of the treacherous main highway -­ and I remember all the dark tales of childhood -­ of people being struck by lightning -­ freezing to death in sudden mountain storms like this one =­ crashing into each other =­ all parties maimed or dead, this happening all the time =­ or being clawed to death by angry Mama bears.

I am on a mission. I am looking into my past these days, and there has been cry for help. It is a time that summer companions of my childhood, my cousins who like me had New Hampshire childhood summers, are dying young. And now Cousin Lauryn, my favorite, who had started out to be a dancer and still looks like a young dancer, is back in New Hampshire, where she'd gone to high school when her mother had taken her out of the city at a time they were going to send her brother Harry to prison because of what he was doing =­ not just the stealing but also kidnapping, and things with a sawed-off shotgun ­- prison if they did not flee the city =­ something that everyone in the family said was so strange, so unlikely -­ like the recent deaths -­ to happen to people like us, they said. Like what Harry, as I was soon to learn, had been doing to Lauryn, who had just been sprung by her mother from a battered women's shelter out West -­ and not for the first time, it turned out. And all this was just the beginning.

Two nights later, the wind having died down at last, a near full moon out, the temperature near zero - me with totally inadequate clothing for winter that I had brought at Lord & Taylor and Saks with unpaid credit cards left over from a failed marriage - ­wearing boots that turn out to have no insulation - I go out in a foot of loose snow at midnight to walk through the settings of the past, the big houses and hundred-acre grounds, and the quaint little houses people like our people had for children.­ I go out and all night, my toes numb, I move through these scenes from where I came from.

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