Friday, March 7, 2008

The Aqua Mustang 3 - PARKWAYS

I am noticing everything as I drive along in countryside four months after having noticed just too late that the first leaves had appeared.

Seeing how the trees, darker shades of green now, are billowing up and out, billowing as I watch, on either side of the roads I take up into New England and then back again to the city. From Vermont, where I am staying, I shoot down to New York once a week and then return using different routes. One of my favorites is the leg I do on the old Taconic Parkway, which is still in the 1930s as was Connecticut’s old Merritt Parkway when I turned 16 and took the family car, an aging Plymouth convertible, all the way down to Greenwich – so far away, 20 miles, that my parents argued long before letting me make the journey on my own. And then I was on my way, flying solo to this amazing girl, Kitty, whom I had met in the summer of 1950 at a swimming place in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. This girl Kitty who represented for me everything that the future might hold – if I could somehow leave the past behind.

The Plymouth had been green, which is close to the aqua of the Mustang. And the Merritt Parkway, in Connecticut, was so like the Taconic, up in New York state. This new present on the Taconic in the aqua Mustang when everything seems possible, and that other present, years back in time, when I had traveled the Merritt Parkway in a family Plymouth. It had been much like now, the way the world had been opening up for me.

These pioneering four-lane highways seen in actuality but always having the feel of something seen in a book. Nothing like the trucker lobby’s Eisenhower interstates that came after I was first driving. These old parkways with their landscaping – passages into nature rather than detours around commercial strips. And surely on these roads were people of my future – beautiful sophisticated people on their way to restaurants or roadhouses or summer theaters in Fairfield County or Westchester – and of course on beyond to the mountains which are called green in Vermont, and white in New Hampshire, which refers to winter time, but in summer are sometimes green, sometimes more like blue, when not gray granite.

And in each of these present times, in the fifties and in the eighties, there were these dreamlike elements. And there was something else too – something from yet another past time intruding. For life in the fifties, as again now in the eighties, could get back in unexpected ways to what I had first known – an appealing if static world of big formal houses with striped awnings and white birdbaths beneath the granite mountains.

New Hampshire was a constant. I did not harp on it like other members of my family did. I had never returned to live there, or even set up a summer place there. Yet I had to admit New Hampshire offered the security of a place that would not go away – those summer places and summer people so mired in the past – always there somewhere inside me – this summer side of Franconia, New Hampshire, filled with distinguished old men and women covered with liver spots – this static summer place where I nonetheless had young friends at swimming holes, climbed mountains with girls and boys, fell out of love with a girl from my prep school’s sister school, and in love with Kitty.

The White Mountains, where the grownups talk was so much about the past – 19th century days in lakeside mansions north of Chicago, or “tramping” (the upper class word for hiking) in Bavaria, or my grandfather in the glorious days of World War I, which he saw first from the German and then from the Allied side. My grandfather in the Russian Revolution, and then as a Socialist in the radical settlement house movement in New York. So unlikely, it sometimes seemed, that past when he was a Socialist that they talked about here in this very Republican summer place which was so tight that Jews were not allowed in the hotels – not even his old doctor friend Harry Lorbar from settlement house days. And it was not just the hidebound summer people, for there was a parallel Republican world of actual year-round people, working people whose families had been here forever and were known to my family as quaint New Englanders, or simply as "natives."

But in the Mustang the past went out of consciousness as smoothly as it came in and seemed of little weight. The Taconic in 1986 seemed a passage through a kind of wonderland. This was just before California-style entrances and exits were added. Rather, there were still little lanes going off at right angles into bowers that were recesses in the billowing trees.

Surely there would be strip malls and fast food places on the other sides of the bowers, but the several times I turned off and went through a bower to look, I found myself in an area of rolling hills, or one of little white picket fence villages, or one of fields with red barns and cows or horses or sheep. This was how it was that summer of 1986. It would have been fantasy if I had not been so aware of the reality of all sights and sounds and smells.

But, bowers to the contrary, the past and its darkness never stayed away for long. Across the border from Vermont was the last of our family’s big old formal summer houses, this one a rambling building with antique furniture called The Farm House. And there I had a twin brother, who was the good twin when we were growing up. He had been locked into the role of the good little boy who said cute things for the pleasure of the elders, a role he must have found suffocating, he the boy who learned to read before he went to school and pleased his teachers almost as much as he pleased his parents and grandparents – as much as I displeased them all. He was such a joy to them – making up for me, the slow, bad-boy, non-identical twin brother who got the worst grades in the same schools where the good twin got the best grades, was picked last where his brother was picked first, was constantly in trouble for lethargy or worse.

Things changed when I came into my own in boarding school where I was far away from home, but there was always this dangerous dichotomy. A hopeful present. A formidable past that was meant to wipe out any present. And now that my twin and I were getting into our middle years it was much the same and even worse. I had a book out about the Philippines, written and researched in situations of great danger with my journalist friend Max Vanzi. Much of what it portrayed as seen by us from the embattled opposition side, especially from the New People’s Army, Maoist rebels that were in every province in this former U.S. colony that was now run by an egregious dictator and his wife, old friends of our own ruling Reagans, and where America still had its biggest overseas military bases.

Earlier in this same year I was to buy the Mustang in Vermont, my brother had turned up in the Philippines with the CIA. After half a century our childhood rivalry was still being played out, now in places where it could easily lead to the death of either or both or us

He was probably on the New Hampshire side right now, since it was summer. He was probably sitting on his screen porch with his English wife, possibly wearing a necktie and argyle socks, looking out toward the mountains, just like we did when we were infants.

I was on the Vermont side and everything was different here. And yet there was a voiceover from somewhere playing my head that could appear at the oddest moments. It was my brother’s voice reporting on what I was seeing. Not exactly what I was seeing, but what he was telling me I was seeing. His version of reality, not mine.

Little in the landscape had changed since we were children. But one exception was that in the best farmland, which was almost all on the Vermont side, the picturesque old silos, made of wood and built much the way the old coopers built barrels, had very recently been replaced by shiny dark blue silos apparently made of Plexiglas. I was seeing this change myself for the first time. And I was also hearing my brother’s voice telling me I would see it – as if he were right here in the car and I had not arrived yet. Reality being not what I saw but more like what I read in a book, whose author would have to be my rival twin brother. The one entrusted by the family with its story the way they wanted it to be told – entrusted to cover up most of what would be in any version of reality that was my own.

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