Thursday, March 24, 2011

In Search of Bops

It's sort of funny the way we come to know people. When I think back on some of the people I've met in my life, I'm sometimes struck with a grin over how we came to meet - and eventually became friends. Some of my friends came into my life through relations with someone else, others I have met by sitting next to them on a first day of a class, and some others I have met out of the blue... almost by shear coincidence. It's fun to think about how our relationships once formed.

What's even more interesting to me, is the way we sometimes come to know people without ever meeting them. Typically, this happens through hearing stories from those people we do know. I can think of quite a few people who I know of, but have yet to be acquainted with. Sometimes, the stories I hear of these people are so good, I come to feel as though I know a particular person, only having to be sobered by the realization that I have never met them.

My Great Grandfather's name was Tom Barkdull, and we never met. And if it turns out that we did meet, I was certainly too young to remember the encounter. Until this last year, my only conception of Tom was what I learned from my mother's childhood stories. As many of you are probably well aware, when you spend lots of time with someone, you tend to hear jokes or stories more than once. In the case of my mother, she has told my siblings and myself HER story of Tom on more than one occasion. The story, which usually comes up at a family dinner where fish is the main course (something my mother refuses to touch), goes something like this:

In the mid 1960's, my mother was frequently sent away from her family home in California to stay with her grandparents in Prescott, Arizona. According to my mother, her grandparents (named Tom and Evelyn - who I grew up knowing as Bops and Grams) frequently served fish for dinner. In all fairness to my mother, she never describes it as simply fish. It was salmon, and supposedly the most vile, repugnant salmon a human being has ever been forced to digest. In any case, my mother's stories about these times primarily concern her grandparents coercing her into eating all of the fish... in order to instill a sense of discipline in a small child, I suppose. Although the story generally revolves around a young girl being forced to eat something she doesn't care for, my mother always manages to convey heart-wrenching (and possibly overly dramatized) specificity in precisely what she was made to eat, as well as what the experience was like. The full, detailed story involves a girl, forced to sit in an empty kitchen until she finished the ENTIRE contents of her dinner plate. So for a long while, this cold, emotionless image of Tom was the only thing I had to work with. I practically never heard his name, and when I did, it was framed in the context of my mother's tortured memories.

One day, when my siblings and I were visiting my grandparents at their home in El Cajon, California, my grandmother got to talking about her father. "Brent, you know my father was a writer, don't you?" "Um... no, I had no idea," I replied inquisitively. "Yes, very prolific, in fact." It was at this point that my grandmother explained to me that Bops had written quite a few publications in magazines, and that he even published a book. It was called Lonesome Walls. Although I had absolutely no clue that my Great Grandfather had ever written a thing in his life, something about the title of the book caused a spark in my mind. I couldn't put my finger on it, but I knew of this book...

... as it turns out, I had walked past Bops' book hundreds, maybe thousands of times during my lifetime. For years, it had been sitting on a desk in our house, inconspicuously hiding among a dozen or so other antique books, none of which I had ever even touched, let alone read. A month ago, I read Lonesome Walls.

The book is, in its most simplest sense, about old ghost towns. Each chapter offers some historical information about each town, and about how it came to be in the state it currently is in. The book's subtitle is "An Odyssey Through Ghost Towns of the Old West." This subtitle is strikingly appropriate, mainly because Bops' book is an odyssey. If there ever was a thing called "a life's work," this book is his. I like to think that "Lonesome Walls" is a bounded representation of the man I never knew... in the way he would have liked me to see him.

I am not going to summarize any part of the book here, but rather, explain what it means to me. As I stated prior, I read this book over a month ago. Although I wanted to sit down and write about it the second I put it down, it just would not have worked. I have needed this time to become comfortable with my thoughts, as well as to be comfortable enough sharing them.

Bops was a wonderful writer, this much is clear from the book. I don't like comparing writers to one another, and I most certainly do not like comparing any writer to John Steinbeck (who, for my money, was the greatest writer to ever live). However, when reading Lonesome Walls, I couldn't help but make the connection. Bops described the towns he visited in a sophisticated and heartfelt way that reminded me of the way Steinbeck wrote of the Salinas Valley at the beginning of East of Eden. I appreciated the way he described the towns as they appeared to his naked eyes, but also in the ways they appeared in his own mind. He had the wonderful ability to give life and emotion to run-down buildings and decayed landscapes.

Apart from admiring Bops for his talents as a writer, reading Lonesome Walls allowed me to connect myself to him in a way I never imagined I could... or at least, never thought I would have the opportunity to. The man who I once identified as cold and irreverent took on a new form when I read his book. In the same ways I have passions for certain topics in my field of study, I imagine the image of a ghost town always fascinated Bops. I have no idea if my thinking is accurate, but I like to think that he got a particular "kick" out of Westerns, and that he took a deep breadth every time he felt the rush of a cold breeze on his cheek. I hope he thought about things in the same way that I do. I hope he would have liked to sit and talk to me about the places he visited and the people he met. I wish I could be there with him as he was writing this book... to understand what it meant for him to take his passion and craft it into a piece that others would one day read, and maybe, just maybe, feel an iota of what he felt when he studied the towns and their histories.

Truth be told, I never considered myself particularly interested in the subject of "the old West" or ghost towns. Actually, I can't say that the subject itself appeals to me any more now than it did a year ago. And still, I find myself being pulled toward the old towns of Arizona, to the places where Bops conducted his fieldwork. It would mean something special for me to wander around those lands... to trace his steps. I have heard it said that you can never know someone until you walk a mile in their shoes. So, while I'll never get the chance to meet my Great Grandfather, retracing his steps and learning more of his life's work... and passion, would be a valuable learning experience. And, even if I never make it out to these old abandoned towns, I'll always have a copy of Lonesome Walls to remind me of the man I never knew... the writer I will always strive to become.

"The tumble-down ghosts of many ravaged mining fields are visited in these pages. But this book is not dedicated to those storied communities, nor to the rugged men and gracious ladies who thronged the chewed-up streets of other years.
This book is dedicated, rather, to the incessant wind of change that bleaches white, and gives voices to, the sagging skeletons where ghost-town buffs will listen... and dream.
Sometimes a hot desert wind will whisper through the ruined lace of an ancient head frame, stirring the rotten timber to wake and groan. Another time the high-country wind, soft and spicy, drifts down an old Main Street - tousling its pine-needle bed, stealing through its pane less windows - then leaves with a whimper to swap secrets with lost friends who sleep under crazy-angle crosses on the hill.
But the wind is always there - now gentle and warm, again snarling and chill - the faithful companion of those who go out to search for lonesome walls." - Tom Barkdull