Sunday, March 15, 2009

This is a test

This is a test:

In the summer of 1961 when my best friend, Archie, and I were ten and looking forward to being Sixth Graders in a few months, his dad announced that he was going to take us on a camping trip to the Mojave Desert. We lived clear up by San Francisco, so it meant hours on the open road in the Clark's red station wagon, and although I had only a vague idea what the desert was really like, I envisioned lots of dirt and rocks, cacti, lizards, snakes, and it sounded like fun. At the time, I gave little thought to how hot it would be, nor did I have any idea that on this trip I would eat the best watermelon I ever had; but it was, and I did.

Mr. Clark knew all about the desert because he was stationed in North Africa during World War II and he spent a lot of time in the Sahara. You had to conserve water, he said, talking as he drove. We had left the San Francisco Bay Area far behind and it was a typically broiling hot central California summer day, so maybe that's why he got on the subject. He went on: It was so dry in the Sahara Desert that clouds of flies accompanied people everywhere they went and were always trying to crawl into your mouth and your nose, just for the moisture. I had already heard this. Archie told me his dad made them take baths in just two inches of water. Anything else "was wasteful." I wondered if something happened to Mr. Clark back there in North Africa--something that we might never find out.

We set up camp and had our day in the desert. At night we spread our sleeping bags out. We ate a meal cooked over a fire, we drank water from old Clorox jugs that were used as the foundation for our plywood table. We slept under an uncannily clear, cold sky scattered with billions of stars. The next morning, we ate, drank, and played around until about nine.

That ís when we found out we had somehow miscalculated how much water we were drinking, for we ran out.

Mr. Clark was furious. How could we be so wasteful? Careless! He would teach us kids the value of water! We had planned to leave at three that afternoon, and that's what we were going to do, water or no water. Archie and I exchanged uncomfortable glances because that was six hours in the future and we were already thirsty.

We left right on schedule. Earlier I had found a can of hot peaches that rolled under the car seat and Archie and I secretly opened it and drank the juice. It was sickly sweet and left us thirstier than ever. Now we sat sullenly in the back seat while Mr. Clark headed back onto the open road. As the desert gradually became the expansive, arid farmland of the central valley, we allowed ourselves to think about being thirsty again. It was not a pleasant pastime.

Then I fell asleep and awoke, sweating, at the sound of tires crunching on gravel as we pulled off the highway. I looked up and saw a roadside produce stand, a common enough sight. This one was typical: a battered, half-full pickup truck parked beside a long table laden with fresh farm vegetables and fruit, the married couple in old lawn chairs looking out with old, crinkled eyes from under big straw hats. We stumbled out of the back seat hot, tired and thirsty. I looked around, barely able to swallow. Mr. Clark was bent over the table handing the man some money, and a minute later he walked back and handed us each an enormous, freshly cut slice of watermelon. He was smiling when he did it.

That afternoon it was blindingly clear, the sun was high, and the highway was a straight black ribbon of shimmering asphalt from one horizon to the other. My best friend Archie and I stood out there on the side of the road in our dusty rolled up blue jeans and filthy t-shirts and devoured our cool, wet watermelon slices, the best watermelon we ever had, with complete and total abandon.

4 comments:

  1. "uncannily clear, cold sky scattered..." and a friend named Archie Clark. nice vignette of s piece of time.

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  2. Honey, you've passed with flying colors!

    ReplyDelete