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Memories and the Solace of Stories
By Gary H. Holthaus


Gary Holthaus

Our memories are important to us all because they are such a part of who we are.  That is part of the devastation of dementia.  As important as work is to us, and as often as we identify ourselves by our work, there is always so much more... So, I am not just a geezer with a lot of gray hair who drives a red car that needs washing, and is married to a singer and composer and instrumentalist named Lauren Pelon.  I am also the guy who remembers the beauty of an afternoon walking with her through tall fall forest just north of Seattle, sunlight slanting through the great trees, leaving splotches of light on the pine needled path.  And I am a person who remembers visiting with a Roman Catholic priest in Nicaragua who was being threatened by his archbishop because he was helping his people learn to read scripture in small groups and discuss liberation theology.  He had also helped them, always non-violently, in their revolutionary quest for their own government, and consoled them for their losses.  What a quiet, humble, huge hero in my book... So my memories are as much me as the cells in my toes which enable me to take a stand.  And those memories from the past shape every minute of my present, and make me who I am now.

If Dr. Freud taught us anything in the century just past, it may be that there are some memories buried so deep inside us that we cannot even admit that we know them.  But if we can call such events to mind and turn them into a story we can tell to others, then a kind of healing can begin.

The summer of 1964 I met and flew with Guy Groat, a bush pilot out of South Naknek.  We fished the Kvichak together; I hunted caribou with him that fall, and we became friends.  In January, 1965, Guy took off from Kodiak in clear weather to fly back to South Naknek.  By the time he got home the weather had closed in and he could not land.  He told his wife on the radio that he was heading for King Salmon.   Even with King Salmon's air force station's aid he could not land.  Guy told King Salmon radio he was heading back to Kodiak.  That was the last we knew for ten days of whiteout conditions.  When it finally cleared, Fred Cunningham, a teaching colleague, and I flew as spotters, hunkered shoulder to shoulder in Georgie Tibbets' little Piper Tri-Pacer, peering down.  This is 


"One-five Whiskey..."
Tracing broad rectangles
Over the tundra, white and rolling
Under us, under the wings
Circling; low, quick patterns
Adjacent to other planes
Other old friends
Flying other rectangles
Three hundred feet over the snow
After ten days' white-out
Keeping us down
With no word, no word
Long after the time for words
Guy down somewhere
White eyes screaming in the snowlight
Down there
Scattered along the one ridge
Between home and safety

We could have missed it
Someone else found snow
Clear over the engine, the engine
Two hundred feet ahead of the fuselage
One wing ahead of the fuselage too
Off to one side, iced up under the snow
Fuselage strangely whole, door gone,
Everything pulled apart at full bore
As a blue-white moth comes
Apart in the hands
Snow blowing around the cold figure
Still inside, still
Snug in the seatbelt, head bowed ahead
As though too tired
To rise and greet us
Shrug off the snow and say hello
Or crook a rueful smile
At the single massive bruise
Above the mouth; too tired
To lift a hand to wave hello.
Two low, slow passes let us know.

The radio, one more pass -
Then others hover like upset crows
Flocking to a stricken brother.

We leave him then
Alone and awfully out of touch
Airsick taste of iron and sulphur
Acid in my mouth, all the way home
All the way home.

Freud had something in common with William Wordsworth, the English poet.  Wordsworth believed that, "the origin of poetry" lies in "strong emotion, recalled in tranquility."  One needs time to gain perspective, Wordsworth believed; then when one goes back to an incident to write about it, the emotion returns with its original force. 

It was ten years before I got around to writing that little poem about Guy and I did not even know I was thinking about him.  I had buried his story somewhere deep inside me.  Freud's notion was borne out.  The words, "One-five Whiskey" came to mind, and came repeatedly.  I finally wrote them down; the rest followed and was then revised and revised.  In drawing that memory up and turning it into a story, I did experience a kind of healing. 

Wordsworth was right too.  If I had tried to write the poem earlier, the material would still have been in control of me.  Time had given me enough distance that I could make it a story, but once I got started, the old sense of loss and distance - that uncoverable distance between my safe place in the air and his broken body on the ground came back to inform the poem.  So the poem, I hope, had some original feeling: sentiment, but without sentimentality.

Whether you are a writer or not, that same power of memory can happen to you.  When it happens, friendship and loss become something more than strong emotion; they increase respect for life and loss, and both take on a sacred aspect, and give us a perspective that includes gratitude. Now telling his story keeps Guy present in my life, and sometimes even in the lives of others who never knew him -- and in some who did.  I read that poem once, years later, in Kodiak, and a young Native man came up after and said, "Thank you for reading that poem about my uncle.  I really liked it."  Once in a while even a writer like myself will write something that has meaning for someone on the front lines of life. 

About the Author: Gary H. Holthaus is the author of eight poetry collections and chapbooks including
Unexpected Manna (Copper Canyon, 1978) and Circling Back (Gibbs Smith, 1984), and three nonfiction books including a collection of essays, Wide Skies: Finding a Home in the American West (University of Arizona Press, 1997). Two of his essays which first appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review were cited as Notable Essays of the Year in The Best American Essays.

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