Charley & Me — Part 3

Falling Rock was never seen again. Black Deer questioned Grey Owl and Running Wolf when they returned with the trophy, and became suspicious. He delayed his decision and sent all the tribe’s warriors out to look for signs of the missing brave. They came back with no sign of him, but expert trackers believed Falling Rock may have been attacked, had escaped, and might return.

So they waited, but they also continued to search. Years passed and Black Deer died, but Shining Fawn never married. Braves who had liked Falling Rock continued to search – to find even his bones would satisfy the tribe’s desire to know what happened to the well-liked young hunter. They traveled north and south along the rough mountain range, and to the east and west of it, meeting other tribes and telling the story, asking for news, and never finding anything.

Eventually, Charley said, his serious face flickering in the firelight, the story took on a life of its own, becoming tribal lore, passing into legend, and the quest became a constant part of the life of every Indian who called this wilderness home.

And that is why, even today, Charley said, as you drive the rocky, avalanche-prone mountain roads, you can still occasionally see signs that say …

Watch For Falling Rock.

I swear, there’s no way I can get across to you how great this joke was. Charley had talked for a good hour and a half, setting the thing up, and had us all spellbound the whole time. There was a pause of about 10 seconds at the end as he stood there, poker-faced, before the lot of us burst out laughing like we’d never be able to quit. We slapped our knees, doubled over and guffawed, hooted like hairy-backed apes until we were weak and falling on the ground. He’d taken us all in, and it was a rich and memorable moment. More than thirty years later, I’ll bet there’s not a man among that group who doesn’t remember that night.

This all happened in about 1975, and Charley and I became fast friends. He was a generation older than me, my teacher and mentor, and in a year or two I started to think of him as something even closer.

He had his rough edges, and some pretty definite ones, but overall he was a good man. Best of all, he put up with me and my own rough edges.

I confess, I came out of a not-very-loving home. We were poor, which anybody can be, but that wasn’t it. I’m not sure what it was, actually, but from this end of my life, it seems that we were just a bunch of different people, my mother and father and two older brothers, strangers who happened to live in the same house. My father was distant, busy, and any time he spent with us was with my older brothers but never with me.

From the age of 13 to 18, I had a stepfather who was abusive, sometimes really abusive, and I escaped the whole situation, even leaving the state, to get away from the whole mess.

So here I was a few years later, and there was this unnoticed hole in my life, with the sign “DAD” above it. Charley sat down under that sign, and just fit right in.

I was always welcome in his home, always welcome in his company, and things stood that way for the next 20 years.

But then something else happened. I noticed one day that, though I was always welcome in his company, it was me going to Charley’s house instead of him (or he and his wife) coming to mine. It was me who always called Charley. In 20 years I’ll bet I didn’t get more than a half-dozen calls from him, and those half-dozen calls – all of them together – might have lasted 10 or 15 minutes TOTAL. If we went out to eat, we went out to someplace Charley liked, and not to anyplace his wife liked, or I liked. I couldn’t get him to go on a horseback ride, a hike or a road trip with me. If we so much as ran down to the store for a bottle of whiskey, it was Charley’s truck, Charley driving. He literally would not accept a ride.

Eventually I came to a conclusion about what the problem was: He was willing to share his life with others, but you couldn’t share any of yours with him.

There was this thing he would do with people who came to his house. I called it The Grand Tour. Each new visitor would get a guided trip through the house, with Charley showing them his pictures, his paintings, his saddles and trophies and books. I started to see that Charley needed an audience. Needed to be admired.

I’m not too bothered by that. All of us have some of it in us. But … thinking about it over the years, I began to ask myself “What if that’s all we have here? I’m thinking of him as my Dad, but what if he sees me as nothing more than his own ever-cheering fan club?”

I moved out of state, pursuing a distant job, late in our friendship, and there was a time when I was just morose enough about the situation that I thought I’d test out my theory. I stopped calling him for an entire year.

And he never called. Never, apparently, even missed me.

Pissed me off something fierce, I can tell you. After that year, we were never close again. I talked to him a few more times, but it wasn’t about anything special. I even visited three times, flying across 3,000 miles of sky to see him and the wilderness country I’d grown to love, but he had all of 15 minutes or so of time to spare me each visit, and not once could I get him to let me take him out for dinner or a Whiskey Ditch for old times sake.

I started to get a clear mental image of me turning a crank. As long as I turned it, I had this friendship going. But the minute I stopped turning the crank, the friendship stopped.

After several years of stewing about all this – those visits, for instance, with airfare, car rental, six-hour drive each way between the nearest big-city airport and the small, distant town where he lived, plus hotel costs all along the way, weren’t cheap, I can tell you – I finally called him one day and said “Charley, I think a friendship is like a truck. You can drive it and drive it, but sooner or later you have to do some maintenance on it, or it quits running. For a lot of years now, you haven’t been doing the maintenance on our friendship, and I think it’s just about quit running. I will always care about you, and I hope you have a great life, but I don’t think I’m able to be a part of it anymore.”

Charley’s wife must’ve figured out something similar during this same time, because she kicked him out soon after I left, in that angry-wife courts-and-cops way. He wound up living by himself in a little trailer over in an iffy part of town.

I had a mutual friend tell me one time Charley wondered why I never called anymore, and I answered curtly, “My phone has a dial on it, but it also has a goddam ringer!” Meaning, he could get me on the phone every bit as easily as I could get him.

So here I am in Upstate New York, and Charley’s off over there in his little town in the California mountains, 77 now and alone. And I think about him fairly often, and I wish we were still friends. I wish I could still think of him as my Dad, but I don’t know how to fix what got broken. Because what got broken was my belief that there was ever anything there to begin with.

I talked to another friend of mine several weeks back, a guy who’s been married and divorced several times, and I said “Does love ever really go away?”

What I was really asking was, if you love somebody, does it ever just end? I know you can grow to hate somebody you once loved, but that’s really still love – it’s just that’s it’s turned 180 degrees by feelings of betrayal or whatever. But the love underneath it, does it ever just … stop?

My friend didn’t have an answer. Being a guy, I’m not sure it’s something he’d ever really thought about at any depth.

And I know there are plenty of things that go on in my head that don’t seem to go on in other people’s. But I have the suspicion that the answer to the question is, no, love never goes away. Once you love somebody, it’s there in you forever.

Sometimes you can’t do anything with it. The dog you love dies, or the woman you love leaves, or the kids you love grow up and marry and move off to some far place. Sometimes the person you love proves to be somebody you simply can’t get along with. Or maybe it’s just someone who doesn’t love you back.

But whether it’s a woman or a kid or a dog or a Dad, you’re blessed with it, or stuck with it, for your whole life.

Dang.

Just … dang.

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