I’m sure you have noticed that evening light is hanging on for a long time now. Spring has barely begun and it feels like we are suddenly almost racing toward the longest day of the year. Taxes are done, at last. Unfinished yard work beckons insistently. The spring street cleaning brigade from the City of Missoula has come and gone. Ticks are out in full force, showing up mysteriously crawling up my leg or down the back of my neck long after I have been sure that I had found them all. And, yes, the Montana Legislature is lurching clumsily to a close after a session that, as usual, seems as if it lasted about forty years and we have somehow managed to avoid the worst of the hare-brained schemes that the lunatic fringe brings forward every session. In the wild world around us, new life is everywhere we look, and spring and summer plans for river trips, hiking expeditions, and family get-togethers are falling into place.

This all amounts to a typical April for me, with some of the days busting wide-open under a clear blue sky and others staying stubbornly chilly and gun metal gray as if to remind us all that forces far beyond our control remain firmly in command. For most of my crowd, spring is always a time of anticipation and hope, and for me, it is also a time when I am inevitably carried back to a few precious spring times long ago in the Mission Valley. This year that’s especially true.

That’s because as I peck out these words on the keyboard, the aforementioned Montana Legislature is on the cusp of approving the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ Water Compact with the State of Montana after years of good faith, but complicated and difficult negotiation, and more recently, a vicious and divisive campaign to derail the effort. Even many years ago,when I first showed  up in the Mission  Valley, the issues related to control and distribution of water were always percolating just below the surface in the valley. Now, perhaps,  if the Water Compact finally receives all required approvals and is fully implemented, maybe a little bit of peace will settle in over the Mission Valley at long last.

A couple of weeks back, I took an early spring drive around the Mission Valley and some of the neighboring country with my old friend Frankie. It’s beautiful country, as you certainly know if you have ever spent any time there. Forty years ago, I was teaching at Mission High School in St. Ignatius, and Frankie was one of my students as well as one of the star wrestlers I was lucky enough to coach. Back then, I wasn’t much older than my students, and Frank pointed that out during our drive.

“If you think about it, we’re more or less the same age,” he observed as we cruised along the gravel road between Sloan’s Bridge and Hot Springs.

He’s right.

I assume that most people, when they look back over the years, think of certain times in their lives as particularly wonderful. In fact, memory sometimes serves those special times up as almost idyllic in nature, though at the time, they may not have registered quite that way. But now, that’s exactly how I think of those Mission Valley years.

My sister Sally lived with me for a couple of those years. I was teaching and coaching at Mission and Sally, fresh from college and trying to plan her own future settled in to substitute teach, practice her bassoon, and figure out whether to go to law school, where she was already accepted, or do something else with her life.

We lived in a ramshackle little white frame farmhouse nestled among cottonwood, willow, and one weeping birch, all crowded into a depression shared with an algae-filled pond,with the fortress wall of the Mission Range looming a few miles to the East. We could see one other house from there, that was all. We called our place Rancho Deluxe.

Weekdays in April and May, after checking on the cows we minded for our rent, we were off to school before the sun’s first blinding rays exploded over the mountains. In the gray, still shadows we drove slowly toward town and a day of teaching with the windows of the yellow Volkswagen bug wide open so we could feel and smell those spring mornings and perhaps catch a few notes from one of the meadowlarks perched sentinel-like on fence posts along the back roads. There we spent our days in the high school, in the shadow of the Garden Wall and Mission Falls, which all of us who taught at Mission recognized as part of our compensation package, the spectacular view in lieu of higher pay. As with all small towns, the school and the local churches of course, were the focal point of all community activities, and even if you weren’t a churchgoer, anyone who taught at the school became immediately part of the community life. Even a city slicker like me was made to feel welcome and like I belonged right there in short order.

It was the weekends though, that made the real difference. On Saturday morning, we would haul our kitchen table out onto the ragged little lawn just as the sun transformed the crest of the mountains above us from a cold gray to brilliant, warming gold. There, surrounded by green grass and spring flowers, planted over a lifetime by Gladys, the woman who had lived there before us, and now lived a half-mile away in the only house we could see from Rancho, we drank coffee and worked our way through the week’s worth of newspapers and magazines amid the cacophony of waterfowl gamboling on the pond and songbirds calling and singing through the trees, always with the constant, barely perceptible hum of working bees in the background, the ones that lived in the walls of the house. We listened to Montana Public Radio, even back then, or to flute music from records on the second-hand record player. Sometimes, Sally would drag out her bassoon or oboe and spend an hour or two practicing while I snoozed. We felt like the idle rich.

Toward late morning the landlords, Pat and Glen, might stop in to make sure we hadn’t done in any of their cows, or maybe there was something else that was on the schedule, branding and vaccinating, fence work, ditch cleaning, or some irrigating. Sometimes some students might stop in to see how we were doing, maybe offer unsolicited advice on one thing or another. Always, the talk was always easy and unhurried.

Come late afternoon, other people would start to show up, teacher friends, mostly, but others, too. There was Willy, who might be passing through between jobs in Zaire and Alaska. And there was always Chuck who would try to generate interest in a big-time croquet match on the course we had set up in the upper pasture. Spread out over the green carpet we had a huge field of play requiring shots of a hundred yards between wickets. From a rise at the northern edge of the playing field, you could look out over much of the valley. As a friends filtered in, some gravitated toward the croquet course and others settled in in around the yard in an impromptu picnic.

Some evenings we carried the squat wood stove out from the living room, removed the heavy top and replaced it with a wire rack so we could use it as a combination bon fire and barbeque. Elk steaks or venison burger would always magically appear from someone’s freezer.

It would be after dark before the last loud crack from a wooden mallet would echo across the pond mixed in with Chuck’s victory shouts, or maybe some harsh words about the poor quality of the mallets. And when they came in from the dark to the circle of warmth around the stove, the music would be blaring, but now it would be Dylan or the Rolling Stones.

The evenings were filled with earnest talk about school, kids, the world, and if Gabby was there, the nature of truth and beauty. There were loud arguments sometimes, laughter for sure and always the music that seemed to pull those green-enshrouded evenings in around us, as bats ghosted past along the periphery of the glow from the stove. And there was a kind of tribal dancing that went along with it, often started by Gimpy, who wasn’t gimpy then, and was actually quite light on his feet before his hips went bad. I can see the faces in the firelight still, all young and full of hope. At one time or another, nearly everyone who was teaching at Mission in those days would stop by on a spring evening. We all knew we were lucky. We wanted it to last forever. We knew, of course, that it wouldn’t.

Those folks are scattered to the four winds now. Some of us keep in touch, and others of us have lost track of each other entirely. All the croquet mallets were finally broken before we left. And a few years later, Rancho Deluxe was torn down, and the little farm has long since been sub-divided and homes have been built there. I don’t often take the time to follow the gravel roads to the old driveway. I prefer to remember it the way it was. That way, I can summon it up on a spring morning, dust off the memory, and hear the call of a meadowlark or even a little bassoon music.

That’s what I am doing this morning, and I am keeping my fingers crossed for that Water Compact.

 

9 Comments

  1. This is one of your most beautiful yet!

  2. I agree with Holly!

  3. I can feel your heart and soul in this one, Greg

  4. Oh boy! (Your software says that comment is too short, so let me say “Oh boy!)

  5. So, then , we’re all in agreement. This is a wonderful. Should be expanded and deserves to be read widely. Just beautiful.

  6. Marvelous story Greg – your words of this time in your life paint a beautiful picture. Thank you.

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