Intro to That Sonoma Autumn:
This is a true story from my youth. My family and I had just moved to Northern California from New York in 1976. We lived for a few months on a horse ranch in Sonoma County, 18 miles from Cazadero, and more than an hour from the nearest hospital. Uncle Rex, the local sheriff, had just lost his best friend in a bank robbery/gun shootout and was hitting the sauce pretty hard.
I re-wrote this piece for Ticket to Ride and it is now part of Morgan Blake’s childhood. He relates this story to his therapist in the latter part of the book.
As always, your comments are welcome.
that sonoma autumn
by philip scott wikel
The heat of the small cab of the truck mixed with the smell of old socks and souring buttermilk made me want to throw up. My father sensed my unease and opened the wing window. The churning lessened, but as it did, the pain in my head came back tenfold; the same way the buttermilk at first eased Uncle Rex’s ulcer, then turned on him.
I was a little more than nine and the night before, my brother, four years my senior, had let me have the top position in our bunk beds. It was one of those early triumphs, an epiphany, the sort of thing that would only be eclipsed later in my life by events like getting my driver’s license, falling in love, and turning twenty-one and having my first legal drink.
I had climbed the ladder slowly, savoring my ascent to glory, like one of my childhood heroes who had summitted the Citadel, then slipped into the sweet sleep of the conqueror. But by 3:00 am I had managed to roll off the edge. Those three feet or so of sleepy weightlessness must have been blissful to my subconscious. Wham! A formica desk broke my path downward. A couple of inches to the north and I would have cleared it and landed, however abruptly, much more comfortably onto some of that “thick pile” shaggy seventies carpeting.
Rex finished his buttermilk and threw the empty carton on the floor of the truck. His stomach had cooled a bit but then his stomach acid went into overdrive. His stomach burned.
“Damn stomach!” he said angrily, and startled, I couldn’t help but shit in my pants. And this movement on the far end of my digestive tract prompted a surge from my stomach.
“I’m gonna throw up.”
Rex pulled over in time for my father to carry me clear of the truck. I bent over and puked in the tall, dry Northern California grass, caught a glimpse of the ocean in the distance, then felt a sudden sense of well-being.
“You all right?” my father asked.
“Better dad,” I replied.
Rex threw out an old towel which from there to the hospital served as a makeshift pair of pants, an outfit I wouldn’t have to duplicate until almost ten years later when, on a late night surf trip to Huntington Beach, a few wiseasses thought it would be cute to separate my friends and I from our pants while we were out surfing.
“Is that a deer dad,” I asked as we started back down the road.
“Sure is,” he replied, sounding relieved, ” I didn’t think you could see… thank God.” He looked over at Rex, then pulled me a little closer. He’d awoken to a screaming child, his bloodied son reaching around in a dark room trying to find the door.
For the first time since the fall, he was assured I hadn’t lost my sight. And for the first time in that long hour, I felt like everything was going to be okay.
I’m the second son and the third child. And now that I’m a father of two myself, I’ve come to understand how it might be that each successive child will get a little less of his parents undivided attention. But that morning, in that sour-smelling truck, on that little mountain road from the horse ranch to Sebastapol, my father and I had nothing of greater importance in our lives than one another.
From then on, the bottom bunk was just fine.