Thursday, April 14, 2016
As most things do, the beginning happens when we never expect it. The dust on the past is uncovered by the smallest winds, and when history shines through, there is nothing else that can be done but to dust it off.
This something completely different was an invitation from a retired Army officer, who sent a personal letter to Susan Mavern. Prior to getting the letter, Susan was 3 years removed from college, grinding out her time as a struggling writer and elementary school teacher in northern Virginia. Occasionally, she would get stories published in small time local and state magazines or for various online outlets, but it was never anything more than subsidizing income or keeping herself busy during the summers.
However, this letter was different. Addressed from Colonel Marcus Powell, a man she never heard of before, the letter spoke in an official way about knowing her mother and her uncle as well as many of the people that they were related to associated with back in the latter part of the “twenty-teens.” This sparked her interest despite the fact that her parents never talked about him before, which made sense since he said he had lost track of her by the time she was a toddler.
To compound this sense of mystery about the early days of her mother’s life, Mary had lost her uncle when she was 8. It was a sad thing, but since she only ever saw him on vacations when the family went to Oregon, it wasn’t like he was ever close to her, though he was obviously close to her mother. Nevertheless, her uncle Clarence and her mother were an inseparable pair from the time that they entered the world, at least until he moved away to Oregon to get a job. When the family would get together, it was said that they would always have these long and serious talks that nobody was ever invited to, and when they were done, they would come back and be as close as ever.
What made these discussions really strange was that even her father wouldn’t be allowed to be around for those. As a result, he would take Susan somewhere else, and well, that was that. Most of these instances were spent with father and daughter bonding, but as she got older, she started to wonder about what they talked about.
“When you’re older, Susan, we will tell you more, but for now, it’s a part of growing up that you’re just not old enough for.”
“Will I be old enough when I’m 10?”
“Will I be old enough when I’m 13?”
“No. You might be old enough at 16.”
“When I’m old enough to drive?”
“Don’t get old before your time, Susan. Stay young and innocent forever.”
After her uncle Clarence died, Susan’s mother would talk cryptically, at least at first, about a place called Blackrock Canyon. Despite not being there for at least 20 years, she still remembered a lot of things about it. It seemed to Susan that it was the kind of place that burns itself into your subconscious and never lets go of you. Susan mentioned this to her mother once, and she nodded in agreement.
“If I could, I would burn that whole place to the ground, but it would probably just laugh at me.”
Throughout the years, Susan learned a lot of things about Blackrock, and the meaning became closer to her heart and her history, despite the fact that it seemed to be a desolate and mysterious place despite the beauty of some of the archaeological sites and cliff dwellings that hid themselves in its rocky mountains.
“The Greers of old would never talk about these archaeological ruins and their meaning with their girl children. It was only for the boys, but you’re different. For that, you will someday learn about this place,” her mother once said.
And for a time, she was interested, and she was told things, always vaguely and in age-appropriate ways, but she came to know. Then came makeup and boys and sports and her driver’s license. She was just so into being normal that the history of people she would never meet didn’t seem that appropriate to her.
However, her mother and father were killed in a car crash after she graduated from college, so she never did find out what went in those holes that the earlier conversations were filled with.
And then, just like that, 3 years passed, and she got the letter from Colonel Powell.
Susan and her husband Jim Mavern walked out of the Big Rocks Nursing Home in Cortez, Colorado. Her home in Front Royal, Virginia, was a million miles away from this dried up and rocky, desert town outside of Mesa Verde National Park. After talking with Powell by letter and then by phone, she and her husband agreed to take a vacation here when they realized how serious the letter was.
What’s more, there were authentic things that only he would know. From descriptions of Mary and Clarence to the grandparents that she had never really known, but known of, it all made sense, too much sense to be a mere coincidence.
“You can have anything from my collection that you want, but you can’t give people my name, at least while I’m alive.”
“Isn’t there someone more deserving of this honor of compiling this history?”
“I never married, and I have no illegitimate kids,” he laughed. “Let alone nieces and nephews.”
“Don’t be. Blackrock Canyon was my life. I met some great people. I wish you could have met them, too, or maybe just known them longer.”
“I know,” she said trying to hold back a tear from the relatives she knew while not really thinking about these other people whose names that he just mentioned as anything other than names from the past. Through it all, she did her best to be kind to the 90-year old man who was sitting in a chair in front of her.
“You know, if I were a younger man, I’d love to be reliving those days, but now, now I just think about how Penguin and Simon & Schuster passed my book over. When they passed, I tried others, but they all laughed at me, and soon, I just gave up and said, ‘The hell with ‘em.’ These things happen I guess, but I was never used to that with all of the respect I earned from my time in the Army.”
“I’m not laughing. I believe you.”
“You do now, but when you look at the truth, you’ll have your doubts, too.”
“I’m sure they were just stodgy old men who couldn’t bring themselves to understand things that aren’t everyday love stories and action movies.”
“It would be better as a fictional comic book or superhero movie, at least that’s what Random House told me. To go about with stuff like this as non-fiction. It was commercial suicide at best.”
“I’m sorry, but why me? Why now?”
“You’re my last solid connection to the days of my past. I checked out other people’s kids, too. You have an education background, and you can write. The others are good for other things, but they can’t write. They’re also too serious. You’re open-minded, but you aren’t so much so that your brains will fall out.”
“So that’s my credentials?”
“That and your lineage… well, your honorable soul, mostly. You’re a woman of the truth. You’ll respect my work that I did prior to this. When I die, you can publish it with my name, but not while I’m alive. There’s too much top secret information. I’d rather not be grilled about divulging some of these things. That said, there are some really good people who need to be known about, and Missy, I think you can do just that.”
“Are you sure this is something you want to do?”
“Because what was out there then is going to come back, and when it does, we need to be ready this time. Preparation is everything. Nobody who could have done anything at the time was ready, and for that, things happened. Bad things. Time allows us to conveniently forget the past, but for those of us who were there, we’ll never forget.”
“My mom alluded to that.”
“Your mother and Blackrock Canyon became even more inseparable than her relationship with her brother. God rest his soul.”
“Yeah,” she said trailing off. “Well, I thank you for entrusting me with all of this. I never knew there was so much,” she said pointing to the briefcase full of papers, photographs, hard drives, and sticky notes.
“Don’t let its appearance fool you. It’s in order.”
“I’m sure it is, sir.”
“I haven’t been in a sir in ages. No reason to start now.”
They both laughed at that.
“So what do you think of him?”
“I think he’s on the level. When things like this fall into a person’s lap, it becomes time to run with the opportunity to be great. There’s no other choice.”
“So you write, and I research?”
“For the most part. I figure I’ll be doing a lot of transcribing and reorganizing what’s there. Even with teaching, we can get this going along solidly over the next 2 summers. We can run through samples next summer, and we can see about publishing when we have a good chunk o’ stuff put together. Marsha, who teaches 5th grade at school has an in with Rotterdam Publishing in New York City.”
“Then, let’s get on this right after vacation.”
And with that, the 2 of them drove off toward the Grand Canyon, which was where their vacation would end and their lives would radically change.
Exactly how much that their lives would change, neither of them could begin to understand in that moment, but as they sat as comfortably as they could in their tiny airplane seats, they flipped through the first of the journals that Powell had given them. From what they saw, it was clear that the old man had given them more than he even alluded to in the conversations prior to and during their vacation.
And considering the long-winded conversations he had about all of those dark and scary moments, that was something.
Upon returning home, Susan immediately placed a phone call to thank the old man, but when she did, she was told by a nurse that he had passed during the night, not soon after they left.
“I guess we got there just in time,” she said, trying to fight off tears for a man that she had barely had time to get to know.
“Yeah, I guess we did,” Jim added, wondering to himself if there was something in his pressing need to see Susan so quickly, and then he just shook it off as coincidence.
“Well, no time like the present to keep reading and researching.”