Sunday, 14 June 2009

BINARY CODE-Chapter 2-Valhalla

Return to Table of Contents I shall begin at the beginning. Not of my life, of course. At the source of this story, the wellspring of the waters of my experience. These flow from rivulet to cataract to rapids and will end in an effluvial delta. They will empty my life's sediment eventually into the sea of oblivion. I am not quite there yet, but I am far downstream, and I remember the source. It is 1976 in Virginia on a country road in late October. The sky above is an eye burning blue, peeking through a canopy of orange and yellow leaves determined to outdo each other in a last futile blaze of glory. The sunlight dapples the black tar of the road with uneven points of light which shift in the breeze. The smell of Indian summer floats by on the wind--freshly mown hay tinged with the lingering death of a leaf fire. The firmament of heaven is around me. It is one of those rare moments in life when you know, if only for a brief instant, exactly why you were put on this earth. I am driving my roommate's 1961 Cadillac, a metallic green monster with tailfins and a healthy disrespect for the energy crisis. We are consuming fuel like freshmen drinking beer in a guzzling contest, and I am aware that we are guzzling away our youth at an equal rate. I am gripping the steering wheel with white knuckles as if to hold on to this moment forever. I am not alone in the car. There are seven of us, but I am the only one awake. The others are dozing in various poses like a pride of lions after a big meal. We are an hour out of Richmond on the last leg of a journey up from Duke to the Mobjack Bay, up to Stokely's family farm. We are going to Valhalla. Stokely is in the front seat, his head slumped against the cracked vinyl of the door, his feet diagonally splayed on the dashboard. His thighs rest on the legs of his girlfriend, Clare, whose bluejeaned knees point upward, propelled by her feet which rest on the huge hump covering the drive shaft. I am happy, deliriously happy in the cocoon of my concentration as the skipper at the helm of this Detroit boat. The peace and quiet is broken suddenly by a Stokely pronouncement, deep and slow in his easy drawl. "A trial makes a customer....Ole Bill does it again. Look around you, my son, at these slumbering souls. Sat-is-fac-tion guaranteed." He wads up the paper wrapper he is reading from and throws it against the windshield. It rebounds and teeters on the edge of the dashboard before the wind eases it over onto the floor. "What did you have, Stoke, pecan or lemon meringue?" I am one of the few who can shorten his name without rebuke. It is a sign of our friendship. "I felt obliged as host to demonstrate sound leadership skills...for our newcomers. I had three pieces actually. I threw in a coconut creme for good measure." I wince. We are enacting a ritual we have done at least once each season for the past three years. We are making an autumn pilgrimage to Valhalla, and one of the obligatory way stations is Bill's Barbeque, a drive-in slightly north of Richmond in a non-descript area of Americana near the baseball stadium. Their motto is festooned on everything: the cups, the wrappers, the boxes in which they place their world-renowned fresh baked pies. A trial makes a customer. Quite right. I have been more circumspect this time, sticking to the basics. Pulled pork barbeque with slaw, iced tea with no sugar, a slice of sinfully rich apple pie. There is no doubt why I am still alert while the others around me sleep off their indulgence. "How long ago did you turn off?" "About ten minutes ago." We are now on the last stretch of road leading down through Matthews and on to Valhalla. The road cuts through the slightly undulating land which is becoming increasingly flat as we approach the shore. As the topography changes, so does the vegetation. The winged carboat moves out of the stand of trees and glides noiselessly past wide fields shorn of their crops. It is four o'clock and the sun will be down by seven. Already we are planning the next stage in a familiar ritual. "What do you think, Evan?" he asks me. "A ride in the Whaler, a swim off the dock, artichoke dip, and G&Ts on the swing?" I nod. There is no need to comment on a tried and true sequence of events. There are only details to attend to. "Do we have the ingredients?" "No. Good point. We'll stop at the A&P." I glance over and notice him looking around the car mischievously. "Should we wake them up?" "No, wait until we hit Matthews. This is supposed to be a holiday, Stoke." He rolls his eyes and says nothing. I look through the rear view mirror at the sleeping passengers. First there is Jonah. When we feel like teasing him we call him Zarathrustra because his last name is Sprock. He rues the day the movie 2001 came out, because from that day onward Strauss's hitherto well-hidden work is sung practically everytime he is introduced. Jonah is my roommate. He is from Wichita, Kansas and he is a golfer. His father is a car dealer, and this portable monument to excess in which we are riding is fresh off the lot at no cost to him. This explains the whitewalls, cassette player, and electric windows, accoutrements normally out of the reach of college students even in a fifteen year old car. Jonah is just this side of being a spoiled rich kid. He wears his weaknesses on his sleeve for all to see. He is easily forgiven and has a heart of gold. He drinks too much, an occupational hazard of university and his bourgeois country club life. His arm is slung across his girlfriend's shoulder. We don't know her well. Jonah has kept her secret, even from me. It is her first time to Valhalla and she is the youngest among us, being a sophomore. Her name is Lydia and she has a nice combination of brains and beauty, with long dark brown hair and a strong smile. She has already zinged Jonah several times with her acerbic wit, leaving his eyes trailing after her like a lost puppy. She is good for him. Stokely and I already have a bet on whether or not she can slalom and how many times it will take her to get up. I say yes she can and one, and there is ten bucks riding on it. Next to them is Dewey. William Dewey Ravanel. He was an original member of our Brains Trust before he went off to boarding school, a rarity for someone from our town. Dewey marched to a different drummer even back then. He was the first of us to wear Adidas, the first to windsurf, the first to smoke dope, and the first to do a flip off of the boathouse. He has the ageless clean cut boyish look which is attractive to both men and women. He is unaffected by attention and his friendly manner masks a loner. Asleep with his head back against the seat, his mouth is wide open like one of the bass we hope to pull out of the Mobjack tomorrow. His hands are neatly on his knees, as if someone else has placed them there. Though the others are sprawled against each other, furthest from me alone in the far right corner of the gargantuan back seat is Tess. Ah, Tess. Stokely's sister. She is a year behind and light years ahead of us. If she were eligible, she would be the head of the Brains Trust, but of course she is disqualified by age, sex, and the fact she is Stokely's sister. In every other respect she is superior to the rest of us. She once played the second half of a field hockey game as goalie with a broken leg. It was in the state final, and when her team lost we all thought the silent tears and gritted teeth were from frustration. Only later that evening, when she returned from the hospital with a fractured tibia and a floor length cast were we any the wiser. Tess taught me to sail and to go wave jumping in the Whaler. Our relationship is complex, falling somewhere between friend, honorary family member, and cautious but unfulfilled courtship. We are an odd group this time. Odd in the numerical sense. The numbers do not add up into neat little packages divisible by two. Boyfriend-girlfriend, boyfriend-girlfriend divide by two equals couples. This assymetry actually seems to cause less strain. In past visits to Valhalla it has happened that we will find three of us of differing sexes butt-naked in a shower washing off egg and flour after a vicious food fight. It is innocent somehow. That doesn't mean that sex doesn't enter into it. Of course it does. Belly warming, as we quaintly call it, is a time honoured pastime. Somehow, it has never interfered. It is as if at Valhalla the rules are different. We are all there as part of a special club. My heart starts to quicken as we approach the outskirts of Matthews. It is what my father would call a one horse town. One main street, one drugstore, one restaurant with great crab cakes as its only claim to fame. We pull into the supermarket parking lot. In the car there is stirring but no waking. Stokely and I disengage ourselves quietly and go into the store, where we purchase the fixings for a sunset cocktail feast. Artichoke hearts, mayonnaise, garlic and parmesan cheese for the dip, Triscuit wheat crackers as dipping implements, and limes and tonic water for the G&Ts. We come back to the car to find only Dewey has awakened. He is looking around at the others as if he is debating whether to wake them up. Stokely puts his finger to his lips as we get in. "If we're going to do it, let's do it right." He turns to me. "Fire her up and prepare for the Boss..." "Aye,aye, Cap'n," I say, as the Green Monster rumbles into life. Stokely has that look in his eyes. "Next stop, Valhalla," he announces in a loud voice as he puts a cassette into the player. The first chords of Springsteen's anthem to freedom blast out: The screen door slams Mary's dress waves Like a vision she dances across the porch As the radio plays... We have two miles to go and our little group has sprung to life. Lydia is probably wondering what the fuss is about. For those of us who have already been there, we are already in heaven. Even Clare, Stokely's girlfriend over our objections, is animated. "Don't forget, it's the second field, Evan," she says to me over the din. Somebody always says that or something similar to me whenever I come to Valhalla. The instructions that Stokely gave me before my first visit were to take the first right at the end of the second soybean field on the right. Since I didn't know soybeans from sorghum, I spent five unnecessary miles on a self taught horticultural lesson before doubling back. Then however there was no sign. Now we see one coming up at the end of the second barren field. What soybeans there were have been harvested. VALHALLA, the sign says, and underneath that in tiny letters: Mobjack Farm. Valhalla. The great hall of immortality where the souls of warriors slain heroically were received and enshrined by Odin, the Norse god. This is a different Valhalla but for us it is no less a shrine. For us it is memories, joint and several memories of happy times which are enshrined in the hearts and minds of each of us who have been there. I turn the Green Monster into the road and stop. We all look at each other and smile. "Valhalla," announces Stokely unnecessarily as we stare down the sandy dirt road which goes straight as an arrow down to the creek off in the distance. It is called a creek, but really it is a river at least a quarter mile across. It flows out into the Mobjack which opens into the mouth of the Chesapeake and eventually into the Atlantic. From Valhalla you could if you wanted sail north up to Baltimore or up the Potomac to Washington or out the Hampton Roads to Bermuda and points beyond. America is still a relatively young country, so ancestral homes may only span three or four generations. Valhalla is not really a home in any case. It was built specifically as a resort by Helmut Hoeflinger at the turn of the century as a way of escaping from the claustrophobic heat of Washington. His yacht the Eric would sail down the Potomac and deposit him and his family in one of the two houses, the Summer House or the Winter House, depending on the season. There is an additional house, the Bungalow, which stands on a separate site and used to be for the servants. It is now used by the likes of us. This more rustic place suits us down to the ground. The land runs about two hundred acres along the shore. The road bisecting the property is shaped like a hospital straw, a long dead straight stretch bent at the top in two directions, left 90 degrees and then right 90 degrees. To the right of the long straight part of the straw is the soybean field, now leased out to a local farmer. On the left are the woods. After a quarter of a mile, the positions change. Field on the left with a dirt road leading to the caretaker's house, woods on the right heading down to the bank of the river. At the end of the straight part of the straw the road does an abrupt left face. The Bungalow is diagonally off to the right under the trees. Like everything else at Valhalla, the scale is grand. The word bungalow normally conjures up a two or three bedroom house. This bungalow is more like a large bunkhouse. Built on stilts to avoid flooding, it consists of two buildings joined by a covered walkway. The largest building is T-shaped, with the top part of the T an enclosed porch facing the river with six bedrooms leading off of it. The bottom part of the T is two bathrooms on either side of a hall leading into the covered walkway. In the other building is a large dining room, a kitchen, and a storeroom. I don't stop. This is also by custom, as newcomers are taken on to the boathouse and the Summer and Winter Houses to get the full effect. After the sharp left, the road runs along a marshy field where a few cows are grazing. It then turns sharply to the right and carries on between some trees, past a huge barn on the right and through a narrow opening on the left where it ends in a large courtyard under oak trees several hundred years old. This part of Valhalla is on a peninsula between the two creeks. To the right is the Winter House, a four bedroom house which gets its name from the fact it is insulated and has central heating. The Summer House is opposite. It is a huge structure with porches on either side. There are at least twelve bedrooms, a huge entrance hall, living room, dining room and library, and an enormous kitchen. In the years I have been coming to Valhalla, I have only been in it twice. As far as I can tell, almost no one ever goes into it, not even the Aunts. The Aunts are actually Stokely's great aunts. They are in their seventies, the only daughters of Helmut. They have lived an extraordinary life of sheltered supremacy, shuttling between a nineteen room mansion in Georgetown which covers an entire block near Dumbarton Oaks, and Valhalla. They have always been referred to as the Aunts. The first time Stokely called them by their real names before my first trip to Valhalla I thought he was talking about the college in nearby Williamsburg. Their names are Lillian and Mary, and they are inseparable, usually mentioned in the same breath. When at Valhalla they normally stay in the Winter House regardless of the season. Going into it is like stepping back fifty years. Even the modern appliances have brand names like Philco and Osterizer, and the refrigerator is a fifties vintage Westinghouse. The place is dark and musty. The bathrooms all have old fashioned four legged baths and the porcelain is chipped to reveal the cast iron beneath. There are other minor details of age. The Aunts were not ones to squander their wealth on unnecessary maintenance. Structurally, nothing needs fixing. This is not surprising as both houses were built with Teutonic efficiency. They are both white with green shutters and battleship grey painted floors on the porches. Inside the floors are bare wood and the walls a uniform white. In the Summer House there is very little furniture and what it must have been like in its heyday can only be imagined. The Aunts are not at Valhalla this time. Nobody is, except Mr. Gosnell, the caretaker and Jake, the old black man whose mother worked for the family and now, at sixty, works when he feels like it. Mostly they keep to themselves. This holds not only for guests, but for one another, and the two hundred acres is usually big enough to keep them apart during the day. First stop at Valhalla is always the boathouse. This is true whether one arrives by land or sea. Like every house on the shore of the Mobjack, life revolves around activities on the water. For those who work, this means fishing, crabbing, or oystering. For the leisured classes, a category in which we fall temporarily, it is sailing, waterskiing, windsurfing, wavejumping, and an activity akin to swimming called avoiding the stinging nettles. The latter detail we never warn newcomers about, only telling them not to fall while waterskiing. They'll find out soon enough anyway and though annoying the stings are not serious. We don't want to put them off any of Valhalla's traditional activities. The first thing we do this time is to go for a ride in the Whaler. All seven of us. After stretching our muscles, stiff from the journey, we descend on the boathouse which abuts the large lawn opposite the Summer House. Seven people is too many for the fourteen foot skiff. It is one of Stokely's characteristics that he will flounce all logical rules of common sense while at the same time insisting on safety precautions. He makes us all take flotation devices, and we round up cushions and lifejackets. Over the protestations of Tess, who finally acquiesces, we head out for a quick spin out to the posts which act as signal buoys, leading out of the river to the bay. They have green lights and signs on them, so we keep them to starboard heading out. There are usually fishhawks' nests on the poles and we regale Lydia with false stories of diving birds protecting their eggs. The sun is low in the sky. There is very little wind and consequently no waves to jump. Stokely turns the Whaler back towards the shore and cuts the engine. There is silence in the boat as we all look back towards the peninsula which houses Valhalla. It is peaceful. These moments, a series of moments really, are as clear in my mind as if they happened yesterday. It is as if time is not a continuum but little separate segments like nuggets of gold which accumulate in silt. Leibniz said that the human mind is analogous to a sieve, and that the process of thinking consists of shaking it until all the extraneous items pass through. Over the years since that weekend I have been shaking the sieve and what has been left behind are those things which altered the course of my life and can only be explained in hindsight. Valhalla is the source of my story. It will also be the end of my physical existence. I have made arrangements to have my ashes scattered in the bay, at the same spot where that Whaler stood seventeen years ago. I made these arrangements a long time ago, but they make even more sense now because there I will mix with the ashes of my wife and Stokely. That is the future though. The past is those seven people in a boat in a moment of utter calm before the tumult of the inevitable change of adulthood, waiting expectantly to start off a weekend under an achingly beautiful October sky. Even now after all these years and with some of them gone from my life, these moments and these people still remain lodged like nuggets in the sieve of my mind.

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