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A pond, an airfield, a boy becoming a man

By Hallett Stromholt / October 12, 1988



THAT summer I hung out with the scientists. They were boarding at a deserted airfield near Cranbrook, British Columbia. Not only was it the most beautiful place on earth for a lad hitchhiking from Maine to Alaska, but the field had history. Built for an imminent invasion by the Japanese, the field was never used; like poetry, its four symmetrical clapboard houses were just there with an old military wooden tower. It had changed the course of events in no way, but I delighted in it.

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I hadn't meant to spend all summer there, but the scientists were young, like me, and I had a history with the one biologist there; we had shared a chalet in France on a winter's ski bum. The others, who were geologists and cartographers, felt this recommended me to equal place with them. The Canadian government was then exploring the wealth of British Columbia, and the group was willing to share the wealth with another youthful explorer, as if I were one of them for having been to France.

A living room sleeping bag site by the fireplace in one house was mine every night, and in the days I helped type reports in the two-tiered ``conning tower,'' in which my friend had the upstairs for his deer and elk studies. The cartographers were downstairs.

It was an efficient operation, bright and fun. Across from the airfield was a road leading to heaven's own pond. Someone kept a canoe there, and on days when my friend was out with his supervisor or the geologists were doing a ``flyover'' on the ranges, I'd walk down that road and go out in the canoe.

The water was deep, clear as glass, so you could see turtles flippering along the white sand bottom. You'd canoe over them. There was an island in the middle of the pond, where I'd park the canoe among gnarly roots of pines and lie down in the soft meadow surrounded by lapping water.

I was deep in Canada, a young man on his travels; it was summer, I was among patronizing friends, yet here was this pond, an obscure, unnamed place with turtles and untouched beaches - and peace.

I hadn't known I even wanted peace until then. I became addicted to going to that pond, slipping away almost daily, as all people who practice a spiritual discipline look forward to the wonder of refreshment. It was hot, I could be barefoot on the sand, wear shorts in the canoe, be a boy perhaps one last time ... until one afternoon as I went down the road to the pond I noticed I was being followed.

It was one of the cartographers. She was one of those slight, sort of nondescript people who do their work as if work is all. She was quiet, efficient, and lived apart from the more robust elements of summer at the airfield.

I figured it was her canoe and she was coming to claim it. O turtles! Maybe I could swim out to the island and she'd go off on her own with the canoe, if it was hers. I tried to act as if I didn't notice her. When I got to the canoe she was right behind me. Her hair was braided, she looked studious, but looked me in the eye with the determination of a rancher's daughter.

``All right. You can have it,'' I said.

``But aren't you...? I mean, I came down to, well, I got out of the flyover today, because you're always here, alone,'' she said. She came with me. She began by naming the turtles, told me where the springs were in the pond, cataloged the shore plants.

I was enthralled at first, for I had never known a true scientist, in love with facts that rolled off her tongue. But out on the island, when she started in on Latin and Greek, it was a bit cloying.... She named various classes of Hymenoptera - blue dragonflies in the reeds - and explained why aspens were Populus tremuloides and not Populus whatever....

She attached herself to me that summer, following me about, meeting me in odd places, sitting quietly across from me at our feasts at the outdoor fire pit we'd all have together behind the houses, staring at me. Sometimes we'd sit together - I mean, after all, she was pretty nice - till the fire burned down to embers and one of us silently walked away peacefully to bed.

Oh yes, there were the romantics around us; that happens whenever there are young men and women drinking the same professional cup of tea, but we, well - I didn't mind her cataloging everything that much, and she was brave to assume I wouldn't walk away when she came and looked in my eyes, and found something to stay for.

One evening after a rain, some geese flew through clearing clouds. My biology friend had been gone some time on work in the north, and I decided it was time to move on. Fall had sneaked up. When you're young you can leave notes, as I did, for him, saying, ``Just heading up the road for a while. Be back.'' And believe it. I would be Alaska-bound and never see him again.

She came down from the tower that morning, as I stood with my gear in the road, a road so empty you'd never think a car traveled that way, but when it did, I'd be gone. She stood by the side of the road, arms folded, kicking some grass. I'd shaved off my first beard the night before and she'd said,``You're so many different people. I don't know what to call you.''

Now I said, ``Hey. Thanks for a nice summer.''

She replied, her voice low, ``Sure thing.'' We shook hands. She turned to walk up the grass to the tower. Then she stopped, turned around, and really smiled. ``I know what you are. You're the eye of a whale,'' as if that made perfect sense.

Scientists. I see her today and will every time I remember Hymenoptera and paddling among blue dragonflies on a pond with no name.