Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Swing through E-Wa

So recently, we took a swing through eastern Washington to visit Camille's relatives (Camille = Wifey). Her family originally hails from Spokane, the second largest city in the state and center of the great Inland Northwest. Mainly we were going to visit her grandfather, who's 87 and in the middle of his fourth bout with cancer. The out-of-region family has been gathering to pay their respects and say their goodbyes. But the old goat may surprise us all and live another few years. He survived World War II in the Pacific and whupped cancer three times already, so I wouldn't count him out just yet.

Spokane River Park

We saw Grandpa most every day we were there. He's been giving his things away to friends and family, doing what he can to unclutter the place before he departs. He showered Camille with jewelry that belonged to his late wife, a lovely lady who died about a year into our marriage. I wish I'd known her longer. The first time I came to Spokane was to meet Camille's family as the fiance. Grandma -- who was carrot-haired and about 4' 10" -- came out with her arms open, an unmistakable "hug me" gesture. I walked into her arms -- and she pulled me down in a hug that guillotined my throat against her shoulder. "Oh, it's so good to meet you!" she gushed. I said nothing, because I couldn't breathe with her shoulder in my throat. At our wedding a few months later, she goosed my dad, who she thought was her younger son (but to be fair, my dad and Camille's uncle are both Gregs). We miss her very much. So does Grampa. Which is why the family thinks this may be the last round for him -- he's ready to be with his wife again. And I can't fault that.

Camille's Grandpa is also quite the hobbyist. He has a basement full of fully functional model rockets and airplanes, which he's selling off to collectors. He made me sit at his computer and play the model airplane simulator -- which has a perfect reproduction controller, with the two mini-joysticks -- until I could perform a simple turn. After about twenty impressive crashes and over $100,000 of virtual damages to his virtual air fleet, he got disgusted and let me leave. I never did make that turn, but I did perform a rare inverted landing (i.e., the plane landed upside down and didn't explode).

He also has a bunch of old several video game systems. And that's what I pre-inherited. He gave me a Nintendo 64 and Super Nintendo, both with extra controllers and head cleaners. But the big prize, which I couldn't believe he gave me, was an old Atari 5200, first released in 1982. A game system as old as my sister. And with it came a stack of over twenty games, with plenty of old school 8-bit classics: Pole Position, Dig Dug, Pac Man, Jungle Hunt, Q-Bert, and more. Getting that through security was fun. I haven't set it up yet, because our home TV doesn't have the right hookups on the back. And because the Atari's adapter has a few exposed wires. And because we can't find the Atari controllers. We'll get it up and running eventually, I'm sure.

We stayed with Aunt Sharon and Uncle Terry on their farm outside the city. Far outside the city -- they own 80 acres of prairie on either side of a gravel road. It's been a long, long time since I've heard crickets. Or seen so many stars in a sky without light pollution. Time seems to move more slowly there, at a more relaxed pace. I actually had time to read for pleasure. I mowed through the latest by S.M. Stirling -- perhaps my favorite author -- before we left. Sharon and Terry have one of those basements that's quiet and dark as a tomb. You lose all sense of time and orientation slumbering down there. My grandparents, the late Vancil Grandparents, had a similar pair of beds in their basement bedroom. Until coming to Sharon and Terry's, I'd never slept as well anywhere as in my grandparents' basement.

The food on this trip was, as it always is with our family, amazing. Sharon cooked huckleberry pancakes twice for Camille. She left a tub of oatmeal cranberry cookies in the kitchen for me to raid, and pretended not to notice. For one lunch, she made me a tuna fish sandwich from a tuna Terry had caught himself and brought back to the farm. And at cousin Lisa's, we had fried chicken with garden-fresh corn on the cob.

We visited cousin Lisa -- who's really Camille's big sister -- and her two boys, Gunnar and Cannan, in the no-horse town of St. John. Last time I was with the bear cubs (what the family calls the boys), they tag-team wrestled me to a draw. They were six and eight at the time. Now they're eight and ten. I would have lost that match, so we played football instead. Eventually it got dark and we had to go back inside. I was the only one without grass stains, because they were more interested in tacking each other than me. And I'm quick on my feet. The boys kept asking if we could stay the night. Sadly, we had to fly out at midday the next day. But that didn't stop them from asking. And if we could have, we'd have stayed. The drive back was beautiul, taking us through the Palouse at night.

The entire town of St. John. I'm kidding. It's actually smaller.

It was hard for us to come back to LA. It always is, but doubly so this time. It didn't help that my bag never made the connecting flight -- Camille's did, but mine, not so much -- and didn't show up for another two days. There just wasn't enough time. There never is. Especially knowing that the next time we return to Spokane could be for a funeral. But at least we know that it's coming, so we could make the time to visit. And there's a blessing in that.

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