I've gotten distracted from children's books lately, and been wandering around doing all the things in life I always wanted to do. Somewhere on the list was the banjo, so I started building one last summer, then started taking an old-time banjo class at the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley last Fall. This summer I spent lots of time working on the banjo, trying to figure it all out from a book called Banjo Craft, and from those ever-so helpful videos on YouTube. It's about 85% done, and now I'm starting to do a bit of inlay for the headstock and fretboard, then I'll put on some kind of finish and put it all together and hope that the thing plays at least halfway decently.
In the back of the car, the old Ford station wagon, driving from California to Vermont in the fifties. I was an only child, in my own world in the back of the car. I could stay there all day while my parents drove and drove, my father mostly. I was in a little womb, protected, self contained, happy. Then the motels we stayed in, next to the train tracks, so I could stand at dusk and feel the big freights roll by.
Then another day driving, me with toys and books, reading, dreamy, lost in my interior world.
Finally, after a week of driving, we would arrive at the little house in Northern Vermont. It seemed like the ends of the earth to me, Starksboro, a poor hardscrabble farming town with no kids to play with — just a few gruff farmers and their rough and tumble families. The house we lived in for a few weeks each summer had no running water, no electricity, and at first no indoor plumbing. We cooked outside over a kind of grill made of granite stones from the field. When they bought the place in 1950 my parents had spent weeks shoveling old clothes and junk out of the house, and it still smelled like damp plaster when I was growing up. The extra room was piled high with National Geographics that my father must have saved. The icebox in the basement with the dirt floor had a block of ice in it and I was sure there were giant spiders lurking.
No one my age came to visit, I was by myself all day in the woods or the fields, building a tree house or later, when I was a teenager, shooting my .22 in target practice, or, once a woodchuck who was sunning himself on the rock down the hill. I went down to see if I had hit it, and saw a trail of blood down into the hole below the rock.
Then sometimes the Brooks family would come up from Connecticut, and then everything was filled with energy and excitement and we all sat at the big table outdoors in front of the house and cooked pancakes and hamburgers on the grill. Or we floated boats on the pond.
Sometimes my parents would take me with them to visit their friends on Lake Champlain, wildly wealthy people with famous paintings on the wall and family pictures in their living rooms in perfectly polished silver frames. Then we came back to our little house late, down a dirt road, and the house was dark and an owl screamed in the distance and I had a tiny blue tin kerosene lamp in my room and I huddled around it, terrified that the bogeyman was coming down the attic stairs into my room. Then I went to sleep in the dark spooky night and in the morning it was all new again, and the sun was shining and the grass was shining and it was all new and joyous and everything was right with the world.