That summer my sister Mary organized our periodic family reunion to be held at Sylvan Lake in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It was to be something of a sentimental journey for me. I had lived in South Dakota from 1956-1963 while father worked at the Edgemont Uranium plant where he was the general manager. We often went to Sylvan Lake for summer vacations, and my sisters Ethel and Diane sometimes joined us there for weeks at a time. So Sylvan Lake was a per
The first leg of the journey involved a plane trip from Houston, Texas to Rapid City, South Dakota. I arrived at the airport quite fatigued. I had booked a departure from Houston at 7:40 AM, and spent the previous night trying in vain to sleep on a very hard bench at baggage claim. My plan was to spend the night inside the terminal, but I had failed to understand that only ticked passengers with a boarding pass could enter the security cordon protecting the comforts of the terminal proper. Ticket agents could not issue boarding passes until they opened at 5AM, so I was forced to find a spot to wait outside the security zone. I had not flown since before 9-11 when everything changed at airports in America.
The flight was uneventful, and far briefer than the time I had spent listening to passengers collect their luggage from red-eye flights in Houston. I had slept most all the way on the jet, aided by a dose of Zanax I had taken as we left the ground in Texas. The entire Rapid City airport could have been set down in one corner of baggage claim in Houston. Exhausted, I had a hard time collecting my thoughts as I disembarked. Energetic tourists in leisure clothes bustled about their hurried schedule, and crisp terminal workers had a casual look even when wearing the standard corporate uniform. Everyone was talking about the heat. There had been a heat wave, and the mid-afternoon temperature was hovering about 102 degrees. They spoke in an accent with a tempo and twang that I had forgotten. It sounded comforting and familiar, like suddenly meeting up with a childhood friend for the first time in many years. I ventured outside to catch a glimpse of the Black Hills, and the heat was palpable, so dry that it was not at all unpleasant. The smell of dried grass suffused the air and I took in deep breaths as I examined the low rise of dark hills to the west. This was not the stark, soaring of splendor of Colorado where we had gone for Mary's last reunion. It was gentler, more human and oh, so familiar to me.
Back inside, I loitered around the baggage claim area waiting for the bags to clear. Rather than wait at the revolving conveyor belt like all the other passengers, I wandered over to the advertising kiosks placed along the wall. The spired Alex Johnson Hotel advertised as the premier hotel in the town of Rapid City, looking very western with its cowboy-culture decor. The picture poked at me like a memory trying to gain re-entry into my mind. Was this the place I remembered from my early adolescence? An elderly lady jostled me in her aggressive haste to get at her bags, and my reverie was broken. I was in no hurry and did not want to jostle with those anxious to be gone, so I hung back. Though I would have been content to be the last to leave the baggage area, my bag was among the first to show. I reached over and removed it from in front of the impatient lady.
At the rental car booth I stated my reservation number and filled out the final forms. Directed to the parking lot, I found the car and settled into the seat. The impatient lady emerged from the building with a girl and young man and who carried her bags. They filled the trunk with her luggage while they expended a great deal of excited chatter. I felt tired from the sedative, and glad that I did not have to force myself to be conversational. I idled the car and made sure I knew where all the pedals and knobs were situated. I owned no car and seldom drove, so I had to acclimate myself to the alien terrain of the automobile. At length I was in motion and on the freeway into town. A bicycle would have been dangerous on this road with no shoulder. I wondered if anyone here in South Dakota preferred two wheeled transportation, and if that was even possible. The drive to the Motel Six where I had a reservation was mercifully brief, and once there I lay down on the bed to relax.
When I awoke two hours later, it was too early for dinner, and I was too restless to hang around the motel room. I remembered the historic Hotel Alex Johnson and resolved to go out in search of it to see why it seemed so familiar. I didn't look at the map, I just started driving, but somehow seemed to know what streets to take. As I approached the downtown district, I could easily see spires and distinctive, almost alpine roofline of the hotel - the tallest building in town. Though a regional urban center, there was little traffic of the kind I was used to in Houston, and I was easily able to park within a block of the compelling edifice. I pulled into a convenient parking space and got out to go over and get a closer look. I felt drawn there, somehow certain of my steps and intent upon my destination.
Rounding the corner, the first floor facade brought a flood of memories from so many years ago. Suddenly, I remembered being with Father who was in town on some business he had just concluded. Mother and my sisters were out shopping, so it was just me and father, four or five in the afternoon, and he says, "I want to take you out to a dinner at a special place." At the intrusion of this memory, I suddenly realized this was the same building where we had eaten so long ago. Would there still be a restaurant? "Unlikely," I thought, but I determined to perambulate the block to savor the experience before seeking out a Waffle House or some similar inexpensive eatery.
At the corner, though, I was stopped by an impressive entrance door. It was a carefully hewn of fine wood and obvious quality. This was a more expensive restaurant than I usually patronized. Stickers proclaimed affiliation with Diners Club, MasterCard, and American Express, so I would be able to charge the expense to my vacation. Certainly, there was still a restaurant here, but surely it could not be the same! That was forty years ago! I hesitated at the threshold. It was early for dinner, and a hotel restaurant might well be closed during mid-afternoon. Nevertheless, I tried the door. The handle was heavy and luxurious, and as I pulled to open the door, I was drawn into a veritable time machine. It was indeed the same as I remembered! My memories filled in the interior contours with complete accuracy. I couldn't believe it! The attractive young hostess approached me with cheery greeting, a menu, and a gesture into the dining room. I motioned to the other side, an aspect that seemed somehow most familiar.
"Can I sit there?"
"Yes, of course. Please, sit wherever you like."
She brought me into a narrow alcove with a banister which overlooked the hotel lobby. There were only three or four quite empty tables, and I requested the table at the end, the one with the best observation of the lobby. I took my seat and looked up at the wagon-wheel chandelier and Native American scrollwork. I slowly scrutinized the menu. Prime Rib, the most expensive dinner in the restaurant, beckoned forcibly from the pages, and suddenly I was flooded with emotion. I remembered father's dinner as if it was yesterday.
He said to me, "The food here is really good. The prime rib is excellent."
"I don't feel like bones."
He laughed good-naturedly, "Prime rib doesn't have any bones! Order it medium rare and it should be very tender and juicy." I felt embarrassed by my ignorance, but father was not making fun of me. He probably had a martini earlier, that usually put him in an expansive mood. He had finished with a business meeting earlier in the day, and it must have gone well as he was feeling generous. I remember father as he stretched out his legs and admired the ceiling. Strange that he has been dead for twenty years now, yet in my memory he is as alive and full of character as if he were in front of me. Mirroring father's gesture, I looked up at the painted ceiling of today. The paint seemed fresh enough, perhaps at least a few years old, maybe more. Was it the same as what my father saw? The waitress came back to see what I would have.
"Have you decided what you want?"
"Do you have Prime Rib tonight?"
"Let me have that, medium rare."
"Yes." It had been a long time since I had baked potato with all the fixings, too much saturated fat is bad for my cholesterol.
"Blue Cheese." I won't be worried about cholesterol for once.
She retired to leave me to my solitary musings. Separating the restaurant from the hotel proper was a half-wall with etched glass. The lobby was small and intimate, a few heavily stuffed leather chairs placed casually here and there for hotel guests. My memory was becoming sharp. The decor had not really changed at all. I pulled out my notebook and sketched the A-J-H logo from the back of the custom-made chair opposite.
My father's presence became palpable, almost as if he were looking over my shoulder. My eyes filled with tears. 'Good god, get a grip,' I thought, 'Don't start crying here!' The waitress returned with the salad and placed it in front of me. I hoped she hadn't noticed that my eyes were moist. I savored each forkful of lettuce, lingered over the blue cheese. Suddenly, I realized that I was not sad at all, there was no need for tears here. This was a precious chance to commune with my father and with my past.
I visualized my father sitting opposite. I could make out his senatorial profile, the languorous command he always had over his large-framed body. In my mind he turned to me, as if to answer a question. I was always asking him for advice. He seemed to know what people could be counted on to do. 'Am I on the right track?' was my silent question.
'Yes, you are doing fine. Your life has been harder than I had thought it would be, but you've done okay. You had more happiness than you might have had.'
'What about my being gay. Are you all right with that? We never had a chance to talk about that.'
'Remember, your mother was only sixteen when she got pregnant, so you should understand that in my youth, I was driven by sex as much as you were. Neither of us were thinking about consequences, and although your choices were ruinous for your health, my choices had far reaching consequences as well. From my perspective in the hereafter, your brand of sex is not so very different.' His tone switched to the fatherly mode he adopted when about to give advice, 'We are just two souls now, son. While I was alive I didn't understand gay sex because I never knew anyone who was queer. Everyone thought homosexuality was perversion, and I would not have wanted a pervert for a son. I see things more clearly now. Because nobody ever talked about it, I had the sense that sex was something dirty. You never had that kind of "hang-up," as your generation calls it. You led a very promiscuous life compared to me, and I suspect that kind of promiscuity must have been very seductive. It offered temptations any man would have found attractive. I can appreciate that now that I'm dead. You are not so strange to me as you have been thinking for so long.'
In his living form, father was quite a prude, and any kind of sexual talk would have embarrassed him to the point of blushing. He didn't live long enough for the two of us to have an adult conversation about sexuality, neither heterosexual nor homosexual. All the same, I always had a sense that he knew what lust was all about. Unfortunately, in life he could no more have spoken about it to me than he could have discussed it with his parents. Of course, my relationship with my father didn't end when he died, and having this conversation was very soothing to me, even if I was inventing both halves of the dialogue.
My prime rib arrived, and I set aside my conversation with Father. I picked up my fork and savored the tender meat. I lathered three pats of butter onto the baked potato and heaped it with bacon pieces, cheese and chives, like I was a kid again. No child myself now, I had turned fifty four just ten days earlier. How long ago was that first dinner here? It must have been the summer before we went to Texas. That was in 1963, so Dad's prime rib dinner would have been in 1962. I seem to remember some vestige of snow on the streets outside, so it must have been early in the year. Since I was born in 1948, I would have turned fourteen the summer of 1962, so I would still have been thirteen then, right on the verge of manhood.
How old was father when I had the prime rib dinner at the Alex Johnson? He was born in 1907, let's see, ... In the spring of 1962, he would have been fifty four. My God! A chill went down my spine, and tears came to my eyes. I just turned fifty four! I am at the same age now that father was then!
Father smiled back at me knowingly. A visitation indeed. Thank you father.