Of Men and Mountains
I never thought it would become a memorial. But when it came to my Dad and me, there were lots of things I didnít think about. Like "The Mountain." Thatís what Dad called it, just like the locals.
When it comes to "The Mountain," folks who live in the Evergreen State never ask, "which one?" They know. Rising like a monumental moon above the menagerie of motels, cabins, and lodges that freckle his feet, the King of the Cascades dwarfs the Space Needle, the crowded tarmac of SeaTac airport and the spidery steel of Seattleís Safeco Field. Indeed, The Mountain rises above everything that lives and everything that doesnít in Washington State, as far as the eye can see.
When "The Mountain is out," as we locals say, Mount Rainier can be seen from Canada to Oregon, from the San Juan Islands to Spokane. When hidden behind his own weather, The Mountain can still be seen on personal checks, bowling lanes, postcards, beer labels, billboard ads, and the license plate of every vehicle registered in the Evergreen State. But for me, The Mountain began with my Dad.
It was 1966, just after Labor Day. My parents closed and locked the front door of the Ohanapecosh staff apartment at Mount Rainier National Park. An educator, Tom Naas spent his summers as a park ranger for the National Park Service in the early 60s. Dadís seasonal rangering duties at Mount Rainier wound down in September and so did our summer at Ohana staff housing. It was time to head home, back to southern California for another school year.
Groaning under a gargantuan luggage rack, Dadís blue Chevy churned out the miles on our three-day return trip to San Diego. Restless for our return to The Mountain, I eagerly anticipated the following summer even before we crossed the threshold of our San Diego front door. Little did I know that my return to The Mountain would take nearly four decades.
Tom Naas was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1925, the seventh of eight children. Tall and angular, he carried himself with the easy gait of an athlete. He lettered in basketball, football, and track, made the All-State basketball team, and played semi-pro hockey. On the playing field or in the classroom, when Tom looked at people, spoke to them, his eyes often laughed and sparkled as though he knew something they didnít. Boyishly handsome with an outrageous shock of dark hair, his blue eyes were clear, direct, and quiet. He married Margaret "Peggy" LaFleur in 1951 and taught school in Detroit. Tom and Peg moved to California in the 50s to pursue their teaching careers. Together they raised me, my two brothers, and my kid sister.
I grew up confusing Dad and John Wayne. To me they were both "larger than life." Tom was a "strong, silent type." Like The Duke, Dad never said much but when he did, we kids listened up. And right quick. Like the Saturday night I asked Dad for permission to skip the morrowís Sunday school and church service. Iíd been invited to go horse backing. I was in the fourth grade. Horses were next to God. Maybe better.
Dadís response was typical and unequivocal: "No." The steel edge in his voice told me the subject was closed. That and The Look. Medusa had nothing on Dad and The Look.
Not surprisingly, Dad never said much about his Christian faith, not even when Mom passed away in 1984 at the age of 54. Dad remarried four years later. He continued living his faith, a quiet obedience over seven decades. It wasnít until after I lost him to cancer at age 77 that I began to appreciate the depth of his devotion to God. Before that, the greatest conundrum of my Dadís life was probably his detached, taciturn personality. The "strong, silent type" wore thin after awhile.
"How come we never get past sports and the weather?" I groused to my husband, Chris, after a weekend visit to San Diego. "How come I always have to initiate a conversation? His hands arenít broken. Why canít Dad pick up the phone?"
Iím told that Dad exuded warmth and graciousness to others like a sunflower opening to the summer sun, but I rarely saw it. Maybe I was looking in the wrong direction. I realize now that what I interpreted as "aloof detachment" was more a product of Dadís upbringing and generation than a lack of caring. Maybe we were both looking in the wrong direction.
"He didnít want to pry into your personal lives" my step mom, Barbara, explained shortly after I arrived in San Diego for the July memorial service. "Your Dad always said, `If my kids want me to know anything, theyíll tell me.í That was his attitude." When she suggested he take the initiative to keep in touch, call "just to talk" or that "the kids" didnít know he felt that way, Dadís response was, "You mean Iíve been doing it wrong all these years?"
"All these years" tumbled into decades and it was June 2003 before I knew it. My sister flew in from San Diego to join us for a camping trip to Mount Rainier and a hiking jaunt to Paradise, just north of park headquarters in Longmire.
Nesting like an alpine aerie amid the sweet, thin air and pristine snow of Paradise, the circular construction of Henry M. Jackson Visitorís Center resembles a Star Wars space station stuck in the Ice Age. Inside, Laura and I prowled the gift shop.
"I bet Dad would like this" I mused, thumbing through a copy of Floyd Schmoeís A Year in Paradise. I had recently finished reading the memoirs of the parkís first naturalist. Dad never commented on the cacophony of color swashing the world-famous Paradise flower fields each summer. But I remembered piling out of the Chevy for a family hike or a picnic and looking at Dad as he took in the Renoir pastels of a sea of alpine blossoms. Hands on hips, tanned arms reaching down to hoist me aboard his shoulders, Dadís smile couldíve lit up the entire park.
We bought the Schmoe book. Laura carted it back to San Diego and gave it to Dad. The cancer had him confined to bed most of the time. Reading was one of his remaining pleasures. I liked the fact that we could connect through something I learned to cherish from him: a good book. Three weeks later Dad entered another Paradise.
When my stepmom emailed me from San Diego in mid-July, she suggested I catch a plane soon. "Your Dadís taken a turn for the worse" she wrote. "It appears that he has little time left. How soon can you come?" I snagged the next doable flight south, and just missed him. My plane touched down at Lindbergh Field on July 21, two days after Dadís Coronation Day.
Two months later I returned to Mount Rainier National Park for a family camping trip. Chris and our boys pitched the tent in the Ohana campground, just down the hill from the ranger station my Dad once manned.
I took the dog out early the next morning. The western loops of the Ohanapecosh campground were closed after the busy summer season. Eve pulled on her blue leash, yanking me down to a creek that cuts through the campgroundís D Loop. I waded in that creek as a five year-old. We continued our march over campground roads I once "helped" patrol with my Dad, perched atop his Park Service motor scooter. Sandwiched between his bear paw hands, I once nestled against the scratchy stiffness of his gray and green Park Service uniform, his omnipresent "Smokey the Bear" Stetson tipped back to accommodate my head.
I steered our faithful Yellow Labrador toward a pine-needled path just over the bridge spanning the azure waters of the churning Ohanapecosh River. I knew the trail to the Ohanapecosh amphitheater. Iíd walked it dozens of times as a kid. Eve and I ambled into the open air amphitheater where Dad delivered weekend lectures on everything from forest flora and fauna to park history to proper food storage. I was glad to be alone, just Eve and me.
The morning was quiet as I meandered toward the back row of pine benches and sat down. Ohanaís anemic morning sunshine struggled for supremacy with the parkís omnipresent dew. Drenched with overnight rain, soaring hemlocks and western red cedar dripped with liquid diamonds. Gray-headed camp robbers argued over snack stashes. Squirrels and chipmunks perched on chubby haunches, pausing warily in their never-ending search for food.
I sat on a back bench, shoulders quaking. "Dad!" Eve didnít protest as I threw my arms around her neck and buried my face in her sleek palomino fur. The grief was sharp and sudden, yet I couldnít help feeling, even in my loss, an Assurance I couldnít define.
It seems an unwritten yet tragic rule of life that we often donít see things clearly until theyíre out of the picture. Permanently. A wistful sadness, a melancholy loss accompanies the obvious.
Nearly 40 years since the last time I gawked at glorious Mount Rainier with my Dad, The King of the Cascades stands as bold and impressive as ever. A supreme monarch ruling his domain, The Mountain stands gold and glittering in the evening sun, perhaps the most "permanent" and venerated private icon of the Great Northwest.
Permanence is a pleasant delusion.
Returning home later, I scanned the contents of a faded photo album. The brittle pages creaked in protest as I flipped them until I found it: a 1964 photo of a skinny snow-suited six year-old. Me. In that photo my older brother and I stand on a snow field just above Paradise in Mount Rainier National Park. Next to the creased snapshot I mounted a photo of me and my family, posed on the same Paradise snow field in 2003.
Iíve changed since 1964. Iím not alone. Dad is gone. The Mountain remains, but it too is changing. Deteriorating. Glaciers gnaw at its shoulders, avalanches carve its vales and meadows. It too will eventually crumble into dust. Together, Dad and Mountain stand shrouded in the treble mists of time, memory, and truth.
One of the truths stretching between that í64 snapshot and the richer, more robust photo of 2003 is four decades of selfless guidance from a faithful father. I realize now that I never really knew him. I understood even less. However, I see that he gifted me with treasures beyond tangibility: education, learning, perseverance, quiet courage. And more.
Some things Dad taught because they were a natural outgrowth of who he was, like respect for Godís Creation. Or the importance of passing on a family legacy to the next generation. Thatís one reason I write and read. Dad read aloud to me early and often. My earliest memories involve snuggling into Dadís lap with a book as he narrated the adventures of Peter Pan and Wendy, Billy and Blaze, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or Curious George.
Itís not surprising that my love for the printed page, instilled primarily by my Dad, eventually brought forth its own fruit. After that first "A" in my seventh grade Creative Writing class, Dad encouraged me to develop my journalistic skills and practice, practice, practice. He was my first and best writing coach. He taught. I improved and learned--about family, faith, and the brevity of life. About men and mountains. And that the two may have more in common than we may think.
Both can evidence solidity, sturdiness, silence. Clipped sentences, birthday cards, occasional phone calls. Avalanches, mud slides, boulders tossed from shifting glaciers. Neither may say much. But when they do, we best listen because theyíre saying something worth hearing. Quietly faithful, regularly reliable, mountains and men can be so predictable and routine that we take them for granted. How easily we forget about the eroding mountain, the cancer leeching life from a loved one.
Permanence is a pleasant delusion, in both man and mountain.
Not long after Dadís death I spotted Mount Rainier on a clear day. The King of the Cascades donned ermine mantle, stretched to his 14,410-foot glory, and towered over the Washington landscape like a snowy colossus. I stood rooted a moment, gazing at The Mountain. The dual daggers of Reminiscence and Regret plunged deep as I teetered between a smile and tears. And then I knew.
Itís not "The Mountain" anymore. For me, the Cascade King is a monument, a memorial carved from the treble mists of time, memory, and truth . When I see Rainier now, I smile and salute my Dad: Tom Naas, Mountain of a Man.
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