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“I Had a Boyhood Once in Paradise”: The Ghost Town

[Written in 2014 on my return to Paradise after an absence of over 60 years.]

I drive the Skyway to the town named Paradise,
park his car at the canyon’s rim, and sit awhile
in the hot silence of the afternoon looking out
at the Sierra mountains where, in June, the winter lingers.

On the seat beside me a well-taped cardboard cube
contains what remains of my father. I climb out
and, taking the cube under my arm, begin to climb
down the canyon’s lava wall to the stream below.

The going is slow, but we get to the bottom by and by
and sitting on some moss, we rest awhile, the cube and I,
beside the snow-chilled stream.
– – My Father

There are two ways into Paradise, the back way and the Skyway. When you can you take the Skyway but the back way will get you there just the same. When I moved back to Paradise after being gone for more than 60 years everything had changed but nothing had changed. Superimposed over Paradise as it is was Paradise as it was. Not everywhere but in the rise and roll of the land and roads; in the place names and the clearings, in the canyons and the crests. Paradise past was there in the overlay, in that “certain slant of light” where you see what is not there layered over what is. Because it what Paradise was  in those past, gone years is still there; in moments that appear unbidden and “fade upon the blowing of the horn.”

And in those translucent moments, I often see all Paradise’s past as ghostly, drifting like a soft wall of mist across the scrim screen of Paradise present. I can always hold this phantasm at bay, filter it out to get the errands of the day done. And then in an unguarded moment, it returns.

One afternoon soon after I arrived in Paradise I saw my father standing next to the Skyway. I saw my father, alive as you or me, and dead these forty years.

By the time I saw him it didn’t really shock me. I’d lived in Paradise for over a month and I knew these things could happen here. Paradise was not just Paradise. It was a ghost town. And it was filled with my ghosts.

I first saw my father in the middle of the day next to Big O Tires on the Skyway. I’d gone there to have some minor repair done to my car and, while they took the car into the bay behind me, I wandered into the empty front showroom and gazed through the Big O display windows looking out over the Skyway and down the steep decline and quick rise of Pearson Road. Then I glanced down to the left of the showroom at a small vacant building next door. It was caked with many years of paint. The latest coats were pale gray with a light blue trim. The windows were sheets of painted plywood nailed tight to the frames and the door was shut solid with a large padlock. It was shut tight and, like many buildings on the Skyway in Paradise and beyond, had a large red and white “For Lease” sign attached to the front.

Then as I looked at it my father walked through the closed and padlocked door and, like me, stood looking down hill as the traffic paused at the light and then turned left or right at the T-junction.

It was December for me, but it must have been summer for him because he stood there in his starched, short-sleeved, crisp and immaculate white shirt with a stainless steel Parker ballpoint pen in his pocket, a sharp crease in his slacks, his perfectly shined shoes, and a ruler-level flat-top — his choice of a “sharp” haircut for men and boys. He stood there for about a minute as I watched him without moving, the smell of new tires in my nostrils. Then he turned and walked back through the walls and into his office.

Behind me a burst of compressed air from a lug wrench brought me out of my brown study and I was looking again at a ramshackle gray and blue building with a small courtyard that was now “For Lease.” It was then I recognized the old building as the place where my father had had his car dealership when we all lived in Paradise in the mid-1950s.

I told myself that what I had just experienced was some sort of vivid memory from my childhood as a kind of faint film from my mind projected onto the mundane present. Yes, that was all it was. I’m sure of that. I’m an educated man of no little experience in the real, wide world of now. It only felt like seeing a ghost. In broad daylight in deep December, dressed for summer in his crisp white shirt.

The last time I’d seen my father before this was in a dream decades after he died on the operating table. He came to me out of the streets in the Red City that persists off and on over the years in my dreams. He was wearing a hospital smock stained with large patches of his blood. He said to me, “I don’t belong with the dead,” and then he faded. I hadn’t seen him since.

This time, on the Skyway of Paradise, he was looking much better; looking at home with the dead. This time he didn’t even seem dead, only translucent. I had a brief moment of disappointment that he was gone before we could continue the conversation from where he left off in my dream, but having been briefly dead I knew that the dead have little to say to the living. In any case, he was my father and I was, this time, glad to see him.

The poet says “Old men should be explorers.” When I was younger I admired that sentiment but now, as the hand of age closes around me, I find I don’t wish to explore new lands, but to explore again those I have already passed through trying to see what I missed in the first hectic rush towards my “goals.”

These days I pass my father’s place on the Skyway several times a week while turning onto the Skyway on an errand in Paradise or down from the ridge and into the valley to see my mother or to get the kind of meal unavailable in Paradise.

My father’s vacant office is right at the turn and, because of that (or so I tell myself), I don’t stop. Someday I might pull over down the road a bit and walk back to his office hoping to see him again. But I don’t think he’ll oblige if I do. He doesn’t have to. He’s not inside our time now. He’s just one of many ghosts that I’ve seen of late, up here on the ridge, up here in Paradise.


If this essay pleased or informed you DONATE HERE to help me recover after being burned out in the Paradise fire with my thanks.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Sam L. November 25, 2018, 8:16 PM

    Don’t know if you consider yourself lucky for seeing your Dad.
    I do, though. Never seen mine again.

  • David Alan Dahl November 26, 2018, 4:03 AM

    GVdL,
    Fathers are crucial, as you so clearly explain.
    Sent small check and a couple of my go-to books.
    Holler if we can help you.
    Prayers.
    D2 – Jax Beach

  • John Venlet November 26, 2018, 4:30 AM

    My Dad died 11 years ago, yesterday. I’ve not seen him since the day he died, but I just pictured him in my mind wearing, just like your Dad, “his perfectly shined shoes.”

  • John the River November 26, 2018, 5:03 AM

    As I read your essay on going back to your old home town, I thought about the last time we drove back to my childhood home. Apparently (seventy or eighty years ago) everyone in the family agreed to all move there and live within blocks of each other; since my grandparents were on White St. three blocks away and three other families or assorted aunts, uncles and cousins on the Danish side were within a five block circle. And one Irish family, my fathers brother, way out there at the ten block hinterlands.
    We came back so I could get some images of the old houses we had all lived in and some I could find and some I can not longer remember which house they were. My Grandfathers house I did find. Property values in Arlington are sky-high now, so everything is very well maintained. However the current owners have put a black driveway, two cars wide, over my Grandfathers vegetable garden.
    I wanted photos of the old life to show Mom of her childhood home, she was failing and passed on a week later. She looked, I don’t know if she saw.
    After reading what you wrote about Paradise, I tried to imagine what Arlington would be like reduced to ash. I couldn’t imagine it, I can’t see it. I can’t comprehend it.
    I hope the small package of books I entrusted to the USPS makes it to you safely. Be good.

  • ghostsniper November 26, 2018, 7:32 AM

    Whole lotta ghostin’ goin’ on lately ’round these parts.

    Born and spent the first 11 years of my life in rural Gettysburg, moved in ’66 and have never been back. Don’t really have a desire to. Spent the next 40 years in Cape Coral/Fort Myers, FL, moved here to the great white north in ’06. Don’t really have a desire to go back there neither.

    As Jim Morrison said upon being told the Doors were banned from appearing again on the Ed Sullivan Show, “We already did that.”
    There’s other places to see.
    Ricky Nelson said it best, “Down home is just a memory.”
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k6iwNKrXXZs

  • Casey Klahn November 26, 2018, 8:45 AM

    Back home. Now home’s burnt up.

    I hate those family dreams. Sometimes a nightmare, others just a visitation. So clear. So present. Maybe I don’t hate them. The memories of my own father are cherished and maybe any “visit” is worthwhile.

    Do you find you know deeper, but less, as you grow older?

  • DAN November 26, 2018, 3:43 PM

    GERARD: yes the ghosts of paradise will always be there with you & me. had to go to chico for fine food??? what happened to the SWANK wildwood inn ? that WAS THE PLACE TO EAT when one was putting on the ritz. or the pagoda, the wagonwheel , i remember the JK,across from the roller rink, just down from the drive in theater. i suppose that’s all ancient history now. i wonder if they still held the gold nugget days celebration of our youth,hell who needed tv with all that wild west going on?? e clampus vitas, paleface badges,54 lb. gold nugget racing up out of whiskey flats to dogtown with donkeys,gunfights in the streets yeah blanks but real guns. what a town to grow up in. BEST TO YOU &YOURS DAN

  • Hangtown Bob November 26, 2018, 4:21 PM

    When you make your next (and possibly last) visit to Paradise, he may return and help you in what must finally be done.

  • Hangtown Bob November 26, 2018, 4:29 PM

    If you need (or want) any help with above, please let us know. We will be there.

  • John Condon November 27, 2018, 6:25 AM

    My heart has rooms that sigh with dust
    And ashes in the hearth.
    They must be cleaned and blown away
    By daylight’s breath.
    But I cannot essay the task,
    For even dust to me is dear;
    For dust and ashes still recall,
    My love was here.

    I know not how to say Farewell,
    When Farewell is the word
    That stays alone for me to say
    Or will be heard.
    But I cannot speak out that word
    Or ever let my loved one go:
    How can I bear it that these rooms
    Are empty so?

    I sit among the dust and hope
    That dust will cover me.
    I stir the ashes in the hearth,
    Though cold they be.
    I cannot bear to close the door,
    To seal my loneliness away
    While dust and ashes yet remain
    Of my love’s day.

    ~Stephen R Donaldson
    .

  • ΛΕΟΝΙΔΑΣ November 27, 2018, 10:27 AM

    Hi
    I notice in the photo above of the welcome sign to Paradise that a vacant space exists to the right of the Rotary Club plaque. In other photos that space is occupied by a Masonic emblem. Is/was there a Masonic lodge in the town? I do know that the Grand Lodge of California is soliciting members for relief in Paradise.

  • Vanderleun November 27, 2018, 10:49 AM

    There was a Masonic Lodge on Clark Road across from the Safeway center. The center’s gone and I’m pretty sure the Lodge is gone too. I don’t think it was an active lodge but it was rented out for various functions.

  • Hangtown Bob and Peg November 27, 2018, 2:08 PM

    Not an easy sight……

    The close of one chapter and the opening of another.

  • Mac December 9, 2018, 2:33 AM

    Gerard,
    I never saw my Dad in my old home town. But there are times when I miss him, and the place that I loved most in all the world, so much that I find the weight of the sadness makes it hard to breathe. The best remedy I have found for that is talking to someone who lived through those memories with you. I don’t know if I’ve ever been more glad in my life than when I did that, and it happened in my 60’s.

    If you can find some of your really close boyhood friends and reconnect, it might do you a world of good. For me, it was a desperately needed application of the Balm of Gilead to a place in my soul that had hurt for many years. I had grown so accustomed to the ache that I had forgotten what it was like not to hurt, so when it started healing I was both overjoyed and intensely grateful to God for a second chance to get it right.

    May God be with you in this time of drudgery and reconstruction. It will get better; you just have to endure long enough to have the recovery mix sufficiently with the “new normal” to make life feel like living again. Listen to the soundtrack of “Les Miserables.” That will help.