Excerpt from Rae Ellen’s first memoir:
I ONLY CUSS WHEN I’M SAILING
By Rae Ellen Lee
Sometimes you only see what you’re looking for when you’re lost or in the dark. Or you see one thing and think it is something else entirely.
I’m now 53, and I’ve been single most of my adult life. Illusive sightings have been all too frequent; being endowed with a phenomenon called adaptive optics, I often saw desirable traits in potential mates–traits that couldn’t be found upon closer inspection.
During my single years, I desperately wanted to be happily married, victim as I was of a childhood in the fifties where Father Knows Best represented the ultimate in marriage and family. I would be in a family like that someday, as soon as I found my very own husband. When scouting for a mate, I had just a few criteria: the man had to dance, have a sense of humor, like books, and enjoy the outdoors. Oh, and he had to make eye contact. In fact, if a guy made eye contact with me I considered us engaged. At these times, when I believed with all my heart that I’d tracked down a likely candidate, he’d disappear in a flash–just like the mountain lion I thought I saw one day in the woods. If I did actually succeed in catching a man, I’d usually discover he wasn’t a keeper.
Married men pretended to be single. One married man, much older than I (elderly is more like it), kept offering me new fifty dollar bills in hopes of getting at least an occasional feel. I finally took one, a fifty that is, giving the man a wink as I walked away. Then I drove to a hardware store, bought two gallons of paint, went home and painted my living room while listening to the Beatles’ song, Can’t Buy Me Love. Other bottom feeders accosted me as well. Don’t misunderstand. I’m quite average looking. I blend in with my environment much like a moth whose markings resemble the bark of her favorite tree.
I began to think Mom was right when she said, “Men! They fool you by walking upright.”
Then there were those two brief marriages, after which I reclaimed my birth name. Dozens of failed relationships followed, some with men I hardly knew. I finally gave up the idea that I was marriage material and decided never to remarry. In my late thirties I put myself through college. When I graduated, the U.S. Forest Service hired me as a landscape architect. Now, if you’re interested in geezers, the Forest Service is an agency of unusual species richness. Some of them, especially those in the earlier stages of achieving geezer status, can be quite charming. I did have several wonderful female friends, most of them single and all of them characters of the independent, outspoken variety. We hiked, skied, talked about good books, went to art galleries, and, yes, talked a lot about men.
After all that, after I’d concluded that I simply wasn’t marriage material–here I am, married.
I first spotted Tom one evening in December, 1992, at a country and western dance class in Helena, Montana. I’d been going to the class with a man whose girlfriend kept showing up and making a scene, so I told him he should take dance lessons with her. A few weeks later, after I’d worked up enough courage to go back to the class, I went alone. The first hour of class was line dancing–something you do solo–but for the second part of the lesson you needed to be half of a couple.
Mary, a woman who had thought to bring a partner, said “You should go over and ask Tom Lee to dance. He’s a good dancer, and he’s real nice.”
I glanced over at him–tall, handsome, silver-haired, distinguished looking, and obviously brilliant. I shook my head. Quite frankly, I’m more comfortable with short, nerdy guys. “Handsome men are nothing but trouble,” Mom had also said. But I love to dance, and the music was beginning . . . some girls don’t like boys like me, aw . . . but some girls do . . . A nice slow swing dance.
“Go ahead,” Mary said, giving me a push.
So I trotted across the dance floor, stood panting like a puppy in front of this gorgeous man, and said, “Will you dance with me?”
“Well, sure.” Smiling, he took my hand, led me onto the dance floor, made good eye contact with his Big Sky eyes, and said, “I’m Tom. What’s your name?”
I was a goner. We laughed and tripped through the lesson. When I couldn’t get a swing step right he accused me of being afraid to bump into his chest, so just to disprove his comment I hugged him goodbye. Since he lived in Bigfork, three and one-half hours north of Helena, I didn’t expect to see him again. Then he said, “If you ski, come on up and I’ll show you around Big Mountain.” Just a few weeks later, my truck, Streak, and I were on the road for Bigfork.
If you believe with all your heart that you have seen something, does it qualify as a sighting?
During our courtship, Tom and I took many hikes in the woods. Tom longed to see wolves, so I arranged an April weekend at a cabin west of Glacier National Park along the North Fork of the Flathead River, home of the North Fork wolf pack. The Forest Service rental cabin faced east, overlooking the Flathead River and miles of meadow. Beyond, above a dark blue line of conifers, the white peaks of Glacier National Park glowed in the late afternoon light. As we left the cabin with our binoculars for a hike, the hard, crusty snow crunched under our boots. We saw a few deer and birds, but the wolves must have heard us coming and cleared out.
Down in the meadow the snow was wet and my light hiking boots quickly became soaked. My cold feet ached. If my toes didn’t get warm soon I’d surely lose them, but I didn’t want to complain or cut short our hike. We ambled slowly back up the hill and returned to the cabin. When Tom discovered how cold my feet were, he removed my wet boots and socks and held my icy feet on his bare chest, warm as a wood stove. At exactly that moment I decided to marry him.
One day several years ago, my truck, Streak, and I became hopelessly lost on a muddy ridge top logging road somewhere west of Priest Lake, Idaho. While driving through an old clear-cut I became enveloped in a cloud of Monarch butterflies, fluttering all around me. All I could see was a swirl of orange effervescence. I could hardly see the road, or maybe I wasn’t even on a road. Maybe I had driven over the edge and entered heaven in an orange halo. The butterflies escorted me for several minutes before I found myself on the other side of their magic, on a muddy road in a clear-cut.
Much of my courtship with Tom was like driving while under the influence of butterflies. This sensitive, warm, affectionate man seemed interested in many of my favorite things. He talked and, even better, he listened. Oh, we had our differences. The word Republican immediately threw up a stop sign in my head–except that during his two terms as a legislator, Tom had introduced a statewide land planning bill, music to the ears of any landscape architect. He liked books but only read non-fiction, and instead of movies he watched documentaries. Our biggest difference, however, proved to be that he was deeply religious while I was much more of a naturalist with a Unitarian view of things–be considerate of others and remember to recycle.
A Justice of the Peace named Wally married us on September 1, 1993. Wally, an acquaintance of Tom’s during his years in politics, asked us one at a time if we agreed to conduct ourselves in specific, positive ways throughout our marriage. We each eagerly said “Yes.” My son, Jeff, age 23 at the time, served as witness, best man and ring bearer at this lovely, straightforward ceremony that changed my name from Rae Ellen Moore to Rae Ellen Lee. After Tom, Jeff and I ate lunch at The Windbag Saloon on Helena’s Last Chance Gulch, Tom and I headed south to the Jarbidge Wilderness of Northern Nevada for a backpacking honeymoon.
I’m a careful person. For years I did not engage in the activity of hiking in grizzly country. When I’d see a bright red sign at a trailhead that blared You are entering grizzly country, I usually turned around and ran back to my truck. The Jarbidge Wilderness had no grizzlies, but after our honeymoon, after we returned home to reality, Tom and I found that it was grizzly country at our house. Even the butterflies were gone. The courtship and honeymoon had been one thing; life on a daily basis was something else entirely. If we discovered an area of our marriage where a problem didn’t already exist, we’d invent one. Had we, as a couple, been only an optical illusion? Would this marriage, too, become a catch and release statistic?
Although we decided to take the road less traveled and stay married, we could never have imagined the schemes we’d devise and the curious plots and places in which we’d find ourselves, during our search for those missing butterflies.
A NOVEL IDEA
“Well, where is she, anyway?” Tom asked, glancing into yet another hospital room. “She’s supposed to be in Room 215.”
Tom’s mother, Alta, a high-spirited lady approaching 80, was healthy, except she needed a new heart valve.
“She probably met some old duffer in the waiting room and ran off with him to a Caribbean Island,” I suggested.
“Yeah, probably with a geezer whose big dream in life was to fix up an old sailboat and sail it around the world. Might have been his last chance,” Tom added.
“Maybe Alta wanted to try snorkeling while she still could,” I said, imposing a long-submerged dream of mine into the plot.
Tom and I finally found Alta waiting in a room to see the anesthesiologist. The next day she sailed through her surgery and became the proud new owner of a pig valve. Sometimes we said “oink, oink” to her instead of “hi” or “hello.” For fifty-somethings, we don’t always act too mature.
But where had this sailboat idea come from? Tom was a person who loved to backpack and take close-up photos of two bugs doing it on some alpine floral wonder up on a mountain top. You sure don’t get to know a man until you marry him. Tom had only once mentioned sailing a scow when he was a kid in Minnesota. And I’d only ever seen sailboats off in the distance. One August in the early 1980s, my son, Jeff, and I drove 500 miles to the San Juan Islands with our bicycles hanging off my VW beetle. When we arrived at Lopez Island, Jeff, age 10 at the time, said disgustedly, “There’s hills here.” So we put the bikes back on the car, drove around the island and headed back home. It was on this outing that I caught a glimpse of a few sailboats. Until then, sailboats existed in my brain cells at about the same level of knowing as, say, seagulls.
After Tom and I returned home from the hospital in Missoula, the story we’d invented about the two senior citizens who run off to the Caribbean took on a life of its own and wouldn’t leave us alone. Ideas for the novel popped up at odd times. Tom would stop what he was doing and say, “How about this? The old guy’s a retired cherry orchardist from Bigfork, a widower in his late sixties who spends his spare time watching sailboats on Flathead Lake wondering if this is all there is to life. Maybe he has a near death experience of some sort in the hospital and it scares him enough to do something with his life.”
“Ethel has terrible migraines,” I said, cutting up carrots for stew. “And she was at the hospital for tests (by now we had changed Alta’s name to protect her innocence). Let’s say she’s a widow from Trout Creek. The only reason she has enough nerve to run off with this guy, why not call him Hollis, is because she’d attended a Wild Woman discussion group.”
Driving home from the hardware store one Saturday, I said, “They go to the U.S. Virgin Islands, where they don’t need passports.” I had friends who’d recently visited St. John and loved it.
“Hollis knows he could kick the bucket any minute,” Tom said, “so at the hospital he tells Ethel he has a Visa card just burning a hole in his wallet, and says, ‘Let’s go, woman.’
“Story ideas flew back and forth. We talked about the characters as if they were real, as if they were our friends. We called our story idea, Hollis and the Wild Woman.
So, now I’ll tell you about our own story–the one we were actually living when we conceived the idea for our novel. Tom and I didn’t live together except on weekends. He worked in Kalispell, Montana, as a precision machinist and lived in Bigfork during the week. I lived in Rimini, an old mining town near the Continental Divide, and worked in Helena as a landscape architect for the U.S. Forest Service. Tom is very smart and can do many kinds of work, but it was easier to find a tropical beach in Helena than it was for him to find a good job. His political science degree and years of experience as a commercial pilot, DEA agent, farmer, seminary student, furniture builder, machinist, and legislator didn’t seem to qualify him for any job in Helena, not even the new dog catcher position that opened up. So every weekend he commuted about 180 miles and nearly four hours each direction on the Swan Highway, so named because it follows along the west side of the Swan Range. The highway is narrow and scenic and has a high accident rate. Every Friday evening Tom arrived at the renovation project I called home–an old brothel in Rimini.
The year before I met Tom, I’d bought the place for the price of a used car and then paid a lot of money to a local carpenter who saved the old two-story building from collapsing by installing the following items: new rafters, new roof, new second floor joists and floor, new foundation, and new first floor joists and floor. Since it wasn’t possible for me to take out a construction loan on a pile of weathered boards, on a piece of land with no title insurance, I had to take out numerous signature loans. These loans dried up my cash flow to the extent that I could no longer keep my apartment in Helena. In June, 1993, a few months before Tom and I married, I moved into the brothel. By that time the carpenter had made the building structurally sound, but the interior was unfinished. Tom and I never called the place a house–always the brothel.
It’s probably just as well that Tom and I didn’t live together, because for all the fun we sometimes had hiking and skiing, we sure didn’t get along very well on weekends. We spent a lot of time with a marriage counselor we called Bedrock, because that’s where he took us, back to the core where our little inner children fought together on the playground we now called our marriage. The prognosis was that our dysfunctions were incompatible; however, with hard work and a lot of humor, which we had, we just might make it. So we talked and cried and laughed as much as we could, while cutting, sanding and nailing boards, in an effort to finish the brothel. Maybe we made up the story of Hollis and The Wild Woman for some relief from the relentless discussions about us and our problems.
The brothel and the two other log buildings on the place were served by an outhouse. In fact, I had no plumbing at all. On weekends, Tom and I would drive about ten miles to get water from a spring next to Highway 12 at MacDonald Pass. In summer, after filling our gallon jugs at the spring, we hiked nearby on the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. In winter, we took along our cross-country skis. At least with no running water at the brothel, we didn’t have to worry about the pipes freezing.
For it was cold in Rimini. In fact, it was a lot like Siberia. In the evenings we sometimes read aloud from the lively, funny book, Tent Life in Siberia, written by George Kennan about his 1860’s effort to find a telegraph route between America and Europe via Siberia. George and his team met many Koraks, both settled and nomadic inhabitants of Siberia, and stayed with them in their tents and yurts during their travels across the tundra. We began to call ourselves Korak Construction Company, just for grins, using the term Korak to mean people like us who lived in crudely built, spartan, and sometimes untidy surroundings. For instance, we called the floor of our renovation project the big table, because that’s where most things lay. We joked about the washboard road that kept building up on our plywood floor from the sandy soil we tracked in and out.
This lifestyle was not new to me, having grown up on a stump ranch. Whenever I brag about this aspect of my childhood, people always ask, “What in the world is a stump ranch?” Well, it’s a piece of land that’s been clear-cut. After the slash is burned, the stumps turn black, the grass grows back a bright green, and the land is sold for a cheap price. This practice still occurs in North Idaho. We owned 80 acres but lived in the valley where most of the stumps grazed (for if you blurred your eyes they resembled a herd of black angus cattle). Our particular valley had once been an ancient oxbow of the Priest River. Conifer-covered hills above the former river banks protected us from wind on three sides. Pockets of river clay low on the hillsides gave my sisters and me hours of play, shaping and drying clay items. In early spring, water ponded in the lowest areas of the valley and produced polliwogs to play with, and in early summer the entire valley was carpeted with wild strawberries. For years we tracked clay and dirt onto the plywood floors of the house my dad built. And it’s because of this stump ranch heritage that I wore the Korak tribute so easily. Tom, on the other hand, was new to this rustic barn board and plywood culture.
While the real Koraks in Tent Life had their dogs to keep them company around the fire, I had my cats. When I’d don my hides and furs to trek to the outhouse, my old cat, Fatty, followed me, opened the door with his big paw, jumped up onto the adjacent seat, walked onto my lap and talked to me. He made funny little meows that sounded almost like words. When I’d say something back to him, like “You be careful when you jump up here or you might fall into the hole,” he’d tilt his head and meow in such a way that I knew, without question, that he thought I was the most interesting conversationalist he’d ever heard, and he wanted to hear more. Fatty was more fun to talk with than many humans I knew, and I’m not the only one who noticed his outstanding personality. Several friends mentioned it, and Tom, although he’s allergic to cats, reported having some very intelligent discussions with Fatty in the outhouse.
During the week, when Tom was in Bigfork, both Fatty and my crippled cat, Spook, stayed indoors with me at night in the brothel. The three of us sat around the wood stove together in the evenings, shooting the breeze. Spook listened attentively as Fatty and I conversed. When it came time for me to go upstairs to bed the cats hopped up the stairs behind me, watched as I crawled under the down comforter, then climbed on the bed and curled up next to me. As we drifted off to sleep, we lay in the dark listening to the neighbor’s dogs bark and the slabs of snow calving off the new metal roof.
During the time I lived in the brothel, I dreamed many strange dreams. In one dream, two men were shooting it out in my back yard by the creek as I watched from the upstairs window. On a walk one evening shortly after this dream, I saw the carpenter who did most of the basic structural work on my building. As a hobby he had researched the history of Rimini, and he’s the one who told me my place had been one of the seventeen brothels in the Rimini Mining District. When I told him about my dream his eyes got real big and he said, “A murder like that really happened here at the turn of the century.”
Neither ghosts nor bad dreams scare me.
While Tom and I worked weekends to finish the old place, we continued to kick around the story of Hollis and the Wild Woman. We finally put down the saws and hammers, cleaned the sawdust off the computer and began to write out a story line. After numerous error messages, like ABORT, RETRY, FAIL, which at the time reminded us too much of our lives, we completed an outline and character descriptions. We did this based on instructions in a used book on how to write a novel. When I read the story line to my writing group they loved it, but one woman said, “Well! You can’t write about the Virgin Islands if you haven’t even been there.” She, of course, had been there, and she was right. It was essential that we take a research trip to the U. S. Virgin Islands.
End of Excerpt