Notes from the Other Side of the Mountain by J. Allen Whitt - Read Online
Notes from the Other Side of the Mountain
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Summary

By turns tender, gritty, and poignant, Gary Reed’s tale of love in a time of war follows him from the quiet security of a mountain village in the Southwest, through the destruction and carnage he witnesses onboard an aircraft carrier operating off Vietnam, and as he returns to the mountains he loves, where he hopes to recover from his traumatic experiences and restore meaning to his life by reuniting with Kristina Preston, his high school sweetheart.

Yet, he and Kristy discover that the brutal consequences of war have spread even into the remote mountains of New Mexico, concealing menace within the shadows of their imagined Eden.
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ISBN: 9780578124674
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Notes from the Other Side of the Mountain - J. Allen Whitt

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I

Chapter One

A single instant, as brief as a lightning strike, is all it takes. We live, or we die. It is both simple and profound, the most inescapable and fundamental and unambiguous of all truths. The executioner of all concerns.

I stood on the edge of the cliff, slowly swaying back and forth. Far below, a jumble of large granite boulders shredded the creek into ribbons of cascading rapids and swirls of white-water.

It will be very easy.

What is there to lose—now?

All it will take is a step … and this agony will be over.

How much pain could there be?

I moved closer to the edge.

I’ll be dead or at least unconscious—almost certainly…

Just focus on Limestone Mesa—the last thing I will ever see.

No. Something else, not just barren rock...

I looked down at the creek.

A mistake! My gut tightened; I felt dizzy.

The sound of the creek came up to me; a breeze swept over my face; the sweet-smoky scent of piñon wafted from some distant fireplace.

I love these things too much … they call me back, imprison me here!

Shut them out …

I closed my eyes.

Now … slowly …

I inched forward and felt for the edge with the tip of my right shoe.

Easy …

Suddenly, I remembered the screams of the dying, saw their mangled bodies, and smelled the stench of burning flesh. Stunned as if by a physical blow, I imagined my own body lying twisted and broken at the bottom of the cliff, my blood draining like crimson candle wax over the gray boulders.

No, God, no! I recoiled, and stepped back from the edge.

I need something to hold onto!

That tree ...

I turned away from the cliff, lunged the toward the tree, but stumbled—then grabbed a branch. I held on, my hands weak, muscles trembling. The cliff began to crumble—the collapsing edge was moving back toward me!

No, it’s not!… imagination ... just imagination ...

I slumped to the ground, and clamped my left arm around the trunk of the juniper. Wild heartbeats hammered my eardrums.

Think about something else—anything!

But not her...don’t think of her ...

I focused on the tree, trying to occupy my mind. Get control! Breathe... The gnarled branches of the tree above me looked dead. But the tree was still alive, still clinging to a crack in the nearly naked rock, after centuries of sun, wind, ice storms, and lightning.

It’s strong—more enduring and dependable than anything else in this world.

It doesn’t have to feel, or suffer… It doesn’t even know…

I sat unmoving, feeling the reassuring solidity of the juniper. Then a shiver passed through me.

I need to get off this cliff! Dangerous for me to be here...

I let go of the tree, and slowly got to my feet. I carefully made my way down the side of the hill, following the winding trail, feeling detached from my body, unsteady.

I got to the creek, next to the base of the cliff. Safe now...

But my hands were shaking.

The creek thundered complaints as it forced its way through the maze of boulders.

I looked up at the overhanging cliff. I had climbed up there only to get away from my agonies for awhile, to try to put Kristy out of my mind. I wanted to soothe myself by looking out over the valley and the mountains—places I had known and loved since childhood. Yet a powerful urge to jump had seized me, led me to the edge of the cliff. Now my former despair began to return, made even more cutting by my foolish impulse.

Damn me! I can’t trust myself now.

The cliff and the creek and all else around me had once been part of my world. But that was before time became savage in its passage. Now I was no longer young, and that former world was no longer mine. All I loved had been taken from me, leaving only a residue of disillusionment and pain.

How did my life become this enveloping hell?

I suddenly became weak, and permitted myself to remember her face once again. Just the way it looked when I first saw her...

How can it have been that long ago? How could it have been...fourteen years?

But I remembered. I remembered it all …

Chapter Two

Gary, get up! You’re going to be late for school. Like a broken reel of film at the movies, Mom’s voice abruptly terminated my dream. I lay there savoring the warmth of my bed as consciousness slowly flooded into my brain.

Dammit! I suddenly realized that a guillotine had fallen on the neck of summer.

It was the first day of my junior year. The day before I had lingered by a secret spring up in the high country where my collie Sam and I sat unmoving in the shadow of a fir tree, watching an elk saunter across a meadow below.

Gary! Did you hear what I said?

Yes, Mom, I heard. Just a second or two more, I promise.

I wasn’t looking forward to what lay ahead. Now I would have to give up my outdoor adventures for the musty smell of damp wool coats, sleep-inducing overheated classrooms, and possibly the spectacle of a fist fight in the school yard. It wasn’t a fair trade.

A shock went up my legs as my feet touched the glacier-cold floor.

There was at least one good thing about the morning: for the first time, I would be able to drive myself to school. I had turned 16 that summer and had passed my driver’s license test. Dad had helped me buy a 1947 two-door Chevy. It was only ten years old but had clearly raised a lot of Hell in its life; it had a hole in the passenger-side floorboard, and the fenders and hood were covered with rust-spots. It had once been green, but now it tended to favor camouflage. My attempt to paint over the worst areas had not helped matters. Dad cracked, What that car lacks in beauty it makes up for in ugly. I soon realized that my new acquisition contributed nada to a debonair boy-about-town image, and had little allure for girls, a prime consideration. Moreover, in the dry mountain air, the movement of a pair of wool pants or a skirt on the nylon seat covers often produced an inch-long spark of static electricity between an unsuspecting fingertip and a door handle. However, the price was right at $175, and having wheels provided titillating new freedom.

After a quick bowl of cereal, and with new possibilities in mind, I boldly launched myself out the kitchen door. Mom called after me, Now, you be careful in that car.

I drove out of the Ponderosa pines surrounding our house and, by long-established habit, surveyed the slopes of the mountain up at the head of our valley. Sixteenth Century Spanish explorers had given it the name La Montaña de las Tormentas. The choice was mysterious, since true storms were rare in the mountains of New Mexico. Nevertheless, later English-speaking settlers followed that tradition and called it Stormy Mountain.

I and everyone else in town just knew it as Stormy. Its vast solidity overlooked the whole valley, and for me, the mountain provided a sense of time and proportion. In those early years, I believed, in spite of its ominous-sounding name, that Stormy was a faithful sentry that stood watch over me and my friends, night and day, through all seasons. It showed us green in spring, brown in summer, and the red and gold of its aspens in fall. It was white in winter, and might be hidden in snow clouds, but I knew it was there, still on the job.

I dreamed of one day climbing to the top, where I could see all of the surrounding hills and forests from that lofty perspective, and try to imagine what lay beyond the distant, hazy horizon. Two years before, when I was 14, a friend and I had attempted to climb the nearly 13,000-foot peak, but we badly miscalculated, and ran out of water, M & Ms, and breath long before we even reached the timberline at 10,000 feet. My dream would have to wait.

As I drove to school that particular morning, Stormy looked like a big wedge of watermelon in the early sun. It seemed like a hopeful sign to me, but it offered no hint that all of my world would change that day.

Walking across the school parking lot, I wondered which of my friends I would see first.

In the hallway a few duos of boy and girls had paired off in various spots to exchange soft words and run fingers over the sleeves of letter jackets. I didn’t have a girl yet, but I had hope. Acquiring my first car had been part of my now-failed plan.

Some things had changed over the summer. The epidemic of duck-butt haircuts had infected even more guys, and it was obvious that a new litter of poodle skirts was about to surge through the valley.

Many eyes followed our new drum majorette, Karin Andersdotter, as she paraded down the hall decked out in her regalia, a version not seen in previous years. The red outfit stopped just below her shapely hips, exposing her long legs. The gold braid on the front undulated across her formidable breasts, allowing them to speak for themselves. She was truly revealed for the first time. After she passed by, I overheard Stanley Parks speak sotto voce to the kid next to him, "Jeez, look at that. She’s got organs all over her!"

A year before, we had read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night. The minority of us who actually liked Shakespeare had to pay the price. Thereafter, What ho, Malvolio! and What ho, Clarence! and the like had echoed in the halls. Then we had read Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and had to put up with, Tell me about the rabbits, George. Apparently the summer had put the kibosh on creative inspiration. All was relatively quiet.

In homeroom, a big spitball arched through the air and slapped against the blackboard. Our teacher, Miss Cookenboo (a moniker subject to numerous parodies) was a no-nonsense, gray-haired woman of sturdy build. At the sound of the spitball hitting the blackboard, she raised her head and let her reading glasses drop to the shelf of her large bosom where her neck chain brought them to a halt.

All right, who threw that? She paused and looked around the room of pious faces. Which one of you is mature and honest enough to say?

No one confessed, but after class, those who claimed to be in the know generally agreed that Carl Bullard was a prime suspect.

After group deliberations and joking were concluded, I went to my hall locker to get a textbook. As I sorted through my junk, I sensed someone to my right, hidden by my locker door.

Book in hand, I shut the locker and discovered that I was looking directly into the eyes of the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. Across-the-board stunning. Her eyes were crystal clear and light blue-silver. Her hair was shiny, jet black, straight, parted in the middle, and it hung around the sides of her pale oval face, a fresco of Cleopatra.

I stared and had to force myself to look away after a second or two.

Stealthy hands tightened around my throat. My mouth was suddenly dust. I tried to speak, but could only croak a weak and breathless, Hi. I felt like a chrome plated fool.

She said, Hi back, smiled, and then turned to go to class.

Who was that! I felt a thrill rise from my gut into my chest. Being around good-looking girls had always awed and intimidated me. Before I knew what was happening, my old shyness had ambushed me. I had to talk to her, get to know her. Next time, I promised myself, I would.

During lunchtime, I cornered Ben Kelly as he sat in his car eating a sandwich. I asked him if he had seen that knockout new girl with the straight black hair.

Yeah, she was in my geometry class this morning. Mr. Huber asked her to introduce herself to the class. She said that she and her folks moved here over the summer. I think her name’s Karen or something.

That’s all?

I know she takes real good class notes. I was sitting in the row next to her, and I saw her notes—nearly filled the whole page, with diagrams and everything. I only made a few lines of notes. She’s going to bust the curve, I know it. I think I’ll just flunk now.

I left Ben to bemoan his fate and finish his lunch. I needed more information, especially if she had a boyfriend, and decided to try Tom Scott. He belonged to a prominent family in town, and he always seemed to have the latest news. I caught Tom in the hallway, and asked about the new girl with the black hair. I hit pay dirt. Tom and his parents and her family had once lived in the same neighborhood in Midland, and he knew some things about her. Ben had her name wrong. She was Kristina Preston, but she went by Kristy. She was my age, and Tom had heard that she and her parents now lived up in White Oak Canyon.

I asked Tom, Does she have a boyfriend?

Don’t know…Ha! So you’re interested.

Very funny.

Well, maybe I’ll decide to find out.

* * *

I got up early the next morning in order to make it to school before my usual last-minute arrival. I overdid it. When I got there, Peedy, the school custodian, was just unlocking the back door.

I drove down behind the school to waste time by the creek. The cold Rio de Oro (Gold River) known to us as simply as Rio Oro or usually just the creek, weaved back and forth as it ran through the valley and our town. It didn’t give us gold, but it brought other things of worth: deep hiding places for trout; the bold music of rapids; pieces of the moon, skating over evening waters. That morning, the early sun wove a yellow-orange blanket of fog above the creek.

I watched some fingerling trout feeding in a shallow pool before driving back up to school. The parking lot was filling up. I went in and fumbled around in my locker to kill more time and look busy, hoping that Kristy would show. She didn’t.

Between classes, I looked for Tom to see if he had any more information.

Mom talked to her mother and dad at the Welcome Wagon. Kristina wasn’t there, though. Tom pulled a crumpled piece of paper out of his jeans. Her mom’s name is N..a..z..a..n..i. She’s from Japan or China or someplace, but she goes by Annie. Kristy’s dad’s a retired Army guy. Mom didn’t know if she’s got a boyfriend.

I gave Tom credit for collecting the details. He said I owed him a milkshake and fries. ¡No problema!

Now I was better armed, but my will started to weaken.

The gods rescued me. At lunch, an opportunity to prove myself arrived. As I ate, Kristy came in with some other girls, and they sat at a nearby table. Maybe she doesn’t have a boyfriend yet. I strained in the noisy lunchroom to catch snippets of conversation, but could only pick up a word or two. Furtively, I studied her out of the corner of my eye, but looked away each time she looked anywhere near me. You coward!

Our school gave us an hour break during lunch, and I usually ate fast so I could sit out on the back steps and talk with friends or just mess around until 1:00. I ate slowly that time, waiting for the proper moment. Eventually, only Kristy and one other girl, Amy something, were left at the table. I finished eating, and got up. After putting my tray through the small window into the kitchen, I revved up my courage, turned back toward Kristy’s table, and tried to look easy and cool as I walked toward them.

As I got near their table, I managed to squeak out, Hello, Amy. How are you?

Oh, hi. Fine.

Then, casually, I looked toward Kristy. I don’t th..think I know your name. Are you new here? You idiot! Of course she’s new.

Yeah, I am. I think I saw you by the lockers. I’m Kristy. She offered her hand. I shook it. Electric!

I’m Gary. Well, welcome—to school! My voice cracked, and I sounded like Jerry Lewis. My palms were sweaty. She probably noticed.

She said, Thanks. Are you new here too?

Oh, no. I’ve been here quite a few years, I said, attempting to sound worldly and sophisticated. "We moved here from Texas—Houston—when I was young. Do you like it here…so far, I mean?

We do. My father likes to play golf at Meadow Links. Mom is home anywhere—she moved around a lot as a kid. I love the mountains here. I hated the flatness in Midland.

Yeah, I like the mountains too. I realized that I was getting close to exhausting my repertory of conversational witticisms. Just then, Amy got up and left.

I felt awkward standing there, and impulsively asked Kristy, Do you fish—for trout? Stupid!

Uh, no…I don’t. Dad does sometimes. She started gathering up her notebook, text, and purse as she prepared to go. I was a little relieved when she said, It was nice meeting you, Gary. I need to go to class now. So, bye!

Yeah, me too… Bye!

Well, maybe you didn’t make a complete fool of yourself. It wasn’t that bad…

By the time school was over that afternoon, I even convinced myself that I was Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Don Juan, and had entranced yet another beautiful lady. As I drove home, I felt buoyant, even jaunty.

Chapter Three

During the following days I tried to show up at the lockers when Kristy was there, and usually succeeded—sometimes at the cost of strategically hanging out in the hallway awhile—but whatever bravado I believed I had now brooded in a sickbed. Just about every time she looked at me, her eyes gave me a shock, as well as partial lockjaw. I cursed myself for not making at least some kind of overture. My misery carried into the weekend; I was restless and bored.

I tried to call Ben to see what he was up to, but there was no answer. Tom had said I owed him for finding out about Kristy, so I called him. When I asked if he might want to catch a burger with me, he said, No can do. Irene and I are headed out to the Starlite tonight. There’s a new movie, something about submarines in the war. You want to come with us? Irene Jensen, Tom’s girlfriend, was a bit older than Tom, and had graduated the year before. I enjoyed their company. She was tall, blond, out-spoken, athletic, and attractive. Her mom had been Miss New Mexico in the 1920s. I accepted the invitation, and said I would buy the popcorn.

Going to the Starlite Drive-Inn was a venerated summer ritual. A crowd of kids would hang out around the Snack Shack and the nearby projection booth, drinking Orange Cows and munching chili hotdogs. Occasionally the owner, Mr. Sanchez, would have to tamp down the festivities a bit when the shadow of a head or three popped up under the hooves of John Wayne’s horse.

Tom drove at a slow creep around the parking lot, seeking an acceptable spot. Here and there, cigarette tips winked on and off like red fireflies.

Over there! Irene pointed. We settled in, not too close to the glare from the concession stand, yet not in the semi-darkness of the back rows where guys were smooching with their girls—or working up the courage for an attempt.

I was trying not to think of Kristy, but that effort brought her to mind again. During the Road Runner cartoon, Irene turned toward me in the back seat and said, I hear that you and Kristina Preston are dating.

Damn! I don’t really want to talk about her, but now I have to.

No, no, not dating. We just know each other. Our lockers are together.

Mom says she’s a very pretty girl. Why don’t you ask her out?

Well…I don’t know if she’d be interested in me.

Gary Reed! You’ll never know until you ask.

I’ve been working up toward asking if she has a boyfriend.

Oh, don’t ask that! Girls don’t like it. It puts them on the spot. Just ask if she’d like to go out, for goodness sake!

Irene was always outspoken. I appreciated her perspective, especially on things feminine.

Yeah, I see your point. Just step right up and do it, huh?

She already knows if she’d be interested. Quit fooling around and find out.

I promised Irene and myself that I would step out on the high wire Monday and ask, in spite of my continuing doubts.

* * *

It was mid-September. Nights were getting cold. Frost glistened on the asphalt as I drove to school on Monday. By the time I got there, the sun had barely peeped over the mountains. Once again, I cleverly wasted time at my locker, waited for Kristy, and thought about how to ask her for a date.

If you’re not doing anything this weekend… No, too indirect. Kristy, I want to go on a date… Double-no! Too demanding…

Suddenly, the back door of the school flew open, and Billy Nash, his body bent close to the floor, and his chubby arms extended like wings, swooped down the hall, hollering, Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane—it’s the Nash-man! His antics attracted little attention. It was common knowledge that he carried his own world—widely suspected to be some version of Mad magazine—around in his head.

My concentration was broken. Just then, the bell rang for homeroom.

Hell! Kristy would fail to show just when I have steeled myself and feel ready to ask The Question.

Near the end of homeroom class, Miss Vance came in and announced that it was time to select a script and a cast for the annual junior class play. I didn’t like talking in public; that ruled out the idea for me. However, my class cohort was fairly small, and Miss Vance urged all of us to give it a try. Those interested would meet with her after school.

I had doubts about my acting abilities, and no interest in being part of the play. On the other hand, Kristy was a junior like me, and she might be at the meeting. I had nothing to lose, so I decided to waste ten or fifteen minutes at the meeting after school.

She was there. I sat in the back of the room to see what was going to happen. I noticed Miss Vance look at me and smile. If I’m cornered, maybe I can play the