The Ides of August 1945
I’m in the front seat behind the bus driver leaving Carson City for Eureka. Shortly after we leave town the driver breaks out in a rash of Western Music. At first I’m intrigued:
Don’t Flush me Down the Toilet of Your Heart (Originally it was the Bathroom- Johnny Cash- But the toilet is a more striking metaphor).
Open up that Door, and let me in, Babe, I’m mighty sorry that-a’ made you cry.
Clear Cool, Water, and a hodge-podge of Spike Jones
The songs repeat but are never quite the same; while variety and inventiveness have appeal, I think of the mine where my father is working, and my mind soon slips away to memories of a miner’s life– ceaseless travel from mine to mine, country to country- where the parallel worlds of a miner and a miner’s child are very different. I recall Nevada City, CA; Noranda, Quebec; Sudbury, Ontario; Balatoc, Baguio, and Tayabas, Philippines; Holden Washington ( twice); Tonopah, Manhattan, Nevada; Santo Domingo, and Hacienda Robinson, Mexico.
Eureka will be my 13th mine. Growing up with constant change arguably promotes adaptability, independence, and resourcefulness. I still enjoy exploring a mountain or a culture or country alone, aware every stranger and every stream is company. Itinerancy bred into me a peculiar ignorant but confident precociousness. Yet I did have a default home; four times, when there was no school available, I was sent briefly to grandparents in Northern California. I can think of no greater advantage for the child of a miner, soldier, sailor, or diplomat, than four grand parents, a remembered language, culture, home, and homeland.
At age 11 Dad took me from Chihuahua, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas and a journey to my small California town where there were only 5 boys in my freshman high school class. I recall the El Paso Hotel room where my he schooled me thoroughly about life before putting me on the troop train to Los Angeles; sending a child alone by train had not yet become abusive. I most remember two things he said:
1) “Most people are good, some are bad. You have to make judgments.” He was not given to banter; or I to questions. That night the troop car windows were open to the desert night, and I slept soundly to the music of the tracks- only to awaken to the truth of what dad said. My thin billfold with $5.00 for food was missing. Yet soldiers fed me til LA and left me with $3.00 for the trip North to one of those quaint little stations that speak of a time when time and travel were slower.
2) “Use a condom.” I had no idea what he meant but didn’t ask. That was partly because I feared to talk about what I vaguely suspected shouldn’t be confessed.
Arriving in Durham on the Ides of August*, I’d be there for the next and year and a half, considered a prodigy, because I’d come up through the British Calvert system of mail order schools. I became a coddled high school student taught advanced math and English in the principal’s office. Time would prove to me I was just a lucky kid!
After Fallon, Spike Jones predominates, though he probably couldn’t recognize himself. I doze fitfully. At hour 5 we park in front of the Eureka Hotel. The entire ground floor is a bar; rooms are upstairs, kitchen and laundry a lean-to uphill in back. I can’t imagine what is in the full basement; maybe that’s a good thing. The ingeniously named Main Street is lined with solid attractive brick and stone buildings including an opera hall, bank, several bars, a store operated by a bandit, and a small bowling alley.
Ruby Hill Mine is visible on the hillside to the South, and in between is a disparate collection of houses, weed and junk decorated lots, a fire station, a school, a small movie house, a wooden church with a bell and steeple, and a graveyard with some pretensions of a cemetery.
It is August. This is the first place we have ever lived with a Boy Scout troop, and I am of age, so my father gets us both involved. In an old ritual, I must invade and prove myself worthy to the in-residence group of boys. I attend patrol meetings, work on merit badges, and make my own back pack. My arrival, and perhaps the role my dad assumes as an active father, rankle one tough scout in particular. He’s a solid, box-built kid, with a genuine barbershop haircut. I’m taller but slender with hair my dad cut. The first night at the movie he taunts me. I ignore him. During the film he sits behind me in the darkness, and pokes my shoulder. Turning around casually, I learn that, especially in the dark, cigarette tobacco can be an effective weapon: Roll a cigarette between your fingers, extruding a small pile of ground tobacco into the other hand. Blow it into the wide open eyes that look at you in the darkness; it will blind them effectively for many minutes.
The next weekend our Scout Patrol travels to a nearby lake for an outing. While swimming, the tobacco warrior, who doesn’t swim, walks out over his head and begins to drown, alternately sinking, coming up, yelling, coughing, and sinking. I am nearby and swim down beneath him, stand on the bottom, and push him progressively toward shore. By the time one of the men reach us he is on his feet. Aside from the two of us, no one knows what happened.
On Wednesday August 15, 1945 the Japanese surrender unconditionally. There is jubilation, wild abandon. Boilermakers- a shot of whiskey in a mug of beer- are free, at least for the adults. Music blares. People crowd Main Street shouting and cavorting. I join a bunch of boys who go to the tumbledown wooden church and ring the bell; but no one seems to notice so we quit. The tobacco kid is there too. He avoids my look, and doesn’t speak; and that is a satisfaction for me.
January, 2012- 67 years later- my youngest son and I drive back to Yosemite where he lives, after visiting family in South Dakota. It’s a long, long drive. We had gone East on traffic clogged Highway 80 in a blizzard, so on the return we take off-80 roads whenever we can. They are invariably traffic free. At Wendover, Nevada, we escape to the South, to reach Highway 50, which takes us past Eureka. Ruby Hill Mine calls to me.
The old town experienced long years of decay after the mine failed. Water brought my dad there in 1945. While Nevada may seem dry, almost no water ever leaves the state. It collects underground. The remaining deep Ruby Hill gold is still there today but no one has yet been able to control the water. When the price of gold exploded recently, Barrick Gold opened up a new open pit mine, lower down, to the West of Eureka. The town is alive again, though barely, and now hopes to re- establish itself for tourism like so many other abandoned mining towns: Aspen, Taos, Telluride.
We find the house where my family lived. It has been beautifully restored. Likewise the Opera House has been resurrected, as an active theater and community center. The main buildings on Main Street are in mint condition – or better. The old church bell we rang when ‘The War‘ ended, is enshrined in front of the museum.
Opera house and old Eureka Hotel Bar, now a Cafe…
Some girls walk by and we ask about the mine.
“ Oh, it’s been closed forever. Nobody can go there. There’s a guard and locked gate. It’s just up there, see? About a half mile above the high school, and the new gold mine temporary worker housing.
“ Haven’t you ever been to the mine?
“No… no one ever does.
The mine calls more insistently. We drive up the snow-covered road. The place looks empty; no cars no lights, a single set of snow filled tire tracks where a pickup backed out . It is well below zero. Dry, light windblown drifted snow leaves scattered bare spaces. We have warm coats but only tennis shoes and cotton socks. The sun is low in the West. In the distance the Barrick open pit gold mine leers at us over a colorful cyanide tainted tailings pond. To the right are a storage building, and administrative office buildings. There is no wind. A few foot tracks are filled in by blown snow. We walk to the storage shed. Everything is wide open. It is filled with thousands of 1 x 1 x 2 ft cardboard boxes, each containing several thousand envelopes, packets of finely ground rock; they are samples taken from diamond drill cores, ground for assay. Each has information on the source of the drill core, the date, and the analysis of the rock found.They whisper faintly about what it takes to find and extract metallic underground ore.
The nearby administrative office has been left as if at mid work day. Appointment calendars are pinned to the wall. Crusted coffee cups sit at engineer’s drafting tables and desks littered with plans. Chairs and tables, bookshelves in disarray, a small radio, a coffee-maker, ashtrays with butts, a bottled- water holder- all is abandonment, disorder. Down the hall are other offices in a similar condition. I’m reminded of Pompeii… yet I know this to be the standard way a mine looks when it dies- As if it might be resurrected any moment, or it is too remote to scavenger. Ruby Hill Mine is, in effect, every remote abandoned mine.
- We look again at the hoist, and the mine shaft which still holds the metal cage that miners rode down and down to- where?- 2000 ft? More? This is only a very tiny mine compared to the world’s largest . Yet this is one of my father’s mines; he rode the cage, he walked the tunnels, and worked the charts. We laugh about his condom wisdom and I tell my son of an old ‘skin’ from my father’s father’s father’s billfold
Back in the car, expecting to find soggy wet socks, even though we haven’t felt wet in the snow, our shoes and socks and pant legs are completely dry, due to the exceedingly arid cold Nevada air. I reluctantly abandon the Ruby Hill mine like its former owners, look a last time at the mill, hoist, shaft, cage, and offices, expecting we shall never meet again.
* Ides are traditionally the 15 of Mar May July, and Oct; or the 13th of the other months.