Sunday, April 05, 2009

Best I Suppose Now Is The Time

During February I felt like writing a story, so I wrote the story of this day from my trip to Europe with Grandma and Aunt Louise and Uncle Bob 6 years ago (almost to the day). And ever since then I've been editing it and revising it here and there ever since with the intention of eventually posting it, probably in honor of the anniversary of that trip.

I was thinking of waiting until April 11th to put it up, because that's the day this adventure happened. But then something happened in General Conference today: President Monson told a story that began in the town we visit in my story, involving a common relation of ours (Monson spoke of Gibson Condie, an uncle of the Thomas Condie I write about here). When I heard President Monson say "Clackmannan" in his talk I let out a woop and threw up my hands like the Panthers had just scored a touchdown--it's not super-often that I'm able to make genealogical connections like that. I considered Monson's Condie-tale reason enough to finally rush these 2,500 words to publication.

Also, please, this is just the story of one day. Our European vacation had all sorts of highs and lows. I love my Grandma and my Aunt Louise and my Uncle Bob and I appreciate so much that I got to go to Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom with them. It is always a delight to be reunited with them.

Ok, story time. I hope you find it acceptable (The story is also available, without pictures, to read/print as a Google doc here.):

Certain Death on the Road to Family History

an excerpt from "It Was Really Very Nice of Grandma to Have Taken Me to Europe with Her"
(a work in progress)

Edinburgh at dusk, because the story has to start with a picture.

April 11, 2003—
When we came down, Aunt Louise and Uncle Bob were waiting behind the hotel with the car they had woken up a few hours earlier than Grandma and me to go rent. The car was the color of an overcast day and fairly sharp in the new way rental cars sometimes are. It was one of those domestic foreign cars, the sort that never come to the United States…an Opal or something, and it had the look of efficiency that this little journey needed. After we get in Bob starts trying to force the stick into gear as he turns the key to start the car, but nothing happens with the engine and the stick won’t budge. He gives the key another turn and the stick a stronger push and, again, nothing happens. His first two efforts went unnoticed by the sisters, but by the third he’s got their eyes on him and Aunt Louise has started to make suggestions (“Is the parking brake on, Earle?”). Bob is getting frustrated and begins to grumble under his breath at the stick shift. Worried a little by the situation (surely with a skilled and experienced driver/engineer in the Captain’s chair, if the car isn’t starting, it’s for a terrible reason) I peer up from my seat behind Aunt Louise and, based on a hunch I had, observe something important. Keen on preserving Bob’s dignity and authority, I ask as innocently as possible, feigning ignorance of the possibility that I might be suggesting the solution to the problem, “Bob, what’s that pedal to the left of your foot?” Bob stops turning the key and leaning on the stick to glance down at his feet and mumbles an acknowledgment of the clutch.

First gear is engaged, one more turn of the key brings the engine to life, and the car moves forward without bucking or stalling. We take a left onto another side street and zip down a block to King’s Road, Edinburgh’s main Main street. We then take a quick right, right into a bus-only lane that is separated from the rest of King’s Road by dividers that prevent Bob from correcting this mistake and getting us back into the appropriate lane of traffic. Also, this bus lane is One Way in the direction opposite to the way we are headed. I make the total assessment of the situation many beats before Bob does and am gripped with total terror as double-decker busses crammed with commuters head right for us. Panicked and at a loss as to how I could possibly help with this mess, I pull my jacket over my head and curl up against my window. I’ve never had that sort of reaction before, an amazing combination of fear and extreme embarrassment . . . I was hiding myself from having to watch what happened and from being identified as a member of this sick, misdirected crew, the impending fodder of beginning-the-day workplace conversations for every Edinburgher that saw us pass or passed us by. I stay hid for a furious minute where some slight peeking revealed to me that somehow we’ve gotten around two to three busses before the Bob swerves into a proper lane at an intersection and feel the sighs of my Grandmother and her sister decompressurize our cabin.

No one says anything about what just happened. I fully support the instant denial of the event and support the relegation of the incident into the status of a suppressed memory for my companions. We carry on as if we aren’t carrying on and get down to business, the business of figuring out how, exactly, we’re going to get to Clackmannan, home of the Condies. Aunt Louise has unfolded a map and begun to direct Bob onto a proper course that is extremely incorrect. Citing my one day spent in Edinburgh three years back, I suggest that I possess the proper expertise to make sense of the map of Edinburgh and environs and lead us on way. Satisfied with the precedent, she hands me the map.

Crossing the long modern bridge.

And so, with me frequently checking numbers and names on the map against street signs and giving Bob as much possible advance notice on any impending turns or lane changes, we make our way out of Edinburgh and onto a highway, across a long modern bridge, and then descend to winding country roads. Grass and stone, branches and fences, only the frequent threat of veering into oncoming traffic and the constant questioning from the co-captain ahead of me as to if we’re certainly headed the right way disrupt our pleasant and fairly efficient journey. After Bob clips his rearview mirror soundly against a retaining wall—a little accident that goes entirely unnoticed by Bob, but causes Grandma and Aunt Louise to draw in their breath sharply—I can’t help but wonder why I’m not driving. There would be certain advantages to me being in the driver’s seat, for example: we’d all be significantly less likely to die. But as I’m asked once more if I’m sure we’re headed the right way, I realize that if I were driving that would leave my companions in charge of the map and navigation and the combination of their possibly fatally flawed instructions with their constant direction-giving might leave me with no recourse but to drive the car off a cliff to escape the frustration. With me keeping my eye on the fairly straightforward route to Clackmannan I know that when we plow into a flock of sheep crossing the road or swerve right into the path of lumbering lorry, we’ll at least die headed in the direction of our ancestral home.

It doesn’t take us too long, after a few wrong turns (I blame these on misunderstood directions, not the misreading of the map…but others have the right to argue differently) to travel the thirty-some miles from Edinburgh to Clackmannan, the tiny land of our heritage. My great great great grandfather Thomas Condie, the son of another Thomas Condie, a miner turned store-owner, was born here in 1842. In 1848 the Condies joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a year later young Thomas left Clackmannan with old Thomas and the rest of the family when they emigrated with fellow Saints to the United States aboard the proud ship Zetland out of Liverpool. The Zetland took them to New Orleans from whence the Condies traveled by steamboat up the Mississippi to St. Louis and then they continued onward to Council Bluffs, Iowa where, having reached the age of accountability, Thomas was baptized in 1850. In the Spring of 1852 Thomas Sr. built the family a wagon and joined a company of Pioneers headed for the Salt Lake Valley under the direction of one Captain Howell, arriving in Salt Lake City on September 2, 1852.

Time passed. Thomas Jr. married Hannah Swann and they begat (among others) Patriarch Gibson Condie, who begat James Ira Condie, my great-grandfather. James Ira emigrated down from Utah to California, married Mary Lloyd, and begat my Aunt Mary Louise, Grandmother Afton Lucille, and my late Uncle, James Ira, Jr. Afton Lucille Condie married Frank H. Taylor, they begat Claire Louise, she married Randall B. Barnes and suddenly, there I was, rolling up to that tiny town where it all began one hundred and sixty one years earlier.

The older, more charming Clackmannan rests on the crest of a hill while modern Clackmannan, a collection of small brown homes with laundry on the line, is found down the hill and across a little giving stream. Released from my navigational duties as now we can get by without a map (basically all the streets we have to choose between in the town we can see at anytime from any point), Aunt Louise has Bob drive us down to these modern homes so we can take pictures of the establishment along the top of the hill—old buildings, a clock tower of no great height, a respectable looking church a bit separate from everything else. Louise suggests knocking on someone’s door to ask them what it’s like to live in Clackmannan, but the suggestion gets swallowed up in other chatter, yet I can’t help but wonder what it’s like to live in Clackmannan and have a group of four American tourists, three on the edge of elderly and quite curious, one swiftly leaving his youthful days and exasperated, roll up in your neighborhood like this.

The clock tower of no great height and me.

We ascend to Old Clackmannan. It isn’t much different from how it looked at the bottom of the hill—clock tower of no great height (which Grandma takes my picture in front of), various homes and buildings, and two businesses: the Horseshoe Bar (not the sort that serves lunch) and a grocery store (perfect for the assembling of that lunch I couldn’t get at the bar). For every nudge in the direction she sees best, Aunt Louise also has a genuinely interesting or funny bit of information to share, and she pulls me aside to walk arm in arm (that’s her style, especially when imparting information) and tells me that my Great Grandma Condie, who I knew pretty well during the time in our lives when we were both alive (into my freshman year of high school, that is), would, when recounting the story of the Condie family, tell us that the Condies founded and owned the town store…but “store” here was the euphemism employed by our dignified matriarch for “pub.” So that got a chuckle from me.

The above-mentioned pub.

Even though it’s a clear and sunny day, the dirt road we drive down to the town church is rutted and muddy. The church is a modest but substantial structure with an appropriately crumbly cemetery within its outer walls. A woman happens to be working inside the chapel and welcomes us to look around as Aunt Louise explains to her, in great detail, our little group’s important connections to Clackmannan. The woman is as kind as a New Zealander and receives Aunt Louise’s lengthy explanation with enthusiasm. The chapel is two-tiered and an combination of olden days and modern times—the pews original, but the cushions recent and the hymnals up to date. Appreciative token donations are made in the appropriate box on the way out.
When we step outside, Aunt Louise takes in a deep breath of the cool midday air and suggest we take a look at the cemetery. She informs us that while we were in the chapel she took a look at a registry and is certain that there are Condies buried in this graveyard.

“Maybe someone whose eyes are a little sharper could take a look and see if they can find a Condie headstone?”

By now I answer to “maybe someone,” so I get to work amongst the fading rocks, trying to discern any names and dates at all, let alone a Condie or two. My three companions stand expectantly beside the church as I travel deeper into the not very big graveyard where the grass gets taller and headstones less likely to be standing up straight. Mossy, obscured, cracked, these memorials are not in the mood to reveal any of their secrets to me and I shrug back to the rest of my party with my hands out to the side. I head back and they, not big on the interpretation of gestures, ask if I found anything. No, sorry, I didn’t. I say this as I do a turn before them, looking over the headstones that stand where I do to give an impression of total thoroughness in my search. Another shrug, “I don’t see any Condies.”

Grandma amongst unseen ancestors.

Soon we’re on our way back to Edinburgh, it’s just the afternoon, but worries about returning our car by 6 and catching an 11 pm train back to London are already bubbling up amongst us. That and the occasionally expressed sentiment that that trip to Clackmannan was nice, but would have been even better if we could have found a dead Condie in the graveyard.

Filling up the car before returning it across the street.

We get to Edinburgh and return the car on time, hoping that the rental company won’t make too big of a deal over the damage to the rear view mirror or the results of our having backed into a fence on the way back into the city. Grandma would prefer to rest and wait at the train station while I get dinner at a Pizza Express with Aunt Louise and Uncle Bob.

The hostel where I stayed in 2000.

The society. I thought they were talking about humans. Now I realize they probably meant lesser primates.

The Pizza Express (a restaurant significantly nicer than the name would have you suspect) is across the street from the hostel where I stayed during my one day in Edinburgh three years before and, for the first time, I notice that the hostel shares the same building as the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Vivisection. I get a little laugh from Bob and Louise when I tell them how, during my stay in 2000, my friends Heber and Andrew ate at this Pizza Express and were quite embarrassed to be seated at the table for two at the front window with a nice little rose in a vase between them. On the way to the train station I investigate the possibility of investing in some Scottish wool, but the hundred pounds for a sweater strikes me as a little steep. Aunt Louise is very matter of fact about that just being what a nice sweater costs. While waiting for the train I go into a Newsagent’s and, looking over the candy, find some Turkish Delight. Remembering it from the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe I buy it, excited to learn what the big deal was. I’m disappointed and a little disgusted to find that it’s a chocolate-covered jelly of some sort. The projected image of an enormous spectral woman holding a candle passes along the walls of Edinburgh Castle every few minutes. Waiting for this image’s reappearance becomes our chief activity during our train-waiting time.

I knew we’d be traveling in sleeper cars back to London, but when we board the train I find out for the first time that we’ve each got our own cabin. The news that I’ll have a bedroom to myself for the first time in over a week is too much excitement for me to even begin to handle and I barely sleep a wink in my comfortable little compartment.

The next day we arrive in London and immediately catch a train to Birmingham where further adventures are had, including one involving a coal mine, another involving a Hen Night at a Greek Restaurant and, of course, one where a u-turn is almost taken directly into full-speed highway lorry traffic.

Yes, I recognize that I used a few invented words and that there are issues with remaining in the same tense throughout.


Sharoncalling said...

My dearest, dearest, DEAREST Brigham!!! Oh How I love you so much!!I have been waiting so long to read something from your book and I was not disappointed. It was excellent and you will be published for real, many times over. I wish I were as entertaining a writer as you!!!


M said...

Great story, fellow Scotsman. I was heretofore unaware of the common heritage we share (meaning just generally hailing from Scotland). Anyway, love the name Clackmannan. And thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

To better prepare this story for eventual publication, may I humbly suggest the use of "peeking" for "peaking" and "Citing" for "Sighting".


Also, I can has moar content like this xlnt post plz

Brig said...

Corrections made. Also, Mom told me that an e was missing from the end of Earle.

And thanks for the nice words.

Meike said...

That really is a nice story. Well written. But also nice to hear that you had a wonderful family (history) trip to Europe.

I thought long and hard wether i should leave a comment on your blog as I am a complete stranger to you. But i really liked the story. So there you go :)

Collin Mapp said...

From the ashen summit of Kragg Mountain, armed with a hammer of stone and a shield of truth, Brigham Barnes descends upon humanity!