Vintage Wine




Nearly thirty years ago in 1989,  singer and musician Graham Nash arrived at our Yukon regional airport with bags and a family of  four and four friends. If you have never heard of him, you would have been asleep in the seventies; he was a founding member of the Hollies and left in 1968 to form Crosby, Stills, & Nash with the others. He was early in the British invasion and is a forefather and veteran of  the hippie-popular-rock music scene, who is still touring internationally as I write this. CSN & (Young) were the most popular act at Woodstock which was their very first official appearance. Overnight they gained super stardom and though not without strife, have endured the woes and wonders of fame with astounding stamina. Nash was the one who specifically caught my attention from early on in my life when I discovered the transformational songs of the seventies when I was born. I remember  most of that decade with unusual perception for someone who was that young.  According to the admittance of many hippies, I remember it better than they did, considering I was never stoned on any drugs.

  So they left for a wilderness camp about fifty miles south on Nares Lake. A beautiful little camp vista surrounded by a mass of poplar and evergreens at the base of a rugged mountain called Nares. Most of the summer canoes would be dotting the shorelines and animal bone mobiles swinging from the trees.  In reality, it was the camp of a common occultist, promoting himself as a wilderness guru and his campaign was relentless. This is where Dick Person entertained them for seventeen days with yogurt, yoga, tepee, and talk.  And a whole lot of inka thrown in to replace coffee. It was a unique experience for anyone who was secretly self  masochistic  and I kid no one.

   The following account is of my nineteen hours I spent with Graham, his wife Susan, sons Jackson & Will, and their daughter Nile. Also a few of their friends, Susan Patner and her son Henry, and Bill & Lyn Long. Also a nice fellow by the name of Dan Stueber. Dick had three American boys as assistant, handyman, and breadbakers, by the names of Roger, Rick, & Seth. There were eighteen people in camp all eating blue corn chips and drinking substitute coffee surreptitiously. Some from as far away as Sweden and Germany. Now it was later June and the weather was absolutely perfect for everyone in those days that I was around them.

    I met Bill early on that first day. The wonderful guy who had me believing that he was quite possibly from Zee Zee Top. His original story stemmed back to a drunk in Kauai who staggered up to him thinking that’s who he was. He had a remarkable beard that few of us could ever imagine, unless we had seen images of Zee Zee.  He gave me his copy of Cros’ newest album. The one that Dave had given him the night before they all boarded the plane.  I was not really into Crosby but it was the thought that mattered and Bill was a very gracious individual. Just a great fellow and all around decent guy who had fortunately survived Viet Nam.

   Over near the makeshift shower, Susan was vigorously working out the imaginary kinks in her tiny body on the gigantic trampoline. She was possibly the healthiest person in camp.  

   Somewhere in the distance, the boys practiced with Jack’s bow and arrow. They were fizzing over the edge in excitement. Something new and adventurous that city life could not deliver. They had been carefully instructed by their father and by the guru but in another hour, tears were being shed, as they came back with their limp grouse. Poor Will, poor Jackson. They evidently underestimated themselves;  welcome to the wild Yukon…land of gold glory and the tough wilderness story. They could not have fathomed at that age.

   When Graham was introduced to me, it was spontaneous. Very spontaneous. The three of us all coming from different directions; Graham from the west, me from the north, and Dick from the east. It was almost like Graham and I were making an effort to get by one another to see how much longer we could stretch our introduction. A crazy mind game. Maybe all morning if it had not been for Dick intervening. We had conversed, we had laughed, we had sat beside each other but we had not actually met. I know I sat beside him because  I remember what he had for breakfast.; cinnamon oatmeal in a stainless bowl. I remember he didn’t really feel like being around everyone but how good he was at hiding it. He spent many long hours collecting stones and driftwood from the verdant shorelines of spring. A favorite pastime while there. I saw him at the campfire only a few times that morning.   When he was there he went about his needs quietly and consistently. He was Graham…so purely original. The one you want to know when he is playing on the other side of the world. The one who…managers and roadies and personnel would prohibit someone from meeting if they did not have proper connections. Normally this man was out of limits.  Suddenly, he was one of us in the middle of nowhere.  

   I stepped into the cooktent that afternoon, where there were boxes and cans of things like raisins, grains, nutbutters, and dreaded inka to keep us all happy and healthy. In the midst of four walls ready to collapse,  was a man leaned over his work. Busy with interest. Busy with his fingers. With his thoughts. I have no idea what his thoughts were on. They could have been on the antler box that he was making. They could have been on Cros in the Caribbean.  They were intense. I should have felt guilty for watching him. Somehow I did not.  I wanted to make use of the opportunity to see him in those unusual surroundings.  I never had and I knew I never would again. Quiet moments of observing his introverted creativity finally past when I stepped outside and remembered to breath once again.  All of this was caught somewhere between the real and the surreal.  While it was certainly happening, in another sense it was not.  It seemed that time was going by very fast that morning, yet it also felt like time had completely stopped.

   Outside  his wife knitted a rainbowed scarf for the great wilderness guru. Almost half done, she would have it finished when they left.  He had no idea yet.  Probably he thought she was knitting it for Graham.  So it was her secret to surprise him later.

    Most of the work around camp was done by Roger, Seth, Graham,  & Bill who cut wood daily with the swedesaw and packed gallons of water. Susan baked her first pie. I think it was rhubarb with whole grain crust. Something like Neil Young’s favorite (with strawberry) but Neil wasn’t there!

    When supper was finished,  ‘the’ Jackson would personally instruct me on the dangerous delight of axe throwing.  Certainly, something he had just gleaned from the guru. He was eleven. I was seventeen. His younger brother, nine and their sister, young enough that I could pack her around. A story has been recited, that the very first time she started to walk, they and the rest of the band were in Rome on tour.  So her first steps were in the Italian capital. 

    When their father sang that evening, one held his mouth organ, the others sang harmony. They were inseparable. They were an embroidered unite. Though there remains no pictures of that miniature concert, to this day, it remains impossible to forget those sweetest and quintessential moments.

    That night  the sun would not go down. We stayed up very late. It was summer solstice. Past midnight. I can still see little Willie standing over his glass of orange juice in quiet calculation. Perhaps he was dreaming when he would study law.  Who would dare climb inside that little man’s mind. Such a junior mystery.

    I left with family by boat in the twilight hours and I only recall  the cool air on my face coming from the surface of the lake water.  I recall how the air was so fresh.  It was a peaceful and exquisite evening in the land of the midnight sun. I was an emotional person and I was attempting to keep my composure. It took every ounce of strength I had. Inside I was overflowing like new fermenting wine.  After  years of nothing happening in my young life but perhaps music, I was feeling tremendously renewed and invigorated to reach beyond the music.  Music was such an integral part of my life and I was  a convert without mercy. Finally I was experiencing that greater level of consciousness; the man behind the music. It was as surreal as I imagined.

    That next morning, I would hear the ever energetic voice of Susan Nash calling me from somewhere inside the infamous haunted hotel. I found her on the payphone. She was on the line long distance to her mother, Ginger.  When she was through, I used the phone which I had come downtown for.  I really did not expect to find them in town at the very same time. Absolutely I was delighted.  I think it was the better part of an hour before everyone else showed up, commuting fifteen minutes across the waterway from camp, as we had just several hours before. Giggling and laughter everywhere. It sounded as though most of them had managed a longer rest than I who was still zapped from going to sleep so very late. I was nearing an emotional crash, running on adrenaline even at my age. I was not used to excitement in my life. Good thing I did not actually live in a place like California. Give me the Yukon; where honored guests come to see us even if by accident. Now I was living a dream.

  It was now about noon. I was sitting at a single table before anyone came in. I remember Graham offering to order me some food along with everyone else. I remember Bill pulling a chair for me to sit down beside them. A small hotel diner, nonetheless we had a triple table and fifteen chairs. Crazy wild time that I would not forget.

   At one point Graham got up and went out to use the phone just around the corner. It was his turn now. Susan and I had not dislocated it and it was still on the wall. That was good because as it turned out, he was calling a ship in the Caribbean. David was sailing merrily with his crew. Obviously quite content to think that it was Graham in the far North and not himself.

    I can still see the top that Susan was wearing.  A white jersey knit with an even pattern of tiny fluorescent colored scorpions across it. She had brought it from Kauai of course.

    After a very late breakfast, we toured the historic paddle wheeler. An extensive tour, it was, taking in everything from the captain’s office and bunk to even the boiler room. Graham absolutely loved it and he doubtlessly had the greater appreciation for ships than anyone of us.  I can still hear him calling down to the boiler room through the pipes, his children hyperventilating in sheer delight. They were having a lot of fun and they had no intention of it ending. Somewhere along the line I became their tour guide of the village and certainly I was a willing guide.

  They wanted to meet my grandfather. A man who was not actually my grandfather but many people thought he was and I figured I would not be the one to burst anyone’s bubble.  It was complicated for my whole family regarding him.  He was the one who lived at the end of the road,  very last cabin in town.  When we arrived he had apparently just finished in the kitchen.  He was bustling around as usual with a bee in his bonnet and apron on crooked. Perhaps an overdose of oven heat. On the table sat some kind of overly embellished dessert made of chocolate, whipping cream, and graham cracker. Susan ever curious and willing to learn, asked what it was called. She really wanted to know the name of it so when she went home, she could straightaway make it. Everyone was standing around in quiet delight, just dying to sample it.  Right at that point, my mother came around the corner and announced that it was called “Sex in a Pan”. Originally being named the less infamous, “Six in a Pan” because it required six ingredients. Reactions were somewhat mixed. I don’t know if Susan ever has made it yet but it seems like nobody has forgotten the name.

   In the front room Bill searched out the rocking chairs and managed to find the best one with only half the seat gone.  The two Susans and Lyn climbed the carpenters ladder to the upstairs with Nile and Jack following. There was something mysterious about the attic, particularly since it was unfinished and unfurnished. No one was going to keep them from finding out what it was. I held the ladder.

   Willie disappeared outside and hid securely in the woodpile. Each time someone went outside, he would make an alien nasal sound in his throat to try to scare them. I am sure he would not want to be reminded of that these days, especially since he is a grown professional now. When we did find him, he sprung up like a weed. Gleeful look on his face, he went scooting off in his sneakers.

   We stayed about three hours. I watched Graham shake hands and embrace with everyone. Then I watched him walk up the stairs again and shake hands with my father. They had gotten along well and I had absolutely known that they would.

   Now Bill and I stood at the back of the truck. Everyone was trying to decide where to ride and if they could even possibly fit. Twelve to cram in. I asked Graham if he was going to walk back down to the waterfront. I’ll not forget his perfect humor. He said he would be unless I was going to pack him. I was not prepared for that. When Seth, Bill, Graham, and I set off to the water, everyone else was still arguing and carrying on over their places. We were halfway down before the little truck went thundering past with arms and legs flailing out the back, signaling their victory on us. They were shouting something but it was beyond us. They were shouting nonsense and we knew we were the intellectuals at that moment.

   The street we were on, I would often stop and try to visualize what it would be like to see one of the famous four walk along on the opposite side. And if they did, whether or not I would manage to actually recognize them at that distance. There were certain times that I could absolutely envision them here in this mountainous village of magnified splendor. I remember thinking that as I walked along on the right of Graham who was my favored one. He pointed out the churches and asked about them. One on our right and one at the very end of town. One blue and white. One green and white. One Catholic, the other Anglican. Just before my years of theological study were to begin.  Religion was a continuing study for him and I really had no idea how theology would soon become mine. Later I would end up sharing with him my own spiritual discoveries that would in fact take a stark contrast. God knows best in all divine providence.

   I stood  and watched the three men get their coats on and untie the canoe, pushing it into the water without effort. Graham bid farewell.  A few moments later I saw them grow smaller and disappear underneath the bridge on their way back to camp on the lake of Nares. Overhead, very high up, mares tails danced across the sky like they were stretching the circumference of the clock. Never again. When I closed my eyes, I could remember the little things. Like the book he read from. He was not a man for fiction. Or the blue speckled enamel cup he drank secret smuggled coffee from. His favorite color was winter green. He gave people the benefit of the doubt yet he was no one’s fool.  A sage for his age (now I am his age) yet he was incredibly youthful and spontaneous. His beauty and reassurance.  His genuine interest in other people. He could be so funny, yet he was so very serious. The three songs in the teepee the few nights before. If his time and graciousness was not enough, I don’t know what was. The greatest realization that I have come to, is that he is always there. Somehow always obtainable. He is wine. He is vintage.


 –  Shirly Ambrose

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