by RIP RENSE
A Hill of a Thanksgiving
(Nov. 26, 2003)
"Some day, I'm gonna climb that mountain."
---Walter Brennan, from
I've had some memorable
dinners, for reasons good and awful, but none more than the one made by my old man,
thirty-eight years ago. As the crow flies.
Actually, it was the day after Thanksgiving,
but to a kid, this is a fine distinction. Those two days are as stuck together as LaurelandHardy.
The dinner in question was just a sandwich, and
by all conventional sandwich measures, a pretty damned crude one. My father's culinary
inspiration was far outweighed by good intentions. This was nothing more than two pieces
of white bread soaked through with canned cranberry sauce, barely supporting the thick
slabs of dry turkey breast in the middle.
The earl of sandwiches, it
wasn't. Not even the duke.
But as any great cook will tell you, from the
Zen chefs of Japan to the guys who make Hickoryburgers at The Apple Pan, circumstance is a
vital part of dining. Location, location, location. Try eating a Hickoryburger outside the
Apple Pan, and you'll see what I mean.
And so were my dad's sandwiches meant to be
consumed only on the top of Pork Chop Hill, with the cold Santa Ana winds whistling in my
BEWARE THE WHEELERS!
Now, Pork Chop Hill was a focus of
immense wonder to me and my best pal, Jim. We were country boys growing up in Thousand
Oaks, when there were still a thousand oaks there, just a few thousand pastel-colored
tract homes, and about 15,000 people. There were coyotes in the hills, sheep in the
fields, bats roosting in the front porches, rattlesnakes in the cactus, ever-circling
buzzards in the sky. And Pork Chop Hill.
We didn't know its real name at
the time (Mt. Clef), or that it was famous and had appeared as a backdrop in a million westerns, from
"Stagecoach" to "Man of the West." We just knew that it loomed,
distant, weird-looking, beckoning, in the middle of our kid-world. Year after year.
Someday, we vowed, we would climb it.
Picture a wave about to break, or a billowing
sail, or, well, a gigantic pork chop, and you get the shape of this tall, oddball bit of
geography. I had grown up contemplating the thing from the age of seven,
seeing as it rested dead-center
in the panoramic view of town outside my bedroom window. This was a commanding, mysterious scape, changing color and character throughout the year---or day, for that matter---from
sienna to dark brown to gray to greenish after a rain. . .crowned by a shadowy crust of
dark rock, a kind of furrowed brow. What secrets did it hold? What manner of
trolls and gremlins dwelled in its crags? Why did it look so benign
some days, and so foreboding on others?
Jim and I intended to find out.
Of course, we intended to
out a great many things---like whether our parents would allow us to take a bus to
Yosemite and camp (no), whether you could ring a doorbell at midnight and get away before
someone answered (yes), why girls sometimes were nice to us, and sometimes weren't (still
trying to figure that one out), whether you can smoke Tiparillos in the bedroom without
the parents knowing (they pretended), and what would happen if you rode a bike not only
with no hands, but with your feet off the pedals, too (you break your arm.)
I don't recall what we discussed en route,
but it seems likely not to
politics or philosophy. Probably something
along the lines of jokes about a
at school who had accidentally set his hair on fire.
This time, though, we would not be deterred. We had
planned our ascent for months. We knew we would need a lot of time for an expedition of
such scope, and as Jim's weekends were usually messed up with one family obligation or
another, we pegged the-day-after-Thanksgiving, 1966, for our assault on what we knowingly
referred to as, "The Hill."
My dad thought it was fine. He
wrapped two or three sandwiches in "tin foil," as it was known then, and I
stuffed them in the pockets of my blue windbreaker. I instructed Pop to aim binoculars at
the top of The Hill at an appointed time, so we might wave to him. And thus Jim and I
set off, our twelve-year-old legs carrying us several miles across town and deep into
unexplored territory of fields, jagged rock-crested bluffs (some of which, I later
learned, had appeared in "Wuthering Heights," with Lawrence Olivier), great
thickets of cacti, chapparal, sage, and, to our amazement, the odd movie sets leftover from
"Gunsmoke" or "The Rifleman."
It was a typical late November Southern
California day, which is to say, the sun was warm, the light weak, and the air cold and
dry. The infamous Santa Anas kicked up as we walked, desiccating skin, chapping lips,
caking dirt into skin, causing eyes to water. I don't recall what we discussed en route,
but it seems likely not to have included politics or philosophy. Probably something along
the lines of jokes about a weird kid at school who had accidentally set his hair on fire,
or how scary and far off high school seemed.
But one thing Jim must have remarked
upon was how worried his parents would be---because no matter how long and far we walked,
The Hill never seemed to get any closer. Not helping matters was my pal's prolonged visit
to a "burned town" movie set from Gunsmoke, where he took time to climb some
stairs---the kind where you always see the Bad Guy sneaking out of the hotel's second
floor, only to get caught by Matt Dillon in the alley below. . .
Eventually---hours later than expected, and way
past the binoculars rendezvous with my dad---we found ourselves at the very base of The
Hill, looking up---and I do mean up. We had to tilt our heads back to take it all
in. This only heightened the thrill of the climb, so to speak, and up we went, hunching
forward for balance, careful of our footing, pausing to discuss route adjustment. This was
no casual hike, and we were methodical and businesslike about the task. We zig-zagged,
pausing here and there to catch breath, or watch a batch of jackrabbits burst out of a
clump of cacti, until, after perhaps twenty minutes, we stood at the foot of the crowning
crest of rocks and clefts---the furrowed brow---staring up. And once again, I do mean up.
Giant prehistoric rocket ships.
That's what they looked like. Broken down, decaying Stonehenge.
A reasonable facsimile of a comment:
"Sure doesn't look this big from my
window. . ."
"You're not gonna chicken out, are you,
Mounting these undoubtedly rattlesnake-infested
formations was not without actual danger, I now realize---but we did it, approaching them
from the back of The Hill, where accessibility was easier. And after a few minutes, Jim
and I stepped right on top of the crowning wrinkled geology of the thing, for the first
time getting a handle on just how big it was. The view would have pleased Mohammad. Not
only could we see all of Thousand Oaks, but well into Camarillo and the Santa Rosa Valley
on the other side---truly terra incognita---and, far in the distance, was that. .
We had, for all intents and purposes, left the
What do you do once you climb a hill? Savor the
view, and climb back down. But not before. . .
"Okay, let's eat," I said.
And so we sat down, there in the
late afternoon on top of Pork Chop Hill, in a small moment when time didn't matter,
wolfing the rearranged remnants of Thanksgiving. The bread was flattened, broken,
spongy with cranberry sauce that was all over hands and faces by the time we finished.
And the cold Santa Anas whistled in our ears.
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