WHEN I WAS nine years old, my grandfather took my brother Lawrence and me up to his chrome mine. The mountains on the California-Oregon border are pervaded by the choking smell of sage and dust, wind soughing through the trees making a sound like rushing water in the cicada heat.
Fortified with my grandmother's patent dry-as-dust peanut butter and prune sandwiches, we spent the day drilling holes in the cool rock, filling them with dynamite, yelling "Fire in the hole!" and setting it off to a glorious thump and the intoxicating smell of cordite. We wore miner's helmets fitted with carbonic acid lamps.
I was my grandfather's "shaker," and held the drill, shaking it rhythmically between strikes to loosen bits of rock. Late in the day, just before we were to leave, I ran into the mine head and slipped, falling hard on my back and sliding down a ways along the ore track. Grandpa had warned us not to play around there. Fearful that harm may have come to me, he showed an uncharacteristic anger. The sunset was a buttermilk sky, against a brilliant blue each geometrically arranged cloud gold on the sun side, shading toward startling pink becoming jet black. With the tears still on my chastened face, I was sure that I had never seen anything so beautiful, and that I would never forget it.
May 16, 1994
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