The newspaper term “thirty” was originally a sign-off code used by telegraphers and it came to be used by newspaper reporters to mark the end of a story.

Florida Times-Union, Ask the Editors

Old-fashioned telegraph key.


I was thirty. Before me stretched the portentous, menacing road of a new decade…a decade of loneliness…a thinning briefcase of enthusiasm, thinning hair….

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Oh, the hearts of men, they are rovers, all…And men will go down to the sea in ships. And they stop when they hear the sirens call. And lean to the lure of their red, wet lips!

There’s never a roving one returns…But will sit him down in his easy chair,
while Penelope sews and the fire burns, And into the depths of it stare…and stare….

— Roselle M. Montgomery, Ulysses Returns

First Thirty

Wading the dense unharvested hay covering five-plus acres behind the house I had just moved into, it was hard to believe I was in an incorporated town. Our pasture was surrounded by larger pastures stretching to fir-covered foothills, interrupted here and there by abandoned orchards. Only an occasional house. Random windshield gleams off vehicles a mile away revealed the road paralleling the street our house and others fronted.

A high thin autumn overcast truncated the white loom of Mt. Rainier beyond the foothills. The quiet was almost oppressive. We were close enough to stir childhood fear of erupting volcanoes caused by a movie called Stromboli I saw with my uncle and aunt at a drive-in movie when I was very young. Scared me badly. At eight, I asked who would be idiotic enough to live under threat of a volcano. At thirty I was one of those idiots. The town perched atop an ancient lahar. The snowy bulk of the mountain felt hostile. I was unemployed, thirty years old, a new father, and back in the Pacific Northwest.

It was so quiet I heard thuds each time my Lab pup landed after bouncing high enough to see me, rushing back with his training dummy. Heard the dry hay crackle. I had more time to spend with him at a year old than since we rescued him at eight weeks old from a City Pound on the other side of the continent.

My son had been an abstract concept until I returned from California. Chloe had enrolled us in natural-childbirth classes. Talk about a duck out of water. I was old man of the group. All the fawning young fathers-to-be were Baby Boomers, the conversations what I came to call earthy-crunchy. Metrosexual was a term far in the future. I was a clodhopper, out of place, no desire to be a parent. Essentially press-ganged into the role. The gooey talk about breathing exercises and breast-feeding worked my nerves. When the facilitator invited comment, I said as a cranky infant I rejected my mother’s breast, would only drink milk laced with chocolate syrup, hard to come by with World War Two rationing.

My audience professed horror. Screw ’em. I assured them I regained interest in women’s breasts when I reached puberty, and now they were a favorite thing. Only Chloe laughed. But she already knew I was a barbarian. When it came down to it, I filled my notebook that month not with writing notes but numbers, counting contractions, “coaching” her breathing. At thirty miles to the hospital on the I-5 corridor, we needed to keep careful track.

After a traditional midnight false alarm, sixty miles round-trip, we killed a couple hours in the ER till doctors said it wasn’t time and sent us home. Some night creature scratched graffiti on one of my truck’s bumper stickers in the ER parking lot. In California I had affixed “Where the hell is Pismo Beach?” beside my upside-down Murphy’s Law sticker. The graffiti:“Where indeed? Lompoc, Ca., yeh!” The salty old broad across the street, who every morning had coffee on her front porch with her married long-time paramour, said, “Lompoc is no kind of answer! What the hell is a Lompoc?” She laughed and laughed.

Before the day was over we were back at the hospital, and it was time. Nurses tried to fob me off to the traditional male waiting room. In their careers, fathers had been irrelevant at the crisis. One old battle-ax tried to physically restrain me from the prep-room. I set her aside and said “Do not piss me off.” Chloe’s doctor called them off.

They resented it. Tough. I was no ideal husband, but I had given Chloe my word. Had to watch them close. They kept slipping into the room with a hypodermic to whisper how much easier it would be with a shot. Chloe was exhausted and struggling to get on top of the pain. I held her hand and “coached” breathing. She finally whimpered,“give it to me!” A nurse descended.“Did she just ask for meds?” Nope, I said. She didn’t say a thing. Within fifteen minutes she proudly and “naturally” delivered an angry little red-faced Winston Churchill lookalike who squalled in rage when the doctor smacked his bottom. And whose tiny pudgy hand applied a vise-like grip to my forefinger. Junior was no longer an abstraction.

As the song went three years later, I was torn between two lovers and feeling like a fool, loving them both and breaking all the rules. Stuck in a town so remote it rolled up the sidewalks before dark. In a house where in-laws were landlords and made the rules. Already, restlessness had driven me clear to Seattle just to see city lights and traffic. In-laws saw this as proof of mental instability. In this one thing I agreed with them.

I walked back to the house with Tally, and strung the Pennsylvania recurve bow I hunted deer with. Launched some flu-flu bird-shooting arrows, with the complex fletching that stopped them in midair. Tally loved tracking the flight and fall, and finding them hidden in the hay. Lapped water noisily when I left him in the garage.

The in-laws still living with us were out and about. Chloe was napping with the baby. My brain wouldn’t settle. I was thinking about Hemingway calling Paris “a moveable feast.” So was Nassau, and Pennsylvania, and LA. Life was a moveable feast, not just Paris. But Giselle once observed I said everything I liked reminded me of Paris. Paris had become part of me and carried me through all those others to this first thirty — the old newspaper sign-off for a completed story. You just absorb these changes and go on, Giselle said. They become part of you, changed but unchangeable.

From now on, and always, Giselle would be part of me, changed but unchangeable. She said once she didn’t want just to be part of my reveries. She was that and more. A poem by a Georgia woman, Ulysses Returns, resonated with me before I knew Giselle. Now its poetic imagery of a ramblin’ man, seeing his distant lover in home fireplace shadows, could have been describing me.

I put a record on the stereo, Harry Belafonte crooning about dying summer’s brave display. Girls in their summer dresses. Things that pass, things that end. I hung my hunting bow and quiver on my dead mother-in-law’s antique hall tree in the foyer. Near-sacrilege to the in-laws. To me, a Ulysses metaphor. Took down my wool Tam from the Nassau Scottish shop, laced on my first Northwest “waffle stomper” Vibram-soled hiking boots. Led Tally out to the truck.

On the highway toward the mountain pass, vine maples made scarlet splashes against dark fir forest. At a turnout, Tally was teased by chipmunks, certain he could catch one. High above, early geese beating toward the pass cried freedom and ramblin’ to my restless heart. I told Giselle before we were together I was in from the cold of romantic turmoil with Chloe, “home and dry” as the British style it. Then with eyes wide open I stepped straight back into romantic turmoil in Giselle’s arms.

I called Tally off his fun and drove higher. The highway wound into the clouds amid steep fir-clad slopes like Germany’s Gotterdammerung forests during Army convoys. A Forest Service “point of interest” marker at another turnout described Rainier, its glaciers and lahars. I noticed one giant fir with its foot where the glacier-fed river brawled far below, its crown lost in clouds. I doubted a vertical foot of it represented the thirty years I had lived. Perhaps a half-inch. LA and all that would be — what? Measurable at all? I wanted more. More years. More lives to live in different ways. Draughts to drink, loves to know.

Behind pages of contraction-counts in my notebook I wrote: A silent prayer to the lord of the north wind, of wild geese calling and coyotes singing — of small helpless children and lonely women and restless men. We all need a hand and I need an inspiration, and a little luck, now I finally am thirty.

Of course there was no answer.

From the novel



Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.

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Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.