I never had the pleasure of riding in an airplane with my father or of going on a trip with him that didn’t involve hitchhiking.
In the mid to late 1980s, when Chilton’s parents, Mildred and Roger, were both still alive, Chilton made annual trips to visit them in Arizona. Because he had more time than money, and train tickets cost less than airfare, Chilton opted to travel by rail. I made the trip myself several times (well, at least twice) so I can visualize what it must’ve been like for Chilton. The gentle movement of the train along the tracks, the occasional stunning views provided that you were on the ocean side of the train as you headed south, the opportunity to talk with strangers, and the discomfort of trying to sleep sitting up for two nights.
The route from Seattle to Phoenix involved a change of trains in Los Angeles, which meant a layover of a few hours at beautiful Union Station.
If the train from Seattle wasn’t overly late getting into Los Angeles, you had time to explore LA in a limited fashion. One year, for example, I set off at a brisk pace, walking away from the station hoping to locate a smoke shop to restock my dwindling supply of clove cigarettes. (Back then you could smoke on the trains, remember.) Another time I found a street market nearby and bought myself a plate of delicious tacos.
Chilton’s approach to train travel included bringing all of the food he would need on the train. On more than one occasion he stayed with me in the falling down mansion with round balconies I shared with Erin and Eric on Capitol Hill the night before his departure. On those evenings, he made a special trip to Safeway for provisions. He made a point of leaving his backpack in our apartment rather than carrying it with him to the grocery store, which was when I really grasped that store managers took one look at my father with his greying beard, a bandana tied round his head, well-worn clothes, and toothless mouth, and saw a vagrant and likely shoplifter rather than a quiet, shy, and extremely well-read father of four.
For Chilton, the ideal travelling food was a tall stack of liverwurst sandwiches. At Safeway, he selected a log of liverwurst, used his fingers to measure how many slabs of meat the package would yield, chose a loaf of bread, and then carefully counted the slices to ensure he’d have a perfect ratio of bread to meat. He carried enough sandwiches to get him to Arizona without having to buy food on the train, but one time he confided that he usually found it pretty difficult to choke down the last sandwich or two.
In the early 1990s, after Mildred died, Chilton switched to traveling to Arizona by plane. He admitted that he could no longer handle sitting (and trying to sleep) in a seat for two whole days. By then air travel wasn’t appreciably more expensive so he opted to fly.
I helped Chilton buy his first plane ticket to Arizona and went with him to the airport to see him off on his first flight since the 1960s. I watched, bemused, while he listened earnestly to every question the desk agent asked him and answered each question carefully. Later, on the telephone from Arizona, Chilton described the trip and the food the flight attendants served and told me he was seated next to a young woman who left a roll on her tray. Eventually, Chilton leaned toward her.
“Are you going to finish that?” he asked.
Chilton and I talked about taking a trip together overseas but it never happened. He loved hearing about my trips and wrote me wonderful letters when I was in Italy and Namibia, in which he described what he thought I might be seeing and experiencing, but also told me about the places he’d visited during his time in the Navy.
In the summer of 2001, Chilton made a trip to Morgantown, West Virginia with all three of my brothers. It was his first trip back to his hometown since the late 1960s. He’d been in touch with his cousins and knew that every summer they held a schoolhouse reunion and he was (uncharacteristically) eager to see old friends and family.
Chilton made it clear that he wanted to make this first trip with my brothers and that he wanted to make a second trip back the following year with just me.
I’d been to Morgantown in 1989 when I was living in Washington DC so I’d met many of the members of Chilton’s extended family on Mildred’s side. My brothers hadn’t made such a trip so it was all new for them. Naturally I felt envious that they got to visit West Virginia with Chilton but at the time I had a baby who was less than a year old so I can’t imagine I could have gone even if I’d been invited. I took some solace in knowing that I’d have my turn the following year.
A year later, Chilton and I bought plane tickets to Pittsburgh, booked a rental car, and reserved two rooms in a motel in Morgantown. But then Chilton changed his mind and decided not to go. He wasn’t feeling well and didn’t think he could handle the rigors of the trip.
Not taking that trip with Chilton is one of my biggest regrets. Lucky for me, our family had more than one Chilton and the younger one was happy to use his father’s plane ticket, tag along on his sister’s trip, and offer the gentle moral support that such a trip warranted.
Tommy and I flew to Pittsburg, drove to West Virginia, and checked into our funny little motel in a strip mall down the street from a coffee shop called “Seattle Joe’s.” We visited with Chilton’s beloved cousins, Nancy and Barbara, and his uncle and aunt, Bill and Mary Jane. Barbara invited us to dinner on her farm.
We attended the school reunion and met Chilton’s childhood friends, including his best friend from boyhood, John Shaw. We poked around the town a bit and found an old factory in the section of town called “Star City,” named for the old Star Glass Company. I don’t think the factory was still in use at the time, but they had a dusty little shop in which I bought a glorious paperweight and a paper sack filled with handmade glass marbles.
That trip to West Virginia was both wonderful and, in hindsight, bittersweet. Chilton and I never made a trip like that together. Instead we argued, didn’t speak for a year, worked out our differences, and then, a few months later, he died.
In October of 2005, Christopher, Jesse, and I took one last trip to West Virginia to deliver Chilton’s ashes to some of the places he was happiest. We visited Chilton’s cousins and his extended family in and around Morgantown and we sprinkled some of his ashes in a cow field at the top of a hill overlooking Stewart’s Run, a place he’d lived as a child.
Then we drove to the southern part of the state to visit the Kerns cemetery at a place my grandfather, Roger, referred to as “the old homestead” outside a small town called Camden on Gauley.
After Mildred died in 1989, Roger packed her ashes and a small shovel into the trunk of his 1961 Dodge Dart and drove her back to West Virginia to bury her ashes alongside his mother, father, and baby sister Pauline, who’d died in the flu epidemic of 1916.
We used the maps he’d given me and the instructions he’d handwritten years earlier to find our way. The unmaintained cemetery was on a little hillside a short drive up from the road. We dusted off the headstones belonging to our grandparents and great grandparents, then Christopher and I pried up Mildred’s little headstone so we could sprinkle some of Chilton’s ashes there too.
Offering: a selection of three handmade marbles from the Star Glass Company of Star City, WV