There is something about a wooden spoked wheel that always draws me in. Whenever I see them displayed in people's yards I never accept them as the decorative symbols they are meant to be. My eyes wander over them and invariably get tangled up in the spokes--in the space between the spokes--and I visualize them doing what they were built to do, rolling along some road, individual spokes invisible in a to-and-fro blur of motion, spinning rims orbiting planetary hubs, all held in place by some irrevocable Newtonian law. I first noticed this trompe d'oeil effect of the rotating wheel as a boy. There was still some horsedrawn traffic around then. An old Polish man used to drive through our town in an ancient spring wagon every couple of weeks. He'd lift a battered old tin horn to his lips and blow some notes that signalled the local housewives to bring their hoarded newspaper, tin cans and remnants of cloth, for which he'd pay them a few pennies. We kids often ran and biked beside him as he rattled along, shouting good- natured jests in our delight. He would brandish his whip to keep us away, afraid of running someone over. Soon he'd disappear and the kids would forget about him until next time--everyone but me, that is. Those whirring spokes began to haunt me in my dreams. As well, I remembered how loud the whole contraption was, much louder than a car--and, above all, how it looked a lot more fun to drive. As a schoolboy growing up in Northeastern Pennsylvania, the beauty of the countryside where I lived was never wasted on me. Whatever the season, I always wanted to get a window seat on the schoolbus and gaze at the scenery passing by, gently rolling hills covered with hardwood trees, sugar maples and hickory, white oak and ash, with pastures and croplands checkered in, bordered by fieldstone walls and locust-rail fences. All were interconnected by a maze of narrow roads, a shrinking number of which were still unpaved. The Abingtons, as these hills were called, were like a placid lagoon in the surrounding grey sea of towering Appalachian swells that could seem grim and threatening even on good day. The bus carried me past many farmhouses and barns on the way to and from school, and I never tired of gazing at them. Some of them had been there for well over a century. But newer houses had begun to sprout like weeds in what had been the farther fields and pastures. These new homes were usually rectangular, modern, soulless bungalows, irrationally called "ranch style," and contrasted painfully with the older two story dwellings of earlier times. The people who lived in them seemed to have a penchant for decorating their yards with artifacts from the past, mostly pieces of old farm machinery. Cream separators became petunia pots. Plowshares glistened with aluminum paint and supported mailboxes. Wagon and buggy wheels were yanked from their rusting axles and rendered pure white, conscripted to serve as virginal icons of the pastoral innocence that was disappearing from America like smoke. From my seat on the schoolbus one late October day around 1960 I noticed one old farmstead in particular. For just a few moments as the bus rolled over the Tunkhannock Creek bridge, I caught a glimpse of a lovely old house and barn just downstream. They became more visible every day as the colorful autumn leaves began to fall from the trees along the stream bank. By the end of the month the branches were nearly bare and I could make out the most fascinating detail of all about the place: the barnyard was chock full of wagons and buggies. I resolved to personally investigate the situation as soon as possible. The next afternoon I stepped off the school bus at the nearest stop and hurried back down the dirt road toward the objects that were drawing my curiosity like lodestones. It didn't take me long to meet the proprietor, Mr. Wayne Thomas. He was a tall, gaunt old character dressed in a tattered tweed jacket and a sweater with burn marks on the front of it from the hot coals that spilled out of his ever present pipe. I introduced myself and demanded to know if any of the buggies were for sale, all in the same breath. He said they might be, to the right person and for the right price. But he made it clear by his somewhat stand-offish manner that there would be no quick deals. The conversation then took a turn to the more esoteric aspects of buggy fancying, and I began to learn the first of many arcane and timeworn details of the horse and buggy age that Mr. Thomas kept alive in his memory as well his barnyard. I soon discovered that the barnyard held only the overflow and that the really good stuff was kept inside. Through the open door of the barn I could see spoked wheels in every corner. Some carriages even hung from the rafters. I gaped in open-mouthed awe but when I spotted the grille of an old MG-TC peeking out from underneath a canvas tarp, the only automobile in sight, I couldn't help blurting out, "Wow, what kind of a car is that?" "Just forget you ever saw it," Mr Thomas said, and pushed the door closed. I was dying to see more but it was not to be. He would show me only the outside portion of his collection on this first visit, a number of weather-worn buggies, trade carts and milk wagons, most of which looked beyond the pale once I got a closer look. "This stick-seat surrey is a Studebaker," he said, walking over to the least delapidated of the vehicles. "How do you know?" I asked. He snorted impatiently and pointed with his toe to a tiny brass plate on the rear. "Always look there for the maker's plate," he said, "if someone hasn't stolen it." When the conversation again turned to business, I hoped that he would recognize me as a true kindred spirit and not just some dilletante. I was thrilled when he offered me the surrey, a carriage that would suit my needs and taste, he said, for thirty- five dollars--an astronomical sum, but we shook on it and I excused myself to go and consult with my banker. My banker, who doubled as my father, was skeptical of my latest obsession, as well as of our old horse Prince's suitability for the task. "That horse has never been driven, for all you know," he reminded me. Prince, a slender bay of indeterminate breeding, had arrived at the local livestock auction in a truckload of horses sold off by the Army Remount Service long before I was born. He was picked up by Doc Stone, a local vet who wanted some company for an even older horse he kept around his place named "Dolly." When Dolly finally died, Doc Stone sold Prince to my parents as a companion for me. "He's old, but he's sound and gentle as a lamb," I remembered him saying. "You can do anything with him." "That should include pulling a little buggy," I argued with my dad, harping on and on. Finally I managed to drag Dad to the Thomas farm to see the wooden vehicle that was depriving me of my sleep. Unfortunately, it didn't do much for him. Then, to make matters worse, Joe Troy, who still ran a blacksmith shop in our town catering mostly to the local gentry and their expensive show jumpers and hunters, warned my dad off giving approval, much less financial backing to my bold scheme. I used to hang out at Joe's shop whenever I noticed by the thick smoke pouring out of the chimney and the ringing of his anvil that it was open. It was located close to the center of town. Inside it always seemed a little short on light, possibly due to the dirty windows. The floor was wood planks except for the area around the forge which was built of red brick on a flagstone hearth. Next to the forge was a coal bin heaped with chunks of shiny black anthracite--the best in the world, Joe said- -mined nearby in deep underground excavations like the one they called the China vein, a quarter of a mile wide and God kows how long. There were some tie stalls along one side and a cross-tie in the center for the horse that was currently being shod. Dozens of tools and hundreds of unfinished horseshoes festooned various racks. Joe, a wiry old man in a leather apron and a soiled cloth cap, always seemed to have a half-smoked cigarette between his lips. He could make up a set of shoes with anvil, forge and hammer in what seemed like only a few minutes. Then he would fit them hot to the horse's trimmed hooves. This procedure made clouds of smoke that smelled like a burning mattress, but it didn't seem to bother the horses too much. Then he quenched the shoes and nailed them on quickly and quietly, holding the nails in his mouth as he went from foot to foot. "A dangerous thing, a horse and buggy," he said to my dad one day. "They tip, the horse runs away, and you're left in a pile of splinters. I've seen it happen many times. And just spend some time harnessing up in the pouring rain if you want to realize what a wonderful thing the automobile is." That man is a traitor to his trade, I thought. My obesession only became worse in the face of these setbacks, but my salvation came from an unexpected quarter. Mr Cramer, my long suffering piano teacher, noticed that I was even more distracted from my lesson than usual and with some impatience asked me just what in heaven's name was the matter now. I sighed and told him that I simply needed a buggy in the worst way, and to my utter astonishment he told me that he had one in the barn out back, and that we could go look at it as soon as I finished my Hanon. My enthusiasm (if not my technique) suddenly improved noticeably and in a very few minutes I was gazing at what was to be my first buggy, a gift from a desperate professor of music. The thing was in far worse shape than even the rattletraps in Mr Thomas's barnyard. The leatherette top was badly ripped, the shaft tips were broken, and the bottom seat cushion was gone entirely. Worst of all, pigeons had made a nest in the rafters above and the entire thing was whitewashed with enough guano to fertilize a small cornfield. Still, it rolled, and it was mine. When Dad refused to help me retrieve it in his pickup truck, I recruited a couple of friends to provide the locomotive power to drag it the mile or so from Mr Cramer's place back to our own. Mr Thomas continued to be helpful although I had yet to buy one of his buggies. After one long afternoon trying unsuccessfully to remove a wheel with a buggy wrench, I finally made a pilgrimage to the master to seek enlightenment. I received it, and on that day learned of the existence and purpose of the left hand thread on a near side axle splind. "If it wasn't made like that," said my mentor gruffly, "the damn wheel would fall off before you made it out of the yard." When it came time to put Prince to his new task, the dire predictions of Joe Troy were far from my mind. Had he been there to witness the event, he would surely have thought his worst fears were about to be realized, as my pal Dean and I blithely proceeded to wrap traces around shafts and tie the loose ends of some rotten old harness to the buggy wherever they fell with generous applications of binder twine. Old Prince, however, was apparently as knowledgable about these things as Wayne Thomas and Joe Troy put together, for when we clambered up into the rickety old carriage and clucked to him, he walked quietly off and made my dreams come true. In a few weeks, apparently impressed with my success, my formerly philistine father relented and kicked in fifteen bucks for a good used harness. He even started helping me fix up the buggy in his spare time. "You know, Dad," I said one day, after I noticed him letting his pleasure with the task show a bit too much, "If we bought that two-seater Studebaker from Mr Thomas, we could all go for a ride." "Could we really?" he replied. His tone seemed non-committal but, knowing him as I did, I took a lot of encouragement from it. Within a week the surrey was parked in our barn and Wayne Thomas was thirty-five dollars richer. Dad never could resist a Studebaker. So, that American era of pastoral innocence was preserved a little longer, at least in my neck of the woods. We restored and painted both carriages, old Prince supplied all the necessary draught power, and spinning spokes became a common sight on the roads around our place. But eventually time caught up with me--with Prince especially, I'm sorry to say--and my halcyon horse & buggy days faded away. Things began to unfold much faster after that, and in a few years it seemed impossible that those earlier times could have ever existed outside my imagination. I drove a car like everybody else, dressed according to the latest collegiate trends, and saw myself taking my appointed spot in middle class America, a place of privilege guaranteed by my education and background. Unfortunately there was the not-so-small matter of a debt to Uncle Sam that had to be paid (in return for all that fun I'd had, I guess), and the interest was rather high. When my Notice to Report for Physical Examination came in the mail from the Draft Board, my dad was not too encouraging. "They only want you to stop a bullet, son," he said with a seriousness I had never seen in him before. "Just hope you've got flat feet." I don't remember being checked for flat feet but they looked for just about everything else. In a large group of fellows around my age we were herded around the examination center and prodded like so much cattle. There was a lot of laughing and joking but it did not conceal the shock and worry on our young faces. The ultimate humiliation was when we were ordered to form a rank, drop our trousers, and bend over. A ferocious top sergeant barked out the detailed instructions. "Place one hand on each cheek," he said, "and spread 'em. When the doctor taps you on the back, bear down hard like you was gonna take a crap. When he taps you again, stand up straight and put yourself back together. You all got that?" "All this just to stop a bullet?" I muttered. "What's that? Somebody got a question?" thundered the sergeant. Apparently a bad case of piles was enough to get you sent home right then and there. Unfortunately I didn't have any so I started thinking about Canada instead. Later I broached the subject with my parents. My mother was the patriotic type and she took it hard. "We'll never be able to hold our heads up around here again," she lamented to my Dad. My dad's attitude was much different. He was cynical about all wars and the current one in particular. He had preached this idea to me since I was a boy, even taking me through a Veteran's Hospital one time where he pointed out patients whose maimed and tortured bodies had been there since Warld War One. "There's the glory of war," he said. Now, as I was about to be called up, his worst fears were to be realized. It hurt him that my mother wouldn't see it, but he stood his ground alone. "These are bad times," he said, "and they're going to get worse. I don't like the idea, but I'd rather see you a live exile than a dead war hero, anytime. Go, and God help you." - - - When I returned with my wife and children from Canada to my native Pennsylvania for a visit many years later, it seemed like I had been away for more than a lifetime. Mr Thomas was the last person I expected to see after more than twenty years, but when I drove down his road half expecting to find a plantation of new condominiums occupying the site, there he was as if nothing had changed. And nothing had, except that his carriage collection had grown considerably. I was delighted to discover that I found it more fascinating than ever. We disposed of the re-introductions and pleasantries as quickly as possible and got right down to what was still our favorite topic of conversation. He took us on that long-postponed tour of his collection which now included a Park Drag, a C-spring Victoria that had belonged to the Scranton family, a Barouche with rose-colored upholstery fit for a duchess, an Irish jaunting car, and various other buggies, surreys, and carts, too numerous to mention. I also learned on this occasion that Mr Thomas's old farmhouse had been built by some of my ancestors who are buried on the hill above the nearby village of La Plume. He had a pair of horses there too, matched for their easygoing temperment if not for their color. He said he would be happy to hitch them up and take us for a ride, but for the fact that their feet were much in need of a farrier's attention, Joe Troy having long since passed away. I was happy to inform him that the basic techniques of farrier science were some of the few truly practical things I had managed to learn in the years since we had seen each other, since I had become an exile in rural British Columbia. He produced the necessary tools from his vast collection of artifacts, I did the job, and it remained only to select which of the many carriages we would ride in. We were soon careening around his farm in a convertible buggy that was either a Jenny Lind or a four-passenger surrey, depending on whether or not the rear seat was folded up. Wayne's enthusiasm as a carriage driver exceeded even that of the collector I knew, and my white knuckles were the proof of a truly thrilling ride. We promised to stay in touch and said so long. It was a memorable day for all of us. On the way home I stopped by the cemetery that Wayne had mentioned. I remembered going there with my grandfather once or twice many years earlier but it took me a while to find the old family plot. I did, finally, and tried to recall what Grandpa might have told me about my ancestors who were buried there. One inscribed white stone with the tarnished bronze crest of the Grand Army of the Republic caught my eye: Our Beloved Rexford, killed at Gettysburg, July 4, 1863. I returned to Pennsylvania again in 1985 to find Wayne Thomas recently bereaved by the the loss of his wife who had died while they were visiting England a few months before. It was November and bitterly cold. I helped him split some firewood while we discussed the ravages of time. As we chatted, I realized that I finally felt like an adult in his presence and not like the pesky kid I must have been that first October afternoon so long ago. I remembered the mysterious old MG he didn't want to discuss or let me see, and now I couldn't resist asking him outright if he still had it. He stopped stacking firewood and gazed off into the distance for a moment. "Yes, it's still here," he said. After a short silence he continued. "It belonged to my only son. I gave it to him when he graduated from Harvard in 1960. That spring he and some friends set sail out of Boston in a twelve metre yacht headed for the Panama Canal. They disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle. Never found so much as a splinter." By the third of November, 1989, Wayne Thomas was still as active as ever even though as old as the century. Married for the third time, he and his new wife were on one of his many trips to the Holy Ground of all buggy nuts, Lancaster County, Pa., where the un-adorned and hard-working Amish people preserve horsedrawn technology with a practical philosphy bereft of any sentiments of smarmy nostalgia. There, in a tragic accident at a poorly marked intersection, the ubiquitous automobile put an end to Wayne Thomas with even greater finality than it had done to those horse and buggy days of which he was so fond. Wayne Thomas's horsedrawn vehicles were sold at auction. Collectors came from all over the country to bid on everything and anything in his vast collection, from the stagecoach that brought forty thousand dollars to the buggy wrench that brought five. The buyers filled the local hostelries and flooded the restaurants. I read about it in a clipping my dad sent me. "I never seen so many folks just chasin' after a pile of useless junk," one neighbor, was quoted as saying. "By the way," my dad wrote. "Do you want to sell the old Studey? A fellow from New York has offered us three thousand dollars for it." "Give me some time to think about that," I wrote back, "OK?"
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