Palouse by vwl
North to the Palouse on a Jet Plane – April 1984
A Short Few Weeks Later
The line at the ticket counter was long. Phoenix to Spokane wasn’t the most traveled route and there was only one airline that served it, so the airline company assigned only one check-in agent to handle the passengers.
Micah stood next to Betty; he was a little bewildered at what was happening. He pushed his luggage ahead when the line moved. It was a way to be helpful.
“Hey,” a voice behind him said.
Micah turned. In line there was a boy about his age – an auburn-haired boy with hazel-colored eyes.
“Are you an Indian?” the voice asked. “It would really be neat if you were.”
“I’m half Navajo. Does that count?”
The two boys grinned at each other.
“I’m David. David Stirling. I live in Spokane, but we – my dad and mom and I – we just visited the Navajo reservation, and I really thought it was cool, especially those cliff houses. Our spring vacation is almost over, but I like school, so I’m not totally sad.”
“I’m Micah. I live in Phoenix. No, I guess I used to live in Phoenix, but now I have to leave. I don’t want to, but I’m being adopted by a family outside of Spokane – on a farm.” He pointed to Betty, who was busy getting the tickets out of her purse. “I guess she’s part of my new family now. My old family can’t take care of me anymore.”
There was something sad about the way that Micah expressed himself. David recognized that Micah was about to break into tears. “Why don’t you sit next to me on the airplane. I have an electronic game that we can play.”
“I…I’d like that. I’ll ask Mrs. Kingman if it’s okay.”
They got seats next to each other, with Betty in the aisle seat and the two boys in the inner seats as the plane taxied toward the end of the runway. David’s parents were across the aisle. It was Micah’s first ride on an airplane, and though he had shed many tears as he thought of leaving Mother M and Poppa M, the first airplane trip was exciting, and a new friend diverted his attention from the sad parting that had just occurred. Betty noticed and was happy for the diversion that David provided.
Micah’s eyes opened wide in wonder as he felt the force of the jet engines and the plane accelerating, pushing him back into his seat, just before it lifted off the runway. The takeoff was cool, Micah thought. The plane leveled off, and it was not long before the two nine-year olds became engrossed in the electronic game, bumping and trying to make each other lose his concentration.
Though they didn’t know it at the time, their lives would cross and become commingled several times over the next dozen years even though their circumstances were so different; it was a wonder that they would ever see each other after this flight to Spokane, but music brought them together.
Micah came from a life of disruption, moving from one foster home to another with his only respite coming at the end with his longest stay at the McDougalls. David came from the life of stable, upper-middle-class privilege on Spokane’s South Hill, one of the city’s fancier neighborhoods. Both his parents were professionals who wanted the best for their only son and were generally able to provide the finest music lessons and camps that were available. David took to the cello from an early age, so they encouraged him with lessons and the purchase of a fine instrument.
At baggage claim in Spokane, the two boys stood next to each other, waiting for the luggage to arrive, knowing that their paths would split, and their nine-year olds’ longing to talk and learn about the likes and dislikes of each other would come to an end. They shared tentative, shy smiles from time to time, and they both jumped and laughed when the bell rang, the red light blinked, and the baggage carousel went clunk and started to move.
Though Micah would barely remember David years later, David would remember the raven-black-haired boy with native-American features – a boy who resembled many he had just seen on the Navajo reservation, a boy who attracted him in ways that only later would he understand – and accept. For a brief few hours, they had encountered one another, and then the two boys were on their way out of the airport terminal to their separate final destinations.
* * * * *
This woman driving the van through the countryside looked kind enough. She had smile lines around her eyes, and her face was tan and lined from the sun. She looked so much younger than Mrs. McDougall, and she didn’t have Mother M’s smell – powder, perfume and something that smelled bad like pee – all of which Micah realized was part of Mother M that he would always remember.
Micah had been told by the child-protective worker that he was going to live on a wheat farm owned by Betty and her husband, Stan, in the Palouse country of Washington State, wherever that was. He was told that this would be a different and better experience for him. He looked sidelong at Betty and wanted to believe the child-protective worker; he wanted desperately to believe her, but he knew he had been cast off many times, and he was prepared for yet another sad ending. Nobody wanted nine-year-old boys – especially if they were half-Navajo.
“Tell me,” Betty said, turning toward Micah, “what grade are you in?”
“Third. Third grade, ma’am.”
She waited for him to continue – in vain. “What subjects do you like most?”
“I don’t know…ma’am.”
“Do you like arithmetic or English or art?”
“I guess so, ma’am.”
“What do you like to do in your spare time?”
Micah shrugged, but Betty waited for an answer, which came as a mumble. “I don’t know, ma’am. Anything.”
“Would you like to learn to play the piano?”
“I guess so, ma’am.” Micah shrugged again.
Betty worked to extract more information out of Micah, but the boy’s answers, though polite, were brief and basically uninformative. Micah’s answers didn’t discourage Betty; she had been through several such experiences and knew how difficult it was to build trust with a child. She had confidence that if she peppered Micah with enough questions and love over the next months, eventually the answers would get longer and more relaxed and open.
The miles passed as the van traveled south on US 195 from the airport in Spokane toward the rolling highlands of the Palouse. In about an hour, Betty turned west onto State Route 23 at Steptoe and then onto a narrower gravel road alongside the wheat fields that crept close to it. A dust plume blossomed from the back of the van, obscuring the road behind them. Neither Micah nor Betty realized how many times in the next seven years that they would drive that route to Spokane from the Kingman farm and back.
Several miles later she turned onto an access road that led across fields to their farmhouse on 1000-acres of wheat land. The Kingman house was set back from the road a quarter mile; a freshly plowed field lay between the county road and the house. The house was a large, white-painted structure with black shutters – containing four large bedrooms and a small guest room in its two stories. Surrounding the house was an oasis-like grove of pine, locust and cottonwood trees.
A covered front porch stretched across the breadth of the house. On it were outdoor furniture painted green, two porch swings and some hanging planters just starting to show new growth. Across the lawn, through the trees and behind the house, Micah could see activity amongst the outbuildings. He spotted three tractors, but he didn’t know the names of the other equipment. The largest outbuilding was a barn, and beyond it was a large equipment shed. Further on he could see a corral where several horses grazed; there were a few cows in a fenced field beyond that.
Betty pulled the van past the front and continued around and alongside the house. A graveled driveway crunched beneath the tires. She pulled the keys out of the ignition and dropped them on the floor beneath her seat. Immediately, the kitchen door opened and out burst two dogs, followed by a bunch of curious children. The dogs wanted to jump against the driver’s side of the vehicle, but they knew that was not allowed, so they got as close as they could, their tails wagging madly. As Betty got out, a collie and a black lab danced around her, waiting for a rub on the head. She did just that while speaking softly to them to calm them.
Betty walked around the car to open the passenger side to the children who had gathered alongside the van awaiting the new arrival. Micah shrank back into his seat as the dogs pushed through the children and tried to jump into the car.
“Down!” Betty said sharply, a sternness of command in her voice. The dogs obeyed.
The cacophony of dogs and children was intimidating. Micah wished he could disappear, but he had nowhere to go to. Betty beckoned him out of the car, and he fumbled to loosen his seat belt.
“Kids, this is Micah,” Betty announced. “Micah, I’d like you to meet Kat, Ricardo, Maria, and Gregory.” Micah looked at a passel of kids that he would learn were aged from 5 to 13. Ricardo and Maria were obviously brother and sister. Greg looked about Micah’s age. “Greg, would you help get Micah’s things from the back, please, and show him to his room?”
Greg opened the back door of the van. “Mom, all I see are a couple of cardboard boxes and a small suitcase.”
“That’s what there is, Gregory.”
Fortunately, Micah was too young to be embarrassed by his lack of possessions, and others in the Kingman brood had been in a similar-enough situation not to make an issue of it.
Greg handed Micah one of the boxes and picked up the other box and the suitcase. “Follow me,” Greg said, with an anxious smile. It was his bedroom that Micah would share, and he wondered how that would work out.
Micah followed Greg through the large kitchen, dining room and hall and up a staircase to the second floor. The staircase led to a long hallway off of which were several doors. Greg opened the third door on the left and led Micah into what was to be his and Micah’s shared bedroom. Greg was trying not to act apprehensive about what until now had been his exclusive domain.
“That’s your bed,” Greg said, pointing to a single bed on the left side of the room and setting Micah’s belongings down on it. “This is my bed,” he pointed out somewhat unnecessarily because he was already sitting on it while wrapping his arms around his pillow, examining his new brother closely. Gregory knew he was going to have to share his room, but he wasn’t really ready for the invasion of his space. He had taken the posters and art work off the wall on Micah’s side of the room and tacked them up on his side, so the walls looked somewhat schizophrenic – prison-cell blank on one side and filled with a child’s pride of objects on the other. Greg didn’t know then that it would take several months for Micah to accumulate enough to fill the walls on his side of the room.
“I’ll show you where you can put your clothes and things,” Greg said, “and I’ll show you where the bathroom is. Okay?”
Greg showed Micah the two drawers of the dresser that were empty, showed him the side of the closet that Gregory had cleared of his clothes and then led him down the hall to the bathroom. He took Micah back to their room and left him sitting on the bed with his box and backpack to unpack before going downstairs.
Micah emptied his cardboard boxes into one side of one of the drawers and hung his jacket in the closet. Then he went to his bed and lay down, staring at the ceiling and wondering what was happening to him and what was coming next and feeling less than welcome.
Downstairs, Betty was busy fixing dinner. It was to be a welcoming meal, so she was making a special effort. The day before she’d asked Kat and Maria to make a cake while she was gone to Arizona, and it was sitting untouched, miraculously, on the counter. Of course, she had warned everyone that if the cake was touched before Micah arrived, lives would be in danger, so it was only a minor miracle that it was untouched. Dinner was fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans with bacon, home-made rolls that she had pulled out of the large freezer – everything a boy should like. She asked Gregory to set the table. It was then that she realized that Micah was not around.
“Gregory, would you go find your new brother and bring him to be with us?” There was a hint of annoyance in her voice that Gregory picked up. He scurried to find Micah.
To Greg, having to look for Micah was infinitely more interesting than setting the table, so he rushed out the front door, looking around, but to no avail. Either Micah was far from the house or in it, so Greg went back in. Micah wasn’t on the first floor, so Greg went to the second. The door to their bedroom was closed, so he opened it and spied Micah napping on his bed.
“Micah, we’re about to eat. Come on,” he said, giving Micah a shake.
“Oh,” was all that Micah could say. Greg took Micah’s hand and led him down the stairs to the family room, leaving him standing just at the entrance.
Micah didn’t know what to do, so he just stood. It was six-year-old Maria who finally took him by the hand and led him into the room – to the area where she had laid out her drawings on a small table. “Do you like them?” she asked.
“Yes,” Micah said. “They’re very nice. Is that a horse?” He pointed to one of the drawings.
“That’s Roany; she’ll be mine when I grow up. Would you like to put my drawing on your wall?” Micah nodded, and she handed it to him.
Maria was the one that broke the ice between Micah and the assembled Kingmans. At the dinner table later, she couldn’t stop talking about Micah’s inspection of her drawings. At first Micah was embarrassed, but as Maria went on and on and on, the humor of her gushing tale got to him, and he started to giggle. That started Greg off, and soon the whole family was laughing, and the mealtime passed good-naturedly.
The acceptance of Micah by the Kingmans grew in the days that followed, and by the end of the week, Micah was part of the family – with chores to do just like his new siblings.
And piano lessons. Each of the Kingman kids was scheduled for a weekly lesson from their mother – a lesson fitted in between time allotted to the few outside students that Betty taught. The kids were expected to practice a half hour a day according to a schedule that Betty posted on the refrigerator. With practice and Betty’s teaching, the piano was being played nearly all day, with time out only for school and meals.
When he was seated on the piano stool for his first lesson, Micah was bewildered. He had heard his siblings play, and knew he couldn’t play anything at all. Now, it was his turn. “Mrs. Kingman, I don’t know what to do,” he said as he fidgeted with the keys, pressing them, hearing notes and echoes.
“First, you don’t call me Mrs. Kingman. You call me Mom. You are part of this family now. Mom, even if it feels strange at first. Second, all my children started right on that piano stool in the same situation as you. All it takes is time. Now, here’s your first lesson. Let’s get you started.”
A few minutes earlier, she had led Micah to the large room that Betty had insisted upon when they had renovated that part of the house. A converted bedroom on the first floor, Betty’s music room was anchored with a Yamaha baby-grand piano. On the walls were pictures of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Liszt and others. There was a bust of Beethoven on the window shelf. The hardwood floors sported a glistening finish, and there was an oval, primarily blue, braided rug in the middle of the room. Several large, soft chairs were scattered around the room, though every one of them was angled toward the piano. Leaning against the wall were about a dozen folding chairs so that the room could be turned into a tiny performance hall for student recitals. On one wall, there were bookshelves teeming with classics and more modern books – and there were a few stacks of sheet music that must have been set there after being pulled from the file cabinets at the back of the room.
Micah and Betty sat on the piano bench together as Betty showed Micah the keys, how to hold his hands and how to read music from a beginner music book. At the end of the lesson, Betty handed Micah the book and outlined his practice schedule for the next week and the lessons in the book that Micah needed to complete.
The first lesson led into the first practice and then into further practices and lessons, including music theory. Over the next weeks as she listened to Micah practice, Betty was surprised at how quick a study he was and how seriously he took his practice time. Months later, she would remark that Micah moved through the beginner stage in about half the time her other students had, and Micah would take advantage of any free time on the piano to practice the piano without her asking.
It was clear to Betty from the outset that Micah was a prodigy at the piano. Kat, her oldest daughter and most accomplished child so far, had played very well, but there was something entirely different about Micah that she recognized over the next few months – an indefinable understanding of music that she knew would surpass even her own concert-level training accomplishments. It showed in his inward push to learn the intricacies of music – theoretically and physically. Betty was excited. It wasn’t as if she didn’t appreciate the skills and accomplishments of her other children. She did. But Micah might be the one to carry her hopes and dreams.