What were they getting into?
Their geriatric detective work had been successful. The resulting reunion, in the heart of an intimidating counter-culture haven, would be an awkward, even tense, few moments.
It was rather off-putting, the unexpected need to be offering her Grandmotherly advice…..hoping that her interest, in the midst of an uncomfortable situation, would be accepted as real.
Finally, having dispensed their modest elder-wisdom, it was time to move on toward the Southern California sunshine…..seeking their own snowbird nest.
Leaving Mango standing in front of his lean-to Gary turned the Toad around and drove back down the canyon to where a narrow, but well-traveled fire road snaked up the hillside through the trees. A minute later he pulled to a stop in front of the dirty white trailer, parking next to a late model SUV that looked distinctly out of place in that ramshackle setting. Turning to Claudia he suggested, “Why don’t you stay in the car while I see if she’s here?”
“You be careful.”
There was nothing about the long, dust-covered trailer that would have stood out in an urban trailer park. But there in the timbered scruffiness of Freedom City it had the look of an oversized mansion.
Two large plastic tanks next to the front door held the dwelling’s water supply. Around the corner, on a concrete pad, sat a cylindrical propane tank. On the roof a bank of solar panels provided electricity to supplement the gas-fueled generator. By any measure this Johnny Winn person that Mango spoke of was a Freedom City aristocrat....blessed with creature comforts not available to his neighbors.
The wooden box that served as the front step looked sturdy enough, so Gary stepped up and rapped on the door. A few seconds later he knocked again. Inside, a dead bolt turned and the door opened a crack. From his box-top perch he strained to see the face peering from the interior darkness.
“Yes?” The door opened enough to show her face.
“You’re Laura,” he said. Though she was no longer a perky high schooler, this was certainly the girl in the Hafner’s photo album. “It’s good to finally meet you.”
“Who are you? Do I know you?”
“I’m Gary Harris. And you don’t know me. But I’m here with your Grandma Hafner.”
“Yes indeed. She’s right over there in the car.” He pointed to the Toad. “And she’d like to see you.”
The door swung open and the young woman leaned out, looking toward the car. For an instant Gary captured the sight of the attractive, if unkempt, young lady....wearing a knee-length floral dress that could not conceal the protruding evidence of a mid-term pregnancy. A moment later she let out a surprised shriek, turned, and ran crying to the back of the trailer.
Waving for Claudia to join him, Gary called out Laura’s name through the open doorway. A moment later, instead of the girl, he was surprised to see a slender young man walking across the room toward him. He was a good looking youngster....clean shaven with, by Freedom City standards, short hair.
“I don’t think she wants to see you,” he said.
“You must be Johnny Winn?” Gary stepped down from the box to stand beside Claudia.
Without waiting for an answer he explained, “This is Laura’s grandmother. She’d like to see the girl.” Johnny nodded politely to Claudia, while Gary continued. “I take it Laura is embarrassed to have her grandmother see her. Right?”
“Probably so.” Johnny looked down at them, now with his own questions. “How’d you find her anyway? You must know this isn’t a real smart place for you to be snooping around. We don’t much like strangers up here.”
“Yeah. We’ve heard that already,” Gary nodded. “Look, we’re not here to snoop. We don’t want to take her away or talk her into anything. Her grandmother’s been very worried since Laura ran away.” It seemed best not to mention Laura’s parents right then. “We just want to talk to her. You can stay right here with us if you’d like.”
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen her get freaked out like that about her, you know, her condition.”
“No one’s going to hassle her about that. I’m just asking you to tell her that her grandmother really wants to see her. What do you say?”
Johnny Winn was obviously uneasy at finding himself in the middle of their family standoff. In truth he was having a hard time understanding why their problems were not being dealt with the way he had always experienced them in his own home....with his father’s torrent of angry name-calling and threats of physical violence. Finally he nodded to Claudia. “I’ll see what she says.”
Standing in the dusty clearing in front of the trailer Gary and Claudia exchanged questioning glances, each wondering how long they should wait. They had come so far. It would be a shame to leave without seeing her. Then the door opened again, enough for Laura’s head to poke out.
Tentatively the girl stepped down to her grandmother’s side, though her gaze remained fixed on the sandy ground. A large, multicolored beach towel was draped over her shoulders, falling below her waist.
“Hello, Laura,” Claudia said reaching for the girl’s hand.
“Hello.” Her response was little more than a whimper.
Claudia slipped a finger under Laura’s chin and raised her head, smiling a smile the girl could not resist. Finally, wrapping her arms around her grandmother, she let herself be pulled to her shoulder.
By the time she stepped back, Laura’s embarrassed grin had given way to a smile of her own. “It’s good to see you, Grandma. And ...?” She looked toward Gary as if to ask, “Who is this”?
Claudia laughed and took Gary’s hand. “Laura, I’d like you to meet my husband. This is Gary Harris.”
“A husband? Really?” Laura was struggling with that bit of information. Her Grandma Hafner, the one she knew, had always been single. Who would ever think of her as being married, with a husband? “I’m glad to meet you, Gary Harris.”
“Could we take a walk up the hill?” Claudia asked, nodding to the overgrown fire road that continued beyond the trailer.
“Sure.” Laura took her grandmother’s hand and they started up the trail, with Gary tagging behind. “How did you find this place? Not many people even know where it is.”
“We asked a lot of questions in Ojai. You’d mentioned Freedom City in the letter to your mother. So we just started asking around.”
“And then you just drove right up the canyon?”
“That’s really hard to imagine. Most people wouldn’t have the nerve to do that. There are lots of stories out there about how strangers are treated here. It scares most people away.”
“We had a good reason to keep going.” Claudia squeezed Laura’s hand, then in the next breath asked, “So, when are you due?”
Her abrupt question took Laura by surprise. In an instant she realized her hopeful attempt to conceal her secret had failed. “About four months, I think. Maybe March,” she answered without looking up.
“You’re not sure? Have you seen a doctor yet?”
“There aren’t any doctors up here,” the girl said with a forced laugh. “Anyway, there’s no money to pay for one.”
“Will you go to town for the delivery?”
“There are lots of babies born up here. It happens all the time. It’s no big deal.” Why wouldn’t her Grandma back off? There was no need for all her questions, especially in front of a man she did not even know.
They paused in a clearing above the trailer. From their vantage point they could see across the canyon ....taking in trailers and tents on the opposite hillside that had not been visible from the road.
“Laura,” Claudia continued, not wanting her thoughts to be left unsaid. “Having a baby is a big deal. And it’s not always safe....for the baby or the mother.”
“Come on, Grandma. Women have been having babies forever. It’s the most natural thing there is.”
A stern, no-nonsense frown settled across Claudia’s face. “Have you been taking care of yourself? And your baby?”
The girl’s first impulse was a loud, vocal protest ....until she reminded herself that this sweet old lady might be the only person she knew who really cared what happened to her. It was time to be straight.
“Honest, Grandma. I’ve stayed away from the bad stuff.” She bit her lip and kicked at the dirt. “I got off on the wrong foot. I know that. But Johnny’s made me stay clean. He has a thing about dope babies. He won’t let me go there.”
“So you moved in here, with him?”
“Yeah, I moved in here,” she nodded. “But it’s not what you’re thinking. Johnny has his own lady here. I live with them. After the way Mango messed with me I don’t want to go back there.”
Claudia set aside the urge to speak of Mango’s hopeful reunion plans. Instead her grandmotherly concern remained on display. “Have you thought about going home, to San Jose, to have the baby there?”
The protest Claudia expected did not materialize. Without warning Laura hung her head and the quiet tears began. “Do you have any idea what my dad would say if he saw me like this?” She looked up, brushing the tears from her cheek.
“Laura.” She grasped the girl’s face in her hands. “Your father and mother would want to help you anyway they could. You have no idea how worried your mother is.”
“But not Dad.”
“Your father too. He sometimes doesn’t know how to show it, but I know he’s worried too.”
“You don’t know how he is, Grandma.” Her sobbing was louder now. “He’d just go off the deep end like he always does. He’d dredge up everything I’ve ever done wrong, and tell the whole world that he knew I’d end up just like this.”
Exchanging a questioning glance with Gary, Claudia drew Laura to her shoulder. Neither of them had faced that particular situation before. At that moment it seemed to them that grandparenthood was rather late in life to be learning such drastic new responses.
Finally it was Gary who spoke up. “Laura, you don’t know me. But your Grandma and I are a team. We’d like to do what we can to help. Your folks want to know that you’re okay. We promised them we’d try to find out how you’re doing.”
He read the trepidation in the girl’s eyes as she wondered what kind of report her parents might be receiving. “Why don’t we just tell them that we saw you, and that you’re well. That’s all they need to know for now.”
“You would do that?” Laura said through her red-eyed smile.
“We could do that. Couldn’t we?” He winked at Claudia, looking for her agreement. “But only if you’ll promise to think things through a little more.”
“That’s right, honey,” Claudia was picking up on Gary’s offer. “Being a mother is a big responsibility. Is this really where you want to have your baby? Here in Freedom City? Is this where you want to raise your child?”
“You don’t think much of Freedom City. Do you?”
Gary passed on the opportunity to offer his candid, unabridged critique of Freedom City. Instead he settled for a bit of diplomacy. “That’s not for us to be the judge of that. But it is our place, especially your Grandma’s, to help you think about your new responsibilities....about being a mother. From now on you can’t be thinking about just yourself.”
“I know. I’ve been wondering how that will feel.”
“Do you ever get to town? Do they let you out of here?”
Laura flinched at the directness of his question. “Of course I do. I can go anytime I want. There’s someone going out almost every day. Why would you think I couldn’t?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make it sound like that.” Gary paused to let her calm down. “Here’s the deal. What if your Grandma left you her cell phone number and our e-mail address? We’re going to be somewhere in Southern California for at least another few months. If there’s anything you want to talk about, just get in touch. The library in town probably has free internet access. You could email her from there.”
Hopefully Laura was willing to accept his smile as a sign of caring. “And if you’d like to see us again, we can come back just about any time. In fact, if it’s okay with you, we’ll plan to stop by on our way back to Oregon in the spring.”
“That would be nice.” Then, after a moment’s thought, “But please, be careful coming up here. Not everyone around here is a good guy.”
Together the three of them strolled back down the hill to the Toad. After their quiet goodbyes and a long grandmotherly hug, Claudia held Laura at arm’s length and looked into her young face.
“One more thing, honey," she said. "Doing something silly, just to get even with your father, may not be the best thing you can do for your baby. Please think about that.”
Laura nodded and started toward the trailer.
Minutes later, after a tense return through ‘downtown’ Freedom City, Gary stopped at the turn off....where the canyon track joined the gravel road. With a deep breath he winked at his wife, who had said nothing since leaving the trailer. “Well, did we get it done?” he asked.
“How can we know?”
“Is it okay if we don’t tell Dennis and Cyndi everything, at least for now?” It was not his family they were talking about. Was his place to be shading the truth like that?
“We’ll have to tell them sometime. But I’d like to give Laura a chance to think about it for a while.”
There were so many reasons to be worried for her young granddaughter. Yet there was so little they could do. “She’s a smart girl. All we can do is pray for her and trust that she’ll do the right thing.”
For days Gary Harris had looked forward to their Tuesday morning drive from Ojai to Indio with more than a little apprehension. During the course of the previous week he had maneuvered their long motor home, with the car in tow, down the Oregon interstate, along the winding two-lane roads of the coastal redwoods, and through the busy afternoon traffic of the Bay Area freeways.
Yet in his mind the legendary, even infamous, Los Angeles freeway system would be an altogether different challenge. He had heard tales of the hectic, high-speed traffic, confusing interchanges, and sometimes combative drivers. Like most Oregonians, he had never considered the label of ‘California driver’ a term of endearment. Though he had never driven those fabled Los Angeles highways in any kind of vehicle, let alone a house on wheels, it seemed the moment of truth had arrived. There was no escaping it.
“You know, if we were spending the night in a motel, driving just our car, I’d probably leave at four in the morning to beat that rush-hour traffic.” Gary explained to his bemused wife.
“I’ve never seen you worry about such things.”
“It’s not a matter of worry. I’d just rather avoid the traffic jams. But the way it is, there’s not much we can do about it.” When he stopped to envision such an early morning departure in the motor home, he understood at once it would be impossible.
“We couldn’t go through the whole disconnect routine....unhooking the utilities, rolling up the awning, and retracting the slide out in the middle of the night. Not with our neighbors sleeping fifteen feet away.”
“So I’ll get to sleep in after all?” Claudia appeared pleased at that prospect.
Shortly after ten o’clock the next morning they were past the half-way point of their Los Angeles crossing. By then it was obvious there had been no reason for Gary’s exaggerated concerns. Other than a time or two when he was forced to make a quick lane change to avoid being sucked off the freeway on an unexpected ‘Exit Only’ lane, everything had gone smoothly.
Well before noon they pulled into a rest area south of San Bernardino, just sixty miles from Indio. Over a light lunch they leafed through their thick RV Park directory, looking for directions to the Indio park where they had made reservations.
“I’m a little nervous about having to book for thirty days at a place we’ve never seen.” .
“Barry said it’s a nice place. They were happy there.” Claudia was referring to their RV park neighbors in Milpitas, who had recommended they reserve a space in Indio well before their arrival. “The picture in the guide book looks pretty classy,” she added, hoping to reinforce her endorsement.
“They always do, don’t they? But you can’t trust the pictures.”
In fact, Sanderson’s Sunland Park had turned out to be even nicer than they expected. With the unanticipated local tax, which had not been included in the price they were quoted over the phone, it was also somewhat more expensive than expected. Still, by late afternoon they were safely ensconced in their first southern California home. It was finally official, they were now Snowbirds.