Under the Influence of Peanuts
NOT the comic strip
This seems as good a time as any to acknowledge an inspiring person from decades back
The following is excerpted from an essay I wrote for Scrib’d, a long essay called People, Places, Things.
You still with me? Baby steps, I promise. The only other not-white person back in the Sears catalog of my childhood was a Japanese-American man named Noburo Fukuda, whom everyone called “Peanuts,” and not for a nice reason. Not at first. He’d immigrated in 1919 and eventually laid track for the Northern Pacific Railway. His co-workers, so the story goes, thought he was crazy. They used to ask, “What kind of nuts are you?” And when he answered, “Plain nuts,” they heard “Peanuts.” By the time I was born, that’s the only name he’d ever had.
To his credit, he embraced the name and spent his retirement walking and bicycling around the back roads. In our car we’d see him and scream for my dad to pull over. This memory seems, these days, outlandish, but we’d run to him and this stranger would give us candy. Every kid in the area ran to him and hugged him and accepted free candy from this old man. To reinforce his brand, he gave out those oversize marshmallow “peanuts” colored orange-pink. They’re still around, called Circus Peanuts, and they taste exactly the way spray paint smells. Exactly.
I introduce People’s Exhibit E.
Despite the Woody Guthrie song “Pastures of Plenty,” the area I called home other people called the Scablands. During prehistoric times, ice dams would back up the Columbia River to create a lake the size of Lake Erie. The dam would break, and all that water would scour the landscape. The process repeated, leaving behind bare rock and a place so desolate the federal government had no problem siting the Hanford Nuclear Reservation there. The wind, it almost never stopped. The Cascade Mountains forced clouds to drop their moisture, creating a rain shadow that left every place east of the mountains bone-dry.
That blank, epic blah made my dad’s goal all the harder on joint-custody weekends. By then my folks had separated, and he’d set his cap to show us kids something amazing every Saturday. One time the Pasco Airport, served by Cascade Airways, which became known locally as “Crashcade” after a failed, fiery landing there. Just as the Jack in the Box in Tacoma became “Kid in a Box” after E. coli killed two children there.
Another Saturday, Dad took us to the 1919 redbrick roundhouse where locomotives and rolling stock were slotted into stalls for repair work. This fortress-like building sat dead center in a webbing of train tracks. A stadium-size heat sink—to enter it on a summer day was to wander into geysers of welding sparks. Clouds of acetylene and diesel smoke. Helmeted figures faceless behind goggles, who lumbered around in stiff, sweaty coveralls. Metal clanked against metal. Grinders screamed through steel. Everything baking in these huge brick sheds under the desert sun. Us kids, we held up for all of thirty seconds before Dad herded us out a door.
As the door shut behind us, we stood in a new world. A garden hemmed in by tall brick walls. Water tumbled down the slopes of a rocky alpine mountainside blooming with phlox, columbines, wild strawberries. Little caves in the rocks held statues of the Holy Virgin and Saint Patrick. Around the mountain, birds sang in small trees. Men minus their welding gear sat on benches in the sunshine. Not talking. Maybe eating sandwiches. Watching the hummingbirds and butterflies. Just listening to the water and the wind chimes. The garden was shaped like a wedge, suggesting that the roof of one roundhouse stall had collapsed. The roof had collapsed to leave this room open to the sky.
Someone had carted away the rubble and wheeled in—by handcart because there was no large door—all the soil, the rocks, the sapling trees. Someone had built this scaled-down mountain and plumbed it so streams would spill down and waterfalls would cool the air. Water pooled in ponds filled with orange fish, koi that ate the Wonder Bread we tossed to them. At the hidden core of all that smoke and noise was this Eden.
I’ve never written about that garden, because to reduce it to words seems criminal. A space more peaceful than any church I’ve ever been inside.
Our dad told us that Noburo Fukuda had created this world. Stone by stone, Peanuts had built this secret paradise. There are gardens I’ve stood in for only a few minutes but never really left. Case in point, a billion baby steps into my future I’d be writing for the Cottage Grove Sentinel, a twice-weekly newspaper in Oregon. I’d be assigned to interview the wife of the owner of the Bohemia Lumber Company, which meant driving my 1977 Mercury Bobcat down a dusty back road so narrow that the blackberry canes scratched both sides of my car. These barrens opened onto a lake, and I drove across a causeway to what had to be an island in the center. There, a sprawling Hobbitish manor house stood among huge oaks and lawns that ran to the water’s edge. That was 1984. I was a senior at the University of Oregon, but I have never entirely left that island. Just as I’ve never totally left Peanuts’s walled paradise.
On another Saturday our dad took us to a hulking, windowless high-rise. A great blank-faced building that rose next to the railyard. He walked us up stairways to story above story. Somewhere high up, he moved to the center of a dim, cold room and pulled at a handle fastened to the floor. He muscled up a patch of plywood and underneath showed a deeper floor of shining blue-white. Ice. Great slabs of ice filled the space under our feet. An icehouse, the building made these great blocks and doled them out to boxcars. Outside the building he showed us the real wonder.
On a narrow strip of land near the tracks someone had dug long, rectangular pools and lined them with concrete. Everything about them more exact and formal than it needed to be, these could’ve been reflecting ponds in front of a palace. Wide coping strips bordered each pool, bench-high. Best of all were the colors, like fireworks floating on the water. Colors like stained glass—how to put them across? Bright as Christmas ornaments, the colors glowed even in the scorching sunshine. Below them moved the orange and speckled shapes of fish. More koi. The colors: water lilies. But when you’re a kid who’s never seen water lilies … Peanuts had built these as well, these pools that were only meant to hold the runoff from the icehouse. They didn’t need to be so glorious, and it took a full-time effort to maintain them. These pools and the garden hidden inside the roundhouse.
My dad moved back home, bringing busted cardboard boxes, dusty and breaking at the seams from the rocks they held. He’d horse-traded for some old person’s basement full of polished petrified wood, and he set to work building a mountain in our backyard. A billion baby steps before Richard Dreyfuss built his Devils Tower in the movies, our dad mortared together all those gleaming chunks and plumbed them so a bubbling spring at the peak would feed streams and waterfalls. He molded hollows into the slopes where he could plant cranesbill geraniums and sweet alyssum. All of this rose above a concrete pool stocked with water lilies and goldfish.
And he wasn’t alone. Other brakemen and freight conductors, we’d visit their backyards and find other mountains. One man had pressed a bazillion glass cat’s-eye marbles into the concrete floor of his pond. At high noon they glittered up through the water, a pirate’s hoard of jewels. I was so young. Seeing this, I thought that effect was “marble,” and whenever I read about the Parthenon or St. Peter’s Basilica I pictured those buildings clad in a rainbow glare of aggies, swirlies, tigers, and shooters.
My point is that men who’d spent their working lives calling Noburo Fukuda retarded, nuts—and, less aloud, “queer” because he wasn’t married and had never started a family but instead had sculpted his secret mountain—now those men were learning to use thick copper wire to shape their own bonsai trees, and they were feeding niblet corn to their own schools of koi. Call it cultural appropriation, but all these lawn-mowing, blue-collar white guys were now trimming the roots of their dwarf mugo pines.
Peanuts’s steady, steadfast passion had won out.
That’s it. Every town has its “eccentric.” Tell me about yours.
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