The Mystery of the Dummy and the Adventure of the Fallen Tree

Fifty years ago, Pop and Nurse Vivian took us to the Coram Drive-In Theater for a double feature of “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Bye Bye Birdie.” After Ann-Margret sang the credits, we headed back through the scrub pines to the bungalow in Yaphank. As we approached an underpass trestle for the Long Island Railroad, we saw a figure wrapped in blankets lying on the road. I was terrified, but Pop, because dads do brave things, got out of the car and walked up to the body. He pulled the blanket back, then walked back to our red Chevrolet station wagon.

“Harold, what happened?” Nurse Vivian asked.
“No idea. Somebody left a dummy in the middle of the road.”
We never did find out how or why that dummy got there, but it became part of our mythos. Whenever a circumstance occurred that we didn’t understand, Pop would say, “It’s just like the dummy in the road.”
Brian and I actually do talk, but frequently miss the point. This was the case when I thought I’d told him I was lecturing in Mendocino in February, and he thought he told me that he was dancing with Fresh Meat in Portland on the same weekend. But Terry Asten Bennett agreed to watch Zane, and Anna Grande agreed to watch Aidan, thus ensuring both boys that they would not have to spend any time in purgatory.

I have a husband whom I love, as well as two sons and three dogs. I even like my two jobs, so is it any wonder that I hate leaving home?

But Mendocino is a sweet town in Northern California founded by accident. The story goes that a schooner named the Frolic ran aground on the rocks of what would later be the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse. The crew sailed a leaky lifeboat to San Francisco, announcing that the ship full of “silk and spices from the Orient” was abandoned. Henry Meiggs sent Jerome Ford to recover the goods, but the ship was never seen again. Instead he found the redwoods there (hard to miss), and a mill town was born.

Today the city is inhabited by mysterious writers and artists. The people who came to hear me were mighty gracious, one woman telling me that she and her husband had driven up five hours from Antioch. I’m not sure that I’m worth a five-hour commute, but still, it was nice to hear.

It’s unofficial: The outer, outer, outer Excelsior has annexed Mendocino, as both places are so cozy. This is part of my unsecret plan to get Justin Trudeau to annex both of us.

On Friday night, I read from my book “A Song for Lost Angels” at the Gallery Bookstore. The rain had let up, so I decided to drive back that evening to save Terry and Anna from another day of my children. As I was signing a book, one of the locals said, “You better go by way of Route 20. Route 128 is a vision quest in the best of weather, and it’s getting close to high tide.”

Safety or adventure? I chose the road less traveled. The only radio station my car, the Kipcap, could pick up was country, but when country’s all you got, country’s pretty good. The rain set in two miles in, and I was delighted because in San Francisco, I never get to use my high beams and my windshield wipers at the same time. For an hour, I drove through the redwoods, eerily without one other car coming in my direction.

Then all at once, the traffic came to a dead stop. At the edge of a forest, in the deep of night, three cars sat in front of me, parked.

Stay in the car or get out? But now I was the daddy, and it’s my job to check the dummy in the road. Still wearing my suit, I got soaked in three footsteps, rounded a bend, and saw that a tree had fallen across the two-lane road. The man from the Camry in front of me said, “Second time this happened to me this week. I was running an errand to Fort Bragg, and one of those big ones came down. Turns out the guy on the other side was running an errand to Mendocino, so we traded cars, ran our errands, traded cars again and headed home.”

Mysteries remain. We are each of us on a journey, but on the way, trees fall. Schooners sink. Dummies get left under trestles, but what matters are the pilgrims we meet and that we are, each of us, headed home.

Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Posted by Kevin Fisher-Paulson

Kevin is the author of "A Song for Lost Angels," his memoir of how he and his husband fostered, raised and lost newborn triplets. Kevin is also featured in "When Love Lasts Forever," "MHR is my home," and writes a column for the San Francisco Chronicle. He lives in San Francisco with his husband, his two adopted sons and his four rescue dogs.


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