After our descent from the mountains, April and I stopped in Santa Fe to visit my oldest childhood friend, Danny Wolfman. Danny and I were born a month apart in 1939 and had been passengers in the same baby carriage pushed alternately by our two mothers who were also best friends. As infants we attended the same nursery school and remained close to each other until we left for colleges in distant cities. Now that our parents were gone, Danny Wolfman was the person I had known the longest who was still with me on this earth.When I set up my first household in California and before I had any children, Dan and his wife Marianne stayed with us, spending the night in sleeping bags on the living room floor in our one bedroom apartment. It was 1960 and we were graduate students, all anticipating an endless horizon.
I was studying literature, while Dan had entered the field of archaeology, tunneling through time to retrieve the shards of lost civilizations. Over morning coffee he and Marianne talked enthusiastically about a dig they were headed for in Mesa Verde, where they intended to search the ruins of a cliff dwelling tribe called the Anasazi, which was a Navajo word that meant “ancient people.” More than a thousand years before, the Anasazi had carved stone pueblos out of the side of a plateau rising out of Colorado’s Montezuma Valley. Three hundred years after arriving, they abandoned the villages they had built and disappeared. Nobody knows where they went to or why; only their artifacts remain. Dan and Marianne were going to look for them.
Even in my imagination I had a hard time following their path. The very image of glacial time zones in which whole worlds were submerged was something I found oppressive. Perhaps I saw my own dreams swallowed up in mountains of indifferent earth alongside the Anasazi. While Dan and Marianne were looking backward in time, I was eagerly anticipating the revolutionary future. I couldn’t begin to understand their romance with the long buried past.
* * *
I lost touch with Dan for a long time after that, as we went our separate professional ways. For a time I lived in Europe then returned to Berkeley to write. He got into the driver’s seat of his Ford van, which was to be his transportation for the next thirty years, and took off on exotic travels into the heart of Mesoamerica. In Mexico and then in Machu Picchu the lost city of the Incas, he would park his van and continue on horseback along wilderness trails pursuing the lives of the ancient dead. Once, near Oaxaca, bandits posing as policemen kidnapped him and took his money and archaeological samples before releasing him unharmed.
Eventually, Dan and Marianne settled in the state of Arkansas with their daughter, a beautiful child they named Lauren. He had been hired as the state’s archaeologist, where one of his projects was to take an inventory of the Buffalo National River. A generous teacher, Dan encouraged one of his students to develop a tree ring chronology for the state and the entire southeast, which had a significant influence on archaeological dating in the region.
When we were both in our forties, we met up again in our old neighborhood in New York. The physical change in him was noticeable and not only because his brown hair had acquired flecks of gray. There was an urgent appeal in his eyes and his complexion had turned a bright worrying red. Always a bear of a man, he had blown up to where the envelope of his body seemed about to explode; when he spoke his voice was pinched as though his lungs were under pressure. I kept wanting to tell him to breathe.
The alarming appearance conveyed an equally disquieting reality. His doctors had detected an irregularity in his heart and his blood pressure was so high it had caused him to lose consciousness twice. He was just then recovering from a blow to the head suffered when he blacked out in the street and fell backwards onto the pavement. Afterwards, his doctors warned him to make changes in the way he conducted his life or face an early death. But it was evident that even under a sentence so dire he could not do it. My old friend Danny is going to die, I thought. We are only in our forties and in another ten years he won’t be around.
I tried to talk to him and bring him back. With a feeling of immense futility, I urged him to stop what he was doing and change. Take deep breaths, I said, helplessly. Slow down. “But I can’t,” he replied, “There are things I have to do.” I marveled how a man who inhabited time zones measured in eons could be so ensnared by the imperatives of a few weeks in the present. But he was. He had scientific rivals to respond to and positions he needed to defend. “I’m scheduled to give two important papers at a conference next month. I can’t afford to miss the deadlines.”
Dan was a pioneer in the specialized field of chronometrics, and was working on a specific technique for dating artifacts called archaeo-magnetism. The earth whirling through space shifts its axis over the course of time and thus its magnetic pole. The shifts have been mapped. A hearth built by the Anasazi contains traces of iron in its clay floor. These traces are magnetized in a pattern that parallels the shifting positions of the earth’s field. When the Anasazi fired the hearth more than a thousand years earlier, the pattern froze. By matching the magnetic lines in the ancient clay to the time map of the polar shifts, Dan could date the hearth itself.
Measuring these samples required a magnetometer and other lab equipment to which Dan had no access for most of his career. To secure lab time he had to travel to California, which added to his pressures, but also made it possible for me to see him. Recently he had obtained a job at the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe. He moved into a small adobe house in town, where he resided alone. Marianne had left along the way, and now lived a thousand miles distant on the west coast, where their daughter Lauren was attending college.
Dan’s new museum position came with the promise of a new archaeo-magnetic laboratory, which had been completed the year before April and I went to see him. On the road to Santa Fe, I looked forward to our meeting with anticipation. I was happy that I had been wrong and that he was still alive more than ten years after our encounter in New York.
At his suggestion, we met in a local café with oak tables that were warm from the autumn sun. The conversation over breakfast was bathed in the nostalgias of our own lost time. As we talked about his life in Santa Fe, I began to feel a pang of discomfort at having brought April with me, who was the very image of my own late achieved happiness. It made me acutely conscious that he was alone and his health problems were still with him. He was overweight and his face was flushed. When I asked about his health, he said he was scheduled to go into the hospital the next month to have his heart fibrillated. There was no particular incident that made the medical procedure necessary, he added. It was just something his doctors ordered to be safe. Santa Fe was not a backwater, I reassured myself, and it would be a good hospital with doctors who knew what they were doing. I felt a deep affection for this man I had known longer than any other, and whom I could not help.
Near the end of the meal, I had occasion to go to the men’s room and left April and Dan at the table. “When you were gone,” she told me later, “he leaned over and asked me, ‘How old are you?’” I told her I didn’t think he intended disapproval by this question. I thought it was more like an encouragement to himself. April was thirty-three, which was twenty-two years younger than either of us.
April and I said our goodbyes to Dan and went back to California to resume our lives. A month later he went into the hospital where they hooked him up to the fibrillation machine for the routine procedure. Soon after, I received a call from Marianne whom I hadn’t seen or heard from in thirty-four years, since she and Dan were students bedded down on my living room floor.
“Dan is dead,” she said. “He went into the hospital for the procedure and they lost him.”
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