This story came to us from my friend and favorite Tacoma-based writer, Kase Johnston. He recently took a job teaching at KSU, and, while I was happy for him, I truly felt his departure was Tacoma’s loss. He’s frequently published at goodmenproject.com and his great piece about teaching in Tacoma was recently featured in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Enjoy – Dan
The beer in front of me had so-so taste. Sure, it was brown enough. Sure, it had enough fizz. And sure, it left a mild aftertaste of hops and barley in my mouth, but it had just a so-so taste. I would drink it again.
All around me, strangers – to me but not to each other – drank and laughed and chatted about the semester and their students at Kansas State University. Talk of grading and research and upcoming sabbaticals circled the happy-hour crowd of college instructors and professors. I sipped on my so-so tasting beer.
Although fifteen to twenty people filled the seats of two pushed-together tables in the bar, I felt lonely, full of a loneliness that runs far deeper than actually being alone.
I sipped my beer again, letting the mild taste of the IPA sit on my tongue just long enough for me to confirm its so-so-ness and then let it pass down into my belly, knowing that eventually enough beer would take away my feeling of isolation, and calm my uneasiness around strangers. It was a solid strategy.
Two beers in, it worked. And as if it had torn down a curtain in front of me, a nice man saw it in my eyes.
“So, you’re new here. Where did you come from?”
The lingering smell of spilled beer that never really leaves a bar, even when it had been scoured the night before, hung in the air. My glass had begun to warm up, and I ran my finger around its rim, wiping off the glass’s sweat. The Where did you come from question was either a loaded one that searches for the answer to “Do you like it here in Manhattan, Kansas?”, “What are your political views”, or “Are you just out of college or have you been working for a while before accepting this teaching position?” Or it was just a random filler question used to plug the awkward gap between two people who didn’t even know each other’s names but have been placed together at a happy-hour table.
“Most recently, Tacoma, Washington,” I said. Another sip of beer fell over my tongue and down my throat, giving the other guy enough time to respond, force me to answer the question and then to shut up, with the hope of revealing whether his question was of the loaded type or of the filler type.
Instead, he was quiet. He took another sip of his beer, a porter. Then he asked a question that led me to believe that his first question was more loaded than filler. If it had been filler, he would have responded in one of two ways: with another question about me not related to Tacoma or with an anecdote about his visit to Seattle or Portland. He did neither.
“Did you like it there?” he asked.
On our last night in Tacoma, my wife Mary and I were happy. We sat on our deck at Dash Point, in a home we rented but could never afford to buy, and welcomed our friends. One week earlier, I took a faculty position at Kansas State. It was a great opportunity. It was a good job at a great university. There was no decision to be made. Two days earlier, we flew back from Kansas City to Tacoma, packed up our entire house, and mourned our departure.
At the start of the late June night, we filled wine glasses, stocked beer in the fridge, tripped over our boxes in the kitchen, and loaded serving plates with olives and cheese and hummus and cured meats. The food crowded the island in our kitchen. It was what we did with our Tacoma friends. We ate and we drank and we laughed.
We waited for our friends, and as if we didn’t have to move the next day, we drank a glass of wine together and looked out at the water before everyone arrived. We were happy in Tacoma, our son was born there, and we never once regretted moving to the area.
The sun set on the Olympics. It was late June, and the summer had yet to come to the Pacific Northwest. but it wasn’t raining, so we used blankets and sweatshirts and beer to keep us out on the deck in the chilly weather. The night air was filled with the early summer hints of warmer days ahead and with chatter from neighbors who also sat on their decks watching the sun drop.
The waters of the Puget Sound washed against the driftwood shores of Dash Point one hundred feet below us, the lapping of the incoming tide mixing with the voices and laughter of our friends.
Then we heard it: Our neighbor played “Taps” on his trumpet at sunset. Everyone quieted and listened to the hollow sound of the brass echo through our neighborhood and across the water outward, toward the wooded mass of Vashon Island.
In drunkenness, we said goodbye to the last of our friends and fell asleep on the bedroom carpet – our bed already leaned against the wall in the living room. The next day would be a mix of chaos, sorrow, and more goodbyes to our closest friends as they helped disassemble our chairs and stuff them into the last remaining hole in the moving truck.
We’d been in Kansas one month when Mary’s dad called us on the phone. He was in the final stages of chemotherapy, so his voice rattled and shook and faded just to complete three or four sentences.
“I saw your house on the news,” he said. “Your Tacoma house.” He coughed into the phone and repeated himself. Knowing her father’s humor, Mary waited for the punchline.
There was no punchline. “Our home?” she said. She looked at me, and scrunched the skin between her brows together, confused. How could our home possibly be on the news in southeast Kansas?
“Daaaaad,” she said. Her voice rose at the end to show her skepticism.
“Was there a guy who played ‘Taps’ at sunset there?” he asked.
The scrunched skin between her eyes got scrunchier. Incredulous and confused, we decided to investigate. Mary said goodbye, hung up the phone, and googled “Taps” and CBS Evening News. There on her screen, a CBS Evening News video began to play: Men fished on the Dash Point dock by the Lobster Shop, the waters of the Puget Sound washed against the shore, and the camera panned across the neighborhood as the host began to speak. Our old rental house slid into view, standing above the tree line.
The segment chronicled 78-year old Don Brittain and his trumpet. His silhouette cut against the sunset backdrop and his trumpet rose up and down, blaring out the notes of “Taps.” Our neighbors, even our landlord, talked to the camera.
Mary and I sat and watched the video more than ten times. We talked about our time at Thea’s Landing, our year living by Wright Park, about Ruston Way, our favorite happy hour joints, the area’s brewers who took so much pride in their IPAs and pale ales and blonde ales.
The Kansas landscape has a beauty of its own with its drastic flint hills and rolling prairies that do resemble amber waves of grain; but as we watched the video of our old neighborhood again and again, and as we imagined ourselves on the deck at Katie Downs during the late summer, we knew something had been taken from us: the beauty of Tacoma, a city people love to knock down.
The professor sat next to me at the bar in Manhattan, KS and waited for me to answer his question, “Did you like it there?”
I sipped on my so-so beer for another second or two and tried to keep my answer measured. I could have told him about the video and told him to go watch it. I could have told him about our love affair with the water and the trees and even the overcast skies, or I could have told him about my favorite IPA, the one I drank with friends at Puget Sound Pizza after running the Sound to Narrows race one morning in June, but I didn’t.
“We loved it there,” I said, not even with a smile. Though my answer was brief, I believe I said too much.