I remember, I remember; a heady spring day when the pasture grass climaxed in the balmy air and the stout oaks cast their shadows over rolling hills. A quiet country road meandered through these hills which my Spanish brother Jose and I navigated on a random outing typical of the young in the springtime of their lives.
As we pedaled the tandem bike in unison, a song, also in unison, bellowed from the carefree lungs of our zestful youth, and it went like this:
“Those were the days, my friend, we thought they would never end, those were the days, oh yes, those were the days, la la la—la la la” [1968 hit song by Mary Hopkin]
The oak trees seemed ancient, and near a rickety barn board corral one tree trunk championed a sizable oval burl, its normally rough bark polished smooth by a century of bovine hide using it as a rubbing stone. A flock of sheep were milling about the aging stockade, and a white haired oldster was coaxing the animals into a semblance of order.
We stopped the double bike at this point of interest, and Jose immediately ventured a dialogue, which quickly became an animated conversation in a language that I did not understand. The old shepherd was from a land called Euskadi, and Jose’s ancestry was also tied to this land, as his grandfather was the architect for designing and constructing the cathedral of Euskadi’s capital, Vitoria. The always friendly Jose spoke in the Basque tongue with the shepherd as if they were in their homeland, which was at least five thousand miles away, for this road led to a rural Oregon crossing that was known as Brockway.
The crossroads at Brockway harbored one of those old general stores with a false front looming over the entry with “Brockway Store” painted in large blocky letters. Inside was the ubiquitous wood stove where the old timers were posted to broadcast the farm reports, spin yarns and chew tabaccy. At this juncture, we turned the bicycle built for two around and cruised back to my boyhood home.
When we were both sixteen, Jose came to our household as a foreign exchange student sponsored by the American Field Service, and I have yet to meet a more amiable and gregarious personality. We were almost denied the opportunity of knowing this character, as AFS was skeptical of our household abilities for hosting a student due to the size and young age of our family. But my mother went on the warpath and would not quit. All through that summer of 1968 she battled, until AFS finally gave in and assigned us a student barely before the school year started.
It was such a last minute placement that we did not even have a photograph of our student, and he had only one photo, that of my father. After traveling three hours north to Portland International Airport, my family gathered at his crowded gate in a state of excited apprehension and curiosity. As the plane spilled out its cargo of international travelers, we looked and looked, trying to second guess our students identity, but to no avail.
“Mister Woodall, Mister Woodall!” A short, round faced boy with over size glasses was tugging on my father’s shirtsleeve. “I am Jose!” he exclaimed. “He was like an owl peering up at me!” my father humorously recounted from that day.
Leaping ahead half a lifetime, I received a very special invitation. In the Spanish culture, a fiftieth birthday is a major event and worthy of great celebration, and my wife and I were invited to Jose’s party. In January 2002, after a sobering walk around ground zero New York City, we found ourselves relishing a lively Madrid tapas bar with Jose and friends. We were there among other early arrivals, mainly Jose’s rugby chums from Harvard, and there would be many more to come, from Sweden, Germany, England, America and all of Jose’s hometown Spanish friends and relatives.
In between all the festivities, my wife and I ventured into the Spanish countryside, and found ourselves in a small town with a big history. We followed colossal arching aqueducts, which were built by the Romans in the first century AD, to an enchanting castle perched on a hill overlooking the town.
Well into the twentieth century, water was transported eleven miles from a mountain stream into the heart of Segovia via this aqueduct, which was actually an “aqueduct bridge” that towered ninety feet above us. This marvel of engineering of 167 arches was built with tight fitting stones and no mortar, and is the finest roman aqueduct remaining in Europe.
However, the highlight of the afternoon came from exploring that hilltop castle named Alcazar. “Wow, where could I find a more enchanted castle!” my wife exclaimed. It seems she was not alone with that opinion, since the iconic Sleeping Beauty Castle was in part modeled after this one by Walt Disney for the centerpiece of his magic kingdom. Here the lady of my life had some childhood fantasies fulfilled as we climbed and explored hidden staircases with small widows, great halls for royal courts, and soaked in amazing vistas from high in the turret towers.
Jose’s fiftieth birthday party was a lavish affair, and after the main presentations and stupendous dining, everyone was whisked away to the evening entertainment. After filling up three full sized charter buses, we nearly filled up a broadway theater of Madrid to enjoy its presentation of “Hello Dolly.”
After the show, the leading lady and a top starlet of the Madrid theater scene sought out Jose in the crowded lobby, teetering there with one hand full of roses and scribbling autographs with the other, all the while basking in open admiration and in a constant discussion with Jose. As I stood there enjoying the scene with Jose at the top of his game, I reminisced of a different time with the tune “those were the days” playing in my head.
Where on Earth?! Brockway, Oregon; Segovia, Spain; Madrid, Spain.