The Winnebago Vacation, Wine by the River, and a Magic Moment
October 1985. I’d never ridden in a Class A Winnebago. While our thirteen-hour drive on the never-ending stretch of the I-5 reinforced my preference for airplanes, Ryan and Jeff thought riding in a house-on-wheels was the world’s greatest adventure. With the lyrics by our favorite band, Air Supply, playing in a constant loop in my brain, I buried myself in a book and watched while Ryan and Jeff checked out the driver’s seat, kitchen cabinets, and teensy shower.
“Mom!” Jeff yipped, “Want to play Monopoly?” Is there a street named The End?
Ryan located a drawer with Oreo cookies and yelped, “WOW!” Is there any leftover wine?
We arrived at St. John’s house. It was a half-built, wood-frame structure on a hill overlooking a grassy meadow and a large swath of the sparkling Klamath River. I forgot about I’m all out of love, the parade of eighteen-wheelers, and the dull road trip. I understood why St. John built his retirement home on these ninety acres. The panoramic view of the Klamath was all I needed.
Helen St. John greeted us with a friendly “Hi” and homemade cookies. She was exactly what I expected: a chubby, white-haired grandma dressed in black slacks and a short-sleeved shirt. My intent during our visit was to become acquainted with Helen St. John, which started on the first day with a basket of wet clothes and clothespins. While we hung St. John’s socks and her underwear, she indulged me in her favorite pastime: gossip. Helen gossiped about her kids, her neighbors, movie stars, and just about everything. Then came my first knitting lesson where she taught me how to count stitches. Afternoons were for popcorn and her favorite soap operas: two hours of censor pureed sex. For a true-crime writer who’d never watched a soap opera, I could hardly believe I was watching All My Children with the wife of the LAPD’s top homicide cop.
Between clothespins, wet clothes, and gossip, I got a snapshot of St. John’s homespun wife.
St. John, Jim, and the boys fished every morning armed with steaming coffee, a bucket of worms, and bologna sandwiches. They came home with the tiniest fish I’d ever seen, but that didn’t matter. They had a grand time drinking Cokes, catching fish, and watching the sun come up. I stayed behind for knitting lessons, laundry duty, and the afternoon soaps. What I enjoyed most were the nights Helen and I fed the deer leftover lettuce and carrots.
My favorite afternoon happened the day St. John and I had a writing session and picnic lunch by the river. I felt very smart and sneaky when I poured a bottle of wine into a Mason jar and snuck it past Helen. The sun was out. The geese were honking. The grass was thick and green. The Klamath sparkled like someone had thrown crushed diamonds on the surface. I set the sandwiches on a plate and poured glasses of wine.
“Look at that blue sky,” St. John said, as he took a sip of wine. “You can see a hundred miles in every direction. There’s a two or three mile an hour breeze. The only noise is an occasional vehicle, probably buck hunters in a Jeep. Two guys with an aluminum boat on top of a camper. Listen to the stillness. The quiet. Life stands still here. There isn’t any crime. In a few weeks, I’ll have to go back over that big hill where life isn’t worth a nickel, a dime, or a dirty look.”
The Man Behind the Badge had just let me in. I took a sip of wine, said nothing, and wondered what had just happened. John St. John seemed happy and fine with being a little vulnerable.