Leif Beiley, Voyage to Crusoe

Voyage to Crusoe, Chapter 1

Cliff Demont eased his silver Porsche off the two-lane blacktop road and onto the rutted gravel driveway. The car bounced along the ruts a hundred yards and came to a stop near the concrete foundation of an old farmhouse that had burned down long ago. It was mid-November and dappled morning sunlight filtered through the leaves of a magnificent oak tree that stood in the middle of what had once been the home’s front yard. Beyond the tree, the land sloped downward toward Highway 101, a quarter mile away.

Wearing jeans and work boots, he got out of the car and zipped his jacket against the cool morning breeze. He wanted to walk the entire property and feel the land before the bulldozers and contractors arrived to transform this pasture into the new headquarters of Evergreen Scientific Corporation.

He envisioned a glass and stone building with wide overhanging eaves nestled among the trees. Its façade would be a gentle S-shape, with the recessed part of the “S” accommodating the oak. The big tree would provide afternoon shade and frame the view from the lobby of the building, a panorama of the valley below. That’s what he envisioned, but the plans actually specified a concrete tilt-up, designed for maximum efficiency and little regard for the beauty of the land. What a shame, he thought.

An old red pickup truck turned into the driveway and rattled to a stop next to the Porsche.

The woman who climbed out of the truck looked about sixty, dressed in denim and cowboy boots, with an old Stetson on her head.

“You the bastard whose gonna cut down these trees and pave Buffum ranch?” She pointed a hostile finger at him as she spoke.

“Not exactly. I’m the architect for the building that’s going up here.” Cliff sucked in his gut and hooked his thumbs in his jeans, unconsciously trying to look more like a rancher than an architect.

“See that house up there on the ridge?” She pointed toward an old ranch house across the road a quarter mile up the hill. “That’s my house, and that property on the other side of the road there, that’s my ranch, the Hilliard ranch. My name is Alice Hilliard. I grew up on this land and I don’t think you ought to be puttin’ up any goddamned buildings in Buffum’s pasture.” She stared at him in disgust. “You oughta know better than to cut down these trees and pave this good grazing land.”

“It surely is beautiful,” Cliff agreed, “But the Buffum family has chosen to subdivide it and sell it.” He swept his arm across the landscape, “Of course we want to preserve the natural beauty of it, as much as possible anyway.”

She laughed in his face, “Oh that’s rich. You might be able to sell that load o’ manure down in LA, but I know better. You won’t be satisfied ‘til you’ve paved everything from here to Frisco.”

Cliff gave her his friendliest smile. “Well, there’s no stopping progress, but I’m going to save as many of these trees as I can. I’ll show you what we’re planning to do here.” He took a roll of blueprints from the Porsche and spread them out on the tailgate of her truck. “This is the site plan; it shows the property lines and where the building will be.” He pointed out the details on the blueprint.

She studied the drawing a moment, then looked toward the oak tree. “Looks like your building is going to be right over there.”

“Yes ma’am.”

She squinted at him. “Hell, I know I can’t stop progress so I’m not going to try. But that tree, when I was a child, we used to play under it, the Hilliard and Buffum kids. Their house was right there,” she said, pointing at the foundation, “Oh my, did we have fun here.” She kicked at the gravel with a booted toe. “Now the kids are all grown and gone, and the grandkids don’t ever come here. Nobody remembers much about this place anymore.” She paused another moment, staring at the tree.

“What happened to the farmhouse?” He wanted to know the history of the place.

“Oh, it burned down forty years ago, back in forty-seven. The Buffum’s built a new house farther up the hill. You can’t see it from here. They didn’t want to see this place from the new one.”

“Why not?” Cliff pushed his sunglasses up on his forehead and studied the woman’s weathered face.

“Tom Buffum died in the fire. Things were never the same after that.”

He stared at the ruins of the farmhouse and imagined the flames. “Who was Tom Buffum?”

Alice looked off toward the west a moment. “Tom was the oldest of the Buffum boys. He joined the Marines in ’43, right after he turned eighteen. He went to fight the Japanese on those islands, I don’t remember the names anymore. When he came home he wasn’t right in the head. Had terrible nightmares. One night he took a gallon of gasoline into his bedroom and locked the door. They said he poured it all over the room and struck a match. It was more like an explosion than a fire.” She took a deep breath, “I was seventeen when Tom enlisted. He asked me to marry him before he left, right under that old oak tree.” She paused a moment, then sighed. “I told him I’d wait for him. But he died before we got married.” She nodded toward the tree and said in a quiet voice, “I’d be obliged if you let that one live.”

Cliff looked her in the eye. “Miss Hilliard, I promise you, I’ll do my best to save that tree.” He rolled up the plans and tucked them under his arm.

“Well, I don’t put much stock in what you people with fancy sports cars and sunglasses say.” She nodded toward the Porsche and cocked an eye at the glasses perched on his head. “If I catch you takin’ a chainsaw to that tree, I’ll come after you. Don’t you forget that.” She turned to get into her truck.

“I understand, ma’am. Nobody’s going to cut down that tree.” She put the truck in gear and drove away.

Alone again, he glanced at the oak tree and frowned. He hadn’t intended to promise not to cut it down, but that’s what it sounded like… A promise.

Back in his office at the firm of Larsen Haines, he sketched a new façade for the building that curved behind the tree, the way he had envisioned it. When he was finished, he took it into Bob Larsen’s office. Bob was the president of Larsen Haines.

“Evergreen’s board is going to love this,” Bob said with a sad smile. “Those guys who sit in paneled offices in LA are going to drool over it until the accountant does the math and says they can get ten percent more space in a square building for less money.”

“Let’s at least present this alternative to them. A concrete box in that beautiful landscape is going to be ugly. Let’s use that setting to do something inspiring instead of another tilt-up.”

“Hey,” Bob retorted, “We do very well with concrete boxes.” He pointed a finger at the rendering. “This façade is beautiful, Cliff, but you know curved walls are expensive to build.

Plus, we’d have to charge them more for the design, and that’s not in the budget.”

Cliff felt his blood beginning to boil. “Architecture isn’t just about money, dammit.” This was an argument they’d had before, and one he always lost. He thought of the promise he made to Alice Hilliard and vowed not to give in this time. “All I’m asking is that you present this option to Evergreen.”

“Sure, I’ll present it,” Bob said. “If they sign off on it, great. But if they want a concrete tilt-up out there in Buffum’s pasture instead, that’s what we’re going to design for them.”

Cliff knew Bob would fold at the first sign of resistance to the more expensive design.

Back in his office he stared out the window and fumed.

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