The Spaceman came to Meeker in the 1970s under the influence of a dream. Word around town was that when he left his home back East, he searched across the United States for two years on the guidance of the dream, finally making his way to our rural Colorado community in the Rocky Mountains. In his vision, he was told that once he found the Meeker Hotel he should not leave, that in time a spaceship would land and take him away. He set up camp in the foothills of China Walls, a small ridge north of Meeker. I do not know what member of the community coined the name the Spaceman, but it took. At that time, I am certain most of the eighteen hundred inhabitants of Meeker did not know his given name, Ron Kenward. I was one of the ones who didn't.
As in all small towns, time slowly rolled over into the '80s. Meeker residents did not get the memo when, in 1985, The New York Times declared country music dead. The twang of songs from Loretta Lynn and George Jones, infused with those of newer artists like Reba McEntire and Keith Whitley, drifted out of the open doors of the bars and the local 3.2 joint, Oscar's, during the summer months.
In Colorado, Meeker was considered a ranching community. However, there was always a coalmine in operation somewhere nearby. Along with ranchers and miners and their families, there were people who worked in a small hospital, the shops in the small downtown area, and the schools that helped build the foundation of Meeker's population. Roustabouts in the natural gas and oil fields help strengthen that foundation. For the most part, the dress was Western attire. People wore their Wranglers to work, to church, even to golf the nine-hole course just south of town.
My family did not fit into the norm of Meeker, even though my father had grown up there. He went into road construction, beginning by working for Rio Blanco County right out of high school and then graduating to the Colorado State Highway crew. By the time I was born in 1955, he was working for big-name constructions companies like Peter Kewit, Heron Strong, TIAGO, and H & E Lowdermilk, which took us all around the small towns of Western Colorado. We also lived for a time in Utah, and at one point, even in Rossville, Kansas.
In 1969, my parents' marriage began to falter. I was in eighth grade. My mother brought us back to Meeker where my dad's brother and sister lived. Even though my family had roots in the White River Valley dating back to 1938, our years away had set us apart. We did not ranch. We did not hunt. My father wouldn't allow a gun in the house. He believed wild animals were to be seen, not shot. I did not wear Wranglers but Levi's. My brothers grew their hair long—over their ears—in a town that took exception to that. Most boys went out for football. My brothers ran cross-country and track. We excelled academically. We were mischievous. We loved to party. We loved to laugh. We settled in for our high school years with brilliantly clever, witty teenagers such as, we thought, ourselves. And so when the Spaceman established residency in Meeker, I identified with him on some core level, relating to this strange man who didn't fit in.
Debbie and I became friends during my junior year, her sophomore. We both worked summers as carhops at the A&W and saw each other often at the keggers thrown by the older boys (technically young men) out in the woods or on some rancher's private land "up the river." We met in the sticks in hay fields or on isolated county roads. Sheep Shit, Baseline, Loadie Hill and Lime Kiln. By the late 70s, Debbie and I were both married. I had two young sons. Debbie and her husband, Jim, were giving parenthood serious discussion.
We often took evening walks on an isolated stretch of road called Sulfur Creek, to the north of Meeker. It was a rare moment for me to be relieved of caring for small children—my husband watched our sons—and for Debbie to relax after a day of work at a doctor's office.
The gravel road ran between the creek and the foothills of China Walls, servicing only two ranches. We rarely encountered traffic. The isolation of the area made us that much more aware of the Spaceman when we happened across him. We usually met as he walked back from town carrying supplies and library books. An eccentric and a hermit, he always shunned Debbie's good-mannered small-town greeting. He would stare straight ahead and walk briskly, as if we did not exist, his high-topped, lace-up, scuffed leather boots slightly stirring the dust as he passed. His mouth, contorted in angst, exposed teeth in desperate need of dental work. He wore a boat cap that covered his thinning red hair and protected his reddish complexion. A strap dangling from his hat flapped about his face. He was always dressed in faded denim overalls, a blue-and-white-striped engineer shirt and, on cooler days, a bright-green rain slicker. I sensed emotional pain and apprehension from the man, as if our closeness to him on that county road, even for brief moments, was more than he could tolerate.
People who worked in paperwork—at the courthouse, the post office, the library, the doctor's office—knew the Spaceman's name was Ron. And, as people do, they talked. With their gossip going around town, we found out there was more to Ron than a man waiting on a spaceship. We discovered he was a decorated Vietnam veteran. Like many other returning vets in Meeker, he had come back from the war emotionally scarred by what he had seen and done. He got by financially on a disability pension. He was well read. Intelligent. Some said he was exceptionally gifted with verse.
The Spaceman was the last thing on our minds when Debbie and I left the city limits on a walk one evening in late summer of 1983. Time has erased from memory the exact nature of our conversation. Whatever the topic, we became so engrossed that we did not realize how far we had traveled until we came upon Dodo's cattle guard. Dodo's was the first ranch out, about six miles. We both turned around to see the sun had dipped behind the horizon. We realized it would be dark before we got back to town, but it wasn't the first time we had walked down the road in the dark, so we took a moment, looked out at the Herefords grazing in an adjoining pasture, wished we had brought water, and then began the six-mile trek back into town.
We lost light about halfway back. A cool evening breeze swept the warmth of the day from the valley, and the piñon and juniper woodlands along the rocky hillside to the north became black silhouettes against the night sky. The stars were out, but the moon had not yet risen. We kept a brisk, steady pace. We were later than usual getting back and knew our husbands might be worried, so we were both relieved to come around the last bend in the road and see the streetlights of Meeker off in the distance.
Continuing our pace, we came upon a green light glowing under sagebrush on a rise off to the right, about twenty feet from the road. The glow created an eerie spider web effect through the bushes and wild grass. We walked about fifty feet past it before the extraordinary sight registered in our minds. We stopped, looked at one another, and then turned around. The luminous object was about the size of a ping pong ball, but the glow stretched long, lighting the dirt, the gnarled sagebrush trunks, and a few of the overhanging branches and leaves.
I could not see Debbie's brown eyes clearly in the dark, but I sensed that we shared the same thought. We knew the ball had something to do with the Spaceman. Unable to give words to something so incredible, I offered weakly that it must have been one of the glow-in-the-dark toys children play with. In my mind's eye, I could see a passing car, a mother in the front seat, a child in the back. I could picture the rolled-down window, the small hand, the toss.
Her voice was no more than a whisper. "It's possible," she said. "But I think it has been dark too long. One of those balls would never glow this long. Would it? And it would never glow this brilliantly."
We wondered what to do. We both had the same primal fear that perhaps someone or something out in the darkness had placed it deliberately to lure us off the road—a trap set in order to pull us deep into the night and do unspeakable things to us. Like so many Meeker inhabitants, we were from pioneer stock who settled Colorado. We were from people whose survival on the frontier meant not succumbing to their fears. That strict "be brave in the face of danger" policy applied not only to men and boys but to girls and women too.
We wanted to see what it was, but Debbie hesitated, putting her hand on my arm to hold me back. "What about the Spaceman? The trail to his camp has to be somewhere around here." She was always the one who would speak to him when we saw him on the road. Yet given a chance to venture out in the area where he might lurk, she was the one who balked.
"There's something off about him, but he's never tried to hurt anyone," I said.
We began climbing the hill. The short distance to the ball seemed like a mile. We heard every scrape our shoes made against the dirt. Through our breathing and the night melody of crickets, we strained to hear any sort of rustling in the bushes.
I came closer to the ball than Debbie. It was brilliant green neon, out of character and out of sync in a rugged environment. It seemed to glow of its own accord.
The gestures that passed between us indicated that I was to pick it up. Slowly, I squatted down and put my hand into the glow. The light covered my arm, yet I felt nothing, not a temperature change, not pressure against my skin. Just as I opened my hand and began to make the snatch, Debbie ran. Like the second of two does in a meadow when one senses danger and bolts and the other follows, I took off behind her.
We ran hard down the embankment onto Sulfur Creek. Legs pounding, gasping for air, we ran through the darkness, past the skeleton shadows of the rodeo grounds on the left, focusing on nothing but the streetlights in the sanctuary of Meeker in the distance. I am not talking about a couple of teenage girls with overactive imaginations. We were grown women, well-respected members of our community with husbands and children waiting for us at home. We ran from this light as if our very lives depended on it. I ran from the fear that something or someone was only feet away, ready to grab me from behind.
Once we reached Cleveland Avenue, we slowed to a walk, our hearts pounding, bodies shaking with adrenaline. We stopped there a moment, grasped our thighs and sucked in air in enormous gulps.
Several times as I lay sleepless that night, I thought about waking my husband and taking him to the ball. I was certain it would still be glowing. But what would we do with our small children? How do you wake someone from a sound sleep and say, "There's a glowing green ball out by Sulphur Creek. I think you ought to go take a look at it." It all seemed too ridiculous to bring up.
I continued to toss and turn until, late into the night, I wondered if the ball really was connected to the Spaceman. What if this was his only chance to fulfill his dream? I couldn't answer that question. Sleep finally came over me.
After taking the boys to school the next morning, I went to Debbie's for coffee. Our emotions crossed every spectrum, just like they had the night before.
"If we went there right now, would we see it again? Do we want to see it again?" Debbie said.
"I'm not going back out there," I said as I sat at the breakfast bar. "Whatever we saw out on the road last night, I don't think I want to know what it is."
She giggled in agreement. "Still, I can't believe we didn't pick it up. We will never know what it was. We will never know."
"Did you tell your husband?"
An uncomfortable silence filled the kitchen. Debbie's back was to me as she beat cookie dough in a large ceramic bowl on the counter. She cut through the dough with a wooden spoon, which made a dull thud as it hit the side of the bowl. It was hard to bring the Spaceman into the conversation, but he had been there all along, a witness, invisible and silent but ever present.
"We're not his keeper," she said finally.
"We were terrified."
"Who had time to think?"
"He's eccentric. Anyway, we never could have found his camp in the dark."
"Never." Debbie turned around. Looking at me she said, "How can we explain to anyone what has happened?"
"Who would believe this?"
We went back to our small-town lives. Debbie and I continued our evening walks, although we never again ventured up Sulfur Creek. Star Trek had been a part of our lives since 1966. Star Wars had captured our hearts and our imaginations in 1977. But Debbie and I had been made painfully aware on that night that we weren't ready to believe that someone might actually be allowed the opportunity to reach for the stars, and something about that left us feeling small and insignificant. I don't think Debbie and I ever discussed it again.
Now, both Debbie and the Spaceman know all the mysteries of the universe, including the truth of the glowing green ball, be it alien or a trap or a hoax. Five years or so after the incident up Sulfur Creek, Debbie was diagnosed with melanoma. The disease ravaged her body for nine months, sucking the life from her beautiful, healthy body. Given no other choice in the matter, she surrendered her spirit to the Alpha and Omega on Mother's Day 1991, leaving behind a husband and a three-year-old son.
I was thirty-six. A wife and mother. However, letting Debbie go was one of the first adult things I ever did.
The Spaceman lived on for many years, continuing his vigil in Meeker. His simple, solitary existence remained unchanged until a severe winter arrived with a national outbreak of the flu. Townspeople noticed his absence at the grocery store and library. Some of the men made the trip to his tent on China Walls. Finding him in a seriously weakened condition, they brought him to the hospital for treatment and begged him to take a place in town. A true hermit, the Spaceman finally agreed to live in a storage unit on Eighth Street, which was located behind the Circle K and across from the laundry. Electricity and natural gas for lighting and heating his unit were installed. He became the only citizen of Meeker who was ever permitted to live in a storage unit.
Eventually, the Spaceman was moved to a VA mental facility in Grand Junction, a small city about two hours' drive west of Meeker. He had become more agitated over the years, even, at times, violent. The permanent move came about after an aggressive run-in he had with a group of children.
Ron died on July 12, 2012. I received the news through a closed group I belong to on Facebook, Remembering Meeker Colorado. He was buried in Highland Cemetery on a hill overlooking the town, and can still be found in cyberspace. There I was able to discover that Ron Franklin Kenwood served in the U.S. Navy.
One may ask why a community would go out of its way for a citizen who asked nothing from them but to be left alone. That it was the right thing to do might come to mind. But it is my belief that the Spaceman changed the Meeker community. He expanded our world beyond the city limits sign. I don't believe we ever looked at the sky the same way again after he arrived. On any given night, Meeker people could be seen on their front porches and in their backyards looking at the heavens. Waiting.
I feel free to tell what happened now, and do so in small groups of people who would not look unkindly toward such a reclusive man. They love the story of a spaceman and a glowing green ball. There is always speculation about what the ball actually was. One common idea is that it was not meant for the Spaceman but for Debbie, foreshadowing her early death; another that it was what caused Debbie's cancer. For the most part, people believe as Debbie and I believed; that to grasp the ball would have transported us into a spaceship.
Since Debbie's passing, I've been left alone to tell the tale and to wonder. Even today I wrestle with all possibilities, refusing to deal with my real concern of what we saw out on that road that night. I continue to shove to the furthest recesses of my mind that what we found under sagebrush was the Spaceman's ticket to his Promised Land, stumbled across by the unexpected instead of discovered by the anointed.
I know there is something or someone greater than myself out there, lying in the mysteries of the western sky. There have been times I have seen glimpses of the greater expanses where Debbie and the Spaceman now exist. I saw it in the brilliant aura that surrounded and protected Debbie in the months preceding her death. In rare moments when I am able to completely surrender to the forces that be, I am shown glimpses of clarity.
Title image "Luminosity" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2016.