Wildflowers are pressed between the pages. They are a pasted row crop, dry and brittle since the summer of 1955.
But when Harriet Fincher Comer opens her scrapbook and turns the page, they are blooming again.
Memories will do that.
She was 20 years old when she landed a coveted summer job at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. It was nothing glamorous. She worked the counter at the cafeteria in the Canyon section of the park. Her job was to ask, “Hot cakes, French toast or eggs?” as folks walked through the door at breakfast, then hurry back to the kitchen with the orders.
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It was the busiest summer of her life and one of the most amazing. Now, two generations later, reminiscing about the majestic beauty of Yellowstone can still take her breath away.
Those memories were stirred when she noticed an item in the newspaper a few weeks ago. This summer marks the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.
Locally, the public has been asked to submit photographs taken at national parks for use in a display at the Ocmulgee National Monument on Aug. 25-28.
Harriet thought it would be neat to offer a few of her photographs for the exhibit. After all, Yellowstone not only was the first national park in the U.S., but the world. And the Ocmulgee National Monument is on the verge of becoming a national historic park. (The proposal passed in the U.S. House of Representatives in March and is awaiting approval by the Senate.)
Two years after graduating from Miller High School in Macon, Harriet had finished her second year as a home economics major at Queens, a women’s college in Charlotte, North Carolina. She and several of her adventurous classmates were intrigued by the romance of the West, and they applied for summer jobs at Yellowstone.
They all received the standard reply, a form letter stating that their application had been received. They were informed it would be reviewed by the middle of April. Perhaps it was a way of measuring the sincerity of dreamy college girls who would probably go on and line up jobs in their hometowns for the summer.
But when Harriet went to her parents’ home on Ingleside Avenue for Easter, she followed up in a way that got their attention.
She sent a telegram.
I AM INTERESTED, AND I WILL COME.
“My daddy always said my middle name was ‘Go,’ ’’ she said.
So she went.
About 800 college students from across the country were hired that summer. Only one other student from Queens was selected. Her name was Cecile Money, and she was from Shelbyville, Kentucky.
Harriet rode the train to Chicago and met her there. Together, they caught the “Vistadome” to Livingston, Montana. They arrived too late to catch the last bus to Gardiner, at the northwest entrance to Yellowstone, and had to spend the night in a one-light-bulb motel.
Things improved in the morning when they were treated to a round-trip tour on the grand loop road aboard one of Yellowstone’s classic yellow buses.
It was like the coming attractions to one of the most memorable summers of her life.
THAT SOUTHERN ACCENT
Yellowstone is among Earth’s natural wonders and boasts one of the most incredible ecosystems on the planet. It spreads across 2.2 million acres, making it larger than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. It sits on top of a caldera, or “super volcano,’’ and features more than 300 geysers, including Old Faithful, 290 waterfalls, 10,000 hot springs, and one of the world’s largest petrified forests.
Harriet worked the breakfast and lunch shifts in the cafeteria at Canyon. She wore a uniform and a hair net. The diners would giggle at her Southern accent when she took their orders. Even the gruff old cook would laugh out loud.
She and Cecile lived in a small room above the cafeteria. They had to make a mad dash around the bears at the trash cans most everywhere they went. She worked six days a week and made $82 a month. That was less than her one-way train ticket, which costs $96.53.
But you can never put a price on making memories. On her off days, she was always going somewhere. The park seemed to go on forever, through northwest Wyoming and parts of southeast Montana and eastern Idaho. Without a car, she and the others would hitchhike. (Can you imagine a young lady today holding up her thumb on the side of the road and climbing into a truck with a stranger on his way to deliver eggs?)
The code word for tourists was “dudes” and park employees were known as “savages.’’ At night, she and some of the other savages would gather under the stars, roast marshmallows and sing campfire songs. Bless her heart, she kept up with all the news from back home with a subscription to The Macon Telegraph. It would arrive by mail, a few days later.
She kept the names of all the people she worked with in her scrapbook, like autographs from a high school yearbook. They were from everywhere — Wisconsin, Utah, Washington, Texas, Alabama, Illinois, California and Tennessee. She still keeps up with Doreen Staley, who was from Saginaw, Michigan, and now lives in Arizona.
There are photographs, too, faded black-and-white prints that document her summer of day hikes, fishing for trout and keeping those bears at a safe distance.
The snapshots were taken on her small camera, taken by a friend. There were no “selfies” or cellphones in 1955. She used the telephone in the cafeteria to call her parents collect. Sometimes it would take an hour to make the connection on an exchange that ran through Montana, down to Salt Lake City and on to Macon.
Donald Comer, who later became her husband, traveled with a group of friends to visit her. So did her parents, who arrived before Labor Day to drive her the 1,947 miles home in time for fall classes at the University of Georgia, where she was transferring for her junior year.
Harriet has returned to Yellowstone once, in 1980. Donald and their son, Hugh, went with her. The cafeteria had been torn down.
Wallace Stegner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author sometimes known as the dean of Western writers, once called our national parks the “best idea we ever had. Absolutely America, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.’’
There are 59 parks in 27 states, covering 52 million acres. Thanks in part to the highly publicized centennial Aug. 25, Yellowstone is among those experiencing an explosion of visitors this year. National attendance is expected to surpass last year’s record 307 million visitors.
I think back on some of the national parks I have had the opportunity to visit over the years, from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Everglades to the Grand Canyon.
There is no app for such wonder.
The public is invited to submit photographs taken at national parks for the display at the Ocmulgee National Monument. Images can be e-mailed to Angela_Bates@nps.gov by Aug. 20. There will be an open house to celebrate the birthday of the National Park Service on Thursday, Aug. 25, from 5-7 p.m.
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism, creative writing and storytelling at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears in The Telegraph on Sunday. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org