Last night, I dreamed that Norm Abram and Francis Ford Coppola were brothers, growing up together on a remote ranch somewhere in the US. I was watching a black and white film of their childhood, complete with a narrating voice-over.
First the setting: the high country desert, like where we used to go camping when I was a kid. On the valley floor, the sagebrush and Mormon tea create a knee-high haze. The film can't convey the fragrance, but I know it well enough to imagine it as I watch: sharp, spicy, resinous, with a tang of dust underneath it all. In the distance, I can see the hills rise up, separating this valley from the next (and the next, and the next...somehow I know this landscape goes on and on in a classic basin and range pattern). The hills are dark grey in the film, either from piñon pines or darker stone. I can't tell which; they're too far away.
The valley floor isn't perfectly flat - it undulates. There's a road running straight away from the camera, visible only in segments, hidden on the downslopes facing away from us. It's not the typical desert road, two tire tracks with stunted sagebrush between them; this one is a proper dirt road, graded and cleared of plants. Coming toward us, over the nearest rise, is the wreck of a Conestoga wagon. The desert has aged it, drying the wood and pitting it with decades of sandstorms. The hoops over the box body are rusted and bent, and only the last rags of greyed fabric cling to them.
One boy pulls the wagon by the yoke, and the other rides on the front of the box. They're nine or ten years old, no more, and look so similar that it's impossible to tell the elder from the younger, the filmmaker from the woodworker. Both are dressed in homespun clothes, rough-woven, rumpled. The textures are vivid and sharp in black and white. Despite the desert heat, neither has taken his shirt off, or seems to be sweating in the least.
"One day the boys found a wagon in the desert, and decided to go west like the pioneers. They travelled ten miles that day before walking back home. They left the wagon behind, just a little closer to the destination it was built for."
I sit forward in my seat, trying to identify that voice...
The next scene in the film follows Francis Ford Coppola as he rides a large tricycle along the same road, away from the camera this time. He's older, but the trike is scaled for an adult, and doesn't seem juvenile at all. Norm is not in view.
The tricycle has one flaw: the front wheel doesn't rotate freely on its axis. As Francis rides up the hill away from us, the wheel sticks once or twice, needing extra pedaling to keep it moving. The camera moves forward to follow the trike over the rise. Francis clearly thinks the speed he'll pick up on the downslope will free the wheel, make it move more smoothly.
It doesn't. Halfway down, the wheel freezes up completely. The entire tricycle flips, throwing Francis over the handlebars and face-first into the dirt. He lies there unmoving as the camera comes closer, past the still-spinning wheels of the upside-down tricycle. The boy's head and shoulders fill the image, hair tousled and dusty, shirt disarranged, the entire form too terribly still.
"Their parents rushed him to the hospital. Since he was going to be famous when he grew up, they were anxious that he wasn't too badly hurt. He spent days in the ward, with his mom and dad beside him every minute."
Now I recognize the voice, with its flat Boston accent. Norm Abram has been narrating this documentary. The film is in color now, showing him in the New Yankee Workshop. But instead of wooden furniture, he's working on a motorcycle. The camera zooms in on his hands, tightening a nut to hold some piece of flexible rubber over an engine part.
I woke up wondering if Norm Abram had used his mechanical skills to sabotage Francis Ford Coppola's tricycle when they were boys together, out of jealousy that Coppola would be so much more famous when they grew up.