Racing the Light at Dershem’s Corner

We were in the house on Greeley Chapel Road less than a week when they hung a traffic light at Dershem’s Corner.  Dad told of it when he came home from work that day.

“Did you see what they’ve put up at the corner?” he asked my mother as he met her in the kitchen, sounding more amused than annoyed.  “A traffic light.  Not just a flashing yellow one; a red-yellow-green, honest-to-God traffic light.”  I was in the front room, which was no distance at all from their conversation, the house was that small.

“That’s peculiar,” Mom replied, which always meant, “I’m confused.”

Dad went on, “Not a house or building of any kind on that corner.  Two pastures, an orchard, and a corn field.  And a traffic light.  What was wrong with the stop sign?”

“Do you suppose it’s because of that young couple and their baby who were killed last winter?”

“Who were they?  Just some poor transplants from West Virginia.  Not like they were the governor’s nephew or something.  And it’s not like other people have been killed there.”

“Not lately,” Mom said quietly.

“Hmmm?”

“A couple of my uncles were killed there when I was a little girl,” Mom recalled.  “That’s how it came to be called…”

“…Dershem’s Corner,” Dad sing-songed.  “Okay, like thirty, thirty-five years ago.  That doesn’t exactly make it a trend.”

“I suppose not,” said Mom.  “Maybe it’s just a bad intersection for accidents.  That corner does appear rather suddenly if you don’t know it’s there, and people do seem to go too fast on this road.”

On this road.  I had shortened it to Gree C Road, which Dad later took to mean Greasy Road, for some reason.  Our house sat midway along a flat, four-mile straight stretch without stop signs.  Two miles to the left out our driveway and you were at Dershem’s Corner, our usual direction whenever we went somewhere.  Two miles to the right, toward Allen-Auglaize County flatness and Midwest farming infinity, you came to the Erie Lackawanna Railroad tracks beside a little stream and a cemetery, where we would pick wild strawberries in the midsummer’s swelter.

Dad’s route to work took him to Dershem’s Corner for his wait at the new traffic light, across the broader, much busier State Highway 117, and four miles or so further on Greeley Chapel Road to the small factory where he worked, making some kind of airplane parts.  It wasn’t many days before he set a pattern of grumbling every time he came through the door from work.

“Light is red every time I hit it.  Every single time!”

“Well, the state road needs more time,” Mom answered vaguely.

“More time for what?  I sit there three or four minutes and I’ll be damned if more that five cars go by.”

“Please don’t run a red light, Wallace.  I don’t want you to get killed there too.”

The only regular occasions I had for riding with my father through that light came on Sundays when we went to and from church.  Sure enough, the stupid light might be green as it peeked through the elms overhanging the approach, but no matter how Dad timed his assault, the thing turned red in time to arrest his advance.  It was a veritable drawbridge lifted just before an invader could cross the moat.

“I swear someone sits in a house and watches me come up onto that light,” Dad began repeating as the days rolled on.

“I suppose they do,” Mom replied the first time he alleged this, not catching his drift.

“Someone has a button to press to change that light whenever they see me coming.”

At first Mom said: “They do not, Wallace. That’s ridiculous.”  On subsequent days she took to saying: “Which house, Wallace?  There’s no house near that intersection.”  Eventually she merely complained that she was tired of hearing it.

The traffic light became Dad’s overwhelming obsession.  But Dad had a surprise for him, whoever it was, wherever he sat, who had his thumb on a traffic light switch.  Dad bought a new car.

136yh-rear

I had wondered when he would do it for two reasons.  One, I had already concluded privately that that would be the way to break the spell of the traffic light, and two, Dad had promised me an incentive for moving out of Lima and into the countryside: I would inherit the black 1939 Chrysler that had served as our family car for ten years and had already been broken in for 15 years before that by Dad’s uncle, Homer Gettle, over in Fort Wayne.

At 14, I was not licensed to drive, but Dad had intimated, in a lighter moment, that he would let me learn by driving up and down Gree C Road.  “You mean right away?” I had asked, not ready to believe it.

“Sure,” he had answered, and spoke as well of using the lanes in Woodlawn Cemetery and Faurot Park when we could go off together for practice.

There was just one problem.  The Chrysler needed some work.  Nothing major, he had assured me.  But it wouldn’t be ready for me to take out onto the road until the problems were corrected.  I’ll say right here that it needed two things: some brake work and an adjustment to the throttle linkage on the carburetor.

I knew about the brakes.  Whenever we were out, Dad had to pump them a few times before we were confronted with any occasion to stop.  I understood, to a point, what this accomplished.  I had seen brake shoes and brake lines exposed on other vehicles.  Fluid was funny stuff.  That’s what I knew.

I was also aware of the linkage problem.  For months Dad often had to “kill the motor,” as he put it, which just meant turning off the key, and he’d coast to the side of the road, where he would raise the left side of the gull-wing hood and flip a short rod back down beside the carburetor because it “went around the eccentric.”   Then he could set out again as if nothing had happened, until it happened again.

Dad’s new used car was a ‘59 Chevy, two-tone baby poop.  Besides being twenty years newer and relieving us of the mechanical problems, this car had one additional advantage over the Chrysler, as I saw it: It was a station wagon.  The old Chrysler, a four-door sedan, stood six feet tall.  Two steel bars bracketed to the rain gutters made a roof rack.  U-bolted to this rack rose a covered plywood box, painted black like the car.  Inside it were the essentials for living in an extended family whose members were reliably unable to provide their own garden hoses, rope, copper tubing, lamp parts, and such.  Since Dad always kept a rake and sometimes other long-handled garden tools lashed to the lid of the box, the overall effect was that of a black armored car with a machine-gun nest on top, the rake handle nine feet off the ground and pointing frontward.

When the station wagon arrived, the stuff from the black box found a new home in a jumble behind the new car’s rear seat, while the rake found a new, lower perch on the Chevy’s luggage rack.  After that, the box lay empty atop the Chrysler.

The first few mornings with his new wheels Dad smugly rolled onto Gree C Road headed for work.  By the second week he was back to accusing someone of sitting in an upstairs bedroom of some house nowhere near the corner, with a finger on the switch to change the light as Dad approached.

The last I heard them speak of it, Mom suggested that Dad come home from work the long way some day, so that he could approach the intersection not by Greeley Chapel Road but by Route 117. Surely, if 117 was favored, then he would be too, she had reasoned.

+ + + +

I suppose Dennis Dershem’s name had passed my ears during the first few days in the new house. Mom was quietly excited to move to this stretch of road, where every house for miles was occupied by a Dershem or Sunderland or someone else connected with her ancestors.  So, for days, she enumerated her cousins, many of whom she hadn’t seen since childhood, even though they had never been more than ten miles away, and most of whose children she had never met.

Like me, Dennis was one of those children.  He was sixteen and a half when I met him but I had him by a few pounds and an inch or two.

It was late June.  School was out.  Dad was at work.  My little sister, Raelene, was at the next house up the road for the day.  Mom and my littler sister, Tammy, had ridden off with a carload of female relatives.

I was mature enough to stay home alone.  The Chrysler sat on a large patch of mown grass next to the long driveway.  I spent the early afternoon happily lying underneath the car with a toothbrush and a coffee can of gasoline, cleaning the grease from every inch of the undercarriage.  In two days I had polished the lower engine and suspension components this way, and now I was grooming the transmission housing as if it were going to a wedding.

I said “alone.”  Beside the car, his heaving chest too high to squeeze into any space larger than a culvert, lay our old Saint Bernard, Boner, (named by Raelene when she was too young to pronounce “Bernard”).

I was thin then, and scooted easily about on the cool, shaded grass beneath the great machine.  I had paused behind the transmission to regard a pair of exposed, inward-curving brake shoes poised to clamp onto a small drum on the driveshaft.  I pressed them to the drum and let them snap back to rest, agape.  A thin cable ran along the frame and its frayed end stopped just short of this pair of shoes.  Here, then, was my parking brake.  I mentally added it to my list of repairs, none of which I knew how to do myself.

Dennis appeared as a pair of Converse sneakers bracketed by a pair of spoked wheels somewhere near the front bumper.  I ignored him for a long time.  I wasn’t ready to meet kids.  Here was one on a bike, and I had my own car already, for crying out loud.

“This is a straight eight, ain’t it,” the sneakers said at last.  “New Yorker.  First year they made a New Yorker.”

I squeezed the parking brake shoes to meet the drum a couple more times and let them snap back, mostly in order to make some mechanical noise, before slithering out into the light.  I decided on a mildly smart-aleck approach, although it didn’t really describe me.  “What cousin are you?” I asked.

The kid looked hurt.  Then something in his countenance rose up to meet my toughness.  “You junkin’ this piece of tin?  Here, let me help you strip it,” he said and parked his bike.

“Hell, I ain’t junkin’ it.  Runs like new.  ‘Fact, my dad just sold it to me,” I claimed.

“You have your license?”  The kid helped himself to one hood latch and raised that side.

“Naw’chet,” I admitted grudgingly.  “You?”

“Didn’t pass the test yet.”

“You took it already?”

“Yeah.  I been sixteen since January.  I can drive, though.  Drove this road here since I was six or seven.  Cars, tractors, even trucks.  They don’t care how you really drive on the test.  They just want to see how you can act like a old lady behind the wheel.  I didn’t catch onto it the first time.  Next time I’ll know what they want.  Stop way back. Turn your head way left and way right like maybe a herd of cows is s’posed to stampede by any minute.  Proceed with caution.  Drive like you left on Saturday to get across the street to church on Sunday.”

He had me grinning.  “You really are sixteen,” I accepted.

“Sure.  You?”

“Almost fifteen,” I exaggerated.  I was really fourteen and one third.  And I reflected that once you hit sixteen you didn’t have to think in age fractions any more.

“What’s your name?” he asked me at last.  He had established his superiority in years, so was now empowered to demand that I reveal my identity.  Until we knew our rank, neither of us could ask.  He was also empowered to open the driver’s door and slide in behind the wheel.

“Larry.  Larry Miller,” I said.

“Okay, Larry Larry Miller.  I’m Dennis Henry Dershem.”

I made some comment about too many Dershems to keep track of them all.

“I’m the only one you’ll ever really need to know.  Don’t bother with the rest.  I can tell you all about ‘em sometime.  Most of ‘em are just simple.  Work too hard but don’t know nothin’ and don’t have nothin’ to show for it.  Lived out here all their lives.  Me too.  Nobody interesting to hang out with, except a couple of the girls are pretty nice if you know what I mean.”

I didn’t know.  “You mean our girl cousins?”

“Oh, yeah.  We’re cousins, ain’t we.  Yeah, they’re our cousins.”

“Whadja mean, ‘pretty nice?’” I asked, leaning on the door frame.  This was getting somewhere, although if it was going in the direction I suspected, it was alien territory for me.

“Just nice to look at and stuff like that,” Dennis frowned at me from inside the car, then, as if disgusted, he added: “We don’t mess around.”

“Good, ‘cause I have sisters,” I said lamely, not wanting to elaborate.  I didn’t want this kid, cousin or not, to think about them in some funny ways, either.

He seemed to forget the subject.  Instead, he gave me a raised-eyebrow look that spoke of mischief.  With a half grin, he asked: “You have a key to this thing?”

“Nope.  Not yet.”

“I seen you drive up in this here car when you moved in.  Lotta cars, so I was hopin’ this was yours.  I like the old ones.”

“What kind do you have?”

“I’m gettin’ our ‘51 Studebaker pickup when I get my license.”  I was at least even with him here.  I wasn’t “getting” this car.  I already had it.

“No key, huh?” Dennis mumbled, still in the driver’s seat.  He stiffened to reach into a pocket of his jeans.  The thing he held up looked like a pair of wires with alligator clips on every end.  “Do you know how to hot-wire a car?”

Part of me leapt with excitement.  Part of me shuddered in panic.  Since I hadn’t answered, he went on: “It’s easy,” and he reversed himself on the seat, head toward the pedals and feet in the air.

“Yeah, well, I don’t really have, uh, permission to drive this yet.  Besides, it has some, you know, small problems.”

“I can check ‘em out,” he said, reversing ends once again.

The starter button stuck out from the dash.  Dennis pumped the gas, floored the clutch, and with an exaggerated gesture, pushed and held the chrome button.  The Chrysler replied immediately with the contented hum of leashed power.

I ran around to the passenger side and jumped in.  It was in no way my intention that the car actually move an inch from where it sat, but hearing it run for the first time under my authority made me flush with eagerness.

Holding the clutch down, my cousin put the column-mounted shifter through the three forward and one reverse positions several times over.  He pressed in the large knob under the dash marked OD, and then pulled it back out.  This was the only thing he seemed unsure of.  “You leave it in overdrive all the time?”

“Yep,” I said, unsure of myself.  I recalled something Dad had said about it going into overdrive by itself when it needs to — if the knob is out, I assumed.

Dennis shoved the knob in.  “No sense in wasting it,” he said.  “Whatja say was wrong with it?” he then asked.

“Uh, the carb linkage sticks –”

Dennis revved the engine high and let go the gas.  It calmed right back to a sweet idle.  He did it again, the engine complying once more, then just said: “Yeah?”

“And the brakes are weak.”

“You just pump them up,” Dennis said, and did so.  I watched as the pedal started low and then responded with shorter strokes.  Dennis stood on it for a moment to show that it was hard.

“What else?”

“The parking brake is unhooked.”

“Where’re we fixin’ to park that we need a brake?”

“Oh, okay,” I said.

Then he pulled it smoothly into first and let the clutch out very professionally.  We were pointed toward the back field, away from the road, so I remained silent as we crunched onto the driveway and rolled past the house.

Dennis let the car make a couple of slow circles in the barnyard behind the house while he rolled down his window.  Then he spun the wheel with ease and pointed us in the direction of the road.  Boner was trotting along my side, pleading to go whithersoever we might be headed.  I stepped onto the running board, threw open the rear suicide door, and slammed it after the big oaf lolled in.

The car turned right, onto the pavement, and accelerated so gradually it felt like a train pulling out of a station.  I rolled my window down and actually relaxed as I peered over at my distant cousin.  He was fiddling with the few switches and buttons that protruded from the warped and buckled white plastic veneer that coated the metal instrument panel.  Then he threw me a reassuring grin.  Boner laid his heavy chin onto the back of my seat and sniffed the stirred air.

Dennis began explaining all.  I let him feel superior and just said “Oh,” over and over.  He thought the radio, huge and brown and ‘30s-looking, was the neatest part.  Even back then they had push buttons to set the stations.  He even knew that the radio antenna ran beneath the running board.

Then he showed me about shifting.  This I already knew, too, but it didn’t hurt to hear it analyzed so thoroughly by a truly good teacher.

Over the course of four or five minutes we lazily covered the couple miles to the single-track railroad crossing.  Dennis let the Chrysler roll to a stop directly over the main line.

“What are you doing?” I asked, annoyed, not alarmed.

Squinting up the rails, he said: “Look.  You can see halfway to Indiana one way.”

“Halfway to Jupiter the other way,” I added, agreeable, and was about to gently urge that we not wait until a headlight appeared in either direction when Dennis backed into the maintenance road alongside the tracks and turned us back toward home.

“Let’s give it a little try-out,” he suggested, picking up speed in first.

As I uttered: “Uh…” he knifed into second and pressed the gas.  The flat-head straight eight had reserves I had never seen my father use.  Boner, his massive head resting between our shoulders, began panting.  I noticed that, as Dennis shifted into third, he also pulled out the overdrive knob.  The flat, straight road ahead was clear and quiet for at least a mile.

We gradually picked up speed until Dennis stomped the gas as hard as he could, his back stiff against the seat.  The car glided forward as if we’d changed gears once more.

My cousin-teacher-pal grinned at me and then let off the gas — only this time the pedal didn’t rise from the floor in response.

The car still accelerated.  Glancing at me, Dennis exaggerated the act of lifting his foot from the pedal, but the car didn’t take the hint.  We both peered straight ahead.  Dennis muttered some curse.  Boner began a faint whine.

Dennis next began calmly pumping the brake.  Each push sank deeper toward the floor until the brake pedal, as the gas pedal beside it, refused to come back up at all.

“Quick!  Hold the wheel!” Dennis ordered.  As soon as I reached toward it he let go and dove to the floor.  While he tugged the gas pedal, I kept us on the center of the road, where the painted line would be if this were an important highway.  Within a couple seconds, at Dennis’s tugging, the pedal separated from the rod that connected it to the linkage.

Flipping onto his back, on the floor, Dennis glared up at me wide-eyed.  His head lay on the dead brake pedal, his feet pressed into the back of his seat.  Back-handed, over one shoulder, he pressed the clutch.  The engine, freed from the work of propelling the car, screamed in agony.  Boner howled.

“Let it out!  Let it out!  You’ll blow the engine!” I yelled.

Dennis was already letting go in order to fumble with the wiring behind the dash.  Dad’s trick of turning off the key wouldn’t help at this point — no key.  He yanked some wires out and made some sparks.  The radio hissed.  Something popped like a dropped light bulb.  But nothing changed.

Fields whisked past like sample house lots — wheat, corn, wheat, clover, oats, wheat — as fast as you could say the words, which, frankly, it wouldn’t have occurred to you to do.  Occasional trees shot past us like close-set fence posts on either side, doing that rapid wum-wum-wum that trees make when they rush past.  The air inside the car was a hurricane.  The two or three houses before ours, along the road, weren’t even blurs.  I did recognize the green lawn of our house looming on our left, but before I could think of anything, like BLOW THE HORN, it was gone.  (I thought I saw a red car in the driveway, way up by the house.  That would be Mom and Tammy being dropped off.  That would also mean Dad should be home soon as well.)

With Dennis still operating behind the dash, yanking his hand back now and then, and cursing, I held the wheel true.  I had no idea how fast we were going — I doubted, in a flicker of lucidity, whether anyone standing in our driveway even would have realized that a car had sped past — but when I glanced at the speedometer for the first time I felt the loss of presence that always accompanies shock.  It was stuck on the maximum, but I was too stupefied to register what that was.  A hundred?  A hundred twenty??

Just beyond our house came a set of three minor dips in the road.  Whenever he had the family along, Dad liked to take these at about fifty, giving us all a triple dose of that momentary sense of weightlessness that kids love and mothers disapprove.  I knew those dips well.  At fifty they were just over three seconds apart.

Dennis had just hauled himself upright when we topped the first one.  As we fought for the wheel — Dennis leaving the steering to me and only trying to steady himself with it — I counted one second to the next and one more to the third bump.  The car’s suspension bottomed out on each one but there was no graceful sense of weightlessness in the series. The car remained a level, shuddering projectile.

As we took the bumps I lost some control of the steering while Dennis’s chest slammed helplessly against the wheel.  He seized it first by the cast-metal horn ring and pulled back, pilot-fashion, breaking the ring right off. Then he leaned into the wheel with terror in his eyes and took over once more.  He held us on course.

My mind has always been good at math.  Three seconds between dips at fifty meant one second apart at a hundred-fifty.  Still the old Chrysler seemed to be gaining.  And at a sedate rate of a mile a minute it would take two minutes to cover the straightaway from our driveway to Dershem’s Corner.  At a hundred fifty, we would cover one mile in something like twenty-four seconds, or two miles in — something less than a minute!

As we closed the distance on the Corner, the car’s suspension, or drive train, or entire body — it would never again matter — began to rumble violently at the strain on all systems.  Something vibrated.  Then something else in sympathy.  Then things began to fly off in rapid succession: hubcaps, which were discovered months later, the after-market rear-view mirrors, and the wide wooden lid to the black box above us.

Nevertheless, our velocity climbed.

There wasn’t time for thought.  It’s true that a few images bulleted through my mind as fast as the minor features passing along the roadside, each vision representing an option, I suppose, but each with a built-in objection: Jump out — but, then, how do you tuck and tumble at that speed, and what of poor Boner?  Turn the wheel slowly and take us into a field — but the ditch was too deep and we’d roll over.  Step on the clutch and let the engine blow, but what kind of explosion would that make in our faces?

As if to accentuate our predicament, Dennis jerked uselessly at the parking brake handle.  It locked in the “up” position — holding nothing. He tromped one more time on the flaccid brake pedal…

Then time ran out.

A line of elms stood sentry on each side of the road just before the new, improved, inclined approach to the state highway intersection. As the elms, which up to now had obscured any view of the traffic light itself, rushed closer, I saw a glint of red through the branches.  In another second we zoomed under the arch of high branches like an experimental fast train entering a tunnel.  In a half second, wum-wum-wum-wum-wum-wum, we were out the other end of the tunnel, approaching Mach-point-3.  Boner was licking my ear, but it was more his shrill whine that bothered me, so I slunk down in my seat and let my eyes roll skyward.

When we hit the long, steep grade to meet the edge of Route 117 it felt as if we’d taken a giant speed bump.  Already lying low in my seat I saw the traffic light pass inches above the windshield — and it was green!  Then came the percussive crash of traffic light meeting gun turret.  And that’s all I remember until all had become still once again.

Dad would later tell how he had taken Mom’s advice and had come by way of 117 in order to approach the intersection that afternoon from a different direction.  Another car, a pokey ’54 Rambler, blocked his way or he’s sure he could have beat the yellow light and lunged around the corner onto Greasy Road, bound for home, before it gave us the green.  That Mom’s prayers were answered and he was prevented from racing the light became the remaining bit of evidence I needed for the existence of a benevolent God.  Instead, he coasted to a stop behind the obstructing vehicle and stared at the yellow lens giving way to the red one, grinning at the irony of the curse that was still upon him.

He would then tell how the filament in the red light facing him had barely begun to glow when a lumpy, black fuselage without wings, resembling a 1939 Chrysler, with the dog, Boner, facing him and pleading at the rear window, rocketed beneath the light, its wheels fully eight feet off the ground and still ascending.

The meeting of the plywood box with the gently-swaying traffic signal was the bonus in the show, the sort of special effect they don’t print on the ticket or even announce in the pre-show publicity.  Only the lucky seat-holders find out about it.

Plywood chunks fluttered far and wide while the sheered metal jacket of the signal spun skyward.  Severed utility wires completed the performance with a shower of sparks.  It was practically a two-ring circus, for if the audience were watching the sparks, they were missing our finale.

Of course, none of this passed through Dad’s mind as we were leaping the highway.  The instant passed too quickly, and Dad, for the moment, was dumbstruck.

The driver in the stopped car ahead of Dad’s opened his door and stepped onto the pavement in order to peer after us over the roof of his Rambler, too late to truly catch our descent.  Dad didn’t wait another second but jerked his wheel to the right, gunned it, passed on the berm, then cornered sharply right to follow us onto Greasy Road.  And greasy it had become.

Dad missed our touchdown, well beyond the improved grade on Greeley Chapel Road’s opposite approach to the highway.  That’s good, although he heard it as he was breaking free of the traffic.  What he missed was the violent annihilation of one mighty automobile which had served as his family car for ten years; one classic car that had promised to serve as my prize for many more to come.

There was nothing to salvage.  Of course.  By the evidence, as soon as the rear tires were relieved of the pavement’s resistance, the motor threw a rod which jackknifed the crank which burst the oil pan.  The weight of the engine pulled the front of the car downward, permitting, we suspect, a neat four-point landing.  All four wheels broke clean away upon impact.  The front bumper, meanwhile, turned under and scraped away the oil pan, the battery under the driver’s seat, pipes, shocks, drive shaft, differential, and gas tank before then shearing off the rear bumper.  These and all their mounting hardware strewed the roadway in a slurry of engine oil and rear-end grease and water.

The two big, pontoon-like front fenders fanned outward to become the wings on a snowplow, rotating the car a hundred eighty degrees to face Route 117 again, as if the hulk were contemplating another aerial assault on the light.  While we were airborne, the bi-fold hood turned into a crow taking flight, only to collapse and tumble into an orchard.  One rear door flopped open on the landing, the upper hinge apparently a victim of fatigue.

Dennis’s face and chest did a number on the steering wheel for the second time.  He spent seven weeks in the hospital, preparing for a rigorous court appearance.  I broke a hip, lying, as I was, low in the seat and below the dash.  I was out in ten days, wondering how I had escaped breaking my back as well.  As I see it, my twenty-percent hearing loss was a consequence of the wheel-less car’s screeching on pavement and the cannon-like sound of the near-empty gas tank exploding belatedly when it struck pavement after performing its own independent quick flip in the air.

Dad parked well back from the menacing wreckage and watched as Boner exited lamely from the stilled, dark, mechanical carcass.  The big dog tried to run but dropped at the edge of the road, whined and tried again.  And dropped again.  We couldn’t afford vets in those days, but he healed.  Ever afterward, when he needed to be taken somewhere, we would have to tackle him and drag him into a waiting car.

In the days and weeks that followed Dad had little to say about the affair.  Nothing he could say was anything but obvious.  “The next car you own will be the one you earn yourself.”  I heard that once.  And once I heard him mutter in measured syllables: “One hundred sixty-five miles an hour!”

While I was still in the hospital, the three or so other witnesses who had comprised our audience made urgent inquiries with my parents and Dennis’s.  Then they went about their lives, the way people do who have been present at other incredible events.  I don’t mean events like plane crashes, which aren’t incredible, just spectacular.  I mean something incredible, like… like a three-ton car lifting off and taking kamikaze flight to destroy an offending traffic light.

+ + + +

Dad seemed mostly pleased in one small way.  For nearly a month, after the flight of the New Yorker, a stop sign filled in for the traffic light, and that suited him fine.  Then the light was replaced, only this time — (What?  Did they think the moment would ever be repeated?) — they hung it a good twenty feet above the intersection instead of the standard fourteen or so.

From then on Dad had one green light after another when he approached that corner.  My mother said it was because he had learned to time them and to come up onto the intersection more casually than before.

By summer’s end the state settled on a simple warning signal, flashing yellow for the state road and red for Greeley Chapel Road.  A one-paragraph blurb in the Lima News noted the change.  It didn’t mention our accident but said the change had been mandated in order to discourage those motorists who might otherwise be tempted to race the light.


This story appears in the short story collection Tales to Harm Your Mind by David A. Woodbury. ©1999, all rights reserved.

For a photo of some actual Dershem family members, see the article, Fading Photographs, at this site.

Eddie

I was hired by the Great Northern Paper Company in the mid-1970s and started out as a spare worker in the wood room, grinder room, and paper room.  In the mid-1980s the company had added a desk in the hallway between two other rooms in the personnel suite, and I had my first “office” as a personnel guy. In this period, I handled workers’ comp issues and minor complaints, among other assignments.  I never knew from day to day who might walk up to me with a question or request.

Eddie appeared before me at 8 a.m. one Tuesday morning after the had finished the 12-8 midnight shift.  I forget now what part of the mill he was working in.  I was just dropping a load of homework onto my desk, (in management you have homework), and I told him I had to go to a meeting right away.  Knowing that his schedule would be the same the next night and that he would be leaving again at 8 a.m., and also that he had a long drive home, I said, How about same time tomorrow?

Eddie smiled and said, Sure.  He went home and I went to my meeting.

Eddie is his real name.  I owe him that much.  He was a few years younger than I.  I was not well-acquainted with him, but he had certain distinctive features and I knew him to see him.  I realized that he lived about an hour a way, in a town outside Bangor.  He came from a large extended family, and his surname — family name — is well-known in that town.

Eddie was not a troublemaker and did not have a workers’ comp issue, so he was not a frequent visitor to the personnel offices.  He was a handsome young man, dark-haired and slight of build, careful, polite, and well-liked.  That much I already knew, and really nothing more.

The next morning, just before 8 a.m., I turned from Granite Street to drive into the parking lot at the mill.  Eddie’s car was approaching the stop sign before leaving the parking lot with several more cars behind his.  Our drivers’ doors came alongside each other right between the gateposts, but our windows were rolled up.  I gave him a quizzical look and put one hand up to emphasize a shrug.  He smiled, waved, and drove on out the gate.

I went to my desk and started my Wednesday duties.  Just before lunchtime a personnel assistant came over to tell me that Eddie had gone home that morning and blown his brains out.

This struck me very hard, and it remains one of the defining moments of my lifetime.  I was in my early thirties, gaining experience and confidence, enjoying life and good health.  There was nothing then nor is there anything now in my constitution that would identify with the impulse to destroy myself.  I would not have expected it of anyone else, although if I had listened to him when he first asked, I might have learned something of his anguish and I might have understood.

If I had listened… I don’t remember what the meeting was about that I went to instead, most likely a grievance in the first step, the method, according to the labor agreement (union contract), by which complaints were brought before management.  First step grievances were the most common type of meeting I attended in that position.

I still don’t know how to tell whether a life is at stake when someone asks: Can I talk to you?

I do know that is why I now stop and try to hear the message most of the time when someone speaks to me.  As a male, I am still a lousy listener, but I am attuned to the silent alarm in someone’s words the way I am sensitive to the hint of wood smoke on a summer breeze.

It was not long after Eddie died that Great Northern upgraded its Employee Assistance Program from one full day a week to three days, and soon afterward to five days a week — a full-time counselor stationed in downtown Millinocket at the company’s expense, not to hear grievances but to hear about personal trouble.  I participated in setting that up, although it was scaled back only a few years later as ownership of the company changed hands again and again.  One day in my role with the personnel department, and at the request of the EAP counselor, I participated in an intervention at the home of a GNP employee who actually handed me the revolver that he was intending to use on himself.  That helped resolve my sense of ineffectiveness after failing Eddie, but it didn’t bring him back.

I never learned what might have driven Eddie to do it.  I never spoke with a member of his family afterward or read about it anywhere.  Gossip moved freely through the mill, but his name never came up after he was gone.

What happened between Eddie and me is not identical, but hauntingly similar, to something that happened in my first year of college at the University of Cincinnati.  I had left the cafeteria one evening and was walking back to the dorm.  It was about 6 p.m. and growing dusky.  A girl I knew, Carol, was approaching alone.  We paused when we met, and she asked me what was on the menu.  I told her.  She thought about it, said it didn’t sound very interesting, and then she turned down the lane leading to the busy street that ran past the campus.  The next day we learned that, moments after I last saw her, she had been forced into a car at the nearby intersection, and her body had been dumped in a nearby park.  (The killer was later caught.)

I’ve always praised cafeteria food since then.

As a personnel guy, I participated in cleaning out employees’ lockers after they abandoned them.  A week or so after his death, I accompanied the mill guard who went to empty Eddie’s locker.  Most lockers were left with shoe fossils in the bottom covered with piles of stinky clothes, a sweat-stiffened baseball cap on a hook with a beaten hard hat over it, pinups and years-old calendars on the inside of the door, spilled shaving goo on the shelf above, sometimes some purloined mill equipment standing awkwardly against the back of the space.  Nothing surprising jumped out of Eddie’s locker at us.  But the guard and I stood there for a long interval, just regarding it with respect.  Eddie’s did not have the usual disgusting inventory.  There were clean clothes neatly folded in the bottom, including bright white T-shirts.  There was shower gear arranged on the top shelf in an orderly manner, a clean soap dish with a handful of small change in it, a belt hanging from a hook.  There might have been more, but that gives the general impression; it was the cleanest locker we had ever seen.  The things he had left behind we bagged and gave to someone higher up, who, we assume, passed them on to his family.

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I know I am not responsible for Eddie’s death.  I’ve been absolved of that.  And if I had taken the time to hear him out that Tuesday morning, I might not have prevented his death.  Maybe he just wanted change for a dollar or had lost the key to his locker.  But it affected my character and it changed the way I do some things.  If sharing it in this way gives anyone else the nudge to pause and listen, to a friend, a child, a co-worker, or, especially, to someone we are less well-acquainted with but who asks for an ear, then maybe Eddie can help save a life these many years after his own ended so inexplicably.

How Miss Plover Handled Boxer Poop

Miss Plover continued lecturing as she circled the classroom on pointy little legs that held up a stout body.  “Pimwe wanted to go hunting eggs with his mother and his sister, but why couldn’t he?”  We listened for the answer.  Stevie Whickens and I were the last two fourth graders in the last two seats in the Row Five — next to the sets of shelves mounted over the clattering heaters and under the first-floor windows.

A few seconds went by before Stevie raised his hand and, unbidden, asked, “Can I go to the toilet?” — which Miss Plover answered with a glare, interrupted, as she were, in reliving her life with Pimwe, the pre-historic American Indian boy, (maybe as his sister), I wasn’t sure.  She broke off her own reverie, momentarily, and answered Stevie with a question: “Is that the way we ask, Steven? What is it that you really want?”

“I just want to get cooled off,” Stevie answered truthfully.

“I think we all would like that, wouldn’t we, class?”

The class, including Stevie and I, mumbled acknowledgment.  I glanced outside toward the playground, not wanting to appear too anxious to be anywhere else, but wanting it just the same.  My glance was too long, though, because, as Miss Plover was circling and asking about Pimwe’s wish to go egg hunting, I missed the fact that she was directing the question at me.

“David?”

I spun around on my smooth, hardwood seat, expecting to see her abreast of Row One, for I knew she had continued circumnavigating the room.  Instead, she was now nearly directly behind us all, her voice thrown by the maze of free-standing wall panels in the rear corners of the classroom.  I spun further as she continued to prowl.

“I want to get cooled off too,” I answered, reversing direction in order to face her when she shortly came alongside my desk.

“Why couldn’t Pimwe accompany his mother and sister?”  Miss Plover bore down on me from behind, then placed her bejeweled hand on the back of my seat, one protruding diamond digging into my shoulder blade.  Stevie was turned full around, facing me expectantly.  Miss Plover widened her eyes at him, which meant “Face front!”  He did.

Why couldn’t Pimwe go egging with the women?  I thought of my mother and sisters, and of the things they sometimes went off to do together.  I could never imagine wanting to go.  I thought of my dad, scraping and hammering and sometimes cussing in the basement night after night, and I thought, That’s where I’d rather be.  Sometimes, when he occasionally had a bottle open and didn’t see, I’d get to sniff his beer.  At other times I’d learn a verse of a sea chantey.

I could see why Pimwe might want to stay home, but I couldn’t guess why he was made to stay home.  I shrugged.  Miss Plover left my side and, turning her back on the class, leaned far over the shelves covering the heater.  She grasped a window handle with a glittering hand, turned it, and yanked the pane inward on its lower hinge pins.  As she leaned, Stevie shot a glance up the backs of her legs and rolled his eyes toward me after I’d seen where his eyes had been.

It was a “Ha-cha-cha!” look that he gave me, for neither of us at age ten was interested in the upper thighs of a forty-something sausage like Miss Plover.

The teacher missed his signal altogether.  She must have, because she never let anything pass without at least a silent critique.

She continued her tour around the room.  “Sylvia?” she asked, meaning to insult me, her second brightest student — er, pupil, as she called each of us — by making her brightest pupil show me up.

Sylvia answered something which I have long since forgotten, but it had been correct.  I didn’t even look at her.  But I smelled her, two seats up and two rows over.  Sylvia usually smelled like pears, which was and still is my second most-hated fruit.  If anything more continued coming out of Miss Plover’s mouth I wasn’t aware of it for a couple of minutes, and then, in front of me, Stevie began to shiver.

I don’t know how I understood it then, but it was clear that Miss Plover had calculated this result.  For it was late March, 1961, on the eastern plains of the upper Midwest, in a school with some sort of centralized heating system that wasn’t turned off until May and could be regulated only by precise use — and not overuse — of open windows.

Miss Plover was probably a very good teacher, one like we need more of today.  A very good disciplinarian she certainly was, but also an effective marshal of ten-year-olds, a sternly even-tempered lady, and, in fact, a friend and confidant to a few pupils who truly needed her for that, for instance, Cheryl, who cried a lot.

So Stevie was shivering, and I, closest to the window but dressed warmer than he, was amused but also growing alarmed that it could become cold enough to affect me, too.  I darted furtive looks at the open window, estimating whether I could find a way surreptitiously to shut it part way.  One of these glances caught a movement on the gravel playground.  A large, yellow-brown dog, short-haired and with a pushed-in face, was angling purposefully toward the once-grassy, now-muddy berm around the building. Its sideways gait reminded me how stupid dogs are, especially any with an ugly nose and no tail.  The dog paused only a second or two to raise its head and probe the fecund, moist air with a crumpled black nose, as it identified the people sounds from the classroom window.

I followed all of this in my excellent peripheral vision while holding Miss Plover’s gaze, her eyes glued to mine, over a period of several long seconds.  She was still holding forth about Pimwe, the loincloth-covered boy our age who didn’t have to attend school because eight hundred years ago they had no schools in America.

I wondered whether I’d care to trade my school for a loincloth.  I rather doubted it.  My imagination conjured a scene with Stevie and me in loincloths, showing our butts from the side and risking even more exposure in the crisp March wind, standing barefoot on the gravely school playground but with the building totally vanished, and with Cheryl and Sylvia and half a dozen other girls facing us and snickering.  Of course, they all wore the chest-covering, knee-length leather dresses, albeit sleeveless and unadorned, that were depicted in our book.  If they too were made to wear loincloths, that would have evened things up a bit.  They probably would never come outside, then, because… well, because I couldn’t quite picture Sylvia that close to naked.  Not when I was ten, anyway.  By eighth grade I was much better at it, and I even tried pears just once that year.

Finally Miss Plover released me and locked onto Larry, across the room.  That’s when the first hint of a disturbing odor wafted under my nose.  I must have been first in the room to smell it, and I turned automatically toward the window, uttering “Unh!”

“Miss Plover!” I went on impulsively, cutting her off in what amounted to an unforgivable faux pas.  “Can we clo…?”

“Enh! Dog poop!” Stevie interjected too loudly.

The class broke up, some laughing, some sucking in breath as if offended, and every pupil present looking all about and then at Miss Plover to see what she’d do to control this outburst.

“Yes!” said the teacher pleasantly but more loudly than anyone else.  “Yes, it is!  But we have a more polite way to refer to something even as unpleasant as that.”

By this time I was on my feet and making for the window.

“David, leave the window alone!” said Miss Plover, but not quite so I believed she meant it, I guess.  I kept on.  And then the voice of authority spoke: “David! Leave the window open.  We need the air.  You and Steven may go to the boys’ room and get the supplies you’ll need to go outside the classroom and clean up the feces.  While you’re gone, we’ll finish our social studies lesson and you can both stay after school to learn what we have covered.”

I had lived since September in awe and admiration of Stevie Whickens.  He had a derisive laugh that stung you at first and then included you almost immediately afterward.  He was the first with the one liners.  A pretty good pupil, and sickeningly polite sometimes, he was never caught (by the wrong people) making those sly comments of his under his breath.  He was lithe and quick, the best over-the-fence kicker in kickball, and the only one who could completely climb the elm tree on the corner of the school property.

But Stevie’s greatest talent was the ability to tuck the tip of his tongue behind his upper incisors and spit, at will, from underneath it, a silent, fine, powerful jet of saliva.  I once saw him nail a fly with it in the air, I swear!

Until this day I had always suspected that Stevie simply tolerated me.  The acknowledged class clown, he could chose his friends.  He seldom sought me out directly, but never objected to my presence.  I was always honored to be in his company, and I considered it an enviable distinction to be in the seat next after his in class.

The two of us exited the classroom by the rear door, denying the others the opportunity to stare at us as we left.  In the boys’ room Stevie was nearly in tears at the prospect ahead.  Neither of us owned a dog, but it was my own experience that I always owned the kind of shoes that had radar for finding the freshest dog droppings.  “I know I’m going to throw up,” he told me, giving me a thrill I had not known before, that is, being brought thus into his confidence at such a point of weakness.

“Don’t let them hear you through the open window,” I said in all seriousness, but that made him laugh.  We collected wads and wads of toilet paper, then headed outside without jackets.  The chill made us jittery.  And, both apparently moved by the same instinct, we crouched as one alongside the building, moving toward the pile of poop, in order to avoid having our heads bobbing along next to all the classroom windows, especially since at least one portal for each room was open.

Ours was the last room before the corner of the building, and as we slowed, heads bowed, approaching our bounden duty, a baritone voice boomed “Boys!”

We both popped up, and Stevie was the first to see the impending disaster.  “Mister Fitzsimmons!  No!” he cried.  But it was too late.  The principal had advanced toward us and placed one maroon wingtip shoe in the unbelievably large, gooey, orange-brown, still-steaming pile.

Apparently Miss Plover had closed the window to us before we’d made it outside, so when we reeled on it to plead for her assistance, all we could see was a reflection of neighboring houses, overhead wires, parked cars, and our three selves.  That single pane cut off all sight and sound within.

Mister Fitzsimmons evidently realized that he had the same sort of shoes as mine, for before his foot had quite flattened the pile he stepped back and looked from us to it and back again.  Even though the window was closed, he seemed to get the picture.  He had really released the full stink, too, causing all three of us to gag.

The principal leaned against the building and made us use our toilet paper to clean his shoe, aided by water from a nearby puddle.  He let us drop the paper, bit by bit, to the ground as we used it on the shoe.  Then he led us inside and provided us with a flat shovel.  “When you’ve finished, I’ll see you in my office,” he declared and turned us loose.

We didn’t know what to do with it once we’d scooped the smear, plus the wadded paper and a great deal of mud and gravel into the shovel, so, with Stevie at the outer end of the handle and I next to the load, we carried it back into the boys’ room and let the whole mess slide into a toilet.  I flushed, and we rinsed the blade of the shovel in the toilet with a couple more flushes, which took all but the heaviest gravel down… down to hell, for all I knew.  Next we tried wiping the blade dry with toilet paper, but it remained stubbornly wet.  We were unsure what to do after that.

I guess it was one especially pulpy handful of sopping toilet paper that gave me the idea, but, with all else accomplished, I tossed the mass hard, straight up, and it stuck to the high concrete ceiling with a “Slurp!” Before we knew what came over us we were both standing at the sink, soaking wads of toilet paper in the steadily running water and bombing the ceiling with pulp.

This must have gone on for only two or three minutes.  We may have succeeded in landing twenty or so blobs on the ceiling in that time.  The running water may have echoed a bit loudly.  We may have been laughing, because, as he flung thick globs skyward, Stevie was saying: “We have to hurry back and see what happened to Pimwee-wee! Wim-wee-wee-pee-pee!” and so on.

The shovel was propped against the door, for no reason at all, but it made an awful clang, and the door an awful wobbling sound after both hit the wall together when Mister Fitzsimmons burst in.  My last bomb must have been under-propelled in mid-launch by the terrorizing intrusion, for it didn’t hold and instead came heavily to the floor in a sort of reverse “prulS!”

I remember watching Mister Fitzsimmons’s face go from us to the ceiling, redden, come back to us, then turn to the shovel lying crazily across the floor.  When he bent to pick it up I seriously considered trying to escape past him, for I was convinced that if I didn’t, the blade of that long-handled implement was going to land against the back of my head.  Stevie gripped my arm and held me behind him like a farmer shielding his wife from Indians.

I remember the highly-polished, undulating, green and white tile floor that passed slowly before my downcast eyes as Stevie and I were escorted to the office.  I remember watching as Stevie was met by his mother in the office not long afterward.  She was a fancy woman, who cast an accusing scowl at me before she led her son away.  He cast me a grin that said, We had us some fun, eh?

My mother taught school, so I sat in the office, on the cold, slippery, navy blue, cracked leather of an institutional couch for at least two hours with nothing to do but look at the wood grain of the high desks before me.  My mother was not pleased to be diverted in her after-school routine but said little as we made for home.  She commented, though, that she and my sister had been thinking of going out to get some eggs and some decorating supplies, in order to make Easter eggs, and I brightened when she said they originally thought I might like to go along.  Under the circumstances, though, she continued, I would not be allowed to leave the house until we had discussed my school behavior after supper.  I was left to stay home with Grandma and the little kids while Mom and Ann made the trip to get… to get eggs.

This story appears in the short story collection Tales to Harm Your Mind by David A. Woodbury. ©1999, all rights reserved.

Message in a Bottle

img_4015Let’s go back.  Who remembers the days before the returnable container law?  A little research shows that the Maine legislature passed the act to require a five-cent deposit on beverage containers in 1976.

Before that, a teenager with a .22 rifle could pass a summer afternoon walking a country road, shooting bottles in the ditch.  If we went in pairs, we might set them onto rocks and use them more practically for target practice.  Cans were a little less practical.  A .22 bullet would sometimes pierce the can without so much as disturbing its equilibrium – you had to walk right up to it to see whether it had even taken a hit.  A bottle, on the other hand, gave a satisfying explosion.

Plastic containers were still a few years off when I used to walk the roads reducing glass containers to inconspicuous fragments.  The plastic bottles you can still shoot that don’t cost you your deposit are milk containers right down to the single-serving 16-ounce size.  You don’t lose your nickel because there is no deposit.  For this reason, single-serving chocolate milk containers in Number 2 plastic can still be found in ditches.  No one wants to pick them up.  But they are unsatisfactory as targets unless you fill them first with ditch water before setting them onto rocks or fence posts.  With water in them they don’t blow down, and a hit gives you a tell-tale stream of water from the holes.  (Caution: Firearms safety dictates that you never shoot a target resting on or near a rock.  I now observe this safety rule, but in my early days of shooting I was much more confident of my marksmanship.)

Maybe I’m the reason there is a bottle law.  Maybe some state senator’s kid lacerated himself on a bottle fragment when his bicycle haplessly carried him into a ditch alongside a road in Franklin County in the 1960s.  Or maybe someone was incensed that people in cars were so insensitive then that they would drink beer after beer and chuck the bottles onto the roadside and leave them as scattered eyesores.

I can imagine someone driving along with a “roady” – typically a can or bottle of Budweiser – and sailing the empty into the air from an open car window.  (Never did it myself.)  I can picture a carload of 18-year-olds defiantly doing this back when I was 18.  (I never pitched one from a back window either.)  The drinking age in Maine was 21 from Prohibition until 1969, 20 from 1969 to 1972, 18 from 1972 to 1977, 20 from 1977 to 1985, and 21 ever since then.

I have no idea why the legislature tinkered with it so much at the time, but I remember the confusion then:

Can I have a beer?  How old are you?  Nineteen.  What’s the drinking age?  I dunno, they just passed a law.  They just passed one a couple years ago.  It went down.  No it went up,  how old are you now?  Still 19.  I think it’s 20.  I’ll be 20 when this discussion is over.  OK, have a beer.

The next time you’re in a grocery store, look closely for ME -5¢ on beverage containers.  You will find this on sodas and beer, of course.  And on wine or liquor it’s 15¢.  You will find ME -5¢ on Splash and orange juice.  On spring water and “energy” drinks.

You will even find ME -5¢ on half-gallon jugs of prune juice.

Think about it.  Back in the 1960s and early 1970s Maine wanted to discourage those casual hellions who were tossing their empty beverage containers from car windows as they cruised the countryside.  Who, pray tell, ever drank down a half gallon of prune juice, while driving, and then tossed the empty into a ditch?

The prune juice lobbyist at the state capitol must be only a part-time position.  But you can tell that the dairy lobby is well-staffed.  Milk containers are exempted from the bottle law.  Are we to conclude from this that far more hooligans guzzle prune juice while they text and drive than swill milk?

I notice, too, that the legislature of 1976 desired, in addition to the already-extant littering fine, to make the forfeit of 5¢ per container a sufficient incentive for a carload of teenagers to hold onto their bottles so when they were through drinking they would rush to the nearest returnable center and redeem the six-pack of empties for a full 30¢.  Well, 35 years ago 30¢ was worth about four times as much today.  Isn’t it about time to raise the deposit?

Bottle deposits didn’t begin in 1976, however.  Remember those upright soda dispensers with the heavy glass bottles lying on their sides so that the caps were visible through a door on the left side of the machine?  These were not just returnable bottles that were crushed and recycled, they were actually washed and re-used.  After a few refills, a six-ounce single-serving bottle would be quite roughed up and abraded.  Some were painted in two colors for the brand – Royal Crown, Moxie, 7-Up!  The paint usually stood up well through numerous refills.

The price for a bottle of pop in the 1950s?  Five cents.  You didn’t walk off the premises with your drink in those days either.  Once you had finished you six ounces of refreshment, you stood the empty in a wide, sectioned wooden crate that rested next to the vending machine.  If you were determined to take it with you, you paid the shop keeper a 2¢ deposit.  And finding an empty bottle in a ditch meant a trip to the gas station or wherever you could find the nearest vending machine, in order to collect the pennies, which still had value then.

The deposit in the olden days was not due to an act of the legislature.  It was the bottling company’s value of its bottles.  If you wanted to keep the bottle, you had to literally buy it.  And you could sell it back for the same 2¢ price.

Two cents in 1957 was worth 4¢ by 1976 (using the Consumer Price Index), so the first bottle law in Maine had it about on par at 5¢, but that 2¢ is now 16¢ today, an eight-fold increase.

That same eight-fold increase suggests that a six-ounce drink that sold for 5¢ would be worth about 40¢ today.  But you don’t find a single-serving drink of that size any longer.  It’s generally about 16 ounces (ranging from 12 to 20), and 16 ounces should go for about $1.07 today.

In 1957 the legislature of most states had not thought of taxing a nickel Coke.  Now the Maine tax on your buck-and-a-half soda is seven percent, which adds about a dime to the price.  (You could have bought two Cokes 55 years ago for just the tax on a soda today — that’s if our money would hold still…)

I just happened to think of all this when I was picking up 23 beer cans all in one spot alongside the Golden Road last week.  I’ll get $1.15 for them when I turn them in, but I was more interested in cleaning up the roadside.  I guide in that area, and I’m a little sensitive to what visitors see.  And I thought: If the deposit on these cans were 20¢ apiece now, about even with the change in the cost of everything else compared to 1976, then someone ditching a suitcase of empties would be forfeiting close to five dollars.

I had to have some fun, though.  So earlier this week, I bought a giant bottle of prune juice.  You might have seen me driving around Lincoln on Monday and Tuesday, window rolled down, slowly slurping from that half-gallon bottle.  I held it so the label could easily be visible: Del Monte Prune Juice.  It took me two days to drink it, but fortunately I like the taste of that stuff.

And when I finished it, I drove down one of the roads leading out of town, (I’m not saying which road), and when I was sure no one was looking — I CHUCKED THAT BOTTLE OUT THE WINDOW!

There!  There has been a stupid 5¢ deposit on prune juice bottles since the law of 1976, and I may be the first person who EVER committed the act with a prune juice bottle.

And therein lies my message in a bottle: I think certain drinks in certain sizes should be exempt from the deposit, or else milk should cease to be exempted, and I think the bottle deposit should be raised to 20¢ or even 25¢ to keep up with the ever-continuing erosion of the dollar.

In School Days

Eva had her back to the window but heard the rattle of the harness in the yard and the contented snort of the mare as she waited to be unhitched.  Skewed rectangular beams of afternoon sunlight stretched blindingly across the kitchen table behind her, while she stood in the darkly contrasting shadow near an inside wall.  Eva’s hands continued working the dough while her head struggled to remain cool.  The man coming through from the barn was returning much later than he had led her to expect.  A bowl of cold stew, a napkin, and a large gray spoon lay in the sunbeam at his end of the table.

“Took Dad to the cemetery today,” Hollis Brenner hollered from the el.  One boot thumped heavily to the floor, and he cocked his leg to pull off the other.  It too landed hard, making Eva ponder just how a piece of cow skin can sound so wooden.

“Trey told me,” Eva answered when he had stepped quietly, as fitted his gentleness, into the kitchen.

“He was supposed to.” Hollis sprawled in a chair next to the table and watched his wonderful wife of thirty years move efficiently around the plain, spacious room.

“Took a long time,” she ventured. It was really an observation, not a challenge.

He knew it.  So he told her, not as a retort but as fact, what had been different.  He took his father to the cemetery at least one Sunday a month.  Sometimes Eva went along.  Sometimes Treyton, their son, and particulars of his family came too.  Their daughter, Beulah, came along maybe once a year.  That’s about how often she was back for a visit to the farm.  She was raising a family with a husband from over in Illinois, where they lived now.  But it was just across the state line.  Usually, though, Hollis went for the cemetery visit alone with Samuel, his eighty-ish dad.

They had been keeping to this routine for twelve years, ever since Mom had died.  Dad had gone alone daily at first, but in time his schedule of attendance relaxed, and now he was too unsteady either to drive a gig or to walk the uneven bury field, as he called it, by himself.

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So father and son visited the family graves together.  The number of markers gradually grew as uncles and aunts were added, as occasionally an infant died, and as now and then a young cousin was cut down in his prime in a farming accident or a drowning.  Every now and then Dad would grasp Hollis’s forearm and lead him around to a few other markers and they would both stand before the name of a prominent shopkeeper or preacher or just plain neighbor, and Dad would regale his son for a while, telling about fiery sermons or rescuing cows from flooded fields or running up a high bill at the farmer’s union, which he always paid in full in very short order.  These people before whose stones they stood would remember those things too, if they were still living.  Dad made the rounds in this manner only when he and Hollis were there alone.

“Dad introduced me to some more old acquaintances today.  I never realized there were so many families in this county that I knew so little about.”

“Probably half of what he’s telling you are memories he invented,” Eva said.  She was rolling out a pie crust, and Hollis mentally measured the force with which she laid the rolling pin down and pushed it away from her across the sideboard again and again.  She was sprinkling flour onto the dough, although not dusting the kitchen with it as she might if containing some anger, and, true, she was not slamming the wooden rolling pin down but was efficiently spreading the thin crust, not beating it, preparing one of her finest creations — most of it for him.

Hollis pulled out the chair before his cold supper and, with his eyes on Eva, sat himself quietly onto the seat.  “I would have thought so, too,” he said, then paused to enjoy a spoonful of stew.  “But then he made me stay put while he wandered way over to a far-off set of markers, down in the corner where the fence is toppled. I let him go.  Didn’t think he had any marker in particular in mind, because he sort of wandered.  Then I realized he was having difficulty reading them as he went along.  The headstones gave him less trouble, I guess. He passed most of them by without stopping at all.  Then he stopped and stood, kind of with his back to me. After a minute or two he took his hat off, and I knew he was where he wanted to be.”

“Who’s in that corner down there?”

“I thought about sneaking up behind and taking a look.  Probably smart that I didn’t.  He knelt down and then looked over my way.  I don’t think he sees well enough to know whether I was watching him, but he knew I was where he’d left me, so he sort of prayed there or something for several more minutes.

“Took him a long while to scrape back over to the gig, and when he looked at me I could see he wasn’t in no condition to talk.  He just kind of nodded and I helped him up and climbed in myself.”

“There must be more to tell. That doesn’t account for four or five hours that you could have been home.”

“No, it don’t,” Hollis agreed, and stared a his wife’s back as she worked.  Her dark-brown, gray-streaked hair hung the way he liked it, loosely gathered at the back of the neck and left to drop from there straight to the mid-point between her shoulder blades.  “No, it don’t,” he repeated.  “Dad said, part way home, ‘I’d like to go out to Pike Run.’  ‘Nothing there but fields, Dad,’ I said.  ‘I can show you fields hereby.’  He just gave me this pleading look, so I drove out there.  Thing I forgot was the old brick schoolhouse.  He wanted to see the schoolhouse that sits there all by itself.  So again he told me to wait after I helped him down.  He walked up that lane and ‘round and ‘round the school.  For a spell he had ‘hold of the vines running up it, just looking into the distance, and I thought he was close to collapse, but I stayed back where he could see me holding the horse.  Around the side where I couldn’t see, I think he could have been peering inside, or maybe he just sat in some shade. I don’t know.

“Finally he bobbed and shuffled back to the gig.  ‘Thanks, Son,’ was all he could say, but his voice broke, as if something were painful.  And he kept his eyes down where I couldn’t see him square to.  I knew he was crying, or more just turned all sad.  At the house I delivered him to Missus Knaille and asked her to kind of keep an eye on him today.  Dad said, ‘I’ll be just fine, Son.’”

Eva asked: “Did you talk to him about the schoolhouse?”

“I didn’t put him to no test.” Hollis stood and walked to a different chair, where it was easier to see the side of his wife’s face. She turned toward him.

“I would have wondered what was significant about the schoolhouse, and so I would have asked,” she said with a slight scold in her voice.

Hollis thought. “That’s where he went to school, as long as he went to school.  Where I went too for my first couple of years, before they abandoned it and took over the basement of the town hall.”

Eva shrugged.  She deftly picked up a membrane of pie crust and draped it over a pie plate, then trimmed the entire edge with one sweep of a short knife.  She like that part of the job the best.  Hollis enjoyed watching the brief act.  He was proud of his skill for sharpening knives.  Hollis went on: “I went back to the cemetery.  The grass was still flat where he’d been kneeling.  The marker read: Margaret Irene Bay, April 5, 1840 – October 29, 1879.”

“Wasn’t there a Bay gentleman with the government or something?”

“He was next to her. Hugh Something Bay, 1842 to 1910, I believe it was.  Brother and sister.  He was a lawyer around here when I was a kid.  There were some older Bay markers, too.  An Edward and wife from the 1790’s, and a Morris, probably their son.  And there was another stone broke in half and the name mostly gone.  Year of death was 1868.”

“They don’t mean a thing to me.”

“They did to Dad.  I was struck with an idea just before I left there.  The caretaker of the cemetery before Caverly — Old ‘Spade’ Vellison — I thought: He’s still alive.  And I knew he used to have that set of cabins below the trestle — used to let them out to all his own sons and daughters when they were still children but having each other’s babies.  I figured, it being Sunday and people being free to visit and all, I could go down there and talk to him.

“He wasn’t much in the way of conversation, but some woman was tending him and she sort of fed him the questions I had and kind of read the answers he regurgitated, like she was reading tea leaves.

“Old Spade, even when I was a kid I always thought he was as old as he is now.  Guess how old he is,” Hollis challenged.

Eva pinched a pattern into the edge of the empty crust and then slipped the pie plate into the pie oven atop the kitchen stove.  “I don’t even know the man, Hollis.  When would I ever meet a cemetery caretaker?”

“He’s six and eighty.  He buried most of them Bays.  And he remembered the one called Irene.  Didn’t rightly let on that he remembered Dad at first, but said he was still in school when the Misses Bay first started their education.”

“Misses?”

“Two girls.  Irene and a younger sister, he remembered, name of Blanche.  Said they always thought the younger one’s name was appropriate, seeing how white she always looked and sickly.”

“What does all this have to do with your father?”

“Don’t you see?  Dad’s eighty-two.  That makes him born in ‘forty-one.  The Misses Bay were in school with him.”

“Did your caretaker friend know that?”

“That and a good bit more.  There was a teacher came to town in the ‘thirties.  Few years later the town built him that school on the premise that he be required to educate any young girls that a family might want to send, and there arose a controversy about girls being educable.”

“I thought the school was built in the ‘seventies.  You mean that old square schoolhouse over toward the river?”

“The one we visited today.  That’s the one Dad attended.  It was a while after the school was built that the teacher, Bloomfield, lived up to his part of the deal, and the Misses Bay were the first young girls admitted.  Dad was already a student.  He must have been about eleven when the girls first arrived.  For his part, Spade Vellison was about done school.  Not that he’d learned anything, he said.  But Bloomfield had begun setting standards and then began jacking up the requirements.  Told the older boys that they’d better take a certificate while they could or else they’d be eight or nine years in school and nothing to show for it.

“When the girls arrived and sat side by side with the boys and began showing better minds than most of the boys who’d been there even four or five years, Vellison and a few more worked their hides off and took their certificates.”

“I understand that Old Vellison had to include a lot of useless detail in relating all this to you, but can you leave out some of the minor details for me.  Did the school have a privy?”

“In fact it did, by 1851…”

“That’s what I mean!  Don’t tell me about the privy.  Don’t tell me about the bushes outside and the knife marks in the benches.”

“Oh.  All right.  You’re right.”

“Thank you.”

Hollis dipped stew and swallowed thoughtfully, then went on.  “There was one young colt of a boy that Vellison knew of couldn’t keep his wits about him with the girls around.  Always showing off.  Ever notice how Dad drags his right leg?”

Eva looked at Hollis as if to say: ‘Don’t veer into details.’  Instead she said, “I thought he came by that during that train wreck, when your mama was injured so bad.”

“That’s when I became aware of it as a matter-of-fact limping.”

“She came out the worse of the two,” Eva added.  “Never did recover.  But I still think that’s not what she died from.”  She was pouring a blackish mixture from one black-stained wooden bowl into another.

Hollis Brenner thought about his mother for a moment.  “Dad always walked funny after that.  But Vellison told me how, in school, some boys came early one morning.  Scaled the school wall to the eaves, they did.  The older ones, that’s as high as they could get.  ‘The Brenner boy,’ he said, meaning Dad, pulled himself past the eaves and tried to climb to the peak but lost his purchase and slid down the slate roof.  Would have gone straight to the hard ground, but a shingle on the edge snagged him and snapped that leg right in his breeches.  Left Dad hanging by his pant leg with a broken knee and wailing for half an hour until Bloomfield arrived.  Spade said young Brenner never walked right until he went off to fight in the War.  Had to straighten out his gait or they might not have taken him in the army.”

“I’m sorry, Hollis, but where is this all leading?”

“The Misses Bay.  I had to put up with the urine-house smell and the dirt-floor dankness of Vellison’s hovel in order to get this story, so I guess you can bear with me while I trim it to fit the remainder of the day.  I listened to a good deal more slobbering and coughing by him than I’m bothering to relate to you here.”

A whistle wailed in the east.  Hollis closed his eyes and watched a conjured image of the long, gray-streaked locomotive, reddened by long, evening sun rays as it rolled into town on the riverbank, far below the farm.  He hoped he appeared pensive, but his digression didn’t fool his omniscient wife.

Eva smiled warmly and wiped her hands on the green-checked apron.  Her husband opened his eyes when she lifted his hands from his lap and nestled her skirts there instead.  Hollis savored the weight of her in his lap.  Locking onto his eyes and holding them with utmost confidence, she waited until the last echo of the whistle faded.  Nearly nose-to-nose with him she said, “If it don’t fit the remainder of the day, you can talk me right to sleep with it, and after that you can carry on to the spiders and flies and anyone else who’ll stay awake for it through the night.”

Hollis probed the deep blue of her eyes and his narrow mouth smiled a sheepish smile.  He willed her much wider mouth to smile too, but it held clenched teeth, challenging him to get to the point.  “I drove up to see the Reverend Pulsifer.  The markers were in his section of the bury field.  If these Bays were citizens such as would include a lawyer, maybe they needed an advocate in a higher realm.  So I discussed this thing with him a little bit.  We walked back across to the church and he withdrew the ledgers.  Sure enough, there was enough to show that at least two descendants might still be living right here in town.  One would be a 57-year-old son of Hugh Bay, and the other a daughter of Blanche, about 57 also.  Well, I’m 53, yes?  And I don’t remember anyone of that name, but this is a town of at least fourteen thousand, and they would have preceded me by a few grades in school, so I could see why I might not know them.  The man’s name would be Charlie Bay, son of Hugh, nephew of Irene and Blanche, and the woman’s would be Annabel Leighton, niece of Hugh and Irene.

“The Reverend Pulsifer helped me track down an address for each, and was also kind enough to water and bag the horse while we talked.  He had some thoughts on things the churches in town could be doing together and, my being a deacon in ours and his being well-established here, he thought we could explore this further some day.  So we made an appointment for next Saturday morning…”

Lips warm and flour-flavored suddenly swooped in on Hollis’s.  They fitted his perfectly and swallowed his next few words.  Then they withdrew and leveled with his eyes in a wide, embracing smile.

Hollis licked his lips, then, ignoring the rush of gladness that nearly overwhelmed him, regained his mission.  “The man named Charlie Bay has a telephone, so I rang him from the church, but no one was home.  I tried Missus Leighton next.  She asked to speak with the Reverend, and he vouched for me and gave me a letter of introduction to hand her, and so I drove up to Sherman Hill.  I hain’t been up there in ten, fifteen years.  Big old houses like that are getting pretty run-down looking.  Including hers.  But it was still dignified, and so was she.

“I expected that, if she was the child of a frail woman named Blanche, who had died young, she’d be frail too.  But here she was a woman my height and pretty plump to boot,” Hollis said, then blinked at his empty soup bowl as if wondering what had become of his supper.

“Pretty, you said?”

“Pretty plump.  But I expect she could be thought a pretty woman, too.  Widow, she told me.  I said she’d get on great with my wife, just to assure her that I had only business-like intentions.”

“Then I shall be meeting this lady-friend of yours?”

“I don’t know.  We concluded our interview in one session, I believe.  I introduced myself and explained that I had learned this same day of her relationship to Miss Blanche Bay, whose married name I had not learned.  She supplied it: Heierling.”

“The furniture people.”

“The same.  So this Annabel Heierling became Missus Clarence Leighton, as I met her today.  Her mother, Blanche Bay Heierling, whose grave marker was the one broken and half missing, died when Annabel was only two years old, after catching a fever.  So Vellison was right, she was sickly.  There were one or two older children, but that’s not important.  As Missus Leighton was relating these facts there was a knock at the door and a Mildred Freeze or Freeds, I didn’t quite make it out — a neighbor next door — came in to see who the gentleman caller might be.  This older lady was very lively, probably ten years younger than Dad, and joined right in the conversation.”

Eva began to rise from her husband’s lap, but he yanked her back and locked his arms around her.  “I explained to them what Dad had done at the cemetery and at the old school, and that I was merely trying to understand why he would have been so moved by the visit to the Bay family plot.

“Missus Leighton hardly said a word after that.  Missus Freeze, who is no relation to that family but seems to know its business better than the Bays themselves, told me what matters.

“There was indeed a boy in the old school who left his mark, in more ways than one.  Missus Freeze herself, as a schoolgirl, had sat at the desk where the initials S.T.B. were gouged into the wood and linked with the initials M.I.B.  Everybody knew of this young colt who had gone before.  He even affected the hearts of girls as young as this Mildred.  His devotion to one Irene Bay had been widely known, along with the revolving nature of her changing affections toward him.  When the boys went off to the War they were heroes even before they marched out of town.  Samuel T. Brenner was the most gallant one of all, said Missus Freeze.

“When I asked what she meant by ‘changing affections’ she found it difficult to explain.  Missus Leighton was more helpful.  Her aunt, this Irene Bay, was a real fair beauty, and so there were boys a-plenty for her to touch with her charm.  It seems that she cast her glances on one and all, and each thought he was the favored one.  But the first upon whom she ever placed her childish favor, and everybody knew it, was Samuel Brenner.

“As Miss Irene Bay grew into her young womanhood and proceeded to confer her favor on another young man and then another, young Brenner was unwilling to relinquish his childish claim to the girl.  He became the biggest show-off in the town.  People still talk about the hay-wagon rescues and how Dad came upon the accident and saved six or seven children from drowning.  Well, they weren’t such little children as couldn’t swim or save themselves.  Dad must have been about fourteen himself.  Missus Freeze said that Miss Irene Bay was one of those on that wagon, and Dad was only hauling bodies out of the water until he found hers.  It so happened that there weren’t any more in the water after he found her, or else one might have drowned, sort of muddying his heroism.  Missus Freeze reckons that he looked under the bridge and recognized the horse or the wagon and wasn’t so much bent on becoming a hero as he was on making sure his lady-fair was not lost.

“But Miss Irene was evidently not so impressed that she would swear lifelong fealty to Dad, so he continued his antics and heroics.”

“Was that when he wrestled the bank robber and earned that citation from the governor?” Eva asked, almost mockingly.

“He was a little older but not by much.  He took up fast riding then, too.  Bragged he would be going west to join the rodeo if his leg would only heal.  He admitted that to me himself, that he kept up that promise about going west for as long as he was in school.

“Miss Irene, according to her niece and Missus Freeze, permitted many young men to pay court to her, but would spurn poor Dad.  Yet, she always seemed to lead him on just far enough that he learned and practiced good manners and must have felt that he always had a chance of winning back her affections as they approached the age of decision.

“Dad’s last great heroic act was to enlist when the call went out after Fort Sumpter.  Now here’s where Missus Freeze, who must be the Sherman Hill busybody, was even hard pressed to make her story plain. I suspect that what she passed on was more a woman’s notion of what transpired.

“After Samuel Brenner had marched off to Maryland, Irene Bay suddenly ceased to entertain suitors and visitors of all kinds.  I rather wondered if it weren’t because all the decent men had joined up and gone off.  Missus Freeze holds that without Dad there for her to make jealous Miss Irene saw no point in playing the game.  After a year or more went by and Dad didn’t return, Miss Irene accepted some sort of offer to go study in England.  Missus Freeze believes that if we looked through Dad’s stuff we might find some letters from abroad.”

“When did you say she died?”

“1879.”

“Age about…”

“Thirty-nine,” Hollis supplied.

“When did Dad marry your mother?”

“I didn’t want to put that together myself.  I was ten years old, so it was 1880.”

“He never married before that.”

“Nope.”

“He waited until she died.”

“Yup.”

“Did she ever marry?”

“According to Missus Leighton, Miss Irene Bay never did.”

“Did she ever return from England?”

“Not until she was embalmed.”

“I never heard such a love story, if that is what you want to call it.”

“I asked Missus Freeze: If each was waiting for the other, why didn’t one of them just pull the curtain aside, so to speak, and declare it a stalemate?  Miss Irene, she said, became indispensable in the service of some duchess or something like that, and would have acquiesced if Dad had come to England, possibly as a stable hand or something.  Dad was intimidated by the thought of hanging around royalty and was too proud to be a barnsweep to some high-and-mighties.”

Eva slowly shook her head.  “So they waited one another out.”

“I learned something else.  Missus Freeze looked me up and down and asked how old I might be.  I made the rejoinder that if I had been a lady I would take that as a highly inflammatory and personal question, but since I don’t fancy myself a sensitive lady, I would take no offense at the question.  I said I’m fifty-three.  So her quick mind summed up that I must have had, originally, a father other than Dad.

“I allowed that she was very astute, and of course she asked me who it was.  I asked myself: What could this woman possibly know?  Now, I never sought to know, but one day after that train wreck, when Mama wasn’t too clear-thinking and she believed Dad was going to die on account of the accident too, she told me to go look in her mother’s family Bible.  So I went to her mother’s and paid a call and casually looked in the Bible.  That’s when I found it.”

“You never told me this.”

“It didn’t make sense to me at first.  Mama was a good ten years younger than Dad.  Grandma’s Bible listed my name under Mama’s, with Samuel Brenner as my father.”

“I don’t understand.  You mean her first husband was not mentioned?”

“There was no first husband.  You know how I was led to believe that my original father went off and left us when I was a baby?  Grandma’s Bible put the lie to that fabrication.”

“I still don’t understand.  It lists Samuel Brenner when he became your mother’s husband.”

“No.  It lists Samuel Brenner when he became my father.  Alice Ann Tillotson, age 19, mother of Hollis Grant Tillotson, father Samuel Brenner, age 29.  I spent ten years calling myself Hollis Grant and believing that was all the name I had and that my absent father was related to the President.”

Eva shifted on her husband’s lap, then relaxed again.  “What did you answer Missus Freeze?”

“I don’t have any shame over any of that.  Mama’s gone, and Dad’s too old to be shamed by it either.  So I told her the truth.  Missus Leighton began to cry, then.  I’m still trying to figure out the exact cousinage, but Grant, you see, is my Grandma Tillotson’s maiden name.  It was also the maiden name of Irene and Blanche Bay’s mother.”

“Samuel couldn’t have the one he loved…”

“…and the sister, Blanche, took a husband in the meantime…”

“…so he dallied with a cousin of theirs.  Sired a son.  But waited until his lady fair had passed from this life before he owned up to the responsibility he had created for himself.”

“He really loved Mama, Eva.  He did right by her.”

“I realize that.  I’ve been around him long enough to know.  Hollis?”

“What?”

“Are you going to go through his things and look for those letters?”

“I was thinking.  I think I’ll suggest to him that on Sundays from now on I’ll help him go through his things and cull out the stuff he doesn’t want to leave as a legacy.  He did that with Mama while she was alive, and I thought it was a kindness.  She told him what to destroy and what to leave behind for Gladys and me to remember her by.

“He’s been telling me he wants to show me how that straw shredder works that he invented.  So I’ll tell him, Dad, it’s time.  I’ll explain to him that I’m not interested in making off with his treasures.  And I’ll tell you as a fact that I’m not going to be snooping for letters from England.  Even if I run across some, I think I’ll let him be the one to ‘find’ them.  As for me, I’d be content to let them go into the stove if that’s what he decides to do with them.”

“I think that’s all a good idea. Hollis?”

“What?”

“I want to meet your cousin Annabel.”

“I guess that’s fair.  She’ll be receptive to that, I think.  But let’s leave Dad out of it, okay?”

“Agreed.  We’ll ask her to do the same.  I think she’d prefer not to meet him anyway.”

“Hollis.”

“What.”

“Can we get a telephone?”

Hollis fumbled with his wife’s elbows and wrists until he could draw one of her kitchen hands from the creases of her apron.  He found some flour between two fingers and tried to taste it.  Eva recoiled.  Then she leaped to her feet, stepped quickly to the oven, and pulled the hot, empty pie crust into the kitchen’s fading afternoon shadows.

“Hollis,” she said as she worked with the mixture of dark berries and other magical ingredients.

“What.”

“Name my mother’s three sisters.”

“There’s Miriam, Frances . . . And you mother was Luella.  I’ll think of the other one.  Come on!  Three out of the four are dead — I’m supposed to remember them all?”

“Hollis.”

“What.”

“How many grandchildren do you have?”

“Seven.”

“Eight.  Can you name them?”

“Beulah has — oh, that’s right — four: Amybeth…”

“Hollis.”  Eva looked across the kitchen.  The last horizontal sun rays could have blinded either of them, but they were looking at one another across, not into them.  Her eyes were moist.  Hollis noticed, and loved her back with tears of his own.

“What.”

“How could you memorize that entire web of names and people that you discovered today and you can’t even name the folks in your own family?”

“I can do it.  Really I can.  Give me a chance.  There’s Amybeth, Joseph…”

IN SCHOOL DAYS, John Greenleaf Whittier

Still sits the school-house by the road,
A ragged beggar sunning;
Around it still the sumachs grow,
And blackberry-vines are running.

Within, the master’s desk is seen,
Deep scarred by raps official;
The warping floor, the battered seats,
The jack-knife’s carved initial;

The charcoal frescoes on its wall;
Its door’s worn sill, betraying
The feet that, creeping slow to school,
Went storming out to playing!

Long years ago a winter sun
Shone over it at setting;
Lit up its western window-panes,
And low eaves’ icy fretting.

It touched the tangled golden curls,
And brown eyes full of grieving,
Of one who still her steps delay
When all the school were leaving.

For near her stood the little boy
Her childish favor singled;
His cap pulled low upon a face
Where pride and shame were mingled.

Pushing with restless feet the snow
To right and left, he lingered; –
As restlessly her tiny hands
The blue-checked apron fingered.

He saw her lift her eyes; he felt
The soft hands’ light caressing,
And heard the tremble of her voice,
As if a fault confessing.

“I’m sorry that I spelt the word:
I hate to go above you,
Because,” – the brown eyes lower fell. –
“Because, you see, I love you!”

Still memory to a gray-haired man
That sweet child-face is showing.
Dear girl! the grasses on her grave
Have forty years been growing!

He lives to learn, in life’s hard school,
How few who pass above him
Lament their triumph and his loss,
Like her, – because they love him.

This story appears in the short story collection Tales to Harm Your Mind by David A. Woodbury. ©1999, all rights reserved.

Off Course

The driver cautiously inched his old Buick through the slush toward the entrance to McDonalds, but the operator of a battered black Neon, himself just one of an impatient crowd slouched inside it, made a wild pass and cut off the old rug-brown Park Avenue.   I watched as the elderly driver veered into the plowed snowbank and accepted a jolt to his alignment over the option of scraping his bumper on the side of the passing Neon.  The carload of young people, not teenagers but of that under-30 crowd without apparent purpose or prospects, charged into the parking lot and swerved threateningly toward the drive-through.

From where I sat, waiting for a light to change, I had time both to identify the couple in the brown Buick and to watch them pause to collect themselves.  The old man had to back up to approach the restaurant entrance once more, and as he did so, more cars, operated by today’s youthful and busy populace, were forced to pause or rush around him if they dared.  This time he steered the Buick into a parking space, and I moved on with traffic.

I know who they were, in that big old pokey car: just some over-aged people like all the others who are continually getting in the way.  The elderly seem to be taking up too much valuable space nowadays.  But I know more than that, as well.

It was January of 1947, summertime in the southern hemisphere and a year and a half after World War II ended.  Frank Ukers had joined his native Royal Australian Navy late in 1944, and two years later, a freshly-discharged twenty-year-old, he was serving as a crew member aboard the merchant freighter, Ev Trogairgoith.  The war was over and the seas were safe.  The Ev Trogairgoith, pronounced roughly as F Troga-goy, had navigated the 310 nautical miles eastward through the Strait of Magellan at the southern tip of South America and was entering the Argentine Sea abreast of Punta Dungeness.  Bound for South Africa with a load of grain and expecting to return with a load of mechanized equipment, it would be another 300 miles, all in open ocean waters, before they would come upon the Falkland Islands.

The ship was no longer in sight of land, but all on board were aware of their precise location, because it also marked the vessel’s entry into the Atlantic Ocean, a first for many of its crew.  As Frank and a pair of other sailors stood in the shelter of the cabin on the chilly port-side deck under a freshening southeast wind, they were brought the news that a mayday distress call had come in from a pleasure boat some six or eight miles off their port bow.  Theirs was the nearest ship of any size and speed, and they were turning now toward the direction of the call.

The three crewmen had just been remarking on the darkening skies to their northeast, in the direction of the mayday call.  They were already in seven- to ten-foot seas, so the pleasure boat was bound to be in a good bit of difficulty.

The Ev Trogairgoith approached the site at twelve knots, but its captain had much to consider.  A six-hundred-foot ship running at twelve knots needed about two nautical miles to stop.  The slight headwind from starboard would help its deceleration but would also make it necessary to come upon the site obliquely.  And if a rescue were attempted, the big ship, if not under way, could easily be driven sideways by the wind into the remains of the distressed vessel, crushing it and its survivors.

In the hour it took, both to reach the site and maneuver into position, the Ev Trogairgoith received further word from the Argentine authorities that the boat in distress had been identified as a 86-foot private motor cruiser, the Spice of India, built in Germany in 1933.  As they would later learn, it had been purchased by a retired U.S. naval officer after the war and had been fitted out for private cruising.  The reports from the Argentines said the cruiser’s engines had failed and she was foundering and taking on water in the worsening waves.  The reports had no information on the boat’s current status, afloat or sunk, nor about the number of passengers.

The ship’s mate selected from the crew four teams of three men, two on each team who would take turns going over the forward port rail on lines and cables as rescuers, if needed, and one who would be the spotter for each team.  Frank Ukers, whose recent naval training included distress rescue, would be one of the rescuers on the line furthest back from the bow.

Frank’s crew of three had barely secured their lines and suited up for the dangerous mission when the sinking boat was spotted, its hull almost completely under water and its bow beginning to turn toward the deep.  First one yellow life vest was visible, then another and another as the Ev Trogairgoith bore down upon it.

Twenty minutes may have passed from the time the disappearing Spice of India was spotted until Frank found himself belaying twenty-five feet from the rail to the water line.  He recalls that the hulk of the big ship at least shielded the survivors from the wind and the breakers.  He also recalls that the captain had to begin rotating the ship in an arc, to keep the stern moving aside from the sinking boat.  This kept the ship from sliding right overtop of the smaller vessel, but it also kept putting more and more distance between the rescuers and the floating survivors, and even more dangerously, it threatened to bring the stern of the ship, and its propellers, alongside the site.

Frank could see at least ten life vests in the water.  The forwardmost team on the Ev Trogairgoith had already hoisted one rescuer, with a Spice of India passenger clinging to him, to the rail, before they were near enough at Frank’s post for him to go down.

When his legs reached the water line and his body felt the first spray from the ocean’s icy surface, Frank withstood a momentary, breath-taking shock at its temperature.  His handler at the rail fetched him up by his cable once he had gone waist-deep.  A swell of the ocean brought the surface of the water to his very chin, but it also brought a gasping, gray-faced man to his side.  The man’s eyes met Frank’s, and they embraced.  Secure in his sling, Frank wrapped a cord around the man and together they were hoisted aloft.

On the next plunge, Frank quickly plucked a small body from the frothy water, a young boy.  As he signaled to be pulled up, he glanced back to see another young person thrashing toward him, clearly a girl, and clearly she had lost most if not all her clothes in the churning sea.

At the rail, Frank literally threw the boy to an awaiting crewman.  Where was his companion, he then wondered, the one who was to alternate with him and go down next?  It turned out that the man had injured his hand in the cable as Frank was being hoisted the first time, not seriously but enough so that he was no longer in play.  Frank would have to go down a third time.  With a gesture, he bade one of the men toss him a folded woolen blanket from a stack of them lying on the deck nearby, for the survivors.  He stuffed the blanket into his harness, then braced against the top rail and shoved outward with his feet and belayed down the hull one more time.

Holding onto a ring attached to the vertical cable that was draped alongside the ship, Frank dropped as quickly as he dared.  The girl had drifted toward the stern of the ship, nearly out of reach.  Frank let himself further down the cable, effectively plunging himself under water, so he could scramble in an arc along the hull toward her.  He caught a length of line trailing from her life vest and with that he dragged her through the water toward him.  His teammate above adjusted the length of the cable, to keep Frank above water, and as she began to clutch at him, Frank swung the blanket over her shoulders, then reached under water and seized her around the waist.  She weighed little, as he hugged her to him, and to save precious, chilling moments, he risked taking her up without binding a cord around her.

Once aboard the ship with her, Frank watched a crewmate toss another blanket over the girl and he turned to go over the rail once more.  But no one on board was making a move to return to the water.  He followed everyone’s gaze and saw the antenna of the Spice of India linger for one long second before it went under.  The outline of her hull was a fading oval several feet beneath the waves.  A limp body in a life vest floated some fifty yards further out to sea and astern of the Ev Trogairgoith.  There was no one else in the water to be rescued.

The passengers and crew who had been saved, twelve in all, were being hustled into the relative warmth of the ship’s cabin, and from the cries and shouts, and from later debriefing, Frank learned several things.  Lawrence Cheaver, a decorated lieutenant in the U.S. Navy during the war, had commandeered the Spice of India during a skirmish off the coast of Italy and had been given first option to obtain her during an auction after a year’s wait.  Inspected, refitted, and supplied in Newport News, Virginia, the Spice of India had set forth some five weeks earlier under the command of Captain Cheaver of Savannah, Georgia, with a crew of four, plus eight additional passengers who were all family members and relatives and friends of the captain, the men aboard learning to serve as spare crewmen.  They had the luxury to take an extended voyage and they had the vessel to do it in.  After leaving Rio de Janeiro in December, the Spice of India had ventured nearly a hundred miles from the coast of Argentina, farther than at any other time during the voyage.

Well before they were approaching Punta Dungeness on the day before the disaster, one engine had begun to falter.  The engineer had suspected bad fuel ever since refilling in Brazil and had first changed fuel filters, then by-passed them altogether.   When the second engine choked on the same diet, several hours before the mayday call, but while the sea was still deceptively calm, they recruited all able men on board to disassemble the fuel lines as quickly as possible in a valiant attempt to clear them and restore a flow of liquid fuel rather than sludge.  The effort failed, the wind came up, and the seas began rolling the stalled, narrow-hulled yacht.

His relatives believe Captain Cheaver had stayed with his ship until he had seen that all twelve of the people in his charge were rescued, then he had let go and submitted himself for rescue, but too late.  Exhausted, he had likely succumbed in the icy, near-Antarctic waters.  The Ev Trogairgoith did indeed have to come around and make a second pass in order to reach his body.  Frank, still wearing his wet clothing and gear, volunteered to go down and make the final recovery.

The twelve survivors were tended by the ship’s officers, and on the following morning all were transferred to a vessel of the U.S. Navy, which met them on the high seas.  Frank and the others who had gone over the side were asked to line up and accept the thanks of the rescued Americans as they departed the merchant ship.  A very pretty, but very pale and distressed girl of, Frank guessed, about seventeen, was the only one among them who could have been the one he had so gallantly carried aboard.  Dressed in an ill-fitting, gray seaman’s outfit, she filed past the ship’s crew without looking at any of them directly, while the women and men among the rescued made gracious gestures of gratitude.

After the voyage to South Africa and back, then a month off and a shorter trip to some South Seas islands, Frank had saved enough money to do what he had long before then decided he must do.  In that time he had also done some research, aided by a Queensland, Australia newspaper.  The Brisbane Courier & Mail was anxious to interview Frank, after the South Africa trip, because the Australian sailors on the Ev Trogairgoith had become a source of national pride.  Their return after several weeks at sea made the news stories a bit anti-climactic, but they were heroes nevertheless.

From the newspaper staff Frank obtained a complete list of the survivors from the Spice of India, and the girl he had rescued was actually his own age at the time: twenty-year-old Diana Desmedes, niece of the deceased Captain Cheaver, and at last account a student at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia.  He cannot say why he never simply wrote a letter and asked the obvious questions.  It just never seemed the way to approach it.  Instead, he obtained the needed documentation and bought the tickets to fly from Australia to the United States.

As it happens, it was July, 1947, when he reached Georgia, but Frank did not prepare himself for the opposite seasons, and stepped from the airplane into an Atlanta rainstorm in awe of the heat and humidity.  He found the college campus easily enough, just outside Atlanta, located an office, and introduced himself, but had to be informed by the administrative staff that school was out for the season.  The secretary who greeted him, upon hearing his accent and the nature of his inquiry, though, immediately sized up the situation.  The wreck of the Spice of India had been major news when it happened, and Diana Desmedes was well-known on campus for her part in it.  The secretary told Frank exactly how to find her, at home in Savannah.  And, apparently bursting with excitement afterward, she sent a telegram ahead to apprise the girl of the man who had appeared that day looking for her.

When Frank, freshly shaved and carrying a bouquet of just-picked wildflowers, rang the doorbell at the home of Charles and Faith Desmedes the next morning, he looked into the eyes of the man he had pulled from the Atlantic Ocean six months earlier.

Frank and Diana’s story, although much embellished, was the subject of a 1951 MGM movie, “Off Course Of Course”, starring Todd Bridges and Sandra Leer.  In the movie, the Spice of India was struck by a passing freighter, whose captain acknowledged the accident only after one sailor (presumably Frank Ukers), who witnessed it, risked the captain’s wrath in trying to convince him of the collision.  Frank’s subsequent arrival in Georgia was depicted in the movie as a surprise to the Desmedes household, with the father holding forth suspiciously and disapprovingly.

As Frank tells it, it was in fact a Sunday, and the family was overjoyed to see him.  Faith Desmedes, Diana’s mother, had not made the voyage on the yacht owned by her brother, Captain Cheaver.  Once she was reunited with her husband and daughter in Savannah, she had made inquiries through official channels to learn the identity of Charles’s and Diana’s rescuer, but had never been given a name, or even a list of the crew members of the Ev Trogairgoith.  The Saturday afternoon telegram from the college was the answer to a prayer Faith had offered up only moments before the Western Union runner had rung their doorbell.

Upon answering the door Sunday morning, Charles took one look at Frank, both grinned and extended a hand, but ended up hugging once more without exchanging a word.  Then Diana appeared in a doorway beyond her father’s shoulder.

As it was, the family was just about to leave for church, so Frank rode along, seated with Diana in the car, and in church, and at dinner that afternoon.  And for the rest of their lives, so far.

Frank was not aware that he had even spoken to the people he rescued from the ocean, but both Charles and Diana repeated everything he had said to them as he pulled them to safety.  To Charles, as they were being pulled up alongside the ship’s hull, he had said it was too bad they had missed the chance to see the Strait of Megellan, such a pretty passage, and once he had deposited the man on deck, Frank had said he was sorry he couldn’t stay and chat but there were other bobbers in the water needing to be saved.

To Diana he had apologized for getting the blanket wet and all like that, but she would find that wool would warm her up soon enough, and next time she decides to tread water she should consider some sort of swimwear.

As for the boy he had rescued, he was Captain Cheaver’s ten-year-old son.  He was as well as could be expected, Frank was told, and was safe at home with his mother in Virginia.

Frank Ukers stayed in Georgia.  He and Diana were married on the first anniversary of their meeting in the icy seas off Argentina.  She finished college and became an English teacher.  Frank, without formal education but with the desire to see America, became an over-the-road truck driver, eventually owning his own small trucking company, known originally as, simply, Ukers Express.  To this day, no one can tell by his accent quite where he came from.  His lyrical Aussie lilt has been overlaid with a Georgia twang as well as with the hues of every place he has been since he came to America, including Maine.

Since the couple was unable to have children, Frank would drive to the farthest points his job could take him throughout the country while Diana stayed in Savannah, surrounded by her extended family.  When Frank returned from far-away places, he and Diana would add destinations to their itineraries for their own summer travels, and by the 1980s they had been to 49 states and most of Canada.  When they both retired in 1992, after 44 years each in their respective careers, Frank and Diana Ukers moved to their favorite place in all their travels: Maine.

They own a condominium on the coast now, and they have a log camp not far from here, which they visit once or twice each winter for the thrill of hearing the frosty wind against the windowpanes and so they can enjoy a few private evenings beside a blazing fireplace, a luxury not allowed in the condo.

But the world of their youth, which certainly had its perils, was blessedly peaceful compared to the world they must navigate today, where their cautious approach to a restaurant is thwarted by something seldom seen when they were first starting out: carloads of hooligans who roam without reproach or remorse.

It’s happening all too often nowadays.  Frank and Diana Ukers: just an annoying, boring old couple who ought to know enough to get off the road and let today’s proud youth have it to themselves.  Who do they think they are, anyway?


The first paragraph of this story is true.  The rest is just a fable.

And Now for the Maine Attraction

moose3by4I consider it a humbling privilege to be a Registered Maine Guide.  This license did not come easily, and it is required in order to charge customers to take them out into the wilderness for fishing, hunting, or recreation.

Now, anyone without a license is welcome to take guests out into the woods, no charge, and get them all fly-bitten and muddy and lost.  But you need to be registered and carry a license in order to collect money for abusing guests that way.

A Maine Guide has to be ready to calmly deal with any unpredictable event.  You might think that we just get paid to go fishing.  There is that; but let me tell you about a few incidents from my last few years in the woods.

Alces Aces

Every year I give several moose tours.  I always have a few useful things to say, since the depth of people’s ignorance is sometimes astonishing.  So, before they ask, usually, I am mentioning that the bulls shed their antlers every winter and grow new ones in the summer.  I describe what they eat and how much, and I try to explain that the food source changes throughout the year, and in the winter they don’t hang around in the lowlands near water.  As a veteran wildlife biologist and naturalist, I figure I can handle most any question about moose.

Then one year I had a pair of aces.  These two guys, a father-and-son team accompanied by their wives, took a pontoon boat tour on Millinocket Lake with me.  There were others on board as well, about eight guests in all.  As we approached the meandering curves of Mud Brook, they began firing questions.  Easy ones came first.  What’s the scientific name for moose?  (Alces alces.)  How many moose are there in Maine?  (About 29,000.)  In the whole USA?  (About 300,000.)  Does the bull take part in rearing the young?  (No.)  How big is a moose calf?  (About 25 to 35 pounds, depending whether it’s a multiple birth.)  How many upper teeth do they have?  (Twelve.)  How fast can they run?  (Up to 35 mph.)  How far?  (I didn’t know.)

Well, that’s where they lost me.  But they kept firing questions like a couple of fighter pilots, even though I was spent.  How did someone ever clock a moose at 35 mph for 15 miles?  What was the biggest moose ever shot in Minnesota?  Does moose milk taste like cow milk?  Does a moose throw up if it eats something poisonous by accident?  What’s the greatest number of moose ever hitched together as a team to drag a sled?  What year was that?  Is it true that a moose can walk on ice that a deer would break through because the moose has such wide feet?  How many words can a moose be taught to obey?  What was the oldest moose ever, that is, in captivity?

After I had failed the majority of their question, the pair of aces seemed satisfied.  Then the younger one commented to his admiring young bride: “The guy doesn’t know much about moose, does he?”  And he sounded sincere.  A moment after he had fallen silent, through the trees I spotted a familiar black form on the water, about to appear around the next bend, so I cut the motor to let us drift with our remaining momentum.  Slowing down also quieted the passengers, who all looked at me, even though they hadn’t seen anything yet.  I put a finger to my lips and then slowly pointed as we drifted onto the scene.

An old bull moose is a secretive animal, and this one was no exception.  At the bend, we were a hundred feet away, and a couple of cameras had begun clicking before he decided to make a dash for it.  He crossed the brook in front of the boat, splashed ashore on the other side of us, and trotted into the woods.

Neither of the Alces aces had taken a picture.  Nor had their wives.  But the other guests on the boat, complete strangers to the moose experts, had some of the best moose images anyone will ever get in Maine.  The photo with this article is that very bull, taken by one of tge passengers.

Walk In, Carry Out

If you’re a Guide, you might be leading a hike when a big man falls right behind you and breaks his ankle on a trail, and you have to call in a team of six bearers to carry him out to the trail head to meet an ambulance four hours later.  And for the entire four hours you’re trying to keep him comfortable and in good humor, just in case he’s a lawyer from back in the city — you never know for sure.  This happened to me last summer as I was leading a troop of Boy Scouts out from the ice caves.

If he was a lawyer he kept silent about it and never did sue.  But his ankle was dramatically snapped.  Even though we were only a third of a mile from the trail head and the break occurred at 11 in the morning, it was three in the afternoon before a team of many bearers was able to deliver him to an ambulance where the trail met the dirt road.  The miracle in this was that I had cell phone service sufficient to call 9-1-1 right after it happened.

The man bore his injury with barely a moan.  He stayed alert but not very chatty.  It was greatly to his advantage that his wife and son were along on the hike and that another group member was an EMT back home.  I wrote to him after the accident but didn’t receive a trply.

The Water Hater

Or consider the group of college students, out for a guided canoe trip.  These weren’t biology or forestry students.  They were a select group of scholars with a variety of majors from all over the country and all attending colleges in Maine.  The particular stretch of the Penobscot River we were on, once begun, has no place along the way to meet a vehicle until the end of the day.  So we loaded up several canoes and, for five hours, a young female scholar sat cross-legged in front of me, in the center of my canoe, gripped the gunwales, and wailed in panic until the very end.  One of the college staff responsible for the group stroked the water at the front of the canoe while I paddled and steered from the rear.

The girl in the middle didn’t paddle or participate in conversation but cried even more when the puddle in the middle of the craft penetrated the thin layers of cotton between herself and the hull.  At one point she cried in alarm, “My butt’s below water!”  I started to explain that the point where she was sitting was, in fact, a couple inches below the waterline, but the canoe is buoyant, and so on and that we were not shipping water.  “Then where is this water coming from?” she demanded.  It was no use trying to explain that the paddle drips a little into the canoe whenever I changed sides with it.  She apparently suspected that the canoe was slowly leaking.

I tried to distract her with Maine Guide entertainment.  I sang “Cool Water” at first — bad idea, but I know three verses to it — then “The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night”, and then a considerable repertoire of Irish drinking songs.  I told every joke I knew, which was really the same joke over and over.  I tried to get the scholars in the other canoes to engage with her, but they insisted on keeping a half a mile ahead so they could see a moose before the foghorn girl in my canoe came around the next bend behind them.

When at last we were coasting toward the landing, really just a strip of mud at the take-out point, and the canoe was still side-to to the shore and ten or twelve feet from the riverbank, the miserable girl launched herself from center-canoe to shore and made it without touching water.  Once I stepped ashore myself, she pressed back through the throng of students and hugged me quick and said she had had a wonderful time.

How It Began

Since 1897, any qualified man or woman has had the opportunity to become licensed as a Maine Guide.  You’d think that for most of that time all Maine Guides were men, but the first person to be issued such a license was Cornelia Crosby of Franklin County.  She was a renowned promoter of Maine’s wilderness attractions, traveling to sportsmen’s shows around the country with an elaborate display.  She was already guiding professionally by the 1890s, but it had become clear to her that guides needed to be screened, and some should be denied the license, to assure that the ones in business were qualified, safety-conscious, and an asset to the state.

Miss Crosby petitioned the Maine Legislature to set criteria for licensing guides, and it is “Fly Rod” Crosby’s legacy that Maine Guides must meet tougher standards than anywhere else in the country.  Her mother was also my great-great grandfather’s first cousin — their parents were brother and sister, which makes the profession all the more special to me.

Geological Wonder

If you canoe the West Branch from below Abol Bridge, you can reach First Debsconeag Lake.  A short trail from the north shore of the lake leads to the ice caves.  If you’d rather not arrive by water, there is a mile-long trail from the Hurd Pond Road.  (And if you’d rather not try finding this attraction by yourself using only a Gazetteer and a compass, hire a Guide.)

Each year I have led several groups to this interesting site.  People naturally ask how a hole in the ground can hold the previous winter’s ice and snow until August, and then once it has melted, how the air temperature in the caves can remain below 40 degrees through the remainder of the summer.

When asked, I can explain.  And this is my own explanation; I have not read it anywhere, nor has anyone made a conclusive geological study to substantiate or refute my explanation.

The ice caves are only eight miles from the base of Katahdin, Maine’s mile-high mountain.  Between Hurd Pond and First Debsconeag there is a hill comprised of massive, massive granite boulders, some as big as a very large house.  Roughly 25,000 to 20,000 years ago, during the last glaciation, sheets of ice were pushing their way southward across Maine, and Katahdin was no barrier to their advance.  The rounded rocks that we find across the landscape, such as the ones that comprise the chief crop of Maine agriculture, are remnants of the destruction this ice accomplished as it thickened, moved with the creeping slowness of glaciers, and then melted.  Granite rubble, (granite being a crystalized by-product of volcanic activity), as well as limestone bedrock, was scraped from Katahdin and other peaks in the path of the ice, and this rubble was left behind when the ice eventually receded and melted about 13,000 years ago.

Some of the deposits found their final resting places a little more dynamically than merely having the ice melt around them.  Eskers and other alluvial residue attest to aggressive activity by water flowing within or out from a glacier.  But here is what I believe happened to form the ice caves.  A southward-moving sheet of ice, up to a mile thick, sheered off the pre-glacial peaks of Katahdin, Double Top, and other granite mountains in the area.  Smaller rocks may have been carried for hundreds of miles within the ice or by the water coursing through it, but any section of ice burdened with a torn-off mountaintop would not have carried that load very far.  At several places in the first few miles south of Katahdin, I conceive that those sections of ice bearing the greatest remnants of the mountain peaks, slowed and stopped, and that additional ice continued to build up on top of it and kept moving, leaving the giant boulders near the peaks they came from.

Within the first ten miles south of Katahdin there are six or more hills of similar configuration.  These are not high enough to have names on a map, but one of them is the hill with the ice caves in it.  If I were to state it as fact, as I do to people I take to the caves, I would tell you that the enormous, house-sized boulders are right off the tops of the nearby mountains and that, if you could make your way deeper into the hill by slithering between boulders, you would come to a layer of 13,000-year-old ice, still intact, which has been protected from the surface temperatures by the insulating thickness of rock that lies above it.  Instead of ice that laid on top of the ground and melted away, what you have near the shore of First Debsconeag Lake is ice that did not lie on top and cannot melt because it has not come close enough to air and sunlight in 13,000 years.

This is not far-fetched.  Maine lies near the latitudes where permafrost is found in Canada and Russia.  Since we can have surface frost from September 1st to June 1st, and since winter snow falls into the vertical entrance to the main cave every year and takes half the summer or more to melt away, then it is quite conceivable that we have a permafrost situation extending deep into and under the hill in this unique location.

If this is not the explanation, then there is a giant refrigerator of some sort beneath that hill and it will frost a beer mug in minutes all summer long.  The other similar hills in the same area, I suspect, might be hiding additional deposits of Pleistocene ice, but no one has found a hole between boulders where you can crawl in and check.

Well, I had told a version of this theory to a group I brought to the ice caves one day, and a woman in the group said: “You want me to believe that a glacier carried a mountaintop right to here and dropped it, and some ancient ice is trapped underneath?”  I agreed she had stated it far more succinctly than I did.

But she mocked me: “It was riding on top of a glacier — ‘Look at me!  I’m a mountaintop riding on a glacier!  Oops!  I fell off!’  And now there is a cave where you can go cool off on a summer day.”

I felt that science was no match for this woman’s intuition.  Then she added: “I know about glaciers.  I’ve seen ‘Ice Age’.  This isn’t where ‘Ice Age’ happened.  This cave reminds me of that chintzy exhibit I saw at the fair where they make you believe you’re going into this room to see a man standing in a fire and really it’s just a man in a caveman suit surrounded by mirrors and a fake fire reflecting off of everything and there’s a heater that’s not very secret because you can hardly hear yourself for the blower…”

But what could I say to that?  The ice caves near First Debsconeag Lake are the Maine attraction that you won’t regret visiting some summer, unless you’ve already seen a caveman standing in a fire.

I hope I continue to enjoy adventures such as these for many years to come, even though I go into the woods with a far different frame of reference than the people I take along.  For, while my guests are reminding themselves to bring sunscreen and Off! for their guided trip, the Guide is preparing enough equipment for an unexpected overnight stay in the woods with four frightened guests during a sudden hurricane, and packing it all in a lightweight backpack.

Camping

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Camping provided some of the best adventures of my youth.  My parents encouraged sleeping outdoors.  When summer came, they practically expected us to.  With a blanket over a line strung between two trees and a slab of pasteboard for a floor, I could quickly make a tent.  Wind would always take it away in a matter of hours, but I was usually able to find the blanket in a neighbor’s field the next day.

In winter, we were allowed to sleep out if it wasn’t below zero, but only if we slept between two fires.  Given that my maternal grandmother was born in 1884 in a sod hut in Kansas, my own parents kept close to the land and raised a bus-load of organic children as well.

My other grandmother owned a camp on Porter Lake in New Vineyard, Maine.  By the mid-1960s, when my cousins Danny and Rusty, and I, were in our teens, we roamed the woods with no limits.  We routinely equipped ourselves with an axe, a .22 rifle or two, and lots of rope and nails and stuff.

If it was raining hard enough to discourage doing something constructive, we might walk the roadside and shoot bottles in the ditch.  This was before the returnable-bottle law.  On a better day, with the axe and rope, we built a crude log cabin.  Really crude.  So crude that one mild winter afternoon we snowshoed out to it and discovered a bear hibernating against the outside wall instead of inside, where it was nice and dark with only a couple inches of standing water under a delicate skim of ice.  (We never slept in it either.)

If it seems as though all our outdoor activity involved preparing for sleep, that would be correct.  But as much as we attempted it, sleep was actually what we spent the least time doing.

The summer I was 14 and still a couple years from owning my own canvas canoe, the flotsam in the cove by our camp included someone’s dock, liberated by the winter’s ice.  Rusty and I converted it into a raft, and with a couple long oars from under the camp, we had ourselves a functioning watercraft.  (There was never a motor boat at that camp.)

Five hundred yards from our shore lay the only island in Porter Lake, cigar-shaped, 200 yards long, and uninhabited.  One night during the summer of the raft, Rusty and I loaded it with gear and set out to camp on the island. Just as we were unloading at the island’s near tip, a persistent drizzle began.  We built a fire under some sheltering pines and prepared our meal: hot dogs stabbed with sharp sticks.

The rain grew steadier and drenching.  With the fire consuming far more wood than we were prepared to feed it, we stood on opposite sides of it, so close to the flames that we each had steam swirling from the fronts of our denim pantlegs while the skin on our thighs blistered.  We kept the flames high, the sparks rising against the downpour, but we knew the wind and rain were going to quench it before long.  In those days, sleeping bags, even the Boy Scout kind, were made of cotton cloth with layers of cotton batting.  With no waxed cotton (canvas) tent for shelter, we were not tempted to crawl into that bedding and lie all night on the saturated ground.

In the distance the rain was building to thunderstorm intensity.  As darkness closed heavily upon us our determination to tough it out weakened.  Then we heard shouting from the direction of camp.  It was my father, and the best we could tell, he was calling us back.  So we jumped onto the raft and, standing on opposite sides of it, drove the oars into the lake as hard as we could.  The chop in the water kept the deck of our craft ankle deep and washed all our gear into the depths, so we must have appeared to be gliding Jesus-like over the lake.  We drove onward, two barefoot boys without life jackets, standing like lightning rods on the sides of a crawling but invisible raft.

It was a violent storm, our craft heavy and slow.  Lightning was striking every few seconds, first near the camp, then on the island, then in the distance, then fore and aft of us again, conveniently lighting our way.  We could easily see my dad, standing on the shore, waving and shouting.  We shouted back.

It must have taken half an hour to plow across the lake.  When we jumped off onto our own camp shore we were hustled inside and given hell.  From the start, my father had been trying to tell us to stay on the island no matter what.

A couple years and many camping adventures later, my other cousin, Danny, and I were somewhere in the western Maine woods on a hike.  We were going to stay out a couple nights, exploring and foraging.  We packed light: A two-man tent, a bedroll and knife apiece, matches (always matches), and a hatchet.  Between us we also had a compass, with which we had no practical skill.

The first night out, we were following the Sandy River, with appropriately sandy banks, very pretty.  We found a narrow beach along the rivercourse, just wide enough to allow for a small fire that we could squat beside, and above that spot, about eight feet straight up an embankment kept vertical by a web of exposed wiry roots of shrubs and saplings, was a flat space just big enough for our tent.

No rain threatened this time.  After goofing around and swearing because we hadn’t brought any food and foraging had provided only unpalatable mystery berries, we climbed the bank, set up the tent, and turned in.  For a while, we lay with our feet toward the drop-off, figuring that would be safest.  But the ground turned up steeply at the back edge of the tent site, so we were lying side-by-side, our bodies on the flat spot but with our heads against the bank, our necks bent, chin-on-chest.

We agreed: I would rotate a quarter turn one way, Danny a quarter turn the other way.  Side by side still, but head-to-toe, we were finally comfortable.  Danny was nestled against the embankment, away from the brook.  I was comfortably away from the precipice where it dropped off to the little beach.

Some time far into the night, I was aware that we had a visitor, sniffing and shuffling outside the tent.  Very close to my head, in fact.  I couldn’t tell whether Danny heard it or was still asleep.  His foot next to my ear lay perfectly still.  So I decided on my own to get a closer look.  Groggy from sleep, I raised myself with one arm and, with the other, I fumbled awkwardly with the zipper.

I forgot that we had rotated 90 degrees, and when I chanced to lean against the side of the tent, the better to manage the zipper, there was suddenly nothing beneath me.

In total darkness, as the free-falling tent yanked him over the edge, Danny spun past above me and far out over the brook, trapped in his bedroll and on his way to a soft landing in about a foot and a half of water.  He came to rest, which in this case is a totally inappropriate word, with his head downstream in a fast-moving torrent, wrapped in a tight snarl of blanket and tent shroud.  Also still in the tent, I landed hard on my chest and broke a rib.  But as Danny was coming to and trying to roll out of the brook onto the beach, my belly began to appreciate the residual heat of a dormant campfire.  I tried to scramble past him and into the brook to cool my blistering navel.

Somewhere in our half-submerged struggle, Danny kneed me in the face and set my nose bleeding, which lasted for several days.  We both stood up in the brook at about the same time and tore our way out of our dripping cocoon.  Huddling on the narrow beach at two in the morning, we were equally slow to apprehend the fresh, strong odor of a severely-frightened skunk, so stunningly out of place next to the gentle music of the stream, an olfactory accompaniment like someone throwing up at a child’s violin recital.  Which is what I did next.  Danny followed suit.

We had hiked for hours to get to this idyllic setting.  Now we couldn’t agree which way would be the quicker way to go to get us out to a road.  Nor were we quick.  I was unable to draw a breath deeper than a sidewalk crack.  Danny had one knee that had swelled so big he had to cut his jeans open with a hunting knife, to give it space, and in the total darkness he slit his shin in the process.  Abandoning our gear, we hobbled and stumbled our way through the moonless forest, falling often, over and into obstacles and onto one another.

It was daybreak when a sheriff’s deputy found us snoozing against a 45MPH sign, but he would not allow our stinking carcasses into his cruiser.  If we had told him we had wrestled a poor defenseless skunk from the jaws of a bear, he might have believed it more readily than the real story.  He called a friend of his, who gave us a ride home in the back of a pickup.

So, I have enjoyed camping all my life.  These early episodes are what you call “experience.”  Lots of kids nowadays are missing out on these opportunities.  Now we drive them to their tent sites and provide 110-volt lighting.  If they carry matches and knives they’re branded as dangerous.  We make them sit down in the boat and wear life jackets.  When they take a walk, we send them with “trail mix.”

That’s not experience, that’s like living on the set of Sesame Street.

I am grateful for real experience, and am reminded of a line attributed to Bill McKenna, a professional motorcycle racer, (Cycle magazine, February 1982): Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in one pretty and well preserved piece.  The point is to skid across the finish line broadside, thoroughly used up, worn out, leaking oil and shouting, “Whooie – what a ride!”