Thursday, December 17, 2009

My Father’s Time Machine

Not many people can say they actually knew a mountain man. I did. Our neighbor growing up was an older man named Gordon. He lived in a double wide about 150 yards down the road, but totally out of sight as both our plots were surrounded by the thick, deciduous forest characteristic of our upstate home. He sold us our house when he got divorced and carved out a little corner of the land to continue living on. He could have just been the eccentric guy that I waved to as I jogged or biked by, but my dad decided he was precisely the kind of man that a couple of young boys should know[1]. My dad was right.

The first time we went out with Gordon it was to check his beaver trap line. We spent a full day in knee deep snow that ended with me lying on top of a pile of frozen, dead beavers in a snowmobile trailer[2], clinging desperately to the metal frame to keep from being thrown off. Yet, somehow, all of my memories from this day are exceedingly positive. It was the first time I shot a pistol[3] and at lunch, when we broke out our pb&j’s Gordon made a fire and warmed some beaver stew that simply looked an order of magnitude better than what we were eating. By the end of the day, my brother and I had actually strung a couple of the dead beavers up on a thick branch and carried them between us like we were Native Americans.[4]

As we got older Gordon began to bring us to Lost Creek. Lost Creek was a semi-permanent camping site he had forged for the summer months, a ten mile hike into the underutilized public swamp lands on the edge of Adirondack State Park. Each winter, he would stash the homemade wood stove and pack everything else out. Then, each spring, he would rebuild his elaborate canvas cabin which became home base for the summer hunting and trapping seasons[5]. He had done this for years, and had never encountered another person. We would eat woodland creatures (simply but deliciously prepared) by the wood stove in his comfortable but rustic structure at night and listen to stories of his adventures.[6] By day, we would check the traps, explore the woods and drink as much water as we could hold from the artesian spring that day lighted 50 feet from the camp.

Gordon walked those uneven miles in and out again and again, more often then not pushing a heavy load of dispatched critters[7] or supplies in what was essentially, a customized, back country wheelbarrow. It is all the more remarkable because he walked with a pronounced limp, a souvenir from his days as a paratrooper who specialized in setting up communication posts behind enemy lines.

My last trip to Lost Creek post dated my complete loss of interest in dispatching animals for fun, food and profit. I brought a book. I don’t think Gordon ever understood my transition to bookish quasi-jock. Shortly after I went to college his hip was too bad to hike and he made his last trip to lost creek with my dad to extract the last of his stuff. I guess I can’t say I was surprised when my dad told me that he put his shotgun in his mouth less than a year later. I can’t defend the decision, but I also could not imagine him living another ten years in that trailer.

In retrospect, Lost Creek was a time machine. What we got to experience was about as close to the lifestyle of the first European settlers as could be reasonably imagined. But my dad’s precise pedagogical objectives were a little eccentric. It was the end of the cold war, but he was very much a product of it. One of his admitted objectives in raising us was to give us life skills to survive a nuclear winter.[8] But I think the less precise goal was to offer a compelling alternative to the MTV culture[9] we were buying into uncritically. It was a different vision of humanness. It was a different vision of human connection to the rest of the world. It was a way of living where satisfaction was uncorrelated with efficiency or possession. It tempered the devotion of my worship at the temple of the Watertown Mall with the understanding that people live robust, content lives that were totally other than the impoverished version of the American dream I was being offered. I consider the opportunity to know a mountain man a fine bit of parenting on my father’s part. I hope I can find individuals who will affect my children in similar ways.
[1] My dad did stuff like this all the time. I remember that he would send me over to the house of a family friend who was a widower to play dominoes. When I protested that I did not have anything to talk to an old dude about, dad replied ‘ask him about the depression.’ The pedagogical value (and character formation) of these dominoes games far exceeded any social studies content I ever received on this era.
[2] Being the first born has obvious privileges, but when the snowmobile has 3 seats and there are 4 people and a trailer full of dead beavers…lets just say that they don’t totally seem worth it.
[3] I never even got close to the bottle we were shooting at, making it an experience that would affect the way I experienced action films for years.
[4] Or, more likely, as if we were Ewocks.
[5] Permanent structures were not allowed on public land.
[6] Including not one but two bear attacks. There was also a story about how he was hopelessly lost (and when Gordon was lost, it was likely some of the least traveled woods in the north east) and suddenly happened upon a random compass laying on the wood floor. He said, ‘You see boys, this is how I know that God is always looking out for you.’ This was the only insight we ever go into his faith.
[7] He would always stop by our house after catching a fisher or shooting a bear. We always thought it was cool but rarely considered the effort it must have taken to haul a full grown bear 10 difficult miles out of the woods.
[8] At one point I could skin a muskrat in under ninety seconds. This, surprisingly, was not on my PhD qualifying exam.
[9] Though most of our experience to MTV culture was second hand because we lived so far away from ‘town’ that cable never actually made it to us…leaving us with 4 channels. My brother recently said in a sermon: “I have watched a whole He Haw standing next to the TV holding the bunny ears. He Haw was the Saturday night live of my generation…if you were really really rural.” You would think that this would have preserved me from owning a pair of hammer pants or Skidz overalls…sadly it did not.


Joel said...

Your Skidz overalls were purple and black. I remember them because I wanted them, and my mom wouldn't buy me a pair.

stanford said...

Wow Joel, great memory. I guess those are the kinds of details High School leaves emblazed upon our psyches (if only integration by parts had left a similar impression).

There are two things about those flannel atrocities that I have found interesting:

1. It struck me as fundamentally dishonest to wear what I considered an ‘urban’ style with money I had acquired from farm work. But I was also the guy who ‘wrote’ 80% of the rap I eventually scrawled in my sad little notebook while riding on a tractor. Incidentally, I understand the only page of my rap from that era that survives was swiped as a souvenir by Steph Tolley…and apparently it gets the Parental Advisory sticker for sexual content (as well, I’m sure, as quality). Which reminds me, I was thinking about a short story where someone runs for office and is derailed when a childhood friend publishes a poem they wrote in high school undermining their credibility.

2. I found myself in the weird situation that the most expensive piece of clothing I owned had to be worn the least frequently. You could wear a pair of jeans a couple times a week without noticing, but if you broke out the expensive overalls more then occasionally you would seem like you were trying too hard. Wearing goodwill cloths is much less stressful.

JMBower said...

It both saddens and delights me that you have written a better account of our bucolic pre-adolescence than I ever could.

I think every family in our area was assigned one colorful recluse neighbor. They were like mailboxes. As soon as you moved in you practically got a slip from the town saying, "Welcome! Your assigned old coot will be OLD MAN JENKINS. Enjoy!"

But now that I think of it, I am relatively sure I have some souveneir rap as well...I will have to dig into my old boxes o' sentimental keepsakes to dig it up. I KNOW I still have pages of questionable parodies of the best of late 80's, early 90's popular music. If you are elected to public office, it will be my sworn duty to see that it is to the background strains of "Hungry Guys".

stanford said...

"We only order extra large fries/
Cause we're huuungryyy Guyyys."

Wow, I had totally forgotten our Weird Al phase. Wasn't there a song where we cleverly swapped the word inspiration for constipation?

I laughed out loud at "They were like mailboxes." Seriously, Davis is full of wonderfully eccentric people to expose my children to, but they all seem to be way more self aware and self styled in their eccentricity than our assigned eccentrics in the 315 (credit Joel I think).

Joel said...

"The 315" is all Justin, not me.

In my memory box, a wooden chest that we got from the furniture store for promising not to drink on prom night which I looked at over Thanksgiving break, I found:

1) A number of really terrible short stories.

2) A letter to a classmate with pretty graphic detail about how her boyfriend cheated on her with the girl who sat next to me on the bus a week before the prom. I never gave her this letter because we weren't friends, but that also seems to be the reason why I wrote it to her in the first place.

3) A really inappropriate blood drive poster that Amanda, of all people, made.

4) A whole bunch of other stuff that wasn't nearly as entertaining.

Anonymous said...

Stanford - I may have said this about a post in the past, but this is now my all-time favorite post. It should be part of a chapter in a book someday. You capture something about growing up in those days, and in the North Country in particular that perhaps cannot be fully realized today. With what eccentric armed neighbor would we trust our 9 or 10 year old children to spend the day in a remote location with no means of communication? However, your dad's pedagogy was sound and served you well it seems.

I too hope that I can have such wisdom in the rearing of my children and the creation of teachable moments. How old were you at the time? I'm pretty sure my son would show absolutely no interest in playing dominoes with our old neighbor and it would be a fight not worth fighting to get him to do it. He might be in for the trapping or camping, until a mile down the trail or the actual necessity of doing work. I struggle with how to best incorporate the back-woods sensibilities of my childhood into the rearing of my children in a vastly different urban landscape.

Also, if there were a blogging award for Best Quote in a Comment Section it would go to Mr. Bower for, "Welcome! Your assigned old coot will be OLD MAN JENKINS. Enjoy!" My old coot was Elmer. He lived down the road a piece where the road dipped to meet a stream. We called the dip in the road "Elmer's Hill." We cut wood on his land, helped him occasionally with chores, and often hiked to the sand pit and beaver dam on his land. The biggest lesson I learned from Elmer was an odd one in tolerance when I discovered a confederate flag proudly displayed in his living room. However, I can't say I had the same in-depth tutelage as you rec'd Stan - it appears I may have missed out on a very profitable assignment or two.