A Yankee Notebook

June 20, 2016


MONTPELIER – There are probably two main reasons old-timers tell stories about their youth and the past. The first is that there’s so much more of their past to work with than their future, and it was so wonderful to be able in those days to perform prodigies along the brink of calamity. The second is that old folks have the (perhaps mistaken) impression that their stories may be interesting, amusing, or educational. The Ancient Mariner thus lives on.

For example, we could tell the young folks about the confident patrician tones of Franklin Roosevelt assuring us in his “fireside chats” that all would be well if only we resisted giving in to fear. We could recall for them in detail the reaction of our country to the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the approximately 80 million dead during the war, including over 400,000 of our own men and women. We could imitate the droning nasal snarl of Joseph McCarthy as he reintroduced existential fear to our national consciousness, or the clarion rhetoric of John Kennedy in his first (and only) inaugural address: “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans...” Ah, there’s so much more! But with age comes perspective, as well, and, looking about and reading the current news, I often wonder if anybody would understand it, or even if anybody’s listening.

I got an invitation last week to attend a birthday party for “Polecat,” an old hunting camp friend. But the party was, as they say, way to Hell and gone the other side of Saranac Lake, and things are pretty busy here at home right now. So I just sent heartfelt greetings and a comment: “I miss the sound of your old carbine popping, down on the lower drive.”

He responded: “Hi Will. Going to take that banjo for a walk this fall Poley” That’s guy talk meaning he’s going hunting with that old 30-30 lever-action rifle on the mountain again.

I sat back in my chair, and my glance happened to rest on a photograph on the wall above my desk. It’s in color, 7 by 10 inches, matted and framed, and labeled in rustic type, “Hunting Camp, Saint Huberts, New York, November 2000.” Sixteen males of our species, ranging in age from about five to over ninety, crowd around one end of a red-and-white oilcloth-topped table, smiling at the camera. There are three sets of fathers and sons and one running from grandfather to grandson. The old-timer, as old-timers once did, wears a Pendleton shirt with a tie. On the table stand two ginger ale cans, a half-gallon of red wine, and a fifth of The Glenlivet. Behind the crew, the paneled walls are hung with old photos, antlers, and mounted white-tail heads.

You’d never guess, scanning this merry band of characters, that the whole business began in mild outlawry. Its founder was a young man during the Depression. He worked as a carpenter and guide to live, but he lived to hunt the white-tailed deer that haunted the mountainsides on both sides of his native valley. During the Depression, when many people had to hunt to eat, the fish and game laws were less rigidly enforced than they might have been, and many people killed and consumed what they needed, in despite of the laws. I suspect the old man just never got over it.

A summer resident was having a large garage built by a local contractor, and discovered the old man, the boss on the job, was, in his words, “A renowned poacher” of the private club lands that adjoin the head of the valley. When he asked to have him removed from the job, the contractor said, “Look, I’m keeping him busy six days a week, which gives him only one day to hunt. If I fire him, he’ll have seven days to hunt. I don’t think you want that, do you?” The old man stayed.

In the 1950s the old man set up a wall tent squatter camp a couple miles up a brook running off Hopkins Mountain. He and his two boys hiked up in the dark of November Friday afternoons, spent the weekends hunting, and got home Sunday afternoons.

I met him in November of 1958 when he walked into the village bar “looking for a man to help me out for a few minutes.” I was mopping the floor, polishing the bar, and filling the beer cooler; so I was delighted to help. About half an hour later, up on the lower slopes of Hopkins, he led me to the frozen-solid corpses of a pair of decidedly illegal does that he needed to transport surreptitiously to the village. It’s a long story, but we got ‘em there, and in gratitude he invited me to his camp for the weekend. It started a fifty-year tradition.

After a couple of moves and reincarnations, the camp was finally legal, built on a tiny inholding among forever-wild Adirondack forest. The old man passed away, and with more at stake, the sons and their friends became slightly more respectable. Teachers, businessmen, police officers, and state employees all have vested interests in keeping their noses clean. But when one of the kids in camp, about twelve years old, declared he wanted to be a game warden when he grew up, there was a long, pregnant silence. Then, “He’s going over to the dark side!”

I learned a lot in that camp: that if a group of men is polite to you, you’ve screwed up somehow or for some reason aren’t part of the group; abuse equals affection. I learned that language had its origins in organizing the hunts of primitive men. Most important, I learned that institutions like that camp need to keep their focus sharp and their constituents in harmony with the ethic that made it so attractive in the first place. A few years after the group photo was taken, the camp broke up in bitter recrimination. The smiling faces, those still alive, are now scattered across the country. And the memories, the stories! I could go on, but nobody’d be listening.

Photo by Willem lange