To Violet, my sister, for sharing the happy young years with me and to Cora, my wife, for helping me relive them.
An Upper Peninsula Boyhood
GEORGE E. CHRISTENSEN
The Ralph W. Secord Press
Iron Mountain, Michigan
RALPH W. SECORD PRESS is owned and operated by
the Mid-Peninsula Library Cooperative, 424 Stephenson Avenue, Iron Mountain, Michigan 49801. The Cooperative provides central services to member libraries located in the Michigan Upper Peninsula Counties of Delta, Menominee, Dickinson, Iron, Gogebic, and Ontonagon. Since 1971, the Cooperative's press has specialized in publishing books about the Upper Peninsula. The press is named in honor of Ralph W. Secord, Michigan's 1975 Librarian of the Year, founder and guiding spirit of both the press and the cooperative until his retirement in 1981.
Copyright c 1985 by George E. Christensen
All right reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
First Printing 1985
Manufactured in the United States of America
Editing and manuscript preparation by Library and Literary Services, Iron Mountain, Michigan.
A B C D E F
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING IN PUBLICATION DATA
Christensen, George E.
Back trail, or, An upper peninsula boyhood.
1. Christensen, George E. 2. Upper Peninsula (Mich.)--
Biography. 3. Upper Peninsula (Mich.)——Social life and
customs. I. Title. II. Title: Back trail. III. Title:
Upper peninsula boyhood.
F572.N8C473 1985 977.4'9032'0924
ISBN 0—933249-01—2 (pbk.)
TABLE OF CONTENTS
I'm retired now and as I sit here on the shore of Whitefish Bay gazing out
across the water, I wonder where all the years went. The sky is clear and blue
with an occasional fluffy cloud drifting across. The cold clear water of Lake
Superior is shaded by its varying depth and the color of its sandy bottom; a
streak of brown here, a streak of green there, and the dark blue mass of the
deeper water farther out, topped by short rows of white waves that come in to
shore and roll onto the sandy beach below me. The quiet of the spring day is
interrupted by the cheerful, bold cry of the blue jay and now and then the
black-capped chickadees let their presence be known with their more melodious
song. The white birches are coming to life, the tender green leaves bursting out
of their red buds. A pair of snow-white gulls glide along close to the shoreline
taking advantage of the air currents and showing a certain curiosity about my
Across the Bay rise the mountains in Canada, made hazy and mysterious by distance. A lake freighter, upbound and riding high in the water with a "bone in her teeth" as
my father would have described the white froth churned up as her prow cuts through the waves, soon to pass Whitefish Point and head into the great open waters of Lake Superior, probably to load up with iron ore at Duluth or to fill her hold with grain at one of the other great inland ports such as Thunder Bay, and then in a few days to return through the Great Lakes system to who knows where. Today, from here, they can travel to any port in the world.
After having grown up in this part of the country and leaving it late in the thirties to seek my fortune in the wide world that lay beyond the horizon, I always find it a pleasure to come back for a visit whenever I can. Of course, it has changed during the years but it is surprising how much it retains its old flavor. There are a few more people today, better clothed and housed, and all have television sets, better automobiles and at least one snowmobile in the family. The old single lane, deeply- rutted sand and swamp roads long ago gave place to well-laid out, modern-paved
highways, that unfortunately allow the
motorist to travel through this Northland country as fast as anywhere else.
In my mind's eye, I slip back to the
mid-twenties when as a boy of eleven or twelve I first came to know the old pine ridges, the abandoned railroad grades, the crystal clear stretches of the Shelldrake River and its branches where the brook trout were so naive they could be caught on a safety pin tied to a string and baited with a live grasshopper. And how the blueberries flourished in the burned-over pine slashings. Which is really why I came to be there in the first place; to pick wild blueberries. Years ago, Michigan was known far and wide in the lumber industry for its pine forests and this particular area had one of the finest stands of white pine in the world. After the canal and the first lock were opened at Sault Sainte Marie in 1855 it became very practical to "harvest" all this tremendous forest and ship the lumber by boat to the cities on the lower Great Lakes. The Chicago fire alone created such a demand for lumber and timbers for rebuilding that all possible effort was expended to meet the market requirements. Fortunes were quickly made in the lumber and shipping businesses.
The towns of Shelldrake and Emerson were built on Whitefish Bay and sawmills were erected as were loading docks for the lake vessels.
There was a hustle and a bustle that this North Country had never seen before and never will see again.
The topography of the surrounding timberland lent itself to a very profitable exploitation. Railway tracks were laid along the sandy ridges that
eons ago were probably the bottom of Lake Superior. The railroad followed the timber cutting and trainloads of logs were hauled to the Shelldrake mill to keep the big saws whirring.
Emerson's operation on the other hand was fed with logs that were hauled during the winter to convenient high banks along the Tahquamenon River by teams of horses drawing sleighs and with the aid of jammers, piled high to await the coming of spring. After the ice was out of the river, the logs were rolled down the bank into the water and the river drive was on. Even today some of those logs that became waterlogged and sank one end to the bottom with the other end floating at, or near, the surface are a hazard to the fishermen's motorboats.
With all its natural beauty, this country was then as it is now, harsh and unrelenting to those who haven't learned to cope with it. During the winter, the average snowfall is some-
thing like ten feet and I have known the thermometer to go as low as forty degrees below zero. Spring and summer bring an oversupply of mosquitoes and other pesky flies that can make life miserable for animals as well as human beings.
ln the fall, the cool serenity of Lake Superior gives way to wintry squalls and storms the like of which can only be matched on the North Sea which has the same sort of short, choppy wave action. Many a lake vessel, ironically often on its last trip of the season has been caught in one of these storms, actually within range of the foghorn and light beam of the Coast Guard station at Whitefish Point. Passing this point would put them into the relative safety of Whitefish Bay where the storm was greatly diminished. So many boats had taken too much of a beating and foundered before they could reach the Bay's shelter, that this part of the lake became known as a ships' graveyard. For some years now the Coast Guard station has not been manned; the light and foghorn are automated but the remnants of the ramps the Coast Guardsmen used to launch their life boats, and in later years, their motor launches, in answer to a ship's distress call are still visible. It took stout hearts to man those boats
at the height of a storm in a perhaps vain attempt to rescue other sailors in dire need. I'm afraid their praises have never been sung enough; that many incidents of heroic
self-sacrifice were not even reported: they were taken as "all in a day's work."
There is a cemetery close to the Point. Its first grave holds the remains of a sailor who had been aboard a boat that was wrecked. Somehow, through superhuman effort it would seem, he made it to shore and sat down with his back to a tree. Weeks later he was found frozen in that position.
Meanwhile, the years rolled on and tree by tree, section by section the vast forest that some say had once been Hiawatha's home on the shore of Gitchee Gumee, Shining Big Sea Water, was razed and all its inhabitants driven elsewhere. The Chippewas (also known as Ojibwas) had been deprived of their homeland, their hunting grounds and at the same time, their natural dignity. The trees that had stood 150 feet high and more, had been reduced to tops lying on the ground. The lumbering operation was very wasteful. The land was stripped of trees and the sawyers had taken only the part of the tree trunk that had no branches.
Forest fires have always been a severe
hazard in timber country, especially when the rainfall has been insufficient, and added to the fires that lightning started were those caused by sparks from locomotives. So the devastation that had not quite been achieved by the logging operation was completed by fires raging through the dried-out treetops.
As was the case in the cypress forests of Florida at about the same time, the supply of trees had seemed to be limitless and it surprised people when the cutting operation diminished and the locomotives and cars were moved to other parts of the country. The rails were torn up and shipped away and the mills gradually dismantled. The end of the big timber had arrived.
Most of the land was sandy, covered thinly by a topsoil that had built up from the centuries of decaying pine needles. It was good for little else besides growing pine trees. But nature is sometimes slow at reforestation and to take the place of the big trees she supplied another type of flora, blueberries, that in the North always thrive in pine cuttings after fire has gone through. And so for years after the big lumbering operations were over there were berry plains that produced large quantities of wild blueberries for market. Another crop
that grew profusely was brakes, a fernlike type of plant, and lichens, some of which, such as British Soldiers, are quite colorful. Jack pines, which thrive on poor soil, and poplars which are fast growing and very undemanding in nutritional requirements served as "nursemaid" trees sheltering the white and Norway pine seedlings that otherwise would have had trouble surviving the first few years of growth.
It was during this intermediate stage of forest growth that I first was introduced to the ridges with stumps four and five feet across and to
the mechanics of picking blue berries.
There was only one way by land to get into this berry country. It meant
traveling the Wire Road, so called because its original reason for being there was so that a telegraph wire could be strung from Eckerman to the lighthouse at the Point. Eckerman, a very small town, was situated on the Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic Railway, along which telegraph and telephone lines that allowed communication with the outside world had been put through. There was no plan to the road; it had simply developed according to the ease with which teams of horses and their wagons could get through following the lines of least
resistance. Since lake traffic to Shelldrake and Emerson had disappeared it became necessary for the relatively few people who had decided to remain to eke out a living at trapping or commercial fishing, to haul commodities over this land route but the terrain did not favor roadbuilding. The first few miles north of the railroad followed an old corduroy logging road that had been used for hauling cedar for railway ties and fence posts, and spruce and balsam for pulpwood through the swamp from which it had been cut. After this sometimes quite soggy stretch, there were several miles through virgin hardwood forest. In places, it seemed the wagons almost reversed themselves to go between two or three trees. Beyond that were more stretches of swamp and deeply rutted sand.
Primitive conditions of life in this isolated area continued into the mid-thirties when a new right-of-way was cut through on higher land wherever possible as a part of the government's attempts to end the Depression
by sponsoring the construction of new roads. It took quite a while to dig out the swamp muck down to hardpan and then build up the roadbed with more solid earth hauled in from the highlands. But eventually a first
Book Page 10
class highway was built through the swamp, through the beautiful hardwood forest that was being cut about that time and then on into the old pine country that now was beginning to heal its scars.
Alongside the unfinished right-of-way and about halfway between the remains of Emerson and Shelldrake a new building was put up to house a general store and a post office. It was atop a high bluff that overlooked Whitefish Bay.
Today the highway goes along the lakeshore, through beautiful forests, some of which are second growth hardwoods and some mixtures of conifers interspersed with white birch and then as you approach the Tahquamenon Falls, a virgin hardwood forest that was given to the state by one of the big lumbermen. Near where the post office was built, new houses and businesses were gradually added and it became a little town--a town they called Paradise.
Shortly after the turn of the century my father and his brother set out from their native Denmark for Liverpool, England, intending to book passage to Australia. My uncle was a graduate of a Danish agricultural school and at that time anyone with that sort of background, especially in dairying was sought after "down under." My father at nineteen had had a variety of experiences; an unfinished apprenticeship to a doctor, some time spent in his father's shop where, since it was on an island in the North Sea, they repaired deep-sea diving equipment as well as bicycles and almost any other mechanical device, including the telephone system that they had installed. With the enthusiasm and optimism of youth, the world was a gigantic oyster waiting for them.
But before leaving they, according to plans, spent a few days in London where they had a cousin who was in the tailoring business, making uniforms for the bobbies. While visiting him, some other Danes who had been in Canada convinced them that Montreal was the place to go because of a large Scandinavian population and because it was a jumping-off place
to adventure and for some, wealth. Although
both young men spoke English well, the comfort of being able to associate with others of a similar background and ambition as well as the lure of the unlimited prospects of the New World caused them to change their destination to Canada instead of Australia.
Arriving in Montreal after a stormy North Atlantic crossing, their surroundings were so different that there was some difficulty in adjusting. However, eventually they found their ways and separated, my uncle to pursue the stable life of the city, my father to choose the uncertainty of survey parties in the Great North where the white man had never been, charting maps for the government as well as surveying for the new railroads; delivering mail for the Imperial Steel Company, using dogsled in the winter and canoe in the summer. He learned to speak Chippewa and he learned a great deal about the Indians, almost, so he confided in me, marrying an Indian chief's daughter, Chicago Set, meaning "Skunk Leg."
After ten or twelve years of this carefree way of life, while on one of his infrequent trips back to Montreal to maintain his touch with civilization, he met a pretty, tall, blond young woman of his own nationality who later became his wife, my mother. Of course, this
event demanded that he change his ways and vocation and settle down, so before long he was a member of the Montreal police force. Because of a proficiency in several languages he was soon interpreting in the city's courts. It was in this capacity he remained until shortly after World War I.
Even before the Armistice was signed, the Canadian war effort started to wind down. The economic boom that the military work had inspired suddenly deflated and it became difficult to maintain or procure the amenities of life. Finding his income improperly related to expenses, my father took advantage of an American friend's invitation to come to upstate New York and size up the opportunities. The United States was experiencing a boom and so it wasn't long before he had contrived to relocate his family, consisting of himself, his wife, a daughter and a son, close to his friend in Buffalo.
It was into a furnished flat in an older part of town that we moved. Perhaps it would be best described as run-down, although in its heyday during the previous century, it was a mansion as were all the buildings in the neighborhood, but degenerated into rooming houses. There was a large, black marble fire-
place fitted with a gas grate that served, as best it could to heat the whole flat. The ceilings were high as were the windows that, at the bottom, came almost to the floor. The woodwork was ornately carved and the flooring was parquet. There was no electricity in the building so the lighting was done by mantled gas jets. A large backyard was closed in by brick walls and a high, unpainted,
weatherbeaten board fence which kept intruders out. The surface of the yard was composed of broken bricks and smashed glass that had been neatly leveled. Except for the occasional blade of grass that fought to survive along the bottom of the fence, there was nothing growing, making it rather dismal.
The street in front was cobblestone and, being near the main post office, quite busy. Heavy trucks went by on wheels with solid rubber tires, the rear axle driven by a chain, which compounded the noise. Horses were still used to quite an extent and the
clip-clop of their hooves on the stone pavement was a cheerful sound when it wasn't drowned out by truck traffic.
There were some interesting people, though a little on the seedy side, who rented nearby or lived in other parts of our building
and with whom my mother and father became acquainted. One was a man who had been a professor at a German university but because he couldn't speak English very well and the fact that he originated in a country that had recently been our enemy he was having trouble surviving as a day laborer. They became friends with an elderly lady who owned a secondhand bookstore nearby. But the ones I liked best were a professional magician and his wife who were having a hard time getting by financially because people of their vocation were not in great demand, especially with the advent of the movies. Occasionally I would get a glimpse of some of their accoutrements and as any boy would be, I was captivated by their glittering world of legerdemain and make-believe.
We fell into the habit of frequently attending the theater--the movie theater, that is. The motion pictures of those days, while they had actors of tremendous talent, lacked the technical advantages of today, such as color and sound, and were, in fact, a strain on the eyes because the film was quite jumpy. In place of conversation and other sounds, subtitles appeared at the bottom of the pictures and musicians in the orchestra pit in front of
the stage matched music to action. "Over the Waves" was standard for ships sailing the ocean; the "William Tell Overture," and the marches of John Philip Sousa were used to good stirring effect as were many excerpts from the world's great compositions, and some of lesser degree.
It was a neat little village built up on the side of a hill. The frame houses were modest but well-kept and most of them had gardens, both vegetable and flower, with nice shade trees in the front yard. And probably of most importance, alongside the railroad track was the source of the community's apparent prosperity, a large well-painted woodenware factory.
It wasn't long before we moved to a better, less interesting neighborhood and although the prosperity was much appreciated for the first three or four years and husband and wife worked together saving for the future, the daily routine came to pall on my father and he began to yearn for the North with its summer green and winter white. Eventually he prevailed upon my mother to use their savings and head for Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, and so one fine August day in 1923 we found ourselves, not in the Soo, but in a little town close by.
What a different world we entered when we alighted from the train with all our worldly possessions in three or four trunks, a couple of suitcases and two packsacks, one of which contained a large wall tent and the other its matching fly.
The three of us sat atop one of the steamer trunks that had been unloaded from the baggage car and set upon the ground since there wasn't any kind of depot, while my father went to the mill office to see about a job. He had been told by one of the train conductors that all the towns along the line were booming; all the sawmills were hiring and the activity we observed was certainly reassuring. From a tall, black
stack came a plume of smoke, pure white against a clear blue sky, and from inside the mill the giant circular saw rang out, clear as a bell, pitch varying as it cut its way deeper and deeper through the hard wood. The sounds of industry were every where, from the horses and men working in front of the mill skidding the long logs to the millpond, to the workers in back stacking the partly finished product in drying sheds.
It wasn't long before my father came into sight again and a broad grin telegraphed his success. And so it was; he could start right
away at the then good pay of fifty cents an hour, ten hours a day, six days a week. There was no such thing as overtime pay, but neither was there such a thing as withholding tax.
And now, the next order of business was to find a place to set up the tent and get our belongings "home." To that end some inquiries were made and before much time went by our new life was pretty well under way. There was a small, well-kept farm at the top of the hill and out of town a short way, that had a nice apple orchard, a large vegetable garden, a little red and white barn that mainly served as home for a Jersey cow named Belle. It was at the outer end of the garden, at the crest of the hill that our tent was pitched, facing north, overlooking, in the distance, a vast wilderness swamp.
I was eight years old at that time and my sister two years younger. Although in later years I came to wonder how my mother could take so drastic a change with such perfect equanimity, to us kids only one word described it all--wonderful!
And so the days wore on. The bright red pin cherries about the size of an ordinary cherry pit that grew in such profusion nearby, gradually disappeared; the green of the forest be-
gan to turn to autumn colors and drift down to earth in the rustle of the fall breezes. The days were getting cooler, the air clear and invigorating and the night left a trace of white frost that glistened like crystals in the morning sunlight. The breath of winter, little by little, was beginning to be felt. And although my father was perhaps inclined to procrastinate at times, he knew the urgency of finding a more suitable abode.
The house that we moved into was nice for that time and place. It was owned by a railroad engineer who was intending to retire to it and so had not spared efforts to do everything well. The outside was painted white and the inside had pine-paneled walls and varnished hardwood floors. The house was on a little rise and set well back from the new road right-of-way that was just going through. In front and to one side was a nice apple orchard. The large rolling field in back had been lumbered over years before, every stump pulled, and after an initial plowing and disking, allowed to produce its most suitable crop--timothy hay--which it did faithfully year after year. Beyond the field was second growth hardwood just getting a fairly good start, and occasionally we would see a herd of
sixteen or seventeen white-tailed deer led by a big buck with an appropriate set of antlers as a badge of his authority, come out to graze along the forest edge.
Whereas the brand-new, four- room, brick township schoolhouse presided over by a male principal and two pretty, young lady teachers, had been within sight of our "summer residence," my sister and I now had to walk about two miles to and from school. The old logging road we had to take, wound its way through a forest of hard maple, beech and golden birch interspersed here and there with a basswood or ironwood tree.
As fall progressed and eventually yielded to winter, the multicolored floor of leaves turned to white and the bare tree branches offered no resistance to the snow that came straight down in large lacy flakes, or was driven in between the trees by a chilly north wind. After the snow had accumulated a little, and the mud puddles in the deeply rutted road froze, the sleigh loads of logs pulled by well-groomed, well-fed workhorses driven by a teamster perched high upon the topmost log, began to appear. The cheerful jingling of the harness bells, the scrunching of the steel runners on the dry snow, and the admonitions
of the driver to his team to follow directions transmitted through the reins, were a fascinating new experience for us.
The long winter evenings were spent browsing through stacks of National Geographics after the school homework of course, or my father would read aloud to his family, sharing the light of a kerosene lamp with my mother who would be doing her
needlework. He read some classics, some westerns and stories of the North, stories about the sea and strange parts of the world. The whistle of the nine o'clock passenger train
signaled that it was time to go to sleep and the book was laid aside--after he finished the chapter, that is!
Winter softened into spring. The deep snow gradually became "soggy" as the warmer sun penetrated to the ground and the melting snow turned to rivulets that trickled down the hillsides. The trees glistened as they began to come to life again, waking from a long seasonal sleep. After a day of brightening up the world the sun seemed to linger longer as it set with all its glory behind the woods across the road from us. Even the crows caw (not too melodious at best) had a cheerful, virile touch to it. The blue jay was, as always, noisy but
Book Page 24
his call was full of the happiness, the jauntiness of life when you are on top of the world.
Either due to the petulance of Mother Nature or her treachery, this is when, quite often, the worst blizzard of the year strikes and things get pretty well tied up for two or three days. This is what happened then and at the height of the storm the mill burned to the ground. What started it was never known and of course, once a blaze got going there was no way of stopping it, there being no fire-fighting equipment of any kind for use even in the best of weather.
That was the end of a job for a lot of men, my father included. There were no government agencies in those days to declare a disaster and provide low-interest loans; every family was thrown back on its own resources.
My parents were lucky, still having some savings they had set aside "for a rainy day." My father took a job of some sort in the woods that lasted through the summer. As the cold and the snow came on again, he and a friend each took a piece-making strip in the swamp. This was a plot of land a hundred feet wide and of varying depths for which a man would contract to cut the balsam and the spruce to eight-foot lengths for pulpwood and
the cedars for railway ties and fence posts. It was hard work and not very rewarding but it served to
keep body and soul together for awhile.
The deer always wintered in the swamp for the shelter afforded and for the availability, meager as it was, of something to eat. As the snow deepened they found themselves so hungry that they ignored their fear of human beings to the extent that as soon as the cedar tree was felled, they would come to the top and eat the foliage as the piece-maker was working on the other end. Although cedar boughs were filling, there was precious little nutrition in them and many deer died of starvation. Just as my father was beginning to wonder if he hadn't made a bad mistake coming north he was offered the job of janitor at the school which he jumped at because it paid a hundred dollars a month.
With several free hours each day there was time to get interested in other things and after replacing a mainspring in his pocket watch with the aid of a shoemaker's awl he decided to take up the study of watch repairing, so he got himself a couple of books dealing with the theory and practice of the trade, and a few watchmaking tools from Sears Roebuck
and went into business. As his knowledge expanded, so did his reputation. A bench in an unused cloakroom at the school served as shop but our home was where he conducted his transactions. Most of the customers were lumberjacks who prided themselves on their one valuable possession, a twenty-one or twenty three jewel railroad watch.
This is how I first came to know a little about these men of the deep forest. I didn't realize it then but I was seeing the tail end of the Michigan lumberjack with his cross-cut saw, his double-bitted ax and his cant hook or peavey. He lived in a
lumber camp of long, low log buildings, a bunkhouse, a cook house and the stables. It took strong men, not necessarily big ones. Many a big man in those days bore a pockmarked face from engaging in a fight with someone smaller who reverted to "la savate"--a form of foot boxing in which the heavy boots they all wore were a vicious weapon aimed at an adversary when their wearer hurtled through the air feet first.
These men worked hard six days a week from dawn until dark for thirty dollars a month and "found" (which meant room and board). They usually spent Sundays loafing around the bunkhouse or walked a few miles
into town. Nearly all dressed the same; in winter, red-and-black or green-and-black checkered shirts, heavy Soo wool pants which they wore with cuff turned up several times to near the top of high, waterproofed, hobnailed or calked boots that tore slivers out of any wooden floor they strode across. Very few smoked but most of them chewed on a big wad of Beech Nut or Red Man all day long. Hotels, railways stations and the like were always laid out with spittoons that were well used, or at least afforded a target to be aimed at, and I will say, generally hit.
They were very competent at swearing a blue streak although there were camps where, Sunday morning the boss would tell everybody to gather in the bunkhouse and then read the Bible for an hour or so and deliver a sermon on fire and brimstone for another hour.
Some of the lumberjacks had a family somewhere to whom they sent money but many had only themselves to support. They all were respectful to women and kept their language and their actions towards them clean and polite. On the other hand there were those who would work three or four months and then take off for a town where they could find the kind of feminine company that would help them
Book Page 28
spend their money and drink moonshine or boot leg booze with them since there was plenty of that around in spite of Prohibition. The object was to spend all your money on "wine, women and song" or the binge wasn't a success, and then find your way home to camp as best you could. Some didn't make it all the way; they became tired, sat down alongside the road, fell asleep and froze to death.
Every logging camp had its champion fighter as did every area. He was pretty much the bull of the woods but always subject to the challenge of someone who envied his reputation, often a younger man whose prowess was unproven, and of course, eventually the upset would come. The champion would never take advantage of those weaker and he even tried to discourage anyone trying to pick a fight if he could do it honorably.
Little by little the family became acclimatized to the North Country way of life and came to love it. There were long walks in summer and fall. For the kids there was base ball, cowboys and Indians and countless other outside games. In the winter we enjoyed our skis and sleds. We were all healthy and happy but never very prosperous.
When I was about eleven years old I took
over a newspaper route from another boy whose family was moving away. I was willing to work, and since it was a good weekly publication--Crit, which is still being published--I had no trouble doubling (approximately) the circulation to thirty-three. It meant giving up a large part of every weekend and sometimes walking five or six miles to deliver one paper. The price per copy was a nickel, of which I kept two cents. I let some of my customers run a bill with me and although one went to fifty cents and required some astute and persistent dunning before the debt was paid in full, I never lost a penny.
Out of my gross profit of sixty-six cents I paid seven cents to buy a postal money order and two cents for a stamp every week to remit ninety-nine cents to the company. Not being of a nature to squander my hard-earned money, I saved most of it to be used to buy clothes I saw advertised in the Sears Roebuck catalog, such as my first pair of long pants which cost a dollar ninety-eight, were made of tweed and itched unmercifully; a pair of nice, box-toed, black, ankle-high shoes with fancy red, green and white stitching, also at a dollar ninety-eight, and so on. Since kids weren't as well-organized in those days, there wasn't such
Book Page 30
a thing as weekly allowance except for our room and board, an occasional candy treat, a lot of affection and all the incidental expenses incurred in bringing up a family.
Very often my sister accompanied me on my rounds. In winter we used our skis and took shortcuts through the woods. Some of my customers were trappers and it was nothing to see ten or twenty pelts stretched inside out on flat, bullet-shaped boards for drying, hanging from hooks on the outside of the cabin. If anyone was home there'd be at least one pair of snowshoes leaning against the wall or stuck, tail end in a
The railroad played an important part in those days. There were four passenger trains a day, two each way and it was especially thrilling to be waiting for the one at six o'clock and see its big headlight come around the curve out of the winter dark, bell clanging, the conductor holding onto a railing and alighting as the coaches came to a stop. There was usually someone getting on or off and I'll always remember the sawmill owner who was not too tall, a little portly, wearing a black homburg hat, a dark Prince Albert overcoat, pince-nez spectacles, swinging off a lower step carrying his valise and bringing with him the
important business air of Chicago, where his office was.
For the minute or two that the train was stopped, there was a bustle, an excitement, a connection with the outer world; from the big black locomotive standing restrained and champing at the bit, pulsating with power, the engineer blowing off steam, and the fireman stoking his cherry red fire with coal he shoveled from the tender; through the brightly lit coaches with their seats upholstered in either red or green plush and the interior finished in mahogany; to the conductor swinging his lantern in signal to the crew up front as he loudly drawled out "all 'board" and being answered by two toots (the highball) from the engine as the big pistons started to move the driving wheels forward. Then finally, as the green and red running lights on the last car disappeared in a swirl of cinders, snow and distance, all evidence of the visit quickly departed and life returned to normal.
Just as the rails were the shortest line between two points for trains, they often were for those who took the "footsteps limited." Walking the tracks wasn't the easiest thing because the ties then were hand-hewn on two sides only with a broad ax, resulting in many
different widths and not the machine cut squares in use today. Consequently, it was impossible to fall into any kind of stride. The sides of the roadbed were loose gravel which doesn't make good walking and try as we would we were never able to balance ourselves well enough to progress very far using the rails themselves as a sidewalk, probably because each rail had a crown.
The creaking of the rails always signaled the approach of a train still out of sight and it would soon be time to look for a place at the edge of the wide right-of-way to wait for him to pass, spewing black smoke and soot from his stack, leaving the foreign, pungent smell of burning coal and going "like sixty" as we used to say, even though, if it was a freight, he was probably only going twenty-five or thirty miles an hour. We were great friends with the train crew, or at least they always waved.
Wherever a cold, clear stream flowed beneath a trestle or through a culvert, there were, in summer, profusions of cowslips and patches of forget-me-nots. Wild strawberries galore grew alongside the rails and anyone who hasn't eaten a dish of this Michigan delicacy hasn't eaten strawberries! Picking them was a chore though, since they were only
about half the size of a small fingernail.
There was a lumber camp three miles down the track and late one midwinter after noon as the sun was setting the whole
family found itself heading for it because my father had some business with one of the men and we went along to keep him company. It was dark as we arrived and how welcome the yellow lamp light emanating from the various log buildings was, especially the cookhouse where the men were beginning to head as they came from work. It was customary in those days that any visitors be invited to eat if it was time and we were not allowed to be an exception to that rule. I had never eaten tomato soup before and how good it tasted. The tables were loaded with meat and potatoes and everything to go with it, to be capped off with raisin pie. That was new to me too, and I was astounded that raisins could be used to make a pie--and quite frankly, I preferred the ones that were in a box in the pantry at home out of which I occasionally had an opportunity to surreptitiously scoop a handful.
As the boy of the house I had certain important tasks detailed to me because there wasn't any button pushing in those days and without everyone doing his allotted chores no
household could function properly. It fell to me to split wood, carry water, shovel snow as required, go to the store, and so on.
Every evening after school, which started at nine in the morning and let out at four o'clock with an hour off at noon, if there were no errands to run, the first job was to fill the big wood bin that sat in a corner at the fire end of the large, black, nickel trimmed kitchen range. The wood for it came split into two or three inch thick slabs and these I further split into pieces just small enough to go into the firebox either through the top after removing the lid, or through the small front fire door. Somehow the bin seemed not to have a bottom because armload after armload disappeared into it. In the cold weather I also had to bring in the heavier segments of wood for the big, well-polished heating stove in the front room. All this wood came from piles of maple, beech, and yellow birch that I had previously stacked up neatly, right after the teamster had thrown it off the wagon or sleigh that brought it from the woodcutter.
There was a pump about fifty feet from the house that drew water from the deep well--a hundred sixty-five feet or so. It was my job to work the pump handle. I would fill
a couple galvanized pails at a time and carry them to the house making sure that the reservoir on the range and the large teakettle were filled. The teakettle was a very necessary utensil then and nothing was cozier or more cheerful than hearing it sing on the back of the stove.
On the weekend there was a demand for extra water. Saturday night, just before bed time, we observed the hallowed American tradition that for generations had set this particular day for taking a weekly bath. Hot water was dipped from the reservoir into the round galvanized steel tub set on the floor in front of the range with the oven door open if it was cold weather. Maybe not awfully convenient but it was effective and somehow there was never any indication that it wasn't often enough.
Monday was wash day, come rain or shine, and in preparation it was my responsibility Sunday afternoon, to carry water to fill the big copper boiler on top of the stove and one of the two steel tubs set on the wringer stand which was a folding wooden framework in the shape of a pair of extremely straight backed chairs placed back-to-back. It was a modern convenience of the day as hitherto, after scrub-
bing the clothes on a washboard with a strong yellow soap, and also after rinsing, the wringing was
done by hand. Now all the housewife had to do was turn the handle and the hard rubber rollers would draw the article through with excess water squeezed out, and drop it into the waiting tub. Some of the white clothes were boiled but I strongly suspect that this was more a formality than a necessity. Many are the times I came home after school and found my mother still with clothes hanging on the line, often frozen stiff in winter but with such a "nice clean smell" as she said. And she never seemed to feel abused which was sometimes more than I could say for myself when I wanted to go skiing but had to do my chores instead.
For the "old" folks (after all, my mother and father were past thirty), there was the occasional card game, usually five hundred, when another couple came over in the evening, or we went to their place. One winter's day, late in the afternoon, a friend of my father picked us up in his canvas-covered sleigh and drove us to his farm five or six miles away. The adults played cards and visited while we kids had our own games. It got to be later and later and I could hardly keep my eyes open
because it was way past bedtime. Eventually my parents insisted on going home and our host proffered to hitch up his team to the sleigh and drive us, but my father insisted that we would walk which didn't really appeal to my sister and me too well.
The winter road we had to take was through the swamp. The corduroy bed was covered with icy snow bordered by
snow banks. It was very cold and clear and the moon was out full and bright, casting shadows on the bluish white snow that covered the ground in the clearings where the trees had been cut and not grown up again. There were humps of snow atop brush piles with pointed, lance-like, dry cedar treetops protruding. It was a surrealistic landscape--one that only Dali could have painted. If I hadn't know my father to be fearless I would have been scared. I was anyway when we got close to town where the road led up out of the lowland into the hardwoods and past the cemetery where the stark shadows of the trees and the grave markers worked havoc on my young imagination, especially when we passed the large gravestone which bore the epitaph that reached out at me from beyond with the words, "As you are now, so once was I; as I am
now so will you be." But before long we were home, the fire stoked and banked for the night, the flannel pajamas sleepily struggled into and the bed covers tucked in to prepare us once again for tomorrow's bright new day.
And mostly the days were bright, bringing with them little experiences that seemed never to allow
a dull moment. Of course, there were the rare occasions when some tragedy or mystery of greater or lesser degree colored the day's events with sadness or wonder at why it had to happen. It was the process of growing up, one day at a time.
During the two or three months after our arrival, that we spent living in our tent pitched on the brow of the hill at the edge of the garden, we had acquired a real affection for both the little farm and its owner, a woman who, years before, had come to this part of the country with her husband and little girl, from the mountains of Kentucky. Shortly after they acquired the forty acres that comprised the farm, the husband had died and left the widow to bring up the daughter who since then had grown into full womanhood, and married and moved to a city in the lower Peninsula. Nothing daunted, the widow had improved her holding, it having at the time we
first saw it, a nice, fairly large, apple orchard that reached from the still standing virgin hardwood forest to the south, halfway along the property's frontage and to quite a depth. At the center of the land, and about forty feet back from the township road, stood her house, not large but attractively proportioned, sided with the same green, asphalt - base roofing as was used for the roof, only with each seam neatly covered with narrow stripping painted white as was all the other trim. Across a part of the front was a neat porch, with a smaller one on the south side, both of which led by a concrete sidewalk to the gate mounted in the wire link fence that delineated the front side of the property and bordered the road.
Between the house and the garden to the north, ran a fenced-in lane that led past the little red, white-trimmed barn where the hay was stored and where the Jersey cow was housed in the wintertime. It proceeded down a hill and was lined by maple trees whose branches reached out across it from each side, making in summer, a cool tunnel of shade and in the fall an arched ceiling of red and yellow leaves that floated down to earth to make a bright,
dappled carpet that the sun peeked at through an opening here and there and that
rustled crisply as you walked through them. It passed on one side, a little woodlot, and as the terrain leveled out, a pasture where Belle spent her days transforming the sweet meadow
grasses into milk and from which she every evening issued forth to amble up the hill to the dull tinkle of a cow bell strapped to her neck, and stand patiently at the barn,
waiting to be relieved of her day's production. On the other side was a large hayfield and a smaller potato field, both of which were fenced in and were entered by way of openings made by sliding three horizontal poles out of the way, allowing free entrance and egress.
It seemed only natural that as time went by we still maintained our connection with both farm
and owner. Sometimes we came to help dig potatoes, or pick and can strawberries or raspberries or some newly ripened vegetable such as string beans or peas, or we came just to
visit. Quite often we would be there long enough to stay for dinner and this would prompt our hostess to step on her back porch with her .22-caliber rifle, pick out a plump hen in the chicken yard that was safely separated from the others and nonchalantly shoot its head off as the first step to our meal. She was an equally sure shot when she went
"pa'tridge" hunting as she said in her gentle Southern drawl, or when she abruptly changed the place and destiny of the chicken hawk in his swoop to grab one of her flock.
But one day this purposeful woman appeared at our house and there were tears in her eyes. It seemed that someone had left the pole gate to the potato patch down. Belle had been tempted by the green vines which had been freshly sprayed with Paris Green to kill the potato bugs that always came in large numbers and were a serious threat to the crop at a vital stage of the plant's development. When the misfortune was discovered, it was already too late and the poor cow was enormously bloated and no effort to save her could have succeeded. It was not anonymous livestock that had been lost; it was part of the quality of life that had gone, something that left an emptiness.
One of the early adventures shared by the whole family occurred when my father acquired an old wooden rowboat and an outboard motor equally aged and heavy. Of course, we had to enjoy this new acquisition as soon as possible and since the only stream available to us and to which some sort of trail led, was a half mile or so away over an old
corduroy road, we had to push and pull on that monster of a boat all the way to the water.
A corduroy road is built of poles laid next to each other crosswise of the right-of-way through swampland or marsh, where the ground is not solid enough to allow any horses or wagons or sleighs, or even human beings to pass over it without sinking into the mire. It makes a good roadbed in the wintertime when the poles are frozen into place and covered over with packed snow and ice. Even during summer, as long as it is properly maintained, it can be used for light traffic. But once it is neglected, it becomes a jumbled mess of crisscrossed poles displaced by the high water that comes in the spring when the snow melts. It was a badly neglected one that was our thoroughfare and we struggled long and hard before reaching the clear water of the stream that flowed through marsh and woodland before it merged into the Tahquamenon River, eventually finding its way into Whitefish Bay and through the Saint Lawrence waterway to the ocean.
After the sandwiches we had brought along were dispatched, the motor was mounted on the boat and we were on our merry way.
It was a beautiful late summer day, and
every time we went around a bend in the river, the scenery was different. Now and then we'd scare up a long-legged water bird or a covey of partridge, but the motor made too much noise to allow us to surprise any animals such as deer, so my father took to turning it off as we approached what looked like an interesting stretch of river and since we were going downstream he would use the oars, which we fortunately had, to keep us in the middle of the narrow stream as we drifted along with the current. But, as luck would have it, the time came when he turned it off so well that it refused to start in spite of all the effort and coaxing that was expended on it, not to mention some excellent expletives.
We were several miles down the river without anything to eat and the first evening shadows already chilling the air. My father knew by hearsay that there was a trapper's line cabin which would have at least some provisions and afford us shelter for the night, somewhere near the mouth of the stream we were
traveling, but he didn't know how close we were to it. He also knew that he couldn't row back upstream very long before nightfall would overtake us, so he decided to go on downriver. After an hour or so, there being no
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sign of a cabin and since we were all getting tired it seemed prudent to find a dry bank and make camp
for the night while it was still daylight enough to gather wood for a fire and set the boat up as shelter. As darkness came on we found ourselves sitting around a campfire with our boat tipped, bottom up, one gunwale on the ground and the other supported by a couple of stout, forked branches, ready to serve as a lean-to where we could sleep, kept warm and dry by the fire. If only we had had something to eat we would have judged it to be cozy. But the dark of night closing in in the wilderness brings its own sense of isolation and lonesomeness, and several times as we slept under the protection of our makeshift lean-to, we were awakened by noises that sounded close and startling; the loudest one the alarmed snorting
of a buck that had been surprised by our presence and dutifully trumpeted his discovery to the far corners of his rightful domain. So we were not unhappy to see morning come and after attempting unsuccessfully to start our balky motor, set forth on the laborious effort of rowing upstream to home port. We eventually arrived there, and I never again saw or heard about
that outboard motor. We learned later that we had been quite close to the cabin that had for a short time become our goal. It had been put up by a man who spent his early life in the bustling automobile city of Detroit where he had partly raised a family of several girls and one boy when he decided to leave it all and head for the North Country, bringing only his son along. Before many
years went by he became a prosperous trapper and fur dealer by pushing his trap lines out into the more remote and inaccessible streams and forests where the best pelts
were. While he made town his headquarters, the center of his operation was a log cabin he had built near the Little
Falls a good two-day snowshoe trip away, so finding it expedient, he had put up this halfway shelter, keeping it provisioned with canned food, stove wood and blankets which anyone was free to use but expected to replenish next time through. The door was never locked.
One fall day the village was set buzzing with the news that the noonday passenger train
had discharged a pretty young lady passenger who bore all the telltale marks of the city, both in raiment and mien. This was far from a common occurrence and it became even
more interesting when she announced herself to be the oldest daughter of the trapper. She was determined to see her father whom she hadn't seen since she was a girl. It was arranged that she would stay with the lady who owned the farm atop the hill until her father could be found somewhere in the vast expanse of wilderness he roamed at will. Eventually he was located and made his way to his daughter, of whom he had known nothing for years. Though they were strangers to each other, the occasion was a happy one and father and daughter were often seen together. Those who met her were intrigued by this visitor from the outside world of the Roaring Twenties; of youth, and of vivacity. Her very being implied close acquaintance with the fashion of the flapper, with the Charleston, with fast automobiles and, perchance, some acquaintance with the naughtiness of the speakeasy. After all, it was the decade of flaming youth with always a promise of wealth for many and prosperity for all, at least in the urban centers.
To further feed the fires of curiosity, shortly after, a young man of urbane appearance and manner appeared in town and found his way to the little farm. It was soon
made known that he was the affianced of the young lady and that they were to be married the first weekend when the circuit riding preacher would be in town for his monthly officiation over a non-denominational church held in the spare room at the school. It was my first experience with a wedding and I was impressed, as were all those who attended the service, at the sparkle of the wedding party and the evident generosity of the bride's father. It had become common knowledge that the daughter in coming north, had sought only
reconciliation and the blessing of her father before her marriage. But after the
ceremony and the
departure of the bridal pair on their honeymoon, a nasty rumor originated that the
young bride wasn't really the trapper's daughter but an acquaintance of the family in Detroit, who had effected a credible impersonation and had thus been able to collect a sizable dowry. It remained a question that occasioned animated conversation for a long time to come.
There was an acceptance of and a gratitude for life, both the sunshine and the storms. Even the spectre of death seem
natural and not so grim; seemed less a penalty
for living than a reward; nor was it ever
present as it is today. But there were two tragedies that intruded deeply into the normal events of everyday life. One involved the son of the trapper and happened a year or so after the wedding. The
boy had grown into young manhood and being slow of thought and action, had been employed by his father to pack provisions, run errands and otherwise make himself useful within the limits of his capabilities. On one of his trips for supplies he failed to appear at his destination and after allowing some extra time for reasonable delays, a search was mounted. It was known that he had been
traveling the rivers between points and before long searchers found his heavily laden canoe partway up on a low bank with the body of the young man beside it partly in the water and partly on dry land. It appeared that he had been stricken while paddling along and had beached his craft, started to wade ashore when he fell unconscious, hemorrhaged severely and died. Even though everything pointed to natural causes, there were those who were excited by the speculation that foul play had been involved, that perhaps the father had lost patience with his son and had dealt him a mortal blow, of which there was no evidence.
The second tragedy to strike home, occurred when two boys about twelve or thirteen, went rabbit hunting one afternoon after school. They walked along the railroad track for a couple of miles where they turned off and took the corduroy road for about a quarter mile to an abandoned logging camp that had been built on the bank of the winding river. From the camp there were trails that led out in different directions, and they decided to separate and follow neighboring paths that branched out through a thick cedar swamp, hoping to scare up a rabbit or two. It was well into the fall and, anticipating the cool of the evening, both boys had worn heavy clothing which unfortunately was of dark material. Unfortunately, because as they returned after meeting at their rendezvous point, still separated and out of sight of each other, the one caught a glimpse of a bear through the trees. Quickly putting his .22 caliber rifle to his shoulder, he aimed and fired. His aim was good, the quarry dropped to the ground but as the young hunter rushed over to where it fell, the
elation and excitement he had first felt turned to horror as he saw his companion lying dead and still, with a bullet hole through the heart.
That night they were sad men who bore the little man on a makeshift litter over the trail out of the swamp and up the track as the stars twinkled in their dark heavens above. They were very quiet; what was there to be said?
* * *
Around 1924 or 1925 the automobile had begun to appear on some of the crude backwoods roads, the Wire Road being one. State highways had just started to connect the towns in the Upper Peninsula and most of the secondary roads were still hardly passable. At about this time my father managed to acquire a much used 1918 Dodge Brothers touring car for a hundred dollars (paid in installments of ten dollars a month) and apparently decided that he and his family would be missing something if we didn't get up to the blueberry country around Shelldrake for a week or two. Economically, it was highly feasible because there was at least one buyer on location, who would sell you food and supplies out of his temporary store, a large tent, and buy your day's picking which, if they were nice clean berries, he would stamp "Extry Fancy Hand
Picked" on the case and ship them down to Chicago or Detroit. There was always an air of excitement around a berry camp. Many pickers liked to pitch their tents close to the dealer's and it became a small town for the duration of the blueberry season; four to six weeks. When the people who had been out all day straggled back dead tired, carrying the results of their labor to be sold, it was a lot like the old gold camps probably were.
Everybody watched everybody else to see if they had larger berries, which direction they came from or headed to. Just about everyone compared notes to find out where the biggest, best patches were, how far away and so on. And mostly, the information leaked
was highly unreliable. There was a good reason for subterfuge, because while good berry picking was done by hand, there were always the greedy, lazy ones who horned in with their mechanical pickers and cradles that stripped the bushes of all berries, ripe and green, and most of the leaves, ruining the patch for others. They spent more time winnowing than picking and were pretty much looked down on.
Whether people came to make money or just for enjoyment there was a spirit of
camaraderie and good nature that led to friendships that lasted for years. To us it was a lark, a vacation
that more than paid for itself and we repeated it two or three seasons. What fun it was to run barefoot on the white sand beach that extended for miles, or walk maybe a quarter mile into the bay on a sand bar, and have the water come only to your waist. We picked blueberries yes; but not beyond the point of having fun.
In the evening after the day's picking was over and the full crates were dropped off at the dealer's counter, supper was cooked somehow on the open campfire with stones located to support the utensils.
After eating, my sister and I would join some newfound friends of our own age and engage in activities that only kids can think of. As twilight came on we would drift back to our tents dead tired but still not willing to concede that the day was just about done. Sitting around the campfire, kept going because, when the sun
set, the Lake Superior air became quite cool, we would watch and listen to the nighthawks (which we called bullbats) in their power dives with beak wide open to scoop in insects and causing them to make sounds not at all melodious and out of all proportion to
their size. Then as darkness came on we would see the yellow moon in all its fullness rise beyond the bay and hang low over the water casting a shimmering silver
path across its surface. And about that time, the sandman struck. Since the grown-ups weren't ready to retire they kept their voices subdued and we were able to drift off into untroubled sleep, listening to the lowered conversation that came easily through the canvas walls and watching the flickering fire's illumination on the flaps. It took only a few moments to slip into the arms of Morpheus even though the bed was almost as hard as the ground on which it was made; it was softened only by the hundreds of brakes we had gathered to serve as mattresses when we pitched the tent and which lost much of their resilience after a couple of nights of sleeping on them.
The only sound that occasionally intruded upon a good night's sleep was the booming of the foghorn at the point, about ten miles to the north, and in the morning the guy ropes and eaves would be dripping with moisture brought in and settled by the fog.
* * *
Sounds were cheerful then; they couldn't really be called noise. The school bell rang out clearly and authoritatively at nine o'clock, at one o'clock and at the end of both recesses; the mill whistle started at seven o'clock to signal its daily schedule of starting and stopping times. The North Woods were not yet oppressed by the noises and smells of mechanization that were to come later; the chain saw, the diesel tractors, the heavy logging trucks. The crosscut saw still rang out cheerily in the woods and the ax sounded its rhythm in the hands of the chopper.
At the mill, the sixteen foot hardwood logs that floated in the "soup hole" as they called the large, concrete-walled pond used for washing off the dirt were guided by a man with a long pike pole over to an endless chain with sharp dogs that dug into the wood and, clanking and groaning, carried them up to the inclined trough to the second story and to the large circular saw that would cut them into workable lengths. Some lengths went one way to become butter bowls, others went another route to be processed into rolling pins or broom handles or sundry other items.
It took a lot of ingenuity to devise the machinery and the procedure for producing this
variety of woodenware and the men who worked on them became so proficient at it they came to regard themselves (and be regarded) as specialists. Humble as it might seem today, many of them aspired to be nothing more than a broom handle expert, or a rolling pin or butter bowl expert and they took pride in their expertise. There were little secret techniques that they had developed for themselves and which they guarded zealously to pass on to their sons. For every product there are by-products and some of those that came from the mill were far removed from their original purpose. Many a house built up there then had as lumber, boards of hard maple or beech or birch, about an inch thick, slightly longer that a finished broom handle, and several inches wide, that had warped out of flat or cracked during the steaming or drying process and were sold cheaply as scrap. It would have astounded a journeyman carpenter to watch one of these houses develop. First of all, the studding, the rafters and the other support members were poles of a uniform, workable diameter and length because no two-by-fours or two-by-sixes were then locally available. Most of the work was done in the evening after a man had put
his ten hours in or on Sunday, his day off. As the hours wore on the daylight waned, the enthusiasm of the hammer and the hand saw gradually subsided, but eventually came the moment, often just before the snow flew, when the last board was fitted into place and the strips of tar paper were tacked to the walls and the roof. The windows, usually a single frame with six panes, were nailed into a rough casement and pieces of cloth were tamped in around them to keep the drafts out. Except for the big cedar posts sunk into the ground to serve as support, there was no foundation, and to keep the wind from whistling up through the cracks in the floor, a crib was built around the bottom of the house and filled with dirt. There was no ceiling and in many cases nothing was done to cover the bare boards and poles that composed the interior walls except sometimes to cover them with thick construction paper or newspapers tacked or stuck with a homemade flour paste to the wood, more for the practical purpose of keeping the warmth in than for any esthetic consideration. Another by-product of the mill was the butter or chopping bowls that went through a long, tedious process from the time they were turned out of a section of tree trunk on an
ingenious lathe, through steaming, drying, sanding and tumbling in a paraffin wax and coarse sawdust until they were finally accepted for shipping or rejected for cracks or blemishes. These bowls ranged in diameter from six inches to thirty-some inches and had many uses but at that stage of my life there was only one use that seemed important. It was as a vehicle to sit in and ride downhill following a groove that had been worked into the snow on a hillside by repeated usage. There was a deep depression on the edge of town that we called "The Devil's Pocket." Because it was steep it afforded the fastest ride in a waxed bowl, and by the time you reached the bottom and part way up the opposite side, having swirled around a couple times on the way down, it was a very exciting experience. I'm sure that none of us then realized just how dangerous it was, because if we had careened out of the slippery track and slammed into one of the numerous tree trunks along the way it would have been a disaster. But somehow, no one was ever hurt. It can easily be seen that there was a dearth of cultural advantages. My sister and I were lucky enough to have parents who recognized this, but nevertheless brought us up
to know that there were fields of endeavor throughout the world that reflected something called culture. While we had no access to art or music (except on a gramophone), we were indoctrinated in the appreciation of good literature because of my father's penchant for reading aloud to his family. I will never forget the feeling that came over me the snowy Sunday afternoon that he started reading David Copperfield. What a different world it was in the book; what a far cry from the realities of life in the North Woods! We were taught the basic manners that anyone needed in his relationship with other people and those that one used at the table. There was no attempt made at the finer points of etiquette since that would have been superfluous, considering our surroundings.
Aside from the automobile, the latter twenties also saw the advent of Coleman gasoline lamps which gave a lot more light than the old kerosene lamps. The sad irons which made more drudgery as the final step in doing the week's wash, were replaced by a gasoline iron. No longer was it necessary to heat those small, boat-shaped iron masses on top of a hot fire in the kitchen range, using a detachable handle to lift a hot one off the
stove and use it for ironing until it became too cool to perform its function properly and had to be reheated. In contrast, the new one was shiny nickel with a little bulb-shaped tank for the fuel and a generator inside the iron which turned the gasoline into gas and fed the blue flame that heated the iron. And the new Maytag washing machine driven by a little gasoline engine made doing the laundry almost a
pleasure. Radios were beginning to appear in the homes of those who could afford them. They operated on a six-volt storage battery that required frequent recharging. We all marveled that such a phenomenon existed--hearing a voice hundreds of miles away at the same moment it spoke.
Sunday evenings during the winter months the man who owned a grocery store and a modest hardware store would push his hardware stock to one side, set up some benches, bring out his projector and screen and show movies. He charged ten cents admission, juvenile or adult. As a rule, the movie would be composed of seven or nine reels of film and that meant shutting down and reloading the projector periodically. Except for the audience that followed the action enthusias-
tically, and the noise of the projector, the film was silent. Usually the picture would be a western and there was always a lot of action in them. I learned then, of course, that the good guys always wear white hats and the bad guys wear black.
* * *
The years went by and for reasons I never knew, my father lost out on the school job to someone else--I always suspected politics. The mill had been rebuilt shortly after it burned but they seldom hired anymore. Except for an occasional block of timber here and there that the owners were hanging on to, the forests had been cut, leaving desolation and unemployment. Most of the lumberjacks had headed out to the Northwestern States where the tall timber was. So it was
decided that because of our unprosperous condition, my father would go to Chicago, find work and line things up for us to move down. The unfortunate thing about it was that he got there a few days after the stock market crash of October, 1929. The "no help wanted" signs were already out and what was to be known as the Great Depression had
set in. After spending a couple of weeks "pounding the pavement" he became convinced that they meant it and rejoined his family up north. Hard times are a thief--a thief that robs the heart and the spirit. It changes smiles to frowns and puts a damper on hope. It affects individuals and nations. It is all well and good to try to be optimistic, but there comes an end to that, too. My parents tried to reflect confidence but they couldn't quite conceal their worries.
The worst blow of all was to hit the family about six months after my father's return from the city. My mother slipped and fell, striking the lower part of the spine against the corner of some concrete, fracturing two vertebrae. Twelve days later she died and happiness
A year or so went by and the Depression became worse and worse with no end in sight. My father meanwhile had inherited a fair amount of money in his native country but the circumstances were such that it could not be sent to him in the States. So it was decided that he and I would move to Denmark. Enough money was sent to him for transportation. To take us to New York City, he bought a second hand car, a Baby Overland for fifty dollars, intending to sell it just before boarding the boat that would carry us to our destination. We loaded what was left of our belongings,
Yes, happiness disappeared in more than one way. My sister who had been my constant companion during those years of childhood adventure and shared with me the penalties exacted for inevitable misadventures, went to live with "Aunt Lu" in a pleasant town a few miles from Buffalo. My father's hitherto cheerful disposition was changed by his grief and the lack of prosperity anywhere around. I missed my mother desperately. Every family normally has sorrows like this but somehow life does go on and the sharpness becomes dulled with the passage of time.
ourselves and Chum, our dog, in the car and headed for the Big City. The roads in those days weren't the best and neither were automobiles but eventually we reached Upstate New York and visited my sister to say "good-bye" again and pushed on. It was a few days after Halloween and the countryside was at its fall best; the corn had been cut and stood in shocks, pumpkins galore still lay in the fields and grapes were for sale everywhere, even given away in large baskets when you bought ten gallons of gas. Everything went well until we got to Nyack, when, for a few seconds disaster stared us right straight in the face. Going down a long, fairly steep hill approaching a main intersection in the business district the traffic signal turned red and there was obvious consternation from the driver's side as he pushed the brake pedal to the floor, threw the transmission into low gear and pulled on the so-called emergency brake for all he was worth and we still went through the red light at about, or somewhat over the speed limit.
We managed to get to a garage out of town a little and after the brakes were repaired, since it was evening, we retraced our steps to a nearby hamlet where we were able
to rent a modest "tourist room." After a good night's rest we arose early to continue our journey. It wasn't long before the newly opened George Washington Bridge came into sight and when we got close enough we parked the car in a Palisades garage, paid our dime apiece and walked across. Arriving at the New York side, we continued afoot down Riverside Drive to the vicinity of Times Square where we inquired from a traffic policeman the directions to the Grand Central Post Office to pick up some special mail and then on to the Danish Consulate where we expected to obtain
the papers necessary
to enter Denmark. The news wasn't good in this regard and we were asked to return the
next day when a higher
official would be there.
We were accustomed to walking twenty or so miles a day but walking all the way back to our car was a little too much of a challenge so we decided to take the subway. All day long I had acted as nonchalant as I could, knowing only too well that hobnailed boots, sheepskin coat and nondescript cap were not conventional New York attire. I had purposely avoided gawking straight up too much, and although I was deeply impressed by the pretty
city girls, I refrained from paying them undue attention. But taking the subway during the rush hour was something else. Unless you've been there yourself you can't possibly imagine how difficult it was to pass through the turnstile after dropping your nickel in the slot, acting as though you'd done it hundreds of times before, instead of never. Next day we drove down to Weehawken and took the ferry across to 42nd Street. We spent several days going back and forth trying to get our papers in order. I know I'll never forget Times Square and its surroundings with big movie theaters, marquees brightly lit and the smell of popcorn that emanated from the lobbies. How interesting it was to stand in the Battery and watch the Conte di Savoia, the first gyro-stabilized ocean liner, coming majestically up the Hudson River. And what a thrill it was to stand at the rail of the ferryboat in the evening twilight, watching the river traffic scurry along, the giant Lipton Tea sign illuminated off in the distance, and the lights of Manhattan dropping farther and farther astern.
My father had lost Danish citizenship by being naturalized in Canada and was no longer considered Canadian by virtue of his having
declared his intention to become an American citizen. In short, no country was willing to accept responsibility for anyone who might conceivably, because of depressed conditions, become an added burden on their economy. This of course meant that all efforts had been in vain and we headed back up north, knowing full well that our situation would be even worse than before. Winter was just setting in when we arrived back where we started and arranged to move into an old log shack, the roof of which leaked like a sieve. The wind whistled through the chinking between the logs which were nothing more than unpeeled poles with moss wedged in between. When the snow came it was easy to bank enough of it against the walls to seal them up a little, and since there was plenty of firewood to be had for the cutting we weren't too uncomfortable. It wasn't long before we became aware that we shared accommodations with some other residents, the first sign of which occurred as I cooked pancakes for supper one evening. My father was taking his ease on the bed, reading Les Miserables aloud in the light from a kerosene lamp while I was at the other side of the cabin where we had a Coleman gas stove sitting on a wide shelf
table attached to the wall. It wasn't very light on my side but as I added some flapjacks to the stack on the platter, I saw a little field mouse sitting with his front feet on the edge of the plate, nibbling away, enjoying this unfamiliar treat. His small bright eyes looked up at me interestedly and then he turned back to his meal
unconcernedly. I convinced him by threatening gestures that he hadn't been invited and he disappeared into the darkness. In ten months my father took in ninety dollars repairing watches, alarm clocks, spectacle frames and so on. There was some bartering involved, such as selling a rebuilt pocket watch for four dollars--two dollars cash, a couple dozen ears of corn, an ax, an old Coleman gasoline lamp without a globe, and last but not least, a coyote pelt that I later sold for two dollars to a young affluent tourist. There was something about selling that pelt that bothered me; I'm pretty sure the inside of the tail had not been removed during the skinning process.
One day when we were desperately low in funds, an old Norwegian lumberjack who lived alone four or five miles down the road, in a shack which he kept
as neat as military quarters, came walking along in front of our
place and stopped to pass the time of day with us.
It wasn't long before my father had sold him a nice, reliable, seven-jewel Waltham pocket watch in a yellow gold-filled case, for one dollar. The thing about the deal that I didn't like was that it was in my watch pocket, a present from my father after he had carried it for some years and had been able to replace it with a better one. As if this hadn't been enough, a nickel key chain which I wore, one end through a belt loop and the other end in my pocket with a few keys that had lost any identity, became a subject of bargaining. I had always felt that it gave my otherwise drab attire a certain dash, but feelings had to be ignored for ten cents cash. A good pair of scissors that had been in my mother's sewing kit and which I had lately been using, came to attention and, to my great chagrin, were sold for twenty-five cents.
It was a precarious living, a hand-to-mouth existence but we always realized that so many had it far worse than we. Even when things were at their worst, something always turned up to provide us with the necessities. We had each other for company; we had a roof over our heads (such as it was),
something to eat--maybe only pancakes three times a day when things were bad. We both had our health and above all we had hope. Not like the man who, no longer having a family, lived alone
way out in a hardwood slashing. He froze a foot while cutting wood and it became gangrenous so he couldn't walk. After several weeks of being taken to a country doctor and always getting worse, he put an end to loneliness and despair and misery with a bullet.
And then opportunity knocked at my door; a steady job in the sawmill. There was true equality among all the employees, both old and new; the pay was seven and a half cents per hour, ten hours a day, six days a week. There were no coffee breaks, no sick pay or insurance, no benefits of any kind. Saturday night after the whistle blew at six o'clock everyone lined up to get a check for $4.50
(if you hadn't lost any time). But it was better than relief where a man and wife received $2.50 every two weeks. After a few weeks there was an abortive strike, and again I was unemployed.
Meanwhile my father had spread word around that he was wanting to sell his car, the Overland for fifty dollars since as he said, he
couldn't afford to buy the license for it, let alone buy gas at twelve and a half cents a gallon. A young family man who had a job and needed a car to go back and forth to work had forty acres of land that he wanted to sell, so they started dickering. After some weeks of negotiating and bluffing, a deal was finally consummated that gave my father the forty acres and five dollars to boot, providing he paid the back taxes which amounted to something under three dollars.
The property lay a half mile off any road, at the foot of the area's last remaining ridge of virgin hardwood timber. Half of it was sandy knolls that had been lumbered over years ago--mostly pine--and the back half was swamp, with plenty of tall, straight balsam and spruce for a log cabin which was the main reason for buying it. We picked a nice hilltop, where there were clumps of white birch intermingled with conifers and set about building a one-room log house about eighteen feet by twelve feet.
We leveled off the site and sank some substantial cedar posts into the ground to support our building. Then we picked out and felled enough trees that didn't taper too much and gave us as much uniformity as possible.
We peeled the bark off the logs as we cut them, and it being the latter port of spring or the early part of
summer, the pitched oozed freely and the mosquitoes that were so plentiful in the swamp plagued us unmercifully.
There was only one way to get the logs from one side of the forty to the other, where our building site was and that was to tie two ropes around one end of the log and each of us take a rope over our shoulder and pull, pull, pull. It was hard work but it was gratifying to see the logs, neatly notched and matched one atop the other, round by round take shape as
A trail wound down through the woods and we brushed it out so that a team of horses could deliver a load of lumber close to where we needed it. Hemlock lumber, locally cut, at that time sold for eight dollars a thousand. We put in a window on each side and one in each end. They came from an abandoned lumber camp and with due permission from the owner's representative, we hauled them out in packsacks a distance of maybe ten miles, over a broken-up corduroy road, a stretch along the railroad tracks and then the last lap down the trail that led to our future home base.
We didn't finish our project until in the
fall. Sometimes we were held up for the lack of money and, of course, during the summer when the thermometer read in the eighties we declared it too warm to work and went swimming in the cool, clear water of a nearby lake.
But the day came when the floor had been laid, the last shingle was in place and the Airtight stove that would serve for heating and at times cooking, was installed. We built single bunks in the two north corners by nailing boards to posts cut to a length that would give us the proper height and we made our "springs" out of saplings of a fairly uniform size which we nailed at the butt end alternately to the headboard and the footboard. The length of the saplings was enough to allow the free ends to slide on their boards as weight was applied to the center of the bed without slipping off. Some small, select evergreen boughs came next and a tick filled with straw served as mattress.
And then on Armistice Day, 1933, we moved in. Once again the packsacks and the tumplines did yeoman service but it was nice to "roll in," dead tired that night and drift off to sleep breathing air redolent of fresh balsam and spruce logs and the dry cedar chinking.
During the next few days we busied ourselves settling in. I put some of the white curtains that my mother had had, on the four windows which in itself made ours a nontypical North Woods cabin. We built a rough bookcase and a cupboard out of some leftover lumber. And then I went back to work in the mill.
It was the year that Franklin D. Roosevelt took office as President and with him came new hope and anticipation. During the summer had come accounts of what was going to be done to help get all the country back on its feet. His announcements about the NRA (National Recovery Administration), the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), about bank insurance policies, and Social Security, all served to give us back our courage and our confidence. He knew that he'd have to fight hard to get his policies enacted and fight many factions. He did and won. He was the first President who ever sincerely cared about the American working man. He raised the wages of many
by declaring a minimum wage of fifteen cents per hour, and it was through his efforts that the standard work week eventually became forty hours with time and a half for anything over the forty hours.
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We knew it would take a while before any of these new, ideas would affect us very much in our isolated part of the world, but meanwhile we kept body and soul together and dreamed of the time when the Depression would end.
To go to work meant getting up fairly early in the morning; five or five thirty, eat a breakfast of pancakes, make five or six sandwiches (usually cold bean sandwiches) and head up the trail through the hardwoods, lighting my way with a miniature kerosene lantern. As the winter deepened, so did the snow, making the use of skis or snowshoes very practical. We each had a pair of skis, they being much cheaper than snowshoes, and although it was all uphill for me in the morning, I made good time coming home in the evening. When I arrived at the head of the trail I would leave them standing up against a tree, and take the township road the rest of the way.
How well I remember the dark, almost black sky--they say it always gets darkest just before dawn--with its myriad bright, twinkling stars. And the air, clear and cold and silent except for the occasional crack of one of the forest trees adjusting itself to the temperature. Sometimes it would be storming
Book Page 76
and the wind, loaded with snow, would roar through the treetops, pruning the trees of their weak or dead branches that fell noisily to the ground.
One such morning after finding my way over the fresh snow that obscured the trail, it didn't take me long to realize that this wind coming straight out of the north, bearing snowflakes that were hard and cutting like little pellets of ice, was somewhat more than usual. Most of the two miles or so that I had to travel, I faced due north. With sheepskin coat tightly buttoned, collar turned up, cap pulled down over my ears and eyes as much as possible, I bent my head down and wended my way to work, vowing to myself that if I ever got to California or Florida, I would never again live in snow country! With head still bent I walked up the steep ramp that led to the second floor of the mill, reached my hand out to pull the door open and at that moment, raising my eyes I saw below me nothing but smoldering embers, twisted saws and metal frames. The mill had completely burned to the ground.
I was nineteen and eye-to-eye with the future. I had temporarily quit school in the middle of my sophomore year but never returned because the township school only went through grade ten. However, my father prodded me into an interest in foreign languages and since he had the necessary grammars and dictionaries and a quantity of books such as Arabian Nights in French, The Count of Montecristo in Spanish and sundry others, all that was needed was ambition on my part. There was of course, no way of knowing beforehand, but as it turned out, I was to spend the next three years living in the cabin, and later in life I came to regret not taking full advantage of my father's linguistic and teaching abilities. He had an excellent knowledge of French and a good command of Italian, Spanish, German and his native language, plus a smattering of several others.
Not that it would have been a waste of time just taking each day as it came along.
Living conditions were, of course, quite primitive. There was no electricity except for some 32-volt Delco generators with their banks of batteries, that supplied direct current for
lights and refrigeration in the two general merchandise stores, a silver fox ranch and the school. The mill had its own powerhouse which survived the fires. And nowhere except at the school was there such a thing as indoor plumbing. Using a yoke we carried our water in two good-sized buckets from a natural spring at the far corner of the forty and which we eventually led by a ditch to a large wooden barrel sunk into the ground at the foot of the knoll where our house was built. Firewood mostly came from swampland that
had a good supply of dead tamaracks which we cut into six-or eight-foot lengths and carried on our shoulders up to a sawbuck near the house, sawed into stove lengths and split to a convenient size. But we also enjoyed some of life's little amenities. For several years we had subscribed to the Literary
Digest, a weekly newsmagazine similar to today's Time, which kept us somewhat informed, and somehow we had contrived to get a six-volt battery table radio. In those days there was a wide variety of talent on the air; operas narrated by Milton Cross, classical music interspersed with operatic arias sung
by people like Lawrence Tibbet, Vivian della Chiesa, Lily Pans, Kirsten
Flagstad and if you wanted something lighter there was the W.L.S. Barn Dance and other contemporary music. Early in the morning, Nuevo Laredo and Villa Acuna, just across the border from Texas in Mexico, with powerful transmitters broadcast Western music and the messages that were illegal to broadcast in the U.S., advertising questionable or downright harmful patent medicines or Dr. Brinkley's "goat transplant" to restore virility, and hordes of religious charlatans squeezing fortunes out of the gullible, a dollar at a time. Never to be forgotten were the comedy programs of Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Fibber McGee and Mollie and the dramatic performances with realistic sound effects that brought the protagonists right into your home, such as Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce's Dr. Watson. There was the world of fantasy that conjured up "The Shadow," and "The Green Hornet." Interesting, intelligent speeches, often humorous, delivered at national club luncheons as well as other occasions were broadcast for the edification of the many listeners who couldn't be there in person. In another vein, aimed directly at the more serious radio audience were such programs as "The University of Chicago Round Table ."
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So I was not unaware of the outside world and I was certain that some day I would enter
it. For the time being though, I had to be content with the new dimensions my life was taking on through the media of radio and environment. Radio made the world larger- environment made it smaller.
Out of some cedar lumber we built a bench of suitable size and height for watch repairing and it seemed like a good idea for me to learn what I could about a trade that, although I might not have chosen it for my life's work, would serve as a passport to a world that had to be "set on fire."
There isn't a lot of theory in the repairing of timepieces; it is mostly a matter of a sharp eye, steady nerves, patience, and a lot of practice, but a thorough knowledge of what makes the ticks and the tocks is nevertheless, essential. An appreciation of the history of timepieces, which goes back many centuries, their construction, and the variety of men, some of them geniuses like Galileo, da Vinci and many other physicists and mathematicians who developed theories, principles and equations that eventually found their way into practical application, is helpful and highly desirable. Although it may not be essential to
repairing a watch or clock of today it is interesting to know that the first constructed timepiece of which we have any record, was the sundial mentioned in
Second Kings of the Bible, going back to the 8th century B.C. Of course, the sun was necessary to cast the shadow of the gnomen on the dial, so man invented several other devices for counting time day or night, such as the clepsydra or water clock which gauged the level of water as it dripped from one vessel to another, candles with hour notches cut into them, lamps with graduations marked in the container showing the amount of oil consumed and translated into time. Then, too, the hour glass was around for centuries. Three or four hundred years ago clocks were made with only an hour hand but later, as skill and need advanced, a minute hand was added, followed by the introduction of the second hand on portable timepieces that were constantly being pushed into greater accuracy, especially to meet navigational requirements and by the advent of the railroads. Besides the extreme accuracy attainable in a fine watch, novel functions were brought in to delight the richer patron; such as the pocket watch that, aside from telling time in the conventional manner,
chimed the hour, the quarter, and the minute when a slide was pushed; that simultaneously timed two running horses to a split second, showed on the dial the phase of the moon, had a calendar works that would automatically correct for the varying lengths of the months and for leap years. Theoretically, it would run for almost four hundred years without having to have any manual correction made. Or, of simpler motif, the oval-shaped watch made for the last Empress of China with fifty seed pearls set in the bezel to commemorate her fiftieth birthday. The novelty here was that the delicate, elaborate gold hands shortened themselves as they approached the narrow part of the oval and lengthened themselves for the long part. The artistic and mechanical variety of devices is infinite.
It was into this enchanting world that I was modestly introduced at the crude bench set in the light from our north window, there being no electricity for either lamp or turning lathe. But it was years before I saw, let alone worked on, these complicated timepieces.
Even with interests, winter always becomes long and it was nice to see the signs of spring, the season of promise. The snow through the woods became wet and mushy so
was almost impossible to walk through it or to use skis. The packed snow of the trail stuck out like the backbone of some giant, emaciated animal. As the snow melted, the icy cold water rippled down the trail, and where there were bare spots off to the side, the small pink and white flowers of trailing arbutus announced that Nature was really shedding her winter mantle. In another month or so the gentle south wind would caress the forest and as the trees'
foliage began to swell out of dormancy, the trilliums, the mayflowers, Dutchman's breeches and the adder's-tongue would pop up overnight out of the soil enriched by centuries of fallen leaves.
It wasn't only the flowers and the trees that came alive again. The birds sang more lustily and were busier; the whole world changed outlook; even the people were more cheerful. The Canada geese that had headed south the previous fall, in
vee-shaped formation, headed north now, traveling non-stop day and night in wave after wave, honking as they hurried to their acknowledged breeding area. There is nothing more stirring than to see a flock high overhead, to hear their honk and, not being able to understand them, still realize that they convey orders and communications to
the flock and to the other components of their world as they unhesitatingly find their way to a fixed destination, guided by what we loosely refer to as instinct.
In the middle of one of the early spring nights we were awakened by some unusual clumps on our shingle roof. I would have been willing to just let them go away by themselves but this didn't happen even when I pulled the blankets up over my head. Knowing by the noise that it had to be a bear at least as large as a grizzly and since my father carried the defense weapon--a broom made of cedar tips tied to the end of a stick--I let him lead the way. It turned out to be two large porcupines that apparently had climbed up the radio antenna pole that was attached to the overhang of the roof. I can only surmise that
they let too many "stars get in their eyes." Except for his appearance, a porcupine is not a
ferocious animal and by using the broom adroitly but not excessively, we convinced them to depart, leaving behind five or six long quills struck in the broom.
We had been working outside for a couple of weeks, cleaning up around the house and clearing out the tag alders that had overgrown a small swale separating our home ridge from
Book Page 87
the next one that led into the woods, laying corduroy across the swampy part that couldn't sustain a trail otherwise. One evening after finishing supper we were out looking over the results of our efforts when we spotted a big porcupine waddling along our trail towards the cabin.
Nature seems to have arranged it so that porkies don't have a lot going for them. They are ungainly, move slowly, are very near sighted, and have the disadvantage of an unprepossessing appearance, especially after they have been alerted to danger and sit hunched up with very little of
themselves showing except their only protection, erected quills and a quill-loaded tail that can strike out at an attacking foe with disastrous results. There are misconceptions about these, mostly inoffensive animals. They cannot throw their quills, but anything touching them will easily draw them out and the barb will continue to embed itself deeper and deeper. I have seen cases where dogs had to have them painfully pulled out of their noses with pliers. Naturally, human nature being what it is, if you have a dog that attacks a porcupine and gets a mouthful, the logical thing to do is kill the
Unfortunately, the porcupine has the
normal taste for salt and he has the sharp, sturdy teeth to gnaw any wood that has a trace in it, such as ax handles which, through
absorbing perspiration acquire a salty flavor. Also, in hunting camps and the like that are uninhabited for long periods of time the out houses get worked over. Then, too, a part of their normal diet consists of tree bark and occasionally they kill a tree by chewing too enthusiastically all the way around, usually near the top. This gives the pretext to shoot them
on sight. Everyone ignores the fact that before the white man cut them all down we had the most abundant, beautiful forests possible in spite of the porcupine population remaining intact for centuries except for the relatively
few killed by Indians for the quills which they used as personal adornment.
Fortunately for this one ambling
up our trail, neither my father nor I believed in killing unnecessarily. In fact, something possessed us to break up a slice of bread and lay it along the trail to see if he would eat it. Not only did he eat it all before leaving but he reappeared next day about the same time and we repeated our bread offering, leading him closer to our door. He continued to come around every evening and in short order came
lumbering through the open doorway showing no sign of fear but making himself completely at home. Our dog Chum, having once gone through the quills in the nose routine, gave him wide berth expressing his incompatibility by lying on one of our bunks and growling any time that berth narrowed. Porky, on the other hand tried several times to make friends with Chum.
That was probably the first time a porcupine had been deliberately invited into anybody's house and quite frankly we looked forward to seeing him. We enjoyed handing him a slice of bread and seeing him sit back on his hindquarters bracing himself against his stout tail, and supporting his "elbows" on his haunches, holding the bread in both his front paws. He would eat it through the middle and drop one piece to the floor concentrating on what seemed usually to be the larger piece. Sitting up like this exposed his Buddha-like gray belly, quill-less and almost hairless. We would reach down and tickle him there at which he would let out an impatient "unh-unh," stamp a foot on the floor and twist himself around a little, all the while continuing to eat. As soon as he had cleaned up the crumbs he made it apparent that he was ready and
waiting. He'd do away with three or four slices of bread, sometimes even more. I had been in the habit of putting my forefinger down where he could reach it while he was eating and he'd wrap what was almost like an infant's hand with very long "fingernails" around it and hold on. This time we had run out of bread but let him come in anyway and when he sat down I stuck my finger out towards him. Grabbing it he must have mistaken my nail for bread because he quickly sank a sharp, brown incisor into my finger deep enough to draw blood, surprising him as much as me.
It takes time to develop an affinity for one's surroundings but it came to me that here, in the wilderness almost primeval, was another species that had required just as much care and planning in its creation as had my own; that neither of us existed or were what we were by accident. Each of us filled a certain place in the world, important or not important.
In one of my letters to my sister I had written about our new friend. In answering, she expressed the opinion that for one taking such a prominent place in the family circle, he deserved something better than to be referred
to by the anonymous "Porky" and suggested the name "Quilliam," which seemed appropriate enough. So while I continued to use "Porky" in everyday reference to him, when I wrote after that I used the more formal
Porky, or Quilliam, came every day at about the same time, still broad daylight. If the door was closed he scratched on it. Sometimes it happened that we went away and didn't get home until late and quite often then, we'd see him in a nearby poplar. All my father had to do was go close to the tree, say "unh-unh," and although I'm sure he had an accent, down would come the porcupine, tail first, and follow him to the cabin.
Occasionally people came from town because our reception was so good, to listen to a radio broadcast of a major prize fight or a fireside chat from Washington or come out of curiosity to see our visitor. They watched in disbelief as I sat on a box, with legs stretched out so that I could coax Porky up into my lap where he'd sit and eat his bread, then carefully turn around and walk down again. He made a lapful, weighing ten or twelve pounds and being over two feet long. Some who admitted to killing porcupines on general principles, said they'd never kill another one.
His visits ended in the late fall when he probably went into semi-hibernation as porcupines do. I had formed a real affection for the little animal and had found him to be trusting, intelligent and gregarious, allowing for his background, of course. All the time he came we left our axes and shovels standing outside. He never once disturbed them, possibly because, as some of our friends unkindly said, we didn't use them hard enough to get any salt on the handles! I was greatly disappointed when he came back once the following spring and then disappeared forever.
Aside from getting acquainted with a porcupine, that first summer on the forty was a pleasant one. When you are young, healthy and unemployed there are many ways to enjoy yourself during warm weather up north; hiking,
fishing, swimming and so on.
The only catch was the continuing financial crunch that resulted from an almost complete lack of income. I remember the time I went to a friend and borrowed two cents to buy a postage stamp to send a letter to my sister. And I rather shudder to recall that a pair of boots (the only pair you owned) wasn't worn out just because there was a hole in the soles; that's why you saved the shoe
box--so you could use the cardboard to cover the holes. But when the sole began to break away from the upper and flapped at each step you took, and scooped up sand any time you failed to lift your foot sufficiently, it was difficult to feel the dignity so necessary to psychological well-being. Today it is all but impossible to visualize conditions as they were then; very little money around, no jobs, no unemployment insurance, no Social Security or Medicare and Medicaid. At least, in the North Woods things were more one-to-one than in the cities and since "hope springs eternal in the human breast" we knew it wouldn't always be so difficult, especially when the trainloads of CCC boys started
coming up from Chicago and Detroit to man the newly built camps where they would live, and out of which they would work, cutting fire lanes through the new, growing forests; replanting pine stands, building parks and otherwise be occupied in a manner that would build their bodies, their spirit and their self-respect. They were paid thirty dollars a month, of which a large part was sent home to help their families and, of course,
they also received room and board, clothing and health care.
How much nicer it was to wake up of a summer's morning to the full-throated singing of a robin at the first hint of daybreak, than to be jarred out of deep sleep by the less than dulcet jangling of an alarm clock in the dark of a winter's morn. To let the stream of consciousness gradually broaden as the early sun lifted over the top of the hardwood ridge and slanted its beams through the white scrim curtain on the window that faced full east.
Nothing smells nicer than freshly lit, dry cedar kindling, unless it should be the coffee perked on its fire. And no breakfast tastes better to the healthy, young appetite than pancakes made of thin batter, cooked three at a time in just enough bacon fat on the bottom of an iron skillet to sizzle the edges brown and crisp; eaten with plenty of Karo corn syrup. Bacon wasn't a luxury then; it was a staple that needed no refrigeration. Aside from rounding off a plateful of potatoes or several slices of bread or bannock (which is bread dough without yeast, cooked in a frying pan on top of the stove), the grease left over from frying was accumulated in a can to cool and harden and serve as butter or for other cook-
ing. We always called it "bacon fat;" that sounded more appetizing. And believe me, after we had spent the day outside working up an appetite, it tasted pretty good smeared
generously on a thick slice of bread and accompanied by a cup of hot, fresh
We never worried too much about washing the breakfast dishes, or even stacking them, so except for washing our faces in a granite basin full of spring water brought to ambient temperature by sitting overnight in a galvanized steel pail, using our hands for washcloth (using a washcloth was considered unmanly), and making it something of a ritual ablution with a lot of sputtering, blowing and splattering, and combing our hair for the day, we felt no restraint whatsoever to heading up the trail to see what was new in town or maybe to try our hand at a little trout fishing in some clear, cold stream somewhere. With the sun sparkling the dew on the marsh grasses across our swale and on the waist-high brakes along our ridge trail, we would plunge our way through these moisture-laden, fernlike North Country plants that bowed across our path from the weight arriving at the hardwood, soaking wet to at least above the knee. But it was all worth
it. Nothing is sweeter than the song of
the hermit thrush coming across the clearing in the summer's cheerful morning. And the foraging done by Chum, the most enthusiastic member of the day's expedition, sooner or later resulted in the excited scolding of a chipmunk, or the clucking of a spruce hen or partridge disturbed into rising heavily into the air.
Sometimes our walks had a very practical purpose, such as delivering an alarm clock that had been overhauled for thirty-five cents or a spectacle frame soldered for fifteen cents, or to load up a packsack with provisions at the store where we ran a perpetual bill. But quite often we'd walk and explore all day long. Although my father didn't talk a lot, there were times when he became quite expansive, going back to his younger days in Denmark and Canada, and walking along the railroad tracks often seemed to bring out a talkative streak in him. I can only imagine that the shiny, well-used steel rails shimmering in the sun's thermal waves as they continued in the distance to come closer and closer together until they be came one point and disappeared at the horizon, led him in his mind's eye to the world beyond that held so many memories for him and perhaps entertained some of his dreams for the future, for some people never become too old to
dream. Anyway, I can still see him walking along with a black haze of mosquitoes around his head, puffing away on his pipe hoping the smoke would dispel them, all the while telling me about a castle in Denmark he had bicycled to, with walls thirty feet thick, or the one out in the lake that could only be reached by secret stones in the deep water that came to within a few inches of the lake's surface. He liked to tell the story of Holger the Dane who sits asleep deep in the vaults of Kronborg Castle, his beard grown into the stone table in front of him, waiting for the time to come when he will be summoned to save his home land from the invader. He had a good knowledge of Norse mythology and apparently had
been fond of Danish history. Denmark was Christianized by the old
Crusaders from the Holy Land, placing the tip of the sword at the peasants'
throats and asking if they were Christians or not. He seemed rather amused by the
fact that the great majority, when solicited in this manner demonstrated a high degree
of intelligence by quite emphatically insisting that they were indeed
Occasionally, we would meet a tall, gaunt Indian who lived in a shack a few miles up the
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track and my father, upon drawing close would raise his right arm, bending it at the elbow and solemnly intone the Ojibway greeting, "Quai-hai, quai-hai, anin-nim-a—goma-gak," and being answered in like. After a few words in English and as much Indian as my father could still remember after twenty years of not using it the anishninabi would go his way and the two jaganash go theirs.
Such an encounter would inevitably lead to reminiscences of the Canadian North. I can't know how fluent my father was in the
Ojibway tongue, but at least his knowledge was sufficient to demonstrate a sincere respect and a liking for the Indian. At times he lived with them, he worked with them and unfortunately there were times when he saw the disastrous results of a bottle of skidiwahoo among them. Until the arrival of the white man, fleeing the religious intolerance of his native land and bringing with him and establishing his own intolerances along with his greed, his gold and silver and his glass beads, the Indian had lived for centuries in harmony with his surroundings. He had a Great Spirit that he worshipped, a Happy Hunting Ground to which he went after living his life in pride and the strength to with stand unflinchingly the vicissitudes of Nature
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and the tortures of his enemy. His actions probably never were broken down into kindness or cruelty; he just did what came naturally.
My father told me about the Indian who at first gave no indication that he knew much English but eventually came to recognize a somewhat kindred spirit, and one night as they paddled late to reach their destination, the river lighted by the stars and
lined by tall, somber spruces, he began to talk knowingly and in good, fluent English about the different galaxies above them. He was a graduate of the University of Glasgow, had spent several years working in the white man's cities and finally decided he
preferred the land of his forefathers, where the beaver still splashed his tail loudly on the water and where he could hear the wind say things in the forest that he could hear nowhere else.
The white man has often been plagued with guilt and self-deprecation at destroying the principles as well as the surroundings of a race that lived for centuries in unchanging closeness to its roots, its native earth; so close, in fact, that it needed no philosophy or speculation as to when it came and whither it was going. But the world being what it is, there was no power on earth that could have
stopped or avoided this transformation. It was inevitable that a much worldlier race would shed its veneer of civilization, enlightenment and religion and demonstrate mankind's innate or acquired greed and lust for power, teaching a primitive people the efficacy of the lie, the will for exploitation of fur-bearing animals, forests, gold and silver, and perhaps most ironically, converting them to religious beliefs that had at times been distorted to the extent that made it a virtue to kill the "heathen savage." The sad fact is that the Indian presence was in the way.
At times our walks would take us over to a part of the township, that years before, had been opened to homesteading. Young people came up from "down below," and worked at proving their claims, which meant cutting the forest, building what was to be their farm house, living on their forty or eighty acres (usually; although they could have as much as 160 acres) for five years, doing what cultivating they could as they cleared the land. The conditions laid down by the government being met, these early settlers were then given clear title to the property.
Walking through this countryside of timothy hay fields, potato patches, gray
weathered barns, and the occasional small herd of cattle that ambled to the fence when they saw us, following along curiously and being left behind at the corner complacently chewing their cuds, it was easy to piece together the dreams, the years of toil, the vanished hopes of yesteryear. The man who had arrived with his wife and not much else except his optimism and strength of youth, lumbered off his hardwood timber and set about making arable fields. During the summer it meant using every daylight hour to first dynamite the stumps apart one by one and then to hook his team to the shattered pieces and pull them out of the ground to a large pile that would be burned when weather permitted. Once enough stumps had been removed to permit its maneuverability, the next step was to hitch the team to a "stone boat" made of two or three timber runners to which were bolted thick planks, and fight the stones up on it, using levers, ingenuity and bull strength. These stones, some of them boulder size, were piled out of the way and remain today and probably forever, as a memorial to the pertinacity of strong men.
The timber that had been cut down and sold provided the wherewithal to buy the team,
build the barn and the house, and get things started, but obviously it wouldn't provide for the years required to carve out a working farm. So it was necessary to hire out man and team during the winter when lumbering operations were in full swing.
As stumps and stones were cleared away the soil was plowed, furrow by furrow, and eventually became fields of crops. However, the shortness of the season and the cost of transportation severely limited the variety that could be grown.
The wife meanwhile had borne the children; nursed, diapered, and fed them. She grew the vegetables in her own garden that supplied so many of the family's nutriments; baked the golden loaves of bread in the oven of the big, wood-burning kitchen range; looked after the flock of chickens that supplied the eggs and filled the Sunday pot. And not least of all, her spirit was always there beside her husband and her family, giving the encouragement and strength that only a woman and a mother can give.
The work was hard, the financial reward minimal and it was small wonder that, as the children grew into adulthood, they should leave for Detroit, where in the twenties, the
automobile plants were booming and well-paying jobs were abundant. The lure of the bright lights and the good life was too much.
But how hard it was for the parents to see their dream of a little "empire," and their years of hard work for their children, all wasted as the young ones drifted away with no interest in the land.
Added to these disappointments were the difficulties of the Depression. That is why today, throughout the Upper Peninsula there are so many ghost farms; the founders long ago passed on, the once sturdy barns collapsing, the old farmer's "castle," unpainted, sinking into its foundation and with empty, bleak windows gazing at you from the past, the yard overgrown with the now wild, sparse timothy.
One of the unpleasant aspects of life in the woods is the threat of forest fires and several times we were both called on to fight them. Many were set in those days because fighting them paid thirty-five cents an hour.
During one of the family's earlier trips to the berry plains, we had camped some miles up the
Shelldrake River, at what, during the lumbering days had been a summer camp.
There were several wooden floors on which they erected tents then, as we also did and it made for a very habitable temporary abode overlooking a wide water in the river where giant muskies lurked. The berry picking was good but the ground was very dry which was not usual for the time of year--the end of July. One noon, after filling all our buckets in the morning picking, when we returned to camp for lunch we saw an ominous haze in the distance and later the acrid smell of smoke wafted over the plains, getting heavier as the afternoon wore on, making it evident that evacuation as soon as possible would be prudent. As it happened this trip, we were without a car. There was a team of horses and wagon expected to come through early in the evening because they had gone up in the morning and the driver was scheduled to take our crates of berries in with him on his return trip. The only road in or out was the old railroad grade that went past our tent. So rather than walk out, abandoning many of our belongings, we decided that we had time to wait for the wagon. We struck camp and waited, getting a little nervous as we watched the red glare of the voracious flames still at a safe distance but coming closer and closer. It
was near dark when the teamster pulled his horses to a halt and our belongings were loaded onto the wagon. As we progressed through the night, so slowly it seemed but as fast as the tired, plodding horses could go, fire to our right and across the river came abreast of us. The roar and the hiss were awesome as slashings, jack pines and whatever stood in the way ignited. Before we reached safety, some time around midnight, the flames behind us and to our left were pressing us so hard that if we had left even a few minutes later we wouldn't have made it out. Enormous, old pine stumps, loaded with pitch and preheated by the encroaching inferno, exploded when a spark would hit them. They burned until the following winter's snow smothered the fire.
This experience which I will never forget along with others later on; seeing deer trying to flee the holocaust with hooves burned off, seeing the complete devastation of a forest conflagration and knowing that almost all the inhabitants perished--birds, rabbits, deer, porcupines, squirrels, reptiles, and yes, even the insects, the butterflies, the bees--led me to place my opinion of a man who would deliberately start a forest fire about as low as anything on the scale of living things. I don't
believe in Hell, but for his especial accommodation I'd be inclined to favor one, not for eternity because that's quite a while,
but maybe a couple of long lifetimes.
As a business enterprise that was not quite respectable but was tolerated, patronized and profitable during the twenties, moonshining was hurt twice in the thirties; first by hard times and then by the repeal of the Nineteenth Amendment, or Prohibition as it was called. Of the several moonshiners in the area, most were otherwise stable, decent members of the community, who took pride in the quality of their product, cooking in a clean still and dispensing in clean bottles and glasses. But occasionally there would be the newcomer, or careless operator whose bottle of home brew had a thick yeast sediment at the bottom, sometimes embellished by a fly that had got himself caught in the process, or his bottle of hard stuff was cloudy. He usually didn't last long in business because a clientele that paid four dollars for a gallon of smooth dynamite expected it to meet pretty high standards.
The only time I ever tasted any of it was when my sister and I got a bad cold. My father would get a pint somewhere and between him and my mother they would mix
some in very hot water, with sugar and a little lemon juice, call it a "hot toddy," put us to bed and cajole us into drinking the vile stuff on the grounds that it was medicine. Actually it might have been fairly good tasting to the discriminating adult and it must have cured me because it didn't kill me. I have sometimes wondered what happened to the rest of the bottle. My mother wouldn't have touched a drop of it for anything in the world except as medicine but my father was not that dead set against it.
The still was always well-hidden deep in the forest somewhere and the man going back and forth to it was so clever at covering his tracks that he left no trail, at least none that could be followed easily. I know of only one moonshiner who was caught by the government agents, and that was probably because someone bore him a grudge and informed against him, which cost him a year in the penitentiary. There was a rigid code that put a "squealer" way down in the social order; much lower than most people cared to go and a grudge had to be quite serious for anyone to break it.
This code also applied to hunting out of season which was done by many, simply to put meat on the table. And some of the venison
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that got there had been hunted by ''shining.'' This was done by wearing a bright light such as a high-powered flashlight with a sharp focus, on the head and walking through the dark of night along a back road. Once a deer's eyes were caught and blinded in the beam, they could be held, if the light didn't wander, long enough for the stalker to raise and fire his shotgun, loaded with buckshot, bringing down the standing target. Of course, it was just as illegal then as it is now and the local game warden spent a lot of his effort at night. But I don't recall of anyone being caught.
One of the best established moonshiners was a man with snow-white hair and bristling white mustache, an otherwise clean-shaven, rudy complexion, who always spoke in a loud whisper because, so he said, someone back in the hills he came from had shot him through the throat. Although he was considered by many to be an old reprobate, he had some interesting stories, at least partly true, from his younger days in the lumber camps, and delighted in retelling them, especially after testing the proof of his "product." He prided himself on his beautiful, well-tended garden in
the hollow where his cabin was located, loved
his little dog Pansy and his fat, jolly wife, but probably most of all, he valued his Model "T" Ford which he always kept shined to perfection. One day this hitherto unblemished automobile made an appearance in town with noticeable scars in the form of small, scattered holes in the radiator, headlights and wind shield. They looked suspiciously like buckshot holes and despite the fanciful explanations of its owner, everyone knew that he had been shining while under the influence of his other illicit enterprise and simply had forgotten that he had left his car nearby and the deer's eyes he saw were headlight reflectors.
Except for incidents such as this which were few and far between, there wasn't much excitement on the forty and there were times when I felt pretty lonesome and restless, especially when the sun was setting beyond the swamp and the frogs went into their evening symphony, which, by the way, isn't really at all unpleasant. I was at the age when a young man could easily yearn for the city's lights, the experience of a wider world, the gaiety and laughter of friends his own age, the adventures of growing up.
I didn't realize perhaps, how much I had been given. I was tanned a deep brown, could
run endlessly, swam across our nearby lake and back, a distance of about five miles without being winded, and in moments of elation sang loudly enough to be heard a mile or so away; even sang well enough to be listened to, so I was told. Without any effort on my part, I was absorbing and blending into my environment more completely all the time.
Sometimes, after supper we'd walk the two miles into town, usually ending up at its only garage, sitting outside on wooden boxes, swatting mosquitoes, and exchanging notes on the day's events with the others who had gravitated to this "social center." Then as the evening wore on and darkness set it, we'd head back along the road and find our way down the trail through the hardwoods. No matter how dark it was, and it gets pretty dark in a summer forest, a sixth sense led us along the winding path without benefit of flashlight or lantern, but unlike the Indian of old who would have slipped silently through the night relying on his intuition to warn him of danger, we made no effort to be quiet, knowing that a surprised bear is a dangerous one. We often heard the rustling in the bushes of deer avoiding us and sometimes we were startled by the hoot of a nearby owl, but one night we
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were glad that we had not covered the sounds of our presence because suddenly, the most terrifying cry pierced the air in our immediate vicinity. It was, as others have described the cry, like the screams of a woman in mortal agony as the animal plunged his way noisily through the woods away from us. That is the one time in my life that the hair on my head stood straight up, the blood curdled in my veins, and I was mightily afflicted by a disease called fear. My father knew it to be a Canada lynx, having heard them before and he knew too that strong men quailed at the unworldly cry. Right then I wasn't too sure I would have chosen this environment into which to be absorbed.
Shortly after the CCC boys started coming through, there first were rumors of PWA (Public Works Administration) being considered in our part of the country and soon after came the actuality of jobs. Although the pay was good, fifty cents an hour, the work weeks were not always full and until the organizing was completed, the contracts were mostly short ones, such as laying sidewalks at the school or repairing township roads. It wasn't until the WPA (Works Progress Administration) came into being that major undertakings, like building new state highways and rerouting old ones, were started. My father was the first to go to work, but later he and I were able to alternate and since we shared and shared alike, as long as one worked, that was all we needed.
Finding myself alone much of the time, I began to read more. My sister had sent me a leather bound Red Letter Edition of Shakespeare for Christmas which I read from cover to cover and understood at least enough to enjoy it. Not that I always read heavy stuff, I liked a good western story as well as
anybody. We had quite a few books of our
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own and I supplemented these by borrowing from a retired lumberman and lawyer who had a good collection of the old classics as well as contemporary literature since he belonged to a couple of book clubs. I took to reading the Literary Digest more completely. It was a fine, thought-provoking weekly newsmagazine, composed mainly of excerpts from publications throughout the world, with comment. It covered not only current political events, but everything in general--business affairs, books, plays, anything that was of pertinent interest. Unfortunately, the magazine became defunct shortly after a straw vote it conducted led to its incorrectly predicting the defeat of Franklin Roosevelt by Alf London in the Presidential election of 1936. And I found myself, being aroused by an interesting article, spending hours referring to the encyclopedia we had and going from one reference to another in it. I was beginning to want to know more than I did, a lot more.
Even when it was my turn to work I would spend the last part of a winter's evening lying in bed reading by the light from the kerosene lamp. After blowing out the light and settling down to go to sleep, I would often still be absorbed by something I had read, mulling
over in my mind or simply lie there contentedly relaxed, listening to the cheerful crackling in the Airtite stove and watching the
flames' illumination escaping through the cracks around the draft and flickering on the log walls and the rough boards of the roof. Sometimes the world outside would be bright as day from a magnificent moon that let some of its beams filter through the curtained window making a bright patch on the floor. Then, at other times it would be dark and stormy, the wind driving the snow against the window panes and it was good to be inside. Occasionally, from the swamp behind us that stretched for miles, I would hear in the distance, the disquieting yapping of a pack of coyotes on the chase and I was grateful that for tonight at least, I was safe in my own snug nest. I knew that when the yapping stopped the victim would never see his again; that this
was the way of the world and it had to be.
Late one midwinter afternoon when it was my turn to tend house, I was returning from town and getting close to home when something compelled me to look up and off to the side of the trail. There, on a limb of a large tree, was an enormous horned owl watching me intently. Of course, I knew that
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he meant me no harm, probably was more concerned about my intentions towards him, so after admiring him a few moments I continued on my way.
A few days later, again late afternoon, I was outside sawing and splitting firewood. As only February days can be in the North, the sky was pale blue without a cloud, the air was cold and crisp, the pure white snow crystals and the forest glistened in the declining sunlight. It was so quiet I could almost hear the white smoke curling out of our Dutch chimney and the hoo-hoo-hoo of an owl, probably my big friend, came through loud and clear. I stopped work now and then and joined Chum who sat nearby, every sense intent upon the almost ethereal scene. As I stood leaning against my ax handle, totally involved in what was going on, there came again the hooting of the owl, then for a brief moment I heard crying like a baby and all was quiet again. I knew it was a rabbit the owl had caught because
once before, I had heard one cry when he was caught in an Indian snare.
But something else had happened. Everything stopped and I stood transfixed as for a moment a flash of complete lucidity, of serenity, the assurance that all was One, and
One was God, came over me. It was a long time before I came to know, that without any conscious seeking, only my receptivity, possibly with my dog as partner, I had had two experiences--Transcendental Meditation and Pantheism. At that time I had never heard of
Of course, for centuries in some parts of the world, people have been practicing mental concentration to the point where all their Being is focused on deliberately achieving an insight into realms otherwise denied them; realms that go beyond mankind's experience and knowledge or ability to reason. Transcendentalism is a part of some of the great religions of the world and is subscribed to by many who nominally adhere to other more conventional religions, but to me it was completely involuntary and I was too young and uninformed to understand the full import of this very vivid experience.
Pantheism in this moment of supreme clarity was undeniable. As a philosophy it loses much when removed from the experience of transcendentalism because
it raises questions which can only be answered by an Intelligence beyond our own. Nevertheless, the concept is not new to the world and has been
My vision that day was too real to be perceived as a hypnotic mirage but was it perhaps, a glimpse of life beyond? Is
it possible that death is not the ultimate tragedy of life but rather a melding into an indefinable, unimaginable, cosmic reality? Maybe Plato was right when he said that this life is but a dream of another more real
the subject of theorizing by thinkers throughout the centuries.
* * *
Although work was intermittent, I continued to take my turn at it. Sometimes in the early days of PWA I would be working one end of a two-man crosscut saw, digging a ditch or loading gravel onto a wagon. We didn't have any mechanical equipment such as bulldozers, loaders and so on; that was to come later. Everything was done by a "strong back and a weak mind."
Shoveling the gravel wasn't bad because we had a chance to talk while we were working, and many problems that were giving Washington a rough time, we resolved there in the gravel pit. None of the constraints against talking politics and religion
usually observed in a more genteel environment applied to us, and intelligently or other wise, we covered everything including women, and I doubt that any of us really knew much about them.
Of the crew, several were from the mountains of Kentucky where they had grown into premature manhood and inherited their father's and grandfather's careers in the coal mines, staying there until they were laid off. Their education at most had been through the third grade and some couldn't write enough to sign their names. Their faith in the Bible however, was unshakable and the more some of us tried to convince them that the earth was round, the more they insisted that it was flat, because of the verse in Revelations that refers to "four angels standing at the four corners of the earth." I found out then that people don't like to have their religious beliefs tampered with, and I also discovered that to many people, logic is infuriating or at least aggravating.
My surroundings meanwhile, had impressed me with feelings of reverence and awe at times, and eventually there came the knowledge that I had to make a spiritual decision. I knew it could be the most important
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choice I would ever be called upon to make because it not only affected my life on earth but life beyond, for eternity perhaps. It was then I discovered that thinking and believing are two entirely different things and not always at all compatible.
My mother had imparted some of her religious beliefs to me. But I was beginning to feel misgivings as I grew older and became more questioning. Even so, after not finding answers that made me happy or resolved any doubts, I realized that I had neither the knowledge nor, perhaps, the insight of some of the people who espoused the cause of religion and I was back at wondering again.
I marveled at the mysteries, the beauty, even the ugliness of Nature. How the planets move accurately in their prescribed courses; how our own planet Earth has never strayed far enough from its orbit to affect life on it. No one can fail to be impressed at watching the Northern Lights as they constantly change color and pattern, and listening to their crackle. Or, in a storm, to see the jagged bolts of lightning followed by the crash of thunder and then to see the black clouds disperse, the rain stop and the sun smile again
as if nothing had happened.
The variety of Nature's nuances is limitless. She seems, at times, to arrange things with such reckless abandon and whimsy, and at others, with great attention to detail; sometimes with the heavy hand of the blacksmith and sometimes with the gentle sensitivity of the fine artist. The evidence in many cases points to careful planning, down to the last infinitesimal detail, as with animals like the snowshoe rabbit; after all the care given to making him "functional" the last touch was to have his fur turn completely white when winter comes and brown for summer, so that he would blend in with the colors of the seasons and give him some measure of protection against the hawk and the owl, the fox and the coyote, not to mention Man. (Even so, the rabbit is a born loser.) Or the vicious predator, the weasel, whose pelt is brown in summer and white in winter so he may sneak up on his victims undetected. (But here Nature played a trick with the aid of Man's covetousness, making the white pelt very valuable as ermine.) And yet on the other hand, when the pressures inside the earth build up and she must relieve them, she doesn't care where the molten rock and the fire of the volcano go and who they kill or
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how its smoke and gasses, spewed into our atmosphere may affect all of life on Earth. And in some of the most beautiful spots in the world she causes earthquakes to topple mountains, sometimes sending great tidal waves ashore, shattering her marvelous artwork of a more tender mood, from the most delicate flowers and butterflies to the tip of the snow-covered peaks, driving terror into the hearts of all those living creatures who but moments before basked in the benevolence of her kinder side. It seemed incomprehensible to me that anything happens by chance, There simply had
to be a Master Plan that originated everything, everything at least within Man's experience, beyond which lies the imponderable. It isn't
by chance that every human being has different, apparently never duplicated fingerprints as well as other dissimilar, more easily recognized physical characteristics. It might be interesting to know just how far this
absence of repetition goes in the make-up of the animal world, for certainly no two birds at the feeder are identical, nor are two squirrels on the tree trunk, or even chickens in a flock. I strongly suspect that no two of anything would be exactly the same, at least in the
higher levels, and since they are physically different it doesn't seem illogical that they should be psychologically individual with varying degrees of intelligence. Not that making everybody with identical fingerprints, or every sparrow with feathers alike would have been easier. It took a lot of doing either way and there must be a purpose to it, regardless of how evasive that purpose may be. I was fascinated by the thought that these fingerprints and individualities might be the external evidence of an identity that tracks us through various stages of eternity; that not only might there be life after death but life before conception in a world truly
without beginning or end in ways we cannot understand.
It isn't possible to grow up in the woods having the same orthodoxy as inspired by
church, but I had grown to believe that the admonition to "do unto others as you would have others do unto you" was the most important commandment. It followed that I should learn to love and respect the animal kingdom, to feel that they too had been given a right to life--that the world didn't belong any more to
me than to them; we're all visitors here! I came to realize that they are
indeed sentient entities who have even more trouble than we human beings, surviving in this basically hostile world. And I realized too, that except for the fluky combination of Fate and genetic building blocks, I might myself have been cast in a role other than that of a human being and suffer from Man's disregard for all other living things. Whereas the animal's intelligence is inhibited by his physically
limited dexterity, Man's is not and he has been allowed or preordained to parlay his intelligence into a condition where he is master and ruler of all living things. His accomplishments and his cruelties, intentional or otherwise, must, if not predestined, astound the Deity.
It is a fact that animals, both wild and domestic, have so many fine qualities that humans ignore. For the most part we regard them as being in our way, a nuisance, a danger, or something here for us to shoot at, often just for target practice. Even after all the
eons spent existing alongside each other, we know very little about them, but then I suppose we don't really know much about our own kind either. However, the animals' physical needs and body functions are very similar to ours; the need for food and drink,
for rest, for protection against the elements. Even their system of procreation is identical to ours for many and basically the same with the others. They feel pain as we do; and just as we do, they feel hunger and thirst and all the emotions common to Man, both good and bad. They show a great capacity for the finer feelings, love and courage and dignity and sometimes even kindness. And they know discouragement, embarrassment and anger and bereavement. A strong religious objection prevails to granting them a mind, however little, and the linguistic ability to communicate, because we might have to share the rewards of eternity with them, since, it is thought, if they have a mind, they may have a soul. I don't see that there can be any question that they have intelligence, albeit, possibly not such that we can understand, and I am certain they communicate vocally, not only within their own kind, but there may be a common language, a lingua franca, that they use between species for warning, and for exchanging other vital information.
Along the lines of Henry Beston's thinking, I wonder if animals don't have a deeper
understanding, a more direct readability of an
impending happening, an omniscience with which we have lost contact, maybe because we have strayed, insisting on our own reasoning ability. Given my attitude towards animals it is understandable that I should acquire a dislike for two North Woods activities--trapping and hunting.
When I was going to school, the intrepid trapper was idealized to any red-blooded American boy as exemplifying ambition, strength, pluck and resourcefulness. But without doubt the trap he uses is the cruelest, most malign device used against animals. It ranges in size from the smallest, for catching weasels or muskrat, to the large bear trap. They all consist of two spring-loaded, steel jaws, sometimes serrated, between which is the pan, and a short chain to lock it to a tree or stake driven into the ground. When the trapper finds a likely spot, he sets his trap with jaws wide open, covers it with a little dirt, dry leaves or snow, baiting it with a strong scent so as to dupe his prey into setting a front paw on the pan, thus tripping the two jaws and clamping the victim's leg relentlessly and unmercifully. And there he stays, trying desperately to tear loose, sometimes
before the man running the trap line arrives and clubs him to death, or a predator such as an owl or a fox or coyote eats him. It is of this cruelty that fur coats are made. Recognizing the inevitability and at times, the necessity of hunting, there are no aspects of it that are not ugly. I saw the deer hunters come up from the cities, mostly as members of hunt clubs. The majority of them were respectable people who simply let their hair down for a week or two, but there was considerable drinking and poker as well as a certain amount of unfaithfulness on the part of
some husbands. Probably the most
objectionable characteristic of many of these hunters was their trying to get their buck by shooting at anything that moved. It is literally true that a farmer's livestock often was the target. "No Hunting" signs were ignored and quite often barbed wire fences were deliberately broken or cut. Added to all this was the fact that a live deer in the forest is always nicer to see than the dead one tied to the fender of the hunter's car.
Following the natural course of events in the scheme of things, those who lived there and hunted whenever they needed meat felt, with some justification, that they were there
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first and their need was greater than that of the urban trophy hunter who came North for the deer season. The idea of a hunting season as such was relatively new to them and they quite often resented it. After all, their fathers and grandfathers before them had pretty much lived off the land. I have always found it easier to respect this kind of hunting than that done by the hordes of men that pour into the deer country for two weeks of "sport." I will always feel that the stag is a far nobler animal than the hunter who brings him down.
One season ran into another without anything eventful taking place. But at least we
were surviving the hard times, for which we were grateful. Meanwhile, I had become
interested in learning my father's native language, Danish, and since he favored the conversation grammars published by Julius Groos in Heidelberg, we set about locating a bookstore that imported them. Eventually, after several letters of inquiry, we got to G. E. Stetchert in New York City and not only did they supply the grammar we wanted, but they sent us a couple of catalogs, one of which included used and rare books. I was completely flabbergasted when I saw a rare buy--Saccardo's sylloge Fun gorum, in good condition, offered for seventeen hundred dollars. It awed me to think of this breath from another world, one of affluence and erudition, coming to our remote part of the country where fifteen cents an hour was the going wage in private industry, and the Sears, Roebuck catalog was the most
It seemed like the Depression would never end. I heard of a job that could be applied for
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in the Soo and as good fortune would have it, someone offered me a ride up, but since it would be necessary to stay overnight I'd have to find my way back the next day. It was during the winter and quite cold and not having enough money for a hotel room, as night came on I first watched the young folks skating to music at a public rink but as the hours passed I realized I would have to get shelter somewhere. So, as my father had suggested, I found the jail, went in and explained my circumstances. After they made sure I wasn't on their wanted list, a policeman escorted me to a cell and courteously explained that he'd have to lock the door. It was very clean and freshly painted and there was even a mattress and a blanket on the bunk, but I didn't like the clang as the steel-grated door closed on me. After eating the last of the sandwiches I'd brought with me, I went to bed and slept soundly until morning
when they let me out. I breakfasted on doughnuts and coffee at some little lunch counter and headed for the office where I thought my future lay. It didn't take long to learn that there had been many other applicants and I was out of luck.
My next step was to head for the railroad
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station where I waited until a passenger train was almost ready to pull out when I
walked around to the side hidden from view and climbed up on the tender making myself as inconspicuous as possible. About fifty miles down the line as the train came to a stop I jumped off to the surprise of the fireman who happened to be looking my way. I hadn't
enjoyed the ride but I was almost home again. I continued to do what I could to improve my knowledge and skill at watch repairing, preparing for the day when opportunity would surely knock, as knock it did, although in a
The mill, having been only partly rebuilt some time after the last fire, had gone through a little hiring spurt and I found myself back on the job, operating different machines. One day I was set to work on a table saw that acted up and suddenly pulled the block I was holding forward, my left hand with it. Two fingers were badly injured and it was necessary for me to go to the Soo to see a doctor. I was off work and in the doctor's care for seven weeks. The day of my last visit to have my finger looked at and be discharged, I dressed up in a suit, white shirt and a tie, all of which I had bought on the
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installment plan from Sears and Roebuck as a part of my preparation for the future. There were at that time, five jewelry stores in Sault Sainte Marie and in one of the more modest ones I bravely presented myself only to be told that the boss was out. Not to be daunted, I crossed the street and walked into the town's oldest and largest jewelry establishment.
It was March and over my suit I wore my sheepskin coat which wasn't inappropriate for the time and place. But I was wearing heavy logger's boots which I tried self-consciously to hide under the diamond counter as I stood there telling the jeweler about myself. Fortunately, I told everything the way it was. After a half hour or so, I was out on the sidewalk with no commitment or even encouragement.
The first day of my return to work in the mill a letter came from the jeweler saying that I could start working for him at fifteen dollars
a week. I was, of course, elated but worried too, that I might not be able to fill the bill because, although my hand was steady,
my eye sharp and I was certainly willing to learn, I really had no experience. But I did fill the bill and once again the world became an
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oyster--for me this time. On the recommendation of the jeweler, the day I arrived I secured lodging at a boardinghouse in a nice part of town--room and all meals for seven dollars a week. The others who boarded there were business people and single school teachers and I must admit that at first I felt quite self-conscious in my unaccustomed attire (suit, white shirt and tie were the prescribed business apparel then) and my new surroundings. However, it wasn't long before I felt at home and since it was spring I enjoyed walking to and from work; a matter of seven or eight blocks. It was pleasant to see the grass turn green, the early flowers, jonquils, crocus and hyacinths beginning to bloom, and listening to the songs of the newly returned robins and watch them hopping across the lawn looking for worms. And on Sunday mornings it was a real pleasure to hear the peals of church bells coming forth from all quarters of town. They added an extra measure of peace and tranquility.
The store opened at eight o'clock and during the week closed at six. On Saturday we stayed open until nine o'clock or as long as we had a "live" customer to wait on and, of course, we were closed on Sunday. It was a
part of my job to open the door in the morning, sweep the floor and the sidewalk in front. I opened the big walk-in vault that held the sterling and the watches not on display in the showcase or window, and I opened the safe in the office area that held the trays of diamond rings and other more valuable jewelry. Naturally, at closing time the process was partly reversed. I say partly because the diamond rings and expensive watches were not removed from the display in the window until after the movie theater, about a block from us, let out a little after nine o'clock, to allow maximum exposure of what we had to offer. It fell on me to come around every evening and put the display items away, make sure that all lights were off except a night light and be certain that the doors to the vault and safe were closed and the tumblers spun to a neutral position. I didn't have a car and so had to walk, which I didn't mind because mostly the nights were pleasant and the exercise just before I went to bed did me good. But every once in a while, usually in bad weather, I would get under the covers, lie there a few minutes and finally ask myself whether I had locked the safes' doors or had I, most importantly, secured the front door as I
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left. This inevitably led to my getting up again, dressing and going back to the store,
invariably finding everything as it should be. My watchmaker's bench was right up front just behind the valance of the big storefront window and alongside my employer's. We worked together at them to cut down the backlog of watch repairs. In fact, for the first two or three months that I was there, we worked every evening until nine or ten o'clock. I enjoyed every minute of it! One night the boss said he'd had enough and he'd treat to a movie. It was a nice film like they were then, only a little tender in spots, and when I looked his way he was using his handkerchief to wipe
As the months went by I acquired more self-assurance, waiting on trade, estimating the cost of repairs or sitting there working away. I always kept my worktop clean and neat; the white, vitreous bench plate and the translucent green globe on my bench lamp were washed frequently and my hand tools were put away every day at quitting time. It was a matter of pride.
Saturday evenings we didn't do much repair work but stood ready to wait on trade because that was when people had been paid
and were looking at things they knew they were going to buy soon. It was a cheerful few hours; young couples on their way to or from a show, older folks who never had any other time for shopping, strollers who were taking in the attractive display windows along the street. It was fascinating to see the young man with his girlfriend, ogling the diamond and wedding ring sets, pointing out to each other something they liked. Quite often they would come and ask to see the rings and it was always a pleasure to show them--this was probably the happiest moment yet in their young lives and it showed on their faces, in the little nudges they'd give each other and in their giggles. It would be difficult to say which sparkled more, the girl's eyes or the diamonds! There were no credit cards then but people who appeared to have a stable background were trusted without any paperwork, just their word and honest face, so to speak. My boss had a fine sensitivity about credit. For instance: he would sell an engagement ring on time, but a wedding ring absolutely had to be cash. He had a high disdain for the larger city's credit jeweler where credit was the commodity for sale and the down payment actually
covered the merchant's cost of the item. He also had a very high sense of honor. He and two partners, one of them his brother, had just opened a jewelry store in lower Michigan when the stock market collapsed in October 1929, and they were driven to the wall. His partners went into bankruptcy, settling for ten cents on the dollar. My boss, however, insisted that if the creditors would give him time he would pay dollar for dollar. He came back to his store in the Soo and dug
in. It was ten years after the crash, when he was in his seventies, that he told me the story and how he was finally about to make his last payment. His debt had been forty thousand dollars with interest, and that amount of money in those days was an awful lot. Incidentally, he never again spoke to his brother, for having gone bankrupt.
Business was business in those days too, but it wasn't as impersonal as it is today. Every effort was made to make the customer feel that he had been treated well, and to encourage him to want to come back. Those who waited on trade in the stores then, were salespeople who knew their product, not just clerks who feel bothered if you ask them a question.
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My employer was not an ardent New Dealer. In fact, his political enthusiasm was heavily bent in the opposite direction and many of those of a similar frame of mind enjoyed dropping in for a few minutes of vehement discussion. I was smart enough and still of such station in life that I deemed it imprudent to be drawn into any political discussion regardless of any sentiments, but I did find some of the opinions interesting. People in those days were very time conscious as far as their own timepieces were concerned. We didn't have a ship's chronometer in a corner of the front window as was customary then, to give the interested passer by an accurate time base for comparison, but had, instead, a U. S. Naval Observatory clock on the wall. This clock was constantly being corrected by the same electrical impulse from the Observatory that regulated the sixty-cycle current in use throughout the country and was
To many men it was something of a formality to pick a point of vantage in front of the window, reach into the vest pocket that held his twenty-one jewel watch on the end of a heavy gold chain that traversed a prosperous midriff, comparing his second hand to that of
the clock. If he smiled and put the watch back in its pocket, it meant that his prized possession had passed the acid test again. But if he noted a discrepancy, he would most likely, come into the store and ask us to move the regulator to compensate for maybe ten or fifteen seconds error. Summertime was nice. We would leave the front door open and as I worked, I would hear the, usually, happy sounds of the sidewalk traffic appreciating a fine summer day. Many of the seasonal residents would drop in to say "hello" to my boss and tell him how they had passed the winter, If I hadn't been so happy as things were with me, I would have envied many of them.
I always enjoyed walking and of an evening or on Sunday I'd go to the top of the hill overlooking the Soo and where Fort Brady was located until after the war when it was changed to a college and all the military transferred elsewhere. From this vantage point one looked across the American Soo and the locks, to the Canadian Soo backed by the Algoma Mountains. What thoughts of adventure this view of the North could evoke!
Another of my favorite spots was the park alongside the locks of the Saint Marys River.
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In those days, anyone could go anywhere he liked around the grounds and there was usually a lake freighter riding low with iron ore, or wheat, coming downriver or else empty ones heading upstream. Sometimes the three locks would be occupied and there would be several more boats lined up awaiting their turn. I often spent an interesting hour or two watching the captains on their bridges, guiding their ships into a lock very slowly and accurately. The least error could result in damage to either ship or lock or both. Once the boat was tied up so it couldn't go anywhere except up or down as the water level was raised or lowered, everyone on board relaxed. The crew lined up along the ship's railing and there was an air of complacency on board, imparting the feeling that they led the life of Riley. I felt all the closer to them for having repaired some of their Chelsea Ship's Bells, clocks that strike the hours and the half hours of the watch, which is a period of four hours ending at four o'clock, eight o'clock or twelve o'clock. However, they say that all good things must come to an end and so
it was with me. After three and a half years my pleasant mode of living came to its end. The war had broken out in Europe, and although the United States
was not yet involved, there was the common knowledge that we would be. So, before the draft might get interested in me, I enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force.
As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, just so is life in the mind's eye, and either eye sees only so far before becoming hazy. During those few years on the forty I first came to see the exquisite beauty and some of the irrational ugliness of life and to the realization that without the one there could not be the other, just as there could be no virtue if there were no evil. I was possessed of an incredible
naiveté that fought against the encroaching awareness that the basis of fiction was really not fictitious; that, for instance, Shakespeare's murders and his depiction of the foibles of mankind were founded on possibilities well within the limits of human experience.
The realities of life, both the pleasant and the unpleasant, forced themselves, by way of radio and the printed word, into my conscious, and quite frankly it didn't make me any happier to lose my youthful illusions. But it was about time, because to have reached majority in such a state of guilelessness was completely inappropriate if one was to find his way in the reality of life.
The world seemed infinite, the oceans
limitless and space inviolate. Who could know then that Man would make the world seem small, that the oceans' yield was limited and that we would find ways to probe into space in our attempts to learn more about our origins? Throughout the years between then and now, I have looked back on those days filled more with good experiences and happy thoughts than not. How many times I have lain awake during the night, drifting back, out of the city's confines and across the years, yearning for the peace and tranquility I knew then; the feeling that "God's in his heaven, all's well with the world."
How oppressed we allow ourselves to become by our physical needs to exist and conform, getting so deeply involved that we lead "lives of quiet desperation" to quote Thoreau. It is easy to forget or overlook the values of a life led close to, and respectful of Nature and it is becoming increasingly difficult to make our way back. So many of us today are trying to find ourselves again in harmony with Mother Nature, but in doing so we are destroying the very thing we are searching for. We insist on bringing with us our aluminum cans and plastic containers, our telephone and television, all our mechanized vehicles and
motorboats, as well as the various other forms of pollution we have ingeniously devised. It is possible that, with all our shortcomings, we human beings are simply fulfilling a purpose for which we were created without being given a real choice. It seems apparent that for Man to achieve his destiny, whatever it may be, he must change the face of the earth on his way.
* * *
I found my way out into the world and worked like I was supposed to; felt happiness and unhappiness, joy and grief, and in spite of having good jobs, at some of which, I excelled modestly, I never felt outstanding. Not until I retired, and then it struck me that I had been outstanding even before I left my log cabin. After all, who else had ever been bitten by a porcupine? I will always come to this North Country whenever I can, for I shall always love it. There is a forgiveness and a timelessness in the gentle lapping of the waves on the sandy beach and the swish of the white gull's wings. I can still see the castles that as a boy I built in the great banks of clouds across the bay,
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rising above the mountains beyond--castles with high, alabaster white walls and tall, red tiled towers, pennants streaming in the breeze.
And I am beset by a certain disquietude, the feeling that not to have spent a lifetime here is to have wasted it.
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