Eulogy for an Old-Timer
A Note to the Reader
Ed and Brenna are still waiting for Ken to get out of the hospital.
With any luck, though, their "Trip of a
Lifetime" will continue next week.
April 17, 2001
He died a quarter of a century ago this
April, at the age of sixty-five. It wasn't an easy death. He "died
hard," as folks used to say. I won't kid you. He was no saint. He was
a bit of a bastard, in fact. Still, he had his reasons. He packed a
lot into his sixty-five years. He raised three kids on little or
nothing. A fourth, his youngest son, drowned one winter when he broke
through the ice on a local lake. What with one thing and another, he
never had an easy life. He lived through two major wars, several
diphtheria epidemics, and a depressionand that wasn't all. But
he never lost his love for his mountains.
His name was Jack. His last name doesn't matter. He didn't have
much use for last names, to tell the truth. He started guiding when he
was little more than a boy. If the state required guides to be
licensed then, he didn't care, and no one else did, either. By the
time he'd grown up, the state had dropped the requirement altogether.
They've put it back now, of course. You have to pass a multiple-choice
test. Some guides even get degrees in wilderness recreation and
outdoor education. I doubt that Jack would have been impressed by
their diplomas and certificates, however. He was a "show me" kind of
guy. And he lived in the woods all his life.
He liked to fish, and he always managed to fill his creel. This was
before the days of catch-and-release, of course. Back before acid rain
began to kill the brookies. Almost back before daily limits. Limits
didn't matter to Jack, anyway. He knew all the rangers, and he knew
they wouldn't follow him back into the alder hells and spruce jungles
where he went to hunt trout.
It's not like he killed all he could catch, however. He took what
he wanted for the skillet, and he helped his "sports"no guide
had "clients" in those daysget what they wanted for their den
walls. And then he made them put the rest back. He didn't need a law
or a cop to tell him what to do. He lived on the river, after all. And
he knew he'd be coming back to fish another day.
He took his sports out during deer season, too, though his heart
wasn't really in it. He hunted for the pot, to be sure. Everybody did.
But he preferred fishing to hunting. "You shoot a doe by mistake," he
used to say, "you can't put her back." (Nowadays, we all know that you
have to kill does to maintain deer populations at
maximum-sustainable-yield levels. This knowledge came late in Jack's
life, however. He never killed does.) Once he even hunted bigger game,
helping the state cops track a murderer who was running loose in the
Adirondacks. They bagged him, too.
Jack wasn't a full-time guide. He had a "real" job selling heavy
equipment to local towns. But I didn't get to know him until he'd
quit. He didn't retire from guiding, though. He just got a little more
selective. He was never idle. When he wasn't in the woods or fishing,
he gardened. Or he watched the river, taking note of the comings and
goings of all the life in and around it, right through the circle of
the seasons. Jack was what folks called a "lookin' man." He could sit
and look at the river for hours. If he'd been a reading man, he'd
probably have said he was something like Thoreau's "inspector of
snow-storms and rain-storms."
But he wasn't a reading man. He didn't have much use for books of
any kind, in fact. Or for girls. At least he didn't have much use for
girls in his mountains. There was usually a girl half his age
around his camp, in fact. Sometimes two. They came and went with the
seasons, just like the wildlife and waterfowl, but they never got
between him and the river.
I was the first girl to do that. Ours was an awkward meeting. I was
a teenager, interested in hiking and climbing and fishing. I thought
he could teach me something. He thought girls belonged in the kitchen
and the bedroom and nowhere else. And he didn't give up easily. But
neither did I. In a little while he was taking me back into some of
his favorite streams. My apprenticeship had begun.
I learned a lot in those years. About fishing and hunting and
making a fire in the rain with one match. And about the difference
between appearance and reality. Jack didn't look like much. He shaved
only often enough to leave a stubble. He wore barn boots in all
seasons. He smelledstank, reallyof woodsmoke, citronella,
and stale sweat. And he was as gnarled and twisted as a summit spruce.
He wasn't any better at the social graces. Jack just wasn't a
"people person." He was a man of few words, and most of those were
profane, obscene, or scatological. He didn't remember birthdays or
send holiday greeting cards. And he liked to be alone.
For all that, I've never met a better woodsman, canoeist or angler,
or a more humane man. Not everyone would agree, of course. When the
Adirondack tourist boom started heating up, Jack would often come out
of the woods at the end of a long day to find that some campers had
pitched a tent on his lawn, between his house and the river. When this
happened, he woke them up and ordered them to get moving. Some went
quietly. Jack helped them pack and told them where to find the state
land down the road. Others, however, were a little slower to catch on.
"Didn't think anybody lived in that old shack!" they'd say,
gesturing toward Jack's home. Then they'd smile ingratiatingly and
add, "We'll be gone in the morning, OK?" And when Jack didn't say
anything, they'd smile at him again, say goodnight, and get back into
Jack would wait a minute to give them time to settle down. Then
he'd jerk the stakes out of the ground, haul their tent down to the
river, and throw it in, with the tourists still in it.
None of them ever camped on his lawn again.
Nope. Jack just didn't have good people skills. But he was a
humane man. He left berries and sunflower seeds out for the chipmunks
in his garden, even when he didn't have money for coffee. He'd stop
traffic on the state highway to let a mother duck march her brood
across the road safely. And when he hunted or fished, he took pride in
killing cleanly. A single shot, a single sharp rap on the head, and
the job was done. He gave up trapping, too, though the money came in
mighty handy. On the day his son drowned, he went down to the
coroner's office to identify the body. The look on his son's frozen
face stayed with him on the drive home. He started thinking about all
the muskrat and beaver he'd hauled out of winter ponds. And he thought
about his son's last minutes under the ice.
The next day, he threw his traps in the river. And that was that.
I said Jack wasn't a reading man, didn't I? Well, that's only half
true. He had a good library of field guides. He gave me one on the day
I caught my first big brookie. It was a copy of Henry Hill Collins'
Complete Field Guide to American Wildlife, and it was my most
treasured possession right up until a fire destroyed it.
By that time, though, Jack was dead. The gallons of Johnny Walker
and thousands of packs of Lucky Strikes had done their work. At first,
he just got sick. Then he stayed sick. Soon he couldn't take any more
sports back into his mountains. He was still a lookin' man, though.
One winter, after I skied full tilt into a big maple tree and
shattered my leg, I was laid up for months. Jack wrote to me almost
every week, telling me about the progress of a spring that I could
only see from the window of my room
Finally, he got too sick even to sit and watch the river. I saw him
just once more, but I'm not going to write much about that. I'm not
even going to think much about it. He'd already "gone under the ice"
when I visited him in his hospital bed. By then he was working hard at
dying. He had no time for anythingor anyoneelse.
No. I'd rather think of him standing in the bow of his battered old
Grumman, casting a Wooly Bugger into a hole under a snag on some
nameless Adirondack stream, whispering curses at the stupid fish who
wouldn't strike. Not a nice man at all, really. A bastard, in fact.
But one of the best men I've ever known. And my grandfather.
Copyright © 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights