Saturday, September 10, 2011

In Memorium

It's raining again in Homer and apparently in other places as well. The U.S. Open, way back in New York City thousands of miles east of here, has been totally rained out for the second day in a row. I'm mostly packed, the fridge is cleaned, most of my clothes and tools are boxed, labeled and in storage, and there's no tennis on TV. So I find myself with time on my hands. And that got me to thinking about writing. I just popped the cork on a bottle of Cabernet that unfortunately isn't going to last long enough to enjoy with my dinner of Sockeye Salmon Dijon with broccoli and tomato salad.

The motivation to write came as I was sitting around being mellow last night. Suddenly out of nowhere I flashed back to a camping trip I had made with my two best high school friends, Mike and Pete. Back in, oh, about 1959 or '60 possibly. I chose the title of this piece because both of these guys, once my closest friends, are dead now. Mike died long ago. I'm not exactly sure what took him, a heart attack I think, because we lost touch after I graduated from college and moved to Rochester. Pete died a year or two ago, of Alzheimer's. I hadn't seen or talked with him since the mid 60s and, if truth be told, I hadn't made any effort to keep up with my high school friends in the intervening years, preferring instead to keep my pleasant memories of them intact. When I finally decided to reconnect a couple of years ago, it was already too late. At that point Pete was in the final stages of Alzheimer's -- his wife told me that I could come to visit if I wanted to but that he wouldn't recognize me if I did. Under the circumstances, I chose not to visit. Pete died the following year -- I'm mad at myself for having waited too long. Now, all I have left of my buds are memories and these high school yearbook photos.  Together we hunted woodchucks, partridge, pheasants, squirrels, deer, whatever, it was all fair game to us. We played touch football, baseball in the summers, hockey on the icy streets of our neighborhood, and tons of pinochle during the long Buffalo winters. These guys were once very important to me. And now, through some strange trick of fate, I'm the last one left standing.

Mike in 1961
Pete in 1961

Our camping trip was a seminal experience for me. In some way I suppose it ultimately led me to Alaska because I became fascinated by the idea of wilderness and being in it, maybe someday even living in it, without the usual comforts and conveniences. This trip was my first exposure to that idea. All of us loved the country around Belfast. Pete's dad, Pete Senior, was quite a hunter. He and his buddies had been hunting deer in the Belfast area for many years, going back as far as the war years (WWII) in the 1940s. They termed themselves "outlaws"and used to go out at night with powerful spotlights and a scoped 30-06 rifle to jack-light deer--totally illegal and totally unsportsmanlike. Whatever. They killed deer for meat during the rationing days of WWII and never got over it. These guys were not rich and the venison helped stretch a tight food budget. Pete senior, who we called "Raggy" behind his back because of the way he dressed and the ever present chewed up cigar dangling from his mouth, was nevertheless our hero. He was a proven hunter with many legal bucks to his credit, and besides that he was an outlaw, a jack-lighter! When he offered to make the 80 mile trip down to Belfast to set us up in a "wilderness" camp on a local farmer's woodlot, we were totally jazzed.

Pete Sr - Belfast 1965
It was early summer when we cooked this adventure up and the country south of Buffalo along the New York-Pennsylvania border, the Southern Tier as we locals termed it, was my favorite place to be in the world. Aside from hunting there, my grandparents lived in the tiny village of Allentown about 30 miles south of Belfast. Grandma Swarthout, Sophie, was my favorite. I  always loved staying with her and my grandfather, Poppy, in their tiny house on White's Creek. She always had fresh baked ginger cookies or her special sugar cookies for us as soon as we got out of the car. In the summertime I slept on the sofa in the front room and as the nights deepened I would listen to the thrumming bass notes of the "power houses" in the surrounding hills until they lulled me to sleep. These single-cylinder, natural gas driven "powers" supplied motive force to the thousands of Oklahoma jacks that pumped oil out of the ground in the years when I was growing up. Maybe I'll tell the story of Allentown and its oil boom years in another post someday.
An "Oklahoma jack" (Allentown, NY, circa 1960)

Anyway, that's one reason camping in Belfast had such an appeal for me. It was near my dad's hometown and it was as "wild" as any place I had been. Both my father and grandfather had lived in the same county, Allegheny County, and had worked in the oil industry for years. This was truly my own homeland.

So here we were, camping on our own for the first time on this beautiful hillside, in country that was to us, wilderness. We had rifles for woodchuck hunting, a camp stove, a cooler with enough food to last a week, a boy scout tent, and our sleeping bags. We played pinocle in the evenings. And we hunted each morning. Our quarry was the woodchuck, a burrow dwelling rodent that favors sweet alfalfa over almost any other food. The fields were littered with their characteristic dens, each with a runway of fresh dirt at the entrance.  I can almost recall the fragrant aroma of those fields of fresh cut alfalfa lining the river in the valley below our camp. We hunted 'chucks with scoped high-velocity rifles. I had a .222 Winchester I had bought with my savings from a whole summer of greenhouse work that paid 50 cents an hour, Pete had a .22 Hornet, Mike a .243 Winchester.  We kidded ourselves into thinking that the local farmers would thank us for tying to kill the critters that were robbing the alfalfa they were growing for their dairy cows. Sure, who doesn't just love hearing the report of a high-powered rifle coming from the alfalfa field behind the barn at 6 am?

We thought we were pretty cool, hunting in the mornings, playing cards and sleeping in a tent at night, walking the dirt roads in the lazy afternoons. We heard strange sounds coming from the woods that we city kids had never heard before. There was one in particular that sounded exactly like a tractor or old car with a bad muffler trying to start its engine. It would go chug-a-chug-a-chug but never catch, and then start all over again. It had us completely baffled. Years later I learned that those mysterious engine sounds had been made by male ruffed grouse beating its wings, drumming, on a hollow log during mating season.

The week passed quickly. Pete's dad had dropped us off on a Sunday and came back on the following Saturday to pick us up. After that and for many years afterward I was an avid backpacker and hunter. I only stopped hunting when I realized that what I enjoyed most about it was simply being out in the woods. Backpacking too has lost its allure. Carrying a 30 or 40 pound pack on these old shoulders for 10 or 12 miles over broken terrain just doesn't get it anymore. As I think about my old friends I wonder about my own mortality. Pete Sr and his son both died of Alzheimer's but it doesn't seem to run in our family. Heart disease. That will be it I reckon. But when will it happen? Nut is fond of telling me how we can't know the future. It's probably a good thing.

It's Friday morning as I finish this and the bad weather of earlier in the week has been replaced with a beautiful sunny day. I'll hit the courts later for a last outing with my tennis buddies and then tomorrow I'll take my flat screen TV over to Kirk's for him to use while I'm away. Everything else, almost everything else, is packed and ready to go. I leave Alaska in two days.