Tuesday, August 12, 2008
On his business card he was Ernest N. Warren, Counselor at Law, and students addressed him as Professor Warren, but among themselves, they called him Uncle Ernie. I'm the only one who called him Daddy Ernie, and he wasn't actually my father, but without him I would have had no family. I emulated his high forehead, like the bluffs over Lake Bonaparte, tanned from rebuilding the boathouse, cutting firewood,, raking the leaves and shoveling snow, fishing, and canoeing, walking up the hill to the law school mornings, then back for lunch, and then back and forth again in the afternoon. Not that I could hope to develop a forehead like his, or wanted to do much of all that work.
He was a torts specialist who never tried a case, and an expert on law of the sea who never went to sea. In practice, he was a family counselor: too straight-forward, nonconfrontational , and dignified to be a trial lawyer.
He worked to help people avoid confrontations with the law and with each other. He comforted and protected those who were threatened by death and taxes. As Dean of Admissions and Dean of Students in the Cornell Law School, he not only helped hundreds of students into school, through school, and into careers afterwards, but also helped a lot of young applicants convince their fathers that they should not be forced into law school just because their fathers had wanted to be lawyers. By his example, he even persuaded some of those reluctant law school applicants that not all lawyers were liars, cheats, and bullies, and that there might be a place in the profession for themselves after all.
He was a pillar of kindness, civility, and prudence. Never cruel or tyranical. Only slightly impressed by his full professorship, only sometimes a ham.
Not only was he loved and trusted by most everyone, he had received the highest security clearance from the F.B. I and the Defense Department. He liked Ike and Ike liked him. He was a friend of the Attorney General William Rodgers, and he cried when Ed Muskie cried.
When Alaska was just becoming a state and had even fewer lawyers than it had cities, he sent a wave of new Cornell Law graduates to take positions in the government. During World War II he volunteered for the Navy and was turned down for being near-sighted, but during the Cold War, he belonged to a commission, the purpose of which, in case Washington was vaporized by the enemy, was to reconstitute the U.S. government in a secret. underground installation somewhere in Virginia. He could not even tell Mama Dot about his secret service, until Eisenhower's bunker had long since become a mushroom farm or a U.P.S. shipping center. He was asked to go to a new African nation and start a law school, but he declined in order to stay in place with family.
He loved the history of his North Country landscape, knew from his practice the real estate history of the logging and power company lands of the NW Adirondack foot hill country, and he wrote the incorporation document of the Eljah Lake hunting club, which from that beginning included his Mama Dot's father and her Gradfather Doctor Drury of Natural Bridge. Daddy Ernie was a hunter himslef because of family tradition, although he himself never fired a shot that I know of, except from on top of the boat house at cans in the water. He was a boy scout leader, though he had never been a boy scout. Or maybe he was. He had sponsors among the men of the church who helped him toward a schollarship at Hamilton college, where he placed second or third base, and half back possitions, and was called Stub by his teaj and classmates, and married his high school sweetheart, Dorothy Drury Failing, the only child, of the only child, of Dr. Dury from Natuaral Bridge . She had gone to Elmira college with a banjo from her Gramps, and after she graduated there, and he from Hamilton, she moved to Ithaca. She lived at the Clinton Hotel and studied Oral English at Ithaca College in order to be near him until he could graduate from Law School and they got married.
She taught English in Camillus for one semester, then retired to become a homemaker. As a master of Oral English, after many private performances of HuckleBerry Finn, Stewart Little, her one recorded performance is of Davey;s Rhinocers hills story Daddy Ernie enjoyed so much, but like I said it had the dubious fictional flaw....that I was totally left out of the story. So its an antique and slanted story but Mama Dot has got to be good on it, although I haven't heard it yet. Davey has it on a tape sister Delight made, and I will ask him to figure out how to post it HERE, and when he does, I will have him activate the HERE so you can click on it and Mama Dot takes over. .
Mama Dot and Grandpa Ernie were a great pair for canoeing and fishing together. Up the Oswegatche Inlet where the grandfathers had gone before, with the same pack baskets, coffee pot, and thirty-inch frying pan, and the kids. Loved, as they went, to repeat the names of the landings and campsites along the way, High Rock, Griffen Rapids, Wolf Creek Spring Hole, Carter's Landing, the places
Daddy Ernie fished with every one , but never by himself. He loved fishing, never cared if he didn't catch any, always said, we saw a lot of nice country anyway, and that was the important thing. So he said. The truth is, he was a deeply social person, almost as deeply religious, with deep faith in law, but most of all social and emotional. He swam just under the surface and never broke it. He seldom said I love you because it would make him cry, and he could cry. His children could make him cry. I know from having been in the closet with the guns a couple of times when I was young and Davey had quit high school foot ball, and trumpet lessons or whatever.
Fishing with Family was sacred. I was joined onto what was a very fishing family back then, with several kinds of devotion to fishing, especially to trout fishing, Daddy Ernie's was probably the most spiritual devotion, with actual fish not being necessary. But he liked catching fish too, because then you had something to feed the family and something to show: it was a better yarn, and he loved fishing yarns.
He managed to work North Country yarns and refereences into his populsr Law school lectures. I never went to one of his lectures, nor even did Davey, unlike brother Herb who actually enrolled in the law school and now calls himself a recovering lawyer, but he was a star lecturer and he would sometinmes work out his lectures at the dinner table.
Like about the time he and Mama Dot actually went to Cannada to fish in a famous trout Lake where it rained and they caught nothing, but on their way back they stopped at the little Bonaparte inlet, and caught a dozen speckled trout ....... and one day we....and I was with him and Herb that day....we were on our way back from Jerden Falls where we hadn't caught a thing and he recalled that story, and so we stopped at Bonaparte Inlet, and caught half a dozen or maybe it was three, nice little brookies. The best eating. That's precedent for you.
Admirality was his favorite legal subject. It was the only sort of international law back then. The law of the sea.
We were a small time boating family,with row boats runabouts, canoe, and a sunfish he sailed around Little Sand Bay with Mama Dot in leiu of the trip to Europe which neither of them much wanted, or the trip to Alaska which he always said was the one, almost foreign place he would like them to travel to after he retired, but he would never retire..
By canoe, by row boat, by Mercury, and Johnson, and Evenrude we had always gone down the Bonaparte outlet to little Mud Lake for evening bass fishing and on down to the small dam at Alpine which had only raised the Bonaparte level a few feet, but flooded miles of connected swamps, bogs, and meadows. All that flow beyond Bonaparte's shore was within the Pine Camp, later called Fort Drum Military Reseration. Some time after the change From Pine Camp to Fort Drum, the military tried to keep boats and people from going beyond the outlet bay of the lake. But Daddy Ernie, who was always on the New York State Law Revision Comission was able to help settle the question of just exactly what a navigable waterway was, made it clear that rivers, and flows or lakes accessible by them are certainly navigable if you can drive logs, or paddle canoes. .
After that original showdown he would periodically have to deal with a new Fort Drum commanding general who thought he had spotted a pennetration of the legitimate defense perimeter And each time, Daddy Ernie would review for all, the past, the precedent, the course of reason and justice established, and each time it gave him satisfaction.
He was a satisfied man. Except,he was sometimes dismayed by his children and by me his charge.
Daddy Ernie's own father, a mild-mannered, northern Baptist pastor, died of cancer when Daddy Ernie was twelve years old. He was brought up by his mother, who had been an orphan herself before she was a wife and a widow. She had an uncorrected undershot jaw that gave her a bull dog look which must have helped her make way through the world. She was fierce as a bull dog an broody like a hen.
When Reverend Warren died, she, Bertha Bonney Warren, took over the church pulpit for a few weeks until a new pastor could be found, and later accompanied young Ernest to Hamilton college where he had a scholarship and both of them worked in the dining halls. Among the upstanding church and business men who sponserd her and her young Ernest, was a newspaper man, Charles Brownell, they called him Chucky, which was the name of a little memoir of the North Country he wrote. Often on Sundays he would come and take Mother Warren for a ride in his automobile, and the family always hoped something might develop there, but she stayed single and lived into old age as a rich old Box Factory Widow's head made and companion, traveling winters with her, the butler, and the maid to a suite in Hawaii. Besides Ernie, as long as he need her, she assisted a woman named Emma, an iillegitimate child of some family member, the note on the back of the picture in Mama Dot's hand, does not say who.
She looks like a lot of those Warrens and Lockwoods.
Having no father and having a single mother who went to college with him,
Daddy Ernie became various kinds of father to many, but, like i said, it was a little rough back home parenting Davey and me.
Davey was always worrisome to his parents: so inward and secretive, but there was still hope for him, if for no other reason but that, according to special tests, he was operating way below his potential.
In my case, I showed no particular potential so I could hardly dissappoint, but I did my most to dismay.
After he had gathered a couple of degrees and spent three years as a college instructor, my brother Davey quit academic life to do yard work and odd jobs, with a specific goal of working his way up the outside of houses to a career peak of roofing, which seemed to him a colorful trade, yet dirty, dangerous, and difficult enough, that even in hard times, he would be able to work if he really had to.
Daddy Ernie didn't require another lawyer in the family, but he had been hoping for something beyond that..... like a philosopher. He himself admired the thought of Shopenhauer.
On his death bed, he told Davey that he had joined the Baptist church when we came to Ithaca, because his mother insisted....on account of his father having been a Baptist minister. Although a deacon in the Baptist church, he was not a believer in miracles or theological doctrine, excpept for the particularly Baptist creedo that the individual needs no priest to stand between him and his truth. Not that a person didn't need a couselor, a pastor, or a father.
Out of indecision, Davey had become a philosophy major, though he finally decided that he disliked the game as practiced so much that he tried to use the same term paper in all his philosophy classes. His unified theoery didn't go over well, so it took an extra term to graduate.
Davey did get a graduate degree and did publish a couple of weird little books back then, but his overstuffed suitcase of a story, Lake Bonaparte, My Grandfather, and the Treasure of the Rhinoceros Hills, (which he left me out of) was about the only one Daddy Ernie really liked, and and there seemed to be little hope for professionalization of Davey..
One day I had been helping Davey with a basement clean-out job and Daddy Ernie came home for lunch as we were trying to bungie cord a couple of his garbage cans to the roof of the car.
Bungie cords really suck for tying garbage cans to the top of a car, especially when you have no roof rack.
Daddy Ernie took his brief case inside, and came back out with a rope .
As Davey and I wrapped it round the cans and through the windows to each other, Daddy Ernie suggested that if there was anything..... any regular business..... Davey would like to get into, then he would be glad to help out in any way possible.
Davey balled up the rope end, ,n threw it over the garbage cans to me, then said well, he would kind of like to have a fish farm.
Daddy Ernie stepped back, and grabbed his chin to keep his mouth from falling open. As if maybe the reply had been a sarcastic joke. Maybe he actually thought that, or maybe he imagined a chaos, with fish in trees.
Anyway, the subject never came up between them again.
And what do you know!....Davey has his fish farm now, more or less.
As for me: there were no suspicions of underachieving and no fond hopes I could frustrate, but I had perplexed Daddy Ernie from the beginning, What did I want other than wildness and solitude? I was unsuited for public education or regular employment.
As I drifted more and more to the feral life, hitch-hiking back and forth form Ithaca to Northern New York, so that it was never clear whether I was lurking here or there, Daddy Ernie patiently tolerated my comings and goings, and my informal use of the family home. He would not see me for weeks, then one morning find me in the bath tub, asleep in my clothing, smelling like something the dog rolled in.
During those years, my main Ithaca area residence was the Ellis Hollow Beaver meadow, where I had banked the dirt up against the old beaver lodge and planted it around with concentric circles of vine crops from pumpkins which clambered over the meadow to potatoes, and then beans which covered the whole lodge by midsummer. And then I had half a dozen digs in the secret places of Ithaca, particularly in my Cemetery Gorge cliff shelter, where Davey would sometimes leave me a note on the stone with the quartz X on it,which served as my mail drop.
My finger-farming in the beaver meadow was maybe my one independent activity that looked something like a working vocation. but it was often a bust, because of the deer . i could keep out the rabbits by surrounding the plot with a many layered palisade of bramblle stalks , but even three feet deep, the deer were jumping right over it.
A gun seemed to be the answer. I loved guns. Partly because I was such a little guy, but also they were the artifacts of family tradition. When I was younger, we each had our own B.B. gun which we were free to roam and shoot out the eyes of birds with until we graduated to twenty twos, and exploding frogs, but even at that young age, I would sometimes stand in the dark at the back of that same closet among the real guns: the Remmington pump twenty two which Grandpa Failing had taken to pay a debt at his garage and which Mama Dot considered to be hers. Grandpa Failing's Fox double barrel, the two Marlin thirty-thirty carbines deer rifles, the bolt action twenty gauge shot gun Daddy Ernie carried , and the Civil War musket with four notches, which we sometimes brought out for our war games Davey and I had cap pistols we converted to zip guns which could break a Coke bottle at ten paces, and I became a fast draw maniac. When I was old enough, I hunted with the Fox double, and usually got off both barrels before the bird was twenty feet into the brush and either pulped it with lead, or missed it entirely.
In defense of my vine patch, I hitched in from Ellis Hollow to borrow the the Fox double barrel. It was late afternoon and I had entered by way of the wysteria vine and the front porch roof deck, so as to disturb no one, but Daddy Ernie came home a little early , so when he stepped into the clostet to hang up his tie,he found me standing there , the gun in my arms,
It wasn't exactly my gun, but it was the gun I commonly used. Daddy Ernie and I had gone hunting together the previous Fall, and I had nearly shot his face off when a grouse flew up beside us.
I got the grouse though. And Daddy Ernie seemed to be more impressed by the hit than by the near miss.
Surprised by me in the closet, he maintained his equanimity. And of the gun was still in its two component parts and it the case, so it was not like I was going to be triggered by my own surprise . I froze.
Daddy Ernie deliberated for a few seconds.
Then said, You know, young man, you will always have a home with us here at Edgewood Place, any time you care to actually move back in to a room and a bed.
But, he said, if there is some place you would like to go, something you would like to accomplish, or make of yourself, I would be glad to help you in any way possible.
If there had been a just war going on then, and even if there was not, I like many another boy of that time, although I had not killed anyone so far, would have cheerfully gone off as a soldier, and, with very little coaching, I would have made an excellent sniper or assassin. For worse or better however, I didn't meet the Army minimum requirement for formal education, and of course I would have come up short at the Army physical.
But every since I ran off from Aunt Sammy in Florida and my confusion about the term "North Country" had led me half way to Yukon before I got redirected .....ever since then, and more so as I had heard it talked of at the family talble and picture in the National Graphics by the hearth at Loon island... I had kind of wanted to go to Alaska.
Alaska, I said, I want to go to Alaska.
Daddy Ernie stepped back just a little into the light of the room, but he looked up and far away through the dark closet sky, then he looked down at me and said Alaska was not completely out of the question.
He must have been of two minds about it.
I sure was.
Why did I want to go to Alaska? I had learned to survive on the edge of civilization, but up there, in those boreal forests I would never be able to feed, comfort, and protect myself.
And the bears! In the Geographic pictures, there appeared to be more bears along the rivers of Alaska than fisherman on opening day anywhere. Black Bears, Brown Bears, Grizzly Bears, Kodiak Bears, and Polar Bears.
My experience of being dragged off by a bear, however well meaning she might have been, had made me shy about them, to say the least. I must have wanted to kill one.
One day in May 1962 l found a note held down by a pebble on top of the mail rock by my cliff digs in the cemetery. Brother Davey was the only one who left notes there, or even knew about that particular hide-out at the time.
The note said I should come to dinner at home the next night and be sure to wear my legs.
Dinner this time was for Buzz Miller, a law school graduate Daddy Ernie had sent off to be an assistant attorney general in Alaska, and who was back for a class reunion and had been invited to a dinner cooked by Mama Dot. An invitation like that was greatly prized among the law students and graduates,
Since I had been specially invited to dinner, Mama Dot, knowing that instead of washing my clothing, I just wore it out and discarded it, had put a shirt, and some new underwear in the downstairs bathroom where I went to wash up. I changed into the new clothes and and disposed of the old. Then Davey took offense at my underwear stinking in the bathroom waste basket, tried to flush it down the toilet, and flooded the floor. But we got over that before the guest came, and all went smoothly from there on.
Daddy Ernie introduced me as an Outdoorsman, which was a polite way to charactrize me.
Dinner was Mama Dot's unbeatable Chicken Divan.
Buzz Miller had seconds because Daddy Ernie said we needed to put some fat on him for the winter hibernation up there, and when Buzz refused any thirds, Daddy Ernie said, what's the matter, don't you like our food?
And then he told the traditional Mooseflop joke, which was his only joke I remember, but he told it regularly after the don't you like our food embarassments.
It must have come from His Eligah Lake Lake Hunting Club experience, where cooking duty was not popular but complaining about the food was.
You probably know the deal; they made a rule that, If you complain about the food , you have to take over the cooking.
There was no other provision in the camp rules for rotating the Cooks job. And one very reluctant cook, who would have quit if it were allowed, produced some very bad meals, but couldn't seem to cook badly enough than any of the others would complain.
Finally, he has an inspiration in his sleep, gets up, goes out in the moon light with a canoe paddle and slides it under a big moose pie about the size of a tire,
He walks it back to camp with it, puts it in in a crust, bakes it all day, and serves it with a sprig of parsley on top for supper.
So the first guy to take a bite of this soufle sits back and says , says Daddy Ernie, Great Balls of Fire! That's Moose flop.....he says...........but Good!
After the moose flop we went into the living room and discussed Anchorage, whose people, if they didn't have a float plane parked at the biggest float port in the world, needed only drive to a crossroads or a bridge at the outskirts of down to shoot an elk or snatch salmon which they bring back to huge rented cold storage units down town. Anchorage where under the midnight sun cabbages grow big as dog houses, where odd people went to start new lives, if not maybe to grow new legs, where, seeing as I was such an Outdoorsman, abd if I cared to experience the true Great Outdoors, he could put me up for as long as it took me to find some interesting work..
Less than a month later, about a year before the big earth quake shattered the Alaska permafrost and sprang hundreds of miles of rail road track. Daddy Ernie loaned me money for a plane ticket and handed me the belted suit case which he had carried to college. Mama Dot contributed a tooth brush, and paste, note paper, and ball point pens, a few pairs of new underwar and socks. I packed my harmonica, and a fly reel with a weight forward line, a jack knife, and a carton of Winstons. I hadn't smoked before, but I was starting another life.
Wearing my traveling legs, underwear and denims cut off right out of the package, I took the first plane ride of my life, most of it over endless Canadian lake-splattered lowlands, and most of the rest up the icey spine of the continent, all of which would have been dizzying even wtihout the narcosis of the nicotine.
I staggered off the plane in Anchorage, and was met at the gate by two native prostitutes who seemed to have known I was coming. I had no idea what they wanted as they approached with tubucular coughs, but I gave them each a cigarette .
They accepted, and hung on, but I was soon picked up by Buzz Miller.
He had looked into the employment situation and we discussed the job possibilities as we drove to his home.
The possibilites were limited. The idea of crewing on a fishing boat appealed to me, or I thought it did , but any captian wanted an investment from his crew members in the expedition, and though noting was said about the issue, I am sure none of them needed a youthful lurch-about on projetile prosthetics.
There was also work at remote oil drilling sites, which appealed only by virtue of the remoteness, but rough as my general nature is, I was no rough neck.
There were a few openings for men to camp alone with a rifle at the mouths of Salmon spawning streams in order to make sure that the commercial fishermen did not approach closer than the law allowed. This had some appeal for me of course, being a job with a gun, involving pirates, but it was a job that usually went to ex soldiers trained to kill.
The next day, we visited a National Fsheries department station, but they wanted to hire college boys in a fisheries major for seasonal work there. About all this left was working in a cannery with the native women, or working on the railroad.
Working on the Railroad sounded good, almost musical.
At the Railroad office, I learned that all I had to do was pass a physical exam and sign a statement that I would not try to overthrow the government or form a union of railroad workers.
Of course the physical exam was the problem, and I dreaded the outcome..
Dr. Starr was tan and rumpled as a veternarian. He noted that I had come from New York State, and he had too, but he didn't see how people could stand it there. When I had dropped my pants for the exam Dcotor Starr asked how in the hell I expected to be a Gandy Dancer, with those legs of mine, such as they are.
I didn't know what a Gandy Dancer was, but I shifted around unseasily and looked down at my naked prostethics as if I had only just discovered them there myself, flexing like I was trying them for the first time, then I pulled up my pants and bounced in place a little, then bounced around the room some, a good foot and a half each bounce.
Dr. Starr said that was some Damn Gandy Dancing with such feeling that I thought maybe that was what it was. He had meo walk around some more, and wanted to know who made the phosthetics and all about them, so I told him how Doc Howe had cobbled the legs out of fly rod parts .
Doctor Starr proceeded to examine my main body, and concluded that I had after all, a sound and sturdy pair of legs and feet of my own, that I was in excelent health over all, and that with the adidtional advantage of my amazing prosthesetic devices, I might do just fine on the job.
He signed off on the papers and said that if I could make my way back to Anchorage on a weekend, I could fly with him and a buddy a few miles inland across Cook Inlet to a small lake where he had a cabin. He had built it entirely out of materials flown, in strapped between the pontoons of a Cesna float plane.
He said he lake was full of trout you could catch them with a frying pan.
Trout so wild they are tame.
Moose and Bears the same.
As a matter of fact, a bear had invited itself to dinner that Spring, and he had killed it right in the doorway.
The Station Master in Anchorage gave me a pass to ride in the Seward train caboose, with instructions to get off the train as it rolled past the side track between the highway crossings of Portage and Moose Pass, up in the remote valley where Extra Gang number 2 was sidetracked.
The two conductors sat with their feet up on the cold stove of the caboose, playing cards from their laps.
One said I could ride in the cupola if I wanted. I should just keep an eye out and holler if any of the cars were on fire or had left the track.
I climbed up and watched intently, but only saw a million pointed firs, a hundred track-side moose, three mountain goats, a dozen rivers milkiy with rock powder, valleys that narrowed into tunnels opening into bigger valleys with green ice walls that had white tongues lapping down them from glaciers fields in even higher valleys,
I blew for a while on my harmonica burt I oouldn't hear it over the clack of the train and rumble of car sized boulders the glacierl melt water tumbled along the river bottoms. .
This was the goddamn life, flowing through me, me through it!
But of course, working on the railroad, is not the same as riding on the railroad.
After a time measureless to me, the conductor hollered up.
We were due within a few minutes to roll on the down grade past the Extra Gang #2 side track.
Throw your baggage out first, the conductor told me, and then wait until you're past it before you jump. And hit the ground running.
I threw the suitcase clear of the train, and then the sleeping bag; waited until we were past them, jumped, and hit the ground running......and bouncing. on my prosethics.
I bounced right into one of the several men standing there: a fire plug of an Indian who turned like a roller and chuckled me off. but did not fall, totter, or cuss.
When I had gathered up my belongings an nodded toward the approaching assistant foreman , who took my papers, and showed me to my bunk in a sleeping car. He said there was still time for me to get a snack down at the supper car if I wanted and anyway I would need to be bouncing out of bed at six the next morning.
I was very tired from all the landscape and river that had consumed. I closed the door looked out my window at a mountain wall. I could see just where I was in the morning. I closed my eyes and was lost in space.
The assistant foreman on the coal stove with a fire poker woke me and the men around me in the morning fog dim and milky with rock powder or ice crystals.
Breakfast, served up all at once by the assistant cook, was pancakes, cereal, donuts, eggs, bacon, ham, toast, and fried potatoes , juice, coffee. There must have been fruit there somewhere. Do they have bananas on the moon? Anyway there was far too much food for the ordinary human with an untrained stomach. These men shoveled it down like they thought they were fueling steam engines. I did my best.
I never saw the cook until after we had eaten and she came out to see how we were doing and when she stepped up to the table, I stood right up like the chair was suddenly hot. Aunt Sammy!
No not Aunt Sammy I realized, when I was introduced as the new hire, and she spoke a hello, but she resembled Sammy enough to have been her sister, and she could well have done her own radio show.
She was a radiant, red glowing woman, like a farmer, or a fire tender, and fire tender she was.
i would learn that she owned a restaurant in San Fransisco, and left it for Alaska each summer when the extra gangs did thier work, the reasom maybe being that these men were the best and most grateful customers. Nobody complained about the food, and nobody complained later on in my stay when she broke regulations and cooked game one of someone shot, oer about what the two women may or may not have been doing in their private quarters at night.
The work crew was eight or ten common gandy dancers, a heavy equipment operator, a spiker and his holder, plus the foreman and his assistant.. The gandy dancers and the tamper operator shared a couple of sleeping cars with two bunks to a compartment, though there was no one in the other bunk of mine for the first weeks. The foreman and assistant forman shared a sleeping car, the cook and her assistant another. The dining car was between the cooks' car and the wash car, then there was tool car, and a water car. Join one end to the other, whirl it off, and it would be a suitable space station.
I didn't see the brief dark of night for several weeks, but there must have been a night because it was cold every morning.
And then, about as soon as the sun made it through the mountain gaps, the temperature went into the eighties and nineties for rest of the day as the sun circled just over the peaks.
Each day was eight to ten hours of bending to shovel gravel and then jumping, on the shovel to tamp the gravel under the ties. . The foreman and assistaant foreman alernated supervising us, with one of them often going up and down the track above and below the job, laying and removing explosive warning charges in case a rogue train were to come along, and going back to the sidetrack for a trunk packed full of soup and sandwiches. I ate a man share , and then stretched out on the gravel with my head on the raill for fifteen minutes of deep sleep, until the iron hit the rail, then it was back to the shovel.
Except for lunch, you could only stop to drink or piss. I drank a lot, but mostly only pretended to piss so I could rest, because we sweated so we were about pissless. And the sweat evaporated so fast that by the end of the day our backs and shoulders were streaked white with salt like potato chips.
Joe, the spiker who came behind us was the Indian I had bounced into when I had jumped from the train. His helper placed the spike and Joe drove it in. I never could figure out why the head of the spiking hammer was so impossibly small: the same size as the head of the spike, why he never missed, or why he never brought it down before his helper got his hand away. .
Joe didn't read, but he was a great admirer of reading and writing. We didn't talk much, but sometimes, he would come sit in my compartment chair watching sometimes as I wrote notes to Carmella Mignano that I never mailed, Not that she was expecting any. She was Davey's ex girlfriend and I had a crush on her she didn't know about.
But in the first days there was no note writing, because I couldn't sit down and stay awake unless I was eating. After another huge meal at supper, I would generally flop down in my clothes and sink into a sleep l wouldn'tt wake from when the regular train came through at one or two in the morning passing within twenty feet of my head.
Already by the second or third day, my back was totally sprung at the base of my spine, and I couldn't straighten up without climbing up the shovel handle.
I had to pretty much leave my back out of it and do l the work with my arms, legs, and prosthesis.
Since none of those guys seemed to ever take their pants off either, I am not sure what they knew about my limitations and additions in the leg department. .
Wiith a few more days behind me, I would be still up a while after supper each night, when the cook's helper carried the scraps across the tracks and threw them off the berm.
Then the bears come out to feed. Sometimes five or six of them. That is a lot of bears in one place, seeing as bears are mostly lone rangers or protective single mothers with cubs. The news had spread about the great new free-lunch. Now and then there was a little quarrel and one went off and under a bush . A couple of the collge boys insisted on approaching and feeding cookies to the bears by hand. They Indian;s frowned at that.
The track patrolman was called Boomer (as maybe they are all called) after his very loud track car as he came a few hours before each train to insure that there were no sprung rails, no rock slides, dead moose or bears on the tracks.
He also brought the mail and liked to shoot the bull. He carried a .22 on his ride, and used it sometimes to urge on any moose or bears too dumb and puzzled to get out of his way.
This worked, except, according to the foreman, there was at least one bear whom Boomer had managed to lame with his little rifle, and the bear had developed a bad temper as a result.
If we ever saw one of the after- dinner bears with a limp and a snarl, and if the foremen were not around, we were to come and get his thirty ought six and put the animal down.
We often worked eight and a half hour days so that we could quit early on Friday, and then the foreman would take those who wanted to go in the man-haul, to the Porrtage station from where we could try to catch a ride into Anchorage.
After the first week I was too tired to do anything but sleep all weekend, but after the second, I just had to go in, beause the shoulder of the shovel blade and the rough gravel of the track bed had worn through the soles of my lower set of shoes, and was beginning to hack into my shoe stretchers.
So I went into Anchorage, stayed with the Millers, bought a pair of army surplus combat boots, a soggy fly rod to go with the reel and line I had brought from Ithaca, and then I went to a pawn shop on 4th Street and bought a twenty two revolver for sixteen dollars.
I also called Dr. Starr and made an appointment to fly with him to his lake cabin the next weekend. A bush pilot would drop us off Saturday and pick us up Sunday.
I rode back to Portage in the caboose again. I shot out of the window with my little revolver. I don't suppose that was something the conductor would have encouraged or the railroad approved, but I couldn't even hear the shots myself. Firing while we were in a tunnel, I could see flames shoot in all directions from the leaky chamber. It was a cheap little thing.
Beside the pilot as we flew over Cook Inlet to Dr, Starr's Lake, it was me and the Doctor and his friend Ben who taught at an Indian school out in the bush, and whom you would have to describe, even in another story, as a big bear of a man, except with more facial hair.
As we came in over the lake I could see a moose grazing in the shallows and hundreds of trout swarming to spawn in the tiny inlet.
Rainbows, said Dr. Starr.
And when the chartered float plane left us at the dock and we started to the cabin with our supplies, we saw that the cabin door was open and hanging half off the hinges.
Bears, he said.
Nailed up on the side of the camp, was the skin of the bear which Dr. Starr had shot as it was trying to break in while was cooking supper one evening that Spring.
He had meant the skin to warn other bears away, but it had apparantly worked more like a clan flag.
This time, a bear had come in through the kitchen window, ravaged the cupboards, bitten through all the cans in the place, including fly spray, sucked out most of the contents, shat and puked all over the place, and then left by the door.
Of course Dr. Starr was pissed, but he seemed hardly surprised by a bear that comes in out of the woods to shit, and he was probably used to gory messes of all sorts.
We cleaned up, rehung the door, blocked the broken window, then we went fishing.
Actually it was more like harvesting than like the hope-based thing I had known in New York state as trout fishing. If not with just a frying pan, I could have caught all we wanted by dragging a fly behind the boat, but the Dr. insisted I do some of my fancy casting for them. The rod was shit, but I did some sloppy sky writing, and two more trout managed to leap and catch me on the fly. It was almost annoying.
Supper was trout fried in a pan cured with bear grease, along with potatoes , and whisky, and the back-up elk meat sandwiches, then more whisky. Afterward we threw the left-overs out on the garbage pile twenty yards from the cabin, so a visiting bear would not need to come in to get them.
When it was time to turn in, the doctor and Ben agreed that, since both of them happened to have already shot a bear that year, I should be the one to sleep out on the screen porch with the bear rifle......just in the unlikely event of the bear coming back again.
I put my mummy bag on the porch cot, leaned the gun against the wall by my head and lay awake for a couple of hours during which the bear did not come.
Then I fell asleep. I dreamed I was in the dark of the railroad tunnel shooting and shooting my revolver, but hearing nothing at all....... until I heard the sound of claws on screen, as the bear, standing on it's hind feet at the top of the steps, gently tested the door as if he were measuring for a replacement screen.
I rolled over reaching for the rifle, but fell onto the floor because I hadn't unzipped the mummy bag.
This knocked the gun over, alerted the bear, woke the two men in the main cabin.
I unzipped and got out of the bag, picked up rifle, and got to the door, rifle raised, just as the bear was headed off over the garbage pile.
I guess I was going to put a bullet in his butt, but merciful Ben came out and pushed the rifle off target before I could take aim......... and I didn't shoot. In that situation, he explained, I was unlikely to do anything but badly wound the bear, and then we would have had a much more serious problem. Now I feel like he stopped me just because he himself was a bear.
But as Daddy Ernie used to say every night, tomorrow is another day, And every day is a new opportunity, sometimes an old one knocking for the second or third time
. One evening few weeks later, back on the railroad, a new bear showed up feeding among the the usual free-loaders and it seemed to to me that he had a limp.
The three boys from Nebraska said maybe. Joe said nothing. The foreman was not there. So I went in and got his rifle.
I shot the bear. Three shots before all motion stopped. Two bad head shots, which totally missed is head, but blew most of his neck off, showering blood clear across the track, and a final heart shot that stopped the thrashing and spouting.. I don't know why I aimed for the head at first.
The bad misses or the mess didn't seem to bother much of anybody else.
The assistant foreman had a mamal skull collection which lacked a bear specimen so he helped me finish beheading, then skinning and butchering the animal.
It must have been nine o'clock already by the time we put the head in a five gallon can over an open fire to boil the flesh away.
We all but the cooks stood around as it boiled and bounced , even into the dark of night, the first I had seen in weeks, Darker than you might expect, given the short day. Like looking up through the chimney from the fireplace at Loon Island once, when I saw dark sky with stars in the day time.
And you would want to believe, that the Great Bear of the North Star constilation was looking down at this little circle of men around the glow of the bouncing skull, as they told bear stories.
But the bear encounter stories were soon exhausted and the white guys began telling jokes, not including the moose flop joke, but including the classic about the new arrival in the north who wanted to become a real Sourdough, as the old timers are known up there.
So he finds him a Sourdough in a bar who tells him that to become a Sourdough, he has to shoot a bear, hump a squaw, and piss in the Yukon.
So the kid goes off into the bush .
And he comes back to the bar a month later, all beat up, scratched and scabby, and he finds the same old Sourdough, buys him a drink. And then he says, " Allright, now where is that squaw I've got to shoot."
That's it. Maybe it is funny. I took it kind of personally.
The next evening I mostly finished scraping the fat off the hide. I took a shaker of salt off the table in the dinner car, sprinkled it all on the hide, and left it spread out in the line shack for a few days while the flies worked on it some more.
The Alaska Railroad was not supposed to feed us on non government meat, but the cooks barbecued bear for several days and it was so tender and good that you had to think that's what it would be like to eat a human. I don't know how much it had to do with the fact that they were eating about the same thing as we did. If so Davey's chickens should taste like bear meat. It was just the best meat I ever had except for the raw bass Pike and I ate one night at Indian Lake in another story later on.
On Thursday of the next week, before the hide could get too stiff, I rolled it up and wrapped it, then took it into Anchorage Friday and sent it by U.S. mail addressed to brother Davey in Ithaca. I figured it could be a rug in front of the fire place at Lake Bonaparte. Or maybe I could have it made into a blanket I could present to Carmella Mignano.
A month or so later I got a ride with shared gas expenses and driving stints down the Alaska Higway to Seatle. Then I hitch hiked and ended up riding the bus ........ all that way with a stone like a penis I had picked up from the railroad gavel, a souveneer railroad spike, and the revolver with some remains of my clothing in Daddy Ernie's suitcase. That long trip would be another story, and one worth telling, but I hardly remember any of it.
I arrived back in Ithaca and came in through the porch roof, because the family was up at Bonaparte closing camp. I left the suitcase with the spike and the stone pecker and the gun in in a closet on the third floor and then curled up beside it right there in the closet and slept for eighteen hours.
I looked around the house when I woke but couldn't find the bear hide. anywhere.
Later, Davey said the package with the bear skin in it had arrived pretty foul smelling before he and Daddy Ernie even opened it.
They never brought it inside, but opened it right there on the front porch, and might never have opened it at all, but he said they wanted to make sure that it wasn't my dead body in there, shipped back for burial.
The bear skin and all the wrapings went into a garbage can which he and Davey took to the dump and left there, can and all. Carmella Mignano would never know the difference.
When I went back to get the gun from the suitcase in the closet a year or so later, the stone pecker and the spike were there, but the revolver was gone.
After he died, I discovered the revolver's cilinder and the frame in two differnet drawers of Daddy Ernie's bureau, so that I guess he could probably have made a case that the gun no longer existed..
Daddy Ernie never even mentioned it .....or the bear skin...to me.
He died about twenty years ago, and I can't put him together again, but there once was such a man.