Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Setting Free the Boys

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.

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