Getting Used to It
Over the fall deer-hunting season, I stopped by our cabin high up in the woods and found a note from one of our favorite neighbors, Gerald, that read, “Tracking wounded bear. Saw no deer. No wind damage. Cleaned out mousetraps. Swept cabin.” This communication was a model of literary economy and, from his point of view, a perfect description of recent activities. To a flatlander, Gerald’s nonchalant attitude toward tracking a wounded bear might be startling, but to a Vermonter, his note was not a surprise. Life is simply a matter of what one is used to.
I did smile when another neighbor, Tom, told us that Gerald was seen pedaling a bicycle on the main road, dressed in long johns and shorts, with a rope attached from the seat post to a six-point buck, which he was attempting to drag home. This is the same Gerald who spent one summer driving an electric golf cart around town, sticking to the shoulders, doing 10 miles an hour. Our town has seen more than its share of eccentrics, from the cartoonist who secreted a $15 million Norman Rockwell painting in a fake wall discovered after his passing, to John, who used votive candles as windshield defrosters for his brown diesel Rabbit (he punched holes in the dashboard to hold them), to a local character who lives on a busy road and, in winter, places a seated dummy in an outhouse with an open door, apparently reading a newspaper. He even beat a worn path through the snow from the back door of the farmhouse to the small one-holer.
Since March and sugaring season are just around the corner, I am used to seeing Kevin, Tom, and Nate running blue plastic sap lines up into the woods. They take four-wheelers up as far as they can, but most of the work is done by hand, sometimes in snow so deep it comes to mid-thigh. On bright sparkling mornings, they fly down the mountain from tree to tree, drilling taps like dervishes, and then cook lunch over an open wood fire. On a cold winter’s day, men stand around the sparking coals, heads and hands bare, wrapped in old work shirts, and considering themselves lucky.
Growing up in Vermont, I am used to hard work, to days that started before dawn, Saturdays being just another workday and Sundays for church and then hours fixing sanders on pickups, creosoting fence posts, changing oil, stacking wood, cleaning furnaces, or, once in a while, running off to the mall to buy a tree stand on sale or canning supplies. I am used to ghost stories, dead neighbors suddenly reappearing in old farmhouses, and old men getting dressed up to weigh in a deer as if they were going to a wedding. I am used to bobcats walking across Beartown Road like they owned the place, green gallon jars of pickled tongue, unwashed men in falling-down sugarhouses, donkeys wearing circus hats for the July Fourth parade, and a crazy man with one eye that wandered when he got worked up. I am used to rumors of mountain lions, the smell of Bore Butter for cleaning muzzleloaders, the bite of early morning smoke from woodstoves, the sound of the wind charging like a locomotive through our valley, and then, as the sun sets on the last day of deer season, a stirring of fresh wind so cold and pure that it must have come from a place that has gods. We grew up in brave little towns where trucks didn’t start, tractors got bogged down, and death was everyday, and so a lucky shot, a potluck dinner, a warm stove, a story retold, and a reliable neighbor attracted our passions.
Years ago, Tom took a longtime friend and older neighbor, Cliff McKee, out hunting after he had retired from the woods due to bad legs. He drove him into the woods and sat him on a tree stump, with his .32 Special in one hand and his cane in the other. Tom shot a buck that day and was late getting back to Cliff, who, Tom soon discovered, had tears on his face, thinking he had been forgotten. Tom said, “Cliff, do you really think that I would go off and forget you?” Cliff thought about it a minute and said, “Well, guess not.” That’s what I am used to most, a place where people are not forgotten even after they’re gone. That is the secret of small towns, never letting go. Once you get used to a thing, you stick with it. We know better than to trust in the future, never expecting that something better will be coming soon round the blind curve in the dirt road.