Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Tombstone


Ruth and Noel and Joe and I went to Moscow Idaho one Autumn weekend. If you read Screen Saver you know that Ruth was my first wife and Noel and Joe were our sons. If you didn’t read Screen Saver, Ruth was nonetheless my first wife, and Noel and Joe were our two sons.

We went one time to Moscow to visit Jack and Ted. Again from Screen Saver, Jack was a close friend whom I had met in high school and who remained a close friend for a significant portion of the rest of my life; Ted was his roommate for awhile during their time in law school; Ted is still my friend.
We went to visit the site of their being roommates, a beautifully finished daylight basement apartment on Moscow Mountain, not far out of Moscow; Moscow is the home of the University of Idaho and the law school that Jack and Ted were attending.

The daylight basement apartment where they lived was the lower level of a recently built house belonging to Doctor Tenny, a professor in the English Department at the University. Doctor – inevitably he was called behind his back “Doc” – lived in the upper rest of the house with his wife.

The day we arrived we met the Doctor before we had found Jack and Ted. It was late mid-afternoon on a beautiful blue and gold shimmering October day. Doc Tenny was in the rather large driveway terminus that doubled as a parking pad directly in front of the windows of Jack and Ted’s apartment. Doc Tenny greeted us with almost courtly welcoming courtesy. The majority of that attention and courtesy seemed to be directed to Ruth, but that didn’t particularly surprise me. Ruth was thought by many people to look like Ingrid Bergman – I wasn’t one of them – and I assumed that the Doctor, a man in his seventies, didn’t often have attractive young blonde women as his guest. I quickly felt as if I were a hindrance to something, but that was a fleeting impression. One of the things I learned before leaving was that Ruth was certainly not of a scarce or unusual genre at the Doctor’s abode. He conducted an honors upper division literature class consisting mostly of young women not much different from Ruth, and part of the potential advanced credit curriculum involved visits to the Doctor at his domicile on the Mountain for in-depth literary analysis.

As a part of the welcoming pleasantries the Doctor gestured vaguely in the direction of what appeared to be an automobile. It must have been a 1957 Dodge, but it was somewhat hard to ascertain its exact lineage because where there once had been fins and fenders and lights there were dents and holes and bumps and roundness. Not long in the future from that October day the snows would come and, being on a mountain, the ice would follow. The garage and driveway during that time of the year became a place requiring caution, and caution was a thing that the Doctor, it seemed, lacked. Old Overholt apparently made a bad time of the year for driving not seem so bad at all; apparently due to that spiritual influence, the Doctor’s car had gradually become a shapeless lump of dented and rounded sheet metal. Jack and Ted said watching him get the vehicle out of the garage and launched out of the parking apron, down the mountain-trail-like driveway to the main highway was an experience not to be missed; the return, they said was equally exciting. The essence of the fins could still be perceived, which is how I knew that it was a Dodge; it was a well used vehicle.

The gesture to the lump-like automobile was accompanied by a running dialogue in something resembling drunken Elizabethan (or at least not contemporary American) English. “Behold yonder stands the noblest of steeds. She carries me unto battle and victory over the stanchions of evil.”
Noel and Joe were beginning to pay attention. Ruth didn’t know what to say. Nor did I. With murmurs from the two boys – murmurs of something between admiration and caution – and silence from Ruth and me, he continued. “I gainsay those who call her a cheval qui a la coeur brisé. She is merely reaching her threshold of greatness.”
With that he lurched toward the steps leading to his portion of the domicile. “Join me, children, in the curtilage for an imbibement. “ And up and in he went.

We were just looking at one another, wondering what to do next and wondering where our friends and hosts were when they appeared.

“We saw you coming and saw him out there and decided the only proper entrance for you – since such an opportunity was available – was for you folks to get a shot of the Doc unfiltered. You would have thought we were making it up otherwise,” said Ted. He was something of a poet. “He invited us in, and that isn’t an invitation to be taken lightly,” said Jack.

“What dost thou desire, fair damsel?” boomed across the large great room-with-massive-fireplace. Ruth being the only damsel present, I assumed the Doctor was addressing her. “Gin and tonic?” she asked. “Your every wish shall be granted,” rejoined Doc Tenny. And he set about making one.

As we all sat around talking, and drinking - Jack and Ted and I had helped ourselves to beer from the refrigerator, and the Doctor had poured a large tumbler of Irish without ice – time just seemed to pass. In spite of the awkwardly surreal nature of the encounter to that point, I had to admit, and I assumed the others had had to as well, that the Doctor was a good host and terribly entertaining.

After some time and some drinks he began to speak in a more contemporary manner. “ I have a treasure in the trunk of my car that I rarely share with others, but for this august group, I would like to make an exception.” Ted and Jack just looked at one another. I saw a flash of something pass between them, but I had no idea what it might be. “Yes, after our next re-fill we must go out; we must go out before darkness settles upon us, and I will show you my treasure.” And then we did another round.

Once out on the twilit parking apron, the Doctor moved to what must have been the rear of the amorphous mound of metal that was his automobile, and with a flourish withdrew a key, shakily thrust it in the direction of what was most probably the trunk and a piece of flattish metal popped up at a forty five degree angle.

In the waning light one could see a mass of things, but there was one thing of note. It was the biggest thing in the cavity: it was about three feet in length, eighteen inches in width, was curved on one end and was flat on the other end. It appeared to be made of stone. It was a tombstone.

“I found this in the woods several years ago, and I want it to adorn my grave when I’m gone. It sums me up better than I could have ever contemplated doing myself. I doubt even if Marian would have done as well.” And he, with grimaces and grunts – it was, indeed made of stone – horsed the thing out of the trunk and leaned it against his leg so that all could see. In the rapidly waning light it was still possible to read the chiseled words: “He Was A Good Woodsman”.
Thinking about this story and then telling it as I just have completed, from the vantage point of all of those intervening years has caused me to ponder what might be my exit line, my epitaph. And, I think I have it:

He Nearly Accomplished Quite A Number Of Things

Halloween Story Part Thirty Seven

It must have been somewhere between the years 1600 and 1700 when the giant oak came down.

A team of woodsmen had been dispatched to cut it down and hew the massive trunk into timbers that could be used as structural members in the buildings that were going up all over Paris.

But bringing it down had not been easy.

First, the very thing that made its harvesting a desirable action, that thing being its massive size had come close to being the undoing of the project.  The tree had clung to the rocky ridge of an outcropping from whence it had emerged from an acorn randomly abandoned by some ancient squirrel for so many centuries that its trunk possessed a diameter – the woodsmen soon discovered – far greater than the length of any cross cut saw known to be in existence.  This they had discovered to their chagrin when first they had dragged the massive and heavy blade that they did possess up the difficult, rocky, slippery and very steep incline that allowed them to gain access to the base of the tree.

The blade was probably ten feet in length.  It was far short of being able to do much more than enter the first few feet of the trunk.  That initial attempt had created a nasty and perhaps fatally deep gash in the ancient giant’s trunk, but it had not come close to severing it completely through.  The woodsmen had considered trying to put an equally deep cut into the opposing side of the trunk but the drop off from that side to the ravine below made such an endeavor impossible unless one were able to invoke some form of levitation.

So the tree was wounded, but spared, from that initial attempt.  And with winter coming on, the tree was left to preside over another of the uncountable winters that it had endured and survived.

But that would be its last.

The woodsmen did not rest that winter.  They were hard at work on a much bigger blade.  Before they had left the giant for the winter they had measured what would be needed in size from a blade to be able to re-enter the cut already started and make it all the way through to the other side.  They assumed the tree would come down somewhat before the saw had cut completely through, but they didn’t want to leave anything to chance.

They visited every smith that they knew.  It was surprising how hard it turned out to be to be able to acquire a sheet of iron the size that they needed.  A number of smiths said that they could provide the thing, but they all failed to deliver what had been promised.  They were all either too short in the final analysis, or if long enough they were made of two or more pieces that had been hammered to appear as a functionally single piece, but their seams told the true story: under the stress of the almost endless back and forth that would be necessary to complete the cut the seams would heat and they would fail.  The woodsmen were not smiths, but they knew the intricacies of their trade so well that they knew that a hammered seam would not stand up to the stress of their intended mission.  Only a single continuous sheet of iron would allow them to craft the blade that they needed.

As the winter deepened and their ability to acquire the blank that they needed from which to create the great blade that would fell the great oak they began to despair of success.

It was then that Luc, the younger of the two woodsmen brothers, heard of a sort of wizard or alchemist who made a metal from iron, but once made it really wasn’t iron any more.  He wasn’t a smith and he wasn’t inside the walls of Paris.  He was a short distance outside of the walls in a place that had a small stream and was in a quite large grove of second growth oak.  Luc had heard that the wizard had chosen that spot so that he had room enough build the rather larger earthen structure in which he made the metal and the equally large fireplace or kiln where he burned the oak that he harvested from the adjacent grove.  In that kiln he reduced the oak to charcoal.  That charcoal was the secret to the metal that he produced.  His metal had proven to be a superior raw material for the blades of swords and he was prospering with sales of his product to the sword makers of numerous nobles.  It was said that perhaps even the king had blades made from this wizard’s metal.

So one day in early February Luc went outside the walls and visited the wizard or alchemist or super smith or whatever he might be.  Luc didn’t really care.  He just wanted a one piece blank of metal from which he and his brother could craft a blade sufficient to complete the job they had started the previous winter.  Gerard, Luc’s brother woodsman didn’t have much hope for the venture.

The Ethics of Road Kill

In Screen Saver there are a number of stories that have bird hunting with Blitz and Brown – two wonderful German Shorthaired Pointers - as their background milieu. These stories inevitably talk about various aspects of hunting, shooting, preparing, cooking and eating various upland game birds: pheasant, chukkar, Hungarian partridge and quail.

What I didn't realize I was omitting during all the writing and editing of the book was that I completely neglected to mention a key adjunct to the hunting of birds. Being out in the wheat fields and sugar beet fields of Oregon and Idaho inevitably brought Jack and me into contact with a physical phenomenon and an associated dilemma. Pheasants like to fly into the path of oncoming cars. Sometimes they make it through unscathed. Sometimes they don't. When they don't, they often manage to limp and flop to the edge of the road where they die not much worse than for the wear and tear of a ruptured heart or massive concussion resulting from contact with the car. This caused the phenomenon: lots of possibly edible game scattered hither and yon along the roadways and byways of many beautiful autumn afternoons. Which led to the dilemma: is it ethical to re-harvest any or all of that previously harvested game?

Jack and I decided that, if we had seen the game being harvested the answer was a definite yes. If the incident of the bird's demise had not been personally witnessed by us, and, if upon stopping and examining a victim, rigor mortis had not yet set in, the answer was a slightly less enthusiastic yes, but yes nonetheless. If the victim was stiff as a tray of ice cubes the answer became hunger dependent.

Recipe to follow.