The Mountain Nymph

I am walking down a trail in the ancient Adirondack Forest.

I pull my wide-brimmed hat to better cover my eyes against the sudden spring rain.  I wipe the sweat from my forehead and swat at the blackflies.  I shuffle the rotting crimson and yellow leaves to one side.  I monitor my steps carefully because of the six inches of fresh snow.

I am walking with one of my two loves I met in my youth.  I first enjoyed the Adirondacks as a child of five.  Family camping trips slowly gave way to long and impossible hikes in the High Peaks. This led to the canoe routes of the St. Regis Wilderness Area and solitary paddling on the Saranacs.  I am still with this lover of mine; these trails, ponds and bogs.  I live among them now.  I have gray hair.

My other lover is not someone that I feel comfortable using mere language to describe.  She was and still is part illusion, part myth and wholly real.  She is made of flesh and blood like any other woman.

You see, as an adolescent, I encountered a Mountain Nymph.  I did not, truthfully, actually “meet” her but only saw her half hidden in a midnight shadow while she slept against the wall of a State Forest Ranger cabin.  I was standing in the dark with my brother, whispering to the ranger about the nearest empty lean-to.  He played his flashlight beam onto a pair of bare and mud covered feet.

“That’s Monica,” was all he said.  Beside her was a full Kelty pack and a pack basket strapped across the top.

I was up early but when I walked over to the cabin, Monica was gone.  She had continued on to an even more remote cabin.  The ranger said she left about two hours earlier, just at the breaking of the dawn.

This young woman who hiked alone, barefoot and carried a load that I would find impossible to manage, intrigued me.

As I climbed the High Peaks and hiked the myriad of trails around and over Marcy, I would, on occasion, hear the name of Monica.  Years went by and I kept learning about the epic exploits of Monica.  Then, in the early 1970’s, I stopped hearing her name mentioned in trailside conversations or spoken of around campfires.

My friend and hiking companion through those years and I began to build up our own mythology of Monica.  She became our Mountain Nymph.  We would imagine her waiting for us beside a small mountain pond with a cup of cold water, sitting on a rock beside a roaring flume.  She always would promise us comfort.  She would offer us succor, a lap, a hand, a shoulder and most of all, love.  And escape, of course, for isn’t that what Nymphs do, offer escape from the ordinary to take us up to the lofty peaks of the extraordinary?  Wasn’t it her role to lead us to the Land of Dreams and offer a glimpse of what was possible for our poor hearts to attain?

For many years I stopped visiting the Adirondacks.  My companion and I went in separate directions.  We grew into middle age…and then beyond.  We lost our dreams somewhere along the way.  I came to realize that an alluring goddess, lying on the heather of a summit or sitting on a bed of moss, was not responsible for when and how my heart and head needed to grow.  I internalized Monica.  I grew up.  For many years I thought how wrong I was in trusting my spiritual growth to someone who only existed as an amalgam of realism and myth-making.  I became acutely aware of my own role I must play.

But these realities were becoming sterile to me.  Something was missing.  I had found a golden ball in my youth and I lost it.  I began spending precious time trying to find it again.  The magic of the summits paled and the sky became merely something over my head, something to keep an eye on in order to stay dry.  Rocks of the peaks and stream banks became burdensome and annoying.  The magic was gone.  I had learned to take my spirit into my own hands and mists became only water vapor.  To be really cold was a matter of survival and to be really hot was exactly the same, you just took different medicines.

Now, I regret my losses.  In the end, what is really wrong about needing a spirit guide, a kindred soul, and a belief, a Nymph?  Throughout human history, something or someone extraordinary walked beside a man, guiding and comforting.

This journey we are all part of can be unbearable lonely at times.  Maybe I need a Monica again?

I am walking along a trail in the ancient Adirondack Mountains.  I am sitting on a rocky summit.  What is that I just saw dash between the scrub pines?  What just touched my elbow as I struggle to rise again and continue my hike?  Who was that making a shadow among the old cedars in the dark part of the forest where there are already shadows plenty?  Whose bare shoulders do I see at the water’s edge as I survey the shore from my kayak?  You can’t convince me that the song I hear is the wind in the fir trees.

I know its Monica.

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At the End of the Train

Those who lived within earshot of the railroad would usually be put to sleep by the clacking of the iron wheels passing over the rail joints.  It was an age-old rhythm, a song often without words. It drew the listeners away from their world.  Where was the train bound?  Where did it come from?  Hank, Woody, Eric and Bob…and a hundred others heard the music.  With the advent of seamless rails, the music has stopped.

More than one lonely and desperate man or woman or kid would rise up…get dressed, and vanish with the train when it slowed or stopped.  Sometimes they came home, most often they didn’t. The iron wheels were the call of the wild and the restless answered.

A true listener could easily tell if the train was on a freight or passenger run.  Was the sound light, full of people or was it dark, heavy and full of coal, or steel or logs?

On the freight lines, a breed of men rode the train in a car at the far end, the caboose.  Here, swaying and rocking to the subtle changes in directions, these hardened and unshaven men would sit and wait for the next stop.  In the winter, they would sit near the coal stove to fight off the icy blasts of a Missouri winter.  In the sultry summer, aching to breath moving air, they would sit in the open of the platform that was the last true end of the train.

Long hours.

One might page through a cheap copy of a girlie magazine.  Some sat quietly and read from the Bible.  They played cards.  They napped.  They slept, rocking like a baby they barely recall seeing, holding or being.

Usually, though, in the hours after midnight, one fellow would reach into his sack and pull out a bottle of pitiable rye.  The bottle would be passed…no wiping needed.

Somewhere along the line, a home waited for these souls.  A wife, a lover, a lonely son, a daughter about to run away with a worthless dishwasher, a mangy dog and a kitchen with plastic table cloths.  Some went to nothing more than a small 12′ x 12′ rented room in a boarding house that needed painting, on a side street not far from the station, hard by a saloon.

A man or two might not get off at all.  In some town, any town, there were warrants for his arrest.  He would ride on, change shifts somewhere and disappear into the night.

Many of these men who were short in the cash and honesty department could hold no real job or own a skill.

One skill they all did have was the ability to stare into ones eyes or a camera lens without blinking or grinning.  They could not know someone decades later would stare back at them.

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The Legend of the Davy Crockett Pajamas

 

 

A little boy sat crying on a limb of an old apple tree.

     It was a crisp autumn day in New York City.  Nearly all the leaves had abandoned their home trees and lay scattered in corners or along fences where the wind pushed them into piles mixed with old newspapers and plastic grocery bags.  After a long walk along the river, I took myself into a small vest-pocket park and sat on a thickly painted green bench.  At the far end sat an elderly man leaning forward slightly on a walking stick.  There was something odd about him sitting there on the bench where I often rested.  I had not seen him before yet he looked like he was familiar and fond of the park.  I noticed the wooden shaft of his stick was adorned with a dozen or so small medallions.  I could make out trees figures and mountain peaks on these decorations.  When he would rotate the stick, the metal would sparkle with the sun’s reflection.  The man’s hair was salt and pepper with more salt than pepper. His beard was the same, perhaps more pepper around his chin.  The shoes he wore were stout but scuffed.  He had a small shoulder bag but there was no indication he was homeless.         There was a certain sadness about him, like the clump of brown oak leaves that drooped above his head.  The leaves were waiting for their time to fall to the pavement.  The man’s eyes were fixed on a narrow view of the East River three blocks away.

I followed his line of sight to a few old stone buildings at the northern tip of Roosevelt Island.

“That’s where they locked up Typhoid Mary,” he said, sensing the fact that I was looking in the direction of his gaze.

I dug into my backpack and pulled out a copy of a paperback novel, Gone With the Wind, I was hoping to finish.  I jolted slightly when he spoke again.

“Got time for a story?”

I didn’t want to get into a conversation or listen to the ramblings of an older guy but I politely closed my book and turned toward him.  It would be nice to humor the old guy, I thought.  It was getting on in the afternoon and closer to Happy Hour at Denny O’Reagan’s Pub.  I wanted to catch the regulars…and one person in particular.

“I don’t get to talk much these days,” he said as he shifted slightly closer.  Especially with my wife being gone.  It’s been about eight months now.  She never came home one day.  Problem is that nobody would or could tell me whether she passed or just up and left me for the guy that handed out towels at the Senior Center.

He paused and slid closer to me.  I looked into his rheumy brown eyes.  Someplace deep within me told me to hear this guy’s tale…to the end.

He began:

“I grew up in a small town that hugged the outer banks of a wide river.  I was coming home from grammar school in the afternoon on a fine day in the spring.  I was excited because I knew that my Granpa Klotchko was up from Pennsylvania for his yearly visit.  He did some outdoor gardening chores for my father.  My dad let him stay busy on projects the he, my father, didn’t find interesting or worthwhile.  Dad spent his days trying to get the new rotary lawn mower to start.  But boy, my Granpa loved these tasks, especially clearing, pruning and tying up the small grape arbor that stretched along the hedge behind the garage.  Each year, my mother would give Granpa some strips of an old pillowcase or part of an old sheet to tie up the vines.

“I ran into the house yelling, ‘where’s Granpa?’  My mother said he was finishing up the grape vine.  I changed into my dungarees and ran out to talk to him.  I loved my Granpa Klotchko.  He was my mom’s dad.

“Before he tied off the last vine, he stopped and lit his pipe.  He had an unusual lighter, not like any I’ve seen then, or since—can’t find them these days.  We talked about some things, but he wouldn’t tell any ghost stories.  ‘They bother me at night, Paddy,’ he would say.  I turned to go back to the house to get a cookie.  I stopped halfway.  Something was wrong.  Something I saw my Granpa do was wrong.  I walked back to the vine to have a closer look.”

The old man looked off to one side and put a finger to his left eye to wipe something away.  He waited several minutes before he went on with his story.

“Well…Sorry, I didn’t get your name young man.”

“Steve,” I said.

“I’m Patrick.”  We shook hands.

“Well, I walked up to get a good look at the rags Granpa had used to tie up the woody thick part of the vines.  I was stunned by what I saw.  I pulled out a strip and looked closely.

“There it was.  The entire vine was neatly secured with pieces of my pajamas…my Davy Crockett pajamas!  I had worn them for years.  I was the only kid on my neighborhood to own a pair.  These pajamas kept me warm in a large, drafty chilly house.  And they weren’t hand-me-downs from my older brother.  They were made of soft white flannel and depicted small scenes from Davy’s life.  There was the log cabin he was born in.  There was him shooting a bear when he was a kid, and best of all was he standing like an oak tree swinging his empty musket, Old Betsy at the soldiers of Santa Ana’s army as they stormed the Alamo.  I can see the date at the bottom of the scene, March 6, 1836.  That was the day he died.  Some historians today say that was a mythic image, and not what happened.  I say ‘rubbish’ to all that revision crap.  It’s legendary.

“Besides this strange emptiness I began to feel, I was angry at my mother.  I went back to the house and asked her why, while I was at school, she tore up my Davy Crockett pajamas?  How could she do such a thing?  She explained that they were almost rags already, too small for me and, well, ready to be thrown out.

“I don’t care, I shouted.  I loved them…and you never even asked me…just like when you and dad took King down to the Vets and had him put to sleep.  You did this while I had the flu and never said anything to me.  A friend had to tell me why I hadn’t seen King around the yard for a few days.

“The next spring I never went out to see what Granpa Klotchko was using to fix the vines.  By then, the white flannel had rotted away.  Granpa Klotchko died when I was twenty.  He had stopped tending our grapes years earlier.  It didn’t take long for the vines to begin falling apart getting overgrown with ugly weeds.  The only grapes they produced were too bitter and seedy to eat.  I spit out the last one I tried to eat.

“But, if my memory serves me, the grapes that came late in the summer of the year my Davy Crockett pajamas held them together were sweet and juicy.”

I looked at my watch and realized I had missed my friends at Happy Hour at Denny O’Reagan’s Pub.  The old guy coughed up some phlegm into his hanky.  He glanced at his pocket watch and stood.

“Hey, thanks, Steven, for hearing me.  I don’t get to talk to many people these days.  Gotta go.  Getting late.”

He leaned toward me.

“Steven, “ he said. “Hold on to the things that you love.  Don’t let anyone take those away, for any reason.  Man, it could be an old pipe lighter, a book, a picture, a girl or even a pair of pajamas.  If you really love them, keep hold of them, because once anything or anyone leaves your life, once you let something go, it will probably be gone forever.”

With that, he walked out of the park and turned right on Second Avenue.  He looked down at the sidewalk as he moved, crossed the street and vanished from view behind some delivery trucks.  I never saw him again.

I sat thinking about him and the pajamas.  I thought of my own Grandfather who was buried two years ago out in Astoria.  I thought of Old Betsy, the Alamo and I thought about how my parakeet flew out of the kitchen window one afternoon when I was a boy.  The bird never came back.  No one cried about it except me.

Then I thought about Nancy.  She still might be waiting at the pub for me.  Things were not going well with us.  She didn’t seem that special and so that was the way I treated her.  I thought I was young enough to wait until another ‘special one’ came along.  I suddenly felt differently about her.  I saw at once she really was different and unique and special…was I about to let her slip away?  I had the feeling she was going to tell me something important tonight.  Something about our future.  Something I didn’t want to hear now, or ever.

I didn’t want to lose her so I ran down the street to Denny O’Reagan’s Pub hoping she wasn’t gone.

 

A Story of Christmas and Coal

My father grew up poor.  Not the kind of poor where he would walk through ten inches of snow barefoot or go from house to house asking for bread.  His parents provided the best they could, but, by his own admission, he grew up poor.  My grandfather and my grandmother should be telling this story.  Instead, it came to me from my own dad and it nearly always came to me around Christmas when it was cold and snowy.  Winters were like that in those years, always cold and snowy.

It was Northeastern Pennsylvania. It was coal country and my grandfather was Irish.  All three generations went down into the mines, every day, before dawn and surfaced again long after the sun had set.  Because of some misguided decision on his part, my grandfather was demoted from mine foreman to a more obscure job somewhere else at the pit.  Later in life, he fell on even harder times and became depressed about his inability to keep his family, two boys and two girls, comfortable and warm.  It all came crashing down when their simple farm-house burned to the foundation.  After seeing his family safely out, all my grandfather could salvage was a Hoover.  My father could describe in minute detail how he stood next to his dad and watched him physically shrink, slump and then become quiet.  He never broke the silence after that and died in a hospital while staring mutely at the walls.

But all this happened years after that special Christmas Eve.

It was in the early 1920’s.  The four children were asleep in the remote farm-house my grandparents rented.  Sometime after mid-night, my father woke up to a silence that was unusual and worrisome.  It was too quiet.  There were no thoughts of Santa Claus in my father’s mind that night…the reality of their lives erased those kind of dreams from his childhood hopes. There was no fireplace for Santa to slide down.

He slipped on a heavy shirt and pushed his cold feet into cold shoes and went down stairs to the kitchen where he knew his parents would be sitting up and keeping warm beside the coal stove.  The room was empty and the coal stove was barely warm.  The single electric bulb, hanging from the ceiling was turned on.  My father noticed the steam of his breath at each exhale.  He called out.  He heard nothing.  Shuffling over to the door, he cracked it open to a numbing cold flow of outside air.  In the snow there were two sets of footprints leading down the steps and then behind the house.  He draped a heavier coat over his shoulders and began to follow the prints.  They led across a small pasture and through a gate.  From there the trail went up a small hill and faded from his sight.  He followed the trail.  Looking down at the footprints he noticed that they were slowly being covered by the wind driving the snow into the impressions.  A child’s fear swept over him.  Were the young kids being abandoned?  It was not an uncommon occurrence in the pre-Depression years in rural America.

At the top of the hill, he saw a faint light from a lantern coming from a hole near the side of the next slope.  He pushed ahead and went to the edge of the pit…and looked down.

At the bottom of the small hole were his parents, picking fist sized lumps of coal from a seam that was exposed on the hillside.  They had nearly filled the bucket with the chunks of black rock.  They looked up, quite surprised, and saw my father standing a few feet above them.  They looked back at each other with a heart breaking sadness.  They didn’t want to be caught doing this in front of one of the kids.  They stared at each other and then up at my dad.

“Boy,” my grandfather said, “The stove is empty.  Come on down and help us get a few more lumps, will ya?”

My father hopped down and in only a few minutes his hands were black from the coal.  The bucket was filled.  They helped each other out of the pit and walked back to the house together.

In a very short time the coal stove was warming up again.  My father sat up with his parents until they finished their coffee.  He went up stairs to bed and fell asleep, he always would say, with a smile on his face.

Years later when I was a young boy, my father took me aside one Christmas Eve.  I had not been very good that day, and I was afraid.  No one, however, had spoken of The Threat that would punish naughtiness.

“Pat,” he said, “If anyone tells you that you will get a lump of coal in your stocking if you’re not a good boy..tell them to go to hell.”

 

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