When I moved to Cattle Landing in 2000, I got some instructional books and started to write. I did some exercises in a book called The Art of Fiction and wrote some stories about my life. It went OK to a certain point, but I realized one day that I had stopped writing about myself, that I was blocked. I just wasn’t ready to sit down and write a book.
So I decided that I would earn a living from writing – that way I would be forced to do it to survive. So I had business cards made that said, “Will Jones, Writer” and had a cheesy quill pen down in the corner. I went around to some of the local NGOs and asked if they had any writing jobs. I began writing grants and conservation management plans. I barely survived, but I got better at it. I picked up a nice contract with The Nature Conservancy to write a conservation plan for 500,000 acres in southern Belize. I wrote a few more grant proposals. The government hired me to prepare conservation management plans for marine protected areas along the reef. Suddenly I was a writer.
I still have some of those early writings about my life, and over the years, I wrote several other chapters, many of which never made it into Heaven’s Tale. So about once a week, I’ll post one here.
In 1950, Dad and Mom bought a piece of land near Lake Sunapee in New Hampshire that some of his doctor friends knew about – two hundred acres that tumbled down a mountain in a remote wilderness. On a high plateau sat a five-acre clearing with a 19th century farm. It was a real time capsule, constructed with hand-hewn beams and pegs. The kitchen had a wood-burning stove, hand pump at the sink, and a real ice box. We had kerosene lamps at night. We even had a big kettle that swung into the living-room fireplace. The forest was the best part about the farm: it stretched for miles in all directions. Real New England woods with beaver dams in rocky streams, maple trees sporting wooden pegs with sap buckets, and lots of deer.
The barn had been raised in the old style; it was held together with hand-whittled wooden pegs. It had stalls and a hayloft. And it was filled with buggies, yokes, tools, furniture, kerosene lamps — a real time capsule. It was abandoned in 1920.
My parents, in their late 20s, bought the Farm and its 200 acres for a song in 1949; some of my Dad’s physician friends had cabins not far away. Mom and Dad spent two years restoring the place, fixing the roof, replacing sills, building a huge stone fireplace. Work took place mostly in summer when my Dad limited his dental practice to 3 days a week. He’d join the rest of us for four-day weekends.
We spent lots of other weekends throughout the year at the Farm. In winter, we’d leave before dawn, drive the three hours up into New Hampshire, singing songs and playing games. The snow sometimes drifted up to ten feet, so we’d park at the bottom of the mountain. Sometimes my Dad would have to clear a little place with the shovel to get the vehicle off the road.
Mom and Dad packed two toboggans: supplies on one and three children on the other. I can still feel my two younger sisters, Janet in the front, Caryl with her legs wrapped around Jan, and then me with my legs on the outside. They’d strap on snowshoes and haul everything up that steep, half-mile driveway to the plateau. The toboggans had extra long lead ropes that they would tie around their waists and set off up that hill.
I remember parents panting and the hiss of runners slipping over the snow. They had designated two spots for resting, and my Dad carried a beautiful silver flask that he’d had for many years. When we finally reached the open field on top, we’d always rejoice with songs and shouts and yippees. Sometimes we would find just the roof of the house with those small lightening rods sticking up out of the snow. My Dad would have to dig down to get to the door. Over the next few days, heat from the fires would radiate outdoors until the house sat in a bowl of snow.
Years later, my father sold the Farm against my mother’s wishes. It was one of the things she never forgave him for.
Our mountain — Bald Sunapee, for the grassy field near the top — rose sweetly another 800 feet over us. It didn’t loom; it was round and inviting. Even at 6 years old, I had been to the top several times. We were surrounded by classic New England forest, pine, spruce, maple, oak, and beech. The woods around the house were my playground. After the farm had been abandoned, the forest reclaimed much of the old pasture land. The woods were criss-crossed with stone walls, miles of them, built without mortar. Piles of stones with random passages — like a giant maze in the forest.
My parents decided that rather than keep me out of the woods, they would teach me to handle myself out there. So that summer Dad gave me a knife and a hatchet and a compass and showed me how to use them. He showed me how to make a fire and keep matches dry. He showed me how to make a waterproof lean-to and fill it with soft fresh-cut pine boughs.
One day we packed peanut butter sandwiches and a half-gallon of koolaid, and he took me deep into the woods. Told me to get myself comfortable, and he’d see me tomorrow at the house. Then he walked off. In two hours, I had cut my sticks and built my little lean-to, stacked wood for the fire. The rest of that day, I explored the woods around me. Put my face in an icy mountain stream, clambered over stone walls, pretended I was an Indian trying to move soundlessly through the forest. I slept like log in my pine bough bed in front of the fire that night.
But the barn was my favorite place to play. The loft was still full of hay, left over from all those years ago. Too cold in those mountains to decay. We used pitchforks and filled a stall below, and then we could jump the 5 or 6 feet from the loft into that hay. It was a little moldy and a little dusty. You could see such vibrant shafts of light through the cracks in the wall. And it itched. Even so I loved to curl up in a hollow in the hay in that loft and doze and daydream of the romantic life that I’d live some day.
The house was just as charming as the barn. We had a hand pump from the well into the kitchen sink. And a real icebox. Above the food container was a big insulated box that held a 50-pound block of ice. One block lasted for days. Local people who lived down near the lake cut big chunks of ice, hauled them home, and packed them in sawdust in a small barn. They melted very slowly, and every year we had ice right through the summer.
But the old cast-iron wood-burning stove dominated the kitchen. It’s top was covered with disks that lifted to yield access to the fire inside. Wood had to be cut to a certain size to fit down inside. I had been delegated the responsibility for keeping the wood bin full, and I took it very seriously. I had my own chopping block where I worked diligently every day. After filling the bin on the kitchen porch, I’d neatly stack enough in the shed to fill the bin two times over. This was an accomplishment of some pride to me and to my parents.
It took a long time to cook everything on that stove. Baked beans, for example, took 24-27 hours (depending on the kind of wood) bubbling in the oven and filling the house with smells of home and family. Of course the stove glowed with the heat, had the whole kitchen wrapped in warmth. We all spent a lot of time in the kitchen.
To bathe us, my mother heated water on the stove in a huge silver teakettle then poured it into two huge, galvanized washtubs. I got in one, my sisters the other. We’d splash and wash and play until the water went cold, and we’d start to shiver. Then Mom would pour water to heat back up slowly at the side of the tub, and I could make slow eddies with my hands to pull the now-warm water closer to my skin.
In the living room was a huge stone fireplace with air vents that acted as a furnace. There was an iron arm attached to the inner wall with a hook on the end from which you could hang a black, cast iron pot and swing it in over the fire. My mother sometimes cooked stew in that pot. The hearth in front of the fire extended out about four feet, just far enough so that, in winter, my two younger sisters and I could all sleep on the hearth together — stretched out like logs, feet facing the glow.
On that Father’s Day weekend in 1952, my mother’s family visited us at the Farm — Grandpa who, in his present job, sold hearing aids and Nana with Jack and David, my uncles. Jack was nearly 17 and had just gotten his driver’s license. David was eight, only two years older than I. Even though he was my uncle, we were more like friends.
Years later I would regularly stay over at their house in Melrose where David introduced me to the Boston Celtics and the world of broadcast sports. We’d lie on beds in the half dark, listening to Johnny Most, not really envisioning the court and the players clearly, but rather seeing the game in an entirely new and different way — entering the same kind of dream one enters when reading a story. In fact, that’s just what Most was doing — reading the Celtics to us, painting an epic, clear as Homer.
My mother’s parents were nice enough. Huge Irish family, matriarchal, five sons, five daughters. He was kind and funny and liked to sing barbershop-quartet style as did my Dad. When Grandpa died of leukemia a few years later, the family held a real old-fashioned Irish wake. Iced him down right there in the dining room. Then everyone retired to the living room, commenced the serious drinking, and told stories about the old man all afternoon and into the night. Occasionally someone would start to sniffle or sob, would slip quietly out of the room to regain control.
Uncle Jack told a story that had taken place just a few months previous, just before the old man got bad. His journalism program at Northeastern required an English Literature course, and one homework was to analyze the poem “Evangeline” by Longfellow. He sat at his desk late at night, bored with the assignment, restless, unable to concentrate.
His Dad came in, sat down and asked Jack what he was up to. First time he’d talked to Jack about school in years. Jack said poetry, and he couldn’t get into it. Grandpa said he loved poetry and could he help? Exasperated, Jack said evenly that he didn’t think so; the assignment was on “Evangeline”. His Dad grinned, said it was one of his favorites, half closed his eyes and began to recite. Stumbled twice, but went on and on, Jack more and more amazed; “Evangeline” is a very long poem. Had the whole thing, and at the end they spoke excitedly about the poem, Longfellow, and history. Now Jack had his paper and, of course, much, much more. He turned his hand up to us at the wake and asked, “How could you not know something like that about your own father?”
But that story hadn’t happened yet, would happen some six or seven years in the future. Turned out, there was a lot we didn’t know about.
* * *
It was Sunday, of course, Father’s Day. David and I had risen early, at dawn when the sky had the purple glow of dawn — stars still visible. We sat in the lawn chairs in front of the house very quietly waiting for the white-tailed deer to gather by the salt-lick that my Dad had installed at the edge of the forest about 75 yards away. This morning we had seen brief glimpses of five as they gathered inside the edge of the woods, fearful of entering the open clearing, a doe and fawn among them. We held our breaths.
They emerged from the woods, cautious, round black eyes unblinking, nostrils flaring. Step pause, step, pause. Finally, heads crowded together, they bent to the salt, still vigilant. David and I passed the binoculars back and forth slowly. As we watched, we started to whisper, hissing louder and louder until we began to dissolve into giggles. The doe’s head came up first, then the rest. They turned and sharply cantered back to the safety of the dark wood.
Just then my mother began clattering in the kitchen so we went around to the back porch and checked the wood bin. It needed refilling so we raced around the woodpile to the open shed where my chopping block stood on a carpet of wood chips. We fooled around with the hatchet that I had left stuck in the block as usual, but I was uncomfortable, territorial maybe, with David in my place. Soon we were lugging armfuls of kindling to the kitchen. Mom rewarded us with tall glasses of orange juice and said breakfast would be ready in half an hour.
We banged out the back door, raced past the woodpile again, then down to the barn looping around the side to a wide-open pasture filled with milkweed. In front of us across the deep valley rose Mount Sunapee, higher than us and very close. Its ridge ran in both directions as far as we could see. Squinting, we could pick out the clearing on top where the ski-lift ended. Tips of two support poles stood tiny and vague against the sky. The ridge lay massive and granite, covered with unbroken spruce/maple forest. The ski-lift was the only sign that man inhabited this place.
I showed David my new favorite toy — the echo. Cupping hands around my mouth, I shouted, “David!” A slow count to five, and a voice answered back clear but fainter ,”David.” We were still at it ten minutes later when my Dad walked up. He told us breakfast was nearly ready, to come wash up. On the way back to the house, Dad outlined the morning agenda. We needed ice for the icebox, it was already too low. Uncle Jack had volunteered to drive to early Mass and pick up the ice on the way back. I was to go along as guide to show him the way to church and to the icehouse. Everyone else would catch the special late Mass for Fathers’ Day.
I was crushed. Instead of being pleased at being offered such responsibility, I felt rejected, left out, and worst of all, separated from my new best friend, David. It weighed too much, and my mood continued to sink. Sulked all through breakfast, acutely embarrassing my parents who took great pride in my normally good behavior.
I only got worse. My poor mother managed to get me dressed, but at the car, I fell into complete tantrum until my father picked me up to eye level and shook me screaming, “Stop it, Bobby, stop it.” Finally defeated, I went limp. Dad put me down and opened the passenger door. It was a ’49 Dodge, huge, black, ominous, and bug-like. I climbed up and sat, dwarfed. My feet reached the edge of the front seat; they hung over at the ankles. Unable to see over the dashboard only blue sky visible nearly overhead. I put my head down.
Dad shut the heavy door beside me, and, for just a minute, I was alone. Voices murmured outside but didn’t penetrate. I wiped my nose and eyes on the sleeve of my suitcoat. Then the driver door opened, and the world intruded again. Uncle Jack slid behind the wheel and pulled the door closed. He rolled down his window, and the air filled with shouts good-bye. I never looked up.
The car lurched forward then rolled slowly and smoothly to the far end of the house turning quickly around the end by the great fireplace. I felt the vehicle tilt forward sharply as we dropped into the steep driveway, straight down the mountainside to the road half a mile below. I took a look at Uncle Jack; he wrestled the huge steering wheel, hunched over, sweat already glistening on his forehead, fixed on the road ahead, legs working furiously. Skidded twice, then bumped over big granite stones.
All this time I was canted forward, sliding to the edge of the seat, supporting myself by pushing off the dashboard. Rolled left then right as tires dropped into holes in the rugged track. I tried gripping the edge of the seat with my hands, tried to get my feet on the floor, but a sudden braking threw me forward, my forehead thudded against the dash.
“You all right?” Jack’s voice penetrated.
I rubbed my head and muttered, “I’m O.K.” then clutched the seat as the left side of the Dodge bounced in and out of a small gully in the road.
“Almost there,” he said trying to sound cheerful, but I could hear the fear in his voice. We were nearing the bottom where the driveway ended, and we would turn right on the gravel road that followed the river along the valley floor to the end of the ridges and the beginning of paved roads. The river crossed under the road several times, under wooden bridges mostly, except the one by Gambsby’s farm where the bridge was steel — more substantial because here the running water had eroded down through the granite into a deep ravine that reached depths of 200 feet. The road ran along its right edge for a few miles then dropped steeply to the ravine floor. The last two bridges before pavement were wood.
I knew the road well, of course, and I’d often traveled it blind, hidden down below the dash. I recognized the bridges as we shuddered over them. Jack driving more relaxed now, leaning back, youthful, and strong. We hummed along and when the vegetation to the left disappeared I knew we were passing Gambsby’s barn on the right next to the big cornfield. The farmhouse lay just to the left, a fact I confirmed when the telephone pole zipped past — just installed, the only phone within a ten-mile radius. Then a slick hum over the steel bridge. We scooted along the ravine.
My uncle had just asked me something about the church when we crested a small hill that dropped steeply off on the far side. From my vantage point near the center of gravity, I felt the weight lift off the ground, and the rear end, light as a feather, began to float. A quick touch on the wheel snapped us nearly perpendicular to the road, sliding smoothly now, Jack fighting the wheel, a next little fishtail, and we rocketed off the road toward the ravine.
The next thing I remember is sitting in the same seat, glass everywhere, and I could see the leaves and branches of a tree through the windshield above me. Everything was in black and white; I saw no colors. Jack was slumped over the wheel, but as I watched, he sat up straight, held his head and looked at me.
I said, “Well, guess we better walk back to Gambsby’s.” At least I thought I said. But let me turn the next part of the story over to Uncle Jack as I heard him tell it years later.
“Blood everywhere — dripping off the dashboard, purple pools coagulating on the seat, in his lap. He was so small, just a little boy, but there was so much blood. He looked at me, one eye visible in that morass of torn flesh. Then the blood way back on his cheek moved, and his tongue shot through. I pushed open the door and vomited.
“Then I realized I had to do something. I tried to start the car, but it wouldn’t turn over, and little Bobby was bleeding to death. He slumped over, unconscious. I lurched out of the vehicle, and the ravine was very close. We had hit a birch tree dead center only a few feet from the edge. I raced around behind the car. The passenger door was open, and that poor, bloody little body half-lay across the seat.
“I scooped him up — he was so light — and started jogging back to the house we’d passed about a mile back. I couldn’t look at him. His skin was white as a bone. His hands and feet flopped like he was already dead. I pounded along, still in shock, thudding forward, chanting prayers, and suddenly my feet slapped across the steel bridge. Turning into that long driveway, screams rasped out of my throat, exhausted gasping guttural noises. The front door was colonial and proper, lined with shrubs and corncobs hanging on the door. Bobby and I poured rich, red blood all over those careful flagstones. Now I was kicking the door and screaming, staring at the bundle in my arms, weeping and kicking. Finally the door flew open and a tall, strong, middle-aged woman took over.”
Poor Uncle Jack; he was only seventeen. And he did get the job done. He saved my life. He got me to the one place that had a phone and a nurse with combat experience. So I’m alive and can tell the rest of the story myself.
Actually, there’s not much left to tell. I was in and out of consciousness — lying on the kitchen floor, in the back of the ambulance (which doubled as a hearse and looked mighty ominous to the family when it pulled up to haul me off to the hospital). A young surgeon named Bill Clough sewed my face back together. Mom took care of me in the hospital for ten days.
The glass had done terrible damage to my face. The main nerve on the right side of my face was severed. I couldn’t control any of the muscles. I drooled. I couldn’t close my eye. For nearly two years, my mother had to wake in the night and put drops in the eye to keep it moist. It took a while for me to be able to speak clearly, and I was always biting my cheek. The only way to regain control of the muscles of my face came from training neighboring muscles to take over. As part of the therapy, I did exercises twice a day in the mirror, twisting up the right side of my face, trying to wink properly.
For years, I took monthly treatments at the Mayo Clinic in Boston to stimulate the nerves to grow back. They would lay my face on a black pad and fire electricity through my cheek. The dose was strong enough to be unpleasant, and I hated it. It took five years for the areas of deadness to go away. Other nerves finally grew in from the periphery to help out. But we always went a day early and stayed with my mother’s family. It was during these visits that David introduced me to the Celtics.
My face was badly disfigured. The scars stood out red, raised, and bright. It was now that I learned about bullies and schoolyard cruelty. “Scarface! Frankenstein!” They screamed my ugliness back into my face. I remember being in the grocery store once with my Mom. I stood in the vegetable section and glanced over at a woman and her daughter about my age shopping by the apples. When she spotted me, the woman gasped audibly, her hand went to her mouth in theatrical horror, without taking her eyes off me, she reached down, spun the daughter by the shoulder, and shouted triumphantly, “Look!” They both stared, eyes wide, wide until I collapsed in shame.
My mother was rough with me. “Stop it,” she said. “Who cares what they think anyway? What they think doesn’t matter.” Even then, I knew she was lying. But as I grew older, the scars diminished, and I learned to give a half-smile that the girls said was sexy. But no matter how handsome they say I’ve become, I still feel that woman in the grocery store peering at me from dark corners, her face contorted with my grotesqueness.
Even now I flinch from people. My first reaction is to duck away. One of the reasons I became a great reader was to avoid the world. For the years when I was confused and depressed, I would hide in the library (sometimes living there, in a way) for weeks, not eating, not looking for work, simply hiding from the terrible life I was living, reading book after book.
The other sequela to the accident still follows me also. The accident flung me into the company of my mother a lot. We already had special bonds. I had been born while my Dad was in the Philippines during the 2nd World War. She and I shared a year and a half before he came back. Now, with years of recuperation to go through together, the oedipal bond solidified. When we got home from the hospital, the first game she taught me was Honeymoon Bridge. Prophetic.
Only one more image left in this chapter. After the hospital in New Hampshire discharged me, Dad drove back around the lake, and we passed the gas station where the big old Dodge had been towed. It looked the same, hulking and ominous, not damaged at all. But as we came around the front, the windshield came into view. In the middle on the passenger side was a shockingly small and perfectly round hole punched out of the glass by the top of my head.