Memento Mori Revisited

On this Memorial Day weekend, I decided to look back at some of the things I’ve written in the past. This brings me to a favored veteran of mine: Captain Henry Metcalf. When looking up the post I wrote about him, I came upon something that caught me completely off guard. Something, in fact, I never thought I would see: Henry’s face.

I’ve known about Capt. Metcalf for many years now, but the only image I’ve had of him is one I’ve made up in my mind’s eye and that of his head stone. Today however, I found this…

It’s great to see you at last, Henry. Very, very good indeed.

And now… Here’s the post from May, 2008 where I introduced him to the rest of you. I hope you’ll help me remember him on this Memorial Day weekend.

Nothing fun or or humorous today, I’m afraid. Just a post about a day and a man, very important to me.

Memorial day, in my mind is second only to Armistice day. What ever your feeling are on the topic of war and regardless of what ever war you are thinking about, this is a day to remember those who, as Mr. Lincoln put it, “Gave the last full measure of devotion.”

What ever your thoughts are about the conflicts this nation has seen, this is the time to remember them and their passing.

And so, I will tell you the briefest story of a man whom I never met and know only a little about.

His name is Henry Metcalf and he was born in Keene, New Hampshire, in 1833. At the out break of the Civil War, he signed up with a volunteer outfit that was assembled in Cheshire County and left his trade as a printer to fight for the North. He rose to the rank of Captain and was one of the thousands who found him self on the fateful battle field at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. On the second day of the battle, he was ordered down into the Peach Orchard with his men, far from the union lines. It was a foolish order from a glory grabbing general that got them there. It was an exposed position with little cover, but those were the orders and so that’s where he was.

As Captain Metcalf and his men came under heavy fire from the Confederates, the battle line became disjointed and broken. A lower ranking General than the one who sent them down there, ordered Captain Metcalf to straighten up his line. Henry moved along and through his men and repositioned them to better hold their ground. Once the men were where he wanted them, he turned to his commander and spoke these words: “How’s that, General?”

It was the last thing he said. A moment later, a bullet struck him in the head, killing him instantly. Soon after, the Peach Orchard position was abandoned as unholdable and the remaining men retreated back to the Union lines.

Captain Metcalf’s body was returned to Keene and he was buried in the Washington Street Cemetery. His resting place is marked with a stone made of white marble. If you go there looking for it, you could easily miss it. Time and acid rain has scrubbed at his name and most markings on its surface. Many are blurred into total obscurity. Some are still just legible.

I know what it says though. When I was younger, it was easily readable and my father and I found it one day. My Dad spent a lot of time researching Henry, and found out everything I just told you. Later, we went to the Peach Orchard in Gettysburg and stood near the spot where he spoke his last words.

He was a soldier, doing his duty. He never came home to live a happy life. His work went on with out him, as did his family. He wasn’t anyone of real historic note. Just a man doing what he felt was his duty.

I feel that it’s my duty to remember him. So today, I’ll talk about you, Henry. I never knew you. You are not kin to me, but you are not forgotten. I’ll visit your resting place and make sure that you have a flag on your marker this Monday. We owe you that much.

Advertisements

Field Stones

The drive up to my in-laws for Thanksgiving was not too hard. Though the way up was prematurely darkened by changing seasons and daylight savings, it was nice to get out of the house and then farther away from the city where we spend much of our time when out and about. A few years ago, Jack and Ellen decided it was time for them to look for a new place to call home. Back in the Last sixties, they were fleeing New York and Jersey City and landed for many years in a valley of central Vermont. Having raised their children there, they had grown accustomed to country living and even after the kids had all moved away to other New England states, they stayed in their valley for many more years. As grand kids entered the scene, they took to driving long distances to see recitals and ball games, baby sit and gather for holidays. As the years went by, they decided that it was time for a change of geography.

Unlike many their age, they elected to move north, rather than join the conga line to the southern golf courses and bridge tournaments. That’s not their style, at any rate. They’d go crazy in two weeks. With two out of their three children living in Maine, they sold their house of thirty or so years and moved to the Pine Tree State. They live about an hour and a half away and though in a pleasant location, it’s not what I’d call picturesque. It’s farm country, plain and simple. Slowly rolling hills and young tree forests where vast fields used to cover the landscape. The old, colonial style farmhouses still perch on the hillsides, looking down on their slowly shrinking and mostly unused fields.

Even so, there’s still a good deal of farmland being used, mostly for hay and corn. One of these small “gentleman’s” farms sits next door to my wife’s folks. Being outgoing people and good of heart, they immediately became friends with the old bachelor farmer who lives in the old, white farmhouse nestled in a dip on the way up a hill, leading out of town. Short Stack loves visiting there too. There are chickens!

The morning after we arrived, a heavy fog was sitting over the land, giving things a softened quality that one would usually associate with snow. Snow had, in fact, already arrived just a few days before but didn’t have cooperating temperatures to keep its foothold. The five or so inches that had covered everything was gone with the warm front and had found new life as the fog and a heavy rime-ice dew that gave what would otherwise be smooth surfaces, a spiky shell of minute crystal. The grass, though wet looking, would crunch under each footfall. After getting the various children fed, visiting with rarely seen relatives and topping up my internal coffee tank, I decided to take a walk in the foggy fields.

farm-equipmet

One of the things that I love about New England is the stone. More accurately, I should say, the stonewalls. This area of North America was covered in a massive ice sheet over a mile thick during the last ice age. The action of that weight and motion ground down our mountains to their roots and left us with few imposing peaks. Where all that stone till went was directly into the soil. This makes for a difficult soil to plow since it’s full of beautifully smoothed, rounded rocks ranging in size from a small orange to a plush living room chair.

Years ago, I went for a walk with a friend of mine who grew up in Nebraska. As we strolled along path through a deep wood, he stopped at a pile of boulders and exclaimed, “Will you just LOOK at these rocks!” When I replied with something witty like, “Um. Yup. Those sure are… rocks” he set me straight. He explained to me that where he was from, a rock was about the size of an unshelled almond, and that was it. To him, the stones that had vexed New England farmers long enough to turn most of them into Nebraska farmers, we amazing to see littering the ground.

With all these massive balls of granite filling your fields and cows that were none too clear on where they were supposed to graze and where they were not, it was natural that stonewalls would quickly crisscross the landscape, and indeed, they do. If you go out for a walk in any New England wood and head off in just about any direction, I will guarantee that you will eventually find a stonewall. Eighty percent of the state of New Hampshire, to give you an idea, was open farmland just a hundred and fifty years ago. Now it’s eighty percent forest. The trees here grow quickly. When the leaves have fallen but the snow has yet to obscure things, you can fly around in a small plane and get a clear picture of the way things once looked. The arrow-straight walls run off to the horizons, transforming the rolling geography into the ghost of a quilt, long since nibbled away by nature as she reclaims what was always hers.

As I crunched out through the field across the road from the house, I was lamenting the use of a modern electric fence to keep livestock in place, rather then the traditional wall. So many traditional, if labor intensive fixtures of life have disappeared from our culture. The modern solution, though simpler and faster, will simply not stand up to the test of time. That’s for sure.

I walked a bit farther on in the mist and could, in the silence of the countryside, just make out the sound of a brook somewhere. What my eyes I couldn’t see through the fog, I found by ear. As I got closer, the sound was beautiful and entrancing.

Download Running Brook 2.WAV

stones

The farmer had dug a huge drainage ditch to allow a stream to pass through this place with a minimum of flooding come spring. It measured easily ten feet wide and was roughly five feet deep in a smooth half pipe curve. The entire bed of it, he had lined in beautiful round stones, doubtless from his fields. Beneath the layer of rocks came the sound of a hidden run or water, showing its self only briefly here and there before once again vanishing under the bits and pieces of broken and smoothed mountain tops. This, the traditional building material of the northeastern farmer, will endure, and that makes me smile.

Cool Down.

Fall in Maine does not approach calmly or with advance notice. On one day, it’s summer. The leaves are green, the air is warm, the flowers in bloom and the tourists cover the roads like lost frogs oblivious to the traffic bering down on them. Local drivers like to award point values.

This morning fall arrived. It is not an arguable point. The temperature out side, as well as in, is chilly, and the sad fact that the heat will need switching on after a long summer break is inescapable. If any doubt remained to the change of seasons, then the arrival of the cats last night, sleeping on our bed, removed any further argument. It’s time to button up and get ready for the cold.

The trick with Fall in the upper New England states (Here, I’m talking about Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont) is that there is no good way to dress for a day like today. When I got up, it was feeling quite raw. Socks and a flannel shirt was picked out for my own attire while miniature sweaters with a variety of entertaining themes were put on the kids. That, and the comfort of corduroy pants for Short Stack. It was that cold.

To quote my son, today was quickly turing into, “A fine, bright day”. Every day is a “fine, bright day” for him now. It’s a quote from one of his favorite Miffy episodes and he tells it to us often. Pretty much, if it’s not actually raining, he decrees it a “fine, bright day.”

Today however, he was correct. Bright, fine and nippy. After my first two cups of coffee were gone and the grisly remains of a shared english muffin sat next to me on my plate, we headed out on to our porch. The mid morning sun flooded over the various toys and strollers and Short Stack amused him self with some plastic trucks while Lulu Belle reclined in her bouncy seat and soaked up some vitamin D. I worked on cup number three. Within about ten minutes, I was shedding my flannel and stripping objecting children of their woolens. By the time it I had to get them to the baby sitter’s I was in shorts and sandals. Mother Nature in New England might not throw earthquakes, fire storms, or tornados at us too often, but she does try to confuse us to death.

The part that amazes me the most is our neighbor. She left for the season just yesterday and her timing this year is verging on the clairvoyant. She is a summer resident of our little corner of costal Maine and calls Florida her home most of the year. She’s single, in her seventies and appears in portrait in most dictionaries next to the definition of “Fire Cracker”. We love to see her arrive each summer and bring her boundless personality with her along with the official mark of “High Summer”. She adds a lot of life the place and lets nothing stop her, with one exception; the cold.

“Cold” is a relative term, really. I like to think I’m pretty tough when it comes to winter. Born and raised in New Hampshire, I’ve seen snow and freezing temperatures and they don’t scare me. I am however, a big wimp compared to a good friend of mine who is a native of North Dakota. If I’ve got maple syrup in my veins, then she’s got molasses. I may not gripe about the snow, but she goes out in it barefoot to get the mail from the end of the drive. Routinely. That, is tough.

If I’ve got maple syrup for blood and my friend has molasses, then our hot shot, summer neighbor has tap water. Action Girl and I have seen her in a full length down coat in June and come the first whisper of the possibility of a rumor of cold weather moving for the season, she locks up the house and returns to the stifling heat of central Florida. She probably doesn’t even switch on the AC when she gets there.

The amazing part for me is that she has been gone now for exactly 24 hours and fall has moved in like it’s been waiting for he flight to leave. From now on, the windows will be mostly closed around our house and I’ll start panicking about the outside jobs that I’ve been foolishly putting off all summer. I’ll test the generator out this weekend, just to make sure the gas is still good lest we discover it otherwise come a power outage in mid winter. I’m not going through THAT again!

There are some real good things to look forward to as well though and Fall is truly my favorite season. The leaves blaze up with the colors of a thousand sunsets. The tourist, bedecked in their fanny packs and out sized cameras start to thin out and the black fly and mosquito finally meet a deterrent mightier than Deep Woods Off. Frost! I’ll get to go to the range more often and do some shooting and with some luck, go turkey hunting with a friend once the leaves drop. It’s all worth the chill, so far as I’m concerned. In just a few weeks, I’ll be able to put on one set of clothes and leave them on for the whole day without broiling come noon or freezing once the sun goes down. Okay, the freezing part will probably happen, regardless. It’s a long, cold winter here, but I’m not complaining. It aint North Dakota!

Vermonsters

As I drove up the rural onramp to get up on I-91, I knew that something wasn’t right. The notion that car just didn’t seem as peppy as it should be floated through the back of my head but the alarm bells were hardly going off. I was driving an elderly, but good and solid Subaru Legacy up to a cousin’s wedding in the northern reaches of Vermont. The drive was going to be a long one and I had already done a lot of driving the day before. I was okay with that, though. I didn’t mind the drive. Then the power really started to fail. Hmmmm. This was starting to not feel right at all.

“Holy crap!”

My eyes popped as I looked in the rear view mirror and I realized that the giant grey cloud that was rapidly filling the onramp was coming from me. Not good! Alarm bells! Bad! I pulled off the highway having not quite made it out of the merge lane and shut the car off. Three things were in my favor here. One was the fact that I was following my parent’s car and they had noticed the smoke screen that I was laying down behind me. My father, ever an astute individual, figured that I was not trying to screen the fleet from marauding u-boats and that perhaps, I might need a lift. The remaining two aces in the hole that I had were my a cell phone and a AAA card.

As soon as we had made the call, we transferred my stuff to their car and then waited on the side of the highway for the tow truck. Moment’s like that are always interesting to me. I didn’t expect to have a lot of time to chat with my parents that morning and especially not sitting on the scrubby grass next to cars whipping by at eighty mils per hour. As we cleaned out the Subaru, we talked about how different this sort of thing used to be and what it meant.

Not so very long ago, a break down like this would have meant a lot of different leg work. If I was alone, I would now be walking down the road to the village about six or eight miles back. I would be looking for a pay phone and then trying to explain where the driver could find both me and my car. Having gone through this in cell-free, years gone by, it made this situation look like cake. Not fun, to be sure, but hardly high drama either. The tow guy came around twenty minutes later but had sadly, left his personality in his other coveralls. An older man, round and mustachioed in a striped cap, it looked for all the world like having your car moved my a grumpy Mario. I wondered if Luigi was back at the shop working on Princess Peach’s Fiat. A few grunts from our Nintendo-esque tow truck driver and we were on our way again, packed in tight for a two and a half hour drive.

Vermont is a beautiful place. Action Girl hails from there and I have both spent a lot of time driving through it and briefly living there my self. It’s those amazing mountains. The Green Mountains are not like mountains you find in other places. They aren’t even like the mountains of New Hampshire, where I grew up. They are their own thing. If bare of vegetation, they would stick up like the teeth of an enormous granite, saw blade. Any one looking at them would immediately forgo any notion of hiking over the long ridges and precipitous cliffs. That’s how they would appear. In actuality, they are green. They are in fact, very, very green. Not only do the forests of Vermont seem to go forever, but it’s the fact that they are mostly hardwood forests that makes the autumns here so spectacular. The soil, though poor for large scale farming, is perfect for maple and oak trees. Pines, though abundant as well, are relegated to the edges of rock formations too ambitious for their slow growing, leafy brethren. Together, they turn the landscape into a softened spectacle, reminiscent of rumpled sheets on a bed freshly mugged.

As we climbed through the state along its highway spine, I waited with anticipation for views that I knew were en route. Deep river valleys speckled with towns opened up beside us. A cluster of old homes crowded close to the high white steeple of the village church marked the place where farmers had settled and toiled for hundreds of years. It made me want to move back, nestle into the soil and never leave again.

Eventually, we got off the highway and took the smaller roads that by necessity, wound deep into the dark valleys, following closely the path of the rivers and streams. In much of the state, a five mile trip “as the crow flies” means a fifteen mile trip, winding along the bits of the landscape that are actually passible to anything terrestrial. It’s a beautiful way to travel, but slow. You’ve got to be patient.

The wedding went off with out any undue drama. The bride was beautiful, my cousin looked calm and the backdrop for the out door event was a lush mountain range and a mirror smooth mill pond. You could literally not have painted a prettier picture. I mean that. As the party moved inside and we met folks from far away, we got to answer some questions about New England.

“Was it so green because of excessive rain?”, asked a couple from California. “No.” We replied. “It’s supposed to be like that.”
“How bad are the winters?”, asked another woman from Maryland. “Oh, it can get pretty spectacular. Especially in the valleys where the snow can really pile up and is shaded from the sun. It’ll be several feet deep come spring.”

It’s with a real sense of pride that I call my self a New Englander. Living here is not an easy thing a lot of the time, but to my mind, it can’t be beat either. Years ago, when describing the oppressively humid summers and the bone chilling winters to a young man in Germany, his immediate reaction and next question was, “Why do you live there?” To be honest, I don’t have a good answer to that. The extremes of the seasons are breathtaking and require a lot of work, but I do love it here, Mario look alike tow truck drivers and all.

The next morning as I took my hangover out for a walk, I just kept looking up at the Green Mountains. In the distance, I could listen to birds in the trees, watch the wind move along the hills and over the next ridge, just make out the report of someone sighting in a rifle, possibly getting ready for deer season. On the way back to my folks house and my car problem du jour, we stopped at a little diner called the Wayside, where I had enjoyed many a greasy breakfast when I called this place home. It was just as I remembered it and the pancakes came with real maple syrup, naturally. It was fantastic.

I really do love Vermont and New Hampshire and I miss them terribly sometimes. I’ve lived on the coast of Maine for over a decade now and I honestly don’t see us leaving. Where we are fits up mighty well, though mountains do call to me still. I know they do for Action Girl as well and some day, I think we’ll have to get a little cabin up there. It would be nice to have a place to call our own. We could go there in the summer and swat mosquitos and black fly, chop wood until our the sweat gets in our eyes and come winter, try to shovel out and not freeze to death.

I know part of my heart is still up there in those high valleys, because all that actually sounds like a good time to me. Sometimes, it’s hard to believe that we ever left. I’ll have to go back soon anyway. I’ve got to see what Luigi’s done with my car’s head gasket and if they accept payment in 1up’s or or floating gold coins.

Standing on Tradition

There is no point in me denying that I’m a hopeless romantic. Freely, I will admit to having a rose tinted view of things that I have done or seen in the past. Hind sight might be 20/20, but perception can be heavily altered when viewed through the filter of nostalgia. The bad times fall away and only the interesting and fun tend to float to the surface; especially if that reflected time is of the simplicity of youth, now being viewed from under the worries of adulthood, covering us like a heavy bearskin on a hot summer day.

Such are my memories of primary school. I was fortunate enough to spend the first seven years of my scholastic life at Saint Joseph’s, a fairly small, private, Catholic school in south western New Hampshire. The building its self matched pretty closely to what most of you are thinking when I say “Catholic School”. Built of red brick with concrete, decorative touches, the structure was two stories tall and monolithic in appearance. Inside, the rooms had impossibly high ceilings with plasterwork that rounded flawlessly down to the vertical and became walls, creating a beautiful vaulted feel. The windows were of the type that were so common in the schools of old. Huge expanses of glass made up of dozens of individual, leaky panes with an opening portion at the bottom. These are never seen in public buildings anymore, all having long since been bricked up or covered over with depressing slabs of plywood in an effort to reduce heating bills with the added effect of sentencing the occupants to life under blinking florescent tubes.

The steps leading up to the massive, oak double doors are huge slabs of granite and though the thousands upon thousands of small feet from generations past barely shows, the black internal stairs are deeply rutted on either side, looking for all the world like they have been shaped by two endless waterfalls, now run dry. I can clearly recall walking them and wondering how many others had climbed them. Even as a little kid with the requisite lack of enthusiasm for all things scholastic, I had a very special fondness for this place. There was a lot to feel good about when it came to my attendance. My Mom had gone here as did all her sisters. Not only that, but this was my Grandfather’s school as well. The impossibly old and venerable man who I revered as the head of the extended family had been just another small boy here, walking these exact stairs just like I did. It was a fantastic thought.

There were no uniforms to wear, but dress code was closely adhered to. No jeans, no sneakers, No shorts and undershirts were just that; to be worn under a shirt. Decorated t-shirts were not acceptable attire. For what it was, the code was quite lax, really. Ties were not required for the boys and skirts, though often worn by the girls, were not mandated over slacks. Every kid simply had two drawers in their room: school clothes and play clothes and never the twain did meet. We thought nothing of it and to my knowledge, no one ever chafed under the rule.

The first floor contained the smaller grades, going from kindergarten up to second. Even with the expansive rooms and unreachable ceilings, it was a friendly place and made you feel safe. Every morning after attendance we would pile out into the hall way and sit down on the floor, one small butt per linoleum square, and the teachers would start the daily program. This was usually made up of announcements for upcoming special events, kids birthdays, or simply talking about the changing seasons. It was always concluded with songs and heartfelt prayer. That was my morning routine. Quite a nice way to start the day, if you ask me.

Upstairs, were the higher grades. Third and fourth, a small but well run library, the music room and the principal’s office took up the space. I believe that the administration for the entire school was simply the principal and his secretary. As I recall, the secretary also doubled as the receptionist and school announcer. No councilors, no vice principals, no department of redundancy department. It was all overseen by one principal, the school secretary and the teachers. I might also add that it ran very, very smoothly.

The central hallway off the second floor let to the “big kids” wing. There were swinging, double doors to this hallway and they were always closed. We feared it. They might as well have scrawled, “Here be giants!” over the doors. Little kids had no reason to be there and we craned our necks in tense curiosity to get a peek through the glass when walking single file, to the library. When they opened with a groan, we jumped and moved faster.

The day I was finally old enough to walk through those squeaking gates was memorable. It was a very literal right of passage. Nothing remarkable was down there of course. Just fifth and sixth grades, but it had grown huge in our imaginations over the last five years. Below these class rooms on the first floor was our double duty gym/auditorium where I had the chance to humiliate my self both on the basket ball court and the stage. It was a place for equal opportunity childhood embarrassment. Ah, the memories.

The last important part of this place was the church. Across a shared parking lot is the cornerstone Catholic church for the city. Every Wednesday, we would line up and head over for an hour or so for a private… well, I was going to say lesson, but it was somewhere between a lesson and a mass. What ever it was, it meant that I didn’t have to go to spend my precious Sunday afternoons in a classroom, and for that, I shall always be thankful.

With one exception (there’s always one, isn’t there), I had wonderful teachers there and over all, received a really top notch education at St. Joe’s. The school was never wealthy and I vividly remember cracks in the plasterwork and a finicky boiler that sometimes didn’t heat the place as it should have, but I never minded that. The tuition was not expensive but it was there and need to be paid. It was a sacrifice which all of our classmate’s parents made and I think it made us better students in the process.

There were no school vouchers, there was no support from the government and I firmly believe that it made the place better. They were beholden to no one except their beliefs and the parent’s of the students. If a student was a bad behavior, they were gone, and gone permanently. I wonder what ever happened to Shawn “The Toy Smasher”? He was history by second grade. Elitist? No, I don’t think so. It was a place of rules though, and if a kid couldn’t follow them, well… That was your problem, not theirs.

A lot of things have changed as time has marched along. First, there was my own personal break from The Church. A decision that was not made lightly. I harbor the institution no ill will but it no longer fits my world view. I do, however, miss the place it occupied in my life, though. I’ve also moved away. This is something that really eats at me sometimes because I would like nothing more then to see my own children get dressed up and head off to this wonderful place. They would be the fourth generation to do so in my family and the missed opportunity leaves me sad sometimes.

The last change is a happy one though. Not only is Saint Joseph’s School still there, but it had expanded to seventh and eighth grade as well. I have no idea where they have made the rooms, but it pleases me to know that it’s healthy and vibrant. On an impromptu visit I made a year or so ago, I noted that much is the same and much has been improved. The peeling paint and cracked plaster has been repaired beautifully and the stage where I had stood in school productions long past has seen a complete refurbishing. The massive and leaky windows were replaced with equally massive, brand new expanses of glass and steel, changing the look not one bit.

I will be sure to bring the kids there someday, just to show them where Great Grandpa, Grandma, and their Dad spent so much time in their youth. I doubt very seriously that they will ever have the chance to attend school there but hey, you can’t have everything.

Every tradition meets its end sometime and from that end, new ones begin.

Lonely Mountain

The snow and ice covered rocks sloped down and away from us in an alarming fashion. The same stacked and wintry boulders that had just been inches from my nose on the ascent not ten minutes ago now looked very far away and impossibly spaced to allow for a safe descent. I turned to my companion, Mountain Man for his thoughts.

“So, how are we going to get down?”

Cold winds swooped by us and I waited for some good idea from my friend. How the hell do I wind up in these situations? Oh right, I follow friends like Mountain Man up actual mountains in the dead of winter.

Wow… That’s a long way down.

It all started some time in the fall. My climbing friend had a lot of training to do. Though his lightly built frame would fool many into thinking that he lived a more sedentary life or at most, was a weekend runner, He’s the poster child for the saying, “Looks can be deceiving.”

He’s tall, thin, almost gangly and always seems to sport a special, goofy , lopsided smile. He is also made of what I gather, must be steel cables and iron. He is very strong and I have never once seen his stamina wane. He is also supremely confident when it comes to outdoor experiences. This can be… overly exciting at times.

The training he was so hot to get in was, as he put it, “All preparation for climbing K2”. The news had just come out that its summit might just be a smidge higher than Everest’s and so if it wasn’t the highest, he didn’t want to play. K2, it was. His plan was to wait for the winter to properly nestle down on our corner of New Hampshire and then climb our beloved, lonely mountain, Monadnock. All this preferably after a really good, solid snowstorm. In the early autumn evening when this idea was put forth, it sounded like fun. A simple thing, really. How many dozen times had I been up that piece of granite? I could do it blindfolded. Sure! Why not?!

It was late in February when it all was brought back to me by my outdoorsy friend. “Remember the plan?” he enthusiastically chirped. “This is the perfect time! Next big snow storm comes and we go the next day! That way we’ll be assured of having to break the trails!”

By “breaking trails” he meant that we would have the “enviable” task of beating down the fresh snow and finding surprising holes at random intervals. Does he know how to live or what!?

Mount Monadnock is not a difficult mountain to climb, at least in the warmer months. If you take the right trail, you can be up and down in about four hours. That’s not to say is doesn’t get steep, but you can do it.. There are lots of ways you can get to the summit though, and some of the alternate paths will change that quick excursion into an all day affair. Naturally, the harder version was our chosen route.

When Mountain Man and I met at the deserted and closed parking lot, he wore his regular, big smile and a far bigger pack. The thing was huge!

“Are you ready to go?”
“Yah. What the heck is in the pack? It’s only a day hike, right?”

Visions of an unscheduled snow camping trip floated through my head. I wasn’t packed for that!

“Oh, it’s mostly my dirty laundry. That and some heavy stuff I had in my room.”
“Uhh, do you… always…”
“Training! I needed some weight.”

This is Mountain Man I’m talking about. Just winter wasn’t going to make this hard enough for him. He needed more. Perhaps the loss of a leg on the way up would make him happier.

After insisting on digging thorough my bag and poaching anything weighty to add to his pack, we were off. Almost immediately, it was slow going. The path was wide and the slope, fairly gentle but it was also just shy of knee deep, unbroken snow.

No… That’s not accurate. The top foot was unbroken snow. The next few inches was slushy ice and the final two or three was actual, running, melt water. All I can say is “Thank God for Gortex.” My boots were lined with the stuff and at the time, it was a new and mysterious substance. I had paid a lot for the privilege of being able to point at the little “Gortex” tag sewn on the side of each foot. Right now, they were worth every penny.

As we slogged on up our trail, Mountain Man started a running commentary. It was in the tone given by Captain James T. Kirk as he kept his captain’s log. Mountain Man’s long, colorful entries however, were of our climb up K2.

“Day 5: The Sherpas are keeping a good pace and the supplies are coming up easily. We shall miss the friendly people in the villages, but the mountain awaits.”

After an hour or so, our path changed dramatically. We broke away from the easier, if not wetter, main trail and started the first part of the real climb. The route is called the “Do Drop” trail. A lot of folks think that’s a typo and it’s supposed to be “dew”, but no, it’s intentional. It’s called that because if said in a proper, old New England accent, “It do drop, some” so watch your footing. Here it starts getting interesting.

Our first real surprise was discovered by Mountain Man, as he took the lead. In one step, he disappeared up to his armpits in snow. His arms shot out to his sides and his “WOAH!” was muffled by the heavy snow cover. He had found a hole, and a big one to boot. It only took a minute to help him climb out and another few to empty the snow from clothing. This was more like it! He was beaming.

“Day 9: A dark day for the expedition. An unseen crevasse has opened at our feet. Three Sherpas have perished as well as Dr. Robinson. We have decided to press on. The good Doctor would have wanted it that way.”

We did press on and as we finally climbed out of tree line, we bundled up against the sharp wind. The last quarter of the climb was nothing but granite covered in ice. Crampons were attached and progress slowed down as greater care was taken. We had not seen so much as a foot print ahead of us all day.

Mountain Man’s climbing log got more and more desperate as we went. Sherpas went missing in the night. Supplies were lost. Members succumbed to altitude sickness and our oxygen ran dangerously low. The actual climb was not even close to dire, but his running commentary made it seem like a far greater feat.


Photo via nh-photo.blogspot.com

As we clambered on our bellies up the steepest, last bit of the mountain, we proudly looked across the small, flat summit and stopped, just as frozen as the stone we clung to. Looking across the small plateau at us were… two other men just making the summit as well. Both parties boggled at the other, like a stunned bird after hitting a window. The same unspoken thought floated through everyone’s mind: “What the hell are YOU guys doing here?”

As it turns out, they had climbed Monadnock from the other side, making the top at the exact same moment. We all laughed, made introductions, shook hands and then… my moment of glory. I pulled out my camera and asked them to take a photo of us at the top. Happily, they obliged but before he could set up, I quickly dove back into my pack. Mountain Man looked confused. From my bag, I pulled two things. The first was an American Flag, the second was a piece of poster board. On the board I had scrawled “Summit-K2, 28,251 feet”. He laughed, we posed and the picture was taken. It hangs with some pride in my house today.

After all the picture taking and niceties were done, it was time to go down. The other expedition headed down the gentle slope the way they come up. We looked back at the path that took us back to our starting point. “Hmmm. That’s quite a drop.”

“So, now what? It’s going to be awful for climbing down. What’s your plan?”

Mountain Man looked at the huge stones covered in ice and snow, thought for a moment and then, with out a word… jumped. HE ACTUALLY JUMPED! My eyes must have been the size of saucers as he sailed through the air and bounded from the top of one frozen rock, six feet down to the next and then the next. It was like watching a rubber ball disappear down the slope as he bounded along at high speed. I looked back at the empty summit and then to the rapidly shrinking image of my friend. With out a breath in my lungs, I leaped after him.

It was one of those stupid but life defining moments. If either of us missed our footing, the damage would have been horrific. This was long before the days of cell phones so there was no way to call for help if we needed it. Foolish? You bet your ass it was foolish. Exhilarating? Hooooooo Yah! The two of us yelped and hooted as we bounded at full stride down the rocks and path. What finially stopped us was an unseen root that reached out and snagged Mountain Man’s foot, mid-run. He went down quickly, disappeared into the deep snow and plowed along benieth its surface for ten feet or so. All that could be seen was his oversized pack, cutting along like a sharks fin through water. I got to him and helped him up. Mercifully, the only injury was a cut lip and tender ankle. He hobbled the remaining way down, and we let the adrenaline slowly subside. We had made it. We were soaked, we were tired, and one of us was a little bloody, just the way he hoped.

I’ve never climbed Monadnock in the snow again and to be honest, I don’t feel the need. Call me too old, call me too cautious but I know the real reason.

Don’t you know? I’ve been to the top of K2, and have the photo to prove it.

Normandy, with Grandpa

On the year of the 49th anniversary of the D-Day landings, I got to walk the beaches with my Grandfather.

He hadn’t been there all those years ago, you understand. His war had taken the young New Hampshire boy to much stranger fields of battle. His war had been going on for years. His war was full of malarial mosquitoes and sunstroke. His war was mostly ignored, or so it seemed to him.

On June 6th, 1944, Tech Sgt. N.B.H. was most likely floating off the shore of New Guinea watching B-25’s making bombing runs on the Owen Stanley mountains and wondering where the next landing would be. He was the skipper of various landing type craft, sometimes LCI’s like you see on the beaches of Normandy, but more often LCM’s or LST’s. Those are the big boats for getting machinery and tanks into the landings. His boats were often the first ones in and some of his battle ribbons, which he gave me years ago, hold bronze stars.

He had signed up in 1942, waiting until he had finished high school before joining the army. He had picked the army because he was a hunter, confident in his ability with a rifle and was comfortable in the woods. He knew little about airplanes, so stayed away from the Air Corps. and didn’t like the idea of being in the Navy. His logic was that if his ship was hit, there was little he could do about it. He’s a hands on person and relies on his own judgment and wits as they rarely let him down.

So, off to the Army he went. Then they found out that he grew up on a lake. Next they found out he could run a boat. before he knew it, he was off to lake Pontchartrain, being schooled in the art of running landing craft. His leadership qualities quickly sent him to the wheelhouse and his athletic abilities got him sent to the Combat Engineers.

The Combat Engineers were often the guys who went in ahead of the landing to get it ready for the infantry and the marines or to fix a degrading landing. These were the guys who got shot at first or under the worst conditions. They were specialists and his unit badge sported a shield with an eagle, anchor and tommy gun, meaning that they would get there by air, sea or foot, and they did.

He survived the war, but just barely. His only physical injuries came from falling through a hatch, carelessly left open by a green replacement, a partially crushed finger from a 55 gallon drum of oil that fell on him, a concussion from a falling signal light that was shot off his mast, and a case of sunstroke that nearly killed him. He made it though though, and he’s still around to this day.

He mostly tells you the funny stories. The painful ones he keeps to him self. The men he talks about were the ones who came home with him. I’ve never heard him mention the name of a single friend who was killed in action, and there must have been many. Where he was, it was inevitable. If I press for more than the five or six stories he tells and retells, he’ll go off on a line about how there are millions of stories out there from millions of people and that his don’t matter. I disagree, but it’s not my place to argue that. The memories are his, and he is entitled to share them or not. I just make sure that I’m there to listen.

When we walked the beaches in Normandy all those years later, I had the chance to watch an old man learn something new. He had always sort of talked down the European war. In many ways, I think he resents the coverage and interest it gets, while his conflict remains little more than a foot note. For years, when ever he saw footage of the D-Day landings he would speak disparagingly about how the men had to wade, if not swim to shore. “We never did that! If we brought you in, you had dry boots!”

Standing on the bluffs in the old German positions, this old man looked down and saw the beach with the eyes of a military landing craft captain. After a few minutes he remarked that now he understood.

“This is a hell of a place to land. Look, there are at least six sand bars that you’d have to plow through before you’d hit beach. You’d never have the momentum to get past the fourth one. This is an awful place to bring them in. No wonder they had to swim.”

Later that night, it started to rain as we all went out for dinner. There were thirteen of us in the group and it wasn’t easy to find a place where we could all fit. We finally found a nice little restaurant and nearly filled it with our family. As the evening came to a close, the owner came out to our tables to ask if we had enjoyed our meal. When he spotted the white hair on my Grandfather’s head, he asked if he was a veteran. “Yes, but not from here. I ran landing craft in the Pacific.”

The two old men chatted a while and as the bill came out, the owner grabbed it quickly and removed the cost of my grandparent’s meal. My grandfather objected but the owner insisted. “It is my gift to you. Wait one moment, I have something else.” The owner disappeared into the back for a few minutes and emerged, holding a labelless, corked wine bottle. “This is sand from the beach. I picked it up my self just a few days after the invasion. It has the blood of American soldiers in it. I want you to have it. I remember. Here, in Normandy, we all remember.”

I’ve never seen my grandfather so much as tear-up, and to be honest, I don’t know if he did just then. I know I would have. I had to look away. It was too much to see.

It’s June 6th today. A day of loss for so many families. Many dreams stopped forever on a long stretch of beach or on the cliffs over the French coast. So many more dreams however, were made possible by the loss. We remember that day for the heroism and loss on those beaches but I’ll try to think of my Grandfather, all those miles away, floating on a steel deck in the Pacific, wondering when it will all be over so he can finally go home.

%d bloggers like this: