The Old Man

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Old Man stopped at the edge of the clearing overlooking the camp below. He rested the flintlock rifle against a small dogwood tree and lowered his canvas pack to the ground. From his possible bag he retrieved a small clay pipe and tobacco, and after resting his backside beneath a large red oak, he deliberately prepared the pipe. This was his ritual before entering the primitive camp. He decided he would stay here until the twilight turned full dark. Bu then, his ritual of “slowing down” would be complete.

He looked on the camp below, which contained the canvas shelters of the twenty men and their gear. Lazy smoke from a dozen small cooking fires created a hazy fog above the valley. The men were gathered at separate fires in small groups of two or three, and on occasion, laughter exploded like a covey rise from one of the gatherings. The Old Man smiled.

These were unusual men, this gathering of woodsmen. As diverse in age as occupation, the group ranged in years from sixteen to seventy-five and covered a mosaic of professions: doctors, farmers, carpenters, professors, salesmen, scientists and artists, to name a few. The Old Man liked them all, probably because of their mutual kinship with the land; but there were other little things, too. Little things that added up over the years.

In a time when men survive by learning new intricacies of a complex technical society, these men savored the return to the simplicity of the old ways, ways by which men had survived two hundred years ago when they were face to face with the land.

For this group of men and others like them, this strengthening of individual ties with the past was extremely important, pondered the Old Man, not only to ensure proper priorities, but to maintain sanity. Some of us, thought Sam Kenton, agree that modern man has become a bit insane.

“Buckskinning,” to these men was not escapism, but time essential to their current life styles. They were nor acting as “mountain men” but simply devoting their time together in regression to a simpler way of living. They slowed down . . .way down.

A whip-poor-will began its song somewhere along the creek, rousing the Old Man from his thoughts. The Old Man noticed the flicker of candle-lanterns at the lean-twos and the aroma of cooking meat from the fires. At the end of the valley, a big man with a full beard was chopping wood with a double-bladed ax.

The Old Man glanced down at this hand-sewn leather britches, and the deep brown-black grease stains above the knees where the fingers from a hundred hand-fed meals had been wiped. He hadn’t worn his “skins” in almost a year, and yet, they were form fitted to his legs, with molded puckers at the knees from the miles of walking. The Old Man remembered last year. They had dubbed the three days the rain-de-vous, with the second night yielding five inches in three hours. They had huddled together in the canvas shelters until daylight, with the conversation never lagging. It had been too miserable to sleep. The saturation had not come from above, for the shelters had repelled the falling water, but rather from below. So much rain had fallen that the ground had finally soaked up all that it could hold, and eventually, so had their blankets and their clothes. And thinking back, the Old Man wouldn’t have missed a moment of this time. It was a valuable memory, for with the next dawn had come a warm, drying sun, a natural remedy to their misery.

And there had been the “frost-bite” rendezvous, where the temperature had fallen to eight degrees. Again, they had huddled together around small fires all night, with the cold biting them from below. Water in the Old Man’s canteen had remained frozen all night, despite its position barely a foot away from the fire. Sometimes there had been snow, and sometimes severe heat. And yet, these men still came, year after year.

The Old Man’s thoughts turned toward tomorrow. He already knew how the day would begin, and he smiled again. At dawn, no matter how bad or cold the night had been, Moffit would emerge from his shelter, bare-footed and singing, “Oh What a Beautiful Morning.” He would then parade around the camp stealing coals for his breakfast fire from everyone else’s night fires. Between fires, he would pause to give twenty-minute lectures on how the body becomes acclimated to the elements. Everyone would listen intently from their blankets as they slept. No matter how early anyone else arose at the camp, Weaver would already be up, with a pot of coffee freshly brewed. He seemed a Godsend to those, who, like the Old Man, savored a good cup of coffee. Eventually, Weaver’s coffee aroma would arouse Ol’ Bibb from his blankets, where upon he would promptly rise to his feet and and bump his head on a hanging candle lantern. Staggering from the blow to his head, he would then fall over his rifle into his night coals, impaling his hand on a fire poker. Finally, after gaining muscular composure, he would make his way to Weaver’s coffee pot to ask the ridiculous question, “Is the coffee ready?” he would fill his cup and promptly pour the boiling hot liquid down the front of his chest while attempted to find his mouth. So strong was his image of Bibb that the Old Man laughed aloud. Bibb continued to be a classic portrait of coordination, but he built a darn fine rifle.

Moffit would have finished breakfast and begun his third physics lecture by the time Gaither began to stir. Gaither always arose propmptly at 9 a.m. and stood from his blankets without a wrinkle in his clothes. Shortly thereafter, with the preparation of the perfect cooking fire, Gaither would start the first course of his seven-course breakfast. Somewhere around the third course, he would throw a skillet at the physics lecturer, causing an argument that would endure until darkness fell over the camp that night. The Old Man chuckled in anticipation. It was the little things that he cherished.

Summer camps, such as the one before the Old Man now, were not hunting camps. Summer camps meant shooting matches, informal fun. The memory suddenly recalled the soured smell of burned black powder to the Old Man’s nostrils, like the sharp bite he always experienced when he thought of tasting a freshly cut lemon.

He remembered the time at one summer camp when they had shot at raw eggs suspended from strings. Missed eggs had been immediately eaten in front of a heckling line of shooters. In the coolness of the late evening, other visions became clear, visions of “hawk” throwing matches, the trading of handmade knives and guns and leather bags and hats and . . . secrets, secrets that grown men tell other grown men.

Around a popping fire they shared feelings about living, truths about their beliefs in the land and its animals, that somehow never surface in their busy daily lifestyles. It was in those special night fire discussions that the Old Man found his fondest memories.

It was not quite dark. The Old Man collected his pack and his rifle and started down the vague deer trail toward the flickering lights in the valley. In a matter of a few minutes, he was standing in the firelight of the closest lodge. The man at the fire stirred the contents of a blackened dutch oven. Taking a taste, he spoke without ever looking up. “How are you, Sam Kenton?”

“I’m good, Doc. I’m fine.”

“Care for some beans and cold cornbread?”

“Don’t mind if I do,” said the Old Man as he seated himself cross legged by the fire. Doc spooned out some white beans into the Old Man’s plate and tore off a large portion of the yellow bread. They ate without talking. Finally, Doc looked up.

“Where’s the black dog?”

“Died last winter.”

“She was a good dog.”

“She was that,” said the Old Man. “Have a young dog now. She’s coming along good.” He paused. “Everyone here?”

‘Yep. You’re the last. How come you’re always late, Sam?”

The Old Man drank from the cup of coffee Doc handed him.

“Been up on the ridge, thinkin’.”

“Anything particular?”

“Just wonderin’, mostly. Wonderin’ about people like yourself, who keep comin’ to these doin’s. Just wonderin’ what it is that makes you drive four hundred miles to get here and spend three days with us.”

Doc smiled. “More coffee, Sam?” the Old Man extended his cup into the firelight. Doc leaned back against a chopped log and sighed.

“Well, I’ll tell you, Sam. While you were up there wonderin’ why we come, I was down here stirring this simple pot of white beans and wonderin’ . . . why we ever leave once we get here.”

As they smiled at each other through the firelight, the whip-poor-will started up again down at the creek.