My brother Jake and I were born only sixteen months apart. At birth, he was given the Christian name of Arnold Louis at birth but, our great Uncle Hal soon christened him "Jake" and this nickname was to stick with him throughout his life. He was a chubby little boy with bright carrot colored hair and he had a dusting of light orange freckles scattered across his nose. His eyes were bright, blue and when he smiled in his lopsided way, huge dimples appeared in both cheeks. If you've ever seen one of Norman Rockwell's paintings of American children, then you've seen Jake.
When Jake was about three years old, he decided that he'd do a little exploring and he picked a day when both Mother and Dad were busy in the garden that was located out behind our house. After having found nothing of interest on the two lower shelves, Jake climbed a little higher. He climbed up on the kitchen cupboard and stood up to see what goodies Mother might have hidden in the top shelves of her cabinet.
First, he opened one cupboard door and low and behold, what do we have here? He clasped his chubby hands around Dad's half empty bottle of gin and carefully climbed back down to the counter. He settled his plump little bottom onto the edge of the counter with his feet dangling about three feet above the kitchen floor and his grubby little fingers tugged and pulled until he finally removed the cap from the bottle of gin. He lifted the heavy bottle towards his mouth and the escaping fumes made his blue eyes sting and water but that didn't deter him. Jake lifted the bottle until he had it aligned with his mouth and took a deep swallow. The undiluted gin seared its way down his throat and he inhaled with a choking gasp. Tears ran unchecked down his fat, ruddy cheeks and his nose began to run. But being very inquisitive by nature, he wasn't about to give up so easily.
Jake wiped his nose on the back of his pudgy fist and decided to have another go. This time, he was a little more cautious and he succeeded in taking a smaller gulp. He continued this procedure quite a few times and it was then that he noticed a burning feeling in his round little belly. Suddenly, it didn't seem quite so much fun anymore, this drinkin Dad's gin! He leaned forward and tossed the nearly empty bottle of gin down onto the kitchen floor.
The sound of the falling bottle alerted my parents to the fact that something was amiss in the kitchen and they both came running. They arrived just in time to see Jake hit the floor next to the bottle of gin. Jake didn't just hit the floor and lay there, he bounced! And after he bounced a few more times, he proceeded to throw-up. Dad cleaned him up and put him to bed.
The next morning when Jake finally woke up, he was an entirely different little boy. He didn't run around and shout like he normally did. He didn't move too much at first either and when he did move, it was very carefully. He just lay there. His round little face was so white that the scattering of red freckles across his nose looked like someone had painted them on his face. He'd open his eyelids to a small slit and gaze around the room until his eyes connected with the bright shaft of sunlight that was streaming through the bedroom window. Then, he'd close his eyes and turn his little white face to the wall. Mother came in and looked at him and commented that "His eyes looked like two burnt holes in a blanket!" and she wanted to call Dr. Varnum to come and have a look at him. But, Dad explained to her that Jake was fine but he must have one hell of a hangover. Jake soon moved on to bigger and better things.
Living in the country the way we did, we were allowed more freedom than most children can imagine. At that time, we didn't have any immediate neighbors with kids our age. We only had our brothers and sisters to play with and since there were eight of us, we always found something to do. We built tree houses by the score, played baseball in Mr. Beaulier's pasture, rode neighbor's horses, fished in the Aroostook River and hunted in the woods surrounding our house. We picked every berry that was known to grow in the County. Blackberries, blueberries, raspberries and strawberries. If it was a berry, we picked it and there were also dandelions, fiddleheads and hazelnuts that we picked by the pail full.
The slow moving Aroostook River was located about a mile from our house and it drew us to it like a magnet. On warm summer days, we'd walk the short distance down the hill to go swimming or fishing or whatever mischief that we had decided to do that day.
This particular summer's day was not only warm but humid as well and when it's humid in the county, it's humid! I was about ten years old, Jake about eleven and Walt was thirteen. We hadn't had too much rain that spring so the level of the river was quite low and we'd decided to go swimming. When we arrived at our favorite swimming spot the Chubb Hole, the sandbar, which was about ten feet from shore, was sticking up out of the water for the first time that we could remember. We hurriedly waded out to the sandbar and discarded our unnecessary clothing. Walt and Jake, both good swimmers, dove head first into the warm river water and shouted for me to hurry up and join them. I wasn't in a hurry to get wet and besides, I couldn't swim. Walt eyed me with a big grin and said, "Toots, don't be a scardy cat, the water is very low here. Just keep walking straight out." I looked at him and thought if my oldest brother was telling me this spot was safe then, surely I could trust him. After all, who can you trust if not your brother?
I took about four small steps and suddenly the soft, sandy river bottom disappeared from beneath my feet. I found myself sinking into the warm water. In a panic, I thrashed around and my mouth filled up with the brackish water. Suddenly, I felt Walt grab me and pull me up out of the water and onto the warm sand.
I sat-up, spat out a mouthful of stinking water and howled with a mixture of fear and anger. Jake came out of the water and ran over to see if I was all right. As I calmed down, I looked at my legs that were stretched out on the sand in front of me. Somehow, my legs didn't look quite the same. There were little black things on my legs and on my arms, they were all over me! These little black things could move too! They were sliding and stretching and they were getting bigger! I reached out and tried to flick one of them off with my finger but it stayed right where it was!
At about this time, Jake became aware that he too was covered with these "things." He jumped up and down and began yelling to Walt, but Walt was busy with problems of his own. I looked down at my left leg and saw that one of these things had gotten considerably bigger and there was a small trickle of blood running down my leg where one creature was stuck. I let out a howl of fear and this brought the two of them running to my side. "Holy Jaysus Walt," Jake shouted. "This friggin place is crawling with bloodsuckers! Look at her, she's covered with them!" "No kidding Sherlock!" Walt snarled at him. "Have you had a good look at yourself lately?"
Walt grabbed one of my arms and Jake grabbed the other and they ran with me between them back across the shallow water to the riverbank. They hurriedly picked and scraped the leeches off me and off each other until they couldn't find anymore. It was a subdued threesome who finally straggled up the hill to our house that hot summer day. Need-less-to-say, it was many weeks before we begged Mother to let us go swimming again.
Dad was an expert hunting and fishing guide and he had quite a collection of guns. He owned a twenty-two rifle, a thirty-thirty, a thirty-ot-six and a four-ten shotgun. On warm spring days he liked to take his guns out behind our house and target practice with them.
I'll never forget the day he finally "allowed" me to try my hand at target practice. After I'd badgered him for about an hour, he finally handed me the four-ten shotgun then he handed me a shotgun shell and showed me how to insert it into the chamber. The gun was quite heavy for me to hold so he inserted the shell and helped me close the barrel of the gun. Then he looked at me and said, "Are you sure that you want to do this? It's got quite a kick, you know" I saw my brothers whisper something to each other and then they grinned. I wasn't going to back down now. "Don't hold it too loose because it's got quite a kick and might hurt you." Dad said. I had just watched Jake shoot it and he didn't seem to have any trouble.
I planted my feet squarely on the ground and dug the gun stock snugly into my shoulder. I curled my finger around the trigger and with my other hand I brought the gun barrel up into target range. I sighted along the barrel to get the target into focus like Dad had shown me. I heard Dad tell me not to pull the trigger but to squeeze it slowly. I took a deep breath and pulled the trigger. The gun erupted with a fantastic roar and I felt the stock of the gun slam into my collar bone. It glanced off my collar bone and hit me in the chin. The gun went flying in one direction and me in another.
The next thing I knew was Dad bending over me asking if I were all right. I sat up carefully and nodded my head. My chest and chin hurt, they hurt like hell! My brothers were bent over with laughter. I heard Jake gasp something to Walt about girls being so friggin weak that they couldn't even fire a four-ten shotgun. Walt responded with the statement that it sure was funny to see me go "ass over teakettle" when I pulled the trigger. As I slunk off around the corner of the house to nurse my wounded pride, I couldn't find anything funny about it at all.
Jake was a typical country boy. He loved to spend his time hunting and if he wasn't hunting, he was fishing. If it was outdoors, he was doin it. When he was about thirteen years old, Jake decided that he was going to be a "fur trapper." He "borrowed" Uncle Hal's outhouse magazines, Field & Stream, Northern Hunting & Fishing Guide and The Maine Trapper and read every article in them pertaining to trapping wild animals. Then, he announced to Dad that he was going to make a lot of money by trapping animals and selling their pelts. Dad just looked at him for a few minutes and shook his head. Dad knew that there wasn't any use trying to talk him out of this newest venture. When Jake set his mind on something, there was no dissuading him.
Jake took off up the road to tell his best friend Linwood Rosignal what he was going to do. Between the two of them, they managed to scrape together enough rusty traps so that Jake could establish a trap line.
He and Linwood spent all summer planning what they were going to do with all the money they were going to earn. They spent hours trudging back and forth through the swamps trying to find the best places to put the traps once winter came.
The long awaited day finally arrived. It had snowed for nearly a day and a half. Jake was ecstatic! He rushed home from school, grabbed his rifle and took off down over the hill to the swamp to check his traps. He'd come home from time to time with a rabbit or a squirrel but usually the larger fur-baring animals eluded him. The traps were empty and the bait was always gone.
Since Jake and I were so close in age, he sometimes "allowed" me to accompany him on his trap line tours. On this particular day, Jake informed me that he would "let" me go with him and he would even "let" me take the four-ten shotgun. I was overjoyed! I grabbed my jacket and ran out to where he was impatiently waiting for me. He told me that I had to walk in front of him if I was going to have a gun. After we'd walked about two miles, I turned around and asked him when he was going to give me a bullet for my gun. Jake stopped dead in his tracks and looked at me. "Are you crazy Toots? I don't want to get shot!" I was outraged! Not only wouldn't he give me a bullet but, he made me walk in front of him so that I wouldn't shoot him with my empty shotgun!
We continued on our way and suddenly Jake ran off past me. I hurried to catch up with him and I was just in time to see him come to a dead halt on the trail in front of me. I peered over his shoulder and saw what he was staring at. Off to the side of the trail was a huge skunk with one of its legs caught in Jake's trap. It wasn't moving so, Jake nudged me with his elbow and said, "Toots, you go ahead and take it out of the trap."
I looked at him and he dropped his eyes and mumbled, "I get to do this all the time so, I'll let you have the chance if you want to." I looked at the big black and white skunk and wondered how I'd been selected for this dubious honor. I looked at Jake again and he muttered, "Well, you wanted to come didn't you? Anyway, what are you scared of, it's dead." I knew then and there that if I ever wanted to go trapping with him again, then I had better remove the skunk from the trap.
I leaned the four-ten against a tree and then walked toward the skunk. I turned around to look at Jake and it seemed to me that he had retreated just a little. "Are you sure he's dead Jake?" I asked him. "Sure, sure," Jake answered. Suddenly, the "dead" skunk came to life! It swung swiftly around and lifted its tail straight up and the air was filled with a strong, nauseating odor. The skunk missed me but, Jake wasn't quite so lucky. The skunk sprayed him full in the face! Jake was gasping and yelling and rubbing his face and eyes with his hands. "Oh God! Oh Jaysus!" Jake yelled as tears ran down his face. He kept moaning and hopping from one foot to the other. I stumbled against a tree and slid slowly down to the ground. The searing in my lungs hadn't abated yet and I was having difficulty getting my breath back.
Jake tore his jacket off and tried to wipe himself. He collapsed to the ground and sat there for the longest time. Then he looked at me. "Jaysus Toots, what are we going to do?" I shook my head dumbly. "Mother's going to kill us and the kids at school... We just looked at each other mute, envisioning all of the horror and humiliation that lay ahead of us.
Finally, Jake stood up, picked up his rifle and shot the skunk and then he removed it from his trap. Then he turned to me. "We might as well get it over with," and he started down the trail towards home. I picked up my shotgun and raced off after him. I grabbed him by the arm and he stopped and looked at me. "Don't you want the skunk?" I asked. He looked at me for the longest second and a light moved through his blue eyes. I decided that that was the dumbest question I'd ever asked. As we trudged on in the direction of home, our thoughts were palpable in the air regarding the reception we were going to get when we got there.
Our arrival home was announced in advance by our old dog Tippy. With a long, low growl, she came running off the porch with her hair raised on the back of her neck. Jake knelt down, held out his hand and called her. Tippy stopped growling but she still whined even though she recognized his voice and she wouldn't come any closer. Finally, Jake was able to get a little closer to her and she sniffed his hand and then backed off with a low growl in her throat.
By this time, everyone had come outside to see what was the matter with Tippy. Dad looked us over and then a huge grin spread across his face. He told us to go in the shed and take our clothes off. Mother gave us several baths with home made lye soap and then we were finally allowed into the house. Dad asked us what happened. After Jake had explained, he paused and looked at Dad and said, "You know one good thing about getting pissed on by a skunk?" "No," Dad replied, "What's that?" "Well," Jake replied, "We weren't bothered by midges or mosquitoes all the way home!"
By the time the bus rolled around on Monday, the smell had worn of a little. But I can still recall seeing the kids sniff the air after we had gotten on the bus and hearing them say, "Somebody must have run over a skunk around your house!" Jake and I didn't answer; we just looked at each other and sank a little lower in our seat.
The skunk incident didn't cure Jake of his hunting and fishing fever though. He still enjoyed these activities very much and I heard Mother mutter to Dad one evening, "I'll sure be glad when he discovers girls!" Dad just looked at her, laughed and said, "You don't know what you're saying, mum."
Jake wasn't much interested in school and it took Mother a little by surprise when he announced that he was going to the library after school the next day. Sure enough, he came home loaded with library books. He carried the armload of books into the house and dumped them on the kitchen table. Dad picked one up and looked at it. The title read, "How to be a Taxidermist in Your Spare Time." Another title was, "Taxidermy Made Easy." another, "Stuffing Animals for Fun and Profit." Dad looked at Jake and saw the gleam in his blue eyes. It was going to be quite a long haul till he discovered girls!
Jake was off again! He read night after night. He asked incessant questions until everyone got sick and tired of hearing about dead animals. We generally avoided him like the plague because his hands were usually grubby and stinky from trying to scrape the flesh off dead animal hides. And he smelled! Usually he'd bully or bribe one of us younger kids into being his helper and I could often be found holding a piece of dead animal skin so that he could scrape it easier. He didn't have enough money to buy all the chemicals he needed to cure the pelts so, we'd walk for miles along the Masardis and Goding Roads to gather bottles and cans and anything that was saleable so that he could buy the rest of what he needed.
Finally, after about two months, he was ready. He had all the necessary chemicals and he selected the pelt of a red fox as his first try. He did everything according to the instructions and he hung it inside the shed door to finish curing. Everyday, after hopping off the school bus, he'd run into the shed to check on it.
Finally, the pelt was ready! He brushed the fur until it shone. He slid it around his neck. He wrapped it around his head. Then he announced that he would keep this one for himself. He promptly took it upstairs and placed it lovingly on the floor nearest his bed. In no time at all, the shed was adorned with pelts of all kinds and he loved it! He'd drag his friends home to see his collection and God help you if you touched one of those friggin things! When the boys went to bed at night, there was always much discussion regarding how much money they were going to make from the sale of those pelts and what they were going to do with the money.
Because we were eight children and there was so much for Mother to do, she didn't concern herself too much about the bedrooms on the second floor. It was our responsibility to keep the beds changed and the rooms reasonably clean. She rarely came up stairs unless she needed some of the canned goods that she kept in the attic which was located just off the boy's bedroom.
Jake had been in the taxidermy business about three months when Mother began noticing a faint and elusive odor coming from somewhere inside our house. Our Mother was clean! One of her favorite sayings was, "We may be poor but soap and water are cheap!" When Mother persisted about the odor that permeated the stairwell, Dad explained it away by saying that perhaps a rat had crawled into the walls of the old house and died there.
As time passed and the smell became stronger, Mother was determined to find out where the smell was emanating from. Since it seemed to be coming from upstairs, she marched up the steps to have a good look around. When she reached the head of the stairs, she stepped into the boy's bedroom and came to a dead stop. She got a pinched look around her mouth and without a word; she marched over to Jake's bed. Then she looked down at her feet and on the floor next to his bed lay Jake's precious red fox pelt. Mother reached down and lifted the edge of the pelt with her hand and a horrified expression came over her face. She dropped the pelt with the look of someone who had just burned her fingers and she turned and ran down the stairs like she was on fire.
A few minutes later Jake shot past me and flew up the stairs to his room. The rest of us kids ran up the stairs after Jake to see what was the matter. He was on his hands and knees on the floor by the side of his most cherished possession. We gathered around and watched as he gingerly lifted the pelt off the floor and then we too, saw what had horrified Mother. On the floor under the rug were hundreds of little white worms! "Oh, No!" Jake cried. "Oh No!" and he dropped the pelt back on the floor. With a stunned look on his face he got up and walked over to his bookshelf. He took out one of his taxidermy books and flipped through it until he found what he was looking for. A small footnote at the bottom of one page read, "Maggots may develop if the pelt has not been properly cured." Jake dropped the book onto his bed with a groan, "maggots!" He said out loud. "It's loaded with maggots!"
Suddenly, there was a lot of commotion on the stairs behind us. Mother was charging up the stairs with every kind of cleaning paraphernalia imaginable. She marched into the bedroom and plunked everything down on the floor. Then she looked at Jake and he got up off the bed and walked over to where she stood. She handed him the mop and pail and said three short words, "Clean it up!" And then she pointed at his precious red fox pelt and said, "And you know what to do with that!" then she turned around and marched back down the stairs.
It took Jake the better part of the day to clean the room to Mother's specifications. Jake took his beloved red pelt out behind the shed and buried it. We thought that this would be the end of his wanting to be a taxidermist but, boy we were wrong.
About a month later, one of our neighbors, Mrs. McVey, committed suicide by shooting herself. We were all shocked because we all knew and liked her and she was a wonderful artist. The suicide was a much discussed topic at our house and I can remember lying in bed one night and listening to Jake and Walt who were lying in bed in their bedroom next door, discussing the tragedy in minute detail. Evidently Jake was still very much enthralled with the idea of being a taxidermist because I heard him say to Walt, "Wouldn't it really be something to stuff old Mrs. McVey!" Walt groaned and told him to shut up.
Once in a while, Dad would get a hankering for some home-made beer. He'd convince Mother to set-up her old wash tub behind the kitchen stove and he'd commence to make his brew. I remember the smell as the hops, yeast and sugar reacted to the rest of the ingredients and the pungent smell of the yeast as the fermentation process began.
When the homebrew was nearing maturity, Walt and Jake used to sneak downstairs after Mother and Dad had gone to bed to sample the home brew. Dad didn't mind if they drank a little but it was a different story with Mother. She considered you to be an alcoholic even if you only drank one beer. Sometimes the boys got a little carried away with the beer sampling and they'd pay for it in the morning.
Mother always yelled up the stairs every morning to wake us up. One morning, we could hear low moans and groans coming from the boy's bedroom and they were the last to come straggling down the stairs. Mother took one look at them and you knew that it was going to be a very long time before Dad got to make home brew again.
Since we lived in the country, we all used to pitch in to help the local farmers harvest their crops. Walt and Jake always earned extra spending money by helping Uncle Hal bale his hay and put it up for the winter. This was hot, dirty work and on that fateful day, Jake and his best friend Linwood were taking a break as they waited for the next load of hay to arrive. They watched intently as one of the men carried his six pack of cold beer into the barn and placed it carefully behind a bale of hay. Jake nudged Linwood and they waited until the man had left and then they climbed down out of the hay mow. They ran over to where the beer was hidden and stole it. Then they took the beer and snuck around the corner of the barn and proceeded to drink it. The first cold beer went down in a flash, the second one was equally as wonderful and Jake couldn't even remember drinking the third.
Jake and Linwood knew that if the worker came back and found them with his beer, then all hell would break loose so he and Linwood staggered over to where Linwood had left his bicycle. Linwood managed to climb onto the bike and Jake scrambled onto the crossbars. They took off down the circular driveway into the Goding Road.
Neither one of them was used to drinking and now, in the hot noonday sun, they felt the full effect of their stolen beer. Linwood's knees became wobbly and he was having difficulty steering. Jake, afraid that they'd end up in the ditch, pushed Linwood's hands off the handle bars and announced that he would do the steering. It was a case of the pot calling the kettle black! Jake couldn't steer or see any better than Linwood. When Linwood complained, Jake told him to shut up and keep pedaling!
They started up the steep hill heading for home and Linwood was peddling for all he was worth. At about the halfway point of the hill, there was a very deep ditch that ran along the right side of the road. As they neared this section of the road, Jake turned and burped into Linwood's face and then he mumbled that he was going to be sick. Just as Linwood applied the brakes, Jake turned around and as he did so, he turned the handlebars with him. He heard Linwood give a healthy scream and it was all over but the hurting as the two boys and the bicycle sailed over the edge. They landed in the deep drainage ditch with the bicycle on top of them.
It wasn't too long before Uncle Hal came by and found the two boys and the bicycle lying in the ditch. He picked them up and he told Dad later that he figured that something was the matter with Jake because when he propped him up against the bank, Jake just lay there grinning foolishly. Uncle Hal piled the two of them along with Linwood's mangled bicycle into the back of his pick-up and brought them to our house.
Mother helped carry Jake up the stairs to bed. Uncle Hal, knowing how Mother felt about drinking, didn't dare to tell her that Jake was drunk. In her concern to take care of the two boys, she never noticed the smell of beer that surrounded them. She rushed to and fro declaring that Jake had better learn not to ride his bicycle so fast. He was lucky he hadn't been killed!
When Dad got home that night, after checking on Jake, he didn't have to be told what had happened. Dad never did tell Mother the "real" story because he knew that if she ever found out that Jake was drunk, Jake would have another accident right in his own bed!
Jake recovered and finally discovered girls. He proceeded to marry and produce five children in rapid succession. By this time, the war was raging in Vietnam and Walt and Bub went off to serve. But, Jake like Dad, had too many children and a heart murmur and he wasn't accepted.
Mother and Dad were never quite the same when on July second, nineteen seventy-nine, Jake died of a massive heart attack at the age of thirty-five. He left behind a wife and five grieving children. Mother never could get over the fact that two of her sons went off to fight in a war and might not come back alive, and the one who should have been safe at home, was the one who died.
I miss you and love you Jake, but I know that we'll meet again in another place, another time...
Autobiography of a Simple Soul
Memories, Another Place - Another Time
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