In 1954 Dad fell in love. But the really odd thing about this new-found love affair wasn't that he fell in love with another woman and his strange feelings didn't bother Mother one dite. You see, Dad fell in love with a pair of hunting boots.
To say that Dad was a modest man was the understatement of the year. Dad never outright asked for anything ever and it was always up to Mother to ferret out any whims or desires that this gentle man might have wished for or downright coveted. After all, she'd spent many years with the man and got to know him inside and out so it didn't take two brains to rub together to know when way down deep inside, he really wanted something.
Dad had an older sister Ada, and two younger brothers, Herbie and Johnny and it was Uncle Johnny who really caused the problem. Dad was an excellent woodsman, hunter and fisherman and many hunters or fisherman from the cities, who happened to be hunting or fishing in the greater Aroostook County area, would ask Dad to guide for them or show them where he caught all the biggest fish. And Dad, being the father of eight children, always looked for any chance he could to supplement his meager potato farmer's salary.
Well, the year that Dad fell from grace was the year that Uncle Johnny came sailing up from Massachusetts with all the latest hunting gear from L.L. Beans in Freeport, Maine. Uncle Johnny was a mailman in Athol, Massachusetts and not having any children at that time, he had money to burn and he spent a large part of that largess on all his little whims and needs.
Since we didn't have a phone in nineteen fifty-four, Uncle Johnny had written weeks in advance, to make sure that Dad wasn't tied up with anyone else and they could take their annual hunting trip to Moosehead Lake together. Upon receiving his brother's short note, Dad came alive. There was nothing he loved more than to go way out into "God's" wonderland and lose himself in the great north woods and lie in wait for the biggest buck that might wander across his path. Thinking back, now I can understand what it must have been like for him, working all year long with noisy, cumbersome potato farming equipment and then coming home to a house full of eight lively, noisy kids. His spirit must have longed for some peace and quiet and most of all, solitude from time to time.
Saturday arrived and so did Uncle Johnny. We all loved him and not having had any children, he always made sure to bring us some candy or small gifts. He and Dad immediately broke open the expensive bottle of Gin that was his gift to Dad and they shooed us outdoors or upstairs so that they could rehash all the months that had passed since they'd last seen each other.
We girls would always go up to bed but Walt, Jake and Bub would sneak back down and lay across the steps in the living room to listen to all the stories and profanity streaming from the kitchen story tellers. Upon hearin a long litney of swear words roll off Uncle Johnny's tongue, the three boys would convulse with laughter and invariably one of them would roll off the steps alerting the kitchen storytellers that they were being spied upon. Dad would turn in his chair to see who the offenders were and the boys would be up the stairs and into bed in a heartbeat, settling down amidst bursts of laughter brought on by repeating to each other all the new swear words they'd just learned.
Finally, as the moon moved into the western part of the hemisphere, Dad and Uncle Johnny would stumble off to bed and the house would settle down amidst snores from the older generation of gin drinkers and storytellers.
Mornin arrived early and Dad, used to getting up at four am every day of his natural life, would slide out of his nice, clean sheets, light his first Chesterfield of the day and head out the kitchen door to the toilet that was located at the far end of our woodshed. After answering nature's call, Dad would return to the kitchen where he'd make the coffee and then he's carry the first cup in to Mother who was still in bed. This was a ritual that lasted them all through their married lives.
Uncle Johnny, having spent the night on our old, decrepit couch, would soon be wide awake especially after having been crawled all over or jumped upon by six or seven rambunctious nieces and nephews. Nursing huge hangovers and wanting to escape all of our noise and commotion, he and Dad would scoff down Mother's scrumptious biscuits, scrambled eggs and beans and hurriedly pack whatever vehicle they were planning to take into the Maine woods and they'd be off. We children, along with Tippy, our old dog, would chase them up the road or down to the corner of the Goding Road, until the dust or the distance obscured them from our sight. Then, we'd wait for the days to slowly crawl by until Dad's old pickup came crawling home, usually with a couple of deer tied to the back.
Nineteen fifty-four was a banner year for hunters and Dad and Uncle Johnny managed to get their kill on the third day of hunting season and they were back home before we'd actually missed them. Walt and Jake, upon seeing the kill, clambered all over the pickup to get a better view of the deer and asked a million questions about how Dad and Uncle Johnny had gotten them.
Dad sent them on one foolish errand after another just to have some peace and quiet while he and Uncle Johnny untied their deer and carried them onto the porch where they were hung so that Dad could skin them and cut them up. The boys would hang on every word of the stories that Dad and Uncle Johnny told them and every once in a while, Walt, getting the idea that Dad or Uncle Johnny were pulling their leg, would punch Jake in the arm and laugh like hell. Jake, not understanding the joke or why he'd been punched, would punch Walt back and the fight would be on. Dad would reach out and pull them apart with his deer's blood-stained hand and that was the end of the fight.
Anyway, it wasn't too long before Dad would have the venison all cut up, packaged and ready for his brother's return to Massachusetts the following morning. But, he'd given Mother what he called the "best parts" for her to cook for our supper that night and Mother knew how to cook them just right too.
She'd take the heart and liver, slice them real thin and sauté them in a combination of bacon grease and cow's butter and sliced onions until they were "fall apart" tender and then she'd scoop the meat out of the frying pan and set it aside. Next she'd add the venison that Dad had cut into small cubes and cook that slowly in the same juice that the liver and heart had been cooked in. After this meat was done, she'd slide the pan with all the dripping aside to the back of the stove and leave it there while she made the potatoes.
Dad, being involved with potatoes all of his life, loved potatoes more than anything and Mother knew how to make these to perfection too. She'd boil a big pot full and then drain the boiling water into the sink. Then she'd pour cream into the pot; add a huge dollop of butter, salt and pepper and mash all of this until there wasn't a lump to be found. Then she'd haul a huge pan of golden baking powder biscuits out of the oven, lovingly put them into a large bowl and place these on the table. She'd already cooked the peas and carrots and just for added measure, she'd open a jar of her famous beet pickles and a jar of canned fiddleheads, and the feast would begin.
Uncle Johnny, after having eaten until, as he said, his ears popped, would slide his chair back, stumble to the sofa and lie there for a while until he'd recovered enough to eat some more. Every year, we'd wait to see if his ear really popped but we never got to see them do that. We were always very disappointed.
Then he'd stagger back to the kitchen to eat his fill of Mother's blueberry pie or her lemon meringue pie. Dad, never really ever having had an appreciation for deserts, would usually slide that stuff aside and sip on his black tea until he'd digested his food. Mother, having taken his refusal of her lovely pies as a personal affront, would urge Uncle Johnny to eat more and he usually did, and without too much urging either. Dad, always being the taller and leaner of the two, would just laugh and tell his brother that he'd better watch it or he'd be too fat to come hunting next year. Uncle Johnny would laugh, pat his rotund belly and remind his brother that that he was a mailman and he'd walk it all off during the year.
That visit of nineteen fifty-four was the one that caused Dad's fall from grace so to speak. On his way up to "Tha County" Uncle Johnny, never the one to deny his baser needs, had stopped off at the famous L.L. Bean's Store in Freeport and bought all the latest hunting gear that he decided he needed to make it through a week's hunting in Aroostook County. As he later confided in Dad, he'd spent a "Christly" amount of money at the store but he felt confident that all of the merchandise was just what he'd needed for a week in tha north woods.
Upon hearing just how much money his younger, wealthier sibling had actually spent, Dad, just laughed and shook his bald head in wonder. One hundred and thirty-five dollars seemed a terrible amount of money to have spent on clothing for a week in tha woods, especially when all Dad earned for a week of back-breaking potato work was fifty-four dollars a week.
We all gathered around as our uncle pulled package after package out of his suitcase. He'd bought a couple of thick, flannel shirts and he handed them over for Mother's inspection and approval. Being a sewer of the finest kind, mother examined every minute detail and finally, even she had to admit that they were well-sewn, or nearly up to her demanding standards.
Then he took out a bag filled with three pairs of socks made from one hundred percent lamb's wool from some of Canada's best sheep. This really perked Mother's interest because every spare minute of her time and she didn't have much time to spare, with eight kids and a husband always needing something knit, altered or sewn, was taken up with sewing or knitting something for one of us.
She grabbed the socks from her brother-in-law and eyed them severely for several long minutes then she turned one inside out and examined it again from the inside. She stretched it out and pulled it sideways to see if the wool had any spring in it and then after turning it to the right side again said, "Well, they're ok, I guess."
Upon hearing the slight disapproval about his woolen socks in her voice, Uncle Johnny stopped his preening and demanded to know just what was wrong with them. Mother, never one to hold her "Colbath" tongue, eyed the socks again and said, "Well, if I'da made them, I might have turned the heels a little better than they did. When you're traipsing all over to hell and gone in the woods, that seam is going to rub tha hell out of your feet and it ain't going to feel too good when you get blisters on your heels. What with you being a mailman and all that."
Uncle Johnny took his socks back, not quite so in love with them as he'd been when he first handed them over to mother. "After all," he conceded to himself, "a woman who's been knitting ever since the age of nine, would certainly knew her way around socks if she knew anything at all." Rummaging around in another bag, he pulled out a pair of one hundred percent wool pants but this time, he didn't hand them over to Mother for inspection.
He held them up in front of him and danced himself around the kitchen, commenting how these sons ah whores ought to keep him warm during a snow storm or a sudden rain squall. Mother, upon hearin this, shifted her eyebrows jist a little and never said a word. Uncle Johnny, upon seeing her reaction, stopped dancin and asked her what was wrong with his pants. Mother, eyeing the material agreed that it was some of the finest she'd ever seen and then she added, "I don't know, but if it was me, I rather have a lighter pair because you know how wool is, when it gets wet, well, it smells and it takes forever to dry and once it's wet, it's going to hang real heavy on your legs." Mother stopped and lifted her brown eyes and looked at her brother-in-law, waiting for his response.
Uncle Johnny moved his pants away from mother's fingers with a quick snap of his wrists and said, "Jaysus Mona, you sure have a way of taking the fun out of life!" And with that comment, he shoved his precious pants back into his suitcase and snapped it shut. He still had one large bag from L.L. Beans that he hadn't opened and he reached down, opened the bag and pulled out a pair of new boots.
He stood there in the dim light of our kitchen, holding the boots as though they were the most precious things he'd ever owned. And in the kitchen light, the smooth, golden leather on the top part of the boots gleamed as though made of burnished gold. He bent the soles back and exclaimed at how supple the rubber bottoms felt in his hands. He turned them upside down and showed Dad how they'd been constructed of the best materials and so carefully sewn that he'd been told that they carried a "lifetime" guarantee from L.L. Beans.
Finally, he handed them over for Dad's inspection. Dad hefted them, all the while examining every detail of the sewing and how they'd been constructed. He commented that they certainly beat what he'd been wearing all of his life, and he lifted one foot and displayed a rundown rubber boot that had seen much better days. He put one of the leather boots down on the floor next to his rubber clad foot and slowly shook his head. Yes sir, they were a mighty fine pair of boots, that's for sure! He picked the boot up and reexamined it all over again. Finally, he handed them back to his brother, agreeing all the while that they were one pair of fine boots.
Mother, seein the way Dad caressed the leather and the look on his face knew that he'd fallen in love and like all women the world over who love their men, felt a little pull of her heart strings and she resolved then and there, even if it took a lifetime, someway, somehow, Dad was going to have a pair of L.L. Bean's finest hunting boots, even if it killed her!
Uncle Johnny, somewhat mollified by the approval of at least one of his expensive purchases, pulled his old boot off and slid his foot into his new boot. He laced it up a little then he stomped around the kitchen, testing how it felt on his foot. Dad watched him with a detached look on his face and thought to himself that his brother acted jist like a little five year-old boy sometimes.
Dad asked him if the boots weren't just a dite small and his brother stopped walking and said, "Jaysus Bill, I guess at my age I should know how to buy the right size by now." And with that, he pulled the boot off and put them back in the bag. That was the end of the fashion parade from Uncle Johnny for the night.
Bright and early the next morning, Dad and Uncle Johnny took off for a week's worth of hunting down around the Moosehead Lake region and as they drove away in the still dark dawn, Mother turned, eyed all of us kids, and said one of her famous sayings to no one in particular, "fun," "fun," "fun." And then she turned and went back into the house. It was going to be a long, long week for sure what with no husband, eight kids and no runnin water.
The days drug by and since they'd gotten their deer on the third day, they were back sooner than we'd anticipated and Dad commenced the ritual of many years of being a Maine hunter. Since they'd already gutted the deer in the woods, all that was left was for him and Uncle Johnny to do was to skin Dad's doe and cut up the carcass. There was still a lot of work for them to do and while they were getting all this done, Mother had her work cut out for her too. She'd washed and sterilized all of her canning jars and lids for the canning process that she knew by heart and she waited impatiently for Dad to start sending the meat in to the kitchen.
Since Uncle Johnny had gotten a small buck, he wanted to take the deer back to Massachusetts in the way that most out-of-staters did, on the top of his car with the head pointed forward proclaiming to all, that he "was a great hunter of the North Maine woods." Dad and the boys helped him carry the buck out to his car and then they tied it to the top of the roof. After that task was done, he turned to Dad, gave him a brief hug and climbed into his car. He backed out of our driveway and after turning into the road, he waved and shouted, "See yah next year!" and he was gone. As we watched the dust settle in the dirt road, we all smiled to ourselves because we all knew that no matter where or how far you roam, your heart always brings you home.
Dad walked back to the porch to continue cutting up his deer for Mother to can and we had fresh venison for supper that night and Dad spent a long time patiently answering all of Bub's, Jake's and Walt's questions about the hunting around Moosehead Lake and how they'd bagged their deer. Finally, Mother, seeing that Dad was worn out, interceded and sent the boys off so that Dad could digest his supper in peace and catch up on the news since he'd been gone.
After Dad had a lovely bath in the ancient tin washtub that Mother always placed in front of her old Glenwood cook stove in the kitchen, Dad pulled on his threadbare long johns and stumbled off to bed. As they lay awake discussing the events since he'd been gone, Mother, curiosity getting the better of her, casually asked Dad how Uncle Johnny's L.L. Beans' stuff had worked for him.
Dad, upon hearing her question, let out a loud chuckle and said, "Well, you were right Mum and you were right." Upon hearing this conundrum for an answer, she pulled herself up on one elbow and looked at him. "And jist what does that mean?" she asked. "Well, "Dad said. "You told him that the way the socks were sewn, they'd rub the skin right off his heels and you were right. We hadn't been walking along the wood's trail for more than half an hour before I saw him begin to limp a little. Thinking that he had a rock in his boot or something, I asked him what was wrong. And you know how stubborn my brother is, he wouldn't right out say that the socks were killin him. Oh no, he lied and said that walking on uneven ground had aggravated his old war injury and that's all he'd say. We must have walked about five miles up hill and down, through mud holes and small streams. I kept thinking that he was going to complain that his new woolen socks were soakin wet but no sir, them boots didn't leak! Not a drop of water! I tell yah Mum, I've never seen a pair of boots like them!"
"Finally, I took pity on him and said that I was tired and that we'd best make camp for the night. I've never seen a man gladder to sit down in all my life. I waited all night for him to finally admit that his feet were killin him but he wouldn't. That darn fool even slept with his socks and boots on. I figure that he was afraid to take them off because he knew his feet were so bad that he probably couldn't get them back on come mornin."
"Well, tha next mornin he was movin real slow and I asked him if there was something wrong with his boots?" Johnny looked at me and brushed some dirt off the beautiful leather with his fingertips and said, "There ain't nothin wrong with my boots! Why they feel jist like slippers on my feet. Its them Christly socks that have done me in. I've a mind to take them sons-ah-whores off and chuck them in the friggin bushes!"
I could see that we were going to have a repeat of the day before and I decided that I didn't have tha stomach to watch him hobble around through tha woods all day so I told him that we'd only walk about a mile from camp and wait to see if we could find any signs of deer. Upon hearin my suggestion, he smiled for the first time since we'd left home and I tell yah Mum, I felt real sorry for the silly bastid.
So, I left him at camp, nursing his feet and went to scout the area. I'd no more gotten away from the camp by about five hundred feet when I saw the doe and the buck standing quietly off to the right of the trail. I got lucky and with one shot, I took them both down. My only bullet went through the doe's neck and killed the buck too! I couldn't believe my luck. I hurried back to camp and got Johnny to come and help me get the deer. I felt real bad for Johnny though because he really couldn't walk, all he could do was hobble and we both had to carry our own deer back down the trail to the truck. To tell you the truth, I didn't think he was going to make it. Five miles is a long way to walk in the woods when your feet are killin yah." Dad chuckled at the thought of his brother hobbling along in his L.L. Beans boots and socks, with a deer tied to his back. That was a sight he never thought he'd see in his lifetime.
"Are you going to tell the boys that you were the one who shot the buck?" "No Mum, let them believe that their uncle really killed the deer. After all, it's no skin off my nose."
After hunting season drew to a close and Dad's routine at the potato house picked up, Mother set about finding ways to build up her secret "boots" account. From time to time, she sent us out to pick up bottles and cans along the Goding and Masardis Roads and she'd connive with our Great Aunt Cassie to get us to help her clean out her chicken coop or cow shed. Oh! Mother's can think up all kinds of ungodly ways to earn money if they have to.
When spring reluctantly strolled into Aroostook County, Mother set about getting Dad the boots before fishing season began. We picked rocks, pulled mustard, piled wood and shoveled manure; if there was a chore to be done within ten miles of our country home, we did it.
Finally, Mother had the money she needed and after counting it one more time, she sat herself down in Dad's place at the head of our old rickety kitchen table and filled out the order form to send away for "tha boots." That done, she shrugged herself into her coat and took us on the two mile round trip walk across a swamp road to her parent's house. Once there, she ditched us with our Grandmother Colbath and went off with grandfather in his old pickup to Ashland to get a money order and to mail the boots order down to L.L. Beans.
Nearly three weeks passed before she received word that a package had arrived at our Grampy Colbath's and once again, she scurried across the swamp to her family home to get the long awaited package. It wasn't too long before she was back with the precious order grasped in her hands.
Mother was beside herself with excitement at the prospect of having kept a secret from Dad. She's warned us within an inch of our lives to keep our mouths shut and not tell Dad what she'd done. We were so relieved that all the money making jobs were over but it sure was nice to see her cheeks all pink and her eyes sparkling with excitement.
That night, she out-did herself with our supper. Since Dad loved meat and potatoes and would eat them seven days a week if he could, she made a pot roast and when the meat was done, she transferred it to another pot and slid that to the back of the stove. Then she sliced some onions and dropped the slices into the hot meat juice to sauté. When the onions were nice and crispy, she added the sliced potatoes and we had a feast.
Just as Dad's old, green pickup pulled up into the driveway, mother pulled a pan of homemade bread out of the oven and put it on the table. Dad, used to Mother's outdoing herself with cooking, never even noticed that anything was different. He came in, gave Mum a smile, endured all of us kids rushing to greet him and hung his hat on the hook behind the kitchen door.
While Dad was washing up, Mother made a pot of black tea and then we all sat down to eat. As we ate our supper, we never took our eyes off Dad, waiting for him to finish. Never a fast eater, he took his time and related all the happenings of the day at the potato house, never noticing that Mother had finished her supper way ahead of all of us.
Finally, Mother gave Bub a little nod of her head and he shot out of his chair like a rocket to the moon and into her bedroom to get the package. He came running back and shoved it into Dad's hands. Surprised, Dad looked at Bub and then at Mother who had a tight little smile on her face. "Well, it ain't my birthday and it shore ain't Christmas, so what's this all about?" Mother wasn't going to tell him and she motioned for him to go ahead an open it.
Dad tore open the shipping wrap and as he turned the package around and was able to read the writing on it, his mouth dropped open and his cheeks turned pink with emotion as he recognized what was in the box. He looked up at Mother for the longest moment and then the incessant urgings by us for him to open it, got to be too much, so he pushed his plate aside and placed the box on the table.
He slid his bright, blue eyes at all of us gathered around the table and then he said, "There must be some mistake Mum, I didn't order any L.L. Bean boots!" Upon hearing this, Mother's chin shot up and she said, "Well, maybe you didn't but I did! I saw how much you liked them boots your brother had, so we all saved up and bought you a pair! Now go ahead and open it!"
Dad slid the top off the box and there, nestled between layers of expensive wrapping paper lay his golden boots. Dad slid his work-scarred fingers under one of the boots and carefully lifted it out of the wrapping. It was a thing of beauty alright. It was the exact duplicate of Uncle Johnny's, just a size bigger. Dad gazed at it in wonder and he had a lovely smile on his face. "How ever did you manage this Mum?" he asked but Mother didn't answer him. She slid her eyes over all of us and we knew without being told, "Tell him the truth and you're gonna die!" So all of us kids sat where we were and kept our mouths shut too.
"I saw how you loved the ones that your brother had so I thought you might like to have a pair too. We all worked to save the money to buy them for you and now why don't you try them on." Dad reached down and pulled off his worn-out rubber boots and after pulling up his woolen socks, he pulled on the new boots. He carefully pulled the leather laces tight and tied them. Then he stood and walked around the kitchen. We all watched as he bent forward and then back to see if they gave enough to be comfortable in the arch.
"Well, what do you think?" Mother asked. Dad, never the one to ask for anything, was at a loss for words. He sat and began unlacing the boots and then after examining them again, he carefully placed them back in the box. "Oh, I think they'll do jist fine Mum, but you shouldn't have." "Well, you needed a new pair and God knows, your old rubber ones are beginning to stink." With that, Mother began clearing off the table and Dad slid the boots into an empty chair.
Hunting season arrived again and we all waited with baited breath to see Dad go off in his new boots but it wasn't to be. As he came out of the house to leave, we all gaped in surprise at what he had on his feet. He was wearing the same old rubber boots that he'd worn every year since we could remember. They were so old that the original green had faded to a sickly, bile yellow and they had been patched so many times that there really wasn't room for another patch.
Mother came out onto the porch to wave goodbye and she too was shocked that Dad was still wearing his old boots. She stormed off the porch and over to where he was sitting in the truck. "Bill Stevens!" she yelled. "Can you give me a good reason why you aren't wearin them L.L. Bean's boots we bought yah?" Dad gunned the motor, shifted into reverse and when he'd rolled back a safer distance from Mother, he yelled out the window, "Now Mum, I'm jist fine, I jist didn't want to ruin them beautiful boots, that's all. Besides, these will last for another year." He gunned the engine, backed down the driveway into the road and was off with a slight wave of his hand, leaving a very perplexed wife in the driveway.
The years slid by and hunting season came and went and Dad never did wear his precious boots. This non-wearin of the boots was a long discussed affair at our house especially when once a year, he'd take them down from the closet shelf, open the box, examine them and then he'd rub them with a melted lard, buff them till the leather shone and put them back in the box and back in the closet till next year.
We never did get to see Dad wear them boots that we'd all worked so hard to buy him and when we asked him why, he'd smile a little, slide his blue eyes away and reply, "Well, I've never had anything so special and I jist don't want to ruin them."
We lost Dad in 1982 and it was a sad day for all of us to have to let him go. There was some humor in the sad event though, when Mother marched into the funeral home with the boxed boots clutched firmly in her hands and insisted that the undertaker put them on Dad to be buried in. When a nosey relative finally gathered the courage to ask Mother why she'd done that, she turned and said, "Well, he was always saving them for a special occasion and I figured that where he's goin, they'll stay shiny and special forever! After all, you haven't heard that there's any dirt in heaven, now have yah?" And with that she turned and walked away and over to the casket to have a look at Dad one last time.
Martha Stevens-David Column Magic City
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