Us Stevens' kids were constantly on the go as far afield as our legs and curiosity took us. We really weren't the kind of kids who just sat around the house whining because we didn't have anything to do. Besides, mother had eight of us and she wasn't about to have us in her hair all the time if she didn't have to. We knew the terrain around our home as well as our father and dad, ever the hunter, had roamed those hills ever since he was a kid but on the opposite side of the Aroostook River.
I'll never forget the summer that we found "The Dead Man." It had been a summer that was perfect in every regard. Spring had arrived early for our part of the woods and that meant that the mounds of snow that generally hung on till the middle of June, left us a little earlier than normal and we could get out and about in the fields, brooks and streams to our hearts content. You never knew what you might find that the winter had left behind.
There were always the skeletons of the animals that hadn't made it through the winter for one reason or another and sometimes we'd find remnants of a deer that had been shot and never found except for the wild animals that ate off the remains all winter long. Or there might be a dead coyote or a fox and once in a while in the summer, we'd find a nest of snakes and that usually cured us of wandering through the woods for a couple of days anyway.
Spring faded out and summer marched in with a blast of heat and humidity and we spent as much time outside as possible. It seemed as though we needed to soak up all the sun and keep it inside our bones just to make it through the long, cold winter that always lay ahead. In the "county" folks weren't content to just be. They were "seasoned" by having been born and bred in that part of the world and they really didn't know how to enjoy the short spring and warm summer months because they knew that only a fool let his guard down and succumbed to summer's enticements and there weren't no fools in Aroostook County!
Summer in the county meant work, work and more work and our labors began as soon as the spring flood waters receded off Uncle Hal's flats and the fiddleheads poked their bright, green heads up out of the mud along the riverbanks and low lying areas.
The "County" teaches you many lessons and to live there, you have to be cognizant of many things. The first thing you need to remember is that to survive, you have to eat and in order to eat, you have to gather whatever the good Lord gives you because our growing season is so short. So, like the ancient beings that came before us, we were gatherers too.
As we made our way back home from Grammy Colbath's house along the swamp road that separated the Goding Road from the Masardis Road, we would constantly be looking for edible things and fiddleheads and dandelions were usually the first harbingers of spring. As soon as the dandelions and fiddleheads had gone by, we began looking for all the wild berries that grew in profusion in the fields and along the rock walls around our home. And then the wild apples would come along and we'd remember where all the trees grew that made the best pies or applesauce and off we'd go.
Jake, Bub, Helen and me were usually the ones who could be relied on to find whatever it was that mother had a hankering for and the day we found "The Dead Man" was one that I'll never forget. As the first rays of the sun climbed over the eastern horizon, we were already up and ready for whatever adventure we could find. Mother had made chocolate doughnuts and pancakes and we ate our fill and we were off.
It wasn't uncommon for the four of us to leave early in the morning and not come back till suppertime. That particular day started out just like a hundred other days for us but the end of that day was very different. Jake and Bub had a little squabble before we were even out of the driveway because Jake wanted us to go down to Mr. Beaulier's flats to check for frogs. Besides trout, there was nothing he loved better than a good mess of fried frog's legs but Bub wanted to go down to the Bangor & Aroostook railroad siding where dad was working and look for strawberries along the tracks. It was a standoff for a couple of minutes and then we heard the screen door slam and mother came out onto the porch. She looked at us for a couple of seconds, wiped her hands on her old, frayed apron and yelled. "If you four can't agree on anything, I'll give you something to do!" And because mother didn't raise any fools, we were off to find whatever nature had in store for us.
We usually scurried down over the hill and past great Aunt Cassie's place as quietly as we could because our great aunt was known for waylaying us for various and sundry reasons. We'd have our plans all made for the day and there she'd be, wanting us to clean out one of her chicken coops, shovel manure for her flowers or garden, mow her lawn or some other ghastly job that nobody else wanted to do. We loved great Aunt Cassie but she sure could find some wicked awful jobs to keep us kids busy.
Great Aunt Cassie could have worked for the Central Intelligence Agency anytime she wanted. She could get us to spill our guts anytime she wanted and we did it often. She was so adept at bribery that we didn't even see it coming. She had a method to her madness that was foolproof and a dog that was trained to bark whenever anyone came near her property and besides, she could see us coming down the road the minute we left our house. As soon as our feet hit the dirt, she knew exactly how long it would take us to get within shoutin range of her kitchen window and we'd been enticed more than once to do some God-awful jobs by offers of fresh chocolate cookies or warm strawberry pies. We sidled past her house and made it to the railroad tracks without her or Rex spotting us that day.
We meandered down to Uncle Hal's island, stopping every now and then to catch some tadpoles or to watch a snake eat a toad, good things like that. When we finally reached the river, we'd spend some time throwing rocks into the swirling water as it flowed under the makeshift bridge that Uncle Hal had erected so that he could cultivate his potatoes that he'd plant on the island every spring. Then, we picked fiddleheads until our backs were broke and our fingers were stained brown and then we'd carry our pails up to the potato house where dad spent so many of his days and left them there in the shade of the building until it was time for him to go home.
After resting for a bit, Jake decided that we should walk along the railroad tracks until we got to Mr. Beaulier's property, then we'd cut across the lowlands until we reached the boggy area where he'd found so many big frogs. Bub, seein the handwritin in the dirt, acquiesced to Jake's demands and off we went to try and get Jake a mess of frog's legs.
Helen and I, tired from all the wandering, sat down on a log and watched as Jake and Bub began hunting for bullfrogs. Jake slid an old tobacco can out of his pocket, flipped open the top and dumped some angleworms into his grubby hand. First he slid a piece of red flannel onto the hook and then he wound a couple of pale worms on next to the flannel. Then he bent down and began unlacing one of his sneakers. He pulled the string out of his sneaker and tied the hook to his shoelace and he had himself a makeshift froggy fishin pole. He crawled out over the murky bog on a dead tree that had fallen into the water and holding the end of the shoelace in his hand, he stretched out his arm and let the worm covered hook fall into the water. Then he jiggled it up and down a few times and waited to see what would happen.
Jake, a natural hunter, trapper and fisherman loved being outdoors and anything to do with nature, couldn't be persuaded to leave until he was good and ready. It didn't matter that the mingies, mosquitoes, black flies, moose flies or any of the other horrible things were eatin us alive, Jake wasn't leaving until he got what he came after! Stratchin, slappin, itchin and bitchin, he couldn't be moved. We had to wait till he was done and ready to go home.
He lay where he was at the end of the deadfall, arm extended, slowly movin his shoestring up and down over the water and then he motioned for us to be quiet as a large clear, bubble made its way up from the depths of the murk to the top of the scum-filled bog. "OK, now you guys shut up so I kin catch this friggin frog!" He commanded in a low voice and we fell silent. We watched as a series of bubbles made their way to the top and then we saw Jake's arm being tugged down towards the water. He waited several seconds and then he snapped his hand up and he let out a whoop.
We all stood up and danced around and waited to see what he had caught. Jake slid his hand into the water and then he let out a yell and we stopped dancing and looked at him. Suddenly, he let go of the string and grabbed the hand that was still in the water, all the while yelling like he was in great pain. We didn't know what to do first. Then, as he withdrew his hand out of the bog, we saw why Jake was yellin like he was. Attached to the end of his left thumb was a big turtle and it was thrashing to and fro, not wantin to let go. Jake, bleedin and desperate to be rid of the creature brought the turtle down hard on the log in front of him and after several hard knocks, the large creature reluctantly let go and fell back into the water.
Jake, relieved to be rid of the turtle and a little in shock, lay where he was for a couple of minutes and watched as blood dripped into the pool from the end of his thumb. Bub was the first who dared to speak and he said, "Jaysus Jake, you really caught a big turtle. Does it hurt a lot? Are yah sufferin bad, Jake?" Jake didn't even answer him, he just slid his body backwards until he was off the log and then he sat down on the ground and wrapped his hand inside his shirt. He held his injured hand close to his body as he rocked back and forth and large tears slid down his white cheeks. Finally, without a word to any of us, he wiped his nose on his sleeve, stood up and we headed for home.
Jake took the lead like he always did but this time he was a lot worse for wear. He didn't yell at us the way he normally did if we didn't do everything like he told us to. If he hadn't been in such pain, we probably would have laughed behind his back because he was a sorry sight to see. He kept his left hand pressed tightly under his right arm and he tried to walk carefully so that every time he had to climb over a rock or a log, it didn't jar his hand. Because he'd lost his shoelace in the bog, his sneaker kept flippin and flappin and fallin off. He'd have to stop time and again to find his sneaker and put it back on. He didn't utter a sound but we knew that he was one hurtin unit.
As we made our way back through the swampy area to Mr. Beaulier's logging road, we suddenly saw something that made us all stop in our tracks. Hanging from a tall pine tree off to the right was the remains of a large parachute. It was ripped and partially wrapped around a dead branch. Jake turned and looked at me, Bub and Helen and then he said. "Don't git any closer. I'll have a look and then we'll go git dad." He scurried a little closer to the parachute and looked up at the tall tree for a couple of seconds and then he hobbled back to where we were waiting for him. "What is it Jake?" Bub asked. "Do yah think it's a dead man hangin there?" "Don't know, but it could be. There's somethin big inside the chute." Jake answered. "Lets git on home and tell dad. He'll know what to do."
Fear and the thought that there might be a dead body hanging in our favorite woods gave us the impetuous to make it home in a hurry and we burst thru the kitchen door, anxious to tell our story. Mother, taking one look at Jake's bloody shirt, his missin shoelace and his white face, told the rest of us to shut up. She drug Jake over to the sink, unwrapped his hand, poured some hot water into the wash basin and thrust Jake's hand into it. Then, she dumped some salt into the water and swished his hand around until the salt was dissolved. Then, she turned her brown eyes on the rest of us and demanded to know what we had done now.
Just as we were about to tell her what had happened, dad, home from work, came through the door carryin our pails of fiddleheads. We all rushed over to him, wanting to be the first one to tell him about the "dead" man down in the woods. Dad slid his sweat stained old cap back on his bald head and waited for us to wind down and then he asked Jake what happened.
Jake, never takin his hand out of the hot water, told dad our story and when it came to the part about the snappin turtle, Jake turned around and said, "Dad, I don't know if I caught him or he caught me!" Dad walked over to the sink and Jake help up his thumb for dad to look at. Dad took a quick look at the mangled thumb and wanted to laugh but he held it in. He turned to Jake and said, "You know what we always say Jake?" Jake nodded his red head and said, "Yah dad, I know. It's too far from the heart to kill yah!" And we all burst out laughing.
After supper, Dad and Jake went down over the hill to have a look at the "dead" man and they weren't gone too long. When they got back, dad was carrying a large metal box that had all kinds of gauges and instruments attached to it and there was a large sticker that read: "Property of the U.S. Government" Jake was draggin what was left of the large, canvas parachute in the dirt behind him. Mother, hearing Tippi bark, hurried outside to see what they had found. As Dad approached the porch steps, we all crowded around to see what he was carryin.
Dad, breathin hard from the long walk back up over Mr. Beaulier's hill, put the heavy box down on the porch floor and then he sat down on the edge of the porch railing. He took his hat off and wiped his sweaty face with the back of his hand. "What in the world is that thing?" Mother asked. Jake, still wanting to be the hero, spoke up. "It wasn't a dead man after all," he stated. "It's jist an old weather balloon from over to the weather station in Caribou." Dad, hearing how disappointed Jake was, looked over at mother and said. "You know mum. The way these kids amble all over to hell and gone, I wouldn't be the slightest surprised that one day they'll really find a dead man down in the woods." Hearin this, mother rolled her brown eyes at dad and shook her head.
The next day, we ran down to great Aunt Cassie's and asked to use her phone to call the weather station in Caribou. They told us not to touch the box and that they'd send someone out to pick it up the next day. We crowded around the porch all that mornin waitin for them to come and finally we saw an official looking pick up comin slowly down the road in our direction. It pulled up in our yard and two men got out. They asked us some questions and we asked them some questions and we were all impressed that the balloon had floated 30,000 feet up into the atmosphere. We all craned our necks towards the wild, blue yonder to try and see how high 30,000 feet was. The scientists laughed and said to forget it because we couldn't see that far.
After they had finished loading the box into the back of the truck, one of the men stuck his hand out of the truck widow, handed Jake a ten dollar bill and said that it was payment for findin the weather balloon and turnin it in and that we could keep the parachute. Jake grabbed the money and a blue light slid into his eyes. We could see the writin on the wall. It wouldn't be too long before he'd have us headin for the woods again but we wouldn't be lookin for frogs this time, no sir! We'd be lookin and hopin to find another weather balloon. Jake had himself a money-makin proposition.
That night after we'd all gone to bed, mother turned to dad and said, "Bill, I want you to take that parachute with you to the potato house when you go in the mornin and make damn sure that it disappears for good!" Dad stopped listenin to the Red Sox game and turned to gape at her. "Why would you want me to do that Mum?" he asked. She rolled her eyes, gave him a good long look and replied," Jist think about it for a moment and you'll know why." Dad sat back in his chair and thoughts of what kind of trouble four kids with a parachute might get into slid through his head and he said, "I'll take it with me when I go in the mornin."
Martha Stevens-David Column Magic City
The Most Recently Republished Articles include:
The Manure Spreader
Aroostook River Fishin
Vengeance is Mine Pt. 1
Aroostook County Memories
Childrens Stories include:
See also Vengeance is Mine a short mystery novel published at Magic City over 4 days.
All works by Martha Stevens-David published at Magic City Morning Star News are her copyright property and may not be reproduced without her permission.