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On The Trail

Wounded-knee ramble

It’s weird how wandering thoughts are triggered.

With me, they’re often set awhirl by the senses, this time scent, a soft, alluring sea-borne aroma, fishy and salty, that we all know. Some would wrinkle the bridge of their nose, say “eeeyuew” and run like frightened hare. Not me. It’s just harmless body odor, have smelt much worse, especially in preseason, double-session football lockers, a smell only the battered and broken could ignore.

This rambling, risqué train of thought got freewheeling one morning over the long holiday weekend — hot and sticky by 9, wind driving the flapping front-yard flag east — and has lingered ever since. It seems to waft in and out of my consciousness like wispy patches of daybreak fog roaming though a ridgetop nut grove; tiptoeing through places malignant and benign, some appropriate for a family paper, some not. We’ll focus on the latter, hopefully. Then again, who knows where the devilish may delve. So fasten your seatbelt and buckle your chinstrap, Martha, because you’re riding with a bad boy. Where he’s headed always hard to predict. But this trip will definitely pass straight through the most foreboding marsh on the so-called Mackin site, where the powers that be are determined to build a Walmart and dismiss all foes as wingnuts and phonies.

Anyway, getting itchy to take my daily romp with the dogs after two peaceful hours of early-morning reading, I sprang from my La-Z-Boy Friday and walked out to the central inset porch to retrieve my olive swim trunks, a white Hawley Common T-shirt with red lettering, and a black, feather-light, space-age aluminum knee brace, all dangling either off the open bulkhead door or an adjacent mock-orange bush, sprouts running away in the tropical hothouse. Items collected, I returned inside, temporarily hung the brace on a birdcage-Windsor’s riser, slipped on the shorts and shirt, sat in a burgundy leather wing chair, put on my black peds and reached for the brace, which with one quick whiff in dense air reminded me of why I seldom hunt deer anymore. The problem is that strenuous activity like hunting necessitates wearing that brace, which realigns my deformed, displaced, arthritic joint and helps limit pain and inflammation caused by exercise, but the effective contraption carries way too much human odor to justify wearing it when trying to outfox a wary animal with a superior sense of smell. I don’t run from the scent, deer do, thus my reluctance to hunt wearing that brace, which present two undesirable options: 1.) announcing my presence by wearing it or, 2.) irritating my battered left knee to a stiff, swollen, inflamed mess by leaving it home.

Then again, I would be remiss if I didn’t admit what unfolded one of the last times I hunted from my favorite stand near home, wearing one of many previous ripe braces. How could I forget? It occurred two days before my 28-year-old namesake son’s death in a Burlington, Vt., hospital. Yes, slightly after 4 p.m. I was sitting against a large twin red pine when twin young bucks trotted right at me from the downwind side and got to within 10 and 15 before deciphering something wasn’t right. They proceeded to stand motionless for what seemed like an eternity before spinning 180 degrees and bounding off, one after the other. Wow! One more classic case of deafening woodland silence abruptly shattered by the sound of rustling leaves and the stunning realization that deer are approaching quickly from the one direction you hoped they wouldn’t come. Pinned down and unable to move, you can’t breath, blink or budge without being detected, forget shouldering a gun. It gets better. I had ventured into that stand on a mid-afternoon whim, unplanned and totally unprepared. In fact, just that morning, opening day, me on vacation but preoccupied with thoughts of my son’s dreadful ordeal in a gloomy intensive-care unit three hours north, I had showered with Dial soap of all things, another absolute no-no for serious deer hunters. But I decided to go up there anyway, if for no other reason than to change my foreboding spell, breathe some cool, refreshing air and watch darkness descend on the hilltop. As so often seems to occur following impulsive decisions like that, not long after kicking out my spot and settling into that strategically placed stand, here they come, not yet in sight, sounding at first like squirrels scampering through brittle russet leaves on the forest floor. I slowly pivoted my head a tiny bit left and, yes indeed, shockingly, two young bucks, 3- and 5-point brothers in the 125-pound class, trotting straight at me, soon standing right in my lap. Well, check that. Actually, my shotgun was in my lap, pointing away from the deer. And there I sat, deer in my kitchen, cooked. Still, not what I’d call a bad trip.

Once back in the comforts of home, wanting to share my tale, I called a brother-in-law who takes deer hunting more seriously than I do. His humorous quip was that maybe he ought to trash his scentless soap and wash with Dial during deer season. But, truth be told, it had nothing to do with soap. You’ve probably heard that worn, right-place, right-time mantra. Well, I lived it that day, literally everything weighing against me, and there they were: twin bucks, the 3-pointer nearly within spitting distance, his 5-point brother not far behind. I suppose the moral of the story is that you’ll never put venison in your freezer sitting home. In the woods, there’s always a chance, even when you throw caution, not to mention Dial and a smelly knee brace, to the wind.

But this adventure doesn’t stop here. No, that’s just the prelude, the brace a pungent symbol of defiance that I have fastened to my chronic left knee for nearly 40 years now. Yeah, I’m broken not beaten, limping yet limber, rough and ready. So let me limp off and get started down another vein, one that’s sure to stir a mix of ire and praise. My kind of tale.

For some reason, that subtle, forbidden, salty sweet scent rising in the dining room from brace to nostrils liberated an intoxicating stimulant that stirred my imaginative juices and spun me off in many directions, the common thread being a sad, worn realization that conventional wisdom is seldom worth the salt it piddles; that some fruit even in a commercial orchard rots on the vine, falls to the ground and is devoured before it can leave so much as a fertile seed to sprout. Liberals try to prevent such “waste,” conservatives say the victim deserved its fate, and me, well, I say neither, just admit that there can be different outcomes from the same origin. That’s life. Deal with it and move forward, glancing only briefly in a rearview that can be depressing. Fruit even from the best trees can rot, while the worst trees can produce a most perfect solitary specimen among a crop of ugly, mangled rejects. I don’t try to salvage the decaying drops from the orchard floor or destroy the rare mutant prodigy borne to a ship of fools. I take the good with the bad and keep moving, hoping to pick up nuggets of wisdom in my waffle treads as I put one foot in front of the other. To me most precious is the plum that by miraculous cross-pollination or some weird, unexplainable phenomenon appears on a dying tree of pitiful apples and shines brightly in the first ray of morning sun. It’s that rare fruit I savor, hoping a turkey will devour it and by chance drop its seed in a fertile spot.

Huh? What do these fleeting thoughts have to do with smelly knee braces and the Mackin site of Walmart fame? Just you wait and see. That stalled commercial development may yet get waylaid by strong, eternal spirits that set their deep, sturdy roots at the northeast Greenfield site long before Europeans ever laid eyes on it. A case has been made, not convincingly I might add, by the “pro-growth” crowd that so-called local sprawlbuster Al Norman maliciously freed those Indian ghosts, not to mention planted bones there to repel big-box greed. But it isn’t true, despite the fact that Indians activists fighting to preserve ancient burial grounds overlooking a sacred waterfall on New England’s greatest river have indeed become coincidental Norman allies. Norman and the Indians are fighting on different fronts: Norman’s philosophical and economic, the Indians’ spiritual and cultural. I have spoken to many of the Indian representatives in recent months and not one has ever mentioned Norman or Walmart. That’s right: zero. And when I mention either, they say they’re not interested, it’s an entirely different issue. I believe them after extensive research.

What’s interesting from a personal prospective is that I myself sat within arm’s length of the reporter who covered the Walmart story during the most contentious, vicious years of dispute and never paid any attention to the sacred-burial-site distraction despite being for many years sympathetic to Indian causes. Perhaps there is spiritual impetus for my pro-Indian predisposition when you consider that I as a teen awoke each morning peering down the foot of my rock-maple bed at the tip of the Bloody Brook Monument marking the site of rare Indian victory over foreign invaders. The reason I initially ignored the Indian dynamic in the Walmart battle was that by the time those activists entered the fray, I was already firmly opposed to development there on economic and environmental terms. First, I viewed as ridiculous the notion that Walmart was a solution to Greenfield’s economic woes. I thought the politicians supporting the development were short-sighted and unimaginative, and felt that the rabble-rousing blogger fanning the pro-Walmart flames was toxic, intentionally igniting a culture war between haves and have-nots. The chump rhetoric oozing from that online inferno was nothing new; it had been used for years by professional Walmart spinmeisters employed to defeat opposition and funnel money from all points of the compass to the Walton empire in the sunny South. But that’s only half of the story. My first source of opposition to the proposed site sat firmly on environmental concerns — the fact that it sat atop a major aquifer which probably should have been deemed off-limits during the 1960s Route 2 bypass survey. Someday when drinking water is scarce, hindsight probes will question the wisdom of ever supporting highway construction through the heart of that White Ash Swamp natural resource. And if anyone digs deep, rarer and rarer in these days of texts, Tweets and twerps, they’ll likely discover that the decision-makers back then ignored key facts and demonized foes as loons, goons and obstructors.

As for the prehistoric indigenous burial ground bordering the site known as Wissatinnewag, overlooking the ruined sacred Connecticut River waterfall known as Peskeomskut, well, let’s put on our thinking cap — you know, the pointed one with a small, yellow crescent moon painted on the front that’s standing on the seat of that tall, three-legged stool in a classroom’s back corner. Let’s suppose folks in faraway Athens were clamoring for a Super-Walmart shopping plaza to provide cheap merchandise for the huddled Greek masses. Would these proponents propose leveling the Acropolis or Parthenon ruins or Socrates’ graveyard? Would they obliterate ancient history for a gourmet cheese-dawg eatery? Not likely, because Greeks can follow roots straight back to the ancient ruins, which cannot be said here, where the government and its archaeological lapdogs prefer to start North American history with the arrival of European sailing fleets beginning in 1492. In the name of progress, these folks would rather forget the Paleo and Archaic civilizations and disconnect them from the Woodland tribes present to greet those ships, in many cases ensuring the survival of the disembarked, disoriented settlers. And now, when the descendants of the historic River Tribes return to protect important ancient burial grounds on sacred sites their people were ruthlessly driven from, they are ridiculed and rhetorically dismissed as phonies and frauds.

Perhaps Greenfield does need a Walmart. If so, maybe it ought to be incorporated into a creative downtown urban-renewal project that razes or renovates existing properties with little or no historic value in long-range plans. They did it for elderly housing at the old Millers Falls Tool site, then again at GTD. Why not a similar type of initiative at a downtown site in need of rehabilitation? Maybe they could even squeeze it into that thriving commercial zone in the southwest corner of town? But no, not Greenfield, the so-called conservative rebel, Deerfield’s little sister that grew up with a serious identity crisis, a wart on her cheek, now a challenging new demographic that’s turned the place upside down since I was a boy skating Bloody Brook and sitting in King Philip’s Seat fanaticizing I was an Indian on watch. It seems Greenfield would rather bulldoze a spot saturated with Indian history, not to mention destroy a once-viable and potentially salvageable wetland and aquifer. I think even late Deerfield historian George Sheldon, no friend of Indians, would be on the side of preservation in this tiresome debate. But we’ll never know. Sheldon’s dead, just like the loudest voices in this Walmart fiasco will be when the ugly outcome can be analyzed by historians 50 years from now. Of course, I guess it all depends on who records the history. Nothing new.

If you need a reminder of what can happen to discount department stores, take a look at the old Rockdale building in Turners Falls. If I was working for the stop-Walmart campaign, I’d propose taking vibrant photos of that morose eyesore and ride it like a chestnut steed as a threatening harbinger. I vaguely recall Rockdale but remember well when Railroad Salvage took over and ran those tacky TV ads with hucksters Ruby and Choo-Choo Vine barking people into their booth for cheap junk salvaged from railroad wrecks. Now their building’s in ruins. Go figure. Oh my! Take a ride to the Powertown and take a look at that pathetic site if you doubt me. It’s right out of post-WWII Germany, minus the craters. Is that what we want sitting vacant on the once-proud White Ash Swamp in 2050? Is that what we’ll get when the slave-labor merchandise and cheesiest of all tube steaks fade into the western horizon? You have to wonder. Either that or dig your head deep into the Barton Cove gravel and chirp in on the radioactive community chat boards and social media.

Which brings me back to that troublesome left knee of mine, another joint in need of reconstruction or replacement, not to mention the place where I strap that smelly brace which ignited this wayward ramble. Last year I scheduled an appointment with a Springfield orthopedic surgeon who ordered routine X-rays before I entered his office. It had been 10 years since my last appointment at another practice, which had informed me that I was a candidate for knee-replacement, not the “50,000-mile flush-out” I was requesting. So let’s just say I was surprised and relieved by my new diagnosis. The young doctor with a great reputation entered the room, X-rays resting on a wall viewing window, and he immediately flipped the light switch to illuminate the film. He studied one shot after another, turned to me with a wry grin and said, “Yup, we don’t see many like this. On a scale of one to 10, it’s a 10 all right. Congratulations. How are you getting around?”

When I told him my anterior-cruciate ligament has been severed and floating free since June 1976 and that I had since then played dozens of hardball and hundreds of softball games, threw in seven cords of wood a year, took care of a large yard, and hunted aggressively behind two athletic bird dogs daily during the six-week season, he grinned again, shook his head a bit and said, “Well, I’m not going to recommend a knee-replacement at this time because you’re too active. In my opinion, you’d burn out an artificial knee in five years or less, not the outcome we want.”

Instead he scribbled out a script for my new, improved brace that now smells like an old flame on a good day and a filthy men’s locker room on a bad one, then instructed me to keep doing exactly what I’ve been doing until I can no longer continue, necessitating re-evaluation. So, regardless of what other doctors have told me, I don’t see a knee-replacement in the near future, maybe ever. I’ll just cross my fingers, keep plugging until I can’t take it any longer and readjust from there, which brings to memory a trip to Fort Ticonderoga last summer. Accompanied by my wife and grandson Jordi, we were there for a history lesson and what turned out to be a long, meandering, thoroughly entertaining Revolutionary War re-enactment. The fool I am, I chose not to bring along my brace but did have my chestnut crook cane in tow, just in case, and, oh did it came in handy.

My salient memory from that long, active day was this woman — older then me and standing along a rope barrier with her husband on the way up a steep hill — who addressed me by saying with a little grunt-chuckle, “Excuse me, Sir, it may be none of my business but why do you carry that cane? We’ve been watching you for the past hour and, from what we’ve seen, there’s no one in the field who can keep up to you.”

Sweating and a bit out of breath, I made eye contact with a devilish twinkle, cracked a wry grin and said, “Can you not detect the limp?”

“Yes, of course, but my husband remarked that it doesn’t seem to slow you down any.”

“Well, Ma-am,” I responded. “It comes down to mind over matter. Then again, my good friends would probably roll their eyes, laugh and say, ‘No brain, no pain.’ But I’ll admit I should have worn my brace.”

She flashed me a warm smile, her husband, too. I think they believed me, sort of got the flavor, if you know what I mean.

Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a longtime member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: www.tavernfare.com. Email: gary@oldtavernfarm.com.

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