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On The Trail

River reflections

That bright sliver of a hot new moon had long ago set in the dawning sky and it was boys’ day on the Green River, three of us, grandfather and grandsons. You know what they say about the apple falling not far from the tree. Well, it was palpable.

Questions, questions and more questions, some traipsing into perilous waters, the current heading for tangled roots overhanging a deep corner pool where big trout lurk and kids drown, others quite harmless and drifting off on placid water where we swam under bright, scorching late-morning sun, frisky dogs splashing, eating it up, Jordi, 7, joining in the water-borne ecstasy.

Ah, to be young. You can’t go back, but I am so thankful on this, the day after my mother’s 84th birthday, to have been afforded the foot-free childhood freedom I enjoyed exploring woods, fields, swamps and mountains of the small, cozy town that sure ain’t what it used to be. What small town is nowadays, with that ubiquitous shadow of authority always snarling?

Arie, soon to be 4, was in a different psychological place than his brother. The kid was worried about “pinchers” he spotted fleeing along the sandy riverbed, the water clear and flowing stronger than normal for mid-July.

“Don’t be afraid of those little crayfish,” I pleaded. “Can’t you see they’re afraid of you? That’s why they scoot away. Plus, you’re wearing your safe water sandals. Even a big pincher couldn’t hurt through them.”

Seems I often try to assuage the boys’ fears, such a horrible emotion to be dominated and controlled by, a hideous plague for those who pathetically succumb to it. But who could blame these young boys for harboring fear and uncertainty after losing their father so young? My job as a surrogate is to make them brave, adventurous and independent, that and confident in their ability to solve daily problems that cross their path. I try to instill self-confidence and high self-esteem in my own homespun way, which isn’t always easy given what they’ve been through, the devastating loss they endured when the boulder they were moored to was ripped from their tranquil bay.

As I extended my hand to encourage Arie across the river with Jordi and the dogs — Lily creating a commotion chasing a scent through tall, dense riverside bamboo; Chubby chilling, slurping cool belly-deep water — I caught a passing overhead shadow, looked up and spotted this odd, dark, sinister, lizard-like creature with long legs, neck and beak flying awkwardly upstream.

“Hey, boys, look at the Great Blue Heron,” I said, unaware that both had already spotted it, landing gear dangling, gliding to a west-bank touch-down at a river bend. The big, leggy bird hit the shore in front of a prostrate tree trunk extending slightly over the river before walking into flat shallows to hunt small dace with its spear-like beak, the bane of hatchery managers. But not so fast! You see, we weren’t the only ones watching that bizarre bird. Chubby, focused statuesque, was onto it in a big way and soon splashed after it, quickly flushing it and chasing it further upstream before I called him back with the worn, black, tooth-dented stag-horn whistle on my lanyard. Seconds later, sure enough, here comes that gangly heron coming back at us in boomerang flight. It flew low, right over our heads, across the Christmas-trees field and toward a beaver marsh some 200 yards south. Its U-turn hadn’t eluded Chubby. No siree. He froze until the bird passed, then pinned back his brown, floppy ears and sprinted enthusiastically after it. Despite knowing he had no chance of success, instinct consumed the young fella and off he raced, busting through the brushy riverbank border and disappearing partway across the field before returning on his own, smiling broadly, panting for a drink. No problem. He wallowed through shallow backwater, lay down and refreshed himself with loud slobbering slurps generally associated with a pigsty … or worse.

“Well, boys, what’dya think of that? Have you ever seen one of those weird-looking birds?”

“No,” replied Jordi. “That was cool.”

“Yeah, that was cool,” echoed Arie, enthralled in big-bro worship.

“But, Grampy, why was it alone?” Jordi chirped.

“That’s a good question, Jord, one I have no answer for. But I will say I seldom see two. In fact, I don’t remember the last time. Seems no matter where I am there’s always just one. Haven’t given much thought to why. If I really wanted to know, I could look it up on the Internet or in a book. That’s research, Jord, finding answers. It’s fun. Easy, too, with computers.”

I can recall nothing else extraordinary occurring during the remainder of our two-hour river romp, which took us maybe 500 feet, crossing two rattling riffles at a sweeping S-turn in the river. There, young, timid Arie rode me piggy-back as the dogs rollicked and Jordi ran ahead to impress me with his riverside courage, not to mention be the first to discover what greeted us around each corner. In a set of knee-deep downstream rapids exiting flat, deep water where we stopped briefly to swim, Jordi found submerged what he called a “super-soaker” plastic squirt gun. I fiddled with his prize long enough to empty the gravel and get squirting before heading back to the truck for our return trip home a short distance away. There Joey, the boys’ “Nanny,” would undoubtedly have lunch under way. I fired up the truck and started driving down the double-rutted path between freshly cut hayfields, where a young sun-drenched farmer was teddering on a tractor — field swallows swooping and swirling, darting and diving, Mississippi John Hurt finger-picking, singing his baritone blues on my CD player, cranked up loud, of course, just how I like it. The artist and genre were new to Jordi, who was curious, just how I like him.

“Do you like this music, Grampy?” he queried.

“Yup, Jord, love it, That’s Delta blues sung by an American original called Mississippi John.”

“Who?”

Nice! A teaching moment.

I told him Hurt had been dead nearly 50 years but remains popular in some circles. What I respect most about old Mississippi John, a poor black man and son of slaves, is that he as a boy taught himself to play a cheap guitar, then as a man learned to write songs with message and soul. Later in life, famous musicians taught by the best teachers at top schools, many of them virtuoso pickers playing vintage Martin guitars in the finest music halls and biggest ballparks in the land, begged to learn his finger-picking style, a unique three-finger method no one had ever seen. Yes, my kinda man, I told Jordi: self-taught and original. People know his songs but have no clue who wrote them. Of course, I was tempted to introduce the word autodidactic right then and there but figured it should wait. The kid’s too young to use such a word, would likely be deemed an egghead.

It’s funny. I’ve owned that “Best of Mississippi John Hurt” Vanguard CD for at least 20 years and just happened to dig it out on a wayward whim a month or so back, ending long exile on a lower shelf of the built-in Taproom bookcase where I store my music. It’s a live album recorded at Oberlin College during the folk revival in 1965, which gave me an opportunity to introduce Jordi to another concept. I told him Oberlin was a good “alternative” college a friend of mine graduated from, and that I’d be proud to send him there if I could find a way. He just flashed a warm, inquisitive grin and asked what alternative meant. Different from the average college, I answered, a school that encourages thinkers to figure things out for themselves, like young Mississippi John figured out his cheap guitar. It’s not the type of college people who want to be cops or soldiers or bankers typically choose. But he’s too young to understand that. I didn’t expect he would, was just planting another random seed, one of many I’ve placed in his fertile gray matter during seven short years, and will continue to plant as long as I live. I guess that’s about as close to a farmer as I’ll ever get.

Confused by the new ideas bombarding his intellectual sphere like angry, swarming white-faced hornets, the boy reached deep into his bag of tricks for a clever escape and, with an abrupt, adroit interjection, changed the subject as we hit the pavement leading home; all the while, Arie sitting silently in the back, soaking it all in for perspective, little gems from mysterious origins buried in subconsciousness for future passage into introspective freshets.

“What’s FM 2?” Jordi asked, pointing at the dashboard sound system. “I like country, country and rap, that’s what I like, Grampy. Can we listen to the radio?” And off on a radio adventure we went, a short one, pushing one button after another before turning into my driveway.

Our impromptu conversation about music and alternative colleges somehow brought me back to a ride I once took with the boys’ late father. Jordi may have been alive, which isn’t important. Gary was in town for the weekend and we were taking a country ride up the Green River on the dirt road to 10-Mile Bridge, listening to bluegrass in my white Toyota pickup. I don’t remember what CD we were listening to, maybe Tim O’Brien, Steve Earle or Garcia & Grisman, but quite possibly a good many others. Definitely bluegrass, though. I do vividly recall that. What’s important is that we were listening to one of many ballads out there in the public domain about euphoric love affairs gone sour, when suddenly the doleful lyrics were abruptly broken by an uplifting mandolin riff that caught my attention.

“Listen, Gary, do you hear that mandolin giggling?” I asked. “It’s vindictive laughter at a woman who left and lost.”

Whatever it was that possessed me to say that, I’ll never forget his reaction. Our eyes met and Gary’s were at first blurry and distant, then, just like that, totally clear and focused. I knew he “got it” as I looked into his soft, intelligent eyes; he totally understood the role of such instrumental riffs. He had by then played the guitar for many years and was venturing into songwriting, probing fears and anxieties, his distrust of authority figures who’d assaulted him, and was finally writing about it, just getting started. He continued writing and singing right up to his untimely death, gaining confidence by performing for the kids, who sang and danced and accompanied him to open-mic coffeehouse gigs. He knew he could die young and hid his fears well, but it haunted him, especially after he became a registered nurse. Then, lo, he died young, leaving a widow, two young boys and a beautiful home in a nice Montpelier, Vt., neighborhood, now a distant memory to Jordi. Sadly, I doubt Arie has any conscious memories.

It’s no wonder Jordi has a few times asked, quite out of the blue, why his Daddy had to die? It’s a question I cannot answer. How can anyone justify such a devastating loss to a young boy? I just look him in the eye — always important — and tell him he’s not alone, other boys lose fathers and succeed.

That response may sound cruel, but it’s all I’ve got now for my bright-eyed grandson carrying his father’s legacy, and mine, yoked with a heavy burden that disrupted a good life he knew and loved.

I suppose in France, they’d just shrug and say, “C’est la vie,” which totally ignores the question of fairness.

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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