Times Past: ‘We were his family’

  • Paul Seamans and his neighborhood friend had a tradition of going on a Christmastime hunt with the “Old Man” of their community. A tradition capped one winter with an unfortunate fire. METRO CREATIVE COMMONS


Friday, September 08, 2017

This is a story boxed in truth, wrapped in colors and tied securely with ribbons bright with memory.

Not too many years ago, before a prosperous society gave away the benefits of wealth, every rural neighborhood had its “Old Man.” In a single human bundle, he represented the poor, the lonely, the neglected and the forgotten everywhere.

Our small town in New Hampshire had its Old Man. Indigent, down at the heels, he lived the hermit’s life, shut up all alone in a tar paper shack of his own making. Looked up to by boys, because he seemed to know everything that was worth knowing, the Old Man was generally regarded by the rest of the neighborhood as standing near the Great Beyond and thus not a good horse to bet on.

Christmas Day was the one day in the year when the Old Man got more than a casual, “How-d-ya-do” from most of the white members of our town. He arranged it that way.

Every Christmas afternoon, the Old Man got up a rabbit hunt. He owned a pair of long-legged hounds, spare creatures whose ribs showed; dogs as broken down and secondhand as the Old Man himself. They had a lot of heart, however, and teamed together as a matter of course, to make the valleys vibrate with their bawling and baying.

Boys went on this annual hunt, along with a few men who hadn’t left boyhood too far behind. It became an occasion; we had seen the morning glow begin to pale as presents started to age outside the security of their wrappings. Some of us had gone to church. We were ready for the woods — a chance to run wild and uncivilized after the formalities of the morning.

We assembled one flawless Christmas Day outside the Old Man’s cabin, waiting for him to shut up his stove and get his gun. He liked to keep us standing in the snow while he made one pretense at business. It made him feel in charge. We were his family when he had no family.

After a while, he and his dogs were ready to go hunting. There was no ceremonial bugle; no master of the hunt called us together. We just fell in line, haphazardly, behind the Old Man’s lead and paraded behind his cabin.

The choice of where we’d hunt was purely whimsical. Tracks of snowshoe hares ran everywhere. On this occasion, he had it in mind that we should walk to a summer home set off some distance on a cart track that would stay snow covered until spring.

We had worked over that cover many times. We knew every run, every dodge the rabbits would make. There was shooting excitement enough. Creeks got pink and eyes bright in the cold air of that chase. Eventually, when dogs and men had enough, the Old Man called in his dogs and we trooped home.

Smoke was pouring from under one corner of the Old Man’s cabin when we turned the final bend and entered his clearing. Somehow, he had set the place afire when he closed up his stove before the hunt. Newspapers were strewn carelessly about; sparks must have touched off this calamity.

What to do! No water. A small-town fire department scattered to the four winds on this holiday, impossibly far off to handle this emergency. The Old Man’s little estate was doomed.

Wait! Five pairs of strong arms reached for the sill of the flimsy abode and heaven. Up came one end of the shack. The Old Man shoved a chopping lock under, then something else to keep the place even higher off the ground.

Men and boys threw snow madly at the spreading fire. Black smoke turned to white, steam hissed and rose into the frosty air. Papers and rags and burned boards were chucked into the trampled snow. The fire went out and the shack dropped back onto its rock foundation.

The men got a good look at the Old Man’s resources. There wasn’t much there. By night, someone had found a pair of wool hunting pants and a coat that they thought would fit him. Some lady in town sent her husband up with a hot supper and another neighbor parted with a bottle of whiskey.

It wasn’t much, but it spruced up the Old Man and gave him the feel of neighborliness he needed so badly on that Christmas Day.