RMOWP 2014 Contest Winner Best of Show, Writing (Reprinted with permission from The Chaffee County Times, 12/19/13 edition.)
A time for memories – and magic moments for making more. This year will mark 75 years of acquiring Christmas memories, so presented the opportunity to write an article about the most memorable of those involving the outdoors. The task wasn’t too difficult. I have a deep storage bin.
It was 1947. I was 10 that year. My brother and I had been taken in for a spell by our aunt and uncle, along with our maternal grandmother who normally looked after us.
When there are 11 kids in a family and money is short, or better expressed, shorter than usual, it was fortunate to have understanding relatives who always seemed to have an extra mattress and a couple more seats at the table in spite of their own limited resources.
My brother and I actually looked forward to those stays at the old Pennsylvania farmhouse, even if the candles would flicker in the house when the winds of winter would whistle down the Pine Creek Valley bringing bone-chilling cold.
Available work in town had been sparse for my uncle that fall, so we had already been advised that presents under the tree would be even more limited than usual. That didn’t bother my younger brother, Tommy, and I.
Just being on the farm to run loose in the hills instead of housed in some run-down rental in what seemed a continually revolving number of cities a state away, was Christmas enough for young explorers and adventurers.
In contrast to the city, on the farm there was never a shortage of great food, from home-cured hams to rows of burlap bags of potatoes, canned sweet corn, bushels of winter apples and endless rows of jelly jars in the root cellar, those paraffin-topped Mason jars filled with wild-berry jams of every sort of taste and color.
Then there was the bread, that wonderful, wonderful bread; hot, steaming loaves of home-made breads and rolls popping out of the oven in the wood-stove at mid-morning every day, filling the kitchen with mouth-watering aromas haunting me still.
The tiny tree had already been cut from the stand of evergreens out back and relegated to its honored corner in the living room.
There was no electricity to brighten a string of lights had we even had any, but there were a few cherished bulbs of many colors to adorn the sparse branches as were well-wrinkled strands of tinsel collected lovingly each year only to re-emerge the next.
Charlie Brown would have been proud of our work, but he hadn’t been invented yet.
Even though Christmas dinner was still almost two weeks off, the menu was already set and partially gathered.
There would be baked butternut squash, rich brown gravy to fill hollows made in rounded mounds of mashed potatoes, endless creamed corn and green snap beans from quart jars in the cellar, medallions of venison backstraps simmered to perfection in the massive cast-iron skillet always dominating the stove top, and of course, the meal’s center piece, a giant salt-cured ham wrapped in a crinkled crust of brown sugar and honey, the honey having been gathered in the fall from a bee tree up the hollow at the risk of life and limb.
Dessert would be generous portions of warm mincemeat tarts and hot apple pies, altogether, a meal fit for a king.
If we were lucky, “And the creeks don’t rise,” as my uncle would always offer in admonishment, there would be a side of succulent slices of corn-breaded breast of ruffed grouse, the gathering of the latter being left to me as everyone else was “buried under in chores.”
To this day, I picture all that as the perfect Christmas, with one nagging exception. My brother and I had no access to funds to buy gifts for anyone, not our grandmother, not our aunt or uncle, nor our one cousin just home from the service (which had included dropping in behind enemy lines the day before D-Day in Normandy).
The lack of gift funds weighed heavily on my brother and I. We spent many an hour worrying about it on our shared mattress in the attic while watching the dancing of the flickering flames of candlelight bouncing off dark pine knots on the ceiling. Endlessly we discussed the possibility of making something, but when you have limited creative talents and with no funds to supplement even those, we kept coming up blank.
And so it came to pass, that 10 days before Christmas we were still giftless and clueless.
“Take the .22 and these shells and go over to the old apple orchard by the creek and see if any grouse are still around.” That came from my aunt as she handed me the few cartridges like each was plated in gold, which in her post-Depression-era world, they may just as well have been.
I clutched the precious rounds, slipping them securely into a pocket of my winter coat, a cotton jacket which also served for both spring and fall, being the only one I had that hadn’t already been handed down to Tommy, if not farther down the line. Then I picked up the single-shot Winchester from the corner by the kitchen door where it always rested in the event a chicken hawk might be seen circling about our white leghorns. Heading for the creek, I shooed off Tommy as I left, knowing grouse in the orchard were always on full-alert status, and like all little brothers, Tommy was not yet the stealthiest of hunters.
The daunting December day was cold and gray – the flat, dull, lifeless gray that comes to the leafless Alleghenies in November and doesn’t depart until mid-March. Low clouds hanging heavy above the valley hollows shifted in silent shrouds against the black of stands of hemlocks already old when the first Quakers arrived in Penn’s Woods.
Hoar frost dislodged and dropping from willow shafts along the creek clung to the thread-worn wool of my pants and cotton jacket until I was as ghostlike as the fretful fog lifting from the black waters of the creek.
The first grouse never saw it coming. It was distracted, examining the frozen fruit still aloft; the few remaining apples already having shriveled, fermented and frozen weeks earlier.
Fanning its tail at the sudden impact, then slumping over the branch, bouncing its way limb to limb, settling with a soft thump to the snow below. The second bird sat tight, finally unnerved, exploding in a rush of wings and feathers, catching air, sailing into a giant first-growth pine along the creek bank where backwater had been dammed by a band of beavers.
Slipping through soft snow like a specter of Seneca warriors past, my eyes went searching – searching – searching for that telltale bit of brindle brown against the gray green. I was so intent I almost missed the ripple of water on the edge of the ice near the beaver workings. But I did catch it, my eyes drifting down, taking a minute until reality overcame belief.
Stretching out there on a weather-washed oak-tree root extending from the frozen bank, shaking water off its slick dark pelt was a mink. Not just any mink, but a mink of incredulous length and girth with the darkest, richest, most lustrous pelt I had ever seen at any fur buyers ever. No, bigger!
I still recall shaking so badly that the Winchester’s sights which I could normally shoot off hand without even checking, were bouncing all over the place, on the roots, on the water, on the snow – everywhere but on the mink’s ear.
The .22 seemed to crack on its own – and the mink was gone, kicking its way from its perch, disappearing into the dark water just past the edge of the ice. I plunged across the frigid almost-knee-high water way over my low leather shoes, plunging my arm deep into the black where a trail of crimson was spiraling upward.
Mink are mean, vicious way beyond their size, blessed with wicked eye teeth that could easily bite through a hand. I didn’t care. I searched, nothing; went deeper, felt movement, then grabbed. I had him! Ripped from the deep water, he slumped in my hand.
I was so excited I was almost at our neighbor’s house a quarter-mile away before I remembered my grouse and had to race back to the old orchard, shoes, pants and socks now coated with ice cracking and popping with every footfall.
Actually, I think by then I was running, my heart hammering until I thought my chest would crack open and it would flop out onto the snow. Fritz saw me running up his drive and was at his cabin door before I hit the steps. I couldn’t even speak. I just thrust the giant mink at him, the perfectly placed .22 right through the ear holes dripping crimson lines across his porch.
He stared at the mink, then at me, then back to the already frost-coated mink in my out-stretched hand.
“That’s the most incredible mink ever. Look. He has three missing toes where he’s been trapped but escaped. It’s totally healed. He’s really, really old, teeth worn to nubs. I’ve seen his tracks several times along the creek but was never able to fool him.”
That from the best trapper in our parts. I was so proud I was hopping up and down with excitement, forgetting I no longer had any feeling from the knees down.
We cut a deal, a secret, spit-on-your-palms-and-shake pact, so help me. He would take it to the buyer, then go to Devling’s hardware and Martin’s general store and buy the presents on my list until the money ran out.
Christmas morning he would bring the presents to our house just down the road, no wrapping required. That prize mink, after meticulous skinning and fleshing by Fritz, fetched the grand sum of $80, a small fortune in 1947. It meant a work shirt for uncle Bob, a new set of dinner dishes for aunt Verda, crystal salt and pepper shakers for Grandma who collected them, a hat for cousin Bud and woolen mittens for brother Tommy.
When Fritz knocked on our door Christmas morning with his arms overloaded with presents, Santa himself would not have looked as good. Nor has he looked as good since.