I watched as Mom drove off, a stone rattling in the hubcap which I knew would drive her nuts before too long. She slowly made her way down the narrow, tree lined opening in the woods everyone called a driveway and in a moment was hidden in the forest. A minute later I heard her accelerate the big Oldsmobile 88 down the dirt road that would take her away from me for two weeks, up until the end of August. I was upset, already lonely, and, frankly feeling a little sorry for myself.
Next to me Auntie Beth said, “Well, it’s just you and me, now, Cal. What do you want to do?”
All I heard was the ‘just you and me part.’ I couldn’t understand how my mom could up and leave me like she was. I was starting to get mad.
Auntie glanced over and, seeing I was upset, enveloped me in a big bear hug with both arms. Her comfort was warm and kindly, but didn’t do anything to take away the empty feeling in my heart; the sense of abandonment. Even though I felt I should have been old enough not to let it get to me, it did. It also felt like the two weeks would last forever.
But they didn’t. They went by way too fast and I’ll never forget them. In fact, to this day I still can’t get that summer out of my mind, specifically the image of Lenny Macintosh laying in his dirty, filthy bed, cold and unmoving, as blue-bottle house flies swarmed on and around his face. He was the first dead person I ever saw. Maybe that’s why I’ll never forget him.
I should back up and fill you in a little bit. First of all, staying with Aunt Beth was not a bad thing at all. She was my mom’s mother’s sister and we were very close. In the past, Mom hauled me and my younger brother and my two much younger sisters up to what we called The Lake for as long as a month; it was Auntie Beth’s and Uncle Sid’s home away from home for June, July and August. Sid spent the work week buying selling grain futures for Cargill in Minneapolis at the Grain Exchange while Auntie Beth manned their cabin on Tamarack Lake. It was located about a three hour drive north of the Twin Cities, and I’ll tell you, those summers at the cabin were the greatest of times for me and my younger siblings – swimming, fishing and exploring; times that, without a doubt, were the highlight of my summer vacation, if not my young life.
But this summer was different. This summer Mom shipped my brother, Tim, who was two years younger than me, down to Grandma and Grandpa’s house in Fairmont near the Iowa boarder. My two younger sisters she kept home with her in Minneapolis.
When I asked her about it the week before she drove me up north she said, “It’s just the way it has to be this summer, Cal. You’ll just have to accept it and don’t argue with me about it. Remember that you’re the oldest and have to set an example for Tim and Kathy and Susie.”
God, I hated it when she talked to me like that – like I was a grown up, when we both knew I was a long way from being the adult she imagined me to be.
“Ok, Mom,” I said, agreeing, trying to sound mature but deep down hating the whole situation. Dad had been gone from home more and more this past year and I knew Mom wasn’t happy about it. But I was eleven, in between fifth and sixth grade and not very attuned to the dynamics of a family slowly falling apart. The overriding feeling I had was confusion, an emotion I experienced a lot growing up but tried not to let on to anyone. I just attempted to do as I was told and not make any adult mad at me – Keep a low profile, especially when it came to being around adults, was my motto.
“That’s good, sweetie. I knew I could count on you.”
Well, that was a glowing testimony if I ever heard one and totally undeserved. I loved my mom but her use of guilt to get me to do things I didn’t want to do was not becoming at all.
Now at the lake with Auntie I had a feeling of something changing. It was the first time I’d ever been away from my family for any extended period of time. (I’m not going to count the five days two years ago I was in isolation in the hospital with Walking Pneumonia.) I put my loneliness aside and picked up my suitcase, liking the security it gave me. It held a few books and my many comics, my baseball mitt, my spy glass, my transistor radio, my favorite marbles and other treasures. Oh yeah, and a few clothes – tee-shirts, shorts and such. It occurred to me that the next two weeks might actually be a bit of an adventure – especially considering the fact that it was to be spent in my favorite place in the world to be, and, more importantly, my brother and sisters wouldn’t be hanging around bugging me. Granted it wasn’t like taking a canoe down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, or riding a horse from Minnesota to California – two things I fantasized about a lot, but it at least it was something different. You know what? I thought to myself, this might turn to be not so bad after all.
“Come on, Cal, let’s go inside,” Auntie Beth said, “I’ve got some of those molasses cookies you like.”
Well, I could get onboard with that! The last vestiges of my loneliness and feeling sorry for myself disappeared. Auntie was offering me my favorite treat – thick, soft chewy cookies and no brother or sisters around to share them with. That’s what I called a good deal. It also solidified my thinking that two weeks away from my family might not be so bad after all, and it only took a handful of my favorite cookies to convince me. I was pretty easily bought off back then.
“Ok, Auntie, I guess I am kind of hungry,” I said, trying unsuccessfully to hide my smile. She hugged me around the shoulder and together we walked across the lawn to the cabin. Oh yeah, this was going to work out just fine.
And it did. We settled into a nice routine. Mom had dropped me off on a Tuesday and I took the rest of the day to get acclimated. Auntie and Uncle’s cabin was built in the shape of a rectangle with a kitchen, a tiny eating area, and a living room, all stretched along the front, facing the lake. In the back were a couple of small bedrooms separated by a closet. The rooms had heavy curtains on curtain rods for doors which added to the charm. The living room had knotty pine paneling and Uncle had hung colored prints of ducks and geese landing or taking off over sloughs and ponds on the walls. There was a mixed scent of fireplace fires, coffee and cinnamon (from the apple pies Auntie made) inside that always made me feel right at home – cozy and secure. The outside was real logs, painted with ‘cabinite’, a kind of yellowish orange colored paint that was truly unique, and, for some, an acquired taste. To me it was beautiful. The window frames and ends of the logs were painted red. The effect was in a word, “cool” in the eyes of this eleven year old. The bathroom was an outhouse strategically positioned at the far edge of the backyard, and I loved it, probably using it way more than I really needed to. It was fun to go in there and latch the door and do my business. I liked the privacy and the musty smell. There were lots of spider webs with flies caught in them that I enjoyed looking at and counting. (I was easily entertained as a kid.)
My uncle had cleared a small space in the backyard and planted grass which struggled to grow under the shade of the nearby forest. In the front he was more successful because the yard faced southeast, sloped down to the lake and had been cleared of trees so it was nice and sunny and the grass he planted there grew thick and green. In fact, one of my jobs was to cut the lawn front and back for him during the week so he wouldn’t have to do it on the weekend. That way his two days at the lake could be spent relaxing, which amount to drinking, smoking, fishing and grilling. Mostly in that order. Today those traits don’t seem like much to admire, but back then he was bigger than life to me. He was kind and patient, had a great sense of humor and usually in a good mood. I loved him as much as I loved my aunt.
Auntie Beth surprised me by letting me have three molasses cookies instead on the usual one. “It’s just the two of us,” she said, grabbing one for herself, “We can do anything we want.”
Well, who could argue with that?
Auntie Beth was a compact, stocky woman with gray streaks in her short dark hair. Her nickname was “Shorty”. During the summer she wore sleeveless blouses, usually blue or red checked, dark blue pedal pushers and beaded moccasins. She and Uncle Sid were childless. Mom told me once when I was older that she and Uncle thought of me and my siblings as their kids. In fact, the rumor was that she and Sid bought the cabin especially so Mom and us kids could go someplace fun and different for the summer. They hit the nail on the head big time with that one. So, to say she was generous and loving would be putting it mildly. She liked to bake, play cards and smoke her Taryton cigarettes while enjoying a late afternoon, pre-dinner, cocktail. She had a serious, quiet disposition and was firm in her discipline of us, which she didn’t have to be very often because we all loved her so much. I, for one, would go out of my way to please her, much to the chagrin of my mom, who had to constantly deal with my ‘devilish side’ as she usually put it. In short, being with my aunt was as good a way to spend part of the summer as any. Better, even.
When we finished our snack, I excused myself and ran out the front door, down the path to the lake and out onto the wooden dock that stretched about twenty five feet into the water. I skidded to a stop and sat down, dangling my feet over the edge holding my battered white, Red Ball Jets tennis shoes just above the water level. The lake had a slight aroma of rotting seaweed that smelled wonderful. It quickly came back to me how much I loved being up in the woods at Auntie’s and Uncle’s place.
Tamarack Lake was shaped like a thick inverted letter ‘C’. Auntie and Uncle’s cabin was at the top left end in what we always called The Bay. From where I sat I could see across about a mile to the other side. In the middle was the deepest part of the entire lake and in years past, if Uncle was in a good mood, he would occasionally take us boys fishing for walleye out there. We were rarely successful, but we always had fun.
The lake was surrounded by mixed hardwood forests of elms, maples and oaks with some birch and aspen tossed in for good measure. If you wanted to pretend you were Robin Hood with his band of Merry Men and run around all day not being bothered by grownups, playing to your heart’s content, with supervision by adults used in the only most rudimentary sense of the word, this was the place to be. In church the minister talked a lot about heaven. To me, this was it.
To left, the shore ran to the end of the bay and then it curved out in front of me so that I could follow the shoreline all the way to across the lake and then to where it continued to the far right before it went out of sight way on the other side over a mile away. In other words, I could see about third of the lake from where I sat. To my immediate right, the shoreline ran for a quarter of a mile to what we called The Point before it went around it and disappeared from view. Further past The Point were more cabins, similar to ours and one resort, called The Fine Fish Inn. (A play on fine fishin’, get it? Well, as a kid, I thought it was pretty clever.) After Mom dropped me off, she took a right on that road and it eventually took her out to the highway, but it also went to the left all around the point in one big circle so it could deliver people to their cabins. It was about three miles in circumference. When us kids walked the whole way around, it took about an hour if we didn’t fool around too much, which, of course, we usually did. Once Tim and I were gone over three hours exploring abandoned cabins along the way, long enough for my mom to get in the car and come looking for us. It was one of the few times we’d ever been grounded in all the summers we spent there. The Fine Fish Inn was about a mile and a half down that road to the left from our cabin. I mention all of this because the Inn was near where Lenny Macintosh lived and where he sometimes worked.
The Swenson’s owned the Inn. I guess when old man Swenson died he left it to his son and now he and his wife owned it and they had managed it ever since my mom and us kids had been coming to the lake. They had a ton of children of their own who helped out with chores. (“Good Catholics,” my uncle would say after a few drinks, winking at me and my brother before he was quickly reprimanded by my aunt. We had no idea what he was talking about.) They hired Lenny occasionally as a handy man. He was around thirty years old or so by my estimation.
I should mention that the Inn was not an inn at all, but a collection of one room cabins that stretched along the shore . There were ten of them, had seen better days, and were in constant need of maintenance. That’s where Lenny came in – he was sometimes called in to help with minor cabin repairs. He also helped take care of the boats and motors that guests could rent by the day or the week. Now that I think about, it the Inn was actually a resort, as such, with groups of guys coming up to fish for the weekend and families coming up to spend a week experiencing life in the great north woods. The point I’m trying to make is that the place was always busy in the summer. By working there occasionally, Lenny played a minor role in helping the Inn to run smoothly.
I’d met Lenny last year when I’d gone to his cabin to buy worms. I should explain…Normally, my brother and I fished for pan fish, like sunfish and crappies and bluegills. Worms were our preferred bait. We dug them out of a shady, moist, shallow pit in back of the outhouse where the Auntie Beth dumped the grounds from breakfast coffee and other leftovers. Tim and I fished a lot. Occasionally we’d run out of worms (the worm pit would run dry, so to speak), and whenever that happened we would get a little surly, let me tell you, and not a lot of fun to be around. When it happened last year, Uncle Sid, probably sick and tired of our complaining, suggested we try Lenny.
“He’s got a cabin about a quarter of a mile off the road across from Swenson’s. You can’t miss it. There’s a red mail box. Look for that,” he told us.
“Sid, don’t you go sending the boys over there. They don’t know what they’ll find!” Auntie Beth admonished him.
They fought about it back and forth good naturedly for a few minutes before my mom intervened and told us we could go. “As long as you watch out for your little brother,” Mom told me, once again, for the millionth time in my life, putting me in a no win situation; watching out for Tim was no fun, yet if I didn’t agree to watch him, I couldn’t go.
“Ok, Mom, sure. Be glad to,” I told her, being agreeable and nodding my head, hurrying out the door, dragging Tim with me. Anything to get away from the adults.
The first time we went, we found the cabin, but Lenny wasn’t there. We went to the Inn and asked for him, but they didn’t know where he was either. We went home, sad, mosquito bitten and wormless.
He wasn’t there the next few time we went either. Then the worms can back to our pit, so we didn’t need to go, then the worms ran out again.
“I don’t want to go right now,” Tim told me, the next time I was getting ready to make the trek to Lenny’s. (Or journey as I was starting to think of it as.)
“I’m going swimming with Kathy and Susie.”
It was a beautiful summer day with big, puffy clouds and a strong wind. The lake had white caps on it which would be fun to jump into off the dock. It would be nice to go swimming, I couldn’t argue with that, but my mind was set on getting some worms. Besides, by now I was getting more and more curious about this Lenny person. I had built him up in my mind to be some weird phantomlike figure who lived in the woods and was rarely seen. A gray bearded, mystical kind of fellow in a pointed hat, who one day might figure in a book some enterprising scholar would write about the north woods called, ‘Legends of the Forest’. Sort of like Bigfoot but less furry. You never knew, I told myself, and if Tim wanted to miss out on that kind of discovery, it was up to him. “Suit yourself,” I told him, and hustled off on my own, hurrying before Mom made me come back to ‘Watch your brother and sisters,’ the story of my life.
It took about half an hour walking on the gravel road to get to the mail box (which may have been red once long ago, but now was rusted out, riddled with bullet holes and hanging by a nail to the rotted post it was attached to), and then about five minutes more to walk down an overgrown mosquito infested path through the dense forest that lead to the his cabin.
Lenny’s place would cause my mom to have a panic attack, and Tim and I never told her what it was really like, only offering the vague, “It’s all right,” when she asked us about it. She liked things neat and tidy. Lenny’s was the exact opposite. It wasn’t so much a cabin as a shack. A tree had fallen on it a long time ago, crushing one side and part of the roof, and it was slowly rotting and disintegrating, leaving small piles of rotten wood all around it. The roof sagged in the middle around the tree and there were remnants of long ago panes of glass in the windows. There was a screen door in front that hung by only one hinge. I guess that the siding probably at one time was white, due to the white flecks on it, (which might have been bird droppings now that I think about), but now was faded, gray, wood. Some of the boards had sagged exposing gaps through which I could see directly inside. Air tight it was not. Saplings, bushes and weeds grew right up to the sides, giving the place claustrophobic feel. It was small, about the size of my brother’s bedroom back home, ten by ten, and a moldy aroma emanated from it when you got close. All and all the little shack was rotting away and slowly reverting back to nature. My thought was that any parent I knew would turn away from it in disgust and beat a path of hasty retreat. But for a kid who dreamed of someday being a buckskin clothed mountain man living off the land in a cabin in the Rocky Mountains, I thought it was fantastic.
Like the previous times with Tim, I approached cautiously, not knowing what to expect and this time was no different. The day was sunny and warm but Lenny’s place was shrouded in cool shade by all the trees surrounding it. It looked like his tiny cabin had been build right in the middle of the forest in the only open spot someone could find. Probably at one time it was something special to its owner, but now…well, now calling it a shack was being generous.
I went to the front door and knocked politely on the siding next to it. I had the feeling if I knocked on the door itself it would have easily fallen off its lone, rusty hinge. No answer. I knocked once more. Again, nothing. Mosquitoes had now found me and were starting to swarm, feeding hungrily. I waved them away and brushed them off my exposed arms and legs, killing a few and leaving smears of blood. I was getting impatient. Standing in the woods getting eaten alive was not my idea of a good time. I figured I would, once again, be returning home to our cabin, dejected and wormless. I turned to go, but then decided, what the heck, I was here anyway. I turned and knocked again, louder this time. Still nothing. In disgust and thoroughly bug bitten, I was turning to go when I heard the complaining squeaks of some springs inside and then a figure suddenly appeared at the broken door.
“What the hell do you want?” he yelled, “Can’t a man get any sleep around here.” Then he stopped and took one look at me, assessing me and squinting against what little light there was. His demeanor suddenly changed. I don’t know who he was expecting, but I obviously wasn’t that person. He quieted down, scratched under his arm and then added, almost friendly like, “Say, you there, boy. You got anything to eat. I’m starving.”
Well, what an odd thing to say. I was taken aback, startled by his sudden appearance, and after all this time, not really expecting to see him at all. But I was on a hunt for some worms so I was willing to do anything. I felt for my Sugar Daddy sucker in the front pocket of my shorts. It was half eaten but I took it out and offered it to him anyway. Maybe last year, when I was nine, I would have forgotten the whole thing and just run away. But I was a year older now and starting to get more curious about the world. I had never in my life seen anything or anybody like him. Maybe that’s why I was drawn to this strange looking man who lived in a shack in the woods.
“This is all I’ve got,” I said, cautiously, handing it to him.
He eyed my sucker carefully as I held it in front of me. Then he quickly took it and unwrapped it, picking some pieces of fuzz off as he did so and, unmindful of my teeth marks, stuffed the whole thing into his mouth, holding it’s stick, twisting it around and savoring it for a minute before taking it out and saying, “Umm, good. Caramel’s my favorite, my boy. After chocolate that is.” Then he laughed out loud and put it back in his mouth, licking and savoring the sucker some more like it was the sweetest ambrosia in the world. I watched, mesmerized, suddenly wishing I had another one so I could join him. His delighted smacking of his lips was making me hungry.
After a minute of working on his sucker, he paused and started giving me a good looking over. I probably should have been frightened, but I wasn’t . He was a wild looking man, a foot taller than me, with unruly curly red hair and a thick, matted beard that didn’t do much to obscure his pock marked face. He was thin, barefoot, and dressed in a ragged tee-shirt and grimy blue jeans worn smooth and shiny. He looked kind of like a deranged elf. His eyes were pure blue and rimmed with red and he had a bandage over his nose, like it was broken which I found out later it was. “Well, don’t just stand there, boy. You want to come in or not?”
An image of my mom admonishing me and shaking her head ‘No’ momentarily popped into my brain, then out again.
What the hell, I thought to myself. I decided to take a chance, “Ok, Mister,” I said, trying to sound more courageous than I actually felt.
He laughed out loud at that. “Mister, that’s a good one,” he said, laughing some more and slapping the door frame, which caused the shack to shake a little and some sawdust to rain down from up above somewhere, “No one’s called me Mister since I was in the army in Korea, buddy. Call me Lenny, my boy,” he told me, “And come on in before the mosquitoes eat you alive.”
And that’s how I first meet him.
I don’t know what it was that drew me to the guy. He was dirty, gross and sometimes obnoxious. In fact, he was everything my mom had warned me against while I was growing up.
“Stay away from those kinds of people,” she would say, anytime we happened to be in downtown Minneapolis and drive past men passed out in gutters or huddled up against buildings. People she and my dad called ‘bums’ who were homeless and certainly not as fortunate as me and my brother and sisters. It took a few years until I was older for me to figure that out and feel sympathy for them. Now, being ten years old, to me he was somewhat odd, but, more than that, he was not the kind of person my mom would want me to be around at all. Maybe that’s what attracted me to him.
I should point out something right now: I probably saw him only half a dozen times during that summer. He usually he wasn’t there when I came by for my sought after can of worms. And one time he was at his shack, but was preoccupied with a female (I caught a glimpse of her hair and face and shoulder) and they were all wrapped up in his dirty sheets humping away like there was no tomorrow. Even though they both made a lot of noise, I’m counting that as a time I didn’t see him either.
But when he was there, I did buy worms from him. He seemed like the kind of guy who was very resourceful when it came to earning money. He supplied the Inn with worms in addition to his handyman chores and that’s how my uncle knew about him.
“Have I got worms?” he asked back, laughing, when I asked that first time. “Boy, I’ve got so many worms, I’ve got them coming out of my you-know-what.”
I could add profane to my description of him, too, now that I think about it.
“I’d like a can, please,” I asked, nice and polite like I’d been taught.
He laughed at that, too, rummaging in a filthy refrigerator. “Here you go, please and thank you,” he told me, mocking me a little, handing me a dented can of what looked like once held Del Monte Fruit Cocktail, but now held a mass of wriggling worms and night crawlers covered in moist, dark soil mixed with some dry leaves. I caught a glimpse of a hunk of moldy cheese and at least three six packs of Grain Belt beer inside next to rows of cans of worms before he closed the door.
“That’ll be two cents,” he said handing me the can, “Exact change only.”
I gave him my two pennies and was turning to leave when he surprised me by putting out his hand. “Good doing business with you, my boy,” he said. Then he grinned showing me the brownest teeth I’d ever seen in my life. But would you believe me if I told you that, in spite of his obvious lack of oral hygiene, he smile was actually quite pleasant? It was. It was a friendly, mixed with a bit of forlorn loneliness and that might have added to his allure.
“Thanks, Mister,” I said and shook his hand, which was almost as dirty as the can I held. I fought back an urge to let go and wipe my hand on my shorts.
“Lenny,” he reminded me, squeezing just a little bit more. “Just call me Lenny.”
“Ok. Lenny,” I said and watched somewhat aghast as he bent down and looked me straight in the eye, letting me get a good look at those red, bloodshot eyes of his. Then he let go of my hand and turned around, making his way back to his bed.
I pivoted on my heel and was quickly out the door when I heard the springs on the mattress protesting his intrusion. Then I hurried down the path and out to the road, all the time thinking just one word…Wow!
Like I said, last year I’d been ten and now was a year older. As I sat on the dock that first day after Mom had left and I’d quit feeling sorry for myself, I had time to think more about my stay with Auntie Beth and Uncle Sid. I had brought my transistor radio down with me and was spending time watching puffy clouds floating by against a deep blue sky, idly waiting for a favorite song to come on. I made a bet with myself that I wouldn’t do anything I heard one. Finally, “The Twist” by Chubby Checker was played, making me feel I was on a winning streak. I waggled my feet above the water in time to the beat, hardly getting my shoes wet at all. Well, that was fun, so I made anther bet to wait for another favorite song and waited, listening to my radio, dangling my feet over the side of the dock, watching the world go by. Then, “Sea Cruise” by Frankie Ford came on and I started gyrating to the music, wiggling my butt on the dock, having a fine old time. I felt like I’d won the lottery and I’d only sat there for half an hour.
In spite of winning my music listening bets, I still didn’t leave the dock. I was finding myself liking my new found freedom of not having my brother or sisters to watch over. I flipped over, lay on my stomach and looked into the water, enjoying the feel of the warm wood through my tee-shirt. I could see the bottom of the lake, down about four feet, and tiny minnows swimming back and forth, winding their way through the weeds. It was mesmerizing. I started thinking about fishing, which got me thinking about worms, which got me thinking about Lenny. I was actually looking forward to taking a hike up to his shack to see him, but I was easily distracted as a kid, and even more so now that I was on my own. I didn’t get to his place for about a week.
Instead, I busied myself goofing around our cabin and the woods nearby for the next three or four days. I built a lean-to out of aspen branches in a clearing next to us on a little hill overlooking the lake. Then I talked Auntie into letting me spend a night sleeping in it in my sleeping bag. I lasted until around eleven or so when a huge storm blew in, thunder booming and lightening flashing, rain pouring down, nearly ripping my little shelter apart. Auntie met a soaked, bedraggled camper (me) at the door to the cabin with a towel, some hot chocolate and a molasses cookie to help ease my disappointment at not being able to camp out all night. It helped a lot. I made it through the entire night the next night, though, which made me feel like the outdoorsman I envisioned myself as, in spite of the fact that I had a flashlight for a night light that I used to keep me company. I used it a lot, but didn’t tell Auntie, although she might have guessed something was up when I asked her for fresh batteries the next morning because mine had run out. I think it was her smile when she didn’t think I was looking that gave her away.
I made a bow and a bunch of arrows out of some willow saplings and had Auntie help me make a quiver out of an old towel that I sewed up under her watchful eye. Then I finished it off by attaching a length of rope so I could fill it with arrows and sling it across my chest. I made a spear out of a young maple tree and carved intricate patterns in the bark.
I talked Auntie into letting me put up a rope swing on a cottonwood tree leaning out over the water and spent hours climbing out on the tree and swinging back and forth on it before dropping into about three feet of water. It’s amazing, in retrospect, that I didn’t break my neck.
I took Uncle’s little aluminum fishing boat out and ran the three horsepower Johnson motor up and down the shoreline in front of the cabin, pretending I was at sea and searching for stranded survivors of a shipwreck along the shore of deserted desert island somewhere in the far Pacific.
I fished off the dock, casting poppers and daredevils for bass and northern pike, never catching a thing but not minding at all. I dug my own worms out of our pit in back and fished for sunfish and perch. If the evening was calm enough, Auntie let me take the boat out in front of the cabin, toss in the anchor and fish in deeper water.
And, every night after dinner, she and I would walk a trail along the shoreline to the end of the bay where there was a tiny grocery store used by the locals and vacationers. She’d let me pick out a ‘treat’ as she called it, for dessert. I always got a hard caramel Sugar Daddy sucker like the one I’d given Lenny that first time I met him the year before.
In between my adventures, Auntie taught me how to play solitaire, which I loved and would play for hours at a time. I had my books (I was reading and re-reading my worn out copy of Tom Sawyer plus some Hardy Boys Mysteries, just to mix things up), and comics (my favorite was Turok and Andar, two Indians who had somehow slipped into Pre-historic time and were always battling dinosaurs) and, of course, I had my trusty transistor radio which I listened to constantly, especially when I was down on the dock, or as I fell asleep at night, snug under the blankets on the bed Auntie made up for me on the pull out couch in the living room. (One long, all night experience in the lean-to was enough.)
And then, last but not least, I had my very own, absolutely, no-doubt-in-my-mind, favorite pocket knife in the whole wide world. Uncle Sid had given me the year before. It was 3 1/4″ long, had a bone handle and fit in my hand perfectly. I treasured that knife and used it all the time, especially at the Lake where it came in handy cutting saplings, whittling points on my wooden arrows and spear, and using it as a throwing knife, aiming at a target on the trunk of a big, old birch tree behind the cabin. I liked it so much and was so attached to it because it used to be Uncle’s.
“It was given to me by my father when I was about your age,” he told me when he handed it to me last year when just he and I were out fishing in front of the cabin. Using the knife and carrying it in my pocket made me like a grown up, which, last year when I was ten, was a pretty big deal. Rarely did it leave my possession.
And, of course, I went swimming a lot. So much, in fact, that Auntie remarked on more than one occasion on how tan I was and how clean I looked and smelled, much to my dismay and embarrassment.
Uncle came up on Friday night and stayed until late Sunday afternoon. He brought rib-eye steaks with him that he grilled in the front yard Friday night, with Auntie and I keeping him company in our red painted, metal lawn chairs as he filled us in on his week at work. I drank about a gallon of strawberry Kool-aid while he and Auntie sipped on Cabin Still over ice. They were both very happy and relaxed when we all finally turned in just as the moon started rising over the far shoreline around ten or so.
Uncle surprised me early next Saturday morning by taking me by our little boat to the grocery store at the end of the bay to get some minnows.
“We’re going to get us some walleyes, Cal,” he told me laughing a happy laugh, letting me drive the boat to the store and dock it. He was always in a good mood up at the lake.
Well, we didn’t caught anything but perch, which we threw back, but Uncle was fun to be with. He had a million stories. One of my favorites was about when he was a kid and living on his parent’s farm in western Iowa. Late one spring he and a friend snuck out in the middle of the night and herded some cattle into the one room school house he attended, which to me was a worthy feat in and of itself. But there was more. Then they left them there overnight! They weren’t found until the teacher came next morning.
“Cal, did they ever make a mess. Crap all over the place!”
What kid wouldn’t love an uncle who did those kinds of things? It was definitely something to admire, if not aspire to.
After he left on Sunday, Auntie and I walked up to the store and I bought my Sugar Daddy sucker. On a whim, I asked if I could get another one.
“Why would you ever want two?” she asked, giving me a quizzical look. “One a day is more than enough.”
She was right about that, I guess. If I was diligent, I could usually make mine last all day until the next evening’s visit to the store. I decided to keep mine wrapped and untouched. I wanted to give it to Lenny. I had decided to go up to his place the next day. I was all out of worms at our pit, plus, I have to say, I was feeling kind of lonely. On Sunday Mom had called and asked if Auntie and Uncle could keep me for another week which Auntie eagerly agreed to. Mom and I only talked for a few minutes, long enough for her to remind me that I was the oldest and had to be strong, which seemed odd since it was just me and no brother or sisters. “Sure, Mom,” I told her, “No problem.” I had a deep down feeling since she dropped me off she might do something like that – stay away longer. Anyway, I had a whole five days ahead of me before Uncle Sid came back and I felt like seeing someone other than Auntie Beth, no offense to her. I guess I just wanted something different to do.
The next day, I played around in my lean-to for awhile, making some repairs, reading comic books and carving designs in my spear. Then I walked along the shoreline collecting snail shells to use to make a necklace for Auntie. She seemed to like it when I did little things like that for her. Usually once a day I went looking for wildflowers and dandelions and I’d bring her a bouquet. She liked that, too and it was fun to make her happy. Besides, I had learned from last year that Lenny was not an early riser.
Around eleven in the morning I told Auntie where I was going.
“Just be careful,” she said, “Remember what Uncle Sid told us.”
“I will,” I said. Sid had told us on Friday that someone had reported seeing a black bear on the point. That in and of itself was reason enough to go into the woods. But I didn’t want to let on to Auntie Beth that I was considering doing something I’m sure she would consider dangerous. The way I looked at it: Why not go hunting a black bear with a bow and arrows made out of sticks? No reason in the world that I could think of. “I’ll be extra careful,” I assured her, thinking that, at eleven years old, I was as invincible as my favorite comic book characters.
From the cabin the driveway wove through the thick understory of the forest and around five large trees on its way out to the dirt road. The ground was soft and shady and took about five minutes to walk. Once out on the dirt road, though, it was bright and sunny and dusty, with the occasional car speeding by trailing a plume that blanketed the vegetation on the both sides with a chalky coating. I walked along the edge kicking up more dust with my tennis shoes until my legs from the knees down were coated in a gray film. I carried a canteen slung across my chest and my trusty jackknife in my pocket. I had my bow and arrows and quiver just in case I saw the bear. I felt I was all set.
A half hour later, when I got to Lenny’s mailbox, I was parched and sweaty and had drank most of my water. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the temperature was hot, probably at least eighty degrees or more. I should have known something was up when the mail box was no longer hanging by a nail off the post. Instead it had been set on an old crate on the ground, and, if possible, it looked in worse shape than last year, with the back end now almost completely rusted out. I suddenly had a bad feeling and momentarily thought about turning around. Two things stopped me: One, the brand new, unopened, slowly melting Sugar Daddy in my back pocket for Lenny, and, two, my desire to get a can of fresh worms. There was a third thing, also: I was curious to see how the guy I’d met a year ago and forged a tentative bond with was doing.
The final time I’d seen him, the day before we left for home last year, he had taken me for a little walk out beyond his cabin, further into the woods.
“Come on with me,” he said, seriously, “I want to show you something.”
By this time I had lost whatever feeling of unease I’d had being around him. He had been friendly to me more often than not, and he seemed to accept me for who I was, even though I was just a ‘big dummy’ as he sometimes called me. He really wasn’t a bad guy. So I was intrigued and readily followed him.
We walked about five minutes deeper into the woods. Now most people reading this right now will be thinking, I knew it. The guy’s a pervert and he’s going hurt that stupid kid. I don’t blame them. It does sound ominous, just re-reading it. But that’s not what happened at all.
We walked to a clearing. On the way I remember listening to blue jays scolding us and the tap-tap-taping of a woodpecker against a hollow tree. Crows were calling too, along with the chattering of a gray squirrel. In other words, there was a lot of activity in the woods – lots to keep us company. But Lenny acted unaware of it all, and seemed almost in a daze. Once we stopped, he snapped back to reality and surprised me by pulling a revolver out of his waist band that had been hidden under his tee-shirt. It looked to be as big as a small cannon, and I’m sure my eyes doubled in size as I stared at it in amazement.
“What do you think of this?” he asked, showing it to me.
“Cool,” I answered, the only thing I could come up with at the moment.
Uncle Sid had taught Tim and I how to shoot and handle guns with his .22 rifle and 20 gauge shotgun. He and my grandfather had taken us hunting squirrels, pheasants and grouse. I had shot and killed a few birds and animals in my young lifetime, feeling when I did that I was earning the approval of the men in my life and getting closer to being considered a grown up in their eyes. In short, I was comfortable around guns. But I’d never held, let alone shot, a revolver before.
“How big is it?” I then asked, just for something to say. At my age I was easily impressed with any kind of weapon. The bore looked enormous.
“Three fifty seven,” he told me. “It’s a 357 magnum and it’ll take down a bear.”
I immediately thought of the black bear Uncle Sid had mentioned and told him about it.
“Yeah, maybe,” he told me, when I’d finished, clearly uninterested. Then he was quiet for a minute, just staring into a void that to me looked like the woods, but to Lenny was probably something deeper, further away. Above me a red squirrel broke into a sustained chatter, making me think that if I had a gun I’d want to try to shoot it. Seeing that revolver was getting my hunting instinct going, my urge to kill, if you will. Lenny broke into my thoughts of carnage and bloodshed almost like he could read my mind, “I’m not one for killing things,” he told me, “Not after what I’ve seen.”
I was taken aback and slightly disappointed. Here I thought maybe we had something important in common – the desire to hunt and prove something to ourselves. But then I had another thought – maybe he was talking about the war and when he was in Korea. Immediately I was confused. “Yeah, I guess,” I said, agreeing, not wanting to let on I had no idea what he was talking about. “What’s with the gun then?”
He turned the revolver over in his hand, almost like he’d forgotten about it and was just seeing it for the first time. “I keep this around just to remind myself…” His words trailed off as he stopped talking. Then he turned and bent down so he was looking right at me. He eyes were bright blue, mixed with blood-shot red. There were yellow specs floating in the whites. I had to admit, he didn’t look too healthy. Besides, he had never really just stared at me for so long before. I had to admit that now I was starting to get a little nervous.
“Remind you of what?” I asked. My throat was dry, and my voice cracked. He looked at me for at least a count of ten and then did something I’ll never forget. He quickly raised the gun into the air and pulled the trigger. The blast was three feet from me but seemed to come from inside my head. I jumped back, tripped over a log and fell to the ground.
“What the hell did you do that for?” I screamed at him, scrambling to my feet. “Geez, man,” I spat out. I was mad, but more than that, embarrassed. He’d startled me and I think that’s what pissed me off the most. At least that’s what I tried to tell myself.
I wasn’t prepared for what he told me, “I just wanted you to know that guns are for killing. And once you kill something, it’s gone for good. Over and done with. Gone forever.” He looked at me again and then put the revolver into his belt and covered it with his shirt. “I’m never going to kill anything ever again. Period.” I got the feeling the he was talking about more than hunting squirrels; something that was bigger than that. It dawned on me that maybe something had happened to him in Korea that had caused him do what he had just done. I don’t know. All I know is that he scared the hell out of me, both with how he acted and with how he treated the gun: with respect, but also contempt.
Then he shook his whole body as if riding it of some sort of demon. “Let’s go back to my place,” he told me, completely changing the subject, “I’ll bet you’re not here to listen to me blather on and on. You’re here for worms, right?”
I was shaken and tried to recover. “Yeah, worms,” I said, my words seemed to stick in my throat. “I’ve got money,” I added, coughing a little and trying to get myself back to normal.
“Well, then we’re all set, my boy,” he said, giving me a little grin. His mood seemed lighter and he started walking, leading the way back to his shack. I followed along wondering what strange thing he might do next. But he didn’t do anything, just took my two pennies and gave me my worms, worms I really didn’t need since I’d be leaving the next day. It just seemed like the right thing to do. Oh, and one other thing he did that day – he mused up my hair and waved goodbye when I left, like a half-hearted show of affection. He’d never done that before. Weird, huh?
All those thoughts were now flooding back to me as I started down the trail to his shack. In the year since I’d last visited, the first thing I noticed was how overgrown the path had become. Low growing brambles and trailing grape vines impeded my progress and hidden roots threatened to trip me up. I fought through scrubby bushes and buckthorn, scratching my face, arms and legs. I swore silently and wished I’d worn a long sleeve shirt and blue jeans rather than my tee-shirt and shorts. I abandoned my bow and arrow half way in, so sick to death of getting it hung up on branches all the time that I was willing to risk battling the bear Uncle told me about with just my pocket knife. Horse flies buzzed around my head, vying for my blood along with the swarms of mosquitoes and gnats. The air was heavy with humidity and perfectly still – not a breath of a breeze. I hurried as fast as I could to save myself from being eaten alive, which was barely fast enough, believe me.
By the time I reached Lenny’s place I was sweating and bloody. I stopped for a moment to catch my breath and take a last drink from my canteen. My bad mood vanished, though, when I saw what lay before me.
If Lenny’s shack was a mess last year, this year the word ‘wreck’ would be a more accurate description. Or dump. There was no glass in the windows anymore, just pieces of dirty fabric that had been nailed in place and now hung limply, doing absolutely nothing to kept out any bugs or rodents that wanted to get inside. The roof had sagged even more and I could see gaping holes in it. The screen door was laying on the ground, rotting so there was nothing to stop animals like raccoons or bears from wandering inside whenever they felt like it. There was a sense of desolation like I’d never seen before in my young life. But there was something else, too: a feeling that something was horribly wrong. I hesitated, looking back behind me, thinking I should just run away. The path was a life line back to civilization as I knew it. But I had come here to see Lenny. That’s what I needed to do. I put my caution aside and stepped forward through pieces of wood, rusty nails and broken glass. I wanted to see inside.
I approached slowly, calling Lenny’s name once or twice before I got to the opening where the door used to be. I could smell him before I saw him, like the dead animals I caught the odor of through sewer grates back home, it was overwhelming. I looked inside, blinking against the stench and dimness until my eyes adjusted. Then I saw him, lying on his bed, rotting. I felt like I should run away, but I didn’t. I’m ashamed to say that I was curious, so curious, in fact, that my first thought was not, What can I do to help him? but, I wonder what he looks like? I stepped through the rubble and junk on the floor and made my way to his bed, holding my hand over my nose and mouth, fighting to keep from gagging. I looked at him. I even touched his shoulder. He was so peaceful and silent – like he was sleeping and at peace with the world. Maybe he was. I knew that he had his demons, but I couldn’t even begin to understand the complexity of what they were.
He was dead, that was for sure, the bottle flies and other insects crawling and buzzing around him told me that, and there was nothing I could do to help him. My next thought was, Now what should I do? I had choices: I knew the right thing to do was to run and tell Auntie Beth. But something was holding me back. If I told, then a bunch of adults would get involved, as well as the police and they’d question me and who knew what would happen then? I could picture a hulking, red faced, sweating cop with a cheesy mustache, blowing cigarette smoke at me while he questioned me and getting mad at me for some hidden adult reason I wasn’t aware of. Who needed that? It might be easier to just walk away and pretend I’d never been to his place and seen him. I could think up a credible lie to tell Auntie while I walked home. That seemed like the safest thing to do. The easiest. I turned to leave, reluctant to tear my eyes away from him and surprised myself by tripping over something on the floor. Immediately I thought of the gun he’d shown me last year. But it wasn’t the gun. Instead, it was just a pile of some junk I hadn’t seen when I’d come in. It broke my concentration, though, and I stopped, taking a minute to look around.
His little shack was just as much of a mess as it had been, if not more so. There was one old wooden table pushed up against a wall with two chairs next to it. Nothing else but the bed he was lying on and the refrigerator which had always been useless. Lenny had told me last year there was no electricity to the cabin. “Yep, not a lot of comforts of home here, my boy,” he’d told me, “but that’s just fine with me. I like it. It’s almost like camping out.” I couldn’t have agreed with him more, especially the ‘Not a lot of comforts of home’ part. Discarded soggy cardboard boxes, moldy pieces of clothing and broken glasses were strewn all around, and the shack was heavy with a mildew smell that almost masked the stench coming from Lenny’s body. Almost, but not quite. Stepping carefully, I went over to the refrigerator and opened it. It was empty. Apparently Lenny had gotten out of the worm business.
What had his life been like? I often ask myself that, now – now that I’m an adult and in the final years of my life. What were those last years of his life like, after he’d finished with the war in Korea and had ended up in a junked out, dilapidated shack at the end of a tangled path off a dirt road in a rural county in northern Minnesota? What was it that happened during his thirty years on earth that led him to this? I sometimes pictured him as a skinny, fun-loving, red headed kid, without a care in the world, about my age back then running and playing like I did. He never told me if he had any brothers or sisters. In fact he told me nothing about his life at all, hardly. I was just a dumb kid to him, who bought the occasional can of worms. But I remembered that he was nice to me. I remembered him showing me the revolver and mussing my hair the last time I saw him. I remembered that he smiled at me every now and then, and seemed to not mind me coming around too much.
I watched the flies crawling around on his face and then got mad at them. I waved my hands over his body, yelling at them to go away. Then I pulled the sheet up over his face as best I could. I was able to cover him completely. Then I abruptly left, leaving him behind forever, unaccountably sad that he was dead.
In the end, my decision wasn’t hard at all. I did go back to our cabin and tell Auntie Beth about Lenny. I felt I owed him something. She called the police and they took care of everything, even his burial, which I found out later was a few miles north of the nearest town to us, fifteen miles away. I wasn’t asked to attend, and don’t know if I would have anyway, at least back then.
Was I shaken up by what I’d found in that fly blown shack? Yes, you bet I was. Like I said, I still can’t get the image of him out of my mind, and, even writing this I am keeping a promise to myself to spare readers the gruesome details. But it’s more than being shaken up and something way beyond the act of finding his body that has stayed with me all these years. It’s really been about coming to grips with something Lenny taught me that maybe he didn’t even intend to. But a seed had been planted by him, that was for sure. One that let me see that there was a world out there way bigger than the one I had been exposed to up until then in the eleven years of my short life.
In the years to come, when I thought about it, the memory of his body faded. What started to be my primary thought was what else I found inside his shack that day. It was the table and the chairs by the window that has kept coming back to me all these years. I think what sticks with me most is the fact that there were two chairs at the table. Think about it: two chairs. Why? I often wonder…Did he have a friend that would stop by? Someone to hang out with and drink the beer that I’d seen in his refrigerator next to the cans of worms? I never saw any indication that anyone ever showed up to his place (except that woman, that one time), but maybe people did. Maybe she came back. Or maybe the chair was there in the hopes that someday, someone would stop by and sit a little and talk with him – friendly, like. Someone to keep him company and take away his loneliness. Someone like me, maybe.
Auntie told me years later, when I talked to her about it, that he had died of congestive heart failure and that no one came to his funeral. If he did have a friend he or she wasn’t much of one. They just buried him and that was it. It made me wish I had thought to ask if I could go, that summer long past. To this day I hate to think of him dying alone in his dirty shack and being buried all alone in some lonely, rural cemetery.
Maybe, though, in the end, that’s just the way it is – the way it has to be. Sometimes things don’t work out the way we always want them to.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t still try and do something about it.
Mom and Dad divorced a few years after that summer and life went on. Auntie Beth and Uncle Sid sold the cabin when my sisters were in their mid teens. I had quit going long before that. In the case of Auntie and Uncle’s cabin, I was left with memories I still have to this day. Vivid memories of being a kid, young and free and being able to go swimming, fishing, exploring and to let my imagination take me anywhere I wanted to go. I’m sure I will carry those memories with me until the day I die.
One of those memories was Lenny, so one day I did something I probably should have done years ago. I went and visited his grave.
On the way to the cemetery, though, I drove to Auntie Beth’s and Uncle Sid’s cabin. I hadn’t been there for over fifty years. To say it had changed was putting it mildly. The cabins around the lake had all been updated, modernized and turned into three season if not year around homes. And you know that old dirt road? The one that coated the roadside and me with chalky, gray dust? The one that looped around the point and was the only way to get to the little cottages and cabins and the Fine Fish Inn? Well, it had not only been paved, but there were homes built in the woods that once had been a forest full of Robin Hood’s Merry Men in my imagination, and a roving black bear in real life. In short, civilization had come to the north woods of my youth.
The worst experience was seeing Auntie and Uncle’s cabin. Or lack of it, I should say. All the underbrush between it and the road had been completely cleared away and an attempt had been made to grow grass. Where before, from the dirt road, the cabin couldn’t be seen for the woods and underbrush, now you could see it clearly. New homes had been built on either side of it, and the beautiful old cabin had been leveled and a new looking modular home had been set in its place. I could see clearly enough to notice a badminton net had been stretched across the backyard, and someone had put in an above ground pool. (I guess swimming in the lake was something the family who now owned the place felt uncomfortable doing.)
I toyed momentarily with going up and talking to the current owners, but it didn’t look like anyone was around, so I drove on. Plus, to be honest, I’m not sure I was up to it. The changes I was seeing to the area were going to take some getting used to. Also, I wanted to check out the Inn. Not surprisingly, it was gone, too. In its place was a gas station attached to a modern looking bait and tackle shop. I pulled in to collect myself. Across the road, where the path to Lenny’s used to be, a Quik-Mart now stood with at least ten cars in the parking lot, and a few picnic tables off to one side under a lone, old pine tree. Over half the forest on the point was gone, replaced by buildings of some sort, mostly houses and outbuildings and storage sheds. It was almost like I was back in my neighborhood in Minneapolis. As I sat in my car, looking out over the lake, three personal watercraft went tearing by, jumping waves and throwing plums of spray in the air. I was over a hundred yards away, but I could hear them plainly. A quick scan of the lake showed no one out fishing. It was probably too noisy. I left in a hurry.
Lenny was buried two miles north of McGregor, the closest town to Tamarack Lake. The cemetery was on the edge of some pastureland, a quarter mile off highway 65, a two lane, blacktop highway that was one of the main roads running north and south in the county. It took half an hour to get to it from the lake, a slow but pleasant drive on rough washboard gravel back roads that wound past pothole lakes, tamarack swamps and second and third growth aspen forests before merging with the highway. Fifty years ago, Ojibwa lived in tarpaper shacks around here. Now they lived in dilapidated tiny trailers. Some things, unfortunately, never changed.
I pulled off a little traveled, weed infested, dirt road at the entrance. The graveyard was enclosed in a chain link fence and had a wooden sign nailed on a post next to it that read, ‘Pine Cone Cemetery’ which was appropriate. The land around here was Mississippi River flood plain and flat and I could see for miles in all directions. In the distance were forests of low grade trees called Jack Pine. Clearly the cemetery was named after them. The road to the entrance was through deep sand and I had to drop into low gear to get through it. Once inside, it split into a few paths that took you near to most of the headstones. It was a small place, maybe half the size of a football field, unkempt, flat and treeless, like it had been put in as an afterthought. But it hadn’t. I saw on the internet before I came up that it had been there for over a hundred and fifty years.
I parked my car, got out and started walking through the long, dead grass. I was looking at headstones and markers, most of them windblown and crumbling, getting a feel for the place. There was a flag pole in the center that was sandblasted and pitted, a lone rope hanging from it twisting forlornly. I wondered when the last time a flag had flown from it. Probably a long, long time ago was my guess. A stiff wind blew out of the south, kicking up dust, whistling past the tombstones. A more desolate location I couldn’t imagine.
I’d made some phone calls before I came up and had a general idea when Larry’s remains were buried. It took about five minutes before I found him. The stone was simple, “Lenny Galen Mackintosh, born September 28, 1929 and died August 3, 1960.” That was all it said except half the letters and numbers were illegible. I only found the marker because I knew what I was looking for. I guess he didn’t get a military burial in Fort Snelling down in the Twin Cities because he’d been dishonorably discharged from the Army while serving in Korea.
I can’t begin to tell you how sad I was. He had no family that had gone to his funeral service. He was buried by the county with some money contributed by the Swenson family. His marker was some sort of cheap gray granite and it was already falling apart. I knelt in the grass and used my hand to brush off debris and dirt. Then I pulled out handfuls of grass that were growing over the edges. Just those simple acts started to help ease my melancholy feeling. I stood up and looked around. It was a summer day, much like the one when I’d found him dead nearly sixty years earlier. The sky was filled with white, puffy clouds and the day was hot and dry. Sweat was starting to run down my back. I unscrewed the cap of my water bottle and took a drink. Then I poured the rest into my hand and over the marker and cleaned it off some more. When I was done, I ran to my car and grabbed a towel and came back and dried it off. Finally, Lenny’s stone was nice and clean. Satisfied, I sat down.
The wind blew in strong gusts, kicking up dust devils from the dry ground. A few crows flew by cawing back and forth, and, in the distance I heard the sound of a gunshot. A shotgun probably. I knew people up here loved to hunt. Not me. After Lenny discharged that revolver nearly in my ear and told me about killing things, his words stuck with me. I never wantonly killed another living creature the rest of my life. It was weird to me how Lenny, a man I had only the most superficial contact one could have with another human being, could have had such an impact on me. But he did.
I had gone on with my life after that summer – a full and rewarding one during which I learned many lessons, one of which was to treat others with respect. It was another lesson I learned from Lenny because that’s what he did with me, in a tiny, small way, but he did. And that counted for something, especially to me at a young age when I was susceptible to all kinds of forces, both good and bad. In spite of whatever problems he may have been plagued with, he was always decent to me and with me. I have to say that, in the long run, I’ve meant many types of people throughout my life, both good and bad. Lenny was a good one.
I wanted to leave behind something, a tribute of some sort to thank him for being who he was and influencing my life in a way neither of us had the tiniest inkling of back then in the short while I knew him. I met him over a can of worms, but leaving something like that seemed disrespectful. I reached into my pocket. In it I carried the pocket knife that I had carried with me those summers back when I knew him. I had it in my pocket that day I found him in his junked out shack, and I had carried it with me every day since. I took it out placed it on his stone. It still looked good, though worn, after nearly one hundred years of use. I remembered Uncle Sid giving it to me when I was ten, “This is for you, Cal,” he’d told me at the time, putting his arm around my shoulder. “Treat it with respect, and you’ll always be able to depend on it.”
Back then things like that I took for granted, but over the years they became more and more poignant. I was shaped by the men I knew growing up. Uncle Sid was one. Lenny was another. Two entirely different people, two entirely different impacts on me. Both I’ll never forget.
I knew if I left the knife there on the stone someone would just take it – put it in their pocket and walk off. The ground around the marker was wet from my water. I looked around and found the stiff stalk of a weed. I used it to carve out a small hole, wrapped the knife in part of the towel I’d cleaned the stone of with, put it in the hole and covered it with soil.
I took a deep cleansing breath and let the air out of my lungs. I didn’t feel as sad anymore. I stood up, brushing myself off. Lenny had been a good man to me. He had treated me as an adult even though I was just an impressionable kid. I didn’t want to look too deeply into my feelings for him, or make too big of a deal over it and try to philosophize too much on why he meant what he did to me. He certainly had his faults, but don’t we all. But I’ll never forget seeing him dead, knowing that the life was gone from him forever. And, most importantly, that I never had the chance to say ‘Thank you’ to the guy who was nothing other than kind to me and taught me that being a man was more than just the person with the biggest gun. It had a lot to do with being the kind of person who would take the time to not turn away a young kid who only wanted to buy a can of worms, but ended up getting so much more.
I left then and began my journey home. I doubt I’ll ever come back again, but then again, who knows, maybe I will. Life can be strange that way. I only had to think about Lenny to remind me of that.