Woody-Chuck

OUR BELOVED CAMP STORYTELLER, CHUCK STEAD, TELLS A SUSPENSEFUL TALE OF A GROUNDHOG AND THE PLOT TO OUST THE UNSUSPECTING RODENT…

A few groundhogs had burrowed into the vegetative bank-side of the Fountain Park Pond in our village when I was a boy. The fuss they caused occupied the community for some time. It was one of Cindy Maloney’s little brothers who first spotted the roundish brown and black pawed woodchuck standing near to the remnants of the old pond ice house. It took us a while, but soon we discovered its den deep in the bank-side briers. It was complete with a dirt mound for a front porch, from which Woody-Chuck could observe most of the pond park.

We all got to calling him ‘Woody-Chuck’ when we learned it was a ‘he’, and for the most part no one seemed to mind him. The Keppler brothers tried to shoot him with a pellet gun, but they were notoriously bad shots. Then one of the Danhauser boys set an iron leg hold trap for it but caught Buchanan’s collie instead. The dog had to have surgery to repair its dislocated toe joints. Uncle Mal raged a campaign against the use of leg hold traps in the village of Hilburn, and it was soon announced by the mayor that a fine of $70 would be levied upon any trapping within the village. So, the Woody-Chuck seemed to be secure in his pond-side den.

But soon he had a mate and there were new worries that there would be even more groundhogs running about, digging up folks’ gardens and burrowing under house porches. So, a team of locals got the fire department to hook-up a hose to the Third Street hydrant in order to flood the groundhogs out. We kids were afraid they would be drowned, but we were assured that the groundhogs had other hidden exits and that as the burrow filled up, they would escape from those. So, on a Saturday morning in July, Ricky Cramshaw, Cindy Maloney and I were standing at the top of the Third Street bend in the road, looking down the park bank through the brush at the men laying out the fire hose. They were thrashing into the brush to ‘flush out’ Woody-Chuck. Although we had searched, we had yet to find his backdoor exit. Now we eagerly waited to see from where he would emerge with his mate and kin.

One of the men shoved the fire house down into the den opening and then they called back up the line to where my dad Walt was waiting with a big wrench on the fire hydrant, ready to open it up. From where we stood, we could see him turning the wrench. Then we could see the hose fatten up with water all along the way down into the pond park. It wound its way along to where some of the men stood, and then up and into Woody-Chuck’s den. We could almost hear the water flushing through the tunnels of the den, but still there was no sign of any groundhogs charging out of the ground. The men walked around the brush, kicking at the thick stubs, but they saw nothing. Walt walked down to where we stood and asked, “No sign of him?”

Ricky said, “Nope. Maybe he already moved his family out of there?”

Walt said, “Not likely. No, I think he’s still in there somewhere.”

I was about to ask if it was possible that they all got drowned, when Cindy shouted, “Look!”

And there to the right, in the thick of an old tree stump, out popped Woody-Chuck, his partner and three more small ones! They scurried up the bank and waddled out onto third street. All of them were wet and looked really annoyed. They then made their way across the street and into some barberry thickets. Walt walked back up to the fire hydrant and shut it off. The men pulled out the hose and then sealed off the den entrance with some rocks and even found the exit through the old stump and smashed that down into the tunnel. It was over.

A week later though, Woody-Chuck and family were comfortably back in their den. No one bothered with them after that.

Snowflakery

Our beloved camp storyteller, Chuck Stead, recounts a humorous wintertime interaction…

Most winters gave us something of a white Christmas and almost certainly a white New Year’s, but there was one year in my boyhood we had neither. It was cold enough to have snow. The frozen mud of tire tracks along the edge of the roads curled up like crispy corduroy trousers. The pond was rock solid ice and most of the river was skate worthy. There just hadn’t been anything falling from the sky. It was a hard, cold winter. Dougy Cramshaw was disgusted. Every morning he leapt from his twisted blankets and comforter, ran to the window and gazed out onto the valley below, where the only white he saw was the long hard white concrete of the New York State Thruway, its cars and trucks speeding by without concern for slippery conditions. Dougy was utterly disastisfied!

Then it occurred to him that the inside of his mother’s freezer section of the refrigerator was encrusted with snow-like frost. So, he carefully scraped away at it with a large spoon and packed a tin cup full of the stuff. He then bundled up and ran outside. Hands freezing, he formed a snowball – the first of the season. Now he went looking for a target. Although he had put his cloth mittens back on, holding this chunk of frozen frost moistened his hands and in turn slickened the ball of intended winter fun. As he crossed over the top of Mountain Avenue, he spotted Ian Keppler, a notorious bully in the village. Ordinarily, Doug would have run in fear, but he was empowered beyond reason with his secret premature snowball.

Doug shouted at Ian, “Hey you, don’t you chase me, I got a snowball!”

Ian took the bait and charged toward Dougy shouting, “You ain’t got no snowball!”

Little Dougy then illustrated that tossing a hard as rock frost ball makes for a very accurate throw. The ball clobbered Ian in the chest and he landed on his backside. The frost ball bounced off of him and then struck a tree and took off some bark! Dougy turned and ran down Second Street with Ian Keppler hot on his heels. Keppler caught him and tossed him down and was about to pound him, when he realized they had landed in front of Cousin Buzzy’s house. Buzz was on the front porch messing with an old generator that uncle Mal had given him. He looked up and saw Kepler hunkered down on top of a trapped Dougy. Buzz called out, “What’s this about?”

Keppler shouted back, “He hit me with a snowball!”

Buzz glanced up at the sky and said to Keppler, “Now how did he do that? There ain’t no snow.”

Keppler stammered and as Buzz got up and stepped over the heap of generator parts Kepler said, “I don’t know how he did it, but he did it!”

Buzz walked down to them and ordered Keppler off of Dougy. The bully obeyed reluctantly as Buzz carried with him an air of uncertain danger. Buzzy said to Doug, “You OK?”

Dougy said that he was just fine and then Buzzy turned on Kepler and said, “Now go away!”

Kepler went back up over the top of Mountain Avenue and Dougy got up and explained to Buzzy that he had indeed attacked Kepler with a Frozen Snow Frost Ball, made from his mother’s freezer. And Buzzy so admired little Doug’s ingenuity that he said there and then, “Well Cramshaw, I think you just invented Snowflakery!”

Bolivers

Our beloved camp storyteller, Chuck Stead, writes about a holiday tradition with humble roots…

Bolivers, my dad Walt told us, was what they called the fried bread dough that my grandmother offered as a regular meal when there was nothing else to eat during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Growing up, it was my family’s tradition that we ate bolivers every Christmas morning before unwrapping our gifts. One usually poured molasses or maple syrup over the boliver.

As Christmas drew near, Walt would make a great pillow of bread dough and then park it in a covered pot on the steam radiator so as to rise overnight. He usually did this three nights in advance of Christmas. Ricky Cramshaw always came over to have a boliver after his folks unwrapped their presents. Through the years various other friends joined in with this tradition and chomped down on a sticky, chewy boliver. Watching Walt stretch a wad of bread dough as thin as he could, and then toss it into a sizzling pan of fat, was also part of the tradition. After one ate a boliver, there was a period of sitting and falling half asleep as the boliver settled like warm sand into your belly. Truth is, no one really much cared for bolivers themselves – it was all about tradition…the tradition that was set down by Gram Hulga Stead.

One year, the day after Christmas, Ricky Cramshaw and I were playing with these wonderful electric Lionel trains I had received. That year, Tessie was not proud of the fact that they had bought me ‘used’ trains, but actually I couldn’t have been happier. My grandfather (who passed when I was four) had worked in the Ramapo Iron Works shop on railroading equipment, so I equated the old-style toy trains with him. Ricky and I were configuring a track set-up when Walt called us up for bolivers.

In the kitchen he first powdered his hands with flour and then started stretching two wads of bread dough. He told us this was his mother’s way of keeping the family eating during the Depression. Ricky asked him, “Why was everybody so depressed back then?”

Walt tossed our bolivers into the snapping and crackling hot fat. Then he looked at us and said, “Well sir, back then, a lot of rich people fixed it so that most people ended up stone-broke. Pretty soon no one had jobs or if they did, they didn’t earn much money and they couldn’t feed their families. It was a bad time.”

Ricky said, “But your mother fed everybody, right?”

“Well, she fed us just like other mothers found a way to feed their families. Bolivers is poor people food.”

Ricky said, “So, I guess that means we are poor, huh?”

“Nope, it means that at this time of season we remember our poor background and maybe that makes us a little kinder to those in need.”

He had already flipped our bolivers and was now forking them out of the spitting fat. He plopped one down on a plate for each of us and set them on the table. We buttered and poured maple syrup over them. He made another one that cooked fast enough for him to join us. As we sat there eating the bolivers, Walt admitted something to us both, he said, “You know, I don’t think anyone really likes bolivers, but at this time of year we have our traditions.”

We agreed and once we finished eating, we slunk off to the electric trains but soon were both sound asleep on the floor, our bellies full of warm sand.

The Root Drinker

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, shares a peak into a character with a mysterious, muddy method of self-preservation…

About a year after my grandfather passed, it was observed that I had become a sullen and moody soul. Apparently, I was still waiting for him to return. My dad, Walt, started to take me on his ‘rounds’ in the evening when he paid calls upon village elders. I listened to their stories, their gossip, and their lives. It was time, according to my mother, that I learn about other things. But all things, for me, were connected to grandpa, whom we called Heebie Jeebie.

Along with my dad, my uncle Mal took me around to ‘learn about other things’ and this is how I met the root drinker. In the drive up to his house, Mal talked about how the root drinker had been diagnosed by doctors with an incurable cancer and had little time left to live. Mal said, “That was twenty years ago and he’s doing just fine still.” I asked how he was doing fine and uncle Mal said proudly, “He’s a root drinker!”

The house we came up to had bundles of twigs and dried flowers, and heaps of grass tied in long braids all hanging from the open ceiling of the front porch. As we walked under the porch roof, I looked up and saw the sky, realizing that there were only roof rafters for tying plants in the air and no actual roof cover on the porch. Mal called out to the man to let him know we had arrived. I saw the door open and we were greeted by a very healthy-looking man who smiled a very gritty set of teeth at us. He was happy to have us visit and he told us to come in and to sit down.

We walked in and it was very dark and kind of musty smelling. I looked up. There were the roots: thousands of different roots hanging from the ceiling. They were so clustered together that I felt we had gone underground and were now looking up at the very bottom of a forest. These roots were tied in bunches, some of them caked with clumps of earth and others clean and dry. He called us over to his table and showed us his book. It was an old tattered notebook and it had been his grandmother’s root drinking recipe book. He had kept it as a family heirloom and then when he was diagnosed with cancer he poured through the scribbled pages and detailed recipes left to him by a woman from another time. There were even little drawings to help identify the different plants and to show how to scrape the root skins and how to chop and shred the different roots

He was very proud of his grandmother who he told us lived to be over a hundred years in age. She had told him of when she heard about Lincoln being killed. She told him about learning of the death of Chief Sitting Bull. And she told him about hearing Mark Twain tell stories of his adventures in the Sandwich Islands. But it was her root drinking recipe book that told him the most valuable thing: how to live.

He poured us both a cup of lukewarm tea that had stuff floating in it. It tasted like mud. But Mal insisted I drink it. I did. The taste of dirt lasted in my mouth for days after. And the image of roots hanging from the ceiling has lasted with me ever since.

Habitat

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, picks up where he left off last month

Jeff Masters walked us kids up along the power line that crosses the road in east Hillburn, just past the Paint Shop, and then goes up the hill and over the mountain. I was directly behind him, followed by Cindy and Ricky, and even Rick’s little brother, Doug, trailing behind us. Jeff lead us over some wide expanse of rock that was a light dusty color. Crossing under the high-tension cables, he walked us into the tree line and right up to some large slabs of broken rock. He said the snake scientists call this sort of rock ‘talus’ and he said the snake scientists are called ‘herpetologists’.
“Herpy-loligists?” Ricky asked him.
“No, herpetologists” Jeff told him.
We all tried to say it and Dougy came up with the best version, “Herpy-lollipop-olists!”

We heard something moving and Jeff kept us back as he spotted a big black snake slipping away from where we stood. The snake was in no hurry to get away and Jeff said this might mean that he or she had just caught a mouse and had a full stomach. Once the snake was gone, Jeff told us that this was ‘good snake country’, as the rock offered nice places for them to den and the open area where the power lines were strung made a good place for mice to live. That meant there was plenty of food for the snakes. He said they also liked to lie out on the open rocks, but that was risky as hawks could see them and hunt them out there.

I said, “Hawks eat snakes?”
“Yup, hawks eat the snakes just as the snakes eat the mice.”
Ricky asked, “Who eats the hawks?”
Jeff said, “Well, eagles will, but we ain’t got much eagles around here these days. Owls and ravens and crows will eat hawk eggs, but not the hawks themselves.” Then he said, “That black snake we just seen can climb trees and sometimes they climb up to the hawk’s nest and eat the eggs too.”
Cindy said, “In nature, everything is a meal.”
“Yup” he told us. “Pretty much everything gets eaten eventually, even you!”
“Me!?”
“Well yeah, if you was to live where the polar bears or the grizzly bears or the lions was to find you.”
Ricky said, “We don’t got them being around here, right?”
“No we don’t and even if we did we’d keep ourselves away from them.”
Ricky said, “Or we’d be their supper!”
Dougy said, “I want to eat some nature!”
Jeff told him, “You eat nature all the time. All our food comes from nature.”
“No”, Dougy told him, “Our food comes from the grocery store.”
Jeff laughed and said, “Where do you think the store gets it from?”
“The food house!” Dougy declared.

Jeff told us, “The food house is everywhere.” He hunkered down and said, “You see, just like this place is good for mice, then it’s good for snakes and then good for the hawks. All of nature is a food store, only we call it a ‘habitat’. A good habitat means there will be good hunting and good eating.” He stood up and looking back down into the valley toward the thruway. He said, “But not when we build too many roads and buildings and dump garbage all over. That messes up the habitat. It’s like we were going into the food store and breaking up the shelves and refrigerators and dumping all the orange juice and milk on the floor.”

Dougy said, “Hey! That’s wrong! We’d be bad guys to do that!”
Jeff said, “Yup and it’s the same thing when we break up the habitat.”
Doug thought about this and then said, “But we need roads and buildings, too.”
“Yup, you’re right, and it’s always a trade-off. We want roads and buildings and we got to have a good habitat.”
Cindy said, “So the snake scientists…”
Dougy shouted, “The Herpy-lollipop-olists!”
She said, “They are always working to see if the snake habitat is in good health?”
Jeff said, “Yup, that’s what science is for.”
Ricky said, “But Uncle Mal says them fellows is know-it-alls!”
“Yeah, well a lot of them are because sometimes the ‘new-learning’ don’t give a hoot about the ‘old-learning’.”
And Ricky said, “Ain’t that because the new takes over the old?”
Jeff looked at us and said, “Taking-over ain’t the way it’s supposed to be. It’s supposed to be just like a good habitat, where one thing builds into the next. In nature everything continues because everything is still connected; eventually everything comes around. Same is true with science, but it’s wrong when it forgets about the ancient wisdom.”
I said, “What’s that?”
He said, “It’s what came before the science. It’s what helped make the science come around.” He looked down at me and said, “And it’s in all of you.”
Dougy squealed and said, “Oh, I feel it tickling my insides!”

We followed Jeff out from under the trees and back down along the path of the power lines. Truth is, I wasn’t at all sure what he had been talking about, but I had a feeling it would come to me. I figured it was like ‘good habitat’ – eventually everything comes around.

Taking Care of Mother Nature

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, continues his story from last month…

By the end of that trapping season, Jeff Masters had taken more than a few dozen raccoons. This was an animal that was populating very well throughout the Torne Valley and deep into Harriman State Park, but mostly along the edges of the park near to where people lived. Raccoon is an opportunist, which means he takes advantage of wherever he can find a free meal. The problem with that is when Raccoons produce a lot more raccoons, and they are all eating garbage, they can get sick. And sometimes they can pass their sickness along to other raccoons, so keeping the growing population down was Jeff Masters’ way of preventing the raccoons from spreading sickness through their community. He could get more money for trapping fox and mink, but Jeff was interested in the coons as a way of being a good naturalist. He had been reading a magazine that my dad Walt had given him a subscription for, called The New York State Conservationist. This was Walt’s favorite magazine and he told me that it was about ‘taking care of nature’ and that all the good hunters read it. In fact, Walt showed me a story in the Conservationist about the rising raccoon population and about how some scientists were worried that rabies, an animal sickness, might break out among the raccoons. Still, I was worried that Jeff might be killing too many coons and then they would be gone forever.

“Gone forever?” Uncle Mal said to us kids when I told him about this. He said, “You mean extinct, don’t you?”
Ricky said, “No not stinky coons, just gone coons.”
Mal said, “Ricky Cramshaw, extinction is not about being stinky, it’s about not being anything at all!”
“Uncle Mal, how can you be not anything at all?”
‘By being extinct!”
“Uncle Mal, coons are smelly but they don’t stink!”
Mal got up out of his chair and crossed to the paint shop coffer counter and said, “I ain’t talking to you about this anymore!”
I jumped in, “But Uncle Mal, could the raccoons be all gone if Jeff traps too many?”
Mal picked up his electric perk coffee pot and poured some oily black coffee into his plastic throw-away insert cup and he said, “I don’t think so. Raccoons are real good at multiplying.”
Ricky said, “Coons are good at arithmetic?”
Mal stared at him and said, “You bet they are, boy. A couple of healthy raccoons can turn into half a dozen and then next year that half a dozen can turn into three dozen, and then…”
I said, “But what if Jeff were too trap enough of them to make it hard for the multiplying to happen?”
“Huh?”
“What if Jeff trapped all the momma coons and then there was no more baby coons?”
He stared at me and said, “Chucky, why are you so worried about this?”

I told him about articles in the Conservationist that Walt showed me, all about trying to keep the right number of animals around and about being careful about not killing too many of them. Mal sat down and said, “Well now I ain’t going to criticize the Conservationist but all I’m going to say is I never cared for these wild life scientists who think they can make nature work better. Nature will do whatever she intends to do with or without us!”

Cindy, who hadn’t said a word up to this point, said, “You called nature a ‘she’.”
“Well, yes I did.”
“So nature is a girl?”
He thought about this and said, “Well, I suppose so.”
Ricky said to Mal, “How can nature be a girl?”
Mal shook his head and told him, “Cramshaw, it is just an expression. People just say it.”
“Yeah, but why do they say it?”
questions!” He then shuffled through some papers on his desk and we sat there pondering the female-ness of existence. Then he returned and showed us a copy of the Readers Digest and in it an advertisement said, ‘Please Take Care of Mother Nature’. There was a picture of pollution along-side a highway. Mal said, “There, you see? Folks think of nature as being a mother.”
And I said, “Yeah, and it says we need to ‘take care’ of her. And maybe killing too many coons is not taking care of her?”
He shook his head in disgust and said, “You know you’re talking just like one of them know-it-all scientist fellows. You want to be careful about that.”
Cindy said, “Chucky ain’t going to be a scientist.” And then she looked at me and said, “Are you?”
I was about to tell her I was planning on being an archeologist, but Mal said, “You don’t want to end up like that fellow who’s been poking around in rattle snake country!”
I looked at him and said, “Why not?”
Mal looked at us and said, “Ain’t you heard? He got himself bit by a rattler two days ago and it was Jeff who took him to the hospital.”
Cindy said, “Was he bit bad?”
Mal stared at her and said, “Well there’s no way you can be bit good.”
Ricky said, “Oh yeah? Well if I was a rattlesnake I would bite you good, Uncle Mal!”
Mal said, “If you was a rattlesnake, I would run you over with my truck!”
Cindy said, “That’s not taking care of Mother Nature, Mal.”
Mal was about to respond but changed his mind and instead told us to get outside and find some raccoons and rattlesnakes to play with.

In Like a Lion

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, continues his story from last month, about mysterious snake-related business…

Staring out at the roaring rumble of a mixed snow/rain storm from the paint shop window, uncle Mal said, “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb!”.

Jeff Masters said to him, “That aint always true.”

Mal looked at us kids, winked and said, “But a dry March means a wet May, fill barns and bays with corn and hay!”

Jeff laughed and said, “Malcolm, you ought to be a poet weatherman!”

Ricky, Cindy, and I were all sitting on a heap of canvas drop sheets with Mike, the shop dog. We were waiting for our soaked gloves to dry out. Mal had pinned them up over the shop heating vent. We had walked over to the shop, through the village, in a wet snow storm and now it was a snow/rain storm dropping wet white weather all over our world.

Jeff poured himself a little more coffee from the shop pot, returned to his stool and said, “I’m telling you, that scientist, or whatever he is, was up just below the Torne ledge late last night, taking temperatures of the rocks there along the bottom of the cliff.

Mal said, “Well wait now, how do you know he was doing this late at night?”

Jeff explained, “I went in to bait some coon traps along the Torne Brook after dark and I saw him hiking up, to the bottom of the cliffs. Then this morning, at sun rise, I was down at the Red Apple for coffee and there he was, sitting there eating eggs, bacon, toast and coffee. He had the same wooden box I seen him carrying up there the night before. So, I go over to his table and I say to him, ‘You been traipsing around the foot of Torne Mountain last night, I seen you.’ And he says to me that he was there to check the midnight temperature of the underside of the rocks where he figures snakes is hibernating. So, I ask him why, and he says it’s because he wants to know about the temperatures under the rocks as the spring comes in!”

Mal shook his head and said, “Sounds like a scientist. They are a strange tribe. Don’t work with much reason or sensibility.”

Jeff said, “So, I asked him if he was watching for the snakes to come out. And he tells me that he is doing just that, but that he hopes I won’t bother with them, as he is studying them.”

Mal laughed, “Well, why would you bother with them?”

Jeff said, “Up in Warren County they will pay you five dollars for a dead rattler snake. That’s as much as you get for a coon skin. I know fellows who will kill them down here and take them up there for the reward.”

Mal asked him, “Would you do that?”

“No, snaking is not what I do. I’m part Indian and we made our peace with the snake people.”

Ricky said, “Snake people? Who are they?”

Jeff told us, “All the animals got a people sense about them, just as we got an animal sense about us. So, my people, using their animal sense, talked with the snake people who used their animal sense to understand that we didn’t have no argument with them.”

Mal said, “Was that before or after Goldilocks ate up all the bears’ porridge?”

Ricky said, “No, Uncle Mal, she just ate up the baby bear’s porridge, is all.”

Jeff said, “Either way this fellow with the scientific tool kit was up there in the night taking temperatures of under the rocks!”

Mal said, “I don’t like it. First come the scientists and pretty soon the tourists are coming in. Once the tourists show up its all over!”

I said, “What’s all over, Uncle Mal?”

He looked at us kids and said, “Our way of life! There will be souvenir stands, parking lots, trailer camps, kiddy rides, before you know it they will be building a replica Village of Hillburn right next to the real one, anything for a buck!”

Ricky said, “What’s the replica Hillburn going to be like?”

“Well it will be like what Hillburn was like in the old times. If they build it right I might move into it myself!”

Jeff said, “Mal, they might pay you to live there like folks lived in the olden times!”

Outside the storm howled and blew hard against the shop window. We all stared out at the harsh weather and Mal said, “Maybe, I’ll skip living in the old-time village. Winters were pretty hard to take back then.”

Jeff said, “Oh Mal, you’ve just gotten soft in our old age. Winters are no different now than they were then.”

“Maybe not, but I’ve grown accustomed to centralized heat and hot water. No sir, I wouldn’t want to do with-out my civilization!”

Jeff stared out at the storm and said, “Yeah, well your civilization also means snake scientists creeping all over the mountain.”

Mal said, “And nothing good could come of that.”

In the February Thaw

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, continues his story from last month, about mysterious happenings in the Ramapo mountains…

There had been an early February thaw long enough that most of the snow had melted off and there was a lot of critter movement. Groundhogs, also known as woodchucks, had come out and wandered about, staring at their shadow in the bright winter sunshine. Then they went back into their dens, because seeing their shadow meant winter would last another six weeks. But if it is a long mid-winter thaw, the groundhogs hang out for a few days and poke around for something to eat. Deer mice come out and hurry about looking for food with no fear of snakes, as the snakes don’t travel far from their winter dens. The mice do need to keep a watch out for raccoons, foxes, coyotes, weasels and hawks—but at least not the snakes. Raccoons and skunks take long naps in the cold weather; not quite hibernating, but long enough to make them very hungry when they come out from time to time. Trappers of these animals bait their traps with oil of anisette, which smells like licorice and is a delicious attraction for hungry coons and skunks.

Geoff Masters went walking along beneath one of the terraces of Torne Mountain to ‘freshen’ up a few traps with some lore he carried in an eye-drop bottle. It was a mixture of anisette, tea tree oil, and skunk urine. The coon population was very much on the rise, so he was doing his best to capture and kill as many of them as he could. The fur was worth as much as $15 an animal, and the meat was the secret ingredient for the Ramapo Burgers, cooked up at his cousin’s Burger Shack. It was the second day of a February thaw and it was early, just past sunrise, when Geoff came around a clutch of boulders along the south slope of the ridge, and nearly walked headlong into a man coming from the other direction. They were both startled and they both stepped back and stared for a moment. This man wore a canvas backpack and was carrying a wooden handle with a curious metal hook at the end of it. The man smiled and said something about it being a nice day for a hike. Geoff agreed and they walked past each other.

But Geoff only went a few feet and then hunkered down and waited behind a large egg-shaped boulder. He feared that this man was a trap stealer and that his curious stick with the hook on it was what he used to snap up the traps he stole. So, after a few minutes, Geoff followed back to track the man. But as he came around the place where they first met, he saw that this man had not gone on down the trail, but instead had gone up the cliff side. Geoff followed up the cliff just a bit and then, out above him, he saw the man setting up a little place, and then proceeding to sit down and watch the broken load of rocks, with the sun on his back.

Later, Geoff said to Uncle Mal at the paint shop, “Mal, I spied on this fellow for at least half an hour and all he did was sit and watch those rocks.”

Mal said, “Was he crazy?”

Geoff shook his head and said, “Except for the watching the rocks thing, he seemed sane enough.”

Me and Ricky where listening to the two men talk about this from where we sat on a heap of canvas drop sheets petting Old Mike, the Shop Dog. Ricky said, “Uncle Mal, how could you tell if a fella was crazy?”

Mal said, “By his behavior, by the way he acts.”
“My Gram says, one man’s crazy is another man’s normal.”
Mal looked down at him and said, “Your grandmother talks to trees so I don’t think she’s a good judge of crazy.”

“She says crazy is something only people can be, animals don’t go in for being crazy.”
Geoff laughed at this. He said, “She’s got a point there.”
Ricky looked into Old Mike’s fuzzy, black face and said, “You ain’t much crazy, Mike!”

Mal said, “Yes sir, the old lady’s right about that. Crazy is something we humans take credit for.”
He then looked at Geoff and said, “But I wonder if this here fellow sitting up on those rocks in the thaw ain’t watching for snakes…”

“Snakes?” Geoff said, “Why would a man watch for snakes in February?”
Mal shrugged and said, “I don’t know, but last month the boys found a froze-up black snake down by the river and that don’t seem right either. You think this fellow might have something to do with that?”

Geoff shook his head and said, “I don’t see how the one thing is connected to the other.”
Ricky looked up and said, “My Gram says everything is connected to the other.”
Mal said, “And she’s the woman who talks to trees, boy!”

And Ricky said, “She likes the oak trees and says they’re the smartest. Pine are serious and the Birch are silly.”

Mal shook his head and told us to go out and talk to some trees. We did, but I couldn’t help to wonder if he wanted us out of there so they could talk some more about this mysterious stranger, up in the mountain staring at snake dens.

Winter Snake

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, tells us a mysterious tale of an unexpected winter discovery…

It was cold, cold, cold, and it was dry. It hadn’t snowed in three weeks. We could deal with the cold when there was snow, but without it, the ground was frozen hard and everywhere you stepped felt like you walked on jagged rock. The temperature hung around twenty degrees by day and colder by night. The animals don’t move much when the cold sets in like this; they conserve their energy. The fish drop low in the water and the ice fishermen don’t stay long when the winter wind picks up. So, the last thing you expect to see in these conditions is a snake.

Usually by November 1st, snakes go in under the rocks and don’t come out until after April 1st. Sometimes, if there is a mid-winter warm-up, a few snakes come out to look around and then rush back in under the rocks. Uncle Mal used to tell us, “No self-respected snake comes out in the winter time, because they are naked as a jay-bird.”

Ricky Cramshaw told him, “Uncle Mal, jay-birds ain’t naked—they are covered in feathers!”
Mal said to him, “That is not the point.”
Ricky said, “And jay-birds do come out in the winter!”
Mal said, “Ricky, it’s just a saying!”
“Yeah, and you is just saying it!”

Ricky and I were over at the Paint Shop because we found a frozen black snake down by the river and brought it to Uncle Mal. He stared down at the black snake that was frozen stiff in a neat straight line, like a piece of frozen rope. It was about two feet long, so Mal figured it was a young snake, as they can grow up to six feet or better. Mike, the shop dog, came along and sniffed the snake a few times, and then walked away. Mal rolled it over and we saw that it was white on the underside. He told us it was a Black Rat snake and that if it was black all around it was called a Black Racer.

Ricky said, “So why did it come out and freeze up like this?”
Mal said, “I don’t know. Sometimes they come out if it gets warm but it ain’t been warm in weeks.” He thought about this and then said, “And the thing is they don’t tend to hibernate under rocks by the river; no, they go up to the south side of the mountains where the rocks will keep them warm and dry.” He rolled it back over onto its belly so that its black side was now up again. He said, “No sir, this here snake did not get to the river on its own.”
I said, “What do you mean?”
“I mean, I figure that somebody tossed him down there.”
Ricky said, “Who would put a froze-up snake down by the river?”
Mal said, “Maybe someone found it somewhere else and thought it ought to be put down there?”

I wasn’t sure, but it kind of seemed like the frozen black snake wasn’t as straight as when we found it. I told Uncle Mal that, and he told us a story about one time in the late winter, when Uncle Dutchie found a big frozen Copper Head snake. He picked it up and walked along with it until it warmed up and came back to life!
Ricky said, “Hey, could this snake come back to life?”

Mal wasn’t sure, so he got out a five-gallon bucket and put the snake into it. When he picked it up I saw that it was no longer stiff as a stick, but more rope-y. We put the bucket near the hot air vent and sat by it, keeping an eye on the snake, as it slowly became more rubbery. Mal told us about how Native Americans believe that snakes come back to life all the time.

He started telling us ‘snake-come-back-to-life’ stories and we got to listening to the warm sound of his voice and to thinking about the people and the places in his stories. Then, all of a sudden, I heard a sound from inside the bucket. I jumped up and looked in, and there was the black snake, moving around in the bottom of the bucket! Mal got up and put a screen over the top and placed a hammer there to weigh down the screen. The black snake was now clearly wiggling around. It had come back to life!

Mal told us reptiles slow down and hibernate in the winter, but that if we hadn’t found the snake when we did, it would most likely have died. Ricky was thrilled and he named the snake ‘Blackie’. Mal told us it was not easy to take care of a black snake, especially in the winter time when they want to be asleep.
Ricky said, “He can sleep at my house!”

Mal didn’t agree. He made a few phone calls and then he drove us, with Blackie The Snake, up to the Bear Mountain Zoo, where they had a place to keep snakes in the winter time. There was this man there who knew all about snakes and he examined Blackie and said he was in good shape. He told us we had saved his life. We watched him put Blackie into a special indoor snake den where there were other black snakes sleeping under rocks. This man thanked us again and he walked us through the cold, over to the Bear Mountain Inn. He brought us hot chocolate at the Inn and then he and Mal talked about how long it had been this bitter cold. Then the man said, “You know, Mal, that snake could have only been out there a day or so.”

Mal said, “Yes sir, that’s what I figured.”
“So, somebody must have put him there.”
Mal said he figured that, too. Then both men got quiet and we finished our chocolate and Uncle Mal said, “Somebody is messing with the snakes.”

 

Mistletoe

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, tells a story of mistletoe missed connections and suprises…

We three kids (Cindy Maloney, Ricky Cramshaw, and myself) sat at the Soda Fountain counter, watching folks come in off the street. Just to the right of the door, a small branch of mistletoe, with its dark green leaves and translucent white berries, hung from the ceiling. We watched to see if anyone kissed under it. My uncle Mal told us that when you stood beneath the mistletoe, the next person to come along was obliged to kiss you. So far, no one stood beneath it. The girl behind the counter was new; we’d never seen her before. She brought us three mugs of hot cocoa and a little plate with three marshmallows on it. We stared at the plate and figured she’d never served cocoa before. She saw us staring at the plate of marshmallows and she said, “They’re marshmallows.”

Ricky said, “Yup, we know that.”
“They’re for your cocoa.”
“Yup, we know that too.”
She said, “Don’t you like marshmallows?”
I said, “Yeah, we like them in our cocoa.”
Ricky said, “But they look silly on a plate.”
Cindy took one of them and dropped it into her mug of cocoa. She said, “We never got them on a plate before.”
The girl said, “Oh. Well, I am new here. My name is Trudy.”
We told her our names and Ricky said, “Trudy, did you hang the mistletoe?”
She said she had hung it.
He said, “Well, it ain’t working. No one goes under it and no kissing happens.”

When he said the word ‘kissing’, he spread it out and made it sound like “Keeeeeey-sing”. Trudy smiled, and I saw that she had dimples in both of her cheeks.

She said, “Well, should we hang it someplace else?”

We all looked around at different places. I thought it could go over the entrance, but that could be a problem for people getting in and out, while kissing-people stood in their way. Ricky suggested over the bathroom door, but then we agreed that it might be smelly there. Cindy suggested a place in front of the juke-box. Trudy went over and got a short step-ladder, took down the mistletoe from where it was, and hung it over the top of the juke box. She put it just a bit in front of the jukebox so folks could get caught standing beneath it. She put the little step ladder away and went down the counter to take a man’s order. We kids took our mugs of cocoa and sat in a booth near the juke box. Still no one walked beneath it.

After a while, Cindy said, “My mom says mistletoe is poisonous.”
I said, “Yup, my mom said you need to be careful about getting kissed by the wrong person under it.”
Cindy said, “How can you tell who the wrong person is?”
“I don’t know. I guess you find out later.”
Ricky said, “Then how can you be careful?”
“I guess you just don’t go under it.”

We finished our cocoa and still no ‘persons’, wrong or right, went under the mistletoe. Finally, Trudy came back to us and said, “Any luck?” We shook our heads.

She stared up at the mistletoe and said that maybe we needed to move it again. She looked at Ricky and said, “Come on little man, help me take it down.”
Ricky slid out of the booth and Trudy brought the step ladder over to the juke-box. She then hefted Ricky up in her arms and she stepped onto the ladder. Ricky stretched his arms upward to the mistletoe overhead. Trudy looked at him and said, “Oh my, we’re under the mistletoe!” He looked at her, mortified, but it was too late, and she kissed his cheek. Cindy and I howled and laughed and shoved each other around. Trudy put Ricky down and he charged directly to the bathroom, where he scrubbed her red lipstick from his cheek. When he came out of the bathroom his face was beet red and he was sporting an over-exaggerated frown.

Trudy came to our table with three more mugs of cocoa—on the house! That made Ricky a little happier. Again, she brought us the marshmallows on a separate plate. Before she left our booth, she winked at Ricky and said, “I’ve never kissed anyone beneath the mistletoe before.”

Ricky looked up as he dropped his marshmallow into his mug and he said, “And you ain’t kissing me again!”

She smiled her double dimples and went back to the counter and there, just over his cocoa mug, I could see he had a little bit of smile going, too.