The words Joe heard that night would define the rest of his life. The wind had finally relinquished its hold on Bald Peak and light was growing scarce, the sun swallowed by the vast acres of Adirondack green forest. The full moon was visible through the tall pines as Howard Buckingham and Joe, his fifteen-year-old nephew, found the protection of a small cove.
Joe and Uncle Howard repeated what they had done for years after a full day of hunting, trapping, and then fishing for their dinner in the fresh mountain streams. They built a makeshift lean-to of fallen trees and branches, braced it against the side of a jagged rock formation and started a small but adequate fire to cook the fish, brew the coffee and, finally, warm them before sleep. Joe treasured times like this when he could have his uncle all to himself, the mountains quiet except for the wind and the occasional wolf’s howl.
“You know what you say sometimes about there being truth up here,” Joe said. “What’s that mean, truth in these mountains?”
Howard was a full-sized man who, when his head was not bent down lookin’ for snakes, stood six-foot-five inches tall. He wore hunting pants held up by a two-inch-wide, forty-six-inch leather belt slightly curved at the top and bottom and fastened by an honest brass buckle. Not the fancy rodeo type but a simple brass square with three prongs to pass the leather through and hitch to the holes. His shirt was soft wool with flaps over each breast pocket. Over that he wore a weathered deerskin jacket that hung below his waist and just the tops of bright red socks that Joe’s Aunt Lettie had knitted showing over his high leather boots.
“Well, son, these hills don’t lie. They’re beautiful, but they ain’t forgiving. If you make a mistake up here, you can die. Animals make mistakes and die all the time. Men, too. Only the strong survive, the ones that protect themselves. It ain’t just the animals; you can see it in the fish in the streams and in the trees. It can be cold and raw and windy and whipped. It can also be calm and clear like tonight. There is a certain…I don’t know, what you might call rhythm to it all up here. I have seen it all my life. The animals know it. The woods know it. No one’s fooling anybody up here. It is what it is. Treat the mountains and the animals with respect, listen to them, and be prepared, and you’ll be all right, and never alone. If you don’t, you won’t. That’s what I mean about there being a truth up here.”
Howard pulled the collar of his jacket around his weathered neck while at the same time using the toe of his right boot to nudge a log in the fire. No matter how many times Joe tried, he was never able to make a fire grow better with the slight nudge of a log. He watched Howard carefully remove his red and tan cap and brush his hand over his balding head and then criss-cross his chin.
Howard caught Joe’s look. “How you doin’, son?” When Howard asked you how you were doing, it was a big question, not to be taken lightly but answered straight out.
Joe thought for a while and tried his foot on a log, which promptly caused four other logs to fall away from the fire. After he’d gotten them all back in place, he replied, “I’m all right, Uncle Howard, I guess.”
Howard seemed to ponder that answer as he rose and selected four nearby sticks, looking them over as if only those four would do. The ritual was familiar to Joe as he watched his uncle unsheathe his hunting knife and, using the handle, pound the sticks into the ground, each a yard from the fire. Next, Howard sat down on a log he had pulled up to the fire and slowly unlaced his boots, placing them upside down on the sticks. Then he removed his wool socks and hung them up to dry as well.
It was Howard who’d given Joe his first pair of high leather boots. “Them boots are your foundation in these hills,” he told Joe. “Take care of ’em, they’ll serve you well.”
Joe stared at the fire, not moving.
Howard looked at Joe again and asked, “What’s botherin’ you, son?”
“Well, to tell you the truth, Uncle Howard, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and, no matter how much I think about it, I really can’t change.”
“Can’t change what?” Howard asked in a gentle tone.
Joe’s eyes continued to lock into the fire. He heard what Uncle Howard had asked, but no words came out in response. Just silence. Howard simply waited and, finally, Joe looked up from the fire and directly into Howard’s eyes. “Can’t change the fact that I’m average, and I’m always going to be average.”
Howard finally stood up, walked over to Joe and, kneeling down, put his hand on Joe’s shoulder. Looking into his eyes, he said, “Joe, it ain’t been easy for you with your mom and dad gone at too young an age. Your Aunt Lettie and I love you like our own son. I wonder sometimes whether we’ve been good ’nough for you. We prayed many times askin’ for help from the Almighty. Lettie and I couldn’t be more proud of you if we tried. We think you’re a fine young man. Lot of people ’round here think so, too. You talk about not wantin’ to be average. I ain’t the reader you are, and I don’t know all the words you know. But it don’t seem to me that you were average when you won the All State swimmin’ meet last month. You ain’t average in school, ’cause you’re at the top of your class, winnin’ all kinds of learnin’ and athletic awards. You already got them colleges writin’ to you about scholarships, both for your grades and your swimmin’ and wrestlin’.” Howard looked up at the moon, stood, turned and added, “I don’t call it average when you went down into that crevice and brought that young fella from New York City back up after he fell in and broke his arm. Funny name. Started with a ‘P.’ You saved that boy’s life.”
That was more words at one time than Joe could remember Howard ever saying.
“His name was Preston. And you had something to do with saving him, the way I remember it,” Joe replied with a grin, stoking the fire.
“You did the savin’, I just did the haulin’. Anyhow, don’t be changing the subject. So what’s average about all that?”
“What I mean, Uncle Howard, is, well, I’m five-foot-nine, and I’ll probably never be taller. I can only lift so much, and I sure can’t do the carrying like you. And I listen to the way you talk to the men you guide, and I see the look in their eyes and hear the tone in their voices when they talk to you. They don’t just respect you, Uncle Howard, they idolize you. They’re never going to be like you. I’m never going to be like you. And I don’t think I’m going to be like them either. I hate being average.”
Joe watched Howard get up and walk around the fire, stretching his arms and neck. He went over to the lean-to and laid out his sleeping bag in front of his backpack basket. He arranged a few more of the pine boughs on each side of the lean-to and prepared himself for sleep. But instead of crawling into the lean-to, Howard came over to Joe, put his hands around Joe’s shoulders holding him square, and again looked straight into Joe’s eyes.
“Son, you’re right. You can’t help bein’ average. But that don’t mean you can’t be uncommon.”
“Uncommon?” Joe asked.
“How do you be uncommon?” Joe asked, amazed that Howard had said this much to him and praying that he was not pushing his uncle too far.
“Well, I’m just an old mountain guide, but seems to me there are three ways. Do what the other fella can’t. Be what the other fella ain’t. And then help the other fella.”
“That’s enough,” Howard replied, and crawled in the lean-to.
Joe thought about his uncle, how he had worked these mountains he loved since he was a young boy, how he’d lived for sixty-eight years outside the small town of Mineville, on the eastern side of the mountains in the foothills, in a large, two-story, wood-frame house that he built with his own hands. Winding behind the house was a fresh brook, home to endless numbers of trout. Behind the brook were seven small green-and-white wooden cabins he had also built. These cabins were rented from time to time to the business executives and others who came from the cities to bag a deer or catch a big trout with the help of Howard as a guide.
They returned year after year, lured by the majesty of the mountain and its bounty and by Howard’s competence, charm, warmth, and grace. They felt safe with Howard. There was Aunt Lettie’s humor and mountain cooking, too.
Increasingly, Howard had allowed Joe to come on these trips. The executives, or “city fellas” as Uncle Howard called them, were, for Joe, a window to another world. Joe loved to watch them as they struggled through the narrow passes. First Joe noticed the difference in the way they talked. Not only the words they used but the sound of the words. What Uncle Howard called their “New York City way of speaking.” Then there was a difference in the way they walked, the way they moved. It was hard to explain, but there was something in the way they acted that gave Joe the impression that they had seen it all, that nothing could surprise them. Finally, their clothes were the kind Joe had only seen in catalogs, sort of fancy and finished at the same time, all new and expensive. Joe felt they lived in a different world.
Occasionally, they would even say a few words to Joe. They could not keep up with Howard, though he had them by fifteen or twenty years. At night, they gathered around the campfire, watching Howard cook. While usually tired, they were expansive, at times euphoric, as they recounted their experiences during the day. They missed their shots, lost their fish, or found their traps empty, and acted as if they had conquered the world. Eventually, in one way or another, they would turn the talk to their lives and how successful they were in their business deals. Joe could tell from the way Uncle Howard kept taking off his cap and putting it on again he didn’t care too much for the bragging part, but Joe wanted to hear it all. Where they went, their cars, their Lear jets, and especially their boats and where they would take them on the ocean. It was another world. Someday Joe would have a boat and drive it in the ocean himself.
Howard insisted on no alcohol during the day and indeed discouraged it altogether. But often, the flasks would appear after supper “to add a nip to their coffee,” and that added fuel to their words. After Howard had listened intently to all of their stories, and told a few of his own, he would suggest it was time to turn in and “allow all the other animals in the mountains to get some sleep.” Joe watched Howard carefully, taking it all in.
The moon was high and bright now. Joe sat by the fire watching it until the last ember died, replaying the conversation with his uncle over and over. The air turned chilly. His uncle’s words burned hot in his mind. Do what the other fella can’t. Be what the other fella ain’t. And then help the other fella.
Joe crawled into his sleeping bag. He finally fell asleep, but not before making himself a promise. I may have to go through this world being average – but I swear, I’ll be uncommon along the way.
Excerpted from The Collectibles © Copyright 2012 by James J. Kaufman. Reprinted with permission by Downstream Publishing. All rights reserved.
- Genres: Fiction
- hardcover: 309 pages
- Publisher: Downstream Press
- ISBN-10: 0982587317
- ISBN-13: 9780982587317