Letters to Alice Part Two
The Field behind Our Home
When I was a kid the fields and woods behind my home were magic. We played softball and kick the can and chased golf balls for neighbor men. I picked wild flowers, hazel nuts, wild strawberries, raspberries, juneberries, chokecherries, and pin cherries. The woods were my hideout, a place to feed partridge in the winter. My small garden had really rich soil. The space had once been a chicken yard.
Father’s scrap pile was just behind the garage. Each spring we burned it. When the big pile burn down to coals, we roasted marshmallows and potatoes. The potatoes turned charcoal black outside but tasty white inside.
Father did something at the pile burning I never saw before or since. He pinned together the corners of a double sheet of newspaper to make a hollow square and laid it on the coals. As soon as it began to burn, it rose into the sky and drifted off, like a hot air balloon.
Burning last summer’s tall dead grass from the field was always fun. Neighbors came with rakes and wet gunnysacks, burning small patches to make sure he fire didn’t get away. I don’t think city folks are allowed to do that anymore.
What do today’s kids do for fun in the spring? I see them sitting around twiddling gadgets with their thumbs. I wonder what they will remember when they get old like me.
I went on my very first campout when I was eleven. A buddy and I got permission to spend the night on the hill. We had no tent. We tied food and a flashlight in our blankets and followed the trail to the spring, pausing to drink. At the top, where Hawk Ridge is now, we found a flat place where we could look down on our neighborhood.
There were no fir trees to make bough beds like Deep River Jim wrote about in his Wilderness Trail Book, so we gathered ferns and long grass. We spread out our blankets then explored the area around us. Toward evening we built a fire, ate our sandwiches, then sat time talking and watching city lights blow us come on one by one.
It was fairly dark when we climbed into our blankets, sleeping in our clothes. We were cold right away, and the ground was hard with small stone poking into our backs. I lay there looking up at the stars. Maybe I slept a little.
No way could I have imagined how many campouts lay ahead of me. Baxter Park in Maine, a bull moose picking his way among sleeping campers as he headed for the lake. The night of the skunk in Wyoming, saddle horses nearby. Canoe Country campfire, the sky ablaze with Northern Lights. A scary night in Twisp Pass, Washington and burrowed into the snow at sixteen below in Alaska. Mountain treks in Japan and Austria. Canada’s Cascades; Early morning in the desert on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. It will be interesting to see where life takes you, Alice. Live happy each day. I love you.
Trouble at School
I don’t remember much about kindergarten except I was the youngest kid there. Being youngest haunted me all through school. You had to be five to start kindergarten and I was born on August 29. Had I been born three days later, I would have had to wait a full year to start school, and that would have put been among the oldest kids in class.
Another troubling thing: I soon learned girls like older boys better than they like younger boys. Being liked by girls was important; but I didn’t know why. And I was no good at sports. I could run pretty fast, but I couldn’t throw, catch, or hit a ball well. When sides were chosen, I was always picked last.
The truth is, I wasn’t much good at anything—handwriting, drawing, class games, studies, and that made me look dumb. But most troubling: Sister Hazel was two grades ahead of me and she was good at almost everything. Teachers expected me to be good too, and I really, really wanted to please teachers.
I liked school OK, but I liked after school and weekends better. I can’t explain why I loved the woods, fields, and streams so much, but I was happy there and didn’t care who did or didn’t like me. I understand it better now. The outdoors was my real school. They taught me knowledge and skills I would need for important jobs to come. I’ll tell more about that in days to come.
Elephant to the Rescue
I told you about my first school years and that I wasn’t very good at studies. Books were my problem. I learned to read in first and second grades from the teacher’s flashcards with big letters, but picture books with small print were a mystery. I think the teacher figured I was slow.
Grade three had just begun when our mother took sister Hazel and me our first circus. The big, big tent with three rings fascinated me. All those clowns from one little car! Mother pointed across the center ring and said, “Look! An elephant! I couldn’t see an elephant.
Mother took me to an eye doctor in the Medical Arts Building. He put me in big black chair and made me look through a machine with little glass circles. “What letters do you see?” I saw a black blur. He kept changing glass circles until E G W R popped up. The doctor peered in my eyes with a bright light, scribbled on a small paper, and gave it to Mother. Severe astigmatism, he said. I had no idea what that meant.
The next week I got my first glasses and became the only four-eyes in our class. Kids teased me, but I could read! I began going to the library three blocks from our school every chance I got. I read every book in the kids’ section a boy would like. Sometimes I sneaked over to the big people’s section until I got kicked out. I got my own library card and took many books home, winning the summer reading award. My report cards got a lot better.
I Become a Writer
I never planned to become a writer. I never studied writing. Yet a couple dozen books and a thousand stories and other stuff have my name on them.
I remember the day the writing idea was born. I was alone in our little house on Oneida Street, sort of napping. I found my mind telling a story! It was about the Bob’s Hill Boys, ids a little older than me I met in several books by Richard Pierce Burton. They were my kind of boys. I loved their secrets.
My story came almost like a dream. I thought, Maybe I could become a writer! Of course I didn’t tell anyone; they would laugh; I was just nine. Writers were important men with beards on cards in the Authors game sister Hazel and I played. But the writing idea never left me.
Well, I never wrote Bob’s Hill Boys story, but when I got old, I wrote a storybook book about grown-up boys and I met at Lake Ellen Camp in Michigan. The book has four stories: Big Foot and the Michigamme Trolls, The Curse of the Cross-eyed Moose, a story about Grandma Hoppola’s fine jersey cow, and a long Alaska poem about gold miner Tim I knew when he was a kid. Tell you what: I’ll send you the book. You’ll love the cover. When you get older, you can read and maybe write a story about me.
Playing marbles was a spring thing. We couldn’t wait for dry ground to play big ring, little ring, cigar, chase, or lag. We played every day then poof it ended and you stashed your marbles until next spring.
Marbles measured a boy’s wealth. The more marbles, the richer you were. Each season, I soon grew poor: We played for keeps—the winner took all the marbles—and I was not a sharpshooter. But one spring, a fire in a newsstand made me the richest kid in school.
Now the only thing worth more than a marble was a tattoo, a small square of paper with a picture of an Indian chief, cowboy, ship, or lady in a bathing suit. You licked your arm, pressed the tattoo over the wet spot, and wore the picture all day. A tattoo cost one penny or one marble.
The newsstand on fire sold tattoo books—hundreds per book. The firemen sprayed everything, including the tattoo books. Some books we’re just damp, but the man threw them all away even though the tattoos were OK. My policeman father was checking on the fire. He saw the damp tattoo books and brought them home for me. I took a book to school the next day and came home with my pockets bulging. All my classmates wanted tattoos and were glad to trade for marbles.
At home, I dumped the treasure in my coaster wagon to admire it and a strange thing happened. I was the richest kid in school, but what do you do with books of tattoos and hundreds of marbles? I discovered marbles make fine ammunition for my slingshot.
When I was a kid, we had a family rule: no swimming without big people present. I thought about that as I found myself sliding headfirst down the waterfall into the Deeps. Would Mom believe my story?
The Deeps was a popular boys’ swimming hole in Amity Creek, about a mile from my home. It was surrounded by rocky cliffs. A log bridge spanned the creek just above the waterfall. The Deeps was forbidden territory for me.
Three friends and I set out to explore the Amity one morning. We took our revolvers in case we ran into rustlers. We had a great morning and no rustlers. We started home about noon following a trail that crossed the Amity just above the Deeps. But instead of using the bridge, we decided to cross the creek by jumping from rock to rock. Not smart: the current was swift. My friends made it fine, but my first jump landed me on slimy green stuff and down I went, face first.
The current swept me over the falls and into the Deeps. I lost my revolver. Unhurt, I swam to a ledge and climbed out with my friends laughing. But I had a problem: If I came home wet, what would I tell my mother? Jumping jump across was a dumb idea. The only thing to do was dry out.
We built a fire in thick woods and I hung my pants and shirt on sticks to dry, standing around in wet underwear. Two friends left for home. My clothes were still damp when I started home, and I smelled like smoked fish. Maybe I could change before Mother saw me. But no such luck. She was waiting. “So, you fell in the creek. Are you all right?” I think she smiled.
I never found out which friend squealed.
A Moment of Terror
I was 13 or 14 when this story took place. I had just got my first skis with real bindings. I was anxious to try them, but it winter was slipping away. Then a March storm brought new snow and I called a buddy. We decided to ski the rustic Seven Bridges Road from my home and back—five or six miles.
With the mild breeze to our backs, skiing was easy. We reached we reached the turn-around and paused for a breather. The wind had picked up blowing new snow. It would be in our faces as we skied home. That’s when I had the dumbest idea of my life. Our homes were about a mile and a half south through the woods down the hill. If we skied through the woods to the spring trail, we’d cut our return trip in half. I knew the route well from many summer hikes.
We left the road and headed south, but it was tough going. Everything looked different in winter. By the time we reached the top of the hill top, the sky had darkened. March days are short. Worse than that, I couldn’t find the spring trail. And there was danger. There were small cliffs with jagged rocks at the bottom. I was lost; my buddy followed close behind.
Suddenly, a moment of terror: we were airborne. In the snowy darkness, we skied of a cliff. We missed the rocks, landing in thick brush, our skis buried beneath us. Getting untangled wore us out. All we could do was slog downhill carrying our skis, fighting brush. Finally we reached a street a half-mile from home, a couple tired kids. Home never looked so good and Mom and Dad didn’t even scold.
Snowshoeing Barefoot by Moonlight
I probably shouldn’t be telling you this story, Alice; it was sort of mean. But things happen when a new Scoutmaster wears a long nightshirt in cabin full of boys. Boys will be boys.
Our Scout troop owned the cabin with three other troops. It was built with vertical cedar poles chinked with concrete. Pieces of chinking had fallen out, allowing show to filter in on our bunks. One March our troop settled in for the weekend. We loved to tease our new Scoutmaster; he slept in a long nightshirt.
On Saturday night, we waited until he was ready for bed. Then three of us sneaked out barefoot to go snowshoeing by moonlight wearing only our underwear. Someone told the Scoutmaster and he dashed to the porch in his nightshirt. He yelled, “You boys get in here right now!” Snowballs appeared by magic and began to fly. Boys inside slammed the door and locked it. Pelted by snowballs, the Scoutmaster pounded and pounded: “You boys let me in right now!”
We were glad to get in where it was warm. The leaders made hot chocolate and we ate cookies and laughed, our Scoutmaster laughing with us. I loved he cabin.