Like the Adventurers of Antiquity
by Willem Lange
EAST MONTPELIER – On Friday evenings during that long-ago summer, I drove home from work on the construction job, showered, changed, and downed a snack. A little before seven in the evening I was parked outside the telephone company building, waiting for the end of her shift. She said years later how exciting it was to look out the seventh-floor window in the dusk and see the roadster way down below. We put her overnight bag into the boot (Jaguars don’t have trunks), and off we went into the gathering darkness to I-90 East.
Some two hours later, threading the twists and dips of old Route 8 through the southern Adirondacks, the blast of the exhaust echoing from the forest and rock cuts beside the highway, it was easy to feel like the adventurers of antiquity. I had no bank account or checkbook; credit cards hadn’t been invented; and mobile phones weren’t dreamed of. Every cent I owned was in my pockets, and that wasn’t much. We were just two kids headed for the mountains and a shabby ten-dollar-a-month pied-à-terre I kept in a little valley village. It was the essence of romance; Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron couldn’t have done it better. All that stood between us and calamity was the steady roar of six British cylinders. They, and the young lady beside me, never let me down.
The Jaguar had to leave, sadly, sixty-one years ago, and the young lady, tragically, three years ago. Now, in the thirteenth lonely month of a recommended separation from the bulk of the human race – and just as it looks as though restrictions may be loosened – we hear of further outbreaks in parts of our nation, and apparently out-of-control infection in other nations. This office, where I’ve been sheltering for over a year now, with a view to the northwest and the dog right behind me in the recliner, begins to feel like a small island without a boat.
Is it any wonder, then, that the mind travels back to other days, adventures, triumphs, and calamities? There are, after all, thousands of them, far more than could possibly lie ahead. A bit of Internet “wisdom” that pops up now and then is, “You get old and wise by first being young and foolish.” I’m pretty sure about the old part; less sure about the “wise.” If we manage to survive the follies of our youth, we do at least get old. I’m personally grateful for the quick reflexes, physical fitness, and the what-the-hell attitude of my youth. They were the stuff of many memories.
John McPhee, one of my favorite writers, is a bit older than I; he turned ninety last month. In this week’s New Yorker, he mines his memories, their effects, and their implications in a piece called “Tabula Rasa, Part Two.” Reading it was all it took to pull the bung from my own keg. I started wandering back, occasionally even digging out an old journal to make sure I wasn’t astray.
We never did have a honeymoon – married on Saturday in Virginia, 450 miles back to work on Monday in Syracuse – but six years and two kids later, we finally took one, courtesy of a boss of mine with guide boats on the Ausable Lakes in the Adirondacks. The accommodations weren’t exactly posh – a long-abandoned headwaters hunting camp with a tilting floor – but the pure romance and the majesty of the Great Range rising just north of us made it magical.
We taught school on the west shore of Lake Champlain and built our first house, for which she drew the plans in pencil on a big piece of poster board. I built it. Starting in 1965, we spent our summers working on an island off the coast of Maine, at an Outward Bound school. That led a few years later to a move to Hanover and the start of permanent residence in New England.
After a gut-wrenching bankruptcy, we spent a winter with our teenage daughter in a 12×20-foot shack in the woods; electricity, but no running water. Not a happy memory, but indelible. I can look at it now and shrug off the pain; and what do you suppose our daughter used as her college application essay? I can sit here and reel ’em off by the dozen: down the Allagash and across Baxter Park with the kids, and Martha as a two-year-old; my wife’s blissful expression as she and I putted through tiny limestone villages in southern France; her awe as she leaned close to a Renoir in the Boston Museum one day, whispering, “He touched this!” Her awful final days. I’ll tell you: If the contagion should last even another grim year, there’s plenty right here to last me at least that long.