I Still Was the Beatnik

by Willem Lange 

EAST MONTPELIER – It was a stage set by Dickens: the best of times, the worst of times. Caught in the clutches of what I’d now call an aggressive lack of direction and purpose, I’d retreated in my ancient Plymouth sedan to a tiny village in the high peaks of the Adirondacks. I’d been there before – my prep school roommate was from there – but I knew nobody and had no place to live, except in the car. The locals dubbed me the Beatnik and slashed my tires one night. I switched to eight-ply tires, parked far off the beaten track, and looked for work while living in a lightly used lean-to about a mile from the end of the road. A copy of “On the Road” was tucked under the old car’s driver’s seat; and I’d have been on the road myself, if I’d had any money and thought she could get beyond Buffalo.

I needed a job, and I needed somehow to fit in. The job, after one false start, practically dropped into my lap. It was up in the woods (which meant room and board, too) working with three local guides. One of them heard about my living arrangements and offered a little screened-in gazebo at the edge of his property. I carried water from the brook for cooking and washed after work beneath a waterfall (the origin of my lifelong use of Ivory soap, which floated if I dropped it in the river). As the weather cooled in November, I found a $10-a-month upstairs apartment with running water, electricity, and a space heater. Life was getting easier. But I still was the Beatnik.

Two quite different things saved me. When my job ended in the fall, I went across the road each morning for coffee and a donut. Jeanie, who ran the shop, often slipped me a free day-old donut and charged me half the going rate for coffee. The men of the village who were likewise unemployed gathered there. I was accepted – sort of – but often tested, one way or another.

One morning the object of interest was a “grip-tester,” a little device that you put into the palm of your hand and squeezed. It passed from hand to hand – 60, 75, 85 pounds mostly – and then it came to me. I was still pretty skinny in those days, and neither they nor I thought I’d hit even fifty. But just as I started to squeeze, a noisy Chrysler woody went by – summer folks up for the holidays – and somebody threw from a window a bottle that shattered on the pavement. Every eye was fixed on the scene in front; and at that moment I took the grip-tester and gave it all I had with both hands. When they’d all finished clucking about rich kids and summer folks, they turned back to me. I casually handed the device to the man next to me. It read 130. Lord! I prayed, don’t let ’em make me do it again. They didn’t. It made a big difference.

Every man in the village who still could, hunted. It was a natural part of November. A buck pole in front of the bar displayed the most recent trophies, and a jar full of dollar bills inside went to various categories of winners. If I didn’t hunt, my weirdness would be complete. So, I drove to Saranac Lake and bought a Winchester .32 Special – I’m looking at it as I type – for about $58, and set out up Adirondack Street, headed for the mountains.

As I walked past the bar with determined tread, three old-timers gossiping on the corner kind of snickered. “Go get ’em, Dan’l!” called old Pete Bigelow. I swore under my breath and resolved at that moment that I wouldn’t be coming back down from the mountain without a buck if I had to spend the whole winter up there.

The fates were kind. About a mile up Slide Brook, I happened by pure luck to pick a spot smack on a classic deer runway between the Brothers and the Porter ledges. And perhaps half an hour later a perfect buck came ambling down the slope toward the brook. He passed behind a bush, which gave me a chance to move enough to aim where I thought he’d come out. He did. I shot, and as he collapsed felt for the first time in my life that painful mixture of elation and regret that always comes with the death of a beautiful animal.

The regret didn’t last. This buck had died not for art’s sake, but to cement my standing among the men of the village. Which it did; and, foolish though it may seem after over sixty years, I still feel a debt to him. Ever since that afternoon, through many fits, starts, and calamities, life has been a long, slow climb to a sufficiency – and led at last to an unbreakable truce with wild animals.