Cat’s in the Cradle
When you are a young boy, it is usually difficult to spend some quality one-on-one time with just your father. Dads have always needed to work to keep food on the table and a roof over everyone’s head, but it was likely even more challenging during the 1950’s since almost none of our mother’s had jobs outside of the home.
Some of my favorite times with my dad were during our yearly vacations to his home state of Maine where we would hike through the forest and fish together on one of the many lakes or streams that dotted the landscape. It was on those journeys that he would teach me about the history of the area he grew up in and we could talk about just about any subject that came to mind.
One of our last trips before I became an obnoxious teenager took place when I was eleven or twelve years old.
My father grew up in Aroostook County, Maine. People in Maine simply refer to it as “The County.” Perhaps because of its sheer size – 6,829 square miles compared to only a little over 5,500 for the entire state of Connecticut. The County had a population of about ten people per square mile, where Connecticut was closer to seven hundred. The County had more than double the number of unorganized townships (not enough inhabitants to support a local government) than it did towns that collected taxes and provided education to the children living there. In short, The County was mostly a vast wilderness where the bears and moose outnumbered the human inhabitants.
Getting there was another story. In the pre-Interstate 95 days, once you made it to Bangor, it took several additional hours of traversing state highways through miles of wilderness to the north to reach US-1 that ran along the US-Canadian border where my dad had grown up. US-2 ran alongside the Penobscot River through small villages with strange sounding names such as Passadumkeag and Mattawamkeag – Native American names that even Sacagawea would have had problems remembering.
At Macwahoc (Native-American word meaning “Bog”), US-2A headed straight north through a swampy forest called the Haynesville Woods, an area that was straight out of the Wizard of Oz since it looked eerily like the Haunted Forest. Heaven help you if you didn’t have a full tank of fuel and a good spare tire, as it was nearly sixty miles of narrow, sometimes winding, desolate highway where there were more moose crossing the road than cars passing in the opposite direction. Known for the sudden appearance fog and icy mists that have caused numerous fatal crashes over the years, the road through Haynesville Woods is often referred to as America’s most haunted highway.
Emerging from that forest on its northern end was somewhat akin to traveling back in time. At least thirty years, perhaps even more. The buildings were all old and weather-beaten. Apparently, Sherwin Williams hadn’t yet discovered The County, as nothing looked like it had seen a fresh coat of paint since before Roosevelt had first been elected president. The cars were mostly older models, but they were greatly outnumbered by tractors and stake-bodied farm trucks. Potato fields lined both sides to the highway.
The country stores all had a single gasoline pump out front and a faded Coca-Cola sign nailed to the side of the building. A few still had Moxie signs – New England’s oddball soft drink that had started out as a patent medicine called Moxie Nerve Food – a soda like beverage with a bitter aftertaste that was supposedly effective against “paralysis, softening of the brain, nervousness and insomnia.” In all likelihood, not exactly FDA approved. – especially regarding the softening of the brain claim.
Other than on the main highway, pavement didn’t exist. It appeared that half the barns in The County were sagging in the middle and in eminent danger of collapsing under their own weight. The marquee on the front of the movie theater in Houlton was still advertising movies such as “Gone with the Wind” and “The Grapes of Wrath.” For all the world, it appeared The County had never really exited the Great Depression.
My dad hailed from a small village a few miles north of Houlton. Its population had dwindled to about half the number of people who had resided there when he was a child in the 1920’s. Much of the village resembled an old ghost town like you would expect to see in a Colorado mining community. Empty storefronts and abandoned houses. My dad would describe all the “used to be” things that were now but a memory as faded as the paint on the buildings left standing. It was a real lesson in local history. One that I found fascinating as I looked at the rusting farm implements in the fields and the peeling wallpaper through the broken glass in the some of the windows of the empty houses.
We stayed with my grandmother in a colorless two-bedroom half of a two-family house that had once been the home to only one. It was nearly 1960 but the house still had no central heat and no running water. Gram cooked on a porcelain covered kerosene stove and the water she used to wash her dishes came from one of two rain barrels at each end of the house. Her drinking water came from a spigot at the side of the old schoolhouse, a short walk away at the end of the dirt street she lived on right in the center of the village. A shed alongside the house served as both an outhouse and a storage place for the wood she would need to feed the chrome trimmed stove in the parlor to stay warm during the long Maine winters. But for the television that received a single channel out of Presque Isle, we could have been living in 1929, not 1959.
It was the middle of July, but the rivers were still running high that year. The winter snows had been deeper than usual and the spring rains heavier than normal. My dad wanted to take me out to Number Nine Lake to fish but getting there might pose a problem. There were virtually no bridges that spanned the northern branch of the Meduxenkeag River that separated the sparsely populated area to the east from the vast wilderness to the west. It was only accessible by logging roads that the Great Northern Paper Company owned but only maintained during the winter months when they harvested the trees for both pulp and lumber.
That night, my uncle suggested that we fly over the area where my dad wanted to take me to see which logging roads looked passable. I knew that my uncle had learned to fly during his stint in the service, but I didn’t know that he had recently purchased an aircraft. Looking at everything else in The County, I was hoping it wasn’t going to be a WWI surplus Sopwith Camel.
When we arrived at the airfield in Houlton the next morning, much to my delight, I saw that we were going to be flying in a more recent Piper Tri-Pacer 150. My dad’s youngest brother would be accompanying us and would be sitting aft with me. My first time in a small plane was exciting. Noisy too. We headed northwest towards the lake that my father wanted to fish.
Fifteen minutes into the flight, the plane suddenly went into a steep dive, and rolled hard to the left. I thought we were about to die. My uncle-pilot then informed us he had seen a bear and three cubs at about ten o’clock on the horizon and didn’t want the rest of us to miss seeing them as well. The uncle to my right was crushing my little face against the side window by then, with most of his weight on top of me as the plane was circling practically on its side. Geeesh. There we were in bear country, and we saw a bear. Big surprise! I would have preferred a pilot who wasn’t quite so enthusiastic about showing his brothers-in-law and young nephew the wildlife – especially without warning us he was about to drop fifteen hundred feet in about seven seconds.
I was then hoping he didn’t spot a moose.
The rivers were high and there were only three bridges out of about nine river crossings. With the rest, you took your chances and forded them like the pioneers had done in the 19th century as they headed west. From two-thousand feet, it was impossible to tell how deep that water was going to be, but the adventurous spirit in my father looked like it was going to win out over reason. I wondered if his car’s warranty covered damage from flood waters.
The following morning, dad and I packed our gear into the car and headed out. About two miles west of the main highway we reached a railroad crossing with three tracks that split off to make a pretty sizable siding. Dad explained that it was called Harvey Siding, named after the farmer who lived closet to the tracks. It was used as a loading area for the lumber that was cut during the winter months when the ground was frozen and easier to traverse. My dad explained that his father would go into the woods just after Thanksgiving, return for a week at Christmas, and then go back into the woods to cut lumber until sometime in March or April. It was the only way he could earn enough money to support his wife and seven children during the Depression.
The road on the western side of the tracks was full of ruts and covered with standing water in many places. Water that hid the surface below and made judging its depth a guessing game. Unlike the roads that the town maintained, we were now on Great Northern lands, and they didn’t grade those old logging roads when they weren’t hauling lumber out of the forest. The ride was bouncy to say the least. Some of those giant puddles hid rocks that beat against the frame of dad’s new Dodge. I wondered how many times that car could bottom out before the muffler would get torn off.
About two miles in my dad pointed to a side road at the right.
“That’s where the Bank farm is located,” he told me.
“Is that the name of the farmer?”
“No. The Bank farm is owned by the bank. The people who owned it built it on land that had been cleared by a forest fire sometime before the Great Depression. When times got tough, they couldn’t pay the mortgage and the bank took it over. That was before I went into the service. They never could find anyone else who wanted to farm this far out, so they still own it. I wouldn’t imagine there is much left of the buildings by now.”
Well, not after twenty or more years, anyway.
It was another mile to the first river crossing. Luckily, there was a bridge. Well, sort of. A couple of giant tree trunks spanned the river with a couple of dozen smaller ones laying across them. On top of those were several planks of sawn lumber that were about the correct width to accommodate a car or small truck. The toy bridges I had made from my Lincoln Logs set looked far superior to the one we were about to cross.
As we slowly crossed, the “bridge” made a number of strange sounds that I had never heard before.
“You sure this is safe?” I asked looking for some fatherly assurance that it was fine.
“Not really,” was his answer.
This was going to be a long ride.
One mile of logging roads is the about same as thirty-seven miles of regular gravel roads. It takes about the same amount of time to traverse as well. Nineteen miles, eight more river crossings, only two with bridges until we would reach our destination…if we would reach our destination.
We only encountered about three or four vehicles heading in the opposite direction. Once dad had to back up about half a mile to find a spot wide enough for the other car to pass without ripping the sides of both vehicles off.
We only had one final river crossing to make before we reached the lake.
Oh, boy! This one also had no bridge, but it sure looked like one would have come in handy. Fast water. No bottom in sight because of the rushing water.
Dad got out, put on his waders, and walked gingerly across the river. Half-way to his knees at the deepest part. Surely that was too deep to chance.
“I think we can make it,” he said as he climbed back into the car.
“Shouldn’t we put on some life-vests first?” I inquired.
“Quit acting like your mother,” he replied with a smile as he pushed the little button with the “D” on it. Dad was obviously more of an adventurous pioneer than I had figured him for.
As we drove across, I thought we might catch plenty of fish if I just opened my door and let them swim right in. The wheels were churning through the mud as we exited the other side, but the car was still running. I was both relieved and impressed.
We would be staying at a childhood friend of my dad’s “camp.” For some really bizarre reason, people who lived in The County all had “camps” located in the woods, usually on land they leased from Great Northern. These people lived in town in houses that seldom had indoor plumbing or central heat. Wasn’t that already enough like camping? Some of their so-called camps were nicer than their everyday homes but they were only accessible during the warmer months of summer, which in The County was only June, July, and August.
Number Nine Lake was pristine and beautiful. Just like a thousand other lakes in Maine that were accessible by real roads. And just like all the other lakes in Maine, the black flies and mosquitoes were large and well organized. Any and all exposed skin was fair game. Dusk to dawn were spent inside the cabin with no exceptions. Dad and I spent a lot of time together inside that cabin on that trip. With no television, no radio, and no electric lights to read by, we were forced to talk to each other – something we had seldom done much of.
He taught me how to prepare the fish we caught for cooking and showed me how to crack open the eggs for breakfast without leaving pieces of the shells stuck in the yolk. I learned how to safely switch ends of the canoe without ending up in the 47-degree water. We got to meet the resident forest ranger and climb his 90-foot lookout tower where he watched for lightning strikes that could cause a forest fire. We saw several moose and listened to the loons as they serenaded us to sleep at night. We even fished!
We hadn’t needed to drive so far from the rest of civilization, but we did. Perhaps my dad had planned that for a reason. Or perhaps it was just happenchance.
We had a great time being together, just the two of us, with no interruptions. It was the last vacation that I valued spending more time with my dad over that I would later spend with my teenaged friends. It was quality time that couldn’t be replaced or recreated. A rare exception to the “Cat’s in the Cradle” tale that Harry Chapin so ably wrote and put his music to. “But we’ll get together then, we’ll have a good time then” seldom ever comes, so cherish those moments when you are together with your son, daughter, mom, dad, or grandparents whenever you can, wherever you are. You never know if you’ll have that opportunity again.
Have a happy summer and we’ll be back in a couple of weeks with more!