Tuesday, April 1, 2008

John Birmingham and Katahdin Lodge's Trusty Old Land Rover

John Birmingham and the Lodge's Land Rover.

Look over at the right side of this photograph, past the top of The Rover's hood, and check out the high, sloping snow bank on the side of the woodshed. That pile is there from when my Uncle Finley and I had had to go up on the roof and shovel off four foot deep snow, or the building would have collapsed. It was an all day task.

On that day, after we ate lunch, I waddled on in to the living room and plopped my carcass down onto the sofa. I wanted to rest there while we waited the 20 or 30 minutes it takes stomach action to digest food enough that you won't get cramps from hard physical activity. This is in full accordance with what was taught me at Red Cross swimming safety classes. You know the oft stated maxim: never swim with y'ur tummy full.

Friggin Finley looks in there at me trying to get comfy on the sofa, leans a little forward, and in towards me, grins mischievously, and says, "What the hell'r you doin?"

My honest answer was, "I'm digesting."

Fin bolts upright, like he just got hit in the butt cheeks by static electricity, "You're digesting?"

Now I swear to you that I was as serious as a heart attack, when I answered, "Yeah. Well it's like from what I learned during swimming lessons, you know, you'll get cramps if you swim after eating, and that's hard exercise, like swimming is, up on that roof. We don't wanna get cramps do we?"

Dear o' dear me.

Finley then made a soon-to-be famous statement that I was forced to hear him and/or Marty repeat many a time to many a person--when they jovially teased me about that day of hard shoveling. Fin had told me, "You can git back up there on that roof and digest with a shovel in y'ur hand!"

John Birmingham is one of the most capable woodsmen who ever lived. He is also reputed to the best shot with a rifle who ever set foot upon Katahdin Lodge's dooryard.

John is the son Finley always wanted.

But life is not fair, so Finley and Martha never had any children. I never knew the unfortunate, natural reason why Fin and Marty never had children. They were securely in love with one another, and I believed that they made mad, passionate love, or sweet, tender love, often. They went to doctors, when they lived in Maryland, to see if anything could be done so that they could conceive children. But there were no good results.

In 1979, Finley, his top-notch guide Richard Libby, and I were out in the dooryard there talking about John. Richard told us about a time when he and John were standing there talking, when John suddenly shouldered a loaded rifle he was holding, aimed it at a little bird that had just lit upon the telephone wire, up there running alongside Rt. 11, and John fired off a quick shot. And poof, went the birdie.

Then Richard said, "It was amazing, I never saw anything like it before. That bird just disappeared into a tiny pink cloud of floating feathers. POOF! Just like that! By jeeze if that son-uv-an-oar had cut that wire we'd a been in deep shit. Can you imagine? As tiny as that bird was John never even made the line sway or move. He hit that bird dead center. If he hadn't it would have just been knocked off the wire."

Richard looks up at Finley, gives him a big wide grin, and adds, "I know the guhdamned bullet never touched the wire. When he pulled the trigger, time froze for a split second, and my mind zoomed right in on that wire. You know how clearly you can see things at a time like that? Well, all I could think off was what you were gonna say to John if he had cut your telephone or electric line."

We had a good laugh on that thoroughly thought out sentiment. Fin would have been ferociously furious if John had screwed up on that deal.

Were I given the chance to 'turn back the hands of time', and was given the choice of traveling the world with The Rolling Stones, as their personal photographer, or the choice of living and working as a woodsman in Maine, I would choose Maine.

Yep! I would chose time spent in the woods of Maine, with the finest kind of Maine country folk, over equal time spent with the world's greatest Rock n' Roll band, my all time favorites, The Rolling Stones. Because the Maine Guides I worked with were/are as good as a modern woodsman can be. They were/are super-stars in the Great Outdoors. And the women in northern Maine were/are my kind of gals. I prefer wholesome, healthy lookin', great cookin', good lovin' ladies like the Town of Patten produces over the gold digging, hot and nasty, groupie chicks whom I would be around with the Stones.

The heaviest factor weighed into that Stones vs. Maine decision is: I flat-out prefer spending most of my time out in the natural splendor of the woods.

When that photo of John Birmingham and the Land Rover was taken, John was home on leave from the U.S. Army. There he was an expert shot, a physically fit woodsman, a man who had tracked many a wounded bear or deer at night. And what does Uncle Sam do? He makes John an Army clerk. John was sent to Vietnam for a year, but he never saw combat. He spent the entire time in Saigon. He later said that when he was drinking in a crowded Saigon bar, all he had to was start telling bear stories, then he never had to pay for a drink for the rest of the night.

John returned from Vietnam unscathed, and eventually made a career as an Army Recruiter.

When the photo of John and The Rover was taken, Fin and Marty were down to Maryland visiting family and friends. My Aunt Martha and Uncle Finley had lived in Sparrows Point, Md., and then over in Dundalk, till 1965, when they purchased the Lodge.

Fin had been a bricklayer "down the Point"--the Bethlehem Steel Mill at Sparrows Point--and Martha worked in the main office there. Fin and Marty grew up next door to each other. My father's family also lived "on the Point"--in the company owned mill town--so all of our families knew each other well. We were together for every American holiday, and we all visited each others' homes on a regular basis.

My parents, two sisters and I spent wonderful hours each holiday at both of my grandparent's homes, along with most of our aunts, uncles and cousins. Fourth of July was at my parents' house. Dundalk's world famous 4th of July Parade ended three blocks up the street from my house. Our yard was 100 x 60 ft. Plenty of room for picnics, badminton, croquet and all that was fun and games for a large family.

There was a really cool freight train track at the end of our yard. The railroad tracks were up on an embankment, and dad had planted tons of sticker bushes at the bottom of the hill there so that when us kids were little we would stay back off the tracks. The hill was hard to climb too. Trains went by real slow, and that was super for when the whole family was out there during a picnic. We would be smiling and waving to the passing train's engineers, while we were yanking on invisible air horns, until the smiling, waving engineers blew the train whistle for us. And we sent back cheers of joy to them.

I learned how to drive standard transmission, manual clutch and stick shift equipped vehicles by giving that Land Rover something to worry about.

The Rover was old and well used, but my personal nickname for it was, "the Cadillac of the woods." It was that darn comfortable on the worst of all woods roads, with the heaviest of loads.

With The Rover, I hauled a lot of hunters, great guys, good buddies out into the woods to take them bear hunting, while having interesting and enriching conversations, in that British made four wheel drive buggy. It eventually came to mean so much to me as one of the best aspects of my time as a Registered Maine Bear Hunting Guide, that I have taken the liberty in this narrative to write "The Rover", instead of the Rover. I heartily adored and deeply respected that machine.

When I first 'met' The Rover, I was up at the Lodge for my 1968 summer vacation, with my parents, both sisters, one brother in law and two little nephews. My family always pitched in to help around the Lodge, and I wanted to help out with some bear baiting for my uncle. Gary Glidden was Fin's only hired hunting guide that summer, and he was in the front passenger seat of The Rover the day that Uncle Finley decided it was time for me to learn how to drive a stick shift. Damn near gave Gary whiplash, till I got the giant, jumpin', jack rabbit out from under The Rover, and gained control of that clutch pedal and stick shift assembly.

I "rabbited" The Rover out the Lodge's driveway and slowly jerked my way out onto slender Rt. 11 there. The Rover was moaning n' groaning rather dismally, while a whole crew of family members, a female lodge employee or two, paying hunters and hound dogs out there in the dooryard howled with laughter.

I stalled out, turned red, tried to swallow a mouth full of dried spittle, and looked back to see if Fin was gonna' call it off. But he just cupped his hands around his mouth, and hollered, "Hold on Gary, everybody jack rabbits the first time."

Then Fin waved us on down the road. My fear struck eyes were bulging out a bit, as I scanned the road for moving vehicles, cranked The Rover back up, and bopped on down the line.

Gary, like Finley, was one of the most highly skilled motor vehicle operators who ever 'turned a wheel'. He coached my driving so well that day that I was shifting smooth and in the groove by the time we returned to the Lodge, several hours later.

That was during the infamous summer of '68, when America was metamorphosing from being 100%, tried and true, red-white-and-blue, to being the land of Hippie protesters, clouds of Pot smoke, and radical new found ways of conducting one's relationships with the opposite sex.

But none of that had hit Patten, Maine yet.

During the year when I first worked at the Lodge, in 1968 and '69, there was never ever one single longhaired man who worked or hunted there.

After my high school graduation from Dundalk High School in June'68, I had been letting my hair grow out for the first time. Because, believe it or not, when I was going to school in Maryland, any guy with long hair got expelled from school. EX-FREAKIN-EXPELLED!

Like many of my schoolmates, I had wanted long hair for a couple of years before I ever got to grow it out. And, like myself, most of us did grow it out, after we either quit school or graduated.

Then, in November of '68, I moved to far-north Maine, where no longhaired males were welcomed. So I cut mine shorter and had many great times as a plain-clothed-cop sorta' quasi-Hippie-type kid turning into a professional Maine outdoorsman.

Aunt Martha and Uncle Finley were painfully aware of that little bit o' Hippie in me.

One day during August of '69, five, young, American, college kids on a camping trip stopped in at the Lodge, after one of their cars had broken down just up the North Road (Rt.11) a short ways. They were in a Corvette that was towing an old, worn out, raggedy looking, junker SAAB.

As the two car college caravan eased on into driveway, Fin, Gary and I just happened to all three be there in the driveway. We were looking at our clipboards, which held lists of bear baits that we had discovered fresh bear sign on that morning, and we were discussing which hunter was going on what bait stand. We all three greeted the young college crew, but I instantly began to see the approaching storm.

The junker-SAAB had dropped its motor fan onto its radiator, and had ripped some healthy leaks into it. All that the young college friends cheerfully asked of us at the Lodge was to borrow some tools to use right there.

In that part of the world, in those long gone days, there was no refusing such a request. Way up in the woods like that, people rely on each other for their shared survival.

The group of friends consisted of: (just like in the college road trip movies) One quintessentially real good looking blond haired boy; one blond haired girl who was knockin' my socks off, as she pranced around the scene; one OK looking brunette chick; one average looking guy; and one rather goofy looking fellow who owned the SAAB.

They were all obviously of above average intelligence--book wise, not woods wise--and also from wealthy homes. Rich college kids often receive their family's older 'second' car, when they go off to school. Back then, the USA's rich folks, nor any of us, weren't so financially well off as Americans are today. Today, the cars are much nicer in the student parking lot. I was from a blue collar neighborhood, so in the '60s, the only old foreign cars like a SAAB that I ever saw were being driven by university students to Rock concerts. So as soon as them kids turned into our driveway at the Lodge, I had 'um pretty well pegged for what they were, and what was happening. So I was the first of we three Katahdin Lodge hunting guides to greet and meet them.

My mistake.

OH! The college kids were sure enough in great spirits, unfazed by the mechanical situation, loving life in Maine, and happy to see me; it was every other single individual at the Lodge that day who were the problem. They took an instant dislike to the strangers, because the young men had long hair. And when it was learned that none were married, and all five were sharing two tents together, it was immediately assumed that these five were all about "free love", and Pot smoking-tent shaking orgies in the woods. That was all a no-go in that part of Maine, at that juncture of time.

After no more than a minute in the company of those welcomed-only-by-me strangers, I sensed the discomfort broiling in Fin and Gary. I had to walk away from that scene in the driveway. I let Fin and Gary lend them the required hand tools and make small talk while a quick-fix repair was done well enough for them to drive both cars the 10 miles into town where the closest garage was.

The sweet middle aged country woman who baked all the fresh breads and deserts for the Lodge was stomping through the dining room and kitchen, while tersely declaring, "SHACK RATS!! SHACK RATS!! All they are is shack rats!"

And the whole crowd in the Lodge in there were taking turns glaring out the long row of dining room windows and voicing their full agreement with the baker lady. So I moved on out towards the woodshed, to look for something that needed done.

Jeeze o' wizz! I popped out the kitchen door as Marty was coming in with a basket of freshly air dried bed clothes. She was muttering something unintelligible into the clean sheets and pillowcases, which she had just pulled off the clothesline, when she spotted me.

Aunt Marty grits her teeth tight, leers out angrily at me, through squinched down eyelids, into my pale, young eyes, and gripes, "THOSE ARE YOUR KINDA PEOPLE DAVID! THOSE ARE YOUR KINDA PEOPLE."

I stayed out behind the woodshed, until it was over.

Then, some weeks later, our new Life or Look Magazine comes in the mail with a special edition, full insert, extra magazine issue on the Woodstock Music Festival. Three days of music, mud, drugs, some sex, and a whole lotta' mild mayhem that defined the end of the '60s.

The magazine with the Woodstock insert in it was opened in the Lodge's dining room, when we had all just finished eating our afternoon meal. There were all the Lodge staff there, plus a hand full of bear hunters passing the magazine around amongst themselves. They were simply livid.

That magazine was my first look at what Woodstock meant.

Unfortunately, I couldn't even take a peak at it till the rest of everyone who was in the Lodge at the time left the dining room. I had learned my lesson on the day the longhaired males, unmarried males and females, but still camping together anyways, young Americans came. I was not going to allow myself to be caught looking at photographs of a half a million of 'um. Fin and Marty would have 'laid right into me'.

So when the dining room emptied, I slid on over and flipped the pages of the magazine, while it was still laying down on the table there, because I did not want to get caught with it up in my hands.

I had record albums, out in my little sleeping cabin there at the Lodge, from about half the bands at Woodstock. Several of my lifelong friends from back in Dundalk, Md. went to Woodstock. I'd have probably been there at the festival too, if I had still been living and working in the Baltimore area. But way up there just above Patten, Maine, the young people did not know about it.

I recognized musician after musician, and said to myself, "What'd I miss?"

That missed out feeling didn't last long.

I loved it up in the woods.


David Robert Crews Copyright 2008









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