One morning I was heading off to work in the woods. The weather was terrible, sleet and cold. I had to stop by the local saw shop where I had left some equipment to be repaired. Herbie the owner greeted me with a friendly smile.
“Peter,” he said as he settled his elbows on the countertop and the wind rattled his windows. “Is it true that you went to Harvard?”
I felt like I had been punched in the stomach and I almost bent over forward to catch my breath.
“Yah,” I replied cautiously, “why do you ask?”
“Well, what I can’t figure out is why a guy that has a degree from Harvard is going out to work on a crappy day like today. Nobody else is working, why you?”
The answer I tried to offer Herbie fell apart even before it left my mouth. I stood there frozen, my eyes glazed over and a feeling of panic sweeping through my body. Somehow I paid my bill, stumbled out into my truck and made it as far as the laundromat downtown where I pulled in and slowly watched the windshield cover with wet snow. Soon I would be invisible.
When I was a kid growing up in Cohasset, my summer mornings would be spent swimming in the ocean out front of our house. In the afternoons I would either go to sailing lessons or play tennis with friends. Many of my classmates mowed lawns or worked for their parents by the time they were ten. I never had a real job till I was 14 when I worked in the factory that my father owned.
Class lines were clearly drawn in my town. You were either a townie and your dad was a cop or a fisherman or you were a rich kid and your Dad worked in Boston. But because my Dad owned a small furniture factory in town and employed some of my friends’ parents I was cut some slack. Until the 5th grade I had friends on both sides of the tracks. But now as I sat in my truck and replayed the scene in Herbie’s saw shop, I remembered as if it were yesterday that Saturday morning just a few days before the end of summer vacation when my parents told me that I would leave public school and begin attending a small private school in a neighboring town.
I rode my bike down town where I met up with Bobbie and the old school gang and told them about this abrupt change of plans. They said something like “wow, that sucks,” but I could see that it came as no surprise. One of the kids there named Frankie gave me kind of a scary look. His dad was the man who collected our garbage and I had already been on the losing end of a playground fight with him in the second grade.
That next week I started the 5th grade at my new school. It wasn’t so bad. There was a Mr. Russell who smoked a pipe and taught a shop class where we all made a wooden box. Plus I knew a lot of my classmates from sailing and tennis. But I couldn’t wait till the following Saturday when I jumped on my bike and headed down town to see how my old school chums had fared during their first week back at school. As I approached the common, I saw Frankie and some of the old gang. But instead of heading over to them, I stopped. Frankie turned and saw me.
“There he is,” he shouted and everyone jumped on his bike. And at that moment I made a decision I have always regretted. I climbed on my bike and fled. From that day forward, whether in summer fall or spring, I was afraid to bike down town. Whenever I did have to bike past the common, I would get up a head of steam and go flying by. And of course if the old gang were there, no matter what they were doing, they would drop everything and join in the chase. As I replay that decision in my mind, I wonder if things might have been different if I had just stood my ground. My old friends never did catch me but in a sense I never got away.
Many years later, I was driving with my family by Cohasset Common on Christmas morning when I saw a plume of black smoke rising from the chimney of one of its stately homes. I knew immediately it was a chimney fire and probably started by wrapping paper burned in the fireplace. Back in Maine we had an old cape that we heated with wood and we were always on guard for such a fire.
I jumped from the car, ran to the door and knocked loudly, When nobody came I opened the door and entered the front hall. There to my right sitting on the living room floor was a happy family of four enjoying Christmas.
“Excuse me,” I said to my surprised hosts. “I am pretty sure you have a chimney fire and you need to call the fire department now.”
The husband slowly rose to his feet and put on his slippers.
“Look,” I said. “This is a very old house and you could lose it in a few minutes.” I suggested that we take a precautionary visit to the attic.”
“We need to feel all the chimney bricks that come in contact with wood,” I said. “You start up at the roof peak and I’ll work my way down to the floor”. Sure enough, the bricks up at the height of the attic were getting hot.
By the time I made it down stairs again, the family was all out of the house on the lawn watching the smoke. The husband came over to me as the fire department arrived.
“Hey, thanks for stopping. No telling were this could have gone. My name is Frank .” He grasped my hand with both of his and shook it warmly. I told him I was glad I could help.
As I left Frank and his family and drove back to my childhood home, I felt I had crosses a small bridge of healing. I had moved to a farm in Maine to leave Cohasset, Milton Academy, Harvard and my privileged background far behind. Working in the woods as a logger was about as far as I thought I could get from being the next Irish Catholic president of the United States. But Herbie had ‘outed’ me that stormy winter day in Maine. He stirred up the old ghosts. How long had I thought I could run from my past? And what was so wrong with my past that I needed to so carefully cover my tracks?
As the snow continued to fall in front of the laundromat, I revisited in my mind the Cohasset Commons and I rewrote history. I see a fall day, the leaves are turning, and I am biking to town to see my friends and tell them about my new school. As I approach them, they turn and one of them scowls. They all jump on their bikes and head towards me. But now I stand my ground. They ride up to me, crowd in real close.
“We’d thought we’d never see you again,” Bobbie says.
“What’s it like to be around a bunch of rich kids all day long?” Frankie taunts.
Now it’s time for me to speak.
“I really miss you guys. The new school is ok. There is a nice teacher who smokes a pipe and we all make wooden boxes together.”
My friend Eddie moves in close. “Do you know that your dad kicked me and my dad off your rocks this summer when we were fishing. My dad told me he used to fish there when he was a kid. Shit, who do you think you are?”
Eddie had never mentioned this to me before. I remember that night. We were all sitting there in the dining room having supper when this kid and his dad walk over the rocks in front of our house and start casting for stripers. My dad gets up and starts for the door. They are quite far off and I can’t see who they are.
“Dad,” I said. “Why can’t they fish?”
“I am sorry,” he replied “but our agent says he will cancel our insurance policy if I let them fish. He says that if they get hurt on the slippery rocks, they could sue us.”
I was just a small boy and I felt so helpless.
“You must think you’re pretty cool,’ says Frankie. “You living in that big house and my dad comes to collect the garbage. But my dad is just as good as yours.”
The boys push in a little closer. “I am sorry,” is all I can say.
Then I add, “I am just a kid. I don’t have a lot to say in what goes on or where I go to school. All I can say right now is I don’t want to loose you guys as friends. “
We all look at the ground, scuff our toes, then somebody says something about either all going down to the station to watch the train come through. Or maybe someone knocks me down and steals my bike. But whatever happens, in this version I stand my ground, I do not run. I do not give fear time to take root and flourish. I do not become the Indian scout that is dragging his blanket over the high mesas covering his tracks. I am just a 10- year old kid who is trying to do the right thing.
I fell asleep by the Laundromat and when I awoke it was near lunchtime. I drove home slowly as the snow piled up on the roads. I never did go to work that day. I stayed up late that night and when I finally climbed in bed next to Marty I took forever to fall asleep. I kept going back to my childhood, following myself as I moved from classroom bomb drills to bicycle riding to gathering crabs.
Years later, while feeding the horses their lunch, Willie joined me in the field as I was putting hay down. As he munched away, I could barely remember what he looked like as a small colt. His massive neck and legs now worked in harmony to eat the green forage lying on the snowy ground.
There was a tractor working across the street and when it lifted its bucket unexpectedly and pounded the ground to break through the frost, my 2000 lb bundle of muscle spun around, kicked his two rear heels high in the air and set off running down the hill and across the brook away from the fearful sound. Willie’s predecessors that survived in the wild would have died if they refused to honor this fear, this instinct to survive.
I ran from my old gang not because they had ever caused me harm. I ran because somewhere in my young mind I felt that I was part of an injustice. On some level I knew that it was unfair that Eddie and his dad could not fish off our rocks. But I did nothing to stop my father. I loved my dad. He was not a bad man, he was just afraid to lose his insurance policy. Willie was showing me how fear was a part of my genetic makeup and my response was to run. I was more like Willie than I ever imagined.
After our small Maine wedding, Marty and I headed for a one-night honeymoon in Portland and the following week Bob and I started looking for logging work with our horses. Because we did not yet have a truck or a trailer, our job had to be within walking distance of our farm. As luck would have it our neighbor, Lee Hamlin, had cut some beech, rock maple and birch on his woodlot just a short walk over the hill. Lee asked us if we could haul this wood out of the forest to the truck road with Nicker and Barney.
The first time we met Lee it was a cold wintry afternoon the very day we moved into our house. We had just purchased our farm from an old couple who had let Lee use his barn to house some of his ponies. It was on a Saturday and we had some friends come up from Boston to help us move in. We were just lifting our bathtub through the front door when our friend Paula came screaming out of the barn. At first I thought she had been attacked by a woodchuck or something because she just could not stop crying hysterically and pointing through the barn doors to the barnyard out back. “They’re killing your horses,” she sobbed.
We did not yet own any animals but as I entered the back barnyard I saw someone that had not been there yesterday, a man naked from the waist up and covered with blood working a large knife around the carcass of a dead and decapitated horse hanging from the limb of a maple tree. The severed head lay on the ground, its eyes open and looking up at me. The large man with a generous stomach stopped his work and greeted me with a guilty smile.
“Hi,” he said, “my name’s Lee” extending his blood covered hand, then drawing it back when he realized that it was not at the moment an object that one might want to shake. “I am sorry if I gave that young girl a scare. I suppose she does not see something like this every day.”
I smiled understandingly as if this were standard fare for me. He went on to say that this pony’s meat was for his hunting dogs and he appreciated my temporarily housing his meals on hooves and assured me that they would be gone in a few days. As Lee headed for home that day, he knocked on the kitchen door where we were cooking a meal for our friends and offered a piece of the pony’s loin roast to round out our supper menu. Lee was one of the last folks in my neck of the woods who made a living for his large family by hunting, trapping and cutting a little wood. And he would be the first landowner to hire us to work in his forest.
Marty and I had chosen this corner of Southwestern Maine to be around people like Lee. The Hamlin family had an uncanny way of knowing what you needed before you did. Lee’s father Dana would drive slowly past our driveway, wave and then be back in a few minutes brandishing a ¾” drive socket wrench to loosen that rusty bolt on my truck. Dana and his wife lived way up the valley in a small mobile trailer. Dana loved to hunt coyotes but also had a passionate respect for these predators. Once when he could still get around he took me up back behind his home and showed me a den where a young female was raising her three pups. On the day Dana was buried, Marty and I were heading to his funeral when a huge male coyote walked onto the road in front of our car and stood there staring at us. Over the years our town would prove to be an ideal place for us to raise a family, nurture a marriage and develop long lasting friendships with people like Lee and Dana.
One day in the early summer we were working on Lee’s lot, hand loading 200 lb sticks of hardwood onto a woods sled. The bugs were pretty thick and the day was working up to be a warm one. A friend from college named Ellen had stayed over the night before because she wanted to see the horses working but after about 30 minutes of biting insects she was ready to leave. Having said good-by to Bob and me and the horses, she headed back up over the hill to our farm. Bob asked Barney and Nick to start the load forward but they refused to move. He asked them to move again but no luck. Then Nicker bent his head toward the trail that Ellen had taken and let out a whinny. For some reason I took this to mean that all was not well.
“Hold on Bob, I said. “Let me check to see if Ellen is all right” and I headed up the path at a trot. Not 50 yards away I found her convulsing on the ground in the throws of a full blown seizure. I yelled for Bob and he was soon by my side.
“I think that she may have swallowed her tongue,” I said as her face turned a light shade of blue. I began to panic and I grabbed her jaw to try and pry it open.
“Don’t do that,” replied Bob. “Keep your fingers away from her teeth. She can lock down on them and bite them to the bone. Here, take this stick and pry her teeth open with it.”
So I began to slowly pry her jaw open while Bob inserted another stick to free her tongue. Blood stained saliva bubbled out of her mouth and we rolled her head to the side as she began to breathe again. Finally she dropped into a deep sleep for several minutes.
Bob went to tend to the horses and by the time he returned Ellen had begun to come around. She remembered nothing of what had happened and her hands began to shake when we described how we had found her. Back then there were no rescue units or 911 so we piled her on a mattress in the back of her station wagon and headed for the hospital in Portland. Bob followed in my car. On the way into town she searched for explanations as she lay on her back.
“I have never had seizures before,” she told me. “But both my parents were schizophrenics. My mother was a concert pianist and my father was a composer. I was born ‘placenta privia’ which means that I did not have the protection of the placenta during delivery. The muscles of my mother’s uterus pounded me unprotected into life. My therapist felt that this birth event may have had a profound effect on my psyche and we were just on the edge of exploring this when I came here to visit. I think that I may have just re-lived my birth out in the woods. I always felt that I could not survive re-living such a memory but I have.” Then her teeth began chattering uncontrollably and she had to stop talking.
Maine Medical did extensive research on Ellen, looking for a lesion on the brain or some medical explanation for what had happened. None was ever found. It was not till later in the day when Bob and I returned to the woodlot to bring the horses home that I remembered Nick’s whinny and the warning he gave me.
I was born in the late summer of 1945. The war was just over in the Pacific and my father’s brother Robert, a Marine Corps doctor, had not been heard of since the assault on Iwo Jima late in March. My parents had just bought a house by the ocean in Cohasset and while it was getting fixed up, we went to live with my grandmother Josephine on Beacon Hill in Boston. I was nicknamed ‘Spider’ and from the moment we moved into our new South Shore home, I would not be still. One of my first memories from my childhood was when I was six years old and my Uncle John and I were sitting on our front porch on a summer’s night looking out at the dark ocean and the lights of the passing ships.
“The Russians are out there,” he would whisper. “Somewhere tonight a submarine is surfacing, men are scrambling down the side into rubber boats and while you sleep, they will row quietly into our beach, hide their rafts and dress in normal American clothing. Why tomorrow you might be at the Central Market and one might be right next to you, buying an orange.”
I knew he was trying to scare me but the result was quite the opposite. I had no idea what a Russian looked like but I loved rafts and ships that could go beneath the waves. I would welcome these visitors and offer them my jackknife to peal their oranges. We would become friends.
The second grade classroom at the Ripley Road School was the sunniest in the building and our teacher Mrs. Kennedy was a gift from God. Her reading and writing lessons made the days fly by but what put her in the Best Teacher Hall of Fame category was what she did every fourth Friday of the month. At exactly 12:00 noon a siren would sound from our nearby police station and she would begin the drill to which we all looked forward. As she climbed on her desk in her high heel shoes, we would all scramble under ours. Then for two solid minutes she would make sounds with her mouth of atomic bombs being dropped by Russian airplanes that would burst apart our playground and surrounding forest. Then the all clear would sound followed by the lunch bell and we would all scramble off to our dinners.
I am not sure why I developed such a fascination with Russia. My Cub Scout leader told me a few years ago that I was always the one in her troupe trying to get boys to stop fighting. As I grew older I began to make up a very Slavic sounding language that my brother and I would use in public places to impress people. Our favorite expletive was “doctor nobi po-gee-tov!” People would stop and stare at these two very Irish looking guys in the throes of a heated debate in a language no one could decipher.
One Sunday when I was 12 we returned from church and saw out on the ocean in front of our house a three-masted schooner under full sail making for Boston Harbor. My father was a naval architect, a boat builder and a passionate lover of wooden ships and he knew that he was looking at something he had only ever seen before in pictures or drawings. He drove the car up into our driveway, jumped out and ran over to the rocks and stared.
“We must go and meet her,” he said. Mother packed a picnic breakfast and we followed the ship up the coast. There was a strong breeze from the southwest pushing her sails along and with our binoculars we could see the waves breaking against the bow and the men aloft adjusting sail.
My dad was born in South Boston and knew just where she would make port. But when we got to the pier, there was a police car blocking the public entrance. Being Sunday, there was no one else on the long wharf. My dad pulled up next to the officer.
“Good morning,” Dad said. “What are you doing out here on such a beautiful day”?
“Well, sir, I am awaiting the arrival of a sailing ship,” the officer replied.
“I know,” said my dad. “We saw her off Minot’s Light earlier under full sail and I was hoping that my family and I might visit her once she is settled.”
“I am sorry,” said the officer, “but I don’t think that will be possible. You see, that ship’s from Russia and she is just here overnight to take on water and a few supplies. No one can go ashore and no one can go on board.”
My father was crestfallen but he was not one to give up easily. The ship was still an hour away so we sat with Officer Reardon and shared our picnic breakfast with him. It turned out that my dad and Officer Reardon’s brother rowed in the same Irish racing boats called ‘curraghs’ across Boston Harbor when they were kids. The policeman agreed after a cup of my mom’s tea that there could be little harm in us going out on the dock to see the ship land. So our small group would be the official welcoming party that greeted the Russian training ship ‘’Nadezhda’ as she made her only stop in New England.
As this giant ship approached the pier, the orders to drop sail were given and as silently as a gliding gull she floated slowly towards us. Then as small ropes were tossed to us my dad took over, ordering us to pull in quickly the larger ropes that followed which we threw over the giant cleats that were cemented into the pier. First came the bow ropes, then the ropes from the stern.
“Stand back,” my father shouted as the heavy nylon ropes the size of my arms started groaning under the strain of the ship’s forward motion. If my dad not been on the pier I do not know how the ship would have landed for there needed to be someone like him to direct the securing of the on-shore lines. I watched his boat builder eyes twinkle with satisfaction as this huge sailing ship, propelled only by the wind, gently nestled up to the pier.
Our policeman stood in awe of the event and it slowly began to dawn on him that he was the only city official to welcome this majestic vessel, its captain and crew. His bewilderment turned to panic as the gangplank was extended over the side. Just then one of the young crew members, a boy a few years older than I waved and of course I waved back and yelled “doctor nobi po-gee-tov”! And of course he yelled back something in Russian like “what did you say?”
Our policeman asked my father, “Does your son speak Russian” and my father looked down at his feet and said “well, just a little.” And before you could say ‘borscht’ we were on board and making our way below deck. Our first introduction was to the ship’s doctor who was the only English speaker on board.
My father had a long history of dropping everything he was doing to greet random strangers. He was often calling my mom to say that he had just met the most interesting young couple at the shop and could he bring them home for supper. Well, today was no exception. Thanks to some salted fish, Russian black bread and vodka in our tea, Sergeant Reardon was graciously agreeing to everything Dad was suggesting. Arrangements were made from his CB radio for our Catholic Youth Organization back home to send up two school buses for the forty sailors, their captain, first mate and ship’s doctor. Three hours later we arrived in Cohasset to find a group of teen-age girls from our church standing in our driveway and by late afternoon our local dance band was playing ‘bee-bop’ music on our front porch to a bunch of dancing kids that shared no common language.
What I remember most about that day was the ship’s doctor. He was curious about my ‘few Russian words’ and because it was low tide I directed him down to the tide pools where I kept my crabs.
“I walk out at low tide and catch all the crabs I can find,” I told him. “I put them in these pools and when the sea rises they all swim out.”
We talked a little about his home in a place called Kaliningrad that he said was also on the ocean. There he had a family that he missed very much. The doctor seemed very happy to stay with me by the pools as the tide came in. We listened to the music from the house and the laughter. I liked him very much but was a little disappointed that the first Russian I was to meet did not arrive on a rubber raft from a submarine.
“Doctor,” I asked. “What does your ship’s name ‘Nadezhda’ mean?”
“It mean’s ‘hope’ in Russian,” he smiled. “It means ‘hope’.”
When Larry’s logging job ended that summer of 1974 Bob and I bought our first team of horses and for the next six years we cut timber with them all over Southwestern Maine. “The trick is to go light and often,” Larry advised us. “You can break a good horse’s spirit before dinner and then where are you?” Barney and Nigger (changed to Nicker) were “long in the tooth” when we bought them but we had some good years before they retired.
I remember the day my Dad and Mom met these horses for the first time. Marty and I had decided to get married shortly after arriving in our neighborhood. So we invited my folks up in May for a small family wedding. The weather was still cold when they pulled into the driveway of our farm for the very first time in their Buick station wagon.
I had been up early brushing and combing Barney and Nicker’s tails and manes. We had bought the team real cheap because they had been starved the previous winter and rescued by the SPCA. They had scabs on their haunches and their ribs showed but I was as proud as punch as my dad walked over and patted Barney’s dusty rump.
“Looks like real potential” he smiled trying his hardest not to have a heart attack on the spot. The sky was grey, our house was grey and my hair was turning grey. As we stood there trying to make the best of the situation, I heard the unmistakable growl of a “beater” car coming down our road.
We have a tradition here in Maine of buying the cheapest and roughest car you can find to get you through winter. When spring comes, you drive it out on a back road, roll it into the woods, unscrew the plates and walk home. You could always tell the arrival of winter because folks would ask each other, “got your ‘beata’ yet?”
The first guest to our wedding this cold May morning drove his smoke belching, muffler dragging ‘beater” past our driveway, then backed up, had his female passenger roll down the window and then peer across the frontseat at us. Beer cans fell to the road as he opened his car door and made his way falteringly towards my mother and father.
“Jesus Christ,” he said to my father with the most authentic down east accent you can imagine. “Where did you get them gawd damn horses?”
He made his way over past us, his tobacco stained wool shirt standing in sharp contrast to my father’s Brooks Brothers overcoat. I knew what my father was thinking. ‘Here was a real Mainer about to give us his impression of this logging team.’ He was enthralled.
“This one over here,” our new friend observed holding Barney’s mouth open for my parents to look in, “he’s still breathing but that black one, I don’t know if he will make it past noon.” Laughing out loud, he wiped his chin with his sleeve and with the elegant stroll of a man who has piled more than his share of pulpwood in a lifetime, made his way back to his ‘beater’ and was off down the road, never to be seen again.
Barney and Nick worked with us for eight years before they retired. We went to buying this ‘older’ type of logging horses because they fit our budget and because they were gentle and experienced. But after about 20 years of these “long in the tooth” horses my wife and I began to wonder what it would be like if we started from scratch and bought some young colts. It couldn’t be that hard. After all, we had been kicked, stepped on, dragged around and bitten at least as many times as our neighbors. Some of that must translate into wisdom.
So we bought two chocolate brown colts about nine months old named Nick and Willie, half brothers from the same stallion. They weighed about 400 lbs each and were easy enough to lead around. But at 16 months they passed the 1000 lb mark and were in and out of trouble every day, just like two half-ton kids.
Willie ended up in the vet hospital dehydrated, heat stroked and with a fever of 104. Two months later I found him wrapped up in some fence wire. As we slowly introduced them to farm work I could not fail but be impressed by the fear that especially surrounded Willie. We’d be walking through a pasture and a squirrel would pop out of a hole in a stone wall and Willie would jump like a jack in the box and bolt ahead, nearly trampling me to the ground.
We sought advice from a host of characters. Some told us that Willie just needed a harder workout to settle him down. Others suggested a more aggressive and painful bit in his mouth. But no matter what kind of bit we used or how tired he was, he always seemed ready to bolt at the drop of a hat. This behavior continued on unabated for eight years.
That eighth winter Willie, Nick and I were working up back on the hill behind the farm cutting pine logs for lumber. One afternoon Marty came up to join us. I had the horses teamed up and was backing them to hook onto a hitch of logs. I asked Marty to hold the reins while I hitched the load to the horses. Somehow Willie’s left rear leg stepped over a part of his harness and as I leaned over to fix it, this same leg shot backwards, knocking my hard hat off my head and sending it flying into the woods.
I scratched my forehead, turned and went to fetch my helmet while Marty stared speechless.
“It’s Ok,” I said “he only got the hard hat.”
I watched as her concern turned to incredulity, then to anger.
“How long has this been going on,” she asked. I tried to shrug it off but she would have none of it. “That kick could have killed you.”
“Yah, but it didn’t,” I replied, knowing already that I had lost. She dropped the reins and headed down the hill.
The following winter I was cutting wood on another of our woodlots with my friends Tim and Jeff. They had a logging tractor called a skidder taking out some of our bigger logs that the horses couldn’t pull and Willie and Nick and I were handling the smaller wood. It was a big deal for me to be working with these guys because back at the farm most everyone on our crew was female.
So it was doubly frustrating on day two when around mid-morning Willie and Nick refused to go back into the woods, even when I threatened them with a switch. I checked to make sure they weren’t going lame or getting sore in the harness. Just then Marty showed up to see how things were progressing. I had smartened up over the year and started appreciating how well she could read the horses. So I asked her what she thought was going on. She had me turn them again and head up the woods path and into the forest.
“Well, what do you think,” I asked after a few minutes of watching the horses not move.
“I think I know what’s going on,” she said. “They are not having any fun.”
“What does fun have to do with this?” I replied with a frustrated, mocking voice.
“If you have to ask me that, then I am afraid that I can’t be much more help,” and with that she turned and headed home.
Now I was stuck. I felt like a fool in my own wife’s eyes and I clearly wasn’t holding up my side of the log production with Tim and Jeff. I felt so helpless. Willie was clearly getting worse as he grew older. Maybe I should just give up on them both, sell them to some Amish farmers and go and find a nice broke team. Why did I have to get stuck with a 2000 lb brown eyed, terribly stubborn and complicated horse? As we turned down the logging road towards home Willie took the lead and it was all I could do to hold him back from a run.
My self-pity subsided the next day and I got up my courage to ask Marty for more help. After all, we had been together for a long time now, over 30 years. Sure enough, when I asked she jumped right in.
“I think that you need to start over again, right from the very beginning,” she said.
“How long will that take?” I queried. “Can we get things straightened out in few days?”
“No,” she said, rolling her eyes. “This is going to take more like a few months.”
Well I just about jumped up in the air in protest. I needed to get back to support Jeff and Tim. Marty just didn’t understand how vital I was to the success of that harvest. Fortunately a neighbor arrived in the driveway and I had a chance to cool my jets for a few minutes. I looked out in the pasture where Willie was chewing on some hay. He certainly was a beautiful four-legged animal. I knew deep down in my heart that if I could just get my pride under control that this whole thing might work out.
“OK,” Marty said as she returned. “Here is what I recommend that we do, starting tomorrow. “
So the next day, following Marty’s instructions, I walked up the hill behind the farm where the pasture meets the woods. It was now early January and we had enjoyed a few good snowfalls. The horses liked to come up here and eat their morning hay and get far away from me and the work I had lined up for them. Everyone in the small herd was watching my advance and ready to move off at a trot if I got too close.
This time, however, I brushed the snow off a tree stump, sat down and did nothing. I was quiet, eyes shut, motionless. After 20 minutes I got up and, without looking at the horses, walked down the hill and out of the pasture. The whole thing seemed like a total waste of time but a man can handle some pretty stupid feelings when he’s at the end of his rope.
I returned the next day and the day after. Marty kept telling me to have no expectations as to what might happen, just keep it simple, sit down, show no interest in any of the horses, then leave. Some days, especially the warm and sunny ones, I was totally with the program. But other days were hard, especially the ones when I kept reminding myself that it was I who had been working with logging horses for the better part of my adult life. Marty, God bless her, she rode at Camp Teelawoocket when she was 12 and that was that. Those days I began to backslide. But for some reason I kept my mouth shut and did as she suggested.
Then on one day during the third week something very special happened. I had been sitting, more like dozing on my stump for the allotted time and was just about to get up and walk away when I felt a warm breath on my left ear. I turned slowly to face Willie’s nose. I raised my right hand and stroked his chin. All at once an unexpected rush of emotion coursed through my body. Tears came to my eyes. I slowly rose up, sighed a deep breath and made my way down the hill towards home.
The next day the same thing happened. Willie showed up at my side, laid his huge head on my shoulder and this swelling of emotion again rose up in my body. But this time, as I stood up and stepped down the path, Willie stayed hooked on to me like a magnet, following my every step.
We crossed the brook, turned at the barn and headed for his stall. I instinctively walked toward the harness area to find his halter. Just then Marty came out of the house and peered at me from the woodshed.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“I am about to put on his halter.” I replied.
“Please don’t do that. Just pat him on the head and reward him for following you.”
So I did just that. I scratched behind his ears and walked away.
The next day I went up back, sat on my stump and after a few minutes, I felt the warm breath again on my neck as Willie came over to say hello. Again he followed me up to the barn and this time I gave him a good brushing.
One week later after visiting the field several times with a halter in my hand, Willie let me slide the smooth ropes up over his ears and around his chin and with a slack halter rope drooping from his chin to my hand he followed me to the barn. I would stop, he would stop. I would walk again, he would follow. We passed the wire fence he had wrapped himself up in when he was four. We passed through the field where he and his brother had run away with a mowing machine. And now he was walking by my side, his head low and relaxed, connected only by a slack halter rope. But as we crossed the bridge over the brook, everything changed.
All at once his nose shot up, his head turned to look into the far distance and as a chipmunk skirted up an oak tree 50 yards away, a bolt of fear vibrated through Willie’s body and all 2000 lbs of him jumped into the air and came to rest inches from my feet. His body trembled and he prepared to run. My instinct kicked in and I grabbed the halter rope and yanked his head towards me.
“Go ahead,” I screamed in a panicked voice. “Run over me, you son of a bitch”. But Willie didn’t move, just looked beyond me into the forest.
Slowly a deep rumbling began deep down inside of me. My eyes filled with tears and I began to sob like an old motor that had not run in a long time. It came first in fits and starts but soon I was forced to bend over while my inner soul retched out some powerful anguish. For several seconds I was barely aware of Willie’s presence. But then I felt the rope in my hands. Like following a lifeline in a blizzard I made my way towards him and putting my arms around his neck and hugging him as tightly as I could, I embarked on some serious grieving.
In my mind I saw a small boy on a beach with his mother. The weather was sunny but the mother was ever vigilant, nervously pacing back and forth by the water’s edge while her young son played in the waves. Then I saw this same woman, standing by her kitchen window as she watched the rescue workers carrying her dead husband out of her life forever.
I had never come to terms with the extent to which fear controlled my mother’s life. Unwilling to travel, afraid of new restaurants and constantly on guard for new diseases that might invade our house, she managed to see her life and her loved ones through a prism of fear. I had spent my life unwilling to forgive her for this fear, the demon that had robbed her from me. I had been unable to appreciate what it must feel like to live with this emotion 24-7. But here on this bridge on a winter afternoon Willie had opened a new door for me, had given me a very short but powerful preview of a life ruled by fear. For the first time in my life I found myself crying for my mother.
I don’t know how long we stood there. But when I finally let my arms go from around his neck, Willie breathed in deeply, dropped his head to face me, and let out a long sigh.
“I am starting to get it,” I said to his huge brown eyes. “Don’t give up on me and I won’t give up on you”.
When I first joined the USS Lloyd Thomas she was birthed at the Charlestown Naval Shipyard in Boston undergoing structural repairs. Being Deck Officer meant that I was in charge of a rough and tumble group of men, some a good deal older than I, who were responsible for scraping the rust off her hull, repainting her, then washing her decks, welding her cracks, then scraping and painting some more. When I was not on board I was sharing an apartment in Cambridge, working with my friends to protest the war and explaining to their friends why my hair was so short.
Within weeks of my arrival on board the ship the Executive Officer, second in command to the captain, asked me into his office for a friendly chat. He suggested I put a little more effort into my public demeanor, i.e. trim my curls, polish my shoes, and press my uniform. I tried to tell him that being in the Navy was not really my idea. He told me that I had better shape up because we had just received orders to proceed to Newport, R.I where we would join with a convoy and head to the Tonkin Gulf and the war in Vietnam.
“Folks over in Nam won’t cut you much slack so get your act together!” he smiled.
Several weeks later we left Boston to join the larger squadron. It was then that my captain over my suggestion signed the combat ready form for the 5 “ gun barrels, I had a college friend who was on the sister ship to the Lloyd Thomas birthed just down the pier so I took a stroll over to see Ed. It was on a Friday and as it happened he was in his stateroom getting ready for a short weekend leave to see his folks.
“Do you know,” I asked him “what would happen if our 5 “barrels cracked while we were doing fire support?” Ed had been at Harvard with me, we had done a summer intensive Naval ROTC training together and both our parents were 100% Boston Irish.
“What are you up to now?” he asked, looking at me over his glasses that were perched at the end of his nose.
I explained what had happened on the Lloyd Thomas.
“Well, what do you plan to do about it?” he followed up.
“That depends on the answer to my first question”, I replied. It turns out the Weapon’s Officer of Ed’s ship was still on board. Ed asked Lt. Jim to join us and when he did, Ed presented him with my question straight up, no explanation.
“Well, said Lt. Jim, “first you have to understand that what you are shooting from the 5” barrel is not your standard bullet that comes out of a rifle barrel. These projectiles are filled with explosives that are timed to explode when they are about 8’ above the desired target, sending out shrapnel in all directions to tear body parts off the enemy.”
“Just imagine if the projectile accidentally explodes prematurely in the ship’s gun barrel itself. A new barrel is designed to direct the shrapnel forward to harmlessly fall into the ocean or on the deck. An old barrel with cracks might be technically unable to accommodate such a failure. The explosion could be directed backwards into the gun mount where a firestorm could result with heavy casualties”.
“Now remember, I said technically,” Lt. Jim added. “Thank God I have never seen that happen”. I thanked Lt. Jim for his thoughts and he smiled and departed.
“So now what?” asked Ed. “You know Pete, probably nothing is going to happen over there. If you make this a big deal, you are going to find yourself eating a ‘ration of shit’. This is not Social Relations 101. These captains are keen to get over there so they can have the Vietnam Commendation Medal pinned on their chest. They are not going to take very kindly to your concern for detail”.
Actually Soc Rel 101 had been one of my favorite classes in college. I took it during the fall of my junior year when I was just about flunking out. For the first time I found students and professors who were willing to put aside the pretenses of an Ivy League education and wrestle with the emotional and sometimes spiritual issues that faced all of us. I had been spending more time protesting the war than studying and my grades reflected this. I scrambled to try and climb out of the bottom quarter of my class from where my draft board would send me to the Army. I already knew a classmate of mine who had died in Vietnam. Joining Navy ROTC ensured that I could stay in school. Graduation was still two years away. I would worry about the war then.
The day after my talk with Ed and his roommate, I found myself ringing the doorbell of well-kept brick home in the nearby town of Portsmouth, Rhode Island. It was on a ridge, one side sloping east to a view of Buzzards Bay and Cape Cod and to the west over rolling fields filled with sheep. I remembered that when I was a young child I had come to a nearby monastery with my father to visit a Franciscan monk who had a border collie that worked these very sheep. As I stood wondering if the monk were still alive a pretty middle aged woman in a tartan skirt opened the door. She was the wife of the Squadron Commander of our Pacific bound flotilla.
“Hello”, I said with as much courage as I could muster. “My name in Peter Hagerty and I am an officer on a ship here in Newport that is part of your husband’s squadron. I was wondering if I might have a word with him.”
I was warmly welcomed in as if I might well have been a college friend of one of her children. She invited me to sit in a sunny room with copies of Turner and Constable paintings hanging on the wall. I knew these artists because my Uncle John had been an art collector. She offered me a cup of tea and assured me that her husband would be down shortly. This was not going to be as bad as I had thought. I smelled a roast of beef cooking in the kitchen.
All at once the Commander of our destroyer squadron was standing in the doorway.
“Good afternoon Mr. Hagerty. How do you like Portsmouth?”
Well that was the cue for me to talk about how I had played soccer against a school just down the road. And I brought him up to speed on my visit to the Portsmouth Priory and of course I told him how much I appreciated the romantic influence of Turner and Constable. He joined me for tea and I soon felt that we were becoming the best of chums. Then all at once I heard the sound of my own voice and slowed to a stop.
“So how can I help you on this Saturday afternoon?” he asked kindly. My host was dressed not in military attire but in summer weight wool pants and a light blazer. He could have easily been the Commodore of the local Yacht Club.
“Well sir, I am the Deck Officer on the Lloyd Thomas, a ship in your squadron and as you know part of my duty is to make sure that all my crew and the equipment we operate are in safe condition.
“I was asked by my captain to certify that our 5 inch guns are combat ready. During an inspection, I detected problems with the barrels of the forward gun mount. When I reported this, he refused to address this concern and signed the combat readiness sheet over my objections.”
My host reached into his coat pocket and took out a pipe, lit it and filled our corner of our bright little room with smoke.
“In addition I recently learned of the dire consequences that would result should these barrels be compromised during firing.” The volume of smoke increased.
“How long have you been on the Lloyd Thomas?” he asked.
“Just under a year,sir.”
“Very well. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I will discuss it with my squadron staff and I will let you know of the outcome as soon as possible.”
The meeting was over. I made my way to the door and we shook hands good-by. No invitation to stay for lunch but in any case I hoped that I might see him again. I truly enjoyed meeting him and his wife.
Monday morning came along and my country jaunt to Portsmouth had already taken a back seat to the pressing issues being discussed at 8:00 am staff meeting. I stood at ease and listened to the Executive Officer’s work orders for that day. Unexpectedly one of my enlisted men appeared. He politely interrupted the meeting.
“Excuse me sir,” he announced to the Exec. “There are some men here to see Mr. Hagerty”
“What men” queried the Exec, slightly amazed that anyone would want to see me.
“Sir, they say they are from the Squadron Commander’s office”.
I was excused and as I made my way to the upper deck I was pleased to think that my new friend the Commodore of Portsmouth was so fast acting. I was surely on the way to meet his staff and give my report first hand.
Standing at the gangway of our ship were two burley military policemen with very serious and somewhat nervous expressions on their faces.
“Yes, that’s correct”
“Sir, we are under orders to escort you off the ship now. Please come with us.”
Something in their tone just did not sound like they were escorting a valued member of the Naval Service to the Commander’s staff meeting.
“Let me just get my briefcase, I have some notes I would like to bring with me.”
“I am sorry sir, but we are under orders to escort you off the ship. We must leave now.” Out of instinct, the older of the two found his hand going to his handcuffs. He stopped however and slowly tried to regain his composure. Something started to smell like a ‘ration of shit’. Before I was to leave with these men I needed to let my fellow officers on board know that something was up.
I turned to the quartermaster who was standing nearby on the gangway, checking everyone who came and left the ship. He happened to be in my division and a very smart young man.
“Pomerantz,” I beckoned. “I am being escorted by these two men off the Lloyd Thomas. Would you kindly take down their names, ranks and serial numbers and report that to the Captain?”
“Yes sir,” said Pomerantz smartly. Then I turned to our two guests.
“Gentlemen, am I under arrest?”
“No sir, not at this moment.” Now these guys were really getting nervous. They had probably never had to “escort” an officer before and even as I tried to control my own rising fear, I felt sorry for them. Pomerantz was also quickly realizing the implications of what was going on.
After my escorts had given the quartermaster their ID particulars we headed up the gangplank and down Pier #7. Someone once had told me this pier was 6 football fields long. In spite of all the comings and goings of trucks, jeeps, and men getting ready for war, I felt that everyone on all these ships was watching our little parade.
“Where are you taking me?” I asked.
“Just a little further, sir”. Sweat was running down my back as we reached the end of the pier. I realized that my poorly polished shoes and my curls were not about to work in my favor no matter what lay ahead. I was suddenly overcome by an image of my disappearing and no one ever finding me. Just at that moment a sign on the building that we were about to pass came into focus.
Office of the Judge Advocate General (JAG)
I had been to a workshop here months before about the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), a set of rules that lays out the legal process in all branches of the US Armed Forces. At the time I felt it was pretty boring stuff but as I veered off to the left and up the stairs, I saw this office as a refuge.
“Gentlemen,” I said, reaching the top of the stairs and facing my alarmed escorts. “With all due respect (and I meant it) if you are going to charge me with an offense under the UCMJ, then charge me and arrest me now. Otherwise I am going in here to consult with my attorney. You may either wait out here or come inside. I suggest you do the latter as it probably cooler inside and I am sure there is some refreshment here as well.”
The tables quickly turned. My respect for their awkward situation coupled with my authentic concern for their comfort caused them to acquiesce. I was now the officer and they were the enlisted and I was making a reasonable suggestion. They chose to remain outside.
Twenty cubicles comprised the layout of the first floor of JAG headquarters. And in each cubicle sat a Navy lieutenant with a law degree. The vast majority had joined the service as combat desk jockeys. This would be the closest they would come to shrapnel and gunfire. Their days were filled with representing naval personnel involved in automobile accidents, drunken brawls and divorce. I chose the seventh cubicle on the left and introduced myself to Lt. Lowell Noteboom.
“Excuse me sir, I am in some kind of trouble and I could use some help.”
We talked for a full hour, or rather I talked and Lowell listened. I told him everything that had gone on over the last year from my gun barrel incident to getting sprayed in the face by a skunk in the garbage pail out back of my Newport apartment. When I had exhausted my historical repertoire, Lt. Noteboom stood up and walked toward the window.
“I have been waiting for someone like you to walk into my office ever since the first day I arrived here in Newport,” he said enthusiastically. “Don’t you worry; we will set this all straight.” I knew then I had an ally and a new friend and things for just a moment looked brighter than they had in a long time.
He went outside and sent the guards packing with an order that they return with formal charges. But they never returned. He gave me his office and his home phone number, told me to return to my ship and to call him every four hours to “check in”.
Back on the Lloyd Thomas life was busy. Chipping paint, checking anchor lines and covering the ever-present rust, my deck crew continued to get the ship ready for the first leg of the voyage to Vietnam. Then several days later the captain announced that we would go to sea to test our engines. After lunch in the wardroom he asked to see me in his cabin. I had not been in his stateroom since that fateful morning months ago.
“Mr. Hagerty, we have a guest on board for this sea trial. I would like to berth him in your room. You have a spare bunk I believe.”
“Yes sir, I will make sure he is comfortable”. That was it. Dismissed, I made my way below. No mention of my unorthodox visit to his senior commander. I called Lowell.
“Look Pete, it may be nothing. I regret that we will be out of touch while you are at sea but I can’t imagine anything sinister happening. You have some good friends on board, just stay close to them.”
It was now approaching early Fall. The weather had been unusually warm and I prayed that no storm systems came our way. We got under way on a Friday morning and I was on the bride watching the Jamestown Bridge pass overhead when a friendly voice announced, “Well, I guess I am your new roommate”. I turned to find a Lieutenant standing to my right.
“Jack Braiden” he smiled and stuck out his hand.
“Pleased to meet you sir,” I replied.
“Let’s forget the ‘sir’ if it’s alright with you. I live in up state New York and am in the Naval Reserve and I am doing my two weeks active duty so I am barely a ‘sir’.”
I liked Lt. Braiden right away but I remembered Lowell’s cautionary advice so I kept calling him ‘sir’ in any case. My morning watch ended as we passed Martha’s Vineyard and we went down to the wardroom for lunch. Because Jack had no apparent assigned duties, he ended up hanging out with me, helping where he could. He thought nothing of running an errand for me and I found myself relaxing and looking forward to his presence.
The weather was holding and the early fall nights at sea were spectacular. We ran into the New Bedford fishing fleet off the Grande Banks and their lights lit up the dark ocean like a remote city on the prairie. I was on the bridge on Saturday standing my midnight to 4 am watch and was surprised to have Lt. Braiden join me.
“Can’t sleep on nights like this,” he said. “Never was much good at sleeping at sea. What got you into the Navy?”
He had an easy way of getting me to talk. The ocean was calm and we just had one radar contact we were following that was 12 miles off the port bow. I told him about growing up, then about Harvard and how I went there because it was the only place I got in. He thought that was hysterical.
“This guy from Harvard,” I explained, “he came to interview the students at my boarding school. It turns out that he was an alumna and wanted to see what the campus looked like after 20 years of being away. Because I was one of the few in my class who hadn’t applied to Harvard, I was chosen to take him around. We went to his old dorm room, the hockey rink, and the chapel. He told me stories of his time there, just typical stuff but not building himself up at all. In fact he was pretty modest. It turned out that we had similar interests and so we got along real well.
“Then he tells me that he sees a lot of him in me and says that I could go to Harvard if I wanted. Of course I was complemented that he said this but didn’t think much more of it and we finished the tour and went to supper.”
“Then three weeks later a letter arrived at my school and it was signed by this same guy. His name was Fred Glimp and he turns out to be the Director of Admissions. He writes in the letter that I have been selected to go to Harvard the following year if I want. Of course my parents flip out because their ultimate dreams have been met.”
“It never really occurred to me not to go there. I mean I hadn’t even applied. So I ended up going by default when my other college applications were rejected.” Jack hunched over with laughter.
The night slipped on. I was happy to pass the 12-4 watch talking with my new friend. Over the next three days we talked a lot. My guard would sometimes go up in the cool light of the morning but as the days drifted along I came to look forward to these “casual conversations” around the ship. On some level I was eager to find someone with whom I could share my fears and frustrations.
The last morning we were at sea we talked about the war. We were back by the stern of the ship and I was supervising my men getting ready for the ship to enter port. I finally decided to tell him of what had happened with the 5 inch guns and what I might do if push came to shove. I told him how I had secretly and illegally traveled overseas to England and France several months prior while on two weeks leave to see if I could handle the idea of deserting. I found I could not. I saw him draw back into himself. Maybe I had misread him. Perhaps I had crossed a line and for a moment had lost his respect.
“Look Peter,” he said. “Thank you for sharing your stories with me. I have truly enjoyed our conversations over the last few days very much. It is clear to me that you are sincere in your beliefs and your concern for the safety of your men. But in the end it doesn’t matter what I think. You have chosen to enter a very dangerous situation and you have to be very careful from now, especially choosing what you say and to whom you say it. Be very careful!” He shook my hand rather formally and was gone.
I was busy with my crew for the remainder of the morning as we entered port and secured our ship to the pier. I was also watching out of the corner of my eye for anyone on shore that might be looking for me. When I finally got to my bunk, my roommate was gone. When I called Lowell and gave him an update, he did a search of Naval Reserve officer personnel and no Lt. Braiden surfaced. He told me that we were now to resume our daily check in’s and not to leave the base for any reason. Fear once again became my daily companion.
Hogback Willie Dew
Willie’s formal name is Hog Back Willie Dew and he first came into my life when he was 8 months old. He was castrated on a bit of fresh snow in the barnyard and for many years I thought he would never forgive me. Willie is a draft horse, a Suffolk Punch who is now closing in on 15 years of age and one ton of flesh and emotion. He is my teacher and friend who helps me shed light into my dark places and may hold a key to my happiness as I enter the last quarter of my life.
I am writing these first words on a paper towel that I scavenged from the bathroom of a Russian train heading south towards Moscow. My wife is asleep in the adjoining seat and my normal writing materials are in a knapsack wedged under her legs. I have put off writing this story for too long now. I am at a stage in my life where due to my youthful but mistaken belief that I was invincible, I am starting to come undone physically. With my own mortality staring me in the face I wonder if it’s time to consider leaving something behind for my children and grandchildren to read.
I have always been a storyteller, mostly of the spoken word variety. But today with a pen made in Turkey and a paper towel from the Baltic Republics I will use written words to tell you one last tale. I would be honored if you would join me on this train heading down from the north so I might introduce you to my friends, both two and four legged and the ghosts and spirits that have accompanied me through the years.
I was born on what is fondly called “the Irish Riviera”, a small seaside town south of Boston. My father worked first as a boat builder, then as a furniture maker. My mother’s job in life was to craft me into the first Irish Catholic American president. I was 15 when John F. Kennedy beat me to that job but his victory only reaffirmed for her the road her son was meant to travel. Before you could say “fish on Friday” I was sent off to the proper boarding school, then on to Harvard and finally stuffed into a Naval officer’s uniform and pointed to a war in Southeast Asia. If all the PT boats were not in mothballs I am sure she would have found one for me to captain.
It’s not that I was all in favor of this program. Sometimes things just happen, especially when you are young, confused and a child of loving parents who have strong ideas for their children’s future. I was a pretty good kid, wanted to be liked and had little experience in making waves. It was really quite impressive how far mom’s program got me before it finally came apart.
The USS Lloyd Thomas (DD 764) was a destroyer build in 1944 for one purpose, to cross the Pacific and support the massive ground assault that was to end the war with Japan. The atom bomb put an end to her mission and she sat around for 30 years waiting for her moment in the sun. I joined her crew as a Navy Ensign shortly after graduation from Harvard in 1968 and worked hard with the men in Deck Division to keep this bucket of bolts from sinking. We chased Russian subs off of Nova Scotia and shot our guns at targets pulled by airplanes in a desperate hope of joining the war in Vietnam before it was over.
In the spring of 1969 we were stationed in Newport, Rhode Island with a large contingent of naval vessels preparing to deploy to the Pacific. I was asked by our captain to do a check of the ship’s 5” guns to see if they were combat ready. Our weapons were to be used to support our troops on the shore of the Tonkin Gulf. My battle station was on top of the forward gun mount and my job was to make sure the barrels were pointed in the right direction when being fired. Never having examined a barrel of a 5” gun much less having ever shot one, I went to the manual for advice. “Look for hairline cracks” the manual advised, so in I went searching with a flashlight and mirror. Much to my surprise the interior surface of the barrel had more cracks than a Bedouin’s shepherd’s forehead. I dutifully reported to our captain that our guns were compromised and not ready for combat.
“Do you know how long it would take to replace those barrels?” he asked as I faced him in his cabin. He took the inspection notice from my hands, put his own signature on it, and that was that. The whole exchange took less than 30 seconds but he set in process a chain of events that changed my life forever.Maine 1974I began working in the woods of Maine on a logging crew when my wife and I moved to our small farm in the early 70’s. Marty was a potter and quickly set up her own business complete with a small studio and wood fired kiln. Ever since I was a child I had dreamed of being a farmer but now that the time had come, I found I knew nothing about growing our food much less cutting wood for our heat. And the demand for a psychology major was somewhat thin up in Porter, Maine so it took me months to find any work at all. Finally a logging contractor named Larry Walker with a sense of humor as big as his tummy hired my neighbor Bob and me to cut pine logs with his woods crew.
The first day on Larry’s logging job Bob and I chose to work in the forest as far from everyone else as possible. We did this to hide the fact that we had no idea what we were doing. We would notch the tree with a chain saw, make the back cut, then pull out the saw and run like hell, unsure of which way the tree would fall. A man named Wilbur showed up with a sled pulled by a team of big horses to examine the mess we made. It turns out that he was born in Bob’s house so he quickly took pity on us and for the coming months guided us in the technique of felling trees. When the job ended in late summer, I had fallen in love with horse logging. Marty and I have had draft horses on our farm ever since.
Years later I helped start a logging school here in Maine with a group of like-minded friends. I was convinced that learning to work with horses in the woods did not need to be a near death experience. Today horse logging is an art that is struggling to survive in the face of tractor-like “skidders” and large mechanized equipment. But there are still a few folks doing it the “old fashioned” way and it is not unusual to have some of the old timers visit when I’m working with my team, sit down on a log and relive those days when life was slower and somehow better.
It was during one of these workshops at our school that I was approached by a man and his wife, both in their seventies. Mrs. Abbott introduced herself to me and then turned to her husband.
“George, tell Peter here what’s going on”.
“Well”, he began somewhat reluctantly, “I’ve had draft horses since I was a kid and my father and grandfather had horses before me. Last year I bought this mare and I can’t do a god-damn thing with her. She won’t step up when I want her to move, she won’t stand still when I want her to stand. I don’t know what got into me to choose to buy this horse.”
I could tell that the last place George wanted to be at this very moment was standing in front of a person half his age and asking for advice. Then I said either one of the wisest things I have even said or one of the stupidest.
“Well sir, maybe you didn’t choose that horse, maybe that horse chose you.”
George looked at me the same way he might have looked at a blown out tire on his pickup on a dark night with 10 miles still to go till home. I hadn’t meant to be disrespectful. Clearly this man had much more experience with big horses than I. The words just came out of my mouth. But before I could begin my apology his wife broke in.
“I told you so, George, didn’t I?” she exclaimed. ”I told you there was a reason why Bonnie came to our farm. We just got to figure out what she is trying to tell us.”
I never saw George Abbott or his wife again. I hoped they worked out their issues with Bonnie. But that little voice of mine had told me a powerful truth, one that would take years for me to fully understand, for I was slow to learn we have little or no control over the animals or people that come into our lives.
My wife stirred next to me as the Moscow train slowed for the town of Sergeiv Posad. I had taught here at the agricultural college and it was one of the loneliest periods of my life. I leaned forward to look out the opposite window to see if I could pick out the cold and remote dormitory where I lived during those weeks. It really wasn’t that long ago, maybe 15 years. No one in the college spoke English. I spoke some Russian, had one friend with whom I could chatter on with in French but when it came to the end of the school day, I would find myself walking many miles over vast fields of grain and dark forest just trying to get tired enough to fall asleep at night.
People I would pass on my walks could see I was a stranger from far off. It seemed they were all on their guard for when we grew close their eyes would drop to the path. So I would smile and say in a strong and loving voice, “do-bre dein” and watch them momentarily falter, then see a thin smile cross their face. Wherever I have worked in foreign countries, as an American this has been the role I have played, to say hello and smile in spite of everything.
The door was heavy and made of thick, polished birch. I heard a voice on the other side say “da” so I slowly built up my courage and entered. There behind a desk was an attractive woman, maybe ten years younger than me, smiling. I used the only sentence I knew in Russian. “Vwi gavaritye pa angliski?”
“Peter…Peter Hagerty…. from Milton Academy.”
How could this be, the first Russian secretary I meet and she is talking about my boarding school? I smile and nod ‘yes’.
“I danced with you once many years ago at a party in Boston.”
Jesse Nielsen and her husband Steven had moved from Boston to join the Moscow office staff of Chilewich Trading Company, trading farm products, vegetable oils, precious gems and thoroughbred racehorses. I stood before Jessica elated.
“So Peter, what are you doing here?” asked Jessica over a steaming cup of morning tea. I had no memory of our past dance together but I quickly explained my idea of meeting a Russian shepherd, buying Soviet wool, blending it with our own wool and making a knitting yarn.
“Is someone expecting to meet with you here?” she asked. “Do you have an appointment?”
“No,” I replied, starting to feel foolish.
“Oh this might be interesting,” Jessica explained, sensing my faltering spirit. “First it is Friday and it is late August. Most businessmen take this day off and join their families at the dacha for a long weekend.” For some reason I suddenly became aware of my dress, old cowboy boots, a pair of stained pants and a non-matching coat and no tie. What was I doing here?
“Second, it is very unusual for a foreign businessman like you to arrive with no appointment. They often make visitors wait days, sometime weeks before they agree to meet them. This generates foreign currency for the hotels. But look, this is a slow day for us. We have good contacts; let me give it a try.”
So for the next hour Jesse worked the phones like a pro. With perfect Russian pronunciation she called friends and associates to find with whom it was I needed to meet. All at once she looked up from the phone with a smile. We had a name. Nikolai Borisovitch Emelianov, Firm Runo, 33 Architect Vlassova. Jesse called his office and just like that we had a 1 pm appointment that very day. As I rejoiced over a second cup of tea, an impeccably dressed young man entered Jesse’s office.
“Stephen, this is Peter Hagerty. He just arrived this morning from the States and he has an appointment with Nikolai Emelianov today. Strangely Emelianov seemed not surprised at my call, like he was expecting Peter.”
Stephen, Jesse’s husband and co-worker, extended me his hand in congratulations.
‘Look,” he said. “Today I only have a few things to do. I have some reports to file but I have a driver downstairs and Vlassova is a hard place to reach by metro. First we will have lunch and then I would be happy to accompany you to the meeting, if that is ok.” In just one hour everything had come together. I found my contact, met an old acquaintance and was about to go to Stephen’s club for lunch. I once again felt the warmth of Josephine's hand on my arm.
As we had waited in a conference room for our meeting with Mr. Emelianov, the chief director of all fiber flowing in and out of the USSR, a moment of panic seized me. My sport coat was crumpled and did not match my pants. My cowboy boots were worn and dirty. I felt very out of place and unprepared and shared my anxiety with Stephen. “Just be yourself, he assured me. "Don’t try and be anyone other than who you are and you will be fine.”
“Mr.Hagerty, it is such a pleasure to meet you,” Mr. Emelianov said in perfect English entering the room with a flourish. Dressed in a pin stripe tropical wool suit, Gucci shoes and Italian silk tie, Nikolai entered the door of the conference room and extended a hand in greeting. His attire stood in contrast to the bare, birch paneled walls and the portrait of Lenin by the window. He was not exactly the Russian shepherd standing on the hill with his flock but he was impressive all the same.” Why do I enjoy the honor of your presence today?”
“Well sir,” I began “I am a sheep farmer from Maine I am interested in purchasing a small amount of Soviet wool, perhaps one bale, import it into the US and blend it with the wool of our own sheep and market a knitting yarn called Peace Fleece.” If a smile and a frown can simultaneously coexist, it did so momentarily on Emelianov’s face.
“With all due respect,” Mr. Emelianov replied “this idea of yours will be very difficult We use all the wool we grow to meet the needs of the Soviet people. We have never exported wool to America. Why should I sell wool to you?”
“Because your President Andropov and our President Reagan agree that there should be more trade between our countries…”
“ Look," he interrupted politely "I know what our presidents say. You come all this way for a bale of wool? Maybe I could sell you a container load but only one bale for your project, the paperwork would kill us. Please tell me, why are you really here?.”
I suddenly realized that this conversation was going nowhere. I remembered the woman I sat next to on the plane. “Don’t show your emotion. Be strong.” But fear was welling up inside as I realized how unprepared I was for all of this. Back home I sheared sheep and cut wood, I was not an international businessman. I didn’t even have a decent business card much less a Gucci suit. And I just assumed that when I met my Russian counterpart he would embrace the idea.
“Please, talk frankly; I am sincerely interested in your motives.”
I did detect sincerity in his words so I took a deep breath and struggled to gather my thoughts. I began by telling him some of my story, my history of the war in Vietnam and my wife and children in Maine.
“I have a daughter who is nine years old and a son who is five. I believe that if you or I cannot do something today, even in a small way, to bring our countries closer, then the chances that my children will survive this Cold War are lessened. My daughter may never know what it feels like to fall in love, my son may never see the birth of his own child. If you or I can do something in business and better understand who we are, maybe in a small way I will feel more hopeful.”
Emelianov stood up and walked down to the window by Lenin and looked out at the playground, his hands stuffed down into the pockets of his suit pants. Some of the children were playing summer hockey, others kicking a soccer ball into a goal. He stood there for a long time.
“You know, you sound just like my wife,” he finally said with his back to me. "And sometimes these women...." His voice trailed off as he returned to the desk, picked up his phone and ordered an international call. We waited in an awkward silence for several minutes before his phone rang.
“Hello John, this is Nick. Yes, great. Hot summer here too. I thought it always rains in London. Look I have an American named Peter Hagerty in my office who wants to buy some of our Type 22 that is up in Bradford. Could you break off one bale of that lot and send it to….”
“Boston,” I mouthed.
“Boston. He can come to London next week to sign all the paperwork.” Nikolai nodded to me. I gave him thumbs up. And it was done. Peace Fleece was born.
This was the first of many trips I would make to visit with Nikolai. We became as close to friends as we could during those times. I helped to find his daughter a summer job in the States, he found me more wool when I needed it. I never visited his home and he never visited mine. There was a formality there that was necessary.
Then one day I got a call from him. He was doing some business in wool in Texas and was stopping in Boston on the way home. Could we meet and have a meal? I left Maine early on a beautiful summer afternoon and was soon shaking Nikolai’s hand in the lobby of the Harborside Hotel on Boston’s waterfront. I was regretting that I had not brought Marty or one of the kids to meet this man who had done so much for us. Nikolai invited me up to his room.
It was 1991 and things were very bad in Moscow. There was little food in the shops and it was dangerous to be on the streets, even in the daytime. He asked me if I would not tell anyone that he was staying in this luxurious hotel. He said that the Texans had paid for the trip and had insisted on making all the arrangements. Still, he felt badly, enjoying this luxury when things were as bad as they were back home.
Since our first meeting in 1985 we had never been in a relaxed setting where we could just talk. So it was awkward getting the conversation going but over dinner we began to loosen up and I remember giving him a big hug when we said good-by. This would be the last time I would see him alive.
I was never sure what happened. Six months later when in Moscow I called his office and asked for him. I was passed from person to person until I reached Igor, his personal assistant. Igor spoke only Russian and after a pause, said sadly, “Peter, Nick oo-mer”. I was alone in Luba’s apartment at the time. I remembered the word as a dark one and thanked Igor in a sober tone for the news. Luba’s dictionary said ‘dead’.
The Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho believes that if one is on the right path, there will be people that will appear out of nowhere to make your journey through life a success. There have been countless numbers of people over the years that have appeared in my life to sweep away the rubble and make clear the way. Nickolai was the first to point the way for me on my journey and he will never be far from my thoughts.
I have a memory as a small boy of sitting with my white haired Irish Catholic grandmother Josephine on our front lawn high above the ocean. It is a beautiful summer day and she has just finished telling me a story, a rather fantastic one. I have followed her face closely as she talked. When her mouth stops moving I asked her “Nanna, is that true?”
Her face explodes into a smile and her laughter carries out over the summer waves. “You want the truth?” she asks as if she is talking not to a young boy but rather to someone who has stopped and challenged her at a border crossing. “I am sorry,” she said “but the truth has not always served me well.”
My grandmother came from a time when eating grass to survive the potato famine was only one generation old. As a Boston policeman’s daughter, she was the first Irish woman to graduate from Radcliffe College. Yet “Irish need not apply” was what greeted her as she went looking for a job. Maybe this is what framed her relationship with the “truth”.
In my early years anxiety and fear were routine playmates. In private school I threw up my breakfast every morning. At college I slept thru most of my classes because I was convinced that I was not smart enough to understand the material. I was Irish Catholic and afraid that I would accidentally impregnate every girl I touched. And when I was in the Navy and headed for war, I was afraid that I would soon be responsible killing an ‘enemy’ someone else wanted dead.
When I came back from the war in Southeast Asia I was often not able to tell my friends and loved ones the truth of what I had seen. I had been in relatively little danger. But something happened to me in Vietnam that shook me to the roots and brought into focus some of my deepest fears. I could not talk truthfully about my military experience because I had survived and some of my crewmembers did not. They died doing the job I would not do.
I cannot, therefore, guarantee that what I am now writing is really the truth. I have begun to contact old friends from these dark days. Most have been hard to find and some are reluctant to revisit the past again. I wanted them to help me separate what I imagine from what actually happened. But in the end they seem to warn that dead dogs are best left lying by the road.
What follows are stories from my life. Some are embellished and will stretch the imagination; others will be more ‘straight up’. Writing these stories has brought back the old ghosts and some still have the power to rob me of speaking the truth. But maybe these old ghosts can be like co-authors, a kind of business associate that you don’t completely trust but for some reason has a valuable point of view. I have told these stories so often that they now have a life of their own. I will try and stay out of their way.
There were roughly forty women with scarves on their heads and brooms in their hands and they slowly moved across Red Square in a long, single line. The warm August morning brought with it a slight breeze that ruffled their skirts as these women swept the paper, cigarette butts and candy wrappings into an ever-growing wind row. I stood there in front of my hotel eager to head out across Moscow but not quite ready to begin. As I marveled at these ladies’ energy, I thought back over the journey that had brought me half way around the world to Moscow, the capitol of the USSR.
My eight year old daughter Cora had come home from school one afternoon in the fall of 1983 and asked me what I was doing that evening. I told her that I was at her disposal. Her teacher told her class that if they wanted to watch an ABC special that evening they should ask a parent to join them. Well, I was intrigued.
“The Day After” began with a graphic depiction of nuclear war as seen through the eyes of farmers, soldiers and students in and around the University of Kansas at Lawrence. This docudrama starring Jason Robards drew the second largest audience in US television history. I wondered aloud to my wife if this was appropriate viewing for a ten year old. But we watched the show and I was deeply shaken by the graphic imagery and powerful script.
Shortly after falling asleep that night, I suddenly awoke and saw though the bedroom skylight an airline with blinking lights flying high up in the cold night sky over our farm. The stars shone brightly and there was no moon. All at once a bright light detach itself from the back of the plane and began tumbling towards earth. I shook Marty awake and we both agreed that it looked like it might be heading directly towards our farm. We ran towards our children’s bedrooms but were blown backwards by an explosion that threw us both to the floor. I ran towards Cora’s door and when I opened it, I saw her bedroom wall crumbled below in the driveway. Both of our children lay in the rubble, consumed by a raging fire. I then awoke, drenched with sweat.
All that winter I questioned what I was doing with my life. Logging with horses, nursing chilled lambs by the wood stove, shearing sheep in the spring, cutting hay in the summer, an ideal life by some standards. But what did it all matter if a nuclear bomb could end it all with the mere push of a button? A dark cloud began to consume me over morning coffee and some days I could barely get out of bed.
In late January of that winter, fighter jets from Pease Air Force Base began making low altitude, supersonic flights down our valley every Saturday morning. The planes were on top of us before we could hear them and the horses and sheep would scatter across the field in panic at the sound of their after burners. I found myself slipping deeper into a sense of helplessness. I would visit my next-door neighbor Lester who raised dairy cows and he would offer that the world was in terrible shape.
“Now what can one person do? What are you or I supposed to do? It’s just too big.” He would stand there with a pitch folk in his hand and dare me to differ.
I remembered Lester’s booming voice as I made my way across Red Square. I took his challenge that day on his farm and put it in my pocket and carried it home. That night over supper Marty reminded me of my visit to the Mekong years ago and the four young Viet Cong soldiers, men I had been trained to kill, with whom I had spent one extraordinary night. “What if there is somebody in the Soviet Union right now that is just as depressed as you. Maybe that person is a shepherd who spends his days on the hill with his sheep, shears their wool and cuts their hay. If you find this person, perhaps we could do something together.”
By late spring I decided I would go to Russia and in mid-August I joined a group of Iowa farmers that were headed to Moscow to negotiate their grain contracts. Brad and his wife Emma were in their late 60’s and were corn and soybean farmers from north central Iowa. They explained to me why they were on this trip.
“The Soviet Union has over the years grown dependent on supplies of American wheat, corn and soy beans to supplement their own poor harvests. But last year the US government ordered us to stop shipping grain to the USSR. And this came at a time when American farmers like us were facing an historic economic crisis.”
“On top of this, farmers with loans could not make their payments because the market for their crops crashed through the floor due to the huge surpluses piling up at the grain silos. My neighbor Wes Harris shot himself three weeks ago after he lost his fourth generation family farm to a bank auction.”
“We have two choices, give up our way of life or sell our crops across the border into Canada where they will be re-loaded on ships headed to Russia. I feel like a criminal but our government has left us no choice.”
I doubted if there was a Democrat in the group. And they were proposing to end run an embargo to a communist country. Already this trip was worthwhile.
We all met at JFK Airport in New York for the Moscow flight. The same day my childhood friend Michael who trades natural gas with the Soviets told me of a small American company that had an office in Moscow. Simon Chilewich and Sons had been in Russia for years, bartering soybeans for race horses and precious gems. “Go visit them in New York before you leave,” Michael insisted. “Maybe they can help you find your shepherd.” So I walked into their Wall Street office with no scheduled appointment the very afternoon of my Mosocw flight and Gary Gailes, their overseas director, met me with a smile and a handshake.
“Absolutely,” Gary exclaimed. “Use our office from day one. We have a good reputation over there. We never left when things got bad. We just took our losses and rode it out. It is a tough but very rewarding place. There are wonderful people there.” He gave me their address in Moscow and wished me well.
On the flight over I sat next to a middle-aged British woman married to a Russian. She had lived for years in Moscow. She asked me what I was up to and I told her.
“Since we moved to our small farm in Maine my wife and I have been raising sheep. We sell the wool and eat the meat. We once thought that if we left the city and moved to the end of a country road we would feel safe. It turns out that is not the case.”
She fingered the ice in her drink as I continued. “So we came up with the idea of my going to the USSR, meeting a sheep farmer there, buying his or her wool, blending it with our wool and making a yarn that could show that our two counties can co-exist, that there is an alternative to nuclear war”. My companion digested my words and ordered another drink from the stewardess. I reflected on what I have just said and as her silence continued, I began to seriously doubt what I was up to. Back in Maine it sounded like a great idea. My friends admired my courage. Nobody challenged my expectations.
“Look,” she finally said turning to me. “You seem like a nice guy. Well educated, you’ve been around a bit. But Russia is different. I was a young girl in London during the war. My favorite uncle was killed, my school was destroyed. I saw dead people on the street. But it was nothing compared to what Russians went through. They are a very tough people. Yes, they are friendly. Complete strangers will cook you soup in their kitchen. But you must be tough when you are talking business with a Russian. Negotiate from strength, not from weakness. I know. I have been married to one for over 40 years.”
Now I stood in front of the Rossia Hotel on my first morning in Moscow watching the women with their brooms made of birch branches. A machine could have clearly done this job more quickly but I was getting my first taste of what the USSR called “full employment”.
The sun had been up for hours but most of Moscow’s citizens were now out at the country dacha enjoying their traditional August vacation. As I crossed Red Square and headed onto Karl Marx Plochet, I noticed that all the store and street signs were written in Cyrillic and I regretted that I had not taken my language lessons more seriously. I wondered what my Russian counterpart was doing on this warm summer morning. Was he tending his sheep on a high mountain pasture or maybe fishing by a rushing stream with his children?
Somehow I found my way to the Hotel National where Chilewich Corp rented office space. Its roof top sign turned out to be the only one in all of Moscow written in English. Because I was a foreigner in Western attire the doorman welcomed me cordially. As I entered the lobby my instinct told me to keep moving, to look as if you are late for an important meeting.
What would my grandmother Josephine say to me if we were walking side by side right now? It helped to imagine her next to me, a formidable ally by my side with her large form and white hair impressing the front desk. I felt her arm steer me towards the stairway where we quickly climbed to the second floor and took a right down the hallway. “Look at the room numbers on the doors as you pass” her confident voice told me. My cowboy boots made a singing sound as they touched the hotel carpet.
Higher and higher we climbed until an old voice whispered, “There, on the door over there, English writing.”
Under Room 420 was written in polished brass letters:
‘Simon Chilewich and Sons, 120 Wall Street, New York, New York.’
“We made it,” I cheered as I squeezed her arm but as I turned to face her and empty hallway was all I found. I knocked on the hotel room door.
Last night we had scary thunderstorms. Non-stop lightening with rumbles overlapping rumbles and bangs. The night was hot and breathless. In the morning the corn was half down in the garden and Crazy Chief, our little standard bred horse, was down in the slippery wet stall. At the age of 21 he still has weak hind legs from an old trotting injury he had at the age of 4. After untangling his legs we were able to haul him out of the stall, over the board walk and onto the lawn with our truck and a big wide strap. He was in incredible pain as the strap cut into his sides but thankfully we moved him. He lay there looking exhausted, his eyes half closed. Pete and I were standing there over him pondering the worst when in an instant, defying our gloomy thoughts, he popped up on all fours with more vigor than I’d seen in him for months.
So the day had a rough start. I welcomed my precious morning time spent with coffee and wool of some sort. I usually can count on getting strength from the fibers. But this morning I wondered if my bleariness would stick through the 94 degree day. But sure enough, as I started to hook my rug - using pieces cut up from a shirt I bought at a street sale with my daughter in NYC, strips of blanket from my childhood home, deep red from my mother’s woolen cape and hand spun yarn from out sheep’s fleeces dyed with goldenrod and burdock, I felt the strength come back to be with the day. Okay I’ll admit, part of it comes from the caffeine but it feels deeper and more powerful than that!
This wonderful lady has volunteered to moderate our Ravelry group Knit Along
and is doing a superlative job at it! We wanted to introduce her to you all here but if you hop over to the discussion
in the Peace Fleece Lovers group you can chat with her, and lots of other awesome people, directly!Here's a picture of her in the first sweater she ever knit... do you recognize the yarn? Looks like Baghdad Blue and Chickie Masla to us.
Margot, a reformed computer programmer with a BS in Computer Science, traded bits for knits by becoming a Knitting Pattern Technical Editor. She knit her first sweater with Peace Fleece yarn nearly 10 years ago and has been a self-appointed Peace Fleece Evangelist ever since.
As a founder of the non-profit organization Local Motion, Margot advocates for safe non-motorized transportation opportunities for a clean and healthy community. When not poring over patterns or knitting, Margot bicycles, kayaks, and leads a dance team steeped in the English tradition of Rapper.
Margot lives on a vegetable farm in Vermont with the farmer, two cats, and a yarn-stealing English Shepherd.