Yuppies and neckers. Flatlanders and woodchucks. Like a number of my pals growing up, Sandy's pedigree was mixed. His mom was born in Who-the-Hell-Cares-Where, Ohio, and came to Burlington to do research at the university — something technical, related to lungs. His dad was the seventh of seven raised on a dairy in Guilford, just a few miles from the river, and I tell you that guy was bona fide, 99th-generation Vermonter, a Deere mechanic to boot.
As a child, I played in double-wides, big lakefront houses, the gamut, but always enjoyed Sandy's log cabin best. It was on a hill, surrounded by white pines. When we were real little, pretending to be Lewis and Clark in the back 40, we shot a raccoon asleep in one of those pines, Sandy being the one who actually pulled the trigger. Mrs. Raccoon fell to the ground — hard winter ground, frozen and snowless — but the BBs hadn't killed her quite dead, more like half-dead. It was gross and bad and we cried and that, as they say, was that.
Sandy had the wild streak, no doubt. For longer than seemed possible, he drove this piece-of-turd Nissan — four parts rust, one part truck, five parts turd. His license was frequently suspended — like those shoes people tie together and fling over power lines, he'd say, she's suspended — but such was the law's concern, as far as he was concerned.
Cruising back roads, which were the only kind after a session at the bar, or bars, he'd flick off the headlights and drive in the dark, hyperesthesia on proud display. What in the hell kind of garble are you dropping now, Sandman? Hyperthewhat? At the perfect level of drunk, he claimed, his eyes sharpened and allowed for a kind of night vision, but without the green tint. Total bullshit, of course, and yet perhaps not total. Sandy would shout some name, flick the headlights for a moment and, sure enough, Mr. Opossum or whoever would be there in the road. He'd kill the lights with another flick and swerve away clean, time after time.
Ever the diligent student, I cut classes at Castleton for two years before officially pulling the plug. Wise Sandy saved himself the hassle and went straight to roofing. We worked together by day, up on pitches that were either too damn hot or too damn cold, and drank together by night. Sometimes we'd hit the watering holes in town on the off chance of distressed damsels, as Sandy called them, but mostly we preferred the corn.
Fields, I mean, not whiskey — even Sandy, thirsty mess that he was, knew that stuff to be dangerous. By the age of 21, we must have made the acquaintance of every fence post and rutted two-track in the county. No diplomas. No plans. No good reason to dust off the childhood BB guns, but we did anyway. Cans, Sandy would say — now they've got it coming, the little pretentious aluminum shits.
Between the two of us, Sandy was always the better carpenter, not to mention the brainier brain. He read a ton, maybe two tons — four thousand pounds of books, give or take, in that dumb, drunk, lovable bastard's head. We'd park the truck in some white wasteland of a field — December, January, February, didn't much matter — and talk a variety of craziness.
Sandy failed to profess smoothly after, say, the sixth soda, but his enthusiasm had a way of filling in the many potholes. On and on he'd go — about roofing and damsels and beer, about damsels and the dangers of strong drink, about hyperesthesia and other jargon picked up from his mom's medical journals, about the possibility of maybe, someday, getting two damsels to smooch. Then he'd seamlessly switch to a lecture on Stalingrad or Calvin Coolidge's presidency.
He loved talking about Old Cal because Old Cal was a Vermonter — Old Cal knew the fields. Everybody cries and everybody dies, but a rare few are lucky enough to drink in the corn and laugh themselves to pieces, am I wrong? That was our toast. Cheers, bud.
Teddy Roosevelt used to make his presence felt in the conversation as well, and not infrequently. "Fun" probably isn't the only word, but I'd wager it's the best word for those moonless winter nights, burying ourselves in empties — in pretentious aluminum shits — Sandy telling stories of T-Bear taking French diplomats mucking about in the Potomac.
Crack. Pass. Crack. Keep. What else you got, Sandman, you dumbshit? Oh, I got, I got, I got, he'd reply. I friggin' got, guy. Buckle your belt, guy, and hold on. Then he'd tell me yet again how T-Bear was camped way out in the Adirondack wilderness when word came that McKinley was dying.
One weekend we took the ferry to Essex and backpacked up to Lake Tear of the Clouds, the tiny mountain puddle where American history went down. A fun trip, that one — chaining butts off the bonfire, all the while imagining a great man, a legit hero, farting there beside us, combing his luxurious 'stache, sharing the same glow.
Against Sandy's advice — education comes and goes, guy, but roofs are eternal — I eventually went back to school, finished up my degree. Then, against my advice, this one true friend, this best friend, said sayonara and headed west. To the East Cascades! The high desert! Oregano!
He got into the regular trouble, got out of the regular trouble and returned home shy of 15 months later, nothing to show for his travels besides an obsession with ice climbing. Of course, I mean ice climbing Sandy-style — bike helmet, smoke dangling from the corner of his mouth, dubious rope pinched from the jobsite. We were soon both obsessed, spending what money we had, excluding the beer fund, on gear. Bashing up frozen blue walls in the deep woods was special stuff, and not only because there was always a tavern on the way home where a weary arm could lift a couple.
Sandy had to lift a couple of couples, then a couple of those, to reach his desired level as the years wore on. Level? More of a leftward lean, really. I need that camber to see in the dark, he'd say, reaching behind the seat for refreshment the instant we left pavement. Don't get me wrong, I'm far from a teetotaler, but still — I had to chomp my tongue, pissed at what I considered a criminal irresponsibility.
By then I'd earned my certificate and was teaching at one of the high schools we consistently lost to in soccer growing up. Kids, I would blurt out after my own fair share. You're bound to massacre a bunch of kids, you goddamn immoral ass. But Sandy would just joke it away. Me the donkey? And this coming from a traitor, an enemy sympathizer! You remember that game when I took one to the nuts. How could you teach there?
Apparently conflict just wasn't an option for us — or maybe it was more that the corn kept calling. Summer was nice in the fields. Winter was better, cleaner and sharper. Sandy talked a bit less than he did in our foolish youth, but he still adored the land, and I could still get him excited by asking about the stars.
Oh, so you're interested in the grand mythology of the constellations, my lad? Well, Ursa was the name of a black bear who had a special way with the damsels. Unfortunately, he got busted in bed with the mayor of Burlington's wife. His only option was to eat the mayor, suit and phony smile and all, and assume the post. Over the centuries the word mayor turned into major. Shall we open these windows and stick our heads into the lobotomizing wind for a look?
Crack. Pass. Crack. Keep. What else you got, Sandman, dummy? Oh, I got, I got, I got, he'd reply — but then there would be this field-size silence filling the cab. Sometimes I broke the silence, asking if he remembered killing the raccoon back in our tykehood. Usually he didn't answer.
Once, though, he did. He told of returning the next day, poking the carcass with a stick, and realizing it was a mother — a poor dead momma, those were his exact words — her belly full of babies. Right there, a boy with tears on his cheeks, he'd sworn never to kill another helpless animal for the rest of his life. And as far as I know, my one true friend kept that honorable promise right to the very last.
It maybe goes without saying that Sandy was like those shoes tossed over the line when it happened. Suspended. Dangling. Caught between earth and sky, between a brainy brain and an insatiable thirst, a doctor mom and a tractor dad. Joy and sorrow. Himself and himself. Drunk and too drunk. Whatever.
Though I've got no proof, I suspect the headlights were off — just for fun, just for old time's sake — and that he was squinting. Squinting. Honestly, it pains me something awful to consider that his final thought was the cow moose and the damage he'd caused her — not the thought that he'd broken his vow but that he'd made her bleed. The truck spun from the road, dunked into a not-frozen-enough pond, took a mile of barbed-wire fence to the bottom. And that, as they say, was that.
Sunday. Saddest day of the week, am I wrong? I swear the lord on high must feel the ache of a winter Sunday in Vermont — that wind across those fields of stubble, that wind and that wind and that damn howling wind. I got stupidly lit after hanging up the phone and arrived at school sober but wrecked the next morning. If I remember correctly, the kids asked me why I was looking so hard at the blank dry-erase board, and I replied that often the best way to get smart is to quit all the learning.
They kind of laughed, kind of didn't, and I told them outright — this I remember crystal clear — that today's teacher had no fucking clue what he was talking about. Not one of my prouder moments, dropping that F-bomb in class, but what can you do?
Really, what can you do? They were alive and I was angry and they were alive and I was heartbroken. They were alive and I was grateful. And we were alive, here, all of us together, me and my pupils, my diligent students. I launched into a lecture on Calvin Coolidge.
Don't bother with notes, I said. This won't be on any test.