“Boy, oh, boy.” Francis grabbed my attention with his surprisingly vigorous voice. “I am glad to get out of there. The doctors were all set to release me early this morning, but it took ’til three o’clock to get all this gosh-dern paperwork squared away. I just hate bein’ cooped up, is all.”
Sitting in the shotgun seat, he clutched a manila envelope in his right hand. I presumed it contained the gosh-dern hospital-release papers. On a bet, I couldn’t have said how old this man was, but he had to be 80, anyway. His stooped posture and gray-stubbled, concave cheeks echoed, in my imagination, the wizened appearance of a Tolkien wizard.
Despite his age and infirmity, Francis’ eyes shone with a splendid sparkle, as if he were privy to some classified cosmic whimsy at the core of the universe, a liberating knowledge that stuck with him even as life threw its inevitable left and right hooks. This old gentleman, I recognized, was a member of that club I’ve dubbed the “Vermont Royalty.” When I’m lucky to have contact with such a personage, I just try to keep the conversation moving along and soak it in.
“So, Francis,” I said, “they told me I’m taking you to Middlesex, but they weren’t sure exactly where. They said you’d tell me.”
“Yup, I’ll tell ya. You heard of Tangletown? That’s where I live. It’s kinda a part of Middlesex. Just take that exit off’n the interstate and I’ll get ya up there.”
“Didja grow up in those parts?’ I asked.
“Well, close to there, yuh. Grew up on a dairy farm. I worked the horse team from about age 6. My two older brothers did the hard work.”
“A horse team?” I said. “You mean your folks weren’t using a tractor yet?”
“Nope, not really. When it all went to the bulk storage, they had to sell out on account of we couldn’t afford the new containers the milk processors required.”
“So, what kinda work did you go into, Francis? Did you stick with the farming?”
“Nope, I been a mechanic my whole life. I can fix purt near anything, I mean, if I put my mind to it.”
“So you never left Vermont?”
“Not hardly. During the war, in the Navy, I was stationed in Australia and New Zealand. And for about three years in the ’60s, my brother-in-law lured me and the wife down to Florida for a job as a Pan Am plane mechanic. The work was OK, as far as that went, but I could never get used to livin’ in Florida. You see, all the water there is black and stagnant like, and it’s filled with reptiles and whatnot. And one thing I cannot abide is rattlesnakes.” Francis paused for a moment, shuddering at the thought. “So we moved back to Vermont. I guess I just prefer the clear water.”
We were cruising south on the highway. I generally take it up to 70, but I stayed closer to 60 — selfishly, to extend this trip. As we passed the Waterbury exit, Francis perked up, saying, “I remember when we was kids we used to make these contraptions, we called ’em ‘scooter skis.’ You’d kind of stand on them like a scooter, and we’d go flying down the hills in the winter. Then somebody opened a ski factory in Waterbury, and we’d buy the seconds for about two bucks. I remember walking up the hills with them over my shoulder — beautiful wood and the strap bindings.”
“This is before the ski lifts?”
“Yup, way before. Then some folks got the idea for the rope tow. We liked that.”
We exited the highway, and Francis indicated the way. We drove in silence for a few minutes before he suddenly turned to face me and asked, “Are you a hunter?”
Knowing the place hunting holds in Vermont’s rural culture, I felt put on the spot. But I responded honestly.
“I don’t think I could stand to shoot an animal, particularly a deer,” I confessed. “I mean, they’re so perfectly beautiful.”
“Well,” he said, “I used to hunt all the time. Then, it was about 25 years back, I shot this big buck. It was dawn, I remember, not far from where we are right now. I walked over and looked down at him, and my heart just about broke. I guess you mellow with age or something. When we were young, it was a real macho thing, like. You’d try to get your name in the paper for the best deer and whatnot. But that was the last time I been hunting. Oh, hey — take this left right here.”
I looked up to see a sign marked “Molly Supple Hill Road” and took the turn. This was virgin territory for me — a rare occurrence after 30 years of hacking in northern Vermont — and the road name tickled me. I asked my customer about it: Was there something particularly supple about Molly?
“Oh, no — I see what you’re getting at there,” he replied, chuckling. “Nope, Molly Supple lived right up here a ways. I guess she killed her husband, and they named the road for her.”
My eyes widened. I honestly had no idea if the guy was putting me on. A Vermonter like Francis wields a humor as dry as vermouth, so it was hard to determine.
“I don’t know,” he added, after a pause of precisely the perfect length. “It could be he had it comin’.”
We turned into Francis’ driveway. Set on a slight rise off to the right was a one-story cabin. The wood was rough hewn, but the entire structure was gracefully fashioned. I asked, “Do you own this place, Francis?”
“Ayup, I built it myself about — well, 40 years back.”
“If you don’t mind my asking, how old are you, anyway?”
“I’m 91 years old.”
Taking in that piece of information, I glanced to the left to see a long woodshed lined on one side with what looked like at least 20 cords of perfectly cut and stacked firewood. I asked, “You got somebody comes up here to cut the firewood for you?”
“Nope,” he replied, as that light in his eye seemed to brighten up like the North Star on a clear November night. “I split it all this past summer. It’s what I do for recreation.”
And that’s just the thing about our Vermont Royalty, I thought to myself as I said goodbye to Tangletown, circling back to the highway. They really know how to recreate.