The old saying that “money can’t buy you happiness” has been beaten to death; but the horse is still alive, for now.
One of the happiest times in my life was naturally one of poorest financially. Of course it was, or that first sentence would have been really silly. As a twenty-year-old, I lived in a cabin with a wonderful young woman, had two dogs, a canoe, and the river in my front yard. My net personal worth was around $173, depending on the day of the week. It went up on payday, down on the weekends. We drove a ’64 Chevy Biscayne, the ugly cousin to the Classic Impala. The car was purchased from a relative for $50.00, after an obvious lack of credit checks. It would have been worth a lot more except that it was painted with a patchy coat of gray primer.
The cabin was rustic. A fixer-upper, you might say. It Did have a wonderful screened-in front porch, the length of the entire cabin, which faced the river across from the front yard and access road. At opposite ends of the front porch, two doors led into the living room and kitchen. The front porch was home to a great-big chest freezer and a great-big, steel sofa slider. The kitchen had a small gas oven, a refrigerator, a small dinette set with two or three chairs, and a wood stove. The hallway from the kitchen, which bisected the length of the cabin, had doors leading to the one very small bathroom, the three bedrooms, and then came full circle back to the living room. The owner of the cabin was an older lady from in-town, who was basically looking for someone to occupy/secure the property. After a ferocious battle between the amateur powerbrokers, the two sides finally agreed upon a total asking price of $50.00 per month. Everything of value at the time cost $50.00. That, of course, included the monthly electric and telephone bills. Internet didn’t exist yet, cable television wasn’t available that far out-of-town, and heat was just lying out in the woods beside the house. Someone had to simply cut it up and haul it into the cabin before winter. We were the last of four cabins on the little access road that followed the current of the river. The first three were the weekend cabins of some city folks, so life was very quiet.
Extra quiet, given the fact that my girlfriend Gail was officially still in High School and her mother, Arlene, lived in the bedroom across the hallway from ours. I had been busy trying to get disowned by my own family and this wonderful group of people had let me into their life. In today’s world, it would’ve been a controversial arrangement, worthy of whispers from groups of nosey locals. But at the time, it was a beautiful thing, in a beautiful place.
The access road that ran alongside the river was graveled and bumpy. It was occasionally impassable during the floods of the spring or a big snow during the winter. The stretch of river that I looked out upon each morning, was a series of rapids and churning eddies that eventually tired into a long, slow-moving flow of clear, dark green water. The water and road continued down to the site of an old, partially washed-out submarine bridge. The waters were full of fish, home to snakes and muskrats, and was the watering spot to many a deer and assorted herons and osprey. Rabbits scampered about the banks and squirrels lived high in the trees. A scene from a Walt Disney movie, but without the animation, just fresh air, and Mother Nature.
Arlene was the classic Southern woman. Not the Scarlet O’Hara type. She had been born and raised in a valley at the top of the mountains. Her life had never been easy, except during a simple picnic with family or in sharing her love for them. She had grown up in humble surroundings and appreciated the little bits of goodness that came her way. She knew how to butcher an animal for dinner, how to plant a seed to grow vegetables, and had a vast knowledge of helpful hints that I had never learned being a ‘city boy’, from a town of 2700. There was no sitting on the sofa, watching TV. “How about you bring some wood in for the stove? I’m going in town, and pick up a few things.” It wasn’t thought of as debatable. Everyone pitched in, everything went smoothly, naturally.
Arlene was a single mom, with a supportive ex-husband. Between the two of them, they had successfully raised a son and four daughters, without a bad apple in the bunch. The inspiration for the pilot episode of TV’s Petticoat Junction, with a river instead of a water tower, had to be from when Gail and her sisters, all young and pretty, would hang-out along the river. They were aware of the boys watching them, but were too level-headed to grow big egos. Just nice, wholesome, down to Earth, young women.
The two dogs ran free in the wild without the restraints of collars or fences. They had both come from a farm up in the hills, so they knew no other way of living. Fritz was thought to be 17 years old and had seen her better days. The eyes were going and the bones hurt. Her fur had patches of raw skin from the constant scratching of mange. She was of no particular breed, just an old farm dog. Gladryl, on the other hand, was young and full of life. She was a Dachshund. But not like your Grandmother’s Dachshund, who passed the time laying on the sofa, passing gas. She spent her days roaming freely through the fields and woods. There wasn’t an ounce of fat to be found on her body. In fact, her front shoulders resembled those of a fit bulldog. She’d disappear into the woods for hours, and then with the rustle of fallen leaves and tall grass, would emerge from the darkness, often proudly carrying a dead rabbit or squirrel. One afternoon, after ignoring our calls for her return, she strutted out of the woods and in her jaws, was the feathered leg of a turkey. There was a turkey farm nearby, but we never did find out whether she had found the leg or had removed it from the turkey herself.
Nature was everywhere. That included the interior of the cabin. Having dogs that ran free in the long grass of the fields and underbrush of the woods, brought along routine body checks for ticks and an occasional entire-house fumigation for fleas. Generations of mice lived rent-free in the attic. A five-foot black snake had once made himself at home in the living room, coiled up under the rifle mounted on the wall above the sofa.
Arlene’s boyfriend Frankie was the local butcher of wild game, especially the larger species that had been harvested outside of the posted hunting season. Helping process some of the deer may not have been the legal thing to do, but it was the right thing. The bartering system of the backwoods. His efforts rarely resulted in cash payments. But he provided a service to his neighbors by providing meat for their families. They, in turn, paid him with a portion of the meat, or fresh canned vegetables, or help in repairing his old truck. Everyone looked out for everyone.
Even our dogs benefited from the system. Frankie would drop off deer carcasses from time to time, a special treat for the dogs to chew on. There was more than one glorious morning when I’d walk out onto the porch in just my underwear, pop open a breakfast beer, and smile at the sight of the glistening waters of the river, just beyond the front yard full of deer bones being gnawed on by the dogs. Life was good.
I once read a news article about ‘new research suggested’ that people living at poverty level received a larger dose of pleasure-provoking brain-chemicals from buying a bag of BBQ potato chips, than did the Billionaire when he purchased a new luxury car. I think that I remember that article because it made so much sense to me. Both the theory itself and the use of food as an example. A lot of my favorite times on the river are associated with food. But we didn’t have a lot of money. A grocery list would include the basics. A gallon of milk. A loaf of white bread. A dozen eggs. Some bacon and bologna. And then the real basics. Cornstarch, baking powder, sugar, salt, and flour. Maple syrup and condiments. And butter.
Summers were a good time for eating. The farmer, who owned the fields behind the cabin, gave permission to take all the field corn that we could eat. Field corn not being the same as Bird’s-Eye, is known to be tough to chew, but not as tough as the no-corn that we would’ve had otherwise. A small garden planted next to the cabin produced vegetables throughout the warmer months. Yellow squash, green peppers, lettuce, and cabbage. The lunch menu was often a choice between a cucumber or tomato sandwich, on white bread with mayo and some black pepper. Which sounds so plain. But when you walk out the porch door and head to the garden, pick a tomato off the vine, wash and slice it as the bread’s toasting, grab the mayo jar…oh man, that’s still one of my favorite things to eat.
My friend Steve would come visit us at the cabin a time or two each week. Thinking of that garden makes me think of him. One day, we were planning-out the next six hours of our lives, which was the extent of our Long-Term-Goal planning abilities.
“Steve, you run into town while I finish mowin’ the grass”
“And get what?”
“A loaf of bread and mayo for dinner. A hunk of cheese. And a case of beer.”
“I only have like $11 in my checking account!”
“All right. Well, forget the cheese.”
I love to fish. Arlene forever stole a piece of my heart on the day that she said to me “You catch ‘em. I’ll clean ‘em”. I spent the summer catching stringers full of sunfish and smallmouth bass and she’d clean each day’s catch and store them in the freezer on the front porch. In October, we had a feast for the ages. The guest list included Arlene and Frankie, Gail and her sisters, and their boyfriends. Steve, myself, and a few assorted friends. The evening’s menu consisted of fried fish, a bushel of fresh oysters, acquired through bartering, BBQ deer ribs (the homemade sauce thickened with tapioca pearls), groundhog stew, and Rebel Yell whiskey. Steve and I, the ‘city boys’, learned just how tasty a crunchy, fried fish tail can be. An acquired taste, like the greasy groundhog washed down with shots of warm Rebel Yell. Man, that was a great dinner.
Upstream, almost a mile from the cabin, was a large steel and concrete bridge, that held the state road above the waters. From thirty-feet up, it looked like an excellent stretch of river that just needed to be fished. Any fisherman with a lick of sense about them knows, the most difficult spot to reach is the best spot to fish. That’s always been my motto. And it worked out to be true a couple of times. With freshly rigged poles and youthful over-confidence, we loaded up the car and had Gail drive us to the pull-off spot before the bridge. The plan being that Steve and I would wade/fish our way back downstream to the cabin. Steve was even wearing his Dad’s lucky golfing hat, so we just knew that it was going to be a productive day.
I don’t remember catching any fish that day, but I do remember one thing.
Being wiser and three years older, I inadvertently let Steve lead the way, on purpose, accidentally, as we inched our way through the deep, uncharted waters. It was a beautiful day to be wet-wading in just shorts and tennis shoes. But it’s hard to concentrate on your fishing strategy, when you’re rib-high in flowing water and you’re constantly deciding on where to step next. It came to the point when there was no talking, just the sound of flowing water and the occasional chatter of birds. Then my concentration was broken by the splashing of water and a curse word drowning under the river’s surface. Didn’t know where Steve went, must have been that deep hole that I should have warned him about, but his Dad’s hat was slowly floating downstream. We eventually caught up with the hat before we reached the cabin.
(Part-One of a long story)