Saturday November 17, 2012

Back in 1959, my parents bought some acreage in Chester on a hill that had the potential for some pretty nice views. Eventually the home site was cleared and my father borrowed a chain saw and took down more than an acre of pine trees to clear out a view. It was great, with views to the northeast all the way around to the east. Sunrises and moonrises were delightful to see from the dining room windows. Distant mountains off to the north would sometimes reflect light off the windows of some home up there over twenty miles away.

As we cleared out the view, I remember how respectful my father was about the privacy of our lone neighbor, a Finnish immigrant who lived in a shack at the foot of our hill, fully on our property.

I remember his Collie mix dog that walked everywhere around town with him. His trips were generally to the grocery store for small amounts of food and large amounts of beer. He was a nice enough guy until he got fully soused, and then he could be belligerent and argumentative. At those times we knew to keep our distance. If we hiked down past his cabin and he was tying on a real bender, he would occasionally tell you to get the hell away, along with some finely chosen Finnish expletives, of which I had knowledge. My Dad had grown up speaking Finnish because all of their neighbors in Ludlow were Finns and if you wanted other kids to play with, you learned some of the language.

There were all kinds of unsubstantiated stories about the poor guy, one being that he had escaped to America because he had killed a man in Finland. Another was about abandoning a family in Finland, etc., etc. My parents warned us to keep our distance, and there seemed to be a certain perimeter around the shack that we could sense was off limits. This didn’t stop us from exchanging pleasantries when he was relatively sober and in a good state of mind. At other times we’d be walking home from school, trudging up the steep hills and if he was outside you could judge his condition. When he was drunk he would often stare at us as we walked past, not saying a word. He really just wanted to be alone most of the time, and we respected it, giving him wide berth and deference when we would encounter him down town.

One of my most vivid memories of the old guy was watching him urinate in a snowbank in the middle of the afternoon in front of the National Survey building, which had a lot of windows and a lot of people working there. His dog would do the same, leaving their marks in the now spoiled snow bank. Back at his shack there was an outhouse, painted the same sky blue color as the main building. Just beyond the outhouse were three massive piles of beer cans, each with two triangular holes in the top that had been punched with a "Church Key" opener. I recall his beer of choice was Carling Black Label with its red and black markings. The older ones had turned pink as the sun bleached out the color.

A woman in our neighborhood would often take a plate of leftovers to him, so seeing her car pulled up near the shack was a common sight. One day there were a number of cars coming and going, and a few days later we learned that he had died. We asked about his dog, and were told that she had been taken to the Springfield Humane Society Shelter. I remember asking my mom if we could adopt her, and she nixed that idea real quick. Something about already having a dog, and not wanting to deal with all that long hair that comes with a Collie. I suspect that she didn’t want to deal with the poor dog’s smell, either.

On the first nice spring day after the old guy passed, my father and I went down to the shack to see what was in there. It was one of the most disgusting smelling places I have ever experienced, and I can still remember that smell to this day. Everything in the shack reeked. My dad got the gas can for our lawn mower, doused the shack and the outhouse with gas, and set it all on fire. Nothing was salvageable, even the grubby Bible and a book by Karl Marx. Eventually we reclaimed the land where the shack had been, and today you’d never know anything had been on that spot. The old man still lives in my memory, and was the first soul I had ever encountered who was lost, alone, and so damaged. Our "squatter" provided my young mind with a stark example of just how badly a life can go. I’ll think of him this year as we sit down to our Thanksgiving dinner, giving thanks for a warm home and a solid family.

Arlo Mudgett’s Morning Almanac has been heard over multiple radio stations in Vermont for 20 years, and can be tuned in at 92.7 WKVT FM every weekday morning at 8 a.m.