Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
Tuesday, November 24, 1998
This ought to be a pretty quiet evening, Jason thought as he wheeled his Ford pickup truck into the driveway and hit the button for the garage door opener. He knew Vicky was working the evening shift at Walmart, which she hated – as she did every other shift – and since it was a council night, Kevin would be watching the kids. It might be a good night for TV, or if there was nothing on worth watching, to check out the W.E.B. Griffin novel he’d bought a couple months before and just hadn’t gotten around to reading.
It would make a nice break. The three of them had been hitting the bike rebuilding and knife making pretty hard the last couple weeks. Kevin couldn’t come over as much as he wanted to without drawing Emily’s suspicion that something might be up, so he and Vicky had put in a fair amount of time on the bike on their own and were making good progress. It was still a couple weeks away from major reassembly, but he hoped it wouldn’t be much more – there needed to be some time for testing, and for dealing with the unexpected problems that almost certainly would arise.
The evenings had been pleasant, even though they were split between knife work and work on the bike. Kevin was starting to pick up on the forge and anvil work some; although he was a beginner, he was proving to have some talent and showing some interest in it. It seemed likely that he might stay with it some once the work on the little Harley was completed. It would be nice if that worked out; over the years knife making had proved to be a solitary hobby, but Jason enjoyed the teaching and the camaraderie that went along with working with someone else.
As he parked the pickup in the garage and hit the button to close the door, he gave some thought to eating. He’d already made up his mind to bypass the Chicago for once; while the food was pretty good it got old after a while. Back in the years when Duane had been living at home, they’d often cooked dinner, but cooking just for himself was a pain in the ass, so if he did fix anything he usually didn’t put much effort into it. Nuking some hot dogs and having some chips along with them would probably do nicely, he thought as he headed inside.
He’d no more than set his lunch box on the shelf when the phone rang. It proved to be Vicky’s mother Mignon. “Jason, would you like to come to dinner tonight?” she asked. “Vicky’s working, so I’ve got an extra pork chop that will go to waste otherwise.”
“Yeah, sure,” he replied automatically. It was not an infrequent invitation, although irregular; since Duane had left for college over three years ago, it had come about once a week. When you got right down to it, the Varneys were about the closest friends he had, going back a long, long way; he’d gone to school with both Joe and Mignon from early elementary years through high school. He’d dated Mignon for a while in high school, even though she’d been a grade ahead of him. Even with the help his folks had been, there was no way he could have made it through the last years with Christine without their help. There were plenty of debts of friendship there that would be impossible to repay, short of a major illness or catastrophe that he wouldn’t wish on his worst enemy. “What time?”
“Oh, when you get here. Joe isn’t home yet.”
“Good enough,” he replied. “I’ll change out of my work clothes and wander over after a while.”
Even though he worked on the plant floor, he usually wore nicer clothes to work than he did when he was in the back shop at the forge. He didn’t plan on going out there tonight, and it was good to get out of his work clothes and take a shower before heading across the back yard.
“Joe’s still not home, but I expect him any minute,” Mignon reported after he’d knocked on the back door and gone inside. As always, she was well-dressed; she worked in an office and didn’t like to look like a slob. A little shorter than her daughter, she was even heavier-set, but still, even at their shared age, not a bad-looking woman, going gray now – and, hell, there was a little of it around his own temples, as well. She’d been on the chunky side even in grade school, he remembered, but hadn’t gotten beyond that until after he’d come back from the Army to discover she and Joe had moved in across the back yard.
“Anything I can do to help?”
“Not really,” she shrugged. “It’s pretty well under control until he’s here. You like a beer?”
“Sure, I’m not going to turn one down,” he smiled.
In a moment, she handed him a Miller’s and opened one for herself. “So,” she asked conversationally, “Are you working Thursday?”
One of the downsides of the job at General was the place worked twenty-four hours a day, every day; truck drivers were on the road all the time, and time spent sitting around was time and money wasted. That meant there had to be some people who worked over holidays, even Christmas. In most cases people wouldn’t like that very much, but they kept things to a skeleton crew, and people who volunteered to work a major holiday got two days off in payment, so they usually had little grousing and little trouble with getting those days staffed. In general, the custom was if you worked Thanksgiving you’d get Christmas off, or vice versa, although there were people who would trade around for the extra free days.
“Thought I might as well,” he reported. “I kind of wanted to be off Christmas. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the last one with Duane for a while.”
“He’s coming home for Thanksgiving?” she asked.
“He’s supposed to wrap up classes Wednesday noon and then head down,” Jason reported. “So it’s going to be nine or ten before he gets here. I’m actually a little surprised he’s coming at all, but they lock the dorms, and they must not have much snow at the ski areas.”
“It’ll be nice to see him again,” she replied. “I just didn’t get a chance to see him last fall.”
“Hell, I didn’t either,” he snorted. “He was only here about twelve hours and sleeping most of them.” He shrugged, shook his head, and went on, “But hell, when I was his age, I didn’t have a lot of time for the folks either, so I guess I understand.”
“That’s a boy for you,” she nodded. “Troy is the same way, but I think Duane got more than a little of his mother’s wanderlust.”
Jason understood without clarification that Mignon meant Jody, and not Christine, who had been the kind of person happy where she was. Although Jody had burned his ass big time when she left, in later years he’d gotten a little philosophical about it. She wasn’t a person to be tied down, and she had to have felt desperately trapped to resort to the extreme measure she’d taken. Still, the resentment had burned out long ago; he only occasionally got a little curious about where she might be, if she were still alive at all. “I’m sure that plays a part,” he agreed without emotion. “Of course, I must have had something to do with it.”
He did, of course – and so did the Varneys, to a degree. The Varneys, young and old, had gone out of their way to take Duane under their wing a little during Christine’s last years – Vicky, of course, along with Joe and Mignon and especially their youngest son, Troy, a grade ahead of Duane. In spite of that difference, which can be a big deal in school, they were best friends and playmates through elementary school, and to a somewhat lesser extent in middle school and high school. After Christine died, Jason’s major priority was to reconnect with his son a little, to try and make up for some of the times he had to be shunted to the side because of her illness. Troy got swept up in that, partly because they were friends, but also because Jason felt he needed to pay the Varneys back a little for all their kindnesses toward Duane.
Back when Jason had been a kid, Boy Scouts had been a big deal and he’d been heavily involved, but he had discovered in the years since that much had changed, and for the worse. Scouting was no longer the big movement it had once been; only a handful of Bradford kids were involved by then, the attention of most having been sucked off by video games, computers, school sports, and television. Still, Duane had a taste for the outdoor stuff and with Jason’s encouragement and involvement, more or less stayed with it through high school; Troy drifted away after a while, drawn by sports and girls. Though never a star, Duane played football in the fall and wrestled in the winter, but his heart was really in less-organized outdoor pleasures.
Both Jason and Duane had a greater taste for the outdoors than they could get out of the Boy Scouts. Neither of them thought the scouts got outdoors enough and screwed around too much when they did. Although Duane stayed with it to become an Eagle Scout, the real adventures didn’t involve the Scouts. For several years they did major summer trips and some shorter weekend stuff. It started out with easy river canoeing, often in the early years with Joe and Troy, but went on to headier stuff. As Troy and Joe’s interest faded, another scout and dad combination, Cory and Dave Luma started to join the trips. Over the next few years, there were canoe trips to places like the Boundary Waters in Minnesota and some rivers in Ontario, along with weekend trips whitewater kayaking and rafting in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Jason’s interest in whitewater was limited, but Dave got into it pretty seriously, and they took a number of trips to the East Race artificial whitewater course in South Bend. As a result, Duane was pretty skilled around whitewater by the time he got out of high school.
They did things other than rivers – hunting and fishing, for example. Duane’s heart really wasn’t in deer hunting, even though he’d become a respectable shot with both gun and bow. It proved he’d really rather watch the deer than shoot them; he rather enjoyed small game hunting, though. He became moderately skilled with a fly rod and wasn’t above dropping a line in the water during a break on a canoe trip. In the winter there was skiing and snowboarding; although it was a long haul to a good ski hill, he became moderately skilled at that.
The Midwest isn’t great backpacking country but has a few pretty good spots. A week or two of backpacking was a regular feature of summer over several years, places like Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, the Porcupine Mountains, the Superior Hiking Trail, and finally, the year before Duane was a senior, Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior.
Troy and Joe hadn’t gone on that trip; Troy had graduated from high school that spring and preferred to spend what time he could with his girlfriend before he headed off to college, so that trip was just Jason and Duane and Dave and Cory. For Duane, the trip proved to be a watershed.
One night ten days out and towards the end of the trip, the boys were feeling rather down about the hike coming to an end. At the time Jason’s legs were thinking warm thoughts about the comfort of the seat of a fork truck, and Dave was having similar thoughts about his backhoe. That evening, hanging around on the beach at Little Todd Harbor on the Minong Trail just watching the sunset, they happened to meet a young couple who had hiked the full length of the Appalachian Trail a couple of years previously. They had great stories about their summer-long hiking adventure and the sights they’d seen, and the bug bit Duane and Cory hard.
Over the course of the next few months the boys researched the idea of a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, initially with the idea of doing it the next summer. Soon, they came to the conclusion it was just too big a bite to chew in the slightly under three months they’d have between graduating from high school and starting college. On top of that, it was probably too big for the nearly four months’ break they’d have over the summer in college, but after they developed an alternative they moved the AT to the “eventually” file. Over the winter, they discovered that a little-known, long-distance hiking trail ran right through Michigan. While it was unfinished and in pieces, there were large sections of it completed from near Grand Rapids, a hundred miles to the north, and the Wisconsin border at the far west end of the state’s Upper Peninsula. Many of the gaps could be filled on small forest roads. At about 800 miles, it was just about the right size for their end-of-high-school break, leaving enough time to pack for college. To top it off, the kids decided they wanted to do it by themselves as a rite of passage.
That was just fine with both Jason and Dave, as if there were some way they could get off for two months at the height of the summer anyway. Privately, they figured there was only about a fifty-fifty chance the kids would make it all the way before cashing in their chips, but both the men pretty much remembered what it was like to want to gain their spurs and their independence. Cory’s mother was a little negative about the two being out in the woods by themselves, until both Jason and Dave reminded her they’d both been only months older when they’d gone to Vietnam. A summer on a hiking trail seemed like a much better adventure all the way around.
The day after their high school graduation, Dave dropped the two off at Croton Dam near White Cloud, Michigan, and they disappeared into the forest. There were occasional phone calls home over the next weeks; the two made good time through Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, then, a little more trail hardened they headed off into the wilds of the Upper Peninsula. North of Tahquamenon Falls they lost the faint trace of the poorly maintained trail, and more or less bushwhacked their way along backwoods tracks until reaching Lake Superior, then turned west. Right after the first of August, Jason got a phone call that they were almost done, and would he be so nice as to pick them up the day after tomorrow? He did, driving almost 600 miles one way to do it, to find the two tan and hard, just about ready to blow off school and follow the trail west to North Dakota. But bigger things beckoned, and they stuck to the plan.
For some time it had been more or less clear to both the boys that they wanted to have some sort of outdoor career, and Cory had been thinking about wildlife biology. But Duane had picked out a different idea: more than a year before, on the Isle Royale trip, the four had spent a quiet evening talking with one of the park rangers who roamed the backcountry. Duane was awed by the fact that people actually got paid to do such a thing! The young woman, whose name he’d long forgotten, had clued him in on a number of things, not all of which were upsides.
One of the first downsides was that it was very difficult to get into the National Park Service on a full-time basis – it was necessary to work as a seasonal employee for some years, usually over a decade, before enough seniority to get a full-time job could be accumulated. But, Duane eventually reasoned, that wasn’t all downside; it left part of the year when other things could be done. Especially during the period of being a seasonal, assignment locations could vary, but you got to see a lot of the country at six months here, six months there, six months somewhere else. When you realized that those places were national parks, many of interesting historical significance and some of magnificent wilderness and beauty, it seemed like a heck of a deal.
While they’d been waiting for the ferry from Rock Harbor back to the mainland, Duane discovered the park manager was also waiting for the ferry, and he spent hours ruthlessly grilling the man and taking notes. By the time the four of them got on the ferry, Duane had dumped the idea of doing wildlife biology with Cory and had settled on a career with the National Park Service.
In the beginning Duane had the idea of going to Michigan Technological University in Houghton, where the Isle Royale headquarters was located, with the idea of using proximity to lobby for a backcountry ranger job on the island. That was one of the things the park manager talked him out of. It took seniority to get that job, even as a seasonal, and when you got down to it the college summers didn’t add up to much seniority; it’d be better to use the time to gain useful skills, even if it wasn’t necessarily with the NPS. He also told Duane that one of the skills in demand was in law enforcement; only a small percentage of rangers were law officers, and they were always in demand. When the dust settled, and it took several months, Duane had decided to head to Northern Michigan University in the middle of the Upper Peninsula, to major in environmental conservation and minor in criminal justice. He’d even called the park manager at his office to check out his reaction to the plan and was told that it sounded like a pretty good approach.
Jason knew that was still Duane’s goal, and he’d worked toward it steadily. But along the way, some of his mother’s wanderlust snuck in.
Northern Michigan University has a particularly good outdoor club, mostly because there are a lot of outdoor opportunities in the area. Duane dove into the outdoor club head first, picking up a number of skills that he hadn’t already accumulated, chief among them rock climbing. He was considerably more advanced, especially as a kayaker, than most of the club membership, and right from the beginning the whitewater chair, a guy named Gary, had him teaching skills.
Jason knew that as winter rolled on, Duane started looking for summer positions in the Park Service, but for one reason or another none of them appealed. Most of the positions he seemed to have a shot at were “cannonball parks,” preserved Civil War battlefields, and he realized he’d rather not spend the summer on a lawnmower if he could get a position at all. One by one the options fell through, and it began to look like Duane was going to be spending the summer at General, working third shift on a loading dock as summer help. That was a prospect that seemed exceedingly dismal to a kid who would much rather be out under a bright summer sky.
Gary had become friends with Duane over the course of the year, and toward the last minute offered a possible alternative. For a couple years, he’d been working as a whitewater raft guide down in east Tennessee, and he thought perhaps he could get Duane on there. So as soon as school was out Duane hopped in his Jeep Wrangler and drove south to Ducktown, Tennessee.
It turned out that the place was full up with raft guides, but Gary had a friend who worked at another place on a nearby river and was able to pull a string. As it worked out Duane spent the summer taking people on whitewater raft rides down the Nantahala River for the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Wesser, North Carolina. From the start, he realized that it was a better deal than the original hope of a job, anyway – NOC was heavily involved in outdoor education and had a good national reputation, while the other place basically was considered by all to be a thrill ride. It wasn’t the money that he might have made on the appliance dock, but it was a lot of fun, and he learned a lot about whitewater rafting and a number of other skills, like climbing.
The Appalachian Trail ran right through NOC, and the woman who was usually his trip leader had hiked it a few years before, so his still-strong yearning to do an end-to-end was reinforced every day, while he accumulated more knowledge to back it up.
The NOC had worked out so well he’d done the same job the next two summers, and the last season was senior enough to lead whitewater trips himself.
He added on another skill the first summer. Gary was off in the middle of the week on the same days he was, and several weeks they got together, made a fast trip to the Outer Banks and spent a couple days board surfing after Gary taught him the basics. When they got back to school in the fall, Gary initiated Duane into a very small, select group, never more than a handful and consisting at that point of only Gary and his girlfriend – the Superior Surfers. While it’s not the ocean, when conditions are right, Superior can kick up some very surfable waves – but during the school year, when those conditions are right the water is pretty darn cold. Most people thought anyone out on the water like that had a hole straight through their head. He now learned that Gary was really only a mediocre surfer, but his girlfriend Ruth was a California surfer girl and darn good; she taught him a lot. As far as Duane knew, he was the only kid from Bradford who had ever been on a surfboard, other than perhaps as a tryout on a trip to Hawaii. When the other Bradford kids he talked to on his rare visits home found out where he went surfing, they just couldn’t believe he was telling the truth.
Gary hadn’t been involved this year; since Ruth was a year behind him, he’d delayed his graduation to wait for her. They’d gotten married last spring, and had last been heard from at her home in Los Angeles, where Gary reported that the surf was good, the water was warm, but the beaches and breaks were crowded as hell. With him gone, Duane, now a senior, had become the whitewater chair of the outdoor club, and vice-president as well.
While Duane was carrying very good grades in some pretty tough courses, he was also having more fun than most people should be allowed to have in college – rafting, hiking, backcountry canoeing, whitewater kayaking, climbing, downhill and cross-country skiing, snowboarding, ski jumping, surfing and just hanging out in the wild. As far as Jason was concerned, it beat the living hell out of Vietnam, even though it meant he didn’t see his son very much. He knew it was going to be a real downer when the kid had to settle down and go to work.
Duane hoped to put that off as long as possible. On top of everything else at college, he’d held down a series of jobs, mostly teaching outdoor skills. He’d not wasted his money, saving it up for his planned final fling: the long-dreamed end-to-end hike of the Appalachian Trail, which he and Cory had been planning for years. Once that was out of the way, he planned to spend the winter making an all-out assault on National Park Service hiring, but with quite an outdoor résumé behind him. As far as Jason was concerned, although the promise had yet to be fulfilled, he was darn proud of his son for setting himself a lofty goal, working at and moving within reach of it, and having a lot of fun and adventure along the way. Even if the kid couldn’t make a pretty knife, he’d already accomplished a hell of a lot of other things.
All that, of course, was something Mignon knew almost as well as Jason did; he’d kept them updated over the years. “Of course he did,” she smiled. “The kid marches to a different drummer, just like his dad. I’ll bet he’s got some stories to tell.”
“He sure does, what I hear of them,” Jason nodded with a smile. “But like any kid, it’s what you don’t hear that makes you wonder.”
“It’s been too long since I’ve seen him to talk to him,” she replied. “Do you and he have any plans for Thanksgiving?”
“Nothing in particular,” he admitted. “I thought about throwing together a little dinner, but the Country Kettle is open that afternoon; they can do it while I’m thinking about it. I don’t really plan to see a whole lot of him. I expect he and Cory will spend most of the time working on trail plans for next spring.”
“Why don’t you come over and have dinner with us?” she suggested. “Casey is going to be with Alissa’s family, but Troy and Brittany are going to be here. I’ll bet Duane would just love to make Troy a little jealous by showing off his freedom.” Troy and Brittany had been married right out of college last spring; in fact, he’d been to the wedding but Duane hadn’t been able to make it – he was in a raft in North Carolina. Troy was now settling into a job as a junior engineer at some parts plant over around Detroit, and also settling into domestic life and impending fatherhood.
“I suppose so, if it’s not going to be any extra trouble,” he shrugged. Knowing Troy as well as he did from when he was a kid, it was hard to believe he was all grown up now, and that meant Duane was getting there, too. It made him feel old.
“No trouble at all, just fewer leftovers we’re going to have to eat,” Mignon smiled. “We’d love to have you, and there’s no problem in having dinner a little late.”
“Fine,” he replied. “We’ll be here. Brittany’s about due, isn’t she?”
“Not till after the first of the year, around February tenth,” Mignon replied. “I’m still a little surprised my youngest is winning the race to make me a grandparent, although I get the impression Casey and Alissa are thinking about it. When they were kids, I figured Vicky was going to be the easy winner of that little race, but I guess that worked out just as well.”
“From what little I knew of the guy, Augie really seemed like a jerk to me. I never understood what she saw in him, but then, I’m walking proof of how blind you can be.” Once again, the line was aimed at Jody rather than Christine, and Mignon understood it without question.
“I think she learned her lesson,” Mignon smiled. “I think she’s been in ‘once bitten, twice shy’ mode, but I wish she’d pull herself out of it.”
“Maybe she is, a little,” he shrugged. “She seemed to be a little perkier the last few weeks, but then I’ve been seeing a little more of her, too.”
“I think so too,” she agreed. “I think it’s having something to do, rather than just come home and be miserable about everything. You must be keeping her busy.”
“There’s stuff to do,” he said, knowing Mignon was fully aware of the motorcycle project. “But sometimes she comes over just to hang around and watch us and sit back and piddle with something. I’ve got stacks of blade blanks I’ve never finished over the years. She’s taken a few of them and worked up handles, sometimes done some finishing and engraving. She’s really pretty good at it; I’ve seen some interesting detail work. I told her the other night that this winter, we really ought to pack up a few knives and head off to see what we can sell at a knife show, just to clear the place out.”
Really, it was a bit of a problem – again, not anything Mignon didn’t know, so there was no need for elaboration. Over the years, he’d made many more knives than he’d sold; some years his production might be as low as fifty or sixty, but in the first year after Christine had died, he’d turned out a couple hundred, just to keep his mind occupied. That tailed off back to regular levels, but after Duane headed off to college there had been many lonely, boring evenings when going out and firing up the forge or sitting down at the workbench in the basement with the scrimshaw tools had been better than doing nothing. Sometimes, he’d make four or five blanks in the process of getting a custom order just right, and those stacked up, too. There must be hundreds of perfectly saleable but unsold knives kicking around in various places, plus hundreds more unfinished blanks. On the other hand, beyond the time well spent, it had been worthwhile in another way: on a combination of state and federal grants and scholarships, financial aid, an in-kind scholarship from General, a trust fund from Christine’s insurance and the results of setting up booths at several knife and gun shows over the years, Duane was going to be leaving college without a nickel in student-loan debt.
“I knew she’d been working on knives as well as on the bike,” Mignon smiled. “She seems to like it, or at least hanging around with you two. That’s good, she doesn’t get out enough. If you do a show or something, take her with you. She needs to get away.”
“There won’t be anything much until after the first of the year,” he said, then added a gentle warning, “Some of them are going to be overnight trips, though.”
“So big deal,” Mignon snorted. “I think both of you are adults, and I think the two of you respect each other enough that you’re not going to go anyplace the other one doesn’t want to. I mean, I didn’t have any problem when the two of you took off last summer to go down rafting with Duane.”
It had been a good trip; he’d loaded the camper into the back of the pickup, and they’d been on the road several days, just good friends, nothing more. It had given him a now-rare chance to spend a little time with Duane, and Vicky had had a good time. In spite of living for nearly a week in the very limited confines of a pickup camper, nothing had happened. They were just good friends, nothing more. “That didn’t mean I didn’t worry about what you might think,” he said apologetically.
“Jason,” she sighed. “You want to know what I really think about that? I think if something were to happen with the two of you it would be good for both of you. You know each other well enough and like each other enough that you’d go out of your ways to not hurt each other.”
“Aw, bull. I’m more than old enough to be her father.”
“I know it,” she smiled serenely. “And I’m sure you remember why.”
It was something that once in a while they hinted to each other about, but never discussed openly, even between themselves; as far as he knew, Joe didn’t know about it. One night, a long time ago, a couple years before she’d married Joe, she and Jason had gone to a drive-in movie; it was a cool night, and they’d snuggled together while watching an eminently forgettable movie. Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello? Might be, they watched enough of that junk; there was no way of telling, now. But it led to something more, and something more . . . and neither were virgins when the evening was over with. It had been the only time, but it had been a special time. In fact, it had led to why they’d drifted apart – they both felt they’d let things go a little too far and agreed they’d better back off and see someone else to let things cool off for a while. That had been what had led to her starting to date Joe; Jason had often reflected on the might-have-beens that never were.
“But the fact remains,” she continued as his mind helplessly dredged up an image of that steamy night and her soft, young body and being so awkward with each other, “That you’re both old enough and have been through enough that it doesn’t matter like it would have once upon a time.”