Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
It is said that in a small town everyone knows everyone. That’s mostly true, although in many small towns people don’t know each other very well, even if they’ve lived there a lifetime.
Gail Gleason was one of those people Ryan Clark didn’t know very well, but they’d run into each other in Spearfish Lake now and then for most of their lifetimes. Gail was distinctive thanks to a limp and the crutches that had been her constant companions since she’d been very young. The crutches were in her grocery cart now; she was leaning on the cart for stability as she looked up and down the aisle of the Spearfish Lake Super Market for something or other.
“Morning, Gail,” he said as he got close to her.
“Ryan,” she replied with a broad smile. “How nice to see you again.”
“Nice to see you,” he replied, and added a courteous, “How’s it going?”
“One day at a time, like always,” she replied. Leaning on her grocery cart, she pushed it a little closer to him. When she was right next to him, she reached out to put her arm around him. As she had him to hold onto for stability, she let go of the cart and put her other arm around him in a warm hug. “Thank you, Ryan,” she said.
“Thanks? What brought this on?”
“You don’t remember, do you?” she smiled again. “Ryan, it was sixty years ago this week you helped to save my life.”
Ryan knew what she was talking about now. “I didn’t have very much to do with it,” he protested.
“Maybe not,” she grinned. “But you’re the only one left who I can thank. Everybody else who was involved is gone, Dr. Luce, Dr. Brege, your father, Garth Matson, Donna Clark, Lucille Williams, a dozen other people, and probably more I never knew about. I owe my life to all of you, and Ryan, in spite of everything it’s been a pretty good life.”
“Gail, it’s good to hear you say that. I’m sure my father and the others would be happy to hear it too if they were still with us.”
“It hasn’t been the easiest life, but it’s worked out fine,” she replied, and changed the subject as she let go with one hand and put it back on the grocery cart for stability. “And who are these fine young people you have with you?”
“These are Randy and Nicole’s kids, Brent and Raven,” he explained, nodding to the two, who were eleven and nine respectively. “I’m looking after them today.”
“You have a number of grandchildren, don’t you?” Gail asked courteously.
“Seven, and that’s probably about all there will be,” he replied. “They range from college age down through preschool. How about you?”
“Just three,” she smiled. “Two of Marcy’s and one of John’s. They’re all still in middle school or high school. That’s something else that wouldn’t have happened if you and the others hadn’t gotten involved.
“I suppose,” Ryan smiled. “Gail, it’s been good to see you again, and it’s good to know you’re doing well. I suppose we’d better get back to our shopping and let you get back to yours.”
“It’s been good to see you again, too. And thank you again, Ryan.”
They went on their way up the aisles. Once they’d gotten a short distance away, Raven piped up, “Grandpa, what was that about you saving her life?”
“It’s a long story,” he said. “Let’s not talk about it now. We better get what you wanted so you can eat it before your mom gets home.” Ryan’s daughter-in-law Nicole was going through a health-food kick for the kids, but he thought a grandfather ought to be able to indulge his grandkids once in a while. A little junk food wouldn’t kill them.
The subject didn’t come up again until after Ryan got the kids back to his house. He knew his wife Linda was shopping down in Camden with Nicole and his daughter Rachel, so they probably wouldn’t be back until late. He made the kids a lunch of Spaghetti-Os, which he figured the kids thought of as comfort food, and satisfied himself with a bologna and cheese sandwich. “Grandpa,” Raven asked again as she got herself around a spoonful of the glop, “Is there a story about you and that woman at the grocery store?”
“In a way there is, and in a way there isn’t,” Ryan explained. “It was something long ago, something we don’t have to worry about any more. Tell me, have either of you kids ever heard the word, ‘polio?’”
“I think so,” young Brent said after a moment. “It’s a disease, isn’t it?”
“It is. It’s what Mrs. Gleason had, at the age of five. She’s never been able to walk right since. Do either of you kids know what an ‘iron lung’ is?”
The kids had blank looks on their faces. Finally, Brent said, “No idea.”
Ryan let out a big sigh. “You know, that’s actually good news,” he replied after a moment. “I mean, good news that you don’t know about them. Raven, I was your age when Mrs. Gleason came down with polio. The kids my age, well, we all knew what polio was, and we knew what an iron lung was. It was very, very scary, so it’s good to know it’s almost been forgotten. People don’t get polio today. There’s a simple vaccination that prevents it, but Mrs. Gleason missed out on getting the vaccination in time by only a few weeks. It just wasn’t available around here then.”
“What happened, Grandpa?” Raven asked, “and how did you help save her life?”
“Like I said, it’s a long story. Are you sure you want to hear it?”
“I’ll try to keep it fairly simple,” Ryan told the kids. “I don’t know all of it anyway.” He certainly knew more than he figured the kids would be willing to sit still and listen to, and as he’d told Gail, he hadn’t played a big part in it. He hadn’t understood much of it at the time, but had picked up parts of it here and there for many years afterward. However, it was a story the kids should hear and hopefully remember, since there were several life lessons involved – lessons that had changed his life, too.
“Keep an eye on things,” Walt Archer said to the fireman of the old Alco 4-6-0 steam locomotive. “I’m going back and see what the holdup is.”
“Yeah, can do,” the fireman replied. “It’ll be good to get moving and get some air through here.”
“No fooling,” Walt agreed as he swung down from the cab to the wooden planks of the platform at the Camden station of the Decatur and Overland Railroad. “Sure wish we had a diesel on this run.”
“We’ll be the last to get one, that’s for sure.”
Walt glanced down the platform, to where he could see the conductor watching as a bunch of canoes were loaded into an empty boxcar. It was pretty clear what the holdup was, but it was good to be out of the cab of the old teakettle for a few minutes. Steam was rapidly being replaced on the D&O, and steam engines were only used on a few branches these days. On a day this hot he’d rather have been in the cab of one of the newer diesels, but with his low seniority he’d been relegated to the uncomfortable heat and dirt of the steamer.
But at least it was the mixed train run through Spearfish Lake up to Walsenberg and back, which ought to be fairly easy on a day like today. “Mixed train” was stretching the definition a little bit, since there were rarely any passengers these days, and the combined passenger and baggage car that had once been used on the run had vanished somewhere. Any passengers would be riding in the caboose with the tail-end crew.
It was only a brief walk back to the boxcar. “Hey, Cap,” Walt said to the conductor, Herb Woolery. Though Walt was the engineer, like on most railroads, the conductor was actually in charge of the train. “What’s the deal?”
“Almost done,” Herb replied. “Got a bunch of Boy Scouts, gonna take a canoe trip.”
“Sounds like fun. I wouldn’t mind doing that sometime.”
“Yeah, but with a bunch of Boy Scouts? That ought to be a circus.”
“Well, now that you mention it, you might have a point. You going to cram them all in the caboose?”
“Probably should, but as hot as it is I’m thinking I’ll let some of them ride in the boxcar with the canoes. It’d be a steam bath in the caboose with that many people in it. You know that bridge over Stoner Creek just this side of Walsenberg, about the 141-mile stick?”
“I know the place. Is that where we’re dropping these kids off?”
“Yeah, and I hope it ain’t gonna take too long. I’m looking to getting this day over with and relaxing with a few cold beers.”
“Too early to be thinking about that, Cap, but it sure is something to look forward to.”
Bob Rathburn leaned his back up against one of the aluminum canoes and looked out the open door of the boxcar at the scenery slowly passing by. The old coal-fired steam locomotive pulling this train was a smoky old goat, and it threw cinders all over the place, so it wasn’t a real good idea to be near the door. As far as that went, it might be possible to fall out, so the Scoutmaster, Jim Blanchard, had made it real clear everyone was to stay away from it. But it was still neat to ride in a boxcar like a hobo – he didn’t think he’d want to do it a lot, but it sure was fun for something different.
Bob had been looking forward to this trip for years. The troop made a big canoe trip every year, but this was the first one he’d been able to go on. For whatever reason, it had been decided long ago to limit such trips to ten scouts and two leaders, so the scouts who got to go were always the older and more experienced ones. If everything worked out all right, he’d be able to do the one next year too, before he turned fifteen and had to move over to the Explorer post.
He’d been on shorter trips with the troop before, day trips and overnights, but this was to be his first chance at a long run – eleven days – which didn’t include a day and a half of travel each way from their home in Clayburg, all by rail.
Mr. Blanchard liked to have the scouts participate as much as they could in the planning of the trips they went on, with supervision of course. He’d said right at the beginning he wanted to go different places each year, so this was the first time the troop was doing this particular run. The plan was to go down the Spearfish River into the big Spearfish Lake, along one lake shore or the other, then down the Albany River to Millerston, where they could catch another train to take them back south toward home.
This wasn’t the section of river they’d planned on canoeing originally. First they’d planned on being dropped on the Albany River at Lordston and running to Millerston, which was a considerably longer run. But then, Mr. Blanchard had found out that the D&O had dropped the mixed train service on that line, so they’d had to settle for this shorter trip, being dropped off on the Spearfish River near Walsenberg.
Bob didn’t think that was all bad; there’d be less time having to paddle hard to make the schedule, and more time to mess around. But Mr. Blanchard told them this could well be the last canoe trip the troop did by rail; the railroads were cutting mixed train service all over the place, and by the time next year rolled around there might not be any left. That made the trip this year a little extra exciting.
The train went around a curve, and a big dollop of black coal smoke blew through the open doors of the boxcar. That set Bob to coughing again. He had a mild cough, maybe a touch of a summer cold, he thought. It wasn’t enough for him to even consider wanting to skip this canoe trip. No, he’d looked forward to it for too long! By the time the run was over with he’d have tacked down his canoeing merit badge – one more and he’d have the rank of Life Scout. He still had a ways to go to become an Eagle Scout, but it was in reach before he got too old for the troop.
Still, this was going to be a great trip – one Bob knew he’d remember all his life.
“So this is Spearfish Lake,” Penelope Luce said from the passenger seat of the four-year-old Oldsmobile not long after her husband had turned off the state road and driven into town on Central Avenue. “It doesn’t seem like a bad little place at first glance.”
“It’s sure not St. Louis, Penny,” her husband, Dr. Herman Luce, agreed. Both he and Penny were small-town kids – although admittedly, from small towns five hundred miles apart – and they’d absolutely hated St. Louis. There was too much of everything there – too many people, too much smoke, too much noise, too much – well, too much. But that was where Dr. Luce had done his internship and general practice residency, and where he’d met and married Penelope, who had been a nurse there. From just about their first date they’d agreed that their main goal in life was to get back to a good small town, preferably somewhere up north where maybe Herman could do a little trout fishing.
While it was the first time Penny had been to Spearfish Lake, it wasn’t for Herman. For over a year he’d been looking around for a place to go when he’d finished his residency, which he’d done on the first of the previous month. Spearfish Lake had filled the bill: small town, north woods, good fishing, and a need for a doctor. Over the winter one of the town’s long-time physicians, Dr. Thomas Halford had dropped dead of a heart attack. Dr. Harold Brege, the town’s remaining physician, was working overtime to try to meet the medical needs and had offered to help a new doctor get set up in the remnants of Dr. Halford’s practice.
Sanford Memorial Hospital in Spearfish Lake was a small, rural establishment – probably adequate for the town’s needs but nothing fancy. The widow of Dylan O. Sanford, one of the town’s developers, had donated it to the town back in the early 1920s. It was an old Victorian “cottage” with a lot of rooms and not particularly suited for use as a hospital, but the price had been right. It certainly wasn’t going to be like Baptist General where both the Luces had worked for the last two years, and both of them were looking forward to a slower pace in their lives for a while.
“That’s probably true,” Penny replied. She was a small woman with curly blonde hair. “But you know, it’s still a small town, and there are probably going to be all sorts of small-town resentments and petty jealousies going on. As much as I disliked St. Louis, I’m not looking forward to getting back to that.”
“Well, me either, but I suppose that’s part of the price we’ll have to pay. I suppose in the next few days we’re going to learn a lot about where the bodies are buried around this place, and I don’t mean the cemetery, either.”
“Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’ll take that over St. Louis, anytime I can get it. I just hope this can be a good home for us. That’s another thing we need to get done, Herman. I don’t mind the idea of staying in a motel for a few days, but we need to look for a place we can live.”
“I’m looking forward to it too, Penny. I was getting pretty tired of living in that tiny apartment. I think we need to get on it right away. Maybe this Dr. Brege will have some idea of who we should ask. He’ll probably know someone.”
“You’re probably right,” she sighed. “I’m just afraid you’re going to walk in and find yourself up to your neck in work, especially with this Dr. Halford gone the last few months. There are probably patients backed up a long way.”
“There’s likely to be some,” Herman replied, “but we ought to have some time for each other, too. I don’t think it’s going to be a mad rush all the time like it was at Baptist General.”
Garth Matson was having his lunch at one of the picnic tables under the awning at the A&W Root Beer drive-in on Lakeshore Drive, right across the street from the city beach. The hamburgers they made there weren’t particularly good, but the root beer more than made up for them. Best of all, it was a place that his wife Helga was unlikely to find him, if she came to town at all, and there was a good chance she wouldn’t find out he was having a hamburger for lunch. That made the burger taste even better than it really was.
It was a pain in the neck to have to sneak around to have a simple hamburger, but he’d long since admitted to himself that it was just something he’d have to do, like it or not. He’d brought it on himself, after all, but he wouldn’t have changed how things had worked out, either. The good more than balanced off the bad, at least in his mind, no matter how inconvenient it made things at times.
He was eating the burger slowly, savoring every bite, when he noticed someone sitting down across the table from him. “Hi, Colonel,” he heard. “How’s it going?”
Most people in Spearfish Lake called Garth by his first name, or more often, “Mr. Matson,” since he was the president of the Spearfish Lake State Savings Bank. But there were a few who were privileged to call him “Colonel.” All of them had been members of D Battery, 144th Field Artillery, Michigan National Guard. As a captain, Matson had led the battery off to Fort Knox fifteen years before, and later, as a lieutenant colonel commanding the battalion, up the spine of the Apennines. It had been just about ten years ago that Matson had led the members of D Battery in a parade welcoming the unit back home to Spearfish Lake.
“About like usual,” Matson replied, looking up to see Dan Evachevski, with a burger, fries, and root beer of his own. Dan had been a gun captain, a sergeant, who had been with D Battery every step of the way, training in the states and wallowing in the mud up the Italian boot. “What brings you here at this hour? Shouldn’t you be at work?”
“I’m on second shift now,” Evachevski replied. “They finally made me a foreman, but it means I have to be a night owl again. But the money is worth it.”
“Sometimes you have to do what you have to do,” Matson agreed. “So how’s Gil getting along?” Matson knew the kid well; Gil had dated his daughter Barbara when the kids were in high school. Unfortunately, that hadn’t lasted; Gil would have been a hell of a lot better husband for her than either of the guys she’d married and divorced so far, not that he’d had anything to say about it.
“Pretty good. He’s on Okinawa now, just got promoted to Staff Sergeant. Don’t know when we’re going to see him again. So what brings you here today?”
“Just getting some lunch.” Matson nodded his head toward the lake and went on, “It’s nice to check out the girls on the beach in their bathing suits.”
“I figured you went beyond that a long time ago. I mean, considering.”
Garth knew just exactly what Dan was talking about. “It’s not the same thing, Dan. Not the same thing at all. When you see a girl on the beach in a bathing suit, you know she’s hiding something, and it makes you wonder what’s really there. You take away the bathing suit, you take away the mystery, and there goes most of the fun guessing.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Dan agreed thoughtfully. “You would know if anyone would. But you know, those girls over there on the beach, well, they sure have a heck of a lot less on than they would have when we were kids.”
“Yeah, you see girls that age walking up the street now and wearing so little it would have gotten them arrested on the beach back then. Things sure have changed Dan, and that’s a fact.”
“No fooling,” Dan shook his head. “Here a while back I saw a picture of a girl in one of those French bikinis in Life magazine. I wonder if we’re going to see them on the beach here.”
“Probably will, Dan,” Matson shook his head. “Wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest. Everything comes to Spearfish Lake sooner or later. It’s just that sometimes it takes a little longer to come here than it does elsewhere.”