Saturday, January 14, 2012

Scatting Off

Larry Desjadon [left] at about 12 years old, playing soldiers with a neighbor, Leland B.
Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Desjadon Archer and Agnes Archer Barnes

Larry stood in the snow-covered dooryard and gazed up at the January sky. He had noted that already the days were lengthening and he calculated that there was more than an hour remaining before sundown.
He had finished his chores; the woodboxes were filled against the night's cold; he had helped Father feed the cows.  He figured there was time for a walk before supper.
He pushed aside the nagging memory of his parents' request that he tell one of them when he was headed away from the farm. 
"Scatting," the family said, disapprovingly, "Larry's gone scatting up the road--or--into the woods--off in the pasture."
He was 13, after all, not a child, and he had a fine sense of direction.
He was warmly dressed today in brother Warren's outgrown woolen leggings, a thick wool jacket over his plaid flannel shirt, heavy socks and tall sturdy leather boots. A big cap with 'earlappers', a knitted scarf and mittens completed his outdoor gear.
Still, if he poked his head in the back door and announced to Mother that he planned to walk a way up Daigneault Hill, she might order him inside, feeling that the late afternoon was too cold; if he appealed to Father, there might be more chores to do.
Setlling his cap  firmly over his ears, Larry strode confidently out of the driveway and onto the packed snow of the dirt road.
Clarence Munger's place was only a quarter of a mile along the road. Mr. Munger was a trapper and hide dealer. Larry enjoyed talking with him and admiring the pelts which Mr. Munger had curing on his specially shaped boards.
There was no sign of Clarence Munger working in his dooryard or around his small shop when Larry passed by, so he kept on up the hill, his heavy shoes squeaking with each step on the snow.
He passed the old Catholic Cemetery, sparing only a glance for the snow-capped stones inside the fenced area. Daigneault Hill arched steeply ahead of him, but after a moment's consideration he turned left onto the narrow Beauvais Road. It was a short 'cross-road' and only a single set of tire tracks was imprinted
in the snow.
Mr. and Mrs. Beauvais were pleasant folks.  Their daughter Frances was an only child and welcomed the company of Larry and his younger sister Lizzie as playmates.
When he had chuffed his way up the road, Larry was delighted to see that Frances was outside, bundled in a long coat and with her face nearly obscured by a fuzzy hat and muffler. A path had been shoveled around the front of the house and the tumbled snow was heaped along the edge of the woodshed. As Larry watched, Frances scrambled to the top of the snowbank and flailed with a broom at the huge icicles hanging from the low eaves.
"Hi, Frances," Larry called. "Would you like some help?"
Frances turned to flap a mittened paw in response and promptly slid down the snowbank, plowing the loose snow with her overshoes.
"I can't reach the biggest icicles," she giggled. "When it warms up they're going to melt and drip down my neck every time I come out!"
Larry strode manfully into the yard, relieved Frances of her broom and began whacking the massive pendants of ice. The two children laughed and ducked as the large cold spears shattered at their feet.
The back door opened suddenly and Mrs. Beauvais appeared on the porch, winding her apron up around her arms as the cold air struck her.
"Mercy!," she said.  "It's a wonder you haven't knocked a chunk of ice down on your heads! Frances, its time for you to come inside and set the table for supper.  Larry, you've got a bit of a walk to get home before dark; time you got on your way!"
Larry said his goodbyes and headed back onto the road.  He noted that the sun was slanting toward the west and there were cold blue shadows under the trees.
The walk was easier going down hill and he was back on Daigneault Hill and past the quiet cemetery in no time.  As he drew near Mr. Munger's place he glanced off the road into the trees. A shallow track led through the woods to a small pond he often visited in summertime. He hadn't walked there since winter had set in and on a whim he stepped off the traveled road and began crunching through the snow that lay clean and white beneath the bare-branched maples and oaks of the little woods.
The pond when he reached it was smoothly frozen under a dusting of windblown snow.  A fallen branch quickly whisked clear a path across the pond--a perfect expanse for a slide.
Larry took a running start and slid from one side of the pond to the other.  He reversed and whizzed back, his scarf flying and his cheeks red with cold.
The sky behind the trees was stained coral and orange with the setting sun when he realized he'd best be heading for home.
One more slide and then he'd go.
He flung himself into the skid, legs braced and whooping with the fun of it.
At the end of the run he hit a hummock of grass, frozen in place at the very edge of the pond.
His feet flew out from under him and he flailed backwards, going down.  The back of his head hit the ice with a dull thunk.


Larry opened his eyes to an expanse of lavender-grey sky.  The sky seemed to tilt, shifting oddly above him.
He closed his eyes for a moment, wondered just what he was doing flat on his back.
He opened his eyes again, carefully sat up and looked around.
His insides felt hollow and he was cold.  The trees around the pond leaned in at crazy angles and when he got stiffly to his feet and stepped onto the bank  the ground lurched frighteningly beneath him.
He staggered to a small maple and clung to it while he got his bearings. His head pounded.
The necessity of getting out of the woods, making for home in the gathering dark, propelled him down the track, wobbling unsteadily.  He heard a car passing on the road beyond the woods, thought muzzily that it would be lovely to have a ride home.

From the kitchen window of the farmhouse, Mother glanced out at the darkening sky. It was a beautiful sunset, announcing another night of freezing cold. Her eyes scanned the dooryard expecting to see Larry ambling in.  There was no sign of him and with an anxious foreboding she pulled her old grey cardigan close and stepped onto the porch.
Her voice, calling his name, rang unanswered in the cold, still air.
Turning back to the kitchen she sighed.  It was not a good time for Larry to have gone scatting off somewhere by himself.
'Lizzie," she called, "Put on your coat and boots and see if Larry is in the barn with Father."
Lizzie was back within moments, her small face worried.
"Father says he hasn't seen Larry since he helped feed the cows."
Mother sighed, pushing a lock of grey hair away from her face, then stirred the applesauce that bubbled fragrantly in its kettle.
She added a stick of wood to the fire, clattering the stove lid.
There was the muffled purr of a car engine outside, then the sound of Ernie's feet clumping through the shed entry.  Her mind made up, Mother turned to her oldest son as he stood on the doormat, wiping the cold mist from his thick spectacles.
"Ernie," she said, striving for calm, "Larry's been missing for nearly two hours. We don't know where he went, but I think you'd better drive up Daigneault Hill and look for him. If he's not on his way down the road, go on up to the Beauvais place.  He might have walked up there to visit Frances."
Ernie sighed, for he had had a long work day.  He pushed his glasses back on and spoke with a heartiness he didn't feel.
"Don't worry, Mother. You know how Larry is--always scatting off somewhere.  That's probably where he's gone."
Ernie guided the old car up the frozen road, driving slowly in the deepening dusk.  He didn't meet Larry on the road, and following his Mother's instructions, took the crossroad turning.
Thomas Beauvais came to the door in his sock feet. The smell of supper drifted past him onto the porch where Ernie stood to make his inquiry.
"Anyone seen Larry?" Tom called over his shoulder.
Mrs. Beauvais appeared behind him, a dish towel dangling from one hand.
" Larry was here," she acknowledged, " I called Frances in and told Larry he'd better get home before dark. That was more than an hour ago!"
Ernest jiggled from one booted foot to the other, trying to think, knowing that the open door was letting cold into the house.
At last he said, "Well, I'll head back. Maybe Larry went farther up the hill road and I'll meet him coming down--or maybe he took a short-cut through the woods and is already home."

Larry, meanwhile, had traversed the wooded track, bumbling his way from tree to tree, his knees wobbling.
He lurched out onto the hill road and took a few uncertain steps in the direction of home.
His every heartbeat seemed to thump in his ears.  He was shaking with cold. He was so overwhelmingly tired that he longed to lie down and sleep.
Perhaps that was the thing to do--rest for a few minutes on the side of the road til he felt stronger, then make his way home. He wavered along uncertainly until he reached the sharp bend in the road just above Mr. Munger's house. Then, feeling suddenly unable to go on, he slid down against a convenient snowbank and rested his aching head against his knees.
He couldn't have said afterwards if he actually fell asleep there in the snow. Suddenly a hand grasped his shoulder and Ernie's voice was loud and anxious in his ear. The car stood growling in the road,  headlights making a dim yellow puddle of light on the snow.

Mother had the back door open before Ernie shut off the car's engine. She watched as her oldest son opened the passenger door and half-lifted his younger brother, steering him toward the house with a firm hand under his elbow.
"I haven't gotten much out of him," stated Ernie. "Mrs. Beauvais said he'd been gone from there a long time.
He was sitting in the snowbank just beyond Clarence Munger's driveway."

Mother hauled the old padded rocking chair close to the kitchen range, motioning for Ernie to deposit Larry there.  She peeled off his coat, unwound the muffler, took note of his pained yelp when she removed his cap. "Tired," he said, pathetically, his teeth chattering.
Mother spoke quietly, as was her way, but her voice was urgent.
"Lizzie, bring down the wool blanket from Larry's bed and a pair of wool socks from his dresser."
She knelt and unceremoniously unlaced the heavy shoes and worked Larry's feet out of them.
Within seconds she had a basin of gently steaming water in front of him and his icy feet lowered into the comforting warmth.  She draped the wool blanket around the back of the chair wrapping the ends around Larry's shivering form.
The sound of more stomping feet in the entry announced the arrival of Father and Warren, chores finished.
Father pulled off his cap and mittens, glanced at the huddle around the stove and made an anxious inquiry in French.  Warming his hands over the stove he bent over his youngest son's bundled form. Supporting Larry's forehead in one weathered palm, he ran the other hand carefully over the swollen and painful lump on the back of his skull. Larry rubbed his aching head against Father's hand which smelled familiarly of cows and hay and cold.
"Where have you been , Larry?" Father's voice was soft but with a worried edge.
Larry made a huge effort to collect his memory.  "Pond," he managed.  "Fell on the ice. Tired."
The words drifting above him were in French--the language his parents used between themselves.
Changing to English Father said, "Ernie, will you go upstreet to the telephone central office and ask the operator to call Dr. Thompson. Tell him Larry has hit his head very hard."
Larry struggled to sit up. "Don't want the doctor," he said testily. "Why can't I go to sleep?"
He burrowed into the blanket, vaguely aware that his feet had been removed from the hot water and clean socks slipped on. He watched through half-closed eyes as Ernie got back into his heavy coat and boots.
Brother Warren who was uneasy around sick people slid toward the livingroom and the radio.
Lizzie said nothing, but pulled a stool close to the rocking chair and patted Larry's blanket-swathed legs.

Ernie was back in moments with the word that Doctor Thompson had just sat down to his supper but would be out before taking on the patients who waited on his evening office hours.
Mother set out supper, a subdued and hasty meal.
By the time she and Lizzie had cleared the table, Dr. Thomspson was knocking at the door.
He strode in, bringing the scent of the cold night air with him, along with the strange medicinal tang which clung to his black bag.  He examined the bump on Larry's head, produced a small flashlight and shone it in his eyes.
"Count to 100 by 10's," he commanded, brusquely. "Then tell me where you've been and what happened."
Larry was warmed through now and had stopped shaking. He gathered his wits and rather haultingly conveyed the details of his late afternoon wanderings.
"Mild concussion," announced Dr. Thompson speaking over Larry's head to the hovering family.
"Didn't know who or what or where he was, I'd say. Lucky thing that he got out to the road instead of straying deeper into the woods."
He shook tablets from a glass vial into a small envelope, licked and sealed the flap, took a pen from his pocket and scribbled.
"Don't let him sleep more than half an hour at a time until after midnight. You'll need to rouse him, make sure he knows where he is and makes sense. No supper, but he can have tea and toast or crackers at bedtime.
The tablets are for tomorrow.  He's going to have a very sore head."
Dr. Thompson snapped his bag shut and took his coat from the back of the chair where he had draped it.
Rounding on Larry he stated sternly, "Young man, you've given your family a scare!  You're lucky to be home where its warm and not freezing to death out in those woods!"
Larry nodded, thinking vaguely that he would be in for some scolding from Mother and Father as soon as they thought he could stand it.
For now, the heat of the wood stove, the warmth of the woolen blanket, the familiarity of the shabby rocking chair, were a bulwark against the frightening memory of a tilting dark sky and his shaky legs.
He watched sleepily as Mother and Lizzie fetched a pillow and a soft old quilt, making up a bed for him on the living room sofa.  He saw Ernie take Mother's arm, heard him say, "You and Father go in and get some rest.  Warren and I will sit up with Larry til midnight.  We'll listen to the radio and play a hand or two of cards to keep us awake. If Larry takes a bad turn I'll call you."
Larry dozed in the chair by the fire, waking to tell Lizzie goodnight when she came to hug him, already in her flannel nightgown and Beacon bathrobe.  He watched Father wind the clock, heard the clunk of firewood as Warren replenished the chunk stove in the room beyond.
He roused again to sip the tea that Mother brought.  The hot liquid settled happily in his stomach.
Mother warmed his pajamas over the oven door and seemed encouraged when he told her stoutly that he could manage to get ready for bed without help.
Ernie escorted him to the nest on the sofa, eased him down on the pillow. Larry wiggled onto his side, careful of the 'goose egg' on the back of his head.  Across the room Warren and Ernie bent close to their cards in the glow of lamplight. 
Larry pulled the quilt around his ears and slept, at last.

Larry's younger sister, Aunt Lizzie, wrote down the bones of this story for me. In a later re-telling it seemed that possibly a neighbor found Larry in the snowbank and drove him home.
I have, of course, taken some fictional license in supplying narrative details.
Lizzie never forgot the anxiety of that evening or the doctor's solemn words that her brother hadn't known 'who or what" he was and 'might have strayed away."
My father, Larry, never relinquished his love of "scatting off"--driving the back roads of his hometown, parking the car and hiking to a favorite trout stream.

10 comments:

  1. Superb piece of story telling. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

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  2. Love it! You put the details of the scene so well - I'm sure I was in that room with Larry and his family! Just as well your dad survived to grow up!!! We all have adventures . . .

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  3. What an interesting story, I enjoyed reading but had a nasty feeling halfway through that it might not have a happy ending!

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  4. I enjoyed your story so much! Thank you for writing it. Your father sounds a lot like my father.

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  5. John; I'm glad you enjoyed the tale. Its one I've meant to write and our recent cold weather prompted me to do so.

    BB; I don't believe the old house where my grandparents lived at the time still is standing, although I know the rented farm where my Dad spent most of his childhood prior to this 'adventure.' I draw the details from a collage of similar Vermont farmhouses which are part of my own memories.

    Rowan; My grandparents had lost an older son only a year or two before this incident--my Dad's favorite brother who died age 22 from pneumonia which set in during the long convalecense from a farm injury. One can only imagine their anxiety as another son was hurt.

    Jane; I think country children, particularly boys, grew up with an independence which would amaze the child care providers of today. They made their own amusements, where-ever that may have taken them.

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  6. Great story Minion. Sorry you've had posting on my Blog. I went to the controls and told it to go to full page like you said, hope it helps.

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  7. That was brilliant MM. I had an awful feeling he was going to drown in the pond. A good thing he didn`t, or you would not be here....Life with its twists and turns is strange.

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  8. I really enjoyed the story ...your narative again kept me gripped ...I love the snippets that are passed down and then turned into a story. xx

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  9. Janet; I've been enjoying your current story in installments, and your comments feature seems to be working now.
    DW; My Dad finally gave up wandering off to his favorite fishing streams when he was nearly 90--he loved the solitude of woods and fields and back roads.
    Angie: I'm glad you enjoyed the read--I wish I had gleaned more "snippets." I'm in the process of transcribing the notes Aunt Lizzie set down for me.

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  10. Wow!! just love to read stories of my mom's family my uncles and grand parents. I can just picture my mom as a cute little girl comforting uncle Larry I know she is a warm and carring person. It brought back memory of when I was riding with her and my dad Stan Archer going to mr. Munger's house to deliver a news paper. mom told me the house was gone it caught fire and they were burned out.(dont remember where they moved) but she told me a story how she coasted the family bike with its wooden wheels down daigneault hill and lost control went off the GRAVEL road and got all skinned up and Uncle Larry to the rescue and took her home.She had to coast bike her feet wouldn't reach pedals and it was one bike for everyone to share. Thanks for bringing back a good memory that I had forgotten till now.

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