Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Cedar Man

He wasn't really staggering; he just wandered from one side of the dirt road to the other. The movement forward was inexorable, though a straight line would have cut the distance in half.

"Everybody get inside". It was my mother's admonishing voice that broke our intense scrutiny of the approaching apparition. I was ten, my cousins younger.

Bob Hanson lived in a tar-paper covered shack on someone else's Shawangunk Mountains acre, quietly and alone. The trail to his abode was badly rutted and just barely navigable by auto. It came to an abrupt end about three hundred yards beyond his quarters.

Bob survived by constructing bird houses, flower pot holders and sundry items from fragrant cedar wood about one inch in diameter. He left the bark on. He would essay building anything to order and once built a high chair for my younger brother.

His shack was dirt-floored. It was redolent with the odor of wood smoke and cedar. It was utterly enchanting. Its magic was enhanced by several cages hosting chipmunks and other wild creatures from the surrounding forest.

About once a month he would walk to town bearing a load of his hand-made articles. He always sold all his goods, bought food, visited the barroom and then teetered the long path home.

On more lucid occasions, he told me he often encountered "catamounts" on his way home. I had no reason to doubt him. His talks of those events held me riveted and wondering as to how a lanky, elderly, unarmed man was lucky enough to have survived such dangerous situations. But there he was, living proof that his ability to survive had been tested and that he had prevailed.

I was much taken with his caged chipmunks and whenever I had the opportunity I would question him as to how the little creatures had been captured. I wanted to trap one for myself. He told me about his method and I asked if he would make a trap for me. It took several importunings before, one day, he stopped at our gate on his way to town, called to me and presented me with a small trap and a huge disappointment.

I had envisioned some kind of mechanical device that would attract the unsuspecting beastie and then automatically close, leaving the little animal to await my pleasure. What he had constructed joined two pieces of wood about eight inches long and five inches wide forming the top and bottom, with a piece of wire mesh forming the four sides. At one end was a small opening with a little door that swung on a pivot. The door had a lead weight to keep it in the shut position when it was closed. But it was not self-actuated. One would have to attach a string to the door and hide close by, waiting for the advent of the chipmunk, then close the door on the unsuspecting target.

The prospect of spending long, perhaps fruitless, hours chipmunk-waiting was not to my taste at all. Bob Hanson had had hours to while away. A ten year old had many important things to do and could not become, himself, entrapped in an endless, perhaps, waiting game. I never used the device.

I cannot remember how many years the spare form of Bob Hanson shared my summers. I cannot remember when he stopped coming down the road. I do remember, with the greater wisdom of adulthood, that he gave up some of his chipmunk waiting time to talk patiently to a young boy and devoted some portion of his life to fulfilling that boy's wish for a chipmunk trap.

It did not matter that it was never used. I remember that he built it for me and, for the time that remains to me, his kindness is appreciated.