My Other Life

by Daniel Borgström

This is from me in my other life -- a woodcutter in Vermont. I come here each year for a couple of weeks, sometimes a month.

Arriving on an early morning flight, I'd arranged to have a seat by the window, hoping to get a view of the countryside below. But a thick layer of clouds did not clear away until shortly before landing time, when I looked down on mountainous terrain which I assumed to be the Adirondacks of upstate New York. Then a long and rather narrow body of water came into view, stretching from north to south; that had to be Lake Champlain, and in the distance beyond I soon recognized the "Camel's Hump," a distinctive mountain peak which can be seen from much of northern Vermont.

Leonard and Randy met me at the Burlington airport. Their farm is near Plainfield, some 40 miles to the east. We were following the course of the Winooski River, crossing it back and forth, going upstream. It was mid September and the leaves were just beginning to turn; mostly they were still green. From time to time we caught sight of the Camel's Hump, which periodically appeared between trees or from behind smaller hills and mountains. So here I was, once again back in rural Vermont, passing through towns and villages which look much as they did a century ago. Richmond bills itself as "the home of the round church," and we stopped to see it. Actually it's a polyhedral structure which has so many short straight sides as to make it effectively round. It was built sometime in the1800s. Unfortunately the doors were closed and locked, so we couldn't go inside.

Farther upstream is Waterbury. That name became unintentionally descriptive a couple years ago when the town was inundated by an incredible flood. Another hour's drive took us to Montpelier, the state capital and major city of the region. It has a population of 10,000; by Vermont standards that's big. We usually come here once a week to shop, rent DVD movies and visit the library. As in most of Vermont, the buildings are old and beautiful.

Still following the Winooski, we continued upstream for another 10 miles till we came to the village of Plainfield. There we left the river, and climbed up the Maple Hill road for a mile to the farm where Leonard and Randy live. It's about 83 acres of pasture, hay fields and woods. It's well above the flood plains, with a beautiful view of the surrounding countryside, including, about 25 miles to the west, the Camel's Hump.

They are people I've known since the 1970's, when they used to live in the Bay Area. I met Leonard at the San Francisco Writers' Workshop where he used to read stories about his childhood in Scotland. Those were stories he'd written about life in the 1930s; he's of the World War II generation. After spending five years in the Royal Marines, he sailed in the British merchant marine, and eventually came to America, living in New York and San Francisco. Much of that was also in his stories;
Leonard George Irving is a raconteur and a poet, entertaining to read, and enjoyable to listen to. Randy, short for Elinor Randall, is an artist and farmer. She paints, does all sorts of handicrafts including bookbinding, and keeps horses, geese and chickens, who are all her personal pets.

After catching up on sleep I lost during my airplane flight from California, I set out to reacquaint myself with the farm. In the yard I met their flock of chickens and four geese, one of them a wild goose whose injured wing had left her unable to migrate with her airborne companions, so she'd found a home with her domestic cousins. It's bird city here, and this year there was also a flock of fifteen turkeys, highly inquisitive, friendly, aggressive creatures. They crowded around me to see who this strange visitor might be, in their eyes a "Flatlander" -- as old-time Vermonters call people from other regions.

While chickens generally stay out of arms reach, turkeys let you get close enough to pick them up, although expressing their mild complaint with a kind of squawking sound. These birds produce a large amount of crap, which is on the lawn, the driveway, etc., and is hard to avoid stepping in. Turkeys were especially inclined to fly up on the clothesline and crap on the freshly washed laundry. Occasionally they even find their way into the house, where they crap on the floor. If you can overlook such slight annoyances, these birds contribute in a positive way to the mood and character of the farm.

Dominating this scene is a huge red barn, dating from the late 1800s. It's held together by large wooden pegs, something I'd only read about before my first visit to Vermont 15 years ago. Inside the barn is a room reserved for chickens and turkeys, behind it is one for the horses with an overhead loft for the hay. Randy has three horses: Flanagan, Guilefoyle, and Jesse. The first two are riding horses, while Jesse is a draft horse. At the back of the building is Leonard's "museum" - a large room whose walls are covered with a display of old items he's collected from the farm: rusting horseshoes, old tools, bits and pieces of obsolete farm gear -- ancient artifacts from a bygone age, including a good many items that we can no longer identify or imagine the use of.

Beside the barn is an area surrounded by a nicely constructed stone fence. It's called a "paddock" -- the New England term for corral. It's where the horses spend the night when they come in from the pasture. Looking down from my upstairs bedroom window, I see their ghostly figures in the dark, standing there as though frozen in one spot, not moving. "Do horses really sleep standing up?" I asked Randy. She confirmed that they do. Horses sometimes lie down, she explained, but it's not good for them to lie down for very long because they're heavy and it puts weight on their lungs and rib cages.

The paddock stands between the house and the lane which leads to the pasture and the woods beyond. This lane, which is wide enough for farm vehicles, is bounded by rows of small boulders, collected from the hay fields and piled there a century or more ago. On the rest of the farm the rocks remain where the glaciers left them at the end of the ice age, a few as large as automobiles.

I grew up on the other side of the continent, along Puget Sound, where we didn't have to pick boulders out of fields, where lanes were not lined with piles of rocks. Although I have since learned that rocks are found wherever departing glaciers dropped them, as a child I'd only read about this phenomenon in stories about New England. Those descriptions intrigued me as a child, together with sugar maples, snapping turtles, flocks of wild turkeys, and yes, wild grapes.

Wild grapes were mentioned in the Vineland sagas, and for that the east coast of North America was called "Vineland." They still grow here, out in the pasture. The sagas say they were "sweet," but to my taste they're pretty sour. Can these be the same grapes that my Norse ancestors considered sweet? Well maybe they didn't have too much in the way of sugar back in those days, around 1000 A.D., and their standard for sweetness may have been somewhat different from ours today.

The previous name for Randy's place was "Mountain View Farm," which she changed to "Rung Rim Farm." It came to her in a vision, she told me. Where I grew up, farms didn't have names, other than to identify them by their owner, like "Smith Place." Here in Vermont every farm has a name of its own.

Old customs live on, along with rock-bounded fields and other vestiges of the past. Randy's house itself is quite old, though remodeled and added to. When I sit by the fireplace in the evenings I can glance around and see hand-hewn timbers overhead and in the walls, a very common sight in Vermont. I would've expected those timbers to take a long time to carve into shape, but at the Tunbridge Fair I've seen demonstrations of how it was done. A skilled ax-wielder can turn a round log into a square one in no time flat.

In the mornings we sit drinking coffee, reading the Times Argus, occasionally glancing out the window and over the yard. It's a pleasant sight. There's an old sugar maple at the edge of the road. It's actually a large stump, a good yard in diameter, the top broken off, a cluster of branches and leaves remaining, about half still green, the rest turned a golden yellow, almost orange. That's the color of sugar maples in autumn. It's pretty foggy out there, so that's about as far as we can see, but the sun soon burns the fog away, and we can also see the deep red colors of the red maples and the sumac bushes beyond. The mists linger in the valley below, until they, too disperse and we can see forests of green and yellow and red.

There used to be a family of woodpeckers living in that giant maple, but not now. Randy and Leonard blame the cats; the poor cats, Steve and Borzo, who always seem to get the blame for things like that. But I do miss seeing the woodpeckers coming up to our window. Sometimes a pair of blue jays come by, and when they do, we comment on them, then return to whatever we were doing, Randy reading the local news in the Times Argus, Leonard solving the crossword puzzle, and me glancing at the AP reports from Washington D.C. and the international scene. I miss having access to the internet where I can find investigative reports and in-depth analyses. I also miss KPFA radio. Some years here at Randy's I've had access to the internet, sometimes not. This year she's not hooked up; she's not really a computer person. So I experience a feeling of being cut off from the world. From today's world, I should say. In so many ways I'm reconnecting with the world of the past, with all its history and tradition.

We discuss what we're going to do that day. We might be going to Montpelier. More often we'd be heading out to the woods to cut firewood. For this they have a chainsaw; here in Vermont as in many rural areas, everybody has a chainsaw. That's part of living in Vermont. It's survival; you need firewood for the winter. It's also a social thing. Last week when Randy's niece, Rachel, and her husband, Flip, came up here from Connecticut for a weekend, Flip brought his chainsaw and we went out to the woods, selected a suitably large red maple, and cut it up for firewood.

For Randy and others who raise horses, the red maple is considered a "bad" tree because horses get sick if they eat its leaves. Sugar maples are the ones we nurture. At this time of year you can easily tell the two kinds of maples apart even at a great distance by the color of their leaves, golden yellow versus deep red. Otherwise it's a bit more difficult. The leaves of the sugar maples are rounded and U-shaped while those of the red maples are more jagged and V-shaped. You have to look closely. We also cut black cherry for firewood; those trees are smaller and the wood is harder and burns longer.

We cut it up to stove or fireplace length, and haul it back in the truck. There are other trees that are useful for firewood, but some we don't cut down at all. White birch and golden birch are trees we revere for their appearance. There are also apple trees growing wild out in the woods, and we carefully avoid damaging them. There are cedars which we sometimes cut for fence posts, and pine trees which we do not cut for firewood. Pine is full of pitch which causes problems in chimneys.

So, having finished our morning coffee, let the cats in or out, and decided on where we were going to do our tree-felling, we put on our boots, load up the truck with the buck saw, the chainsaw, loppers, splitting ax, rope, and a few other items, and set out through the paddock and up the lane, out to the woods at the edge of the pasture. We park the truck a safe distance from where we intend to begin our work, far enough away so the truck won't be in danger from a falling tree.

Cutting wood is not something I regard as safe. Chainsaws are dangerous, I hardly need say that a chain of whirling blades is scary. The act of felling trees is also in itself dangerous, even if you're just using an ax or handsaw. I notch the tree in order to aim it in the direction I want it to fall, and usually it'll land where I intend. But I never really know with absolute certainty. And if I'm working in the relatively cramped space of a crowded forest, I have to know where I'm going to go when that tree starts to move. I'm literally betting my life that the tree I cut will not land on me. Once the tree's on the ground, I have to limb it, then cut it up, and while I'm doing that the tree can roll or snap back -- hopefully not on me. My grandfather was killed in a woodcutting accident when a tree bounced back and hit him. He was an experienced woodcutter, as were his father, grandfather, and for countless generations before him. He certainly knew better than to stand in the wrong place. But it's so often that experienced people, who know what they're doing, take chances they shouldn't, and get killed or injured. Every time I approach a tree I'm about to fell, every time I fire up the chainsaw, I think of my grandfather. His name was also Daniel; I was named after him.

Another hazard is presented by the remains of old rusted sheep fencing, lying on the ground, tangled up among the bushes and trees. It's hard to see, easy to trip on, and can easily get wrapped up in the chainsaw. Its presence indicates that this land was once used for sheep grazing. Much of Vermont was, back around 1900. Photos taken back then show that most of the land was logged off, turned into sheep pasture. It seems to have been a different landscape back then. Now the trees are back, having reclaimed most of their former ground, making this once again the Green Mountain State.

On another day we go to Montpelier where we shop, visit the library, and perhaps have coffee at La Brioche. During one such trip Leonard went to a used book sale where he acquired an old patched-up paperback with the covers held on by scotch-tape, the tape itself now brown with age and disintegrating. It was I saw France Fall by René de Chambrun, published in 1940.

"Somebody must have valued this book to tape it together, trying to fix it and keep it," Leonard said, and a couple days later, having read it, he passed it on to me.

It's a first person story, the experiences of a French soldier who'd been stationed in the Maginot Line at the very beginning of World War II. The Maginot Line was a string of impregnable fortresses stretching from Luxembourg to Switzerland, but the Germans simply went around it, crushing the French and British forces in the short space of a few weeks. Then followed the evacuation from Dunkirk -- a chapter of history which touched on Leonard's life because his father had been one of the British soldiers evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940. Leonard himself, then a lad of 16, was a member of the Home Guard. So here was a French soldier's memory of those same events, written that same year, at a time when to many observers it seemed that the Nazis were likely to win.

(To my intense disappointment as I read further and neared the end of the book, I found that after France fell, the author, René de Chambrun, endorses the collaborationist Vichy regime. Maybe that's why he wrote the book -- a propaganda missive to say that a patriotic Frenchman could make peace with the Nazi conquerors. In 1940 that must've been part of the scene.)

The Luftwaffe then began bombing Britain, mostly London. The small town of Banwell in Somerset, where Leonard lived, seemed reasonably safe. "The German's aren't going to bomb us," Leonard remembers the townspeople reassuring each other, "There's nothing here to bomb."

But Banwell was on one occasion bombed; five people were killed. That was on September 4th, 1940. Leonard also remembers watching dogfights in the sky, Spitfires attacking the Heinkel bomber formations overhead.

The next year, in 1941, Leonard joined the Royal Marines, but the day-to-day life of a soldier can be pretty dull and monotonous, even during war. That's how the author of I saw France Fall describes it, and that's also the way Leonard remembers it. There were of course brief moments of sheer terror -- that night of August 17, 1944, when his ship, LCF One, blew up and sank, taking most of its crew to the bottom. Leonard and about 18 others who were on deck at that time survived. The ship's mascot, a dog, was among the survivors.

"Do you remember the dog's name?" I asked him one evening.

"Shrapnel," he replied. "The dog's name was Shrapnel."

He had the name immediately, on the tip of his tongue, like something from the previous week; it seemed to be recent memory for him. In his album he has a group photo of him and his shipmates, crewmembers of LCF One, but he rarely talks about the tragedy. Mostly what he tells about are the non-shooting, non-killing times, of humorous incidents. He remembers the beer famine while he was stationed at Sandwich, which suddenly ended with a huge amount of beer becoming available, but there weren't enough cups or glasses to go around, so he and his shipmates scoured a nearby cemetery for flower vases to drink from.

That was 70 years ago; Leonard is now 89. Not as strong as he once was, but basically in good health. We still work together in the woods, bringing home firewood. I run the chainsaw and he loads the logs onto the truck. He doesn't lift the heavier ones like he used to. I guess he's getting old, but he lives on, still remembering the days when he was a soldier. He often bursts out singing, sometimes a sea shanty, occasionally an old war time song:

We're going to hang our washing on the Siegfried Line.
Have you any dirty washing Mother dear?
We're going to hang our washing on the Siegfried Line,
if the Siegfried Line's still there.
Whether the weather may be wet or dry,
we will rub along without a care.
We're going to hang the washing on the Siegfried Line,
if the Siegfried Line's still there.

"That was a popular song back then," he adds, by way of explanation. We finish our morning coffee and return to our plan for the day. Cutting wood is heavy work, but we don't overdo it. A few hours in the morning, some more in the afternoon, and we spend the rest of the day talking, reading books, watching movies, and doing other things that come up.

Leonard and Randy both read a lot, and there was no shortage of books in the house. They also had the New York Review of Books and a couple of British publications: the TLS (Times Literary Supplement) and the weekly Guardian -- the newspaper in which Glen Greenwald wrote a series of articles based on information from whistleblower Edward Snowden. By this time, Snowden had been granted political asylum in Russia.

In the evenings we watch movies on DVDs. Some of these are the same ones we watch together year after year: Breaker Morant is about an Australian soldier who is scapegoated by the British military hierarchy during the Boer War. The Ken Burns Civil War series is another that we've watched more than once. The movies we choose to watch may tell us something about ourselves, and what we see in them may say a lot about the world we live in. I've probably watched The Godfather a dozen times during the decades since it was made, but this year it acquires a new significance as I think about the extra-judicial killings, carried out by drones, even targeting American citizens. It's become an allegory of our times.

Although Leonard and Randy live out in the country they aren't isolated. There are always people coming and going. Alice, Barbara, Claudia, Jerome and others come by to work with Randy on various art projects. Jerome does theater pieces, and also had a show on WGDR, a community radio station, where he invited me on the air as a guest a few years ago. Once in a while Art Edelstein drops by; he once did a feature story on
Leonard's life and poetry for the Country Courier magazine. With Art's permission, I later reposted it to my website.

A couple years ago Claudia's husband, Paul, brought his muzzle-loading rifle along, and we went out to shoot at tin cans. So I got to fire a muzzle loader, a childhood dream. Although I knew such a firearm would be slow to load, it turned out to be even slower and harder than I'd imagined. After putting the powder and then the bullet and patch into the muzzle, you have to literally pound that load down into the barrel. It doesn't go in gently, not at all. So, having completed the process of loading the barrel and placing a cap under the hammer, I aimed and fired -- and missed. I repeated the laborious ritual, and fired again, but when the smoke had cleared, the target, which was a rather large can, was still untouched. My intention was to see that can smashed by a musket ball. But shot after shot, it just didn't happen. Finally, having missed for about the fifth time, and being faced with the prospect of yet another lengthy loading, I said to Paul, "I think I'm ready to fix bayonets and charge." Paul smiled sympathetically, loaded the rifle, lifted it to his shoulder, and put a musket ball right through the center of the can.

Canoeing was another thing I got to do for the first time in Vermont. On different occasions and with different people I've canoed on several of the lakes around here. I guess I'm a better canoe paddler than I am a musketeer, and it always went well. My dream canoe trip would be to paddle down the Winooski River to Montpelier, and maybe all the way to Lake Champlain; that's how they used to travel in this region before roads were built.

Directly across the road from Randy's place lives Shawn. You can see his house, two or three hundred yards away, set in the midst of a pack of perpetually barking dogs. They bark in the morning and they bark in the evening They also bark at noon and at night. I guess that's what people did for noise before TV was invented.

I've never actually met Shawn. I get my impression of him from a sign he has posted at the edge of his land, along the road where we can see it from Randy's house. It's practically in our faces whenever we go out to pick up the Argus or anything else we go up to the road for. His sign, printed in large capital letters, reads: "Keep Out! No Trespassing!"

Randy and Shawn do on occasion run into each other, face to face. On one such occasion, Shawn started yelling at Randy. Randy just stood there saying nothing, just letting him rant and rave till he ran out of wind. Then she very calmly asked him, "Shawn, what is your problem?" Shawn stood there a moment, silent, taken aback. Finally he said, "I hate foreigners!"

So Randy's a "foreigner." Really? To me she seems about as much a New Englander as anyone could possibly be, but to Shawn she's a foreigner. As strange as that my seem to those of us who live in California (where just about everybody is from somewhere else), here in Vermont, even a person from nearby state such as New Hampshire or Connecticut is a foreigner. Even somebody from 20 miles up or down the river, or from the other side of the mountain, might be considered an outsider. There's some linguistic basis for such insularity. While the New England accent may sound pretty much the same wherever I go, to me at least, Randy tells me that there are subtle differences, even from township to township.

There are many neighbors living up and down Maple Hill Road, unlike Shawn, most of them friendly.. There's Greg, a state archivist, who loans us his gasoline powered wood splitter. Occasionally he writes an historical piece for the Argus. He's a large gentle person with a huge beard; that's Greg. There's Chris who's part of the Plainfield Volunteer Fire Department. And there was Frank, who used to bring his tractor and help with the field work. One time we got the truck bogged down in the woods, totally stuck, and he came and pulled us out; he passed away a couple of years ago; a loss to all of us who knew him. I still have a bale hook he gave me for use in handling logs.

South of here, up above the hayfield, there's a row of trees, and through a gap in those trees you can see the house where Lorita lives. Lorita comes by each evening, helps Randy with the horses, after which they come in the house and sit by the fireplace visiting.

Saturday, October 5th we went to a cider-making party at Carl and Dorigen's place. Dorigen is Randy's daughter, and their farm is up north of here, beyond the headwaters of the Winooski, over in the basin of the Lamoille River. It's way out in the woods on a narrow dirt road, seemingly quite isolated, but well attended. This cider party at Dorigen's place is a yearly event and often draws over a hundred people. Last year's apple crop failed because of an early warming, tricking the buds into premature blossoming, then killing them with a cold spell. Last fall I didn't see a single apple on any of the many trees around here. Freak warm and cold spells like that are due to climate change, and that's what wrecked our cider party last year -- or would've at least, had not Carl gone up to Canada and brought back a truck load of apples. This year was back to normal, actually better than normal with a hugely abundant crop the like of which I hadn't seen before in these parts.

Carl had acquired an additional cider press, an old one from 80 or 90 years ago. The 70 year-old son of the guy who built it was there to show us how to operate it; he told us the gear-mechanism in the press was from an old Model T Ford. Although old, it was an efficient device that cranked out huge quantities of cider -- till finally the ancient gas engine running the masher part of the operation broke down. While some people ran the two cider presses, others made pizza, and did other tasks. And some just talked and ate. I helped run a wheelbarrow hauling the used, squeezed-out cider mash to the pigs and cattle. And I also helped with the talking, and eating and cider drinking.

There looked to be well over a hundred of us this year; some were from distant places. I met a couple from Louisiana, and in previous years I've met people from Massachusetts, North Carolina, Ohio, and also French Canadians from Montreal, one of whom told me that their language preserved archaisms from older French. For example, some people pronounce "moi" like the "oi" in oil, and that's the way Louis XIV probably would've pronounced it if he had said "L'etat c'est moi."

Last week we attended a "Draft Animal-Power" seminar up north of here at Barton. It was about training techniques and communication, which begin and end with treating the horse respectfully. It seemed to me that a lot of that could be applied to human relationships.

I'm not a horse person, but I do like animals, and since horses have been such a major thing in human history, I feel it worth trying to learn something about them. Randy is a horse person; as I said, she has three of them. Nowadays she doesn't do much riding because she has a problem with her leg; her knee had to be operated on several times. She's 80 now, born in 1932. I used to think that 80 was really old, and she does have a long life behind her, but she's still really active, always busy doing something. When she's not tending the horses, chickens, geese and turkeys, she's painting pictures or working on various other crafts, one of them being book binding, and this morning she repaired the book Leonard had passed on to me. Fortunately, it appears to have been printed on acid-free paper, as the pages show no sign of yellowing. It was just that the cover was falling off, and Randy put on a new one, nicely and distinctively hand-crafted.

So much around here in Vermont is hand-crafted, items both small and large. There's the Old West Church which we drove over to see the other day. It's on the other side of the valley, up the Lightening Ridge Road, so named owing to its long steep grade; people used to get out of their wagons and walk in order to make the going easier on the horses, thereby lightening the load, hence the name. Actually, it didn't seem any steeper than the Maple Hill road which climbs up the hill from the village of Plainfield towards Randy's place; wherever you go in Vermont you're either climbing a hill or descending a hill, or following a creek with forest on both sides of you.

Several unpaved roads later, we reached the old church, a large building sitting by itself, out in the country. It dates from 1823 and the seats are arranged differently from the usual rows of church pews. The seats are blocked off into squares, each one belonging to a particular family. That seems to have been the custom here in New England in centuries past; I've seen it in photos and documentaries, but this was my first time to actually open the door, walk in, and physically enter such a setting. The really strange thing is that seats are on all sides of the cubicles, so members of each family would've sat facing each other, some of them with their backs to the preacher.

It no longer functions as a church except for on special occasions. They also have concerts and other cultural events here. Behind the church is a cemetery; in it are buried the people who once occupied the seats in this church. Randy discovered the name of a family she descends from on one of the gravestones -- the Fullers. It seems like just about everybody in New England are distant cousins.

There is something about entering an old cemetery and looking at old gravestones, an indescribable feeling when I read the inscriptions with dates from centuries past. The earliest inscriptions one sees around here are of people who died in the 1820s, which gives a clue to when this area was settled. They are gone from the earth, but many of the buildings they built are still here on farms and in villages.

The village of Plainfield reportedly goes back to 1804 when someone built a store there. That building has not survived, but several houses from the 1820s and 1830s have. The oldest dates from 1815. There are quite a few Victorians from around the turn of the century. They are the newer ones. Imagine a town where even the majority of new buildings are over a century old! So much of the village of Plainfield probably looks much as it did back in the days of the Civil War, except that now they have paved streets and other modern accoutrements. This is typical of towns in Vermont.

One of these buildings, formerly a grange hall, houses a modern food co-op which has been operating in Plainfield since 1962. It's on the bank of the Winooski River. Beside it is another old cemetery; in it are mostly people who lived their lives in the 19th century. An inscription on one grave was placed there in 1871, commemorating a veteran who helped to "suppress the Great Rebellion." Rebellion? What war was that? I wondered. I paused to look at the inscription, noted that this person had been a Union soldier, then realized this was the Civil War they were referring to. I sensed a ring of anger that seemed to live on in those engraved words -- "The Great Rebellion." That was probably the way people around here spoke of the Civil War back then, having lost friends and family members, cut down by Confederate fire. After all, this is New England; these people are Yankees. Nevertheless, in today's New England, you'll find people like Randy, whose family goes way back, even to the Mayflower, and she has ancestors who fought on both sides. She showed me an old family Bible; pasted into it is a letter from a soldier (a great grandfather of Randy) who fought for the Confederacy; in the letter he's writing to the mother of a childhood friend, telling her that her son had died honorably.

The letter is from Charles Fredrick Conrad (Randy's ancestor) to Mrs. W.D. Davis, the mother of his childhood friend, Charlie Davis. It reads in part:

Before you receive this letter, the sad news of the death of your noble boy will have reached you and it but remains for me to give you the particulars . . .

Charlie was with me for an hour or more on Monday evening and joined me at supper before I left on picket, he being temporarily acting as courier for General Rosser and of course stayed up with him. Whilst he was with me he appeared to be in excellent spirits and spoke of his expecting to go to Sunnyside in a few weeks as he had the promise of a furlough and he also talked very happy of our success in releasing the prisoners. . . .

I did not see him in the morning before the fight commenced, but supposed that he was with the General. As soon as the first charge was over, in which we were repulsed, I heard a report and immediately started to search for the sick and to my inexpressible sorrow, I found his lifeless body.

The above letter from Randy's ancestor, Confederate soldier Charles Frederick Conrad, was one I could not forget, could not easily lay to rest. I visited websites and libraries, looking to discover what I could find about that encounter. There was no date on the letter, but the author does give a location in the line quoted below:

"The charge of which I have before spoken occurred about 10 o'clock a.m. on Rude's Hill about [3 ½] miles [north] of New Market, and it was there that your son lost his life."

The soldier also identifies the officer in charge as General Rosser -- that would've been Brigadier General Thomas L. Rosser who is mentioned in many histories and even wrote a memoir. Another Confederate officer, Captain William N. McDonald, wrote a history of the Laurel Brigade, which Rosser led. Private C.F. Conrad was a cavalryman in that brigade; it's recorded that his horse was killed during the Wilderness campaign of May 1864. Later he was assigned to the light horse artillery.

In the course of the Civil War, there were dozens, probably hundreds of encounters, large and small, in the Shenandoah Valley, no less than three at Rude's Hill. The one which fits with the description given in the letter occurred on Tuesday, March 7, 1865, only a month before Lee's surrender at Appomattox.

It happened like this: In February 1865 Union General Phillip Sheridan moved into the Shenandoah Valley with 10,000 troops, and on March 2nd defeated Jubal Early's small force of less than 2,000 men at Waynesboro, capturing most of them. For General Early it was a humiliating disaster. He wrote in his memoirs: "I went to the top of a hill to reconnoiter, and had the mortification of seeing the greater part of my command being carried off as prisoners."

General Rosser was nearby with a small force of perhaps 300 cavalry. Some accounts indicate that he had as few as 50. In his memoirs Rosser expresses his reaction to the news of the disaster: "There was nothing for me to do but to try and recapture these prisoners and I, therefore, followed along and watched my opportunity. I attacked the guard near Harrisonburg on the night of [March] 4th and enabled a few prisoners to escape." That would be the event C.F. Conrad refers to in his letter where he relates that his friend Charlie Davis had "talked very happy of our success in releasing the prisoners."

That minor success encouraged them to try again on March 7. Here's a short diary entry from that day by Confederate Lieutenant George H. Murphy:

"In the morning Rosser order[ed a] charge. The enemy occupying Rude's Hill. Drove the enemy from there but were driven back. Two hours afterwards charged in Meem's Bottom. Again driven back. The enemy made their escape, crossing at Neff's Ford, from which point Rosser turned back and went to Harrisonburg."

That's where Charlie Davis was killed. Captain McDonald's History of the Laurel Brigade indicates that Rosser had a well thought-out plan to free all of the prisoners, over a thousand of them, but it just didn't work out. As another author later put it, the prisoners "did not want to escape. They had had enough."

I can well imagine how the Confederate prisoners must've felt about a war that was clearly about to be lost, that by struggling to free themselves and fighting on they'd perhaps just be prolonging the war, the killing and the destruction. But I can also feel the horrible disappointment that must've been felt by Rosser's men who were risking their lives, losing a companion in the attempt.

Recalling it in his memoir some two decades later, Rosser seems to be doing his best to put a good face on it. He wrote, "On the morning of the 7th, I collected all the force I could and attacked him as he was crossing the river and caused him to abandon his artillery." In reality, the capture of an artillery piece would've been relatively insignificant at that stage of the war.

Had they succeeded in freeing the thousand or more prisoners, it would've been a legendary exploit, but the big picture would not have changed. The Confederacy was falling to pieces all around and the war was already lost. While I very much disapprove of the Confederate cause, I'm left feeling a deep sense of admiration for Randy's ancestor and his companions who fought courageously to the very end. His childhood friend, Charlie Davis, was among the last to die in that war. It made me sad to read that letter, or even think of it, and it leaves me wanting to say, "I'm sorry to hear of your loss." But who would I say it to? The people who knew and loved Charlie Davis are long since all gone from this earth. That was 150 years ago. It's hard to imagine that it can be that far back; when I was a little kid there were a handful of Civil War veterans still alive.

C.F. Conrad was from Winchester, Virginia, a town in the Shenandoah Valley which reportedly changed hands 72 times in the course of the war. His friend Charlie B. Davis was from the nearby village of Newtown. C.F. Conrad survived the war and lived to become Randy's great grandfather. Randy also had ancestors who fought in the Union army. As I said, some of her folks were Southerners and others were Yankees. She herself was born in Connecticut and speaks with a charming New England accent.

Living out on the West Coast, the Civil War often seems like a distant event. Even though we might talk about it a lot, it still feels like something that happened far away, but here in New England, it's part of the local history. Many people here descend from soldiers who took part in it and in other wars and historical events as well. Many historical sites are in this general area. St. Albans, a town up north of Burlington, was raided by Confederates.

You've probably heard of the old fort at Ticonderoga, where the Colonial army managed to grab a large number of cannon during the War for Independence. That's about a two hour drive from here, over on the New York side of Lake Champlain. We visited it some years ago; more often we go to another historical site to the north of there -- Fort St. Frédéric at Chimney Point. It's much smaller, built by the French about 1734. They blew it up when they left, following a defeat in the French and Indian War; today only the foundations are left, but that's enough to see the layout, from which I could see how fortresses of that era were designed, with fields of interlocking fire. On the hill in back of it is a much larger fort, also of stone, built later by the British. There we could see the remains of the barracks, giving us some idea of what soldiers lives were like in those days.

This year we went to Isle La Motte, at the north end of Lake Champlain. That's where the French explorer Samuel de Champlain landed in 1609. Hardly anything is left of the buildings he constructed, but this small island (about 5 miles long) is best known for its ancient fossil reef almost half a billion years old. It's the world's oldest rock formation in which coral fossils have been found. Despite this distinction, it's the absolutely worst marked site imaginable; we drove all over the island looking for it, till by accident we saw an almost hidden sign indicating a road to an old quarry where the limestone rock had been extracted for use in building materials. There are several old houses on the island built of that limestone. I must admit that I didn't find many of the fossils that this rock formation is known for.

Unlike the Plainfield area where Leonard and Randy live, Isle La Motte is flat. That's what one might expect of a former lake bottom, which it was in its more recent geological past, but it's so different from most of Vermont, which is intensely mountainous -- the Vermont I've come to know.

In Vermont you're either in a valley or on hill, usually surrounded by dense forests. Except for the main highways, most roads are not paved. The one in front of Randy's house isn't either. It's a mostly rural state, with a population about equal to that of the city of San Francisco; such a widely dispersed population is not enough to support a system of paved roads. Nevertheless, Vermont is politically a relatively progressive state, the only one with a senator who's a socialist, a member of neither of the two parties. At the same time, tradition lives on and the past feels a lot closer.

I suppose no report from New England would be properly complete without a ghost story. On my last night in Vermont, I was sitting up late, working on this essay, when the light in the room suddenly got much brighter. Strange, I thought, and glancing around the room I saw that in addition to the overhead light which had been on all along, a wall lamp was also now lit. How did that happen, I wondered, and stepped over to inspect it. The bulb didn't seem to be loose in the socket. There was really no clear explanation as to why the light had suddenly turned itself on. I'm not sure I believe in ghosts, but I jumped into bed, pulled the covers over my head, not daring to move a muscle. I guess finally I fell asleep, because when I woke up and opened my eyes, it was morning, sunlight coming in through the window.

Downstairs over breakfast I told Randy about it. "That room is haunted," she told me. "There's a ghost. They do things like that. They turn lights on when they feel like it." She told me that I wasn't the only one who'd experienced it. "You might talk with Kitty," she said, mentioning a mutual friend who'd stayed here.

I borrowed a computer with an online hookup and wrote Kitty an email. Here's her reply:

It was just Randy and me. Len was still back in San Francisco, I guess. I was staying in the downstairs bedroom, and I was woken up by a recurring sound from upstairs, a strange series of small noises that repeated intermittently, tapping on that floor. I am not someone inclined to believe in ghosts, but these sounds were ones that inspired no explanation I could conjure up -- not wind nor branches hitting the house nor mice skittering nor boards creaking nor any other source I could imagine. I went around through the bathroom to the doorway of Randy's room and woke her up with a timid, "Raan-deee?"

She got right up and took my concern very seriously, having heard from others that there might be some haunting going on in the house . . . and just being Randy. She got out her crystal pendulum and asked a series of yes or no questions. Circling clockwise meant yes. Counterclockwise, which is called widdershins, meant no. Swinging back and forth ,or just hanging here, doing nothing, meant" I don't know or uncertainly. Through this process, it was determined that this was a child, a girl, about seven years old. She wanted nothing from us, needed nothing from us, had no interest in us whatsoever. Some of the sound we were hearing was her playing . . . playing jacks. I wanted to wish her peace and ease, and I stood, raising my hands in a big V toward the ceiling. I was wearing a pair of striped pajamas, and Randy laughed, "You look like a prisoner from the gulag."

Take good care,

According to Randy, unsettled spirits reside in a good many Vermont houses. So when people move into a new home, it's sometimes necessary to have it dowsed. Belief in unseen forces is a given.

Leonard dismisses the notion. He doesn't believe in ghosts. I guess the concept of sharing a room with one doesn't bother him. Maybe it shouldn't've scared me either, but I must admit that it did. When I share my room, I prefer that my roommates be living people. Nevertheless, for all the ghost stories I've read, I've never heard of a ghost actually harming anyone. Maybe I should think of her as a friendly ghost, finally choosing to let her presence be known to me and signaling a goodbye to me at the end of my visit.

Daniel Borgström

October 2013
updated October 23, 2014

Vermont travel and description

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