Friday, July 10, 2015

Frogs, Gnomes, Hikers and Bottle Miners by Patricia Crandall

Nina visits Gert on her first day of retirement to take her bottle mining, but two mischievous boys interrupt their plans; by Patricia Crandall.

A light breeze floated through the green-shuttered windows of a white gingerbread house on Elm Street in Indian Falls, New York. In a reflective mood, Gert Carver surveyed the gifts that had been bestowed upon her at a retirement party which the teachers and staff of Cobble Hill School had given her. Among the gifts were kaleidoscopic artwork by the children, trendy luggage presented by those who had graduated and precious mementos from fellow teachers.

Unmarried and never having met 'Mr. Right', Gert acknowledged that a thirty-five year career as an elementary school teacher had not been a glamorous occupation, but she never regretted the many years spent with the children. Certainly, heartbreak had gone hand in hand with joy... from a suicide of a seventh-grade student to the Cinderella marriage of a graduate. She had spent time and wisdom well. Teaching had been the most satisfying part of her life as she loved all the children.

One student in particular stood out in her mind as she read his gift card exuding thanks, love and prayers; Geoffrey VanJones, a gangling rascal she taught at Cobble Hill School. Geoff had been a difficult child, but by using her instincts and an ear-twist when needed, she had managed to guide him well.

Gert sat in her comfortable rocking chair and thought favorably about how she had managed to help Geoff overcome his problems. Now, he was President of the Milbourne National Bank and Trust Company in Troy, New York.

Gert's thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the kitchen door. As she arose, she welcomed a wave of fresh air rushing in when she opened it. Standing on the porch landing was Nina Westacott, a pudgy, white-haired figure with a yellow cardigan draped over her rounded shoulders. Her face was aglow when she saw Gert. They had been friends for many years.

"Since when do you ring the doorbell, Nina?" Gert asked.

"Why, I thought today would be different."

"It's no different than any other day."

Nina hugged her best friend then stared at her in disbelief.

"Gert, how could you say just like any other day. This is your first day of retirement, your first day not looking after the children, giving them their homework assignments and what-not. Miss Carver, are you feeling well?"

"I'm fine," Gert said peevishly. Her eyes shifted down to a golden-crusted pie nestled in a quilted 'cozy' on the wide, porch railing.

"Nina, did you bring me a pie?"

"Yes dear, I baked you an apple pie."

"I'll make a pot of tea. Come in and sit down."

In the kitchen, with the kettle boiling, Gert turned to Nina and said, "My good friend, now that we're both retired, we can finally live out our dreams. So I started making plans."

"Plans? What kind of plans?" Nina asked. Her curiosity was piqued.

"What have we been putting off all these years because I had school to attend to, you had four children to raise and Harry to fuss over?"

"For the life of me, Gert, I don't know what you're hinting at."

Gert announced, "We're going to mine old bottles!"



Next morning, after breakfast, the two women sat in close consultation in the French blue parlor of Nina's meticulous Queen Anne house, two doors down from Gert's.

On the fruitwood table, where an antique lace cover had been carefully folded and set aside, a number of maps and diagrams were piled. Two had been placed to one side. "Which dump shall it be? Hoosick Falls or Babcock Lake?" asked Nina.

Gert contemplated the maps, deciding, "Babcock Lake! The woods surrounding the lake are filled with old cellar-holes and rubbish heaps. There should be a treasure of old bottles in the old tavern dump."

"I believe you're right," agreed Nina, collecting all but one map, stacking the rest neatly in a cardboard box. "We'll need shovels, picks, scrapers, pitchforks, and garden gloves. I'll pack a picnic lunch."

At precisely 8:45 on Saturday morning, Gert and Nina passed through the business section of Indian Falls, consisting of Porter's Food and Drug Center, Harmon's Farm Equipment Store, Falls Liquor Store, Carlys Beauty Salon and The Village Video. They drove around Tomhannock Creek to Highway 7, continuing up a steep mountain road, turning left on a dirt road that ribboned around Babcock Lake.

It was their good fortune to come upon a seasoned woodsman with a cane taking an early stroll. Inside Gert's maroon and gray Outback, the two ladies peered anxiously as the old-timer squinted at the hand-drawn representation of the woods and said, "Take this 'ere road 'bout a half mile in," he pointed to a jagged line on the map. "It will lead ya straight to the ol' dump."

"Thank you," Gert said, retrieving the map, and as she drove the Outback down the road, and glanced in the rearview mirror, she saw the old man looking hungrily at a loaf of Italian bread he had snitched from the picnic basket in the back seat of the car.



Tramping the old wagon trail where Indian pipes, mossy boulders and bulbous polyps were plentiful, came two boys. Eleven year old Lance was actively describing to his nine year old brother, Douglas, that the trail they were taking would lead them through one of the loneliest and wildest regions of the Grafton Mountains.

Douglas dropped his hands to his belt, reassured to feel the attached flashlight and grateful his backpack contained flint, a map, compass and a whistle. No longer did he think his mother was over-reacting when she said one could get lost easily in the woods.

"Why don't we wait for Dad? He said we're to stay here and play while he fills water jugs at the stream. I'm glad I don't have to fill those jugs." He gave a sigh of relief.

"I know Dad told us to stay put," Lance said. "But I'm figuring things out for myself." He glanced at his compass watch. "He'll be back 'bout 3:30. That means we have a half hour to kill. Let's go into the woods a little ways, do some exploring, and then turn back."

In an attempt to keep pace with his long-legged brother, Douglas nearly tripped while looking upwards through the Christmas pines. Dark clouds stretched over the fading sun.

"Mebbe we should keep to the edge of the woods," he whipped his head around, doubtful the darkening forest was safe. "I like to hear cars driving by. I want to be able to call out to people if I fall and hurt myself."

"Aw, Douglas!" Lance said irritably. "You're a sissy!" He jumped into the air, brushing a low branch with the tips of his fingers. "It's more fun nosing around than standing still, tossing acorns at squirrels." He paused. "I hiked here last summer with Dad. There's no 'dare' to this trail."

"How come I wasn't on that hike?" Douglas piped up. "I don't remember walking through these woods."

"You stayed home with Mom. You had an earache and had to take medicine. Remember?"

Douglas recalled the painful incident and remained sullen.

Lance went on, "Soon we'll be passing the old tavern dump and come out by Looney's Pond. We'll head back then, I promise." He glanced sideways at his brother. "There are bob cats and foxes in these woods and BIG BLACK BEARS!"

Douglas looked ghastly.

WHOOOOOO!

"What's that?" Douglas clutched Lance's arm.

"An owl! C'mon poke. We'll never get to the pond if you don't move faster."



The tavern dump was spread out in a mile-and-a-half radius. A foreboding black cloud passed low over the woodland where mottled sun played on an island of ferns. In the next moment, a shaft of brightness lit up the woods in a fiery spectacle.

Gert and Nina, dressed in old clothes and loaded with digging gear, trekked across the mossy carpeted floor and stepped cautiously through rubble. They each claimed a spot and soon were unearthing Lady's Leg whiskey bottles, amber Punkin-seed flasks, medicine bottles bearing local legends, Torpedo sodas, and unbroken, blue willow china. As valuables accumulated, they spread them out on wild-growing grass at the edge of the road. They moved further into the dump and wind-stirred leaves muttered rumors of rain.

"It looks stormy," Nina observed. "It might be wise to pack up and come back another time."

"There was no rain in the forecast this morning," Gert said optimistically. "It's a cloud-cover."

In the distance, an excited voice rang out, "Look at those bottles, neat-O!"

There was a ping followed by the sound of breaking glass.

Gert and Nina hurtled through gnarled scrub and piles of litter, flailing pitchforks in the air.

"If you break one more bottle, you're dead!" Gert cried out in an angry voice. Two young boys were plinking stones at the colorful glass.

Douglas flung down a stone, unintentionally smashing a ruby-colored bottle. He spun around and raced down the road. Lance zoomed at his heels.

A safe distance away, the boys huddled together and peered at two old crones with purple faces moaning and caterwauling as if they had just lost a pet dog.

A clap of thunder boomed and lightning bolted mutinously. A torrential downpour erupted having no mercy on frogs, gnomes, hikers, or bottle miners.



With the storm raging about them, Gert and Nina blessed themselves, pulled green plastic garbage bags over their clothes, grabbed a bag of salvaged treasures, and hurried toward the car.

Gert hesitated mid-way and called out, "I fear for those young boys in this storm, Nina. I'm going back to find them and bring them to the shelter of the car. You'll have to cart our belongings. If you can't manage, we'll come back for them later."

Nina took the miscellany out of Gert's hands and braced herself against the strong wind. She sloshed down the muddy path to the car and unlocked the door. She turned on the ignition, and pressed the dial for heat, settling back into the seat, and prayerfully waited.

Soon, three ghostly shapes emerged from the woodland. The car door swung violently open and Gert said through chattering teeth, "Oh, that heat feels good."

Nina tossed Gert a blanket. Gert mopped excess water off two dripping boys and pushed them onto the back seat of the car, shouting orders above the din of the storm, they were not to worry about decency. "Remove your wet clothes and wrap-up in a blanket. You'll have to share the one on the back seat."

Gert ripped off the garbage bag covering her clothes, slid onto the seat beside Nina, and blanket-dried her hair and neck. Gratefully, she accepted a cup of hot tea out of a thermos from her friend.

"Where did you find the boys?" Nina put the car in gear.

"They were trying to find a refuge from the storm near the remains of the old tavern. When I arrived, they were glad to see me, weren't you, boys?" She twisted her head around to look at the youngsters, shivering and bundled together in a blanket, their wet clothes lying in a heap on the floor.

"Yessir!" Lance croaked, "and we're sorry we broke your bottles." He nudged his brother.

"Uh-huh," Douglas muttered , relishing his new-found warmth and safety from the storm.

"Apologies accepted," said Gert. "Now, let's see if we can find your father. He must be out of his mind with worry."

Gert directed Nina to drive slowly down the road in search of a sports vehicle parked on the right near the entrance to the old saw-mill. The boys had briefed her about their excursion with their dad when she had rescued them.

When they drew up alongside the empty vehicle, Nina looked quizzically at Gert. "Isn't that the VanJones car?" Then, riveting her eyes back to the road, she said, "You don't mean..."

Gert nodded her head up and down and said, "Meet Lance and Douglas VanJones. Geoff is their father!"

"And I've been trying to place where I've seen these two boys," Nina clicked her tongue. "I knew they looked familiar to me." She eyed the boys through the rear-view mirror. "It's been a while since I've seen the two of you with your mom and dad." She grimaced at the heavy rain hammering down. Geoff was nowhere in sight. "I'll sound the horn," she said.

After tooting the horn several times with no results, Lance piped up, "Dad has a cell phone. If we go home straight away, Mom'll call him and he'll get back to her."

Gert tapped Nina's shoulder. "To the VanJones house! You are a bright boy, Lance. Just like your dad!"



A tall, slender man with flame-red hair, wearing a rain-drenched athletic suit and tar-stained sneakers, raced to the entrance of the VanJones residence in an affluent cul-de-sac in Indian Falls. Color was slowly returning to his strained face when the front door opened and he was hugged by his two sons and wife.

"The storm came on fast," Geoff VanJones explained in a taut voice. "I assumed the boys went to the car at the first strike of thunder and lightning, and when I got there and they were nowhere in sight, it felt as though a knife went through my chest." He gestured with a fist. "You'll never know the thoughts running through my mind as I went back into the woods with the storm raging, and searched for these youngsters. What a relief when I got the call they were safe and at home." He kneaded each bony shoulder and added humbly, "Thanks be to God and to Gert and Nina." He released his family and went over to the two friends dwarfed in his wife's size twelve clothes. "How do you figure?" He half-smiled. "After all these years, Miss Carver, you're still getting me out of a jam."

Carole walked over to her husband and gave him a gentle shove upstairs. "Go change out of your wet things. We have lunch set out on the kitchen table."

"Pronto, Dad!" Douglas pleaded. "We're starved! There's tuna and macaroni salad, baked beans and cold corn on the cob; there's a thick chocolate cake for dessert." He licked his lips.

"Where did all this food come from?" Geoff laughed. "I know your mom didn't just whip this lunch up."

"It's one of Nina's famous picnic lunches," Gert piped up.

"She and Miss Carver are going to share it with us and Mom's added ham and cheese sandwiches, pickles and chips," Douglas said excitedly. "Go on. Hurry!"

After reveling in the picnic lunch, the boys raced each other from the dining room to the game room. The adults retired to the living room with its cathedral ceilings and a commanding view of a tree-lined pond. They gathered around the gas fireplace with hot tea and coffee. Gert and Nina shared their bottle mining adventure, culminating with their confrontation with the boys.

"Those devils," Geoff apologized while Carole looked embarrassed at the tomfoolery of her sons. Then Geoff cleared his throat and said in a serious voice. "I've been meaning to contact you, Gert, to discuss a concern of ours." He nodded at Carole then looked steadily into the surprised eyes of his former teacher.

"We're taking Lance and Douglas out of the Hilton School in New Hampshire and enrolling them in Cobble Hill School."

Gert set her teacup down on the round coffee table. "I recall you were adamant your sons should be educated in the private Hilton School and not in a common school like Cobble Hill. What has brought about this change of mind, Geoff?"

"Things haven't worked out," he admitted wretchedly. "There are a lot of issues at the Hilton School that aren't being addressed... bullying, lack of supervision in the dorms, the boys have low grades and no self-esteem... We've complained to the Principal, the Board of Education and their teachers." He frowned. "There's a concerned group of parents attempting to remedy the situation but it won't happen any time soon." He nodded at Carol.

"Cobble Hill School is where they belong," Gert said in an even voice. "One of the reasons I've retired early is because I'm at odds with education as it is being taught today. Some changes are for the good, but I'm a firm believer in the basics and repetitive teaching of reading, writing and 'rithmetic. Still in all, Cobble Hill School is first rate when you compare it to other schools." She was contemplative a moment. "I'd like to help the boys adjust to their new schedule. Would you agree to that?"

Geoff beamed at Carole. "And we didn't even have to ask."

Carole looked relieved at first, then narrowed her eyes, "What about your retirement, Gert?"

"My sentiments, exactly," Nina exclaimed in a melodic, high voice.

Everyone turned to look at the contented woman rocking near the window in an upholstered glider.

"Sounds like you have a problem with my tutoring offer, Nina." Gert chuckled. "Speak or hold you peace."

"I'm in favor of this undertaking as long as tutoring doesn't interfere with bottle mining." She clasped her hands together, resting her case.

Geoff made a toast. "To the remarkable Miss Carver. May tutoring and bottle mining go together."

"Hear, hear!" Four Spode teacups were raised in the air.

4 comments:

  1. Lovely, gentle story with excellent characterisations and scene setting - a reassuring but funny depiction quirky human behaviour. I loved it. Many thanks,
    Ceinwen

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    1. Thank you Ceinwen for your encouraging comments. It pleases me when someone enjoys one of my stories.
      Patricia Crandall

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  2. Gingerbread houses, cathedral-like ceilings, bulbous polyps, baguette-snitching seasoned woodsmen, rain-vulnerable gnomes, ruby-colored antique bottles, upholstered gliders, and maroon and grey outbacks; this story has a delightful air of magic realism about it. The parallel narratives fascinate, and intertwine just at the right moment. For me the heroes were the enchanted landscape which is there if only we can see it, the value of a liberating education, and those who so lovingly administer it!

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    1. Your comment on Frogs, Gnomes...is an enchanted story in itself. I sent it out as a review for my story. Thank you.
      Patricia Crandall

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