After my dad passed away, two of his friends clearly felt an obligation to keep an eye on me and my various endeavors.
“Uncle” John had been an engineer with my father at Hamilton Standard, and a lifelong friend. He made a point of stopping by to monitor Anne’s and my home building progress - which admittedly took forever. We only worked on our house nights, weekends, and in between other building projects, so progress was indeed pretty slow. Not infrequently we’d find notes stuck to the front door – or where the front door would have been if we’d taken the time to install it. Notes with good natured observations like;
“If you hadn’t put the hammock up first - your house would probably be done by now – love John.”
Howard, who had worked as a forester and used to help my dad with various land trust projects, whole heartedly disagreed. He left us notes like;
“Such a comfortable hammock, and it’s hung in just the right spot! Keep up the good work. HC”
Howard went to Connecticut Agricultural School (now UConn) in the1920s and was not as interested in our building progress, or lack thereof, as he was with our farming. He took a vested interest in all our animals and fell hopelessly in love with our maple sugaring operation. Between lambing and sugaring, he pretty much moved in with us for two months every spring.
He loved to help when we tapped our trees, even though we had different theories about the best placement of each tap on every tree. He preferred to place the taps over the biggest roots, assuming that the sap flowed from low to high. I liked to tap on the sunniest side of the tree figuring the sap flowed better where it was warmest. His theory was based on 1920’s Ag school science, and mine was based on anecdotal intuition. We were both partially right and partly wrong. The sap flows up and down throughout the tree, and what is warmest in the morning might be shaded by afternoon.
I would use my cordless drill, which was exactly like the dozen other cordless drills I’d owned over the years. Suitably utilitarian, but in the end just as disposable as the 5-gallon plastic bucket I carried it around in. Howard used his “bit brace hand drill” which he stored in a cloth lined leather case. It was the same brace he’d owned for 70 years. It had clearly been put to good use, but it aged well and was still in perfect condition.
He asked me once if he could try my drill, so we swapped tools for the afternoon. He liked the speed and ease of using the cordless drill but not nearly as much as I liked his brace. The bit was so sharp I could actually feel it as it grabbed and sliced into the wood. I could even feel the difference in the density of the wood as the bit noiselessly made its way through the punky bark, past the hard layer of cambium and into the sap wood.
We’d boil all day and into the night until eventually I’d call it quits. Howard would insist on staying up all night to “keep the boil going”. I tried to convince him it wasn’t necessary, and privately I worried that keeping a 90-year-old working all night was surely some form of elder abuse. When I mentioned as much to his daughter, she said I’d probably need a restraining order to keep him away, and it would break his heart if I tried.
So, I’d leave him there in charge of the fire but before going to bed I’d look out the window and I could see from the lack of smoke coming from the evaporator chimney, that he was already sound asleep. I’d go back down to the sugar house and try and get him to go home or at least come “take a nap” on our couch. He’d insist he had barely dozed off and was good for the night.
If I’d known back then what I’ve come to appreciate now, I would have started each sugaring season by putting the hammock up just inside the sugar house door.