Sunday, November 29, 2009

Fern Forest Fall

I'm ever amazed when couples book the treehouse knowing the temps will dip into the twenties. While I was in Louisville at Spalding's MFA in Writing residency, H hosted Mike and Ivania. Mike is from Minnesota and Ivania is San Salvadorian, and they met in Korea, where they taught English. They had just landed stateside and were looking for a bit of adventure before figuring out the next path to take. They arrived around dinner time on Thursday, which meant H had to miss hockey night with the guys. Mike felt so bad that he and Ivania took him out to dinner at the Bobcat. They slept soundly in the treehouse and in the morning Ivania padded up the forest trail in slippers and pajamas, her sleeping mask dangling around her neck. She helped H serve the continental breakfast, and afterward they cleaned up the dishes together.

The second night was colder, and the couple hung out in the guest room until the wee hours before heading out to the treehouse with flashlights. H said they were very sweet. It was his first time hosting solo, and John wrote that he and Ivania "had a fantastic time in the treehouse" and really enjoyed H's company. "We managed not only to climb a nearby mountain on a beautiful November afternoon but also visited three of H's personal favorite restaurants in nearby Bristol. Great conversation, hospitality, breakfast." H says Ivania was so impressed by breakfast that she took a picture of it. They left Lincoln for New York City and then planned to go on to see Mike's family in Minnesota, but I have a feeling the Fern Forest Treehouse will hold a special corner of their hearts.

John and Amber are two of the bravest people we've ever met. They drove up from New York,
where John coaches cross country at St. John's and Amber is a casting assistant at Princeton's McCarter Theatre, and arrived in the thick of a fierce nor'easter. After dinner at the Bobcat, they settled into the creaking and rocking treehouse with moaning wind and pounding rain. John kept thinking about H's promise that the treehouse was secure, and Amber slept through the torrent. In the morning they drank an entire carafe of coffee and huddled by the wood stove.

The following day they visited Burlington and had dinner in Warren at FlatBread, where Amber's father is friends with the owners. They returned with two growlers of Magic Hat, which we helped them finish off, and topped off the evening with leftover pumpkin pie and great conversation about best and worst movies we've seen. Luckily the next night was quiet and they were rested enough for a jaunt up Mt. Abe before they climbed into the car for the trip back to NYC. I have a feeling we'll see these two adorable people least I hope so.

Someone just wrote to ask if she and her boyfriend can rent the treehouse for four months. Four months? Straight? I'm exhausted just thinking about it. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to go do a load of sheets and towels.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Fern Forest Romance

A few love birds have nested in the Fern Forest Treehouse, beginning with Karrie and Isaac, who came up from Mystic CT to celebrate their third wedding anniversary. Karrie is a vegan, and in the morning we had a basket ready, decorated with anniversary ribbons and filled with vegan scones, vegan yogurt and fresh fruit. They took the basket back to the treehouse and had a picnic on the deck while they watched the sun rise over Mt. Abe.

Newlyweds Ryan and English wife Jacqueline spent a night of their honeymoon with us and left us with wedding favors of British tea, which was delicious. H tried really hard to get the eggs soft-boiled just right for Jacqueline so that she could dip toast "soldiers" in the runny yolk, but, alas, his culinary skills where soft-boiling is concerned are in the embryonic stages. But he's practicing for Jacqueline's next visit. We didn't have egg cups, either, but Jacqueline taught us to perch the eggs in shotglasses, which we do have. Need you ask why?

Justin and Kristin are two of the sweetest and most creative people we've met and the only guests to make a return visit. On their first trip, they drove straight from Buffalo towing their motorcycle on a trailer. They landed, unpacked, and unloaded the bike for an hour-long ride to Burlington. When they got back to the treehouse, they crashed in the loft and slept twelve straight hours. After breakfast, they left us with homemade jars of grapefruit marmalade, strawberry jam and dill pickles with cukes from their garden. We were thrilled to see them again this fall, and Kristin gifted us with her homemade granola (which was delicious and we gobbled up in two days). Justin is a graphic artist and Kristin a web designer. Check out Kristin's original, one-of-a-kind baby booties. Kristin, comment with the link to your site, svp!

Steve works for the Clinton Foundation and brought his new wife Jessica up from Boston for a night at Fern Forest Treehouse. Oh, and Sparky and Brutus came, too...our first treehouse canines. Jessica is finishing up her practicum to become an elementary school teacher. Usually I google guests to make sure they're not serial killers and found most of the posts for Steve showed him as a professional wrestler. Now, I have nothing against pro wrestling, and Steve's muscular enough to pass for one, but I was relieved to find that he's an accountant doing the good nonprofit work to help rid the planet of AIDS and stop global warming. Still, I guess a side gig in the ring now and then wouldn't be a bad thing.

If you're interested in trying a night at Fern Forest Treehouse, visit and look for us in Vermont.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Fern Forest Treehouse

Thought you'd like to meet a few of the folks who've visited Lincoln, Vermont, to stay in H's treehouse. It took three summers to build the treehouse with son Will:
They picked a grove of tall maples and started with the platform. As you can see from the picture, there's a ramp to the building, but the property falls off so that the treehouse is 30 feet in the air. The sleeping loft is another nine feet over the living space. Thank goodness Will used a harness to hammer the metal roof on. The treehouse is insulated and has heat and electricity so that it's cozy even when the temp dips below freezing. And because it's in the trees, it stays cool in the summer.

Our first guests came in June '09 from Germany. Frank is a doctoral student in comparative literature and his girlfriend Friederike studied in the states and works for an American company in Stuttgart. They speak impeccable English and Frank's 6'5" frame fit nicely in the treehouse loft. Sorry not to get a picture of them. They took a pic with their camera and I'll try to get a copy.

We were a little worried about six-year-old Cai, who came with her parents Ron and Bobbie, but Cai loved the treehouse and didn't at all mind being so high up. She ate Cheerios for breakfast and afterward we built fairy houses out of limbs and branches we found. Ron teaches music at Wesleyan and Bobbie is restoring an old wooden boat. They were a sweet family, and it took me days to get over their leaving.

Melissa emailed at midnight on a Friday asking to come the next herself. We accepted and are glad we did. She works long hours for Paul Farmer's international health organization in Boston and was looking for a brief escape. She found it at the treehouse and hung out on Saturday reading and taking in the fresh Vermont air. What a brave soul to stay alone out there with the critters. The picture is of Melissa with Meryl Streep, who came to Boston for a fundraiser, Ophelia, the director, Dr. Paul and his wife DeDe.

My friend Amanda came up from the Jersey shore in October to spend a few days and give me some yoga pointers. When H and I had to go into town, and she spent her final night alone in the treehouse. In the middle of the night she hiked back to the main house sans flashlight to use the bathroom. Brave women like Amanda give me courage.

Claire and John came all the way from Perth, Australia, to see some good American blues. John plays mandolin in a blues band in Perth and brought a DVD of one of his gigs to share with us. I had book group the night they came, so H went to the Bobcat Cafe with them for a bite of dinner. They shared outrageous outback adventures like catching gowandas barehanded. After they left, they sent a text message from New Orleans, where they were sipping cafe au lait at an outdoor cafe. Wish I'd been there.

Stephanie and Jeff are philosophy profs at Stonehill College in Boston. The temp got down to 22 degrees that night, so they watched a movie on their laptop in the guest room before heading out to the treehouse to sleep. Stephanie said it got so warm during the night that she turned off the heater. After breakfast they went out to climb Mt. Abe on a sunny crisp November day.

Robin and Hazel were visiting from London. They took a tour of Burlington and then came back to hang out with us for a few riotous games of tiddlywinks and several bottles of the local brew. Hazel works for a mobile phone app company during the day and plays in an all girl rock band at night. Robin designs games for Facebook. Cool.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Jibe ~ a short short story

“Get Clay up and let’s go for a sail,” George says.

"There’s too much wind,” I tell my husband.

"It's perfect." He blinks at the sky. George tries to be the good stepfather, including Clay when he cares to be included.

Clay’s room is fragrant with the same nutmeg scent from when he was a baby, only stronger and sweetened with alcohol. He was out with friends last night, celebrating his last days before he leaves for college. Already I’m missing him. I perch on the edge of his bed and invite him to sail. He groans, rolls over, opens one eye, mumbles, “Sure,” as if he’d rather sail than sleep. I know he knows how important it is for me to spend time with him.

I tell him to meet us at the boat ramp and he grunts agreement.

At the dock, I watch the water froth with whitecaps.

“She has a bone in her teeth,” I say, a phrase I learned in a sailing course I took in Maine last summer.

“What does that mean?” George says.

“It means the wind’s really strong.” Our Widgeon is a two-person day sailer we trailer down to Lake Champlain, too small for such wind, but I help George set up the mast and rig the mainsail and jib.

“I’ll follow in the motorboat,” George says.

By the time we’ve got the boat in the water, Clay is there, hair all out of whack, sleep wedged in the corners of his eyes.

I take the tiller, even though Clay probably understands the wind better than I do from summer camps when he sailed a Sunfish on a small lake and he and his buddy would capsize and right just for the fun of getting wet. When I try to shove off, the line catches on the cleat and gets fouled. George untangles us and we’re off.

Sailing out of the harbor is a nice run until we get clear of the party boat at the end of the pier and I feel the gust from the north pushing the boat south. I prefer to go north, where there’s a beach, but we have no room to tack inside the breakwater. Clay hoists the jib and we allow the wind to take us.

Outside the breakwater, the waves are rolling high, and one washes over the side onto our backs.

“I’m wet,” Clay complains.

“Sun’s hot,” I tell him. I want to dry him off, as I’ve always tried to make things better for him, but I can’t take my hand off the tiller.

I can see the Adirondacks across the lake and think of the still afternoon we took the motorboat to New York for lunch at a dockside restaurant, and on the trip home Clay skied behind the boat while I kept an eye on him. I glance at him now, pale fluff on his jaw, his father's brown hair curling over his ears. He wears a hemp necklace some girl braided for him. Soon I’ll get glimpses of him on vacations, then he’ll be living somewhere else and I’ll have to think hard to remember even what he looks like.

The wind wrenches the mainsail, and I pull the sheet for all I’m worth. Clay leans toward starboard and I let out sail, but we’re slicing through two-foot billows.

Suddenly the bluster shifts, and our nose is into the wind. The sail luffs. We need to come about, but we don’t have enough steam. George is yelling at us to hug the shore—we’re too far out for these waves.

“We’ll have to jibe,” I tell Clay, knowing we might capsize, which would be more embarrassment than catastrophe.

“Whatever,” he says. He has faith in me, more faith than his father had. His father was no sailor—except when he hoisted the main and sailed out of our lives.

I tell Clay to watch out for the boom because it’s going to swing hard, and it does. Somehow we’re still upright and heading toward the shore, toward an island of rocks. I bring the boat about, concentrating to keep the sail full.

By now, my arms are tired, and I tell Clay to help pull in the sheet. He yanks the line and I take up slack. My sunglasses have slipped down my nose, and he presses them back onto my face. I think how good it feels to be with him, so good I want to stay in the Widgeon, to have my son all to myself and tack and jibe and then hand him the tiller for a while. I want the wind to keep blowing and the sun to keep shining and I want to sail on by the landing, past North Beach, all the way to Canada.

“You bring anything to eat?” Clay says. I laugh. My man-son still looks to me for nurture.

“We’ll stop at the deli on the way home,” I say.

Two more tacks and I manage her into the harbor. When we drift up to the pier, Clay grabs the cleat and ties her off.

“Nice job,” he says, which makes me proud, even though my legs are rubber.

“You worked the jib well,” I offer back.

George docks the motorboat and helps haul out the Widgeon. “It was too rough out,” he says, as if he has just noticed the waves.

“I thought we might lose it on the jibe,” I say.

“No way,” Clay says, and he steps onto the dock, runs a hand through his hair, just as his father used to do. I want to hug him, to bury my nose in his nutmeg neck as I did when he was a baby, but I know Clay the young man doesn’t like that kind of sentimentality. So I squint and hold him there a minute, the lake behind him, the wind billowing his shirt out from his back.

“What about the deli?” he says.

“Sure,” I say. And then I let him go.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Automotive Rehab

This is the creative nonfiction piece I'm thinking of reading at November's Spalding University MFA in Writing residency. These are actual letters I actually mailed a couple years ago, edited for length because I'm given only ten minutes at the mic. By the way, I never did receive a response from the police officer.

January 22
Dear Officer Gauthier:

This morning you pulled me over on Vermont Interstate 89 in Bethel for driving with excessive speed. So as not to keep you standing outside in the extreme cold (minus seventeen!), I was ready with my license and registration when you approached my window. Your demeanor was professional, and I appreciate the courtesy and efficiency with which you issued me the ticket.

I hope you will indulge me an explanation for my haste. As a writer and educator, I was on my way to Saxtons River Elementary School to consult with the principal about assisting with writing instruction. I could plead that I’m not quite used to the new car I’m financing so that I can make these trips around the state to visit public schools. The pure fact is that I was speeding and deserved the $140 fine.
In light of the circumstances, I wonder if you might exercise leniency and reduce the violation to a warning. Thank you for reminding me of the importance of observing speed limits, and I look forward to hearing from you within the twenty days before payment of the fine is due.


~ ~ ~

March 3
Dear Officer Gauthier:

Even though I have not received an answer to my January letter, I thought you might enjoy the repercussions of the speeding ticket you imposed on me. When I’m on a long stretch of road, I set my cruise control at the speed limit so that I’m not inadvertently tempted to press the accelerator beyond its legal limits.

Unfortunately, there have been drawbacks to my vigilance. Cars honk at me, ride my bumper, pass me at every opportunity, and flip me obscene hand signals. Two weeks ago a truck whizzed by me at 15 miles over the limit and kicked a stone, which hit my windshield and sent a crack across my line of vision. I had to pay a $100 deductible fee for the new windshield, which did not have the deicing heater that originally came with the car.

This is not to say that I have any intention of speeding, but I’m wondering why I appear to be the only person who observes the limit. Perhaps the state of Vermont could design a bumper sticker that says, “I have three points on my driver’s license, so back off.” I know your job is a difficult one, Officer G., but please be aware that it’s also difficult to be a good citizen. My best wishes to you as you continue your excellent work.

Yours truly,

~ ~ ~

July 15
Dear Officer Gauthier:

I’m not sure you remember me, but you issued me a speeding ticket back in January on Route I-89. I thought you might appreciate an update on my adherence to traffic laws since then. In early spring I was driving my husband to work along Route 116 when we found ourselves following a school bus going slightly under the speed limit of 50 miles an hour.

“Pass it,” my husband said.

“No,” I answered. “In order to pass, I’d have to speed.”

“Pass it,” he said. “Pass it, or I’ll puke.”

You should know that my husband detests the smell of school bus exhaust. He played hockey in high school and college and spent far too much time on school busses traveling long distances to games and eating stale cheese sandwiches, both of which made him nauseous. To this day, the nausea comes back when he smells school bus fumes, and I knew that his threat was not an idle one. He rolled down his window and stuck out his head.

“I’m about to puke,” he warned.

“So puke,” I told him.

To avoid a mess on my car, I slowed down, allowing the bus to get far enough ahead so that the exhaust fumes were not overpowering. But in so doing, I made my husband late for work, and he did not speak to me for several days.
I’d like you to know, Officer Gauthier, that even if it means the sacrifice of marital bliss, your admonishment that cold January day has had a lasting effect on me.

One last note—I found a narrow stretch between Route 7 and New Haven that has no speed limit posted. I suppose you’ll tell me that somewhere in the driver’s manual there’s a rule about how fast one can go on unmarked roads. But, as I’m not in possession of a recent edition of the driving manual, I will assume until otherwise informed that I have permission to go as fast as I care to on this mile and a half span.

I trust you will continue in your rectitude, Officer Gauthier, and I send you encouragement and best wishes.


~ ~ ~

September 30
Dear Officer Gauthier:

You might be interested to know that my Subaru had its 15,000-mile tune-up last week, and when I drove home on I-89, the car started screeching at 65 m.p.h., sort of the sound of someone pinching the neck of a balloon to make it squeal. I took the Subie back to the mechanic, but he found nothing wrong. On the way home, the screeching began again, and I had to slow down to 55 m.p.h. I guess whatever’s making the noise isn’t serious, but I won’t be exceeding speed limits—you can count on that. I’m just wondering—are you in cahoots with my mechanic?

Thanks again, Officer Gauthier, for your devoted efforts on behalf of Vermonters.


~ ~ ~

November 18
Dear Officer Gauthier:

As autumn’s chill clenches its jaws, I hope this letter finds you well and attending to your official duties. You may wonder why I’m addressing yet another missive to you. Simply, I’d like to inform you that, since that bright and crackling day last January when you stopped me for speeding, I have yet to accrue another traffic violation of any sort—not even for an expired parking meter. Such is the efficacy of your correction, for which I still am and evermore shall be grateful.

That is not to say that I haven’t been tempted to speed. In fact, just this past weekend, when my in-laws were visiting we took a trip to the Shelburne Museum, for which I was recruited to chauffeur. I wonder if you’ve been to the Shelburne Museum, Officer Gauthier? And I wonder if you’ve been there with your in-laws? If you have, you might understand my husband’s urgency in having the trip done with and his hounding me on the way home to “Go faster. Can’t you go any faster?” I was adhering to the speed limit, but, even so, the trip seemed endless with the in-laws complaining about aching feet and the blustery cold and my husband grousing in my ear, and I admit I was tempted to hasten the journey by pressing my weight against the accelerator. But then I remembered your reprimand, and I scolded my husband for coaxing me into lawlessness.

Today I came across the ticket you administered last winter, which may be what prompts this letter, and I’m wondering what the “P” stands for in your name. Shall I guess? Peter? Peyton? Parker? Patrick? Phillip? Pablo? Have I hit on it yet? I’m guessing Paul. Paul Gauthier. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

By the way, the screeching I mentioned in my previous letter was due to a gap in the adhesive around the replaced windshield, the repair for which cost me another afternoon at the shop.

Best wishes for a warm and restful Thanksgiving, Officer Gauthier. And thanks again for your service to Vermonters.

Your friend,

~ ~ ~

December 2
Dear Paul:

While my husband was home from work over the holiday, he fooled around on my computer and discovered the letters I’ve written to you over the past year. I thought he might be angry, but, instead, he suggested that probably you have hung the letters in the men’s room of the Bethel police barracks. I hardly think an officer of your caliber would stoop to such aspersions. Perhaps you’ve filed them away in case you need to testify as to my mental stability for handling a motor vehicle in the state of Vermont.

In any event, I regret to inform you that this is the last letter you’ll be receiving from me. One of the consequences of modifying behavior is losing touch with the rehabilitated. I promise to keep a close eye on the speedometer, but, should a peppy tune come on the radio and I lapse into my wicked ways, there’s a good chance that you and I will meet again on the highway. In the meantime, I wish all the teachers in Vermont the same success in the edification of their students that you have achieved with me. Best wishes to you, sir, and I hope you have a delightful New Year.

Looking forward to seeing you soon,

Louella Bryant

Sunday, April 26, 2009


I gave the following talk at the Hamilton-Wenham Library in Massachusetts last week at at their Two Towns/Two Books series of readings and receptions. The talk deals with my nonfiction book, WHILE IN DARKNESS THERE IS LIGHT, which chronicles the 1974 killing of Charlie Dean.

The Vietnam years were marked by protests, a fuel crisis, the Watergate scandal, and Nixon’s impeachment proceedings. Most of the young activists who demonstrated against the war, resisted the draft, and sought alternative lifestyles eventually would resign themselves to working within the system, go to graduate school, get jobs and raise families. An exceptional few would cling to the idealism of their youth and start their own traditions.

One of those idealists was Charlie Dean, brother of Howard Dean, former head of the Democratic National Committee. In May 1974, when Charlie was 24, he and a 21-year-old Australian friend set out to travel around Southeast Asia. Charlie planned to end his journey in December and be home in Manhattan by Christmas. He never made it. In one of his last letters, Charlie wrote to boarding school friend Harry Reynolds. “Arrived in Malaysia June 1st which was an unfriendly place I thought, and then came up through south Thailand to Bangkok. The real highlight has been two weeks in the Khmer Republic. It was truly an eye-opener. We are still involved up to our ears. No military just tons of supplies, half of which are sold to the Khmer Rouge…. The cities have tree-lined streets with sidewalk caf├ęs but Phnom Penh has tripled its population with refugees and is cluttered with sandbags and barbed wire. Every night you can hear wahump, wahump, wahump as the artillery is fired across the Mekong.”

Charlie was well aware that fighting was still going on in Southeast Asia. As a student at UNC Chapel Hill, he had protested the Vietnam War and kept informed about military activity. So what in the world was he doing there?

Let’s back up and trace how Charlie, well educated and from upper-class wealth, found himself in first in Kuranda, North Queensland and then in a rainforest prison. Kuranda is verdant and tropical, an awe-inspiring combination of mountains and forests. Nestled between hill and forest is a 460-acre farm of orange groves and mandarin, banana, lime and grapefruit trees irrigated by mountain streams. In 1970, this acreage was settled by three old friends, Charlie’s boarding school classmate Kim Haskell and Kim’s Delaware friends Rich Trapnell and Jeb Buck. When he was at St. George’s School in Newport, Rhode Island, Charlie was involved in every aspect of student life, from senior prefect to head of the acolyte’s guild, where he led the choir into the chapel for daily services. Sons of successful fathers, St. George’s students lived in big houses and took ski vacations with their families. They would go to good colleges and become successful themselves, some heading businesses and others, like Howard, running for public office. Kim’s father, Hal Haskell, is a former U.S. Congressman and mayor of Wilmington, Delaware, and retired chief executive at Abercrombie and Fitch. Both Jeb’s and Rich’s fathers were well established with DuPont.

Like his classmates, Charlie, too, was a child of privilege, having grown up on New York’s Upper East Side and East Hampton, the son of a top executive of Dean Witter Reynolds. By the time they entered college, Kim at University of Denver, Charlie at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Jeb at Princeton, and Rich at Harvard, the Vietnam War was raging, and the draft pressed down on men above eighteen. It was wise to stay in school where student status kept them from the strangling jungles and swamps slithering with Vietcong. But four protesters were killed on the Kent State campus, protests broke out on college campuses all over the country. Kim dropped out of Denver, and classes were canceled at Harvard. While Charlie stayed involved in student politics at UNC, Kim and Rich drove to California, where they caught a flight to Australia. In 1970 Australia was paradise for young men. Women outnumbered men in the cities, Americans were still heroes from World War II, and the landscape was an open campground.

Rich and Kim bought a rickety van and started out exploring the southern coast, snorkeling and spearing fish, and living on Campbells soup, rice, spaghetti, and any fish, ducks, geese and rabbits they could catch. “You’ve never seen nothing like rabbits in Australia,” Rich wrote to Harry, his Harvard roommate. Temperatures reached 110 degrees during the day and so they traveled at night. Jeb joined them in Darwin, and the three headed to Queensland, where they planned to look for property and settle down.

After he graduated, Charlie signed on as campus chair of McGovern’s campaign, He was almost so dedicated to the cause that he signed his meager paychecks back to the campaign. The election was a landslide—Nixon accumulated 520 Electoral votes to McGovern's 17. Devastated, Charlie went back to East Hampton to pull himself together and plan his next move, one that would take him halfway across the globe. In boarding schools, lifetime friendships are forged. Classmates become surrogate families. They keep in touch. They arrange reunions. When Kim, Rich and Jeb set up a farm in North Queensland, they sent word back to their classmates, including Charlie and Harry, summoning them across the ocean. Both boys answered the call, Harry arriving fresh from Harvard a few months after Charlie.

Rosebud was a working experiment in organic farming and communal living. The unpainted bunkhouse had a metal roof, the beams on which pythons sometimes roosted. Fourteen cots slept the farmers, including several Australians who had moved in. The Rosebud kitchen, with community quarters, squatted atop a hill above the sleeping quarters. Both Charlie and Harry were put to work immediately. Summer was settling in, and the heat and humidity were unforgiving. Dust stuck to their skin and dirt packed into their clothing. Kim requisitioned a water tank and a washing machine run with an old lawnmower engine, and they helped rig a pipe from the top of the stream to the bunkhouse so they could have running water and showers rather than bathing in the stream.

They plucked weeds from rows of sprouting vegetables and watered fruit trees. Every Friday the farmers took the truck to Cairns, a half-hour drive down to the coast, where they sold fruits and vegetables and bought work supplies. After hot days of farm chores, the farmers usually headed into Kuranda for a few lagers before dinner. Loquacious, animated and opinionated, Charlie would start talking about Rosebud’s agribusiness and heat up to American politics, what bits of current events he was able to glean—the resignation of Spiro Agnew and Gerald Ford’s appointment as Vice President, Nixon’s surrender of the Watergate tapes, the firing of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. From Rosebud, the events seemed as surreal and imagined as the Friday evening movies at the community house where, for 75 cents, they sat on folding chairs and watched American westerns projected against a sheet hung on a wall. Some days they took a break from farm work, as when Kim lead them to Barron Gorge, where monstrous rocks had been carved by the river and cliffs fell 75 feet into deep pools. In some ways the Gorge was a test of manhood. Kim jumped first, and the others, answering the challenge, followed. One of the Australians came out of the pool dragging a giant eel, ten feet long, and dislocated his shoulder trying to beat it to death with a big stick. That night, after a dinner of eel roasted over a roaring campfire, they settled down to sleep under the stars.

Kim was fearless and no project was too daunting. While Rich ran the Rosebud agribusiness, Kim undertook the building of a 57-foot Hartley design boat he called “Big Mama.” The ship was to be made of chicken wire covered in cement to withstand the sharp coral of the reefs. The boat would have two cabins with a cockpit between them and would be the fourth biggest cement boat ever built in Australia. But the boat caused tensions among the farmers. Rich wanted less time spent with Big Mama and more on the gardens. Kim was ready for his own domain where he could focus on finishing the boat without rankling Rich’s nerves. When a 3500-acre parcel came on the market in Bloomfield, four hours to the north, he plunked down a deposit and loaded up the truck with diving gear, tools, tents, a bag of rice, and cooking utensils and Charlie and Harry, Siegfried the dog, and a few Australians went along to help settle the land. Bloomfield’s miles of sugar sand beaches look onto the Coral Sea, with magical reefs just off the coastline. Once they set up camp, the men took the dinghy out and snorkeled around the reefs with harpoons. Kim was the best fisherman of the group and speared a fifteen-pound trophy the first day, big enough to feed the lot.

Bloomfield had restful days when Charlie talked of settling in Queensland. He had a yearning to set down roots, maybe even buy land in Bloomfield. At the same time, he felt drawn to be of some use in the world, to help those in the greatest need. But where and how to use his talents? The world was open to him, and the choices overwhelming—stay in Australia, travel to Southeast Asia, follow through with Peace Corps plans, or go back to New York. By mid-November they were back in Kuranda, when the rainy season set in. After a week of rain, Harry grew restless and headed south to Melbourne. Charlie had fallen for a local Kuranda teenager who had made Rosebud her home, and he wanted to stick around and see what developed.

For two months Harry lived in Melbourne, working first as a freezer salesman for a bulk food company and later managing the ice rink, where he practiced his Harvard hockey drills with the semi-professional Melbourne team. In February, Kim came to Melbourne to look at an engine for Big Mama, and over a lager he and Harry sorted out their plans. Harry had run short on money and so rejected ideas of traveling to Southeast Asia with Charlie or acquiring land in Queensland. If he went back to the States, maybe he could find a job and buy some property in Vermont. Kim wanted to see Tasmania. Charlie was still dawdling at the farm but talked about hitting the road again, making his way to Nepal and Africa by way of Indonesia and Thailand. He had no idea that his journey would end in Laos.

Charlie and Neil were held in a rainforest prison for three months while their parents and authorities in Australia and the United States tried to negotiate their release. In December 1974, the Pathet Lao led them toward the border of North Vietnam, presumably to be handed over to the Vietcong. Just shy of the border, however, the two were shoved into a small shed. Unable to escape, they must have watched as their executioners opened fire with machine guns.

At the close of 1973, when the Vietnam War officially ended, 58,000 Americans, a million North Vietnamese, and two million civilians had died. To date, nearly two thousand Americans are listed as missing from the Vietnam War. Investigators have recovered and identified 708 sets of remains. Among those are Neil Sharman and Charles Maitland Dean. Their bullet-riddled bodies had been tossed into a marshy crater near the border between Laos and North Vietnam. Perhaps it is possible to be too innocent and too arrogant about one’s mission in life. With pure heart and right intentions, young men often make mistakes that are irreversible. Charlie’s final lesson was a hard one.

In April 1975, the Dean family learned that Charlie was dead. The news went hard on Charlie’s father, who died in 2002. Howard was committed to finding his brother and flew several times to Laos to question authorities and sift through dirt looking for a bone or a tooth that might have been Charlie’s. Finally, he was successful. In November 2003, while he was running for President, Howard flew with his family to Hawaii to receive Charlie’s remains.

Today Kim Haskell and his partner Anni tend the fruit trees on their land in Bloomfield. Kim has a new steel-hulled boat named Big Mama and charters tours along the Great Barrier Reef. Jeb Buck lives in Kuranda. Rich Trapnell still operates Rosebud Farm, now an organic tree nursery. Harry Reynolds lives on his land in Vermont. Charlie Dean now rests in peace in Sag Harbor, on the land his great-great grandfather claimed. Like his friends, Charlie fulfilled his promise—true to his word but 29 years late, Charlie Dean had finally made it home.

One of the questions that led me in the writing of this book was what is it that makes youths on the verge of manhood wander into danger? Is it that, like Perseus and Theseus, they feel moved to prove themselves by surviving some life-threatening quest? I’m not sure. But I’m hoping maybe you’ll help me find the answer.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Land of a Million Elephants

Check out the chapter of Ellie's book WHILE IN DARKNESS THERE IS LIGHT that appeared in the Adirondack Review last month: