Monday, November 27, 2006

Saving Gaudette

It was on the shores of Lake Superior, in the woods of Ontario while I was working at a log cavalry fort that contained The Church of the Departed Spirits and the biggest goose I ever saw, that John Gaudette swore I saved his life.

Actually, all I did was bring him a bottle of whiskey when he was feeling kind of puny. He was lying in the bunk in his darkened cabin one evening, moaning that his long-dead mother was about to pay him another visit. He'd been cutting firewood for several days, and I figured he was more tired than sick, but he was pushing 80 and you never know. I set the bottle on the wood floor next to his bed and left quickly.

But let's back up a bit. It was a summer in the early 1970s. I was several months past a three-year association with Uncle Sam, still trying to figure out what to do with myself, and I was hitchhiking back to Oregon from New Jersey, where I'd gone to visit an army buddy. In Michigan I decided to detour north into Canada, and a few days later found myself in a little town on Lake Superior named Wawa. The locals told me the name was Indian for Big Goose. I suggested it might be Indian for water but they missed the joke — half of them spoke French anyway.

Since I was near broke and had a long way to go, I inquired of the local citizens the whereabouts of a place to sleep and perchance a temporary job. In short order I was ensconced among the woods south of town in the cabin of a gregarious nickel miner who was going away for awhile and said he needed someone to "watch the place" while he was gone, even though there wasn't a lock on the door. Wawa was that kind of place, with those kind of people. He told me to report to a man named Turcotte who owned a local tourist attraction nearby and who just might have a few odds and ends around the place that needed doing.

The next morning I wandered down the gravel road a few hundred yards from the cabin and in a large clearing came upon a fort straight out of a John Wayne western, complete with blockhouses at the corners. The log gates were open, so I strolled inside and stopped in shock. There in front of me was the biggest goose I'd ever seen. Maybe 40 feet high, a Canadian honker made from plaster or concrete or something. I stood there for a bit and in short order a stout, sixty-ish, khaki-clad man I figured to be Turcotte came smiling from one of the buildings that lined the inside of the fort.

He proudly showed off his creations in an impromptu tour of the place. He and his wife had spent years constructing the fort, which included "guest rooms" in the blockhouses; the large honker at the entrance (he affirmed that Wawa did, indeed, mean Big Goose); and a small chapel constructed entirely of whiskey and wine bottles mortared together into what he called The Church of the Departed Spirits. And, yes, by the time the tour was over he allowed as how he could steer a little dough my way if Id help him with some projects around the fort.

Turcotte obviously had made his pile elsewhere, because in the couple of weeks I spent there I never saw any tourists in the place. The only "guests" were the Turcottes' in-laws from British Columbia who had come with their kids and grandkids to spend the summer.

Now back to John Gaudette. He was a grizzled, rail-thin old coot that no one knew very well, although he'd lived in the same small cabin for several years, just down the road from my temporary abode. He had a reputation as a standoffish old grouch, and people warned me to stay away from him. Of course, I took that as a challenge.

John spent most of his days in the summer sawing and splitting firewood to get him through the long Ontario winter. There was no electricity in that neck of the woods. One morning I wandered over to his place and began helping him augment his woodpile. By noon we'd actually spoken a few words to each other, and by 3 p.m. we were fast friends. John just wasn't used to people.

In the course of the next couple of weeks I helped John when I wasn't needed around the fort. I discovered he had been alone for most of his life, after various careers as a farmer, miner and logger. He'd never been as far south as the United States and didn't have a clue where Oregon was. He told me about all the dogs he'd had, and apologized for being between dogs at the moment, that he'd recently buried his last one back of the cabin. He told me that at night his mother often visited him, even though she'd been dead for 50 years.

I didn't see John one day, and that evening knocked on his door to see if he was okay. Turns out he was sick in his bed, staring at the ceiling. I asked if I could bring him something, and he said he couldn't think of anything. Then he said, "Mother's coming tonight." I told John that while I'd love to stick around and meet Mom I had errands to attend to, and hastily made my exit.

The next day I made a run into town and, at Turcotte's suggestion, bought some "medicine" for John — a pint of whiskey. Turns out Turcotte knew John pretty well. That evening I visited John's cabin again, and set the bottle alongside his bed where he was still stretched out, then retired to my own cabin.

In the morning I told Turcotte I was heading down the road back to Oregon, and he gave me 50 bucks and best wishes. While I was cramming things into my backpack later at my cabin, there was a knock on the door. It was John Gaudette, standing hale and hearty and fencepost straight, but with chin trembling.

"Heard you was leaving," he said. "You saved my life."

"Aww, John, it was just a little medicinal whiskey," I replied. Then I asked him how he knew I was leaving.

"Mother told me," he replied, a tear coursing down one stubbled cheek. Then he stuck out a bony hand, patted me on the shoulder and walked away.

Technorati tags:

No comments:

Ag in the West social media watch

Capital Press videos on YouTube

Our most popular videos