Thursday, January 18, 2018

People Who Saved My Life

The People Who Saved my Life
Part Two

This is the second part of a series of short of stories about people who have literally saved my life. You might have read the first part about my near death experience in the Adirondacks, and having been resuscitated by two high school friends.  Reflecting up my ‘Sacred Journey’ in life, I have become more conscious of things, people, and events that I might have taken for granted in the past. Recording some of these stories allows me to be grateful, and at the same time highlights the best in people I may not have fully appreciated at the time.

Four Short Stories Below Include:

·      Darien High School Coach Del Mautte, Former Captain, USMC, 1975.
·      Paul Smith’s College Forestry Instructor, Steve Walaski, Former Captain, USMC, 1978
·      Brownie the Log Truck Driver, 1979
·      King’s College, Professor of Religious Education, Dr. Roger Evans, 1989

Coach Del Mautte

Halfway through my junior year at Darien High School, was perhaps the lowest ebb of my young messed up life. Dismal grades, heavy partying on the weekends, piss-poor attitude, and I had begun to smoke cigarettes regularly, even carrying my own pack, something that I had not done before. I was 17. Semi-regular marijuana use suppressed most of my motivation for engaging in anything constructive or anything that did not include an adrenaline rush, pranks, or partying with friends. I dropped out of scouting that year, which, had been the only thing keeping me somewhat on the straight and narrow. My report card showed an A in gym followed by C’s, D’s and F’s in other subjects. I think I maybe got a ‘B’ in Home Economics that year, though that could be me re-writing history in my mind.

During the 10 minutes between classes, many students would congregate in a designated smoking area that was just between the main wing near the school office and the gym. That was my regular hangout when I cut classes or was between classes. It was the early 70’s and most of us had long hair of varying length from the ears down, wore t-shirts under flannel shirts, jean jackets, or “leathers,” along with sneakers, work boots, or hiking boots. By leaning against wall and standing on both sides of the outdoor path, the smoking area regulars created a gauntlet that all the other students to had run through on their way to and from the gym, parking lot, or other wings.  It could be intimidating.

Some of jocks that smoked had to keep a sharp eye peeled for coaches walking through the smoking area on the way to the gym because if they caught you with a fag, they would make you pay. One morning on dismal late winter day, I was out in the smoking area, leaning against the wall, talking with a couple of friends while smoking a cigarette. I looked up and saw Coach Del Mautte, a former Marine Captain, and Coach Girard quickly approaching. I wasn’t a jock by any means, but I didn’t want them to see me smoking for some reason.  In blink of an eye they were right there, feet away, so I nonchalantly hid my cigarette behind my back, hoping they were looking for bigger fish to fry. To my chagrin, they were putting on the brakes right in front of me so I dropped the “smoking gun” behind me, backed up and ground it out on the paved sidewalk with my boot. They stopped in front of me and did a ‘right face.’ They were most definitely not fooled by my efforts to conceal my smoking from them.

“Maher,” Mautte bellowed, finger pointed at me, “You show up in my office today at 2:40 pm sharp. You got it? And don’t be late!” 

What the…?  I couldn’t concentrate all day and was worried about what he might have in store for me. We were allowed to smoke in designated areas on school property so he couldn’t appeal to any rules, so then I hadn’t broken any, had I? So what is this all about? With trepidation and a queasy stomach I found myself knocking on his door in the gym at 2:40 pm like he demanded. 

“Come in!” a voice bellowed.

As soon as I open the door something hit me smack in the face, and I caught it before it hit the floor. It was a Darien High School tracksuit, to my surprise. 

“Maher, I see you in gym everyday. You run circles around half those kids. Suit up and get down to the track in 15 minutes. You’re not going to waste your life smoking and carrying on like that. Not while I’m around.”

That day at practice, and for every day the whole next week I heaved my guts up down on the track. I was so out of shape from smoking and partying that I had to run with JV team, which was, to say the least, rather embarrassing for a junior whose peers were running with the varsity team. Somehow I put up with the humiliation, and have no idea why - a glutton for punishment maybe? Summer soon rolled around and I was lucky to get out of town, spending most of the summer backpacking in New England with friends, and hiking out west with my Scout troop at Philmont, a large scout ranch in New Mexico. We hiked for three weeks in the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range, climbing many peaks over ten thousand feet.

At the start of my senior year, I found myself signed up for the Cross-Country team, running long distances – still mainly Junior Varsity, though. My grades had slowly improved. I stopped smoking, and cut back significantly on partying. I was still an adrenaline junkie, though. Running cross-country was a great experience for me, and I learned to have fun without alcohol and was happy to be involved in something constructive. Not skipping a beat, I segued into winter track and actually placed second in a race – still not good enough for a varsity letter, but I was into running and enjoyed the relationships I had with my teammates. My good friend Tom Rollins, who helped save my life in the Adirondacks, was the Captain of the Cross-Country, Winter Track, and Spring Track Teams – he was a constant during that time.  I placed in races actually won a race in the spring and finally after 4 seasons of track, I received a varsity letter and graduated from high school – sort of scraping the bottom barrel of my class, but graduated with a bit of room to spare. Coach Mautte helped me restore what the locusts had eaten during my early high school years.

I am convinced that if Coach Del Mautte had not yanked me off my dead-end life and out of my alcohol stupor in March of 1975, I would not have graduated high school and would have been sucked up into the nebulous abyss from which there could have been no return. My only accomplishment in life up to that time was the Eagle badge I earned at 15, but I was still convinced I was useless, a perpetual screw up, and that screwing up was a natural talent bestowed to me at birth. I did believe in God, but it seemed he sure did not believe in me! I was convinced he was against me, and was more than sure he was out to get me. When I needed it most, this coach told me in no uncertain terms, “I believe in you.” No one else was telling me that because few could see any reason for believing in me. I needed Mautte’s gesture to lift me up out of the mire at a very critical junction in my life. I am grateful for Del Mautte, for seeing something worthwhile in me, even if it was only my mediocre athletic potential, and for saving my life.

Forestry Instructor, Steve Walaski, Former Captain, USMC.

In the summer of 1978, I was up at Paul Smith’s College (‘Where the men were men, and women were, too’) studying forest technology. Paul Smith’s is situated in the heart of the Adirondacks, and it was late summer at the time. The Black flies, deer flies, and ‘no see-ums’ had come and gone, and the forestry students were coming down the home stretch of the block program that was largely practical fieldwork with some classroom work. Surveying and Forest Recreation were water under the bridge and the “Stumpies” were in the last throes of Sawmill Practice. Shortly, we’d be heading for our respective homes for a 2-week break before class would begin again a few weeks later.

Our Sawmill Practice Instructor was Mr. Steve Walaski. He was sawed-off and short, unmovable as a fireplug, and a former Marine Corp Captain who had served in Vietnam. He was a no-nonsense guy, sometime who whose bad side you didn’t want to find yourself on.

Early each morning at the break of dawn, the college vans left Paul’s Smith’s Campus to embark on a 45-minute drive to Ward’s Sawmill in Upper Jay, NY. There, we were introduced to the in and outs, and many aspects of operating a sawmill. One day I drove my own vehicle to the mill and didn’t tell Instructor Walaski. When he assembled us together, as he did each morning before we started work to take attendance at the mill, he had two more students than he started out with. When he figured it out, he blew a gasket. He was so angry his face became red and contorted. The corner of his mouth began twitch, and he looked like he was ready to blow. Now standing in front of me, he pounded a stubby finger in my chest repeatedly, while yelling at me at Marine Corp decibels. Specks of saliva randomly flew in all directions and I came near to soiling my knickers. “And don’t do it again without asking me first!”

Sawmill block at times could become pretty boring. I liked going out on runs to deliver lumber because it broke up the monotony and made the time go faster. Finally I got to work in the heart of the operation, near the Sawyer’s cage where logs get sawn into lumber and cants. With the saw whining at high velocities, and using ear protection, you had to use sign language to communicate because it was so loud. Instructor Walaski had experience as sawyer and was sawing away in the sawyer’s cage while we were lifting cants (large square pieces of lumber 8-10 feet long) from the moving conveyer.  In a lull from the production frenzy I walked over to a friend to ask a question and somehow I didn’t realize I was standing between conveyors where 10” x 10” cants had come flying down off the carriage every minute or so. It was all clear when I made my way over to my friend. The usual lumber production frenzy ramped up quickly, and Walaski dropped a large cant off the carriage and it began to barrel down the conveyer at high speed toward the middle of my back, about to cripple me for life, or kill me. Walaski, seeing this debacle unfold from the sawyer’s cage, let off an earth shattering Marine Corp yell that startled everyone, including the cows out in the nearby pasture whose milk soured instantly. I turned with everyone else to see what the commotion was coming from the sawyer’s cage. Walaski was out of his sawyer’s seat and head sticking out of the cage, and motioning, jumping up and down, and pointing like a madman toward the conveyor and the high-speed cant heading toward me. I leapt out of the way without a second to spare.

Before I could breath a sigh of relief, he was right there, inches from my face. It was the parking lot attendance scene all over again. Same drill. He proceeded to rip me a new one, which I deserved, and I barely lived to tell about it. The reaming he gave me about driving my own car seemed mild in comparison. Years later when I reflect on that incident, I picture that Battleship board game commercial where the Chief Petty Officer yells at the mate; “YOU SUNK MY BATTLESHIP.” It was that intense. It was a good thing that that day was the last day of class.  It takes all kinds to save one’s life. I am grateful to Capt. Walaski for doing that, and I will never forget that incident.

Back to school in 2 weeks for the Fall Surveying Block, lo and behold, Captain Walaski was the instructor. Before the first class, I went to him personally and told him I didn’t intentionally plan to irritate him, and I would be on my best behavior during this block. He didn’t seem too impressed but we had no more run-ins.

Brownie the Log Truck Driver

My first job out of Paul Smiths was doing TSI (timber stand improvement) in June of 1979 for W. J. Cowee, Inc., in Berlin, NY.  W. J. Cowee. Inc., was a veneer and bolt mill owning 50,000 forested acres between Troy NY, Pittsfield MA, and Bennington, VT. For 5 years I tromped around the Berkshires, Heldeburgs, Taconics, the Adirondacks, Green and White Mountains supervising logging crews, marking timber, and looking timber and logs to buy for W.J. Cowee. They managed their own woodlands for the timber species they used in the plant. Before plastics reached its zenith, Cowee produced novelty items, blocks, toy parts, and Tinker Toys made out of white birch, beech and soft maple for companies like Fischer Price, Play Skool, etc.  They sold ash logs to Adirondack for baseball bats and hockey sticks.

 After a summer of TSI, battling steep ridges, brambles, black flies, deer flies, mosquitos, and the humidity deep in the Northern Hardwood forests of the North East was over, and the TSI job came to an end, I was invited to work as Cowee’s log yard foreman. I would scale, grade and measure all veneer logs and bolt wood coming into the mill. On one very cold, overcast but snowless day in late November of 1979, I was scaling away in the yard, when I heard the familiar downshift of a tractor-trailer coming around the bend into the log yard, belching white smoke into the clear, listless, frigid air. It was Brownie, a short, squat, rotund, log truck driver who constantly chomped a soggy cigar, rotating it from one corner of his mouth to the other. He was in his mid-forties, working class guy and rather amicable. He was delivering a load of logs cut by the Harvey Brothers from Cowee’s lot #49 in Hancock, MA.

He parked in the log yard, hopped out of his cab, his warm breath clouding as it hit the cold air, and ‘crunch-crunch-crunched’ his way over to me over the frozen rutted log yard ground. After some friendly bantering and chitchat, I got my measuring tape and climbed up on the trailer, then climbed on top of one of the four bunks of 8’ foot soft maple logs. At that point, I was about 14 feet off the ground. Standing on the edge of a bunk of logs, I dropped the hooked end of my measuring tape down about 8 feet to catch the bottom of a log and take a height measurement. I got the measurement and was standing up on the logs, writing it down in my book. Brownie had followed me on top of the logs to unchain the load, so our Pettibone log loader could unload the trailer. Out of nowhere, a very strong gust of wind kicked up, and blew me right off the edge from the top of the tier of soft maple bolts where I was standing. Trying to regain balance like a bird frantically flapping its wings, I began to fall backward down between the bunks of logs (9' drop). Brownie, bundled up for warmth like a chubby kid in a snow suit, a few feet away on the next tier of logs unchaining the load, saw me losing my balance. Unlike a short, bundled up, squat, cigar chomping out of shape trucker, he spun around like a top, a ballet dancer even, made a Kierkegaardian leap, and caught me by the crotch in the front and by the belt in the back of my pants as I was falling between the two tiers of logs, and pulled me to safety. He immediately apologized for saving my life in such an unconventional manner, but I didn’t mind. I was alive, and in one piece, not dead or maimed. I am grateful to Brownie, wherever he might be now, for saving my life.

Professor of Religious Education, Dr. Roger Evans

I cringe when I recall the years I spent at the King’s College from 1987-1989.  Coming straight out of two years at Word of Life Bible Institute, there was no more a ‘Fighting Fundy’ to be found north of the Bible Belt than I.  After feeling my way around King’s as an older student early in my first semester, I proceeded to embark on a crusade to stamp out the liberalism that had seemingly infiltrated and taken over this once sound Christian Liberal Arts College just miles north of New York City.  Word of Life would be so proud of me!

My major was Religious Education, and most of my Religious Ed classes were with the Department Chair, Dr. Evans who was nearing 50 and had a PhD. in Psychology – godless psychology.  After two years of being taught to understand and interpret the entire Bible as literal and factual, everything outside of Christianity seemed to stand in opposition to it – except conservative politics and capitalism. It seemed that the contemporary Christianity that I was nurtured into, worked well in a closed system, but had serious challenges when held up to history, and both the soft and hard sciences. Those from my camp were not willing to see how Christianity could possibly fit among the disciplines, so we spent most of our time invalidating everything they were suggesting. So I began with trying to set Dr. Evans straight by arguing, and fighting against everything he taught that was not backed by a literal and modern (read Enlightenment) interpretation of the Bible. Whether it was Knowles, Carol Gilligan, Piaget, Erikson, Kohlberg, Bloom, Karen Horney, etc., I was objecting.  He once said; “All truth is God’s truth, no matter where it comes from.”  I refused to consider this.

The only peace I gave him was in our Personal Spiritual Formation Class.  We read and discussed Tozer, Frank Laubach, Bonheoffer, and some other modern mystics. As long as there were bible verses, referenced, I remained calm.  He had us read The Sacred Journey, by Frederick Beuchner, which was fascinating to me in many ways, but I was left wondering why Beuchner did not point out God’s providence in every step of his journey for those who might miss it. Years later, after reading it again, I saw how Beuchner was sharing with his reader his life’s journey as an adult looking back, and finally be able to make some sense of his life. He journey was one of learning how to see, and he saw how his life’s journey was a collection of connected experiences and events that were all very sacred (an ordinary thing used as a vehicle to connect to God), although unknown to him at the time. The sacred events of his life had culminated in the development of new type of consciousness toward spirituality. His was a journey toward consciousness that was facilitated by becoming increasingly awake, by slowly being able to seeing ordinary things as they really were: sacred. Although I did not realize it at the time, his journey would reflect my journey out of dualism, black and white religious thinking, or the kind of first stage faith that kept me in ignorance and bondage.

In November of my first semester, Dr. Evans had a heart attack, and if my memory serves me right he was out until the beginning of the next semester. It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized that I might have been the cause of his heart attack. I was that belligerent.

For two years I spent in his classes, Dr. Evans occasionally showed exasperation and frustration toward me, but more so, he was tolerant, patient and kind. While I was trying to wear him down, he wore me down and at some point I stopped fighting, and began to listen. It was because of Dr. Evan’s love, patience, and acceptance, despite my attempts at a hostile takeover of his class to stamp out Liberalism, I ever so slightly began to shift away from such a rigid, black and white Christian Fundamentalism. It was at King’s, and because of Dr. Evans that I really began walking the first steps of my own sacred journey. He threw the switch and tracks changed course, setting me in the right direction. Even though I would nearly fatally derail a few times, I was still on the course that would lead to life. Dr. Evans saved my life.


Brian Maher

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Fiddling on the Brink of Hell; Winter Death

Fiddling on the Brink of Hell

Maybe we had planned it during our Thanksgiving break from college or perhaps during that magic summer, the one that’s almost religiously devoted to partying at the beach. You remember the one, the one which ignited an era of transition and independence as yet to be experienced in your life as a high school student. It’s the summer that kisses thirteen years of public school education goodbye. Was it at a keg party during that magic summer, or while we sat on the trunk of someone's car listening Rock ‘n Roll, drinking beer, and watching Frisbees slice through the humid night air of the semi illuminated parking lot at Weed Beach?

The three of us differed greatly in character, personality, intelligence, interests and background but we all had a few things besides graduating from the same high school in common, and that was the love of the wilderness — especially backpacking. All of us had varying levels of backpacking experience as well.  As far as personalities go among them, I guess you could say they ran the gamut. Karl was somber and quite serious at times, clever, and often quite witty. I was somewhat the opposite, spontaneous and impulsive, forever joking and clowning around at someone else's expense. Tom was the glue that held us together. He was the nucleus and had a different kind of bond with both of these two friends of his. He had spent four seasons running track with me and enjoyed my spontaneity and endless attempts at humor. We doubled dated, partied, enjoyed the same music, and did some backpacking together. We were pretty tight. Tom and Karl were no less solid. They ran a small house painting business over the summer between graduation and college. Although their relationship had to be more serious at times, Tom appreciated Karl and his seriousness about things. The summer before his graduating, Tom had done a NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership Training School) course out in Wyoming up in the Rockies.  It was rather intense and prepared him well. No East Coast challenge could compare. Tom, in his senior year of High School was captain of the cross-country, winter and spring track teams. He graduated with 9 letters in track and only 9 because our High School started at 10th grade instead of 9th grade, like some other high schools. He also had a 4.0 GPA to boot.  He was quick witted, friendly, humorous and rather good natured. 

It was truly a magic summer, and we were all, to some degree in love with the feeling of being in love with this brief, but special chapter of our lives.  While under the influence of this strong chemical cocktail of dating pretty girls, adrenaline, infatuation, electricity, excitement, and a big transition in life, we planned a week long winter backpacking trip to High Peak region of the Adirondack Mountains in Up-State New York near the Canadian border. We would hit the trail on January 1st, 1977.  

While I had gone the whole ten yards to get my Eagle Badge, Karl lost interest in scouts soon after he entered high school, but he pursued his interest in backpacking, and meanwhile, he gained some advanced skills in Winter/Wilderness Backpacking. Comparatively, I had neither the experience nor skills that Tom and Karl had. I was more used to the semi-rugged Appalachians and Berkshires mountains. So was it fate, a random convergence, or a combination of both that brought the three of us together to embark on a seven day trek into the High Peak region of the Adirondack Mountains that would include climbing to the summit of New York State’s highest peak in the middle of winter. We left Southern Connecticut on the last day of December, 1976, after each having experienced a semester of college in different parts of the country. Tom and Karl cajoled me into using my old beat-up but undying 1966 white Convertible Volkswagen Bug for means of transportation.  Tom and Karl chipped in and bought me a case of oil (24 quarts took us up and back) for the 6 hour ride. We would pull into a gas station and ask the attendant to check the gas and fill up the oil.

So we set out with me driving, Tom riding shotgun and Woody in the back seat, wedged between back packs, snowshoes, sleeping bags, etc.  The trunk in front was almost bursting at the seams with gear as well.  It began to snow near Albany, which meant it began to snow inside the car, too.  No one I know can ever remember any Volkswagen having a functioning heater and this one was no exception.  The two passengers got in their sleeping bags and put on their down jackets. It was about 18º F, not counting the wind chill factor in the VW.  Sheets of snow began to pelt the tiny bug as it meandered pitifully up the Northway, blown side to side by the blustery winds. The driver’s side wiper would pitifully rise an inch or two and then droop down with a whimper to back from whence it came. It was useless and was just there to taunt me as I fought to see the snow pelted road through the fogged and frozen windows. Needless to say, the defroster didn’t work either.  After a while, I had to open my window to manually scrape with one hand and drive with the other.  It was a shame visibility was zero because someone should have witnessed this comedy of errors and reported it to the proper authorities. The ship of fools was being tossed and pounded by each gust of wind and wave of snow, breaking through the drifts as she went, putting Albany behind her.

The journey had begun and the first signs that it was not going to be a walk in a sunny copse was that it was extremely uncomfortable and cold in the bug, and not only for the passengers. The driver was baring the brunt of the difficulties. Just the eight hour drive to the John’s Brook parking lot in Keene Valley was fraught with challenges.  Although we made light and fun of all the above mentioned problems, the romance and chemistry was quickly wearing off. Reality was beginning to set in, especially as the temperature plummeted the closer we got to the High Peak region.

Things Usually Get Worse Before They Get Better

What should have been a six hour trip was closing in on ten.  Frozen and stiff, the VW bug, which was now literally caked with snow, slush and ice, pulled into John’s Brook Parking area in Keene Valley at about 6:30 p.m.  It had already been dark since four O’ clock. There were a scant few cars in the parking lot, all 4-wheel drive late models.  We spied a garbage barrel where I urged Tom to deposit the 8 empty cans of motor oil. I then secured the car which wasn’t a big task because it couldn’t be locked. Tom suggested that I hide the screwdriver that I ordinarily used as a key, under the seat.

Extremely stiff and very chilly, we set out down the trail to John’s Brook lean-to which was somewhere from 2-3 miles away. The snow had stopped and was spitting down a flake or two. The sky was now, for the most part clear and cold, glistening with a countless number of stars. The trail had a couple of inches of fresh snow but was quite well packed underneath.  All in all, the snow had to be about 4 feet deep. The moon was beginning to make its way over the peaks and gave us enough illumination to move comfortably along the trail.  Occasionally a clump of snow would fall from a spruce or fir unexpectedly down the back of someone’s neck. The cold night air was, indeed, quite brisk but after a few minutes, we were warmer than we had been any time in that last ten hours. Having arrived at John’s Brook lean-to a little after 8 p.m. we thanked our lucky stars when we found the lean-to quite empty. The thermometer that hung off Woody’s jacket zipper was dropping to just below 18º F, while the three of us were figuring out how to get comfortable in our goose-down sleeping bags on the hard wooden floor of the Adirondack style lean-to.

Boots and canteens were placed in the bottom of our sleeping bags. Frozen Gorp, pieces cut from an equally frozen stick of pepperoni with a couple of slices from a brick of cheese were washed down with a cup of hot chocolate. Anything close to a prayer before bed time resembled the plea; “I hope I don’t have to get up to take a leak!”

Nights spent outdoors in low temperatures are not always so conducive getting some good sleep.  For those of you who know the experience, one night like that can literally seem like a week.  You say to yourself, ‘oh man, it must be almost time to get up, what a long night’- and then you check your watch and it is 11:30 p.m. This happens about every 5 minutes throughout the night. 

Then maybe an hour before first light, you find you have a great urge to see a man about a dog.  Subconsciously you’ve been suppressing the nagging urge for hours already. Granted, it’s cold in your sleeping bag, but much more so outside. You wait until it’s almost too late and then after a flurry of rustling in your bag trying to get out, you take the plunge into frigid winter air.  You waited too long, so you weren’t able to throw on a coat or even a pair of wool pants - just a pair of long underwear and down booties. Hello! Your wool pants have a buttons instead of a zipper and your trembling fingers just seem to fumble at each button. Finally, with great relief, you manage to drill a deep yellow tunnel into the snow, wondering if you made it all the way to the duff layer. Then a mad dash back into your bag which still has trace elements of warmth left to it. 

A gray dawn ushered itself in gradually, cold and overcast but the temperatures later warmed up to around 20-25º F.  The first mile found Tom, Woody and Brian re-adjusting straps, stripping off coats or mittens as they broke into a sweat.  Icicles hung from beards and hair.  All had ice axes strapped to the back of their packs but Tom and Woody each had strapped on a borrowed pair of snowshoes. To me they looked like they were taking this a little too serious. They had suggested to me earlier that I ought to rustle up a pair for myself but didn’t get around to it. I did price them at a local sports store but to him the prices seemed prohibitive. The heck with it, ‘I won’t really need them,’ I remember thinking to myself.

The first half of the day was a leisurely stroll up a gradual incline that brought the trio to the base of Mt. Marcy, New York State’s highest mountain.  Conversation was light and pleasant.  This is what a backpacking trip should be, so I thought.  It was still overcast and getting a little darker about noon time.  It was obvious that it would snow shortly.  As we stopped for lunch, we immediately stripped off our sweat soaked undershirts, exposing our bare chests to icy Adirondack winds in order to put on something dry. Some Gorp and granola bars were passed around as Woody heated up some water for some Hot Chocolate.  Jack knives full of lint were pulled out of pockets, shaken and wiped clean on a pant leg. We carved slices off still frozen sticks of pepperoni and petrified blocks of cheese.  As we prepared to saddle up, each took a deep breath and put on a stoic face.  Bare chests were exposed once again and on went the half frozen, half sweat soaked t-shirts. Tom loved it but it paled in the light of bathing in an ice cold stream at 14,000 ft.  A light wool shirt was thrown over top.  We stood at the base of the summit looking up. It was all uphill for at least another 3000 some odd feet.  This is what Tom lived for.  He began to lead us up the trail to the summit, a piece of cake for someone who could run the mile in less than 4 minutes and 27 seconds.  In one of our casual planning discussions, Woody had suggested bringing powdered Jello® in small plastic containers. Every now and then one of us would take a hit of some artificially flavored Jello® for an instant boost of energy.

Since the trail was fairly well packed, it was fairly easy going for the first third of the way. As the climb got tougher, and the temperature dropped, our labored breathing escaped in the form of clouds as soon as it came in contact with the cold mountain air. Cheeks that weren’t covered by ice-coated beards displayed various hues of pink. There was a bit of noticeable transition as we ascended above the tree line. The side of Mt. Marcy was littered with the tiny tops of wispy flag formed spruce and fir. The wind began to pick up noticeably and the trail soon became wind-packed, hard as concrete.  It was decided that I should take the lead now because I was the only fool that that wore leather Reichle® climbing boots with Vibram soles. Tom and Woody sported Sorrels® with toasty wool liners. I didn’t mind. This was my chance to at least remain some what competitive, being the low man on the totem pole in light of wilderness skills.  It was slow going but not too difficult until we came to steep icy sections which took a little more care to negotiate.  Although on a clear day at this elevation, one could usually see the dark outlines of the famous Green Mountains of Vermont but from where we stood the cloud cover robbed us of the fruit of our labor on this particular day. 

Three and half hours later we found ourselves two thirds the way up Mt. Marcy. We had planned to make the lean-to at Lake Tear of the Clouds which was down off the North side of Marcy.  We had been coming up from the south.  It was also getting dark and it was only a bit after 4 p.m., and the wind and snow began to pick up. After a short discussion, Tom and Woody decided it best to pull off the trail on the side of the mountain, at 4000 ft. and set up camp. I didn’t like the idea but knew we didn’t have much of a choice. I also knew enough to trust Woody and Tom although in my mind’s eye I could easily see the three of us and our tent being blown clear off the Mountain. With a little bit of luck we were able to find a semi flat place to pitch the tent. After ditching our packs, I walked over to examine a little tiny Balsam fir poking its head through the snow behind where Karl and Tom were pitching the tent. I then suddenly disappeared completely in a puff of white snow. The tiny Balsam fir I was inspecting was really a five-foot tall Balsam fir surrounded by unpacked snow. When I approached the little wisp of a thing, the snow gave way and I found myself twisted in some strange configuration, on my back, in the bottom of a five-foot deep hole in the snow, wrapped around a little green tree. As I pondered my new dilemma, all I could see through the opening of the hole was gray sky.  The more I struggled, the more stuck I became. My shouts for help were almost completely muffled by the walls of snow that surrounded me. Panic began to hit me and I began to imagine freezing to death alone, only 10 yards away from safety.  Woody, looking for a ‘dead man’ (something heavy to anchor down the corner of tent), stumbled over what could have been a real live ‘dead man.’  He called Tom to give him some help rescuing me. Woody shook his head thinking to himself; ‘Should I be surprised’?  Tom, being the George Carlin type that he was, played the situation for all it was it was worth.

That night on the side of the mountain was intense. The three of us squeezed into the two man tent like three hot dogs in a single bun. The wind was whipping and the sides of the tent were snapping like sails. Temperatures plummeted into the single digits. No clue as to the wind-chill factor but one thing for sure was that it was cold enough to freeze the ears off a brass jug.  It was so cold, we each drew up the draw strings on our mummy bags up as tight as we could, leaving a breathing hole the size of a quarter. Conversation was light and what there was of it, was very strained. I remember taking a bandana and stuffing it in the quarter sized hole of which I drew the opening to mummy bag as tight as humanly possible to keep cold air from coming in. After a while, the part of the bandana on the inside was soaking wet from condensation, and the part outside of the hole was completely frozen. I reversed it a few times in order to get some air flowing.

I woke up during the night at least four times and when I woke up, I found myself in utter darkness, unable to move my arms and legs. Wearing wool pants and a down jacket inside a sleeping bag doesn’t afford much movement.  Not knowing whether I was in a coffin or in Limbo, I panicked. I wanted out. I shouted; “Tom, Woody, HELP-HELP!” After awakening them, I sheepishly explained my predicament to them, and we all went back to a fitful sleep, of course not without a couple of deep down guffaws by Tom. After about the fourth time I woke up in a panic, neither Tom nor Woody were too amused, but at least it gave them something to snicker about for the next few days and even the following year to come.  Woody continued to have doubts about my ability to survive this trip and rightly so!  Woody was more off a no nonsense type of guy and hadn’t planned to do any baby sitting on this trip.  After all, the High Peaks at winter’s apex are no place for the inexperienced.

The next morning found us embracing, once again, four degree weather with high winds. It was a short climb to the top of Mt. Marcy, which to our surprise already had a least 15 people milling about on top.  Some had obviously spent the night on top but didn't appear to be too worse for wear. The view was rewarding but not as clear as it could have been. High winds were assaulting the summit furiously.  Faces, toes and finger tips were quickly becoming numb.  Plans to stay on the summit for an hour were cancelled and cut back to a scant twenty minutes. Before we knew it, we were cautiously making our way down the steep icy backside of Marcy. We ditched our packs and made a quick jaunt up Mt. Skylight and arrived at the Lake Tear of Clouds lean-to (at 3,800 ft.) at about noon. Lake Tear of the Clouds is known as one of main sources of the Hudson River.  It was a small frozen over lake, covered by many layers of snow in most areas. Carl, Tom, and I took turns racing each other on snow shoes, and tracking snowshoe hares.

By night fall, temperatures dropped to around zero and nothing is colder than sleeping on a lean-to floor in the winter. Most lean-tos are set up not for practicalities sake but more for aesthetics as was this one. The wind just whipped off the lake directly into our lean-to all night long. I was less prepared for the severity of the weather, and therefore suffered to the largest degree through another one of those painfully long nights.

Tom, chipper as ever, took it all in stride.  Four degree weather the next morning didn’t faze him and it was business as usual for Woody.  As for me, I was struggling from lack of intense wilderness experience was hanging in there for the time being, anyway. 

The fourth day found us making a decision at the fork of a trail which was about 1500 ft. below where we had just spent the night. Should we go down to lake Colden and make our way across Colden and Avalanche lakes through Avalanche pass or climb up to Mt. Colden and spend the night at the Indian Falls lean-to, and then make our way down to the Adirondack Loj via Phelps Mountain? We decided on the latter, which, little did we know, would drastically alter the course of our events

The decision made was to choose the more difficult of the choices before us. We knew it was a risk, and it proved to be a near fatal experience. I guess the word risk has different level of meaning in different situations. 

Starting off in our particular direction, the trail was not at all packed like it had been the from John’s Brook to our present location. I immediately began breaking through the 3’ deep snow at every step, all the way for 5 miles while Tom and Karl effortlessly glided over the top of the snow with their snowshoes. I was becoming more exhausted as the miles piled up, and Tom and Karl were getting frustrated with my slow progress. Why didn’t I listen to them when urged me to bring a pair of snowshoes along??

Four hours later, with temperature still around 4º degrees, and night settling in, I stumbled into Indian Falls Campsite -elevation 3,500 feet above sea level. Tom and Karl were a little cold. As long as we were walking, we were fine. The minute we stopped, our sweat soaked undergarments became extremely cold. They were cold and tired but their snowshoes had saved them a great deal of energy. I had used all my energy up breaking through the snow at every step hours ago and was literally plodding along on pure adrenaline. It seemed like forever before I staggered into the campsite at Indian Falls. Where was the lean-to? Both Tom and Woody swore it was here last year. A sign mostly concealed by months of snow and ice told us that all lean-tos above 2,800 ft. in elevation were in the process of being removed to lighten the high impact camping that the Adirondacks were experiencing during the 70’s.  So, in the dark, wind whipping off the exposed falls, in four degree weather, three exhausted nineteen year-olds began to set up their small North Face™ tent. As soon as the tent left the confines of Tom’s stuff bag, a sudden gust did it’s best to rip it out of Tom’s hand and whisk it away to the four winds. It rippled and snapped like a sail while Karl and I tried to catch the flapping corners. Tom held fast. When the steely, biting wind took a momentary break, the tent settled and rippled gently on the surface of the snow. Tom was now shouting to me over the whipping wind to grab the right corner of the tent. I heard his voice but it seemed so, so far, far away. I could hear him well enough but I was just so tired, and he wasn’t making sense anyway.

Drenched with sweat from breaking through snow up to my waist since late morning, I began to feel extremely cold. The wind whipping up over the falls was going right through me. I stood there with Tom’s last words ringing in my head; “Grab the right corner of the tent….”

“I remember thinking, “right, what is right? Which hand is right, and how can I know? I think I used to know that —I’m just too tired. I’m so tired….”

Tom and Karl looked knowingly at each other. While I was trying to figure out which was my right hand, Tom and Karl knew that what they were witnessing was more than merely another prank or practical joke. They now had a serious situation on their hands, a life or death situation.

My body temperature had dropped dangerously low because of being wet, exhausted and pushed to my limit through most of the day. My body had used up every calorie and there was nothing left to keep me warm. I was long past shivering and my own bodily functions were not able to get my temperature up where it belonged. And the effects were not unlike that which alcohol has on the human mind. I was greatly puzzled at the concept of right and left.  I thought to myself, ‘yes, I once knew what that meant.  Why should it be important now?’  I heard Tom's voice echoing in my head, “Take off your wet clothes and get your sleeping bag out, sleeping bag out, sleeping bag out.” All I could do was to manage to change my shirt while Tom and Karl worked at breakneck speed to set up the tent. My futile attempts to get my sleeping bag out of his pack didn’t escape the notice of Karl or Tom.  As soon as the tent was barely up, Tom helped me to pull out my bag and lay down my Ensolite™ pad inside the tent.  Without urgency or excitement, he told me to get into my bag and remove all my wet garments. While I went about this seemingly enormous task, Tom shored up the tent while Karl began to heat up warm liquids for me. No discussion ensued; Tom and Karl worked like a team, knowing what each had to do without consulting each other. They used their own body warmth to bring mine up to where it should be, something my body was way past doing on it’s own. Only after monitoring the effects of the warm liquids, the effect of their own body warmth, and a dry sleeping bag could they know if they were out of the woods. Hypothermia in severe weather conditions is extremely difficult to reverse.   

The night itself for Brian was unremarkable and the only thing that really stands out in his mind is that it seemed to take forever for his sweat-soaked hair to dry.

The early morning silence was broken by Brian screaming for Tom to hand over the roll T.P. Tom had stashed in his bag. Tom was laughing so hard that the roll got stuck in the hole where his draw stings closed the opening of the mummy bag.  Between Tom’s hysterical laughing and Brian’s urgent screams the serenity of the wilderness morning was completely shattered. As Brian dashed off into the woods in a red union-suit with the bottom flap hanging down, strips of toilet paper streaming behind him, Tom and Karl knew they were out of the woods, so to speak.

Traveling that day was down hill all the way to Heart lake and the Adirondack Lodge where they rented a cabin with a honest to goodness wood stove, soft mattresses, electricity and bunk beds.  They basked in heat as temperatures rose to almost 40 F in their cabin.  This and the fact that they were a bit dehydrated made them feel as if they had had a few beers under their belts.

They had to jump start the VW Bug but other than that the trip home was uneventful.  Manfred Man's Earth Band's 'Blinded by the Light', was irritating everyone to death.  Every station they turned to was playing it every half hour, on the half hour.  They tried to catch the Super bowl but that was fading in and out.

What was strange was that the three of us never discussed the hypothermia situation together. I caught wind from Tom’s sister that Woody was disappointed in me. In his mind he had thought I was more experienced than I turned out to be. I downplayed the whole event and was embarrassed to discuss it, and for many years tried to bury it.

Thirty-eight years have passed since Tom and Karl saved my life on a frigid, wind-swept High Peak in the middle of winter in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains.  Yet, I never got around to thanking them. Things in life change so abruptly, time passes so quickly. I would never get the chance to thank Karl.  Less than a year later he was struck by lightning and killed while hitchhiking in Virginia.  As for Tom… a few years later he was diagnosed with a disorder that has left him rather incapacitated.  

I haven’t seen Tom since the early 90’s but I keep abreast of him through his sister, Meg.  To this day, I am grateful to both Tom and Karl for having saved my life.