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

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