HIKERS AND BOTTLE MINERS
In the white gingerbread house on Elm Street in Indian Falls, New York, a light breeze, wafting through the open window shutters, ruffled Gert Carver’s graying hair as she sat and surveyed the gifts bestowed upon her at yesterday’s retirement party given by the teachers and staff of Cobble Hill High School. The children’s gifts of kaleidoscopic artwork were spread out in bright array on the table before her. Trendy luggage presented by some of her graduates was displayed nearby along with precious mementos from fellow teachers.
Still unmarried, having never met Mr. Right, Gert acknowledged inwardly that a thirty-five year career as an elementary-school teacher had not been glamorous, but she had no regrets. During her tenure heartbreak had gone hand in hand with joy…from a suicide of a seventh-grade student to the Cinderella marriage of a graduate. Yes, she had spent time and wisdom well. And she had loved all those children, even the runny-nosed holy terrors. Teaching had been the most satisfying part of her life.
One student in particular stood out in her mind as she read his gift card replete with thanks, love and prayers; Jeffrey Franklin, a gangling rascal she taught a number of years ago. Jeff had been a difficult child, but by using her instincts and an ear-twist when needed, she had managed to guide him well, helping him overcome his problems. Today he was a successful businessman, the President of the Milbourne National Bank and Trust Company in Troy, New York, and a loving husband and father. Yes, she mused, I have left a legacy. And a smile curled the corner of her lips.
Gert’s meandering thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the kitchen door. “Coming,” she called as she arose to open it. A rush of warm summer air greeted her on the porch landing where Nina Westacott stood, a pudgy, white-haired figure with a yellow cardigan draped over her rounded shoulders. Nina’s face lit up when she saw Gert. They had been friends for many years.
“Since when do you ring the doorbell?” Gert asked.
“Well, I figured today would be different.”
“No different than any other day. Come on in.”
Nina hugged her best friend. “How could you say ‘Just like any other day’? This is your first day of retirement, your first day not looking after the children, giving them their homework assignments and what-not. Gert Carver, are you sure you’re feeling well?”
“I’m fine,” Gert snapped peevishly. Her eyes caught sight of a golden-crusted pie nestled in a quilted pie cozy on the wide, porch railing.
“Nina, is that a pie I see over there?”
“Yes, it is. I baked you an apple pie.”
“Well, bring it in and I’ll make us a pot of tea to go with it.”
In the kitchen, as the kettle boiled, Gert turned to Nina. “My dear, good friend, we’re both retired now. Finally we can live out our dreams. And I’ve been making plans.”
“Plans? What kind of plans?” Nina asked, her curiosity piqued.
“What have we been putting off all these years because I had school to attend to, you had four children to raise and Harry to fuss over?”
“For the life of me, Gert, I don’t know what you’re hinting at.”
“Bottles!” Gert announced, “We’re going to mine old bottles.”
The next morning, after breakfast, the two women sat in close consultation in the French blue parlor of Nina’s meticulous Queen Anne house, two doors down from Gert’s.
On the fruitwood table, where an antique lace cover had been carefully folded and set aside, a number of maps and diagrams were piled. Two had been placed to one side. “Which dump shall it be? Hoosick Falls or Babcock Lake?” asked Nina.
Gert contemplated the maps, deciding. “Babcock Lake. The woods surrounding the lake are filled with old cellar-holes and rubbish heaps. There should be a treasure of antique bottles in the old tavern dump.”
“I believe you’re right,” agreed Nina, collecting all but one map, stacking the rest neatly in a cardboard box. “We’ll need shovels, picks, scrapers, pitchforks, and garden gloves. Let’s go Saturday. I’ll pack a picnic lunch.”
It was decided. And at 8:45 on Saturday morning, Gert and Nina, packed their gear in Gert’s maroon and gray Outback and set out for their new adventure. In quick order they passed through the business section of Indian Falls, really only a handful of stores: Porter’s Food and Drug Center, Harmon’s Farm Equipment Store, Falls Liquor Store, Carlys Beauty Salon and The Village Video. They continued around Tomhannock Creek to Highway 7, up a steep mountain road, turned left on a dirt road that ribboned around Babcock Lake, then braked to a stop for directions when Nina noticed a seasoned woodsman with a walking stick taking an early stroll.
“Hi, mister. We want to go to the dump at the old tavern on Babcock Lake. What’s the best way is to get there?”
The old timer moseyed slowly over to the cranked-down window. “You got a map?” he queried.
“Right here,” Nina said, handing the map over to Gert who handed it over to the old man.
The two women watched with interest as he scratched a gnarled finger over the map, muttering “Yep” and “Nope” to himself as he scanned the folded paper. Finally he shoved the map under Gert’s nose. “Take this ‘ere road ‘bout a half mile in,” he directed, pointing to a jagged line on the map. “It will lead ya straight to the ol’ dump.”
“Thank you,” Gert said, retrieving the map. She kicked the Outback into gear and eased it slowly down the road. As she glanced in the rearview mirror, she saw the old man looking hungrily at the loaf of Italian bread he had filched through the open window from the back seat of the car.
Later that day, in the nearby woods, two boys tramped the old wagon trail where Indian pipes, mossy boulders and bulbous polypous were plentiful. Eleven- year-old Lance animatedly explained to his nine-year-old brother, Douglas, that the trail they were taking would lead them through one of the loneliest and wildest regions of the Grafton Mountains.
Douglas dropped his hands to his belt, reassured to feel the attached flashlight and grateful his backpack contained flint, a map, compass and a whistle. No longer did he think his mother was over-reacting when she talked about how easily a boy could get lost in these woods. “Why don’t we wait for Dad? He said we’re to stay here and play while he fills water jugs at the stream. I’m glad I don’t have to fill those jugs.” He gave a sigh of relief.
“I know Dad told us to stay put,” Lance said, “but I’m old enough to figure things out for myself.” He glanced at his compass watch. “He’ll be back ‘bout 3:30. That means we have a half hour to kill. Let’s go into the woods a little ways, do some exploring, and then turn back.” Without waiting for a response, he briskly set foot into the wilderness.
In an attempt to keep pace with his long-legged brother, Douglas nearly tripped while looking upwards through the Christmas pines. Dark clouds stretched over the fading sun. “Mebbe we should keep to the edge of the woods,” he said as he whipped his head around, doubtful the darkening forest was safe. “I like to hear cars driving by. I want to be able to call out to people if I fall and hurt myself.”
“Aw, Douglas!” Lance said irritably. “You’re such a sissy!” He jumped into the air, brushing a low branch with the tips of his fingers. “It’s more fun nosing around than standing still, tossing acorns at squirrels.” He paused, and continued, “I hiked here last summer with Dad. There’s no ‘dare’ to this trail.”
“How come I wasn’t on that hike?” Douglas piped up. “I don’t remember walking through these woods.”
“You stayed home with Mom. You had an earache and had to take medicine. Remember?”
Douglas recalled the painful incident and remained sullen.
Lance went on, “soon we’ll be passing the old tavern dump and come out by Looney’s Pond . We’ll head back then, I promise.” He glanced sideways at his brother. “There are bob cats and foxes in these woods and BIG BLACK BEARS!”
Douglas looked scared.
“What’s that?” Douglas clutched Lance’s arm.
“An owl! C’mon, poke. We’ll never get to the pond if you don’t move faster.”
The tavern dump was spread out in a mile-and-a-half radius. A foreboding black cloud passed low over the woodland where mottled sun played on an island of ferns. In the next moment, a shaft of brightness lit up the woods in a golden glory.
Gert and Nina, in old clothes and loaded with digging gear, trekked across the moss-carpeted floor and stepped cautiously through rubble. They each claimed a spot and soon were unearthing Lady’s Leg whiskey bottles, amber Punkin-seed flasks, medicine bottles bearing local legends, Torpedo sodas, and unbroken, blue willow china. As valuables accumulated, they spread them out on the wild grasses at the edge of the road. They moved further into the dump as the wind-stirred leaves whispered rumors of rain.
“It looks stormy,” Nina observed. “Maybe we should pack up and come back another time.”
“There was no rain in the forecast this morning,” Gert said optimistically. “It’s just cloud cover.”
In the distance, a boyish voice rang out, “Look at those bottles! Neat-O!”
There was a ping followed by the sound of breaking glass.
Gert and Nina hurtled through gnarled scrub and piles of litter, pitchforks flailing the air.
“If you break one more bottle, you’re dead!” Gert cried out angrily at the two young boys plinking stones at the colorful glass.
Douglas flung down a stone, unintentionally smashing a ruby-colored bottle. He spun around and raced down the road. Lance zoomed at his heels. A safe distance away, the boys huddled together and peered at the two crones with choleric, purple faces moaning and caterwauling as if they had just lost a pet dog.
A flash of lightning and a loud boom of thunder announced a torrential downpour that offered no mercy to frogs, gnomes, hikers, or bottle miners. With the storm raging about them, Gert and Nina blessed themselves, pulled green plastic garbage bags over their clothes, grabbed a bag of salvaged treasures, and hurried toward the car.
Gert hesitated mid-way. “I’m worried about those young boys in this storm, Nina,” she said. “I’m going back to find them and bring them to the shelter of the car. You’ll have to cart our belongings. If you can’t manage, we’ll come back for them later. Here.” She thrust what she was carrying into Nina’s hands.
Nina took the load and braced herself against the strong wind. She sloshed down the muddy path to the car and unlocked the door. After loading digging equipment into the trunk, and being careful not to get dry items wet, she removed several stadium blankets and set them on the passenger seat. She made several hasty trips to the digging site to rescue the old bottle and china treasures she and Gert had bagged, and put them inside the trunk next to the tools. Then she pulled off the plastic bag she had placed over her head, shook it, dropped it on the floor of the car and climbed inside. She wrapped herself in a blanket, turned on the ignition, and dialed up the heat. With a hot cup of tea from a thermos, she settled back into the seat and prayerfully waited.
Soon, three sodden shapes emerged from the woodland. The car door swung violently open and Gert said through chattering teeth, “Oh, that heat feels good.”
Nina tossed Gert a blanket. Gert mopped excess water off the two dripping boys and pushed them onto the back seat of the car, shouting orders above the din of the storm, they were not to worry about decency. “Remove your wet clothes and wrap up in a blanket.” She ripped off the garbage bag covering her own clothes, slid onto the seat beside Nina, and blanket-dried her hair and neck. Gratefully, she accepted a cup of hot tea from her friend.
“Where did you find the boys?” Nina asked as she put the car in gear.
“They were trying to find refuge from the storm near the remains of the old tavern. When I arrived, they were glad to see me, weren’t you, boys?” Gert twisted her head around to look at the youngsters, shivering and bundled together in a blanket, their wet clothes lying in a heap on the floor.
“Yesm’!” Lance croaked, “and we’re sorry we broke your bottles.” He nudged his brother.
“Uh-huh,” Douglas muttered , relishing his new-found warmth and safety from the storm.
“Apologies accepted,” said Gert. “Now, let’s see if we can find your father. He must be out of his mind with worry.”
Gert directed Nina to drive slowly down the road in search of a sports vehicle parked on the right near the entrance to the old sawmill. The boys had briefed her about their excursion with their dad when she rescued them.
When they drew up alongside the empty vehicle, Nina looked quizzically at Gert. “Isn’t that the Franklins’ car?” she asked. “Does that mean…?” her voice trailed off.
Gert nodded. “Yes, indeed. Meet Lance and Douglas Franklin. Jeff is their father!”
“I’ve been trying to place where I’ve seen these two boys,” Nina clicked her tongue. “I knew they looked familiar to me.” She eyed the boys through the rear-view mirror. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen the two of you with your mom and dad.” She grimaced at the heavy rain hammering down. Jeff was nowhere in sight. “I’ll sound the horn,” she said.
After tooting the horn several times with no results, Lance piped up, “Dad has a beeper and a car phone. If we go home straight away, Mom’ll beep him and he’ll return her call.”
Gert tapped Nina’s shoulder. “To the Franklins’ house! You are a bright boy, Lance. Just like your dad.”
A tall, slender man with flame-red hair, wearing a rain-drenched athletic suit and tar-stained sneakers, stood in the entrance of the Franklins’ residence on a cul-de-sac in an affluent neighborhood. Color returned to his strained face as he hugged his two sons and wife, Carole, to him.
“The storm came on fast,” he explained, his throat still tight with stress. “I assumed the boys went to the car and when I got there and they were nowhere in sight, it felt as though a knife went through my chest. You’ll never know the thoughts running through my mind as I went back into the woods and searched for these youngsters.” He kneaded each bony shoulder and added humbly, “My prayers were answered. Thanks be to God and to you two ladies.” He released his family and went over to the two friends. “How do you figure?” He half-smiled. “After all these years, Miss Carver, you’re still getting me out of a jam.”
Carole gave him a gentle shove. “Take the boys into the house and get yourselves into some dry clothes. We’re going to have a picnic lunch in the kitchen.”
“Let’s hurry, Dad!” Douglas pleaded. “We’re starved! There’s tuna and macaroni salad, baked beans and cold corn on the cob; there’s a thick chocolate cake for dessert.” He licked his lips.
“Where did all this food come from?” Jeff laughed. “Carole, I know you didn’t just whip it up.”
“It’s one of Nina’s famous picnic lunches,” Gert explained.
“She and Miss Carver are going to share it with us and Mom’s adding ham and cheese sandwiches, pickles and chips,” Douglas said excitedly. “We arranged it on the phone.”
After reveling in the picnic lunch, the boys raced each other from the dining room to the game room. The adults retired to the living room with its cathedral ceilings and commanding view of a tree-lined pond. They gathered around the gas fireplace with hot tea and coffee. Gert and Nina shared their bottle mining adventure that culminated in their rescue of the boys.
“Those devils,” Jeff apologized while Carole looked embarrassed at the thought her sons could get into any kind of mischief. Jeff cleared his throat. “Seriously now, I’ve been meaning to contact you, Gert, to discuss a concern of ours.” He nodded at Carole then looked steadily into the surprised eyes of his former teacher.
“We’re taking Lance and Douglas out of the Hilton School in New Hampshire and enrolling them in Cobble Hill School.”
Gert set her teacup down on the round coffee table. “I recall you were dead set on your sons being educated in the Hilton School and not in a common school like Cobble Hill. What made you change your mind, Jeff?”
“Things haven’t worked out,” he admitted wretchedly.
“Cobble Hill School is where they belong,” Gert said in an even voice. “One of the reasons I retired early is because I’m at odds with education as it is being taught today. Some changes are for the good, but I’m a firm believer in the basics and repetitive teaching of reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. Still in all, Cobble Hill School is first rate when you compare it to other schools.” She thought for a moment. “I’d like to help the boys adjust to their new schedule. Would you agree to that?”
Jeff beamed at Carole. “And we didn’t even have to ask.”
Carole looked relieved at first, then narrowed her eyes, “What about your retirement, Gert?”
“My sentiments, exactly!” Nina exclaimed.
“Sounds like you have a problem with my tutoring offer, Nina.” Gert chuckled. “Speak or hold your peace.”
“I’m in favor of this undertaking as long as tutoring doesn’t interfere with bottle mining.” She clasped her hands together, resting her case.
Jeff made a toast. “To the remarkable Miss Carver. May tutoring and bottle mining go together.”
“Hear, hear!” Four Spode teacups were raised high in the air.