Watchman on the Wall
[A short ‘story’ from Frank Lavoie’s novel,
“Life at the Center of the Universe“]
Many of us country boys were hunting buddies, even thought the rest of the year we were practically strangers. When deer season came, most of us managed to get on the grapevine, bringing
familiar faces together. I’d grown up hunting to put food on the table, so I was particular about tramping the hills with only the best sportsmen. Luckily many of us were raised on gun blue and trap
As far as could be seen from the top of Devil’s Staircase, most areas with good deer yards had secret names. Poorfarms, Red Oaks, Murkwood, all had seen the passing tribes, first the ancient ones,
the Abenaki, the Pawtucks, and then much later, fire-armed settlers on the Indian trails.
I knew a good part of a hundred square miles in the early sixties. There were a lot of deer trails so well traveled for so long they were like cow paths through the forests. Indian places and enchanted
spaces were special to me, inspiring a style of cunning stalking, tracking, and exploring which often gave me a transcendent mood. I didn’t know that word at the time, but I often visited my favorite areas as much for the sake of the opportunity for game as for the spell of elder sentinels and granite ridges where spirits dwelt and stonewalls spoke of past dreams.
Over much of the area, even deep woods hide stunted but hardy apple trees, and many times I’ve been pleased to find lilacs, lilies, and foundations testifying to the once populated and cleared
countryside where now only a few wander through the heavy forest. Ancient grapevine stalks eighteen inches through the base generate shady canopies over climax forests where once were fields and arbors across the hill slopes. How so much enterprise could have been abandoned eluded me until I recalled the history of industry and the activity and achievements that were much in evidence on the once milled watersheds, drawing the majority of rural folk to work there.
Under the neglected but persistent growths of European weeds and immigrated trees the dignified though interrupted stonewalls that once bounded verdant fields and fruiting horticulture were the ruins of an old world which in its agriculture and industry had borne the age which now bewildered us all with contradiction.
But beneath those simple ruins were the older traces of the noble symbiotic Woodland People, and in their own history, more ancient peoples still, put stone on stone in pre-colonial walls and trails, celestial and solar observation lines, some said. After the great ‘Wisconsin’ glacier period ended, someone lived in New Hampshire 10,900 years ago at the place on Lake Winnippessaukee’s
shores called The Weirs. I read with interest of acquaintances and a professor I knew, involved in that archaeologic discovery. But many of us wanderers had sensed with confidence the presence of ancient
influences in those enchanted forests and mountains of secrets, where we, like deer, have run.
During seasonal haunts in my territory, I knew where I could expect to find any one of several members of our ‘tribe’, at any given turn of the calendar. Spring meant fishing the smaller streams and ponds which warmed earlier; late spring carried us toward the headwaters and the peaks. Early summer was for exploration and camping; later you’d find us by the lake or beach. A boat was highly prized; many of us built our own little prams, gundalows, and pumpkin seeds. I even learned to water-ski.
It was a time of picnics and trips with cousins and visits to uncles in the mountains, and on rare days, the company of a girl.
Summer and Fall, we lived outside as much as possible. Up to the mountains, back to the valley, past the waterfalls and flaming swamps, hunting was the passion here when the first frost
began to strike bold ‘au-revoirs’ in the hardwoods. Even roaming in the early winter I couldn’t help but look at the woods. Everything was here, seashore, streams, lakes, great hills. We had grown part
way up with a good homeland taken for granted, wood smoke and all, and it was also commonly granted that most hills were fair game for a sliding party once snow fell.
Seasons and traditions, school activities and county fairs, dances, parties, all of it was part and parcel of living like Yankees in southeast New Hampshire; but something happened in one day that changed almost everybody’s way of seeing and feeling the world. The whole country went through it but somehow from here, shots heard ’round the world were heard differently. Closer to the scene, it didn’t happen, but from here, the Center of the Universe, a cascade of energy and events swept out into the nation like the ripples going outward from old Mr. Neely’s fishing bobber, dancing in a murky clay-pit pond with the power of a six foot eel, the savvy of a two foot ‘pout, and the stubbornness of a three foot snapping turtle.
In the quiet hours, and there were many then in the Lamprey River valley, fishermen would park by the side of the road and enjoy the peace once known by every inhabitant of the woods. In
season, their numbers rivaled those of hunters, and often one would, while driving the numberless and nameless back roads, cautiously avoid the cars half on the road and the crowd on every little bridge as well.
Pastimes were plentiful. With 4H clubs and square dances, sock and record hops, a sophomore in a small high school could do whatever he wanted, particularly with access to wheels. It was a good
time for growing, for looking into the future. By the end of one’s sophomore year at the church turned school, Watson Academy, one could expect college and a career almost for granted. Not that parents could afford that in ’62 any better than now, but it was a popular good risk many felt socially their duty in view of the cold war race, the rush to produce scores of technicians. We were already under pressure with air raid exercises and the Conelrad radio tests; these new adult concerns were thrusting unknown factors into our naive formulas.
The whist and rummy parties were lasting longer. Talk was starting to range beyond the new girlfriend, the recent car adventure or bowling score. The new menace wasn’t Mr. Freeman’s math
homework anymore. We weren’t worried about how much soda or potato chips we’d need for a party. Something was threatening the future we sought to inherit after graduation, and we were only half
way through high school. Social studies classes were getting more interesting and somehow even history seemed relevant, but as September passed and October slipped on, we were bringing feedback from home with more frequency and intensity.
The distractions I had enjoyed in season, like the small details of milkweed pods bursting white parachute fluffs floating off like
dreams, were lost, missed, overlooked, in the rising rush to grow up quickly. A missile war had become a real possibility, and it didn’t seem as though we’d be having the chance to just sit and watch.
My neighbor and friend David was a baseball pal, and one day he came over to play pass after school, as usual. We were having milk and cookies when his mother came to the door. She had a large
envelope and a strange look. We all sat around the kitchen table looking at an enlargement of an aerial photograph. I was familiar enough with the work of Dr. Goddard andvon Braun to recognize important details. I had been preoccupied with Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’, and ‘Travels with Charlie’ by John Steinbeck, and ‘Seven Days in May’ hadn’t escaped my reading either.
But I still wasn’t ready for what would follow.
The Soviets had been making a calculated risk in Cuba which was discovered on Sunday, October 14, 1962 by a reconnaissance aircraft. A photography technician sent his mother a copy of
a missile site photo while it and others were being taken, analyzed, and sent to President Kennedy.
The pride my friend’s mother had in her older son’s work was heard. But the Yankee in every neighbor who stopped by demanded we call the President. We did; the first to do so. A blockade followed.
The newspapers soon showed everyone. Impressed by the timely response, from our small town, Kennedy appointed the spokesman a token post. Honored and enthusiastic, Dad wrote letters
and speeches to the President’s Special Advisory Committee on Education. I imagined then that some of the input was taken to heart. With pride I showed a few friends the letters to my Dad from JFK. My favorite Kennedy quote wasn’t “Ask not what your country can do for you…” but a much less quoted one:
“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution necessary.”
Politics being what they were, by the middle of November, 1963, Catholics, Protestants, Quakers, pro-abortionists, desegregationists, everyone was in strong disagreement. JFK was angered by the failure of Congress to move on the tax cut and the civil rights bill. He faced crisis at every turn, but hit the campaign trail anyway, to Florida and Texas, causing much reaction. I remember some of the news, some of the talk, that the president was expected to announce the withdrawal of our ‘advisors’ from Viet Nam; add pressure for the passage of the civil rights bill, and the possible forcing of desegregation of public schools, and several other potentially hot potatoes like Cuba, and you may understand why the evening of November 21st was tense, even without
The political suicide potential of the Dallas speech was as great as the threat of reactionary violence or even civil war, as I recall from school and newspapers and neighbors and even my Dad
extrapolating something to that effect after the evening news. Later, he was pacing the kitchen, agitated. The Florida speech would be pale compared to Dallas, he said. For once I was just curious enough to pay attention. I had watched the McCarthy hearings, I’d watched all kinds of TV, and hadn’t missed a single Nixon-Kennedy debate. I was just a junior, but it was fun taking sides and winning, even at that level of involvement. What I had yet to learn was that for all things, there is a season.
“End of the season, score: one buck!” Bob’s voice was loud with pride as he came in the front door.
“Where have you been?” Mom asked from the kitchen.”Its well after dark and your supper’s been waiting on the stove for an hour.””Hey, Mom, didn’t you hear me? I got my deer today!”
“Whoa! Alright ! Where and when?”
“Way up near Nottingham Square. Butch and I caught two bucks and two does in a crossfire where there’s a lot of slash by the sawdust pile, just before dark. I heard drivers coming in from the
road toward us.”
“Butch get one, too?”
“Yeah, one of the does. One buck and doe disappeared in one jump when Butch fired first, then we both fired and the two left went down at the same time. He was a couple hundred feet from
“Clean shot?” Dad asked.
“Couldn’t miss, that buck was coming right toward me.”
“Didn’t he see you?” I asked.
“Should have, I suppose; he went down only forty feet away.”
“Four points. See for yourself when you give me a hand.”
“Put on your hat!”
“I’ll get a flashlight. You can hang it from the weeping willow.” Dad said.
“Its about one-forty, dressed out. I went down to see Jim about getting it cut up. He said day after tomorrow.”
“Lets hope it stays cold until then.”
“I think it should. You were real lucky, this being the last day.”
“Did you pick up the mail while you were getting this registered?” Dad asked Bob as he tied a longer rope to Bob’s dragging harness of clothesline.
“Yeah, its in the truck..” He answered as we pulled together.”Get it will you?” Dad asked me as he tied the knots; “We can see this better tomorrow in the daylight. Bob, lets go in and wash up.”
The Time magazine was in, dated November 22nd. I looked at that first. In a column titled ‘The Presidency’, an account of the November 15th New York appearance of Kennedy was
accompanied by mention of the close approach to Kennedy’s limo by a girl who popped a flashbulb surprisingly closer. A New York cop was quoted as saying she might well have been an assassin. And
yet it seemed no special guard or change in security would be effected. I’d hardly mentioned that when I lost the magazine to my Dad.
JFK’s intent to remain accessible to the public was seen as foolish mere campaigning, alienating his own supporters and giving his opponents comfort. When the late evening news reported that the President intended to ride through Dallas with the top of the limo open, Dad was furious, and even I sensed the danger. To some people, even the civil rights bill was seen as a mere political move
to gain the black vote, independent of its constitutional merit. The newsman finished the report and it seemed Dad was going to yell a proverbial Webster’s lungfull in spite of his proud connection with JFK. Then a curious calm stilled us all.
“Jeanne Dixon said he’d get shot if he went to Dallas.” Mom said quietly.
“I know that,” Dad said with less breath in each word. “and I know somebody’s going to shoot the man.” He looked frightened as we leaned across the kitchen table to hear what we could not
believe. He spoke just above a whisper.
“Sometimes I’ve almost wished some nut would shoot that bastard, but now, my God, it scares me. If a reasonable man can get this angry, it’s a sure sign that Kennedy will never deliver that speech,
or our part in it, I just know it.” He was serious.
He told my brother and I directly never to wish the way he had, and not to say anything about it. There was something between the worlds of adults and near-adults that made the full understanding
fall into an in-between land, where what is at hand seems mystery, and what may be seems clear. I thought I understood that as president, you could only get away with so much, and that rather than risk loss of support, much less political life and power, you’d have to compromise.
The essence of my interest then was not so much whether there was a chance of an incident on the political stage, but on the speech itself. Was there a part written by my Dad or me in that pile
of letters to JFK that now seemed so appropriate it was quite likely he’d use it in the speech ? And if he did use it, might there be hell to pay?
From school the next day I walked home at noon for lunch and to see the news and hear the speech that was supposed to turn the campaign around. I had suppressed my curiosity until lunch only
to find out that Kennedy was late.
I went back to school and almost forgot about Dallas. Not long after two o’clock, the principal, Joe LeBlanc, visited our classroom, and without his usual humor, invited everyone to the ‘congregation’ room. The mid-room dividers were folded back as everyone crowded into the large room, quietly murmuring curiously.
“Is everyone here?” He seemed unusually serious as he turned on the TV, shoulder high on a stand.
As the brightening field filled the screen with Walter Cronkite’s frozen stare, a gasp reached my heart. Something has happened! Walter is telling America and the world what for twelve hours
we had sensed, expected:
JFK was dead.
In the shock and confusion that followed, the speech was eclipsed,
perhaps even forgotten. For two weeks, regular classes were suspended. Special projects were outlined, and with the tremendous advantage of being a very small school, we took the liberties of debating and preparing for what we believed would be a time of trial and turmoil. Would Russia attack while we were still in
shock? What was the history of assassinations? Could we fill the leadership gap?
What was tomorrow’s graduate going to face? Anarchy? Socialism? More political intrigue? Could we make the system work by becoming city planners, teachers, doctors?
It was a whole new world, suddenly not so predictable, something less than stable, even explosive.
Later, I would look back on our mock elections and our plans for surviving what we saw as inevitable revolution with great satisfaction, but still I wonder how we were blessed with such
foresight, how we were privileged to see. I sought the undelivered Kennedy Dallas speech with some anxiety.
Although I had not planned to, I must testify, shaken, to the prophesy in what I had written, in John Kennedy’s own ‘last words’. The true prophet, its said, knows not the meaning of his own
message. These are the true concluding last words of the speech he had intended to deliver at noon in Dallas, but we know he was more than late. The shots were heard around the world. It’s a shame
we didn’t hear these words instead:
“We in this generation are, by destiny rather than choice,
the watchman on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefor, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility- that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraints- and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of ‘Peace on Earth, Good Will toward Men’.
That must always be our goal; and the righteousness of our cause mustalways underlie our strength. Or, as was written long ago: ‘ Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.’ .”
I put the November 29th Time magazine back on the pile. Johnson
the Texan was the unelected president, and the whole world was feeling the loss. The dignity of the funeral, of the mourning, sent me into deep readings about Abraham Lincoln and looking for the courses of black bricks in the walls of some of the mill buildings, placed as memorials to Abe.
Students wrote poems, pastors preached, and the TV reminded us often of what we couldn’t believe. I felt a small hope in me die, traded for an experience of history.
We enjoyed venison at Sunday dinner . Over the house, Canadian
geese noisily chorused, heading south.
“Kind of late this year, aren’t they?”
“And flying lower, too.”
“Does it seem like they’re honking longer to you?”
“Yeah, they sound sad.”
I listened to the great birds that for countless generations had flown
their precise formations over the forests and now the tilled fields. Flying V’s of victory, flights of freedom, flocks that had waited for their season, knowing well what would come to pass. I listened and wondered, unknowing.