To the Vets out there, another one of ours has past.
He sustained a brain injury in WWII and today, that injury took him home…
A letter to my family:
It was around seven o’clock, Tennessee time on the seventh of December 2008…
I pushed the play button on the answering machine for the call I had messed. It was Billie, calling to let me know that her dad had just passed.
Stoking the fire in the wood stove, I sat staring into the flames as my thoughts drifted to all of the members of the Demasters family.
In times like these you tend to feel your mortality and ponder the past, present and future.
It’s when you get to the future that things become uneasy. Do any of us really know what comes next?
I am not a stranger to death. Because of my mother’s illness that began at my birth, my grandmother who lived on the family farm across the street looked after me. I was not the only one she was looking after. It was often a distant relative or Norwegian countrymen there because they had no living relatives left to care for them. The full Circle of life existed on that farm. The beginning of life and impending death. I learned at an early age that there is a time and a season for every purpose. I would like to share my feelings with you at this difficult time.
For those with faith, what comes next is spelled out clearly by your religious faith. Personally, I have always found God in nature not in the church. At a very young age I read a story in an Outdoor Life magazine that stuck with me for 45 years after only reading it once. I scoured the Internet and found a copy of this story which turned out to be one of the top 10 articles ever published by Outdoor Life magazine.
I would like to share this article with you because this is how I remember Bill Demasters.
The Road to Tinkhamtown
“The past never changes,” he mused.
“You leave it and go on to the present,
but it is still there,
waiting for you to come back…”
By Corey Ford
Condensed from “The Best of Corey Ford”
It was a long way, but he knew where he was going. He would follow the road through the woods and over the crest of a hill and down to the stream, and cross the sagging timbers of the bridge, and on the other side would be the place called Tinkhamtown.
He walked slowly at first, his legs dragging with each step. He had not walked for almost a year, and his flanks had shriveled from lying in bed so long. Doc Towle had said he would never walk again, but that was Doc for you, always on the pessimistic side. Why, now he was walking quite easily, once he had started.
It was hard to see the old road, choked with alders and covered with matted leaves, and he shut his eyes so he could see it better. He could always see it when he shut his eyes. Yes, here was the beaver dam on the right, just as he remembered it, and the flooded stretch where he had picked his way from hummock to hummock while the dog splashed unconcernedly in front of him. The water had been over his boot tops in one place, and sure enough, as he waded it now, his left boot filled with water again, the same warm, squidgy feeling. Everything was the way it had been that afternoon ten years ago. Here was the blowdown across the road that he had clambered over, and here on a knoll was the clump of thorn apples where a grouse had flushed as they passed. Shad had wanted to look for it, but he had whistled him back. They were looking for Tinkhamtown.
He had come across the name on a map in the town library. He used to study the old survey charts of the state; sometimes they showed where a farming community had flourished, a century ago; and around the abandoned pastures and in the orchards grown up to pine, the birds would be feeding undisturbed. Some of his best grouse covers had been located that way.
He had drawn a rough sketch of the map on the back of an envelope, noting where the road left the highway and ran north to a fork and then turned east and crossed a stream that was not even named; and the next morning he and Shad had set out together to find the place. They could not drive very far in the Jeep, because wash-outs had gutted the roadbed and laid bare the ledges and boulders. He had stuffed the sketch inside his hunting-coat pocket, and hung his shotgun over his forearm and started walking, the setter trotting ahead with the bell on his collar tinkling. It was an old-fashioned sleigh bell, and it had a thin silvery note that echoed through the woods like peepers in the spring. He could follow the sound in the thickest cover, and when it stopped he would go to where he heard it last and Shad would be on point. After Shad’s death, he had put the bell away.
It was silent in the woods without the bell, and the way was longer than he remembered. He should have come to the big hill by now. Maybe he’d taken the wrong turn back at the fork. He thrust a hand into his hunting coat; the envelope with the sketch was still in the pocket. He sat down on a flat rock to get his bearings, and then he realized, with a surge of excitement, that he had stopped on this very rock for lunch ten years ago. Here was the wax paper from his sandwich, tucked in a crevice and here was the hollow in the leaves where Shad had stretched out beside him. He looked up, and through the trees he could see the hill.
He rose and started walking again, carrying his shotgun. The woods grew more dense as he climbed, but here and there a shaft of sunlight slanted through the trees.
He paused on the crest of the hill, straining his ears for the faint mutter of the stream below him, but he could not hear it because of the voices. He wished they would stop talking, so he could hear the stream. Someone was saying his name, over and over.
“Frank, Frank.” He opened his eyes reluctantly. It was his sister. He tried to tell her where he was going, but when he moved his lips the words would not form. “What did you say, Frank?” she asked, bending her head lower. “I don’t understand.” He couldn’t make the word any clearer, and she straightened and said to Doc Towle: “It sounded like Tinkhamtown.”
“Tinkhamtown?” Doc shook his head. “Never heard him mention any place by that name.”
He smiled to himself. Of course he’d never mentioned it to Doc. Things like a secret grouse cover you didn’t mention to anyone, not even to as close a friend as Doc was. No, he and shad were the 0nly ones who knew. They had found it together, that long-ago afternoon, and it was their secret. He shut his eyes again so he could see it clearly.
They had come to the stream, and Shad had trotted across the bridge. He had followed more cautiously, avoiding the loose planks. On the other side of the stream the road mounted steeply to a clearing in the woods, and he halted before the split-stone foundation of a house, the first of a series of farms shown on the map.
Shad’s bell had been moving along the stone wall at the edge of the clearing and he had strolled after him, thinking about the people who had gone away and left their walls to crumble and their buildings to collapse under the winter snows. Had they ever come back to Tinkhamtown? Were they here now, watching him unseen? His toe stubbed against a block of hewn granite hidden by briers, part of the sill of the old barn. Once it had been a tight barn, warm with cattle steaming in their stalls, He liked to think of it that way; it was more real than this bare rectangle of blocks. He’d always felt that way about the past. Doc used to argue that what’s over is over, but he would insist Doc was wrong. Everything is the way it was, he’d tell Doc. The past never changes.
You leave it and go to the present, but it is still there, waiting for you to come back.
He had been so wrapped in his thoughts that he had not realized Shad’s bell had stopped. He hurried across the clearing, holding his gun ready. In a corner of the stone wall an ancient apple tree had littered the ground with fallen fruit, and beneath it Shad was standing motionless. The white fan of his tail was lifted a little and his backline was level, the neck craned forward, one foreleg cocked. His throat was tight, the way it always got when Shad was on point, and he had to swallow hard. “Steady, I’m coming.”
“I think his lips moved just now,” his sister’s voice said. What was she doing here, he wondered. Why had she come all the way from California to see him? It was the first time they had seen each other since she was married. He had heard from her now and then, but it was always the same letter: Why didn’t he sell the old place? Why didn’t he take a small apartment in town where he wouldn’t be alone? But he liked the big house, and he wasn’t alone, not with Shad.
He had never married; Shad was his family. There was a closeness between them that he did not feel for anyone else, not his sister or even Doc. He and Shad used to talk without words, each knowing what the other was thinking, and they could always find one another in the woods.
They had not hunted again after Tinkhamtown. The old dog had stumbled several times, walking back to the jeep, and he had been forced to carry him in his arms the last hundred yards. It was hard to realize he was gone. Sometimes at night,lying awake with the pain in his legs, he would hear the scratch of claws on the floor, and he would turn on the light and the room would be empty. But when he turned the light off he would hear the scratching again, and he would be content and drop off to sleep, or what passed for sleep in days and nights that ran together without dusk or dawn.
Once he asked Doc point-blank if he would ever get well. Doc was giving him something for the pain, and he hesitated a moment and finished what he was doing and cleaned the needle and then looked at him and said “I’m afraid not, Frank.” They had grown up in the town together, and Doc knew him too well to lie. “I’m afraid there’s nothing to do.” Nothing to do but lie there and wait till it was over.
“Tell me, Doc,” he whispered, for his voice wasn’t very strong, “what happens when it’s over?” And Doc fumbled with the catch of his black bag and close it and said well he supposed you went on to someplace called the Hereafter. But he shook his head. “No, it isn’t someplace else,” he said “It’s someplace you’ve been where you want to be again.” Doc didn’t understand, and he couldn’t explain it any better. He knew what he meant, but the shot was taking effect and he was tired.
He was tired now, too, and his legs ached a little as he started down the hill, trying to find the stream. It was too dark under the trees to see the sketch he had drawn, and he could not tell direction by the moss on the north side of the trunks. The moss grew all around them,.swelling them out of size, and huge blowdowns blocked his way. Their upended roots were black and misshapen, and now instead of excitement he felt a surge of panic. He floundered through a file of slash, his legs throbbing with pain as the sharp points stabbed him, but he did not have the strength to get to the other side and he had to back out again and circle. He did not know where he was going. It was getting late, and he had lost the way.
There was no sound in the woods, nothing to guide him, nothing but his sister’s chair creaking and her breath catching now and then in a dry sob. She wanted him to turn back, and Doc wanted him to; they all wanted him to turn back. He thought of the big house; if he left it alone, it would fall in with the winter snows, and cottonwoods would grow in the cellar hole. And there were all the other doubts, but most of all there was the fear. He was afraid of the darkness, and being alone, and not knowing where he was going. It would be better to turn around and go back. He knew the way back.
And then he heard it, echoing through the woods like peepers in the spring, the thin silvery tinkle of a sleigh bell. He started running toward it, following the sound down the hill. His legs were strong again, and he hurdled the blowdown, he leaped over fallen logs, he put one fingertip on a pile of slash and sailed over it like a grouse skimming. He was getting nearer and the sound filled his ear louder than a thousand church bells ringing, louder than all the choirs in the sky, as loud as the pounding of his heart. The fear was gone; he was not lost. He had the bell to guide him now.
He came to the stream and paused for a moment at the bridge. He wanted to tell them he was happy, if they only knew how happy he was, but when he opened his eyes he could not see them anymore. Everything else was bright, but the room was dark.
The bell had stopped, and he looked across the stream. The other side was bathed in sunshine, and he could see the road mounting steeply, and the clearing in the woods, and the apple tree in a corner of the stone wall. Shad was standing motionless beneath it, the white fan of his tail lifted, his neck craned forward and one foreleg cocked. The whites of his eyes showed as he looked back, waiting for him.
“Steady,” he called. “Steady, boy.” He started across the bridge. “I’m coming.”
It’s a clear cold winter day with a slight Southern breeze. I’ve taken Dad’s Browning, Sweet-Sixteen shotgun out of mothballs and my beagle Jed and I are going to take a walk. I’m hoping Dad can stop by for “a chat”.