Read Old Man Scanlon

Infernal Vermont

03 November 2010

Of all the celebrities I've met, including Massachusetts Governor John A. Volpe, Speaker of the House Joseph W. Martin, Jr., Ben & Jerry, Dave Barry, Dick Cavett, and a couple of the many division CEOs of AT&T, my favorite is Penny—I've forgotten her last name—who was Miss Vermont Aviation circa 1966. Besides being lovelier by far than either the Hon. Mr. Martin or Gov. Volpe, Penny has the distinction of being, as far as I'm aware, invisible to Google.

It pleases me to know something that can't be confirmed by a few touches on an iPhone. For all the casual observer can tell, the office of Miss Vermont Aviation may have been so truly ephemeral that it was never mentioned on the internet—or I might have made it up out of whole cloth. It was a Twitter posting, speaking of ephemeral, that triggered a series of Vermont memories. One memory led to the next, and Miss Vermont Aviation inevitably followed. The state seems to be responsible for a significant share of the unique, violent, or delightful moments I remember. It's only speculation, but perhaps Vermont has more than the usual quota of distortions in the fabric of space-time liable to cause such things. Maybe it's the mountains.

It was on Lake Mansfield, in Stowe, that I first met beavers in the wild. I'd just spotted their lodges, so I was elated but not surprised to see a live beaver cruising across the glassy lake, minding his own business, his bow wave propagating gently outward. Rowing toward him, I finally penetrated his comfort zone, and he reared up and dove, smacking his tail on the water. A couple more resounding smacks from the far end of the lake answered him. It was classic, electric; I knew the moment had registered permanently. Had a loon been calling at the time, I would have said I could die happy—if only I weren't still a virgin.

lake mansfield topo

The half-mile long lake in the middle of Mt. Mansfield State Forest offered, as you would expect, an ideal venue at which to swim, fish, boat, and do serious hiking. It's also home to Lake Mansfield Trout Club, where Penny worked, and where my family spent idyllic summer vacations in the late 60s and early 70s. The Trout Club had a porch down its length with a row of lake-facing rocking chairs, for which, in the vigor and impatience of raw youth, I had no mature appreciation. At long tables in the dining room we ate hearty family-style food; only once, when the staff served liver stew, were there faint murmurs of mutiny.

Sometimes the unexpected lessons are best, and pain catalyzes one's memory. Diving from the raft anchored just off the small beach, I plunged cleanly through three or four feet of warm surface water and smashed into the heart-stopping glacial fluid beneath it—my introduction to thermoclines. And even as a twitchily sensitive teenager I didn't learn the true meaning of the word "mortified" until I paddled my canoe over the lines of a pair of fly-fishing yankees.

Maybe thunderstorms are more genteel in the picturesque, gently rounded Catskills, but if Washington Irving had experienced our Mt. Mansfield thunderstorm I think he'd be less inclined to pass them off as Henry Hudson's crew bowling. The lake's in a valley, that is, surrounded by and intimately close to a bunch of mountains, nature's pre-eminent lightning rods. One night a nearly continuous barrage of actinic flashes illuminated us, each bolt followed a split second later by sharp, massively concussive thunder echoing from mountain to mountain. We could almost read by the light if it weren't for the bleeding from shattered eardrums. It was absolutely infernal and lasted an eternity; death lurked; I considered propitiating Zeus. For the first time I feared nature—a watershed moment.

Our acquaintance with the infernal didn't end there. It felt innocuous, not at all sinister—a five-second burst of sound like a sixty-cycle hum, perhaps a lower frequency, definitely a different timbre, powerful enough to sense viscerally as well as hear. I don't remember how I found out they were testing a gatling gun at nearby Ethan Allen Firing Range, and I never heard any of its specifications, although the intensity suggests that it was a large one. It would have been impressive to watch. On the other hand, I'm careful what I ask for. Even if I have to hold my manhood cheap, as so many of my draft-dodging generation do now that they've aged and grown up and are prone to thank veterans for their service, I'm grateful I didn't have to make a special all-expenses-paid trip to Viet Nam, where I'd likely have seen as much as I could stomach of that ordnance in action.