Lost in the Woods

A Short Story

© 2020 by Larry F. Sommers

[Larry pic]

Read Time: 18 minutes.

Below is the first draft of a story. You can help make it better by commenting on what you liked or what you didn’t. Feel free to make suggestions. How could the story be better?

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AN OLD MAN NAMED CARL SAT ON HIS PORCH, idly carving on a piece of wood. Nothing had come to him.

He studied the dog at his feet, Chief, who lay across the top step of the porch and snored peacefully. Chief was one of those fire-company dogs, white with black spots now gone gray. “Sleep well, old damnation. Reckon you got it coming to you.”

Carl’s gaze leapt to the pickup truck that stood by the road, dwarfed by tall trees on either side. He could not recall what color it had been, but it was nothing like that color now. Except where rust showed, it was muddy gray, not much to look at. But it still got Carl down to the store for supplies and back up the mountain as soon as he had filled his order. He knew the town people watched him, scratched their heads, and probably thought him a crazy old coot. But he couldn’t help that. Nothing could help.

Wood. Photo by Charlotte Harrison on Unsplash.

He sighed. He had carved Chief plenty of times, in all positions, and the pickup more than once. Maybe he should whittle out one of those fairy tale princesses. He used to carve them for Celia, who was partial to them, but had not done one in years. He shook off the shreds from his aimless whittling and took a new interest in the wood. Where in this block of pine would he find a princess? He saw a line and pressed the tiny blade where he wanted it to cleave.

“Hiya!” said a young, chipper voice. “Whatcha doin’?”

Carl looked up and saw a boy, standing a few respectful feet from the bottom of the steps. He stood fearless, looking up at Carl with eyes that pierced his heart.  

Chief raised his up ear but showed no other interest. He knew about boys.

“Just whittlin’, I reckon,” Carl said. He looked the lad over—six or seven years old, wearing a red shirt and blue shorts. “Where’d you come from?” 

“From home.”

“I mean, how d’ye come to be here, right now?”

“Walked.” He marched around in a circle, showing how. 

Carl pressed his lips together. When did kids get to be so sassy?

“We’re renting a cabin. Down the road. Me and Mom and Dad. For two weeks. It’s a vuh-cation.”

Carl examined his carving. “Is that a fact?” He drew another stroke down the block of pine. 

“Yessir. Can I pet your dog?” 

“Why ask me? He’s the one you’re addressin’.”

The boy frowned in perplexity. “What’s his name?”

“Calls himself Chief.” Oughtn’t take too much off the lower end. Princesses need room for their full skirts.

“Chief. Hi, Chief.” The boy sidled ever so carefully toward the spraddled dog. Chief raised an eyelid. The boy placed placed a hand in front of his nose, which hung off the top step along with his downside lip. Chief sniffed the hand, then licked and yawned. Courtesy rendered, he resumed his nap.

“He’s a nice dog,” the boy said in a tone of awe.

“He’s a ball of energy today,” said Carl. “Not this perky when he’s tired.”

#

“Where’s Kit?” It came to Genie that she had not seen her son for—how many minutes? Too many, here in this wilderness. She stopped stuffing food into the cupboards and looked out the kitchen window. Seeing no boy, she looked plaintively at Gus. “I told him to stay close.” 

“When did you ever know Kit to heed instructions?”

“Not yet.” She giggled nervously.

“Well, he’s only seven. Plenty of time yet for growing up.”

“If a bear doesn’t eat him first.” She shuddered.

Gus sighed. “Relax. I’ll go find him.” He strode out the door, down the steps, and out toward the gravel road that wound past the cabin. 

Genie felt mildly reassured. If Gus was not concerned, why should she be? He knew the woods better than she. Where did all that confidence come from? She longed to explore that, but all her experience told her to tread carefully. 

When they were dating—he first asked her out across the circulation desk at the library—he had been a handsome, impertinent young man. “Who are you?” she had asked. “Call me Gus,” he replied. “Now how about that movie?” She had countered, “I still don’t know who you are.” He spread his arms, offering himself for inspection. “I am a humble design engineer.” She looked at him quizzically. “And you want to see Pride and Prejudice?” He feigned confusion. “Something wrong with Jane Austen?” She knit her brows and questioned herself inwardly. “I guess my first thought was, for an engineer, you have a taste for the finer things.” He smiled from ear to ear. “That’s why it’s you I’m asking out, Marian.” “It’s not Marian, it’s Genie. And it’s a date.”

At dinner, after the show, Gus had chatted amiably about Elizabeth Bennet and Mister Darcy, measuring the film against fine points of the book—another shock to Genie’s system. But when she asked anything about his background—his youth, where he grew up, were he went to high school, he clammed up. He shunned all her questions in the nicest way, referring her to his employer, a design-build construction company, who he said would vouch for his honesty.

While falling in love with him, she assumed he would someday share his personal story. But now, eight years and one son later, she still knew nothing of his life before they met. Something had wounded him terribly, and he had walled it off. 

She was hurt that he would not share. All in good time, she thought, as always.

Gus was gone a long time in search of Kit, and she began to worry. Then she saw him coming up the path from the road. Alone, but not upset. That could mean anything.

She ran out on the cabin porch to meet him. “Yes? Tell me. Quick.”

“Relax.” He grinned. “There’s an old sawyer’s cabin a mile up the road. I thought that’s where he’d go.”

“Why did you think that?”

He shrugged. “Because that’s where the road leads. Anyway, I snuck up, hid in the road, screened by bushes, and saw him holding quite a parley with the old man and his dog.”

“Our first day here, and he’s out bothering the neighbors. But you didn’t you bring him home with you?”

“I wouldn’t say he was bothering the guy.”

“You said he’s a sawyer. Doesn’t he have work to do?”

Gus sighed. “Was a sawyer, years ago. Right now, it looks like he’s just a whittler. Probably hungry for any human contact.”

She squinted. “How do you know he was a sawyer?”

“Why else would anybody live up here? He doesn’t rent tourist cabins, I’ll tell you that. In fact, we were lucky to find this one.”

How deftly he changes the subject. “Speaking of which, what prompted us to come to this out-of-the way place for a vacation, anyhow?”

Gus frowned. “I, uh, found it in the paper.” 

“It’s our first vacation ever. You know Kit would have been delighted with Disney World.”

“And he’ll be delighted with these woods, too. You wait and see.”

“I won’t feel good until he’s back in my view.” 

“Well, here he comes now.” Gus pointed. “And all on his own. No coercion.”

Kit skipped in from the road, a smile on his face and an object in his hand. “Hi, Mom. This is for you.” 

He gave her a small wood figurine, less than six inches tall. “It’s a fairy princess. He said you’d prob’ly like it.”

“Who said?”

“The old man up the road.”

“Does this old man have a name?”

Kit shrugged. “His dog’s name is Chief.”

“Aren’t you afraid of dogs?”

“No. I like ’em now.”

“How much money should I send back with you?”

Kit gave her a look of incomprehension. 

“You know, to pay for this fairy princess.”

His eyes widened. “Oh, you don’t have to pay. He said it’s a gift.”

She stood perplexed.

Gus swatted her playfully with a dish towel. “There you go, Genie. One day in the woods and already the forest gnomes are giving you gifts. That wouldn’t happen in Orlando.”

#

When the lad showed up again the next day, Carl was working on a dog. 

The boy’s eyes moved from the real dog reclining on the porch to the wooden dog in Carl’s hands. “Is it Chief?” 

“I reckon it is. He’s the only dog I’ve got to model by.”

“But—”

“I know what you’re gonna say. The real Chief is just like a lumpy rug on the floor. Sometimes I wonder if he’s drawing breath. But this Chief I’m holding is standin’ up and rarin’ to go.”

“Yeah.”

The lump of basswood, on which the old man had worked all morning, had started to show a fair likeness to its original, except for posture. The flop of the ears and the hang of the dewlaps were dead on. Tiny striations from Carl’s blade gave the impression of Chief’s hairy coat, with even the dark spots suggested by minute cross-hatchings. The dog rose on his back legs, front paws flailing the air, as if leaping to snatch a treat from Carl’s hand. 

“You see,” he told the boy, “this is how old Chief looked a few years ago, when he was a gay young dog.”

“Chief is gay?”

“Happy. Playful. That’s what I mean. Just like this.” He held the object for the boy’s admiration. Carl was proud of his work. He might be just an old buffoon in a cabin in the woods, but he knew a thing or two about beauty.

The boy, who had told Carl his name was Kit, asked, “How old is Chief?”

Carl scratched his chin, as he often did when ciphering. “Well, let’s see, it’s about fifteen years ago I got him, and he was just a wiggly puppy then.” 

“Did you buy him at the pet store?”

Carl chuckled. “Oh, no. When you live in the right kind of place, people give you nice dogs like this for free.”

“For free!” Kit jumped up and down on the porch, causing Chief to turn back over his shoulder and protest. 

“Let’s go inside a minute, and I’ll show you something.” 

The boy followed Carl into the dim, cool cabin. Carl switched on a light. “Look at that.”

Kit’s eyes roamed the room. Every surface held carved figurines—in all woods, painted and unpainted, varnished and unvarnished, stained and unstained. They were in two or three subtly different styles, which the boy would not notice, but all bore the fine marks of Carl’s favorite tool, his simple, two-bladed jackknife. He had heard that there were knives especially made for woodcarving, but as long as he had a good, sharp pocketknife, what did it matter? 

Kit roamed the room, looking at dozens of forms—deer and badgers, Chief, the pickup truck, miniature tree trunks of the species from which they were carved, even beetles and toads. He reached out to touch a magnificent stag, and Carl wanted to shout, “Don’t!”—but he bit his tongue. What did it matter? The boy might as well touch them.

Carl picked up an eight-inch carving of a strikingly attractive young woman in a simple dress, looking back over her shoulder. He showed it to the boy. “This was my wife, Celia. When she was young. I lost her before I found old Chief. He never had the chance to know her goodness.” 

“How did you lose her?”

“She died.”

“Oh.” Kit’s eyes were big and round. Carl did not know whether the boy had any idea what death meant. Still less how quickly a fast-growing cancer could destroy a life.

Carl set the carving of Celia back down and picked up a smaller one, a little boy in cherry wood, an impish smile on his face. “It’s our boy, Otto. When he was little. He was fifteen when I lost him.”

“Did he die?” 

“No, no. At least I haven’t heard if he did. No, I lost him by sending him away. I was bad to him.” 

#

Gus wondered what he had gotten himself into, and how he would get himself out. And whether he wanted to get himself out.

“This is the forest primeval,” Genie said, spreading her arms as they hiked up the road. 

“That sounds like a quote.”

“Longfellow. ‘Evangeline.’ ” 

“If primeval means original, then Longfellow was talking about someplace else. This is all second-growth timber.” Gus stopped and gazed up at the canopy of trees. “Old second-growth.” 

“And did you just happen to know that?  Or are you an expert forester as well?” 

He shrugged.

“Anyway,” she said. “It feels primeval.”

“Well, there may be something in that.” He grinned. “Lots of primeval feelings up here on this mountain.”

Genie sighed as they walked on. “Sometimes I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Gus pointed to a bend in the road ahead. “Now hush up. Just beyond here is where the old man lives.” 

“And we’re hushing up because?”

“Just take a look for yourself, and you can judge whether Kit’s in any danger from this old geezer.”

“More likely the other way around, I’d think.” 

“Shh. Lower your voice.”

#

The planes of Otto’s face, caught in a large piece of cherry wood, revealed a smoldering anger. The anger became more focused as Carl worked. Clearly the anger was aimed at him, the carver. Accusatory woodcarving. Will wonders never cease.

He had begun work in the wee hours, unable to sleep. Now it was mid-morning. He whittled calmly but with weariness. 

Chief and the boy watched in silence until, at last, Kit could not contain himself. “I thought you said this was the same boy.”

“It is.”

“But he doesn’t look the same.”

Carl met the boy’s eyes. “The one you saw yesterday—Otto was about your age. I’ve made lots of carvings like that. But I’ve never before carved Otto when he was fifteen.”

“Why not?”

“Maybe I should have, but I didn’t.” Carl brushed a few crumbs of cherry off Otto’s face. “That’s why you think he looks different. He’s older.”

“But he’s not happy, like the other one.” 

“I’m afraid you’re right. He’s not.” The boy nodded, frowning, and Carl wanted to explain. “Nothing can make him happy. That’s how he was at that age.”

“Why?”

“His mama passed away. I didn’t know how much that hurt him.” 

“Why not?”

Carl sighed. “I was unhappy too. So I could only see my own grief. Not his. I’m afraid I beat him.” 

“Beat him?” The boy’s eyes showed shock. “You mean . . . ?” His hands formed small fists and plowed into his own thigh as he sat there on the porch step.

Carl hung his head. Finally, he picked up the knife again and continued work on the anguished figurine of his son. “Anyway, that’s why he looks unhappy.” 

“What happened after that?”

“He left home. I never heard from him again.”

Kit’s head whipped around at a sound.

Carl looked up. 

A woman walked in from the road. “There you are! I found you, you little rascal.” A young woman. A city woman, he guessed. A bit noisy, but she couldn’t be all that bad, raising such a fine young son. “Sir, I’m sorry. I hope he hasn’t been bothering you.” 

Carl set down his knife and the block of cherry and stood up. Now he could see the young man trailing behind the woman. He looked furtive, or embarrassed. As if he would like to reel her back in. “Genie,” he said. 

“Mommy,” said Kit. “This is the man who gave you the princess.”

She smiled warmly into Carl’s eyes. 

The young man came up even with her.

“Howdy, Ma’am,” said Carl. “Hello, Otto.” 

“Hi, Pop.” 

Her mouth dropped open and she stood there looking first at Carl, then at Otto. 

Otto turned to face her. “Otto Augustus,” he said. “Named after my grandfather.”

Carl cast his eyes downward. “God rest his soul.”

Kit jumped up and down. “Dad’s name is Otto? Cool!” 

Otto put a hand on his son’s shoulder. “It’s a long story.”

They all stood a moment, letting their thoughts settle. 

Chief scratched his ear listlessly. 

“Well, don’t just stand there,” said Carl. “Come on up here, where I can get a good look at ye.” 

The End

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Antique Road Show, Part II

Grandma and Grandpa Sommers, about 1950.

On October 7, 1949, my grandparents, 65 and 60 years old, cast their fate to the winds and drove Route 66 from Illinois to California in their 1946 Hudson sedan. Recently retired, but with enough savings to travel, frugally, they set off to see the Great West. 

They reached San Bruno, California, two weeks later. They had added 2,871 miles to the Hudson’s odometer and spent $143.11 in total for meals, lodgings, 150 gallons of gas, a new tire, and incidentals.

With Mabel and Bob

The reason they fetched up in San Bruno—near San Francisco International Airport— was that their daughter, Mabel Hiler, lived there with her husband, Bob, and their son, Dickie. Grandma and Grandpa must have let Mabel and Bob know they were coming—mustn’t they? Having known them, I cannot completely rule out the possibility they just showed up on Mabel and Bob’s doorstep one bright Thursday afternoon in October. 

Since Bob Hiler had a good full-time job as a mechanic with United Airlines, and since Dickie was a young boy, Mabel was almost certainly a full-time housewife. Later on I know she worked at a variety of jobs “outside the home,” as we used to say. 

Women drilling a wing bulkhead for a World War II transport plane at the Consolidated Aircraft. Photo by Howard R. Hollem, U.S. Office of War Information. Public Domain.

Probably most women of Aunt Mabel’s generation—which was also my mother’s generation—worked outside jobs at one time or another; but that’s not how it was supposed to be. For one brief, shining moment after World War II, all of America conspired to jam life back into “normal” channels. The men were to wear the pants, the women skirts and aprons. The men would bring home the bacon; the women would cook it, put it on the table, and wash up afterwards. 

Before long, that arrangement would crumble in household after household. How could we afford our everyday needs plus late-model cars plus television sets and of course the finer things of life that were advertised on those television sets, unless Mom took a part-time job “just in the middle of the day, while the kids are in school” to supplement the family’s income. In 1963, Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique would advocate for women as full-time breadwinners, no longer to be chained to traditional women’s roles.

Bob and Mabel Hiler, second anniversary, 1938

But I sincerely hope Aunt Mabel was a full-time homemaker when her parents came to California, since they stayed seven months! Grandma kept careful notes on their ramble  across the range, full of where they stayed, where they ate, and what they saw. But not one word about the whole time spent in San Bruno. It’s a mystery. All the principals—Grandpa and Grandma Sommers, Aunt Mable, Uncle Bob, and Dickie Hiler—are gone; I cannot ask them now and did not know enough to ask them when they were still with us. 

Just to picture all five of them spending seven months together in a bungalow in San Bruno beggars the imagination. How did they ward off madness? They must have done something.

The Hudson’s mileage yields one clue. By May 1950, Grandpa and Grandma had clocked 5,326 miles driving to and from California; but their odometer was 8,232 miles older  than when they started. Therefore, while visiting in California, they drove 2,906 miles. That’s about what it would have taken to commute every day into the city from San Bruno—but that’s a silly thought; they had no reason to go downtown daily. They probably made shorter trips for everyday purposes but also drove from time to time to tourist destinations such as Yosemite. (Disneyland was not available yet.) However, they left no record of such trips, nor did I ever hear them spoken of.

Stint in Seattle

There was also a month and a half when they did not drive at all, because they left the Hudson behind. Grandma’s notebook says that on Valentine’s Day 1950 they went to Seattle and stayed a month and a half. They did not drive, they flew. The flight was two and a half hours from San Francisco to Seattle on a DC-6, a modern four-engine prop job. In those days, most airline employees got free flights as a benefit, and these were often transferable. Most likely, Grandpa and Grandma flew United Airlines to Seattle on Bob Hiler’s employee pass. 

In Seattle, they stayed with Edward, the elder of their two surviving sons, his wife, Mary, and their three children. Uncle Ed was a pilot for Pan American World Airways and at that time flew out of Seattle, to and from Fairbanks, Anchorage, and Juneau. 

Grandma’s notebook gives glimpses of this interlude in Seattle: 

Grandma’s notebooks
  • “Sat Feb. 25 – Went to Everett by car with Mary & Edw. Called on Lloyd Engels’ at Everette [sic]. Up Monte Cristo Way as far as roads would permit. Too much snow Early in Season. Dinner in Marysville – nice town.”
  • “Sat. Mar 4. Went to Mt. Vernon. visited with Aunt Susan Beecher and daughters Eva – Ada – & Nina. Back by way of [Whidbey] Island.” They crossed the Deception Pass Bridge at the north end of Whidbey, drove the length of the island, and took the Mukilteo Ferry back to the Mainland near Everett.

Still, they must have passed a lot of time in humdrum ways. (The Space Needle and the Monorail did not yet exist.) Mary was a full-time homemaker and therefore, by prevailing notions, could entertain visiting inlaws without limit. When I knew her, later in life, she was a gracious, adaptable person. No doubt she met the challenge with aplomb.

On April 1, Grandpa and Grandma caught an overnight train from East Olympia for San Francisco, arriving at 11:20 am the next day. After another month and a half with Mabel and Bob in San Bruno, they headed home. 

West to East

Now the silence ends, and Grandma’s pithy travel notes resume the narrative.

They struck straight across country, going by way of Sacramento, Placerville, and Lake Tahoe. Grandma notes the rising topography: 

  • “Plenty Snow – Echo Summit – 7282 Elevation.” 
  • “State Line—Bijou Pines at Bijou near Lake Tahoe.  Spooner’s Summit, East Edge, L. Tahoe (10 miles from Carson City) – El. 7140 ft.” 

They spent a morning sightseeing in Carson City but still made Reno by noon. They got gas, oil, lube, lunch, and back on the road by 1:30. In those days you could leave the car at the gas station; they took care of everything, and you went to lunch.

Outside Heber, Utah, Grandma noted: “Drilling Surprise Wildcat No. 1”—a reference to a new oil well being opened up. Several more wells and refineries were noted as they made their way across Utah and into Colorado.

At Craig, Colorado, a flurry of notes:

  • “Interesting facts about Craig, & Moffat Co. – El. 6200 ft.
  • “(1) Largest wool shipping point in world.
  • “(2) Largest Gilsonite processing & shipping in world. 
  • “Moffatt [sic] County
  • “90 ft vein of coal.
  • “Enough to supply U. States for 900 yrs.
  • “1,600,000 sheep raised annually
  • “20,000 cattle raised annually.
  • “Many Deer.
  • “3,460,500 acres – area of county.”

Think on that, Gentle Reader: Moffat County, Colorado’s 90-foot vein of coal in 1950 was enough to supply the United States for 900 years! It gives one pause.

Enough Coal for 900 Years

First of all, how much coal is a 900-year supply? You need not guess, I can tell you.  The U.S. Energy Information Administration says total coal consumption in 1950 was just shy of 500 million short tons. So, a 900-year supply would have been almost 450 billion short tons. When you consider that just one short ton contains two thousand pounds—that’s a lotta coal.

Does Moffat County still have enough coal to supply the entire United States for 900 years? Probably not. For one thing, almost 70 years have passed, so now we’re talking about an 830-year supply. Except that we no longer use 500 million tons a year. The figure for 2018 is more like 700 million tons—so we’re using it up faster. 

That surprised me. I would have thought we use less coal now, because in 1950 we mostly heated our houses with coal—as a lad I shoveled it into our basement furnace three or four times a day. But now, we heat our houses with natural gas or fuel oil. So, why do we use more coal now? Because coal is burned to generate electricity, and we use way more electricity now than we did then. This graph tells the story:

Source: https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=37692

So, what I thought I knew—that we’re using less coal today—is what Will Rogers would have called “things we do know, that ain’t so.”

Even though we use more coal now than in 1950, the consumption trend is steeply down, having peaked at about 1.1 billion tons in 2009. This is for multiple reasons, including government actions, but mostly because natural gas has gotten a lot cheaper recently. Indeed, coal consumption may plunge below 1950 levels and continue downward. 

There is a retrospective irony in all this. Moffat County could soon have a 900-year supply of coal once again, but it may no longer be worth mining. Still, economics being unpredictable, a resurgence of coal, or a plateau in its decline, may be in the offing. However, I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. Meanwhile, they still mine coal in Moffat County. 

Through the Rockies and Home

Grandpa and Grandma continued through the Rockies via Steamboat Springs, then on through snow-covered Rabbit Ears Pass at 9,680 feet, and across the Continental Divide at Berthoud Pass—11,314 feet. Arriving in the Denver suburb of Englewood, Grandma wrote: “1418 miles Denver from San Bruno. Lg. wet snow with trees & elec. wires down making streets impassable – so had to stay here 3 days.” They left Englewood Saturday, May 27, and drove home through Kansas and Missouri, noting “Lots of black walnuts” around Seneca, Kansas, and “lots of apples & some peaches” near Troy, Kansas. 

On May 29, 1950, they arrived at Dwight, Illinois. Now, the thing about Dwight is that we lived there. My father, Lloyd E. Sommers, was the second of two sons who survived the Second World War. He was a radioman with the 132nd Infantry in the South Pacific. Uncle Ed was a Naval Reserve pilot who continued to fly in his civilian capacity for Pan Am. Uncles Stanley and Franklin, bomber pilots, were shot down early in the war—Stanley in the Solomon Islands, Franklin over France. 

In 1950 we lived in Dwight, where Dad taught high school chemistry. I was nearly five. My sister, Cynda Jo, was born May 2, 1950. She was a 27-day-old baby when Grandma and Grandpa came to visit us on their way home. I would be fibbing if I said I remember their visit. But Grandma’s book says they stayed three days. They needed to ogle the new arrival, no doubt.

They reached home on June 2, having spent $143.30 for gas, oil, food, shelter, and incidentals on the road between California and Illinois. It was a long trip, but it must have satisfied their longings for that kind of adventure, for they never went West again.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author