Monday, July 8, 2013

The Hired Man- A Prose Elegy

Ralph Nantel was what was once known as a "character".

He was the hired man at the Alfred Smith farm on the Unity Stage Road in North Charlestown, New Hampshire in the early sixties. He was in charge of that farm's herd of Guernsey cows, and he did all work around the farm that needed doing, for the Smiths were very old.

Ralph Nantel lived in a tiny white shack just up the road from the barn. It had a little black chimney for its wood stove,and though it was cramped there was always room for me and brother Frank to sit. Ralph would give us Wonderbread and margarine,and he let us read from his tall pile of "Grit" newspapers.

And he told stories and tall tales.

My brother and I lived through the Lost Golden Age of Free Children. We roamed. We visited. We swam in muddy farm ponds even after our mother told us not to. We went out at dawn and came home late, and no one worried or told us not to go.
And no one thought twice that we visited an old bachelor farm hand with a portly frame and a Kris Kringle beard. No one taught us to fear.

Ralph Nantel showed us how to hand milk a cow. He taught us that Guernsey cows were cow royalty, far above the common herd of Holsteins down at the Haynes Farm (though he did have kind words for Jersey cows).

He took us out to the apple trees in the pasture, and to one tree he particularly admired for its pink and green apples as big as an infant's head. It was the sweetest and best apple I ever tasted.

Once he let us bring home a stack of his tabloids and Grit papers. My mother was not pleased, for my brother and I were taken by the sensational stories that kept Mr Nantel entertained through his long ,solitary evenings . She did not think we should be reading stories titled "Murder by Screwdriver", and she told us so emphatically.This brought out the songster in my brother Frank, who on the spot composed a ditty called "Murder by Screwdriver Is So Good". He went around for an hour singing it. And laughing.

But our mother would never have told us not to visit Ralph Nantel, for she knew he was harmless. Imagine a contemporary American mother's view of children visiting an old bachelor man who lived in a farm shack.

Old ladies forget, but I remember two of the stories he told us.

The story of a river where the brook trout were two feet long, and where a fisherman could wade right in and scoop the trout up bare handed. As many as he wanted. This sounded marvelous to us, for we fished the Little Sugar near our house and found brook trout to be cagey and un-catchable. We settled for hatchery raised rainbow trout dumped into the river by the state trucks.

He also told me of a wildflower he had once come across. It had blue bell flowers and when the wind caught their stems, they made music like windchimes. Oh how I hoped to find that flower! I wondered if it was some kind of orchid-. But there is no such flower except in the imagination of an old man who spent more time with his cow herd than with people.

But we grew older, and for a year or so lived in Franconia. When we returned to North Charlestown ,I was a teenager. I never saw Ralph Nantel again, and then one day in passing heard that he had died.

I do not doubt that in the past fifty years his name and memory have disappeared. He lived a lonely and obscure life caring for a diminishing farm owned by the wraith-like Smiths. I do not know if that farm is still there, though I could ask my mother or even see it on Google Street View.

It might be better not to know. To just remember the sweet apples, and the sugar bush, and those happy days when we escaped up the Unity Stage Road to swim with the cows, to see the Bittern in the marsh, to visit with old Ralph Nantel in his little white shack.


Vagabonde said...

Thanks for coming to my blog. I finally finished part 3 but it took me a while to gather the old postcards, photos and to digitize the slides, but now I can again visit blogs. I looked at some of your past posts. You talked about Cheekwood Gardens – I wrote a post about them a while back – let me find it, here it is: .
Our oldest daughter lives in Memphis and the other daughter in Brentwood outside of Nashville with her family. We are driving there at the end of the month for our 2nd grandson’s birthday. I used to have many roses – 150 bushes including some old-fashion roses, but that was in the 70s when we moved to this house and now they are gone after too much shade and neglect. I like your post on Southernese – I use y’all sometimes, but with my French accent, it does not sound quite right. I liked the story of Ralph Nantel – quite a character as you say.

betsy said...

Thank you for the link to the Cheekwood pictures. I have been there mostly in the summer, but I need to go earlier to see all those magnolias blooming. I had no idea they had a magnolia collection-

troutbirder said...

What a wonderful wonderful story. It fits in with a theme on my mind of late. All engendered by a nonfiction book I read recently titled "The Last Child In The Wood." How sad....

Kay G. said...

What a fantastic post, I loved the story of the man you and your brother visited.
I had not thought of the Grit newspaper in years, sometimes someone would come aruond selling it, and my mother would let us buy it for a while until she saw some of the stories!
I like the sound of those apples, as big as an infant's head...

Sam said...

Love that story. Thanks