Friends near and dear to you are often so memorable that you recall the day you met, and many of the events that follow remain painted on your heart. Other friends, a very rare one or two, are those that were so dear to you that you cannot recall how they came into your life. These you carry the total recollection of in that empty spot they leave when they suddenly no longer with you. Before you understood how much they meant, especially when you are a child.
My friend Toby was one of those others! How he suddenly appeared is beyond knowing. All that I know is that I awoke one morning, and there he was; a shiny handful of silky-black hair with floppy ears and a nose that looked like a little wet ebony button.
Someone carried him in and put him into my bed with me, and it was love at first bite as he licked and bit my ears and nose.
How old was I? Third grade, I think, about nine years old or so. The summer of that year was when our family moved out to a village in the hills just outside our hometown of Altoona, PA. My mother, Emma, who was raised there and graduated from the eighth grade at a single-room schoolhouse there in the village of Buckhorn, wanted to be nearer to her parents. Her father, Ben, was paralyzed by a stroke not long before, and her mother was aging, so, she rented a house nearby, between the villages of Coupon and Ashville a thousand yards away from nearest neighbors on one side and the main highway on the other.
Sounds homey...right...and for the most part, it was. There was one slight drawback; however, we were awakened each morning to the sounds of heavy equipment operation as less than half a mile down the old road (a broken asphalt road that used to be the main highway) was an active strip mine where they were digging for coal and decimating the forest.
During a move, a nine-year-old is more in the way than he is of help, so while the packing and moving took place, they shuffled me off to stay with my eldest sister and her family, which gave me time to be very well acquainted with my new friend who never left my sight.
A particular, yet peculiar, aspect of my character that lent itself to such situations is that I was a loner. The seventh of seven children, I did everything on my own unless my nephew Richard (Rick) was with me. Beyond him, friends, for whatever reason, were of no value. A situation that has never changed. Let me explain.
Six months apart in age, Richard is the eldest son of my eldest sister, Shirley (image right), meaning that she and my mother were pregnant at the same time in 1951. Consequently, I was born in January, and he, at the end of June.
She was a beauty and, given the right circumstance, could be a movie queen. Alas, like her mother before her, she 'was showing' at the alter when she married Richard's father, Rocky, a most regrettable situation for her future happiness and one that shortened her life dramatically.
For now, however, all was right with the world. We were moving to a home in the woods where the nearest house was a thousand yards or farther away, and, when the strip was not in operation, absolute silence abounded but for the sound of the wind in the branches and rain beating on the leaves.
Those Woods Are In My Heart and Soul
We, i.e., Toby and I, explored those woods for miles around the remainder of that summer. It was paradise. There are no bullies to contend with, no cars, no streets to cross, no strangers to encounter, just miles and miles of trees, fern, and animals. Positively GLORIOUS for both Toby and me.
Occasionally, nephew Richard would visit. Unfortunately, besides being an asthmatic, Richard was a city boy, and although he tolerated the forest, he was not as akin to it. Consequently, his visits were very short-lived. Once while visiting, he had a severe asthma attack and had to be driven back to the city. On another occasion was taken to the hospital with appendicitis. Not a lot of good things ever came of his being there.
Living in the Cole house (rented to us by Bill Cole), a smattering of lean-to cabins were constructed by yours truly throughout the area by the end of that first summer. Each constructed for my quietus alone, where I pretend to be a mountain man or pioneer for a night or two.
Perhaps I should explain that my mother was a hillbilly. She and her brothers and sisters, all raised in these Allegheny Mountains, were accustomed to nature and completely undaunted when it came to spending time alone out in the open woods. Lions, tigers, and bears! Bullcrap! There is, and will always be, far more danger in any city than one will find out there in the wilderness.
With home not but a mile or two distant, I often spent the night or even several nights alone in the woods at that age, and if my mother worried over it, she never let on. She was born and raised in that environment and knew what it was, and I never counted it as bravery because it felt natural to do so. She also trusted my intelligence and intuition when encountering what was out there, and she was right in doing so. This secluded learning kept me from later succumbing to the frivolity of this world's institutions and nationalistic fervors, et al.
Usually, before sunrise, I would awaken, and Toby and I would pack for an adventure. I was equipped with my hunting knife, a small hatchet that my brother put a new handle on for me, and my backpack stuffed with supplies. My friend and I would set out in the direction of the Sype's fields about two or three miles distant and begin our exploration. A good hike before eating breakfast and setting up camp.
For cooking our beans and bacon, we would build a small fire pit surrounded by rocks, Just as I saw on the TV westerns, and we placed a couple 'Y' shaped sticks on either side of the pit with a cross-piece to hang the bacon over above the fire.
Our typical lean-to appeared something like this, only much neater and covered with fern, then a layer of dead leaves, and more fern. Clearing away the leaves and debris and a trench dug all around never failed to keep the rain and dew off of us and trap the heat of the fire.
Toby and I would share the beans and bacon, which always gave him gas. That little dog was a real tooter! As the sun faded, we sat together with full bellies, watching the fire, taking turns farting as I sang Johnny Matthis or Gene Pitney melodies. Real cowboy stuff!
The Warmth of the Fire
There were several occasions we would awaken to find we shared the fire with some friends. Most often, a snake of one sort or another, that knew instinctively, I assume, to remain distant. Perhaps enough heat would gather against the back edge of the lean-to where the sticks met the soil for them to find comfort as they snuggled in.
The sheer beauty of the forest is the symbiosis! Toby and I would cook our breakfast, and sooner or later, the snake or snakes would silently slither away. In any case, we did not harm one another as being in simpatico with nature dictated. A snake doesn't bite unless threatened or if it intends to feed. Fortunately, Toby and I were too large for the snakes to swallow.
The only animals I truly feared were of
Toby's ilk, i.e., domesticated animals that people taught to be vicious through mistreatment and neglect or both. These, fortunately, were few. We would, on occasion, find a dog roaming through the trees or fields starved and haggard that, had I carried a gun at the time, I would have disposed of them for their sake; they were so miserable.
But those that came to us begging often followed us home, where they were fed and survived. Healthy strays like the one pictured here, usually avoided us if and when we spotted one. Toby would bark, and the other would sniff the air and trot away. Many of those living in the hills allow their dogs to roam free.
Back home, Mr. Cole had two large pens for his hunting dogs; females on one side, males on the other. The adjoining pens were empty when we moved there, but by the end of the first summer, four dogs were occupying the pens, not counting Toby, who stayed in the house,
Before we left the mountain house a few years later, there were, at times, as many as a dozen or more dogs staying with us as Chez-Hound B&B. Some, a few the owners reclaimed, others were carried to the mountain and abandoned to fend for themselves when their owners no longer wanted them, so under my care, I gave the strays water, table scraps, and dry dog food daily.