The boys, Dick, left, and Mick, right.
When the woods were ours, and dreams came true
a memoir by Mick Blackistone
As the Northwest Branch of the Potomac made its way to the Bay, it ran over rocks and limbs deep in the woods below our house. It was 30 feet across at its widest point and 10 feet across at its narrowest, on my two-mile stretch of the creek. I say my stretch of the creek because the water flowed through my own veins as it did the woods.
I, and my friends, knew every inch of that creek. We knew every rock we could use to traverse her cold water; every fallen tree to walk across above her; and every hole to see minnows and small fish. We knew her better than anybody, and she belonged to us as much as we belonged to her. Through wind, rain, heat and snow we watched her every move, from the trees along her bank or from the large rocks revealing their heads as water rushed by, day in and day out.
We, the boys, as we were affectionately called in the neighborhood, were four: Bobby, Dick, Dickie and me. Together or apart, we could each run through the woods like rabbits and hide just as well.
The woods and the creek were our sanctuary from the rest of the world. We built lean-tos and forts in strategic locations where we could watch the main path unseen by any trespasser. We had stashes of rocks, worn round and smooth from hundreds of years of running creek water, as our weapons of defense. We knew every oak worth hiding behind, every trail from here to there, every inch of the creek.
And we knew in our hearts that we could conceal ourselves for a hundred years if necessary. The Russians would never find us. For a decade, we used the woods as a place to cut our palms and become blood brothers, kill our first squirrels with slingshots, share our first cigarettes, look at girlie magazines, talk about what really concerned us and laugh about what didn’t. But I digress.
East Meets West
As a child of the 1950s, I was introduced to television and the wonders Walt Disney brought into our home. Above them all was Davy Crockett. Woodsman, Indian fighter, bear hunter, he was one of us, one of the boys, and every Sunday evening when the Crockett series was on we were glued to the television set. We learned valuable lessons from him, and we knew he could learn a thing or three about our woods and the creek from us. We were sure of it.
When Christmas 1957 was on the horizon, I put new and important wheels in motion. My sister, who was 15 years older than me, had married a rancher’s son from Wyoming and had moved west.
West … the frontier … Indians … Davy Crockett. It all came together as if by fate. I sat one night at my desk, and with my sharpest pencil and best handwriting began to craft a masterful letter to my sister.
My Christmas present, and the same for my twin brother, Dickie, had to be a buckskin suit with fringe on the shirt and pants. There could be no substitutes, no excuses. She and my brother-in-law could pull it off and, after all, all woodsmen from the West wore them so what would be the problem?
We knew, without reservation and despite my Mother’s gentle two cents that they might not be able to get them for us, that many men in the West dressed in buckskin suits when they worked or hunted. Our father wore a white shirt and suit every day but, by goodness, no one could tell us that buckskin was not still in where it was necessary. It was necessary in the West, on the frontier, and we would have it to wear in our frontier wilderness of the North Branch, an old creek that meandered to the Potomac and the Bay.
In a hundred years, I could never come up with the words to describe our anticipation and anxiety for the month of December. No other presents mattered. Nothing else would do. You see, the buckskin outfits would not only be practical clothing even though blue jeans and Converse high tops had proved sufficient so far but the outfits, broken in and worn smooth from constant wear and tear, would forever lift us to the upper echelons of deep woods society.
Oh, we could play football, baseball, tetherball and anything else with the best of them, and those would be nice gifts for anyone in their right mind. But our prowess in the woods is what set the boys apart, and the buckskin suits were symbols for all of us, not just my brother and me. My sister couldn’t let us down.
The box that finally arrived was about the right size and weight. A little big, but it probably contained something for my parents as well. Now the wait was on …
Inside the Box Finally it was Christmas morning.
Long before the sun edged its way across the horizon, we were up and ready to tear into the box. We woke our mother and were off down the stairs, leaping across the living room like white tail deer, tearing the box open like madmen. We sat, silent, mystified, staring into the box at our discovery. Two small boxes with our names on them. There was no way a buckskin suit could fit in one of those boxes. Maybe a pair of moccasins, but not an outfit, and moccasins, though good, wouldn’t do.
We both looked up at our mother, who told us my sister did everything she could to find true buckskin outfits, but she couldn’t find them anywhere. She sent what she thought might be the next best thing.
As I opened my box, I noticed it weighed more than a pair of moccasins. It was a bit heavy, which meant something inside could actually be significant. Within 30 seconds the presents were opened, simultaneously; you learn to do that as a twin so that a very cool present isn’t revealed prematurely.
A hatchet, with a companion hunting knife, attached to each other in leather sheaths that fit on your belt, were staring up at me. Tools, weapons of the woods, Davy Crockett had them. Necessities for any true believer were in our hands. They were the best, perhaps better than, or at least just as good as, a buckskin suit.
For the next hour we showed obligatory enthusiasm for other presents and wolfed down bowls of cereal. Then we were dressed and headed to the woods with our knives and hatchets resting solidly at our sides. We were invincible, true men of the frontier.
My sister came through.
Fifty years later, as I sit in my study and write this story, I know that Dickie, Bobby, Dick and I are still blood brothers. I know that I could follow a path through thick woods and spot great oak trees that would be good to hide behind and secret spots to stash a good pile of smooth, round rocks or set a lean-to. I know I could find a trail of rocks to cross the Northwest Branch or a fallen tree and cross above her. I know these things, and I know that I have left them for other boys to discover their own frontiers.
What I didn’t leave them was the hunting knife and hatchet, given to me so many years ago, which rest in my lap as Christmas 2006 approaches.
A waterman and marine industry advocate, Mick Blackistone, of Fairhaven, is the author of seven books: Dancing with the Tide: Watermen of the Chesapeake; Sunup to Sundown: Watermen of the Chesapeake; The Day They Left The Bay; Broken Wings Will Fly; Just Passing Through; and, The Buffalo and the River. In 1992, he was commissioned as an Admiral of the Chesapeake by Gov. William Donald Schaefer.