I was a thirteen year old kid in 1963. I was raised out in the country in North Western Ontario, Canada. A neighbour used to quip that, “We lived so far out in the country we had to drive toward town to go hunting.” Not much seemed to ever happen in that place at that time. The Vietnam War was starting to corner more press after President Kennedy’s death; the British invasion in Rock and Roll was ramping up, I was beginning to take more serious notice of some of the farm girls in our small community.
Although I wasn’t old enough to legally drive, those washboard country roads were pretty much free of traffic cops or any other regulation so I’d drive them in the darkness some nights as a way to let off steam. I always had some old beater of a car I was trying to bring back to life. Whenever I hit a snag tuning a carburetor or adjusting the timing on an old Ford or Chevy I’d wander up the side road to see the three wise men. Actually there were four in all, but one of them never spoke.
After World War Two there was a migration of broken men that drifted outward into the forests around our area. Even as a kid I could tell that they were damaged. They lived alone or in small family clusters, brothers with brothers, fathers with sons. There weren’t any women. They didn’t understand women. They were shy old codgers that drank a bit too much, chewed tobacco and kept to themselves. They all had their stories I’m sure, shell shock from the war, a sweetheart left behind, abandoned dreams. I came to know them as fair minded men in their tattered kind of distinctive ways.
They were all good at fixing things, everything but themselves I guess. So whenever I had a mechanical problem I would make the dusty trip down the dirt road leading to the great oval bay on Lake Superior. I’d honk the horn to let them know I was coming and settle in to watch and learn as they worked their magic on an engine. One of these men was an old Danish immigrant. Henry was his name. He mostly lived on pickled herring and snuff and whiskey. Once in a while he’d ask me to take the pliers and yank one of his aching jagged yellow teeth out. I would do this without too much fuss. (My mother almost fainted each time I reported another extraction.) Sometimes I’d go a little further down the road to a one room cabin that was nestled in the trees on the lakeshore. Three brothers lived there. Zeb and Ben lived in the cabin, and their brother Pearl lived in the root cellar behind. He had to grudgingly move into the cabin for a few weeks each spring when the root cellar flooded. He read a lot from dog eared musty books. He didn’t talk or socialize with anyone, including his two brothers. Someone once told me he was a genius. I never knew for certain. Between them they sure knew how to make a motor run smoother. Sometimes I’d bring a pack of cigarettes or a bottle of whiskey I’d lift from my father’s general store. We’d have a smoke; share a shot from the bottle. They’d tell me some stuff about things, not too personal.
When I look back I remember something about them more than anything else. Whenever they spoke they never looked directly at you. They always seemed to be looking past you, over your shoulder at the road winding up around the bend, or out across the lake to the horizon and the gulls, drifting and soaring on the wind. It was as if they were searching in the distance, for something they could not quite see.