By George I. Martin
When we moved from Virginia to New Jersey several years ago, we brought with us a teakettle whose color, robin’s egg blue, matched the counter tops of our former kitchen. It continued to serve us well, even though it wasn’t color coordinated with our new stove. It produced boiling water and whistled at the proper time, but it had become unsightly. It had grown freckles–rust spots–which made it contrast even more with the light-yellow gas stove on which it rested. So when it came time to get my wife, Sue, a Christmas present, I knew just the perfect gift: a yellow teakettle.
Easier said than done. I searched kitchen stores in the malls in vain. Teakettles in blue, green, brown, and even red were abundant, but no yellow. Other options were copper kettles and silver-colored (probably aluminum) ones, but I knew that to be aesthetically pleasing, the kettle had to be yellow—the right shade of yellow, in fact.
As the days to Christmas started ticking down, I became desperate. I could have bought Sue a new vacuum, for ours was a decade old, but her father had just two years ago installed a new cord; and, after all, the vacuum came out only when there were no guests visiting, so it lay unnoticed in the coat closet, its top still bent in from when my young daughter had sat on it many years before in attempt to get a ride as Sue was pulling it along the floor.
I once bought Sue an ice-cream maker, but she immediately returned it—probably because she never eats ice cream. I also kept in mind that my parents once gave her a large griddlecake cooker, but she had found it to be “unsightly,” and we gave it to the Baptist Church to use with its pancake breakfasts. The one fondue pot I had bought her I ruined myself by letting the heat get so high it scorched off the Teflon coating inside, and Sue hadn’t used a blender in years. So, knowing that Sue nevertheless likes practical gifts (she disdains jewelry or perfume) I decided to get her a yellow teakettle the only way I could, by painting it.
First I had to find the right paint. I knew that nobody just calls the color of a stovetop “light yellow”; it had to have some exotic name. With the color of the stove fixed firmly in my mind, I visited a hardware store and looked at the top of enamel spray cans to find a match. It was a cinch. The color, actually, was almond, which confused me, because I thought almonds were brown. I thought a more appropriate name would be “cashew.”
The trick was to paint the kettle the day before Christmas, for if it were gone too long from the stove, Sue would miss it, and I wanted the gift to be a surprise. Actually, we had agreed not to give each other gifts; but I knew she would get me a medium-blue shirt, for I had been lamenting the fact that I could only find light-blue shirts. So, I wanted to reciprocate with a gift to her.
I bought the spray can two days before Christmas and hid it in a cabinet. The next day while Sue was working, I brought the kettle and the spray can down to the basement and carefully used duct tape to cover the plastic handle and the small metal band of silver metal along the base of the kettle. I knew that Sue would find any flaws in the painting and comment on them, much the way she did whenever I tried to make our bed to her specifications (I finally gave up trying).
Of course I knew that I shouldn’t paint over the rust spots, so I used sandpaper to scrub them off, realizing in an instant that when they disappeared, blue paint beneath them did not appear as I had expected. Rather, the metal itself shone brightly. I lightly sprayed the first layer of paint, careful not to have any drops run down the side of the kettle. The color was perfect! For a moment I was most pleased with myself, but then I noticed a few hours later that where the rust had been removed and the metal had shown through, the almond paint had crinkled. I had never seen anything quite like it: no bubbles, just crinkles—dozens of raised irregular ragged stars, about a quarter inch across. I figured the problem might be a change in temperature, for the basement was considerably cooler than the kitchen. As the kettle accepted the temperature of the basement, the ragged crinkles would collapse, I figured, and I would just hide them with the second coat.
After a couple of hours I ventured back to the basement and noted with disappointment that the crinkles had not self-corrected. The only answer was to lay on a couple of more coats, eventually having enough paint on the surface to hide the crinkles. The second coat, however, did little to ameliorate the situation. Nor did the third or final, fourth coat, done just before we all went to bed Christmas Eve.
My kids dragged me downstairs the next morning for the ritual of opening gifts, and, sure enough, there was a package for me. It contained the medium-blue shirt I had wanted. I had actually hoped that Sue had not remembered my wanting it, for if she did not give me a gift, I could at least go out in a day or two and buy a copper kettle to replace the old blue one. However, as the kids opened their gifts, it became obvious that Sue wasn’t getting one—unless I gave her the newly painted kettle. I excused myself from the living room and went quietly down the basement stairs. I didn’t really look at the kettle; I just removed the duct tape, learning to my disgust that the spray paint had gotten on part of the handle.
I quickly wrapped it with gift paper I had left in the basement, and fastened the sides with one piece of tape (for we always try to save the wrapping paper). I brought it upstairs, and handed it to Sue, who genuinely wondered what it was that I could have given her that was in such a bulbous shape. The kids knew what I had done, but they had not seen the kettle since when it had been mostly blue. Sue removed the paper in one deft move. She was absolutely stunned. The silence was finally broken with her comment, “What did you DO?”
All I could think to say was, “Look at the color; it matches the stove perfectly!”
“You ruined my tea kettle!” Sue angrily responded, with a look of incredulity. The kids started laughing; in fact, my son guffawed while my daughter mimicked my wife’s look.
“A typical Martin stunt!” was my wife’s next response.
All I could do was explain my good intentions and tell her how I searched far and wide for a kettle, went out of my way to go to a hardware store, and took the time to give the kettle four coats of paint.
I got no sympathy.
Within a week an aluminum teapot I bought as a replacement sat on the stove, but Sue complained it was too large.
The Day the Engine Fell Out
As Mom used to say, Dad was hard on cars. He would drive them furiously over the back roads of the Adirondacks to and from the many part-time jobs he held: projectionist at an outdoor theater in Pottersville and an indoor theater in Schroon Lake; service station manager at Frontier Town in North Hudson; bartender in South Schroon; and electrician, plumber, and carpenter throughout many of the surrounding hamlets and towns. We were constantly buying used cars and making repairs. For two years I had limited, but adequate access to a family car, driving it usually on weekends to rendezvous with my high school classmates who would usually venture to Ticonderoga or Lake George.
The summer before entering college, while working at Stone Bridge and Caves, in Pottersville, I finally convinced a beautiful blonde coworker to visit Lake George with me for a ride on one of the steamboats. I was a third of the way to the popular resort town when the left rear wheel broke free from the car and went careening past my window as I heard the wheel hub grate against the pavement. I had replaced the wheel earlier in the day with a retread, but I hadn’t secured the lug nuts tight enough. We had a second car at the time, and, after I had called Dad to explain the situation, he drove out to help. My date was ruined, as well as any potential to gain her favor.
Perhaps Dad realized that it was time I was responsible for my own car, for shortly after that fiasco we drove to a used car lot near North Creek and looked around for something cheap. This was in the days when tuition at the State University was only $400 a semester, one-fifth of my father’s annual income. What fit my budget was a 1956 hand-painted, black-and-white ’56 Ford. The cost? Thirty dollars. The owner explained that he couldn’t guarantee how long it would hold up, since it had a small crack in the front frame beneath the engine. We figured we couldn’t go wrong for $30, so I drove it home the same day.
I lived seven miles from town on a 160-acre abandoned farm, and the only person near my age for miles around was a guy who used to come up to a cabin nestled in the pines overlooking Trout Brook, which ran down the middle of our property. Bruce asked me to join him on a double date with two counselors from a camp the other side of Schroon Lake; we picked them up, and he drove us to his family home about an hour away where I had my first sweat session in a sauna. I had done a double take when I had seen my Sally Ann. She was an attractive blonde who was a junior at the University of Maryland, but she had broken her foot, which was in a cast. Seeing her in a bikini in the sauna easily supplanted the initial image I had of her hobbling around on crutches. A few hours later, back at Bruce’s cabin we did some fooling around, but it wasn’t until I had my own date with Sally that I realized that a couple could do as well in a $30 car what they could do in one fifty times as expensive.
The summer over, I drove the seventy miles to Plattsburgh State, where as a junior, I settled in with four other guys in a basement apartment. I kept thinking of the car dealer’s admonishment that I frequently check the car’s frame, so in my third month of ownership I took it to a garage to have it put up on a lift. The mechanic was emphatic that I ditch the car. He said he could weld a plate on the frame to cover the crack, which had widened and lengthened, but that it would only postpone the inevitable day when the frame would give way. I called Dad, who told me to find a junk yard that would take the car. I found a place that would take the car off my hands but let me keep the battery (which was new) and the tires.
About an hour before the scheduled time to meet my father at the junkyard, I decided to take the car out for one last spin. About a year earlier the final section of the Northway, I-87, was opened through the Adirondack Mountain area. I recalled having traveled on it with Jeff, a wild driver from Minerva with whom I used to ride to college a few times during my first two years there. In his father’s red LTD with white vinyl roof, he would swerve around the barriers on the entrance ramps and zoom along the gravel roadway after the construction crews had left. One night after a day of riding with Jeff up, down, and across abandoned ski slopes in North Creek, we headed back to Plattsburgh. We again took the nearly completed Northway, but ceased our practice of trespassing after we sped over a bridge and realized too late that the roadway on the other side of it was a few feet lower than the bridge. The LTD had landed with a loud “whomp” on the roadway as in a scene from “The Dukes of Hazard.”
I rode down a section of the Northway checking for cops, then did a U-turn and headed back toward Plattsburgh. I wondered just how fast the car would do, and listened intently to the engine whine as it finally reached 80 MPH, which was fast enough for me. I then drove to the junkyard, and several minutes later my dad showed up to sign over the registration to the new owner. The man pointed to a vacant spot in a line of cars about fifty yards away from where I had parked. Dad and I got into the car, drove down a lane between rows of vehicles, reached the end, headed back toward the direction I had come, and then turned into the vacant slot. As I hit the brake pedal for the very last time, I heard a loud “clunk” and felt the car vibrate.
We got out and looked under the front of the car. There was the frame resting on the ground, the engine having followed it. As Dad and I removed the battery and then the wheels, he remarked that it was lucky the engine hadn’t fallen out while I was driving. I never did tell him that an hour before I had been traveling 80 miles per hour.
The “doe-slayer” had a cracked stock that was wrapped in electrical tape. It wasn’t much to look at, but it was lightweight, so it wouldn’t tire your arm after carrying it through the woods for a few hours. Dad had given the rifle its name because its caliber, 32-20, was just enough to stop small big game. I think it was nearly as powerful as the 30-30 you hear cowboys used in the days of the Wild West.
Dad carried a .303 Savage, a rifle he handed down to me shortly before his death. It had a tapered, octagonal barrel and was imprinted with the date 1888. When you cocked the lever a number in a round window on the side of the gun would show you how many rounds were inside. Unlike the 32-20, it had a strong kick, similar to that of the 12-gauge Remington goose gun we also had in our arsenal. We sighted in both rifles for fifty yards just before big game hunting season began, by setting up bottles and cans in an open pit that had been formed by the Town of Schroon highway department while excavating for gravel.
Dad’s hunting buddies were local State Troopers. Dad had served as the town constable for a year until a local drunk came up behind him and broke a bottle over his head. That was the moment Dad decided that his days of public service were over.
Five of us gathered in our small kitchen at daybreak. The plan was simple: the troopers would take a dirt road to the top of the small mountain behind our house, then would drive the deer down ahead of them through a large copse of trees dubbed “the pork barrel.” Deer always retreated to that area soon after hunting season began, for most other areas of our 160-acre plat were fairly open and provided little cover.
Outside in the front yard, Dad handed me the doe-slayer and its clip of bullets, and then the troopers walked northeast along the highway in front of our house, while we set out in the opposite direction. Dad and I walked slowly and quietly toward a cabin a third of a mile from the house, scanning the fields and woods on either side of us. We knew we’d be in position long before the troopers started driving the game down the mountain and through the pork barrel.
Dad didn’t say, “Make sure of your target before you shoot,” probably because he trusted I learned that in the hunter’s safety course I’d taken a few months before. He walked up into the field near the left base of the pork barrel, and I searched for a place on the right, about 100 yards from him. It went without saying that the woods were so thick that they would stop any bullets flying across them. As I tried to make myself comfortable by leaning against a boulder Dad had told me years before had been left by the glaciers, I thought of a hunting excursion of another time.
I was on lookout by an abandoned farmhouse at the top of the same mountain down from which the troopers were most likely now making their way. Most of the area in front of me was fields, but ahead to my left were sparse woods, birches, popular, and a few firs. From that area I began to hear the crunching of leaves as something approached me. I strained my eyes in that direction, then saw in the distance a small, white, inverted triangle playing hide-and-seek among the trees. The color was the same stark white as that exhibited by the rump of a white-tailed deer, but it seemed as though the animal was coming toward me, not bounding away from me. I never did raise my rife, for I was not using a scope, and I had no binoculars with me. Finally I saw a red plaid shirt, and a hunter stepped into the field. I waved. He waved back, then came over to speak with me. He was one of the men in our small hunting party, but I hadn’t expected him to be where he was.
Evidently my father had seen the man in the woods, too, for he joined us, and we talked in hushed tones, knowing that at any time a deer might enter the field in front of us. I waited until Dad stopped talking, and then made a statement that I thought would impress him with my judgment. I spoke to our hunting companion, “You know,” I said, looking at his open shirt, “I could see just the white of your T-shirt from a good ways away.” He looked self-consciously at his red shirt, then buttoned it up.
This time was different. Instead of hearing something walking toward me, something was running, bounding, crashing through the brush of the pork barrel. It was coming right toward me, and I held the rifle in the direction of the noise, but did not raise it to my eye. Within a few seconds a buck leapt from the woods heading straight toward me, saw me jerk in response to his running, and veered mid stride to his right. He crossed just ten yards in front of me, between me and the cabin, jumped across the highway in two bounds, and disappeared into the woods on the other side of the road. I had never been so impressed with the power, speed, and agility of an animal.
A few more seconds passed before I realized that I hadn’t even taken the safety off the rifle, that I had never aimed it. I thought of firing a shot into the air, but I wondered if Dad had started coming toward me, having the followed the sound of the deer between us. I feared the lie I would have to tell would be made worse if he saw me shoot into the air. Within a minute Dad was in sight of me, and I walked toward him, obviously excited.
“Well, did you see him?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I responded, “he came out by the cabin, but I didn’t have a clear shot.”
Dad didn’t say a thing. He could have been thinking that I didn’t want to risk putting a hole in the cabin, but I think he knew what really happened, that I simply froze up.
I had had my chance, and I blew it, but I was glad the deer had escaped the pain of one of my bullets ripping through its hide. Besides, only a seasoned hunter could have made a clean shot into such a target.