William Bradley

Ham’s Lesson

William Bradley

To avoid an argument, we headed east, my wife and I, on Highway 68. We drove away from Canton and towards Sevey’s Corners in order to find some evidence of a life that had ended 20 years before, hoping that the experience might result in something to write about.
            Ham Ferry had been something of a legendary figure in this area of the Adirondacks, holding court in the small hamlet’s only bar—the bar that they named after him, I’m pretty sure—Ham’s Inn. This place, according to the website of the organization Traditional Arts of Upstate New York, was “[Ham’s] natural setting and the spot where he held listeners rapt for hours on end.” He was a raconteur, telling stories and tall tales involving naturally-gifted hunting dogs, North Country wild life, and teasing the game warden who was a bit too excited to exercise his authority over the plain-spoken rural hunters in his bailiwick.
            I first became aware of Ham Ferry when Emily and I purchased a CD titled Funny Men of the Adirondacks, which collected recordings of these old men of rural upstate New York telling their stories. While all of them had some charm, I found myself most drawn to Ferry’s. Perhaps because he had died much earlier than most of the other men—in 1994, the same year that I moved to the North Country for the first time—he seemed even more anachronistic. He sounded like someone who lived in and described a world that ceased to exist shortly before I was born.
            Upstate New York is still pretty wild in many respects; the state has done a good job protecting the natural, untouched beauty of the Adirondack State Park. You don’t have to travel too far on any given hiking trail to get the feeling that you’ve left humanity behind. You can still find the old fire towers, where watchers would stand and enjoy the broad, expansive views of valleys filled with spruce, pine, and fir trees, and you can enjoy the same view yourself and marvel at the natural beauty and sense of history these towers provide. But similarly, you don’t have to walk back for very long to return to a world of Wal-Marts and McDonalds and IMAX movie theaters.
            Ham Ferry lived in a North Country of scattered general stores, locally-owned taverns, and old men sitting on barstools telling stories to an amused and grateful crowd of beer drinkers. I can picture these people—hunters and their wives, maybe– sitting in Ham’s Inn, glasses in hand. A cloud of smoke hangs in the air. Outside, the wind is whipping and the snow is accumulating on the ground, but the people inside are warm from the wood stove and the alcohol they have consumed. All but one are silent, their eyes are on skinny, bald Ham Ferry as he concludes the story about the old-timer who ran out of shot and wound up loading his muzzleloader with cherry pits, and the deer he shot who nonetheless got away. How the old hunter, in the same woods a year later, came across a most amazing sight. “It was that buck he shot at before, the fall before,” he says in his quiet, raspy voice, “and the cherries were growin’ out on both sides of it.” The sound of laughter fills the bar, and Ham smiles as he lifts his own glass to his lips.
            It’s not that I want to live in Ham Ferry’s world, mind you. I love those IMAX movie theaters. But it’s a nice place to visit, in old photographs and audio recordings. And though some efforts have been made to preserve what we have left of it, I fear that that world is in danger of being lost forever.
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            I don’t know quite what my wife and I were hoping to find when we made our pilgrimage to Sevey’s Corners. I was pretty sure Ham’s Inn had been closed for years, and I doubted we’d find anybody who had known the man. I guess, maybe, we might have hoped to find a bar like the one Ham frequented. The one thing I did know is that we had been in the process of moving from one apartment to another, and that this was the first move we’d ever made where we didn’t get into a fight about something. We’ve moved together six times in our twelve year relationship, and I’ve found that whether it’s frustration over getting the cable guy to hook up our Internet or stress about the money spent on U-Hauls and security deposits, we usually find something to snap at each other over at some point during the process. That we hadn’t so far this time was cause for some celebration, but there was also the nagging fear that the fight was just around the corner. That suddenly one of us would find a water-damaged box of books or a broken heirloom, shout “Goddamn it!” in response, jangling the nerves of the other to the point that we’d both stop putting in the effort to be pleasant while dealing with the stresses of the move.
            So, when she realized she had not hooked the washing machine up properly—she emerged from the basement soaked from head to toe, face red, clearly on the verge of crying—I very gently suggested, “You know, we’ve been working really hard. Why don’t we go out to lunch and then drive around for a while?”
            This is what Emily and I tend to do in moments of stress or fatigue. Get in the car with a map and a sense of an eventual destination, always on the lookout for the strange and photograph-worthy. With the likes of David Bowie, Kanye West, and Sleater Kinney providing the soundtrack on various mix CDs we burn for each other, we have travelled all over the Midwest, rural South, and Northeast. I have a photo of Emily in front of Sumner, Missouri’s giant concrete goose, Maxie. Emily has a picture of me standing beside what some say is the world’s largest pecan (although the residents of Seguin, Texas dispute this claim, insisting that their pecan is larger). We have visited a museum dedicated to presenting the “evidence” for Creationism, where we both struggled to be polite to the nice but dangerously wrongheaded people working there.
            We drank beer in a bar called The Drunken Monkey with a man who introduced himself to us by declaring, “I played 36 holes of golf today. On meth.” We have found ourselves in a tavern watching Wheel of Fortune and eating chicken gizzards while the woman who worked behind the bar patiently explained to us—the strangers who had just wandered into her bar– just what a chicken gizzard is. We once met a guy with a face spiderwebbed by broken blood vessels who kept coughing into his handkerchief as he told us about working construction when Disney built Epcot Center.
            In Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” the girl asks her lover, “That’s all we do, isn’t it—look at things and try new drinks?” But when Emily talks about that story, she always adds, “But she says that like it’s a bad thing.” Emily and I have driven all over this country, stopping in various small town bars, and we inevitably wind up talking to strangers with stories to tell. As one guy talks about hunting rabbits or another woman tells us about how her girlfriend has turned into a jealous psycho, as Johnny Cash plays on the jukebox or a baseball game plays on the TV mounted behind the bar, our fingers inevitably find each other under the table. We squeeze each other’s hand, and that squeeze seems to say, “I’m having an awesome day. And I love you.”
            In fact, when we renewed our wedding vows a couple of years ago, each of us promised the other that we would never grow tired of looking at things and trying new drinks.
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            It turns out there wasn’t much to look at in Sevey’s Corners, and there wasn’t a place to try any type of drink, old or new. Of course, I knew we weren’t going to find Ham himself—he was long dead. But I guess maybe, now that I think about it, I was hoping to find Ham’s doppelganger—another old man with interesting stories who could hold court while Emily and I listened. I’m not a gregarious guy myself, and though I write essays, I’m not always comfortable talking about myself. But I’m always curious to hear what other people have to say—especially when they’ve had experiences and lived lives that aren’t anything like my own. The stories they tell might be true, but then again, maybe not. But I always find such conversations instructive. They remind me that the world is bigger than I sometimes think it is, and that other people—strangers I’ll never see or hear from again—are living their remarkable lives as I go on with mine.
            I have ambivalent feelings about the inevitable forward march of time. Without progression, we can’t have progress, and we’d be stuck cooking all of our food over open flames and voting for men like George Wallace and Jesse Helms. I don’t want that. But I also don’t want to grow old and die. And I don’t want my wife to grow old and die. I want to freeze us in a perpetual present, where we’re both happy and energetic. I don’t need for us to be teenagers or twentysomethings or in the best shape of our lives—it’s not vanity, you see. But I don’t want one of us to become immobile or comatose or dead. I don’t want us to break each other’s hearts like that.
            But if time insists on moving forward, and the universe insists on denying us a fountain of youth, we’ll do just that. So I’d like to make sure I don’t squander the time allotted to us by fighting or forgetting to be grateful for what we have in each other. We have been together for twelve years and married for almost ten, and she’s still my favorite person to be around. It’s easy to be married to her—she’s supportive and agreeable and has an excellent sense of humor. I think she would probably say that she finds me supportive and agreeable and that my sense of humor isn’t too absurd or annoying. We have a satisfying sex life—I’ve never felt particularly attracted to another woman, and if she has been overwhelmed with lust for another man she has had the good sense to refrain from telling me about it.
            It’s a powerful and incredible thing, this love. But it will end eventually, as everything does. And people likely won’t be sitting in a bar in some small town telling the story of the Adirondack Boy who brought his Chicago Girl back to the North Country. And even if there was some Ham Ferry to tell the tale, he would die eventually too.
            We’ll continue to have arguments. We’ll take each other for granted sometimes, and we’ll continue to let life’s frustrations distract us from that which actually matters. I don’t think that can be avoided. But what we can do—all we really can do, it seems to me– is remember that we periodically need to get in the car together with music we can agree on and a couple of sodas or bottled waters. Gas up the car, pick a direction. Look at things, try new drinks, and do our best to find something to write about the experience.
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            We did find Ham Ferry’s grave in a tiny cemetery in the nearby town of Gale, but it wasn’t anything terribly impressive—just a grave, next to the grave of his wife. No pithy quote on the tombstone. No impressive statuary. Not even any flowers. It was just a site that marked that someone had lived, but does not live anymore. We got out to take pictures, but the gnats and blackflies were swarming all around our faces, so we got back in the car pretty quickly and slapped at the bugs that had managed to get in while the doors were open.
            “So what now?” I asked as Emily backed the car up.
            Braking to shift into drive, Emily turned to me and said, “That bar in South Colton had Molson Canadian on tap.”
            “Works for me,” I replied as I put my hand on her knee. We drove north on Highway 56, anxious to see what and who we’d find when we got to our destination.

WILLIAM BRADLEY’s work has appeared in a variety of magazines and journals including The Missouri Review, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, The Normal School, and The Utne Reader.  He teaches at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., and though he loves getting lost in the Adirondacks, his absolute favorite road to travel, late at night, is any road in the desert– like New Mexico’s Highway 25, past Santa Fe, for the sense of peace and solitude such a drive provides.