When world famous Russian novelist and historian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was expelled from a Soviet prison in the Gulag and sought freedom in the U.S. A., he eschewed the invitation to settle into a comfortable professorship at Stanford and instead took up residence in the quiet Vermont village of Cavendish. Consumed by his writing for almost twenty years thereafter, he shunned all media attention and disdained the life of a “Rock Star.” He was once asked why – with the whole country to choose from – he chose a small town in Vermont. He said “it is the only place I know of where I can go to town and buy groceries and no one will ask me who I am or where I came from."
I mention this because it illustrates so wonderfully one of those characteristics which for more than a century has endeared the Green Mountains to a host of souls whose greatest wish was to live where their desire to be left alone would be respected and even honored. When I remind myself of this random bit of Vermont social trivia, I can see in my mind a dozen-or-so such individuals whose lives crossed with my boyhood years. I think for instance of Ray Leadham, a quiet WWII veteran
Although largely a man of mystery to me, Mr. Leadham was a visible neighborhood presence making the wide turn onto the West Brookfield road in his WWII surplus ammo carrier – actually the original 4-wheel-drive Dodge “Power Wagon” – at least once or twice every day. In the back of the open ex-military vehicle still wearing its worn olive-drab paint job and white star might be bales of hay, bags of livestock feed or bits and pieces of barnyard equipment, destined for the patch of abandoned farm buildings and pasture on Cram Hill where he kept his beloved herd of goats. On those occasions on which my own errands took me to West Brookfield, I would pause to admire and chat with the gathering of noisy mixed-breed but obviously much-loved goats which seemed to be the center of Ray Leadham’s world. Except for the time-grayed old sheds and leaning hand-built fences circling the weed-surrounded hillside property, there was nothing to intrude upon the sense of solace and contentment which seemed to reflect something of the man who spent so many private hours there.
In the autumn of my senior high school year, Ray Leadham approached me and a couple of my teenage friends as we were leaving the school grounds in Randolph Town: “Do you boys like to deer hunt?” he asked by way of breaking the silence which usually seemed to cloak his passage. He then told us about the deer camp he owned in the wilds of Cram Hill, and the large white-tail bucks the area was noted for. “I have four bunks in my camp” he continued. “How would you like to join me for opening day?”
Now it must be understood that in northern New England one does not escape to a “cabin”, but to a “camp:” a deer camp, fishing camp or just a vacation place in the woods or on a lake. It may be constructed of logs or recycled plywood; it may be fancy or “jack-built;” it is still a “camp.” To call it something else is to mark oneself as a person from “down-country.” (Not good!)
Autumn leaves are beginning to shower down on a typical Vermont vacation “camp.” Photo by Al Cooper
Ray Leadham’s camp was not fancy, but it stood within feet of the rushing waters of a mountain stream and in the embrace of a surrounding mixed-growth forest through whose branches the wind added to a symphony of glorious sounds. The ancient wood-burning kitchen stove whose dancing flames shown through its cracked and crazed iron shell was the only source of heat as we each took refuge in sleeping bags or blankets that dark and cold November night. I can’t remember exactly what we talked about that magical night; Dick, Lawrence, Ray Leadham and I. I know I was in the top bunk, my father’s old 1886 Winchester 45/70 with its long octagon barrel on the shelf beside me. Tree branches scraped on the roof just inches away as I looked down on that old warped stove and listened to stories of deer hunts past and other “wilderness” experiences, soaking in the ambiance of something I may not have realized then would never happen again, but the detailed recall of which would bring comfort and a sense of adventure for the remainder of a lifetime.
And for Ray Leadham, the man who loved goats and who gave a teenage boy a galaxy of memories that would shine across the decades, I give a silent THANKS on many a troubled night.