October 1994

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or Just People?


Robert V. Anderson

Every day it becomes more difficult to identify a character in the shifting nature of our society. To be a character you must somehow be recognized as breaking some of the habitual practices that are observed by the dominant group in a society. Communities often have persons who are thought of as characters, and I still remember a few that enrich my memories of living at the Hammondsport end of the lake just before and after the second World War.

One man who was generally considered to be a character lived close to where the West Lake Road leaves Hammondsport. I never met him but I caught glimpses of him puttering around his trailer, or going about the Square. I remember the strings and strings of beads he wore. Known as "Old Man Dear" he brightened the local scene as a subject of conversation and speculation.

Then there was Hadley who lived in a decaying house along the road at the top of the hill. Plants nudged the walls—it was a toss up whether they held the structure up or were about to crush it. Hadley always kept one pane of window glass clear to be able to see visitors coming. The backhouse leaned so that the door wouldn't close, and in the dooryard was a well with rope and a pail suspended from a sapling supported on a forked stick, just like a pioneer homestead.

My dad hired Hadley to dig a well for us. On the days that he did show up to dig, he worked slowly and stopped frequently to rest or get a drink of water. He also liked to converse, mostly about his aches and pains. When he got down nearly six feet and struck bedrock he quit. He didn't find much employment and the town provided him with food and fuel. One time a man brought a wagon load of small logs to his yard for him to saw and split for his winter fuel. Hadley revived his back trouble so convincingly that the man drove the load away. Several days later the man who had brought the logs came back when Hadley was up in a tree picking apples. Words were exchanged and Hadley agreed to come down and throw the sawn and split wood out of the wagon, but in climbing into the wagon he twisted his back and sat down on the ground attesting to suffer great pain. The man with the wagon who was a church deacon swore, but he threw off the wood and assisted Hadley into his house before he drove away. The wood slowly disappeared during the winter as Hadley burned it in his stove. My father used this story as an object lesson for me, adding that to have the wood burn well Hadley should have moved it to a dry place. How had he kept the fire going with wet wood? I learned later that he always kept chunks on top of the stove and when they started to char he would stash them inside.

There were stories about Hadley. He had an adventure with bees once when he tried to smoke a swarm out of a hollow tree. Hadley was a slow mover and when the wind changed suddenly he suffered from the annoyed bees and from the smoke. The bees continued in residence.

One of our neighbors had a colony of honey bees in the walls of their house. They tried to stun the bees with smoke before ripping off siding to get at the honey. When they dug out the honey it was still covered with bees; some of them revived in the open air. Eventually the clapboarding was replaced and all of the possible entry holes were plugged with putty to keep the bees from returning. However the bees had stored honey farther in the walls than our neighbors had suspected, and it later began to seep out from under the wall paper in the front parlor. We liked to refer to the house as "Home Sweet Home."

I remember that my father captured a swarm of bees that had lit on a low branch. He put a barrel under the cluster and sawed off the branch. It fell across the top of the barrel and the bees accepted the spacious quarters as a residence fit for a queen. I suffered from my dad's attempt at beekeeping because the hive barrel stood alongside a path I frequently traveled and my kinky hair often entangled low flying bees who then stung me. After a few stings I passed the barrel on the run with my arms flailing to shoo bees away.

Did our capturing a swarm make us local characters? I don't know. Normally people would call a beekeeper and he would use his methods to find the queen, tuck her into a hive, and when the swarm had followed her, plug the entrance and take the colony to his bee housing development. When a swarm alighted near our present house our daughter was so thrilled that she went to learn about beekeeping, and got a girl scout badge. But we didn't allow her to bring a hive home, preferring to conform to the mores of those among whom we lived.

© 1994, Robert V. Anderson
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