Will, Bill, and Rupert
Though William Gifford Deshner died in 1943, six years before I was born, his charismatic presence echoed through our family’s stories so vividly that he seemed as tangibly active in my childhood world as a living person. He was my great-grandfather. His daughter, Wilda, and her husband, Rollin David Wilson (aka Baldy) were my mother’s parents.
The stories told about Will Deshner were abundant, earthy, ordinary, and reverent. He was a skilled carpenter, worked extraordinarily hard, and was loved equally by the pious and wild branches of the family. He was devotedly active in his community’s Free Methodist church, but he also enjoyed sampling Baldy’s prohibition-era homebrew. He took long solitary walks in the woods, sometimes even in thunderstorms. He had a grade school education. The family stories mostly centered around his distinctive blend of humor and wisdom—like the time he told his grandson, Bill, when they were shingling the roof on a tall building, “If you drop your hammer, make sure you let go of it.”
I first encountered Will Deshner’s journal in 1968. Aunt Gert (Will Deshner’s eldest grandchild) and her husband, Ed, had moved back to Mayburg, Pennsylvania, the long defunct village of their birth and youth, after maintaining one of the remaining original houses there as a camp and family gathering place for many years. I was a student at Clarion State College (now Clarion University) fifty miles away. This was a strange and difficult time in my life, during which I often sought respite and healing in the familiar woods of my youth and ancestors. Gert and Ed offered an always available refuge in the form of a spare room, a seat at the dinner table, and a back door that opened onto miles of loved and familiar forest. On one of my weekend visits, Gert showed me a volume of my great-grandfather’s journal. I was immediately interested because I had recently begun keeping a journal of my own, and Will Deshner’s recurring mentions of my favorite forest places bespoke a kinship deeper than mere ancestry.
Volumes of the journal circulated among my mother’s siblings, and I was always eager for an opportunity to peruse one, but it wasn’t until many years later that I was able to borrow a volume from Gert’s daughter, Judy, and read it from beginning to end. In it, I found more questions than answers, more mystery than knowledge and I became hungry for more. Meanwhile, Uncle Dick (Richard Wilson) had gathered all the other known volumes because he believed they should be kept together.
Dick and I weren’t close when I was growing up, but as an adult, I felt an easy natural rapport with him, and the e-mail dialogue (Dick had moved to Florida in retirement.) that arose from my questions about the journal often rambled in other directions. After several years of correspondence, Dick gave me all the journal volumes in his possession. He said trusted me to do the right thing with them.
[One volume is missing in action.]
The journal consists of one line per day, written across both open pages of hardbound ledgers, from 1903 to 1942. In the beginning, it was only a record of work done and pay received, but Will Deshner gradually began adding information about weather and events outside the realm of his work. In part, he may have begun noting other things so that a blank day wouldn’t be misconstrued as an omission. The writing is very spare—events are stated, but not described. Though reading a few pages imparts an impression so mundane that one can’t help wondering what could have motivated him to persist through thirty-nine years of daily practice, the days accumulating into thousands bespeak an intensity far beyond his meager words. As one reads onward, an image of the man and his life, faded and cracked like an old, yellowed photograph, emerges.
[I find great hope in the rising of that faded image.]
I had the journal transcribed and then, after a several year struggle with reformatting, proofing, my highly variable motivation, and the competing demands of my own writing, published it via CreateSpace so it would be available to anyone (especially family) who was interested.
The original now resides in the collection of the Warren County Historical Society.
[Like Dick, I hadn’t taken ownership of the journal; I had taken responsibility for its fate.]
Baldy had driven the train from Mayburg to Sheffield when he learned that Wilda was in labor with their second child. He decided to make the return trip, even though there was an ice jam in progress on the Tionesta Creek.
[The Tionesta Creek would be called a river anywhere else.]
He drove the locomotive as fast as he dared in the strange silver half-light of a New Year’s full moon. The rising ice was closing over the tracks in the visible distance behind him as he raced down the creekside. Baldy and Wilda’s eldest son was born that night. They named him William Deshner Wilson, after Wilda’s father; they called him “Bill.”
Uncle Bill became my primary source of clarification for the assorted gem-like mysteries I found scattered through my great grandfather’s journal.
[I needed more than answered questions; I needed stories.]
Bill savored storytelling at a gentle, leisurely pace, and listening to his stories was a fine way to spend an afternoon.
Bill once said about his grandfather, “He wasn’t just a good man—there are lots of those— he was a great man, and those are scarce.”
From Will Deshner’s journal:
17 S O.E. Rupert was Drounded to Day 30 Clear 6 S
18 10 Reparing Generator on large engin 39 Clear 13 10
19 4 Reparing acid still Down to Kellittville hunting Rupert 4
20 10 Reparing crude acid column 10
21 hunting Rupert at Porter farm
22 10 Reparing finishing column Rain and warm 10
23 10 Reparing acid column 10
24 S Down to bucksmills hunting Rupert S
Bill told me the backstory: O.E. Rupert was a rarity in the waning timber boom of the Tionesta boondocks—a (relatively) cultured man. He lived with his brother in Truemans near the confluence of Fool’s Creek and the Tionesta, a few miles upstream from Mayburg. He regularly crossed the creek on a swinging footbridge and followed the railroad grade downstream to Mayburg, where he gave music lessons in the homes of his pupils. The last lessons of the day were reserved for Mayburg’s Italian enclave, where the residents bartered homemade beer and wine for his services. After one well-paid evening of violin lessons, he failed to negotiate the swinging bridge.
Once, during my hippie wanderings of the early seventies, when I was broke and burdened by aching tenderness for a lost love, a friend repaid a small, forgotten loan from long before. I decided to put a large quantity of good food in my belly. I chose a particular restaurant partly because I was unlikely to encounter a familiar face there. I preferred not to be distracted from my fine blend of melancholy, existential anguish, and self-pity.
I ordered a ham steak because it was one of the biggest meals I could get with my meager windfall, and seeing it on the menu evoked memories from a younger, happier time, when I was camping with Uncle Bill, in the old Mayburg Park. We had fished all day and as we relaxed into mellow exhaustion, Bill put a ham steak on the grill. We ate with the natural gusto of well earned hunger, and Bill told hunting, fishing, Mayburg, and Baldy stories until the delicious fatigue that comes after a long day well spent outdoors overtook us. It was one of the most idyllic, contented evenings of my life.
The memory lifted me. I basked in the remembered warmth of fishing, sunshine, and campfire and as I settled into the sensual pleasures of eating, my funk dissipated like morning fog on a sunny day.
Many years later, I told Bill that story. He grinned and said, “That’s the way it’s supposed to work isn’t it.”
In the spring of 2012, Bill was hospitalized after injuring his shoulder in a fall.
While I was visiting him, a social worker came to explain to Bill that he would have to be transferred to a nursing home for an indefinite period of “transitional care” with the goal of enabling him to return home to Sheffield and his nearly blind wife.
[Bill had a large and understandable, if only partially rational, loathing for nursing homes—at age ninety-one he had seen too many loved ones vanish into them never to be seen again. The nursing home they wanted to send him to was the same one Gert had died in the previous year.]
The social worker’s body language was radiant with dissonance. The “goal” was a motivational ploy i.e. bullshit. Bill knew it. I knew it. He didn’t say that he knew it, and I went along with it, because if I cooked up a ruse, spirited him out of there, and took him to Bobbs Creek (his favorite trout stream) to die, I would get in serious trouble of several kinds.
[There was something hard as flint in Bill’s eyes.]
After the social worker left, Bill tried to get out of bed. I talked him out of it and distracted him with questions about Will Deshner’s journal. Remembrance raised his spirits. He said there was a story he had intended to tell me since I had asked him about O.E. Rupert’s drowning, but had forgotten on earlier occasions.
One summer, when the circus came to Sheffield, two elephants escaped during the night. They found their way to the Tionesta Creek and followed it. Meanwhile, the Rupert brothers had been on a serious bender. They awoke one morning befogged and befuddled by the hangover haze of moonshine, staggered out onto their porch overlooking the Tionesta Creek, and saw elephants frolicking in the water in joyful freedom. They summoned their neighbors to ask them if the spectacle was real.
Then he tried to get out of bed again. I asked him if he needed more pain medication and he said, “Yes.” The busy nurses didn’t respond to the buzzer. Bill started fumbling with his I.V. as if trying to figure out how to unhook it. I put my hands on his shoulders, looked into his eyes, and said, “Bill, if you fall now, you’re going to be in a world of shit, and I’m going to feel like it was my fault. Please don’t do this to me. I’ll go get a nurse and get you some more pain medication, but you have to promise me you won’t get out of bed while I do that.”
He looked away.
“Bill, look at me.”
Our eyes met.
“Do you promise you won’t get out of bed while I get the nurse?”
Bill kept his promise. The nurse apologetically admitted Bill was long overdue for his pain medication and helped him move into a more comfortable position on the bed. The tension in his voice and eyes ebbed with the quickness of intravenous morphine, but so too did a visible measure of the gentle, but acute alertness that defined so much of Bill.
Assuming that Bill would tire easily, I had intended my visit to be brief, but now I was afraid that as soon as I left, he would try to get out of bed again, and the distraction of my company seemed comforting. Judy arrived as Bill’s lunch was brought in and she assisted him with her perfect, inimitable blend of authority and kindness. Shortly after lunch, a volunteer from hospice came to sit with Bill. We said our goodbyes, and I promised to visit again the next day.
A few hours later, Bill was transported to the nursing home by ambulance and died while his daughter, Linda, was completing the admission papers. He made his getaway, after all.
At Bill’s funeral in Sheffield, a group of local veterans performed a military ceremony with such stilted awkwardness that it was embarrassing and pathetic, even though their reverence was real and touching. The twenty-one-gun salute outside seemed harshly inappropriate for a man of Bill’s extraordinary gentleness.
[Bill served in the Navy during World War Two and saw heavy action in the South Pacific. He never talked about it.]
Then the preacher quoted scriptures until I was ready to drop to my knees and beg for mercy. His hour of alternations between scriptural passages and prayers was wearisome in ways he was incapable of perceiving. He was relatively young and innocently kind, but he seemed smarter than his words, and that was weirdly poignant in a situation that already had a surplus of poignancy.
[A seven-inch brook trout is the greatest miracle one should ever need.]
I began to rant in my head about the way the minister’s professed humility veiled an arrogance utterly at odds with Bill’s spirit, but then I remembered that so too was my irritation and impatience.
[If you drop your hammer, make sure you let go of it.]
I drove to Mayburg, intending to hike one of the routes I had gleaned from Will Deshner’s journal. Though I had roamed the surrounding Allegheny National Forest for decades, I hadn’t visited Mayburg itself in several years. I parked my truck at Gert and Ed’s former residence, now a camp owned by their grandson. On the way in, I saw that all the old, communal shortcuts had been closed off with gates and “No Trespassing” signs— the walking route to the long abandoned railroad grade that follows the Tionesta Creek was easily twice its former distance.
[Times had changed and little trickles of urban toxicity had leaked into the boondocks.]
I set out on my own alternative route through the woods intending to cross Kingsley Run, a small tributary of the Tionesta, a short distance upstream from Mayburg, traverse the ridge to the east into the lower end of Frozen Eddy Run, and pick up on my originally intended route at Frozen Eddy’s confluence with the Tionesta. Once again, my route was blocked by posted property lines, so I had to hike much farther upstream to the remains of the old dam that once held Mayburg’s water supply. The inconvenience was well compensated. Though the dam hadn’t held water in my lifetime, it still held a flood of memories—fishing alone and with Gert and my grandfather, a stoned sunlit afternoon making love with my first true love, a summer of 1969 marijuana patch eaten by deer. Sunlight, birdsong, and cobalt sky gently, but firmly, pulled me back into the here and now.
I climbed the ridge, crossed over into the headwaters of Frozen Eddy, climbed again to the ridgetop between Frozen Eddy and Phelps Run, and followed it northward to a clearing that yields a broad, breathtaking view of the Tionesta Valley.
[Frozen Eddy Run and Phelps Run are the first and second Tionesta Creek tributaries upstream from Mayburg.]
My original plan had evaporated—I was wandering now, letting the land lead me into its shapes and wonders.
[A pile of bear shit at the edge of the clearing, reminded me that wildness still lived there.]
The easiest descent into Phelps Run was an oblique angle back south and slightly east, to the headwaters, where the main branch breaks up into several small spring seeps. It’s a beautiful, steep-sided little valley, and its spaciousness in early spring, before the trees fully leaf out, is so lovely that it’s both lonely and joyous.
I followed the stream to its confluence with the Tionesta and followed the old railroad grade that parallels the creek back toward Mayburg. At the mouth of Frozen Eddy, I felt a fleeting urge to climb the ridge again and search for the beech tree bearing my great-grandfather’s carved initials that I found the same year the deer ate my Kingsley Run marijuana patch, but tired feet and an empty canteen spoke more forcefully than nostalgia.
When I returned a few weeks later, I found where the old beech tree had stood, fallen, and returned to the soil to nourish the thicket of saplings that had grown from its seeds.
Reg Darling lives in Arlington, Vermont with his wife, Theresa and two cats. When he isn’t writing or painting, he wanders in the woods. His essays have appeared in The Chaos Journal, The Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Review, Remembered Arts Journal, River Teeth Journal, Sky Island Journal, Tiferet Journal, Timberline Review, Whitefish Review, and others.