Tony Vagneur: The mystery man
He’d always come from out of nowhere, it seemed, a large man with the strength of an ox and who always wore a two-or three-day growth of beard, long before it was fashionable. The old man always put him to work, no matter the time of year. How he got to our place is lost to memory, or how he left, as well. His tenure was always short, maybe two or three weeks at most.
There are people in this world who don’t always make sense at first blush, but once you dig down a bit, a clearer picture starts to emanate from the translucent cloud. Reading was a skill he’d slowly picked up along the way, a remedial conquest that seemed impossible given his coke-bottle-thick glasses and seeming indifference to the world of books. But with unerring accuracy, he always managed to find the information he needed, without going to a library or begging books along the way.
You might have thought him to be a single man, just through his idiosyncrasies, although in conversation he would proudly exclaim that he had 13 children. His oldest son worked for us one summer, through the fall, and took me on my first deer hunt up Collins Creek. I was too young to shoot, my main contribution being the trail guide as I knew the territory well from riding it with my granddad. We were successful.
One of the quirks mentioned above, other than his being legally blind, was a thirst for whiskey. He didn’t drink it in a glass, nor nip at it a bit at a time. He chugged it, “glugged it down,” I always said, like other men drank water on a hot day. A couple of mighty glugs would get him through the afternoon, and then he’d finish the bottle off between quitting time and dinner.
Part of his pay consisted of his whiskey ration — he’d get a quart of the stuff each day he was working, a bottle each morning. This was made clear to me the summer I was 14. My dad sent me to Matthew Drug with instructions to buy eight bottles of hooch for the man’s first week, the beauty of it being, in retrospect, that at 14 I had no driver’s license and certainly wasn’t old enough to buy whiskey. Walt Matthew, the owner, faced with my order, boxed it up without question and sent me on my way. You could probably say it was a different time and a different town back then.
He always stayed with us, in our basement, whereas the other men stayed in the bunkhouse. Maybe it was that way because he was assured of a home-cooked meal at night. The man worked his heart out each day — he could work, with brute strength, even though he could barely see, and deserved all he wanted in the way of vittles.
Around the dinner table one night, he entertained us with a tale of the experimental perpetual motion machine he had built. We sat unbelieving as he described how he made it, the theory behind it, and finally we became partial fans when he claimed that it ran for two days without outside help, before it finally quit. He knew how to tweak it, he said, if he ever got time to build another one. Other times he talked about selling insurance door-to-door or hustling donations for the blind in Colorado.
Only once did his entire family show up for a get-together. How it came to be, I don’t recall, but the whole clan, for sleeping quarters, was relegated to a pole barn we had about a mile up the road. I moved in with them as one of the kids was about my age, either 9 or 10.
The hay mow had a good supply of clean straw, and from previous overnight visitors, there were pieces of furniture lying around, like a day bed and a sofa. That barn likely saw more life those two nights than it ever had before. It was, for lack of a better description, a beautiful experience, one I’ll never forget. After they left, I attempted to coerce my parents into letting me move into the barn, without luck.
That hired man had started coming around when I was very little and through the years, he became one of the family. My mother would occasionally wonder when he might make his next appearance, and we all seemed to look forward to his arrival. Toward the end, my dad once said, “I think he’s slowing down a little.”
He came to us every summer or fall, until the year he didn’t. With the changing of the seasons, we always miss the one regal elk, the cinnamon black bear, or the grey tufted coyote that doesn’t return. We mourned his disappearance, and wonder to this day how it ended for him.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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