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Friday, December 20, 2013

Saying Goodbye to a Good Friend

Bill Leclerc
Woodturners, like any other random group of Earth's denizens, are a varied lot. Some are sociable, gregarious types, who enjoy the company of like-minded folks. Others are more solitary curmudgeons, fussy and picky about who can share their space. I like to think I should be pigeon-holed into the first group, but recognize that at least at times, I fit more squarely into the latter.

I have a friend, Bill Leclerc, who could have been the poster boy for the fun-loving first group. I say "could have been", because Bill has just, as the (very) old folks used to say, "shuffled off his mortal coil", and has made his way to some better place. He left us in a very swift, totally unexpected way. No chance to prepare.

The Beginning

I don't remember the first time I met Bill, I'm sure it wasn't all that remarkable an event. I do know it was at a woodturning club meeting. Bill wasn't the type who made himself highly noticeable. Wasn't a puffed-up, self-serving kind of guy. He had been retired for a number of years at that point, and was more than happy to leave self-aggrandizement to the young roosters who seem to require it. No, Bill was just a guy who was good at what he did, and eagerly helped anyone else who had the desire to learn what he knew. He didn't demand too much from life, except to keep seeing more of it, to learn new things, and to have fun. And most of all, it seemed to me, to grow into a much more intimate relationship with this awe-inspiring land we occupy. 

Bill and I quickly became best buddies when a small group of us woodturners trekked out into the snow one bitter January day, at my suggestion, to go gawk at frozen trees in the woods. I ask you, what better time than that is there to study tree identification? 

Numb toes and fingers notwithstanding, Bill took a liking to that kind of camaraderie and abuse. I guess that day had all the essential elements for him... a mix of friends, forest, and field study. All those seemingly identical trees suddenly had identities and names of their own. And there was clowning around, and jokes. And BURLS! That's just treasure to a turner. We found quite a few that day. These dang things actually grow on trees!

I uttered a sheepish question at the end of that day's outing ... "um, does anyone want to do this again sometime"?  Bill's response was a quick "YES, this was great!". That did more than anything else could have done to relieve my feeling of guilt at having inflicted this icy march on these guys, who could easily have been in their cozy warm woodshops, spinning chunks of trees into works of art. Bill (and everyone else) actually enjoyed this! I mean, I know I did, but then, I'm a nut.

And so, our little subset of the woodturning club, the five of us who had an affinity for investing time amongst the trees we consume as turners, coalesced. The troop consisted at that point of Bill, Bob Labrecque, Arnie Paye, Frank White, and me. Our forest forays quickly became weekly adventures. The premise centered around our common interest in knowing the trees whose wood we work. The challenge now was to explore new and grand places where we'd encounter few, if any, other humans, and lots of tree species to identify.

Bob and Bill Discussing a Maple Burl
Hiking thru the old Hemlocks
In time, our platoon changed composition somewhat. Terry Murphy became a welcomed regular; Bob Labrecque had to tend to other demands; on occasion, Mike Smith or Andy Myers would join us.
Frank,Terry,Bill,Bob Leverett cross Berkshires stream

We teamed up with Bob Leverett, the revered old-growth forest guru, on several safaris into the rugged terrain of the Berkshires where the big and old trees are safely hidden. That's when I saw the magic happen for Bill (and others too), as it had for me a couple decades earlier. Trees were nothing new to Bill, of course- he had labored cutting firewood for many years in his youth on a family farm. But these trees, these he was now seeing as never before, were new to him. These were much bigger, much taller, much more impressive than meager second-growth poles. The terrain they sink roots in is rugged, often near-vertical land (which is largely what spared them from otherwise certain exploitation).
Bill at National Champ Sugar Maple
These were the kind of places that evoke a sense of reverence, permanence, and antiquity, a feeling for a naturalist that, aha!, not all the good places have been destroyed, there's still a few left! I know how he felt. It's that excitement of a new discovery, an exhilaration earned only by those who will do the required hiking when the body might be advising against. You get a spiritual sense in such a forest, a calming feeling that all is well in these woods. It's peaceful, the always-near mountain stream providing a continuous whoosh of well-being and reassurance. Life flows uninterrupted here, although slowly.
Bill and another old Sugar Maple

It was a genuine treat to see the effects of these days in the woods on Bill. Yep, he was pooped out when we finally climbed into the truck at day's end, just as we all were. But he had a calm, happy glow. Maybe it was just the fact that he was spent, and glad to be going home to Dolores and her waiting dinner. Couldn't blame him for that. But I think it was just as likely that he was recounting the day's discoveries in his mind, reliving the experiences, revisiting those champion trees, that boulder-strewn cascading stream. Ah, life is good. It was about being a carefree kid again, with the world opening up to you. In Bill's career at Hamilton Standard, he worked on backpack equipment for the moon landing; his name (I just learned) has been left on the moon.
Bill and Arnie at Black Cherry
But I never heard him talk about that project. Yes, he did talk about his time in the service in Alaska, and often made reference to his working days, usually during pre-hike breakfasts. But once our boots hit forest duff and we were in the company of trees, he was in a happy place where little of the past was important, and it was all about the here and now. That's exactly what happens to me in the forest, like passing through a portal that activates all the senses. You find yourself tuning in to the forest, becoming aware of the individual trees, the rocks, and the simple beauty of it all. It was a rewarding feeling to know that it affected him the same way, a kind of bonding between buddies.
Mike,Terry,Bill,Arnie,Frank in misty woods

And so it went. Bill looked forward to our weekly expeditions; sometimes it was a road trip to buy wood in Vermont, or to an interesting rural museum (eg, Eric Sloane's museum in Kent, CT), or to a wood dealer in the Berkshires. Those were all fun excursions. But I think the woodland hikes were number one, as they are for me.

Seeds and Flashlights

Bill and Dolores keep a very nicely groomed and inviting backyard, where you feel immersed in nature. Bird feeders hang from the trees on a grassy, gentle slope to a shady brook. The hulk of Mt Tom is right across the road. When you relax on their wooden swing, you'll soon be cheerfully greeted by plump little feathered darts... chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and many others who've come to know what treats await them. Including mama black bear and her cubs.

Which brings us to a black night this fall. Bill heard an unwelcomed noise in the yard, so, with flashlight at the ready, went out the back door to investigate. He shined the light to the right. Nothing. Then he slowly scanned to the left. All looked well down in the yard. Aiming the beam hard left, towards the shed where sacks of seed were stored, two round, highly reflective eyes returned the flashlight's beam. Bill took a step toward mama bear. GRRRRRR !! She instantly set Bill into a 180 degree half-spin and a varsity sprint into the house, door slamming behind him. 

Laughing as he relived this tale, Bill said he had never run that fast in his life. Continuing the story... now with the security of the back door between him and mama bear, he could stop to catch his breath. That's when he first experienced tightening in his chest. He calmed down, but was worried. So, he wasted no time making an appointment with the doc. A stress test showed that his heart was just fine, but there was a blockage in an artery. A procedure was scheduled to fix that problem with a stent.

Gobble Mountain

In the meantime, while awaiting the stent procedure, there was still a Wednesday that could accomodate a hike. It was a very cold Wednesday in late fall, just a few weeks ago. For several weeks, we had been exploring some of the beauty of the steep mountains of Chester, MA, a little town sunk into the hollow bowl of surrounding mountains, along a branch of the Westfield river. I had been hearing the tale of when Terry (whose knee suffers from a long-ago athletic injury) and Andy (who had just finished hiking the 2200 mile Appalachian Trail) hiked up Gobble Mountain. I had to have that experience. So, this was the day for it. Terry, Andy, Bill and I fueled up at one of our favorite breakfast emporiums along the river. Then it was off to gobble up Gobble Mountain. 

It was cold. The mountain doesn't give you a break-in walk to stretch those old muscles. It pretty much hits you with all it's got from the get-go. It's a blood-pumping, steep hill; not for the out-of-shape, casual walker. But there's a tall tower at the summit that you can climb, so we of course had to do it.

There was that initial huffing and puffing period, where you struggle for a while to get your second breath, and you start opening your jacket to let the steam out. Bill was hit the hardest, and had to stop a few times to let his tightening chest relax. Just a minute or two, and he was fine. I was a little concerned, so we didn't push hard, just took it easy. I don't remember how long it actually took to reach the summit tower, but it eventually appeared. Andy had warned that, even with the foliage down, you don't see the tower on your ascent until you're literally yards away from it; it just suddenly jumps out from behind some oaks. He was right.

We made it! There was a breeze whizzing through the trees up there. As steamed up as we were, it didn't take long to cool down. At the top of the tower, which has an open platform, an American flag snapped in the wind, put there, no doubt, by locals. Disappointingly, there were cans strewn around a campfire, and a long beer banner left under the tower. Terry and Andy had already climbed the tower on their earlier hike, and Bill wasn't going to do it. But I had to see the view, so I clambered up the diagonal angle iron braces to reach the steel ladder. The tower is about 80 to 85 feet tall. The ladder is just that... a steel rung-over-rung, straight-up-the-side ladder. At about two-thirds the way up, I was above treetops, and my bare hands were below freezing, or so it felt. The day was largely overcast, with sun straining to burn through, which made the view of the surrounding mountainsides a grey, hazy blahh. I looked straight up the ladder, my arms wrapped around the rails to keep my hands off the steel. The platform was still as far away as when I began the ascent. Should I bother? Nah. It would be so nice to be back on the ground below, out of this wind. The guys were looking up at me, egging me on. They looked like ants way down there. Okay, okay, so they were huge ants. I was coming down anyway.
View of Chester, MA, from Gobble Mtn Tower

We gathered up all the trash and guardedly picked our way back down the slippery, frozen mountain. As many of us learn, going down a steep hill can be a lot tougher on the knees than going up. Finally at the bottom, some of us lamented our age, but were happy. We had conquered another one. One more great day's hike with the guys to put in the log book. It just doesn't have to get any better than this. Sadly, I would learn in a couple weeks that this would be the last hike we'd ever have with Bill.

The day quickly came when the stent was put in the artery to open the blockage, just a week and a half ago. An overnight stay in the hospital, and Bill was back home. He started feeling much better in a day or two, and within four days was "feeling fantastic". He couldn't wait to get back to the weekly hike routine, but had to wait one more week until the doc gave him the ok. Our woodturning club had its monthly meeting right after the procedure, and we called Bill at home to shout out our group's good wishes over the phone. Bill was elated that we thought enough of him to do that, and I'm now so glad we made that call. I'd get just one more chance to talk with him over the phone; in that last of our conversations, he affirmed that we made his day with that brief call, and that we needed to plan our next hike.

Two days later, the skies turned snowy. Bill and Dolores were outside that Sunday, just days ago on December 15, 2013, to clear the driveway of snow. Dee says Bill got cold and went back in the house. When she went in shortly afterwards, Bill was on the bed, apparently napping. She wasn't able to wake him. Our Bill had left us, just as quickly as he escaped that mama bear.

We all love you, Bill. We miss your grin, your corny clich├Ęs, your energy, your good nature, your company. 

There will always be a chair for you on pizza-and-beer night. You'll always be there with us in the woods. You'll always be there when Frank finds us an ice cream stand on the way home. You'll always be there at the pike entrance waiting with Arnie, backpack in hand. You'll always be there with us at Gould's for pancake breakfast. You'll always be there when we visit Terry's shop. You'll always be with us at the huge Dunbar ash tree. There will always be an omelette for you in Monterey.

You'll always be there in the second row at the meetings. You'll always be there with us under the big pines at Mohawk. You'll always be there when Bob finds the next prized log to cut up. You'll always be there when we talk "machine shop" with Mike. You'll be there if Bob and I ever see another fat woman with Japanese tattoos. You'll always be there with us on the Deerfield River trail where you went ass-over-teakettle down the mountain. You'll always be there picking through Rob Doyle's bargain bin with moisture meter in hand, and to greet Deb when she gets there for barbecue day. You'll be there when we go back to Gold Mine Brook to see the cascades for the first time this spring. You'll always be there when we're gazing up into the canopy to identify a tree; and yes, we'll remember-- you can always tell a sugar maple... it's got a sap bucket hanging on it.

Bill at his best
Goodbye for now, my friend. It was way too short a time.


Additional Photos 

Arnie,me,Bill at Ice Glen, 8/24/12 (by Bob Labrecque)


Bill studies Chinquapin, Forest Park 5/17/12 (by Jim Bonneville)
Bill,me,Frank at Dunbar Brook 9/20/12 (by Arnie Paye)
Terry, me ,Bill at Sanderson Brook, 4/29/13  (by Arnie Paye)
Arnie,Bill,Frank at Dunbar Ash tree, 9/20/12

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