Silverback Alec’s Story is Now Available!

Best of the ‘Gest

An early excerpt from this book appeared back in January and the finished product is now available! Ask for it at your local bookstore, or get a signed copy direct from: Full Court Press, 400 Curtis Road, Randolph Center, VT 05061.

Silverback Alec was gifted a membership to by his kids. Here’s how it works: 1. Once a week for a year you are sent an email with questions that prompt you to write a story, 2. You write the stories, and 3. At the end of the year they turn it into a keepsake book.

For more information, go to:

This is yet another hybrid form of publishing (of which Silverback Digest is as well). Here is a sample of Alec’s story:

Mom and Dad were new to vacationing when Scott and Duncan and I were kids. In the 1950s and early 60s the idea of a vacation was still unfamiliar to most Vermonters. Like many of our neighbors, we came from farming stock, and of course, farmers have cows to milk, endless chores to do, and little time for “frivolous” pursuits. Even though our grandparents no longer farmed, old habits die hard, and I don’t think our parents heard much about vacations as kids, especially since they grew up during the Great Depression. Probably, the closest they got to a “vacation” was a Sunday picnic, a trip to the grandparents, or a reunion with relatives at a wedding or funeral.

As the pictures prove, I am an unreliable narrator. Gram and Gramp did go on real vacations at least twice. Here Gram is shown on the beach in Miami. Gram and Gramp went to Florida with her sister Annie and Annie’s husband Ernest Marchetti. The other photo shows Gramp and Ernie and the parrots they have befriended. In my defense, I don’t think Gram and Gramp ever went on a vacation until after WWII. Up until then, people like us didn’t have the extra dough. Gram and Gramp’s other vacation was a trip to Europe, a reward for Gramp’s excellent record selling beer for the Twin State Fruit Corporation in country stores along the Connecticut River. What a fantasy made real for them! Gram was even able to visit Italy, the home of her parents, Santino and Adele Fontana.

Anyway, in the decades after World War II, Americans joined what would later become known as the Affluent Society. Then, people did have extra money! Returning GI’s built new houses, insulated them with new-fangled fiberglass batts, put in triple track aluminum storm windows, and installed oil-fired furnaces that carried heat to every room. Lord love a duck! Suddenly, they had landed in the lap of luxury! Along with these improvements came Monday-to-Friday jobs and that most enticing invention, the weekend! Soon, people even began to enjoy week-long, company-approved vacations in the summer! Mom and Dad must have been excited about the prospect of “the vacation,” but as we boys were soon to find out, they didn’t know a lot about how one might actually commit a vacation… or conduct a vacation… or just go on vacation. It was so new, people didn’t even know exactly how to talk about it!

To start, one had to have a destination. Perhaps having an inkling of what it was like to travel with three boys for any distance, Mom and Dad made a wise decision on this score. They chose Calvin Coolidge State Park as the site of our first family vacation. The campground was only 20 miles from our home in Taftsville. As close as it was, it might as well have been the other side of the moon, but more on that in a moment. Once they chose a destination, Dad and Mom had to prepare. That short, two-syllable word does not really communicate the scale of this undertaking which was enormous. How, for instance, would we travel to our destination? What would we eat and where would we stay?

Fortunately, this was the golden age of the automobile. Dad was entirely confident that we could drive to Silent Cal’s Park in our four-door Rambler Classic with its chrome-plated trim. The one below is red, and ours was maroon, but otherwise ours was the same. Pretty snazzy, huh?

This was also the golden age of the campground and the motor hotel (later shortened to motel). Since we were relatively low on the Affluent Society totem pole, Mom and Dad opted for a campground, and the problem of accommodation was solved. Hurray! We would drive to Plymouth, Vermont and camp like cowboys and Indians for an entire weekend! Pesky questions kept popping up, however. Where would we sleep and what would we sleep in and on? How would we cook? Mom and Dad began to realize that we would have to bring a lot of gear. Gear! Geeear! Just saying the word makes me salivate a little even now. When you’re a boy, gear means a jackknife or a hatchet or a compass or some other inconceivably cool tool to help you survive in the woods. For Mom and Dad, however, gear was a problem. Figuring out what to bring and where to put it turned out to be an even bigger obstacle than figuring out our destination.

Thanking their lucky stars, they remembered the resources of the Sears & Roebuck Co. and Montgomery or “Monkey” Wards. At various times during the year we received two-inch thick catalogues from these mail-order companies which specialized in all the hundreds of items for which there was no room on the shelves of local merchants. What a cornucopia of delights! They were to ‘50s and ‘60s what Amazon is now.

Mom and Dad began ordering right away: a family tent, sleeping bags, air mattresses, a camp stove, a camp lantern, a roof rack… roof rack, you ask? Yes, because it occurred to Dad that the Rambler’s trunk would not store enough gear for the five of us. Thus was born what was to be just one of Dad’s many woodworking projects over the years—the car top carrier. The metal roof rack he ordered from Sears or Monkey Wards; the car top carrier he built from plywood, and he built it to last. I say this because he built everything to last—meaning he built it a little heavier than necessary… just to be safe. I don’t know how he got the carrier up onto the rack. Probably Gramp helped because, as they were both in the habit of saying about especially heavy work, “it’ll take two men and a boy.”

Scott and Duncan are resting. Maybe they look content because Mom and Dad have finally ceded victory to the rain, taken down the tent, and our departure for home is imminent. Duncan is smoking the famous campfire cigarette mentioned below.

So the day finally came. I’m not sure what the weather forecast was, but it didn’t matter what weatherman Stewart Hall said on WCAX-TV because forecasts were even less dependable than they are today—way less. Given what was to happen later, I suspect there may have been mention of a shower in the forecast. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that we all left Happy Valley in high spirits, excited about camping and sampling this exotic experience called “a vacation.”

Scott, Duncan and I agreed that the Silent Cal vacation trip took place during a deluge of biblical scale, but this picture of Duncan and Scott sitting in the sun on top of a fireplace built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps shows the tendency of memory to exaggerate.

I also have no doubt that the high point of the trip occurred somewhere between our departure from home in Happy Valley and our arrival at the Watson’s Country Store in Taftsville ten minutes later where we stopped for a last-minute item we’d forgotten. If we were running true to form, the three of us boys were fighting in the backseat by the time we pulled away from the store and onto U.S Route 4 and headed west. We quieted down when Mom or Dad threatened us with going to bed early or the loss of some other privilege, but then Scott would jab me with an elbow or I would “accidentally” stomp on his foot, and we’d be off and running again. Ours was a fierce sibling rivalry, and I suspect Duncan had the unenviable task of sitting between us before we had driven many miles down the road.

Our cries of “He hit me!” and “You hit me first!” must have made the trip seem longer than it was, especially for Mom and Dad. Making the trip even longer would have been the pit stops where Duncan or I would dash into the woods to “see a dog about a tree” (because we had refused “to go” before leaving home), a stop for Dad to check the roof rack and the tires, a stop for Mom to check the map, and an occasional back-tracking maneuver when we got lost. The road to Plymouth was paved but it followed the winding Ottaquechee River, and before long I was as green as a little man from Mars and had to stop for an upchuck. As Scott said, I was so prone to car sickness I’d get dizzy just making the turn out of the driveway. All these delays served to make a half-day odyssey out of a trip that would normally take an hour.

I asked Scott and Duncan what they remembered of this vacation, and Duncan, not surprisingly, remembered details Scott and I did not. I think he is like our father in this way. Dad had a particularly sharp memory. Duncan remembered our brand-new green sleeping bags, our new family camping tent, and our new Sears camp stove. Scott remembered our camping lantern and its mantles (little net bags) that captured the outflowing gas and glowed brightly light when lit—at least until one of us kids bumped this technologically advanced marvel. The mantles were delicate and fell apart easily if jarred which sometimes gave us new opportunities to learn profanity from Dad if Mom wasn’t nearby.

What we all remembered was the rain. I think God may have given us just enough time to set up the tent before it began to pour, but he certainly didn’t give us time to build an ark or make other preparations that would have saved us the misery so many early, car campers suffered when they discovered that the manufacturers from whom they bought their tents and clothing made overenthusiastic use of the word waterproof. There may have been lulls in the rain I suppose. Shown photos (included above), I grudgingly acknowledged this. Duncan remembers having a campfire during one of those lulls. He said he remembered us smoking cigarette sticks.

“Do you mean those candy cigarettes we used to buy?” I asked.

“No, I mean real sticks. We got them burning and them pulled them out of the fire and put them in our mouths. They kept smoking for a bit, and we pretended they were cigarettes.” We were used to seeing Gramp Hastings smoke, so this made us feel grown up for a minute.

But the cigarette sticks were a short-lived amusement, but the rain fell for hours and hours and hours, and gradually spirits dampened right along with everything else. The “waterproof” tent sort of worked… for a while. Then, it became saturated and began to leak. That led to wet sleeping bags, then wet clothes, and then the dawning realization that we were living in a bathtub, and the tub was filling up. By the end of our exotic vacation everything was wet, soggy wet. I suspect we adjourned that adventure a little early. I don’t remember ever using that car top carrier again, not for camping anyway.

The Silent Cal Vacation Trip was not the end of our efforts to commit a whopper of a vacation, however. Before long, Mom and Dad purchased an Apache pop-up camper, and we climbed a little farther up the Affluent Society totem pole. Mom and Dad also bought a brush-choked, mosquito-infested piece of land down on Knapp Pond in Reading with the hope of establishing a summer camp near the water. But these are stories for another time. It is enough to remember for now that the Great Camping Trip to Silent Cal Park—exotic as it was—was just a stepping stone to even more spectacular vacations. In a world where Neil Armstrong was about to step foot on the moon, we had high hopes that great adventures lay ahead.

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