Sunday, April 10, 2011

Too Many Norman Stories: Story 2. Me, Us, and Norman

To Pia and Robert and
Veronica Wald
Such fine neighbors
Norman Maclean
Norman Maclean could be intimidating to those who sought his admiration, but to me, in every way I would have chosen had it been possible (both my own died before I could know them), he was like a grandfather. Nonetheless, we were circumspect guests while visiting Seeley lake, and the way we automatically endeared ourselves was by bringing Pia, our big beautiful shepherd mix, along. Norman was fond of her, as evidenced by the order in which he dedicated our copy of A River Runs Through It and Woofer, as we always called Pia, had the time of her life. An apartment dog at home, she could roam free outside the cabin, through the unlandscaped, unfenced real estate to the lake shore a few dozen yards away and back, to her heart’s content. The weather was pleasant and we spent hours sitting outside chatting with Norman while she went exploring. At first chance she plunged deep into some very dense brush, thrashing around so much we thought maybe she had entangled herself. But before we could launch a rescue, she burst forth triumphant, grinning her big dog grin, with a thoroughly dried and stiff-as-a-board silver fish sticking out almost a foot from either side of her mouth. A fisherman must have lost it months if not seasons earlier, as it was desiccated to the point of mummification, and to a city dog with a taste for curiosity, a thrilling find. To her everlasting disappointment, we, not being able to rise to quite the same level of enthusiasm, made her drop it into the garbage can and firmly seated the lid.  

The cabin had only one bedroom, a small, intimate room behind the kitchen, which had been Norman’s beloved mother’s. The men slept in the living room near the fireplace, or, on warm nights, on the sleeping porch facing the lake; I was honored to have his mother’s room to myself, snuggling dreamily deep under soft quilts. While there was tap water from the well in the kitchen sink, there was no toilet in the house, only an outhouse under which, Norman had explained, a skunk raised a litter of kits every summer. Ladies who needed facilities in the middle of the night used the mountain equivalent of a chamber pot: an old 5 lb Hills Bros. coffee can. That might sound like a lot of coffee, but opening on a can that size is a riskily small target for a sleepy woman. It was probably our first night there that the inevitable happened. Fortunately, I was able to right the can before much damage was done, and to thoroughly daub the bedside rug with water from the kitchen without waking anybody. Though until this writing no one else knew a thing about it, I will never forget it.

In the morning, it gave Norman pleasure to fire up the stove, grease the pans, and prepare eggs, bacon, fried potatoes, and toast with lots of butter, for his apparently too thin Chicago guests. As neither the mealtime protocol nor the furniture in the cabin was formal, Norman handed each of us our plates right off the stove where they had been sitting to keep warm. We took our plates into the living room to set wherever we were comfortable, to eat before it got cold. I was served, and, sitting at a TV table, started to eat; then my ex was handed his plate, which he set down on the arm of an old-fashioned school desk. Note, as is clear from this photo, the desk arm is slanted slightly for more comfortable reading and writing. Bob turned around to retrieve something, maybe salt and pepper. As he did, the oils on the bottom of the plate suddenly did their thing, and the entire plate slid off the desktop, did a magnificent 180 in mid-air, and plopped, food-side down, on the floor.
Photographer unknown
Bob, stricken by the thought that Norman would momentarily appear from within the kitchen to decry his incompetence to function outside the big city, was far too embarrassed to fess up and request cleanup equipment.  He stood unmoving with a look of terror on his face as I said, at an ever-increasing stage-whisper, Get the dog! Get the DOG!!  GET THE DOG!!! who was outside enjoying herself looking for dead fish. Finally his paralysis passed, he ran to open the door, called her in, and lickety (literally) split, the eggs and hash browns and buttered toast were all...toast. Gone, not a dot of bacon grease to be seen. Bob’s hearty appetite impressed the happily oblivious Norman when he asked for a full plate of seconds. And Woofie had a really, really good start to her day.

As I read this and think back on that wonderful time, I realize it was only by some undeserved miracle that Norman’s  loutish, incompetent human and canine urban neighbors managed a three-day visit to Seeley Lake, Montana, without destroying either their host’s home, or their own reputations.
The blogger and Pia (Woofie) at Seeley Lake,1981


  1. Wonderful, thanks. Nicely remembered. Great photo, too.

  2. I loved this post. Every bit of it.

  3. I love this post. MacLean's A River Runs Through It, is a favorite of mine. Guiding fly fishermen in Idaho and Montana for 30 years has taught me to find humor in everything. Loved the book and the movie.

  4. I'm so glad you put a picture of Woofie in. I think even more highly of Norman Maclean now that I know he put the dog first.

  5. What a wonderful rememberance Veronica. I only read Young Men and Fire recently and was greatly moved by it.