There are rare times people today have memories of actually meeting a person who was born in the last third of the 19th century. Those people are pretty much gone these days. I do however, recall one such person in my lifetime. When I was a youngster, Mr. Biggie lived next door to our family on the dirt road in the Cavendish Gulf. His front field stone steps were lined with smooth egg shaped stones his late wife had collected from various river beds. Mr. Biggie was the person who connected our family to the previous century. Knowing him was also a front row seat to the memories and stories of a man who was living in a time before most modern conveniences.
Mr. Biggie was basically a quiet neighbor. He rarely ever stopped by our house and when he did he usually just stood in the driveway to talk to my folks briefly. He didn’t have a phone so he wasn’t someone to bother people asking favors. I couldn’t tell you if he ever even used a phone. His relatives only stopped by once in a great while in the summer, and usually for just a short visit. I often went to his house to ask him if he needed anything, like shoveling his roof and steps.
I spent hours listening to Mr. Biggie talk about what it was like when he was young. At 14, he had a job working on a logging crew, and back then, they used horses for help with work and for transportation. In this case the horses skidded the logs out of the woods. One of his jobs was to actually stand on the cut logs and drive the horses as they pulled them along the rough ground. One day while working, the log rolled unexpectedly, which twisted his body rapidly as it flipped him into the air and created a tear in his abdominal area. This was a hernia that was treated with a truss. He went through quite an ordeal each day when he changed clothes to put this harness with an appendage which he described as a little fist to push it back in and keep it from falling out from his abdomen as he moved about. It had straps to make it secure. He also wore winter underwear, or what he called his “union suit” or long johns, as part of his wardrobe no matter what the temperature. Amazingly, the truss was part of his daily life for 86 years.
Every day, Mr. Biggie got up and drank some warm water before eating anything. He called it his morning physic. In contrast to his physic for everyday good health, he also chewed tobacco. He’d reach into a pouch or break off a plug. He had a spittoon near his favorite chair. I remember being very curious how his tobacco must taste, because it smelled sort of sweet. I was visiting him one day when I was about 11 years old, and he broke off a piece of his plug and handed it to me. He said, “If you want to be a man someday, you better take a chaw on this.” I still remember how peppery and bitter it was that I couldn’t wait to get it out of my mouth. I tried to like it for his sake, and to show I could tolerate it, but I wasn’t fooling anyone! He chuckled a little and held out his spittoon for me, and I hacked until I finally got the contents off my tongue. Never again would I try a chaw!
Mr. Biggie’s formal education was quite limited. He didn’t know how to read or write. If he got mail he’d ask someone to read it to him and when he had to sign his checks, my mother signed for him and to make it official, he made an X near the signature line. He called it making his mark. I remember he had a handful of western comic books around. He enjoyed them by making up a story from the sequence of drawn strips inside. His radio was his only electronic connection to the world beyond Vermont. He did have some musical interests, and had a harmonica and would play it for me from time to time. One song I recall him playing more than once was and old version of “Home Sweet Home”. I really liked the sound of the harmonica, and he let me play it a few times. I was always excited to play it. I liked the fact that it was able to fit in your hand and pocket to make music anywhere, any time. I still play harmonica, only now I prefer blues. I think Mr. Biggie was my first inspiration to play an instrument that was more sophisticated than the pair of sticks in the first grade band in elementary school.
Mr. Biggie walked every day, and impressed on me how exercise was a good thing for the body. He would walk up the dirt road about an eighth of a mile to get his water for drinking and dishes. There was a natural spring that ran through a pipe into an enameled tub sitting on the ground. He’d take a dipper to fill his jug or pail that he brought with him. I remember one incident when my father took a bear hide up there and put it on the stone wall above the pasture where the spring was. Mr. Biggie came running at his old man speed, down the road swinging his bucket to tell us there was a bear near the spring. He told my father to go shoot at it. My Dad laughed and told him not to worry because it was just a bear hide and wouldn’t hurt him. He was a little miffed by it but accepted it as humorous.
A couple days later the neighbor lady had taken a walk up past the spring and was also scared by the bear hide. The next day, the game warden came by to ask my father where the bear hide came from. My father told him that he didn’t really know, and technically he wasn’t lying because someone else had given him the hide and didn’t tell him where they had shot the bear! The game warden had to pack up the bear hide in the back of his car and drove it away. I remember Dad saying, “Boy I’d hate to be him! Bet that bear hide really stinks by now!”
Mr. Biggie also walked about two miles plus one way, to the Cavendish town hall every month, and sometimes more frequently, to pick up the government surplus packaged foods that he called his “commodities”. Hunks of cheese, dried grains and cereal, canned potatoes etc.. He walked to the store there a few times in between to pick up something to drink in the way of wine. Once a month when he got his check from the government he would be “gifted” with a ride from some of the local drinkers that knew how to take advantage of his generosity. He’d really get plastered on the days he’d get the “Free” ride. I used to make some money from the two cent returnable empty’s they threw out the car windows on the dirt road.
One day, I checked on Mr. Biggie at his little house next door, and he was passed out on his living room floor, lying there in his union suit and truss. I ran home to tell my mother, “Mom! I think Mr. Biggie is dead on the floor!”
She frantically ran up to the house and came out looking angry. “He isn’t dead, he’s drunk!” she said holding up a nearly empty bottle of gin. A little later, Dad and a neighbor went up to put Mr. Biggie on his bed to “sleep it off”.
My mother asked the neighbor if he’d had enough gin to make him that drunk. The neighbor said, “Just that little bit left in the bottle is enough to make a healthy man drunk.” Month after month Mr. Biggie would repeat the ritual of treating the younger guys to their binge drinking escapade.
One year my great-great grandmother moved in with us for several months or more. We had a very small house which also lacked many modern conveniences, so it was quite an imposition. One day my mother suggested that she go and visit Mr. Biggie because they were similar ages. She came back not long after and disgustedly said he had tried to get romantic with her and that she’d never go back to visit him. I found it hard to believe he was hitting on her as they were both in their 90’s!
Eventually Mr. Biggie moved away to a care facility. He died when he was just shy of 100 years old. People that knew him weren’t as interested in his view of the changes of the world as they could have been, and I was too young at the time to realize this value. It would have been interesting to get his personal slant on the progress of this country for a century, 1870’s – 1970’s.
(c) Rick Wyman