Friendship and canoes

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(Host) Commentator Willem Lange is finding that with increasing age, the one thing that becomes more valuable than any other is friendship.

(Lange) My friend Dudley and I were in a 207-mile ski marathon on the Iditarod Trail. All day a blister on my heel had been growing worse. The months of training were about to be for nothing.

That night, in a cabin lit by a Coleman lantern, Dudley took a look at it. “Phew!” he said, “that’s infected.” He cut away the bad stuff, sprinkled the spot with antibiotic powder, and taped it up. Three days later, when we finished the race, I found it almost healed.

That story to me defines friendship. I can’t give a definition. I simply remember the examples that illustrate it. There are dozens, from the elderly couple who gave my bride and me some old furniture for our first apartment, to the fellow contractor who bailed me out of bankruptcy twenty years ago. People like that make you realize how fragile a thing independence is, and how great a blessing friends can be.

A couple of years ago my illusion of physical fitness was shattered by what I thought was sciatica. With a three-week canoe trip approaching, I wondered what my going would mean to the others. Paddling, portaging, and even getting in and out of the boat would be difficult for someone who could hardly walk.

But in the past, members of our group who were temporarily disabled had declined to come on a trip, even when we told them we’d let them ride in a canoe, just to have their company. Our disappointment was genuine when they stayed home. I could see that an act of friendship is as much that of the beneficiary as the benefactor. So I went.

I was almost useless. I could help with the tent, or slice cheese, and once even started a fire. But my memory of that trip is of a thousand acts of kindness. My canoe partner, though tired himself, hopped out when we came to shore, waded in, and helped me to dry ground. My heavy pack kept appearing right where I needed it. The doctors in the group were watching, I could tell, but were never solicitous.

Women, they tell me, act differently from this. They gather in circles and network; men do stuff and converse while they’re doing it. I figure the difference originated in the Stone Age, when women gathered around the campfire and men went off to try to kill something.

That’s changing now, of course. We may be the last generation to go off like this. Mother calls it Cave Time. Some call it superannuated boys at play. Doesn’t matter. The memory of stumbling beside my canoe and feeling the hand of my canoe partner gripping my elbow will stay with me as long as I live.

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

Willem Lange is a contractor, writer, and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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