Old Bill

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(HOST) Commentator Willem Lange recalls one of the best old-time storytellers he’s ever known.

(LANGE) “It was way after dark when I come in alongside the boathouse,” said old Bill. “You could just see that light-colored dock next to the water.”

“I put one foot on the dock, and lifted my packbasket out. I set the oars down, too, side by side. But when I bent down to get the flashlight, I heard this funny gruntin’ inside the boat shed. So I pointed that big flashlight in there and flicked the switch.”

“That light struck right in the face of a great big old sow bear. She was in the doorway at the far end of the shed, and she had her two front feet inside. Then she picked up one big hind foot — ’twas all gray on the bottom – and she set it down – plop! – on the floorboards.”

It was a spring evening in camp, fifty years ago. Old Bill was telling one of his stories. The setting sun shone gold on the Great Range, a gigantic ridge of granite whose reflection shimmered on the lake. Four of us sat in the kitchen to avoid the mosquitoes, gazing out the windows, drinking coffee. The bears were just out of hibernation. So the bear stories were, too.

I’ve never known a better storyteller than old Bill. He’d been a carpenter, contractor, and guide all his life. He had a thirst for perfection, a love of company, and an eye for detail. Once in a while they all got the better of him, and he’d try to drown himself. The bottle was never deep enough.

But evenings like this, with his lifelong friends Jim and George to play against, he could weave magic. Sitting in his rocking chair, legs crossed, he held a steaming coffee mug in one hand and in the other a corn cob pipe, loaded with stale Captain Black that burned like shredded newspaper.

We’ve all had the excruciating experience of listening to stories that begin, “Well, it seems that there were these two fellows…” It’s like listening to a small child play the flute. But well told, a story floats like Segovia playing a chaconne.

Bill catches a huge bear in a trap made of steel culvert. He doesn’t want to kill it inside the culvert, so he tells his helper, Wilbur, to straddle the end of the culvert and raise the gate. When the bear runs out between Wilbur’s legs, Bill will shoot it. Wilbur lumbers into position and grips the bars of the gate. Just then the bear hooks eight two-inch-long claws around the bars from the other side, six inches from Wilbur’s nose. You can almost smell the smoke as Wilbur rethinks his position.

Fifty years later, I sit again in old Bill’s kitchen. The evening is quiet; the sun still bathes the Great Range. But the storyteller and his cronies are gone. Nothing is left of them but their log buildings…and the stories – as ethereal as radio waves. I’ve carried them all, and like a runner near the end of his leg of a relay race, I’ve begun to peer down the track for the anchorman.

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

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