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Mountains

The Appalachian Mountains, Belle’s roots.

By TJ Douglas

My earliest recollections of observing life on earth were that my mother knew the answer to everything, and I lived on Long Island, New York, just a few miles from Long Island Sound. Other than that, my father told me the children in Europe were starving, and I had to eat everything on my plate. I had no idea how one connected to the other.

I also knew everyone planted victory gardens with seed packets marking each planted row with images of vegetables. My mother told me that I was good at planting. My house had to be darkened at night so the Nazi’s couldn’t accurately bomb us, the Boston Red Sox were very important, priests always smelled of alcohol, my job was to crush cans for guns and tanks, and from time to time, relatives in uniforms slept on the couch and floor. And of course, I knew that Mr. Bianchi, who lived down the block, beheaded the chickens we ate, the Philco radio was our entertainment source, and it stood taller than me.

When the wind was coming from the South, the sound of trains rolling clickety-clack on the tracks sent me on voyages to timeless worlds pictured in my grandfather’s National Geographics.

After WW II ended, I was in 4th grade; my mom no longer had ration cards for sugar, meat, cooking oil, and canned goods; the police arrested a neighbor for cheating the war effort. My Uncle Bill, the police chief, told my dad he was in the scrap business, spoke Russian, and hung for being a spy. The German Luftwaffe officers were imprisoned at Mitchell Air Force Base [Roosevelt Field]. The MPs let us throw rocks at the Germans and made them keep working in the fields while we peppered them with stones.

NOTE: Charles Lindbergh had flown the Spirit of St Louis on May 21, 1927, from Mitchell to Le Bourget Field in Paris [33 1/2 hours].

My dad’s two brothers, my uncles, had been killed at the end of the war, uncle Henry, a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne, and Uncle Mike, an Armoured Tank Commander – both died on French soil.

My father was a raging alcoholic but an excellent provider and an emotional timebomb. My life appeared to be sane, but it was anything but ordinary. By the time I was a sophomore in high school, my mother had assigned me to always be on call when my father had disagreements while intellectualizing with fellow barflies at the local gin mills. I had learned to drive as part of the interventions. No jail time ever materialized for my dad or me, thanks to Uncle Bill, and I never lost a fight in those bars because I learned early on not to turn my back on an angry drunk and swing first with a short body weighted punch into the throat – it would stop an elephant.

Reading, camping, canoeing, and sports had normalized my life somewhat, and I chose one of the many colleges offering an athletic scholarship that I thought offered the best weather. My decision was more about where than whether baseball or football. Learning never entered my mind.

Football took me south. I learned how people loved Negroes that they knew personally but thought so little of African Americans as a race of people that it became clear to me that the Civil War accomplished less than advertised. In reality – only to have stirred a still dirty pot; that buzzwords for white supremacism were states’ rights, gerrymandering, voting qualifications, limited voting times and places, etc. And that it has spilled over to include Latinos or anyone brownish in skin color.

Pine Creek is 20 yards behind the photographer. Cedar Run Inn. The authors favorite trout world.

Life after a short stint in the NFL came when my knee went five degrees too far the wrong way – my professional football career was over in one scream of pain while hauling in a short pass in a December game in St Louis against the Cardinals.

I no longer would suit up on Sundays for football at Forbes Field or any of those now torn down ivy-covered brick and mortar edifices to baseball in the spring and summer, and college and the NFL football in the fall and winter. My dozen years of combined high school, college, pros, and full-speed contact requirements were over. My left knee and lower back were the only thank yous I received or deserved.

I would no longer get the attention I’d become used to for most of my life – even if unearned and mostly obsequious flattery. Nor would I experience the joys of on-demand testosterone raptures and two-finger pours of adrenaline to flood my veins in a game of chance played with a ball of an oblong shape in front of thousands of raging maniacs.

Although my rapid transition into the other world of ordinary citizenry went better than I expected, fear of transitioning pushed me to think about what I would have had had I not chosen football and college. A question not worth more than this passing thought of it.

Over the next few years, I studied mechanical engineering at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on an as wanted audit basis. I entered the workplace 18 months later as a DIY, well-educated single male with a patent-pending, and a Federal Tax ID number. I also had a monthly rent obligation on a former 25,000 square foot steel mill building that would serve as my combination fabrication shop, rolling mill, production line, and coil and finished product warehouse.

My football earnings and investment good luck provided funds enough to launch the company. Fear of failure was a familiar enemy that I faced every day of my life.

I made an excellent connection with a blue blood lawyer at the most powerful law firm in western Pennsylvania. Reed, Smith, Shaw & McClay, and my Carnegie Institute girlfriend, Angie Abel, a theater arts type, introduced me to her twin brother, Max. He was an earnest but humorless accountant who suffered from noticeable effects of Asperger’s. He had aced the four sections of the CPA Exam well enough to be challenged for having cheated but blew his inquisitors away, rudely.

Max took a job at Price Waterhouse – lasted less than a month, then the top private accounting firm in Pittsburgh that had corporate accounts like Gulf Oil, Koppers, and U. S. Steel. Max lasted two months there. At Angie’s behest, Mr. Ari Abel, her dad, came to see me and said if I’d hire Max, he’d pay his salary for a year. I agreed.

I figured out how to deal with Max – he liked to tie flies; we became fast friends – as much as it seemed possible with someone with Asperger’s, but I liked Max, and I knew he liked me.

Max’s grasp of money, the tax code, borrowing, and credit matters with banks and vendors put my small manufacturing and fabricating company on the map. My patent on insulated panels Loccup® Connect gave us before tax profits that seemed like stealing to me. On a roll, we expanded pretty much self-financed – the situation unheard of at the time. Max became obnoxious over his contribution, and I let it pass. He was good at his job.

When a significant expansion opportunity presented itself, one that needed Wall Street money, Mr. Abel and his investors came to me with an offer. Subsequently, I purchased the industry leader whom Max had discovered was cooking the books in a Ponzi-like scam, and I went headlong into it as if a fact about to explode and that I could blow the whistle and send them to jail or save their asses.

These arrogant Ivey’s initially treated me like a person who did not belong at their Duquesne Club, insisting we meet there to throw me off. They hated Pittsburgh’s Jews, Catholics, Italians, uppity women, African Americans, and Irish need not apply for membership at their men only club.

Pine Creek on its initiating journey from New York State to its destination, Chesapeake Bay via Pine Creek Gorge.

When I finished outlining for the board where I could take them and what their “personal” financial future looked like with me at the helm and without me. Oh, and I promised to keep the officers and board members from going to jail if they made the right decision. They sat back as if they would have the comfort of time to screw me over. I left the private dining room at the Duquesne Club and said they had 10 minutes to decide their future. When I returned, they all stood and clapped. My new admirers were the sweetest best friends I’d ever known.

I gained control, but the outcry in lawsuits from the large institutional stockholders required the best effort from Reed, Smith, et al.

My WASP lawyers quelled the stockholders’ uprising. Also, we would soon be swamped in cash, bought back stock, and raised share values substantially.

In the following years, as things quieted, I had the remaining arrogant executives, one by one, escorted out the building by my chief engineer, Abraham Ngue – a smallish and bookish-looking Nigerian. He had been an engineering classmate of mine at CMU and graduated second in his class. I made sure Ngue was assisted by two of the biggest and blackest cops on the McKees Rocks police force that hated white “suits.”

By the time the last of the legal battles settled – two years later, the stock had risen way above its “fake” pre-purchase value – everybody was happy.

The house got cleaned, the bad divisions sold off, each selling for more than they were worth combined.

I made Ngue CEO, he split us up into three divisions, made two acquisitions, sold our headquarter building in Downtown Pittsburgh for a phenomenal price, and shrunk our overhead with retirement packages. We were lean, youngish, and very profitable – all in 23 years.

I made sure we stayed almost perk-less, and Max was like a hawk on expenses. By the time my patent ran out, we had already moved on and left the competition foreign and domestic, fumbling around in the dark, trying to copy us.

Personal relationships were on and off with Angie, but my taste for her social life and needs soon wore too thin on me. We stopped seeing each other as a couple without any shed tears. And life pretty much was series of one-night stands, so to speak, but more like one-year stands.

My failure to choose a like-minded outdoor type as my mate and my propensity for work to the exclusion of anyone else, and my disdain for country club living and lawn parties kept me far from serious involvement.

Travel and adventure in the form of destination fly fishing trips abroad unfairly let me abandon all my found female friends, one after the other, unwilling to be the proverbial second fiddle to a selfish man. And all relationships, one after another, ended like the length of four seasons do.

It was crazy in the 70s, and in one fall in Pennsylvania, Ngue, Max, and my top sales guy, Murphy, and I spent almost three weeks with the owner of a company I wanted to buy just south of Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

Finally, we were close to a deal. The purchase agreement terms were acceptable or seemed so to their principal stockholders. Max said the company’s numbers checked out, and Ngue, Murphy, and I loved the plant flow, and my legal team assured us there were no closeted legal impediments, like pending lawsuits or other deal-breaking obstacles.

On purpose, over the weeks of negotiations, I had parked my Ford station wagon, unwashed, in the employee parking lot, not the executive lot, not in my Mercedes, not wearing a suit.

The workforce was mature, well paid, and seemed loyal, but was suspicious of me, a very Jewish-looking Max, and Ngue, a black man with a heavy accent. That all went away when they found I had played pro football, Murphy spent two years with the Phillies as a reliever. Max knew every statistic about Pittsburgh University, Penn State college football and demonstrated it to employees quizzing him. And they warmed to Ngue, who was union-oriented.

I’d purposely left a shotgun and rifle on my truck’s back seat floor and fishing gear behind the back seat. That kind of word travels fast. The talk was we were probably okay – not likely to screw the company or them, the union workers.

After handshakes in the boardroom and customary tippling on the final agreement that we all signed on a Friday, I decided on a few days of pleasure fly fishing the hungry fish of fall in Pennsylvania trout country. Then, a pleasant drive home to Pittsburgh by midweek.

I stayed at the then barely called “rustic” Cedar Run Inn, Cedar Run, Pennsylvania, about an hour plus away from the plant. I couldn’t wait to start my day-tripping to the miles and miles of abundant trout streams surrounding the area I’d been researching for weeks.

It would become my favorite retreat in the world. So rich in fish and fauna, and so old-timey an area that if Humphrey Bogart or Lauren Bacall walked into the general store across from the inn and said hello, it would seem perfectly reasonable.

There’s never been a shortage of productive trout waters – starting 50 yards from my Cedar Run Inn room and under an hour at any compass point from it.

The terrain gets a little tricky to the north of Cedar Run – the water flushes through canyons from across the New York State line. I’d never fished that northern turf. My library research, commercial topo maps, power company, and logging company maps I bought or borrowed noted it as rugged terrain by consensus descriptions – more like mountainous because of gorges and drop-off elevations that neared Appalachian measurements. It was not the feet-high shown as an elevation; the gorges and straight downs captured the belief of elevations being higher than they were.

On Sunday morning, I made my way along wet switchbacks, on repair neglected roads to an unknown elevation where I found access to the logging trail I’d sought. I parked outside a gate maybe a mile in from the two-lane road entrance.

The barely passable turn-of-the-century passage carved out of the dirt – a wide logging road that ended at the remnant of an industrial gate. The signage so shot full of lead was unreadable – only a long ago power company logo was readable. The portal and fencing were so rusted-out that it only needed one push to give way.

I could hear rushing water, and it was coming from below me – I’d read the maps correctly.

It was maybe 3:00 pm when I first saw Belle Montgomery and her black and white sheepdog, Rainy. I would interrupt their fly fishing if I climbed down to the riverbed at my selected point of entry so, I watched her unseen from my perch of maybe 50-feet above the canyon gorge and was able to follow her for about 50 yards – giving me 30 or more minutes to observe. The sound of water so loud neither she nor hound heard me rustling around on the animal trail above them.

Pittsburgh forged the steel that built a nation. Now, the center of international medical research. A city of rivers, bridges, and inclines. Home of the Steelers and Pirates, and entrepreneurs.

It only took me a minute to observe that she was a very skilled angler who cast and moved forward English salmon spey fishing style. It was cast and retrieve, take one step forward, cast, and so on. She was a smooth caster with well-practiced efficiencies of an athletic sort. I had the thought that she might be better than me but quickly dismissed it.

I saw a narrow body of water that meandered into a series of drops not qualified as “falls,” except maybe in low water time. Each drop then poured into deep pooled runs, fed by water entering it from mountain creeks opposing me. The geography repeated as the stream declined in elevation.

It would eventually water Big Pine, which led onward east to the Susquehanna River, which fed the Chesapeake Bay. It was historic waters – part of an important watershed.

When my cliffed vantage point denied me further visual of Belle’s fly fishing show, I vacated my sniper view thinking the rushing water made the whole scene like a trailer for a movie never canned, which I recall titling A Life Well Spent.

I retreated to my initially planned entry point. The last ten feet down turned out to be almost twice my guessed drop – luckily, I kept my balance and did not go headlong into the rocks and thundering rapids.

My watching Belle, I told myself, had nothing to do with snooping on an attractive woman. It was about her hooking up with unusually big brookies, even more muscular than usual rainbows, like Kamloops trout, and she did so with excessive regularity. I enjoyed watching the movie of her casting technique with a willowy rod that I knew was bamboo of no more than around a 6-weight and less than 7-feet long.

She had skilled retrieve mechanics. A low, side-pull of the rod and hook set – no tip involved; she made the rod butt, and her legs do all the work – like a tarpon angler and as a result, quickly reeled in trouts, corraled them without a net and then examined them — she, kneeling, and Rainy nose-first. She was observing each trout like doctors with a sedated patient. All odd, I thought and packed it away to memory.

I fished behind her, but she was always out of sight. Around an hour past and I fished the stretch where I’d seen her and then beyond. I was not as good at trout and brookies as she was – an annoying reality.

For me, it was Prince Nymphs and Pheasant Tails in the current – fishing what is termed today as European style nymphing, and Adams’, terrestrials, and other floaters on the pool edges. My rod a hand-made and whippy tipped glass 4/5 weight, and if I recall accurately, 7′ 6″ long, and of course, an Orvis reel. The line was DT, I’m sure.

When I realized it would be dark in little less than two hours, I made my way onto an animal path that reached into the water. I guessed it would intersect with the logging road I parked on. At least my compass indicated that I was heading in the right direction. And the open field view of the regrowth pine forest provided visual assurance.

At a road entry intersect, I saw the black and white sheepdog, Rainy, and it saw me simultaneously. He stopped and barked, ran a few more feet, stopped again, and barked again. Then, it ran to me full out, stopped, nuzzled my leg, and madly wagging and whimpering pushed me scrum-like from behind… and it hit me. His master was in need.

I left my gear and pack and jogged about a quarter-mile or so, with Rainy checking on me to make sure I was still coming. And then I heard the water, and moments later, there she was. She was a picture of prostration – a woman receiving a rite of ordination from an invisible priest. She was half in and half out of the rock-strewn section of stream in a fast current. I righted her, and she screeched in decibels far exceeding the sound of rushing water – her eyes shot wide open, but they had a strange far-away emptiness. Her facial skin was absent of color – almost translucent. Dried blood caked her hair on the back of her skull.

Bald Eagle Fishing

Bald Eagle Fishing

A fight or flight I was so familiar with took over. I nervously spoke, trying to calm Belle down, thinking it was her fear of me that caused the scream. So, in the usual parlance of adults greeting one another, I wasted my breath saying my name is TJ, to which she only continued gurgling a non-reply. Then I saw her ankle. A bone was barely sticking through her sock slightly above her wade shoe’s ankle – her foot at an impossible angle. I’d only seen one such break, and it too was as ugly and as unforgettable.

My Steeler friend and co-rookie, and all-American linebacker from Notre Dame, Myron Pottios, broke his forearm like that while playing the Lions in Detroit. He came off the field, walking assisted, with an inhuman color on his face, like Belle’s, and his eyes having the same strange far-away empty focus.

Blood started reflowing from her ankle wound when I moved here. It took time, but I finally cradled her – got her out of the water and seated as comfortably as I could against a boulder about 25 yards from the stream on a grassy knoll. She was shivering like a poorly-tuned lawnmower.

I stripped her backpack and made it a low-back pillow to lean on. I took off her wet fishing vest, sweater, shirt, turtleneck, and bra and dressed her in my undershirt, flannel shirt, and heavy Steelers sweater.

She had a scary dead-look stare and said absolutely nothing decipherable. I went back to the water and retrieved her bamboo fly rod and Bogdan reel.

My talking during the event was for my benefit – self-calming and a thought organizing process. The ghost-white, groaning, and drooling spittle humanoid in front of me was, I guessed, exhibiting an advanced stage of shock – not good.

Belle was as warm as I could make her. Her stitchable size gash in her head had coagulated so; I left it unmanaged. I had no emergency kit – nothing to aid her further.

I shouted at the unhinged dog, screamed at it to SIT – he obeyed immediately but chose his head on her lap. I gave Belle her water to drink, but most drooled down her chin. I told her to stay put, a command that would later cause great laughter for us, and I asked her how far the logging road entrance was and other questions that were also for my benefit. It couldn’t be too far, I thought. I said I’d be back to both non-speakers – and ran.

Minutes later, I’d picked up my gear and, puffing heartily for another 20 minutes, made it to the rusted-out gate and knocked it down by hand. I hopped into my Ford station wagon, drove in and picked up a wide-eyed Belle and plopped her in the shotgun seat as carefully as possible, added a blanket and backrest pillow as support. She screamed screams that scared both Rainy and me. Rainy, auto jumped into the second-row seats, where I put all of our collective gear. He liked the back there and was eventually as happy as he could be. He must have thought everything was good to go with all that tail wagging and no more screaming.

I had the heat on full, and my window cracked for fresh air. Although eyes open a bit now, Belle couldn’t get it together enough to give directions to the closest hospital – she was mumbling, or drooling, or groaning or all three and going in and out of consciousness. It was not a good situation, and I was uncomfortable about the future possibilities.

I was able to find a phone booth I’d passed on the way in at a closed on Saturday night Gulf Oil gas station. I grabbed coin change from the ashtray and got the telephone operator. She gave me rough directions to the hospital before connecting me.

Funny, in those days, the number, in some rural places still could only be given verbally by an operator. The phone numbers were simple, like the one at the gas station… something like Ellsworth followed by four digits – no pen and pencil needed for remembering.

The hospital confirmed directions. I responded to the questions the nurse asked about Belle over the phone – my patient was now showing signs of having difficulty breathing normally, and I was unsure of the extent of her injuries. Still, she did have a compound fracture of an ankle, I said. The hospital provided further direction information and estimated my ETA. I was 15 minutes away if I hit all the turns correctly. It had now been at least an hour or more since I first spotted Belle, and it was getting dark.

Woman hiking

Woman hiking

The ER staff met us outside 20 minutes later. They were ready. It was just before pitch dark. I parked, grabbed a jacket, moved Rainy to the front seat, cracked the windows, and threw the blanket I’d covered Belle with and some spare clothes on the floor for him to stay warm. It was getting cold.

I took Belle’s name, address, phone number, cash, and insurance info from her backpack men’s style wallet and gave the hospital the necessary copy. I stayed at the hospital – the staff convinced I was the significant other.

I called her home phone several times through the night, but no answer. I concluded that the McGill University, Ph.D. professor, Maybelle Townsend Montgomery, lived alone.

I never let on I wasn’t the significant other. Why, to this day, I do not know? Three hours later, the doctor, Dan Holtz, an orthopedic surgeon by trade, told me she’d sustained an open fracture wound breaking both the Tibia and Fibula. He said the operation went well, but the soft-tissue defect and shock had raised her blood pressure, and hypothermia all meant she’d cheated death because of the added trauma and dehydration, “She never would have survived the night – not a chance.”

He went on to say she was in ICU and would remain there until her trauma was managed – maybe until morning. She was currently sleeping and heavily sedated – there would be a lot of pain, and it would be an arduous rehab. Holtz said she was remarkably fit, which would help her rehab and aid an expected full recovery.

As he was leaving, he added he was not generally at the hospital at night and never in the ER. He said he was filling in for his ER friend and that his partner, who was also orthopedically trained, would see her early in the morning when making her rounds. He said he’d stay until Belle was out of trouble and would see her later the next day. I stayed the night, checking on Rainy throughout.

At daylight, Belle was given a shared room on the second floor. I looked in, but she was out and groaning in pain and attended by two nurses.

I took Rainy to his home and chanced to open the door with Belle’s keys. Yelling, anyone home, as loud as I could several times, fearing getting shot as an intruder. Rainy went nuts looking for Belle in the modern two-story cottage – scratching on all closed doors until I opened them and whimpered on to the next closed door. Rainy did like being home, I fed him and then took him for an unleashed walk, and he missed reading his newspaper as we walked; he read the bushes, leaves, and tree stumps.

For some reason, and after feeding Rainy and walking him leashless, I cleaned out the fridge and scrubbed the two toilets. I also put Belle’s dirty clothes in a big basin next to the old-style washing machine to soak. I picked out an ordinary supply of fresh clothes from her bedroom and her toiletries from the ensuite bathroom – constantly glancing at the family pictures for clues of what I wanted to know but didn’t.

To find out if a neighbor knew Belle and had information to help me find someone to care for Rainy, I choose a farm a mile or so down the backcountry road I’d entered earlier.

Steel factory, metallurgical or metalworking mill

Steel factory, metallurgical or metalworking mill

When the homeowner answered the door, I watched a tail-wagging Rainy barge in as if asked. Everyone in the farmhouse had a thick Irish brogue. Everyone knew Rainy, even the other two dogs that ran to greet him with yelps.

Rainy, the two family dogs, and three redheaded children disappeared upstairs, and I got invited into the kitchen for hot tea and toast. I filled the Byrnes’ in.

Mrs. Byrne, Mairead, said she didn’t know of any of Belle’s family. Adding that, her husband, Ian, and oldest daughter, Colleen, would go to the hospital with the pajamas, underwear, clothes, and sundries I’d poached from the cottage and were in a suitcase in the station wagon.

I was glad for an end to the most unusual fishing day I ever had.

The next day, I picked up Rainy, and we fished Slate Run, and by noon I’d hooked up five times on some homemade mid-current-sinking flies with hairy red gills and yellow-painted eyes that performed best in #10 after having been wet for a while. A Prince picked off a beautiful native bow of at least 20-inches. No dries caught any attention even though there were caddis hatches.

I’d forgotten to give the Brynes’ Belle’s wallet, money, and other information, and it was clear I had invested so much in a stranger’s life that I wanted to make sure she was alright. That curiosity would change both our lives forever.

Three days later, Belle and I were still playing our significant other parts for the hospital staff and doctors and enjoyed our roles, but didn’t know why we were doing it, or at least I didn’t?

On day three, Belle started to come around and told me what to do with Rainy and about her truck, house, etc. Rainy had been a gypsy living in my car during the day but well cared for by nurses enjoying him on their breaks. He went with me to the Cedar Run Inn at night, where he was a star on that first busy Sunday weekend night.

I got the stuff out of Belle’s truck and had it towed to her home. Rainy did like being home and again went looking for Belle again – everywhere. I picked up clothes and toiletries she specifically wanted, reset the auto temperature, threw out some more food and the flowers, put away her fishing gear where it was apparent it went, grabbed the mail, and put the new dirty clothes, mine, in the station wagon.

Six days later, I’d rearranged my schedule, mostly avoiding a trade show in Germany and a hands-on factory tour with Ngue.

So, I was not the board chairman now – just the unelected caregiver at the small cottage in Pennsylvania and the male friend Rainy never had.

Belle’s needs at home were such that it came to be there wasn’t anything I didn’t know about her physically, including toilet habits, hygiene, bathing [lifting in and out of the tub – wheelchair], and laundry idiosyncrasies. Women seem to have them – she insisted on folding even Rainy’s bowl napkins.

Belle was a matter of fact about her bodily needs and made no ridiculous attempt to hide her torso from view when nature called. My emptying bedpans weren’t new to me or monitoring a daily bath. I was respectful with my eyes and, when not needed, exited and waited to be summoned.

She accepted my presence, and I liked being with her so much that I became suspicious. I didn’t understand my feelings or know what and why hers seemed to be about me? Belle was 12 years my junior.

I didn’t know how to handle the situation going forward? Especially when she could walk around a bit, and I was less needed. I’d been in and out to the store for groceries, pharmacy, rehab every day, home to my room to get things, manage Rainy, and take Belle to the doctors.

After two weeks of absence, my staff became concerned. Still, I defeated concerns without anyone panicking and said I would be off for the rest of the month – using our new Williamsport purchase my interest on behalf of “the” company.

I was never one to make a hasty financial move, but the owner of the Ceder Run Inn, Mike, in casual conversation while I was fishing by the inn told me of a place on the river that just came on the market and was steal at $150K.

His sister was the broker, and I bought the place after a brief walk-through. It was a nice spot on the river, five acres, and I could use it for fishing, deer hunting, and bird shooting. I called Max, and he did the banking.

By month’s end, Belle had decided what to do about me. My time in the guest room had expired and became a memory. Her king-size bed and warm body at my back were not hard to get used to and like. I slept ever so soundly, and she promised I didn’t snore, and I knew I didn’t. I never told her that she did.

I seemed to fall asleep and wake up in the same spot, which was odd. I was a toss-and-turn sleeper?

Our life’s natural needs and desires were easy; Belle wanted what she wanted and expressed that clearly. Her taking pleasure aroused me plentifully. I began to think I was selfish, but that’s how it plays out when it works.

We never said to one another anything about sex or when we should have sex. It just happened when it happened. Belle signaled that somehow she wanted affection, but it was never the same clue or same anything – I stopped thinking about it. One can overthink such things and ruin them.

Belle was a necessity eater. I was a foodie. She shifted her foodways to my side of the ledger and became a student of primary sauces. We settled in on the best one she learned – a white, creamy basil Alfredo. We ate beef once a week, chicken more often, and cooked sous vide, grilled, roasted, and fried. Our dominant dishes were salmon, pasta with veggies, pasta with seafood and Belle’s white sauce, and basmati rice, Spanish style with our leftovers.

She loved my baked bread, so we always had fresh bread. I broke her of cooking with salted butter and introduced, instead, to unsalted European butter, more fat, and better tasting.

Breakfast was always on your own. We had different start-up needs. Belle liked to hit mornings over-caffeinated, a long walk with Rainy, and be left alone. Lunch was similarly on your own, mainly if tasks needed to stay on track. Still, it often turned into shopping around two and a snack in town around four – especially the latter if we faced second-night leftovers for dinner, and left me to revitalize them into new tastes.

I spent a few days a week in Williamsport for corporate business and flew in and out of Pittsburgh once or twice a month in a plane we had leased.

Neither of us was much on the drinking part of life, but Belle liked a fat three-finger Canadian whiskey neat with a lemon twist most nights – sometimes a little soda water if we had any. Her two friends from her childhood were involved in her life by invitations for death, birth, or family events, small or large. There was always music for births and deaths – they were country folks.

My schedule was the fixer of things outside with plenty to do, and Rainy loved being my helper because we, almost always, warm and cold weather, trucked off to a nearby stream and picked up a couple of stocked rainbows for dinner or the freezer. Rainy, convinced he had something to do with every aspect of my fishing – even wanted Belle’s approval when the fish were presented.

One day, Belle said, “Go get your things and come back and live here full time. I could use the money.” She said,” $600 and stop buying all the food, lunches, and my booze.” I was good with the contract.

Rainy and Belle came with me to my place, and on the way, she asked how I was going to get my things to her home. When we got to my place, which I’d bought furnished, she knew the answer.

My tools fit in the station wagon, guns, and fishing stuff in the back seat. All the furniture went to the Salvation Army, even the TV. The kitchen and cooking stuff was excellent and would replace Belles junk, which she gave to her friends.

Belle washed and folded all my clothes, even though they were clean and folded. She went to the local general store and bought wooden storage boxes while Rainy and I finished at the house.

I called Mike’s sister who sold me the house, she came over and said I needed to fix this and that if I wanted a profit. We came back every day for the next three weeks and fixed, painted, and replaced everything that needed to be – spending $1,400. A week later, I excepted an offer of $159K – $6,000 more than estimated, and that was that. I paid off the mortgage, reimbursed my company its expenses, and bought a few farm tools and an ATV for the cottage.

A closeup view of the hands of a fly fisherman holding his fly rod and reel and a “Lefty’s Deceiver”

Ready

In my tenth year of attachment to Belle Montgomery, my very own backcountry woman, it was clear she was not perfect, but that added to her charm of unpredictability.

I found out she was an anomaly, as were her brother and two sisters and parents. She went to a three-room country mountain school that had an outhouse for communal relief. We visited the schoolhouse, which was vine-covered but still a remarkable piece of Americana.

After turning down every elite school in the U. S. and England, she chose McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and degreed in environmental sciences, married a professor with similar academic training and interests, and had three boys.

She got divorced five years before our meeting. Her hubby ran off with a 23-year-old grad student. Belle found occasional self-relief thanks to the local divorced Methodist minister, whom she said was more tedious than wallpaper but worthwhile and minded his own business.

By the time Belle was in high school, she had taught seniors math and chemistry, helping her older brother on Saturdays working on one of his five classic motorcycles. She fitted new pistons in the cylinders and other such mechanical miracles.

Her brother, Tad Townsend, was an All-American wrestler for Penn State and graduated with a Masters in four years. Because of a motorcycle injury did not make the US Montreal Olympic team in the 70 kg (154 lb) class. He joined the military, became a Captain in the Marines, and killed in action during the Vietnam debacle. Her sisters were all academics living most recently in Kansas and Montana with their respective families. She was not close to her sisters but had been with her brother. His pictures were all over the house. Tad looked like the guy you wanted on your side in a bar fight.

Belle said. “If any guy or man bothered us, even said something bad about one of us, he was on them about as soon as he heard about it. Once, a local car dealer salesman made a public remark about her sister Angel’s figure, put his arm around her to show off in front of a customer, and patted her on the rear. Dad told Tad about it, and that Angel had come home crying. Tad tracked the man down at his office that same day. I don’t need to finish the story for you. When the car guy got out of the hospital a week later, he complained to the county sheriff about the beating he suffered. The result was he was charged with molesting a minor and lewd and lascivious behavior. His trial ended in a plea. He’d pay Angel $400 and left town – a deal was made.” I chuckled.

Belle went on, “Tad and the sheriff raced and owned cars together. Car racing in these mountains was more prevalent among males back then than football is today.

Belle, Beverly Townsend, went to McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Her mother’s sister lived there and was a Ph. D. in literature had married a tenured professor in McGill’s world-famous environmental sciences department – something Belle wanted to study.

These days, as before in Canada, she earned her money coaching PH.D. Candidates and advising about writing their theses’ in Environmental Sciences. Her reputation was borderless – she was well known in Environmental Sciences, even in Russia.

She co-authored three books on coldwater fish and their habitats [Atlantic salmon, steelhead, and brook trout]. Her passion was brook trout, native and the whole stocked fish debacle, habitats for fish, and fish impacts on flora. All helping explain her chosen domicile and peculiar behavior that the first day I saw her so preoccupied with the fish she brought to hand.

She traveled about five times a year for a week or more to locations in Northeast Canada on assignments with a private Toronto firm hired by the Canadian Department of Fisheries [DFO]. As the first chair in a courtroom law case, she was lead author on all the firms’ papers regarding matters with which she was involved, and the university endorsed and published. Financially she was well compensated.

Beautiful pine trees on mountains

The back way.

Her vintage cottage was meticulously restored and updated—even the kitchen. The exception, the interior passageways under 6-feet, and I’d guessed would someday knock me out for good. Belle’s cottage surrounded by 189 acres of unbuildable, mountain-slopped land, which I had taken on as a project – make some “new” tillable land. I loved my newfound occupation and read voraciously about modern farming.

I had the best tomatoes, Mr. Stripey heirloom, Bush Goliath, and Black Prince heirloom. My squashes were coming along too, and I was working on growing hybrid asparagus with no luck.

I was still learning the sliver of the extended Appalachians that Belle Montgomery decided she’d share with me. One day, she blurted out, as if a weather report nobody would find interesting, “I have inoperable pancreatic cancer.” That night I was impotent, and we both whimpered like children and held each other as if a remedy.

Rainy didn’t know what to make of it and whined as he trotted back and forth around the bed, he finally just jumped in bed and slapped us both with a wagging tail as he burrowed until he divided us enough to find our faces and tongue lap us – we burst into laughter, and he barked – it pleased all three of us. And the night soon took us all away.

We did everything possible concerning her sentencing but dead-ended everywhere we turned – spending close to $100,00 on the first six-month quest. We finally realized we were wasting time and falling into a self-pity pit with no return of investment possible.

I further estranged myself from my company that didn’t seem to miss me. Leaving me alone to do my thing in Williamsport, hitting small home runs upgrading secondary and “executive” airport control towers. We were all over it, and when I had hired a lobbying group, my little “thing” turned each of multi-million dollar bids into cash cows projects.

Belle and I changed in a matter of one day – we agreed to go about living. It was an instant relief. We ditched everything unnecessary, like rehabbing the barn, buying a new tractor, updating the guest bathroom, and I gave up avoiding ice cream, and Belle started liking excellent white wines. A late morning glass of wine became a ritual to precede lunch. I even bought five crystal wine glasses at an auction to improve the morning ritual.Belle wanted to finish showing me her brook trout findings in Pennsylvania and to Georgia. It was a journey into the bowels of the Appalachians. I’m sure to some places only native Americans had first seen a thousand years ago.

There was a valley with a forest of bamboo trees, a Tennessee mountain stream with brook trout in the 4-pound range, and a human-made rock formation tucked away in a cave submerged underwater.

And there was a small restaurant in the country-est of country places there ever was and smack on the Georgia/Tennessee border, Aunt Lulu’s Kitchen. It served the best martini’s, illegally, and the best roast beef sandwiches, legally, in America. All guests were limited to one martini, but it was a whopper. On our only visit, Belle had one martini and slept all the way home, three hours.

Belle had turned my education and her revisiting brook trout signatures of the Southeast US into earnest research that covered Maryland and West Virginia to Southwestern Georgia, the beginning of the Appalachian Trail and brook trout habitat terminus.

Energized by the project, she did all the planning and scheduling. Her effort would be a book and add measurably to her status with the only scholarly work on the original native brook trout of Southeastern North America – Salvelinus fontinalis. She went on a tear, and our lives got boosted by her youthful joy.

Infrared Foggy Cemetery

It’s Time.

We laughed, took long walks in the cold; her sons were coming for Christmas. We bought plane tickets for everyone and made reservations for everyone at The Homestead.

Belle shared the angling keys to fly fishing streams she had fished alone for years – even as a youth. All of her real estate research coordinates required somewhat arduous hike-ins of an hour or more but fortunately not guarded against humankind in my shape by requiring professional climber skill sets.

It was late fall when the weather wrapped up our travels and brookie searches. We were both glad to put our rods away and make the fireplace the new requirement.

It was a late November evening, and we had finally arranged everything for Christmas at the Homestead. Belle had a third wine and felt it when we went for a walk in a moonless and windless night of lightly falling wet snow. It made me happy to see her so happy. Belle said she had a funny feeling when we got back and needed to go to the bathroom. I asked if she was okay, and she said yes, just lightheaded, and I joked about her third drink.

I went to the kitchen to get going on the two ribeyes and got ingredients out for making a steak sauce we liked, and when I opened the freezer door, I heard her hit the floor in the hallway.

She was dead when I got there. She’d had a massive stroke.

I came to believe Belle’s sudden death was kind to her. She did not suffer withering away, her body functions betraying her, helplessness, the pain, or the uselessness of having to wait. All of which I watched happen to a brother.

A week prior, when I delivered the Canadian whiskey and soda with a twist she wanted while taking her bubble bath, she said, “I’m as happy as I ever been in my whole life, and I’m dying.” She laughed. I did not.

Her youngest son, Mike, and his wife, Cybil, came to stay at the cottage a week before we had the Christmas Belle planned by turning it into her life celebration. The Homestead, Hot Springs, Virginia, donated a room off the dining area for her clan and me to gather for dinner, display memorabilia, and say funny things about her.

We had all the memorabilia her youngest son and daughter-in-law could find to display. It was impressive, as were her children.

I got the impression she was not a kissy, touchy mom, but a do mom. The boys were well-grounded and married to sensible women with polite children. Mike and Cybil stayed for the week packing and sorting family things.

The lawyer part of her will allowed me to buy the cabin and property at fair-market value if the kids did not want to “live” in it. We had discussed this and decided I would buy it. The market was depressed, and the fair market value was down $22,000 from two years ago, but prices were starting to come back.

I just handed Mike my check for the fair market value agreed to with an added $22,000. Mike said, “You don’t have to do this.” I replied that I did, and we left it at that. It would help with grandchildren’s education; Belle had taken care of that, Mike said. I just said that it was my turn.

Spring finally came, and then June. I finally let go of Belle’s clothes and personal things the kids didn’t want and gave them to her local schoolgirl friends if they said they wanted them and would pick them up. Both of them said they wanted them. I guessed they would; the clothes were all top labels but not fancy – perfect for the mountains, and the jewelry a wow for them.

I took Rainy to the groomer for his spring cleaning, and I went fishing. I told the groomer I’d be back around five and took Belle’s favorite bamboo fly rod and Bogdan reel.

On our way back home, I told Rainy that I needed to finish editing Belle’s book; her publisher pressed me on the matter. And I reminded Rainy that he had a holiday coming after I finished with Belle’s book – a three-week stay at the Byrnes’ because I would be in Pittsburgh attending a stockholder meeting that would announce my retirement. Then, a two-week trip to Seychelles for some angling R & R.

Rainy climbed in my lap, accessing the open window to think it over, concluding that life goes on.

I never fish alone anymore; I always have Belle.

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