As a kid, I always seemed to gravitate toward older people. And when I say older, I mean older - as in much, much older.
Even when I was in single digits, I regularly visited with folks in their late 60s or even their 70s. Which was no small deal, since back then, almost no one hit 70 in the first place.
One of my favorite older pals was Russell Demerse. Since he lived a stone's throw away and spent a lot of time puttering in his shop, I dropped in on him quite a lot.
Russell was an Adirondack classic. He lived in the house he was born in, which had been built by his father. He was an amazingly skilled man, and while I've no idea how many skills he had, I do know he was a consummate woodsman, hunter, fisherman, cabinet maker and all-around builder.
He was also a great storyteller, with a deep rumbling voice that he'd sometimes switch into a high falsetto when he was talking about something like "a teeny, weeny, little bitty bug," and with that voice I saw the smallest bug ever seen on God's green earth.
I think the only time he left Saranac Lake was during World War II, when at the tender age of 41 he enlisted in the Navy. A reminder of it which he proudly showed me was his tattoo - his rank insignia, which amazingly hadn't faded over the years.
"How'd you pick that for a tattoo?" I asked.
"Well," he said, "we went ashore in New Guinea and all the boys got tattoos, so I figured, 'Why not?' But I just couldn't make up my mind. I only knew I wanted something Navy. Finally I decided nothing could be more Navy than my rank and there it is."
And that pretty much summed up The Essential Russell: He wanted something and he got it, and there it was and there he was. Ultimately, he knew who he was and he was at peace with it. At the time I didn't know that, and if someone had told me, I wouldn't have thought it was a big deal. Today, however, when millions of Americans are spending billions of dollars on shrinks, workshops, pundits and pills to get a clue of what makes them tick, Russell's sense of self seems exceptional.
Of course, my hanging out with him was hardly as buddies, as we define them today. In those days, kids in adult company had one role - to listen. Adults didn't solicit our opinions, nor did we expect them to. In fact, if they had, we probably would've clammed up out of suspicion, caution or confusion.
But listening to Russell was never a chore. As I said, he had that great voice, but he also had great stories. Mostly, they were about the times in "My Home Town" during his salad days - the '20s and '30s - and the people who lived in them.
He never talked about scandal or gossip, and the only person I recall him talking negatively about was our neighborhood teen maniac, whom he dubbed "Wacky Jackie." According to Russell, he'd be amazed if Wacky Jackie didn't end up getting the chair (which he didn't - at least not yet).
Most of his stories were simple tales of the everyday, but they fascinated me because they were about a way of life as long gone as the pince-nez he wore for reading glasses (salvaged from the belongings of a late aunt or such).
Sealing the deal
While he was a classic Adirondacker, he sure wasn't a typical one - especially not in his marriage.
His wife, Blanche, was a wealthy widow who'd lived the first half of her life in, of all places, New York City. Her first husband had camp on Miller Pond, and they'd vacation here in the summers. And on one of those summers after the war, Russell and Blanche met. I don't know if I have all the details straight, but as I recall, Blanche and her husband were out on the lake when their boat died. Shortly afterwards, Russell came tooling along, Blanche and hubby number one flagged him down and he gave them a tow back to their dock.
Russell, with his bright blue eyes, full head of wavy hair, and muscles on his muscles, made quite an impression on Blanche. And how do I know that? Simple, because pretty soon after her husband passed away she proposed to Russell. Mind you, this was no small deal, since Russell was closing in on 50 and had evidenced no romantic interest in women. Nonetheless, she succeeded.
So what was Blanche's secret?
At that point, she wasn't, to use my mother's label, "a spring chicken." Nor was she a wily seductress. Certainly, she was bright, sophisticated and worldly beyond any of us locals, but none of that would've meant squat to Russell, who thought great literature was Argosy and Reader's Digest and whose idea of night life was being in bed by 7 p.m. at the latest.
No, her proposal was as simple and clear-cut as it gets: She said if he married her, he'd never have to work again.
That was it for the proposal and that was it for Russell's life as bachelor. They were hitched shortly thereafter and stayed hitched - and apparently happily so - till his death did them part, almost 30 years later.
Maybe, ultimately, it was a marriage made less in heaven than on Wall Street.
But if so, it made perfect sense, because in those days a smart man could still walk out of Wall Street a winner.