Swinging (but not singing) on high
According to the cliché, old age is not for sissies. And now that I am, by any measure old, I couldn’t agree more.
Of course there’s all the slippage and slopage of both mind and body. And while I don’t like them, I expected them in one form or another. But what I didn’t expect, and what weighs most heavily, is losing so many people I care about. Sure, I lost people when I was younger, but only in dribs and drabs. Now the rate has sped up so blindingly, it’s as if life itself has become a game of musical chairs with the Grim Reaper.
To put it in numbers: In the last month, I lost one high school classmate in each of the first three weeks. Then last week I lost another friend, Peter Yaglou.
I said Peter was a friend, and he was … but not in a conventional sense. Then again, since there was nothing conventional about Peter, it makes perfect sense.
He was a shaggy-haired, shaggy-bearded bundle of energy, and even when he was doing nothing, he seemed on his way to be doing something.
I first met him when he showed up, bright-eyed and pony-tailed, as a Paul Smith’s College freshman. I never had him in class, but that was no impediment to meeting him since he was so friendly and outgoing.
Peter was at PSC off and on for a bunch of years and, like a lot of Smitties, fell in love with the area. But unlike most of the others, he eventually came back to stay, buying a house in Gabriels and settling in. Note I didn’t say settling down. Of all the adjectives I could apply to him, “domesticated” was sure not one.
He had a vast array of talents and survival skills that allowed him to thrive in this desert of a job market. He could fix cars, and at one point was a VW horse trader of sorts. He could do carpentry, plumbing, roofing, and probably any other construction job he put his mind to. And obviously he succeeded, renovating his own place and a whole bunch of others (he was always helping one friend or another fix this or replace that) and living the life he wanted.
While I knew Peter almost 50 years and ran into him fairly frequently, I can’t recall us having one extended conversation. Then again, that only makes sense since the only places I ever saw him were in the Waterhole or the Rusty Nail or out and about on Winter Carnival, none of which lend themselves to lengthy discussions.
Still, those settings are fine for brief, friendly interactions. And the ones we had were always good enough for me, and I’d like to think for him too. But though all our interactions blurred together, we had one that was a real Yaglou-esque Doozy.
The boys of summer
It took place during a beautiful summer day during the late ’80s, on the St. Regis river, off Keese’s Mill Road. I was there with my nephew Daniel, having taken him to experience one of the ADK’s finest summer entertainments — a rope swing.
Daniel was a city kid, a young teen with a limited sense of adventure. While he loved the idea of the rope swing when I told him about it, once we got there, he started to have serious doubts.
“I don’t quite get how it works,” he said.
“It’s simple,” I said. “You take the rope as far up the hill as you can, clamp on it for all you’re worth, and jump. Then, when you’re over the river, you let go. That’s it.”
“I dunno,” he said, shaking his head.
“There’s nothing to know,” I said. “You just do it.”
He said nothing, but just kept looking at the rope, the hill, the river, and back at the rope again — all the while, shaking his head.
Just then, we heard a boat coming our way. Next, it came into view — an ancient aluminum boat powered by an equally-ancient outboard. There were three guys in the boat. I didn’t know the first two, but the one at the helm was Peter.
They were a sight to behold. They wore nothing but ragged cutoffs and each had a beer in hand and a cigarette dangling out the corner of of his mouth. The guy in the front was cradling a 30-rack of beer like it was the Christ child, and all of them had big grins on their mugs. All in all, they looked like The Day Huckleberry Finn Met Hunter S. Thompson.
They pulled in, tied up, and came to where we were sitting. Peter made his introductions, and I made mine. I snuck a glance at Daniel. He was looking at them, wide-eyed, and it was obvious he wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
The guys and I chatted back and forth a bit and then Peter asked Daniel if he’d ever been on a rope swing.
“No,” said Daniel.
“Oh, you’ll love it,” said Peter. “Here, lemme show you.”
He drained his beer, took a last hit of his cigarette and put the butt in the can. Then he walked up the hill, gripped the rope, took a mighty leap, and swung out over the river. After he let go of the rope, he floated — up and up and up, seemingly in slow motion. Then, at the top of his arc he tucked in, did a reverse somersault, and dived into the river perfectly, disappearing with hardly a splash.
Daniel and I were sitting there, gobsmacked, still trying to process what we’d seen when Peter came up and handed the rope to Daniel.
“OK, your turn,” he said.
He said it in perfect Peter fashion — not as a challenge or some macho thing, but just a pal helping another pal.
It was akin to passing the torch: Daniel, rising to the occasion, took the rope and walked up the hill. He stood there a minute, staring out over the water. Then he took a deep breath, jumped, and swung over and into the river in fine form. After that, he — and the rest of us — continued to swing till we had to leave.
In the sweet by and by
Too often when people die, we take their measure in the most obvious, and too often, most superficial ways. Money and fame count for everything — other things, meaningful things, count not so much: This one made millions. That one was president of Amalgamated Amalgamated. The other one was a game show host. And on and on — never seeing the person, just their resume.
I don’t care about what people did, how much they earned, how famous they were, so much as who they were. And when I think of Peter Yaglou, I think of a big-hearted guy with a whole bunch of friends, who knew how to have fun, could build any damned thing he wanted, and lived life on his terms.
I’m not religious in any sense, so I’ve no concept of an afterlife. But what I know of heaven from the people who tell me they’ll end up there, the place is already jammed to the rafters with pulpit pounders, proselytizers, pillars of the community, teetotalers, early risers and saints.
And how would Peter fit in with that crowd? Just fine, I think. Because let’s face it, any gathering like that needs a genuine Adirondack wild man.
Yeah sure, maybe his halo would be a bit tarnished, and maybe he wouldn’t sing with the heavenly choirs. But he wouldn’t have to, since he’d be buzzing around the place being kind to one and all and making friends aplenty.
And one more thing: You can bet your bottom dollar that, sooner or later, he’d get the party started.