Ever since I was a kid I thought having a hiking staff was the epitome of cool.
I never figured out the appeal: Old Testament prophet? Sherwood Forest anti-authoritarian? Moondog wannabe? No. Did it matter? It was just an image that floated into my mind from time to time … and then floated out again.
Then, a bunch of years ago, I started seeing ads for staffs — fancy ones with carved figureheads at the top. They were right up my alley; unfortunately, they were also way out of my price range. More years went by and after seeing more of those staffs, I was hit by a sudden inspiration: Why not carve my own?
I had no idea what that entailed, but I knew how to go about it: I ordered a book on how to carve wood spirit hiking staffs, and I ordered basic carving tools. Of course my early attempts were pretty shabby, but finally I managed to turn out a fairly good piece. And after I did, I discovered it wasn’t only the final product I liked, but I enjoyed the process of carving, itself.
It requires focus and patience; it can’t be rushed, and it put me in touch with an ancient art. Plus, in addition to being able to clearly measure my progress, I found some people liked the carvings, so I could make them nice little gifts.
After carving only wood spirits, I started on other objects — Scandinavian folk figures, animals, caricatures — and while I don’t think my stuff’s all that good, it’s good enough that I’m not embarrassed by it. Now I make specific carvings for specific friends, and the lad in the photo (the wooden lad, that is) is a perfect example.
His name is Moose, and I carved him for Andrea Dewey Urmston.
Andrea was one of my rave-fave students from a few decades ago. She was low-key, quiet and reserved, smart as a whip, and hard-working to boot. In other words, Teacher’s Delight. After Paul Smith’s, she earned an education degree and had been teaching public school for at least 20 years.
Andrea’s also on the PSC Alumni Council, and like all the peeps on it, she’s dedicated and tireless in her devotion to the college. So I figured the least I could do was carve her a special Paul Smith’s character, one with his own special story to go along with it. And thus Moose.
Over the course of my travels, at one occasion of state or another, I’d start chatting with someone who, once I said I worked at PSC, would say, “Oh, my son (or nephew, or cousin, or neighbor’s kid, or…) went to Paul Smith’s.”
“Really?” I’d say. “What’s his name?”
They’d tell me.
“Ron Kincaid?” I’d say. “Nope, I didn’t know him.”
“Well, his nickname was Moose,” they’d say.
“Wait a minute,” I’d say, “did you say Moose?”
“Yes. Did you know him?”
“Was he a big kid? Big, but not fat, serious muscles?”
“That’s right,” they’d say.
“Had a beard, always wearing wool?”
“He was a forester, right?”
“Was on the Woodsman’s Team?”
“Oh, yeah, he loved it.”
“And lemme guess,” I’d say. “He wore logging boots all the time, even when he wore shorts?
“You’ve got it!” they’d say, excited I made the connection. “That’s him to a T!”
But here’s the thing: While I may have made a connection, I didn’t make the connection.
I wasn’t exactly lying when I said I knew Moose, nor was I exactly telling the truth. See, over my four decades at PSC, I knew at least eight guys named Moose (and there were probably another eight I didn’t know), and they’d all earned their nickname. Moose was a well-deserved honorific — unlike others. For example, I’ve known tall guys named Shorty, huge guys named Tiny, and dullards named Speedy.
But a PSC Moose was a Moose, and not in name only. They were all foresters and were all Woodsman’s Team standouts — big, solid, studs who could bull their way through darn near anything. Which is saying something, since the Woodsman’s Team members — both Lumberjacks and Lumberjills — are all hardcores of the first water. If you saw the Winter Carnival parade when Rose Thelen Bartiss pushed a good-sized log with a peavy the whole parade route, including up Berkeley Hill, and passed the reviewing stand breathing hard but not breathless, you’d know exactly what I’m talking about.
So while there may have been a Moose who didn’t have a beard and didn’t wear logging boots with shorts, the odds are against it, and I was just playing the odds.
When I mailed the wooden Moose to Andrea, I included the story behind the guy Moose — the one I’ve told here. When she wrote back, she included a correction: She knew a Moose at PSC who was not a forester and not on the Woodsman’s Team, but was of all things a hotelie!
I’ll admit when I read that, I was completely taken aback.
A hotelie Moose? How was that even possible?
I thought about that long and hard, till finally I reached the only possible conclusion.
Clearly, there once was a hotelie Moose. But no matter how anyone cuts it — especially me — he wasn’t a real Moose.