By Pete Tucker
1941, Hunterdon County, New Jersey
It was a remote neck of the woods. Surely Hunterdon County had a few of those way back when. During Summer, when young Billy Buck had a chance to bust loose from his farm chores, he would throw a saddle on his horse and ride to those secluded woods.
Why there? The only reason that Billy had was the only one that he needed. He could get lost there. It was solitary, almost enchanted to an eleven year old boy.
It was a respite. For as quiet as it was here, there was plenty of listening to do if one really concentrated. Billy loved to do that. He was more at home in the woods than he was anywhere. The sounds were part of the enchantment; the subtle, elusive sounds of silence, forest style.
A lot of neighboring farm kids loved to hunt. Game was plentiful; deer and bear, small game like turkey, rabbit and pheasant. Grouse and duck.
For as much as Billy loved the wildlife, he didn’t enjoy harvesting it. Live and let live, he figured. Occasionally, he was chided by his buddies for that outlook, but he wasn’t bothered by that. It was water off a duck’s back, he said.
The Buck family kitchen did have a reputation, however, for exceptional Snapping Turtle soup. Billy did trap the turtles and would occasionally garner the respect of those same boys when he came home with a walloping big turtle.
Those turtles were intimidating. Sometimes Billy needed a wheelbarrow to bring one home.
The Buck’s neighbor owned a four acre pond. They were kind enough to allow Billy to turtle trap as long as the Buck’s kitchen shared a little of Mrs. Buck’s soup.
One day Billy rode his gelding a little further down the trail than he had ever ventured. The surrounds were getting wilder the further he rode. At length, the trail was hardly distinguishable as such. Certainly no four-wheeled wagon or dray had used this as passageway for a long time.
This just further delighted Billy. He wondered if his Dad had ever made it up here this far. Billy resolved to ask him later today when he got back home.
Presently, as his horse ambled further, Billy caught in the corner of his eye a scarcely discernible walking path that diverged from the trail that he was on.
“Whoa”, he alerted his horse.
Horse and rider stopped for a moment. Billy studied this path that certainly couldn’t be called wayworn, but Billy reined his horse to proceed down it anyway. Onward they ventured, Billy assuring himself that he was on what must be an old hunter’s path. In fairly short order horse and rider turned a corner and there was, to the surprise of both, a small clearing and tiny bungalow.
“Whoa”, again. What was this? In keeping with his prior thought, Billy reckoned it to be a hunter’s cabin. Something was odd, though. Billy rode a bit further, nearly to the door of this little hovel. It looked as though someone lived here.
How could that be though? The path to this place was scarcely worn. There was no practical access to it. All of this was belied by the fact that the ground immediately surrounding the dwelling was mown. Well, maybe not mown, but the grass shorter than it was further into the woods. Maybe someone had taken a scythe to it.
Intriguing, Billy thought. He found himself wavering between surety and doubt. Someone lived here. Then again, there was no way.
Billy’s horse lowered its head and chomped off a colossal wad of grass, sufficient for a prolonged chew. His mount was rowing impatient .
Then a voice…
“Seems your horse is fixin’ to be here a while”.
Startled, Billy wheeled around in his saddle to see from whence came the voice . He hadn’t heard anyone approach, but there stood a bedraggled – looking fellow with a long grayish-white beard. He wore tattered overalls. Slung over his shoulder was a double-barreled shotgun.
Billy immediately figured the fellow to be older than his Dad, but he knew he was a poor judge of that. Billy’s Dad was 45. This fellow here was hunched over. That and the beard sure made him look older than Dad.
The fellow was stern, but not in a menacing way. Billy quickly guessed he’d probably been off hunting somewhere. Billy had the good common sense to account for himself… immediately.
“Good morning. My name is Billy Buck. I was just riding my horse down the trail here this morning and happened to notice your path here. I didn’t know where it went, so I thought I’d explore a little. As soon as I knew it, here I was. I’m probably trespassing all over your land here, and for that I’m sorry…”
The man held up his hand as if to stop Billy’s talking. Indeed Billy quieted and the old man spoke:
“Never look back unless you intend to head that way”, the man said.
Billy realized that looking back was just what he was doing at the moment, but he didn’t really know what the fellow meant.
“Well, I’m not sure what you mean there, Mister, ah Mister.”
The man stepped forward to the withers of Billy’s horse and extended his hand.
“Peterson”, he said. “Mel Peterson. You Rowdy Buck’s boy?”
Billy was further taken aback. How did this old fellow here in the center of the middle of the woods know his Dad? Billy thus asked as he shook Peterson’s hand.
“Oh, we baled hay together a lotta years back. Would you tell him I said ‘Hi’? I don’t get to see folks much anymore.”
“Yes, Sir. I surely will”, Billy replied. “With that twelve gauge on your shoulder there, I’m just happy you weren’t looking to shoot me.”
Peterson winced a wry half-smile at Billy’s nervous attempt to add a little humor.
“Ten gauge”, he corrected Billy. “No I wouldn’t think of it, Son. I ain’t shot nobody since Sarne. I sure ain’t fixin’ to start again.”
Again, Billy had no idea what the man’s reference meant . He didn’t ask.
“Your Dad still makin’ Clover?”
Billy was relieved. Mr. Peterson finally said something that he understood, referring to the type of hay crop that Dad bales.
“Yep, we still bale a bunch of that.”
“ Now back to our lesson. What did he mean by that?”, Peterson asked of Billy.
“Ah, who is he”, Billy questioned.
“ I’m sorry”, Peterson said. “You haven’t studied Thoreau yet. When he said ‘Never look back unless you intend to head that way.’ What did he mean?”
“Whew”, Billy thought to himself. He wasn’t sure that he was ready for this, a teacher here in the woods. Who was this guy? If Dad knew him, why hadn’t Dad ever mentioned a Mr. Peterson?
If he really lives here, why isn’t that a little more obvious? And who is this guy Thoreau? And what is Sarne?
“Well, let me ask you, Billy. When you stop working at something and look back at what you’ve just done, why do you suppose you do that?”
Coming from someone he’d just met, Billy thought the question to be a bit odd, but he bit on Mr. Peterson’s bait.
“Well, I know why I’d look back,” Billy Buck replied with a measure of confidence. “I’m wanting to make sure I’m doing everything right.”
Peterson smiled broadly.
“Billy, your Dad has raised you right and you can tell him I said so.”
“Now what if you were looking back because you were having second thoughts about something you were doing. Maybe you were questioning a decision that you’d made about something”, Mr. Peterson further queried.
Billy used a line that he’d heard his father say .
“Well, now we’re getting into the weeds a little bit.”
Peterson chuckled .
“Boy, you’re a chip off the old block”, he said.
Billy wasn’t sure what that meant either. He surmised it to be a reference to his Dad . This old man in the woods was a little tough to follow, but Billy was comfortable talking with him. He was friendly enough.
“So that’s a ten gauge ?”,Billy questioned.
“What’r ya shoot’n?”
“I gotta bear that’s just raisin’ cane with my hives. Already patched one together this morning. The bear’s gotta go. He’s put a hurtin’ on my bees.”
Peterson went on to explain a few things to Billy about his honey business. He had 145 bee hives spread all over this countryside, but the bulk of them fairly near to here.
At that moment it dawned on Billy : PETERSON’S HONEY. Of course. That name is on every jar or can of honey that is ever seen around here. Billy played it cool, as to not make it seem like he’d just met a movie star or some such.
“How do bears find your beehives?”, Billy questioned.
“Oh, bears can sniff out beehives from miles away”, Mr. Peterson said.
“They must love that honey”, Billy suggested.
“They do, but for bears the big prize in the hive is the larvae, very rich in protein”, Peterson answered. “Bears love it!”
“Aren’t the bees stinging the bear the whole time it’s munching on their hive?”, Billy asked.
“That’s the amazing part. Yes, they are, but bears just shake it off. You know what it feels like to get stung. Bears just shake their heads as though they were getting rid of flies”.
Billy reacted to this description with amazement. He sure did know how it felt to get stung ! It HURT!
Billy was fascinated by this. He asked Mr. Peterson how he happened to get into this business.
Mr. Peterson started to laugh.
“Oh, you’re gonna think I’m messin’ with ya here. Do you like honey, Billy?”
Billy replied with enthusiasm.
“Well, so did I. Whew, When I was a youngster, I loved honey. Then when I learned about bees and producing honey, that’s all I needed to know. I had to be part of it. This was just too sweet!”
“And let me guess”, Billy mused, “you never looked back?”
“You get it, Billy, you get it.”
Peterson cracked the barrels of his 10 gauge and two shells lobbed to the ground. As he bent down to retrieve them, he suggested to Billy that they have some tea.
“I can’t stand here all morning. Tea with a little honey sound good?”
Billy replied affirmatively.
“Your horse behave himself on a hitch?”
“I’ll put a lead rope on him. As long as he can reach a little grass”, Billy noted.
“You should work with him on that a little”, said Peterson.
“Now you sound like my Dad”, Billy retorted.
They both were smiling as they entered Peterson’s bungalow.
“My little house is kinda humble, but it’s a roof over my head”, he noted to Billy.
Billy didn’t reply.
“Have you always lived here?,” Billy asked.
While waiting for tea water to heat up, Peterson delivered the whole litany of his boyhood in Hunterdon County. It was a sad tale. He’d been born in a doctor’s office in Somerville.
His folks were farmers. Peterson was 12 years old when his Dad had a heart attack while working at the top of their silo, 30 feet up the ladder.
Peterson had found him, later in the evening, his arms entangled in the ladder such to suspend him at his death spot; a ghastly-sounding demise, for sure.
The two moved on to more pleasant topics. As Peterson had already discerned, Billy Buck was a conversant young fellow. No one would have guessed that this unlikely duo would have mustered a conversation this diverse ,or, for that matter, this lengthy. Both were quite enjoying themselves.
At length, Billy’s steed made his growing impatience be known. Both knew that this was Billy’s cue to ride on. It took several minutes for Billy to re-mount. He promised Mr. Peterson that he’d ride by again. Billy interspersed their final goodbye with a question : “ Oh, that bear that’s harassing your bees… have you seen him?”
Peterson adopted a pensive smile. He silently shook his head Yes.
“Is he big?”, Billy Buck inquired.
“I’m glad you asked. There’s a reason I had my ten gauge.”
“Big, eh?” Billy pressed.
“Never saw a Black Bear near as big”, Peterson assured Billy.
“Where’d you see him?”
“Between here and your place”, Mr. Peterson replied.
“Well, that’s comforting!” Billy smiled.
“Just remember, if you’re ever separated from your horse in the presence of that bear, lie face down, stock still, legs closed and fists clenched”, Mr. Peterson coached. “ Never try to outrun him.”
While the two newfound buddies shook hands, Billy noted that there was one other thing .
“What’s that”, Mr. Peterson replied.
Billy smiled : “Never look back unless you intend to head that way.”
They both chuckled.
“We’ll get to that next time”, Mr. Peterson said as he watched Billy ride into the woods toward home.
Billy sensed an undeniable satisfaction with the visit. Everything about it was adult, but Billy afforded himself a kid-like smirk as he rode further into the woods.
Perhaps his visit with Peterson was just what he needed this morning. Confidently, Billy put a little heel to his horses side. There was silage to fork back at the barn. He’d best get to it.