Pete Frick, Who Lived in Farley
By CB Bassity
Pete Frick said yeah--and he said it often--it was three syllables,
the second one accented. His yeah was a greeting joined to a smile.
And yeah was always a mere preface.
In the spring of
1970, a bunch of us "hippies" moved to a defunct and run-down dairy farm
in upstate New York. To us suburban kids, our commune, four miles
out from Compton (population 350) was the edge of civilization. Our blacktop
road was lightly traveled, only our neighbors and the "summer people" coming
and going to their lake cabins--and now a few gawkers, out to see "the
long-haired weirdos at the Felder place." It was hard to imagine
However, a quarter
mile uphill from us a dirt road disappeared into the woods. Only a rare
vehicle turned off the blacktop to raise dust and crackle the gravel on
that dirt track to nowhere.
One day four
of our guys drove out to explore the unmarked road. It snaked through woods
and swamps, past abandoned and grown-over farmland, over steep hills and
through low hollows, and past three inhabited but non-working farms along
its last two miles. The dirt road connected, eight interminable miles away,
with another paved road in the even smaller community of Farley. The only
human traffic they met was a young man on a motorcycle.
When the guys
got back, they described the motorcyclist in terms of weirdness that emphasized
our "normalcy." "Oh, wow!" TJ said, his eyes flashing, "there was this
guy on a full dress Harley, and he had guns all over him--he was strange!"
The man had seemed not at all threatening, despite the shoulder holstered
pistols. And he had talked and talked. The image seemed incongruity personified:
a massive touring bike in a place where you'd more expect a horse-drawn
wagon; firearms and friendliness juxtaposed. The image endured in my mind.
Three years later,
my girlfriend (soon-to-be-wife) and I moved into an empty house four miles
up the now familiar dirt road. Pete Frick and his folks were our closest
neighbors. Just over a quarter mile over the hill and across the
swampy flat, although half a mile by road.
Robert Frick, was about 68 and one of the most relaxed people I have known.
His mere presence would slow affairs. He was once fired, I was told, during
his first day of work at a quarry. He would study each stone so long,
deciding how to cut it, that other employees couldn't work for watching
him. He slept till noon and retired about midnight, rarely accomplishing
anything more strenuous than a trip to the mailbox. His slight physique
was stooped, he smoked a pipe, and he talked slowly and deliberately and
smiled a self-deprecating grin. Robert's only occupation now, perhaps always,
was to read the newspaper, visit, and procrastinate.
"Well . . . we're
going to hold a sale some time" --he was even slow about talking--"but
I need to go through some things first." This, in reference to his large
barn filled with antique treasures--old farm tools, horse-drawn implements,
milk cans, furniture, cast iron stoves, lanterns, old books, and more.
Thelma, a bustling woman, would inevitably turn from her canning, baking,
or sink full of dishes to interject, "You'll never get to it sitting in
here all day." And then Robert would remove the pipe from his mouth to
grin in agreement. A visit to that household was always a prolonged affair.
You had to filter your business through the haze of Robert's pipe smoke
and recollections, and try to jam it through Pete's monologue.
Pete Frick was
twenty-eight when I met him. He had longish, curly black hair, which made
him look disheveled. His plain face was open, approachable, and set off
by a ready smile and black horn-rimmed glasses. The Harley Davidson and
guns might suggest a big rough-guy-with-earring image. But Pete, of modest
weight and appearance, would more likely make you think: machinist, or
accountant (on vacation), or nothing in particular. You could pass him
on the street without a second glance.
But if you knew
Pete, passing him on the street was not easy. Speech was a matter of perpetual
motion for him. Although he had inherited his father's lack of ambition,
he also had his mother's energy, but it went mostly to his vocal chords.
"Ee-yeahaa, well, how'd you make out with your car? Got it running again?
Points was it? That's usually the best place to start. Old Dean Caldwell,
he's had nothing but trouble with his pickup, and every time it's
the points--it's like the coil is too hot and burns 'em up or something.
Did you hear about the auction at--" You didn't need to answer or contribute
much; Pete could hold up both ends of a conversation. "Well, I see Sam
James started cutting hay yesterday. Most years Ed Parham's always the
first to start, and I wonder what he'll say when he finds out Sam got ahead
of 'im?" Pete's eyes would light up at a point like that. He could care
less about hay, but what other people did and cared about--that got his
interest. Pete was better than a newspaper. He specialized in local trivia--who
was related to whom; when the Adams place had been logged; what had been
the selling price of the Ford tractor at old man Huggins's auction last
month; how to adjust the carburetor on the 1948 Caterpillar bulldozer parked
by the Frick's barn.
Our mailbox was
grouped with the Fricks' and Ben Butler's in front of our neighbor Ben's
house. Often when I went to check the mail Pete would be parked there in
the road in his pickup, reading the paper. "Ee-yeahaa, since that
rain the other evening, you'll find morels if you want 'em. Look around
those dead elms on the Pritchard place. Yeah, when old man Pritchard lived
there--" You wouldn't want to be in a hurry once Pete got started.
"Well, you know,
when God and the Devil were dividing up the world, they got to one place
that neither one wanted. It was a questionable area: too hilly to be worth
much, and it didn't match up with anything around it. So they both agreed,
just leave it alone and call it Farley." He was encyclopedic when it
came to Farley. I learned from Pete that the town, in decline following
its mining heyday, had fielded a baseball team whose motto was "Farley
against the world, drunk or sober."
And he read.
Mostly Firearms Digest type stuff, but he read nonetheless, and
he was unprejudiced in a way that few people that rural manage to be. I'm
sure that on that Spring day in 1970 when Pete happened onto a pickup-load
of hippies while tooling along Burns road on his massive Harley, for him
it was just a welcome opportunity to visit. Their being long-haired strangers
from another culture mattered little to Pete, regardless of how overwhelmed
they were at meeting him.
It wasn't his
habit to judge. While most people shook their heads over "that worthless
Dwayne Richards--he'll make a permanent home of prison," Pete would smile:
"ee-yeahaa, now Dwayne, he's got a liberal approach to people's belongings."
And if Dwayne needed a rifle fixed, he could take it to Pete. (Although
Pete might find out where Dwayne got it.)
I remember sitting
in the Fricks' kitchen one day, on an extended errand, when Pete noticed
a vehicle mired down on the flats. During wet times the road through the
swamp between our two places was a hopeless muddy slough. Getting across
the flats required a vehicle with tough tread and high clearance, and a
driver with luck, nerve, and savvy. The Fricks' house sat on a hill away
from the road, and Pete, who owned no binoculars, held the motorists in
the crosshairs of the telescopic sights of a high-powered rifle. All the
while he kept a running commentary. "It's the Tietgens, by golly, but they'll
never get out of there on their own. Ha-ha-ha, they're down to the axle.
Yep, there's John, looking it over. Guess I'll have to fire up the Cat
and pull them out." People frequently bogged down on the flats, unaware
that Pete was poised in a way that he could open a hole the size of a bucket
in them or their cars.
When the flats
were treacherous, I parked our Plymouth on the roadside atop a hill at
the Fricks' end of the flats, and fought the remaining half mile of mud
in our pickup. Driving home one Sunday afternoon, I parked the car carefully
at the peak of the hill. I say carefully because we had no parking
brake at the time, and due to the mud I had only a limited area in which
to park. I gathered my groceries and my jacket, locked up the car,
and walked to the pickup some twenty feet away. Unlocking the pickup, I
heard an unexpected noise and turned to see my car rolling backward down
the steep hill.
It was obvious
there was nothing I could do, no heroic measures I could undertake to save
my vehicle. I stood watching, tallying up presumed damage throughout the
downhill progress of the car. It started straight down the roadbed, but
halfway downhill as it picked up speed it made a "zzzzzzzzzzz" sound as
the steering wheel spun clockwise. The car left the road at a 90 degree
angle, off a two-foot stone embankment. The car's new course was, still
backwards, toward a large oak at the base of the hill. But, mercifully,
the wheel spun again, and the car lost momentum rolling in the soft ground
across the hill. It stopped in a stand of brush. I set my jacket and groceries
in the pickup.
I figured the
muffler was torn loose, the gas tank punctured, steering linkage distorted,
oilpan disfigured--reasonable conjecture, judging from the torturous route
and the backward plunge off the stone retaining wall. Damage was only half
my trouble. The car sat in the brush, down a rain-softened hillside.
at the Fricks' place, just uphill from my mess, was like any other day.
Thelma was industriously disposed. Dishes clinked, pans clattered. Robert
and his pipe smoke were buried in the newspaper. And Pete rattled on about
the fish run: walleyes by the thousands were amassed below the dam in Farley,
attempting their annual migration upriver to spawn. In the town of Farley,
literally only a bend in the road, this was an epic event, with carloads
of spectators and the ever-present game warden. The years had seen many
ingenious attempts to outwit the game ranger and bring home a sack of fish--dynamite,
liquor, women--Farley had history.
the paper and smiled big as I told about my car. This was his kind of business,
trouble that arrived without any effort on his part. Thelma smiled and
quit rattling cookware: "Well, there sits the Cat," she said. "That'll
give you something to do, Robert." Robert's smile implied:
still six or eight hours of daylight--let's not rush into anything.
He refilled his pipe, and turned toward Pete for a second opinion. Pete,
in the meantime, had the disassembled action from a neighbor's rifle spread
over the kitchen table. "Ee-yeahaa, you can see how, over the years, the
firing pin wore down to where--well, you can see how this piece here, every
time it fired, would rub on this other till it just quit working altogether."
He compared Winchester's actions to Browning's, considered whether he'd
buy parts or fabricate his own.
Pete and Robert
both were quite willing to help me, just slow to start. It took far more
effort to mobilize those two men than to fire up the '48 Caterpillar. Pete
operated the Cat and Robert perched on the back. I ambled along beside
the clangorous machine, and we proceeded with bridge timbers and log-chains
to the hillside where my car sat nestled into the brush. "Ee-yeahhaa,"
Pete said with a grin when he saw it up ahead, "that's one hell of a mess."
The rest of what he said was lost in the noise of the motor and clanking
tracks. I smiled and nodded when it seemed appropriate.
It's no trick
to move a car in almost any terrain with a '48 Cat. We pulled my car around
until it sat nose toward the road, and we made a ramp of two planks and
hooked a logchain from the bulldozer to the Plymouth's frame. Pete inched
the Cat forward, the planks creaked, and my car climbed back onto the road.
I was amazed
to find virtually no damage to the car. A few scratches, granted, but in
our rough and remote locale that was par. Of course the Fricks would accept
no payment for their services. They were being neighborly, knowing that
some time they might need my help.
And that day
came. One windy day in a dry summer, I saw smoke filling the sky over at
the Fricks' place. A grass-fire was spreading across the hill they lived
on. When I got there, Robert, Thelma, and two little boys, grandsons, were
scattered over the hill, swinging wet burlaps at the crackly flames that
snapped and jumped in the wind. Pete was busy with a hand-pumped, backpack
sprayer outfit. I snatched a sack, drenched it in a bucket of water, and
ran to beat flames near Pete.
might have been visiting at the mailbox, judging from his tone--"Dad figured
he'd burn trash today." Pete turned toward me to smile broadly at the irony.
A brisk wind seemed to help the flames more than we hindered them.
I called out,
"Has someone phoned the fire department?"
"No," Pete said,
"Dad, thinks we can manage all right."
Thelma was nearby.
"I don't know why we don't call the fire department," she said, "that's
what they're there for!"
and waved a greeting. "It got away from me," he said. He dipped his sack
in water and directed one of the boys to another scattering of flames.
I half-expected him to stop and fill his pipe.
The whole neighborhood
showed up, Joe Fauteaux and Ben Butler. God himself may have stopped by--for
there was no perceivable reason for us to prevail over the wind. But we
I remember Pete standing
just inside our kitchen in hip waders, with a burlap sack of fish at his
feet and a .22 rifle at his side. He rocked from foot to foot as he explained,
"The flats are filled with northerns right now. They swim up here to spawn."
A northern pike is long and lean as a needle, an impossible target even
for a marksman like Pete. "But I aim just under their heads, and when the
bullet hits the water it's like an explosion--it stuns 'em, and you just
scoop them into a sack. You look for that moving "v" on the surface, and
the dorsal fin maybe, and that's a northern under there."
The fish were
a welcome gift that we accepted just as we would have taken tomatoes or
lettuce from the garden. And Pete talked on. The massive, old three-story
school building in the neighboring town of Hammond was being dismantled.
The demolition crew was salvaging whatever they could of lumber, doors,
windows, and miscellaneous supplies. Pete had been to the site, and he
inventoried what was available. Somewhere in the attic we still have a
small blackboard from that school.
In the six years
we lived nearby, I don't remember Pete working a regular job. He was chiefly
occupied being out and about in the world. He worked a while running new
phone lines; there was the oil-spill clean-up on the St. Lawrence River;
and sometimes he helped his brother-in-law in the hayfield. Then too, Robert
drew a small social security check; they heated with wood; they sold the
farm's standing hay-crop each summer. These, coupled with odd jobs of firearm
repair and such and an occasional unemployment check, provided enough for
the Fricks to get by. In 1970s Farley it didn't take much.
It was Pete who
tried to teach me to throw a knife. He's the only person I've known, off
the movie screen, who could throw a knife. Its blade would plunge straight
into a tree trunk or barn wall with an impressive thunk
feet or so. He wasn't cocky or threatening about his art--he had no illusions
about being tough. But God help the sorry fool who comes at Pete when he
has that seven inch blade between his thumb and forefinger.
Pete was accomplished
in several crafts. Before I learned to weld, I took my damaged farm equipment
to him for repairs. Standing in the south doorway of the Fricks' farm shop--the
inside littered with enough goods to finance an antique dealer's retirement--I
kept up on community news and trivia, while Pete restored my iron to mechanical
health. In the heat of a busy season I sometimes got impatient with Pete's
slow pace, but he saved me a trip to town and never charged more than token
payment (maybe to insure that I wouldn't feel I was receiving the ultimate
The eight-mile wilderness
of Butler Road is a good twenty-minute drive and a hazard to oil-pans.
To round a bend, somewhere in the midst of that journey, and abruptly come
upon a huge Harley-Davidson steered by a man with two shoulder-holstered
pistols might seem unsettling. But if it were Pete Frick on the bike, the
greatest danger would be his launching into "ee-yeahaa . . ."
During the years
I knew Pete his big Harley was usually parked in the barn. Mostly
he drove a '65 International pickup. You might still meet him out on the
road with assorted lethal weapons. But Pete's interest in firearms was
just that--interest, fascination. His rifles and guns were no more a menace
than those on a revolutionary war statue.
CB Bassity ©1997 All Rights Reserved
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