This is the first installment of a story about a place, a family, and a cousin that will appear consecutively in the paper over the next few weeks.
by Paul Lefebvre
During a lifetime of trapping beaver, the most successful season my cousin had was the year he trapped 59, one short of his goal.
“I tried, and tried, and tried to get 60,” he says, bringing his hand repeatedly down on his knee, as we sat in his living room at Island Pond one early summer morning. “But I couldn’t get that last one.”
Unlike my cousin Gordy I’m no trapper, having never trapped anything but mice. But I understand the universal appeal that certain numbers have when anyone is trying to do his or her ultimate best. No matter if it’s making foul shots one after another or hitting a tin can in a gravel pit with a .22 pistol shot after shot, nine is never as satisfying as ten. And hardly anyone gets excited when a good friend, lover, husband, or wife turns 49. We have been using numbers to define us since the day we were born.
Gordy and I were each born in odd years, 12 years apart. As adults we have had little in common, as each of us traveled in different circles. Each of us was an only child and we shared a name that people had difficulty pronouncing, much less spelling. The army, Gordy says, made two attempts before spelling Lefebvre correctly on his dog tags. And each of us, at one time or another, was called Favor or Fever by friends who came from somewhere else, some place different than Island Pond, a village in the town of Brighton. Hardly anyone says they’re from Brighton. Island Pond is the name of the place where people live; whereas Brighton is little more than a proper noun, used to name a school or fire department.
My cousin Gordy was born in 1933 and I was born in 1945. We were raised in the same town, but the 12 years that separate us in age also speak to a span of time when the village of Island Pond was undergoing a substantive, transformative change; one that would leave it less and less a railroad town and less and less a frontier town than anyone would have suspected in 1933 or 1945.
On the very night he graduated from high school in 1951, Gordy went to work for the railroad as a callboy who, as the job implies, had to contact each trainman of a five-member crew — by phone if possible, in person if necessary — to inform each of the hour they were scheduled to report for work.
Only 12 years later, when I graduated on a June night in 1963, I had no responsibilities except to be home at a certain hour with no odor of alcohol on my breath. Callboys were a thing of the past, and the railroad was no longer the town’s driving economic force. Of the 17 graduating seniors in my class, most of the boys were either going to college or enlisting in the service. For us, a job on the railroad was a temporary, seasonal, spike-and-shovel job, something to do for the summer that paid exceptionally well.
As someone who grew up during a time when freight as well as passenger trains were running regularly out of Island Pond — the halfway point on the Canadian National Railroad between Montreal and Portland — Gordy didn’t graduate with the intention of moving and living elsewhere.
He had a high school sweetheart, whom he married, and he had ties to the town as well as to the land; ties that were more common, say, in the 1950s than in the sixties. For while each of us fished and hunted during the years we were in high school, the culture of men going into the woods to camp and trap was more prevalent and more visible in the fifties than the sixties. The sixties ended with Island Pond closing its public high school, as well as the decade that saw the railroad shrink and decline as the town’s most important industry.
I began interviewing cousin Gordy in June 2019 at his home on Fitzgerald Avenue where he lives with his wife, Becky. Their three boys have long left and each has a family of his own, which gives Gordy and Becky more grandchildren and great-grandchildren than I can count on both hands. Conversely, I have never been a father and was only a husband for a very few short years.
Gordy and I are different and distinct individuals: He is a man of the outdoors, a hunter, trapper, and fisherman; someone you would want looking for you if you were lost in what my generation calls the big woods. I, on the other hand, have acquired an identity as newspaper reporter, a writer — someone who you might want to write your profile or your obituary — and more recently a state legislator serving in Montpelier. If you stood us side-by-side, Island Pond natives would likely recognize the Lefebvre in each of us.
Family identities matter mostly at wedding and funerals. But there is also an identity, one less discernible than facial features, that speaks of and to a place. A small town is essentially a neighborhood, and people from the same neighborhood share a sense that can only be acquired through history and culture. A railroad town is different from a farm town and a farm town is different from a mill town and so it goes for people who lived in Vermont’s scattered folds and pockets that served as towns or communities. Their separate identities were once distinct.
Gordy and I each grew up in an era when your knowledge and sometimes your opinion about people was often colored by the town where they were raised and lived. People who know home as a place carry that recognition with them. As high school basketball teammates playing for the Brighton Bearcats, we knew we were from a railroad town in the middle of the woods, and proud of it. We had an attitude recognized by those who shared a common place-name.
It’s a recognition you lose when you leave, and the longer you’re gone the more difficult it is to get it back. At some point it may no longer matter. Often when a place changes and loses its distinctive identity, the bonds that tie you to it are weakened and sometimes snap.
For reasons simple and complex, there are those individuals who reflect or more fully embody a place than others. For 44 years my cousin Gordy earned his living working on the railroad, like his father, his grandfather, and presumably his great-grandfather. Of his three boys, one of them carried on that tradition and went on to retire in 2021 as an engineer, after spending his entire working life on the tracks.
When Gordy wasn’t punching a railroad time clock, he hunted, fished, and trapped beaver, mostly for the pelts but sometimes for hire when a property owner or a town or the railroad wanted a nuisance beaver removed.
Later in life he turned a schoolboy’s interest in history into an avocation, working as a volunteer curator and guide at the Island Pond Historical Society’s museum. To keep fit in his retirement, he took up running, participating many years in the town’s annual marathon races that circled the lake.
As a member of town’s American Legion post, he often served as chaplain during the Memorial Day parades — parades in which I first marched as first grader, then as a kid with a decorated bicycle, and finally as member of the Brighton High School band. Much later I covered the parades as a newspaper reporter.
Over the years Gordy is one of the few Lefebvres from my father’s side of the family I have come to know. Few if any of the people I have interviewed have matched his skill at remembering details and people from the past. Sadly, his life is the only portal remaining through which I can gain a glimpse of family and acquire a renewed appreciation of a place that is passing away.
Gordy and I share a name and are close enough in age to share a past. We each have bits and pieces, dribs and drabs of a scattered family history that pops up randomly in conversations. Who else knew that my father —a man no more a hunter than I am — once helped weigh deer shot during the annual November season and brought into Island Pond to be weighed publicly on the scale set up on the village green. Or that Gordy’s father, a small man with a twinkle in his eye, would come by our house once a year, on Christmas morning after Mass at St. James and shake my father’s hand and make strange and endearing noise toward me. The past works in memory as episodes flowing in and out of time. A shared memory has the knack of connecting the dots and filling in the spaces that have been left empty. Gordy and I grew up in the same place but it is becoming a place that only lives in memory.
When I was researching this story, I happened to encounter his oldest son Jeff. He was aware I had been interviewing his father, and was anxious to know if I was getting the story right. He told me how much he had learned about the woods from his father; how much he saw him as a role model; how he admired him and, surprisingly, how intimidating it could be being in the same camp with him during deer season. For his father, Jeff said, the only reason to be in camp during deer season was to hunt deer. Nothing else mattered. From sunup to sundown, Gordy expected you to be out of camp and in the woods. Hunting. Out at sunup, back by last light. Early to bed, up and gone the next morning by first light. Jeff suggested that Gordy might have a hunting gene that most of us lack. Maybe. Or maybe my cousin Gordy is close to representing a vanishing period when hunting deer, trapping beaver, working on the railroad and serving in the military was how life was lived and valued in a small northern Vermont town.