Conservation and Trapping Science

Of place, fam­ily, and my cousin Gordy: In­tro­duc­tion
Oct 21, 2021 14:10 ET

[Reprinted from original]

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.