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Voices / Essay

Strolling of the insubordinate

A shortcut leads to a writer’s banishment

Charlene Wakefield serves as president of the board of Write Action, a nonprofit that cultivates a community of writers in Brattleboro and environs.

North Westminster

I got to the Write Action vendor’s table for Strolling of the Heifers on the Retreat grounds a little before 9 a.m., and I was relieved to see that our tent had already been set up.

I’d known that Tom would be there at that time, too, but I had worried that even the two of us might not be able to manage our organization’s booth. But there it was, in all its vinyl glory, protecting the table full of books and flyers and sign-up sheets.

I greeted Tom, sitting comfortably in a chair reading The Commons, and I sat down in the chair next to him, telling him I was so glad to see things all in such good order.

“I didn’t have to do a thing,” he told me. “Two fellows came along and raised it right up while I watched. They did have a little trouble when it got off kilter, but it worked out fine.”

“Looks like we’re in good company,” I said, nodding to the ice cream concession across the grassy aisle from us.

“I’ve been eyeing that myself,” said Tom. “How early do you think it’s acceptable to eat ice cream?”

I told him that in my opinion any time at all was good for ice cream, and before long he was enjoying a large chocolate cone. And it was a good thing he’d gone for it early — the day was rapidly getting hot enough that he was having a little trouble controlling the dripping.

By the time I was ready for my own cone, not only was I worried about the melting problem, but by then the parade had reached us. The whole Retreat field was filling with people. The line for ice cream looked longer than I wanted to wait in as the sun beat down.

* * *

By then, Mary and Arlene had arrived to relieve Tom and me, so I decided to tour around and see what else was going on.

I walked around the vendors on the Retreat grounds and then decided to go up to see what was offered on the Town Common above. They wanted us to walk all the way down to the entrance of the Retreat, then up and around on the road.

But why would I go all that way when I could just climb up that steep connecting bank only a few yards away?

Sure, there was an orange plastic fence along its bottom with a sign saying “Poison Ivy.” But I know what poison ivy looks like — if there really was any, I didn’t see it, and if I would come across any farther up, I knew I could easily avoid it.

I hoisted the bottom of the fence and ducked under. Halfway up, I began to wonder if it had been a wise choice.

For one thing, I had on the wrong shoes — Birkenstocks — which, although their own grip on the crumbly dirt path was fairly solid, the grip of my feet on the inside of them was not.

My feet kept sliding out, and finally I took off my shoes and carried them.

For another thing, I’m not as young as I sometimes think I am. My legs were starting to ache, and I was running out of breath.

Toward the end, the last few feet before the top, people climbing just ahead of me actually gave me a hand and pulled me up the final hump, where we climbed under the upper orange barrier fence together.

* * *

Having explored all that the Town Common had to offer, I considered walking back down on the road, but the day was getting even hotter, and I compared the prospect of a walk on sun-baked black asphalt and a shady stroll down the bank.

That got me back under the fence.

This time, I found the well-worn narrow path leading sideways and downward. I was enjoying having gravity on my side when I heard someone yelling from below. In retrospect, I can see that I shouldn’t have looked.

I had no idea the yelling was directed at me until too late.

A festivities cop waved at me and hollered at me to turn around and go back up. Well, I’d already made that upward climb once and wasn’t about to try it again, so I kept on walking downward while ignoring the ever-more-stern commands coming from below.

When I reached the lower fence, there he was, speaking into his two-way radio and still insisting that I climb back up. Couldn’t he see that I was too old for this kind of nonsense? I must have been three times his age.

“If you don’t turn around and go back up, you’ll be ejected from the grounds,” he threatened.

He started to speak again into his radio and to wave at a similarly uniformed fellow.

“My car is over there,” I told him, pointing to the parking lot beyond the Retreat grounds. “Help me hold up this fence, and then you can eject me.”

Reluctantly, he lifted the fence.

* * *

Safely on the other side, I started for the Write Action booth.

“You need to go straight to your car,” he said authoritatively.

They might have taught him how to speak with authority, but he was so young! I just couldn’t take him seriously.

I began walking to the Write Action tent, saying “I have to get my stuff.”

“We’ll bring your stuff to you,” he said, but that was just silly, too. How would he find it? How would he know what was mine?

I kept walking. Maybe he realized what a bad offer he had made or maybe he didn’t know how to enforce his own demands, but for whatever reason he kind of just followed along.

On the way by the mushroom vendor, I stopped to chat with the young man I’d befriended who had asked me to let him know how going up the bank worked out. I continued to the Write Action station, where I told Mary that I was being escorted off the premises.

I picked up my jacket and bag. Then I did let the cop escort me, which just meant walking along with me back to the fence where he got the other cop to walk me to the car. This guy was a little friendlier.

“It sure is a lot easier to get in trouble than it was in the olden days,” I said to him, and he smiled — I hope a little sheepishly.

“They’re worried about people falling down that bank,” he told me. “Last year, a couple people fell, and there was trouble.”

“Then they should say that on the signs,” I said. “Instead of making up excuses about poison ivy. And if you’re worried about people falling, why did that other guy want me to go back up? Wouldn’t it have been better to get me off the bank as soon as possible?”

Maybe, he shrugged; if not, he had no answer. So I changed the subject. After all, we had a way to walk together.

“Actually,” I told him, “I’m pretty much ready to leave anyway — although I’m sorry to miss out on getting ice cream. It’s getting really hot out here in the sun.”

“Can’t say I blame you,” he said, looking like he might prefer to be somewhere else himself and out of those tight official clothes.

He let me open the car doors for a couple of minutes to let the heat out before I climbed in and turned on the AC.

I hit the road, where I would stop for ice cream on the way out of town and not have to worry about it melting in the cool privacy of my comfortable car.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #364 (Wednesday, July 6, 2016).

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