reprinted from Matter no. V
The cabin faces due east, into the morning sun, with a view beyond. It sits on a little rise in the granite outcrops overlooking Lake Hiawatha. As I approach the front deck, the morning light hits the log siding and gives off a warm, yellow glow. Four large ponderosa pines slightly shield my view of the lake. Off to the right a small group of aspen twinkle their fall colors near a little stream. The sky is brilliantly blue, the water likewise, and the bright green pines and mountain scenery beyond make a picture, perfect.
As I ease the screen door open and walk through the front door, a similar indoor picture emerges. To the right sits an antique wood cookstove. It’s black and chrome front is scalded with age and use, and several pans and metal spatulas are hung on the wall behind it. To its left is a small pile of split pine, just the right size to fit in the firebox. In front of the cookstove and filling the main room of the cabin is a huge, circular, braided-rag rug. The rags are intermixed cream, pale green, and tan and all have a slight yellow glow reflecting from the log beams that run across the ceiling.
To the left, circling around the other end of the rug, is a long, low couch. In front of the couch is a large picture window which looks out across the deck and over the water. I walk over and sit down and it is immediately obvious that the cabin’s builder had this view in mind. The picture window is lower than normal so that even when reclining on the couch I can see the sparkling water in the late-morning sun.
Beyond the lake, the perfect picture continues. About an hour northwest of Fort Collins, Colorado, up near the Wyoming border, this cabin is in the tiny village of Red Feather Lakes. The area around the village sits in a park-like setting at 8,000 feet of elevation surrounded by a million acres of national forest. Across the lake and into the hills beyond are mounded granite outcrops stretching for miles in each direction. Snow-capped peaks are visible in two directions. Massive pine-covered mountains create a carpet of green all around.
It’s a tranquil spot, exactly what I’ve been looking for. The cares of the modern world, though only an hour away, feel ten-times farther. Anyone, I think, could lose their troubles and soothe their soul sitting on this cabin’s deck. And after talking to the real estate agent that came along with me today, I find out that the man who built this place was trying to do just that. In his story is a battle and a war, and the view from this deck was his answer.
Longmont, Colorado is only about two hours south of Red Feather Lakes along the Rocky Mountain Front Range, but the ten miles that separates Longmont from the mountains feel more like two-hundred miles as I enter town. I’m now in the heart of the northern suburban Denver sprawl.
It’s the weekend after my visit to the cabin, and I’ve come here to meet the cabin’s owner, Ronald Jameson. The realtor up in Red Feather was very friendly and personable but couldn’t answer some of my questions about the cabin. Further, as the realtor talked, Ron’s story drew me in.
On the phone, Ron sounded old and not very healthy, but quite friendly. As the realtor predicted, Ron was happy to get together for a visit. “Sure, be glad to talk,” Ron said in a bright but raspy voice. “I have pictures that I took while I built the place.” As he gave me directions to his house, he coughed a little. “2:00, Saturday,” he said.
When I drive up to Ron’s house, the contrast between his mountain cabin and his year-round home are dramatic. Here in Longmont, Ron lives in a plain suburban ranch house on a wide city lot. Three deciduous trees sit in his yard but don’t obscure the new cookie-cutter subdivision at the end of the street.
Seemingly ambivalent, Ron opens his front door and limps out to greet me on this fine fall day. He’s wearing green work pants and a white t-shirt and holds a cane in his left hand. At about five-feet-eight and a little stooped over, his thin body looks frail and delicate. He’s very old, which dampens my earlier enthusiasm. I wonder if I’m intruding too much or just being nosey where I shouldn’t. It’s his cabin and his story, and maybe I should turn around and go home.
As he approaches, his wide smile sets me at ease. Wire rim glasses cover his glistening blue eyes as he reaches out his hand. The creases in his face are twirled roundabout into smiling circles.
After we shake, I look down at his cane. He notices my gaze. “Lost my leg two years ago. Diabetes,” he says, smiling. “This one’s wooden.” And then he leans over with his right hand and knocks two times on his left leg about midway down his thigh. He smiles as his head bobs back up.
I smile back and let out a little laugh. “No problem,” I say. “My granddad had a wooden leg.”
“Really. How’d he lose it?”
“Clogged artery. Bad surgeon,” I say.
Ron lets out a little laugh and says, “Sounds familiar.”
As we enter the house, I’m greeted by Shirley, Ron’s wife. She’s not quite as old, and a little rounder. She too has wire-rim glasses hiding blue eyes, and she quickly takes my jacket and places it on the living room couch. The furniture and all the wall-hangings remind of my granddad’s house of thirty years ago. Everything is old and slightly yellowed. And there’s a certain smell, not a bad smell, but a distinct smell of doors and windows shut and people aging.
“You’re interested in the cabin?” Shirley asks, also smiling.
“Yeah. I was up there last week and spoke with John, your realtor,” I say. “Quite a place. Hope you don’t mind me coming down to look at pictures and ask a few questions?”
“Not at all,” she says. “A beautiful spot up there. We’re going to miss it. Ron knows every board and every nail.”
Beside the couch is a card table with a photo album spread out on top. Above the album sits two loose pictures. In one I can see the outline of a submarine.
Shirley motions me over to the card table where Ron has already sat down. Ron and Shirley are both so friendly and unassuming that my qualms have disappeared. They seem intrigued by my visit. We have something of mutual interest – their cabin – and that appears sufficient for camaraderie.
The photo album takes us back to Red Feather Lakes in 1948. Ron took a sequence of black-and-white pictures as he was building the cabin, the first of which shows the empty lot. Several stakes with white flagging outline the building site. The next photo shows the foundation being laid, and then the flooring and framing as the photos continue. The original ponderosa pine logs that Ron used for the corner posts and ceiling joists are lying on the ground beside the cabin. “I cut them up by Beaver Meadows,” Ron says, narrating the sequence of pictures. “Used to be some pretty big trees up there. Most of them were logged out right after the war.”
On the next few pages, the cabin’s interior takes shape, and it is here where Ron’s descriptions become more animated. He was a finish carpenter for most of his life, a cabinet maker in his later years. As he describes the woodwork and kitchen cabinets in the photos, I glance over my shoulder through his living room and see similar pine cabinets in his Longmont kitchen.
“Nice work,” I say as he points through the photos.
“Thanks,” he says. “I was young back then. Had a lot of energy.”
As we’re looking through the photos, I ask a few basic questions about the cabin – plumbing, septic tank, wiring, etc. Ron knows the exact history of each. The cabin had an outhouse up until 1980 which still stands right behind it. He retired in 1980 and with his carpenter’s pension he put in indoor plumbing. Then he and Shirley started spending all summer up there until about 1992.
“Last twelve years, me and Shirley haven’t got up there much. Health, you know,” he says. “I have two daughters. One in Los Angeles and one in Denver. But they have families and everybody’s busy. We all talked about it, and decided to sell the place.” As he says this, he looks up at me. His expression is frank and kind.
We talk a little more about the cabin, and then I ask a few questions about the history of Red Feather Lakes. Ron launches into a series of stories about people and property and buildings. He stops to cough every few minutes as we talk, and his eyes get a little red after each fit of coughing. Still, his energy seems high and I try to garner what I can from his words. His house is quiet, and though his voice is soft, his words are strong. Behind his eyes is a kind of acceptance at who I am and what I represent – the man who might own his cabin. He tells me these stories, I think, so I will know them, so that they might be passed on.
A few minutes later, I point back to the card table to the loose photos above the album. “What about that submarine,” I ask. And at that, Ron’s animation slows. “The realtor said you had quite a story there,” I say.
“Well, I don’t know about that,” he says slowly as he leans over and grabs the photos.
He clears his throat. “These were my guys.” He hands me the picture. “That was taken when we shipped out. Maryland. We were green. Didn’t know nothing.”
The black-and-white picture in my hands shows a dozens guys standing on top of a submarine in a dock, all of them dressed smartly in Navy uniforms. The faces are dramatically young. “I’m right there,” says Ron pointing to a blurry face.
“Here’s another shot.” He hands me the second picture. “Close up. That was on a good day, before the Bulge. I’m right there.” His finger is pointing to the left-most man of a group of six standing on top of the submarine out in the open ocean. “That’s in the North Sea. September, ’44. The Bulge started in mid-December. That’s when Hitler went crazy. He couldn’t win. Didn’t care, I think.”
‘The Bulge’ Ron is referring to is the Battle of the Bulge during World War II. When I was up in Red Feather last weekend, the realtor told me a bit of Ron’s story and so I spent a little time reading about the battle before I came down here.
The Battle of the Bulge lasted from December 16, 1944 to January 28, 1945 and was the largest U.S. land battle of World War II. More than a million men fought in it including 600,000 Germans, 500,000 Americans, and 55,000 British. Six weeks later when the battle was over the casualties were as follows: 81,000 U.S. with 19,000 killed, 1400 British with 200 killed, and 100,000 Germans killed, wounded or captured.
Prior to the battle, in late 1944, Germany was clearly losing the war. The Russian Red Army was steadily closing in on the Eastern front while German cities were being devastated by intense American bombing. The Italian peninsula had been captured and liberated, and the Allied armies were advancing rapidly through France. Hitler knew the end was near if the Allied advance wasn’t slowed. He came up with a plan to launch a major last-ditch offensive on the Western front. Though his advisors thought the plan ridiculous, Hitler ordered it anyway.
Although most of the battle was on land in Belgium, Germany, and France, a portion of the battle took place in the North Sea and the English Channel. Via those water passages, American and British forces re-supplied troops in the European mainland. Beyond supplies, thousands of troops were shipped over to reinforce the mainland fighters over the six-week battle.
The Germans patrolled the supply routes with U-Boats and submarines. Several Allied ships were sunk including the U.S.S. Leopoldville on Christmas Eve, 1944, in which 980 Americans died in the English Channel. Ron’s submarine, the U.S.S. Admiralty, and other American ships tried to protect the Channel and the supply routes.
“We were in constant battle for over a month,” Ron says while looking down at the photo. “On the surface, the German’s were throwing depth charges down at us, and underwater their subs were firing torpedoes at us. We fired back. Took out a few, too.”
“About mid-January, things were getting ugly. We’d had U-Boats throwing charges at us for several days and all the guys were getting crazy from the noise and stress. Then a German sub started following us and shot several torpedoes. We heard a couple hiss by.”
“I was working about mid-way back in the sub with eight other guys and every few minutes we’d hear, “Charges!” over the horn. And everybody would just freeze. Ten seconds, maybe twenty would go by. Just waiting to see if we’d die. Sitting ducks. Nothing we could do. Then the explosion would hit.”
“The bomb would knock you off your feet and reverberate and echo so loud it would make you vomit and cry from the pain in your head. The guys were going crazy, shell-shocked.”
Ron’s voice is getting a little raspy and he coughs a little. He looks up at me for a second and doesn’t say anything, and I look back squarely in his eye. The lines in his face are now long and straight. And then he continues, “When I was younger, in high school, me and my dad used to go up to Red Feather hunting in the fall. I always liked it up there,” he says. “During those last few days of the Bulge, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Complete opposite places.”
“At one point after several depth charges hit around us, I was laying on the belly of the sub with all my crewmates. Some of the guys were crying or praying. Others were calling out for their moms and girlfriends. I was just squeezing my guts and gritting my teeth. And then after awhile I had kind of a vision and perfectly clear thought. ‘If I ever get out of here,’ I said to myself, ‘I’m going to build a cabin in Red Feather Lakes.’” Ron looked up at me again as I met his eyes.
“Did, too,” he said matter-of-fact, smiling.
“Yes,” I said.
“War will make your head spin,” he continued, “around and around. That little cabin seemed to stop the spinning.”
A few days later I drive back up to Red Feather Lakes to take another look at the cabin. About three inches of snow fell the day before, and though the paved roads are clear, the fields and forest are mottled white, brown, and green. Off the paved highway, the road turns to dirt and gravel and now mud with the snow. My truck tires spin slightly as I turn onto the small two-track road winding around the lake.
The town of Red Feather Lakes is a throw-back by current Colorado resort standards. In the summer, pickup trucks and four-door sedans amble along the crushed-granite streets. Even though winter’s coming, no SUVs with ski racks, no condominiums, and no downhill ski area I anywhere in sight.
Though I’m here by myself, the realtor gave me the combination to the key-lock on the front door so I could look around a bit more. The sun is back out after yesterday’s snow and the air sparkles. A slight breeze blows from the west bringing the roof’s snow onto the deck. Looking at the roof, I see the beginning of a small cornice that will eventually grow and hold form well into spring.
I look around for several of the details Ron told me about. The outhouse in back still stands with the little half-moon slit in the door. The logs that run though the ceiling and stand under the front deck hardly show their fifty-six years of age. And the view from the deck across the lake is speckled with cabins where, fifty-six years ago, there were none. Time seems to stand still in some places, but race forward in others.
As I look through the window I can almost see Ron sitting on the long couch looking outwards, beyond the deck, to the small lake. His eyes still glisten, and the lines in his face curve into soft smiles as he takes in the view. The cabin faces due east, into the morning sun, with a view beyond. But that view seems to go on forever.