When we were kids we used to climb a top Clear Mountain and marvel at the broad landscape below. I could see the top of Grandma Rosa’s two-story farm house and smoke sifting through a partially collapsed brick chimney. Further down the valley Uncle Jim’s bird dogs howl at a full moon so grand and expansive only the mountain hinders it from owning the night sky. I could be a shepherd watching over a flock or a warlord, master of an entire kingdom. Some days I just prefer being alone, far away from brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts and cousins, which was entirely possible from this vantage point. Everyone took to calling me Alfred, short for Alfredo, the silent boy - brother of the precocious twins. I never paid them much mind since there was rarely a quite moment around my relatives. It was easier to listen. This is my story.
Clear Mountain really wasn’t a mountain at all, but a fair size hill separating Grandmother Rosa Bella's property from elder sister Natalie. Both arrived in Wilkesburg during the early 1920’s with spouses and bought adjacent properties, primed for farming. The land was ripe with sweet corn, raspberries, yams and potatoes, carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, just about any kind of grain and a small vineyard. The property from Grandma Rosa’s garden to the Moretti’s was thick with vegetation. There was wild turkey, small foxes, pheasant, raccoons, grouse, quail, deer, and skunk outside the back door. Those were just a few of the most visible wild animals. All the domestic ones like pigs, cows and chickens didn’t share the same aura but kept us all fed and clothed.
It seemed like nearly everyone in the community had Italian roots. After the first wave of immigrants, word spread quickly of this private enclave which shared similar land and weather conditions with central Italy. It was a dream world where English was a second language mostly spoken when showing a prized sow at the Medina State Fair or negotiating a loan with a local bank manager.
At best, farming was a difficult all consuming occupation. Most males held second jobs to feed families and pay off farm loans. Through the first sixty years the farm was the main source of food and stability. As brothers and sisters married some would relocate in nearby communities, others moved as far away as California. It seemed with every wedding another artery connecting the community was severed. The only constant was St. Joseph’s Church - which was erected twenty years before our ancestors arrive.
I could see the bell tower from the west end of Clear Mountain. The chimes beat a dependable rhythm, although predictable, the splendid tones announced various time intervals of the day, commanding attention miles beyond the township boundaries.
There weren’t many things happen out of the ordinary, mostly the birth of a calf or dramatic weather change. There was the occasional automobile crack-up and draft notice, leaving a cousin or two momentarily disabled or absent a long stretch of time. The infirmed and dying received traditional Catholic care at St. Jude’s Hospital where everyone was on a first name basis with nurses and Catholic Sisters. Uncle Nico spent the better part of the fifties out-patient after accepting sniper fire to the abdomen along the de-militarized zone in South Korea, leaving his stomach in constant turmoil. There was also the near riot in 1955 at the Rialto movie house during a matinee showing of Blackboard Jungle when boys from neighboring Allensburg came looking to mix it up with three sophomore members of the high school football squad. The guys had hair buffed like Vic Morrow and attitude to spare as if they stepped out of monochromatic North Manual High School. The fight never materialized after the invaders discovered the three linemen had brothers all playing for Notre Dame, chatting up girls in the lobby. I guess the most eventful occurrence came two decades later when the twins spot what appeared to be a pre-historic being rummaging through the apple orchard near Coggin’s pass the north Ridge of Clear Mountain.
The land around Coggin’s used to attract archeologist from Rankin College who’d patiently excavate what was believed a scared Indian burial site. A nearby artesian well spilled water through the pass down the hill forming a tributary curving its way through town past the pulp mill before coagulating into a chemical bath. The murky stream was known as the Juanita River.
It was a warm afternoon like so many the summer 0f ‘63 when the twins made their usual trek in search of arrowheads.
Ten year old Juliette had a small birthmark back of her neck, the only distinguishing characteristic between her and Sister Anna. The two were inseparable as they explored nearly every square foot of terrain unearthing fragments of small animal skulls, lost pendants, charred glass, and their cherished prized arrowheads. While digging a hundred feet or so from the summit of Clear Mountain, Anna spots a naked figure streak past a cluster of briar and recently planted maple trees. Her scream momentarily reigns over the valley when suddenly she grabs Juliette and begins pulling her away from the secluded dig, retreating quickly down the north ridge to a grassy plateau below. Uncle Jim was tilling the garden when he spots the two running towards rows of recently planted sweet peas.
“Girls, girls don’t cut through the garden, you’ll stomp all over my peas.”
“Uncle Jim, we saw it,” yells Anna as she traces the outer rim of the plot.
“You saw what? We saw a caveman up there running naked through the woods.”
“You saw a caveman huh? And just what did this caveman look like?”
“Uncle Jim, you’ve got to believe us. He was all hairy and white.”
“Juliette, what’s your sister up to? Two weeks ago she saw the ghost of a Geronimo.”
“She’s right Uncle Jim, there’s a caveman running around up there.”
“A caveman huh…. tell me exactly what he looks like!” Juliette pauses then drops her head. “I didn’t see it.”
“You didn’t see it…..but I thought the both of you were together.”
“I was too scared to look back, besides we had to get away.”
Rosa would always prepare a large noon day spread when the boys, cousins and farm hands arrive after tending to milking cows, repairing machinery and planting the vast corn fields. Everyday the young men preferred the same diet of ravioli, spaghetti, smoked ham, a few greens and baked bread and non pasteurized milk.
Two picnic tables combined to seat fourteen. The wives and sisters would bide time until the back porch basement cleared before eating in private. Children fixed their plates and mostly ate outdoors during summer months while the toddlers kicked away in high chairs.
“Fellows, Anna has an announcement to make,” says Uncle Jim in a serious tone. “Anna, come over here and show us that forest of dirt under your nails,’ says cousin Deniel.
A general quiet subdues the men until Bobby Resa, a short term farm hand asks, “What was he wearing?”
Juliette and Anna were forbidden to prowl the woods without supervision. The restriction would be more than family members could endure with two precocious twelve year olds who could easily talk their way into just about any conversation or fortified institution.
The walls of the private back porch laboratory were framed in knotty pine. Posters covered nearly every square inch of visible wood. There were maps depicting the locations of various Indian tribes, birds, animals, and the Galapagos Islands courtesy of National Geographic magazine. The centerpiece was an eight-power microscope given to the girls on their ninth birthday by the Bella family. An odd assortment of feathers hung from the top of Juliette’s bunk down past sister Anna’s mattress. Every shape and size arrowhead, quartz rock, petrified wood, dried flower, hatched egg shell, locust skin, beetle, and polished moon stone stood like collectibles on the two window sills.
There were few people hanging around the science building, a caretaker and what seemed a couple students. Fortunately, one of the supposed students was a professor of biology who had access to the rare find. She allowed the girls a few minutes in front of a glass enclosure encasing the historic collection. The girls stood transfixed on the objects examining every detail right down to the discolored regions of the rather large bone and peeling dried skin of the lacrosse ball. It wasn’t uncommon for the two spend an entire day searching the library for unusual information on matters of science they’d seen on television or memorized from the latest National Geographic usually omitting stories on contemporary cities.
Everything had to be ancient or pre-civilization as we know it, with the girls. The Bella’s humored the sisters giving them much freedom to discover and explore. Antonio hoped his two offspring would eventually obtain degrees in agriculture and teach somewhere near home.
It was the second Friday in July when Anna and Juliette make the trek along the southern rim of Clear Mountain collecting wild berries. They spotted a red fox earlier in the day near Rosa’s prized chicken coop and worried of its intentions. When they return near noon they see a trail of white feathers leading up the mountain towards the berry patch. There they discover a den no more than a few inches in diameter hidden among prickly bushes, enough protection allowing a small predator ideal cover.
“Don’t do that, he’ll attack us.”
“Don’t be silly Juliette, he’s just eaten.”
“Anna, please don’t stick him. There are probably babies down there.”
“Of course he’s real.”
“But, I mean, I saw him.”
“We both saw him and he – ran away like he was scared of us…..
“We’d better get dad and the boys..
“No wait, he ran away. He must be more afraid of us than we are of him - don’t you see.”
“Anna, we can’t be chasing him all around, it’d be too dangerous.”
“He’s a caveman….don’t they hit the people over the head they want to eat?”
“How stupid! They’re people not cannibals. Don’t you want to find his cave?”
“I don’t think we should do that.”
“It’s more exciting than dumb arrowheads.”
“I don’t know.”
“What if he charges us?” asks Juliette.
“We scream really loud….somebody will hear us, says Anna”
The moment they arrive on the summit they spot the naked figure ambling towards the apple orchard. The two cautiously push through tall weeds bearing weapon at right arms. As they clear open ground they observe the figure walk slowly between two rows of sun-drenched apples stopping momentarily to sample the fruit, discarding after each bite. Fear had all but vanished while the girls study the steady movements of the ancient man.
“Of course he has a beard…all cavemen have beards.”
“I know that… but it’s like a normal beard…shouldn’t it be bushier?”
Just as Anna was preparing to answer, Juliette’s words alert the figure causing him to quickly vanish back into the brush..
“Where’d he go?”
“We better tell dad now.”
“Juliette, we discovered him. What if dad tells the police and they tell the college, they’ll send all sorts of scientists down here and steal him from us.”
“Anna, we’ve got to tell someone.”
“What about grandma? She’d keep a secret,” says Juliette.
Rosa was enjoying an afternoon nap when the twins sneak up on her slumbering front of a small electric fan. Everyday mid-afternoon she’d catch a few minutes of solitude before preparing dinner. The girls knew it wasn’t wise to rouse her in this state but couldn’t conceal their excitement.
“Grandma, it’s not nonsense…he’s for real…the both of us see him…tell her Juliette.”
“She’s telling the truth Grandma. He’s got a beard and he’s wild…. and runs around naked, and I think he’s dangerous.”
Father Stephen Lantos replaced Emanuel Paul as parish priest after the elder Paul suffered through prolonged illness some say brought on by excessive drinking. Paul’s regal aire didn’t always sit well with young parishioners who preferred liberal theology to what they perceived arrogant banter bordering on fascism. Lantos was youthful, approachable, concerned and above all flexible on social issues. Paul’s rigid stand on morality and spiritual matters mostly bored and intimidated most young devout Catholics causing them to question their beliefs. Lantos was so warmly received by the community they took to calling him “Stevie.”
The girls felt confident Rosa would keep her word and stood among men who gathered early morning on the back porch before breakfast, patiently awaiting her return. As Jim’s truck pulls up the girls spring from the basement, run up the stone pathway leading to the sidewalk to greet Rosa. The road stood four feet above sidewalk level leaving the girls gazing up the shiny black finish of Jim’s truck at the passenger door. As Rosa cautiously descends the steep incline clutching her rosary and smartly bound leather Catechism, she notices two eager faces dressed with anticipation.
“Won’t you girls let me catch my breath?”
“Sorry grandma, did Stevie say anything about the caveman? “Begs Anna. “Do you think God saw him too.”
“I’m ‘qusitive too Grandma,” calls Juliette.
“You’re right about that Juliette… you two keep me guessing.”
“What about the caveman?”
“Father Stevie says he hasn’t heard a thing about such a creature and maybe the two of you let your imagination give life to one of those stories about hom….dids…wait a moment he wrote it down for us…..here it is, hominids.”
“What’s that mean?” asks Anna.
“It means your caveman belongs in history books or them nature magazines where you found him when you’re not digging holes or collecting arrowheads on Clear Mountain.”
The parish at St. Joseph’s was tiny compared to the cathedrals in Philadelphia, but quaint enough for everyone get to know you.
After midnight mass all would travel to Grandma Rosa’s for more food. It seemed like food was the focal point in everyone’s lives.The twins hated Lent. Friday, during the season, meat was forbidden and removed from the table. After breakfast they’d proceed to church for the Stations of the Cross. This is a repetitive chant ritual where the priest takes you through the entire walk that Jesus made the day he was nailed to the cross. Both adults and kids bided time until the procession come to a somber conclusion. Father Lantos made all this more palatable by holding the hands of the youngest members of the parish and walking them about while delivering the message. Everyone was in need of “Stevie.”
Father Lantos was born in neighboring Chalk’s Point and had cousins living in downtown Wilkesburg. He attended seminary school at Bellarmine College graduating tops in his class. He served in Haiti as a missionary during the brutal reign of Baby “Doc” Dulvuier where he clashed on many occasions with the infamous ‘Ton Ton Machutes’, Dulvuier’s hand-picked assassins masquerading as a civilian police force. Through it all, he managed to win the respect and loyalty of those he served. The heavily Italian constituency around Wilkesburg lobbied for his return after father Paul entered the sanitarium. Eventually, the favorite son returned home to a hero’s welcome and a community needing to renew it’s faith.
It was just past two when Sylvia Bella, young Edward’s wife comes crashing through the Rosa’s front door looking as if she’d witnessed the face of Satan.
“Oh, Lord God almighty….”
“Sylvia, calm down”
“Rosa, Rosa, I saw him……I saw him standing in my driveway.”
“You saw who?”
“The caveman the girls talk about.”
“Now, you know that’s just their wild imagination talking, says Rosa”
“I’m telling you like Jesus was standing right here with us, I saw the caveman’s behind ….and he was bare-naked in my driveway.”
“Can I stay here until Edward gets home?”
“Sure you can. This is a matter the boys should take care of.”
“What’s wrong? Someone seriously hurt?” asks Daniel, Edward’s youngest son.
“No, it’s not like that at all. Wait until everyone’s here.”
“No, no, no…you can’t do that. During the thirties we had a lot of half-naked men and women come across that mountain in search of food and shelter. None ever harmed us. We fed and treated them as if they were family. Since this ‘thing’ has had every opportunity to harm the girls and any one of us, and didn’t-I don’t see it as a threat.”
“How do you know he’s not sitting up there watching us sleep, perfectly content and secure waiting for just the right moment to attack us?”
“I’m going to leave it up to you all. Just don’t hurt it,” says Rosa before walking back towards the fence gate.
“Daniel! Do you understand?”
The boys receive Rosa’s instructions like an edict from the Vatican. They pick up hunting outfits, duck calls, blankets and rope, and then mount oversized spotlights on the rear of five trucks.
Just as the sun plummets, twenty men spread the length of the area receive a flashing signal from Daniel announcing the commencement of the search. All you could hear the first ten minutes was the sound of dried wood crunch and the occasional cough and sneeze.
“I’m up here, I think I’ve got him cornered,” screams a voice.
Nothing out of the ordinary appeared that evening leaving the men certain the threat had passed. Defeated, the men assemble in Rosa’s upstairs kitchen.
“Grandma, everybody knows cavemen sleep in caves at night.”
“You’re right Anna. Go tell them while they’re feeling pretty smart what you just told me,” says Rosa sporting a mischievous smile.
Anna accepts Rosa’s advice and enters the men’s only area. It wasn’t like there were warning signs designating the territory off limits just an awareness that males-only gatherings originated the moment Grandfather and his men companions planted roots in the twenty-acre homestead. This isn’t to say women were forbidden to sit in the room, bring fresh coffee and cakes, but it was understood they weren’t meant to interrupt the flow of conversation. The young ones did as they please. Anna had no fear or understanding of the rules.
“Anna, stop the cavemen talk - why can’t you ever play outside like the others.”
“It’s too dark.”
“I don’t care how dark it is - we’re talking men’s talk.”
“Uncle Daniel, I’ve seen him and you haven’t. You should be asking me and Juliette what we think.”
The men continue debating strategies when Antonio comes up with a plan. “We need to spread out. How many sons we got between us and the Moretti’s that aren’t working the farms?’ “Theres twelve,” says Daniel.
“But they’re just kids,” says Antonio.
“Kids, what the hell you think my girls are. Have you ever seen them run scared?”
“No,….but they’re part crazy like you,” says Junior, Rosa’s eldest son. “Remember when you went bear hunting with a catcher’s mitt ?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m just kidding - but I do have serious concerns about you and groundhogs, says Junior”
Antonio pauses. “Look, it’s the challenge.”
“What sane man screams halt and jumps from a moving car so he can run down a groundhog other than Antonio,” says Daniel.
“I’ve never seen you catch one,” says Antonio.
“Why would I do that,” laughs Junior..
“I haven’t decided - all I know is I can out run anybody in the county.”
“So what – do you really need a box of breathing ground hogs to remind you how fast you can run? Take Daniel over and show before you let them go tomorrow, or I will.”
“What do your animal loving daughters think about you locking up innocent critters?” asks Junior.
Antonio bows in embarrassment. “Don’t say anything about this to the twins…they’ve got IQ’s bigger than every one of you r brains added together, especially you Junior…the guy who’s never read a book .”
“Yeah…that’s ‘cause I’m a genius,” laughs Junior. “The last thing I saw you read was that pamphlet on artificial insemination, telling you which hand to stick up a cow’s ass.”
“The hell with all of you….you think you’re so smart …I saw you running around chasing fireflies with a flashlight.
“Look brother, I’ve got ten years on you and I can still whip your behind, so don’t say another word about my family.”
“My girls can out smart any three of your boys. Twenty dollars says my girls catch the caveman first.”
“You’re still worried about them, aren’t you? The kids would just be hanging around Rosa’s all day doing a few chores. I’m telling you they’d have lots of fun. Sort of like cops and monsters,” says Daniel.
The men come to agreement and gather the boys for orientation. Two were assigned to play next to Sylvia’s driveway. Two more near Coggin’s pass - a couple on the grassy plateau. Two near the apple orchard. Two near the chicken coop. Two back of the pig barn and two in the bushes near the highway. The girls were free to roam. Other than a few directions concerning protection the boys were told they could freely play, but quietly.
A week passes without incident until two young sentries spot something carry a blanket to open ground. They watch as ‘it’ stretches the cloth wide across a patch of sweet grass.
“No, it’s liable to get away without us catching it….. We should sneak closer.”
“You’re crazy Bobby, I’m not touching anything…..we could get into real trouble.”
The boys crawl slowly through thick bush pausing briefly to unhinge a prickly torn, swat flies and clear grasshoppers from the path. As the figure comes in full view it becomes apparent it’s been seduced by a searing noonday sun. The boys soon recognize the figure of a contemporary man not the missing link the girls had spoke of. And like all playful young boys they begin to exchange whispers and laughter.
“I don’t know -maybe he’s a bum…”
“I’ll get closer - you stay here and let me check him out.” Bobby slithers to no more than ten feet from the blanket then suddenly jumps to his feet and starts laughing hysterically.
“It’s Father Stevie -It’s Father Stevie!” It’s not a caveman, he’s a priest..”
Poor Father Lanto’s name sounded over the valley like a distress signal warning of an impending doom. Bobby and Raymond sprint down the mountain notifying each lookout on the way. Word spread fast as the children assemble at Rosa’s back porch enclosure where Sylvia and Rosa were cleaning lunch from the wooden picnic tables. Like an uninvited gust of wind the boys come barreling through the torn screen door.
“Is that a fact, Bobby…aren’t you boys supposed to be looking out for it?”
“Grandma, its Father Stevie.”
“Why don’t you boys go about playin?” Rosa says trying to ignore the gang.
“Grandma, you’re not listening - we chased Father Stevie through the woods, and he was butt-naked.”
“Honest Grandma, I’m not lying…tell her!” The mob responds with one loud roar -Father Stevie.”
“Grandma, are you all right? Says Raymond”
“You boys get out of here and keep your mouths shut until I get back.”
Rosa could barely conceal her anger, hurries to the living room, swipes her black purse, then storms from the house.
Rosa crosses the threshold to the inner sanctum of St. Joseph’s; stops, kneels, recites her vows, then walks front of the church. The hall leading to Father Steve’s private study was located a few feet beyond the alter. Rosa waste no time politely calling for the young priest, instead, forces the heavy mahogany door open and confronts a fully clothed man.
“Mrs. Bella how kind of you to drop in…can I get you a coffee…maybe tea.”
“Father Lantos…you know exactly why I’m here - don’t patronize me.”
“Mrs. Bella, I’m sorry, but I haven’t a clue why you’re here. If it’s for counseling.”
“Stop it Steve! I’ve known you since you were a few month’s beyond your mother’s womb. If she were living she’d talk some sense in you before you destroy your life.” Stephen halts the charade then collapses in the high back leather chair which inspired so many sermons before.
“The boys? What about the twins who saw you many times running around like a skinned animal. They believed you were a caveman. God only knows I wish it were true.”
“Rosa, I apologize - I sincerely apologize – nothing strange about that.”
“Sin? That’s not a sin, besides, I‘ve always liked it up there - it’s comforting and familiar.”
“Rosa, I’ve sunbathed all over the world and nobody paid attention. What’s the problem here in fact in Haiti nobody wears much clothing and noboy sees it as a sin?”
“Stephen, God wants grown men to wear clothes in front of children. The police will lock you up around here for behavior like that. Did one of those bishops or the pope teach you to run around naked? No! Am I right?”
“I hear rumors about what goes on in those seminaries.”
“Rosa, stop it.”
“You forget where you live?” says Rosa.
“It’s that bad?”
“It’s worse than that!”
Rosa ponders the priest’s confession and genuine sincerity. Before she can reply the young priest interrupts. “Look, I administer penitence to my entire parishioner’s especially those who seriously transgress the Lord. Surely, you could offer me a way out.”
The painful episode would linger for years in the hearts of the community. The twins stopped digging on Clear Mountain believing in some way they had contributed to Father Lantos capture and eventual banishment. Rosa took great pains to remind the girls that Father Stevie was a brilliant man who would do many great things no matter where he was called and they should never stop digging beneath the surface for the truth.
Time would pass and many more offspring would be christened at St. Joseph’s.
Rosa lived only four years past Father Lantos departure. The church gave her what was called a state funeral. There were hundreds in attendance and a procession extending miles beyond town. There was no doubt that she was the moral conscience of the community. We all trusted her judgment. Juliette became an anthropologist while Anna taught history at Shawnee Creek High School.
Most of my generation is all over the map now, except for me and a dozen or so cousins who still find comfort in the familiar just like our beloved Father Stevie. It wasn’t that long ago when people put their faith and trust in the church and its infallibility. It was all about honor, love, perseverance, family and above all, protecting the kids. That part will never change.