Howard Frank Mosher
We had set a very close watch over my uncle, Private True Teague Kinneson, since his triumphal return from the Pacific and the Columbia River. I say "we," but in fact, keeping track of the comings and goings of the renowned expeditionary, schoolmaster, inventor, and playwright had, since my early boyhood, devolved mainly to me. My father had his newspaper to print, the Kingdom County Monitor, in which he kept track of the events in our remote little Vermont village. My mother kept track of our family farm, a job that required her entire attention from before dawn until after dark each day. And ours being a very small, if very affectionate, family, this left me to keep track of my uncle. Who, as my father often said, clapping the heels of his hands to his temples and pressing as hard as he was able, as if to keep his brain from exploding, bore much watching.
From the time I was six or seven I was the private's constant companion, pupil, fishing partner, apprentice, and confidant, not to mention his co-expeditionary. Nor is it surprising that we were inseparable, when one stops to think that it was he who christened me Ticonderoga — Ti for short — after the principal matter of his play and the signal event of his life — the fall of the fortress of that name on the narrows of Lake Champlain to Ethan Allen and a handful of Vermont woodsmen and farmers in 1775.
Unfortunately, it was that same milestone in the history of our Republic that resulted in Private True Teague Kinneson's own fall and subsequent affliction — or, as my kindhearted mother called his strange disorder of the imagination, his "little ways and stays." As he was drinking rum flip with Ethan and celebrating their victory by singing a ballad, most of which has now been lost to posterity but whose refrain was "Tooleree, toolera, tooleroo," my uncle lost his footing and struck his head so sharp a blow on the gate of the fort that he never, I am grieved to report, quite regained his correct wits.
It is an important point of information in the history of the Kinneson family that from the moment of his mishap at Fort Ti, my uncle supposed himself to be constantly engaged in the prosecution of many heroic enterprises. These adventures often involved travel to far-flung places, great raging battles, and encounters with all manner of plenipotentiaries and unusual personages. The hillock behind my mother's cow barn he called the Heights of Quebec; and many a summer afternoon we stormed it together, taking the Citadel on the Plains of Abraham — a large granite boulder atop the hill — as he believed he had done with General Wolfe in '59. In the winter, when a thick sheet of ice and snow covered the hill, he stationed me on this boulder in the role of the French commander, Montcalm, and had me repel his assaults by pushing him whirling back down the frozen slope on the seat of his woolen pantaloons — a terrifying spectacle to me and to my parents, calling up in our recollections his fateful accident of years before. There was no doubt, from my uncle's easy talk of embrasures, fortifications, enfilades, scaling-ladders, and cannonadings, that he fully imagined himself to have been present at the fall of Quebec. But when I drew my father aside and asked him privately whether True had been involved in that battle, his hands shot up to his head and he said that, while he ruled out no improbability when it came to his older brother, if he had been, he was the youngest foot-soldier in the history of the world — being, according to my father's calculations, but seven years of age at the time.
Sometimes my uncle and I journeyed to the rapids on the St. Lawrence just west of Montreal to reenact a historic meeting between the explorer Jacques Cartier and my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Chief Tumkin Tumkin of the Abenaki tribe. Hearing that Cartier was searching for China and the Great Khan, and learning something of the dress and customs of that distinguished emperor, Tumkin Tumkin had stationed himself just upriver from the rapids in a robe of muskrat pelts dyed bright vermilion, with an absurd little round yellow hat on his head; his design was to impersonate the Celestial Personage and receive whatever gifts the French explorer had laid aside for him. In the event, Cartier instantly saw through our ancestor's ruse, but was so amused that he gave Tumkin Tumkin his second-best chain-mail vest and named the region of the rapids Lachine — or China, as it is called to this day.
The cedar bog to the north of our farm my uncle designated variously as the Great Dismal Swamp, or Saratoga, or Yorktown. From it we routed many a vile Redcoat, every last one of whom we put to the sword. For Private True Teague Kinneson was a ruthless soldier and showed no mercy to his captives. In his capacity as an inventor, he attached a sail made from an old flannel sheet to my little fishing raft on the Kingdom River, where we played by the hour at Captain Cook and the South Sea Cannibals. And when the ice began to form on my mother's stock pond, we recreated the scene of Washington crossing the Delaware.
During the long Vermont winters, when the wind came howling down out of Canada and the drifts lay six feet deep between the house and the barn, my uncle taught me Latin and Greek and astronomy and mathematics and the physical sciences. He read to me by the hour from both the ancients and moderns, and in the evenings we frequently cleared away my mother's kitchen table and chairs and performed scenes from Homer or Virgil.
"Arma virumque cano," he would roar out in his booming stage voice. And it was off to the races with the brave hero of the Aeneid, while my mother, baking the next day's bread or peeling apples or doing the farm accounts in her black daybook, smiled, and my father's ink-stained hands shot headward. When we undertook the Iliad, my mother sometimes agreed to play the part of Helen, and my uncle and I carried her in her rocker from the window by the door to the chimney corner we called Troy; and indeed, with her tall slender form and long golden hair and eyes as blue as the sky over the Green Mountains on the fairest day of summer, she fit the role of Helen as well as any woman could. But on another occasion my uncle mistook my father for a Cyclops and chased him round and round the kitchen with the fire poker.
"None of this is your fault, Ti," my terrified sire cried from the other side of the barricaded woodshed door. "Above all, remember that none of this is your fault."
Well. I had never supposed that my uncle's little ways and stays were my fault, or anyone else's, including his. Nor did I for a single moment believe that he meant the least harm to my father or any other creature in the universe. Though as my uncle's own history amply illustrated, accidents would happen; and perhaps it was as well for my father that he had the presence of mind to retreat until our version of the Odyssey had ended with the hero's return to Ithaca and his loving Penelope. Penelope was my mother's cat.
My uncle's favorite play, however, was his own. I shall come to that drama very soon. But first, a few words about the appearance of the playwright himself.
Private true Teague Kinneson — I refer to him by his full title because my uncle set great store by his military rank — was very tall and very lanky, with sloping, rugged shoulders, a trim, soldierly mustache, and keen yellow eyes that appeared to be as pitiless as a hawk's, though in fact he was the most sympathetic man I have ever known. He wore, over his scout's buckskins, Jacques Cartier's chain-mail vest, which had been handed down in our family from Tumkin Tumkin and which he believed had saved his life in battle a dozen times over; a copper dome, which had been screwed to the crown of
his head by the regimental surgeon who operated on him after his fall at Fort Ti; a loose-fitting pair of galoshes, whose tops he rolled up to his bony knees for winter and down around his ankles for summer; a red sash about his middle somewhat resembling an Elizabethan codpiece; and, to cover the shining metal crown of his head, a red woolen night-stocking with a harness bell on the end, like the bell of a fool's cap, to remind himself where he was at all times, and also that "compared to the Almighty Jehovah, all men are fools."
My uncle was somewhat hard of hearing from being so much subjected to cannon fire over the course of his military expeditions, so he carried at all times a tin ear trumpet as long as my mother's yard measure. On those expeditions he went armed with a homemade wooden sword; an arquebus with a great bell-like mouth, of such incredible antiquity that even he was uncertain of its origin, though family tradition had it that this ancient firelock had been used by his Kinneson grandfather on the field of battle at Culloden just before the clan moved from Scotland to Vermont; and a large
black umbrella to keep off the sun and rain, embellished on top with the family coat of arms — a crossed pen and sword, signifying that from time immemorial Kinnesons had "lived by the one and died by the other."
When not off adventuring, my uncle divided his time between his playwriting, his angling, his books, my education, his garden, and his inventions. To Allen, or The Fall of Fort Ticonderoga for twenty years and more. He styled it a tragedy because he believed Colonel Allen to have been much undervalued, and indeed thought that the old Vermonter should have been our first president. It was a long play, running well over three hours. And on the occasions when he had arranged for it to be performed, it had not met with a very kindly reception, even in our own state. From certain hints my uncle himself had let drop, I feared that it had been roundly hissed off the stage. But he had the greatest faith in the world in his Tragical History, and pegged away at it year after year, firmly believing it to be nothing short of a masterpiece-in-progress. What pleased him most about the play was that it violated none of Aristotle's dramatic unities. Aristotle the Greek philosopher, pupil of Plato, and chronicler of all branches of human knowledge known to his time? No, sir. Scholia Scholasticus Aristotle — my uncle's great tutor during his time at Oxford University — of whom you will soon hear more.
When it came to angling, my uncle loved to cast flies, like our Scottish ancestors. In fact, he and my father were both avid fly-casters and had taught me this noble art when I was very young. We three enjoyed many a fine May morning on our little river, enticing native brook trout to the lovely feathered creations that my uncle tied during winter evenings. He fashioned long, limber rods from elm and ash poles, wove fine horsehair leaders, and was the neatest hand in all Kingdom County at laying his high-floating colored artifices deftly over rising fish. There was just one difficulty. Private True Teague Kinneson was so tenderhearted that he could not bear to kill his catch, and so released every last trout he caught unharmed to the cold waters from which it had come. Yet no man ever enjoyed the art of fly-fishing more or took more pains to match his flies to the natural insects emerging on the water; and the sight of my copper-crowned uncle, rod held high and bent, playing a fine splashing trout, and crying, for all the world to hear, "Hi, hi, fish on!" was a most splendid spectacle.
My uncle's books, of which he had many hundreds in several languages, he kept in his snug little schoolhouse-dwelling behind our farmhouse, which dwelling he called the Library at Alexandria. He spared no expense when it came to purchasing these volumes, and he supported his scholarly avocation with the proceeds from his garden in my mother's loamy water meadow near the river. There he tended half an acre of the tall, forest-green plants known as cannabis, whose fragrant leaves and flower buds he ground into a mildly euphoric smoking tobacco very popular in Vermont and of which he himself faithfully smoked half a pipeful each evening after supper.
Of all his books, my uncle loved best a hefty old tome bound in red buckram called The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de La Mancha — of which he believed every last syllable to be the revealed gospel truth. In fact, it was partly in honor of this same ingenious gentleman that my uncle wore his chain mail and polished his copper crown until it shone like the top of a cathedral. For ever since his accident, he had fancied himself something of a modern-day knight-errant. Yet it was not giants disguised as windmills that he sought to fight but the Devil himself — until he cast that horned fellow out of the Green Mountains in a tow sack, in consequence of which expulsion he feared that "the Gentleman from Vermont," as he termed Old Scratch, might be doing great mischief elsewhere.
Being a kind of perpetual boy himself, though a big one, my uncle was a great favorite with all the boys and girls in the village, for whom he invented huge kites, spinning whirligigs, velocipedes with sails, magic lanterns, catapults, wheeled siege-towers, fire-ships, rockets, and I don't know what else — none of which ever, to the best of my knowledge, had the slightest practical application. Besides his vast fund of classical stories and poems, he knew a thousand tales of witches, ghouls, and ghosties, in the telling of which he terrified no one so much as himself. He was deathly afraid of large dogs, small serpents, lightning — he had been struck eight times since the installation of his copper crown, and it was said in the village that, like a tall ash tree in a Vermont hedgerow, he "drew electricity" — and of nearly all women, though he had the greatest respect for and confidence in my mother, as did my father and I.
One of my uncle's most curious inventions was a wooden, Dutch-style shelf clock, about a foot and a half tall, without any works or innards but with a very passable painting he had done on it of his hero Quixote, that Knight of the Woeful Countenance, doing combat with a windmill. The painted hands of this clock were set forever at twenty minutes past twelve, which hour had a triple significance to my uncle. First, he was utterly certain that this was perpetually the correct time at Greenwich, England, so that by knowing the hour where he was, and the altitude of the sun, he could always calculate his correct longitude and divine where he was in the universe. And it distressed him not in the least that no matter how many times he made these calculations, his position never came out the same twice but varied wildly, from the longitude of Calcutta to that of Venice.
The second point of significance concerned a saying in our family, which was that whenever a lull fell over the conversation, it must be twenty after the hour. Admittedly, between my uncle the ex-schoolmaster and my father the editor, one or both of whom seemed always to be discoursing from dawn straight through until midnight, there were not many such lapses of silence in our household. But when by chance no one happened to be talking, my uncle would leap up and dash out to his Library at Alexandria to check the time on the Dutch clock and confirm that it was indeed twenty past the hour, which was a great relief to him. And though the clock was less reliable as a timepiece than was entirely convenient to one wishing to know the actual hour, it was so reliable as a conversation piece that it never failed to set the talk in motion again.
Third, and finally, it was inside the hollow case of this remarkable clock that my uncle stored his hemp tobacco.
From what I have retailed to you thus far, you might well suppose that mine was a very odd and somber boyhood. Odd, I will grant you. But somber? Never in this world. For my uncle was ever a second father to me. In fact, it might be said that between my true father and my uncle True, the pair of brothers made one complete and perfect father. Or so I thought, at least. And no boy could ever have had a more complete education than I. When my interest first in sketching, then painting, birds and wildlife began to emerge, my uncle even took me on a tour of the great museums of England, France, Italy, and the Lowlands. By which I mean that we canoed across the "Atlantic Ocean" — our pond, that is — and on the far side he described the great paintings of the world so exactly that I all but saw them. Say what the village might, then, it was a splendid way to grow up. And to anyone who thought differently, Private True Teague Kinneson doffed his belled cap, bowed low, and said, "Why, bless you, too, sir. With a tooleree and a toolera and a tooleroo!"
Excerpted from The True Account: A Novel of the Lewis & Clark & Kinneson Expeditions copyright © 2003 by Howard Frank Mosher. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.