Terry on the Mountain

 

My brother Joe came home about 10 o’clock that night. At nineteen, he stood 6 foot, and, encapsulated in an Air Force dress uniform, shoes spit shined, he was the picture of youthful verve and military bearing. Except for one detail. His left eye was blood red, bruised, and blackened.

"Just in from the front lines?" I quipped.

"Shut up." He answered, moved around a lower bunk, and splashed down on the mattress.

I was on the upper bunk and waited a few seconds.

"Okay, baby brother, what happened?"

To put it bluntly, my brother Joe was a bit of a rake. He was home on leave from the service and had been corresponding with and dating four different young ladies each to whom he had professed true love. One of the young ladies was Terry.

Switch to Terry's bedroom.

The room was decorated with her artwork and next to the single bed was a drawer. On top of the drawer was what could only be described as the shrine to brother Joe. It contained pictures of Joe and memorabilia from his high school athletic days. His school sweater with "the letter" was hung carefully on a hook by the door. Unbeknownst to her, similar sweaters adorned other hooks on other girls' doors.

Terry was the picture of Renaissance beauty. She had long flowing black hair that fell all the way down her back. Brown eyes, the purest most blemish free cream skin complemented her 90 pounds and 5 foot something frame. Her face and form would have inspired Botticelli to kick Venus into the sea and install Terry onto her sea-shell throne then retitle the painting ‘The Birth of Terry’. Her only physical flaw was asthma; a condition I suspect was aggravated by the animals in her house and familial stress especially where an overbearing and selfish father was concerned.

She had just turned eighteen.

Joe pulled up in front of Terry’s house. He was accompanied by one of his service friends for moral support.

Switch back to Terry’s bedroom.

This was prom night. She had anticipated this for months. Terry had purchased a new evening gown, shoes, and the other accoutrements. She had just finished meticulously applying her makeup when the doorbell rang. She ran downstairs, opened the door, and flung her arms around Joe, being careful not to mar the makeup.

Joe stood there wooden, not returning the embrace.

"Can you come out to the car for a minute?"

"Joe, what’s wrong?"

"Please, just for a minute."

She followed him into the car where he introduced her to an Air Force buddy.

"Terry, there’s never a good time for bad news. I can’t go to the prom with you. I’m getting married next week."

She stared at him first shocked, then hurt, then angry. Without warning, she hauled off and with all her 90 pounds behind her and fist closed, punched him in the eye.

Now, it was Joe’s turn to be in shock as she ran from the car, up the stairs, and slammed the door to her house.

Switch back to my and Joe’s bedroom at home.

He told me what happened, and I was overjoyed with his pain. He would wear that black-eyed badge of dishonor to his wedding and for weeks afterward.

"Where does she live?" I inquired.

"The single family on Lyman Street next to the school."

I had just finished a 2-year stint in a monastery in upstate New York where I discovered I liked girls better than God at that moment. I was 22 years old and in a state of perpetual pubescence. I wasted no time the next day and drove to Terry’s house. However, her father, short, balding, and gruff answered the door.

"Can I speak with Terry?"

"Who are you?"

"My name’s Tom Carmody and I want to worship the girl who gave my brother the black eye."

He did a double take, then grinned.

"Come on in....Terry", he yelled, "someone here to see you."

A moment later, she appeared on the staircase, her beauty marred slightly from bouts of crying.

"Hi, my name’s Tom, Tom Carmody." She recoiled. "I’m sorry, didn’t mean to startle you. I just wanted to congratulate you for punching out that brother of mine. He’s not really representative of the rest of the family."

Terry started to cry, tears streaming down.

"Look, can I take you out for an ice cream or something and we can talk?"

"Sure, why not."

For the next few months, I was a frequent caller at her house. Her family was French-Canadian on dad’s side and Italian on ma’s side. The Italians dominated in every way. When you went out with Terry, you had better have the approval of Mary, Margie, and Tish besides her mother Ida (nee Italia). As far as the 3 aunts were concerned, I thought of them as the Italian Triumvirate.

You didn’t play games with these ladies. Terry was the apple of their collective eyes. Mary, the eldest was enjoying retirement. She was the princess of the group and I can’t summon enough imagination to conceive of her ever having worked a day in her life. Margy was a bill collector for the gas company (enough said). Tish was the real boss of all and a feminist before the word was ever coined. She was an international social worker who, at the end of World War Two, had driven around Okinawa in a jeep while trying to find homes for abandoned Japanese half-breed children. She worked for the International Children’s Service out of Boston.

When I met them, I mustered every bit of Irish charm (read BS) from my genes and was bestowed conditional approval – conditional meaning that if I hurt the girl, we’ll fry your loins in your own fat and feed them to Pepe, Margy’s pet Lhasa Apso.

Let’s talk about me for a moment. It’s hard to be objective, but I’ll give it a whack. Tom Carmody has a strange looking body. My arms and legs are built thin like a runner’s. My torso is like a bull and dominated by a barrel chest. My body got the wrong arms and legs. Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor? My intelligence is just a bit above average, my personality at this time was slow maturing, and I was overly critical of things and hypersensitive. I also thought that I was God’s gift to the world, an opinion that would be modified throughout my life as I got my butt kicked. On the plus side, I have limitless energy and am the eternal optimist. I don’t believe, like Candide, that this is the best of all possible worlds, but I’m more like Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If you can keep your head while all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you – then, you’ll be a man, my son.’ I’m also an incurable romantic and...a jock. At that time, I worked out with weights and loved hiking and climbing through the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

All of which brings us to the point of this story.

At the end of August that year, my youngest brother Dave and I had planned a hike up Mount Washington. Naturally, I talked Terry into coming along. Mount Washington is only 6000+ feet high but the hike is 7 or 8 miles up. In retrospect, I was an insensitive lout to have asked her along. After all, she was a wisp and an asthmatic to boot.

She said she’d go.

I chose the Tuckerman Ravine route. We arrived at the parking lot at the mountain’s base, and, laden with knapsacks loaded with foul weather gear, we started up the trail. There is a sign at the beginning of the trail that the mountain has the worst weather and highest recorded winds in North America. You shouldn’t attempt the hike unless you are in peak physical condition. Terry gave me a funny look as we started...up.

From the beginning of the trail until you reach the half way house (sic) at 5 miles, the trail is usually wet and rock strewn. There isn’t much respite in the form of straight paths. You’re always going up. Terry huffed and wheezed the first mile until her battered lungs somehow got accustomed to the workout. The weather was clear, 70 degrees, but that didn’t mean squat.

We reached the half way house which was maintained by the Appalachian Mountain Club and presided over by college students who weren’t adverse to carrying 75 pound packs up and down the mountain. These were supplies for the weary at the half way house.

We rested there for about 20 minutes. Then I informed Terry who was obviously exhausted that the real climb starts now. Her face was beet red from the exertion.

"Let’s go before I change my mind." She said and we were off.

The first half-hour was relatively easy until we reached the foot of the headwall at the top of which was the tree line where vegetation would no longer grow. Sure enough, clouds rushed in, the wind picked up to 40 miles per hour with gusts even higher, and it started to drizzle.

The headwall is a nasty ascent even under ideal conditions. The rabbit size trail at some points is only 1 foot wide with water trickling down. By down, I mean a three or four hundred foot drop but who’s counting. I led the way with Terry behind me and Dave followed closely behind. As we neared the top of the headwall, we could look 500 feet straight down. Terry plodded on.

At the moment we reached the top of the wall, all hell broke loose. We were in the clouds now not unlike the thickest pea soup you can imagine. The drizzle became a downpour and the wind gusted up to 70 mph. We opened our sacks and put on our hats and rainproof ponchos. Stone markers were placed about every 30 yards or so but the clouds were so thick that we couldn’t see all of them.

To add to our problems, from the top of the wall to the summit, there’s no trail. You have to scramble over huge boulders. Our only guide at this point was the faint sound of automobiles using the winding, low graded and paved road on the other side of the mountain.

"Tom, Dave, help me !!!" Terry cried out suddenly.

A gust of wind got hold of her poncho, and, like a sail, she was being pushed backward down the mountain, heading for the sheer drop of the headwall. Dave and I scrambled over the lichen-encrusted boulders and finally caught her with little room to spare. We were bruised and bleeding from the chase. Terry was petrified at this point and so were we but decided it was closer to the summit than to turn around and go back.

We formed a chain with our arms wrapped around each other and Terry in the middle. We were the only people on this side of the mountain. It was like a dream world and a landscape out of a Dahli painting. I was thinking that if we didn’t reach the summit soon or, worse yet, we got lost, then we would surely die of exposure and another plaque would be added to the toll the mountain has claimed.

I hate to admit this, but I received a boost of courage from Terry. She never complained even though it was apparent that her asthma was kicking in full and her face had reddened to a blood color. It was the look in her eyes. Terror was gone, replaced with determination. The outcome no longer mattered. I was ashamed of my fears and a little jealous that she could draw such strength from such a small frame. Like I said at the beginning, I was slow maturing.

We reached the summit wet, dirty, bruised, but elated. Our elation, however, turned to wonder at the irony that awaited us.

There’s a weather station that is literally chained down to survive the winds. Each link of the chain is about 8 inches or more in diameter and about 2 inches thick. Next to the old weather station is a new concrete structure, 6 times the size of the station, to comfort those at the summit. We reached the entrance just as the cog railroad was unloading its passengers all of whom were dressed warm, clean, and refreshed.

"Look," said Terry, "I don’t believe this." Pointing to two women disembarking and sporting elegant dresses and high heels.

"What’s wrong with this picture?" Laughed Dave as we entered the building.

Here was lunacy at its finest. Ascend one side of the mountain in relative comfort by car or railway. Ascend the other side at peril of your life.

We stayed long enough to enjoy a cup of coffee, then headed back down. As nature is wont to do, by the time we reached the top of the headwall, the rain had abated and the wind died down.

We made it back to the parking lot in about two and a half-hours, twice as fast as the ascent.

Before we got into the car, I asked Terry "Will you marry me?"

She looked up, fatigued beyond comprehension, sore muscled, bumped, and bruised.

"Ask me next week."

POSTLUDE

We married 5 years later, had 2 children: Julianne and Joshua. After more than 38 years of marriage, as jagged and tough as that mountain climb was, sometimes I’ll bring it up or tell the story to others together with the episode of the black eye. When I finish, she stands up, looks me in the eye, turns and walks from the room saying:

"Ask me next week."