I have always loved to hunt. It started way back when I was about 7 years old, when my dad allowed me to tag along with him and his longtime friend and hunting buddy, Joe. They both worked for the same printing company in the building that I described helping to clean out in a former tale after it was sold and moved.
My mother had also worked for that enterprise, American Register Co., and that is where my folks met. Joe’s wife Margaret was also employed there and she and my mom, Agnes, became lifelong friends until Mom’s passing.
My first encounter with wildlife was trekking through brushy fields, hoping to scare up a rabbit or pheasants. It was doing it the hard way, as neither man had the wherewithal to afford a hunting dog of any kind.
My eagerness was intensified when we traveled from West Roxbury, the outer suburb of Boston where we lived, to the wilds of Wrentham, Mass.
In those times, the town was more woods than houses and the focal point, Lake Pearl, was not dotted with houses and cottages around the entire shoreline.
At the southwest corner of the lake, there is an exit stream that makes its way through a small but picturesque freshwater marsh. My dad loved sneaking through the chest-high grass while hoping to roust up a mallard or black duck.
This is where the first latent desires and wonderment of water and webbed feet were aroused.
After most every sojourn to the lake, my father would park the car a healthy distance from this old, shabby shack that was without electricity or running water and that had a nasty growling and barking dog chained close to the entrance. The shanty was sited on a small point of land jutting into the lake. If he was home (and in later years it was usually the case), the inhabitant would shuffle out of the place to see who was causing all the commotion with the dog.
My dad would yell out, “Abe, it’s Obie!” And Abe, a kind and friendly Black man who did not see well at a distance, would retort, “Dat you, Popie?” He could not pronounce Obie or many other words for the lack of most of his teeth.
After the close-up greetings, Abe would move the sentry animal, still chained to another tree away from the entryway, and invite us in to sit and chat.
I am unable to recall very many specifics about the conversations, but Abe would always fill my father in on all his sightings of wildlife, and there would be many.
His full name was Abraham Smith. His parents had been slaves who moved north. I imagine that many of these folks took on a popular last name and many of the male offspring would be given the first name of Abraham.
I believe that in his younger years he worked as a handyman for a well-to-do family uptown in Wrentham.
I don’t remember hearing any talk about siblings or extended family, but that info could certainly have escaped my youthful attention span.
He had no driver’s license or access to a vehicle, so unless someone he knew offered him a lift, he walked everywhere he had to go.
Being so young when I first was introduced to Abe, I never gave thought about asking him historical questions about his early life and the circumstances that had him residing in a shack on a small lake in Massachusetts.
It probably would have made this story more interesting and provided enough additional background material for a follow-up tale.
What a far-out thought that I would be producing a column about these experiences almost 76 years later for a small-town newspaper in the Midcoast area of Maine.
Another of my failings was not asking Dad how he and Joe had first made acquaintances with Abe.
I’ll guess that it was just a natural process that occurred while they were fishing or hunting and came across a very interesting situation and three easygoing fellows bonded with one another.
What I do remember vividly was the heat in his place, no matter what season we were in.
Abe always sat in a large armchair next to his four-poster bed. Dad and I and anyone else with us sat in smaller chairs close to the always-hot cooking and heating wood stove. The place was full of junk, with not much space to move around, but it was comfortable and always a welcome refuge on a cold day of ice fishing.
We visited occasionally in the summer also and fished for bluegill and perch off the bank beside his home.
My father’s relationship with Abe continued after my folks purchased the house in Norwood.
The driving distance was halved and, although I was drawn into other pursuits, my sister, Anne Marie, five years younger than myself, and my brother, Pete, 10 years apart from me, both remember similar goings-on over all seasons throughout the years. When they also would go with Dad to visit Abe it was always an adventure, the woods and the lake, the growling dog (not the same one), listening to his folksy storytelling, and, as Pete aptly described it, “the scary excitement of entering into that shack.”
I vaguely remember my father mentioning trouble at the lake. More people around, houses and cottages being constructed, much of the woodlands being cleared for even more homes, and the town wanting to oust Abe off the lake. Pete recalls hearing that a couple of shots were fired. I could certainly understand Abe sounding off, but I can’t imagine that he would shoot anyone.
I don’t know if he had a deed to the property or whether the town just put up with his squatting.
It was all over by the late 1950s. The town won. We think he was moved uptown to a senior home. We don’t know what the final disposition was or when he passed on. The Abe Smith era had closed.
(Robert H. Oberlander lives at Hunter’s Landing in Walpole.)