Song of Friendship
Tim Amerud April 18, 1949~ October 10, 2010
I wrote this last October. I am ready to share it with those who will never know Rude, or anyone like him.
Rude, Tom and I were born in mid April. I always imagined the three of us aging together like wrinkled children with no one to keep us inside on rainy days. I miss that future. Last October Rude vanished like a flame dropped into the sea. Now our birthdays arrive with the excitement of spring, but Rude won’t be heading north with us.
The day before he died, Rude called us for a long talk. I had tried to reach him all week, a quiet urgency tugging my mind. We later heard that he had been reaching out to friends all summer. He asked his family not to grieve upon his death, but to teach the children to love the land. I’m not surprised; he was wise and intuitive. Most at home alone in the forest, he was also a blood-brother friend, deep thinker, master plumber, volunteer in third-world countries, and ally to children and dogs. He was a man of integrity who would have thrown his life in front of any danger to protect a friend. I was privileged to be one.
“It’s funny,” he confessed to me when he called that Saturday, “but ever since last summer at your cabin, especially when someone’s been here, I find myself getting lonesome. I never felt that way before. I have to get out and walk.”
“It’s a good step for you,” I said, always quick with advice. “You can phone us any time. I’ll call you back on my calling card.”
“I appreciate that,” he said. “I’ve had no work all summer.”
“You could alway live here,” I teased. I pictured the three of us playing along Kachemak Bay, turning over rocks in tide pools. Rude never made it to Homer, but he knew more about the town than I do. I used to send him old newspapers and he read every line. Our conversations were laced with his thoughtful questions on water conservation and protecting the bay.
I doubt he would have moved from Minnesota, his grandkids, and the family that loved and released him to his dreams. You couldn’t put a collar on Rude. He lived alone on forty acres in a home he built in the woods, crafted from massive beaver-cut poplar trees off his land. It was a work of art. Though not a big man, he could move unbelievably large objects. He’d sit on his deck watching pileated woodpeckers reflected in the pastel dawn of his wetlands. Neighbors had advised him to trap the beavers. “They’ll kill all your trees,” he was warned. I remember how he shrugged. “They took the poplar and are into the white oak,” he admitted, “but they were here first.”
He was a feisty little rooster, tough and determined. His small shoulders were hard and amazingly strong, but his body had been broken too often. Twice I saw him tear muscles from the bone. “Take it easy, Rude,” I’d say. “Learn to use your body like a friend.” I think he was moving that direction, shifting gears, especially since the summer of 2009. He was somehow gentler, smoother after his second season with us in Alaskan wilderness, but he wouldn’t have surrendered well to age.
“You should have seen me when I was young,” he’d apologize, “I was a powerhouse. Nothin’ stopped me. I’d take them dogs and go for days.”
Over the years his team of seventeen dogs had dwindled to one old friend. His dogs never barked, bur watched his slightest gesture with the clarity of wolves. He communicated with them using his intense gaze and soft voice. They loved him and had saved his life more than once. In return, he tended them until they died. It would have bothered Rude that his last old dog went unfed while he lay in the woods for two days.
Rude belonged in wilderness. He grew up in the woods and never really adapted to town. His movements were poetry; he was Present in each moment, never careless or unconscious. He noticed everything and kept his back to the wall. Once we took him to a restaurant. When a long-necked beer toppled from a passing waiter’s tray Rude’s hand snaked out behind his back faster than my eye could follow as he flipped the bottle unspilled upon the table. I’ve never known a person who was so alert and alive! His last morning in his woods he had broken twigs pointing the way he had gone from his truck just in case something happened. That’s how they found him. I look at my pictures, taken candidly over two summers: Rude is balanced like an athlete, no matter the scene. I know he must have been in pain, but in only one picture did I catch him off guard, cradling his wounded shoulder.
In his own words, he was a “good man to ride the river,” loyal, resourceful, and quick! The summer Tom, Rude, Luke and I canoed down the Chandalar and Yukon Rivers for nearly a month Rude never seemed to sleep, but I did, trusting that if a bear came into camp, he would know. The four of us would gather around our fire after a hard day on the river and I’d catch a glance between Tom and Rude—did you hear that, Buddy? I got you covered. On hikes he stepped silently behind me, protective and watchful. He never lost that edge.
When Tom and I called to invite him north in the spring of 2009 he again needed surgery on a shoulder and was short of money. I remember saying, “You’re the only one who knows what’s right, but life keeps turning out and one day the window closes.” He phoned us the next day to say, “I’m in.” When we picked him up at the airport in Fairbanks he was wearing his old felt hat with a raven feather I’d found on the Chandalar a decade before. He returned it to the river and gave us a Minnesota feather he’d woven onto a leather thong, an Indian blessing of moving lightly on the wind he said. It hangs today upon our wall in Homer, a home he never got to see.
“I’m thinkin’ hard about going back to the cabin with you next summer,” he told me that Saturday. “I really considered droppin’ in on you last summer.” Dropping in would have entailed several thousand dollars in air charter.
“It would’ve been fun,” I replied. “I saw you everywhere—little whittled objects, the beautiful rocking chair you made for Tom. You should see the cabin floor! All those boards you cut, so flat and solid.” Oh, yes, Rude was a master with the chain saw, and so very deliberate!
“Well, maybe next year,” he said, “we’ll finish our climb up King Mountain.” I thought of the peak obscured in swirling snow the morning we had turned back.
My discussions with Rude would usually lead to the Mysteries. I think he was psychic, though he resisted it. He sensed where the animals were, could feel it when you looked at him. That last Saturday he told me of standing with his eyes closed and his back pressed to a great tree, feeling the energy of the Earth radiate up through his body with each breath. “I don’t know if I believe that stuff,” he said in a tone of wonder, “but when I opened my eyes, for several minutes everything was the deepest shade of blue I’ve ever seen. Cobalt, I think they call it.”
“Forget beliefs,” I advised, “and go with your experience.”
The next day he was gone. He was cutting firewood for a friend when the rotten heart of a huge tree gave way, shattering up the trunk and driving him into the ground. As agile as he was, it must have happened very fast. He was found in a sandy hollow filled with colorful autumn leaves, a beautiful place to take a nap. It was a perfect way for him: alone in the woods he loved. He never wanted to grow old and feeble and he wouldn’t have been comfortable with any deathbed scenario. How like him to slip out the back door while those who loved him were around front, to die alone beneath the forest sky. His essence was far away before any of us could pull at him with our grief, our expectations, our pleas for one more hour, for one more day.
That thought makes me smile. I try to visualize him, not lying broken in the drifting leaves, but stepping curiously and with that slight crouch, his intense hazel eyes watching the blue light. In one hand he carries a feather, the other is open and forward, palm down like a dancer or a fighter as I often saw him move. His face is shining with wonder as he steps silently into this new adventure.
Six months have washed the sharp edges from my grief, wearing it into a polished stone that I cradle like an amulet close to my heart. Far from being gone, I find Rude is still part of my life. His memory has crystalized into something precious, a jewel that changes with the light revealing new gifts. It is a reminder to pay attention, stay Present, and cherish each moment. Often as I descend the stairs or step outside our home, I try not to saunter, but to move deliberately and with Presence, the way Rude would.
Mostly, I feel blessed, grateful for the days he shared with us. Thank you, Beloved Friend, for reminding me that the Journey is brief and unpredictable, that every day is a gift. Go lightly upon the breeze; until we meet again I shall miss you!
Love, Jeanie and Tom