A lesson from the lunatic fringe

East of Ely by David Krikorian

My appreciation of the people I meet began on the main drag of Braddock, Pennsylvania just a few blocks from the slag-spewing furnaces of the US Steel Works. My father had grown up on these streets and unlike most of his peers he went on to enjoy the benefits of the GI Bill after serving in the US Marines. Whenever we visited his old neighborhood, he’d always spend time reminiscing with childhood friends who often stood around an oil drum with a bonfire lit inside.
This drove my mother nuts. Something about my dad conversing with a bunch of bums (in her opinion) ignited her disgust. Pacing in my grandparent’s apartment above the street. Eventually she’d send me to retrieve him.
I’d show up. He’d grin, and then introduce me to everyone as if I had equal status with these men. Conversing in a mix of English, Yiddish, Armenian and Eastern European languages, they were a mix of racial and ethnic folks, most of them filthy after working long hot shifts shoveling coke into blast furnaces, just as my father did before moving on.
I never forgot what he once told me on the flight of steps up to his parent’s apartment. “My pals,” he said, “taught me one of the most important truths in this world. That no matter what, every person you meet in life has something of value to offer you. Wisdom, knowledge, whatever. So never look down on anyone you meet.”
His words have proven to be true over and over again, and became key to my transition from city kid to a member of the North Country community.
When I first arrived as a young man, I had no illusions about me seamlessly merging into the local population. I didn’t like it, but I knew I couldn’t just pop up as a unknown peer amid folks who’d known each other all their lives. You see decades ago the mix of newcomers was very low compared to what exists today. Yet I did make friends. And nearly all comprised of what others saw as the lunatic fringe.
My first friend, Mike, showed me secret trout holes tucked deep into the tributaries of the Baptism River. A quiet taxidermist who barely got by, he took me trapping a number of times. Though I had no interest in the business, he showed me the ropes, while explaining the trapper’s perspective on the world at large. I learned more about animal behavior from him than a boatload of National Geographic magazines.
Another person to accept me was a friend of Mike’s, a seriously shy oddball named Spruce. Spruce lived in a fine house built beside a small lake outside of Isabella. I learned how he owned all the acreage surrounding the lake and the half-mile access drive, all from the patent he’d earned after inventing the remote-controlled balloon used back then to carry a live TV camera around sports stadiums. Not bad for a man who was frail as a feather and who could hardly utter a word in public. From the sheer beauty of the woods he maintained and the off-grid home he’d crafted from scratch, I gained unexpected awe.
A few columns ago I wrote about my experience with an eccentric hermit and inventor extraordinaire. There have been others equally invaluable to my growth. And as I gradually settled into the population of the northland, I discovered something unique.
By hanging with people on the fringe I was able to meld into the community at large, as little by little it dawned on me that most people up here share the same value taught to me by my father long ago. That acceptance of others enables them to accept you. And only then will you be given the keys to the kingdom.