Life Sketches: Bunker lived life like it was an adventure

Life Sketches
Bunker lived life like it was an adventure

Donald Hill was the first kid I met in Richfield. His family lived in an apartment in back of my aunt’s

Terry Berkson, who has an MFA in creative writing from Brooklyn College, lives on a farm outside Richfield Springs. His articles have appeared in New York magazine, the New York Daily News Sunday Magazine, Automobile and other publications.

house on Lake Street.

It was in late August of 1950 and my dad had brought me and my cousin Leo up from Brooklyn for a stay in the country. Donald and Leo were about 12- or 13-years old and I was a seven-year old kid who insisted on tagging along wherever they went. We had some great adventures. At the dump we collected junk, scores of two-cent deposit bottles and loads of free pumpkins that were there for the picking. Donald had an old gray bearded dog, Rump, who followed us everywhere.

One afternoon, we walked down to the lake where Donald had access to a dried out flat bottom boat and we rowed out to the island. My hefty cousin Leo hogged the oars until Donald discreetly grabbed onto some tall weeds we were moving through and stopped the boat, making my cousin think we ran aground. Leo kept rowing hard but we weren’t getting anywhere. “Let me have a go at it,” Donald suggested. He was much smaller than my cousin.

“Okay,” Leo said exhausted.

Later, he was puzzled when the boat, powered by a guy half his size, easily glided out of the weeds. The explanation was a secret I shared with Donald. It was the first of a hundred pranks that I saw executed by this little rascal with a big sense of humor. Of course, at that time I was too young to hang around with Donald, so one morning, he took me over to meet his cousin Paul O’Connor, a meeting that jump-started a life long friendship.

I didn’t see much of Donald during my mid teens when I came to live in town. He was away at college studying forestry, which he managed to afford by having found a valuable Pony Express stamp in an abandoned house. Later he served in the army in Korea. One day he came home and naturally we wound up down at the dump shooting rats that scurried past the headlights of his 53 Ford.

He was now known as Bunker, a handle he picked up when kids in school learned about the Battle of Bunker Hill. He was already favoring an arm that was arthritic and partially paralyzed due to a car accident.

Some years later, we started deer hunting together out of Paul O’Connor’s camp. Bunker would come down from Saranac Lake with his son and we’d hunt the area around Panther Mountain. He was a great raconteur. One summer afternoon, we sat in his cousin Edna’s kitchen as he smoked and told tale after tale that had us rolling on the floor. There was the story about the pony he bought for his kids and, for lack of better transportation, squeezed it into the back seat of his sedan to bring home. And the time he bought and stuffed three piglets into a burlap bag only to have them get loose in the brand new company car and the pigs literally running across the ceiling of the automobile leaving a foul trail.

All this time he was plagued by the arthritic arm that was because of the auto accident that almost took his life but you’d never know it by his sense of humor. One hunting evening at Paul’s camp someone brought over a dead skunk and left it on the porch. There was no apparent damage to the animal and no smell. Bunk had heard that skunk oil was a good treatment for arthritis, so he hung the animal from a rafter and began to skin it out. A little while later I had retreated to my bedroom with the door shut tight when I heard him say, “Whoops.” Then this terrible stink invaded the camp. It was the first time I ever heard Paul get angry at Bunker.

Donald didn’t live life, he assaulted life and not just figuratively. There were real battles. One time in a brawl at the Grange, he swung at a guy with a fist full of quarters that resulted in everyone having juke-box money.

Bunker’s final battle was his toughest. The enemy that invaded his body was relentless. Soon he began to lose the fight. He had a lot to leave behind: a wife, two sisters, children, grandchildren, stories and paintings. He liked to make pictures of animals and nature. He painted scenes from the seasons on a cross cut saw. Thanks to his wife Jane, he had his paints and brushes on hand next to him till the end. He wrote and illustrated two books. One was called “237 Reasons You Know You’re Getting Old.” One of my favorite reasons in the book was, “You know you’re getting old when you attend a cock fight in hopes of coming home with a free dead chicken.”

They say Heaven is a different place for different people. Maybe there’s no smoking up there. At McGrath’s Funeral Parlor, I thought of slipping Bunker a White Owl. There would probably be guards at the gate but surely, he’d be the one to humorously blow smoke across enemy lines.

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