Any phobia is irrational. There is a fear of heights that is rational, however, and any tree climber will tell you that to fail to respect gravity adequately is to learn it is not to be mocked without consequence. Only a fool is careless after leaving the ground. To paraphrase the old adage about pilots: there are bold tree climbers, and there are old tree climbers, but there are no old, bold climbers. Both the Bobs of this tale have courage and common sense. They survived the recklessness of youth while tested in widely diverse challenges and gained wisdom and prudence. While very different, neither was atypical of the collection of educated iconoclasts that populated the ranks of tree guys in the late sixties.
Like many good men, they varied greatly in personality. I met Bob Brown when we both worked summers for a branch of an old Yankee tree company, Frost and Higgins, in Northampton Massachusetts. I was a brand new climber; Brownie was more experienced and highly skilled. When it wasn’t summer, we both were students at the University of Mass in Amherst, although he was almost ten years older than I, married with a child and on the GI Bill. He was a veteran of the Army Special Forces with two deployments to Vietnam and one running night dog patrols on the DMZ in Korea. Even among the tough guys on the crew including another lead climber who was a veteran of the 101st Airborne, Brownie enjoyed special status.
While he never told us combat stories, at lunch one day he told us of needing to create a lot of noise and chaos to intimidate like a much larger force on night raids into Viet Cong enclaves. He said he carried an automatic weapon and a short barreled 12 gauge semi automatic shotgun – one in each hand. A couple of hunters on the crew doubted his accuracy one handed with a 12 gauge held along even his thick forearm. He didn’t suffer the kidding well. Before the days of the chipper, the potential firewood would be yarded for splitting, but the brush would be hauled to its own section of the town landfill. At the dump the next afternoon, he pulled his barely legal shotgun from behind the truck seat. Things were a bit more casual about guns forty years ago. We laughed when he badly missed the first can from the dump we threw in the air. His pale blue eyes flashed dangerously cold; then he hit the next five. We stopped laughing.
He could be a tad scary. I saw him throw a recalcitrant very old chainsaw fifty feet out of a tree to the sidewalk cursing quietly and intensely through clenched teeth. The tired Homelite C9 probably should have been long since retired, and after a frustrating too many minutes of trying to get it to run while precariously balanced to make a tough cut, Brownie retired it and calmly ordered another one tied on his line. Another time, his 3” tree gaff kicked out of a hard wooded locust tree and buried itself in his other calf. He burned his rope coming out of tree, asked the homeowner if she had any rubbing alcohol, poured the alcohol into the cut and went back up to finish the tree. After work, he got a tetanus booster.
His wife, Jane, who had been a Navy nurse, met Bob when he was wounded. She told of his seething anger when he first got out of the service. A Navy officer on leave was drunk in a bar and pushed Brownie too hard, finally taking a swing at him. Brownie broke both his collarbones. She married him anyway because she saw the good man underneath with a wicked and clever sense of humor, quick intelligence and deep, compassionate loyalty towards friends and family. He had your back.
Bob Brown was of average height and cut from granite; Bob Cormack was a classic Western “tall drink of water” in Colorado working with me at EZ Tree Service. By now, I was the experienced climber, and Cormack was the prodigy. I never saw anyone with more easy facility at heights. He had a degree in Physics and Math from the University of Colorado, was 6’1” or so, about 180 pounds without an ounce of body fat. One Friday night, Rita joined me and some of the guys and their dates for an all-you-can-eat fish fry at a local watering hole in Boulder. The cook filled your plate on the first round, and then much smaller servings followed until the eater gave up. Except Cormack didn’t. The restaurant broke its advertising promise and shut him off after twenty deep fried fillets.
We became friends in the ephemeral, quickly close way of the sixties. He gave me my first lessons on a five string banjo. As unlikely as it seems with a math major, I taught him to play chess. He schooled me on new subtleties of rope work, and I initiated him in some of the vagaries and eccentricities of different tree species, especially when it came to the fine points of pruning. He needed virtually no training in balance and climbing skills.
Bobby was a member of the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group. When some hapless or injured climber was stranded on some inaccessible, impossible precipice, Cormack was one of the lunatics who went to get them safely back on the ground. He told me once he was traversing a ridge with steep embankments on both sides when a sudden storm came up. Suddenly, his hair stood on edge and his ice axe started spitting sparks. He knew that a lightening discharge builds up on both the ground and in the air; he had a second or two before he became a lightening rod. He dove off over the embankment getting very bruised up, but with no broken bones and alive.
He was once suspended for a semester, even though his GPA was north of 3.9. An area dorm director caught him outside his then girlfriend’s window on the 15th floor without a rope, back and legs up a masonry inset in the wall. As I said, climbers learn eventually of their mortality, but at 19, there is a learning curve. His dream, as with all serious mountaineers, was to summit the great peaks.
Six years after I knew him, I read about Bob Cormack in the Maine newspapers, then the National Geographic. On October 26, 1976, on a Bicentennial climb, Bob and his friend Chris Chandler were the sixth and seventh Americans to ever summit Everest. Two hundred and twenty five climbers have died attempting to climb Everest. Bobby wasn’t one of them.
Solitary trees, if they grow at all, grow strong. Winston Churchill