Whitey Sees the Presence

Since humans blundered upon the majesty of what were later named The White Mountains of New Hampshire, those same hills have exhibited a gift for terminating many of them!

To this date, 1998, well over one hundred of these unfortunates either fell or froze to death. Most achieved that dubious distinction via a miscalculation of one kind or another. Back in the 1850s bridle paths were constructed so that the effort of climbing could be inflicted upon horses and the humans could relax and enjoy the scenery as they climbed.

Among those whose lives ended on Mount Washington was a Lizzie Bourne who was climbing with her husband. The two were caught in a sudden snow storm very high on the mountain in 1855. In fact they were on the dome and only a quarter mile from shelter at the summit. Blinded by the precipitation, they apparently did not realize how close to safety they were. Her husband went on ahead for help but hypothermia prevailed and Lizzie froze to death. The spot has been marked ever since.

Today, weather technicians and observers living on the top of Mount Washington know all too well that there exists “a presence” living there with them. Indeed, they occasionally meet this presence, who they fully expect is Lizzie Bourne. Doors knock and open abruptly like elevator doors opening by themselves.

During my time on the mountain as an employee of the Appalachian Mountain Club back in the winter of 1950, I often got permission from my boss, the legendary Joe Dodge, to climb on foot the two thousand feet up to the old weather observatory at the summit. I was stationed in Tuckerman Ravine at 4000 feet above sea level and spent the winter stark raving alone except for those times visiting the weather observatory.

They had television, beer, radios to play with and company.

They also had big imaginations for playing practical jokes on one another! Spending time as they did away from society all winter made them very creative jokesters!

To illustrate I must mention one day I spent there when the phone rang and on the other end was a Yankee Network employee named George. George was a funny guy and seemed at all times to have just the last two inches of a cigar in his mouth. Occasionally he would strike a match and have a couple of puffs and then let it go out again.

On this day George called and asked what was on TV. Whitey Honkala told him what was on TV was the same thing that was on TV for the last two months and nothing else; the United Nations. Mind you, TV was then in its infancy and reception in top of the mountain was from a line of sight transmission from the Empire State Building in New York!

Any way, George presently entered the observatory and sat in the easy chair opposite the TV still with a cigar! Unknown to him, Whitey had taken the opportunity of opening the pedestal ashtray which was near full of butts and laying an M90 bomb therein!

After George sat down, the air was electric with anticipation. It was only with a strong effort that giggling was avoided. Whitey went to and fro doing chores as if all was well. After a half hour, sure enough, George lit his cigar and took several deep puffs, then automatically pressed the lever on the pedestal ashtray to put the cigar inside. After a full two minutes, the bomb went off, covering the living room in a fog of tobacco ashes and what not. The pedestal ashtray was no longer half a sphere; it was flat! Its cover with the opener was embedded in the ceiling and George was nowhere to be seen! Whitey was in tears, collapsed into a kitchen chair. See what happens when you are separated from society!

The real reason I mention any of this is because one day the cook quit and stormed out of the place and down the mountain muttering about people making a man live like a hermit.

Well, my goodness; that left the observatory with nobody to cook! True to their pioneering spirit, the boys all agreed to share to cooking chores with each taking the duty for a week at a time. When the going gets tough, the tough get going; I think!

One evening, when Whitey was cook, he boldly got out a large cookbook and proceeded to make home made bread; a noble enterprise if ever there was one. He mixed up the dough carefully, consulting his cooking literature as he went and finally put the dough in the unlit oven to rise. He was proud as a peacock and I rather thought he was doing an impressive job.

Whatever was on TV must have been good because we all sat watching for some time. After about forty five minutes, I glanced over in Whiteys direction. The poor guy was white as death and his eyes were like road maps staring in fright into the kitchen.

Not wanting a false alarm I waited but Whiteys stare remained intense and unabated. I nudged Norm Turner and pointed at Whitey. Norm, too, was concerned and called over to Whitey saying,  “Whitey! You all right?”  poor Whitey just elevated a finger and pointed into the kitchen. We got up to look and were confronted with Whitey’s bread dough having opened the oven door all by itself and was drooling onto the floor! We assured Whitey it was the dough and he gradually relaxed to his old self. It seems the problem was the result of the recipe for home made bread was a sea level recipe and we were at

6200 feet so the dough rose like no tomorrow!

On the other hand I asked Whitey why that should scare him. He said,  “Honest to God, I thought it was Lizzie Bourne’s ghost!” Well, now, who is to say it wasn’t?

Leonard Dalton – 12/25/1997

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