By Andy Paeth
The sunlight beckoned between the trees offering the first glimmer of light to shine forth upon the new day. A thin layer of frost blanketed the forest's ground and the rustling of brittle leaves could be heard as the chilly breeze gained momentum with the rising tide of light. Much like the precise internal mechanisms of a fine Swiss watch, the day begins to progress with the similar air of certainty that has encompassed this land for century upon century. Several deer cross a stream in the shallows sending wary Coho salmon scurrying up their gravel beds to find shelter in the deep bends. Woodpeckers begin to molest the trees in search of their morning substance. As the earth warms, armies of ants and a multitude of other nameless insects embark upon their daily rituals of harvesting food, building homes, and ironically providing nutrition for greater beings. By midday the forest is an epicenter of countless activities.
The glistening river has carved itself deeply into the surrounding rock leaving steep ridges that tower well above the consistent flow of foaming green water. At the base of one of these ridges is a narrow opening that leads into a wide series of caverns that transcend deeply into the earth’s core. The primary cavern is no ordinary hole in the wall. No sir, this cavern is the home of one Thomas J. Schumacker. Who is Tommy Shumacker you ask? Why he is the foundation of this story of course; without him my voice would stand mute. You could describe him as a future legend, a certifiable hall of famer if indeed halls of fame were still in existence.
Mr. Shumacker is well respected by all the forest’s inhabitants. Birds seldom flush when he invades their privacy, deer stand still in his presence and squirrels seem to chuckle out a warm hello to welcome him when he approaches their nests. The animals appear to understand that he will only take what he needs to live from this land. Tommy represents what the forest is and that is a continuous cycle of life that will only cease to exist when either god or the elements of time decide it is time to concede to fate. But let us not worry about the things we can’t control – lets focus on the present for the time being.
Why don’t I describe his abode to you while Tommy is out tending to his business? As you enter the cavern the first thing to grab your attention is the meticulous order of its contents. As several gigantic decorative candles cast their light in the caverns modest confines you can see that there are homemade shelves lined with crocks and pottery whose contents are known only to their owner and each one possesses some essential tidbit needed for survival. The furniture is similar to that in which you would have found in a folk art store only a few short years ago. The legs and backs are made of stripped lumber and thick tanned pelts are strewn about each piece for comfort. Pots and pans are positioned on a homemade stand only a few feet from a natural spring creek that provides Tommy with easy access to fresh running water. Food is stored in several plastic coolers that Tommy has brought from his old house.
Animal traps hang from supportive branches framed and nailed along the caverns ceiling. Most of these traps were ones used by Tommy’s great grandfather and great-great grandfather long before Tommy Shumacker came along. Tommy’s father and grandfather belonged to a generation that had minimal need for trapping so the traps hadn’t seen action for many decades until recently. Other traps were found in abandoned sheds and garages while rummaging through vacant homes in search of supplies. Several shotguns and a few assorted rifles are positioned in close proximity to a wood stove which has been constructed out of an old barrel and some ransacked stovepipe Tommy found at the Carter’s homestead. The stovepipe exits the cavern through a small hole allowing the smoke to escape safely to the outside world. Pictures of family members and some neat old Tonka and Smith Miller toy trucks are placed prominently on a granite shelf towards the rear of the cavern. Yes sir, everything seems to have its proper place in Tommy Shumacker’s home.
The rest of the cavern is decorated with clothes, saws, tools, axes, bow & arrows, fishing poles, pelts, containers of nails, first aid supplies and most importantly are the books, there are hundreds if not thousands of books lined up on the walls all scavenged from this house or that one. These books had given Tommy the knowledge he needs to survive. There are “how to” books on trapping, tanning, hunting, scavenge roots and identify edible mushrooms. Books about gardening, math, science and even a few old books on building your own boat. Not that he needed a boat because there sure are enough to go around. Now you are probably asking yourself what is so amazing about some old hermit that lives in a dimly lit cavern in the middle of what used to be Michigan’s Upper Peninsula? Well Tommy Shumacker is a hermit, about that there can be no question.
The amazing fact is that Tommy is only 10 years old and he has been on his own for the past three years. Ever since some big trouble started a few years ago and shortly thereafter widespread disease wiped out 99.99% of good old mother earth’s human inhabitants. Tommy has not seen another human in nearly 2 years, ever since some old scruff-neck chased him out of the Parkinson farm while Tommy was rummaging for some salt. To tell you the truth that suits him just fine too, Tommy likes his privacy and has come to cherish his individual freedom.
At first things were easy, well as easy as it can be for an intelligent and bright seven- year old child who lost everyone he ever knew after the troubles started. Canned food was plentiful and supplies were bountiful then; visiting a neighbor’s house was sort of what you or I would compare to shopping a blue-light special at the local K-Mart. If it wasn’t for the thought of the bodies Tommy might just live in a house but no, he preferred the comfort of his cave even in the middle of a harsh Michigan winter. The past few years had been pretty tough. The remoteness of Tommy’s location limited his capability to get the supplies he needed. Why there are only about 30 houses and cabins within a hundred square miles of the Schumacker farm, some of those houses got looted by other survivors, so you can understand his predicament. It is only Tommy’s increasing ability to successfully hunt and gather food for nourishment that is making his life a bit more sustainable.
A typical day for Tommy would test the spirit of any grown man. He usually rises shortly after daybreak and has a breakfast of water, salted meats or fish and some berries if they are in season. During the late fall and winter as it is today, Tommy will, depending on his needs either hunt for game or check his traps which he does daily throughout the winter no matter what the circumstances. Tommy Shumacker could trap a cougar with a mousetrap - I’ll tell you sir! Oh but he wasn’t always that good, no way! It took Tommy a few years to master the art. He learned the importance of cleanliness, how to clean and dye his traps properly and even to use animal fat or bees wax so his traps would fire smoothly. He learned how to make lures and that urine was the equivalent of Polo cologne in the wild forests of the midwest. The most essential thing he has learned is that you have to put your traps where the quarry wants to go. He’s trapped rabbit, gamebirds, coyotes, fox, beaver, mink, bobcat and otter. He knows that if he doesn’t trap the predators their populations will soar and their shear numbers will quickly deplete the amount of game in the area; essentially forcing him away from the safety of Shumacker’s valley.
Tommy has a good store of ammunition. Hard to believe but ammunition, flour and salt are probably more valuable than Microsoft stock was. Kind of funny huh – how life seems to go in a circle? Why that’s the way it was when our ancestors were starting out, yes sir it was indeed. Most of the ammo had come from the local store right after he found himself alone. The rest was found in neighboring homes. Tommy always takes his shotguns with him when he is in the woods . Why there is nothing finer on a hot grate over coals than a wild turkey or grouse with some freshly picked mushrooms and homemade bread strips baked in tin foil. Tommy just shoots a deer when he needs the venison and he even took down a big old black bear with his great granddads 30-06 last year. That bear made one fine rug too. It was quite a chore for Tommy to tan that bear but he followed the instructions that were in an old book. Who would have thought that brains could be used to tan an animal – sheesh.
Afternoons are spent, chopping wood, gathering
and berries or tending to his garden during the summer months. Why
planted some peppers, tomatoes, onions, carrots squash, and pumpkins up
at the old farm – some right tasty stuff I must say. Nothing beats
veggies and pumpkin soup, yes sir. Evenings are usually spent spearing
or fishing for salmon, which he slow smokes and salts in order to
them for a few weeks. There are also several ponds and lakes nearby
that Tommy likes to toss a line and bobber into. These lakes provide ample opportunity to take a trout or some panfish through the ice during the dead of winter as well. He usually reads a half dozen chapters of a book by candlelight or sometimes he just sits and ponders about things for a while before he retires for the evening.
This is how he has lived for over 3 years now and this is how it will be for a few more years yet. Within a few years Tommy will grow into a strong young man capable of drawing his father’s compound bow. He will then set out to satisfy the most basic instinct ofhumanity, which is simply the survival and continuance of our species. He will search for something so important, why so important that I can’t even find the right words to describe it. I’m sure you can see what I’m getting at though so I will digress no longer.
There is no need for any of you to worry about Tommy Shumacker. Young Tommy is as staunch as they come. There may be a whole lot riding on his shoulders but as you can see he’s doing just fine, yes sir, just fine. He has the help of his forefathers with all the books for knowledge and all the supplies he’s accumulated. I have complete faith in this young tin-knocker. Well I guess its time for us to get on out of here! This was only an introduction after all. I just wanted you to become familiar with Tommy and his plight. I believe it’s a tale worth telling after all. Now don’t wake Tommy up as we’re exiting the cavern. It’s dark outside so watch your step!
The night air is crisp and an owl can be heard
far off in the distance. The sound of the flowing river seems more
now. Occasionally a fish breaks water and the shuffling of leaves
directly to this creature or that one as they hurry off into the safety
of darkness. The moon is full and the stars seem to be shining brighter
than they ever have before. Soon the daily cycle will be complete. The
sun will rise tomorrow and birds, deer, the insects, and even Tommy
will once again resume the ceremony of life.