My buddy, Jake, and I had decided to take a road trip. A one-day-road trip. We had both wanted to get up to the top of Cat Tail Creek up in Yancey County. We had heard that an eccentric scientist had built a house up there just after WWII. This fellow had, supposedly, worked with the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge National Laboratory developing the nuclear bomb.
That experience – so the legend goes – had freaked him out; and fearing that nuclear war might happen sooner than later, he built a home far from urban centers. He built it to be self-sustaining. Totally off the grid. He had fashioned a big water wheel there on Cat Tail Creek to provide running water and electricity for his home. He had wood stoves for heating and cooking and a laboratory in his basement.
That was the story we had heard one late night over a beer with a friend from Burnsville. So we had vowed then and there to get to the bottom of the story by climbing to the top of Cat Tail Creek.
“I’m ready,” I said coming out of the closet without having found my old coat. “Let’s get outa here!”
Jake, wise and good friend that he is, had a well-stocked cooler in the back seat: beer, whiskey and enough junk food to trigger an obesity epidemic and give a vegan apoplexy. We headed north.
Our conversation opened with the usual guy talk: sex, relationships, women. Then, after agreeing again for the umpteenth time that we would never understand any of it, there was silence. A silence that went on longer than either of us had expected. Good friends can handle shared silence, of course. So neither of us felt obliged to disturb the hush.
Jake finally took a deep breath, signaling – like the flashing of lights in the lobby – that the intermission was over.
“I don’t know if any of this crap about the scientist is true;” he said, “but whether it is or not, he’s sort ofmy hero. And sort of my nemesis”
“How so?” I asked.
“I mean, here was an evidently brilliant man who had probably been offered a really lucrative job that would use his talented mind. He most likely thought it was a patriotic thing as well. He was going to be doing something to save his country. How cool is that? 1) Money, 2) doing what you like and 3) doing something good. That’s what we all want, isn’t it?
“But then, maybe as he got into it, he began to realize that what he was doing was all wrong. Maybe, one morning, he showed up for work and out-of-the-blue became conscious that he was helping to create something that could destroy civilization – obliterate life on earth. I’m just making this up, of course. But, what if?
“And it makes me wonder that if, just by going along with the way things are in our world – getting an education, finding a job, going to parties, investing in stocks, buying a cool car, having a girlfriend, getting married, all that stuff – is not in some way contributing to all the injustice and inequality and racism and greed and destruction of the planet – all the things that are wrong with the world. And part of me wants to be like him. Part of me wants to run away. And part of me thinks he was a woosie: rather than running away from the world to save his butt, he could have used his mind to work for peace.”
“So your hero is a woosie?” I asked.
“I think so,” he said. “A hero for seeing what was wrong; but a woosie for running away.”
We did make it to the top of Cat Tail Creek. But, instead of the wreck of a scientist’s old home, we found a brand new stone-and-glass high-dollar vacation home. Over to the side, however in a lovely, manicured garden, stood an old and very-tall water wheel.
After a full afternoon of hiking, we found a place to enjoy the sunset and our cooler. “So what you gonna do?” I asked.
“I want to be a hero,” he said. “I don’t want to be a woosie.”
We watched the sun wish us good night and felt the cool air begin sliding down the mountain and up under our clothes. We clinked our glasses. “To heroes,” we said.