His first name was Frank. But we only ever referred to him as the hermit.
He wore a red and black plaid wool coat, long before the hipsters got a hold of the look. And he used to roll his own cigarettes, which when I was a kid was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. I’d sit at his feet and watch as he held the tissue paper, tap tobacco onto its fragility, and then carefully roll it all up, held together with his own spit.
He’d smoke without talking. Often times looking into the distance, into the trees and the sky. He wasn’t much of a conversationalist.
I don’t remember ever not knowing that the hermit had a steel plate in his head. Or that he returned from World War II no longer willing to be with people. He lived up in a cabin built by my grandfather, who had built it when he came back from World War I. High up in the snowy mountains of Montana, the hermit kept the company of dogs and moose. And met up with occasional bears that killed his dogs who were trying to protect him.
It’s been said we die two deaths: our real death, when we stop breathing and our heart stops. And then we die a second death: when the last person who knew us is no longer here to speak our names or remember our good deeds. The hermit will die that second death when my sister and I die.
Whatever happened to him in World War II will remain a mystery. There is no family to request his war record. No way of finding out why he remained up on the mountain for over 50 years. In our family we just say that it was the war. And we often connect the part about the metal protecting his skull as somewhat of an explanation — as if it told a story, but of course it doesn’t. It can’t. We will never know what lead to the decision to remove himself from society, to choose a solitary life filled with pancakes, canned beans and snowfall so high it blocked his ability to leave the cabin for weeks at a time.
We live in a America that is obsessed with sharing all levels of personal information, of snapping photos of the profane and the sacred, of finding connections to strangers through technology. An all-access, always-on society, we are a culture more interested in our surface rather than our depths. We so desperately want to be known by others but don’t want to know others. It’s a “look at me” world we live in.
So the hermit would have been anathema to our times. Anachronistic really. From a generation of people that see the issue of self and privacy as something internal and valuable — not something to be sold for a “like” or a “fan.”
The hermit lived a long time up on that mountain, voluntarily disconnected from society, unwilling to share his life with anyone. He didn’t want to be among people, and remained as silent as the Sphinx when he was beset by visitors. In his internal and external worlds he was remarkably self-reliant. He never created a social media site filled with photos of his life; he never put together an online collection of his quips and observations; he didn’t design or plan for digital traces to continue his legacy. There is very little that will remember him to us long past his death. It’s exactly how he wanted it, I think.