Farewell to Lee Higgins
A Story in Three Parts
May 8, 2016
I still see him walking towards us, smiling and smoking a pipe, a grass airstrip with a wind sock and a plane in the background. The whole scene is a bit like a Monet, impressions of green, gold and scarlet – the colors of Maine in the early fall – surrounding Lee as he approaches. I still remember a hug, the smell of pipe tobacco, a deep voice laughing and the cool of an early fall morning. I was around 5, and nothing could have been any better – until we made cider later in the day. Fresh, delicious and somehow exotic – like being let in on the secret workings of something very grownup.
Grass Airstrip, Dixmont Maine
From that day on, Lee was imprinted in my memory – associated with autumn, the harvest, family and fun. Somehow, none of that ever changed.
Dixmont Maine in the Fall
In the next few years Lee was part of the team that set up our backyard skeet and trap range – much to the consternation of the neighbors (particularly those down range) and the Hampden constabulary. Impossibly fun and exciting, and a window into the world of grownups stretching the limits – and laughing about it. Leads, swings and loads tested and agreed to, the guys headed out a few weeks later to hunt with Barna Norton – and my only wish was that someday I could go along.
Somehow, about 40 years passed, and after many years away I realized that I needed to go home again – and I needed to hunt some ducks. I don’t know if Dad and Lee actually planned it or if it just happened, but for a couple of years we went out with Capt. Barna Norton and First Mate John, and the intoxicating fun of being with the inside team was back – as if the intervening 40 years never existed.
Sea Ducks off the Maine Coast
Lee coached me in shotgun acquisitions, loads, technique- at which I was a star pupil – and duck calling, at which I was a flat out disappointment. I think that he saw the humor in it much better than I did. At any rate I can shoot, but despite his best efforts I never really have been able to call, reflecting much more on my challenges as a student than his capabilities as a teacher.
I was at a stage of my life where I needed to start transitioning into more of a teaching and coaching role myself, and Lee was a best role model that I ever had. He quickly sized up my potential in shooting and hunting, figured out the best avenue of instruction, the key shortcomings, and the best way to get me on a path to improvement. Quietly and without me even realizing it, I got tips for the day, and about a years’ worth of homework.
We hunted ducks together for six or seven years, but time was taking a toll and being out on the seaweed covered rocks in Machias Bay was seeming like less fun for Dad and Lee, and none of their friends would come out anymore – it was clearly time to go deer hunting!
We spent several years going to Canada – hunting deer on Anticosti Island. We went up 4 or 5 years, going through all of the stages of deer hunting – excitement, frustration, impatience, success and reminiscence – on each trip. I didn’t realize it at the time, but these trips had a purpose at least as important as the deer hunting – Lee had a lot of stories to tell, and he wanted me to hear them. Lee was a terrific raconteur – funny, dramatic, ironic, and he never repeated a story. Really incredible.
Lee knew that I listened, and appreciated. This was both about teaching and being remembered, and I was the supporting cast for both. He told stories about everything; his much he loved wife, Audrey, and how she had transformed his life; his brother, and how he talked him out of wearing white socks; nearly freezing to death walking home from school (saved by a neighbor); shooting his prized Winchesters – particularly his custom 22; how to best reload 220 Swift ammunition; hunting ducks off the Maine coast – maybe 1,000 stories; the sinking and retrieval of a lobster boat lost while duck hunting; hunting deer at his camp on the Union River – maybe 1,000 stories; flying in WWII; getting glass in his eyes from broken goggles while flying a solo trainer; flying a Piper Cub backwards at Dow AFB; driving in the snow; and hundreds of stories about optimization of matters great and small – Lee was an engineer right to the end.
Anticosti Island, Quebec
I loved the stories – all of them. The characters were vivid, the plot lines clear, and the moral of the story always implicit. Every story was about how they helped shape him as a person, with a short step as to how they might help me. It was never pedantic – kind of like having a combination of Mark Twain, Jack O’Connor and Ernest Hemingway tell you stories. I wish that I had a tape recorder – but somehow this was best served as an impressionist oral history. My first introduction to Lee began as an unforgettable impression, and so it would end.
The last time that I saw Lee, Dad and I were preparing for a moose hunting expedition to Northern Maine. Lee drove down from Bangor to help sight in the rifle – something at which he excelled. His vision was terrible by this point, and blessedly he let me drive him to the range and back. We had a ball – calling the shots, finessing the scope, cleaning the barrel between shots – all the while giving me a simple blow-by-blow about his optimism in the face of aging. He couldn’t see, but was as always, a terrific coach. Like all things, this afternoon came to an end – with a straight shooting rifle and a bunch more stories and laughs.
When we got home, his last words were – shoot straight, Wes. And he wasn’t just talking about the moose.