Red Prouty

I met Red Prouty when he was almost sixty and we remained good friends for the next thirty odd years. Born Thornton Prouty in Hardwick, Massachussetts in 1901, Red managed to live without gainful employment for all but seven of his eventual ninety years. He worked at the Barre Wool Combing Company from 1935 until 1942, a year long remembered in town for its violent labor disputes. There were two major immigrant groups in Barre, the Irish who occupied the mill housing on the south side and the Italians who lived in the cluster of neatly wood shingled houses known affectionately as the Spaghetto. There was no love lost between the two groups to start with. The Irish were the newcomers trying to escape the desperate poverty of their native isle. When the Italians decided to strike, there wasn't an Irishman among them. When the Irishmen (and Red Prouty) tried to cross picket lines, all Hell broke loose. Somewhere in the melee, shots rang out and Red decided that his dedication to Mr. Morton Darman, chairman of the board of the Barre Wool Combing Co., was not worth the risk to life or limb. Thus ended Thornton (Red) Prouty's working career.

He played the piano and had an old upright, which he tuned himself, in his shack in Old Furnace, Mass. He said that in all other respects his shack in Florida was identical and that he didn't need a piano there because those southern folks liked to hear his banjo better anyhow.

He had in his Old Furnace residence, a Harmony guitar, a five-string banjo which he played in a traditional 3 fingered clawhammer style, and a fiddle which he first played when he was a boy and had all his teeth and fingers. Red also had a bathtub, toilet and kitchen sink, each equipped with its own hand pump.

There is still a pump on the porch rail for watering the 60 foot square garden where one would expect the front lawn to be. The well is located under the house and is hand dug about 6 feet deep. Red claimed that the same arrangement got him the only fresh water on the beach in Florida.

The shack itself is tarpaper with a corrugated tin roof, the entirety, except the stone chimney and windows, coated liberally with tar. Attached is a garage, a half-century of license plates on the door, just big enough for his VW bug and his bicycle.

Inside there were 2 photos of Red on the wall, both on motorcycles. One was a 1929 Harley, 74 cubic inch pan head with external pushrods. The other was a Flying Merkle, commonly called the Yellowjacket because of that single choice of color and made most famous by the Keystone Cops. I found the remains of his leather helmet and jacket rolled up and tied with string in the closet after Red died and I had bought his place. He had cut parts out when he needed a piece of soft leather.

Red mainly used the orange VW bug to travel to Florida and back, which round trip he accomplished annually for most of his life in two days without paying any tolls. The VW had flour sack curtains stitched with the same crude wide stitch and heavy cotton thread that Red used on everything. He slept and got gas at the same gas station somewhere in North Carolina twice a year for over half a century. I don't know if he ever talked to the owner. After all, Red was a Yankee.

On Sundays he would drive around to local nursing homes to play for the old folks. Red said they really liked it, especially the gospel stuff. He advised that, "When you go there one Sunday and someone's missing who was there the week before, you don't ask no questions.” The last year he did it he was 89 and older than most of his audience. He said he did it because he felt sorry for those old folks not ever being able to get out of those places.

He used his automobile to go to a few old time fiddle contests, particularly the one held at the fair in Woodstock, Connecticut. A young gate attendant there had the audacity to ask Red to show his ticket. Red had his fiddle and bow tucked under his arm. He held them up an inch from the attendant's face and said, "Here's my ticket young fellow." I doubt that Red weighed much over 100 pounds, but his laugh came from his nonexistent belly like Santa Claus. "Ho, Ho, Ho," he would laugh at his own story. His automobile previous to the VW was a 1937 Chevrolet.

Mostly, Red rode his bicycle, a three-speed shifter with an odometer and a generator that turns against the tire. One day when he was well into his 80's, I found him in front of his house with his bicycle apart. I asked him what the problem was and he held up a sprocket with the teeth all worn down to nubs.
"Look at this. This sprocket has only got 4000 miles on it and my bicycle in Florida has only got 3600 miles on it and it looks the same. They just don't make things to last any more."

When Red was 17, he tried to enlist in the army for the First World War, but wasn't accepted because his teeth were too rotten. He couldn't afford to get them fixed so he got the dentist to pull them. When he went back to the recruiters, they wouldn't accept him because he didn't have enough teeth.

In the summer of his 87th year, I noticed an open lesion that wouldn't heal on Red's cheek. I encouraged and cajoled him to go to the doctor but he refused. By the following summer, the spot was the size of a quarter and quite raw looking. I persisted, but Red seemed unmoved by my most logical arguments. He told me that the last time he had gone, the doctor told him he had 14 different kinds of cancer on his face but Red didn't figure any of them had time to kill him. One day in June, a couple of weeks before the Woodstock Fair, I stopped by and found Red with a fresh bandage on his cheek.
"Red," I said, "I've been trying to get you to go to the doctor about that for almost two years and you wouldn't. What made you decide to do it now?"
"Well you know," he replied, "you can't stand up in front of a crowd and expect to entertain 'em with a big cancer on your face."
I understood.

Red never drank anything but water. "God's beverage" he called it. A doctor once told him that he had sugar in his blood and that he would have to take medication for it. Red never went to that doctor again and he never ate sugar again and he never got any more sugar in his blood that he knew of. He ate precious little that didn't come out of his garden, but was no vegetarian. He was one of the healthiest people I have ever known.

One evening the summer before he died, I stopped by to visit. Red had found a music book of shodishes and reels which he had been trying to learn all summer. He was quite excited about the new tunes, and I would play the cords for him on the guitar while he worked on the next song in the book. After about twenty minutes of "Sailor's Hornpipe," he flopped his fiddle down in his lap saying,
"David this fiddle feels like it weighs 25 pounds. This morning I went to town to get a newspaper and a lamb chop, and this afternoon I mowed my lawn and David, this fiddle feels like it weighs 25 pounds."
Each time he said it, he laughed like Santa. The town of Barre was 7 miles away. He had ridden his bicycle 14 miles that morning. That afternoon, he had mowed his 3/4-acre field with a scythe and shucked it up in a big mow in the back yard. Little wonder his fiddle felt like it weighed 25 pounds. "Ho, Ho, Ho"

That fall, 1990, I stopped to see Red off on his annual migration. He always left before the "big bang, bang shoot 'm up" as he called hunting season. He had dried peas, onions, and seeds for his Florida garden, and garlic and such, packed with an assortment of winter squash in every cranny of the VW. He had dug the remaining 50 pounds or so of potatoes left in the garden and loaded them into a gunnysack, which he had dragged over to the car. Red had started to remove potatoes one by one from the bag when I stopped him with one hand on his shoulder, while with the other I lifted the sack of potatoes into the back seat for him

I said I would go with him if he wanted help, but that seemed absurd; I had a glasses restriction on my drivers’ license, Red didn't. Besides, there wasn't room. I gave him a hug goodbye and tried unsuccessfully not to cry

He was right about the 14 different kinds of cancer on his face. His lungs gave out that winter in Florida. Neighbors found him passed out on his front yard and got him to a hospital where Nancy Fijol managed to talk to him on the phone once. He told her that if he could just get out of that Florida humidity and back into that crisp New England air, he would be all right. He wasn't used to telephones so when Nancy said goodbye, Red just put the receiver down on the bed. Nancy listened for a while. She could hear his slippers slap on the tile floor as he walked around the room talking to himself and singing random lines from "I Ain't Got No Home in this World Any More."

The next time Red got into that crisp New England air, he wasn't breathing it. There were 200 people at his funeral. A very few of us knew him. That fiddle felt like it weighed 25 pounds.