[Cold wind blows]
[Dogs bark and rattle fence]
I walk the watchtowers at night, during my shift protecting the perimeter, looking for unusual movement amongst the trees. There is de ja vu in this task, so reminiscent of my time hunting the Sasquatch. Back then, I eagerly searched the tree line for imaginary creatures that I wholeheartedly believed I would find. And now, I search the tree line for perfectly ordinary humans, whom I am certain my host has only imagined.
[Drive the Cold Winter Away fades in.]
I do not carry a rifle, though Darby wants me to. Urges me to. Shakes his head at my refusal. But I won’t carry a gun, Leon. I won’t.
I say I walk “at night,” but of course, I mean only the time after a day of work. True night is a permanent state here. In this place, at this time of year, the sun does not rise. Not really. There is a brief daily glimmer—a slight lightening of the sky from pure black to navy blue, a subtle shifting of shade, far in the distance. It lasts only a few minutes each day, a few seconds less each day, as we approach the solstice. Soon there will be days without even that circumstantial clue to suggest our absentee sun.
I have learned the traditional craft of coopering. Of all the possible turns my adventures could have taken, this is perhaps the most unexpected. When one ventures into the wilderness, one expects dangers and hardships and disappointments. One does not expect to incidentally master barrel-making. And yet here I am, laboring under Darby’s expert tutelage, learning to cut and shape the oak staves, lay them into proper rings, shape and bend them, properly toast them over a fire. This is how I earn my keep in Darby’s compound, my bed and board. My survival.
There are more kinds of barrels than I’d have ever guessed—dry barrels and dry-tight barrels and tight barrels and wet-tight barrels, all designed for holding different kinds of goods for different purposes. Darby is teaching me to make them all. He constructs them here in his icy fortress, before delivering them to his customers. His barrels are particularly in demand among distillers of fine rye whiskey. His barrels give spirits a flavor like no other.
I would consider this place a sanctuary—an antidote to the horrors of Atlantis, a place of meditative handiwork and productive creation.
[Distant rifle shot.]
If not for all the guns.
It is not unusual that Darby has guns. Alaska is that sort of place. Darby personally hunts every piece of meat that we eat. But Darby’s arsenal goes far beyond these tools of survival. There are handguns. Assault rifles. Sniper rifles. Grenades. Grenade launchers. Hundreds of weapons over all. He inspects them daily, cleans and maintains them on a strict schedule.
The compound itself is surrounded by three separate layers of fencing. At the outermost is a chain link fence topped with barbed wire. Three feet further in is an electrified fence. And three feet further in from there is a sheer plank wall, with watchtowers at the corners, and a sniper rifle mounted in each watchtower. The spaces between the fences are patrolled by dogs.
Darby likes to tell me the history of this place. “Back in World War Two, this was a weapons research outpost,” he says, “where crackpot scientists were given funds to do what the hell-all they wanted. Like that dentist who made the bomb-dropping bats.”
Darby renovated it all himself. Restored the buildings, the fences. The weapons. His home is an isolated compound, a one-man camp in the Alaskan wilderness, surrounded on three sides by mountains, and by ocean on the fourth. There may be passes through the mountains, but in winter, they are unpassable. There is no strip by which even the smallest aircraft could land. Who does he think is coming for him?
Given that he has taken residence in a fort to keep out a small army, it is a wonder that he has allowed me to come in. Darby is a hermit in the truest sense. There is no other person around for miles, nor could there be. In fact, Darby tells me I’m the first human being he’s seen in almost forty years.
He tells me stories of his life in the frontier, tales of hunting bear, of nearly being killed by a moose: “I was saved by an avalanche!” he says. “There was the moose, all set to charge, when the snows just came down, washed the thing away right in front of me. Damnedest good luck a man could hope for.”
He has questions about everything. About the outside world, national politics, new technology. He has been starved for conversation. He puts a hand on my wrist when we speak. His grip is worryingly tight.
I sometimes wonder if he will let me out again, come spring. I suppose we will find out.
He has allowed me to send these two letters, shipping them along with our barrels. You must have worried for me, Leon. Last you heard from me, I was alone beneath the ocean. By now, you must have thought me drowned. I am sorry for the worry I have caused you, and hope that these letters will put you at ease.
I can anticipate your question: if Darby neither leaves his compound, nor receives visitors, then how does he conduct trade? That, Leon, is what the mail ‘chute so cryptically alluded to in my previous letter is for. This contraption is not what you might imagine—a chute in the “drop something in and watch it slide down” sense. Surely you’ve noticed my unusual spelling of the device—not simply C-H-U-T-E, but *apostrophe* C-H-U-T-E. It is an abbreviation—for PARAchute.
The centerpiece of Darby’s compound is an enormous catapult, a gigantic industrially…flinger. Darby loads his barrels into the machine’s great scoop, then simply launches them over the mountain. This machine is a relic of the weapons development program, a means to put payloads on target, dozens of miles away, without risking airmen or spending fuel. It worked, but impractically, and was abandoned, left here until Darby arrived and refurbished it in the 1970s.
Once each week, he and I roll our barrels out to the catapult, load it up, and launch. The barrels are equipped with parachutes so that they gently descend on the other side of the geography. Darby carefully attaches each parachute, ensures that no stray barrel will lethally fall from the sky. His return mail arrives similarly—by parachute, though not by catapult—air-dropped from a small plane that flies overhead, a blinking light on each payload to signal its location in the dark.
This is how he receives essentials he cannot hunt or forage: grains, produce, clothes. And ammunition. Always more ammunition. Who does he think is coming for him, Leon? Does he imagine some hallucinatory persecutor? Or does he have real reason to be on the run? It is a nagging question.
I tried asking him directly, “who are you hiding from? Who do you think is after you?” He said simply “The Feds.” But in that sense, like “You know, same as anyone.” Like, “who doesn’t hide from The Feds?” When I asked him why, all he said was, “the usual reasons.” So what does that mean? Is he a criminal, hiding some half-century-old crime? Or just another conspiracy-fueled gun-hoarder with a private compound?
I recognize the folly of investigating. Why risk the ire of a paranoid, potentially volatile, heavily-armed man? Why invade the privacy of a lonely nonagenarian who has generously saved my life? Why waylay myself when I’ve committed to simply getting home?
[“Snow Ban” plays]
But, oh, Leon: How could I resist?
I began searching the camp. I was careful. I used the excuse of work. I examined every cupboard of the kitchen when Darby sent me to prepare our meals. I searched the workshop when he left me to the construction of barrels. I searched the toolshed when he sent me for the snowblower, to clear walkways through the camp.
What was I searching for? Some document to prove his fears? A trove of fake passports in too many names? A wanted poster with his face sketched in photocopy, folded and carefully preserved as a souvenir? How could I know? I only searched for whatever might suggest his past.
I did not search the armory. I have never been alone in the armory. Darby is very particular about that. But whatever secrets he may have, I do not think that is where he would hide them. He will have something subtler, something that camouflages with the ordinary surroundings. I have checked for hidden spaces behind loose floorboards and siding. I’ve dug through barrels of grain, to see if there are hidden boxes beneath corn or oats or rice. I found nothing.
I searched the ‘chute cupboard, the cabinet where Darby keeps the parachutes. There are dozens, all hung neatly on the wall, some brand new, some unused for decades. I examined these, the oldest parachutes, which shed clouds of dust at my touch. I ran my hand inside their casing, felt the smooth silk bundled inside. But…
But it didn’t feel quite right. A parachute has a certain thickness to the silk, layers folded against layers. But the silk here felt thin, superficial. It came away easily, just a small bolt of silk, not a parachute at all. And beneath it…
Money. Cash. Stacks of bills. Decades old. Flipping through the bills, I found none with dates more recent than 1970. Tens of thousands of dollars. Maybe hundreds of thousands. Unused. Unusable, most likely, with trackable serial numbers. Hidden away for fifty years in fake parachutes.
My god, Leon. I think I know who Darby the barrel-maker is. I’ve solved the mystery. An old one. A real one.
I’ll write again when I know more.
With love, from the fortress of solitude,
Greater Boston is written and produced by Alexander Danner and Jeff Van Dreason, with recording and technical assistance from Marck Harmon.
If you’re enjoying Greater Boston, please take a moment to rate and review us on iTunes.
This episode featured James Johnston as Dimitri Stamatis.
Drive the Cold Winter Away and Snow Ban recorded by Adrienne Howard, Emily Peterson, and Dirk Tiede.
Episode transcripts are posted online at GreaterBostonShow.com.
Soon there will be days without even that circumstantial evidence to suggest our absentee sun.
I have learned the traditional craft of coopering.
Oh god, how am I going to do this one right?
“Leon, you’re never gonna guess!”