Yankee classic from November 1990
You’ve never heard of Eliot Elanman. It’s not even his real name. I came to know him during the two years my wife and I were resident-managers in a halfway house in Boston, Massachusetts.
The people who came to live with us were mostly manic-depressives or alcoholics or drug addicts. Occasionally a schizophrenic would come along, but primarily it was someone whose childhood had been so bad that it had altered his or her ability to cope with society in a normal way.
Eliot was a product of this latter condition. He had lived at home with his mother for 48 years. He managed to attend Boston University for a while, but when his mother died, it was as if his umbilical cord had finally been severed and Eliot had to learn to breathe on his own for the first time. The only problem was he didn’t want to.
Eliot had other problems, too. For one thing, he suffered from severe epilepsy. He was on heavy medication for this, but every so often in an effort to be normal, Eliot would get sick of taking his medication. The results were always the same: a grand mal seizure, some sort of injury caused from his fall or his thrashing about, and a brief stay in the hospital. Eliot also had Parkinson’s disease. He was on heavy medication for this also, but his head and hands always trembled and he occasionally couldn’t control his drooling.
Eliot’s shaking and drooling added to what many of us felt was his worst infirmity. Eliot was ugly. His head was twice the normal size, and his face was hairy. He also had several tumor-like bumps on his cheeks and nose, and there were some large moles on his forehead. He wasn’t horrible to look at, just sort of difficult.
When he first came to live with us, he was depressed. During the first few weeks he wouldn’t eat or socialize with any of us. When I brought this to his doctor’s attention, he put Eliot on an antidepressant drug. This worked most of the time, but now Eliot was aggressive, demanding, and rude. Eating with him was guaranteed to spoil the appetite. Taking advantage of his oversized mouth, he would wedge whole hamburgers into it or jam frozen Pop-Tarts into it and let them dissolve.
One day about ten months after he arrived, he suddenly started eating with a fork. None of us could remember his having done that before. Just as casually as he had picked up the fork, he stated that he liked living with us at the house, and he considered me to be almost the father he had never had. He went on to say that he would try very hard from that moment on, not only to adjust to living in a proper way, but also to help make the house a better place for everyone.
I was somewhat disturbed with his “father” idea, especially since Eliot was 20 years older than I, but the rest of what he said couldn’t have made me happier. By the time six months had passed. Eliot made good his promise and was indeed the strongest and most contributing member the house had ever known.
Eliot was the one who brought up the idea of climbing Mt. Monadnock. Everyone was extremely excited about climbing a mountain, especially since only a few of them had ever done so before. Four of them, including Eliot, had never even been out of the Boston area. I agreed to the trip, but pointed out that because of their medications and their physical conditions we would only be climbing up part of the mountain, halfway at best.
Their spirits were momentarily dampened, but I assured them that I knew a secret and special trail that provided some of the best views the mountain had to offer. And so, on the following Sunday, a beautifully crisp fall day, we crammed ourselves into two cars and journeyed north to the great outdoors.
I suppose in the back of my mind I knew it was going to be difficult. I had accepted and prepared myself for the inevitable: a lot of wheezing and stumbling, even more complaining, probably a few scrapes, and maybe even a bee sting or two. I was praying that no one would sprain an ankle, get lost, or worst of all, tumble off the mountain’s side. But with the help of an old friend who had recently hiked the Appalachian Trail, I felt that most, if not all, catastrophes could be avoided.
What I hadn’t counted on was the full extent of catastrophic possibilities that Eliot brought along with him. It was the darndest thing: If Eliot stumbled forward, his brain reacted as if he had stumbled backward, and vice versa; that old brain of his would just push him even farther in the wrong direction.
My friend and I finally solved the problem by walking directly in front of and in back of him. I was in back and would shout if he started stumbling forward, whereby my friend would stop and brace himself, letting Eliot land on him. If Eliot started stumbling backwards, I was right there to catch him. I don’t have to tell you which way Eliot and his brain chose to stumble the most. By the time we reached the halfway point, my arms were aching, my lip was swollen, and I had a mouse under my left eye.
But it was worth it. Everyone was bubbling with exhilaration as they gazed below to the trees and farms highlighted by a patchwork of shining waters. We sat on the rocks, staring at our accomplishment and sharing the bread, cheese, and cider we had carried up with us. We stayed past noon. The conversations and laughter were unlike any we had previously experienced. Being on Mt. Monadnock had changed a handful of lives.
It was time to descend. At least that was what half of us were feeling. The other half of us, because they were rested, wanted more. You couldn’t blame them. Nor could you dissuade them. But I sure tried.
It wasn’t the shouting that did it. It was the tears. Eliot’s tears. They began just as he was reaching the crescendo of his speech.
He said he’d never dreamed he’d have the chance to stand atop a mountain, that there would be no way possible that I could ever deny him. Of course, he was right. How could anyone stop a man who had been waiting 48 years to finally reach the summit from which he could spread his wings and begin to fly?
My friend agreed to take half of the group back down to the car and wait. The other half, including my nine-year-old son and myself, continued to ascend. Eliot led the way.
I’ve seen men who were possessed before. I’ve seen them in sport, or work, or argument drive themselves beyond their usual capabilities. But I’ve never seen anyone take it to the extreme that Eliot did. Even my son, energetic and already showing signs of the athlete he would later become, found it difficult keeping up with him. Eliot hardly stumbled, rarely even staggered, and if he did, he somehow found a way to compensate for it and turn it into part of his upward force.
He grunted. He gasped. He sweated profusely. But he kept on climbing. At times he scared the others. More often he scared me. I can remember thinking that I was witnessing some sort of bizarre attempt at suicide, that Eliot was truly trying to kill himself.
When we finally cleared the last round boulder and stood at the top, it was shock. Not for us. We were exhausted and quietly elated. The shock came to the other 50 or so human beings who had ventured up Mt. Monadnock that day. I know I would have been awestruck, probably even frightened, if I had been one of them. It’s not every day that you’re suddenly faced with a 200-pound, hairy man with an enlarged head who is jumping and dancing while shouting Jewish blessings into the air at the top of his lungs, especially on the top of a mountain. But they survived it, and soon they were laughing and smiling right along with him.
No one could blame Eliot for celebrating like that. He had overcome tremendous odds in getting himself to the top of that mountain. When I looked at the black clouds reaching toward us from the western horizon. I knew that those same odds were about to turn on us.
The celebration was over. One by one, we started down the trail, the rapidly approaching storm putting new energy into the legs and arms of everyone — everyone but Eliot.
He could barely move. Whatever adrenaline, whatever spirit, whatever passion had brought him to the top of Mt. Monadnock was now spent. Trembling and clinging to a small crevice between two large boulders, he began to cry.
I told my son to follow the trail and lead the others down to safety. I told him to tell our friend what was happening and to get help. Then I hugged him. While watching my son disappear below, I heard Eliot slump to the ground and begin to sob.
I don’t know how much time went by. I know it was enough to allow the thunder to boom, the lightning to flash, and the rain to begin to fall upon us. There was no mercy, in that storm. It lashed out at the mountain, at us, as if to punish. And it succeeded. Eliot whined and whimpered and drew himself into a helpless little egg whose only purpose was in allowing itself to be crushed.
I probably would have allowed that to happen if it hadn’t been for the one sentence Eliot had spoken since the storm had begun. It sort of squeaked out between the arms he had folded over his head.
“I wish I had never come.”
I rarely lose my temper. But Eliot’s words undid something in me. I didn’t hit him, but I’m sure he thought I had by the suddenness with which I pushed his arms away from his face.
I began yelling. I pulled Eliot to his feet and pushed him past the boulders and into the trees. I never once let go of him; I just continued to push him down and ahead. And all the while, I never stopped yelling.
“Come on, Eliot! Fight! Don’t let anyone or anything take away the greatest moment and the greatest day you’ve ever known! Don’t give it up, Eliot! Please don’t!”
And he didn’t. He fought. He found and strained some sort of energy into his legs and started down, on his own.
I followed him. I remained several yards behind him for fear of breaking the spell. Sluggishly, like a large snail, he lowered himself down the now muddied mountain. Several times he slid, but his large hand always found a root or a rock. More than once, I wanted to help him, to lift him to his feet and have him lean against me, but I didn’t. The glazed staring of his eyes always told me not to. Instead, I’d sit for a moment and wait. And all the time, the rain continued.
We probably had made it about halfway down when we came to the place where the trail was being washed away. It was too late, though, by the time I saw it. I’m not sure if Eliot ever did. Before I could even get the words out, the ground crumbled and rushed downhill, Eliot’s large and limp body going with it.
Eliot had become twisted around and was belly down, his face lifted toward me, his arms outstretched, his fingers separated and oozing streams of mud as he slid farther and farther away. I hurled myself after him. It had to have been at least a hundred yards before we stopped. Eliot was practically buried. I feared he was suffocating, so I clawed and scraped to free him. He began coughing and sneezing away the impacted dirt. Then he lay back in my arms and let the rain wash his face.
We stayed that way for awhile, Eliot cradled in my arms while I listened to his breathing and waited for the sound of voices to come and help us. I remember thinking how sad it was that we had been defeated. There was much we had overcome, much we had accomplished, but not to make it all the way, on our own, was in reality a defeat.
It was then I heard the roar. Eliot swore he never heard a thing. But I know I did. It was the kind of sound that turns hair white. A deep, fierce, almost deafening roast.
I froze, my heart pounding, my mind racing. Then I lifted Eliot, struggled up the slippery incline to the trail, and sat him down on it. I barely remember doing it, but Eliot said it was a practically supernatural feat, and if he hadn’t been there, he would never have believed it.
Then we laughed. A little at first, then uncontrollably. The rain began to stop, and we hugged each other. Then we cried, both of us this time.
After awhile Eliot mumbled something about “finishing the deed,” stood up, and held out his hand for me. I took it and got up. Together, singing the score to Fiddler on the Roof, we made our way down Mt. Monadnock. My son, my friend, and the rescue party were just about to start out when we came into view of the cars.
Two months later my family and I left the halfway house and rented a small cottage in Peterborough, New Hampshire. We could see Mt. Monadnock from our backyard. Just before winter set in, Eliot and some of the others from the house came to visit us. We had a nice time sitting in lawn chairs while looking at the mountain and reminiscing. Eliot had a hard time containing himself as he watched me unwrap the present he had brought me. It was a book about Mt. Monadnock, and it had a pigeon feather in it marking the page that Eliot thought I’d be most interested in reading.
Of course, Eliot was right. It said that although no one had reported having heard the phenomenon known as the “Monadnock Roar” for years, Henry David Thoreau had heard it once during a storm when he had injured his leg and was desperately trying to get down. It said that Thoreau rarely talked about it because people thought he was crazy enough already. It then went on to give some scientific explanation as to what might cause the roar, but I’m sure that Henry wouldn’t have been impressed with that either.
I never saw Eliot again. He died several months later when, in another one of his attempts to be normal, he went off his medications and froze to death in an alley after having a seizure. No one ever found out why he was in the alley.
I’ve climbed Mt. Monadnock several times since that day when I climbed it with Eliot, and I’m sure that I’ll climb it again. I don’t think I’ll ever hear the roar, though. Something like that probably happens only once in a lifetime. But I do know that it was real. It was as real as the life of Eliot Elanman — and almost as important.