I remember as a kid how awful it was to sit in the waiting room of my pediatric dentist’s office, dreading my teeth cleaning or — oh, SO much worse! — a cavity filling. Dr. Howard tried to jolly the place up by having children’s magazines scattered about for his patients to glance through until being ushered into the Room Of Doom. Yeah, like I was going to be distracted by reading.
But, actually, one time I was. He had a PEN PAL magazine on an end table, with listings of boys and girls all over the country who wanted to correspond with others. My mom thought I should do it, especially since my big report in school that year was going to be on the state of Vermont. Sure enough, there was a boy my age living in Burlington who was looking for a correspondent.
The boy’s name was Fergus Marblemaw. With that wonderful kooky name, I thought I had struck the pen pal jackpot. But he turned out to be perfectly normal, and once I’d adjusted to that big disappointment, I enjoyed our exchanges. I asked him early on if Vermont was known for anything in particular, and from that point on his letters were dripping with information about maple syrup.
He wrote that his little state produced over 50% of all the maple syrup made in this country. His uncle was in the business, so he added that Uncle Teshi (what WAS it with this family’s weird names?) had a grudge against all maple syrup makers up in Quebec, since their conglomerate produced 70% of the world’s supply. All this was gold for my eventual Vermont school project, for which I received an A+, if you must know. And even if you mustn’t.
What I still remember most vividly about our correspondence was when Fergus wrote about the sap, the fluid that was mostly water with dissolved sugars and mineral salts and which circulated in the vascular system of all trees and plants. He made me realize that sap is incredibly similar to our blood, which is also mostly water and also transports crucial nutrients and chemicals to all of our body parts. From the day I read that in his letter, I have always seen trees and plants as fellow living beings with whom we share the earth.
I felt that I got the best of the deal in our pen pal relationship. Having heard that I’d be using his information as the basis for my important school project, Fergus’ parents were able to talk his teacher into letting him do an equally grade-significant report on my state of Indiana. And so he was eager to learn what Indiana was famous for. I proudly told him about our world famous Indianapolis 500 car race.
Alas, his teacher (Mrs. Tutor—no comment) let him know that the Indy 500 would not do, since its fame grew from just one city, my hometown of Indianapolis, as opposed to their truly all-Vermont maple syrup fame. But this proud Indianan was not deterred when Fergus asked if the state of Indiana in general was famous for something.
I told him that our state name meant “Land of the Indians,” and about the incredible number of tribes who settled in the state. I considered myself somewhat of an authority, simply because my elementary school was named Delaware Trails. Arrowheads had been discovered from the Delaware tribe when they broke ground to build our school.
There were so many tribes to tell him about. My second favorite was the Potawatomi (pronounced “POT-uh-WHAA-tuhmee), just because I loved saying the name. My very favorite was the Kickapoo. You tell me: what kid wouldn’t love a name that has both a “kick” and a “poo” in it?
Fergus and I enjoyed being pen pals, though sadly he received just a run-of-the-mill “A” on his report. And there was one tense moment on the telephone when he told me that Vermonters knew only one thing about my state: that we were “flatlanders” since there was nothing but cornfields everywhere. And so he teased me by asking if all the people in my state were corny.
I replied that we had all sorts of wonderful people living in Indiana. And then I politely inquired if, in his maple-syrup state, there were nothing but saps.