A friendship that reaches across generations is too rare a thing — and its lessons are too valuable to ignore.
By Paul DoironDr. Joseph Marshall died recently — he was 94 years old — and I have since wrestled with how to describe our relationship. He wasn’t exactly a teacher or a mentor to me, although I did learn many important lessons from him: about how to endure physical and emotional hardships, about the importance of keeping body and mind healthy as one ages, about the need to maintain a sense of humor until the bitter end. Ultimately, I kept coming back to the same conclusion. Doc Marshall, old enough to have been my grandfather, was my friend.
Doc was already in his 80s when a mutual acquaintance invited me to join him at “Gramp’s Camp.” I drove down Hardscrabble Road for the first time, along the east shore of Fish Pond, until I found an amazing log cabin, built on stilts atop a hillside, surrounded by old-growth pines. A charming, intelligent, vital man sat in a rocking chair beside a woodstove.
Doc’s story struck me as remarkable. His father was a French-Canadian immigrant who literally walked from Quebec to Waterville (it took him a week) to find work as a mason. His mother had a job at the Scott Paper Mill in Winslow. Between both of their efforts, Doc’s parents managed to send him to Colby College. He used to tell a story about the night his buddies barged into his dorm room and tried to drag him into town to play pool and drink beer. He grabbed his coat — but then he looked across the Kennebec River and saw the lights on at the Scott Paper Company. “I knew that in one of those well-lit rooms my mother was working very hard to help pay my tuition,” he’d recall. “I returned to my desk and thought, ‘My mother is working to make my life better; I need to show my appreciation by studying hard.’ ”
Doc served in World War II and the Korean War. He saw combat but, like many men of his generation, refused to speak of it. Afterwards, he attended medical school at Tufts University, became a general surgeon, and moved back to Waterville. Scott Paper, his mother’s old employer, paid him to tend to injured loggers in the era of the great river drives, when felled timber choked the Kennebec every spring. Part of his compensation from the company: the lease to the camp on Fish Pond where we eventually came to meet.
Doc loved to share secret histories of the North Woods, which triggered a creative impulse in me. He encouraged me to write a novel — and then a series of novels — set in the remote forests of Maine. His camp became the actual model for a cabin in my first book, and I was honored when he pronounced himself a fan.
Two weeks before Doc died, I gave him an advance copy of my latest book because I worried he wouldn’t be around when it was published. He read it in a matter of days and called it my “best yet.” Knowing Doc, I took the compliment with a grain of salt. My friend was a kind and generous man.
I suspect that our culture doesn’t value intergenerational friendships. That’s a shame. Learning about the past from Doc taught me a great deal about living in the present. For me, Doc became a link to a Maine that no longer exists but still casts long shadows all around us.
Photo of a beautiful sunset over Deer Pond in the Great Northern Maine Woods, by JoAnne Lambdin.