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Hiking Acadia with the ghosts of my grandfathers

These days I’m “Whitey,” with a COVID beard not unlike that of a certain late gangster, wondering when my own time will come.

The pink granite ledges of Maine's Mount Desert Island in Acadia National Park.Jerry & Marcy Monkman/The Boston Globe

Hiking solo above Maine’s Cranberry Islands, I remember the summer my grandparents taught me how to play poker. When Grandpa Tom folded to a bet from either Grandma Betsy or Mrs. Paulsen, their pretty friend from up the road in Mahopac, N.Y., he’d say, “She obviously has a full blouse.” If he knocked over chips or spilled some beer, he’d mutter, “This gawdamn dropsy again.” The joke I didn’t get was that dropsy was short for hydropsy, a heart swollen by excess water, but he used it to explain why he dropped things, as if he had the shakes.

I later found out the symptoms of hydropsy were chest pain, swollen ankles, difficulty breathing, a tingling arm, things you can’t imagine when you’re 9. Having the shakes, or a wet brain, meant you were maybe a little too fond of the gin mills. I didn’t get half of his jokes, but I did look up dropsy in our World Book and asked my parents and teachers about it. Edema, it meant. Or a swollen heart, which you could die of. Victims of this malady included the Roman emperor Hadrian, fat Premier Khrushchev, presidents Truman and Eisenhower, and of course Grandpa Jim, my dad’s dad, a teetotaler who died of a heart attack at 36, when my dad was 8 months old. My dad also died of a heart attack, when he was only 61. Which is why my cardiologist has a heart attack if I fail to exercise six days a week or even glance at a cheeseburger. So does my wife, Jennifer, because she wants to save the earth and the animals. Save me too, though, right, hon? Sorry, she says. Just the earth and the animals.


Grandpa Tom would’ve liked Jennifer, but he died at 72 in 1972, long before she and I met. He died of what they called asbestosis, which he’d “caught” while wrapping pipes with asbestos in the Brooklyn Navy Yard during the war. His own father had died before I was born, also from covering pipes. My great-grandfather’s name is on a plaque in the lobby of the Empire State Building that honors the best craftsmen, the first working men to earn a dollar an hour, who’d built it so quickly and sturdily in 1930 and ’31. The best plumber, best plasterer, best terrazzo worker, best carpenter, in alphabetical order according to their last names, 32 altogether. PETER MADDEN, his line says, in bronze against a black field, ASBESTOS WORKER.

Great job, Grandpa Pete! I always think of you when I hear about mesothelioma or when I see the Saul Steinberg drawing of the view looking west from Manhattan, past the Rockies, all the way to Japan. I used to think I could see Asia from the deck of the Empire State, because Grandpa Tom told me I could, “though it’s a little too cloudy today.”


In the early 1950s, in the den of a white clapboard house in Northeast Harbor here on Mount Desert Island, Marguerite Yourcenar and Grace Frick, Madame’s life partner and co-translator, faced each other in captain’s chairs cushioned in green across a strange double desk custom-built for them by a local carpenter. Their dueling typewriters clattered and banged, Madame Yourcenar’s ancient black one with a French AZERTY keyboard, Frick’s modern green Royal with a QWERTY, as “Mémoires d’Hadrien,” published in 1951, became “Memoirs of Hadrian,” published three years later, each a unique mistresspiece. Madame’s 60-ish, Latin-speaking bisexual emperor is “s’apprête à mourir d’une hydropisie du cœur,” while in her and Frick’s collaborative version he’s a shade less ready to depart for the underworld: “about to die of a dropsical heart.”


These days, at 70, with my own case of dropsy, I can no longer handle the thin air of the Rockies or Alps. Because my COVID beard is white, my poker buddies have taken to calling me Bulger, or Whitey. Dosed on TriCor, Losartan, and fish oil, I find that Irish and Appalachian mountains are much more my speed. Croagh Patrick, for example, ascending through loose, jagged, way-too-steep shale in good boots alongside bare legs and feet slathered on purpose in penitential gore. Realizing I hadn’t packed water a fifth of the way up Lugnaquilla. Resenting, hungover, the Bens of Connemara, the morning after finishing one place out of the money in the Irish Poker Open Main Event. Or today on this coast, sunburnt but hydrated, reeking of DEET, 2,600 miles back across the Atlantic, on a low-impact trek across almost flat pink and blue granite.

Checking for ticks on a bench in the shade of three pines, I peel down one sock and cast a cold eye on the deeply corrugated stripe around my right ankle. Still at large in Santa Monica at 81, Bulger used to stretch out the elastic of his socks around 64-ounce soda bottles to diminish these embarrassing marks betraying peripheral edema or something much worse, but he was bludgeoned to death in a West Virginia prison called Misery Mountain, age 89, with a sock with a padlock inside it, because he was a rat and a killer.


I peel down my left sock, discover no ticks in there, either. I won’t live forever, of course, but right now, as I finger my hurtling pulse and start counting, I would take 89, or even 81, in a heartbeat.

James McManus is the author of “Positively Fifth Street” and 10 other books. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Best American anthologies of poetry, sports writing, political writing, magazine writing, and science and nature writing.