Memories of Heavy
by Kristi Heasley
“The name’s Big Thunder,” he said.
And big he was.
That’s how I met Larry Wilcher exactly 15 springs ago. He was selling handmade shooting boxes and other assorted trade goods beneath his fly at the Brotherhood of Free Trappers spring rendezvous….known to many simply as “Kleber.” His camp name was Big Thunder, but nearly everyone just called him Heavy.
Like many of us in reenacting, myself included, Larry entered the ranks during the fur trade era as a mountain man. And a mountain of a man he was. He was much larger than even the heavy version of “Heavy” that most of knew and loved in recent years. With his long hair, bushy beard, and booming voice, he was an imposing figure in buckskins. But it didn’t take long to figure out that this giant of a man was a big ol’ teddy bear.
I have very vivid memories of those early rendezvous. There was plenty of shooting and plenty of games. Larry was always right in the middle of it. He loved the competition, whether he was participating or rooting on others for their efforts. And he loved to actually organize the fun. He used to brag on me for winning the skillet toss at Kleber and the mountain woman games at Salt River. That’s just how he was. He liked to win, but he liked it when other people were winners too.
For a couple of seasons, although it was not entirely true, it seemed like I was pregnant at nearly every event. Two babies in less than 2 ˝ years sure did make for some interesting camping and shooting for a while. Larry liked to joke with me about being as tough as the men back then, and he loved telling a tall tale about how I won the mountain man run over all the men while I was pregnant. Well, I wasn’t pregnant….not even close. But I did have a 10 month old baby and a toddler. And I didn’t win. I came in third, but there were still a few bruised male egos that day, and Larry loved to lay it on them. I can hear his big old laugh when he’d tell a story or repeat some tale that often grew in the telling.
As many of you know, Larry loved children, fort guests, school children, all children. And he loved my children. It seems as if they’ve known him since the day they were born, and that’s just about how it is.
I remember them when they were tiny being afraid of him because he was so big and so loud. But it was hard for them to resist for long because he teased them, played with them, and plied them with maple sugar cakes. He gave them gifts, forced them to hard labor in his store, and took every opportunity to harass them. They loved him. He was essentially a great big kid magnet.
In the fall of 2003, only Scott’s second event I think, we arrived outside Mount Sterling for the Little Mount Muzzleloaders fall rendezvous. One of the first people we saw was Larry. He came trudging up the hill to greet us wearing his standard 21st Century uniform--bib overalls, t-shirt, and camouflage cap. I was surprised by his appearance, not his clothing, but his size. I hopped out of the vehicle and said, “Heavy, I’m gonna have to start calling you, Not So Heavy.” I was thinking he must be on a great new weight loss program. He was 50 or 60 pounds lighter than he had been in the spring, but it turns out he had been diagnosed with diabetes. His illness and better eating had whittled him down a bit, but he was still a big ol’ boy, and was still “Heavy” to all of his friends.
We spent the bigger part of that weekend trenching our lodge and trying to stay dry. I mentioned earlier that this was only Scott’s second event. His first one had been a bit damp as well. During a break in the rain, when we were all enjoying a warm fire and some down time under Heavy’s fly, I remember him saying, “Well, boys, this must be true love. Ol’ Scott’s done this in the rain twice now, and he hasn’t left her yet. I guess he’s hooked.”
Larry may have been right about that. And as green as he was, Larry never treated Scott any different than he did his seasoned buddies. He helped him learn and he always made him feel welcome. It was the same way with the kids. He was always showing them how to do something or helping them with the fire or helping Daniel set up his diamond fly. A few years ago, he started talking to Daniel about getting his own kit together. He gave him the first item to get him started…a whetstone that he presented to him while we were at Martin’s Station. Since then, whether through purchase or gifts, Daniel has acquired many of the items that Larry carried in his store—knives, axes, books, etc. Martin’s Station was also where he gave Marion one of the many nicknames he had for her…Donnie… in reference to Larry the Cable Guy’s mentally challenged neighbor. Marion and Heavy like to talk about Donnie and how he liked “bishkits.”
On that same weekend Heavy conned “Donnie” into emptying his chamber pot, which looked like a giant pottery coffee cup. He hollered at Marion and said, “Hey, Donnie, go empty this in the weeds for me. He had handed it to her before she even knew what it was. The expression on her face was priceless when she realized what was in the pot. And Larry chuckled all morning about his little prank. Another time that weekend, he was playing with the kids’ “Kissing Stone” magnets. He was showing us how strong they were….how they would stick together even when something was placed between them. I have a brilliant photo of him with a long magnet sticking out of each nostril looking like a big walrus with black teeth. That’s just how he was… always up for a joke or a prank and the laughter that resulted was contagious.
When he and Scott signed up for Captain Titus’ militia at Martin’s Station, in “Patriot” fashion, Larry stepped to the enlistment table in front of Scott and said, “I’m too old to fight, but you can take my “naygra.” The recruiter never missed a beat, and said, “Well have him make his mark then.” I laugh every time I think of that.
Later that summer Scott earned one his nicknames from Larry. During a poker game at Boonesborough, an 18th Century poker game of course, Larry dubbed Scott “El Conquistador,” and it stuck. That may have been the same night that Scott taught Larry something. He told them he had a sure fire way for Larry to get along better with Melanie. Scott taught him to respond to any situation or argument by saying, “I’m sorry, Honey.” The two of them had a big time at nearly every event repeating, “I’m sorry, Honey” to each other or to me and Melanie. It was just one of those jokes that keeps on giving.
I’m having a hard time imagining how we’ll laugh like that again. But when we do, I know who we’ll be thinking of.
There are so many memories and so many stories I could tell, but I was asked to write a tribute, not a book. Even so, there are a few things I just can’t leave out.
Going back to a Salt River event….maybe 2004, Larry set up a mountain woman run for the gals. It was one of the most complicated I recall. At one point I had to throw eggs at an axe blade so the shell would crack and the yolk would slide down a board and fall into an open quart jar. The final station included setting a table, pouring coffee, and then upon a command, turning to throw a skillet at a man-sized dummy. The command was, “Woman, Where’s My Breakfast?” Some of you women heard this same command a few years later when Larry and Melanie and some of the guys set up the first “Women on the Frontier” skills course. To this day, on weekends at home or at camp I hear the same words from my loving husband. “Woman, Where’s MY breakfast?” Guess who I think of?
Last June, despite the scorching heat, a group of us had a wonderful time at Fort Harrod’s reenactment. We had a fairly flat and shady spot down below the fort with 8 or 10 camps together. Larry had brought a scaled down version of his store, and he held court all weekend for the customers and the visitors, the public, the reenactors, and the children, including his 5-year-old niece who just wanted to go camping with Uncle Larry and Miss Melanie. It was a special weekend for visiting, for storytelling, for enjoying Donovan’s beautiful voice and music, and for enjoying each other.
While a disturbing discovery was made that weekend that Scott doesn’t like beans, most of the weekend was about sharing each other’s company. Those of us camped in that little spot knew the time was getting shorter and that this might be one of our last camps with Heavy. Much to our joy, there was more to come. The Siege weekend is always good at Boone’s Fort, but the knowledge that Larry would be there was great news. With a drizzle falling most of Friday evening, a crowd gathered under our fly to hear some good music and relish the time together. Larry called for Donovan to play his new song, and we laughed until we cried when Big D debuted the Bean Song for Scott.
It was obvious to most of us that Larry’s illness was not giving him much of a break, but that night was all about laughing, singing, and good times. More of the same followed the next night, thankfully minus the drizzle. We shared a special moment when Larry asked us to join him in prayer after a particularly moving song about a soldier’s fighting and dying. He said an unselfish prayer, asking nothing for himself, only protection for our troops and blessings for all us there. He thanked God for this great country and the freedoms we enjoy, including our freedom to pursue our passion of living history.
Along with all the boisterous and humorous memories I have of Larry, that tender memory of him is one I’ll always cherish.
While Larry’s final chapter on earth was nearing the end, he still never failed to think of others. My phone rang one Friday evening last October. It was Larry wondering if I would let Daniel spend the weekend with him at the fort for Woodman’s Weekend. He knew Daniel had been disappointed when we couldn’t go the previous year, so he wanted to make sure he had the opportunity. Being twelve and hanging out with old farts all weekend is tough, but Daniel went and shared the corner cabin with Larry and Kenny. I hope Larry got as much from that weekend as Daniel did. When I was talking to him Monday about Larry’s passing, he said, “Mom, I’m sure glad I went with him.” Daniel will have that for the rest of his life to remember. And the rest of us will have our memories too. Savor them. Cherish them. And know that when we leave our earthly bodies behind one day, we’ll be able to share a laugh with our buddy Heavy.
I’ve not mentioned much about Melanie as this writing was to be a tribute to Larry. But I cannot close without saying that had it not been for Larry, we may not have Melanie in our lives. I treasure our friendship that has grown over the years since they’ve been together. I admire her strength, her loyalty, and her courage. I cannot imagine what it must feel like to lose the love of one’s life. And I know that Larry was downright ornery at times, but Melanie stuck with him. She sacrificed her time and her heart to be with him. Most of us saw Larry at intervals and were sometimes shocked at the change in his appearance. But Melanie was right there witnessing the decline up close and personal. A lesser woman would have cut and run, but not Melanie.
And oh how bittersweet it must be to feel such amazing love and share such feeling with someone, only to lose that someone way too soon. My heart breaks for her and Chloe and for Larry’s mother. But it breaks for all of us as well. Our lives are truly richer for having known this special man, and the hole he leaves in our hearts feels as large as he was. I take great comfort in the fact that Larry knew Jesus Christ as his Savior. Despite his salty talk and manly roughness, he was a true believer. I know without a doubt that he has seen the face of God and his reward is in heaven.
With loving memories,
But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, and they shall walk and not faint. Isaiah 40:31