Letter: Remembering Bruce Fortier

Courtesy photoBruce Fortier in his shop with the Funkhouser grandchildren.

To the editor:

Ever since my family and I heard the news of Bruce Fortier’s death last week, we’ve been thinking of him. Almost every thought is a story. For 40 years we lived across the street from Bruce and his house in the trees. When we were working on our house in the 1970s, he biked over several times a week to check on the construction. We’d designed a skylight but couldn’t figure out how to raise and lower it. Bruce took a long look and said, “The steering mechanism of an old Studebaker will give you the angle you need.” Within minutes we were on our way to Linsky’s in Gloucester. Bruce circled a sky-high pile of scrap metal for a few minutes before he stopped and pointed: “There’s one.” Forty years later, the skylight still opens and closes without a hitch.

My daughter, who has always loved books about eccentric people who shake up sleepy towns, viewed Bruce as our local eccentric. She remembers, “We approached Bruce’s unannounced visits with a mixture of enthusiasm and dread. He always came around supper time, and he’d stay so long no one was quite sure what to do. On more than one occasion, when the dishes were washed and put away and my father had taken us upstairs to bed, Bruce was still sitting at the kitchen table, so my mother would just start mopping the floor.” My daughter’s favorite memories of Bruce involve his homemade green truck that resembled a Ford Model T. Think 1924. She remembers the thrill of having no seat belt on (there weren’t any!) and feeling the breeze (no windows!) When she had children of her own, she’d take them over to Bruce’s shop to admire his machines, and he’d tell them the story of how he’d lost his finger to a log splitter. One winter day he gave the kids a beautiful wooden sled he’d made.

My son remembers walking over to Bruce’s once when he needed a ball bearing to make an anemometer for a school weather project. “Bruce took me to the huge back barn with thousands of unlabeled boxes stacked to the ceiling on shelves. He picked an aisle, walked halfway down, climbed up on a ladder, and pulled out two boxes to reveal a third, which he pulled out and handed to me. It was full of ball bearings of exactly the size I needed, most likely salvaged from old machinery. He knew exactly where everything was. Being inside Bruce’s barn was like being inside an analog internet.”

The price of eccentricity, even in a small town like Essex, can be loneliness. Bruce’s contradictions showed up in higher relief than those of more socially adept people. He loved to talk but he was less interested in listening. He was worldly – he’d served in the Navy, where he was stationed in Japan – yet, like Thoreau, his daily travels rarely exceeded a 10-mile radius. He lived in the woods, but he was more interested in Popular Mechanics than in wildlife. He had big plans for all the materials stockpiled in his yard – he was going to build a sawmill, a library and his own airplane! – but he spent whole days stacking firewood.

Others will remember Bruce for his detailed knowledge of town history (he wrote many of the Essex town bylaws), but in our family the stories are about a kind neighbor and a good friend: Bruce coming out in a snowstorm to saw up the big oak that fell across the driveway, Bruce giving us a quick refresher course in soldering, Bruce pulling up in his truck with his helper, Dave, and asking, “Anyone for an ice cream at The Junction?”

Erica Funkhouser, Sophie Beal, Justin Beal and Thad Beal