NEWPORT, Maine — Donn Fendler has lived a full life during the 75 years that have elapsed since a state and a country rooted, prayed and prepared to mourn for the boy who had become lost on Maine’s largest mountain.
But as he’s regularly reminded, to many Fendler is neither a U.S. Army veteran, nor a father, nor a grandfather. Instead, he’s frozen in time — a scared, lost 12-year-old.
“I’m always the little boy,” the now 87-year-old Fendler said on Thursday, as he sat on a chair in front of the camp on Sebasticook Lake that he has been renting for six months each year for the past two and a half decades.
Always the little boy. The boy that hundreds of searchers couldn’t find on Mount Katahdin. The boy that mothers across the land prayed for. The boy who survived, then inspired, and who continues to spread his message of hope and faith and determination to Maine schoolchildren today.
But always the little boy.
Like the time 15 or 20 years ago when he decided to show his wife, Ree, the spot on the East Branch of the Penobscot where he was eventually spotted, after having been lost for more than a week back in 1939.
Fendler knew he wanted to get to Lunksoos Camps, the site of the old McMoarn camp. The people there had rescued him. And he’d never been back.
“Of course, I go right and end up in Grindstone [more than 15 miles from his intended destination],” Fendler said. After asking a man on the side of the road for help, he learned that he had indeed missed a vital turn.
“‘Why do you want to go there?’” Fendler said the man asked. “That’s a long ride back down through there.”
“I said, ‘Well, something happened to me a long time ago, and I’d like to see [the camps] again,’” Fendler said. “He looked at me and said, ‘Are you the little boy that was lost?’”
Of course, he was. And he admitted it.
“He said, ‘You know what? You’re still lost,’” Fendler said. “True story.”
On Friday, Maine Gov. Paul R. LePage will mark the 75th anniversary of the end of Fendler’s unintentional nine-day wilderness trek with a proclamation declaring July 25, 2014, “Donn Fendler Day.”
Fendler will sign copies of the book that immortalized his trek, “Lost on a Mountain in Maine,” from 4 p.m. until 5:30 p.m. at the L.L. Bean flagship store in Freeport. The reading of the official proclamation will take place at 6 p.m.
While news reports of Fendler’s disappearance gripped the nation back in 1939, Fendler said he spent of lot of years wondering why people still thought his tale was interesting.
The book was a constant conversation-starter, and generations of schoolchildren read it. Today, many schools teach “Lost on a Mountain in Maine” as part of their fourth-grade Maine studies curriculum, Fendler said.
Students learn that Fendler spent most of the trip without sneakers or pants. He’ll tell you privately that he also lacked underpants, thanks to the thorns and “pucker bush” that constantly tore at his clothing and skin. They learn that he walked 35 miles, as the crow flies — probably closer to 50, maybe as much as 80 — before he was found.
Many are entranced by the story. And it took Fendler a long time to figure out why.
“I never understood why the book or the story meant so much to Maine people,” Fendler said. “Finally it dawned on me: Maine people are rugged people. They’re resourceful. They’re resilient. They’re outdoors people … People in Maine could relate to exactly what I was going through. They knew. They knew the woods. They knew the bugs. They knew the whole thing. They could follow each day and know what I was going through.”
And for 25 years, they’ve had Fendler himself to narrate the journey: He has visited dozens of schools across the state to tell his story to children who have read his book.
And when those children write him letters, as they often do, he writes back, answers every question posed to him, and thanks the child for his or her interest.
Every single one of them.
“I [spoke to children] because I owed Maine,” Fendler said.
The reward, he said, comes when a former youngster, now 20 or 30 or 50 years old approaches him at a book signing and hands him a piece of laminated paper: The letter that he sent to them decades earlier.
“That means an awful lot,” he said.
Fendler still returns to Baxter State Park each summer, accepting a standing invitation to speak to campers, many of whom may be heading onto Katahdin for the first time. The topic: What not to do.
“I climbed [Katahdin] again [one year],” Fendler said. “They won’t let me climb it again.”
The park rangers also jokingly radio ahead when Fendler drives into the park, warning others to keep an eye out.
Others have continued to rib Fendler over the years as well. Like his golf buddies.
“They really give it to me,” Fendler said. “They give me a map to tell me how to get up I-95 to Millinocket. [They say] ‘Tie a rope on him so if he hits a ball in the woods, we know we can get him out of there.’”
Now, at 87-going-on-88 (but forever 12 years old to Mainers who love his story), Fendler admits he’s slowing a bit.
He still says he never thought of dying when he lost in the Maine woods. But now, he recognizes that dying is part of life. It happens. Eventually.
“When I die, my ashes are going over Mount Katahdin,” Fendler said. “My brother said he’d fly or get someone to fly … Yup, they’re going to put me in a bean can.”
But not too soon, right?
“No. Well, you never know. I’m crowding 90, but I don’t feel like I’m [almost] 88,” he said. “When you get up in the morning, sometimes [you feel that way]. But when your feet hit the ground and you take that first step? Hey, everything’s OK.”