It’s a special day today. I’ll shave.
I’ll look in the mirror and remember
to nip the white hairs on the end of my nose.
I’ll be young again today, as young as
a beach without waves
a fresh bag of chips
a rogue asteroid or
a Tourette’s outburst.
It’s a special day today.
I’ll put on shoes and leave the house
without locking the door behind me,
without knowing where I am going.
I’ll count my strides
like a Roman legionnaire
before losing count
when I turn the corner.
It’s a special day today.
Overnight the past just vanished,
the names of everything erased.
Today I can begin the reinvention
of the compass rose
of sacred superstitions
of verbs that fly and
a reason to ever return.
When elders tell stories of their youth, they are that young again in their minds. They will retell the same story because there must be some reason why it does not leave them alone, some as yet undeciphered meaning hiding in the story’s shadow, a piece of that wisdom old age was supposed to have bestowed upon them. These are not dreams, not even memories, but unanswered dispatches from the past, part of a never-achieved understanding.
Wesson Smith Sachs Goldman
Davidson Harley Fitch Abercrombie
Marietta Martin Howell Bell
Dixon Mason Packard Hewlett
Fargo Wells Clark Lewis
Jerry Ben Marcus Neiman
Lynch Merrill Decker Black
Roebuck Sears Myers Bristol
Vanzetti Sacco Brimstone Fire
“Of all base passions, fear is the most accursed.” William Shakespeare.
Fear is the property of the amygdala, an almond-shaped set of nuclei in the temporal lobe of the brain. Evolution has confirmed its usefulness as an emotion. The brain becomes hyperalert, pupils dilate, the bronchi dilate, and breathing accelerates. Heart rate and blood pressure rise. Blood flow and the stream of glucose to the skeletal muscles increase. Organs not vital in survival such as the gastrointestinal system slow down. Fright leads to fight or flight.
But fear, as a human emotion, passing through our higher hippocampus, can be altered by social/situational context. A tiger in a zoo elicits a different response than a tiger on the trail in front of you. A stranger’s pit bull is not your harmless pet. Fear can also be learned. The brown snake is benign; the striped one killed your uncle. Fear is teachable.
Fear can have a cultural component. In America we have a fright holiday, Halloween, in which fear is outed through a social consensus. For a day we can laugh at skeletons. (Imagine a Christmas creche with skeletal Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus.) The semiotics of the skull-and-crossbones flag is widely understood. Fear can be propagated and transmitted. Fear can be an infectious affliction.
Actually, it was Halloween that got me thinking about this. My town just recently introduced a policy of nominating one street as trick-or-treat street. Parents were directed to take their costumed offspring there to troll for candy. This directive—almost universally observed—burdened the residents of that street with dispensing a town’s worth of candy to kids from all over and deprived everyone else in town of the traditional pleasure of participating in an essential aspect of the event and the neighborhood bonding that it enhanced.
When asked for a reason for this fresh expansion of the administered world, all that was offered was the children’s safety. Traffic was blocked from that street that twilight. They were saving the kiddies from danger—a fear-based explanation. Of course, no one could name a single instance of trick-or-treaters coming to harm on previous Halloweens. It reminded me of all those apocryphal—never substantiated—tales of poisoned treats and razor-bladed apples. It was sort of ironic in a sick way: here on the feast day of not being spooked, the kids were being schooled in being scared of the mysterious unknown, in their own, hyper-safe hometown.
Fear, such a weapon of persuasion, a favorite these days of the secular powers that be. Of course, for millennia spiritual hucksters have used the threat of an invented inferno as their meal ticket. It does not get old. But this contemporary twist is additionally insidious. We seem intent on raising a generation tutored in dependency upon the administered world for their safety. Kids do not play ball without adult supervision. Their days are a schedule of overseen events. Independence, self-dependence, freedom from adults is dangerous. Beware of strangers, if you ever get to meet one. Don’t leave the house without your helmet and your cellphone—just in case.
What is a fascist state but one that wants as much control as possible over personal freedom? An essential component of fear is the other. The other is unknown and therefor dangerous. Fear it. Fear now fuels our national politics. Safety is surrender to the administered world, to armed troops at our borders and kids caged or confined to where the cops want them.
“In time we hate that which we often fear.” William Shakespeare
Winner of the University of the South Pacific Press’s inaugural International Literature Competition.
Now available from Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BC3212O or my website http://www.johnenright.us
the first white missionary to reach Samoa
describing the sa`e the concluding
section of the poula or night dance
that the new church would keep
banning for decades:
“This scene concludes
by the men approaching the young virgins
& with their tongues perform what
one beast does to another.”
The Pacific Ocean covers 70 million
square miles of the earth’s surface.
One song that was sung in the sa`e
Untie your `ie and throw
it into the house
Then dance the sa`e naked.
When one side of the papaya
the whole papaya tastes sweet.
Less than 2% of that area is land.
The virgins have taunted the men for hours.
Junior’s business card read, in Samoan, “Have Truck Will Travel.” He had had only fifty of them printed up. He still had thirty-six left. So far, his fares had been mainly taking farmers and their baskets of taro and coconuts to the market, plus pig transports—some alive, some gutted and ready for the umu.
It was raining tonight. He had just taken his wife’s cousin’s neighbor along with a husband, an auntie, and several small kids to the hospital. The neighbor was in labor. They had stretched her out in the back, in the rain, her head in her husband’s lap, the rest crouched all around her. Of course, they hadn’t felt the need to pay—friends of the family, aiga pikiupi. His cell phone went off, the Star-Spangled Banner. It was Fia, his waitress friend at Sadie’s. She had a very drunk customer there she wanted to get rid of.
“Where is he going?” Junior asked.
“I don’t know, don’t care,” Fia said, “just out of here.”
Unless you’re a stranger there is no anonymity in Pago Pago. Someone will know who you are. In the case of Junior’s passenger, everyone would know who he was. That was part of his job. He was a politician, a holder of one of the higher titles in the Eastern District, a familiar face from the evening TV news and the local paper. Let’s call him Sir, as Junior did in Samoan. Actually, properly translated, Junior’s term of address would be something more like My Most Honorable Sir, but we’ll stick with Sir. Sir was, as Fia had claimed, honorably smashed. It was at times like this that Junior wondered why he was doing this. Why was he a ride for hire?
Junior had a day job driving a school bus. But his DOE paycheck barely covered the grocery bills for his eight-person household, his church dues, and his wife’s bingo habit. His wife Taipupu, of course, figured that what kept him out of the house at night and on weekends was another woman. As if he could afford another woman.
Sir refused to leave his booth at the bar. Fia refused to bring him another drink. The manageress came to cajole him into departing. Sir made a clumsy pass at her. Finally, two other men at the bar, lesser chiefs, came over and picked Sir up. He objected at first then gave it up, forgetting what he was objecting to. They deposited Sir in the cab of Junior’s pickup.
The rain, which had been steady, now picked up. Rainmaker Mountain across the bay was doing its job. All Junior could see in his headlights was water, both in the air and on the road. His windshield wipers were on high, but they hardly helped. It happened like this sometimes. You don’t think it could rain any harder, then it does. The end of the world will come as water. Both he and Sir were soaked. Junior was thinking about the leak in his kitchen’s rusty roof. Sir was mumbling the words of a pop Samoan song. Maybe he thought he was singing.
“O fea?” Sir asked. He wanted to know where they were going.
Junior was headed east. That was the direction his truck had been parked in, and he knew Sir came from one of the villages in that direction.
“You tell me, Sir. Home? Back to your village?”
“Take me to the Tepatasi,” Sir slurred.
The Tepatasi, a harbor-side dive, had burned down years before.
“The Tepatasi would be closed now, Sir. What village?”
“Whose son are you?”
Junior told him. He was not ashamed of his heritage. He named his father and his grandfather, who had held a talking chief title. It was always thus. You were not yourself or where you were headed but where you came from, who preceded you. Someday would his sons be able to say with pride their father’s name?
“Never heard of them,” Sir said. He went back to mumbling his song.
It didn’t matter. How long had it been since such things really mattered? What did anybody know any more about why it ever mattered? Junior never got out of second gear. He was sort of feeling for the road, or rather feeling if he got off it. You can take pride in something, but if pride takes hold of you you’re lost.
The road skirted the edge of the bay here. The rain cranked up another notch. Homage, fa’aaloalo, servitude, your only strength is your family’s strength, your village’s strength, your high chief’s will to be strong. No one stood alone. His right wheels threw up gravel, and Junior pulled back left onto the road. He had the road all to himself. No one, he thought, did something so stupid as strike out on their own. No one started a business of being alone in the middle of the night driving strangers and drunks to destinations unknown. That Greek guy in a dugout paddling lost souls to hell.
Junior lit a cigarette and looked over at Sir, who was slumped against the door now, eyes closed, passed out. What was he supposed to do with him? He could always dump him at the side of the road. Maybe the rain would sober him up. He wouldn’t remember how he got there. Jettison the past. But Fia would know and the two other chiefs from the bar. That could be bad for business. Sir had never heard of his grandfather’s title? What sort of chief was he?
Somewhere past or maybe still in Leloaloa—it was hard to tell exactly where he was—the road was suddenly flooded with rushing water. A stream off the almost sheer cliff of the harbor caldera had backed up at its viaduct under the roadway, probably clogged with village trash. It happened so fast in the headlight-white curtain of rain that he hit it just as he saw it. He had no choice but to try and drive through. He downshifted to first. The force of the water pushed the truck sideways toward the bayside edge. He jerked it left into a whitecap, and the engine stalled. Sir was still passed out.
To Junior’s surprise, the engine coughed back to life on his third try of the starter. Good truck. He patted the top of the dashboard then plowed cautiously ahead, trying to keep in the middle of the road and not make a wake. He saw the headlights ahead before he saw the flashing blue and red roof lights. They were coming at him faster than he was going.
When the police car, going too fast, hit the edge of the flood, it tried to brake and slid sideways. It was only a two-lane road, and Junior was in the middle of it. There was nowhere else for the cop car to go besides into the front of Junior’s truck. It took but a second. The crash was not really that dramatic or loud. Everything stopped except the rain. Sir came to.
The rest took place in the rain, Junior and the two overweight cops, one with a flashlight, standing calf-deep in the tugging flood of the road as they examined the damage—major to the side door and rear quarter panel of the black-and-white, minor to Junior’s truck, which was still running and whose headlights were still on. The fatter cop got angry. It was all Junior’s fault. Was he drunk, driving down the middle of the road like that, hitting a police car? Was he on drugs? He’d have his ass in jail. When Junior pointed out that it was their car that had been out of control, fatso got his handcuffs out of the snap pouch on his cop utility belt.
Cops liked to act like the uniform made them everybody’s chief. This one tried to shove Junior back toward his truck and ordered him to turn around and put his hands behind his back. Junior wasn’t that easy to push around and he was in no mood for this shit. The other cop, the one with the flashlight, came forward now. Fuck ‘em. He would take them both on.
“What’s going on here, officer?” It was Sir. He had pulled himself over into the driver’s seat and rolled down the window. Even in the rain you could smell the alcohol.
“Oh, two drunks,” fatso said. “Out of the truck.” He again tried to shove Junior backward. The uniform with the flashlight came over to the truck. “You heard him. Out of the truck.”
“Who do you think you’re ordering around?” Sir said, clearly if slightly slurred.
“You, you piece of shit. Out!” He showed the flashlight into the cab and onto Sir’s face. There was a long pause. “Oh, my apologies, sir.” He used an honorific even higher than the one Junior had used. “I didn’t know that was you. Are you alright, sir? Not injured?”
“Why are you molesting my driver? I must get home.”
Fatso, who had grabbed Junior’s shirt with both hands, now dropped them. “We’ll take you, sir. You’ll be safer with us.” He put his handcuffs back in their little pouch on his belt, still glaring at Junior.
The flashlight cop helped Sir out of the truck and through the rain and the rushing water to the cop car, the other side where the rear door still opened.
“You’re lucky this time, prick,” fatso said before turning and getting into the driver’s seat. “Next time, without chief, you won’t be.” He did more ripping damage to his fender as he backed up to pull away in the direction they had come. The other side of the car looked fine. Junior stood there in the rain. Of course, Sir had not paid him anything. His truck’s front bumper was pushed in. The rain did not let up.
Junior got home late, but Taipupu was still up, just returned from her church bingo game and having a cup of tea. “Oh, did the bitch throw you out into the rain?”
Playing in the Municipal League, Delaware Park, Buffalo, New York, 1962, behind the plate. The throw from the cut-off man is there in one hop. I am planted a yard up the third-base line. I have time to clasp the ball with my right hand into the pocket of my catcher’s glove and turn to face the runner coming down the baseline toward me. Then darkness.
To this day I can see the trees behind him in the microsecond before lights out. I want to say they were elm trees, but most of the elm trees in Buffalo had been annihilated by then, Dutch Elm Disease. Diseases should be capitalized. The runner was called out. I had held onto the ball, or rather my mitt had. It was no longer on my hand. I was out myself for a while, I guess, because there was quite a crowd above me when reality wavered back in. Someone had loosened my belt and was pressing on my chest protector. I felt beyond pale. I felt invisible. Nothing hurt.
We did not have EMS back then, certainly not for a kid knocked dizzy in a ball game. Ambulances meant someone was leaving whom you would never see again. The bodies in coffins at wakes always looked fake. My beer-bellied manager helped me sit up and asked if I was alright. I was helped back to the bench where I had to surrender my shin guards and protector to my backup, Benny Passed-balls, who did not have his own gear. By the time I walked home after the game, with all my gear in my gear bag, I was beginning to ache. End of vivid memory.
The guy who ran me over was named Junior. Junior and I became baseball buddies. We never played on the same team—and we both played for several in different leagues—but we hung together when we met up at the parks where our teams played. Junior is why I remembered this story. Inter-racial tensions were high in Buffalo in the early ‘60s. Demographics were shifting, and the native racialist mindset was not much more nuanced than that of Alabama. As I was growing up, my own neighborhood had succumbed to white flight. Junior was black.
That in itself was no big deal; although, we both admitted that we had no other friends of the alternate race. After the game of our collision, Junior followed me as I walked across the park until we were well away from everybody else. Then he caught up with me. He took my gear bag from my shoulder, and as we walked along said how sorry he was if his hit had hurt me. He carried my gear all the way to my house, and by the time we got there we were laughing.
This is not Aesop, just a memory, a lesson Junior taught me. Thanks, bro.
UPSTATE. Both Bob Sutton and Monika Costello are, like myself, from Upstate New York. Bob now runs our community farm here in Jamestown. Monika is still in the country.
A Child’s Guide to the Normans Kill
Late winter, early spring, the snow has mostly melted and the ice is pretty much broken up and my cousin Jimmy says to me, “The Normans Kill Creek is really high let’s take my rubber raft and float down the Normans Kill. It should be a great ride.” So we did. Jimmy and I are cousins and at the time we were both in our early 20s. Jimmy had a strong professional rubber raft built for this kind of adventure. We took my car and left it by the creek somewhere, I believe along Old State Road near the eastern edge of Princetown, and then we drove back 6 or 8 miles to where the Normans Kill passes under Duanesburg Road close to the western boundary of Princetown.
The Toboggan Hill and the Swimming Hole
We were about two miles west of mom and dad’s house on Duanesburg Road and exactly opposite the greatest toboggan hill in Princetown. It was located on the DeCocco Farm and is the steepest hill I have ever tobogganed down. After school we would walk our toboggans along the road and up this incredibly steep hill. When the snow was really hard and crusty you could actually slide all the way to the Normans Kill, about a half a mile from the top of the hill. The two-mile walk and the trek up the hill took some time, and you only got to go down two of three times before it was time to go home for supper. The trick was to get home on a darkening night, dragging a toboggan, without getting hit by a car. (I only got hit by a car once).
A great swimming hole was just to the west of our launch site. The creek flattens out into relatively deep water. Dad did not like us swimming in the Normans Kill. He said there are 100 cows and horses wading in that creek and you should not be swimming in it. Mom did not seem to mind. One time I went there with Henry DeCocco and Jimmy Myers. I had brought my swimming suit but the other two had not, so they swam in what nature provided. I felt silly or something, putting on a swimming suit so I also swam in what nature provided. On the way home, I realized that mom would figure out that I swam with nature, so I dipped my swimming suit in the DeCocco’s well alongside the road, to get it wet.
We launched the raft and quickly passed under the bridge in the moving water and headed east down the Normans Kill. We first passed the back of the DeCocco Farm. For as long as I can remember, and to this day, the DeCoccos have operated a beautiful farm. Much of the pastureland for their milk cows is on a steep slope that runs up to the railroad tracks. Over the years, the cows have worn a very narrow path that barely clings to the side of this steep hill.
Just past the DeCocco farm we encountered our first tributary to the Normans Kill. It is a fast-moving stream that comes down along Kelly Station Road, through a tunnel, and into the Normans Kill.
The Tunnels and Lovers Lane
There are actually two beautiful stone tunnels built by the railroad to accommodate the elevation of the tracks over Kelly Station Road, one for the water and the other for the cars. When I was young the car tunnel was the treat because it was a long narrow tunnel that was only wide enough for one car at a time. When you approached the tunnel from either side there was a sign that said, “Blow Your Horn Before Entering.” Dad would blow the horn as directed, listen for a replying horn, and hearing no sound would proceed into the tunnel with his headlights on. As soon as we got into the tunnel we would shout, “Blow the horn again, blow the horn again,” because it made a great echoing sound. The tunnel is still there today and still only one car wide, but a few years ago I stopped yelling “Blow your horn again, blow your horn again.”
The other landmark for me was the “lovers lane” just on the north side of the tunnel. When I was young I could not figure out why there would be a car, or cars, parked there but no people were apparent. As I got older I would look to see if I recognized the car and then I would know who the people were that I didn’t see.
If you think about Duanesburg Road east of the tunnels you realize you are going downhill, and the Normans Kill immediately adjacent to the road is doing the same thing. This was an exciting part of our wild river trip. Bill Lee had a small farm next to the creek, and on the south side is a 100-foot-high very steep sand bank. Ned and I were cutting firewood one time off of Darrow Road and rather than ride home with Ned I walked cross lots through the woods and came out at that sand bank and had to climb down it and then cross the Normans Kill.
After the sand banks, the land and the Normans Kill flatten out as you pass behind Siegel’s Tavern and the little tourist cottages that were for rent along the waterway. Those cottages seemed always in a state of disrepair, and I cannot remember a single instance of seeing people staying there.
Mrs. Watrous and Siegel’s Tavern
Mrs. Watrous lived in a tiny house next to Siegel’s and had several children, one of whom got polio as a child and remained crippled his entire life. Living in Princetown, I never thought much about who had money and who didn’t. If at the time someone had asked me, I think I probably would have said, “I don’t think any of us have very much money.” But I am pretty sure Mrs. Watrous didn’t have much money and I am pretty sure she had a lot of problems to face. Mrs. Watrous was my Cub Scout den mother and I remember her as a very kind woman and I remember my Cub Scout days as very pleasant. As cub scouts much of our time was spent in her back yard right next to the Normans Kill, and sometimes after the meeting she would take us next door to Siegel’s Tavern and buy us all popsicles.
For whatever reason, I have a very clear memory of our Cub Scout visits to Siegel’s Tavern. It was a small dark place with what seemed like a few older men sitting on stools and completely ignoring us. I don’t remember recognizing any of the men. There was no juke box or pool table and it seemed a joyless and empty place. Later in life, like the “lovers lane” situation, I would recognize the people’s cars or cattle trucks in the parking lot, but knowing who was there added nothing to the appeal of Siegel’s Tavern.
Right after we passed Siegel’s Tavern and Mrs. Watrous house we floated past the pasture land of the Gifford farm. I was friends with two of the Gifford boys, Ralph (a little older than me) and Bobby (a little younger). When I was little I would walk to grandma’s house across her pastures and then to the Gifford farm where Bobby and I would play with our small farm toys. We went to the same Princetown Reformed Church and as we got a little older we tended to do things together, one of which was start a baseball league.
The Gifford Farm Pasture League
I was 9 or 10 and I said to dad, “I sure would like to play little league baseball.” Characteristic of all the Suttons’ interest in athletic pursuits, his reply was, “I don’t have time to take you down to Rotterdam every night and sit around a baseball field for two hours.” That pretty much terminated my little league career but not my baseball career.
Bobby’s father, Harlan, operated a small dairy farm and was also part owner of a feed and coal company (Gifford Tanner Feed and Coal). He had two pastures for his dairy herd, one abutting my grandparent’s farm and one across Duanesburg Road next to the Normans Kill. I was talking to my friend Bobby about baseball, and we decided we should start our own baseball team. Bobby suggested we could build a ballfield in the flat pastureland next to the Normans Kill. Only one problem, Harlan’s dairy herd was quietly grazing there. Bobby talked with his father, and he agreed to relocate the cows to the other pasture for the balance of the summer.
We cleared out the “cow pies,” built the infield and pitcher’s mound, mowed the outfield, and got all the boys in the neighborhood to practice hitting fly balls and grounders to each other. We taught ourselves the dimensions of a baseball field, how to build it, how to manage a baseball team, how to play baseball, and finally how to find some competition. Somehow, we became aware of a similar group of boys playing in a field somewhere near Pine Grove School. We invited them to our field and in the late summer they peddled their bikes, about 10 miles, over to our field and we played an actual game. They beat us badly. Summer was nearly over and the pasture league folded after only one game.
A little further down the Normans Kill, the creek bed tends to flatten out as you come around a bend to the Berical Farm. Although I did not live particularly close the Bericals, it was certainly one of my childhood destinations. To get there I crossed Duanesburg Road, climbed the hill behind Whitney and Marie’s house, followed a series of paths over to the Carlson’s house, then down a very narrow and very steep road, reminiscent of the Appalachians, passed the Mott Farm, down the road to a small parking area, then over a pedestrian cable suspension bridge, up another hill, and on to Eric and Patty’s porch. It was a long but fairly straightforward walk with one exception, passing the Mott Farm.
Roy Mott, a 1929 Chevrolet Car and the Church Picnic
In all my childhood and into my adult life I have never heard anything negative about Roy Mott; however, his son Irvy was something of a Princetown renegade. Roy lived by himself in an old farmhouse, had barns and fences, but no animals except a dog, which you never saw but barked viciously and constantly as you passed the house. You had to walk very close to the house on this very narrow road with the Normans Kill on the other side. He drove a Studebaker (one of the cars that I would recognize in the Siegel’s Tavern parking lot). The only thing other than the barking dog that was unnerving was that Roy always seemed to be watching you from the same window as you passed by the house. I would tell Mom about my fears of this man, and her advice to insure my safety was to just run fast when you go by there.
I have always felt that city kids had more opportunity to be involved in different things (Little League for one), but there was one exception and it was a big exception. At a very young age we learned how to drive, and the vast amount of open land, vacant land, pastures and minimum law enforcement made driving unregistered vehicles by unlicensed, underage drivers both possible and a lot of fun. (Ned gave me a 1935 Plymouth to drive when I was 14 years old.) Eric Berical wanted a car and he was probably about 14, so he bought one for $20.00 from Carl Carlson. It was a nice little 1929 Chevrolet Coupe that if you owned it now would be worth many thousands of dollars. The only real problem with the car was that it did not run. Eric and I pushed the car over to the steep Appalachian-style hill and coasted it down the hill trying to jump start it. It did not start, and unfortunately we coasted into the family parking area the same time his father arrived home from work. Eric said to his father, “Look at the great car I bought for only $20.00.” And Eric’s father said, “Take it back.” I left and I don’t know how Eric got it up Appalachian Hill, but the next time I went by Carl Carlson’s house it was sitting there next to some other old cars that Carl owned.
The Princetown Reformed Church annually held a summer picnic. The picnic was held at many different locations, once even at Central Park in Schenectady. One year we had it on the Normans Kill at the Berical property. Times may have been hard at the Church or Eric’s father may have persuaded the minister it was a good location. The Berical property had two main features that were particularly favorable to young kids—it had a great swimming hole and the kids could jump up and down on the cable suspension bridge, terrifying all the parents thinking the cables would surely break. It was a legitimate fear, and the bridge itself was about 10 to 12 feet over the rocks and the water so if it did break it could have been harmful. But nobody stopped us, and it did not break.
Beyond the swimming hole and the Berical Farm the Normans Kill again picks up speed, and the added speed, the rocks, and occasional floating spring ice made this an exciting part of the ride. Along this section there is another tributary stream that flows into the Normans Kill from the north. This tributary is not particularly long and not particularly wide, originating about one mile away in the hills of northern Pangburn Road. It did, however, create a landmark destination for me and my two sisters throughout our childhood.
The Old Railroad Bridge
There had always been a railroad 1000 feet or so behind our house; however, about 100 years prior (approximately 1900) the railroad tracks had been much closer than their current location. When they moved the tracks north, they left much of the original infrastructure, not the tracks but the railroad bed, the culverts, and, most importantly, the bridge abutments that supported the railroad bridge crossing a tributary stream to the Normans Kill. These abutments, made of huge granite blocks, rose about 20 feet in the air and were at the same elevation as the old railroad bed. If you were walking on the railroad bed on a dark night you could have easily walked right off the edge of the abutments. By any standard, it was both dangerous and inviting, at least to me, and I once built a treehouse very near to it. My sisters were also attracted to this spot but not because they wanted, to or would, walk along the edge of the 20- foot high abutment, like their brother. They liked it at the stream level. The water entering the abutments dropped from a little falls into a tiny pond and then meandered between the old granite walls down to the Wingate Farm and on to the Normans Kill. For them it was a natural peaceful place, not an arena to challenge one’s life expectancy.
After that tributary stream leaves the Wingate Farm, it flows under Duanesburg Road and meanders south for a few hundred feet to a culvert underneath old Pangburn Road and then behind the old two-room Pangburn School.
The Pangburn Road School
Pangburn School was a two rom schoolhouse that my oldest sister Carole went to for 1st grade. At the time I was 5 years old and scheduled to start 1st grade in the fall of 1947. In the late spring of 1947 my mother packed us both a lunch and we walked across the Wingate farm hay fields on the south side of Duanesburg Road, headed to Pangburn School, to register for the upcoming fall class. (Pangburn did not have kindergarten.) My Mom got me registered and then it was time for lunch. The 1st grade boys showed me where they ate their lunch down by the old stone culvert that carried the tributary stream down to the Normans Kill. That walk across the Wingate fields with my mother and the lunch with those boys is one of the clearest memories of my young childhood.
Passing under the Pangburn Road bridge the creek bed widens and flattens out. On the east side of the bridge the Petersen farm and then the Furbeck farm, both on the north side of the creek. Over the years the Petersen farm has been a more active and varied agricultural operation. The Petersen family pursued a variety of different enterprises including; oil delivery, dairy farming beef cattle farming, cattle trucking, auto mechanics, whatever it took to keep the farm functioning and food on the table. In my lifetime the Furbeck farm has never been an active agricultural endeavor for the owners although the Petersen family typically harvested the hay from the Furbeck fields. The Petersen farm was a multigenerational family unit and the Furbecks a single generation family, comprised of two sisters and their brother, all un-married and all three holding jobs off the farm.
“Here Comes Lenny” and Miss Furbeck
Leonard Petersen was probably about 10 years older than me and spent his entire life on the farm. Of all the career paths available on his farm I most remember “Lenny” as a cattle truck driver. There were several slaughter houses in the immediate area of Princetown and some farmers owned cattle trucks to haul their animals and their neighbors’ animals to the slaughter house. Cattle trucks were large, flat bed vehicles with loosely fastened high wooden side boards to keep the cattle from jumping out. Because of their use they were always “barnyard muddy,” “cow kick dented,” generally older models of little trade-in value. They were noisy with bad mufflers. The heavy wooden sides rattled back and forth, continuously swaying the truck down the road. And they were always driven about as fast as they would go. The young drivers did not strive for anonymity. The young drivers wanted everyone on the road to know who they were when they came up behind them and tailgated inches from their bumper. To insure celebrity status, they wrote their name on the hoods of their trucks. “Here Comes Bucky,” “Here Comes Junior,” “Here Comes Irvy.” Leonard came up with a major innovation. He painted his name on the hood backwards “ynneL semoC ereH.” Looking at the hood with the truck parked the letters made little sense, but it was certainly very unnerving to have “Here Comes Lenny” suddenly fill your rear view mirror. And recognition? Guaranteed.
Although they lived next door and seemed to be friendly neighbors, Miss Furbeck was as opposite a personality from Here Comes Lenny as two people could be. Because the Pangburn School was now closed we were all sent to Draper School in Schenectady. Miss Furbeck worked as a secretary to the principal at Draper and the principal’s office was right next to my 1st grade classroom, so I would see her on occasion. Draper was a big school with grades K-12 all in the same building. We were in large classrooms and in an urban area. The few kids that got off the bus from Princetown were country bumpkins ripe for being picked on. For whatever reason, some 2nd grader bully type chose me as his daily punching bag. For a while I endured, or ran away, but after about a week I had had enough and I punched him right in the nose. Tears in his eyes and blood running down his nose, he did not punch back but ran into the school and straight to the principal’s office. I went into my classroom, but in short order was summoned to the principal’s office. At the office I was directed by Ms. Furbeck to leave the office and wait in the hall in a chair directly outside the principal’s office door. I was a little scared because I had never had disciplinary issues before. There was also a rumor at the time that the principal had an “electric paddle” that he used on kids who required discipline. I sat there for probably 5 or 10 minutes and then Miss Furbeck stepped into the hall. All she said was, “Bobby you can go back to your classroom now.” And I did. I never mentioned this incident to anyone, but many years later I saw Miss. Furbeck at my mother’s funeral service and I thanked her for taking care of me that day. Miss Furbeck replied “Oh it was nothing. I had to protect all my Princetown students from time to time”
After the intersection with Pangburn Road, the Normans Kill starts to take a more southern direction and the countryside becomes more remote. The eastern side of the Pangburn Road bridge was the eastern boundary of our neighborhood, and we floated down into territory that was more unfamiliar and without the local landmarks. The water was running fast and it was an exciting ride. We made it to the end of the trip relatively quickly. We packed the raft into the car and headed home.
Conclusion with Surprise Ending for Jimmy and Me
In his “Atlas of Indian Nations” Anton Treuer, writing of the Plains Indians, concludes, “the land has always shaped the people more than the people shaped the land.” The land defined their diet, their spirituality, their recreation, their friends, their enemies, defined their expectations, their limitations, and their understanding of each other and the larger world. Certainly you can make the same case for children growing up in rural areas. If you grow up with parents that believe it is better for you to be outside than inside and believe that you do not need a lot of parental oversight or guidance defining and organizing your own discoveries, then the physical geography of your location has a greater meaning. If your early education and religious or spiritual views are formed in a 2-room school, where many students drop out by the 5th or 6th grade, and a rural church where the members of the church work in the outdoors and learn to recognize and accept the vagaries of the weather and the limitations of the soil and the limitations of their own physical capabilities to alter these limitations, then the land can shape your early education, your spiritual sense, and your sense of what is possible. I don’t know if this is good or bad or unimportant.
Mobility is a real change agent. When you can only walk, the land shapes much of your understanding. A bicycle, a school bus expands your world and certainly the way you begin to see the world. A car, even when you are limited to driving in fields and pastures and roads (when the police are not around), starts to diminish the limitations of land and time and starts to broaden your sense of what is possible. Finally, a driver’s license or a train or plane ticket begins to change everything. I lived in Princetown my first 18 years. After I turned 18, during the next 10 years, I lived in Pella, Iowa; Seattle, Washington; Chicago, Illinois; Memphis, Tennessee; Lexington Park, Maryland; Princetown, NY; Herkimer, NY; Pella, Iowa; Scotia, NY; and Jamestown, RI. I do not believe the land shaped any part of the decision making that went into living in these locations or leaving these locations.
But I am very sure my parents, my sisters, my relatives, my neighbors, my church, and the land and water of Princetown shaped my childhood and my remembered stories of that childhood.
A couple of years ago my sister Ann began seriously searching our family’s ancestral path. She uncovered an ancestry that Jimmy or I could not have known. We are cousins, and we both knew that. We share great-grandparents, Peter and Johanna Alexson McClaine. Ann has traced Peter McClaine’s direct ancestral lineage back to a man named Albert Andriessen (de Noorman) Bradt who came to this country in 1636. On the ocean voyage to this country he was known to the other passengers simply as “The Norman.” He was sent to this country by the Dutch East India Company to establish a sawmill. He chose a wild tributary to the Hudson River, just south of Albany, to build his sawmill. The tributary was subsequently named Normans Kill, Kill being the Dutch word for waterway. “The Norman” was Jimmy and my great-grandfather to the 9th power. Without knowing it Jimmy and I were on a great winter adventure and a 300-year ancestral trail, shaped, in fact, by the land.
Crossed wires and mild case of heebie-jeebies,
but otherwise everything looks to be in working order.
The floor lamp and desk lamp keep on shining.
The dog that always barks keeps barking.
And the knuckle-sandwich roar of the jet plane
punches at the night sky to remind us of its power.
The bronze mouths of abandoned pennies
cry out from molten asphalt parking lots.
Dust collects in the parched throats of empty
potato chip bags gasping for air in the heat.
Military-industrial product labels appear
wherever two or more are gathered.
If Candy Jernigan were here, she would help us
make sense of all the evidence. With nothing more
than some colorful debris, a used syringe and a can of beans,
she could map out the cheesy surface of this, our present
hotsy-totsy turmoil, that stinks, of late, of rancid language,
overpowering deodorant and an obscenity of money.
Using only a bag of shrapnel, a dead bird and burnt matchsticks,
Candy could haruspicate a psychedelic whopper, in which
she exposes the tawdry behaviors of this, our present miasma —
our disenchanted, conflicted, so-called society teeming with sharps,
common corporate thieves, and heartless, boring busybodies
hellbent on dishing out prefabricated summary judgments
of lives about which they know absolutely nothing.
If the beautiful, brilliant people we once encountered
in the pages of our books, in the grooves of our records
were to stop by for coffee, we would be at a loss for words
to describe how far below the old benchmarks we have fallen,
how much has been forsaken, lost, broken. We could establish
a new world record for shoring pigments against ruin,
though it might take a school bus of Candy Jernigans,
working overtime, without compensation,
to gumshoe the filthy streets and collect all the pieces.