In the Best of Times

One late summer day in 1987 my father summoned Bob and me. They were living in the log house on three acres which then sat centrally along our road frontage.

That morning my parents gave us the ownership of their house and land and $25,000, which was everything they had. My dad was 86 and my mother was 75. They had Blue Cross/Blue Shield health insurance and a supplement through TIAA-CREF from my father’s working days at R.I.T.

My father died three years later, and my mother continued to live comfortably in the log house until her death there in 1997. They never needed the $25,000. That was what was possible for the parents of us Baby-Boomers.

They missed the great ice storm of 1998, they missed 9/11, they missed the hateful politics that we are living through, they missed this pandemic. I wonder what our children will have to endure.

The Road North

“The Rum Runner” story recounted an event that occurred when my father was hitchhiking north to the high peaks area of the Adirondack mountains in the fall sometime in the early 1920s. These days, a lot of people head south at that time of the year.

Born in 1901, the youngest child of Austro-Hungarian immigrants, “Willie” grew up in the Yorkville area of Manhattan. Although most of his summer daylight hours were spent playing the many games common on the streets of the area, there were two other places he loved to frequent. One, the NYC Public Library, contained the stories of Daniel Boone, Altsheler’s Riflemen of the Ohio, Seton’s Book of Woodcraft, and others such as Dan Beard’s The Boy Pioneers, all of which Willie devoured. The other, Central Park, they named Boonesboro, and he and a friend play-acted roles from these books. He would hold that place in his heart all the rest of his life.

Willie was 12 when his father, a “schuster” (shoemaker), died of cancer. One of the older sons carried on the business in the basement of their brownstone tenement, and Willie became an errand boy for his brother. Eventually he found a similar position that paid a small wage at the Royal Baking Powder Company. His mother died when he was 19.

I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but a job as a camp counsellor at a Jewish boys camp in northern Pennsylvania was offered to him. Probably his Jewish childhood friend made the connection. (My father left school after 8th grade; Sol, his best friend, continued studying and became a chiropractor). Camp Equinunk undoubtedly paid more, but it was of summer duration.

Then, one spring weekend afternoon while hiking in the woods of what is now Scarsdale, Willie met Jess and Eli, two men of similar age to himself who had built a small cabin in a farmer’s field in Keene Valley. They planned to “go back to the land” in the manner of Henry David Thoreau. The farmer’s name was Seth Holt, and the deal was that Jess and Eli could build and use the cabin for five years, and then Seth could take possession of it. I don’t know what moved Seth to agree to this deal, but agree he did. And Jess and Eli invited my father to join them.

So there it was. The city boy who wanted to be Daniel Boone had a summer job that paid him enough wages to see him through the winter months in the Adirondacks.

To be continued…

The Rum Runner

Upon learning that my father had spent some time during the 1920s in the Adirondacks, my friend Jane asked whether he had anything to do with rum running during Prohibition. At that time, rum produced in Montreal was being smuggled through the eastern side of the mountains and south to New York City. I was surprised by her question, because few people these days know anything about that. I know about it because my father DID have a brush with it!

He was hitch-hiking north to resume residence in Keene Valley, but as happens to hitch-hikers, he’d been dropped off in a town along the way and was walking to a place north of town where he’d be more likely to catch another ride.

As he walked, he heard a car approaching, and it was coming at a very high speed. He stepped back off the road’s edge, a large (for the time), sporty car sped past him, and then the driver slammed on his brakes, stopped, and backed up.

“Ya want a ride?” slurred the driver. My father immediately realized that the man was drunk. He also figured him to be a rum runner.

“Mister, you’re drunk! You shouldn’t be driving!” to which the driver shouted some obscenities, put the car in gear, and raced off in the direction of Montreal.

A mile further down the road my father came upon the wreckage of the car and the body of the rum runner.

Aunt Lil

My grandfather’s sister, Lil, was my favorite aunt when I was a kid. She was Canadian. Her brother, my grandma’s husband, died of a massive heart attack exactly one month after my birth.

When I was two, my mother had to have surgery on her heel to remove a bone spur, and Lil came to visit my grandma and to help out. We were living in an upstairs apartment in my grandma’s house, and it was difficult for my mother to navigate the outdoor stairs to take me outside to play. Lil was happy to do that, and my mother would watch us from our living room window.

Grandma had a large, rambunctious Irish Setter named Fibber, and when Lil and I were in the front yard, Fibber would come gallumphing over to us. My mother could see Lil shoo him away, but she couldn’t hear what Lil was saying as she did so.

Things soon improved for my mother, and we resumed the front yard play time together. Fibber came bounding towards us, I made a shooing motion with my hands as Lil had done and exclaimed, “Outta here, bastard!”

As soon as the opportunity presented itself, my mother confronted Lil.

“Why I NEVER!” Lil replied.

“Lil…?” my mother continued.

“Why, no!”

“Lil…!”

“Well, I might have… just once…”

Playing With Fire

Some of the “Good” Wood

Back in the 1980s we sold and delivered A LOT of firewood, some of which was cut on our own land. One such cutting resulted in some gnarly, leftover tree butts and a pile of ant-infested pieces way back up in the meadow at the back of our land, some 1600′ from the road. There was only skidder or tractor access to it.

It was an early spring day, and I decided to burn the pile. It was unsightly and in the way of any other use of the field. It took some effort to get it ablaze, but eventually it was burning quite well. The wind picked up, and as damp as the surroundings had seemed, I suddenly had a grass fire on my hands. It was heading in the direction of the woods, and from there, it probably could have burned all the way to Cranberry Lake, some forty miles away!

Luckily, my daughter was home from college and was helping me. She was also on the college cross-country running team. I didn’t want to scare her, so I very calmly said, “Maybe you should run down to the house and call the fire department.” Within 15 minutes, the Pierrepont volunteer firemen began arriving, some carrying water on their backs because no vehicles could get up the hill!

Joe Thomas arrived first. He had a push-broom, and he single-handedly “pushed” the flames backwards so that there was nothing to keep them burning. He circled the fire where it was being blown by the wind, and single-handedly brought it under control!

Needless to say, I felt awful for causing all these good men to drop whatever they had been doing and race to my meadow. We didn’t have much money then, but we gave the fire department as generous a donation as we could afford to that year.

Amelia

‘Listening to Joni Mitchell sing “Amelia” and remembering Betty Klenk, a teenager living in St. Petersburg, Florida, whose father owned a shortwave radio receiver. He had rigged an elaborate antenna system for it, and Betty often spent time after school – as I did in the 1950s on my grandmother’s shortwave radio – searching for new and interesting broadcasts.

On July 2, 1937, Betty “…stumbled upon a transmission of an obviously upset woman’s voice. The woman claimed to be Amelia Earhart. For the next hour and 45 minutes, this transmission continued …although fading in and out at times. Betty Klenck wrote down nearly verbatim (or as best as was possible due to the quality of the transmission) what she heard this woman say. Much of what was said were things only Earhart would have known. This transcription still exists today.” [copied from an article by Thom Boughton, former Air Traffic Controller (Retired) (1983-2010)]

Could Amelia Earhart have been rescued? Who knows. The fact is, that no one took Betty seriously. Below is a photo of Betty’s notebook detailing what she heard. Google *Amelia Earhart Thom Boughton*. It’s an interesting story.

Packing the Mouse

During the early years of my parents marriage, they lived in an upstairs apartment in my grandparents’ house, and, like all country houses, it was occasionally invaded by mice.

These were the days before Havaharts, but my father (a.k.a. as Pack), had a “hart”, and he devised a catch-and-release mousetrap. I think it involved a string and a box of some kind. Near bedtime on a winter evening, it worked!

These days, when I catch a mouse in the evening, it’s fate is to remain caught until daylight arrives. ‘Not so for Pack. He felt great sympathy for the poor, frightened creature, and slipping a coat over his pajamas and boots over his bare feet, waded out through the snow, all the while speaking reassuring words to the mouse. He would free it in the hen house where it could be comfortable and live happily ever after.

I don’t know how many chickens my grandfather had, but the coop was a 2-story Hen Hilton. I think the hens were downstairs, and the upper floor probably housed grain and other supplies. Pack, wanting the best for his mouse, decided that it would be happiest living on the 2nd floor. He climbed the stairs, set the trap down, opened it, and the mouse made a wary exit. At that moment, out of the shadows leaped the cat! In an instant, the mouse was in her jaws and she had disappeared into the darkness. Pack was horrified! His in-laws, on the other hand, were always happy to introduce him as their youngest daughter’s husband, the one who catches mice for the cat.

Mother’s Day 2021

If I ever called my her “Mom” or “Mother”, it was in early infancy. To me she was always “Duch”. This worked out well when she became a foster mother to my sisters whose mommies were unable or unwilling to raise them. “Duch” didn’t cause any of the emotional complications that a replacement “Mom” might have.

Duch gave me my belief that I could do anything I was willing to try, and she gave me the freedom to try those things that she had never tried. She considered herself “stupid”, but she was the wisest person I’ve known. When she needed a carpet, she went to the thrift store, bought wool clothing, and turned it into braided and hooked rugs. When she needed furniture, she built it. When my aunt in India sent a sari, Duch turned it into an evening dress. When she wanted a fieldstone chimney, she gathered rocks and learned the art of masonry. When I got upset with her for giving my kids sweets, she figured out how to make healthy “cookies”, and NO ONE could make better pies.

She’s been gone 24 years. These days I don’t think of her every day, but whenever I do, she brings a smile to my face. She was the best.