Sunday, July 24, 2005

Summer, 2005, memories....

We are back in Clayton for the summer, and our summer is half over. It's back to Tucson in September, so I must make the most of our time and do my research while we're here.
In the last chapter posted, I wrote about the coal docks and passenger terminal. If you want to see what they looked like in "the old days", pick up a copy of "Images of America, Clayton" by Verda S. Corbin & Shane A Hutchinson. Since all of my old photos are gone, the collection in this book is now all I have. There is lots of history in this slim volume, and some dramatic photos of what happened in and around Clayton from the 1800's to the 1950's.

For a look at what the area around the old coal docks and a view of the rail bed, see the photos below. I slipped in a view of today's parade and the old parade vehicle owned by the Clayton Calumets that I recall from my childhood days. There were brand new ones in the parade too, and a couple of genuine antiques, as well as the volunteers in their spiffy dress uniforms.

If you look closely at the photo of the granite outcrop with the picnic table in Frink Park, you can see where the railbed was. In Clayton's heyday, some 16 trains a day came in bearing passengers who detrained not thirty feet from the water's edge. By the 40's and 50's. the rails had mostly been removed, except for the ones leading to the coal shed, and these were set in the grooves visible in the photo. Again, for a good look at the passenger cars pulled in to the terminal, see "Images of America, Clayton". The cover shot and several photos inside will convince you that Clayton was indeed, the destination of choice for thousands of late 19th and early 20th century tourists. From here they took steamers or steam yachts to the many elegant hotels in the islands and at Alexandria Bay down the river.

The second photo of the waterfront park shows the ice and age damaged cribbing which supported the heavy wood structure forming the shore side of the terminal. It is this that I look at each year and try to reconstruct in my mind. The wood portion of the dock extended much farther north than it seems now, and the tall (to the youthful eyes of my memory) coal piles would have been to the right, or south of the river edge, with coal dust blackened roadways in between each pile. The Riverview Hotel was still there then, not yet replaced by the Frink Offices built after the Frink Plant fire. The chain link fence still keeps me out. In the old days, pre this highly litigious era, a fence was unnecessary. Now, someone might fall and sue, ending the dream of razing the plant and replacing it with shopping, culture and residences.

Remains of wood piled coal dock Posted by Picasa

Rail Bed as it is today Posted by Picasa

Clayton Summer Parade Posted by Picasa

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Chapter 3

I haven’t said much about the river, or Clayton for good reason. Anyone who claims to remember things clearly as a 3 year old is probably recalling later memories, or fibbing or both. Maybe I shouldn’t say that. Maybe there are prodigies whose memory of being born is clear and accurate. I doubt it. Mine sure aren’t, and since my Dad was thoughtful enough, and had the records available to provide me with my I.Q. at too early an age for my own good, I’m pretty sure I’m not just too dumb to remember. It is more that what needs to be said about the real Clayton and the real river have to be experienced again, at the source, before being committed to paper. That done (it happened or is happening this summer) we can continue...

I can say that there was this great big, blue, river right there nearby. A river that Dad just loved from day one in Clayton, I think. The only problem was, despite most Claytonians opinions to the contrary, we were relatively poor. Principals of schools didn’t make much then. We couldn’t afford a boat, let alone a motor for one. We didn’t even have a car for a long time, but borrowed a school station wagon for trips when possible. Something that would be scandalous in today’s school systems, but was done with the approval of the powers that be. Dad would never have done something such as that if it was not so approved. We could, and did walk a lot however. Mom wasn’t much of a walker, but Dad loved to walk around town. Often he would take me with him. Sometimes we would walk to the rail yard downtown. Sometimes we would actually walk the tracks.

The rail yard was my favorite. To look at it today, you would not know Clayton even had a rail spur, nor what it was used for. It is gone, now, totally erased. If you want to see where it was, look at an old map, or ask a local. You can still walk the old bed, a wonderfully raised clear trail from which you overlook swamps and golf course and old pastureland. Start on the East Line Road (you may have to search a little on the north side of the road) where it rises slightly after crossing the “T” at upper Graves Street. You can walk all the way down to Mary Street, where you will lose it in development that took place after the tracks were taken up.

The railroad of my childhood had two uses actually. Now, those of you reading this book with real historical knowledge of Clayton please forgive me. Once again, I am seeing this from a child’s perspective, not from a historical viewpoint. The history is hard to find nowadays, but it is there if you know where to look. The Thousand Islands Museum has some excellent references, for example. My brother Jack and his wife Marylou once gave Carol and me a lithograph of an old drawing of Clayton in the late 1800’s, a copy of which you can obtain from the Shipyard Museum. Our copy hangs in our living room where I can look at it now and then, and clearly shows what it probably looked like at the bustling terminal when steam excursion trains arrived in the area “downtown” by the coal docks.

In that last paragraph, you find the two major things the railroad brought to Clayton: tourists and coal. They also took back with them milk produced locally. Most of the traffic up and down the St. Lawrence River was powered by coal, and Clayton was a coaling station for passing steamers. Some of those steamers were local, some from outside the area, and some carried passengers and mail to and from the island homes of millionaires, and the resort hotels like the Frontenac on Round Island. Long before the American highway system metastasized into what it is today, the rail lines were the main arteries of transport. The line to Clayton was the only rapid transit to the Thousand Islands. If one reads of the folk who were entertained at Boldt Castle, and Calumet Castle, Dark Island Castle and Mr. Pullman’s Castle-like home near Alexandria Bay (hereafter known as Alex Bay for short), it is clear that they arrived by train.

My boyhood walks with Dad were not to see hordes of such tourist folk, for they were mostly gone by then. You could get to Clayton by car in the 40’s and 50’s. We did, however see the steam engines pull in, and sometimes, sometimes if we were lucky, there would be a mail car and a coach with them. Most of the time it was coal cars and milk trains, though. Dad and I, and sometimes Mom, would walk down to the docks and see the train, and I could tell one of those times might be coming when we heard the steam whistle blowing as the train came into town. Over the crossing at the East Line road, down past the golf course, past the decaying marine structures along the bay fronting Washington Island it came. We’d walk, and sometimes drive down and get as close to the train as we could. Close enough to smell the steam and oil and feel the heat from the engine.

Then we moved to Beecher Street, nearer the school and farther from the river. Oh, we still went down there after that, but at some indefinite time (that time in your life when spring and summer and fall and winter seem to blend in together, and there are no date markers and you didn’t look at a calendar with any real understanding) it all went away. In the 50’s, diesel replaced steam and the shrieking toot as the engine approached the East Line Road crossing became the honk of an air horn. I remember Dad saying something about the railroad making the horn louder (they finally did) so people could hear it better before it killed someone at that crossing.

What I recall best is the way the tracks were cut into the orangey quartz laden bedrock just off the street, down by Frink’s Snowplow works. You can still see where the tracks were, if you know where to look. Carol gets bored, I’m sure, when I walk down memory lane with her in that spot, so changed as to be unrecognizable. The oil you got on your shoes, the ever present coal dust and the noise, all gone now. In the late 50’s the big wooden structure housing the coal bins and machinery for coaling burned. The fire siren went off and my mom took us to see the fire, which burned for days if my memory is correct. I took my Kodak Brownie Hawkeye camera down there and took pictures of the skeletal remains. Those photos, along with many others that I took of Clayton, are gone now, lost in the Great Hurricane Agnes Flood of 1972 in Elmira, NY. I wish I could have saved them.

I remember looking out of the big plate glass windows of the Driftwood restaurant at the blackened beams. By then, the coaling station was rarely used anymore except for coal sold to heat homes, diesel also having replaced steam as a power source for the lake freighters plying the big, blue St. Lawrence.

That area of Clayton brings many confused memories of my childhood. Confused because they don’t have dates connected to them in most cases, and I’m never sure which ones came where in the time scheme. The Utard sank at the coal dock, and we went to see it in answer to the siren’s song. A gas tanker sank in frigid water in the same place after hitting (I think) the same shoal. The latter was when I was in high school, and the pictures have been lost also. Once, while wasting time with my best friend Bryce down by the town docks, we saw a boat come in and a body was carried off and laid out on the dock. I don’t really know if I saw what I seem to recall, but I knew that the dead person was a scuba diver, and that some boater had ignored his floating buoy (or he didn’t have one, I’m not sure) and had run him over. He had prop marks on his back, an all too common way for divers to be injured or killed. It was the second dead body I had seen.

When I was barely 8 or 9, my next door neighbor died. He was an old man, and well liked in the town. Tom had been a school custodian and handyman, and had been very kind to me. He smelled of cigars, and had a gruff voice. Years later, whenever I saw a Popeye cartoon, I would remember him for some reason. When he died, the “viewing” and funeral were held at his house, a traditional Irish thing, I think, but again, there’s that memory thing. My brothers insisted that his ghost would haunt me forever if I didn’t go to the viewing and see him. Mom did not want me to go. I went next door, and did not see into the casket, but had nightmares about his ghost for a while.

Dad and I, and sometimes Mom, used to go to the coal docks to fish. They fished, I watched. Having no boat, the best way to fish was to get as close to the water as you could. You couldn’t get closer than that without a boat. Sometimes they fished and I would wander among the coal piles (large chunks of soft coal, not the small hard coal nuggets. Both were present, but I knew not to climb the latter, or play around them, as they could fall easily) and coal dust, pretending they were mountains, or forts, etc. Some of the chunks had fossil outlines in them if you broke them open. Sometimes I took paper and drew clouds and sunsets, which I imagined were very artistic, and received much praise from my parents. As I got older I realized that they were encouraging me out of love, not because I could draw well.

The older I got, the more independence they gave me. I wandered far afield, as far as the old round table used by the railroad to turn engines around. I watched the sparks fly inside the doors of the Frink plant. I threw stones at frogs, snakes and anything in general I knew would not break. I somehow knew that if I broke things, Dad would not be happy. I wandered up and down the old rail tracks, balancing on the rails, sometimes falling and skinning a knee. I watched the clouds build high in the west, fantastic tall shapes over the tops of the coal piles, with the sun gradually falling behind them. I liked to pretend they were ships, or planes or huge people. Children still look with fascination at clouds, but I wonder, with TV, do they still imagine they see the Red Baron and his Sopwith Camel, or castles in the sky?

As darkness approached, I would return to the river, on the old brown railroad tie dockside, and wait for them to finish fishing. Sometimes I would sit near the edge, on the sun warmed ties, and sift the dried wood rot smelling of creosote through my fingers, or just sit and watch the sun set in fiery orange. Now, there is little left of those ties, except split grey slivers and metal rods poking out of the jumbled rocks at the north end of the waterfront park that replaced the old yard. Frink’s is closed, there is a fence preventing anyone from wandering into the property, and the winter waves have taken most of the wooden dock frames away. My Dad’s spirit reminds me that going around the no trespassing sign is a bad idea, so I never do.

Instead I stand on the blacktop paved area where bands now play in summer, and day dream of the three foot great northern pike Dad pulled out of the river within a hundred feet of the viewing benches now meant for concerts, not victorious fisher folk. I see the look of determination on his face as he worked the black nylon high test line and the silver Shakespeare reel, the green metal rod bent in a tense arc nearly to the water. The sun is setting, and I am awed by the struggle. Several people are watching, and one realizes that the net lying by Dad’s feet won’t bring the fish in. He runs to his car and gets a larger net with a long handle, and a gaff hook materializes from somewhere....

Just like the other Clayton memory photos in my collection, this one has to remain a memory etched by that fading sun’s rays. I lost the only copy I had of Dad holding that big fish, me standing next to him, fish as nearly as tall as I was. Someday, if you see me standing there, looking out at the river, that is what I am seeing. The fish coming into the net, gill hooked with the gaff, the rod still bent, then the fish thrashing around in the netting on the dock timbers. My Dad sought Muskies year after year, but never caught one. I believe that his moment with this pike made up for that. I have often silently wished the fisher-folk I see there good luck as they persevere against all odds in their attempt to catch the big one off that dock.

Chapter 2 BABY STEPS (1)

Chapter 2 BABY STEPS

I don’t know how you feel about first memories, but whenever I hear anyone talking about theirs or read about them I find myself questioning my own memories. I have learned that we remember things differently than others around us, and tend to color the memories with our own experiences, sometimes reformatting a memory to suit what we would like to remember about a certain incident. Not all memories are flattering, nor are they all pleasant. Don’t worry; I’m not going to dwell on the latter. I will say, though, that my life has produced some of the former that I would just as soon forget, and as a result, some of those memories may be, well, colored more favorably.

When my Dad, Robert A. Charles, and my Mom, Ruth (no middle initial) Fowler Charles moved from Mooers to Clayton in the early ‘40s, I was only two years old. Dad was to be the new principal of a new school partially constructed at the beginning of WWII, and would eventually preside over the finishing and enlarging of the school which became known as Clayton Central School, or “CCS” as many called it. I was too young to know about, or to understand, the local politics involved, and have not since delved into it enough to know all of the details. Suffice it to say that Dad was popular with some, not so popular with others, and Mom.... well, Mom was Mom. She had 4 active boys to rear, and had no real interest in the social life of Clayton as a principal’s wife, but you can’t avoid that in a small town. She wanted people to like her for what she was, but it was difficult.

Ruth Fowler grew up in the “big city" of Syracuse, New York, and probably had “big city ways” stamped on her record somewhere in people’s minds. That was funny, because by 1944 she had lived in Mooers, Pompey and North Lawrence, New York on and off for 10 or more years. She and Dad were married after meeting in New York City. Dad worked for a fruit company there, and Mom worked for Woolworth’s. I have never been too clear about their courtship, as by the time I was old enough to understand such things, she had stopped talking about them. Like many children, I made the mistake of remaining ignorant of that subject until it was too late. Mom died several years ago, and I just never got around to asking again. I do know that they loved each other very much, and though they sometimes fought like cats and dogs in their later years, it would never last very long.

Many of the experiences I had were family experiences, and revolved around all of us getting into an old car and going somewhere: Branchport, New York on Keuka Lake to visit Dad’s father, Dr. Oscar Charles, a retired dentist; Syracuse, New York to visit Mom’s sister, Carolyn and Uncle Leo, her husband; and once, to Binghamton, New York to attend Mom’s Aunt Lena’s funeral. Sometimes these trips were boring and interminable; sometimes they were the most exciting part of the year. We always took a slightly different route, occasionally combining a trip to see Grandpa and Grandma Charles. Grandma was Oscar’s second wife, Mila. His first died of cancer before I was old enough to know her. Often there would be a side trip through Syracuse. Sometimes, we went to the place where the school bought buses, and Dad would drive a school station wagon back. Those were fun trips, but I don’t recall any details. I learned to read at an early age, and often killed the time with a book, occasionally looking at whatever scenery was passing by.

When I was about three, WWII ended, and my earliest memory, literally, is of the huge noise outside. The Clayton Fire Department (Still, I believe, known as the Calumets) was then located about one hundred feet south of our rented house, and had an air horn siren on a mast right outside the building. On VJ Day, so I am told, there was great celebration in the land. Church bells pealed, and fire sirens went off every few minutes (to me it must have seemed all day, and maybe it was!) to announce the news. Japan was defeated: the war was over! I don't recall VE day, but then, we could have been out of town at the time.

I also learned as I got older, that all of my senses were more acute than normal, except for my eyes, which were affected by amblyopia, and which had caused me to be “walleyed.” Since my eyes weren’t good, my hearing probably overcompensated, and what a lasting effect that had on childhood! Both a curse (that siren sure was loud and frightening) and a blessing (I could hear conversations about things like Santa Claus, whispered across the room), having acute hearing caused some funny and sometimes embarrassing situations. More about that later.

That loud noise, both joyful and terrifying, was my first clear memory; probably because my Mom and my Grandmother (Mom’s mother lived with us at the time) tried so hard to make me understand that it was a joyful thing, not something to be afraid of. I have no clear memory of how they stopped my tears and, no doubt, loud crying, but they did. In later years, the fire siren was to take on many different meanings in my young life, but that was the first. What I remember most, however, is the love and comfort that followed successive siren songs.

Later, and time was not one of those things a three year old could relate to, Mom began to illustrate her lifelong passion for change of scene. Since she could not leave and return to Syracuse, where she apparently left her heart, (not in San Francisco where she had traveled with her sister as a girl) she elected to engineer at least 5 moves while living in Clayton. Admittedly some were options for better housing, but in her later life, she continued to love moving from home to home to home. Oddly, until later in my life when I became aware of the backbreaking labor involved in moving, I found these moves comforting, albeit confusing when I was a child.

I really don’t know how Dad felt about these relocations, as I never heard him complain about them. Either he did not mind or he saved his complaints for when I was not within earshot. I recall a lot of Pig Latin being used when I was a child, but I soon caught on to that, too. Once, we moved to a house near the school, our second to last location in Clayton, and just a few hundred yards from the front door, which was good for Dad, because he could spend more time working and less time walking to work.

That was where I began to relate to animals, I guess. We always had a dog or a cat or dogs and cats or, well you get the picture: some kind of animal, bird or fish. It was the first time I was left to my own resources, I guess, because my Mother was very protective of her children, and normally would not have let a 5 year old alone with so much open space around. The stress of moving, and my being a typical curious child led to my wandering off behind the barn with the white cat, Marshmallow or Fluffy or whatever, and a short piece of rope. The house sat back from the road a great distance, to my childish eyes, and the barn was huge and dark. I wanted the cat to follow me around for company, and when it deviated from that path, I tied the rope in a loop around its neck and towed it into the high weeds behind the barn.

Now, I know that sounds like a cleaned up version of what actually happened, but it is the truth as I remember it. I was not, as it was later reported by my family, torturing the cat. Since I was six years away from becoming a Boy Scout, my knots weren’t very good, but the slip knot I inadvertently tied around kitty’s neck was very effective. She lay down and began to choke and gasp. I immediately ran to my Mom, and yelled something like “there’s something wrong with the cat!” Like Lassie with Timmy down the well, I led them to the troubled kitty, and one of my brothers rescued her. “Something’s wrong with the cat” became a catch phrase for Joey getting in trouble after that. I really do love cats, to this day, and would certainly never do anything to harm one on purpose. But it became obvious that day that I did not take well to being teased! My brothers took a perverse delight in “pulling my chain” ever after, and still do. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

All of us have things we would wish hadn’t happened, or at least had happened in a different, less embarrassing way, I suppose. Like my dad, I have high blood pressure. Like my Dad, my face goes red easily. It was one of those ways people could tell he was angry. I recall a friend saying “Boy, your dad was so mad at (So and So) his face got as red as a tomato!” Well, mine does too, and when I laugh, and when I am embarrassed. I think my earliest memory of shame (which was not all that shameful, but a normal childhood thing) was when a girl playmate, some two years older than me, offered to show me her “bummy” for a quarter. I have no idea how old I was, maybe 5 or 6, but I remember casually announcing to my shocked family at the dinner table that I had seen my first “bummy.” Into the silence that followed came a huge roaring of the wind in my ears, as I realized that something I had said had caused one of those “moments.”

I would not read or hear the term “faux-pas” for many years, but the embarrassment generated by having seen a pair of white undies flash by my astigmatic eyes for a second has lasted to this day. Not that it ranks right up there with finding my fly down in public, but just as memorable. Even as a child, I guess, I was prone to opening my mouth and saying inappropriate things at inappropriate times. Stepping ahead, I would love to take that one back, and many others, but you can’t unsay things. It caused me to lose a good playmate, who was only doing something all kids do, or think about doing, the equivalent of “playing doctor” but even more innocent. At some point, adults come into the picture and innocence turns to guilt. Thus, when I lost my babyhood/childhood innocence about many other things, my Dad’s principality was among them. If I struck out at you, dear reader, as a result, please accept my apologies. See this book for what it is, a tribute to a good place to grow up. One of the firm groundings of my life as an adult has been that I shall never stop learning from experience. Like everyone, the lessons are not always remembered at exactly the same time as they are needed, but they are remembered.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Chapter 1, P.K.: continued, (end)

In those days the use of child psychologists was rare, and Dr. Spock was just hitting his prime. My parents could not have afforded one anyway, though Mom had a copy of the Spock book. The best advice Mom got came from Dr. Pilpel, our family physician, who said she should just stop worrying about it and I would eat sooner or later. The worst came from the school physician, Dr Folkes, who told her he feared I was malnourished, (I was anemic) and needed to be force fed. I got a combination of the two advises, along with something called “Vidalin,” a noxious honey like liquid that was supposed to increase my appetite and provide vitamin supplements. It spoiled my love of honey for a while. I was “punished” a lot for not eating what everyone else was eating, and sent to my room. No, I was never spanked for it, or treated bad physically or mentally. It was just, well, constant. One does, after all, have three meals a day normally. Grandma would bring a cookie or some other treat up to my room. When Dad discovered this, he would tell her in quiet fury that she was “meddling” in the boy’s upbringing. She kept doing it anyway, of course.

Like all brothers everywhere, mine were sympathetic to a degree. But like all brothers, they also loved to tease. Since I was the youngest, smallest and “sensitive”, it was easy to tease me. Ways were found to make macaroni and cheese sound even less palatable than their odor already rendered them. A comparison to maggots was one of the more gentle ones. Of course, when I refused to eat something like Spam (it had all kinds of things ground up in it you know) or hot dogs (don’t go there!) and the lumps in the mashed potatoes were cooked parts of bugs, I attracted Dad’s attention. The conversation went something like this:

Mom: You haven’t eaten anything but your (fill in the things a kid would like). Eat your string beans!
Dad: I never saw anyone cut the meat away from the fat before. Why do you do that? Cut the fat away
from the meat!
Dick: (sotto voice) you know they grow beans in dirt? Mom doesn’t wash them, either.
Joel: Stop that!
Dad: All right, that’s enough. Joel, go to your room.
Mom: Young man you sit right down. You’re staying at this table until you finish those beans! And eat your hot dog!
Dick: (to low to be heard by parents) They put dog’s eyes in those, you know...

It often became a contest of wills, and of course, there was the family pet...

Jim: Mom, Joe’s given the dog his meat again!
Mom: All right young man, you’ll sit here until the last of that hamburger is gone, and I’ll be watching you!

Now what kid hasn’t experienced some of that? Of course, I had three very loving (and very typically sadistic) brothers, who loved to start things. That always happens to the youngest. Later in life, when I realized that they would do anything (particularly my brother Dick) to protect me, I came to love them even more. I think they wanted, consciously or not, to help harden me against the cruelty of the world, and may even have worried, along with Dad, that I might become a “homo”. With all this, lying around with one eye in the dark, being unable to breathe through my nose, sometimes unable to catch a breath at all and probably weak from self induced hunger, it is little wonder that I had protracted bouts with asthma. But there is more.

Dick, who was four years older than I, had very serious asthma attacks in the middle of the night; so serious that the dreaded fire siren blew in answer to Dr. Pilpel’s call for the “inhalator”. Mom would get frightened (probably not as frightened as Dick, who could not catch his breath) and call the doctor from his bed at 2 am. The doc would give him a shot, prescribe some benadryl, and go home usually, but on occasion, the call had to be made. Dick was what would now be called an overachiever. When Dad referred to his asthma problem, he often said Dick needed to learn to “pace himself” so that he wouldn’t do more than he could handle without going into a breathing problem. He eventually was able to do that, but never lost his enthusiasm for doing things full out. He just decided he would conquer the problem, and did. It could be said he “outgrew” it. I would say he conquered it. But he never beat the hay fever, even after he saw a succession of allergists for shots to desensitize him to the various toxins from which he was likely to go into massive histamine reactions to.

My asthma may have been psychosomatic, due to fear, nervous reaction, etc., but I don’t think so. Even today I have so many allergies (including hay!) that I am never sure what it is that is making me sneeze, wheeze or break out. I can not use liquid fabric softener, or fabric softener sheets in the dryer, and if someone uses them before my clothes or bed clothes go in, I break out in an itchy rash and may sneeze a lot. Sprays like room deodorizer, fabric softener, deodorants, etc.; perfumes and body powder, carpet shampoo, the cleaning supply aisle in supermarkets... all choke me up and or make me sneeze.

In grade school, a classmate named Bill lived on a big farm. There was a big hay barn there, and it was a favorite place for Bill’s other friends and my classmates to play. I only went there once, as I really am allergic to hay dust, but it was a traumatic experience. It was the discovery that boys like me were expected to be thrilled with the concept of danger, the possibility of pain. The main attraction of the barn seemed to be the hay loft. The 8 or 10 foot (since I didn’t have a ruler, it didn’t get measured) drop was child’s play, unless you were an undernourished 10 year old with huge glasses, hay fever, asthma and stick thin arms and legs.

While many of my classmates were enjoying the playground, playing ball, raising 4H animals on the farm, enjoying kick the can and hide and seek in the evenings, I was inside, sniffling and wheezing and reading. As a further complication, the drugs available for these afflictions were likely to turn the strongest individual into a zombie. Try being 30 pounds underweight and playing ball with coke bottle bottoms strapped to your face and perpetually sneezing, wheezing and coughing while unable to coordinate your limbs. To this day, I can not fathom what people see in getting “high” on drugs. I spent my youth “high” on things that made me sleepy, dopey and uncoordinated. When I was able to quit taking them (I just stopped, one day) I never went back. Ah, sports! The local paper just published a story about schools possibly being required to drop dodge ball. Boy, do I wish they’d done that in 1950! You haven’t really lived until a squishy, sweaty red or blue dodge ball has smashed your glasses into your bony nose and left a long lasting red welt on your cheek where the lenses hit. OK, that’s not so bad, but now try it with a softball, then a baseball. And, since you can’t see very well to the sides where your glasses don’t cover, basketball passes take on a whole new meaning.

All right, enough whining. It was probably no harder than any other normal kid’s life. Actually, I look back on those years with a good deal of nostalgia, for they were the time in my life that I was not aware that being a P.K. was a hard row. That was one of Dad’s favorite expressions: some person’s “got a hard row to hoe...” meaning the person referred to had a difficult time with something. How about this for a hard row: “Your dad and mom are rich. You’re just a spoiled rich kid. Everybody knows the principal gets paid lot of money. My dad has to work for a living. Yours just has to show up at school an boss everybody around.” Or, “I hate your father; he’s mean. He... (fill in the blank). Or, this or that kid is going to take out his or her frustration on you, and never tell you why. They don’t need to. You just know. So, you develop a method of getting through it. You have some choices: you can get thick skinned (or appear to) and just take the punishment. You can become mean and a bully (if you are big enough) and get even. You can retreat into your shell and avoid contact with everyone who might hurt you. You can convince yourself that you have the moral high ground, and become a priggish defender of your own moral code, and a sharp tongued smart ass. You can become a wild, nonconforming, hard drinking man’s man who finds a way to fit in by rebelling. Or, you can do a combination of all those things and have people wonder about your sanity. One thing some children do when bullied and isolated for some reason is become mass murderers. I guess I had a good upbringing. I didn’t ever take any of the guns I had easy access to as a young hunter and kill anyone. Never even thought about it.

I refuse to use the background I have for an excuse. I am what I am because of what I experienced, and it was by no means all bad. One of my best friends in high school used to beat me up regularly in grade school. It was really more of the “say uncle and I’ll stop” variety, but the effect was the same. He once asked me why I didn’t fight back. I said “why do you beat me up?” We both realized that it was pointless, and when he reached that point he stopped and never did it again. He died young, before I had a chance to tell him how much I respected him. Another boy used to hit me on the head with a book in study hall; hit me hard. When I got up and moved, he moved with me. Mr. Netto would ask me why I was moving around, what was going on. I did not tell him. Eventually, the hitting stopped. When I got older, I realized that that boy, now a man, was not a monster, just a misguided boy with a sense of mischief who knew an easy mark when he saw one. He is a much better man today from his own life experience, and I like him.

Some years ago at a class of ’60 reunion at the C-Way restaurant I was standing at the bar, waiting to get a drink for my wife and myself. Carol was at a table with some friends. A woman who had obviously had enough to drink to allow her to express a long held opinion said loudly “you’re that Charles kid, aren’t you?” I said yes, I guess I was. She said “I hated your old man. I just wanted you to know that.” I said “well, OK, have a nice day.” or something like that. We’re talking 30 years here. The man had been dead 20 years. She still feels the pain, for whatever reason. I would say to her, today, as I would say to anyone else with the same sentiment, “get over it. Move on. I have.”

My Dad was a school principal because he loved it, not because he could not do anything else, and not because he liked inflicting punishment or enforcing rules. He enjoyed the light that seems to go on in a student’s eyes when he or she learns something. All good teachers do. He was a fair man, and would never have done something to deliberately hurt anyone. When he showed me my I.Q. score, it was to make me aware of a potential that he saw in me, not to make me into something he wanted me to be or feel bad. He had no way of knowing the damage it did, and was probably incapable of seeing that it might not help but hurt. I grew up believing he felt I was letting him down, not living up to my potential. I finally understand that he just did not want me to waste my abilities. I wish I’d had the wisdom to understand then.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Chapter 1, P.K.: continued, (2)

I began reading real books at about six. Mom took me to the library in the basement of the K of C hall in Clayton when she went to get the latest Ngaio Marsh mystery. I would have been about 4 or 5. While she browsed, the librarian put me in the children’s section. It was very small, but then, so was the library, since replaced by a magnificent brick building; but more about that later. There I was exposed to Peter Rabbit et al, which my Grandma had read to me as a little tyke. Also I found Raggedy Ann, Brer Rabbit, and “Little Black Sambo,” whom we mustn’t talk about anymore because he represents oppression. In those days, I found Sambo to be an inspiration. What a clever and resourceful little boy he was, I thought. No one had ever told me that the fact that he was black made him inferior, oppressed and in need of freedom. I thought it was a story about a little boy![1]

Enough about my politically leftist views and my white liberal attitudes: that’s another chapter. We were in the library, where I apparently began to read from those books. The first sign of it might have been when people began to point out my increasing vocabulary, and praise my parents on what an intelligent little boy they had (a somewhat mixed blessing, considering the above)! The next thing I knew I was no longer allowed to play with my Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls, because Dad was worried they might make me effeminate. I am confusing ages here, but the info goes together, because it reveals something about my parents and me. I was to become a bookworm, and for some time afterward, Dad, and my older brothers, could be seen to worry that, in today’s parlance, I might become a “girlie man.” But countless reads of Nancy Drew series notwithstanding, I did not (I can hear my friends asking rhetorically “how do you know?”). I also read The Hardy Boys, Tarzan, and Superman Comics.[2] Later, when I discovered that Mom had thrown out all of my Superman comics while I was off at college, I was furious. Of course, I was even more so many years later when their real value became apparent, along with all of the other collectible comics I once stored in an anonymous cardboard box that “looked like trash.”

I was amblyopic as a baby, and Dad’s job as principal probably helped get my eyes checked early enough to detect and correct it. They did not routinely test for it then, as they do now. Along with it came asthma. My older brother, Richard (Dick to all of us and his friends), had it before me, and of course its cousin Hay Fever. Many people considered Hay Fever to be a joking matter in those days, not worth serious medical attention. Remember Sneezy, the dwarf? It was even a misnomer: people who have Hay Fever are often allergic to many other things, but not hay. I was not one of those people, nor was Dick. Also, at two and a half, I was required to sit for hours at a time, attempting to cross my eyes (they both turned out) through the use of some eye exercise cards. In between those times I wore an eye patch until I was fitted with glasses, and then I had a set of black disks that went over one lens of the glasses or the other, so that I could exercise one eye at a time or rest the right eye, forcing the use of the weaker left one. The glasses were nearly as thick as the bottoms of coke bottles, and very heavy, though small enough to fit my baby sized face. They had wire rims and hooks on the bows to hold them behind my ears, and large nose pads, as I was blessed with a skinny little nose. My glasses were always falling down or off. Somewhere there is a series of studio photos of me which Mom felt were so cute, with the sailor suit and all, without the glasses. I still have them, but would like to trade them for all of the photos of Clayton which I lost later on. It was the last photo taken of me as a child without those glasses.

In our back yard was a deep sand box, in which I used to play. I frequently “lost” my glasses in the sand, probably because I hated them. This behavior went on for some years, until my eyes began to develop, and the lenses could be thinned. By the time Kindergarten rolled around, they were like old friends, because they allowed me to read. When the other kids were reading “see spot run/see Dick and Jane,” etc., I was very bored. Something I did not hide at all well, unfortunately. Also, along with the Hay Fever came an extremely developed sense of smell, like the overdeveloped auditory sense. Many foods just smelled “bad” to me, and I had no appetite for them. Macaroni and cheese (a staple for families with limited income such as ours) smelled like something rotten and moldy. It was the same with plain cheese of any kind, and don’t even mention hard boiled eggs! They smelled like sulfur. I still can’t eat them.

[1] The Story of Uncle Remus, by Joel Chandler Harris; Little Black Sambo ,by Helen Bannerman; Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter; Raggedy Ann & Andy dolls with made up stories, still sold today by Hasbro Toys.
[2] Nancy Drew was actually written by a “syndicate”, Edward Stratemeyer, Harriet Adams, Mildred Wirt Benson, etc.; The Hardy Boys Created by Franklin W. Dixon (pseud. of Edward Stratemeyer, 1862-1930, and others); Tarzan, by Edgar Rice Burroughs; Superman from DC Comics

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Boldt Castle Posted by Hello

Riverside Drive Posted by Hello

Some views of Clayton, and Boldt Castle Posted by Hello

Chapter 1, P.K.: continued

....He also disapproved of his sons partaking of the fruit of the vine or hops. My two oldest brothers, Jack and Jim, went away to join the Air Force during the Korean Conflict. It was called that, for those who don’t recall: a conflict, not a war. They probably didn’t drink much before they left. But the service being the service, they sure learned how after leaving home. My brother Dick was the same, except he started before leaving home for college. It caused Dad some small difficulty, I’m sure, to know this, and to hear about it from the locals. I don’t know this, but I can guess, as I was there at the time. So, his way of handling it was to extract a promise from me to abstain from demon rum until after I graduated. I did. Unfortunately I became somewhat of a prig about it, and that led to further complications as a result of my becoming the angelic side of the PK. You know, I have always wanted to use the word prig in a sentence!

Once I started Kindergarten, the P.K. aspect of my life took on new dimensions. Dad had large expectations for all of us, but larger still for me. He wanted me to be a doctor. I don’t know if he felt that way the day I was born, and I don’t know when it actually started, but he expected a lot from me, and I often disappointed him. Oh, not because I didn’t get good grades or good comments from teachers on report cards, but because I didn’t go quite as well as I could do. I once told my third grade teacher that I did not need to memorize fractions or the multiplication tables, thank you very much, because I would never be using them. Of course, this got back to Dad (she had her job to consider, after all, and she was a good teacher) and he very patiently explained to me that this was, well, lazy. He knew, he said, that I could do the work, and would not allow any of that. I forget what the stick was that caused me to reconsider (not a real one), but I did learn the required tables and how to work with fractions.

One bright fall day, I don’t recall what grade I was in at the time, we were given pencils and answer sheets and booklets for a test. It was different than most of the exams we had taken at the time, and I recall Dad explaining that today was an important test day for everyone in my grade, all over the state. I still can’t recall if it was the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC) or the Stanford-Binet, but it was probably the latter. I promptly forgot about the test after I took it, but Dad sure didn’t. Some years later, after an argument about what I should do with my schooling (I hated homework, especially math!) Dad took me to school with him. It was high summer and a bright, sunny day. He led me to the book storage room on the second floor, and unlocked the door. Inside were stacks of text books, piles of boxes, file cabinets, mysterious audio-visual equipment and an old mimeo machine smelling of duplicator fluid. Dust motes, disturbed by the opening door, flew about the room on the rays of the sun streaming past the half open window shade. Remember those rules I mentioned that Dad liked? Well, one good one was to have all of the shades in all rooms of the school at half mast. They looked much better that way, he felt, and they did! Whenever I go past a school now and see the shades every which way, I want to go in and change them.

He went to a file drawer and opened it, pulling out a folder. He said something like “you must promise me you will never tell anyone I showed you this!” and I did so promise. As a result, I have mentioned what follows to very few people, with good reason. He showed me a score sheet, only mine, no one else’s, and explained to me what it meant. “You have a high degree of intelligence,” he said, “and you owe it to yourself to take advantage of it.” I knew nothing, at the time, of I.Q. tests and how they were scored, but he explained it well. I did, in fact, register in the upper brackets of “normal” intelligence set by the standards of the test at that time, except, unfortunately, in math which was just above average. “You could be anything you want to be,” he told me, and explained at length about Valedictorians and scholarships and such. It was then that I understood what he expected of me.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Chapter 1, P.K.

The following is part of chapter 1, the part that fits on a Blog post

Chapter 1

School means something much different to me than most. Therein lies the key to the title of this book. We lived real close to it, and Dad was, as my kids used to say, “the head guy” there. I used to visit the school as a little kid, not in kindergarten yet, with my dad. When I got old enough to sneak off by myself, I went over there without permission one day, and spent a little time with the custodians (we used to call them janitors) as they worked through getting the school ready for the next school year. It was a hot summer, and the inside of the brick and concrete school was more comfortable than the outside air. It also had a pleasant smell: gym sealer, duplicating fluid, soap and the cooled mown grass scented summer air flowing through the terrazzo corridors. I must have been about five, and only barely remember how it happened, but I somehow sat in one of those big mop buckets with the wringer on it, and got stuck. After they saw I was OK, (with a wet seat, but OK) some fun was had by all at my expense, and of course, my brothers never let me forget it!

I always had a good relationship with janitors, and never knew until adulthood that some custodians are child molesters. I was fortunate both in not meeting one of those, and not knowing about it until later. I’m sure none of those guys were in that category. I can still remember their faces, if not names. And I can still remember the scent of school in the summer.

What's the title about? Maybe you’ve heard that a preacher’s kid or a principal’s kid is either full of hell or an angel. Well, there are some good reasons for that, but no psychology here, I promise. My Dad was a stickler for rules. He occasionally broke some, but not many, and wanted us to know that they were not to be broken lightly. His dad, Dr. Oscar Charles, my granddad, was a strict non smoking teetotaler and a serious church going Protestant. He came from a big Welsh immigrant family, and they were strict Calvinists. My Dad used to say (and as an adult having been to Wales and read about the developments in the 18th and 19th centuries there I know now what he meant) “the only good Protestant is one who goes out and founds his own church!” I don’t know if it was original with him, probably not, but it still gets a laugh when I repeat it in some circles. You see, in Wales, his great great great...grandfather was an itinerant preacher who founded his own church...

Dad was a Methodist, in Clayton anyway, and I never knew him to be anything else. His Dad did not drink. Not only that, he was very opposed to anyone drinking, period. When Grandpa and Grandma came to visit, we had to be sure all Dad’s favorite, Red Cap Ale cans or bottles were gone, both full and empty. Dad was also aware that it was frowned on in some circles, if one hung around bars for even a social drink, or had any alcohol in your home, particularly if you were a teacher or a school principal. We made lots of trips to Watertown, NY, to buy groceries. Sometimes we would come back with a six pack or two of Red Cap. Dad’s and Mom’s friends, Sam and Betty, would come over to the house to play bridge. Sometimes they would go over to Sam and Betty’s. It usually involved the consumption of a couple of Red Caps. No scandal there, by today’s standards. But he was sure that he needed to be circumspect about it, and he was. He never went into any of the local bars, not even to talk to someone while he had a coke or a glass of water. He just did not think it was proper for a school principal to do so. Now, I’m pretty sure the folks in town knew he would have a beer or two now and then, particularly since one of the school songs about MoMo (Dad’s unofficial nickname with the students for years) had a line about “MoMo” having a beer. But you would not see him hoisting one at McCormick’s, and he disapproved when those who worked for him did. . . . . .

Interested? Stay tuned. Maybe I'll put more of the next few chapters (I have 10 finished) on.


Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Introduction... (it's OK if you don't like it...)

It all started in a little town in upstate New York called Mooers. Actually it started more recently than that, with my brother Jack’s mailing of an account he wrote about his early life there. I know, the idea is not a new one, writing about your life experience and all of the things you want to share with the world at large. We have both thrown the concept around a few times, but he beat me to it. And I have many examples to follow, also: I just enjoyed reading The Lobster Chronicles, by Linda Greenlaw, for example, and thought “why don’t I ....”

Now I’m sitting at a keyboard, trying to articulate all that might be interesting about Clayton, New York, where I grew up, and where I first became aware of the world around me. I didn’t do that in Mooers, because I was only 2 when our family left, but you may find a few references to Mooers in this book, because that’s where it all started...

I hope to give the reader a feeling for “the North Country” as I experienced it, and many readers will find that it is not the same North Country, nor the same St. Lawrence River, nor the same Clayton that they experienced. You can visit the area as a tourist, you can live there a few years, but unless you have been there a while, or grew up there, you can never know it in the same way. Even if you grew up there between 1944 and 1960, you still can't know it the same way, anymore than I can know the way you experienced it.

Names have been changed, not to protect anyone living or dead from what I might say, but to protect them from unwanted and unwonted inquiry about things read in this book. As stated, the experiences are my experiences, and seen from my point of view. That point of view may often have been clouded by my own upbringing, ignorance of actual events, or a human failure to understand what was motivating the people and events I interacted with. Our memories are flawed, and my “hard drive” has crashed a few times since my childhood. Please keep in mind that I love the St. Lawrence, and that my wife, Carol and I have decided to return there nearly every year for many years. We now have a summer home there.

I should mention my wife Carol’s influence on this book. I recently retired, and have been moping about ways of keeping busy and supplementing my income. She said something like “why don’t you write that book you’re always talking about?” Well, how can I argue with logic like that? Maybe, with her help, and the love and assistance of family, I have created something that you’d like to read. I hope that you enjoy it.


Well, I'll try It can't hurt more than being cut open...

The word "Blog" sounds like something one would say on arising with a bad taste in one's mouth. Since everyone seems to be designing and publishing Blogs these days, I am a lot late in putting this out. I have so many other projects going (a photo directory for our Retirement Community, a start on a non-fiction account of growing up in a small resort town, recovering from 5 heart attacks and a quadruple bypass, paying for the latter...) so starting a new one is daunting. Ah, I'm now daunted. Doesn't take much to daunt me, does it? Is it the project or the prospect of having people read my thoughts and finding them wanting I find daunting? Don't know.
Stay tuned for the intro to my (as yet unpublished, alas) book.