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.