Of Time and the Lake
I almost drowned twice in the Housatonic River in Connecticut. My
given name, Philip, means lover of horses. This information has a direct
bearing on my interest and experience in the Housatonic River Valley in
Western Connecticut, and to be specific, the locales of Sandy Hook, where
the Housatonic widens out and is called Lake Zoar, and to the area around
New Milford. These threads of information will be explained. These and
other adventures in and around the Housatonic stimulated my interest in the
development of lakes and rivers, especially the origins of this valley that is
so important to the heritage of New England. This essay is an attempt to
blend the near past, my experiences, with the history of this valley, with a
tincture of geology.
by Philip Liebson
Delivered to The Chicago Literary Club
April 6, 1998
Rivers and lakes are the yin and yang of water. Rivers assist in their
own evolution, are dynamic, carving out their own niches. Rivers have
participated in shaping the continents. Lakes are passive, meditative, filling
in depressions in the landscape, frequently formed by shifts in the earth's
crust. They are formed in basins, and to appreciate the contribution of basins
to the land one should read a short book by John Mc Phee " Basin and
He elaborates on the great disruptions developing 500 million
which produced mountains no longer in existence, but salient to our
discussion, the basins filling with water to become lakes. Once, Lake
Bonneville in Oregon was greater in size than Lake Erie, after great
precipitations produced by changes in the climate . Lake Lahotan and Lake
Manlius are no more. Their dusty beds are located near Reno and skirting
An authority on lakes, G. Evelyn Hutchinson of Yale, has
them by as many as 76 types, or by 11 ways in which they can be formed
from lake basins. To name a few, landslides of soil and rock, erosion and
sediment deposits from rivers, the dissolution of limestone beds by
groundwater with collapse of the overlying rock, and the beautiful
symmetrical lakes such as Crater Lake in Oregon, 1,983 feet deep, formed
7000 years ago from an enormous eruption shattering its surrounding
volcano. It doesn't take decades to create a lake. Small shifts in the earth's
tectonics can create lakes overnight.
In the area of our focus, the Northern
Appalachians were formed over
400 million years ago, mainly in a sequence of mountain building, termed
orogeny, in this case, the Taconian orogeny, caused by the collision of two
large masses of land, Laurentia and Baltica, now North America and
Northern Europe. The Northern Appalachian ridge pushed back the ocean
and created new rivers, among them the Santee, the James, the Merrimack,
the Kennebec, and the Housatonic.
Chad Powers Smith, in his book about the
Housatonic, from which I have
obtained most of my information about the valley, presents a poetic
historical exposition lending itself more to the imagination. (2) According to
this history, New England was partially separated from North America until
some 50 million years ago by a part of the ocean the became the Atlantic.
This land was then called Acadia. Northwest of it, separated by a stretch of
ocean, was Canadia. Southwest was Appalachia. For over a billion years
before that, Acadia had flourished as a separate peninsula partially separated
from Canadia. The great change developed 50 million years ago when the
Appalachian ridge rose and shed off the sea between Appalachia, Canadia
In the beginning, the Housatonic was a straight river flowing
all the way. Its origin was well northwest of its present headwaters, well
beyond the Hudson valley. Eventually, the Hudson, once a small tributary of
the Delaware river, broke through the banks of the Housatonic, leaving a
smaller, exclusively New England river. More recently, for over four
hundred thousand years, in four stages, the Housatonic valley was below an
ice sheet over a thousand feet deep. It was only 20 thousand years ago that
the last ice sheet receded from the Valley, leaving Long Island separated
from the New England mainland. The Housatonic Valley then teemed with
creatures now vanished, the heath hen, wild turkey and passenger pigeon.
The last passenger pigeon is reported to have died in a cage in Cincinnati in
At a later time, well beyond the ice age, The Mohican Indians of the
large Algonquin race entered the Valley. Each Spring, all the tribes came
downriver to catch shad below the falls of New Milford and spent the
summers digging for shellfish on the beaches of Milford and Stratford, at the
mouth of the Housatonic in Long Island Sound.
There were six tribes in the
lower Connecticut valley of the river, the one
nearest to Sandy Hook and Newtown being the Potatucks, the name also
given to the Housatonic at that location. Potatuck meant "river of the falls",
for there was a great waterfall located in the area. The English settlers called
this section the Great River. The Berkshire Indians are presumed responsible
for the eventual name Housatonic, "river beyond the mountains". The name ,
like the river, flowed down in stages from the headwaters in Massachusetts
to the lower Valley in Connecticut, replacing the names Potatuck or Great
River in the Lower Valley only in the late 1700's.
The Housatonic Valley has
been primarily a valley of farmers, stable
over many generations. The Housatonic meanders for 160 miles though
this 115 mile long valley into Long Island Sound at Milford, between
Bridgeport and New Haven. The Valley averages over 20 miles in width.
The river is bordered 40 miles on the east by the Connecticut river and 40
miles on the west by the Hudson, both larger and more majestic. It is, as
indicated before, a geologically old river, bordered by mountains millions of
From three branches in Western Massachusetts beyond the
and Litchfield Hills, the headwaters converge near Pittsfield, flowing mostly
south, passing Lenox, Lee and Stockbridge, at which point the river has been
immortalized by a musical composition of Charles Ives. Reaching Canaan in
Connecticut, southward heads the river passing Sharon, Cornwall, Kent,
New Milford, Brookfield, Newtown, Sandy Hook, where it widens into Lake
Zoar created by the Stevenson Dam, southward beyond Shelton and Derby,
finally reaching Long Island sound near Milford.
It is fed in a roughly
North-South direction by Richmond Pond, Mud
Pond, Pointoosuc Lake, and of the rivers, the Konaport, the Tenmile, the
Scatacock, the Pomperaug. It passes many mountain chains and individual
hills such as Brodie Mountain, Greylock, the Hoosacs, the Beartowns, the
Green, the Taconics, South Mountain, Yopkun Seat, Baldhead, and near
New Milford, Mt Tom and Little Mt. Tom.
So much for geology and geography. A lake can be a source of
nostalgia and a forewarning of the passing of time. A notable example is one
of my favorite essayists, EB White, who almost 60 years ago wrote of
returning to the lake of his childhood more than thirty years later with his
young son, who had never been there before, and until then, had experienced
only the salt water of the shores of Maine. (4) Throughout the essay are
sprinkled the elements that come naturally to the environment of lakes as we
know them in this country, canoeing, the varied hums of outboard (and
inboard) motors, the sudden summer thunderstorms, the tarred and dirt
roads, the smells of pine outdoors, and the personality of the wooden
partitions indoors. In experiencing this nostalgic time with his son, White
feels transformed into his own father, seeing his son as he himself was thirty
years before. The essay ends as White sees his son pulling on cold dripping
bathing trunks from a clothesline after a thunderstorm ready to plunge into
the cold waters of the lake. White then feels the icy cold in his own groin,
which to him is the chill of death. To place things in context, EB White lived
to a very old age, dying almost 50 years later. The son of which he spoke,
Joel, died within the past few months after spending his years as a much
sought after craftsman of boats on the coast of Maine.
The story evokes for
me the last stanza from a poem by Dylan Thomas,
published not 5 years after the essay: (5)
Nothing I cared in the lamb white days, that time would take me
There is a tinge of death around a lake, maybe the serenity, the sense of
eternity which one may not feel at the edge of a flowing river, a stillness in
the arc of the early morning sunlight, or in the evening mist. I sensed this
feeling of eternity once when I visited Lake Louise, my first view in late
afternoon, with the sun glinting off the precipitous bordering mountains. The
patterns of the flowers and trees bordering on the lake almost appeared clues
to solving a deep puzzle I had been unaware of until then. I lost the sense of
time and had been gazing at the lake for almost an hour when may wife
called to me. It is a rare feeling for me, the sense of time lost, and of having
reveled in a mystery that has been completely closed from my mind.
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high field
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means.
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
There is a lake of which I am very much filled with early memory, Lake
Zoar, the part of the Housatonic near Sandy Hook, Connecticut, where I
spent many a summer day in my boyhood.
My earliest encounter with the
Housatonic, at Lake Zoar, led to my first
near-drowning. I do not remember this episode but it was related to me by
my Aunt Dora, my mother's sister, who with my Uncle Lou, had a bungalow
near the Lake. Lou was a short, cigar smoking newspaper linotyper who had
purchased some land with some of his army buddies after World War I and
had built a bungalow with primitive facilities but a plentitude of beds and
bunks to house all his guests. My parents visited frequently. I was two years
old at the time of this incident and it was perhaps the first time I had been at
the bungalow. As it was related to me, Lou, Dora, mother and I reached the
wooden dock at the foot of the steep hillside from the bungalow to the Lake.
We were all in bathing suits and the conversation went something like this:
Lou: "The kid should learn how to swim".
I am told that Lou dropped me into the water, which was just over my
head. My mother was not amused. I was frantically thrashing with my arms
and legs, and probably choking, when my mother, who had better lifesaving
capabilities than Lou, plucked me out of the water. She didn't say much since
she was afraid of Lou. He snarled most of the time, and had an irrascible
disposition. In retrospect, he reminded me of a more compact Richard J.
Daley. The story reminds me of an apocryphal incident which occurred just
before World War I, of which I don't think Lou was aware. The Kaiser was
threatening to invade the Netherlands and was discussing it with Queen
Wilhelmina of the Netherlands. "My Uhlans are 7 feet tall", boasted the
Kaiser. "But the water level reaches 8 feet if I open the dikes", responded the
Mother: " He will in a few years"
Lou: "There's no time like the present".
The bungalow was reached after a long drive from New York over the
Merritt Parkway, exit 49, Long Hill Road. This road led into Newtown with
a sharp turn into a dirt road that after a mile ended at the top of a tree strewn
hill. Lou's green-gray eyes matched the color of his 1936 Plymouth. He
never drove it, though, because his vision was none too good, despite his
profession. Dora did all the driving and Lou did all the directing, with free
use of selective profanity, mostly hell and damn, which would be relatively
tame for our present times. This was expected of Lou since any pleasantness
would possibly have led to boredom on a long trip such as this. Lou vented
his opinions from Larchmont to beyond Bridgeport, usually with opera
music blaring from the car radio, although Lou was equally adept a capella.
Aunt Dora held up her end of the conversation. Rather it was a separate
monologue, since she was by habit oblivious to everything Lou said. Dora
would discuss everything that was taking place at her work in an office down
near Wall Street, and update the social histories of all her friends. All this
would be enveloped in atmosphere of cigar smoke from Lou and cigarette
smoke from Dora, for this was twenty years before the Surgeon General's
report. The conversation would become protracted when we were stopped
occasionally because of a mock air raid. Remember, there was a war on and
the Connecticut civil defense was second to none in preparedness. We might
sit for several hours in the car on one of the long stretches of countryside,
lined up with others.
This introduction is necessary to create the environment of
everytime I visited the Lake. As a youngster, I was always accompanied by
my mother, and occasionally my father would visit as well. These were times
that were important for mother and her sister to discuss life in general. Dora
and Lou had no children and Lou had a general distaste for children who
verbalized, meaning spoke. This covered the vast majority of children. I was
always on my guard. I can't say that Lou was physically abusive to me. Only
once did he smack me, when I was about three. I just stared at him. My
mother was speechless on this occasion, not knowing how to respond.
I just looked at her and said " Mommy, you can cry for me". Not that this led
to a sudden softening of his spirit toward me. He
continued to snarl. However, over the years, despite this, I relished the trips
up to the Lake. It was over a weekend, and we would arrive late Friday
evening to LoTo inn, the name of the place. For years I thought that this was
a special place name derived from a local Indian tribe, until I realized that it
was a play on his first and last names, Lou Tompkins.
"The kid's got guts", said Lou.
We would enter the
bungalow at the dead of night, to the odor of
cedarwood , kerosene, and cooked bacon . There was no electricity in those
days, and I might add, no indoor plumbing for that matter, there being
several outhouses within convenient walking distance, and a large supply of
flashlights. This was later rectified as Dora and Lou got older. However, the
house stood by a roaring brook which plunged into the Lake so that there
was never any silence.
Saturday was usually spent down by the dock. Lou had
a boat with an
inboard motor, there were some still present in the early 1940's. Lou never
went out on the boat, but spent most of his time cooking lunch or dinner. He
was a gourmet cook and, his temperament aside, he loved company. Despite
his feelings about children talking, he relished adult conversation, usually
about politics, sports, or what was going on in the local environment. In the
company of guests, Lou listened mostly with an occasional snarl, and, to
give him credit, a not so rare belly laugh. Lou and Dora had friends from all
over the country. She had worked as an administrative assistant in the early
30's and in the environment of the early Roosevelt years had to make trips to
Washington on behalf of her company in regard to WPA codes. She had
made many friends, her disposition being much more amiable than Lou's. All
were opinionated. I enjoyed the hubbub because I was usually the only child
there, and was fascinated by adult conversation. Not that I wasn't noticed.
was learned very quickly that I was gullible even for an eight year old.
I believed everything. Why not? We were living in an age of authority.
Authorities were all over telling us what to do. It was the war. News
announcers sounded like oracles. This was true of commercial announcers as
well, but in those days, you could tell the difference between the news and
One of the guests would notice me and say, " Kid, did you
your Uncle Lou once tried out for the NY Giants?"
When I took the bait, as
expected, he would continue.
"Yes, John McGraw saw him hitting baseballs in
a sandlot and told him to come to the Polo Grounds. He hit balls over four hundred feet during
"Why didn't he become a Giant?," I asked. Imagine, my Uncle Lou,
five foot three, a Giant.
" Well, Lou's best position was shortstop but he wasn't short
enough for McGraw".
That was a good enough reason for me why Dora and Lou lived in an
apartment across from Yankee Stadium.
IV The Housatonic Valley is a valley of farmers, but has
had a noted history
for education. By 1640 the Massachusetts and New Haven colonies required
every plantation to maintain a school. The Collegiate School, founded in
1701, which became Yale, was influenced and influenced scholarship in the
valley. The Housatonic provided Yale with some of its early presidents. The
Reverend Israel Chauncey of Stratford at the river's mouth declined the first
presidency. However, his neighbor, Reverend Samuel Andrew of Milford
became the second President, and the Reverend Timothy Cutler of Stratford,
his son-in-law, the Third.
America's first law school opened in the Valley in
in 1784. Among its noted early graduates were Senator John C. Calhoun, of
South Carolina, and the educator Horace Mann, and eventually three
Supreme Court justices, and numerous Senators, governors and ambassadors.
Of equal note, Litchfield was the site of the Female Academy, opened in
1792, which by 1832 became reputedly the most famous women's school in
the country. Remember that the first woman's college, Mt Holyoke, in So.
Hadley, Mass, did not open until 1837. There was a serious rivalry between
the Female Academy and the local girls for the attention of the Law School
students. Several large balls were given on the Litchfield green which,
unfortunately, were closed to the girls of the Academy below the age of 16.
Judge Tapping Reeve, who founded the Law School and taught there for
decades, was an early advocate for equal education for women and full legal
equality as well, and gave every assistance to the Female Academy.
In the late
nineteenth century, men such as Joseph Choate of Stockbridge
were responsible for founding excellent private schools to develop and breed
men of the gentry, paying the highest prices for the best teachers. Joseph
Choate became the Ambassador to the Court of St. James and was a leader
of the New York bar. He was also known for his wit. Someone once asked
him whom he would choose to be if he were not Joseph Choate. His reply:
"Mrs. Choate's second husband".
The purpose of establishing private schools was to superimpose upon
public education a more exclusive and higher quality education for a
privileged class. In and around the Housatonic Valley, these beautiful
English collegiate gothic or Georgian edifices sprouted, with appropriate
entwining vines and landscaped trees. There may have been more private
boarding schools in the Housatonic Valley than in any other rural region in
the world. These included such as the Gunnery School, Hotchkiss, Miss
Hall's School, Rumsey Hall, Kent, Berkshire, Milford, Canterbury, and on
In addition to its excellent private schools, the Housatonic Valley has
been a residence for writers, educators, scientists, artists and musicians.
The major music center near Lenox, Massachusetts, has been the summer
home of the Boston Symphony since the mid 1920's. It got its name,
Tanglewood, from Nathaniel Hawthorne, who lived near Lenox and
explored a nearby a glen full of brush, vines, and roots with his children. A
later estate on the property took this title and finally the large music
At the time, 1850, Hawthorne, had just come from Salem, jobless,
50, and broke, with his wife, two children and an expected third to support.
Although bereft of money, he was not bereft of stories, and would make up
tales for his children as they climbed Mt Baldhead or scampered through the
brush. These later were published as the Tanglewood Tales and Twice-Told
Tales. An excerpt of a contemporary review of the Twice-Told Tales
"Of the essays just named...they are each and all
beautiful...There is no
attempt at effect. All is quiet, thoughtful, subdued...The essays have much
the character of (Washington) Irving, with more of the originality and less of
the finish. This is high praise since the writer of this review was Edgar Allen
" The Hollow of the Three Hills...afford(s) an excellent example of
authors peculiar abilities. The subject is commonplace. A witch subjects the
Distant and the Past to the view of a mourner. It has been the fashion to
describe, in such cases, a mirror in which the images of the absent appear; or
a cloud of smoke is made to arise, and thence the figures are gradually
unfolded. Mr. Hawthorne has wonderfully heightened the effect by making
the ear, in place of the eye, the medium by which the fantasy is conveyed.
The head of the mourner is enveloped in the cloak of the witch, and within
the magic folds, there arise sounds which have an all-sufficient
intelligence...Every word TELLS, and there is not a word which does NOT
Quite by coincidence, less than 6 miles from Hawthorne's home, resided
Herman Melville, also trying to earn a living. At the time, Hawthorne was
living near Lenox and Melville near Pittsfield on a farm called Arrowhead.
Both were reasonably indolent at the time in regard to their writing. It was
early summer. Unlike Hawthorne, Melville did not have the leisure to make
long explorations. He had planned to write five hours in the morning and
devote the rest of the day to light farming, raising enough for his family's
subsistence. Unfortunately, his wife, Elizabeth, daughter of the Chief Justice
of Massachusetts, lacked the capability of household management. Her
equipment for rustic living was an "admirable set of party dresses and
slippers", according to a Melville biographer. Melville, like my Uncle Lou,
did most of the cooking and most of the housework, besides the farming. He
was finally freed from this domestic labor when his mother and two sisters
came to live with them.
Hawthorne and Melville met on August 5, 1850, to
be exact. A stag
affair was held by a prominent New York attorney who was vacationing in
Pittsfield, to which the authors and some of their friends and publishers were
invited. This included an all day walk up nearby Mount Monument, south of
Lenox, and ended with a dinner. Melville had previously complemented
Hawthorne's work effusively in print. Hawthorne, on the other hand, had
been cautiously noncommittal in return. The result of the meeting was the
beginning of a short-lasting friendship. Hawthorne's wife, Sophia,
commented on her impressions of Melville in one of her vivid letters to her
mother. Sophia also appeared to have mixed feelings about Melville:
Mr. Hawthorne and Mr. Melville have gone to dine at Pittsfield.
...(T)his would have been no particular courtesy in some persons, but for this
shy dear (Hawthorne), who did not particularly wish, for some reason, to be
introduced to Mr. Melville, it was pretty...I am not sure (Melville) is not a
very great man [note the way this is put]...He seems to see everything very
accurately...and how he can do so with his small eyes, I cannot tell. They are
not keen eyes, either, but quite undistinguished in any way...He is tall and
erect, with an air free, brave and manly...When conversing, he is full of
gesture and force... There is no grace and polish."
Hawthorne and Melville kept up
their developing friendship, although
Hawthorne remained cautious in his appraisal of Melville. He frequently
rode to Arrowhead, Melville's farm, where they would lie in the hay of
Melville's barn and discuss the universe. By several months, which would
make it the fall of 1850, both were finally on their way to new books.
Hawthorne was working on House of the Seven Gables, and Melville, Moby
Dick. By the end of the year, House of the Seven Gables was finished.
Within six months, a manuscript of Moby Dick was also completed, and
Melville presented it to Hawthorne for comments. Hawthorne greeted it with
friendly reserve and within a short period published a condemnation of the
spirit of the book in the form of a story, Ethan Brand, or the Unpardonable
Sin. The unpardonable sin, according to Chard Smith, was the introverted
overintellectualization of which Captain Ahab, and by inference, Melville,
However, at the time, Melville had not seen the publication and had
received only a letter from Hawthorne commenting on the work with
cautious reserve. Melville received with apparent surprise and dismay, as
indicated by his written response to Hawthorne:
" My dear Hawthorne: The year 1851 was an apogee of literary production for the
Valley, with Moby Dick, The House of the Seven Gables, the Wonder Book,
and Twice-Told Tales from Melville and Hawthorne. In addition, Uncle
Tom's Cabin was published in magazine form, Harriet Beecher Stowe having
been a native of Litchfield. Hawthorne left his farm soon afterwards, the
friendship severed, but Melville remained for another 10 years.
... Your letter was handed to me last
night... Whence come you,
Hawthorne? By what right do you drink from my flaggon[sic] of life?
...Farewell.. Don't write a word about the book. That would be robbing me of
my miserly delight...PS..I can't stop yet...PPS. Don't think of writing me a
letter... I shan't always answer your letters and you may do just as you
The Housatonic at New Milford is a swift river. The river at that point
was once enormous in width and the flanking hills are the former banks. In
the early eighteenth century, in what was then called Weantinock. The
Indians had their village on the western slope and the English settlers on the
Eastern shelf. Relations between the white settlers and the Indians went
reasonably well thanks to the efforts on both sides. The Indian Sachem
Waramaug, considered by a contemporary settler " a man of uncommon
powers and mind, sober, and regular in life, who took much efforts to
suppress the vices" of his people, kept the Native American culture going as
the collection of tribes retreated Northward. Waramaug reigned for over 50
years. His house was located within three miles of the present New Milford.
It was quite a remarkable home for its time, a hundred feet by twenty, the
walls thatched with a huge slabs composed of specially selected bark, carried
for miles by the builders. The best artists from all the tribes worked on the
interior decorations. The settlers made a deal with Waramaug which
eventuated in the selling of most of the present New Milford township to the
settlers. Waramaug's reign in Weanintock was the only attempt in the area to
keep the waning Indian culture alive and intact. After his death in 1735, the
tribes scattered and by 1800 there remained only 35 individuals.
From his reign
comes the legend of Lover's Leap, a name given to the
western precipice of the gorge below Waramaug's palace. According to the
legend, one summer day before the English came to settle the area, the great
chief's daughter Lillinoah discovered a paleface youth lost and hungry in the
forest. She took him to her father, pleaded and saved his life and by the first
snow, obtained the chief's consent for marriage. The boy said that he must
return to his people for a while, but would be back soon. The winter dragged
by and he did not return. By the following May, Lillinoah was heartsick and
the chief decreed that she should marry a promising young Sagamore. On the
wedding day, Lillinoah's maidens bedecked her with the finest beads and
feathers. Just before the ceremony was to take place, she slipped down to the
river and pushing out in her little canoe below the falls, headed downstream
toward the rapids raging from the early spring rains. When she was already
in the gorge and nearing the heavy swirl of waters, her true white lover
appeared on the cliff above, leaped down the hundred foot precipice, and
joined her in the arms of the Great Spirit.
There is also an authenticated event
which took place in the late 1600's,
that may bear on this legend. In what is now Woodbury, about 10 miles
north of the present Lake Zoar, a young and respected sachem,
Waramaukaeg, was disposed toward Christianity and visited the reverend
Mr. Walker to hear the exposition of the doctrine. In the summer of 1687,
the minister's 17 year old niece visited him, and made a habit of taking a
daily walk up the pine- and hemlock-shaded path up a hill to the lofty
solitude of the summit, Bethel Rock. Waramaukaeg fell in love with her but
failed to win either her or her uncle's consent in marriage. The next day, she
again took her accustomed walk but was never seen alive again. The next
day her body was found at the bottom of the precipice under Bethel Rock,
bruised but not violated. Nearby was the twisted and mangled body of the
young sachem. What had happened before on the summit was never known.
When I was eleven, I went to overnight camp for the first time, in the
vicinity of New Milford. There were many adventures that I had at this camp
but two are relevant here. The first involves my second life and death
encounter with the Housatonic, which runs more swiftly through New
Milford than at Sandy Hook. I had just learned to swim and several of my
peers, most of whom were on the softball team, had created a group called
the white tee-shirt society. The purpose of this society was to form an
exclusive group of ins, meaning that those who did not belong to the society
were excluded from lying lazily within this group in a remote portion of the
camp discussing sports, girls, and other topics. The main activity of the
society was wearing clean white tee-shirts at dinner every night and sitting at
one of the long tables, demonstrating solidarity. There is no evidence that
table manners or any other trait distinguished these boys from the other
campers the same age. I should mention that there were 12-14 positions on
the softball team, and usually the outfield, rather than the bases, were loaded.
The team lost every game to the townies (in fact only three were played all
summer) usually by the score of 20-1. Three hits were considered a good day
for us. I say us, since I was one of the outfielders, placed there by the grace
of having once had a good batting eye during tryouts. This did not mean that
I could field. Although I could throw a considerable distance, the ball usually
headed 5 to 10 degrees away from my target.
Getting back to our society,
there was one other stipulation in joining.
An initiation of sorts was necessary, a test of our manliness, a rite of passage.
Since I had just received my swimming certification, my task was to
jump into the Housatonic and stay afloat for 5 minutes. There was only one
opportunity to do this. Some counselors would occasionally swim in the
Housatonic in preference to our swimming stream, which was quite tame by
comparison. Several of us prevailed upon them to allow us to join them for
this demonstration. Although this sounds somewhat audacious for a camp
that was well run, it must be understood that the camp stressed enterprise and
individuality, and besides, the counselors were good swimmers and senior
Having convinced the counselors, off we went in one of the camp
trucks to the banks of the Housatonic, on a very hot August afternoon. There
was no raging current at this time of year, the spring thaw long since ended,
and the dog days being upon us. The water was cold, but there were
counselors around me, aware of the initiation rites. Since the object was not
necessarily to swim but just stay afloat, I felt that the odds were with me.
There was no raging current, but a current nevertheless.
In I waded and
plunged into the mildly swirling waters. After
attempting to stay above water for several minutes, I found myself be pulled
southward and turning my head to see where the nearest counselor was
located, I missed seeing some rocks just below the surface. I received a
glancing blow to one of my legs, not enough to hurt me much, but enough to
cause me to upset my balance and do an involuntary somersault, which
brought my head under water,allowing me to swallow some of its contents.
Coming up for air, I began choking for breath. Fortunately, I was grabbed by
one of the counselors and brought safely to the bank.
I had just enough energy
to ask: "How many minutes?"
"Five minutes and two seconds", he said with a wink.
My other adventure occurred the first day I tried horseback riding. In an
effort to expand my horizons, if nothing else, my parents felt that it was a
good idea for me to learn horseback riding at the camp. Not that there had
been a tradition of horsemanship in the family. I am told, however, that one
of my grand-uncles died after a fall from a horse at the age of 94. This does
not indicate that he was necessarily a horseman, and may have just
encountered the horse for the first time and made an effort to see what it was
like to ride a horse at his age.
I looked forward to my task with trepidation. I
had no interest in horses,
however, it was the manly thing to do and I decided to appear the first day of
riding. Mr. Smith, a kindly and elderly stable master and horse trainer led
seven horses out for each of the neophyte campers. He noticed that I had
sneakers on, not hard heeled shoes.
" You might have some difficulty lad,
with those shoes", he said.
Since he did not offer me another pair, I felt that my chances at success
were still better that average, success meaning mounting the horse , staying
on the horse and successfully completing the full hour of the lesson. As you
can surmise from this entire narrative, I have always been aware of the
passage of time. I was the last to be mounted on a horse, named Sunspot.
This horse who appeared malevolent in a drowsy sort of way. I was
discomfited by the name since I had been led to believe that sunspots were a
cause of bad climatic changes, radio static, if not worse. The horse was
We entered the dirt road single file, Mr. Smith leading, and
bringing up the rear. Sunspot was in no mood to continue, however, and
investigated every branch and leaf by the side of the road, nibbling freely.
Mr. Smith was helpful, shouting back at me to grab the reins and kick the
horse to get him moving. Unfortunately, the rubber heeled sneakers were of
no help and after a while, Mr. Smith and the other riders were getting further
and further ahead, blissfully ignorant or unconcerned about my predicament.
I did not realize this at first for I was too busy keeping my balance and
watching Sunspot's neck and head to determine which direction they were
going. The direction was mostly downward and side to side, with an
occasional forward movement of the hooves to get to the next shrub. Finally,
I looked up and Mr. Smith and the group had disappeared.
Although I kept
kicking at Sunspot and pulling on his reins, I could not
get him to move forward. Here I was, on a lonely dirt road surrounded by
forest, increasingly frustrated, and frankly, edging on panic.
Just then, an
automobile horn beeped behind us. This accomplished what
my heels couldn't and Sunspot began trotting up the road. I use the term
trotting on the basis of retrospect because at the time I thought it appeared to
me to be a full gallop, for which I was not prepared . Off we went, passing a
side road which Mr. Smith and the other riders had entered and were a
hundred feet into. I shouted my greetings, "help", and continued straight
ahead, holding the reins for dear life. The auto behind us passed without
incident, although to this day it appears inconceivable to me that the width of
the road could have included both a car and Sunspot.
What I then saw ahead
of me alarmed me even more than the rapid pace.
About three hundred yards ahead, the first road reached a clearing in the
forest and went straight into a paved road with heavy traffic.
Since I had no control over the horse, I realized that I had two options. One
was to disengage myself from the horse and possible suffer a concussion,
and the second was to continue on to the main highway like a latter day Paul
Revere and risk more serious injury. I took the first option and dismounted
the quick way, sliding off the horse and fortunately disengaging both feet
from the stirrups. I tumbled a little but was unhurt. A farm woman ran over
and seeing what was going on, reined in the horse, just as Mr. Smith
appeared with the other riders. He was relaxed as ever.
" I told you about the
I eventually did learn to ride, and later had some brief but
experiences in Arizona and Colorado. Many years later, my wife and I were
driving through Connecticut one summer and I had the urge to revisit the
camp, which I had not visited since the last time I was a camper.
We diverted to
New Milford along new expressways and almost bypassed
the town. We eventually got onto the bumpy road that I remembered, still a
dirt road, leading to the camp. The baseball field was in the same location,
the land still skewed upwards toward right field, but with a new scoreboard.
Driving beyond the camp, I realized that we had now entered the part of the
road in which I had had that adventure with Sunspot many years before. We
rounded a bend. There, in front of me, in single file, were a group of young
campers. I did not sound my horn.
1. Mc Phee, J. Basin and Range. Farrar.Straus.Giroux. New York, 1980.
2. Smith, CP. The Housatonic. Puritan River. Rinehart and Company. New
3. Furnas, JC. Great Times. An informal social history of the United States.
1914-1929. GP Putnam's Sons. New York, 1974, p.15.
4. White, EB. Once more to the lake, in Essays by EB White. Harper and Row.
New York, 1977 [Originally published in Harper's magazine, Aug 1941].
5. Thomas, D. Fern Hill [1945-1946]