Sunday, January 25, 2015

Summer in the Adirondack Mountains

My first summer in the Adirondacks was my first summer away from home with no family anywhere nearby. I was alone in the woods with total strangers. Sort of. The McKennas were familiar with my family, however. Both of my father's younger brothers had worked for them in the 50's while attending Case Western Reserve in Cleveland where McKennas were social workers.

Mr. McKenna was head of social  work for Cleveland when he retired. They were both from old money, descended from Mayflower settlers, but they both worked anyway. They were also socialist/liberal politically which nearly got Mr. McKenna disinherited. He also had some robber barons in his background which gave him an interesting bunch of relatives, many of whom I got to meet, eventually. Joe and Pat were a bit quirky, but they were great readers and correspondents. Joe had picked up an advanced degree at Cambridge University (yes, that Cambridge) in English literature which made conversation totally fascinating. Pat was similarly educated and when we had guests, which was most of the time, there were interesting discussions which I found myself soaking up while doing my assigned chores. We got the NY Times, but being 300 miles north of the city it was always a day late.

This was where I learned to play cribbage. The coffee table was a slab of pine about 40" in length with holes drilled in it to keep score. The pegs were turned aluminum and brass. These people were serious. An old retired boy scout executive named Morse Lowry would paddle his canoe across the lake at least several nights a week for cribbage. He always paddled properly, on his knees near the center of the canoe, and always wore his big ol' brimmed boy scout hat when he paddled.  They kept score of their games in a notebook and the notebook was older than I was.

Other good friends of theirs, the Gorhams (descended from Nathaniel Gorham of the Continental Congress, etc.) were from Buffalo, but had a place down the lake a mile or two. They were extremely nice people with about four children all older than me. The daughters were awesome and I had a crush on the youngest, even though she was married with two kids. (If you see a pattern here with crushes on older women you are observant.) They had known Joe since childhood as Joe's mother had owned a Chrysler foundry in Buffalo.

It is understandable then that the car I drove for Joe and Pat was a Chrysler product. It was a coupe with a 383 and a 4 barrel carburetor, so it wasn't a great car for running around the north woods doing shopping and errands, but on my day off it was a hoot. Stomp on the accelerator and it would roar to life while inhaling gasoline at an incredible rate. I had to be careful though as $50 a week needed to go toward college and I couldn't afford to burn up a lot of money on 40 cent per gallon gas, and beer was a luxury, too. Remember, you only had to be eighteen in New York to drink.

I saved money well and also saved up a 3 days off by working every day for three weeks.  I decided to go on a little adventure and see where it would take me. I headed to go North and cross the Canadian border for the first time. I picked up a hitchhiker from New Orleans, while going through Watertown, who was headed for the Strawberry Fields concert across the border. Having been in the woods for a couple of months I hadn't heard a thing. (the previous summer my girlfriend's brother was headed to a farm New York for another concert and wondered if we wanted to come along, but we had to work. College ya know.)  I was planning a trip through Algonquin Park so when we stopped at  at the Thousand Islands border crossing we parted ways. I didn't realize the road only goes through a small corner of the park and I wasn't prepared to do any serious camping, anyway. I was pretty much rolling without a plan. I ended up spending the night in a cheap hotel in Hamilton.

I started driving back toward New York the next morning and picked up a couple of guys hitching to Niagara Falls. One guy was Swiss and the other German and they seemed pretty cool so I joined them and we toured Niagara Falls together. It was fun and then they headed out toward the West Coast, hitch hiking across North America. I headed to Rochester to take up an invite of a young friend of Joe and Pat. It was the only time I've been to Niagara Falls.

Mike was a professor of psychology and had done some post-doc work under Piaget in France. He took me to the Faculty Dining Club at the university for dinner as his wife wouldn't be home until later. I had met them before when they were guests at camp. I had three days growth of beard, a chamois shirt, and jeans,so even though I was under dressed I was not underfed. It was awesome food!

After we got home Greta also arrived. Greta was about ten years older than me and had had a crush on my both of my uncles when they had worked for the McKennas years before. I returned the family obligation by having a crush on her. We had a lovely evening of conversation before retiring for the night.

 You realize that I have never told any of those women about my feelings so as not to make anyone uncomfortable. I just admired them all from a safe distance. As the Cooker's mother once said, "He wouldn't say shit if he had a mouthful!" That is how I stayed out of trouble all these years.

I had a leisurely drive back to the Adirondacks the next day. I got to the landing, threw my bag in the canoe and paddled back to camp. A quick three day adventure was now one for the books.

One more guest of Pat and Joe and a genuinely fascinating guy was Dr. Donald Griffin. He was a second cousin to Joe through one of their robber baron ancestors. He was working at Rockefeller University at the time I met him, but his claim to fame was discovering echolocation in bats. During the end of WW2 he was working on bat-guided bombs. He studied animal behavior and animal consciousness and when I took him on a hike to a nearby abandoned beaver pond he pointed out things and demonstrated beaver archeology. His wife was also a research scientist, but with fiddler crabs in the Caribbean. She had a nice tan!

For a guy who had turned nineteen in July I had an amazing summer and I had only spent about a hundred dollars! I think those days are long gone.


  1. Lovely story. I like these snippets of your youth. Please write more!

  2. Interesting circle of acquaintances! I was intrigued enough by the reference to Dr. Griffin to check him on wikipedia. Apparently his work to show that animals are sentient was not enough to keep him from approving the "bat bomb" which (if I understand right) would have used live bats as firebombs. However, if I was responsible for choosing between ending WWII and saving bats, I might make the same choice. But - ouch.

    Fun to read about a summer of employment so different from the ones I knew (slinging KFC or typing!).

  3. I'm really enjoying these forays into your fascinating past. And we have a connection: One of my grandfather's favorite sayings and now one of mine: "He wouldn't say shit if he had a mouthful of it." : )

  4. Great stories. The Falls sure don't look like that anymore. All touristy around the edges.

  5. Yeah, what the others said. Fantastic little stories, and great Polaroids (those are Polaroids, yes?) to go with it.

    40 cent per gallon gas? Wow, those were the days. And to think, people are stomping on the accelerator a lot more now just because gas is under 2 bucks.

  6. Donna, it worries me that there are plenty more where that came from! :)

    jenny_o, timing is everything. Maybe his work with bats led him to start understanding the thinking animal mind. Fortunately for the bats we came up with the atomic bomb. Not so fortunate for the Japanese and the rest of humanity.

    George, I suspect a lot of old sayings have been around in one form or another for a very long time. Maybe that's what was depicted in the caves of Lascaux.

    BF, The Canadian side was so much cleaner and nicer back then. the U.S. side looked like a run down industrial area. I would like to see it again for comparison.

    ABFTS, No, not Polaroids, but I still couldn't afford to develop them until November. Probably because I spent all that money on gas during the summer. Hint: don't get used to these prices. They won't last.

  7. I really enjoyed this..I almost made the concert in Woodstock too, but was working couple 3 jobs to support me and 2 small boys..thanks for stopping by and saying howdy..js

  8. Fun post! It brought back happy memories of my own adventure at eighteen - a five-day canoe trip that accidentally got extended by a few days, followed by a convoluted and eventful trip home... made fun by the company of good friends. :-)

  9. Memories are special.. The older you get, the less future you have to look forward to, the more important they become.
    the Ol'Buzzard

  10. You have so many stories within your stories, Otto. They're remarkable, too - brushes with fame, adventures with hitchhikers, and all those older women you crushed on. Little did they know what they were missing out on. I do suggest, though, not going for a woman with crabs - regardless how nice her tan is. xo

  11. JACKIESUE, responsibility is a cruel mistress. I can still listen to the record, though!

    Diane, I don't think we realized how much fun we were having at the time. I am on book four of your Spy series. :)

    OB, I am realizing that some of the things I do will be for the last time. It's a funny feeling.

    Robyn, Sometimes I feel like Forrest Gump's stupider brother.
    You are right about those saber-toothed crotch crickets!

  12. A great summer! Nineteen is just the right time for adventure, for the world is still full of wonder.

    I used the same technique for "staying out of trouble." These days, though, I doubt I could get into trouble even if I wanted to. Which I don't.

  13. What a cool story! I love hearing about your adventures. And yes, beer is a luxury, isn't it? And also a necessity. ;)

  14. What a beautiful and amazing story. I really want to see The Adirondacks someday. it's on my bucket list!

  15. vanilla, Yeah it was a great age to figure out that there was a whole world out there. Any trouble I get in now is inadvertent.

    Dawn,Beer has indeed turned into more of a necessity than it once was.

    O.E. Thanks for stopping by! Time flies by so you better get working on that list! As a great philosopher once said, "Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like bananas."

  16. Yes, great stories. I hope you make this a recurring feature!

    The American side of the Fall always was less pretty and more dirty than the Canadian side. Then industry on the American side sorta died down, and after a while of blight and real ugliness, the American side finally started shaping up. It looks better than it used to - but still not as great as the Canadian side.

  17. I really enjoyed reading about your early travel reminiscences. I would have loved to see Niagara Falls – it must have been so beautiful without all the tourist shops all around. It reminded me of my coming over to the US. I came, alone, at 21, without really knowing people here. I traveled in Greyhound bus for 3 months in 23 states. Like you, several people invited me for dinner. I would not do this now but when young one is rarely afraid of anything.

  18. PP, Thanks! Yes, the Canadian side was more beautiful by leaps and bounds.

    Vagabonde, I truly enjoy the stories from your youth, as well, and your modern travelogues. Were we not as afraid at that age or have things changed that much? Wish I knew.

  19. It sounds like you must've been able to hold your own in intellectual circles at a very young age! Fascinating. I love the pictures, too.