Friday, December 2, 2011

Naked Son - Memoir of a Six Mile Creek Native

I wrote this for my friend Hilary who is watershed steward at the Cayuga Lake Watershed Network. At the time that I wrote she was at work on a project to walk folks from the headwaters of Six Mile Creek to the outsource into the southern end of Cayuga Lake in Ithaca, NY.


When we start out in life our maps are small. My earliest memory of 6-mile creek is from 55 years ago.

We lived in an apartment in the old mill building next-door to the store in Brooktondale, across from the post office. At that time the store was an IGA (Independent Grocery Store) with an actual part-time butcher on the premises. The present roadway bridge was not there then and I remember when they moved the large house down toward the former trestle location at the curve where there was the ditch with quicksand for many years. It is also at this curve where I suspect a UFO abducted me one night. Then with the large house out of the way they built the present bridge. But where the bridge is now before the bridge was a place where we would play at the creek. What I remember are kids that would throw rocks down, glacial boulders of gneiss, limestone and sandstone from the upper bank onto us as we played down below.

Further upstream from the lower bridge is the mill falls below the upper bridge and at that time the mill stood tall on the west bank. I remember we went in there in winter with my stepfather and the panted legs of men that would stand in close around the pot belly coal stove where they talked and smoked cigars. They were all into electricity and radio and tinkering with wires and tubes. Across the creek from there in a yellow house lived my first girl friend, Mary. It was a brief relationship.

Though as kids we would wade and dip in the sedimentary flats below the falls we had always been warned sternly not to swim in the pool directly below the falls. We had leaches, black snakes and red water mites to contend with.

Where the community center is now was the two room schoolhouse where I went to first grade before Caroline Elementary was built. Those were transition years when public buildings were built with concrete blocks instead of wood framing. My grandfather was a lay Congregational Methodist preacher and my mother a Fundamental Baptist, so one week I would go to the Methodist Church and the next week to the Baptist. Both churches were on the same street with a few houses between them. Once a year the Methodist church would have this certifiably insane man preach and it was the best poetry ever. Years later he found where someone had written a nasty word in the dust on the window of my Ford Falcon and he lectured me all about sin. My friends did not understand what the hell that was about out in the parking lot but I thought it was real neat to get the special sacred attention. Water and all that Baptism stuff of heavy words that flow from the heart.

When I was in Boy Scouts that was held at the community center there was a kid name of Watson, as I recall, whose family lived up a ways from the mill falls in a house near to the creek. They were a hunt and trap sort of family, beaver and muskrat pelts out on the back porch. Watson was a star in the troop, very athletic, sharpshooter type, what we thought of then as a future leader of men. He drowned in the pool below the mill falls when he attempted to rescue two young girls from their drowning. He got some sort of posthumous presidential medal presented to his father.

I went back there below the falls alone last year and the minute I smelled the water it brought a whole host of memories back to me. If I could make an incense that smelled like that I would burn it on the low days.

Closer in toward the lower bridge lived an elderly couple in a house that seemed to perch out over the creek. They owned a purple Studebaker. One time the old man showed me a walking stick on a tree in his yard. It was the first time I had seen one and years later in the desert in Oregon where there was not very much water on a reservation I made a walking stick out of twist ties for the kids and they called me coyote with the socks falling down. I don’t know what happened to the elderly couple. One day they were just not there. I looked in their windows and the table was set for dinner. Blue table cloth with red flower prints, white china plates, knives and forks and glasses at the ready. Never saw them again. I see the house fixed up now, it feels different. I no longer want to look into their windows.

We moved up onto Besemer Road just below Route 79. At the small creek there, a seasonal one that feeds into 6-mile, was a water stop for the steam train at Besemer Station. The same train line that went down south to the trestle with the quicksand ditch and the OOBE. Ruin of the concrete base of the tank tower is still there. You can go see it and you can stand there in the middle of Besemer Hill Road and imagine to see what I once saw. Just below the culvert there was a good outcrop of horsetail. That whole length of creek from the water tank down past the old cemetery on the hill up from Brooktondale Road, past the artesian well down to 6-mile was my playground. My first place mapped. I can draw you a map today if you would like one.

One time I was thirsty and drank water below the Route 79 culvert. I was upset in bed with dysentery for about a week. This is the first time I have ever told anybody about how I got that. Afterward I stopped drinking fresh open water.

Most of my time though was spent on either side of the culvert on Besemer Road. I built stone dams, packed them with sticks and clay, and made pools for the minnows and water skeeters. There is good blue clay in along there, particularly on the bank below the culvert. We would make ash trays and turtles and sun bake them on the rocks. In the bank below the culvert there were small springs from groundwater and we would fashion canals in the clay to carry the water down the side of the bank. At the time I was into hydraulic engineering.

Further down the creek is a stand of Hemlock and there were many a day I hid there and read a book. I had most all of my exposure to Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw there under the Hemlocks. Nowadays I live on Hemlock Drive near to Pattersquash Creek in wetlands on the south shore of Long Island near the Atlantic where the world, the coastal muck and the water smell in their own unique signature.

When the world hits me real hard this Besemer Creek is the place on the planet I need to go back to and remember myself and center. If you see some long-bearded bogey man out there one day then don’t get too worked up.

The steep bank with all the trees was our favorite sled area. Winters we spent a whole lot of time stomping around on and to break the ice in the crick (that is how I sometimes call it, a crick and a crickbed). I will never forget the time I had to drag my wet soaked frozen younger brother back home on the sled. He was not quite into winter water sports the way I was.

Further upstream from the culvert the flow splits and one branch goes off into a field and marshy area and runs along the elevated railroad bed. There was a very nice frog pond, masses of eggs in spring, and wild irises. The creek along in here was not rocky, all sandy with roots to overhang the deeper slow pools. There was a catfish lived in there I used to watch and play around with.

That was my small tributary crick. The best American English is either from Besemer or Ohio, take your pick.

And not to forget the crick and lazy lay of the landscape up behind the Nazarene Camp. That was up where the well driller lived. That is out past the lost trestle.

Rachel Carson published Silent Spring along in those years and I read it and because of popularity of the book I took my Scout patrol, Fox, out and hauled trash up out of 6-mile in the stretch up above the mill falls. To tend the watershed goes way back. Some time out there clearing Adirondack trail.

The land all round in there between Middaugh and Banks Rd. at the time was owned by a farmer the name of Locken or somesuch with a house down on the flat area on Brooktondale Road. The barn still stands there as an apartment house. I worked with my stepfather and grandfather to do the electric on that barn for the conversion. A lawyer had bought the property. Real quiet guy that worked alongside us had been locked up in Danbury Federal because he wrote a letter to a friend about what he wanted to do to Nixon. He told me about Tolstoy.

For several years I had the Ithaca Journal route that went along that section of Brooktondale Road along 6-mile creek, a circular route of five miles that wound up along Route 79 back up to Besemer Road.

An offshoot of the route was Middaugh Road with a bridge across the creek that in summer provided a good place to rest in shade. This section was mostly glacial till. Up the road a ways was the last stop on my leg where a family ran an ice-cream parlor. It was a sort of odd place for one. I liked the chocolate sundae. It is where I heard the Beatles, Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane. It was the first record I ever bought. The best part of owning that record was all the kids, friends and family thought I had gone nuts to listen to that stuff. It was my introduction to the allure of cultural contraband. Some years later I fell in love with Captain Beefheart and beyond.

Where Besemer Creek came down under Brooktondale Road there was a small house where a single mother with kids lived. I delivered their paper for years for free, paid for it out of my own five dollars a week. Further up in back was an artesian well with a pipe near on eight inches in diameter. Water just kept to spurge up out of there like a city fountain for no good reason. I should have meant last year to go back up and look and see if it is still doing that. I never drank out of that one.

Further toward north along Brooktondale Road past Banks Road lived an old guy alone in a very small house smaller than a 10-yard dumpster with a shed roof along the road. He had a large open field between the house and the creek. For whatever reason he spent his time to haul planks of wood up out of 6-mile and he laid them up against the trees to dry. It was like he had a field of teepee plank houses. Along the road he had hawthorn trees and when I would deliver the paper he would come out to see me with a handful of birdseed. I would watch the nuthatches land on his head and shoulder then jump down to his palm to peck at the seed. I wrote a poem about the bird man and my friend Dave Finn made a silk screen poster of it. I still got it here someplace. Yep, there it is.

And out in Slaterville next to the first store you come across there used to be an artesian well. I don’t think it is there any more. Too close to the road it probably got noticed and capped off. Since we had a car, the Ford Falcon, we would go out there to get drinking water and bring it into our commune apartment of townies in Ithaca where we would tell our stoner friends that it had magic head powers. We would drink the water and everyone would pretend to get a contact buzz. It was cheaper than beer.

Further out toward the far end of Slaterville was a woman that had a business to amber glass by soaking it in the water. I know she got writ up in the newspaper because I read about it, and I have seen the glassware. It was not much different to me than stuff I had won at the penny pitch at the Brooktondale carnival. I practiced a year to pitch pennies and got me a whole box of cheap glassware, ash trays and lacy edge candy cups. Then further out there was the dirt road we took every early winter with my mother and grandmother that went across the ford and then off we would go into the woods where we would collect ground pine to make Christmas wreaths. And when I go further out along Route 79 I remember another artesian well along the road where there was a small pull off and they kept a caged brown bear there. It is the place where I always imagined the gypsy pot-holder lady, the one that would show up mysteriously walking along the roads in the spring and knocking on doors to sell pot holders... I always imagined she came from where the caged bear lived.

At Banks Road was another bridge. The farmer here kept Holstein cows. I always thought the cows were neat and I never messed with them but I remember people talked upset about cows that stood around all day and pissed and defecated in the Ithaca drinking water supply. Those particular cows that could be seen black and white from the road they talked about but I never heard anyone complain about the cows stood in the water up further along Central Chapel near Bailor Rd. I don’t suppose any of all of those cows are allowed to stand there now. It was organic.

There was a back wash of an old loop here that would flood and hold water that did not flow steady and get replenished. It was mucky mud stagnant and arrowroot grew there. I delivered the paper to a farm worker out behind the barn who lived in an old silver trailer. On a Saturday morning I would have to bang on his door to get him to pay his weekly fee. He would always open the door, particularly in winter, in his underwear and there would be this intense waft of kerosene heater fumes and dead laundry hit me in the face. That was seconded only by the old lady up near Besemer Station opened her door stark naked. I think she expected different company. People that live near water can be a bit odd sometimes.

My mother was raised on East Main Street in Ithaca between Bridge and Giles Street where her father, my grandfather the master finish carpenter, built the family house. The deal was that my grandmother from Dryden was not allowed to marry until he had them a house and so he wagered a model-T garage he built along the west side of the lake to buy what was then out-of-town land and he took a picture out of the Sears Roebuck catalog and built a house. Regardless, they lived up above that section of 6-mile. So from the large dam in the area with the reservoirs up to German Cross Road was a whole different territory of creek and for me a wider map bled into the family history. My mother with her young family had moved up-creek and as I grew older I explored down creek. I don’t know how many times I walked that distance along Route 79 into downtown Ithaca and back. Sometimes I would just not even bother to walk the road.

My first business had to do with the fellow along the creek at German Cross Roads who worked at the artificial insemination lab at Cornell. His job was to handle all the bull manure and he had piled it up in his back yard for years into this giant fermented mound. Sort of like an Indian mound but mushy. My preacher grandfather lived near there and he worked a deal for me. I could haul out as many yards of manure as I could load in my truck. I sold them around the area at $1.00 per load. It was enough of a business to encourage me to do something else.

In High School it was popular to swim in the lower reservoir above the dam. My mother told me it was where they went to swim as kids. That is a long time of swimming. When we did it we were naked, everyone was naked. I’ve never thought to ask my mother how they did it. For us it was fairly regular sport to jump off the upper levels of the cliffs into the water. Then to lay out on the rocks and soak up the sun. We were not exactly hippies, we were post-hip but messed up just the same. Everything exciting and living through history and all that happens on some other water body than the one we may particularly be going natural and pretending communal at the time. So keep in mind all water bodies are sacred.

The upper reservoir though was harder to get to; you had to walk in from Burns Road. So if a group really wanted to be left alone they would go swim in the upper reservoir. Quite a few days I went in there by myself and fished for trout. A lazy day along the bank with the pole crocked up in a willow vee stuck in the shore muck and a book. I won’t say what else there was but the woods can throw off some really heavy vibes if you have a mind to spook for them.

From the dam to the inlet the creek got for me more industrial and confined and claustrophobic with concrete walls to form a sluice channel and I never found it all that interesting to want to get into it. The police department along there we had one evening an odd adventure that I won’t go into here other than to say that I have a fondness for stealing cigarette machines and them being dumped in the lake in the middle of the night. There was always in town a whole lot of crossing back and forth on the streets over the creek -- as if it were conveniently not there. The city itself as a first city to map was way more interesting at that place for me than the creek, unless there was a flood. I like to see big trees float down and ram bridges.

The inlet was a whole other world and best met with a borrowed canoe. It was years that I heard about the squatter community on the west side but it was only about fifteen years ago that I got to read Tess of the Storm Country (1909). For anyone that loves this place and likes to read early 20th century pulp fiction I do recommend the novels of Grace Miller White.

I can’t end up, this end of the creek, without mention of the story that a young fellow who worked along with me when I did stone work and built fireplaces in the area that he and his father were down to fish in the inlet and they found the floater of a young college girl that had jumped into one of the stone gorges. I don’t mean to end on a macabre note, but one always needs to keep in mind that the water that brings life also tempts death.

Keep it between the banks and keep it clean.