Most of this is a re-run for some of you. Heck, it’s August. Read it again. Why not. Back in the Summer of 2011, my buddy David Sabatino, aka Mr. Valley Stream Himself, suggested that I write something for the Valley Stream Voices column in the local Herald Newspaper. And I said, yeah, I could do that. David was helping out the editor at the time, Andrew Hackmack, who did a great job covering the town for a lot of years. Andrew asked him to find someone who could do a Voices column, and David said, “John Duffy.” And I’m glad he did.
I decided to try to capture the experience of raising a child in the same town I grew up in. I painted the place in a very positive light, and overall, I was happy with the way it came out. Andrew wrote the headline, “Valley Stream is Better Than Ever,” which was not totally misleading, as it was the general theme of the essay, but I thought it that message was a little too advertising slogan-y. Life is pain, your highness. Anyone who tells you differently is selling you something. There are a lot of things that aren’t better: First and foremost that we’re all packed in like sardines, and they keep building more and higher sardine cans to pack more people in.
There happens to be a reason for that. At some point, the Long Island Rail Road, which my wife Trisha subjects herself to twice a day to earn a living, is eventually going to finish a connection to Grand Central Station and the East Side of Manhattan. And when that day comes, lots more people are apparently going to want to live in apartment buildings near the railroad stations, specifically Valley Stream and Gibson. And I suppose the ten minutes it takes me to go two miles to the King Kullen some afternoons will turn into fifteen. They built a monster of an apartment building less than a mile from Duffy’s Creek – called Sun Valley Apartments. Ugh. – that I and many people raised hell about when it went up, because it looked like a cross between a Bronx tenement and an upstate prison. They recently did a nice crown molding all the way around the top of it to make it less ugly. That was nice of them.
Trisha and I would really like to leave here, but we can’t. We’d like to move to Copake Falls, or somewhere nearby. Valley Stream, and Long Island in general, have become ridiculously crowded and dirty and noisy. But this is where work is for both of us, and we both have many years invested in our jobs. We also have an 11-year old son who has trouble transitioning from pajamas to clothes every single morning. He doesn’t do change very well, and the fact is, this is a good place to grow up, because you’re forced to learn how to get along with a whole lot of different kinds of people. It wasn’t that way when I was growing up. There were a lot of bigoted white people trying to turn me into one of them. If not for my parents being bleeding-heart liberals, they might have made more of a dent. When the town started to diversify, around the turn of the century, the bigots mostly ran like hell, leaving people who know how to get along for the most part. It’s not the people that make me want to leave. I love the people here. There’s just too damn many of them. So The Dude has about ten years to save his money if he wants to buy this house and “stay here forever” as per his plan. We’re not leaving anytime soon, and we’re very good at making lemonade out of the lemons, but in about twelve years this blog will be called, “A Creek Ran Through It.”
Anyway, here we are, and what follows is my little public love letter to Valley Stream, written four years ago. My favorite thing about this essay is that the mayor of Valley Stream, a very smart, energetic and friendly fellow named Edwin Fare (that’s right, Mayor Fare) has borrowed a phrase that was the anchor of the whole piece. I don’t know how terribly original it was, but I referred to Valley Stream as a “big small town”, which it is if you’re an old timer. You’re usually about three degrees of separation from anyone you start a conversation with – they went to school with someone you know, or lived on the same street, or went to the same church, or played on the same team, or at the very least got drunk in the same bar. Mayor Fare used the phrase in an interview with Newsday and in a recent Cablevision-produced video. I believe that he unconsciously lifted it from me. I saw him just today walking around the pool. I’ve never said to him, “Hey! That’s my line!”, since for one thing what does it matter and for another thing he’d just tell me it isn’t, ’cause he took it. Fact is, he needs it more than I do. (What I did say to him was, “you ought to jump in! It’s like a bathtub in there today!” Which was just me being folksy, as he was wearing street clothes).
So without further ado, the Valley Stream Voices Column from 2011 that I would have simply entitled: “Whooosh!!!”, with a little postscript at the end. Hope you enjoy it (again):
I am a second-generation Valley Streamer. Many of you just said, “me, too!” There are a lot of us. My parents moved from Queens in 1955 for a backyard on a creek and room for their growing family. Five kids and 46 years later, in 2001, they moved east and my wife and I bought the house where I grew up. Two years later, in my 40th year, our son Jack was born, a third-generation Valley Streamer.
In my new role as Jack’s daddy, I began to realize how many of the icons of my childhood were unchanged, and how Valley Stream remains a big small town and a good place to grow up. In my opinion, it’s actually better than in the ’60s and ’70s.
When I was a kid, my mother might announce that we were “going to town.” That meant driving in our red Volkswagon bus (seriously, we had one) over to Rockaway Avenue. The first stop was Morris Variety, then, as now, a place where a little kid could be enraptured by the impressive assortment of stuff; where you could get lost in the long aisles of toys, hardware and craft supplies while mom picked through greeting cards, then memorize the candy at the front counter while she checked out. Going to town might also include lunch at Itgen’s, Mitchell’s or Ancona, and maybe a walk up to Sal and Vin’s for haircuts, a swing by the library or a stop at the bank with the big vault that looked like the one Maxwell Smart walked through.
Today, going around Valley Stream with my son, there are times when I’m suddenly traveling in a time machine (I can even hear a “Whoosh!” sound in my head when it happens). I can reconnect with my inner little kid, the one that we all tend to leave behind and disregard, as we get older and our boundaries expand far beyond “going to town.”
One of the first places Jack and I went when he was a baby was Brook Road Park in Mill Brook. (Sorry, but it’ll always be Green Acres to me.) When my older siblings were all in school and I was home with my mother, she would push me there in a stroller over the bridge. (The bridge was first fenced off and then taken down, to the dismay of many old-timers.) Coming back 40 years later with my little boy was one of my first trips into my personal Valley Stream Time Machine, one of many enjoyable travels that I’ve taken back to my childhood through my son. After admiring the new playground equipment, we walked by a fence that holds back the eroding retaining wall along the creek. Behind the fence were relics of my pre-school days — the big dolphin you could sit on, and the concrete turtle you could crawl under, both on a bouncy rubber surface. And there was the very bench where my mother sat enjoying my company, wearing ’60s-style cat’s-eye glasses.
As Jack grew into a toddler, we joined the Valley Stream Pool. As a kid, I remember the kiddie pool area shaded by mottled Sycamore trees, like the ones still in the playground. My mother was a part of a group of women with lots of children who jokingly called themselves the “Over the Hill, Under the Tree Club.” On summer days, they could have some much-needed peace and adult conversation as the kids entertained themselves.
There was a probably a 30-year interval between my last visit to the pool as a kid and my first as a dad. As I stood next to the Olympic pool, “Whoosh!” I was in the time machine again — going under water with my eyes open, daring myself out into the deep end, jumping off the diving board, eating a hot dog and French fries under the concession stand roof. It all comes back to me, like opening a book you haven’t read in years and remembering how much you liked the story. The French fries taste exactly the same.
Jack likes going to town. He’s well-known at Morris Variety, and Michael at Sal and Vin’s always makes him look great. We recently had Itgen’s for lunch and Ancona for dinner with a trip to the pool in between. Jack and his mom both like mint chip ice cream. I’m a vanilla fudge guy. Ancona meatball parmesan heroes are sublime.
This year, I made some new friends in my old town. While looking for dog parks for our new Labrador puppy, I found Envision Valley Stream, a group that promotes ideas for fostering a sense of community, including park clean-ups, graffiti removal and the skate park and dog park initiatives which the village administration has been receptive to. It’s nice to meet people of all ages and backgrounds who like living here. And it’s very nice to see the local government working with residents to make good ideas happen.
Jack is going into second grade at Carbonaro School. It was a warm and nurturing place when I went there and it still is. This year, he played baseball with the Valley Stream Little League. I played on a Mail League team in the ’70s, so of course the “Whoosh!” brought me right back as I stood on the ball fields of Barrett Park, Wheeler Avenue and others. We marched with the Little League in the Memorial Day parade, my first since the ’70s. The sense of community here is as strong as ever. And a one-time reputation for intolerance has been replaced by a diversity of people who interact easily with each other. This is something my son will have which my generation did not. His big small town is a lot like mine, but better, and I’m glad we’re here.
Ok, I’m back here in 2015. Christ, I’m tired. The Dude doesn’t go to Carbonaro anymore because the class where he fits best is across town in an identical building called William L. Buck. (The Dude calls the similarity “freaky”). We’re a long way removed from little league, and I’m a happy observer of the Memorial Day Parade. The Dog Park is a raging success, mostly due to the efforts of others besides myself, but I feel a sense of ownership of the place, and so do Mookie and his Dude. You’ve gotta like that. “Envision Valley Stream” is in the process of morphing into the Greater Valley Stream Civic Association, in which I’m trying to carve out the time to take an active role. (I’m the liaison for the “part of South Valley Stream that isn’t Mill Brook or Gibson even though Gibson built the houses but don’t you dare call it North Woodmere” -Our Man On The Creek, if you will).
Yeah, we want out. And we more than likely will get out someday. We won’t be able to afford to stay when we’re too old. They’ll eat us alive. But for now, me and My Dude still go to the pool most weekday afternoons in the summertime. And we’ll be getting our haircuts at Sal and Vin’s tomorrow. And lunch or dinner at Ancona is never far away. (John! You Called?). When we finally do leave Valley Stream, when it’s all over, will I miss it? (I have to speak for myself, as Trisha has been here for 15 of her years and I’ve been here for all 52 of mine, more or less). Will I romanticize it like my mom did when she left kicking and screaming?
I don’t know. Places are funny like that. It’s like the line from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”, when the creepy guy is giving the dorky guy his dating advice: “Wherever you are – it’s the place to be! – Isn’t this great?” I tend to live in the present tense (which is why we’re broke), so if I were living upstate, I don’t think I’d give it much thought. I think the toughest thing about leaving would be the legacy that I’d be ending that started with my parents in 1955. My mom DID miss it when she left, so I’d miss it for her.
Speaking of my Mom, if you’ve never met her, you’ll have a chance to get to know her a little bit in my next post. Anybody would tell you that would be your lucky day. And coincidentally, that upcoming post is also about a kitten who had a very lucky day because he decided to follow a big yellow dog one day on Duffy’s Creek. It’s not so complicated, but I’ll probably tell the story in a way to make it so. I got that gift from Mom. I’m long-winded and I need an editor. But at least I came by it honestly.
Read it anyway, and thanks. See you when the tide comes in.
There’s a place. It’s about 325 miles from Duffy’s Creek. There’s a great big lake there, with another great big lake beside it. Near where that great big lake empties into a dam and disappears, you’ll find a beach. There’s not much sand left, but the grass is soft and the wildflowers are friendly. Next to the beach, the land extends to a point surrounded by tall pines and spruces, aspens that sparkle in the breeze and birches that stand around looking awesome. You walk across a carpet of pine needles on this point and you look out at wizened old mountains. One of those mountains has a rock formation in the center of it, almost in the shape of a smile. Once upon a time, if you looked very closely, you would see two birch tree logs, both at least 10 or 15 feet tall, strung together to look like a crucifix standing to the far right of the rock formation.
The mountain probably has another name, but to a couple of hundred people who passed through this place beginning in the late 50’s to early 60’s, it’s White Cross Mountain. The first time I stood on this beach and looked out across this lake at this mountain was in 1966, at the age of three, wearing a little red plaid swimsuit. And I have still have the scar on my finger to prove it. How I got to this place to begin with, why there was a crucifix in that mountain, why I and many, many other people keep coming back – and why my son might come back without me someday – are all very good questions. I would enjoy answering them, and if you stick with it, along the way there’s a history lesson, a fateful burrito, a kind-hearted motel owner, a guy who has lived off the grid for twenty years, some other really nice people – even Santa Claus shows up – not to mention the best damn soft serve ice cream under God’s Blue Sky.
In July of 1966, Francis and Joan Duffy, both 37 years old and married for 14 years, arrived at Camp Lavigerie, Onchiota, NY, owned and operated by the White Fathers of Africa, which is not a supremacy group. They had driven 325 miles with five kids, aged 3 to 13, packed into a 1964 Red Volkswagen Bus. They had never been to this place before. They had only heard about it through some friends who had some friends. And because the best things in life often come out of random events, Joan Duffy’s college roommate was from Keene Valley, NY, about 40 miles away from Onchiota. Joan had already indoctrinated Francis to Adirondack Magic. They were both from Astoria, and my mother had told the story several hundred times of how she saw the night sky full of stars for the first time when she got off the Trailways Bus in Keene Valley at the age of 18. Naturally, she dragged my father, her high school sweetheart, up to see it for himself as soon as she could. So 19 years later, they came to Camp Lavigerie, with the five kids and the Volkswagen Bus, intending to stay a week. They stayed two. The next year, they came back for two more. Eventually, they extended their annual July stay at Camp Lavigerie to three weeks. So in the end, their youngest son –me- spent about 18 weeks worth of July’s from 1966 to 1974 in this paradise in the Adirondack Mountains, about 15 miles northwest of Saranac Lake, NY.
In 1974, Camp Lavigerie shut down. The land was sold to New York State. The Adirondack Park Agency added it to the Forever Wild Lands and they tore the whole thing down, save for three buildings. Francis and Joan’s oldest four kids were off doing their own things in the summer, but they couldn’t leave their youngest son – me – alone in Valley Stream, and they couldn’t stay away from the Adirondacks, so from 1975-1978, from age 12-15, I got stuck in a cabin in nearby Rainbow Lake with them for two weeks in July or August, thus adding eight more weeks to my time spent in the Adirondacks. But my brothers and sisters and all the hundreds of people that called that big Mountain White Cross Mountain were not there for the most part, except for one or two day visits. Being a snotty teenager, and bored out of my head with my parents, who were just trying to relax for God’s sake, I explored. A lot. By bike, by boat, by thumb and by foot, from Onchiota to Saranac Lake and everything in between. The place wrapped its arms around me. And it has never let go.
And once I was old enough, I started coming up by myself, first by a combination of Trailways Bus and Illegal Hitchhiking, then later by car, bringing friends up to see it all for themselves, then still later to meet people from Camp Lavigerie for reunions. And then again to introduce those people to my wife and my son, and to introduce my wife and my son to the place where I spent a big fat chunk of summer youth, a place that I’ve visited in at some point during more than half of my 53 summers. I don’t know what the hell I was doing during the summers I didn’t make it up there, but as their probably ain’t more than 20 able-bodied ones left to go for me (and that’s optimistic) I don’t intend to miss many more from here.
My parents loved being on or near the water. For example, they bought a house on a creek in 1955, the same house I’m sitting in. It probably was not long after unpacking the five kids and the Volkswagen Bus that they went down to see the beach at Camp Lavigerie, on the shores of Lake Kushaqua. The name is an Algonquin word for “beautiful resting place.” It must have seemed like just that until their freaking three year-old son got his finger caught in a wooden folding beach chair. The Algonquin spirits probably woke up from my screaming. I don’t know how far away my parents or my siblings were at that moment. All I do know is that I was rescued by a woman named Mrs. Herman from Buffalo, who became my mother’s first friend at Camp Lavigerie, and who probably remained on her Christmas Card list for the next 45 years. And I still have the scar on my finger. I don’t have a tattoo, and I’m the only guy at The Valley Stream Pool without one, but I have this mark from the first time I ever set foot on the shores of Lake Kushaqua, the day my mom and Mrs. Herman became friends.
And the friends just kept coming, for my parents and for all of us. The place was riddled with big Irish Catholic families, each with enough kids to start their own softball team: The Lynches, Meenan’s and Donohue’s and Hickey’s, all from Long Island. The Shaw’s from Rochester, The Rudden’s from Ontario , the Heney’s from Quebec, the Desmond’s from Schenectady and the Zimmer’s from Buffalo. There were bonfires and big spaghetti dinners and softball games and talent shows and guys with speedboats and water skis; trips to the movies in Saranac Lake on Saturday Nights, or to the stores on Broadway and the Berkley Hotel in Saranac for lunch on rainy days, and let’s not forget church on Sunday morning. The place itself had originally been built in 1901 as a tuberculosis sanitarium. There was a colossal tudor-style building originally used as a hospital (“sanitarium”, actually), a beautiful little white chapel and a train station next to it, and ten or twelve “cure cottages” scattered about on the road and on the lakefront. In 1959, years after they figured out tuberculosis, the entire thing was bought by a French-Canadian medical missionary organization called the White Fathers of Africa to use as a seminary for priests in training . The White Fathers added a recreation hall and ten or twelve small cabins, which were all named after African nations. We either stayed in Algeria or Uganda. (And you’re thinking, my, this story got weird quickly. Seriously, it’s OK).
In addition to the seminary, the White Fathers first established a boys camp, then expanded it to become a “family camp.” You don’t hear about many family camps anymore. Probably because nobody has big families anymore. The folks that went to Camp Lavigerie had gone forth and multiplied, damn sure. And this piece of earth and water in the Adrondack Mountains went from a place where people at the turn of the 20th Century went to cough until they got better or died to the happiest little small town on Earth for two months every summer from 1962 to 1974.
And it was pretty much the same thing every year, and nobody would have it any other way. You went to the Camp Store to get the list of who was staying where and you started looking up old friends. And you’d find them at the Rec Hall, where there were ping pong tables and big comfy chairs and people who needed one more for a card game and a teen room I was never allowed into because the damn place closed when I was 11. Or they’d be on the beach, swimming out to the raft or getting ready to take the boat out. (There were actually people going by on water skis and waving. I kid you not). The beach would also be the site of the end of the week bonfires on Friday nights, which were great if you weren’t leaving the next day. Then of course you’d see everyone at mass at the Chapel on Sunday Mornings, but you’d know you didn’t need to see heaven when you died ’cause you were already in it. There would be daily trips in the boat with the Johnson outboard motor to get groceries at Bing Tormey’s store in Onchiota, where the sign said “67 of the Friendliest People in The Adirondacks, Plus A Couple of Soreheads”, because Bing was as funny and smart as anyone who has ever lived in Manhattan. And you might even see Santa Claus on your boat trip back to the Camp; specifically, a retired vaudeville comedian named Ireland MacFadyn who lived in a trailer on Kushaqua and would throw on a santa suit and come out to greet kids who came by, just ’cause he enjoyed it. Imagine that. (And take a look at the picture below that I have thanks to Pat Haltigan).
And in the middle there were big spaghetti dinners and talent shows in the “Green Room” of the Seminary (where we all saw Neil Armstrong step on the moon on July 20, 1969). And Mr. Rudden would sing “The Damper Song” at the top of his lungs and people would be be rolling in the aisles (google it) and Pete Hickey would channel Arlo Guthrie and get everyone to sing “I don’t want a pickle/Just wanna ride my motorcycle…and I don’t wanna die. Just wanna ride my motorcy…cle.” And Pete and all the other teenagers were like Gods and Goddesses to me. They spent the week barefoot and seemingly unbothered with by their parents for the most part, Their wild early 70’s hairstyles and fashions making the place look like Godspell for Christ’s sake. I knew they were having much more fun than us younger kids, who still bring up this unfairness when we get together even though we’re in our 50’s now. We never got the chance to let loose at Camp Lavigerie like our older brothers and sisters did, though we loved it on our own terms. (And let loose they did. My father is 85 years old now and doesn’t remember much. But if you mention Camp Lavigerie, he often says, “I’m surprised nobody ever got killed up there.”)
During the last two or three summers, there weren’t enough “brothers” living at the White Fathers Seminary to keep the place running properly, so the Brother-in-Charge, Jim Heinz, had the smart idea of employing all the teenage guys who had grown up at the camp. My brother got the enviable job of driving around in a very old Red Chevy Pickup with Brother Vernon, picking up the garbage and doing maintenance. Tim Donohue ran the Camp Store. John Forzly was the lifeguard. Tony Shubert hung out in the boathouse with a pile of comic books. I spent a lot of time annoying them.
Then, In 1979, I got to be a teenager at Camp Lavigerie for a week. I was 16 and came up to Road’s End, one of the three remaining buildings left after the Camp was demolished, to attend a reunion with my brother. The reunion was put together by all the former teenagers, who were now in their twenties and knew how to have serious fun. My brother had to leave during the week and convinced my parents to let me stay, and they agreed because they knew who I’d be staying with. Perhaps if they knew I’d spend the entire week drunk on Genesee Beer they might have reconsidered. No matter, that wonderful week was the last I’d see of Camp Lavigerie for the next 9 years. I came up to the Rainbow Lake Cabin a couple of times with some friends and a couple of times just by myself. As a matter of fact, I hitchhiked up the Adirondack Northway from Glens Falls when I was 17, just to say I did. When I got to Saranac Lake and was just walking around my childhood hometown by myself, it was the most free I have ever felt, and would ever feel. I can still catch that feeling just by standing on the river bridge on Church Street. I was alone, 300 miles from Long Island (and all the people who had formed opinions of me there), and yet I felt completely at home and not the least bit afraid, ’cause this was home, too.
In 1995, a group of people began putting together formal Camp Lavigerie reunions over Labor Day weekend. The people who had the week-long party at Road’s End were starting families and wanted to show them what it was like, minus the Genessee and debauchery, so they all got together at a hotel in Lake Placid. I didn’t go to the first one. I was so far removed from it that I didn’t think it would mean much to me. Then my parents came home gushing about all the people they saw and all the things they did, and I made sure I was at the next one in 1998 and had the time of my life catching up with everybody, and getting to hang out on equal terms with all the Gods and Goddesses of my childhood, who had turned out to be as cool as they always were except older. And then I went to one after that in 2001, and this time, I brought my wife of three weeks to see what all the fuss was about.
Trisha was feeling a little out of place. After driving through a wicked rainstorm up Route 73 and scaring the crap out of her, we arrived at The Ramada Inn in Lake Placid, which was all very nice and good but which is basically The Hamptons with Mountains. It has nothing to do with Saranac or Onchiota. She was about to find that out. We took a drive through Saranac Lake (which also made her nervous, which I found very funny) and made our way out to the old Rec Hall site, which was now (and still is) owned by a former camper, Pat Haltigan, who started out in Levittown, and who somehow found out that the White Fathers had never actually owned the land around the Rec Hall, and when they sold the rest to the State, he jumped in and bought it. Pat has lived off the grid on the Kushaqua Mud Road for over twenty years. He comes back to the story in a little bit. I’m digressing.
So there we are, all standing around on Pat’s property, catching up with each other, and Trisha is smiling and playing along. At this point Pete Hickey, and his beard and his hair and his tie-dye and his tinted hippie glasses, comes down the road covered in bloody scratches all over his arms and legs and announces that he has blazed a trail to the top of White Cross Mountain (he was one of the ones who erected the birch tree cross way back when) and would we all like to come for a hike. And I was in heaven, and my newlywed wife was wondering what fresh hell she had gotten herself into. But we climbed, Rudden’s and Shaw’s and Donohue’s and Meenan’s and lots of others, and we reached the big rock and looked down over Lake Kushaqua, and Trisha started to get it. And later that weekend we had a big softball game and a bonfire and a talent show where Mr. Rudden sang “The Damper Song” and Pete sang “The Pickle Song.” and she started to get it more. The group that organized the reunion had found a nice priest from Saranac who agreed to say a mass in front of the chapel on Sunday morning. In his homily, he pointed out how the Camp Lavigerie story was now moving on to a new generation, and pointed out how one young couple – Jimmy Meenan and his wife – had come with their newborn baby, and how another young couple, John and Trisha Duffy, had just gotten married and would probably be back at the next reunion with a baby of their own.
We came back to the 2004 reunion with a baby of our own. We caught up with everyone again, and had a big softball game (it was me and The Shaw’s against everyone else. I believe it was a blowout) and a talent show and a bonfire that we had to miss because Daddy was starting a new job the day after Labor Day.We stayed in Saranac Lake like normal people and Trisha fell in love with it on our walks around town, pushing our baby stroller just as cute as could be. By that time somebody had set up a Website where we could all try to keep in touch, but really, it wasn’t until facebook came along (you love to hate it) that it became possible to really keep everyone together. Still. life got in the way of the Labor Day Reunions and the last big one was in 2007.
After that, I went 8 years between trips to The Adirondacks. We were happy enough with our little home away from home three hours away in Copake Falls and I just kind of let it get away from me. Then on August 23, 2012, my mother died at the age 82. And I knew that on August 23, 2013 I’d be standing on the shore of Lake Kushaqua, come hell or high water. (And in that intervening year we had some of both). Trisha understood completely. We stayed at Amanda’s Village Motel in Saranac. The Dude was nine years old and thought it was really cool to stay in a motel with Mom and Dad and Mookie, who loved the big comfy beds most of all. Our next door neighbor at the motel became a friend, Bruce Freifeld. He had just toured around The Great Lakes on a motorcycle and let The Dude sit on his bike and try out his weather-proof gear, including the jacket that heats up when you plug it into the battery, which of course blew The Dude’s mind. We saw a couple of our old friends, particularly Martha Rudden and her wonderful kids, Emily and James. We walked around Saranac and went for ice cream at Donnelly’s, which was a five mile drive from Camp Lavigerie but was one of the highlights of the week back in the days, when it was Crystal Springs Dairy. Every night they twist a different flavor with vanilla and it’s the best soft serve ice cream on the planet. Anyone reading this who has experienced this ice cream can attest. I can’t describe in words how good it is.
We even went on a night walk through Tucker Farm’s Great Adirondack Corn Maze in Gabriels, which for The Dude, who is currently asleep upstairs with all the lights on, was a huge jump. On the second trip down to the lake, I saw two women and a dog. I said, “Lavigerie?” and one of the women said “John Duffy?” and I said, “Peggy Lynch?” and wound up having a conversation about the old days with someone who actually lives about five miles from here. The whole trip was magical. Even the weather was perfect, which is not always the case in this particular part of the world.
Driving back from Kushaqua to Saranac Lake that afternoon, my ipod shuffle picked out “Fire And Rain” just as I was passing the turnoff for the Rainbow Lake Cabin. I thought about my mother and tears welled up in my eyes. I thought about all the things we both had to deal with in our lives that were so far away from the peace and happiness of Camp Lavigerie, and for no damn good reason. How much we both had to deal with people and situations that just plain sucked: “Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground.” But on the other hand: “Sunny days that I thought would never end.” I knew I would have to keep coming back to this place to keep my center intact, honor the memory of the person that gave this place to me, and pass it on to my son.
So we came back again, this past July. The Shaws were renting the same place they’d rented since Lavigerie closed, Martha was coming to town with her kids, so we decided to move the Copake Falls Week up and come back to Saranac and Onchiota in July. So we ended up driving 150 miles, staying away from home for a week, driving 150 miles back home, staying for four days, then driving 325 miles to stay in a motel for four and a half days. While Trisha and I could envision what it would take to endure that, and why it was worth it, we didn’t realize that it would be a little too much of a strain on our 11 year-old Dude. Meanwhile, Trisha is, currently and unfortunately, suffering from an injury related to spinal stenosis, and it really hurts her to walk. She had gotten a cortisone shot before Copake Falls that she promptly undid by feeling great and trying to load the car. So for the entire week that she lives for all year long, she wasn’t able to walk any distance in the place where we spend half our time taking walks, and it was breaking my heart. However, you have never met anyone with a bigger heart than my wife, and a sweeter spirit. She insisted that we make the trip to Saranac Lake. She didn’t want to miss it. Under these circumstances, we knew it was going to be quite as “lightning-in-a-bottle” magic as the last trip, but we went anyway. Because it’s there.
We made the trip in six hours flat. It usually takes at least seven. I was so excited that I told a friendly guy walking down River Street in front of the motel, as Mookie read the new pee mail, that I had just driven from Long Island in six hours. He gave Mookie a big hello (and vice versa), congratulated me and invited me over to The Waterhole for a drink. I of course couldn’t join him, being a family man and all that, but to be invited to The Waterhole is a great honor. Later Mookie and I saw the guy and his buddies on the front porch of the Waterhole, which is the Front Porch of Saranac Lake, and we all said hi like old friends. That’s how it goes there.
We went over to see the Shaw’s at their cabins on Flower Lake. Burt and Brian, my childhood heroes, were not there, which was a bit of a buzzkill, and started me thinking about how old we’re all getting. But we got to catch up with Glenn, who is a boy about my age – 50- and meet his three year-old son William and his fiancee Katie, plus my childhood buddy Christal, and Curtis (who Mookie particularly bonded with), and Mrs. Shaw, who is now 90 years old, and Keith, who gave The Dude a quiz on proper electrician and HVAC guy procedure, which was great entertainment around the campfire. Things were starting out well. Even Mookie got to go for a quick swim on their beach.
We stayed up too late and The Dude was starting to drag the next day. We had to drag him out of the motel for our first drive out to Lake Kushaqua. He wasn’t whiny, but he wasn’t having as much fun as we thought he should be. I couldn’t get him to come into the lake with Mookie and me, and Trisha had to sit down wherever possible. Plus I should point out that it’s a steep walk down to the lake. You can drive your car down the road, but it’s barely passable. Walking back up the hill was about all Trisha’s back could take and she was really wrecked by the time we got back to the motel. That’s when Edie decided to get involved.
Edie and Joe are the proprietors of Amanda’s Village Motel, across River Street from Flower Lake. Amanda’s was brand spanking new in the 1940’s, but Edie and Joe have managed to suspend it in time. They run a clean, simple motel where you can bring your dog and walk to everything in Saranac, except if you can’t walk. Edie saw how much Trisha was suffering, and unlike myself, decided to do something helpful. She insisted that Trisha go see her chiropractor the next day. I was not particularly in favor of the idea. I’m pretty sure a chiropractor made my back worse than it already was when I destroyed it working in the Grocery Department of Foodtown when I was 18, so of course I base my whole opinion of chiropractors on that one incident. But desperate times call for desperate measures, so we agreed that Trisha would go see Dr. Cliff Wagner (who everyone just called “Doc”) at 3:30 the next day.
Meanwhile, The Dude was getting to be a little out of sorts. I tried to change his outlook by taking him over to the local Ace Hardware and Radio Shack so he could pick up the new outlet receptacle and wire he needed for his summer projects, because he’s spoiled rotten. Put it this way: I don’t mind doing this stuff at all as long as a little gratitude is shown. Instead, when we got back to the motel he started whining about the wi-fi being spotty, and that it was too hot, and generally being nasty and unpleasant, and he didn’t want to go for a walk into town with Mookie and me (which to me is inconceivable if the town is Saranac Lake) Pile that on with Trisha being in excruciating pain and it all adds up to me getting snarky back and taking the computer away.
And I immediately flashed back to those years when it was just me in the Rainbow Lake cabin with my parents, and how much of a jerk I thought my father was being, and how it was me being the jerk. We had ice cream with the Shaw’s at Donnelly’s after Little Italy Pizza in Riverside Park and we apologized to each other and tried to reboot. Oh, and by the way, if you’re in Saranac Lake the third week of July and you’re looking for the Shaw’s, just go stand in front of Donnelly’s Ice Cream Stand on Route 86 around 8pm, and they’ll be there in no time flat.
The Dude got his computer back the next day. After I got in a spectacular morning kayak paddle with Christal, we loaded up some lunch and a big yellow dog and headed back to Kushaqua. This time I drove down to the beach to save Trisha the walk (and drove back up -and anyone who knows that road knows that Subaru should be sponsoring this page just because I wrote that). I took a dive in and Mookie tried to rescue me. The Dude was doing a monologue, a lecture, an Asperger’s thing, where he takes the listener captive (in this case and most often, Trisha) and talks through every singe detail of how he is going to – in this case -hardwire a doorbell in the house this summer. And it’s pissing me off that he might as well be standing in a Wal-Mart Parking lot for all he’s really taking in Lake Kushaqua, the spot he described as “like a tropical island” the first time he saw it two years before. But I made the adjustment. I looked outside myself and into him. I decided consciously not be an asshole. I asked him to tell ME how he was going to install the doorbell, and I started walking across the beach, Mookie behind me as always. As he monologued on and on, he followed me right into the lake, and we walked through the shallow water and watched the Aspen leaves sparkle in the breeze as he talked and talked. Finally, he acknowledged that the water was pretty nice.
I had a plan. Besides getting Trisha to the chiropractor by 3:30. I wanted to take a drive down Kushaqua Mud Road, walk on a path that I knew of back down to the lake and see a spot that was called “Children’s Beach” way back when, even though it was more a grassy spot than a beach and there were never any children on it. The spot was special because it was the place where my Mother used to go to hide from us all at Camp Lavigerie. She had said many times that it was her favorite spot on Earth. She could sit there and look at out White Cross Mountain across the lake, maybe read a book, maybe sneak in a couple of Marlboros. I hadn’t visited the spot the last time we came up because the road was closed. This time I never got down there because we saw Pat Haltigan outside his place and we got to talking, and I’m glad we did.
As I mentioned before, Pat bought the land where the Camp Lavigerie Rec Hall was located. He started out as a kid from Levittown at Camp Lavigerie but, like quite a few others, he came up to the North Country permanently as soon as he could. (I told Edie That I might have done the same at one time in my life if I had not been born chicken-shit). Pat was a long-distance trucker, so when he started out, he used to keep his rig right on the property. He had tapped into the well water, has a giant propane generator and a wood stove and therefore is able to live off the grid. (When I told the Dude that Pat generated all his own power, he just stared at the trailer for a very long time). He is also the now, unfortunately, the single father of a seven-year-old boy and has been forced to go on disability because of some injuries. He bonded with Trisha right away because they a lot of had aches and pains in common. And if you still don’t believe in climate change, I’ll tell you that Pat – the most independent person you could ever meet – has gotten a place in Saranac to stay with his son in the wintertime, after hunting season, because the last two winters were horrific all through upstate. (The Rochester Shaw’s said the same thing – The worst they ever saw).
We stood around talking to Pat, who showed The Dude some of his cooler toys (an old CB radio among others) and broke out some old pictures (some of which accompany this article) and the time got away and it was time to head back to Saranac and take Trisha to the Country Chiropractor. The Dude took the River Walk through Saranac with me and was generally pleasant. We had heroes from the Lakeview Deli for dinner, ice cream with The Shaw’s again (it was “fruit surprise” night) and all was generally right with the world.
The next morning Trisha was still in pain. We made another appointment to go see “Doc” at 11:30. I had breakfast with Christal and Martha and her kids at DJ’s Rustic Restaurant. (The Dude was “not hungry”) and planned to just spend the day walking around Saranac with The Dude and Mookie. The Dude was understandably upset about his mom’s condition and was again a little out of sorts. When we picked up Trisha, we decided to walk over to the Farmer’s Market in Riverside Park, and the walk damn near made her break down in tears. There’d be no more family walks for this vacation, or anymore rides to Kushaqua. We’d visit a couple of my favorite stores on Broadway and then have dinner at The Downhill Grill, plus of course ice cream at Donnelly’s, even though The Shaw’s had packed up to go home.
When The Dude and I have our battles, we always acknowledge after the fact that we were both to blame, and that is true. The situation usually escalates in direct proportion to how I react. The rest of that afternoon he whined about the wi-fi and the weather (it was getting right steamy) and burying his head under the covers on his motel bed. By the time we got to dinner, he insisted on ordering a burrito instead of getting something safer off the kids menu. The burrito came, looking nothing like a Taco Bell burrito, and he had a head-in-the-hands, rocking-back-and-forth full scale meltdown, bitching and moaning about how badly we treated him. And we had to eat our dinner real fast and get out. And he said some nasty stuff he didn’t have to say, just like a Duffy. And I lost my shit on him. I made him stay in the car while we got our last Donnelly’s ice cream and gave him the silent treatment until Trisha got him to sleep. And of course I felt bad about it later. I went for a drive that night, got one of may many, many coffees to go from the Stewart Shop, looked around Saranac and felt like the most selfish punk in the world for driving my injured wife and my ultra-sensitive son all this way just so I could reconnect with my past. When I told Trisha that, she told me I was being ridiculous. I love that woman.
The next morning, as we left to go home, The Dude was quiet, but apologetic. As we drove out through Saranac one last time, I told him that this place has a lot to do with the person that I am, and that I studied the ways of North Country people when I was “growing up” here in the summers. I told him that people who lived here, and the people who knew it well, were people who rolled with the punches, who didn’t let little things get to them, who treated friends and strangers alike with kindness and respect no matter what their circumstances; who kept their sense of humor and their connection to nature intact as much as possible and who knew what was important and what was not. I told him that I didn’t know when we’d be coming back, because he didn’t seem to really appreciate it. And that was just a plain old mean thing to say, but I said it anyway.
As we made our way down 73 to The Northway, The Dude told me he was sorry again. And I apologized for overreacting. And then he said something that will stay with me forever. This is what he said: “I’d like to come back here again and learn how to be a Saranac Lake Guy.”
And so we will. And we’ll find a nice cabin on a lake so we don’t have to live in a motel, and Mookie can go swimming whenever he feels like it, and Trisha will be able to walk, and we’ll leave the damn computer and all the electronic junk at home and keep working on teaching our son to love the North Country for the beautiful, magical place that it is.
And at some point, I’ll take a ride by myself and go down to Children’s Beach and sit and stare at White Cross Mountain and remember for awhile. I’m sure Mom wouldn’t mind the company.