Posted by: cornvillenutmeg | May 21, 2020

Summer Friends – Part I


My sister Pam, brother John, and I are the three eldest of the third generation of the William F. Buckley family.  They themselves, the first generation, my mother’s parents and nine of their ten children are gone. If my count is correct, there are forty-seven other members of my generation, all younger than my sister, brother, and I.  That, of course, includes our seven younger siblings.  Growing up, we three did not have friends among our cousins simply because of the age difference.  Today, of course, four or five years makes no difference, but among children, such a difference is meaningful.  For instance, when I was five, I had no cousins, and when I was ten, my only two cousins, twins, were only five.  Although Madame de Pompadour meant something else entirely, I can nevertheless accurately say, après nous, le deluge.

We three had particular non-cousin, Sharon friends, the same ones each Sharon summer through 1966. In 1967, our mother died  We never went back as a family again.

  I am as sure as I can be that beginning with my first summer, age five months, until my twenty-first, I was resident in Sharon for all or most of every summer, every year.  I cannot say I remember much of anything for my first, say, five years, but my memories do include no summer without my friend being the signal part.  I believe the same is true for Pam, and John. 

John’s friend, David, was the third son and youngest child of Eunice and Tom Trowbridge.  Pam’s was Susie Herrick, cousin of the Trowbridge children.  My friend, William, was the second son and third child of the Trowbridges.  His two older siblings, Tom and Emily, we were not much aware of; they had their own friends.

The Trowbridges lived within shouting distance of the Barn and the Big House. Their house was large and imposing, not as large as the Big House, but still more than enough for the Trowbridge family. William and I didn’t spend much time there.  The downstairs was dark and felt unfriendly. The floors were uncarpeted, a handful of area rugs scattered here and there. The rugs were never flat or centered.  They always appeared to have been flung by a sleeping dog that had been suddenly awakened. Not much of the house felt homey, even second-homey.  I thought it empty and hollow. Every sound echoed – music, conversation, footsteps, even the ticking of the grandfather clock set in a corner of the foyer.  Nothing looked comfy, no space inviting.

The formal front door of their house opened into the grandfather clock’s foyer.  As far as I know, the Trowbridges never used it. They didn’t have people for dinner or cocktails. They treated their house as you might a lake cabin. Basic needs were provided for, but nothing was particularly hospitable or inviting; nothing looked comfortable. A short, unpaved loop added on to the right side of the driveway allowed for a car or carriage’s passengers to debark at the bottom of a full flight of stairs leading to the porch and front door. I never entered William’s house that way.  On the few occasions when we met there, prior to starting our day,  I waited for him in the kitchen.  Most of the time, William came up to the Barn after breakfast, and we set out from there.  Today William’s older brother Tom keeps the house as his second home.  Having met Tom’s wife a few times, I’d bet anything the inside of the house no longer looks as it did.

I think the fair and polite way to put it is, Mr. and Mrs. Trowbridge were eccentric.  Mr. Trowbridge’s summer outfit was the same every day: baggy, knee-length, khaki shorts held up with a length of laundry line  (or maybe I’m just remembering the time he’d misplaced his belt) and an unironed, white button-down shirt, sleeves rolled up to the elbow. His hair was a gray steaked, dark, dark brown, and wavy stiff.  It looked a little different every day, depending on how he had slept. The Trowbridges lived with the tacit assumption that Great Elm’s pool was theirs to use whenever the spirit moved them.  I don’t count William and David in that simply because if I were there, William was there, and if David, then John.  In fact, that assumption was only noticeable when any of the other Trowbridges appeared.  Mr. Trowbridge’s preferred time was after five, sometimes Tom and Emily came with him. If I Mrs. Trowbridge came for a swim more than two or three times a summer, that would have been unusual.  Late in the afternoon she’d come, her bathing cap already in place, slide into the water from the baby pool, and then swim up and down a few times.  She’d slide back out the way she came, pick up her towel, wrap it around her shoulders and go home.

Mr. Trowbridge called his children home to supper by yodeling their name. No, I don’t mean his calling sounded like a yodel.  He could yodel. He knew how to yodel, and he had a different yodel for each of his children. Each call began the same – odel-odel-odel-odel – that part went on for a long time, but finally he’d get to the name:  odel-Willodel-odel-Yum or odel-Dayyy-odel-odel-Vid. Emily’s followed the same pattern, but Tom’s ended abruptly: odel-odel-odel-Tom.  I couldn’t tell the difference between one sibling yodel and another for the first couple of years so when Mr. Trowbridge yodeled at all,  I’d have to ask William if he had to go home. 

Mrs. Trowbridge was deeply tanned.  She apparently had a close relationship with the sun, but the odd thing was, I almost never saw her outside, except for maybe at the Country Club or maybe a cocktail party at Great Elm.  (Mimi had one very big cocktail party each summer.  Practically all the old Sharon families did.)  Oh, and whatever Mrs. Trowbridge said was stained with a vague whine.  I don’t mean she whined; it was her voice, it sounded whiny, but not, I think on purpose.  Also Mrs. Trowbridge was an artist.  I have in my home a drawing she did of me with a fishing rod, apparently reeling something in.  I recall the photo I think she used to draw that. I was standing on the side of the pool, practicing casting.  My father gave me that drawing a few years before he died.  It was hanging in his office, and I had no idea he had it.

In the summer, my family ate our big, meaning hot, meal in the middle of the day.  None of us children liked it much, but that made no difference to anyone who counted.  Our mother did not eat that or any other meal with us, but she did often sit at the table while we ate.  William and David ate with us, noon meal or supper or both, more than once a week.

Mother took all her meals at the Big House with Mimi and Father, our grandparents  until Father died in 1957.  Then only Mimi and Mother dined, except for when I managed to get myself invited.  Weekends were different because most of the uncles and aunts who worked in New York spent the weekends either in their own houses or Great Elm if they didn’t have a house of their own yet.  Also some aunts and uncles lived too far away.  When they came it was for longer visits like a week.  Our father was part of that group – we called him Daddy which he disliked but Father was already taken.  Daddy didn’t come straight from New York.  Instead he took a train to Hartford, and then drove to Sharon.  He could just as easily have driven with Uncle Jim or Uncle John or Aunt Priscilla. He worked with both uncles.  I guess it was because he wanted to have his own car.

Susie didn’t eat with us too much.  She didn’t live as close as William and David.  Sometimes, though, she’d come and spend the afternoon at the pool, or else Pam might go to her house. They liked to have sleep-overs, either at the Barn or at Susie’s house.

I sit now thinking what it was William and I did together.  You’d think our activities must have been unusual, intriguing, especially exciting, to maintain our friendship all those years.  I’m disappointed that nothing particular stands out.  On the other hand, I guess what we did was not remarkable except for we did it together. There, that must be the key. 

We were the same age.  The lessons our parents signed us up for – golf and tennis –started happening the same summer.  We’d ride our bicycles together to the Country Club, which was about a half mile beyond the turn off for Hatch’s Pond.  I’d have my golf lesson while William had tennis, then we’d switch.  After we’d play one or the other, but never both, I think. 

We roamed the grounds of Great Elm with our BB guns, terrorizing birds, chipmunks, and Japanese beetles.  Later in our lives, when we were older and traded our BB guns for .22 rifles, we terrorized woodchucks in the farm fields of Sharon Mountain.  All but one of the farmers were happy for our visits.  See, cows that stepped into the holes woodchucks dug in the fields would break a leg.  Cows aren’t really too careful about where they step.  You can tell because they always walk right through other cows’ patties.  How dumb would you have to be to do that without noticing?

On the Fourth of July, when everybody had fire crackers, we’d walk up to the Singing Hollow Shop next door to the Post Office.  Each of us bought ten balsa wood gliders  – they were ten cents apiece.  The movies we saw were mostly either Westerns or ones with US planes (good guys) having dog fights with Japanese, German, Russian, or Chinese planes (bad guys).  We used a magic marker to draw on the wings of our gliders a swastika, rising sun or hammer and sickle which worked for both Russia as well as China.  Then, scotch tape a fire cracker onto the fuselage of a glider, throw it into the air, and cheer at how perfectly the fire cracker blew up the plane in mid- air.  Once in a while, the fire cracker’s fuse burned too quickly, and the explosion would happen before the glider left your hand. That hurt about the same as having a mouse trap snapped closed on your finger when you’re trying to set it and put it down carefully so it won’t snap closed on your finger. Plus you couldn’t hear very well out of the ear on that side for a while. Another year, we used the gliders as clay pigeons and shot them with shotguns.  The job got done, but it wasn’t as dramatic or as much fun as using fire crackers.

I mentioned shooting beetles with our BB guns.  I better explain that.  You probably haven’t heard of that before.  We had decided the beetles were the enemy of the yellow roses that grew on the tennis court fence.  That made them Mimi’s enemy because she loved roses and liked to use the petals from one of those roses for her finger bowls, one petal per bowl, floating in the middle.  So the roses needed protection.

The tennis court was next to the pool.  The beetles took a bite or two from the leaves, but their favorite part were the roses themselves. To avoid shooting a rose, we had to hit the beetles while they were having a leaf hors d’oeuvre or were crawling on a stem with designs on a particular bud. We did give them a sporting chance.  We backed away fifteen feet or so which could have been too far except that Japanese beetles are so colorful. They shine bright green and copper when the sun hits them making them stand out. We could pick them off pretty well.

One Saturday after lunch at the Barn, we went to the court to see if the roses needed help. On Saturdays Mimi arranged for lunch – hamburgers, cheeseburgers, salad, and melon balls for dessert – to be served at the pool because there were lots of grown-ups at Great Elm on weekends.  It was sort of  like a picnic.  If they wanted anything, they had to take a plate and put food on it themselves.  Except somebody always got Mimi what she wanted which was never very much.  Even though my Uncle John had his own house in Lakeville, a few miles north of Sharon, on Saturdays he ate lunch at Great Elm.  He and Uncle Jim had offices in of the downstairs of a small house almost exactly mid-way between the Barn and William’s house but a couple of hundred yards from the pool. It used to be owned by Carol Robinson. (You might remember her from a different chapter. Remember the pine tree that was just outside her bathroom window?  The one I set fire to, and then ran away?  I don’t know for sure, but maybe Mrs. Robinson thought living in that house anymore wasn’t a safe choice, so she sold it to Uncle John.)  Anyway, we called it the Office in those days, and Saturday mornings, both uncles worked there in the morning and came to the pool for lunch.  

William and I, as I said, were doing our best to save the roses.  That day Uncle John had been watching us.  Uncle John’s business was the same as my grandfather’s: oil, but after Father died, Uncle John took over as the leader of the business because he was the oldest.  What he liked a lot more than oil, though, was hunting and fishing. Everybody knew he would rather be shooting guns, hunting, or catching fish than anything else.  Anyway, he had been sitting on one of the chairs set up on a raised area of flagstones about the size of a living room, the whole thing shaded by an awning. 

He walked up behind us so quietly we didn’t hear him, and we didn’t know he even there until he said, “That’s some pretty good shooting you boys are doing.  May I try?”  I handed him my BB gun. He stepped even farther back  from where William and I had been, and began to pick off beetles one after another after another.  All my uncles and aunts knew how to shoot.  I have a photo of my mother when she was eighteen, standing next to a deer she’d shot, and Uncle Reid and Aunt Priscilla were hunters, but no one could shoot as well as Uncle John.  He wore glasses for everything except reading.  When he read something or needed to tie on a new fly for trout fishing, he pushed his glasses up onto his forehead.  I liked the way that looked, and I couldn’t wait until I needed to have glasses, too.


Responses

  1. Wonderful, takes me back to my childhood. BB guns and then 22s lots of shooting and hunting, and fishing. My mother would cook rabbits and partridges, and fry up brook trout, but I had to skin them and clean them for her.

    • Thanks, Charlie. I’m glad you enjoyed this.

  2. Thank you Jim for your most enjoyable summer story — I especially enjoyed the descriptions of Mr. and Mrs. Trowbridge!!……..Frances…


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