Posted by: cornvillenutmeg | June 3, 2020

Summer Friends – Part IV


Summer Friends – Part IV

After lunch came…. The Hour. “Children,” we had been told, told, and told. “You have to wait an hour before you go swimming. If you go into the water before waiting an hour, you’ll get cramps and sink to the bottom of the pool before anyone notices. And won’t that be too bad.” Mother meant that as a statement, not a question. She had a way of saying too bad that put emphasis on too so as to say, such and such will not only be bad, it will be worse than bad. No one was excused from that obligation, not even William and me. You know what, though? You know what we never noticed? No one, not once, ever noticed that when we asked for and were given permission to go swimming after supper, we didn’t have to wait for an hour. Maybe swimming is only dangerous after eating when the sun is up?
Waiting, watching watches and clocks trudge their way from 12:30 to 1:30 was uncommunicatably tortuous. Nothing, we thought, could be worse.
But, my oh my, we were so young, so innocent, ignorant, and wrong.


Summer, 1957, first lunch of the summer. “Children, I have news. You will no longer be bored during the hour after lunch. From now on, everyone will read.” We were gob smacked; there were no protestations. Our faith was gone. The meaning of summer was, we were certain, forever marred. That day we learned, nothing is ever so bad, it cannot be made worse. The only part of the day, of the summer, really, that was truly boring: the hour we had to wait until we could go swimming at the pool, the only predictably horrible part of summer, was forever more to be something good about being young that we were now too old to for. If Mother had told us the regime was penance paid in advance for the worst sins we might ever commit, that would have made sense.


We older ones attended schools devoted to the axiom that reading good books during the summer was in and of itself good. Summer Reading book lists had been sent home, helpfully identifying which book stores were making titles available, in quantity. Mother, bless her heart, had bought the books. That explained the two boxes on the truck. Try as she might, though, she could not convince us of the upside to this new regimen. Those still too young for such punishment or not yet in school, took naps. Mother read to the middle ones. And when William, Susie, or David stayed for lunch, they had to read, too. It’s a wonder they didn’t stop accepting invitation from then on.


One summer my school required me to read one book, The Once and Future King. Their claim that The Once and Future King is only one book was a cheat, a fraud, since as soon as you open the book, you see it is four books lumped together: The Sword in the Stone, The Queen or Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight, and The Candle in the Wind.


Well into the first book, two knights destined to join the Round Table once it is invented, namely King Pellinore and Sir Grummore meet by happenstance on a well traveled road. King Pellinore is, as usual, hunting the Questing Beast (too complicated to explain). Sir Grummore, however, is looking for a joust. After being introduced and having made their knightly greetings, they decide – both being Knights, you see – to joust. That was a fundamental of the rules of knighthood, to wit:


Leges Equitibus in Via (Rules for Knights on the Road)
Capitulum IV, codex vii

Any knight, when on a quest or mission to save a damsel or widow in distress, who meets another knight similarly occupied, must either challenge to a joust the contrarily traveling knight, or immediately accept such a challenge when extended by the contrarily traveling knight before the initial knight utters such a challenge himself. (Standard, tournament jousting rules apply and are strictly to be followed as circumstances and geography allow.)

Before settling down to the jousting, the two knights got to know each other a bit. It was in that vein that Pellinore offered Gummore his fewmets, which he kept in a small sack tied at this waist, for examination. The fewmets, in case you don’t know, are the Questing Beast’s scat. At that moment, I began to find the dialogue hilariously funny, perhaps because of fewmets, a word I had not before encountered. I backed up, got Williams’s attention, and read the entire episode aloud.


Most of that hour went by very quickly because William and I laughed so much and so hard. Once started, of course, we laughed even harder because the fact we were laughing almost without breathing we found uproariously funny. I give all credit to T. H. White.

Our friendship, William’s and mine, was anchored by our identical senses of humor and fun. I quoted my brother John elsewhere in this memoir. I had asked him what he recalled of our Sharon summers. In his response, he mentioned permission to play, having fun, and the vital, indispensable value of fun and play to children. William and I played together and had fun doing it. We gave ourselves permission to play and thereby find the fun and humor in practically anything. I think of summer and William, and I remember laughing, giggling, and laughing. We regularly gave ourselves laughter hiccups, impossible to cure without ceasing to laugh. Good luck with that.


Here’s an example of what William and I did that we found fun and sometimes funny. See what you think. At least once a summer, probably more, we each bought ourselves a case of .22 caliber long rifle cartridges, fifty per box, ten boxes per case. 500 times two equals 1,000 cartridges. (I know, hardly believable that twelve year-olds would be allowed to do that. Certainly today they would not, but we did, and nobody gave it a second thought.)
So now we have more ammunition than we could ordinarily shoot up in a year, maybe longer. Think creatively. What would be fun to do with all that? Shoot targets? Go up to Sharon Mountain to shoot woodchucks in the farmers’ fields? Well, yes those would be fun, but for the targets, maybe a hundred or possibly one hundred, fifty rounds would suffice, for the woodchucks, probably no more than ten.


See? With that many cartridges – because, what good was having that many if you couldn’t find a reason to shoot lots of them, a reason, or maybe purpose is a better way of putting it – you needed to think of something that was more good than bad, and – this is the hardest part – could only be done with bullets, many of them. Oh, and it couldn’t be something make-believe like pretending you were at the Little Big Horn or the Alamo. It had to be real.


Not so easy, is it. Here’s how we came up with the solution. We’d do this all the time when we were stumped for something to do, but this was obviously different because of the ammunition. We each thought up three things, then we told tell each other what they were and then picked the one we liked the sound of best. I’d tell you to try to guess what the winning idea was, but you’d never come up with it.


Ready? Cut a tree limb by shooting it. It, the limb not the tree, had to be about four or five inches in diameter. Plus, to satisfy the more good than bad condition, being without the targeted limb would make the tree happier and healthier. It’s one of those pruning things. You can look it up.


We took our rifles and ammunition up into the woods at the top of the hill behind Great Elm. We’d follow the bridle path for a little way, but then strike off into the woods proper to find a tree with just the right limb, not so easy as you might think. We looked carefully at three or four, discussed the merits of each, and focused on which tree would benefit the most from the pruning. Eventually, we made a decision although sometimes we needed to employ one potato, two potato, or odds-or-evens. Never eeny-meeny. With eeny-meeny, when you get to only two, the one you start with is always the one that is out.


The proper shooting position for this kind of work is slouching, your back against an adjacent tree, left ankle resting on right knee (unless you’re left handed, then the other way round). Steady your rifle on the crossed leg. You will find with your leg as a rest, you can adjust your aim fractionally by moving one leg or the other just the tiniest bit. Commence firing: aiming point, the middle of the branch. Fire at will. Soon the middle will be frayed. At that point, right hand shooter adjusts aim to the right, shooter on the left adjusts left. Continue to adjust aim according to the degree of fraying.

By the time we were sixteen, had driver’s license, access to cars, and an interest in girls, we had become expert at rifle pruning.

That interminable book reading hour was over only when Mother said it was over. I’m certain she cheated more often than not. As may be, once released from improving our minds, we were free to go to the pool. My younger siblings, from Perky on down, would go en masse. Juju with the youngest on one arm, and the basket of towels, sun lotion, clean diapers, baby oil, insect repellent, and a blanket, on the other. Mary Kupchunis brought everything the baby would need, including a fold up playpen.

Juju, Julia Toth, was from Hungary. As I said, she came to us in 1950 as a cook, and was still working for the family the year she was killed by a car on Albany Avenue in West Hartford, twenty some years later. She was then living at St. Mary Home across Albany Avenue from Colony Road where we all had grown up. My father and his wife had moved Juju to St. Mary. They permitted her to spend the day at Colony Road, but sent her back mid-afternoon. She would rise and dress, and be waiting at the front door a 6:00.  But the last morning of her life, January 15th, she was perhaps confused and arrived at 5:00.  When no one let her in, she rang the bell.  Our father’s wife, unhappy at being awakened, sent her back to St, Mary, in the dark.  The driver said he didn’t see her until it was too late.


I don’t mean this in a disparaging way, but Juju was like a dog in her loyalty and love for our mother. There was nothing she wouldn’t do or try to do if Mother asked it of her. After Mother died, Juju knew instinctively that only she could look after us as Mother wanted us looked after. She did not understand why she had been cut off from her charges.

At the pool, Juju settled herself and her bag in the shade under what we called the money trees because if you plucked a leaf, held it underwater, and turned it sideways, the sides looked like shiny, bright silver. In the middle of that shaded spot was a joggling board, sixteen feet long, eighteen inches wide, about two inches thick, sanded chair-seat smooth, stained, and sanded again. The joggling board was strong enough to hold six or so children older than two but younger than ten. The board was suspended between two stands. The ends of the board slid through a space near the top of each stand, with six or more inches protruding out the other side. When children (or adults, too, but not as many) sat on it, the board would bend, alarmingly so depending on the number of its passengers. The point was to sit on it and joggle, which is to say, oh so gently bounce – but joggle is really the correct term. Imagine a glider chair that glides up and down instead of back and forth, and has neither back nor arms.


After Juju had spread the blanket on the semi-grassy area next to the joggling board, lathered legs, arms, backs, and faces with sun lotion, put on life jackets for the littles ones, added air to the tubes for the next older ones, she would sit in a folding chair, four or five of which were folded and leaning against a money tree. There Juju she remained, watching and fussing, while the Heaths played and splashed and screamed and laughed, doing what they liked best and could, if allowed, do for hours and hours well on into the evening.


William and I made our way to the pool circuitously and slowly. We did not want to be part of the arrival of grandchildren. We wanted to ease into the goings on, to decide how much or how little we’d participate. That changed from summer to summer. We often had projects and plans that needed attention elsewhere on Great Elm or somewhere else entirely. One summer we played golf several times a week for two or three weeks in a row. One summer we devoted a great deal of time to eradicating the woodchuck population of Sharon Mountain. You know about the yellow roses climbing on the tennis court fence and how it was our sworn duty to protect and defend them. And honestly, when non-Heaths showed up, the pool was just too crowded with babies, little ones, and small children.


Four other families lived or had houses close by, the Jim Buckleys, the Smiths (Aunt Jane), the Charltons (Aunt Carol), and the John Buckleys. Uncle John, as I mentioned, lived in Lakeville, the Jim Buckleys and the Smiths in Sharon, and Aunt Carol, then married to Ray Learsy, had a house in Sharon to which they drove each weekend. There might also be Bozell cousins visiting from Alexandria, VA, (Aunt Patricia), O’Reilly cousins from Scarsdale, NY, (Aunt Maureen), Uncle Bill’s son from Stamford, CT, and, rarely because they lived in Spain, Uncle Reid’s children. In all there could be, although I’m sure there never was, forty-four children, plus William, David, and Susie at the pool at the same time, plus a handful of uncles, aunts, and other adults. Some of those families came with their own version of JuJu. Corgi belonged to the Jims, Mary to the Johns, and Ellen to the O’Reillys. They would sit and chat on the folding chairs, occasionally interrupting themselves to manage a child or two.

Going to the pool, going swimming, had almost nothing to do with swimming, even if you couldn’t swim (recall the life jackets and tubes). Once it was clear to our grandparents that there would be small children at the pool each summer for the foreseeable future, the shallow end was remodeled. The last ten feet of the pool was filled in and given a new bottom 2 ½ feet deep. A wall was added ten feet from the end of the pool creating a wading pool 10 x 20 feet. Most of the summer it was filled with small children in life jackets and tubes. Bigger children would come and go to pester or play with younger siblings and cousins. Even William and I sometimes visited the baby pool, but most of the time we had contests: underwater swimming, diving, and cannonballing. By the end of the summer, we could swim the length of the pool up, back and up again without surfacing for air. Our diving never lasted long. Our repertoire was limited: length (distance from the board to wherever you hit the water, height (didn’t matter how you entered the water), jack-knife, and the forward splash dive, our own invention. That last was both long and high, but as you entered the water, you curled the torso so your legs whipped into the water, sending a directed splash forward. Length of splash was the sole criterion for winning. William learned to do a flip eventually, but he had a number of painful landings smack on his back. That was lesson enough for me.


The cannonball contests were of two types. One, our favorite, only happened if mothers were no longer at the pool, almost always by mid-afternoon. That contest was more like bombing raids. We cannonballed younger children dumb enough to lie on the flagstones next to the pool trying to dry off and get warm before jumping back in for yet another round of Marco Polo. The closer we entered the water to where they lay, the wetter they got. If the mothers were still around, we pressed a sibling or cousin, rarely an aunt or uncle, less rarely Mother, into being our judge. Siblings and cousins who liked me said I won. Those that didn’t, chose William, no matter what I offered or threatened them with. The grown-ups were fair, they said.


At quarter to six each day, the Episcopal church across the road from Great Elm, played recordings of bells tolling hymns, the good, easy to sing-along Protestant hymns, not the Catholic ones which are pitched so high only girls and young boys can hope to sing them. Plus, Catholic hymns don’t have tunes that make you want to sing. Come to think of it though, back in those days, there wasn’t any singing going on in Catholic churches, except for high mass, and then only the priest and the choir sang. Years and years later, when I lived in Norfolk, the northwestern most town in Connecticut’s Northwest Corner, after mass one day, a dear friend of ours explained to our priest what was wrong with the church choir. “Father,” he said, “you know, our Lord is not tone deaf.” It’s a true fact. The only good hymns are Protestant hymns, and it is only good hymns that can be sung tolerably well by amateur singers. Just think of a few you might have heard – Rock of Ages, Fairest Lord Jesus, Oh, God, Our Help in Ages Past, Mighty Fortress. Tell me those don’t get your toe tapping.


The playing of the hymns from the belfry of the Episcopal church signaled the end of the day. Here and there, damp, torso sized spots fading from the flagstones showed where children now gone had lain. Those were the little ones who had to be stripped out of wet bathing suits and helped into dry clothes. Tired and cranky, they made whiny protests which Juju either ignored, or answered with her ultimate threat, “Betsey, you van piff-pouf?” There was no chance whatsoever of staying one moment longer at the pool. They all had been gathered and taken away almost an hour ago. Those still at the pool were the older ones: William and me, Pam and maybe Susie, John and certainly David. Chairs had been folded and put away, again leaning against the money tree. The joggling board was still. The wet spots where wet children had joggled took a while to dry and would be there still, long after the bells ceased. The last bong sat in the air. You waited for the next hymn to begin, which it didn’t and wouldn’t, not until the next day.


Now I visit Great Elm once about every three years. The hymns, the same selection, still put the benedicite on the day, and I am filled with melancholy. I recognize it. As August comes to a close, the daylight is different. The sun is lower at five forty-five and farther north. It no longer goes down behind the Big House. Instead it sinks behind Amenia, almost bisecting the lawn between the Big House and the Trowbridge house. The shadows each tree casts are long and forlorn. They reach toward the grape vines growing at the bottom of the orchard below the vegetable garden, and on up the hill to the woods where William and I hunted tree limbs. Summer had only a handful of days left.


By Labor Day, The Trowbridges were already back in New Britain; we were still in Sharon. Our school would not begin for another week. Those days were lonely. In West Hartford I had no friend like William. Packing was the focus then, packing and organizing the trip back to West Hartford. Ten children and four adults, a dog, a hamster, interesting stones, an abandoned bees nest, six two wheeled bikes, three tricycles, and one bike with training wheels, one football, assorted baseball and softball gloves – mostly untouched since June – hula hoops, jump ropes, jars and jars of grape and crabapple jelly, JuJu’s end of summer tradition. Everyone and everything had to be packed and readied. Same as in June, things would ride in the truck, people in a station wagon, either my mother’s or the station wagon that belonged to Great Elm. Leslie would drive that one, drop off his passengers on Colony Road, and then return to Sharon. All that activity I did my very best to absent myself from. It only reminded me of the eternity that would have to pass before we were back at Great Elm I was desperately sad and empty.


Responses

  1. Your groiwng up summers were different in many ways from most children’s – but not the reading part. So, didn’t you just love The Once and Future King, fewmets aside? I did! My best memories of childhood summers involve swimming (public pond not pool) and curling up in my dad’s oversized chair with one book after another.

    • I had to search a wee bit in Sword in the Stone for the joust scene, and I’ve fallen back in love with the book. I restarted it last night. I recommend it, especially if you were a child when last you read it.


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