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Winter Snake

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, tells us a mysterious tale of an unexpected winter discovery…

It was cold, cold, cold, and it was dry. It hadn’t snowed in three weeks. We could deal with the cold when there was snow, but without it, the ground was frozen hard and everywhere you stepped felt like you walked on jagged rock. The temperature hung around twenty degrees by day and colder by night. The animals don’t move much when the cold sets in like this; they conserve their energy. The fish drop low in the water and the ice fishermen don’t stay long when the winter wind picks up. So, the last thing you expect to see in these conditions is a snake.

Usually by November 1st, snakes go in under the rocks and don’t come out until after April 1st. Sometimes, if there is a mid-winter warm-up, a few snakes come out to look around and then rush back in under the rocks. Uncle Mal used to tell us, “No self-respected snake comes out in the winter time, because they are naked as a jay-bird.”

Ricky Cramshaw told him, “Uncle Mal, jay-birds ain’t naked—they are covered in feathers!”
Mal said to him, “That is not the point.”
Ricky said, “And jay-birds do come out in the winter!”
Mal said, “Ricky, it’s just a saying!”
“Yeah, and you is just saying it!”

Ricky and I were over at the Paint Shop because we found a frozen black snake down by the river and brought it to Uncle Mal. He stared down at the black snake that was frozen stiff in a neat straight line, like a piece of frozen rope. It was about two feet long, so Mal figured it was a young snake, as they can grow up to six feet or better. Mike, the shop dog, came along and sniffed the snake a few times, and then walked away. Mal rolled it over and we saw that it was white on the underside. He told us it was a Black Rat snake and that if it was black all around it was called a Black Racer.

Ricky said, “So why did it come out and freeze up like this?”
Mal said, “I don’t know. Sometimes they come out if it gets warm but it ain’t been warm in weeks.” He thought about this and then said, “And the thing is they don’t tend to hibernate under rocks by the river; no, they go up to the south side of the mountains where the rocks will keep them warm and dry.” He rolled it back over onto its belly so that its black side was now up again. He said, “No sir, this here snake did not get to the river on its own.”
I said, “What do you mean?”
“I mean, I figure that somebody tossed him down there.”
Ricky said, “Who would put a froze-up snake down by the river?”
Mal said, “Maybe someone found it somewhere else and thought it ought to be put down there?”

I wasn’t sure, but it kind of seemed like the frozen black snake wasn’t as straight as when we found it. I told Uncle Mal that, and he told us a story about one time in the late winter, when Uncle Dutchie found a big frozen Copper Head snake. He picked it up and walked along with it until it warmed up and came back to life!
Ricky said, “Hey, could this snake come back to life?”

Mal wasn’t sure, so he got out a five-gallon bucket and put the snake into it. When he picked it up I saw that it was no longer stiff as a stick, but more rope-y. We put the bucket near the hot air vent and sat by it, keeping an eye on the snake, as it slowly became more rubbery. Mal told us about how Native Americans believe that snakes come back to life all the time.

He started telling us ‘snake-come-back-to-life’ stories and we got to listening to the warm sound of his voice and to thinking about the people and the places in his stories. Then, all of a sudden, I heard a sound from inside the bucket. I jumped up and looked in, and there was the black snake, moving around in the bottom of the bucket! Mal got up and put a screen over the top and placed a hammer there to weigh down the screen. The black snake was now clearly wiggling around. It had come back to life!

Mal told us reptiles slow down and hibernate in the winter, but that if we hadn’t found the snake when we did, it would most likely have died. Ricky was thrilled and he named the snake ‘Blackie’. Mal told us it was not easy to take care of a black snake, especially in the winter time when they want to be asleep.
Ricky said, “He can sleep at my house!”

Mal didn’t agree. He made a few phone calls and then he drove us, with Blackie The Snake, up to the Bear Mountain Zoo, where they had a place to keep snakes in the winter time. There was this man there who knew all about snakes and he examined Blackie and said he was in good shape. He told us we had saved his life. We watched him put Blackie into a special indoor snake den where there were other black snakes sleeping under rocks. This man thanked us again and he walked us through the cold, over to the Bear Mountain Inn. He brought us hot chocolate at the Inn and then he and Mal talked about how long it had been this bitter cold. Then the man said, “You know, Mal, that snake could have only been out there a day or so.”

Mal said, “Yes sir, that’s what I figured.”
“So, somebody must have put him there.”
Mal said he figured that, too. Then both men got quiet and we finished our chocolate and Uncle Mal said, “Somebody is messing with the snakes.”

 

Upcoming Event: Winter Tales with Chuck Stead – January 13th

Every Friday at camp, master storyteller Chuck Stead spins funny, poignant, outrageous and true stories of his childhood and growing up in the nearby Ramapo Mountains. When the weather turns cold and winter has really set in, Chuck tells us his Winter Tales – stories that sparkle and glimmer like the snow and ice of January.

Join us for this free public program from Noon to 1 PM on January 13th at Green Meadow Waldorf School (307 Hungry Hollow Road, Chestnut Ridge NY 10977)! Open house afterward from 1 – 4 pm.

Mistletoe

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, tells a story of mistletoe missed connections and suprises…

We three kids (Cindy Maloney, Ricky Cramshaw, and myself) sat at the Soda Fountain counter, watching folks come in off the street. Just to the right of the door, a small branch of mistletoe, with its dark green leaves and translucent white berries, hung from the ceiling. We watched to see if anyone kissed under it. My uncle Mal told us that when you stood beneath the mistletoe, the next person to come along was obliged to kiss you. So far, no one stood beneath it. The girl behind the counter was new; we’d never seen her before. She brought us three mugs of hot cocoa and a little plate with three marshmallows on it. We stared at the plate and figured she’d never served cocoa before. She saw us staring at the plate of marshmallows and she said, “They’re marshmallows.”

Ricky said, “Yup, we know that.”
“They’re for your cocoa.”
“Yup, we know that too.”
She said, “Don’t you like marshmallows?”
I said, “Yeah, we like them in our cocoa.”
Ricky said, “But they look silly on a plate.”
Cindy took one of them and dropped it into her mug of cocoa. She said, “We never got them on a plate before.”
The girl said, “Oh. Well, I am new here. My name is Trudy.”
We told her our names and Ricky said, “Trudy, did you hang the mistletoe?”
She said she had hung it.
He said, “Well, it ain’t working. No one goes under it and no kissing happens.”

When he said the word ‘kissing’, he spread it out and made it sound like “Keeeeeey-sing”. Trudy smiled, and I saw that she had dimples in both of her cheeks.

She said, “Well, should we hang it someplace else?”

We all looked around at different places. I thought it could go over the entrance, but that could be a problem for people getting in and out, while kissing-people stood in their way. Ricky suggested over the bathroom door, but then we agreed that it might be smelly there. Cindy suggested a place in front of the juke-box. Trudy went over and got a short step-ladder, took down the mistletoe from where it was, and hung it over the top of the juke box. She put it just a bit in front of the jukebox so folks could get caught standing beneath it. She put the little step ladder away and went down the counter to take a man’s order. We kids took our mugs of cocoa and sat in a booth near the juke box. Still no one walked beneath it.

After a while, Cindy said, “My mom says mistletoe is poisonous.”
I said, “Yup, my mom said you need to be careful about getting kissed by the wrong person under it.”
Cindy said, “How can you tell who the wrong person is?”
“I don’t know. I guess you find out later.”
Ricky said, “Then how can you be careful?”
“I guess you just don’t go under it.”

We finished our cocoa and still no ‘persons’, wrong or right, went under the mistletoe. Finally, Trudy came back to us and said, “Any luck?” We shook our heads.

She stared up at the mistletoe and said that maybe we needed to move it again. She looked at Ricky and said, “Come on little man, help me take it down.”
Ricky slid out of the booth and Trudy brought the step ladder over to the juke-box. She then hefted Ricky up in her arms and she stepped onto the ladder. Ricky stretched his arms upward to the mistletoe overhead. Trudy looked at him and said, “Oh my, we’re under the mistletoe!” He looked at her, mortified, but it was too late, and she kissed his cheek. Cindy and I howled and laughed and shoved each other around. Trudy put Ricky down and he charged directly to the bathroom, where he scrubbed her red lipstick from his cheek. When he came out of the bathroom his face was beet red and he was sporting an over-exaggerated frown.

Trudy came to our table with three more mugs of cocoa—on the house! That made Ricky a little happier. Again, she brought us the marshmallows on a separate plate. Before she left our booth, she winked at Ricky and said, “I’ve never kissed anyone beneath the mistletoe before.”

Ricky looked up as he dropped his marshmallow into his mug and he said, “And you ain’t kissing me again!”

She smiled her double dimples and went back to the counter and there, just over his cocoa mug, I could see he had a little bit of smile going, too.

Truth to Power

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, recounts an early lesson in speaking his truth…

When I was sixteen years old, back in 1969, Richard Nixon was still in his first year as president of the country and, having campaigned on a promise to end the war in Vietnam, he had yet to do anything but justify its continuance. I snuck off to Manhattan on the weekends and attended some anti-war rallies and walked among beautiful young hippies who sang folk songs about love, and peace, and justice. The year before, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were both killed trying to bring peace and justice to the nation. So, my visits to Washington Square Park were to be in a place of hope for a better future. It was there I first met some of our returning veterans who talked of speaking truth to power. It was all so worldly and so beyond my experience growing up in the Village of Hillburn, but I remember the veterans emphasized that the only way to speak truth to power was to do it on a personal level, from the heart.

That Thanksgiving, we were having relatives join us from Nova Scotia, Canada. Among them was an in-law named Hughie. Now, this Hughie was a great admirer of my dad, Walt. Hughie was a hunter and he loved Walt’s hunting stories. Hughie sponsored hunting trips in Canada for his father-in-law and Walt to go on. He regularly sent wild game down from Nova Scotia for Walt. And when Hughie came down to hunt in the states, he regularly defied the hunting laws. He was a big, powerful presence and had little regard for local regulations. And Hughie considered me the inheritor of Walt’s role in Ramapo Woodlore; I was (in his mind) the one who would carry on Walt’s traditions.

However, I was deer hunting only a week before Thanksgiving, when I was shot at by careless hunter. It was a close call and not my first. I declared that this was nonsense and that too much of legalized hunting was carried on by dangerous weekend pioneers. I quit hunting right then and there (and, anyhow, I was losing focus thinking about Vietnam and all this ‘speak truth to power’ stuff).

So, there we were around the Stead Thanksgiving table: my family and our Canadian cousins. Walt was at one end of the table and my Mother, Tessie, was at the other. My sisters and a brother-in-law sat with me on one side, and Hughie’s wife and his daughters were all on the other side facing us. I was at the middle of the table and Hughie sat directly across from me. The eating of the meal had gone well and was pleasant enough, but I detected that Hughie was preoccupied with something. Then just as the coffee and apple pie were set out, he spoke.  Looking directly at me he said, “I hear you don’t hunt no more.”

The room fell quiet. The gentle sound of silverware clinking and spoons being stirred in coffee cups disappeared and a heavy expectation fell over the whole scene.

I said, “Yup, I quit.”
“Quit? What on earth for?”
I said, “Because there are too many people walking around in the woods shooting at each other.”
He smiled and said, “Oh hell, that don’t make no difference.”
I said, “Yes, it does.”
He lost his smile and said, “Why?”

And there it was, that personal moment of truth to power. I knew Walt was watching me now. It seemed like everyone was waiting for my answer. I said, “Because that is my decision. We don’t need the meat and I don’t need to be shot at.”

He looked down at his plate of Tessie’s apple pie. I waited for somebody else to say something, but the room was so silent now it felt like a loud silence. Without looking up he said, “Then I sure hope you don’t go to Vietnam.”

And before I could think of what to say I said, “I’m not going. It’s wrong and I’m not going.”

That was not one of our friendly Thanksgiving meals. I don’t really remember much of what happened after that. We eased back into a ‘let’s not talk about things’ mood.

Later, after everybody left and my sisters were talking with Tessie in the kitchen, I sat in the living room with Walt, watching an old black and white movie on the television. It was a war movie and, after a while, he said to turn it off. I got up and went over to the television set and switched to a different channel that had a Thanksgiving special with the singer Perry Como. But Walt said to turn the whole set off. I did, and returned to the upholstered chair where I picked up a weather-beaten paper-back book of poetry by e. e. cummings. Walt picked up his monthly issue of New York State Conservationist magazine. We read in silence: him smoking his pipe and me chewing a stick of Wrigley’s Spearmint gum. The voices of the women in the back kitchen teased and reminisced. The bad time of my talking with cousin-in-law Hughie was slipping away.

That was when Walt looked up from his magazine and said, “You know, Hughie don’t like you much.”

I said I knew that.

He then said, “But he respects you for speaking your truth.”

That was when I learned that few people like you for speaking truth to power, but they just might respect you.

Back to School

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, recalls daydreaming during class in Catholic School, and what his Third Grade Nun had to say about it…

It happens at the end of every summer. Come September, there is the ritual return to school. The beginning of my third year at Catholic School was much like the year before. Marching in well-ordered lines from the playground/parking lot into the tan-bricked school building and up into our first-floor classroom, we were returned to our formal training. Ricky Cramshaw, Cousin Buzzy, and Cindy Maloney were across the street at the public school, which was called the Washington Avenue School. But I was sent to the Sacred Heart of Jesus school, where my mother Tessie hoped I would be inspired to lead a sacred life. My dad, Walt, didn’t care which school I went to, as long as I skipped as many days possible and spent them in the woods.

Our teachers were called Nuns, and they were women who wore black and white robes with hats that were called Habits. Ricky observed that they looked like penguins (and they did, sort of). My First Grade Nun was an elderly woman who didn’t seem to know why she was there. My Second Grade Nun was an exceptionally short woman, who was one of the toughest Nuns I ever met. But the Third Grade Nun was just the opposite. She was tall and gentle and she sang out constantly—beautiful psalms and hymns while we were doing lessons. She even taught us to sing. She was the first woman teacher at this school whom I was not afraid of.

During the first week of school, I found myself assigned to a desk near the window. The maples had yet to turn and the squirrels were busy running about the branches and pulling on fresh, new acorns. No matter what the subject, my thoughts drifted away and out the window, first to the squirrels in the trees and then further on to the woods back home. At mid-morning of each school day there was a recess, wherein all the kids were marched out to the hall and then each one took a turn to visit the bathroom, whether you needed to or not. On the third day of third grade, when we marched out to the hall, this singing nun (whose name was Sister Barbara Ann) stopped me and looked into my face and said, “Master Stead, for the past three days I have seen you stare out the window and drift away into the trees out there.”

 

I nodded my head in agreement, since there was no sense in hiding what she already knew. But then she said this, “And I can see by your face that you go beyond the trees to some other place.”
Again, I nodded, but I was now scared that she could see inside me.
She said, “Where do you go?”
I spoke slowly and said, “Up the mountain to look for animal tracks.”
“What kind of animal tracks?” she asked.
“Squirrel, opossum, coon, cat and dog.”
“Why?”
I told her, “Because that was how nature writes its story.”
She looked at me and her face was full of wonder. She said, “I’ll tell you what, Master Stead, when I see that look in your eyes and think you are searching for animal tracks, I won’t call on you, OK?”
I nodded my head in agreement.
Then she said, “But sometimes I will need to call on you to help me answer things about places and arithmetic and about double negatives…”
I said, “I ain’t got no double negatives.”
She smiled and said, “I don’t got no negatives neither.”

She then stood up and sent me to the bathroom. And for the rest of the year, I knew there were times when she saw that I was looking out the window, and she did not call on me. Sister Barbara Ann was my first favorite teacher, for letting me go away when I needed to.

Listening to the Land

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, recounts a day spent coping with the floods of spring and learning an important lesson.

After the winter thaw, there come spring showers. They are gentle and deceptive and very inviting. The thing is, the earth is still saturated with a soaking from melted winter thaw, and spring showers have no place to go but over land, downhill. By the third week in the month, vernal ponds and freshets emerge all across the woodlands and eventually make their way into neighborhoods, flooding yards and seeping into basements. This is the soaking that brings forth a celebration of life, but it can also undermine the concrete and stone beneath our houses.

freshet

Uncle Mal had us kids (Me, Ricky Cramshaw, and Cindy Maloney) climb into the back of his International Pick-Up truck, where we found three red rubber buckets and three oversized sponges. He told us we were on a mission of good will and that we were to be rewarded with ice cream at Hagedorn’s Soda Shop. We drove down Fourth Street, over the Thruway Bridge, across the railroad tracks, and onwards to Suffern. We sat against the back of the cab and waved at the people driving behind us, as we watched the red buckets roll around in the truck bed. As you drive into the Village of Suffern, the road wraps around Nordkoff Mountain, takes you under an over pass, up Wayne Avenue, and under another over pass. Each time we drove under one of these, we looked up and watched the pigeons sail about just under the massive steel girders. The air along the road was a sweet mixture of early spring fragrance laced with concrete dust and a dank iron odor. Uncle Mal pulled the truck into a short yard that had a steep driveway dropping off toward Lake Antrim. We climbed out of the truck and found we were at the home of Mrs. Sutherland. Mal handed us each one of the buckets and one of the big sponges. We then followed him to the front door where he knocked twice and then opened the door and called out her name, “Mrs. Sutherland, we’re here!”

She came from the back room kitchen. She was a smallish woman who looked as if she didn’t want company. She was shaking her head and staring at us. I could not guess her age as she seemed older to look at but was younger to listen to. She said, “Oh, now look at this crew. What are they up to?”

Uncle Mal said, “We’re going to take a look at that big puddle in the basement and figure out where it’s coming from.”

She looked up at Mal and said, “Oh now I can’t have these kids getting all dirty down there in that old basement.”

Mal said, “Maybe you can’t, but I can!” Before she could protest he pushed his way past her and had us follow him into the kitchen, through a door and down a set of plank steps. We arrived in a basement that was walled in concrete and stone and only partially floored in concrete, with the rest being the dirt. Half the floor was covered in water which was the color of cocoa. Mal took up a mop and bucket with a double roller ringer on it that was sitting at the edge of the big puddle. He started sloshing it around, soaking up the cocoa colored water and ringing it out into the bucket, which he quickly filled. He told us to wait until he got most of the water out and then we were to sponge up the rest. He dumped out four buckets full of water before we could get started. He had us pat the floor water with the sponge, which caused the water to soak quickly.

Mal went back upstairs to talk with Mrs. Sutherland while we, down on our knees, continued our work. We kept getting little bits of grit, stones, and sand soaked up with the water, and our bucket mixture looked darker than the water Mal had mopped up. It was hard, dirty work, but it didn’t take all that long. Mal came clamoring back down the plank steps and was very pleased to see that we had completed the task. He then got down on his own knees and studied a seam in the floor right along the edge of the concrete. He pulled out a flashlight from his baggy trousers and scrutinized the seam with the light beam. He looked back at us and said, “That’s where it’s coming through. Only thing to do is seal off the rest of this floor.”

We went outside and dumped our buckets while Uncle Mal explained what he had discovered to Mrs. Sutherland, who was now smoking a cigarette by her back door. She thanked us and told us we were good workers. We walked back to the truck, and I noticed that down the narrow driveway there was an old open garage that was full of interesting looking stuff. But it was time to go. We climbed back into the truck and Mal rode us into the town.

At Hagedorn’s I ordered Vanilla, Ricky order Chocolate, and Cindy got Strawberry. Uncle Mal got a cup of coffee and drank it without any milk in it. He told us that Mrs. Sutherland’s husband had passed away and that he and a couple of fellows were going to fix up her basement, because it leaked every spring and sometimes again in the summer. I said I didn’t think Ricky, Cindy, and I had been of much help and Mal said, “Well what do you want me to do, take the ice cream back?”

Ricky said, “No!”

Cindy said, “All’s we did was sponge up some water and you probably could have done it faster than us anyway.”

Mal thought about this and nodded, “Well, maybe I could’ve…” he said. He sipped his coffee and then said to us, “But you see, you kids got to learn something about the old ways. You see, we’re a people of the land. And we act according to what the land is doing. It’s cold and freezes and we got to cope with it; it gets warm and floods and we got to cope with that. And some people, they don’t cope as well as others. So you got to pay attention to the land and it will tell you when you need to go out and help those who need the help. You see, it ain’t us against the land, it’s just us listening to what the land has got to tell us.”

We finished our ice dream and uncle Mal paid the bill. He turned around on his swivel stools and he said, “The world is changing and I think the old way of listening to the land is being forgotten.”

And even though we really had no idea what he was talking about, we promised him that we would never forget it. Mostly I think we promised this because the ice cream was good.

Maple Water

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, tells us a tale of Maple Water in the mountains and gratitude for Mother Earth.

We always hated to see the last of winter. Along with snow holidays off from school, the seasonal blanket of white turned the woodlands into an Artic adventure. Come evening, the very earth itself seemed to be illuminated with a fairy landscape that hinted at nature’s mystery. There were so many stories to follow in the tracks of wildlife that even the sleeping forest was awake with animal speak. But as March moved us toward April, the snow started to melt, and the creeks ran high, and the early buds snuck out from their tiny stalks. Dainty white Snow Drops and bright purple crocuses suddenly appeared even before the last snow fell. The Black Capped Chickadee changed his sweet mournful two notes that seemed to tell us “Spring Soon,” to an excited four note celebration “Spring is Com-ing!”. My friends and I saddened as winter slipped away. But then! There was Jeff Masters’ annual tasting of Maple Water! This was the official recognition that winter was on its last legs.

We followed Jeff up a trail to one of his favorite sugar maples. He somehow moved fast, but looked like he was walking slowly. His was a long-ambled stride that seemed easy and relaxed, but actually moved along pretty fast. My uncle Mal used to describe Jeff’s walking style as ‘country’ or ‘mountaineer’ walking. He said my dad walked that way and that I would too eventually. Cindy Maloney was behind me and hers was a focused, purposeful walking style, while Ricky Cramshaw followed us with his easy-going wander that meandered more than directed. As for me, I couldn’t figure out how I walked, seeing as how I couldn’t see myself from a distance, but I once saw a home movie in which me as a littler kid walked by. I was startled at seeing how I looked and refused to look at it a second time. I think it scared me.

We got to the top of the small ridge and crossed over to the southern side where the winter sun had turned the snow pack into mush. We reached Jeff’s favorite tree. He hunkered down and with his brace and bit tool, he pressed the long curly metal bit against a good spot in the tree bark and began to drill. He cranked the open handle around many times until he got deep enough into the tree. Then he removed the drill bit and took out a small metal nozzle, which he pounded into the hole in the tree with a hammer. Almost immediately, drips of sap came down the open nozzle and Jeff hung his metal bucket on the nozzle. We all looked in and watched as the tree let out one drop after another. “Plunk! Plunk! Plunk!”. The sound spoke out to us. Jeff stood back and said, “Come evening, when the temperature drops, it will slow down. Then, as long as its real cold tonight and then warm tomorrow, it will pick up again.” We followed him to a second tree where a bucket was already hanging. Here, he took out four little tin cups from his pack. This bucket was more than half full and Jeff easily dipped the cups into the bucket and gave us each a half cup of Maple Sap.

maple bucket

Sugaring bucket hanging from a maple tree

He said, “Now don’t drink it just yet. We gotta thank the earth mother for sharing with us.”

Ricky quickly said, “Thank you, Earth Mother!”

Jeff said, “Look up to the sky and thank Creator.”

We did this.

He then said, “Look down to the earth and thank the ancestors.”

We did.

He then said, “Thank you Earth Mother for all you share with us.”

I said, in this moment, “Amen.”

Cindy said, “Amen? What do you think? We’re praying?”

Before I could answer Jeff said, “Well, yes we are.”

We all sipped our sap. It’s Maple Water actually. If you boil it down, 40 quarts of this Maple Water will yield one quart of maple syrup—after most of the water has been boiled out of it. Jeff told us that the elders used to gather the maple water and let it freeze, then remove the ice on top, which was another way to extract the water part. The sugar would settle at the bottom, and would not freeze with the water. It took a lot of refreezing to get down to a sweet syrup.

boiling sap

Maple water boiling over a fire

The maple water tasted just a bit like maple syrup but was cool and delicious to wash across your tongue and very rewarding to swallow. This sweet drink was like a promise from winter that things would be good when spring came. Nature would take care of us now that we survived a long, cold winter. Ricky looked at the grand, grey maple that reached out over our heads and he said, “So when you tap the maple water, does it all come down from way up there?”

Jeff smiled and said, “The tree gathers up water from the ground and even from the leaves. When the maple water gets made, it moves through the tree just like your blood moves through you. It moves up and down throughout the tree.”

Cindy asked, “Does the tree have a heart?”

Jeff looked at her and grinned, “You mean does a heart in the tree move sap like our heart moves our blood around inside of us?”

She said, “Well, yeah I guess, but I also mean, is it a living thing like us?”

Jeff put his open palm on the tree and said, “Well no, it does not have a heart like we have to pump our blood around. The whole tree helps in moving the maple water just by the way the tree breaths.”

Ricky shouted, “Trees breathe?”

“Yup and it is a living thing, not just like us, but kind of like us. It needs air and water and food, too.”

Ricky observed, “Well this tree has been eating well, because this maple water is tasty!”

Jeff looked at me and said, “You ain’t said much. What do you think of our maple water this year?”

“Good” I said, and then added, “Amen.”

When it Rains

Camp storyteller Chuck Stead spins us a tale of April showers

When it rains, the mountain above the village drinks up as much as it can and then lets go of the rest, which runs down in little streams and courses through the village streets. Leaves and old, half-eaten acorns and bits of unknown things sail along these little streams and are then strewn all across Mountain Avenue. Walking in the last of an April shower, we kids study the mountain debris that has come down. I found a piece of a dollar bill. Ricky Cramshaw found two pieces of crayon, a silver one and one that looked like olive green. Dougy found a small, caramel-colored bit of glass and we wondered if it was from a beer bottle or a soda bottle. Cindy Maloney laughed at us in the final sprinkling of rain up on Mountain Avenue.

She said, “Everything you found is people stuff! It all washes down off the mountain and it’s people stuff, not mountain stuff. How can that be?”

Ricky said to her, “Must be from the Motel!”

And yes, it was well known that atop of the little mountain overlooking our village was a place called the Motel on the Mountain. Folks used to come from far and wide to stay there, but the directions said it was in Suffern, not Hillburn. We guessed that when they wrote the directions they figured Suffern was bigger and therefore Suffern got the credit. Truth was we were happy to give Suffern the credit, as we never liked having the motel on top of our mountain. Folks would drive into the village and ask a local how to get up to the Motel on the Mountain. They would point at the motel that was up there and say, “Excuse me, how do I get up there?”

The local would ask, “Well, where is it you want to go?”

“Up there to that motel!” the lost traveler would insist.

The local would say, “Well, what town is that motel in?”

The frustrated traveler would say, “Suffern! It’s in Suffern!”

And then the local would direct the traveler back out of the village and over to Suffern which was further away from the motel.

So it wasn’t unusual for us kids to find things and assume that the ‘people stuff’ sort of things washed down from the motel. Cindy bent over and picked up a delicate little skull, it looked like a mouse skull, the bottom jaw was missing. She said, “Now here’s something that didn’t come down from the motel. This little mouse probably lived right up there under that old tree stump.”

“Or maybe…” Dougy suggested, “…that little mouse did live at the motel and lost his head until the rain brought it down here?”

She didn’t agree. “No”, she said, “this is part of nature and that stuff you guys found is just a bunch of garbage.”

So we were about to throw it all away when Dougy squealed that he wanted our finds. He took the tiny bit of a dollar bill, the two bits of crayons and his own bit of colored glass and held onto to them.

Ricky said, “And what are you going to do with it all?”

Dougy had no idea but he said he didn’t like things being thrown away.

Old postcard of the Motel on the Mountain

Old postcard of the Motel on the Mountain

The rain had pretty much let up and now some sunlight streaked through the scattered clouds. We four started walking in the direction of the river and as we came around to the corner of Fourth Street and Lake Road a big, red Ford sedan pulled up and a man in a white hat called to us.

“Hey you kids…” he said, “…how do I get up to the motel?”

We approached his car and I saw that his license plate was from Florida. I was about to tell him to go to Suffern when Dougy said, “You drive out that way on Mountain Avenue, then turn on Sixth Street and then make another turn to the highway called 17, then you follow that to the motel road, its up the back of this mountain here.”

It was all very well worked out and we were surprised that he told the man the right directions. The man looked a bit doubtful about this so he looked at us all and said, “Is that right?”

We agreed and the man shrugged, but before he left Dougy said, “Wait!”

The man looked at Doug, who then walked up to him and handed him our bits of junk. The man stared at the torn dollar, the crayon bits and the tiny glass fragment in his open hand and he said, “What’s this?”

Dougy said, “You got to bring this back to the motel where it belongs.”

The man stared at Dougy, who looked very serious about this, so the man agreed and took the bits of junk with him. As he drove away I noticed Cindy quietly putting the little mouse skull into a patch of wet grass just off the road.

Yes, when the rain comes in spring things start to happen.

Mostly January

Storyteller Chuck Stead spins us a tale for the season

Mostly January was cold and hard, the ground frozen with bits of crust to trip over. Mostly it snowed a good deal in January and we scored at least three snow school holidays. Mostly January found my mom, Tessie, struggling with the idea that spring was still mostly three months away.

When I was a kid folks knew winter was coming and they accepted the cold, the snow, the blistering wind, the distant sun hanging in a chilled sky. The men in the village loaded antifreeze into the car radiators and tied a slice of cardboard in front of the radiator so as to keep the cold from chilling down its boil. They backed their cars into the yard and jacked them up to wrap and buckle snow chains around the tires. Some old timers slipped aluminum foil into the bottom of their snow boots for insulation and debated whether shiny side up or down was the best. Women gave up nylons and wore knee high wool stockings under their pants. Folks who didn’t have triple track storm windows sandwiched cardboard between the glass frames and sometimes taped a Sunday Comic sheet to the top window for a little color. All this was done in preparation for the long cold season; but not my mom. No, Tessie refused to make accommodations for the season. She told us that if you prepare for a cold snap you will surely get one. So she never prepared for the cold and the cold came anyway, sometimes with a vengeance.

Ricky Cramshaw and I were rolling a giant snowball along Mountain Avenue. It was already as big as we were and getting bigger, which meant getting harder to push. We had packed it down with every new layer of snow it gathered as we rolled the snowball closer and closer to the top of First Street. It was hard to move or even talk it was so cold, and our breath came clouding out and up our faces. We were wrapped in layers of wool, booted and mittened such that our arms and legs were thick and awkward. Our plan was to roll the giant snowball down the First Street hill and have it crash into the thruway fence, but as we neared the top of the hill we gave up. The giant snowball was no longer possible to move. It was too big and too heavy. We stopped, stepped back, and stared at it. After some minutes of exhausted silence Ricky spoke. “Well, that’s that.” And so we walked around it and headed down the hill to my folks house for hot chocolate.

My mom Tessie came rolling along Mountain Avenue in her ‘58 Chevrolet Wagon, accompanied by the muffled thumps of her tire chains on the snow-packed road, until she approached the top of First Street where a giant snowball blocked her way. She stopped the car and stared at the massive white ball of winter in the road. She no doubt thought about ramming it but there might be a child on the other side. It was snowing so visibility was not good anyway. She honked her car horn and waited. The snowball did not move. Reluctantly, she opened the car door and got out. The world outside her car was cold and soft and silent, yet active with big, white snow flakes dropping from above. She stepped up to the giant snowball and touched it. It did not move. She walked around and saw that it was smooth and hard and well packed. She faced the snowball, and putting both hands against it, pushed as hard as she could – but it did not move. Determined, she got back into her car and crept the ‘58 Chevrolet slowly up to the edge of the giant ball of snow and ice. Her car touched it. She accelerated and nudged the snowball a few inches. Winter would not get the best of her. She pressed her foot down hard.

Snowball

My dad Walt had made hot chocolate for Ricky and me. We had pulled off our outer layer of clothes and piled them on top of the steam radiator. Walt had us sitting in the dining room with our mugs, which were still steaming. He sat at his desk and was telling us about how when he was a boy, they put special shoes on horses so the animals could trot over the ice of frozen lakes and rivers. I imagined heavily spiked horse shoes that would leave massive dinosaur-like prints in the snow. Walt bent down and picked up one of our gloves, and was just putting it on the radiator when he noticed something out the window. He stopped talking and stared as he watched something roll on by down the hill. We looked up at him and he said to us, “Looks like Tessie’s having fun without us.”

We got up and went to the window and saw out at the bottom of First Street, Tessie sitting up in her ‘58 Chevrolet Station Wagon up against the thruway fence, the front of her car having just skied down the hill with a giant snowball stuck under the wheels. She was trying to back up but the car was stuck with its front end up off the ground. In frustration she honked the horn three times and then three times again.

Ricky, trying to read her horn code, said, “Three beeps and then three more beeps, does that mean, ‘come and get me I’m stuck on a giant snowball?’”

Walt thought about this and said, “Nope, I think it means it’s time to make some more hot cocoa.”

Hall Pass to a pretty how town

Chuck Stead offers us a seasonal story for this month of October

It was in my sophomore year at Albertus Magnus High School that I broke my knee – tearing cartilage in two places – and ended up missing a great deal of class time. I made it up at home reading endless boring textbooks about subjects I felt I would never need to know again in this lifetime. But I also spent hours reading Ernest Thompson Seton, John Burroughs, John Muir and Aldo Leopold as a vacation from the text books. I was familiar with Rachel Carson as a result of my Uncle Mal ranting that she was an anti-American Communist. So I found her wonderful and scary book Silent Spring and read that mostly so I could counter Mal’s opinions on Carson.

Come fall of my junior year I was fresh from knee surgery. Our Athletic coach, Mr. Tom Collins, exempted me from gym with a permanent study hall in the cafeteria, where I regularly picked up a Hall Pass and went to the library up on the second floor of the school.  I had developed something of a reputation for reading and writing poetry, which meant that upon arriving to the library I was escorted to the likes of Rod McKuen and Jonathan Livingston Seagull, neither of which could keep my attention. My older sister Muffin had left some of her Beat Generation material around and as a consequence I had found my way to Allan Ginsberg’s “Howl”. Then one day, thumbing through some more of Muffin’s poetry books, I opened for the first time a collection by e. e. cummings and read these three lines:

Anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter

I was amazed at the randomness of the writing, it felt to me like the way thinking happens. I put the book down on the table and staring at it I thought, “book of poetry on table of polished wood no need to hurry the hall pass is good”.  This word play reminded me of Bob Dylan’s lyrics. It was no doubt cumming’s refusal to use capital letters that first attracted me but soon I was following his drumming rhythm into places I didn’t know existed. I read everything I could get by cummings and then re-read it. I talked with teachers about his style but soon found I was talking to myself. I tried to write like cummings but failed at it.

It was October of 1969, and while Vietnam loomed at the edge of my world, I put off thoughts of war while in the school library, where cummings ranted a bit like a mad man and distracted me long enough to not worry about things. Back in Hillburn Cindy Maloney was shipped out to live with her grandmother; Cousin Buzzy was still around but he was attending Suffern High School and involved in a whole different society now; the Cramshaws moved down to Oakland, NJ, so seeing them was much less frequent.

Before I stepped off the school bus at the end of the day I yanked off my neck tie and shoved it into my book pack. The crisp, earthy-smelling world in the village embraced me as I walked up Second Street and encountered my Uncle Mal climbing out of his pick-up truck. Sometimes it is the little things that resonate most, and on this fall afternoon a small token of life passing by was about to land on the ground between us. Mal saw me and said, “The weary scholar come home from the academy.”

I said, “Anyone lived in a pretty how town with up so floating many bells down.”

Hillburn - School
(Photo courtesy of the Hudson River Valley Heritage website)

 

He eye’d me suspiciously and I explained I was quoting e. e. cummings. He said, “An educated poet, that’s a helluva thing.” Then he grinned and said, “Let’s go down to Hagedorn’s for ice cream, last of the season.”

I shove my hands into my trouser pockets and pulled out a couple of dollars but a small slip fell out and landed on the concrete sidewalk between us.

Mal said, “What’s that?”

I picked it up, looked at it and said, “It’s a Hall Pass.”

“For your school?”

“Yeah, with this I can get out of Study Hall and go to the Library.”

Mal said, “It’s a Hall Pass to a pretty how town. Now back in the old Hillburn School we didn’t have Hall Passes. You either was where you belonged or got a whipping.”

I shoved the pass into my pocket and we climbed into his pick-up. As we drove around Mountain Avenue we turned the corner at Fourth Street and Mal indicated the old school across the way. “That’s just a simple country school house but you know a poet can come out of most anywhere.” As we drove along the street and out of the village, through the valley brilliant with autumn color, I felt that little crumpled bit of paper in my pocket and thought about how a lot of small things and some big ones led me to reading poetry: a hunting accident, led to surgery, led to extra study halls, led to Hall Passes to the school library, or as Uncle Mal observed, to a pretty how town.