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April Showering

Beloved camp storyteller Chuck Stead tells a tale of trying to help nature expedite spring’s flowering…

Dougy Cramshaw came prancing down into the Fountain Pond Park singing, “April Showers Bring May Flowers!” over and over. Winter was done and all sorts of early flowers had emerged, like snow drops and crocuses. But you know spring is really coming in when you see the long green stems of tulips and daffodils. Dougy, keeping an eye out for these tall friends, made his way down into the Pond Park every day in early April, so as to greet them when they emerged. He knew where they would first break ground at the south side of the Third Street hill. But, on this warm, welcoming Saturday, they had yet to emerge.

That was when the song had come back into his head, “April Showers Bring May Flowers”. It occurred to him that thus far, there had not been a whole lot of showers. He squatted down at the patch of earth that every spring exploded with daffodils, and he poked his little narrow fingers into the soil. He then sniffed his fingers and even tasted the dry smudge of dirt on them. Clearly, he believed, the soil was just too dry for April. He looked toward the Fountain Pond, twenty feet or so from where he was hunkered down. Gathering water from the pond with only his hands to cup it in was his first plan. But, after three or four tries he could hardly get more than a few drops to the dry patch of soil. Then he spotted a Coca Cola bottle in the mud along the pond shore. He dug it out and washed it off, and then he held it under the water and filled up a bottle’s worth. As he climbed back out of the pond, Cindy Maloney’s little brothers Mort and Wort were just coming down the hill. They saw him with the bottle and, naturally, they wanted to know if they could have each have a sip.

Dougy said, “This is water – not Coke!”
Mort snarled, “You’re being stingy, Doug! I want some of that Coke!”
Dougy handed him the bottle and said, “OK.”
Mort swung the bottle to his lips but Wort grabbed it and shouted, “Mort, that ain’t Coke!”
Mort looked again and then swore at Dougy, “Why did you fool me?”
“I didn’t fool you. You fooled yourself.” Dougy grabbed the bottle from Wort and told them. “I got this water for the place over there where the flowers grow. It needs some water.”

The brothers looked at the little dry patch as Dougy poured a stream of water onto it. He explained that there hadn’t been enough April showers for the flowers. The brothers looked at each other and said to Doug that pouring water from a Coke bottle wasn’t enough like a shower, but that they had a plan. It was like those Maloney boys had all sorts of emergency plans in their back pocket. They took off up the hill and across Third Street to their family’s house. In the meantime, Dougy returned to the muddy pond and collected another bottle full of water. He climbed back out of the pond and carefully poured it over the little wild flower garden patch.

As the last drops left the upturned bottle, he heard Mort and Wort shouting to each other. Then, he saw them at the top of the hill, unwinding a long garden hose and dragging it down toward him. It reached just about ten feet short of the spot where he was crouched. While Mort yanked on it to stretch it out, Wort ran up the hill shouting that he would go turn it on. Mort pulled and pulled but the hose was not stretching. He yanked away and groaned as he tried to make it longer. Over the top of the hill they heard the sound of Wort shouting something, and then Dougy saw the hose stiffen up, and then water came shooting out directly into Mort’s face. He fell, gasping, as he had swallowed a lot of water. Next, Wort came charging down the hill with a heavy iron lawn sprinkler. He picked up the hose, still gushing forth cold water and tried to screw it into the sprinkler, now squirting water over all of them. He finally clamped it down.

The sprinkler sprayed them across the face and into the sky and down onto the little patch of flower-expectant dirt. Mort, soaking wet, happily shouted, “We’re April Showering!” Dougy, Mort and Wort backed up to take in the view of their little showering. They were satisfied with their work.

Just then, the boy’s dad, John Maloney, came cruising down Third Street and apparently, he didn’t see the hose across the road. When he drove over it, the hose got caught up in the wheel and wrapped around the car axle. As he drove down Third Street, the hose ran up the hill with the sprinkler bouncing away, furiously spraying the entire world until it wrapped around a tree, stiffened, and burst the hose. They heard John’s car skid to a stop. Next, they heard John release a string of seriously blue language. Mort and Wort charged up the hill to turn off the hose which was now flowing water down into the pond. John Maloney looked over the hill top from Third Street and all he could see was his broken hose draining water into the pond. He shouted, “Why are we filling the pond!?” He then went charging off in search of Mort and Wort. And by the end of the month, a glorious bunch of daffodils, like little explosions of sunburst yellow, celebrated spring at the base of the hill.

March Fat Pole

Our beloved camp storyteller, Chuck Stead, recalls a unique vernal equinox tradition…

I had long known about Winter and Summer Solstice. Winter Solstice is the longest night and Summer Solstice is the longest day. Celebrations on Winter Solstice involve lighting a fire and gathering around it and such, as you ‘light the night’ for the Sun to find its way back. Celebrations for Summer Solstice involved staying up all night (it being the shortest night of the year) and welcoming the return of the lengthening night. But Uncle Mal now told us there was also ‘Equinox’: in the Fall it was called Autumnal Equinox, celebrating the harvest, and in the Spring it was a Vernal Equinox to celebrate the awakening of life in the earth. So, there were four points on the calendar. At Winter Solstice was the longest night; at Summer was the shortest night…but what of the Equinox times?

Ricky Cramshaw, Cindy Maloney, and I were sitting in the Paint Shop watching Uncle Mal wind his wrist watch. Our dads all had pocket watches, but Mal was a wrist watch sort of fellow. He was talking about the Vernal Equinox that was coming up in a few days. I had just said, “But I don’t think anybody does anything for it.”

Mal looked at me and said, “Oh, well, maybe not much anymore, but there was a time…”. He looked out the dirty shop windows, toward the western sky and said, “They put up a May Pole down in the Fountain Yard and then they’d get the kids to dance around it, dipping in and out and around each other, braiding these long colored ribbons, until they go around enough times that the whole pole is braided with the ribbons!”

Cindy said, “But Uncle Mal, the Vernal Equinox is in March and the pole you talk about is a May Pole. Isn’t that on May Day?”

Mal looked at her and said, “Well, yeah, you got me there…but the point is, folks in the old-time community used to be more sensitive to the coming season. Vernal Equinox and May Day were times of community gathering.”

Ricky said, “So what do we do on Equinox Day?”

Mal looked at his watch and said, “Well sir, if we lived out West in the flat-lands, on Equinox you can set your watch because Sunrise and Sunset happen exactly at 6 a.m. and at 6 p.m. And if you stay up all night, from 6 p.m. when sunsets, it’ll rise pretty much at 6 a.m. the next day too!”

Ricky said, “So day and night are equal in length, just 12 hours each?”

“Yes, they are, but then the day starts getting longer and the night shorter.”

Ricky said, “But we don’t live in the flatlands.”

‘No sir, we don’t.”

“Them flatlanders sure are lucky.”

Uncle Mal said, “I don’t think so, I like to have some hills around me.”

Cindy said, “So, what sort of thing do we do on Vernal Equinox?”

I said, “We could do the May Pole?”

Cindy shook her head and said, “But that’s for May.”

Ricky said, “Then let’s do a March Pole!”

Uncle Mal asked him, “And what would you wrap around it?”

“Licorice!”

I said, “No! That’s a waste of good licorice!”

He said, “Then let’s wrap the pole with bad licorice!”

Mal said, “Tell you what. We’ll put a pole in the ground and nail some suet to it.”

“What?”

“You know, some hard chunk of mutton fat.”

I said, “You want to make a March Fat Pole?”

He said, “This time of year, with spring not really kicked in yet, the birds could use a little help. We can put up a pole and nail some suet cakes to it and that’ll give the birds a little something to hold them over. Then come April the bugs start coming around and the worms start showing up, so our March Pole can be for the birds. What do you say?”

We agreed. Mal looked around in the shop and found an eight-foot wooden rod. We climbed into his truck and rode down to the feed store at Ramsey. He bought three suet cakes that were packed with bird seed and nuts. We rode back up to the Paint Shop and Mal picked out a spot in the back near the tracks, where he dug into the ground about a foot and a half deep. He nailed the three suet cakes to the pole, and then we gathered some broken rock near the tracks and dumped them into the hole, once he had stood the pole there. He patted down some dirt and more gravel around the base of the pole. We felt it. It was firm.

For the next few days whenever we could, we would go visit our March Fat Pole. Every time we came to it, we saw all kinds of birds feeding on it: sparrows, juncos, jays, cardinals, robins, and starlings. On March 22nd (which was Vernal Equinox that year) we found a Downy Woodpecker there pecking away at the suet/seed cake. Ricky ran to the pole and danced around it singing a March Fat Pole song he made up. Then, when we went there the next day, all three suet cakes were torn to pieces and all over the muddy ground were lots of raccoon tracks. The tracks were clear and fresh. We pressed our fingers into the tracks and closed our eyes. It was believed that this was a way to learn what the raccoons were thinking. We hunkered down quietly with our fingers pressed into the raccoon tracks. After a bit Ricky announced that he got a message of raccoon thoughts. He said to us, “Yummy, good suet on this stick!”

Woody-Chuck

OUR BELOVED CAMP STORYTELLER, CHUCK STEAD, TELLS A SUSPENSEFUL TALE OF A GROUNDHOG AND THE PLOT TO OUST THE UNSUSPECTING RODENT…

A few groundhogs had burrowed into the vegetative bank-side of the Fountain Park Pond in our village when I was a boy. The fuss they caused occupied the community for some time. It was one of Cindy Maloney’s little brothers who first spotted the roundish brown and black pawed woodchuck standing near to the remnants of the old pond ice house. It took us a while, but soon we discovered its den deep in the bank-side briers. It was complete with a dirt mound for a front porch, from which Woody-Chuck could observe most of the pond park.

We all got to calling him ‘Woody-Chuck’ when we learned it was a ‘he’, and for the most part no one seemed to mind him. The Keppler brothers tried to shoot him with a pellet gun, but they were notoriously bad shots. Then one of the Danhauser boys set an iron leg hold trap for it but caught Buchanan’s collie instead. The dog had to have surgery to repair its dislocated toe joints. Uncle Mal raged a campaign against the use of leg hold traps in the village of Hilburn, and it was soon announced by the mayor that a fine of $70 would be levied upon any trapping within the village. So, the Woody-Chuck seemed to be secure in his pond-side den.

But soon he had a mate and there were new worries that there would be even more groundhogs running about, digging up folks’ gardens and burrowing under house porches. So, a team of locals got the fire department to hook-up a hose to the Third Street hydrant in order to flood the groundhogs out. We kids were afraid they would be drowned, but we were assured that the groundhogs had other hidden exits and that as the burrow filled up, they would escape from those. So, on a Saturday morning in July, Ricky Cramshaw, Cindy Maloney and I were standing at the top of the Third Street bend in the road, looking down the park bank through the brush at the men laying out the fire hose. They were thrashing into the brush to ‘flush out’ Woody-Chuck. Although we had searched, we had yet to find his backdoor exit. Now we eagerly waited to see from where he would emerge with his mate and kin.

One of the men shoved the fire house down into the den opening and then they called back up the line to where my dad Walt was waiting with a big wrench on the fire hydrant, ready to open it up. From where we stood, we could see him turning the wrench. Then we could see the hose fatten up with water all along the way down into the pond park. It wound its way along to where some of the men stood, and then up and into Woody-Chuck’s den. We could almost hear the water flushing through the tunnels of the den, but still there was no sign of any groundhogs charging out of the ground. The men walked around the brush, kicking at the thick stubs, but they saw nothing. Walt walked down to where we stood and asked, “No sign of him?”

Ricky said, “Nope. Maybe he already moved his family out of there?”

Walt said, “Not likely. No, I think he’s still in there somewhere.”

I was about to ask if it was possible that they all got drowned, when Cindy shouted, “Look!”

And there to the right, in the thick of an old tree stump, out popped Woody-Chuck, his partner and three more small ones! They scurried up the bank and waddled out onto third street. All of them were wet and looked really annoyed. They then made their way across the street and into some barberry thickets. Walt walked back up to the fire hydrant and shut it off. The men pulled out the hose and then sealed off the den entrance with some rocks and even found the exit through the old stump and smashed that down into the tunnel. It was over.

A week later though, Woody-Chuck and family were comfortably back in their den. No one bothered with them after that.

Snowflakery

Our beloved camp storyteller, Chuck Stead, recounts a humorous wintertime interaction…

Most winters gave us something of a white Christmas and almost certainly a white New Year’s, but there was one year in my boyhood we had neither. It was cold enough to have snow. The frozen mud of tire tracks along the edge of the roads curled up like crispy corduroy trousers. The pond was rock solid ice and most of the river was skate worthy. There just hadn’t been anything falling from the sky. It was a hard, cold winter. Dougy Cramshaw was disgusted. Every morning he leapt from his twisted blankets and comforter, ran to the window and gazed out onto the valley below, where the only white he saw was the long hard white concrete of the New York State Thruway, its cars and trucks speeding by without concern for slippery conditions. Dougy was utterly disastisfied!

Then it occurred to him that the inside of his mother’s freezer section of the refrigerator was encrusted with snow-like frost. So, he carefully scraped away at it with a large spoon and packed a tin cup full of the stuff. He then bundled up and ran outside. Hands freezing, he formed a snowball – the first of the season. Now he went looking for a target. Although he had put his cloth mittens back on, holding this chunk of frozen frost moistened his hands and in turn slickened the ball of intended winter fun. As he crossed over the top of Mountain Avenue, he spotted Ian Keppler, a notorious bully in the village. Ordinarily, Doug would have run in fear, but he was empowered beyond reason with his secret premature snowball.

Doug shouted at Ian, “Hey you, don’t you chase me, I got a snowball!”

Ian took the bait and charged toward Dougy shouting, “You ain’t got no snowball!”

Little Dougy then illustrated that tossing a hard as rock frost ball makes for a very accurate throw. The ball clobbered Ian in the chest and he landed on his backside. The frost ball bounced off of him and then struck a tree and took off some bark! Dougy turned and ran down Second Street with Ian Keppler hot on his heels. Keppler caught him and tossed him down and was about to pound him, when he realized they had landed in front of Cousin Buzzy’s house. Buzz was on the front porch messing with an old generator that uncle Mal had given him. He looked up and saw Kepler hunkered down on top of a trapped Dougy. Buzz called out, “What’s this about?”

Keppler shouted back, “He hit me with a snowball!”

Buzz glanced up at the sky and said to Keppler, “Now how did he do that? There ain’t no snow.”

Keppler stammered and as Buzz got up and stepped over the heap of generator parts Kepler said, “I don’t know how he did it, but he did it!”

Buzz walked down to them and ordered Keppler off of Dougy. The bully obeyed reluctantly as Buzz carried with him an air of uncertain danger. Buzzy said to Doug, “You OK?”

Dougy said that he was just fine and then Buzzy turned on Kepler and said, “Now go away!”

Kepler went back up over the top of Mountain Avenue and Dougy got up and explained to Buzzy that he had indeed attacked Kepler with a Frozen Snow Frost Ball, made from his mother’s freezer. And Buzzy so admired little Doug’s ingenuity that he said there and then, “Well Cramshaw, I think you just invented Snowflakery!”

The Root Drinker

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, shares a peak into a character with a mysterious, muddy method of self-preservation…

About a year after my grandfather passed, it was observed that I had become a sullen and moody soul. Apparently, I was still waiting for him to return. My dad, Walt, started to take me on his ‘rounds’ in the evening when he paid calls upon village elders. I listened to their stories, their gossip, and their lives. It was time, according to my mother, that I learn about other things. But all things, for me, were connected to grandpa, whom we called Heebie Jeebie.

Along with my dad, my uncle Mal took me around to ‘learn about other things’ and this is how I met the root drinker. In the drive up to his house, Mal talked about how the root drinker had been diagnosed by doctors with an incurable cancer and had little time left to live. Mal said, “That was twenty years ago and he’s doing just fine still.” I asked how he was doing fine and uncle Mal said proudly, “He’s a root drinker!”

The house we came up to had bundles of twigs and dried flowers, and heaps of grass tied in long braids all hanging from the open ceiling of the front porch. As we walked under the porch roof, I looked up and saw the sky, realizing that there were only roof rafters for tying plants in the air and no actual roof cover on the porch. Mal called out to the man to let him know we had arrived. I saw the door open and we were greeted by a very healthy-looking man who smiled a very gritty set of teeth at us. He was happy to have us visit and he told us to come in and to sit down.

We walked in and it was very dark and kind of musty smelling. I looked up. There were the roots: thousands of different roots hanging from the ceiling. They were so clustered together that I felt we had gone underground and were now looking up at the very bottom of a forest. These roots were tied in bunches, some of them caked with clumps of earth and others clean and dry. He called us over to his table and showed us his book. It was an old tattered notebook and it had been his grandmother’s root drinking recipe book. He had kept it as a family heirloom and then when he was diagnosed with cancer he poured through the scribbled pages and detailed recipes left to him by a woman from another time. There were even little drawings to help identify the different plants and to show how to scrape the root skins and how to chop and shred the different roots

He was very proud of his grandmother who he told us lived to be over a hundred years in age. She had told him of when she heard about Lincoln being killed. She told him about learning of the death of Chief Sitting Bull. And she told him about hearing Mark Twain tell stories of his adventures in the Sandwich Islands. But it was her root drinking recipe book that told him the most valuable thing: how to live.

He poured us both a cup of lukewarm tea that had stuff floating in it. It tasted like mud. But Mal insisted I drink it. I did. The taste of dirt lasted in my mouth for days after. And the image of roots hanging from the ceiling has lasted with me ever since.

Winter Tales with Chuck Stead

What is the Secret of Snow Plow Hill?

Join The Nature Place this Saturday, January 17th, from Noon – 1 pm, as we listen to Chuck Stead’s winter tales.

We’ll meet downstairs in the lower school music room of Green Meadow Waldorf School, 307 Hungry Hollow Road, Chestnut Ridge, NY, 10977.