‘I remember it was on a night very much like this…’
—Words spoken around 10,000 campfires by a billion storytellers for a million years.
I found myself staring at the clouds drifting slowly past the quarter moon. In these early days of autumn, it should be a little cooler, but it was a mild evening. The fire wasn’t needed for warmth…the fire was needed for the mood.
An almost imperceptible breeze blew in from the lake. I watched the clouds and the moon. The wind was from the northwest…the weather was going to get cooler.
I poked at the fire and a flurry of sparks rose up into the darkness. Suddenly, a story came into my mind.
It was a time for tales and legends.
The story came quickly into my head. It was about a young teenage boy who had to say good-bye to the girl he loved. She was going to travel to a distant land…a place where the people were different and the language was hard to follow. I saw storm clouds. I saw lightning. I heard thunder. Not in real life, mind you, just in my mind. The boy was going to worry about his love.
“There was a boy,” I began. “He had a girlfriend he used to play with. He always used to love to walk her home on nights like this…on nights very much like this…and they would kick leaves and kiss when the moon went behind a cloud. But someone came to tell the girl that she had to come home right away…the time to catch the train was near.”
“Wait a minute!” my wife said with a sudden movement. She got up and leaned over to me. “Come here…closer,” she said.
She brushed something out of my hair.
“You had a tiny red spark from the fire caught in your hair. Gone now.”
“Thanks,” I said, and prepared to continue my story…but there was nothing to say…no words to speak. No story to tell. I had forgotten what the tale was about. I stared at the fire. I was frustrated. I knew it was a good story…I just had no idea what it was about.
All this, the fire, the story and the forgetting happened many years ago. But I know now what occurred. That’s because I’m older and presumably wiser.
The spark, I found out, was my idea. My idea became my story I began to tell. Without the spark, I had nothing.
Throughout my lifetime, on mountain tops, ancient forests, deserts, glaciers, beaches, islands or backyards…I had countless sparks fall on me. Most of the time, I just took the story that came with them and put it away…somewhere in my mind…where no one could find it or where I could get it when I needed it. Some of the time, I would have the spark fall on me and I would tell a fable or a legend. There were even times when I didn’t need a fire…the sparks fell on me while I sat at my laptop, or with my notebook while I drifted in my kayak, or when I would let the others on a hike go on ahead…so I could be alone. Or, when I would sit by a tree and rest and think.
I’m sitting here on the dock. The lake water has become like glass. The western sky is red. I’m remembering a place called the Brick Pond, in Owego, NY. A place in my hometown where magical things happened. But, right now I can feel the chill of winter approaching. My summers are over…my springs are a memory and my autumns…well, its autumn now…but it will soon be over. But, my memory keeps returning to the Brick Pond…in the winter, the dead-cold middle of winter…when my friends and I would build a bonfire. Oh God, the sparks flew from those huge blazes! And they fell down on the snow and made tiny black holes before they died. And they fell down on the snow-covered tree limbs, and for a brief moment, the leafless oak was like a Christmas tree with tiny red lights. And they fell down on the heads of my friends…all my friends (yes, even my little girlfriend). I believe with all my heart that they were filled with stories and memories and fables at that moment.
But, today, the bonfire site at the Brick Pond is a small patch of blackened charcoal. The furry trim of my friends’ hoods, the knit caps and the scarves have been given away and resold countless times. The black and brown hair of all my childhood companions is most likely gray now…mine is.
A French poet once asked: “Where are the snows of yesterday?”
But, I’m wondering where are the sparks, the lighter-than-air embers that gave us all dreams and hopes and fears?
I’m sitting on the dock. It’s dark now…the skies are filled with a zillion points of light…like white sparks. I pray that my friends see these stars and feel the memories fall down on them like rain, like snow or like sparks from the bonfires of yesterday.
I’m ready to make the climb the hill to our cottage. I walk away from the dock and something hits me in the face. It’s a maple leaf. I think of the autumn again and something occurs to me. Our memories, our personal legends, don’t have to be hot sparks…they can be a falling leaf, a falling snowflake, a raindrop, a photograph or a cloud. It can be anything that once happened to us…or anything we’ve seen in our past. These can bring on the memories of our lives. My childhood friends can watch the Susquehanna flow under a bridge, see something in a window of an antique store, a book, a poem, a song…any relic of our past and the days can be relived, in detail, for even a moment. The real beauty of all this opportunity to connect with a fable or a story is that it can happen anywhere. My friends are scattered around the world. A girl (woman now) lives on a farm in Oregon. Someone else in Florida. Someone in Texas, Maine or Paris.
But, for me, it’s a campfire just steps from our house that opens those dusty doors.
And, it happens on a night just like this one…
I grew up in a small town in upstate New York. The name is Owego, which is derived from a Native American term that means “where the valley widens” or something close to that. The village has everything that a typical small American town should have. There is a beautiful cemetery on the hill above the valley that holds the grave of an Indian Maiden. There is a stretch of road a few miles out-of-town that has a famous haunting, The Lady In Lavender. There is a Fair Grounds, where I, as a young boy, would wander through the midway, munching popcorn and hoping for a sausage sandwich and ice-cold coke in the late afternoon. Nearby was a half-mile oval cinder track where I ran the two-mile for the high school track team. On Main Street was the Tioga Theater where saturday matinees cost 25 cents and root-beer barrels were just a nickel. In the back row, in the dark, couples would kiss on a friday night. I know, because I was one part of those that smooched through the main feature. Across the street was the Cookie Jar (also called the Sugar Bowl) where my girlfriend, Mary, and I would share a cherry soda with a dip of ice cream.
One glass of soda and two straws.
At my end of town was a very special place. It was called the Brick Pond. Apparently, there was a certain clay in its banks that was used to make bricks. It was just a few steps from my front porch and it became a second home to me. Even though I had the great Susquehanna River in my back yard, I could often be found at the Brick Pond with my friends.
The water of this shallow lake stretched from the railroad tracks which bordered its west shore, to a marshy wetland to the east. The Pond never was a swimming hole because it had too many lily pads and the bottom was very mucky. At least I assumed it did. I wouldn’t know, because I never went barefoot into the water. To enjoy the area, we would walk the partly hidden paths that edged alongside the railroad and a small wooded section. In the summer, it was buggy. From my back porch, I could hear the crickets buzzing in the late afternoon and into the evening.
No, in the summer the Pond was interesting and adventure-filled…but in the winter, the Pond became a fantastic new world of snow, ice, bonfires, skating and…romance. Puppy love romance. The earliest and the most exciting kind of romance. We were at the cusp of adolescence. Holding the hand of your girlfriend was a mind-blowing experience and a kiss, well a kiss was beyond description.
The heart-pounding ‘high’ that came with young love was often more than my head and brain could contain. Nothing else seemed to exist.
Yes, it was the winters of my youth that I recall the most when I hear or think about the Brick Pond.
Only a handful of people in town ever visited the place when I was young. There was a small group of us, perhaps six or eight boys and girls, that had the pond pretty much to ourselves. The names of David, Angie, Greg, Toni, Marie, Jim, Peter and Chuck come to mind. Jutting out into the pond from the woods near the tracks was a small peninsula that had a very small mound on it. There we would build a bonfire and skate.
Someone’s father would come over and shovel the snow away, leaving a smooth surface to do figure 8’s. There was a small shack just below the RR tracks that functioned as a place for the train men to store tools. We used it to put our skates on. I remember every eyelet of my girlfriend’s white skates and I had her put her blade on my thigh while I tied her laces. Not too tight, not too loose. It had to be just perfect…like the white fuzzy hat she wore and the mittens (were they red?) that kept her hands warm. As I led her onto the ice, I missed her bare hand but I knew her fingers were toasty.
After we would skate with the others, Mary and I would break off and skate the lonely stretch to the east. Along the way the channel narrowed but the wind kept the snow off the ice. We would come to a fallen tree, naked of any bark, and we would sit. We would sit and I would kiss what little bit of face that peeked out from the fuzz and hat. Her cheeks were cold. Her lips were cool but just beneath the skin, I could sense the warmth of her inner being.
Sometimes, the moon would light our way. On those nights, it was pure magic. We held hands and skated farther away. I turned back to see the bonfire. No one was worried about us. They knew where we were.
I felt dizzy. I was standing on the edge of something but I didn’t know what it was. Time passed like cold molasses in those days. I thought I would never grow up. But I was holding hands with my future, that I knew.
When I think back on those nights, I know now what made me light-headed. It was the impossibly open future of my life. Mary, myself and my friends back at the fire were about to be launched like Sputnik, into a vast unknown place called adult life.
In the years that have passed, I’ve felt those wings of happiness flutter, but not in quite the same way as they did when I was twelve.
Many years later, the Brick Pond was turned into a protected wetland that is watched over by the Waterman Center.
In the late 1980’s, when I was going through a very rough time in my life, I found myself living with my parents for a short time. I had a son who was two and a half years old. Visits with him were set for Sundays. Once, I took him over to the Brick Pond. The Waterman Center had put a board walk across the eastern end of the Pond. I took my little boy over the bridge and stopped half-way. He tossed sticks into the melting ice. I sat and saw the ghost of a young couple skate right through the bridge, as if it wasn’t there.
I know them, I thought.
No, I thought again, I knew them.
[Top photo from the Waterman Center]