Finding Peter

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[Lenny is on the left. Peter is happy to be in Pennsylvania]

It was here in the Adirondack Mountains that I walked up to the wall of a ranger cabin.  It was a far off December night, when my heart and body were young.  I had a flashlight in my shaking hand, and read by the dim light that the air temperature was -28 F.  I didn’t go back to the car.  I didn’t go back to a cabin.  I went back to the lean-to where my brother, Chris and a few friends were camping.  None of us had any down clothing or down sleeping bags.  We simply put the two bags we each carried together and pulled in the extra dry clothes for additional insulation.  Chris tied a tarp over the opening.  At least ten candles were lit.  You’d be surprised how those candles added warmth.  In our shelter, it was a comfortable -15 F. We were in our early teenage years.  I wouldn’t dream about camping in such temperatures now, not at my age.  Not when I know what cold can do.  What did I know in 1960?

One of my friends who slept near me in two sleeping bags that night was Peter.

A year earlier, in the summer of 1959, several boys, somehow got permission from their parents and set out from Owego, NY to visit one of the boy’s grandparents seventy-three miles away in Lake Winola, Pennsylvania.  I was the leader of the trip since it was to my grandparents house we were heading.  I remember spending one night in a pasture next to a small pond and amid cow pies scattered all over the field.  It was my duty to ask permission to camp there, so I knocked on the farmhouse and the old guy looked at me, my friends standing along the road with overloaded bikes and then looked out at the field.  He thought about it for about thirty seconds and then said: “Hell, I don’t care.  Just don’t burn the field down.”

One of those boys who rode his heavy one-speed Schwinn along the empty road was Peter.

In the high school library, if you knew the room well enough, you could squeeze between a gap in the stacks and discover a small space where there a few chairs.  All hidden behind the shelves…out of sight of those pouring over their homework or the latest copy of Hot Rod Magazine.  A few of the boys knew of this spot.  During the times when we would sign out of our study hall and go to the library, we would, one by one, push through the small opening and sit in the chairs.  Did we talk about what girl we thought was “easy”?  No.  Did we smoke? No.  Did we cause any trouble, fight or destroy books?  Again, no.  We would sit and discuss philosophical things like truth and beauty and life.  And, we would talk about the far off war in Viet Nam.  The librarian, Miss Grimes knew we were there and she left us alone.

The guy who led the discussions about such topics was my friend, Peter.

A few years later, this small group of boys had grown up a little.  There was Lenny, Greg, myself and Peter.  We were sitting in a house one evening telling stories and planning on something big.  I fell asleep on the sofa.  When I awoke, it was morning.  I realized my father would have checked my bed as he did for all of us over the years.  I would have been found missing!  I panicked and ran down Front Street, snuck in the front door and smelled coffee.  My father was up.  I could also hear the water running in the bathroom where he shaved.  Did he not check my bed yet?  I tore off my jeans and shirt and got into bed.  Less than a minute later, my father opened the door and saw that I was “fast asleep”.

The sofa I leapt from that morning was Peter’s.

One night, in Barry’s Restaurant in Owego, I was sitting with my childhood girlfriend trying to keep her from breaking up with me.  Peter came in and we sat and talked for a few hours.  He said good-night and then he left.

That was the last time I saw him.  We, who had such adventures that youth is meant to have, fell out of touch save for a brief telephone conversation a few years later when Greg, Roger Watkins and I discovered his phone number.  He was living in Batavia.  In Owego, we decided to drive up to see him.  We ran out of gas on the bridge just beyond the Treadway.  We walked home, never making it to Batavia.

Pater stayed away.  He “went under the radar” as they say.   It was like he rose like the mists of the Susquehanna on an autumn morning, rising and then dissipating into the humid air.

We all moved on with our lives.  I remained close to Greg and we would often discuss the fate of our “hero”, Peter.  He had become such stuff of legends that it was hard to distinguish the real from the dream.

Decades went by like some insane video player was stuck on Fast Forward.  But something loomed in the future for us all, all of those who walked the halls of OFA and watched the bonfires and went to sock hops (and got a hand autographed by Dion), saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and watched JFK’s funeral and went to our classmates funerals when they came home from Viet Nam…to their home in Evergreen Cemetery or St. Patrick’s or Tioga Cemetery.

Yes, there was something that many of us never gave much thought to, until we began to reach our early 60’s.

We were making plans to celebrate our 50th high school reunion!  Half a century separating us today from the pink cheeks and taffeta gowns of our prom, the Cookie Jar, the roller skating in Tioga Center and the Dick Clark Show which came to Johnson City more than once.  Many of my classmates and teachers are passed on now…but a great many of us remain…looking at our 70th birthdays coming in a few years like a spider walking on our arm.

Some of my classmates were absent from our growing data-base of email and physical addresses.

One of those whose job it was to seek out those who had not responded to the mailings or were simply “unknown”, came to me and asked if I would be willing to check out some leads on Peter.  I agreed.

I made the phone call, punching the keypad of what I hoped was the correct number.

A woman answered.  She asked who was calling.  I told her who I was.  She called to a man who took the phone.  It was the voice of a teenage boy with forty-nine years of life layered on.  I was speaking to Peter for the first time since 1966.

Unfortunately, due to personal circumstances, he will not be able to attend the reunion.

But that’s okay.  I found my long-lost companion.

It was my friend, Peter.

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[In a pasture among the cow pies. 1959]


Two-Tree Island (How Do I Live Without You?)

The physical geography of the place can be hard to describe.  One has to see it from the air…from the height of a soaring hawk or eagle, or, better yet, from the seat of a kayak or canoe.  But one can get lost in the words…just as easily as one can get lost in the miles of wilderness, mountains, bogs and small ponds.

There is a large lake in the northern portion of the Adirondack Park.  It’s linear, like a fat river.  Along its long axis is an esker, a glacial leftover of sand and gravel and topped with second-growth pines.  A notch in the esker leads to a long and ever-narrowing arm of the larger lake.  Another esker appears.  There is another lake…another esker and then the main lake.

Like I said, it’s hard to paint the scene in nouns and adjectives.

If you walked the crest of one of these eskers, you would come to a gap.  To cross the water and continue, you would need to wade, knee-deep in crystal-clear water to continue on your walk.  But this gap has a stone structure on either side.  It’s been reinforced…tampered with by humans.

And, this is where the story begins.  Decades ago, there was a house built on the “bridge” over the water.  It was a camp…but not one of tents and sleeping bags.  In the Adirondacks, “camps” were cottages or cabins.  Some of the “Great Camps” still exist, places like Sagamore and White Pine and Topridge.  Many more fell victim to fires and unthinkable and purposeful destruction.  They are wonders of the Rustic Style of architecture .

This particular camp that I’m thinking about was of an average size.  It sat over the short connecting flow of two lakes for decades.

Many families would come to the camp and stay in the guest rooms and out buildings.  Adults would hunt or fish or smoke and read.  The children would swim and then when they were dried and fed…would swim again.  A great campfire would blaze in the evening and stories would be told.  Songs.  Quiet.  Laughter.  Then all would retire to their beds…the children still moving their flannel covered legs and arms as they swam away to sleep.

A young girl came with her family one summer.  A boy, a few years older, came with his family that same summer.  The children became shy friends…then inseparable companions.  They hiked the narrow esker.  They climbed the sticky pines.  They swam the chilly waters.

They watched the roaring flames of the evening fire at night.

There was a small island about fifty yards from the main camp.  The boy and the girl would swim there everyday when the weather allowed.  They usually swam together.  She was a much better swimmer than he; one time he struggled to make the distance, short as it was.  He gasped for breath.  She turned around and pulled him along to the island.  After he caught his breath, he turned to her and said: “I don’t know how I could have made it without you.”

It was on this island with several rocks and enough soil to support shrubs of blueberries, they would sit and talk for hours…or they would lay back and watch the sky and the clouds.

Two small saplings grew on either end of the island.  Only a few yards apart.

The children returned to the camp by the lake for many years.  They grew up.  They watched each other grow up in their own special way.

The saplings grew rapidly in the sun and abundant water.

The island was a special place for the two young adults.  They named it Two-Tree Island.  The saplings outgrew the couple.

The boy and girl…now a young man and woman…found the pleasure and excitement of a first kiss on the island.  The couple found that as they grew older, they could sneak off and swim out in the night and hold each other.

She would often say: “I don’t know what I would do without you.”

The parents of the man and woman died.  The owner of the camp grew very old and soon moved to a nursing home.  The house was abandoned.

The young couple married.  They enjoyed a modest wealth.  They bought the camp and refurbished it with modern plumbing and electricity.  They spent many summers at the old place…and every day they would swim out to the island, circle it several times and then swim back.  This went on for many years.

“What would we do without this tiny island of ours?”  They said this often. The trees grew very tall and stately.

The couple grew old and missed more than a few summers at the camp.  They often spent summers with their children and grandchildren in Myrtle Beach.

Then one day at their home in Saratoga Springs, the man felt a lump in his testicle.  He had it checked.

They knew they had one more summer left together, so they decided to send their son and son-in-law to open and clean out the camp.  They arrived late one afternoon in July.  He was feeble but still able to wade in the chilly waters of the lake.

The two made plans to paddle over to the island, but when they had the canoe brought down to the water they saw the island through the morning mist.  They looked in sadness at the two trees.  One had died…but still stood tall and proud.

“What are we going to do without those two trees?”  They asked each other, without speaking, using their eyes to convey the question.

A year later, the old woman, returned to the camp.  She knew it was going to be her last visit.  Not that she was in ill-health…she just didn’t have any desire to stay more than a few days alone.  Her once slender and beautiful legs were now white and streaked with purple veins.  She slipped on her water shoes and waded toward Two-Tree Island until the water was over her knees.  Oh, how he loved my knees, she said to herself.

She looked at the island.  One tree stood alive and firm and unbending.  The other stood mute as a column of stone.

She thought of her first kiss, his hand on her back, his hand on her breast, his hand in her hair.  A thousand memories flew over and through her head like the clouds she and her husband used to watch…from Two-Tree Island.

“Oh, how can I live without you?”

She waded toward the island, the water came to her thighs and then covered her hips.  She kept walking, toward the island with two trees.  Only one of was living.  Then she saw the saplings growing from the base of both trees!

Her thoughts raced forward a hundred years.  She thought of her Great-great-great grandchildren.  She knew then that two trees will always grow on Two-Tree Island.  The tiny island where she held a young boy’s hand and kissed his young lips.