Summer of '61 Continued -- 09/04/02

On Sunday I described Labor Day as the end of summer... and that inspired me on Monday to describe my summer of 1961, the summer that separated high school from college...

Since I posted that, a few more scenes have drifted through my mind and I thought that I'd toss them into this entry. One of the things I thought I'd mention is how much reading I did that summer. Not paperback private eye novels, I mean real reading.

This was a summer of no television. There was a television in a living room area in the main house, a big old black and white set that got one Albany area station. We didn't watch it. I don't think anyone ever watched it except sometimes a few soap opera addicts among the guests would indulge. The only time I watched TV during that entire ten weeks was when Gus Grissom was launched from Cape Canaveral for a suborbital flight.

We didn't go down to Raeder's Inn every night. And we usually had lots of free time in the afternoon (breakfast dishes, morning chores, pool cleaning, cow feeding, etc. usually filled most of the morning, and then it was time to wash lunch dishes, but afternoons were free, except when we had to bale hay). One of the guys had a stack of books that was his summer reading list for school and there were several shelves of books in the living room. I read serious novels and plays and books of essays and poetry and history books... Winston Churchill's History of the English Speaking People (4 volumes) and H.G. Wells' Outline of History (2 volumes)... what magnificent books! Some of the earlier history may be a bit dated given more recent research, etc. (especially for the early parts of the H.G.Wells work, which must have been written eighty years ago) but they were both among the finest minds of their times and these are beautifully written books. I've always enjoyed reading history (and it strikes me that I've not really read any history in recent years, except for some Rhode Island history... I'm a bit too busy at the moment, writing a new course... I'll have to hit the library in a few weeks... now there's a pleasant way to spend an evening when the cold weather arrives, curled up with a good book.)

I don't mean to lead you to think that our non-working hours were devoted to literary pursuits all summer. (Although I did work on writing my own novel that summer -- I'd started it the night I should have been cramming for my French 2 Regents exam -- oh well, I graduated anyway -- and used up a few legal pads that summer -- a project that was abandoned a few months into my freshman year of college and I can't recall having seen the manuscript in forty years, so I presume it is lost to posterity forever.)

I am afraid we did party from time to time (as you may have gathered from my description last time of us drinking at the Saturday night social gatherings) and, in fact, I did suffer a world-class hangover that summer. About mid-summer a car load of friends from home came by on a Friday and I went off with them for the evening -- which turned into an all-nighter -- beginning with stopping at some of the local Irish bars and then working our way back down towards Kingston, stopping two or three times at roadhouses on the way, ending up at someone's house after the bars had closed, still drinking -- I fell asleep on the floor for an hour or two and one of my friends (who had been driving so he hadn't consumed as much as the rest of us) was capable of driving me back to work, arriving in time to grab a quick shower before having to wash breakfast dishes. I couldn't handle breakfast, just lots of black coffee and aspirin and cigarettes -- I could barely stand, my eyes burned, I was dizzy, my whole body hurt but the pain in my head was absolutely excruciating. We had an added chore that weekend -- doing something with the windows on the Annex building -- I can't remember what it was, painting, caulking, fixing screens, whatever it was is lost in the mists of foggy memory... and I was very foggy that morning -- what I do remember quite clearly, is having to climb tall ladders. This was a two story building in front, but the land sloped downward from the road and in the rear the basement was a walkout at ground level, meaning the top floor was the third story in the back -- a long climb on a ladder when you are painfully hungover. And everyone else, of course, thought it was amusing.

There was an old Ford pickup truck that we would use to take the trash and garbage to the dump; we also used this truck on our weekly bottle redemption runs to town, turning in the empty soda and beer bottles from the Saturday parties to get the bottle deposit refunds, then buying donuts and milk to feast on during the ride back. Please note that neither of my co-workers had driver's licenses. This was no problem; small town U.S.A., everyone knew whose truck it was and that it must be his employees driving it, never a worry about being stopped. (He also owned a big old classic Lincoln Continental which was kept in a spare slot in a big storage shed -- a winter time rebuilding project -- but one day he took us out for a ride in it, no license plates, no worries, he was local, not an outsider.)

I flew off the pickup truck one day in the barnyard -- a frightening experience. We had the truck bed piled high with bales of hay. I was riding in back, standing in the middle of the upper layers of hay bales, trying to hold them from bouncing off. Mike made the left turn into the barnyard a little too quickly and I lost my balance and began to fall -- for one brief moment my ankles were trapped between two bales of hay and I feared that they would break -- and then a new fear, that I would swing down and end up beneath the wheels (which was not very likely, but it was a thought that flashed across my mind as centrifugal force sent me off the truck -- and then as I flew head first through the air I saw a soft landing approaching -- unfortunately, it was a huge steaming pile of nice fresh cow shit -- I had my hands out, like a diver, and I landed hands-first in the pile (yes, up to my elbows, but it was better than head first!) and then somersaulted over and slammed down on my back in the muddy barnyard. Fortunately, there was a hose nearby -- used to fill the cattle's wateringtrough -- to wash myself off. Nothing broken, although my wrists and elbows and shoulders were a bit sore for a few days.

Actually, there was another frightening experience that summer. Mike, one of my co-workers, began a summer romance with one of the waitresses, a local girl. She had a local ex-boyfriend who apparently objected to being assigned the status of an ex. One night Charlie (not my brother, a friend of mine from home, a year older than me, he had enlisted in the Air Force the year before when he had graduated from high school, and was home for a few days leave) had come up and we had driven into town, dropping Mike and Dale off at the local movie theatre to catch the late show movie while my buddy and I and my other co-worker wandered around town, grabbed a beer, hung out, etc. When we came to pick them up after the show, we found that the ex-boyfriend and some friends of his had been sitting around them and harassing them in the movie and were now following them outside, making threats. Mike and Dale jumped in the car and we took off. The locals jumped in another car and began to follow us. Charlie drove faster as we left town and headed down winding country roads, the other car keeping up.

At first we thought we heard firecrackers -- and then we realized, somebody in the car that was chasing us had a gun and was shooting at us. (I'll grant you, in calm retrospect, that they were probably just shooting to scare us, not to hit us, but at the time we were convinced they were shooting at us.) We flew along country roads at reckless speeds until we finally got back. Charlie screeched his tires as he braked enough to make the turn onto the side driveway, just missing the old pickup, and stopped his car partway up the grassy slope leading to our cabins. We jumped out of the car and ran for the cabins. The car that was chasing us had screeched to a halt, skidding half sideways in the road in front of the main house. We had an old .22 rifle in our cabin that we used for target shooting. We grabbed that (okay, I grabbed a box of ammunition, yeah, I am stupid), well, one of us grabbed the rifle and we flattened on the ground behind some trees, looking down at the road. Lights off, the locals drove about fifty feet down the road and got out of their car. There were some loud threats exchanged. One of them said something about their gun, don't remember what, but confirmed that they were armed.

That's when the boss came out of the house shotgun in hand. He called the locals by name, ordered the driver to come over to him. He read him the riot act, reckless driving, etc., told him that if he ever saw him drive down his road in front of his house again, he was going to call the State Troopers. And if he ever saw him on his property threatening his employees, he'd use his shotgun first and then call the Troopers. When he concluded "Now get the hell out of here." they ran for their car and took off. He then came over to us to ask what had started this. (We were smart enough to get the rifle back in our cabin before he could see it.) We explained and he said he didn't think we would be bothered anymore (and he was right) and then he told Charlie never to fling a car into his driveway like that again.

I managed to pack a lot of experience into those ten weeks.

I lost weight (and I'd been a fairly skinny kid in high school) but gained a lot of muscle, all summer, but especially during hay season (bales of hay are heavy, especially when you are carrying and throwing hundreds of them for hours, day after day). When I went off to college I was probably in the best physical shape of my life... 29 or 30 inch waist, maybe 160 pounds. I discovered a real joy in physical work. I also learned a bit about life. (Among other things, I learned that romantic trysts in haylofts are much better in fiction than in reality; even ignoring things like hay fever, it is a dusty, itchy, scratchy place, very uncomfortable against any part of your body, but especially the more tender areas.)

Yes, it was an interesting summer...

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