That was the summer of our odyssey, the summer of 1953, the summer that Crazy Man, Crazy by “Bill Haley with Haley’s Comets” was a huge jukebox hit at the bar on the grounds of the cottage rental place on Warner Lake in upstate New York, where that prelude to Rock Around the Clock rocked the summer air over and over day and night, especially Saturday night, during the month we stayed that summer before the divorce. That was also where we heard the mythic tale of the lady who not so long before had drowned in her big ball gown when the motorboat she was in capsized coming back late at night from a dance at a pavilion across the Lake.
As if to demonstrate, one morning that summer a small boat laden to the gunnels with fully dressed wide folks roared from the local dock out onto the Lake and sank, as the sudden thrust of the outboard motor pushed the stern down the last inch to Swamped; but since it was clear daylight the group were soon rescued. A crowd of wet wide men and women is a memorable sight as they clamber dripping onto a rickety dock.
Someone fishing from the same dock caught a BIG snapping turtle that was really pissed at what the world was doing to it with this fishhook amid this crowd around of staring faces and all the poking sticks and the pointing of vulnerable fingers. Speaking of fishing, I knew where to get the best earthworms, lots of big fat earthworms to sell to the fishermen at a good price, so I always had some ready cash, I caught tons of crayfish too. (Dave?) Ludwig was there as well, I remember that, I also think he lived on Morton Ave., his family was staying in a nearby cabin; we met and were BFF that summer, the way kids are, and never met again.
I remember like yesterday the big lightning storm, when lightning struck in a blinding blue flash of ozone right next to our cabin window while we were eating dinner, and at night in order to fall asleep with Crazy Man, Crazy blasting out of the jukebox till the wee hours, Mick and I playing our fallasleep games in the big saggy bed, asking each other things like What color is Tuesday? (Blue, for me.) No, Tuesday is brown! Yeah? Then what color is 5? (Orange, for me.) And November? This was also where we invented a new fallasleep game, in which we had to alternately whistle each note of a common Irish jig and never made it past the first five or six notes without exploding into laughter and, eventually, sleep.
Then in the mornings, close along the lakeshore swam small black clouds of baby catfish like mobs of lost punctuation in the shallow sunwarmed waters, begging to be caught, and we obliged, every day being chased away by Old Mr. Decay (after the then-popular tv toothpaste commercial), in the real world D.K. “Harris” or something on his hand-lettered road sign; sold bait and such, a grumpy old man who owned lakeshore property we were always invading in our fishing and other quests, so much stuff happening all the time, too much to fit in, even for zippy kids like us.
Then one day when we had more jarfuls of baby catfish and pans full of crayfish than we knew what to do with, we heard from someone about an old pen factory somewhere around there that had been abandoned since back before the war, which at that time had ended only 8 years ago (!). So one clear, hottening summer morning we set off to find the newly legendary factory, without a map, just the second or thirdhand word that it was out there somewhere in this general area of the State was enough for us to turn it into a treasure hunt. Crazy Man, Crazy.
There were four of us who set out on the odyssey: me, Mick, ?Eugene? (I think he was there, and at least one other kid; you see the way history can get bent, over time) and there were many twistings and turnings on the way: who-knows-why lefts, no-real-reason-rights, go-backs and go-arounds, we had no idea where we were headed and soon got hot, tired, hungry and thirsty, I’ll tell you; no one else was out in that heat, it was a long glaring day, but by a late afternoon miracle of some kind that happens on kidquests (see The Goonies), we found the rusty fallingdown hulk of a place and, scattered in the tall weeds all around, long lengths of mother-of-pearly and other pen barrels made out of celluloid… like the old Esterbrooks of that time… like King Solomon’s Mines it was, all those mounds of emeralds, sapphires and rubies lying here and there, gleaming in the high grass around the rusting collapse of these old buildings, way out here in the middle of nowhere…
How did they choose this location? Why a pen-barrel factory way out here? Who built it? Were questions never even thought of by us at the time, let alone asked or answered (though I’d love to know the story now), but we headed back carrying shoulderfuls of clacking bundles of long, bright, multicolored gems of no use whatever that anyone could think of other than for pen barrels, What in the world you gonna do with those things, the adults we passed would ask, but to us those dusty tubes were priceless with that beauty only kids can see, that adults have lost the ability to perceive, or have traded for other things–
Well, for your information those tubes made the biggest drinking straws you ever saw, you could drink from across the room. They also had impressive squirting power when drinking was reversed, made great dueling swords and fishing poles, and furnished great lessons in physics (major spitballs anyone?) and chemistry, to say nothing of pyrotechnics, since they turned out to be supergreat fireworks. Any of you grownups ever light the end of a two-meter long celluloid pen barrel?
First posted on original site on Thursday, March 4, 2010