Bob, it’s high time we took a side trip down the Hudson River to Schodack Landing, a place you mentioned in an earlier blog (The Gun That Won the Imagination); a place not far in miles, but an entire universe away from our comfortable world on Delaware Avenue. This was a land where country boys actually lived the kind of hair-raising adventures that us city boys could only dream of, the kind of adventures that mothers should never, ever, hear about.
Fortunately for us, we seemed to spend a good deal of time there during the dog days of summer (Mom needed a break?). Our cousins lived right on the river, and from the front porch we could see Schodack Island, ancient haunt of the Mohicans; and before that, running right along the riverbank, were the New York Central railroad tracks (Grandpa Robinson was a conductor on the 5 o’clock run to New York City, you may recall; we’d lie on the grass and wait for him to open the back door and wave as he went by); just in front of the house was the river road, a ribbon of hot concrete. As we awoke each morning, there it was arrayed before us: the road, the tracks, the river, the island, and off in the distance, the old Castleton Bridge, where trains coming from the Selkirk Yards crossed the Hudson River on their way to Boston or New York. More inviting paths to danger and adventure couldn’t be found anywhere else in the world, and who better to set out upon them each day than a band of pirates and wild Indians such as us?
Sparks started flying as soon as we arrived from the city, when our cousins (mostly boys our age) and their band of brothers would drag us out into day or night to launch one hell-raising mission or another. Country boys, it seemed, were well-organized and committed to their mischief; not a day would pass but that they weren’t dreaming up some new way to ravage the countryside (city boys, on the other hand, were known to waste hours just trying to decide whether they even wanted to do something). It may have been boredom, it may have been that they were often far from the prying eyes of adults; or it could be as simple as the fact that there were virtually no police. Anywhere. For miles. We had somehow arrived in the legendary land of the lawless.
One fine day we set out to conquer the Castleton Bridge. We began by riding our bikes several miles up the river road to its base, conserving the rest of our energy for what lay ahead. We would leave our bikes at a dusty little shack beneath the bridge, where old John’s country store held the greatest reward a tired and thirsty cowpoke could ever imagine after a hard day’s ride: a big, red, beat-up old soda cooler full of ice and water, with dozens of glittering bottles suspended just beneath the surface. It was a tricky enterprise, though: you had to choose your soda in advance, because there was no time to decide once your hand was beneath the surface of the frigid waters. One could almost hear the faint strains of “Nearer, my God, to Thee” in the background as you plunged into the deep; there was no surer path to heaven than an icy cream soda on a mid-summer Hudson River morning.
At the top of the hill, the bridge stretches out as far as the eye can see. The river glistens far below. “There are only two ways to cross it,” our country comrades explained; “you can make a go of it on the tracks, but if a train comes while you’re out there, there’s nowhere to go but down.” The other option, which didn’t appear to be a whole lot better, was to use the catwalk suspended just below the sides of the bridge, consisting of an endless line of six-foot marble slabs a couple of inches thick and suspended by a steel grid. They were hair-raising enough to walk on, but absolutely heart-stopping when, further out on the bridge, we began to realize that quite a few of them were missing and the choice each time was to jump to the next one and move on, or chicken out and go back. The further out we went, the greater the distance to the landscape below, the harder it was to jump. But there was no turning around; we were city boys.