Using what little willpower I have left, I am nailing some of those pandora’s lids back on for a moment, so that we can return to the river of dreams (called Muh-he-kun-ne-tuk by the Mahicans, the mighty Hudson by others), lest an important piece of mythohistory be left behind. This one, a simple, staggeringly beautiful memory, begs revisiting; one which, thinking about it today, I find myself wondering if it really happened at all.
I can still see the four of us (me, you, Jackie and Teddy) in Aunt Madeleine’s kitchen after dinner on a deep winter’s night in January, somewhere in the early fifties. We are babbling excitedly as we prepare to head out into the bitter cold for an adventure we had been anticipating for days. We wrestle ourselves into just enough warm clothing to make it possible to stay warm and still be able to move, then put on our ice skates.
Jackie has decided that the river is frozen through; the ice is now safe and smooth enough for us to travel, by the light of a full moon, downriver several miles to visit a place that until now had been kept hidden from us, a place they had been hinting at for days, a place that only a few people on earth even knew about. We were going to visit old Tracy’s cabin.
Gliding on the moonlit surface of one of America’s great rivers was magic enough, but when the starry silence was ruptured by a New York Central express train thundering along the banks just a hundred yards away, it was a moment of surpassing awe. Passengers traveling upstate from Manhattan could be seen through the steamy windows of a dining car as it raced by in the night. We stood for a moment in the moonlight, hardly able to speak, then skated on in silence.
After some distance we came upon a marshy area along the riverbank, frozen into the ice and dusted with newfallen snow. A small, squat wooden building sat tucked into the shore, hard by the railroad tracks, a warm glow from the windows reflected on the icy river, tufts of smoke rising from a makeshift metal chimney in the roof. In spite of the frigid temperature, our race downriver had made us surprisingly warm. Someone must have heard us crunching up the riverbank, and when the door opened, we entered another world, another time.
Inside that shack was the magic of times gone by, and the old black man in the overalls who shared it all with us that night, for all I knew, could have been Uncle Remus, or Dan’l, the ex-slave who taught Mark Twain how to tell a good story. There was a glow in that room, and it wasn’t just the pot-bellied stove or the kerosene lanterns. After taking off our coats and sweaters, we settled in around the fire for a night of story-telling, as if in a dream. Sipping hot tea and brandy, we sat and listened to tale upon tale of Tracy’s long life on the railroad and the river. We passed around faded photos of Albany underwater in the Great Flood of 1913, of horse-drawn liveries arriving at Union Station; we witnessed train following train, carrying long-gone friends, rich and poor.
Then, suddenly, Tracy stood up and said, “Ok, time fo’ the likrish stick!”. While this sounded like a great idea to me at the time, I noticed that Jackie and Teddy were trying desperately to keep from laughing, so I became more than a little apprehensive. Tracy then went to a cupboard and brought out a long, black, shiny stick and handed it to me with an air of mock gravity and a twinkle in his eye. “Go ‘head, take a lick,” he said. With no way out, I closed my eyes and ran my tongue tenuously along the “likrish stick”, and as I did, the room filled with laughter. Opening my eyes, I said, “What’s so damned funny?” “That’s a bull’s dick!”, came the reply, and then more laughter. I had been initiated into Tracy’s river family, one of the most elite clubs in the world.
I don’t remember skating back up the river that night, but I’m sure when we finally got to bed I sank into my pillow with a little bluebird on my shoulder, singing lullabies in my ear as I drifted off to yet another dreamland. Once again, it seemed, we had stepped out of the twentieth century and come back to tell the tale. By the way, it’s stories like this that have caused my kids to think I grew up in the Little House on the Prairie. Sometimes I think they might just be right.