Getting From Here to There--On Water and in Memory


    It was the day the house burned.  Not Bruce's house--that was later, in the winter.
    Cricket and I were driving home from the dump at Alexandria Bay. (They were beginning to be called landfills, officially, but locally it was still "the dump.")  We hadn't taken any trash over--we mainly went there for dump-picking. We were amazed at what treasures people threw away: tools, books, furniture, you name it. Not all of what we brought home was treasure, but every trip to the dump yielded something worthwhile.  At another dump, in the town of LaFargeville, we picked up dairy goods by the case-load from the Kraft milk processing plant. Whenever blueberry yogurt wound up in strawberry yogurt containers, the whole lot went to the dump. Cottage cheese in thirty-five pound containers--with maybe the wrong expiration date stamped on it--off to the dump it went. Our sow Charlotte and all her pigs loved cottage cheese, sour cream, and yogurt. And we had perfected the cottage cheese pizza, since we often got the goods fresh off the back of a sanitary, refrigerated truck.
    Cricket and I had lashed a boat to the '58 Chevy pickup, it's prow extending up over the cab of the truck. Just who would trash such an item we couldn't imagine.  We're not talking rowboat, or small outboard; this was a 12-foot riverboat, a skiff. It wasn't pretty, but it was intact and seaworthy-- riverworthy at any rate. So driving home that afternoon we were in high spirits. What a haul!
    Home was about fifteen miles from Alexandria Bay dump. The pickup was never quick, and with our new rivercraft bucking the wind as well, we lumbered along modestly. We had gone only a few miles from the Bay when we first saw smoke rising in the sky. When you see smoke in the direction of home, you take your bearings and then reckon. And damn if it didn't line up in a bad way. There weren't many places in our part of the country, and ours was one of the few in line with the smoke.
    So our jubilation melted progressively as we drove.  It was cool fall weather and we kept a small fire in the woodstove Cricket had built from two fifty-five-gallon oil drums. A house fire was entirely possible. The amount of smoke, its color, the direction and distance--it all added up in an unsettling way. We went from being thrilled at having a boat aboard, to wishing it wasn't there so we could get on home.
    Not until a couple miles from the house did we figure differently. Like every other road around, ours snaked through hills and ridges continually giving us a different vantage point. We were relieved to see that the column of smoke was too far away to be our house.  It was Milt Marcellus' place that burned, four or five miles up the road. We weren't homeless after all.
    But that sinking feeling, thinking of what it would mean if we were burned out--tools, clothes, and everything gone--all that emotional activity seared the afternoon into my memory. So that all my memories of the boat are attached to that afternoon and Cricket and our long drive home.
    The visuals are not like double negatives--the smoke and Cricket and the gray pickup superimposed over a boat-ride.  But remembering a later day when we moved Bruce's cookstove up the creek is tied irrevocably to that smoke-filled dump-day in apple season.

    Cricket and I never put the boat in water, just never had occasion to. So months later when my brother Bruce and his wife moved back on the swamp, after their house burned, they took the boat for transport. Bruce outfitted it with a ten-horse motor.
    Bruce and Susan had bought several hundred acres of wild territory that was landlocked. Previous owners had used the place for years as a hunting and trapping camp, and the only improvements on the place were a log cabin and a small barn. This was their home for three years.
    Their cabin was situated creekside on Black Creek, which meandered through miles of swamp on its way north from Butterfield Lake to Black Lake.  To get there, they walked a half mile cross-country and then canoed through the swamp to the creek and the cabin. That was the simplest route. Anything too heavy to carry to the canoe they brought by boat from the town dock at the south end of Butterfield Lake.
    So, what little furniture they had came by boat--river boat, rescued from the dump boat.  From the town dock it was four miles up to the head of the lake and then two miles up the creek. When it came time to move their wood cookstove, Bruce recruited help.
    Wood-fired kitchen stoves were built of cast iron, back in the days before manufacturers learned to cut costs by skimping on materials. A piano probably weighs less than a wood cookstove.
    Six of us, then, piled out of the pickup at the town dock and lugged the stove awkwardly out to the boat. There were Susan's two brothers, Jimmy and Michael; myself; Bruce and Susan; and Bob Bowser. Not only did we have to fit the stove and all of us into the boat, but Bob weighed somewhat in excess of three hundred pounds. Anyone who has ever stepped from land into something rocking in the water can appreciate the scene as we loaded that stove off the dock and into the boat. Somehow we managed. And then we all crowded in carefully around the stove. The boat cleared the surface of the water by no more than four to six inches.
    It was slow going.  The motor was severely overtaxed.  And if there had been the least bit of wind and choppy water that boat would have swamped in an instant. But it was a nice sunny afternoon with just a light breeze, so we had a long, memorable, and uneventful ride up the lake and up the creek. We might have gotten a little wet unloading the stove onto the creekbank, but we set the stove inside the cabin without trouble.
    Several years later Bruce was working at a marina over at the bay, when he learned there was more to the story. During a break he was visiting with another boatyard worker, Ron Lewis. Naturally boating was a common topic. When Bruce told of floating the stove in to his cabin, Ron said, "That was you?"
    It seems Ron and some friends had been drinking beer at Lakeside Tavern when they looked out the window to see those hippies from the Felder place carrying a cookstove from their pickup to a boat.
    "They're all getting into the boat. And look--that one guy must weigh half as much as the stove!"
    "They won't even get away from the dock like that. No way!"
    Pretty soon bets were laid.  This was only a year or two after Dave Rogers and three ice-fishing buddies watched stunned as Dave's Pontiac dropped through the ice.  So manufactured steel was not entirely unknown on the floor of Butterfield Lake. (Come Spring, after the ice went off, they winched Dave's car from the lake with a cable. After an overhaul, he drove the car several years.)
    Someone found binoculars, and the company at the tavern watched until the boat was far up the lake. There are a number of private islands in the lake with vacation cabins, one of which would presumably be the boat's destination. Eventually, however, the boat became tiny and faint in the binoculars, so two carloads of people careened up the road three miles to Pete's Barn, a tavern near the head of the lake. There they watched as the craft approached, passed their vantage point, and finally disappeared from view, up Black Creek to God-knows-where. Ron, who worked at the marina and knew what river boats were and were not capable of, lost money on the deal.
    You might think, then, that along with the dump run, Milt's house burning, and moving the cookstove, I would also remember Bruce telling me about the bets on our progress up the lake. But I had a raging stomach-ache when he told me, as we drove home from the salvage yard where we had pulled a distributor for my '64 Plymouth. It was the day before Dr. Mantle cut out my appendix, so those memories are all in a different tangle.

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