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A Yankee Notebook

September 24, 2012


POMPEY, NY – It’s the 55th reunion of Mother’s Syracuse Central High School class. I stood it as long as I could. I wore duds that I reckoned fit in with the ambiance, smiled blandly at old guys’ jokes, and marveled once again at the accent – I left here in 1950 – that I’d all but forgotten. I can’t possibly reproduce it in print; “Tom Collins” comes out as “Tahm Cahlins,” but that doesn’t begin to do it justice. Most of the guys who were ordering them had already had enough. The schadenfreude over missing classmates was getting repetitive, the dining room podium microphone system was third-rate, and nothing was planned but “sharing reminiscences”; so when Mother said that she and a girlfriend were going shopping, I jumped at the chance to get away. They took the girlfriend’s car, and I took ours.

I didn’t have a cell phone, so stopped in cold at my sister’s house east of Syracuse. They were away; I left a note. Then to see my stepmother in her nursing home. I was a surprise to her, too, and I don’t think she quite figured out who I was. At 103, she can be forgiven. When I asked if she was getting my weekly letter, newspaper column, and photograph, she said yes, that Bill (her late husband and my late father) had had a daughter (my sister) who brought her the mail once a week. I stayed only a few minutes and left her to her book.

There were still hours to kill before returning to the hotel to change for the buffet banquet that evening. What to do? Then I remembered that I was right in the middle of the area of many of my youthful adventures. The Prius I was driving burns so little gas that a few visits to old haunts wouldn’t cost too much.

Syracuse and the surrounding area are kind of the limestone capital of the East. Road cuts, quarries, and waterfalls all display thick beds of yellowish-gray Devonian limestone. When I was a kid there at mid-century, I didn’t realize the reason there were so many trout in the brooks around our house was the sweetness of the water flowing over that alkaline stone. It encouraged the growth of aquatic bugs, big, strong fish, and eager young fishermen. Nowadays many of those streams are crowded by subdivisions, choked with casual trash, and in some instances actually underground, in culverts. But the memories – all that remain – are as sweet as the water.

Syracuse is also, with reference to the most recent Ice Age, downstream of the Great Lakes basin. The ponderous sheets of ice, like massive bulldozers, gouged incalculable amounts of rock, gravel, and sand from what are now the lakes and dumped them on the high land to the south. Here in Pompey, at 1457 feet of elevation, I can look north at the city, about 1100 feet below, and from there, far beyond to the streams flowing north across the plain to Lake Ontario. Behind me and over the hump of glacial till, the streams flow south to the Susquehanna.

Limestone often hides interesting chemicals beneath its surface. Syracuse, whose main street is named Salina, got its industrial start by sun-drying brine from wells near Onondaga Lake. A century before that, the French built a fort near the brine wells in order to proselytize the Indians who came there for salt. There are also pockets of white sulfur in the local strata. My interest today was the sulfur-water spring beside Chittenango Creek, where as Tenderfoot Boy Scouts we were initiated by drinking a cup of the ghastly, stinking stuff. Though it was said to “clear the blood,” the spring never quite became the commercial success its owners hoped it would.

It’s been 63 years since I rode these roads on my one-speed 1925 Indian bicycle, which I’d tricked up with metal-rimmed wheels (replacing the original wooden-rimmed ones) and dropped handlebars, which gave the illusion – if not the fact – of greater speed. They tell me that one-speed is the current off-road biking fad, and I believe them, because that old steel-framed bike climbed some hills that today have been making me wonder how I ever did it.

The effect of the ice sheets was vastly different in central New York from what it was in our part of New England. In New Hampshire and Vermont they carved rounded, rubbly rock mountains out of our native igneous and metamorphic bedrock; here in New York they gouged great north-to-south troughs in the softer sedimentary rock. The Finger Lakes are the perfect example; flying over them, you get a dramatic look at that phenomenon. But it also means that, riding a bicycle across its grain, you cross valley after valley that, but for quirks of drainage, would be finger lakes today.

Old Route 20, now largely ignored in favor of Interstate 90 down on the lake plain, climbs up and over dozens of these valleys. The Prius’ fuel consumption gauge dropped to 20 mpg as I climbed west out of Cazenovia, then zoomed to 100 on the other side. My buddy John Pikel and I often flew down that hill lying flat on our bikes with our feet streaming out behind. We had foot-operated coaster brakes, so that wasn’t the safest thing in the world. After crossing Limestone Creek it was up a long, steep grade to the glacial plateau here at Pompey. West of Pompey, there’ll be another whizzing descent into another would-have-been finger lake, across Butternut Creek, and up the other side, a mile-long, unremitting climb through a rock cut to another plateau at Lafayette. From there, I’ll head back down toward Syracuse, passing the spot (I still remember it exactly) where a male goldfinch once flew into the front wheel of my bike. I’ll have lunch at a German restaurant full of old folks from a nearby assisted-care residence, and then drive through our old neighborhood, much changed, on the way back to the remainder of an afternoon of reminiscences of people I never knew. They’re still having their reunion; I’ve had mine.

Photo by Willem lange