The town of Seneca Falls, New York, is well-known as the cinematic source for the town of Bedford Falls as depicted in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Even at the age of 60+ years old, I can well recall the main strip of the downtown just after crossing the metal bridge that passed over a dark canal. My memories include the rolling road we took from town out to our rented brick house at the intersection of Bayard Street and Route 89. The smaller road that turned downhill from our house connected to 116, a modest avenue passing by lake cottages. I’d sometimes wander down that street even at the tender age of four years old. We had a ton of freedom back then.
Up the highway sat Montezuma Marsh, a massive wildlife preserve at the northern tip of Cayuga Lake. All the Finger Lakes in Upstate New York were carved out by glaciers that left cat scratch rifts in the landscape. These days there are wineries all over those hills, a hallmark of the region. In the late 2000s, my late wife and I traveled with my daughter Emily to visit the area between her bouts of cancer treatment. The weather was too hot and the wines were too sweet for our taste, but it was beautiful just the same.
My early memories of living next to Cayuga Lake include warm summer days visiting a cottage at the bottom of the hill. It was owned by the people from whom we rented our house, and it had that creaky lake sound of water lapping at the dock and spider webs shifting in the breeze because no one used it that much. I don’t know how old I was when we were visiting one afternoon and my mother had forgotten to bring my swimsuit. “It’s okay, Chrissie,” she told me. “You can swim in your underwear.”
There were guests visiting the lake with us and I was not keen on stripping down to my underwear in front of everyone. Somehow I got up the courage because it was so hot outside, and stepped into the cool water with bare feet, wandering in until the water dipped under my little heinie and soaked my genitals. I stood there not daring to look up at anyone, eager to swim but fearful that people would see through my underwear when I climbed back out. It all felt like a bad dream one might have later in life. Only it was real.
I was already a sensitive, anxious child with a habit of biting my fingernails and massively prone to peeing my pants if tickled too hard. Yet I recall being happy quite a bit, especially in the company of my older brothers, whom I revered. They were interesting, funny, and athletic. They were all I wanted to be in life.
We played in the big front yard quite a bit, engaging in sports based on the season. Baseball dominated our summers. I learned to swing a bat and hit the ball early on. My throwing arm grew strong at a young age, and I yearned to impress my brothers.
Our father sometimes joined us in yard sports. He had a graceful throwing motion and was pretty darned fast on his feet. He was 37 years old when we moved from Seneca Falls in the spring of 1963. My mother had given birth to four boys by then. The last one came out large, kicking, and in breach position. That meant she needed time to heal and recover, so I spent a month or so at the farm run by my Uncle Kermit and Aunt Margaret in Bainbridge, New York.
I loved that farm as much as I loved our family. My Uncle Kermit was a strapping, tanned farmer with massive biceps and pectoral muscles that he could make dance in the summer sunlight. He loved to drive fast, and once plopped me on his lap as we sat on the tractor and went tearing down the flats next to the Susquehanna River with the manure spreader flinging shit all over the pasture. I glanced fearfully down at the tires spinning fast next to me but reasoned that my uncle knew what he was doing. Well, perhaps. He was kind of a wild dude.
My Aunt Margaret had a sweet, high voice and caring manner that made my stay away from home a joy. She fed me Rice Krispies in the morning and let me roam all around the farm. I’d spend mornings catching frogs in the watery tractor tire ditches next to the springs at the base of the Catskill mountain on which the farm sat. I’d pick up pieces of dark-gray shale and stare at the fossils embedded in stone. Up on the “hill,” as we called it, a stream ran down the ridge in small cascades over that slatey shale. Walking barefoot in that cool water felt like magic.
I also had some chores to do. One of those involved shoveling the cow shit from the floor into the manure trough as the cows came back in for milking. I loved that job. It felt good to use the wide scoop and push the cow pies into the trough. The barn had an automated belt that pushed the manure down to the end where it was gathered and pitched into the manure pile and spreader. My uncle hooked up the milking machines to all the cows and they sat there munching hay. He’d named each of them after former girlfriend because he didn’t really like cows all that much. To that end, I was sternly warned by my uncle that if the bull ever got out of its stall, I should run to the house as fast as I could. Talk about your malevolent characters. The bull stood in its stall with eyes that spoke of murder.
So I learned to respect and appreciate farm life, and how hard it was to make everything work well. My uncle ultimately got out of farming due to a bad back and was relieved to find work as an assessor, an occupation he enjoyed the rest of his life. And more power to him.
New York state chill
Back in Seneca Falls, when winter came around, the snows coming off Lake Erie and south from Lake Ontario buried Seneca Falls so deep that we made tunnels in the ditches. It fascinated me to be able to walk standing tall through those snowy passageways. But one day my brothers were so occupied with making longer ditches they sort of forgot about me. It was bitter cold outside and that chill soaked through my fat snowsuit. I started feeling weird inside and decided to make my way back home alone. Fortunately, all I had to do was follow the ditch tunnels back, but by the time I reached home and walked inside the house, I was delirious with what must have been hypothermia.
My mother recognized my condition immediately. She stripped off the cold, wet snowsuit and wrapped me in blankets. She made warm lemonade and rubbed my little legs with her warm hands. Then came the painful “chillblains” as the cold subsided from my muscles. I sipped that hot lemonade and welcomed her embrace as my senses came back to me.
Part of me has always been able to work through fatigue or cold, pain or fear, and that early experience taught me a few things about putting one foot in front of the other until you get where you need to go. Sometimes the most important competitions in life are within yourself.
A child’s mind can play cruel tricks at times. I remember walking home from a neighbor’s house over a big hill and large field. On the way, I developed a strange fear that a savage dinosaur might be tracking me. My ears burned with fear and I kept looking back to make sure I was not being caught. Perhaps I’d read too many books or had seen pictures of a T. Rex that freaked me out. In any case, I ran home the last few hundred yards just to be sure I’d make it. Yes, I had an overactive imagination.
Gunning down the Whistle Pig
But we were not imagining things the day that my father called us all inside the house and told us to gather upstairs. He’d grown tired of watching a groundhog dig holes beneath the barn on the property and decided to take the critter out. We stood by the upstairs window as he aimed his .22 rifle at the groundhog from what must have been thirty yards away and CRACK! went the rifle and the groundhog fell dead. I loved guns and carried my toy six-shooter or a water pistol around all the time. But that was the first time that I saw what guns can actually do.
I was quite impressed. Up to that point I’d never seen my father use a gun, and he never mentioned hunting as a kid, though he did plenty of it on the farm two hundred yards down from my mother’s place in Bainbridge. That’s right, they were childhood friends that made it through World War II to get married and have all of us boys.
But my father’s journey was far from placid. There was tragedy and loss in his early life. Then came family scrambling and many harsh challenges. His upbringing affected our lives in ways that we did not understand at the time. Over many years I’ve developed compassion and understanding for all that he went through, and how it affected him. For better and worse, those realities affected ours in many ways.