Reunions, Fishing, and Runaway Slaves - Lake Erie Ride Part 2
Freddie and I are old friends: it sounds funny to say it because for the past fifty years we’ve not seen or heard from each other. But for the first twenty years we were best friends: lived across the street from each other; hung together from kindergarten ‘til high school graduation; bartended my parents’ silver wedding anniversary party in the basement of my home and got drunk for the first time, then stumbled through our neighborhood to get some “fresh air,” arm-in-arm supporting each other until we got to our respective homes and passed out; double-dated (he married his high school sweetheart, and is still married to Marilyn — I have no idea where mine is); worked after school at what we both still agree was the best job of our lives: a veterinary hospital where we cleaned kennels, assisted with operations, groomed dogs, mopped floors, waited on customers when the skinny receptionist was on break or vacation, and put down unwanted dogs and cats by pushing a strychnine-filled hypodermic needle into their hearts (the cats were the most shocking because they would go stiff on tippy-toes then try to climb the hospital garage’s cement block walls before falling dead on their backs with their tongues hanging out).
And we even came close to blowing up our neighborhood.
I was nervous when we arrived in Lewiston, New York, on the third day of our Lake Erie trip. We checked into a mom-and-pop motel on Water Street, the exact location where sixty years ago my dad and I would descend the American side of the lower Niagara River gorge down steep stairs to rent a fishing boat from an old man who lived in a shack at the base of the gorge and also sold fishing equipment, soda pop, and candy bars. We only rented a boat (my dad had his own Mercury Hurricane outboard motor, which I somehow always ended up carrying down the steps) and we never bought anything else from the old man nor did anybody else given the thick coating of dust on all the fishing lures and the candy bars, as well as on the man, his sleeping cot, hotplate, and creosote-stained Corningware coffee pot. I often wondered where the old man went when the river rose during the spring runoff, but never asked because back then kids were expected to keep their mouths shut around strangers.
The next day John and Jill and Nell and I were going to meet Freddie and Marilyn for breakfast at a Lewiston boutique café called Mangia. What do you say to friends fifty years absent?
The day of the reunion I awoke and was performing my morning bathroom ablutions when while trimming my beard I looked in the mirror and saw an old man with a fair amount of white hair on the sides of his head, but with what an aerial shot would reveal as a growing monk’s tonsure. He had three rows of gully-like creases the shape of elongated "M’s" imprinted on his forehead, though the corners of his eyes were without wrinkles. His mustache and beard were also white and the skin on his throat had loosened and shrunk (one of nature’s miraculous contradictions) so that tendinous cords now stretched from his lower jaw to his chest. He took up a pair of small scissors to clip the nose and ear hairs that now grow as if fertilized. “How in the hell,” I whispered to the old man in the mirror, “are you going to recognize Freddie?”
I stood awhile staring at the mirror then it hit me: “I won’t look for Freddie. I’ll look for his father.” It’s not that I remember that Freddie looked exactly like his father, but there were traits, like a thick head of black hair, and an elongated face, that they had in common. I wouldn’t really look for his father, but the essence of him and his father. Freddie used to wear Buddy Holly black horn-rimmed glasses (in fact he kind of resembled Buddy Holly without the curly hair), so I thought he would still have glasses until I remembered the possibility of contacts. Then I worried if John and Jill would be bored at the reunion, when it occurred to me that both John and Freddie were engineers and they could talk about whatever engineers talk about: you know, tolerances and cosigns and that sort of shit. I knew Nell was looking forward to meeting Freddie and Marilyn since Nell knows so much about me and my childhood, and Jill is so independent that I never worry about her.
Nell was just waking when I left our room to go and look at the river. A large restaurant is now located where the old stairs began at the top of the gorge. Before I got to the road I came to a bronze statue I never saw before of five people (three men, a woman, and an infant). The figure of a young white woman had her arm and right index finger thrust excitedly toward the river and Canada, while a crouching middle-aged black man holding a staff looked in that direction with an expression of stunned but determined awe. An older black man stepping into a boat held the infant in outstretched arms, as a seated black woman bent forward in terror and love to receive her child.
The statue was set against a river panorama of blue sky and ephemeral mist slowly yielding to a rising sun. A plaque indicated that this was the Freedom Crossing Monument, only one of two monuments in the US that honors the heroics of fugitive slaves and the people who helped them. The plaque explains that where I stood was an important last stop in the Underground Railway for slaves escaping to Canada and out of the reach of bounty hunters.
I circled the monument to look at it from all angles and it changed as I moved through the dappled light steaming from the nearby tree canopy: the figures seemed to move and change expression. I saw Moses with his staff ready to part the waters to freedom, I saw an old Adam reaching for the hand of God, and I saw the mother and child Pietà.
I continued on and the paved road gradually took me down to a modern marina at river’s edge. The old man was replaced by a Harbor Master, and he stood outside his small but well-appointed office. The fishing boats and dusty lures and cot and appliances and candy had all been replaced by pleasure craft and a telephone, computer, and printer/copier/fax machine. The Harbor Master said he didn’t rent fishing boats (that made me sad), but that the fishing had revived since the days of heavy river pollution (that made me happy). I stood at the end of the dock and looked up and down the river and it all looked the same: the river was still broad and moved fast, and the banks were still heavily wooded. The statue of General Brock still stood on its high column half way up the Niagara Escarpment on the Canadian side.
This was the spot where American forces crossed the Niagara River to Queenston Heights to engage the British in the opening battle of the War of 1812. Lewiston to Queenston is the most obvious crossing place if your intent was to establish a strategic foothold in Canada — Lewiston is not far from Port Weller, where the Welland Canal would eventually be built. But the British, most of whom were former American loyalists having fled the American Colonies during the Revolutionary War, beat the shit out of the Americans and sent then limping home; it had to have been a mess and I imagine many wounded drowned trying to get back across the fast current. General Brock was the British commander and was killed in this battle, ergo the monument.
Whenever my Dad and I would return from a long fishing day, as we approached the old dock and he opened the throttle to turn the boat sideways to the current and get it into a slip, he would turn to me and say, Joey, you know they had to take Brock off that pillar last week.” Every time I would say, “How come?” and my Dad would respond, “Because he had to pee.”
A warmth rose from my stomach across my chest and down my arms. I knew it would be a good day.