On the banks of Lake Champlain, the scars of floods and fires

lakeside-apartments-plattsburgh-nyPLATTSBURGH, N.Y.
Lakeside Apartments was already drowning. Hurricane Irene just held it under a minute to finish the job.

The brown, concrete complex on the edge of Plattsburgh was built in 1960 and has the open, geometric elements that are a hallmark of that time. One corner points toward Lake Champlain, looking for all the world like the nose of a ship at the edge of the beach. Only it has run aground.

I don’t know what it was like in the 1960s. No one talks about its heyday, if it had one, in which perhaps families arrived in slick, metal cars full of beach umbrellas and archaic societal attitudes.

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The units were occupied by low-income, mostly short-term tenants when Lake Champlain flooded in May 2011, washing away the beach and flooding the property. Lakeside Apartments was evacuated of about 200 people who were told they’d be able to move back later that summer. But that wasn’t to happen.

First there was a fire, in the weeks following the flood, that damaged several units when a squatter is alleged to have left incense burning in a shrine.lakeside-apartments-plattsburgh-ny8Then, in August, Hurricane Irene. 

The Category 3 storm tore up the Caribbean, and eastern United States, killing at least 53 along the way. She flooded Long Island and devastated the Catskills. In the Adirondacks, she caused landslides on her way to Canada, where power lines and buildings were damaged as far inland as Montreal.

And, of course, the Lakeside Apartments would never recover.

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“Right now it really is a distressed property,” Mayor James Calnon told the Press Republican last year. “We  want to get it out of distress, and we hope that will happen.”

“That” is a development project proposed when the land was sold in 2014 by Montreal businessman Collin Nieme, according to the Press Republican. If all goes well (though “goes well” is a matter of perspective), the land will be gentrified, with long-term leases and fancy hair salons.

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The Lakeside, at last, might be out of distress. For now, it is broken and smells of ash and worse things. Though police are said to drive by when they think of it, no one stopped me from wandering around the property, though I had to avert my eyes when I turned the corner to the lake side and made eye contact with a woman carrying out some delicate business in the back seat of a car.

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Through the blinds: Once-removed from motel theatre

PLATTSBURGH, N.Y.
The drama played out in muffled sounds across the smooth black parking lot of the motel.

Knocking first. Insistent. Hollow. Without echo, although the long low brick was mirrored on our side.

We lifted our second-storey blinds enough to spy on a blond woman pacing on the asphalt, phone in hand, periodically banging on the door, circling a car that was black but for the orange “city taxi” sign on top. The other side of the motel was mostly low-income housing, monthly rentals in front of which were colourful plastic chairs and swept-clean walkways. The curtains were drawn on all but two: through those windows we could see a large TV flickering; another had a fox skin on one wall and at least three taxidermied heads on the opposite wall. 

We didn’t want to get involved in the theatre downstairs, but I was in the midst of an allergy attack and my meds were in the car. Melani took her time and reported back, Benadryl in hand.

“I think the person inside called her, and she’s worried about whatever she heard.” The idea gave the flat thumping a more ominous tone, made this feel like something other than a lovers’ tiff.

There were words exchanged between the woman and the cab-driver, and the woman and a man who was sitting nearby, in front of his own motel unit. We couldn’t make out individual words.

A pattern emerged, more frantic with each repetition: knock, say a few words to the man, or the cabbie, pace, knock again. Melani was dying to help, because she’s like that. I was dying for her to, because I can’t stand not knowing the story. It seemed impossible that this one could have a positive ending. We hunkered down and hoped it wouldn’t escalate dangerously, peeking out the blinds less and less often.

“There’s an ambulance there now,” Melani hissed some time later, and my stomach flipped. The cab was gone, and the paramedics were pulling on gloves, leaving their doors open as they spoke briefly with the woman. The man who had been sitting on his front stoop got up, stood closer to her. There were people on the upper balcony — but not on our side, which was made up more of transient weekend visitors, not long-term residents as across the lot.

A paramedic banged on the door and waited. From across the way and through the dark, we could see the woman’s panic rising. The paramedic looked over his shoulder at his partner, but we couldn’t read his expression. A police car pulled up and parked behind the ambulance with its lights off. The cop got out of the car slowly, and he seemed perfectly relaxed. He hung back, staying out of the paramedics’ way, but within sight of the other players in the drama.

The paramedic put a hand on the window, looked back at his partner again. He did the one thing the woman, in her fear and excitement, hadn’t thought of: He pushed the window open. He leaned his head inside and yelled something — a name we couldn’t make out. He yelled again, then stepped back.

The entire complex was still but for the carnival lights of the ambulance.

The door cracked open and then, a breath later, was pulled all the way open by an elderly woman with a cane. The paramedic said something to her, and she must have answered him, because he poked his head into the room, then turned away and shrugged at his partner. They each stripped off their white gloves and returned the ambulance.

We put the blinds down for a few minutes — spying was fully indecent now that we knew there was no danger. Still, the next time we peeked, there was a pile of things on the walkway in front of the woman’s room. Residents were in motion, too — the blond woman with the phone, the man who had been sitting to watch, someone else from an upper floor. They rushed up and down the central stairs, heads together, into and out of a different room. The taxi was back. The driver didn’t get out this time, though he popped open the trunk. The blond and the man had a brief, intense conversation that ended with a hug.

When the taxi pulled away with the blond inside, every door closed and most lights flipped off.

The motel was silent, as though nothing had happened at all.

The case of the missing dam and the great stick rescue

NEW RUSSIA, N.Y.
The backroads from Plattsburg to West Winfield follow a wide rocky creek called the Bouquet River that appears and vanishes and curls under low bridges and behind tall pines.

My friend Laurie and I had a very loose roadtrip schedule — 24 hours to do a five-hour drive — so we were open to spending some time closer to the water on one of the first hot days of spring.

“Let’s go there!” one of us said with the enthusiasm of a mom set free and desperate for adventure when we passed a sign for Thrall Dam. Except was the last and only Thrall Dam sign we would see. We watched for it, but maybe the whole dam thing was a hallucination. All we wanted was to get closer to the water, and we wanted it five minutes ago, and there was that river coiling just out of our reach like a housecat. We swerved into the first pullout we found and climbed down grass, dirt, and tree roots to get to the Bouquet.

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Upstream were pockets of calm and a picturesque bridge. Downstream, a glassy pool into which a young fisherman wearing khakis and flat sneakers was casting his line, a beagle-shaped dog at his side.

Yet there we were between the two, where the rocks were at their thickest and most uneven and the ice-clear water had to bubble and force its way to tumble loudly down a two-storey-high waterfall.

00bouqet river ny stick1Laurie had taken her sandals off at the top of the embarkment; I let my rubber soles slide over the moss till I found sure footing.

“There’s a walking stick in there,” Laurie said, pointing.

“Huh,” I replied. I had nearly fallen while standing still on a rock. I was mortified. Plus, I wasn’t sure where she was going with this whole walking stick business.

“Or it could be just a stick stick. Look at it.”

I squinted into the blurred brook. There was a good-size stick in there, indeed, that looked smooth and straight, with a slightly pointed tip and what could have been a thicker handhold.

“I’m going to get it,” she announced.

It was smack in the middle of the river, at the head of the waterfall, and so I said (as is my custom), “Don’t kill yourself.”

If she rolled her eyes at me, I didn’t see it, so busy was I staying soberly upright as I attempted to take pictures of the rushing river with my phone. She stepped into the glacial water and set one dainty foot on a large, slippery rock. I was paying attention now — I didn’t know how I’d get my friend from the bottom of the waterfall if she tumbled in.

“Be careful,” I said again, in my best mom voice.

She threw me a look made of humour, annoyance, and self-preservation and stepped back onto the rocky bank.

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The story should have ended there, but I felt bad. She clearly wanted that stick badly enough to risk a bloody head injury and hypothermia. Plus, you know, I really love it when rocks and water come together to make something beautiful. I kicked off my sandals — nearly falling on my own head again, and stepped ankle-deep into the water.

It was the kind of icy that forces a lump into your throat and sends chills up your sciatic nerve, along your spine, coming to rest somewhere at the base of your neck like a hunk of snow that gets in under your scarf and coat that you know is going to melt and run down your back and make you freeze from the inside out.

I scanned each rock just below the clear surface, planning a path to the stick that avoided stepping into a wild whirlpool between me and it. It wasn’t going to be possible. Doubled over, with each foot on slick stone and fingers castled over rocks that turned their faces to the sun, I did an awkward slippery dance in a half-circle toward our prize. It was almost in reach. One foot was in the vortex, pulling me with more strength that I’d imagined toward the waterfall and the fisherman, who had thrown in the towel and was climbing the embankment with his dog. He either ignored our girlish squeals or couldn’t hear them over the roar of the falls.

I was wibbly-wobbly, but the stick was just there. Laurie was yelling encouragement in the form of hilarious taunts.

I developed this very non-graceful method of sliding my foot down a sharp rock till it found the place where it met another rock, then lifting my other foot to a stone on the opposite side, sliding till I found a similar foothold, all the time bending nearly double to steady myself with other rocks. I spent a good minute in the vortex, trying to plot my next move.

Two stones later, I leaned — closer closer closer — no longer concerned with my numb ankles, or the jagged stone on the soles of my feet.

Closer, till my fingertips like a lover brushed the sweaty tip and it was that gentle touch that renewed my resolve and with one more push forward and down my palm grasped it at the slippery base. Rather than recoiling at its wet and waxy flesh, I held it aloft and yelled something savage and triumphant as Laurie captured the moment digitally.

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Aglow, I looked down to check my footing, only to discover one side of my tank top had been yanked down during my passionate dive.

“AH! My boob!” I yelled. “One more without the exposure!”

I posed, and though it didn’t document the exact moment of triumph, the photograph drips with the residue of my joy.

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That dam stick set the tone for the rest of our journey, which saw Laurie conquer a giant tree stump, the threat of skinny dipping upriver, the crossing of a rickety, rotten bridge for no reason other than to cross it … but never a stop at the mysterious, missing Thrall Dam.

For one day, Knoebels was the happiest place on earth

ELYSBURG, Pa. — Here is a park that has survived a Great Depression, a World War and a half-dozen floods. And rather than looking old and tired, Knoebels—85 and counting—is as spry as amusement parks half her age, but with ten times the class.

I decided years ago that I’d had my fill of amusement parks. I’ve done La Ronde to death, and I’ve spent countless hours of my life standing in lines at other Six Flags, the CNE, and county fairs all over North America. I get plenty of thrills driving back country roads and the freeways around New York City, so I don’t need to pay for the feeling of my stomach falling out every time I turn a corner.

But our friend Ginger suggested we go to Knoebels, and Ginger understands the kind of travellers we are.

This gorgeous chunk of Pennsylvania mountain was purchased by the Knoebel family for $931 back in 1828 and while the third generation to live here did farm it, Henry “Old Hen” Knoebel was forward-thinking enough to see the property’s recreational potential. More importantly, the Knoebels built their park while respecting the land. There are trees everywhere here, spaced just far enough apart to safely plant rides that are shaded and cool. The terrible brightness of the July sun is filtered through lush leaves and chill breezes come off the creek each time one strolls over a pedestrian bridge.

The Grand Carousel is one of the world’s largest, but what makes this 1913 merry-go-round fun and unique is that it has a working brass-ring dispenser. Riders on the outer ring stretch with their arms out, collecting metal rings with each pass—the rider who’s lucky enough to catch the brass ring gets bragging rights and the cost of the ride back.

Oh, and the prices! Admission is free, so people like me who are long finished with roller coasters and bumper cars don’t feel like we’re wasting our money, yet tickets are inexpensive enough that it doesn’t take long to get your money’s worth if rides are your thing, or if you’re escorting a child or two to the many, many activities for them. The food stands are plentiful, the food delicious and remarkably well-priced.

I am finished with amusement parks with the exception of Knoebels. I wouldn’t hesitate to go back again and again to this magical little place.

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We visited two other amusement parks during the week we went to Knoebels.

Waldameer Water World is more than a hundred years old, a beloved picnic-spot-turned-tourist-attraction beside Lake Erie. I loved its 1960s feel and Jilly loved its lax height limits—she enjoyed her first roller coaster ride and spent far too much time (if you ask me, which I guess you didn’t) on grownup rides. The water park seemed lovely, but the water was frigid, making even the lazy river uncomfortable. We were visiting Erie during a cool week, though, so it’s not like it’s their fault.

 

Adventureland in Long Island was twelve kinds of terrible. We were there for a birthday party that was so disorganized the host took things into her own hands and fired our animator. I suspect the poor girl was suffering from a serious lack of training, and the faces of nearly all staff we encountered suggest the park isn’t the happiest place to work. Communication with ride operators was next to nil, and it was hot and expensive. I tweeted a complaint, which the company favourited, so I guess making children miserable is just a job well done.

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Blue skies and rain in pursuit of my zen

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The text, sent from the office near the end of my shift, was shorthand for “Let’s run away for a few hours. This reality sucks donkey balls.” Or something along those lines. She understood.

The point was to find a little zen on the highway, get a little peace on the open road. When I nearly succumbed to road rage just a few minutes into the drive — resulting in photos taken of licence plates and an in-car call to the highway police just as a torrential rain started to fall — I was about ready to turn around.

cars trafficMelani, my compass, kept me calm and we kept going. And sure enough, things started to turn around as soon as we hit the border. Our border guard was sharing his little booth with another red-headed guard who looked exactly like him. They were mid-conversation — “…so he was just living in this van…” — and didn’t really have time for us. “Where are you going?” he asked, scanning our passports. “Plattsburgh.” “Okay. Have a good day.” Just like that.

The baby had stopped chattering and had fallen asleep. It was one of those times when you had to put on both your wipers and your shades, what with the sun arriving of the (literal) blue through the clouds to the west. We got on twisty Hwy. 9 and wended our way through Chazy, taking imaginary pictures of the fallen-down or boarded-up buildings that line that part of the road.

The roads were a little slippy, but we were alone on them. The spectacular fall leaves were washed out under overcast skies, punctuated with blasts of orange and red on the mountains on the horizon.

I was almost there. I’d almost found my zen.

And then, off to the left and dropping without fear into Chazy Lake, was the most perfect rainbow. Ah. There it is.

This rainbow dropped behind the cornfields right into Chazy Lake.
This rainbow dropped behind the cornfields right into Chazy Lake.

Long Island mystery: Who is Catherine M. Walsh?

LONG ISLAND, N.Y. — There were just two things I really wanted to do while stateside for March break: drive the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel again, and visit a few thrift shops. Here we are tripping through the tunnel:

 

Circumstance and bad timing kept me away from thrift stores in North Carolina and Virginia, where they are plentiful, but our host in Long Island had just the place for me. I spent a gleeful 45 minutes at Unique and unearthed a mystery.

Flipping through the handbags in my never-ending search for the perfect purse, my fingers lighted on a small leather billfold. It was structurally sound, the plastic envelopes for displaying photos just barely yellowed. And it was empty, except …

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I put the treasure in my basket.

I have since discovered just enough about Catherine M. Walsh to drive me mad. She was born in 1917 and died in 1982, and seems to have lived most of that time in Long Island. But what about the empty plastic envelopes? Whose pictures did she cut out and place in there?

I can only imagine. And so imagine I have.

* * *

My Catherine—never Kate, never Cathy—was the fourth of five children born to Irish immigrants who staked their claim to a potato farm on Long Island, back when potatoes were what grew there, rather than subdivisions. Her brothers were nearly grown when she arrived, followed two years later by sweet Alice.

What their father lacked in riches he made up for with a sense of adventure. When my Catherine was 10 and sweet Alice 8, he borrowed a friend’s truck (he was one of those people who, always the first to step up and help out, could ask a favour of anyone and be met with a slap on the back) and loaded the sisters into it for a drive to nearby Garden City. They parked on a dirt road near Roosevelt Airfield and he lifted them into the bed of the truck excitedly. He thrust a newspaper at my Catherine and said, “Read that, Baby. Read what that man there said.”

Their father could read, but he was slow at it, so it was my Catherine’s job to read aloud when he asked. She cleared her throat. “’What kind of man would live where there is no danger’—”

“Right enough!” their father interrupted, laughing, barely containing his excitement. “I face danger every day, sure ’nuff. Nearly split me ankle just yesterday on a stone big as me heart. And how big is that, Baby?”

“Big as Paris!” yelled sweet Alice.

“Big as Paris, Baby. Big as Paris.”

My Catherine gave him a stern look and continued reading. “’Nothing can be accomplished by not taking a chance at all,’ he said. Mr. Lindberg makes his attempt for the Orteig Prize on May 21’—papa, that’s today!—’aboard the Spirit of the St. Louis. Several lives have been lost already in pursuit of the $25,000 award offered to that airman who completes the first non-stop transatlantic flight’.”

“That’s right, Baby!” their father laughed, pointing at the airfield. “I got a good feeling about this guy. I got a good feeling about St. Louis.”

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That was the day my Catherine fell in love with aerospace. Her passion for planes and the romance of the open skies would be her welcome shadow throughout her school and teaching-college years. She would become known for using flight analogies in her classrooms and she would—of course—fall in love with a pilot. How could she not?

He was a dashing test pilot for Republic Aviation and he dashed her heart into a million pieces when she caught him kissing a girl outside the robotics pavilion of the World’s Fair in New York City. His buddy Rory Walsh drove her home and didn’t say a word as she sat in the passenger seat and sobbed.

long island women library of congressBespectacled Rory Walsh had a name far more extravagant than his personality, which was cautious and whisper-quiet. My Catherine’s father and brothers were slightly suspicious of that deep stillness, but her mother and sister liked him right away. They were married within the year and would have honeymooned in Paris if it were not for the war.

It was sweet Alice, after all, who married a pilot, then stood helplessly by as he was called to war. Rory was blessedly not called up, because of his poor eyesight and because his position as a parts manufacturer at Republic made him valuable to the war effort on home soil. Sweet Alice came to live with them in their newly built Northport home so she wouldn’t be alone.

My Catherine and Rory were eager to start their family, but the first baby born in their little home was sweet Alice’s Colleen. Ah, how they loved her! The house was filled with sweet Alice’s singing. My Catherine sewed little pinafores, and though her stitches were atrocious—she never had any patience with needles—Colleen only cooed and eyed her adoringly. Rory fashioned her little airplanes from spare parts and bits of metal at Republic, and told her stories of faraway places. When letters from her father were delivered, my Catherine and Rory shared secret glances, guiltily hoping the war would last a little longer so they could keep Colleen just a few weeks more. They could not meet each other’s eyes at all when they learned he had been killed in action.

When it was time for kindergarten, my Catherine walked Colleen to her classroom each day. As time went on, Colleen helped with lesson planning and my Catherine helped with homework till they became one unit of education, teaching each other with every step.

Everyone commented on how alike they were. It was her greatest joy and deepest heartbreak.

republic aviationRory held her tighter on the nights she cried into her pillow, but they never spoke about the cradle that was empty but for Colleen’s dolls and metal airplanes.

They planned to go to Paris the year Colleen turned 10, but Rory was offered a golden opportunity with Grumman Corp. and he had a feeling they were going places. He couldn’t even imagine how far they would go, but that was years away and in the meantime he and my Catherine lived a blessed life, with Colleen and sweet Alice and a ginger cat named Moses.

Rory made a mark on Colleen’s doorframe for each of her birthdays and when he took her measure the day she turned 18, they all cried and wondered at what a lovely young lady she had become. To celebrate her coming of age, she and her mother took a two-week holiday in Paris, a gift from Rory and my Catherine.

Things were changing in the world and in Long Island, and Colleen was in the middle of it, bringing the future to the Walsh household via a record player and tales from the city, where she had a job answering phones in a lawyer’s office. If my Catherine wished she’d become a teacher rather than a switchboard operator, she kept her own council.

She wore short skirts and high boots and showed no interest in the patriarchal idea of marriage and motherhood. Rory clucked his tongue like a disapproving old woman, while her mother and aunt smiled behind their hands and did what they could to encourage her, secretly hoping they’d get to burn their damn bras in the back yard.

 

The day Kennedy was assassinated was already dark in the Walsh household, as Colleen had just announced she moving in to the city, sharing an apartment with her lover. For the rest of her life she would credit poor dear Kennedy with protecting her from an old-fashioned strapping from sweet Alice or my Catherine, who giggled at the prospect of bra-burnings but had to draw the line somewhere.

They said they would turn her room into an office or a sewing room or a library, but it was never changed. Everything remained as she had left it. Rory was too busy to start building a library or otherwise converting her room anyway, once Grumman won the contract to help build lunar modules. He came home late each night, tired but oh so excited about their progress.

long island home library of congress“The moon, ladies!” he would say, and they would look at each other and smile, and remember their father and his excitement. “We’re going to land men on the moon!”

My Catherine added space-themed projects to her curriculum and won an award for her ingenuity in teaching. She bought a dress for the awards ceremony that she would repurpose for the grand party Grumman put on for the lunar landing. Sheathed in silk but wearing practical black pumps, she stood close to Rory, holding his damp hand as they and dozens of others watched a blurry, monochrome Neil Armstrong descend the craft’s ladder and misspeak what would become one of the most famous sentences in human history.

One perfect tear escaped the corner of Rory’s eye—the enormity of the moment was too much to bear. My Catherine wiped the tear away before anyone noticed and thought about the Spirit of St. Louis, whose journey had seemed impossible 40 years before. And she smiled at Rory and thought about how impossibly deeply she loved him, to the moon and back.

armstrong moon nasaTheir friends became grandparents throughout the 1970s, but Colleen showed no interest in bringing a new baby into their lives. When their family changed again, it was a great surprise—sweet Alice announced her heart had at last softened and she was to marry. Her new love’s feet were firmly planted on the ground—he was the owner of a drive-in theatre in Nassau county.

It was the first time my Catherine and Rory had lived alone. While they giggled like newlyweds, they were of course completely thrown off and wandered about some nights marvelling at how quiet and empty their home had become. They ate their dinners on the couch while The Waltons and Quincy played in the background. They used the dining-room table to spread out travel brochures. Their long-overdue Parisian honeymoon was planned for the summer.

That was the spring she found the lump.

Rory was paralysed with terror, but my Catherine calmly put the brochures away and said they’d go the next summer instead and stop fretting darling, I’ll have to be better by the time school starts. She was back in class the following Christmas, though her doctors advised against it. She needed children to live, she told sweet Alice, who already knew.

highland school long island library of congressShe spent the next summer recovering from disfiguring surgery. My Catherine had never been in a hospital, had rarely visited her family doctor, and had never been away from home for more than a weekend. She hated the white walls and nurses’ soft footfalls. Hated them enough that she was back in her home weeks before her doctors predicted.

It’s not that the fight went out of her. It’s that when the cancer came for her a third time, her battlegrounds had changed. She had watched the landscapes of her loved ones’ faces change and she wanted peace for them. Her tiny family had given her more than a lifetime of joy. (If she had carried on just a few months, that joy would have doubled, but no one knew just then—not even Colleen—that the next generation was starting to develop.)

She let the illness take her quickly, for Rory’s sake. His heart was broken and it couldn’t heal while he hurt for her. Their love expanded, became a living, breathing thing over their home, a membrane that coated visitors when they crossed over their threshold.

Rory’s tears at the end were hot on my Catherine’s cheeks. “I never took you to Paris,” he apologized over and over. “I never took you to Paris.”

She held his hand as firmly as she could, more firmly than her illness should have allowed.

“My love,” she said to him, “You took me to the moon.”