Back in the Days Back in the Days The summer ...
The summer of 1967 was the Summer of Love, they say. I was 12 years old. I was oblivious. So was my family, so were my neighbors. We lived in Mohawk, a village of fewer than 3000 people on the south bank of the Mohawk River, a part of the township of German Flatts in Herkimer County, NY.
We lived on Columbia St., a tree-lined street going uphill, south from the river toward the hills. Our house was the first my parents had owned as a couple: a two-story wood-frame house, painted white, with a decrepit yellow barn in the back. Back between the world wars, local builders had developed the street with several dozen similar houses, interrupted by a few late-Victorian Queen Anne mansions with their turrets and gingerbread, and rocking-chaired front porches.
Mohawk was quiet and people rarely seemed to get excited about much. To be sure, every now and then some John Bircher would get hysterical about the international communist conspiracy, but no one paid attention to him. He was just another local nut. City folks underestimate the capacity of a small town to let things slide. This is more indifference than tolerance; the latter requires emotional investment, but both feel much the same in day-to-day life. If you wanted to you could wear a mohawk haircut, and a number of upstate kids did in 1967, albeit without mousse or bright colors. It wasn't about punk: no one had invented it yet. It was about how cool the Iroquois looked in the old movies and how cool a shaven head is in the summertime. No one said anything, at least to their faces. No one cared enough about it. The same held true for the longhairs, of which there were a few.
1967 was the summer between my sixth and seventh grades, when I moved from a middle school near the edge of the village, where the houses stopped and the fields began, to the Mohawk Central High School, a big, severe 1920s Georgian building of tan brick and sandstone trim, rising three stories across from Weller Park. The park had lilacs, the loveliest of flowering trees, whose heady scent filled the air for weeks in late spring. It also had the Weller Memorial Library. The Wellers had been a wealthy local family: they left their mansion to the village for its library. The building was well maintained and its golden oak shelves gleamed. I still associate the smell of lemon oil with books and libraries. The books were a wonderful, odd collection of Victoriana, now heavily salted with forgotten novels of the 20s and 30s. One enchanting touch was the obsolete encyclopedias from the late 30s, where one could dive into a world where World War II had yet to begin, trains moved by steam power and ocean liners were the only practical way to reach Europe. Boris was still czar of Bulgaria and King Carol ruled in Bucharest. Asia was simply not important: the world had not yet chosen to live on oil and American politics was not wholly driven by the price of gasoline.
Anyway. The village historical society maintained a museum on the library's second floor. Sometimes, the severe but secretly kindly librarian (she resembled Margaret Hamilton; they all did) let me creep upstairs to look. The most recent signature in its visitor's book was dated 1964. It was like any other small-town museum: the walls and display cases held swords from the Revolution and the Civil War, oil portraits and daguerreotypes of forgotten local dignitaries, posters of lost election campaigns, schedules for canal boats and steam packets, photographs of the horse cars and trolleys that once ran on Main St., oil torches and banners of the Wide-Awakes, the Lincoln campaigners of 1860, maps, engravings of battles and old warships, cocked hats and old coins and broken banknotes.
It was a lovely summer, its beauty heightened in my memory because in another two years summer vacation came to mean only working seven days a week as a dishwasher to pay for college. But for the moment, within 15 minutes of slipping out the back door, I could be in the fields south of town, heading for the rolling hills. After walking for what felt like hours, I would throw myself on the ground and gaze with mindless pleasure into the endless sky, watching the drifting clouds. It then seemed as if such joy might last forever. I have done nothing like it in more than 30 years. There is nothing profound in this, but having known paradise and lost it lies at the root of nostalgia.
Even then, small-town life was lived amid the rumor of great events. Those things happened elsewhere. They were things seen on television or read in the newspapers (we also subscribed to Life all through my childhood until it collapsed in the early 70s, a victim of the same changing markets that slew the old Saturday Evening Post and Look). Besides, nearly two centuries had passed since the times recounted in Walter Edmonds' novel Drums Along the Mohawk. Even a 12-year-old knew enough to mistrust greatness: the Mohawk Valley had known such things during the French and Indian Wars and the Revolution, and behind the glory captured in the elegant portraits of great men and the battle paintings of Reynolds and Trumbull were blood and rape and fire and death.
Back in the year of the summer of love, Americans still celebrated their civil holidays on their traditional days, such as May 30 for Memorial Day and Feb. 22 for Washington's birthday. They hadn't been degraded to rationalizations for three-day weekends, yet another heritage of the Age of Nixon, when businesses persuaded Congress to have nearly all of them observed on the closest Monday. Thus, Martin Luther King Jr. died that we might have white sales. The consequence was the destruction of several once-important secular civil ceremonies, events largely observed in community, in favor of meaningless days at the beach. The notion of business as conservative is wholly wrong-headed: no civil institution, however venerable, stands in the way of making money.
But I am being cranky, instead of writing of love. I remember Memorial Day 1967. The holiday was just over a century old then. Decoration Day was first observed in 1866, when Mrs. John A. Logan, the wife of a Union general, campaigned to have the widows of the Union dead decorate the graves of their fallen on May 30. Over time, Decoration Day became Memorial Day, on which the graves of all men and women who had taken up arms in their country's cause were marked with flags. So the parade marched past our house to the cemetery, with the high school band and the color guards from the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the aging doughboys who called themselves the Forty and Eight (after the French railway boxcars that had carried them to the front in 1918, with a capacity of 40 men or eight horses). At the rear was the ancient American LaFrance pumper of the local volunteer fire company (Mohawk did not yet need professional firefighters: many volunteer firemen worked near their homes and a blast on the siren brought them running). At the cemetery, the band played "The Star-Spangled Banner," the village mayor orated, the distant bugler sounded "Taps," and the firing party loosed three blank rounds into the sudden silence.
We moved away the next year. I have never gone back.
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