Back in the Days Back in the Days The summer …

Written by William Bryk on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

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.

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.