Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Mountain Road

In 1965 I lived on a one-hundred-sixty-five acre farm, in the foothills of Snake Mountain, in Bridport, a town of less than eight-hundred on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain, in central Vermont.

In 1965 Bridport had two grocers, a gas station, a farm supply and a hardware. There was a modern Post Office, a Grange Hall, and two houses of worship; St. Berndette's and the Congregational church, (the Methodists and the Baptists having moved on to greener pastures around the turn of the century). The Center School, a one-story, concrete building just south of town, housed grades one through eight. Secondary students had to make the sixteen mile round trip to the regional high school in Middlebury. There was no preschool until my mother started a Kindergarten, a class of no more than a dozen, which met five mornings a week in the Parish Hall.

There was no library to speak of. No movie theatre or soda fountain. No five-and-dime. But there was a bandstand. There were fourth-of-July parades and church suppers. There were horseshoes, and a sewing club, and dinners at the Halfway House. And always there was baseball and fishing.

The land was more open then,  a patchwork of pastures and cornfields that sloped gently down to the shale and scrub tree shores of Lake Champlain.  The Adirondacks mountains rose up out of the water, a series of discontinuous peaks stretching north and south, like some great, lumbering beast.

In 1965 Bridport was a village of dairy farmers. The stars still shone when the lights went on in the barns in the morning. And in the afternoons, all the planting, or haying, or harvesting came to a stop when it was time to get the cows in. At the time, my father was at Simmons Precision, working on  luminescence for the fuel gauging system for the Apollo Project.  He was what was known as, "a gentleman farmer," tending, in his spare time, a stand of white pines for the christmas tree market, an apple orchard, and an overly generous asparagus bed, and renting his fields to his neighbors for grazing. He sold the stanchions out of the barn, and the two old silos for the cyprus wood, and did what renovation time and money allowed on the hundred year old brick farmhouse. When my little brother broke every window in the barn, my father extracted a nickle for each smashed pane in penalty, a sum it took a year to raise.

In 1965, I was nine-years-old. I had an adult sized tricyle that I road up and down on the cement floors  in the empty barn. I had a rope swing in the hay-mow, and a pond with catfish and snapping turtles. I stamped rooms in the tall grass, climbed the ledges with my brothers, and got lost in the woods for hours with nothing but trees, and birds, and the sound of stream water for company. Once my father killed a copperhead snake, shearing its head off with garden shovel. Once there were wild dogs. And another time I awoke at dawn to see a whole herd of deer standing out back, the mist of early morning softening the hillside, and trees, and the sloping green fields.

In 1967, in an upward career move, my father sold the farm,  but my grandparents, my mother's mother and father, still lived in the village, in the old parsonage on the town green they'd bought in 1947. We went back every year, and later my parents would retire there, buying 300 acres of meadows and woods on Swinton Road, with a wide view of the mountains, east and west.  In the early 1980's I would move to Bridport for the second time in my life, living on a trailer on the their proptery, my first attempt at the writing life. Later, I would set my first novel, The Curve of The World, in the Bridport of the 1940's, a story echoing with familiar voices, in a landscape remarkably similar to the one I knew twenty-five years later.

 The Mountain Road farm house was bought, and sold, and bought again; never as a working dairy farm, but increasinly as a gentrified property, with latest appliances in the kitchen, and upkept, white trim and fences. In the late sixties the house and lands were bought by David McCullough, the writer and historian, who renovated the milk room in the barn to make an office, and went to work on The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge.  

He wrote the whole of the story, in the three years he lived in the brick house on Mountain Road. Or so he told me the night we met at the 25th annual Literary Lights dinner at the Park Plaza, in Boston, on April 14th.  I had brought a picture, a three-inch square, faded color photograph showing the face of the two story brick house as it was in 1965, with the stone wall by the road, the granite step leading to the front door, and the big maple towering above the roofline. He didn't have his glasses, and there were others eager to meet him, to bend his ear, like me, with stories about the way his life and work had intersected with their own. But he held my hand while I spoke, and he laughed when I told him about the tricyle.

Later, in his key-note adrdress, he would speak about his work, about the curiousity and joy that fuels his research and his writing, about his love of history and the wisdom of preserving the written record of our past. He would explain how, for him, writing was always a means of discovery. And I would be grateful for that; to hear again, that even the wisest begin the writing journey with only questions to guide them.

At the end he would speak with love of his family and his mentors, and I'd be grateful for that, too, for a glimpse of the people and places that had inspired him. I'd think of the brick house at the foot of the mountain, and the way our past travels with us, always present.  How it takes root in our stories.

I left the photograph with him. He asked me for my card (I didn't have one). And the ballroom doors slid back to reveal the sparkling chandeliers and the white tableclothes. We took our seats, and at every table, stacked artfully under the flickering candalabras, were the party favors; books written by those being honored that night; Junot Diaz's, This is How You Lose Her, Drew Gilpin Faust's, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. Joseph Finder's High Crimes. A screen play by David Lindsey Adair, Sherry Turkle's, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, and one of Mo Willem's hilarious and touching Knuffle Bunny books.

David McCullough's newest work, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, stood on end, behind the water glasses and the butter dish. I slipped it into my bag and took it home.

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