Category Archives: Old Brandon

Time has turned me into one of those old-timers who remember how things used to be and realize how much has changed. The memoirs included under the heading “Old Brandon” attempt to portray various aspects of life in the town mainly between 1956, when my family moved in, through the summer of 1966, before I went to college. There are some references to the years from 1977, when my first wife and I moved into the old family place to start a family of our own, until 2001, when I remarried and moved to my wife’s house in Middlebury. I would be please if these and other writings contributed to the publication of a second town history, which would complement the fine compilation that documents the town’s formation and early development.

To the Dump, to the Dump, to the Dump Dump Dump

Dumping (part of Old Brandon)

The dump in the Brandon in which I grew up occupied what must have been one of the most picturesque locations for such facilities in all of picturesque Vermont. The place is still there: the road to it, now fenced, bears left as the entrance to the transfer station (as of 2013) bears right. If you went along that road, you would end on a promontory with a spectacular view of the northern end of the Taconic mountain range. I disagreed with the Select Board’s decision to sell this property, but being the Rutland Herald’s Brandon correspondent at the time, kept my opinion to myself.
During the years when I was a boy, I doubt anyone thought the place had any redeeming aesthetic qualities. Garbage was simply hauled in, by households as well as any commercial haulers, and pushed over the edge of the steep hill. When the pile got too big, or when someone decided that’s what they felt like doing, the accumulated heap was set on fire. The dump was a favorite place for rifle practice, especially at night: shooters would shine lights into the lower part of the refuse and fire at the rats scurrying about.
It was a nasty, smelly place, but so were similar disposal sites in other towns—or in other states. My family had lived at a military school in Woodstock, Virginia for three years—my father hadn’t taken enough teacher training courses in college to get certified, but as World War Two decorated Captain Barna he was welcome at Massanutten Military Academy. The school had its own dump hill, and one time one of my brothers investigated a “tunk tunk” sound near the bottom and got bitten by a rat.
We didn’t always take stuff to the dump. There was a hill behind our house with a circular depression on one side—not deep enough to call it a pit, but a definite feature of the land—and it became our burn pit. When the trashcan was full, it was someone’s duty—sometimes mine—to lug it up the path to the burning place and set the contents alight. Surviving remains, such as scorched tin cans, could be rounded up later and taken to the dump—incineration as trash compactor.
Many kinds of disposal that today are frowned upon or forbidden or both were in common use at that time. For instance, down an old farm road that started a couple hundred feet from our house, we boys found a place where someone had dumped old tires—possibly a farmer, to judge by the size of some. We rolled a selection of them home and hoisted them to the part of our 50-by 80-foot barn that served as our indoor playground, to stack as fortifications or to roll at a set of heavily used bowling pins we had somehow acquired.
The words “ecology” and “holistic” had yet to arrive. Those who understand the interconnectedness of the planet know “there is no ‘away’” for throwing things away. But at that time Vermont did not have as many dwellings on rural roads, and there was a widespread sense that a lot of areas were all right for getting rid of stuff. I do not think the contrary view was the result of out-of-staters relocating to Vermont; rather, as people came into closer contact—which the increasing population made more likely—there was more likelihood of someone taking liberties and infringing on someone else’s rights. A burn barrel doesn’t make as big a stink if it does not send its smoke toward someone else’s house.
My sense is that the old ways were particularly likely to die hard on farms, where time is always short and the acreage3 is larger. Anyone who has spent any time driving around the state has seen farms where herds of used machinery have been put to pasture; very possibly this is to provide spare parts and pieces, since many farmers are wizard mechanics, but even so, such accumulations would be hard to imagine close to the centers of towns. The plastic covers for bunker silos are often held down by dozens of very used tires. In one case north of Rutland, a barn finally collapsed and was removed, leaving its silo and, as if they were huddled around their mother, a supply of no-longer-used tires. Possibly they are still there. Like the maintenance of old wooden multi-story barns once a dairy farm has a modern, one-story structure, cleanup can be just a little too far to reach. There are many trim and tidy dairy farms, whose pictures sometimes appear in annual Dairies of Distinction lists, but in the old days there was less attention to such details.
After Brandon’s dump shut down, its landfill opened. The idea, still in use in a few places in Vermont and at big regional sites where some of the state’s trash is transported, was to bury batches as they accumulated. With time and experience, the idea of putting a liner under each new fill area was added.
“Recycling” had yet to come into wide use in the late 1970s and early 1980s—I returned to Brandon in 1977, after leaving in 1966 to go to college—but a lot of recycling took place. If the landfill attendants saw anything useful in decent condition, they pulled it out of the waste stream and anyone who came and wanted it could take it home. If you needed something in particular, you could tell them and they would look for it. Then there were the separate locations where people would dispose of lumber and construction materials and appliances. The place became known as “Treasure Island.” On more than one occasion, my 1972 International truck Paleoskinkus (it’s a dinosaur) and I left with more than we brought. Old lumber built a lot of shelving and firewood storage in my barn. I still use the 20-year-old sawhorses I made from two-by-fours (full dimension, not the smaller planed version), hard as only lumber from older trees can be, that were taken from the Sanderson Covered Bridge when its flooring was replaced. Some of the historic used bricks I found are still in use, edging a flower bed. Back when Rollers by Baker was operating in Forest Dale, some real bonanzas arrived at the landfill, like the rectangular pieces of metal that I bent into V-shaped transplant covers (all of which could easily be stacked out of the weather for the rest of the year). One time I snagged a five-gallon-bucketful of paint brush handles and brushes; after that, I never needed to buy a brush. I weather-proofed a wood-storage bin with pieces of old metal roofing I found there. And so on. If you took your own garbage to the landfill, you could easily get back a significant fraction of your local taxes.
It’s a different world now, and I wouldn’t want to go back to the old one. We know too much about the need for sustainability, climate control, and environmental safety. But the pioneering role Vermont is taking in that regard had roots in past frugality. Even iof the old ways were sometimes messy.

The Bomb

The Bomb (Old Brandon)

In the years before, during, and after the Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962, we lived with the fear of a nuclear attack.
At least we children did. In sixth grade, in 1961, we had a drill in which we all hid under our desks to avoid the glass from the windows, which would shatter in a nuclear blast. We hadn’t been told it was just a drill. I had nuclear war nightmares; in one I saw mushroom clouds rising over a distant city; in another, a bomb went off over Pittsford, making a huge orange fireball that came northward to Brandon. One time there had been a nuclear war and radiation had knocked out the electronics in all of the cars—except our 1940 Chevrolet station wagon, which was too primitive to be affected and kept running.
The B-52 stratofortresses from Plattsburgh would go overhead on patrol, at first noiselessly, but visible because of their contrails. Watching, I would wonder: ours or theirs?
When we three boys said we ought to have a fallout shelter at our house, my father enlarged the area underneath the concrete slab that supported our 20- by 30-foot home. The three of us helped by taking away the sand as he dug it out. I had read about the fires that atomic bombs would ignite in wooden structures far from an explosion, and I knew that if a Russian missile overshot the Plattsburgh Air Force base, our shelter would be useless. But that was all we had. My mother put a few drops of Clorox in a few gallons of water for emergency use, but there was never any stockpile of food other than the garden vegetables and the blackberries that she put up in jars each year. Dread went deep and fear was never far away.
Sometimes we would go outside and find little strips of aluminum foil on the ground and in bushes. That, I learned, was from the Air Force experimenting with ways of jamming enemy radar. Later I would learn that the metal foil system of producing a false radar signal was first used in World War Two. German radar operators reported a flight of bombers approaching the coast of Europe in one place, and fighter planes were sent to attack them. Then their radar detected another attack in a different place. Then a thousand bombers came over the old port city of Hamburg, and the combined fires caused by the bombs created the first firestorm—in effect a fire tornado–with the rising flames causing a high wind to blow toward the fire, producing something like a forest fire, only of buildings in which people were living. Those who tried to run burst into flames; those who dove into the canals cooked; those who took refuge in underground shelters roasted, as the bricks themselves burned. And this was just “conventional” bombing.
Hiroshima survivor Kay Otake came to Middlebury College and described scenes no newspaper account of the time could report:
“All wooden structures within a mile and a half were crushed and leveled. Thousands of people were hurled through the air and smashed into the ground,” she said. Then most of the buildings began to burn, either from the 1.8 million degree explosion or morning cooking fires, and there was no one to help pull the thousands of trapped people out and keep them from being burned alive.
Those exposed to the heat of the explosion turned black close to the center, red further out, and whitish gray within a further ring, Otake said. Burn victims would walk with their arms reach out, not for an embrace but to keep their blood from flowing to their fingertips and causing excruciating pain. Few cried, she said, because everyone was “in total shock.”
On her way to the city center, she had crossed a bridge, and looked down at the river. “It was packed with thousands of green-purple-red-black corpses, swollen to three or four times their size.”
Blackened streetcars–the bomb went off that Monday at 8:15 a.m., during rush hour–were filled with black, unrecognizable remnants. She showed Powerpoint slides: “This soldier’s eyeballs are popped out. This is another burned soldier. Another burned soldier.”
“I show these terrible pictures,” she said, “but what my mother saw was worse than these.” And pictures cannot convey the sound of burn victims, desperately thirsty, begging for water.
Finding a broken water pipe, Otake’s mother soaked her soiled kimono, tried wringing it out for some of the victims. “But some of them couldn’t even open their mouths; and as soon as they got their sprinkle of water, they died.”
As a junior at Otter Valley Union High School, in 1964 and 1965, I was part of the school’s first varsity debating team. Our topic that year was whether or not there should be increased international control of nuclear weapons, which in most cases came down to proposals for controlling “nuclear proliferation.” We learned about doomsday devices, which fortunately were never built. We learned about neutrons bombs, likewise so dreadful they were never deployed. We read and digested Herman Kahn’s “Thinking About the Unthinkable.” I would gladly hand back my top speaker award from that year’s state debating tournament if in return I could be assured that The Bomb will never again be used.

BHS OR BUSED—SENIOR CLASS TRIPS TO NEW YORK CITY

BHS OR BUSED—SENIOR CLASS TRIPS TO NEW YORK CITY

As teachers at Brandon High School and as fellow graduates of a high school in New Jersey not far from New York City, my parents believed it was important for students at the small town school in rural Vermont to know from experience something about city life. So in the late 1950s they would lead senior class trips to New York City.
The small sizes of the senior classes facilitated this, as did the city streets of those years. It was not a dangerous or problematic place to be walking around—nor was it in 1979, when I spent a weeklong vacation there in anticipation of several years of staying close to home with a newborn (in about 6 months) child. For those who like poetry, I highly recommend looking up Vermont poet Galway Kinnell’s long poem about the Lower East Side, titled “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World”—which in my opinion is one of the great works of the 20th century. It depicts a world not far removed from the New York City that Brandon High students encountered, though their visits were directed more toward noted landmarks and famous places than toward neighborhood life.
With one exception: Chinatown. In those years, a time before Chinese restaurants became a regular and accepted part of the American landscape, going to a place where you saw Chinese on signs all around and heard Chinese being spoken on the street conveyed a message about American diversity. Sometimes there was a message about stereotypes, too. Our family went to a restaurant once a year, to the Kong Chow in Rutland, doubtless because my father had been a B-24 navigator in China during the Second World War. One time when the family came to the city, we went to a not-very-good Chinatown eatery, then on leaving looked again at the sign and realized we had been taken: the Yee Hong Guay restaurant. (At least the one in Williston is not trying to fool anyone, taking a name that must have appealed to Big Box Land’s builders: Men At Wok.)
Getting around in New York City meant going underground, to the subways that in effect greatly increased crowded Manhattan’s available space. Students who learned how to navigate the subways–which gave them access to the other city “boroughs” of Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island and by rail links to “Jersey” across the Hudson River—understood if they read in their history books about Londoners taking refuge in “the tubes” during German terror bombing in World War Two. A few might have made comparisons with the catacombs that underlie the much older city of Paris—and in fact the City of New York owns miles of tunnels that are disused or serve other purposes such as bringing in water or have simply gotten lost.
Emerging from the cramped world of the “straphangers,” as public transit users were sometimes called, the sight of skyscrapers rising into the sky could be breathtaking. The number of big buildings could be overwhelming. I remember when I was taking a Greyhound bus back to Vermont after my week of wandering around New York in 1979, there was a point where I could look over the Hudson River and see between the two sides of some of the down-town streets and watch the rows of huge structures pinwheeling by like the rows of a cornfield in Vermont. There were more big buildings along those unremarkable streets than in all of the state to which I was returning.
I thought, “What would happen if that enormous concentration of wealth and power stops being obsessed with itself and turns its eyes northward toward Vermont and says, “We want that”–? More than 30 years later, I think we have an answer in the way escalating housing prices have left record numbers of Vermonters homeless or have driven them to leave their native state.
For school trips, the obvious thing to do, besides walk the concrete-and-steel canyons and rubberneck, was pay admission and wait through the elevator ride to reach the observation deck of the Empire State Building. The name now seems a bit ironic, with buildings in once-lorded-over places like Taiwan and Malaysia and Dubai reaching higher (it reigned as the world’s tallest for 40 tears, but as of March 2013 was relegated to 22nd place), but even today the four-sided New York view is a banquet for the eyes. In retrospect, one of the most impressive aspects of that view was the extent to which people had concentrated in the urban core. A quarter of a century later I visited my first wife’s former home Houston, Texas. I had an Uncle Ted who lived in Houston, so we set out to visit him. We drove for an hour on freeways at 50 miles per hour or more and still we weren’t at Uncle Ted’s. Houston looked, I told people back North, as if a giant fist had come down on New York City and squashed it flat. For those who appreciate architectural styles, the Empire State Building, completed in 1931, is a magnificent representative of the Art Deco period.
Education. For those who are unlikely to travel to the far corners of the Earth, zoos provide glimpses of the wild things that inhabit remote regions. The Bronx Zoo did a wonderful job of this; the collection of snakes, I remember, was a memorable surprise. The American Museum of Natural History expanded beyond this. Their dioramas of how the world might have looked in prehistoric times were justly famous. Visiting their collection of mineral specimens was almost a religious experience. Since 1989 Vermont kids of all ages have enjoyed the hands-on activities and thoughtful explanations of the Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich, but during the years around 1960, that institution wasn’t even a gleam refracted from someone’s lens.
The Statue of Liberty is a touristy kind of place to visit, but at the same time it has become iconic, a symbol of the immigrant past all of us except Native Americans ultimately share. To see the New York City skyline from the viewing platform in Lady Liberty’s crown was to get a civics lesson no textbook on that subject could teach. The trip there by ferry was a delight, and another lesson, in how the world travels.
With the arrival of “big box” stores and online shopping in Vermont, small stores no longer prevail—indeed, they have become something of an endangered species. From going to the U. S. Bankruptcy Court in Rutland each month to get a list of the business filings for Vermont Business Magazine, I know that general stores, the traditional a-little-of-everything country stores, are among the hardest to keep going. But in the late 1950s, visiting a big New York City department store like Macy’s was eye-opening. When I took up “Indian” loom beading as a boyhood hobby, Macy’s was where I could stock up on a variety of what the beading world now calls “seed beads”— a minor fraction of what is available either at Vermont’s beading stores or through online catalogs. Another amazement was the store’s system of vacuum tubes and message containers, the latter sent zipping from one place to another to interconnect departments.
I know I am not alone in feeling nostalgic about the “automats,” New York City automatic (but not automated) restaurants where prepared food of many sorts was put into compartments from the back, and opened by customers at the front after they had put the right coins in that compartment’s deposit slot. You could see what you were going to get through glass windows at the front, the different bins being set up in rows and columns along a wall. I cannot provide a specific example, but my memory is that the food was better than what fast food restaurants are serving up today—and you knew exactly what you were getting. If you want to see how far down we have come from the automat days, look up the latest report on “pink slime” (I’m writing this in March of 2013); I could say more, but I don’t want to turn your stomach.
Different places were famous in that era’s New York City. Rockefeller Plaza was one of the sites. Radio City Music Hall was another. (Yes, I have seen the Rockettes, though this may not have been on a school trip.) Fifth Avenue’s upscale stores were known as a great place for window-shopping. The Brooklyn Bridge was and is one of the world’s greatest works of architecture.
There are good reasons why many young people leave Vermont, many having to do with things that are only possible in an urban environment; and correspondingly, there are good reasons why many of them come back to Vermont, especially when they want, as one of my poems about Brandon puts it, “to give their children every chance.” They return like the salmon, stronger for having learned to survive in a tougher environment. It has been said that there is no learning experience as profound as visiting a Third World country. For Vermont’s most rural youth, encountering the Big City can also be highly educational.

I am appending a news article I wrote in 2003 about Newport, Vermont area students and their relationship with New York City, facilitated by what was then the Cornwall, Vermont-based Foundation For Excellent Schools. Now known as College for Every Student and based in Essex, New York, that non-profit organization can be reached, and their history and mission researched, via www.collegefes.org.

It’s a considerable distance from North Country Union High School, close to the Canadian border, to most places in Vermont, let alone Harlem and Broadway.
But this spring, once again, FES coordinator Cheryl Currier, dance teacher Cheri Skurdall, and Spanish teacher Helen Poulin took a group of students from Newport to New York. It was the 12th time Currier had traveled from apple-growing territory to the Big Apple in the past six years, either personally or with school groups.
“I am a native Vermonter–with a passion for New York City,” Currier said. Not only is it culturally unique, “I feel safer at 1 a.m. in Times Square than I would downtown in any city in Vermont,” she said.
This trip came about through networking at a national FES conference.
Currier said it was more than a case of country kids getting a look at city life, because the 29 ninth through twelfth graders included 22 girls who were members of the school’s dance troupe. The Dance Company had rehearsed six numbers to present for adjudication at Steps on Broadway, a school where they were also to
take classes in ballet, jazz dance and modern dance.
But the group’s first destination was a school North Country had contacted through FES.
After starting at 4 a.m. on Friday, they arrived seven hours later at the Academy of Environmental Sciences, a multicultural school in New York City’s Spanish Harlem neighborhood. There, the dancers would have a chance to warm up for their judged performance by doing their six numbers for some of the AES elementary students and students of their contact, AES’s Heide Goertzen.
The program including one hip-hop piece–and that, said Currier, was a test of nerves. How would their performance come across, on hip-hop’s authentic home ground?
“They were received by a very enthusiastic crowd,” she said. “There was clapping and cheering,” and by the end, “they were all up on stage dancing together. It was awesome.” And in true FES fashion, pizza and socialization–not always in that order–followed the show.
It was an “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere” moment. But it was just the start of a weekend orchestrated by Skurdall and by Currier, who fantasizes sometimes about being a tour guide in her “golden years.”
If you know New York, she said, a many-splendored visit doesn’t have to be a many-spendered thing. Their nighttime accommodations, for instance, were at a 300-bed, budget-friendly hostel known as Jazz on the Park located on Central Park West.
Having checked in, the group hopped on the subway and went to Times Square. Currier knew a place there called TKTS, where it’s possible to get cheap same-day tickets to top Broadway shows. On this trip, appropriately enough, “Cabaret” and “Rent” were accessible.
Saturday, the dancers took ballet at Steps on Broadway–whose programs serve professionals like Broadway cast members–then it was time to see some of the sights. Lincoln Center, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Rockefeller Plaza, the GE Building–and something called the Museum of the City of New York.
What better way to see a lot of New York than to get to a museum dedicated to its many historical transformations? Currier said it’s part of a whole line of such attractions situated along the so-called “Museum Mile.”
After dinner, there were more TKTS to Broadway. Various groups went to “I Love You You’re Perfect Now Change,” the American Ballet Theatre, the New York City Ballet, and “Barbra’s Wedding.” At the latter, Currier and two students met with the play’s two characters after the show and had their picture taken with them.
North Country’s principal Bill Rivard, the Principal and his wife met the teachers and students in Times Square and visited for awhile before the group headed back to the hostel. The two also went to Steps to watch the girls take a modern dance class on Sunday.
“I gave him an itinerary knowing that he and his wife were ‘mini-vacationing’ in the city that weekend, and we were all pleased that he took the time to meet with us,” said Currier. “It was a surprise meeting.”
Sunday was the big day for the dancers: morning classes at Steps on Broadway, then from 3-6 p.m. their performances, followed by extensive, detailed, fully professional critiques. Those not in the company went to attractions like the Frick Museum and Tiffany’s (just looking), and took a horse and buggy ride in Central Park.
In the evening, the whole group went to dinner and explored in the Greenwich Village area.
Monday was the day to go back, but not before taking in Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum–another concentrated dose of history along with the fun. “The bus picked us up in Times Square,” Currier said.
Do such trips have a deep and lasting effect? Apparently so: two of last year’s FES New York City trip students decided to apply to schools there, Currier said, and one has been accepted at New York University.

Scouting

Scouting
(part of Old Brandon)

The British founders and American originators of the Boy Scouts definitely had character-building in mind, and probably those who started Scouting in Vermont, in Barre in 1910, did as well. Meetings of the Cub Scout Pack and Boy Scout Troop began ceremoniously, with everyone repeating the time-honored phrases having to do with the way a Scout should conduct himself. I don’t think most kids saw this as the most important part of belonging to the groups; indeed, there were times when the Cub Scout promise “to obey the law of the Pack” seemed to signify less an adherence to the high standards of the scouting group than a tendency toward uncivilized behavior. But I think the founders realized that a boy’s understand of right and wrong develops slowly, and that the principles might take time to soak in. Meanwhile, there were practical skill-building and experiences of living outdoors to attract participants.
Also, in the sometimes beleaguered country where some said that a certain wartime battle “had been won on the playing fields of Eton,” preparation for national service must have been part of it. In this country, too, the uniforms and the awarded decorations and the system of boys moving up through the ranks at times seemed paramilitary. This was especially true, as I will explain later, at Camp Sunrise, on Lake Sunrise in Benson, owned and run by the Scouting organization.
The recollections that follow come from my experiences working through all the requirements until I was an Eagle Scout. I’ve been told that once you are an Eagle Scout, you are one for life. Certainly some of what I learned has carried through, and on the whole, I am grateful for Scouting’s opportunities having been there for lower-middle-class boys like me.
“To help other people at all times,” says part of the Boy Scout Oath. The first aid techniques we learned do not begin to compare with the training that members of local volunteer rescue squads go through today, but they did build our confidence. My sophomore year, on the way to the new debating team’s first tournament—the state tournament at UVM in Burlington–an old man walked out from behind a truck on the hill going down into Shelburne past the Shelburne Museum, and we hit him. I didn’t see his head crack the windshield before he went over the car because I was in the back seat working on my evidence file. As he was lying beside the road, a motorist who had seen the accident rushed over and began pumping his chest to try to get his heart going again, while to make sure he did not choke, I knelt on the other side and held his tongue—a lost cause, alas. My partner and I lost our first round, too.
Hiking was a big part of Scouting. I must confess the Boy Scout patrol of which I was patrol leader, initially named the Flaming Arrow Patrol, did not have a very distinguished record in this regard. Twice our campfires resulted in visits from the local Fire Marshal; on one occasion, before I could prevent him, one patrol member decided to find out if a birch tree could be set on fire by putting a match to its bark. In the interest of stopping anyone else from trying the experiment: yes, it can. Fortunately, the flames had not gone too far up the trunk to put them out.
Speaking of the way higher principles can develop with maturity: one of the most troublesome members of the troop later became an officer in the Brandon Fire Department.
One time we went to the White Pastures in Chittenden, which I think had that name because their unforested expanse stood out in the winter as a big white patch when seen from the valley below. It was an intriguing area: there were low concrete enclosures in one place that were unlike anything I had seen on farms—structures which I believe, from news reporting later, were the springs from which the Pittsford Aqueduct Company drew the town’s first municipal water supply. We saw a doe coming toward us, and waited while it came within feet of us; not smelling us and not seeing anything moving, it had no idea we were there. We never did much with the stalking techniques described in the Boy Scout Handbook, but on this occasion we didn’t need any.
Then something even more surprising, though fundamentally quite ordinary, brought new meaning to the name White Pastures: we were enveloped by fog. Maybe it was a low cloud. In any case, we could see only a few feet in any direction–and we were well and truly lost.
But one of the patrol members had a better directional sense than the rest of us, and after wandering around for a while, we went the way he suggested and found ourselves in the vicinity of the point where we had started. Better-prepared Scouts would have had a compass with them, but we didn’t. If it hadn’t been for him, we would have had to follow the standard advice: find a stream and keep following the water downhill. In retrospect the incident illustrates, to my mind, the concept that there are many kinds of intelligence.
Camping, which sometimes included hiking, was a major part of Scouting—and there, skills that we learned were indeed useful. For instance, rather than struggling to start a fire with wet wood, we knew we should whittle slivers from a stick (sheltering the shavings from getting wet, of course), accumulate twigs and small branches and a supply of larger firewood, then use the small blaze from the dry pieces to get the twigs going, and so on, until we had a fire. This wouldn’t work in a downpour, but it did in a drizzle. We also learned the rule of thumb “Gather three times as much wood as you’ll need.” The corresponding advice from firemen is “If your house is on fire, get out as fast as you can.” Those who know what entropy is can apply the principle here; those who don’t actually do, they just don’t have the scientific word for it.
I have mentioned in “Crosslots” hiking to the top of Hawk Hill, the location of the pre-Revolutionary-War settlement of pre-Brandon named Neshobe–whose small cemetery and cellarholes can be seen to this day. We camped above the cliff that can be seen from Otter Valley Union High School; as I have also written in “Crosslots,” while looking at the valley below I saw a hawk glide by, below my feet. Some of the less-well-behaved troop members saw the farmer who lived just to the north of the high school working in a field to the west of Route 7 and yelled down to try to taunt him, “Hey Herm—you want a hot dog?” I doubt that Herman Dodge could hear them, and if he did, he was probably used to such nonsense. Unfortunately for the farm kids who attended Otter Valley, he had become an object of derision because of the size of his manure pile.
One year at Camp Sunrise there was a weekend to teach winter camping, and members of Troop 111, myself included, took part. The following winter, my patrol decided to go out on February 11 and camp overnight, on the hill to the east of Route Seven south of the high school. (There was no mobile home park at that time, just the Berry Patch Motel on the west side of the highway, where one patrol member lived, and a house on the other side, the home of another patrol member.)
Lightweight nylon tents had yet to appear. I had recently bought a clear plastic tarp—quite an innovation then—which for shelter I put over a triangular frame of branches I constructed. The other guys had a waterproofed canvas tarpaulin, under which they simply huddled. As we had been taught to do at Camp Sunrise, I cut enough evergreen tips to make a mattress of sorts by sticking them into the snow. (Today, I’m sure this would be seen as environmentally destructive.) We gathered plenty of wood to build a fire at the center of our encampment.
Overnight it snowed six inches. Later I would learn that the parents weren’t anxious: “They’ll be all right, they’re with Ed.”
All night we kept that fire going to ward off the weather. In the morning we slunk off the hill with our tails between our legs, leave a sizeable collection of lost items that only saw the light again when the snow melted that spring. The plastic tarp, weighed down by the snow until it was torn by its supports, was a total loss. So much for winter camping.
One more story about the same hill: at that time, before the state’s anti-billboard law, a tourist trap in Leicester called Sea Shell City put a series of garish red monsters along Route 7 to let people know Sea Shell City was now only so many miles away. (The place did have very nice seashells at very reasonable prices, plus craft items made with shells, along with all sorts of suggestive, somewhat off-color statues and signs and such.) Some members of my patrol decided, independently of any Scouting activities, that the plywood from one of those signs would make a nice cabin. Eventually the authorities came to the area to ask if anyone knew anything about the theft. “Haven’t seen it,” said one of the mothers, who knew perfectly well what had happened. Few if any community members regretted the sign’s disappearance; arguably, its removal might be counted as an example of following the Boy Scout principle “Do a good turn daily.”
Hiking and camping were part of summer stays at Camp Sunrise. When we weren’t on the move, we lived in tents, two bunks to a tent, which was placed for the summer over a wooden frame. And there was woodland camping, without a tent, but rather with the Scouts in the area around a central campfire sleeping in places where they had dug out, as they were taught, depressions in the ground for shoulders and hips.
At these campfires, the talk seemed to be mostly about sex, including bad, anatomically incorrect jokes, but particularly focusing on one subject of endless fascination: queers. I use the word that was used, knowing that today’s GLBT community (gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgendered) has seized upon the slur and turned it around, making their “queer” nature an open affirmation.
There were discussions of particular sexual techniques, which I won’t try to detail. There was talk about particular kids, and what they might do if you went to their tents. On and on into the night it went, with me in my sleeping bag having to listen to what the older boys were saying until I went to sleep. Counselors, too, were involved in these speculations. Listening to recent debates over whether or not to allow gays to become Scouts, I can’t help thinking “Gays have been part of Scouting for half a century—just not in the positive way they want now.”
But the focal points of Camp Sunrise were water sports, facilitated by its location on a lake, and the merit badge system, whose requirements could be met after a week’s attendance various morning classes, These overlapped: you could get the Swimming and Canoeing and Fishing merit badges through the camp’s aquatic opportunities.
Daily swimming was fun and doubled as daily washing. At the waterfront, swimmers were paired up in the buddy system: when a whistle blew, you had to be near your buddy or you lost your swimming privileges for a day. On my first trip to the beach, as a smaller and less knowledgeable camper, I didn’t come with a buddy and got paired with the leftover kid: a guy nicknamed “Liquor” _____, one of the camp’s well-known reprobates. He just went off on his own and when the whistle blew, we were both ejected.
I did not get the merit badge for fishing at camp, because that would have meant either roaming around the lake or using equipment I didn’t have. But there was one occasion on which I came over to the camp late in high school, when I wasn’t going there as a camper, and brought some of my gear, and tried casting an old, battered spinner off the shore near Troop 111’s tents. It got snagged on a sunken log. Then the log started moving. With many of my fellow scouts watching and cheering me on, and one of them wading into the water to help, I brought in a two-and-a-half-pound largemouth bass—at that time the largest fish I had caught.
The camp definitely had its rough side. There were stories of kids putting firecrackers in frogs, or in fish taken by kids going to spring special activities, when being there coincided with Lake Sunrise’s spring spawning migration of suckers up a brook to the east of the campsites. There were stories, too, of tossing a firecracker into an outhouse while someone was sitting there. There was one kid from West Rutland who got the nickname “Hatchet” because of his propensity for chopping down trees. Reputedly one member of Rutland’s troop had run for president of the camp and to win votes had handed out brownies-made with chocolate Ex-Lax, leading to the slogan “Vote for Ed and **** your bed.”
My father had helped to organize the troop, which did not help me with some of its members. Because he was big and strong, he was assigned a higher number of the classes with more discipline problems than was fair, he would say privately (we three boys knew that “teacher talk” was absolutely NOT to be mentioned in public). His disciplinary methods didn’t involve physical punishment, but he had a talent for caustic remarks and leaving verbal time bombs in people’s minds that I have to count as one of the experiences that helped build my skills as a poet. At the time, though, as a son of teachers I was part of “the enemy,” and my father in particular made bitter enemies of some students.
At dinner at Camp Sunrise one of them was running down my father and I said to him across the table, “______, you’re nothing but a no-good, run-of-the-mill street bum.” I count this as one of the most courageous things I have ever done. These were fighting words. A friend told me later the only reason I didn’t get beaten up was a rumor that my father had taught me how to box. The kid in question was so physically gifted that I overheard some of the counselors talking about it—though he was too rebellious to become part of any Otter Valley sports team.
He led a group of boys who came to my tent that night and said they were going to ‘initiate” me. I had to take down my pants and my underwear, after which they all inspected me and made disparaging comments about what they saw. Then they took turns spitting on it, declared that I had been initiated, and left. I felt more relieved than humiliated.
One summer when my parents were taking teacher training courses at a college in Northwestern Pennsylvania (thanks to National Science Foundation stipends this was a very economical way to take a kind of family vacation) I went to a Scout camp in the area. I was surprised to find the kids there were so much friendlier to each other, and to me.
There was one summer when friction between the Brandon and Middlebury troops threatened to escalate to fighting. As one of the oldest Scouts, I took part in a meeting with one of the older members of Middlebury’s group. Both of us thought the conflict was ridiculous, and together we defused it. He became a good friend through high school, and went on to become a lawyer then a judge. The last time I checked, he had the lowest decision reversal rate, in appeals to a high court, of any Vermont judge.
But such goings-on were minor drawbacks in comparison with the advantages of taking part in the classes the counselors and other advisors led. Archery was a favorite—few were the kids who lived where a target could be safely set up for shooting a real bow. If you were interested in canoeing, your confidence would grow as you learned how, and practiced how, to right a capsized canoe and get enough water out to start moving along again. Knowing how to tie the tautline hitch was invaluable when my family went on a car trip around the country, using a canvas tent to avoid the expense of motel stays, a heavy thing that had to be set up and secured with attached ropes again and again (the knot in question is adjustable but once adjusted does not slip). Yes, like so many campers of that generation, I learned how to make a lanyard.
I had learned to swim, but learned at Camp Sunrise that the sidestroke, with its leg propulsion and glide, was the best for long distances. I used it to go back and forth across the lake twice—four crossings—to earn my mile swim badge. To become an Eagle Scout back then, you needed to earn 21 merit badges, some specified and some elective. I ended with 24, thanks to Camp Sunrise.
Instead of living by a clock, our lives as campers were directed by bugle calls, from reveille to begin the morning through the mess call when it was time to eat until taps signaled lights out at night. It was a prestigious thing to take on the role of camp bugler, and a very prominent one at the all-camp ceremonies for raising and lowering the flag. If I ever forget how wonderful the calls are for lowering the flag and for taps, you might as well pull the plug because I’ll be brain dead.
At night, we gathered for campfires. These were a combination of silliness and seriousness. On the silly side were the skits that different troops were supposed to put on; for instance, there was one in which a series of runners warned that The Terrible Viper was coming, and when he finally appeared, he said “I’m the Terrible Vindow Viper—would anyone like their vindows viped?”
Some of the songs were meant to rally Scout spirit. “Trail to Eagle, Trail to Eagle, climbing all the time! First the Star and then the Life will on your bosom shine (keep shining!)…On, brothers, on until we’re Eagles all.”
A degree of respect for Native American heritage persisted in the Scouting of that era. I remember the first Boy Scout Handbook I owned had a ghostly image of an Indian in headdress behind a Scouting scene. One of the songs seemed to be part of that: “Our paddles keen and bright/ Flashing like silver/ Swift as the wild goose flies/ Dip, dip and swing.” Sung as a round, it would resound across the lake beside which we were gathered.
But I think most of those on hand liked a different round better: “Late last night when we were all in bed/ Mrs. O’Leary put a lantern in the shed/ Cow kicked it over and Mrs. O’Leary said/ “There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight—FIRE FIRE FIRE!” The reference was to the legendary cause of the Great Chicago Fire, which burned most of the city in 1871.
Two earlier disasters lived on in song. “Oh they built the ship Titanic to sail the ocean blue/ And they thought they had a ship that the water would never go through…chorus—“Husbands and wives,/ (spoken in as high a falsetto voice as possible) Itty bitty children lost their lives./ It was sad when that great ship went down.”
Even earlier, there was The Flood: “Oh Noah, oh Noah, he built him an arky arky,/ Built it out of hickory barky barky…It rained, it rained, for 40 daysies daysies/ Nearly drove those animals crazy crazy…”
Then there was “Madelina Catalina,” perfectly pitched to boys’ preadolescent misogeny. Its lyrics, I have found, vary from source to source the way folk songs often do; this is from the old Camp Sunrise version. “There was a funny girl and she had a funny name/ But she got it from her Daddy just the same/ Madelina Catalina Oompah Shoompah Hokey-pokey-wokey was her name…She had two hairs on her head/ One was sick and the other was dead…She had two teeth in her mouth/ One pointed north and the other pointed south…Her ears stuck out like sails on a boat/ Her Adams apple bobbled up and down in her throat…”
It was goofy but it was fun, and probably did more to build camp spirit than the flag ceremonies.
The most solemn and serious of the campfire rituals was “tapping out” new members of The Order of the Arrow, who had to be elected in secret balloting by troop members. Everyone would stand in a circle while the person who was doing the tapping out would go around the outside. A drum would be pounding out what I have heard since as a Native American drum rhythm, in recordings and at a Shelburne-Museum-hosted pow-wow: BOOM boom boom bomb BOOM boom boom boom BOOM boom boom boom—then there would be a BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM! as the person doing the selecting stopped behind someone newly chosen. From behind he would bring his hands down hard on both shoulders: THUMP…THUMP THUMP! After the campfire, the new members of the Order would be taken on a night hike to a designated camping place on the other side of the lake. Initiation.
I’m talking about a bygone world: today Camp Sunrise is for Cub Scouts or Scouts who want to learn about canoeing, lifeguarding, and other such matters at the Green Mountain Council’s aquatic camp. There are videos about life at the new Camp Sunrise on You Tube, and of course it is featured at the Council’s website. You can see there are—good idea—quite a female staff members. The website even has lyrics for camp songs, but not the ones we sang. I’m glad to see, from the pictures, that the fish are still there.
The Boy Scout camp is at the Mount Norris Reservation in Eden Mills, at the northern end of Lamoille County along Vermont Route 100. Not far away is Mount Norris, elevation 2,575 feet—very different terrain from Camp Sunrise. I trust that the emotional terrain has changed for the better, too.
Regardless of how the decision goes about admitting gay Scouts—I use the word “admitting” because they’ve been there all long—I believe it’s a worthwhile organization that has done a lot of good. “Climbing all the time.”

The Training School

The Training School
(part of the series Old Brandon)

The State of Vermont may have had the idea of improving Brandon’s economy when it chose the Arnold District northwest of the village as the location for a residential institution for the feebleminded, as they were known at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. To some extent this was the case: many local people found employment at that village-sized enclave, which at its peak of operations included a farm that helped supply it with food. During the back-to-the-land era of the 1970s, working there was a way for numerous urban transplants to get a start in Vermont. But the presence of the Brandon Training School, as it was called before it closed in 1993, was a mixed blessing.
The term, “feebleminded” was eventually dropped in favor of the less pejorative “retarded,” then changed from the pejorative “retarded” to “mentally handicapped.” The shift from more descriptive to more euphemistic illustrates the difficulties of dealing with prejudice against these people, an attitude which, during my youth in the late Fifties and early Sixties, made “retard” a common insult.
Indeed, the whole town suffered from a reputation as a “retard town.” The grain of truth in this was that when Training School residents developed the skills to live in the community, it was easiest, at least at first to move into the village. I remember that at one point my father’s father, a widely experienced and perceptive man who among other things had helped organize a credit union for fellow New Jersey employees of Shell Oil, went for a walk to see downtown Brandon and on his return asked, “Aren’t there a lot of…substandard…people in this town?”
Then there was Edgar Paul. His home was at the Training School but he was wealthy by inheritance, and intelligent enough to spend many of his days in the business district, where the merchants were well aware of the need to limit his daily spending. . Edgar wanted above all to have a job, and he was given tasks like sweeping up the cut hair at the barbershops. Rotten kids knew they could infuriate him by shouting at him, “Edgar—you’re fired!” Predictably he would yell back through his speech impediment “Oo athturds!”
Some might regard him as a classic example of the village idiot. I now consider him to be one of the finest examples of Brandon’s community spirit. When I left town early one fall morning to take a Vermont Transit bus to college, there was no one to say goodbye–but there was Edgar Paul.
Most of his contemporaries at the Training School needed more intensive care and supervision. For many older children of that era—this was not for the innocent young or the faint of heart—sooner or later there was The Tour. This was an education in misfortune. You saw the hydrocephalics, whose heads had swelled from some trauma or medical condition, to the point where pressure on the brain had damaged its functioning. You saw the pinheads, whose skulls, whether from genetics or the mischances of development, had been reduced to narrow, sloping, inadequate braincases.
In some cases an inmate would have to be secured in a restraining wheelchair or put in soft restraining mitts or both, lest they strike at others or themselves. One of the heartbreaking sights I recall—not on The Tour but years later–was a beautiful young girl who had been in a traffic accident and had suffered a serious head injury; with all her heart she refused to accept being there, hating all that had happened so much so that she had to stay strapped down, fighting helplessly against the efforts to help her, with one of the most miserable expressions I have ever seen on a human face. Reporting on the closing of the Training School, I saw in one corner a wheelchair modified so as to be a restraining device and, realizing this was a chapter of the place’s history that might be slighted, asked if I could have it. Now it is in the care of a member of the Brandon Historical Society, who realizes its significance–and the way it could distract from the Society’s current efforts to gather local recollections to document the history of the Training School.
For the real and true and authentic story of the Training School is that ultimately it did teach residents how to care for themselves, at least well enough so they could go to community residences or be cared for in supportive, subsidized family homes. The people who worked at the Training School did so well that they worked themselves out of their jobs—intended to and did, as therapeutic and habilitative methods steadily improved. Today the place is again a village, a mixed-use community called Park Village, where there is even a determined effort under, as of 2013, to turn one of the largest structures into a regional center for the arts. I hope it will take note of the art of interpersonal care that was brought to a high level there during its former history.

Fishing

Fishing
(part of Old Brandon)

One of Brandon’s enduring resources, for visitors and residents alike, is the Neshobe River. As well as being scenic, it is a splendid stream for trout-fishing, spring-fed to ensure its flow and keep its temperature cool enough during the summer heat. In addition, it benefits from the limestone-dominated terrain through which it flows.
In the trout-fishing world, there are limestone streams that have gained international fame. Trout depend mainly on insect life for their diet—not worms as children might suppose—especially the aquatic larvae of mayflies, stoneflies, and other species who, on their emergence, create the above-water “hatches” beloved of fly-fishers. Limestone helps to create better habitat for these nymphs, as those flycasting for trout know them.
The Neshobe River is not alone in benefitting from “dolomitic” bedrock, as it is scientifically known. The entire Marble Valley, which has been quarried from Danby to Middlebury, originated geologically as a former seabed, where the calcium-rich bodies of ocean-dwelling creatures had accumulated for millions of years. The tablets that people take to counter excessive stomach acidity have calcium carbonate as their main active ingredient. That’s what constitutes the region’s marble, and what protects the trout from the acid rain that is making so many historic Vermont headstones illegible. Furnace Brook in Pittsford is another example of this effect.
Sadly, there are other pollutants from which there is no such protection, especially airborne mercury. There is no doubt that trout-fishing in Vermont has come down a long way from the time when early settlers often depended on trout to help keep them going while they were clearing land, starting crops, and building homes and barns. One old-timer recalled standing on the Neshobe streambank in the fall and watching a parade of big trout, probably five-pounders, swimming upstream to spawn.
Such salmon-like journeys still take place, fortunately. The Neshobe is in effect three rivers: a rapidly flowing stream in Goshen anf Forestdale with good gravel for depositing trout eggs; a larger flow with deeper pools continuing through Brandon village; then a slow-moving river as in approaches its meeting with Otter Creek.
As a kid, you could see trout swimming in the river. You could see them from the bridge over Route 7, and at all sorts of places along the stream. That did not mean you could catch them—in fact, it meant you WOULDN’T catch them—but when you’re eight years old or so, that can be hard to believe.
There were enough trout for Brandon High School to hold at least one fishing derby, which of course did not take place on a week day, when there were classes. As I recall, the participants had a certain time on a Saturday to fish, after which they brought in their catches to determine who caught the most and the biggest. If my memory serves me well, the winner that year was Charlie Memoe, a standout on all the high school sports teams, who would go on to join Castleton State College’s Athletic Hall of Fame.
Before I became a teenager, I could never catch more than an occasional trout—but I could when Uncle Lawrence came up from New Jersey. Accustomed to seeking out the rarer denizens of much-fished streams in his home state, he was highly skilled. Going out with him and casting to the places he told me, I caught four trout—more than I ever had before.
Kids nowadays can go to fishing derbies for which ponds are amply stocked with hatchery trout, the one run by the Neshobe Sportsman Club at the former Wyman Farm being one of the best. One of the times I went with my young son, I rigged up his pole in a way that I thought might work to get the lunker trout they stocked, which would mean winning a special prize. Instead of suspending a hook from a bobber, I put on a heavy sinker, then the bobber about two feet away, then the hook a foot and a half beyond that, which would suspend the bait about six inches off the bottom. Sure enough, we got the lunker on the line–but I had come down with a cold, and in my wooziness I had forgotten to bring the net, and before it came ashore the fish flopped off and dove to hide in the bottom of the pond again.
The river in my youth had more unimproved sections, where floating logs would accumulate at bends into big snags, underneath which big trout would lurk. They would keep growing and growing because it was almost impossible to catch them: hooked, they would head for the logs and break off the line. Uncle Lawrence went after one of the locally legendary whopper, which prowled a stretch downstream from the Wheeler Road Bridge, and managed to get it to bite, but like everyone else had his line broken off.
The shallow section that runs through the golf course in pretty much a straight line was, prior to its reconstruction, a switchback river with splendid and remarkably beautiful shaded trout habitat. The area just above that was still wonderful in the early 1960s, when I was in high school. Fishing there one time I decided to try throwing bits of worms into the water one after another to see what would happen. First little fish started to feed, the somewhat larger fish, then I saw something coming down the stream that like looked like a cloud of dirt. I wondered what could be knocking down part of the bank then, as the feeding fish scattered, realized I was looking at an enormous trout—maybe 30 inches long, I thought at the time. Hands shaking, I rigged up some bait and made a cast, but of course caught nothing.
Frustrated by the trout as a young boy, a friend and I set up at a deep point in the slow section behind the downtown dam, on a stone wall that (until it later washed out and collapsed) gave easy access to the pool. We let our bait sink to the bottom, where it would attract the suckers that liked the stretch’s calm, warm water. Generally trout didn’t or couldn’t survive the heat and relative lack of oxygen there, except, I realized much later, brown trout that probably fed on the suckers. (In my adulthood I fished that area at night and sometimes spied a big brown that I nicknamed The Log, but it was too wary to bite.) Once, and only once, the fish on the end of the twitching line turned out to be a trout. But fishing there was fun anyway, even for suckers, whose taste was unappealing for humans but which made decent catfood.
Getting around being harder for younger kids, there were fun places to fish I never reached, in lakes and ponds and Otter Creek. About 20 years later I learned, while, reporting on mosquito problems, that “The Creek” only drops about a foot between Brandon and Middlebury; for anglers it functions as a kind of long, skinny pond. Casting a spinner into its brown spring waters in Leicester one Opening Day, I pulled the lure out then an otter stuck its head out of the water just off the bank and gave me a look as if it were saying “What the hell kind of fish was THAT?” then submerged again.
For anglers who do a bit of exploration, one of the fascinations of the Vermont landscape is the number of places fish can live. For instance, there are tiny streams with improbably large numbers of brook trout—so many in some cases that they stunt each other. During a trip up a hillside with my father, to help survey an acre of land for the late Fred Wyman, I brought along a fishing rod and found there were streams small enough to step across that had trout in every pool.
(My father had been hired to do this job because he had been a navigator in B-24s in China during World War Two. He marked out the rectangle with a wrist compass and the 100-foot tape measure from the Otter Valley Union High School track team, which he coached—my part being to help stretch out the tape to the points he indicated in the forested, up-and-down terrain. He came out at the starting point, bang on. Two Air Medals and two Distinguished Flying Crosses.}
There used to be a sand pit north of Otter Valley along Route 7, a favorite for gun owners taking target practice, where there was a tiny pond at the lowest point. It was teeming with tiny bullhead and had a number of golden shiners, which a bass fisherman would gladly have trapped for bait.
For a time the manager of a hillside orchard on the way to Sugar Hollow let me fish in the little pond there—for bullhead, of course. I would go late in the evening in the fall, after the family was in bed and the nocturnal fish had started looking for food, and would come home from the still, dark orchard with the next day’s dinner (bullhead are delicious, tastier than trout).
Smalley Road crossed a very small brook where someone had tried to raise trout in concrete pens that used the flow of water. The enterprise was long gone but the trout were still around, hiding in the wooded area upstream from the abandoned enclosures. Similarly, there were trout in the brook that supplied Jones Pond, where some of the larger ones that came downstream could be caught.
At one point, someone tried operating a pay-to-fish business using the southernmost of the two abandoned and water-filled quarries on Route 7 at the southern end of the village. The idea wasn’t absurd: elsewhere in the country, quarries have yielded some very large bass; and in the South, there are many pay-to-fish places. The latter are usually square docks projecting into a pond or lake with a population of catfish, who are attracted to the site at night by lights and fish feed. But locals knew about other, free places to fish, and not enough travelers stopped to keep it going.
As a kid I never took part in one Vermont seasonal activity that at times rivaled maple-syrup-making in its intensity: harvesting the spring run of bullhead from Lake Champlain up its tributary streams. Bait-dealers would go for similar runs of suckers and shiners (Sucker Brook, which feeds into Lake Dunmore. was named for its once-ample sucker run). Lake Bomoseen used to have, and probably still has, a spring run of sunfish and bluegills to the Indian Point cove—whose name may have something to do with Abenaki reliance on the same spring migrations. Spring runs offered early settlers to this country important chances to stock up for leaner times, in states with big, ocean-going rivers as well as in Vermont.
But bullhead and sunfish and perch could be caught in many little ponds and in parts of Otter Creek at all seasons, though the bullhead caught in the spring tasted better than those that had been doing their bottom feeding in warmer months. The supposition was that places like remote, nearly landlocked farm ponds got stocked when the feet of spring-migrating ducks brought in the eggs of spring-spawning fish.
One of my early childhood memories, from when I had just learned to walk, was of going night-fishing with my parents and one of their friends, on Otter Creek south of where we lived in Middlebury. I toddled over to a pail of water in which the caught fish were being kept, put my hand in, and got “bitten” by a bullhead. Actually they have sharp spines over their heads and at their sides, like catfish, to which they are related.
As with trout fishing, the spring runs aren’t what they used to be. Some of the people who would go to Panton Dam, a blocking point along a Lake Champlain tributary, would bring five-gallon buckets instead of creels, and some had at home an entire freezer dedicated to bullhead (when the wardens weren’t there, the nets came out). “Cleaning” that many of the slippery and nearly impossible-to-kill fish was no easy chore, but they were tasty little beasties. The lowly bullhead is a remarkable creature: along its entire side is a chemical sensory organ sensitive enough to detect the exact mixture of soils eroding down the stream where it hatched, so it can return to the same ancestral grounds to spawn.
Never mind the canary in the coal mine: if something as tough as the bullhead is in trouble, we humans are in deep, deep trouble.
Bringing up my son during the 1980s, some of our most enjoyable fishing was at ponds around Brandon. He caught his first fish at age two: insisting on casting himself, he flopped the bait in the water about two feet off the shore, where a sunfish happened to be guarding an egg-laying nest it had cleared. When the unknown intruder entered the protected zone, the fish attacked it, and got caught.
In high school, I invented a baitfishing system using the tip cut off a flyfishing leader (which was very thin and nearly invisible); a small hook (no bigger than size 8); as small a sinker as possible; and a small piece of worm balled up on the hook. I would cast this near trout, one would come over to see what it was, would decide it smelled like food, and out of the river would come the trout.
Summer is traditionally a terrible time for trout fishing, because the water is lower and the temperature is higher and sunlight, which trout do not like, is more intense. But at the same time, the heat speeds up the metabolism of things that are cold-blooded, fish included, which means they need more food. I liked fishing in the summer: the trout would concentrate in identifiable locations and I could strategize ways of getting at them. Besides, the river was at its most beautiful then, especially in areas where it was bordered by pastures (at that date, cows were still sometimes pastured on Barnes Flat, between Wheeler Road and Route 73).
The most amazing fishing comes when a river’s water is rising from a summer rainstorm. The trout, anticipating insects to be knocked into the water and worms to be washed in from eroding banks, come into places one would never find them in normal weather, and rain splashing onto the water’s surface obscures their view of anglers. The fishing under those circumstances has to be experienced to be believed—though I have seen some polluted or acidic storms put the trout temporarily off their feed.
As an adult, I read books and articles on fishing—Pittsford author Harold Blaisdell was especially informative—and got good at catching trout. There were two years when I caught more than 500 trout each year, all of which our family consumed. For at time I wrote a fishing column for a Rutland Herald publication, some of which I hope eventually to publish as a part of A Reporter’s Vermont.
I have tried to tell kids that if they fish from a place where the trout can see them, they won’t have much luck. The only time they listened rather than arguing back was when I was fishing in Goshen and met two sons of Ahmad Abdul Aleem, thought by some area residents to be a Black Muslim terrorist. In fact he was (I say this after doing two seven-hour interviews with him for the Rutland Herald) a Muslim black who hoped to raise his family in a moral and natural way not possible in New York City or Montreal (where he was a dealer in meats that met Muslim dietary guidelines). His sons and I arranged a meeting on the river during which I taught them about catching trout—it was a large family and clearly they needed a lot of food—and thereafter trout became a regular part of the family fare.
You aren’t competing with other people fishing for trout, I would tell kids, you’re competing with birds. After millions of years of having to dodge things like kingfishers and osprey, trout have learned that if they see something moving above them, they should go on alert. Stalking trout is work, more like hunting than the cartoon images of lolling on a bank with a fishing pole propped up waiting for a bite.
The largest trout I caught on the Neshobe was 25 inches long and weighed over five pounds. Doing this required many of the techniques I had learned, including tying my line to the shank of a hook (so the ring would not be pulled through the monofilament) with the snell knot. One of the most reliable places to fish on the river, a pool on the south side of the overflow from the dam in the middle of town, stopped producing. That meant either that the river had run out of seven-ich trout, which were so common that in the days of the 12-trout limit I called them “Neshobe eggs,” or that something had moved in big enough to eat them.
I went to the place at midnight after a rain, got it on the line, and after 20 minutes of tugging it away from the current so it would tire itself swimming back, I stepped into the river, pulled it over, and netted it. Mim Welton took a picture for Dateline Brandon; to display it, I spread it over the hood of my truck like a deer.
My enthusiasm for fishing waned as the mercury content of Vermont’s fish increased. My attitude was Old Vermont: if you hunt for deer or fish for trout, you should consume them. Success in such activities indicates that you know the territory at least as well as what you are pursuing. I don’t seek to persuade anyone that this is the correct viewpoint, but neither am I likely to change it.

The Brandon Bisons

The Brandon Bisons
(part of Old Brandon)

When Otter Valley Union High School opened in the fall of 1961, I was in eighth grade, so I did not attend Brandon High School. But since my parents Lillian and Robert Barna both taught there, I had more than a passing familiarity with the school.
My father directed student plays there, and that became one reason for going to the auditorium/gymnasium after school. This was before the transition to schools putting on musicals. The plays could be comic, but sometimes they would be intensely serious fare. Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” for instance, was widely put on around the state because at that time it seemed so much like a portrayal of actual village life. Its performance was a community event. Often I could see students growing up before my eyes, stepping into roles cautiously as if they were outsized clothes, then finding they could fit.
From time to time, there would be a Cake Walk in the gym, as a fundraiser for some group.. People would pay I think a dime at a time to walk around a circle of chairs until the music stopped, then they would take a numbered seat. If that seat’s number was drawn from a pile of numbered cards, the winner of this ambulatory lottery could go to the table at the head of the room and choose from a number of donated cakes.
I had no idea that putting on a cake walk would some day be impossible because of the term’s race-related connotations. The Wikipedia gives a good account of the cake walk’s origins as an event in which slaves would compete in dancing or fancy walking, often while dressed in their best, the prize for the best performers being a cake. I doubt anyone involved in Brandon’s cake walks did it with any racist intent—it was just good fun for a good cause.
Likewise I never once thought that the minstrel show put on one time in the high school gym had a racial slant. The very enjoyable format, combining songs with joking dialogue and skits, in its time may have had affinities with the vaudeville variety shows that preceded the era when movies became popular. I don’t remember any of the jokes, but poet John Berryman has immortalized the character Mr. Bones, modeled the “endmen” who sat at the two sides of the choral group that did the “minstrel” part and did the back-and-forth bantering. Mr. Bones is a commentator in a series that centers on a protagonist named Henry. In one poem he’s having lusty fantasies about a woman seated near him, and he thinks ‘’’There ought to be a law against Henry.’/ Mr. Bones: ‘There is.’”
The multipurpose space on the three-story school’s lowest level had extra seats which could be set up, stowed under the stage. The rows of permanent seats across the gym floor from the stage (at ascending levels to give everyone a good view), saw all sorts of happenings, as well as serving for school assembles and ceremonies. I played basketball there as part of the local Catholic Youth Organization team. There were band concerts. But the place echoed loudest at Brandon Bisons home basketball games.
As I have written elsewhere, I don’t think Vermont will ever see basketball games as intense as those played in single-town high school gyms like those in Brandon, Pittsford, Wallingford, and West Rutland. For one thing, the budget-minded school boards that approved the designs saved money by not including any out-of-bounds space, except at entranceways. (In the days when the two-handed set shot was a more common technique than the jump shot, and games were not as physically active, this probably did not matter as much.) In Pittsford, people watched from a balcony not only overlooking but actually over the court. This put the crowd right up against the action.
In the winter, when not much was going on, watching the home team play at the high school was big. People from the community sat in the rows of seats while the students crowded onstage, with the opposing cheerleaders in the wings. Preceding play, the cheerleaders would take the floor in their red and gray uniforms (the school colors of the Bisons) to lead in singing the school’s fight song.
Like some other aspects of that era’s high schools, having such a song followed the example of colleges. In fact, from looking at a collection of college songs online, I suspect Brandon’s was based on one such collegiate spirit-rouser.
I have tried, so far in vain, to find anyone who remembers all the words to this anthem, though its singing was a very dramatic start to a game. After the first part, there would be a moment of complete crowd silence, in which the lead cheerleader would shout “Fight for old Brandon, hep hep!” then the song would conclude. What I remember follows:

The Brandon high school boys are on the floor
We’re going to do our best to raise the score
We’re going to yell and yell and yell and yell
For dear old B-r-a-n-d-o-n High School
—————————————————
—————————————————
We’re going to take old (whoever the opponent was) to defeat, to defeat,
For Brandon High-igh-igh

Fight for old Brandon, hep hep!

Fight for old Brandon, Brandon must win
Fight to the finish, never give in, rah rah rah
You do your best, boys
We’ll do the rest, boys
Fight for old B-H-S, rah rah

There was also an unauthorized school song, probably based on something collegiate as well. I can’t remember how I learned it, but here it is:

Bring on the whiskey, bring on the rye
We are the boys of old Brandon High
Send the freshmen out for gin
And don’t let a sober sophomore in
We never stagger, we never fall
We sober up on wood alcohol
While the faculty are lying
Drunk on the barroom, drunk on the barroom,
Drunk on the barroom floor.

One way or another, the place had a lot of school spirit. One of my enduring memories is of following nearly all the student body up Seminary Hill to the athletic field (I think there was a path through the then-undeveloped area leading northwest uphill from opposite the graded school playground)), the field being located where the factory for Nexus Custom Electronics and its successors was built, to a bonfire and pep rally.
It’s amazing how some athletic plays will linger in memory. For example, at the aforementioned field, I remember Maurice “Buzz” Racine scoring a soccer goal by bending in a corner kick behind the goalie.
With town school basketball, you hoped there would be a tall player coming along, because the height of a team’s center had a lot to do with how successful they would be. The big man I remember best was Tom Dickinson, who at six foot four inches was big for those times—though kids these days have outgrown Tom’s generation and mine the way we had outgrown our fathers and they had outgrown their fathers before them. Go see the sailing ship the U. S. S. Constitution at the Charlestown Naval Yard in Boston Harbor and you will be amazed at the small size of the berths.
Getting back to basketball, Dickinson had developed a shot that he used more and more successfully than any player I have ever seen, the pros included: a true turnaround jump shot. Not using some kind of move to get space to turn around then shoot, but jumping and turning toward the basket in midair and shooting. It was a deadly weapon if he got a pass close enough to the basket, which he often with Charlie Memoe as a guard.
Memoe, who went on to excel in three sports at Castleton State College and enter of their Athletic Hall of Fame—and who returned to become a coach at Otter Valley—was a fine shooter and passer and about as much of a hustler as you are likely to see. He would follow his own shots and, if they didn’t go in, often grab the rebound so the Bisons could have another try. One time he did something on offense that left him dissatisfied with his own performance, and he came back on defense brimful of intensity. He waited as the opposing guard brought the ball up, then just at the point when he started a dribble launched out and stole the ball and took it to the other end and scored. It was electrifying.
I remember some of Brandon’s opponents, too. Pittsford’s Gary Hier had a true hook shot, an unstoppable sweeping hook that he could put up with accuracy from out near the foul line. Fair Haven had a tough team one year that included a talented center named Ferris, a dangerous forward named Lenke, and a good guard named Egan. I forget who won that contest in the Brandon gym but I do remember it was a fierce battle.
Going past the high school on my way to the Seminary Hill School (see “The Graded School” for more) I would see students waiting to go in. Girls on one side and boys on the other (I think girls on the north side but I may be wrong). The places where they put their coats—there were no student lockers—were kept separated, and there were bathrooms on opposite sides of the building. Different era. One year not long after I came back to town in 1977, and before the AIDDS epidemic, I was told that 11 girls in the junior class at Otter Valley had gotten pregnant. I remember being in the office at the school one time when a very provocatively-dressed girl came in, and I told her “You’re lucky Miss Force isn’t still around—she’d tell you to go home and put on some clothes.” At old BHS, the faculty felt that teaching manners and morals was as important in preparing their charges for the world as any subject matter.
No account of the school would be complete without mentioning the steam heat. The air bubbling made the pipe clank, to use a word that doesn’t come close to the variety of sounds the system could produce. After school hours, when the sounds were most clearly audible, it was easy to get the feeling that the building was haunted.
When it wasn’t being used the building was damaged by vandals and had even worse things done by the weather. Anyone who went there who never saw it during tHat time can be glad they didn’t. It was horrible and terribly saddening. But re-using it would mean bringing all those old systems up to code. A former Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union business manager told me about 25 years ago that one potential buyer waled through the place, told him “A million dollars,” and never came back. Eventually it did have s series of owners and potential developers. One replaced the roof, and the latest, part of a group of artists in Texas, got as far as largely gutting the interior and preparing the gym to be an underground parking area before the Great Recession of 2008 bankrupted him.
When he gave me a tour of the work, I asked if I could have one of the old cushioned red seats from the east gym. “Sure.” I still have it. Any graduated who really wants it can have it–just let me know.
Coming to the high school after class time to see my parents, I would go through the front door so I could look at the big, colored map of the world there. It was not exactly realistic—it was what’s known as a Mercator projection map, which to fill up the rectangular space made far northern and far southern places disproportionately large. But it gave the students who saw it a very real, if unspoken, message: what you learn here is preparing you to enter the whole, wide world.
There was one place in the building where I did go for some classes. Inside the bottom southern entrance, on the left, was the film projection room. “Audio-visual” instruction was in its infancy, compared with the resources available now, but we enjoyed watching such classics of that era as “Our Mr. Sun,” and one on hemoglobin and the rest of the circulatory system titled “Hemo the Magnificent.” Both can be watched on You Tube, where I learned that both were put together by famed film director Frank Capra.
An account of the school would not be complete without including the wood shop. This was located underneath the town hall—the same place where the local jail had been. The cell bars were still there, leading to predictable jokes about what the consequences of bad behavior might be. I had “shop” there, which boys took then in seventh grade, under excellent instructor and excellent carpenter Frank Ashley. I used the lamp I made there decades afterward.
As seventh graders, we were invited to witness the last Brandon High School initiation. Official hazing used to be very common at colleges. I once saw a poster from the University of New Hampshire during the 1940s detailing all the ways that freshmen were supposed to conform to their lower status and honor upperclassmen: always wearing their beanies, sing the school song on demand, and on and on. Probably high schools took their lead from this. At the ceremony in the gym, one of the smarter freshmen had to measure the length of the floor in pins, a fat girl had to sit on a bucket of balloons, some had to go to the cemetery and copy a headstone inscription by candlelight—that sort of thing, not fraternity paddling or any major physical ordeal.
Afterward, all the participants were welcomed as full, initiated members of the student body. The idea was to build school spirit—and from what I have learned since, especially through anthropologist Victor Turner’s book The Ritual Process, that probably happened. Traditional societies’ initiation rites and military basic training are other example of how sharing a hardship can build fellowship.
There was a spirited debate, so to speak, over whether he new Otter Valley Union High School should continue the tradition of initiations. I see the decision not to have them as part of a general shift in American life away from the hierarchical orientation—part of a long-term trend that has gone on since the late Middle Ages, when the lion was King of the Beasts and so forth.
I also took part in the last Brandon-Pittsford basketball game. Brandon’s Catholic church had a team; Pittsford’s didn’t, but the game’s organizers brought together a comparable unit. The Brandon CYO team used the old high school gym, but this time we played in the Pittsford gym, without a scoreboard or clock, with the adult supervisors keeping track of both.
Late in the game, I was fouled while shooting, and had to make a tough choice. I had just reached the point where I was strong enough to shoot foul shots overhanded—should I take these key shots underhanded, as had done for years, for better accuracy? I shot overhanded and made them both. Moments later a whistle blew: game over, score tied. In overtime, Brandon took the lead and won decisively. For Pittsford, Kenny Gee scored 16 points; for Brandon, so did I.
During the first years of the union school, the antagonism between members of the upper classes was so serious that the administration didn’t want there to be a student newspaper, which might publicize the frictions. The class that started there in eighth grade would have none of it, myself included. Some of my best friends were from Pittsford.
My journalistic career began when, in the summer between freshman and sophomore year, I rode my bike to Pittsford and back on trips to enlist support from members of my class, then went to the administration in the fall and said, “If you won’t give us a faculty advisor and sponsor a student newspaper, the sophomore class will start one of its own.” Thus began Valley Hi-Spots.
But I would be quick to agree that something wonderful ended with the transition out of Brandon High School to the big square white building that has been variously called Odor Smelly, Onion Valley, the Cheese Factory, and The Sacred Halls of Ivory. I’m glad there is an annual all-class reunion of the Bisons, along with a scholarship fund that helps descendants. I hope the gathering, which I’m told has brought returnees from as far as Hawaii and is very well attended, will continue for many years to come.

Downtown

Downtown
(part of Old Brandon)

The National Trust For Historic Preservation’s Main Street Center and the State of Vermont’s “designated downtown” program seek to encourage what Brandon once had: a business district in which nearly all of a person’s shopping needs might be met by stores within walking distance of each other.
Others will have clearer and more detailed memories of the commercial scene in the late Fifties and early Sixties, but I thought I might be able to contribute a perspective that comes from either walking along Park Street and Center Street to the Seminary Hill School or going to temporary classrooms in the Ayrshire Building and Fellowship Hall or going to shops as a kid. Where I’m unsure of my recollections I’ll say so, and I’m ready to stand corrected where I’m wrong. Psychologists have made it clear that personal memories and “eyewitness” accounts are fallible and often influenced by opinions.
For children, few if any temptations surpassed those of the soda counters. There were three: at the Rexall’s drugstore on Center Street, a favorite after-school gathering point for teenage girls; at Brown’s drugstore on Park Street, where I would often go when I had a nickel for a mug of draft Hire’s root beer; and at Lathrop’s near the bank corner on Center Street.
Lathrop’s exemplified a type of store seldom seen in this age of fierce retail competition: a place that was a little old fashioned, that had clearly seen its best days, but that continued as a way for its owner or owners to stay active and remain part of the community. If the business owners owned the real estate, and didn’t have to pay rent, and dealt in non-perishable goods, this could be feasible.
I don’t know how to characterize the quiet little establishment run by Mr. and Mrs. Lathrop, but in the back it had a soda counter where you could still order a cherry phosphate—an earlier type of fizzy soft drink whose ingredients were mixed on the spot rather than poured from a container in which they had been prepackaged. It had phenomenal flavor. In my middle school years, I would visit the Lathrops in their rooms upstairs to play chess with Mr. Lathrop.
Chamberlain’s was another such survivor. The family operated a gas pump on the south side of Route 7 in Conant Square, and to supplement that source of revenue had an associated shop. The merchandise was more like that of a rural general store than that of a present-day gas station “convenience store” with its heavy emphasis on cigarettes, lottery tickets, and snack food.
Of particular interest to me was the fishing tackle area, where they had items not available in more competitive, up-to-date stores. For instance, they had a card of small spinners made by hand and marketed by a Native American tribe (I forget which). These were very simple lures that aren’t seen any more, possibly because something so easy to make wouldn’t have much of a profit margin. With that lure, I once caught my limit of 12 trout on the Neshobe River for three days in a row. One evening below the big falls, it snagged five trout with seven casts. After I returned to Brandon to take over the family place at the end of Park Street, in the early 1980s, I put my son in a backpack and took my old fishing pole out of the barn with that lure on the line and went to the river to show him one of the ways food came to the table. He loved it, and we went fishing a lot that year, always using the same Colorado-blade-type spinner. Not once did it fail to bring home trout. Sometimes old and basic works best.
Fishing Central in Brandon was June’s Hardware, in a building that eventually suffered a fire, was rebuilt, then was destroyed by flooding during the aftermath of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene. It stood to the left of what in those days was LaDuke’s bar. There, old Mr. June, nicknamed “Bug June” because of his expertise in fly fishing, would regale listeners with his immense trove of stories. Anglers seeking tips on where to go and what to use could do no better than to seek his advice, As with many of the town’s older residents, I now wish I had sat and listened to his accounts. At least the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury has seen the wisdom of gathering such experiences, by recording and transcribing oral interviews with many Vermonters.
While I’m on the subject of hardware, area construction and repair projects benefitted from the goods and services supplied by Brandon Lumber and Millwork. It occupied a unique multi-story wooden building, not very wide but very deep, on Seminary Street across from the fire station–on the slope between the town offices and the high school. Often trucks would go up the driveway alongside the structure so that building materials could be loaded directly onto them from the upper stories.
I don’t think anyone who knew her would have called Despina “Desi” Louras an old-timer, even as she pushed toward the years when most people retire. Desi was timeless, a little bundle of energy who made her small newsstand and shop on Center Street, the Brandon Cash Market, into a community nerve center. In later years she became known as the unofficial Mayor of Brandon. To us kids, she was a dour and fierce presence who would inform loiters and gawkers that “This is not a library!” It was an intimidating front, but we would learn in our mature years that behind it was a heart of gold—and I don’t mean the monetary kind of gold. I was glad to learn that after finally going back to live full-time in Rutland—she was part of an illustrious clan that included a literal Mayor of that city—she had lived to the age of 91.
She was right to watch out for potential shoplifters. When I was in sixth grade, I was appointed to be captain of the school patrol, a group of older students who, wearing white shoulder-to-waist belts for greater visibility, acted as crossing guards. I was removed from that post for inadequately supervising the patrol members, some of whom had been caught stealing from stores.
Groceries? I can remember two downtown: Clevinger’s, at the south end of the Smith Block where Aubuchon’s is now; and another across Center Street that I believe was a Grand Union. There was a store on Union Street, too, in the location that later became known as the Pizza Corner and now is a vacant lot because of a fire. My family would sometimes go there when the downtown groceries were closed to get a half gallon of ice cream as a special treat (a lot more ice cream than the 28-ounce, air inflated things that have replaced them). It was possible to get Seward’s Ice Cream, made in the same place that milk was bottled in Rutland. My childhood memories include milk being home-delivered, in glass bottles, from which cream was skimmed before drinking.
The main place for buying clothing was Shapiro’s, across one of the business district access alleys from the Brandon Inn. The full name may have been something like Shapiro’s Department Store, but although the founder has passed along, everyone knew the place as Shapiro’s. People came from other towns, too, to take advantage of its knowledgeable selection of durable, sensibly fashionable apparel. For us Barna boys, there was the annual, almost ritual trip to the back basement area where we could be measured for and fitted with new, larger shoes. The main level store had been designed for an earlier era: partway to the rear there was an elevated section from which all activities could be monitored. All the financial transactions took place there, after the clerks brought the sales slips and payments.
The Brandon Inn, the first downtown business that travelers northbound on Route 7 would see, was another important establishment. Its rooms accommodated visitors; it included a special section called The Rotary Room (I’m not sure when this began) because the Rotarians met there; and with its kitchen, dining room, and spacious, well-appointed lobby, it could host a variety of receptions, reunions, conferences and such. It offered employment to a substantial number of townspeople; I, too, worked for a time as the front desk clerk and sometimes as the night auditor. There weren’t any places open at all hours in the old Brandon, but a knock at the door of the Brandon Inn would always bring a response. Seeing the light on at the front desk was reassuring during a snowstorm. Sometimes the place struggled financially—in my desk clerk days I would tell people there were three stories of overhead—but it occupied a key location and fulfilled enduring needs, and there had been some kind of hostelry there from the late 18th century onward.
The inn was not the only downtown meeting space. I went to Cub Scout meetings on the second floor of the Central Vermont Public Service office on Park Street. The Freemasons met in the upper part of the Smith Block, before building a lodge headquarters on Park Street Extension.
All sorts of items otherwise unavailable could be mail-ordered. At one point the Sears catalog order-and-delivery point was downtown, opposite the alley that now separates the Brandon Artists Gallery and Café Provence (at that date, it was unthinkable that Brandon would become a popular place for artists to live, or that the town would have a regionally renowned restaurant owned and operated by a French-born chef). The Sears location had previously housed the local post office, at a time before rising demand compelled the facility to relocate to a small plaza in the Crescent Park area (near the junction of Route 7/Conant Square with Pearl Street).
The area in back of the Center Street stores continued to see appliance deliveries after Sears was gone thanks to Sidney Rosen, in the Fifties-Sixties era I am describing the owner and manager of the National 5 & 10. Those were indeed the prices for many notions and sundries. When “Sid,” as he was known, got out of the retail trade, he retained the business name Rosen National and used it to make catalog orders, charging, he said, only 10 percent of the wholesale price. People from far and wide came and heard him calling in their orders: “Rosen National God bless you I love you.” Sid also parlayed his profits into ownership of a large number of rental properties, which were sometimes alleged to suffer from lack of maintenance but which were a refuge of last resort for many cash-strapped families. His significant role in Brandon affairs could justify an entire chapter in some future history of the town. It’s my opinion that for better or worse, the hinge of Brandon’s transition from having a reputation for poverty to having a reputation for its creative economy was Rosen’s death and the subsequent liquidation of his rental empire.
One door along Center Street not far from the town offices remained a mystery to me. No one ever went into or came out from the entrance to GAR. Now I know those letters stood for Grand Army of the Republic, the army of the North in the Civil War, in which Vermont lost more soldiers than any other state. The town’s war memorial, where Route 73 (Park Street) intersects with Route 7, has a statue of a Civil War soldier on its pedestal, not in battle but leaning on his rifle and gazing into the distance. Even after the last member of the GAR veterans’ association was gone, it must have been hard to change the door on their former headquarters.
Farther along the same store block was a place boys like myself never dared to enter: the pool hall. It was for boys who swore and smoked, and grown-ups who liked to play pool and smoke. It prospered for years. Just around the bend on Center Street was LaDuke’s, famous as a place where anyone looking for a fight could find one on the weekend. In later years, there being more of an emphasis on its being LaDuke’s Bar and Grille, it would settle down and become widely known as one of the best places to buy a hamburger along Route 7. This rallying point’s popularity could be gauged by the size of the dip that patrons’ feet had worn in the marble step to the entrance.
If you wanted to arrange a funeral, probably you could begin that process at Miller & Ketcham’s furniture store in the Smith Block. The same business ran a funeral home and provided the predecessor (pre-deceaser, cynics might joke) of ambulance service now provided by the Brandon Area Rescue Squad.
Part of the business district at that time and for another two decades afterward was a line of very small commercial spaces on Center Street on the downstream side of the Route 7 bridge, angled away from the highway and backed by the river. A barber in one of them gave me the closely cropped “butch” haircuts of my early childhood. Another was occupied for a time by a partially disabled man who made wonderful jigsaw puzzles, literally with his jigsaw, and who once took one of our family’s kittens to be a companion.
At the pivot point of it all, at the corner of Park Street and Center Street, was the First Brandon National Bank. There was no Second National Bank—indeed, at that time, there was no other saving and lending institution. Its position opposite the town’s largest church seemed appropriate to its central role in the community. Before it merged with a larger bank, First Brandon played a key role in starting the local creative economy: they rented the location that had been once been the five and dime to the Brandon Artists Guild, at a supportively low cost, then sold it to the thriving cooperative enterprise. I’m sure there were other instances when the availability of credit, awarded according to the bank’s knowledge of its clientele rather than some prescribed formula, played an important role in developing the town.
Then there was the park. Its bandstand was used for band concerts, and once a year, U. S. Route 7 was re-routed south of the park so the section between it and Park Street could be hosed down by the fire department then used for the annual summer street dance. With the highway apparently fated to run permanently south of a truncated park, perhaps there would be some compensation if the same area, freed from the demands of traffic, was utilized for similarly community-spirited events.

Little League, Big Moments

Little League, Big Moments
(part of Old Brandon)

Commonly nowadays, children learn to play baseball and softball by participating in age-appropriate leagues, which are open to both girls and boys. Those so young they would flail and fail if facing a pitcher get to start with tee-ball, in which the batter swings at a ball placed on a supporting post until making contact. From there, they can often graduate to Might Mites or some equivalent. Eventually they reach Litle League, from which the most proficient might go on to play for a middle school or high school team.
In my day, there was only Little League and the high school team, which were for boys only. This system made less of an effort to be inclusive and caring, but for those who made it all the way through Little League, the rite-of-passage made it clear that one had grown up and accomplished something. Along the way, there were occasions for courageous and skillful and even heroic deeds, and the acclaim and lifetime memories that attended them.
You started as a shrimp. The first year, the only way you were likely to get on base was by being walked, because you and your strike zone were so mall. But once on base, you were unlikely to score, because your little legs wouldn’t carry you fast enough to be avoid being thrown out.
The second year, you might get a few hits, by knocking the ball between fielders or managing a bunt-like infield squib hit. On defense, you were more likely to hold a more responsible position rather than being exiled to right field, the most common destination for shrimps.
By the third year, you were a contributor. Eventually, as one of the older boys, you were likely to be one of those chosen preferentially by the managers because your superior hitting and fielding. If you had a strong throwing arm, you might find yourself on the pitcher’s mound. Especially couageous and durable kids would be entrusted with the duty of putting on a face mask and chest protector and catching—which needed a good throwing arm, too, to stop runners from stealing bases.
There was a big gathering at the beginning of the year during which the managers would take turns picking their players. The goal was of course to create competitive teams. Before this local version of the professional leagues draft took place, one of the adults would hit fly balls for the bigger kids to compete at catching—a good way to see who might be a good fielder. Watching this taking place as a shrimp, I realized I could never be first to the ball on the fly, so I positioned myself between the hitter and the fielder and when the ball came overhead, I threw up my glove and knocked the ball down and ran and got it. There was a lot of angry complaining about illegal tactics, but nothing could take away the satisfaction of having had gotten the ball.
My first year, I was fortunate enough to be on the same team as a couple of older boys who in years to come would prove to be two of Otter Valley Union High School’s most gifted athletes: Phil Marks and Eddie Bird. Phil was exceptionally tall, and Eddie was short and wiry. They alternated as pitcher and catcher that year in Little League, and after a climactic game in which Carl Pierce caught a drive to deep left field that could have turned the contest against us, we won the championship. (Behind the downtown supermarket, you can still see the exposed rocks that were then the warning track, as it were, for left field—there being no fence.)
The prize for winning was a bus trip to Fenway Park to see the Red Sox, for whom Ted Williams was still playing. Even at my young age I could see what an amazing hitter he was. As I would put it when I was older, other batters would swing at pitches, but Williams would wait while the unknowing ball came down the path and would murder it.
No less amazing than the ball game was the early morning fall fog that hovered over Otter Creek and other wet places. I had never been on the road early enough to witness this awe-inspiringly beautiful sight. Thank you Phil and thank you Eddie.
If Otter Valley ever starts an Athletic Hall of Fame, this duo should be among the first nominated. Marks and Bird teamed up in basketball, too, the former being a skilled and effective center and the latter serving as point guard, from which point he was a constant threat to shoot, drive to the basket, or fake one or the other and pass to Marks. Perhaps their most remarkable game was a victory over Rutland in which Otter Valley surprised everyone by playing slow-down ball (impossible in the new era of the shot clock), combining disciplined ball control and good shot selection to take then hold the lead. This was an upset of epic proportions, given Rutland’s greater population and more easily available youth instruction. In the Catholic Youth Organization basketball league, Brandon was Class C and all three Rutland church teams were Class A. On one occasion when I was in graded school, St. Peters beat Our Lady of Good Hope 52-3, most of the time with their second or third string.
Baseball cards were part of growing up with the sport. Not yet collector’s items, they were what you got along with a stick of bubble gum. You hoped to get one featuring your favorite player, or at least someone on your favorite team, and might trade to get one you wanted. Those you didn’t might end up attached to the spokes of your bicycle, to make a flapping noise while you pedaled along.
For some reason lost to memory, when I was six I keyed onto a young member of the New York Giants named Willie Mays. Maybe I had heard about his first time at bat, facing Hall-of-Fame pitcher Warren Spahn, when he hit the first pitch over the stadium’s walls and out of the park. Eventually I was fortunate enough to see Mays play three time: in New York, in Pittsburgh, and in San Francisco; in the first two games, he hit home runs. I am not alone in believing that if Mays had not played much of his career in Candlestick Park with its strong winds of the Pacific Ocean, he would be the all-time leader in homers.
Brandon’s Little League excelled in one respect: they played on one of the most perfect fields imaginable. The area behind the (now bygone) American Legion house was naturally proportioned for such games, set against a hillside and bordered by inviting fields and woods. The Congregational Church carillon would sometimes provide a musical accompaniment, there being no nearby traffic to interfere with the peaceful setting. As I have said in another account, kids not involved in the game could go to an area close to the field where they could swing out above a hillside on big grape vines that were dangling from the trees. Along the route to the field was the historic Congregational cemetery, a quiet reminder that the games were taking place in a community spanning many generations.
Later, Little League shifted to the former high school athletic field near the end of Prospect Street on Seminary Hill, but there was no view as the street name might suggest. There was more space, which I took advantage of in my final year by hitting more home runs than anyone else, but it wasn’t the same.

The Playground

The Playground

Today, the former playground of the Brandon Graded school has changed a great deal, though it is still used as a town playground. After the three-story brick-sided building burned in January of 1959, the remains were bulldozed to the lower part of the playground north of it, raising the ground level by what I remember as about five feet. But when I started there in second grade, in the fall of 1957, there was an upper playground and a lower playground. In those days of largely older female schoolteachers and no guidance counselors, the farther away from the school building you went, the wilder it could get.
As was common in those days, a new boy was supposed to prove himself by fighting. When it proved that I wouldn’t fight—any such thing was very strictly forbidden among us three Barna brothers, the explanation being that “Brothers are supposed to love each other”—my status plummeted to about absolute zero. It wasn’t very high to begin with because the alliances in my grade had formed in kindergarten and first grade, when we lived in Virginia.
The area closest to the school was safest, and that’s where I spent recesses in second and third grade. The east side of the school was where kids played marbles; the local game involved digging a small pit and rolling marbles into it, with the one that ended farthest from the rolling-in end winning all of them. My hand-eye coordination was good and my skills improved with experience. I kept track of how many marbles I brought to school and how many I brought home; in two years, I won more than 1,200.
By fourth grade, I had graduated to the area between the one close to the school and the lower playground. This where we played children’s games like Jump the River, Red Rover, Crack the Whip, and The Old Mill. To describe all these would take too much time; back then everyone knew what they were, and surprisingly, now they are bygone history. I say “surprisingly” because it used to be a truism among folklorists that children’s culture—the rhymes, the games—was remarkably stable. There is a painting by the Flemish master Bruegel, completed in 1560, which was described as follows in Richard Muhlberrger’s 1993 book “What Makes A Brueghel a Brueghel?” as follows:
“Brueghel painted an entire town inhabited by about two hundred fifty children. At first the image seems to capture a holiday, but soon it becomes clear that the painting is meant to be an encyclopedia of children’s games. Because most of them are still played today, eight-four have been identified, while others not known to the twentieth century have yet to be recognized.”
Some of the pastimes got rough. Sometimes a boy would fall on the ground and someone would yell “Hogpile!” and he and others would dive onto him, sometimes making a sizeable heap. There was one particularly heavy kid who could break up such piles in a hurry: when the pile saw him coming, they scattered. Fittingly, he later joined the local police force.
The name “The Old Mill,” I would guess referred to the downward turning of an old-time water wheel. The participants would line up facing in the same direction, and someone would crawl between their legs going in the opposite direction, and each person in the line would try to spank him. Unlike in the old military punishment of running the gauntlet, the unofficial rules allowed those on hands and knees to scramble through as fast as they could, and those who went through fastest had an easier time of it.
We had swings, a teeter-totter, and a push it yourself then jump on board and hold on tight merry-go-round. Insurance companies have eliminated the last two from modern playground. Today we have the problem of teenagers making foolish decisions out of a feeling of invulnerability; the old ways of disciplining and having fun could have their drawbacks, but the amount of physical contact made it clear that if you weren’t careful, you could get hurt.
On the lower playground, there was an area big enough to set up a baseball diamond. Sandlot baseball was a universal at that time, as was, on fields other than the playground, football games. The latter were rarely of the “touch football” kind that adults suggested. The high school didn’t have a team, so that wasn’t an inspiration. Like baseball, it was just something we liked.
Once I got old enough to be part of baseball games, my social situation changed for the better. My mother had lettered in softball in both high school and college, my father was as good as being a farmkid while growing up would allow, and we had family games from the time I was six. For sandlot games, sides were chosen by one of the captains throwing a bat the other, then the thrower would grip the bat above where it had been caught, then the other would put his hand above that, and so on, with the one who ended up closest to the top getting first choice. (There were arguments about whether or not it was within the rules to do things like capping the top at the end, but this was the basic system.) When it came to selecting sides, ability trumped social divisions, and soon I became one of those chosen first.
Girls and boys both took part in the classic playground games. As is normal for that age, there was a good deal of teasing back and forth between the two. For me, the question of friendship took an unexpected turn when the girl sitting behind me in fourth grade decided I should be her boyfriend, and relentlessly harassed me until I agreed to come to her house one afternoon a week. We became partners, in the innocent way typical of those times—the most intimate we got was the moment at square dances at the Cove Point dance hall when the caller said to the couple taking their turn in the center of their group “Kiss her in the middle if you dare”—but the loneliness was over.
However, there was a dark side to school playground life, even beyond the amount of bullying and misbehavior that took place. A group of boys that I would term a gang lorded it over the lower playground and the knoll overlooking it. Its leader was a short but tough and smart member of a family that lived on one of the streets that American slang has called “across the tracks.” Areas close to where trains did their work were noisier and smellier and avoided by those who could afford to live away from them. Brandon seemed to have more than its share of such zones of low expectations, in my opinion because the loss of the Howe Scale plant to Rutland in 1870 had dealt the town’s economics a blow from which it had in the 1950s still not recovered. A cloud of defeated pessimism hung over the place; in retrospect, I think it was characteristic that the Boy Scout patrol of which I was the patrol leader insisted on adopting the unofficial motto “I’m not proud.”
Along with this negativism about the traditional American educational and economic systems came a willingness to consider criminal activity. As a young child, I played with kids in all neighborhoods, but as time went on, a segregation took place. Kids from The Hill (Seminary Hill and Mount Pleasant on the north side of the business district, where the Baptist Seminary later became the Seminary Hill School, about whose playground I have been writing) were literally and figuratively above those from the more working class families of lower Union Street, Barlow Avenue, Goldspink Avenue, Clay Street, and other downcast neighborhoods. I count it one of the tragedies of my growing up in Brandon to see kids “going wrong,” making what today might be called bad choices, and forfeiting their chances of future success in favor of quicker, often illicit gratifications. Break-ins at lake camps, early pregnancies, shoplifting, rumors of girls going to the big cities to become prostitutes—there were enough signs of what in today’s slang might be called “the dark side” to cast a long shadow on my youthful image of life.
As I have said, the playground gang leader was one of those kids. There was a gang of girls, too, led by his cousin. They were fated to die young, at high speed, in the same car crash. Today, with my childhood fear of this playground Napoleon gone, and having a much broader view of how many types of intelligence there are, I consider their demise a terrible waste of great ability. I have a great deal of respect for the tough kids of that former Brandon, knowing now what obstacles they confronted and how many kinds of ability exist.
At the same time, I would insist that a full history of the town should take note of the infiltration of the criminal element. A case in point: at one point on the playground, I was approached by a boy who wanted me to push out a dot on a punchcard. I had no idea what one was or how it worked. He said that if you pushed on one small circle on the picture printed on the card, a card which was maybe an eighth of an inch thick, a piece would come out that had a picture on it. If that picture matched the one shown, of a bicycle, you would win a bicycle. I liked the chance of getting a bicycle, pushed on a dot with a pencil, a little printed streamer fell out…and it wasn’t the bicycle. I was disappointed, but not as much as the boy with the punchcard, who said I owed him a dollar for taking a chance. I said he hadn’t told me that and I wasn’t going to pay it—COULDN’T pay it because I wasn’t carrying that much money.
There is no way a child of that age could have been in possession of such a sophisticated gambling instrument without some sort of connection to the world outside Brandon that operated things like the numbers game and sports betting pools. And the fact that I got off without paying leads me to think the enterprising lad’s activities were otherwise profitable for him to drop the matter rather than raising his fists.