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EPILOGUE TO A BETTER TIME


It was pleasant lying in bed last night listening to the rain patter against the eaves. All the usual night critters were silent for a change, burrowed in against the cold. Leaves trembling or falling were about the only whispers you could hear above the rain, and they were few. The season is not quite autumnal yet, but the chill outside has finally crept into the house, which had been warm, even muggy much of the long summer. Now we had reason to dig out sweaters, or, in my case, the old tweed jackets I reserve for this time of year.

The light is a delicate gray, a diluted water color that melts away all detail, except for the little jets of black the wind arouses. Birds perch sedately in the maples, looking around with a drowsy, uninterested air. They assume, I surmise, that the worms and the crickets are not out for a mid-day walk in such transparent conditions. Best to wait until they get hungry before darting those alert black eyes over the ground.

This is the kind of day that should remain unnamed. It's too anonymous to pass for a Monday or a Friday. It lacks drama or tension. It's just a fall day shrouded in silk; you might find this sort of atmosphere in a mansion shut down for the winter as it sinks below the silence, leaving behind the furniture under dust covers. You can't quite figure out what to do with yourself. Coffee is a startlingly original idea on such mornings and fills the house with the smell of chestnuts. A dog might be nice to have right now, some friendly presence willing to forgo a morning walk to enjoy the warmth of the fire. I'm sure the geese are in the sky forming erratic chevrons as they head for the lake.

Yesterday my wife and I took the ferry to New York just below Fort Ticonderoga. It's a lonely stretch of highway not much used after summer. The woods are full of gloom and mystery in this terrain; Lake Champlain is below us to the east, and the resorts are about done with summer. It will be a hungry stretch between now and the first snow falls of late November. The towns are smothered in a pleasant sort of boredom. Hardly anyone is on the streets, and once we pass Dresden, a stop on the railroad, we are like knitting needles tying knots in the dull gray yarn of an endless sweater.

After a few more hamlets we take a side road indicating the way to Whitehall, an old canal lock lodged in the weedy shore line, with the marble-colored lake water just beyond. It's an old town, and after losing the commerce that once flourished on the lake, it sunk into hard times. The buildings lean a little and the red bricks have melted here and there from neglect and old age. Most of the town is composed of workers' row houses; the yards are cluttered with junk and broken bikes, a few tires, some struggling flowers left to wither after summer died.

A sign proudly proclaims Whitehall to be the cradle of the U.S. Navy, after Benedict Arnold commissioned some boats to be built to attack the British Navy during the American Revolution, which patrolled the lake and the surrounding country. They were destroyed when it was clear the Brits were about to seize them. A marina sits along a muddy apron of the shore and services a few pleasure craft. If you take the road on the far side, you wander into a more distressed part of town where young men are gathered in front of narrow wooden houses, the kind that filled many river towns until the second world war. These are the remains of industrial America, and the men, most of them unemployed, work on cars without shirts on. A few gleaming motorcycles are parked on the curbs, and the tempo is between summer doldrums and a monotonous dirge. There's not much to do on a Sunday, and what little work is to be found, in the chain stores or in old mom and pop hold outs, barely gets you beer and cigarette money, and maybe a little help to the parents who continue to house such energy.

It occurred to me as we drove around that this same blood once built the canal and the locks, and managed the heavy, iron-hulled ships that came and went from the coastal towns. It was the age of the hand, when men earned their living by having some skill that required a strong grip, a delicate sense of timing, a surgeon's accuracy in guiding a hull exactly into the narrow sleeve of the canal and pulling it forward to the higher water at the other end. Men like this were fearless around the hulking monsters of cranes, coal barges, the furies of blast furnaces and milling machines. They lived in the roar of factory floors, the deafening spasms of hammers striking against sheet metal, the grinding wheels of mining trams loaded with iron ore and coal. It was a job and they were good at it, and though life was short and sometimes brutal, it was a thrilling era in which to be alive. You labored next to your neighbors, and handed greasy, hot wrenches and pry bars to men who had known you since you were a toddler. Everyone knew everyone else, and the women worked as hard raising a family, making ends meet in dimly lit houses reeking of coal fumes from the cellar furnace.

When the mills closed, and the lake drifted from being a hub of commerce to a summer resort economy, the houses went unpainted, upstairs rooms stood empty, with a broken pane of glass here and there, and a corner of the roof that leaked during big storms. The town was left to die, more or less; those who couldn't afford to leave, took what little income there was out of the hardware store and the repair shops. The old schoolhouse was kept up and there was a decent football field in the back yard; you could see that education still mattered, and I have no doubt there were good teachers who knew every family in town and often ate meals with them.

The values remained, the old ways endured. A way of life had been taken away, but the people did not give up their belief in the country. I saw a lot of flags hanging in the limp air in front of sagging porches. The VFW lodge was taken care of. The boys were always urged to join up when a war got started. It was not only a source of income, but service was a way of paying back a nation that had been good to them. People remembered that and were grateful.

Back in the center of town we found a bar open on Sunday afternoon called Big D's. It was holding up a row of fragile brick house fronts, the kind you might find in a mining town in Wales or in the English Midlands. You could almost taste the potato soup and the boiled ham, and smell the old cigarette smoke lingering in the sitting room. Those families were gone and a few businesses eked out a living there. Big D's was one of those houses that was gutted down to the bare brick walls, and fitted with booths, a counter with stools, and a wall of bottles full of whiskey, gin, and rum. Five taps stood over the sink with local brews. Men in their sixties and older were sitting on the stools filling in racing sheets; the Sunday horse races were in progress and the men were betting a few dollars on hunches and tips they'd heard. No one won. But the men were white-haired, and well built, and were curious about the two of us as we sat at a booth behind them.

I had helped a woman mix up a martini for me in a little-used martini glass. She had to hunt around for the vermouth, and took some olives out of a jar and skewered them with a toothpick. It was a dirty martini, she said, having let a bit of the olive brine into the glass. Fine with me, though the martini was too wet and warm for my taste. The men eyed me, and more closely, eyed my wife, who was an unfamiliar presence in such a place. When we left, I realized I had left my sunglasses back in the bar. My wife went to inquire about them and no one could find them, a pair of Ray-Bans. But she was once more the center of attention in a world of few surprises or twists of fate. The clock had stopped, money was scarce, and you lived on the memories of a vanished legacy. She came out feeling a bit uneasy at having so many wrinkled eyes and shaggy eyebrows fixed on her every move. It was how things were, a mixture of memory and desolation, of hopes that flourished once and were worn out. The old men and the boys leaning over the hoods of their cars were part of some long march toward the gray future, and the less they thought about it, the better.

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