In 1963, my mother drove the four of us kids to Pike in our trusty “B-mobile”, a Ford station wagon. We stayed one night at the Old Faithful Lodge in Yellowstone National Park and watched the Old Faithful geyser erupt from our room window. I remember being delighted that there was actually a schedule of the geyser’s displays of steam. It really was as predictable as its name implied. Other highlights of the trip were the Craters of the Moon(a desolate odd park) and Wall Drug Store. If you have never driven from Portland to New York via Wyoming and South Dakota, you may not know about the Wall Drug Store. It is the only thing for miles, and billboards endlessly advertise its approach. Cars also display bumper stickers saying “Visit Wall Drug Store.” Of course we had to stop there! Ice cream and ice cold soda pop was enjoyed by all.
I was 16 by then and restless at Pike, no longer content to ride a bike and swim. I missed my friends, and had been invited to visit one in Arlington, Virginia. My grandparents arranged for a train ticket to Arlington from Pike via Washington. The closest train station was a flag stop in the near by town of Arcade. It turns out that the name is literal, and the station master actually waved a large flag to stop the train to let me on. I remember being amazed that the train would stop just for me to board.
I returned to Pike, but not until 2002 when my visit included a stop at the cemetery where my grandparents and aunt are buried. I needed directions to their plot and stopped at the little Red and White Grocery Store I remembered from my childhood. When I asked about my grandparents(who had died in 1971 and 1978) the butcher remembered them forty years later and directed me to their graves. Such are among the blessings of small towns.
When I was 11, my brother 8 and my sisters 5 and 3, we again took the train, this time the Northern Pacific, from Portland to Buffalo to visit my grandparents. On the journey, we went coach, so there were no separate beds or bathroom. We slept more or less sitting up and washed and changed our clothes in the common women’s bathroom. My father had given a porter a generous tip as we began our trip, so we were well looked after on the journey.
My brother and I had free range of the train, a great experience for us. We ate by ourselves in the dining car and took a deck of cards up to the Vista Dome car. We played endless rounds of our two favorite card games, Casino and Canasta. One late night a porter invited my brother and me out onto the platform between two cars to watch a box car on fire across the prairie. Going between cars in general was a great thrill, as one balanced on one car while the door slammed behind you and you pushed on the car door ahead. We would often walk the length of the train and back.
Pike, as pictured here from the back entrance, was paradise at this age. We rode bikes, played, swam and checked out books from the library. A special thrill was trying to catch fire flies. We didn’t have them in Oregon, and their flitting lights among the flowers delighted us all. We were never able to catch any, but we had a great time trying. We spent a full month this time, pretty much unsupervised along with all the other kids in Pike.
When I think about being a kid in the summer, I think of that summer in Pike.
In the summer of 1952, I was five and my little brother was two. My little sister was just in the making, and she wasn’t born until January of 1953. My mother took the two of us across the country on the train to visit our grandparents. We were in a Pullman sleeper car, so we had a self contained room with bathroom and bunk beds. My mother was desperately morning sick, and we spent almost all our time on the first leg from Portland to Chicago in our room. The porter was very loving and brought our food to the room. My brother and I were not suffering from nausea and we were often hungry. My mother had stocked up with activity books for me, especially my favorite dot-to-dot books. I remember feeling cooped up, but probably not nearly as much as my mom felt with the two of us in that small compartment.
The last leg of the trip from Chicago to Buffalo was much less pleasant, but it was much shorter. We were on the New York Central Railroad which was filthy in comparison to the Union Pacific we had been on. The high spot was the dining car whose menu is pictured above. I loved that menu as you can tell since I kept it all these years.
We had come to see my grandparents because my grandfather wanted to christen my little brother. He had christened me when we still lived in New York, but my brother had been born in Oregon. While my parents weren’t religious, my mother honored her father’s desire to pray over my brother.
I remember my grandfather lifting me off the train in Buffalo and then little else about the trip. In Pike, he donned his clerical robes and christened my little brother.Then we played happily for days, reassured once again of God’s love as it shone through my grandfather.
My next visit was the summer I was one when my parents had gone to Oregon for work. I started out in Buffalo, at my grandparents’ house, and then accompanied them and my sixteen year old Aunt Cary to their summer place in Pike. I had just learned to walk, and here I am still pretty tentative about trying to pick up a croquet ball and still remain upright. I love that my aunt is wearing a dress on a summer afternoon. I never saw my grandmother in pants, and I am sure she expected Cary to look “presentable” wherever we were. Fortunately I got to wear my corduroy overalls to totter around.
I think that the feeling of safety and peace that I associate with Pike took root during this sojourn with my grandparents and aunt. While my grandmother was fairly restrained, a product of her upbringing by a Victorian English mother, my grandfather had no pretense and a rollicking sense of humor. I know that he adored me, and my memories of him throughout my life are positive ones.
The side yard at Pike was flat and an ideal place to play croquet. I played it throughout my growing up years, continuing to play it as an adult. I am dreadful at the game, despite my years of play. Still I love the thwack of hitting the ball and the bang it makes when it hits another’s ball. And there is no joy so complete as placing your foot on your ball, placed next to your opponent’s ball, and hitting yours hard enough to send the other one flying. Supposedly croquet is a sedate afternoon pastime. Not any game that we ever played. It was all about knocking the opponent’s ball far across the yard.
The sun is out. Our grass is mowed. Where is our croquet set anyway?
I had forgotten(though clearly I couldn’t have remembered) that my first visit to Pike came in the summer of 1947 when I was three months old. Here my father practices the time honored exercise of making faces at a baby while the baby(me in this case) practices making them back. Even now, whenever I am around a baby I find myself making faces and watching to see the baby’s reaction. Babies work very hard to mimic expressions, and if you give them enough time, you can watch them try to arrange their faces to copy yours.
One of the constants at Pike was a hammock hung between two elm trees in the front yard. Summers in Pike were often hot and humid, and some of my best later memories were of lolling in the hammock, avoiding having to do anything helpful. Fortunately, with both my mother and grandmother present whenever we were in Pike, two people in the kitchen were already one person too many, so I didn’t have to contribute as much as I would have at home.
It’s a hot day today in East Hartford, and the first hot day of summer here always brings memories of Pike back in a visceral sense. Of course there was no air conditioning, so the evening breeze was especially relished. Even more so from the comfortable perch of the hammock.
In the late 1920’s, my grandparents who lived in Buffalo bought a small farm in the Wyoming County town of Pike, New York. They had great concerns about polio sweeping the country in urban settings, and they wanted a place they could take my mother for the summer. Since my grandfather was a university professor, he had the summer off and they could relocate for a couple of the most dangerous months for polio.
Some people have “summer cottages” in prestigious towns. Pike, to the contrary, was a little out of the way quiet farming town whose principal assets were peace and quiet. My grandmother might have preferred a town with more cachet, but my grandfather was very down to earth, and this town suited him just fine.
I spent time there during four different summers, so I will spend some time over the next few days writing about my times there. Since my nickname is “Betsy,” I naturally felt that the town was my own because of the old song “Sweet Betsy From Pike.” Those who remember stories about my grandfather and his love of old time music won’t be surprised that he often sang it to me–loudly and off key.
That first summer I was only one year old, so I have no concrete memories of that time, but pictures of me from that summer reveal my happily tottering around. My Aunt Cary was a teenager and my lasting bond with her was established that summer. That first visit was warm, loving and sunny. I have carried an internal sense of Pike from then on, which I still draw on whenever I am asked to imagine a safe welcoming spot.
As far as I was concerned we had a gigantic back yard in this new house. It had a climbing tree, a swing set, a garden, a hand dug wading pool, brick walkways and lawn. It was very easy to pretend I was a cowboy(I don’t think anyone ever mentioned cowgirls to me.) I had a cowboy hat and a cap gun which shot off strips of caps making repeated loud bangs.
As I have mentioned earlier in my writings, all my friends were boys since that was who lived in the neighborhood. But we all loved the same things anyway: running, climbing, jumping, yelling, chasing and gunfights in the yard. My little brother was too little to participate when I was 3, 4 and 5. He was often in his play pen in the back yard watching us run around. I am amazed that play pens went out of fashion, replaced by very watchful parents. My mother didn’t have time to keep a constant eye on my brother, and he–to all appearances–seemed perfectly happy to be playing in his contraption. Once he was semi-reliable, my baby sister took over the play pen and my brother was free to join in the fun in the yard.
Only one family had a television, but there was almost no programming on the one station. It never occurred to any of our parents that we should be watching tv. They assumed that kids should be outdoors, running around. In the rain, we had boots and rain coats. In cooler weather we had jackets and hats. In the occasional snow we had snowsuits and boots. We all went home for dinner, followed by baths and bed.
By the way, some have commented that I must have had a wonderful childhood. Parts of it were indeed wonderful, but much of it wasn’t. I choose to chronicle the good times.