In my earliest memory I am scrambling up a ladder behind my older brother. I can't be more than two or three years old, because I turned four soon after we moved to Stratford. But this is Oakdale Manor near Lake Zoar, the long ladder rising into a cloudless blue sky. It is propped at a steep angle against the side of a one-car garage that my father is building, beside a small Cape Cod house that he also built, just after I was born. My father and grandfather are perched high on the peaked roof of that garage, tacking down tarpaper in preparation for shingling. The bang-bang-bang of their hammers echoes around the low hills of Oakdale Manor, hills dense with more pine than oak—tall white pines my father planted as seedlings when he was a kid. When a country acre in that corner of Connecticut cost but a dollar.
Now my brother gains the top rung of the ladder and crawls up the bare plywood roof on his hands and knees. But I'm afraid to follow. What on earth are you doing up there? my mother shouts from below. She is holding an infant in her arms, her third child—another son—our new baby brother. I look down but it's a mistake. All I can see is the top of my mother's head, a bird's eye view that gives me vertigo. Hold on! my father cries. Then he works his way over to the ladder and carries me safely down.
Meanwhile, seated high on the roof, my brother hugs his knees and laughs.
* * *
To find Oakdale Manor you must take the old Connecticut Route 25 north to Newtown, turn right at the huge flagpole in the middle of Main Street, and descend the long hill into Sandy Hook, a one-horse crossroads of Grain & Feed stores. Turn left at the blinking yellow light and follow the winding blacktop road through the forested corridor that follows. Tucked into the trees by a long pond off the left is a brick structure the size of a big doghouse, the property of the local hydraulic company that owns the pond. This, according to my grandfather, was the brick house built by the Three Little Pigs, the only one to survive the Big Bad Wolf.
Minutes later the road reaches Lake Zoar, a narrow body of water formed by a dam on the Housatonic River. The old iron bridge that spans the lake at that point seems made from an Erector Set, its girder-like beams crisscrossing high overhead between sides shaped like the protractors we'd come to know in grammar school. As a boy my father used to jump from that bridge—a drop of thirty feet or more, straight down, feet first, one hand cupped about his crotch—a feat that my brothers and I never tried to duplicate.
Painted silver, the bridge forms a T with the road on the far side of the lake, and a right turn points you toward Oakdale Manor. Before long you pass a ramshackle tavern called Toot-'n'-Come-In, my grandfather's favorite watering hole. Then keep your eyes peeled, as my father would say, for a quick left turn—a dirt road that curls up and over a set of railroad tracks and drops down-with-a-bump into the heart of another world.
* * *
Oakdale Manor, as I knew it, was a small, horseshoe-shaped valley. Glen conveys the smallness better but is simply too pastoral a term. The place was never green or lush but ragged with sandy crabgrass and scrubby weeds. Except for the Ditters' yard. The Ditters had a lawn. The lone street, White Birch Lane—a narrow strip of worn asphalt—sloped gently downhill from our house for a hundred yards or so to a dead end at the bottom of the horseshoe. Higher up, a pine-filled ridge ran the length of the overhanging hills, shading the railroad tracks by the narrow entrance at the crest of the U. Had I been able to follow my brother up the garage roof that day, Oakdale Manor would have spread out below me like a rustic village in a fable:
Our house, a wooden frame with white clapboard siding, is first on the left at the top of the lane. My grandparents' screened-in summer cottage squats next door, farther back from the edge of the road, on an earth-and-pine-needle floor. Half a dozen enormous white pines stand behind it, as if they had strayed from their relatives on the ridge. The home of Hill and Mae Larson—an elderly couple—sits third on the left, a boxy, added-on-to house, with tall pines and white birch at random out front. It draws its water, like all homes in Oakdale Manor, from an artesian well that my grandfather dug.
The Ditters live across from the Larsons in a long ranch house that sports a picture window in a fieldstone wall. A single row of whitewashed rocks separates their lawn from the edge of the road. A thick metal chain, slung low between two cedar posts, guards their gravel driveway. I loved to run my hand along the smooth links of that heavy chain. And those cedar posts were just my size. But even today, whenever the Ditters are mentioned, I get a queer sense of them clustered down there behind a barrier more forbidding than that chain—apart from Oakdale Manor—shut off from a place that was in itself shut off. And so when Oakdale Manor was the only world I knew, the Ditters occupied the most remote corner of it.
* * *
Old Man Ditter I rarely saw, his wife more rarely so. There was a pimply son called Frankie, and an older daughter who was always off somewhere. Frankie often regaled us with tales of hitchhiking all the way to Sandy Hook, a daring journey to the very ends of the earth. And my grandfather once told us of Old Man Ditter going to court with cow dung on his boots, which he wiped on the rung of a chair when the judge found him guilty of something-or-other. Whereupon the judge promptly doubled his fine.
I can recall no other homes. No, I vaguely remember a house in the woods beyond the Larsons', halfway up the steep hill where White Birch Lane abruptly ended. And there may have been a trailer in the open lot across from my grandparents' cottage that belonged to Henry Barnes, my father's boyhood friend. Or maybe it was Gibby and Olive's. Gibby was Reggie's brother—Reggie often played guitar to my father's banjo at Toot-'n'-Come-In—and Olive, Gibby's wife, was said to have been in love with my father. But I think that trailer, if it ever existed, belonged to the Barnes, put there after Henry had to marry Ethel. Then Reggie set up his first wife with her lover in a motel room, so he could obtain a divorce and marry Muriel. But all of these dwellings and soap-opera shenanigans go up in smoke as fast as my memory constructs them. Oakdale Manor was a misnomer. The place made no claim to nobility.
And that was the extent of my childhood territory, a pleasant-enough expanse of scruffy earth not much bigger than a football field. As good a place as any in which to begin.
* * *
There were no playmates except my brother, who was fifteen months older. My mother once sent me to a birthday party dressed as a girl in a yellow dress, with a matching yellow ribbon in my hair. Apparently it was the fashion in those days to dress little boys as girls, regardless of what Freud might have said—my mother, who would later bear a fourth son, had always wanted a little girl—but I can't imagine whose party it was, or who the other children might have been. I can only remember my intense embarrassment and hot tears of shame. And I'm sure my brother had a good laugh.
But all such moments were quickly forgotten when we went riding down White Birch Lane in our black metal wagon, an old Radio Flyer with a long handle like that of a snow shovel. I never got to steer, of course, but rode tucked behind my brother, knees out, arms around his waist. One day, as we careened along, I turned my head just in time to see the right rear wheel begin to wobble. I saw it happen in slow motion and knew that we would crash. My brother had no warning—which is probably why he doesn't recall the incident—but the wheel spun off, the axle sparked along the asphalt, and we tumbled into the middle of White Birch Lane. It must have been summer because we were wearing short pants. Our hands and knees were badly skinned, and we cried all the way to the Mercurochrome.
But my brother does remember a more serious incident that involved another wagon, the kind that came with wooden side-rails. It belonged to the Larsons' grandchildren, who often visited in the summer months. On this particular day the side-rails had been removed, and the metal joints into which they had been inserted were sharp and rusty:
My brother is standing in the wagon, holding court, when the wagon suddenly moves and he loses his balance. Falling out, he slices his calf to the bone on one of the naked metal joints. There is a moment of silence, then a trickle of blood along the length of the slice. A crimson torrent follows. My brother makes a funny noise and starts awkwardly home. But I don't assist him. I don't do anything. I am paralyzed with fear. Or maybe I think it's funny to see him hobbling away, because I find myself laughing, just as he laughed at me from the top of the garage roof. Then a neighbor magically materializes with an open Jeep, and my brother—sitting on my mother's lap with a bloody rag wrapped about his leg—is whisked off to Dr. Iggy's office on the long hill above Sandy Hook, returning hours later after a tetanus shot and twenty-nine stitches. To this day he is bothered by cramps in that leg. And I am bothered by the memory of my laughter.
* * *
Strangely, I can't remember the interior of our home at Oakdale Manor, just as I recall nothing of the winter months. New England winters being what they are, we must have spent them indoors. Yet I can see neither the inside of our house nor snow on the ground without. Mostly, our days were spent waiting for my father to come home from work. He commuted all the way down Route 25 to the General Electric plant in Bridgeport, a ride of well over an hour. In winter the drive was treacherous. Tire chains were needed just to get out the driveway, up White Birch Lane, and over the ridge by the railroad tracks. My father wouldn't get home until long after dark—long after we had been put to bed—only to be up and out again at five-thirty in the morning. So in winter we saw him only on weekends. That was one reason why we moved to Stratford, plus the fact that my mother, who had been born in New York City and raised in Bridgeport, had no love for the country. But building a house in Oakdale Manor had been my father's dream, and he did so soon after they married.
Three dramatic events took place within that house, the sketchy details of the interior notwithstanding—my father killed a bat with a broom, my parents found hornets crawling in the sheets of their bed, and the pressure cooker exploded in the kitchen. The images are stark and brief: my father holds up the ugly bat by its wingtips, my mother runs screaming from an upstairs bedroom in her pajamas, and the kitchen ceiling drips with soft, pale beans. Still, although these incidents took place within our home, the interior does not come into focus.
The front porch, however, a small cold square of concrete, remains clearly in my mind. It is there I stood crying loudly—pounding on the screen door that for some reason was locked—after running home from the birthday party to which my mother sent me dressed as a girl. Beyond that porch, a flagstone walk led to an arched rose trellis at the very edge of White Birch Lane, the gateway to our humble estate. And from the center of that arched trellis hung a wooden sign that my father had made, shiny with lacquer and sawed in rustic angles at both ends, like the kind you find at country souvenir shops. Wood-burned in simple script, it said Blue Heaven.
* * *
Holidays brought excitement to Oakdale Manor, especially the Fourth of July. Suddenly roadside fireworks stands—long since illegal in the state—popped up everywhere, with their star-spangled packages of splendor and noise. As soon as it was dark, with the lightning bugs as an opening act, we would walk up the road to the railroad tracks at the crest of the ridge, and the local men would shower the night with colorful bursts and flashes, to the thin accompaniment of ooh's and aah's. Skyrockets were launched from short sticks, Roman candles belched like mortars from wide-mouthed milk bottles, and my brother and I waved sparklers, inscribing bright circles in the black shadows of the pines:
One year a group of older boys, led by Frankie Ditter, are able to buy firecrackers, and I somehow get old of a one-incher—not as formidable as a fat red two-incher, but enough bang for any small boy. Stealing into the Larsons' side yard with a fistful of my grandfather's stick matches, I light the small bomb, throw it down, and plug my ears. I wait, but nothing happens. After a few long seconds, as I bend down sideways to investigate, the firecracker explodes and my right ear rings. In my fright I run into the back yard where the adults are seated around a picnic table, singing along to my father's banjo and Reggie's guitar. But I can't hear the music. Someone says something to me and I shrug my shoulders. Eventually, to my enormous relief, the ringing subsides, and I never touch another firecracker again.
There was another kind of fireworks as well. Late one night, awakened by the clanging of the volunteer fire department, my father roused my brother and me and brought us outside on the front porch to watch, joined moments later by my mother and baby brother. The sky was streaked in red above the woods behind the Ditters' place, the smoke barely visible, a red glow the only sign of fire. Then a siren screamed at the railroad tracks and a fire engine flew by White Birch Lane, following a dirt road along the ridge and out of sight. In the morning all talk in Oakdale Manor was of the fire. It had begun in someone's cellar and razed the bungalow above it. And in every conversation a strange laughter could be heard, different from the kind of laughter my brother and I often exchanged at each other's expense. The fire had been caused by an exploding still.
And the fire engine that roared past our house that night returned every year on Christmas Eve to park in the vacant lot across the street. Santa Claus sat in the driver's seat, a spotted Dalmatian at his side. Our expectant faces shone like Christmas candles in the cold darkness. I recall the sparse crowd of neighbors, the huge sack on the seat between Santa and his dog, and a small Christmas gift for everyone.
* * *
Finally, there was the cove.
It cut in from Lake Zoar around the corner from White Birch Lane on the other side of the ridge. It was about forty yards wide, perhaps eighty yards long and, like the ridge, horseshoe-shaped. The woods grew right to its edge. There was a narrow dock at the end of the footpath that began where the ridge road ended, and I loved to bounce up and down on its slatted boards, testing the buoyancy of the barrels beneath. We never had a boat, although the rotting hull in the tall grass beside the barn-like boathouse was from a dinghy that had belonged to my grandfather.
A short stretch of sandy beach lay to the left of the dock, and a few trees had been cleared along the shore, making room for one or two blankets. To this spot my father would take my brother and me, with a huge black inner tube and a length of clothesline. We took turns on that tube, floating in the middle of the cove, arms and legs splashing, the sharp nozzle occasionally sticking us in the ribs. My father would tie the rope to a skinny birch on the bank, and if we lay still enough the rope would begin to sink. When it was my turn I could never relax, afraid that my father would wander from his post. I was always checking the rope, checking its white, wavy descent beneath the surface. The lake proper loomed on my right, a long and darksome body of water that seemed to lead right out of existence. The clotheslines was an umbilical cord—the cove a womb—and I clung to it steadfastly, not at all ready for the wide world beyond.
I never enjoyed floating in the cove. It was just something we did. And whenever black clouds rushed overhead, sprinkling the surface with circular bloops, my father would haul in the clothesline hand over fist, and we'd hurry home to watch the summer storm from the porch of my grandfather's cottage. I would press my nose to the dirty screen, watching the pelting rain, and for the rest of the day my nose would bear a dark smudge like the kind I would one day receive on my forehead on Ash Wednesday. I would recoil at the rumble of thunder, and my grandfather would laugh and say, The Coal Man's coming! The rending lightning, for which no explanation was ever offered, silenced me too.
* * *
Such was life in Oakdale Manor.
Returning there once after an absence of four decades, I realized that the cove was not a cove but the mouth of the Pomperaug River where it enters Lake Zoar. So much for memory. And I discovered that James Thurber had lived in Sandy Hook while we were living on White Birch Lane. Ed Sullivan had had a home in the vicinity, too. But in those days I couldn't even read. And we didn't get our first television set until we moved to Stratford.
From the shelter of my father's Blue Heaven.
Claude Clayton Smith is Professor Emeritus of English at Ohio Northern University. He is the author of seven books and co-editor/translator of an eighth. He holds a BA from Wesleyan, an MAT from Yale, an MFA in fiction from the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, and a DA from Carnegie-Mellon. His latest books are Ohio Outback: Learning to Love the Great Black Swamp (Kent State University Press, 2010) and, with Alexander Vaschenko, The Way of Kinship: An Anthology of Native Siberian Literature (University of Minnesota, 2010).