The Good Old Days

Ah, the good old days, wandering through pristine forests, skipping through fragrant meadows, walking down scenic country lanes and swimming in crystal waters.

It’s lovely to look back and remember all of that. The only problem is, none of it is true.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved my bucolic childhood, and I did wander forests and fields and swim in the local creek, but it was anything but pristine.

As I recall, we knew spring was truly beginning when the airplane would swoop overhead and dust the swamp behind our house with pesticides. I think it was to keep the mosquitoes under control, and I’m pretty sure it did a decent job of it, but I wonder just how much poison leeched into the drinking water. And we didn’t even have a well, which at least took water from deep underground. We had what was called a point, just a pipe, literally pounded into the ground to suck up the groundwater. (The water table was pretty high where we lived; you couldn’t dig a hole over three feet deep without it filling up.)

Mom told me about how, after they moved in, her and Dad took a pipe, which she held while he hit it with a sledgehammer. I imagine there was something on the end of the pipe—the point, I guess—which sifted out dirt. This point, sucking up water from only a few feet below ground level, and only a few yards from our cesspool, and surrounded by fields routinely sprayed with toxins, provided all our water—drinking or otherwise—for the entire time I lived at home.

Later, when summer arrived, so did the crop dusters. This was an exciting day, as well, watching the piper cub skim the corn fields, releasing clouds of DDT or what-have-you. We never thought about that, we just liked watching the planes.

At the end of the summer, when the potato plants needed killing to allow the development of the potatoes, the farmer would drive a big wagon with a fan on it to blow poison over the crop, and our yard. Fortunately, we were protected by a wall of lilac bushes, but the billows of white powder did filter through. The result was a brown hedge of once-green lilacs and some dying patches of grass on the lawn. But we didn’t mind any of that, either. It always grew back.

The Kinderhook Creek, which we swam in, was green and silty but nobody minded much, not even at the end of August when, some years, the farmer—who had a lot more potato fields than the one next to our house—dumped his waste crop into the creek somewhere upstream. If we were swimming at Wagoners, the bloated and rotting potatoes bobbed by in the current and we just ignored them. If we were swimming at the Sand Bar in Stuyvesant Falls, they would spill over the dam and burst on the rocks and bake in the summer sun, setting up a horrid stench. But so what? It cleared up eventually, and the creek was still a lot cleaner than the Hudson River.

The Hudson and Mohawk river system was an important waterway in the colonial era, and very profitable when the Erie canal was running. By my time, however, all that was in the past, and it was just a convenient place to dump raw sewage and chemical waste. The river was so polluted that you couldn’t swim in it without the risk of disease or your skin peeling off. And you couldn’t eat any of the fish in it, either. If you did fish, you just did it to kill time; any fish you caught you had to throw back. If you ate them, you’d get sick.

Part of a notice posted by the Hudson River.

And there was one memorable occasion (this was in the 1980s, and I am not making this up) when a man, who lived “off-grid” next to Nassau Lake, boiled some lake water to make it safe for drinking, and the water caught on fire.

Now, we could have complained about all this, but that might have seemed a little hypocritical. We burned our rubbish, all of it, behind the shop in an old oil drum. And when it filled up with ashes and rusted cans and exploded aerosols, my dad would get a new oil drum (back then, and where I lived, they were ten-a-penny), shoot a couple holes in it with the .22, tip the old one into a wheelbarrow and hump it across Rabbit Lane to dump it in the ditch on the opposite side of the road.

In short, there were toxins and garbage everywhere, and it didn’t occur to us to mind.

Fortunately, it did occur to someone to mind. The ritual of spraying the wetlands behind our house in the spring ended when I was still quite young, and the crop dusters disappeared soon after. (The big poison-spewing fan, however, operated until I eventually moved out of the house.)

More famously, Pete Seeger (American legend, look him up) founded the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater organization in the late 1960s, which sought to educate people about environmental responsibility, and included an actual sloop—named the Clearwater—that sailed up and down the Hudson river. I recall being aboard the Clearwater on two occasions, one with my mom, which must have been something associated with the scouts, and once with my boys, which undoubtedly was a field trip.

Thanks to the efforts of Mr. Seeger and countless other volunteers and activists, the Hudson River is no longer the slurry of chemical waste and raw sewerage that it used to be. There are beaches along the river now, and although you can fish, it is still recommended that you don’t eat any of the fish you catch due to the lingering effects of pollutants.

Other conservation and environmental projects have seen the return of coyotes and wild turkeys to the rural areas around where I grew up. When I lived there, I wouldn’t have dreamed of seeing either.

Turkey and Coyote — something I never saw growing up.

The Lindenwald mansion, owned by Mr. Campbell when I was young, is now a National Historic Site, with guided tours, picnic grounds and hiking trails that link it to the Luykas Van Allen homestead (another historic landmark, which was just a ruin until I was in my teens) about a mile away.

Were I to be growing up there now, I think I would find it even more pleasant. Granted, there are activities I wouldn’t be allowed to consider that I routinely engaged in while growing up, but most of them were insanely dangerous, so I can’t say I, or my parents, would miss them very much.

The Good Old Days were, indeed, old, but they weren’t always good.