A while back I promised to tell you what happened one summer when some folks called the Fresh Air Fund shipped me from New York City to upstate New York.
Their idea was that city kids didn't get enough fresh air, so they sent us out of the city to breathe, I guess.
Anyway, thanks to them, I found myself in a tiny country town 400 miles upstate from New York City: Brashier Falls, N.Y., population 1,000, counting trees, rocks and bushes. There I met my brother Charlie for the first time.
He was living with some folks called Aunt Letty and Uncle Bob, who were not really our aunt and uncle. He originally got sent up there as a 4-year-old because he was afraid of cars and needed to get away from the city. The people he stayed with, Aunt Letty and Uncle Bob, begged Mom to let him stay longer, and they kept on begging until his stay stretched out to several years.
Why were a couple of strangers so kind? Why did they take a New York City kid into their home? Money. The city, or state, or someone paid them to do it.
That was OK, but what wasn't so OK was the way they treated Charlie -- and me too when I got there. We were supposed to be there so they could collect their monthly checks, but we were not supposed to do any of the things kids normally do.
I said we weren't supposed to do them.
Uncle Bob was a decent sort, but Aunt Letty could have tried out for the part of the Wicked Witch of the West in the "Wizard of Oz" and easily gotten it.
My first experience with her after we got to her house was an angry, finger-waving, non-stop lecture on all the things I was not going to do during the next four weeks.
Now I had a fairly good imagination when it came to dreaming up dumb things to do, but that lecture was as eye opener. There were some things in there that had never even occurred to me, and as soon as Charlie got me out of earshot, he assured me that we were going to do every last one of them.
I could see that I was headed for a great summer!
That's where some people go wrong, you see. They go see all those Hollywood films and get the impression that city kids are evil, a pack of potential gangsters just waiting for a chance to go wrong. Actually, if the kids in my neighborhood in New York had spent a month doing the things we did up there in Brashier Falls that summer, the headlines in the papers would have screamed:
JUVENILE CRIME WAVE STRIKES CITY!
And we began that very first night, under a full moon.
After a supper that could be described as anything except generous, Aunt Letty frowned us up the stairs to our bedroom. I was downright angry because my stomach was empty, and also because it was way too early for bed, but Charlie told me to hop in bed, cover up, close my eyes, look asleep, and hang on.
I'd already seen Charlie in action during the drive from the train station, where he very neatly got the best of Aunt Letty and cracked me up in the process, so I didn't ask why.
And it didn't take long to find out. Half an hour later, I heard a faint click and detected light through my closed eye. Opening them to slits, I spotted a bright wedge of light pouring into the room from the hallway and a dark head peering in at us.
A minute later the door closed.
"Don't move," Charlie hissed. "She's tricky."
Sure enough, 10 minutes later the door opened and closed again.
Charlie sat up. "All clear. Get dressed."
We did. After which I watched Charlie create two skillfully crafted kids-in-bed out of a couple of pillows and odd bits of whatever.
"C'mon," he told me, pointing to the open window.
Ten minutes later we had quietly treaded the porch roof, climbed down a conveniently steplike brick chimney, darted across the moonlit space between the house and the barn, and were in the woods talking to Jay-Jay Ruckford and Jerry Hale, who went to school with Charlie, and Jerry's kid brother Paul, who was 9.
We didn't do much that night, just ate three watermelons, a raft of berries, and some charcoal-broiled fish that were the best I ever tasted. Then we strolled down to the fast-running Saint Regis River, where Charlie uncovered a big old rowboat and began caulking it by moonlight with some stuff from uncle Bob's general store while Joe and Jay-Jay sat carving paddles out of boards.
The boat, it turned out, had come down the river when the ice broke. Charlie and Jerry had risked their lives out on swirling, crunching ice floes to retrieve it. It was headed for the low part of the falls, they told me, and would've been smashed to kindling if it had gone over.
So needless to say when some grumpy old farmer from upriver came looking for it a week or two later they just kept quiet, figuring that if he was dumb enough to let it go over the falls and get smashed he had lost all rights to it.
And so, that beautiful moonlit June night my summer began. But by no means did it end there.
The very next day we got the rowboat over the falls and down to Charlie and Jerry's camp about a mile down river. That's a story in itself. Two of the kids accidentally went over the falls with the rowboat, and I'll tell you about that some day.
In our first week, we stretched a clothesline across the river to a small island, knotted fishing lines to it, baited them, and assured ourselves of an unfailing supply of fresh fish. We swam, and fished, and rowed around, and tried out a diving helmet that Charlie had made, walking around on the river bottom.
And thanks to Jerry's kid brother, a dunce who liked to play with matches, we came within a hundred feet of burning the town down with a roaring, 30-foot-high hayfield fire.
And that was just the first week.
The amazing thing to me was the smug look on Aunt Letty's face each morning.
She never had the slightest clue what we were up to. We could come downstairs looking like two kids who had spent the night sliding down Mount Everest on sewer covers, all cut and bruised, and so sleepy we could hardly keep from falling off our chairs, and she would just smile smugly and hand us our bowls of gruel.
Adults! No imagination!