Looking Back

This blog features poems by a native New Englander and octogenarian, as he looks back on the stomping grounds of his youth -- Chaffee's Woods, Kent Heights, Beach Pond, Escoheag, Wood River -- and his army days in Europe towards the end of WWII.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Ten Mile River

A long time past when I was young
I got to know a river well,
‘Twas called the Ten Mile River and
It ran from the Old Central Pond
Down through Rumford and to Hunts Mills
From where our drinking water came,
And then through our old swimming holes
To end up in Omega Pond.

‘Twas ten miles long, that’s what they said
And often when my dad and I
Would walk along its brushy banks
To fish, then I believed it was
The length they said, and maybe more.
The water ran so slow and deep
But just two rapids come to mind
One at Hunts Mills, one at Cole’s Bridge.

It was a place where we would see
The signs that muskrats often left
Fresh water clamshells on the bank
Gave evidence that they would eat
Most anything that they could reach.
And often saw the grass they pulled
Into their holes for living so
Their young would have a cozy nest.

And so we grew, and loved to swim,
For as hot summer days grew long
We went down to our swimming holes:
The Ledge, which was one huge flat rock
Where mostly boys from Seekonk swam;
And down the river just a way
Was the Sandy, and it was here
That all of us had learned to swim.

But still the one most used by far
Was the Mudhole with tree so tall
That overhung the river’s depths
So boys could climb and dive at will
With no fear that their heads or hands
Would strike the bottom and get scraped.
And so we dove or cannon balled
As fast as we could climb that tree.

How many times did we set out
When after all our chores were done
We headed north on Irving Ave.
Then cut across through Barney’s lot
Past Patty’s on Pawtucket Ave.
Then through the gate at Agawum
To skirt the golf course till we met
The trail that led to the Mudhole.

And there we’d swim the day away
Without a thought for missing lunch
Until we saw the sun was at
A point where we must head for home.
So back we went, the way we came
And always got there just in time
To hear our mother’s clear, strong voice
A call that supper would be soon.

But as the summer days did wane
Our swimming slowed down quite a bit
Then stopped as we went back to school
And we were left with memories of
Days without a single care that
Belonged to us for near three months.
And so we studied through the year
Thought perfect pupils we were not.

But ‘ere the summer came again
I bought my first Old Town canoe
From a boat house near river’s end
That was shutting done for good.
They had just two canoes unsold
One brand new – in perfect shape;
The other nice, but with a hole
Up in the bow that could be fixed.

The price for one canoe was high
Much more than I could then afford.
The other though, with gaping hole,
Could be had for a lesser sum.
Twenty dollars I paid to them
And with a friend, who willingly
Turned the boat and on shoulders strong
Off we went back to my home.

We placed it on two saw horses
And went to work immediately
We sanded all the inside ribs
Then used puttied wood for the hole.
When dried we shaped it to the ribs
And planking till we could not tell
Where hole began and what was real
The outside then was sanded clean.

Some final touches did we make
By gluing silk over the hole.
The inside then was varnished well
Including seats, both newly caned.
And then we finished up the work
By putting on three types of paint
Thus camouflaging my canoe
With green and grey and brown and black.

We let it set ‘til all was dry
And was inspected by my dad,
Who once his own canoe had owned
A St. Laurence of shorter length.
And on the Ten Mile River too
He fished and swam as we did now
And took my mother for a ride
Up the river in his canoe.

When we were done refurbishing
This canoe did look as though it
Had just come down from Old Town, Maine.
It was a beauty to behold.
At age fourteen, I was so proud
I owned a rifle and this boat.
None given, all earned by my sweat
A feat in those depression times.

When done we carried my canoe
To the river to try it out.
It handled as an Old Town should.
And soon we learned just how to kneel,
To tilt the boat on tumblehome
And bring the gun’le down until
It almost touched the water, then
We could paddle so easily.

I kept my boat in the backyard
Of a friend who by the river lived.
And from then on when we would swim
Up the river in my canoe
With a spinner out behind, we
Paddled and fished all at one time
And often caught a pickerel
Before we reached the swimming hole.

As fall days came, and summer left
We thought about what we could do:
Should we hunt ducks, or trap muskrats
Now that we had this fine canoe.
I asked my dad and his reply
Was that good shotguns cost too much
But for a start, some Victor traps
Might let us start a trap line now.

So for a start two traps we bought
For that is all we could afford.
My father gave us instructions
In how to handle such a trap,
So that fingers did not get caught,
Of how to use an apple lure
And how to stake the line out deep
So that the rat would quickly drown.

But then he cautioned that we wait
Until the time for trapping came
And get a hunting license first
For that also permits our traps.
And so we did the things we must
And when November did arrive
We went on foot just after dark
To the river to set our traps.

My dad did set the first for us
To show us how we should proceed.
He set the trap four inches deep
Then ran the chain out on a stake,
With a piece of apple for the bait,
Angled on a slender stick that
Was set a foot above the trap.

We moved upriver a short way
To reach the Sandy swimming hole,
And here we set our second trap
Just as my dad had shown us how.
And so we headed back to home
To wait for morning’s early light.
Larry met me at five o’clock
And so we went to check our traps.

We took a shortcut to Sandy first
And here we found our trap intact.
Not a thing had touched the bait
And so we pulled up trap and stake,
And moved downstream to our first trap.
There the bait and trap were missing.
And when we pulled the stake back out,
We found a muskrat neatly drowned.

This may sound cruel now-a-days
But this was in depression times
And what we had was not enough
But muskrat fur was in demand.
So after dad had shown us how
To skin and stretch a muskrat hide,
We purchased ten more traps to start
Our first trapline in my canoe.

We always stayed above Cole’s Bridge
And left the river down below
To others who might want to trap;
And in that way we stayed at peace.
But soon the weather turned too cold
To paddle or to just get wet,
And so we ended our careers
As trappers, for another year.

We packed our muskrats when they dried
Along with two good skunks we’d caught
And sent them down to Sears-Roebuck
In Philadelphia where they
Would always pay a higher price
Than any buyers locally.
And so for twenty rats plus skunks
Ninety dollars was our reward.

And so our traps were put away
To wait until November days.
We did the things that students do:
Went to dances, to plays and games
And often even tried our best
To study hard before a test
And just awaited for the time
When summer rolled around again.

At last it came, and with a whoop
We left our school with all its books
Then thought a bit of what we’d do
And always reached the same result:
That we’d do what we always did
And that was work, then fish and swim.
We worked to help our parents out,
Then fished and swam on our days off.

The weekends were the best we had
And so we left on Friday nights
And paddled our Old Town canoe
Up the river, or sometimes down,
Looking for bullfrogs’ eyes which
We would plunk with the twenty two.
And when we thought we had enough
We’d build a fire and eat their legs.

But often as we paddled ‘round,
We’d see upon this old dead log
A great big snapping turtle lay
Just taking in the noonday sun.
And so we set about to catch
This turtle, then to make a soup,
It having seven types of meat
And which we heard was very good.

And so we took a length of line
Our strongest and just long enough;
A steel leader and largest hook
Were next attached, and then the head
Of a fish we’d caught, the big hook
Fastened out of sight. This we dropped
Till current caught and carried deep
And there it stayed throughout the night.

The next day we did ply our way
Up the river and to the spot
Where we had set our line and bait.
And sure enough we found we’d caught
That snapper, and a fight we had
To get him into our canoe.
So when our day was finally done,
We lugged him home to make our soup.

My dad was pleased when he did see
This snapping turtle’s size and said:
“He’ll make a soup beyond compare
And I will show you how to start.”
He put a stick up to its nose
That turtle reached and snapped the stick
And dad with sharp axe held up high
Did clean that turtle’s head so neat.

Thus into mother’s biggest pot
With water boiling did he go
Until we deemed that turtle done,
So took him out and pulled him hard
And out of shell he came so neat.
Then we did skin and clean him out
Then cut him up, and in the pot
While mother added things soups need.

We had that night our turtle soup
And it was good as it could be.
We tasted all the different parts
And swore as others had before
That part was chicken, part was beef,
Part could be fish, some parts unknown,
Which must be turtle, yet was good.
And to this day, we have his shell.

And when that episode was done
And turtle soup became a norm
We decided that we would spend
A night on old Omega Pond,
For we had never spent a night
Out on the deep in my canoe.
We got from parents their consent
And down the river did we go.

We fished a while to no avail
Then watched the setting sun go down.
We heard some ducks come whistling in
To land quite near and up ahead
But swam off as we glided near.
We heard a muskrat splash nearby
Then caught the croak of a bullfrog,
Which told us night was coming on.

‘Twas dark that night, there was no moon
And so we paddled quietly
Out to the middle of the pond
And for our supper we did eat
Some chocolate bars of bittersweet
That never did agree with me
And to this day I cannot touch
Dark chocolate of any kind.

The night came on, the water still
So we unrolled our sleeping bags.
Beneath the seats and thwarts we slept,
He in the bow, and I the stern.
And never once did we awake
Until the dawn broke o’er the trees.
Then we rolled up sleeping bags
And paddled quickly to the shore.

We swam to get the sleep from eyes
Then wondered what we’d have to eat.
Fish were there but must be caught
And so while Larry gathered wood
I quickly caught some pumpkin seeds.
We skinned them out, then fried them well.
They tasted great to hungry boys
Who ate them up in nothing flat.

After eating we packed our gear
And paddled up the river where
We stored away the old canoe
Until we wanted it in fall.
Then went on foot back to our house,
Were greeted by our parents, who
Breathed anxious sighs with some relief
For we were back without a scratch.

So back to school again we went
But this time in our junior year
And when October’s end came near
We planned on having all our traps
Set after midnight on the first.
But Larry had a dance that night;
He could not leave the girl at home
And so I planned to go alone.

We brought the boat up to a spot
Where I could find it in the dark
And loaded it with traps and stakes,
With waders, flashlights, apples too.
Then we agreed we’d meet at two,
Sometime after the dance was done.
So he took off to get his girl,
While I went to the river bank.

The night was dark, the river damp
But I was warm in winter clothes
And when the time was close at hand,
I moved the boat, so carefully
Into the river did we go.’
And I commenced to paddle up
As far as I could go then turned
To drift while setting out the traps.

I knew the river very well.
Its twists and turns, I knew by heart.
I had no trouble drifting down
And setting traps along the way.
I set in holes without the bait
And set on banks with apple o’er
Until I’d set out all the traps,
Then turned around and paddled back.

It now was very close to two
And so I did not check the traps,
But glided straight back to the spot
Where we agreed that we would meet.
He met me there and climbed right in
And took the bow and I the stern,
And paddled up where I’d begun,
Then drifted down to check the traps.

We drifted slowly as we went
Using flashlights only at
The places where the traps were set
And where we found we’d caught a rat.
Then we’d reset and paddle on
And by the time we reached the end
Fourteen muskrats were in the boat,
So we turned and back we went.

We kept this up until the dawn,
Moving upstream in total dark,
Then drifting down our traps to check
And by the time our last trip came,
By total we caught nineteen ‘rats.
And so we finished for the night.
We pulled up all the traps and stakes
And left no sigh that we were there.

We hid the boat in the same spot
And taking all the gear in bags,
Hiked back home to leave our things
Then back again for the canoe.
And paddled down the river where
We put the boat back on its racks.
Then headed home to start the chore
To skin and flesh and stretch the rats.

It took us most of Saturday
To get the rats in selling shape
And as I watched our Airedale Pal
Eating up the rats’ hind legs,
I thought how little was the waste
With Pal around to gobble up
The parts that Europeans do eat
And still consider them a treat.

We went trapping three times more
Before the ice began to form.
Then hung our traps up on a nail
Until the next fall came around.
Thirty muskrats had we in all,
A good year’s catch for such as we.
Then carried back our good canoe
Until the summer came again.

We did not know it at the time
That Larry would be called so soon.
He left, October forty-two
To fill his voluntary time.
So I was left to trap alone
And though I managed I did find
No joy in trapping now you see
I’d lost my dad and Larry too.

That was the last time my canoe
Was in the river ‘fore I left
Just four months after Larry’s call.
The boat was covered and tied down,
The traps were put away for years
And when I left it was in tears
For dad, for mom, for siblings, yet
That Ten Mile River just flowed on.

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