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Thursday, January 23, 2014

Starlight at Arkwright

I grew up at the southern limit of the mysterious Northern Lights.

The current cold snap in the Plainfield area put me in mind of growing up on the shores of Lake Erie, where the combination of higher latitudes and the slope of the land towards Erie as part of the terminal morain of the last ice age gave us plenty of experience of the 'polar vortex' (though we never heard that expression), crystal-clear nights under twinkling starlight and the occasional aurora borealis.

I grew up in Pomfret Township in Chautauqua County, the westernmost county in New York State. Famous as the center of Concord grape production, the area was also known for dairy farming and fruit orchards -- particularly apples and pears.

In the late 1940s, the technical marvels of the future were just on the horizon -- TV, for those lucky enough to have a set, was broadcast for only a few hours a day from WBEN, the station of the Buffalo Evening News, some 55 miles away.

Winter recreation consisted of sledding, skiing or organizing pickup basketball games in a neighboring farmer's unheated barn with groups of youngsters that regularly included kids aged 8 or 9 to young men of 18 or 19.

One special treat was to go to the square dances at the Grange in the neighboring township of Arkwright. The Grange was a farmers' benefit organization founded after the Civil War to rally farmers against the rail monopolies whose freight charges often kept farmers in a state of dependency. Grange meeting halls were also centers of community activity and popular sites for dances.

We would bundle up and pile into neighbors' cars to travel up into the Arkwright hills to the Grange for the dances, which were a popular draw from miles around.

In near-zero temperatures, the snow would crunch under foot and stars would twinkle in the black sky that was undimmed by any sort of street lighting.

Inside, the room would become toasty warm from the exercise of square dancing in which even the youngest participated (I was about twelve on this particular night). The band would alternate sets of square dances with what was called 'round dancing' -- just like portrayed in Western movies.

These being good church folk, there was no tippling in the building, but the men would slip outside discreetly from time to time to take a sip or two of whiskey from a bottle kept in someone's car. It was a sign of coming-of-age to be invited to have a sip with the men and led to a lot of good-natured joshing among the boys over who was 'in' and who was not.

The particular night I recall was special because it marked the first public appearance of my schoolmate Rex Olrogge since he had been hit by a blast from a .16 gauge shotgun discharged by my cousin Neil in a hunting accident. Rex was lucky, every hunting season there would be reports of fatal shootings of hunters by their companions who mistook them for game.

Having survived made Rex something of a hero and every girl wanted to get in a dance with him that evening.

A special treat that night was seeing a good show of the Northern Lights off over Lake Erie and Ontario Province, some fifty miles away, as we left the dance for home.

Though western New York winters can be severely cold and get considerable snowfalls from what is called 'the Lake effect', folks were quite aware of the danger that cold weather brought and took precautions against it.

Here in New Jersey, it all seems unusual and almost surreal. And though we are surrounded on all sides by people and busy urban bustle, it is still possible for folks to suffer greatly and even die on account of the cold weather.

How many in Plainfield are at the mercy of the weather?

We shall get a picture next week as Union County conducts its annual midwinter survey of homeless individuals, something utterly foreign and unknown in my innocent wintry childhood.

-- Dan Damon [follow]

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Anonymous said...

BUT now we all should get to frequent The Chautaqua Institure all summer!! live across on the Lake
i.e.My grands studied music there and are young VERY accomplished many instuments! and skiiers
Proud Gradma