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The Brown Brook Bridge

Posted by djingodjango on Sunday, March 18, 2012


 The Brown Brook Bridge

© 2012 By

George Heath Locke

It’s quiet in the house right now. The fan on the furnace is humming. It will shut off later today. The temperatures are going to climb, according to the latest weather report. The kids are still asleep. It’s Sunday morning.

Rose and I went to church yesterday. She was serving and I was cantoring. She went again today to be with some of the kids from her Monday afternoon pre-school religious education class so that, during this morning service. Father Dennis could bless a “prayer shawl” they had made.

 I remember a late winter/early spring morning like this, almost sixty years ago in Wilmington Vermont - a place where me and my family had moved when my dad got a better position with The New England Box Company main office in Concord NH where I was born.

I stared out the window at the Grange Hall where the town’s 4th and 5th grade classes were held. The main school was just too small to house everyone back then. The end of the war and the baby boom was beginning its inexorable move with bits of children like small pebbles falling before the avalanche that overwhelmed our country and gave us a generation that felt it was entitled to what our mothers and fathers and grandparents had worked so very hard to secure.

I scrambled to the window with my classmates to see a deer racing gracefully for her life; brown and soft and eyes flung wide in terror. Some of the local dogs (allowed freedom in those days before leash laws and runs strung between house and garage), were ‘running it’ in canine glee through the street past a cement bridge that stretched the Brown Brook beside the school where a death came later that year.

The Brown Brook was named for the river that ran through the land of wealthiest man in town

The dogs would be shot later by Fish and Game. No questions asked. No permission of the dog’s owners, if they had any. The dogs would run a pregnant doe and rip at her abdomen until the entrails - the blood - the unborn baby would be torn to bits while the mother was still alive before she too was mangled by the prehistoric genes that pumped with heated pleasure through the dogs.

We didn’t know about the shooting of the dogs until sometime later. It was a casual statement which took a few seconds to understand. Killing dogs? Old Shep? Lassie? Rin-tin-tin? Oh. That’s what the game wardens had to do. Well. They wore badges. I guess it was something that had to be done. OK.

And that reality slid into the slot in our head marked - “things which must be done and are also legal”  

The teacher gathered us into some order and we all sat down again. The room smelled of shellac and varnish and small unwashed bodies – old books, glue, paste and finger paint.

I had been skipped the year before from the second to the fourth grade because what had been taught in the Monroe Street school in Concord had shoved this little red haired boy ahead in a scholastic stamp that made the third grade in this little Vermont town too easy for Georgie and he was sent on errands to the post-office and such during the school day because he had surpassed and finished his lessons.

My mother who, in following my father to Wilmington, went from a trained nurse with a clear purpose in life to a homemaker with no profession, no training in homemaking and an inability to switch gears, watched from the second floor apartment in an old “connected farmhouse” (look it up) – as I ran and skipped and fell down Main Street - I never walked anywhere and I always tried defying gravity, and oblivious to the world around me.

Whenever my father was home, he always said he could tell it was me if, after a few steps on the clattering wood stairs there was this unmistakable sound of a young boy falling upward, followed by a few seconds of silence and mumbling on my part, and then upstairs again, pausing perhaps to fall once more before I mercifully made it to the kitchen door.

My little brother – Gary (given the name “Gary Scott” by me because of my love of the movie actors Gary Cooper and Randolph Scott. I have thought what if I had considered the reverse – but somehow Scott Gary never seemed right.) he of the double name had crawled about one morning when the kitchen door was open and fell completely down the stairs to lie snuggly cradle betwixt the bottom step and the outside door – carrying an odd-shaped lump on his forehead for awhile. I, with fear and trembling ran down the stairs, half weeping and in anger blamed Candy, my poor little sister, for leaving the door open. In fact, it could have been me that opened the door of doom. I don’t remember. But I thought he was dead.

Death did pay a visit.  But not then.

Skipping the third grade was not a good choice made by the adults in my life who would determine my life course. The teacher, heavy set in lavender with gold framed glasses a-tilt on a head that was burdened with too much hair, came to the house and with my mother discussed the best use of the boy – they bothered to notice me and nodded in my direction as I hovered on the fringe of understanding. 

It would mean a skip not only in grade, but in understanding social interaction and the loss of my peers as I tried to get along – hopelessly, it seemed - with children much older then me right on through high school.

The Grange Hall school where I was that morning had a basement which housed a larger hall and was hung with all the odd and at that time “secret” Grange  symbols and accouterments of this agricultural institution.  The Grange or, the long title - The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry - was formed in 1867 as a fraternal organization for American farmers that encouraged farm families to band together for their common economic and political well-being and with the motto  "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity."

The basement also housed the bathroom, and it was common practice for us kids to raise our hands and ask if we could go to the basement, an expression I used for several years after attending that school and which was followed by the teachers question “Number one or two?”  If the first, we could wait until recess. If it involved the movement tiny bowels – number two – then right away.

I never knew why that was so important; for our teachers to be on intimate terms with our bodily functions and whether we were able to control them, as they seemed to think we could.

I missed the study of cursive writing by skipping the third grade and have suffered all my life as a result, with the worst handwriting East of the Monongahela River (look it up – The Monongahela River that is – not the worst handwriting).

I fell in love with a fourth grade girl at the Grange Hall school. Sharon sometimes wore a dress that was red and bore a white checkered pattern that looked like bricks. So I said she had a brick dress. She glowered at me. That’s how I knew she liked me.

I liked a lot of girls. I found their company fun, and if they would grab me occasionally and kiss me on the mouth, which was usually followed with a nursery-rhyme I have come to accept – “Georgie Porgie puddin’ pie. Kissed the girls and made them cry”, I had no problem with that - although the girls were the ones that kissed me. And they did not cry. They giggled.  I had no problem with that – once one of them actually threw me to the ground and jumped on top of me to kiss me, something I found oddly exciting at the age of nine – Joanne was her name (Deep silence at this point.)

But I digress.

One of the things I did learn was how much music was important to me and that I could carry a tune. We had music class once a week, sometimes involving a “Tonette”. Remember that? A plastic flute with a goiter problem. “Tonette”, I think we had to each buy our own which was about 2 bucks. Now my dad was doing pretty well back in the early fifty’s. He made about five hundred dollars a month as assistant supervisor and book keeper for the plant. So two dollars wasn’t too hard to come up with. Those that couldn’t afford that, and Wilmington Vermont at that time had it’s share of hard luck families, the music teacher would pay for out of her own pocket.

I never could figure out, and by the way - to this very day - I still can’t figure how to transfer the hen-scratches and wiggles on musical transcriptions to my fingers and the holes of the flute. It wasn’t until I learned chord structure later in life with the guitar that I understood the wonderful possibilities of writing my own music.

One of the musical things we were to learn in music class was rhythm. We had to make a drum or some sort of musical instrument and bring it to class to keep time with a song the teacher played incessantly on the one phonograph we had, “Brazil” or, in Portuguese, “Aquarelle do Brasil” written by Array Barossa in 1939 and containing, in an exaltation samba style, a political message of love of the dictator Getulio Vargas.

Which the teacher did not mention and even if she did, we probably wouldn’t care. The recording was one made by “Xavier Cugart”, I think, although it could have been “Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club Quintet of Paris”. It didn’t really matter.

My dads company made barrel staves; barrels, banana crates, plywood and wooden boxes and they gave our class a dozen or so small barrels (a couple of feet high and about a foot across). I painted mine with the only paint we had at the house at that time, brown and blue, a color combination that I have forever emblazoned in my mine as horrible. It really isn’t.

These became our drums and we pounded on the wooden tops with abandon with that samba exatalcato’ until our fingers developed blisters the size of Argentina. But I loved that class and couldn’t wait to get up in front of everybody to sing and play my drum like Desi Arnez or “Cuggie”.

I used that color combination later that year when I finished reading “Paddle-to-the-Sea”, a children’s book published in 1941 and written by Holling Clancy Holling which described the adventures of a hand carved wooden canoe complete with a Native American inside that a boy made. After he painted it, he placed it on a snow bank near his home in the upper mid west and how it followed the melting stream to a creek, a river, the Great Lakes (all of them), the great Niagara Falls (before the power project) and eventually down the St. Lawrence and into the Atlantic Ocean.

The story fascinated me and I made a sort of boat-looking-thingy that I painted with that dumb blue and brown with an address on the bottom written with a 6 foot wide paint brush. I couldn’t even read it.

And I placed it on the hill behind my house and waited for the March rains to take it on a journey. It got as far as one foot from the top of the hill. So I took it to the Brown Brook Bridge and threw it off. Lord knows whatever happened to it. I never saw it again.

The Brown Brook Bridge was not it’s official name. I can’t remember what its real name was. It was several feet from the bottom of a deadly steep hill. If you crossed it, the Grange Hall was on your right, the hill directly in front and if you turned right, you would go up the road to The New England Box Company, a mill on an even larger river that now runs into a humongous reservoir/lake.

The bridge was built during the Thirties as part of the national works project funded by the government and prodded along by FDR. My uncle Jack Heath worked as a young man with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) helping to build the Kancamagus Highway (NH Route 112)

Back in 1953 it was showing its age, although it was only 20 years or so old. The concrete rails and abutments were worn and tired looking. The road that crossed it was potholed and the re-bars under the surface peeked out from the multi-layers of asphalt.

We would fish and catch perch, suckers and assorted tin cans while hanging from the bridge railings. In the summer it was surrounded by heavy maples and elms, elms as yet untouched by the Dutch disease that killed off so many of these towering, arbor-dowager beauties in New England, giving shade as we rested our bikes and looked across at the Grange Hall.

It was a late summers day, half spent by two o’clock that afternoon when I peddled downtown and one of my friends came running up to me.

“Benny is hurt real bad.” he said, breathless as he grabbed the handle-bars on my JC Higgins two-wheeler, bought as a present by my old man when I was 6.  “Doctor Wolff is trying to help him.” And then he ran off or went with me, I forget.

Dr. Wolff was literally the town of Wilmington’s only doctor for some 20 miles around. He was a young, articulate and self depreciating man, always full of humor and a smile. He was also the only Jew in town, although there was a rumor that the town cobbler, a man named Kosskov, was one. The cobbler was old and appeared to be worn in places; his face showing some hidden pain which I recognized but did not know why. It was later when we found he had come south from Canada and before that he had escaped from Czarist Russia and the revolution.

Mass murder was a concept I could not understand and I laughed when I was told that his family had been killed by the Bolsheviks. His entire family. Every last one. To this day I don’t know why I laughed. 

Doctor Wolff was married, had a child and a lovely wife, who had also been a nurse. Once during some school year he lined all us kids in town up for polio shots. He was sitting in a folding chair and had drawn a bulls-eye on a piece of cardboard left over from the boxes the vaccine had come in and was lobbing each used syringe at the target.

We kids smiled, surprised at the humor of this doctor. A doctor was a man who had no humor, I thought. Up until that moment. The doctors I know were grey and somber and did not smile.

My mother helped him. She put on her uniform again. And she smiled.

I knew a kid who had polio. Fortunately, Terry only had a mild case. He walked ok and later would be one of the toughest, strongest boys in our school. He was one of my best friends.  

Terry was there when I got to the Brown Brook Bridge. I said "hi" and he nodded but didn't speak.  I noticed his eyes were wet.

People, children, kids I knew and a few adults were standing around a crumpled body on the pavement in the middle of the bridge. It was Benny. Benny had a twin brother named Frank and Benny wanted to use Frank’s new bike. It was an English bike with skinny tires and hand brakes. Not the coaster brakes we were used to. And that fact alone led to the tragedy.

Benny lived with his brother and folks at the top of the hill. The hill that ended by the Brown Brook Bridge. He took the bike down the hill. He did not or could not stop and when he came to the bottom, the bike hit the cement abutment and he was pitched head-long to the road.

I went and looked at Benny. He was lying there, not moving and made little sounds. I remember bubbles frothing from his nose and mouth and blood everywhere. Even his ears were bleeding.

Doctor Wolff had been called from his office in town and his black bag was beside him as he bent over Benny. He had left his suit jacket hanging in his office. He wore a white shirt and a tie and he was sweating.

He tore a piece of his own shirt into strips and tried to hold together the remains of poor Benny’s head. I had never known what it meant to work so hard for something as I did that day at the Brown Creek Bridge.

If Doctor Wolff had been a farmer or a mill worker, he would have used every tool available and at his command to plow a field, milk a cow, peavey a log and tear the bark off it and run it through a buzz-saw. He would have made it work.

But he was a doctor, and he didn’t have all the tools. A hospital was over an hour away – even if there was an ambulance in town. There wasn’t, but Doctor Wolff worked as if someone’s life depended on him.

I saw a couple of friends that I knew. Standing silent with nothing to say. Their eyes were big. One of the girls started crying and I put my arm around her. I had never comforted anyone before. I suddenly felt a little older and I didn’t want to be. I wanted to be someplace else.

They moved Benny to the fire station where they had a tank of oxygen to give him. My buddy Butch lived on the same street as the fire station. We hung off our bikes and looked down the road. Then Benny’s parents slowly drove by. And I heard someone say that Benny had died.


Benny and Frank.

Benny was dead.

Did those words go together in a sentence you wished to say?  Even today, many years after, I will never forget the stoic look of Benny’s parents as they drove by. To arrange a funeral for a son who was alive that morning and now - was no more. For the empty feeling we kids had at a guy who was a good baseball player and was always chosen first when we had pick-up ball games in the summer and now – was no more.

To add more sadness to the matter, the only undertaker in town was Benny’s grandfather.

I went home that day and told my mother. I cried a little bit. Not a lot. I was surprised and thought I should cry a lot. But I couldn’t.

Later that week, a bunch of the gang walked down the street, past my house. They wanted to see Benny one last time. I went with them for the undertaker/grandfather was just a few houses up from my place on the same side of the road.

It was a warm and sultry day and the windows were open in many houses as we walked – not saying a word. A dog barked somewhere and a screen door banged. High in the trees the cicadas’ sang.

We stood outside the parlor for a few moments, clearing our throats and scuffing the sidewalk with our high-top sneakers.  A door opened and a gentle older man stepped out onto the porch and addressed us.

“Do you want to see Benny, boys?”  He asked with the kindest look on his face I have  never seen on another human being since. 

We muttered a yes and he held the door open for us. I felt something I couldn’t put my finger on. Fear? No – well – maybe a little. Sadness? Yes. A bit. We shuffled into the front parlor and there was Benny.

The fear drained away. Benny was sleeping, or so it seemed. He had a nice suit and tie on and was lying in an open casket. This would not be the last time I saw the remains of a life. The empty house that once held a soul of movement and song.

But it was the first time and I have never forgotten the inhuman strength a small town doctor seemed to posses as he attempted to save a life. The silent grief born by a family when a member was snatched away.

This is a simple story about an everyday occurrence that befalls so many. But it must be told. Death cannot be brushed away like so much dust.  It must be gathered - looked at and then told by someone as simply as possible.

© 2012 George Locke

1 comment on “The Brown Brook Bridge”

Paul R Says:
Sunday, March 18, 2012 @6:25:36 PM

Moving and touching, George.

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