The Old Badger
Editor’s note: This column was first published July 27, 1977.
Anyone who remembers the Lake Road when it was made of cement remembers the Miller place. And if you happen to ask about it, sit down, you’ll be in for a 20-minute dissertation.
Everyone has his own version of the perfect hamburger or hot dog with Ma’s piccalilli – or the still-hot strawberry-rhubarb pies, or the fresh lettuce and tomatoes – or the inverted bottle of spring water that made the big bubble when some water was drawn off … “balooble-uuump”… into an unmanageable paper cup.
Now, I get Ma mixed up with the Powerful Katinka from Toonerville Folks in the funny papers. Ma Miller was very big. Her husband Vern was small – so was her kitchen. They used to say Vern pushed Ma in behind the griddle in the morning and then pulled her out at the end of the day.
They used to say Ma claimed that her size was because of inhaling hamburger fumes. They also said she got up at four in the morning to do the baking. I don’t know.
I was just big enough to reach up with my sweaty pennies and say which color lollipop I wanted. I lived up the road and one of the rewards for being a “good boy” was to get to go to Millers. I’d go up our wooden steps and then along some concrete steps which were always shaded and cool. I’d check to see if the coins were still embedded where my grandfather and my uncle had set them; and then I’d pad down the Lake Road in my bare feet. On very hot days the tar on the patches and in between the cement sections was soft and warm and comfortable, a delightful relief from the pitted and crumbly cement.
Once I got sent to Millers for a “half dozen lemons and pick some fresh mint on the way back.” It must have been late in the day. After checking the coins and reaching the road, my first stop was at the damp and shaded spring house around which grew the mint. I picked a handful and went on. Next stop was to peer down at a tennis game in progress, and then on to the brown garage that had a moose head hanging inside. (Maybe one car would have passed. Usually none.)
That day when Ma asked me what I wanted, I forgot everything – except the half dozen. So I just guessed and said “half dozen eggs.” Ma had to put them in a paper bag. She warned me to be careful and I was off.
I don’t know what happened but the steep wooden steps to our camp must have been slippery, and I fell and bounced the last four or five steps. Hearing the racket, my mother ran out to check – one son, apparently alright; one crushed bouquet of mint; and six squashed eggs!
I really can’t remember any details except that I was dispatched immediately, with a note, back to Millers for the six lemons. They got the mint. It must have been a very hot day.
That summer I learned how to swim – dog paddle, that is.
And that winter I learned to read. Wherein lies another tale:
The following summer first thing, I got to go up to Millers, and while waiting for whatever it was, I began to twirl the postcard rack – mountains, lakes, Kingfisher’s Tower, the Mohican and a SIX FOOT SUNFISH. The photographer had enlarged the fish, and the man standing beside it. They were the same size. Over the picture I read “See what I caught in Otsego Lake.” And all the way home I thought, “the fish get that big in Otsego Lake.”
The rest of the summer went like this: “C’mon, now, show Margo how you can swim … What’s the matter with you? Remember last year you swam in from the middle of the dock? … Your little sister is going to beat you. … Davy can swim.” and on and on and on.
But to no avail. With implacable determination I refused to swim in Otsego Lake that summer. While the other kids were splashing around, I sat on the beach with only my heels in the water, keeping one eye on the shadows beneath the dock – where I knew the sunfish gathered on hot summer days.
Next time: “The Badger Wanders Up Willow Brook”