There was a particular day when my childhood was left behind. That day my innocent view of the world and my home territory was shifted forever. I call it a territory for it was large, more acres and roads than many children call their domain. The day I speak of I was sixteen, beyond childhood really but the adult world had yet to taint my view and the joy of my feral child days. The places of my childhood were enchanted.
I grew up in North Coventry, Connecticut. Our home as a 1751 colonial with a seven acre parcel of land and barns. Our land connected to Visny’s Hickory Ridge Tree Farm. At a very young age I became adept at running up our side of the hill and down the other side to Martine Visny’s house to play. When I think about it now, most kids I know would be afraid to make that journey alone. It never crossed my mind to be afraid. The thousands of days I made that journey because beyond Martine’s house was our magical realm, the Skungamaug River.
When I was sixteen I got my Morgan Horse Cindy. I didn’t walk or run over the hill alone anymore. We went up and over the hill and down past Visny’s to ride down South River road and to the river itself. Some days we went to the end of the road where Truman’s meadows were. The river divided the vast expanse of hay land in two. There was a beautiful pond there, a summer retreat for residents of the state home in Mansfield.
I already knew every rock and turn of the river, every shaded pool. The river was our neighborhood’s year round playground. Cindy loved the river as much as I did. She loved to splash stomping her feet sending explosions of water in every direction. On a summer day she loved to swim in the pond at Truman’s field. I could swim up to her nearly fully submerged back, mount and use her for a diving platform. On trail rides that crossed the river she had a habit of melting into a roll to enjoy the water. For the summer months I took to riding bareback as we were always at the river and always wet.
About half way down South River road there is a lazy bend in the Skungamaug River itself. The bank holds against the flow with strong roots of a cluster of Hemlock trees. The ground under the trees was shaded and pine scented. At the bend the water could be one to two feet deep depending on the rain and season. We called it the swimming hole. Most places the river was a broad shallow run over small glacial rocks. Here in the swimming hole if you sat submerged the rivers silky presence could sweep all the summer heat from you. We fished here, played here, explored and hung out. This was the kingdom of childhood for quite a group of us.
On the day I rode down the river on Cindy. We got in the water at Lillibridge’s where the lawn ran to the edge of the water. We picked our way down the stony course of the river. Cindy was black and gleaming in the speckled sunlight. I as a teenager of sixteen was lithe, and glowing, long brown curls bounced around my shoulders. I wore cut off blue jean shorts and a t-shirt. We were bareback, my long legs hugging the curve of Cindy’s mid-line. We came to the swimming hole and stopped in the middle of the river. A man sat up from where he lay in the Hemlock grove. He rubbed his eyes and tightly clutched the bottle within a rumpled brown paper bag. I could not believe some drunk had discovered and tainted our haven of childhood. I didn’t move, couldn’t move, even Cindy seemed shocked to see a person there. He finally asked if we were real. I then understood he thought we were an illusion created by the bottle of booze he had consumed. I replied we were real alright, that I often rode there. The whole time my mind was reeling from my disbelief. I felt the tension of fear in my stomach. We could have exited the river there at the grove, but not that day, I wouldn’t get that close. I felt he was in no condition to walk into the current of the river. I finally turned to go back the way I had come. Only a couple of minutes had passed but in that brief lapse my childhood shattered forever.
The Skungamaug magic was gone. The purity of place, freedom of discovery was altered. I have no idea who he was or how he came to find that remote place which remains unchanged to this day close to fifty years later. The river and the Hemlock grove are just as I left them all those years ago, but never again free.
Within a year or so a female murder victim was found downstream near Truman’s meadow by the river, not far from the pond. How could they come to these places of immense tranquility and destroy its sense of peace and welcome. How was it these people found our spot and defiled it? I will never understand.
I drive that way every now and then just to let the memories wash over me as the water once did so long ago. Here mostly happy memories float by. I can hear children’s voices and laughter. There are quiet foggy mornings fishing and lazy summer afternoons watching a red bobber bounce on the current. There were hours lolling fully dressed in the river. The long walk home would dry our clothes. Then I see the figure under the Hemlock, the clutched bottle and the memories, the freedom and the reverie shatter again, childhood is gone forever.
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