Clark Mills to Walesville by way of the Oriskany Creek
I hit my head on a slab of cement in the Oriskany Creek last week. It was hard enough that it still hurts when I rub the Rogaine in every morning but not so bad that I felt like I needed an MRI. Country boys are raised tough, especially if they’re from Westmoreland.
I was with my nephews Sean Klopfanstein and Carson Nestved, and Sean’s girlfriend, Arianna Granza. We were inner tubing down the creek on one of the warm, but not blazingly hot, days last week. The water was nice and comfortable, but it makes things slippery and when I tried to fall back into my innertube it tipped me out, that’s how I hit my head.
My sister Heidi who had dropped us off asked if I was okay. I must have said yes because before I knew it I was staring up at the underside of the Clark Mills bridge floating away on an adventure. Summer was almost over and there was no time to waste.
When I was a kid, my grandmother, Lucille Spaven used to plan a picnic in the gravel bed behind her house on the last day of summer vacation every year. It was me, my sister, my brother Tom, my first cousins, Kenny, Melissa, and Jason, and my second cousins Rick, Heather, and Sherri. I have a picture somewhere of us sitting around a big flat rock, we’re eating deviled ham sandwiches, surrounded by goldenrod.
In the 1950s the state mined the back of my grandparents’ house for gravel to build the NYS Thruway. As late as the 80s most of it was still a surreal post-apocalyptic landscape of sand dunes and dirt roads. Part of it was a dump, there was a mound of sand with tires sticking out of it. The highway crew had dumped a mound of concrete and gravel and it formed a gigantic cement mushroom. It was a magical place, and behind it all ran the Oriskany Creek.
At this point in the story I need to stop calling it a creek because in Westmoreland we say “crick.” There are things I had to relearn about the crick. When the water is deep the current is slow, when it starts flowing faster it’s because it’s shallow.
In those shallows, there are rocks that scrape your butt, but they’re algae covered and slick. You glide over them easily. There’s something about the current that pushes you to the shore. Before I knew it, I was heading right for a downed tree and I couldn’t stop myself. I put out my legs to brace the impact and before I knew it the current had taken my innertube out from under me and I was submerged.
I thought back to a day in the early 80s we were exploring one of those dirt roads in the gravel bed. We climbed over the mushroom the walked right into the crick. It must have been a dry season it was shallow enough that we could stand in it and follow it upstream. Lucille was right there with us, she was always fun. I remember her rolling her pant legs up and tromping through the water.
Sean is going into the 11th grade and is one of the captains of the Westmoreland varsity football team. He is quick and athletic, and he caught my innertube and my flag hat. We stopped for a while on a tiny rocky beach. But not for long.
“Let’s go boys!” he cried, and we were off again.
I’ve described Carson as the most #BeMoreWestmo kid I’ve ever known. Last year he and I scaled a 50-foot hill and went swimming in Hecla Pond, Westmoreland’s iconic swimming hole. He knows the crick and told us where we should navigate as if we had a choice. The water takes you where it wants.
When we reached Peckville, they climbed out and up the hill and wanted to jump off the bridge. It’s too dangerous. Sean’s girlfriend Ari is older and wiser, she is beginning college at Mohawk Valley Community College this semester. She and I shouted for them to come down, but they crept closer to the edge and were crouching down to jump…
My grandmother Lucille grew up in Peckville. She was a Sawner, the oldest daughter of the famous Frank and Alma, the “mayor of Peckville,” and his wife. Her first job was picking strawberries for their farm. My first job was throwing hay at Dave Fedor’s farm next door. I worked with my friends Matt and Mark Perrault, and Bill Jones. After we were done we swam in that crick behind the Sawner’s greenhouse, where my grandmother had grown up.
Lucille loved music. When Prince died I posted something on Facebook about how she bought the soundtrack to Purple Rain after seeing the movie-she was in her 60s. She loved new things. Every year she would take us to Rome to go on the “Living Bridge,” the ultra-modern concrete and glass pedestrian mall that went from JC Penney right over the top of Erie Boulevard. I was so sad when they tore it down at the end of the summer in 1999. The bright gleaming future of Rome didn’t even make it into the new millennium.
Sean and Carson didn’t jump off the bridge, and the next leg of our journey was uneventful. I saw a turkey vulture circle overhead and I thought to myself, “you’re not getting my meaty carcass today!”
A man had been fishing with his son at the bridge. He told my sister that the “older gentleman” has talked the boys out of jumping. I was taken aback. I am older, but far from old. When I’m in the Oriskany crick I am still a child of Westmoreland, I’m Lucille Spaven’s grandson. I think I read that we remember smells the longest, I still smell the crick on me and time slips away.
We climbed out and met my sister at the Walesville bridge. Two little girls had a lemonade stand, that’s where we ended our journey. Amber wore a T-shirt with a bear on it. She poured while Allison made the change in her sparkly dress.
As this issue of the Clinton Record hits newsstands, those two lemonade-stand entrepreneurs are in their fourth-grade classroom at Westmoreland Elementary. Sean and Carson are in high school. Arianna is at MVCC. I am teaching at Utica College and a full-time graduate student at Empire State College. It’s warm and the crick is flowing, but summer has ended for all of us. They’ll be a frost before we know it.
After Lucille died, my grandfather, Ken left her recorded greeting on the answering machine until the tape wore out. I can almost-but not quite-remember her voice. She sent me a postcard that she wrote in the car on their way home from their last vacation in Florida. On that trip, she had spent a week in the hospital with a blood clot. She had cancer.
“My first grandchild,” she wrote, “I love you twice as much as much because I thought I’d probably never see you again until eternity.”
She did see me again. Lucille made it home. But she died shortly afterward, on a beautiful summer day. My brother and sister, and my cousins and I all went to the gravel bed that afternoon. We haven’t been back since, but the crick still runs through it like it always has.
Ron Klopfanstein is 7th generation Westmoreland native, president of the Westmoreland Historical Society, a member of the Westmoreland Town Pool committee, and a 1st degree Westmoreland mason. He teaches English at Utica College and Mohawk Valley Community College. Like him at Facebook.com/BeMoreWestmo and follow him at Twitter.com/BeMoreWestmo.