Bellies Full of Chow
By Cliff Lamm
Down the torn-up dirt and gravel road, bound by second-growth hemlock and pine, sat stark, white red-roofed buildings encased in an endless vista of unbroken forest. Nestled in that hollow, the camp appeared a remote outpost, isolated, as though a fort on a distant frontier. A dilapidated grey jeep, rusted amphibious landing craft, a decrepit military truck and two red ship anchors heightened the sense of misplacement, failure and utter neglect.
Brad opened the jeep door feeling the crisp, cool wind and stared in disbelief. Part real estate investor, part explorer of dusty roads, Brad had a habit of searching the back roads, believing he had good reason to go where he was not welcome—to trespass. Unlike the old country farmsteads with their wood-sided farmhouses, the renovation or subdivision a quick flip for fast money, before him lay a grander scheme—a land to love, a place in need, a challenge to turn a history of bad luck, disregard and the harsh conditions of the Vandenberg Valley.
In the old days, the valley was called the Vly, those who lived there known as Vly Yonders—Dutch for people of the valley. Mostly squatters, they lived in a cold-blooded land, a puddle of ice and wet. They subsisted amidst the bogs by weaving baskets, the land not proper for farming. The Vly sat below Snake Rocks, the ridge quarried last century. Immense bluestone slabs were gouged out, gutting the ridge to line city streets and stoops of elegant townhomes. Left behind, talus slopes of chipped stone, heaped and broken scree littered the forest floor. Delicate lichens now clung to the stone, attempting to restore the mangled landscape. Snake Rocks had rock but no snakes. The timber rattlers were long gone, their dens dug out or buried in the scarred, broken land.
Trickling rivulets of rain and snowmelt washed the broken stone of Snake Rocks, gathering and coursing as it fed the Little Bushkill. The kill ran into Clopperson Pond, ran downstream through the camp, then meandered in a slow flow of small pools; rock-studded stream and beaver dam. Dammed in its headwaters, the wetlands flooded, the kill was clogged and bottled up to create Clopperson Pond by a sportsmen's club, owners of that piece. Choked with rampant beds of water lilies, the pond was a tangled morass of root and plant. Slowly dying, more sediment filled the pond each passing year, the fishing and navigation now near impossible. The club’s plan to create a pond for fish had become a sea of muck. The Little Bushkill itself was not right. Sickened and tainted by the tanneries, then logged and stripped for lumber, the tall, dense hemlocks stolen, their cool, dark canopy of shade gone, the stream flowed warm, open to sky, unsuited for trout, the rock pools sunlit and empty.
Leaving the camp, the road narrowed, barely nine feet across, the width of a driveway. Brad pulled off into the drainage ditch, while two grizzled men, dressed in camouflage, sped past on twin ATV's. Just before the dirt road met paved Old Route 58, Brad came upon a small, modest house straddling the road, deprived of a front lawn and lacking privacy. Behind the house, the ground sloped steeply, providing some view but little else. The house was not set on the land but rather sprang up from it; much like the ground bulging from a vole's winter burrow, visible once the snow melts. Across the road sat an old weathered barn, faced in sagging, moss-covered and sunlight-starved wood, providing shelter for a rusted Oldsmobile.
In front of the house stood Emmet Ostrander, appearing as a stoic stone sentry, his image diffused by a cloud of road dust kicked up by Brad's jeep. Heavily bearded, his face was blanketed in a long sheet, emblazoned grey, resembling the granite outcrops that loomed above the Vly. Some men, the old-timers, took in their surroundings, absorbed it like the cold mountain air. Their faces reflected the hardships and their points of view were as immovable as granite.
Ostrander shouted at Brad's jeep. “This a private road, you'll have to take the turnoff, same way you come in.”
Brad drove out through the turnoff. One month later, on a hunch, sheer impulse, or some intuitive sense of purpose, Brad bought the camp. The sale included eighty acres of forest and field, six rundown masonry buildings, the farmhouse, seventeen tons of garbage and a stiff wind.
Crowbar in hand, Brad stripped the sheetrock which was covered with nautical-themed wallpaper, the floor covered in layered piles of chipped wallboard, a talus slope of the day's work. The sheetrock, a most recent renovation of the farmhouse, dated back to the 1980's, when tenants of the scouting organization had rented the house after the camp permanently closed. Thrift-store furniture, old clothes and a sink full of plates were left abandoned, as though twenty years were just twenty days ago. Until then, the camp operated as a naval sea-scout camp for kids in need of an exercise in discipline and authority. Captain Henderson, an enlisted naval officer, provided the military regimen. The captain was the salt of the earth, all spit and shine. He presided over the rocks, water and trees as though the broad meadow was a navy ship's deck. Old-timers remember the boys sitting aboard the landing craft during town parades, the bugle sounding in the morning, the booming shots of target practice, and the rolling echo off Snake Rocks. Once the captain passed away, the camp never reopened. A vintage paint-by-number of a sailing ship hung askew on the remaining wall of sheetrock. Out the window, large bluestone rocks lined the pathways; the red, white and blue paint chipped, revealing the underlining gray blue rock.
Beneath the sheetrock lay dark stained tongue and groove, the knotty pine firm, the demolition demanding more effort. Brad clawed at the wood, leveraging the crowbar, the nails popping, the wood splintering against the hardened steel.
In need of a plumber to cap pipes, he called Jeremiah Bonestead, a local tradesman. Later that day, Jeremiah Bonestead, affectionately known as Old Man Bonestead, arrived. Standing in the field, the old man smiled when he said, “I lived in this house during the 40s. Back then it was a farm.”
“It must have been beautiful,” said Brad, looking at the meadow. Small white pines and hemlock had advanced past the forest edge, the bushwhacking long overdue. Saplings dotted the meadow, the changing of forest to field.
Old Man Bonestead continued. “During winter, we lit a hot fire around those field boulders, the ones too big to move. We kept the fire burning the whole day till the rock was hot. Then, we would smother the hot rock with snow and hit it with the sledge. You could hear the rock crack way down the valley. Then we heaved the pieces up on that there wagon and hauled it over on that stone wall. Next spring, the field was ready to hay.”
“I'm going to reset those stones on the wall and clean off the fallen branches,” said Brad confidently.
“What made you want to buy this property?”
“I've done my drifting. This is where I'm going to settle and raise my family.”
“You from a city?”
“Yeah, we like city living, but want to be part of a small community and live on the land, close to nature.”
Old Man Bonestead looked at Brad intently and said, “Can't get in the middle of it, but I can tell you this. The wind and rock make the living hard but them people on top of the road are harder than rock, believe you me.” The meadow grasses undulated in the breeze. Cascading waves of brush swayed and rippled in the relentless wind.
The wind blew most of the time. Descending from the mountain peaks, it strengthened, gathering force as it swept through the valley, reaching its highest speeds at the camp, the narrowest of places. Neither gale nor gust, the nameless wind was a steady force, relentless and constant.
During winter, it carried a cold and heavy Arctic air descended from the Canadian plains. Whipping and lashing the treeless meadow, the wind and snow swirled in demonic fits, punishing those living in the Vly. The wind would push through the cracks, buckles and splits of the clapboard and then blow right through farmhouse walls, the cold danger overwhelming the inadequate insulation. Even at home, there was no respite for the wind blew as it wished. During warmer seasons, the wind was a constant nuisance, the incessant slapping and pushing a torturous bleeding of spirit.
Brad posted the property, the signs stapled to board, nails sunk deeply through board to tree. The bright yellow No Hunting, No Trespassing signs cut a sharp line, easily visible through the forest of thin trees. Keep those outside without, those inside within.
Before the land was logged, the forest grew of its own accord, the white pines reaching heights in excess of two hundred feet, thriving alongside the red oak, eastern hemlock, sugar maple and black birch. The Vly was sheltered under the forest, the wind powerless to have its way. But now, the rock was removed, the forest cut, the water diverted. The wind remained and reigned supreme, stronger for the loss of its sister elements.
Once the tongue and groove came off, the beaverboard was revealed: an inexpensive wallboard made from wood pulp during the 1930s. Brad stopped work to receive a call from his excavations contractor, Henry Brinkerhoff. En route to the camp, Brinkerhoff had been confronted by Ostrander, standing in the middle of the road.
“Ostrander told me it's a private road, and I'll have to take the turnoff.” Brinkerhoff continued, “The turnoff was too steep for my equipment; I couldn't enter the camp and start the excavation.”
Upset with the delay, Brad drove up the road and came upon Ostrander doing yard work.
Ostrander began, “You have no right to this road, cuz I made a verbal agreement with the Captain for his use of the road during summer, as a favor.”
Brad retorted, “I have a deeded right of way and the title company insured the easement.”
“There's no chain goin' back for the right of way, it's no good. I'll get my lawyer and bar you from using the road.”
“You can pay for an attorney; the title company will represent me.”
“Your easement is no good, and you shouldn't have bought the piece. It's landlocked. Besides, it's too windy and cold, you won't make it.”
Between the camp and Ostrander's lived Brad's nearest neighbor, Hans Skagen, a Norwegian, whose family had a long history in these parts. His father had owned a farmstead but later sold it, leaving Hans with a small lot and little opportunity, his income now derived from janitorial work at a local school. His appearance was rather peculiar, individualized in an unsophisticated manner, born of living isolated, deep in the country. He sported an overgrown mustache and long bushy sideburns, his look reminiscent of a civil war general but for the woodland camouflage cap.
The Skagen home was pre-fabricated, the model an unwise choice for their building site. Upslope, on a northern exposure, deep in the hollow, the house was set with its back facing front, its placement designed to expose the rear deck to the sparse sunlight available only during certain seasons.
Life in the backwoods bred self-proclaimed experts of local histories, the activity a cultural rite, the myths forged and the legends born. Listeners to these rambles required a healthy dose of skepticism and external confirmation. Hans was no exception, as he relayed to Brad the story of the hollow.
“You see, Ostrander has a wife named Mary. Her father, Hiram, had owned a large farmstead in the Vly. The story has it that sometime after Hiram returned from World War I, his wife, Alma, ran off with another man. He murdered one of the daughters, Ophelia, and buried her body on a hummock island in Clopperson Pond, where her ghost wanders still. He was never charged for the crime. Hiram felt his remaining daughter, Mary, was not deserving of the inheritance, so he sold the farmstead in '29 to my father, except for a small one-quarter-acre lot at the top of the road for Mary. It sold cheap cause of the Depression. She's sour grapes on account of it. Hates anyone who has a piece of what should have been hers. And the other thing, she's a Bonestead.”
“She related to Old Man Bonestead?” Brad asked.
“That's her cousin.”
Hans continued. “When I made plans to build a house on my land, Ostrander sued, his claim being I had no easement on the right of way. The court ruled I had to build the turnoff, to get the building permit.”
“Did you have an easement?”
“By right I did and do. Before Ostrander got the road named after his self, it was the Camp Road, before that it was known as the Hollow Road. Back then, it was the only connection between the village and Old Route 58, the main road reaching into the mountains. When my father reminisced, he would describe the mud-splattered milk truck rambling slowly down Hollow Road, minding the potholes, while delivering milk to the houses along the way. It was public road, meaning anyone could use it. That gives me the right to use it now. I spit on the Ostrander land every damn day.”
As Brad left the Skagen home to pick up his daughters, a full-grown buck galloped past, exhausted and snorting loudly, its eyes wide with terror. “Why'd ya buy that place anyway?” shouted Skagen, as two large dogs appeared, romping in pursuit, bellies full of chow. Hunger was not their lead, the chase a thing of its own.
Upon reaching Old Route 58, Brad watched the school bus stop in front of the Ostrander home. Mary Ostrander glared at Brad as she took hold of her granddaughter.
“You know Mary Ostrander got transportation to add their house to the bus route,” remarked Ruth, the only other neighbor using the bus stop.
“How do you know that?” questioned Brad.
“My friend works in administration.”
“Ostrander doesn't want her child to wait with our kids?”
“She doesn't want to stand with the Jews. Welcome to the neighborhood.”
Apart from the farmhouse renovation, Brad envisioned an eco-resort featuring cabins, hikes through the property, showcasing bird-watching and nature study. At night, visitors would sleep to the sounds of frogs and spring peepers. He knew the land was marred, the balance broken: bullfrogs ate the native frogs; the wooly adelgid sucked the hemlocks to death; the chestnut and the wolf were now long gone. Notwithstanding, he loved the land, maybe more so for its frailty and need, in the same way a wildlife rehabber nurses wounded birds, even the ones he knows will never fly.
The Ostranders joined the hunting club and protested the plan for Brad's eco-resort. A rumor swirled around town, claiming Brad intended to build a bungalow colony, generating visions of Jewish summer resorts. He thought Ostrander might have begun the rumor, but didn't know for sure. In a letter to the town newspaper, Ostrander slandered the project. His letter claimed that the bungalow colony would use too much water, the wells would run dry. They'd get the hunting shut down, and there were other gross exaggerations.
Brad wondered whether the concerns were legitimate or veiled antisemitism. The town had a history of antisemitism. Jews were once banned from staying in the town’s hotels, but that was a century earlier. Now the town was accepting and open-minded.
The farmhouse was small: downstairs a kitchen and parlor, upstairs two small bedrooms. Brad had an addition designed that doubled the living space. The house was ready for a pre-inspection visit. Bill Cooper, the town inspector, called that morning. Bill had a gruff manner and bloated face, his two most telling attributes the result of his time with the bottle. Nevertheless, he could be kind-hearted, was known to bypass laws, and genuinely tried to help people. Brad liked him. As was the case with many of the town employees, he descended from a long-standing farm family, the land sold off due to rising taxes and the decline of the family farm. The town held an uneasy balance: the urban refugees controlled the village businesses and choice parcels on the outlying hills, while the locals controlled the town government and modest homes in the village center.
Jeffrey, a friend of Brad's, offered his advice: “I've been living here thirty-five years and I'm still not a local. Here, local has less to do with time and more to do with culture.”
“By culture, do you mean Jewish or being from New York?”
“Both. To them, who you are is where you're from. The locals will never fully accept you, it's the one thing they still have left.”
From outside the house, the sound of rifle fire exploded through the silence, possibly target practice but more likely hunters in pursuit of black bear, the deer season not yet opened. Brad answered his phone. “You are not permitted; the kitchen is in the setback. I issued a stop-work order. Have your architect redo the plans,” Bill ordained in his usual authoritative tone, then abruptly ended the conversation.
Brad called his architect, relaying the bad news while venting profusely.
“Do you know Bill is a brother-in-law to Ostrander?”
The architect's divulgement landed heavily. The shocking words reverberated forth to Snake Rocks, their echo carrying the sordid conspiracy repetitively and deeper into the darkest recesses of mountain and rock, where the geology was not of rock. Deep within, Brad had a hollow feeling, his emptiness spilling over the dry grasses of the lifeless meadow, as shadows of the mountains loomed closer, the valley narrowing into a suffocating deep pit. He needed to finish the house before winter set in, to consider the needs of his wife and two young daughters, and contend with the brewing land feud.
At night, the meadow was blanketed in a dense fog, tiny sparkles of light flickered, lazily floating through the blur of dark and mist, dimmer near the forest edge, their glow vanishing, the fireflies having retreated.
As the beaverboard lifted and crumbled to the floor, a dark, canvas-like material, painted in patterns, began to emerge. The sparse light streaming through the farmhouse windows illuminated the heavy and aged oilcloth. As Brad began removing the oilcloth, newspaper clippings appeared: their placement a futile attempt to insulate the home against the cold and relentless wind. Perfectly preserved beneath decades of construction, the walls were a collage of life and story. Chickens for sale, plows and hay rake advertisements were plastered about. Lumber from Richard's Sawmill,windows from Moore Glass, the bluestone quarry, and Harrison's Fine Furniture, E.F. Lougher Purveyors of Flour, a cider maker and E.K. Holms Dairy: the business of life in those days.
A newspaper cover of The Rural News depicted two girls happily picking flowers, the pastoral scene of life and innocence dated July 1918. Portrayed in flowing white dresses shimmering in the pleasing beauty of a warm spring day, the image radiated the promise of youthful innocence. The two young girls were noted on the cover as Mary and Ophelia Bonestead.
On the opposite wall were richly illustrated drawings of newspapers dated from the 1920s. One illustration labeled Strange Bedfellows, depicted two men in bed, one man noted as “the Jew”, the other as “the Catholic”, the bed set beneath a framed picture of a hooded man. Another illustration labeled In Proper Hands, depicted an arm swinging two men, one labeled “the Jew” circled by dollar signs, the other a Catholic priest labeled “World Domination.” Etched in the arm were the letters KKK. In the center of the south wall, a brittlepostcard of a photograph was displayed. In the wooded scene, a man looks to the camera as other men look toward a tree where a body lies limp, hanging. Written on the side, L.M. Frank-- Lynched. Cobb County—GA— 1915. Attached to a newspaper cover titled The Good Citizen was a small, pink postal label printed with the name Alma Bonestead. Brad stood amidst the chipped wallboard, berated by the howling wind, staring at the newspapers of a century past.
The meeting was held Friday night at midnight, upon a hilltop in a lonely wood, just off Hollow Road. Presiding was dry-goods merchant and Klaliff, J.K. Eberhard, the opening ceremony held by song:
Home, home, country and home…
Klansmen, we'll live and die…
For our country and home…
November 18, 1923.
The Doleful Day of the Wailing Week of the Frightful Month of the Year of the Klan LVII.
Klansmen present: 52.
Number of new applications read: 5.
Motion made and passed: We will show our Klannishness and trade with W.K. Holms Dairy.
Klaliff Eberhard began. “Gentlemen, you have been summoned because we believe in you. We are the plain people, the real Americans. The return of power to us is in hand. The masked veil of lordly good has spoken. Await the sacred call to rise. I ask you this:
“Is the motive prompting your inquiry serious?”
The men jointly answered, “Yes.”
“Are you Gentile or Jew?”
“Do you believe in the principles of Pure Americanism?”
“Place your left hand over your heart and raise your right hand to the heavens. Proclaim this solemn oath and promise with your blood before this sacred congregation.”
E.F. Lougher, William T. Harrison, Elias K. Holms, James Walton Moore and Hiram L. Bonestead looked towards the burning cross and jointly recited:
“I do most solemnly pledge to be a regular appointed Kleagle of the Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.”
Klaliff Eberhard continued. “Klannishness is your creed and let no man, apostate or other deter you from thy honorable calling. The impenetrable veil of justice is drawing near, awakened from its slumber to shed its light on humanity. Behold the Fiery Cross and let you not falter. The Imperial Soldiers of the Invisible Empire shall issue their call. Americans, preserve silence and bide their coming.”
Surging blasts of cold wintry wind lashed the fiery cross, fanning the flames on the dry white pine, the assembly of white hoods and sheets illuminated by the glaring blaze. Burning embers flew through the night sky, sparks bursting, the flickering lights charging upward across the Vly. Fire consumed the wood while hate consumed those assembled.
“A nation's greatest enemy is never without, it is found within. The Jew has populated our country. He has perpetrated greed upon our righteous state. He will only patronize his fellow Jew, for he seeks to drain the goodly and honorable businesses of real Americans. Greed is his religion, he is a shrewd lecher. He has joined the purveyors of liquor to coerce Gentile girls into joyrides and perverse acts. Gentlemen, lest he perpetrate evil doings on our unsuspecting girls, let us ride this night to cleanse our town of liquor and immoral acts,” pronounced Klailiff Eberhard.
The cars headed down Hollow Road, minding the potholes, in search of lovers. Moore, Harrison and Lougher rode in the first Model T, followed by Bonestead, Holms and Eberhard in the second. The assembly of white, garbed with sheets, moved in haste. Crickets, frogs and the call of a whippoorwill mixed with the rumbling of the cars slogging along Hollow Road, the mud splashing as the wheels dropped in and out of the endless chain of potholes and patchwork of neglect. Turning from one side then the other, they avoided the deeper potholes, those lined with boards which had cracked, sunk, then rotted in the cold stew of sodden leaves, clay and mud, melded beneath the deep shade of the hollow.
“Head up to that Lovers Point near the hunting club. We'll find us some in need of teaching,” said Eberhard.
The square shape of a truck appeared in the distance. Inside, two lovers intertwined in their dreams of the future, the warm tingle of whiskey and body a refuge from the cold and relentless wind.
“Do you hear cars?” asked Marvin.
She lifted herself from his warmth and turned.
“I see cars coming!” she shouted.
“Get out, get out now! I'll stay here and tell ’em I was just getting a smoke.”
She opened the truck door and ran into the night.
Car headlights lit the side panel of the truck; the decorative styling of Levinson & Sons Milk and Dairy appeared.
“Get out son,” demanded Eberhard.
“What is this about?” asked Marvin.
“We aim to teach you. Tie him up to that sugar maple.”
Holms and Moore stripped off Marvin's shirt and tied his hands to the tree above him. Eberhard removed the whipping strap from his robe, the long frayed strips of top-grain leather dangling in the wind. He then handed it to Moore. “What though sows, thou shall reap,” said Moore, as he took the strap and swung it fiercely against Marvin's back. The whip snapped, the strips lashing in wide swaths of stinging pain. Marvin screamed while his back burned bright red. Then Hiram clenched the strap, and reaching back with harsh decree he proclaimed, “I'm going to romp on you now.” Marvin tried to fight, but it was no use. Then Eberhard gave him a hard swatting. Marvin's deep, guttural cries interspersed with the human-like cry of a barred owl in the distance. Each man took his turn and then again, lashing and whipping burning flesh, in a torment of rage and righteous provocation.
“Should we get the branding iron?” asked Holms.
“Cut him down and leave he be. Our deed is done,” said Eberhard.
She ran quickly, eyes filled with terror, following the deer trail along the ridge. Darting through the mountain laurel thicket, branches lashed her body as she frantically tried to navigate the narrow passage. Overhead, the towering oak and maple blocked the moonlight, making the trail difficult to follow. The dark of leaf, rock and night merged in blackness, the one indecipherable from the other. As she neared the crest of Snake Rocks, Levinson's screams and the cry of a barred owl echoed from below. Unaware of her placement underfoot, she slipped on the wet, moss-covered stone, falling off the ledge to the talus slope below. As she landed on the mounds of scree, the crack of skull hitting bluestone echoed across the valley. The blue rock stained red with the blood of Ophelia Bonestead.
Her body tumbled and rolled a few times, eventually landing in Clopperson Pond. The stiff wind carried her body afloat until it rested beneath a large red maple snag standing amidst the mounds of tussock sedge, in the hummock island. That night a light snow covered the body and there she lay, settling in the silty clay loam.
In the town cemetery, where the land gradually sloped toward Snake Rocks, a dome-topped bluestone inscribed with a Star of David marked the grave of Marvin Levinson: Died November 18, 1923.
Behind the farmhouse, near the forest edge, two red ship anchors set against the boundary wall. Brad had placed them against the laid stone.
The anchors were now firmly entrenched: both fluke and arm were buried beneath fallen branches, leaf, mast and toppled bluestone. Creeping vines circled the anchors, entangling the shanks around and again, wrapping and tightening their hold in multiple revolutions of twining tendril and stem. Here, beneath a sugar maple, where wood fern blanketed the ground in a dense glade, hope and hatred, like two inseparable sisters, lay together.
Brad sold the camp and moved out of state. Sitting beneath the shade tree in his yard, he could hear his two daughters laughing in the kitchen. Pansies, periwinkle and lavender graced the small lot, the flowers gently swaying in the warm breeze, which carried the sweet sounds of his daughters' youthful laughter. Of his hopes and hatred, the greatest enemy was never without; it was found within.
Copyright © Clifford Lamm 2013