Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Neil Armstrong

It was the strangest of nights.

I was twelve.

My mother, my brother, and I had traveled north from North Tonawanda a couple of days before with my grandfather in his large white Lincoln-Mercury, crossing the border at Niagra Falls and moving up into Ontario, past Toronto and then Peterborough, to a small family cabin on Podash Lake.

I didn't know the cabin even existed, having not grown up in the childhood of fishing and boating along the river where my grandparents lived. 

And when we pulled into that driveway in Canada, the large lake sat before us, a motorboat and a rowboat waited at the dock, and my aunt and uncle and my two girl cousins and grandmother came from the cabin, surprised to see us step out of the car.

For we had come by way of a vacation in Cape Cod, a summer trip aborted by a fever that struck my brother and I simultaneously and caused us to pack up and head back toward Pittsburgh, with that stop to spend the night in Buffalo.

When we unpacked the trunk of my grandfather's car, he took out, in addition to many cases of Genessee and Carling Black Label beer, a small, black and white television. 

I asked him why.

"For the moon landing," he said.

As I came out of that fever into a place that I had never been before, everything had a bright sunny glare of strange newness--the glistening scales of the first fish I ever caught, the wet blueberries in the sink that we had found growing wild as we hiked a local hill and that my grandmother would make into a pie, the ripples in the water on both sides of the rowboat as my brother and I took turns rowing to a small, uninhabited island out in the middle of the lake.

Everything except the snapping turtles.

The snapping turtles were creatures of the night, and my uncle would try to trap them with fish parts left from the day's expedition that he would place in the shallow water by the dock.

Over and over, after dark, while the adults played card games in the cabin's center room, we children would walk out into the darkness with a flashlight to see if the turtles had taken the bait.

Our light would shine like the moon over the shallow water, which would turn cloudy if the turtles had come, and then we would run to the house yelling "Turtles!" and the adults would stop playing and my uncle would get his large net from the shed and drag it along the sand, wrestling with the weight of the turtle struggling.

He would store the turtles in the shed in a burlap sack, until he took them home to make them into soup.

"Don't ever go near them," he warned us.  "Their jaws will take your finger right off, and even after you've cut their heads off, those heads can still clamp down on you."

But that night, we were not looking for turtles and we were not playing cards and all of the fear of what waited in the shed or out in the lake beyond or in the woods of the mysterious island.

We huddled in the screened-in porch, away from the mosquitos, around that small tv, my grandfather twising the antenna to catch any station, probably as far away as Toronto or Montreal or even Sault St. Marie and on that staticky screen we tried our best to figure out what we were seeing, the steps leading down from that lunar lander, the foot and then the leg and then the body coming down those steps, black and white with the white streaks of a hazy transmission overlayed on the screen.  And hearing the words that followed.

At twelve, I stared long enough that I knew what I was seeing even though I couldn't see it clearly, but it was the turtles that made it real, for with a potent mix of fear and fascination of those reptiles, I walked out of the porch and down by the docked boats to look for them, but I forgot the flashlight, and only when I looked up at the light of the moon did I make the connection for the first time.


troutking said...

Awesome post. Deserves to be picked for a larger audience. Might even convince Gordo that the moon landing really happened. Best space mission story since the episode of the Wonder Years where Kevin is trying to call a girl while his family watches the space coverage.

Sara C said...

Beautiful writing, Bob.