Imminent Death and Bathrooms (a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon)

Jay rowing in rapids.

When my husband Jay and I were dating, we had the first great adventure of our lives together, a twelve day rafting trip through the Grand Canyon, an improbable adventure for two middle-aged people who had never rafted before.  Jay had never camped before either—except when he was in the army.  And he hadn’t liked it.

It had come about by accident. George, a geology professor at Union College where I worked, spotted my friend Sigrid and me buying lunch.  Apparently we looked especially gullible that day.  He was planning another trip through the Grand Canyon—he’d made umpteen trips already—but was looking for a way to finance it.  That’s where we came in.  If he could inspire a few colleagues to become fellow adventurers—and if he rowed the supply raft—he could travel for free. We said we’d think about it. After all, it was a year and a half away.

In the end, ten people had a Union connection, half the people on the trip: John, an engineer; Dave, a chemist, and his wife and teenage sons; Sigrid, who taught German; George the geologist and his daughter; and Jay and me.

We women had our worries, mainly about how we would go to the bathroom and about sudden death.  George, the geologist, assured us that everything was easy, safe, and great fun. We’d love it. Dave, the chemist, had done the trip once before.

He warned, “If your raft capsizes, be careful not to get trapped underneath.  You will die.”

He explained other ways people die on the Colorado River.  He described near escapes. He told me his family would sleep in their own tent, the better to be safe from the snakes and scorpions. And he told me the truth about going to the bathroom. (I will spare you the ungodly details.)

Before the trip, we had to buy stuff, all indestructible, most of which I’d never owned before:  water bottles, river shorts, Teva sandals, kerchief, flashlights (preferably the kind that attached to one’s forehead), dangling things you hang from your glasses so they don’t fly into the river, carabiners so your water bottles and other belongings don’t fall into the river either, a sunhat with a flap on the back that makes everyone look dorky. We clipped our hats to our tee shirts, so—I have a theme going here—they didn’t fall into the river either.

We met the guides and the other members of our group at Lees Ferry, just down river from the Glen Canyon Dam.  The river flowed gently enough with little hint of the drama we’d face ahead.

All the guides loved the canyon and the river, hated dams that changed the environment, hated the motorized rafts (so did we), and hated people who didn’t respect and take care of the river.  Most on our trip were women: tough, crude, gutsy, funny, and smart.  They peed standing up; I hadn’t known it was possible.

The guides gave us little metal boxes to store the things we’d need during the day and two big, heavy black rubber bags each, one for a sleeping bag and ground cover, one for our clothes and other personal belongings we’d need when we camped each night on shore.  They showed us how to wear our life jackets and assured us that they would prove utterly necessary for survival. Our bags were stowed in various rafts, many on the one that our Union colleague George would be rowing. If we didn’t roll the bag tightly, properly, they warned, our things would get wet if the raft carrying it overturned.

When George’s raft went sideways, backwards, and upside down through one of the monster rapids, it turns out I had not packed one of my black bags carefully enough. Everything inside was soaked with muddy Colorado River water. My  camera and my shrink-wrapped tins of curiously strong mints were destroyed. I spread everything else, including my underwear, on big rocks at our next evening stopping place.

Twelve days and not one man shaved.  In fact, all were all darned proud of their scruffiness.

“Are you going to shave?”

“Nah. Are you?”

“Nah, Me neither.”

None of the women brought lipstick. We did nothing with our hair except comb it down in the morning.  We were not a stylish lot.  We crouched in the river in the morning and washed as quickly as we could in the cold water, craving only a smidgen of privacy and warmer water. Once or twice, in the warmer shallow water of a tributary, we poured water over each other, shampooing our hair gleefully.

Jay was the oldest person on the trip.  To my pleasant surprise, since we hadn’t yet traveled together, he was a trooper. It was he, not I, who took the oars going through one of the rapids, small rapids, but rapids to be sure. At sixty-five he had more reason to be concerned about the exertion and the heat.  And he had to make more trips than most to the river in the dark of the night. (It was on one of those middle of the night trips that he injured his leg and got the infection—but he was ok, eventually, a few weeks after we got home.) Jay was facing surgery for prostate cancer after the trip, and he was determined to enjoy every minute of our adventure.

We became part of a different world of deep cold river and hot canyon walls. We swam in pools in the streams that flowed into the river and slid on rocks behind waterfalls. We hiked up canyon trails that scared me half to death. I hadn’t known I was afraid of heights until I stood at the edge of dizzy-making, rocky precipices overlooking the river below.  Once Matt, one of the guides, had to take my hand and talk gently or I would have spent the rest of my life somewhere on a ledge jutting precariously near the river and the jagged rocks. The teenagers on our trip scrambled up and down as if born to the life.

Twelve days on the water. Twelve days to float past mile high, ever changing canyon walls, punctuated by brief, laugh-out-loud, oh-my-god thrills of unimaginable drops of twenty-five feet and more into churning water.  Once I found my body stretched out in the rapids in the Colorado River, my only connection to the raft my fingers clutching the rope that circled the top.  I had made a resolution that if the raft remained right side up, I would remain attached to it.

In calmer waters, Matt, the same guide who talked me down the canyon trail, taught me how to yell out loud.  Yee haw doesn’t come easily to me.   He called on me to perform at our farewell get-together, and in my opinion, I did well. I may have forgotten how, one gets rusty.  If you ask, I’ll say no.

At night we’d scramble onshore, drag up the rafts, help unload the supplies and search out soft sandy spots for our sleeping bags. Once while we were setting up camp, a small rattlesnake slithered three or four feet from the head of my sleeping bag, the second snake we’d seen in five minutes.

“Don’t worry. They’re not aggressive; they won’t hurt you,” the guides assured me, too quickly.

I knew those guides.  They also thought the daily canyon hikes were a piece of cake.  But if I were fumbling for my glasses and flashlight in the night, preparing for a trip to the not-to-be-discussed bathroom facilities, and if I accidentally whacked that snake on the head, he’d strike, and I would die far from medical facilities.  We were still days away from the possibility of a helicopter rescue.  I slept in a tent that night. (My friend Sigrid later admitted to me that she had wanted to sleep in a tent too, but didn’t want to be thought a wimp.  I didn’t care.)

But other nights I slept under the stars, a zillion stars hanging in the sky between the dark canyon walls while below, benign shadowy bats darted above our heads.

Each morning a guide would walk around our camp, yelling that it was time to get up and drink coffee. By the time we had washed up a little, rolled up our sleeping bags and ground covers tightly enough to fit into our waterproof rubber bags, dressed in our shorts, tee sheet, Tevas, and sun hat, breakfast was ready.  Lots of it, laid out on folding tables. Juices, fruit, eggs, french toast, pancakes, bacon, sausages.  We piled our plates.

I was amazed the rafts could carry enough food safely for a twelve day trip. George’s raft held the food cold below the water level.

Lunch was usually make your own deli-style sandwiches.  Salami and cheese and ham. Two or three kinds of bread.  Fruit.  Pasta salads.  Cold drinks.  Hearty cookies. My most memorable lunch was served on tables set in the middle of a shallow stream flowing into the Colorado River.  We stood in the scorching sun, up to our knees in cool water.

Dinner was salmon or chicken or steak or pork tenderloin.  Once the guides cooked upside-down cakes in cast iron skillets over the grills.

One night, after dinner ended with watermelon, and the guides had probably downed too many beers, they stuffed a watermelon with oily rags, set it on fire, and sent it down the Colorado river, a magnificent sight.

We ended the trip on the Havasupai Indian Reservation, We pulled the rafts out of the water and helped load them onto the trucks that would carry them away.  We were a mess.  The cotton tee shirts we wore on the trip were never clean again, dyed brown from the sand in the river.   Bedraggled though we were, we were presented with a feast of a brunch, fit for people far spiffier than us, brought down the canyon by other, cleaner rafting staff.  Salads. Fruit. Cold cuts.. Cheeses.  Pastries. Wine. All beautifully laid on tables with tablecloths and wonderfully free of sand.  We had never seen such a meal or enjoyed a meal as much, the pleasure tinged bittersweet. These were the last moments of a mind-boggling, life-changing, and, for most of us, once-in-a-lifetime trip.  We had come to feel intimately connected with our dirty fellow-adventurers.  And this lovely meal was the last time we would break bread together beside the river.  When we’d eaten our last fresh perfect strawberry, it would be time to climb into the four-wheeled vehicles and go back to motels in Flagstaff and then to our other lives.

In Flagstaff, Jay and I took our clothes to the laundromat, washed them several times, and threw most away, too stained ever to wear again.  We flew home happy with the trip and with each other. Jay’s leg healed. His cancer was successfully treated. And soon after, we married, confident that this would not be our last happy adventure together.

Tam Lin

Neidlpath Castle in the Scottish borderlands

Intro: This story has its origins in an old ballad (with many variations) from the Scottish borderlands. I think of it as a fairy tale for grownups.

Long ago in Scotland, in the days of castles, and knights, and fair young maidens; long ago, when fairies were commonly seen in the countryside; there lived a girl named Janet, daughter of the lord of a great castle. She was beautiful, with her golden hair in a braid down her back–but proud and impatient. Too proud, some said, for her own good.

One hot summer day, Janet was bored: with needlework, with her music lessons, with the gossip of the other maidens in her father’s castle.

She announced to the others: “This afternoon I’m going to go walk on the cool green grass of Carterhaugh.”

The other maidens were shocked: “You can’t go there. No, never! You can’t have forgotten! In Carterhaugh, Tam Lin, the fairy, walks about. He will steal your gold rings. He will steal your green cloak. Likely as not, he will steal your maidenhood.”

But Janet only laughed at their fears. “I am afraid of no man, nor fairy either. And I will go wherever I choose.”

And soon enough she was there, bending over the path to pluck a fragrant red rose. She stood up to find herself looking directly into the eyes of Tam Lin.

Quietly he said, “You dare to steal a rose without asking my permission?”

“How dare you suggest I need your permission?” she stormed. “Carterhaugh is land that belongs to my father. One day it will belong to me. I ask no man’s permission. And no fairy’s permission either.”

Tam Lin didn’t answer. He just looked long into her blue eyes with his eyes of gray. He touched her green cloak. He held her milk white hands. And he laid her down on the cool green grass. And she didn’t say no. And when she went home much later that day, she was a maiden no longer.

Before long, it was plain for all to see that Janet had changed. She was moody and often ill.

An old knight guessed the reason and laughed.

“It seems to me that Janet is with child. And which one of us will be blamed for it, I wonder?”

Janet heard the old knight gossiping. “It was none of you and never could be.” And she paused only a heartbeat before she added, “The father is the fairy Tam Lin.”

Everyone was silent. Finally, the old knight spoke frankly, “What good to a woman is a fairy baby—or a fairy husband, and him away in fairyland all the time? Better you should eat the white berries that grow in the rocky places of Carterhaugh and lose the little baby growing inside.”

Janet spent many days in mournful thinking. And then, sadder then she’d ever been, she returned to Carterhaugh.

She searched among the rocks. She found the small white berries, enough to fill the palm of her hand. Just before she could bring them to her mouth, there before her stood Tam Lin. He was furious.

“How dare you pick the white berries to lose the child that is mine–that is ours?”

“Who are you to tell me that I should not?” “What good to me is a fairy baby? And what good to me is a fairy father–and you lost to me always in fairy land?”

But Tam Lin looked again in her blue eyes and spoke softly.

“My Lady, I am no fairy. I am a mortal man, born of a mortal man and woman, no less than you. I was only a child of eleven when the queen of the Fairies found me sleeping on the grass and carried me away to her kingdom. I have been held by a spell ever since.”

“You could release me from my spell, Janet, if you would, if you dared. Tonight the fairies go riding at Miles Cross, and I ride with them. Hide in the bushes near the path. First will come the Queen of the Fairies, on her black horse. Let her ride past. Then will come the troop of fairies on their brown horses. Let them ride past as well. I will ride last on a white horse. I will wear a crown on my head with a golden star because my father is an earl. I will wear a glove on my right hand, and none on my left, so you can know me. When I am close, pull me down from my horse, Janet, and do not let go, whatever dreadful thing may come.”

That night Janet hid near the path at Miles Cross. When the moon was high, she saw the Queen of the Fairies coming on her black horse, and she let her ride past. She saw the riders on their brown horses, and she let them ride past. Last came a rider on a white horse with a crown on his head with a star. He had a glove on his right hand and none on his left, and she knew he was Tam Lin.

She waited until he was close beside her, then leaped up and pulled her lover down into her arms. And she did not let go.

The fairy queen wheeled her black horse around to face them and shrieked in dismay,” The girl has taken my Tam Lin!”

Straightaway, Tam Lin was changed into a writhing snake with poisonous fangs. But Janet did not let go.

And then he was changed into a wolf with long, sharp teeth and claws. Again she did not let go.

And then he was changed into a red hot lump of coal that seared the palms of her hands. Still she did not let go.

Finally Tam Lin was changed into a mother-naked man, and Janet drew her green cloak around him.

Bitterly the Fairy Queen spoke,

“Oh, Tam Lin, if I had known yesterday, what I know tonight, I would have taken your heart of flesh and turned it into a heart of stone so you could not feel. If I had known yesterday what I know today, I would have taken your two gray eyes and turned them into eyes of wood, so you could not see.”

Turning to Janet, she said, “You have stolen the best of my company.”

In the next instant, the Queen, all the other fairies, and all their horses disappeared, leaving Janet and Tam Lin alone, in the darkness, together.

Nanaimo Bars, Canada’s Contribution to World Cuisine

Nanaimo Bars

Intro: I’ve forgotten most of the names of teachers, schools, and childhood friends.  But I vividly remember almost everything I’ve ever eaten.  I suspect it might mean I’m shallow. For example, I still feel nostalgic about a chocolate cake that my mother cooked–once–when I was nine years old. It was made, surprisingly, with spices and mashed potatoes and baked in a 9” tube pan. Gone forever, like the names of my childhood friends.

For those of you who are not as shallow as I, it may seem odd to put posts about food in a blog about stories.  What can I say…lots of my memories are about food. This post is to honor one of my favorite sweets: Canada’s own Nanaimo Bars.

In 2006, Canadians voted to designate “Nanaimo Bars” Canada’s Favourite Confection. (Coffee Crisp chocolate bars came in second place.)

If you’re reading this in Canada, you are not surprised. A colleague of mine, originally from Toronto, called them “Canada’s contribution to world cuisine.” You can buy them everywhere in Canada: on the ferry going to Vancouver Island off the West Coast or in some out-of-the-way corner store in Newfoundland off the East Coast. Buy them from your neighborhood Tim Horton’s donut shop, pick up a mix from the grocery store, or use the recipe your mother handed down to  you.

If you’re American, you probably never heard of them. A pity. If you’ve always thought the the expression “can never be too rich” applies to sweets, these Canadian treats are for you. A bottom layer with graham cracker crumbs, cocoa, nuts, and coconut.  A middle layer of creamy butter icing.  A top layer of melted chocolate. They’re easy to make; they look hard; they keep well; and almost everyone loves them. What recipe is better than that?

When my son Raj was about four he was eating a Nanaimo bar and said, “Mommy, when I am very, very, very old and just about to die, give me one of these. I will eat it…quickly.” I don’t recall him ever being so impressed with anything else I ever made.

My son, Raman, in Kansas City has made them his specialty. I remember him trading some years ago with a colleague for a truly outstanding apple pie.

I first tasted them when I was in elementary school in the 1950s. My Aunt Dorothy got the recipe from her friend, Mrs. Layton, and passed the recipe on to my mother. And for most of my life we called it “Mrs. Layton’s recipe.” We liked it very, very much.

According to Wikipedia, Nanaimo Bars were invented in the early 1950s by a woman named Mabel Jenkins who lived just south of Nanaimo, British Columbia.  She submitted them to a fund raiser cookbook called the Ladysmith and Cowichan Women’s Institute Cookbook. Later the recipe turned up in other cookbooks, sometimes called Mabel’s cookies.

Since then, variations have appeared: mint nanaimo bars, peanut butter nanaimo bars, mocha nanaimo bars.

In 1986, the city of Nanaimo had a contest to find the very best Nanaimo Bars.  Out of a hundred contestants, Joyce Hardcastle won.  Find her recipe and several variations here at the website of the Buccaneer Inn, Nanaimo, B.C.

The only literary work I’ve found (so far) about Nanaimo Bars is called “Sex, Life Itself and the Original Nanaimo Bar Recipe.” It’s written by Kim Blank, a professor in British Columbia, who also writes about Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats. I haven’t found it on amazon or in Chapters (Canadian book stores). But I’ll keep on looking.

Finally, here’s my recipe, or rather, Mrs. Layton’s recipe. It’s not quite traditional: it doesn’t use custard powder or vanilla pudding and it uses unsweetened chocolate on top. Heresy, but equally delicious. Enjoy.

1/2 cup butter (1 stick)
1/4 cup sugar
5 tablespoons cocoa
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1 cup coconut
1/2 cup walnuts
1/2 cup butter
2 cups icing sugar (confectioner’s sugar)
milk (as necessary)
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 squares unsweetened chocolate squares
1 tablespoon butter

1. Melt stick of butter.  Add cocoa and sugar..  Break in egg and cook one minute over medium-low heat.  DO NOT BOIL.

2. Add graham cracker crumbs, coconut, nuts, and vanilla.

3. Press down hard in 8” X 8″ pan.  (If you want thinner slices, use a slightly bigger pan.) Chill.  If this layer is well chilled, it will be easier to spread the next layer.)

4. Melt 2nd stick of butter.  Beat with 2 cups confectioner’s sugar and vanilla.  Add a little milk if necessary to make a spreading consistency,  Spread on first layer.

5. Melt unsweetened chocolate and tablespoon of butter.  Working quickly, Pour over squares, tilting pan to spread.

6. Chill in fridge.  Cut into squares. It helps to dip the knife in hot water before cutting each row.

Copyright by Margaret French (narrative)

The Wrestling Team

He joked that he got a really good look at tiles on gym ceilings that year–while he lay pinned on the mat.

He joked that he measured his progress by the number of seconds until he got pinned.

Why in the world would my oldest son, Paul, take up wrestling in his senior year of high school? He was a very tall, skinny kid who’d never wrestled in his life. He’d made the team only because there was no one in his weight category and the team would lose those matches anyway, by default.

Thanks to that bizarre impulse, he experienced defeat match after match, week after week, and no wonder.

Others in his weight category were shorter, muscular kids built like trucks who’d been wrestling for years. Summers while he was practicing the clarinet and playing tennis, they were going to wrestling camp and lifting weights. [I’m making some assumptions here. I am his mother, after all.]

But he didn’t quit. It would have been fine with me. Wrestling is dangerous. Crash dieting to “make weight” can’t be healthy. The coach was way too tough. And, mostly, he could get hurt.

He didn’t seem to know it, but he was not invincible. The football games with friends on weekends had too often led to injuries. More than once, one sweet girl or another would be at my front door to say something like,

“Hi. My name is Jennifer.  I just came to tell you that Paul got hurt.  We took him to the emergency room….”

it seems that the weekly battle cry–because he was the tallest and presumably the biggest threat–was, “Get Pau!”

And week after week, they did.

And now wrestling?

Paul lost every single match until the last meet of the season–against Kingston’s arch rival, Saugerties High. The two teams were evenly matched. That day, Paul won his first match ever. His coach and teammates went wild. But not just because Paul won a match. That day Kingston High won the meet–by one match. Paul’s match. He was the hero of the day.

I heard that the coach told Paul’s story for years after. He admired Paul’s grit and perseverance, showing up for practice and matches, knowing he had almost no chance to win, ever.

I cared nothing at all about wrestling and would not have minded if he quit. But I was pleased that he stuck to something he wanted to do, even though he would never get glory. I’ve always liked that old saying, “If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” How drab our lives would be if we only did what we already know we can do well.

Kids don’t always know what makes their parents proud.

The Selchie (Seal-Woman)

Image from Anne E. G. Nydam

Intro: I told this story at the Riverway Storytelling Festival this past weekend.  I’d first written it a couple of years ago.  Amazing how much it has changed as I tell it. Enjoy.

If you’d like to watch the YouTube video, click here.

I was born on the east coast of Canada. My father had joined the Canadian army shortly before I was born, so we moved often in my growing-up years, to the far north and out west.

Sometimes other kids would ask, “So, where is home?” I didn’t know which town I should call home. But I did know my home was Canada.

When I was a young woman I moved to the United States with my former husband. I am happy here. Upstate New York is beautiful. My husband, my children, my grandchildren, and most of my friends are here, so I don’t expect to live again in Canada.  Still, if you ask me  “Where is home?” I will still say, “Canada.”

Because I have always felt the pull of a lost home, the legends of the selchies, the seal-people, resonate with me.  Here is my version.

On an island off the north coast of Scotland lived a fisherman named Angus. He was a good man, a decent man, a kind man, but he was also a very lonely man.

One day he came home late from fishing. He was tired and decided to rest a bit on the grass near the shore before walking up to his cottage. (Surely not something for a grown man to do, he might have told you.) He fell asleep, and when he woke up, it was already night. In the moonlight he saw women dancing on the flat rocks near the shore. They were beautiful. And they were stark naked.

He knew who they were, even though he had never seen them before. He’d heard about the selchie, the seal-people, but he’d never believed in the legends. He’d heard that sometimes the great gray seals come ashore, take off their skins, and change into human beings. After awhile, they put their seal skins back on and return to the sea.  But if they can’t find their skins, they must stay on shore and live as human beings.

Now I told you that Angus was a good man, a decent man–but such a lonely man. And so he did what he should not have done. Quietly, he took one of the furry pelts and hid it in the rocks.

After awhile, one by one, each woman retuned to her fur skin.  Each put in one leg and then another, and her lower body changed into that of a seal. Each put in one arm and then another, tucked in her head and became a seal again. And one by one they slipped back into the cold waters of the North Atlantic.

Finally only one woman was left. She came to face Angus and pleaded with him,

“Please…give me back my skin so I can go home.”

He hesitated a second, “No.” And again, “No…Stay with me. Marry me. I will be a good husband to you.”

And though she cried and begged, he would not give her back her skin. Finally she did marry him, for what else could she do?

And he tried hard to be a good husband to her. He loved her with all his heart and would have given her anything in his power to give–except the one thing she longed for most. The one thing that he wrapped in burlap and tied with twine. And often he changed the hiding places, hoping that she would never find it.

Years went by. They had three children, two boys and a little girl. While he was fishing, she would often take them to swim in the sea.  Never have children loved the water as much as they. The only person who loved diving and swimming more was their mother.

One day, the younger boy went up to the cottage to get a drink of fresh water. He came back to the shore and said to his mother,

“Mother, I have seen the most peculiar thing. Father was in the cottage, standing on the kitchen table. He had a package this big,” and he showed her the size with his hands, “wrapped in burlap, tied with twine. And he was pushing it into a space in the rafters.”

The moment the boy’s mother heard those words, she began running back to the cottage. She pushed the table against the wall, climbed on it, began looking for the package, pulled it down.

She ran back to the shore and all the while, she was untying the knots on the twine, peeling back the burlap. By the time she reached the shore, she held her own seal skin in her two hands.

“Children,” she said. “I must go back to the sea. It is my home. There I have another husband and children too.”

She looked earnestly at each of them. “I love you. Come with me.”

The older boy, in anguish, said, “No. This is our home. And Father needs us. No.”

And even while she was talking, she was putting one leg into the skin and then another, and her two legs changed into the lower body of a seal.

She said again to her little girl, “Come with me.”

And she was putting one arm into the skin and then the other and tucking in her head.

The little girl said nothing, but put her small hand into what was now the flipper of her mother. In the space of a heartbeat, she was transformed into a small gray seal. And mother and daughter dove into the cold waters of the North Atlantic.

For a long. long time the boys and their father were mournfully sad. Still, ever after, whenever the three of them went fishing, two gray seals, one larger and one smaller, swam near their boat and led them to the place where the fish were plentiful.

Then mother and daughter dove deep again to their home in the cold sea.


Copyright by Margaret French

Farm Cadet Victory Corps

Photo by graur razvan ionut,

Would you believe my husband, Jay, helped win World War II? In a small way, you understand. After all, he was just a kid living in Brooklyn.

It was 1943, wartime, and his father was forever talking about how evil Hitler was and why people must stand up to the Nazis.  His father was air raid warden for their block on Avenue M, making sure that everyone’s blackout shades were pulled down when the sirens screamed at night.

Jay had a big map of Europe on the wall of his bedroom, and he used map pins to plot the advance of allied troops.  He wrote away to Boeing, Grumman, and Lockheed who sent him photographs—in color—of their fighter planes. He tacked those pictures on the walls too. From the ceiling he hung his model airplanes. Sometimes he went up on the roof of his apartment building with his buddies, Jerry and Howie, to look for enemy airplanes.  They never spotted any.

One day in his school, PS 197, Jay saw a poster that said, as near as he remembers now,

Serve your country!
Work on a farm so a farm boy can fight overseas.
Join the Farm Cadet Victory Corps!

The words rolled off his tongue. Farm Cadet Victory Corps.  He imagined himself working hard all day long in the hot sun—serving his country. He would come home tanned and strong. Strong enough, come to think of it, to try out for football in the fall.

At home, he laid out his plans for the summer to his mother.

“I’ll be helping my country!”

His mother barely looked up. “So maybe you should begin by helping your mother? I need you to get bread from the bakery. Besides, where would we get the money for your summer vacation?”

“No, Mom, you don’t understand.  It won’t cost us anything.  The farmer will give me free room and board plus twenty-five cents an hour.  And the program will send me a free train ticket.”

“To be away all summer…at your age?”

“Mom, you’d think I was just a kid.  I’m thirteen years old. I had my bar mitzvah last month.”  (Jay hoped his mother wouldn’t remind him that he’d forgotten the words to his speech at the reception.)

“Mom, I’m a  man!”

Jay’s father joined the conversation,

“Jean.  He’s had odd jobs since he was nine.  He can handle it.  I think it’s a good thing to do.”

The Monday after school ended, Jay said good-bye to his parents in Grand Central Station. In one hand, he held the almost-new striped tan suitcase that his mother had bought him; in the other, a paper bag with two egg salad sandwiches.

The farm agent met him in Saratoga Springs and drove him to the farm of Lester Becker and his wife, near Greenwich, NY.  They seemed nice enough, but really old, sixty–or more.  They gave him supper and he went to bed in a room of his  own.  He cried for awhile because he’d never been away from his parents before, but he never told any one, until he told me.

Every day that summer was pretty much like the day before. Around five in the morning, Jay and Lester Becker would be out in the barn, milking the fifteen cows, dumping the warm milk in milk cans and placing the milk cans in the cooler.  They’d send the cows back to the pasture and clean up the barn.

Then it was time for breakfast.  At home he mostly had oatmeal, sometimes a bagel with a schmeer of cream cheese.  But Mrs. Becker always served a big plate of fried eggs, another plate piled high with crisp bacon, a tall stack of buttered toast and a jar of home-made jam. Lester or Jay would carry in a pail of milk from the cooler in the barn and Mrs. Becker would fill a tall pitcher with the cool milk.  After a few days of hard work, Jay was easily eating as much as Mr. and Mrs. Becker put together.

After breakfast Jay was often sent alone to fetch the two huge farm horses.  If he called them, they looked at him–and went back to eating grass.  If he walked towards them, they walked away, just fast enough to keep their distance.  But Mr. Becker had taught him to bring some oats with him.  The horses would come to eat the oats and Jay could slip the halter over their heads and lead them back to the barn.

Mr. Becker and Jay spent a lot of time cutting hay that summer, raking it in the fields, pitching it into the wagon, and driving back to the barn. Mr. Becker didn’t bale the hay or roll it like they do nowadays.  When they got back to the barn, Jay would climb up to the hay loft.  Mr. Becker would use a giant claw on a pulley to get the hay up to the loft.  Then Jay would use a pitchfork to move the hay from the middle of the barn to the sides.  If it stayed in one pile, it would pack down and get hard.  Besides, they needed to make room for the next wagon load of hay.

Mr. Becker had a tractor too.  Once Jay was driving the tractor and went around a curve too fast. The hay wagon he was pulling tipped over into the side of the hill.  It took them hours to get the wagon upright again.  Jay was afraid that he might not be allowed to drive the tractor again. It had been fun.

But the very next day, Mr. Becker said “Jay, why don’t you drive the tractor?” Jay felt relieved. In fact, he felt great.

The first Sunday on the farm Mrs. Becker said to Jay at breakfast, “Jay, we go to church on Sundays.  Will you be coming with us?”

Jay blurted out, “I can’t. I’m Jewish.”

Mrs. Becker answered , “That’s fine.  Lester and I will go on to church.  You stay behind. We’ll be back by lunch time.”  And that’s what they did for the rest of the summer.

If a weekend day was hot, the Beckers took Jay to swim in the Hudson River near the bridge in Schuylerville.  In August, they took him to the Washington County Fair.  And every Saturday the Beckers went to Saratoga to the harness races, and they took Jay along.  After the races, they always met their friends at Sarge’s Triangle Diner. The men talked about the horses, the weather, and the price of milk.  Jay listened to the talk and ate hamburgers, milkshakes, and french fries.

He only got in trouble once.  It was his job to sit on the milk cans and wait for the truck from the dairy to come pick them up.  While he was waiting, it was easy enough to pry open a can and dip a ladle into the rich, delicious cream that floated on top of the skim milk.  Usually he’d dip another ladle or two.

Lester Becker came to him one day and said “Jay, you been dipping into the cream?”

“Yes….How did you know?”

“The dairy measures the percentage of cream in the milk.  If the cream is down, they don’t pay me as much.  Jay, I don’t want you to do that any more.”

So he never did.

At the end of the summer, Jay had a little stash of money to take back home.  He had grown tan and strong. And he had a certificate and a patch to sew on his jacket that said Farm Corps Victory Cadets.

The following year he signed up again.  But instead of being sent back to the Beckers, he was sent to a big farm in western New York.  That farmer had a lot of people working for him, though Jay was the only teenager.

The first night there, Jay was looking forward to a big farm dinner. Instead there was nothing on the table but a big pot of home-made beans and some store-bought white bread. The bean pot sat on the kitchen table all night long.  The next morning, Jay went to the kitchen and looked around.  He couldn’t see anything to eat.  He said, “Where’s breakfast?”

“You’re looking at it,” said the farmer. But there was nothing there to eat but the cold beans left over from the night before.

The worst was yet to come.  This farmer had not one, but six teams of horses pulling six wagonloads of hay to the barn. And once again, Jay  was sent up to the loft alone to rake the hay from the middle of the hayloft to the sides.   But no way could he keep up.  The hay was being hoisted up too fast.  And though he worked as hard and as fast as he could, by the end of the day, there was still a big pile of packed hay in the middle.

The farmer took one look at the pile and lost his temper.

“What in the name of all that’s holy have you been doing all day?  What kind of lazy, good for nothing, worthless city brat are you anyway?”

The words stung.  And because Jay was a city kid from Brooklyn, his answer came quickly:

“You can take your hay and stuff it where the sun don’t shine.”

The farmer was wild with rage.  He took a pitchfork and lit out after Jay who ran for his life.  Jay slid down from the loft with the farmer close behind. Jay tore towards the cooler.

One of the hired men saw what was happening. He grabbed the pitchfork out of the farmer’s hands and broken it in two over his leg.

He faced the farmer, his boss: “Don’t you ever lay a hand on that boy, or you’ll answer to me.”

In about a minute, both Jay and the hired hand were fired.

Now you would think that getting chased by a wild farmer with a pitchfork would have soured a kid on the idea of farming for good.  But it didn’t.  Jay, a Jewish kid from Brooklyn, went to Cornell and majored in agriculture.  And he spent his career working upstate, selling health supplies to veterinarians. Even now, if he gets a chance to shoot the breeze with a farmer, he’s a happy guy.

I like to think that the power of the goodness and tolerance of the Beckers was stronger than cold beans and pitchforks.

And I also like to think, that like hundreds of other teenage boys and girls in the Farm Cadet Victory Corps, he truly did help win World War II.


Copyright by Margaret French

Their Last Visit to Vermont

Photo by EA at

Intro: One of my first stories. It’s about taking two teenage sons on a not-so-successful trip to Vermont. I’ve included a link to the YouTube video, part of our new local storytellers’ collection. Enjoy.

My ex-husband still had a PhD, a good job with IBM,  the house, the furniture, the photographs, and the Christmas tree decorations.  I had my children most of the time (which was good), a college job that didn’t pay nearly enough, and a lease on an apartment I could scarcely afford.

My ex took my sons to the Caribbean. Then he took  them to Hawaii.

Not that I was resentful or anything….

By great good fortune, a colleague in the theater department recommended a performance by the Bread and Puppets Theater in Vermont.  I must not miss it.  Highly original. Thought-provoking and meaningful. Talented cast and choreographer.  Outdoors in a natural amphitheater.

Well, I might never afford Hawaii.  But I could afford Vermont.  We would see the performance, stay the night in St. Johnsbury, and drive back the next day. It couldn’t be that far.  On the AAA map, it was only a couple of inches, up in the right hand corner of Vermont.

Now that I use mapquest and GPS, I know that it is 203.45 miles, and it takes 3 hours and 54 minutes to drive if one maintains the speed limit and makes no stops for gas, bathroom, food, or scenic vistas.

For some reason or other, the two sons still at home seemed less than enthusiastic about the trip.  But their only question was “Can we be back in time for the Yankees game on Sunday?”  I took that for a yes.

My red Dodge Colt rattled into town just in time for the show.  We parked on grass burned brown by the summer and joined the crowd on the hillside (also known as the natural amphitheater).  We sat among hundreds of peace-loving, earnest folk  in tie-dyes, maxi skirts, sandals, long hair and beards.  I’d remembered such people from our years in Woodstock. But they had seemed younger then. Come to think of it, so had I.

The smell of marijuana wafted though the air.  Billions of grasshoppers dived into our shoes, our pant legs, our shirts, our hair.  If a young woman hadn’t strolled by topless, I doubt I’d been able to persuade my sons to stay.

The air smelled good, of grass and home-made bread. Someone told us that they always made and gave away chunks of good bread: we should get some. But we had no time. The performance was beginning.

The puppets were at least 6 or 8 feet tall, all draped in long white and black robes.  The music was unfamiliar and discordant.  No doubt I would have been profoundly affected by the beauty of it all if I’d had any clue what it meant. Something about life and death, good and evil, love and hate–black and white? My sons were looking around, probably trying to spot other naked women or hoping we’d make a quick getaway.

The next morning we dawdled  home.  If the puppet show had not quite lived up to my expectations, I was sure that the rest of Vermont, quaint and scenic, would surely wow my sons.

First, at my suggestion, we drove 30 miles or so out of our way to visit the Cabot Cheese Factory.  It was closed on Sunday mornings. Who’s to know?

I would have liked to stop at all of Vermont’s attractions: hills, rivers, cows,  horses, hand-made crafts, vegetable stands, covered bridges, maple sugar farms, flowers, museums, historic sites, antique shops, scenic lookouts, barns, and gift shops.  But my sons wanted me to make better time.  Something about the Yankees game.

We did stop at the World’s Largest Granite Quarry.  (My idea.) I thought it quite interesting. My sons were unimpressed. Back in the car, they cracked jokes. One said it reminded him of the Chevy Chase movie about a family trip to Wally World. The other quipped, “Yeah, the visit to the world’s second largest ball of twine.” Both laughed.

Something in me snapped.  I’d wanted to take them on a vacation, and I’d wanted them to have fun. So I said,

“You never want to go anywhere.  You never want to do anything.  All you ever want to do is stay home and watch baseball on television.”

Silence.  They’d been trying to be good sports (in a teenage boy sort of way), but it had not been fun.  And now I was yelling at them.

None of us spoke for many minutes.  We stopped to check directions at a small rest area.  An older couple were there before us.  In a shrill voice loud enough to carry across the parking lot, the wife was complaining,

“You never want to go anywhere.  You never want to do anything.  All you ever want to do is stay home and watch baseball on television.”

We broke up laughing. We were still laughing when we made our last stop, for good  Vermont-made ice-cream.

If the vacation was a tad disappointing, the story we would tell afterwards was terrific.


Copyright by Margaret French

Here’s the link to “Their Last Visit to Vermont” on YouTube.  (An early appearance on our public access TV.)
While you’re there, check out other stories by our local storytellers, all associated with

The Boston Molasses Disaster

Damage caused by the flood

Did your mother ever say to you, “You’re as slow as molasses in January”? Mine did, often. But at least once in January, molasses raced through the streets of Boston at thirty-five miles an hour. Here’s the story.

In 1919, in the North End of Boston, at the bottom of Copps Hill near the inner harbor, there was a huge steel and concrete storage tank. It towered over the warehouses, naval training center, firehouse, and nearby tenements. It was over five stories high and ninety feet in diameter and held 2,300,000 gallons of molasses.

If that seems like a lot of molasses for baked beans and gingerbread, remember that molasses is also used to make rum and ethyl alcohol, used in WWI to make munitions.

The seams of the tank leaked a little, just enough so the poor people  who lived nearby could collect  molasses. The Purity  Distilling Company, who had built the tank, solved the leaking molasses problem. They painted the tank brown so the stains wouldn’t show.

That year, January 15th was warm. By lunchtime, the temperature was over 40 degrees Fahrenheit.  Kids were walking home from school for lunch with their coats unbuttoned. One of those kids was Anthony di Stasio. He attended Michelangelo School with his sisters. Meanwhile, trucks and horse-drawn wagons passed by on busy Commercial Street.  The men working for the city paving department next door to the molasses tank were eating the sandwiches they’d brought from home, enjoying the good weather.

Suddenly the ordinary bustle of the street was punctuated by loud bangs that sounded like machine-gun fire. Rivets were blasting out of the half inch steel plates that comprised the tank. There was a huge roar and the ground shook like an earthquake as the tank split and the its two halves blew apart.

One huge section blasted into the supports of  the elevated railway across the street and the railway was a twisted mess. Nearby buildings were blown away or smashed into smithereens. A truck was blown clear into the harbor.

The molasses burst up like a volcano and then poured outwards, a sweet-smelling brown wall between eight and fifteen feet high moving thirty-five miles an hour covering, suffocating, drowning, destroying everything in its path. Buildings, wagons, horses, people all swallowed up.

It was impossible to run away from it and impossible to swim in it. In minutes, the wall of molasses had become a lake of molasses, covering several blocks.

Naval cadets, firemen (those who were not already dead or injured), policemen, and workers from the Red Cross were soon covered with the gooey mess while they struggled to find and pull victims from the sticky traps that held them.

The lawyer for United States Industrial Alcohol, who had bought up Purity Distilling, was on the scene almost as quickly as the first rescuers to express the company position: The tank must have been blown up by Italian anarchists. The company was not responsible.

Meanwhile, Anthony Di Stasio, the boy coming home from school for lunch had been picked up by the brown flood and carried on top of it as though he were a surfer. Then the surge of molasses dumped him on the ground and bounced him along the cobblestones. Rescuers took him to the relief hospital where his mother and sisters found him lying on the ground, covered with a sheet, beside those who had died. He opened his eyes when he heard their voices but he was unable to speak, his throat still clogged with molasses.

One of Anthony’s sisters, Maria, was less fortunate. A rescuer spotted her hair, reached into the depths of molasses and pulled her out.  It was too late.  She had already drowned. She was ten years old.

For four days and nights, the rescuers searched for victims buried by the flood and rubble. They found the last victim four days after the blast; glazed and brown, he barely looked human.

Altogether twenty-one people and fifteen horses died. One hundred and fifty people were injured.

Now, imagine the aftermath. Imagine the cellars filled to the brim with molasses. Imagine cleaning all those buildings and all the contents of all those buildings.

The city hosed the cobblestone streets with salt water, and the molasses changed to a frothy mess which too slowly oozed down into the harbor, which was brown for months.

The people of the North End sued United States Industrial Alcohol. The lawsuit dragged on for years. The company continued to claim that it was all the work of a foreign terrorist.

But the verdict was that though fermentation of the molasses and expansion caused by the warm weather might have been factors, ultimately the tank exploded because of shoddy construction and inadequate safety inspections.

The company settled out-of-court for $600,000. Even allowing for what that means in today’s dollars, a paltry few million, it seems little enough for the suffering and the lives lost that day.

They say that you could smell molasses in Boston’s North End for decades. But now kids play Little League baseball where the tank once stood, and hardly anyone reads the little plaque nearby.


Copyright by Margaret French

Some sources: Boston, MA “Molasses Flood” Tank Explosion, Jan 1919,,-ma-%2526%2523039;molasses-flood%2526%2523039;-tank-explosion,-jan-1919


Edwards Park, “Eric Postpischil’s Molasses Disaster Pages, Smithsonian Article,” Eric Postpischil’s Domain, 14 June 2009, <; accessed 1 March 2011.

(Recipe) My Mother’s Saturday Night Homemade Baked Beans

Beans good for homemade baked beans

Yellow-eyed beans, uncooked

Intro: I promised the recipe for my mother’s homemade baked beans. Here it is. Now, if your family’s recipe is better, we all want to know.


Amount: Makes enough for a six-cup bean pot.

2 cups beans.

My mother used to say that yellow-eyed beans were best.  But she could never get them out West, so she used navy beans (also traditional) or a mixture of navy, kidney, and pinto beans (not traditional at all, but good).

If you want to use a full pound of beans, which is just a little more than 2 cups, no problem.  I use less because my bean pot isn’t big enough to hold that much.

1/2 cup molasses.

Not blackstrap.  You want the label to say “fancy” or “mild.” Mom liked Crosby’s Fancy Molasses.  In the States, if I can’t find Crosby’s, I use Grandma’s or Brer Rabbit. All are just fine.

You could substitute pure maple syrup. In fact, amber maple syrup is wonderful in beans. It’s just darned expensive.

Don’t substitute maple-flavored pancake syrup.

Some people add a little brown sugar too. I have no idea why.

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon dry mustard

Look for mustard powder in the spice section of your supermarket. I like Colman’s mustard–just because the yellow metal tin is charming. Mustard lasts forever. If you mix it with water, you can make blazingly hot mustard, good for egg rolls.

1 small, whole onion, peeled

4 ounces salt pork.

Your supermarket probably stocks this, even if you’ve never noticed it there before. Here in Saratoga, I buy it in a 12 ounce package, good for 3 pots of beans. It keeps forever in the fridge, which is good, because I don’t make beans often.

In my opinion, neither the salt pork nor the onion tastes good cooked in beans. But they contribute greatly to the flavor of the beans, and they are definitely traditional. You could substitute bacon, but remember, it won’t get crisp cooking in a pot of beans. In my vegetarian phases, I have substituted a stick of butter, which is delicious.

1/4 cup ketchup, optional

My mother felt daring when she added ketchup. She felt it was her own idea though I’ve seen quite a few old recipes that include it. (Sorry, Mom.)

Some old recipes suggest a pinch of baking soda to make the beans softer, quicker. But I’ve read that it destroys nutrients, and you don’t really need it


Beans are not a last minute affair.  Ideally you’ll start the evening before although you can begin early in the morning that you want to serve them. I’ll explain how below.

  1. Spread the beans on a light-colored plate or tray, a handful at a time, to look for & discard stones, stems, or damaged beans. Cover the beans with water.  Throw away anything that floats. Swish the beans around to get them clean. Drain.
  2. Soak the beans overnight in plenty of water. (If you forget that, put them in a pot, add water to cover by 3 or 4 inches, bring to a boil, turn off the heat, and let them sit for an hour.)
  3. Drain and rinse.
  4. Put them in a saucepan, cover with water, bring to the boil, and simmer on very low heat for 30 minutes.
  5. In the bottom of the bean pot, put onion and the salt pork. I cut into the pork down to the rind in two or three places.  Add the beans, salt and pepper, molasses, mustard, and ketchup (if you’re using it).
  6. The beans should be covered by about 1/4” to 1/2” of water. If it’s not, add a little boiling water. Put the lid on.
  7. Put in a 300℉ oven. Cook about 8 hours. Every hour or two, check the water level. If the beans are not covered with liquid, add a little boiling water. Don’t add any liquid in the last half hour or so.  You want the liquid to get dark and thick. By the time you serve the beans, they should be just barely covered with liquid.

You can cook beans in a crock pot or a covered casserole instead of a bean pot, but the beans may not be quite as dark and delicious.

The water will evaporate quicker in a casserole; you’ll have to keep a sharp eye on it. It  will evaporate more slowly in a crock pot. Be careful not to add too much liquid.

Beans freeze beautifully.

Homemade Baked Beans

Baked Beans

We ate baked beans every Saturday night. It was all because my family was from New Brunswick, on the East coast of Canada. As far as I know, every person in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island used to eat baked beans on Saturday night.  In New England too. I would bet good money that many people Down East still do.

My mother said she made beans because it was convenient. We could go shopping on Saturday and not have to worry about cooking dinner.  The beans were already in the oven.

But I knew the truth. It was tradition.

It didn’t matter whether we still lived in New Brunswick.  It didn’t matter whether we wanted beans that Saturday night.  If it was Saturday, beans were what we were going to eat.

Personally, I thought beans were a boring excuse for a meal. Adding hot dogs or fish cakes and biscuits or homemade bread didn’t particularly help.

I dreaded the years my birthday fell on a Saturday. Birthday cake–and beans!

Washing the bean pot was on my list of most-dreaded chores.  My sister and I took turns washing the dishes, and each of us, day by day, decided the pot needed to soak a little longer.  Saturday morning would come and my mother would hit the roof because the bean pot was full of smelly, funky water with a few of last week’s beans still clinging to the sides.

My mother was proud of her beans. And for some reason, other people liked them too. I think it was just because Westerners thought that beans came out of a Heinz can. They praised her beans to the sky.  They stopped by on a Saturday afternoon, hoping to be invited for supper. They knew she always cooked enough to feed everyone on the north side of town.

All I could think was, “For heaven’s sake, I wish they wouldn’t encourage her!”

When I grew up and left home, I stopped thinking about baked beans, unless I was visiting my family–and Saturday night rolled around.

And in my own home, I didn’t make or eat homemade beans.

The first time my mother came to visit me, she made herself at home in my kitchen.  I heard the sounds of clashing pots. After a few minutes, she came to me, puzzled.

“Margaret,” she said. “Where do you keep your bean pot?”

“I don’t have one,” I replied.

My mother thought about that for several seconds.

“Well then,” she said, “How do you make beans?”

And I replied with the answer that left her flabbergasted.

“I don’t.”

Years and years passed.  I reached the age of nostalgia. I began to long, just a little, for real homemade baked beans. I even began to long for a bean pot of my very own.

In an antique shop in western New York state, one of those cluttered, junky, dusty, dirt-cheap antique shops, I spotted a small bean pot. Chubby, brown on top, cream on the bottom. The right colors, the right shape, the right kind of handles, the right lid.

“That would be just the right size,” I thought. And I bought it.

Since then, every once in a long while, I make baked beans. I know how. I’d watched my mother hundreds of times.  I’d made them myself too.  Reluctantly, to be sure, but I’d made them.

Mine are never quite as good as hers.

She never used a recipe, didn’t need to.  But I’ve tried to guesstimate the amounts for the beans she made, just in case you or my children or my grandchildren develop a craving for beans, New Brunswick style.

I’ll test it one more time and post it for you tomorrow or the next day.