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Midcentury Modern

by Ernest Troost

 

I went to kindergarten in a suburb of Toronto, where each day my sister and I walked to school, winding between five-story apartment buildings and undeveloped lots. There was an ice cream man in the area that cut kids up with a long knife and stuffed them into his ice cream cart with the popsicles. It was a known fact that if you heard his bell he was too close for you to get away. In hindsight, I realize that this might have been a tall tale made up by older kids. Either way, we walked to school ever alert and fearful of hearing the tinkle of his bell.

 

When we moved back to the US and I attended first grade at St Mary’s in Stamford, things were not much better, though long knives and ice cream vendors were not involved. Instead there was a bleak asphalt playground and perpetual gray skies, ruled by bullies looking for skinny kids to pick on. I was an easy target. This is when I started making up stories. I’d found I could sometimes distract a bully with an astonishing tale, the more dangerous, the better. I once told two guys who were taunting me that, while I lived in Canada, I had fallen three stories down a mineshaft and it took firemen two days to pull me out. They were so enthralled that they forgot to hang me up on the chain-link fence by my coat collar that day. The next day my story was less potent so they hung me up. Another time I told them the thick patches my grandmother had sewn on the knees of my uniform pants were from repelling down a granite cliff to escape a Kodiak bear. Now, this story the nuns heard about, and they informed me that Kodiak bears live only on Kodiak Island off Alaska, not in Toronto. They enlightened me on the sin of telling fibs. They clearly lacked any understanding of my plight and could have at least praised my survival instincts.  In Stamford there was also the ominous school building itself, towering over us like a giant slagheap, ready to collapse and smother us all during the next heavy rain.

 

Pencils without erasers were distributed in my first-grade class because with the Lord’s guidance you didn’t make mistakes. During penmanship practice I tried to rub out an error with the hard end of my pencil, but it smudged and ripped the paper. This was a punishable offence. I offered up the back of my hand to the nun with her ruler, while my eyes locked on the crucifix above the blackboard. I was hoping for a reprieve, or at least a well-aimed lightening bolt, but the weeping Jesus was giving me his stone face that day. I secretly pledged to run away and join Claude Kirchner’s “Merrytunes Circus” if she hit me again.

 

I was so relieved to learn we were moving away from Stamford before I started second grade. I remember my mom driving me into Ridgefield for my first day of school. The sun was out and the sky was all blue and encouraging. The lawns were green and trees were swishing about in the breeze. As we drove down Main Street, Mom and I picked out our favorite Victorian house. I rolled down my window and breathed the cool crisp air and took in all the clean, white picket fences. “This place is great,” I said to my mom. “It’s a beautiful town,” she said. “You’re going to like it here. You won’t need to make up any more stories.” I knew I’d have to wait and see about that one.

 

A bright green crosswalk was painted on the street--I would go on to recreate that crosswalk in every HO train layout I ever built. Also welcoming us to town was a big clock mounted on an elegant post across from the bank. It turns out that in the 1950s there was a trend of adding public clocks to town squares around the country. City planners liked the quaintness they added to the town center. The American Women’s Voluntary Services erected this clock in 1958. It was indeed a handsome clock, and immediately the town felt like home. Some part of me registered this as a new beginning. I would grow up in this town.

 

Mom turned down the circular driveway of Veterans Park School and stopped in front. The one-story school was inviting, with low gentle steps to the front door, just my size. After attending first grade in a gothic-revival monstrosity, a mashup of granite, brick, and slate, this midcentury design, with its clean lines and unfussy geometry, looked to me like a child’s drawing, simple and true. I felt safe stepping inside and waving goodbye to my mom. Architects Sherwood, Mills, and Smith had designed the school in 1955, as the town was experiencing its first boom in population. Mills also designed himself a midcentury house south of Ridgefield in New Canaan, which was beautifully restored to its original condition around 2019--but that’s another story.

 

I remember the sun warming the floor and the quiet stillness of the lobby. There was a display case on the right with awards and artwork by the kids, and on the left stood a secretary at a switchboard behind a counter of light birch. Everywhere there were big windows filled with swaying green trees. The secretary asked if I needed help finding my room and called my teacher. Then she walked me down the wide hallway to my room.

 

My teacher introduced me to the class, telling them I had lived in Toronto and Stamford. Everyone was friendly. At recess we played some games organized by the teacher, then she waved us off to go play. I stood there wondering what to do. A girl asked me if I wanted to go on the swings and I followed her over to the swing sets, which stood in the shade of magnificent trees. The lawn swept gracefully down the hill from the school to a huge field with a few distant baseball diamonds. It was like the playground had no boundaries. No fences, no pavement, only a sea of green grass. We swung higher and higher on the swings and I felt the gravitational forces swoosh in my belly and I laughed. The girl asked me what it was like living in Canada, as she zoomed by on her swing. I started to say I had been chased by a bear, but stopped myself. “It was pretty much like this,” I said. “Oh,” she said, “Like normal.” “Yeah,” I said, “like normal.”

 

 

                                                              

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Night Crawlers

by Ernest Troost

 

 

It was black outside as I stepped onto the chilly back porch. A light drizzle was falling and I pulled my windbreaker tight over my sweater. Dad handed me a flashlight and a coffee can with a little dirt in it. He looked at me as I shivered and said, “It’s not that cold. This will be fun.”

 

Just after I’d gone to bed, I’d heard Mom saying to Dad that I was only eight years old, and kids that age need their sleep. I was too young to be dragged out of bed in the middle of the night. But at around 2AM Dad shook me awake. He leaned over me, smelling of coffee and tobacco, and whispered, “Get dressed and try to be quiet, we don’t want to wake the whole house.” I’d been excited when Dad proposed catching night crawlers, but now, with cold rain dripping down the inside of my collar, it seemed far less appealing.

 

Looking out into the darkness, it was difficult to get my bearings, but eventually I could see the faint outline of the tall trees at the edge of our yard and hear their leaves rustling overhead. Our backyard was mostly hard packed dirt, as we had defeated all efforts by my father to grow a nice lawn by pulverizing any new grass with badminton and whiffle ball games. The rain had turned it to mud.

 

Dad squatted and swept his flashlight beam slowly across the ground in front of us. I squatted next to him and tried to imitate his movements with my flashlight. Tufts of wet grass soaked the seat of my pants and mud oozed around the sides of my new sneakers.

 

Then, right in front of us appeared two huge worms, glistening pink in Dad’s flashlight beam. As we moved towards them, they shot back into their holes like they were spring-loaded.

“They can hear us,” whispered Dad.

“They can hear us?”

“If they feel your vibrations through the ground, they’re gone, baby, gone,” he said.

I began to worry about grabbing one of them, but I didn’t know what to say. So I said, “Big worms.”

“Yeah, they’re beauties,” said Dad, sweeping his beam across the lawn.

 

I wonder where Dad had learned about catching night crawlers. He’d grown up in a city. Since we’d moved to this rural town, Dad seemed to have acquired all sorts of outdoorsman interest and knowledge that he was eager to share with us. He would slam on the brakes in our car, sending us flying into the dashboard, then throw it into reverse to show us a snake that was sunning itself on the side of the road. “Look at that thing. I think it’s a copperhead,” he’d say. “We’ll have to look it up when we get home.” After dinner I saw him reading an old copy of “The Tomato Can Chronicles,” by Edmund Ware Smith.

 

I spotted a worm with my flashlight, and as I moved forward it zipped into the ground. “Gone, baby, gone,” I said to myself, more than a little relieved. I duck-walked through the muck over to where it had disappeared and stuck my finger in its little hole in the ground. My light beam fell on another worm close by, and, holding my breath, I grabbed for it. I got it. I pulled, but the other end held fast in the ground. As I pulled, the worm stretched thin like a cartoon worm. Then it popped out of the ground and coiled its slimy body around my hand, and I frantically threw it at my coffee can. I missed, and it disappeared into the darkness.

“It’s not going to bite you,” said Dad.

I wiped my hand on my pant leg, and decided to let Dad catch the rest. After an hour of crouching in the mud and rain, Dad say, “Okay, we’re good to go.”

“How many do we have?” I asked.

“Enough,” he said.

 

The next morning at 6AM we were rattling down Route 7 in our VW bug. My eyes were burning, and I needed sleep. I had toasted a Thomas’s corn cake and it was balanced on my knees as I drifted in and out of sleep. We swayed and bounced on the road, and I tried to keep the little lakes of melted butter from overflowing their little corn cake banks and running onto my jeans. I had never been so tired. Dad kept his window cracked so his cigarette smoke would go out, but it allowed more of the noise from the VW engine in. Together with the static on the radio and the fishing rods and gear clattering away in the back, the din lulled me to sleep.

 

I was running hard away from something. My heart was pounding and a strange sound was behind me. A quick glanced over my shoulder revealed a giant night crawler, at least twenty feet long, slithering after me.

 

“Wake up, you’ll miss the morning,” said Dad, flicking his cigarette in the direction of the full ashtray. The sun was starting to break through the clouds and the leaves sparkled. We turned off Route 7 where a little black canon sat at the intersection with the name Cannondale inscribed on its side. We swerved, and I caught my corn cake from falling. We bumped over some railroad tracks passing an old train station and a cluster of small farm buildings, and then I closed my eyes again.

 

The giant worm was right at my heels. I could feel and smell its wormy breath. I leaped onto a residual boulder, struggling to get high enough for safety.

 

“The fish will be biting today,” said Dad, as a pothole jolted me awake.

“I can feel it in my bones.” He held his cigarette between the stained fingers of his right hand, which rested on the vibrating shifter knob, letting ash fall around the transmission tunnel like a dusting of snow.

 

“This is the perfect spot,” said Dad, as we pulled into a gravel turnout along the Norwalk River. The sun was spilling across the river and polishing the wet rocks. The water was loud enough that we couldn’t talk easily. I sat on a warm smooth piece of granite--which looked suspiciously like a residual boulder--and ate my corn cake. It was the best corn cake I’d ever tasted.

Dad impaled a worm on a hook and tossed his line into the frothy water. “How many worms do we have?” I asked. “Three,” he said.

 

The river was high and fast that day and our big worms wiggled around in the foam until their color faded to a ghastly white. We fished all morning, but didn’t catch a thing. On the way home I asked Dad if maybe next time we should try fly-fishing.

He said, “Fly-fishing? What do I know about fly-fishing?”

 

 

 

How to Catch a Frog 

by Ernest Troost 

If you tumble out of bed one morning in the autumn of your life and smack your palm to your forehead in the realization that you’ve never experienced catching a bullfrog with your bare hands, you’re not alone. But you’re in luck. After you finish your morning coffee, I’ll guide you through the steps. 

First, you’ll want to outfit yourself with waterproof shoes or rubber boots, and an effective mosquito repellant wouldn’t go amiss. After you’re suitably dressed, the next step in catching a frog is finding one. Look in the marshy ends of fresh water ponds or drainage ditches along country roads. Try flooded sections of farmland where runoff has created large semi-permanent puddles. These are good spots to search and where you’ll eventually spy the big yellow, inscrutable eyes of Lithobates catesbeianus. It can sit motionless for hours, waiting patiently for a dragonfly or a curious wasp to come within range of its sticky tongue and voracious appetite. At dusk it starts up the racket that’s made it famous, deep rumblings that ricochet across the swamp and meadows, serenading its mates, who are devotees of “drum and bass.” During the day you’ll find it resting on a lily pad, its fat body mostly in the cool water, its head in the warm sun. 

  

Once you’ve selected your target, move cautiously and get as close as possible, being sure to stay out of the frog’s line of sight. Squat down low at the swamp’s soft edge near your frog and wait. This is where those boots and repellant will come in handy. We want it to forget you are there, and it might take a while. What’s that slight methane smell bubbling up from the stagnant water? Don’t be put off, as this is just decomposing organic matter and is the primordial perfume that our prey prefers. 

 Now that you’re sure it has forgotten all about you, raise your arm ever so slowly and with your hand formed into an open claw-like shape, move it into position, inch-by-inch, close behind the frog. Be sure not to cast a shadow, as that is a clear sign to the frog that a predator approaches. Now, how fast the frog will react will be influenced by how long the frog has been sitting in the sun. If it’s sleeping and enjoying froggy dreams of life as a tadpole, you have a fighting chance. The most important thing to remember, besides striking quickly, is to aim where you anticipate the frog will be once it jumps, not where it now sits on the lily pad. You will need to lead the receiver here. You’ll want to try a lightening grab for a spot six inches ahead of where it’s facing. Hopefully, it will jump straight ahead--sometimes they jump to the side, and if it does, you’re out of luck. If your aim is true, you will be rewarded with a hand full of sinewy, jerking frog. Hold tight. It will snap and hiss, but it’s harmless, and after it kicks a few times it will give up quietly. 

I’m reminded of a cub scout telling his fellow cubs about a boy who caught an exceptionally large frog. The boy held it up and looked it straight in the eyes, and the frog’s tongue shot out and grabbed the boy’s eyeball and pulled it right out of the socket. Even as a cub I never believed this story, but I never again looked a frog straight in the eyes. 

Now is your big moment. Your nerves and muscles twitch with electricity, your arm flashes forward, the frog leaps straight ahead into your grasping hand, and you’ve got him. Congratulations! 

You’ve caught the frog you’ve dreamed of, but what do you do with it? I don’t recommend eating it. I’ve never tasted one myself, but I hear it tastes like stringy chicken. Stuffed and mounted on your library wall is a little presumptuous. You might take a snapshot to show your grandchildren, but it would be best to simply plop it back into the water. With a few pumps of its powerful legs it will glide beneath the surface like an Olympian and then float up and delicately grasp the edge of a lily pad with its tiny webbed fingers, staring back at you blankly, like nothing’s happened, like it didn’t narrowly escape being breaded and fried. 

But you are now the uncontested, benevolent master of the swamp. You’ve demonstrated your superior hunting skills and you’re feeling decades younger, and ready for bigger challenges more suitable to your well-honed and lightening-fast reflexes. 

Notice the large snapping turtle that’s sleeping in the weeds at the pond’s edge. Should you decide to try to catch it, you might want to read my Capturing Snapping Turtles instruction pamphlet, which states emphatically on page one, STAY AWAY FROM SNAPPING TURTLES. However, if you are not a manual reader and prefer to plunge ahead and learn by trial and error, I leave you to your own devices. Go ahead. Give it your best shot, big guy. 

Dedicated to Andy Hatem, for whom I caught a large bullfrog when he was eight years old.