A SPREE IN HERKIMER COUNTY by Marvin Stern
OXFORD MAGAZINE [England] #335 Trinity Term, 2013
On Wednesday morning, 13 March 2013, a sixty-four-year old resident of the upstate New York town of Mohawk (population 2,700) set fire to his apartment. Then he drove to the town barber shop where he wounded the owner and killed two customers. Next he drove a short distance into the neighboring town of Herkimer (population 7,000) and he murdered an employee of the town’s car wash and here again a customer.
The Governor of the State of New York said these acts were “inexplicable.” Lifting his hands from state business, he rushed to Herkimer joined by the Chief of the New York State Police, FBI agents, and heavily armed assault teams. Schools were locked down. Roadways and airways were filled with caravans of police cars and helicopters. When the murderer was cornered in an abandoned bar the next day, he shot an approaching FBI dog. The dog had a camera attached to him. The dog, named “Ape,” died a hero’s death, for FBI marksmen were then enabled to uphold their most sacred expression: “The FBI always gets their man.”
The site of this recent murder rampage in America is where I worked on a farm when I was a teenager. Although it is less than four hundred miles away from Newtown, Connecticut—the scene in December where children were attacked in their classrooms—it is a million miles away in economic, cultural, and social measurements. No writers’ ideaways, no millionaires’ tax dodges with a few horses, no Italian sports cars—not in Herkimer: just cows. And some of them I actually milked.
Here is a town that owes its survival not to Wall Street barons nor techno-mavens but to the building of the Erie Canal in the nineteenth century that brought a comforting role to towns like Herkimer that helped move the trade in Midwest wheat from Buffalo across upper New York state to Albany—and from here down the Hudson River and then to the world on freighters from New York City.
One summer, after I left the farm in Herkimer, I headed to another place in upstate New York that I knew from my earliest years. “Take ten boolits, you might see something you don’t like.” Daniel encouraged me to walk with his rifle in a special way too. “Lay it across your shoulders.”
It was high summer–in the last year of Ike’s second Presidency. I was a hundred miles from New York City on a deserted country road. And scattered along hillsides and valleys were summer bungalow colonies of second-generation immigrants from eastern Europe. They were in sight of each other–but, not too close. These nests of bright-white wooden panels were hideouts away from a city where, during the heat of the summer, polio was a monstrous fear. No child or adult was safe. Franklin Roosevelt himself–their beloved President–was a victim: in the prime of his life. Adding further urgency–an outbreak of smallpox, shortly after the end of World War II, forced millions to line up for vaccinations. Then it became a habit. Every summer, crowds of New Yorkers were pushing their way onto swaying coaches of the Weehawken, Western & Ontario railroad on the Jersey side of the Hudson. Others, surrounded by children, sandwiches, the latest hit records, and bags for throw-up, were plumped and crumpled inside long black Cadillacs or Chryslers with racks of chromium for piles of stuff. After stops for new and newer passengers in the five boroughs of the city, the “hacks” headed, slowly, to rolling hills known as the Catskills. The Catskills at that time were quaint. In every corner, on every side of old wooden one-story farmhouses and bungalows, was old farm equipment–and, above all, going this way and that, were horses. It seems hard to believe, now, but horses continued to outnumber tractors on American farms after World War II, and in some areas this picture of rural life ran on into the 1950s. So, from the train station, high off a bridge in Ferndale, or on a hillside near Kauneonga Lake, the air of the Catskills held tightly the heavy fragrance of horses, cattle, flowers, and vegetables. Each morning, especially, before the sun had taken off the shimmering dew on the grass, this calming elixir performed its magic in an instant.
Walking along with Daniel’s rifle, a decade after my first visit to these hills, the heavy greenery of the trees allowed no sounds to escape from below. And under my feet were countless sharp-edged flat red rocks. So any creatures, eager for a mid-afternoon snooze, were angrily covering their ears with every loud crunch from my city-slicker leather boots. Yet when sounds cracked straight across the horizon, they seemed nearby when really they were at surprising distances. I thought about how confused and startled some lonely Roman soldier must have been: the first one who heard, then sniffed, then saw, Hannibal’s elephants coming his way. But there were no elephants to run from or capture on this road. Years earlier, though, another kind of hunt was underway. Two teenagers from Brooklyn, Tyler and Nelson, saw the possibilities.
At Daniel’s summer bungalow colony of New Yorkers, Tyler and Nelson were leaders of the youth pack. Their ages put them about a dozen years ahead of most of us young boys. But we were way behind them in other ways too. Tyler and Nelson were on a fast track, they were sure, to the best universities. Often they announced their scores on this or that examination which, to their surprise, meant nothing much for a seven-year-old.
Tyler and Nelson were also eclipsed by Catskill sights and people nearby. On a hillside near the head of the road that lead to the enclave of New Yorkers, there was the white house, with green trim, of Charlie McLane. It was the only house for miles. Daniel had purchased these wooded hills from Charlie’s father and, as part of the deal, Charlie was to go on living alone in the old McLane house. So, other than the infrequent squawk of a chicken or the bark of a dog or the slam of a screen door, the entire world here seemed to be composed of birds and insects. Together with their murmuring sounds, the yellowing fields and hillsides were right in step with the slow tick of time. And, for that, Charlie had a great memory. He remembered when I was five years old. Years later he could tell me about my dad. And while chewing and spitting red tobacco, he looked off into a distance that was as blue as a child’s picture book.
If some of us were lucky, though, we were invited into the dark interior of his house. There in the living room, on the walls and over the fireplace, were animals that Charlie shot and then stuffed–I remember especially a red fox and an owl. These quiet wilds of the Catskills held, in miniature though, a scene from years later. On walls of the busy, noisy Harvard Club in New York City were creatures from the life of another hunter-one who was President of the United States. Everywhere, in fact, even above the entrance to elevators or the light fixture in the main bar, the bones, tusks, or antlers of some creature, from a century or so ago, still endure. Most had the misfortune of walking past a loaded weapon in the hands of Teddy Roosevelt. Here, there was no space for a tiny red fox. Instead, on a wall in the main dining hall was one-quarter of an elephant.
TR was an upstanding, serious hunter interested, naturally, in keeping wildlife thriving and on the go. The biggest game animal in America now walks with pride, surely, as he or she sports the name that arouses the cry: “Roosevelt Elk.” As for Charlie McLane, he liked to drink as much as he liked pulling a trigger. And, one wintry night, he fell asleep after a private celebration. Next morning, in the snow where he was found, his body was twisted into the shape of an S. From that moment on, he was bent over at the top, and his right leg came up in the air when he stepped forward. So, when he walked, talked, and spat tobacco, he was an odd-shaped human, especially to city boys.
For years, Charlie traveled the short distances of his life with a cane and the guidance of GYP. This lively short-haired black and brown mongrel had alerted Daniel to find Charlie buried in the snow. Then, one summer, GYP disappeared. Charlie, like any good country boy, simply got another dog. But he was always asking about GYP.
The hills, the land itself, had their own curious history. During prohibition, the cavernous spaces under huge dark evergreens became headquarters for a gigantic moonshine operation. It went on for years–but how this happened was long a mystery. Black cars, with no lights on at night, disappeared into the thick woods. And not a sound crept outside, past the massive tree trunks, because, under the factory or “still,” there were several inches of soft carpeting from zillions of browned pine needles that had been layered at the bottoms of the trees across the centuries. Only when the “revenooers” sent a slow single-engine 1920s wooden plane overhead was it possible to locate the “still.” Thin white smoke-trickling skyward from networks of copper kettles–gave it all away. Then during many years afterward, the deer in the woods became targets of special interest. The deer, according to Daniel, were keen on drinking the fiery liquids left over in the smashed vats and machinery. And, with delicious whiskey-soaked meat on them, they were easy for hunters to smell as well as hear–for, as Daniel also assured me when I was seven years old, the deer could not stop hiccuping.
Visiting the “still,” Charlie, and the beautiful forests, was part of the fascination of the place. And all sense and boundaries of time could fall away in a moment. Above the treetops, the contrasting outlines–agged then symmetrical and then jagged again–seemed to form a special breathing chamber with the sky immediately above. Staring at that chamber could convince anyone that beneath, deep in the forest below, somehow, a collection of answers to questions.
Within this green canopy of sound and silence, it took effort, and luck then, to come alive enough to realize that a thundering, bouncing, heaving garbage truck, was barreling down the road surrounded by an enormous white cloud. I needed to remind myself: “jump out of the way.” And, now too, a grey snake peered out from the bushes and started stretching himself across the road directly in front of me. He was sliding briskly, as if by magic above the crushed red rocks and brown leaves–yet he was no doubt on them. And, conscious of his length, he seemed to be an aggressive fellow as well–almost daring me to do something with Daniel’s multi-shot Remington.
That high-off-the-ground garbage truck was coming straight at us though. In a woosh, the truck’s front wheels, and then the back ones, passed over the snake. I could see it all: after the front wheels dug into him, he leaped in the air, and after the back wheels responded immediately by slamming across him, his body contorted itself, instantly, into a shivering circle.
As if it never happened–the raging garbage truck was gone. All that remained were clouds of red dust, still swirling–and the snake. I started circling through thickened brush now. The branches were rough and biting to the touch, but young and pliable enough to bend away. And every few yards, a branch smacked me with a stinging whack on my face. I wasn’t looking very carefully though, but, stumbling this way and that, maybe it would not have mattered if I did.
Then I found it. I remember, a decade earlier, Tyler and Nelson made the discovery. They let out a yell. We all rushed over. Looking back now, it does seem odd that they were not lost like the rest of us–turning in all directions among hundreds of tightly packed bushes and trees. Nonetheless–after ten years, here in a stand of thinner trees covered-over by bigger, shadier hulks, the amazing sight was real once more. Stretched around a tree trunk was a blackened leather collar that might have encircled the neck of a dog. And, still in the collar, and ppearing to be hanging while actually fastened by nature and time to the side of the young tree trunk, was a skeleton.
Ten years earlier, Tyler and Nelson, the future university students, had immediately inaugurated an energetic argument on whether the creature was a dog or a fox. Tyler, reminding all listeners once again of his grades in biology, asserted that the sharp pointy bones of the face surely proved that it was a fox. The idea, the drama, of a fox–captured in the forest–carried the day for the seven-year-olds around me. We all walked away, back to the New York City enclave in the mountains, that satisfied and amazed thoughts. But, years later now, I was looking once more at the shape of the bones on the creature’s face. The verdict of the past seemed secure. It was a fox that had been captured and then left in the forest to die. But, this time, curiosity tempted me to do what no one dared back then. I picked up the collar and turned it inside out. On the side facing me now was a name–GYP.
[Author’s postscript: ALL of this actually happened. The pieces of the puzzle only came together when I started writing this story in 2005. Fifty years had gone by, and the truth finally surfaced: the two gilded students had murdered the dog.]