November 1989

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Harpending's Corners


Edwin N. Harris

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Dear Reader, I would like you to meet two people whom I knew in a personal way: my brother Lauren, and my good friend Charley Hill. Both faced tragedies that I was spared.

Lauren Ernest Harris and Charles Hill, Jr.

Lauren Ernest Harris

Lauren Ernest Harris was the whimsical name given him by mother who adapted the names of her sister and brother-in-law, Laura and Earnest Florance. Born in 1922, he was the third child. I, the oldest of four boys, mostly ignored the other three except when we were fighting or raising Hell, for which John, the youngest and me usually teamed up against Lauren and Elbert. In due time we drifted apart but it is impossible for us to forget Lauren, the enigmatic one with the strange, wild nature who was to live an often excessive, and an abbreviated, life.

In memory I can still see four boys, aged two, four, six and eight, lying two in a bed in an upstairs bedroom. Lauren is double-wrapping his head in his security blanket—preparing for the noisy, rapid rolling of his head on his pillow for several minutes until he fell asleep. The action brought protests from his bed partner of course, but the practice continued until his death at age twenty-three.

There were to be other idiosyncrasies, and the family could only look puzzled (and still do) when contemplating anything about Lauren. Early on he was fascinated with music and throwing stones, and he was gifted for both. Left handed, he threw with great velocity and accuracy at moving targets that included flying birds, running brothers, and passing autos. Got neighbor Roy Kelly's Buick touring car's windshield twice in one week. About three o'clock one August afternoon I was hoeing potatoes in the family garden when Lauren, then five or six, lobbed a rock into the air to see how close he could drop it to the moving hoeman. Some minutes later I came out of a whirling darkness with a confused and ringing head. Mother's repeated thrashings availed little, if any, reform in his nature that for his lifetime would not allow him to toe the conventional line.

On a Fourth of July, Lauren, now seven or eight, came by some fireworks called sparklers which he, unobserved, lighted one after the other to throw high in the air. One or more landed on the old and dry cedar shingles of our farmhouse roof. The family was at the supper table when a passer-by stopped to excitedly tell us that our roof was on fire. Neighbors and others quickly gathered, some to form bucket brigades from the south porch well with its windlass and oaken bucket, and some from the creek that ran north of the house. Others removed furnishings from the now probably doomed structure. The nearest fire-fighting equipment was three-and-one-half miles away at Dundee. It was miraculous that the fire was finally extinguished with only half the roof burned off.

The piano, along with other furniture, now sat in the front yard next to the two maples that bordered the Pre-emption Road. As the excitement and noise abated, we heard great strange chords of piano music. I knew without looking that it was Lauren at the keyboard of the old "Ebersole," playing what seemed to me must be his acknowledging gesture to Nero at Rome.

At age four he was playing the harmonica and soon after he played his first public recital for Children's Day at the Baptist Church. He became an excellent baritone horn player in the local bands, and on at least one occasion he substituted for the school band director, even though he had dropped out of school. With no formal training in piano, he continued to play mostly by ear, often his own compositions. After his death Dad prevailed on me to hire my composer friend, Harold Wansborough, to arrange one of his improvisations.

Lauren grew tall, thin, strangely handsome, with a face and intense eyes that gave him a hawklike appearance. We all were happy to see his throwing ability directed into baseball pitching where his blazing left-handed speed was not welcomed by terrorized batters. His scholastic aptitude seemed hopeless, and considered unteachable, he left high school early. He was a natural at pocket pool, and before he had a driver's license he ran out of worthy challengers in his home town and sought better players in nearby towns. A few times I drove him to Montour Falls and Hammondsport to pick up a few dollars from their pool sharks. If the good player wasn't around when Lauren started to play we knew he would mysteriously appear soon as the word got out. There was little danger from disgruntled losers for Lauren was an able and fearless fighter with his lightning swift left hand. The would-be town bully of Dundee spent some time in the Penn Yan Sailors & Soldiers Memorial Hospital getting his jaw mended, after he became so frustrated at losing to Lauren that he swung a pool cuestick at Lauren's head—and paid the penalty.

His peers nicknamed him "Hiram," alluding to his affected mannerisms of a stereotype country bumpkin; the lilting jerky speech, a loping walk and feigned ignorance that he fancied.

He was generally a happy-go-lucky sort, and his generosity left him poor most of the time. But at times a dark side appeared, when he became moody and unpredictable. I left home to seek a future in Rochester at age eighteen and must rely on others for much of the story of Lauren's last years.

He did visit me on occasions after his army stint, and I learned he had acquired a liking for 100 proof Southern Comfort bourbon. According to my brothers, women of various age and marital status were strangely drawn to him, with some situations ludicrous if not downright dangerous. Two of the ladies were pointed out to me at his funeral. During army service he spent most of his time in Fort Devens Hospital at Boston with pneumonia, until he was finally given a medical discharge. At the time of his death he was a motion picture projector operator at the Dundee Theater.

On October 22, 1945, the fatal accident occurred when the car in which Lauren and two others were riding, left the road and crashed into a large tree on lower South Main Street, just below and opposite Charley Hill's house. Charley, one of the first on the scene, broke the sad news to Dad and Mother. Killed were Lauren, 23, Julian Olszyk, 29, and Thomas Kneebone, 72.

Lauren always lived at home, and Dad, typically closer and more concerned with him than the rest of his scattered offspring, took Lauren's passing very hard. Dad was still grieving in 1947 when he died, less than two years after Lauren.

Charles Hill, Jr.

The Charley Hill that I met in 1931 was tall and slender, with red hair above his bespectacled blue eyes and lightly freckled complexion. The rest of his body was fair skinned, and as is typical of most red-heads, almost hairless. His high-pitched voice was always ready to explode into laughter, and we became friends for life.

Many years before, the Hill family had migrated from Michigan to settle on a Chubb Hollow Road farm, a few miles up Big Stream, north of Dundee. Charles Sr. and his wife Mary had three sons, Charles, Robert, John Henry, and one daughter, Margaret, the youngest. They were fine, honest, hard-working people, and they prospered. World War II came, and in all too few years tragedy would strike them thrice. In quick succession, Robert was killed in 1943 while serving the Navy in the Bay of Naples, off the Isle of Capri, then John Henry in l944 while serving the Army at infamous Leyte, in the Philippines. A few years later Margaret would die of cancer.

I knew and loved them all, having spent a great deal of time at their farm working or enjoying leisure times, and Mary Hill was almost a second mother to me. After I left the area my brother, John, picked up about the same relationship with the family.

Mine started early in high school when Charley and I discovered that while Charley was a whiz in math and science but helpless in English Literature and History, I was much the opposite. In order for us to progress academically at all, a natural partnership formed. Neither of us had high goals in any subject—we just wanted to finish, and we began to share other activities. For several years following, we hunted the surrounding hills. When the quarry was rabbits we used ferrets that were raised in the Hill's cow barn. Using ferrets has long been illegal, and you probably think they are just furry pets. For hunting we carried the ferrets tied in cloth bags placed in the rear game pockets of our hunting coats until we came to a woodchuck hole that had rabbit tracks leading in and out of it. Then, at the risk of suffering a sharp bite in the fingers, we fished a disgruntled ferret out of the game pocket and dropped it down the hole. With luck it went down in the hole to chase the rabbit out where we could get a shot at it. Actually the rabbit left at such high speed that we often missed it, unless the ferret caught the rabbit in the hole, in which case it sucked the blood from the rabbit's neck and went to sleep on the warm carcass. All that could be done then was to plug the hole and come back the next morning to see if the ferret was ready to go home for some warm cow's milk.

We fished the nearby streams and lakes and learned about the use and repair of automobiles. We shared or traded girl-friends, hunting dogs, money; sometimes Charley found jobs for me. We faced danger together racing old cars around the country roads, (both of us had been driving since we were twelve) or on dark spring nights raiding Fred Castle's illegal gill net that he stretched on the bottom of Seneca Lake and anchored ashore with a heavy copper wire. We gave up the raids after Fred, who had been nervously listening from shore, fired on our boat with his high-powered rifle. Fred, a case-hardened old poacher, was not to be trifled with. Even the game wardens knew better, and took precautions. But, on a good night, the gill net could hold a record-sized trout. That tempted us.

We spent spring nights spearing "suckers" (mullet) in the rushing streams that spilled into Seneca Lake. At times we stayed all night, sustained by a jug of hard cider as we lay on the banks waiting for the "dawn run." Other times we used a boat equipped with battery powered underwater lights and long handled spears that could reach the lake bottom. That's how we found Fred Castle's gill net.

Charley, a natural mechanic, often repaired farm machinery and autos for his father, and taught me much as I helped. For five dollars he acquired a 1922 Model T Ford touring car from which we stripped away the top, making it look like a bathtub on wheels. This made it easier to replace piston rod bearings that had failed to withstand our racing speeds. Easier, because to drop the oil pan we simply rolled the car on its side so we could work from a standing position, instead of crawling around underneath.

We liked to startle people by driving through Dundee with the exhaust manifold removed so all could see the flames popping from the engine block and hear the ungodly noise. Once the wooden dashboard caught fire as we crossed under the town's only signal light, and we stopped to extinguish the blaze. The town constable, Dutch Rapalee, was not impressed. Soon after the demise of the Ford, Charley bought a 1924 "Baby Grand" Chevrolet, a faster car that we could get up to sixty-five miles per hour going down the hills of route 14A on our way to Watkins Glen. Alas, on a cold winter night the radiator froze, the motor overheated to a bright red color, and set up (melted together).

Robert Hill acquired a 1926 Nash Coupe with a huge engine that boasted eight cylinders in a line. This gave us higher speeds, but not the stamina to withstand our poundings. It was all over for the Nash when Robert tried for a speed record on Porter's Corners hill. A broken connecting rod burst from the engine block, through the hood, and out into a farmer's field.

Our best roads were narrow and plagued with sharp corners, and on these roads over twenty of our schoolmates were killed in accidents. Even though we could recite their names, our residual fear after each wreck was short lived. As a startled wild animal will, after a few moments if not further disturbed, return to its former calm, the auto tragedies did not for long keep us conscious of the frailties of our own lives. I often reflect on our incredible good luck.

Charley Hill, always the entrepreneur, became a modest-sized general contractor, specializing in earth moving and trucking in the area where he grew up. He married Helen Rogers and they had several children. Tragedy continued to plague the family: the death of a daughter, the blindness of Mary, Charley's mother. But as of 1989, Charley's great inner strength still prevails.

© 1989, Edwin N. Harris
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