Recollections and Cross Connections
Staring into the darkness from 24,000 feet all I could see was the reflection of the red lights in the C-130's fuselage. I was standing on the tail ramp, helmet, goggles, and O2 mask snug against my face, rucksack and weapon synched to my body, 13 others tight at my back. I strained to see into the moonless dark. Off to my right I saw a familiar shape silhouetted against the dim starlight. Though not what I recognized, it was comforting, and I allowed my mind to wander. The reflection turned green and I launched into space, free falling through the darkness with nothing familiar and no time for a wandering mind.
It was a few days before I had the opportunity to reflect on that night. The familiar shape that I saw was one of the Catskill Mountains, odd, since I was over South America at the time. I don't know the name of it, but when you're headed west over the Kingston/Rhinecliff Bridge, it is at about one o'clock. I've been watching it for years now. It's told me when autumn arrived, and when the skiing was good even though there was no snow in Red Hook. That night, when I was nowhere in the world near the Kingston/Rhinecliff Bridge, the mountain assured me all was well.
As I reflected on that night, particularly that thought, I felt embarrassed. Here I am, a highly trained sailor, taking solace in the vision of a mountain whose name I don't even know. I have been around the world a few times, lived overseas, and participated in a fair share of government sponsored adventures. For all practical purposes I left Red Hook 20 years ago, when I was 14, to pursue a swimming career; as I write this I am sitting in a stateroom on board the USS ENTERPRISE listening to the jets slamming onto the deck during recovery operations. In all that time, I have probably only been home for a few months, but that night I realized how important the Hudson Valley is to me.
I came home last Christmas with my wife and two sons. Coming home is something that I have done often over the years. As always, the trip was drudgery as I headed north out of New Jersey. I collected my thruway ticket and as my wife read and the children slept, I began to get that old excited feeling again. I was a little surprised actually, I suppose I always am, but I was on the familiar road home. I began to anticipate the landmarks. There is the hill that drops down to the building with the four stars on it where the troopers always set up shop. The orchard just past the second rest area which signals the halfway point. New Paltz goes past ... the steep downhill with the shack at the bottom, turning right and heading up toward Kingston. As I cleared the rise just past the school buses, I think my hands had actually begun to sweat. Just up ahead, "It's not there!"
"What's not there?" asked my wife.
"The Skytop Restaurant sign, it's not there!" I was fairly beside myself. I suppose that seems a little strange, but that sign has signaled the end of my trip for two decades. Sure, I still had twelve miles to go, but that red neon may as well have read "Welcome Home." I guess I couldn't see the sign in the night.
I used to go swimming at a place called Talifofo Falls in Guam. It was a little swimming hole, not too far from where the last Japanese holdout defended the Emperor for 40 some years. It was plush, the jungle coming down the stream banks. Lying there with my eyes closed I was almost in Palenville but not quite. For one thing the water was warm, very little refreshment to it. Secondly, the jungle doesn't breathe like the Hudson Valley. It's heavy, not fresh. My sister took me to Palenville Falls my first time, and I remember it as if it were yesterday. The crystal clear water so cold and refreshing, you could drink it while you swam. A bit upstream was Fawn's Leap, an easy 10 meter jump if you dared. I also remember the Genny Cream ales, chilled in a stream around which there were no cares. Since then I've jumped into streams around the world, sometimes for fun and sometimes for business, but always with the memories of another stream in my mind.
I remember Hunter Mountain one day when a low cloud had socked in the lower slopes. The chair lift rose out of the cloud to reveal an artist's unfinished masterpiece. The perfect blue sky has been completed, as had a few mountain tops but the rest was the grey of untouched canvas. (The first time I kissed a girl on a chair lift was at Hunter. Contrary to my teenage fantasies, that kiss came when I was 31, bestowed by my beautiful wife of six years.) I remember the days of inexpensive fun at High Mount, where the T-bars were almost as much fun as the runs, and for some reason whenever I hear the song, Sixteen, I'm right back on the chair lift, night skiing at Catamount.
I took my sons sledding at Mills Mansion this year. Living in Virginia Beach we usually don't get a lot of snow, and the only hills are manmade, so to watch my boys and their cousins running up that snow covered hill was a new experience for me. I'd done it a hundred times myself, but to watch all that joy on those little faces ... it should have lasted forever.
The Hudson Valley has its summertime memories too. Riding Harleys with my brother through the small mountain towns ... stopping at PJ's Pub in Saugerties after a day of exploration. Tubing the Jackson Corners Creek and rock climbing outside of New Paltz. There is a cavern up there somewhere, an underwater stream actually, and when I was 12 my brother and his buddy Doug, a.k.a. "Dirt Bag," took me there. It was winter and by the time we finished for the day we were wet and cold. That was much more fun than the last time I was working tunnels. I was wet and cold again, but this time I had been at it for three days, holding 360 degree security, ferreting out some very determined exercise opposing forces.
Of course, there is the river itself. Most everybody takes it for granted, when it really is a wonder. I've seen some rivers in my time: Rio Beni in Bolivia, the Shagrass in Panama, the Rhine and the Danube, Ol' Miss and even the Amazon. All of them are memorable in their own right ... it takes 20 minutes to fly over the Amazon, the Rio Beni changes its course almost monthly. But the Hudson ... maybe you have to miss it to appreciate it. A mile, mile and a half wide, mountains, railroad tracks and trestles. It is beautiful and awesome. It has history. The mansions, the paintings of the Hudson Valley School. Every mile of river is fed by another 200 miles of streams and ponds. Get to know it if you don't. You'll be glad you did.
Anyone else out there think that maybe life is just a series of the same things told over from a different point of view? I've touched on a few already. It's a mind association thing. A smell, sight or sound can set it off. Like being in a pub in Palma, Mallorca and suddenly thinking of the old Gaffney's Pub in Hyde Park. I've had beers in the Rock City Tavern, the Red Hook Inn and the Hyde Park Pub, all at least 2,000 miles away from their Dutchess County counterparts.
There was a time I was running an exercise for a platoon of Navy SEALs. Their mission was to infiltrate a hostile area and disable a railroad trestle. The first concept of operations was to blow up the trestle itself. Contrary to the movies, SEALs are people just like everyone else, (Okay, that stretches the truth a little, but ...) and are not bestowed with superhuman strength. After listening to the plan, I informed the platoon commander that it wouldn't work, he couldn't carry enough explosives that far. He assured me he could. So, what does this story have to do with Dutchess County? I think I was about 14 when I climbed the burned out trestle that used to cross the Hudson in Poughkeepsie. I remember the steel and lumber; huge girders, I-beams and cross connects. It had already been condemned and I remember wondering how it could be destroyed. Maybe when I was 14 I thought a commando squad could do it. Twenty years later I knew they could not; not in one shot, not in one cycle of darkness. The plan that succeeded was not very dramatic, and I can't really discuss it in detail. Suffice it to say that the target trestle suffered damage very similar to that which led to the original demise of the Poughkeepsie trestle.
I rarely eat apples ... almost never. I don't remember deciding to stop eating them. Mom used to send them to me in college, and I ate them then. I remember picking them from the orchard just outside of Red Hook on Route 199, and I ate them then. I just don't eat them anymore because they never taste right – always too soft or too dry, never just right, never fresh from Dutchess County. Sometimes though, when I am wet and crawling with bugs, staring into the dark, listening for river traffic in some South American country, or racing toward a sanction violator off the Persian Gulf, armed to the teeth with my head out of the helicopter straining to see if the ship has arranged a welcoming for us, I think of what is going on at that moment back in Red Hook; I wonder what my friends are doing, knowing there is no reason they'd be thinking of me, and really wish I had an apple.
* * *
On October 25, 1996, a beautiful day in the Persian Gulf, the helicopter I was in crashed while conducting exercises in support of Operation Southern Watch. On board were members of SEAL Team Eight and Helo Squadron Fifteen. Three of my brothers in arms were killed, AW1 Steve Voigt, LT Robert Wood and LCDR Jeff Hilliard. Although this story in a tribute to the people and places of the Hudson Valley and Dutchess County, it is dedicated to those three who have recently given so much.
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