Robert LaValle

Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a three-part series based on the author’s experiences on a family-owned property on Mambert Road in New York, east of the Hudson River. Here is the first part, published on Aug. 21.

Needing temporary shelter during the nearly year-long construction, we were able to locate and purchase a previously owned, 24-foot aluminum house trailer for $200, including delivery. Until my older sister was permitted to stay on Long Island with her godmother, all seven of us crammed into our 1957, faux-wood paneled Plymouth Suburban station wagon to be crammed into every square inch of the aluminum covered, miniature house on wheels. Talk about adventure!

Aside from planning, clearing land and digging a foundation, a major priority was to create a friendly little swimming hole close enough to the creek to tap into its cool, refreshing wellspring during the dodgiest days of summer. Our enthusiasm quickly waned when everywhere we stuck our shovel, uncooperative heavy clay made digging nearly impossible.

One morning, after one of Mom’s extra-hearty breakfasts, we all decided to give the task our most valiant attempt. I remember Dad saying, “OK men, let’s give it hell.” And it was hell. All five male family members, including toddler Michael, joined forces to get the job done. Digging frantically, two with pickaxes and three with shovels an actual hole was beginning to take shape. We were proud. 

Mambert Road

Our challenging task caught the attention of the King of the Hill, our new neighbor, Perciful III. He had noticed us while doing some road maintenance work upon his John Deere backhoe. I watched him chug his way down into what would become our driveway in the hot morning air. At this point all the nearly defeated LaValle men were sweaty messes. Everyone stopped, watched and hoped as Perciful’s tractor approached us.

He idled his engine and then lifted the front brim of his tattered straw hat and looked at us. The words he spoke will be forever be seared in my memory. 

“You boys might need a little help with that I reckon. Yeah? It’ll take you ’bout five or six years at the rate yer goin’,” he said.

That was the first time any of us saw or heard Mr. Mambert. Without any thought, “Old Percy” rolled off my tongue like a workingman’s wet, slippery, mucous rich, morning throat clearing loogie. We later learned Old Percy just looked old. In fact, he wasn’t nearly as old as he appeared. Anyway … from then on it was “Old Percy,” but never to his face.

After a brief chat with my dad and before I could get my shovel refilled with more of the dense, defiant gray substance, Old Percy was busy stabilizing his backhoe and soon began shifting the shovel and pickaxe resistant earth left and right as if it were beach sand. Yep, compared to how we were able to move the stuff, it was like beach sand. He and his muscular machine had me under a spell.

Then suddenly, the somehow clairvoyant farmer asked, “How would you like to steer the Deere, boy?” I looked directly at him with raised eyebrows while tapping my chest with my right-hand index finger. Nothing could please me more, but as excited as I was, Old Percy seemed even more so. I looked toward my dad, hoping for his approval and with a nod, I was on my way. Slightly nervous, nothin’ could hold me back.  It was as though I was mounting my very first horse and a thoroughbred at that.

My adolescent head barely met the top of the huge rear tire as Old Percy reached for my hand and pulled me on board his green and yellow machine. After some instruction and a little practice the powerful machine’s levers were in my control. Under his guidance I began whipping the muddy mess around like an old cowhand. I felt as though it was I who really owned the place. Completing a fairly good portion, for the novice, I carefully brought the huge machine back to an idle, turned it off and climbed off. Once on the ground Old Percy reached for my hand and with a big smile, nodded and said, “You’re a real natural boy, ain’t ya?”  I later learned Old Percy never had any boys of his own, just girls, three of them.

Mambert Road

Since our new property had historically been Mambert land, Old Percy knew every square inch of the land. He highly approved the location of the swimming hole and soon after walked the land with us while pointing out the oldest trees. While doing so he led us to his family’s secret burial location for used household bottles and jars. Adventurous searching and finding cool old bottles, jars, and other relics was fun.

Percy and his tractor made several return visits until the hole was complete. It didn’t take long before it filled with spring water and though the bottom remained rather gushy, murky and mysterious, all of us kids, including my dainty older sister, were splashing and swimming within a week.  Of course, Dad, and especially Mom, wouldn’t dare.

What was once a hole became “the pond” and served us well until years later when much too friendly, little slimy black alien creatures began clinging to our lower extremities. Sharing the pond with bullfrogs, perch and minnows was OK, but no one was keen about sharing blood with leeches. Avoiding the bottom then became a challenging game. Floating on inner tubes made it easy until a huge snapping turtle reared its ferocious hissing head and began calling our pond “home”. For several years, Dad managed to capture and relocate the hostile reptile, but it or a relative always found their way back. Swimming days were over.

to be continued…

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