Balsa Wood, Rogers Lake, and Extreme Shoplifting
After my grandmother sold her house on Main Street, she moved to an apartment in Old Lyme. It was actually the ell of a big old house, and it was in an area called Laysville, near Roger’s Lake.
The house had a big yard where I was welcome to play. The people who owned the house had a boy a little younger than me. I think his name was Torrin. My grandmother would pick me up from school on Friday and take me to stay with her overnight, so I got to know Laysville pretty well.
The big year was a great place to fly balsa wood planes that I would buy at Malloy’s 5&10. They were less than a dollar and lasted about two hours, if you didn’t destroy them when trying to put them together.
The side yard was also a good place to fly a kite. Since my grandmother moved there in the early spring, kiting was one of the early adventures I had at the house. But unlike the cornfield where I had previously flown kites, trees lined the yard on all sides, and they would eat my kite about every ten minutes.
These frustrations led me to explore instead. At the edge of the woods at the back of the property was an old dump site. Torrin and I would dig around in the dirt and find old blue bottles and strange pieces of rusted metal. It was probably dangerous, with broken bottles and rusty cans, but the cool bottles were worth the risk.
A little further through the woods there was a pasture. It had a barbed wire fence, but there were no animals in it most of the time. There was, however, a great toy in the field. Well, not a toy, per se, but we had a blast with it.
The toy was a huge spool that cable had come wound on. It was about four feet in diameter on each end and about three feet wide in the middle. We could roll it around the field or climb on it, but the biggest challenge was to log-roll it.
We’d take turns climbing up on it, catch our balance, stand in the center of the roll, and try to get it moving across the field. It wasn’t the easiest thing for a nine-year-old to move that big spool and balance, too. We often fell off. But it was the challenge that kept us coming back.
Later we went further through the woods and discovered water. There were streams coming from a piece of cleared land and there were puddles in various places, some of which were teeming with tadpoles.
I later learned that what we were nearing Black Hall Pond and its river. My grandmother considered it a dangerous area. She had heard that the area was mucky and the pond deep and that there had been drownings there. I heeded her warnings and kept closer to the house, but Torrin and I would talk about adventuring in the dangerous place.
When summer came, we were in easy walking distance to Roger’s Lake and to Laysville Center, a little grocery and deli kind of place. I think there were several businesses in Layville Center, but we only went to the grocery store.
Torrin and I seemed to bring out the devil in each other, daring each other to do silly things. Torrin stole a candy bar one time, and I showed him how to reach up inside of a soda machine and pull out a bottle.
Enjoying our stolen booty, we would try to think up ways to lift more valuable things. At one point, this turned into a dare to swipe a Charleston Chew, the biggest candy bar in the store. The candy was about an inch and a quarter across and a foot long, which made it a big challenge. But we devised a plan to slip it up a sleeve on our jackets.
Torrin successfully got away with the heist, but I wasn’t so tricky. My sleeve wasn’t cooperative, and a patron asked me if I was trying the steal candy. I denied it, but I was no master of my expressions. I’m sure I turned red. I put back the bar and went to another section of the store and then slinked out when I was sure that person had left.
That was the end of my shoplifting escapades, but Torrin continued. He had an older half-brother who egged him on, but I didn’t spend a lot of time with Torrin when school was in session, so I took my scare as a sign and reformed my ways.
When I went to swim at Roger’s Lake, my grandmother was always there. Often she and her sister, Beatrice, would sit in the car or at a picnic table and enjoy an ice cream while I swam. I spent most of my time under water, which gave Auntie Bea heart palpitations.
The best I can figure, my grandmother lived in that apartment for two years. It seemed like a long time in my life, but in the grand scheme it was just a blip. I don’t know whether it was the problems with the apartment or the desire to be back in Old Saybrook that made her move, but I was both sad and happy to have her back in the town that felt like home.
The apartment had a living room, kitchen and dining room on the main floor, plus a large bathroom with old fixtures. The second floor had two adjoining bedrooms at the top of steep steps. It was a chore for Auntie Bea to make the climb.
The room at the top of the stairs was my grandmother’s, while my aunt’s lay through a door in the center of the opposite wall from the stairs. The eves came down into the rooms with no dormers, but there was a window on each end.
When I stayed over, I slept in my grandmother’s room when she slept on a daybed downstairs. That gave me access to Auntie Bea, who liked to talk while we should have been sleeping. She would not stay awake long, though and would soon start snoring loudly.
In the mornings, I would wake up Auntie Bea. Her room was filled with things that used to be in her apartment within my memory, old things that gave me a glimpse of an earlier age. She had a Victrola and an album with Efrem Zimbalist playing the violin while Alma Gluck sang opera.
I knew who Efrem Zimbalist Jr. was, and I loved to watch The FBI, but I had never heard of his father and mother. Auntie Bea knew all about them and told me some things, but I was nine or ten and didn’t pay attention well. Something about Alma Gluck dying young and how sad it was.
And then there were puzzles. My greatest pastime while at my grandmother’s was putting jigsaw puzzles together. It was something we could all do, besides playing Rummy, and we had a good assortment that we built over and over. My favorite was a mosaic. I’d never seen a puzzle with eight sides before and this one was intricate and very hard.
Roger’s Lake continued to be a draw for me, and I sometimes had my grandmother take me over there to swim after she moved back to Old Saybrook. Once, when I was about fourteen, my friend Lance and I rode our bikes to Roger’s Lake on a summer day. It was a trek. We started from my house in Clinton, rode to the Baldwin bridge, walked our bikes over, then rode the rest of the way to the lake.
After swimming and playing and a trip over to Laysville Center (where I told him about my shoplifting experiences), we rode back to my house. I get exhausted just thinking about that trip today. As long as that seems, Lance went even further. He had ridden his bike from Madison to my house before we left!
Roger’s Lake didn’t impress Lance. There were many other places to swim closer to home. It was the challenge of the trip that made it worthwhile. I too was disappointed with the place on that trip, an example of the ennui that causes people to say things like, “You can never go home.”
In a sense it is true. You can never go back to being a child. But the perspective of a child is not somehow better than others. Sometimes I have gone back successfully. The problem I find is expecting to find things the same when you go back. You’ve grown, why shouldn’t the old haunt alter as well? If we alter our expectations, we can often find that the goodness in the old days is still there. Not in the place, but in us.