Wednesday, October 15, 2014

October: "Knowing No Beautiful Things Last"

There is a new generation there these days, all strangers. And the cultural imprint left by those I knew years ago continues to fade. The gleaming white post and rail fence is all but gone. The cedar pavilion where I played for hours on end, observed company picnickers enjoying their Labor Days, and listened to local old time music and fire and brimstone preachers lies in ruin. All the playground equipment - massive and unsafe by today’s standards - shining in its primary blue, yellow and red paint disappeared. The drive-in theater next door closed a generation ago along with the little air field across the highway. Only the nature endures.

Patterson Creek, Burlington, West Virginia, ca. 1935

Today, the sycamores along the river may be a bit taller, but they still explode in yellow this time of year along with my favorite walnut tree. And the young maple I climbed as a boy has matured into a massive Fall fire tree. Sixty-five years ago, I watched when the men brought in their bulldozers shape a new channel and level the bank of Patterson Creek. The stone beach they built was much safer for the generation of bathers who enjoyed it, but creeks have a way of remembering affronts. By the mid '70's, the creek's waters restored the original course and bank to a scene my grandfather enjoyed in the 1930s.  Although time changed the place I called "Camp" it will never erase the memories of this childhood paradise.

Every October 15 my mind floods with wonderful memories. From birth through my 27th year, the date marked an important event. The story descends out of my dad's membership in the Uniform Rank of the Knights of Pythias. The URKP was an elite military-style company within a fraternal organization born out of the search for national reconciliation following the Civil War. Every good military organization needed a campground, with lodging, mess hall, recreation pavilion, and parade. The URKP had theirs in the small village of Burlington, West Virginia. It also served as a regional park, complete with playground, and was often rented for the day for family reunions, company picnics, church functions, and other large gatherings.

"Camp" at Burlington was paradise for a young boy. A creek bordering the camp offered hours of fun. One could explore the woods and fields forever. The frequent social events made the playground a great place to meet new friends. But "camping" at Burlington was by no means a wilderness experience. We  used a cottage that had every comfort of home. And there was a drive-in theater next door where I enjoyed the snack bar as much as the movies. Across the road was a small airfield with several Taylorcrafts and Piper Cubs, and a hangar that gave birth to many "homebuilts" over the years. I can say with confidence that Burlington was never boring.

Through the summer of 1974, I spent many weeks at "camp" every year, including several weekends of "cold camping" in the off-season. During my college years it was the perfect environment for study and term paper writing. Opening the cottage and grounds for the 

Burlington, West Virginia, 1959
summer though exciting was not especially memorable. Freezing temperatures lingered into May so the campground usually opened on Memorial Day weekend. On the other hand, winterizing the place was like saying "Goodbye" to an old friend. Thoughts of family, friends, the big fish, fireworks, that scary movie, the old biplane, all those memories accumulated over the past six months filled your mind. Amid the blazing gold sycamores, brilliant fire oaks and maples, the smell of wood smoke, and a harvest of black walnuts, we went through

Hulling Black Walnuts, Burlington, west Virginia, 1967

the years-old closing procedure until the last item - pouring anti-freeze into sink traps - was checked. At that point, it was time to load the car, proceed with all those repetitive tasks one does "just to be sure," then close and lock the big red doors until Spring.

As American society changed, the URKP fell out of fashion. Lodge members grew old and passed away. In 1974, the lodge itself and all its assets dissolved. I haven't locked that big red door for 34 years now, but I still have the key and a remarkably detailed mental picture of the cottage and landscape that I loved.

Burlington, West Virginia, ca. 1949

In many ways, Burlington is with me every day for the experiences there helped shape my personal values, career, hobbies, and general interests. The impact was so profound that I asked my children to do their best to provide the same opportunity for their own families.

And so in weaving all of the memories about this weekend, I ask you, my readers, to do the same: Find a nearby paradise and escape to it often while your children are young. There will be no sorrow there.

This is a revision of a post from 2008.


Title quotation: from the opening line of the poem, Autumn Movement, by Carl Sandburg, 1918

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