[This was published May 27, 2021, in the Oswego, NY Palladium-Times, where I earned my first “byline” in 1969.]
This year of the virus on the wane, my poem Buoys and Gales, has a summer job near where I had my first summer job, in 1965, as a laborer on the “kiddie corps” crew that was tasked to beautify the slope above Wright’s Landing, on Lake Ontario, in Oswego, NY.
Our crew of kids from all over town did a pretty good job; we cleared the hill from Lake St. down to the boathouses, between the old Naval Militia building and where the boat ramp is. The most fun part of the project was building a wooden staircase almost straight down the steep hill. Compared to the way public projects are run today, we operated pretty much without adult supervision, or, at least, without the guidance of experts!
We didn’t need landscape architects or digital transits, we had the ingenuity common then to all American teenagers. We were born and raised in neighborhoods – it was all family all the time, and city parks, and go home when the streetlights come on.
The design of the staircase was totally ad hoc; unencumbered by equipment more sophisticated than picks, shovels, and rakes. We graded the hill as smooth as we could, but that staircase wasn’t far from being a carnival ride!
Known on the street as the kiddie corps, the project is a first-wave example of the sort of governmental activism that is the norm today. 1965 was the original “long, hot summer.” In Oswego, though, it was a regular summer; it wouldn’t be until 1970 that national affairs would disturb the local peace.
The current divide in American society began in 1964, when an agreement between Barry Goldwater and Strom Thurmond welcomed hard-core segregationists into the Republican party, since the Democtatic party had become anathema to them after passage of the Civil Rights act.
It was a cold-blooded decision by the GOP, to turn away from the Rockefeller wing and embrace the militant wing piloted by Goldwater. They knew they would be swamped in the 1964 presidential election, but by welcoming with open arms the segregationists of the former Confederacy, they saw a path toward a new southern strategy that would return the White House to Republican control.
A highlight in town that summer was the Beatles’ movie Help!, which drew throngs to the groovy, art deco Oswego Theatre. That is the summer Bob Dylan catapulted from a niche act toward the universal spotlight he now shares with William Shakespeare.
Anyone who travels to the intersection of Montcalm and Lake streets today will see that what was begun by fifteen or twenty teenagers has become a point of critical importance in the life of Oswego – scores of millions of public dollars later! I’m pretty sure we got $1.85 an hour.
Buoys and Gales is being used to contextualize Lighting the Way: Oswego’s Lighthouse in Pictures. The exhibit attracts visitors, through Labor Day, to the H. Lee White Maritime Museum, at 1 W. First St.
The museum is located in the freighthouse of the grain elevator that dominated the area until its demolition in 1998. It was established in 1982, through the auspices of the Port of Oswego Authority, which my father helped establish while city attorney during the 1950s.
Thus we witness Oswego evolve from a place that manufactures on a global level, to a place for the consumption of world-class sunsets, pyrotechnic extravaganzas, supermodifieds, and coneys. And, despite what anybody tells you, world-class blizzards are rare – but awesome!
Buoys and Gales
Down the street from my teenage home
is Lake Ontario; my bedroom window
frames the harbor: breakwall, buoys, and lighthouse.
Beacons break the dark with random red pulses
and a broad beam of light sweeps the water –
north east south west, around and around and around.
Once in a blue moon the beacons pulse at once,
as if to acknowledge your rapt attention.
Stormy weather is the best time to gaze –
when the foghorn sounds, it says you’re doomed
to loneliness and sorrow, if not in so many words.
We swam there and used a buoy near the breakwall
like a giant toy – we clambered aboard, tried to topple it, as if
we Oswego boys could do what Lake Ontario gales never could!