A Catskill Catalog: May 26, 2010

A friend and former student is an engineer with an Ivy League education. “This was a great place to grow up,” he’s said to me, more than once, on visits home to the mountains. His buddy is a successful Catskill Mountain businessman. He says the same thing.
There was a time, not too very long ago, when “a great place to raise children” was a phrase lots of folks used to describe our mountain communities. In the 1970s, our local K-12 schools were bursting at the seams with students, many the children of parents who came to the mountains seeking a better way of life for their kids.
In the mid-70s, Margaretville Central had 725 kids, K-12, in two buildings, with pupils in grades one through four going to school in Fleischmanns. Our culture seemed to value, at that time, the advantages of small town life, of country living, of rural schools.
Oh, sure, some of it was an attempt to escape society’s ills: crime and drugs, and the many urban-centered snares that threatened our children’s safety and health. Sadly, we’ve learned, the hard way, there is no safe haven from all of that. But there was, also, a sense that a simpler, more unfettered childhood within a close-knit community, close to nature and the land, positively benefitted our kids.
I’m not sure our culture supports that view much anymore. Ballet lessons and gymnastics, soccer and baseball leagues, martial arts instruction and enrichment classes mark the childhood schedule responsible parents feel impelled to construct. Pre-K education seems a must.
Now, all of those things are available in the mountains, but distances are great and schedules are full and gasoline is expensive and time is short. Ferrying kids from activity to activity is draining when it’s not 10 miles between each town and 40 miles to the nearest small city.
So maybe we should look anew at the advantages of growing up in the country.
Years ago, before I had children of my own, my then-wife and I spent a few days staying at the home of older friends, who were off to some convention. We were there to supervise their teenage kids. It was tough to keep up with them: basketball was followed by bicycling, followed by Wiffle ball, followed by fishing.
I remember thinking how cumbersome was the organization of a fishing trip in my own suburban childhood. Here, grab the poles, ride the bikes, fish for brook trout in some of the best streams in the world!
I have an older friend whose eyes water and voice grows full when he talks about his 1930s mountain childhood. “There was so much to do!” he says.
Of course, “there’s not enough to do around here” has been the common complaint of the two or three generations of mountain kids that I’ve known. And, from a teen perspective, activities do seem limited. Maybe that’s because the kinds of things that our culture tends to celebrate are lacking here, and the kinds of things that our culture tends to ignore are here in abundance.
Like long-term friendship. The first weekend in May, a dozen or so 30-somethings, who have known each other since grade school, gathered at Hanah Country Club for an annual golf outing. They plan to turn their outing into a fund-raising effort to raise a memorial to Nathan Dougherty, one of this band-of-brothers who tragically drowned, a few years ago, in the Pepacton Reservoir.
They’ll be following the lead of a group 20 years their senior who have organized and maintained the annual Tunament at Shephard Hills Golf Club in memory of their late classmate and life-long friend, Bill “Tuna” Sanford.
Friendship thrives in the mountains.
Maybe the very lack of organized activities for kids leads to that tight bonding. When my sons were young, the little hamlet of their youth was filled with kids. Every day they would gather in the backyard to play. They had to organize their own games, the older kids directing and coaching the younger. Maybe, there, they learned to rely on themselves and on each other, to create fun rather than wait for it to be provided them.
The social networking website Facebook these days, is full of photographs and mountain-childhood memories of folks who have left the mountains but find that the mountains have not left them.
Small town kids can’t specialize. In college, I knew a guy who identified his high school athletic position as “tight right end.” In the mountains, the kid who plays soccer probably also plays softball, sings in the chorus, plays the saxophone, writes for the school paper, has a part in the school play, and babysits for the neighbors’ children. Sounds like a recipe for a well-rounded person.
I’m glad my kids grew up in the Catskills.