Category Archives: New York State

Buck Brook #15 – An Adventurous Nap

Buck Brook Farm was tucked away in the Catskill Mountains. The nearest town was North Branch and it was too far for a walk and, only having a church, was of no interest to our students anyway. While the students were dependent on we staff for a driver, it was not difficult to find one of us being up to an adventure like catching a movie.

The campus did have vehicles available to us, and a motley assortment of vehicles it was! Being a commune, the staff brought whatever vehicle they possessed and made it available to one and all. 

So it was I found myself grinding the gears of an vintage GMC Scout stuffed wall to wall with six festive teens of every stripe.

By wall to wall, I mean another staff member was in shotgun and the kids were facing one another, packed into the short bench seats that lined the Scout’s sides to maximize seating and cargo space. A door over the back bumper served to load riders and cargo.

My fellow staff member kept busy wiping and scrapping and doing his best to keep the inside of the windshield clear, it being a sub-zero January afternoon and the confined Scout being filled with eight pairs of lungs pumping out plenty of potential frost. 

You bet I had the hubs engaged so we were powered on all wheels. You bet I knew brakes on ice are brakes on ice and it does not matter whether power is supplied to all wheels or not. And you bet I knew downshifting means there is more traction with all wheels turning under compression than having brakes locking the wheels. Even so, I was taking it plenty slow. 

Alas, these were the Catskill Mountains and the winding little roads feature plenty of up grades and down grades. The scout was heavy with eight of us. The road was covered with snow. Rounding a corner that looked like any other, the road immediately began a steep grade down a straight-of-way some thousand yards long. At the bottom of the grade the road made a sharp turn to the left and an abrupt hillside rose smack dab in our way. The hillside was topped by a cozy cottage, not that I was spending much time considering that!

The Scout was far too ancient to have synchronized gears so I double-clutched and wobbled the big gear shift coming up from the floor and found neutral. A second clutch and it wobbled as I found second. I hung on, desperate to get to the braking power of first gear but not wanting to get there when that much compression would cause the wheels to slip. The weight of the packed Scout pushed us down the hill so, despite my efforts, we were maintaining speed. Not gaining but not slowing. Another clutch. Another Neutral. Another clutch and a wobble of the stick into First. The corner was coming up too fast but maybe — just maybe, by using every inch of the corner … 

Tapping the brakes in desperation I turned into the corner and, at perhaps ten miles an hour, that Scout slid right off the side of the road and laid itself down on the deep snow that covered the hillside.

My heart and my brain were swamped with regret at endangering the kids and letting them down on our adventure to a movie. 

And the kids? 

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Well, this was before seatbelts were standard much less required. The three students who had been on the Scout’s left bench were busy finding handholds so they could get off the students who had been on the right bench. The kids on the right bench were trying to avoid elbows and knees. And all six were scrambling to get out the back door.

Getting out the door, the kids did not hesitate to jump into a game of let’s tip this thing up and get to the movie. We all lined up on the hill and tipped that Scout back on it’s wheels. I was so proud of those can-do kids. 

I have no idea what movie we went to see that night and I doubt anyone else does. We all might remember the adventure of the Scout laying down for a little nap.

Buck Brook #14 – Purified Water

Come February a health inspector stopped by Buck Brook Farm to check on the sanitary conditions of this hippy public housing. While most of our operation was up to snuff he did have trouble with our water supply.

We were using water from a spring that we piped through a pump for pressure. The water was crystal clear, cold and delicious. But we were running a commercial kitchen and public housing and the rules are the rules and we needed a chlorinator to be safe.

We looked into chlorination systems and found a unit that fit our needs. We bought a large holding tank to store enough water to guarantee an even supply through the chlorinator, a good sized barrel to hold the liquid chlorine and a special pump that squeezes tubing so precise amounts of chemical can be measured into however much water we used. And we ordered the chlorine.

The chlorine hadn’t arrived by the time we were ready to test the system so we put water in the chlorine barrel to lubricate the tubing, fired the system up, and it worked like a charm. We put the lid on the barrel and forgot about it.

A few weeks later the inspector returned, checked our equipment and the ratings for the pump and congratulated us on an excellent system. As he was leaving he remembered something and lifted up the lid on the chlorine barrel. After a quick glance he let go of the lid, nodded his approval, and informed us, “You’d be surprised how many folks forget to put in the chlorine.”

From then on the campus enjoyed 100% natural spring water purified with 100% natural spring water.

Buck Brook #13 – Warm in January

I was raised in Boise, Idaho, which has four distinct seasons. So I was raised knowing about the frozen tundras of January. Heck, it sometimes even gets below zero for two or three nights! Sometimes. But usually the middle teens is about as cold as we have to survive.

In the mountain country of upstate New York I learned that what we consider winter in Boise is a far cry from what much of our country considers a normal winter.

In the Catskill Mountains during the January of 1970 we spent several weeks with the daytime temperature never getting warmer than 20 degrees BELOW ZERO!

I know. That’s crazy talk. But it’s true!

And we got used to it. We still took our early morning walks. We still worked outside on the buildings, even getting a foundation under the library. And those of us who smoked still went outside to do it.

We smokers did find a little nook at the front of the men’s dorm that was blocked from the wind on two sides. It faced the south, so if the sun were getting through the clouds at all there was some radiant heat. We’d bundle up and run to the nook and get some good puffs in, maybe even almost finish half a cigarette, before being driven back in to the warmth of the buildings.

By late January it was starting to warm up. One day the sun was all but shining through a light haze and the bare trees of the forest. The light and warming air found us in our t-shirts lighting up in the light of the sun. We weren’t exactly lingering between puffs but each of us did finish our entire cigarette before heading in. It was warm and we talked about it!

On the way back to the heat of the dorm I gave in to my curiosity and walked over to the barn with the fire engine, where a long metal advertising thermometer hung. I wanted to confirm my suspicion that it was about 32. Freezing! And here we had been out in undershirts smoking an entire cigarette!

Imagine my surprise to find the temperature had not gotten to 32. It was, instead, all the way up to zero.

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ZERO!

You spend a month colder that 20 degrees below zero, folks, and you’ll be surprised how much heat there is at zero!

Joining everyone in the dorm I told them I would be telling stories of being warm at zero. I assure you, dear reader, you are not the first to hear about it.

Buck Brook #12 – Early Morning Pond

Our Florida retreat wrapped up and students would soon be returning to Buck Brook. By New Years, 1970, we were back in the Catskill Mountains dealing with the cold and snow.

The entire campus began every morning with Paul, the Headmaster, ringing the fire engine bell at 6am. We pulled on whatever pants and parkas we could find, and headed out for a brisk walk.

Yes — every morning. Even when the Catskill temperatures were well below MINUS twenty degrees!

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One of Paul’s favorite walks was up the little creek that ran between the girl’s dorm and the rest of the buildings. I don’t remember it being a terribly long walk but I do remember the winter cold and tramping down the ever increasing snow.

Our destination was a flat spot in the snow surrounded by trees. It was quite serine in a Robert Frost way, even with the noise of some fifteen students and staff shuffling about. As the seasons changed we came to enjoy this flat spot as the small mountain lake it was.

One cold January afternoon some of us actually returned to the pond voluntarily. One of the staff had an ice auger, hooks, and line and was determined to let us in on the fun of ice fishing. I have never had the patience to catch fish in a crowded barrel and I found waiting for a nibble through the ice did nothing to calm my impatience.

Buck Brook #7: Trip to Florida

The end of December came, the kids left for home, and the rest of us headed south for our annual meeting of the Green Valley School staff. Buck Brook was one of the campuses of Green Valley School, headquartered in Orange City, Florida.

I’d never been further south on the eastern seaboard than Trenton, New Jersey, so the trip was an anticipated adventure.

There were perhaps seven of us and, as I remember, we decided to drive to Florida in three cars. I ended up with Arthur and Ann Gunderson and their young son.

We were fairly close, the Gundersons and I. Arthur’s job was to oversee the construction projects at Buck Brook, make purchases, and coordinate with building codes and inspectors. Ann was in charge of coordinating the kitchen, ordering supplies and making sure we staff all got our turn at cooking and cleaning.Their son was a bright and engaged kid. So I was glad to share the ride with them.

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As much as I enjoyed working with Arthur, he was a source of grousing among the students and staff at Buck Brook. I saw his fussing over minutia as necessary to coordinate materials and construction projects while many students and staff grumbled about his not getting the free-spirit let-it-flow nature of our environment. (Even I had to agree the gawd-awful little tin shower stalls he ordered from some catalogue were — well — gawd awful compared to the roomie and conversational three-head open shower they replaced. But Arthur explained an up-to-code tiled communal shower would cost a fortune compared to the tin stalls, and watching the budget was one of his challenges.)

That was our Arthur. And Arthur was my ride. And when we got to Florida there was more than one pair of rolling eyes accompanying inquiries as to how I stood the extra twelve hours it took us to finish the straight-through, all-freeway drive.

Well, OK. When we were finally at the Florida boarder and cruising along nicely, Arthur did just blurt out, “the car could use a wash.” Just out of the blue. Worse, he took the exit we were approaching and started looking for a car wash. Yea — that time I was ready to just jump out and walk.

But there was also the time we were passing Washington, DC. It was the middle of the night and Arthur and Ann started pointing out distant landmarks of a town they had spent some time in. When I said I had never been to our nation’s capitol they immediately agreed something must be done about that and pulled onto the surface streets and circled the Capitol Mall for me.

Yea, it took us another half a day to reach Florida. But I had learned you can wash your car any time and any place you want. And I had seen our Capitol for the first and, so far, my only time. And we had stopped for some nice sit-down eats instead of dealing with paper on our laps and a ceaselessly moving, cramped vehicle.

I told those rolling eyes that Arthur wasn’t that difficult a character to enjoy.

Buck Brook #4: First Ski

I got to Buck Brook in the fall of 1969 and it wasn’t long before the snow was gathering. Having been raised at the base of a ski mountain in the West, the staff and students figured I’d make an excellent ski instructor.

“Just take the kids out to the hill in front of the farm house …” was the Head Master’s solution to finding a place to get ski legs under folks from ten to twenty-two.

Well. The “hill” in front of the farm house was about fifty feet long. The snow by this time was close to two feet of powder. Less than a third of the the “hill” in front of the house was steep enough to pull skies through that much fluff.

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But you ski what there is to ski. So we got together on a sunny afternoon after rounding up boots and skis and poles. Kids and staff figured out the double-laced leather boots of the time and got somewhat used to tromping through snow in stiff boots while carrying awkward equipment to the front of the farm house. They struggled with the cable bindings, the bane of “safety” requirements until step-in bindings were developed. And we lined up on top of the hill.

I don’t remember having much to say but am sure I explained some principles of the snowplow turn. Mostly I remember just pointing my skis downhill and letting ‘er rip.

I’ve never been much of a powder skier and don’t know why I didn’t think to have everyone sidestep down the hill to pack the snow. The run was perhaps fifteen seconds long but enough to have me thinking this just might be a lesson that turns everyone off to skiing.

I stopped and turned and watched as Chaney, another staff member, turned to the hill, held her poles out, and started to slide. Within two feet she was in trouble and within four she was making a spectacular display of flying snow covering her face and getting into every possible opening of her less-than-ski-worthy warm clothes.

A complete disaster. What was I doing? What to do now? Failure, failure, failure.

Then Chaney popped up out of her white lump in the snow and declared,

“THAT WAS FUN ! ! !”

Everyone immediately pointed their skis downhill, held out their poles, and let the snow fly.

By the end of the day I was looking for the closest ski hill for a soon-to-enjoy outing.

Buck Brook #3: Library

Nutritious food and active tasks that impacted the immediate lives of students were important parts of the educational approach at Buck Brook Farm. But they were not the entire picture.

There was also the library.

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Are you thinking of a solemn space with green desk lamps and studious scholars? Fahgettaboutit!

Other than the dining room, the library was the only common area on the campus. About half of the library was dedicated to couches and comfortable chairs and plenty of open space. Reading was done amid energetic youths wrestling all over the floor and furniture, arguments, necking, board games, cards, making plans and general whooping it up. Just like an old fashioned family room!

The other half of the library was dedicated to reading material. There were four or five tall racks of shelves. All the bottom shelves were stuffed with DC comic books — and only DC comic books — because they were riddled with four- and five- syllable words of dialog. The next shelf up was dedicated to pulp fiction, teen novels, magazines and similar light reading. Then the shelf with kid’s science books and illustrated how-tos, geography, technology and similar material. Next shelf up would be more complex and so on, until the classics of literature and reference works were available to any hand that wanted to reach the top shelf.

And that was as organized as the library got. No decimal system. No check-out or check-in. No rules about books having to stay in the library.

And no assignments. No “you should be reading this.” No Reading Hour or any other incentive. Just things to read.

To graduate the students did have to present a plan to study, examine, and write a thesis on a topic that interested them. The library often got used in their research, but not even that use of  the library was required.

The only rules were, 1) an early morning walk, 2) a half day doing chores, 3) unprocessed food, and 4) no televisions on the campus. This last rule kept the library full of readers.

The vast majority of our students, many of them having come from backgrounds of mental hospitals, jails, and behavioral problems, graduated above the 85 percentile on collage entrance tests.