Project Canterbury

Impressions and Opinions: An Autobiography
By J.G.H. Barry, D.D.
Rector Emeritus, Church of S. Mary the Virgin, New York.

New York: E.S. Gorham, 1931.

Chapter I. The River

I was born on the 19th of April, 1858, in Middle Haddam, a village in the Town of Chatham, Connecticut. The village lies on the east bank of the Connecticut River about twenty miles from its mouth. As one stands on the village docks one can look up and down the river for a distance of three or four miles either way. North and south the river bends and the hills close in so that one has the impression of looking at a long narrow lake. At the north end the hills narrow the river down into the "straights" as we called them; south, the river turns at the village of Higganum. Low ridges of hills rise from either bank of the river, tossed up tier above tier of slopes and pasture. It is along the slopes of the hills on the east side of the river that the houses of the village of Middle Haddam are scattered. It is all hills with no level fields anywhere. A stranger landing one morning from the boat from New York and asking a small boy where was Mr. Barry's house, was told that it was "two hills up"--which was a very accurate description. We boys had great difficulty in finding any flat field large enough for a ball ground and in the end had to make the best we could of a very rough lot. Fortunately we were more interested in having a good time in the open than in the technicalities of the game--though I fancy we should have resented this interpretation of our sport. In any case baseball had not then been standardized to the extent it has today. It was still a sport and not a business. Our game was a joyous affair. Instead of looking on while two men threw a ball endlessly back and forth for a couple of hours, and then adjourning with no runs made, we all had an active part in the game and piled up twenty or thirty runs a side. I imagine that some of my friends in later life will be astonished, possibly shocked, in learning that I was at one period of my career the Captain of a baseball team.

The river was a constant source of joy to me, whether in the winter, when one rushed across its surface in sleighs or ice-boats, or, on the rare days when the surface was smooth enough to permit, glided in exhilaration on one's skates; or in its months of open water when its varied life was a constantly changing experience. The spring break-up of the ice and the succeeding freshets were days of extraordinary interest. The news was spread that cracks were appearing in the ice. Soon one stood on the bank and watched the huge ice cakes float by. One asked if the water were yet rising. One watched it come over the docks and flood the lower stories of the buildings on the bank. One watched eagerly for the spoil the waters swept down with them--all sorts of logs and boards with an occasional old boat or an out-house of sorts. As the waters receded various useless things, yet prized by small boys, were left upon the banks. In particular, from some unknown source up the river, there always came long stems of rattan which, when dried, could be cut up into short lengths and smoked as cigars. Horrible tasting smoke, as I remember it, but transmuted into deliciousness by the vivid imagination of a boy. One passed most of one's spare time in this freshet season watching the waters come and go. Now and again one's joy would be crowned by the invitation of a fisherman to go out with him for a drift down the tide. This was if the shad season had already begun.

For commonly the freshet waters had not wholly passed when the shad fishing began--a new thrill in the boy's life. After school one could go down to the river where the fishermen had their nets and watch the process of mending which went on each afternoon. Then the net was laid on the boat and, when the night closed, the boat put off and the net was laid across the river. Slowly the boat and net drifted with the tide down miles of the reach. If one knew a fisherman very well, or, as in my case, had a chum who was a fisherman's son, and if one's parents were not too strict, one might get taken for a haul. Then one drifted down the river sparkling in the moon light till the time came to draw in the net. Then one saw it come over the side foot by foot and the shad disentangled from the meshes and thrown flopping on the bottom of the boat--dozens of them, if the haul were good. Now and then a sturgeon made trouble by getting his huge bulk entangled in the net and tearing it badly. If he did not escape, he had a rope tied about his tail and was towed to shore. He might weigh one hundred and fifty pounds or more.

I was never much of a fisherman myself, but I enjoyed the variety, the change of interest, that the river gave in the way of fishing. In the winter when the river was a great level plain on which sleighs ran, and races were held, there was the fishing through the ice. One could cut holes in the ice and drop one's line through--many holes with many lines if one wanted fishing for the sake of the fish and not for the sake of the fun. By a skillful arrangement the line was passed over an upright stick in such wise that when a fish was hooked the upright fell over; thus one could watch a long row of lines and quickly run to the successful hook. A, to me, more interesting mode of fishing was by means of a basket. A large shallow woven willow basket with appropriate bait in the bottom was let down through a hole out on the ice. After a while it was slowly drawn up and, if luck were with the fisherman, several large white dace would be found within.

Ice fishing passed with the break-up in the spring and the shad fishing ended with the coming of summer; but with the summer, too, new modes of fishing came. If that amused one, one could sit endlessly on the dock or in a skiff and watch for one's cork to go under when a perch or a bass seized the bait. The lazy occupation had no very vivid appeal to active boys. It was more exciting to troll, to row along near the river bank with the spoon hook trailing many yards behind, in hopes that pickerel would strike. The rowing, or sometimes the sailing, were good fun, and the (rather moderate) chance of a strike gave variety and a little excitement.

There was another form of fishing which, to me, was the most delightful of all--bobbing for eels. I think that the chief charm was that the adventure took place at night, on warm summer nights. Such nights have always given me an inexpressible thrill of joy. And to be out on the river in the still warmth of such a night was pure delight. Then there was great variety in bobbing. In the first place there was the preparation of the bob. One went out at night with a lantern and walked cautiously along ground that previous experience had proved to be favorable for the capture of the sort of game that one was seeking: a garden path was a favorite hunting ground for me. Here in the warm dewy night multitudes of angleworms had come out of the ground and were stretched out enjoying the touch of the dew. To pick up an angleworm lying stretched out on the top of the ground would seem a simple and easy matter, but it is not. The wily worm has not come entirely out of his hole, but keeps the tip of his tail inserted in the ground--a very muscular tail, for in an instant, if alarmed, he can pull himself back under shelter. The grip of the tail is really astonishing. If one succeeds in grabbing the worm's head before he can get to shelter, the attempt to pull him from his hole will most likely result in the disruption of the body--you will have the head and the tail will disappear! The angleworm, too, is a shy beast, disturbed in its dewy bath by any slight jar of the earth; if you are successfully to get your game you must tread softly and grab quickly. Imagine then the small boys' joy as they tip-toe down the garden path, one holding a lantern and the other bent eagerly forward ready to spring. I do not believe the grown man's tracking of bear or deer gives greater thrills.

If the hunt is successful one has secured perhaps a solid pint of worms. These one covers with earth in an old tin can and leaves till one gets ready to make one's bob. This is a fascinating process, at least for a small boy with no prejudices in the matter of cleanliness and whose sympathies are not stirred by squirming worms. Strong black linen thread is needed, and a knitting-needle roughened at the end, that the thread can be tied on. Then one takes the worms from the can and, impaling them upon the needle, strings them on the thread. A barbarous process? No doubt it looks so. But small boys are in reality barbarians. Six feet of worms will make a good bob. Wind them round and round your hand, and then round and round the circle of worms wind more and more black thread--and you have a bob. You are ready to go bobbing.

It is a warm night. There is no moon but the stars are clear and dot the smooth surface of the river with innumerable little gold specks. If you listen you can now and again hear a splash which tells you that a fish has jumped out of the water and fallen back again. From the land comes the sound of a dog's bark. Far up the river you can hear the chug-chug of a tug-boat dragging a string of barges down the stream. Two boys in a flat-bottomed skiff push off from the shore into the warm darkness and row to a place where they are certain eels will be found--they know where all the "eel-beds" are. Here they anchor and drop their lines with the bobs attached, and finding the bottom draw the bob just clear of that. Presently a sharp pull at the line. An inexperienced boy would at once pull sharply in response and catch nothing. One has to remember that one has at the end of one's line a bob and not a hook. The experienced boy waits a moment and lets the sharp pulls go on, and then carefully, slowly draws the line. If the pulls cease he drops the bob back and waits till they begin again; if they keep on he draws the bob close to the surface and then quickly swings it clear of the water and into the boat. The chances are that the eel's teeth are caught in the thread of the bob and do not get clear quick enough to save him--or perhaps they do: that is where the excitement comes in, much excitement if instead of one eel there are two or three hanging on the bob! Imagine the warm summer night, the darkness enfolding one, the constant pulls on one's line, the increasing squirming mass in the bottom of the boat! Freedom, that is, self-possession; fullness of life, such as no pitiful city boy at the movies can possibly know. Nights long to be remembered and dreamed over!

One came home toward day-break quite healthily tired out, lugging some dozens of eels in one's basket. The end would come in the morning when the task of skinning had to be faced. "Slippery as an eel," we say; and if you have ever grasped an eel and tried to hold it you know the vivid meaning of the saying. But there are ways of curing an eel of his slipperiness: pour some ashes on him and you can hold him. "With a sharp knife cut his throat and slit the skin down his belly and you can strip the skin off in a jiffy! Then if you cut him up into two-inch lengths and fry him very brown you have a delicious reward for all your labor.

In the meantime the river flows by invitingly, its Waters warmed by the summer sun. Who would want to keep a healthy boy out of them? In summer, swimming was the chief joy of life. How we impatiently waited till the water warmed up: or rather, we did not wait, but continually tested the temperature of it and our endurance by repeated dips. I have been in while the ice was still floating down, but that was sheer bravado! It was not till June that the real swimming days came, and as the summer days grew hotter, the longer was the time spent in the water or lying naked on the sand. The home rule was that one went in once a day and stayed in about twenty minutes; that was all right in theory, but in practice one did as one liked--stayed in an hour and went in three times a day.

I cannot remember learning to swim, but I suppose I had to learn, though I fancy it came naturally to me and was not much trouble. An old dock where vessels no longer came and a little out of the village was a favorite swimming place. The water was deep enough to permit diving and not so deep as to prevent one's reaching the bottom. This was an ideal situation for our games. The joy of a small boy's swimming is not the swimming itself, but the various things he can do in the water. There is plenty of the sort of rough play that a boy likes--pushing a fellow off the dock, or catching him in the water and "ducking" him. Then there are contests as to who can swim farthest or farthest under water. One of our favorite games was to throw a number of fresh water clam shells off the dock and see who could catch the greatest number before they reached bottom. A spring-board is a delight--for some: it was beyond me except in the way of simple jumping and diving, Not for me the back-dive or the somersault, still less the double-somersault.

What ecstasy it was on warm summer afternoons to lie naked on the sand and enjoy a sun-bath. I fancy one's skin got toughened by exposure as only on one occasion do I remember getting badly burned. When tired of swimming and too restless to lie still and talk one could wade about in the shallow water and hunt clams. It was a very mild sport to find the track of a clam under water and follow it till one captured the game. The joy was all in the hunt; the game was inedible.

Some distance up the river from our favorite swimming place was a high bank of pure sand. As I recall the scene in imagination today, it seems as though the bank rose sheer from the river as high as fifty feet. It was a difficult climb as the sand was very soft and dry and one had to get up with the aid of steps one dug in the face of the bank as one went on. One was quite likely to come tumbling down with, perhaps, a great mass of sand upon one. But there was soft sand at the bottom to fall on. But why climb at all? Because near the top of the bank were dozens of little holes which were the entrances to the nests of the bank swallows. These small creatures dug holes sometimes three feet deep into the face of the sand bank and made their nests therein. The combination of the destructive instinct, which is so strong in a small boy, with the spirit of adventure urged us to the profitless labor of climbing in the hot sun to the top of the sand bank and digging out the nests of the swallows which we did not in the least want. Occasionally a hole bigger than the others promised the nest of a kingfisher, and to rifle that was unmixed joy.

The river of course suggests boating of one sort or another. And row and sail I did to a certain extent: largely because other boys did, for I was never devoted to the boat. The bank of the river was my play place. It seems as I now look back a lazy lifeless place, but it was full of life and interest to me. Always there were boats going by, up or down; for in the absence of railroads the river was the frequented path of travel and transport. We boys knew the hours at which all the steamers were due and were commonly on hand to receive them. There was too the constant movement of sailing vessels--sloops and schooners mostly. With a strong south wind there might be twenty or thirty in sight at once in our reach of the river. Mostly they went sailing by with freight for Middletown or Hartford. Or they were going to the Portland quarries where the brown stone was dug out with which New York was then being built--the rows on rows of "brown stone fronts" which are now rapidly vanishing. Tug-boats scurried about and laboriously dragged long lines of scows. But it was not all a passing picture; there were always vessels of one sort or another at our docks. Tugs coaling, schooners unloading coal or what not, sloops with loads of clams or oysters or fish from the salt water. These last were not pure joy to me as I always disliked sea-food, and the news of the advent of a sloop with clams or oysters often meant that I was sent with a basket to lug a peck of clams or a half-bushel of oysters up the hills to our house--delicacies out of which I got no satisfaction.

What was satisfying was to play about the dock and over the vessels. Mostly the sailors were good natured and never objected to our play. We were admitted to the engine rooms of the tugs and became experts in the technical terms of machinery. We climbed the rigging and sat on the cross-trees or we worked our way out to the end of the bowsprit. We learned the proper nautical pronunciations and held in scorn any one who said southwest when an educated sailor always said sou'west. Oar courage and skill was tested by our ability to dive from the rigging of the schooner. Dare we jump off the cross-trees? Or dive? Only older and heroic persons were up to the latter.

I can shut my eyes today and see the docks of Middle Haddam as they were sixty years ago, the blue water drifting by in the sunlight and the white sails dotting the river, and the shouting group of naked boys on the dock or in the water, and it is a vision of unclouded joy. It was so good to be alive, to have no responsibility, not even moral responsibility: just to feel. We were animals, pure and simple, with only the instincts and impulses of animals, healthy animals. The city boy of today is an animal, too, but he is a domesticated, caged animal, subjected to a system that, thank heaven, I never knew. I fancy the country boy of today (of whom I know nothing) is changed too. The Public School has probably laid its violent hands on him. The artificial amusements of the picture house and cheap theater have sophisticated him. He is no longer the free wandering animal that I and my fellows were--and I am sorry for him.

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