Glenn Miller - In the Mood

Dam just west of Eagle street - since demolished.

There is a modest yet respectable, and very pleasant, river running through Naperville, the Dupage River. Our house on Mill Street was about two long blocks from it. It is lined by what we called generically, “the woods”, a broad band of trees and other foliage on each side of the river. Near the river and Mill street there were three abandoned limestone quarries, lakes since they had filled with water, two on the south side of the river, and a “double” one on the north so named because its shape was like two bulbs connected at their narrow points in the middle. One half of this quarry, the east half, was filled in at some point and is no longer a “quarry”. The other half, on the west, is what we called, simply, “the beach”. Years before, all these quarries had filled with spring water, after the cost of pumping the water out made it too expensive to quarry their limestone, thus magically transforming them into small lakes. The southern two quarries were called the “Big Quarry” and the “Little Quarry”, and may be so called still today although they have become part of a civic enterprise rather agreeably termed, the Riverwalk. Later, when I was an adolescent, the Little Quarry was to have special significance to my brother and I, of which more, later.

When we were very little our parents regularly warned us (under the unbearable penalty of having to stay home) against going near the quarries; they were quite deep, over thirty feet, and we couldn’t yet swim. And in the spring, the river ran pretty fast, although it was only two or three feet deep in most places in the summer. People had drowned in the river and in the quarries. As we grew up and learned to swim at the YMCA, this “no go” rule was gradually relaxed as our need to go “down by the river” became too strong to resist. In different ways, from early boyhood through adolescence, I was strongly affected by what was called just, “the river”. Having revisited the area recently I can say it is still affecting.  It is hard to say why this is, and I’m sure I cannot explain it. Perhaps it is some atavistic reflection of man’s life in nature.

One of my earliest friends, Otto, lived near the river. He showed me how to see fish from the bank (look “through” the reflective surface of the water to the surface of the riverbed below), and even to feed the little ones with bread out of your fingers.

Somewhere along the line, when I was about eight, and my brother five, we acquired fishing poles and the requisite paraphernalia: cork bobber, lead sinker, gut “leader” (plastic had yet to be invented), hook, and worms for bait. (We gathered these “night crawlers” ourselves, the night before, on hands and knees on the lawn, using a flashlight and grabbing them quickly before they could react and zip quickly backwards into their holes—occasionally, if they were fast, we got only half!) Then we went through a dry run with dad at home, assembling our kit—he was too busy to go along. So one morning we marched proudly off to fish for the first time, little fishermen off to bring home the larder, poles on small shoulders, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to hand. Pure bliss.

Excruciatingly threading the worm on the hook, as dad had instructed, was a challenge. They must feel it, they wriggled so. Conveniently, I decided they were too dumb to be of concern. I wanted to fish and that was that. Not the last of the moral challenges I was to fall short on. Surprisingly, we actually caught some fish: little sunfish about two or three inches long. Collecting them on our “stringer”—in through one gill and out through the mouth—we carried them proudly home for my mother to fix for supper, which she did. They were of course excellent, though only a mouth full. I don’t recall having to clean them. Mom no doubt indulged us.

Much later, when I was a teenager, I brought home the first rabbit I had ever shot and, displaying it proudly, I suggested to my mother that it would be good for supper. With a subtle smile she agreed, and then told me to take it out in the back and clean it. “But mom, I’m the hunter and you’re the cook.” She didn’t play. Either I had to clean it or forget it, so I cleaned it. Gutting it was one thing, but the part that got me the most was skinning it. You have to cut the fur and skin around the hind legs and then peel it forward, like turning a glove inside out, until you got to the head, which you then must cut off. This proved the finale of my brief hunting career, and though I believe I did display my “lucky” rabbit’s feet at school, (my luck, not hers) I never hunted again. Fishing was only a little different: every so many years I make the attempt again, only to realize once more that the only fish I can catch are still the ones about three inches long. My career as a hunter gatherer was not a rewarding one.

On the other hand, there were peculiarly entrancing things about the river: the sight of the water, its movement, its sound, its rippling shallows and the mysterious deeper parts, and also, as a part of the package, the surroundings: the paths along the riverbanks, the woods, the stillness, the freedom to be on your own. The river for us kids was not just for the summer. As we got older, the spring, the fall, and especially the winter “down at the river”, all had a different but always a strong appeal.

One year, when I was a teenager, my father gave me a gun for Christmas, or it may have been a birthday. It was what is called an “over and under”. It had a .22 caliber rifle barrel on the top and a small gauge shotgun barrel on the bottom—one was prepared for anything. I could not fire it in town of course: too many houses and people. But down at the river I could, with the proper precautions: always know where the bullet will go, shoot into a hill if possible, keep the safety on when just walking. All this was terribly interesting. I used to walk far up the river into farm country—down river was the town—shooting at crows, which were evil, like rats, ground hogs and other vermin. Irrationally, squirrels, chipmunks, robins, sparrows and morning doves were strictly off limits; they were considered benign by all, like dogs and cats; you were happy to see them around. This taxonomy was mysterious. No one explained exactly why these categories existed or how a particular species came to be treated with benign respect or lethal disdain. But everyone knew. It was obvious.

In the winter we skated on the river and quarries, usually at the Big Quarry. The river, which in the winter was shallow, was skateable as soon as the ice near the banks would support you because the consequence of breaking through was only a sudden, cold, wet bath and a shivering walk home. The middle of the river always freezes last. On the quarries, which were very deep, we were more careful, waiting (usually) until there was a solid support surface all across the quarry. This was tested first by some of the older kids who skated all around hammering the ice hard with the butt end of a hockey stick to see if it would crack. When it was firm, dozens of kids from the town would come to the quarry, don skates and, wielding snow shovels brought from home, collaborate in the clearing of snow into huge piles around the edges to make the skating easier. If it was snowing it would have to be done every few hours. Fires were started for warmth, and games like tag and a crude form of hockey were played, two stones or short logs serving to mark the goals. Even the occasional romance was indulged in, hand in hand, on the ice by a few of the older kids. No part of this project was supervised or even attended by adults, though in general the older kids looked out for the younger ones.

While we were actually skating on the quarry we were excited and the danger didn’t appear too great, but at night I often had nightmares of breaking through the ice. Seemingly unable to get out, I would wake in a panic. But some cold winters the ice would freeze 12 inches thick, or even more. You could have taken a car out onto it; then, you didn’t worry.

My dad once told us that when he was a boy, men used to cut ice from the Little Quarry, storing it for sale in a large shed nearby. This shed was still nearby, and it still contained ice cutting saws, large tongs, and other paraphernalia of the trade. Though I found this hard to believe, the ice was stored, so I was told, throughout the summer in straw in the shed. It was sold for people to use in their “iceboxes” (like refrigerators, but without a cooling unit). He also once mentioned that the going rate for actual quarrying, in its time, was a dollar a day, and one had to provide one’s own team of horse! He liked to talk to oldtimers who remembered such things as that and other now-historical things such as the Plank Road, and the Pre-emption House which, though it still existed when I was a boy, was said to be only a shadow of its former opulence. My dad used to have a drink there once in awhile and I remember an occasion when, sitting side-by-side on stools at the bar after work, he instructed the bartender to “give the kid a shnitt,” meaning an inch or so of beer in a glass. We occasionally had “shnitts” of beer at home but this was my first at a real bar. I was about nine I guess. It was not to be my last.

 

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