Wednesday, February 18, 2009

COOPERSTOWN AND A PLACE CALLED ROTTERDAM

This was to be a pilgrimage to the Baseball Hall of Fame. When I was very young my equally fanatic father had taken my brother and me there. I always said I would go back. Life and geography had gotten in the way. Despite my absolute passion for the game, I had never found the time. On this trip there were no such constraints so I forged up from Pennsylvania into New York State on I-88 to bow my head in the cathedral of baseball to the greatest to have played the game.

The rain that had followed for days continued. For an Interstate, this was not a great road. However, the farm country it passed was lovely. One could easily imagine sitting in front of a fire in one of the many old farmhouses that have been nestled in this valley for at least a century. The towns are small, lived in, and lovely. There are few roads here that will take you through them, no remnants of U.S. highways as in other places. The Interstate follows the old routes, and going through town seems a great deal out of my way on a rainy day when getting out and looking around isn’t likely.

Cooperstown, where the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is found, is such a small town. It is in the middle of downtown where parking is at a premium, particularly for a camper. There have been many, much heralded attempts to move it elsewhere. They have all failed, since the game of baseball, as we know it was once believed to have been invented by Abner Doubleday. He was born in Balston Spa New York and educated in here in Cooperstown. He was a Civil Engineer and a West Point graduate who served in the Civil War. He pointed the first gun of the War at Fort Sumter, and was a Major General when he fought at Gettysburg. He went on to be President of the company that built the San Francisco Cable Car system. It was alleged, in a spare moment here in western New York, that he drew the first “baseball” field which was then built here. Thus Baseball chose it for the hallowed shrine to the greatest moments of the game. Doubleday and baseball were for at least a century inextricably linked to this place and it was embraced by the scions of the game as the “home” of American baseball, with Abner as its father. He was, of course, no such thing. It was not invented here and certainly not by Abner Doubleday based on any empirical evidence. There were many games played at the time that involved a bat and a ball. They served as the wellspring of the modern game well before Doubleday could have been old enough to invent it. Yet this myth that the field at Cooperstown was one that he laid out as a young Civil Engineer remained fixed in the lore of Baseball because it served the purpose of the game. In later years it has been proved wholly unlikely since he was at West Point on the date in question, the “drawing” has never been produced, and Doubleday himself never mentioned it. None of his friends remembered him as claiming the game as his own, or even mentioning it more than in passing in his later life.

A number of games were played in the northeastern United States that resemble American baseball. “Rounders,” is well documented has having come from England with the New World settlers. Additionally, there is substantial evidence that one Alexander Cartwright wrote the first formal rules for this game know as “base” and “Town ball,” as well as “baseball” some of which survive in the game today. Since Cartwright lay out the first field the distance between the bases and that from the pitchers mound to home plate has never changed. It remains the same symmetrical diamond it was in the 1800’s. There were teams in and around New York City playing the game before the Civil War. The first known formal game was played in 1846 by two amateur teams in Hoboken, New Jersey. Yet, Abner remained the symbol of the game because baseball wanted it that way. One historian says he is the historical equivalent of the game’s grandfather figure. He is useful for baseball, but to scholars is as the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus. That is all in way of explanation of how “The Hall,” as it is reverentially referred by the games most ardent and passionate fans, was built at Cooperstown and remains there still. The game wanted an image like this. Pastoral surrounding in a small town setting evokes thoughts of young lads in knickerbockers playing on the village greens of the bucolic America we wanted it to be and not some dusty place like the Elysian Field in Hoboken. It is what baseball wanted, so it is what baseball had us believe.

There is something to be said for this remoteness. It requires work to get here. Like pilgrims going to Mecca, the Wailing Wall, and Bethlehem, you must want to come here since getting to this village on the one two-lane road in the valley southwest of Albany New York is hard. I wondered as I rolled into town how they managed to get all those people here for the Induction Ceremony every year. The living Members of the Hall who come to greet the new inductees are hardly youngsters, and many of the inductees aren’t either. There is no airport here. One must assume there are a lot of limousine rentals that week in Albany and Boston.

It was too late to go to the Hall the day I arrived. That was just as well since downtown was full and it was raining, which was enough to discourage a hunt for fringe parking and finding a way back to the “Cathedral of Baseball” that day. I thought I might have a better chance at parking somewhere near it, or finding out where more parking was in the morning. Cooperstown is quaint, although overrun by souvenir shops, bars, and restaurants all with far too cute baseball related names like “The Dugout” (a basement restaurant) and “the Upper Deck” (a memorabilia shop). Having decided to call it a day, the search began for “Glimmerglass” state park.

The Hudson River valley produced a number of famous authors. They were the very first Americans able to make a living from only their writings as the new country emerged after the Revolutionary War. The most prolific of these and perhaps best known was Washington Irving. He wrote under his own name and the pseudonym Geoffrey Crayon. He is most famous for his short stories “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and “Rip Van Winkle.” His contemporary, James Fenimore Cooper wrote the “Leatherstocking Tales.” His father founded Cooperstown. James gave the name “Glimmerglass” to Lake Otsego in this work of historical fiction. It borders the town and, I am sure, when it is not hidden in a fog bank as it was when I was there, is as lovely as Mr. Cooper describes. The campsite is eight miles from town on the other side of the lake. The signs through town are clear, but the directions seem less so the closer you get. I expect they assume either local knowledge, or that you would be smart enough ask someone, or not come in a downpour on a darkening afternoon. The road that follows the far side of the lake is narrow and winding. It has many of those signs we all see and ignore, “Caution Falling Rock.” Well folks, I can tell you they do fall, particularly in the rain. They also land in the road. They can be run over and do real damage. I know that now as a certain fact.

La Coachasita continued to run normally after the encounter. I was later to discover the sewage release pipe was mangled beyond reason. Until then, I could only imagine what broke in all that noise when the rock hit the undercarriage. I figured this out on the cement drive near the Ranger’s office when the Park and I finally crossed paths. A cursory inspection told me that I had serious damage that needed repair but that the van would continue to run fine and probably hold used water since the damage was on the outflow side of the valves. Plastic pipe was all that seemed to be broken from what I could see without laying on the wet ground. Given my location and the fact that it was now after four o’clock, nearly dark, and raining heavily, it seemed best to stay the night. Everything seemed to be still attached to the camper. What looked like it might not remain was wrapped with duct tape which, as we all know, will hold most things up to at least the speed of sound.

The semi-friendly ranger that greeted me said all but two campsites were available and as far as she was concerned, any of the other 148 sites were fine with her. She seemed mildly interested in my woes when I asked if there were any repair facilities in the area, but mumbled something about Albany as she headed out the door, shift done, dinner no doubt yet to be.

It is a self-contained park, which means no electric or other service except what you bring or make. It was cold. It rained most of the evening. Given the correct state of mind and reasonable weather, it would be quite lovely here. Since my next stop was due to be the Boston area for the Memorial Day Weekend the repairs had to be made somewhere and before then. Leaking used water was not an option for the rest of the trip. I spent the cold gray evening trying to make a plan.

There is a line in a Willie Nelson song that good times are any time you’re not tired, not cold, and not hungry. We could colors these as good times, then I suppose. I had gas heat and a generator for lights and I was dry and ate dinner. Priorities get reordered in these situations. With a shrug to quell my compulsive nature which screamed for a solution to the problem beyond such homilies, as “God will provide,” I took to my bed after dinner, read, and listened to music. Somehow, the lack of a phone, radio, and television reception seemed appropriate for the place. I wanted to know what I would do in the morning. I did not want to have to figure it all out. I convinced myself that it would all be clearer then and slept, secure only in the knowledge that the van would start, and that Willie was right.

The morning was nearly as gloomy as the day before. There were two more campers in the park, no doubt late arrivals. Since there was little I could do for my companion, La Coachasita, until the factory opened two time zones away, I took the time to make a quick sweep of the Hall as I passed through Cooperstown. I remembered it as a considerably smaller place that we had come to visit to see the mementos of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Cy Young, “Pee Wee” Rieser and Tinkers and Evers and Chance and so many others. There is much more to see now. That makes it a more daunting a task. The place is lovely. The main lobby makes some luxury hotels look like fleabags. The relics of the game, from the scorecards to the equipment and the plaques are the kind of thing a fanatic like me could spend a week looking at and still not see it all. I left now after too short a time and I went to try to solve my problems and continue the trip to my relatives for the holiday weekend. I did not want to spend the Memorial Day weekend in a motel by the side of the road. I had two days to fix the van and get to Massachusetts. I also knew that RV repair people would be especially busy right now before the weekend. Other than knowing I would be able to reach the factory now, I had only a vague idea what I would do next. I left town on the two-lane road I came in on for Interstate 88 and headed toward Albany in the belief that if there was help, it would likely be there.

The next stop was not on the original itinerary. It was, as someone said, “just part of the trip.” For reasons that are only clear to my personal god and serendipity, I got off Interstate 88 here and found a lot of very nice people.

I drove generally east on I-88. In a moment of blinding realization, I concluded it was about to become the New York Thruway and I would pay a toll and then be hermetically sealed on a toll road I had no plans to use and would offer no surcease for my camper’s difficulties. I needed fuel and was desperate to eat something since the cereal of early morning was wearing very thin. For all these not very essential reasons, I dove for the infamous “Last Exit Before Toll.” I had no idea where I was. There was a gas station and a Dunkin’ Donuts next to each other at the bottom of the ramp. That, and the fact that the day was brightening despite the continued drizzle, was enough for the moment.

After fueling the van and me, I asked a friendly faced woman behind the counter if she knew anyone who might be able to at least crawl under my van and tell me how bad things really were. She took an immediate, somewhat alarming interest and said she would call her mechanic who was five miles down the road and ask him. When done, she said he had agreed to look at it. He did once I got there. He said it was a “mess” but also admitted he had no idea how to fix it and knew very little about “these RVs.” He thought Jack White at his RV place a few more miles on might be able to fix it. I thanked him for looking and left to find this Jack White’s place.

White’s RV Repair, when I finally found it, turned out to be a very large warehouse structure far down at the end of a very muddy dirt road. Jack wandered out after a time and said he was just finishing a job and would look at mine in about ten minutes. This seemed luck enough, since at least I would know whether anything was about to fall off and whether the camping part of this trip was going to continue. Once I knew that, perhaps a plan could be made.

He looked. He groaned, but to my amazement said it wasn’t much really, just a hole in two pipes and he thought he could fix it. He searched for appropriate parts and started to pull it apart. As is always the case with luck like this, it could not last. There was a part peculiar to my van that he didn’t have and could not find in the parts books. I knew this was not good news, but he seemed to know what he was talking about, which encouraged me. I called the Canadian company that built the camper and spoke to another Jack, the Service Manager. I explained. He talked to the Jack in front of me and he explained. They agreed that Canada had all the correct parts and would Express them overnight. Perhaps my luck was better than I thought.
Now all I needed was a place to live until they could fix it. Jack and his helper gave me some motel names, recommended a few, and ruled some out. On the first call “Debbie” at the Rotterdam Inn found space for me said I could have it in the next hour. That was good since there was nothing particular I could accomplish until the parts arrived and it was better than plugging in to Jack’s building and sitting it out in the rain overnight which had been Jack’s first invitation. I had lots of e-mail to catch up on and the phone was working now, so indoors and some one else’s cooking seemed a better idea. I could let people know where I was (although it remained unclear to me at that moment) and when I would likely get to my destination, if the parts showed up and Jack was as good a mechanic as I hoped.

The motel was not the first I would have chosen had I been doing it on looks alone. I was to find that much in Rotterdam was not as it appeared on the surface. I was glad it wasn’t as soon as I went inside. The proprietors and most of the help were part of the Peloso family. “Debbie,” who was still at the desk when I got there, greeted me warmly and with great sympathy for my plight. The rest of the people, help and guests, over the next two days, could not have been nicer. Everyone noticed the license plates and felt a little sorry for the Californian stuck here in the rain and seemed to be rooting for me to make it out by the weekend. I settled in for a wait and tried to stay amused. I was sustained by the Italian take-out or eat in place next door, which the Peloso family also owned and which had the same baker as when Grandfather Peloso came from Italy. Their motto was “Watch Pizza Made by Imported Hands.” The food was fantastic.

At mid-day on Thursday, my new best friend Jack hadn’t called, so I drove there. He had the parts but was in the midst of an emergency repair on a huge “fifth wheel” trailer that was likely worth more than my house. Many people prefer them because you can unhitch the truck for local trips. Jack said he would be a couple of hours so I said I would get something to eat and come back around three.

I went back down the road to the huge truck stop and spent a couple of hours talking with many of the over the road truckers who were pulling in at this hour for a hot meal, sometimes a shower, a little relaxation, and a willingness to talk to other strangers. They keep strange hours, these road warriors. By dinnertime for the rest of the world, they are off the road resting for the long night ahead. They eat either an early dinner or a late lunch, depending on your point of view and will eat again later as they drive on into the night while you sleep. It is hard to tell from the food, since they are just as likely to eat a steak now as at ten tonight. None wants to participate in the office worker’s quaint ritual nightmare of rush hour, so they eat now and then rest while the rest of the world is fighting their way home. Then they will drive well into the night, as far as their logbooks and the inspectors will allow. Twelve hours a day or more behind the wheel. It comes with sleep rest stops like these in between. There are the crazy ones, who push a load as fast as they can and then catch a load headed back where they came from. They do caffeine, cigarettes, energy drinks, and whatever pills it takes. Most don’t work that way and those that do don’t last long. Many now drive in family pairs. There are a few woman drivers out here solo, but not many and they still have issues with some of the men who see their domain being violated. The large, over the road vehicles that are privately owned have cabs that are longer than my van now and behind the driver’s seat there are mini-condos. They have everything I have in the camper and more and can cost as much as an oversized motor home. Yet somehow they haul enough to make the payments, and in recent years family run “rigs” have become more plentiful simply because they are more comfortable. Some couples stay on the road nine or ten months a year.

When I was finished eating, talking, and watching, I went back and waited. Jack had found more trouble with the big rig than he had hoped. He started on mine about six o’clock. I was beginning to feel much better. While he was wandering around (he had a habit of forgetting where he put a tool down) putting me back together as it were, I learned he only did this part time. He had only been in this building for a short time, was, in real life, a police officer in Schenectady, which is the next town and was planning on taking retirement next year to do this full time. I was sure he would do well. He had a way with people that allowed him to hear you but not get too involved and to thank you but refuse things offered without offending. My latest new friend Fred, the owner of the fifth wheeler, had pulled out, plugged into the power of the building and was making dinner (or “the wife” was). He had come back to introduce himself and apologize for how long it had taken to get fixed. He offered Jack and I some of the stew being cooked in his palace as we spoke. Jack declined because his wife had brought him dinner, and I did because I had already eaten. It is amazing, that these huge rigs, which are truly houses on wheels, could sit in a muddy field full of repaired, abandoned, and rusted RVs in the dark and that once inside, you never knew the difference.

My van was declared well at about 8:30 PM, I was effusive in my thanks to Jack, and I headed back to the hotel. There seemed a new spring in the step of La Coachasita. It was dark when I got in, but one more trip to the Peloso’s restaurant netted me the dinner special of stuffed shells as good as they get and kudos from the staff that I would be able to leave in the morning . One shower later, I was in bed and ready for my trip to Massachusetts the next day, content.

Such are the ways of the solo traveler who at times relies on the random acts of kindness of perfect strangers. One finds good people and a willingness to be of assistance, mostly. La Coachasita and I are always grateful for that, and in this case, glad to have met some of the citizens of Rotterdam and now know where it is.

9 comments:

  1. I hope you understand what the previous commenter said because I have no idea, but that's okay because my powers of discernment tell me he or she is not from these shores.

    Michael, this post is so good on so many levels. I enjoy your writing immensely. It just pulls you along; you have to know what is coming next!

    I had heard of "Rounders" and "Town ball" but I enjoyed hearing about them again. I did see one boo-boo, though: it's PeeWee Reese, not PeeWee Rieser.

    I lived in the Hudson Valley (Poughkeepsie) for three years back in the sixties when I worked for IBM. We never made it to the Albany area but we did eat in an eighteenth-century hotel's dining room in Rhinebeck and we did drive on the Taconic State Parkway occasionally. We visited West Point and also Kinderhook (President Martin Van Buren's home) further south. Your post brought back many memories of a beautiful part of the country, except I always said if they were going to give the world an enema, they would stick the tube in Poughkeepsie.

    I also enjoyed your quaint phrase, "used water."

    ReplyDelete
  2. rhymes--Well,no,I meant Pete, "Pee Wee" Rieser who was the centerfielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1940-48. He never became as good as he could have been because of his astounding ability to run head first into the centerfield wall any any number of occassions. He concussed himself out of the league after too short a time.
    He batted .297 lifetime, was there when Reese was a rookie, and was a particular favorite of my father's when he was living in Brooklyn.
    Rieser had the distinction of being, at 17 years old, declared a "free agent" by the Commissioner of Baseball (quite rare) and was signed by Brooklyn for $100! He then finished his career in the early fifties with three other teams.

    Yes, Poughkeepsie would be a good place to start draining the swamp, I agree. I grew up in NYC area so spent a fair amount of time in the beautiful parts of the Hudson Valley.

    Thanks for the nice comments, I am glad you like these "essays" of my past travels. Thanks as always for stopping by.

    Oh, and as for comment number one,I do hope it was misposted or I am certain I am not in his/her universe .

    ReplyDelete
  3. And for anyone who fo;;ows, comment #1 was deleted so you will have to take rhymes' word for the fact that it was unintelligible!

    ReplyDelete
  4. As a fellow solo rvr, some of this makes me say "Yikes" but mostly it makes me want to follow this route, to see what you saw - even the Baseball Hall of Fame.

    Reading this was a vacation in words... I read it twice, the second and best accompanied by my first taste of rye...

    ReplyDelete
  5. Quite an adventure you had due to the fallen rock. Lurking in my own past is a similar story begging to be written into a blogpost.....it occurred on a mountainside in Colorado. It, too, blossomed into an encounter with amazingly helpful people.

    Thanks for the historical info about baseball and Cooperstown which fills in the gaps in my sketchy knowledge of the subject. You said baseball wanted it that way.....to have a specific creator ala Mr. Doubleday.....interesting. As if an "evolution" of the sport would not be good enough. Reminds me of another creator/evolution issue.

    Enjoyable post, Reamus!

    ReplyDelete
  6. What a journey you are on. My great appreciation for taking some time from your long and various travels to share Bridge of Sighs with me. It's now on my list.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I had a similar occurrence when I was driving down a loggers' road through a forest in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, on my way back from a pilgrimage to Hemingway's Big Two-Hearted River. I was driving too fast for conditions, as became obvious when a boulder suddenly appeared in the middle of the road. After hearing it bounce around the underside of my car, I watched the dashboard announce "Check Engine".

    But as luck would have it, there was a master mechanic not 1/2 mile from our cabin, and UPS made next-day part deliveries from down state (the mitten). And everybody was just great.

    Another great adventure story well told, Reamus. I thought you meant Pee Wee Reese, too, so thanks for straightening me out. Growing up in South Carolina I was, of course, a Brooklyn fan, and Reese, Hodges, and Campanella were my first "favorite players." Oh, and the Duke, too. Pee Wee Reiser was before my time.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I suppose we all do this at least once in life. Glad you were that lucky in that part of the world.

    Rieser was before MY time as well, but my father always talked of him. The "Pee Wee" was part of his appellation on and off. After Reese joined the team he became just Pete, but by then was having trouble getting the manager to believe he could play without breaking his skull and was soon traded.
    Thanks for the kind words.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Tried to post earlier. I love that you use pictures to show the places you have been.
    Makes me feel I am traveling along with you.
    Another great post, Reamus

    ReplyDelete