Two Epidemics | CAI

Two Epidemics

Aug 11, 2020

Recently I found myself thinking about Vermont, not because I’d rather be there than where I am, but because when I was nine I spent a week there in the middle of a polio epidemic.

Here’s what happened: At that time my family lived in a rented house in a working-class suburb of Newark, New Jersey. Our landlords were the Jensens, Martin and Margaret, who lived in the house next door.  My parents and the Jensens were quite friendly, and as was the custom with neighbors in those days, I addressed them with the honorific titles of “Uncle” and “Aunt.”

Every summer the Jensens would go to the tiny village of Ripton, Vermont, where they owned a house up in the Green Mountains.

During the summer of 1952 Aunt Margret and Uncle Martin invited us to come up and spend a week there with them. The house was a handsome 19th century farmhouse with a massive fieldstone fireplace and open post and beam cathedral ceilings. I know it was 1952 because most of the time Uncle Martin’s radio was on and tuned to the Democratic National Convention.  Nothing could be more boring to my nine-year-old mind, though I was intrigued by someone named Estes Kefauver, a senator from Tennessee who wore a raccoon cap on the campaign trail.

Across the road from their house was a mountain stream whose waters were so cold I couldn’t swim in them. There was a nearby lake with a public swimming beach, but because of a polio epidemic that summer, it was closed to swimming. Polio was considered a water-borne disease, so you could still sit on the beach, but not go in the water.

The most intriguing thing on the Jensens’ property was their backyard well – an old-fashioned, open, round, stone-lined well that contained a dozen or so rainbow trout. Uncle Martin told me that the trout helped to keep the well walls free of algae, and provided the occasional fresh trout dinner. I couldn’t help but think what the fish were putting into the well, though I realized much later that the fish well was not the source of our drinking, cooking, or bathing water.

One day after lunch, Uncle Martin said he was going to walk down the road to his neighbor’s cabin and asked me if I would I like to come. “He’s a poet,” he said, by way of enticing me.  My literary tastes at that time ran to dog stories, biographies of baseball players, and 3-D comic books, but not poetry. I politely declined.

* * * * * * * *

Three decades later I got a fellowship to the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, which, it turned out, is held at an old farm on the far side of Ripton.  I was driving along Rt. 125 when I passed a house that looked vaguely familiar and gave me an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. I stopped the car. There didn’t seem to be anyone around, so I peeked in the window and there it was: that instantly-recognizable enormous fieldstone fireplace. The trout well was gone, but there was no mistaking it – this was the Jensens’ house where I had stayed with my family all those summers ago.

And at that moment, I realized also that the neighbor Uncle Martin had invited me to meet - the invitation I had so summarily spurned and could never reclaim - his neighbor, “the poet” – was none other than Robert Frost.