by Rich Moll
A Fascination with books, history and an old house in the country
The Battle of Mukden was one of the largest land battles to be fought before World War I. It was the last and the most decisive major land battle of the Russo-Japanese War. The battle was fought from February 20th to March 10th 1905 between Japan and Russia near Mukden in Manchuria. Russian casualties amounted to nearly 90,000. The Russians had also lost most of their combat supplies as well as most of their artillery and heavy machine guns.
The captain called together what was left of his company.
“Men, I have orders to proceed to the Hun River as the Japanese are planning to cross the river there. Before I give the order to march to our new position, I am going to take a walk over the ridge to see for myself just what we are getting ourselves into. I should be back in an hour or so. When I get back, if some of you are not here, I will not notice.”
Don continued with the story his grandfather told to him that he was now telling to us, “Don, his grandfather said, I was one of the soldiers that was not there to greet the captain when he came back.”
Don only rarely spoke of his past. On that day, he did. “You know, the decision my grandfather made that morning is probably the reason I am here today.”
Don was a PhD Organic Chemist, and my boss for almost 27 years. He was more than a boss, he was a friend and a mentor. He grew up in northern Ohio and began working on neighboring farms at an early age. If I recall he told us he was driving farm tractors when he was only 12. That farm work ethic never left him. He was at work before we got there and usually was there when we left. We traveled together to a water conference every year, so I got to spend more non-work time with him than any of the other chemists in the group. In my mind, I fondly thought him as the old Russian because of his grandfather’s story. After the formal company retirement party, Donna and I took Don and Fran out for dinner as a final farewell. I was going to miss him and Fran. I wanted to leave him with something special.
I remember when I was 12 or 13 and my parents, either trusting me or just looking for a quiet weekend would let me visit my cousins in Penfield. It was really an exchange between my parents and my Uncle Walt and Aunt Carolyn. They got a weekend off when Keith and Walt visited us in Irondequoit and my parents, Helen and Richard got a weekend off when I visited the old farmhouse in Penfield. My most vivid memory of the time was the one and a half to two mile walk we would take along the country road to the “corner’ store. Unlike the town I lived in, getting candy from the corner store was not a five-minute walk. About a mile and a half into our trek we passed an old house. The house was abandoned. Walt, who was older than me had a memory, or maybe a story of seeing an old man sitting on the porch in a rocking chair. From his story, I guessed the house had been unoccupied for at least ten years. My cousins had been in the house many times even though they were forbidden to do so. The house was not safe.
Not far from the corner store, I saw it. A large old farm house, unpainted, sitting lonely on the corner of Penfield and Salt Road, inviting me to go in. Keith and Walt had been inside many times. Walt said it was just an old farm house with a lot of old stuff in it. Finally, Walt said, “… ok, we can go in, but we can’t stay. And by the way, don’t take anything, someone might see us leaving the house. We’ll give you five minutes and then Keith and I are off to the store. “
I am not sure what window we crawled through, but I was finally in. The house was dark inside, so it took a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the low light. The electricity to the house had long ago been shut off. The old man on the rocking chair on the porch, and now the things in the house were my link to those who had lived in the house, and what a story those things told. The house was still full of everything that had made it a home. The kitchen had cabinets and shelves full of dishes, pots and pans and canning jars, lots of canning jars. The living room had one or two floor to ceiling grandfather clocks. The walls were full of paintings and lined with built in bookshelves. The shelves were full of books. The dining room was still fully appointed with tables and chairs and a chandelier. There must have been a leak in the roof because the floor in the middle of the room was sagging. Keith warned me not to get too close to the middle of the room. Realizing the danger, I had to carefully walk around the edge of the room to get to one of the bookshelves. Apparently, my continued curiosity with all this old stuff was getting to my cousins. They had seen it before and wanted to move on. They did. I did not. I stayed. Oh, the books. I loved books. These were not books from the 50’s or 60’s, these were antebellum Civil War books, old books. What a treasure. I wanted to take them all. My eyes moved down to another shelf full of old postcards and letters. Funny postcards, picture postcards, greetings from friends of long ago. I felt I had entered the old man’s world. I thanked him for sharing, for being able to glimpse into a past from a hundred years ago. And then there were the postcards and the books. I carefully pulled a few of the old dusty books from the shelves. A whole book on the Russo-Japanese War from the beginning of the 20th Century. It was a paragraph in my history book. There was a book on the opening of Japan by Commodore Perry, and Ulysses S Grant’s two volume autobiography, completed shortly before his death in 1885. The old books reluctantly found their way back to their places on the shelves. I carefully worked my way around the room, back to the window and returned into the daylight of a sunny summer July day.
I never did go back to get those books. After almost sixty years, I now had a reason to go back and try to get at least one of them. The old house on the corner was long since gone. It’s just an empty field now. I had to look elsewhere. After an internet search, I found it, a period book on the Russo-Japanese War.
Don unwrapped the present and smiled as he read the book title. He looked up at me and said “thanks Rich.”
A Family of Swimmers
As long as I can remember, swimming was a family affair. My dad was tall and lean and had a great swimming stroke. He would just glide through the water. My mom seemed to have a more delicate stroke, something like a half crawl stroke. I can still see her and my two sisters at a beach or a pool with swim caps. These were rubber caps, some white others pastel pink or blue, that women and girls wore on their heads to keep their hair dry. The need to learn to swim as well as the love of swimming was just a part of our growing up. Countless hours of Saturday lessons during the winter were meant to prepare us for summer swimming. Vacations and weekend destinations always seemed to include a State Park with either a pool or a beach.
We grew up in Irondequoit, as did my parents. In fact, we grew up on the same street my dad grew up on. My mom was born on the next street over. Our backyard folded down into a wooded gully which rose into the woods of Durand Eastman Park. The park was full of wonder. There were paths and ponds and streams full of frogs and crayfish. Playing in the “crick” as we called it was fine but we were warned not to venture into the ponds. The ponds were not for swimming and there were dark and vague references of kids drowning in those ponds when they were kids.
North of the park was the magnificent big lake, Lake Ontario. One of the Great Lakes, one of the wonders of God’s creation. My cousin told me later that the lake was made by the glaciers, not by God. I was a bit disappointed to find out the truth about the Lake, but then who made the glaciers? But I digress. The wonder of the lake so close to our home was not diminished by the glaciers. In the 1950’s Durand Beach was a destination. There was a wide sandy beach with a large bath house and row after row of life guard stands. We used to go there regularly in the summer. Again, I was encouraged to try out my new swimming skills but warned not to go out too far, and certainly not to go out over my head. The land under the water sloped ever so gently so one could wade out quite far. If I tip-toed out far enough I could just reach the first sandbar without going over my head. Once having reached that first sand bar I could stand up with the water barely touching my waist. I was home free. The temptation to try for the second or third sandbar got me grounded. I got in over my head in more ways than one.
As I reflect on the family love affair with swimming and the equal emphasis on becoming a good swimmer and a safe swimmer, I can’t help but recall a story that my dad and mom told us many times.
To the east of our home is an equally impressive though much smaller body of water, Irondequoit Bay. The bay is about four miles long and a half mile wide. It stretches from south to north from the end of Irondequoit Creek, near what is now Empire Boulevard, to the Irondequoit Bay Outlet to the Lake Ontario shoreline.
As a young man before WW II, my dad seemed to be having the time of his life. I have photos or have heard stories of him golfing, fishing and hunting with his English Setter, all in Irondequoit, the town he grew up in. This was before the post war home building boom which transformed large tracts of woods and farmland into new homes and housing developments. There were not a lot of jobs to be had during the depression, but he found work. He worked his way through high school setting pins at the local bowling alley and had a job as a clerk at the neighborhood soda shop. I think the place was called Loves Ice Cream, and yes, they made their own ice cream there. Finally, after saving enough money he bought a canoe. I think after his beloved dog; the canoe was his most prized possession. I am guessing that canoeing became his favorite leisure pastime. There are more than a few pictures of him and his friends with the canoe. The bay was always his favorite canoeing destination, as its waters were more reliably calmer than the big lake’s.
One day, as the story goes, Dad, Ray and Eugene decided to beach the canoe on the east side of the bay and take a swim. It was a hot summer afternoon. My Dad was an excellent swimmer. He had been on the swim team at Franklin HS and had earned his life saving certificate. The idyllic summer afternoon suddenly turned dark. Eugene had waded out into the water as my dad passed him returning to shore. He did not see Eugene. He did not see him slip from view. Ray did. Ray watched him appear once and then disappear again. Not being a strong swimmer he had to wait until my dad got to shore. Frantic with fear Ray exclaimed, “Rich, you better get out there, Gene just went under the water again.” Unbeknownst to Gene, the shallow waters of the bay quickly drop off from a three-foot shelf to a depth of fifty feet or more. At its deepest, the bay is eighty feet deep. Time was of the essence. Eugene could not swim. Losing one of his best friends was not an option. Dad swam out to Gene in one of his fastest times ever. Reaching where Gene was he pulled him up and told him to relax and lie on his back, that he was going to pull him back to shore, all standard instructions from a lifeguard to a person being rescued. Gene complied. Dad cupped him under his chin and side stroked his way back to shore, Gene in tow.
Dad was a humble man, he never bragged about his accomplishments, he just stated them in a matter of fact way. But we all knew, we heard the pride and joy in his voice, he had saved his best friends life.
I never really thought about it until just now, but I think his love of the water and his love of swimming and the day he almost lost a friend to the water left a deep impression on him. An impression that lasted a lifetime; a lifetime and beyond. A wisdom really, a wisdom handed down directly and indirectly to his children, his grandchildren and his great grandchildren.
Rich Moll is a local author and lifelong resident of Irondequoit. A husband, father and grandfather he worked as a chemist for 40 years. His hobbies include traveling, photography, reading, and mycology.