Picture The Professor in his early years. The Young Professor, if you will. In this version, he’s a 14 year-old swathed in the uniform of the local tribe, circa the early 1970s. A random, no-name flannel shirt, slim blue jeans, white socks, and a pair of sneakers. There’s absolutely nothing distinguishable about his clothes. But that’s on purpose. The whole idea is to disappear into the crowd. Physically, he blends in for the most part, too. He’s about 5’-9” and 150 lbs with longish, over-the-ears-and-into-his-eyes hair. By all intents and appearances, he’s just another 9th-grade New Englander walking a couple of miles home from his secondary school. In his case, that would be Canton High School. Home of the class-S [as in “small”] Warriors sports teams. In fact, CHS was so small that they didn’t have enough students to field a football team. To put a number to it, CHS was the designated educational repository for a little over 400 students. That included every freshman, sophomore, junior and senior. Assuming that the lot of them could ever be assembled in the auditorium at one time and counted.
As a freshman, The Young Professor could have taken one of the dreaded yellow school buses instead of hoofing it. That’s what most of the other kids did. Especially if they, like The Young Professor, didn’t play baseball or run cross-country in the Spring. But the price of that free bus ride was high. Adolescent suffering was the toll that every rider paid. The Young Professor had figured out a few years earlier that there was no percentage in being a passenger. It only resulted in negative social capital and self-doubt.
Not to over-dramatize it, however. Nothing really major or momentous ever happened on those buses. No broken bones, for example, almost never any blood. Just the everyday flicking, teasing, tripping, shaming kind of crap. The screwing-with-someone scenario that comes out of boredom, free time, and the flaring of meanness. To put it succinctly, a real First-World kind of problem. The unspoken ethos was to either inflict yourself on others or be the recipient of the others’ inflictions. It certainly wasn’t a Lord of The Flies scenario. But it wasn’t exactly the stress- and humiliation-free transit that the school’s stewards intended it to be.
The bus went all of the way to the bottom of the street he lived on. That would be the incredibly named, you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up “Freedom Drive.” The Young Professor lived in a white ranch house a little over half-way up. Number 25. Critically, it was on the right-hand side of the street. The side that backed directly to the woods and waters of Nepaug Reservoir. His feelings about school buses—and his love for the Reservoir—explains whyThe Young Professor was walking home. Even on a hottish Spring afternoon in this northwestern part of Connecticut. That was one of the parts of the state that hadn’t yet become suburban. Nor was it rural any longer. But it certainly was no Fairfield county. There were no horsey sets. No prepsters. Nobody’s parents were dreaming about taking the family on a trip to the Metropolitan Museum, let alone having a job in Manhattan.
A little after 3pm, The Young Professor crossed over the Farmington River. He strode under the direct if inelegant silver steel trusses of the one-lane, not-exactly-imaginatively named “Town Bridge.” He knew the bridge by heart. He had crossed over it countless times going to and from school. But he also knew it because it was the way to get down to the river’s banks so he could fish. The young Professor was a bobber-and-earthworm fisherman from way back. He lost more than his share of monofilament and hooks to the river’s many buried logs. But he also caught more than his fair share of bluegills and yellow perch along the way.
Crossing the bridge marked the half-way home point, psychologically if not geographically. Shortly thereafter The Young Professor came to an intersection. The steep, uphill-climbing and equally unimaginatively-named “Town Bridge Road” met with the shaded but longer “Powder Mill Road” that came in from the right. Both would eventually get him to his house. But it was far more direct if he stayed on Town Bridge. Far hotter, too. So he took the right turn. He walked for another five minutes down Powder Mill until he turned left at the one partially-paved private road off to the left. The one with a gate and the “No Trespassing” sign prominently displayed.
He side-stepped the gate and continued walking. This was the back-door route to the spillway-side of Nepaug Dam. Not to mention the fact that it led to the rest of the reservoir, and the woods around that. Despite its off-limits status, The Young Professor was accustomed to taking that route. There was nothing better than hiking around the Reservoir and this simple road was a good way in. Besides being guarded by a sign and a gate, it was also padlocked by the Metropolitan District Commission. MDC was the quasi-governmental agency that owned, operated and patrolled Nepaug Reservoir. They also oversaw other bodies of non-recreational drinking water [notably, the tellingly-named “Compensating Reservoir” in nearby Barkhamsted]. Nepaug was a key part of the MDC’s network of reservoirs responsible for slaking urban thirst. Nepaug’s water, for example, was sent to West Hartford. It went through a 42-inch pipe that tunneled through the solid trap rock of Talcott Mountain. That public works project allowed Nepaug to deliver some 33,000,000 gallons of water a day [when needed] to a storage reservoir just outside Hartford proper.
But none of that was on The Young Professor’s mind. He had a destination he was heading to. To get there, he increased his walking tempo. The partially paved, mostly-shaded, one-lane MDC road was both cooler and damper than the town road he had just been on. The banks of earth and forest that flanked the road leaked ambient moisture into the air. The dense deciduous tree canopy on the left-side of the MDC road backed up eventually to the house lots of the other perfectly-named, you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up-either street in the area. “Country Lane” was a lariat-loop of a road with maybe 40 two-story homes spread-out along its curving route. All of the houses were what passed for mid-1960s spec-builder’s interpretations of the centuries-earlier “colonial style.”
The houses on Country Lane weren’t close enough to the MDC road to be seen by The Young Professor. But their presence could be felt. Every so often a revving lawnmower or a shrieking kid’s hooting and hollering would filter through the trees and give away their location. Another reminder about how hard it was to truly escape Canton’s clutches. On the right side, the woods were more truncated than on the left. Just a steep wooded ridge away from banging-up against Highway 202. That was the thoroughfare between Canton and the bigger towns to the northwest like Winsted and Torrington.
Most importantly, before the woods built up on the right, there was a decent-sized stream. As The Young Professor walked up the MDC road, the stream flowed toward him. Although the stream was no big whoop, it nonetheless amplified the cooling effect of the shaded MDC road. Just a small band of trees separated the rough pavement from the stream and the piles of rounded rocks that it audibly flowed over, under and through. That stream ran down the old bed of the Nepaug River. It was the very same river that was dammed to fill the Reservoir.
A few minutes later, The Young Professor’s destination was in sight. A certain part of the stream. A place where the water slowed and formed a natural pool. An oblong pool with a slight but-ever-so-certain sparkle to it. The water always rippled and reflected light in every direction. This was one of his special places. A place he had been thinking about since well before he left the asphalt, linoleum and fluorescent world of the CHS school complex. This was the place where the water was a little lighter blue at its surface and more of a completely clear bluish-green near the bottom. Maybe 15 feet wide. About 25 feet long. Perhaps 10 feet deep or so at its fullest and deepest.
On the far side of this pool, a small outcrop of schist and granite slanted into the water. From there, it tilted back up into the first line of trees. It was slab-like but steep enough to jump from. Its orientation toward the sun warmed its roughness. Thermal mass won out over grabby texture. At the downstream end of the pool, a low, semi-stacked line of stones was piled-up. An ad hoc dam several feet thick but full of openings. It didn’t so much block the water as just delay it temporarily.
There was no question about the goodness of that water in the Reservoir or in that stream’s rocky pool. There were no people, boats or run-off at Nepaug. The water was pristine. It was swimming water good enough to drink, and it was. When melting snow or a deluge of rain filled the Reservoir beyond capacity, the water went over the spillway. That was the start of the stream. Aerated by its cascading journey down the 100 feet of spillway steps, it often made a refreshing mist at the bottom. Then it would rematerialize, become a liquid again and flow downstream toward The Young Professor’s pool.
It’s tempting to look back 40+ years and see a massive rock tilting into the stream. But that’s just the anxious amplification of memory speaking. Not the way it actually was. The rock was not Grand Canyon- or Tetons-massive. Not even Adirondacks-or Berkshires-massive. It was a Connectisized rock. A piece of rock befitting Puritan ancestors. A common-sense-based, smaller and quieter New England rock. Its scale was modest, its appeal practical. Appropriate to the not-so-large scale of the pool and the stream. It was big enough to do its job and no more. Waste not, want not. It was what The Young Professor experienced as a biggish thing in a smallish place. Big enough to be climbed, sunned upon, dived off of and cannonballed from.
One feature of that small hidden swimming spot still stands out. The water was warm at the surface and chilly near the bottom. A natural thermocline. Always changing its depth from day to day. Rebalancing itself. You could be floating in the water. Lulled into a kind of relaxed, mellow state of mind. Only to be slapped back into reality by a cold-water encounter. Like when your feet, legs, arms or whatever went below a certain depth.
The water seemed to lean into and cuddle against the rock. Then it rippled, curled and curved its way downstream. Optically, the effect created a kind of environmental radiance. It gave the perception of an aura to the pool and the landscape around it. Light played off of the water and that, in turn, played off of rock and sky. Right in the middle, the water was so clear that it looked five feet deep, but it was about twice that. At the bottom of the deepest part there was one small sandy plot. Just a couple of square feet wide. When jumping from above, it was the target to aim for.
That little place—the largest pool of a small stream—became a place for The Young Professor to retreat to. A place to splash-off the classroom absurdities of the day. A place to soak away the hallway stupidities that come with seemingly any teen-aged American education. A place to go after—or better, instead of—school. A place to read what he felt like. Not what the English teachers dictated. For the middle months of that year, that meant Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun, Frank Herbert’s Dune, and Voltaire’s Candide
Picture The Young Professor again. On his way to the pool to swim. He’s walking in rhythm to the lyrics of “Purple Haze.” Untucked flannel shirt fluttering behind him as his freak flag. His head elsewhere. He utters some of Jimi Hendrix’s best phrases under his breath. Others he leaves to be screamed by that inner voice in his mind. The poetry inherent to the song was mesmerizing. But it was the stream that was guiding him. It was the glistening water calling him.
Then it was all a blur. The flannel shirt was off, bundled in one hand and then thrown in a ball. He was off of the MDC road and down the 15-steps in a controlled bit of side-slip dirt surfing. Down to the part-sandy, part-stony edge of the pool. Shoes and socks peeled straight away. Jeans directly after that. The boxers stayed. Mostly that is. Sometimes it felt right to do the skinniest of dipping. Nothing on then. It depended on the heat, weather, mood and estimated chances of being seen. Then it was into the water straight away. The strange yet somehow familiar immersive recognition that came once your head was under water. That immediate feeling of being refreshed, healthy and recarbonated. Of being simultaneously brought back to both life and into clearer focus.
So, yes, the Nepaug water was different. Whether it came from the Reservoir itself, over the spillway at the dam dating from 1916, or as part the rocky pool that The Young Professor immersed his bad self in, it might as well have come from a distant planet. In this spirit of cultivating our gardens, rediscovering our memories, and coming to terms with our childhood haunts, it reminds us to realize anew that the repetitive magic of places such as the Nepaug environs was that they provided, without verbalization, whatever was needed. Instant refreshment. Instant energy. Concentrated. And that’s why they call me The Professor.