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Saranac Lake and the Great Frozen South

November 6, 2009

Since my parents came from New York City and we visited there several times a year, I knew almost from the get-go that My Home Town and the Rotten Apple were polar opposites. But I was clueless about everywhere else. For all I knew, everyone outside the city lived in a town just like mine.

The first time it dawned on me how wrong I was happened when I was still in single digits.

I was at a cousin's house in the 'burbs (which I thought existed only around NYC) and some of his friends were hanging out with us. Somehow, the conversation turned to where I came from. Once I started to describe the Adirondacks I realized the kids weren't tracking. As far as how far north it was, to them it might as well have been Hudson Bay. And when it came to our flora and fauna, they had no idea.

Finally one of the kids asked, "So do you have bears there?"

The answer was so obvious to me I didn't know why he'd asked it. But I answered anyway.

"Sure," I said. "Of course."

Suddenly all of them burst into hysterical laughter.

I had no idea what was funny about a simple fact of life. It was only much later I realized they were laughing at the absurdity of a rube like me trying to put one over on city sophisticates like them.

Culture-bound creatures that they were, it never occurred to them that just because bears didn't live near them, they could live near other people - like yours truly.

As the years passed, my sense of Us-and-Them-ness became more and more acute. And so did my Saranac Lake Chauvinism. By my teens, while I never actually said I thought MHT was the greatest place in the world, I sure believed it. And one result of it was I started collecting Saranac Lake-a-bilia.

Aside from an occasional old postcard or news clipping, most of what I collect isn't things. Instead it's stories, of which there are two types.

The first is the stories told to me by fellow locals, and I've listened to all kinds of them, from the stuff of legends to those of mild amusement, and all others in between. Among the former was hearing that someone jumped off the Bluff at Lower Saranac (a height of around 80 feet) on a horse. Supposedly, it was done for a movie and the horse died as a result.

As it turned out, it was Adirondack history at its best that is, a good deal of fact and an almost equal amount of fiction: Someone did indeed jump off the Bluff on a horse and he did it for a silent movie (The Perils of Pauline, I believe). However, I hope you're relieved to know, as I was, that the horse was unhurt.

Another great tale: The in-line roller skate was invented by one of the sons of MHT. This one also is true. Russell Demerse, a great local character who I was lucky enough to have as a neighbor, patented the in-line roller skate in the early 1920's, and Bunk Griffin has a copy of the application to prove it. Russell was a natural to think it up because first, he'd been a speed skater in his youth, and second, he was one very clever fellow.


Mention from afar

The other stories I collect are ones I see in print about My Home Town and are written in distant sources. It always reminds me how important MHT is, not only to me but to the world at large.

The first one I remember was when I was in ninth grade. For some reason that completely escapes me, I was reading the novel, Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling. It was a tale about a snotty little rich kid who gets washed overboard from some luxury liner in the middle of the ocean. He gets picked up by some fishermen and has to crew on the ship. When he finally returns to Home Sweet Home, he's a grown-up, decent, worthwhile human being.

Cliche fiction at its best, perhaps, but right in the middle of it the kid flashes back to rowing his boat on the smooth surface of Saranac Lake. I couldn't have been more gobsmacked to see that reference if he'd also said he'd rented the boat from Crescent Bay.

The next memorable reference was in a Ripley's Believe It Or Not. I'd copped an old copy in a junk store and in it was a reproduction of the first Believe It Or Not cartoon, from the New York Globe, Dec. 19, 1918. Right in the middle of that page was a drawing and description of the great barrel jumper Ed Lamy, stating he'd broadjumped 25'7" on ice. And after that it staged "Saranac Lake 1915."

Could anything beat that? Yes it canand it has. And if you read on, you'll find out what it is.


Mention from a-farthest!

My pal Richard Brandt is one very adept guy. Not only is he a charter member of The Brothers of the Bush, a fine athlete and a subscriber to The Funny Times - he's also a scientist to boot. And he's not any kind of scientist, he's an Antarctic one. This doesn't mean he studies the Antarctic from afar - he actually lives there for extended periods of time.

Richard always brings wonderful stories back from Antarctica, but upon his latest return, he outdid himself.

Some background: One of the earliest Antarctic explorers was a Brit with the veddy British name, Robert Falcon Scott. He led two expeditions, one in 1901-04 and the other in 1910-13. He made it to the South Pole on the second one, only to find a Norwegian named Amundsen had beat him to it, thus depriving Scott of being first at the South Pole. If that wasn't bad enough, Scott and his party struggled more than 700 miles back, only to perish 11 miles from the nearest supply depot.

Some further background: At a place called Cape Evans, Scott had a big wooden building, used as a staging area for his 1910-13 expedition. Due to the extreme temperatures, the wood hasn't rotted and not only is the cabin still in good shape, but it's still chock-full of all sorts of its original supplies. People who are down there go into the building, and one of those who did was Brother Richard Brandt.

And now the kicker: While he was looking around the place, he saw a newspaper on a table. It was a 1908 edition of the London paper, The Daily Mirror, and as Richard looked over the paper, one article struck his fancyas it sure should strike yours.

Here it is in its entirety:


Paralysis from Diablo

Lad unable to Speak or Move as Result of Accident Whilst playing

The 11-year-old son of a lawyer at Saranac Lake, New York State, has, says the "New York Herald," been paralysed as the result of playing diabolo.

Tossing the spinning spool in the air, the boy stepped forward with sticks outstretched to catch it on the string as it descended.

He stumbled and fell, one of the sticks being forced into his head over the left eye.

The sight was not destroyed, but the injury produced a sort of paralysis, the boy being unable to speak or move. It is believed he will recover.

If you can find a Saranac Lake story that's more far-out - either in terms of coincidence or distance - I'd love to hear it.



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