So Dewey was visiting in the east this week, and he stopped by yesterday. We shared reminiscences of Bill Johnson, one of the great characters of this area. I told him that my first recollection of Bill came from when I was a small boy, and my parents warned me to never, ever, take a ride with Bill in his truck. Bill was a cowboy, they said, and he drove his truck as though he were riding a horse.
Sadly, the occasion never came up. I would have hopped in that truck in a heartbeat.
But Bill, who actually did know a great deal about motorized vehicles, since he made his living owning and operating heavy equipment, may have been from High Woods, but he was a real cowboy. I've never seen anyone, including Gary Cooper, who looked so much like a cowboy -- tall, blond, weatherbeaten, laconic, totally comfortable with himself.
Thinking about Bill made me think about High Woods when I was growing up. A tiny community of neighbors, neighbors who embraced with pride and affection this strange sculptor who was building this strange thing in their midst.
High Woods back then consisted of the church and the general store. The general store was owned by Henry Wilgus. The store was in the front of the building, and you could get Necco wafers or milk and eggs or fishing tackle. Behind the store area was a kitchen where short-order meals were prepared. The rest of the building was a huge room which contained a dance floor surrounded by tables. The tables were used for eating, drinking beer, and playing euchre. Little notes on paper plates on the wall told who had been skunked by whom. The dance floor had a jukebox that played 78 RPM records -- chosen, I believe, by Henry Wilgus. There was no rock and roll. The names of the songs were written in ballpoint pen, in Henry's handwriting, all capital letters, with dashes in between each word: SHRIMP-BOATS, MOCKINGBIRD-HILL, DAVY-CROCKETT, THE-YELLOW-ROSE-OF-TEXAS.
But the dancing was done on Saturday night, to live music. It was square dancing. There was a fiddler -- Perce, his first name was, and I've forgotten his last name, sadly. And a square dance caller. One tune remains in my head fifty years later:
The first two ladies cross over, and by the opposite stand
The second two ladies cross over, and you all join hands
You bow to your corner lady, and honor your partners all
You swing your corner lady, and you promenade the hall
If I had a girl, and she wouldn't dance, I tell you what I'd do
I'd buy her a boat, and set her afloat, and paddle my own canoe
This same verse and chorus were repeated four times, but it's not as repetitious as it sounds. In every square dance which calls for partnering up with your corner lady, and the opposite ladies crossing over, a repetition of four means that by the end of the dance, you will have danced with every lady in your set.
Wilgus's General Store is gone now, and with it, the ferryboat life preserver, painted white, that Henry hung from a tree as one came up the hill toward High Woods from Mount Marion, which read
HIGH AND HEALTHY
And nothing has replaced it. No convenience store--nor are we looking for one. So High Woods is now the church, and a wonderful church it is. They have an Easter sunrise service every year at Opus 40, weather permitting. And every Labor Day they have their church fair, with a bazaar and delicious roast beef luncheon. We go to the fair every year...but back in the days I'm remembering, the 1940s and '50s, things were a little different. High Woods is small now, but it was smaller then, and Glasco Turnpike was a little-traveled country road. So on the morning of Labor Day, the whole community would turn out at the corner of Glasco Turnpike and High Woods Road...in costume. Everyone in homemade costumes, even some homemade floats. We would parade around the High Woods block -- High Woods Road to Wrolsen Drive, back around to Glasco Turnpike and then to Church Road, where the fair would begin.
In the early 1950s, Harvey bought Bard College's old Model A fire engine. He needed it for the pump, to empty out his pools for fall cleaning. But he restored it beautifully -- new paint, polished brass, and the insignia, in gold paint against the fire engine red: HIGH WOODS NO. 1.
It worked. It ran, it pumped water. Harvey and Bert Wrolsen and a few others even took it and helped out at fires. But I remember it most from the Labor Day parades. There were two unofficial grand marshals: Harvey in his fire engine, Bill Johnson on his palomino. A community that took pride in its church and its great, strange work of art, in its sculptors and its cowboys, its farmers and quarrymen and old ship's carpenters. A community where a sculptor from Texas could woo and win an elegant lady from New York and Rome, taking her square dancing on Saturday night at the general store.