A Catskill Catalog: December 14, 2011

Couldn’t help but think of John Halcott, as I rode an Amtrak train recently over New York’s City’s Spuyten Duyvil. He was the young Eton-educated Englishman who swam that channel with his sword clutched in his teeth, once he “became convinced he was fighting on the wrong side,” during the American Revolution.

The train crossed over at night. So must have John Halcott. After all, swimming from the northern tip of British-occupied Manhattan to the rebel shore of the Bronx was desertion and treason for a British officer. John Halcott was a British officer. He would certainly have carried-out his desertion under the cover of darkness.

I imagined him slipping into the cold water, teeth clutching his long sword. He’d want to paddle quietly. The swim across is not a great distance and the encroachments of civilization have certainly changed the water’s flow. Railroad tracks, the Henry Hudson Parkway, and Columbia University’s Lawrence A. Wein Football Stadium have all played a part, I’m sure, in taming the devil’s spout. But even if the currents were quick in John Halcott’s day, I could see how easily he would have made the crossing. It’s maybe 100 yards across.

But once he got to the other side! There is no going back, once you’ve turned your back on your fellows and gone over to the other side.

Some things are like that. Actions and events that form a clear and distinct before and after. John Halcott swimming the Spuyten Duyvil is a no-turning-back kind of thing. Before, he was a British officer, brigade quartermaster. After his swim, he was John Halcott, British traitor and American patriot. Before and after. No turning back.

John Halcott knew his life was about to change. It was premeditated. He planned his sword-in-teeth swim to the Continental Army’s side. He knew. Self-consciously, he established his own before and after.

His grandson, Charles Lorenzo Halcott, had a somewhat different experience with his before and after. Charles was a 23-year-old soldier in Company B of the 22nd Regiment, New York State Militia.
On July 3, 1863, Charles wrote a letter home to his father. He was in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, having “marched 25 miles and had two engagements since Tuesday,” the day before his writing. “No one in our regiment is hurt,” Charles reported.

His unit had been in Harrisburg. They left their knapsacks there, to speed their march southwest to Carlisle. “The Rebs fired about 100 shells into Carlisle,” Charles wrote, but the Union regiments had only “five men wounded.”

Then, a postscript. “The Rebs have all left this part of the country. I think they will not trouble us again, very soon. We have news from General Meade this morning he has whipped them at Gettysburg.”

It must have been at that moment Charles Halcott realized his before-and-after. He went back to a letter he had earlier written, and had signed affectionately, to add a postscript. He knew.
His prediction proved false. We had two more years of trouble, terrible, bloody trouble, but the Gettysburg Campaign, of which Charles was a part, marked the high point of the Confederacy, the northernmost incursion of southern troops.

The remainder of the Civil War would be fought solely in the south. For the first time in over two years, it was clear that the Federal government would stand. The north might not win, might not achieve a Confederate surrender, but, after Gettysburg, it was evident to all that the north could not lose. And Charles Halcott realized that.

Before and after. John Halcott’s Sputyn Duyvil before-and-after moment came of his own will. His grandson Charles’ before-and-after moment sort of happened around him. Both knew that life would be different, after those events, than it had been before.

Perhaps some future Catskill Mountain chronicler will see August 28, 2011 as a before-and-after moment for our part of the Catskills. Maybe, from the vantage of 10 or 20 or 50 years in the future, the “Floods of Irene” will be the defining moment, the demarcation for the Catskills of before and after.

I know some good-hearted and hard-thinking folks urge exactly that case. That now’s the time to change the very physical structure of our communities. Others want to bring things back to the way they were, adding all appropriate measures both to mitigate our streams’ potential for repeated devastating floods, and to implement appropriate building modifications.
In a way, one view sees Irene as a before-and-after moment. The other view puts Irene at the top

of the list of the many, sometimes shattering, difficulties of making a life in the mountains, always a place of hard-edged realities. It takes work to live in the Catskills.

We all, however, recognize, as first Hanukah and then Christmas approach, that we’re still in the middle of this moment, that many of our neighbors remain homeless and without basic stuff, and that recovery is long-term.