Indian Falls

I learned to swim at Indi­an Falls. It was a spe­cial place. A large plateau of rock crossed the width of the creek cre­at­ing a 6 ft drop as the water cas­cad­ed down a chute into a deep pool below. The water lulled there before gain­ing speed again around the bend behind Tim­my and Tommy’s.

Above the falls, cut into the rock, were a num­ber of deep, smooth holes carved with stone pes­tles by gen­er­a­tions of Indi­an women who crushed maize grown in the open flat spaces of the soft rolling hills that sur­round­ed it. The Susque­han­nock Indi­ans once had a set­tle­ment in our very neigh­bor­hood and lived undis­turbed, by the white man any­way, until 1608. Cap­tain John Smith encoun­tered them while explor­ing the north­ern reach­es of the Chesa­peake where the Susque­han­na Riv­er flowed into it. Cap­tain Smith’s Algo­nquin-speak­ing Indi­an inter­preter dubbed them the “Sasque­sa­hanaough.” It meant ‘peo­ple of the falls’ or ‘peo­ple of the mud­dy riv­er’ because they lived along the Susque­han­na Riv­er. They were hunters, trap­pers, and farm­ers who grew maize, beans and squash and in the sum­mers fished in the bay and gath­ered shell­fish.

Cap­tain Smith com­ment­ed in his jour­nal that they were giants with deep voic­es and heav­i­ly armed with an assort­ment of impres­sive weapon­ry. At one time, the for­mi­da­ble Susque­han­nock had as many as twen­ty for­ti­fied vil­lages along the Susque­han­na Riv­er all the way to New York State. For four hun­dred years they fierce­ly defend­ed their water­ways and land, fight­ing with the Iro­quois, the Mohawk, the Delaware and the near­by Chesa­peake Algo­nquin tribes. Their pop­u­la­tion was dec­i­mat­ed by the increas­ing­ly dead­ly Indi­an wars and epi­demics brought here by the Euro­peans. By 1669 they were defeat­ed by the Iro­quois and a sec­ond wave of Small Pox and num­bered a mere 300. In anoth­er hun­dred years they would be gone. The mis­sion­ar­ies bap­tized them and they lived in a Chris­t­ian vil­lage at Con­esto­ga. Sad­ly, the last twen­ty iden­ti­fi­able Susque­han­nocks were mur­dered in 1763 by the Pax­ton Boys, a venge­ful mob of set­tlers from South­ern Penn­syl­va­nia in retal­i­a­tion for Indi­an atroc­i­ties against white set­tlers in the recent Pon­ti­ac Rebel­lion.

The holes in the rock at Indi­an Falls were the only thing left behind by the once mighty Susque­han­nock. Although, I found a warrior’s arrow­head churned up in a fresh­ly plowed field behind Elizabeth’s house and still have the sacred stone in a tin box in my stu­dio.


Indi­an Falls was our swim­ming hole where my friends and I spent our after­noons hang­ing out on hot sum­mer days. When we were too hot to run home to put on our swim­suits, we would swim in our under­wear, includ­ing Eliz­a­beth. We piled our clothes in a heap on the sun-baked stone and jumped into the clear pool below. Black­ie would join us of course and swim cir­cles around us and retrieve a thrown stick when he felt like it. I couldn’t real­ly swim but learned to do the dog­gie pad­dle (Black­ie could do it, why couldn’t I?) and man­aged to keep afloat when the bot­tom of the creek bed was below the reach of my toes. We would climb back to the top of the falls and after Black­ie shook his wet off on us, we’d lay on our backs until we were dry. You didn’t want to put your clothes on over wet draw­ers because it looked like you pissed your­self.

Eliz­a­beth wasn’t self-con­scious about being bare-chest­ed. In fact she wasn’t shy at all about any­thing as we found out. She sur­prised us after a swim when she said, “I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours,” as she point­ed below. Wayne and I thought it was fun­ny because we gig­gled and shrugged in reply. She pulled off her wet under­wear and stood there wait­ing for us to join her. So we did. I had three sis­ters and had seen them naked plen­ty of times, so it was real­ly no big deal to me. I was stand­ing there naked and appar­ent­ly that was no big deal either! Ha, ha. But Wayne didn’t have a sis­ter he’d seen naked and was fas­ci­nat­ed as he took a good look at this mys­te­ri­ous dif­fer­ence in anato­my. That was harm­less enough at first glance, but it didn’t end there. Eliz­a­beth pressed her­self against us and touched us down there. Wayne and I sud­den­ly had chores to do at home and yanked on our clothes quick­ly, wet under­wear or not.

Eliz­a­beth liked touch­ing us.

When we went to her house we would watch TV in the dark with a blan­ket over us, with Eliz­a­beth in the mid­dle. Beneath the blan­ket her hands would roam. She even reached down my pants on a bus ride home from school and pulled my hand up her skirt. It was get­ting weird. I told her to stop it because I was wor­ried about get­ting caught and I knew enough to know it was dirty.

This was a dis­turb­ing and unex­pect­ed detour from our child­hood.

I found out why when Eliz­a­beth told me. Her father had stolen her inno­cence and child­hood from her. How could he do this to her? I hat­ed the bas­tard. He was a short sinewy guy with thin­ning black hair who nev­er smiled. I recall him always wear­ing a white tee shirt with navy blue Carpenter’s pants and heavy work boots. Mr. Brown remind­ed me of Lee Har­vey Oswald.

I once liked Mr. Brown because he helped me out of a jam.

Eliz­a­beth and I were pok­ing about look­ing for stuff when we stirred up a nest of snakes under the bridge behind the Brown’s house. I over­turned a log with my foot and didn’t see it. Cam­ou­flaged in the dead leaves was a large Cop­per­head frozen in a thick men­ac­ing coil, its head up, cocked and ready to strike. Its tail vibrat­ed like a rattler’s with­out the noise. My foot was inch­es away from it when I saw it. I recoiled with a rush of pri­mal fear but the cop­per­head struck light­en­ing quick and buried its fangs into the rub­ber side of my sneak­er the sec­ond I moved it. The snake was snagged momen­tar­i­ly then twist­ed itself off. I pinned it down with a stick and held it hard, too afraid to let it loose. In the mean­time the baby snakes, 10” long and tipped with bright yel­low tails roused and slith­ered out in every direc­tion. Eliz­a­beth screamed bloody mur­der and ran off while I tried to keep the snake down. It bit into the stick and twist­ed vio­lent­ly, thump­ing it’s mus­cu­lar body against the ground and coil­ing around the stick to pull itself out from under it. Mr. Brown appeared out of nowhere with a shov­el, then behead­ed the big snake and kicked it aside before killing her babies, still in the open.

A few weeks lat­er I found out the Brown’s dog had pup­pies. Mr. Brown drowned them under that same bridge, in a tied-up burlap bag he tossed into the creek. I nev­er saw them but won­dered if the pup­pies were black.

I didn’t like Mr. Brown for so many rea­sons.

He yelled at his wife all the time, even when Joe and I were there. Nev­er in front of us, maybe he thought we couldn’t hear, or he didn’t care. I couldn’t fig­ure that out either because I thought Elizabeth’s Mom was real­ly, real­ly nice. When we came into the house she gave us snacks like cut up apples, marsh­mal­low sand­wich cook­ies or gin­ger snaps. This is how I’ll always pic­ture her: We were sit­ting in the kitchen eat­ing a snack on a sun­ny after­noon and I watched her iron a dress. She didn’t talk much but would glance over occa­sion­al­ly with a warm qui­et smile; pleased I was enjoy­ing the snack. I guess because I was a kid, Mrs. Brown wasn’t self-con­scious either. She was wear­ing a silk white half-slip and was bare­foot. The after­noon light back­lit her when she stepped back to exam­ine the dress for wrin­kles. I could see her form through the trans­par­ent slip as her whole body glowed. She was slim with a tight stom­ach, had mas­cara-paint­ed eyes and shim­mer­ing auburn hair that rest­ed soft­ly on her shoul­ders. She remind­ed me of Sophia Loren, who I already had a kind of crush on.

How could Mr. Brown do that to Eliz­a­beth when his wife was movie-star love­ly?

When Mr. Brown skulked into the room he brought with him a ten­sion that was pal­pa­ble. He snapped open a beer he retrieved from the refrig­er­a­tor and pulled up a chair. He looked stern and we wor­ried he would start yelling about some­thing. No one said a word as he drank from the can. Eliz­a­beth, look­ing ner­vous, forced a smile and hugged her dad in front of us for show. Her father was indif­fer­ent, as though a cat had butted against him, wait­ing for a friend­ly pat of acknowl­edge­ment. But there was none. It was like no one else was in the room. He fin­ished the beer in one last big gulp, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and got up. I was relieved when he left. Eliz­a­beth stood beside the chair hold­ing on to the side of it and looked at me silent­ly with those sad eyes.

A year lat­er, after we moved down to Bain­bridge, I heard her father broke his back. He lost his foot­ing and fell off a lad­der in the barn when he knocked down a large wasp nest nes­tled in a high beam above. He lay below unable to move as the wasps found him. He almost died. Pity.

He wasn’t going to crawl on Eliz­a­beth any­more.

I won­dered what hap­pened to Eliz­a­beth and hope she found hap­pi­ness and a good man she could trust. It wasn’t her fault what hap­pened. I know she knows that now. God Bless You, Eliz­a­beth!