New Year’s thoughts from New York City
“It was dark. Very dark,” Isreal Dudley recalls, thinking back almost 10 years to his first visit to Vermont. He was 11 years old at the time, and it was his first real taste of the rural outdoors. Thanks to the Fresh Air Fund, Isreal, also called “Isszy,” had come to spend a couple weeks with our family that summer. It wasn’t his first time out of Brooklyn, the borough of New York City where he had grown up and lived his whole life. The previous year he had spent some time with a family in Pennsylvania, also through the FAF.
“I think my mom just wanted to get me and my little sister out of the house for the summer,” he notes with a laugh.
But that Pennsylvania house had not been quite as much out in the middle of nowhere as our wooded parcel of land just a few hundred yards from the edge of the Green Mountain Forest. And Isreal was stunned, that first night, to stand out in our yard away from any city lights, and to see just how many stars were in the sky.
“Stunned, and a bit frightened,” he admits. “There was no sound. It was pretty scary to have everything so dark and so quiet.”
It wasn’t just the darkness and quiet that provided the excitement and fear factor. “There were bears and deer and snakes. And actually frogs in a pond that you could catch. I think there might have been lions and tigers, too. And poisonous Vermont caterpillars.” (I later acknowledged that the caterpillars weren’t actually poisonous. And that, while there were some reclusive bears around, there weren’t any tigers or lions.)
“And healthy food,” Isszy adds. “I had to eat healthy food. Yech.” (For the record, he did a good job eating whatever he was fed without any complaining. Or at least without complaining any more than our own three sons. And he even helped us grow some healthy food in our garden.)
“And there was no television to watch.” (That was a complaint also. Especially when he learned that we did actually have a television, but simply chose not to watch it on beautiful summer days.)
Despite the food and lack of television time, Isreal ended up visiting us three more times over the next four years through the FAF. While that first year he spent most of his time in our driveway shooting hoops on the makeshift basket attached to a tree, with my old warped ball — and not venturing more than a few yards into the bear-infested woods — each year that he returned he grew more and more adventurous. He hiked, biked, swam in a lake, and eventually went fishing.
Now memories of those first few years come back stream-of-consciousness style.
“I enjoyed biking. I remember visiting the Addison County Fair and Field Days, and being scared by the horses. I learned to swim — in a lake, not a pool. We cut a lot of wood. And I got my first experience smelling freshly spread cow manure.”
Yes, the scent of Addison County cow manure is one of Isszy’s most prominent memories. He returns often to a memory of a bike trip with my wife Deborah, riding along a nearby cornfield after a fresh spreading of liquid manure.
“I was gagging on the smell, and Mrs. Dickerson didn’t seem to even notice it. I guess you have to get used to it. I haven’t gotten used to it yet.”
He especially remembers his overnight backtracking trip, climbing and sleeping out on the third-highest mountain in the state of Maine (though he hasn’t asked to climb any more mountains), and catching a trout in the New Haven River (he hasn’t asked to catch any more trout either).
But other aspects of Vermont life he has gotten used to and looks forward to.
“I love the stars. And the landscape is really beautiful. It’s peaceful and relaxing and lovely.”
He’s even gotten used to our family, which is no easy task. And so now, as he approaches his 20th birthday — and has long since graduated out of the FAF program — he returns often to visit, more as a family member than a visitor. This Christmas he bought himself a bus ticket to come up for a week and join us for the holidays. It’s the second time he has come for Christmas. Last year he also visited on Easter.
As we have watched Isreal grow and mature, we have seen him become more reflective as well. In the spirit of Christmas, he is deeply thankful for his opportunities to visit Vermont, and expresses that thankfulness often even as he shares some of the lessons he has learned.
“Now I enjoy time outdoors and look forward to it. My time in Vermont gave me a more adventurous spirit. And I’ve learned that I can find worthwhile things to do other than watch television.” Then he gets more serious. “A lot of teenagers have never seen anything outside of New York. They don’t think that any other life is possible. I’ve had a chance to see that there is a different side of life.”
Through Isreal, our family has also learned that there is a different side of life. We appreciate his humor, his openness, the way he entered what must have been a very scary situation and made the best of it, and how he has made himself a part of this family.
We also appreciate his appreciativeness, and were deeply moved the day after Christmas to find a hand-written thank-you note on the breakfast table. It made for one of the most memorable Christmases in a long time, and one of the best presents we ever could have received.
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