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August 2005

The Siege of Ticonderoga

A tall, true tale of tomahawks, tears and Atomic Fireballs

Ipp62-63_ja2005_webn the summer of 1961, high on the battlements of Fort Ticonderoga, soldiers of the German High Command fell upon the gallant Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys. The struggle was fierce, but brief. Within moments the helmets of the victors rested triumphantly on sticks driven into the dirt of the fort’s enclosure, and Col­onel Allen and his boys huddled, beaten but un­bowed, in the shadowy damp of the dungeon below.

This was in the side yard of the Miller Camp, on the shore of Basin Bay, some ten miles north of the village of Lake George. There, in a rambling Adirondack cottage of fieldstone and shingle, our two families had shared five summers of antediluvian plumbing, original Edison lamps and a dazzling lawn of water that stretched from the foot of our dock to the distant haze of Tongue Mountain.

But in the summer of 1961, a visit to the restored ramparts of Fort Wil­liam Henry had claimed the hearts and minds of the seven little boys who lived in the Miller Camp. On a rainy August morning we had lingered in the fort’s dimly lit stronghold at the southern tip of Lake George, inhaling the musty perfume of knotty logs and old smoke. We had touched the pitted cannon balls, which had been dragged from the icy depths of the lake, and had watched a red-coated soldier demonstrate the proper way to load and fire a musket. We had listened to tales of midnight massacres and grisly amputations, and we had each purchased a plastic tomahawk with “Souvenir of Lake George” embossed on a handle of genuine Japanese bamboo.

At the door of the gift shop, my cousin Nicky stopped. “We’re going to build one of our own,” he an­nounced to the startled British soldier who stood guard over an armory of commemorative shot glasses and au­thentic colonial taffy.

One small picture in the dining room of the Miller Camp captured our thinking: a twig-framed, water-stained print that bore the ghostly in­scription Moonlight over the Ru­ins of Ticonderoga. We had never actually seen the great stone fortress that guarded the northern end of the lake, but we would run each night to the end of Cotton Point Road to watch the distant passage of the gleaming white steamship which bore the fort’s name.

And of course, Uncle Tom told us stories, secrets to be shared by the flickering light of a dying campfire. Ghosts, he assured us, still wandered the landscape of Ticonderoga, shrieking victims of primitive warfare and savage woodland tortures. Feathered arrows still littered the ground, sure evidence that the forests of Lake George continued dark and deadly to this day. And on nights when mist sat in the hollows and the moon rose red and bloody, the spectral shapes of Ethan Allen and his boys had been known to stalk the crumbling walls of the ancient stronghold.

We scoured the Miller Camp’s dilapidated garage for makeshift building materials. Within a week, splintered wooden sawhorses lifted the whitewashed top of an enormous picnic table over a soft, mossy sprawl of pine needles and wild fern, and this became the central structure of our fortress. The long battered benches of the table formed a tidy rectangular parade ground in which nightly campfires kept French and Indian marauders at bay. Four pocked, square-cornered sections of ancient clay drainage pipe had been recovered from the garage; these had been strategically placed along the defensive perimeter of the benches to serve as mortars with which the Green Mountain Boys would repel the enemy. Beneath the table, im­penetrable walls of fir and birch bark concealed the grim confines of the fort’s dungeon. And now, Colonel Allen and his boys lay trapped in this pine-scented gloom, while the victorious Germans sprawled across the worm-eaten ramparts above, reveling in a captured bounty of Classics Illustrated and individually wrapped Atomic Fireballs.

I crouched in the nearby safety of the medic’s tent, a dank cube of canvas that leaned toward the bay wall in a state of near collapse. Inside the tent, a cracked enamel cabinet had been stocked with a medicinal array of Mary Janes and Vienna Fingers. In front of the tent the medics maintained a rusting pot of water over a tiny campfire, and we applied ourselves with religious devotion to the boiling and sterilizing of strips of old cotton for the eventual arrival of the wounded. My medical partner, who hailed from the camp next to ours, and who had the dubious distinction of being the only girl allowed to participate in our afternoon theater of war, huddled beside me.

“Have they seen us?” Laurie asked.

“Not yet, but they know we’re here.”

“What happens if they capture us?”

“They can’t capture us. We’re the medics. You can’t capture the medics. It’s in the Geneva Conventions.”

Laurie’s brother Ricky had joined the invaders, captained by Nicky. But her younger brother Peter sat captive with the rest of the Green Mountain Boys. My own brother, six years old and in league with the victors, danced over the roof of the fort and stared gleefully in my direction.

Our plan was precise and cunningly drafted. Game for a chance to prove her mettle in the heat of battle, Laurie initiated the first stage of the counteroffensive by slipping quietly over the bay wall and into the shallows of the lake. She headed straight for her brother’s canoe, a recent and much-coveted birthday gift, which had been tied to a rock a few yards from the fort—the very canoe in which Nicky had led his brigade to their afternoon victory. We were breaking all the rules, of course. Medics were not supposed to fight or take sides or steal canoes.

Quietly, Laurie popped the rope from its mooring stone. Practicing the time-honored tactic of the Iroquois breaststroke—the very technique, Uncle Tom had assured us, which had permitted the Iroquois to drift with deadly menace toward the camps of colonial trappers when blood was on the moon—Laurie turned the canoe and set out for a boat buoy some twenty feet from shore.

Panic erupted on the roof of the fort and the victors, abandoning the high ground of the picnic table, raced to the bay wall. The canoe was moving quickly now, arrowing toward the buoy under its own mysterious power—or so it seemed, until Laurie lifted her head from the far side of the canoe and waved to her brother with a giddy leer of triumph. The outrage was clear: no one had ever broken the rules of the Geneva Conventions. No one had dared.

The furious troops threw themselves into the water. Laurie, the most capable swimmer of the lot, set out for the far end of our dock, where my Aunt Eve relaxed in a canvas chair, sipping her iced coffee. Meanwhile, I was activating Phase Two of the plan, creeping through the canebrake at the rear of the fort, skirting the forbidden wooded area of the Miller Camp’s ancient septic system and reemerging on the far side of the now undefended fortress. While it was clear that some laws had been abandoned in the heat of this newly formed battle, some still held firm—not least of which was the rule that prisoners won escape only through the touch of a noncaptive: me.

Released from the dungeon, Col­onel Allen and the Green Mountain Boys climbed to the roof of the fort, howling victory. Across the water the startled invaders, having regained their canoe, suddenly grasped the nature of the double-cross which had cost them the battle.   Laurie stood shivering at the end of the dock, a towel wrapped around her shoulders. A terrible silence descended over the water between the fort and the canoe. My Aunt Eve looked up from her iced coffee, somehow sensing the import of the moment.

“Why can’t you kids just play nicely with each other?”

But neither craft nor strategy tempered the hostility which now roiled the water around the canoe. The furious attackers surged back through the shallows and over the bay wall, and the Green Mountain Boys were spoiling for blood.

I jumped to the roof of the fortress, dodging pinecones and fistfuls of moss, maneuvering for a defensive spot in the coming clash. The Germans thundered across the yard and poured over the waist-high ramparts of the fort, toppling the clay mortars. My little brother, too small to make the leap the older boys had perfected, clambered over the edge of the picnic table, pulled up the sodden shoulders of his Frontier Town T-shirt and squared off against me.   There we stood, soldiers of the German High Command and the Green Mountain Boys, face to face and wondering what to do. In a summer of dime-store pistols and birch-bark ba­zookas, of comic-book clashes and bright-red rolls of caps, the sudden possibility of hand-to-hand combat had simply never occurred to us.

So we pushed. First, Laurie’s brother Peter pushed his older brother Ricky. Then my cousin Nicky pushed his younger brother Chris. Chris pushed back and Nicky took a tumble. Inspired, my little brother launched himself at my shoulder, but I caught him by the arm and pushed him back. Furious, he swatted at me with his free hand, stepped back and went over the edge of the table.

I heard the painful thunk of his head as it hit the edge of a fallen clay mortar. For a moment, he just stared up at me from the ground, not at all sure of where he was or what had just happened.

I jumped down from the table and pulled him up by his free hand just as the first pitch of his scream found its way to his throat. Around us, the battle came to an awkward stop. My brother was running for the house now, his right hand tight against the back of his head. I ran with him, my hand on his shoulder in a pitiful at­tempt to leverage some bargaining room with my parents. This will show them that I’m a good brother, I reasoned. This will show them that I did the right thing. We stumbled up the wooden steps to the back porch of the kitchen, where Band-Aids and Mercurochrome and a bottle of calamine lotion were kept on a shelf in the pantry. And there, just shy of the screen door, my brother’s hand came away from his head and I saw the blood well up from his hairline and spill down the back of his shirt.

My mother became hysterical at the sight of us, and Aunt Eve knelt by my brother trying to determine the extent of the damage. The rest of the afternoon’s combatants crowded up against the porch steps, too frightened by the panic that had overwhelmed our parents to come any closer. I stood in a corner of the kitchen and pulled a wad of paper towels from above the sink.

I had never seen blood before, not like this. A nicked finger, yes. A mosquito bite scratched once too often, a technicolor smear on a movie uniform. But this blood was bright and strange and everywhere at once. I knelt with my fistful of paper, but the more I tried to clean it up, the more I seemed to spread it across the cracked Lin­oleum of the kitchen floor.

My father sent Aunt Eve to the old black telephone in the living room while Uncle Tom, who claimed some wartime medical knowledge, carefully examined the back of my brother’s head. But the telephone was a highly unreliable antique that still operated on a party-line system, and my Aunt Eve couldn’t get through. Uncle Tom stood up.

“I think this is going to be a little more than we can handle here.”

My mother held a compress of napkins to my brother’s head as my father carried him to the car. Uncle Tom climbed into the driver’s seat to plot the fastest route to the hospital in Glens Falls, and it was agreed that Aunt Eve would stay behind with the rest of us. Uncle Tom gunned the engine, the wheels spun in the stones of the driveway, and then the car was gone.

Aunt Eve was in the kitchen, calmly taking a mop to the mess I’d made. “He’ll be alright,” she said. “Just a few stitches.”

I thought she was about to say something else. I thought she was about to ask me why I’d pushed my brother, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to tell her because I didn’t know.

The rest of the troops gathered in the side yard to inspect the clay drain pipe for telltale signs of blood. Out at the end of the dock, I lay down on my belly to watch the sunfish gather beneath the boards. Laurie sat down beside me.

“My little brother was playing with a lighter once,” she said, “and he set fire to his shirt.”   We all knew this. We’d seen the terrible scar on his arm.

“We thought he was going to die, but he didn’t.”

I put my finger in the water and a sunny darted up to investigate.

“There’s a rock under the water at the end of our dock, and you have to dive just right or you might hit your head on it,” Laurie continued. “My father says parts of the lake are so deep they can’t even find the bottom.” She looked out across the bay. “You never know what’s going to happen, if you really think about it.”

My brother came back from the hospital early that evening. He had nine stitches in the back of his head, covered with a large bandage that had been tied across one eye, pirate style. Aunt Eve gave him a Heath bar, and my father made him a buccaneer’s hat from a sheet of newspaper. Later, when I went to his room to apologize for what I thought I’d done, he had nodded off to sleep. The Miller Camp stayed very quiet for the rest of the night.

Fort Ticonderoga became a castle for a day or two, then a jumble of planks and ropes in which we imagined ourselves to be the Swiss Family Robinson. Uncle Tom and my fa­ther removed the clay mortar pipes and we never saw them again. A new padlock replaced the rusting twist of wire that had secured the door to the Miller Camp garage, and the old print of haunted battlements disappeared from the dining room wall. After that, our attention turned to the water, where we spent sunny afternoons in the shallows assembling our vulcanized rafts into an ocean liner. But our ship sought disaster—striking icebergs, sprouting slow but in­evitable leaks in shark-infested wa­ters, sailing directly into the torpedo range of prowling enemy subma­rines —and it wasn’t too long be­fore my little brother raced into the dining room of the Miller Camp one morning, brandishing his bamboo-handled tomahawk.

“The Germans are back! And they’re attacking the fort!”

Roger Maris was leading the Yankees to the World Series that summer. Gregory Peck toppled the Guns of Navarone. Au­drey Hepburn sang “Moon River” and America scored the near-edge of space. It was not the last summer we would all spend in the Miller Camp, but only a few years remained before our two families would begin to differ in too many ways to make the summers man­ageable. Soon, our world would be changed in ways we could not know, and our plastic weapons would ac­quire a meaning we could not have imagined. But on that perfect, cloudless August morning, while sailboats circled the endless blue of the bay and crickets whistled in the face of fall, the Green Mountain Boys rallied to the challenge, and Fort Ticonderoga rose once again to the furious glory of unencumbered battle.