Canoe Memories

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(HOST) Commentator Frank Bryan remembers summer canoe trips and friends of long ago.

(BRYAN) Davy died this time of year. He was the youngest of five brothers on a dairy farm where I worked. Often in the cool of an August evening, with the smell of bales from a second cutting fresh from the broad fields along the upper Connecticut – a place the Abenaki called the coos, “where the great pines grow” – Davy and I would take my old canoe and drift and fish down the river.

I would sit in the rear in my early 20’s, Davy in the front, in that golden time between the ages of eight and 12. I remember his back, bony and brown, his arms and shoulders gangling and awkward, even then showing the muscle that foretold the man he would soon become, his wild, home-cropped hair and a grin that bespoke the joy of being a boy – free on the face of the land.

And a song we would sing together, perfect for the thrust and pause of paddles in deep water. “In Dublin’s fair city, where the girls are so pretty, that’s where I met my sweet Molly Malone. Through streets old and narrow, she rolled her wheelbarrow, singing: ‘Cockles and Mussels alive, alive-o.'” That was 40 summers ago.

Davy crashed going too fast on his motorcycle on his way to work in his brother John’s garage in West Topsham in 1974. He was 17. A hundred still live in this part of the coos that can tell you exactly what they were doing the day that Davy Cole died.

Last summer, as we sometimes do this time of year, his brother Aaron and I were drifting down that same stretch of river in the evening, he in the front and I in the rear. Aaron was older than Davy by only a year and used to fish with me as a boy, too. Now there was gray in his long hair. But the river and the land and the gentle angle of the setting sun were the same.

Suddenly, he asked, without looking back, “What was that song we used to sing, something about an Irish fisherwoman?”

“You must mean Molly Malone,” I said. “In Dublin’s fair city?”

“Oh. Yeah. That’s the one,” he replied.

And the river grew quiet. We did not sing, perhaps sensing a truth. Now is the time to let the river sing to us. The melody of memory, the rhythm of the years, the lyrics of the lives of those we loved.

Still, there are times even now when the river’s song drifts upstream to me as a twilight echo of long ago: “In Dublin’s fair city, where the girl’s are so pretty…” and I thank the valley and its river and the people of the little villages along its banks for the songs they sing.

And I think, “It’s getting dark, Davy. Time to go home.”

This is Frank Bryan in Starksboro.

Frank Bryan teaches political science at the University of Vermont and is a writer.

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