Sink Or Swim – Ron Goldberg

Every summer, the tiny, bucolic hamlets of Sullivan County, New York swelled to the brim with endless thousands of Jewish vacationers. The routes of these annual migrations from cities and suburbs were as practiced as any caravan from Gilead or Bukhara. That is, once the travelers recalled the winning answer to the inconstancy of Routes 17 North and South, both of which intersected with a different Route 17 West but not East, with none of  them supplying the necessary Route 17 K, which would one day be re-named officially as “The QuickWay,” for reasons yet unsolved by any mapmaker or spelling expert.

As the loaded Oldsmobiles and Plymouths traversed these happy courses, children in back seats would gape at the larger-than-life talismans, excitedly remembering them exactly from last year and the year before, recalling at a glance which ones meant halfway there and which could yield a grateful rest stop. Iconic visuals, such as the massive Ford plant of Mahwah, the Bunyanesque McIntosh of the Red Apple Rest, and the jaunty caricature of Jerry Lewis on the Brown’s Hotel billboard, were engraved beyond the science of the finest Kodachromes. Many of these imprints are still not forgotten.

Flowing northward, the highway soon narrowed to a condition more befitting its rustic destinations. Here, the cars would slow at each numbered exit, perhaps with a moment’s squabble over which one was right and which might be faster, considering all this traffic. Upon leaving the highway, travelers would be greeted at the foot of a curling exit ramp by multiple billboards the size of school buses, each touting the names of dozens of hotels, “resorts” and bungalow colonies, with directions and mileage to each. From a front seat vantage point, these vital instructions were as legible as newspaper classifieds held six feet from the reader’s face.

While the drivers lingered to confirm this last leg of the route – no matter how many times they had read these signs in the past – the cars behind them would often honk their impatience. This naturally resulted in more honking in return, and from other cars as well, sometimes escalating into a sonic facsimile of the city transposed to the country, as if to alert the forests of who was coming. Confused newcomers would hurriedly unfold a cumbersome map from the Esso station, which had promised them a tiger in their tank, though they’d now prefer a homing pigeon or divining rod. The honking lasted only briefly, and in truth was probably more expressive of joy than impatience. Everyone had almost arrived.

The air around these villages and townships was impossibly fresh, always overflowing with summer’s fecund delights. On a sunny day, one might laze about with a gluss teh and watch the ruby-throated hummingbirds joust over fragrant Buttercups and Lady Slippers. Crab apples would fall from a hundred trees; good for artillery when defending a fort, but too sour for even the most hardened Eastern European palates. Not so for the antlered visitors that were regarded by all as welcome and charming neighbors. When the long days finally seeped into night, the Jews of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and even Pennsylvania gazed at a vast starscape that was as fine a proof of God’s magnificence as any of them would ever tangibly feel on earth. Here the Big Dipper hovered mightily over the entire horizon, emptying its divine sparks into the grateful Little Dipper and the rest of creation; a wondrous tableaux broken only by the nervous swoops of brown bats and the distant lamentation of a great horned owl.

For many of these travelers, the allure of the Borscht Belt included proximity to, if not actual residence in, the glitz and prestige of the big hotels, where one might bump into a Hollywood star or even a heavyweight champion. Their names were familiar to everyone: Grossingers, well known as the Waldorf of the Catskills; or The Concord, where one might thrill to Barbra’s mezzo-soprano or Woody’s standup; or Kutscher’s, where your bags might be unloaded by someone not yet called Wilt the Stilt. These palaces and dozens of others less illustrious – The Olympic, The Tamarack, The Raleigh, The Flagler and their kind – were the crown jewels of the empire of the Catskills.

Lucky were the boys who secured good jobs in these hotels for the summer. Less lucky were the boys who got most of them. Barring any acts of nepotism, these important rites of employment, which provided needed funds for college or a car, were attained through a selection process more suited to the Confederate Monticello than the seat of Sullivan County. Upon a cursory registration at “Maury’s” employment agency, the hopeful applicant would be told to wait outside, quite literally. There he joined a teeming lineup of other boys on the sidewalk, while overseers from the hotels cruised by, barking out for busboys or bellhops or cleanup crew, choosing the most burly or the most handsome, or by the end of the day, the most determined. Sixty years later, their grandchildren are still picking workers in this time-tested manner, whether Mexican gardeners outside a Miami Home Depot or Russian housemaids off a BQE ramp in Brooklyn.

Luckier still were the girls on these vacations – that is to say, girls who were past Bat Mitzvah but still unmarried. For many of them, the big hotels were Oz-like destinations for fun and potential romance, and in the days before second cars and easy travel, a valued way to meet Jewish peers from neighborhoods less humble than their own. These young women were frequently advised to keep an eye out for a future dentist or lawyer, and many believed it, for better or worse. Such promising avatars of future prosperity were in ample supply during weekend dances at The Nevele or The Pines, as were rivals of less obvious gifts. Today, these women and their daughters and granddaughters breathe in a world of panoramic choices, and some might look back with a smile or a shudder at a life strategy so frankly based on hypergamy. But in its day, the wiser heads among the bubbes simply called it marrying well.

If the big hotels were the capitals of the Catskills, the bungalow colonies were the quieter surrounding suburbs. Bungalow is a Hindi word for the tiny holiday cottages built by hardy colonials of the British Raj. While no one should fairly compare the accommodations of 1865 vs. 1965, it was only the addition of a refrigerator and stove – and fortunately, but not always, a private bathroom – that marked a full century’s progress. An entire family might live for the summer in less than 200 square feet.

One such colony, no different than any other, was called The Five Gables. It was so named for its main building, which fell two gables short of Hawthorne and was painted in a greyish maroon that belied no awareness of any orphans named Anne. It was a generic member of its species, with eight small bungalows set spitting distance from the main house. Each of these diminutive structures housed two families that would fill the morning air with the aroma of scrambled eggs fried in schmaltz, to be accompanied by warm bialys and pletzels lovingly smothered with whipped TempTee. After a leisurely breakfast, the children would scatter – perhaps into the woods – leaving the mothers to kibbitz over their needlepoint in weathered Adirondack chairs plotted in a ring, like a healing circle that would last all summer.

At the rear of the property was an oversized swimming pool that on hot days served as the staging ground for a day’s plans, or lack thereof. To most eyes, on most days, this setting presented itself as a nearly unbroken matriarchy. Virtually all of the Five Gables husbands visited only on weekends, and virtually none of the sons of working age would be allowed to loaf around all summer like a schnorrer. Left alone during the week with their younger children, the women ruled this refreshing oasis with gusto and fairness. Under their watchful eyes, the smallest kids splashed happily in the shallows of the pool, mostly to the annoyance of the older ladies, who like the others, never swam and merely wet their ankles while chanting a liturgical appreciation: Oy, azoy a mechiah!

Guarding the pool, and in fact the entire colony, was a singular canine that was a likely admixture of Labrador Retriever and Kodiak bear. Which is to say that the colossal beast named Duffy, held secure by a robust chain, would ordinarily be terrifying if not for his breed’s famously amiable temperament. The monster was large enough for the small children to ride like a pony, a pageant he laughingly enjoyed as much as they did. He happily feasted on every fatty bone tossed from afar as the vacationers brought trash past his hut. The imposing sentry barked only in courteous greetings to the residents, preferring stealth over volume while performing any watchful duties. Only once could anyone remember the dog barking in genuine alarm. It was the night that a prowler – or was it a really a bear? – found his way onto the Five Gables periphery. In any case, the intruder was repelled and Duffy soon settled down to sleep, as did the entire colony.

One afternoon the pool had a new visitor, a hulk of a man with a gold tooth and wire-bristle atop a bullet-shaped skull. He was introduced as a cousin, or uncle, or brother, or in law; someone tenuously but veritably connected to somebody else. In these days, barely two decades after the Shoah, blood relatives were in short supply for everyone. Survivors sometimes settled for adoptive relations, and second-generation children were often pleased to discover they had a surprising new cousin. On this sweltering day, the man was deeply content to be here at poolside among these charming ladies of his kith, and supremely relaxed in a chaise lounge with turquoise and orange webbing. He sipped cool seltzer from a Hoffman’s bottle, lathered his body with Coppertone, assiduously dabbed zinc onto a granite nose, and gazed out at the woods that reminded him so well of the Bukovina that was once his home.

Most of the children were off playing in these lesser-Bukovina woods. That morning, before the fog of last night’s rain had lifted, they had made the intrepid and ritual journey of nearly a quarter of a mile up the road toward Pitkin’s Cottages, carrying empty pickle jars and milk cartons. This patrol was on a solemn hunt for the precious rubies of Catskill wildlife: the fluorescent scarlet salamanders that could be seen thirty yards away against the black asphalt, and whose harmless wriggling quickly settled into sullen acquiescence to their unjust confinements. Far from tuckered by these exertions, the boys and even the girls triumphantly brought their amphibian captives straight back to headquarters, where they were joined to the previous week’s prisoners, along with any pickerel frogs similarly unfortunate.

One small boy, perhaps four years old or five, sat at the pool’s edge, not far from his mother. Perched on an Adirondack, she was scrutinizing her yarn bag for matching colors and smiling with neutrality at the disputations regarding last night’s mahjong. Her child lazily traced a plastic fishing rod in figure eights along the water, first pretending to fish, then pretending to draw, watching the shape of the water magically shift with his speed, force and direction.  The unknowable water was endlessly fascinating, trancelike. The kibbitzing around the pool soon decayed into a pleasant lull. The shallow-end splashing of two toddlers melted into peaceful floating on colorful life preservers. In a moment, even the water-painting seemed like overwork for such a beautifully lazy day. Everyone was still and happy.

A shadow rose behind the child, who turned to look up at the imposing figure of the big man, the only man, silhouetted against the August sky. As the boy didn’t know him, he felt no apprehension, and as the adults knew that he knew someone else, they felt the same way. Therefore nobody paid much attention when he crouched down and asked, in a key of hurt disappointment, “Why you are not in the water?” Duffy, chained some ten yards beyond the pool fence, woofed a tentative bark, and then another. “I don’t know how to swim,” frowned the boy. “I can only go in the shallow part.”

The man peered down at the child, his smile illuminated by a single glinting cuspid. “Of course you swim,” he confided. “You must know to swim. It is beautiful in the water. And on such a hot day. Water is life. If you don’t know to swim, one day maybe you could die.”

The boy put down his fishing rod paintbrush and considered this stark viewpoint. Before he could reach a conclusion, he felt himself lifted up to the sky, impossibly high, higher than his father ever lifted him, exhilaratingly high, the best time he’d ever had in his life high. He squealed with limitless delight and grinned wildly above the world in glorious, unfettered joy such as he had never felt. He could almost reach and touch the sun. He was the Icarus of Five Gables, free at last from the tyrannies of earthly reality and all its gravitational encumbrances, seen and unseen. He savored this theophanic ecstasy for nearly three whole seconds before he was heaved like a sack of refuse far into the deep end of the pool.

At once, the boy’s entire world collapsed into chaos of the most frightening and intimate character. He couldn’t see, he couldn’t breathe; he certainly couldn’t swim. His doom flashed before him, suffocating him with stinging chlorine in the lungs and eyes. He could only hear things – the percussion of his frantic, hysterical splashing, the kicking and clutching, and the angry barking and snarling of the dog beyond the fence. He struggled to see – why wasn’t anyone helping him, why would they let him die? He kicked with all his strength until his head broke above the surface, where he witnessed through tearing eyes the women of the poolside staring in mute apprehension. None of them were going to help him!

The seconds passed like thunder. The child frantically kicked and gasped. Soon seeing that he could grab a breath by bobbing his head above water, he struggled to do it again and again. He despaired to see that he was far – so far – from the yellow rope that demarcated the deep end. He now recalled that he’d never seen any of these women actually swim, and for all he knew, they were as helpless as he was. Turning in terror from their impassive faces, which were frozen in grainy black and white, he scanned desperately for his mother. She had risen to her feet but stood wide-eyed and terrified behind the outstretched arm of the giant, which kept her distance.

The hound continued its furious barking and gnashing, which echoed from the woods into a cacophony of murderous canines and were the only sounds the boy could hear beyond his desperate splashing. If he could only make it to the shallow end, he could live! He jerked his tiny body toward the rope and frantically kept bobbing and kicking. It may have taken him an hour or two to finally reach the safety rope, or so he felt. But in another twenty seconds, when he was all but certain that his waning breaths were finally spent, and had already come to a possible acceptance of his unfair fate and so made his peace with God, the last atoms of his outstretched fingers touched the weathered cord. In a moment it was in hand, and in a moment more, the sputtering child felt his feet at the bottom of the pool. He was safe at last.

Pulling along the rope, he grappled himself to the pool’s edge. Looking up, he saw that no one had moved. All the women were still staring at him. The children in the shallows held their hands to their mouths; one had started to cry. The man who had inexplicably tossed the boy to his doom stood at the water’s edge. His muscular arms, one numbered, were folded in triumph and defiance. His mother’s visible terror had simmered into rapid breathing, yet she did not move past the man. None of them moved at all. The boy dragged himself out of the water and coughed out the pool. He glanced up at his tormentor with fear and submission.

The man spoke through an overlord’s smile and blustered with sardonic pride, “Nu, boychik, you made it, no? Very good! You listen to people like me and you will survive. You must always know to survive. Think about it.”

With a hatred well beyond his years, one that channeled hatreds he had yet to even learn, with blind hatred that avenged every cowed silence that could never utter its hatred out loud – the child flew into the man with a cyclone of fists and kicks. Bemused, his recipient looked down at the flailing bundle and tried at first to ignore him, then to smile him away. One of the women mutedly tsk-tsked the man in Yiddish; another attempted to calm the boy with compliments on his swimming. The child continued his furious assault until his tiny pounding fists got too close for comfort. The man picked him up again and held him at arm’s length. The boy screamed in terror and his mother let out a gasp. “Bah,” he spat with seething disgust. “A nishtik herring, yoh?  He brought the boy’s face toward his own and glared directly into the tiny eyes. “You hate me, eh? Even though I help you! You are a little nar, a idiot. Still, you will remember one day that I helped you to survive. Guy avek!” With that, he tossed the boy unceremoniously into the shallow end of the pool.

There was a burst of silence before the women turned to the man accusingly and began loudly muttering in Yiddish. He looked over the hostile faces and attempted to smile their anger away; each attempt failed. Over a mounting din of multicolored accents, a raspy voice hissed a projectile: “Kapo!” Another quickly seconded the accusation: “Du bist ein Kapo!” followed by another and a fourth. The word blanched the smile from the man’s face, then the color. His mouth curled into grimace. The faces he saw now were pitiless, not friends. He had seen these faces before, frozen in grainy black and white. He wheeled and walked briskly to the pool’s exit, slamming the fence shut as he left. The dog continued barking until he was out of eyeshot.

The boy scrambled from the water as soon as the figure was gone. He rushed to his mother and wrapped her legs tightly, strangling his tears like a man. She gently stroked his trembling head. “It’s all right, tateleh.” In a few moments, the ladies’ muttering died down. The birds began to sing again and the endless Catskill summer resumed itself.


Ron Goldberg is a child of survivors and an east coast native living abroad in Los Angeles. His short story collection “Next Year in Paterson” will appear in 2024.

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