Steve Stevenson

Steve Stevenson

MANUMIT
by “Stevie” Stevenson

I came on the bus from the Pawling station and I left on the same bus, the Manumit bus, in late June of ’44 five years later. As I rode down the 1/2 mile dirt road from school to Rt 22 the bus shook and rattled on the washboard surface till you’d thought the poor old thing would fall apart. I had no idea this was my last ride, my last look at the familiar fields, barn, mountain and brook. I watched through the window oblivious to the bus trauma, as you’d watch your own image in a train window. The frosty glazed image filtered through the window and in my solitary state I saw my home for the last time, somehow I knew the Manumit years were over for me. Until I learned to tap into the Manumit experience in later years the sense of creative freedom was walled away as if the movie ended with the bus fading away up Rt 22 to the Pawling station, almost 50 years elapsed before I allowed it to be expressed anew.

Actually my first exposure to Manumit was in 1936. It was the first big change in my life. My first 6 years (almost) had been spent in the controlled environment of a planned community in Radburn, New Jersey, 10 miles west of NYC near Paterson. Architecturally and socially it was a model of sterility. A matter of a few hundred houses with parks, recreation, pools; programmed for waspy middle class college graduates with 2 kids. Why my Mom was attracted to a place as radical as Manumit was a mystery but this was the depression and radical times. She was becoming a rare thing for that time—a single parent, after going through a hellish divorce for her and me and my sister. She soon became a rabid Roosevelt New Dealer and spent 3 years in the WPA theatre. I was sent to camp—for some of the above reasons I was dumped at Manumit camp (not an indian name but this odd name people mistook as “Monument”). It was 3 miles from Pawling, New York, which is 70 miles north of NYC in Duchess County. It was more like a farm than a camp, 70 acres with mountains, streams, fields, woods, meadows, dirt roads, some neat old time buildings: the Mill, the Main House, the Gym, the Clark House, Ravine Cottage; there were barns and chicken coops, a shop, an art studio—it had a lot of character. Even at 5 going on 6 I could see there was something different, people were different, life was different—it was a whole new world and I felt like a lonesome stranger. There was a kind of exuberance these people had, like they were doing something new, like maybe they were doing it all for the first time, adventurous. We had camp meetings on the lawn of the Main House every morning at 10 AM and sang songs that were very different from “Old MacDonald” and “Row Row Your Boat”; there were rounds and canons and the songs seemed to mean something, and they were joyous. The councilors talked to me like I was somebody, an individual. There were nature hikes, stories (good stories), farm work, riding ponies…all very free, organized in a disorganized way so you didn’t feel like you had to do anything—you wanted to. There was a big Farmall tractor with big steel spike wheels I was allowed to ride on. Swimming in a damned up brook, the “Manumit brook” we called it—a whole lot better than a swimming pool with the smell of chlorine in the clear water, this was icey water which had an aerated woodsy smell that’s one of my richest sensory experiences. The diving board was a stiff plank. The dam had a 10 foot waterfall with a tremendous boulder next to it where we bathed in the sun. My group lived over the bridge across the brook from the Mill, 8 of us in a tent with cots and a good camp smell. We washed on a platform facing Cobble Hill (spelled “Carble”—we thought it was a mountain), the faucets ran with cold water from the spring up the hill and the smell of ivory soap in the cool morning sudsing hands and face in the fresh air was invigorating and new. I could play ball and tennis and swim pretty well, but that didn’t count for much among the creative type kids up from New York City and Greenwich Village. They sang the songs with more energy than I could relate to; they knew about snakes and animals, and they seemed to feel a part of the Manumit family, they had the spirit of the place, most of them. It would have been okay if I never ever saw the place again, I wasn’t miserable enough to cry I just felt I belonged in Radburn.

I didn’t have to go back again until one Spring day in ’39 when I came with my mother to see if I liked the school enough to spend the next winter at Manumit (as if it were my decision). However the feeling was different or I was different. Everyone I met seemed so natural yet unique, flavorful, mysterious, beautiful. Of course I was shown only the most wonderful and unique aspects,a kind of propaganda to sell the radical experiment to give it a kind of respectability to the outside world, something I got used to when I was on the inside. The topography and atmosphere struck my fancy, there was a sense of ritual and freedom and folk lore about the place. Gwiffy Brown was introduced to me on the porch of the Main House in the sunlight of springtime. The whole spirit of the place seemed to me to be embodied in him or he embodied the place. He had an unusual look, a certain aloofness with an original appeal that made me want to know him and follow him and do what he did and believe what he said, all at once. I sat across the table from him at lunch in the dining hall. He was sitting under the greatest painting I ever saw, a magnificent ship of the Queen Mary type coming straight out of the ocean into the dining hall—which he painted! There was an unassuming mystique about him, him and his girlfriend (boys had girlfriends at 11 at Manumit). She was the prettiest girl I had ever seen in my life, though when she stood up she had bandy legs which was disappointing, but she had everything else. I wanted to be where those two were I guess, and there was something drawing me too: romance, an aura, something compelling even in the unknown, and, it was already decided for me.

I arrived in the fall of ’39 after the long 2 hour train ride from NYC with a heavy heart, homesick I suppose, and lost—we passed Hawthorne and Patterson which were the same names as neighboring towns to my hometown in New Jersey, and it made me feel like I didn’t have a home ’cause I didn’t know where I was. My group was not a grade but the “Beta’s”; we dormed in the Mill by the brook across the dirt road from the Main House. Billy Fincke, the guiding spirit of the school financially, educationally, and ideologically, embodied all the paradoxes of Manumit and endued the whole place with his personality. He was magnificent in every way, wonderful to look at in stature with blue eyes and white teeth; bursting with talent and energy, a freewheeling exuberance that was inspiring at a distance and in a group. Individually it was another thing. I was standing by myself near the bridge by the Mill under some enormous elm trees, feeling alone and small when Billy came up to me as grownups were want to do at Manumit, and he asked me my opinion of the place or how I liked being a Manumitter. Then without waiting for an answer he started rubbing his hands with a crazy laugh, and picking his pants out of his behind at the same time said, well, Phelpsie!” The moment he said it it tickled and pleased him so much he began stopping passersby repeating it again and again: “Phelpsie”…indicating me. My whole name is James Phelps Stevenson. I’d never been called James, just Steve, but to be called by that weird sounding middle name was another knife driven into my tortured soul. Everyone else there was probably tortured too even the adults but this hit a raw nerve and suddenly I felt it was not my choice to be there and there was no way out. Eventually I found comfort among the disenfranchised, the outsiders which seemed to be attracted to this community either by design or natural selection, or that’s how the place had evolved. Out of the chaos and dark forebodings came a sense of being a part of something, a noble experiment, an ongoing struggle for a vision whether it fails or not. I know that when I hark en back to those 5 years there were awakenings and sensations that enrich me today—things seemed to be wrong but they came out right.

Rhubarb, wild rhubbarb stalks! My first awareness of seeing something in the field, then having it for desert. We ate what we got from the farm: milking the cows, bringing in the sap, eggs, radishes, potatoes, tomatoes, nuts, berries, apples; and the chickens and pigs and sheep we took care of tended to disappear from time to time. The smokey autumn smell of sap continually being boiled in a big cauldron making maple syrup. Rides on a sway backed gentle old plug named Texas who never broke out of a slow walk more than a couple of trots riding out to the dump on a dirt road with two small hills—that was big stuff the first year. The smell of silage in the silo, barn smells and cats, and a bit of radical talk with Frank the farmhand. Chicken Accounts! The Betas took care of the chickens the year of ’39/’40. Sixty chickens! We were collecting over a 1000 eggs a month according to my accounts. The cost of laying mash, scratch grain, chicks, light, heat, etc. and eggs we collected were so neatly inscribed in my book that it got exhibited at the Danbury Fair in the Fall of ’40 along with some prize gourds and pigs. Every year we had a different project and in spring we took a class trip on what we made to where we wanted. According to my chicken accounts we $83.76 on the chickens from Oct. to May but costs were $104.75, but by Manumit accounts that was okay and we took a trip anyway—to Candlewood Lake for a few days. We piled our blanket rolls on top of the ol’ Manumit bus and off we’d go, singing. The bus and the bus ride were Manumit in capsule. On steep hills the whole group of 20 9 and 10 year olds would push forward, cootching in our seats to umpf the bus over the top; we’d offer to get out and push as the huffing and puffing began to stall out. Even at that age we new it was a sad joke of a thing that bus but we loved it dearly and it never failed in 5 years. My teacher was Polly Levenson. Of the 3 teachers I remember she was the only one I loved in the 5 years, yet the impression remains of a dumpy redheaded bolshevik with a heart of gold and gift for teaching. It was the only time I can remember when I didn’t hate school. I must have learned something but what sticks is a baltimore oriole building it’s nest like a dangling sock from a high limb over the brook which I observed out my classroom window on the 3rd floor of the Mill and a chickadee sat on the sill within reach. I was told in later years by Billy’s wife (more about her lying nude in the fields while we budding adolescents chased butterflies for an accidental look-see—all she remembered about me was that I ran everywhere. Running all over the 70 acres of brooks and fields and what might be called the campus (but never was) there was a flux of energy swirling about us that I would get caught up in. Most everything that interested me was outdoors except the Sunday evening meetings in the basement of the Mill. Billy led this open ended forum which allowed a lot of freedom for debate and questioning anything and everything. There was singing of the special Manumit type songs and Billy always read some poetry, “Jesse James” and Poets whose kids were right there at Manumit.The whole school sat on the floor, around the walls and in the window seats, it was always a special time with important stuff, it was the heart and soul of the school and it gave us a sense of what we were, something unique and different. Discipline was non existent, nobody told me what to do. I don’t remember being yelled at or punished, you had to be pretty bad to get in trouble. Billy seemed perpetually happy and enthusiastic as was everyone it seemed. That’s the sort of sunny reports my mother got of me and what was going on in place of report card with grades and numbers. These rare reports were handwritten accounts in glowing detail of my progress, except one dark note the first year which my mother called me on to my distress—seems I was a bully. I was moving too fast to deal with that, I weighed 68 lbs for my first 3 years and whatever bullying I did of course hurt me the most. There was so much energy one could put into any Manumit season: in winter astronomy hill (straight down), devils dean, the icy glacier were rare sledding challenges. Peter Silverstone filled me in on old Manumit lore from previous years, famous sleds and sledders and amazing distances, crashes, and records. Gradually friends came into focus like Pete who next to Gwif (who was in an older group) embodied the free spirit of a Manumitter. So did Mark Sikelianos who knew all the union songs, and even Carol Lindloff who was a blonde girl in my class. We rode Pepper and Nellie all over the 70 acres and beyond, two shetland ponies apparently available to be ridden whenever we fancied. The brooks, the woods, the mountain and roads were endlessly enchanting to explore; forts were made, trails, dams, secret waterfalls, games of all sorts (not much team sport)—marbles, capture the flag, stamp or kiss, nothing too organized. There was an outdoor theatre down the brook at a sandy “u” shaped bend where we did plays which were mostly improvised. Improvised like everything else at Manumit, the plays were based on a radical notion which we kids would embrace without rehearsal just a lot of discussion and then we’d do it for the parents on parents day. We’d take “The Grapes of Wrath” and turn it into our own protest against Manumit or anything else .Parents days were rare, maybe 3 or 4 a year because for a week before the normally dumpy look was transformed disrupting the disorder into semi order to give the parents the impression something tangible was going on. It was an inferiority complex Manumit had about itself for no good reason, we had it all but didn’t know it. I knew everyone at school, 70 kids from 6 to 16. The older ones were most memorable, idols and role models of heroic proportions to a younger kid: Punky, Joyce, Bob Dean, Shane Reardon, Bunny Kasoff, Danny Barkow,Kolya, Corney, Craig, Lindy, Weanie, Gwiffy, Babs, Agie, Frank who rode the tractor, and 2 farmhands Oscar and John Boo who looked like Civil War Veterans. My 2nd year was not a happy one because I couldn’t be the bully. There was a bigger bully in my group named Bobby Meadow (his name sounded like “meadow” and his cohort was Hill so they became “Meadow and Hill”).Max used to clean our dorm in the Main House with a terribly strong ammonia, swobbing the linoleum floor with a mop. Max escaped the Nazis, but we pretended he was a nazis beast. We teased his Germanic speech and way singing, “Mos’ is a piece of flat tire!” It was fun until he exploded or pretended to and we flew down stairs and corridors with frightened glee. Our councilor was a natty gentleman who was much loved but at night when he told us a story he would sit on my bed, reach under the covers and play with my peepee. This seemed to be acceptable behavior because expressing oneself took precedent over everything else. Sex was not one of my main things at Manumit even though it was in the air—we teased: “Eileen Fitz (Fitzsimmons) has a pimple on her tits” and snuck up on the older kids kissing. And of course there was Mildred who put the fear of god in us but we’d peak at her anyway—she was Billy’s wife and co-director of the school with mountainous breasts. Much to my sister’s displeasure I would race off to the fields “butterflying” to see her sunbathing in the tall grass…she may have enjoyed our lustful eyes coming upon her by surprise. Frieda was our teacher ’40-’41 and she seemed normal which always seemed out of character at Manumit. She was nice, motherly and had large bosoms. The perpetual excitement of sports began to rival the wild freedom of exploring the natural play ground environment. The only football was long and thin with heavy dark leather like it was made from Knute Rockne’s old helmet and it had a life of it’s own like much of the Manumit artifacts and lore which filled my imagination. The master of casting a spell was Gwiffy who could take 2 dice create the elements of a baseball game out of the numbers rolled and make it into a season for 8 teams with full lineups playing a 156 game season, all inscribed in golden sheaves of statistics. I would climb the long wooden stairs up the side of the gym to the older boys’ dorm, let the screen door bang behind me like my elders did and find Gwif breathing or the rattle of dice and like a radio announcer creating a whole play-by-play for each pitch: a roll of the dice which came up hits, runs, errors, or outs, whatever the dice rolled between 2 and twelve.The gym itself was a high 4 story wooden structure with dorms upstairs and the basketball court downstairs. I saw “Birth of a Nation” in there, and plays were performed by all groups, but it was the hours we played basketball in the unheated, dusty, low ceilinged, truncated court that inspired me most. Lindy was electrifying—brushing his blonde hair aside and licking his dirty fingers before each and every driving due-or-die play. He was full of competitive fury, but he never scared or bullied me though he was 3 or 4 years older. He was an inspiration. Not so Leon Allen who was my teacher and counselor the last two years. He was vigorous, neat, and physically fit, unusual for a fellow traveler who were casually unkempt as far as I could see. He picked up an empty glass gallon jug and threw it across our classroom dictatorially squashing our democratic due process vote to go to a movie in Pawling with the money we made spring gardening–he bellowed, “you’re not wasting money on bourgeois movies you’re going on an overnight!” He was right but here was this great liberal acting like a fascist. My group moved to the Clark house in ’42-’44, 15 lads, 4 of us lived in a bare room with bunk beds and no heating. We kept Fall apples in the closet which helped through some of the hunger which seemed ever present especially in winter. I awoke some mornings with snow on top of me from an open window. At our weekly bath Mark would sing all the new Almanac songs of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. We listened to “Terry and the Pirates” and “Jack Armstrong” most every afternoon on the radio. Our councilor was a longhaired blonde who didn’t try to lord it over us, and we looked through the cracks in her door while she undressed. We had a lot of respect for Ginny, and she kissed us all goodnight, a real kiss. I became an old Manumitter by endurance and longevity. I rose to the prestigious Law and Order Committee which supposedly meted out justice when the few vague communal laws were transgressed. My biggest case was one of the kids breaking into the art studio. Billy tried to unburden himself from the tour de force which running the place required and the key man became Fritz Breitbart. He was a prominent doctor in Germany and fled Hitler’s Nazi fascism. In America he had to wait for years to get a license to practice in the U.S. and Manumit was lucky to pick him up, as it did with other talented outcasts who would throw in with the radical lifestyle in it’s progressive school-farm situation. Fritz scrubbed floors his first year and then for my last three years he was the school doctor and seemed to bring order and stability, balancing Billy’s eclecticism so there was a healthy tension between order and chaos, normalcy and anarchy. He later became head of a hospital in Tarrytown and they named the hospital after him when he died. Billy died unfulfilled but the real Manumit was him. Another overqualified catch for Manumit was Paul Goodman who got kicked off the faculty of Chicago University for being an outspoken homosexual in 1941. He taught four of us boys Algebra and Geometry, 11th and 12th grade stuff, but my reading and writing was at the 3rd grade level. I remember Marty Gahagan whose father was a radical labor agitator giving a brilliant speech on the Communist Manifesto in the library and it made complete sense to me. Things we were interested in we could do, all we had to do was ask, or demand, or protest. Our student government and class newspaper (The Manumit Times)could put a lot of pressure on our elders or so we thought. I don’t think we had more than a few hours of class a day simply because we weren’t interested. Everything else seemed interesting if not always exciting about Manumit except eating maybe—especially Barbara Dutton! Just walking by with her dog with her long blonde hair and ethereal beauty she stirred all the undeveloped hormones I was developing. She was a year or two older and almost a foot taller, besides her beauty she had a marvelous free spirited aloofness. Billy was the only one seemed her equal when he’de rub his hands with almost erotic delight repeating, “DeeDee-BooBoo!DeeDee-BooBoo!DeeDee-BooBoo!”It was as much the way he felt about Babs as he was her dog. A passion of sublime lust came over me at the sight of her floating by like a goddess. She had that indefinable Manumit magic of personal freedom just like Gwiffy and Billy and Pete. Manumit means “to be free” in Latin, it all came together in them, a state of mind and aura I’ve never seen it since. To varying degrees the rest of us old Manumitters had it too, we were the place and the place was us. The bell was as central to that spirit as some of the people, the bus, the washboard road, the rock, the gym—but the bell gave the place a rhythm. Centrally located between the Main House and the Gym the bell was the type you might seen on town greens or by country firehouses before World War II. Made of an iron locomotive wheel, when the “O” was cut through at one point and then suspended in a big wooden frame it would ring loud and clear when hit by a sledge hammer. Nobody rang our bell better than Max. The bell resemble a “C” after Max had pounded it daily for several years, flattening it out with his violent smashes. For every meal there were 3 “bells” at 15 minute intervals—a half an hour before meal time there were 3 sets of 4 rings, 2 sets of 4 rings at 15 minutes, and 1 set of 4 rings and it was time to eat. Wherever we were on the 70 acres the bell could be heard and we responded like Pavlov’s dog (whose salivary response interested us—the sort of thing we’d studied in depth). You could wait till the last bell and still make it if you ran. Fritz would inspect hands and ears for cleanliness before we were allowed in to the dining room, he would roll a pinky in his big foreign hands, or tweak an ear for severity but we knew he liked us. The dining room unlike everything else at Manumit looked and felt like a regular dining room should. A set of chimes were tapped to get silence and attention for an announcement. Benji (Billy’s younger brother, a Harvard man) would play every note of “My Bonny Lies Over the Ocean” teasing our patients then he’d turn with the Fincke giggle and our feigned boredom faded with one of his funny announcements. After a couple of chimes Gwiffy announced Lou Gehrig’s death in June of ’41. The food was roundly abused like most everything at Manumit, a rebel sense of humor was a way of life for us. The creamed chipped beef was so bad it was taken as a Manumit joke—that saved morale which was often marginal. I never weighed over 90 lbs till after I left but I was healthy except for poison ivy. My older sister and I had little in common at Manumit except we both got poison ivy worse than anybody in school. A kid came to the infirmary to bring me a letter from Mom and he asked me which room I was in and when I told him I was me he fled in disbelief!

If I wrote all the details of my Manumit experience I’m sure I could rediscover a seeming endless wealth of sensory responses to those 5 years.It’s more illusive than to say it gave me the ability to be different or an appetite for learning that has never left me. One incident sums it up, what I was and what I’ve become in relation to my life there. Sitting on an enormous boulder: the dam, the waterfall, the early morning sun flOoding through the trees dappling me and the brook and everything else, an orange in my hand, peeling it slowly with a strong sense of smell, the warm smooth slanted boulder under me, the continuous flow over the dam of aerating water diving into bubbles, the taste of orange, my life and nothing else. All I had become and was or would be was alive in me at that moment and Manumit allowed that, I was home in that place, it created something for me which was fully expressed on that sunny Sunday morning by the falls on a warm rock with an orange all my own to peel to look at to feel to smell to eat, just to be in that place where nature and a community and a maybe flawed but honest vision nurtured me through my 9th through 13th year. It’s been like a song that stays with me to be sung whenever there’s need to connect, a Manumit song:
“Hey Ho, Nobody’s at home
Meat nor drink nor money have I none
Yet will I be merry!”
(AND THE SONG KEEPS REPEATING—ROUNDS OF ROUNDS)