The motel did not live down to its reputation, thankfully. It would do.
The first morning, Laura peeked out the window and alerted me that “It’s pouring.” No matter. Today was the day we returned to Niagara Falls.
But first, a visit to 59 Crowley Avenue, where my father and his parents lived when Daddy was in high school. Their second story apartment sat directly across from Riverside Park, a Frederic Olmstead park at that, as are many of the parks in Buffalo, including Niagara Falls State Park. The Lundquist kids remembered it not for its designer, but for its public pools.
Public pools? Where you can swim for free? In 1969, Virginia was still living in the apartheid South. Public swimming pools were few and far between.
We also remembered the Buffalo pools for their freezing water. The little local girls stuck their toes in and said, “It’s warm today,” then dove in and swam off. Emboldened, we dove in, too. And shot up like ice cubes.
“Down by the river where the scum flows by,
You will find Riverside Academic High.”
Daddy remembered this rhyme to the end of his life, even when he remembered little else. Laura and I walked past the fabled Riverside High where he was graduated. It was easy to imagine our father walking the few blocks to this school, sun, rain, or feet upon feet of lake effect snow. Buildings tend to hold their own special fragrance and I badly wanted to step inside to inhale the decades of learning, playing, growing up. But no amount of southern charm could gain us access through the tight security.
No more delays. After forty-five years, it was time to return to Niagara Falls. We drove along the wide river toward our destination. Even before the rapids arose, the water seemed muscular, ordained. As the whitewater began to roil and toss, we balanced the age-old feelings of fear and attraction. 75,000 gallons per second stampeding toward the American Falls, thundering over the cliff to the rocks 170 feet below. Daddy had spent his teenage years in proximity to this power.
Laura and I did it all. The Cave of the Winds, where we donned our souvenir ponchos and walked the platforms at the bottom of the falls. We braced ourselves at the aptly named hurricane deck where the wind hurled gusts of water at us. We watched the film about the early explorers and the daredevils who are still drawn to the falls as though by a magnet. We boarded the Maid of the Mist and chugged upstream to the base of the American and the Horseshoe Falls, where we were baptized in the ancient waters of the Great Lakes. We saw the falls from the top, the middle and the bottom, from land and from river.
Suddenly it hit me for the first time since I was ten years old. The visit to Niagara in 1969 had been no accident of planning. Daddy and Grandpa had been corresponding for months. Maybe even talked on the phone long distance. “Billy, you have to get up here to see this.” “Pa, when can we walk out on the rocks?” Daddy would have said. “What do the papers say? When is the best time to see it all?”
Bill Lundquist, with that great big beautiful scientific brain of his, would not have been able to resist the chance to see a feat of modern engineering: the dewatering of the American Falls. The channeling of all this rage toward another shore. The opportunity to walk across an ancient riverbed on the very edge of the precipice of time.
“Just think, kids,” he kept saying that summer day as he dragged us from one dry rocky vista to another, arms spread wide, his voice taut with excitement, “this is the most historic time you could see this!”
At the end of our visit, Laura and I lingered. Who knew when we’d be here again?
The next day we drove across New York and into Massachusetts. In West Boylston, we walked across the quiet cemetery, shady with old sugar maples, to the grave of my father and his parents. We placed the souvenir Niagara Falls coin on the tombstone. Then we laughed, said our goodbyes and headed south for home.