written by: Ernie Stricsek
To hear my grandmother tell it, half the townsfolk of Brainards perished in the Delaware River. Those who didn’t get swept away by the swift currents, or swallowed by whirlpools came to an untimely end in the quicksand bogs on the trails that bisected the thickets along the banks of the river.
Each summer my father’s side of the family held a reunion at my grandmother’s childhood home, which sat on the edge of town, atop a bluff overlooking the Delaware River. In the week leading up to the reunion, my grandmother would relate a story each day to my siblings and I, about the lives claimed by the treacherous waters of the river and the quicksand bogs. Then there was the railroad bridge that many a careless soul toppled off of. Those that didn’t die in the fall fell victim to the whirlpools swirling around the abutments. If, by some stroke of luck people managed to survive and reach the Pennsylvania side of the river, there was an abandoned quarry, now a deep pond, that presented a menu of pitfalls to claim the unwary.
For some reason, I was fascinated by the quicksand and peppered my grandmother, who we called Mamie or Mame, with questions. “Where was the quicksand?”
“It could be anywhere,” replied Mamie, “on any dirt road or path in the woods after it rains.”
“In one spot?”
“It comes and goes.”
“How does someone know that a person died in the quicksand? Is there a hat floating on the surface?”
The answers got snippier, “I don’t know, you just didn’t see them anymore.”
“Does the quicksand look like oatmeal? You know, like in those Tarzan movies? I think we would notice it then.”
“I don’t know!” Mamie would snap, “You, your brothers and sister need to just stay in the yard so we can see you all the time!” That was the signal my grandmother was no longer taking any questions from the press, interview over.
So it is understandable why we harbored doubts about going to the family reunion. Mamie’s childhood home, now inhabited by her brother and his family, sounded like an oasis in a sea teeming with peril. It would appear the most prudent course of action would be to stay home. Our parents could go to the reunion, I trusted them to be safe. After all, my father had visited Brainards many time, had survived unscathed and, thus, should know where all of the hazards were. Except for the mysterious peripatetic quicksand. My brothers and sister would be safe. With all of the Sunday morning kids programs, afternoon movies and toys to play with, we wouldn’t even have to leave the house. But, because we ranged in ages from six years old to 4 months old, we had no choice in the matter, our doubts carried no weight so we were piled into the car and off we went to meet our fate.
The trip always seemed to take forever. There was not yet a major highway traversing that region of New Jersey so our drive took us through a network of backroads winding through forests and pastures, past picturesque lakes, farms and Burma Shave signs. Cruising down the Main Street of Brainards I was always struck by how deserted the town looked, but recalled my grandmother’s tales of carnage. Arriving at our destination, the second thing that I was always struck by was the number of people at the reunion. There would be almost 50 people there. How many more would’ve been there if not for whirlpools or quicksand?
As we pile out of the car and stretch our legs after the long trip the words of caution begin to flow in a steady stream:
My mother, “Now be careful, don’t get your clothes dirty.”
My grandmother, in a panic, “Butchie! (my nickname) Where are your brothers? Jezis Kristus! Are they down by the river? There’s quicksand!”
“I thought the quicksand was in the woods?” I asked.
My brothers come around from behind the car, my grandmother is relieved, “Jezis Kristus! Don’t go down by the river!”
“Don’t leave the yard now.” “Don’t go in the garage.” “Don’t go down by the river.” “Go sit at the picnic table.” “Don’t let your brothers out of your sight.”
There was absolutely nothing to do for anyone under the age of 13. Keeping a close eye on my brothers, we went into the house and drifted in the direction of the den where the TV was. The antenna pulled in three channels, two of which displayed test patterns. A couple of my second cousins were watching the grainy 3rd channel. There was some nature show on and, ironically, two guys in jungle fatigues were pulling a gazelle out a quicksand bog! We didn’t linger in the den though, my father’s Uncle John stormed in, turned off the TV and growled, “What are you doing? Watching TV on such a nice day. Go out and play!” We went outside to watch the older kids play.
My brothers and I decided we would creep stealthily around the perimeter of the yard, peering into the woods, and pretended to be scouts looking out for river pirates. We saw a small clearing about 10 feet into the woods and debated investigating it. My grandmother saw us and yelled, “Don’t go in the woods Butchie! The quicksand! Cline Huff’s family lost a cow in the quicksand!” So we wandered back to the middle of the yard and decided to do something safer, like playing with the Lawn Darts game, back when lawn darts had tips like spears. I tossed a couple of darts and it became obvious the safest place for anyone to stand was around the target ring. Someone yelled at us to put the lawn darts down, they’re for the older kids to play with. My brothers and I wandered around the yard some more and spotted another path leading into some tall grass. I saw my grandfather and asked him if rattlesnakes would be hiding there. “Yeah, of course. You better stay outta there,” he said with a mouth full of fried chicken.
I had my doubts about the reunion, we went, this was how it turned out. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
- Reunion Doubts - March 31, 2023