Droning with Tom: A Mighty Echo

Paterson lies in the valley under the Passaic Falls
its spent waters forming the outline of his back. He
lies on his right side, head near the thunder
of the waters filling his dreams!–
Paterson‘, William Carlos Williams–1946

The hum of our country’s industrial and social history runs through Paterson, New Jersey. Alexander Hamilton took one look at the Passaic Falls and saw the beginning of America’s industrial independence. Once the power of the falls was channeled into canals and provided power, cotton, wool and silk mills freed the country from European imports. Almost every train in the 19th century was pulled by a Paterson-manufactured locomotive. The city hosted the first major union strikes of the early 20th century, galvanizing the International Workers of the World movement.

I am happy every time I walk about Paterson.

If they’ve heard of the city at all, people tend to imagine the falls, often through episode six in the first season of The Sopranos. It’s when some knucklehead is thrown from the bridge spanning the gorge for not repaying his debits.

In truth, the falls were the reason Tom wanted us to visit. He had visions of swooping his drone down, around, and across the powerful landscaping to where no man, woman, or child had gone and lived to tell about it. We circled the block a few times looking for a place to park then pulled into a lot near enough to the falls that we could hear it. At the far end of the lot a policeman sat in his car eating his lunch. Tom knew going in that flying might be difficult since the falls are designated a National Historical Park.

“What do you think,” I asked as we eyed the police car.

Tom scanned across the park, looking for a suitably obscure launching pad. “Up there?” he nodded to a ridge above the river.

“I’ll go see if it’s illegal to park here,” I said and got out to approach the officer.

I stood at his open window for a while watching him eat what looked liked a great ham and cheese sandwich.

“I can park here, right?”

“Why?”

“We’re going to the falls.”

He took another bit and said no more, my only indication the car might not be towed.

Tom was ready to go with the drone inside his backpack, carrying a camera bag and handing off the tripod to me. Down steep metal steps, over a small park with our first full view of the falls, then up another flight of steep metal steps, Tom hobbled with his broken foot still in a walking boot. I followed behind in continuing fear I was his only defense from stumbling and re-breaking his foot.

We stood alone on the bridge spanning the gorge, clearly exposed for all to see.

“I don’t know,” I said, fully expecting Tom to ignore my trepidation. Being towed for illegally parking is one thing. Committing a federal crime for flying a drone is another matter.

Tom bent far out over the bridge, looking right and left, turning to gauge how far away our policeman was.

“I could maybe do it down there,” he said nodding to an overlook below. He said it in a whisper, more to assure himself than me. He took out his digital camera and set up the tripod for stills.

After wandering about in the cold, reading as many of the monuments and signs I could find, I returned and whined about being hungry. Tom’s a fine smart man, aware that attention must be paid to hungry whiny women and let me lead him across the street where there was a sign for Libby’s Restaurant. We both devoured the special Texas Weiner platter, then continued onward.

Hinchliff Stadium: Built in 1932 by the WPA; home to baseball’s Negro League’s New York Black Yankees and the New York Cubans, a lesser known team composed of players from Hispanic countries; host of the first colored championship game in 1933; used by the city’s high schools for their sport teams; site of national boxing matches, World War II victory rallies, and various public events until 1996. Despite all this extraordinary history, the National Registry of Historical Landmark considers the stadium of only local and not national importance, making it ineligible for government preservation grants to rescue it from ruin.

Hinchliff Stadium is Paterson–steeped in history, crumbling and neglected, attracting hardcore supporters who understand its singular place in our country’s history. The city has dedicated itself to a passionate search for funding to save it from demolition.

We walked passed a couple of city workers who didn’t even raise their heads from loading landscaping equipment onto trucks. Tom was already pulling out his drone before we reached the center of the field. He launched it while I gracelessly climbed over a concrete barrier.

We’re both terrible at letting go of an idea. By the time we returned to the parking lot, the police man had departed, leaving us free to sneak down more steps to the spillway. He went off. I guarded the camera bag. The falls crashed down in the distance–violent, mesmerizing beauty.

Tom came running back. “We gotta get out of here,” he said, rushing to fold the drone’s blades and packing it into its case. He had picked up a sign warning we’d be immediately condemned to major jail time. The two of us took off as fast as possible with a broken foot in a walking boot.

From there we checked out the Paterson Museum with a big locomotive out front and a wealth of Paterson lore and remnants of its manufacturing past–looms, patent medicine bottles, handmade tool boxes and a Whirlwind J-5 airplane engine, the kind that propelled Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic.

From the ten houses Hamilton saw when he looked (at the falls!) and kept his counsel, by the middle of the century – the mills had drawn a heterogeneous population. There were in 1870, native born 20,711, which would of course include children of foreign parents; foreign 12,868 of whom 237 were French, 1420 German, 3,343 English – (Mr. Lambert who later build the Castle among them), 5,124 Irish, 879 Scotch, 1,360 Hollanders and 170 Swiss ‘Paterson’ Volume 1 William Carlos Williams–1946

I was marveling over some piece of massive machinery when Tom slipped up with Google Maps opened on his phone. “You want to go to Lambert Castle Tower?” He asked.

I have only one rule when Tom and I are out–that we head back before sunset and rush-hour because I hate driving in the dark and have a pea-size bladder that usually makes itself known in traffic jams.

Being only three o’clock, nothing stopped us. He navigated us to Lambert Castle, a pile of red stone that a wealthy silk mill owner (Lambert) built to resemble a castle because he had been a poor kid in England and wanted a castle of his own. The rooms inside were crammed with expensive Christmas decorations, a gift shop stocked with them, and a milling crowd eager to buy them. But there was no tower in sight.

We asked the nice lady at the admissions desk where we could find it. Behind the mansion, up a steep hill, up steeper stone steps until we reached the top of Garret Mountain Reservation. The route was clearly arduous, but we searched for another path might be less formidable. But Tom’s now aching foot forced us to be practical and a bit of our Paterson joy deflated while getting into the car.

But, you know, the sun was not quite lowering. We had made a restroom pit stop. At the mansion’s gate, instead of turning left toward the turnpike, we swerved right and proceeded to follow any street that seemed to be leading us higher. The entrance to the reservation when we found it was barred by a lowered post. A school bus soon drove around it and we followed along. Fields full of grazing deer, lone hikers pushing themselves up the rugged grade with the help of walking sticks, light weakening through the heavy woods as we climbed higher. Then suddenly we let out a whoop as the top of the tower appeared. The chain guarding its entrance was easily breached and Tom tottered across the rocky incline to Lambert’s handsome tower. He flew and flew, high out over the precipice, lower under the nesting hawks and black birds roosting for the night. New York City, captured in twilight’s blue shadows, appeared as a mirage. Paterson spread out in all its contrarian glory below.

Tom’s incredible photography work may be found on Instagram. Enjoy the very dauntless, relentless, restless world he sees.

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