Monday, July 13, 2009

Vertigo & The Battle of Saratoga

The Schuylerville Monument commemorates the surrender of General Johnny Burgoyne to General Horatio Gates at Saratoga, a battle which was a turning point in the American Revolution. The British, who’d hoped to split the colonies in two with this invasion, started from Canada. The British gentlemen who took part were promised the lands of the American planters, Dutch descendants like Major General Philip Schuyler, who owned most of the upper Hudson and Northern New York. Gentlemanly Johnny Burgoyne set out with German noblemen and mercenaries in tow, anticipating a cake walk through ineffective Colonials, but what they got instead was a summer of guerilla warfare launched by Vermonters and the New York back country boys who’d been mobilized by Schuyler to destroy existing roads, fell trees, burn bridges, destroy crops, snipe, and generally mess up what seemed like a simple plan. The battle was fought near my family’s home place. They’d built a homestead in 1745 with Mohawk for neighbors, out in what was then the back of beyond.

Mother believed in pilgrimages to the old home place. She’d spent many summers on the farm with her grandparents, running barefoot, in periodic terror of an enormous rooster who patrolled the path to the outhouse. I went to a lot of battlefields and graveyards during my formative years, but one of the places I learned to dread was the Schuylerville Monument.

There are 184 cast iron steps inside this old stone tower leading to the top. Here, hardy souls are rewared with a commanding view of the beautiful upper Hudson countryside. Three bronzes figures decorate the crown: Horatio Gates, who politicked his way into commanding the Continental army for the actual battle, Philip Schuyler, who successfully prepared the ground for success and Daniel Morgan, whose riflemen played a large role in the victory. The fourth niche, for Benedict Arnold, who fought heroically at Saratoga and was seriously wounded, is empty.
The cast iron steps are why I still experience anxiety when I think of this place. Lovely, 19th Century, ornate--and to my vertiginous brain--filled with holes, holes through which I could see the descending spiral below me, through which I could see the bottom. I remember walking, then crawling on my hands and knees. Mother’s brown legs raced ahead. I sweated. I trembled. I sat down and laced my fingers through the holes. Despite the calls of “Come on! Hurry! Don’t be silly! Don’t be such a ’fraidy cat!” I began to back down, clinging to each stair. I can still see the flowery pattern, how worn and thin and frail the ironwork seemed. I imagined them bending, giving way, and then saw myself falling. I remember resting my forehead for a time against the cold metal, getting up the courage to keep backing down.

I was perversely pleased when I looked the monument up on the internet, and it said: “DO NOT attempt if you are acrophobic.” I guess I’m not the only one who has chickened out while attempting to get to the top of this venerable Victorian tower!

1 comment:

ptbertram said...

No way would I be able to force myself to climb those steps! Once when I was out walking, I ended up in a place where I needed to take a catwalk across a highway -- high above a highway -- and I couldn't do it. Took me hours to get back home because of it.