A SYCAMORE RETROSPECTIVE
by Virginia Shaver
When Daddy and my mother Masha (as in gosh-a) and I returned to Washington DC from Miami, Florida in the spring of 1921, we were happy to meet old friends known from before World War I. They had a cabin up the hill on the Virginia shore of the Potomac almost opposite Sycamore Island, and they suggested we camp with them. We got a tent and supplies. Most of our furniture we made from logs and scrap lumber. And each summer we camped with our friends.
I recall our tenting well, especially one "dark and stormy night," when rain poured torrents on our canvas roof. My bed was a cradle suspended from the ridgepole. Daddy had left the old railroad lantern turned down low. I was lying in my cradle and was fascinated by the glistening beads forming on the tent above me. When curiosity got the better of me I touched a bead. Wow! Water poured down upon me and I did what any six-year-old would do. I cried.
My parents (the best in the world) awoke. They soothed my hysterical bawling, dried me off and told me never, never again to touch any beads of water forming inside a tent. (I never have, although once, 50 years or so later, my sleeping bag was pushed accidentally against my tent wall, and I awoke rather sodden.) On that early night, Daddy fashioned a strip from the ridgepole about where the leak was located and told me to count the drips as they slid down the string to a pail below. What a boring thing to do! But it helped me. I fell right asleep.
Within a few weeks of our arrival Daddy was reinstated at his cartographic job in the Interior Department, and he commuted by canoe to the Maryland shore where he took the trolley car to Washington. In the evening he would return to the Sycamore Store stop to be met by Masha and me for the trip back to the Virginia shore. (See, John, you and the present-day members of the Canoe Pool weren't the only ones to commute the Potomac!)
One afternoon about 3pm, a hard thunderstorm appeared, causing Masha to wonder how we could go after Daddy. After about an hour, she and I started out in Skukum III and headed for the Sycamore Landing. We followed the Virginia shore upriver quite a ways, then started across above Ruppert Island to get to the Maryland shore, out of the wind. A squall hit us and we were blown broadside. Masha, cool and determined, repeatedly yelled to me to paddle harder, paddle harder. I did, she did, and still found ourselves going downstream on the Virginia side of Sycamore Island. We learned later that Daddy had stripped down to his skivvies to plunge into the river to swim towards us when a cheer rose up. Masha and I rounded the down-river side of Sycamore and reached calmer waters between the Island and the canal shore. All this occurred when I was still six years old. After more than 60 years I still remember the scene vividly.
By the time I was nine or ten years old, I was permitted to go alone in the canoe to meet Daddy. I'd manage to arrive at the Sycamore landing early so I could run madly up those hundreds of stairs to the Sycamore Store to visit Bruce Johnston and his wife of whom I was most fond. They always lent me puzzles which I loved to solve, such as twisted nails, circles entwined, and such -- all challenging. I later learned that old Mr. Johnston, Bruce's father, watched over me on those afternoons when I was on the river. Often he'd remarked to Daddy that I was an expert canoeist and a real river-rat! That pleased me no end.
Alas, September and school would rear ugly heads. Camp was secured for the winter -- and remembered on long cold nights. Over the years the tent was replaced by a roof (tarpapered), a wood floor, and walls of canvas which were replaced every spring along with the tarpaper. Such excitement for me -- when summer would again be ahead of us.
Daddy left us in 1952. Masha and I recalled many times those happy days -- laughing a little, crying much. One day at work at a new job, I was approached by Gregg Custis, a member of my new office, who invited me to a picnic. As the day approached Gregg called to give me directions and to invite Masha, too. He said to take the Glen Echo trolley car. When he named the stop I screamed into Gregg's ear, "Sycamore Island?" And he answered a startled "yes." Masha and I will be there, I told him. We know the place very well. I guess Gregg wondered how. Anyway, Masha and I arrived at our trolley stop and descended all those steps to the Sycamore landing. We jingled the rope and were pleased to see the ferry come for us. Greg and Margaret met us, introduced us around. They asked if we wanted to go canoeing. We did. I was in the stern and Margaret in the bow and Masha lying in the bottom resting against a Lazyback. On the glide (yes!) over towards the Virginia shore I recognized Snake Island, Lovers' Lane, assorted rocks, our old canoe landing, the dam.... Scarcely home from that Sycamore Island picnic and the business meeting afterwards, I applied for membership in the Montgomery Sycamore Island Club. I was accepted. And in a few weeks I obtained Skukum IV from Dr. Cake. The canoe was painted pale green, and its innards were refurbished with waterproof varnish. I tell you Skukum IV was a glorious sight!
Masha and I spent many, many happy hours on Sycamore and after her death in 1961 I kept in touch with the kind folk there. I purchased a half-interest in a small green cabin with Mildred Steadman, the Club's Secretary at the time. She and her friend, Helen Barton, (both gone now) and I were most happy there. Mr. Davis was Caretaker at the time and was always helpful in getting the canoe in and out of the water for me. I became Grounds Supervisor for a couple of years much to the consternation of Dr. James Johnson who deplored my planting of day lilies and iris, also willow whips all over the place. But Lucy and Frank Brisbois loved them as I did.
Now, many, many years later, at 69 years old, I often gaze at Skukum IV's paddle nailed to a wall on the screened porch here at Panther Lodge. My home is nestled in the fragrant woods on Great North Mountain, west of Winchester, Virginia, and is dearly loved. I Miss The River and Sycamore, of course, but treasure those halcyon days! Old Mr. Johnston, Bruce, Daddy, Masha, Mr. Davis, now Greg is gone, but fond memories will always be with me. God's Blessings on Sycamore and on those who love it.