Left in Andover: A long Thanksgiving walk

By Susan Leader
©2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

The Sunday before Thanksgiving, 1975, my dad and I set out for an adventure hitchhiking from Andover to Bennington, then onwards to Albany, N.Y., to visit Cousin Frances who had invited us to stay at her house overnight. The weather was mild for that time of year, and we looked forward to our outing.

As she was about to move out of her sprawling Victorian mansion, Frances had enticed me with the pick of her attic, which overflowed with Gay Nineties bathing outfits, flapper dresses and sparkly 1940s cocktail gowns. At the time, contra dancing, for me a good excuse to get dressed up, was popular among my circle of friends.

The first leg of our trip, as far as Bennington, was uneventful. We stretched our legs with a short walking tour of “The Leader Blocks,” Dad’s father’s once proud tenement complex, now a condemned public hazard.

The July 12, 1920 Bennington Banner documents the diminishment of my grandfather Isaac’s dream from the get-go:

ISAAC LEADER ORDERED TO LOWER  BUILDING
His New Tenement Block Must Not Be More Than Three Stories in Height

In the matter of the Isaac Leader building, it was voted by the Town Council that the present building now under construction be lowered so that it will not be more than three stories high including the roof … and that said Isaac Leader clean up the yard at once.

The Leader Blocks came down in 1978.

After Isaac died in 1933, Dad’s older sister Sadie had managed the property, though she never managed to keep the yard clean. Her own death in 1969 having cut all such efforts short, and my Aunt Adele, Frances’ mom, declining to carry on the burden, the buildings would be demolished in 1978.

A 1945 entry in Dad’s FBI Dossier includes this gratuitous vouchsafe for his family of birth by a close neighbor:

“Mrs. Anna Leven, Probation Officer in the Department of Corrections of the State of Vermont, who resides at 151 North Street, Bennington … stated that she had known the LEADER family most of her life. She said that there were five children in the family, four girls and one boy, and that the Subject was the youngest child. She said that all of the children in this family were brilliant and … all spoke their minds very frankly … the Subject was exceptionally outspoken but was a very honest individual. Mrs. LEVEN said that she knows them very well and while she appreciates that the things they do and say may look bad to people who don’t know them well, she felt certain in her own mind that they are harmless.”

Of the five siblings, only Dad and his sister Sadie went to college. Whether there was a cause and effect I cannot say, but both also subscribed to hitchhiking, a romantic as well as thrifty solution to the problem of transportation, as well as vegetarianism, a failsafe way to keep kosher.

One of Sadie’s fantasies for the family building complex, which was conceived as working-class housing, had been to start a home for vegetarian orphans. My siblings and I being the only vegetarian children she knew, this concept was DOA.

Leader property shed, Bennington, late 1920s. The author’s dad, Herbert Leader, left, with his older sister Sadie.

Bidding family ghosts farewell, Dad and I ambled down North Street to the main downtown intersection where we stuck out our thumbs, Vt Rte. 9 then NY Rte. 7 to Troy.

If the appearance of Dad, described by “Chief of Police Frank Cone and Sheriff Clyde Peck of Bennington” in that same 1945 FBI dossier as “… a very viscious (sic) looking individual wearing a big black Van Dyke beard …” caused drivers to think twice before offering us rides, no doubt the sight of me, the pink faced red haired lass by his side, was reassuring, for we reached Albany in record time.

Cousin Frances was most hospitable. A former Miss Vermont, Frances was in her element advising me which of the outfits moldering in her attic to stuff into my giant empty duffel bag. She even modeled a few for me. This was the provenance of my ‘red winged blackbird dress,’ a black wool dress with red epaulets, my favorite for many years to come.

After breakfasting together at a diner the next morning, Frances dropped us off at the bottom of the closest entrance ramp to the New York Thruway.

Dad walked up ahead empty handed. I brought up the rear lugging my bag of loot. As we proceeded up the ramp, Dad, who walked with a cane, scrutinized the uneven terrain before taking each new step. He detected tarnished coins of all denominations scattered liberally among the weeds growing along the shoulder.

Leader tenements in their glory days, Bennington, 1920, author’s dad, left, with sister Adele.

Whether these were the leavings of a disappointed bank robber, a car crash or a profligate drunk seemed irrelevant. I gleefully caught up with him, gathering the bounty on my hands and knees.

A car inched to a stop nearby. Our unusual behavior had attracted the attention of a sheriff. He ordered us into his cruiser. In the cat and mouse routine of that era, we assumed he would just drive us the couple of exits over to Troy and dump us out again with a warning not to return.

My father, an epileptic, had long since given up his driver’s license for safety reasons and I did not have one. As the minutes passed, the sheriff became increasingly suspicious of our vagrancy and lack of identification papers. Dad took umbrage at this violation of his “right to be different.”

I was a helpless observer to this dynamic, but hyper-aware that Dad considered it a teachable moment — for the officer as well as for me.

The final standoff came when the sheriff demanded to examine the contents of my duffel bag. He was not buying our father-daughter story. Riffling through my finery he concluded that we were a sex trafficking ring.

Making the decision to arrest us, which meant rousing out a judge on a Sunday morning, he drove us to police headquarters.

At the impromptu hearing that ensued, my outraged father refused to stand, saying he was crippled. Then he refused to bare his head, saying it was against his religion. The judge fined us $100 each for trespassing on the highway, being a public nuisance and not cooperating.

At this, Dad indicated his refusal to pay. In resignation, the judge sentenced us both to one week in the Rensselaer County jail.

The morning had escalated out of control. For Dad, it was standing on principle. For me, it was all in the spirit of an adventure. I don’t know if the concept of white privilege had been articulated at that time, but I did not feel physically threatened by the prospect of a short incarceration. In any case, I didn’t have $100 to buy my way out.

Aunt Sadie’s enterprise: A home for vegetarian orphans.

I was assigned to the women’s section on the upper level of the jailhouse. Dad was with the men on the main floor. Along with our fellow inmates, we passed the time sending messages up and down to the other section by means of a wire strung through a network of bypassed toilet pipes, watching TV and catching up on our sleep.

Turkey Day came and went at the jailhouse. I declined my slab of celebratory deli meat with a dash of ketchup, in favor of a PBJ.

In those days before the advent of Tofurkey, the holiday presented a Catch-22 for us vegetarians. If we celebrated with friends and family, it meant a meal centered around a turkey. To opt out appeared unpatriotic. One year my whole family volunteered at a kitchen for the homeless.

In grade school, I dutifully drew my gobbler art by tracing around each finger to make the turkey’s fan, but, as a non-turkey eater, I always felt marginalized. Jail seemed as good a place as any to spend the holiday.

Three days later, our week served, Dad and I were ejected from the criminal justice system. Unreformed, we walked a short way down the road, stuck out our thumbs and continued our aborted “walk” home, pockets a-jingle with change.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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