Homesick

Originally posted Jan 11, 2009

If I took the long way home from school—out the front entrance of St. Bernard’s elementary instead of cutting through the church parking lot—I could see them working.
Volunteers from the village and inmates from a nearby minimum-security prison worked side-by-side each day for weeks, lifting 2-by-4-foot blocks of ice from Pontiac Bay with giant tongs and then sliding them onto a large conveyor belt. Depending on how deeply cold the winter had been so far, the bricks could be up to three feet thick.
I tried not to look too often, maybe twice a week. I didn’t want to spoil the effect—the surprise at the appearance of yet another layer of slushy mortar and crystal bricks; the recognition as the architecture began to make sense and the random bricks became towers or castle walls; the thrill of counting down the days with each brick that the crews sawed, pulled and jiggled, dripping, out of the dark water.
Before my eyes, it rose.
Slowly, methodically, majestically. Until one afternoon near the beginning of February, I would step out of school, walk down the street just a bit and realize that it was done. The crews had slipped the last block of ice into place and the ice castle was complete, somehow even more awesome and more spectacular than the year before.
It is during this time of the year that I get homesick, when I know that the ice castle is under construction and that Winter Carnival is only a few weeks away in my hometown of Saranac Lake, N.Y.
The ice castle is the icon, the foundation, the symbol of the weeklong celebration deep in the Adirondack Mountains. It is a week of sled races and cross-country ski races; a week when prominent grown-ups rule as king and queen, college students reign as prince and princess and the popular clique in high school is elected as the royal court.
It is a week of snow sculptures on front lawns and in the park; of parades and fireworks; of snowmobiles storming the ice castle; and, in the old days, of ice skaters competing to see who could jump the greatest number of barrels.
And a week of alcohol, of course.
Nothing is celebrated in my hometown without lots of alcohol.
I miss my hometown in the spring when the sight of concrete through the hard-packed snow where the sidewalk had been the previous October could send a thrill through me. I miss the gulch in the summer and the natural water slide and Champagne Falls. I miss the smell of wet leaves in the fall and the long hikes free of mosquitoes and tiny biting black flies.
But those are memories I have to myself or with small groups of people. Winter Carnival is different. Winter Carnival pulls everyone in from all income levels, age groups, professions. It brings people back, even those who believed they had torn up their roots and vowed never to return.
It is the truest sort of community celebration, the likes of which I have never experienced anywhere else. Locals even get along with the tourists for a bit: no giving false directions; no selling pine cones for $5 a piece as souvenirs; no lying about the names of the peaks when they assume you know all that stuff just because because your mom gave birth to you there.
Heck, what other community enlists prisoners to help build its ice castle? So I’ll be missing Saranac Lake Feb. 6 when the king and queen are crowned, kicking off the festivities. But don’t worry. I will be back someday with four kids and a husband in tow.
And, maybe, with a little peppermint schnapps in my purse.

After 20 years, I heard her laugh

Originally posted DEc. 1, 2008

When I think about what kind of mother I want to be, Sylvia Bouchard comes to mind. She has been on my mind for nearly 20 years, ever since the day a jury declared her son guilty of murder.
I covered the case. I stood near her in the courtroom. She cried no tears that I could see. She simply clutched her purse and walked up to her son, who had laid his head on the defense table.
Her son, Steven Barnes, was 23.
So was I.
I was a reporter for The (Syracuse, N.Y.) Post-Standard. I was just barely a year into my career. Sylvia Bouchard and I both knew that Steven Barnes did not kill 16-year-old Kimberly Simon, a cheerleader from the small Oneida County community of Whitesboro.
He did not rape her.
He did not strangle her.
Many in the community knew that too, and they rallied behind him. They raised money for his defense when he was indicted more than three years after the 1985 homicide. They filled the courtroom during his trial. They offered his mother a shoulder to lean on, but I never saw her take it.
What I saw was a woman who was focused and determined. A woman who knew she could not afford to break. She was determined to prove her son innocent, but she was also determined that he would be a model prisoner and that, if all efforts to free him failed, he would serve as little of his 25-year-to-life sentence as possible.
She succeeded on both fronts.
On Nov. 25, Steven Barnes received a call in prison. He turned to tell anyone who could hear him that he was going home, thanks to the Innocence Project and DNA analysis. The guards cheered. The prisoners cheered. They loved Steven. He had all the privileges any prisoner could have. He was good. He was honest. He was the boy his mother had raised him to be.
Steven Barnes was a victim. I am generally forgiving of jurors and even of prosecutors. They are people, just like us and they can easily be wrongly convinced. But the trial of Steven Barnes was a joke. The jurors should be ashamed and remorseful. The prosecutor should be investigated. The police who investigated the case and testified should be on trial themselves.
Their evidence consisted of tire treads, soil samples, hair samples and a 35-year police force veteran who said he saw Steven Barnes driving away from the murder site at about the time Kimberly was killed and that he could clearly identify this stranger as his pickup truck passed at 25 mph.
The expert who presented the soil and hair samples made it clear that the tests were not reliable. The police officer and two other witnesses who claimed to have seen Steven Barnes that night gave grossly conflicting testimony to the grand jury, testimony that was presented during the trial.
No one saw Steven Barnes with Kimberly Simon. No one presented a valid motive. No reliable physical evidence connected him to the crime. No witnesses gave reliable testimony.
Yet the prosecutor pursued the case and the jury found him guilty.
It was enough to make any mother crumble.
In the face of it all, Sylvia Bouchard stood her ground. She did not cower with fear. She did not collapse in despair. She did not let down her guard, at least not publicly.
She was strong.
She was reactive and proactive.
She was mother to her son through two decades of imprisonment.
I talked with her and her son on the phone this evening. It had been 18 years since I’d spoken to her. Throughout the trial and the appeals and the fund raisers, I had never heard laugh. I don’t recalled ever seeing her smile. All I saw was that focus, that determination.
This evening, I heard her laugh.