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Cargo

February 2024
3min read

In the spring of 1931 I was a member of a “couples’ club” in Syracuse, New York, composed of both married and single men and women. I was one of the unmarried—the youngest of all at twenty-six. We got together every other Sunday evening to discuss various topics that interested us. There were sixteen of us, and scarcely anyone ever missed a meeting.

That year for the July Fourth weekend we decided to rent a cottage on Lake Ontario. We found what we wanted near Sandy Pond, a house large enough to allow separate sleeping quarters for men and women. We all arrived on Friday afternoon, and the women cooked our first meal. The men did the kitchen chores afterward.

That first evening produced a lovely sunset, which gave way to a bright half-moon and a quiet breeze on the lake. We sat outside until it grew dark, but before long everyone was ready to go to bed. I wanted to go for a walk along the beach, but no one would come except my best friend, Bob Van Wagenen.

The two of us walked along the deserted beach, which at that time had no cottages beyond the one we had rented. The moonlight made everything very clear. After a mile or so Bob decided to go back, but I continued on for another half-mile. I was really enjoying myself.

Finally I came across a big piece of driftwood and was sitting down for a rest before starting back when a dot of light out on the lake caught my attention. It steadily moved closer, and every now and then it blinked. I assumed it was men doing some night fishing.

As I watched it, I heard the muffled sound of an engine somewhere behind me, and a truck pulled up perhaps fifty yards away. It was joined by a second and maybe a third truck. I looked back at the lake and saw a large boat moving slowly toward the beach, its light now blinking constantly. It anchored a little distance offshore, and two small boats with heavy contents began crisscrossing between ship and land, coming ashore loaded, returning to the ship empty. I knew then what I was witnessing: a rum-running episode between Canada and the United States. At first I felt a sense of alarm at being there, but it didn’t last long.

Men had gotten off the trucks without making a sound. Apparently they were waiting for a signal, and when it came, they went down two by two to where stacks of crates were being brought ashore. Each pair carried a heavily loaded crate from the beach to the trucks and then returned for another load. There was precision in every movement—no talking and no noise except a low grunt or a cough. The men passed within twenty yards of me, but no one looked in my direction. Altogether I guessed there were fourteen or sixteen men involved. The well-practiced operation took a half-hour at most. When the men finished loading the trucks, they all climbed aboard.

The trucks did not leave immediately. Two men had remained on the beach talking with someone I supposed was the captain. Finally they too came up. One of them was carrying a bottle, and as he passed me, he came over and asked, “Do you want this?”

I answered, “No, I don’t drink.”

He looked at me for a moment and then said, “This is good Scotch, uncut.”

When I still shook my head, he turned on his heel and went up to the trucks. There was no question in my mind that he was the boss of the Operation, and what struck me was that he was about my age. The trucks drove away, and although I heard their rumbling for a minute or two, the sound soon died down. I have no idea where they connected with a road, but there must have been one not too far away.

After the trucks moved off, I watched the boat disappear toward Canada. I thought I saw the two small boats attached at the stern. I sat there until I was sure I was alone again, and I began to feel the chill in the breeze. It might have come a bit from what I had witnessed. What stands out in my memory is the precision of it all, a perfect performance.

Back at the cottage I wanted to tell my story to someone, but everyone was asleep, and so was I within a few minutes. The next day I related my adventure to the entire group at breakfast, and four or five of the men went back with me to where the episode had occurred. The log was still there, and we could see the prints of many feet in the sand and the deep ruts made by the tires of heavy vehicles.

I have always been sorry that I did not accept the bottle of Scotch that was offered to me.

Bob always regretted that he hadn’t come with me all the way on that walk. And I have always been sorry that I did not accept the bottle of Scotch that was offered to me. Even if I had not drunk the contents myself, someone else might have enjoyed it. And full or empty, I would have had the bottle as a souvenir of my very real brush with history.

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