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Our eldest child, Richard, is a man of parts, his best part being his spouse Katie Dixon. My blog has on occasion featured the exploits of this dynamic duo, not omitting those of their young daughter, Ruby, in relation to their gentrifying adventures as pioneers in Red Hook, Brooklyn.The rigors of elevating a run-down workingman’s cottage from the era of President McKinley up to the requisite seven-figure baseline of New York residential realtors have apparently exhausted their challenge. So Rich and Katie have now taken on, as a weekend getaway, a rather large old colonial house (ca. 1750) in the wilds of Hunterdon County, New Jersey. This large house is beautifully placed on a very large parcel of field and forest just above the Delaware River, and is surrounded by a number of large outbuildings, of which I have so far catalogued four.

This is the real deal. The property is the large remnant of one of the huge old pre-colonial farms established on West Jersey lands sold off from William Penn’s truly vast holdings in the early 18th century. As to the main residence itself, one may be certain that George Washington slept there—the want of explicit written record being merely a testimony to the delicacy with which our early journalists spared the feelings of Mrs. Washington. If you know anything at all about New Jersey real estate, you will instantly perceive that the only thing that could render such a fixerupper even theoretically affordable is a need for up-fixing so daunting as to stun the imagination. We look on in awed admiration.

I have now spent a couple of happy days at this rustic paradise. My token effort so far has been to clear a decade’s worth of jungle from a beautifully constructed old stone retaining terrace. Though only a gorgeous 30-mile drive from Princeton, this place might just as well be in some remote part of the rural South or West. The property has various names in the old papers. Its new owners seem to be calling it “Kingwood” after the township in which it is located and the 18th-century hamlet that was once its center. But I think I will call it “Judea”—a name I think my son will recognize and possibly approve.

Two of our children are college professors of distinction. But even an academic calendar, as flexible as it may be, is still full of constraints. Rich doesn’t march to drummers at all, including his own. Though I dare not label him, I have to recognize him as an intellectual. He certainly is a voracious reader. One enthusiasm we share—and for which I would hope to claim some responsibility—is the work of Joseph Conrad. As you know, our digital younger generations are not supposed to be much into physical books, let alone bulky sets of the complete works; but he has turned over a yard of precious shelf space to Conrad. The moment I first saw the Kingwood property, or rather the moment I first grasped the dimension of the task, I knew there was a Conrad story I had to reread.

Its title is “Youth." It is largely autobiographical, and it is largely about—well, youth. It could as well be titled “The Impossible Journey." It is the first-person reminiscence of a seasoned English sailor who recounts his first experience as a second mate, at age 20, aboard an antiquated sailing barque. The old ship’s name is the Judea. Its mission is to sail from London to Newcastle, pick up a heavy and dangerous cargo of coal, and transport it thence to exotic Bangkok.  What unfolds is the mother of all bad trips. If you have never read it, you will not find many better uses of a couple of hours of your time. Not many tragicomedies get the right balance of tears and laughter, but Conrad here pulls it off perfectly.

A single theme controls the narrative: youth, its essence, its energy, its excitement, its optimism, its can-do spirit, its indefatigability. This is the way Conrad’s famous narrator Marlowe puts it, recalling his feelings of 20 years earlier concerning the Judea: “O youth! The strength of it, the faith of it, the imagination of it! To me she was not an old rattle-trap carting about the world a lot of coal for a freight—to me she was the endeavour, the test, the trial of life.”

Rich and Katie are actually nearer in age to the narrator Marlowe than to the fledgling second mate Marlowe, but they are still a lot closer to that young man than am I. As I stood before a couple of yards of my long old stone wall, panting in the hot sun, trying to deracinate poison-ivy vines as thick as garden hoses, what I saw was something in the category of "Mission Impossible." What they see is adventure, worthy challenge, extraordinary possibility, and thrilling prospect.  Perhaps “the endeavour, the test, the trial of life” would be a little hyperbolic under the circumstances. I don’t expect their new old house literally to fly apart in a violent explosion—merely one of the more dramatic experiences faced by the crew of the Judea. But I stand in awe of a real-life demonstration of a power of youth I once may have possessed but now can savor only in books.
 

John V. Fleming

Author John V. Fleming taught at Princeton University for 40 years before retiring in 2006.

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