Thursday, October 30, 2008


My new little sister's name is Cheryl Ann. Where does that name come from? I find out that it's my Dad's idea. There was a TV show called "Waterfront" that came on between 1954 and 1956 starring Preston Foster as a tugboat captain in Los Angeles. I guess it made an impression on Dad; I don't seem to remember the show much at all. Anyway, he names my sister after a tugboat on a TV show - Cheryl Ann. Mom wanted to call her Cheryl August as a compromise, but Dad wins this one.
When I get home from the farm I find my sister in her crib in my bedroom. I'm assured by Mom that it's only temporary, and Cheryl will sleep in their room at night. She's a baby, so I won't have much to do with her right now.
My aunts and uncles and neighbors file in and out, oohing and aahing their approval. Carl and I find ourselves making baby-talk noises to her, and she laughs back at us.
I guess she'll be crawling around the house before we know it, and then she'll be zooming around in one of those wheeled things with a canvas seat, crashing into the walls and the furniture.
My sister is small and we call her "Pebbles" like in the Flintstones.
There's five of us in this small house now, six if you're counting Whee-Zee, and we are.
Whee-Zee knows there's someone helpless in the family.
She may be old and tired and not as fast anymore, but she knows her duty.
She takes up her post on the floor underneath my sister's crib, ready to protect another young life.
Another one of the family.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

I'm Walkin'

I was angry and nervous and upset, and now my intestines had seized up like they were filled with cement. I couldn’t go to the bathroom no matter how much I tried. That’s all I need, one more thing to worry about.
Tuesday would be just as hot, just as humid as Monday, and the day would pass by in slow motion. I took a walk into the fields with Snowy. I pet Ruby and Spade while I fed them apples. Horses just stand there all day in the heat, snorting and flicking their tails at the flies.
At least the hunting dogs are in the shade all day, and they clamor for attention as I walk by. Ruby and Spade follow me, looking for more apples, but they get wise and head back to the water trough.
The steers are huddled together like they always are, looking at me with suspicious eyes. They’re always afraid. I wonder if they know that soon they will be sent to the slaughterhouse, ending up as steaks and hamburgers on somebody’s barbecue grill. Some of them even have names, which is kinda sad really. How can you give an animal a name while all the time you’re just planning on killing it? A few are brave enough to let me approach them and rub their heads and scratch them behind the ears, and they press their big wet noses on me in appreciation. As soon as I make a sudden move they scatter, just as scared, just as timid as always.
The day drags on and then it’s evening, and I try to get to sleep, but I’m uncomfortable and irritated because I’m all stopped up. The one bathroom in the house is on the first floor at the bottom of that long steep staircase, increasing the level of my anxiety. Maybe Wednesday will be better.
Things aren’t better. It’s hot again and I just can’t take the boredom anymore. I try to convince Charlie into going out to the woods and playing army or cowboys and Indians, or getting out his toy trucks and tractors, but he isn’t interested. His Cousin Marvin comes over and he’s all attitude. He makes fun of all of my ideas about what to do today. He calls me a sissy for wanting to play with toy soldiers or pretending to be a cowboy, and it feels like all he wants to do is pick a fight with me. I try to ignore him, but he won’t let up and he won’t go away. It’s getting hotter and so is my temper, but I don’t want to fight, I just want to do something other than stand around in this heat.
Marvin continues to make fun of me, and I make up my mind to just ignore him, but he won’t let up, and then the unexpected happens. Charlie is laughing at what Marvin is saying about me, and at my pathetic attempts at defending myself. What is this? My favorite cousin, my almost brother is laughing along with Marvin and his insults. That’s it. That’s all I can stand. My brain is reeling. I’m incensed. I’m tired and angry and I’m constipated and I’m bored, and I DON’T WANT TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!!!!
No more poop and heat and flies. No more horrible smells. No more dust, and now Charlie is laughing at me. I WANT TO GO HOME AND I WANT TO GO HOME NOW!
I turn away from Charlie and Marvin and Carl. I begin walking down Cohawkin Road. I know the way and I’m determined to get away from here. Up Cohawkin Road to King’s Highway and straight into Woodbury. I can go to Nanny and Pop-Pop’s house or Aunt Sis’s house, and somebody will give me a ride home. I can do it, I know I can; didn’t Mom and I walk all over town? Heck, I walked to Woodbury and back when I was a little kid, so I know I can walk home now. Walking is easy. It’s one foot in front of the other and before you know it, you’re home.
I hear Charlie calling for me to come back, and I hear Carl crying. Aunt Bette is at the end of the driveway calling for me, and soon Charlie is in front of me on his bike, apologizing and begging me to come back. I don’t want to, but I turn around and go back to the farm. Everybody is upset, and the rest of the day is like being in some weird state of suspended animation.
That evening some phone calls are made. Aunt Bette tells me and Carl that Mom and our new sister will be coming home on Thursday and that Dad will come and get us on Friday, one day earlier than was planned.
I can’t wait, but I’ll just have to be patient. I need to go home and see Whee-Zee and sleep in my own room where the bathroom is right next door. I gotta go swimming and see my friends and neighbors-even Mark Gerber would be a welcome sight right now. One more day and Dad will come and take us home.
Thursday can’t go by quick enough. It’s raining, and the temperature is cooling off, and we’re stuck in the house for most of the day, but that’s alright, ‘cause tomorrow we’re going home!
Just before noon on Friday Dad arrives and we say good-bye to Aunt Bette and Charlie. Charlie and I have patched things up, and I still love the farm and all, but I’ve had enough of it for a while, and I can’t wait to leave.
I begin to relax on the way home. Things are gonna be OK now, especially if I can finally go to the bathroom. Home. Back with Mom and Dad and Whee-Zee and all our neighbors. Oh yeah, I almost forgot, we’ve got a little sister, too.
“What’s her name, Dad?” I don’t remember anyone telling us yet.
“We named her Cheryl,” he says. “Your sister’s name is Cheryl Ann.”
“Cheryl Ann, huh?” I wonder where they got that name? We don’t have anybody else named that in the family. I’ll have to ask Mom how she came up with that one.
Hey everybody,there’s a new kid in town.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


Monday morning arrived hotter and even more humid. I awake before Carl and Charlie, peering out from under the tent towards the house. It must be after seven, because Uncle Everett is getting into his truck and going to work. We won’t have to face him until supper.
All male adults are intimidating, but Uncle Everett even more so. I don’t see my dad much because he’s at work a lot, but when he’s home he does laugh and relax sometimes. Uncle Everett never relaxes. I hardly ever see him laugh. He’s got a cabinet full of rifles, and every fall he goes out to the “deer woods” and hunts. Uncle Everett is somebody who actually goes out and kills animals in the woods, and runs farm equipment. He rode horses in rodeos and works non-stop. He’s just not a laid-back guy, and to a 10 year old, he can be pretty scary, so I walk softly around him and do as I’m told.
Aunt Bette scolds us about the fire at breakfast, and gives us Uncle Everett’s list of chores. Not much more than what we’ve been doing, so I guess he’s not as mad at us as I thought. I guess we’re off the hook.
The temperature climbs into the nineties, so we take it easy after the chores are done. The fields are dry and dusty, and the farm smells rise with the temperature. The odors and the flies are starting to get to me, and I think more and more about home and Woodbury Heights.
There’s no Trackie’s or 7-11, or any store nearby. Cohawkin road has no sidewalks, it’s rural, and it’s not lined with trees. My Cousin Charlie has no friends close by, just his other cousins, so we don’t have enough kids for a game of baseball or kickball, and the only place to ride bikes is in the fields. Heat, flies, dust and poop of all kinds, and now it’s just plain boring.
I realize that Charlie is a lot different now than just a few years ago. Must be from all the work he has to do and the isolation he lives in. He doesn’t seem to have much of an imagination like I do, and he seems uninterested in toys, even the ones he has.
He does come up with an idea.
“How’s about I teach you how to drive the flatbed truck out in the fields?” he asks.
This sounds like an adventure, so of course I say yes.
Charlie and Carl and I pile into the truck and head out into the fields. When we’re far enough from the house he tells me to get into the driver’s seat.
I do OK for a while. Driving on a straight dirt road at about twenty miles an hour is pretty easy, even though I’m kinda small and can’t see too well over the steering wheel. The steering wheel is huge in my hands, and I can barely reach the pedals. When we come up to one of the gates I forget to hit the clutch or something, and the truck rolls into the fencepost, bending it and part of the gate. In my mind’s eye I blow it all out of proportion. I see a tangled mass of destruction, when in reality it’s just a little dent in the iron gate, and the post can be pulled back up and straightened with some wire. I’m shaking, thinking this is it, Uncle Everett will have my head and mount it on the wall like one of the deer he shot – a trophy: “Yeah, had to shoot the boy, he was too damn dumb for his own good.”
Charlie just laughs the whole thing off, and the three of us put things back in order. As we pull away and head to the house I keep looking back at that gate, and it mocks me and it just doesn’t look the same, and I know for sure that Uncle Everett will know that something happened to it. Charlie tells me that it looks like one of the steers banged into it, so don’t worry. But I will worry, I can’t help it, that’s me.
I’m all shook up, and I can’t relax the rest of the day. When Uncle Everett gets home he makes his usual rounds in the fields. My heart pounds in my head, and I know he’ll come back and ask what happened to the fence. I’m lucky, I guess. He says nothing at the dinner table, and I’m relieved. Charlie was right, we covered our tracks pretty good, no one will ever know.
It will be a really hot night, and the bedrooms are all upstairs, so it’s even warmer up there. I miss my old maple tree, and I miss the lake and the coolness of the woods and the moss on Freund’s cliff. I like coming to the farm. I love Aunt Bette and Charlie, and even though I’m a little scared of Uncle Everett, he’s really an OK guy, but I want to go home. I don’t like the smells, and I don’t like the flies, and I miss my Mom and Dad and Whee-Zee. I want to get on my bike and soar down Chestnut Hill and play war with Paul LaPann and the others, but it’s only Monday night, and I’ve got to be here till Saturday.
What’s worse, even though I’m surrounded by it, it’s the one thing I can’t seem to do anymore: poop.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Ring Of Fire

We waited for evening to fall. With the daylight fading, we began to start our campfire. Some brush and dry twigs at first, and when it started to blaze, all three of us tossed branches and larger limbs onto the flames. It wasn’t quite big enough, so Carl and Charlie and I gathered more and more fuel. Small logs, large limbs, chunks of bark, and dry hay from the field, even a cow pie or two. The fire grew in intensity, and the flames climbed higher and higher into the growing darkness.
I don’t know what it was, but we had become entranced by the orange-yellow glow, and we continued to pile more and more wood onto the campfire. The flames were getting closer to the lowest branches of the trees around us, and we just cried, “More wood!”, “More wood!”
We were dancing around the fire and yelling like the Indians we’d seen in the movies, or like the African natives in all the Tarzan pictures. Three wild boys who could not be tamed. We whirled and screamed and danced and tossed more and more wood, until the heat and the glow resembled a blast furnace.
We were howling and the dogs were howling. It was primitive, and we were intoxicated; entranced by the flames and the heat and the glow. Dancing and yelling, dancing and yelling, and the outside world no longer existed. The cave men couldn’t have been more primeval. We were Lords of the Flies without knowing, an island of savages unto ourselves. Nothing could disturb our reverie.


A pair of headlights was bearing down on us, coming from the direction of the house. The three of us stopped in our tracks and watched as they drew near. It was Uncle Everett roaring across the field in the old flatbed truck, heading straight for us and our campfire.
“What in the hell do you boys think you’re doing?!!!!,” he yelled. What are you trying to do, burn the whole damn place down?”
You knew adults were really angry when the four letter words started coming out. They shook us into reality.
“Now, you get this fire under control.” Don’t you put anymore wood on it and keep an eye on it before you all try going to sleep.” I’ll be watching from the house to make sure.”
“Jesus Christ,” he cried. “You boys are old enough to know better.”
And then he roared off.
So the three of us composed ourselves and kept watch as the flames slowly died down, Uncle Everett’s words echoing in our ears, each of us wondering what he may have in store for us tomorrow. Snowy and Speck calmed down, watching the fire with us.
When it was just a mass of glowing embers we threw some dirt on it and took a last look towards the house in the distance, making sure that the lights were out and hoping that Uncle Everett was fast asleep.
We piled into the tent, a tangle of boys and dogs squirming and fussing, each one trying to find that perfect spot, that comfortable place that would bring on much needed sleep.
It took us a while to get settled. We had been savages after all. Primitive men that could not be tamed-Keepers of the fire.
We slept with smiles on our faces and flames in our hearts.
Wild Things, not young boys, accompanied by wolves, not dogs.
Wild Things, that's what we were.
Yeah......Wild Things.
At least until tomorrow.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Sunday On The Farm

Sunday morning was hotter and even more humid. We listened to Uncle Everett tell us what chores to do as we crunched our puffed rice cereal. We’ll have to feed and water the animals, comb the horses, clean out the dog pen, and muck out some of the stalls in the barn. It shouldn’t take too long with the three of us-uh, make that two of us. When it comes to chores, Carl is best at not doing them, so it’s up to Charlie and me to get them done.
As I eat my cereal, my cousin Charlie is having coffee. Coffee!? A ten-year old needs coffee? Gack! That crap is vile. How can Charlie drink it? It’s milk, mostly, but I don’t see the point of ever drinking it. That stuff is for adults and not for me.
The temperature is climbing, so we’d better get busy. Feeding the animals is easy, scraping up dog poop from a concrete pad isn’t fun, but doesn’t take too long. Combing the horses is a piece of cake. Mucking out the barn is another story, and if I had my choice, I’d rather not do it. We’re covered in hay and flies and poop by the time we’re through, and the stench of manure and animal musk has perfumed our bodies with a horrible funk. Time for showers and lunch. My brother is pretty clean; he conned his way into helping Aunt Bette pick vegetables from the garden.
You know, I’ve stayed overnight on the farm before, but the longer you’re here you notice that the smell of manure and moldy hay lingers on, and just gets worse as it gets hotter. The well water has a peculiar aroma all its own, and it mixes with the other odors, and I never feel clean. Everything smells “funny” including me, and I can’t get used to it.
It’s hotter here as well. Out in the fields it’s brutal, and the only shady spots are under the apple tree where the dog pen is, the few trees by the house, and the woods a long walk away. We could drive the flat bed truck out to the small pond, but it’s not very deep this time of year, and besides, it’s crawling with waterbugs.
After lunch the day is ours to do whatever we want. We’ll be sleeping out in the woods tonight, so later on we’ll begin setting up our campsite.
There’s a few mysteries on the farm. I already said that I’d never really seen Uncle Everett ride his horses. He’s got saddles, I know, I’ve seen them, but Ruby and Spade just roam the fields all day; no one ever rides them. I don’t get it. What’s the point of having horses if you’re not going to ride? I never get an answer.
Mr. Harbison is another mystery. He’s a man who rents rooms upstairs from Aunt Bette. All I’ve ever seen of him is the back of his head as he drives away in his old gray Chevrolet, and even that is rare. Maybe he’s a secret agent like that new James Bond guy in the movies. Maybe he’s an ex-Nazi scientist working for the CIA on a secret formula or something. All I know is that he comes and goes through the side door without being seen or heard, year after year.
There’s a stone well-house next to the main house, and I’ve never seen the door open once, not ever. The windows have paint on them, so it’s hard to see inside. The well-house would make a great pillbox from which to repel enemy soldiers, but it seems to be off-limits to everybody. What’s in there, I wonder?
Mrs. Poole, Uncle Everett’s mother, lives in one of those roundish silver-gray trailer homes next to one of the barns. She’s a lot like my grand mom Woodward; not very friendly, especially towards children. I stay away from her, which isn’t too difficult, ‘cause she hardly ever comes outside.
Uncle Everett’s brother and sister have houses next to his, so Charlie always has cousins around.
Right next door is his cousin Freddy. Freddy is a big kid, no, let’s face it, he’s really fat, and slightly older than me. Freddy has a great big Saint Bernard dog named King that they keep penned up. King is kept in a pen so he doesn’t run out onto Cohawkin Road and get killed. He’s a little unruly, a lot like Freddy. I feel sorry for King, it doesn’t seem right for any dog to be locked up with so much space to run in.
Next to Freddy is Uncle Everett’s brother and he has three kids, Terri, Tina and Marvin. Terri is the oldest and blond and kind of pretty. It’s easy to have a crush on her. Marvin is about a year older than me and Charlie, and he’s got an attitude problem. He kind of reminds me of Bradley Lloyd when Bradley was always trying to pick a fight with me. What’s Marvin’s problem, anyway? Tina is the youngest and always smiling. She spends a lot of time keeping Carl company.
We spend the afternoon trying to keep cool the best we can, in anticipation of the evening ahead.
After supper we gather up the tent and our blankets. Carl, Charlie and I and the dogs head down the field and into the woods where we pick out a spot to pitch the tent and build a fire.
With the tent set up and our firewood gathered, we wait for night to fall.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Rest Of That Saturday In August

Every Saturday night in the summer there’s a rodeo at Cowtown. It’s on Route 40 just outside Woodstown, not too far away from the Richman’s ice cream store. Cowtown isn’t a town, it’s a flea market/rodeo grounds, and Uncle Everett is there every night of the rodeo season. Carl and I are going along tonight, this humid evening in August, the day my sister is born. It’s been a heck of a day, not knowing what’s going to happen next, and now I’m going to watch cowboys ride wild bulls and horses under the evening sky.
I’ve been to the flea market before. Just a long shed-like building or two with people selling junk and T-shirts and used items that nobody wants anymore. Sometimes I find some decent comic books, but I prefer the Berlin Auction to this place.
The rodeo is right next to the flea market, its corrals painted a bright white with the Cowtown brand letters in red. There’s lots of horses and cattle and those scary-looking Brahma bulls behind the fences. The animals don’t seem to be all that wild as they graze on grass and hay, waiting to be ridden and roped. They seem to be just like the horses and cattle at Uncle Everett’s farm; the horses let you pet them, and the cattle are shy and skittish; afraid of the slightest movement.
I’m looking for some real cowboys, but these men and younger men look like the people who work the farms all over South Jersey. Sure, they’ve got the right hats and all, but they’re just guys in dungarees and plaid and denim shirts. A few of them look like the Marlboro man with leathery faces and deep channels in their skin, and they have funny accents even though most of them are from around here. I guess if you believe it enough, you’ll become a cowboy in time.
They all have little paper signs with numbers on them pinned to the backs of their shirts, so we all know who they are. There’s a few girls, too, mostly for barrel racing, whatever that is.
Around seven o’clock it all begins. There’ s a parade of all the contestants on horseback and lots of American flags. We stand for the National Anthem like at baseball games, and then it begins. At first it’s real exciting. There’s cattle wrestling and steer roping, but I start to wonder how much this has to hurt the animals. I’ve never seen my uncle twist the heads of any calves and throw them to the ground. I wouldn’t want my neck twisted like that, I’ll tell you. They rope the calves too and then slam them to the ground on their backs. Now I know that when I hit my back on that sapling tree when I was sledding that I thought I had broken it since it hurt so much, so it has to hurt these animals, doesn’t it?
The barrel racing is a break from the violence. The girls ride their horses in a pattern around barrels to see who can do it in the fastest time. This is a little more to my liking.
Of course the main events are the bronco busting and the Brahma bull riding, to see which riders can stay on these wild beasts as they buck and jump around the arena. You’ve got to admire these men as they hold on for dear life with only one hand. They’re tossed around like rag dolls, and they get thrown off and slammed into the ground, and they risk the chance of being trampled or kicked in the head. Their only protection are the rodeo clowns who use their bodies to distract the bulls. The clowns have a stack of tires they can dive into if they need to, but it’s just them out there, and those bulls are big and strong.
For a while I root for the cowboys, but it gets boring, and I notice that the saddles on the broncos look awfully tight, and the bulls have ropes pulled up under their private parts, and it just seems to me that if I was one of those animals I’d want to throw those guys off of me too.
My one consolation : the French fries are really good.
When is this thing going to end? It seems to go on forever, and I just don’t want to watch any more animals and men get tossed around. What is this, ancient Rome? Let’s go home already, I’m tired.
It’s been a long , long day this August the fourth of 1962. I want to go to bed and fly in my dreams.
The ride back to Clarksboro is an eternity, but we’re finally back at the farm.
It’s warm and humid, and I’ll sleep on the top bunk, close to the ceiling where it’s even hotter. Carl will be on the bottom, and Charlie will be in his own bed in the same room. I realize that hey, Carl’s birthday and our baby sister’s birthday are both on the fourth day of a month, and Dad and I have our birthdays on the twentieth day of a month. That’s pretty neat. I wonder if Whee-Zee was born on an eleventh day like Mom was.
A little sister, and new rifles and a morning stuck in limbo, and a night of ridin’ and ropin’ and veiled animal cruelty-some day, huh? I need some sleep for sure.
Hey, you know something? I don’t even know my new sister’s name!
You want to know something else?
Charlie doesn’t sleep with the hall light on.
What a day……

Thursday, October 9, 2008

That Same Saturday In August

I watched Dad and our turquoise-blue Comet drive off down Cohawkin Road. I couldn't understand any of it. Doesn't the baby come out as soon as you get to the hospital? Don't the doctors and nurses know what to do? I love my Aunt Bette and all, but why do we have to spend a whole week away from home? I'm trying to figure this stuff out when Aunt Bette calls us in for lunch.
She tells us we'll be going to Cowtown Rodeo tonight. The Rodeo? Real-life cowboys and cowgirls ropin' and ridin'? This sounds too good to be true, and my spirit lifts. Of course Aunt Bette's habit of dishing out generous portions of Richman's ice cream doesn't hurt either.
The farm is an amazing place for a young boy. Uncle Everett has two horses, and a herd of beef cattle. I've never understood how such large animals like steers are so skittish; just the slightest move from such a small-fry like myself can make them panic.Uncle Everett hardly ever rides his horses, I mean just about never. Ruby is an older horse so I can understand not riding her, but Spade is young and energetic, but he's pretty much left to just roam the fields without getting saddled up. It's a mystery to me.
Charlie's dog Snowy is as dear to me as Whee-Zee. She's a gentle Dalmation, and she likes to follow us around when we go off into the fields. You've got to watch out for her tail at times. It's real thick and when she's happy it wags a lot and it can whack you like nobody's business. It's good to have a dog like her around.
Uncle Everett is a little intimidating. He isn't mean or anything, it's just that he's always busy. Seems to me that he never stops working. All day he's at the Mobil refinery, and when he gets back he's doing stuff on the farm, barking orders and looking real tense. I never want to see what he's like when he gets really mad. Tonight he'll work at the Rodeo, too. He just never stops. No wonder he looks cranky all the time.
There are two main barns and a long shed that Uncle Everett parks his tractors in. The barns are covered in hay, and they're always dark inside. Giant cobwebs are everywhere, and the smell is unmistakable. Flies. Lots and lots of flies, and poop. Cow poop, horse poop, dog poop, cat poop and chicken poop. Poop is everywhere and the flies are loving it.
In the field closest to the house is a pen in which Uncle Everett keeps a bunch of hunting dogs. I think they're beagles. I've never seen them out of that cage. I don't know how they can stand being cooped up like that. They howl and quiver and lick you on the face when you press in close to the fence, desperate for some attention.
There's a small wooded area in the field just behind one of the barns, and Charlie tells me we're allowed to camp out there tomorrow night in his big army tent, and we're allowed to have a bonfire and everything! Snowy and her puppy Speck will sleep with us, so this should be really neat. We'll be just like Indians in the forest.
Well, I guess this should work out all right. Tonight we'll watch broncos and Bramah bulls and barrel racing and calf roping and those crazy rodeo clowns. Tomorrow night we sleep out in the woods with dogs and a blazing fire. And there's always Aunt Bette's food, especially her molasses cookies.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot.
My Dad called.
I got a baby sister.
Now how do you like that?
We've got a girl in the family.
Besides Mom, I mean.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A Saturday Morning In August

I was in a sound sleep--a comfortable sleep that was shattered by the voice of my father.
"Jimmy wake up," it said, "I'm taking your mom to the hospital."
"You and Carl wait here for me. Call Mrs. Avis if you need anything. I talked to her, so she's there if you need her."
I was groggy, and everything was happening in a slow-motion blur. It was so early that the sun wasn't up yet, and the sky was the pale gray color of the dawn. Before I knew it my parents were gone, everything was silent. It was an eerie silence, as if the world had suddenly stopped. There was no traffic sounds or birds singing, and my house felt empty. Whee-Zee was nervous and paced back and forth, so I let her outside for some room. Carl was oblivious, of course. He could sleep through anything.
Mrs. Avis called and asked if we were OK. Hey, I'm ten years old now, I think I can handle pouring out some bowls of cereal for Carl and me.
Carl wakes up and I tell him Mom is going to the hospital and we have to wait for Dad to get back to take us to Aunt Bette's.
I don't know what's happening, really. Mom is going into labor or something, and she's not even going to be in the hospital in Woodbury. We won't be able to see her or the new baby for several days; the whole thing is a mystery, and now the earth is standing still in silence under a gray and murky sky.
We wait for what seems like an eternity, an ever-lasting silence in our empty house. Then Dad pulls up in the Comet, and tells us that Mom is OK, but no baby yet, it may be a while. He says to get dressed, he's taking us somewhere before we go to Aunt Bette's farm.
It's a surprise, but my hopes are up when I see we're heading down Glassboro Road. My hunch is right; Dad is taking us to the Army-Navy store! We get our training rifles!
I'm beaming on the ride home.
The Bulldog Patrol is properly armed and ready.
We get back home and Whee-Zee is totally confused. She looks as though she's asking:
"Where's Mom?"
"What's going on around here?"
Carl and I gather up our things for the week at Aunt Bette's house. It's all so unreal despite the joy of getting our new rifles.
What's happening to Mom? We've got to leave Wheez behind, and she's not feeling too good right now, and what about the new baby, and why is it so quiet, and why can't we just stay here on our own?
The sun is up and the day is getting hot and humid, and we head for the farm, leaving Whee-Zee alone in the house. Dad says to leave the rifles behind, we'll have plenty of time to play with them when we get home.
We love Aunt Bette and can't wait to spend time with our cousin Charlie for a whole week on the farm, but it all feels so strange.
I stand in Aunt Bette's yard watching our father drive away.
I'm with my brother and my favorite Aunt and my favorite cousin, but I've never felt like this before.
I've never felt so completely alone.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

It's A Long, Hot Summer

The month of July is hot and humid, and since Mom is pregnant, we don't get to the lake too much. Once in a while we go with Mrs. Avis, but for the most part we have to stick to the yard. Dad buys this sprinkler thing that you attach to the garden hose, and we run through the spray to cool off. The wet grass provides us with a natural slip n' slide. Mom sits in the big metal wash tub that we use to keep sodas on ice for our cookouts, and we squirt her with the hose.
The Bulldog Patrol goes out on more missions, and we come back from the front lines without any casualties.
Paul and Carl and I build a long shaft-like structure in the woods behind my house out of plywood and two-by-fours. It becomes our prison camp escape tunnel and our space ship to mars. Some days it's a gold mine and other days just a place to hole up in and read comic books. We look out on the fields beyond the woods and begin planning an expedition.
We cover the entrance to the shaft with an old orange inflatable raft that doesn't inflate anymore, and this drives Sophie Olsen nuts. She claims that it glows at night, so it gives her the willies looking at it. This pleases us to no end.
There is a steady stream of kids in our yard. The Arans have moved and in their place is the Leap family. They're a little strange. The kids are kinda quiet and don't seem to know very much. When they come to one of our cookouts, they act like they've never seen a hamburger before. They become part of our little clan anyways.
I hang around with Keith Madden a little more, even though he's a little younger than I am. We go rake fishing along the banks of the lake, and I bring home a turtle. I name it King Tut, and we get one of those little plastic turtle pans with an island and a plastic palm tree. I like to catch flies and place them in the water and watch King Tut come up from under them and swallow them whole. King Tut lives for about a year in his artificial kingdom.
Keith introduces me to some other kids over on Lake Avenue. Joyce Patton is a pretty girl who has a big tree house in her back yard. This is a girl one should get to know! I find out there's a Filipino family in the Heights. The Quinto family live right near Joyce Patton. Sisters Marcie and Mabel, and their brother Terry. The first real sign of diversity in town.
Keith's sister Christine likes to come to our corner as well. Chrissy is a few years older than I am. She's mentally retarded, and she loves to come to our yard and sit on the swings and sing. Chrissy has her own world apart from us, but every now and then she joins in for a game of kickball. She's so comfortable in our yard that her Mom or one of her sisters has to come and drag her home for supper.
July seems to go on forever, and Mom is getting bigger and bigger and more uncomfortable. On one particularly hot and humid day she's complaining about how bad the weather is making her feel, and she wishes this baby would make up its mind and be born. I run into the house and get the plunger, and come back to force the baby out like a plug in a drain. I think it's funny; Mom is not amused. She'll have to go cool off in the washtub some more.
It's hard to get comfortable in all this humidity.
When is this baby gonna be born, anyway?

Sunday, October 5, 2008

An Army of Children

Me and my brother Carl and our neighbor Paul Avis have formed ourselves into a squad of soldiers this summer. We've equipped ourselves from the Army-Navy store in Glassboro.
To me the store is Nirvana. Canteens, pup tents, practice hand grenades, uniforms; you name it, they've got it, and whenever we can we try to get our fathers to take us there.
Our uniforms are a hodgepodge mix of army shirts and dungarees. We all have packs and canteens. Paul and Carl have plastic helmets, and I have a real steel one that Uncle Pat found for me. I'm also wearing a World War I belt and canteen that he brought me as well.
The weapons we carry are a curious mix as well. There's one plastic M-1 Garand and an old Daisy air rifle that doesn't fire anymore. Paul has a wooden replica of a Springfield rifle that looks real, and we're jealous of him. At the Army-Navy store there are wooden training rifles with bolt actions and canvas slings. We ask our parents if we could get them, and we get the usual reply of "We'll see." Those rifles would really make our unit complete, and I'll obsess about them throughout most of July.
I'm the sergeant. I'm the oldest, so of course I'm in command. Dad was a sergeant in World War II, and I wear his old army shirt if I promise to be really careful with it. It's got this really neat patch of a black panther crushing a tank in its jaws, and Dad's sergeant's stripes on the sleeves. It's wool and it's itchy, so I don't wear it too often.
We call ourselves the Bulldog Patrol, and I find a cartoon of a bulldog wearing a spiked collar, which I copy. I place crossed bones beneath it, and our unit's emblem is complete. I draw the bulldog on each pack and the small flag we carry with a black Magic Marker.
We stuff our packs with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Tastycakes and maybe some fruit. Our canteens are filled with water and we're ready for our next mission.
In single file we march down Walnut Avenue, heading for Glenwood Ave. and the woods along the lake.
We enter the woods cautiously; there may be Germans hiding in the trees. The stream is forded and we make our way around the back of the lake towards the high ground. There's a deep pit half way up the hill, and we'll take cover here so the Krauts can't catch us by surprise.
The mission is going well, and soon we'll arrive at the prime objective: Freund's Cliff itself. We are to scale the cliff's face and take the summit in order to establish an observation post. We've got to get moving so the Germans don’t get there before us.
We’re in stealth mode now as we step out of the trees and onto Lake Avenue. Keeping to the side of the road we move slowly, on the lookout for snipers and passing cars.
Rounding the bend now and there it is; the imposing sight of Freund’s Cliff standing before us in the sunlight.
Moving quickly now we cross over Lake Avenue and into the woods, at the bottom of the sledding trails. The foliage is thicker here, so we move forward Indian style, tree to tree. Reaching the base of the cliff, we drop down and begin to crawl forward. We’re in the sand now, so we inch forward at a slow crawl. There hasn’t been any enemy fire yet, so we just might have gotten here first. Taking a big chance I order the patrol to stand up and begin our ascent towards the summit. The sand is a formidable opponent, and we slip and slide backwards the whole way up, hoping we haven’t crushed our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I fear that my chocolate Tastykakes have been flattened.
Reaching the edge of the cliff, we grab hold of tree roots that poke out of the ridge line and peer over. To our dismay we realize there are a few Nazis already there. We quickly take action. Paul and Carl toss their grenades, while I spray the area with my M-1. We pull ourselves over the edge and onto the moss, and then spread out between the trees. When the smoke clears not a German is found left standing, so it looks like our mission has been a complete success. We rest under the trees, looking down from our newly-won vantage point. We’ve taken the cliff and secured the area.
We open our packs and find them smeared with jelly and flattened bread and squashed fruit. To my dismay I find that my chocolate cupcakes are in bad shape, but I’ll eat them anyway.
We’re in control of the high ground; smashed lunches are a small price to pay for victory.

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Lay of the Land

Let’s take a walk today. I don’t think Whee-Zee will come along, she’s not feeling too good lately, so she’ll stay at home. We’ll go down Walnut Avenue past the Olsens and through Mrs. Price’s Sleepy Hollow. I know most of the people on the street, or at the very least I know the names of most of the families. We go by the Lucas house; its yard littered with parts of old cars. Burgess, Oglesby, Handts and the German Lady’s house. We only know her as the German Lady. She is from Germany and she married an American, and their house is very well-kept. The German Lady likes to tell people like Mom that she had nothing to do with the Nazis during the war, even though no one even accuses her of anything. Us kids just think of her as a weirdo, so we don’t pay her any mind.
We’re at the lake now, passing by the White family and then the Fleisch’s house. Nancy is in my class at school, and I know her older sister Maggie as well.
Trackie’s store is next as Walnut curves around the lake. Trackie’s is a general store in an old wooden building that used to be a lumber mill many years ago. You can smell the water from the creek below as you enter through the wooden screen door. It’s always dark inside, with that familiar odor of old wood and water. Trackie’s is our nickname for the Trackemas family who own it. I know their son Walter, who is what people call “slow.” He couldn’t pronounce his name right when he was young, so he was known by most of us as Wo-Wo. I don’t know him very well right now, but that will change as the years go by.
We’re at the dam wall of the lake, standing on the grate watching the water fall through on its way under Walnut and into the creek on the other side where it flows past Trackie’s store.
I don’t know anything much about the history of Woodbury Heights. I do know we’re officially called a borough, not a town, but I don’t know what that means. The county seat of Woodbury is right next to us, but we’re not a part of Woodbury at all.
There’s a reason we’re the Heights. Almost every street in town is either going uphill or down, rising and falling; hardly any of them are level. We’ve got Chestnut Hill and Freund’s Cliff, and when you ride your bike you notice that this part of South Jersey isn’t as flat as people say it is.
From my house to Lake Avenue you go downhill. You’re going up Lake to Glassboro Road. Glassboro Road climbs steadily towards Deptford and Wenonah and Sewell. Just outside of Wenonah there’s a steep drop in Glassboro Road, and if you get up enough speed on your bike the momentum almost carries you up the other side.
Mantua Metals, where they make the TYCO model trains, is on the highest point in town, and you can climb Freund’s Cliff, go through the woods and you’re at the back of the factory. This is where they throw out all the rejects before they destroy them. Keith Madden and I will take advantage of this knowledge in the future.
Mantua Metals is the biggest business in town. Bell Telephone has a place for its repair trucks, and across from that is another small store called Kat-Taffy’s. They have two gas pumps, but I go there for strawberry cream soda. The Pioneer Store is closed now. It was a small grocery store on Glassboro Road and most of us kids would go there for penny candy. I think it couldn’t compete with the new 7-11 store over on Elm Avenue, so the elderly couple who ran it closed down and moved away.
We’ve got D’Arpino’s Luncheonette and the beauty shop next door, and the hardware store next to that. Just down the street is a diner owned by Mr. Moran and his wife, and there’s an Atlantic-Richfield gas station on Elm next to the 7-ll. If you walk up Elm and down to Route 45 there’s another gas station, and then the Steer-Inn hamburger stand. There’s Pinsky’s Furniture and the bowling alley too, but I think they’re really on the Woodbury side.
The Southwoods housing developments are growing, and the new St. Margaret’s Catholic church is done too. Lots of new kids; fresh faces in town.
Besides the Catholic church there’s the Presbyterian one that Mom tried her best to get me to go to, and the Episcopal church on Lake Avenue over by the school. I heard that my classmate John Marvin, whose father is the Episcopal priest, will be moving this summer, and that the new priest will be coming from Canada.
My friend Robbie McWilliams is moving too, and Billy Hills will move from Lake Avenue and across the railroad tracks and over to Poplar Avenue.
I’ll be walking and riding all over town now that I’m ten years old. I won’t get to the lake as much since my mom is pregnant. Carl and I will have to wait and go with Mrs. Avis when we can.
We’ll head back to my house for now. It’s getting hot, so I’ll make us some Kool-Aid and we can sit at the picnic table under the old maple tree.
Soon it will be the Fourth of July, and Carl’s birthday party and another family cook-out in our yard. After that, a new baby brother or sister will be coming along, and Carl and I will stay at Aunt Bette and Uncle Everett’s farm while Mom is in the hospital.
Until then let’s play with my soldiers in the sand and enjoy the first hot days of summer.