As I begin this piece I must confess I have no particular plan or outline. The only theme I can attach to it is “Old Man Harks Back to Memories of Childhood and Youth”. So let me put you in a time frame and a locale.
I was born in 1936 in a small community in central New Jersey two miles from the “central corridor” between New York City and Philadelphia. By train, it’s 30 miles to the former and 60 miles to the latter. Our section of Piscataway Township was known as North Stelton. Stelton was where the train station and post office were but in what was then known as Raritan Township, now Edison. Even North Stelton was divided by a county road into two separate and distinct communities, Fellowship Farms and the Ferrer Colony. I grew up in the latter.
The colony in those days had paved roads for most of the year, houses on one acre lots, a brook, fields and woods. Ditches ran along side our street, School Street. When it rained enough, it was the ideal place to float toy boats. No fear of losing one down a drain. We had no sewers. What we had was imagination and we used it fully.
During my pre-school years, my dad worked six nights a week on the subway in New York. He’d sleep during the day and we didn’t have the time together I’d like to have had. But Sunday was his day off. If he didn’t have work to do on the car or around the house, he’d have time to play with me. My favorite time of the year has always been winter. My greatest joy then was to have him pull me on my sled. I marveled at how he could roll snow on the lawn and make a snowman. We used coal for heat so the snowman had eyes, a nose, and a black smile. No carrot. No top hat. No scarf. But it was an amazing bit of sculpture for a little boy.
Winter was also time for tracking rabbits in the snow. The many fields between or behind houses would amaze us with the number of footprints we found. We didn’t seem to see that many rabbits during the year and fewer in the winter. But there were the tracks. They’d go this way and that. We didn’t know why or where they were going but we figured if we followed one track far enough, we’d find their hutch. We never did. Still, hours were occupied in this wildlife quest.
Another of my favorite activities was catching lightning bugs or fireflies as they’re called. Glow worm was just a name for them in the song. As darkness fell over School Street, one would appear faintly glowing greenish-white. I would wonder where it came from and what it did during the daylight hours. I’d run across the grassy lawn toward the little lantern but it would be gone as quickly as it had appeared. Soon enough there would be a second one. Then a third flickering its signal, perhaps to the first two. Eventually, the lawn would be like a big Christmas display with emerald and crystal lights flashing. I would have my jar with its metal screw-on lid ready. There were holes for air should I catch one and grass in the jar for it to feel at home. I would thrust the open jar toward one of these slow-flying incandescent insects and it would dart upward out of my reach. I would spend fifteen minutes running and they would dodge my jar the whole time. I think my big sister might have helped me now and then so I could have my own light in a jar. I might have kept them too long because after a while, their batteries ran down and I couldn’t see them in the grass. I don’t think fireflies have much of a life expectancy, but I would feel badly for having shortened it even more.
I relished sneaking down to the brook and stripping down to my underwear to wade in the cool water on a hot summer’s day. It was forbidden by my mother. Not only might I drown in water up to my hips but polio was a genuine fear. When the adults built a pair of dams some twenty feet apart, a much deeper pool was formed but it still wasn’t too much for an adventurous little boy. The trick was to get dry and not look like I’d been in the water. My mother always knew at first sight. I was not a good sneak.
The brook brought other joys. It had turtles, frogs, and crayfish. It also had good clay for modeling. Unfortunately, I had little creative talent in most areas of art. Still, I enjoyed making little people with misshapen arms, legs, and heads. I was a long way from “pottery” or ceramic tiles. In fact, I don’t think I ever got near that level. That was for my sister.
Growing up during WWII and having an army camp adjacent to our little community was another blessing for a youngster. Soldiers are always heroes to little boys. In the early stages of the camps assembly, there were convoys of military vehicles and marches of soldiers in full rig on School Street that would last for hours some times. We’d wait for the GI’s to take a break so we could talk to them. It seemed that so many were southerners and we loved to listen to their accents. Some missed their own sons and enjoyed giving us gifts of badges or patches. We made friends with Military Police who would give us rides in their jeeps. We’d salute military style when the flag would pass by. We learned the meanings of patches and ribbons on their caps. Light blue for infantry, Scarlet/White for engineers, Cavalry yellow, etc. It was an exciting time. My mother even made an army uniform for me so I could look like a soldier.
Now, 70 years later, I live in El Salvador where the only snow I have is in photos and videos on this computer. I try to recapture my snow joys in sharing with my eight-year old daughter. What’s her experience with cold where it never gets down to 65? Here, rabbits might be raised for food. We have lightning bugs but they’re not as plentiful as they were on School Street. There are arroyos for run-off water but they’re so polluted and contaminated that no one plays in them. The rivers are our sewers and where animals domestic and wild pee and poop. People swim there. Not me or my family. Our military can be seen armed for war along the streets and highways patrolling with police searching for drugs, acting as a deterrent to crime, or marching in our shows of “might” on holidays. Not much of my youth can be recreated here for my kids. But then little Roger didn’t have a computer, cell phone, or iPod. I wonder what kind of reminiscences Adriana will have for her grandchildren.