I drove through my old neighborhood a few months back – the one with Mr. Locke’s barbershop. While it is on the eastern suburb of the city and my home is in the far northwest end of the county, one circuitous path to avoid a bad interstate highway mess leads me right past it. I decided to make the quick diversion and see how things looked on Montclair Road.
Aside from the fact that the old red paint had at some point been replaced by a pale yellow, the house itself was as unremarkable as ever, one of hundreds of variants on a cookie cutter theme: living room, small eat in, three tiny bedrooms, one bath. I didn’t pause for long there this time; though on a previous occasion maybe 15 years ago I did stop. The house was at that time for sale and obviously empty, and I figured it would be explainable to the neighbors or police if I was caught walking around the yard for a look see. It would have been a far different story, I’m sure, had they witnessed me try knob on the kitchen door and, finding it unlocked, proceed to enter and walk through my childhood home one last time. No, I am quite certain I would likely have ended up with a court date had I been observed that day. As with many things recalled from childhood, it turned out that the bedroom I had shared with my brother was tiny. A floor once big enough for towers of colored wooden blocks, and staged battles of green army man wars, and fiercely loud Rockem Sockem robot battles with my brother had resolved itself to the size of a walk in closet. I took a moment to stare through the bedroom windows. There were ghosts in the back yard – the kids who had played there when I was confined to bed for one stomach flu or another, me all the while crying that it wasn’t fair to have to stay in now that I felt better, and mom insisting that anyone too sick to go to school was too sick to play freeze tag. There were kids on the phantom swings and jungle gym my parents bought from Zayre’s Department Store. Others were playing in the used-to-be sheet metal sandbox that was as likely to give your legs blisters from the gathered summer heat as it was to serve as a hatching ground for the various seeds that dropped or blew in. Through the other window I could now plainly see the street, a feat that was a bit of a stretch from my childhood bunk bed, though I spent many twilight evenings not sleeping but instead staring for a glimpse of a car coming down the road.
After glancing into my parents’ old room, I turned into the hallway and glanced upward at the unremarkable plywood ceiling entrance to the attic. Up there, in 1967, Santa Claus dropped my football in the dark and couldn’t find it. He had to leave a note for my dad to go look for it in daylight the next day. But that particular bit of thunderdancing in the attic was nearly Santa’s undoing, for it woke my younger sister. Fortunately my mom heard it too, and she rushed into my sister’s room and closed the door and whispered to her that Santa must be on the roof and they had to lie very still and squeeze their eyes shut so they wouldn’t scare him away.
Sister’s bedroom was as narrow as mine, but a little longer. It opened on the other side into the kitchen, so in someone’s mind this perhaps was meant to be a dining room. But that wouldn’t account for the double closet on the interior wall. Maybe someone just wasn’t sure what to do with the space.
Between the bedrooms was the only bathroom in the house. If these weren’t the same fixtures, someone had replaced the originals with equally old stuff. The ultra small window above the tub seemed just as useless as before. But the tub did bring back a lost memory of one Easter. The Easter Bunny not only hid colored hard boiled eggs around our house. He also hid the Easter baskets for a few years. The three of us would set off together looking for the baskets, which shouldn’t have been hard to locate considering how few places there were to stash three baskets in a house that size. This particular year, we found them in the tub. And perched in front of my basket (obviously mine since mine had the purple stripe woven in among the yellow and pink willow bands in the handle) was a book that started my first pitch into reading a series. The book was “The Mystery of the Green Ghost” and was book four in a series called “Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators.” A serial knock off of the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew, these books found Jupiter Jones, Pete Crenshaw, and Bob Andrews as teenagers who went about solving mysteries that confounded the police, usually confounding international jewel thieves or derailing bank robbery conspiracies in the process. This book captured my young imagination, and I was hooked into reading every book in the original series that our local library could provide. (After the original series author passed away in 1969, other authors expanded the series from a dozen books to over 40, but by then I had begun to move past these old friends to other tales.) Alfred Hitchcock appeared as a character in each of the books, presenting an introduction and conversing with the three boys in the final chapter to go over plot points deemed too subtle for a preteen’s mind to have caught. And at age 8 or 9, I reasoned that since I knew Alfred Hitchcock to be a real person, these three boys must be real as well. I don’t really know how many books it took me to figure the truth of that out. Later editions were more obvious in listing an author on the front cover, but this is what my original version looked like:
The kitchen was impossible. I have vague memories of eating in shifts sometimes, kids first, mom and dad after. But my mind may be making that up. I do know that dad was gone 50% of the time, as he worked 24 hours on and 24 hours off as a fireman, sometimes filling the other day with part time work at Hamner’s TV store. So there were many nights the little formica table we had was big enough for the three of us and mom to all fit. But that kitchen has no counter space and less cabinet room. This was the room that I learned from constant exposure to hate fish sticks and bologna, and the absolute fact that only kids who ate their bread crust would ever learn to whistle. This is where the forbidden sugar bowl was kept out of reach until I was big enough to scale the baby gate on my bedroom doorway and, if I was stealthy enough, climb up on the counter while mom and dad were still sleeping to stick a damp finger into the bowl. I could still see the outline of built up paint around what used to be the edges of the old black wall phone. We started out with a “party line.” I can’t imagine anyone putting up with that lack of privacy, but somehow it was accepted.
The living room had also shrunk with time. I recalled that Mrs. Jenkins up the street had used one end of her copycat house’s living room as a dining area and I stood there trying to figure out how the geometry of that had ever worked. I do not recall if mom and dad ever had a table in that spot, but I do know for sure that the record player was located there, at least for a time. Before the huge Packard Bell stereo console entered our lives, there was mom’s record player. It played 33’s, 45’s, and 78’s (a few of which mom still had, including one that had been made when she was a teenager that featured her singing a cappella and a friend of hers getting in on the action by shouting “sing it Hilda!” during breath pauses.) My earliest musical memories were of that turntable – the Camelot soundtrack with Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet and Richard Burton and Roddy Mcdowell; theme from A Summer Place, West Side Story, and all of mom’s precious 45’s from the early days of rock and roll. She’d sometimes put on a few for us – Earth Angel, Lollipop, and others lost to time. By the time the Packard Bell arrived other musical memories were blended in: Mantovani’s Manhattan album, The Nutcracker Suite, Disney and Captain Kangaroo albums, the Mary Poppins and Sound of Music soundtracks. This monster of a music center was also an AM radio, and our home was full of music both in this house and the next.
This house has many other whispers in it. Mostly happy, some painful, some barely recalled. Here is where I learned to play the piano that my mom worked until 1 or 2 in the morning as a phone operator to pay for. It’s where I sat and watched The Secret Storm and Days of Our Lives and Batman and Captain Nice and It’s About Time and Mr. Terrific and Fireball XL5 and Dark Shadows and The Second Hundred Years and The Wild Wild West and Family Affair and The Flintstones and Jonny Quest and The Double Life of Henry Phyfe and The Three Stooges and Sailor Bob and Dandy Doodle. Here is where my dad presented me with a beautiful big boy bicycle that he and his coworkers had rescued from the trash and fixed up and painted red, complete with my name hand lettered on the neck. Here is where dad came home with a go cart that he wanted to play with, and with old Fords and Mercuries that were still good enough to drive for a while. Here is where icicles draped real Christmas trees with large colored lights, and where five o’clock bloomers graced the driveway border. And yes, here is where I learned that parents are human and children vulnerable. The mélange is all part of my make up.
But that walk through was several years ago. So in a memory of that memory fog I sat in front of the old house recently, recalling the earlier visit and the childhood it evoked. By this visit, the tree in the back yard had disappeared. I used to climb high enough to see over the single story roof. From that perch, I could see the steeple of the Baptist church at the end of Harvie Road. At 5 PM the church bells played hymns from the steeple, and if the air was calm you could hear them from our house. But that tree is gone, and given my lack of common sense it’s probably a good thing. At my current weight those branches wouldn’t support me for long.
The chain link is still there, which means the dent is undoubtedly still to be found on that back stretch. It was created when Randy and I tried to see who could walk the steel rod at the top of the fence the furthest before falling. How the impact from my head managed to dent steel as I fell and how that crunch didn’t scramble my brains is still a puzzle.
The yard is now as it was then, full of clover that barefoot kids would avoid lest the bees reward young feet for carelessness. When the inevitable happened, mom would slather on a paste of baking soda and water and insist for the hundredth time that shoes needed to be worn.
Beyond the house is the neighborhood. At one time there were over fifty children we could name within a two block radius. Now the streets are more or less devoid of outside activity, except for the residents standing in driveways or on porches staring suspiciously at this slow driving old man in a suit so obviously not belonging there. Out in front of our house and just to the right, Thalen Street intersects with Montclair Road. On a few precious occasions, mom and Mrs. Baum had a group of us out there cheering as the two of them ran full speed up and down Thalen, getting kites airborne for one kid after another. Montclair stops at the end of our block at Howard Street, the cross street offering a choice of left through the neighborhood and up near the four lane about five blocks away or right one block to Ratcliffe Elementary School with its playground and the ball diamond that we used to ride our bikes to in order to watch the local men’s church league teams and spend our pennies on pixie sticks at the snack bar. Though we didn’t attend that school (we went to the school that was tied to our church) it was in that 1950’s era structure that we took part in summer art classes and where we received the magical sugar cube laced with polio vaccine way back when. Just across Reynolds Road from the school is the corner house where I saw my very first color television. I do not recall why my parents and I were there, but I can still remember the oversaturated image of the blue sky with the woman performing a jackknife off of the high dive. We got one of those TVs shortly thereafter, but the wonder of that first sight has stayed with me.
Sitting at the end of Montclair, I could see beyond Georgeanne’s house on Howard Street to what had been in my youth a large farm. Or a small one, since everything else seems to have changed sizes. I recall warnings that the farmer (whose name eludes me) had set his dogs on boys caught crossing through his corn field, or perhaps had shot at them with rock salt, or more improbably had reputedly marched some friend of a friend back to his shed at gunpoint and waited for the police to arrive to arrest the trespasser. We never ever saw the farmer, though we always heard his dogs as we skirted around his cornfield on the way to The Woods.
Dad always told us to stay out of that man’s field, and stop playing in the woods. Fortunately, he wasn’t usually around when mom told us to go find someone to play with. And running off to play in the woods was always a special treat. Randy and his brother Stuart, the two youngest Snyder boys, and I would make a bee line through the field and trace through the half visible paths in our own Hundred Acre Wood. There were streams to dam up as we dumped handful after handful of mud into the center of the flow, the trickle of water getting smaller and smaller as the mud got higher and higher, until the pent up water overcame the structure and magnificently tore it away and gushed downstream. There were tree forts to plan but never build, since cut 2x4’s and planks of plywood were surprisingly difficult for 7 year olds to find lying about in the middle of the woods. And there were blackberries to pick, always mindful of the snakes that just had to be there at our feet but that we thankfully never encountered. Sometimes I’d tell mom I was going for the berries and she’d give me a pan to transport them home in. Despite my efforts, there was never enough for a pie, though sometimes I managed to get enough home for a few tarts. But most of the time we just spent exploring. There were open areas that were apparently dried up wetlands, with cracking but still moist mud just starting to curl up away from the underlayer. There were needle sharp thickets to be negotiated on the way from one nowhere to another. And dozens of small streams to jump across and recross…. Or maybe just one that we confronted over and over again. We’d scare each other with tales of hobos and Indians that were seen at the other end of the woods by someone’s brother’s cousin who barely escaped being kidnapped or scalped or whatever else. We’d outcuss each other and see who could surprise who with a pine cone or gumball hurled at head or back or calf. On one occasion we even went hunting for bear with Danny’s BB gun, but we had to settle for shooting in the general direction of bird sounds when the bear proved too afraid to show his face.
The farm is gone now, and so are the woods. A sprawl of too-quickly built homes and cul de sacs, planted in waves from the 70’s through the 00’s, now sit atop the ghosts of tree forts and dammed streams and blackberry bushes. They were fun while they lasted. I can’t help but feel a little sorry for today’s boys, though. Outdoor activities are much more restricted and organized. Woodland imaginariums are replaced with postage stamp green spaces, if they are replaced at all. Kids can’t roam anymore. It’s just not safe. Not that it ever really was.