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The Long Walk Home

July 28, 2011

a moment of innocence at Nana and Grandaddy's

The weekly visits we made to that big old house on Columbus Drive in Tenafly took place with clockwork regularity each Friday evening throughout our childhood. My Nana, as we called her, would be taken food shopping at the local Grand Union by my mother and father while my Grandaddy would sip wine in his rocking chair on the porch to keep a supposedly watchful eye on us.

This arrangement allowed the two of us to have a wide range of activities at our disposal from playing in the stream down the road to poking around in the rhododendron bushes which were big enough to pretend were forts to making improvements to our bottle cap tree.

Now it was a surprise to me when I later learned that every kid didn’t have a bottle cap tree. What exactly is a bottle cap tree, you ask? Well, in our case it was a giant old oak tree at the end of the gravel driveway by the root-heaved sidewalk on Columbus Avenue. How it started I don’t recall, but it was a very big deal through all those years. Laraine had one side and I had the other, and we would take all the soda bottle caps we collected at home, were given by kind relatives, or found on the street and would nail them in rows to the trunk. I’m sure it wasn’t that healthy for the tree, but it was so old and its bark was so thick that I don’t  think it had any effect. We had scores and scores of them, and as the years passed, the rows would rise as the tree grew and the earliest would eventually be swallowed up by the bark. There were Nehi, A&W, Canada Dry, White Rock, Hoffman, Dad’s, and virtually every other brand available in row after row in various stages of rusty decomposition. My grandparents probably were not  crazy about the public defacing of their tree, but  it kept us out of trouble, so I think that was the overriding factor.

However, it was getting into trouble that became our most memorable activity during those weekly trips. On one occasion we (meaning of course my sister, the perpetual ringleader) got the idea of replacing grandaddy’s glass of wine with a concoction that we made up from ingredients found in the kitchen. Grandaddy was from England, and he drank a somewhat syrupy dark wine, most likely port or sherry of some kind. He had asked us by about the fourth glass to refill it for him, and that’s when the plan was hatched. The refrigerator had an array of condiments: catsup, Worcestershire sauce, beet juice, salad dressing. We busied ourselves like two chemists, trying to match the color and consistency to the wine as best we could without taking a suspiciously long time. We ended up with a vile brew that was in the general vicinity of deep red, so we returned to the porch with the glass and scuttled away, barely able to contain our giggles.

We hadn’t thought beforehand about any adverse reactions our grandfather might have, like being poisoned or gagging on the horrible fluid. But nothing happened. We strained our ears and peeked as best we could, but there was no reaction at all. In retrospect, he could have very easily smelled that it wasn’t his usual but figured discretion was the greater part of valor since he wouldn’t have had that extra glass had nana been there to monitor him. Wisely not willing to tempt fate, this shenanigan was never repeated.

Playing with matches was one of the distinct no-no’s for young kids, which of course, along with the natural attraction to fire, made it all the more tempting. Somehow Laraine was able to procure a book of matches, not too difficult considering both my grandfather (cigars) and father (Pall Malls) smoked. After anxiously awaiting the shoppers’ departure and grandaddy’s settling in, we snuck off to the garage. This garage was more like a small barn with a very high peaked roof covered inside with immense cobwebs spanning the inside beams. There was all manner of old fashioned gardening implements and boxes and barrels inside. We generally were not allowed in there, but it was perfectly secretive for this latest mission.

After a few furtive test lightings, we spotted a bale of peat moss in a hemplike sack. The strands of hemp sticking loosely out at the top looked so much like the fuses on those round black cartoon bombs that we couldn’t resist. We lit a strand. Before we knew it, the flame spread rapidly to the rest of the hemp and then the peat moss itself until we had a major conflagration on our hands. Panic escalated as the flames shot upward, igniting the webs and threatening the structure itself. Beating the blaze with brooms contained the fire enough so that we could drag the bale out the door to the neighboring florist’s field next door, now fallow, luckily for us. The smoldering peat finally submitted to our pounding, and when the last wisps of smoke dispersed and the charred remains were safely buried, we surveyed the damage.

Other than the gaping holes in the webs and the lingering smell of smoke, there wasn’t much evidence of a fire after sweeping and dispersing the ashes, but the problem was  one of the now-missing peat moss. Could such a large item be overlooked? We had no way of knowing, nor was it within our control, so we headed back into the house to lick our wounds. Up in the bathroom, after washing up and calming down, my sister sat me down on the edge of the bathtub. As I stared blankly at the chick on the can of Bon Ami cleanser next to me, she made us both swear an oath to never, ever touch a match again for the rest of our natural lives. I don’t think we did, either. Again, somehow, much like the wine incident, nothing ever came of it.

That was most definitely not the case with our biggest escapade, however. The funny thing is, this one was the most innocent of the bunch.

There was a very odd candy store around the corner and a few blocks down to which we would sometimes walk. It was strange because it was really just some lady’s house, and in her living room there was a glass counter with candy that she sold. One afternoon after going there, Laraine got the idea to walk farther down the street. Upon arriving at an intersection, it excited her to realize that this was one of the ways our father would sometimes drive to Tenafly. The spirit of exploration swept over us, and we continued walking.

After quite some time, we realized that we had gone very far from nana’s house. Another bright idea: since we knew where we’re going, why not walk all the way home to Bergenfield! Won’t Mom and Dad be surprised!

Oh, boy, were they. Except surprised is really not quite the right word. Perhaps irate? Incensed? Livid? It was getting dark by the time Laraine and I walked the last leg of our journey down New Bridge Road to our house. Only one problem. We had no key. These were the days before the ubiquitous cell phone, so what do we do now? A knock on the neighbor’s door, a phone call, and a nervous interim while awaiting our doom.

Other than the thunderous waves of parental tirade we endured that evening, I don’t remember specifically what our punishment was. I believe I played up the innocent-little-brother angle to save myself. I was confident that Laraine, experienced as she was at this business, had the wiles to make her own escape. This, though, signaled the end of our misadventures at Nana and grandaddy’s house, but our long walk home would eventually take its place in the family annals of infamy, the crown jewel of all our childhood capers.

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