Archive for the ‘childhood recollections’ Category

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Christmas Tree Memories

December 17, 2015
"It should be," muses my friend, "twice as tall as a boy. So a boy can't steal the star."

“It should be,” muses my friend, “twice as tall as a boy. So a boy can’t steal the star.”

For many years when I was still teaching, as Christmas season approached I would present Truman Capote’s wonderful story “A Christmas Memory” to my classes. It is funny and sad and beautiful, weaving the themes of friendship, memory, and Christmas so magically together. We would spend time talking and then writing about how certain memories are triggered by a sight or sound or smell of the season as it was for Buddy in the story, his friend each year exclaiming, “It’s fruitcake season!” I know this well, for when December rolls around and it is time to get the traditional evergreen Christmas tree, a flood of these memories washes over me, plunging me into a period of nostalgia lasting well past New Years.

When we were young, my sister and I would go to bed on Christmas Eve filled with all of the expectations of a Norman Rockwell American childhood. Cookies and milk had been left for Santa on a lolly pole in the rumpus room and empty stockings hung on the fake fireplace our father had built. Upon awakening, we would dash downstairs to discover the cookies all eaten (and even a bit of beard hair somehow caught under the plate in Santa’s haste to complete his route), the stockings stuffed, and a Christmas tree all lit up and decorated complete with presents below. We assumed, I suppose, that Santa lugged our tree in along with the toys. It was only later that the normal process of parental acquisition became clear, and my sister and I eventually eased our way into our roles in the operation.

Our rumpus room Christmas morning.

Our rumpus room Christmas morning.

One year we had a real Charlie Brown kind of tree experience. Our father often worked a second job as a part-time seasonal janitor to earn extra money for the holidays. Things were tough in those days, so he had gotten our tree for free from the school he had been cleaning. It had graced that happy classroom for weeks but was now discarded since winter break had arrived. He brought the tree home Christmas Eve, and it was decorated as usual. However, when we ran down Christmas morning to revel in our usual festive glory, every last needle on the tree had dropped off and lay in a pile on top of our gifts. Apparently the cumulative effect of the hot school classroom had been too much for the poor thing, and the timing was such that the mass shedding took place in our living room at the most inopportune moment.

When we were a bit older, my sister and I got to participate in the decorating. In those days, most of the decorations were made of glass and were rather delicate, so my parents would put those on after stringing the lights, no small feat back in the good old days of series wiring (one goes out, they all go out). Our main job was to put on the tinsel. For those modern souls who may not know what tinsel is, it’s strands of very fine aluminum foil made to resemble glistening icicles. It came in flat boxes, all stretched out in neat rows, ready to become the final touch on somebody’s Christmas tree.

My sister, who is two years older than I, thought that she, in the absence of my parents, was the boss, a condition shared by most older siblings. I usually accepted her self-proclaimed rule, partly because I was lost in my own world of imagination and partly because she could (and would) beat the snot out of me.
However, in this instance, there was more to it; there was a major clash of philosophies. I was of the opinion that tinsel should be painstakingly placed strand by strand on carefully selected branches. My sister, on the other hand, thought that the haphazard flinging of clumps of tinsel was the best (and fastest–she apparently had other things to do) approach. It may seem like a minor conflict, but I was stubborn despite my age, and a battle of words would always escalate into pushes and shoves and finally the inevitable “MOMMM!!!” from whomever was getting the worst of it at the moment (usually me). Then came the ominous threat of being accused as the one to have ruined everyone’s Christmas.

My parents tried various methods to settle the dispute. One year they had us each decorate our own half of the tree. The result was a disaster that looked like a hurricane had struck just one side (guess whose). Another time they forced us to use each other’s method (one of those psychology-induced “learning experiences,” I suppose); that lasted about three minutes before turning into a tinsel-throwing brawl. Finally they imposed an every-other-year system on us. This worked during the decorating itself, but it didn’t prevent the continuous stream of whiney complaints and negative comments about the other’s “masterpiece” on alternate years.

Eventually the problem solved itself. My sister became involved in other activities (boys) and was content to leave the decorating to me. I actually kind of missed the battles we’d had, though I was glad to not have to look at Christmas trees buried in a disorganized avalanche of silver.

So as I put the tree in its stand each year and smell the scent of pine filling the room along with the sound of seasonal music, my thoughts inevitably drift back to those good old days. I remember the unbridled joys of childhood tearing open the wrapping paper in our pajamas as we sat on the floor around the glittering centerpiece we had helped create. As I decorate, I think of my big sister and the raging tinsel wars we had. Though I no longer use tinsel, most of the decorations I do use are filled with memories as well: some of the old glass beauties I had saved from my childhood, various humorous ones received from students through my years of teaching, the gingerbread hands of my niece Emma from when she was a tot, the handmade paper and clay creations from my nephew Luke. I linger during the process, pausing often to reflect and sigh, savoring each image as it wafts up from the depths of my past. And though I realize Christmas can never be the same as it once was, this ability to preserve and relive it in memory has become perhaps the most precious gift of all.

emma hand

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The End of a Love Affair

July 30, 2015
childhood heroes

childhood heroes

When I was a kid, I had a crazy mad love affair with baseball. This was the 1950s when baseball truly was America’s Pastime. Growing up in New Jersey, I became a huge Yankee fan (somewhat of an act of treason to half my family who were from Brooklyn). Though I never went to see a game at the stadium, I listened to them faithfully on the radio and then watched on Channel 11 (for free!) once we finally got a TV. The voice of Mel Allen was as familiar to me as that of any in my own family.

Yes, I was the most diehard of Yankee fans back then. And what a time to be one of those. Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris in the outfield, Yogi Berra behind the plate, Whitey Ford on the mound, and Casey Stengel in the dugout. Even the supporting cast stood out, from the clean-cut Bobby Richardson at second to the hulking Moose Skowran at first to the diminutive but effective Luis Arroyo in the bullpen. Man, what a team, all heroes in the eyes of so many twelve year olds like me.

Aside from being a fan, I was an avid player, or at least I fancied myself as one, never having actually been on a single organized team. However, my friend Julius and I would head out to the softball diamond across the street from my house at Memorial Field in Bergenfield and play two-man baseball for hours on end during the hot days of summer vacation. Since I lived right there and Julius just a half block down the nearest side street, it was an easy task to meet at the drop of a Yankee cap. Each game found me imagining myself to be one of those Yankee stars, Tony Kubek gracefully scooping up ground balls, Mickey Mantle blasting a long one over the fence.

Rules were established as we went along to accommodate our lack of manpower. One of us would be up at bat, hitting the ball from a toss of our own hand. The other would be in the field playing a modified deep shortstop. The ball had to be hit between third base (usually a piece of wood or cardboard found in the area or, in desperate times, a rock) and a line arbitrarily scratched in the infield dirt three-quarters of the way to second base. Ground balls caught were outs. If the ball was hit in the air over the head of the fielder, it would be scored according to its depth, force, and placement, usually after a great deal of debate. Anything hit beyond the weeping willow tree just outside the left field line was an automatic home run after, of course, the mandatory argument over whether or not it was deep enough. Squabbling, after all, was a major part of these games. Now, it would seem to be an easy task to get a hit since the batter was basically in total control, but our skill level was such that this was not the case. There was even the occasional strikeout, much to the red-faced chagrin of the batter accompanied by gales of laughter from the fielder.

We would play all morning until hunger beckoned us to lunch. After a quick sandwich, we returned to the park. Games of one sort or another (we had several variations on this theme) would continue either until the supper calls of my mother from my front stoop or one of us got so angry about some outrageous call by the other that we’d stomp off in a huff. The next day, however, would always find us back. The two of us progressively turned a darker and darker shade of brown as the summer wore on, partly from the dirt accumulated in layers from the dusty diamond and partly from the continuous exposure to the summer sun.

This continued for several years through the heart of my Yankee fandom until three critical incidents occurred. The first was an argument of monumental proportions — I don’t remember the exact circumstances — that caused an irreparable rift in my friendship with Julius. The second was the arrival of Bobby Ackerman in my life. Bobby lived outside my immediate neighborhood, basically making him a foreigner at that time — very exotic. He was also a tougher kid than Julius, which of course in sixth grade made him way cool. He and I started hanging out more, and that put the squeeze on Julius in the best buddy race.

The third and most significant was when my beloved Yankees broke my heart (and my bank). The year was 1960, and the Yanks, as usual, found themselves in the World Series. They would be playing the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates! How could we lose? So sure was I that my always dependable Bombers would emerge victorious that I placed a Major Bet with my parents on the series. I had every penny of my hard-earned paperboy money riding on this baby. But not to worry, I thought. This was a sure thing.

I was incredulous, to say the least, when it came down to the seventh and final game, one that will live in Yankee infamy, the game when tragedy would strike the soul of this young Yankee fan. First, there was that grounder to short, a sure double play ball if there ever was one, that took a bad hop with the ball striking Tony Kubek’s Adam’s apple instead of his trusty glove. Then, doom — the dagger to the heart in the form of the light-hitting Bill Mazeroski’s home run. Final score: Pirates 10, Yankees 9.

It was all over. I felt like I had been betrayed by a trusted friend. I couldn’t bear the shame of this defeat, especially in the face of the teasing I was forced to endure in my own home. I was broke and broken. Baseball became a source of bitterness, and since I was no longer playing the game myself because of my change in friends, it grew more and more distant.

Julius moved to Queens. I moved on to Junior High School. As time went on, I developed other sports interests, and my hours of baseball were replaced by pickup games of touch (which sometimes turned into tackle) football at Memorial Field. Disillusionment turned into dispassion, and to this day, when I see the excitement of current friends and family over a Yankee game, there isn’t even a flicker left inside me.

As happens with love, when your heart is broken, it heals in time, and there are new loves. So it is with baseball. Therefore play on, Brett Gardner. Collect that giant pay check, A-Rod. I don’t begrudge any player or fan his or her joy. But take care, because heartbreak may be lurking just around the corner.

 

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The Rockets’ Red Glare

July 4, 2015

BOOM!

It is the 4th of July. The sound of distant fireworks has been echoing in the late evening air the past few days. Tonight will be the really big events, huge televised pyrotechnic productions replete with coordinated soundtracks. But these displays always bring back memories of the simpler days of childhood when the local July 4th fireworks were a really huge deal for all the kids in the neighborhood.

Living across the street from Memorial Park in Bergenfield had some distinct advantages. I could always get there first before the freshly fallen snow had been besmirched by footprints (there is nothing like a snow angel made in the middle of a virgin field of snow). In the summer, I was bound to find used but still serviceable sports equipment lost in the weeds at the fringe of the woods: cracked baseball bats that a little electrical tape would fix up just fine, baseballs with the cover coming off (back to the electrical tape), well broken-in mitts minus most of the padding (that’s what old socks were for), rosin bags, and even, on a lucky day, an umpire’s ball-strike counter.

But the biggest advantage was on July 4th, for it was there, right across the street from my house, where the fireworks show took place. The buildup was intense with neighbors jockeying for favor in the can-we-put-our-lawn-chair-on-your-front-lawn sweepstakes and decisions to be made about the snacks and the debate about on which block the Good Humor man would be parking his boxy white ice cream truck.

The crowds would begin arriving shortly after supper even though dusk was only just beginning to creep in. Families would stake out their spots with blankets on the field behind the temporary fences. Kids would lean their bikes along the backstop of the baseball field and proceed to run around, raising dust and the eyebrows of disapproving adults. Some older kids would manage to set off a few firecrackers of their own in the woods just to whet our appetites for the real thing.

As darkness began to gather and all but the late-comers had settled in, the first of the test rockets would go up with a BOOM and a puff of dark smoke, setting off the barking of dogs and wailing of children too young for such things. My sister and I would nervously fidget, engaging in animated discussions over how soon the real thing would begin.

And finally it did. At first, the rockets were paced, launched separately so the crowd could savor each in its own glory: the star bursts, flying fish, falling leaves, and willows, each with its array of colors and sounds — bangs and crackles and hums and whistles. Next, interspersed with the sky rockets, would come the ground displays: the whirligigs and Roman candles and fountains and the perennial red, white, and blue American flag. Then the pace picked up, and we all knew what was coming — the Grand Finale! Multiple rockets going up at once, the sky filled with sparkling colors and the tremendous thundering of the final barrage that always brought the show to its rousing conclusion.

Some years there was added excitement if the breeze was blowing south, for it would carry some of the glowing embers across the street and onto the roof of our house. The frantic dash for the garden hose always turned out to be unnecessary since they would quickly fizzle out on their own, but the prospect of having a fire at your house caused by the fireworks would make a great topic of conversation amongst your friends for the rest of the summer.

I’m now “too old” to worry about such matters as going to see fireworks on the 4th, but as we strolled down the block back to our house last night, I felt the little kid in me stir. Though some of the details may change, the essence of this grand American tradition lives on. Maybe next year we’ll pull out the lawn chairs and make our way over to a neighboring town and bring ourselves back to the good old days of craned necks, sky full of bombast and colors, and partake in the oohing and aahing with all of the other kids.

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The Accordion Door

June 28, 2015

My father was a very handy man but also very traditional, so when he was finishing my little room in the dormer he built atop our house, I was surprised when he installed the accordion door.

All of the other doors in the rest of the house were the traditional swinging wooden kind. So why an accordion door? In hindsight, it made good sense. The opening to my room was at the very top of a steep staircase. A traditional door swinging out would clobber any unsuspecting person at the top of the steps or block off the only window on that side of the upstairs. There was little room for it to swing inward, the end of my bed reaching the space by the opening on one side and a bookshelf filling the other. The accordion door did not swing either way. It folded up sideways. Problem solved.

Another created, however, at least in the eyes of a twelve year old in search of a private life. Space saving though it may be, the accordion door was noisy. Its unmistakable rumbling sound could be heard throughout the house, making it impossible to enter or exit without announcing it to the rest of the family or any guests who may have been present. Especially in the quiet of the night. Every bathroom run or late night refrigerator raid could be detected from the start because of that door.

There was no way to prevent this racket. The tracks would not accept any kind of lubricant (I tried). Speed would only alter the tone and duration. There was no way around it. It was like having those peacocks that guarded the Turkish prisons, innocent looking until you tried to get past them, and then the squawking alarm would sound. Now, I was not really doing anything so surreptitious that I should worry over this, but the mind of a twelve year old boy is a strange thing indeed.

What made it worse was that I actually played the accordion back then. I absolutely hated it. One could not ask for a more dorky instrument to play. Well, I take that back. My sister played the glockenspiel for a time. That had me beat.

My mother was a huge fan of the Lawrence Welk Show, and one of her favorites was the accordion player, a straight arrow named Myron Floren. Myron! What was his mother thinking! He was destined to play the accordion (or the glockenspiel) with a name like that. Anyway, it is my belief that my mother wanted her ugly duckling son to grow up to be the next handsome young accordion star of the airwaves. I, on the other hand, had my mind set on being the next star center fielder for the Yankees.

For better or worse, neither came to pass. But I’ll bet you one thing; Mickey Mantle never had any accordion doors in his bedroom.

the aspiring center fielder takes a detour

the aspiring center fielder takes a detour

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Blood, Snow, and Tears

January 24, 2015

snow

So the snow has decided to return. Time for shoveling, bad driving conditions, and packed supermarkets. But a snowfall was not always cause for gloom and doom. In the eyes of a child, a day like today can be glorious. I remember this as I think back to the snow-filled winter wonderlands of my childhood.

Winter could indeed be a fantastic time for a kid like me who lived across the street from a public park. A snowfall, especially a deep one like there so often seemed to be, signaled a day of unparalleled outdoor adventure. A quick breakfast and a hurried mandatory Mom-enforced bundling-up, and out the door I could go into a pristine white paradise.

Memorial Park lay between my house on New Bridge Road and Lincoln Elementary School. It consisted of several baseball fields, a kid’s playground, and a small woods bordering two sides. The path to Lincoln School cut across the side with the playground. This area was the backdrop for two particularly memorable events in the snowy winter of 1955.

Snow in the park on a Saturday morning pretty much meant a snow-angels-making, snowman-building, animal-track-following, getting-soaked-to-the-skin-and-changing-at-least-three-times kind of day. It was one such snow-covered Saturday when I went charging into the park to discover quite a bit of unusual activity along the school path. I ran over to investigate, and there, much to my surprise and delight, a snowman building contest was underway. I loved making snowmen, and I was quite good at it for a seven year old, thank you very much, even if I didn’t mind saying so myself.

Well, I dove right in, building my traditional three-tier snowman with speed and precision like I had never done before, stick arms and stone facial features all just so. This was my first contest, and by golly, I was sure that first place trophy would be mine. Unfortunately, two things conspired against me. The first was that the contest had to be entered beforehand, unbeknownst to me, and there was an age limit that I wouldn’t have qualified for even if I had known. The second was the massive galoshed foot of the teenage boy working next to me (constructing what was, in retrospect, a rather magnificent snow sculpture of the Mona Lisa). In the midst of an artistic perusal of his own partly finished sculpture, he stepped back — perhaps for better perspective — and crushed my masterpiece.

I stood in disbelief, lip quivering — how could this have possibly happened? What kind of lout would so disrespect the work of a fellow artist? Then came the tears, exploding forth out of my eyes in the finest example of projectile wailing ever to be seen this side of Dumont, my howls of despair rising from the deepest reserve of my injured little psyche.

The teenager, startled by this emotional explosion, realized that he was the cause and began a desperate and mostly unsuccessful attempt to console me by reconstructing my caved-in snowman, probably fearing some fierce retribution from a nearby parent. Seeing my hopes dashed and not knowing what else to do, I ran home, leaving a trail of tears in my snowy wake.

My mother was not overly impressed with my dilemma. She dispassionately explained to me as she stripped away my drenched snowsuit that I was not really in the contest and would have never won anyway; not exactly the salve I needed at that moment even though she was right. Some warm milk and cookies were much more helpful, but I swore that next year I would return and snare the triumph I had just been so shamelessly denied.

That, as it turned out, was not to be. The contest was never held again. The trail I left through the white snow, however, was not to be the last.

Several snowfalls later that winter I had gotten off to a particularly early start. A couple of snow angels midway across the empty park seemed to bode well for a good morning’s activities. I got to the playground, still the only one around. The idea of trying out the snow-covered swings and merry-go-round was enticing, but first a quick climb on my personal favorite, the monkey bars. The air of danger was present as soon as the slipperiness of the bars under my gloved hands became apparent, but that didn’t stop me from my attempted ascent. About the fourth rung up, my face brushed lightly against the frigid metal, and I noticed a strange and unexpected sensation….stickiness. I stopped and touched the spot with my glove, expecting to find the remains of some other kid’s gum or lollipop. No, that wasn’t it. Another exploratory brush with my face, and there it was again.

My third pass was a bit closer, and my lower lip stuck to the bar. How strange! Now, this was the mid 1950’s, and A Christmas Story had not yet made movie history, so I had no experience with what was to transpire. I began to pull away, but my lip did not follow. I pulled again, the lip stretching out to a length that would have made a Ubangi tribesman proud. At this point, panic struck. A quick glance around revealed no available help. My mom would expect me to be out here all morning. I was trapped!

So I did what any normal panicked seven year old would do; I yanked my head back and jumped off the monkey bars. Immediately a patch of crimson appeared in the snow at my feet. It took a few seconds to realize that it was my blood, but when I did, I took off for home. The trail I left was visible this time, spots of red punctuating the footprints across the once fresh coat of snow.

My mother was at the door by the time I got there, so loud was my screaming. She pushed her ever-present dishtowel against my lip as she led me to the basement sink in order to bleed in relative safety and not sully the upstairs floor. She left me for a moment pathetically sobbing and holding the soggy dish towel to my face. She returned with a clean cloth and bottle of vinegar. The vinegar-soaked cloth replaced the dish towel, and I accepted it readily despite the intense stinging, assuming my mother was far better versed in the medicinal arts than I.

I don’t remember how long it took for my lip to heal, but I did learn, in spite of my sister’s chuckles and my father’s head shakes, a valuable lesson. Years later when I saw for the first time the scene in A Christmas Story when Flick engaged in his verbal duel with Schwartz, my stomach grew queasy, for I knew where this was going. And when Flick reentered the classroom with his gauze-wrapped tongue, I could only sigh in sympathy at the chagrin of my comrade-in-pain.

A good friend recently told me he read somewhere that nostalgia is the file that removes the rough edges from the “good old days.” This may indeed be the case. Perhaps my romanticized recollection of the winter snow was a bit premature, although after an afternoon of shoveling, I’ll take it.

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On Thin Ice

January 8, 2015

IMG_6841

My memory seems to operate in quite an illogical manner. Perhaps everyone’s does, I don’t know. There have been some experiences of supposedly great significance about which I hardly remember a thing (my high school and college graduations, for example). However, certain insignificant and seemingly meaningless ones somehow stick in my brain as clearly as if they just occurred the other day. My head is filled with these kinds of memories. One that is triggered by cold winter days such as this involves some thin ice and a childhood friend named Steve.

I knew Steve all the way through school though we didn’t really have much close contact until junior high school. Ah, yes — junior high school, the quintessential American repository for awkward adolescence. This was a period of time that many of us would just as soon forget. Indeed, much of it has been forgotten on my part (or purposely blocked out) for that very reason. But this particular recollection involving Steve has never left me.

Steve Meadows was the poster boy for the young absent-minded professor. He had pale skin and unkempt hair so blonde it was virtually white. Fashion was clearly not his focus. Rumpled half-out-of-his-pants shirt accented with a pocket protector and his ever-broken glasses perched on his nose were his standard fare. Had we used the word “nerd” back then, he would have been the king. I liked Steve in spite of this. He had a creative mind, was quick to laughter, always shared, and was nice to a fault. It was this last virtue that played a critical role in what occurred.

One of my best friends, Teddy, would walk part of the way home with me from Roy W. Brown Jr. High. This happened to be the same route Steve took, so we often walked together. The street we went down crossed over a stream that cut through town and was always the source of some form of amusement like bombing the leaves that floated downstream with pebbles or betting on which stick we dropped in would pass under the bridge first. Gawky thirteen year old boys really got a kick out of stuff like that.

It was during the winter months, however, that this stream reached its peak of interest. Whenever a cold snap arrived, the stream, which was only a few inches deep, would start to freeze at the edges. If it got cold enough, the ice would cover the whole width of the stream, but never too thickly because of the movement of the water beneath the ice.

On our way home, we would peer over the side of the stone bridge that traversed the stream, checking on the progress of the ice. A debate about whether it was currently strong enough to support us would ensue. The three of us would then make our way down the bank and begin to do some preliminary test probes with a single foot. What followed was always the same.

Either Teddy or I would say, “It seems pretty strong to me, don’t you think?”

“Sure does,” the other would say. “I’m sure it would support us!”

“Yeah! Come on, Steve. Try it!”

Steve would doubt our assessment, but after some weak protest and our continued coaxing, he always took a few furtive steps onto the ice. Inevitably, on about the third step, the ice would break, and Steve would end up with wet shoes and a look of chagrined I-told-you-so on his face as Teddy and I laughed hilariously. It never failed to be the funniest thing we had ever seen. Even Steven would be laughing as he shook his head and plodded back up the embankment, shoes squishing as he went.

The funny thing was, Teddy and I knew darned well that he would go through the ice, and Steve knew that we knew, but he would do it anyway. It was similar to Charlie Brown’s repeated episodes of trying to kick the football with Lucy always ending up pulling it away. It seems that we were immersed in some adolescent ritual of acceptance, and though each knew exactly what the outcome would be, we played it out anyway. I suppose Teddy and I were actually taking advantage of Steve’s good-natured willingness, but he embraced his role, and the game went on for an entire winter.

I have never gone to a high school reunion — such gatherings are most definitely not my cup of tea — but I sometimes get the urge to drop by just to see how Steve turned out (though I think that reunions probably aren’t his cup of tea either). I imagine that he became successful in some sort of scientific endeavor (he was brilliant in this field during high school), but one never knows. I want to ask him if he too remembers this silly little incident that we repeated throughout that winter. I hope that if he, like me, does remember, it would be with a smile.

Though really only a flicker in time when the paths of our lives once intersected, memories such as this — inconsequential as they may be — become part of the intimate connection we sometimes share with others. I suppose it is that which makes them not so insignificant after all.

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Sidekick

December 31, 2014
a moment of innocence at Nana and Grandaddy's

a moment of innocence at Nana and Grandaddy’s

I had the good fortune of growing up with a big sister. Well, good fortune most of the time. Being older than I by two years, she did sometimes take advantage of her lofty position to manipulate her little brother. But on the whole, what I remember most about life with Laraine are the many adventures I had as a sidekick to my big sister.

Some of the most notable of these occurred at our grandparent’s. The weekly visits we made to that big old house in Tenafly took place with clockwork regularity 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 — at the direction of my sister, of course — 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 donated by kind relatives, or found on the street and would nail them in rows to the trunk. I’m sure it couldn’t have been 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 colorful 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 probably 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 ancient structure 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 hemp-like 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 were 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 incident signaled the end of our adventures at Nana and Grandaddy’s house, though our long walk home would eventually take its rightful place in the family annals of infamy, the crown jewel of all our childhood capers. As we grew older and teen-aged interests overtook us, our paths diverged. But our tales of those days when we were inseparable have lived on, told and retold at many a family gathering, and the richness of our shared adventures are a gift to each other as we age, a fond remembrance of those long-gone days of our childhood together.