My World, in Single Digits

When I was very young, the boundaries of my world seemed infinite. Surrounding our property were fields, forests, swamps, and a pond that provided boundless opportunity for adventure. In reality, however, the area I played in was fairly small. My unsupervised roaming extended from The Pond (west), to The Corner where we waited for the bus (east), to the swamp (south), and the field across the road (north), an area of just under 60 acres, which, oddly enough, is virtually the same size as Horsham Park.

Horsham Park, which I now live next to, compared
to where I grew up. Pretty much the same size.

Granted, that is a rather large play area for a 4- to 9-year-old boy, but it has nothing on Pooh and Master Robin’s Hundred Acre Wood. And unlike Christopher Robin’s playground, which has been forever frozen in time thanks to his father, A. A. Milne’s, books, mine was decidedly ephemeral.

We tend to think of the world of our childhood as something eternal, but for the most part, it only exists for that short period of time when we happened to have been young. My own world was much different before I arrived, and it changed even before I left home. Prior to my arrival, my home—the house I grew up in—wasn’t even there, and neither was the pond. The fields, over time, were woodlands and some of the woodlands that I played in had been fields. At one time, the land was part of the Lindenwald estate—where President Martin Van Buren retired to in 1844—and the area where my house stood was, allegedly, an apple orchard. By the time I left home the field adjacent to the house was a development and, in subsequent years, the woodlands became populated with even more houses.

Today, Rabbit Lane, as well as Robin Road—which was created for the development—are both paved and the pond, if not altogether gone, is well on its way.

So, the details I am about to provide existed only during that brief period of time and remain only in my memory.

My childhood playground.

This may be a good time to remind any readers that the purpose of this blog is to provide my grandchildren with a look into my past, whether they want it or not, and I don’t expect you will find it any more interesting than they will.

1. This is my house and my dad’s workshop, which we called The Shop or, occasionally, the Garage, even though we never put a car in it. Above the Shop, during my teenage years, was The Club, which deserves its own entry. The house was built in 1953 and my parents moved into it in May of that year, before it was completed, because they had my sister, Melinda, and they were required to move out of the apartment they had been living in because children weren’t allowed there.

The house, spring 1953, right after moving in.
In front is my aunt. You can see my mom
holding my sister inside the doorway.
Notice the stickers still on the windowpanes.

By the time I became aware, the property had lilac hedges all around, several flower gardens, trees, and lawns that required constant mowing.

In front of the house was Rt 25, a strip of macadam that led to 9H. Being a main road, 9H had a stripe down the middle and everything. Next to the house was a dirt road called Rabbit Lane. Every spring a truck came and sprayed tar on the dirt to keep the dust down. That was always a grand day for us. Not so much for my mom.

The house, summer 1958. Better lawn, better car.

2. This was our neighbour’s house and workshop. They had four kids, all older than us, but they were pretty much our only playmates.

3. An old man lived here, but he wasn’t a Boo Radley character. He was just a retired guy who kept a neat yard and didn’t bother anybody.

4. In my younger days, this was the home of Stephen, who was a bully and the bane of my life until they moved away and a different family moved in.

1958. Looking south-west, over the field to the swampy wood.
That’s my sister and Me, and our dog, JoJo.

5. The stream. It ran from the swamp, under the road, through a culvert, which I used to crawl through (because, why not), and into the unknown (until we followed it one day and found the creek). The stream provided hours of diversion and, even though it originated in a swamp, the water was clear and pure enough to drink.

6. The Bluff, a shale outcrop, probably formed when they cut through it to make the road. There was an old tree that had fallen across the top which provided a good place to sit and contemplate life. I recall Frankie and I dissected a dead skunk up there one day.

Dad mowing the front lawn in 1956. Looking North across Rt 25 and the field.

7. The Deer Trail. I was told this path through the woods was a trail the deer followed, which kept it continually clear. I never questioned this, even though I never saw a deer on it. It may have just been an old pathway. Whatever it was, we used it all the time to walk into the woods.

1956. A rare shot looking east across Rabbit Lane and the field to the woods.
That’s me and my sister in the baby carriage.

8. Along the side of the Deer Trail were some old dry-stone walls and the stone foundations of what apparently had been houses. I never thought to question this, or investigate it, and now I wish I had. It hints that the woodland we played in must have at one time been cleared of trees. Perhaps it had been a field with some shacks where the field hands lived. Who knows? No one, now that the opportunity has passed.

9. The Fort. This wasn’t a fort of any description, just a clear area under some pine trees where the ground was covered with decades worth of pine needles and was therefore soft and agreeable to sit on. We spent a lot of time there, doing nothing. Sometimes we would take a picnic.

10. The Bird Landing. A little way beyond the Fort was an open area of fine shale stone. It was so open the sun would shine on it and keep the stony ground warm. Why we called it The Bird Landing is a mystery. I never saw a bird there.

11. The Pond. One of my earliest memories was watching the old-fashioned steam shovel dig up the ground. The result was a huge hole, surrounded by mounds of earth, that soon filled in. The area was quite wet, as evidenced by the numerous swamps and the fact that our back yard flooded every spring. I was told the farmer—Ray Meyers—dug the pond both so he would have water to irrigate his fields and to help drain the land so he could plant more crops.

Our back yard, pretty much every spring.
Sometimes it would freeze over and we could ice skate on it.

I remember playing on the mountains of earth, but after a while they disappeared. The Pond, in the early days, was clear enough to swim in, but soon the reeds began to grow, and scum formed around the edges and frogs and turtles appeared. The Pond provided year-round entertainment. In the spring we watched the frog-spawn hatch and observed the black commas of the polliwogs turn into green and white tadpoles, which in turn grew into frogs. In the summer we hunted frogs, turtles, and snakes, and made boats, some of which actually floated. In the autumn it was nice just to watch the activity fade and the coloured leaves float on the still surface. And in winter we skated.

One of our first attempts to construct a boat involved nailing a rickety frame around two oil drums. (Oil drums, like milk cans, were readily available when and where I grew up.) This was in the early spring, after the ice melted and before the weeds and surface scum took over. A neighbour boy and I got on while our sisters watched from the shore.

As soon as we pushed off, a slat came loose and one of the drums popped out. The neighbour boy jumped to the shore, leaving me stranded, as well as pushed further into the pond. The contraption slowly rolled over and spilled me into the frigid water. At that time, I couldn’t swim, but it wouldn’t have mattered if I had been able to because, in my jacket and jeans and sneakers, I sank like a rock. Fortunately, when I hit the bottom, I was able to determine the direction of the shore because the land tilted up, so I crawled through the mud and managed to get myself out. Good thing, too, as no one lifted a finger to help me. They were in hysterics when I made it to the surface because my face was white, and my eyes were about popping out of my head. Yeah, funny. You could die laughing.

A milk can. They were a dime a dozen when I was young. Try and find one now.

12. The field across from the house. Sometimes Ray planted potatoes, sometimes it was corn, and sometimes, in the spring, a piper cub would fly over and spray the field, swooping low time and time again. It was thrilling to watch.

1958. Looking west across the field.
Me and my sister on the swing set

13. The field next to our house. Again, sometimes corn, sometimes potatoes, but never the airplane. There was the sprinkler, though, a huge spout that sucked water from the Pond and sprayed it over the crops, and sometimes our house. Running through the cascading water was good fun on a hot summer day.

14. The swamp behind our house. This was more of a wetland, a sort of soggy forest where the ground pine we made Christmas wreaths out of grew. Other than to gather ground pine, there was little reason to go back there.

15. The field next to Rabbit Lane. This was sometimes planted with Cow Corn, and other years left fallow and allowed to sprout meadow grass, sumac and brambles. No crop dusters or massive sprinklers. It wasn’t a very interesting place, except in the winter when we would use the small hill at the far end for sleigh riding and as a toboggan run.

16. The Burning Barrel. This was an oil drum that my dad shot some holes in with the .22 for ventilation, so we could use it to burn the garbage. Mom used to do it before it became my job, and once she managed to set the woods behind the house on fire. I took on the task when I was 9 and I never set fire to anything I didn’t mean to set fire to.

My brother doesn’t count; he set fire to himself:

Yeah, I’m a hero.

Until I reached the age of 10 or so, this was my world. A fascinating expanse full of adventure. It’s gone now. Were I to go back, I would hardly recognize anything.

Me, age 9, with my little sister, on my bike, in 1964.
I would soon expand my roaming, once I got my sister out of the basket.
What my private playground looks like now, fewer trees, more houses.
A picture à propos of nothing. It’s my sister, age 11,
on a rope swing I rigged up.
Pig tails, bare feet and bandages–that’s a childhood.