We lived less than an hour from Manhattan, and my friends were kids whose immigrant parents had fled the city for quieter pastures. Second-generation Italian, Jewish and Irish families had made their way to New Jersey. Many had grandparents who had escaped Europe just in time –and I had more than one classmate whose family had Lost Someone. Dinner at a friend’s house nearly always included someone with an accent.
In the summer, we were outside all day long. We ran through the woods, played in caves, explored the abandoned clubhouse up on the hilltop – which I later realized looked a bit like the hotel in The Shining – and built tree forts. We went swimming in Cupsaw Lake, the same place we’d go ice skating six months later. During the winter, we had to get about three feet of snow for schools to close. On days like that, full-size igloos and snow forts dotted yards all over the neighborhood.
School field trips included annual sojourns to Tarrytown, New York, to visit the birthplace of Washington Irving. This was always done in the fall, so the trip included a hayride over the notorious bridge where Ichabod Crane encountered the Headless Horsemen. Let me tell you, there was a whole lot of pants-wetting going on when the hay cart stopped on the bridge under a gray November sky, because we could all hear those hoof beats if we listened hard enough.
It was a great place to be a kid. We moved away when I was twelve. Three years ago, on the way back from a trip to Maine, we decided to detour through northern New Jersey so I could show my kids the house I grew up in. It looked so very, very small. It was hard to believe that a house that held so many memories could be so tiny. Other than the house, though, the scenery hadn’t changed much. Cupsaw Lake is still invaded by swimmers every summer, the hilltop clubhouse is still there, although it’s been renovated and the secret entrance long since boarded up. The little Jewish and Italian grandmas are long gone.
Stephen King said, in his novella The Body (which later went on to be the movie Stand By Me) that you never have friends again like the ones you had when you were twelve. It’s true, and of more than friends. The place you live your childhood, your formative years, is the one you take with you for the rest of your life. No matter where else you live, there’s nothing quite like the town where you were happy to be a kid.