For our friends and neighbors, Memorial Day weekends held the significance of a ballgame, a picnic, perhaps a day in the park, the beach, at a family bar-b-queue, or attending a local parade to honor the valiant and intrepid veterans of wars past. For us the importance of the weekend was very different, if no less sacrosanct. Our home calendars had long since been marked with a bold red circle, the weekend then standing out from the others, calling us ever closer with each month torn from the wall.
Indeed, childhood anticipation may never have been as intense as what we knew leading up to that last weekend in May. Although it retained the small flavor of a tease, Memorial Day, or, as we were more likely to call it, Decoration Day, was unquestionably the truest harbinger of summer in the country, and our annual return to the bungalow colony.
The Thursday preceding the weekend was anguish of the sweetest kind. We day dreamed through school, wishing the minutes off the clock, rapturous with the realization that when dad retuned from work that evening we would set off for points northwest, and that after a long drive and a quick snack at the Red Apple Rest, we would be crawling between summer sheets, in the big metal frame bed in the far corner of the room in the bungalow which we¹d dreamt of since the previous Labor Day.
I vividly recall our traditional stopover at the Red Apple. We’d already been teased by sighting Motel on the Mountain, and by passing through the towns of Tuxedo and Sloatsburg. Now, just a few miles before old route 17 begat the Quikway, squatting hard aside the road was an oasis in the midst of the pine and birch trees, a refuge and sanctuary for a wandering Jew in the midst of a pilgrimage to the sacred Catskills, a.k.a. the Jewish Alps, the Hebrew Himalayas. Odds are that if Moses had chanced upon a “Red Apple” on his desert wanderings, that he’d have quickly erected a few dozen shacks, a camp-house and a casino, and not bothered continuing any further.
The food at the Red Apple was nothing extraordinary. In fact, it was rather pedestrian, with the possible exception of their outstanding chocolate pudding and remarkable frozen custard. Yet, the place has been forever enshrined in Jewish cultural lore for what it represented—the last road marker before entering our own particular Promised Land.
After the drive up the Quikway, to whatever exit for whichever town you were destined—Mountaindale, Woodridge, Fallsburg, Monticello, Hurleyville, Swan Lake, Loch Sheldrake, Liberty—came the bounding over local roads to the colony itself. The family sedan entered the grounds just as dusk settled on the mountains, and you lit from the car, bubbling with excitement and anticipation, feelings ambivalent because you desired both to be the first kid to arrive, and to also be greeted by a horde of comrades.
Life was so easy and uncomplicated. Your year was divided in half—winter and summer, city and country. Spring and autumn were lumped in with winter, and though summer lasted just ten fleeting weeks, it was the best of the year, the memories drawn from those weeks the most hallowed and cherished, and in looking back, after so many decades have vanished from our lives, the most vivid. And Memorial Day, Decoration Day, was a clarion call, a loud announcement that woke you to the realization that in a few short weeks it would all begin again.
The bungalow smelt from camphor—mothballs—and everything around you was stark and naked. Yet, while you played outside in the chilly darkness with your brother and a few friends, your mom miraculously made the small shack a home—just as it was the summer before. The shower curtain restored, the spread on the kitchen hi-riser, summer quilts on the beds, summer dishes returned to the cabinets, the fridge up and humming, the coil heaters glowing red and hot in the bedroom, crisp, clean, cold sheets waiting for you in your room, a mountain of comic books aside the bed begging to be devoured.
It wasn’t the full bungalow experience, the brief few days. The pool held no water and was filled with a winter¹s worth of branches, leaves and twigs. The colony store would not open till late June. Many bungalows were still shuttered, as not everyone had the time or inclination to make the long trip for but a few days pleasure. Still, you were satisfied, even elated, to reconnect with absent friends after a long winter’s wait. You strolled the grounds, returning your mind and heart to every sight and sound. The spot where you had written your name, on the big rock behind the casino, it was still there and you were amazed your scribbling had withstood the winter’s wrath. The ball field was overgrown, everywhere on the colony the grass was badly in need of trimming. Who cared? You were back in the country! In just three or four more weeks you would return, not for a few days, but for ten or eleven glorious, magical, thrilling, captivating weeks. You would swim and play ball, hike and cook out, play ring-o-leevio and steal a first kiss, hang out in the concession, eating french fries while playing pinball and feeding dimes into the juke box to play the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Four Seasons, the Stones, the Rascals, Tommy James and the Shondells. Your days would go on forever and your evenings would be enchanted and filled with mystery and wonder, and each and every memory would be stored inside you, special and sanctified, sweet as the morning’s dew on the summer lawn.
And each year, as the calendar turned to late May, this special weekend Memorial Day, Decoration Day whispered a promise that it was all coming again.