The adults, or “grown ups,” were more interesting in the Catskill summers. Our otherwise serious and demure parents, once at the bungalow colony, seemed astonishingly transformed into creatures of life, light, laughter and mystery. Perhaps this was illusion, or simple misapprehension, as is much that defines a child’s understanding. Still, there is no denying the clear truth that from September to June, within the five boroughs of New York City, we seldom witnessed our dads in bathing suits, or riding horses, or playing paddleball, handball, softball, let alone mixing a pitcher of potent potables in a power blender every Saturday afternoon, which they shared with neighbors, imbibed with gusto, and, soon afterwards, seemed to laugh at anything and everything occurring about them, but of which memory they held little just a few moments later.
During the year, in the city, the lives of the moms was primarily an indoor existence—cooking, cleaning and doing wash. In the summer they were rarely in the bungalow. After all, how much housekeeping was required in a tiny three-room shack barren of carpet and mostly jammed full of weary old boardinghouse furniture? Most bungalow colonies included a day camp, and from nine to five each day, save a quick hour for lunch, the moms knew unprecedented freedom. Their hours were passed on the lawn or by the pool, sitting in circular groups and gossiping by the hour about on thing or another, one person or another, almost certainly the last person who had left the group for one reason or another. Or else they were engaged in hot and nasty games of mah-jongg, or canasta, played for small stakes but with an eye for blood and bragging rights. They drank coffee and consumed copious amounts of cake and danish, and occasionally they collaborated on a “pot luck lawn luncheon”, where each woman prepared and presented her favorite dish, and there were always a few too many tuna casseroles. There were a few colony moms whose ineptitude in the kitchen was legend, and they’d invariably be consigned to providing soda and paper goods.
Weekday evenings were nothing more than a resumption of the day’s activities, so rudely interrupted by the reappearance of children after camp and the responsibility of providing dinner, sometimes acquiesced to the colony concession or coffee shop. When the light had left the sky, and children slipped beneath crisp and cool summer sheets, the evening’s vesper was a conglomeration of mah-jongg and card games in random bungalows, each clearly visible by the glow of kitchen lights viewed from outside—each scene tight and cozy and warm, filled with the clacking of ivory tiles, the haze of cigarette smoke and the sometimes raucous laughter produced by women telling each other stories of their lives and loves while their men were a hundred miles away.
For the dads, the summers brought a very different and somewhat odd pattern to their lives. On Monday morning they disappeared, as if by some mysterious mountain magic, exiled to “the city” to toil for the means that made our summers possible. Their reappearance each Friday was as certain as the sun, and we all hold the memory of dad’s return warm and close in our hearts. Upon the return, it appears they were determined to pull a week’s measure of pleasure from those few fleeting weekend hours.
Fridays, after arrival, and a time spent listening to children’s recitations of their week’s miracles, the dads shed their city work clothes for casual attire—short sleeved sport shirts, tee shirts, bathing suits, khakis, Bermuda shorts. Then they settled into a sumptuous repast, the traditional Friday night dinner: soup, chopped liver, roasted chickens, kugels, challah. Sometimes there were huge frosty glasses of borscht, the beet drink from the “old country,” and schav, a foul smelling, angry looking yellow-green concoction that closely resembled something mom might have dredged from the colony lake.
Afterwards some dads carpooled to Monticello Raceway, hurrying to be on time for something called “the double.” Seeing our otherwise staid dads jaunty with the intoxication of horse wagering lent them an air of Runyonesque stardust, and they became our personal Sky Mastersons and Nathan Detroits. Sometimes Friday evenings were for poker or gin, played long into the early morning in a cramped and smoky room off the casino that quickly filled up with dishes and glasses, the dour remains of countless BLT’s, roast pork sandwiches, egg creams and sodas.
Regardless of how late, or early in the AM, it was when they finally crawled onto the lumpy bungalow mattress, they were awake and refreshed early Saturday mornings to assemble on the ball-field. Each colony boasted of its men’s softball team, and truth be told, the best teams in the mountains were often fielded by the smallest, least populated colonies. In the early and mid 1960’s, Friedlander’s, a Mountaindale bungalow colony of less than 40 families, dominated the Sullivan County softball schedule. This team was an illustration of just how pivotal could be the impact of one truly remarkable player. Friedlander’s superstar was a hulking, smiling giant by the name of Jerry Wasserman, who, when not crushing softballs into the far horizon, was a mild mannered and devoted husband, father and friend, who was, incredibly, a tax accountant. His prowess at bat—where he usually achieved multiple home run games, and often at such distances that the ball was never to be retrieved—along with his broad shoulders and imposing gait earned him the soubriquet of “King Kong.” There were stories among the colony kids that King Kong had once signed a contract with the Yankees—or maybe the hated Red Sox—but a nagging knee injury had consigned him to a life of playing footsie with the IRS. Nevertheless, to us, the kids of the colony, he was an authentic hero, better than Mantle or Maris or Musial or Mays, because he was accessible, right there, in the flesh, splashing in the pool, or downing an Orange Crush beside the handball court. There was another rumor, one winter, when Jerry had decided he and his young family were not returning the following summer, that the men of the colony pooled resources and paid for his bungalow, so as to insure another league title. It wasn’t until years later I realized that the summer skirmishes these dads had played out with such vigor and verve, were played for more than mere bragging rights—often the colonies had wagered on the outcome, and often not an inconsiderable amount, either. So in gifting his bungalow to King Kong that summer, the dads were simply protecting their investment.
Some of the dads, once exposed to the country and nature and wilderness, inexplicably developed a proclivity for hunting. On Saturday afternoons, after the softball games and lunch, immediately preceding dinner, a small posse of men would hike across the road and up the steep hill, past the chicken coops and garbage dump, into the woods, their trusty .22 rifles at side, where they would go mano-o-mano with such vicious and threatening creatures as rabbits, woodchucks, gophers and the occasional wild turkey. I vividly recall one weekend when my friend Brent’s dad returned from his hunt replete with a few rabbits he’d bagged, and instructed his wife to prepare them for dinner. I don’t quite recall the complete vignette, but I am quite certain the family that evening dined on something other than the bounty of the hunt, and also recall it was quite a few weeks before Brent’s dad rejoined the regular group of hunters and trappers.
There was much else about the grown-ups, our parents that were unique to the summer months. They were less sane and certainly sillier, less staid and more spontaneous, less strict, more slack. Their manner and behavior testified to the mountain’s magic, as it silently and skillfully wove its charm amidst all members of the family. This was, after all, a time for vacation and fun, dalliance and silliness, rest and relaxation. In a time before European vacations, and trips to Israel, before cruises to the Caribbean and all inclusive pay-one-price clubs on secluded islands, before Disney World and Six Flags, before state of the art specialized sleep away camps and jaunts to Vegas, the eight fast weeks of summer in the Catskills was the closest any of us was getting to paradise. And while we, the children, reveled and delighted in our freedom and fantasy, we were too preoccupied and distracted to realize that our parents did no less. For many of our parents, their “golden years” are not those that came after retirement, but rather were those wonderful, remarkable, sweet summers, when they were yet young, and their children still small, and life seemed like a story that might never end.