It was the minor stuff, the minutiae, that stands out from the cacophony of images and moments and places that fight for a resting place in my memory.
The doorknobs in our bungalow were made of glass, and my dad had convinced me their worth was beyond rubies and emeralds. They appeared as colossal diamonds. It was an innocent enough ruse, until the day my little brother smashed one to smithereens with an official Yankee Bat Day Tom Tresh signature bat. Afterwards, my friend Joel and I convinced him he d committed an unforgivable sin against God and man, and had dashed the family fortune, forever condemning us to poverty and deprivation. Not only that, but he’d get no ice cream through the balance of the summer. These scenarios were sufficient to scare him into the woods for three hours. The entire colony roused itself to hunt for him, while Joel and I insisted we were as surprised as anyone by his sudden disappearance. We had a story and we were going to stick with it. A few minutes after his rescue, from the rear closet of the laundry room, my brother spilled the beans to my dad, who, atypically, let us off without any disciplinary action.
The walls and the rafters of the camp house were lumber blonde and coarse and easy to splinter. The wood was unfinished but did not long remain barren. We covered every inch of that camp house with names —our names, our nicknames, the names of our camp groups. We painted hearts and initials within JR and RS, AT and EH. We were the Yiddish precursors of the inner city graffiti masters, replete with our paint cans and markers and crayons and charcoal. What happiness, what unadulterated joy, in returning decades later to see those letters and names standing still, faded but stubbornly present, a silent spectator through the years and the thousands of children that passed through those walls. Do you remember writing your name, or initials, on the bungalow walls? Mike T. 1958-1967. Or, perhaps Alan, Joey, Sue, 1963 and always.
The hill that rose across the road crested and fell away to a stand of birch and pine that shielded a long, open, rambling field covered with thick brush and lush berry patches. We’d take old pots—usually the large white ones that had so long been held to fire that a black enamel had seeped through the inside—and we would pick for hours. Blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, huckleberries, eating all the while, until the pots and our bellies were well filled. We returned home scratched and sore and sunburned but proud of our booty, surely sufficient fruit for a few pies and maybe jams and jellies as well. There was something enchanted, almost thrilling, about the grass. It was, by all means, just grass. But there was a smell and texture and purity to it all from the lawns to the ball field to the edging of the woods. This was so different from the grass in the city and the suburbs. The country grass needed no seed or fertilizer or gardeners to coax it to life, to lure its beauty to the surface, to paint it lush and verdant and strong. It was simply there, as it should be, as God had intended, amidst the trees and the wildflowers and the stones and the underbrush and the shade beneath those trees and the dappled sunlight that peeked through the branches and touched you as you strolled along wooded paths.
The colony owner was named Charlie. He was a weather beaten mustached man, a new world Tevye in his chinos and flannel shirts, even in the height of July’s heat. He might have been Dorothy’s Jewish uncle, if they’d ever strayed from Kansas and left seed on the pale of settlement. Across the road, high on the far hill, Charlie maintained a long, rolling dormitory of chicken coops. As the prevailing winds were usually advantageous to the placement of the colony, we might have never known about those chickens, were it not for the true farm fresh eggs available in the colony store each morning. These eggs were tremendous—many double yolks—and often they still held a bit of the hen’s dirt on the shell. I recall my mom performing the candling ritual holding the eggs up before a flame to assure the shell contained a yolk, or two, and not an unborn chick.
Along the path to the colony store, which was ably run by Charlie s wife, Tillie, and her sister, Anna, Charlie had indulged his green thumb and inspired vision to create a garden of such color and texture and beauty and light that it holds fast in my mind, a snapshot from the past, thirty years fallow yet as vivid as this morning’s sunrise. I know that today I could name all the flowers, the species and variants and hybrids. Then, all I knew was the red ones and yellow ones and purples, too. But they were bountiful and lush, so free and magnificent that even the children beheld the garden with reverence and awe, careful to never violate it’s sovereignty with a stray ball or stumble, lest Charlie be disappointed with us. Tillie and Charlie were surrogate grandparents to us all, and at each summer’s end my brother and I carted home, along with a trove of memories, a small milk carton of dirt nurturing a vibrant flower—a petunia, a geranium, a few poppies lovingly replanted by Charlie himself from his sacred garden.
Ten months each year, at home in the city, the responsibility of taking out the garbage was an odious task resolutely avoided by my brother and I at all cost and peril. After all, it was no great fun trying to stuff too wide and too full a brown sack of refuse into a too narrow slot, to plunge down a stinking, smoky chute, and if by chance the garbage were being burnt in the incinerator, well, the back shot of smoke and soot was positively horrific.
The country, that was something else again. Here, there was a touch of fun and romance in something as revolting as refuse removal. The colony owned a truck —an old, beaten and worn green ford with half bald tires and a permanent inch of grime covering the finish. Each evening, usually after dinner had been concluded, the handy men, either Paul or Martin, would crank up the old workhorse and begin a slow, rumbling circle of the colony grounds. Kids charged out from behind screen doors, arms cradling bags of trash and bundles of garbage. The truck slowed, but never stopped, and we ran alongside, joyfully flinging the waste over the edge side of the pick up, where it slowly added and built to a small mountain of rubbish. In those pre-recycling days everything was disposed of—glass, paper, plastic, leftovers, annoying younger siblings. It was a great and practiced skill to land your bag center of the trucks rear end. Occasionally, someone would slip, or fault, and their garbage would spread out on the lawn. Only then would the men stop their rounds, waiting just long enough for the red-faced kid to retrieve his spilt spoils.
Their rounds completed, the men aimed the truck towards the winding dirt path on the far side of the colony, across the road, up and over the hill and past the chicken coops. Behind the last of the hen houses, we’d been told, was the dump, a place we d never been and would probably never see, a mysterious, fabled spot where all kinds of interesting and fascinating items found their last resting place, and where, twice each week, Paul and Martin placed a torch to a mountain of trash.
Once, when I was eleven, for a reason I cannot recall, I was chosen from among all the colony kids to receive the very coveted honor of riding shotgun on the truck during collections. Afterwards, I stayed seated, as Paul steered the old Ford up that winding road, past the noisy chickens, to the edge of the dump. Martin and Paul lowered the tailgate, and handed me a shovel. Then the three of us began shoveling the mottled, fetid, rancid, sour flotsam and jetsam onto the waiting pile of garbage.
The sun was setting behind the hill, but it was warm yet, and my tee shirt stuck to my back, and the band of my baseball cap itched against my scalp, and the putrid odor of the garbage filled my nostrils, and I must have been grinning from one ear to the other.
Who but an eleven year old could discover rapture shoveling trash? And where else might this have ever happened, if not in a bungalow colony, a small collection of shacks, huts and hovels that we cherished as a palace?