Friday, January 16, 2015

The Green, Green Hills of Home

I believe where we first experience life, where we grow up, where we become our individual self is the always thought to be the best place to have been raised.  I know it’s true for me.  The rolling hills and gentle dales of the Hudson Valley, and the distinctive seasons remain my model for how the world should be.

The winters were cold and foreboding; I can’t count the times as a teen I was up at 4 am to help clear the driveway so my folks could get out of the garage and on their way to work, of course the school had snow days so I’d go back to bed once they left.  It was a mushy, slushy, time of year.  As I grew we seemed to have ever larger snow blowers to clear the drive and the walkways of our home.  Cars were perpetually blanketed with salt or mud and it seemed the slush that caked behind the wheels always needed to be kicked off.  The non-existent curbs and shoulders of the roads left little room for error as you drove around the ice slickened roads, but I would not have wished for anything else, for with the cold and the snow came sledding, skating, skiing, and in my teen years house parties with music and darkened rooms. 

We skated on a number of ponds or lakes, and warmed ourselves with fires we built on the shore of wherever we skated.  Occasionally groups we associated with, either through scouts or church, would have outings to distant places like Vermont, or over to Newburgh.  I remember one year riding down to Newburgh for skating and perhaps a ride on iceboats.  The song that brings that memory back is Petula Clark’s single “Downtown,” I can be motoring along a hot and humid Florida road, and if they play that song, I am chilled and can taste the hot coco.   Most of my memories seem tied to some song or another.  For example, anytime I hear Johnny Horton’s “Sink the Bismarck” I am transported back to the Violet Avenue Elementary School playground.

Spring brought the renewal of life, with flowers and the greening of the fields as corn and grass was raised on the dairy farms so common in the area.  Gilbert’s Dairy was just down the road, but you didn’t need to drive very far to see others.  There seemed to be farms all over the northern county and their presence was reassuring, they had been there a hundred years, and would be there a hundred more.  It saddens me to realize how wrong my impression was.  The county is transitioning from the agrarian society it was to bedroom communities where work is somewhere else and the population is perhaps more transitory.

Summer -- ah summer, it was the best of times.  It brought the warmth of the sun and freedom to grow and play, and play we did.  There was so much for the kids to do then, to get out and meet friends, play pick up ball games on empty fields or even the little league fields that dotted the community.  We played for the joy of the game, not because some coach or parent was yelling at or for you.  I recall a year after college when I served as an umpire with the little league in Hyde Park.  I think the game was on the field behind the Hyde Park Elementary school.  The players were probably in the 8-10 year old range and by the third inning I had to call the coaches together and inform them if they didn’t control their parents they would be ejected or the game would be forfeit.  I then went to both stands and explained it the spectators.  No 8 year old deserved to have an overzealous parent belittle them or the opposition.  We never had that in our pickup games, the older and better players coached the younger ones, wouldn’t we be better off today if we had this kind of unorganized sporting outlet?  Maybe they do back in the Hudson Valley?

Summer evenings were magical.  I can still see the late afternoon thunderstorms rolling over the Catskills or to the east over Connecticut.  The sun whitened clouds flashing between themselves sending lightening crossing the sky as if the storms were at war.  In the Hudson Valley the legends of the original Dutch, as portrayed in the tales of Washington Irving still lived on.  Every time a thunderclap rolled across the river I could almost hear the old Dutch kegelers up in the hills playing 9-pin and drinking, along with good ol’ Rip Van Winkle.  With the dusk came the fireflies and an hour of chasing them with our jars.  I don’t recall air conditioning, except in the theaters, and some of the evenings would be pretty hot in the house, but listening to WABC nothing that was so terrible I couldn’t fall asleep.

Of course back then games were more challenging.  The invention and sale of Lawn Darts, as well as a number of other potentially fatal recreational challenges made life interesting.  I guess when you have an adult population whose lives were shaped by a World War; the risks of a one or two-pond metal spike falling from the sky didn’t seem that significant.  There were other, less fatal, great inventions designed to keep up with a society that had increasing leisure time available.  We had hula-hoops® and the Frisbee® to help keep us moving.  In the summer we always seemed to be moving.

Of course, at least once each summer we would make the pilgrimage across the river, through Kingston, onto the Thruway up to Catskill, and then west to see the Catskill Game Farm.  For us this was a summer must-do.  When I had children of my own, even though we lived in California, Florida or Virginia, if we came home in the summer the Game Farm remained a stopping point.  I can still picture my petite Mother getting mobbed by the young sheep, goats or deer, looking for the bottle she had in her hand.  I understand that park is closed now… too bad.

As the season drew down and we reached Labor Day I remember the Dutchess County Fair as the biggest deal in town. I don’t think anyone would want to miss the fair.  It was a week of true Americana.  If you parked in the Fairground lots to the south you were admitted almost immediately into the livestock area where we saw bulls and cows, sheep and rams, goats, pigs, chickens, and all sorts of domesticated animals.  On the warm days you always knew where that part of the fair was.

I think we must have spent half our time walking through the exhibit areas where we saw mops that rung themselves out, stuff you put on your glasses so they would never fog up, things for slicing and dicing, and perhaps even towels that folded themselves. There were ointments and salves to cure everything from dandruff to the mange, and oh was there cookware… tons and tons of pots, pans, bowls, and brushes.  I guess it was the Walmart of the day.

The midway was fun, and I think back then they even had a tent with fan-dancers.  I only speculate about that, because I certainly wasn’t old enough to gain admission.  I did get to go through the brand new “total electric” home put up by Mid-Hudson Electric.  Pretty cool stuff…Who would imagine a toothbrush that you had to turn on, or an oven that would clean itself, or a machine to wash the dishes for you?

Of course one of the main draws for me was the Joey Chitwood Thrill Drivers who put on quite the show… all the way around the track on two wheels, cars weaving together at sixty miles an hour …amazing!  The slide for life through a burning wall, how did he do that?

I don’t remember much about leaving the fair and driving home because I was usually in a cotton candy induced coma.

The end of the fair also marked the beginning of school.  The chance to reconnect with those you’ve not seen all summer and to see what the natural biology of a summer’s worth of aging had done.

The fall brought the last of the seasons and marked the transition from green in the trees and fields to the bright colors of the elms, ash, maples and hickory trees in their festive fall plumage.  Every once in a while you would be blessed with a few days of “Indian Summer” where it seemed even nature was unwilling to let go of the good times. 

One year, while in High School the organization I belonged to spent three or four weekends traipsing around the Catskills in Ulster County, looking for old aircraft wreckage so we could mark them with a big red X so if another plane crashed these old wrecks would not be mistaken for the new one.  What a wonderful way to spend a weekend… with friends climbing up and down the ancient mountains. 

The later it got in the fall, the more the walks in the woods took on a new feeling and the ground began to crunch under your feet as the morning frost would extend ever further into the day, until eventually it was not a frost, but a freeze -- and we returned once again to winter.

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