Hopatcong

Dad must have always had it in his mind to create a place the family could escape to when the weather got hot and the city streets steamed with garbage and dog shit.

It was a different place back then in case you missed that from previous entries way before the “pickup after your pet” law and the quaint but ignored “No Littering” signs.. We were lucky enough to live in the West Village, but there were neighborhoods around us that weren’t the nicest places to be, and our parents wanted a safe place for us to enjoy our summer vacation (see Don’s post about the The Jane Street Gang).  Of course all those neighborhoods that were so scary; places like the Meat Packing District, the Bowery, and Alphabet City are all places I couldn’t afford a one room apartment in now.

Who knew?

So anyway, they set out to find a place for us and looked across the Hudson to find it.

As a New York musician Dad would have been familiar with Budd Lake, New Jersey an area full of road houses and night clubs; a place where at the end of a gig in town, guys in the band would to go to drink, to carouse, to jam, and  a bunch of other stuff better left unsaid. Budd Lake was a small lake in comparison to its neighbor, Lake Hopatcong. And it was in the adjoining community (if you could call it that at the time) of Hopatcong Hills, that he decided to buy a plot of ground and build a house. He wasn’t alone. A friend he worked with at the factory,  named Charlie did the same thing nearby. The spot Dad picked was a corner property where Sante Fe Trail and Squire Road met, and soon it would be a haven for Don and I; a place where we could be “outside” without fear or worry. He built the house himself with help from Charlie who was a master mason and carpenter, (and apropos of nothing, a world-class drinker). While our house didn’t have the elaborate stone work that Charlie’s house had, it was about as perfect of a home as we kids could imagine, with a large enclosed front porch, two bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room, oh and yes the basement; the basement was important for all night ping-pong games. It was completed the year I was born, 1956 and soon it would become where Don and I would spend our summers, and quite a few weekends during the year.

At the time the house, a bungalow really, was built, it was one of only two or three structures on the block. There was a swamp down Squire Road, woods everywhere, wild  blackberry and raspberry bushes grew lined the sides of the  roads, and the night was black and silent, so different than on Twelfth Street. I remember having a hard time sleeping at the very beginning of each summer because it was so silent, save for the unfamiliar sounds of cicadas and owls. Huge brown bats filled the twilight skies every night and you could hear for miles around. There was a long steep set of wooden stairs that led to the porch, and a number of big oak trees that pelted us with acorns every fall.

It was in a word, idyllic.

Dad took his vacation the first two weeks of the summer, as soon as Don and I were finished with school. The four of us would spend those weeks together and when it was time for Dad to go back to work, he would drive back to the city on Sunday nights and we wouldn’t see him again until the following Friday night. But he wanted us to have the “country” for the summer, and that is what it felt like.

Don and I would spend endless hours playing whiffle ball on the side of the house, the bases represented by rocks, the pitcher’s mound a rough patch where no grass would ever grow. We kept score like we each had eight other players with us on our “teams” and each game would inevitably come down to the bottom of the ninth with the scoring run on base, as the sun faded and Mom called us in for dinner.

I would trade a lot of tomorrows for one more game on that side, playing ball with my big brother and smelling clean air, green grass and Mom’s cooking.

The three of us would walk down to the lake almost every day to swim, and the walk must have been almost two miles each way; nothing major but it I don’t know if I could do it today. Mom wore flip-flops every day for the entire summer, and we marveled at how she would walk for miles in them. She always kidded us that she was part Indian, and I think I believed her for a while.

It was always exciting to see Dad’s car parked in the driveway when we returned from the lake on a late Friday afternoon. We had our Dad back for at least two days. He of course always had a list of chores that needed doing, and he enlisted Don and I for some of them – mostly picking rocks for yet another cement walkway or mixing the cement itself.  But the evenings, after a dinner of fried chicken and mashed potatoes, the evenings we would go to Bertrand’s Island; an amusement park that actually dated from the turn of the century. I will devote a separate entry just for Bertrand’s Island next week,  as it held a strong and special place in our hearts and minds, and still does now. Suffice to say it was a great wonderland of scary rides and fun junk food. It was everything two kids who were used to being cooped up in a city apartment for most of our lives, could ever want or dream of. It was magical. We of course never wanted to leave and when Sunday came, we never wanted Dad to leave us. I never liked the idea of him driving alone back to the empty apartment just because he had to go to work the next day. But he went each time, never missing a departure and I remember crying as I watched his car recede down Squire Road. Just before he made the left turn that would take him from view, he would honk the horn and wave and I would cry harder.

As the years went by more houses were built, the swamp was drained and there weren’t too many patches of woods left; it had become a kind of bedroom community to the city being only an hour and change from it on the road. But I never forgot how it felt at the beginning, scary in a way because it was so unpopulated, but sacred in another way for the same reason.

Like so many other things he set out to do, Dad accomplished what he intended – to provide a safe, fun, summer home away from home for his two boys. Don and I have often talked about how much we appreciated that and how so many of our friends weren’t as lucky as we were, for lots of reasons.

The house still stands today. I went back to see it about eight years ago. It was something I was always been meaning to do, and we enlisted the company of our closest friends (you know who you are) and took the trip back in time; in memory. I felt it was a good idea to surround myself with people I loved for such an adventure because I didn’t quite know how I would hold up seeing it again and I knew no matter how I reacted, they would understand because that’s what good friends do.

I brought tissues; lots of them.

It was empty and in disrepair, but as I walked on the side or up the cement stairs we helped build, it somehow didn’t feel empty to me. There we were, Don and I,  ghosts I know, but still there, still laughing, watching for bats, smoking punks, eating Buried Treasures from the Pied Piper ice cream truck or blueberry crumb cake, Mom’s favorite from the Dugan’s man; I could still hear the roar of the roller coaster from Bertrand’s Island, and smell the lake water from the Lost River ride; I could still see us playing whiffle ball on the side,  keeping score and taking it down to the bottom of the ninth.  It always came down to the bottom of the ninth.

I didn’t even need the tissues.

I walked away, looked back to say goodbye and thought the blinds on the front porch moved. Of course they didn’t but I liked to think it was  Mom keeping an eye on us as always. We drove down Squire Road and as we made the left that would lose the view of the house, I waved goodbye.

Faulkner famously said “The past is never dead; it isn’t even past.”

I couldn’t agree more.

 

-Rob

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Note: the photo is of the actual house, but as it looked when I went back years later. Later owners had made some dramatic changes – getting rid of windows etc.
It looked a like nicer when we lived there.

 

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