The nights often were cool; sweater weather. We would sit on the stairs in front of the bungalow watching the skies darken with both the receding light, and waves of brown bats, swooping back and forth, feasting on the thousands of fire flies that thickened the air around us. The road in front of us was empty, a long line of black disappearing into the gathering darkness. Off in the distance, probably just on the next road over, a dog, a large one from the sound of it, howled at the emerging moon. Surrounded by family it was a safe place, huddled close to Mom. But I remember also feeling uneasy at the night that surrounded us. This was far from Manhattan where even if you worked at it, you were never really alone. That was part of the city’s magic; here was a different kind of magic. We were really alone, there being few houses around us. There were a few points of light from the porches of homes we couldn’t see, where people we didn’t know lived. I was not used to such solitude, and though it was peaceful, and indeed quite beautiful, there was that nagging feeling of being vulnerable. I am sure it was born of watching too many horror movies where campers met up with some homicidal maniac in the woods where there was no one to help them and sometimes it made me shiver and not from the night chill. We were after all, city dwellers used to knocking on a neighbor’s apartment door if we needed company or assistance. But here in what felt like the wilds of Sussex County New Jersey, there were no doors to knock on, no pedestrians to call out to, no cop on the beat. It was just you and the darkness.
These paranoid feelings were not helped by some members of the family who delighted in playing up the imagined dangers of being “in the country”. Sometimes we would take a walk after dinner, and if it was a particularly long one, it would be dark by the time we got back to the house. We of course took flashlights, and Big Brother and Cousin Chris took great delight in suddenly flashing on some movement in the woods around us (probably a bird or squirrel), and whispering loudly “what was that?!” “Did you see that?!.. what was it?!” And I would fall for it every time, panic clawing at my insides as I whispered back “What…what….what did you see?? What was it?”. And depending on the night, they would make up a phantom huge dog that rivaled the Hound of the Baskervilles, or a vagrant with look of insanity about him, lurking out there in the trees that lined the road, waiting for the right moment to pounce. Needless to say, for a little scared kid like me, those were not the most relaxing of walks. Mom would warn them off with a “Boys….” And they knew what she was going to say, but I guess I can’t blame them…I was an easy mark for imaginative elders.
I remember one particular walk, when we were on Durban Avenue and someone pointed out a rather unusual weathervane. Perched on the top of a pole bordering a driveway of a ranch style house, it was the image of a large dog, it’s mouth open in a growl, showing sharp teeth and angry eyes. Now when I think of it, I think who the hell would want something like that as a weathervane? I mean what the heck is wrong with a Rooster for Christ sakes? But this family, whom I am glad we never met, had one with a killer looking dog on it; maybe it was supposed to be a wolf, who knew? But it was great fodder for the tricksters of the family. On the spot (and I must admit it was a tribute to their story telling abilities), they made up a whole legend of a killer dog that used to live in the area and preyed on little boys. The weathervane, they said, was to commemorate the legend of the killer dog that was never found and folklore said still wandered the woods looking for prey. So now I wasn’t just frightened about a killer dog in the neighborhood, now it was a ghost killer dog……even worse. I remember I insisted we go back home right away and thankfully Mom (“Boys…….”) agreed.
For the rest of that summer, and probably for summers that followed, I was on the look out for the killer ghost dog that preyed on little boys.
And those nights when we sat on the front steps as the dark came, and that dog in the distance howled at the emerging moon, I convinced myself it was the killer ghost dog somewhere out there in the blackness, eyes blazing, mouth open with sharp teeth gleaming, waiting…..just waiting…for the chance….to get…..me.
There would be more to come.
Now, whenever I bemoan the reality of my old age, I think about those wonderful times being a scared kid in the dark, and I think….ah childhood…wasn’t it grand??
And then I pour myself a drink and laugh out loud.