Warm memories of a chilly time
The last week or so has been difficult. Dreary skies, drizzly rain, downpours that soaked the soil and temperatures just low enough to require indoor sweaters, especially for those of us who have taken a vow not to set the thermometer above 68 degrees. It’s amazing how 68 degrees on a dark, damp day can seem so cold. Admittedly, a lot of the nip is thought-generated, peeking out from behind the wish for sun and being outside.
Perhaps doing a little something different would change my outlook, the way I was muddling through those days.
There it was a memory of childhood adventures, so tame that today they would mean almost nothing. But then in the 1940s and 1950s, for children raised in the city, they were exciting expeditions.
Winters in Brooklyn were cold. The wind would whip in off the ocean which was only three blocks away and chill you to the bone. We stayed inside a lot during the winters warmed by the gigantic octopus of a furnace that took up a third of the basement and sent steam through the radiators. I knew that my parents put coal in the furnace, that they took out the ash cans, that someone had to maintain that heat but other than watching the men deliver coals down the chute, its warmth was taken for granted.
Every once in a while, heat became the center of my attention. It became a focus on those “adventures” that my father would cook up that took us 50 miles North to Lake Carmel.
Dad has often told us of his forays into the “wilderness” of a place called Copake Lake, where he and his family and friends would sleep shivering under old army blankets in houses without windows so that they could go fishing in the local streams. His command of hyperbole when it came to adjectives was unimpeachable. We had visions of snow covering the sleeping Smithwicks and their friends. Did they really have icicles hanging off their noses? We loved the thrill of that chill. We never did go to Lake Copake. There was another destination.
We had, in those days, a 1942 Ford sedan. My Dad told us that it was the last one made by Ford before the factories were turned over to production for the war. I don’t know if that was true but it sounded good. Anyway, on the designated Saturday, we would pile into that Ford and head out on the Gowanus parkway toward the country and my grandparents’ bungalow. To be clear, my grandparents owned the bungalow. They lived on 88th street in Brooklyn during the winter. No one lived at the house at the junction of Ogden and Clarkson Roads in the winter. The bungalow was in off season state, no water, no heat. That was where we were headed for the “adventure.”
To set the stage, my mother was not as enthused as my father.
But she was a good sport and packed food for the trip, made sure that the fire was banked in that octopus of a furnace and lassoed a relative to come in that evening to add coal. No need to chance frozen pipes, although I do think that being one in a long row of party wall houses, that wasn’t a real problem.
There were several de rigueur stops along the way.
Our journey took us over the Brooklyn Bridge, where there always was someone selling fresh roasted peanuts in the shell on the Manhattan side. We’d stop and buy a bag. The smell alone was wonderful. I sat in the middle of the front seat and my job was to shell the peanuts and pass them to my three siblings who sat in the back. My mother’s job was to complain about the mess that I was making while my Dad scarfed down his portion of goober peas and promised that he would clean up the errant shells.
We would stop about half way somewhere along the Croton Reservoir to have a snack of cream cheese and jelly on saltines washed down with orange juice. That snack never changed, no matter the trip or the season.
We’d pull into the tiny IGA in Lake Carmel and get some milk, fresh bread and cold cuts, then on to O’Brien’s gas station a mile or so later to fill the tank. Dad knew the people who ran both establishments and, along with the purchases, he would catch up on the happenings that had occurred since our last visit. Jimmy O’Brien who ran the gas station above which he and his family lived, was a fairly close friend to my Dad and our stop there would be especially long. What they talked about, I’ll never know.
When we arrived at the bungalow, we kids would scatter into the woods to gather sticks for the fire while my parents tried to raise the sub-zero-like temperatures inside of the house to something that humans could abide. They built a fire in the pot-bellied stove in the living room. That old stove would glow with heat and, if you sat within three feet, you could feel it, otherwise we kept our coats on, my Dad smiling at roughing it and my mother grumbling about the lack of water and toilet facilities. The latter wasn’t tops on the kids list of positives either.
“We have to use a potty? Oh, Gross.”
My brother threated to go outside to use “the facilities” rather than the porcelain pot with a wooden seat. Of course, my Mom said “no.” No child of her would be reduced to eliminating bodily fluids outside, “like a savage.” Dad would wink at Richard, a knowing wink that absolved him of any retribution should he find himself outside.
Huddled around the stove, we played board games, cards and had a family sing-a-long (in four part harmony no less). Yes, we did those things as odd as it seems today. Dinner was sandwiches and hot chocolate from a thermos. We listened to “Gunsmoke” on the ancient radio, remembering Marshall Dillon’s opening speech, “It’s a chancy job, and it makes a man watchful … and a little lonely.”
We went to bed with our coats on, the heat from that stove not reaching the bedrooms. I asked if I could sleep next to the stove. You can imagine that the answer was no – too dangerous. I dreamed of being warm.
Morning took us to church, to Wilcox’s pharmacy in Carmel for breakfast and then, home route 52 to route 6, on to the West Side highway, the bridge, Gowans parkway …no stopping …to the house at 329-55th Street, its octopus furnace and warmth.
Memories of those adventures, of my Dad’s desire to “rough it,” bring back another warmth, more lasting than the octopus furnace that was soon to be converted to oil.
And the dreary chill of this October day morphed into smiles about another day when adventure was simple, sweet and alive again, if only in memory.