School's Out, Circa 1930's

If you’re looking to read tales of exciting adventures, travels to exotic lands, expeditions to unexplored locations… you’ll not find them here. There was no Auntie Mame in my life to whisk me off for a summer of soaking up the culture of Paris and Rome, or bumping along atop a camel among the pyramids of Egypt.

My summers were spent with our grandparents. The decision had been made the first year of the polio epidemic that we children would be safer away from New York for the summer months. And so it became accepted tradition that we would summer in Purdys [New York}. There were three of us – Marilyn, Buddy and me, Jeannie. There were other cousins of course, one older and several younger, who visited with their parents on occasion during July and August. But for most of the time, it was just we three – the permanent summer kids.

It seemed that we always had things to do – and I can’t remember that we ever complained of being bored. Looking back, I wonder why we weren’t – and I think that we must have been very easy to please, and remarkably good kids – we never even squabbled.

Marilyn and I could spend hours looking thorough the Montgomery Ward catalogue and picking out all the clothes we would buy – if we were rich. Buddy would sometimes just sit and listen to us (or not), waiting his turn with the catalogue.

The Lake, of course, was an almost every day occurrence. We would go off down the hill, six little sun-browned legs kicking up the dust in the rutted dirt road, each of us carrying a small parcel of Saltines spread with peanut butter, a mason jar of water and a towel. We would spend hours in and out of the water, sometimes disgusted if we happened to play host to a bloodsucker or two (otherwise known as leeches), or warily and rapidly exiting the water on the very rare occasion when a snake should decide to join us for a swim. Even though it was a very small community, there were always a few people around – adults and other children – and of course, the ubiquitous dog or two. Sometimes on weekends, an incredible number of people would pile into one of the larger cars (or two, depending upon the number of weekend guests who had arrived). The Uncles would ride on the running boards, and all involved would whoop and holler greetings to the neighbors all the way down to the Lake. This was the occasion for much boisterous laughter. For some unknown reason we all thought this behavior was hysterically funny.

There was a small grocery store about three-quarters of a mile down the other side of our hill… Spruce’s Market. Whenever we had a few coins burning holes in our respective pockets, we would head down that hill – for there was a most wonderful and exotic assortment of tempting treats just waiting to separate us from our accumulated wealth. A large dark oak display case (taller than we were) with a sloped and rounded glass front, held an array of sweets diverse enough to keep us busy for at least half an hour trying to make our careful selections. (The Spruces were very patient people!) Please bear in mind that these were not easy choices. There were Twizzlers (both licorice and strawberry); Tootsie Rolls; Mary-Janes; Red Hats; those orange banana things shaped like big peanuts; different-colored hard-sugar dots glued on strips of white paper. There were also ugly-looking great big red lips made of wax. And so many more that I have long since lost the ability to recall.

Money spent, we would start back up the hill, small brown paper bags holding our purchases. The road was only paved part way, and by the time we reached the end of the blacktop, Buddy would have eaten all of his candy. Marilyn’s treats would last usually until bedtime. And Jeannie would still have some of hers left for several days – never to be shared, despite fervent pleas from the other two.

We amassed the fortune to sponsor these shopping sprees in various ways. Most of it came from our parents who dispensed an allowance at the end of each weekend as they left for home. Sometimes Jenny, our grandmother, would devise little chores for us, for which we were paid.

Jenny loved to play the pump organ, but wasn’t much enamored of having to push “those blasted pedals”. So she would enlist Marilyn and Jeannie for the chore. We girls would sit on the floor, under the keyboard, one on either side, and manually push on the pedal. Jenny played, and the four of us sang. Usually hymns. Jenny was particularly fond of hymns. We girls were paid a nickel each for this endeavor. Buddy usually earned his nickels by sweeping the chicken coop or the front porch.

We also earned a few cents by gathering tiger lilies from the field near the golf course, tying two or three of them together with string and calling our creations “corsages”. These were offered for sale to the neighbors. Marilyn and Jeannie held an executive conference on pricing, and in deference to the fact that the lilies had a tendency to wilt rather quickly and looked poorly after an hour or so, decided that two cents per was about all that the market would bear. Buddy was the Distribution Department for our enterprise – he pulled the red wagon which carried the corsages. Our customers were few. Mrs. Slack never bought any, but Mrs. Gosteley always did. There was also a secondary gain in selling to the Gosteley household. We were always invited in and offered a piece of candy from one of those fancy boxes that grown-ups always gave each other as gifts. This early attempt at entrepreneurship came to an abrupt halt when our mothers somehow found out about our enterprise. (I always suspected that Mrs. Slack was the tattle-tale.) But being pragmatic children (as well as being genetically predisposed to having an insatiable sweet tooth) we didn’t allow the failure of our business venture to interfere with our continuing social visits to the Gosteleys.

Some of our time was spent just “exploring” in the woods. Our discoveries were never more exciting than a clump of white, waxy Indian Pipes, the bleached-out skull of a small animal long-since demised, or the remains of an old buckboard wagon. The latter was good for an hour’s worth of speculation about the when, how and why a wagon came to be abandoned in the woods far from any evidence of a homestead or a road. Most of our fanciful guesses had to do with Indians. Some afternoons (I think in August) were spent “berryin’“. We would take one of the dogs and go off, pails in hand, into the brambles of the blackberry patches, stomping on the ground as hard as we could and shouting “Get out of here, snakes, we’re coming in.” This warning incantation seemed to work very well, for we never did encounter a snake while gathering berries. (Although Marilyn did see one on one of the bushes one time, just passing by.) We ate as many berries as we tossed into the pails, but we always seemed to arrive home with enough berries left for Grandma to cook up a “mess” of blackberry mush for dessert.

Once in a while we went over to the golf course to look for lost balls and to climb the stone tower. Come to think of it, I don’t know what purpose that tower served, or how it came to be there in the middle of an empty field adjacent to the golf course. I never did question it at the time. It was just another accepted fact of life in a young child’s world – and always reminded me of the pictures I had seen of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I reluctantly followed my cousins up the rusty iron stairs to reach the top. But I didn’t enjoy it at all, since I was very apprehensive about heights – and always relieved to be back at ground level. Besides, there wasn’t that much to see from the top anyway. It was not a very tall tower. I never understood the fascination it held for Marilyn and Buddy.

Let’s see —— We also planted beans and potatoes, and impatiently waited for them to grow. We fed the chickens, and collected eggs. We toasted marshmallow over a small fire almost every evening. We managed to find a myriad of equally exciting endeavors. By far though, the most exciting and anticipated event of our summer was to visit that distant and magical City of Danbury – which was even in a whole different state.

We three kids would pile into the rumble seat. Buddy, being the youngest and the smallest, was relegated to the middle position. It was a long trip in those days, what with old roads, old speed limits, and Grandpa driving with fingers grasping the steering wheel so tightly that his knuckles were white, ever mindful of the three children in the rumble seat. During the ride we amused ourselves by waving to folks in passing cars to determine which ones were “nice” and would return our waves – usually with a smile. Another diversion was to “collect” out-of-state license plates. Sometimes we would play “I Spy”.

Finally, when our green chariot was ensconced in a parking place on Danbury’s Main Street, we kids were given some money – sometimes as much as a whole dollar each – deposited in Woolworths and were allowed to shop as much and as long as we wanted. Or as long as our dollars held out, whichever came first. Our Grandparents took turns keeping an eye on us while they went out and about doing whatever chores or business it was that brought them to this busy metropolis.

What to buy with our money was not an easy decision for us. But eventually, after circling the store many times, and after much consultation with each other – decisions and purchases were made. Grandpa always went to the bakery counter and bought us a treat for the ride home.

We went to the waiting car, which had been sitting in the merciless mid-day sun for a couple of hours. After considerable dramatic whooping and hollering , we settled our bare-legged bottoms onto the leather seats. And proceeded to attack Grandpa’ treats. Which, much to Grandma’s consternation, were chocolate-covered donuts. On the ride home, we spent a goodly amount of time licking our gooey and very grubby fingers. (It’s a wonder we all survived those less-than-sanitary days.)

During each of the summers we spent together, there were occasional distractions. One year there was a Firemen’s Carnival in town, with a Wheel of Fortune for placing bets in order to win prizes. Marilyn, Buddy and I each won a small box of candy by placing our nickels down on #8. After that night I was convinced that the number eight was my personal lucky number, except that it never worked again, no matter how many times I chose it in various games. One day at a church fair I disconsolately confided in my mother that Lady Luck had deserted me and taken away my magic lucky number. My mother explained that it wasn’t so much a matter of the hand of Lady Luck spinning the wheel of Fortune that night at the carnival, as it was that the hand on the wheel was attached to the arm of one of Grandpa’s very good friends. And so my mystical, magical Lucky #8 went the way of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. Oh well – life’s lessons are difficult to assimilate. No one gets to be Peter Pan forever!

Looking back now, nothing much at all ever did happened during our summer vacations. But I certainly do cherish looking back at those uneventful times.

All things considered, I would not trade my memories for those of Patrick Dennis [author of Auntie Mame, 1955]. For one thing, a camel’s back is very high up. And I’ve heard that camels don’t smell so very good. I must admit though, that the royalties from Auntie Mame would have bought a monumental amount of penny candy at Spruce’s Market.

But I know for sure that Patrick Dennis’ memories could not make him feel any more loved nor any more warm and fuzzy than my memories make me feel. It’s sort of like that old story of trading your troubles for someone else’s. I much prefer my own, thank you.

Jeanne Peck
Southbury, CT © 2013

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