The excitement grew with the passing of the days as the end of June approached.
Like the other kids of 88th Street on the east side of Manhattan, my younger brother Steve and I envisioned our coming summer. In the post-war years of the 1940s, most looked forward to another season of long days playing stick ball on hot, sticky New York City streets, often cooled by open fire hydrants shooting arcs of water onto partially dressed children, and sweltering nights spent seeking relief with open windows, fans, and on the worst nights, sitting outside on the city’s ubiquitous apartment building fire-escapes.
For some fortunate kids, a couple of weeks of summer camp out of the city would afford a welcome break. But we knew we were especially lucky, as we spent those days anticipating the arrival of our maternal grandfather, Frank Clark, or “Dad”, as we called him. On the appointed day, he would drive up and park in front of our apartment building in his old dark green Ford sedan. The next day he would load us into the car together with our “good” summer clothes and begin the long-awaited journey back upstate. When we found ourselves driving north on old Route 12, we knew we were about to begin another familiar and adventure-filled summer in Watertown, where I had been born in December 1938 and Steve had followed in April 1940.
There would be no surprises; we knew just how our summer would unfold. It would be exactly as it had been the previous year and just as we were sure they would always be in the future. We knew that shortly after arriving at 810 Superior St., a best friend, Clayton Sherman who lived up the street, a few houses east of Meade Street, would arrive. (Dad told us that recently he had been coming to the house and asking when Bobby would be coming). Somewhat later, and from the other direction, Dickie Keller would show up. For us, summer could then officially start.
A quick inspection always showed that everything was in its place. Behind our backyard, the cemetery, and its creek stocked full of frogs, awaited our first hunting foray. So did the vacant lot next door, full of milkweed stands, where we would build our forts, together with its swarms of grasshoppers who, when caught, would spit their ‘tobacco juice” on our hands. Across the street, Meade Street School, that our mother had attended as a child, still offered its sprawling front lawn for playing tag and ringolevio, the street game we imported from New York. Finally, in front of the house stood our big oak tree. The one that I would stare up at while looking through the living room’s bay window as I lay on the couch when I was feeling particularly lazy.
While I might like to describe each summer, as we lived it, I can’t. The memories all have been fused into happy amalgams that we lived over and over, until our Watertown lives finally died with Dad’s passing in 1950. So where to start? It makes no difference, since each memory and joy randomly comes and goes in my mind as I tell them to you.
Our back yard was always the center of our summer lives, and the place where Sherman, his brother — Jimmy, Dickie, and often, his sister — Linda would congregate to camp out in our makeshift tent, construct the products of our imagination (e.g., our sail boat on wheels), and to the distress of some neighbors, those 2-by-4 and crate scooters, outfitted with discarded roller skate wheels, that we built just as we did in the city. The racket created as we rolled up and down Superior Street was greatly satisfying to us, but only us. The quiet of our crate carts outfitted with old baby carriage wheels was, I am sure, much preferred by the neighbors.
It was a short walk to the cemetery. Occasionally, we would inspect the gravestones — although I don’t know why. Our real destination was its creek. We were relentless in our hunt for the fat bull frogs, as we disdained the large numbers of lowly leopards. I won’t describe the way we dispatched our unfortunate prey. I will say, however, we did acquire a taste for their fat legs roasted over our “Sterno-can” flames.
It was also a short walk up to the small grocery and candy store that occupied part of the first floor of the large house on the corner of Superior and Bradley streets. If we turned left and proceeded north along Bradley, we could approach the airport and watch the Piper Cubs and others take off and land. Later, Steve would ride his bicycle to the airport and study the construction of small planes, as they were being assembled there.
In the early years, our knowledge of the city was limited to shopping trips downtown to Woolworth’s on the bus that stopped in front of the house together with our Aunt Lena, visits to Dad’s grocery store on East Main Street, and on Sundays, to the not so popular church services at Dad’s Hope Presbyterian Church on LeRay Street. Thankfully, most Sundays were tolerable because we could avoid the services by joining Sunday school classes in the basement.
Every so often, our attendance at church services would be rewarded by an outing in the country. Destination — Pine Camp, (as Fort Drum was then known), to observe the Italian prisoners of war that were still being housed there and seemed to congregate along the wire fence near the road, as we drove through the camp. We never considered just how inappropriate those trips were.
Later, our horizons broadened to include the farther reaches of the north side of the city. One favorite destination, requiring a 1-mile trek across Bradley, LeRay, and Mill streets, was the Adams Swimming Pool. There, we would join the interminably long lines of children waiting to be admitted for an afternoon of fun in the water. Strictly off-limits was anywhere near the Black River. It was a generally accepted that if you fell in, certain death awaited.
Baseball and cow bones
Baseball was the only sport that counted. There were never enough kids to really choose up teams, but that did not stop us from wandering down to the end of Superior Street to New York Avenue, where the baseball field is still located. How many times I tried unsuccessfully to hit a fly ball to the rickety old fence down the right field line, I will never know. The practice did, however, serve me well when I returned to the city. Similarly, the hours I spent trying to throw a curve ball to Dad, as we played catch in the driveway, never bore fruit.
The Watertown Athletics was our professional ball team. They belonged to the old Border League, and they played their games in the late afternoon at the fair-grounds stadium. The games, not be missed, were those when the despised, and usually, more talented teams from Geneva and Auburn came to town. We would walk along West Main Street, cross the river on the Court Street Bridge, and back along the opposite side to the ballpark. Steve reminds me of the occasions, when perhaps late, we took a shortcut home by crossing the feared and angry river on the nearby railroad trestle. We never told Dad. I am sure, had he found out, we would have had enjoyed our last trip to the ballpark.
For a couple of summers, Steve and I had the opportunity to experience the life of a paleontologist. We would walk down to the end of Superior Street, to Cayuga Avenue. There, after ascending a short hill, a series of fenced-in cow pastures extended north-west into the distance. Walking across these pastures, including the one where a bull seemed always to be grazing, we discovered hundreds of sun-bleached bones, presumably cow skeletons, strewn about. With our burlap potato sacks, stuffed so full of bones that they had to be dragged, we would return home to arrange them neatly on our aunt’s canning jar shelves in the cellar. Try as we might, we were never able to reconstruct a cow.
One place held a special allure for us and our friends: the freight yards. If we were lucky, we might arrive in time to see a train pulling an incredible number of box cars slowly arrive and then stop. In any case, our exploration of the emptied freight cars, with their doors left open, would usually yield an array of left-behind melons, bananas and other fruit. Sometimes, they were even edible. Obviously, I am not surprised to find that I can’t remember if we ever also found vegetables.
A sad signal
On a couple of occasions every summer, Dad would leave us, together with our Aunt Lena, at the summer bungalow at Point Salubrious. We would spend quiet days playing on the rocky shore, trying to swim among the rocks, and getting sunburned after falling asleep on the lawn next to the house. When Dad would come over from Watertown to stay for a few days, we could finally boat on the lake. Early in the morning, just after sunrise, we would row out, to what I imagined must have been the middle of Lake Ontario, and catch the fish that, upon our return, we would filet and fry for our breakfasts.
As I recall, the last of these brief stays on the lake signaled the impending end of our summer. The last days were spent trying to pack all the things we had built, and other treasures found during our adventures. We always ended up taking much more back to New York than we had brought with us, and certainly much more than would be welcome in a modest city apartment.
The days of departure were not ones of anticipation for an exciting new school year ahead in New York City, but were ones of last-minute consultations with Clayton and Dickie to plan next year’s adventures. The long drives back to New York were not much fun, either.
Dr. Reiss is a retired professor of clinical pathology, Columbia University. He resides in New York City. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Steve Reiss is also retired after a lengthy engineering and management career in the defense industry. He resides in Middletown, N.J.