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Free to be You and Me

Every summer of my young life we’d pack up the car for our annual 2 ½ hour schlepp, whisking us away from the hot streets of Brooklyn to the cool mountain air. With my brother and me kicking each other in the back seat, unrestrained by seat belts or cars seats, we’d head over the bridges and up to the woods where summer officially began.

After driving what seemed like forever on the not so Quickway, we’d get off and ride for more forever those last five nauseating miles of rolling hills; passing a lot of old barns and nothing, ticking off landmarks and we sang 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.  First came Egg U then Lucky Dip and Davos which was also known as The Big Vanilla, until finally there it was, the big white sign reading Goodman’s – our bungalow colony, our safe haven, our freedom.

We’d pull onto that gravelly road, like crunching glass under our wheels, roll down our windows and hang our faces out the window to bear full witness to our arrival.

The back line of bungalows soon came into view, tiny little white planks of wood that would house families of four or five. Homes that were more like shacks that had nothing but everything we needed. I knew every family in every bungalow up the line till I reached my own.

My brother and I fell from the car like puppies and tumbled into the dewy grass. Woods surrounded us, closing us off from the world. During the summer, groups of kids would sneak away in those woods to a hideaway called the Bear Cave, climbing over the rock with the graffiti scrawled ‘Son of ’44’ that always gave me the shivers.

David Berkowitz, aka Son of Sam had been caught by then but I was young and the idea of him and that rock created a feeling of danger that lingered. In fact, the Bear Cave itself, where the cooler, older kids hung out was foreboding enough without even the question mark of bears or serial killers.

There were other reasons to be wary of those woods. I had it on good authority that Old man Zuckerman had lost his arm chopping wood on account of being distracted by kids and was now running around crazy with an axe looking for children to kill. That was the story anyway.

The only time I ventured into the woods was with the camp after a rain to search for little orange salamanders that I would doom to a sad end on my bungalow porch in a plastic tub with air holes slit in the top. I loved those gentle soft bellied creatures.

On that first day up, I’d run from the car, sucking in deep breaths of mountain air and leave my parents to the job of unloading our packed up life and setting up our bungalow. I’d walk out into the large expanse of green lawn, hard back wooden chairs and picnic tables scattered about and watch other families hauling suitcases and boxes into their summer homes, knowing they were full of friends and that I’d be in and out of many of them over the next two months. I had been in and out of them since I was a baby.

That was more than 30 years ago, but I still see all of us there on the big hill above the concession, in the TL where our names are still scrawled, behind the casino on Morris’ side, on the S-line lawn and screaming at each other in Color War.

There was the boy in his parachute pants who my best friend loved and I did a little too; and my friend’s brother with a coil of purple rubber arm bands lazily reading a Richie Rich comic book in his bungalow. There was the girl with the wild kinked out hair and her strong older brother with his half shirts, wide smile and a voice as gravely as the road that led us into the colony. There were the sisters who intimidated me, the girl strutting around in the rainbow bikini and the boy who everyone thought was hot; the shy tall guy, his best buddy and the one I played Zim Zam with.  My cousins were also there with me to giggle under the blankets and have our run of the land.

We will forever be those children rolling down the big hill, playing Catch the Flag and May I, trading stationery and running free, full of life and possibility in a place that will remain forever idealized in childhood dreams; a safe place with bomb pops and bungalow bars and a sweet $1.25 lunch special, where the world couldn’t touch you.

The 70’s and 80’s were long ago. The emaciated, slightly hunched man with the tired old cowboy face who walked the colony picking up litter with a long pointed stick and rolling over the grass with his tractor sold our colony and sent us off.

We all grew up and the world did touch us.

But in Goodman’s we live forever.

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Smells like country air

We make the pilgrimage at least once, but generally twice, in a summer. I pack bags filled with our most ratty, hang-around clothes, bug spray for the mosquitos and a golf bag full of hopes and dreams for Howard. We are on our way to the Catskills, and although some say it’s dead, I’m here to tell you, it’s merely on life support, much like the age group it now caters to (sorry mom).

Howard and I both grew up summering in the mountains, or the country, as we call it. We were bungalow babies of the seventies, independently roaming and playing on the grounds while the adults did the same. At that time we were on “rival” colonies, but by 1984, like so many others, my colony was sold to the Hassidic. My family and many of our friends were forced to wander like the Jews (and Italians) that we were, ultimately re-settling on my husband’s colony. I was 15. He was 17. Bungalow life was still a Dirty Dancing time capsule, and our beginning had begun.

You’d think having such a history with the mountains, and both Howard’s and my family still up there, that our conversation wouldn’t go like this –

Howard – We’re going upstate this weekend.

Me – Really? Awww. Why?

Howard – You know why.

Me (whining like a baby) – I don’t wanna.

Howard – There’s a pot luck lunch.

Me – (brow raised) – Seriously, that’s what you got?

Howard (firm) – Too bad. Pack.

I don’t know why I give him a hard time. I love the people and I loved the bungalows growing up. Still this colony is nothing like days of old – the children are gone, the surrounding area is a disaster – but for our parents and their friends, it’s still the good old days. It’s hard to watch their enjoyment and not love it, but for me those good old days are long gone.

Howard and I and our three boys pile in the mini-van with all our crap and drive the 2 ½ hours of “Are we there yet?” torture. My two sisters and brothers-in-law and their children are headed up as well. It’s a lot of people in a 15×15 space, but that’s what bungalows are for. Besides, most of the time you’re outside playing ball, floating on noodles in the pool or reading Shades of Grey while turning shades of brown.

We arrive and there’s a lot of hugging and kissing. Howard breathes deep, “Ah, smell that country air!” The boys dutifully follow. “Smells like meatballs.” Tyler, our oldest, correctly identifies, then wrinkles his nose. “And smoke.” Correct again. A smiling shirtless man with a round belly and a cigar takes a step back.

Other bungalow families are there with their kids. As is customary, we all enter the lounging circle of yentas to pay our respects and be kissed by women in house IMAG2583-1 (1)dresses/bathing suit cover-ups and bronzed bare-chested men who knew us when we were in diapers. After the formalities, we traipse back to the bungalow to participate in the second customary act – eating. We ascend upon any food my mother-in-law has prepared, like a beast to a bone. No matter whether you just came off the buffet line at the Big Bob’s BBQ, you’ve just started weight watchers or just plain aren’t hungry, it doesn’t make one bit of difference. You will eat.

Having completed the reception and consumption, we now looked to each other for ideas. It had just rained, so no one was interested in the pool, and since the grounds were swampy and buggy, wiffle ball on the lawn was also out. Before the kids could open their mouths to cry “iPad!”, “iTouch!” or “I want to go home!” Howard had a brilliant idea.

“Who wants to go salamander hunting?!” He boomed, and six gleeful voices boomed back.

Capturing the little orange creatures that crawl out from under rocks to drink and eat from the damp moss is a fond childhood summer memory for me. I was thrilled my children would experience wandering and searching in the muddy woods with their cousins while my sister-in-law and I played scrabble and contemplated wine. Why do I resist coming here??

They returned not too long afterwards with small, plastic cups, each holding a salamander of their very own. It had been awhile since I had seen one (I am a bearded dragon girl now, but that is another story). They were just as cute as I remembered, but when four year-old Julius proudly picked his up to show me, squeezing his little body round his soft center, I also remembered how delicate they were.

“Julius, you need to be gentle when you’re holding him. He could get hurt if you squeeze his stomach like that.”

“Okay, mommy.” He nodded happily and his curls nodded along. “So I hold him like this?”

Before I could correct him, Julius had picked up his salamander by the head. “No honey! No.”

I took the poor little guy from him. “Like this.”

I showed him how to hold him in his open palm and cover his hand over the top to keep him from falling. Julius again nodded. “I can do that mommy.”

He took his salamander and copied what I did, only his little hands were closer to a closed grasp than a protective cave. Oy.

“Not too tight.” I advised, gritting my teeth, as he walked back toward his cousins so his new pet could play with the other little orange victims.

“Hey, Julius.” I called after him. He looked so darn cute as he walked off suffocating that poor creature.

He turned toward me, smile lighting his eyes. “Yes mommy?”

“You didn’t tell me his name.”

“Oh. It’s squishy.” He said, without a trace of irony. “Cause he’s so squishy.”

I nodded, holding back a head slapping, well, duh . “Good name, honey.”

He bounced off. His hair followed.

Squishy lived a life no other amphibian could claim. He took a ride down a slide, bungeed off the porch and was introduced to many wide-eyed witnesses from in between my son’s two stubby little fingers. Occasionally, he’d remember that it wasn’t the correct way of holding him and would promptly drop him on the floor before picking him up for a more proper display. By the time, we convinced Julius that Squishy was very tired and needed to go back to the woods to nap, he was well beyond ever waking up.

We distracted Julius with a trip to the pool where he giggled along with his brothers and cousins playing on rafts and shooting each other with water guns. Their favorite target was their unflappable grandpa Earl who sat at the edge of the pool reading his paper. Even as it got more and more drenched and I watched him barely able to separate the stuck pages to turn, he continued. The kids cracked up. He barely realized.

Once dried off, Julius once again remembered his pet. It took a visit to the lollipop lady’s bungalow to soothe him, but conveniently after he was done, he again badgered Howard into going back into the woods to find Squishy. Finally, Howard caved and off they went. They returned, Julius once again cheerful. “We found him!”

I looked in the cup and saw another orange salamander, except this one was smaller and skinnier. Apparently Squishy#2  had seamlessly assumed the identity of Squishy #1 without much fanfare, kind of like Darren on Bewitched.

It was time to say goodbye, so we made our way back to the circle where the mamas and papas kibitzed and noshed on coffee and cake. We lingered of course – there was coffee and cake – but then returned to the bungalow to pack our stuff.

Julius was busy, with the help of his grandma and grandpa, making a Tupperware house to transport his new pet home. The other kids with living salamanders were doing the same, and soon there were three little houses filled with water, dirt and moss.

We walked to the car, schlepping our bags, Julius carrying his beloved Squishy soon to be renamed Jumper. (Jumper? Really?) He looked so proud and happy, yet a salamander was the last thing I wanted back at the house. First off, it belonged upstate where it would live, and second, we couldn’t just get another one if Jumper also took a “nap.”

Home two days now, and I’m (semi)happy to report Jumper is doing fine. He has a new Tupperware penthouse and it’s filled with all the latest in bugs and rocks and moss. Julius has checked on him morning and night and is careful to keep the handling to a minimum.

Last night, my three underwear wearing boys came down from Planet Wii to find me as I was cleaning up in the kitchen. They had something on their minds.

“Yes?” I questioned. This could be trouble.

Tyler the oldest, with nine years maturity and obviously their chosen leader, spoke for them. “We want to go back to the country.”

“Really?” I asked, amused. You had a good time?”

Three heads bobbled, one’s hair bobbled too. “So much fun!” Michael, my 7-year-old squealed. “And all our cousins too!”

I sighed, but it was a smiling, reminiscent sigh. There was something about the bungalows. Freedom. Innocence. Coffee and cake. Once it had you, it didn’t let go.

“Of course. We will. In a few weeks.”

“A few weeks! That’s too long!” They communally chorused, stomping a little and spreading their arms in exasperation.

“It’ll go fast.” I assured them. “You’ll see.”

They grumbled and shuffled happily off with consolation cookies, but then Tyler turned, a bright smile lifted his face when he informed me, “Next time we go, daddy said we can catch frogs!”