I came out of my house the other day to go to breakfast at my favorite local spot Racheal’s. I got to the corner of 19th and Pine and suddenly saw these two little parakeets on the pavement together.
I was shocked and stunned to see these two tiny exotic birds right there on the sidewalk. I wondered where they had come from. Did they somehow escape from a cage in someone’s house? Did they just fly out the window? They’re caged birds and could hardly fly.
I carefully approached them to observe and then another gentleman approached. We were both amazed and he called the local animal hospital over on 20th street. They said they don’t take birds, just mostly dogs and cats. But they gave us the number of a woman on Facebook who looks after birds in Philly.
I called her but of course, no one answered. Another guy showed up and we tried to get the birds to hop into a little box that someone else had brought us. But they wouldn’t be caught. They would hop away. They could fly a little bit but I knew they had probably spent their lives together in a cage and didn’t have the strength to fly any great distance. We would try to catch one and he would flutter away but remain close.
I called the bird lady again and left a long message regarding the situation and the location. But I figured that’s all I could do. The other guy that had shown up told me he had to get to work so I was left with these birds.
But I had to get going as well. So as much as I hated to leave them I had to go. We’d called the animal hospital, I tried the bird lady, and there was nothing else I could do.
But here’s the thing. No matter what we did, the birds stayed together. The one bird, I’m assuming the male because he had the prettier plumes, wouldn’t leave his mate’s side.
I thought about the dedication of these terrified little birds. Two living things. Two little beautiful birds that could fly. The only species are other than insects and bats that could truly fly. And what did humans do? They stuck them in a cage. A prison that they could never escape from. Never to fly and be free and use the gift of flight they were born with. Now here they were, ironically free, and they wouldn’t leave each other’s side. They were out in a strange world. The phrase, free as a bird comes to mind. But even in their newfound freedom, they wouldn’t separate. All they knew and all they had was each other. Like the inmate that’s spent his whole life in prison, they couldn’t make it on the outside. They didn’t even know what the outside world was like.
It was so sad and yet uplifting. No matter how cruel I thought it was to capture these lovely entities and steal them from their natural habitat, they stuck together. That spoke to me.
Why can’t people just leave the natural world alone? The planet operates perfectly well without humans. But here we are. We destroy our habitat all in the name of growth, expansion, and industrial progress. Everything we need is here and it’s all free, and we choose to capture it, kill it, or monetize it. It’s so sad. We’ve kind of blown it as a species. It’s too bad humans can’t walk among the rest of the living things on this planet and try to live in harmony. Instead of killing it, conquering it, or destroying it. Humans aren’t so great after all.
I later came by the area where I initially found the birds. They were gone. So was the box. I’m hoping they were rescued by someone and the cute little couple are okay. Even if they ended up back in a cage somewhere. At least they’d be able to live out what remained of their little lives together.
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The next morning I woke up upstairs in the apartment on the second floor of the shore house. This used to be where my father lived. This may be the bed he slept in for all I know. The apartment still has the 70s vibe and the walls are covered in wood paneling. I kind of like that it reminds me of a time in the past when life was simpler.
I looked at my phone at it was 5:30 am. Early. I looked at the weather app and it said sunrise was at 5:45. I knew I had 15 minutes to walk the block and a half to the beach to see the sunrise. I hadn’t seen a sunrise in I don’t know how long. It may have been the late 70s or early 80s but it was probably after I’d stayed out all night with some woman.
It’s always cooler at the shore. The heat was unbearable in Philly in July, but even when it’s blazing outside, there’s always a breeze at the shore. I threw on some clothes and quietly headed out. My sister’s husband had already left because he was going out on a fishing boat for the day with his brother or a friend.
I walked down the street towards the beach. Some of the properties have remained the same. The old-time, small clapboard shore houses. But many of the properties on the island have been torn down and transformed into massive condo complexes. It’s kind of sad because the architecture is part of the essence of a town. Being all built up like this sort of ruins the aesthetic of the community.
What was once a landscape dotted with little shore homes has now been mostly replaced by buildings that take up the entire property. Case in point: next door to the shore house was once a little one-story home. It was cute and perfect for the block like the other homes. But it’s been torn down and a massive three-story building is going up on that property. This completely blocks the air and the view of the sea from my sister’s place. So that’s another thing ruined. When you look out any window in the house now on that side all you’ll see is someone else’s gigantic house right in your face.
Where there were once motels all designed in the classic doo-wop design, are now massive properties and condos. Gone are all of the tourists that would stay at those motels each summer. The sound of people coming and going, and kids laughing and splashing around in the pools and music playing… all gone. It’s very quiet down there now. It looks nice and clean, but a huge part of the look and feel of the place is long gone.
I get to the beach and there are a few people around ready to see what I’m about to witness. I live in Philly. There are no sunrises to see. I’m surrounded by huge towers of steel and glass. It’s a city. They all look the same. It’s the neighborhoods and local businesses that make a city. They give it a personality. Wildwood has lost a lot of its personality.
The beach has retained its natural beauty. That timeless place for millions of years has done the same thing. The moon’s gravitational pull makes the waves lap the beach turning rock into sand over time.
I approach the lifeguard chair here on the 8th street beach. The chair is a timeless symbol of the seashore. The guards sit in the summer sun and go from tan to brown through the season. The protectors who sit and watch that no one drowns on their watch. The lifeguard persona is like a fireman. A protector, and yet, fit and admired by the women and girls who would flock to the beach each summer.
As I get closer to the chair, I notice a little plaque on the back of one of the horizontal stabilizing beams on this one. I take a closer look to read the inscription.
I don’t have any idea who John Steiger is, but the plaque on the right is a memorial to my father.
My dad loved the beach and being at the seashore. He’d been coming here during his childhood and then in the 60s with mom and the kids, and then bought the house in the 70s. He was never a lifeguard but always made friends with the guards and liked swimming in the sea. He was a social guy and I suppose he enjoyed the whole vibe of the beach scene. If they gave him a plaque I’m assuming he was an annual contributor to the Wildwood Beach Patrol over the years.
Whatever happened, it was nice to be standing here at almost 60 years old on the beach that held so many fond memories from my youth. I hadn’t stood on this beach in many decades. At least this was unchanged. You can’t move or build on the Atlantic Ocean, so it remains the same. That’s comforting. It made me smile to see my father’s name on that chair. It put him there with me for a few moments.
There’s an orange glow in the sky and upon the sea where the Earth will turn towards its nearest star to welcome a new day.
I’m happy to be here today to witness this daily event that we all take for granted. Life is good right now. I’m at the shore. There’s no stress in my life, I have my health and I really can’t complain about anything right now.
Like a shiny new penny, the sun begins to rise from the sea. It’s really beautiful. I see a couple off in the distance by the shoreline. They are but silhouettes and embrace each other as the golden disc rises before them. I smile and think back to when I fell in love every week back in the 70s in Wildwood.
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This was the only photo I could find online of what our little tents looked like, but you get the idea.
Philadelphia, PA – 1976
One of the things we used to like to do was to make tents in our backyard. This was accomplished by finding some large sheets and old blankets.
Back then many people had a washer in their basement but not a dryer. My mom would hang our clothes to dry on lines strung across the front of the basement, and in nicer weather, she’d hang them on the line in the backyard.
The clotheslines were always up in the backyard in the warmer months. I don’t remember who came up with the idea of fabricating our little tent out there. We located a few old raggedy sheets and blankets and went to work. We hung the edge of one sheet to the clothesline and clipped it in place with clothespins. Then we did the same thing on the other side with another sheet. Now with both securely fastened to the overhead line, we spread them out and drove broken wooden clothespins into the corners on the sheets into the ground. Once tacked down securely we had ourselves a tent. We spread a couple of blankets on the grass on the tent floor, and we were good to go.
Like the forts, we used to build back the tracks and in the woods nearby, I think we just liked having our little places to hideaway. Kids like getting into little shelters and dens. I think it’s almost instinctual for humans to find and build shelters.
I brought out a transistor radio and we were all set. We just hung out in there, listening to the radio and smoking cigarettes.
My friend Michael and I asked our moms if we could sleep out there all night. The yard was fenced in, but anybody could come along and open it at any time. But the idea of sleeping outside all night intrigued us.
When you’re a kid you always have guidelines put forth by your parents regarding the clock. You always had to be home at a certain time for dinner, and if you were out at night you had to be in by the time the streetlights came on.
But this was an opportunity to not go inside that night. We would be free when the whole neighborhood was inside their homes asleep in bed. We’d be outside all night and didn’t have to go to bed if we didn’t want to. We could stay up all night if we wanted to.
Everybody enjoyed listening to the radio back then. Especially the two rock stations in Philly. WYSP 94 and WMMR 93.3. FM was king and other than having an older sibling it was the only way we found new music back then. I think anyone from that era can attest to the fact that they found their favorite bands and songs on FM radio on one of the aforementioned radio stations.
But kids and teens mostly listen to the radio during the day. What sort of music was played on those stations late at night? Well, whatever the overnight DJ wanted to play. So we discovered some new music that night but one struck us a little harder than any of the others.
The late-night DJ had said they were going to play an entire album by a band called Pink Floyd. We had only heard the song, “Money” on the radio. We didn’t know much else about the band. But now we were going to hear the whole Dark Side of the Moon album at midnight.
It was really quiet at night being outside, and frankly, it was a little spooky. Just the sound of crickets chirping and the occasional bark from some lonesome canine in the distance.
The DJ started the record at midnight and we were amped to hear some Floyd. If you’ve ever heard that record, and I’m assuming you have, it starts very quietly. So we turned up the radio to hear the song a bit better. It starts to build and build until it’s that rotating metallic sound and then that scream happens.
Well, that completely caught us off guard and terrified us. We were already spooked by the general vibe of the night and our imaginations were running a bit wild. But then the song settles down into the song, “Breathe” and we chilled out. It turned out to be an amazing experience even though neither of us had ever smoked marijuana and wouldn’t even try it for another year or so.
We were out there for hours through the night and really couldn’t and didn’t want to fall asleep. It was just fun to be up and doing what we wanted with zero parents or rules.
But then we heard some strange noises coming from the east. It sounded like something crunching or being broken, and it appeared to be coming from somewhere up the block from us. Then we heard some voices. We put our sneakers on and went to investigate. By now it was around 4 am.
We quietly exited the tent and opened the gate. We crept down the driveway and out to the street. It was eerie to be standing out on the sidewalk in front of my house at this hour. The whole neighborhood was as quiet as a morgue.
We heard the noise again and started to walk up the block towards Oakley Street. By the time we got up there, we saw the fire department had arrived and it looked like the Zerbach’s garage was on fire. They were putting it out and I wondered why I never heard any sirens. But I figured they addressed the problem and didn’t want to wake the whole neighborhood.
The authorities were really surprised to see a couple of boys out there at that hour of the night. We told them we had been sleeping in a tent out in my backyard, heard the commotion, and came to check it out. We told the firemen what we had heard but I don’t think we were much help. (When I think about this now, I’m glad we weren’t blamed for whatever happened!)
We eventually went back to our tent and laid down inside, talking about the events of the night. We never found out what or who caused the fire but it was the topic of conversation around the neighborhood for about a week after that.
I don’t think we ever slept the entire night. Mike went home at daybreak and I went into my house too. (My mom left the backdoor unlocked in case we bailed during the night and I wanted to come in.)
My mother was awake and in the kitchen. I told her what had happened and she asked me if I wanted to go up to my room and sleep. That was exactly what I wanted to do because I was exhausted from staying up all night.
We pitched a few more tents like that through the Spring and even made one in Mike’s neighbor’s yard one night. (We couldn’t do it in his yard because they had a big above ground pool) His neighbor Mr. Hersch was nice enough to let us camp in his yard for the night.
I went to Wildwood for the Summer and we didn’t make any more tents in the yard anymore after that, but I’m glad we had the experience.
Just stuff you do as a kid that’s all part of experiencing life.
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Once my parents had acquired the house at the shore, they quickly fell into the lifestyle. Days at the beach for mom and the girls, and dad taking up surf fishing. I don’t know exactly when he started getting into fishing, but I remember what he normally did when approaching something new. He read several books on the subject and got to know people in the fishing community on the island.
I remember us going up to a tackle store on the corner of New Jersey Avenue and Juniper. We would hang out in the store and he’d chat with the owner, Charlie Glenn. Mr. Glenn was a master angler. Well known on the island as a guy who could”high hook” every other fisherman around. High hook meant if they were ever out fishing Mr. Glenn would usually catch something and everyone else would go home empty-handed.
His store was a classic seashore town bait and tackle shop. All sorts of rods, reels, lures and stuff to send you on your fishing adventures. I remember a sign he had hanging on the wall among the photos of fish he had caught. It read: “Early to bed. Early to rise. Fish like hell, and make up lies.” I always liked it for its clever play on words and the idea that men probably lied all of the time about what they caught and how big the fish was. (Or the big one that got away!)
My father invested in some good surf fishing gear. He purchased a big ten-foot rod with a Garcia reel. Unlike fishing in streams and off boats, you need a long rod to throw the bait beyond the waves to where the fish were. My dad’s goal was to hook and catch a big bluefish. Weakfish and Striped Bass were also popular types that the fisherman sought after.
Bluefish – These suckers get huge and fight like a fish twice their size.
Weakfish – This guy is actually a sea trout, but his nickname comes from his tender mouth. It’s ‘weak’ so it’s hard to get a hook in him.
Striped Bass – The name is pretty obvious.
My dad wanted to catch one of those big blues because they put up a hell of a fight if you got one on your hook. We started out using bait, like bits of squid, but quickly abandoned that. It was slimy, smelly, gross to handle, and just seemed boring. You’d see guys at the beach sitting in their chairs with their rods standing in spikes that were driven into the sand. They’d be puffing cigars and drinking beer and just waiting and hoping something would come along and hit their bait. Boring!
My dad got into lure fishing. Using steel lures like Hopkins and Castmasters that had reflective surfaces that resembled little fish that the bigger fished liked to dine upon. Those were my favorite!
But to catch the bigger fish, you needed to use a lure called a plug.
They resembled the type of fish called mullet that the bigger fish went crazy over. My father gave me books to read on the subject of fishing in general. I could still tie the proper knots to secure the lure to the line if you asked me today.
The key to catching fish in my opinion was pretty simple.
Fish the areas where you think the fish may be feeding. That meant looking to see where the seabirds like gulls were feeding. If you saw the gulls diving down to the water and snatching up little fish, that usually meant there was something bigger beneath the surface driving the little fish to the surface. If you can cast your lure out there, you may get a hit.
It seemed the best fishing was in the fall. My dad would head down to the beach in his waders and cast his heart out trying to catch a big blue. I don’t think most people realize how strong these fish are. The line these fishermen are using is heavy monofilament. A steel leader is tied to it, and then that’s attached to the lure. You have to cast it out as far as you can, and then work that lure through the water so it looks like a little fish doing its thing to fool the bigger fish. It’s truly a skill to be learned.
My dad got me a seven-and-a-half-foot Fenwick glass on glass rod, that had incredible action. On it was a Penn reel. I loved that fishing pole. I had thrown the big ten-footers in the surf without much success, and to a skinny kid like me, they were just too heavy. My older sister had a beautiful blue fishing rod, and she was an avid fisherwoman along with my dad. She put the time and practice in on the beach with dad more than I did. With that dedication came a pretty good-sized weakfish she caught on her own. I was impressed and we have the pictures to prove it. I hadn’t caught anything during any of my fishing endeavors.
As time and practice went by my dad started catching a few bluefish. Which was cool, because he would bring them home, and we’d all dine on them. I think up till then the only fish I had eaten was in the form of fried fish sticks and crab cakes. They were all bought at the supermarket from the frozen food section!
But freshly prepared seafood was delicious! My dad showed me every aspect of the fishing experience. How to hold the fish if you caught one, and how to carefully and mercifully remove the hook from the fish’s mouth.
The fish would be brought home and washed, scaled, and cut into filets. If he had a successful day and had caught more than his share, he’d share his bounty with the neighborhood. Everybody loves free food, especially when it’s absolutely fresh. Another cool thing my dad showed me, was to take the carcasses of the fish and bury them in the garden. So nothing was ever wasted from the catch. As the fish decomposed underground, they served as fertilizer. This yielded terrific, robust Jersey tomatoes. My father seemed to be very pleased with this whole cycle of life program he developed. I imagined him as the Indian warrior and me his little brave.
The filets were cooked in a pan or broiled with a bit of lemon, butter, and pepper. You can really taste the difference when you devour something that was alive and well a few hours ago. Sea to the table! (Just watch out for the bones!)
Dad finally caught a monster bluefish. He was so proud. It was three feet long and probably weighed over 20 lbs. A beast! He showed me photos he had taken. He also showed me how during that battle to bring the fish to shore, it had beat up his tackle pretty bad. Steel leaders all chewed up and bent, and hooks nearly straightened. I was shocked at the raw power of these sea denizens as they fought their final battle on earth.
My dad became a hardcore fisherman. He and his buddies would get in his VWminibus and drive down the beach in the off-season. You needed a permit to do that, but it was awesome to take the van on the beach. He would drop the bed in the back and you could lay the fishing rods right in there. I remember going with my dad a few times, but I remember not catching anything and freezing my butt off in the van. But I was happy to spend time with my father, just the two of us.
One of the things you had to always watch when you were casting out your lure was to check that the line wasn’t tangled around the end of the pole. If it was and you didn’t notice the twist when you cast out, the line would snap and you basically threw away an eight-dollar steel lure. You’d watch your lure sail through the air and think for a second, “That was an amazing cast!” Then you’d see it disappear beneath the waves and watch as all you had left was a broken line twirling in the wind on the end of your rod. Fun!
I kept plugging away at the fishing without much luck. But one day I was down on the beach casting away with my dad and pro angler sister, and something happened.
“I got one!” I yelled as I felt the sudden tug on my line and the drag on the reel whir in my hand as the line went out of the reel. I had to think quickly and remember what my dad told me. Pull back on the rod, to seat the hook, and as I lower it, reel in like hell. I did this automatically as I did it over and over. I instinctively started to back away from the water hoping to haul out my catch. I saw him break the beach and I had him! I ran over and put my hand down on the small bluefish. I had finally caught one!
This was a father-son moment. An ancient art passed down through the generations. The father teaches his children how to catch and prepare their own food from the wild. It just felt like we were aligned with our ancestors that day on the beach.
Once I got it, I was back to casting away again. I think we caught 14 blues that afternoon. I went from zero to hero in one day! But that can happen in life. You feel like a failure, but if you keep at it, you’ll eventually find some success. This has followed me throughout my entire life.
Here are a few final words about fishing and fish in general.
I once found a three-foot sand shark on the beach one night. It was dead and some fisherman had cut a chunk out of it to use as bait. I found this cruel and unusual. Why not simply throw the elegant animal back in the sea if you didn’t want him? I had never seen a shark close up or ever touched one. Their hide is like sandpaper. Really cool. I decided to keep him. I dragged him home and hid him under the bush out front of our house. Of course, after a few days in the heat of summer, that boy was ripe! My mom was wondering what that horrible smell was coming from the front bush. I told her my shark story and she told me to drag that sucker back to the beach and dispose of it. So, I dragged “stinky” back to the dunes and left his carcass for the seagulls.
Once my dad, sister, and I were out on a little boat doing some fishing. I’ll tell the whole story about my experience in a future post, but this one is worth mentioning here. We’re fishing and dad drives the boat over to where he sees some birds working. I cast out a few times without luck. But at one point I accidentally hooked a seagull. I felt terrible. That’s not what I was out there to catch. My dad told me to gently reel him in and we’d figure something out. The eerie thing was, all of the birds stopped feeding. They all just started hovering and some floating in the water around the boat in some sort of Hitchcockian moment. My dad put on a pair of gloves and when the snagged bird was close, he gently removed the hook from the bird’s wing. He seemed unhurt and flew away to my relief.
But during this whole melee, my sister’s line got tangled and the bucktail lure she had been working sank to the bottom of the bay. While my father worked to untangle her line, I just tried to stay out of the way. Once the line was untangled and my sister could reel in her line from the murky depths, she pulls up the lure, and to our amazement, she’d hooked is a big Flounder!
Yea, I try to catch fish and instead hook a bird. My sister is so awesome, she catches fish without even trying! High hooked us all that day!
These stories are just about us being a family and doing things together. Learning new skills and sharing fun-filled days.
In the end… what else is there in life?
If you like fishing and fishing stories, check out my buddy George’s site! He even has a show on YouTube!
When you’re in school and there’s a threat of a snowstorm, it’s a joyous occasion. Nowadays, they’ll close the school for some flurries and a little bit of ice. But back in the 60s and 70s, you needed at least 6 inches for them to close the schools.
I’d be home watching TV the night before and I would head downstairs every hour or so to look out the front porch windows. I’d look up at the street lights to see if any flurries were starting to fall. If they had begun then there was a good chance the snow was on, but more times than not, it didn’t. We’d go to bed and hope for the best.
The next morning I’d wake up and look out my bedroom window. I couldn’t see much because I slept in the middle room of our house. All I could see was the house next door. So, I’d flip on the radio just like I did every morning to listen to music to start my day.
Listening to music on the radio is where we got most of our music back then. Two stations. WMMR and WYSP. It was all rock and it’s where I found about whatever was popular at the time. I remember hearing the song, Roxanne by a new band called The Police back in 1978. We Will Rock You, and We Are The Champions by Queen were also a pair of firsts on the radio one morning.
But today I would flip the switch on my clock radio to AM from FM to get the local news. KYW News Radio 1060 was the go-to station for all local and national news. Normally on a snow day, they would list all of the schools and state-run buildings that were closed that day. The announcer would read through a list of dozens and dozens of school numbers to say which ones would be closing due to the inclement weather.
But the one thing we wanted to hear was this statement: “All public and parochial schools are closed.”
When you heard those words, you went from a sleepyhead kid who didn’t want to go to school, to a completely energized youngster with sudden boundless energy and excitement.
We all usually played outside as kids, but when it snowed, it was as if our neighborhood was briefly transformed into a day with endless possibilities and fun.
I’d call my friends and we’d make our plans for the day. The schools were closed to keep children safe and off the streets during inclement weather. But we did the exact opposite.
I’d get dressed and come downstairs to have breakfast with my sisters. Captain Crunch cereal, bacon, toast, and a small glass of orange juice to start the day, all courtesy of mom.
After breakfast, it was time to suit up for the day ahead. Heavy coat, hat, boots, and gloves.
Within an hour I’d meet up with my friend Michael and we’d head down to Rising Sun Avenue. Trudging through the snow with our snow shovels. We’d inquire inside a couple of small businesses and ask to shovel their sidewalks. It was an easy gig because there were no steps or driveways to shovel. Quick and efficient, we’d make between $5 and $10 each. Then we’d stop at the little corner store on the corner of Rising Sun and Gilliam Streets, called Kushners. We’d buy some cigarettes and candy. Cigs back then were $0.60 a pack. $0.51 at Rite Aid! Super cheap!
Once we were finished shoveling a couple of walks we’d head back home and drop off the shovels with no thought of doing our own steps or driveways. I’d go into the garage and grab my sled.
I had recently gotten it for Christmas and it was a beautiful Flexible Flyer. An elegant vehicle you could steer that was sturdy and swift. To add to its ability to dash down a snow-covered hill, I’d take an old candle and rub it along the blades of the sled. This made it even slicker and faster.
My little sisters would be out in the driveway, completely bundled up and they would ride their little sleds up and down the driveway. But the older kids knew of a place where the real fun lived on a snowy day.
My friends and I would walk south on Hasbrook Avenue to Levick Street. We’d walk west until we reached the crest of the hill that bordered Cheltenham. Across the bridge, over the railroad tracks, and around the cyclone fence that led into the Melrose golf course. It was obviously closed this time of year because the whole place was buried under a blanket of snow. I’d only seen it once before not covered in snow.
When we got there it was already full of kids and families from all over who also knew about our secret. The whole course was somehow built on an enormous series of hills. Easily a quarter mile to the bottom down to Tookany Creek. I don’t know about other parts of the country, but I’ve never seen a better place to go sledding in my life. The hills were enormous and steep!
The cool thing was, you saw everybody who knew about this place from around your neighborhood. There were no bullies, no victims, no school rivalries. Just kids all playing together with one goal in mind. Have the best day ever in this winter wonderland made just for us.
Folks were sledding down the slopes on everything imaginable. Mostly standard sleds, but there were some people going down the hills six-strong, on toboggans. The crazy brave on their plastic or metal disks, flying over the moguls sometimes backward!
I even saw some kids all piling onto an old car hood flying down the hill to certain disaster. It was insane!
Think of the exercise we were getting back then as kids. Sledding down huge hills and then dragging our sleds back up the steep hills to do it again and again. All-day long!
We’d immediately get down to the business of having a great snow day. There were several different hills of varying sizes, so there was something for everyone there. Technically it was private property but in all the years we went there, we never had any problems. We’d start off with some of the smaller, less busy hills and then move over to the one main area where most kids were playing. It was an amazing hill. It began with a steep decline so you’d build up speed rather quickly. Midway through the folks who had to build the course had cut a road horizontally through it for the golf carts to navigate along. So this road created the first jump, so to speak.
So when you hit it at high speed, you’d literally become airborne for a few seconds. You had to hold on tight.
Then the descent became even steeper and you flew down the final few lengths. Near the bottom was a couple of inverted moguls in your path. So, basically, you could go around them or be bold and run right through them. The spot was so famous it became known as The Nutcracker. Because if you hit those dips at high speed you dipped into the first one and then became airborne only to land in the second one with a bang. Hence the name coined by the boys in the area.
It was a large course so we were always looking for new hills to sled down. On one trip we happened upon a spot south where you could sled along the golf cart road they had cut through the hill. It zig-zagged down the hill diagonally and then continued on a sharp curve just as it came to a flat wooden bridge for the golf carts to cross over a small brook. The brook led down into Tookany Creek that ran north and south a quarter of a mile west of where we were.
The hill hadn’t been done before because there weren’t any footprints or sled tracks in the area. So we would be first that day. Me being the cautious one was apprehensive about traversing unknown and potentially dangerous obstacles. But fortune favors the bold and my fearless friend Michael on his tiny, lightning-fast sled said he’d go first. God bless him!
It was a small sled, and he had to lie on his belly, bending his knees, curl his legs back towards him. Not only did he have the guts to go first, but he also got a running start. Holding his tiny sled in his hands he dashed towards the edge of the slope. He threw it down, leaped upon it, and began his rapid descent down this uncharted hill.
We all cheered him on as he flew down the hill, zigging and zagging along in perfect formation. We watched in amazement as he perfectly navigated what seemed like a very tricky hill. He got smaller and smaller as his distance increased from the hopeful onlookers.
His ride was brilliant and we all couldn’t wait to take our turn.
That is until Michael reached the flat wooden bridge. You see, the thing about bridges is they are free-standing structures. The rain, snow, and wind whistle around them and they are not only colder in temperature than the surface of the land, they usually freeze.
So, Mike hits the bridge, and instead of going across it, the moment he exits the curve and his tiny sled hits the frozen surface, he flew right off the side of the bridge and disappeared.
It was a terrifying moment as we all ran down the hill to see what had happened to our brave companion. When we finally reached the bridge, there was Michael climbing up the other side of the embankment. He was a little banged up but no worse for wear. He had flown off the side of the icy bridge, didn’t hit the water, but was going so fast, crashed into the opposite side of the embankment. A brilliant “Evel Knievel” moment. We all helped pull him back up to safety.
The world needs kids like Michael. Those in the tribe who are willing to risk life and limb and leap forward to explore new ground. But the world also needs people like me, to stay behind in case something happens to him. I can live another day, to spin the tale of the great Michael around the fire to the surviving tribal members.
We’d stay on those hills and sled most of the day. Sometimes staying out in the cold for more than six hours. You started to know when it was time to go home. Your whole body hurt from being battered on the slopes, and your speech became slurred because your face was so cold. (Either that or we were in the early stages of hyperthermia!)
We’d all trudge home and go to our respective houses to dry out and rest. I’d lie on the floor and put my stocking feet against the radiator in the living room. My feet actually started to itch from the blood and nerves returning to my frigid limbs.
But it was all worth it. A day off from school to spend with my friends going on a snowy adventure. Satisfied, I’d quietly reflect on the day and sip a mug of hot cocoa provided by my mom.
I miss Michael. He was a good friend.
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Because it happens to all of us. I’ve suffered from anxiety and depression most of my life. But as I’ve gotten older I learned to rewire my brain and spank those demons and make them pay.
And you can too.
No one is immune to feeling anxious at least on occasion. And no matter who or what it is that sparks your pending eruption, knowing how to calm down the anxiety and anger you feeling when you’re seriously this close to losing it can save you and those around you a lot of collateral damage.
Life happens, and a simple chain of events can slowly stoke a fire within you. Then all it takes is one “he said/she said” or “they did/they didn’t” to push you across the threshold into this close-to-losing-it territory.
Once you’ve learned some effective grounding techniques and coping skills for calming anxiety, calling upon them can be far more empowering than impulsively unleashing your fury ever will be.
Here are seven tips on how to calm down when you’re feeling anxious using simple grounding techniques and positive coping skills.
1. Excuse yourself, gracefully
Leave the room, the situation, the area, or park the car, but get yourself to a safe place. That can even mean staying right where you are until the heat of it subsides.
It may be a big test of your inner strength not to storm out of a situation while huffing, puffing, slamming chairs and doors, but do it with grace anyway.
Depending on the circumstance, leaving may not be possible or ideal. Take a deep breath before asking for a time out (or simply informing them that you are taking one), and be sure to do so in a calm and controlled way — even if you have to fake it.
Graceful exits may also mean hitting pause by drinking a glass of water and feeling it dampen your fire. If no water is handy, you can imagine it.
Leaving in a civilized way, either literally or virtually through a pause, versus going into full throttle bulldozer mode can be the step that helps quell your eruption from spewing.
2. Put pen to paper
Intense anxiety or anger can be vanquished by saying what you feel you have to say on paper rather than directly to the object of your frustration.
Kick it old school by handwriting everything that is on your mind so you can vent about this current situation.
The benefits of handwriting as opposed to typing it into a text message or email are twofold:
You can’t accidentally click send and unleash your unfiltered thoughts, feeling, and words into someone’s inbox
When you finish venting, you can shred the pages with your bare hands (another bonus), leaving no digital trace that may inadvertently be found later
Handwriting has been proven more cathartic than typing, and as well as to help improve critical thinking and problem-solving skills. And being this close to losing it needs solving.
And as explained by Eric Grunwald of MIT’s Global Studies and Languages Department, “Freewriting, a writing strategy developed by Peter Elbow in 1973, is similar to brainstorming but is written in sentence and paragraph form without stopping. Thus, it [increases[ the flow of ideas and reduces the chance that you’ll accidentally censor a good idea,” which can add another level of efficacy in reducing your angst.
3. Visualize the old heave-ho
Fantasizing about flipping the desk over, clearing the table in one swipe, or playing Frisbee with your laptop. It feels good and satisfying, doesn’t it?!
Visualization, also known as imagery, has been a tool employed by Olympians and other elite athletes for decades, and there is much evidence backing its efficacy for putting desired outcomes into motion without ever leaving the room.
How far can you imagine your laptop will actually fly? How well does it bounce?
Keeping your action-packed fantasy in your head allows you to see the action, feel your muscles contracting, hear the thud of your desk, taste and smell the scene in excruciating detail, without leaving an unpleasant mess to clean up afterward.
When you are this close to losing it, you are so wrapped up in the instant gratification of the moment that you don’t see the final scene — the one where you have to pick up the pieces and clean up the debris, all while shrouded in regret, remorse, guilt, and shame for literally following through with your actions.
4. Get tactile
When you are in overdrive and your foot is fully depressed on the accelerator on the thisclose freeway, take the off-ramp by redirecting some resources from that feeling and shifting them to a tactile action like counting your toes.
With the bulk of your attention invested in your current state, very little of you is connected to the physical.
Whether you are standing or sitting, wiggle your toes and notice how many you can feel. Press each individual toe into your shoe and count them, one toe and one foot at a time. Repeat and repeat again.
By counting your toes, you begin to re-ground yourself. You can go further by scanning your body and noticing how your shoe feels or how the fabrics you are wearing feel against your body or what the chair you are sitting in feels like.
This is especially effective when you are in a situation you cannot dismiss yourself from. Tuning into your body helps to calm the mind, and therefore, your emotions.
5. Catch your breath
When in a high emotional state, your breathing becomes rapid and shallow, which in turn moves you closer to losing it because it’s like fanning the flames of a fire to burn bigger.
Box breathing or four-square breathing is a grounding technique used by Navy SEALs you can put into action no matter where you are and is a highly effective way to get back into control of yourself when things are reeling out of control.
Inhale slowly to the count of five
Hold for a count of five
Exhale slowly to the count of five
Hold for a count of five
As Healthline reports: “According to the Mayo Clinic, there’s sufficient evidence that intentional deep breathing can actually calm and regulate the autonomic nervous system (ANS). This system regulates involuntary body functions such as temperature. It can lower blood pressure and provide an almost immediate sense of calm.”
Deep breathing also delivers more oxygen to the muscles you are clenching as they begin to release with each cycle you repeat, essentially disarming the cortisol accumulation simultaneously.
6. Get physical
Dropping down and doing ten push-ups to burn off your anxious or angry energy may not be appropriate at the time, but taking yourself out for a brisk walk can help.
Being in nature helps calm the sympathetic nervous system (your “fight, flight or freeze” response), and putting your pent-up energy into your pace can help to return you to calm.
Even when you can’t get outside to commune with nature, you can use the power of your mind to take you wherever you decompress best.
Maybe your happy place is a white sandy beach where the ocean waves wash all your stresses away. Or perhaps it’s riding down the open highway on your motorcycle, sitting under a tree, or climbing a mountain.
Creating or recalling an image that brings life back into perspective is only a thought away.
7. Grab onto gratitude
Chances are, in a moment when you are trying to figure out how to calm down, you are as far away from feeling grateful as you can get.
However, you always have the power of choice, and flexing your gratitude muscle may effectively diffuse the situation.
Bring to mind someone who you are wholly grateful for, or think of ten things you are grateful for in your life. Feel that gratitude infuse your body and mind.
We cannot feel fully grateful or fully enraged at the same time, so go with the positive feelings gratitude evokes.
Most importantly, you can think about how grateful you will feel for not losing it when you don’t, as well as how proud you are of yourself for keeping it together in this volatile moment in time. Remind yourself that feeling this close to losing it is temporary, and gratitude is the long game.
Keeping a gratitude journal and choosing to be intentionally grateful for the people and things that add value to your life helps sustain you in times like this.
Gratitude acts as an antidote to stress. The benefits of giving thanks in our life are endless, especially helping us to build our resilience overall.
Be aware that not any one of these tips is guaranteed to work for you every single time you need to calm yourself down.
You need to find your combination of tools to get you on the other side of losing it, and all are most effective when sampled and practiced before you need them.
Regardless of how few or how many you need to use these techniques and skills, it’s worth the effort, in the end, to find what works best for you.
When we were kids we had this little pool in our backyard. It was actually set up in our carport, not our yard. My mom would put down a big blanket on the ground, and then haul the pool out of our garage. It wasn’t very big, but we had a good time playing in it. It was probably only 6 feet square and less than a foot deep. But it was a fun thing that we could play in to cool off and frolic about.
My mother would fill it up with water from the hose. She’d do this before lunchtime around 11am. By the time we were finished eating, the sun would have warmed the water and we could all go in.
Some of our friends would come over and we’d all have a grand old time on a warm spring day.
The Mitchell family down the street had acquired a large above-ground pool and that became the popular spot in the summer for the neighborhood. I didn’t ever go over there for that because to me it was too crowded and too deep. Not for me.
Besides, once school let out we’d be down the shore for the summer. Which was 1000 times better than any pool in our neighborhood.
Anyway, when we were done playing in our little pool, we’d obviously have to come in and get into some dry clothes. But for some reason, my sister and I would leave our wet bathing suits on our beds. I have no idea why we did this. We could have turned them into mom, or hung them on a doorknob or something. Who wants a wet bed?
But we did that a number of times and my mother was not pleased. She finally told us that if we did it again, we’d have to write: “I will not leave my wet bathing suit on the bed.” 50 times. Which when you’re a kid is a tedious and time-consuming process. I suppose because we didn’t listen to her initial request, this punishment would drill the idea into our thick heads.
So, it happened again and my older sister and I had to write. She was a good student and had mad school skills, so she blew out the punishment in an hour or so. But it took me forever. I finally got it done, and never left a wet bathing suit on my bed again. Effective punishment. It got the result my mom desired. She also figured a little exercise in penmanship never hurt anyone.
My mom had a wooden trellis bolted to the sidewall of the garage in our yard. That’s where all of her rose bushes were located. I remember we always had nice roses growing out there. My mother always liked nature and animals, so she was a natural green thumb out there in the garden.
You had to be careful out there by the rose bushes because as lovely and fragrant roses are, they all have thorns. Much like the women I would meet later in my life.
But when boys see a trellis bolted to a wall, they don’t see a structure to support the flora and fauna of mom’s garden. They see a ladder. What do you do with a ladder? Yep. You have to climb it.
The only reason we climbed the trellis was to get up on the garage roof. Kids love climbing and exploring new spaces. It’s fun to get up on top of things when you’re small. There’s a feeling of power and safety at that height. The garage rood instantly became a cool hiding spot and hang-out spot.
When I think back on the construction of that trellis I’m amazed it never broke under our weight. It was just thin slats of wood nailed together. It was meant to support the vines of plants, not the bodies of young boys. But we climbed up there all of the time.
My mother caught sight of this, and told me if I didn’t stop climbing her trellis, I’d have to write as I did after the wet bathing suit incident.
I may have stayed off it for a week, but in no time we were back up there. Sure enough, I was caught, prosecuted, and sentenced to writing the same sentence over and over. “I will not climb the trellis.” I had to write it 100 times. Not just once… but this time, for a week straight.
That seemed a cruel and unusual punishment for such a simple infraction, but it wasn’t about climbing the trellis, it was the fact that she’d told me not to and I willfully disobeyed her and did it anyway. That sort of repugnant behavior was always met with swift justice in our house. That, or a good smack!
So, each day I would write the same sentence over and over after lunch. It was horrible. After a while, the words you write mean nothing to you. It’s just the same thing over and over. Sometimes I would write the same letter or word over and over down the page and then go on to the next one. Anything to change up the sheer monotony of the task.
I think by the fourth or fifth day, she lightened my sentence and I only had to crack off 50 sentences. Did my handwriting improve? Not in the slightest bit, but it kept me off my mom’s trellis for good!
But I missed going up on the garage roof and hanging with my friend Mike. That was our little throne up there. But what to do?
A year or so passes.
One day Mike comes over and tells me he found an old wooden ladder in the trash somewhere. Back then we were always picking things out of people’s trash and making stuff out of it. But this was a big ladder. Sturdy too!
So Micheal brings it over and we carefully place it in the garden and lean it up against the edge of the garage. It fits perfectly! It was just the right height to get us safely back up on the garage roof. We left it there and it became the way up and down to our little clubhouse. We’d sit up there and chat, and eat peanuts, tossing the shells everywhere. We didn’t care about the mess. The shells were organic material and anything we left up there couldn’t be seen from the ground so who cares?
The most important person who didn’t care was my mother. She never said anything about the old wooden ladder leaning against our garage. I suppose as long as we weren’t on her trellis, we were fine.
To be continued tomorrow!
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When we were kids, we had toys. We all had plenty of toys. But we also liked to build things. We had access to our father’s toolboxes. If you could get your hands on a hammer and some nails, you could build something.
We’d find bits of wood in the trash and back the lot at the end of our street. We’d cut them with saws and nail them together to make little boats. They were only about a foot long in length.
Mine was made out of bits of old paneling that I cut and stacked to make the hull, and some smaller pieces to make a little cabin on top. I even nailed a little plastic army man to the deck. Every boat needs a captain!
My friend Michael made something similar but he attached a piece of styrofoam to the bottom of the hull of his boat. This made his ship what he described as “unsinkable.” Genius!
Designing and building boats in my basement was only the beginning of the fun. You came up with your own ideas and made it up as you went along. Gluing or nailing whatever you could find to make a little boat that you hoped would float. The cool thing was, we had these two big old washtubs in the front of our basement next to the washer. I’m assuming they were there to clean clothes maybe before people had washing machines?
We would fill them with water and place our finished works into the water to see if they’d float. If things looked weird or didn’t seem buoyant enough, we’d make the necessary modifications to our ships until they did.
We weren’t sitting in front of a television set. There was no such thing as video games. They weren’t invented yet. We built things with our hands. Created our own little toys and then engineered them to float. We had both read that it didn’t matter what the boat weighed, as long as it weighed less than the space it filled in any given body of water. Then it would float. It’s just science. Yea, we were a sharp couple of little boys!
We’d take our boats back the lot and across the railroad tracks into Cheltenham. We’d cross the ball fields and head off into the woods.
That led us down to Tookany Creek. We walked north along the footpath. We wanted to get as far upstream as we could so that once we launched our boats we could follow them all the way down the creek. We decided that we’d see how far and how long they would last on the journey down the “river.”
There was a footbridge that went across the creek, and we figured we’d release them just above there. It was probably the best place to start because the water was calm and we could see how they did before the creek really got going.
We’d place our boats in the water and off they’d go. We walked along the path and watch them float downstream. Normally, that would be the experience. Build the boats, launch them into a body of water, and watch them do what boats do.
But we were young boys. We crave action and adventure. To let these boats just float along was boring. How do we remedy this situation? We could just continue talking, laughing, and walking along the path to see where they went. Or, we could throw rocks at them to make it like a sea battle.
The latter seemed like such a better idea.
We didn’t go crazy and try to destroy them, but we simply pelted them so it appeared that our ships were under siege. Now we had a show!
The idea to throw rocks at the boats didn’t come from enjoying the notion of destroying things. Sometimes the boats would get stuck on big stones or broken branches in the water. So we sort of had to free our boats with what limited tools we had on hand.
But after a while, it was just fun to bomb the hell out of them. They were pretty sturdy and we knew they could withstand a beating. It’s not like these were expensive, elegant ships gifted to us by our parents. They were manufactured out of bits of trash. If they got destroyed, we’d have the opportunity to make more.
We were always taught to take care of our toys and put them away when we were finished playing with them. But we made these toys out of junk. If we chose to massacre our boats, by god we were going to do it.
But all the while we’re laughing and talking. Sometimes singing songs we knew from the radio. Light my Fire, Hotel California, or American Pie. I think the favorite song I would always hear Michael sing was Michael Row Your Boat. I wasn’t familiar with the song, but he would sometimes just hum it. Or sing it to himself when he was working on something.
Just simple things.
A pair of lone warriors separated briefly from our tribe, out on an explore. Walking along the path by the creek under the canopy of trees in the forest. The golden rays of sunshine shone down through the foliage. Breathing in the fresh air. Hearing the birds chirp and woodland creatures scurry about as the creek bubbled and sang along with our joy.
By tossing rocks at our boats we were improving our hand and eye coordination. This was a solid activity for a couple of boys on a warm afternoon. You don’t realize it at the time, but you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be in the world.
We’d follow them along the creek and toss rocks at them occasionally for thrills or to free them from a snag. It was a fun way to spend the day. Life was slower back then. There’s something to be said about time running slowly when you’re a kid. Everything takes forever when you’re young. You’re always so impatient and waiting for things to happen. Waiting for Halloween, Christmas, or the last day of school to come.
Don’t you wish you appreciated how slowly time moved when you were a child now? Wouldn’t you like those sort of pleasurable moments in your adult life now to move at a slower pace? I think we all would as we watch the years roll by with great rapidity as we age. These simple childhood memories are to be cherished. To be wrapped up in our memories forever. Because that’s all we have. You could lose everything you own, and any memories you have from your youth still belong to you forever. You can’t say that about many things in our lives now. Even we are on a finite run on this planet. But I hope that by writing these stories they can live beyond my existence on the internet and in my books forever. Because tomorrow belongs to our sons and daughters, and their kids. Tomorrow’s a place for them. Sadly, it’s a place we can never go.
The best part of watching your boats float down the creek was knowing what was coming a bit farther “downriver.” After the rapids and much air fire from us, the creek would become calm. There was a section about 50 feet long that was like green glass. Just the occasional splash from a minnow or an insect.
Beyond the calm was the waterfall. It was the only place where you could see a waterfall. But it wasn’t like the traditional kind where it’s massive and dangerous. It was only about three feet high. But, it would still be a formidable opponent to a couple of little wooden boats.
We’d wait in anticipation to see what was going to happen next. We’d stake out the best spot to watch our boats go over the falls. Would they be destroyed in the pounding brine? Would they vanish forever beneath the waves into the abyss? These were all pressing questions running through our young minds.
There would be that moment just before they went over and we’d yell and shout with delight. “Here we go!”
The boats would tumble over the falls and what would happen was anybody’s guess. The boats would roll around at the bottom where the falling water struck the creek. We would be sure at this point we’d never see our little ships again. But somehow they would suddenly pop back up and right themselves. We would cheer as if we somehow had a part in their survival!
We followed them further down the creek. Under the Levick Street bridge and beyond.
We had gone so far that we didn’t realize that we had somehow stumbled upon the base of the Melrose Country Club. We were all the way down by the creek bank, but we could see the giant hills covered with the fine green grass of the golf course. We had only seen it in the winter when it was covered in snow, but we knew where we were.
We could see our boats had come to rest on the bank. We were about to climb down retrieve them when a security guard rolled up on a golf cart. He asked us what we were doing there, and we told him our toy boats had drifted all the way down there. He told us we were trespassing on private property and that we had to leave.
“Can we just get our boats?”
“No. This is private property and you’re both trespassing and you’re going to get in a lot of trouble if you don’t get out of here now.”
So we turned and walked away, north of the golf course. When we got to Levick Street we trudged up the steep hill and made it to the top. We weren’t happy about what had happened and didn’t think we’d done anything wrong. We didn’t go to Melrose with the intention of trespassing or destroying property or anything. We just stumbled upon it. It just didn’t seem fair. This was a sad ending to what began as a fun-filled day of adventure.
Our boats weren’t lost to the creek. We had been banished!
We followed Hasbrook Avenue back to our neighborhood.
As we approached Michael’s house, we saw his father was outside mowing the lawn. Mike immediately told him what had happened. Jim Mitchell Sr. listened intently as Mike and I explained our plight. He nodded as he put on his mirrored aviator sunglasses.
“Let’s take a little ride in the car, boys.”
Within minutes, we pulled up to the edge of the country club. Mr. Mitchell stepped from the car with us following him not far behind.
The same guard rolled up on his golf cart and stopped us.
“Hey… you can’t…”
I watched as his face suddenly changed from authority to apprehension as Micheal’s father approached him.
Mr. Mitchell was a Police Officer with the Philadelphia Highway Patrol. He was not a man to be trifled with.
“Let them get their boats.”
“What did I just say?”
The guard looked down at the ground and back again. He then sheepishly waved us on never taking his eyes from the officer in his presence.
Even I felt the man’s fear.
We scampered down the hill and retrieved our little boats from the creek bank. We didn’t even see the security guard on the way back to the car.
It had been quite a day.
When all else fails. Go get your father. He’ll know what to do. He’s a grown-up.
But it helps if your dad’s a cop.
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Some days when the weather was nice and you had nothing to do, we’d just go back the tracks and go on a journey. That’s what we’d call it. “Let’s go on a journey.” That meant we had to explore some part of the tracks or woods we hadn’t been to before. I loved our little journeys.
My friend RJ had a sweet tooth and he always spent his paperboy money on Reese’s cups. He loved them, and back then they were only a nickel. Two for ten cents. He would buy a whole box of them and eat them all.
One of the most memorable candies he ever brought with him on one of our journeys was a box of sixlets. There are these little round colored candies in a sealed cellophane packet of six. Think of little round M&M’s, but cheaper chocolate filling.
You could hold one end of the packet, put the whole thing in your mouth and pull… and it would unload the full clip of all six candies into your mouth. We ate so many of those that day, we never finished the box and probably never ate them again after that.
There was a bunch of weird candy back then. Pixie sticks, the little wax bottles with the colored liquid in them, (I think they were called, Nik a Nips) Candy cigarettes, (The little chalky white ones and the gum ones wrapped in paper so they looked like real cigarettes. You could blow into it to emit a puff of sugary smoke. What a brilliant way to teach children the dangers of smoking!) Wax lips, (You wore them as a comedic gag, and then ate them? (Tasted like wax. Surprise, surprise.) The gum in bubble gum card packs, (Literally shattered in your mouth) and who can forget the little necklace of cheerio sized candies you could bite off and eat? (What’s better than edible jewelry?) Or, the sound Pop Rocks made as they sizzled on your tongue!
Wasn’t there some story about how some kid died from eating Pop Rocks and drinking soda?
Razzles, Choc O Lite bars, Mallow Cups, Marathon Bars, and Blackjack gum. Oh, remember the long strips of paper that looked like cash register receipts but had little dots of candy stuck to them? They were all different colors and the colors changed as you went down the paper. You literally bit those tiny morsels of sugar off the strip. How much paper did we consume as children? (spitballs don’t count!) remember Bottle Caps? (Cola flavor? Yes, please!) Mike and Ike’s, Good ‘n Plenty, Good ‘n Fruity, Laffy Taffy, (with the joke on every wrapper), Bazooka Gum, Bubble Yum, Charms Blow Pops, and who can forget Lik M Aid Fun Dip?
I’m sure there are dozens more I can’t remember off the top of my head. Okay, let’s clear my sugary palette before I need an insulin shot with this vintage photo.
Here’s an old pic of RJ threatening to shoot a paper clip at me!
One day my friends and I went on a journey just following the tracks north. There was always this feeling you’d get when you were a boy when you realized you’d gone further than you’d ever ventured before. We knew all of the sights and sounds of the whole area. We knew miles of the tracks and the woods back then. All of it. You could drop me anywhere in those woods and I would have been able to navigate my way out of them in at least three different ways or paths.
We’d walk along and things would start to look different and we knew we’d reached the end of our proverbial sidewalk. This was new territory and new things to discover. But you had the train tracks as your foundation. No matter how far we went we figured we couldn’t get lost because we’d simply follow the tracks back in the other direction to take us home. It was so cool.
So we’re walking north on one of our journeys and we reached what I believe to be the Cottman Street car bridge that crossed over the tracks from Cheltenham into Philly. There were some kids playing down there on the sides of the tracks who we didn’t know. They seemed to be doing something with some ponds of water that had pooled on the side of the tracks.
It was stagnant rainwater that had formed these pools. But things grow in stagnant water. Mostly mosquitoes, but there was something else going on here. These kids were catching tadpoles! We approached them to watch what they were doing. We had never seen tadpoles or anything like that before. They were catching them and putting them in jars of water. We knew what had to be done.
For today our journey had reached its end. We had found something new and would be coming back to this place.
My friends and I put our heads together on how we would proceed in this new adventure in an attempt to acquire some free wildlife.
We gathered some baby food jars and some little nets somebody must have clipped from their family’s fish tank (probably me) and the next day we were off again.
We followed the tracks back to where our last journey took us and happily the long pools of stagnant water were still there. Think about that. A bunch of nice kids from middle-class families with plenty of toys to play with, play on the railroad tracks, and are going fishing in smelly stagnant pools full of who knows what kind of disease and vermin, and it was awesome!
I surveyed the area. The pools were 20 to 30 feet long. There were several. I walked down to the very beginning where it was the most shallow. I wanted to start slowly, rather than just dig right in with nets into the deeper water. Who knew what was in there? What if there was some kind of evil snake that lived in there? (The water was only 6 to 9 inches deep at the deepest point.)
So I’m walking along the edge of the shallow end which is maybe an inch deep. I like the origins of things so I wanted to start at the beginning. My friend RJ and Paul were just dipping nets into the bigger pools where we had seen the other kids working the day before.
I noticed in the shallow end there was hundreds of tiny black tadpoles. Just writhing and wiggling their little tails no bigger than your pinky nail. But as I walked north along the side of the pool the water got murkier and you couldn’t see anything. You had to blindly just dip your net in the water and see if you got anything.
But lo and behold we started to catch some tadpoles. They were all about an inch and a half in length, and we would dip our jars into the brackish water and pop the tadpoles inside. We only captured around four of five of them, and neither RJ nor Paul had anywhere to keep them, so custody of our new pets fell on me. I didn’t mind. I was happy to have some new living creatures that I caught on my own and didn’t come from a store. Free pets!
I recently started watching a terrific series on Amazon Prime about a family that moves from England to the island of Corfu in the Greek isles in the 1930s. The youngest son Gerald loves wildlife and is always out studying and catching animals and bringing them home. It reminds me of how much we loved nature as kids. He’s my favorite character and based on the author of the original books. It’s a wonderful show and worth checking out!
Anyway…I had an old plastic tank that I found in the trash somewhere. We were always trash picking as kids. It was great. I found the best stuff in other people’s trash! I still had the plastic tank left over from the whole Rosalie’s Rodents incident.
(If you didn’t read this on Tuesday, here’s the link again.)
So we filled it with water from the hose out back of my house and put our tadpoles in. I didn’t know how they would do coming from a stagnant pool into Philly tap water, but the little guys thrived.
I don’t know if I put anything in the water to feed them but I must have. I think RJ got some fish food and we sprinkled that into the tank on a weekly basis. I kept those little tadpoles for a couple of months, and of course, some miraculous things began to happen. You can be taught things in school and read things in books, and look at diagrams and photos of wildlife. But to have the actual creatures in your possession and witness it first hand is something grand. I’m talking about metamorphosis.
One by one the tadpoles began to sprout legs! It was incredible to see. A living thing in your own life that is slowly changing before your young eyes. Not in a textbook but in your hand. Of course, we wanted to touch everything as kids, and you could bring them out briefly and hold them. We would put them back in the water and they would continue on their journey.
Then you’d see a little arm sprout from one side, followed by another one shortly thereafter. That’s when I loved them best. Their tails were shrinking, but they had arms and legs. They started to look like fat little salamanders or newts. But they were still changing so you could hold them for brief periods but had to put them back in the water so they stayed wet.
But within a few weeks, they had transformed into lovely little frogs. I always wondered if it hurt for them to change from one thing into another thing so quickly. (around 12 weeks) But they always seemed fine to me.
Eventually, once they matured, they simply hopped out of the tank and went on their way. I always believed they probably lived out their lives in my backyard.
A brilliant science lesson about amphibians all from just following the railroad tracks a little further from home.
I loved playing back the tracks as a kid. I spent so many happy hours back there with my friends. It was close to home, but a place to disappear into nature and our own little world.
I guess I could always relate to the little tadpoles eventually becoming frogs. Because as children we were like them. Just all together swimming around in the little pond of our neighborhood. Then one day we all grew up and hopped away into adulthood.
What would life have been like if we hadn’t moved away back in 1979? We’d probably have a lot more stories.
But some days when the day is warm, we can all pause and think back to a simpler time. When we could simply just go out and play.
There comes a day when you hang out with your friends. Just going to play outside. You never know when that day is coming but it does to us all.
There’s that day where none of you realize it, but it’s the absolute last time you will all hang out and just play outside.
I hope you enjoyed this little series. It began as a short piece from my past and grew into an epic tale!
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